Cover image for Even this I get to experience
Title:
Even this I get to experience
Author:
Lear, Norman.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : The Penguin Press, 2014.
Physical Description:
xvi, 448 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations, portraits ; 25 cm
Summary:
The legendary creator of iconic television programs All in the Family, Sanford and Son, Maude, Good Times, The Jeffersons, and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, Norman Lear remade our television culture, while leading a life of unparalleled political, civic, and social involvement. Sharing the wealth of Lear's ninety years, this is a memoir as touching and remarkable as the life he has led.
Language:
English
Contents:
Alone in a going world -- Those were the days -- Joyful stress -- Over and next.
Personal Subject:
ISBN:
9781594205729
Format :
Book

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Summary

Summary

"This is, flat out, one of the best Hollywood memoirs ever written… An absolute treasure." -- Booklist (STARRED)

In my ninety-plus years I've lived a multitude of lives. In the course of all these lives, I had a front-row seat at the birth of television; wrote, produced, created, or developed more than a hundred shows; had nine on the air at the same time; founded the 300,000-member liberal advocacy group People For the American Way; was labeled the "no. 1 enemy of the American family" by Jerry Falwell; made it onto Richard Nixon's "Enemies List"; was presented with the National Medal of the Arts by President Clinton; purchased an original copy of the Declaration of Independence and toured it for ten years in all fifty states; blew a fortune in a series of bad investments in failing businesses; and reached a point where I was informed we might even have to sell our home. Having heard that we'd fallen into such dire straits, my son-in-law phoned me and asked how I was feeling. My answer was, "Terrible, of course," but then I added, "but I must be crazy, because despite all that's happened, I keep hearing this inner voice saying, 'Even this I get to experience.'"

Norman Lear's work is legendary. The renowned creator of such iconic television programs as All in the Family; Maude; Good × The Jeffersons; and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman , Lear remade our television culture from the ground up. At their peak, his programs were viewed by 120 million people a week, with stories that dealt with the most serious issues of the day--racism, poverty, abortion --yet still left audiences howling with laughter. In EVEN THIS I GET TO EXPERIENCE, Lear opens up with all the candor, humor, and wisdom to be expected from one of America's greatest living storytellers.

But TV and politics are only a fraction of the tale. Lear's early years were grounded in the harshness of the Great Depression, and further complicated by his parents' vivid personalities. The imprisonment of Lear's father, a believer in the get-rich-quick scheme, colored his son's childhood. During this absence, Lear's mother left her son to live with relatives. Lear's comic gifts were put to good use during this hard time, even as they would be decadeslater during World War II, when Lear produced and staged a variety show for his fellow airmen in addition to flying fifty bombing missions.

After the war, Lear tried his hand at publicity in New York before setting out for Los Angeles in 1949. A lucky break had a powerful agent in the audience the night Danny Thomas performed a nightclub routine written by Lear, and within days his career in television began. Before long his work with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis (and later Martha Raye and George Gobel) made him the highest-paid comedy writer in the country, and he was spending his summers with the likes of Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks. Movies followed, and soon he was making films starring Frank Sinatra, Dick Van Dyke, and Jason Robards. Then came the '70s, and Lear's unprecedented string of TV hits.

Married three times and the father of six children ranging in age from nineteen to sixty-eight, Lear's penetrating look at family life, parenthood, and marriage is a volume in itself. A memoir as touching, funny, and remarkable as any of Lear's countless artistic creations, EVEN THIS I GET TO EXPERIENCE is nothing less than a profound gift, endlessly readable and characteristically unforgettable.


Author Notes

NORMAN LEAR is the television producer of such groundbreaking sitcoms as All in the Family, Sanford and Son, One Day at a Time, The Jeffersons, Good Times, and Maude . He has received four Emmy awards, a Peabody, and the National Medal of Arts. As an advocate, Lear founded People For the American Way and supports First Amendment rights and other progressive causes.

@TheNormanLear
www.NormanLear.com


Reviews 2

Booklist Review

*Starred Review* This is, flat out, one of the best Hollywood memoirs ever written. In most Hollywood bios, we skip through a lot of sections, waiting to get to the good stuff, but here it's all good stuff. Lear, the creator of the classic TV series All in the Family and Maude (among many, many others), had numerous jobs before he fell into television writing: he was a PR man, a door-to-door salesman, an inventor, a radio operator aboard a B-17 bomber, and each of these stages of his early life easily could be a book unto itself, so entertainingly does Lear write about them. And the story of how he came to be one of television's top producers reads like the script for a really good movie: Lear teams up with a buddy to write comic songs; they parlay this into a gig writing sketches and routines for Danny Thomas, which leads to writing full-time for legends like Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, which leads (for Lear, anyway) to writing movie scripts, which leads to Lear's changing the landscape of television in the 1970s with his truly revolutionary approach to the types of characters and themes that could appear on the small screen. Now in his nineties, Lear writes about his own life with a sort of can you believe it? approach, and at times you can see him opening new doors in his own memory (as, for example, when he realizes that he's spent most of his life trying to whitewash the truth about his father, who was a fraud and a liar but also a pretty likable guy). An absolute treasure.--Pitt, David Copyright 2014 Booklist


Publisher's Weekly Review

The television producer whose controversial sit-com hits-All In The Family, The Jeffersons, Maude, One Day at a Time-virtually defined the culture of the 1970s looks back on his triumphs and vexations in this feisty, thoughtful autobiography. Lear vents sharply conflicted feelings about nearly everyone and everything: his father, a charismatic con-man; his mother, a sour woman who constantly disparaged him (when he made Forbes 400 Wealthiest Americans she noted he was near the bottom of the list); Carroll O'Connor, a sublime Archie Bunker but also a megalomaniac forever threatening to shut down the show over script complaints; the United States, which, as founder of the liberal advocacy group People for the American Way, Lear celebrated in patriotic extravaganzas while deploring patriotic excesses. Lear pens sharply observed studies of the creative process on his many iconic productions and bares plenty of raucous, sometimes bawdy anecdotes-readers get to experience a nude and lewd Jerry Lewis-before the narrative peters out in a third-act haze of nostalgic testimonial and light spiritual rumination. Still, in keeping with the bigoted, mouthy, complex and loveable characters he created, Lear's knack for sizing up a flawed humanity makes for an absorbing read. (Oct.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.


