Saturday, May 30, 2009
Saturday Night in Sheepshead Bay: Bar Mitzvah Reception of Richard Grayson at The Deauville Beach Club, May 30, 1964
Forty-five years ago today, May 30, 1964, was our bar mitzvah reception at The Deauville beach club on Knapp Street and Shore Parkway (now the site of UA Sheepshead Bay Stadium 14 & IMAX Theatres).
More pics at Facebook. . .
Thursday, May 28, 2009
Thursday Evening in Tempe: Tisa Wenger & "We Have a Religion: The 1920s Pueblo Indian Dance Controversy and American Religion" at Changing Hands
General Motors may be on the brink of bankruptcy, but our 2000 Chevy Cavalier, which we bought six years ago at the CarMax on State Road 84 near our home in Davie, Florida, got us from Apache Junction to Tempe for the second night in a row for another terrific event at the best indie bookstore in the U.S., Changing Hands.
Tonight we were there to see Tisa Wenger, a religious studies professor at Arizona State University (we recently discovered that our old faculty/grad student photo ID still works!), there to read from and discuss her new book from the University of North Carolina Press, We Have a Religion: The 1920s Pueblo Indian Dance Controversy and American Religious Freedom.
We could tell from her talk that Tisa must be an excellent professor; she's leaving ASU for a position at Yale Divinity School in the fall. There was an attentive crowd of about 40 (like last night, women outnumbered men by at least 4:1) - though the professor's little son Dylan was squealing a bit and her 9yo son Jordan was reading Harry Potter; her daughter Sophie, husband Rod and parents were also in attendance, and she talked for a bit about being a missionary kid in Africa.
Her parents were very sensitive to the legacies of racism and colonialism in Africa in which Western religion was often entangled. That background, Tisa said, and her academic interest in the distinctions between religions and non-religions, "good" and "bad" religions, "true" and "false" religions - and her concerns with these different conceptions of religion - led her to investigate the 1920s New Mexico Pueblo dance controversy for her dissertation nine years ago.
Her research was historical, not ethnographic, as she's not a Native American scholar primarily, but her work in this area probably sheds a great deal of light on the difficulties of Native Americans to achieve religious freedom and the limitations of the First Amendment ideal captured in the free exercise clause.
She read from the beginning of her book first, and we were impressed with her clean style. Living our life on the fringes of academia in the humanities and law, we've been exposed to all-but-unreadable jargon-filled, seemingly deliberately impenetrable articles piled with as many abstract words as we've stuffed this sentence with. But Tisa's prose was clear and precise. You can get a feeling for what she's doing in this excerpt from an interview:
Rather than asking this question [about the developing conceptions of what is a "religion" in the context of race and colonialism] in general I wanted to ground it in a very specific historical case, and was looking at the American southwest as a region mostly neglected in U.S. religious history. I finally decided to focus on the Pueblo Indians because the amount of attention they had received over the years from both anthropologists and missionaries created a very interesting story and meant there was a rich set of sources.
Early in my research I ran across the Pueblo dance controversy of the 1920s and determined that this little-known yet historically important dispute would allow me to address all my theoretical concerns in a focused and compelling way. As I worked on the topic I became more and more interested in the perspectives of the Pueblo Indians themselves in these events, and was able to find Pueblo voices from that time in the records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions, the New Mexico state archives, various reform agencies, and the Doris Duke American Indian Oral History Project (completed in the 1970s). The Pueblos' resourcefulness in a very tough situation deserves recognition, and the implications of their appeal for religious freedom became one of the most interesting aspects of the story. More and more the book became about the difficulties for Native Americans of gaining religious freedom, and about the cultural bias of the religious freedom ideal. Religious freedom is based on conceptions of religion-- as a matter of individual conscience, and as something separable from other spheres of life-- that really do not make sense for Native American traditions. WE HAVE A RELIGION shows the impact of these notions of religion on the Pueblo Indians at a time when, in order to protect their ceremonial traditions from government suppression by appealing to religious freedom guarantees, they increasingly spoke of these traditions as a religion (for various reasons they had not done so previously, as my first chapter explains).
