The Secret Life of Silly Putty

Everything has a story, even things so silly that they have “silly” right in their name. Such is the case with Silly Putty. In 1949, a jazz-loving cool cat from New Haven invested $147 he didn’t have to buy the rights to a weird, bouncy substance – and he ended up 25 years later with a fortune of $140 million. That’s just how things bounce sometimes.  

In 1949, when he was 18 and a freshman at the Yale School of Music, the future jazz legend Willie Ruff wandered into a house on Temple Street in New Haven, looking for his friend and fellow horn student, Bob Cecil. He later recalled the moment in his autobiography, A Call to Assembly:

There on the first floor, I saw Cecil and a busy group of undergraduates, looking like kids in nursery school. They all seemed to be wrestling large blobs of soft but very stubborn plastic material from 50-gallon drums. What was this all about? I watched, more than bemused. They were flattening the stuff out on a table, forming it into long rolls like cookie dough. Still others were cutting the rolls into little chunks and weighing them on postal scales. The chunks then went to the next man in the crude assembly line, who put them into plastic packages that looked like two halves of an egg.

“What the hell is it?” I asked Bob.

“Silly Putty.”

“Come again?”

Bob Cecil had called Ruff over that day to see if he wanted a job on the assembly line (he didn’t; he was already regularly playing his horn for pay) but also to meet Peter Hodgson, a jazz lover and one of New Haven’s coolest cats. Hodgson was 20 years older than Ruff and Cecil. He one day would be described admiringly by The New York Times as “a tall, robust man with a close-cropped, full, gray explorer’s beard.” But at the time, in 1949, after an up-and-down 15-year career in marketing and advertising, he was $12,000 in debt and badly in need of a new idea. That’s when, by chance, a glob of silicone by-product bounced into his life.

Peter-HodgsonThe puttylike substance was nothing new. It had been around since 1943, when James Wright, laboring in a General Electric laboratory to come up with a cheap synthetic rubber substitute, happened to drop boric acid into silicone oil, and up sprang a substance that bounced higher and stretched even further than rubber – too high and too far, perhaps, for any practical use. Although GE shared the new discovery with scientists around the world, none showed any interest in developing it. The “nutty putty,” as it was called, remained a curiosity.

When it eventually found its way into Hodgson’s hands, by way of New Haven toy-store owner Ruth Fallgatter, whose catalog he produced, he saw its potential right away. He liked the way it could bounce and stretch, ooze and puddle, break into pieces with a hammer blow, and even pick up images from newspapers and magazines. He scraped together $147 to order a batch from GE and secure the production rights. Then he got together with Fallgatter to sell some to the public at $2 a pop. By all accounts, it did well, but not well enough to keep Fallgatter interested. She dropped out of the development scheme and left it all in the hands of Hodgson. And it was here that his innate creativity and marketing chops conjured up the brilliant egg-shaped container, the crude assembly line of Yalies on Temple Street and the product’s immortal name, Silly Putty.

Fueled mostly by desperation, Hodgson had to move very fast, and he did. Less than a year later, in August 1950, a reporter for the “Talk of the Town” section in The New Yorker would write, “We went into the Doubleday bookshop at Fifth Avenue and Fifty-second Street the other day, intending, in our innocence, to buy a book, and found all the clerks busy selling Silly Putty, a gooey, pinkish, repellent-looking commodity that comes in plastic containers the size and shape of eggs.” A Doubleday official noted that the company’s several shops had sold 10,000 eggs in the preceding month at $1 each. And here was Hodgson himself, extolling the virtues of his product, which in the beginning he had aimed at adults.

“It means five minutes of escape from neurosis,” he told The New Yorker. “It means not having to worry about Korea or family difficulties. And it appeals to people of superior intellect; the inherent ridiculousness of the material acts as an emotional release to hard-pressed adults.” To which the huckster in him could not help adding, “We’ll sell a million eggs by Christmas.”

It’s not known whether he reached that lofty goal that year or not, but it’s certain that Silly Putty took off as the years went by. It soon found its rightful niche as a kids’ toy, ran some ads on the “Howdy Doody Show” and became a mid-1950s staple right alongside baseball cards and Davey Crockett coonskin caps.

