One of the world’s great photographers and perhaps the greatest portrait photographer ever, Richard Avedon died today. Avedon started out in the fashion world, and then he became equally well known as a portraitist in the documentary style. He was known for placing his subjects in front of an all white background, for eliciting hidden emotions from his subjects, and for his meticulous darkroom work. Photos, a timeline, and various other goodies can be found here. Here are his most comprehensive collections: Evidence: 1944-1994 and An Autobiography
When I heard the news that Buddy Cianci — serial felon, wearer of atrocious toupees, revered and reviled former mayor of Providence, R.I. — had died on Jan. 28 at the age of 74, my first thought was not about death. It was about my birth as a writer. In May of 1976, a free Providence weekly called Fresh Fruit published my interview with Cianci, then the city’s brash young Republican mayor. Forty years later, I still own a crumbling clip of that interview. Maybe that’s not surprising since that clip is the first piece of writing I ever published, the first time I saw my byline in print. It’s my birth certificate. Writers tend to cherish such things.
When I interviewed him, Cianci had been in office for 16 months and I was one month away from my college graduation. More to the point, I was on a caffeine- and amphetamine-fueled binge to finish writing the final chapters of a history of the city of Providence, an independent-study project I’d been working on for two years because I’d become intoxicated by the city’s crazy quilt of ethnic neighborhoods, its fluorescent Mob presence, its post-industrial ruins, its wobbly triple-deckers and Greek Revival gems, its scuzzy waterfront, the milky fogs that spilled in off Narragansett Bay, the overall sense that this was a once-mighty shipping and manufacturing center the best times of which were long past. The place felt forgotten. The Wall Street Journal dismissed Providence as “a smudge beside the fast lane to Cape Cod.” That’s precisely what I loved about the place: it was the un-Boston, with little of the conventional New England charm. And it was a prolific incubator of criminals. Jimmy Breslin might have had Buddy Cianci in mind when he said, “Providence is where the best thieves come from.” What better way to end my elegiac history of this faded old city than by interviewing its optimistic, forward-looking young mayor?
For as far back as anyone could remember, politics in Providence had been controlled by a Democratic machine that ran on the grease of patronage — payoffs, kickbacks, bribes, no-show jobs, rigged contracts and other niceties. Cianci, a political novice, had come out of nowhere to stun the Democratic incumbent, a booze-marinated Irish ward heeler named Joe Doorley. Well, not quite nowhere. Cianci, the city’s first Italian-American mayor, had come up through the attorney general’s anti-corruption task force, where he made a specialty of going after Mob families. Providence was a target-rich environment in those days. After a murder conviction in 1970, Raymond Loreda Salvatore Patriarca, Sr., head of the New England Mob, had relocated his headquarters from Providence’s heavily Italian Federal Hill neighborhood to his cell in the federal penitentiary in Atlanta. Business remained brisk.
When I called the mayor’s office to request an interview, Cianci, to my surprise, readily agreed to sit down with a nobody college boy writing for a weekly throwaway. I shouldn’t have been surprised. Then and for the rest of his days, Cianci was a publicity hog, a one-liner machine, a shameless promoter of his city and himself. In the introduction to the Fresh Fruit interview, I adopted the ostentatious first-person plural (hey, I was 23 years old and still operating under the influence of The New Yorker):
On a chilly Tuesday afternoon we were ushered into the mayor’s office in City Hall, a plush inner sanctum with a thick red rug on the floor, with blonde woodwork on the walls and chandeliers suspended from the distant ceilings. Through spotless tall windows we could see the scrum of buses, pedestrians and cars on Kennedy Plaza — an inaudible world that seemed miles away. Buddy Cianci was seated at his spacious desk poring over the Evening Bulletin. He was wearing only two of his suit’s three pieces: the jacket was draped over a coat rack in the corner. He looked puffy, as though the vest was uncomfortably snug. In a hoarse voice he complained about a touch of laryngitis. He motioned us toward gaudy chairs and, sipping ginger ale, launched into an unprompted monologue…
Re-reading those words 40 years after they were written, I’m dismayed that I failed to mention Cianci’s most defining physical trait: a toupee so shamelessly synthetic and pelt-like that even he referred to it as “the squirrel.” The most memorable — and prescient — thing Cianci said during that rambling interview came when we got onto the subject of the Democratic machine he had defeated: “You know, Lord Acton once said it — and I always like to repeat my friend Lord Acton: ‘Absolute power corrupts absolutely.’”
