Two Journal writers shine, in poetry and prose

Readers of the Jewish Journal already know the work of Carol V. Davis, our poetry editor, and Tom Teicholz, author of the long-running “Tommywood” column. Now we can read the literary efforts of Davis and Teicholz between the covers of two newly published books, each one notable for the light it casts on their work.

“Being There: Journalism 1978-2000” by Teicholz (Rare Bird Books) is a collection of his essays and profiles, appropriately described by its publisher as “like the best dinner party you never went to.” We eavesdrop on Teicholz in conversation with movers and shakers ranging from rock impresario Bill Graham to financier Baron Guy de Rothschild, from junk-bond-king-turned-philanthropist Michael Milken to Nobelist and Yiddishist Isaac Bashevis Singer, and even novelist Jerzy Kosinski, author of the novel that shares a title with Teicholz’s book. Many of these pieces first appeared in The Paris Review, The New York Times Magazine, and The New Yorker, but the anthology is leavened with a few previously unpublished pieces.

As we discover in the autobiographical preface to “Being There,” the title is the key to understanding Teicholz’s writing career as well as the principle of selection that produced the book itself. He describes how he made the scene with the literati and glitterati of Manhattan starting in the mid-1970s, a who’s who of artists, writers and celebrities of every stripe: “Being there was a case of right place, right time,” he explains. “Journalism was a way in — to people, places, experiences as much reason as excuse always to be learning.”

Teicholz displays all of his characteristic wit and insight. He dubbed Singer “the Yiddish Yoga,” for example, and reports that Kosinski thought Peter Sellers was too old for the role he played so memorably in the movie version of “Being There,” but reconciled himself to the casting decision because Sellers “underwent plastic surgery for the role.” Some of Teicholz’s most sustained and important journalism, by contrast, focuses on aspects and echoes of the Holocaust, including an article about the protest against Ronald Reagan’s visit to the Bitburg cemetery in Germany, where SS troops are among the buried, and the war crimes trial of John Demjanjuk in Israel.

Teicholz, who is a producer as well as a journalist (and, by the way, an attorney), has an eye for the telling detail and the revealing word, as he demonstrates in “The Trial of John Damjanjuk,” which was first published in the Forward in 1990.

“There had been talk that Demjanjuk would sit in Adolf Eichmann’s bulletproof glass booth, but security officials decided against that precaution,” he writes. “Wearing a brown suit, he had adopted Israeli custom and wore no tie, just an open shirt. … Demjanjuk raised his arm in what some feared would be a salute but turned out to be a gentle wave of his hand. He shouted in his deep voice, ‘Boker tov’ — Hebrew for ‘good morning’ — and then, ‘Hello, Cleveland,’ to the TV cameras.”

Davis’ work for the Jewish Journal consists of curating the poetry of others, but her book “Because I Cannot Leave This Body” (New Odyssey Series/Truman State University Press) is a showcase for her own verse, both exquisite and powerful. Perhaps the best way to signal the extraordinary scope of her work is to note that the new collection includes a glossary with definitions ranging from “Hamsa” to “Kufi” to “Tzitzit.” Equally significant is the fact that an earlier book of her poetry, “It’s Time to Talk About” was published in Russia, which Davis twice visited as a Fulbright scholar, in an English-Russian edition.

Poetry criticism requires a vocabulary that is often intelligible only to other poets, but I think it is both useful and accurate to say that the poems in Davis’ new collection are blessedly accessible to the general reader, always lucid and affecting. Her eye travels from the flawed beauty of a coneflower to the blackbirds on the Nebraska prairie to the long shadows of Vietnam and Jonestown. Sometimes she will share a golden memory of childhood, as in the poem titled “Dare,” and then confront us with the fate that befell one childhood friend who served in Vietnam and another whose mother took him to the Jonestown commune — and yet the hard truth does not overmaster the delicacy of her verse.

Her eye falls on mundane sights but her mind conjures up mystery and mayhem. The title of a poem about a beauty supply store on Pico Boulevard is “Money Laundering,” for example, and the title of a poem about life’s trivial annoyances is “Contemplating Murder.”

Yet she is just as capable of soaring into the sublime, as in the poem “Because,” which describes a visit to a Russian monastery in the Pushkin Hills:

Because I cannot leave this body
I dream I am flying
The air splits subdivides
Splinters into layers of grey and worn lavender

* * *

Because I cannot leave this body
I climb a circular staircase to the bell tower.

A line from “Because” gives the collection its title, a fitting reference because her words take flight in one poem after another, and Davis invites us to fly with her.

