Jerry Lewis a great entertainer passes away

August 22, 2017

Jerry Lewis, born Joseph Levitch to Russian-Jewish vaudeville entertainer parents and one of the towering American-Jewish comics of the 20th century, has passed away at age 91. He combined his film career with a long commitment to community service, including the Muscular Dystrophy Association, for which he raised funds.

Although he acted in numerous film and television shows during a career that began in 1949 through the present day (he appeared in last year’s “The Trust” with Nicholas Cage), during the 23 year period from 1960 to 1983, he also directed himself in 12 films.  All these films screened at last year’s Melbourne International Film Festival – in retrospect, almost perfect timing memorialising a great man of American film: “The Bellboy” (1960), “The Ladies Man” (1961), “The Errand Boy” (1961), “The Nutty Professor” (1963), “The Patsy” (1964), “The Family Jewels” (1965), “Three on a Couch” (1966), “The Big Mouth” (1967), “One More Time” (1970), “Which Way to the Front?” (1970), “The Day the Clown Cried” (1972), “Hardly Working” (1981) and “Cracking Up” (1983).

Although mostly known as a comic and entertainer, Lewis also was an extraordinary film technician: he invented the “video assist”, a technology that enables filmmakers to view a video version of what they have shot.

Two of Lewis’ best-loved films are “The Nutty Professor” and “The Bellboy”, where the video assist was used for the first time. “Professor” (re-made in 1996 starring Eddie Murphy), is a romantic comedy crossed with science fiction parody of “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”. Jerry Lewis’ persona as Julius Kelp – prone to accidents, socially awkward and buck-toothed – has never been on better display than on this film, and was so popular that Lewis later reprised the character in both “The Family Jewels” and “The Big Mouth”.

“The Bellboy” – my personal favourite and Lewis’ debut as director – captured another side of the Lewis persona, taking a “bow” to classic silent comedians, in particular the pantomime artist Stan Laurel, who Lewis consulted on the script. “The Bellboy” has a lovely “backstory”:  Lewis – who directed, produced, wrote and starred – shot the film in less than four weeks on location at the historic Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, filming during the day while performing in the hotel’s nightclub at night. For those of us who grew up in the northeast of the USA in the 1960s and visited Miami Beach, the Fontainebleau personifies that time and place. And Jerry Lewis in turn personifies the hotel. View it for a peek of what life was like there and then, more than 55 years ago.

“Which Way to the Front” – although a minor addition to the Lewis body of work – tackled the Second World War, where Lewis plays a rich playboy who volunteers to fight against the Nazis and impersonates a German general.  It was Lewis’s only overt attempt – in the style of Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” – to ridicule the Nazis. Although it failed as a film, it’s worthwhile viewing for both Lewis fans and film historians.

The world will be a much poorer place without Jerry Lewis in it, but we are all much richer for his having shared himself with us.

Jerry Lewis The Bellboy DVD cover

(Note: the post above is an updated and expanded version of my original article, which appeared in The Australian Jewish News Melbourne edition on 28 July 2016.)

Paul Wellstone remembered

August 20, 2017

My tribute to the late Senator Paul Wellstone has been published on the official Wellstone website. This tribute is an updated version of what I wrote in 2002 in the Australian Jewish News, and re-printed on this blog in 2009.

On 20 July 2017 here in Sydney, I made a presentation at a Economics Society of Australia conference (“Economics for Better Lives”) on Australian inequality and vocational education and training. I dedicated my presentation to Paul Wellstone.

“We should never separate the lives we live from the words we speak. To me, the most important goal is to live a life consistent with the values I hold dear and to act on what I believe in.” – Paul Wellstone, The Conscience of a Liberal: Reclaiming the Compassionate Agenda, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2001, p. ix

Two photos of Paul below: his official Senate photo, and teaching as a young man (roughly the time I met him):

Ruth Marcus Patt

April 1, 2015

“Ruth Marcus Patt – Author, Historian, Philanthropist, and Woman of Valor”. That’s the title of the most recent bulletin of the Jewish Historical Society of Central New Jersey, devoted to celebrating her life.

