Category Archives: Books


Richard Johnson as Cassius, John Gielgud as Julius Caesar, and Jason Robards as Brutus in Stuart Burge’s film Julius Caesar, 1970

(Josephine Quinn’s article appeared in The New York Review of Books, 3/22.)

The Landmark Julius Caesar: The Complete Works: Gallic War, Civil War, Alexandrian War, African War, and Spanish War

edited and translated from the Latin by Kurt A. Raaflaub

Pantheon, 793 pp., $50.00

Richard Johnson as Cassius, John Gielgud as Julius Caesar, and Jason Robards as Brutus in Stuart Burge’s film Julius Caesar, 1970

When Julius Caesar was thirty-one years old in 69 BCE, so the story goes, and serving as a junior Roman magistrate in Spain, he once stood lamenting before a statue of Alexander the Great because he had achieved so little at an age by which Alexander had already conquered the world.

He had good reason for concern. Although his recent election as a quaestor—one of the officials responsible for finances—had given him a lifetime seat in the Senate, Roman politics were more of a funnel than a ladder: twenty quaestors who had been elected at thirty years old could compete nine years later for eight praetorships, and then, three years after that, for just two annual consulships. To rise, you needed political friends, name recognition, and, in order to buy elections, a great deal of money.

Caesar was already admired as an orator, but he was best known for his debts, and he was good at making enemies, especially among the powerful conservatives in the Senate. Furthermore, while he had ably fulfilled the standard military duties of a young Roman nobleman, he had attracted attention only for his first assignment overseas at the age of about twenty: a trip to Bithynia in northern Anatolia, where he had become friendly—many said extremely friendly—with its king, Nicomedes. Whether or not the rumors were true, this was the first hint of a lifelong tendency to test the bounds of Rome’s unwritten moral and legal codes.

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(Pavel Basinsky’s article appeared in Russia Beyound the Headlines, 3/2.)

While the younger Gorky considered Tolstoy almost a god, the great Leo had a strong interest in the new writer, even on the verge of obsessive jealousy. Musings on the very nature of God became a passionate bone of contention between the two extraordinary writers.

This year, Russia celebrates the 150th birthday of one of its most important 20th century writers, the stormy petrel of the revolution, Maxim Gorky. Russia Beyond publishes a translation of an extract from a new book by Pavel Basinsky “The Passion According to Maxim. Gorky: 9 Days After Death,” which is about the complicated relations between Maxim Gorky and Leo Tolstoy. The book will be published this March in Russian by Yelena Shubina publications, AST publishing (link in Russian).


Tolstoy’s first diary entries about Gorky were favorable. “We had a good conversation,” “a true man of the people,” or “I am glad that I like both Gorky and Chekhov, particularly the first one.” But from about the middle of 1903 there is a drastic – and even whimsical – change in Tolstoy’s attitude to Gorky.

“Gorky – there is a misapprehension,” Tolstoy writes on Sept. 3, 1903, adding angrily: “The Germans know Gorky, but they don’t know Polenz.”

But Wilhelm von Polenz (1861-1903), a prominent German writer of the naturalist school, could not compete with Gorky, who by 1903 had become famous in Germany with his play, The Lower Depths, which premiered at Max Reinhardt’s Kleines Theater in Berlin on Jan.10, 1903 under the title, Nachtasyl (Night shelter). It was staged by the well-known director, Richard Vallentin, who himself played Satin, while Reinhardt played Luka. The success of the German version of The Lower Depths was so overwhelming that it had 300 (!) performances in a row, and in the spring of 1905 its 500th performance was celebrated in Berlin.

It is silly and ridiculous to suspect Leo Tolstoy of envy, but there was a certain element of writerlyjealousy in this entry, and it’s not accidental that, while calling Gorky a “misapprehension,” he refers to the Germans. The runaway success of The Lower Depths, not just in Russia but also in Germany, had already reached his ears. Tolstoy had heard The Lower Depths in Crimea read by Gorky himself in manuscript form, and already then thought the play strange and couldn’t understand why it had been written. If the play had not been such a success, Tolstoy would simply have concluded that the young author had made the wrong creative choice. Even before then, he had upbraided Gorky for the fact that his peasants talk “too cleverly,” and that much in his prose was exaggerated and unnatural.

