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The Columnist

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Chapter OneMy
father, as he lay dying, was astounded when I told him that I was
writing a memoir, with its claims on the tradition of a
Bildungsroman, and perhaps he was right to be skeptical.
What is ordinarily wanted from someone like me are observations
about consequential people, and certainly I have my impressions of
famous men and women, and how it was to be quite near them for a
time. I will get to that. But there are other matters that need
explanation, wounds that still require stitches.
in my study on a bright day in October at the end of the century.
On my shelves are the mementos that one collects (photographs,
prizes); I'm surrounded by books, most of them history and
biography (the important David McCullough), along with a smattering
of excellent fiction. I began to jot down my recollections after a
conversation with George Bush the elder, at a cocktail party in the
home of a wise Cabinet officer, one of those happy occasions when
everything is "off the record," when we're Americans first and
antagonists second.
"I've always thought that you tried to be fair, Brandon," Bush
said, chuckling gamely. "Not that you weren't tough, but you always
put your country first."
nodded with gratitude and, as a white-jacketed black man passed us
with a pewter tray, reached for a spinach quiche the size of a
half-dollar. The former President looked lank and fit. As we spoke,
I sensed that others close by were trying to overhear, perhaps in
the hope of learning yet another detail about matters of which I've
never spoken publicly. I disappointed them.
"You've had an interesting life," Bush continued. "I was
talking about this only the other day with Bar, and we were saying
that Brandon Sladder must know everyone who matters. We never
missed your column. Of course, you guys in the media get the last
it was my turn to chuckle, for it is a commonly held view that we
have that advantage.
"I've been lucky, Mr. President," I said, and saw that he was
pleased at the honorific. Over the years, I've discovered that
people enjoy hearing their titles: Mr. Ambassador, Senator,
"It's more than that," said Bush, and he gave me a warm look.
"You've been there, Brandon. You were there when I met Mr.
Gorbachev, but you were there when Kennedy sat in my favorite
knew Jack Kennedy, of course, and supposed that I had a story or
two to tell about him. But I knew Jack only slightly; he belonged
to another era -- to men like Joe Alsop and Scotty Reston. I
quickly corrected the former President on that score.
still ought to write it down, Brandon," Bush continued and he
patted me softly on my right shoulder, letting his fingers linger
there for an extra, affectionate second. "Don't hold back," he
few minutes later, I spoke to our host. We'd known each other for
years, and he looked at me with enormous sympathy as he told me
about an important policy change toward another of those hostile
little nations that remind one of poisonous insects. By this time,
though, my thoughts were elsewhere -- on my next column, of course
(I permitted myself a quick, private tour d'horizon), and
what I'd say on my television appearance that very evening. As I
drove to the studio, I found myself haunted by the former
President's suggestion that I could add considerably more than a
footnote to a chronicle of our time.
the spirit of a Bildungsroman, I may as well begin in the
fall of 1957, when I was eighteen and enrolled at Darleigh College
(founded in 1799 in the leafy village of Old Drake, Massachusetts).
Even as a young man, I was frustrated at the smallness of my
surroundings and a shortage of serious people. Compared to Buffalo,
my birthplace, Old Drake was a backwater.

got off to a particularly bad start in my freshman year, when it
was my misfortune to get a roommate whose personal habits were
cloddish. The large and hairy George Kipler III -- his few friends
called him "Kip" -- refused for weeks to bathe, or spray, and had a
habit of cackling suddenly and announcing that he'd "cut the
cheese." That was bad enough, and I pleaded with him to reform; but
as that first year progressed, Kip flouted the rules and began to
bring his girlfriend into our small quarters. Soon enough, they
became unbearable. His friend, who had an unforgettable red pimple
on her buttocks and asymmetrical breasts, paraded about, although I
tried not to notice, and the two of them made it clear, as they
ground together beneath his spotted pink blanket, that they wanted
to be alone. I warned them several times that my studies came
first; and when I reluctantly acted in my own best interest and
reported their behavior, the consequences were severe. Kip and his
friend were suspended, and decided to transfer to more permissive
schools. Of course, I paid a severe price, too; Kip urinated on my
clothing, and many Darleigh students, who heard about the episode,
ostracized me for doing what I thought was right. This was my first
real experience with strangers who unaccountably wanted to hurt

In my sophomore year, I was living in relative isolation, and
perhaps that is what took me away from my studies and toward
something new -- the Drakonian, the college's weekly
newspaper. I was not a good athlete, although I've always been
drawn to sports for their metaphorical richness. I tried to join
the drama club, but I was blocked, or so I was told, by an
acquaintance of Kip's; and Kipist forces also blackballed me in
every fraternity, even the one that admitted outcasts. The
Drakonian, though, slowly welcomed me, and for the first time at
Darleigh, I felt a sense of belonging and purpose; I spent hours in
the paper's soiled basement offices, tapping out stories on the
keys of a gray Underwood with a sticking K, and much of my junior
year passed by there. I cannot say that I respected most of my
associates; in truth, I became numb with boredom when one of them
brought up yet another issue of alleged interest to our school. But
a few of us were excited by the world beyond Old Drake, and I felt
this especially with Carol Ann Margolies, a Jewish girl who wore a
J.F.K. button in the middle of her blue cashmere sweater. Carol Ann
was not only a gifted reporter, but had a probing intellect; I
itched to become closer to her.

