Books postsTuesday May 17, 2016
The Banality of Goodness: 'Beautiful Souls' by Eyal Press
I came to Eyal Press' “Beautiful Souls: The Courage and Conscience of Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times” not because of its title (although the subtitle helps) but because I'd read the author's recent New Yorker piece on corruption in the Dade Correctional Institution in Florida: guards torturing prisoners in the mental-health ward and intimidating the psychiatric workers whose job it is to help the prisoners—in some cases, simply by removing themselves from the premises, leaving the worker unprotected.
It's a harrowing piece, and the book, per its subtitle, is part of the same theme. In it, Press examines four people who resisted unethical/immoral times:
- Paul Grüninger, a Swiss police commander who backdated visas allowing Jewish refugees fleeing the 1938 Anschluss with Nazi Germany to stay in Switzerland, which had recently passed laws against their entry.
- Aleksander Jevtić, a Bosnian Serb, who saved dozens of Croats in a detention facility in 1991 simply by pretending they were Serbs.
- Avner Wishnitzer, a member of Sayeret Matkal, an elite unit of the Israeli Defense Forces, who became a refusenik: officially declaring his opposition to serving in the occupied Palestinian territories.
- Leyla Wydler, a financial advisor, who suspected and blew the whistle on her company, Stanford Group, for engaging in a Ponzi scheme in the early 2000s.
What connects them? How did they do what few could? Were they extraordinarily courageous? Iconoclasts? Natural rebels? Press thinks the opposite:
In every society, there are rebels and iconoclasts who don't share the moral code to which most of their fellow citizens subscribe—who delight in thumbing their noses at whatever authority figure will pay them mind. The resisters featured in these pages are not among them. Their problem was not that they airily dismissed the values and ideals of the societies they lived in or the organizations they belonged to, but that they regarded them as inviolable.
So Grüninger believed in Switzerland as a place that welcomed refugees, Wishnitzer believed in the IDF as “the most moral army in the world,” Wydler believed in the U.S. financial system as an honest industry that looked out for its clients. They were true believers. If Eichmann represented the banality of evil, these courageous people, in a sense, represent the banality of goodness.
Press doesn't let us off the hook:
It's easy enough to judge soldiers at Abu Ghraib or bystanders during World War II who failed to find their courage when unconscionable things were happening before their eyes. It's a lot harder to acknowledge or even realize how often we avoid making uncomfortable choices in the course of our daily lives by attributing the small injustices that momentarily grate at our consciences to the system, or the circumstances, or our superiors. Or how rarely we bother to ask what role our own passivity and acquiescence may play in enabling unconscionable things to be done in our name.
I'm surprised Wydler's story hasn't been made into a movie; I suspect it might. Grüninger's has. In 1938, he lost his job, his reputation; his daughter had to drop out of college to support the family, and even she had trouble finding work because of what her father had done: his inconceivable betrayal of Switzerland. And his ostracism didn't end when the war ended; it continued into the 1980s. Then, finally, redemption. In the '90s, his story was made into a documentary, “Gruningers Fall,” and it's now a Swiss-Austrian feature-length film, which, from the trailer, looks slightly sentimentalized. I would've preferred something like Press' cool, matter-of-fact tone.
Ethel Merman by Arthur Laurents
“In the Gypsy company, she was famous for a sexual joke she didn't get. When she asked Jack Klugman, her leading man, whether Tab Hunter was gay, Jack replied, 'Is the Pope Catholic?' 'Yes,' said Ethel, still waiting for the answer. Not bright, no, but endearing and despite a life spent in saloons, childlike.”
'SI is Part of a Giant Plan to Flaunt All Decency'
The following are letters sent to the relatively new Sports Illustrated magazine about their spring 1955 baseball issue, which featured New York Giants superstar Willie Mays, Giants manager Leo Durocher, and his wife, actress Lorraine Day, on the cover:
Up until now, I have not found anything in particularly bad taste in SI, but by golly, you print a picture on the cover in full color, of a white woman embracing a negro (with a small letter) man, you make it evident that even in a magazine supposedly devoted to healthful and innocent sports, you have to engage in South-bating [sic]. . . . I care nothing about these three people, but I care a heck of a lot about the proof this picture gives that SI is part of a giant plan to flaunt all decency, so long as the conquered of 1865 can be reminded of their eternal defeat. —Shreveport, La.
To tell you that I was shocked at SI’s cover would be putting it mildly. . . . The informative note inside that this Mrs. Leo Durocher, a white woman, with her arm affectionately around the neck of Willie Mays, a Negro ballplayer. . . . Let me say to you, Sir, the most appalling blow ever struck at this country, the most disastrous thing that ever happened to the people of America, was the recent decision of the Supreme Court, declaring segregation unconstitutional. —Nashville, Tenn.
