Robin Leach, the British-born TV celebrity and host of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” died Friday at the age of 76 in Las Vegas. Here is my encounter with him in Los Angeles in 1985, when he was shrewdly legitimizing greed and envy as cultural values that also produced high Nielsen ratings.
AMERICANS ONCE were squeamish about displays of wealth and mumbled when guests inquired into the benefits of the new oil well being drilled in the back yard. But history may record that a transplanted, low-born Englishman changed all that beginning in the third year of Ronald Reagan’s presidency.
Robin Leach, whose first job on these shores was selling shoes at Lord & Taylor in New York, was, even then, happy to be here. He is, conceivably, happier now. An indefatigable journalist whose instincts for satisfying a variety of the public’s deepest fascinations have served him well through the years, Leach has risen from the tabloid lowlands of the supermarket press to his current first-class window seat as the globe-trotting host of the popular, unabashedly titled weekly television show Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.
In the process he has done and is doing as much as any American (he remains, somewhat apologetically, British) to elevate the once slumping connotation of the word “rich.”
“The world would be a pretty sorry place without the rich,” says Leach. “We should be grateful for them. The museums, the charities…”
He expresses his gratitude every week, audibly. On the widely syndicated Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous (160 stations in the U.S. after one year on the air), Leach eagerly leads his camera crews past the iron-barred gates of mansions belonging to baronial entertainers and assorted world-class entrepreneurs. Barbra Streisand, Paul Newman, Ryan O’Neal, Lana Turner and Bunker Hunt swung open their doors to him in the show’s first year. For one of the upcoming shows of the new season, airing in February, he has scored what must be for him the ultimate story: the first extended TV interview with Adnan Khashoggi, the Saudi businessman and international arms dealer thought to be the world’s richest man.
“He’s a fan of the show,” Leach explains, with visible delight.
But the focus of Lifestyles isn’t so much the celebrities themselves as the loot they have accumulated – the customized swimming pools, multimillion-dollar yachts, palatial second homes, Swiss vineyards, Arabian stallions and retinues of servants. How many pairs of shoes does Cher own? Robin wants to know. The show is emblem and testament to the fruits of freeenterprise, luck or rapacity, depending on your point of view.
Leach, who is also the program’s executive producer, approvingly dubs it “a non-fiction version of Dallas and Dynasty.”
Unlike other celebrity interview shows that present three or four subjects in an hour, Lifestyles gallops through 12 to 14 segments in the same amount of time, taking in panoramic vistas of, opulence from the emerald lawns of Beverly Hills to the celestial penthouses of Houston to restored castles in the English countryside. And always there to read the price tags is Leach, whose punchy Fleet Street-inspired commentary achieves a kind of secular reverence.
(He doesn’t actually do all the interviews himself, but back in the studio he adds his voice-over narrative to those done by assistants.)
“The voice, he admits, “is distinctive or fascinating to Americans because it’s English.”
Yet for the record he makes light or his own television presence. His face shows up only in brief cutaways from the splendor at hand. “My theory of Lifestyles is that it’s one of the first 60-minute shows without a host. I don’t think the people tune in to see me. They tune in to see the stars and their homes.”He says his staff jokes about the way he appears on camera. “They talk about my rumpled coat or my messy hair, but I feel you don’t see me that much. So why should I tart myself up with lacquered hair?”
True, his ears are a little expansive, his teeth a little thin, his hairline a little lofty by movie. Standards. But it’s possible that under the circumstances Leach’s looks might be perfect, accenting his role as the commoner invited to the royal wedding.
And not everyone would agree that he is quite so inconspicuous as he makes out. Saturday Night Live’s Harry Shearer has already taken notice of him in a recurring parody (Lifestyles of the Relatives of the Rich and Famous). Impersonations of Leach’s servant to-the-manor hosannas have surfaced with a rising frequency at office and cocktail parties.
“I hear stories of people doing imitations of my voice on their answering machines,” Leach says with a hint of a smile. “I know that there is a club in Redondo Beach that every Sunday gives a Rich and Famous party where they all get into the Jacuzzi in tuxedos and evening gowns and sip champagne and watch the show.
“I know that we’ve become like a cult joke since the show has been on the air.” There is a note of resignation in his voice. “If that campiness is there, it certainly was never my intention to create that.”
“I don’t think he has much of a sense of humor,” says a colleague who has known him for some years. Robin takes himself very seriously.”
Leach prefers to think of himself as a dedicated reporter who takes his satisfaction from going after a good story and, especially, “getting an exclusive.” On Lifestyles an “exclusive” is more likely to be defined as the first televised inspection of Marissa Berenson’s New York brownstone than an interview with the actress that anyone is likely to remember.
“The old Ed Murrow shows used to do this,” says the accommodating host on a morning in Hollywood when he was previewing some of the Khashoggi footage at the Sunset Gower Studios, the The West Coast home of Lifestyles.
“But their problem was they’d be sort of locked in position with three cameras for their remote, whereas with video technology today…with one camera, we can just go right through a house in five hours. And we can really peek into wardrobes, and we can really go in the bathroom and open up the medicine cabinet. I mean, I do it.”
