September 2017




Upon Passing the United Nations



While frequently passing the U.N., as I now live but four blocks away, I am struck by the “uglification,” that now surrounds this worldly icon. Such is the byproduct of the need for intense security and fortification, given the ogre of terrorism perpetually lurking (yet unleashed again last month in Barcelona). And a renovation project now in its 8th year and not quite completed, doesn’t help matters.


In another life, in another world, when for a couple of years or so I literally worked across the street from the U.N., we worker-bees would walk over to its grounds for a brief “picnicky” sort of lunch. Then spend some time on the north lawn taking in the East River view. It was a public space unencumbered by fences, screening devices, guard houses, the need for a ticket or credentials. The only barrier being inclement weather.


To those with no earlier reference points, the current sorts of restrictions are typical and come with the territory. I’d bet they’re hardly noticed. The U.N. continues to draw one million visitors a year. And though we have no choice but to accept this new reality, I still find it ironic that this mostly glass house—built on the transparent and ideological foundation of maintaining world peace—has to protect itself from those who might throw stones.


The first foray into hunkering down, took the form of a 21 million dollar fence and surveillance system around the perimeter, which went up in May 2004. This was approved by then Secretary General Kofi Annan, following incidents in Afghanistan and Iraq, including a deadly attack on U.N. offices in Bagdad in which 22 of its people were killed.


Within the confines of such defensive measures, including car spikes as big as King-Kong feet that could stop a tank, employees go about their daily business of trying to translate the U.N. mission into action.



The idea behind that mission—since expanded to include an array of humanitarian concerns—came into being, with the drafting of the “Declaration by United Nations” by FDR and Winston Churchill in a meeting at the White House on December 29, 1941. Yes, just 22 days after “a date that will live in infamy.”


In working on the project, Churchill cited Lord Byron’s use of the phrase “United Nations” in his poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, as an inspiration for naming this lofty venture. Poetry has a way of slipping into the backstory of human aspirations.


It would be almost four years later that the U.N., as an organization, was officially established. October 24, 1945 to be exact, just six months after FDR’s death. The main cigar-box shaped Secretariat building—which is one of four “on campus”— was opened in 1952. And though spanning six New York city blocks, the U.N. is an international territory belonging to the 193-member nations. When you enter the grounds, technically, you are leaving the United States.


New York beat out 248 other cities to the altar, in this challenging marriage of a place so complexly local, to an immediate world so intrusive. Though over the years, some critics have called for a “divorce.” The reasons given, from a bottom line perspective, were perhaps best summed up in a piece that appeared in the Daily News four years ago:

“New York should welcome such a move, especially as mayoral candidates trip over themselves to find ways to trim the budget of a cash strapped city.


The UN gulps $25 million a year on maintenance, including $6 million on personnel to accommodate one million visitors annually.


The NYPD spends up to $7 million each year to provide security to foreign dignitaries who rain down on First Avenue for the September General Assembly.


Let’s not forget that diplomats owe the city $17 million in unpaid parking tickets.


Since a federal appeals court ruled in 2010 foreign countries don’t need to pay property tax for their Manhattan buildings, containing UN apartments, missions and ambassadors, the city has lost tens of millions of dollars in tax revenues.”

Beyond any cash considerations, there have also been cachet considerations. Far from being seen by all as a gift to the world, the U.N. has been roundly criticized in many quarters over many years, for its being ineffectual in making good on its raison d'être. (Perhaps, Jared Kushner can be of some help here?).


In a no-win situation it has been taken to task, both for its interventions or non-interventions in various crises around the globe. In 2003 for example, George W. Bush urged the U.N. General Assembly to “show backbone and courage” in confronting Iraq or risk becoming irrelevant. An urging to no avail. Thus, we went off without the support of the many doubting-Thomas countries. And the rest, as they say, is history. But back to the grounds.


To be fair, not all has been aesthetically lost in this garden of Eden since those bygone idyllic lunches. Various environmental artworks have been added over the years, including most prominently, a forty-foot metal statue depicting St. George slaying the dragon entitled, “Good Defeats Evil.” A gift from the Soviet Union in 1990 on the 45th anniversary of the U.N., it is visible beyond the fence to anyone strolling passed on First Avenue without their heads buried in their iPhones.


Interestingly, the dragon part of the sculpture was created from fragments of Soviet and U.S. missiles destroyed under the 1987 Nuclear Forces Treaty. And clearly, there is no controversy here. Unless that “Fearless Girl” shows up again (Charging Bull and Fearless Girl at Street Level; MAY, 2017 MUSE-LETTER).

“Is it that the donor of so Christian a gift should be the Soviet Union, or that an organization like the United Nations should give such prominence to a Christian image?”