As for Hodgson, he enjoyed the hell out of his unexpected new fortune. One thing that happened was that when he finally met Willie Ruff, the two became great friends, as Ruff later remembered:

Pete often drove me into New York in his new elegant maroon Hudson convertible to listen to Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and other jazz greats. We went to expensive dining spots on the Silly Putty expense account, places I’d never have been able to afford. Although I wasn’t on the Silly Putty payroll, Pete made me the firm’s unofficial music director and put me in charge of purchasing new jazz and classical recordings that I felt he and his kids should be listening to. Silly Putty was a boon to my already hot and broad exposure to good music, and thanks to Pete and that expense account, I learned my way around New York’s music emporiums while at Yale.

As his fortune grew, Hodgson moved his family out to an 80-acre estate in Madison, Connecticut, on Long Island Sound, known simply as “The Hill.” Here, all were welcome, most notably the family of his longtime vice president for production, William Henry Haynes, a young African-American who’d joined Hodgson at the very beginning through a connection with Ruth Fallgatter’s toy store and stayed until his death, at age 49, in 1976. In her blog, Haynes’ daughter, Carol, recalls the days of going out to The Hill:

We spent a great deal of our childhood on The Hill. When Pete and [wife] Margaret were out of the country we would sometimes spend up to a week there. It was an idyllic, peaceful and storybook setting.

Pete and Margaret never locked their doors. They figured that if anyone really wanted anything they owned they would find a way to get in. Even when they left for long trip in Europe they would leave the doors open and the keys in their cars. When we would arrive at the house we would just walk through the poolside doors and settle in.

The property had a tennis court, a pool, a side of the house where you had breakfast and another side where you had lunch and dinner. My favorite room, the living room, was alike a small cathedral. It had French-style glass panes all around and it was two to three stories high. It seemed as big as a basketball court. Pete was a music buff and there were what seemed like a million albums lined all around the perimeter of the room. When we were there we heard mostly classical and jazz. But music was always bouncing off the walls.

Such was the life that Silly Putty afforded and that Pete Hodgson readily shared. When he died in 1976 at the age of 64, he left a fortune of $140 million – not a bad return on his initial $147 investment. By then, Silly Putty had become a hit in the Soviet Union and traveled around the moon with the Apollo 8 astronauts. In 25 years, it would be inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame. All this from what once was an unwanted lump of goop.

Willie Ruff conducted the music for Hodgson’s memorial service, held at Yale Divinity School. Margaret Hodgson said it had been her husband’s wish that there be no speaking, no preaching, no religious references – only music. Ruff gathered the musicians and selected the music. Let’s just hope that one of the selections was something with a little bounce to it.

New Edition of “Connecticut Icons”

My best-selling collection of Connecticut treasures is back on bookstore shelves with Globe Pequot’s brand new edition of “Connecticut Icons.”

CT Icons cover 2017

For this fourth printing, I’ve added eight new icons, updated the other 50, and fancied it up with a nice new cover.

“Connecticut Icons” proved to be a popular gift choice when it was first published in 2006. Lots of people bought it for their family and friends, and also those who are no longer in Connecticut but recall it fondly. The icons range from hot lobster rolls to Yale Bowl, from stone walls to steamed cheeseburgers, and from Sleeping Giant to Top-Sider deck shoes. Each gets its own write-up and colorful photo. The book is filled with lots of surprising, revealing info about Connecticut places and things you thought you already knew about.

It makes a very good corporate gift, premium or giveaway, too – or even a nice little holiday gift for your employees. Let me know at if you’re interested in a bulk purchase.

Meanwhile, thanks for your time and attention. You can find “Connecticut Icons” through me, at most Connecticut bookstores, or even here at Amazon.


Breaking on Through: Seeing the Doors At Danbury High – 10/11/1967


If we’ve been fortunate in life, we’ve gotten to witness some of the cultural bomb-throwing moments that have shown us the path from one way of seeing and living – and even being – into another. In my lifetime, some of the most famous of these, as far as music is concerned, have been Elvis Presley shaking up the Ed Sullivan Show, Jimi Hendrix powering through the “The Star Spangled Banner,” and Marvin Gaye doing his revolutionary version of that same anthem at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game.

