Upon Passing the United
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
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
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,
“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
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
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.
never knows, do one?”
Lewis”…the Movies…the Telethons…the
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
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
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.
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
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:
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.”
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:
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
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,
Only in LA: The Voice of Rocket
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
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.
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
“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
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
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
Thanks for the memories, Ms. Foray. Rest in