Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Doing PR in 1983

Watching Jacob Bernstein’s new documentary about his mother, Nora Ephron, reminded me that she co-wrote the screenplay for the 1983 film, Silkwood. The true story concerned a worker at a plutonium processing plant who was contaminated and possibly murdered after discovering that corporate executives knew about radiation leaks.

I heard the movie was on its way to theaters quite a while before it opened. The public relations firm for which I worked had been hired by Kerr-McGee (the company that owned the plant) to persuade as many people as possible that the movie was inaccurate.

The company had another problem. We learned that the Communications Workers of America had produced a play based on the Silkwood story, with performances well-attended in cities nationwide.  

So I was placed on assignment. Go to Milwaukee, watch the play, take notes, and report back on the script and audience reaction. Stick around afterward to hear as many comments as possible.

My husband and I headed north from Chicago with a reservation for an expense-account dinner at a restaurant that revolved on top of a tall building. Then we went to the play.

He had an idea. To spare me from taking notes all night, he brought along a small tape recorder which he placed in the breast pocket of his jacket. But his heartbeat was the only discernible sound on the recording – at least that’s how I remember it.

The next day, I flew to Indianapolis to see another performance. The audience responded as enthusiastically as it had in Milwaukee. I wrote it all up, amused that a publicly-traded company worried about a modest play produced by a union.

But I did understand why the company wanted to defeat the film.

Our strategy was to compile long lists of editorial writers and film critics who worked in the largest cities and smallest towns, in every state, including student newspapers.

Then we telephoned, wrote letters, left phone messages, called back, rinsed and repeated. The goal was to generate bad reviews of the film and accusations of unfairness to the company. I’m sure that some writers responded to our pitch. After all, each side told a different story.

Ultimately, though, the movie became a box office success, garnering five Oscar nominations and a comeback for director Mike Nichols. The critics loved it.

Looking back, I’m struck by the idea of trying to change public opinion by laboriously making individual, local contact with members of the press!  

Who could have anticipated social media?

So there we sat, in offices with darkly tinted windows, bearing down on journalists, marking the lists with checks, x’s, and question marks, trying to score one writer at a time; doing PR in 1983.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Becoming Weda Yap

The name of the author of Willie Wong, American, was a pseudonym. Vanya Oakes (Virginia Armstrong Oakes) was a librarian, journalist, and author who wrote prolifically about China. Her best-known book, White Man's Folly (1942), was reviewed in Foreign Affairs as "an indictment of the ineptness of European and American policy during the last decade."


Allen Drew Cook and his wife, Bertha, reared their four daughters in Camden, N.J. Louise, born in 1894, was the eldest. She studied at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and received a Certificate of Applied Art in 1912. One has the feeling she was not demure.

Her father encouraged her career in art, Louise once said. Allen Drew Cook belonged to a school of photographers called the Pictorialists (of whom the most famous was Alfred Stieglitz), whose images had the quality of being painted. During World War I, Clarence Darrow and Eugene V. Debs sat for portraits in Cook’s Philadelphia studio.

In 1913, Louise began work as a studio artist in New York City while continuing to live at home.

She soon became romantically involved with the publicity director of the Co-operative League of America, Edward Ralph Cheyney, who was helping to build the American cooperative movement. The goal was to organize collective purchasing for American consumers. In this way, industrial workers and farmers could stretch their budgets in hard times.  

Although the League’s offices were in New York City, Ralph, as he was known, resided at home with his family in Philadelphia. His father was an eminent University of Pennsylvania historian named Edward Potts Cheyney who lived in an elegant house on Spruce Street.  

Several leaders of the cooperative movement, including Ralph Cheyney, worked closely with the Socialist Party. When the U.S. entered the war in April 1917, they became vocal critics of the draft.

That fall, Ralph and a revolution-minded firebrand named Louis Fraina were arrested while leading a meeting to recruit conscientious objectors. A jury in U.S. District Court found the two men guilty of conspiring to violate the draft law. The Second Circuit upheld the verdict and in 1919 Cheyney and Fraina were sentenced to 30 days in prison.

In the meantime, Louise and Ralph decided to marry. Their daughter, Gertrude Louise, came along in 1918.

And then, in 1920, China called out to Louise and off she went for five years. There is no record of what she did there but most likely she studied art. Curiously, during this very time many Chinese artists left to study in Europe, embracing the Western aesthetic.

When Louise returned to the U.S., she was a Chinese citizen.  

Soon enough, she and Ralph divorced. Louise’s new husband, a Filipino of Chinese ancestry named Chu Pei Yap, worked as a chemical engineer.

In 1929, now Louise Yap, she sailed alone to Shanghai on a Japanese ship called the Yokohama Maru. There’s an elegant menu from the ship’s dining room in the New York Public Library’s digital collection. Navarin de la Porc a la Printaniere . . . but who knows if Louise traveled first-class?

