This is an open-ended blog ranging from news about my latest gigs and publications
to ruminations about politics, world affairs, culture and whatever piques my interest—or ire.
Contact: tomsancton@yahoo.com

Thursday, February 24, 2022

TOM SANCTON APPEARANCE SCHEDULE MARCH-MAY 2022

After a Covid-linked hiatus lasting more than two years, I am happy to announce these performances in the New Orleans area:

Saturday, March 12, 2022 – “Authors in the Family: A Father and Son

on their Writing Careers”: moderated conversation with Julian Sancton, New Orleans Book Festival at Tulane, Lavin-Bernick Center. 1 p.m. – 1:45 p.m.

 

Saturday, March 12, 2022 - A Conversation with Ben Jaffe, Creative Director of Preservation Hall and Adonis Rose, Artistic Director of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, moderated by Tom Sancton. (Live music will follow led by Charlie Gabriel.) Hyatt Regency Festival Tent at Tulane. 4-5:30 p.m.

 

Thursday, March 17, 2022 – Palm Court, 1204 Decatur Street, with Duke Heitger Band, 7:30-10:30 p.m.

 

Thursday, March 24, 2022 - Palm Court, 1204 Decatur Street, with Duke Heitger Band, 7:30-10:30 p.m.

 

Tennessee Williams Literary Festival. Discussion panel on biography, featuring my latest book, The Last Baron: The Paris Kidnapping that Brought Down an Empire.Time and place to be announced. (Festival runs March 25-27). 

 

Tuesday, April 5, 2022 – Presentation and readings from The Last Baron, followed by book signing. Octavia Books, 513 Octavia Street, New Orleans 70115. 6-8 p.m. 


Thursday, April 14, 2022 - Palm Court, 1204 Decatur Street, with Duke Heitger Band, 7:30-10:30 p.m.

 

Saturday, April 23, 2022 –French Quarter Festival, with Tommy Sancton’s New Orleans Legacy Band, Dorignac Stage, 700 Bourbon Street, 4-5:15 p.m.

 

Sunday, April 24, 2022 – French Quarter Festival, with Clive Wilson’s New Orleans Serenaders, Dorignac Stage, 700 Bourbon Street, 4-5:15 p.m.

 

Friday, April 29, 2022 – Jazzfest, with Tommy Sancton’s New Orleans Legacy Band featuring Ronell Johnson and Shannon Powell. Economy Hall Tent. 1:40 – 2:40 pm.

 

Saturday, April 30, 2022 – Jazzfest, with Clive Wilson’s New Orleans Serenders. Economy Hall Tent. 11:15 a.m. – 12:05 p.m.

 

Sunday, May 1, 2022 – Jazzfest, Tribute to George Lewis, with Michael White and Sammy Rimington. Economy Hall Tent. Time t.b.a

 

Saturday, May 7, 2022 – Presentation and readings from The Last Baron, following book signing. Lemuria Books, 4465 Highway I-55, Suite 202, Jackson, MS 39206. 2 p.m. For more information: https://www.lemuriabooks.com/The-Last-Baron-Tom-Sancton-p/9780593183809.htm

 

 

Monday, January 17, 2022

BIG TECH'S INFLUENCE? OUT OF THIS WORLD!


This guest posting by my old TIME colleague Don Morrison appeared this week in the Berkshire Eagle. 


To train for their famous 1968 mission to the moon, astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins spent time in the lunar-like deserts of the American west. 


One day, they ran into an elderly Native American man. He recognized them from TV – and asked them for a favor. “My tribe believes sacred spirits live on the moon,” he said. “Could you give them a message for us?” 

The astronauts agreed. So, the man had them memorize a phrase in his native language. When they asked him what it meant, he demurred: “It’s a secret between our tribe and the moon spirits.”  

What happened next was one of the most poignant skirmishes in the age-old war between past and future, natives and colonizers, tradition and technology. That conflict is a bit like the one we’re currently waging with the large tech companies. You know: Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Google, Twitter and so on.

We let them into our lives, which they promised to make better. They did, sort of. But they also stole our privacy, poisoned our politics, wasted our time, degraded our human interactions and messed with the minds of our children. Meanwhile, these electronic pirates have made fortunes off our personal information and their skill in addicting us to their products and services. 

In a rare show of bipartisan comity, our elected and appointed leaders seem to be awakening to the problem. Congress has held hours of hearings and introduced dozens of bills over the past year to protect us from these invaders. The measures would strengthen privacy protections and strip social media companies of their protection from legal liability for the harm they cause. 

That latter privilege was accorded them by Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. The loophole allows websites to be treated as “common carriers,” like a phone company routing calls obliviously, instead of as self-interested gatekeepers crafting algorithms to determine who sees what online – and selling microscopically targeted advertising to accompany that content. 

To protect young people from such intrusive behavior, Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey has introduced an update of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, which he helped craft in 1998. The new version would spare kids from targeted advertising, stiffen security standards on electronic devices marketed to them and include a “eraser button” to eliminate kids’ personal info at will. 

Another tool for taming Big Tech is anti-trust law. The House Judiciary Committee has finished work on six bills that would help prevent tech companies from using their monopoly power to maximize profits and smother competition. 

Courts have become the latest anti-trust battleground. A federal judge last week allowed a Federal Trade Commission suit against Facebook to move forward. The FTC alleges that the company, which controls 70% of the daily social media market (98% among desktop users), has maintained its position by buying up potential rivals. Google, which has more than 80% of the market for internet search and 90% for Android app sales, is facing three anti-trust suits over its treatment of competitors. 

Encouraging as those efforts may be, chances of success are slim. The tech industry now accounts for more than one-third of the total U.S. economy. Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Google alone are worth more than $7 trillion, bigger than the gross domestic product of any country in the world, except the U.S and China. 

That kind of money buys a lot of lawyers, lobbyists and, alas, politicians. Tech executives are among the biggest contributors to political campaigns and getting bigger. Not surprisingly, hardly any of the bills introduced in Congress are expected to be debated, let alone passed. Even the FTC suits are considered by many legal experts to be long shots, partly because of the defendants’ impressive array of top-drawer lawyers. 