In due time Cianci’s power would become far more absolute than Joe Doorley’s had ever been. A few months after he granted me an audience in City Hall, Cianci gave an electrifying speech at the Republican national convention. Overnight he became a GOP darling, proof that the party was still relevant in the cities of the Northeast, and there was talk of Cianci as a vice presidential candidate, maybe in a cabinet post, or a senate seat. His potential seemed boundless.
Using his charm, energy, and ruthless political skills, Cianci won re-election as mayor in 1978 and again in 1982. I’d left Providence shortly after my college graduation, but I always kept an ear cocked for news about the city, which usually amounted to news about Cianci — or the latest perp walk by one of his minions. As Cianci’s power grew, the FBI’s interest in corruption inside City Hall grew along with it. During Cianci’s first tenure as mayor, 22 city workers were convicted on corruption charges. But the FBI couldn’t lay a glove on Buddy Cianci. Only Buddy Cianci could do that.
In 1983 Cianci got himself involved in a little dustup that would have shocked even world-wise Lord Acton. One night the mayor summoned a wealthy contractor named Raymond DeLeo to his home and, as a city cop and two other men looked on, Cianci accused DeLeo of having an affair with his estranged wife. Cianci then proceeded to spend three hours assaulting DeLeo with a versatile arsenal that included fists, feet, saliva, an ashtray, a lit cigarette and a fireplace log. It was like a game of Clue for Sociopaths: the Mayor did it in the Living Room with the Lit Cigarette and the Fireplace Log.
Cianci pleaded no contest to the assault and kidnapping charges and resigned as mayor. He received a five-year suspended sentence and spent the time hosting a popular radio talk show, keeping his name in the air, waiting for his chance. Eligible to run again in 1990, he was re-elected by 317 votes.
Only in Providence, I thought, when I heard the news about Cianci’s astonishing comeback. The attitude of voters seemed to be Hey, DeLeo was screwing the guy’s wife. He had it coming. Besides, Buddy was a great mayor.
Now Cianci’s power became absolutely absolute. The mayor clearly loved his city, and his city loved him back. He produced a pasta sauce, Mayor’s Own Marinara Sauce, and donated the proceeds to a scholarship fund. He was everywhere, attending Little League games, banquets, business openings. It was said he would attend the opening of an envelope. He became a wise-cracking regular on the “Imus in the Morning” radio show. There was no denying that he was doing a spectacular job of rebuilding the city’s downtown and burnishing its faded image, but he was also turning City Hall into what one judge would call “a criminal enterprise,” a place where envelopes of cash changed hands as people paid bribes to buy city jobs, contracts, reduced tax bills, or city land. Cianci made Joe Doorley and his Democratic lords look like a bunch of schoolboys.
Unfortunately, the FBI was still on the case. In 2001 Cianci was indicted by a federal grand jury on racketeering, conspiracy, extortion, witness tampering and mail fraud in the FBI’s so-called Plunder Dome investigation. In June of 2002 Cianci was found guilty on one count of racketeering and acquitted of 11 other corruption charges. While he was awaiting sentencing that summer, I got it into my head that his rollercoaster career would make an interesting magazine article, maybe even a book. So I took an exploratory trip back to Providence, where I witnessed the weekly WaterFire spectacle downtown — bonfires on the river set to New Age music — and I was astonished to see that in the past quarter-century downtown had been transformed, almost miraculously, from a ghost town into a vibrant hub of activity. I read newspaper microfilm in the downtown library and roamed the city, compiling a tidy little stack of Cianci’s achievements and misdemeanors, plus a sense that beyond the shiny new downtown, the city hadn’t changed all that much. The industrial ruins were still there, the triple-deckers still wobbled, the public schools were worse than ever. The city struck me as a miniature version of Baltimore: a shiny veneer doing its best to conceal a lot of rot.
In September, Cianci was sentenced to five years in prison. At the sentencing, U.S. District Judge Ernest Torres said, “I’m struck by the parallels between this case and the classic story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. There appear to be two very different Buddy Ciancis.” In 2003 a Providence Journal reporter named Mike Stanton published a richly reported book on Cianci, The Prince of Providence, which became a bestseller. My own book project died aborning.
