I was recently interviewed in my office at New York University by someone working on a project about former Jesuits. He was a “former” something himself as I soon learned from the way he kept trying to insert his own petty anecdotes into my narrative. I fear I was rather short with him: I suggested he limit himself to questions only. If he wanted to spin his own war stories, he’d just have to find someone to interview him. It was during this interview that I heard myself saying that my time spent in high school were the four best years of my life. He expressed surprise. So did I, when he repeated to me. What about the birth of my son, let’s say, or tenure, or, for God’s sake, my honeymoon? Something. Yes, of course, but those were highlights; for a felicitous span, a halcyon season, a life-stretch, I’d still take the four years I passed in the Jesuits’ embrace at Regis High School.
This from somebody who just took a pass on the fiftieth reunion of that once happy company of Regians. I’m not quite sure why. I certainly had all the incentives to show up and show off: a rather large annuity, a full head of hair, pictures of grandchildren, a wife of the appropriate age and gender (Well, OK, she went to public school, but she’s Italian and you know what they’re like). I think it had something to do with those original four years. It will never get any better than that, and, I suppose, like John Keats, I’d prefer to have my feckless pals eternally feckless instead of rasping old curmudgeons like me.
On reflection, the years at Regis now seem like their own reward; in that era we were not being aimed at college –there was a highly inconvenient war in progress– or at anything else, for that matter, as New York’s Needle Trades High zeroed in on the ne edle trades, and Haaren Aviation on building airplanes, and, of course, Performing Arts on Fame. There was some fame to be had at Regis, to be sure, but mostly of the kind you preferred to avoid. Like that collected by the kid who was tried and convicted of plagiarism in a public assembly, or in that other famous alfresco lunchtime assembly when we were informed, in one of the finest displays of Sophoclean irony ever staged by the Society of Jesus, that one of our number was, at that very moment, enjoying a World Series game in the Bronx, all oblivious of the fact that every one of us knew what tragic fate awaited him.
My own Regis brush with Sister Fama was fleeting, less painful, but not terribly fulfilling. As only I will recall, I was elected treasurer of the senior class, a task rendered formidably simple by a total lack of class assets. That’s not the stuff ambition can feed on, particularly not the competitively-honed variety the Jesuits instilled in their charges. And hadn’t Andy Warhol later made a solemn promise that everyone on the face of the planet would have a full fifteen minutes of genuine fame? VE and V J Day came and went, and the despicable Snuffy Stirnweiss won a batting title hitting .309 in the famous year of 1945, and I was still waiting for my clock to start ticking. And now, fifty years later, Andy still owes me twelve minutes by my calculations. And I’m not altogether sure about the three fast ticks I did get.
I don’t know if it was Branch Rickey or Dick Cavett –probably both– who said that luck is the residue of design, but he was talking through his hat. Luck is luck, and mine chiefly consists in having students who manage to find useful jobs, useful to me, that is. Barry Krulick didn’t exactly have a job; rather, he was in the employ of WPIX, Channel 11 in New York, a TV station that then filled its broadcast days with Yankee baseball games –they were still played in the sunlight then– and its nights with what were, even then, reruns of Perry Mason. How long ago was that? Well, to give an approximate idea, Raymond Burr weighed in at about 185 and could still stand up in a courtroom.
I’m not sure what Barry Krulick did at PIX, but everyone else must have been out to lunch on that sunny afternoon in July 1969 when he called his former instructor in the ways of the Greeks and Romans and asked how I’d like to be on television. Hey, who wouldn’t, but the offer was a little baffling since the only live programming that emanated from the studio in the Daily News Building on 42nd Street was the evening news. Did they want me to sit in at 11 for my idol, John Tillman? No, it was far headier than that. What young Mr. Krulick had in mind is that I might be willing to take a turn as co-anchor for the first landing on the moon.
I’m sure at the time I must have asked, why me? And I’m equally sure he gave me some kind of coherent, if not entirely convincing, answer. Mr. Krulick had very occasionally attended my course on Greek Mythology and perhaps that was the answer. Maybe he remembered my connection of “luna” with “looney” and decided to go for it, the looniest thing he could think of. No, I now have a stronger suspicion. PIX I’m sure was then run by two engineers and a manager who went home early. The day engineer threw the switch that brought in the Yankee Stadium remote and then went home, and the night engineer racked up Perry Mason and then went off to Yonkers Raceway (I know: my father belonged to the same union), and, of course, Barry Krulick, who did everything else. Take care of the moon thing, Barry was told, and he did, in his own simple-minded yet gifted way. He got a radio weather man from Staten Island named Arthur and he got me: a play-by-play guy and a color guy. Just like a Yankee game, Mel and the Scooter.
