Sunday, May 31, 2015

Q&A with Paul Halpern

Paul Halpern is the author of the new book Einstein's Dice and Schrodinger's Cat: How Two Great Minds Battled Quantum Randomness to Create a Unified Theory of Physics. His many other books include Edge of the Universe and What's the Matter with Pluto? A professor of physics at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia, he lives near Philadelphia. 

Q: Why did you decide to write a book about Einstein and Schrodinger? 

A: I was browsing the Albert Einstein Duplicate Archives in Princeton and found a cache of letters between him and Schrodinger that was interspersed with newspaper clippings and press releases. 

I wondered why press releases would appear in a collection of correspondence, and discovered that Schrodinger had announced victory over Einstein in the search for a “Theory of Everything.” That bold announcement led to a media fiasco.

Q: You write, "These two old friends, comrades in the battle against the orthodox interpretation of quantum mechanics, had never anticipated that they would be battling in the international press." What first drew the two men to work together, and can you say more about what lay behind their feud? 

A: Schrodinger first saw Einstein at a 1913 talk in Vienna.  Einstein was developing his general theory of relativity, and gave a brilliant lecture about the subject. That stirred Schrodinger to embrace fundamental questions in physics. 

In the 1920s, Schrodinger wrote to Einstein about atomic physics and learned from him about Louis de Broglie's concept of matter waves. That inspired Schrodinger to develop his own wave equation, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize. 

But then Max Born reinterpreted the Schrodinger equation as probability waves, a view that greatly troubled Einstein and Schrodinger. It led Einstein to proclaim, "God does not play dice." 

The two became allies in the fight against pure chance and for a more complete version of quantum physics. Einstein spent decades trying to develop a “theory of everything” that would supersede dice-rolling quantum physics. In the early 1940s, Schrodinger joined Einstein in that quest. 

However, in January 1947 when Schrodinger sensed that he had found the ultimate equation he announced at the Royal Irish Academy that he had bested Einstein. That talk was covered by the Irish press, which led to reports in the international press and the media skirmish. 

Q: This year marks the 100th anniversary of Einstein's theory of relativity and the 60th anniversary of his death. What would you say are the most common perceptions--and misperceptions--about Einstein today? 

A: Einstein has remained an iconic image six decades after his death. He still embodies the idea of a genius, which is correct. 

However, there are many false rumors among them. He never failed math. Rather, he took a college entry exam early, and didn't do well in the French language section, and had to wait a year and take the test again. It was French that blocked him, not math. 

Many try to paint him as either a religious person or a pure atheist. Rather, he embraced Spinoza's concept of an impersonal God that is equated with the laws of nature. Einstein called that his “cosmic religion.”

Q: And what are the most common perceptions and misperceptions about Schrodinger? 

A: Many people who have heard of Schrodinger think only about his cat paradox. So when I write about Schrodinger the man, a lot of people think that I am making a joke. For example, I once shared on Twitter a solemn image of Schrodinger's grave, and was immediately met with the response: "Is he there.... or not?" 

That said, Schrodinger was indeed someone full of sharp contradictions. For instance, he would arrive at conferences dressed like a backpacker and go to the beach dressed in a suit!

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: I'm getting ready to speak at the York Festival of Ideas in England. I'll be giving two talks: "Lost in the Garden of Forking Paths," with Victoria Carpenter, and another talk about my book. I greatly look forward to meeting UK readers.

Q: Anything else we should know? 

A: The more I learn about the history of physics, the more fascinating the subject seems to be. Physicists are all too human, encompassing an intriguing mixture of strengths and failings. Science is certainly not linear, but contains many twists and turns.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

May 31

May 31, 1819: Walt Whitman born.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Q&A with Ralph Hancox

Ralph Hancox's books include the first two novels in The Fabufestan Exposés, a new series of e-books. Book One, Con Job, focuses on the drug trade, and Book Two, Scandalous, looks at human trafficking. His publishing and writing career covers more than six decades, and he lives in Victoria, British Columbia.

Q: Your books were motivated by discussions you had with friends and colleagues about the problems facing the world, including the drug trade, human trafficking, and issues facing the aged. What can you say about these novels’ format?

A: The format of the novels [resulted from my reading] an article by Elmore Leonard, who said in his books he did not describe what his characters were saying — e.g. “He said angrily,” “her next utterance was one of despondency.” The quotations in their actual words should make these things very clear, he said.

I realized that this was true of the dialogue in radio plays, movies, and TV fictional dramas. I had written a few TV plays for the CBC and scripts for the amateur theatre. Leonard was obviously right. And I now had to come up with a setting that made Leonard’s dictum feasible for me in a novel.