Please cancel my subscription to SI immediately. . . . This is an insult to every decent white woman everywhere. —Fort Worth, Tex.
Such disgusting racial propaganda is not fit for people who are trying to build a stronger nation based on racial integrity. —New Orleans, La.
They're recounted in Bill Madden's book, “1954: The Year Willie Mays and the First Generation of Black Superstars Changed Major League Baseball Forever,” and are a reminder of how far we've come. Also not, since the arguments, and the anger, and the combination of Southern defensiveness and entitlement, feel familiar on another level: a level of class, or immigrant status, or religious affiliation, or sexual preference. It doesn't go away; it just shifts.
Why Did Martians Land in Grovers Mill, NJ?
A monument in Grovers Mill, NJ.
From Howard Koch, a New York playwright hired by Mercury Theater to write Orson Welles' radio plays in 1938, in his memoir, “As Time Goes By”:
For my third assignment a novella was handed to me—H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds—with instructions from Orson to dramatize it in the form of news bulletins and first-person narration. Reading the story, which was set in England and written in a different narrative style, I realized I could use very little but the author's idea of a Martian invasion and his description of their appearance and their machines. In short, I was being asked to write an almost entirely original play in six days. I called [producer John] Houseman, pleading to have the assignment change to another subject. He talked to Orson and called back. The answer was a firm “no.” It was Orson's favorite project.
On Monday, my one day off, I made a quick trip up the Hudson Valley to visit my family. On the way back it occurred to me I needed a map to establish the location of the first Martian arrivals. I drove into a gas station and, since I was on route 9W where it goes through part of New Jersey, the attendant gave me a map of that state.
Back in New York starting to work, I spread out the map, closed my eyes and put down the pencil point. It happened to fall on Grovers Mill. I liked the sound; it had an authentic ring. Also it was near Princeton where I could logically bring in the observatory and the astronomer Prof. Pierrson, who became a leading character in the drama, played by Orson. Up to then hardly anyone had ever heard of this small hamlet surrounded by farmland; overnight the name of Grovers Mill was heard around the world.
There's a great description of Koch going to bed early on Sunday night, Oct. 30, 1938, waking up early, and, on his walk to the barbershop on 72nd street, hearing passersby talk of “invasion,” and “panic.” He assumed the worst: Some European country falling to Hitler's Germany. It was his barber who corrected him. How odd would that be? Your words causing mass hysteria?
Koch, gentlemanly and circumspect in his writing, keeps finding hysteria. “War of the Worlds” led to Hollywood, where he wrote, or helped write, “Casablanca,” “Sergeant York,” “The Letter,” and “Letter from an Unknown Woman,” among others. But he was also tapped to write “Mission to Moscow,” a whitewashing of the Soviet Union when they were our allies during World War II, and as a result he was fingered by the man who tapped him, Jack Warner, before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947. He was one of the original “Hollywood 19,” blacklisted, and fled to Europe, where he and his wife continued to be hounded by the U.S. government.
Lois Chiles by Arthur Laurents
“In New York, Ray [Stark, producer of ”The Way We Were“], bubbling with that infectious enthusiasm, worked overtime at the job he wanted: casting young actresses. He took me with him to a casting session at an excellent Chinese restaurant convenient to his apartment on East Fifty-seventh. The other guests were Oleg Cassini and his very pretty girl who had no interest in becoming an actress, and an even prettier girl who was an actress and extremely interested in being recognized as one.
”Her name was Lois Chiles. I liked her; it was a pleasure just to look at her. Although she gave the impression of being the well-spoken, fresh-faced graduate of a very good private school, she got all Ray's jokes which flew thick, fast and dirty. The part she wanted in The Way We Were was a good one. The requirements for the role were simple; understanding the requirements for getting the role was also simple. Lois understood.
“'In other words,' she said to Ray as though she were talking to a broker who had just explained the contents of her portfolio, 'I get the part if I fuck you.'
”'Right!' Ray winked and laughed as though he might not have meant it. No one was going to catch him. Lois got the part.“
[Several months later...]
”The first person I saw on the set, however, wasn't Barbra [Streisand]; it wasn't Sydney [Pollack] or [Robert] Redford; it wasn't even Ray. It was Lois Chiles. She raced over, threw her arms around me as though we knew each other, and burst into tears. Sydney was mean to her, Redford was glacial, Barbra invisible, Ray ignored her—could we please have dinner please? Of course. Here, take my handkerchief, call me at my hotel later to fix the time.
“When she called, she asked: 'Would you mind if I brought a friend? Would it be alright?' 'Sure. Who's your friend?' 'Bob Evans.' Jesus. 'You don't need me, Lois. You're doing fine.' The Great Gatsby, her next picture, was produced by Bob Evans. Hollywood was full of Chinese restaurants.”
And it all began in a Chinese restaurant.