If You Want to Reach Me, You’ll Find Me Reading Cosmopolitan

(NOTE: This draft has been lying about in the bin for weeks, but if it’s ever going to achieve near-perfection, it won’t be from fermenting in there. You can see the basic ideas, I just don’t have a hook to hang them on and give them perspective.)

FURTHER TO MY earlier essay about trade advertising in the 1960s and 70s, there was one other magazine whose trade-ad campaigns came at you relentlessly as you strolled through the railway depots and commuter stations, or thumbed through the NYTimes. That was Helen Gurley Brown’s Cosmopolitan, an aggressively low-middlebrow sex-and-makeup rag that came out of the Hearst Building. During its high-water mark of the late 60s, early 70s, its man-catching ethos was at fierce loggerheads with a much fresher and weirder bit of popcult, Women’s Liberation.

Cosmo seldom addressed this pop-culture war in its pages, so far as I know, nor did its trade advertising ever discuss how its sensibility contrasted with that of Women’s Lib. (Ms. magazine wouldn’t really be a thing till early 1972.) Cosmo readers and women’s libbers inhabited two different galaxies altogether and neither one ever acknowledged the other.

This is somewhat paradoxical, because both camps were selling a Career Girl persona that liked to imagine itself as “Fun, Fearless, Female”—to use a 1990s Cosmopolitan slogan. It was a rivalry that went much deeper than the magazines’ public personae. At the root was a culture war that neither could openly discuss.

It made for many amusing ironies. Ms. featured actress Marlo Thomas as a contributor in the early years. Her TV persona in the 1960s “That Girl” sitcom—chic clothes, flip-hairdo, man-hungry and marriage-focused—was basically the Cosmo Girl.

And Cosmo definitely leveraged off the Women’s Lib movement—though mainly in the same crude and clownish way that Virginia Slims cigarettes did (“You’ve come a long way, baby!”). For cigarette advertising, “women’s rights” meant that dames could now smoke 100mm cigarettes in public. For Cosmopolitan, it was all about young women being actively sexual—we’ve got the Sexual Revolution now, baby, and the Pill! This was supposed to put them on a par with men.

Sex equality, thus = sexual equality. There’s too much to unpack in that equation; we leave it for another date.

The split between the Cosmo camp and Ms. faction was essentially a political war between Women’s Libbers, one so deep and ideological that neither side even acknowledged the other’s existence. One was deeply rooted in the 1950s and 60s culture of working girls who used sexual wiles to gain power. The other was rooted in journalism, academia, and abstruse theorizing about social dynamics. The first was loud and sometimes coarse, the second was snobbish and priggish.

Of course didn’t take much snobbishness to sneer at Cosmopolitan. Its cat-in-heat crudeness was all over the place, then as now.  Even in the 1970s it was giving its readers tips ‘n’ tricks on sex foreplay. Its raunch wasn’t quite at the level of Penthouse’s Forum, but it was extraordinary for a magazine aimed at the same approximate demographic as Mademoiselle and Glamour.  Cosmo called it being sexually “frank,” but it was widely perceived as being merely lowlife and lurid, and as abjectly unintellectual as its cosmetics advertisements and decolletage covers.  

This social and cultural divide that could never be breached. Many a teenage girl of this era affected a distaste for fine clothes and grooming, lest she be mistaken for a dim-bulb Cosmo reader. No doubt the horrors of Cosmo propelled others into disheveled lesbianism, or at least priggish spinsterhood. Better to die single and childless, the middle-class, educated young woman mused, than to hunt for a man like a JAP or a Cosmo floozy.

I would argue  that Cosmopolitan did far more to ruin relations between the sexes than Ms. or Feminism ever did. It made the heterosexual dating game tawdry and distasteful. It made catching a spouse (and seeking a home and family) something anyone should sneer at, if her ambitions were anything above the level of stewardess or cocktail waitress. A whole generation of women were born and raised under this pervasive yet unnatural mindset.

I recall, in the 80s, being asked by strangers if I were seeking a husband or looking forward to raising a family. I would go into an absolute cringe. What did they think I was? The sort of bimbo who read Cosmopolitan?

This entry was posted on July 15, 2017, in Cocoa Marsh.

TIME: Where Young & Rubicam Outdoor Trade Advertising Totally Disappears

A seldom-remembered detail of the commuter-railroad experience back in the 60s is the prevalence of ‘trade advertising.’ These were posters and car-cards and billboards that you passed but barely noticed in the train car and on the platform. They didn’t advertise a product per se; they advertised advertising space where you could sell your product.