Excerpts

Excerpts

WHEN I WAS A BOY I thought that if I could turn a screw in my father's head just a sixteenth of an inch one way or the other, it might help him to tell the difference between right and wrong. I couldn't, of course, and ultimately he--and I--had to pay a serious price for his confusion. In late June of 1931, just out of third grade and a month away from turning nine, I was eagerly looking forward to my first experience at summer camp. A roll of cloth tape imprinted with "Norman M. Lear, Norman M. Lear, Norman M. Lear . . ." sat on the kitchen counter, waiting for my mother to cut it up and sew my name into the clothes I'd be taking with me in a few weeks. Meanwhile, my father was about to take a plane to Tulsa. None of my friends in Chelsea, Massachusetts, knew anybody who had ever flown anywhere. It had been only four years since Charles Lindbergh flew thirty-three and a half hours in his single-engine Spirit of St. Louis to get from New York to Paris, and the rare plane that was spotted in the sky had us kids chasing around in the street yelling, "Lindy, Lindy!" So Dad flying to Oklahoma was a big deal. He was traveling on some kind of business--"Monkey business!" said my mother, who sensed that the men he'd fallen in with were not to be trusted--and for my upcoming birthday he was going to bring me back a ten-gallon hat just like the one worn by my favorite film cowboy, Ken Maynard. "Herman, I don't like this," she told him. "I don't want you to see those men." But Herman, as always, knew better. "Jeanette!" he screamed, the veins in his neck bulging as he stood over her with his nose all but pressing hers. "Stifle!" And off he went. Herman Lear, or, as he preferred to be known, "H.K."--the K standing for "King," a name he insisted he'd been given and would never admit to having appropriated--was a man of supreme optimism. A predecessor to Arthur Miller's salesman, Willy Loman, H.K. went out into the jungle each day with a shoe shine and a smile, pledging to come home, his fortune made, in ten days to two weeks, tops. And this--whatever he was doing in Oklahoma--was merely the latest scheme that would soon result in our being millionaires. He was arrested upon his return on July 3 for receiving and trying to sell some phony bonds to the Boston brokerage house E. A. Pierce & Co. High on my list of vivid childhood memories is the photograph of my father on the front page of the next day's newspaper, coming down the steps of the courthouse with one hand holding his hat over his face and the other manacled to a detective. Five weeks later he was convicted and sentenced to three years in Deer Island Prison, off Boston Harbor. That evening our house was filled with friends and relatives offering comfort as they bought the furniture my mother was selling, she having decided on the spot that we couldn't possibly continue to live in Chelsea in such disgrace. At one point, someone I didn't know (but instantly disliked) offered to buy my father's red leather chair--the throne from which he had controlled the radio dial on our floor model Atwater Kent, just as, forty years later, Archie would control the Bunker family's TV viewing from his living room armchair. As my mother and this scavenger agreed on a price, I was devastated. The loss of my father's chair was like losing him twice in the same week. And, as if that were not bad enough, I would soon learn that my mother planned to take my younger sister to live with her and leave me with various relatives until my father got out of jail and the family could be reunited. I clutched all that remained of my summer dream--that unused roll of "Norman M. Lear" cloth, a piece of silent sadness which I managed to keep with me well into my thirties, perhaps even my forties--and my eyelids bit down hard on the tears I was fighting to hold back. At that point someone--an uncle or cousin or neighbor--placed his hands on my shoulders, looked deep into my eyes, and announced, with that soapy solemnity that so many adults use when they are offering gratuitous counsel to the young, "Remember, Norman, you're the man of the house now." This had to be the moment when my awareness of the foolishness of the human condition was born. I was just past my ninth birthday, my father had been brought down before my eyes from a ten to a zero, my mother and sister were about to disappear from my daily life, my own identity was no more than a thin bit of fabric in my fist, and I was looking up into the face of this fatuous asshole telling me that I was the man of the house now. And then he added, with a smarmy smile I wanted to rip from his face: "No, no, son! A man of the house doesn't cry ." How could I not have developed a deep appreciation for the absurdities amid the gravity of our existence? • • • IN MY NINETY-PLUS YEARS I've lived a multitude of lives. There was that early life with my parents and relatives; a life as a kid with my blood buddies Herbie Lerner and the Schwarz twins; a life in high school zeroing in on the humor in our existence; a life in college cut short by World War II; a life as a crew member in a B-17 bomber flying fifty-two missions over Europe; a life in the world of entertainment, with sublives in television, radio, movies, and music; a life as a political activist; a life in philanthropy; a late-starting life as a spiritual seeker; three lives as a husband, six as a father (with my youngest born forty-eight years after my eldest), and four as a grandfather. In the course of all these lives, I had a front-row seat at the birth of television; wrote, produced, created, or developed more than a hundred shows; had nine on the air at the same time; finished one season with three of the top four and another with five of the top nine; hosted Saturday Night Live; wrote, directed, produced, executive-produced, or financed more than a dozen major films; before normalization, led an entourage of Hollywood writers and producers on a three-week tour of China; founded several cause-oriented national organizations, including the 300,000-member liberal advocacy group People For the American Way; was told by the New York Times that I changed the face of television; was labeled the "No. 1 enemy of the American family" by Jerry Falwell; was warned by Pat Robertson that my arms were "too short to box with God"; made it onto Richard Nixon's "Enemies List"; was presented with the National Medal of the Arts by President Clinton; purchased an original copy of the Declaration of Independence and toured it for ten years in all fifty states; was ranked by Entertainment Weekly fortieth among the "100 Greatest Entertainers of the Century" (twenty-nine places ahead of the Sex Pistols); ran the Olympic torch in the 2002 Winter Olympics; blew a fortune in a series of bad investments in failing businesses; and reached a point where I was advised that we might even have to sell our home. Having heard that we'd fallen into such dire straits, my son-in-law phoned me from New York and asked how I was feeling. My answer was, "Terrible, of course," but then I added, "but I must be crazy, Jon, because despite all that's happened, I keep hearing this inner voice saying, 'Even this I get to experience.'" Early the next morning my son-in-law was on the phone again. He'd heard me say once that I wished to be cremated when I died and he was calling to ask me to please, please change my mind. I asked why. In a voice that choked a bit at the finish, he answered, "Because someday I want to take my children, your grandchildren, to a gravestone that reads, 'Even this I get to experience.'" • • • THAT CONVERSATION TOOK PLACE IN 1988, and what followed from it was my determination to write this book. Several years later I finally began combing through well over a half century's worth of notes, letters, speeches, articles, interviews, scripts, films, and TV shows in pursuit of my story. I didn't write much manuscript, but I did make notes. Lots of notes. Looking them over a while ago, this one from mid-2000 stopped me cold: Write about what I think is the key learning curve in life. How one can grow horizontally by becoming informed in one field, and then informed in many entirely new fields--but that horizontal growth becomes less important as time goes on. The journey that grows more important over time is the vertical journey, the journey into one's self. Clearly, there was a roadblock on my vertical journey. From my first long talks in 1984 with Lyn Davis, who in 1987 became Lyn Davis Lear, she steered me to understanding that my roadblock was an Everest of denial. When she heard that my father had gone off to prison for three years before my tenth birthday, she asked, "So what was that like? How did it feel?" When I told her the whole episode was like a chapter I'd read in someone else's book, she gave me a look that said, "Uh-uh. You just don't want to go there." This conversation recurred periodically over the years. Occasionally things would get heated and I'd wind up crying out something to this effect: "What do you want from me? Look at my life. I've got you, my six kids, three of them yours, all of them in love with each other, a lovely home, a great career--how could my life be better? Leave me alone already!" I told that story several years ago to a family friend who was also a therapist. She smiled without comment, but later said, "If you ever decide to connect with that kid whose father went to prison, why, to quote one of your expressions, don't you try 'wearing his hat' and ask yourself, what must that boy have gone through?" That question hung in my head. "What must that boy have gone through?" I began to think about him and to sleep on his story, and then one day I made a connection that informed and expedited the process. As a writer who for so many years had marveled at how often he went to bed with a script that had a second-act problem and awoke with the solution, how could I not have realized that this phenomenon might also occur in the script that was my life? In fact, it did, and soon my head was clearer and my eyes open, enough at least to bring back memories of my youth as a castaway while my dad was serving time. The retrieval of those early memories lit the path to understanding how I got from there to here that you will take with me now. "Here" is where I am today, a nonagenarian in what the doctors tell me is excellent health, looking down my arm and wondering, as I peck away on my computer, what my father's hand is doing hanging out of my sleeve. My family, nuclear and extended, brings me nothing but joy. I go to sleep each night anticipating and delighting in the great taste of the coffee I will be drinking the next morning--something I have done almost thirty thousand times. And, having looked back with new eyes on all the lives I've been so fortunate to have led, I've learned, as hopefully you now will, who I was as I scrambled to get here from "there." Even this I got to experience. PART 1 Go know. --MY BUBBE LIZZIE EARLY ONE SUNDAY MORNING IN 1983, I got a call from my friend John Mitchell, who was then the president of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. He was calling to tell me that the academy was creating a Hall of Fame and that I, along with six others whose illustrious company it astounded me to be included among, was to be one of the first inductees. I instantly phoned my mother back in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Now, I thought, I would finally get the maternal seal of approval that I was still