The answer was that the setting should, in large part, be one of a documentary filmmaker in which I could put across the context of the actual research that went into developing the plots. Interviews with experts, UN officials and the like.

Q: How did your many years in journalism contribute to the creation of these novels? 

A: I wound up my career as an adjunct professor and professional fellow at the Canadian Centre for Studies in Publishing at Simon Fraser University. I developed and taught Topics in Publishing Management for the Master of Publishing program from 1994 to 2005.

I had worked in the publishing industry in England, Canada, the United States, and Italy and as a consultant in Indonesia, China, Canada, Italy, and the United States….In February 2001, I was given the SFU Chancellor’s Distinguished Service Award for contributions to the University and the Canadian publishing industry.

In journalism, I graduated from the School of Modern Languages at the Regent Street Polytechnic in London — after five years as a pilot in the Royal Air Force.

In 1953 I became a reporter, then news editor at the Weekly Post series of newspapers in Ruislip, Harrow, Hayes, and Heathrow Airport. Editions all published north of London. I emigrated to Canada with my Canadian wife, Peg, who had been in England to witness the coronation of Queen Elizabeth ll.

I worked, first at the Kingston Whig Standard as the “swing man” (it was a six-day newspaper and had a five-day work week). On my swing days, I covered the accident beat, the municipal council meetings, board of education affairs, the chamber of commerce, obituaries, and all kinds of special assignment, amateur theatre, art shows, concerts and so forth.

From there I went to the Peterborough Examiner as associate editor; then editor in the ‘60s when Robertson Davies went to be Master of Massey College at the University of Toronto. I was awarded the Nieman Fellowship for Canadian journalists in 1965-66 and later in that year I was awarded the National Newspaper award for editorial writing.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from these books?
A: I wrote them, in the first place, to show the family that I was not non compos mentis in my old age (I’m 86 this year) and never thought they would ever be commercially published. I’m waiting to see if, in the unlikely event that they are reviewed by anyone, what the market says people might take away from reading them.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: For several years, I have been preoccupied with the failing health and surgical interventions, of and for, dear Peg, my wife. Her demise last September severely distressed our four progeny and myself, of course. 

She was described by family and friends as “gracious,” “warming,” “kind,” “above the norm,” “bastion of a happy family,” “an extraordinary woman” with “a great and mischievous sense of humour.”

She, who had typed my first unpublished novel (The Ape and the Peacock) more than 50 years ago while looking after the household and raising four kids, kept my nose on the computer keyboard. You can tell that her untimely loss was devastating to us all.

During this sad time, I put everything else aside to help take care of her and look after the household.

Will I now get down to the “abuse of the aged” as another Fabufestan Exposé? Who knows. We shall see…

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

May 30

May 30, 1901: Cornelia Otis Skinner born.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Q&A with Jennifer Ring

Q: You describe the U.S. national women’s baseball team as “one of the best kept secrets in American sports.” Why does women’s baseball have such a low profile in this country, and how does it compare with other countries?

A: It’s almost beyond low profile. People prefer not to think it exists. When we hear about women’s baseball, it’s one celebrity girl like Mo’ne Davis. She appears, she can play with the boys, people lose interest, and she disappears.

Q: Has this been going on for a long time?

A: My other book, Stolen Bases: Why American Girls Don’t Play Baseball, traces women’s baseball to 13th century England, where milkmaids invented the game. It was related to children’s games boys and girls played together. When it came to this country in the 19th century, everybody fell in love with it. There have always been a couple of [female] professional teams through the last two centuries.

In Stolen Bases I argue that baseball became associated with the national identity at the turn of the 20th century, and it was regarded as a vigorous masculine sport. Albert Spalding did a lot to promote it throughout the world. I think it had to do with the historical era—baseball as the American national pastime had to be manly.

Selling baseball as a totally masculine sport has required continual coverups because girls have always played. It’s not like American football where you have to be an enormous person to play. I think there is so much resistance to acknowledging that girls have played…even to the point of suppressing it when it becomes visible, is because girls can play. You don’t have to be as big as Barry Bonds or Pedro Sandoval to play. So the “national sport” is not as “essentially masculine” as some would like it to be.

The association of masculinity with American baseball began with an origins myth: Albert Spalding called a commission together in the late 1890s precisely to establish that baseball was entirely of American and masculine origins. He would accept no other version of the game’s origins, and certainly not the truth, that it was derived from a game that was both English and feminine.