After serving his five years at the federal prison in Fort Dix, N.J., Cianci emerged immaculately bald, shorn of the squirrel. “I took my medicine,” he told The New York Times. “I took it like a man.” Then he went back on the radio airwaves, wrote an autobiography called Politics and Pasta, and got busy plotting yet another comeback.
For all the many things he did in life, both good and bad, it’s hard not see Buddy Cianci as a gifted politician who missed a shot at greatness. His seemingly boundless early potential never led to much. For all the loyalty he inspired in the citizens of Providence, his peculiar style — the squirrel, the marinara sauce, the one-liners, the stubborn whiff of corruption — did not travel well beyond the city limits. He ran for governor of Rhode Island in 1980 and was beaten badly by the incumbent Democrat, J. Joseph Garrahy. Cianci considered a run for U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy’s seat in 2010, but decided against it. Then in 2014, after a bout with cancer, Cianci made one last run for his old job at City Hall.
It turned out that even the voters of Providence do not possess a bottomless reservoir of forbearance. In the 2014 mayoral election, Cianci lost to Jorge Elorza, the current mayor, who ordered the flags at City Hall flown at half-staff when the word spread of Cianci’s death.
Mike Stanton, the former Providence Journal reporter who wrote the book on Cianci, said the man “embodied the best and worst of American politics.” True, as far as it goes, but I can’t help thinking that American politics is a little bit poorer — and drabber — without the fluorescent presence of people like Buddy Cianci, a skillful politician, a man who loved his city, a Jekyll & Hyde figure who forgot the lessons Lord Acton had tried to teach him. We used to have vivid, inspiring, maddening politicians like Huey Long and Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson and Coleman Young and Buddy Cianci. Nowadays, what passes for colorful is that bad dye job called Donald Trump.
The obituarist who came closest to the truth about Buddy Cianci was Dan Barry. Writing in The New York Times, Barry called Cianci “a walking coulda-been.” Perfect. Absolutely perfect.
Image Credit: LPW.
Not having really read anything that David Halberstam wrote, I cannot write a good-faith eulogy of the man, nor engage in anything deeper than a surface discussion of his books. But because what I have read about Halberstam has painted him as a great journalistic voice of 20th century America, and because I have recently been barking about journalists and their books, it is appropriate to acknowledge Halberstam’s unfortunate death Monday with some choice words.Two aspects of Halberstam’s written work resonate with me: his war correspondence and his interest in sports, specifically baseball. Halberstam wrote an acclaimed book about America’s journey down the road to Vietnam, The Best and the Brightest. This road was built by a few American power brokers and followed by many American GIs, and though we did finally find the off-ramp, the road we are on today offers similar views of an ugly countryside for those who have not fallen asleep at the back of the bus.On a more personal level, I have a vivid memory of being a young kid sitting at the foot of my parents’ bed as my Dad read aloud from a book by David Halberstam called Summer of ’49. A book about a different sort of journey, Summer of ’49 chronicles the legendary pennant race that year between two little baseball teams: The Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees. The reader will learn that Joe DiMaggio had a brother, Dominick, who could play ball (though for the Sox), that Ted Williams hit like a hawk-eyed lumberjack, and that this particular race for first place was arguably the greatest in the vaunted History Of Baseball – and also represented a coming of age for the game in post-WWII America.There is something to the notion of sports as a balm for citizens suffering from war fatigue. They are soldiers abroad gathered in a tent in the desert somewhere to watch the Super Bowl on television, and they are children bypassing front page headlines in favor of the sports section, and the box scores of games that they were forbidden to watch because of woefully premature bed times. Sporting events bring people together in celebration of achievement, rather than in protest of failure, and are thus both a distraction from the duty of citizens as witnesses to history, no matter how grim, and at the same time real and not insignificant demonstrations of the values of a free society, complete with overpriced cotton candy, and (today) overpriced athletes. Athletic competition, so often couched in terms of battle when described, transcends violence. It is an elevated and, I would argue, rather sophisticated form of human interaction.David Halberstam will be recognized as a writer who occupied territory where these two cultural phenomena, sports and war – with seemingly endless parallel lines of history – could be said to intersect.
On March 12, a tweet from his official Twitter account announced that Sir Terry Pratchett, a fantasy author whose books have sold more than 75 million copies in over 37 languages, had passed away. Since he was diagnosed with posterior cortical atrophy, a rare form of Alzheimer’s in 2007, fans knew that Pratchett’s days were numbered. Still, his death came as a shock to many; his demise so hard to accept that people even petitioned Death to bring him back.