Ruth was a great New Jersey Jewish leader who has just passed away at age 95. She was also my aunt, having married my mother’s brother Milton.

Ruth’s achievements have been detailed in a number of places. Aside from the Jewish Historical Society, you can read her official obituaries from the Home News Tribune (published on 25 February 2015) and the New Jersey Jewish News. Her life has also been detailed in the book Past and Promise: Lives of New Jersey Jewish Women.

In brief: Ruth graduated Douglass College (now part of Rutgers University) in 1940, with a BA in Sociology and a minor in Psychology. The then worked as a psychiatric social worker at Marlboro Psychiatric State Hospital before getting married to her husband Milton (my uncle) and travelling with him during the Second World War. She lived a life devoted to community service, including the Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick, where she served as the President of the Sisterhood, a Board member and a 15 year period of editing the Temple newsletter. I know her writing well: for many years she wrote a family newsletter, entitled “The Colony House Observer”, named after the New Brunswick apartment building that she lived in.

Ruth devoted much of her energy to Jewish history, as the founder and leading light of the Jewish Historical Society of Central New Jersey. She wrote four books and numerous other articles on Jewish life in New Jersey, including The Jewish Scene in New Jersey’s Raritan Valley, The Jewish Experience at Rutgers and Uncommon Lives: 18 Extraordinary Jews from New Jersey.

In addition to her Jewish communal achievements, she served the City of New Brunswick – where she was born, raised and educated – with distinction. She chaired the City’s 300th year (“tercentennial”) celebration in 1980, which involved more than 130 events involved a wide range of ethnic, religious and racial groups. She was later recognised for her achievements with the Citizen of the Year award from the City. Other awards included the New Jersey Historical Commission’s Award of Recognition, the Douglass Society Award for Distinction in Public Service and the Rutgers University Medal. She and her husband Milton both received the Lehman Award for Service to the Jewish People.

As a person and a public figure, Ruth was “larger than life.” She commanded respect, not by “commanding” but by her personality and her leadership ability. She asserted authority, not because she necessarily wanted to be authoritative, but because that’s who she was, a person who could do things, and who would make things happen. She was gracious, articulate and expressive.

As I have travelled in the Jewish world in the USA and here in Australia, meeting travelling Jewish leaders in different settings, it is astonishing how many of them knew Ruth. It opened doors and added to my credibility to be able to introduce myself as “Ruth Patt’s nephew.”

Ruth is survived by her sons (my first cousins) and their wives, Dr Richard and Althea Patt and Dr Steven Patt and Deborah Jamison, two grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Along with my cousins and their families and the Jewish community of Central New Jersey, I celebrate Ruth’s life achievements and I mourn her passing.

Ruth Patt

Notes on the passing of Werner Dannhauser

June 29, 2014

A couple of months ago, Cornell University issued a fascinating press release: Professor Emeritus Werner Dannhauser, a former professor of politics and political theory, had died at age 84.

I remember Werner Dannhauser, because I studied with him at Cornell in the 1970s. I just checked my transcript (yes, I still have a copy): the course was entitled “Introduction to Political Theory” (Government 161), and I received a C-, the lowest grade of my university career.

Dannhauser was even then very eminent. But he was also very sickly, and I am astonished that somehow he would have lived another forty years. We were led to believe that he was going to die any minute. His tutorial assistants would carry him in to the classroom for every lecture, sit him down, and strap a microphone around his chest. He would then painfully whisper out a lecture which everyone claimed to be brilliant. We would all try to copy everything verbatim. His tutors worshipped him; we students were in awe, even if we did not understand what he said.

Then came the first assignment. I had such a hard time writing the first term paper (what can you write for a barely living intellectual treasure?) that I procrastinated until the last possible moment. The night before it was due, rather than sitting down to write after dinner, I went to see Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca” – for the first time. It was wonderful, as “Casablanca” always is. I cried when the French sang “La Marseillaise”.