His commission came up with the fiction that baseball was invented in 1839 by Abner Doubleday, a friend of Spalding’s, and an Army general who had fought in the Civil War and the Mexican War. Doubleday did not invent baseball, and he never claimed to have. But the story stuck in the American imagination, much like the myth of George Washington and the cherry tree, and helped to enforce the image of baseball as a boys’ and men’s pastime, invented by a soldier.…

In the 20th century, softball was invented, by men, in Chicago and Minneapolis, so they could play indoors in winter. But it was so much fun, they moved it outdoors. The men who invented and loved softball called it derogatory feminine names, to distinguish it from the “real” and masculine sport of baseball. They called softball “Sissy Ball,” “Nancy Ball,” Panty Waist” and the like.

When, in the 1930s American educators decided that mild physical exercise was healthy for girls, they named the game softball, and declared it to be “girls’ baseball,” a milder and less strenuous form of the manly American game.

After Title IX in the 1970s, there were all sorts of cultural barriers and psychological rationalizations created about why the sexes should be separate in sports…and although it is technically “legal” for girls to play baseball, with boys and on their own teams, by now softball has evolved into a serious sport, and girls are not given a choice about whether they want to play softball or baseball. The social pressure to play softball, along with the allure of collegiate scholarships for softball, keeps most girls playing that game.

Q: Do you think this pattern you describe of girls being pushed into softball rather than baseball will continue?

A: Girls are going to have to demand baseball, if that’s what they want to play. And I think they will. A few years ago I was more pessimistic. Even USA Baseball decided -- and I hope it’s a temporary decision—to try to recruit softball players to play on the USA Baseball Women’s National Team, because it’s so hard to find girls who play baseball at an elite level in this country.

But I also know that there is a whole groundswell of little girls and teenagers who want to play baseball, and I’ve been reading that the recent celebrity of Mo’ne Davis has encouraged many more little girls to sign up for Little League Baseball. I hope they stick with it. I have confidence that with each generation, it will be harder to tell girls they can’t play the game.

People say, Do you think a girl can make it to the major leagues? I am confident there is some girl [who can]—but that’s beside the point. How come we’re not letting girls play a great sport?

Q: I was going to ask you about your daughter, who you feature among the women baseball players in the book. Do you think her experiences mirror those of other talented women players?

A: Of the 11 women I interviewed in oral histories for the book, they’re such a diverse group if you look at them demographically. There are at least two generations—some are in their late teens and some in their early 40s. The generation they belong to made a difference in their baseball experience. The way I organized the book is by age and whether they played baseball or softball.

The younger ones had an easier time saying they don’t want to play softball. Still, very few didn’t have another collegiate sport. Malaika Underwood got a scholarship playing volleyball, which she didn’t like as much. Now she’s returned to baseball. Marti Sementelli and Meggie Meidlinger are pitchers. It’s easier to be a pitcher if you want to play with boys.

The unique challenges that Lilly faced really had to do with the fact that she’s left-handed and didn’t want to be a pitcher. She pitched in high school, and if you’re a left-hander, you either have to pitch, or be very tall and play first base (and she’s not that tall), or be an outfielder, where you need to have as strong an arm, and be able to run as fast, as a boy, so she faced more challenges.

By and large, all the women came up against a glass ceiling when they were 12 or younger, and they were told to play softball. Some did, and some didn’t. There wasn’t one who said, I love softball equally. Some went to softball, and had a good experience, but all of them said they loved baseball more.

Q: Getting back to an earlier question, how does the situation here compare with that in other countries?

A: It’s much worse [here]. It’s terrible. When there are tournaments, it’s the U.S., Japan, Australia, and Canada—those are the four top teams in the world. But Japan, Canada and Australia all have girls’ baseball from early childhood through high school, and for college-age girls.

So the girls don’t have this softball detour to contend with, if they prefer to play baseball. Girls play with boys when they’re children, and in adolescence, they have a choice about whether to play on all-girl teams, or mixed-sex teams.

When International Women’s Baseball was started in 2001, by a couple of American men and some men who were involved with Japanese women’s baseball, ultimately USA Baseball had to be the one to field a women’s team, because there was a venue for an American team, and that is USA Baseball’s job. It is in their charter that USA Baseball has to sponsor a team if there is international baseball competition for women.

So they put together a national team for the first time in 2004, but there still is no real feeder system or infrastructure to channel baseball-playing girls up through the ranks to USA Baseball.

Girls try to stay in the game, and they end up with the national team, but there’s no institutions in place to consistently develop players. That’s not the case in any of the other three major powers. Japan has girls’ baseball all through school and college. Girls in Japan have a choice to play on their own teams or with boys.

