Wednesday, September 24, 2014

BILL COSBY: Mark Whitaker's Biography (Postscripts)

Mark Whitaker (L) and John Tepper
Marlin. Photo by Alice Tepper Marlin.
Sept. 24, 2014–Last night, at the North American office of Oxford University, Oxonian Mark Whitaker talked about Bill Cosby's achievements as a popular comedian and comic actor.

He also spoke about Cosby's private lobbying for African American causes. Cosby avoided talking about race in his comic routines, but had a definite point of view that put him in conflict with some other African Americans.

The Cosby Show, 30 Years Ago

Cosby's is best known for his contribution to the creation of Dr. Huxtable and his portrayal of the character in The Cosby Show. It was just over 30 years to the day since the debut of the first airing of this show.

The Show is credited with helping to make possible the election of President Barack Obama, because it showed a middle-class African American family, with the emphasis on the American rather than the African. The Cosby Show helped moderate the fears that middle-class white Americans showed in their abandonment of central cities for suburban areas.

Alice and I had some personal interest in following the show because she had grown up with co-producer Tom Werner on the Jersey Shore. Werner's wife Jill also worked at the organization Alice founded, the Council on Economic Priorities, before the Werners married.

Chapters 20 and 21 of Whitaker's book show the nervous runup to the creation of the show, as Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner staked a mortgage on their homes to bet on a family show starring Bill Cosby, who was then already known as the first black male star in a television drama, I Spy, which  ran from 1965 to 1968 and won Cosby three consecutive Emmys for Best Actor.

The road to the opening of the show was rocky. Cosby wanted the show to feature a limousine driver with a Latin American handy-woman wife. More than one writer was burned out in the script development, partly because Cosby himself liked to embellish on his lines. NBC executives tried to check on the rough cuts–they were told everyone was in a meeting, and then the tape would get lost...

Jay Sandrich was responsible for getting the final cut of the tapes for The Cosby Show. He had three  "rabbits' feet" on which he depended to get the tapes ready on schedule–
  • Two versions of the show were taped, in the afternoon and evening, so he could choose the best version of each scene.
  • Phylicia Ayers-Allen, playing Mrs. Huxtable the lawyer, could be relied upon to stay in character because of her ample live theater training, so even if neither of the versions was usable, she could often save the day by providing a usable reaction shot.
  • Cosby tended to leave after each shooting for some stand-up performance and therefore did not hover over the editing process. P.S. Cosby is is still, at 77 and despite his vision difficulties, performing live.
There was a lot of sandbagging before The Cosby Show's first episode, which was called "Pilot". Television commentators believed it would have trouble beating Magnum, P.I.  in their time slot, but they begged NBC not to "dump" the show if its ratings were weak.

But that week, 30 years ago, The Cosby Show beat not only everyone else in its time slot but every other show on television. It had 21.6 million viewers. When Carsey told Cosby the news, he was incredulous. 
"You mean we beat 60 Minutes?"
"Yes," she said.
"Call [my wife] Camille!" he said.
I remember watching the first episode myself, back then, and it was a revelation. The importance of the show was self-evident.

The Author, Mark Whitaker

Whitaker in his childhood identified greatly with Cosby for many reasons, mostly related to the fact that they both had fathers who left home. Whitaker's mixed-race parents divorced when he was six and his black father left home. They lived in Norton, Mass. (home of Wheaton College).

Unlike Cosby, Whitaker did well in school and went to Harvard and then won a Marshall Scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford. He worked for Newsweek as a reporter and then as editor and became the first African American to be editor-in-chief of a national newsweekly. He served as Washington bureau chief for NBC News and then managing editor of CNN.

His first book was a memoir, My Long Trip Home.

Cosby's Childhood

Bill Cosby is two years younger than Whitaker's father. He grew up in a housing project in North Philadelphia. After Pearl Harbor, his father Bill Sr. left his wife and two boys to join the Navy. He was home enough to add two more boys to the family, but for the next 15 years he served three tours of sea duty as a mess steward. His wife worked as a maid.