Why do people let him do it? “I can’t answer that question. I just do not know that answer. Sometimes when I come off a shoot. I will go outside and go in the crew van and say. ‘Why on earth did they let us do that?’ ”
One reason, some think, is as simple as Madison Avenue. Whether a star is advertising her career or an entrepreneur his land holdings, exposure on Lifestyles is unlikely to diminish the value of either.
Leach has his own theory. “It may be a little cockney cheekiness that I have. Because I’ve been working in show business journalism for 25 years. Basically everybody trusts me. They know they’re not going to get screwed or roasted over. So if I ask somebody to get in a bathtub for me, they know that in the context of what we’re doing it’s not going to look like a cheap shot.”
It wasn’t from Edward R. Murrow that Leach learned how to coax Morgan Fairchild into a tub with the cameras rolling. For almost as long as he can remember, he has walked a beat on the soft side of the news. And he has become as familiar to many entertainers as their hairdressers or psychiatrists.
“It’s tough being a show business figure. These people know that I care about them and their endeavors. They’re not all people who deserve to be hung and quartered. There’s a level of decency in all of us.”
“I don’t honestly think we’re doing anything different with this form of journalism than I’ve done all my life. Primarily “I’m a gossip and I don’t hide from the word.”
But the “gossip” on Lifestyles isn’t likely to make anyone recall Louella Parsons or even Rona Barrett. Any stars who might have been put off by Leach’s tabloid past have come around to seeing that on television he is up to no harm.
“I call it ‘soft gossip.”’ he says. “One can be sensational without being scandalous. I have a basic rule that you don’t hurt people in their pocketbook.”
UNTIL HE jumped ship to star in Lifestyles in August 1983, Leach’ was a roving reporter for Paramount Television’s Entertainment Tonight and before that for the Cable News Network. He left E, he says, because of creative differences. “My inclination, believe it or not, has always been to stay away from the puffery of the business. To really get people to talk about how they live.” At “E.T.,’· he claims, he was asked to deliver “the serious side of the business” and “so we used to lock heads every now and then.”
On Lifestyles, a program that Leach created in collaboration withAl Masini (who also created Entertainment Tonight and Solid Gold), there is no such conflict.
“If you’ll notice, in the series we very, very rarely talk about people working. You’ll never hear an actress on this show sit there and say, “I want to stretch. I want to leave my 30-rninute-a-week sitcom on the network and go do Shakespeare.’ We’re only interested in bedrooms, baths” – he pronounces it baahths– what they sleep in, how they cook their breakfast, how they furnish their homes, what they choose to buy with their money.
The show has included “the world’s richest pet” (terrier bequeathed $12 million), “the most expensive penthouse in the world ($11.5 million) and a $3 million car. Financial superlatives fall like rain.
In one segment in the first season viewers were whisked to Midland, Texas, “home to more millionaires per square mile than anywhere in the world.” No millionaires turned up on screen. No people at all. As the camera panned across prairie skyscrapers and ranch mansions we simply heard Leach reciting a Dunn & Bradstreet profile of the town’s wealth.
“The American public’s appetite for this kind of gossip journalism – silk pajama journalism as I call it – is voracious. It just does not quit.”
One could assume that the appetite is shared by the man leading the video assaults on all these castles and mountain hideaways – a reporter, who, after all, has devoted much of his career to discovering what Mary Ann Mobley’s swimming pool looks like or how many rooms Paul Anka and his wife need to live comfortably. Yet Leach insists otherwise. “I have absolutely no persona interest in how famous people live their lives. None Whatsoever.” Then he adds, “Professionally I’m very interested.”
“That’s his stock answer,” says a Lifestyles staffer in the Los Angeles office. “I don’t know why he always says that. I think he loves the whole celebrity thing.”
LEACH IS thrilled by the United States. He left England to come here when he was 21, after taking a hard look at the rigid salary scale dictated by British newspaper unions.
“Everybody has a dream, and America is the only country in the world where that dream is allowed to take seed and come to fruition, and you can be a winner. Americans forget that that privilege exists in this country It doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world.
“If only Americans realized how lucky they were to live in this country. Every time I run into a whining, sniveling American, I would love to be able to afford to send him on a trip to Europe. Not vacation – go and live there. And see what socialism has done. They’d come back in very short order.”
Yet curiously, Leach maintains that his primary motivation for creating Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, for tracking down the stars day in and day out, is not money.
“Money to me, I could give a damn about. I don’t make a lot of money. It’s not important to me.” Though he owns a piece of the show, which is likely to return him a small fortune some day, , in the meantime he is proud to point out that he pays himself only scale.
“My kick doesn’t come out of the paycheck. It’s getting inside the Vatican, getting permission from Buckingham Palace to let our cameras spend a night on the town with Diana and Charles.”
“Robin’s the most hard-working person I’ve ever come in contact with,” attests John Kalish, a director who worked with Leach on Entertainment Tonight. “He makes you feel guilty for taking time out for a sigh now and then.”
Leach, who is 42, spends a lot of time on airplanes, and when he is not airborne he divides his time between New York and Los Angeles, where the show’s two production offices are located.
He owns “a very ordinary” house in Connecticut and rents a “tiny house” in the Hollywood Hills for the 10 days a month he spends here. He drives a Chrysler New Yorker when he’s back east and Hertz rent-a-cars out here. He doesn’t want you to get the impression in other words, that he is becoming that which he covers.
“I wouldn’t want the worries these people have,” he says in an uncharacteristic disclaimer about life among the beautiful people.”