But if you’re really lucky, you’ll have a watershed moment happen right in front of you – a burying of the old and blasting through of the new – right before your very own disbelieving eyes. Which is what happened to me on the night of Oct. 11, 1967 – 50 years ago this month – when the Doors played a most unlikely concert at Danbury High School in Connecticut.

The Doors had been booked the previous spring to open up Fall Weekend at Western Connecticut State College (now University) in Danbury. By the time October rolled around, 1967 had already been a sensational year for the band. Its stunning first album, “The Doors,” arguably one of the greatest debuts ever, had been released in January, and it had done well. But it was the runaway success of the summer’s big hit single, “Light My Fire,” that pushed Jim Morrison’s scorching vocal through every AM radio speaker in America. The song went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts and carried the album all the way to No. 2, where it understandably stalled out behind “Sgt. Pepper.” In short, by October everyone knew who the Doors were.

The band’s sudden success had turned the Danbury booking into a major coup for the WestConn organizers. But a huge problem arose: The college auditorium was undergoing weeks of renovations and was no longer available for use. In a last-minute switch, the concert was moved to nearby Danbury High School, where the auditorium was large enough to accommodate the crowd, which would turn out to be about 2,000 strong.

As for myself in October 1967, I was a 17-year-old high school senior attending a boarding school in the neighboring town of New Milford, CT. Boarding schools in those days were not known for welcoming cultural change with open arms. We were all male. We wore jackets and ties to class and suits to dinner. We learned Latin, hosted tea dances with likeminded girls’ schools and attended chapel nearly every day. We were confined to campus except for wholesome special occasions, like a movie theater showing of “Becket” or a milkshake at a local dairy bar.

But we were far from unaware of the changes afoot in American culture that year; in fact, our prisonlike circumstances made us even more keenly aware of them. We had just witnessed, and maybe even participated in, what was widely referred to as the Summer of Love. Movies such as “The Graduate,” “Blow Up” and “The Trip” were throwing out a counter-culture vibe. And now drugs – in the form of a few stray joints, an illicit bottle of Nembutal, a tube of airplane model glue – began to find their way into our dorm rooms, and we were eager to give them a try.

And what better way to try them out than with music? The year had already been a great one for fresh sounds, with hit singles that included “Ruby Tuesday,” “Penny Lane,” “Groovin’,” “Sunshine of Your Love” and “Incense and Peppermints.” But there was also another sound to hear as well, music that carried a darker, more disturbing, more rebellious note. “A Day in the Life” on Sgt. Pepper was certainly one of them, Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” was an obvious, urgent call to ingest drugs, but it was “Hungry Freaks” on the Mothers of Invention’s “Freak Out!” album that astonished us with its lyrics that acknowledged Dylan and the others but then blasted past them into pure freakdom:

“Mr. America, try to hide

The emptiness that’s you inside;

But once you find that the way you lied.

And all the corny tricks you tried

Will not forestall the rising tide

Of hungry freaks, daddy!”

All of this put us in the right mood for a Doors concert. With its big hit single and lyrical touches, but also with its hard rocking and potentially menacing stage presence, the band seemed to have all the bases covered.

Exactly how a group of overprotected preppies convinced school authorities to allow a field trip to a Doors concert is unfortunately pretty much lost in the mists of time. One recollection has it that it was a classmate, an excellent drummer and ardent music fan, who found out about the concert and pushed hard for the road trip. Another classmate remembers that about 20 of us went in a school bus and paid $2 for a ticket. We were of course dressed in jackets and ties and properly chaperoned, perhaps by a couple of younger, hipper faculty members. Thus we were perfectly positioned to witness, and take part in, an epic clash of cultures.


This “clash” came about because immediately preceding the Doors concert there was a beauty pageant. I don’t mean that the two events happened on the same day; I mean that they were part of the same bill. Here again, no one seems to recall exactly who was being crowned. It easily could have been “Miss Fall Weekend” or “Miss Homecoming.” It could even have been “Miss WestConn,” but I don’t think it quite rose to that level. During the pageant, the house lights were all turned up so everyone could see the contestants parade back and forth on the stage. WestConn being in large part a local commuter school, there were no doubt a number of proud parents in attendance. And maybe some little brothers and sisters ready to have their formative little brains fried by what was to come. In any case, the pageant ended with big smiles and polite applause, and then the principal, who sounded very much like Firesign Theater’s Principal Poop, said a few words about not having too much fun: “Sit in your seats and do not leave them,” he said in a reedy, high-pitched voice. “If you get out of your seat we will escort you to the door. And no smoking.” These words were greeted with derisive shouts and boos.