This mismatch in firepower reminds us of what happened to Native Americans when the white man first arrived on this continent, with his superior wealth and technology. The locals never had a chance. 

The old geezer who confronted Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins in the desert clearly knew his history. 

When the astronauts returned to their base that day, they searched for an expert who understood the man's language. They finally found one and repeated the words they’d memorized. The translator burst out laughing. Then he told them the meaning of that message:

"Don't believe a single word these white men tell you. They’ve come to steal your land.” 

Donald Morrison is an Eagle columnist and co-chairman of the advisory board. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle. Used with permission of the author.

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Copying Trump’s Playbook, Far-right Pundit Eric Zemmour Preaches Hate and Xenophobia in his Quest for the French Presidency




A media star with no political experience throws his hat into the ring and soars in the presidential polls. Hurling crude insults at his critics, bashing the elites, vilifying the press, and lavishing praise upon Russia, he rides a wave of populist anger, fear, and xenophobia as he promises to restore his demoralized country to its former glory. No wonder many pundits are calling Eric Zemmour the French Donald Trump. Zemmour, 63, who has just announced his official candidacy, freely acknowledges Trump’s rise to power as a blueprint for his own potential run. He even modeled the cover of his latest book, France Has Not Said Its Final Word, on Trump’s 2015 manifesto, Great Again. Both men pose like patriotic saviors in front of their national flag. Both men have been 
accused of sexual misconduct by multiple women. (Zemmour has declined to respond to the allegations.)

Beyond the obvious similarities, however, the differences between Trump and Zemmour are substantial. Trump is an uncultivated vulgarian. Zemmour, in contrast, is an articulate, well-read intellectual whose speeches are peppered with literary and historical references. Trump succeeded by taking over the Republican Party; Zemmour, who belongs to no party, is scrambling to improvise a movement of his own. With his height, girth, and outlandish coiffure, Trump is physically imposing; Zemmour is balding, of modest stature and slight build, with a reedy voice—the kind of guy Trump would make fun of if he were in the opposing camp.

Perhaps the main thing the two men share is their status as outsiders that no one took seriously until they began to get traction in national polls. In Zemmour’s case, the rise has been meteoric: Credited in June with a 5.5% share of the theoretical vote, he has more than tripled that margin and now has a serious chance of facing off against President Emmanuel Macron in therunoff of France’s two-round election next April. Until recently, conventional wisdom had pointed to a replay of the 2017 matchup between Macron and Marine Le Pen, of the far-right anti-immigrant National Rally (R.N.) party, who has been trying to moderate her image. But by outflanking her on the radical right—and relentlessly insisting that “Marine can’t win”—Zemmour could lure a substantial number of Le Pen’s 2017 voters to his camp.

Even before announcing his official candidacy on November 30—via a youtube video touting the past glories of France juxtaposed with sinister images of immigrants and terrorist attacks—Zemmour has been sucking up all the media oxygen. He is a constant feature in TV interviews and debates. His face is emblazoned on the covers of major magazines. Crisscrossing the country on a book tour-cum-campaign blitz, he has been drawing enthusiastic crowds at each stop—along with gaggles of sometimes violent demonstrators denouncing him as a fascist and racist. 


Zemmour would deny both accusations, of course, but his words speak for themselves. His pronouncements and writings paint a bleak picture of France in decline: threatened by hordes of Muslim immigrants he contends are bent on turning the country into an Islamic republic—a process he calls the “great replacement,” the supplanting of France’s white population and its Christian culture by what he characterizes, in effect, as Muslim invaders. Declaring Islam in any form to be incompatible with democracy, he proposes to close French borders to further immigration and expel 2 million foreigners over his five-year term. He also wants to outlaw the wearing in public of the Muslim veil and ban the use of Muslim first names such as Mohammed in favor of “proper” French monikers like Pierre and Jacques. Once he curbs the foreign invasion, Zemmour promises to restore France to its past grandeur, invoking the legends of Joan of Arc, Napoleon, and Charles de Gaulle—a pantheon of French heroes he apparently intends to occupy.


The French-born son of Jewish Berbers who immigrated from Algeria in 1952, Zemmour studied at Sciences Po and began his career as a journalist, radio commentator, and author of popular books expounding his acerbic views. For the past two years the fiery polemicist has been a star commentator on CNews, a right-wing TV network created about four years ago that is often compared to Murdoch’s Fox News. (Last September, he suspended his relationships with CNews and the conservative daily Figaro in order to comply with French watchdog rules concerning media access by political candidates.)


With immigration as his main bugaboo, Zemmour voices a litany of racist, sexist, and otherwise extreme views that place him at the outer edge of France’s far right. Virulently anti-feminist and homophobic, contemptuous of all forms of political correctness, Zemmour favors a restoration of the death penalty, the lifting of highway speed limits, and curbs on what he calls the “counter powers”—meaning “judges, the media, the minorities.” He warns darkly of a looming civil war and has been sanctioned multiple times by French courts for inciting racial hatred.


Zemmour also has a penchant for Trump-style provocations. In a shocking gesture that drew widespread criticism last month, he trained an unloaded sniper’s rifle on a group of journalists at a security event and jokingly ordered them to “get back.” When citizenship minister Marlène Schiappa called the act “horrifying,” Zemmour dismissed her as an “imbecile.” (A day later, the dangers of “unloaded” guns were tragically demonstrated by actor Alec Baldwin’s accidental killing of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on a New Mexico movie set.) At a tumultuous campaign stop in Marseilles on November 27, Zemmour was photographed shooting a finger at a female protester, a gesture widely denouced as “unpresidential.” 


In foreign policy, Zemmour is an ultranationalist who wants to pull France out of NATO’s integrated command and forge a cozy relationship with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Aides say he values Washington as an ally but insists on being treated as an equal partner and seeks an “equilibrium” between the U.S. and the Russian state. Yet his rhetoric is often tinged with undisguised anti-Americanism. Speaking at a rally in Rouen in October, for example, he called the D-Day invasion “an occupation and colonization by the Americans.” While he does not call for an outright Frexit from the European Union, he wants to curtail the E.U.’s powers and reaffirm French sovereignty—hence his chumming up to Hungary’s nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, with whom he met in September.