He is divorced, with no children, and is currently seeing soap opera actress Jackie Zeman. a regular on General Hospital. He is reluctant to talk about her or even to give out her name. “I’m old-fashioned. The hardest thing for me is to talk about affection for a woman,” says the man who has chronicled the couplings and uncouplings of countless “supa-stahs.”
His idea of a perfect evening is staying home and cooking a meal for “my lady and me.”‘
But such evenings apparently are rare because of his rigorous schedule. When he’s not on the road, he gets to the office, either east or west by 6 a.m., sometimes staying till midnight. Besides going on location on stories, he oversees the program and writes much of it himself. Lifestyles employs a staff of 30, including five segment producers.
He prefers New York to Los Angeles, where he has “never gotten used to people coming to work in tennis shorts.” He feels better in a coat and tie. Still, he comes here regularly in deference to the symbol of Hollywood and because about 40 percent of the people who have been featured on the show live in Southern California.
Seated directly in front of a TV monitor that is unreeling pictures of the inside of Adnan Khashoggi’s private jetliner on this morning, Leach looks on studiously. Then, as the eye of the camera travels over a sable bedspread, he moves forward in his chair and with his index finger touches the screen where a gleaming buckle is visible in the center of a sash encircling the bed. “Gold,” he says.
HIS FATHER worked 40 years for a company that sold vacuum cleaners. “And when he retired, they gave him a gold watch,” Leach remembers all too clearly. “I decided that wasn’t for me. I wanted to be able to afford to buy the gold watch myself.”
By the time he was 10, he was already sending articles to the local paper in Harrow, the town outside London where he grew up. It is home to one of England’s most elite prep schools. “I went to the school at the bottom of the hill,” he explains. “Winston Churchill went to the one at the top.”
He headed right into newspapers at the age or 15, passing up college. ‘”I was the youngest reporter on Fleet Street.”
While still serving his apprenticeship, he did an interview that seems to have changed his life. It was with Leslie Bricusse, the songwriter who had just written Stop the World – I Want to Get Off” for Anthony Newley.
Bricusse liked the article so much he invited Leach backstage on the show’s opening night in London in 1960. There the young man witnessed something he has never forgotten. “There had been thunderous applause, standing ovation and everything, and Tony Newley was backstage literally crying, saying he hadn’t given enough or what he wanted to give to that opening night. And it made me want to’ find out what made people tick in this business.”
“Then I started the movie page on the local newspaper. And from then on it was always show biz.”
In the U.S., Leach moved up from his job as a shoe clerk to covering show business for The New York Post. Rupert Murdoch’s Star, The Globeand The National Enquirer. For four years in the late ’60s he published his own nationally distributed rock ‘n’ roll tabloid, GO. He still writes a weekly personalities column that appears in the Star and 110 newspapers around the world.
Television, he has discovered, is much harder than newspapers. “It’s tough, tough work. The hours are much longer. The burnout factor in television is much higher than print. I mean, you fry people in this business.
If Leach is frying on the inside, he looks only soft-boiled in the dim light or the studio where he is screening the Khashoggi tapes and segments of two other celebrity specials the Lifestyles company has created for the new year. His excitement at the results in front of him is barely contained. “Good stuff,” he says out loud.
We are watching Brooke Shields (“a good friend”) on safari in Kenya. She is being introduced to a tribe or Masai warriors. The Masai are nearly naked and are carrying spears. “We’re going to get some flak on this one,” he predicts.
He’s prepared, as always. “I’ve been accused of white-washing people, of being sycophantic in the way I do interviews, that I’ve been morally bankrupt in my commitment to the profession of journalism. People are welcome to throw the barbs.
“I’m not ashamed of what we turn out for television. I’m proud or what we do.”
Robin Leach is proud of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.
This may come as a surprise to a network television writer I know who, during a discourse on the subject or Leach, told me, “I’m convinced there is an empire awaiting this guy. There are depths of cynicism in him that are profound.”
Harry Shearer, the comedian who has imitated Leach from time to time on Saturday Night Live, believes “The show is proof that envy is where we’re at in this country.”
Other critics have been less charitable, some even moved to observations along the theme that Lifestyles may be the strongest evidence yet that Western Civilization is finished.
If Leach sees the humor in such reactions he isn’t letting on. He claims he has received only two pieces of mail complaining about the show’s moral railings – both, interestingly, from Los Angeles.
If he has whiffed a stale odor near the Hollywood dream or considered the downside of being a billionaire, he’s keeping his misgivings to himself.
“Remember that we’re in the entertainment business,” he instructs. “People from all income strata love the show.
“We haven’t mocked what we’re doing. We leave it all to the audience to decide whether this is the right kind of lifestyle to like or dislike. We’re just Joe Friday. We just present the facts. No judgments. The public is the filial arbiter of taste.”
A common enough observation in television. So why does it sound fresh when repeated by Robin Leach? The PUB-lic is…the final AH-biter of taste. It’s more than the burbling tone, more than bottom-of-the-hill-at-Harrow accent that shapes the words. It’s what’s missing: the customary grumble of concession heard when this is repeated up and down Sunset Boulevard and over the hill in Burbank. From the lips of Leach it is not a concession. It is wisdom, warmly expressed. It is common, yet it is priceless.
