Archive for category: Admired Work

Probably smarter, possibly funnier.

11 Sep
September 11, 2015

A letter to the editor that ran in The Washington Post Magazine last Sunday in reply to a profile of me that said I resembled Homer Simpson’s smarter brother:

The Washington Post Magazine
Letters to the editor
David Simon’s older brother takes umbrage at a description in our story:
I read with great interest your piece about David Simon, my little brother. I am 14 years older than David, and I am intensely proud of him. However, I must take great umbrage at the statement that “Simon … looks from some angles like Homer Simpson’s much smarter brother.”  First the implication is that I am Homer Simpson and second, that David is smarter than me. You will be hearing from my attorneys.
Gary L. Simon, medical professor, GWU


In a Jewish family, the doctor is always the smarter child.  The TV writer is supposed to advance the funny.  And presently, I find myself routed on both flanks at once.

A Maryland Film Festival panel slated

04 May
May 4, 2015

In the wake of last Monday’s unrest, Jed Deitz, who has nurtured the Baltimore-based festival since its inception, called to ask if I knew of anyone or anything that might be added to the event’s lineup that might address some of what has happened here.

Centered in midtown Baltimore not far from the epicenter of both the mass civil disobedience that has so energized the city, as well as the site of Monday’s unrest, the festival is opening only days after authorities lifted a curfew and, perhaps, with many Marylanders and out-of-towners hesitant about attending the event.

I didn’t have much to offer in the way of screenings.  Episodes of “Show Me A Hero,” an HBO miniseries slated for August, are not yet in final cut.  And, too, that miniseries, while it addresses class and racial segregation in our society, is more about our calcified political processes than directly relevant to the core grievances underlying current events.

But a second miniseries, which centers largely on the final volume of the Taylor Branch’s Pulitzer-winning triology of the civil rights movement seemed to me more relevant.  “At Canaan’s Edge” addresses the three years leading up the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., a period that offers not the affirming, earlier victories of the movement in securing civil rights legislation or desegregated public facilities, but the increasing conflict between non-violent mass protest and rebellion by any means necessary to secure equal treatment and opportunity.

The writing room for that miniseries offers a multitude of perspectives from Branch, a long time Baltimore resident, as well as Ta-Nehisi Coates, perhaps our finest essayist on race and also a native of the city, and James McBride, the novelist and screenwriter whose most recent novel, “The Good Lord Bird,” reflecting on the saga John Brown and the employ of violence against American slavery, won the National Book Award.  Eric Overmyer, a noted playwright and veteran writer-producer on both “The Wire” and “Treme” rounds out the room.

Realizing that this fledgling project might be something that could serve Jed’s intentions, I called the others and asked if they could post up in support of the film festival, but more generally, to affirm that city life in Baltimore remains intact and vibrant, even amid this needed campaign for change.  The writers responded by agreeing to participate on the shortest notice, and I’m not surprised.  Honestly, it’s one of the best writers rooms I’ve ever experienced.

And so…the panel, which will take place at 6 p.m. this Friday.

Work on the miniseries is only at the script stage, and for the most part, the five of us have been battling to bring the vast narrative of Taylor’s opus down to a size and shape that works in six hours of drama.  But already, it’s clear to all of us that some of the same issues and arguments that predominated  in 1966 and 1967 still remain in play.

If such a discussion of long-form scriptwriting on the issue of race in America interests you, please come to downtown Baltimore, Maryland.  Or, if not, make the effort to attend other festival events, which aptly include screenings of Spike Lee’s iconic “Do The Right Thing” as well as a new and notable documentary on the Black Panthers, among much other acclaimed work.   The festival — and Baltimore — needs you.

Below is the release that Jed sent out today:


Contact: Melina Giorgi

410 752-8083

[email protected]

Maryland Film Festival Announces Premier Writer Panel as major addition to MFF 2015

 A Work in Progress: Writing Race

Friday May 8th, featuring Taylor Branch, Ta-Nehisi Coates, James McBride and David Simon.