Secularism and secularization are themes that emerged rather unexpectedly in my writing. The anthropologists and artists who romanticized Pueblo religion and fought for Indian religious freedom in the 1920s were also fighting against a virtual Protestant establishment that had long dominated Indian affairs, and they sought to replace Christianity with secular/scientific sources of authority. They were eventually successful in that effort, though it was a very gradual process, and an important step was their valorization of Indian traditions as religions just as legitimate as Christianity. But I also came to see that the new more "secular" regime maintained many of the same cultural biases regarding religion as an individual and non-political sphere of life. By the 1930s the government formally recognized Indian ceremonies as religion with the right to constitutional protection, but in many ways this recognition only strengthened the pressures to "modernize" other aspects of Indian life by clearly separating this newly identified religion (now the designated repository of tradition) from tribal governance and other aspects of tribal life.
After reading from the beginning of the book, Tisa then delved into excerpts from the fifth chapter, dealing with a controversy at Taos Pueblo that began in May 1924, when the governor asked the BIA commissioner to release a number of boys ages 7 to 10 from the government-mandated compulsory schooling for extended periods ranging from six to eighteen months so that these boys, selected by the tribe, would spend the time learning traditional Pueblo culture (religion?) so that they could serve as the depository of Pueblo knowledge.
This was a long-standing practice, and at first BIA officials thought they could get the Pueblo leaders to agree to a compromise of two weeks off from school, filling in the remainder of the time after school and in the summer. When this was refused as unworkable, the BIA commissioner visited Taos to discover that the boys were indeed taken out of school, a challenge to his authority and colonial control that he found intolerable. He would not, he said, "submit to pagan demands."
Now the Pueblos had accepted Christianity long before then and didn't call their traditional cultural beliefs and rituals a "religion" in either Spanish or English, but in this case, as in the larger dance controversy, they began to assert their rights to free exercise of religion under the Constitution. Citing religious persecution, the tribal council called on other Native American tribes and supportive whites to back them up. Taos, of course, had a large community of artists, including such influential people as Mabel Dodge Luhan, who took the Indians' side, viewing it as part of an indigenous people's struggle to be recognized as fully human.
In her reading, Tisa also highlighted the split between the self-styled "progressive" Pueblos who were largely assimilationist reformers and the
traditionalists who had made the conflict over the boys' forced attendance at school a cause celebre. By August 1924, the BIA agreed that two boys could stay out of school for a year, provided that they made this time up by coming back for an extra year at the end of the mandatory period of education.
In relating this, we're missing much of the nuance of Tisa's narrative and analysis, but clearly, the outcome proved complex. By allowing at least some boys to opt out of compulsory schooling, the U.S. government gave credence to honoring individual conscience and implicitly furthered the necessity to recognize the "progressive" Pueblos' individual right not to participate in otherwise mandatory tribal rituals.
This controversy made us remember Yoder v. Wisconsin, the 1972 case in which the U.S. Supreme Court found that Amish children could not be placed under compulsory education past 8th grade, as it violated their parents' fundamental right to freedom of religion. So we started off the Q&A period by asking if any litigation was filed in this or the larger Pueblo dance controversy.
Tish said no, that eventually the government backed down in the face of negative publicity over its efforts to trump up Pueblo rituals like the various dances as sexually immoral and "deviant"; the Pueblos had influential support from not only the arts community but of the anthropologists who had studied the tribe's culture and others. Neither side wanted these cases to go to court because, in some respect, they were afraid they would lose and set a damaging precedent.
The other questions were much more interesting and covered both Tisa's own intellectual and academic experiences and putting the subject of her book in larger contexts: the struggle for land rights, the more supportive BIA administration after 1933 (the new commissioner, John Collier, on the side of the Pueblos, rescinded the by-then-notorious "dance circular" propagated by the Bureau in the '20s), and
the changing concept of religious liberty at different points in American history.
Many members of the audience were far more knowledgeable than us, and some of the Native Americans related family experiences that put a human face on the subject of Tisa's scholarly work.
We're again grateful to Changing Hands Bookstore for being such a great community resource and to Tisa Wenger for sharing her knowledge, expertise and insights in We Have a Religion. Hold on to what is good, even if it's a handful of books.
Mom & Dad at the bungalows of Rockaway Beach, September 4, 1946
Since we spent over an hour yesterday morning driving all over Mesa and the East Valley trying in vain to find a 60th wedding anniversary card (the highest we could find in this part of Arizona was for the 50th), this is the best we can do for our mom and dad, Marilyn and Daniel Grayson.