Los Angeles Herald Examiner 1985
WATCHING THE OSCARS, I was reminded that Harry Dean Stanton died last year, followed by David Ogden Stiers just other day. What the two actors have in common is that both were members of the estimable cast of NBC-TV’s production of Preston Jones’ The Oldest Living Graduate, starring Henry Fonda, staged before a live audience at the Bob Hope Theater at SMU April 7, 1980 and broadcast in real time. No editing. It was promoted as the first of a series of Live TV dramas that would showcase the vitality of America’s regional theater, recalling of Playhouse 90 in the 1950s. A historic moment in Dallas theater, it went off without a hitch, directed by Tony-Awarded Jack Hofsiss, who is also gone now. Surely the best production of the play ever. The cast included, besides Fonda, Stanton and Stiers…Cloris Leachman, George Grizzard, John Lithgow, Timothy Hutton, Penelope Milford and Allyn Ann McLerie.
Fonda died two years later, after filming On Golden Pond. Grizzard died in 2007. The three actresses, Leachman, Milford and McLerie, are still alive, as are Lithgow and Hutton.
Graduate, part of Jones’ Texas Trilogy about a doomed West Texas town succumbing to the New World, was originally going to be broadcast from the stage of The Dallas Theater Center, where Jones, a member of the company, had written and developed the plays. But when the Theater Center insisted the network use DTC actors instead of a Hollywood cast, the NBC producers went down the street to SMU.
Sadly, NBC’s live theater project lasted only one more installment, with Sally Field starring in Tad Mosel’s All the Way Home, from Los Angeles in 1981. With 400 channels of dreck and dross clogging the screen, you’d think they might dare try it again.
AFTER SPENDING 27 years in Los Angeles, I was rooting, along with my son and daughter, for the Dodgers in the World Series, but seeing the Astros win brought back memories of when they started, in 1962, as the expansion Houston Colt. 45s. I had a middle school baseball coach, Tom Adams, who had come to Dallas from the east coast carrying a lifelong allegiance to the NY/SF Giants. When the Giants visited Houston, he drove a carload of us down there to see the games, the first MLB games in Texas. The team was known as the Colt .45s for three seasons, 62-64, and played in a makeshift ballpark next to the site where the Astrodome was being constructed. They were overmatched in the NL but had some future stars in Rusty Staub, Joe Morgan and Jimmy Wynn.
Judge Roy Hofheinz, the owner, had promised MLB that he would build the nation’s first indoor, air-conditioned stadium because it was too hot to play baseball in Houston in the summer (though somehow the Houston Buffs, not to mention the Dallas Eagles, had done so for years in the Texas League). Hence, the Astrodome, which opened for the 1965 season, but during those first summers outdoors at Colt Park, MLB, in deference to the inhospitable climate, allowed the first Sunday night baseball games ever to be played. I was there for the very first one, June 9, 1963, and still have a certificate to prove it.
Dubbed “the eighth wonder of the world” and bearing the new team name acknowledging Houston’s space city identity, the Astrodome opened in the spring of 1965, and coach Adams took us down to see it. In addition to the oversized gaudy scoreboard that became a template for stadiums to come, I remember the field had real grass that first year. But not enough of it. When it became apparent grass would not grow indoors, despite the skylights in the roof, artificial turf (Astroturf) was invented.
IT TOOK DECADES for the Astros to get good and by the time they won their first pennant, in 2005, they had abandoned the Astrodome for the new Minute Maid Park (originally Enron Field — oops). With a retractable roof, the players in Houston once again had real grass underfoot even as they were forced to wear the worst uniforms in baseball.
So now after 55 years, the Astros, are world champions, the first Texas team to get there after the Rangers lost the World Series twice in 2010 and 2011 — to Tom Adams’ Giants and the Cardinals. A tip of the cap to them and their savvy management (compared to, say, the Rangers), but it’s still hard to accept that they came into the Series as the team from the American League. What? The Colt .45s and Astros were in the National League for more than half a century and got moved in 2013 by former commissioner and Milwaukee car dealer Bud Selig ostensibly on a whim, to even the number of teams to 15 in each league. But that put them in the same league and division as the other Texas team, the Rangers, violating MLB’s sensible tradition of keeping nearby teams in separate leagues (New York, Chicago, Bay Area, DC/Baltimore…) Why didn’t Bud move his Brewers back to the NL from whence they came? Not sure he’s ever answered that one and he’s now commissioner emeritus, sharing his wisdom about life and the game at Elks Clubs and Chamber of Commerce luncheons.
It may take another decade or so for the Astros to seem like they belong in the American League, and, looking at their young lineup of stars, by then they might have won a few more titles. God knows, the Rangers wish they could at least get them out of their division by the time they move into their own retractable roof stadium in a few years. It turns out it is also too hot to play baseball in Dallas in the summer, even at night (who knew?), but when the Rangers built their new ballpark in Arlington in 1993 that detail was somehow overlooked by ownership. Forget who that was.
FOOTNOTE: While the Astros seems a fitting name for a team from Houston, so was Colt .45s when you consider that east coaster Samuel Colt’s invention of the revolver in the 1840s went unwanted and unnoticed until the Texas Rangers discovered its usefulness against the expertly mounted and deadly Comanches. (Or so I learned from reading S.C. Gwynne’s epic history of the tribe, “Empire of the Summer Moon.”) If the Stros had remained the Colt .45s, then when the new North Texas team, the Rangers, came along in 1972, it would have linked them symbolically based on history – with one team in each league.
