Even This I Get to Experience

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9780143127963: Even This I Get to Experience

“Flat out, one of the best Hollywood memoirs ever written . . . an absolute treasure.” —Booklist (starred review)
 
In my ninety-plus years I’ve lived a multitude of lives. In the course of all these lives, I had a front-row seat at the birth of television; wrote, produced, created, or developed more than a hundred shows; had nine on the air at the same time; founded the 300,000-member liberal advocacy group People For the American Way; was labeled the “no. 1 enemy of the American family” by Jerry Falwell; made it onto Richard Nixon’s “Enemies List”; was presented with the National Medal of Arts by President Clinton; purchased an original copy of the Declaration of Independence and toured it for ten years in all fifty states; blew a fortune in a series of bad investments in failing businesses; and reached a point where I was informed we might even have to sell our home. Having heard that we’d fallen into such dire straits, my son-in-law phoned me and asked how I was feeling. My answer was, “Terrible, of course,” but then I added, “But I must be crazy, because despite all that’s happened, I keep hearing this inner voice saying, ‘Even this I get to experience.’”

Norman Lear’s work is legendary. The renowned creator of such iconic television programs as All in the Family; Maude; Good Times; The Jeffersons; and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, Lear remade our television culture from the ground up. At their peak, his programs were viewed by 120 million people a week, with stories that dealt with the most serious issues of the day—racism, poverty, abortion—yet still left audiences howling with laughter. In Even This I Get to Experience, Lear opens up with all the candor, humor, and wisdom to be expected from one of America’s greatest living storytellers.

But TV and politics are only a fraction of the tale. Lear’s early years were grounded in the harshness of the Great Depression and further complicated by his parents’ vivid personalities. The imprisonment of Lear’s father, a believer in the get-rich-quick scheme, colored his son’s childhood. During this absence, Lear’s mother left her son to live with relatives. Lear’s comic gifts were put to good use during this hard time, as they would be decades later during World War II, when Lear produced and staged a variety show for his fellow airmen in addition to flying fifty bombing missions.

After the war, Lear tried his hand at publicity in New York before setting out for Los Angeles in 1949. A lucky break had a powerful agent in the audience the night Danny Thomas performed a nightclub routine written by Lear, and within days his career in television began. Before long, his work with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis (and later Martha Raye and George Gobel) made him the highest-paid comedy writer in the country, and he was spending his summers with the likes of Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks. Movies followed, and soon he was making films starring Frank Sinatra, Dick Van Dyke, and Jason Robards. Then came the ’70s and Lear’s unprecedented string of TV hits.

Married three times and the father of six children ranging in age from nineteen to sixty-eight, Lear’s penetrating look at family life, parenthood, and marriage is a volume in itself. A memoir as touching, funny, and remarkable as any of Lear’s countless artistic creations, Even This I Get to Experience is nothing less than a profound gift, endlessly readable and characteristically unforgettable.

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About the Author:

Norman Lear is the television producer of such groundbreaking sitcoms as All in the Family, Sanford and Son, One Day at a Time, The Jeffersons, Good Times, and Maude. He has received four Emmy awards, a Peabody, and the National Medal of Arts. As an activist, he founded People For the American Way. He lives in Los Angeles. Most recently, Mr. Lear is the subject of the PBS American Masters episode, Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You, premiering 10/25/16.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

WHEN I WAS A BOY I thought that if I could turn a screw in my father’s head just a sixteenth of an inch one way or the other, it might help him to tell the difference between right and wrong. I couldn’t, of course, and ultimately he—and I—had to pay a serious price for his confusion.

In late June of 1931, just out of third grade and a month away from turning nine, I was eagerly looking forward to my first experience at summer camp. A roll of cloth tape imprinted with “Norman M. Lear, Norman M. Lear, Norman M. Lear . . .” sat on the kitchen counter, waiting for my mother to cut it up and sew my name into the clothes I’d be taking with me in a few weeks.

Meanwhile, my father was about to take a plane to Tulsa. None of my friends in Chelsea, Massachusetts, knew anybody who had ever flown anywhere. It had been only four years since Charles Lindbergh flew thirty-three and a half hours in his single-engine Spirit of St. Louis to get from New York to Paris, and the rare plane that was spotted in the sky had us kids chasing around in the street yelling, “Lindy, Lindy!” So Dad flying to Oklahoma was a big deal.

He was traveling on some kind of business—“Monkey business!” said my mother, who sensed that the men he’d fallen in with were not to be trusted—and for my upcoming birthday he was going to bring me back a ten-gallon hat just like the one worn by my favorite film cowboy, Ken Maynard.

“Herman, I don’t like this,” she told him. “I don’t want you to see those men.” But Herman, as always, knew better.

“Jeanette!” he screamed, the veins in his neck bulging as he stood over her with his nose all but pressing hers. “Stifle!” And off he went.