The Maryland Film Festival (MFF) will present an extraordinary panel within the schedule of free events in the MFF Tent Village, featuring four members of a five-member writing staff currently tasked with writing an HBO miniseries based on the detailed history of the some of the most volatile years of the American civil rights movement. The panel consists of Atlantic magazine editor and renowned essayist and commentator Ta-Nehisi Coates, National Book Award winner James McBride, HBO producer and former journalist David Simon, and Taylor Branch, whose Pulitzer-winning three-volume history of the civil rights movement is being adapted for the six-hour miniseries.

The four writers, three of whom have long-standing ties to Baltimore, are at work on scripts for a miniseries that will draw from Branch’s celebrated trilogy, America in the King Years. (Parting the Waters, Pillar of Fire, and At Canaan’s Edge) which chronicles the civil rights movement between 1954 and 1968.

The project is slated to be the next miniseries produced by HBO and Simon’s Baltimore-based Blown Deadline Productions, following the completion of “Show Me A Hero,” another six-part miniseries slated to broadcast this summer on HBO. That miniseries, which also addresses American racial dynamics, chronicles the divisive battle to build low-income housing in a predominantly white section of Yonkers, N.Y. two decades ago.

Brought in to helm the King Years miniseries, Simon, a former Baltimore Sun reporter, author, and producer of HBO’s “The Wire” and “Treme” gathered the other three writers and longtime collaborator Eric Overmyer (“Homicide: Life on the Street,” “Treme”) to begin to boil Branch’s definitive three-volume history into six hours of drama.

“Breaking story is in many respects the hardest and most thoroughly intellectualized task in longform television,” says Simon, a city resident since 1984. “How your writers room works – or doesn’t – is the first great hurdle for any production. And when you are dealing with non-fiction – real events, real names – and attempting some real measure of historical fealty, the work is even more complicated.”

Simon and Overmyer recruited the other three writers shortly after signing on to produce the miniseries for HBO.

“Eric and I had a shopping list for writers that began with James, Ta-Nehisi and, of course, Taylor himself. On the power of Ta-Nehisi’s prosework and political acumen, and the beauty of what James achieved with the historical narrative of “The Good Lord Bird,” they were far and away our first choices along with, of course, Taylor. To our great relief, we never had to contemplate a second choice; I credit the power of Taylor’s original work and the importance of the historical moments that underlie that narrative.”

The panel will try to offer insights into the process of developing a significant and acclaimed historical literary work into drama for a medium that until recently has not proved particularly welcoming to precise renderings of history.

“This panel is an extraordinary opportunity for audiences to hear writers of the highest level and at this early stage of development share their process,” said MFF director Jed Dietz. “In addition, the content of the series is timely and relevant for our city, and a powerful way to frame the conversations around protest.”

Simon, who has previously participated in several MFF events, notes that the cultural and political moment is right for bringing Branch’s books to the screen.

“If there was ever a time to contemplate the costs, risks and potentiality that come with non-violent protest – as well as the costs and potentialities of the alternatives, this is it,” Simon says. “Baltimore has just passed through a hard, tense moment which tested the delicate balance between non-violent public dissent and civil unrest. The issues and needs of our society with regard to class and race are different than a half century ago, but many of the forces in play, as well as the dynamic in which the conflict is joined and pursued – these are very much the same the same.”

Simon adds: “The arguments that many of us are now having about both the morality and efficacy of a violent uprising, or of non-violent disobedience – these precise arguments are the core of the Branch trilogy. They are still the arguments and they still matter.”

With Coates being a native of Baltimore, and Simon and Branch both longtime residents of the city, the writers say they all find it notable that they are participating in the Maryland Film Festival, centered in a neighborhood only blocks from intersections where both the exhilarating and prolonged mass protests against police violence and the stark imagery of one night’s rioting took place. They see the film festival as an affirmation of city life in Baltimore.

MFF Director Dietz said that this great writing team, much of it deeply connected to Baltimore, joins an exciting and diverse Maryland Film Festival Program. “This years’ MFF program was obviously put together before the demonstrations of the last week, but it is full of movies that will inform, compel, and entertain audiences,” he said. “The movie art form is unusually accessible for filmmakers and audiences, and it is bursting with excitement and creativity right now., This program reflects that. There is literally Film for Everyone, “ he pointed out. Dietz added: “We are especially grateful that David and this extraordinary group of writers will be part of MFF 2015 as Baltimore takes its next step.”