They were married sixty years ago today, on May 28, 1949 at the Park Manor on Eastern Parkway and Rogers Avenue (now the First Baptist Church of Crown Heights).
Mom & Dad at lunch, Apache Junction, AZ, May 27, 2009
More wedding photos at Facebook album.
Wednesday, May 27, 2009
Wednesday Evening in Tempe: Luis Alberto Urrea & "Into the Beautiful North" at Changing Hands Bookstore
After a week of below-normal temps in the Phoenix area, today it hit 100 degrees - not yet really too hot for us - and as it began to cool off, we drove from our home in Apache Junction to our favorite indie bookstore, Changing Hands, to see the prolific and versatile Luis Alfredo Urrea, on tour for his just-published novel, To the Beautiful North.
Although this was listed as a ticketed event, with those who bought the book eligible for seating starting at 6 p.m., there were still enough seats available when we got to Changing Hands at 6:45 p.m. to score one of the comfy padded chairs (rather than a folding chair) in the back row. The author, dressed casually in a short sleeved shirt over a black T-shirt, khakis and New Balance walking shoes, soon arrived with his wife and they greeted and chatted with another couple sitting to our left.
Yesterday Luis was at Denver's wonderful Tattered Cover and after tonight, he was headed for D.C.'s Politics and Prose, then Powell's in Portland and more indie bookstores, but Luis seemed to gather energy as the evening went on. He's a good reader and a great raconteur.
Luis, a 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist for nonfiction and member of the Latino Literature Hall of Fame, is a prolific and acclaimed writer who uses his dual-culture life experiences to explore greater themes of love, loss and triumph. Born in Tijuana to a Mexican father and an American mother, he's published 11 books in multiple genres.
The Devil's Highway, his 2004 non-fiction account of a group of Mexican immigrants lost in the Arizona desert, won the 2004 Lannan Literary Award and was a national best-seller as well as being named a best book of the year by the Los Angeles Times, the Miami Herald and the Chicago Tribune.
Luis's first book, Across the Wire, was named a New York Times Notable Book and won the Christopher Award. Luis also won a 1999 American Book Award for his memoir, Nobody's Son: Notes from an American Life and in 2000, he was voted into the Latino Literature Hall of Fame following the publication of Vatos.
His book of short stories, Six Kinds of Sky, was named the 2002 small-press Book of the Year in fiction by ForeWord, and he's also won a Western States Book Award in poetry for The Fever of Being. His The Hummingbird's Daughter, is a historical novel tells the story of Teresa Urrea, sometimes known as The Saint of Cabora and the Mexican Joan of Arc.
Women outnumbered men 4:1 in the crowd, and it seemed as if many had attended previous appearance by Luis at Changing Hands and most had read more than one of his books. It was an audience largely made up of Urrea fans, and he kindly provided a fan to the first person to ask a question. It was from the taco shop and internet cafe of the real-life model for one of his characters in Into the Beautiful North, and he took it out of a shopping bag from the Kanakee, IL, public library, where a week ago even the town's mayor got her copy of the book autographed.
No wonder, from the excerpt he read from an early chapter. Consider this, from the Dallas Morning News review by Roberto Ontiveros:
In a Mexican village called Tres Camarones, the men have gone missing. Over generations, fathers and sons went off to find work or new lives, and now the women left behind have realized they are alone.
These women work hard and still have time to dream of marrying Johnny Depp or getting friendlier with the cute missionary boy. They have a new mayor, and there is even some work at an Internet cafe. But a smooth drug dealer who calls himself Scarface has come into town and sized up the situation. He and his thugs plan to make the town their own.
They accost Nayeli, a dark 19-year-old beauty who works at the Fallen Hand Café. She handles herself, but later, during a viewing of The Magnificent Seven at the perpetual Steve McQueen film festival, she realizes what she needs to do: go into the United States, find seven Mexican men and persuade them to come back to Tres Camarones. So she grabs her pals Yolo and Vampi, and her flamboyantly gay employer, Tacho, and off they go.
In sweet youthful naiveté, Nayeli announces the simplicity of the plan: "We will only be there for as long as it takes to get the men to come." She continues: "The Americanos will be happy we're there! Even if we're caught!"
Now comes an entertaining slew of horrific street hustlers, terrifying Mexican officials, bumbling jump-the-gun boarder patrols, and a staff-wielding trash dweller who comes straight out of Kurosawa.