It’s the same in Canada and Australia. They’re sponsored. In Canada and Australia, each state or province has its own team and championships. Softball is not such a big deal there.

We have great young women athletes, but we don’t have a lot of great baseball players. The U.S. struggles in international competitions—the athletes don’t have access to baseball.

I would like to see a model where the U.S. is more like Japan, Canada, and Australia, where baseball is available to girls. Every single one of the women I interviewed said she would rather not have had the pressure of being the only girl on a boys’ team.

I do think there’s more of a grassroots movement now, but we don’t need those gimmick teams. The Colorado Silver Bullets in the 1990s were really good, but they were sponsored by Coors beer and [only lasted] three years, until the promotion was over.

Still, the players and coaches took the team seriously, and they were great baseball players…and they were highly visible – on television, where a lot of little girls saw them and were inspired to be like them.

If you want to see the national pastime develop for the other half of the population, you need baseball opportunities for little girls all the way through college.

Q: Are you working on another book now?

A: Not at the moment. This was an intensely emotional experience for me to write; I’m so close to the players. I’m still teaching at the University of Nevada. My hunch is that I will do some exploring and try to write a book about girls’ and women’s baseball in the other three countries. There’s also a lot of women’s baseball in [Latin America].

Q: It’s a fascinating subject. You definitely see fewer and fewer girls on teams as kids get older.

A: You take the celebrity du jour. Mo’ne Davis doesn’t want to continue with baseball. She wants to go to basketball—she wants a scholarship and she can play in the WNBA.

Girls, by the time they’re 8 or 9 years old, are aware they’re playing with boys. They get some flak, and the flak builds up. By the time they’re 12 years old and Little League ends, they’re completely embattled…they do get chased out. It takes a lot for a pre-adolescent girl to have the confidence and be willing to be that exceptional.

Q: Is there anything else about the book that we should know?

A: The hard part is the fact that USA Baseball and playing for the national team is the greatest honor that a girl baseball player can have…But it’s real hard to find girls who are the best.

[The idea that] softball is the same sport is discouraging to the girls who love baseball. If we want a great women’s national team, we have to recognize that getting great at baseball takes a lifetime. It’s such a wonderfully complicated sport. The girls are out there who want to play, and we need to make it possible for them to continue without a foray into softball in their adolescence.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

May 29

May 29, 1935: Andre Brink born.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Q&A with Ellen McCarthy

Ellen McCarthy, photo by Marvin Joseph
Ellen McCarthy is the author of the new book The Real Thing: Lessons on Love and Life from a Wedding Reporter's Notebook. She is a feature writer for The Washington Post who has covered many weddings over the years, and she lives in Washington, D.C.

Q: Why did you decide to write a book based on your experiences as a wedding reporter, and what does the book’s title signify for you?

A: I went through a breakup on the same day I was hired to become The Post's wedding reporter -- and of course I was 30 at the time.

During my four years on the beat I went through all the stages of romance -- heartbreak, healing, dating, commitment and finally marriage. Through it all, the people I was interviewing -- more than 200 couples and scores of experts -- were profoundly shaping my approach to relationships.

By the end I had gathered this amazing collection of insights from actual couples and from the scientific community about what makes love works. It had a huge impact on my own life and I felt a real sense of obligation to pass along the gift I'd been given. 

To me, The Real Thing has a double meaning. We're all looking for "the real thing," the person with whom we want to build a life. But this book is also meant to talk about the real thing when it comes to relationships -- not just the fairy tales we find in movies. 

Q: You mix in your own personal experiences with those of other people. How did you decide on the right blend of the personal and the journalistic?

A: I had real reservations about writing about myself. But I needed readers to know that I was a reliable, honest guide through this territory.

Relationship books often fall into two categories -- those that promise some quick solution to all your problems and those that are too wonky and dry to get through.

I wanted this book to contain all the pieces of information that I found valuable and to convey them in a way that was entertaining and fun. That's why the lessons are told through the stories of couples I met, with my own experiences thrown in for good measure. 

Q: You write, “My husband always laughs when people refer to me as a relationship expert.” Would you consider yourself one, and what are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned from wedding reporting?

A: I'm a journalist. And for four years I intently studied relationships for a living. So I suppose that makes me an expert in the same way a science writer or war correspondent would be considered an expert on their particular area of coverage. 

I think the single most important lesson I took away was that we can learn to be good at love. And that maybe we have to learn in order to be good at love and to increase our chances of having a successful relationship.