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Photos: Russia Beyond the Headlines



(Ruthie Fierberg’s article appeared in Playbill Online, 2/13.)

The theatrical publisher opens the U.K. version of New York City’s Drama Book Shop.

The Royal Court Theatre in London’s Sloane Square is a landmark of the theatre scene across the pond. On February 13, the U.K. division of Samuel French announced there will be an addition to the theatre space: a theatre bookshop.

The Bookshop will be located in the theatre’s Balcony Bar and will open its doors March 5.

“We are thrilled to reopen a bookshop in London, especially at the iconic Royal Court Theatre. When we closed our shop in Fitzroy Street last year, we were overwhelmed by messages of support,” said managing director of Samuel French U.K. Douglas Schatz in a statement.

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(John Williams’s article appeared in The New York Times, 2/4; via Pam Green.) 

When “Angels in America” premiered on Broadway in 1993, The New York Times’s Frank Rich called it “the most thrilling American play in years.” Tony Kushner’s two-part epic about American life, set against the AIDS crisis and Ronald Reagan’s presidency, quickly became, by consensus, one of the 20th century’s most essential works of theater. (The play is coming back to New York, at the Neil Simon Theater, beginning previews this month and opening in March.) In 2016, Slate published an oral history of the show, in which Mr. Kushner and more than 50 others talked about the production’s long and often difficult road to success. Now the authors of that history — Isaac Butler, a theater director himself, and Dan Kois, an editor and writer for Slate — have published a new book that expands on it: “The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascent of ‘Angels in America.’” The book covers the development and life of the play, as well as Mike Nichols’s adaptation of it as a mini-series for HBO in 2003. Below, Butler and Kois talk about the influence of the political climate on their book, a film adaptation of “Angels” that never came to pass and more.


When did you first get the idea to write this book?


DAN KOIS Isaac and I were conducting interviews for the Slate story in spring 2016. We kept getting so much amazing stuff. Every single person we talked to would tell us the kind of story you tell about the defining artistic and intellectual moment of your life. No one was like, “Oh yeah, it was great. I don’t remember much about it.” One week, we each interviewed members of the original cast. I interviewed Kathleen Chalfant … 

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Photo: Newsweek


Paul Robeson as Othello, 1944; photograph by Carl Van Vechten

(Callow’s article appeared in the New York Review of Books, 2/8.

Paul Robeson: The Artist as Revolutionary

by Gerald Horne

Pluto, 250 pp., $18.00 (paper)

No Way But This: In Search of Paul Robeson

by Jeff Sparrow

Scribe, 292 pp., $19.95 (paper)

Paul Robeson as Othello, 1944; photograph by Carl Van Vechten

When I was growing up in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s, Paul Robeson was much in evidence, on records, on the radio, on television. His name was haloed with the sort of respect accorded to few performers. The astonishing voice that, like the Mississippi in the most famous number in his repertory, just kept rolling along, seemed to carry within it an inherent sense of truth. There was no artifice; there were no vocal tricks; nothing came between the listener and the song. It commanded effortless attention; perfectly focused, it came from a very deep place, not just in the larynx, but in the experience of what it is to be human. In this, Robeson resembled the English contralto Kathleen Ferrier: both seemed less trained musicians than natural phenomena.

The spirituals Robeson had been instrumental in discovering for a wider audience were not simply communal songs of love and life and death but the urgent cries of a captive people yearning for a better, a juster life. These songs, rooted in the past, expressed a present reality in the lives of twentieth-century American black people, citizens of the most powerful nation on earth but oppressed and routinely humiliated on a daily basis. When Robeson sang the refrain of “Go Down Moses”—“Let my people go!”—it had nothing to do with consolation or comfort: it was an urgent demand. And in the Britain in which I grew up, he was deeply admired for it. For us, he was the noble representative, the beau idéal, of his race: physically magnificent, finely spoken, fiercely intelligent, charismatic but not at all threatening.

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Author, columnist, and editor, Chilton Williamson, Jr. has published works of fiction, narrative nonfiction, and books on politics and history.  He was formerly history editor for St. Martin’s Press and literary editor for National Review.  For 26 years, he served as senior editor for books for Chronicles:  A Magazine of American Culture before being named editor in 2015.