Though he is himself a practicing Jew, Zemmour has been accused of antisemitism by prominent members of France’s Jewish community based on a series of troubling remarks and writings. Recently, he suggested that the families of the Jewish children who were murdered by an Islamist terrorist in 2012 were not good French citizens because their families had chosen to inter their remains in Israel. He has cast doubt on the innocence of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish army officer charged with pro-German espionage and ultimately acquitted in 1906. Most troubling is his revisionist claim that the Vichy government under Philippe Pétain actually protected French Jews during the Nazi occupation, whereas Vichy’s active role in rounding up and deporting Jews to Hitler’s death camps (on French trains) is well documented. Whatever his motivations, Zemmour’s dog whistles clearly appeal to those on the far right who are unhappy with Marine Le Pen’s rejection of the blatant antisemitism for which her father was notorious. Some have even seen Zemmour’s antisemitic pronoucements as a manifestation of the “self-hating Jew” syndrome famously analyzed by German philosopher Theodor Lessing in 1930.


The most remarkable thing about the Zemmour phenomenon is that no one saw it coming. “It’s a spectacular rise,” says Frédéric Dabi, head of the IFOP polling institute. “In the history of the Fifth Republic, we have never seen someone who was not part of the political establishment gain this kind of momentum.” One explanation, says Dabi, is that Zemmour benefits from a leadership vacuum on the right. Marine Le Pen, after two failed attempts at the presidency, has lost much of her credibility, while her strategy of softening her message—she calls it dédiabolisation, or un-demonizing—has left many followers hungry for the kind of red meat that Zemmour doles out.


As a result, Zemmour has been eating Le Pen’s lunch. Since his appearance in the political arena, the R.N. leader has seen her poll numbers drop sharply and the two are now running neck-and-neck. At this early stage of the campaign, of course, there is no telling whether Le Pen or Zemmour—or another candidate—will make it to the runoff round. But for now the fiercest infighting pits these two right-wing rivals against each other. One bad sign for Marine: Her own father, the sulfurous party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, 93, says he will support his friend Zemmour if he retains his command in the polls. “Marine has abandoned her strongest positions,” he has noted, “and Eric is occupying that terrain.”

Meanwhile, supporters of the right-center Republicans have still not recovered from the humiliating elimination of their champion, François Fillon, in the election five years ago. Divided by competing claimants, the Republicans will not settle on a candidate until their December 4 convention. 


As for the left, also divided by internecine squabbles, no candidate appears to have a realistic chance of reaching the runoff round. “Fewer and fewer French voters identify with the left,” says IFOP’s Dabi. “The country’s values lie very much on the right today.” Some analysts even speak of an “extreme right-ization” of French opinion. Indeed, the combined poll numbers of Zemmour and Le Pen comprise more than one third of the French electorate. (At the same time, Zemmour has the highest negatives of any potential candidate:70% believe he lacks presidential stature, 57% say he worries them, and 71% think he gives France a bad image internationally.)


If the political context gives Zemmour a tactical advantage, the main reason for his rise is that his message connects with a substantial segment of the population. “At a time when the French are fed up with the whole political class, Zemmour appears as a new man,” says Pascal Perrineau, a political analyst at Sciences Po. “He tells the French people a story, a national legend. It is outdated and reactionary, but he talks about the country and makes people dream.” He also stokes nationalist angst, far and wide—a key attribute he shares with Trump. “The French are worried. They are afraid of globalization. Zemmour tells them to refuse globalization and withdraw into their own national boundaries—cultural, economic, and political. He gives the French hope in an increasingly globalized world.”


In fact, the French have plenty of reasons for angst these days—including, most recently, the sharp rise of gasoline and energy prices as well as the cost of living in general. “The real problem of average French citizens is that they arrive at the end of the month with less and less money,” says Jean-Yves Camus, head of the Observatory of Radical Politics. “But Zemmour bases his campaign on a single theme: immigration and national identity. And that corresponds to something that speaks to the French. According to a recent poll, 61% believe in Zemmour’s great replacement theory.”

In a country with about a 10% foreign population and nearly 6 million Muslim residents, immigration is a concern across the political spectrum—especially in the wake of the multiple attacks by Islamist terrorists that France has suffered in recent years. “We mustn’t confuse Islam with Islamism,” says Camus. “Islamism is a reality in this country, a danger and a totalitarianism. Macron and the whole political class are right to fight against it. But Zemmour speaks of the cultural impossibility of assimilating Islam.” His plan for mass expulsions is unrealizable, Camus believes, since many Muslims have French or dual citizenship and cannot be legally deported. “We cannot return to the French social mix of 50 years ago. History is not a time machine.”


With no party structure behind them, Zemmour’s supporters have been scrambling to put together a their campaign organization. His key advisor and political guru is Sarah Knafo, a 28-year-old graduate of the elite Ecole Nationale d’Administration, who oversees his campaign strategy. (A Paris Match cover photo of the two of them embracing in the Mediterranean surf recently prompted speculation that she was perhaps more than a political adviser to Zemmour, who is married with three children. Zemmour filed charges against the magazine for invasion of privacy but has refused to comment publicly on the nature of the relationship.) Volunteers have set up numerous pro-Zemmour websites and plastered thousands of “Zemmour President” posters across the country—many of which have been defaced by his detractors.


“We are putting together a party,” says Antoine Diers, spokesman for the Association des Amis d’Eric Zemmour, which is spearheading the effort. “We have already attracted a lot of supporters and are beginning to collect funds. The material part of the campaign is on track.” Asked how a candidate with no political experience and no party affiliations could expect to govern, Diers assures me that he has “no worry about the fact that Eric Zemmour, once elected, can field parliamentary candidates, win a majority, and form a government with political figures from the Republicans, R.N., and new actors.” In the eyes of some analysts, though, the movement is thus far hampered by a lack of seasoned campaign professionals and A-list defectors from other parties.