And then the Doors were standing before us – Robbie Krieger, John Densmore, Ray Manzarek and, front and center, Jim Morrison himself in his signature tight leather pants, leather jacket (which he soon tossed off) and frilly white shirt. Following a very low-key intro from an anonymous deep voice (“The Doors, okay?”), they went into the jaunty first notes of “Moonlight Drive” from their new album “Strange Days,” released just three weeks before. I am quite sure they played the opener with the house lights still up (as shown in the photo at the top of this page) and that Morrison shouted for concert lighting, which was provided. And then it was off and running to “Break on Through” and “Backdoor Man,” “People Are Strange,” “Crystal Ship” and, following a wild piece of Morrison’s avant garde poetry called “Wake Up!,” they did a masterly version of “Light My Fire.” And then finally, inevitably, as sort of a required encore, came the extravaganza of “The End,” with its dark theatrics, role playing, and intimations of violence and incest. Here Morrison went into full Morrison mode, leaping from the stage and writhing down in front of the front row, before returning to the stage, at the very end of “The End,” to repeatedly smash his mic stand onto the floor.

In other words, it was perfect. Here was our watershed cultural moment – a sunny, small-town beauty pageant morphing into a loud, rhythmic, lizard-infested teachable moment. We’d never seen anything remotely like it, although we certainly would again in the months and years ahead. The promise of the West Coast had been fully delivered to us in prim and proper Connecticut. And whether we all fully enjoyed it or not, or got what it was all about, it signaled for us, personally, that change was in the air and that we might truly enjoy being on the side of change. On that night 50 years ago the world all of a sudden opened up right before us. It would remain one of the finest, most enduring things we ever could hope to experience in a high school auditorium.

Young Man: Here Are 20 Things My Father Gave Me That You Should Have, Too


 My father was born in 1911. In many respects, he lived to become an exemplary 20th-century man. Through thick and thin, war and depression, he was able to embrace that century’s bewildering advances in technology, accept social change and maintain a keen, well-read grasp of world events. But when I think of him on a more personal level, I realize that he was also a gentleman of late Victorian refinements. He was outwardly modest and decorous in mixed company. He loathed vulgarity and displays of bad taste (with only a few endearing exceptions). He was an expert employer of euphemism, as I learned when he told me the facts of life, and a stickler for correct usage (“Everyone put on his or her napkin.”).


Of course I didn’t get to know him until after 1950, when I was born. My earliest memories are of a man who, among many other things, used garters to keep his socks up and shaved with a straight blade every morning. He liked to mow the lawn in summer while wearing shorts and long socks, like a Bahamian traffic officer. He drank scotch most of the year, but liked to shake up batches of rum cocktails in July and August. He loved fine clothes, and even in our small Connecticut city he had a longtime Italian tailor who made him beautiful bespoke suits and sport jackets.

As a civilized man of his time who was comfortable in his habits, my father either consciously or by osmosis passed along many of these things to me – ways of dressing, grooming, dining, drinking, living.  Some I dismissed easily. I would never be one to wear a bowtie or a weekend Donegal cap, for example. Nor could I develop a taste for Richard Strauss or Spike Jones – or, for that matter, pungent, runny cheeses.

There were other, minor favorites and affectations he passed along that I have taken up, too, but do not feel the need to urge upon coming generations. He loved pistachio ice cream, for example, and so do I. He thought the character of Sir Jeffrey Dillon in the 1970s “Upstairs, Downstairs” TV series was marvelous, and so do I. When photographed outdoors, he liked to point randomly, as if calling attention to buildings or natural features of great interest that were just out of camera range – and so, as a sort of tribute to him, do I.

But there are some things he passed along to me that I do think are worthy of relaying forward to you. Not all of them carry equal weight or importance, of course, and some you may decide are downright trivial. But each in its own way contributes to the whole – to the way a man presents himself to the world, and to his friends and family – and has done for the past 50, or 80, or even 100 years. So take heed young man, it’s nothing less than the voice of civilization calling out to you.