Catching the train in Bronxville or Cos Cob or New Haven you’d see these ads, often mystifying and surrealistic, lining the station platform alongside the enticements to Broadway plays and musicals:

Gilroy IS Here! The Subject Was Roses. Pulitzer Prize Something.

What? You Haven’t Seen Man of La Mancha (“The Impossible Dream”) Even Once?

Now, those theatrical posters were straightforward. They were clearly selling something, and you knew what they were selling. But unless you were in the business, you might not know what a trade ad was up to. If it was plugging WNEW Radio, you’d probably vaguely imagine it was telling you to listen to WNEW Radio . . . but actually it was telling ad buyers to buy time at WNEW Radio.

Ceci n’est-pas «le TIME trade-ad campaign»

One baffling but long-lived trade series was a Young & Rubicam campaign for Time magazine.  There might be eight or ten of these in a single location. Imagine you’re walking down a long station platform or concourse, and every few yards you see a mockup of a Time magazine cover. There’s a stark, simple image, and one short line of copy mentioning a Time advertiser.For example, you might see the arm of a chalk-stripe suit surrounded by the Time branding, and the copy would go: “TIME / Where Brooks Brothers buttonholes the upscale Madison Ave. man.”

I can’t show you an example of this trade advertising because…

That example is made up; I don’t think Brooks Bros. advertised in Time anyway, and they weren’t featured in this  series. In fact I can’t remember any specific copy from Y&R’s trade campaign for Time. This forgettability was sort of intentional. The agency was trying to get Mr Advertising Man  to buy space in Time right now, this week, in 1969 . . . they weren’t hoping consumers would go around mouthing a brilliant tagline for the next fifty years.

Because that would be tragic. Nothing fails worse than a clever campaign that doesn’t hit the right target. “You don’t have to be Jewish . . . to love Levy’s . . .Real Jewish Rye” is the Y&R line from the era everyone remembers now, though almost no one today has ever eaten Levy’s rye bread. Do they even make it anymore?

I suspect the Levy’s campaign was like the cartoon ads for Piel’s Beer a decade before, appealing mainly to people who wouldn’t ever buy the product.

But while we may remember the Levy’s ads, the Y&R trade series do not stick in the public imagination at all. In fact they’ve essentially been dropped down the memory hole. I’ve been Googling and otherwise researching Advertising Age and Young & Rubicam histories to see if there’s any mention, any image of the Time campaign. No luck.

I can’t even find online photographs of station platforms where these ads appeared. I guess no amateur archivist ever thought to snap them. It’s almost impossible even to find photos of Broadway posters online. That’s why I show a Playbill above instead of the actual 1964 theatrical poster for The Subject Was Roses.

What does stick in my recollection is that the Time campaign was resolutely upscale.  A place to advertise hi-class products for hi-class readers, was the subtext. That may sound laughable today, when Time is reputed always to have been a middlebrow rag. Time now survives in a scrawny print edition that is filled with ugly pharma advertising and is read mostly by 80-year-olds, probably because they got in the habit of reading it in the 1960s, back when Time ran real news and half its full-page insertions were for gin and scotch.

But however nasty it may be now, in advertising demographics Time was the class act for decades, far outshining the ad-stuffed Life and Look, which were perceived as picture books that subscribers thumbed through. Readers read Time.

Trade campaigns for other magazines imitated the Time model to a certain extent—e.g., the endless variants of “Forbes: Capitalist Tool,” which made a subtle pitch to the advertisers by flattering the readers. This series of ads, which ran in and around commuter trains in the 1970s and 80s, almost looked like a subscription promotion aimed at ambitious young commuters. Actually the ads were reminding posh advertisers on the train that if they bought space in Forbes they could reach those ambitious young commuters. (The kind of people who read Forbes do not need a train ad to tell them to read Forbes.)

The Sunday Giant

The most pervasive and long-lived of the trade-ad campaigns was probably for the downscale, big-circulation Sunday supplement called  Parade. “Parade is the Sunday Giant!” went the slogan, generally on a poster or car-card showing a line-drawing cartoon of a towering figure looming over lilliputian Sunday rags (NY Times Magazine, perhaps?).