I had a chance to meet Dick Gregory once, in college, and I’ve always remembered something he said to me. It was 1968, and I was a sophomore at Brown, serving on the class council that was bringing him to campus to speak. A couple other guys and I drove to the airport to pick him up. His stage persona was that of an irreverent black man making humor out of current events with an underlying theme of racism, so we were prepared for him to be prickly or I don’t know what we expected. I hadn’t met many famous people then. Basically we thought he was great, which is why we had invited him to the campus. But I recall he was not particularly friendly and did not seem at all interested in the admiration of the three earnest white college boys who had come to fetch him in a VW bug. If he smiled, I can’t picture it. He was angry, just like in his act. On the ride back we got to talking about the news, and when I quoted something I had just read in The New York Times, he turned and gave me a withering look. “The New York Times?” he said sourly. “You can’t believe everything you read in The New York Times.” Really? At 19 I thought you could. I had never heard anyone say that before, certainly not an important person. Plus I thought The New York Times was “liberal,” and why would a well-known black entertainer choose to criticize it? I was at a loss to respond, my callowness as plain as my buttoned-down shirt.
In the years ahead, I would come to see the truth of his remark, which had sounded brash and radical to my ears at the time. Not that he would have remembered me, but I wish I could have run into him on the street in 2003 after the Times published Judith Miller’s war-mongering stories about Saddam Hussein possessing weapons of mass destruction. “Hey, Mr. Gregory,” I would have said. “It took me awhile, but I understand now. You were right.”
SUNDAY MORNING I opened the Morning News and, after Doonesbury, looked in Metro for the obituaries, something I do more often than I used to. I scanned the gallery of faces — some in black and white, others in color, strangers — and sampled the religious content (“David went to be with our Lord God on August the 3rd…). Then, down the left hand side of the page, a familiar face caught my eye, with a name above it. No! Couldn’t be. But it was: VORHIES Jr. John Royal Harris MD. My doctor. Damn.
I had been thinking about Dr. Vorhies lately as it was getting to be time for my annual physical, and I needed to call his assistant, Roxanne, to make the appointment. I looked forward to seeing him, which I can’t say has always been the case with my primary care physicians through the years. When I moved back to Dallas from California four years ago, I suddenly needed a doctor before I had figured out how to pick one approved by my disorganized HMO. My friend David Searcy recommended Vorhies, telling me he was unorthodox, smart, worked with poor people in Latin America and would take cash.
I drove to his office on the back side of Preston Center, in a low-rise retro medical building that seemed frozen in time — that time being the 1960s. Oddly appealing. I discovered that he had a solo practice, with one nurse and a receptionist/assistant. The waiting room was not crowded. He was a tall, stolid man, a couple years older than me with a grave manner softened by a quiet, wry sense of humor. He had a bass voice that conveyed wisdom and authority without affect or pretense. I am reminded of that first encounter now. There was an honest austerity about him. No wasted words, yet he looked you in the eye and seemed to care. And he seemed interested in the world. He was aware of books and literary life. I liked him immediately.
I had a chest infection that required anti-biotics. My insurance situation was still unclear, but his assistant told me not to worry, they would work it out. She said $50 would cover the visit.
Over the next few years, I continued to see him occasionally and tried to select him as my PCP through United Health Care without United Health Care ever conceding that he was in their system — while his office said he was. It never got sorted out, and eventually I switched to another HMO that was able to find him in its directory. But all along he never seemed concerned, which marked him as unusual in the “concierge care” money-driven U.S. medical community.
I can’t say I knew him well, yet I was not prepared for him to go. Two years ago, he almost retired when his vintage office building was slated for demolition. He had been practicing internal medicine for almost 40 years, another way in which he stood apart from the swelling ranks of high-revenue specialists. I was relieved when he accepted an offer to partner with another general practitioner at Baylor. He was in his office on the 7th floor of the Wadley Tower examining a patient when his heart failed him last Wednesday. He was 71 and appeared to be in tip top shape.
I knew he was a rower, but not until I attended the memorial service for him at Lovers Lane United Methodist Church Monday, did I learn that he rowed almost every day after work with the Dallas Rowing Club at Bachman Lake, through all seasons and weather. He only took off Wednesdays for choir practice. An outdoorsman who grew up in Wyoming, he had rowed at Harvard and many years later got back into the sport in Dallas. During my physicals we talked about fitness and he offered advice and encouragement. When I told him I had stopped running and was trying out a water-rower machine, he smiled and told me he had one at home. He left out the Bachman Lake part or that he had won gold medals in his age division at the US Rowing Masters Nationals.
Members of the Rowing Club gave stirring remembrances of him at the service, as did his son, John, who is also a doctor, in California. Fighting back emotion, John remembered his father as the rock of the family, steadfast and calm through one crisis after another. From his father’s biography in the program, I knew that before John was born, his mother and father lost their first child to cancer. Once, when he was in medical school, John said, he was feeling nervous before an important exam in organic chemistry and called his father for advice. His father listened and then told him, “It’s simple: Just learn everything in the textbook exactly, and you’ll be fine.”