Even the transcendentally careless Phil Rizzuto must have done something before a game, clear his throat, check his fly. But how did one prepare for the awesome responsibility of being a TV anchor man for one of the most historic moments of the twentieth century? Too late to learn about physics, obviously –Mr. Cullen, S.J. had seen to that– or space, or even the Apollo program. Perhaps some of the mythological background, or some insights into the old but still plausible geocentric theory of the universe…. I got to the studio about 8 P.M.; the landing was scheduled for some time deep into the night. Barry was there, briefly, the night engineer was there, even more briefly, a bored camera man left over from the evening news was there, and, of course, Arthur, who bore sheaves of notes in his hands. There was no makeup, no cue cards, no coffee, no John Tillman. We just sat there glued, like the rest of the country, to Walter Cronkite on Channel 2.
At about 10:30 the engineer pulled a switch, said “Houston feed” and left for Yonkers. Barry said “sit over there,” pointing to a p air of chairs in front of some painted bookcases with books painted in them. Classy. We sat. I sat and I thought. Who is watching this? Who in their right mind would be watching the first moon landing on Channel 11, home of Joe Pepitone and Perry Mason, when they could have ABC, NBC, or the ineffable and trustworthy Walter Cronkite on CBS? I could name three: my wife and son sitting on a couch in an apartment in Greenwich Village and my mother sitting on a couch in an apartment in the Bronx. “Arthur,” I said, “do you have a family?” “No.” “Then exactly three people are watching this program.” I later learned I had miscounted. My son and my mother fell asleep long before the climactic event.
Most of PIX’s coverage on that historic evening was nothing more or less than what Houston was beaming out to the entire country, interrupted now and then by aluminum siding commercials. Arthur and I actually did get on camera for about five or six minutes altogether, and I have no idea what either of us said, except that I did slip in my “lunacy” bit. The viewer response was in any event spotty — somebody called PIX and demanded of the answering machine why in hell they had pulled Perry Mason– but loo k at it this way: it cost WPIX nothing (in fact, they came out ahead since shortly afterwards they sacked Barry Krulick), and whenever somebody asks, “Where were you during the moon landing,” Arthur, Walter and I have one helluva an answer.
About that same time my first book was published, and just where every faint-hearted academic expects it to be, at his own university’s press, which has, you would imagine, some mild interest in helping the author get tenure. There was no luck in that, or rather, it was the NYU Press that got lucky. Greek Philosophical Terms is still in print after nearly thirty years, which, in academic publishing circles, is pretty close to a miracle. There were other miracles: it was translated into Portuguese and Rumanian (why?) and made a guest appearance in a movie. In an early scene in “A Letter to Three Wives” –the 1985 re-make, not the 1949 original– Michael Gross, who plays a professor, comes home from his office and deposits his books on the kitchen counter. And there it is, gloriously, unmistakably, right on top of the pile, Greek Philosophical Terms. I don’t know where Michael Gross was supposed to be teaching, but I tell you, that’s a place I’d want to be sending my kid.
The real luck was in having another one of my students working at Simon & Schuster in the era when Jacqueline Susann discovered S & S and S & S discovered Jackie Susann to their mutual enrichment and the enormous embarrassment of both Simon and Schuster. Too embarrassed even to think about Bennett Cerf or Alfred Knopf, they were desperate for seriousness, for uplift, even for academic unintelligibility. My clever student sized up the moment and smelled opportunity written all over her old prof. “Do you ha ve an outline?” Did I have an outline! I called it “The Harvest of Hellenism,” which does have a certain ring, and Simon & Schuster bought it, the title, the ring, the outline, and even the 600 page manuscript I wrote to show them I wasn’t fooling around. All that remained was the editing.
I knew nothing from editors. Greek Philosophical Terms apparently passed, like one of my mother’s prayers, directly from my mouth to God’s ear. But this was no university press; this was Simon and Schuster, and of course I would have an editor, someone wiser like Maxwell Perkins or William Shawn who would counsel my labors and shape my admittedly rough work into a masterpiece. And, whispered some of my more knowing friends, take me for long, expense account lunches at the Four Seasons. “Let’s see,” Simon said to Schuster, “What about McCarthy? He’s not doing anything.”
McCarthy was Eugene McCarthy, former U.S. Senator, sometime candidate for President of the United States, and full time philosopher-king. S & S hired him for the same reason they had bought my outline –Jacqueline Susann– and now they had something for h im to do: he could edit the book that would save The House from the gold-plated ignominy of having published “The Love Machine.” One small problem. Mr. McCarthy was a man of a great many principles, but work was apparently not one of them. Simon and Schuster probably didn’t know that. I certainly didn’t know that. I put on a suit and went uptown to collect one of my fifteen minutes of fame from Senator Eugene McCarthy.