Having mass nationwide circulation was and is basically Parade’s only selling point, but advertisers needed to be reminded of this because Parade was easy to overlook. It was and is a one-of-a-kind publication: a bland, friendly downmarket supplement, with content kept so generic it can never seem out of place in Salt Lake City, Sarasota, or St. Louis. This is a difficult trick, and Parade’s done it for, whatever, 70 years? (Look it up!)

Back in the 60s and 70s, every town worth mentioning had at least a couple of big Sunday newspapers, and one of them—generally the one with the better funnies and the shorter editorials—carried Parade. In such locales you’d actually see people in stores and newsstands on weekends, thumbing through the hefty Sunday paper to make sure the sports section and Parade were there! The same way parishioners of St. Catherine of Siena in Greenwich might head for the newsstand after Mass, full of beady-eyed intent to ensure that their Herald-Tribune or New York Times wasn’t missing its Book Review section.

Parade emphasized its mass-market, downscale orientation in a dozen ways. In the 50s and 60s, when newspapers boasted of their sturdy newsprint stock and excellent rotogravure processes, Parade went in the other direction and made itself as shoddy as it possibly could. Tabloid-sized and unstapled, its pages were all different sizes, some with rag edges, others cut sharp or with extra dog-ear flaps at the corner. Even on the cover, their color printing was often somehow out of registration, like a 3-D comic book. (It’s neater today, like most color reproduction.)

Parade left a spot on its nameplate where the local newspaper could print its name or logo, and this just added to the cheap feel, since the newspaper’s name was usually printed crooked or looked like a rubber stamp.

The “editorial matter” was mostly filler dealing with celebrities and fads, the kind of stuff any of us could write off the top of our heads, so long as the words aren’t too big, and the sentences aren’t too long, and the attitude is relentlessly chipper.

The main rule, though, was that if you mentioned a celebrity, it had to be someone recognizable to 95% of the population. That was the secret of “Walter Scott’s Personality Parade,” an inside-cover feature that started around 1971 and still runs today, although Walter Scott himself apparently has no more actual personality than Betty Crocker.

It was a brilliant addition to Parade, because it ensured that there would be at least one feature that everyone would read. It’s still the first thing you see on the inside: pithy queries and answers about stars and politicians that everybody’s heard of, usually with very upbeat, anodyne answers.

(One I remember from circa 1974: “Does Elton John always wear a hat because he’s ‘bisexual’? No, actually he just likes hats! Also he’s having hair transplants!“)

Parade’s own advertising mechanism I never figured out. The rag’s low-budget, rec-room-floor style would never have been a good fit for most advertisers. (Toothpaste, yes;  Tanqueray, no.) And since the same edition was distributed across the country, there was no way it could pick up lavish display ads from retailers or car dealers.

Maybe they did try local-market ‘spot advertising’ at one point, but if so I never noticed it. The logistics of the thing would have been extremely complicated, and probably would have required a drastic upgrade in format and a more specialized, target audience. No more Sunday Giant.  So mainly Parade survived on cheesy, cheerful national ads for things like two-dollar muumuus, and anti-itch powder for dogs.

Their perennial full-page advertisers mostly sold stuff you might never see advertised anywhere else, or at least outside a Sunday supplement. There was Zoysia grass, a magical kind of turf that evidently never needed watering or weeding, and then there was an amphetamine-laced weight-loss candy that had the merry name of Ayds. The latter’s ads were always disguised to look like editorial matter and invariably consisted of a first-person narrative by a former fat-lady, “As told to Ruth L. McCarthy.”

One hears sometimes that Parade is a family-run, closely held, business. I find that easy to believe. There’s just enough work here, and just enough money, to support one extended family.

Failing Memory? Things I Can’t Remember

Begins here a list of memory lapses, items I reach for mentally before drawing a blank. I am not counting things I forget because I was incapacitated. (E.g., stuff I buy on Amazon when drunk or sleepwalking.) I put an asterisk after anything I actually went and Googled, or otherwise hunted around for.

Stuff I Forget

  1. Name of resort town near Rimini, where I was for WMA in Sept. 2007.  (Riccione*)
  2. That 1910s recording star and performer who sang ‘Over There.’ (Nora Bayes*)
  3. 18th century German homosexual art historian and Italophile. (Winckelmann)
  4. The bibulous ‘red brick don’ with mustache in ‘Tinker Tailor.’  (Roy Bland)

Stuff I Forget: Addendum, May 23, 2017

  • 5. What was the number on my last mailing address in London? 305? 503? (405)
  • 6. Chicagoland guy now in Oxon at SoftPress? Richard Morgan? (Richard Logan*)

Stuff I Forget: Addendum, June 15, 2017

  • 7. What was the name of David Byrne’s singing group? (Talking Heads*)
  • 8. What was boychik’s real name? (Leave this blank.)