JONATHAN KIRSCH, author and publishing attorney, is book editor of the Jewish Journal.

Tom is…. (facebook and my generation)

Tommywood is … Tom is … on Facebook. Aren’t you? If you read this column online and are not on Facebook, you will soon be.

The Facebook wave has now washed over my generation, the “late baby boomers.” In the last two months, the number of people in my crowd who have just joined or who joined a while ago but are now suddenly really using the social network is exploding exponentially.

Why? Why now? And what, exactly, is it about Facebook that has become so appealing?

Launched as “thefacebook” in February 2004 in a Harvard dorm room by Mark Zuckerberg, Chris Hughes, Dustin Moskovitz and Eduardo Saverin, the concept originally had a specific college focus: At the time, every freshman entering college received a printed face book of their classmates with a picture and limited info like hometown and high school.

The bright idea was to take this online, adding an intranet communication function, allowing those who signed up to become a friend of anyone else on the network, but only if they accepted your invitation. As universities were now issuing college e-mail addresses only to verified community members, access initially was limited only to those with valid school addresses. Simple enough.

The next month, Facebook expanded to Stanford, Yale and Columbia. By June, the creators opened offices in Palo Alto, with $500,000 in funding. By December 2004, 1 million users had signed up. By May of the following year, the network had expanded to 800 colleges and raised $12.7 million in funding from venture capitalists.

Over the next few years, they expanded into work networks, added new features and applications and became available in many more languages. Today, Facebook claims to have more than 150 million active users.

I first heard about Facebook a few years ago and quickly got the appeal: I still recall spending hours poring over my freshman face book at college, as if it held some clue to my future social life. I understand why college kids would want to be on Facebook and once it took hold why it migrated both to kids in high school and to recent college graduates as a staple of their social lives. But it initially held no interest for me or my peers.

Even a year ago, the notion of someone my age being on Facebook seemed, for lack of a better word, creepy. But that was because it was assumed that if you were on Facebook, you were there to connect with, or “friend” people half your age. Or to spy – should I say oversee? – what your child was up to.

What then proved the tipping point? What changed to get us to take it on for ourselves?

These days, when we talk about change, we’re talking about Obama. So perhaps it’s not strange that Obama plays some part in this revolution, as well.

Last year, co-founder Hughes took a leave from Facebook to become director of online organizing for the Obama campaign. Hughes’ success and the media attention to Obama’s use of Facebook was what first made me consider that I needed to check out the social network.

Clearly, I was not alone, because in the months leading up to the election, I began to get more and more invitations to be on Facebook. In September, I was still avoiding, but by late November, three weeks after the election, I joined.

I read a fair amount of journalism about journalism, and the same sources that had noodged me toward blogging now insisted I needed to be on Facebook. The justification that somehow this had a benefit beyond the social also helped push me over the edge.

So it began – I started with a book-jacket type photo and then switched to a poorer quality, more casual off-kilter shot – more “me” and what seems to be favored on the site.

I replied to the accumulated friend requests I had received. Within hours of joining, I received more requests from high school classmates I had not spoken to in 30 years. I wondered how they could be monitoring full-time (turns out Facebook has the technology to do so for you).

I then used my e-mail list to see who else was on Facebook and sent friendship requests to them.

As my number of friends increased, I suffered moments of moral doubt: Should I accept friendship from people I was not friends with or people I knew but didn’t really like? Or even those I knew but whom I didn’t want to invite into the privacy of my Facebook world? And what about friend requests from people I didn’t even know?

What did it mean to request friendship from someone else? Should I be friending only people I knew socially or also those I’d met professionally? Was it inappropriate for me, a married man, to do so to a single woman? How should I feel if someone ignored my request? How many friends is too few? How many too many? Is there such thing as a Facebook slut? (There is, and you know who you are.)

Within days (if not hours), I learned to stop worrying and embrace this world. I came up with my own rules, which are still evolving.

Thus far, I am still skeptical of causes and most group invitations. I don’t feel comfortable having my friends’ teenage children be friends on my site, and I don’t friend people I don’t know (a rule I just broke this morning when friended by a performer whose work I know). All of which will probably evolve further, with time.

What I have discovered is that Facebook rewards certain behaviors that would not otherwise be socially acceptable – such as poaching your friends’ friends or even trolling for friends among the listed friends of people you yourself don’t want to friend. It allows for a certain voyeurism, an ability to search for others and peek at their friends.

On other hand, it also allows you to find people from your past and reconnect with them, to forge casual relations with people you know slightly but have come to feel you now know better. I have reconnected with high school classmates, my childhood skateboarding buddy and fellow classmates from the Radcliffe Publishing Course.