It took its place not far from the classic bronze sculpture “Let Us Beat Our Swords into Ploughshares.” That too was a gift from the Soviet Union (in 1959) and has a religious association as well, what with its title come from a passage in the Book of Isaiah.


These personifications of a moral imperative to take action for the good of humanity, stand within the confines of what has come to resemble a fortress. A thought that clung to me like a backpack, as I made my way home one recent lazy Sunday morning after mass.








Quote of the Month (a Reprise)



Usually, I’ll include a quote each month that I might have come across that I find interesting in some way. Especially, at times, when one might seem apropos to something going on at present. Often, it will be accompanied by some graphic element that might either work in concert with what is being said, or is ironic in the context of what is being said. The latter was the case in the AUGUST, 2013 MUSE-LETTER, which also included a piece on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.


Given what transpired in Charlottesville last month, and all the ensuing rhetoric and discussion, I thought of this five-word quote from four years ago, and the poignant photo that accompanied it.

“One never knows, do one?”



                                                             —Thomas “Fats” Waller








“Martin and Lewis”…the Movies…the Telethons…the French



While out and about on my birthday, I heard that Jerry Lewis had died that day at age 91. The news first took me took me back to a time of birthdays, that came with small numbers attached. My most immediate recall, was that I saw “Martin and Lewis” live at the Paramount Theater in 1951. It was my introduction to a professional stage show. I was going on seven.


This improbable duo of crooner and comic, had a following of “rock-star magnitude,” though that descriptive of course, had yet to be conceived. Think Beatles coming to America. That big. Which resulted in my first experience of having to wait a long, long time, on a long, long line (welcome to the world). By the time we got in the door and the show started, I might have now been going on eight.


To be honest, about all I remember from that experience other than the interminable wait, was first of all, the Martin/Lewis caricature logo on each of the bandstands of the big band. And then, Jerry (or “Jerr’” as Dean called him), doing some schtick which involved going into the audience and mixing up women’s pocketbooks—to much riotous laughter (“He’s a nut!” my mother would always say). Clearly, he was what drove this unique partnership. Which would eventually lead to their “divorce.”


Over the next five years or so, I would get to see their movies on Saturday afternoons, sitting with an older cousin or friends in the Kids Section of the local movie houses. I guess I thought “Jerr” was pretty funny. Though in his going it alone after their breakup in 1956, he seemed much less so. And though I saw “The Nutty Professor,” considered to be his finest and most memorable film, I can’t remember a thing about it.


But who can ever forget the telethons, that began on the eve of each Labor Day. Yet, they too wore thin over time, as they were akin to watching the scene of a bad car accident, with Jerry all but inviting you into the ambulance, for the ride with the victims to the hospital.


There was always the curiosity the next morning, to see how Jerry was holding up under the strain of it all. At some point, while you were sleeping, the bow tie had become undone, and the plea for money had turned into a taunt. Then a rage. But give him a pass. He could collapse at any moment from exhaustion. Then the close: his singing of “You’ll Never Walk Alone;” a rather maudlin number which Lewis belabored. You couldn’t help but notice that he was always working at the business of entertainment. The antithesis of Dean.


One notable exception to this chewing up of the scenery, was his acting performance several decades later in Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy.” He even held his own with Robert De Niro. I suspect with Lewis’ passing, it will be reshown somewhere soon.


With the exception of that movie, I’ve never liked anything else he’s done. At least from the perspective of adulthood. Yet he has been called a genius by many movie buffs, “people in the industry,” and of course, the French. He’s a legend in France. Pourquoi?


It seems so incongruous when you consider the clichéd savoir fare of the French; creators of haute cuisine, the croissant, les affaires (which no one ever disapproves of, especially “the wife”), and women, unparalleled in the world when it comes to accessorizing with a scarf. And the French don’t make movies… they make cinema.


In the land that brought us, Truffaut, Godard, Renoir, Malle, why would they swoon over one so given to eye-crossings, spastic movements and stereotypically insulting portrayals of buck-tooth Asians? Yet, he is verily embedded in Franco-culture.


When I was in Paris a couple of years ago (to drop a name location), and happened into a jazz club one night, alongside a photo of John Paul Belmondo, hung an autographed one of Monsieur Lewis. This adoration is one of the great mysteries of humankind. Right up there with Stonehenge, Roswell, Amelia Earhart, and the ten-day tenure of “The Mooch.”


In a piece that appeared in Vanity Fair four years ago, the writer’s exasperation with this phenomenon, is palpable in the very title: “The French Really Do Love Jerry Lewis, Call Him ‘Akin to Godard’—Why?!