The Manly Arts

At one time, the manly arts included things like swordplay, riding to hounds and the ability to stay awake and politely alert during interminable harpsichord recitals. Fortunately, by my father’s time, men had changed and their required duties had evolved as well. When I was 20 or so, I remember my father telling me – passing along to me, really – the following advice: “A man needs to know three basic things and know them well – how to mix a good drink, build a fire and carve a roast.” He may have been half kidding when he said it, but only half. And because this advice remains valid today, I pass it along to those who come after me, along with the very important proviso: If you want to get good, really good, at these manly arts, learn by doing.

Mix a Good Drink. This doesn’t mean conjuring up fancy cocktails unless you want it to. It really refers to the basics. Stock your bar well, acquire some good, solid drink glasses, be generous with all the ingredients, use plenty of ice when ice is called for, mix well with a long spoon rather than your index finger, remember people’s preferences and notice when they’re ready for another.

Build a Fire. This usually means having a fireplace, of course, and wood, but it can also mean being able to make a fire on the beach, at a campsite or even while wretched and alone on a dystopian plain. There is no single best way to arrange the fuel, but allow for some air circulation and remember that it’s always the kindling that’s key. I am old enough to have had a working fireplace in my college dorm room, where we used toilet paper rolls liberated from supply closets to get things going. You may not wish to do that, but tightly rolled or crumpled newspaper can do just as well, along with a generous bed of dry twigs and, if you want to cheat a bit, a fatwood stick or two.

Carve a Roast. You’ll need a sharp knife and a good carving board. I have a wooden one with spikes to hold the roast in place and several channels to carry the blood to its little trough. (My father enjoyed using the word “blood” at the dining table, as in “Would anyone like more blood on his or her roast beef or potatoes?”  It was one of those infrequent vulgarities of his that somehow became endearing.) As for the actual procedure, be patient and work slowly, as a surgeon would. If you can hold the attention of the room with a few good stories as you carve, and take an occasional sip of your well-made drink, you only need to ask someone to throw another log onto the perfect fire you built to complete the Manly Man Trifecta.

A Strong Signature

I have always admired a fine signature – the flourish of John Hancock, the humble simplicity of Abraham Lincoln, the classic cornfed beauty of Mickey Mantle or Arnold Palmer – but it is legibility that I love most. Consequently, I have tried to keep my own signature solidly readable. After all, it is mine and mine only, my personal stamp. In this regard, I must also subconsciously take my cue from my own father and mother, whose signatures leave no doubt as to whom they belong. So you can imagine my concern when I see the squibs and scrawls with which so many young people sign things – they look more like the initials you sprinkle onto a rental car agreement than an actual signature. I hardly know what to say, except that I hope none of you is ever called upon to pen your name onto a Declaration of Independence or a baseball – years later people will look at it and say, “I wonder who that was.” Do I think you should change? Well, yes I do. You never took penmanship, I get it, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still build a legible, strong signature – one you can carry proudly forward into the rest of your life. Work on it. Embellish as you wish. In some quarters, it will be viewed as a measure of the man.


Parties With Live Music

By this, I don’t mean hiring a band; I mean playing instruments and singing – group and individual – by the guests themselves. Music was always a hallmark of the parties my parents gave, usually with a reliable hand at the piano and a stream of willing and not-so-willing singers rising up to give it their best. We’d listen to the music and laughter, and breathe in the cigarette smoke, from the top of the stairs. Not surprisingly some of our own best dinner parties or birthday celebrations over the decades have included live music (with my wife at the keyboard), and we’ve often been surprised by who, within the ranks of our friends, really loves to sing or play, and is good at it. The type of music doesn’t really matter – show tunes, pop, standards or Christmas carols – it’s the enthusiasm that counts, and the fact that guests will talk about these parties for a long time – sometimes years – afterward.


Pinaud Clubman Virgin Island Bay Rum

As mustard was once used primarily to disguise the smell and taste of meat that had gone off, so was cologne liberally splashed in the days before regular showering and effective deodorants came along. Today, the idea of wearing a personal scent is clearly one of choice rather than necessity, and I do succumb to it occasionally. When I do, I like to go old school, with what was once a staple (along with Pinaud stablemate Lilac Vegetal) of every good barbershop and country club locker room. It was also on the bottom shelf of my father’s medicine cabinet, along with Wildroot Cream Oil and Creamalin tablets. Bay Rum’s clovey fragrance will take you forward through the day as well as backward through the decades.