Young Cosby meanwhile did not do well at school, flunking 10th grade twice. He joined the Navy, like his father, and after four years' service he came out ready to go back to school. He had impressed a track coach from Temple University and was admitted to the University despite very low SAT scores.

At Temple Stadium, Cosby's coach had him run a 320-yard track, to try to increase the speed of a 440-yard runners and the endurance of a 220-yard runners. On his first run, Cosby had difficulty. The coach asked him what was the problem:
"Rigor mortis set in!" Cosby said. ... "Riggie... He's a little man who jumped out of the pit with a plastic hammer and hit me in the knee."
Riggie was a threat to Cosby all his life.

Cosby in Public and Private
Jonathan Winters, mentor.

In public, Cosby is transparent. He is seeking to get at truth. In private, he did not want at first to cooperate with the biography and when he did try to be helpful he tended just to tell stories.

On stage, Cosby avoids discussion of race. Off-stage, he takes on a variety of racial issues. He takes African American leaders to task for relying too much on trying to change the system and not enough on fixing problems by taking responsibility for them.

He gives great credit to white mentors that he has had during his life. He calls them "abolitionists", giving credit to the long history of conscience-stricken whites who have espoused abolition of slavery and enfranchisement of all citizens.

On stage, he is funny. Off-stage he can be funny but also deadly serious.

Bill Cosby and "Hello Friend" tee shirt in
honor of his son. 
Hollywood's comedians tend to know one another. He and the late Robin Williams were not especially close but they shared one idol - Jonathan Winters, who died in 2013.

Winters once warned Cosby that comedians tend to tire of their material sooner than their audiences do. That fact is one reason Cosby is constantly amending his scripts.

Cosby has two daughters. A tragedy of his life is that his son Ennis (1969-1997), who had been diagnosed as dyslexic but had overcome some of his disabilities, was killed while changing a tire on an access road in Los Angeles. Cosby does not talk about Ennis in public but in his performances he wears or has a tee shirt on display that has the message that Ennis used often - "Hello Friend". Whitaker does a good job of describing Cosby's deep feelings about his son.

Postscript (Sept. 24, 2014)

After I wrote the above, I read the review of Whitaker's book by Dwight Garner in the NY Times issue  of Sept. 23, 2014 (pp. C1 and C6).  Based on this review, I would add:
  1. The improvisational nature of Cosby's performances fits with his love of jazz, which Whitaker refers to when he describes Cosby's experience in the Navy.
  2. Garner lists specific ways in which Cosby helped fellow black actors and black students, such as the $20 million–widely noted at the time–that Cosby gave to Spelman College, a mostly black college.
  3. On the negative side, Garner notes allegations of Cosby's womanizing before he was 40, and accusations of sexual abuse. The book's greatest weakness, he says, is in Whitaker's not mentioning any of these claims.
Postscript 2 (Nov. 18, 2014)

Recent reports underscore Garner's point #3. More women are coming forward and they have little financial incentive to do so because with such a time lapse it would allegedly be hard to make a case, and the statute of limitations would have run out.

ROWING BLAZERS: Ralph Lauren Launch, Carlson's Book (Comment)

Alice Tepper Marlin, John Tepper Marlin and Jack
Carlson at Ralph Lauren's 55th Street store.
Ralph Lauren did another smart thing a few hours ago and opened its Fifth Avenue at 55th Street store to a launch of a new book by Jack Carlson, Rowing Blazers.

The author of the book coxed the winning boats this year at the Henley Royal Regatta, the Royal Canadian Henley Regatta, and the Head of the Charles Regatta.

He has also coxed the U.S. boat at the world championships and Oxford in the Oxford-Cambridge boat races.

Cover: Kenny McMahon. 
The principal photographer was F. E. Castleberry, a fashion photographer who frequently takes photos for Ralph Lauren.

His photography in the book captures the glamor of rowing, with photos that do justice to the blazers and ties and the young men and women who wear them. Castleberry says he worked on the book for three years with the author.

The cover of the book on display featured Kenny McMahon wearing the University of Wisconsin blazer. A friend in Canada says that the Canadian edition uses a different blazer for the cover.