After these recollections and readings from Matthew and Luke, the long-haired Rev. Bruce Hearn asked the hundreds in the sanctuary to join in singing two short blessings the Vorhies family always sang before dinner, followed by a three-part round of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”
It was a beautiful and fitting service, but it was not enough. The feeling persisted: How could he be gone? I saw no one there I knew, yet I know I was sharing that thought with many of them. Some had been his patients for 25 years and more. I only got the last four, but they were important ones to me. I got over the nasty chest infection and later monitored some aging aches and pains with him. When I weighed the pros and cons of moving back to Dallas, John Vorhies was at the top of the “pro” column. I clipped the obit from the paper and have it on my desk. I am looking at it now, reliving the shock of first seeing it Sunday morning. In the photo he is smiling beneath his big horn-rimmed glasses. High forehead and untrimmed graying hair. Striped shirt open at the neck. His lips are parted as if he’s about to say something. I can hear his voice. Damn.
MICHELLE SHOCKED’S SHOW at the Kessler Sunday night was mostly a re-creation, note for sweet rocking note, of her impressive 1988 debut album Short Sharp Shocked. Anyone remember it? I do, but I had only heard the record and was not prepared for the ferocious talent she exhibited onstage — soaring vibrato, meticulous guitar work and feline physical grace — leaving no doubt about the current state of her art and abilities. Without mentioning the murky controversy (Is she really anti-gay? Hard to believe) that has dogged her for four years and likely left a few seats unsold, she displayed only gratitude and appreciation toward the cheering hometown audience that sang along on “Anchorage” and “Memories of East Texas.” Backed by the LP’s original producer and virtuoso guitarist Pete Anderson (and trio) she rocked the house, no qualifiers needed. At the end she called up onstage her East Dallas dad, Bill Johnston, for a winning mandolin duet on a Woody Guthrie rag, while crediting him as her early musical mentor and inspiration. A memorable evening in Oak Cliff.
IT’S SCARY OUT THERE. Three good guys in Portland calmly try to stop a raging bully from harassing teenage girls on a train, and two of them end up dead, stabbed in the neck by the bully. You never know. Once you walk out the front door, you never know who might cross your path on a given day and challenge your sense of self and decency, not to mention your physical well-being. It can happen in an instant, as I discovered on a recent Friday evening in the north Dallas suburb of Plano. I am having dinner at a small restaurant with live jazz and acoustic guitar. Violence awaits, one table away.
It’s getting toward closing time, and an improvising duo has just hushed the crowd with a pin-dropping version of James Taylor’s “You Can Close Your Eyes.” Except, not quite all the crowd. Toward the back, right behind me, a guy is jabbering over the music. He has been jabbering for a while with a companion, and some patrons have turned their heads toward him in silent rebuke, to no avail. When the song ends, a man in a blue shirt seated at a table nearby finally speaks up and says, “Could you please keep your voice down.” The talker, who’s got some heft to him and thick features, summons the waiter and asks for his check. I’m focused on the stage, where the band is reassembling for a last few numbers. Then, a sudden clap of angry words. I turn and see the talker looming over the guy in the blue shirt, his right arm cocked to throw a punch. “Come on, you #%$#&$%#!” he yells.
A fistfight? In here? After the James Taylor song? It’s totally incongruous, but it’s totally happening. I leap up from my chair and throw my arms around the talker from behind, in order to keep him from landing a blow on his critic. I get there a half second late, and his fist has already smacked into something, a part of the other guy’s shoulder or neck. Not too bad. So far. The talker is bigger and stronger than me, probably younger. I can’t be sure in the dim light. I’m almost as old as James Taylor and have no particular experience in this area. I hug him as tightly as I can while he and the man still seated exchange insults. He looks and sounds like a highway construction boss I had one summer long ago. “You don’t want to do this,” I say. He ignores me while the guy in the blue shirt, showing no signs of fear, informs his attacker matter-of-factly that he is already guilty of assault.
I AM WONDERING if that was wise, as I wonder what to say to the talker to calm him down. His face is aflame and close to mine now. His eyes turn toward me, full of fury and payback. I keep holding on to him. Words come out of my mouth. “I’m on your side,” I say, not sure why. I am not on his side, other than the side of no one getting blood on their clothes on this Friday evening. I don’t know either of these men. We are strangers, the three of us.
He and his critic continue to trade unpleasantries. I keep my arms clenched around his shoulders, waiting for someone else to come over to help. No one does. I figure he could surely get loose if he wanted, but I might have done the right thing by simply allowing him the appearance of being restrained. Now, he can back away without backing down. But I don’t really know what is going on in his head. Maybe he will break my grasp and then my nose. He could pull out a gun and shoot me, along with the guy who only wanted to hear the music. Two words come to mind: Concealed Carry.
By the standards of barroom melees, this was nothing, yet afterward I couldn’t let go of what happened – or almost happened. I was reminded that, not counting a supervised three-minute round with boxing gloves in middle school (when I was pummeled by a more adept classmate), I have never been in a real fight. How many men want to admit that? In the week after this incident, I asked a bunch of guys my age if any had ever been in a fistfight. Most of them had played contact sports in high school and college, and most of them said no. Most of them are privileged and white. One exception, a distinguished journalist, told me he grew up in a working class neighborhood in Southern California where fistfighting was common and accepted. His older brother taught him how to block punches. And it came in handy.