 A Good Tweed Jacket

My father’s tailor was named Mike Fiore and his shop, with its low pools of light, broad, well-worn wooden table tops and bolts of fabric, was located on the second floor of a busy retail block in our downtown. Among the garments he made for my father was a greenish tweed jacket that held its style and shape for more than 30 years and always looked just right at a Saturday afternoon tailgate. Get yourself a tweed jacket, too, in a classic weave that doesn’t call too much attention to itself. Make sure it fits over a sweater. And pay enough for it so that you’ll never want to gain weight and grow out of it.



What I mean here is that you should find a place, other than your home, that you always carry in your heart. For me this is Bermuda, specifically its west end, where my family went for five straight summers when I was a little boy, and where I’ve returned many times since. The west end of Bermuda, Somerset, was a quiet place in the mid-1950s. The narrow lanes were nearly empty save for the occasional puttering motorbike, the Morris Minor taxis featured parasol-like roofs with fringes around the edges, the tree frogs sang their nightly chorus, and we could walk from houses called Felicity Hall or Cavello Hill to deserted little sandy inlets for swimming and adventures in the coral outcroppings. As we did so, Bermuda got inside us and became “ours.” Do that for yourself and your family, whether it’s an island in Maine, a mountain hideaway, a place on the lake, an apartment in Paris – as long as it’s not a condo in Orlando.


W.C. Fields

I understand that tastes and fashions change, but I hate to see things get discarded or lost for no good reason. Black and white movies are a hard sell these days, but if I may be allowed to reclaim one of my father’s and my favorites from the cultural rubble pile, I’d like it to be W.C. Fields. Watch him in “The Bank Dick” or “It’s a Gift,” or even just a YouTube short like “The Diner Sketch,” and you will see a mean, cynical, insincere, dishonest, often inebriated deadbeat who also happens to be sublimely, inventively funny. The pace is ancient and slow, yes, it’s black and white and the plotting is usually nonsensical, but it’s W.C. Fields, man. Don’t let him just disappear!


Keep a Journal

My father sporadically kept a journal throughout his life. He tended to write more when he was single than after he was married and had a family, but you could tell that every once in a while he resolved to get back to it and did so. The result has been a feast for those who have followed him, including not just sketches from his personal life but also his takes on books, movies and world and local events. Right now, as World War II marks 75 years, I’ve been reading and posting sections of his journal on Pearl Harbor, our industrial hometown gearing up for war, and, eventually, on and on all the way to VJ Day. I have been far less industrious with my own journal-keeping and sometimes have limited it just to specific events. My kids loved reading my on-the-spot take on the Blizzard of 1978, for instance. You can think of it as writing a letter to yourself, one that you’ll take out and read many years from now. You’ll be amazed by the details – and important things, too – that you otherwise would have forgotten over time.


German Beer

It’s pretty obvious that there are way too many beers and breweries these days, more than anyone can possibly keep track of, much less drink, so maybe it’s time to go back to the best. According to my father, German beer was always king. I remember around age 12 having lunch with him at Lüchow’s, a venerable old German oom-pah restaurant located on 14th Street in Manhattan. He ordered a Löwenbräu, and to my embarrassment pronounced it as if he were in Germany. But when it came to the table in its towering stein, he allowed me a sip through its foamy, hoppy head, and ever since I’ve believed that that’s what good beer should smell and taste like. Of course, Löwenbräu was later bought up by an American beer company and its formula ignored and destroyed, but many, many other great German brews remain. You can show you’re at the top of your game by pulling out some frosty bottles of Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier at your next get-together.


Learn Something by Heart

My family – my mother, brother and sisters – were standing around the foot of my father’s hospital bed as he lay dying at age 93. We’d been chatting aimlessly, catching up, speaking in hushed tones, when we became aware of a low, droning voice rising from behind us. We turned to find it was Dad, giving it one last go, reciting from memory Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar”:  

“. . . Twilight and evening bell,

And after that the dark!