“Hello,” he said in his soft, smooth voice. “I haven’t had a chance to look at your manuscript yet.” Nor would he ever, I soon concluded. So?, I thought. So? Gene and I –the familiarity is by now much practiced– did not toast marshmallows at the same political campfire, as they say. It was difficult for anyone with a ’45 after his name to oppose a war in which the United States was involved, though now I wish we had early on taken the advice of the wise Senator Aikins from Vermont, declared a victory an d gotten out of Vietnam. So politics was out, and so was Joan Baez, and that left baseball, one of Gene’s notorious interests. He was a George Will kind of fan, all finesse and no passion, while I lay in the peculiar Horse Latitudes reserved for Giants’ fans after those no-goods pulled up stakes and headed for the Gold Coast. All that was left for the faithful was to continue to despise the Yankees, and the early 70s were a golden age for all of us who for years had watched the Giants take their annual Fa ll pummeling at the hands of the Yankees. The Bronx Bombers were –yes, Francis, there is a God– defiantly, triumphantly lousy: the Horace Clark Era in the Bronx was as close to heaven as one could get this side of the Beatific Vision. Gene didn’t seem much into Yankee-hating, certainly not at the level I required. He was, after all, from Minnesota, which does not even have a team in the Eternal Majors which exist only in my head and where the St. Louis Browns and the Boston Bees still take the field. So we went the Ted Williams route. Gene took the obvious stance –Gene was always obvious– that T.W. was the game’s best pure hitter ever, and I allowed as how a hitter who tried to hit through a shift instead of against it was obviously swinging with his ego and not with his bat. We shook hands grimly and I left.
Gene didn’t burn my manuscript because he didn’t like my baseball philosophy –reasonable men may reasonably differ on Ted Williams– but he didn’t edit it either. It was printed exactly as it was typed –mercifully a copy editor who didn’t care about baseball cleaned up the spelling– and Simon and Schuster dutifully printed 3000 copies, fifty of which were sent to reviewers and ended up in the Strand Bookstore and ten to my friends, only some of whom sold their copies to Strand. The rest were snatched u p over a mere ten years by an avid public. There was, however, no publisher’s party at Windows on the World and no coast to coast book tour. But I did what I could. I cruised New York bookstores and moved whatever copies I found up to eye level, cover fac ing out. I was learning the business.
Time marched on. Gene McCarthy soon departed Simon & Schuster for less labor-intensive fields and Jackie Onassis arrived as an editor. Just a trifle too late, h‚las. “Jackie, don’t you just loathe those pin-striped sonsobitches in the Bronx?” “Frank, you got that damned straight. And loved your manuscript. Let’s have lunch.” “Four Seasons, Mrs. O.?” “Sure, Frank, anything you say. Anything except Greek.” Let’s say I didn’t exactly achieve fame; but it was a very near miss.
“This is Patsy Kelly. I have to talk to you. Please call back.” I get lots of messages like that on my voice mail, and I used to call back more often than I do now. Patsy Kelly helped cure me of that. Ms. Kelly was, or, more accurately, claimed to be, the Messiah. “I know this sounds odd,” she said in her self-deprecating way, “but I need someone with credentials to provide some validation.” I was flattered to be let in on the Messianic Secret, but my credentials had been revoked years ago. “A mere professor won’t do,” I advised her. “Try calling the Jesus Seminar.” I even gave her the number. I assume they cured her of all messianic pretension, fast.
But there was, on the other hand, Sir Ronald Simpson, equerry to somebody, who called at my office in person, but had the good taste to send in his deeply embossed card before his own deeply embossed self. Sir Ronald bore not the Good News but personal greetings from Crown Prince Hassan of Jordan. Wallahi, I had been in the prince’s palace two years earlier with a delegation of Americans and, yes, had left with some trifling bit of his stationery, but this seemed a little extreme. No, the prince had not noticed the disappearance of the ream of royal writing paper; instead, he had done the unexpected: he had read a book of mine, The Children of Abraham, that I had left off for him on that occasion. In fact, he was now a fan, my word, not Sir Ronald’s. Would I, in any event, consider joining the prince, or better, the princes twain, since Prince Philip was somehow engaged in this venture, with certain other rare spirits in Amman in the near future to discuss Jewish-Christian-Muslim relations. Rather!
The great thing about princes is that they do not make you fly economy class. Of course you do have to fly Royal Jordanian’s single proud 747 which trudges, like an airborne Stakhanovite, between New York and Amman, Amman and New York. But champagne in first class tastes exactly the same no matter what the airline, and the napery is as white and the cutlery as gleamingly silver. In fact, we often dine first class at home since my shameless wife –did I mention she’s Italian?– once cleaned out an entire first class cabin on Saudi Airlines. “They expect you to take it,” she whispered, as she swept clean one table setting after another into a bag she had brought for just that purpose. It’s the same philosophy that has gotten her banned from a number of hotels worldwide.