searching for at age sixty-one. She answered with her usual three syllables, "Hell- oh-oh, " a sound that always seemed caught between a whine and a cry of pain. In my exultant mood, though, I heard it this time as if she'd exclaimed, at last, in a tone of naked delight, "Norman, sweetheart!" "Mother," I exploded, "I just got a confidential call from a friend. Nobody knows this yet so you can't tell anyone, but the Television Academy is starting a Hall of Fame, and these will be the first inductees: the man who started NBC, General David Sarnoff; the founder of CBS, William S. Paley; maybe the greatest newscaster of all time, Edward R. Murrow; easily the best writer that ever came out of television, Paddy Chayefsky; the two greatest comedians in television history, Lucille Ball and Milton Berle; and . . . me!" My mother didn't miss a beat. "Listen," she said, "if that's what they want to do, who am I to say?" In all the years since, I have rarely spoken publicly without sharing that story and, judging by every audience's reaction, I think that either we all had the same mother or we all can identify with the desperate seeking of a parent's approval. A phrase leaped out at me once from Annie Dillard's lovely memoir An American Childhood: "set down in a going world." Actually, I thought, we are set down in many. Just as we lead lives within lives, and lives end on end, so are we set down in multiple going worlds. There is the going world we all inhabit, of course. But there is also our mother's going world, our father's going world, the world they have attempted to create as a couple, the idiosyncratic worlds of all the other caregivers and influencers in childhood, the worlds that all of us struggle to create in every relationship with another human being, the worlds of our imaginations, and the physical worlds of the bodies we each inhabit. It is a miracle that we mewling and puking little beings, as Shakespeare described us, survive at all. When I was three months old, according to Lear family lore, my mother dropped me on my head while she was bathing me in the kitchen sink. Frightened, she left me there and ran to a next-door neighbor for help. Over the years this incident seemed increasingly funny to her. It became a kind of set piece in her life story, and at every retelling of it in my presence, a version of this conversation followed: "So, you dropped me in the sink on my head and ran next door?" "For help," she would respond reassuringly. "And what was I doing?" "What could you do? You were three months old. You were screaming." "That's why you ran for help?" "Of course. I thought I would die." "And me?" I'd ask. "Could I have died?" "Of course. Why else would I be running for help?" Finally, I would cut to the chase. "So, Mother, it was a stranger who pulled me out of the sink?" "No," she'd say with a sarcasm that could etch glass, "she left you there to drown." Then she'd add, "And besides, she wasn't a stranger. We were neighbors a week already!" Some guy from a neighborhood that had to have resembled mine once said, "The pessimist sees a pile of horseshit and thinks that's all there is. The optimist thinks that if there is enough horseshit around, there must be a pony someplace." And sometimes the plot in which we find ourselves requires us to become our own pony. Living from age nine to age twelve at the pleasure of relatives, while your dad's in jail and your mother and sister are residing in another city, just might qualify as such a plot. • • • MY MOTHER'S FATHER, Shia Sokolovsky, underwent a name trim (to Seicol) when he arrived at Ellis Island from Russia in 1904. He settled in New Haven, and a year later he sent for his wife, Elizabeth, their two sons, Al and Eddie, and their oldest child, Jeanette, age six. It was Al to whose home I was first shipped after they'd taken my dad. Uncle Al managed the John Irving Shoe Store, a ladies' shoe emporium in downtown Hartford. He had two salesmen working for him, with a third on Saturdays, and a woman at the cash register. He was also a district manager, which called for him to visit and report on two other John Irving stores in the area. In his eyes that made him a master of the universe. At his direction his salesmen dressed to the nines, while Al dressed to the twelves. Damon Runyon would have called him a "swell." To me he was just another relative who didn't seem to know I was there. Al and his wife, Sadie, had three children: my cousins Elaine, Noel, and Bunny. My way of singing for my supper while I lived with them was to make them laugh a lot. I thought it was my obligation to entertain my cousins because I was the beneficiary of their family's largesse, so I would tell them stories, especially stories taken from films, and I did impressions of the actors. One in particular stands out in my mind. Henry Armetta was a featured player who portrayed combustible Italian characters. In a 1933 comedy starring Wheeler and Woolsey, a classic comedy duo of the time, Armetta played a street cleaner afraid of losing his job because the horses he used to sweep up after were all but lost to the motorcar. At age eleven I thought his rave about the absence of horses, and the consequent lack of manure to engage with his broom, was hilarious. And I was funny--dare I say hilarious?--imitating him. It was a bifurcated life. There was the reality I was actually living, which I could do nothing about. And then there was the reality that was a product of my need and imagination. That was what I showed to the world, and what I did not yet understand. I didn't stay that long with Al and his family before being shipped to my maternal grandparents, where I remained until my dad was freed. This meant leaving Hartford, where my mother and sister continued to reside, and moving to New Haven. Many years later, when I finally began to see how hard that had been on me, I confronted my mother about it, and she said dismissively, "What do you mean, you never saw me? You just don't remember." "Mother," I said, " why don't I remember? Help me. Remind me of something we did together." "We saw each other practically every day," she insisted. "But how can that be? I was in New Haven, two hours away. I don't remember us being together more than twice a year." To which she answered, "Oh, please!" If my mother's "Oh, please" reads amusing to you, it does to me, too, now . As a child those two syllables made me feel worthless, like an insect she was flicking off her sleeve. • • • MOTHER'S PARENTS, my bubbe and zayde, lived in New Haven at 74 York Street, an address and a neighborhood that no longer exists, in a small two-bedroom, fourth-floor walk-up apartment with patterned oilcloth on the kitchen table and on the floor. My grandfather, tall and slender, wore quiet very well and so was considered learned. Not that he was, but he did make a scholarly figure poring for hours every day over his Yiddish newspaper, which no one else could read, as he sipped tea from a tall glass, a cube of sugar held lightly between his teeth. He had a dress shop, a small lower-middle-class establishment where, on Saturdays, my cousin Elaine and I used to take the black cardboard marked "Seicol's" and fold it into boxes for which we were paid a penny apiece. Ten pennies each got us into a movie--actually, two movies, a double feature. A hot dog or corned beef sandwich cost another nickel. With twenty cents you were rich for the day. If you knew a little trick, you were even richer. At the Roger Sherman Theater they had two candy machines. In one of them was a great candy bar called Mazuma, and packed with the bar were three play coins called Mazuma Money. What Mr. Roger Sherman evidently didn't know was that the Mazuma coins from the one candy machine worked like the coin of the realm in the other machine. Elaine and I and a few friends sworn to secrecy never ran out of candy through the double features that were preceded by the latest episode of a serial western, the weekly news highlights, and the coming attractions. A short walk and a trolley car ride away lived my mother's other brother, Eddie, his wife, Ida, and their little girls, Beverly and Myrna. If they'd had a fourth bedroom I might have been sent to live with them, because I spent every weekend at their house babysitting my cousins (who I also happened to adore). Eddie was a dentist, a sweet but vacant round-faced man with an indiscriminate high tenor laugh that seemed to require no context. Ida, in her late thirties and early forties when I knew her best, was still a little girl, and as uncomplicated as a comma. Never without a smile that said "hug me," Ida was born to serve her Eddie and be thrilled by his attentions to her. Neither had ever dated anyone else and both remained throughout their life together as naïve and unworldly as the day they met. That was not enough, however, to prevent Eddie's father, my zayde, from accusing Ida--tell me there's not a touch of insanity in every family!--of having an affair with my father. One had a hard enough time imagining Ida in the act of making love with her husband, who probably giggled a lot, let alone with a man who was likely to tell her she was the best lay he'd had since Jean Harlow. But I don't have to imagine the spectacle that took place one day in my grandparents' kitchen when my zayde, his face twisted in righteous anger and contempt, repeated his allegation about H.K. and Ida. As out of control as I'd ever seen him, H.K. leaped about and hollered back in his own defense. And in the middle of this escalating, vein-popping madness, there was my mother dropping to her knees, her hands clasped prayerlike beneath her chin, knee-walking across the oilcloth from one to the other, begging them to stop. I used to do a mean impersonation of my mother whenever I told that story, which I did often until age put a stop to my crawling about on my knees. Uncle Eddie took care of my teeth throughout my teens and didn't charge. My mother's obsequiousness toward him for this--and toward everyone in the family who helped us during my father's absence--made me feel even more diminished. I loved my young cousins, but I'm sure the reason that I gave up my weekends to babysit them had everything to do with how beholden I was to their parents. But as grateful to them as I felt I should be for giving me shelter, nothing eased the hurt I felt at how little attention Uncle Eddie paid me, especially in football season. I was excused from my babysitting duties Friday nights and Saturdays before sundown during the 1932 and 1933 seasons so I could make some money selling souvenirs to the crowds that flooded New Haven on their way to the Yale Bowl. I was so in love with football and the football scene that engulfed the city that thinking about the long-gone romance of it can get me misty-eyed even now. Late Friday afternoon on a game weekend, I and dozens of other kids my age would be downtown in the commons area. The Green, as it was known to the locals, was already swarming with out-of-towners in their hats and raccoon coats, armed with pocket flasks--the repeal of Prohibition was still a year away--and out for a good time. Each of us kids carried a board about the size of a large computer screen, to which our wares (pennants, miniature footballs, and other related trinkets) were pinned. I nailed a woolen mitten to my board and put my hand in it to support it, a bit of invention I recall thinking would catch on. It didn't. Saturday mornings we'd all be at the Yale Bowl with our goodies, awaiting the