Roving thoughts and provocations

How My Father Came to Meet Duke Ellington

Jeremy Bernstein

Frank Driggs Collection/Getty Images

When I was in high school I decided that I wanted to be a radio announcer. I found out that if you went to Radio City there were studio tours and you could even watch some of the programs in process. I took the tour a couple of times and then decided that it might be possible simply to walk past the people at the entrance looking as if I knew where I was going and wander around the studios unescorted. Indeed this is what I did.

Designing ‘Mad Men’

Martin Filler

Frank Ockenfels 3

A major theme in literature is a wistful regard for life as it was lived some forty or fifty years earlier, typified by Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence (1920), which looked back at upper-class mores in 1870s New York. Similarly, the five-decade postmillennial perspective afforded through the rear-view mirror of Mad Men—the critically acclaimed and cultishly followed cable-television drama series that first aired on AMC in 2007 and began its fourth season on July 25—bridges an equivalent time span, long enough to feel historical yet still within living memory of many.

For those of us who came to cultural awareness during the Kennedy years—the purview of Mad Men during its first three seasons, with the present cycle beginning in 1964—Mad Men offers anything but a comforting wallow in nostalgia. The series, which focuses on the fictive Madison Avenue advertising firm Sterling Cooper (later Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce), derives its thrilling power from the dark and seamlessly unified vision of its creator, executive producer, and head writer, Matthew Weiner, an auteur with few peers in the history of his medium.

Obama’s Legacy: Afghanistan

Garry Wills

Manpreet Romana/AFP/Getty Images

Most presidents start wondering—or, more often, worrying—about their “legacy” well into their first term. Or, if they have a second term, they worry even more feverishly about what posterity will think of them. Obama need not wonder about his legacy, even this early. It is already fixed, and in one word: Afghanistan. He took on what he made America’s longest war and what may turn out to be its most disastrous one.

The Senate’s Energy Failure

Michael Tomasky

Patrick Semansky/AP Photo

Many reasons have been served up to explain the Democrats’ dismal withdrawal of the energy bill last week: the President was too reticent about fighting climate change; they failed to drum up sufficient public support; they let too many other things take precedence on the legislative agenda. But one reason towers above all others—the dysfunctionality of the Senate.

The Hague’s Balkan Confusion

Charles Simic

Laura Boushnak/AFP/Getty Images

There is nothing very surprising about the ruling by the International Court of Justice that Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence was legal. As one would expect, the Serbian government—which had challenged the declaration before the court and remained to the end optimistic of winning—was stunned by the answer, while the Albanians in Kosovo cheered. But the ruling simply upholds the largely uncontroversial assertion that international law does not include any “prohibition of declarations of independence”; anyone can, if she so wishes, make such a declaration. In contrast, the court was notably silent about what happens afterwards—whether the new state is recognized or not by the international community—carefully avoiding any mention of the legality of Kosovo as a state.

Deconstructing Prince Charles

Martin Filler

London Evening Standard

Like Mount Vesuvius but at briefer intervals, Prince Charles erupts in high dudgeon over various and sundry affronts to his very particular and sometimes very peculiar notions of how life should be lived. The ghastliness of modern architecture and the superiority of homeopathic medicine—in 2004 he endorsed an alternative cancer treatment that prescribes, among other things, daily coffee enemas—are but the foremost of his many contrarian beliefs. Perhaps because mental illness runs in both sides of his highly inbred family, his state of mind has been questioned more than once.

Still, the latest urban planning flap stirred up by Charles—who at age 61 has been heir to the British throne longer than any of his predecessors—may raise the most serious questions yet about his fitness to reign.

The Beats: Pictures of a Legend

Edmund White

Both Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs discovered late in life that making works of art is the way to get money. Literature just doesn’t do it. Speaking engagements pay, but eventually they become tiring—or one exhausts the market. Neither of the two had ever been money-mad, but old age requires a bit of a cushion. Burroughs turned to painting. He would set up paint cans in front of blank canvases and then shoot at them; the splatter was the art. Although these paintings are his best-known artworks, they make up only a small part of his output: he did twenty-four shotgun paintings in 1982 and a few more before he died in 1997. According to his friend James Grauerholz, Burroughs turned out more than 1,500 artworks between 1982 and 1996—including stencils and targets, which were almost all brightly colored abstractions—and had his work exhibited in several museums and more than eighty galleries worldwide.

As Ginsberg said:

If you’re famous, you can get away with anything! William Burroughs spent the last ten years painting, and makes a lot more money out of his painting than he does out of his previous writing. If you establish yourself in one field, it’s possible that people then take you seriously in another. Maybe too seriously. I know lots of great photographers who are a lot better than me, who don’t have a big, pretty coffee table book like I have. I’m lucky.

Emily Dickinson in the Bronx

Christopher Benfey

Houghton Library, Harvard University

It would be difficult to describe the sheer strangeness, for me, of driving down from Amherst last month to pay tribute to Emily Dickinson in the Bronx. I had been invited, along with the novelist Jerome Charyn, to give a talk at “Emily Dickinson’s Garden: The Poetry of Flowers,” a ravishingly colorful and informative exhibition at the New York Botanical Garden. The exhibition at the garden’s Mertz Library—which includes, along with a selection of Dickinson manuscripts and artifacts, a reproduction of the poet’s famous white dress and a digital version of her teenage collection of more than 400 wildflowers, each of them carefully classified and labeled—remains on view until August 1.  (The garden portion of the show closed on June 13.) Wittily etched on the elevator leading to the library are her forbidding lines: “The Soul selects her own Society/ Then—shuts the door.”

Slide Show: Otto Dix

Sanford Schwartz

This summer, the Neue Galerie in New York is offering the first large-scale American exhibition of the gleefully provocative German painter Otto Dix (1891–1969)—providing a rare opportunity, as New York Review contributor Sanford Schwartz says, “to appreciate an artist who could almost be our contemporary.” Here are a selection of images from the show, together with comments taken from Schwartz’s piece on Dix, which will appear in the Review‘s August 19 issue. The exhibition closes August 30. (Images provided by Neue Galerie New York.)

On Losing

Charles Simic

Getty Images/Popperfoto

Now that the World Cup is over and the Spaniards and everyone else who admired their elegant way of playing soccer is happy, and the few nations whose teams either exceeded expectations or did okay in the month-long tournament have returned to their normal lives, the fans in underachieving countries are still fuming, many of them destined to recall for the rest of their days how their side either disgraced themselves, or were the victims of gross injustice.