That's a big departure from our current cultural perspective on love -- that it comes in a lightning strike and that, as long as we've found the right person, everything else magically falls into place. We hate to think this stuff isn't intuitive, or that we might need a helping hand along the way. But I think that stance is doing all of us a real disservice. 

Q: Among the many couples you interviewed, have there been some particular favorites?

A: You can't make me choose! You know I love them all the same. I met so many amazing pairs -- couples who'd been together for 60 years or more, couples who'd only met a few times before getting engaged.

I covered a pagan wedding on Halloween and the vows of spiritual healers who claimed to have reached full enlightenment. I wrote about a soldier who lost both his legs in Iraq and then fell in love with a pretty hospital volunteer. Another couple married even as one of them grew weak with stage four lung cancer. The list is long. 

It always felt like a great privilege to be trusted with these stories -- stories that were among the most intimate and important of any person's life. And that I knew would be passed down and absorbed into family histories.

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: I'm a feature writer for the Style section of The Post and write a recurring column called "This Life," which is about "the extraordinary lives of ordinary people."

It's an opportunity for us to stop and really hear the tales of the people we sit next to on the bus or hurry past in the grocery story. The idea is that we all have something to teach each other -- we just have to pause long enough to listen.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The great Kelly Corrigan described The Real Thing as a field guide to relationships. I really like that. It's a light book that can be picked up and put down, but I think it has something to offer people at any stage. The lessons I collected deeply shaped my own life and I'm just grateful for the chance to share them with readers. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

May 28

May 28, 1908: Ian Fleming born.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Q&A with Attica Locke

Attica Locke is the author of the new novel Pleasantville. She also has written Black Water Rising and The Cutting Season, and she is a coproducer and writer for the hit television show Empire. A Houston native, she lives in Los Angeles.

Q: Why did you decide to bring back your character Jay Porter in your new book, and why did you set it in the mid-1990s?

A: It was never my intent to bring Jay back. But when my father ran for mayor [of Houston] in 2009, and I got involved in the campaign, I had the strangest sensation of being back inside the world of Black Water Rising, only three decades later. I knew kind of immediately that it was a book, but I was terrified of writing Jay again. 

But when I knew Pleasantville was going to further the exploration of race and politics on the other side of the civil rights movement (which I'd started with the first book), I knew Jay was the person through which to tell this story. 

I set the book in 1996 because it was one year after the Houston Post folded, making Houston the first major American city to go down to one newspaper. As a vibrant press is major part of what makes any democracy work, I was curious what that first election with one newspaper looked like.

Q: Can you say more about how your father’s campaign influenced your decision to write about a mayoral race in Pleasantville?

A: I would never have written the book if I hadn't gotten such a behind the scenes look at the bloodthirsty sport of campaigning. A lot of the dirty tricks in the book I witnessed first hand in 2009. 

And I only discovered the neighborhood of Pleasantville and its stories history because of my dad's campaign, because no one in Houston gets elected without Pleasantville. The history of the neighborhood is featured all throughout the book.

Q: Which authors have influenced you?

A: J. California Cooper, Pete Dexter, Larry Brown, Toni Morrison, Harper Lee.

Q: How do you see your work on Empire complementing your writing of novels?

A: I don't yet. I had already written Pleasantville when I started work on season one of the show. I won't know how Cookie and Lucious and the rest of the Lyons might influence my novel-writing until I write the next one.

Q: Are you working on another book?

A: Not right now. The show takes up all of my time at the moment.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I'm proud of all of my books for different reasons, but Pleasantville is the most ambitious book I've written, and it means a lot to me.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

May 27

May 27, 1907: Rachel Carson born.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Q&A with Dina Gold

Dina Gold is the author of the new book Stolen Legacy: Nazi Theft and the Quest for Justice at Krausenstrasse 17/18, Berlin. She is a senior editor at Moment magazine, and worked as a reporter and producer for the BBC. Born in London, she now lives in Washington, D.C.

Q: You write that as a child you would hear stories from your grandmother about the building in Berlin your family had owned. What ultimately made you decide to search for that building?

A: I really loved my grandmother Nellie. She would weave wonderful stories of her life in Berlin before Hitler came to power that were very tantalizing to a young girl. Nellie’s daughter, my mother, had also enjoyed a luxurious lifestyle up to the age of 11.

My mother always discounted Nellie’s stories, saying she was a fantasist, was probably mistaken about the family ever actually owning the building and we should look to the future, not the past.  I had a very different attitude.  Yes, Nellie might have been wrong but perhaps she wasn’t.  I absolutely had to find out!