Over the last two months, as Facebook fever has spread throughout my generation, I have noticed that some use Facebook as a place to be found – they never react or contribute but just accept friend requests. Others use it like a holiday card, uploading pictures of their children or pets. For some, it is a promotional device for their cause, for their art, for their next public event.

The “status update” feature of Facebook is often mocked – it allows you to post what you are doing. For some it is a prosaic account of their daily iterations, for others an opportunity to comment on personal and public events, offering what may be food for thought, humorous, or strange or all of the above.

For others it is an evolving art form – a return of the bon mot, the witty saying, the great line – an art form that stretches from the Greek epigrams to the Algonquin Round Table but seems in recent times to have been relegated to New Yorker cartoon captions.

Still the question remains: Why Facebook for our generation? Why now? Why not MySpace or LinkedIn?

I suppose you expect me to say it’s because it’s Jewish. That in some way, like Nancy Mitford’s “U and Non-U” classification for all things, the other social networks are goyish, while Facebook is Jewish in nature, deriving from the traditional Jewish values of community and of the need for a minyan. I agree that this argument may well be a stretch with no foundation in fact, but what I do believe is that Facebook’s appeal for our generation is that it is haimish.

For younger users, Facebook’s appeal may have more to do with dating and potential hookups, but I find that for most of my friends, although dating may be one of its uses, Facebook is like the iPod of our lives. It allows us to collect people from our lives, and, much like the thousands of songs, most of which we will never listen to on a daily basis, there is great comfort in knowing they are there and accessible.

Finally, and perhaps this is the real reason Facebook resonates so strongly right now with our generation: Facebook offers, quite simply, a way for me to say, “Tom is….”

Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he’s an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.

Zsa Zsa Gabor: The last of the Hungarian Mohicans

“I want a man with kindness and understanding. Is that too much to ask of a millionaire?”

— Zsa Zsa Gabor

Lately, I have been thinking about Zsa Zsa, and it makes me sad. A few years ago, she crashed her car on Sunset, and she has been wheelchair-bound since. She had been a recluse for some time before that, depressed, not wanting to leave the house. She, who for so long relied on her looks, no longer wants to be seen in public.

In recent weeks, Zsa Zsa has been in the news — albeit marginally so. Prince Frederic von Anhalt, her ninth husband, to whom she has been married since 1986, was recently found naked in his Rolls-Royce, bound and gagged. He claimed that three women he had stopped to help near the Bel Air Country Club had robbed him. The police are investigating.

A few weeks before that, the prince was in the news, claiming that he was the biological father of Anna Nicole Smith’s baby and had been having a long-term affair with her. Not very nice to Zsa Zsa, particularly as the paternity suit did not go his way.

Two years ago, the prince and Zsa Zsa filed a lawsuit against her daughter, Francesca Hilton, charging, among other things, elder abuse, negligence and fraud, in a dispute over whether Francesca was entitled to certain monies relating to a Bel Air property. The lawsuit is ongoing.

Francesca is Zsa Zsa’s only child, the daughter of her marriage to Conrad Hilton, the hotel chain magnate. Paris Hilton is Conrad’s great-granddaughter.

One could characterize Zsa Zsa as the Paris of her day — someone famous for being famous, whose celebrity came more from her romantic entanglements, personal dramas and encounters with the police than from her professional accomplishments. However, to do so would ignore Zsa Zsa’s intelligence, wit, charm and style. She was not glam — she was glamorous.

Sari (Zsa Zsa) Gabor was born Feb. 6, 1917, in Budapest, the second of three daughters born to Vilmos Gabor and Janci Tilleman Gabor (known as Jolie). Magda was three years older, Eva two years younger.

Zsa Zsa and Eva were just a few years older than my mother, who knew them as girls whom she occasionally saw at the ice skating rink in Budapest. My mother used to say that she knew the Gabors so long ago, she knew them when they were Jewish. Zsa Zsa has acknowledged that her grandmother was Jewish — some sources say her father or his family converted to Catholicism — which was not uncommon for that generation of Hungarian Jews, who chose the religion more for the potential social advancement than as a question of faith.

And social advancement was very much Jolie’s plan. Her mantra to her daughters being: “You will be rich, famous and married to kings.”

During Zsa Zsa’s teens, Jolie tried to launch her career by entering her in beauty contests — first in Budapest, then in Vienna. Although Zsa Zsa did not win, she landed a role in a Richard Tauber operetta and received enough attention when she got home that she had several suitors. She married a much older Turkish diplomat who took her off to Ankara, where Zsa Zsa made a great impression on the Turks (she was rumored to have had an affair with Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish Republic).