Stuff I Forget: Addendum, July 14, 2017

Now, I’ve been collecting some at random for a couple of months and not putting them in here. But these are some of the best.

  • 9. The gory Gore Vidal movie with Malcolm McDowell about the Roman emperor? (Caligula)
  • 10. The James Bond after George Lazenby? (Timothy Dalton*)
  • 11. Swedish actor who was in The Seventh Seal and Hannah and Her Sisters? (Max von Sydow*)
  • 12. The Negro-Thai golfer, big in the 90s, on skids since? (Tiger Woods)
  • 13. Simone Veil, Simone Weil, Edith Stein: who is who? (Veil’s the one who just died, Weil is the crazy philosophe who worked herself to death, Stein the one who became a nun and died in a concentration camp.*)
  • 14. Pop novelist and Thatcherite pol who got convicted of some obscure crime years ago? (Jeffrey Archer…couldn’t come up with his name on a day in May till I shook my brain a little.)
  • 15. Name of that Scottish c&w girl singer with the 2008 hit about the black oak tree?
    (KT Tunstall — Big Black Horse and the Cherry Tree, actually, and the song is older, 2004. (This is about the third time in six months I was stumped, had to look up an e-mail I sent someone.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zq8hiZPqj_U )
  • 16. That quasi-3D kind of photo or illustration, like lenticular, but not lenticular? (Oh holograph. Took me a few seconds.)

Stuff I Forget: Addendum, August 19, 2017

  • 17. The Alsatian bistro across the street from the Café de Flore. (Brasserie Lipp. It’s mentioned in Hemingway and a Maurice Chevalier song but I gave up after ten seconds and Googled.*)
  • 18. Jewish lawyer and Harvard LS professor who was always on TV and who defended Claus von Bulow. (Alan Dershowitz. Really drew a blank on this one. You can search for, Whom did Ron Silver play in Reversal of Fortune, but that works only if you know the other pieces.*)
  • 19. Word for when someone is older than one ought to be. (Superannuated.)
  • 20. Who was the gourmet popcorn man? Oscar Fliegenheimer? Oscar Redenbacher? (Orville Redenbacher.)
  • 21. French Jew operetta composer who did Orpheus in the Underworld? (Offenbach.)

Stuff I Forget: Addendum, December 2, 2017

  • 22. Ludwig II ‘Sleeping Beauty’ castle. (Neuschwanstein.)
  • 23. Nobleman with eyepatch who ran off with Marie-Louise when Napoleon went to Elba. (Neipperg*)
  • 24. The dotted wire-photo process. (Halftone*)
  • 25. Duchess of Cambridge, maiden name. (Kate Middleton*)
  • 26. Upscale shoe chain with $800 over-the-knee boots. (Stuart Weitzman)
  • 27. Name of Jewish communists who disappeared into Czecho, late 40s, while searching for a relative. (???)


Stuff I Forget: Addendum, April 2, 2018

  • 28. Floyd guy caught in Crystal Cave in 1925. (Floyd Collins*)
  • 29. Harvard math teacher and comedy songster. (Tom Lehrer)
  • 30. What is this familiar tune:
    Thought maybe G&S, but no: Kander & Ebb. Had to whistle it into Vocaroo before I got it. (“Tomorrow Belongs to Me”)
  • 31. Who played Don Barzini in The Godfather? He was in a Rat Pack movie too. (Richard Conte)

Jane Austen and the White Supreeemists

Our colleague over at mmetroland.wordpress.com has a draft critique of the ongoing Jane Austen/Alt Right controversy, which should shortly be published elsewhere. While the article is exhaustive, not to say tiresome, I’ve noticed that a few press references from March 20-26 escaped MMetroland’s eye.


Jane Austen fans denounce leftist hacks

Most of these are little more than copypastas of what appeared in the New York Times and Chronicle of Higher Education, but each has its own little quirk. The Huffington Post gives the kicker “She’s the Pepe of Regency-Era Fiction,” which is strangely witty for HuffPo, just as the writeup, by Claire Fallon, is unusually fair-and-balanced (though she sinks to using the 1950s Daily Worker/Civil Rights Congress expression, “white supremacist” to indicate anybody right-of-left-of-center).