Herman Lear, or, as he preferred to be known, “H.K.”—the K standing for “King,” a name he insisted he’d been given and would never admit to having appropriated—was a man of supreme optimism. A predecessor to Arthur Miller’s salesman, Willy Loman, H.K. went out into the jungle each day with a shoe shine and a smile, pledging to come home, his fortune made, in ten days to two weeks, tops. And this—whatever he was doing in Oklahoma—was merely the latest scheme that would soon result in our being millionaires.

He was arrested upon his return on July 3 for receiving and trying to sell some phony bonds to the Boston brokerage house E. A. Pierce & Co. High on my list of vivid childhood memories is the photograph of my father on the front page of the next day’s newspaper, coming down the steps of the courthouse with one hand holding his hat over his face and the other manacled to a detective. Five weeks later he was convicted and sentenced to three years in Deer Island Prison, off Boston Harbor.

That evening our house was filled with friends and relatives offering comfort as they bought the furniture my mother was selling, she having decided on the spot that we couldn’t possibly continue to live in Chelsea in such disgrace. At one point, someone I didn’t know (but instantly disliked) offered to buy my father’s red leather chair—the throne from which he had controlled the radio dial on our floor model Atwater Kent, just as, forty years later, Archie would control the Bunker family’s TV viewing from his living room armchair.

As my mother and this scavenger agreed on a price, I was devastated. The loss of my father’s chair was like losing him twice in the same week. And, as if that were not bad enough, I would soon learn that my mother planned to take my younger sister to live with her and leave me with various relatives until my father got out of jail and the family could be reunited. I clutched all that remained of my summer dream—that unused roll of “Norman M. Lear” cloth, a piece of silent sadness which I managed to keep with me well into my thirties, perhaps even my forties—and my eyelids bit down hard on the tears I was fighting to hold back. At that point someone—an uncle or cousin or neighbor—placed his hands on my shoulders, looked deep into my eyes, and announced, with that soapy solemnity that so many adults use when they are offering gratuitous counsel to the young, “Remember, Norman, you’re the man of the house now.”

This had to be the moment when my awareness of the foolishness of the human condition was born. I was just past my ninth birthday, my father had been brought down before my eyes from a ten to a zero, my mother and sister were about to disappear from my daily life, my own identity was no more than a thin bit of fabric in my fist, and I was looking up into the face of this fatuous asshole telling me that I was the man of the house now. And then he added, with a smarmy smile I wanted to rip from his face: “No, no, son! A man of the house doesn’t cry.”

How could I not have developed a deep appreciation for the absurdities amid the gravity of our existence?

• • •

IN MY NINETY-PLUS YEARS I’ve lived a multitude of lives. There was that early life with my parents and relatives; a life as a kid with my blood buddies Herbie Lerner and the Schwarz twins; a life in high school zeroing in on the humor in our existence; a life in college cut short by World War II; a life as a crew member in a B-17 bomber flying fifty-two missions over Europe; a life in the world of entertainment, with sublives in television, radio, movies, and music; a life as a political activist; a life in philanthropy; a late-starting life as a spiritual seeker; three lives as a husband, six as a father (with my youngest born forty-eight years after my eldest), and four as a grandfather.

In the course of all these lives, I had a front-row seat at the birth of television; wrote, produced, created, or developed more than a hundred shows; had nine on the air at the same time; finished one season with three of the top four and another with five of the top nine; hosted Saturday Night Live; wrote, directed, produced, executive-produced, or financed more than a dozen major films; before normalization, led an entourage of Hollywood writers and producers on a three-week tour of China; founded several cause-oriented national organizations, including the 300,000-member liberal advocacy group People For the American Way; was told by the New York Times that I changed the face of television; was labeled the “No. 1 enemy of the American family” by Jerry Falwell; was warned by Pat Robertson that my arms were “too short to box with God”; made it onto Richard Nixon’s “Enemies List”; was presented with the National Medal of the Arts by President Clinton; purchased an original copy of the Declaration of Independence and toured it for ten years in all fifty states; was ranked by Entertainment Weekly fortieth among the “100 Greatest Entertainers of the Century” (twenty-nine places ahead of the Sex Pistols); ran the Olympic torch in the 2002 Winter Olympics; blew a fortune in a series of bad investments in failing businesses; and reached a point where I was advised that we might even have to sell our home.

Having heard that we’d fallen into such dire straits, my son-in-law phoned me from New York and asked how I was feeling. My answer was, “Terrible, of course,” but then I added, “but I must be crazy, Jon, because despite all that’s happened, I keep hearing this inner voice saying, ‘Even this I get to experience.’”

Early the next morning my son-in-law was on the phone again. He’d heard me say once that I wished to be cremated when I died and he was calling to ask me to please, please change my mind. I asked why. In a voice that choked a bit at the finish, he answered, “Because someday I want to take my children, your grandchildren, to a gravestone that reads, ‘Even this I get to experience.’”

• • •

THAT CONVERSATION TOOK PLACE IN 1988, and what followed from it was my determination to write this book. Several years later I finally began combing through well over a half century’s worth of notes, letters, speeches, articles, interviews, scripts, films, and TV shows in pursuit of my story. I didn’t write much manuscript, but I did make notes. Lots of notes. Looking them over a while ago, this one from mid-2000 stopped me cold:

Write about what I think is the key learning curve in life. How one can grow horizontally by becoming informed in one field, and then informed in many entirely new fields—but that horizontal growth becomes less important as time goes on. The journey that grows more important over time is the vertical journey, the journey into one’s self.

Clearly, there was a roadblock on my vertical journey. From my first long talks in 1984 with Lyn Davis, who in 1987 became Lyn Davis Lear, she steered me to understanding that my roadblock was an Everest of denial. When she heard that my father had gone off to prison for three years before my tenth birthday, she asked, “So what was that like? How did it feel?” When I told her the whole episode was like a chapter I’d read in someone else’s book, she gave me a look that said, “Uh-uh. You just don’t want to go there.” This conversation recurred periodically over the years. Occasionally things would get heated and I’d wind up crying out something to this effect: “What do you want from me? Look at my life. I’ve got you, my six kids, three of them yours, all of them in love with each other, a lovely home, a great career—how could my life be better? Leave me alone already!”

I told that story several years ago to a family friend who was also a therapist. She smiled without comment, but later said, “If you ever decide to connect with that kid whose father went to prison, why, to quote one of your expressions, don’t you try ‘wearing his hat’ and ask yourself, what must that boy have gone through?”

That question hung in my head. “What must that boy have gone through?” I began to think about him and to sleep on his story, and then one day I made a connection that informed and expedited the process. As a writer who for so many years had marveled at how often he went to bed with a script that had a second-act problem and awoke with the solution, how could I not have realized that this phenomenon might also occur in the script that was my life? In fact, it did, and soon my head was clearer and my eyes open, enough at least to bring back memories of my youth as a castaway while my dad was serving time. The retrieval of those early memories lit the path to understanding how I got from there to here that you will take with me now.

“Here” is where I am today, a nonagenarian in what the doctors tell me is excellent health, looking down my arm and wondering, as I peck away on my computer, what my father’s hand is doing hanging out of my sleeve. My family, nuclear and extended, brings me nothing but joy. I go to sleep each night anticipating and delighting in the great taste of the coffee I will be drinking the next morning—something I have done almost thirty thousand times. And, having looked back with new eyes on all the lives I’ve been so fortunate to have led, I’ve learned, as hopefully you now will, who I was as I scrambled to get here from “there.”

Even this I got to experience.

PART 1

Go know.

—MY BUBBE LIZZIE

EARLY ONE SUNDAY MORNING IN 1983, I got a call from my friend John Mitchell, who was then the president of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. He was calling to tell me that the academy was creating a Hall of Fame and that I, along with six others whose illustrious company it astounded me to be included among, was to be one of the first inductees.

I instantly phoned my mother back in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Now, I thought, I would finally get the maternal seal of approval that I was still searching for at age sixty-one. She answered with her usual three syllables, “Hell-oh-oh,” a sound that always seemed caught between a whine and a cry of pain. In my exultant mood, though, I heard it this time as if she’d exclaimed, at last, in a tone of naked delight, “Norman, sweetheart!”

“Mother,” I exploded, “I just got a confidential call from a friend. Nobody knows this yet so you can’t tell anyone, but the Television Academy is starting a Hall of Fame, and these will be the first inductees: the man who started NBC, General David Sarnoff; the founder of CBS, William S. Paley; maybe the greatest newscaster of all time, Edward R. Murrow; easily the best writer that ever came out of television, Paddy Chayefsky; the two greatest comedians in television history, Lucille Ball and Milton Berle; and . . . me!”

My mother didn’t miss a beat. “Listen,” she said, “if that’s what they want to do, who am I to say?”

In all the years since, I have rarely spoken publicly without sharing that story and, judging by every audience’s reaction, I think that either we all had the same mother or we all can identify with the desperate seeking of a parent’s approval.

A phrase leaped out at me once from Annie Dillard’s lovely memoir An American Childhood: “set down in a going world.” Actually, I thought, we are set down in many. Just as we lead lives within lives, and lives end on end, so are we set down in multiple going worlds. There is the going world we all inhabit, of course. But there is also our mother’s going world, our father’s going world, the world they have attempted to create as a couple, the idiosyncratic worlds of all the other caregivers and influencers in childhood, the worlds that all of us struggle to create in every relationship with another human being, the worlds of our imaginations, and the physical worlds of the bodies we each inhabit. It is a miracle that we mewling and puking little beings, as Shakespeare described us, survive at all.

When I was three months old, according to Lear family lore, my mother dropped me on my head while she was bathing me in the kitchen sink. Frightened, she left me there and ran to a next-door neighbor for help. Over the years this incident seemed increasingly funny to her. It became a kind of set piece in her life story, and at every retelling of it in my presence, a version of this conversation followed:

“So, you dropped me in the sink on my head and ran next door?”

“For help,” she would respond reassuringly.

“And what was I doing?”

“What could you do? You were three months old. You were screaming.”

“That’s why you ran for help?”

“Of course. I thought I would die.”

“And me?” I’d ask. “Could I have died?”

“Of course. Why else would I be running for help?”

Finally, I would cut to the chase. “So, Mother, it was a stranger who pulled me out of the sink?”

“No,” she’d say with a sarcasm that could etch glass, “she left you there to drown.” Then she’d add, “And besides, she wasn’t a stranger. We were neighbors a week already!”

Some guy from a neighborhood that had to have resembled mine once said, “The pessimist sees a pile of horseshit and thinks that’s all there is. The optimist thinks that if there is enough horseshit around, there must be a pony someplace.” And sometimes the plot in which we find ourselves requires us to become our own pony.

Living from age nine to age twelve at the pleasure of relatives, while your dad’s in jail and your mother and sister are residing in another city, just might qualify as such a plot.

• • •

MY MOTHER’S FATHER, Shia Sokolovsky, underwent a name trim (to Seicol) when he arrived at Ellis Island from Russia in 1904. He settled in New Haven, and a year later he sent for his wife, Elizabeth, their two sons, Al and Eddie, and their oldest child, Jeanette, age six.

It was Al to whose home I was first shipped after they’d taken my dad. Uncle Al ...

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Book Description Penguin Putnam Inc, United States, 2015. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Reprint. Language: English . Brand New Book. Flat out, one of the best Hollywood memoirs ever written . . . an absolute treasure. --Booklist (starred review) In my ninety-plus years I ve lived a multitude of lives. In the course of all these lives, I had a front-row seat at the birth of television; wrote, produced, created, or developed more than a hundred shows; had nine on the air at the same time; founded the 300,000-member liberal advocacy group People For the American Way; was labeled the no. 1 enemy of the American family by Jerry Falwell; made it onto Richard Nixon s Enemies List ; was presented with the National Medal of Arts by President Clinton; purchased an original copy of the Declaration of Independence and toured it for ten years in all fifty states; blew a fortune in a series of bad investments in failing businesses; and reached a point where I was informed we might even have to sell our home. Having heard that we d fallen into such dire straits, my son-in-law phoned me and asked how I was feeling. My answer was, Terrible, of course, but then I added, But I must be crazy, because despite all that s happened, I keep hearing this inner voice saying, Even this I get to experience. Norman Lear s work is legendary. The renowned creator of such iconic television programs as All in the Family; Maude; Good Times; The Jeffersons; and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, Lear remade our television culture from the ground up. At their peak, his programs were viewed by 120 million people a week, with stories that dealt with the most serious issues of the day--racism, poverty, abortion--yet still left audiences howling with laughter. In Even This I Get to Experience, Lear opens up with all the candor, humor, and wisdom to be expected from one of America s greatest living storytellers. But TV and politics are only a fraction of the tale. Lear s early years were grounded in the harshness of the Great Depression and further complicated by his parents vivid personalities. The imprisonment of Lear s father, a believer in the get-rich-quick scheme, colored his son s childhood. During this absence, Lear s mother left her son to live with relatives. Lear s comic gifts were put to good use during this hard time, as they would be decades later during World War II, when Lear produced and staged a variety show for his fellow airmen in addition to flying fifty bombing missions. After the war, Lear tried his hand at publicity in New York before setting out for Los Angeles in 1949. A lucky break had a powerful agent in the audience the night Danny Thomas performed a nightclub routine written by Lear, and within days his career in television began. Before long, his work with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis (and later Martha Raye and George Gobel) made him the highest-paid comedy writer in the country, and he was spending his summers with the likes of Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks. Movies followed, and soon he was making films starring Frank Sinatra, Dick Van Dyke, and Jason Robards. Then came the 70s and Lear s unprecedented string of TV hits. Married three times and the father of six children ranging in age from nineteen to sixty-eight, Lear s penetrating look at family life, parenthood, and marriage is a volume in itself. A memoir as touching, funny, and remarkable as any of Lear s countless artistic creations, Even This I Get to Experience is nothing less than a profound gift, endlessly readable and characteristically unforgettable. Bookseller Inventory # AAS9780143127963

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