Born in New York City, he was raised in Manhattan and on the family farm in South Windham, Vermont.  Since 1979, he has lived in Wyoming, except for two years spend in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

Besides Jerusalem, Jerusalem!, his fourth Chronicles Press book, Williamson is the author of four published novels and six works of nonfiction.  With his wife, Maureen McCaffrey Williamson, he lives in Laramie, Wyoming.

CHILTON WILLIAMSON concludes his interview, with SV’s Bob Shuman, about his new novel Jerusalem, Jerusalem!, set in the contemporary West.

View ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem!’ on Amazon:

Do you consider yourself a political writer?

I’m a political writer when I write about politics, which my job as a magazine editor requires me to do every month. As for fiction, I’m a political writer when I write that, too—but only in the sense of the Marxist idea that “everything is political,” which I deny.

Do you find mainstream publishing biased in the same way as television?  If you think it is, are there any options?

Certainly. Mainstream publishing is very biased toward the leftist view of the world. The alternative could be the much smaller, less commercial publishers—but most of them are leftist, too. They want the leftist politics even more than the big boys, while caring much less about profit.

David Mamet has said “the essence of drama is to follow the truth of human interaction where it leads.  You can’t do that while you’re also trying to promote a political agenda because you always end up with me and my tractor.  Anyone can mouth the essential verities.”  Do you agree with him? Can Western conservatism be incorporated into a novel and is there such thing as an American conservative novel—what would that be like? 

I do not know what “the truth of human interaction” could be. As for the possibilities for “a conservative novel,” I am increasingly uncertain that the words “conservative” and “conservatism” mean much, or even anything at all. They’ve been too much pawed over by academicians and theoreticians generally. Chesterton said the great question is not between conservatism and liberalism, but between right and wrong.  My own restatement of the opposition between “liberal” and “conservative” is “pre-modern” v. “modern.” Modern people are comfortable with secularist, industrialist, technocratic, mass market, and mass democratic society. Pre-modern ones are not. Naturally, if these happen also to be novelists, they are conservative ones. Thus, William FaulknerAndrew LytleFlannery O’ConnorJoseph ConradEvelyn WaughSolzhenitsyn, wrote “conservative” novels. So does Cormac McCarthy today. So do I.

Best Western novel, besides one of your own?

Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (1985).


You have also written a novel for tweens about lions from Africa called The Greatest Lion.  When did you become interested in children’s literature?

I’ve read and enjoyed children’s literature since I was a child, and still do. For instance, I reread Kenneth Graham’s The Wind in the Willows recently, and Milne’s Pooh books are still a delight to me. So are Beatrix Potter’s delightful tales. And Kipling’s Just So Stories. And Booth Tarkington’s Penrod volumes.  And Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series. And Walter R. Brooks Freddy the Pig stories. I could go on all afternoon. Most children’s books should actually be written “children’s” books—if they are any good, at least. I believe that a child’s book that an adult cannot enjoy as well is a bad book, period. When I set out to write Lion, I was determined to make it a story that people of any age could enjoy. Hence, a careful reader who perceive quiet allusions in the text to Eloise at the Plaza by Kay Thompson and to Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, who like The Lion and The Lioness went swimming in the Plaza Fountain. There are probably many more such that I can’t recall now.

What was the inspiration for the book?

My love of cats, big cats, and lions especially—partly inspired by Joy Adamson’s Elsa books. I worked for five or six years as a docent at Denver Zoo, where lions were my specialty. I had to quit when I was made editor of Chronicles two years ago, no longer having the time to drive from Laramie, Wyoming to Denver and back once a week, a round trip of 258 miles. (See what I mean about distances out West.)

The Greatest Lion, by the way, is the story of The Lion and The Lioness who are kidnapped from Kenya and flown to a zoo somewhere in the Middle East where a war is being fought. They are granted refugee status in the U.S. and lodged temporarily at The Plaza, the authorities having no other place to put them. Eventually they find their way to Wyoming, where The Lion is arrested by a game warden for harassing the local wildlife, and jailed. After his release, he decided to write a book about himself and his adventures in order to make the money they need to fly back to Africa, which he succeeds in doing. My guess is the book will appeal to children between the ages of six and ten, or so.

One book of yours you’d give to the president and why?

‘After Tocqueville: The Promise and Failure of Democracy’ (ISI, 2012), which I believe is extremely relevant to the current debate across the Western world regarding democracy, populism, and elitism.

Thank you so much for talking with Stage Voices. 