It’s hard to imagine why she chose to visit China again at this particular time. In 1927, Chiang Kai-shek’s National Revolutionary Army had led the Shanghai Massacre to triumph over Mao and the Chinese Communists, and a civil war was raging.

Clearly there was “the urge for going,” as Joni Mitchell sang.

When Louise came back to New York a year later, she and Chu Pei, and not 12-year old Gertrude, moved to a house on charming crooked Grove Street in the West Village.  

Now she took the name Weda Yap.

Many years later, she explained:

My real name is Louise Drew Cook. My professional name, Weda Yap, was acquired during a long and close association with the Chinese. The ideographs which are used to write this name mean “a witty and sagacious page." 

Weda Yap, 1930s
(photo courtesy of her family)

In 1932, Weda published Abigail’s Private Reason, the only book she wrote. 

That same year, she drew pictures for Rosalita, the story of “a charming Spanish girl who lived on a ranch with her family when California was ruled by the Mexican government. Rosalita’s impetuous search for a doll results in her being kidnapped,” according to a review.

Through the rest of her life, Weda illustrated dozens of children’s books. Some of the titles are Rain, Hail, Sleet and Snow; Rico the Young Rancher, Peter on the Min, and Children of the Sun in Hawaii

Weda and Chu Pei moved to Milligan Place, virtually an alley off Sixth Avenue where Eugene O’Neill also lived in a small brick house.

On the eve of World War II, she decided to become an American citizen again. Just two days before Germany invaded Poland, she brought two witnesses to the courthouse to sign the petition for naturalization: her mother, Bertha, and a friend named Remo Bufano. That in itself is noteworthy.

Remo Bufano and his family emigrated from Italy to the U.S. in 1897. Remo loved arts and crafts from the time he could hold a pencil. He became a superb puppeteer and toured nationwide, performing marionette operas with puppets as tall as 12 feet. The year that Bufano signed Louise’s petition, the New York World’s Fair featured his giant puppets portraying the history of medicine, set to music by Aaron Copland.    

Bertha Louise Drew Cook Yap, as she signed her petition, and Remo Bufano knew each other because most Greenwich Village artists were connected through the Bohemian, leftist intellectual scene that flourished during World War I and continued through Prohibition.

Eventually Weda Yap left Greenwich Village. In 1989, she died in a nursing home in South Carolina, where her daughter lived.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

40 Years Since High School

I still remember the 1970s classrooms in Mt. Vernon High School, not that they were distinguished. Loose chairs and desks strewn around the room, which the teachers made orderly after each class.

The furniture was built of chrome and a plastic composite whose manufacturer probably guaranteed indestructibility. But the desktops were gouged and covered with crossed-out insults and messages written in the unmistakable blue of a leaky Cristal Bic pen.

On the walls, a few posters: the kitten clinging to a rope telling us to “Hang in there!” And always, the image of a girl and boy silhouetted against a sunset:

I do my thing and you do your thing.
I am not in this world to live up to your expectations,
And you are not in this world to live up to mine.
You are you, and I am I, and if by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful.

Now this is interesting. Looking up the quote to make sure it is as recalled, I learned that these words did not appear first in a Hallmark card. Rather, this is the “Gestalt Prayer” written by Fritz Perls, a psychotherapist, in 1969.

And there is a last line that I swear was not included in the Mt. Vernon classroom posters:

If not, it can’t be helped.

Oh well. Keep it positive. After all, the school presented many challenges.

A sprawling modern building, modeled after Harvard president James B. Conant’s post-war comprehensive high school, it surrounded a courtyard planted with pathetic trees and grass. Their growth likely was stunted by the clouds of smoke that filled the air during lunch and every time classes changed.

Getting a new high school had been controversial, polarizing the city for more than a decade as referendums repeatedly were defeated by anti-tax, anti-busing, and anti-integration groups. A liberal coalition of Protestants, blacks, and Jews ultimately won the day. Black students were bused from the South Side – across the railroad cut – to the North Side, where the school arose on land formerly owned by Hollywood mogul Harry Warner, who built a ranch there during the 1930s.  

Opening in 1963, Mt. Vernon High School fell far short of integration. Based on test performance, students were assigned to classes which often broke down by race. We self-segregated in the cafeteria. The great leveling occurred in physical education. The first decade of the new school encapsulated some of the most troubling issues in public schooling during the twentieth century.

Of course it’s been four decades, as the reunion invitations insistently remind me. And despite my awful description of the school, I do recall a few instances of revelation in those classrooms.

Despite longtime math troubles, the year of geometry had near-perfect clarity!