arrival of the dozens of open-air trolleys, packed to the gills with fur-coated revelers hanging off both sides of the cars. It is an image of such explosive joy and felicity that I'm sure I couldn't forget it if I lived to be a thousand. There was one Saturday morning, though, which I'd happily forget. Harvard was the visiting team, and the rivalry between the Harvard Crimson and the Yale Bulldogs was and still is one of the longest-running (since 1875) and intense in the history of college football. On top of that, my two greatest football heroes--Clint Frank in the backfield and wide receiver Larry Kelley--were playing for Yale. Heaven for me would have been a seat at that game. I had been dreaming of it for weeks. Uncle Eddie knew how much I loved football, but how much I ached for him to take me to a game never occurred to him. I was hawking my wares and experiencing the ache most keenly on that day of the 1932 Harvard-Yale game, and of course it turned out to be the day I spotted my uncle arriving with a friend of his and the friend's son, just about my age. I wanted to throw up from the hurt I felt, and hid in tears behind my pennants and trinket board as they walked past me into the Bowl. • • • SOLOMON LEAR, my paternal grandfather, married his half niece Anna in 1890, just before immigrating to New Haven from Russia. I didn't know him very well but I knew that everybody loved him and that his favorite song was "My Blue Heaven." On prominent display in every Lear family home was a photograph of him standing next to a rowboat at the water's edge in Miami, wearing striped pants and a dark jacket and pointing up at the sky. It was an early black-and-white photograph, of course, but so romanced were we all by him and his blue heaven that every time I am reminded of that photo I see it in full color. I have a fleeting personal memory of him, just a glimpse, really, from when I was six years old. I was sledding down a hill--belly flopping, as we called it--and he popped up, a surprise, to grab and hug me at the bottom of the run. A few months later, while crossing the street in Boston, he was hit by a car, thrown in the path of a second car, and killed. We were living on the second floor of a two-family house, and I can still see my father climbing the stairs to where my mother was waiting, and his reaction at seeing the anguished look on her face, even before she actually told him what had happened. They fell into each other's arms, turning and weeping. Each time I revisit this scene I see them as if on film, with the camera circling 360 degrees around their grief-stricken embrace. As for my paternal grandmother, she was an indecipherable presence at just a few occasions in my childhood. My father, born on March 19, 1893, was the second of her six children. He had an older brother, Edward, two younger sisters, Fanny and Jenny, and two younger brothers, Jack and Eli. The kindest way I can describe them is to say that they were all a little "bent." My generation of Lears often wondered if that had something to do with our grandparents being niece and uncle. • • • MY UNCLE ED and aunt Rose had a contested beach cottage in Woodmont, Connecticut. "Contested," I say, because the cottage had been left by my grandfather to his oldest child, but the rest of the clan never ceased to contend that it would have been left to all of them had Ed not managed to be the last one to speak to him as he lay dying in the hospital. Many critics have commented about the decibel level on my most popular shows, but no family argument on any of them could have outdone the hysterical squabbles that took place over that beach house. But that perennial sore subject was hardly the only thing that could provoke an instant Armageddon. We kids were witness to a number of lunatic displays of fury, one of which I inadvertently costarred in with my uncle Ed. (Not to be confused with Eddie Seicol the dentist--no one ever called Edward Lear "Eddie.") Uncle Ed was a glowering figure, stern and stuffy, who relished the tight rein he held over the mountains he made out of molehills. As with my other surrogate fathers, I felt a constant emptiness from his lack of attention. I spent many summer weeks at the Woodmont cottage, and Ed would come home from work every day and whistle for his son, my year-older cousin Harold. We would be somewhere in the area and, at the sound of that familiar whistle, Harold would dart homeward and I would ache for a father to whistle for me. In our thirties, reflecting one day on our childhoods, Harold was stunned to learn how sweet I found that father/son moment and how jealous it made me. And I was stunned to learn how much he hated it. It made him feel like a dog. If I'd felt like a dog that summer I'd have been feeling better. It was the second year I was alone, my mother and sister were nowhere to be seen, my dad was a hole in my heart, and I think that if I had faced my circumstance squarely I'd have fallen to pieces. Strangely, the closest thing to me in my tenth summer wasn't a relative. It wasn't even a person. It was a gray-and-blue sweatshirt. I don't remember who bought it for me, or how I came to have it. I know only that for one long summer it was the source of my comfort and support. I put it on after showering in the late afternoon, a moment I awaited eagerly all day. My aunt Rose, Harold's mother, came to call it a schmatta (Yiddish for "rag") because she saw it on me every day, but how could she know how hugged it made me feel, and maybe slender, and good looking, too. Sloppy Joe's was the name of an ice-cream shop about a quarter mile down the beach, and I walked it, maybe even strutted it most nights, in my magic vestment. I had no money to spend there but I loved the people and the action and the feeling that I belonged. I felt like I had more in common with them than with my family back at the cottage. Maybe that's because I was among strangers at both places, but at Sloppy Joe's they were content to be strangers and no one saw me as wearing a schmatta . But back to Uncle Ed. One weekend in the summer of 1932, more than a dozen Lears--six to eight adults and as many children--were crowded into the small four-bedroom cottage. At about five in the morning, I woke up with a full bladder. I was peeing sleepily into the center of the bowl when Uncle Ed burst into the bathroom, sending the thin door stuttering loudly against the wall, and yelled--for me, our entire family, and all of Woodmont and perhaps nearby New Haven to hear--that my peeing had just awakened him and that he was going to teach me the lesson of a lifetime. He jerked me aside, pulled out his florid penis (which looked to me as angry as its master), and spurted directly into the bowl as I had been doing. "You hear that splashing, Norman?" he yelled. "Like Niagara Falls at this hour of the morning, isn't it? Now listen to this !" He redirected his stream against the side of the bowl. "What do you hear now? You hear nothing now! Nothing! " he shouted triumphantly. "Don't you forget that the longest day you live!" A couple of flicks, a quick tuck-away, and Uncle Ed was gone, slamming the door behind him. It was indeed a lesson I would never forget, and I did what I could to pass it on to future generations. Ed Simmons (my first writing partner) and I incorporated it into one of the first pieces we sold to an important player, the noted nightclub comedian Joe E. Lewis. In a riff about things that men around the globe and across the centuries agreed upon, we had him conclude, "The most universal truth, an article of faith to men of every race, creed, color, or nationality, is that Water sprayed on water Makes a sound that all can hear. But water schpritzed on porcelain Falls silent to the ear. The Lear sisters, my aunts Fanny and Jenny, were both baleboostehs, a Yiddish word that means "the master caretakers of the house" but also carries connotations of its more explicit English relative, "ballbusters." They were big, tough women with granitelike faces, and they demanded absolute adoration from their husbands, Ben and Joe, who ponied up that adoration like eunuchs. Ben would finish every wretched meal Fanny cooked by pushing away from the table and saying with gusto, "Fanny! You outdid yourself tonight." And Joe, poor Joe, spoke only when spoken to by Jenny. Both husbands died young, which I think of as their means of escape. Uncle Jack and his wife, Zena, both pudgy, seemed to me more freshly scrubbed--their clothing nattier, their haircuts more defined, their silhouettes just a little more crisp. I remember wondering if they caught more sunlight than the rest of us. Whatever it was, I wanted some of it. Jack was also the only uncle who flipped me a quarter now and then. Since my folks never asked me what I hoped to be when I grew up, all I could think of was to be an uncle who could flip a quarter to a nephew. Jack was a press agent. I had no idea what a press agent did, but it was what I grew up wanting to be. • • • I DESCRIBED MY DAD and his siblings as "bent." Eli, the youngest, was so bent he was crooked. He was one of the earliest, perhaps the first, of radio's play-by-play basketball announcers. He broadcast on what was then called the Pabst Blue Ribbon Network as Eli "King" Lear. (More family royalty.) Such was his popularity that the first time he was sent to jail for kiting a check, the network put him right back on the air upon his release. He made money so he had no reason to steal, but steal he did. It was like a hobby. Eli was the center of a mind-blowing incident at a Thanksgiving dinner at our home in Hartford when I was sixteen. Twenty or so of us were gathered around our dining room table, which had been extended with the addition of two bridge tables. The men had been playing Klabiash, a Hungarian card game in which the nine of hearts was called the manel . The men loved it. You could tell how long they'd been playing by how low the cloud of cigar and cigarette smoke was hanging over them. In the late thirties, in small two-story homes like ours with little closet space, guests--especially the ladies--placed their coats and their purses on a bed in an upstairs bedroom. Halfway into our Thanksgiving meal that year, someone commented that Eli, who had left the table for the bathroom, had been gone a long time. Within minutes we kids were treated to the spectacle of our fathers pummeling Eli at the front door, where he was caught before he could escape. It seems he had been upstairs tossing his relatives' handbags and fur coats out the bedroom window to a confederate below. Yes, this actually happened. Many years later, after the war and my Army discharge, I was working as a press agent, just as I'd always imagined. My first task every morning was to page through the eight daily New York newspapers to see which of our clients' names we'd managed to get into print that day. On April 10, 1946, I picked up that morning's Daily Mirror and found this front-page headline: TOY GUN BANDIT NABBED IN PHILLY. It was Uncle Eli. He'd been arrested several times before for robbing hosiery stores. This time he was sentenced to twenty years to life at Leavenworth, then the country's largest maximum security prison. He was fifty-two when he got out, which he did by dying. • • • I'VE SAVED THE BEST FOR LAST: my maternal grandmother. If Bubbe wasn't the first person to truly love me, she was certainly the first to show me that love, on her face, in her voice, and in every other possible way. She was the most adorable full-grown