Visit Chronicles Web site:

Read Part 1 of this interview at:

Read Part 2 of this interview at: 

(c) 2017 by Chilton Williamson, Jr. (answers) and Bob Shuman (questions). All rights reserved.

Lions photo: The Denver Post.


(Harry Haun’s article appeared in Playbill Online, 9/4; via Pam Green.)

Anne Bancroft: A Life

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Anne Bancroft’s star started its ascent on February 7, 1957—simultaneously on both coasts.

In New York, she sauntered into the office of producer Fred Coe and wasted no time getting down to the pressing business at hand. “Where’s the john?” she barked. (It’s called “coming on as the character you’re going out for”—in this case, Gittel Mosca, the brash bohemian who amorously collides in New York with a sad, marriage-broken Nebraskan in Two for the Seesaw.) Coe was certain she was his Gittel—an opinion soon shared by the play’s director, Arthur Penn, and writer, William Gibson, both of whom were in Los Angeles on that first day, steering Teresa Wright and Patty McCormack through the roles of Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller in the Playhouse 90 premiere of their play The Miracle Worker.

Anne Bancroft: A Life

Gittel Mosca got Bancroft a Tony Award—as did Annie Sullivan, and an Oscar, too—when Gibson’s scripts moved to Broadway. Topping the brilliance of both those performances was her iconic Mrs. Robinson, the older woman out to seduce her daughter’s boyfriend in The Graduate. A half-century later, that’s how the world still remembers Anne Bancroft, now the subject of a richly detailed and definitive biography by Douglass K. Daniel out September 1.

(Read more)


View Anne Bancroft: A Life on Amazon:



Author, columnist, and editor, Chilton Williamson, Jr. has published works of fiction, narrative nonfiction, and books on politics and history.  He was formerly history editor for St. Martin’s Press and literary editor for National Review.  For 26 years, he served as senior editor for books for Chronicles:  A Magazine of American Culture before being named editor in 2015.

Born in New York City, he was raised in Manhattan and on the family farm in South Windham, Vermont.  Since 1979, he has lived in Wyoming, except for two years spend in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

Besides Jerusalem, Jerusalem!, his fourth Chronicles Press book, Williamson is the author of four published novels and six works of nonfiction.  With his wife, Maureen McCaffrey Williamson, he lives in Laramie, Wyoming.

CHILTON WILLIAMSON talks with SV’s Bob Shuman, about his new novel, set in the contemporary West: Jerusalem, Jerusalem!  The final part, of this two-part interview, will appear, 9/6.

View ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem!’ on Amazon:

Jerusalem, Jerusalem! is not only a novel that can be read on its own, it’s also related to other books.  Could you tell us about it—and also give a background for the Fontenelle trilogy? 

The Fontenelle Trilogy began with my first novel, Desert Light (St. Martin’s, 1987,, the story of a wealthy and successful New York City attorney who defended a murderer whom he got released from prison only to kill again. Disgusted with “civilization,” Caleb Richardson moves to southwestern Wyoming and becomes a breeder of Arabian horses near the coal, oil, and gas town of Fontenelle in the Green River Basin country.  Following a gruesome murder along the I-80 corridor, he agrees to help prosecute the three people charged with the crime, one of them a young Mormon woman.  After visiting her in jail, he becomes convinced of her innocence and withdraws from the prosecution team, led by a famous Jackson attorney, to defend her against it.

The middle novel, The Homestead (Grove Weidenfeld, 1990,, continues to track Desert Light’s principals, while introducing new ones: Houston Walker, scion of a local rancher who moved to Africa to become a professional big-game hunter, who is summoned home to Wyoming to help his family after his brother is arrested on a charge of murdering an oilfield roughneck, and his incestuously inclined sister.

Was it always your intention to write a Fontenelle series?  

After finishing the first book, I had no intention of beginning a second connected novel, much less envisioning a third.  I discovered, however, that I couldn’t let the characters and the story drop, so I went ahead with a second installment.  The same thing occurred after The Homestead was finished.  In this final volume, Jerusalem, Jerusalem!, set in 1992, the Richardsons and the Walkers remain part of the story, while being joined by two other major characters, a Catholic priest who is involved in a minor car crash–when he is called out late one night after inadvertently drinking too much wine–and a parishioner of his, a quadriplegic woman kept alive in an iron lung.  She, nevertheless, coordinates people and events from her bedroom to resolve several conflicting situations, in a more or less satisfactory way, at the end of the book.


