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In 1951, American-born black comedy and singing sensation throughout Europe Josephine Baker was “snubbed” at New York’s high-and-inside Stork Club. Her steak never got there. The biggest of the media bigs at the time, Walter Winchell was a good friend of the Stork Club’s owner, Sherman Billingsley. He defended the club. Winchell rival Ed Sullivan attacked Billingsley and Winchell, and loud, out-of-control escalation erupted.
When Winchell heard that New York radio talk-host Barry Gray had aired the incident, he sent word crashing down that from that point on the name of anybody who appeared on Gray’s WMCA show would never again appear in Walter Winchell’s column. For that era, that amounted to the cutting off of all oxygen to celebrity lungs. There were no heroes. Not a single movie star or recording artist said, “I need truth and a good conscience more than I need my name in Winchell’s column.”
And Barry Gray himself was like a beached whale. If your show depends on celebrity appearances and all of a sudden no celebrities will appear, what do you do? A junior staffer at an emergency meeting in Gray’s office said, “I have an idea. Let’s interview politicians!”
“What?” boomed forth the mocking throng. “Interview politicians?” “Sure,” repeated the junior staffer. “Congressmen. Senators. City Councilmen. The mayor!” Such a thing in 1951 just wasn’t done. Don’t fight me on this. It wasn’t too many years earlier when one of Hollywood’s Warner Brothers, when told of new technology that would allow you to hear what the actors on screen were saying, contemptuously spat back, “Who in hell wants to hear actors speak?”
And Barry Gray hung out the welcome sign for politicians. And the cowardice of the celebrity-community remained unbroken. And that gave us something called talk radio, a novelty that’s paid most of my bills for the past 53 years!
My admiration for courage – particularly the kind when no bullets are flying – and contempt for political cowardice did not start with any current or recent GOP walk-out on a shutdown. This may be hard to believe, but in 1941 Prince Paul, the regent of Yugoslavia had a deal set with Adolf Hitler. Same deal as Nazi Germany had with Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria: “You help us gang up on Russia. When we win, those seats at the big table with the sharp knives belong to you.” At the last minute a popular uprising sparked by the third graders in the Belgrade elementary schools took to the streets, brought down Prince Paul’s regime and renounced the Hitler pact. They call it “The Diaper Rebellion”! As an infuriated Hitler redirected his tanks southward to Yugoslavia, CBS’ famed Edward R. Murrow interviewed a Yugoslav soldier outside the Belgrade train station who said, “I would gladly die tomorrow for the pleasure of having lived today.”
That got to me. I wish every member of Congress had heard it, too.
Do you recall the look on the face of that Nazi general during the Battle of the Bulge when he had a deal he was sure Gen. Anthony McAuliffe couldn’t refuse? Our American “Battlin’ Bastards of Bastogne” were out of everything, except guts. They were cut off, and cloud banks prevented resupply by air. “Surrender, and your men will eat warm food and sleep in warm beds tonight,” proposed the German general. “Refuse and you all die.”
“Nuts!” replied McAuliffe. “Come again?” said the confused German interpreter. McAuliffe repeated, “Nuts!” The German interpreter faithfully translated, “Nüssen.” “Ist das positiv oder negativ?” sputtered the Hitler representatives. “Strictly negative, Buddy,” replied McAuliffe. “Strictly negative.” The next day the sun came out. America broke out of the Bulge.
Soviet Russia, with hundreds of millions of people and territory the size of the moon, had a terrible time moving westward for the longest time beginning in 1939. Why? Because of Finland, a country they attacked, a little larger than Wyoming and Nebraska with a population half that of Chicago. But Finland had plenty of what the GOP seems slowly to be finding, that little cockleburr of courage that works so well, so often.
Sure, the gamble might lose. They might get eaten alive by a population that rediscovers its love for Barack Obama. Nothing else has worked. Why not give courage a chance?
The fallout: At the Stork Club, Josephine Baker’s steak eventually arrived. Her white adopted French son thinks the entire “snubbing” incident was a well-orchestrated move by the Communist Party.
Anyhow, a huge thank you for that gentle blanket of celebrity cowardice that gave us all talk radio.
Maybe that Irishman was a Republican, the one who said, “Better to be a coward for one minute than to be dead for the rest of your life!”