By 1939, Eva was in Hollywood, launching her acting career. Magda, who had married an impoverished Polish count, remained in Budapest. During World War II, Magda became active in resistance activities as a driver for the International Red Cross. An affair with the Portuguese consul gave her access to false papers, which saved the lives of many, including her parents.

Zsa Zsa arrived in Los Angeles in 1941 on what was to be the first stop in a nationwide scout for a new husband. However, shortly after arriving, she was spotted at Ciro’s by Hilton, a committed Catholic who had divorced his first wife but said he never intended to remarry.

Nevertheless, he fell under Zsa Zsa’s spell and married her. She claimed that she, too, married for love (and at a much later date on a television show she passed a lie detector test when asked about it).

Still, the marriage only lasted five years. Hilton reportedly was tortured by the guilt of not being able to take communion and thwarted in his attempts to teach his wife thrift. Zsa Zsa was disappointed by Hilton’s constant absences due to his business and the priority he placed on the hotels over her.

In 1946, at the time they began their highly public divorce proceedings, she was pregnant with their daughter, Francesca.

Shortly after Francesca’s birth, Zsa Zsa experienced a bout of mania, characterized by volatile behavior, irrational spending splurges (even by Gabor standards) and dark, paralyzing depressions that led Eva to hospitalize her. Zsa Zsa was given insulin shock treatments. Upon her recovery, she turned on Eva, saying there was nothing wrong with her.

Zsa Zsa found her next husband in a movie theater, when she saw George Sanders on screen (she was reputed to have watched him beat a woman in “The Moon and Sixpence” only to remark, “That’s the man for me!”). They were married in 1949. In 1951, Sanders won an Oscar for supporting actor for his role in “All About Eve.”

Around this time, Zsa Zsa’s own career was launched when she appeared on the television show “Bachelor’s Haven,” which allowed her to display her razor-sharp wit. When the host commented on her diamonds, Zsa Zsa retorted: “These? Darling, these are my working diamonds.”

She became a regular on the program, as well as on radio. Often she would respond to listeners’ questions. Here are some examples:

>From a letter she read: “I’m breaking my engagement to a very wealthy man. He gave me a beautiful home, a mink coat, diamonds, an expensive car and a stove. What shall I do?

Zsa Zsa’s advice: “You have to be fair, darling. Give back the stove.”

Or: “My husband is a traveling salesman, but I know he strays even when he’s at home. What should I do?”

Zsa Zsa’s advice: “Shoot him in the legs.”

Her sudden popularity led to her casting in “Lovely to Look At,” by Hungarian-born producer Joe Pasternak, and perhaps her best role as Jane Avril in “Moulin Rouge,” directed by John Huston. Film roles followed in such films as “Lilli” (1953) and “Touch of Evil” (1958).

Although Sanders was the great love of Zsa Zsa’s life, his interest in her waned — he was often away on location — so it was during that time that Zsa Zsa began an affair with legendary playboy Porfirio Rubirosa (she was the great love of his life). Scandal ensued as the couple’s folie a deux had them fighting, making up and breaking up. At one point, Zsa Zsa appeared at a press conference with a patch over her eye, saying Rubirosa was a coward who beat women.

In the end, Zsa Zsa reconciled with Sanders, and Rubirosa married heiress Barbara Hutton. Rubirosa’s marriage lasted all of 73 days. Sanders and Gabor divorced in 1954. However, Sanders was so enamored of the family and the family of him that in 1970, he married sister Magda (that one lasted six weeks).

What was the Gabors’ appeal? First of all, as pictures from the era attest, they were beautiful (and they worked at being beautiful — one of Hilton’s complaints was that it could take Zsa Zsa several hours to get ready to go out).

Zsa Zsa presented a new model of femininity to American audiences of the 1950s. She was the opposite of a bimbo, instead portraying herself as a worldly sophisticate not interested in traditional domestic life, a sexual being, a romantic and a pragmatist.

If Zsa Zsa could be characterized as a gold digger, the subtext to her image was that she was worth it. Zsa Zsa became a public character whom America enjoyed.

Eva was a more serious actress than her sister, appearing in such films as “A Royal Scandal” (1945), “The Last Time I Saw Paris” (1954) and “Don’t Go Near the Water” (1957), and she is known to countless generations of children as the voices of Duchess in the animated film, “The Aristocats” and Bianca in “The Rescuers.”