the time our senior year began, in the fall of 1960, Carol Ann and
I shared a similar contempt for what T. S. Eliot once called the
"confused cries of the newspaper critics and the susurrus of
population repetition that follows." I recall particularly the
night that a dozen or so of us got together in our darkish
"newsroom" and watched Kennedy debate Nixon as we chewed on slivers
of an immense pizza covered by pepperoni, sausage, and anchovies.
When the hour was over, and our group had dispersed, only Carol Ann
and myself were left, lingering on the couch, four or five curled
slices of cold pizza lying in the box. As I remember, we sat
silently for a while, and as I watched the button winking from her
sweater, I had a sudden impulse: Although endorsing a candidate
would breach generations of Drakonian tradition, I wanted to
support Jack Kennedy.
Carol Ann's lips twitched, for she was far more nervous than I
at taking such a step without consulting the others. I remember
that as we sat together on a bench and I typed, my arm would now
and then brush against her cashmere sweater. I do not think this
was intentional on either her part or mine, but as I wrote words
I've since forgotten (now and then smacking the flawed Underwood,
with its K-less ennedys), I felt aroused and guessed, from Carol
Ann's breathing, that her plumpish body was affected, too. It was
my first experience of this sort (her panties were ripped in our
heated hurrying), and it was an ironical coincidence that this
occurred on the day of my debut column.
surprisingly, several on the Drakonian staff protested; some
went so far as to insist that I resign or they would. I believe
that I was right to stand my ground, although I wish the others
hadn't quit in such a snit. Had I left, I could not have given
myself a column. Had I not done that, I would not have discovered
at such an early age the heady rewards of writing one.
family lived in Buffalo, sooty and robust in the days of my serene
childhood in the late forties and early fifties. My father was a
successful insurance man and my mother was rarely happy, except
while tending to her garden, which surrounded our comfortable
little house on Cleveland Avenue.
father held strong, favorable opinions about the Democratic Party,
and his plump face would redden when I questioned his judgments
about such men as Averell Harriman and Herbert Lehman, as well as
figures like Joseph Crangle, who helped to run Buffalo; and
sometimes our arguments at dinner became so fevered that he would
leave the table. Still, I respected my father as the sort of
white-collar personage who forms the spine of America. (He lived,
as Max Weber once said, in the belief that "a man does not 'by
nature' wish to earn more and more money, but simply to live as he
is accustomed to live.") My parents were people from whom a kind of
wisdom may be distilled -- that is, if one listens carefully. I
cannot say that I agreed with most of what I heard from my father;
nor, in any case, do I remember very much. But growing up as his
son undoubtedly helped me to become the person I am.
graduated from Darleigh in the spring of 1961 (my senior year
clouded in a haze of sensuality; often, Carol Ann Margolies and I
sat side by side, and found ourselves caught in nature's urgent
grip, shedding garments even as final sentences were composed), and
as soon as I got my diploma, a magna, my father asked what I
intended to do with myself. We'd held similar conversations over
the years, and I had always tried, while being tactful, to make
clear that I had no intention of following his example. When I
mentioned a career in journalism, I saw despair distort his
features, so I quickly went on to explain. "I don't intend to be
the sort who rushes all about and writes about fires and crime," I
said. "I intend to write about the fabric of our time."
father shook his head. "Someday you'll want to marry, to have a
family," he said. "I know one newspaperman, Fred
something-or-other, who bought a whole-life policy from me. I
believe that Fred earns ninety dollars a week."
suppressed a chuckle. "I believe that Mr. Walter Lippmann earns
many times that amount," I replied, and went on to mention several
others who did, too.
father had no good answer at the ready, and said, "You've got big
ideas, Brandon."

father, as I've tried to suggest, had a good heart, but he was not
quite able to comprehend what mattered to someone like me and
frequently repeated his small-minded belief that I had "big ideas."
That was certainly true, but I also understood, as Napoleon said,
that ability is of little account without opportunity. In any case,
I'd heard about an opening at a Buffalo newspaper from a high
school acquaintance (someone who had not gone to college, and
worked in the sports department). It was not a prestigious venue,
but I believed that I would have a chance to learn the "ropes," in
a way that might not have been possible elsewhere.