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, my parents were totally set against my starting a restitution claim. Nellie had died 12 years earlier, leaving no documents or photographs relating to the building, not even its address.

My father would say: “You can't fight the German government, forget it.” The only person who supported me was my husband, Simon.

Q: How did you feel when you started doing some research and realized your grandmother’s stories could be true?

A: It was exciting and gratifying that my hunch seemed to be right - Nellie had not been telling fairy stories. I couldn’t give up now!

I found the building in what had been the Soviet sector, just behind the Berlin Wall, two blocks from Checkpoint Charlie.

It might sound like an exaggeration to say that I was driven by “the burden of history…” but actually it is not. The Holocaust was a heinous act of genocide aimed at exterminating Europe’s Jews and murdering millions of people was an incomparably greater crime than the wholesale theft of people’s property.  

But just as the movie Woman in Gold is about the fight to reclaim a Klimt painting, Stolen Legacy is my contribution to the history of Nazi robbery.

Q: How long did your effort take to obtain restitution?

A: The case was settled in January 1996. In round terms it took five years. It felt like a drawn out process at the time, but it actually was not that long although German bureaucrats put up many obstacles.

H. Wolff brochure
Q: What surprised you most as you learned more about your family?

A: During the investigation for the claim, I discovered just how successful the international H. Wolff fur company had been. 

The family had tried desperately hard to hold onto the building, which had been the company headquarters. The paperwork I found revealed exactly what had happened, the process of the forced sale to the Reichsbahn (German railways), how the property had been used during the war and what the Communists did with the building when it was inside the territory of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany).

Q: In addition to the historical aspects of the story, this is a very personal book. How did you balance your roles as journalist and family member as you worked on the book?

A: It’s interesting you ask that because a colleague who read the draft said to me, “I would have written the story with much more emotion.” But I am not like that. Being gushing and sentimental is not my style. I’m trained as a journalist and to a large extent I have to put my feelings to one side.

By the time I came to write Stolen Legacy, it was several years after the claim was settled. However, I was haunted by the terrible discoveries I made last summer while doing research into the fates of some of the people I wrote about. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and other, newly opened, archives in Eastern Europe have a wealth of fresh material for historians.    

The Wolff family was comparatively fortunate. Not everyone in the family survived, but my grandparents, my mother and her two siblings did. I never forget that the theft of a building cannot be compared with losing family, friends and indeed entire communities.

Q: At what point did you decide to write a book about your family’s experiences?

A: I kept talking about it all through the claim. But I had a full-time job at the BBC, and three young children. Simon was working for the Financial Times and traveling extensively. I was too busy, and I just couldn’t do it.

What prompted me was that, in 2008, I left the BBC and came to the USA on a green card because my husband had been offered a job in Washington, D.C. There was a limit to how much I could clean the house and do laundry! I needed something to do.

I had brought all the case papers over. Simon said “the children need to know their family history, so sit down and write,” and that is what I did. A friend, who is a literary agent, kept asking me to show her my draft.  She really liked the story. And that is how ABA’s new imprint, Ankerwycke Books, came to publish Stolen Legacy.
H. Wolff advertisement
Q: Anything else we should know?

A: This is not just a history. Stolen Legacy has ramifications right up to the present day. There are some revelations that could prove quite embarrassing to German institutions and even the federal government. 

I found a very prestigious German university with a Stiftung (foundation) named after the chairman of the insurance company that foreclosed on the building in 1937. The mortgage had been withdrawn and the building handed straight to the Reichsbahn. I have found out what an inglorious past this man had. Two years ago I contacted the university for an explanation… and I am still waiting.

I have tried to get a plaque placed on the building, denoting it was forcibly taken from its Jewish owners. In December 2013, on behalf of then Transport Minister Dr. Peter Ramsauer, an official e-mailed me: “I’ll arrange for the plaque to be produced and affixed to the office building.” To date nothing has happened. 

If there are any new developments I will post them on my website:

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Dina Gold is my distant relative, through our mutual cousins.

May 27

May 27, 1925: Tony Hillerman born.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Q&A with William Hackman

William Hackman is the author of the new book Out of Sight: The Los Angeles Art Scene of the Sixties. He also has written Los Angeles County Museum of Art and co-edited Inside the Getty. A former managing editor of the J. Paul Getty Trust, his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune. He lives in Los Angeles. 

Q: Why did you decide to write this book about the Los Angeles art scene in the 1960s?

A: This is a book I had thought about writing for a very long time. I first encountered art in Los Angeles when I moved to the city as a 14-year-old in the late ‘60s. I attended shows at the now defunct Pasadena Art Museum, which was then the area’s modern art museum. I later met artists who had been part of the ‘60s scene in L.A.