One of your characters, in Jerusalem, Jerusalem!, Father Hillary, a Catholic priest, says, “For an Easterner, Wyoming does take some getting used to, but I find myself feeling more at home here all the time.”   What takes getting used to in the West—and what starts to make the priest feel at home? 

The American West, in many ways, is still the frontier.  It has, of course, been considerably urbanized in the past several decades, and the numerical majority of “Westerners” live in cities.  But the cities are very far between, and separated by vast stretches of nearly empty country, much of which is, indeed, wilderness.

In addition to the physical isolation are the extremely harsh weather (60-75 mph winds that subside but never quit, often stalling at a constant 20 mph or so, which will still carry your Stetson away), temperatures as low as 50-75 degrees below zero, and heavy snows and ground blizzards that make travel impossible for days at a time. Take all this into account and you will begin to understand what Father Hillary had in mind when he spoke of the need to accustom oneself to the West, after life in Paris and New York. 

The priest in Jerusalem, Jerusalem!  also encounters the desert, a Biblical image in the New Testament that represents a healing, cleansing, inspiring, and mystical withdrawal from the distractions of the “real” world, although by the end of the novel Hillary is only beginning to come to terms with it, with the help of a native priest, Fr. Bonney.

How have you acclimated to Laramie, as an Easterner yourself?  You note that Teddy Roosevelt thought that Wyoming was “the strenuous life, and he had Oyster Bay to go home to.”  Tell us about the most strenuous thing you’ve done in the last week—and when do you find time to write novels?

I moved first to Kemmerer, Wyoming, population about 3000, and arrived 20 years later in Laramie for a number of reasons, the chief one being that property here is both affordable and holds its value on account of the presence of the University of Wyoming.  (Kemmerer, founded in 1897 by a New York family with interests in the coal business, is a classic Western boom-or-bust town that fell into the bust pit 20 years ago and has never climbed out of it–it’s the model for Fontenelle in the books.)  As for Wyoming, I saw the place first in 1977, came out here two years later, and never looked back. (I did continue to commute every couple of months to Manhattan, where I worked as the literary editor for National Review.)

Out here, people drive 120 miles roundtrip to see a movie (it won’t be something you’d see at Cannes) and think nothing of it.  If comfort, convenience, availability, cosmopolitan culture, and lots of people are what you crave, the West is not for you.  You have to like to hunt and fish, ride horses, and camp in the outback, 50 or 60 miles from the nearest small town.  If you want “activities,” dislike solitude, and self-sufficiency; if hundred-mile vistas with “nothing” in sight but sagebrush and antelope desert buttes, rugged mountains, and lonely plains make you “want  to cry” (as a woman from New York once told me it did her), then drive as fast as you can across I-10, I-40, I-70, I-80, and I-90 until your reach the comfort and safety of the West Coast.

Life on the frontier is always strenuous, whether you’re a rancher, an outfitter, a lumberman, a miner, an oilfield roughneck (as I was for a year), and so on. Just now it is summer, and life is relatively easy here.  I explore on foot and on horseback, camp in the outback, climb in the mountains to fish.  Fall is the really vigorous time, when I go into winter camp and slog through a foot of new snow in wilderness country to track, shoot, field dress, dismember, and pack 700-pound elk out of the mountains with horses.

How did you decide on the title, Jerusalem, Jerusalem!?

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem” are Christ’s words, as He stands gazing down upon the city before His Passion:

“still murdering the prophets, and stoning the messengers that are sent to thee, how often have I been ready to gather thy children together, as a hen gathers her chickens under her wings; and thou didst refuse it!  Behold, your house is left to you, a house uninhabited.  Believe me, you shall see nothing of me henceforward, until the time when you will be saying, Blessed is He that comes in the name of the Lord.”

In this novel, some of the characters refuse to be gathered, and others–the fewer of them—accept the invitation.  This is pretty much the theme, in fact, of the trilogy, each volume of which commences with an epigraph taken from Dante’s Commedia Divina: the Inferno, the Purgatorio, and the Paradiso

The novel seems to have a mosaic-like structure, perhaps comparable to a film like Nashville by Robert Altman.  Did you realize you were dealing with a complex structure, while you were writing—and how do you keep so many intersecting characters in perspective, while still telling the story?