Notably, the four writers made a decision early that it was largely Taylor’s last volume, At Canaan’s Edge, that should be the greater focus of the miniseries. There has been much filmed about the early and extraordinary heroism of the civil rights movement, but from 1965 to King’s assassination, there is a different story to tell about the country’s willingness to extend equality under the law to equality of opportunity, and a profound struggle among black leaders and activists to reconcile both the moral power and practical costs of non-violence against the fundamental need to self-defense and self-determination “by any means necessary.”

Taylor Branch said: “It has been a humbling thrill for me to join Ta-Nehisi and James on the HBO screenwriting team assembled by David and Eric, whose honesty about race made “The Wire” a classic.  Our panel at the Maryland Film Festival will preview an urgent challenge of contemporary art and politics.  How did a black-led citizens’ movement in the 1960s open stubborn gates of freedom for the whole country?  In cynical times, can unflinching history light the future?”

In addition to Blown Deadline Productions, the miniseries is being coproduced by Harpo Productions, the film production company of Baltimore native Oprah Winfrey.

The panel will take place at 6:00pm on Friday, May 8th at the MFF Tent Village, located on the East Side Parking Lot of MICA’s Lazarus Center at 131 W. North Avenue in the Station North Arts & Entertainment District. (Tickets are $12, $10 student, and are available online at After tickets are sold, there will be a stand by option as there is for all MFF screenings.)

About the Authors

Taylor Branch is an American author and public speaker best known for his landmark narrative history of the civil rights era, America in the King Years. The trilogy’s first book, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63, won the Pulitzer Prize and numerous other awards in 1989. In 2009, Simon and Schuster published The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President. Far more personal than Branch’s previous books, this memoir tells of an unprecedented eight-year project to gather a sitting president’s comprehensive oral history on tape. In the October 2011 issue of The Atlantic, Branch published an influential cover story entitled “The Shame of College Sports,” which author and NPR commentator Frank Deford said “may well be the most important article ever written about college sports.”  The article touched off continuing national debate

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a senior editor for The Atlantic, and blogger for that publication’s website where he writes about cultural, social and political issues. Coates has worked for The Village VoiceWashington City Paper, and Time. He has contributed to The New York Times MagazineThe Washington PostThe Washington MonthlyO, and other publications. In 2008 he published a memoir, The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood. He joined the City University of New York as its journalist-in-residence in the fall of 2014. He grew up in Baltimore, attended Howard University, and recently spoke to a standing-room-only crowd at Johns Hopkins on the subject, “The Clock Didn’t Start with the Riots.”

James McBride is an author, musician and screenwriter. His landmark memoir, The Color of Water, remained on New York Times bestseller list for two years. His latest novel about American revolutionary John Brown, The Good Lord Bird, is the winner of the 2013 National Book Award for Fiction. McBride is a former staff writer for The Boston Globe, People magazine and The Washington Post, and has toured as a saxophonist sideman with jazz legends like Jimmy Scott. He has also written songs for Anita Baker, Grover Washington Jr., Pura Fe, and Gary Burton, and is currently a Distinguished Writer in Residence at New York University.

David Simon is an author, screenwriter, and producer who draws from his background as a crime beat reporter to craft narratives that probe urban America’s most complex and poorly understood realities. A 2010 MacArthur Fellow, Simon has authored a wide range of nonfiction works, both in journalism (as a Baltimore Sun reporter and freelancer) and book-length form, he is best known for his contributions to drama; he has been a screenwriter and/or producer for several critically acclaimed television series, including Homicide: Life on the Street (1993–1999), The Wire (2002–2008), and Treme (2010–2013). Simon is the author of Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets (1991) and co-author of The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood(1997), and his additional television projects include the HBO miniseries The Corner (2000) and Generation Kill (2008). Simon’s latest HBO series, Show Me a Hero, depicting racial confict amid court-ordered housing segregation, stars Oscar Isaac and is directed by Paul Haggis.