Though Zemmour’s entourage insists he’s in it to win, some insiders believe his real goal is to shake up the political establishment and impose his ideas on the debate. “Zemmour seeks to destabilize rather than get elected,” says Science Po’s Perrineau. Others see a longer-range game plan. Says Jean-Yves Camus: “Eric Zemmour’s objective is not to be elected in 2022. It is simply to prepare the terrain for a great convergence of the center-right and far-right”—a convergence in which he could possibly play a leading role down the line.

Even if Zemmour does make it to a runoff round against Macron, few experts give him a realistic chance of winning. Though Macron is not wildly popular these days, he has the advantage of incumbency and currently leads the field. Six months ahead of the election, most polls show the French president winning handily against either far-right challenger. But much can change in the meantime, and polls, of late, have been known to get it way wrong. For now, Eric Zemmour is the hottest act on France’s political stage and anyone who saw Donald Trump march to victory in 2016 would be unwise to count him out.


This article originally appeared in slightly different form on the Vanity Fair website

 

 

 

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

RENAME BEN FRANKLIN HIGH SCHOOL? WALTER ISAACSON'S THOUGHTS


Walter Isaacson, acclaimed biographer of Benjamin Franklin (among many others), is my friend, former TIME Magazine colleague, and fellow New Orleanian. When I learned of the proposed renaming of my alma mater, Benjamin Franklin High School, I reached out to Walter to seek his views as one of the world's top authorities on Franklin's life and works. He took the time to provide this thoughtful, measured, and informative reply.


In 1787, Benjamin Franklin became the president of Pennsylvania's Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery. He threw himself into the task, drawing up plans for providing employment for freed slaves, creating educational opportunities for young Black students in new and existing schools, presenting a pro-abolition petition to the first Congress, and publishing a scathing parody of arguments made in defense of slavery.

        Franklin was then in his 80s and not in need of new endeavors, but he undertook the fight because, throughout his life, he kept a ledger of the mistakes he had made and how he had tried to rectify them. He thus serves as an inspiration for those of us who are not perfect but seek to achieve moral growth.

        The greatest of his errors, he realized, was that as a printer in Philadelphia he had two or three enslaved men at various times working in his shop and he had allowed in his newspaper the advertising of slave sales and notices about runaways. He had also expressed opinions over the years that he realized were misguided and needed to be corrected.

        The Orleans Parish School Board is now considering renaming school facilities, including two named after Franklin, and has invited public comment. So as someone who once wrote a biography of him, I thought I would explain why I think that judging him based on the moral arc of his life and his quest for improvement would send the right message to students. People are not perfect. Our nation is not perfect. But we should celebrate those who realize that our nation has flaws, confront them honestly, and publicly take the lead in making themselves and our union more perfect. Students (and the rest of us) should be inspired by those who achieve moral growth. That is a basic goal of education.

        Franklin's growth is very instructive, especially in this age when social media debates are waged with the fervor of people who believe they have never made a mistake. He was an apostle of self-improvement. Our civic life and politics would benefit, I think, by having a few more people who, like Franklin, wake up and realize that they have been wrong at times.

        Up until the Revolution, the enslavement of Blacks was common in all thirteen colonies. It is the nation's original sin. Many founders, including Washington and Jefferson, never freed their slaves during their lifetimes.

        As far as we can tell, the handful of enslaved people who worked at Franklin's print shop or for his wife after he went to England wandered off freely by the 1760s, with Franklin mentioning them fondly in his letters and making no known effort to keep them enslaved.

        What helped awaken him to the evils of slavery was one of his philanthropic endeavors. He became active in an organization that established schools for Black children. After visiting the Philadelphia school in 1763, he wrote a reflective letter about his previous prejudices: "I was on the whole much pleased, and from what I then saw have conceived a higher opinion of the natural capacities of the Black race than I had ever before entertained. Their apprehension seems as quick, their memory as strong, and their docility in every respect equal to that of white children. You will wonder perhaps that I should ever doubt it, and I will not undertake to justify all my prejudices."

        Even many ardent abolitionists at the time held the racist view that Blacks were intellectual inferior to whites, but Franklin was an early advocate for the enlightened view that Black underachievement was the result of their having been enslaved and denied good education.

        Franklin became increasingly outspoken against slavery in the 1770s. In a piece he wrote for the London Chronicle, he decried, using language stronger than almost any other founder, the "constant butchery of the human species by this pestilent detestable traffic in the bodies and souls of men." He wrote in a similar vein to his friend the Philadelphia physician Benjamin Rush. "I hope in time that the friends to liberty and humanity will get the better of a practice that has so long disgraced our nation and religion."

        After Franklin became president of the abolition society in 1787, he took on the argument that it was not practical to free hundreds of thousands of adult slaves into a society for which they were not prepared. He drew up detailed proposals "for improving the condition of free blacks" by securing apprenticeships that would teach them skills, creating new schools, getting young Blacks to attend the existing schools, and creating a committee to find jobs for freed slaves.

        On behalf of the abolition society, Franklin presented a petition to Congress in February 1790. "Mankind are all formed by the same Almighty Being, alike objects of his care, and equally designed for the enjoyment of happiness," it declared. The duty of Congress was to secure "the blessings of liberty to the People of the United States," and this should be done "without distinction of color." Therefore Congress should grant "liberty to those unhappy men who alone in this land of freedom are degraded into perpetual bondage."

        Franklin's petition was rejected by James Madison and other founders, and he was roundly denounced by the defenders of slavery, most notably Congressman James Jackson of Georgia, who declared that the Bible had sanctioned slavery and, without it, there would be no one to do the hard and hot work on plantations. It was the perfect setup for Franklin's last great essay, written less than a month before he died. He wrote it as a parody in the form of a purported speech given by an official in Algiers.

        The parody speech attacked a petition asking for an end to the practice of capturing and enslaving European Christians to work in Algeria. "If we forbear to make slaves of their people, who in this hot climate are to cultivate our lands? " the speech declared, and then it proceeded to mirror the arguments Congressman Jackson had made in favor of enslaving Africans.