Nonetheless, Eva achieved her greatest fame in the 1960s CBS sitcom, “Green Acres,” playing Eddie Albert’s city-bred socialite wife, a role that, ironically, called on her to play a variation of Zsa Zsa, speaking in an exaggerated Hungarian accent (something she had worked to lose in her other roles). In the end, the Gabor girls created characters they could not escape.

For me, the Gabors were approximations of my mother and her friends — witty, attractive, entertaining women who got blonder every year, spoke in thick accents and loved jewelry (be it costume or real).

Several years ago, I tried to develop a movie about the Gabor girls — a story about these three ambitious, competitive women, their careers, their loves and their stage mother. As a framing device I thought to use the one occasion when all three sisters appeared on stage. In 1953, they performed at the Las Vegas Last Frontier Hotel in a show called, “The Gabors: This Is Our Life.” They appeared in beautiful sequined gowns, offered some witty lines and answered scripted questions. The show ran for only a few nights.

I never sold that project (or let’s just say I haven’t sold it yet), however, developing it led to one of my most memorable Hollywood moments: Lunch with Debbie Reynolds. What a trip, as they used to say.

Reynolds has been an actress since she was 13, and she is still (at that time she was almost 70) every inch an actress. She had been a good friend of the Gabors, particularly Eva, and was interested in playing Jolie, the mother.

Actually, she was interested in playing all the parts, and at lunch, she easily slipped into Hungarian-accented English and showcased the variety of Gabor accents she could do. Also, perhaps because Reynolds achieved fame playing innocent ingénues such as Tammy and the Singing Nun, she delights in shocking.

At one point, I mentioned Zsa Zsa’s appearance at the press conference wearing an eye patch because she claimed Rubi had given her a black eye. Reynolds didn’t buy it: “She probably got a black eye falling on his ‘rubirosa,'” (Reynolds didn’t really say “rubirosa,” — she used a word that, although funny, is inappropriate for a family-friendly newspaper.)

Over the last several decades, Zsa Zsa appeared in a wide variety of movies, from camp to trash, and in later years poked fun at herself but continued to be at her best as a talk show guest. Here are some more of her one-liners:

“Husbands are like fire. They go out when unattended.”

“I am a marvelous housekeeper. Every time I leave a man, I keep his house.”

“I believe in large families: Every woman should have at least three husbands.”

“I wasn’t born, I was ordered from room service.”

Although famous, Zsa Zsa attained notoriety in 1989 when she went on trial for slapping a Beverly Hills police officer — it was not the first time she had behaved poorly -just the first time she crossed the line with an officer of the court. She received a sentence of three days in jail — and plenty of publicity.

Finally, it should be noted that the Gabors were all successful businesswomen. Magda at one point ran a thriving plumbing business for many years, Eva had a wig business, Zsa Zsa made personal appearances for the Marshall Field’s department store and even Mama Jolie had a successful costume jewelry store on Madison Avenue in New York.

The facts of their lives have been told often, by the Gabors themselves. Jolie published two books (the eponymous “Jolie Gabor” by gossip doyenne Cindy Adams and “Jolie Gabor’s Family Cookbook” by Ted and Jean Kaufman). Zsa Zsa wrote four (“Zsa Zsa Gabor: My Story Written for Me by Gerold Frank,” “How to Catch a Man, How to Keep a Man, How to Get Rid of a Man,” “It’s Simple Darling” and “One Lifetime Is Not Enough,” assisted by, edited by and put into proper English by Wendy Leigh). Eva wrote one (“Orchids and Salami: A Gay and Impudent Memoir”).

Others have tackled the subject in articles in newspapers and magazines, on television and in books. As recently as 2001, Anthony Tutu published his collection of Gabor artifacts in “Gaborabilia,” a tribute book written with Donald F. Reuter.

Nonetheless, and this is what makes me sad, it seems as though their time has passed.

Eva died in 1995, Mama Jolie in 1997 (she was 103), Magda a few weeks later the same year. This past February, Zsa Zsa turned 90.

Having outlived her sisters, perhaps Zsa Zsa is the last of the blonde-haired, bejeweled Hungarian Mohicans. In her Beverly Hills home, I trust that she feels she is not entirely alone or forgotten.

Perhaps there is some measure of pleasure for her in the fact that despite her current problems, she is still remembered for her beauty and her wit. She can, if she likes, consider this column a gift from a perfect stranger. But I will give Zsa Zsa the last word:

“I don’t accept gifts from perfect strangers — but then nobody’s perfect.”

Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he’s an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.