Luis Alberto Urrea's Into the Beautiful North is awash in a subtle kind of satire. Our travelers get sick from having to eat American fast food, and they get thrown out of a Mexican restaurant by a fellow Mexican who realizes they're illegal.
Here is a funny and poignant impossible journey in which the characters come to earn pride for a homeland they have gone on a comedic pilgrimage to defend. Into the Beautiful North is a refreshing antidote to all the negativity currently surrounding Mexico, with its drug cartels, police-abandoned cities and killer flu.
Luis began by telling some great stories about his experiences with the Border Patrol when he was researching The Devil's Highway, which Little, Brown asked him to write when he was finishing up two decades of research on The Hummingbird's Daughter, ten years of which was spent among the medicine people and curanderos of Arizona's Yaqui people.
"If you're a writer, you know that writers' careers are like a Six Flags roller coaster ride," Luis said. "You can be up one day and way down the next." He said when Little, Brown called he was publishing his books "out of a guy's garage in El Paso, Chicano style." (We've all been there.)
After relating some of the scarier initial experiences with Marine-gruff Border Patrol agents when he was doing research on the tragic case of the Yuma 14, Luis talked about Kenny Smith, the veteran agent who said to him early on, "You think I'm a jackbooted thug. . . Well, I am your jackbooted thug in shining armor." And Luis said The Devil's Highway couldn't have been written without Kenny, whom he introduced as the man sitting to our left. He got a big hand from the crowd, and clearly the two men are close friends.
The excerpt he read from Into the Beautiful North was funny and precise, setting the plot in motion as Nayeli and her friends realize why there haven't been any pregnant women in their town for quite a while: all the men have left for work north of the border. It was teaser enough for us that we are anxious to read the novel.
After we applauded his lively and funny reading, Luis said he wanted to "chat" and said, "Hit me," and that's when he awarded the fan to the fan who aked the first quetion. The Q&A session was one of the liveliest we've heard.
Someone asked about the mixture of Spanish and English in his dialogue, and Luis said he listens to the voices in his head and sometimes he hears them in Spanish and other times in English. Sometimes he's accused of having too much Spanish, as when a reader sent him a letter: "What do you expect of your readers?"
Luis rightly said that reading is not necessarily a passive activity but - as most of us who are even slightly familiar with his work will attest - he tries extremely hard to make it fairly clear what's said in Spanish.
He made some interesting comments about the Spanish translations of his books - Luis writes poetry in Spanish sometimes - and said his cousin Enrique Hubbard Urrea has translated some of his novels. The Hummingbird's Daughter became La Hija de la Chuparrosa, deliberately using the Mexican 'chuparrosa' rather than 'colibrí."
He was asked about his upbringing and that led to a fascinating reminiscence about growing up dirt-poor and ill with TB in Tijuana, his American mom going to the U.S. to work every day, a trip to visit relatives in Sinaloa via a 12-hour bus ride (on a bus with a stewardess), during which someone finally realized that the 12yo boy badly needed glasses. We're drastically compressing and probably distorting some of these colorful recollections - but it gave us a good picture of how Luis Alberto Urrea became the writer he is today: clearly a man upon whom no experience is wasted.
Asked about his staff of researchers, Luis pointed to his wife and praised her for her invaluable help. He told about his mother's traumatic experience in a bombing as a World War II WAC servicemember behind enemy lines in Germany. An audience member asked how he felt being compared to Cormac McCarthy. "I'll take it!" Luis exclaimed.
There was a lot more. Luis said he may appear at an event like this to be "Mr. Professional Writer," but at heart, he's a fan who's been kept alive by the authors whose books he's read since childhood. He discussed the writing process and his shrewd editor's effective work in shaping his books.
We had a wonderful evening, thanks to Luis Alberto Urrea and Changing Hands Bookstore, and we're looking forward to reading Into the Beautiful North.
Saturday, May 23, 2009
Brooklyn-based indie publisher Canarsie House announces the publication of THE TAO SHOPLIFTING CRISIS.
All profits from the book will be donated to the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention.
Thursday, May 21, 2009
Richard Grayson's "The Forgotten Movie Screens of Broward County" is featured today, with beautiful original artwork by Mikayala Butchart (coincidentally, a niece of our old friends Ted and Ellen Butchart), at The Rumpus.
The story appears in Life As We Show It: Writing on Film, the new anthology co-edited by Masha Tupitsyn and Brian Pera, just published by City Lights.