He had headed off to Paris with his son in tow, looking for clues. He questioned many of those standing in line to see “The Nutty Professor,” which is differently titled there, and still shown frequently. He got a variety of answers, as well as a few shrugs from those who really couldn’t put their finger on it. And then following the movie, his unequivocal bafflement is laid bare. He notes:

The humor continues to elude me this afternoon but no one else: the audience laughs appreciatively at even the corniest gags and most belabored slapstick, digging deeper now and then for scattered belly laughs and guffaws. One woman gasps “Non!” in pleasure-pain when the director telegraphs an impending pratfall involving barbells.”


“How long is this movie?” my 14-year-old son asks.


Writer and son; they both come up empty.


But a New York Times piece a couple of days after Lewis’ death, included this observation which might be on to something:

“Lewis’s face is the grimacing mirror of our vanities,” said the French film critic Pierre Murat. “His body, as bendy as rubber, is the reflection of our ridicule.”

Self-deprecation? The French? Really? Ok. To coin a phrase, I guess “Fifty million Frenchmen can’t be wrong.”


Repose en paix, Monsieur Lewis. "Oui, vous avez très bien réussi."


Yes, you did very well. Whadda’ I know?











Just Shy of 100, “The Queen of Voice Performers” Goes Silent



Not to turn this into a death issue of a Muse-Letter (sorry, Jerry snuck in under the wire), but when I heard that June Foray had died recently at 99, just fifty days shy of that almost mythical mark of 100, I could not help but remember a serendipitous encounter between her and my son that took place eleven years ago.


If you’ve never heard of her, as I had not back then either, here’s what I briefly wrote at the time (JULY, 2006 MUSE-LETTER).


Only in LA: The Voice of Rocket J. Squirrel

So, here’s our son walking the family Chihuahua up the private road. A lost Jaguar pulls up alongside him, and asks directions to a nearby restaurant. He provides it.


The driver, a woman, then asks the lad if he has ever heard of Rocky and Bullwinkle. Well of course he has! What do you think we’re raising here? Whereupon, she begins to do the voice of “Rocky” followed by that of “Natasha.” And she does it perfectly. As she should. Because she is June Foray. And Rocky is the most famous of the countless characters to whom she has given the gift of her wonderful voice. She has in fact, been unofficially titled: “The Queen of Voice Performers.”


Ah, LA. That’s why we live here. For the culture.

A special thanks to you Ms. Foray! That at 89, you’re still not acting your age. And that you are still bringing smiles to the faces of yet another generation. Even the Chihuahua seemed fascinated.

We never give much thought, nor attach names to the voices behind characters, cartoons or catch phrases that are so a part of the pop culture. We all know that, “This… is CNN,” was intoned by James Earl Jones. Who is also the dark voice of Darth Vader. And many may know that Walt Disney was the original voice of Mickey Mouse (for 36 years); Jim Henson, that of Kermit (35 years).


Or we might remember that the vocal gymnastics behind Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, and a whole slew of Warner Bros.’ Looney Tunes, were performed by Mel Blanc, who was perhaps the only “famous” voiceover artist (and it is an art). It was he, to whom June Foray was often compared, by those in the industry. But in a NY Times obit, a reverse of this comparison is championed:

“June Foray is not the female Mel Blanc,” said Chuck Jones, the legendary animator who proposed her star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. “Mel Blanc was the male June Foray.”

It’s hard to pin down an exact count of her credits, but they number in the neighborhood of 400, many of which included multiple characters. This, over a span of an 85 year career which began at 12, and only concluded with her last gig three years ago.


Aside from her characters on the Rocky and Bullwinkle show—a satire with a strong nod to adults— my favorite of hers, is one I only became aware of in the course of writing this piece, “Talky Tina”.


Having been the voice of “Chatty Cathy,” a popular doll in the early 60’s, June was recruited to incarnate a darker, vengeful counterpart, named Talky Tina. She menaces Telly Savalas to the point of…well, let Rod Serling tell it:


“Of course, we all know dolls can't really talk, and they certainly can't commit murder. But to a child caught in the middle of turmoil and conflict, a doll can become many things: friend, defender, guardian. Especially a doll like Talky Tina, who did talk and did commit murder—in the misty region of …





Her passing, so close to 100, does have a kind of Twilight Zone twist to it. Apparently, her health had become fragile as a result of a car accident two years ago, and not simply due to the natural deterioration of old age. If not for that almost cruel intervention of fate, it is likely she’d still be alive and about to partake of that first slice of birthday cake on the 18th of this month. Maybe even doing the Rocky voice for some kids who might be in attendance.


Thanks for the memories, Ms. Foray. Rest in peace.








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