About the Maryland Film Festival

The mission of the Maryland Film Festival is to bring films, filmmakers, and audiences together in a friendly, inclusive atmosphere that reflects the authenticity and unpretentious nature of the greater Baltimore community. This community participates in and adds to the larger film dialogue across the country and across the world. Ultimately, MFF provides “film for everyone.”

Founded in 1999, MFF has provided the greater Baltimore community access to top-notch film and video work from all over the world. Dedicated to showcasing Baltimore as a thriving center of film culture and filmmaking, MFF has continued to expand its ability to nurture and challenge the next generation of filmgoers to appreciate film as both art and entertainment.

MFF has become an essential component in the continued cultural development of Baltimore, especially in regards to the revitalization of Station North Arts and Entertainment District (Station North). Beginning with the first festival that opened the newly expanded Charles Theater sixteen years ago, MFF now has moved farther into Station North, and includes a Filmmaker Tent Village adjacent to MICA’s Lazarus Center and multiple other locations in Station North allowing audiences to engage more directly with the neighborhood. With these venues, unique screenings and presentations, MFF has established itself as a major stop on the national film festival circuit, bringing over 2,000 films and 1,500 filmmakers to Baltimore. In addition to its annual festival, MFF programs 80 different screenings throughout the year.

In December 2012, MFF launched a historic campaign to restore Station North’s Parkway Theatre and three adjoining structures into a state-of-the-art film center. Opening in early 2017, this will provide the festival with a year-round venue and exciting opportunity to market Station North as a place to live, work, and play and promote it as a regional and national destination for film and theater innovation.




Ladies and gentlemen, The Intrinsics: A parental kvell

05 Mar
March 5, 2015


The young man with the knowing smile above — and trust me, he already knows much more than me about a growing pile of stuff  — is my son, Ethan. He plays piano and keyboards. His professional debut was at Sidney’s Lounge on St. Bernard Avenue in New Orleans, where the estimable Kermit Ruffins, tending bar that night, made him sit and play four songs on the battered upright. He nervously gave up two Fess standards and some Fats Domino. He was fourteen. Somewhere on the internet, if you google Ethan Simon, you’ll find an audition video of him playing bop for admission to an summer jazz camp. He goes to work on Kern’s “All The Things You Are” and Charlie Parker’s “Now Is The Time.” He was seventeen then.

He’s now just shy of his twenty-first birthday, and his band, The Intrinsics, of Cambridge, Mass. and whatever parts of greater Boston require the services of a Memphis-style soul outfit, has just dropped its first recordings.

For those doing the math, this means that apart from all the fixed and certain father-son pride that ordinarily prevails, I have had the additional pleasure, the lagniappe if you will, of watching my kid grow as a musician for nearly a decade. Those who know my overbearing love of American music will hear no hyperbole when I say that I couldn’t be more proud if this kid rolled into Yale Law or an internship at Goldman Sachs. Actually, if you really know me, you’ll understand that I am having trouble conjuring alternate post-graduation paths of glory, as the ones I just mentioned would vaguely shame much of my left-leaning family tree. I don’t know if music will be the life he chooses; I do know that making people dance is always rightful endeavor. In these times, especially so.

Anyway, the first two tracks below are composed by Mr. Simon and Rachel Horn, the alumna with whom he carefully retooled a Motown-heavy campus band into grittier, horn-heavy R&B outfit. Following those tracks are a workup of the ballad “Killing Me Softly,” and the Irma Thomas classic, “Wish Someone Would Care.”

I’m going to expend one more paragraph to thank three fellows who, in the following order, got hold of my son when he was flaming out on a diet of Mozart and Chopin and ready, at age twelve, to chuck the piano for the guitar, or girls, or video games or whatever. Davis Rogan, thank you for teaching him the New Orleans rolls of Fess and Fats. Lafayette Gilchrist, thank you for so carefully mentoring him in jazz improvisation and composition. And Tom McDermott, thank you for showing him that of which a left hand is capable, and, more important, just how much precision and dedication there is to the entire musical journey. But mostly, congrats, Ethan. If your grade-point average skims anywhere above a 3.0, I’ll know you guys aren’t rehearsing enough.