Oliver Williams with Taurus Boat Club boating uniform.
Photos by JT Marlin.
Published by the Vendome Press in New York City, the book is listed at $50 and can be ordered online for about $15 less.

The Three-Piece Boat Suit

Oliver Williams gets a two-page spread wearing the three-piece uniform of the Taurus Boat Club in front of a white topless motor vehicle.

His club is attached to Oxford Brookes University, the polytechnic that has grown in size and stature since I was at Oxford in 1962-64.

Williams was at the book launch and cheerfully autographed my book in the white space created by the car.

Origin of the Blazer

Jack Carlson's Dad with friends.
Originally, oarsmen wore "boating jackets" while they were rowing. The idea was that rowers should be uniformed like seamen or midshipmen.

The word "blazer", Carlson tells us right up front, was originally applicable only to the jacket of  Lady Margaret Boat Club of St. John's College, Cambridge. This was reportedly the first boat club to be organized on the River Cam.

The Lady Margaret Boat Club color was red, a "blazing" red. Hence the name. As other college boat clubs rose to the competition and developed their own colors, the term "blazer" became a generic word for the boat club jacket.

The blazer-makers that Carlson recommends are retailers in Cambridge (both England and Massachusetts), Eton, Henley and Oxford. A friend who was buying a Trinity College, Oxford blazer didn't like the one sold by Walters in Oxford so he had one made by a tailor in London.

Regatta wear with Henley ticket in lapel.
My friend Denise Seegal, a fashion guru and executive who has headed up several major clothing brands, was there and is acknowledged by Jack Carlson for helping him with the book. Denise found him a publisher and that interest was leveraged by the author into an even better deal.

Denise got to see rowing from the inside when she was married to Peter Darrow, a fellow Trinity Oxford alum who was an avidly competitive rower (he was a strong backer of the Sag Harbor Rowing Club) sadly died of cancer last year.

The Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race Dinner in New York City is held every year – 2015 will be the 82nd dinner – and it has many oarsmen in attendance. They are permitted to wear boat club blazers instead of black tie. I suspect/predict that the number of people wearing blazers will increase in 2015, for two reasons:
  • Now that Ralph Lauren has attached his influence to the boat club blazer, those who rowed but never bought a blazer may be tempted to do so.
  • Those who already own blazers and still fit in them will be tempted to ante up the money for a ticket or two to the dinner next year.
Denise Seegal and Jack Carlson. 
Meanwhile, I hope that Jack Carlson can appear before the Boat Race Dinner or an Oxford event, or both. He has done a thorough job of research on blazers.

A portion of sales at the book event will go to making rowing accessible to more young people, a project that helps keep the sport from being exclusively for students at prep schools and boat-friendly colleges.

Too bad Carlson didn't include the Trinity College, Oxford blazer. He includes only Trinity College, Hartford and Trinity College, Toronto. He did, however, immediately recognize my Trinity College Boat Club tie, at right – to my mind, one of the best-designed boat club ties around.

Trinity College, Oxford Boat 
Club tie. Two griffins on a crown. 
Personally, I hope to see the following developments in a putative boat-club-blazer bubble:
  • Fashion designers for the mass market "club blazers" should respect existing club designs to prevent their being sold to customers with no connection to the boat clubs.
  • It would be great if a quality clothing store would sell college boat club blazers, some of which are poorly made. Some rowers have their blazers custom made because none of the ones on the racks are good enough. 
  • Support of rowing programs for teenagers ought to be incorporated in every boat club activity.
  • It's great to see experimentation in boating attire. However, personally I would not cry over the disappearance of the most egregious expressions, such as the three-piece boat-club suit exemplified by that of Oxford Brookes University. A club blazer paired with the rest of a black-tie or boat-club tie outfit looks better to me.
Other rowing posts: 2012 NYC Boat Race Dinner . 2014 NYC Boat Race Dinner

Update September 2017: This post has had 2,600 views. Thank you for reading.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

BOAT RACE: Photos, 2014 BRD in NYC

The 186 photos are posted here:

With Jack Carlson's glossy new book on Rowing Blazers just launched with a splash in New York City at Ralph Lauren's flagship on Fifth Avenue, we may see a lot more boat club blazers at the 2015 dinner...