human I've ever known--short and stout, perpetually moist and tender, with a smile on her round face that assured me instantly that my heart was safe in her care. Her name was Elizabeth, and when we weren't calling her Bubbe we called her Lizzie. Lizzie, I've realized as I've thought about her over the years, had the only real sense of humor on either side of the family. One rarely saw her when she wasn't in action: cooking, cleaning, sweeping, but always listening. Listening was her strong suit. She didn't speak a lot, but every reaction to what she heard was there to be read on her face and in her smile, the wryest of smiles. Whatever feeling she couldn't contain in a look escaped under her breath. I picked up on a lot of it, I guess because I knew to wait for it. Most of the others didn't get my bubbe. You could eat off her floor. Her fridge was always full. She made the best gefilte fish. They got all that. But there was far more they didn't get. My mother, Lizzie's only daughter, seemed to have no relationship with her. None of her children--or her husband, or my father--got how funny she was, how much of a comment on everything around her flowed from her very being. Those comments, as I said, were "on everything around her," which means her family and their friends, the pleasures and problems of their lives, and the world that they brought into her kitchen. If something she knew nothing about was mentioned, she had just one question, one concern. The first time I heard it was when I lived with my grandparents and my cousin Noel asked our grandmother, "Did you hear, Bubbe? The Dodgers won the pennant!" Looking up from whatever she was doing and recognizing that here was a subject she'd never understand, she asked her question: "Good for the Jews?" Despite the vast amount of knowledge Lizzie lacked, she understood her life moment by moment. To do that, I think, you have to be an onstage presence in that life and a member of the audience at the same time. Lizzie had that gift in spades, and it was never better exemplified than the very last time I saw her. I had a speaking engagement in Boston and on the way I stopped in Hartford to see her. She was in a nursing home, strapped in a wheelchair and slumped so that the waist strap was across her chest, her eyelids gently drawn in the pretty, round, ninety-four-year-old face that was looking more and more like the baby pictures of her first great-granddaughter, my Ellen. She had defecated, judging from the smell probably hours earlier, and had not yet been cleaned. I spoke loudly into the bouquet as I approached her. "Bubbe, darling, it's Norman. From California." Her eyelids lifted and her lips parted to become that sanctuary of a smile that had always been a place of comfort for me. "Norman? Norman from California?" "How are you, Bubbe?" I asked cheerily. Her eyes opened a tad wider and played with the fringe of her smile, reaching deep into where my sense of the ridiculous lived, inviting me to take in the totality of her situation. "How am I?" she replied. I laughed, and, oh, how I loved her. "I dressed for you," she added. "I'm on my way to Boston," I said. "I'm speaking at Harvard. They invited me to talk about America and its problems as I see them. You hear that, Bubbe? They're interested in what I have to say." Her eyes, a mirthful blue, scanned my face, and she replied, with a line reading no amount of direction could have improved upon, "Go know." Coming from some--her daughter, for example--that could have been a put-down. But not from my bubbe. That was her signature way of expressing her gratitude for the bounty of the universe, for yet another gift she could not have imagined. As life has teased and surprised me over the years, I have taken my grandmother's "go know" with me everywhere. When I've been recognized in restaurants and at airline counters, I have often thought, "Go know." "I'll see you again soon," I said as I left that afternoon. "I'll be here," she said. "If I'm here, I'll be here." WHEN MY FATHER completed his sentence in the summer of 1934, he went to the Boston station and boarded the train on the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad that was bound for Manhattan. My mother, my sister, Claire, and I were at the station in New Haven, ticketed to go to New York with him, where we were all due to live with another couple and their child, in what turned out to be a smallish three-bedroom apartment, until Dad got a job and we could afford our own. Standing there waiting for his train to pull in, I was just one small boy, but I was a crowd of emotions. I can't overstate how much Herman Lear--H.K., my father, "Dad!"--affected everything in my life from my earliest memories. He was a flamboyant figure with what appeared to me to be an unrivaled zest for life, and he seemed to fill every room he was in. He leaned into everything that came his way. He bit hard into all of life, and everything in the same measure. He loved my mother, but no more than he loved strawberries, which he ate out of big soup bowls with juice-dripping fingers and which he called "strumberries." I don't think there was any difference between the way he loved The Lone Ranger (sacrosanct listening for him) and the way he loved me or my sister. However painful this capacity of his might have been for me, I was so in love with my father that I made a virtue--no, a glory--of it. As the train pulled into the station and I stood there aching for the sight of him, I remember not being able to shake the warmest yet oddest of memories. Every morning after his first cup of coffee, H.K. would repair to the bathroom with the Hartford Courant and a few cigarettes. It had been three years since I'd entered a bathroom and been greeted by the combined aroma of my dad's shit and his Old Golds. It was a ritual we had gone through every morning. By the time he finished his first cup of coffee, he would signal with a couple of high-lows--high-pitched, low-volume farts, like a small child on a trumpet--that he'd be needing the toilet very soon. Thirty or so minutes and a cigarette or two later, he'd vacate the john, sumptuously self-satisfied, like a bear wanting to be tracked to the spoor he'd laid down. "Tomorrow, maybe," I thought. The train pulled to a stop in a cloud of steam, and as it thinned, there was my father standing at the end of the car. He was in the same suit he'd worn the morning he left for the airport to fly to Oklahoma, but it was a size and a half too large for him now. When the train pulled out of the station Claire and I sat together while our parents talked. The three-year difference in our ages, compounded by the infrequency of contact during the years of separation, trumped the brother-sister relationship, reducing us to something close to just having met. After a time my father changed places with my sister, and he and I were sitting together. There wasn't a word--then or ever--about where he'd been or what he'd been through, nor was there anything more than cursory questions about what those three years had been like for me. We talked about Max Baer, who had just knocked out Primo Carnera to become the first Jewish Heavyweight Champion of the World, and the recent death in a shoot-out of the notorious bank robber John Dillinger. And then he told me something as memorable as anything I've ever heard. We'd gotten around to talking about my being twelve now, when his face lit up suddenly with the birth of a dream meant for instant sharing. "Norman," he said, "you're going to be thirteen next year!" Then, despite looking lost in his oversized suit, without the few dollars needed to have it taken in, no job in sight, and on his way to mooch on another family's largesse, my dad told me, "For your Bar Mitzvah I'm going to take you, your mother, and your sister for a trip around the world. We'll be gone a year." He was dead serious and he was my dad, returned to me at last after a long absence. I believed him totally. "We'll be gone a year" became the mantra of my heart. When my Bar Mitzvah arrived it was 1935, in the middle of the Great Depression, and we were living in a fourth-floor walk-up apartment on St. Marks Avenue in Brooklyn. It had been exciting to think we were going to make that kind of a trip, but it was just another broken promise. His personality was such, however, that there was always enough of tomorrow's anticipation to drown out today's disappointment. The closest I came to hearing again about a trip around the world was when an older buddy, fifteen or sixteen, said he'd been taken to a hooker who asked him if that's what he wanted. He didn't know what the hell she was talking about and neither did I. • • • MY BAR MITZVAH ceremony was at the Shaari Zedek synagogue. We ordered extra blocks of ICE for the party afterward. I capitalize ICE to look like the card my mother put in the window to let the iceman know ICE was needed upstairs. Way upstairs when you're climbing four flights with a fifty-pound block on your back, which rested on a leather pad and was gripped by a pair of giant steel tongs in your hands. The home refrigerator was relatively new and expensive at the time, and fewer than a million American families had them. We Lears still lived out of our icebox, and the man who breathed life into it, the iceman, was a welcome fixture in our lives. On the streets, as he crawled at ten miles per hour so as not to miss window signs, smaller kids scrambled after his truck for the slivers of ice that resulted from his chipping smaller chunks from one of the giant two-hundred-pound blocks he'd picked up at the icehouse earlier. For them the street was their entertainment zone, and when the ice truck made its rounds it drew as much excitement as a roller coaster, as did the fireman who appeared occasionally on the hottest of days to open the hydrant for the express purpose of allowing the kids to frolic in the spray. The iceman made several trips up those four flights to our apartment on the day of my Bar Mitzvah. The family bathtub was the logical cooler for the beer and soft drinks, and that's where all the ice was chopped and deposited. My parents' friends outnumbered my friends by far, and so our apartment felt like the lobby of a small theater with a hit show. The bathroom, if you could get into it, was like the men's room at intermission. When I was sure I'd been gifted with my last pen--"Look, Ma, it's a Waterman!"