        Franklin was, during his 84-year life, America's best scientist, inventor, diplomat, writer, businessman, and practical thinker. He proved by flying a kite that lightning was electricity, and he invented a rod to tame it. He devised bifocal glasses and clean-burning stoves, charts of the Gulf Stream and theories about the contagious nature of the common cold. He founded schools for both whites and blacks, laid out plans for integrating schools, and at his death was the president of an abolitionist society. He wasn't perfect. But that's why his life has a lot to teach us. He was capable of moral growth. So are we all.

                                                                                     —Walter Isaacson (used with permission)



Monday, April 5, 2021

REMEMBERING JAMES ATLAS (1949-2019)



Poet, critic, biographer, and book publisher, Jim Atlas was also a classmate of mine and a lifelong friend. This account of our last meeting serves as a reminiscence and a personal tribute to a noble soul who will be missed by his many friends and admirers. 



 

March 4, 2019. Jim Atlas begged off our luncheon date at the Harvard Club, saying in an email that he was “REALLY sick.” He invited me to come to his apartment for a visit instead. As for future lunches, he said, “There will be other times—I hope.” That sounded ominous. I assumed something had happened since we made the lunch appointment a month earlier, perhaps a stroke? I had had lunch with him a year earlier and he seemed fine—aging but quite functional. I quickly emailed back that I would stop by in the afternoon.

            Atlas lived in a posh building on E. 77th, across from the Natural history museum. I had never been inside his apartment, but I knew where he lived because I had walked him back to his door after a lunch at a nearby restaurant some time in the 1980s. 

            There is a story behind that lunch. Two stories in fact. The original lunch date was a total bust. I had asked him to meet me at the Harvard Club. On the appointed day, I was working in my office at TIME when I got phone message from Atlas—this was in the pre-smartphone era. “Where are you? I’ve been here for half an hour. Forget about lunch. I’m leaving now.”       

             I called his home number to make amends. “Jim, it’s Tom. Are you still speaking to me?”

            “Just barely.” He sounded pissed. 

            “Jim, I’m so sorry. I was writing a story and it completely slipped my mind.”

            Silence on the other end. Jim was a susceptible soul and I had doubly offended him: first by missing the lunch, second by telling him it had “slipped my mind”—tantamount to saying he wasn’t important enough for me to remember our date. I invited him to lunch the next day. Same time same place.

            After some hesitation he said okay.

            I thought things were back on track, but I got a phone call from him a half hour later. “Look, I’ve thought it over and I’m not coming. I’m still too angry. I was really looking forward to it, I even put on a suit and tie, but I wouldn’t enjoy it now. Let’s just forget about it.”

            I apologized again, but there was no way to talk him into reconsidering. I had hurt his pride and that wound would take time to heal. 

            A few weeks later, I called him again and invited him to lunch. He reluctantly agreed and suggested a place close to his apartment. “Just don’t be late this time,” he grumbled before hanging up. An unnecessary proviso under the circumstances. 

            Except that stuff happens. I was off work that day, so I took my usual commuter train from Westchester County and caught a cab at Grand Central. The cab was a big mistake. Crosstown traffic, as usual, was bumper to bumper. When we finally got to Central Park West, there was road work going on and we advanced at a snail’s pace. My gut churned as I watched the minutes tick by. No cell phones in those days, so no way to call or text Jim. 

            I finally arrived at the restaurant 20 minutes late. No Atlas. The hostess told me he had drunk a white wine while he waited for me, then discovered he had let his wallet at home. He had gone back to get it. Fiasco!

            When he walked in the door five minutes later and spotted me at the bar, he nearly turned on his heels and walked out. “Jim,” I said, “so sorry, man. I was stuck in a cab. There was road work, unbelievable traffic. Let’s just have lunch and move on.”

            “Okay,” he said. “But you’re paying.”

            Once we were seated, he looked me in the eyes and said, “We both have to do something, Tom. I have to work on my thin skin, and you have to work on your punctuality.” 

            With that, the incident, the double incident, was behind us. We had a pleasant lunch, lubricated by a couple of glasses of Chardonnay, and I walked him back to his apartment building a couple of blocks away. His son William dashed out of the door and Jim scooped him up in his arms with a big smile. He felt good. I felt good. Peace had descended upon us.

            We kept in touch off and on over the years. I would make a point to lunch with him when I was in New York—usually at the Harvard Club. We met at Oxford in 2002 at the centennial celebration of the Rhodes Scholarships. Bill and Hillary Clinton were there. Jim waylaid Clinton in the garden of Holywell Manor to introduce himself as the editor of the Penguin Lives series. Jim thought it would be his only chance to talk to the Big Guy, not realizing that when Bill Clinton gets to glad handing, he stays till the last dog dies. Bill and Hillary talked to everybody under the reception tent that day. Like all of us, Jim was charmed and proud to call him one of our own. 

            When I was teaching at Tulane in 2007-2008, I invited Jim down to New Orleans to give a talk on his Saul Bellow biography and meet with my creative writing class. Someone asked him what made for a good memoir. He said, “A good story and a voice you can trust.” That always stuck in my mind, and I think one thing that endeared me to Jim was that he was a voice, in fact, a person, I could trust. And I guess that was reciprocal, since he trusted me enough to invite me into his personal space at a time when he was, well, not at his best.

            I felt some trepidation as the doorman announced my arrival and sent me up to the 16thfloor. What kind of shape would I find Jim in? 

            Atlas greeted me at his door with a grin and a handshake that morphed into a bear hug. He looked so small and frail in his baggy blue jeans and loose white shirt. His thinning hair was gray, his body bent slightly to one side. He shuffled slowly but refrained from using the brand new walker—the fancy kind with hand brakes and a folding seat—that stood by the door. “I have a cane, too,” he said, “but I try not to rely on it too much.”