Evelyn Waugh once urged a young novelist, “Go to the cinema. It’s the modern way to write a story.” Also, it’s a flexible way of handling many characters and subplots in an orderly and comprehensible fashion.

What are optimal conditions for your work?

When I had stepchildren I wrote in the mornings when they were at school.  Since then I’ve written between three and seven in the afternoon. That way, when I knock off work, I have no responsibility beyond shaking and drinking two stiff martinis for myself and my wife. Once I begin a book I almost never abandon it.  I agree with Raymond Chandler that if you start on a writing job, it was always for a good reason, and your job is to rediscover that reason. 

Thank you so much.  We’ll look forward to the second part of your interview.

View Jerusalem, Jerusalem! on Amazon:

Visit Chronicles Web site:

Read Part 1 of this interview at:

(c) 2017 by Chilton Williamson, Jr. (answers) and Bob Shuman (questions). All rights reserved.




Sherman Yellen was nominated for a Tony Award for his book for the 1970 musical The Rothschilds, with a score by Fiddler on the Roof songwriters Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, which he and Harnick have recently reimagined as Rothschild & Sons. Sherman wrote the libretto for the Will Holt and Gary William Friedman musical Treasure Island, winner of the Broadway World Best Regional Musical Award (2012). Among his many theater works is his satirical sketch “Delicious Indignities,” which appeared in the New York and London revue Oh! Calcutta! His straight plays on and off Broadway include New Gods for LoversStrangers, and December Fools.  

Sherman was librettist and lyricist for Josephine Tonight, an original musical he wrote with the late composer Wally Harper, about the early life of Josephine Baker, which The Chicago Sun-Times called “a shining new musical” and which the D.C. press praised for being “so hot that it sizzles.”

In his youth he worked as a librettist with legendary composer Richard Rodgers. Together with Sheldon Harnick they recently revised the Rodgers-Harnick musical Rex about Henry VIII. This new version had a successful premiere in Toronto.  Yellen’s teleplays have won him two Emmy Awards and a Peabody Award, first for his John Adams, Lawyer in the PBS series The Adams Chronicles, and later for An Early Frost, a groundbreaking drama about AIDS in America broadcast on NBC, as well as an Emmy Nomination for his Hallmark Hall of Fame version of Beauty and the Beast starring George C. Scott. Sherman’s screenplay adaptations of classic novels range from Great Expectations to Phantom of the Opera. He has received awards in Arts and Letters from Bard College, and he is a frequent contributor of essays on the arts, literature, and politics to online publications such as The Huffington Post.

Sherman recently published his autobiographical novella Cousin Bella–The Whore of Minsk, available in a volume, which also includes his holiday short story A Christmas Lilly,” and a collection of three plays, December Fools and Other Plays (December Fools * Budapest * Gin Lane).  Sherman is married, the father of two sons, Nicholas and Christopher, and has three much loved granddaughters. He has lived in London and Los Angeles, worked in Berlin and Budapest, but home was, is, and always will be New York City.

Sherman Yellen talks, with SV’s Bob Shuman, about his new memoir Spotless: Memories of a New York City Childhood.  The second part, of this three-part interview, will appear, 6/28.

View ‘Spotless’ on Amazon: 

How are the Yellens, the Rothschilds, and the Adamses the same; how are they different?

When I write about people I can only do so by connecting them to myself, my character, my beliefs, and my experiences.   All three: the Yellens, the Rothschilds, and the Adamses come from very different cultures, but what they share is a deep belief that the world must be better, and we must work to make it so.   It may sound foolish but, while writing these very different works, I became John Adams, Mayer Rothschild, and the little boy who inhabits Spotless, the saga of my family.  If we don’t bring ourselves to everything we write, there can be little truth or passion in the writing–it becomes a dry history rather than drama.   The trick is to find some part of yourself in every character you write, even the nasty ones.  For a while I had the joy of being John Adams, Mayer Rothschild, and, late in life, the observant child that I was.   

Did you ever believe that you would excel in writing about families–or how would you describe your new book?