And may there be no sadness of farewell,

When I embark . . .”

It was impossible to know how long he’d been planning this moment, or if it had just occurred to him on the spot. We never got a chance to ask him about it. But it was a powerful, unforgettable moment, and it was made possible by his generation’s tradition of learning things – poems, songs, Shakespeare soliloquies – by heart. As with penmanship, that sort of learning isn’t taught much in school anymore, but an ability to come up with a perfect few lines of poetry or prose at an opportune moment can set you apart. You could even be loved and remembered for it.


The Tie Bar

As Donald Trump campaigned last fall, a photo of him circulated on the Internet in which a gust of wind had caught his ubiquitous necktie, flipped it over, and revealed that the two ends were being held together by several strips of Scotch tape. How gauche! How tacky! How easily avoided with the use of a handsome tie bar! The tie bar was used by men in my father’s day to prevent just the sort of wild, disorganized flapping that DJT has become famous for. Several bars would normally be housed together in a tiny leather box on top of the dresser. My father often wore the “PT 109” bar that had been given to him by President Kennedy. The one passed along to me was an LBJ 10-gallon hat (we were a political family), but I have some of my own, too.  Wearing one – not too high, not too low – will give you an air of throwback self-possession that others will envy, whether you deserve it or not.

Poems and Songs

Here are some very natural pass-alongs – poems and songs that have in some cases been cast aside but are deserving of much longer lives. There were many, many that he loved and knew well in each category.

Poems. There are three I remember hearing and reading while literally seated on my father’s lap: “Danny Deever” by Rudyard Kipling, “To an Athlete Dying Young” by A. E. Housman, and “Barbara Frietchie” by John Greenleaf Whittier. Here my father betrayed his Victorian leanings (they are all 19th-century compositions), as well as his sentimental side. They are uncomplicated works and easy to understand, which is probably why he chose them to share with his young son. But he truly enjoyed them, and loved repeating the rhyming lines and going over their stories with me. One thing those sessions achieved was to teach me not to be afraid of poetry. When I come across a poem in a magazine these days, I don’t avert my eyes and hustle past it as if it were roadkill – I give it a try.

Songs. My father was a piano player (he insisted on that description rather than “pianist”) and an enthusiastic singer with an astoundingly deep well of songs and lyrics at his disposal, from obscure college fight songs to Maria Callas, and from Leadbelly to Gilbert and Sullivan. From his vast store, here are three of his very favorites for you to adopt and appreciate: “Streets of Laredo” tells a devastating story of early death (much like the Housman poem named above); “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” is a tough, tough tale of life during the Great Depression; and “Stalin Wasn’t Stallin’” as performed by the Golden Gate Quartet returns to the long-ago days when Stalin and the Soviet Union were viewed as great allies of America in the joint battle against Hitler. There’s not just melody in these three songs, but American history, too.

Neurotic of the Day X: Frederick Exley

There are neurotics such and you and me and the guy in the back seat of the bus who keeps blowing his nose. And then there are the Great Neurotics. From all walks of life they come, these Great Neurotics, from history and fiction and the entertainment arts they emerge, marching together, out of step, absorbed in their own thoughts, and in the way the breeze plays through their hair.

Here is today’s entry in this dubious gallery:

Frederick Exley

fred exley.jpeg

“My stamina was such that most of the time I’d complete no more than three or four sentences run together precisely the way I wanted them, and by then I would be literally too tired to sit up in a chair. Rising . . . I would take the half-dozen steps to the bed . . .” And so on. From Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, a classic novel/memoir of daydreaming and despair in the modern world.

Neurotic of the Day IX: Samuel Johnson

There are neurotics such and you and me and the guy in the back seat of the bus who keeps blowing his nose. And then there are the Great Neurotics. From all walks of life they come, these Great Neurotics, from history and fiction and the entertainment arts they emerge, marching together, out of step, absorbed in their own thoughts, and in the way the breeze plays through their hair.