Thursday, May 14, 2009
We've just come back from a terrific opening night performance at Automotive High School's exuberant production of Guys and Dolls. It was a wonderful evening watching some enormously talented students put on a classic musical. We can only imagine the long hours of hard work and devotion on the part of the Auto High kids, their director Candace Parr, and everyone else concerned that went into this show. But it was well worth it! And it would be worth your while to see it on Friday or Saturday.
(Photo courtesy of Mugsniffer)
We've gone to a lot of school musicals since our 1965 performance of The King and I at Meyer Levin Junior High in East Flatbush. (Pity the poor people who had to listen to a tone-deaf little ninth grader try to talk his way through "Whistle a Happy Tune" as Anna's son Louis.) Tonight's show was one of the best we've seen.
The sets were imaginative, the choreography was superb, and the production was staged with some clever bits, particularly in the Havana nightclub scene and at the mission and the Hot Box, where Adelaide (a smashingly funny Naomi Saez) sings "Take Back Your Mink" accompanied by six talented boy dancers and also performs magic with "A Bushel and a Peck."
The lighting was occasionally spotty in the first act, and a wayward car alarm in front of Auto High (yeah, we get the irony) distracted us a little bit, but the show was so compelling that we were always brought back to Frank Loesser's music and the classic Damon Runyon story and characters as adapted by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows (the famous show "doctor" whom we are old enough to have met in person).
Standouts in the cast, in addition to the buoyant Naomi Saez, whose rendition of Adelaide's laments ("A person could develop a cold") were delightful, were Robert Betz, who hit all the right notes of exasperating charm as a sharp Nathan Detroit; Christopher Wilson, slick and polished as Sky Masterson; and freshman Zairhra Burgess, who seemed perfect as Sgt. Sarah Brown as she moved believably from prim religiosity to smitten girlishness.
Clinton Bascom as Nicely Nicely Johnson and Darnell Lee as Benny Southstreet provided some of the night's best musical moments when they sang the show's title song to imaginative stage business by the guys and dolls of the cast and when they, along with Oscar Moreno as Rusty Charlie, opened with the signature "Fugue for Tinhorns," a tune we've always liked ("I got the horse right here/ The name is Paul Revere...").
Samuel Benjamin gave a convincing performance as the elderly founder of the Broadway mission and sang a surprisingly affecting "More I Cannot Wish You," a song we'd heretofore considered a throwaway. Timothy Brown made a comically threatening Big Jule, Rocko Seymour was dynamic as police Lt. Brannigan, and all the guys who played the crapshooters made the most of their roles, particularly during the "Sit Down, You're Rocking the Boat" number. Also particularly excellent were the Havana Dancers (Samantha Colon and Ysidro Peneda).
As we said, it was an exuberant evening, and Guys and Dolls is gaudy and larger than life in many ways, but for us, two of the best moments in the show were the low-key, wry "Sue Me" number between Nathan and Adelaide and, earlier, Sarah's coming-to-life ballad, "If I Were a Bell." And it's always great to hear "Besame Mucho."
The show's "Happy Ending" was perfect, and the cast received loud applause and cheers as they playfully took their bows. Kudos to all, including those in the cast and crew we didn't mention here (it's getting late and we're sleep-deprived) and to the director, Candace Parr.
There were wonderful souvenir T-shirts on sale, and decent snacks, including hot dogs for carnivores, to be had before the curtain went up and at the intermission. Thanks also to principal Mellisa Silberman and vice principal Jose Castro, who we hear have done a good job at the school.
We enjoyed Guys and Dolls and are grateful to all those involved in it. Go see it and we'll lay odds you'll enjoy it, too.
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
Tuesday Night on the Lower East Side: William D. Cohan & "House of Cards: A Tale of Hubris and Wretched Excess on Wall Street" at Bluestockings
We've had two days off - well, except for grading and answering students' questions by email - as this semester's final final exams are coming up. The last two mornings we were sightseeing by bus around Brooklyn, taking the B61, B71, B49 and B41 through the borough after lingering over iced tea outside in front of the Starbucks on Montague Street and in the garden behind the Starbucks in Park Slope. We also were taking care of our eyes at Eyes on the Slope and our feet at Lorimer Foot Care so we can continue sightseeing during nice-weather days like the last two.