The rest of The Intrinsics:










And if you need a professional R&B outfit for an event anywhere near Boston, visit the website where these tunes are also embedded, along with their performing schedule and other info:   And once there, as Eddie Floyd so aptly put it, if there’s something you need, just raise your hand.

Off The Record (Music and Lyrics by Ethan Simon and Rachel Horn)

Shoulda Known Better  (Music and Lyrics by Ethan Simon and Rachel Horn)

Killing Me Softly   (Written by Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel)

I Wish Someone Would Care   (Written by Irma Thomas)



Ted Lippman (1929-2014)

17 Dec
December 17, 2014


It’s hard to scale the heights of requiem without stumbling into a deep ravine of sentiment and cliche, and I know some will measure what follows against the known place of the old Baltimore Sun in the pantheon of American newspapering. No, we were not a Washington Post of the last late century, with Bradlee’s feet on the desk and Watergate dueling scars adorning a set jawline, or a New York Times for the Middle Atlantic, our paper-of-record certitude enshrining our every effort. We certainly weren’t some rough-and-tumble tabloid squealing about headless bodies in topless bars, or even a Chicago broadsheet or Hearst rag for which Hildy Johnsons might labor with gin on their breath and cigarette burns between their typing fingers.

We were pretty staid. Too staid, perhaps, and a little too proud of a noble, grey history. We were often accused by our younger sibling, the Evening Sun, of pretense and pomposity. H. L. Mencken, who we vaguely claimed but who had in fact labored for most of his career at the evening edition, remarked famously that the morning paper’s scribes wrote like accountants. Even when I arrived in 1982, there was still some of that. And yes, we puffed ourselves up with the idea that what we wrote mattered.  The wall-sized photograph of the Baltimore skyline in the fifth-floor conference room was crowned by The Sun’s light-for-all masthead and underlined by the affirmation: “The Baltimore Sun.  One of the world’s great newspapers.”

Evening Sun wags — and every last one, even the hacks who couldn’t write a lick, thought themselves a wag when compared to the morning paper’s Brooks Brothers-wearing, Washington-bureau-coveting pecksniffs — quickly fashioned a savage, get-over-yourselves reply: “The Evening Sun. One of the world’s newspapers.”

Having been hired straight out of college by The Sun, I might have done better, in the short run, to have landed at the evening paper, which held local coverage to be its bread and butter. By contrast, the morning staff was intensely hierarchical, and a boychild hired to be the junior cop reporter was staring at a couple years running the police districts, then a three- or four-year sojourn in a county bureau, then perhaps, an extra hand in Annapolis during the legislative session. If you jumped through all those hoops without falling on your ass, if you looked and dressed the part, and if you showed enough level-headed temperment to master The Sun demeanor, a Washington posting might just beckon. Or perhaps even one of the coveted foreign bureaus.

In previous decades, the newspaper had put a premium on Harvard men, and yes, there were a lot of bylines with waspish names, right down to the juniors and thirds, initials for given names and old family monikers lodged somewhere in the middle. There was, at the old Baltimore Sun, a certain code of employ.  The place smelled of a certain gracious, dry rectitude, with just a slight trace of formaldehyde. I think I smelled of something else, something more common to ordinary newspapering.

But damn, I was proud to be there in my twenty-second year, and yes, I aspired to join that long grey line. And yet the guardians of the old Sun, while polite and even tolerant at points, could be intimidating. Nothing made the young metro-desk proles go slack-jawed faster than the vision of a Price or an O’Mara gliding through the newsroom on home leave from the Paris or Jerusalem bureaus. These were men who closed hotel bars in Beirut and Rome, who buttonholed world leaders, who strutted through coronations and shooting wars.  And even more whispered and enigmatic was a newsroom visit by one of the kohaneem of the Sun’s inner temple, the editorial writers.

Mostly, these men — and for a long while they were mostly men, and very much white — would only deign to journey up from their fourth floor Holy of Holies and maneuver through the newsroom maze to consult with the National Desk or the Foreign Editor, or the top editors in their corner offices. There was nothing that a metro reporter could tell these gents about something as pedestrian as Baltimore, Maryland. The whole of the city was self-evident to these men, as were we who scurried through its political wards and police precincts.