Here is today’s entry in this dubious gallery:

Samuel Johnson

samuel johnson.jpeg

“I hope to put my rooms in order. Disorder I have found one great cause of Idleness.” Johnson wrote such notes to himself all his life, but it never seemed to do much good. His rooms remained frightfully messy and he continually fretted over being idle. Dr. Johnson was a textbook case of neurotic tics and habits. He compulsively tapped fence posts with his walking stick as he passed them (and he broke into a nervous sweat if he missed one), he habitually counted his steps from place to place, he grimaced and stretched as he spoke, and he blew out his breath like a whale following a lengthy remark. Johnson was never at ease in this world (he once went so far as to hide in a tree to avoid a visitor). One way he coped was to turn to the comparatively straightforward world of mathematics; in times of particular stress he might be found patiently figuring out how many times around the world all the gold in England could be wound if it were pounded down into strips 1/50″ thin.

Neurotic of the Day VIII: Florence Nightingale

There are neurotics such and you and me and the guy in the back seat of the bus who keeps blowing his nose. And then there are the Great Neurotics. From all walks of life they come, these Great Neurotics, from history and fiction and the entertainment arts they emerge, marching together, out of step, absorbed in their own thoughts, and in the way the breeze plays through their hair.

Here is today’s entry in this dubious gallery:

Florence Nightingale

florence nightingale.jpeg

After serving tirelessly on battlefields all over the Empire, Florence Nightingale turned the tables at age 40 and became a voluntary invalid. For six years she insisted upon being carried from place to place and for the most part she was content to stay in bed. Following a period of partial recovery, she, at age 52, decided she was dying and requested permission to live as a patient in London’s St. Thomas Hospital until she did so. Since there was nothing particularly wrong with her (fainting spells, extreme weakness), she was dissuaded from her plan. She lived another 40 years.

Neurotic of the Day VII: Franz Kafka

There are neurotics such and you and me and the guy in the back seat of the bus who keeps blowing his nose. And then there are the Great Neurotics. From all walks of life they come, these Great Neurotics, from history and fiction and the entertainment arts they emerge, marching together, out of step, absorbed in their own thoughts, and in the way the breeze plays through their hair.

Here is today’s entry in this dubious gallery:

Franz Kafka


One of the brighter entries in Kafka’s diaries: “Vague hope, vague confidence. An endless, dreary Sunday afternoon, an afternoon swallowing down whole years, its every hour a year. By turns walked despairingly down empty streets and lay quietly on the couch. Occasionally astonished by the leaden, meaningless clouds almost uninterruptedly drifting by. ‘You are reserved for a great Monday!’ Fine, but Sunday will never end.”

Neurotic of the Day VI: Marcel Proust

There are neurotics such and you and me and the guy in the back seat of the bus who keeps blowing his nose. And then there are the Great Neurotics. From all walks of life they come, these Great Neurotics, from history and fiction and the entertainment arts they emerge, marching together, out of step, absorbed in their own thoughts, and in the way the breeze plays through their hair.

Here is today’s entry in this dubious gallery:

Marcel Proust


The French novelist spent the last 17 years of his life in his cork-lined room at 102 Boulevard Haussmann, in bed, writing. This neurotic fantasy come to life evolved as Proust, always sickly and nervous, found he simply could no longer stand the sounds and smells of life. Proust feared brain tumors and dizzy spells, he slept fully clothed, even including gloves, and he regularly burned choking amounts of fumigation powder in his room. He also licked the neurotic’s problem of how to fit everything on the bedside table: He had three tables within easy reach – one contained books, hot water bottles and handkerchiefs; the second held a lamp, a watch, pens, spectacles, notebooks and an inkwell; the third was for his Evian water and lime, coffee and ritual morning croissant. Naturally, Proust wrote obsessively (and in obsessive detail) about the past.

Neurotic of the Day V: Dylan Thomas

There are neurotics such and you and me and the guy in the back seat of the bus who keeps blowing his nose. And then there are the Great Neurotics. From all walks of life they come, these Great Neurotics, from history and fiction and the entertainment arts they emerge, marching together, out of step, absorbed in their own thoughts, and in the way the breeze plays through their hair.

Here is today’s entry in this dubious gallery:

Dylan Thomas

dylan thomas.jpeg

“The ordinary moments of walking up village streets, opening doors or letters, speaking good-day to friends or strangers, look out of windows, making telephone calls, are so inexplicably (to me) dangerous that I am trembling all over before I get out of bed in the morning to meet them.” Free-floating anxiety, later drowned in drink.