Monthly Archives: November 2013

The JFK Assassination: An American View from Europe

               Our country had seemed to go insane, and we were helpless bystanders disconnected by the width of an ocean.

Front pages of 7 British daily newspapers in London.  AP Photo/File

Front pages of 7 British daily newspapers in London. AP Photo/File

In September of 1963, Bob Friedman and I were newly graduated from the University of Virginia and, after a ten-day cruise on a German coal freighter, began hitchhiking our way across Europe as young writers who had read Ernest Hemingway and Henry Miller were expected to do. We had landed in Amsterdam, detoured to Denmark and Sweden, then crossed back into Germany, and spent our prerequisite time in Paris. The next objective was to cross the English Channel and stay some days in London. By the 20th, we had installed ourselves at the London YMCA.  Bob remembers that carved into the wall of that YMCA were the words, “Fear is the Beginning of Wisdom.”

While in Copenhagen Bob and I had met an Englishman of our own age, and we were invited to visit him at his parents’ home in Reading and at his workplace gentlemen’s residence club in Virginia Water, a small town near historic Windsor Castle. Kurt was a nurse at Holloway Sanatorium, a palatial hospital for the insane established in 1885. The Virginia Water Railway Station was on the London to Reading line and only 22 miles from London’s Charing Cross Station.

Virginia Water Railway Station

Virginia Water Railway Station

On the late afternoon of November 22nd, Bob and I took the train from London to Virginia Water to be the dinner guests at Kurt’s residence club. We had been to the club once before as it was our hub for exploring the historic sites and dance clubs in Windsor. We arrived at the door of the residence around 7 p.m. We rang the front door bell, and unexpectedly, we were met by the housekeeper who was usually not seen in the evening.

The middle-aged woman housekeeper appeared to us as someone sadly shaken. “I am so sorry,” she said sincerely. We were confused. What was she sorry about? Then her eyes widened in horror, and she asked, “You don’t know, do you?”  Before we could respond, she left us standing there outside the door. Her rapid departure surprised us as an unusual breach of English etiquette.

JFK in Dallas

JFK in Dallas

Kurt soon appeared with an apology that went far beyond the greeting faux pas. “I am so sorry,” he began. “Please come in. We are all gathered in the game room watching the television. Your President has been shot.”

There was no hot meal served that night in the residence club. Sandwich fare was available, but the focus was on the television news updates and on alcoholic drinks to calm a world turned upside down.  John F. Kennedy, our President, was shot in Dallas, Texas about 12:30 Central Time. In England, the first terrible news flash arrived after 6:30 p.m. London time. Bob and I stayed late with our consoling English friends, and then we walked back to the train station.

On the return trip to London, we wept for the first time in an otherwise empty compartment. The tears had no political or relationship bias. What we felt or imagined about JFK was not as heart stabbing as the isolation that we experienced as Americans abroad. Our country had seemed to go insane, and we were helpless bystanders disconnected by the width of an ocean.

Coming out of Charing Cross Station well before dawn, we encountered newsboys already hawking special-edition newspapers that headlined the Kennedy assassination. We bought a paper, but there were no further revelations in it.

The next day, we took the train to Dover and were going to cross into France. We went into an almost empty pub to wait an hour or two for the ferry.  There were only two Englishmen seated there, and they turned to look at us as we entered and took a table.  In those days, it seemed that everyone in Europe could tell we were Americans simply by the clothes we wore.  As we waited for the half-pints to arrive, one of the Englishmen, in a heavy cockney accent, said (not to us, as his back was turned, but just to the room), “’e was a bloody Christian martyr, ’e was.”

JFK lies in repose

Everywhere we traveled, European flags were at half-mast. And everywhere that we were recognized as Americans, strangers in varying degrees of English expressed sympathy to us as if JFK had been a close family member. By the time we returned to Copenhagen, the state funeral for our dead President was in progress, and Lee Harvey Oswald had been shot dead while in police custody.  We saw the massive television coverage of these events years later in replay. As students abroad, we knew only what was reported in the thin expatriate newspaper, The Herald Tribune.

JFK caissons

Bob remained in Copenhagen and found a room at one of the student dormitories at the university there.  He remembers that the Danish students were glued to the television for days, watching the news about the assassination, the Oswald murder, and the investigations that followed.  It appeared to him that the Danish people loved Kennedy and felt in some way that he was going to be the savior in a world deeply divided by a bitter cold war.  They were devastated that he was gone.

I migrated to Stockholm but got involved with painters and filmmakers on projects that did not qualify me for my graduate student draft deferment.  By October 1964, I was drafted into the U.S. Army and participated in President Johnson’s massive commitment of troops to the Viet Nam War.  Earlier in 1964, Bob had gone back to graduate school to pursue an M.F.A. and later became a publisher and published six of my books. We have remained close friends for over 50 years, and our sons and daughters think of us as brothers. I am “Uncle Monty” to Bob’s children.  I guess we’ll always remember being together, in a foreign land, on that momentous day in American history.

Bob and Monty many years later.