Contrariwise, the formerly witty and balanced Independent (London) is now lost forever to the fever-swamp Left. “Jane Austen has alt-right fans who have clearly never read her work properly, scholar suggests,” goes the Indy’s hed, but the story describes no such scholar, nor in fact anyone else, making such a statement. The Daily Telegraph (London) isn’t much better, basing its writeup entirely on the original Chronicle story and its expansive endorsement by Jennifer Schuessler in the New York Times.

The Times’s (London) coverage, picked up in The Australian (Sydney), is even worse. Hack Ben Hoyle arranged his sensationalist bilge to showcase an old throwaway remark from Andrew Anglin that does not all pertain to the issue at hand. No doubt the fact that it’s a quote from America’s highly entertaining “top hater” made it irresistible:

In a post for The Daily Stormer, which has been called the “top hate site in America” by The Southern Poverty Law Centre, a white-supremacist ­approvingly described pop star Taylor Swift as “a secret Nazi”, whom he imagined “sitting at home with her cat reading Jane Austen”, while her contemporaries indulged in loose sexual ­behaviour “with coloured gentlemen”.

Following the local style-book to spell “Southern Poverty Law Centre,” though it’s a proper name, is also a funny touch, as is the respelling of “coloured” which should not be Briticized since it’s in a direct quote.

The Guardian’s Danuta Kean, despite her piece’s Commie jargon, is breathtakingly original by comparison. She actually did a little research on this one, and got some entertaining quotes:

Fellow Austen scholar Bharat Tandon, who edited the Harvard University Press edition of Emma, is sceptical that Austen’s fans on the far right have actually read her books. Citing Ayn Rand, another of the far right’s favourite female writers, he said: “[Austen] would have had Rand for breakfast. That rootsy post-Randian demagoguery that they all follow would have been completely alien to the society Austen chronicled.”

According to Tandon, the only character in Austen’s work who could possibly have voted for Donald Trump would be Mrs Norris, Fanny Price’s cruel and snobbish aunt in Mansfield Park. “She’s a nasty, greedy and abusive piece of work,” says Tandon. “Trump would speak to her.”

Claire Tomalin, whose biography, Jane Austen: A Life, revealed a woman more radical in her roots than her popular image allows, doubts the writer would find anything in common with white supremacists. “[Austen] loved the poetry of William Cowper, who was opposed to hunting and shooting,” she says.

Picture Post

Elizabeth Bishop was young once.

“Etymology time! I was in a meeting yesterday and the consultant must have used the word “boilerplate” 10 times in 10 minutes. It took me nearly 3 decades to get motivated enough to want to know the origin of the term, but that meeting yesterday did it. So here goes! In dem der olden deys, steam boilers were built from very heavy tough steel sheets. Similar sheets of steel were also used for engraving copy that was intended for widespread reproduction in multiple issues of newspapers—things like ads and syndicated columns. Regular, here today, gone tomorrow copy was set in much softer, durable lead.

“So the stuff that stuck around became known as the boilerplate. According to Wiki: “Until the 1950s, thousands of newspapers received and used this kind of boilerplate from the nation’s largest supplier, the Western Newspaper Union.” Today, of course, boilerplate is used to describe anything that’s standard language, say in a contract or even in computer code.”

— John Crowe Ransom

COLOGNE, GERMANY – JUNE 19: Taylor Swift performs during ‘The 1989 World Tour’ night 1 at Lanxess Arena on June 19, 2015 in Cologne, Germany. (Photo by Sascha Steinbach/Getty Images for TAS)


Margot Darby says this is an ugly hat

I love Taylor Swift

Floreal, par Margot Darby

Inspiration for Cindy Sherman

House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia gestures while meeting with the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers on Capitol Hill in Washington, Jan. 4, 1995. The Rangers were invited to Capitol Hill to entertain congressional children who attended the swearing-in ceremony for the 104th Congress. From left are, the Blue Ranger, Pink Ranger, White Ranger, Black Ranger, Gingrich, and the Red Ranger. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

antifa negress

“Can you make the Person of Color even uglier?”
“I’ll try!”