In the ‘70s, I also met Walter Hopps, who had been the prime mover of the events I write about. I was also fascinated by Hopps, as were most people who met him, I think; he had already assumed legendary status in some circles.

I was extremely taken with much of the L.A. art I had seen—with the assemblages of Wallace Berman and Ed Kienholz; the paintings of Ed Ruscha and Joe Goode; the mirrored glass boxes of Larry Bell and the floating discs of Robert Irwin—and I was struck by the fact that none of it seemed to find its way into any of the books I was reading when I got to college and grad school or into any of the museums I visited in New York.

I wrote some magazine articles on the subject in the 1980s, and in the early 1990s I received a sabbatical from my job as managing editor at the J. Paul Getty Trust.

Both of those early efforts were extremely useful to me later; I interviewed key figures and dug around in archives, turning up a few buried treasures. Some of the material I wrote during those years survives in the present book, although much of it has been reworked. In the late 2000s, I decided to focus on the book full-time.

Q: How did New York and Los Angeles compare in terms of their cultural offerings during the period leading up to the 1960s?

A: It was night and day. New York had been the cultural capital of the U.S. since the turn of the 20th century, and artists from other parts of the country gravitated to the city. (Indeed, it’s worth noting that some of the key figures of the so-called New York School had actually grown up in California: Jackson Pollock, Philip Guston, and Robert Motherwell, who coined the term “New York School,” were only the most famous.)

The arrival of important European artists during World War II made New York the global capital of 20th-century art, a role that had previously been played by Paris. It was home to an unparalleled array of major art museums.

And it was the center of American publishing: the most important writing about art was coming out of the dozens of periodicals that were published in New York in the mid-20th century.

Los Angeles, by contrast, had virtually nothing. It was the only American city of its size without an art museum. The Los Angeles County Museum officially had an art division, but until the ‘40s it had been very much treated as an afterthought. The galleries were left empty for many years; it went without a curator for a full decade.

Exhibitions were mainly the responsibility of outside clubs—the society of watercolorists, for example, or of photographers. The new county art museum wouldn’t open its doors until 1965.

Nor did the city have any important galleries. In the immediate aftermath of the war, there were two galleries of note that offered modern art. One or two others emerged by the late ‘40s and early ‘50s. They were decent galleries, but still not very adventuresome. They didn’t dare get ahead of their clientele.

There wasn’t much in the way of criticism either. A dutiful weekly column in the Los Angeles Times was about it.

All in all, L.A. was very much a cultural backwater until the ‘50s. That’s when Water Hopps started to organize exhibitions and open galleries with various friends. Pretty soon he was also mentoring a generation of young collectors who could help sustain the local artists and galleries.

Hopps had had the good fortune as a teenager to meet the collectors Walter and Louise Arensberg. The Arensbergs had one of the world’s best collections of early 20th-century modernist art, which they had started to assemble after the 1913 Armory Show in New York.

They moved to L.A. in the 1920s. Their chief advisor was Marcel Duchamp, and the young Hopps met Duchamp at the Arensberg residence. Hopps did one year of pre-med at Stanford, but dropped out and devoted the rest of his life to modern art.

A lot of the people in Hopps’s circle had been on the fringes of the emerging, Beat-era bohemia in L.A. and San Francisco. One of the most important things Hopps did was bring all of these artists and together.

Q: You ask, “What took so long?” of the art scene in Los Angeles. How would you answer that question?

A: Los Angeles was different from most American and European cities. The main differences had to do with geography and demographics, as well as the peculiar way the city and region functioned politically and economically.

Most modern cities followed a fairly predictable pattern of growth: Large populations were concentrated in neighborhoods organized mainly on the basis of class; growth typically comprised an ever-expanding ring of concentric circles as the population grew.

And the economic engines that drove that growth were usually industrial and commercial. Immigrants arrived in the city in search of economic opportunity and settled in working-class neighborhoods, from which they aspired to move up and out into the more desirable suburbs.

In the early years of Los Angeles, by contrast, immigrants were not fleeing poverty or oppression. They tended to be small-town Midwesterners lured West by visions of the “good life,” a vision that was encouraged by L.A.’s chamber-of-commerce types.

And as the historian Carey McWilliams put it, the new arrivals did not want tenements; they wanted villages. They settled in lightly populated neighborhoods that recreated their experiences in small Midwestern towns. All of that was possible in part because agriculture was the largest segment of the region’s economy as late as the start of World War II.