--and had received my last cash handoff, I joined my friends outside. With some thirty-two dollars I'd just earned by turning thirteen and becoming a man (the original Jewish joke!), we decided to go to Coney Island. A nickel bought a Nathan's hot dog and a frozen mug of root beer in 1935 and the best rides were five to ten cents, so that night we were rich beyond dreams of avarice. We ate everything, rode everything, played everything, and had one hell of a time. The highlight of the evening occurred when my cousin Murray put a penny into a device labeled "How Much Electric Shock Can YOU Take?" and grabbed hold of the two metal handles in front of him. Depending on how widely one could pull those handles apart with an increasing electric charge to each hand, a needle moved from WIMP to REAL GUY. Murray must have been feeling Coney Island brave that night and a little too eager to prove himself a real guy. Instead of slowly pulling apart the metal handles, he jerked them apart, throwing his arms out as wide as he could. In that instant his mouth ripped open, his face contorted to a picture of agony, and, with his arms outstretched like a sixteen-year-old Christ figure, he screamed and cried, "Let me go! I didn't do anything! Please, God, let me go!" When I got home the crowd had thinned out, a good time was being had by all who remained, and no one, including my parents, asked where I'd been. It took me a full day to realize that I hadn't been missed at my own Bar Mitzvah. • • • MY FATHER WAS extremely outgoing and affectionate, but the underside of his great good nature was not admirable. Enormously insensitive, he treated absolutely everybody the same way, never taking into consideration that the person he was talking to now might be just a little different from the person he was talking to ten minutes before. Consequently, he would take advantage of people weaker than him, and he wouldn't recognize the strength of people much stronger. He would brag about his ability by saying that he could "sell shit on a stick for lollipops." The problem was that he didn't always know, or particularly care, when it was shit he was selling. And so my mother grew to be frightened when the doorbell rang. Neighbors and family just opened the door and walked in. The sheriffs were more formal. "Hello, Herman," they'd say. They seemed to know him well. I never knew exactly what brought them there. They stood in the corner and talked in hushed tones about checks (specifically, bad ones), car payments that had not been made, outstanding balances, and some other stuff I didn't understand. When they left, my mother was always crying, and my dad was trying to explain something away. In Divorce American Style, a film I wrote and my partner Bud Yorkin directed in 1967, the sixteen-year-old son of Dick Van Dyke and Debbie Reynolds is seen in his bed with pad and pencil, scoring the fight his parents are having in the kitchen below, under such headers as "WEAK," "STRONG," "LOGICAL," "POOR GRAMMAR," and "OVEREMOTIONAL." I was that kid sitting at the kitchen table in our Brooklyn apartment, scoring any number of my parents' fiercest arguments. It was at that table that I frequently heard: "Jeanette, stifle! Will you stifle yourself?" My parents, and the Lear clan generally, lived, to use my friend Herbie Gardner's line, "at the ends of their nerves and the tops of their lungs." I thought of inner tubes as I saw the veins in my father's neck bulge as he spat those words--"Jeanette, stifle yourself!"--just above his clenched fists, positioned less to hit my mother, it seemed, than to beat his own chest in frustration. My dad, like Archie later, was portly. But, unlike Archie, he was natty. He wore a freshly pressed suit, in the corrugated way of portly men, and rarely passed a bootblack without getting a shine. Bootblacks were predominantly older men and, as they were called then, Negro. Relics now, in the thirties they could be found--on street corners, at bus stations, in hotel lobbies and barbershops--in towns large and small across America. As polished as H.K.'s shoes were, so were his fingernails. He loved his weekly visits to the barbershop and the "great guy" role he played there. As I left the shop with Dad after his haircut and yet another shoe shine, his fingernails freshly manicured and topped off with a colorless high-sheen polish, just right for a man of his big-tipper status, my cup would run over with pride and dazzle. I never thought to wonder--when money problems were table conversation at every meal--how Dad could afford a weekly haircut and manicure and even more frequent shoe shines, not to mention the fat gold ring with a large onyx stone that he wore on his right pinkie. I hated that ring. It must have symbolized all the other off-kilter things about him of which I was instinctively if not consciously aware. • • • DESPITE ALL THE HURTS and disappointments, how I loved my father! I wrote love letters to him all my life, many of them in All in the Family, in which Archie has so many of my father's characteristics. For example, H.K. believed there were three medications that could cure just about everything--aspirin (only Bayer at the time), bicarbonate of soda, and iodine. If one couldn't fix what ailed you, certainly one of the others could. His belief in bicarbonate of soda was so profound that his face registered pleasure whenever he announced, as he did frequently, that he had "a terrible heartburn." Anticipating instant relief, he'd call for his miracle powder: "Jeanette, the bicarb, please." In an episode of All in the Family, when Edith brought Archie the bicarb he shouted for, Mike said, "Look at him, he's a robot. He swallows the potion, and exactly fourteen seconds later"--finger snap!--"the heartburn's gone." Archie drank and fumed, waving Mike off as he enthusiastically counted the seconds in his face. On fourteen exactly, much to his relief and chagrin, a long, mellifluous belch erupted out of Archie. "Dumb Polack," he said, stomping off. There was another unforgettable incident involving Dad's miracle prescriptions that wasn't quite fit for prime time. It occurred on a cold winter morning in Boston during the Christmas holiday season. My family was visiting and my uncle Ben Susskind (married to my dad's sister Fanny), his sons, David and Murray, and I were taking one of Ben's daily brisk constitutionals. Ben was a small man with a florid face, a big voice, and an outdoorsy personality who sold insurance door-to-door, unsuccessfully. He was a rarity in that he was able to scratch his crotch through heavy pants and a winter coat, which is what he was vigorously doing as we strode along. Murray was embarrassed by the movement of Ben's hands in the pockets of his coat. He made three syllables of "Dad." "What would you do if your balls itched?" his father sputtered in return. When we got home my father took over. He shooed the women out of the kitchen and ordered Ben to drop his pants so he could attend to him. How the man managed to be so rough on himself through so many layers of cloth only God knew, but we boys gaped in awe. We'd seen only glimpses of fully mature private parts, never having had the opportunity to soak in the assortment, which would have been a big deal in itself. But even if we had, we wouldn't have been prepared for this human equivalent of a display at a Red Lobster, and we were thunderstruck. Thinking quickly, H.K. figured that aspirin would take too long, bicarbonate of soda would be too weak--ah, but mixed with iodine!! Murray and I left the room as my father took down a soup bowl and Ben prepared to dunk. My cousin David stayed for Ben's scream, and he was the one who raced him to the emergency room of the nearest hospital. • • • JEANETTE SEICOL WOULD likely have led a less harried existence had she turned down the romantic overture that presented itself one summer evening in 1921. My mother-to-be was toying with a mound of whipped cream on top of her banana split on a date with a guy named "Pete"--or so my father said each time the tale was told, though my mother insisted each time that she "never knew any Pete"--when one Herman K. Lear stopped by the table to say hello to his buddy and, dazzled by this dark-haired beauty, accidentally on purpose thrust his hand into her dessert. She laughed as the whipped cream gushed between his fingers. After a whirlwind eight-week courtship, my folks were married in September, and Jeanette Seicol Lear gave birth to me--"Sometime during the day, maybe the night, how am I supposed to remember, it was so long ago!"--at New Haven Hospital on July 27, 1922. Mother was a world-class narcissist. But my sister and I, as we were growing up, didn't realize that. "Your mother is a saint," our father often said, and we believed him. She certainly played that role to the hilt in their kitchen quarrels. We knew that she had had a serious operation as a child that involved a goiter, whatever that was--we never did find out--followed by other illnesses and procedures. Mom was a poster child for "Fragile," with a need to talk long and often about her doctors and their prescriptions. That's what we knew. It didn't occur to us that a mother might take an interest in her children. She was more concerned with the neighbors--they mattered far more than we did. My father couldn't have cared less, but anytime he raised his voice, it was, "Herman, the neighbors . . ." She lived to the age of ninety-one, and to the end she was always her favorite subject, to a fair degree her only subject. No one could suck the juice out of joy like Jeanette. She was the original farbissiner, yet another Yiddish word, which is most easily translated as "sourpuss." But a sourpuss is a farbissiner in the face only. A true farbissiner is a sour soul. Sour souls stain the company they keep. They wake up to piss on the day, and not just their day. A farbissiner doesn't earn the title until she is pissing on your day, too. Flashing forward to an incident that took place in 1987, I was a sixty-five-year-old man whose mother was coming to California for a visit. I sent a car to pick her up at her apartment in Bridgeport and bring her to the American Airlines terminal at JFK, where I met her with a wheelchair and an attendant. She said she was happy to see me, but before I could reach her cheek to kiss her she began to talk about Dr. Golden, her wonderful new eye doctor, and how could I not remember him, she'd told me about him on the phone a week or so ago. Before her luggage was out of the car and checked at curbside, she had fished out of her purse the new miracle eyedrops that Dr. Golden, "God bless him," had prescribed for her. All the way up to the gate and onto the plane she talked about how "that scratchy feeling" in her eye was gone; how Dr. Leventhal, Golden's predecessor, had never helped her; how now she was eating better and enjoying life more with her mind off her eye problem; and did she tell me how when she called my sister to rave about her new eye doctor, "It was like she didn't hear a word I said." We were in the air about an hour, I at the window deep into some reading and she on the aisle, when I noticed her going into her purse again. At the same time a young man was walking up the aisle and my mother pulled at his sleeve. "Sir, I wonder if you could help me." "Certainly," he replied. As I, her quite grown-up, proven stable son looked on, Mother continued, "My new eye doctor gave me this prescription. I have to put three drops, not two, not four, he said, just three drops in each eye every four hours. Would you be good enough . . . ?" "Of course," he responded, taking the eyedropper firmly between thumb and forefinger, and as I sat there in a state between mind-bending wonder and apoplexy, he squeezed off three drops exactly--not two, not four--into each eye. A moment later he was gone and Mother was putting her drops away, unaware, or so it seemed, that I was staring at her. In the field of comedy, what she did next would be called a "take." A long, slow take. Very subtly my mother started reacting to something on her left--her son, still staring. "What?" she said finally. "What??" "Mother," I said. "You asked a complete stranger for help when I'm sitting right here?!" "I didn't want to bother you," she answered. "I'm here, Mother," I said through clenched teeth. "The son who takes care of you all year. You think I couldn't have--?" "Dr. Golden said you have to be very careful." I was ready to explode. "And did he tell you to ask a total stranger, when your son is sitting right next to--?" "And patient." "Patient?" I erupted. "Since when can't I be patient ?" She had only to look at me. "Some patience!" she said. • • • BUT, YOU MIGHT WONDER, was there no lightness, no laughter, on St. Marks Avenue? Yes, there was. My father, in a celebratory mood, liked to take us "out for Chinks" (Chinese food) on a Sunday night. Coaxing Mother to go out with him somewhere, he'd say, "Let's get out of here, Jeanette. Let's blow the stink off us." More often we were home, of course, where we relied on Madison Avenue to quench our thirst for entertainment--music and comedy--via the radio. The sponsors ran much of production in those years, and so there were The Fleischmann's Yeast Hour, Maxwell House Coffee Time, Lucky Strike Hour, The Voice of Firestone, The Chase and Sanborn Hour, Kraft Music Hall, The Johnson Wax Program, The Bell Telephone Hour, and dozens more. They fielded most of the comedy talent, some of whom went on to become great stars in their own shows, and others who flamed high and flickered out quickly. We roared at Joe Penner, a flame-out whose "Wanna buy a duck" was a yuk in households everywhere, as was Baron Munchausen's "Vas you there, Charlie?" (another flame-out). While they lasted, these were retorts audiences knew were sure to come in every sketch. There would be a split-second pause before delivery, and the audience, hushed with anticipation, would explode on the line. The all-time kingpin of such moments came years later when Jack Benny, whose character was known to be an incredible miser, was being held up at gunpoint, and the robber said, "Your money or your life!" The long pause that followed entered the history books and taught every comic actor and writer alive--and yet unborn--one of the great lessons of comic timing. Benny led the parade of comics that had their own shows in those years, among them Fred Allen, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Edgar Bergen (and his dummy, Charlie McCarthy), Eddie Cantor, Fibber McGee and Molly, Amos 'n' Andy, and Bob and Ray. If anyone had told my mother that one day her son would know them all, she would probably have laughed harder at that than at anything she heard on the radio, certain they had the wrong Norman. • • • THE HOMEGROWN MOMENTS of levity in our family, at least those that emanated from my parents, were few but memorable. My folks liked to kid each other about what their lives would be like were they to get divorced. In that event, my dad would always take my sister with him and my mother would take me. Claire and I would hear again and again that she was a Lear, "with Dad's blood in her veins," and I was a Seicol. How gallingly insensitive our parents had to be as they delightedly costarred in these scenes, performed for an audience of two--their devastated children. The threat of abandonment by a parent, though, is nothing compared to being thoroughly crushed by both, which happened to me when I was twelve. I had only recently discovered--I mean really discovered--my penis. Utterly intoxicated with the ecstasy I derived from causing it to stand erect and bringing it to the point of climax, backing off as the feeling ebbed, and then climbing the magic hill again, I could pleasure myself endlessly this way--until I failed to catch myself and rose to meet heaven as it descended around me. It would be another year before I could ejaculate, but the multiple climbs to climax were as thrilling as they would ever be, as was the climax itself. I was in the bathtub one evening practicing this craft, climbing slowly up and down my nervous system, when my father, alerted by the sound of water rhythmically splashing for a considerable period of time, did what any father would do--at least any father named Herman Lear. He put his shoulder to the door and ripped the eye hook off the wood as he burst in. A moment later, I was hauled by the ear--naked and dripping wet, trying but failing to wrap a towel around me, my wiener shriveled in shame--to my mother and ordered to apologize to her. Why would a father do that? What could he have had in mind, demanding that a young adolescent boy apologize to his mother for masturbating? If he had sought help to come up with a way to mortify me, to make me feel damaged, he couldn't have done better. When I ask myself what motivated the weird way H.K. fathered his only son, I come up empty. Was it that we were the two males in the house, and that it was the male's function exclusively in those years to support the family, and that, despite his bravado, his failure rate was eating him up inside? And inchoately, senselessly, he flailed? And I got caught in his flail-ure? I don't know if boys today are still told that they could go blind if they masturbate, but the notion was alive and well in 1935. Given how into the activity I was and that H.K. had been a witness to it, my heart was in my mouth when I asked him if it could cost me my eyesight. While he didn't suggest I go out and get an eye patch and a tin cup, he didn't exactly disabuse me of the thought, either. I don't remember him ever talking to me about sex after that incident. The only unsolicited bit of advice from H.K. that leaned toward fatherly was when I started dating. He took me aside one day and, recalling a phrase from his Navy days, gravely advised me, "Norman, if you ever find yourself in a group of guys about to bang the same girl"--could there ever have been a father who knew his son less well?--"never take a wet deck." • • • THE ONE MEMORY I have of my father that was fun, pure fun, was the Notre Dame/Ohio State football game in November 1935, which came to be known as the Game of the Century. I was thirteen and it was one of those occasions where my dad and I bonded so riotously that it blotted out every negative in my life for miles around and years behind. I couldn't have been higher if I were a balloon and H.K. were helium. My father always said his birthday was on St. Patrick's Day, and on that day he wore a green tie. (It wasn't until he died that we found out through the official records that he was actually born two days later.) He had a great Irish accent--when he worked with Irish guys he'd use it all day--and he could sing Irish lullabies in a sweet untuned voice, so of course we were Fighting Irish fans. Ohio State, the Buckeyes, were rated number one that year, so we turned on the radio in heart-thumping anticipation. Imagining the twenty-two players coursing up and down the field, as we did then while listening to radio, was no less exciting than watching it play-by-play on TV today. But by the end of the third quarter, most of the air was out of our balloons. Notre Dame was losing, 13-0. William Shakespeare (that was really his name) was in the Notre Dame backfield at the top of the fourth quarter when coach Elmer Layden sent an almost unheard-of member of the team, Andy Pilney, into the game to join Shakespeare. Even as a "What the hell's going on here?" grumble swept the stands, excitement began to build again. With less than twelve minutes left in the game, Notre Dame started to move the ball and the Shakespeare-Pilney combo started to cook. On the couch, and then on the floor, so did the Lear combo. In ten-plus minutes Shakespeare tossed two touchdown passes caught by Pilney, as the Lears, father and son, kicked, screamed, rolled, and hugged on the floor. And then--and then --don't ask me what plays led to yet another opportunity to score, but with only forty seconds remaining in the game, Shakespeare threw one last pass deep into the Ohio State end zone. It was intended for Pilney, who couldn't get to it, and was caught instead on a dead run-- YES!-- by Notre Dame's Wayne Millner! The Fighting Irish had won, 18-13, and I'd had the most treasured afternoon of my life with the father of my heart's desire. When, some fifty years later, a friend who'd heard that story gifted me at Christmas with a 16mm black-and-white film of the game, I felt like I'd been knighted. IN THOSE BROOKLYN years preceding and following my Bar Mitzvah, I felt less alone when I was by myself in my bedroom than when I was with my family. My buddies accounted for most of the fun and companionship I knew. For a time Eddie Pearl, Bernie Fleischer, and I played harmonicas and called ourselves the Harmonica Rascals, a group that became quite well known throughout an entire building on St. Marks Avenue. On Halloween I recall our gang forsaking all treats for the kick of playing tricks. We'd stick pins into doorbells that buzzed apartments on the upper floors, causing them to ring until the occupants came down to remove them. We'd let the air out of inner tubes on cars parked in the streets, leaving as much as half a block of flat tires. And we were thought to be "good" boys. Marty Ellen would eat a dead fly for a nickel. We'd chip in to see him do it. A penny was real money then. It bought a cigarette. Two cents bought a newspaper. Five cents, one each from five of us, bought Marty Ellen popping a fly. He wanted a dime to do a roach, but with a Uneeda biscuit. A dime was a big deal, so we wanted him to eat the roach live without a biscuit. Somehow taking it with a biscuit made it seem doable, although the rest of us wouldn't go near it for a quarter with two biscuits. I wasn't present the day the deal was finally negotiated and Marty ate a live roach-- barely alive, according to Bernie Fleischer--with a single biscuit for fifteen cents. Herbie Lerner and the Schwarz twins, Edwin and Elliott, were centerpieces in my life away from home. They've all passed on now but I see them as they were then just as clearly as I picture any current friend today. We all belonged to the Young Israel of Eastern Parkway, where I wrote and we performed Sir, You Cur, or the Villain Gets It in the End --Herbie played the villain banker, I the heroine whose house he was foreclosing on--pretty much for our own benefit. If we had a dozen people in the audience, that was more than I recall. We cooked up a ragtag sandlot football team, too. ACHVA, Hebrew for "brotherhood," was our club at Young Israel, and our colors were maroon and gray. We bought great-looking maroon sweaters with a gray A on the chest and two gray stripes on the right sleeve. I was as accomplished at football as I would have been, had I tried, at sumo wrestling. Herbie Lerner was the star runner, passer, and kicker, and my recollections of him doing all that could not be clearer. H.K. would often come to the games, and I ached to be Herbie on those days. I managed to burrow my way to the bottom of a lot of scrimmages, however, so that if he blinked now and then, H.K. might think I was responsible for an occasional tackle. It never worked, but that didn't stop me from trying again two years later when we moved back to Hartford and I entered my sophomore year at Weaver High School. To please my dad, I tried out for the junior varsity team and made it. It didn't hurt that I appeared to be a two-letter man in my maroon sweater with the gray stripes on the sleeve. When some students asked what school I'd gone to I would say Erasmus High, a well-known school in Brooklyn, but to accommodate the A on my sweater, and in Hartford now, I fudged the pronunciation to sound more like Arasmus. A few days into practice, however, I could have been a ten-letter man from anywhere and it wouldn't have mattered. Coach Fred Stone caught on to my pathetic attempts to look like a hard-charging lineman and called me aside. "And what the hell do you think you're doing?" he asked. Minutes later I was pulling my stuff out of my locker and handing back the key. • • • THE