I say this with no cynicism whatsoever.  I was a kid then, and the resumes of these giants were speckled with the great postings of American journalism. They had seen great happenings at close hand. And they had written of real spectacle and history, the stuff of real purpose.  Me, I was still waiting for the State Police barracks in Hagerstown to identify the second victim in that three-car fatal.

My favorite of the high priests was physically unprepossessing.  In fact, he was elfin.

Theo “Ted” Lippman, Jr. was a man who I managed to pass in the hallways and corridors three or four times a week.  He was never without a scrap or two of paper, always in mid-assemblage of a pithy column on politics or current events that ran to about 500-600 carefully chosen words and was lodged at corner left on the opinion page beneath the totem of staff editorials.  I wrote it long, goes the old newsroom saw, because I didn’t have time to write it short.  Lippman’s column was always so disciplined and tight, so keenly edited, that I imagined beads of blood forming on his forehead as he trimmed his way into ten or eleven column inches.  He was always worth the read.  Even more so when compared to many of the droning, this-bears-watching, yet-on-the-other-hand staff editorials perched atop his signed column.

Mr. Lippman was also an expert on the life and work of Mencken, the great essayist and skeptic who bestrode the joint Evening Sun-Morning Sun newsroom like a colossus. The Baltimore paper had not produced anyone as elemental to American culture and, though many had ceased to read Mencken as part of the literary canon, he remained the essential icon for those of us on Calvert Street.  For one thing, Mencken could turn a phrase; his memoirs and essays are often brilliant and, at points, genuinely timeless.  For another, we were all of us wandering the dim halls of an ancient ink-stained cloister, and such places demand at least one founding saint.

Ted Lippman’s editing of Mencken’s work, published several years before, marked him in my mind as more than one of the paper’s better political columnists.  He was an Author, a man of letters capable of assessing and framing the legendary work of the Great Sage.  That he had published other political biographies of Ed Muskie, Spiro Agnew and Franklin Roosevelt compounded my awe.

Moreover, Mr. Lippman’s knowledge of the American presidency seemed to be without peer.  He could conjure trends and historical precedent in fresh ways, and his column became a veritable provocation of theory and argument in presidential election years.  Before arriving at The Sun in 1965, he had been the Washington correspondent for the Atlanta Constitution, the great Southern citadel of progressive change in the civil rights years. He had covered the March on Washington and King’s great oratory at the Lincoln Monument.  He had covered the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missle Crisis.  Old Axe-Handle himself, Lester Maddox, had derided Ted Lippman in print and by name as one of the “pinks, punks and eggheads” who were so foolishly serving godless communism in advocating for social justice and integration.

When we passed in The Sun’s hallways or found ourselves sharing an elevator, Mr. Lippman would invariably nod, offer a quiet how-are-you and proceed past. Never do I recall having the effrontery to venture more than a “good column today” or  some bland muttering about the weather. Mostly, I just smiled back and considered myself wanting in the eyes of one of the old Sun vanguard.  Not that I could bear to say much more to O’Mara, or Price, or any of the priestly class; I was still unwashed and unpromoted, still running the police districts and gathering string on ghetto murders, still donning blue jeans and polo shirts, still unable to sustain myself for more than twenty minutes straight as an apostle of The Sun way.  I was a reporter.  I worked with reporters; we spilled soup and coffee on ourselves, wrote too long for the newshole and then had our last grafs trimmed away.  This Lippman fellow — he was a journalist.

A Brunswick, Ga. native, he had a perfect, gentle drawl. He wore seersucker in the summer. And bow ties, for the love of Christ.  That’s right: The man could come correct in a fucking bowtie, looking as if he was ready for either the Scopes trial or the Pettis Bridge. Watching him, I actually conjured an entire fictive backstory for the man: Lippman, Jewish name. Southern heritage, though. A great great grandfather who was one of the sutlers following Sherman’s army into Georgia, then settling to embrace life on a small town square. Maybe a dry goods store. Then a couple generations of gentle assimilation along Atlanta’s Peachtree Street, until finally, young Theodore rebels just enough to tell his father that the family business will have to do without him, that he is a man of letters. And eventually, he writes his way to the top tier, an advocate for a new South and a careful, thoughtful observer of real history. Not that I had the courage to inquire directly. As I said, I don’t think I ever formed any sentence longer than a basic greeting or compliment, but it was enough: The sight of Ted Lippman moving past me in a hallway made me proud to work at my newspaper.