Actress Linda Christian alone at beach, dressed in bathing suit.

margot darby

All-American Family

Taylor Swift kehrt in ihr Apartment in Tribeca zurueck / 180714
*** returning home to her apartment in Tribeca, July 18, 2014 ***

margot darby

margot darby is back

Margot Darby

margot sheehan


Neville Chamberlain as Chancellor of Exqr, 1936


margot darby

Margot Darby


The Margot Darby Picture Post

The Margot Darby Picture Post

The Margot Darby Picture Post

The Margot Darby Picture Post

The Margot Darby Picture Post
The Margot Darby Picture Post

Mr. Roth, Mr. Melville & Mr. Trump

We hadn’t thought about Philip Roth in some years, so it was with some delight, and a few misgivings, that we ran into him recently in the pages of The New Yorker (Jan. 30 issue). Actually it was just a Philip Roth e-mail, or portions of e-mails, extracted for a Talk of the Town “casual” by Judith Thurman. 

Thurman had sent a note to the 83-year-old Roth because she wanted to pick his brains on the only subject anyone wants to talk about these days, Our New President. Some years back Roth wrote a darkly satirical fantasy, The Plot Against America, in which Charles Lindbergh gets into the White House and commences a pro-Nazi regime, complete with Nuremberg-style laws restricting the Jews. (The whole concept sounds like a lurid exercise in Jewish paranoia, but Roth mostly got around that by telling it as faux-autobiography, thereby making such paranoia the implicit theme of the book.)

The big question the interviewer posed here was, approximately: Do you see a parallel here between the fictional President Lindbergh and Donald Trump, who seemed to echo Lindbergh with his calls for “America First” in his Inaugural address?

Roth’s answer was scathing on the subject of Trump. He said he much preferred Lindbergh, who—quoting Roth’s reply here—“despite his Nazi sympathies and racist proclivities, was a great aviation hero who had displayed great physical courage and aeronautical genius in crossing the Atlantic in 1927. He had character and he had substance . . . Trump is just a con artist. The relevant book about Trump’s American forebear is Herman Melville’s ‘The Confidence-Man,’ the darkly pessimistic, daringly inventive novel—Melville’s last—that could just as well have been called ‘The Art of the Scam.’”

There is so much shallow glibness in this reply that it’s probably easiest to begin by pointing out a couple of factual errors. Like a bumptious, conceited grad student, Roth cites an obscure Melville novel and suggests it’s a prophetic allegory about Donald Trump. The problem here is, Roth almost certainly never read The Confidence-Man past its title. Because it is actually not the tale of a flim-flam artist who seduces a gullible public, as Roth apparently imagines. It’s an experimental, absurdist, rather self-indulgent exercise, with only a scant semblance of a plot. Set on a Mississippi steamboat, it describes a vast array of passengers, depicting a cross-section of American “types” of the 1850s. Some of them are snake-oil salesmen or charity-hucksters, others are eager investors looking looking for get-rich-quick schemes. Moving among them is a nameless character who changes his disguise from chapter to chapter. 

The full title of the novel is The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade, and the title character’s shape-shifting is the real point of the story, inasmuch as it has one. Whatever else one thinks of Donald Trump, he is the diametrical opposite of a mysterious shape-shifter. One of the oddest and most striking things about Trump, in fact, is how little his persona has changed in forty years of public life. You have to figure Roth just found the name, “The Confidence-Man” too good to resist. If it wasn’t a book about a Trump-like character, then it should be. Few people would be the wiser.

Roth’s other blunder was calling the book Melville’s last novel, which is not quite true, unless you leave out the far better known and posthumously published Billy Budd.

Roth’s snooty, false erudition in the field of American literature is much of a piece with his cartoony ideas about President Trump. He levels at Trump every tiresome insult, every dismissive characterization that Washington Post columnists and cable-news commentators have been reciting since Trump first entered the political arena. As in his comparison of Trump with Lindbergh, Roth tries hard to appear fair and judicious by mentioning other Republican Presidents he didn’t like but weren’t nearly as bad as Trump:

I found much that was alarming about being a citizen during the tenures of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. But whatever I may have seen as their limitations of character or intellect, neither was anything like as Trump is: ignorant of government, of history, of science, of philosophy, of art, incapable of expressing or recognizing subtlety or nuance, destitute of all decency, and wielding a vocabulary of seventy-seven words that is better called Jerkish than English.