Tonight we took the L train two stops to First Avenue and then the M14A bus to Houston Street and walked two blocks to Allen and Stanton to one of our favorite Manhattan bookstores, the fabulous Bluestockings. We were lucky enough to hear a fascinating talk by William D. Cohan, author of House of Cards: A Tale of Hubris and Wretched Excess on Wall Street. The Q&A period afterward was great, too.
Michiko Kakutani wrote in her New York Times review of the book:
Mr. Cohan, a former investment banker and the author of "The Last Tycoons," a 2007 book about Lazard Frères & Company, gives us in these pages a chilling, almost minute-by-minute account of the 10, vertigo-inducing days that one year ago revealed Bear Stearns to be a flimsy house of cards in a perfect storm.
He shows how quickly rumors about liquidity led to a run on the bank, and how fears that a bankruptcy of Bear Stearns could wreak fiscal havoc around the world led the Federal Reserve to approve a $30 billion credit line to help JPMorgan Chase acquire the ailing firm for a bargain-basement price. He does a deft job of explicating the underlying reasons that put Bear Stearns in peril in the first place: most notably the failure of two of its hedge funds, which were stuffed full with subprime mortgages, and the shocking irresponsibility of many of its senior officers, who failed to exercise oversight over the firm’s investments or wisely diversify its revenue. And in a kind of epilogue he gives us a brief glimpse of the fall of Lehman Brothers several months later, an event regarded by many Wall Street observers as the trigger to the current financial crisis, and the Fed’s decision not to give it a bailout or to work out a Bear Sterns-like solution.
Like Michael Lewis’s “Liar’s Poker” and Bryan Burrough and John Helyar’s “Barbarians at the Gate,” this volume turns complex Wall Street maneuverings into high drama that is gripping — and almost immediately comprehensible — to the lay reader. While the broader outlines of the Bear Sterns story will be familiar to readers from articles in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and a lengthy piece by Mr. Burrough in “Vanity Fair,” Mr. Cohan writes with an insider’s knowledge of the workings of Wall Street, a reporter’s investigative instincts and a natural storyteller’s narrative command, and he fleshes out the timeline of the firm’s calamitous final week with myriad new details and recent interviews with some of the firm’s principals, including its flamboyant chairman and longtime chief executive, Jimmy Cayne, who often seemed more interested in playing golf and attending bridge tournaments than in tending to his company’s business.
There was a nice-sized crowd in the folding chairs tonight, although the very prosperous people with expensive hairstylings and lots of gold jewelry in the rows in front of us looked more Upper East Side than Lower. But it's exciting to see diversity among humans as well as among canines at Bluestockings, and we noted that they were generous when the can was passed around for the usual donations to keep great events like this one going. And they also bought books. Without rich people, Manhattan would be a poorer place.
Camilla, one of the Bluestockings collective members, began her introduction of William by saying he was so accomplished she had to write it down and then read from a paper that he was an award-winning investigative journalist in Raleigh who worked on Wall Street for seventeen years, including six years at Lazard Frères and more time as a managing director at JP Morgan Chase. We were most impressed that she called William "an adviser to Jon Stewart":
|The Daily Show With Jon Stewart||M - Th 11p / 10c|
Actually, William didn't write a word about Bernie Madoff in House of Cards, but as he told us, "who's gonna contradict Jon Stewart"?
Instead of giving his usual overview of the book's story about Bear Stearns and how we got into our current financial disaster, William tailored tonight's talk to Bluestockings' progressive, feminist audience. He spoke, with only occasional glances at one sheet of paper, about the role of women in the Wall Street debacle. He then said, "Women had no role in this," and then jokingly added, "All the men can leave now."
William said that during his 17-year tenure on Wall Street he marveled at the terrible way women were treated in a Darwinian, testosterone-driven culture where alpha males were overwhelmingly dominant. In his first book, The Last Tycoons, Chapter 14 is titled "It's a White Man's World." It reports on the imported French attitude of Lazard Frères partners from Andre Meyer to Michel David-Weill and Felix Rohatyn to extramarital liaisons and the constant propositioning and near-rape of the few women who worked there. An employee like Kate Bohner - ex-wife of Michael Lewis, current squeeze of married Google CEO Eric Schmidt - was "catnip" to them. William said Bohner admitted to having affairs with just about every male executive at Lazard except himself.