I was alone in Eden this time and so I passed up the apple. And my reward stood brightly at attention at the foot of the stairs down to the tarmac of the Amman airport, some kind of regimental sergeant-major stiff with khaki and staff braids. Jordan wasn’t a British colony, it was a British creation, and the sweet odor of the Raj still rises from every square inch of its real estate. “Please follow me directly, sir,” and assuming I could recognize an order when I heard one, we stiff-marched away from the vulgar crowd and into a private reception area. Inside there stood, hands behind his back, legs slightly astride, Brigadier General Muhammad Maaloof. Tall, lithe, his eyes that bright grey that makes some Arabs look like gods, the general was born to comm and, even when the brigade was made up of a single professor. “Please, sit.” He took my passport, he took my baggage stubs and handed them silently to the sergeant, who quickly went off to pass as my surrogate through customs and immigration. The general meanwhile smoked and eyed the guest. “We are so pleased to have you here,” he smiled. “Is there anything you require?” “Can I take the sergeant-major home with me?” He studied me ever so briefly. “The professor is kind, but I fear we have a greater need of him here.” There would be no more of that.
Not unexpectedly the sergeant cleared customs in a nanosecond and soon the brigadier and I were seated in the back of a long Mercedes the color of the general’s eyes. No sirens this time. Too bad. I had once been carried in a siren-screaming motorcade fro m one end of Damascus to the other and I can testify that nothing beats it for getting through traffic, and as cars scattered left and right onto the sidewalk, into buses and over street vendors, I also had one brief inkling of what it must be like to be The Really Big Guy. This was more serene, more modulated. We skirted Amman and somewhere atop the surrounding hills sped up a long driveway that led, through a deep pine forest and past many guard posts, to one of the royal palaces. This is new royalty, not old, and so all the royal domiciles, and there are lots of them, look not like palaces but like the houses of the very rich in Palm Springs or Scottsdale. The general saluted –a little casually, I thought, now that I was getting the hang of this– and took his leave; a platoon of corporals seized my modest luggage and carried it to my suite.
In my sitting room was a leatherette folder –somebody is making a fortune manufacturing leatherette folders for Arab countries; I now have dozens of them– with the usual collection of self-congratulatory documents, a schedule and a guest list. These we re rare spirits indeed. There were quite a few Brits, many of them Jewish (including a female rabbi to titillate the ecumenically jaded), a number of Arabs, Jordanians and Egyptians, business men and academics, a stunningly handsome Pakistani lady with a law degree from Harvard (“You’re quite right about Ted Williams,” the Begum later wisely observed in camera), and, somewhat inexplicably, a Flemish Jesuit whose chief contribution to the proceedings was a constant whine that the Society of Jesus was still legally banned in Scandinavia. As if anyone cared.
I drifted in to lunch, attempting to demonstrate by my precisely cool behavior that, despite my rumpled blazer and drip-dry shirt, I really belonged there. Not for long. I sat down at a table and turned right, hand extended. “I’m Frank Peters.” “Good afternoon, I’m Martin Mann.” Oh, God, His Grace Martin Mann, K.C.V.O., the Queen’s bishop, with his pectoral cross twinkling suggestively just inside his expensive grey jacket. Go left. “Good afternoon, I’m Remnant.” Remnant? What an odd name. Not if your fir st name is Lord. Lord Remnant, C.V.O. of Bear Ash, the Hare Hatch, Reading. My drip dry shirt was getting damp even in that blizzard of air conditioning. Neither gentleman chose to prolong my agony by inquiring where I had prepped or where exactly in Upper Ruffs I now made my home.
After lunch we sorted ourselves out spaciously around a large U shaped table. The princes sat at the crown upon the U, Philip attentive but withdrawn –he had done this many times before– Hassan more engaged; this was, after all, his show. He spoke knowingly, energetically and at length on the need for interfaith understanding –why can’t we just get along?– meaning, of course, Muslims and Jews; Christians are no longer players in this particular game. He paused. Applause. “But why do I speak,” he said . “We have with us a renowned expert who has been kind enough to travel a great distance to join us. Professor Peters, may I invite your comments?”
Directly across from me I could see Sir Evelyn de Rothschild, tall, handsome, distinguished, the man we all wished we looked like when we passed 50, sitting quietly and expectantly in his cream-beige lounge suit. I thought: I am a long, long way from the Bronx. But maybe not all that far from Regis High School, which prepared us for nothing but perhaps intimated, through the fog of parsing and half-sheets and Prize Debates, and in its own oblique, Jesuitical way, that there might just be moments like this . I was about to get my Honors Card.
I turned toward the prince and smiled. And Andy Warhol rang up one more minute on my account.