LAST WEEKS of my fourteenth summer, I got myself a job in Coney Island shilling for Paramount Pool and Ocean Bathing, a seedy piece of real estate famous among a group of young male frequenters for the several knotholes through which they could see into the girls' showers. On the sidewalk in front of its crummy turnstile entrance, the management had me calling out to passersby anything that came to mind regarding the wonders of the establishment. And so I barked: "Hey, hey, it's Paramount Pool and Ocean Bathing with your own locker! Only twenty-five cents. Twenty-five cents with your own locker. And shower! Why go home with sand jammed where you just don't want a sand jam? The pool, the locker, the shower--twenty-five cents. You go home just the way you were born, one hundred percent sand-free." I loved Coney Island. The shotgun marriage of homegrown tackiness to pretensions of glamour and beguilement fascinated me. Everything was the "best." Or the "speediest." Or the most "breathtaking," "heart-pounding," "terrifying," "enchanting," and "thrilling," and all of it "never seen before." Pounding a sledgehammer on a slab hard enough to ring a bell at the top of a wired pole was a "Prove You're a Man!" extravaganza! And so I came back the following year and spent all of my fifteenth summer barking again for Paramount P&O Bathing and shilling for two other attractions, equally eccentric. There was the thinnest, palest guy I've ever seen, with breath that could peel an onion, who operated a six-for-a-nickel photo booth. I'm not sure whether he spoke English. He hired me off my pool and ocean bathing gig by waving a couple of dollar bills at me. I hoped he meant per hour; he meant per day. "Hey, hey, it's six for a nickel, five cents, the only place on the island! Looky here, little girl, you ought to be in pictures! Six for a nickel, five cents! A twentieth of a dollar gets you six delicious photos of yourself to last a lifetime! My personal guarantee: If you find a better deal on the island, let me know and I will personally help you spread the word!" In the rain of hyperbole it didn't matter what the hell I said. My third job at Coney that summer was selling ears of corn out of a steaming barrel for an elderly, sheet-garbed Sikh gentleman who taught me a lesson of the natural world that, like my uncle Ed with the porcelain, he wished me never to forget. "You salt the ear of corn before you brush on the butter. Why, you wonder? Because the less expensive salt when applied first will prevent the more expensive butter from running off as quickly, and so that way we use how much of the more expensive ingredient? LESS is how much, we use LESS !" I recall thinking that if he had thirty kids selling from thirty barrels for thirty summers, all employing his salt-first strategy, it might have sped up his retirement by thirty minutes. Maybe forty. • • • THE BEST TIME of year was when my grandparents, Bubbe and Zayde, came to stay with us for the High Holidays. Their arrival was preceded days before by two or three barrels of dishes, carefully wrapped in the Yiddish newspapers Zayde had read to the last word. (The wrapping was to keep the dairy dishes at a remove from the meat dishes and vice versa.) I'm not sure what would have happened had anyone set down a lamb chop on a dairy dish, but the way my grandfather carried on if he saw a hat on the kitchen table or an open umbrella in the house, I'm sure there would have been hell to pay. Granted, the hat and umbrella instances were only superstitions, but they caused him to pound furniture while praying aloud agitatedly between gritted teeth, the Jewish equivalent, I thought, of crossing himself a thousand times. But mixing meat and dairy was a no-no from on high, and I thank God it never occurred in Zayde's presence when I was about. I loved my grandparents' visits. They provided a reprieve from the four-way stress we lived with daily. And for me there was the oasis of peace, love, and understanding that was my bubbe. For several days there was someone in the house who "got" me. My parents and grandfather had one another to stress over, and the difference for us kids was like a month in the country. • • • IN THE COURSE of our Brooklyn years there was a big stir regarding bonuses that Congress promised to World War I vets in 1922 and finally paid in 1936. My father saw prewar service in the Navy and then joined the Army after the war started. He was stationed in Mexico and did not see active duty, but as a vet he received something like twenty-one hundred dollars, a small fortune at the time. Mother and he ceremoniously placed it in a safe-deposit box, as opposed to an interest-bearing bank account, so that she could visit her cash whenever she felt the urge. No one knew better than her husband that Mother was certain to feel that urge on a regular basis, so it was as meat-headed and irrational as it was deceitful when he raided that box and "borrowed" the cash, all of it, to invest in something that was due to pay off in ten days to two weeks--tops. My mother cried, beat her chest, and pulled her hair for days. My dad went dumb. I didn't have the stomach for picking up my clipboard. Watching my mother beat herself, I fought hard not to come apart. I thought, "I don't know whether to shit or go blind," an expression I'd heard that conveyed what I was going through and amused me at the same time. It was the amusement I needed. My sister was in some sort of shock and wouldn't come out of her room. As an older brother, I tried to make her laugh at the goings-on. This was a comedy, I told her, and we should be laughing. That might have worked, but when she looked into my eyes my age and fear showed. There, I was four. The episode ended with my mother packing to leave and me thinking the time had come when I was going to live with her and Claire with my dad. Given what had gone down between them for so long, that would have been logical. Instead, she was leaving alone and asked me to help her to the subway with the bags. For me it was a three-block death march. She stopped when we reached the entry to the subway and stood there looking down the stairs, then furtively over her shoulder, and then all around, not talking, not descending, and beginning to cry again. A minute or two later, collecting what remained of herself, she turned abruptly and started walking away. "Where are you going?" I asked, bewildered. "Home," she responded. "Where else would I be going? Home." • • • SOME MONTHS AFTER the bonus money fiasco, my folks celebrated their fifteenth wedding anniversary. H.K. took us to his "favorite restaurant in all the world." Not that we had reason to believe he'd eaten in that many fine restaurants, and certainly not across the globe, but whenever he was asked to back up some seemingly questionable declaration, or explain how he happened to be in possession of some arcane statistic that supported his point of view in an argument, he'd say, "Because I've been everywhere the grass grows green and I've seen everything." Christ Cella on West Forty-sixth Street was famous then for its steak and lobster. The H.K. who walked in with his family that night had very likely had a haircut and manicure that afternoon. Mother enjoyed that H.K. to the hilt, accepting the goods and grandeur, never asking how we could afford it. Mother, Claire, and I ordered steak, Dad a lobster. "A female lobster," he specified. The waiter seemed confused. "Do you know a female from a male?" Dad asked. It was obvious that the waiter did not. "The females," Dad informed him, "are more tender." All the waiter could manage was an uneasy smile. My mother to a degree and Claire to the limit were embarrassed. When Dad suggested the waiter bring some live lobsters to the table so he could pick a female, Claire begged him, "Don't!" Finally, the maître d' interceded and told the waiter to escort Dad to the kitchen so that he might carefully pick out his entrée. Out of his chair in a split second, Dad said, "Come on, kids. I'll show you how to pick a female. Sweet as your mom." Claire refused to move. I, who'd been hovering between "My dad's being an asshole" and outright awe, was now in the "totally awesome" camp. I followed the waiter and my father into the Christ Cella kitchen. To my surprise, perhaps to my father's also, there were a few tables and people were dining there. They must have looked like the "in" crowd to Dad, because he took me there a few times before I went overseas, and from then on we always ate in the kitchen. As to how you can tell a female lobster from a male? I watched closely with our waiter, the maître d', and a few other fascinated workers as H.K. picked up and poked around the bellies of several clawing lobsters. Finally he said, "Ah, there!" and the others applauded. To this day, you'd have to slip a lobster into tiny panties and a bra before I could identify a female. On Mother's pillow when we arrived home was a poem Dad had ostensibly written to commemorate the occasion. Actually, he'd confidentially asked me to write it for him. I'd been writing poems for a little while. One of them, nothing one couldn't imagine any young kid writing, received an honorable mention in a New York Daily Mirror contest. That gave him the idea and so I wrote, and he presented as his own that night, "TOGETHER": The 15 years I've been with you, We've shed many a tear, 'tis true. But life for us has just begun We've yet to have all our fun, As long as we're TOGETHER. And when, my dear, we're old and gray, And life for us is sunny weather We'll look back on our lives and say It has been fun TOGETHER. Mother was thrilled with the poem and wept when she read it. Between Christ Cella and "TOGETHER," if their love life was half as hot as she coyly and mischievously maneuvered conversations to suggest when she was in her eighties, they must have had a passionate night. When we moved to Hartford a year later, Mother framed and hung that poem in the vestibule, where it remained as long as we lived there. To my knowledge she never knew its true author--not even thirty-five years later, when, on the very first episode of All in the Family, daughter Gloria buys a gift for her father, Archie Bunker, to give to Edith, his wife, on the occasion of their twenty-second wedding anniversary. Edith takes the little package, tears off the wrapping, and opens the box. "Oh, my!" she screeches, and, as if picking up the Hope Diamond, adds, "It's a Lady Gillette!" With it came a greeting card that causes Edith to announce delightedly, "I bet it's a Hallmark!" Tearing it open, she adds, without a trace of disappointment, "Well, almost." And then Edith begins to read "Together." Overcome by just the title, she turns lovingly to Archie, who can't handle affection. "All right, Edith, get on with it, get on with it," he says, and she reads on, with just one change in the first line to accommodate the story line: "The twenty-two years I've been with you . . ." When Mother called after the show I expected some degree of sentiment, but the poem was never mentioned. She did hope I wouldn't be troubled by what some people might say about Archie's language. And she snickered when she said, "And leave it to that Edith to carry on about a Lady Gillette!" • • • Excerpted from Even This I Get to Experience by Norman Lear All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Prefacep. xi
Part 1 Alone in a Going Worldp. 1
Part 2 Those Were the Daysp. 123
Part 3 Joyful Stressp. 241
Part 4 Over and Nextp. 321
Acknowledgmentsp. 439