I was among those signing the petition. I discovered Terry Pratchett just after I moved to Edinburgh for graduate school. I found his novels while browsing through one of the many secondhand bookstores that populate Edinburgh’s cobbled streets and narrow alleys. It was Guards! Guards! — the eighth of Pratchett’s novels that takes place in the Discworld, and the first that concerns the city’s watch — that caught my attention. In bold font, the back cover promised me that after reading the book I would never view dragons the same way again. For £1.25, I thought that was a pretty good deal, and purchased it. Two hours later, I had finished the book.
When you read Terry Pratchett’s novels, you disappear into a different world. This is the Discworld a flat earth that sits on the back of four giant elephants who in turn stand on the back of a giant turtle that swims through space. This world is populated with not only humans but witches, wizards, trolls, dwarfs, gnomes, golems, werewolves, and vampires.
There is never a dull moment in Discworld; from dragons attacking to wars brewing between continents to Death being fired from his job, plots abound. Even the founding of the local newspaper and bank generate enough excitement to merit their own books. Despite its dangers though, Discworld is mostly a hilarious place, as evidenced in lines such as, “They felt, in fact, tremendously bucked-up, which was how Lady Ramkin would almost certainly have put it and which was definitely several letters of the alphabet away from how they normally felt.”
Underneath the hilarity, the excitement, and the adventure lies the deep dark secret of Pratchett’s books — they are actually quite serious. Guards! Guards!, for example, opens on the captain of the city watch, Samuel Vimes, lying “drunker” in a street gutter. Vimes, we later learn, has a slight problem with alcohol. Issues that subsequently come up in the book besides alcoholism include racism, sexism, immigration, war, growing up, religious fundamentalism, death, faith, ethnic identity, nationalism, and what it is, fundamentally, that makes us human (or troll or dwarf).
Browse through any of Pratchett’s books, and you are more than likely to trip over a piece of insight similar to this one offered up by the dragon in Guards! Guards!: “We were supposed to be cruel, cunning, heartless and terrible,” he says. “But this much I can tell you, you ape…we never burned and tortured and ripped one another apart and called it morality.” These moments are no less potent for being buried under countless layers of humor and fantasy; if anything, they are more so. Pratchett’s books take you away from the world, yes, but only to give you a better perspective on it.
In his ability to do this, Pratchett joins a rare class of writers — those who can shed light on the world around us, and our place in it. In many ways though, he, and other fantasy writers, have not and will never be fully recognized for this. Though Pratchett has won a multitude of awards, and has even been knighted, most of his honors were fantasy or sci-fi specific. He did not receive his first mainstream literary award — the Carnegie Medal for best children’s book — until 2001, well after he was already a bestselling author with dozens of books under his belt.
Pratchett himself commented on this problem. At the awards dinner for the Carnegie Medal he said, “I’m especially pleased because [The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents] isn’t just fantasy but funny fantasy, too. It’s nice to see humour taken seriously.” Another famed fantasy writer, Neil Gaiman, Pratchett’s friend and one-time co-author noted once that there was an anger that fueled Pratchett’s writing, and commented that it was partly, “anger at pompous critics, and at those who think serious is the opposite of funny.”
To classify Pratchett — or any author — in this way is to deny his genius. Just because a book takes place in another world — one with wizards and witches and trolls and dwarfs — doesn’t mean it can’t also provide insight into our own. The fact that a book might interest children doesn’t mean it isn’t also crammed full of wisdom for adults. And just because a book makes us laugh, that doesn’t automatically mean it can’t also make us think.
I will always be grateful to Terry Pratchett for gifting me and countless others with more entertainment than anyone rightly deserves. His books enlighten, critique, amuse, and inspire. They are well-imagined, well-crafted, and, above all, exceptionally well-written. As we watch memorial after memorial crop up to Terry Pratchett — obituaries, articles, posts plastered over social media — we should remember him for all that he was. Not just one of the greatest fantasy writers of this generation, but one of its greatest writers.
 These lines though, are nothing compared to Pratchett’s footnotes, which will leave you disturbing everyone’s commute when you sporadically laugh out loud in the subway
Image Credit: Wikipedia.