The population of early 20th-century Los Angeles was thus very conservative, with little interest in the trappings of modern urban life. They weren’t interested in creating a great city or in forging a civic identity; they looked inward, to their “villages” and to their own prosperity. Art, especially modern art, was simply one more symptom of a world they found alien and unhealthy.

It was only in the postwar period that all of that began to change. California was widely hailed as the place where America’s future had already arrived. The population soared, thanks in part to the GI Bill and a new wave of immigration from eastern cities. California became the nation’s most populous state in 1962.

Industry, above all aerospace and electronics, overtook agriculture, radically changing the landscape and requiring a highly educated work force, supplied in part by the University of California system. The new middle-class suburbs grew more crowded, and they were now connected to one another by the freeway system that was built in the postwar era.

One of the tensions I try to explore in the book is the push and pull between the still prominent forces of conservatism in the region and the increasingly powerful forces of growth and change.

Politically, the California Republican Party was still quite powerful well into the ‘60s, providing a bastion of support for the presidential campaigns of Goldwater, Nixon, and Reagan.

But the predominantly Jewish Westside of Los Angeles became an equally influential source of liberalism in the postwar decades. That was part of what attracted the 1960s Democratic Party convention to the city.  The L.A. that finally emerged, and that is the city we know today, was a far more liberal and cosmopolitan one than had existed before the war.

Q: How would you describe the art world in Los Angeles today, and what’s the legacy of the 1960s period?

A: The L.A. art world today is larger than the ‘60s scene by several orders of magnitude. Los Angeles has numerous art museums today, and many of them focus on modern and contemporary art.

A significant turning point came in the 1980s, with the founding of the Museum of Contemporary Art and the J. Paul Getty Trust. But the origins of MOCA can be traced quite directly back to the ‘60s scene and, indeed, to Walter Hopps.

Hopps taught many of the most important collectors to emerge in 1960s Los Angeles, and those same collectors were among the founders of MOCA, which emerged in the wake of the Pasadena Art Museum.

That latter museum, which Hopps had helped put on the map in the ‘60s, collapsed under a heavy burden of debt in the ‘70s. Norton Simon assumed control in the mid-‘70s and installed his exceptional collection of European Old Masters, Impressionism, and Asian art.

The Getty as we know it today was born in the early ‘80s, and while the museum is identified with older European art, its sibling research institute devotes much of its energy to more recent work. It has been important to local scholars as well as the general public.

The Hammer Museum is another one that started off as an institution devoted to older art, but it has emerged as one of the most vital centers of contemporary art in Los Angeles today.

Aside from the museums, Los Angeles is home to dozens of important commercial galleries, with a notable concentration in Culver City, on the Westside, and in the light industrial stretches on the eastern edge of downtown.

Most interesting, I think, is the fact that artists with international reputations and markets now choose to make their homes in L.A. Forty or fifty years ago, many artists left L.A. because they felt they needed to be in New York if they wanted to have serious careers. Today there is no stigma associated with being an L.A.-based artist. An artist can live and work in L.A. and have a successful career.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m in the early, exploration stages on a couple of projects. One is directly related to material I touch on in Out of Sight; the other, somewhat less so, although there are thematic connections that might not at first be obvious.

By that I mean that I continue to be fascinated by the “urban history of art,” but I’m currently intrigued by different time and place—specifically early 20th-century Berlin. At this point I’m just trying to figure out whether I can lay my hands on the sorts of archival resources I would need to move forward on this project, but the Germans have always been excellent record-keepers, so I think the chances are good.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: My interest is not art history or criticism per se; I think of my work as a form of intellectual and cultural history. I’m interested in the role art plays in the larger social context of its particular time and place—how the response to modern art, whether favorable or not, reflects a broader response to modernity in general.

I’m therefore interested not just in artists but in the wider public as well and in the institutions in which the public encounters art—museums, galleries, etc.

In Out of Sight, for instance, I was fascinated by the role of the Beat-era bohemia in shaping the early Hopps circle; the institutional politics of museums and the public’s reaction to crises at the museums; and the eventual failure of the gallery scene that had seemed to flourish for a brief moment in mid-‘60s Los Angeles.

On the other hand, I’m not attracted to theories that reduce art to some form of “cultural capital” and fail to account for what is genuinely compelling about particular works or artistic developments. For me, the real challenge was to strike the right balance between understanding the art and understanding the city.

Above all, I would emphasize that I write for a general, albeit well educated, readership, not for specialists. I abandoned academe for journalism in the 1980s because I wanted to reach a broader audience, and that remains my highest priority as a writer.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb