For years, Dick Cavett played host to the nation's most famous personalities on his late-night talk show. In this humorous and evocative book, we get to hear Cavett's best tales, as he recounts great moments with the legendary entertainers who crossed his path and offers his own trenchant commentary on contemporary American culture and politics. Pull up a chair and listen to Cavett's stories about one-upping Bette Davis, testifying on behalf of John Lennon, confronting Richard Nixon, scheming with John Updike, befriending William F. Buckley, and palling around with Groucho Marx. Sprinkled in are tales of his childhood in Nebraska in the 1940s and 1950s, where he honed his sense of comic timing and his love of magic.
Cavett is also a wry cultural observer, looking at America today and pointing out the foibles that we so often fail to notice about ourselves. And don't even get him started on politicians. A generation of Americans ended their evenings in Dick Cavett's company; Talk Show is a way to welcome him back.
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It's Only Language
Being the offspring of English teachers is a mixed blessing. When the film star says to you, on the air, "It was a perfect script for she and I," inside your head you hear, in the sarcastic voice of your late father, "Perfect for she, eh? And perfect for I, also?"
In these days of just about enough perils facing our nation, there is plenty of evidence around to conclude that our grip on our glorious language may be loosening. And the Bush administration, as in other matters, has not been among the good guys. Let's get everybody's favorite example out of the way. The leader of the free world's goofy inability to pronounce what is arguably the most important word in his vocabulary: "nuclear." What is so hard? A schoolkid botching it Bush's way — NUKE-you-lur — would have to stand in the corner. Fortunately, an oval office has no corners.
(Does Bush's atom have a NUKE-you-luss? Does it work in reverse? Is Bush's railway a foo-NUKE-lee-ur? Let's bet.)
Andy Rooney tried to nail this matter on 60 Minutes. Andy wondered as I do why the literate Laura doesn't do something. Every time the president commits this illiteracy, she must wince along with the rest of the world. Bush's "the French have no word for entrepreneur" is guaranteed immortality.
The French make fun of him, of course and, by extension, of us. I say let's irk them back by continuing with our clanging mispronunciations of their sacred tongue, such as Vichy-SWA, coo-deGRAH, or double enten-DRAY — and best of all what we did to the French chaise longue, dyslexically turning longue (long) into "lounge" and chaise (chair) into "chase." A fox hunter's chair, perhaps? (Let Froggy puzzle it out.)
I think we're just stuck with the president's individualist English. This is the man who gave us "I know how hard it is to put food on your family," and who told Brian Williams, regarding his alleged Camus studies, "I have an eckalectic reading list." Until he was nice enough to repeat it, I was sure he had said "epileptic," which at least would have been a word. I prefer the three-syllable version "eclectic," but then he is the Decider.
Donald Rumsfeld and about half of his military pals seem to feel that hidden weapons are found in a cash-AY(cache: from Fr., hiding place; pron. kash), provoking further giggles from our busy French detractors. The cashiered secretary of defense is equally hard on his own language, as with, "It wasn't wrong. It was just misCHEEVY-us." MIS-chuh-vuss is of course what he was after. Oh, and with all due respect, Mr. Erstwhile Secretary, a medal can be called a memento, but not a mo-mento. Princeton, class of what again?
Getting a little thing like words right, is it so important?
The right answer is: yes. As when poorly worded road signs cause fatalities. Sloppy language leads to sloppy thought, and sloppy thought to sloppy legislation. And why not a sloppy war? What if someone big, issuing an order of earthshaking potential, made the (tiny) error of confusing the last letters of Iraq and Iran?
Another whole category of language abuse is the stating of untruths which, when shown to be untrue, are repeated. As in Dick Cheney, the man who said to Wolf Blitzer, "We've had immense successes in Iraq," adding, "and we will have more immense successes." Blitzer looked, well, blitzed. Instead of lowering a large butterfly net over his guest, he got his breath and, charitably, did not request examples. And what of Condoleezza Rice? The same Condi who was willing to contribute "a mushroom cloud" to the Scare America campaign now insists that an escalation be called an "augmentation." What, in her new teatime vocabulary, would she call the WMD that caused the cloud? An "Instrument of Considerable Inconvenience"? What are the war dead in her sanitized lexicon? "The indisposed"? Or simply "those whose coffins may not be photographed"? Once dead, our brave soldiers are an embarrassment.
Incidentally, are Jews still Semites? Or are they suddenly "Semets"? For years now the boo-boo anti-se-MET-ic has gained ground, even among rabbis, as well as TV talking heads, big-name news people, and the literati. Where did it come from? Listen for it. Try the Sunday morning shows for a likely catch.
And what about the various distortions of the easy word "heinous"? From lawyers especially you get hayney-us, heeny-us, and even highness. Look, guys and gals, it's easy. It rhymes with a well-known two-syllable word which some might consider not nice, but I guarantee will stick the correct pronunciation in your brain, especially if you compose a silly rhyming couplet. ("His behavior was heinous/And ..." etcetera — which, by the way, is not pronounced ECKcetera.)
And then there's the poor little kudo. It's a word Variety has used incorrectly — as in "De Niro received many kudos for his performance" — for enough decades that it is now forgotten that kudos (Greek for "praise") was already singular. There never was a kudo. Will Variety eventually take the word pathos and extract a patho? Stay tuned.
Last week during hearings, at least two of our star-spangled generals spoke of a dim-you-nition (diminution, perhaps?) of troops. Does ammunition then become ama-nyoo-shun? Let it pass.
It's gotten so bad for lie and lay that if a candidate got the votes of only those who don't know the difference, it would be a landslide. Upon hearing "He was outside laying on the lawn," I remember being glad my dad thought I was worldly enough to get it when he asked, "And who was the lucky lady underneath him?" Wouldn't anybody just know you wouldn't "lie it on the table"? Try playing it as it lies. It works just as well.
When the flight attendant would say, "We will be landing in Chicago momentarily," I used to enjoy replying, "Will there be time to get off?" But I see the forces of darkness have prevailed, and this and many wrong uses are now deemed acceptable by the alleged guardians of our language, the too quickly supine dictionary makers. Are they afraid of being judged "not with it"? What ever happened to "Everybody does it don't make it right"?
Certain misquotes are rooted in marble. It would take another act of Creation to restore "gild the lily" to Will Shakespeare's "paint the lily." ("To gild refinèd gold, to paint the lily.") There are hundreds of these. And there's "The senator literally exploded with laughter." Who cleaned up the mess?
Then there is that common ailment the tin ear, and its possessor's knack for rendering sublime quotations drab, often through insensitivity to the music of the words and their proper order. A good example is the great but frequently wounded quote of Mark Twain's on writing, a quote that causes, when done right, my forearms to horripilate.
Here it is: "The difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between the lightning bug ... and the lightning."
Recently, an after-dinner speaker botched it. He got all the words in, but not in the master's order, ending with "the lightning and the lightning bug." I had to go out and walk around awhile. Word order is everything. Anyone who doesn't hear that it's imperative to end with the majestic word "lightning" would probably argue that nothing's wrong with The Sierra Madre's Treasure, Milton's Lost Paradise, The Opera's Phantom, Music's Sound, The Sea and the Old Man, and, who knows, The Island of Gilligan. (Have I beaten the point to death yet?) (Let us note: the hapless speaker was at the DAY-us — dais — not the DYE-us.)
But let's be charitable. I soon learned it isn't necessary to correct. I quickly learned to bite my English teachers' boy's tongue and let a lady guest refer to an "elicit" affair. But if I ever find myself once again with the senator who spoke of his "incredulous" experiences, I shall pop him one.
I don't see the future as bright, language-wise. I see it as a glass half empty — and evaporating quickly. Almost daily irritants, like the dumb cluck's beloved "between you and I," will never be expunged, it seems. Loathe and loath will continue to change places, and phenomena and phenomenon will still be used interchangeably. But, finally, what the hell? It's only language. It's only what we live by.
A POSTSCRIPT: Astute readers (two so far) subsequently informed me that President Bush's alleged "The French have no word for entrepreneur" is a bogus, made-up, fallacious invention. Although I still like it, I'm sorry if I victimized my readers with a fake artifact. And I owe Mr. Bush an apology, too, although hardly the size of the one he owes us.
FEBRUARY 4, 2007
Why are people afraid of ghosts? "Ooh, no, I wouldn't want to see one! I'd be too scared" — accompanied by a tremolo of fear in the voice — is the common reaction. This puzzles me. I'd think anyone would welcome the opportunity. I've never heard of a ghost hurting anybody. In the main, ghosts are said to be forlorn and generally miserable, if not downright depressed. The jolly ghost is rare. In most reports they just sort of hang there in place, saying none of the things we would love to hear from them. And those who do speak have yet to say anything interesting.
This is a shame, since ghosts embody — pardon the expression — the main question facing us all: does something of us survive death? If they are in fact there, then the answer is yes.
I have never been converted to or even had much interest in spiritualism, occultism, Swedenborgianism, or any particular religion. And I never, except occasionally for a laugh, visit the quacks who call themselves psychics. (The chances of any psychic paying off are about equal to those of winning the lottery. Orson Welles told me how the alleged psychics have a collection of so-called cold reading dodges like "You have a scar on your knee." "Wow!" goes the sucker. But nearly everyone has one from childhood.)
I'm not an atheist exactly but remain what you might call "suggestible." (Is there a category of almost-atheist? A person who does not have the courage of his nonconvictions? I guess Woody Allen has, as so often, had the ultimate comic word on the subject. "You cannot prove the nonexistence of God; you just have to take it on faith.") I can, with a little effort, like people who buy into screwy beliefs and cults, as long as no blood is involved. I confess I do have to remind myself almost daily that there are people on this earth capable of reading, writing, eating, and dressing themselves who believe their lives are ruled from billions of miles away, by the stars — and, of course, the planets. I don't scorn such people (exactly); it must be damned pleasant to think the wrong turns and heartbreaks in your life aren't entirely your own dumb fault but, partially at least, the doings of those great hulking clinkers, way up in the sky, which somehow take a personal interest in your doings. I can be tolerant.
Many years ago, Groucho Marx (Must I identify him for the young among us? I refuse. Look him up.) and his brothers (the real Fab Four) were playing a vaudeville house in Chicago. Groucho could always go unrecognized in public, thanks to the painted-on mustache he wore onstage. This allowed him to, as he put it, "go anywhere and mingle with the common man in all his dreariness." Back then, there was a prominent trance medium holding forth, and her devoted disciples (sometimes spelled s-u-c-k-e-r-s) solemnly offered to take the man born Julius Marx with them to a séance. Always intellectually curious, Groucho was glad to be asked along — though he told me he was "vaguely insulted" when his new friends solemnly cautioned him to show the proper reverence. "I'm not a clown twenty-four hours," he said. "I can also be serious."
The séance was held in the darkened parlor of some wealthy believer's apartment. Groucho reported a heavy air of sanctity about the place, "and not entirely from the incense." Lights were low and the faithful conversed in hushed tones. The medium began to chant unintelligibly, and then to emit a strange humming sound (I can't help seeing her as Margaret Dumont), eventually achieving her trance state. "I am in touch, I am in touch with the Other Side," she intoned. "Does anyone have a question?" Groucho arose and asked, "What is the capital of North Dakota?" He recalled being chased for several blocks, but escaped injury.
Trance mediums (surely not "media") flourished in this country well into the twentieth century, and there may be a straggling handful even today, socking away a sizable nest egg from the gullible before being escorted to the city limits.
The highly neurotic yet fearless Harry Houdini spent the latter part of his truncated life exposing prominent mediums and their use of magicians' artifices to convince clients they had pierced the veil. The great Houdini was a pathological mama's boy, and his motivation was mixed; he acted not only to ruthlessly expose frauds but also, friends said, in the forlorn and secret hope that he might unearth a genuine medium and thus resume relations with beloved Ma.
Believers in this field are not all dummies. Or at least not dummies in other areas. The great Sir Arthur Conan Doyle entreated his friend Harry repeatedly to confess that some of his magic — especially his astounding escapes — could be accomplished only with supernatural assistance, specifically by dematerialization. The vain and egotistical conjurer could not bear to reveal his secrets, and poor Conan Doyle hailed this as proof for his side. So ardent was the great author in his belief that he carried his conviction to the grave, if not farther. (Lady Doyle, it should be noted, was an "automatic writer," scrawling "words from beyond" while in trance.)
Hell, I just noticed that I have burst the bonds of my word limit just as I was about to say that I would love nothing more than to meet a ghost. I have three stories, each capable of producing that slight chill on the spine that is the sine qua non of a good ghost story. Can you wait?
FEBRUARY 7, 2007
Basil Rathbone's Mysterious Message
I know, I know. I promised you several ghost stories. This curious tale requires a longer treatment than I expected. I shan't forget the others.
I have this story from none other than the great Basil Rathbone. (Sorry, youngsters. Google him or forget it.) I hope it doesn't sound too strange to confess that, even as a kid, I had a sort of crush on Rathbone. I can't detect any erotic element in it; I just wanted to look, talk, and act as he did. I was in high school, and back then I knew him only as Sherlock Holmes, but that was plenty. I was sorry to learn that he disdained those fifteen or so Holmes pictures as "my bread and butter films," preferring to be remembered as Romeo, Karenin et al. Where else would a kid my age meet Basil Rathbone but in Lincoln, Nebraska?
He was there to narrate a huge concert-drama event at the University of Nebraska, and he'd agreed to meet informally with the drama students there. I played hooky and went, of course, thinking that surely Lincoln High School would understand. (It failed to.) The event took place in the small "experimental" theater. I bulldozed my way backstage, and there he stood — not on the screen but feet from me. I sidled up to where he was chatting before going onstage. There was the inimitable voice (no impressionist has ever done him), and the first words I heard him speak were, "Of course I only made the one picture with Greta."
I can almost feel the chill now. I thought to myself, "Toto, we're not in Nebraska anymore." (But we were.) A moment later I caught, "So Norma Shearer walked by and I said, 'Norma' ..." I don't think I knew the phrase "name-dropping," a thing I did plenty of after meeting Basil. It struck me that Basil couldn't be a name-dropper; these were the people he knew and worked with. It was his world. And oh, God, how I wanted to be part of it.
I checked out how he used his hands, when both talking and hanging them at his sides, index fingers almost pointed, the rest curled. (The London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art?) You don't want to hear about my sessions at a full-length mirror, practicing these cherished physical niceties. I treasured every overheard utterance — as in "I seem unable to conquer my fear of flying. I'm nervous as a kitten on an aeroplane." Holmes, scared? I mused.
(Is this getting to be too much for anybody? Just in case, let's get to our promised subject, the story Rathbone told me some years later, when we were both in New York.)
Rathbone was entertaining a friend one night at his home in the Hollywood Hills. Both men were keenly interested in dogs and their breeding. His friend had brought with him two handsome specimens. As it got late, the two friends had a parting drink and called it a night. The friend and the canines got into the car and drove away. But, sadly, not very far.
Excerpted from "Talk Show"
Copyright © 2010 Richard A. Cavett.
Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
It's Only Language 1
Ghost Stories 6
Basil Rathbone's Mysterious Message 9.
Luck in the Afternoon 12
Jet-lagged in the South China Sea 14
What My Uncle Knew About War 17
An Innocent Misunderstanding 21
What Was He Thinking? 24
Imus in the Hornets' Nest 27
When That Guy Died on My Show 30
Back On with the Show 34
An Author's Nightmare 37
A Life in Rim Shots 41
No Gagging the Gags 44
Sopranos Grief 47
Virginity, Lost 51
Cinema Days 53
Is Bigger Really Better? 57
Him, to Kick Around Again 60
Witness for the ... Who, Exactly? 64
Hey; Listen! This One'll Kill Ya! 68
Hail, the Conquered Hero 73
In This Corner, Norman Mailer 77
When They Told Me Norman Wrote a Book 84
With Readers Like Y'all 91
A Potpourri of Pols 96
Was It Only a Game? 100
Bobby and You 108
A Most Uncommon Man 111
Uncommoner than Thou: Buckley, Part 2 115
Candidate, Improve Your Appearance! 119
Memo to Petraeus and Crocker: More Laughs, Please 123
Petraeus, Custer, and You 127
Liar, Liar, Pants Aflame 131
Polygraphically Perverse 135
À la Recherche de Youthful Folly 138
Good to See You. Is It You? 143
Smiling Through 148
Smiling Through, Part 2 152
What's So Funny About Nebraska 159
Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be 164
Cavett Dodges the Chair 168
Experience 101 171
Tis But a Man Gone ... but What a Man 174
Anger Mismanagement 178
Fright Night 182
The Wild Wordsmith of Wasilla 186
How's That Again, Guy? 190
A Better Sort of Insult 193
I'm Not Weeping; It's an Allergy 197
Writers Bloc: When Updike and Cheever Came to Visit 201
Conjuring Slydini 205
Seriously, What Are the Odds? 213
Why Can't We Talk Like This? 216
Miller Talks Again 218
Sky's the Limit 220
Who's Afraid of Richard Burton? 225
Richard Burton, Take 2 229
Strange, Dear, but True, Dear 232
A Third Bit of Burton 236
Richard Burton: A Regretful Au Revoir 238
Dangerous Substance: Sample with Care 242
The Ghost Ship W.W. 245
Almost Nothing About Tiger Woods 249
Why, I Oughta ... and I Did 252
Awesome, and Then Some 256
Oh, What a Lovely MessI 260
More Awesomeness, or John Wayne, Part 2 263