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

OXFORD MUSIC: Schola Cantorum in NYC at Trinity Church

The backdrop of Trinity Church is hard to beat for this
music. All photos by JT Marlin.
Oxford's Schola Cantorum is on its U.S. tour and Alice and I agree it was well worth our taking the time to hear them yesterday at Trinity Church.

The 27 singers are drawn from current students at different colleges at Oxford, and they rehearse during the 24 weeks of term-time.

The Schola is committed to "the development of young talent". A large number of them go on to professional singing careers.

The composers are mostly Oxonians, or the songs were first performed at Oxford.

The program yesterday opened with two composers spanning the century from 1525 to 1625, John Sheppard and Orlando Gibbons.

The audience did not fill every seat
of the large church, but was enthusiastic.
The choir then went to four deceased 20th century composers - Michael Tippett, William Walton, Herbert Howells and Charles Villiers Stanford.

The other two, living, composers were Roderick Williams and Thomas Adès, whose "Fayrfax Carol" was at the end of the program and excited the audience.

The conductor is James Burton, a graduate of St. John's College Cambridge and the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, associated with Johns Hopkins University.

He has been Music Director of the Schola Cantorum at Oxford since 2002.

He has conducted a range of operas, from Don Giovanni, The Magic Flute and Cosi fan tutte, to Wonderful Town.

He is also a composer and was commissioned to write music for a baritone, chorus and orchestra to memorialize the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. He composed an album of orchestral arrangements for Arlo Guthrie that were performed by the Boston Pops and at Carnegie Hall.

The spire of Trinity Church at right is now echoed by the Freedom
Tower, far left, on the World Trade Center site nearby.
The program notes for the U.S. Tour make clear that the Adès carol was commissioned by King's College Cambridge for its annual Carol Service. It was written when the composer, now 43, was only 26.

It displays a wide range of emotions relating to the Christmas Story, until the climactic ending at the birth of Jesus, bringing the audience to its feet in applause.

Stanford's "Latin Magnificat" that followed was beautiful in its own way, with a crisp Gregorian-chant sound from the male voices and a bell-like quality to the women's voices.

It was beautiful, but after the "Fayrfax Carol" it was a bit anti-climactic. Every audience is a different, but for this one, I think the program should have ended with the Adès Carol.

For those who didn't get to hear the Schola in New York, you will now have to travel to another city to listen to them.  Make the trip, or pay more attention when they come to New York again.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

WW1: Trinity College, Oxford (Comment)

The Summer 2014 Newsletter of Trinity College Oxford has many items to tickle the memory and warm the heart of an alum.

The Commem Ball

It is great news that the triennial Trinity College Commem Ball drew 1,800 guests and "is generally accepted as the biggest and best ball in Oxford." I was surprised and impressed to see that the College's Durham College Quad was painted blue and a stuffed zebra was featured inside a bandstand.

College President Sir Ivor Roberts, KCMG, former H.M. Ambassador to Italy and several other countries, confessed that he and his wife Elizabeth survived only to 2 a.m. The tradition among the younger set is to hang on till early morning and then go punting.

The last Trinity Commem Ball that Alice and I went to was with Philip and Daisy Keevil; their son Adrian, also a Trinity alum (1997) is noted in the Newsletter as now being Dr. Keevil, having been awarded a Ph.D. in Management from the Darden School at the University of Virginia.

Remembering the Great War

So much for the fun side. The College is devoting much of its exhibit space and reports to alumni to remembering the Great War, aka World War I. John Keeling, the Trinity Domestic Bursar, writes in the current Newsletter about the impact of the first 100 days of the war on Trinity. We forget, he says, that between 1900 and 1914, when the war broke out, "there had been over 100 regicides and high profile assassinations in Europe".

The assassination of the Archduke, however, set into a play, because of treaties, a domino effect. Armies had started assembling in Europe by the millions. At the same time, Britain failed to warn Germany that it would not tolerate a breach of Belgian neutrality. When Germany invaded Belgium, Britain was shocked and the war was on. Trinity alumni who enlisted did so because they "didn't want to miss the show".