His daughter got to Calvert Street about six years after me, hired off the San Antonio Light by the Evening Sun.  She was a tall drink of water, too, seemingly towering in heels over her father in the rare moments when I saw them together. But don’t go there yet: She was married and so was I, and of course, she was Evening Sun. Our early interactions were spiced with the requisite amount of soft, familial snide that passed for inter-edition collegiality. The woman actually thought she worked for the better newspaper. Or at least, she carried it like that.

When the papers were merged and we were working on the same metro staff, I got to know her a bit better. I once spilled a coffee on her desk blotter and earned some playful wrath for it. I offered to buy a new blotter, she asked for a hardback copy of Homicide instead. When she published her first novel a few years later, I happily blurbed it. We did a bookstore signing together once in White Marsh. That sort of thing.

Years later, I was separated, out of a marriage. Her, too. Ignoring the fixed newsroom wisdom that for good of the human species, veteran reporters should never mate or reproduce, we began to date and, at some point, it was time to face the lady’s parents. The scenario, fraught enough under the usual circumstances, takes on added comedy when an ex-metro desk scribbler, and a cop reporter at that, shows up to claim the hand of the daughter of an old Sun sachem.  On the Calvert Street of Ted Lippman’s day, an editorial writer and signature columnist wouldn’t wipe his ass with a police reporter, especially one as badly dressed and unevenly tempered as some we might name.

By then, both of us had left The Sun. I was among the youngest journalists taking a 1995 buyout offered by the newspaper chain that had purchased the paper; Ted Lippman was among the oldest. The fact that I had taken up with Laura after publishing a couple books helped my cause somewhat; the television work was, of course, tinged with apostasy. And even for as much of a progressive as Ted Lippman managed to be in his own era — his 1970s beard alone was enough to make his insurance-salesman father apoplectic at the idea of his son’s possible leftist allegiances — I’m sure I was a lot for him to swallow. Once, at a family gathering in a Baltimore restaurant, I made a remark about having been called a Marxist in print by someone. My father in law didn’t hesitate.  “Well,” he asked, his face offering only bland curiosity, “are you a Marxist?”

It turned out the version I had fabricated of the Lippman family history had only small shards of truth. My wife’s great grandfather went to the southland a Jew, and was even a president of his Alabama temple. But his son got wise to his environs and reached adulthood as a Methodist, and the grandson, Ted Lippman, was so far removed from the sons of the covenant that he fairly broke out in a sweat at being confined to a synagogue for the exhausting, three-hour duration of my son’s bar mitzvah. Nonetheless, I spent my years as Ted’s son-in-law engaged in a prolonged effort to bring him back to the tribe, if only for comedy’s sake.  Cinephiles will remember the running gag in Cat Ballou, in which Cat’s rancher-father is convinced that his Native American farmhand is, like all of his race, certain to be among the ten lost Israelite tribes. “Shalom,” he continually greets the kid, much to the farmhand’s annoyance.

As it was with me, arriving at my father-in-law’s Delaware shore home, taking a seat on the sofa and interrupting his perusal of the Sunday morning political talkfests with as much Yiddishism as I could cram into ordinary sentences. “Gevalt, what kind of narishkeit is this you’re listening to? Wolfowitz is a behaima. This whole thing with the weapons of mass destruction? Bupkis. So, nu, what else is on? You have the remote?  Geviss.”

Alas, Ted Lippman never broke character. None of it stuck. Not a word.

His wit was dry, and always with that laconic Southern windup.  It was not the call-and-response banter of the East Coast; his best lines would be carefully set up, much as in his columns. Once, when Laura was trying to prevail on him to order carry-in sushi with the rest of us, her father refrained from any single negative assertion with regard to the eating of raw fish and seaweed, merely conveying looks of increasing perplexity and dismay.  And then finally, an hour later, eyes twinkling, as he opened the box flap of his dissenting order from Mancini’s:

“Pizza. Now this is American food.”