In 10th grade World History, the teacher assigned Anatomy of a Revolution by Crane Brinton, published in 1938 and now surely considered an antique (although it has been revised and remains in print). The book compared the Russian, American, and French revolutions and the seventeenth-century English Civil Wars. I had read a fair amount of history but never before encountered a thesis, and loved it.

Finally, one of our English teachers handed out a literature book that somehow got by the censors. It was full of counterculture poems and art. I tore out two pages and kept them; they illustrate this post.

Let’s not forget the flap when a boy in my homeroom refused to say the Pledge. It must have been 1973, since the war was still raging. We were born in the late fifties, therefore too late for the student movement. But, his transgression duly recognized, he was sent to the principal’s office.

See posts November 2, 2015; November 23, 2015; December 21, 2015; March 16, 2016; May 18, 2016.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Edmond, Oscar, Laura ~ 2

Dream of Laura
The star witness in the 1907 divorce trial of Professor and Mrs. Oscar Lovell Triggs turned out to be an anarchist named Herman Kuehn. He had arrived early for a lecture at the Spencer-Whitman Institute on Calumet Avenue in Chicago. The center, named for Herbert Spencer and Walt Whitman, evidently doubled as a free love colony. 

Upon bounding up the steps to the professor’s office, Kuehn found Triggs – yes, this really was the headline – “in flagrante delictu.” 

“He does not regard the institution of marriage in any wise [sic] as a solemn or sacred institution or one conducive to the best interest of morals or the progress of the human race,” Kuehn told the court. It’s interesting that he sold out the professor on the matter of marriage. 

For later Kuehn became editor and publisher of a journal called Prospectus: Instead of a Magazine that proclaimed itself “calculated to jar the sensibilities and ruffle the temper of victims of ‘fixed’ opinions.”

Dismissed from the University of Chicago and disgraced by the trial, Triggs did have his defenders. Many insisted that his freedom of speech had been violated. 

“The worst that can be said is that he is a little touched with the mild socialism of William Morris and [German educator] Froebel,” the St. Louis Mirror editorialized.

Professor Triggs in 1904; photo
appeared in The Literary Digest

In September 1905, Triggs traveled to New York City where he attended a meeting at Peck’s Restaurant on lower Fulton Street (a go-to place for big thinkers on small budgets). 

With Jack London, Upton Sinclair, Clarence Darrow, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and others, he established the League for Industrial Democracy and issued a call to study Socialism. The group stated:

The recent remarkable increase in the Socialist vote of America should serve as an indication to the educated men and women in the country that Socialism is a thing concerning which it is no longer wise to be indifferent.

Then Triggs married a former student, Ada Beall Cox. They moved to a ranch in Turlock, California, to raise animals and grow fruits and vegetables. The plan was to continue to write and publish.

Meanwhile in Paris, Laura had married a physician and cared for her young son, Edmond. She became a member of the Society of French Literary Critics and published articles under the pseudonym Julia Gagey-McAdoo. 

And she got to know Anatole France, an esteemed Parisian essayist, novelist, and historian who stood with Zola during the Dreyfus Affair and ultimately won a Nobel Prize.  

In the springtime of 1911, the two began a love affair replete with ecstatically passionate correspondence. Laura spoke and wrote French fluently. But the relationship did not last the year. In December, “la belle Floridienne,” as he called her, wrote to her lover:

I find myself sombering in a cruel despair which is slowly destroying my normal capacity for hope and a sense of inner harmony. You made me believe that I helped you live life and you would be equally sad to lose me. You told me yesterday that the wife of your youth (of which the memory is sacred) did not see you every day as I do. But similarly, I see myself in a societal position that recognizes my rank and my talents, (and I do not affect a false modesty there) in which you could at least visit, in which I could have you as a guest and see you at dinner parties and the like. I would adapt happily to this situation. What are words? You told me to not be afraid of them. The essential is to feel complete with another person. Love of this kind has no name or etiquette. It gives and receives all, it’s an endless circle and this is how I love you…*

The next day Laura took an overdose of barbital and died. She is buried in the ossuary at Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

Young Edmond returned to the United States to live with his aunt and uncle in New York City.  

In California, Oscar and Ada Beall Triggs became the parents of three children. They also won an award for their Shetland pony at the Sonoma-Marin Agricultural Fair in 1914.

Further down the road, the couple moved to the Tingley Colony in Point Loma, a Utopian community founded by an autocratic Theosophist named Katherine Tingley. After World War I, they lived in Seattle and then Manitoba, where Oscar died in 1930.

Ada lived for another 30 years and had all kinds of adventures. She may have been the happiest of the lot.

*Translation by Mark Olmsted.