I returned to my room and late that night wrote what I believed to be my most inspired piece of writing to date. I called it “Humphrey Bogart, Casablanca, Nietzsche and the Machiavellian ideal”. The grade came back from my tutor the next week: Fail. I should have known.

So here I am almost forty years later, and Dannhauser has passed away, and I am left wondering why he was so sick – so apparently on his deathbed even then (and how he miraculously recovered; I can find no reference to that online).

And here are the things that I did not know about Dannhauser then:

– He was a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, arriving in the USA in 1938 at age nine. He studied for his PhD at the University of Chicago under Leo Strauss, worked for “Commentary” magazine and later came to Cornell. His wife died at a young age, and he raised his two children on his own.

– His essay “On Teaching Politics”, originally published in 1975, is still seen as a classic of the genre.

– Dannhauser was extremely close friends with Allan Bloom, and almost certainly the character of “Morris Herbst” in the novel “Ravelstein” by Saul Bellow was based on Dannhauser. (Want to read the first chapter of “Ravelstein”? You can find it here.)  Bellow even sent Dannhauser a draft of the novel to review, and Dannhauser suggested playing down Ravelstein’s homosexuality, which Bellow did not do.  In May 2000, C-Span broadcast a session at the Hudson Institute, in which Dannhauser participated, discussing Bellow and Bloom.

All these things I did not know, until very recently.  Perhaps, had I known some of them then, I would have paid more attention.  But I did not.

I recovered from the Fail mark and pulled a C-, but for many decades I declared that I was not interested in “political theory” – all because of my bad experience in Dannhauser’s course, and the acolytes who followed him around. What a shame, and what a waste. Perhaps the lesson is that eminent professors do not always turn into inspiring teachers. Perhaps it was just my callow youthfulness, but in my case, my experience was just the opposite.

(More Dannhauser obituaries are available from “Commentary” and “The Weekly Standard”.)

Anne Dunn Memorial Fund

December 15, 2013

Back in July 2012, I wrote of the passing of my former colleague Anne Dunn, who I worked with at the ABC for some years.  The University of Sydney – where Anne taught media for some years – has now announced a Memorial Fund.  It quotes, Professor Catharine Lumby, now of Macquarie University, and who had worked closely with Anne Dunn:  “Associate Professor Anne Dunn was simply the most impressive person I have ever worked with: ethically attuned, intellectually astute, and always concerned with improving the way our students and colleagues learned, taught and researched.”

Donations can be made through the University’s gift form here.

Colin James, noted Sydney community architect, passes away

February 27, 2013

Colin James, a noted community architect and long-time lecturer at the University of Sydney, has passed away at age 76.

The Sydney Morning Herald featured a major obituary on James earlier this week.  From the early 1970s, Colin was active in a large number of community housing and residents action activities.  This included involvement in the “Green Bans” movement, where he was friends with many of the major community activist players.

I first met Colin in 1982 when I was a town planner working for the Western Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils.  He seemed to own two houses in inner Sydney:  a small, compact and delightful cottage in Darlinghurst, as well as a much larger warehouse very close to the University of Sydney’s main campus, where he was already teaching.

At heart, Colin was one of the most radical people I have met:  throughout his life, he lived, breathed and stayed committed to community justice, community control and community housing.  He was well-regarded within Sydney’s Aboriginal communities, but rarely sought the limelight, content to work steadily on projects both small and large with little requirement for ego stroking.  At one time or another, he worked closely with almost every major inner Sydney community advocate.  He was soft-spoken but firm, friendly and warm.

You can see an example of James’ approach to low cost housing with his 2004 “cardboard house” submission to the ABC Television show The New Inventors.

I last saw him about eight years ago in Nowra, on the south coast of New South Wales, where I ran into him while we were both on holiday.  He shared with me some news about colleagues coming to work at the University of Sydney.