The first Trinity man to be killed in action was Lt. James Gilkison (1903), in August. Another died in an accident during training. Three more died in September. Three more in October.  By Christmas, nine were dead.

Overall, by Armistice Day, November 1918, more than 700,000 British soldiers, sailors and airmen would die, more than one out of every eight who enlisted. Trinity's loss was greater, one in five, because so many did get to see the "show" and fought in the major battles - the Somme, Gallipoli, Ypres. As a college with a family tradition, four pairs of Trinity brothers died in the war.

It was a Trinity alum, Laurence Binyon (scholar 1887) who wrote one of the great poems of The Great War, "For the Fallen". The poem was published in The Times on September 21, 1914.  The fourth verse is used in many memorial services:
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not wither them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We shall remember them.
It ranks with John McCrae's "In Flanders Field" as one of the great tributes to the dead.

Trinity will have a talk about Binyon on November 9 (3:30 pm) and another one earlier on October 23 (5 pm) about Henry Moseley, who died at Gallipoli. Reservations are required. Trinity will also have an exhibition on those who died in, and those who survived, the Great War, as well as on the impact of the War on the life of the college.


I hope that Viscount James Bryce, a Trinity alumnus who served as H.M. Ambassador to the United States in the years up to the Great War, gets adequate attention in the College's remembrances. The German Ambassador, Graf Heinrich von Bernstorff, was pleased that Bryce had left before hostilities broke out in Europe, because he said that it would have been much harder to keep the United States out of the war for so long (i.e., not until the sinking of the Lusitania in 1917) had Bryce been in town bending President Wilson's ear.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

GIFTS: Chan to Harvard, Record $350 Million

Gerald Chan, Alumnus of Harvard
School of Public Health - Now Named
After His Father
Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust must work hard–either very late on Sunday night or very early on Monday morning because I and probably 250,000 of her very close friends just got an email from her, time-stamped about 1 a.m.

She announced the largest-ever gift to Harvard, $350 million. It is from the Morningside Foundation, established by the family of Mr. T. H. Chan.

 The Foundation has pledged the money to support the Harvard School of Public Health and its campaign to address four global threats: old and new pandemics, harmful physical and social environments, poverty and humanitarian crises, and failing health systems.

In honor of the gift, the School will be renamed the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The formal announcement will be made at 12:30 p.m. and can be watched here.


The Chans are a wealthy Hong Kong family, one member of which, Gerald Chan, earned a doctorate in radiation biology from Harvard after studying engineering at UCLA. Recently the Harvard Crimson drew attention to Chan's purchasing of real estate in the Harvard Square area.

The foundation is headed by Ronnie and Gerald Chan, sons of T. H. Chan, who founded their first business, the Hang Lung Group, to develop real estate in Hong Kong. Another business, The Morningside Group, is a private equity and venture capital firm created by the two sons in 1986.

Only six larger donations have been made to an American institution of higher education. One was for $400 million, given by Eli and Edythe Broad to the Broad Institute, which is jointly run by Harvard and MIT. The Chans’ gift is the largest ever to Harvard alone.

Monday, September 1, 2014

OBIT: Aug. 27–Sandy Wilson (Oriel, Oxford)

Sandy Wilson in 1952.
Alexander Galbraith ("Sandy") Wilson was born Manchester, England on May 19, 1924.  He attended Harrow and served in the British Army in the Middle East in World War II. He went up to Oriel College, Oxford and wrote and produced student productions. He attended the Old Vic Theater School.

He wrote the book, lyrics and music for "The Boy Friend", a parody of 1920s musicals. It was a huge success - more than he ever again achieved. It was produced in London in 1953 and then (in an expanded version) in 1954. It was performed 2,100 times. It was picked up in 1954 on Broadway, starring Julie Andrews at 19 in her first Broadway role, running to 480 performance.

Andrews, of course, went on to star next as Eliza Doolittle in the first production of "My Fair Lady", and from there she starred in "Mary Poppins" and "The Sound of Music".

He died in Taunton, England in 2014 on August 27 at 90 years old. He is survived by his partner, Chak Yui.

More Oxford Obits.