I’ve always had a deep interest in families–what holds them together, what pulls them apart–probably flowing from the closeness of my own family– both my first family, the one in Spotless,  and the second, with my wife, Joan, which has lasted nearly 64 years.  I am deeply interested in how we remember those who are gone:  For me, Spotless was an attempt to recall and recreate what I had experienced as a child of the ‘30s and ‘40s–to go deeper yet into that world of my grandparents and parents: their journey, from European and Lower East Side poverty to affluence, and the cost of it, for everyone who traveled that very American path.   It is summed up by critic/novelist Christopher Davis who said, “Spotless is a story of family love trapped in the old world’s hurricane of desire to share in American dreaming.”

How did you decide on the title?  Tell us about it.

The title Spotless has several meanings–it certainly has little to do with that questioning, and somewhat judgmental, child on the cover of the book, a born observer:  indeed, the title has more to do with my mother’s use of the word to describe the character of a friend, a housekeeper, or the kitchen floor in our apartment.  In a sense it was her ideal.  She came from a world where half her family died of TB–spots on the lung were the sign of that disease.  To be Spotless was, for her, to be safe, healthy, and to be alive.  

You write that hardship “doesn’t often make people better, it just makes them harder.” You are referring to the Depression and the ‘40s.  Have you noticed other periods when people became harder–and have there been times when they seemed otherwise? 

My observation is a generalization, and, like most, it is only partially true.   There are people who rise up from their own despair to help others in the worst of times, but I have observed that many who have suffered are locked into their own cages of suffering, and they have not found a key to escape.  I do believe that we learn and grow more from kindness than from suffering.  Corny?  Maybe.  But I have found the truth in this over a long lifetime.

What do you miss most about the New York you grew up in (the book brings up cultural references, such as Baby Peggy, Olive Thomas, and Sonja Henie)? 

I miss so many of the old pleasures of the old NYC: the trolley cars in the Bronx, the double-decker buses on Fifth Avenue, the old Schrafft’s restaurants, where my parents took me for a Sunday lunch, and I miss the mom-and-pop stores that helped to create the New York of neighborhoods–I miss the old Reuben’s Restaurant, of the 1950s, which allowed my wife and I to dine with our schnauzer Gus seated beside us–before the health police took charge of the city.   I love the spirit of that city, before real estate became the King of New York, driving the small shopkeepers out and bringing in those ubiquitous banks and chain stores.  And I miss the affordable price of a theater ticket, and the smaller, more human scale of the city.  An example of that is the old MOMA.  I would go there with my friends and girlfriends, as a teenager at the High School of Music & Art–a kid who loved fine art–and it was a welcoming place.  Today, it is a glass palace, an expensive tourist spot, not the warm, second home for many art-loving city kids.  Needless to say, I loved the New York that didn’t have a Trump Tower and kept its Trumps sequestered in Queens.

I am not one who subscribes to the idea that the high cost of living in NYC is proportionate with the cost of living in the past.  Baloney!  The world was affordable for those who were not in the one percent.  It was there for most of the residents–even during the Depression.  I miss the courtesies that made for a gentler city, and oh Lord, do I miss those marvelous movie theaters–growing up, as I did, in the golden age of Hollywood.  Nothing short of heaven itself can replicate the grandeur of the old Loew’s Paradise, on the Grand Concourse, and its sister theaters throughout the boroughs.    I do not miss the bigotry of that time, but we may have traded it in for the repellant hard-nosed ambition that I often see today.   But oh, the beauty of Central Park now–almost nothing compares with it in the past–and the everyday mix of races and classes in NYC makes me proud to be a New Yorker.

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(c) 2017 by Sherman Yellen (answers) and Bob Shuman (questions). All rights reserved.

Yellen family photos: Courtesy of the Sherman Yellen. All rights reserved.

Central Park: Fodor’s Travel Guides.


Listen at:

The inside story of twelve years at the helm of Britain’s greatest theatre. It is a story of lunatic failures and spectacular successes such as The History Boys, War Horse and One Man, Two Guvnors; of opening the doors of the National Theatre to a broader audience than ever before, and changing the public’s perception of what theatre is for.

It is about probing Shakespeare from every angle and reinventing the classics. About fostering new talent and directing some of the most celebrated actors of our times. Its cast includes the likes of Alan Bennett, Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon and Helen Mirren.

Intimate, candid and insightful, Balancing Acts is a passionate exploration of the art and alchemy of making theatre.

Today Hynter describes his typical day as the theatre’s Director.

Written and read by Nicholas Hytner
Produced by Simon Richardson.