He follows this with a dire warning that the Trump Administration may lead to “a genuine assault upon [writers’] rights” in “a country drowning in Trump’s river of lies.”

Roth’s philippic against President Trump has nothing new or insightful in it. It would read like the ravings of a senile madman if we hadn’t already seen this sort of thing, time after time, in a hundred other places. What’s noteworthy here is that Roth is a not a political columnist, or someone with unique insight into Donald Trump, yet he’s eager to recite the main talking-points of the extreme anti-Trump factions, as well as embellish them with whatever random insults come to mind. Trump is ignorant; he knows no art or history or philosophy; he is indecent, threatens freedom of speech, and lies unceasingly. In all likelihood no one’s ever quizzed Mr. Trump on his knowledge of art or history or philosophy. These are just rote denunciations, decoupled from any need for factual basis, and considered beyond challenge. Mere ritualistic signaling that one belongs to Anti-Trump Party . 

There is a paradox here. In his long literary career (c. 1959-2009) Roth’s persona was that of a cranky controversialist who wouldn’t follow the herd and never feared to offend. At the start of his career, his closely observed stories of middle-class Jews were thought to be too revealing, bad PR for the Jewish people. Effectively “anti-Semitic,” in fact: an accusation that dogged Roth for decades. His most successful novel, Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), set the bar for bestselling raunch, combining an obscene sex satire with a manic, breathless, interminable parody of a Jewish stand-up-comic act.

The Jews in The Plot Against America (2004) are transgressive in yet another way. Based on his family and neighbors in Newark, New Jersey, c. 1940, they are flawed, weak, full of denial, hoping to find a way to accommodate themselves to the new Nazi-sympathizing government of President Lindbergh. There’s even a Conservative rabbi who attaches himself to the Lindbergh regime, cajoling his fellow Jews to put their fears at ease. In his e-mails to the New Yorker’s Thurman, Roth explained that he didn’t conceive the book as a “warning,” rather he was just trying to imagine realistically how his family and those around him might have behaved in such a situation. “I wanted to imagine how we would have fared, which meant I had first to invent an ominous American government that threatened us.”  

As it happens, the invented political history is mostly claptrap, full of unlikely plot twists that scarcely work even within the context of a fantasy. Charles Lindbergh might conceivably have become a GOP nominee and even President someday, but not in 1940. (He didn’t even enter the public arena as spokesman for the America First Committee until 1941.) Moreover, even Roth could see that the notion of Lindbergh as a full-on Nazi-sympathizer was a bit much. Accordingly the author  “lampshaded” his way out of that problem by offering the harebrained explanation that Lindbergh was being blackmailed all along. The Nazis had kidnapped his infant son, it seems, and they were holding the boy hostage in order to force Lucky Lindy to implement a Final Solution in America.

Historical-political imagination is not Roth’s long suit. This comes out clearly at the end of the e-mail interview, when Thurman asks him “how Trump threatens us.” Having given that rich litany of anti-Trump clichés earlier, Roth now comes up almost blank. He offers the feeblest, most shopworn worry in the book: “What is most terrifying is that he makes any and everything possible, including, of course, the nuclear catastrophe.”

Why You Should Write Under a Pseudonym

Long before Antifa rowdies began to home in on me and make my life a living hell—posting ugly pix of me and exposing several of my pen-names and a fanciful variant of my maiden name to the world (or at least to their 17 blog readers, oh noes!)—I had a whole smorgasbord of pseudonyms.

One of them, JW, is nearly old enough to be President. I used it for many a flame-war on the old CompuServe SIGs. I even had an American Express card in that name, at least until I charged up a bunch of dinners for my comedy group and decided not to pay!

In those days, early 1980s, I had a TI99/4A with a 90K single-sided hard-drive and a 300 baud modem. I was probably the only one of my friends to be an online addict at that point, but I was hardly unique in the world at large. I subscribed to, and sometimes wrote for, InfoWorld, which reminded me weekly that there were easily a million more hackers and microcomputer hobbyists in the country, most of them with better systems than I had. But I managed.

On discussion boards the words came out so slowly it was like watching a Telex terminal. I sometimes stayed up all night, typing out heated arguments about comic books and the Holocaust. CompuServe in those days cost you $2.50 per hour, so it didn’t take me long to rack up a few hundred in charges on my account. I eventually stiffed them too, and their bill collectors in Dublin, Ohio hounded me for six months. Then they gave up and I got a new CompuServe account, and the whole thing began again.