He was ever agreeable, unless either of his daughters wanted to argue with him, at which point he delighted in playing the provocateur. He would often back into outrageous statements and positions, then profess shock when Laura or Susan would go for the hook. Then he would reel them in with even more indefensible outrageousness. He consistently denied any childhood memories in which he was complicit or guilty in their eyes, insisting that he had no recollection of any such circumstance. When he let you know him, he was hilarious. And damned clever.  And just as I was proud to work at his newspaper, I was proud to find myself in his family.

I tried to hug him a few times. Jews hug. We do it with relations that we love and we do it with those that we don’t much like, because, hey, with the ones you don’t like, a warm wrap-around puts the schlemiel to shame for whatever mishegas he’s done to annoy you in the first place. And, too, family is family. At any moment the Cossacks may ride into town and carry off one or two of us.  So hug while you can.

I would throw an arm over Ted Lippman now and again because I loved him. And yeah, he would squirm a bit; Protestants aren’t adept at physical embrace, though to be fair, my mother-in-law, Madeline, took to it fine. But her husband? Cornered prey. Finally, on a morning of doorstep goodbyes, my sister-in-law broke everyone up:

“Well, if David’s going to hug Daddy, I suppose I’ll have to do it, too.”

And she did. After which her father looked on me as if I was turning his own children against him.

For fun, we debated politics. I would stake out a position to the left of the Democratic party and then fight from that fixed position against the encyclopedic knowledge of my father-in-law. By standards of my own argumentative family dialectic, it was gentle stuff. Mostly, we talked about The Sun, the newspaper’s struggles and the many buyouts that followed our own. We marked the departures, the forced retirements and finally the firings of so many people that we knew and cared about. There was no schadenfreude. Ted Lippman had been a Sun man in the halcyon era, when it meant something. And as a kid, I had at least been allowed a brief glimpse of the garden before the hissing snake of out-of-town ownership, the bite of the bad Wall Street apple, and the long fall from grace. In the last couple years, it pained me that I could offer less and less newsroom gossip to my father-in-law, or that what gossip I knew was about people too young to tickle his memories.

“Shame,” he would say, the single word sufficing for all that had happened to the newspaper.

He had tried to keep a hand in, to write a column or a book review now and again, to keep those muscles sharp.  But it got so bad that at one point, the op-ed editors — on orders from Chicago — were no longer paying even nominal fees for columns and essays. And Ted Lippman was a professional, and no professional writes for free.  When the paper was slow to pay for one of his last printed columns, my father-in-law, with Southern pride and patience, repeatedly called to inquire about the missing check. Finally, after months, he called the newspaper’s editor in chief directly:

“Tim?  This is Ted Lippman  I know now that you’re not going to pay me for the column, but I’m writing my memoir, and I’ve reached the exact place in the story where I need to know why you won’t pay me for the column.”

The check arrived a couple days later.

But he was a forgiving man, and if a fight ever wounded Ted Lippman, he never showed it. Not to me. He held no grudge against that editor slow to the petty cash drawer; in fact, the story of getting paid at last was worth more to him than the fee itself. The Lester Maddox column that railed against him stayed framed behind his desk for his whole career and into his retirement. Even the bosses with whom he had tangled at The Sun on matters of real significance were, in the end, benign colleagues when he spoke of them in memory.

As for me, the proto-Marxist, bear-hugging, television-hacking member of the rabbinate, I knew I was near enough to his heart when he gifted me all of his heavy clay poker chips and two decks of vintage playing cards featuring the high and mighty of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. These were touchstones of Herculean, late-night card contests featuring Price, O’Mara, Jenkins and the other grey legends, sacred relics rescued from a lost, fallen temple.

They are deeply prized.  As was he.




Robin Williams: A brief encounter

12 Aug
August 12, 2014

This is a grievous thing to say aloud, much less think, but I wish that the suicide of Robin Williams made less sense to me than it somehow does. I say that with very little real knowledge of the man, his inner being, or the whole of his life. I encountered him only once, twenty years ago, but the memory is distinct. I found Mr. Williams good-hearted, hilarious, talented, and remarkably, indescribably sad.

Read more →