At Bear Stearns, the treatment of women was no better. Misogynistic CEO Jimmy Cayne apparently liked mid-afternoon assignations in his office with light-blocking shades and windows as much as he preferred playing bridge and golf to minding the company's disastrous hedge funds and other misadventures. Cayne apparently hated his mother and oldest daughter and stopped speaking to both. With over 14,000 employees, Bear Stearns had exactly zero women on its executive committee and only a handful of females had any real power at the firm.
Again and again, according to William, smart and capable women were forced out or demoted at the whims of the masters of their universe who didn't like any employee making Forbes' list of influential Wall Street women: Zoe Cruz at Morgan Stanley, Sallie Krawcheck at Citigroup, Erin Callan at Lehman Brothers. William said that women typically are saddled with the blame despite having little or no responsibility.
William brought up the case of the courageous and prescient Brooksley Born, who as head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) in the late 1990s called for government regulation of derivatives, what Warren Buffett called "financial weapons of mass destruction." Born was ignored, scorned and ridiculed by Bob Rubin, Larry Summers and Alan Greenspan but if she had carried the day, the calamities of 2008 might have been avoided. As William pointed out, Born's final vindication came today when the federal government announced a years-overdue plan to regulate credit-default swaps and other derivatives that have caused such havoc.
If more women had been in charge in the financial world's corridors of power, is it possible the meltdown wouldn't have happened? William merely was raising the question, but he noted that JP Morgan Chase, one of the firms left fairly unscathed by the crisis, has the best record on hiring women, with 12 out of 56 senior management positions held by women like Ina Drew and Heidi Miller. (On the other hand, he said Goldman Sachs has also prospered in adversity, and it doesn't have a single female executive.)
William said it was great that we have three powerful, competent and smart women regulators right now:
Mary Schapiro, chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission, who as an SEC member under the hapless do-nothing Chris Cox, tried to get more effective enforcement of Wall Street;
Elizabeth Warren, Harvard law professor and expert on what bankruptcy does to American families, who's heading Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) oversight;
and Sheila Bair, chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Committee (FDIC), one of the first government officials to recognize the problem of subprime loans and one of the few regulators from the Bush administration to come out of last fall's market crisis with an enhanced reputation.
The question-and-answer period lasted even longer than William's talk but was just as interesting. He talked more about the subject of House of Cards and the weird personalities at the top of Bear Stearns, the vain and foolish Ace Greenberg and the self-promoting, clueless, lazy Jimmy Cayne, who vigorously objected to William's saying Cayne "maneuevered" his way to the top.
Imitating Cayne's dese-and-dose outer-borough-gangster accent, William reported that Jimmy kept yelling, "What is dis maneuevered? I didn't maneuever!"
Finally William asked Cayne what word he should have used. The man CNBC named one of the "Worst American CEOs of All Time" immediately said:
"I would have preferred ascended."
Other questions involved William's own transformation from journalist to his years working on Wall Street (he immediately was making ten times the money he did as a reporter in Raleigh); his view of the culture he experienced at Lazard Frères and JP Morgan Chase (pretty acerbic: "The only good day of the year is the day you get your bonus"); and others that elicited articulate and interesting responses that shed light on how Wall Street, and the U.S., got into the current mess.
We asked William if, given all we know know, the Wall Street culture has really changed or whether the masters of the universe view the present time as a blip. He said most people in power in investment banking and finance want things to go back to the way they were, for the simple reason that they made tons of money then. That's why they're trying to get so hard to get out of TARP funding and the regulation that goes with them. As long as the corrupt compensation system continues, and the powers-that-be fund the campaigns of Congressional leaders and there's a revolving door between the highest levels of Wall Street and government, little may change once the crisis eases.
That was a depressing note, but we're looking forward to reading House of Cards and what the Los Angeles Times called its "day-by-day, conversation-by-conversation account of a financial debacle equivalent to the failure of Credit Anstalt, the Vienna bank whose default signaled the globalization of the Great Depression."
Our dad in Arizona said that when he first got the book from the library, he thought, "How am I going to read these many pages about Bear Stearns?" But he said, "I couldn't put it down. It may be the best book I've read this year." And he reads a lot of books.
We're grateful that a journalist and storyteller like William D. Cohan is both insider and outsider enough to give us an account of our current tragicomedy and we're grateful, as always, to Bluestockings for lots of food for thought. (Their free trade cafe has tasty stuff, too.)