             I thought back to the first time I met Atlas in the fall of 1967—an astounding 52 years earlier. It was an organizational meeting of a new freshman magazine, the Harvard Yard Journal. The gathering was held at somebody’s dorm room in Thayer Hall, just across the Yard from Massachusetts Hall, where I had just taken up residence a few days earlier. In a group of giddy, overachieving freshmen eager to impress one another, Atlas stood out. He had a thick head of curly black hair, round horn-rimmed glasses, knee-high leather boots, and a silk kerchief wrapped around his neck Isadora Duncan-style. When I introduced myself to him, he gave me a lopsided snaggle-toothed grin (he later got his teeth straightened) and remarked, “You’re looking very literary tonight.” I didn’t look the least literary, except that my wooly hair was getting long and I was pathetically trying to grow a beard, though my sparse whiskers formed little more than a pale fuzz at that point. But it didn’t matter what I looked like. Atlas’s point was that it was important to look literary. And he did. As Oscar Wilde put it, “The first duty in life is to assume a pose. What the second is, no one has yet discovered.” 

            But Atlas was no mere poseur. At that early age, he had read an astounding number of books, was knowledgeable about poetry and literary criticism, and was already a hard-working, gifted writer. He was elected to the editorial board of the Advocate, Harvard’s prestigious poetry journal, went on to win a Rhodes Scholarship and launch an impressive career as an editor, critic, biographer, and book publisher. Now, at the cusp of 70, he could look back on his career with some satisfaction, in spite of the doubts, regrets, and disappointments that were also part of his baggage. 

            “Philip Roth liked to quote something Joe Louis said: ‘I did the best I could with the talent I had.’ That’s all I can say.” The reference to Roth was not random. Atlas had just finished writing an account about his relationship with Roth, a work that would go directly into audiobook form. He was disappointed by the sales of his last published work, The Shadow in the Garden, a memoir about his career as a biographer. “People who read it thought well of it, but almost nobody reviewed it.” 

            “I know you want to know what happened to me,” he said suddenly. “A few years ago, I had a bad lung infection. Then they found out that I have congestive heart failure. Then it was one thing after another. Now I have the gout.”

            I tried to reassure him on that front. “I’ve had attacks of gout for years, but I just take medicine for it and it goes away. It’s not a huge deal. But it hurts like hell when it hits you.”

As a result of his various ailments, Jim was very frail, reluctant to go out of the house lest he fall, which he had done several times. He had a stationary bicycle and physical trainer who came several times a week to his apartment. 

            We did a lot of reminiscing about Harvard and Oxford days. I recalled that time he and I met for drinks at the Harvard Club of New York the night before we all sailed to England on the QE II. On that occasion we had discussed, among other things, the unsettling experience of watching our parents age. “It’s like we’re all on this great conveyor belt leading to the edge of a cliff,” I said, “and we are pushing them.” Jim took another sip of his Grey Goose martini—a favorite drink in those days, though he later gave up alcohol entirely. “When my time comes, nobody has to push me,” he said with a malicious grin—“I’ll go!” Of course, at that age—we were both 22—nobody really believes he will ever fall off the cliff.

            Neither of us had an orthodox Oxford experience. Because he arrived at Oxford with his then girlfriend, Atlas didn’t want to live in student digs at New College, preferring grander lodgings in the Randolph Hotel. The cost of that must have been considerable, so I assume he had family money behind him. Problem was his enormous steamer trunk was too big for the stairwell, so he had to unpack the contents piece by piece and shuttle them upstairs to his room. As for his studies, he worked with Richard Ellman on biography but seems to have done little else and left without taking a degree. 

            My own Oxford experience was, shall we say, skewed by my passion for jazz. Atlas remembered a raucous drive he took to London with me practicing the clarinet in the back seat. I was on the way to playing a gig with an English band in a pub on Drury Lane. The clarinet eventually took me to Paris to play an all-night concert with a French band. I fell in love with Paris, and was soon contriving to spend weekends, holidays, and even parts of the school term there, playing with local bands, learning to drink calvados, and enjoying female company. I eventually came to my senses, completed my thesis and took a history doctorate. 

            “Why did you apply for a Rhodes?” I asked Atlas at one point.

            “Why? Because that’s what you did. It was the next step up the ladder. In New York, there was a whole auditorium full of candidates. It was never about actually studying at Oxford. It was for the prestige.” Still, he considered his Oxford experience life changing because it launched his career as a biographer. His passion for biography inspired his own books on Delmore Schwartz and Saul Bellow, and his tenure as editor of the Penguin Lives series. He later launched his own imprint, Atlas Books, specialized in short, readable biographies by a coterie of distinguished authors. His list was impressive, though he quipped that, from the financial point of view, “the term book business is an oxymoron.” 

            In addition to his editorial talents, Jim was a fine journalist and critic, serving as a staff writer for TIME(where he preceded me by several months) and the New Yorker, and an editor of the New York Times Magazine. He also found time to write a highly autobiographical novel, The Great Pretender (1986), that deals with his Harvard and Oxford years. 

          We talked about our kids. His daughter Molly is a literary agent, son William works in TV and film in L.A. I told him about my son Julian, who now works—as Jim and I had done—as a magazine editor in New York. 

         He showed me his office, a pleasant space with glass-fronted bookshelves, a couch, and a work desk topped by a computer. It is well lit by a tall window that looks out on 77thstreet.  Despite his health challenges, he still worked in his office every day. 

         “You wanna know what I’m working on now?” he said, leading me back to the living room.

        “Tell me.”

        “A book about suicide.”

        I hesitated.

        “Don’t worry, it’s not a how-to book. And I’m not going to do it.”

        “Well, it is a fascinating subject.”

        Indeed, there was much to say about taking control of the end of life. But Jim didn’t elaborate. Instead, he pointed out the window to 77thStreet.

        “That’s where they make up the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade,” he says, with some enthusiasm. “It’s amazing. The balloons come up as high as the 10thfloor. We used to have a party every year so friends could watch. We don’t do it any more. Too many security hassles, and too exhausting for us. My kids took it over and had their own party for a few years, but now they’re gone their separate ways.”