I GOT NO SUCH TRAINING. When I was 8 or 9, we had a bully in the neighborhood, and my mother told my father he needed to teach me to fight to protect myself. My father, a good man, standing on principle, declined. He told her he was not going to do anything to encourage fighting because that was the problem with the world. Peace had to start at home, he reasoned – on your street, in your yard, in your heart. Years later, I can’t argue with that but also see the challenge it poses to someone being called a pussy by a guy who wants to fight just because that someone politely pointed out his rude behavior.
At last, I feel the talker’s body unclench, and I pull my arms away. He retreats slowly, gathers his female companion and heads toward the door. He shoots a stare over his shoulder back in the direction of the man who asked him to be quiet, and I’m thinking, we are not done yet. But by now the owner of the place has emerged to escort him amicably out of the room. All this has happened in a blur, and as I sit down again, I begin to question what I have done. Might there still be further consequences? The talker could still come back with a firearm and the resolve to avenge his injured pride. Such things happen all the time in bad neighborhood bars, do they not? “A 34-year-old man was shot and killed last night outside __________,” we hear so often on the ten o’clock news. “Witnesses said the shooting followed a quarrel between the two men.” It’s never between two women; it’s always a quarrel between two men (though frequently a quarrel over a woman). Have we progressed at all since founding fathers Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton faced off in a lethal pistol duel in 1804 provoked by insults to each other’s “honor”?
Human history, plain to see, is a long bloody chronicle of aggression and conquest, with modern civilization maybe just a patch hiding our darker DNA. Lately civility itself has lost definition. Manners left us some time ago, but what’s different today is the definite possibility – as demonstrated by this encounter – that even asking for common courtesy can be a dangerous act. The author Chuck Palahniuk wrote the novel “Fight Club” (adapted into the 1999 movie starring Brad Pitt) after the experience of being beaten up on a camping trip following his complaining to some other campers nearby about the noise level of their radio.
CERTAINLY WE LIVE in a culture of violence, where Fox lights up the ratings with a show about Mixed Martial Arts pugilists kicking the crap out of each other. Images of terrible wars and weapons fill our 60-inch TV screens. Rage rules our roads. Politicians pose with rifles. Our current president signaled approval when, during the campaign, his supporters physically attacked a black protester. For decade upon decade the face-smacking, blood-letting mano-a-mano combat in countless movies has shown us how real men ultimately resolve conflicts. Real men hit each other. Apparently.
It starts early for boys, the macho thing. It’s in the air, huge and looming, waiting to slap a judgment on a young man. The first fight I ever saw was in the fourth grade on the playground at St. Monica’s School on Walnut Hill Lane. A crowd had gathered around two boys who were crouched and grappling with each other, and one boy I remember had his arm extended between the other kid’s legs from behind, the fingers of his right hand snapping like pincers in the direction of the guy’s testicles. Fourth grade!
It was also at St. Monica’s that another boy asked me at recess one day if I wanted to play football. He said if I didn’t want to play football, then I was a sissy – maybe the first time I heard that word. I did eventually play football but only through the ninth grade, after which my peace-loving dad conspired with our family doctor and a high school baseball coach to discourage me from continuing. My father wasn’t only worried about me being seriously injured at a young age, he also (in keeping with his general world view and very much at odds with his adopted state of Texas) objected to the warrior culture of football. I didn’t understand at the time, but I get it now. Football can be exciting, but even the great New York Giants linebacker Sam Huff once described the sport this way: “Football is war without guns.”
SOME BELIEVE THAT watching the bone-crunching, brain-scrambling hits in football, like watching movie mayhem, is cathartic and mitigates the need for men to beat up on each other in real life. Either that is true or the opposite is true: That enjoying violence once removed cultivates an acceptance of it and reinforces the idea that violence is necessary, important and useful. Like in a nightclub when somebody asks you to keep your voice down.
Our former national pastime, baseball, is intrinsically less violent yet still honors the hoary tradition of the “bench-clearing brawl.” When, last season, Texas Ranger infielder Rougie Odor decked Toronto’s Joey Bautista after a rough slide at second base, Ranger fans went wild, appreciating the punch as payback for Bautista’s cocky bat flip in the playoffs the year before. Justice served, it was tempting to think. Just like John Wayne would have done it. The Code of the West.
How many times have we heard in both films and real life, someone say, knowingly, “He can take care of himself,” meaning a boy or man who, while he might be a fine musician or Rhodes Scholar, somewhere away from the library or the piano also got schooled in the art of manly self-defense. Whether a notion born in Hollywood or elsewhere, deep down we love this, don’t we? The idea that even the cerebral and mild-mannered can flatten someone if necessary. It evokes memories of the tough men and women who settled the American frontier and later defeated Hitler and Hirohito. But where does that swagger and firepower take us from here, in an age when presidents and world leaders saber-rattle with nukes?
MY FATHER DID NOT live to hear the phrase “think global, act local,” but as I sifted the incident at the jazz club, it occurred to me that his reasoned opposition to fighting was the very essence of that proposition. War begins at home, out on the highway, in a bar. Which is not to say we can stop it, anymore than we can deny who we are. The evidence suggests we are fighters. The evidence was staring back at me that night in the sockets of another man’s eyes. But to accept physical confrontation as the unchangeable natural order of things also requires fatalism beyond my grasp.