Bob and Monty many years later.

Monty (l) and Bob present a copy of New Writing from Virginia to UVA President Edgar Shannon in 1963 prior to sailing for Europe.

Monty (l) and Bob present a copy of New Writing from Virginia to UVA President Edgar Shannon in 1963 prior to sailing for Europe.

4 Comments

Filed under Famous People, Memoirs, Writing

Mel Tormé: Best Male Jazz Vocalist

Mel Torme first photoI was already a Mel Tormé fan when I began to go to New York City in the falls of the mid-1970s to solicit national print ads for Metro Hampton Roads Magazine from major advertising agencies. My boss, George Crump, installed me a week at a time at his favorite NYC hotel, the elegant St. Regis, with a prestigious signature account. Imagine my delight when I discovered that Mel Tormé unofficially opened New York’s fall cabaret season with a show in the Maisonette, the hotel’s nightclub.

With a magazine journalist’s panache I was never reluctant to stick my nose into things like celebrity rehearsals, and thus I bumped into Mel Tormé and engaged him in conversation. At age 49, without makeup, hairpiece, and perhaps a girdle, Mel resembled a middle-aged traveling salesman more than he did a musical prodigy and dynamic entertainer.

Normally, Mel explained, the club area was off limits to visitors during rehearsals, but for whatever reason, he made an exception for me although I was making sales calls out of the hotel for most of the day.

St. Regis Hotel

If you don’t know the genius of Mel Tormé, you should be advised that the Velvet Fog voice was one of the greatest musicians, singers, songwriters, and arrangers of his generation.  His hit records and recognitions included the Down Beat Award for Best Male Jazz Singer (1976), and two Grammy Awards for Best Male Vocalist (1983) and Best Male Jazz Vocalist (1984). You will certainly recognize Mel for writing the music to The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On an Open Fire) that was first made a hit by Nat King Cole.

Mel Torme with Benny Goodman and Teddy Wilson

Mel Torme with Benny Goodman and Teddy Wilson

Mel knew and learned from legendary drummers Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa, so when he steps away from the piano to do a drum set, you will be awed.  During the 1979 Chicago Jazz Festival, Mel played drums with Benny Goodman on the classic Sing, Sing, Sing. Who would have dared if he didn’t have the chops?

For Mel’s 1974 opening night at the Maisonette, I used the status of my St. Regis signature account to reserve a front-row table in the hotel showroom. My then-wife flew into New York from Norfolk, Virginia for the weekend, and I also invited another couple to join us.  I was recruiting the husband to be our magazine’s sales manager, and if my acquaintanceship with Mel Tormé didn’t impress him, nothing would. Also, I had a better table than many of the show business celebrities in the room.

The album Mel Tormé: Live At The Maisonette resulted from that September show, and it includes a medley of 17 George Gershwin songs that runs for more than 15 minutes. Mel’s arrangements and performance that night earned him a standing ovation.  He also did a fabulous drum set, and I also believe that he even played a trumpet solo! He was called back to the stage for two or three encores, and in one pass by our table, Mel leaned in and gave a long stem rose to my wife from those that had just been presented to him. Wow, Mel!  What had I done to deserve that!

Mel had invited me to visit the Maisonette off-stage Green Room after the show, so I left my wife and guests briefly to pay respects to one of the greatest examples of talent and showmanship that I had ever witnessed. The Green Room was crowded with Mel’s friends that included songwriter Burt Bacharach, comedian Henny Youngman, and television star Morey Amsterdam among others.

Then I witnessed a very shocking thing. The great Mel Tormé, drenched in sweat and fresh from repeated standing ovations, was yet pleading for our approbations. Did we really love the show? Did the Gershwin medley work?  When he shook my hand, I wanted to shout to him, “Mel. Relax! Tonight you are the king of the world.” But instead, I said something like “wonderful” and “incredible” and withdrew from the unexpected scene. Is it perfection that drives entertainers to self-doubt even in the hour of their greatest triumph?

Mel Torme Mel Torme open photoThe next time that I saw Mel Tormé was in Las Vegas at the Sands Hotel showroom. It was a year or so later, and Mel was opening for Rich Little, a comedic impressionist at the height of his fame. I happened to be staying at the Sands, and so I ran into Mel and his family at the huge central courtyard pool. I didn’t want to intrude on his privacy, so the greeting was brief with my mention of his kindnesses to me at the St. Regis.

Sammy Davis, Jr., one of Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack, once allowed Mel Tormé to open for his Las Vegas act, but he soon discovered that Mel’s show was too hard to follow. The audience was totally spent by the time Sammy got on stage.  Anyway, that was the story told to me by a Vegas gambler.

From his first published song at the age of 16—“Lament to Love”—that became a hit recording for bandleader Harry James, Mel Tormé proved to be one of the top musical talents of his generation. And like the character Judge Harry Stone on the 1980s television situation comedy Night Court, I am also an unabashed fan of Mel Tormé.   That's All

3 Comments

Filed under Entertainment, Famous People, Memoirs, Music, Writing