        “It’s a great apartment,” I said, gazing down at 77thStreet and the brown stones of Natural History Museum across the street.

        “It is,” Jim replied. “We wouldn’t dream of moving anyplace else now. We’ve been here 30 years. We’ll stay here till they carry us out.” He managed a sardonic chuckle.

        I sensed Jim was tiring. I got up to take my leave and he walked me to the door. He held out his hand, but I give him a parting hug instead. “Let’s stay in touch, Jim. Can I call you on the phone some times?”

        “Yes, I’d like that. Call me.”

 

        I didn’t call. I didn’t write. A few months after our last encounter I thought of sending him an email to find our how he was doing. Then I saw his obit in the New York Times. He died on September 5, 2019, at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center as a result of the “escalation of a chronic lung condition.” 

        Jim, old friend, noble writer and thinker, delightful purveyor of wit and wisdom, I will never have lunch with you again. But I shall miss you. 

 

*****

 

Reprinted from The American Oxonian, Spring 2021

©2021 by Thomas A. Sancton

 

Monday, March 1, 2021

France's Ex-President Gets Jail Time for Corruption: Beware Donald Trump!

 

As Donald Trump basks in the adulation of his conservative minions and talks about a political comeback in 2024, he should take note of what just happened in France: a special court today (March 1) sentenced former French President Nicolas Sarkozy to three years in prison—two years suspended, and one year hard time—after convicting him of corruption in the “affaire des écoutes,” or wiretap affair. 

    The case goes back to 2014, when Sarkozy and his lawyer carried out a series of telephone conversations with a French judicial official, Gilbert Azibert. The subject of their discussions: the ex-president wanted Azibert to provide information about an investigation into Sarkozy’s role in another case, the so-called “Bettencourt affair” (about which more later). In exchange, Sarkozy, though his lawyer, promised to help Azibert win a cushy judicial post in Monaco. 

The discussions were carried on via a supposedly secret cellphone account in the name of “Paul Bismuth”(a.k.a. Sarkozy himself). Unbeknownst to the former president, however, police had obtained a warrant to wiretap the “Bismuth” phone line in connection with still another case involving suspected illegal contributions to Sarkozy’s campaign fund by former Libyan dictator Mouammar Kadhafi. While probing the Kadhafi case, investigators stumbled on the tit-for-tat discussions between Sarkozy’s lawyer, Thierry Herzog, and Gilbert Azibert. 

Though the deal never came to fruition—Azibert did not perform the services Sarkozy requested, and did not get the Monaco appointment that Sarkozy had dangled—the court ruled that the discussions constituted corruption and convicted all three men. Sarkozy, Herzog, and Azibert were all sentenced to three years with two suspended. All three men have filed appeals.

Sarkozy thus becomes the second former French president to be convicted by a criminal court after Jacques Chirac, who in 2011 was found guilty of diverting funds and abuse of confidence during his time as mayor of Paris. Chirac, who died in 2019, received a two-year suspended sentence. Thus Sarkozy may well become the first ex-president of France to actually do hard time. If that sentence holds up upon appeal, Sarkozy may work out an arrangement to spend his carceral year confined to his domicile with an electronic bracelet rather than behind bars. Whatever the outcome of the appeal, he still must face trial in two other cases: the Kadhafi affair, and a separate case involving 2012 campaign spending violations. Thus a political comeback seems highly unlikely for the 66-year-old conservative. Perhaps his fate can serve as a lesson and a precedent for how democracies deal with corrupt former leaders. Beware Donald Trump: the prosecutor cometh. 

Now about the Bettencourt Affair, which was at the origin of the wiretap case. That concerns a messy suit revolving around the world’s then richest woman, L’Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt. Bettencourt had lavished gifts worth hundreds of millions (yes millions) of dollars to her much younger protégé, French artist/photographer François-Marie Banier. The largesse flowed for some twenty years until Liliane’s daughter Françoise sued Banier for elder abuse in 2009. The investigation turned up information about illegal contributions to Sarkozy’s campaign by the Bettencourt family. The information Sarkozy sought from Gilbert Azibert in exchange for a Monaco appointment was related to that investigation. (Sarkozy was actually indicted in the Bettencourt case, but the charges were dropped in 2015.)

I happen to know a lot about the Bettencourt case, having written a long article on it for Vanity Fair in 2010 and a book, “The Bettencourt Affair,” which came out in 2017. 

Sunday, April 12, 2020

THE BIRDS OF AUDUBON

Osprey taking flight

Our daily walks in Audubon Park are a welcome break in the lockdown routine. As we stroll along the lagoon, Sylvaine photographs the birds we encounter there. (Sometimes I sit on a bench and practice my clarinet while she shoots.) There are far fewer species in the park today than there were some years ago when Sylviane photographed dozens of different varieties for her book Some Birds...But we still get some surprises.
     The other day, we spotted a large bird perched atop the bare branches of a dead tree. It was on the other side of the lagoon at some distance from us. Looking through her telephoto lens, Sylvaine thought at first that it might be a bald eagle—a rarity in these parts—but the coloring was different. The bald eagle has a white head and a dark brown breast. This bird, which looked like an eagle with its curved beak and impressive talons, had a
Anhinga
white breast. After a check on the internet, we identified it as an Osprey, also a rarity. We spotted it a few more times, closer up, which allowed Sylvaine to get some nice pictures, including one of this impressive bird in full flight.
     Other recent spottings include an anhinga, formerly plentiful at Audubon but now almost vanished, and a couple of blue herons and snowy egrets. Not to mention blue jays and cardinals. Two days ago, we had a real treat: four baby mallard ducklings swimming around, fighting and playing on the water near the bank. Hadn't seen any babies for a few years: sad to say the turtles get them when they're that small. Yesterday, didn't see the ducklings anywhere. I hope they haven't become turtle food!
Mallard duckling

Monday, March 23, 2020

GET YOUR GUN!