This Saturday, 2 March 2013, there will be a “celebration” of his life, starting at 11.30am from Shepherd Street and Abercrombie Streets, Darlington, with a public procession following the funeral hearse to the “Block” in Eveleigh Street, Redfern.  For more details, go to the “Health Habitat” blog.

Steve Jobs on following your heart

October 25, 2012

On June 12, 2005, Steve Jobs, the co-founder, Chairman and CEO of Apple Inc, gave the Commencement Address at Stanford University in the USA.  You can read the full address and watch the video of it here.  In his address, Jobs talked of his diagnosis of cancer in 2004 and how he battled it.  As we all know, Jobs died on October 5, 2011.  That he died so relatively young makes his address even more poignant.  In it, Jobs reminds us what really matters.

I have included an extract below as a reminder to us keep perspective and think of the things that truly matter.

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.  Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.  Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose.  You are already naked.  There is no reason not to follow your heart.

In memory of Anne Dunn

July 3, 2012

Today brought the sad news the Dr Anne Dunn, formerly of ABC Radio and most recently a professor of media and journalism at the University of Sydney, has passed away.  Click here for the tribute at the University of Sydney website.

I knew Anne in two contexts:  I worked closely with her when we were both at the ABC, and then I came across her a number of times in her new academic role.  Anne is only one of three people I know who left the ABC to undertake an academic career, and the only other person (other than me) who completed her PhD in media post-ABC.  She was certainly the most successful former ABC staffer to work in the field of academia, probably in Australia’s history.  Anne became, although I don’t think she ever knew it, something of a role model and a beacon for me.  When Anne left the ABC, she first taught at Charles Sturt University at Bathurst, then the University of Western Sydney and finally made the move fully east to the University of Sydney.

Anne was a highly accomplished academic and a deep thinking media personality, generous with her ideas and a true leader.  At a crucial time of my career (in the late 1990s) post-ABC, she provided helpful and non-judgmental advice and ideas.

She leaves behind a devoted family and scores of friends and colleagues who all, like me, mourn her passing at much too young an age.

In memoriam for a former college roommate

June 5, 2012

The mail today brought bad news.  It was even worse because the envelope arrived about two weeks ago and I did not open it until early this morning.

One of my freshman (first year) roommates at Dartmouth College, Tom Ludlow, has passed away.  Class of 1974.  Lymphoma.  I read this news with great sadness.

Living in Australia for the past 32 years, I have not kept in much contact with Tom (or many at Dartmouth, for that matter), but we talked on the phone some years back – about Dartmouth College business.  Tom was courtly, well-mannered, sincere and deeply community-minded.  He was not yet 60 when he died.

Richard Ranger, the Class of ’74 President and long-time newsletter editor, introduced the death of Tom and two other classmates with one of Richard’s insightful, poetic and melodic meditations, part of which I reproduce below as it is worth being read by a wider audience:

Making sense of significant deaths is something we all face, and something a great many of us have had to face.  In the public conversation among alumni of prestige colleges it is uncharacteristic to speak of death.  Instead, our conversation tends to dwell in the indefinite and imagined summer between graduation and achievement, where the wedding guests are handsome and well-dressed, the occasional children announced as if greeting the guests in the Trapp Family ballroom shortly before bed, and where the incremental milestones of learning and profession presented to polite but disceerning applause.  Death is acknowledged, to be sure, formerly in a smaller font size at the end of the Alumni Magazine, and now only online.  But a distance is maintained between how we experience death and how we discuss it in the public conversation.  There are many reasons for this, many of them purposeful and constructive.  But most of us find ourselves at some point adrift within that distance, between the distant shore of the public conversation, and the approaching shore of our mortality, appearing at the edge of the formerly limitless horizons of our imagined summers.

To Richard Ranger, to my (third) surviving freshman room-mate (also named Rick) and to the memory of Tom Ludlow, for whom I now mourn:  may your spirits soar like eagles in the unlimited sky, may your lives be filled with happiness and joy, and may you find peace.