Discussion-group members were a nasty, opinionated lot. Take the nastiest ten percent of Twitter trolls you see today, and that’s about the average comportment of the old Special Interest Group participant on CompuServe. I recall an unbelievably insulting and rude old Jew from Southern California—a retired thoracic surgeon, would you believe—who would pop out of nowhere to call me a nazi. Once I failed to pay sufficient homage to the Holohoax® so after that it was nazi this, nazi that. He’s dead now, so I can give you his name, which is common anyway. Sid Kahn.

Then there was the SYSOP for the group, another Jew, whose name I will not give you as I believe he’s still around. Ineffably unctuous and politically correct this fellow was. He’d gone to shitty colleges in Ohio and Kentucky, lived with his parents in Cleveland at age 35, and was an aspiring science-fiction writer. (That last is usually a flashing red-alert for me, and should be for you too.) His specialty was tone-policing the whole rowdy lot of us, but as is so often the case with these characters, he was actually responsible for most of the flame wars. He had a small claque that would cheer him and pile on any adversary. Me for instance; I was always a convenient victim because I was a ‘nazi.’ Leader of the claque was a woman who called herself Dagny, after the Ayn Rand character. She supposedly lived in a 55-foot trailer in the Arizona desert, and had 10,000 books. I always imagined her as immensely fat, but those who knew her better than I never filled me in on that detail. Another regular, now dead, was a Peter Amschel, a lawyer in a desert town in Southern California. Peter was some kind of fundie Christian and forever flaming Sid Kahn and others. Years afterwards I friended him on Facebook. Weirdly he had become a Moslem.

My polemical style today is nearly identical to what it was in 1983. I do not doubt that some of these CompuServe participants would remember me distinctly today if I had then posted as Margot Darby. One or two might even remember me from my distinctive prose idiom, my old pseudonym notwithstanding. But at least the pseud defeats the search engines, and that is mighty important these days.


Kilowatt Notes

In my grandparents’ house on Green Hill Lane, there was a vast attic at the top of a rickety flight of wooden stairs. When we visited we were not supposed to go up there, and so of course we would, whenever our grandmother wasn’t nearby. When she discovered us (as she would) she was invariably cross, although if there was anything compromising or untoward up there, it eluded me entirely.

Mainly it was old boxes, old furniture, some splendid Philadelphia Inquirers from 1957 with Sunday Rotocomics of Dick Tracy, Little Iodine, etc.; and an adult-size promotional figure of Reddy Kilowatt (“Your Electric Servant”) from the Philadelphia Electric Company. I have no idea what it was doing there. It’s the sort of thing one might find in an antiques shop today, but it certainly wasn’t brought in by my grandparents as a valuable curio in the 1940s or 50s. A gag gift, maybe? Maybe, not likely.

I did think, when I was 5, 6, 7, that Reddy Kilowatt was a bit frightening to look at. Maybe my grandmother thought it was scary, monstrous. Or apt to tip over and kill a small child. In the end I formed the vague idea that I wasn’t to go up into the attic because of Reddy Kilowatt.

Of course it could just be she thought the slippery, narrow attic stairway was treacherous. I don’t think either grandparent visited the attic very often. Although the house had only been built in the 1930s, it was quirky, designed by my grandfather after some old English country houses he had studied. He was a mechanical engineer rather than an architect, and his emphasis was on antiquarian cleverness rather than utility and safety. The house had things like a witch’s-hat turret with no functional purpose, and ground-floor stairway-ceiling so low that anyone over six feet would need to duck.

Outside, a weird, curving stone staircase wound up from the driveway to the front door. This was never used, as it was unusable; the flagstones were crooked and the steps were tiny. I gather this was meant to look like the detail of a 300-year-old habitation, preserved solely for antiquarian purposes. Anyway the front door of the house was the only entrance (of four) that was almost never used. There was a “sanitation” receptacle sunk into an outside walkway near the kitchen, and I was long grown before I realized this was another useless holdover installed just for period authenticity. A hundred years before this was the thing where people would dump the contents of chamberpots, and other unmentionables, to be collected each day by the nightsoil man.

My grandmother finally sold the house in the 1970s and moved back to her homeland of western Ohio, having first deposited with my parents anything that might possibly have some meaning of value— photo albums, furniture oddments, and boxes of 19th century memorabilia. What became of Reddy Kilowatt I never found out.