It all started when the magpies invaded my garden. Not only was their metallic croak nerve-grating, but they soon homed in on my bird feeders and frightened away the much smaller chickadees, redbreasts, and sparrows that had gorged on the seeds throughout the winter. Then a flock of pigeons took up residence on the roof of my garage and started snooping and clucking around the feeders. Even though they were too big and clumsy to perch on them, they would waddle on the ground and peck at the spillings. Like the magpies, they made the neighborhood less attractive to the smaller birds. Whenever I saw these bullies through my kitchen window, I would rap on the pane or open the door and clap my hands to frighten them away. Sometimes it scared them off, but often as not they would flutter away briefly and return.  I tried throwing pebbles in their direction, but my aim was erratic and the feathered beasts were not impressed. 
     Then an idea took shape in my mind: I would solve the problem with an air rifle.  I had no intention of killing the intruders. I would just pop them in the tail feathers or wings. They would soon realize my garden was an inhospitable environment and move on to somebody else’s garden. The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to get my hands on a BB gun. This was just before Christmas. When my wife asked me what I wanted as a gift this year, I  said I wanted a pump-action air rifle. She thought I was joking. I explained that it was not really about the gun, it was about chasing away magpies and pigeons. She found the idea ridiculous, but I persisted. And the more I talked about it, the more I realized it was about the gun. I wanted that object—trigger, stock, barrel and all.
     It was a strange desire on the part of a staunch opponent of America’s gun culture. I have unfriended people on Facebook for posting photos of themselves posing with their arsenals. Parkland, Las Vegas, Sandy Brook, and all the other countless gun massacres sent chills up my spine and filled me with anger at the feckless politicians who do nothing to control the spread of deadly weapons. Yet here I was desiring, even craving, an object that had the size, shape, and feel of a real rifle. Was I wavering on the gun question?
     No. The more I thought about it, the more I realized my fixation was something whose deepest roots went back to my childhood. When I was about 10, my father bought me a pump-action Daisy air rifle. I don’t know why he chose that particular gift—he wasn’t a hunter or sportsman and, in fact, I never saw him shoot or even hold a gun. He hadn’t even been in the army, excluded from the draft by a heart murmur. Maybe I begged him for it, wanting to play cowboys and Indians or something. Or wanting to be like my Mississipi cousins who actually had .22 rifles and went hunting. Whatever the reason, I got the gun and I fell in love with it. I loved the smell of oil on metal, the feel of the imitation wood grain stock on my cheek, the adjustable crosshairs on the telescopic sight, the sound of BB’s rolling around in their chamber, and the thwunk when I squeezed the trigger. Most of all, I loved hitting targets—coke bottles propped up on driftwood logs along the levee, paper targets nailed to tree trunks, matchsticks glued to the sides of cardboard boxes. And I was good at it. I could actually split matchsticks at 20 feet. My father was impressed. “If we ever have a shooting war again,” he told me, “you’ll make a hell of an infantryman.” Those words made me proud. That gun was part of a father-son bond, and a source of paternal approbation. 
     Though I was never into hunting, I must confess there were times when I shot at  birds while wandering through the woods. I once killed a sparrow perched on a tree branch. It fell at my feet with its little head bleeding and its wings flapping helplessly. Then it lay still. I felt terrible and buried it in the sandy ground under a pile of leaves. Another time I shot at a pigeon on a neighbor’s rooftop. Hit in the head, it reeled over and fell down the chimney. The neighbor found it in her fireplace the next day and called an exterminator to remove it. I don’t think I actually intended to kill that pigeon, but I was remorseful—and fearful that my parents would suspect me of doing  the deed. (If they did, then never let on.) 
     Those are the only birds I remember killing. But I did do other dumb things with my air rifle, mainly egged on by friends. From the balcony of my parents’ home, a schoolmate and I traded potshots at a corner streetlight until we finally chipped through the glass globe and hit the lightbulb inside. It sparked briefly then went dark. Our momentary triumph was tinged with fear of being charged with destroying public property. We immediately hid the rifle under my bed and retired to the TV room to provide an alibi. Another night, we shot at the side of my father’s corrugated iron garage as someone was passing on the sidewalk. It made a loud whack and the pedestrian skeedaddled. Stupid kids. And lucky: what if the victim of our practical joke was packing a real gun and shot back at us? In a crime-ridden city like New Orleans, that was not a far-fetched scenario. 
     I eventually grew out of my gun infatuation as I grew older and my interest shifted to learning the clarinet and playing Beatle tunes on my guitar. By the time I went off to college, my Daisy pump-action was a distant memory. I have no idea what happened to that gun. There was no sign of it when I cleared out my parents’ home many decades later. In fact, I never even thought of it again—until the magpies and pigeons in my garden suddenly brought it back to mind. 
     For a time, I was dead bent on getting another BB gun. Seriously. I even visited the quaint old shop of an arms dealer in my town of Saint Germain-en-Lay, 10 miles west of Paris. I had observed it for years without ever going inside. It was a tiny storefront with a green wooden door and a window full of lethal-looking shotguns and enormous hunting knives with jagged blades. Inside the cramped interior, dusty display cases held row after row of rifles of various sizes and shapes. Behind the counter sat an elderly man who eyed me with suspicion, or perhaps contempt at my manifest ignorance of firearms. When I asked about BB guns, he exchanged amused glances with another white-haired man, apparently a customer. He pointed to a display case containing half a dozen guns. “Those are all air rifles,” he said. “They start at 250 euros”—close to $300. I said I was really looking for something in the 50 euro range. The two men laughed. “For 50 euros, cher monsieur, maybe you can get a cap gun, but not here!” 
     It turned out his air rifles shot lead pellets, not BBs, and they were used by competitive target shooters. “What do you want an air rifle for?” asked the man behind the counter. “Just to shoot at pigeons in my garden and scare them off,” I replied. He guffawed again and shook his head. “Monsieur, this is illegal—and dangerous. I will not sell you a rifle for such a use.” I left the shop enlightened, if somewhat humiliated. Back home, I found a whole line of Daisy air rifles on the Internet at prices starting around $35. I considered ordering one, but suddenly realized I didn’t want it any more. Had I finally grown up?