See also March 2 + April 6 + June 15, 2016 posts.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Edmond, Oscar, Laura ~ 1

Cobb Hall, University of Chicago, built in 1892; a scene that would have been familiar
to Oscar Lovell Triggs and his wife, Laura

The 1918 edition of Notable Southern Families discloses that Edmond made his home with his maternal aunt, Rosalie. Of course that made sense. His mother, Laura McAdoo, had taken her own life in 1911 in Paris and his father, Oscar Triggs, was ensconced in a utopian community in California with his second wife. 

Therefore, one might imagine that Edmond, then 17, lived with a dottering old lady on  the family plantation down in Milledgeville, Georgia, where the McAdoo family originated. That was not the case.

Rather, he resided with Aunt Rosalie on Riverside Drive in New York City. Rosalie’s husband, James, was secretary and treasurer of the Hudson and Manhattan Railway. He held the position by the grace of Rosalie’s brother, William Gibbs McAdoo, then serving as President Wilson’s Secretary of the Treasury.

Edmond went on to Columbia University and earned a BA, Master’s and PhD in English literature. Specializing in the history of American theater, he published several well-respected books and spent most of his career teaching at Bradford College in Haverhill, Mass.

His full name – Edmond McAdoo Gagey – gave a hint of his past but not a clear connection to his scandal-ridden parents, Laura McAdoo Triggs Gagey and Oscar Lovell Triggs.

One of six children in a family that found itself destitute after the Civil War, the beautiful, intellectual Laura made her way to Chicago from Knoxville where her father, William Gibbs McAdoo Sr., had joined the University of Tennessee faculty after the family fled Georgia. He and Laura were quite close from the time she was a little girl. He worried about her emotional intensity. 

Professor Oscar Lovell Triggs, “the most picturesque member of the Department of English at the University of Chicago” (according to a popular journal), revered the work of Whitman and Browning. Students flocked to him because he was amusing and irreverent. 

Laura enrolled at the university and took one of his classes. They fell in love and married in 1899.

Their son Edmond, born in 1901, spent his first four years in the university neighborhood of Hyde Park. John D. Rockefeller, Sr. had endowed the school a scant decade earlier and Oscar Triggs was among the first faculty members, having earned his doctorate there in 1895.

A proponent of the Arts and Crafts Movement which emerged during the late Victorian era, Oscar helped found the Industrial Art League of Chicago. 

The movement started in England as a reaction to the machine age and, according to some critics, sentimentalized a time when laborers created useful things that also were beautiful and thus gave their work meaning. It celebrated craftsmanship in wood, pottery, metal, and other materials. 

Professor Triggs believed that the Arts and Crafts Movement would create a “freer social order,” the elimination of the division of labor. With several friends, he also planned to open a tuition-free People’s Industrial College in Chicago.  

During this time, Laura McAdoo Triggs pursued her studies, joined the Arts and Crafts Movement, and published articles about patriotism, democracy, and higher education for women.

Then, unexpectedly in 1904, the University of Chicago dismissed Professor Triggs. Speculation abounded. 

Was he “too radical,” a publicity-hound, or just a conceited jerk? 

Of course, it was more complicated than that. Triggs’s critiques of church hymns (“inferior to Gilbert and Sullivan”) and Holmes, Lowell, and Longfellow (poets “of minor order”) were controversial. And his comparison of the creativity and significance of Rockefeller and Pullman to that of Milton and Shakespeare? 

Well, he did explain what he meant – but really!

After Triggs was fired, or perhaps before, Laura discovered that her husband was entertaining “strange women on terms too close for friendship,” according to newspaper reports. 

Laura filed a divorce suit, then moved to Paris with Edmond.

Prof. Triggs Divorced by Foot of Woman; 
Former Savant Exposed as a Don Juan

Screenshot of image from newspaper story 

The 1907 trial made for delightfully sensational copy typical of its time. Named in the suit, Charlotte Minette Fagan, described as “a demonstrator of hygienic devices,” may have been “the owner of the dainty pedal extremity” – an “unshod and hoseless” foot that protruded from a quilt which covered a sofa where Professor Triggs sat en dishabille.    

Away in Paris, Laura married Dr. Pierre Gagey, who had invented a device that would enable sick people to breathe, and moved with Edmond into the doctor’s large apartment on the elegant rue la Boetie. 

The invention did not bear fruit, so the family found smaller quarters.

Back in Chicago, Oscar Triggs left his position as editor of To-Morrow, a magazine “for people who think,” where he earlier had the distinction of being the first to publish Carl Sandburg’s poems. A few years later, Triggs married a former student and went off to a ranch in California where he planned to write and farm.

Meanwhile, Edmond was growing up in Paris.

*Photo courtesy of University of Chicago Archive, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

See also 2016 posts: March 10, April 6, May 4 + June 15. 

The Widow Nolen at Harvard

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