I’ve been asked – and asked myself – what I was thinking when I tried to stop the fight. I wasn’t thinking anything. No courage was involved. I acted on instinct, maybe triggered by an aversion to the ugliness of violence going back to the fourth grade. Some would say I should not have interfered, allowing for the possibility of justice to be meted out to the bully. But there was no assurance the good guy would win. After learning of the horrific incident on the train in Portland, I felt a shudder and thought back to the evening in Plano, relieved that my own encounter with an angry stranger did not end up as a story on the evening news or send anyone to the hospital. Another time, another place, it could be different. You never know.
MOST JOURNALISTS who have been arts critics or columnists will admit to being wrong on occasion about a film, a show, a book or performer they once championed or raked but with the passing of time have reassessed, for better or worse. Not so sportswriters, who amazingly are never wrong about anything or certainly never admit it. (Skip Bayless, for some reason, comes to mind.) Latest case in point in my local sports universe, now based in Dallas again after 30 years in L.A., is one of the guys who covers the Texas Rangers for the Dallas Morning News, Evan Grant.
At the beginning of the 2015 season, Mr. Grant wrote a column making the case that, statistically, Elvis Andrus was the worst shortstop in the major leagues. Ouch. No matter how much money you make, that’s got to sting. It recalled the ignominy once heaped upon that other Ranger shortstop, Mario Mendoza, who in late ’70s was presumed to have a batting average below .200, thus giving rise to the insult “below the Mendoza line.” Except that it wasn’t true. Mendoza was a light hitter but finished his career with a lifetime average of .215.
As for Andrus, Mr. Grant’s mean-spirited measurement might have made eye-catching copy, but it proved to be premature. Andrus, at 26, hit .258 last season while playing in 160 games, and, yes, made 22 errors, not in gold glove range. (A-Rod made as many as 24 twice, for the Mariners and Yankees.) In any case, he finished the season as MLB’s 7th best shortstop according to ESPN’s Rotisserie League numbers — out of 30. He was 8th and 11th in two other rankings I saw. The Rangers won the West and made the playoffs.
BUT IN THAT UGLY Game 5 that decided the division series against Toronto, ending the Rangers’ season, Andrus did commit two unlucky bobbles in the seventh inning that invited Mr. Grant to torch him again, not only for the loss but the loss of the series. A heat-of-the moment judgment that I’m sure Skip Bayless shared if he was near a microphone and that reflected Joe Six Pack’s instant POV, but one that conveniently ignored the Rangers’ poor performance in earlier games, particularly the quick collapse of sore-arm starting pitcher Derek Holland in Game 4.
After winning the first two on the road in a best-of-five, the Rangers essentially lost the series by dropping the next two at home in Arlington. They should never have had to return to the Skydome. But scapegoating one player is easier and apparently more gratifying than reviewing the full dossier. Welcome to the sports page and sports talk radio, where Attention Deficit Disorder is a permanent condition.
BILL BUCKNER, a terrific baseball player demonized for decades for a single miscue in the 1986 World Series, knows this all too well. Andrus, who makes a lot more money than Buckner ever did in that pre-monster-salary era, didn’t need our sympathy in the big scheme of things. Even if he had been traded in the off-season, as presumably would have pleased Mr. Grant, Andrus would have been pulling down 10 or 15 million per annum in a new uniform.
But, hey, as the Rangers ready themselves for the postseason once again after winning 95 games and the AL West, Mr. Grant just the other day wrote a column celebrating the career year Andrus had — yes! Well, hard not to notice that in 2016 Andrus hit .302, some key homers, etc. Guess what? No mention of blaming him for last year’s loss to the Blue Jays or two weeks into the season going out of his way to call him the worst SS in the majors. Down the memory hole! I got the impression Mr. Grant even thinks Andrus is pretty good now. But the playoffs are here. Tomorrow’s another day and another column.
Re: “Why Trump Is Not Like Other Draft Dodgers,” by Ted Gup (8/3/16)
To the Editors:
Like Donald Trump and Ted Gup, I was also lucky to avoid the draft during the Vietnam War, but unlike Mr. Gup, I have never felt guilty about it. Without speculating about Mr. Trump’s motives, I would submit that for many young men there were others than “cowardice or careerism,” the two Mr. Gup cites in coming to his own reckoning years later. How about morality? Some of us had an ethical problem signing up for a military mission that seemed imperious, wrong and immoral – a view that history has not altered.
I rue the unequal access that draft-age young men in 1969 had to the resources of anti-war counselors, doctors, churches and universities. The war was a horror and tragedy, as we are reminded with each new book and documentary, its enduring cruelty brought home to all Americans of a certain age who visit the Wall. That said, I cannot see how those of us who opposed its carnage should feel compelled to atone for not participating in it.
P.S. While offering his op ed as a mea culpa for avoiding service in Vietnam, Mr. Gup doesn’t even mention the guys who went to Canada and prison. I wouldn’t call them cowards. I found it curious that some NYT commenters refused to accept his apology and fragged him for a different reason: the old red white & blue shaming for not taking up arms so that the rest of us can live in peace and freedom. Right. I guess not everyone has yet seen The Fog Of War or Born on the 4th of July or read A Bright Shining Lie, etc. etc. etc. The Domino Theory is still out there.