The Buffalo Vindicator was on Main Street. Carved above the
doorway in Gothic type was the newspaper's name and in the lobby
was a mural forty feet long and fifteen feet high. It contained,
among its many elements, a rendering of Thomas Jefferson reading a
newspaper, alongside Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, doing
likewise. In the background was the great dome of City Hall, and
Lake Erie, and if one looked closely, it was possible to see
countless skillfully painted windows and through them more people
reading more newspapers. It was a sight listed in guidebooks of the
time, and the image has undoubtedly influenced my thinking about
the profession.

city editor, Julius Portino, was, like myself, a native
Buffalonian. He had sleepy brown eyes and soft, drooping bags
beneath them; and he told me that starting reporters got paid
seventy-two dollars a week and were expected to write about fires
and crime. Portino clearly was content to spend a lifetime with the
Vindicator, and to respond to news without trying to
understand its deeper import. I was struck by his utter lack of
had been on the job for two or three months when it occurred to me
that an inordinate number of fires were breaking out and that a
larger story might be lurking behind the many smaller ones.
Portino, however, merely shrugged when I went into his office and
told him this with the fervor of a young reporter. "There are a lot
of frame houses in Buffalo, Brandon," he said, and lighted another
of his many cigarettes. "Some of them burn."
Julius Portino had been drafted after high school and had gone
to Korea, an experience that certainly shaped his view that the
unexamined life is greatly to be preferred. We were, beyond a
doubt, from two different worlds, and I believe that if we had not
disagreed about the fires that kept breaking out around the Queen
City, something else would have led to a clash.
precipitated the break between us was my decision to speak directly
to his superior. Even now, I can visualize Wriston (Chet) Budge,
who had been the newspaper's editor in chief since 1935: with his
shredding unlit cigar, the ashes that made their powdery way down
his unbuttoned vest, and his reddened, gray cheeks, it was as if he
had shaped himself into his idea of a small-town newspaperman. Mr.
Budge had won a Pulitzer Prize for deadline reporting in 1928, when
he was, like myself, a recent Darleigh graduate. I think that this
shared background helped us to forge a bond, although Mr. Budge by
the time we met was in his middle fifties. I had also heard that he
was disappointed at his lot in life, and he often complained that
writing editorials for his Buffalo readers had become an unwelcome
proposed to Mr. Budge that I pen a series of commentaries on the
outbreak of possible arson. There would be no reckless claims (I
stressed the word "possible"), but we would ask for increased
vigilance from the fire department, the police, and the mayor's
office. As I went on, Mr. Budge seemed barely to pay attention, yet
he also seemed overjoyed at the prospect that I would be willing to
jot down my thoughts; and before I'd finished laying out my thesis,
he clapped his hands with enthusiasm. Moments later, he summoned
the city editor to join us.
was horrified at Julius's display of uncontrolled anger,
particularly when he turned to me, in front of Mr. Budge, and said,
"You went over my head, you fuckface sneak." I could not meet his
eyes, nor could I watch the spittle at the corner of his mouth, and
my gaze drifted over to Mr. Budge's Pulitzer citation, which hung
alongside his Darleigh diploma.
told our young friend," Portino said to Mr. Budge, his teeth
quivering, "that he ought to do a few months of reporting before
jumping to ridiculous conclusions." I noticed that his face had
become darker. "But our young friend appears to prefer going behind
my back."
understood how he could have reached that conclusion, but I was
nevertheless stunned. My ambition, after all, was modest: to
examine a puzzling situation, and to put authorities on notice --
trying, in short, to do my job. I did not know what Julius
Portino's private agenda was, or even if he had one (as far as I
knew, his Italian family, although it imported olive oil, was
upright), but his words made me suspect his motives.
"That's a curious statement," I said, looking directly at Mr.
Budge, who looked at his watch.
"Look," Mr. Budge said, "I haven't the time for this, but what
is there to lose, Julius? Why don't you calm down?"

Portino seemed unable to speak. Nor did he say much more to me
during the time that I remained at the Vindicator, although now and
then I thought I heard him mumble curses, and it was clear that he
would always regard me with irrational anger.

There was another reason that I chose to begin my career in
Buffalo: the chance to lodge in my childhood home, which allowed me
to become better acquainted with my parents while setting aside
money that would otherwise have gone for rent. But after six
months, it came to a stop; my mother wept, and it's probably true
that, in my zeal, I might have taken too little heed of others. (In
some ways, my own son has mirrored my conduct of that time; I've
not been able to avoid thinking that a certain portion of just
deserts has been served up.) In my case, there were the usual small
things that widen a family's gulf: Often I was required to use the
car, and it was not always convenient to let my father know in
advance. The telephone sometimes rang at hours that neither my
father nor mother, who kept to a regular schedule, could become
accustomed to.

most regret making use of my father's confidential insurance
records, which contained invaluable data that supported my thesis
on the arson epidemic. To this day, I believe that we had an
implicit understanding, but I can also see that I might have
misread him and might have misjudged the reaction of his former
clients. Those who have wished me ill have ferreted out this
episode and made much of it, as if it revealed something
fundamentally bad about my character. Those who know the facts will
see that it was a terrible misunderstanding, although for my
father, who was dismissed from his job for cause, the consequences
were severe.
did not make many new friends during this time in Buffalo. I had
nothing in common with my former classmate -- the one who worked in
the sports department. His first love was hockey, which bored me,
while mine was baseball: an expanse of greensward excited my
senses, for it promised not only a game, but a representation of
life. At night, I often thought about Carol Ann Margolies, with
whom I'd promised to stay in touch. I remember sending her a
Hanukkah card, and thinking how grateful I was to have learned
about her ancient faith. But life, I have found, is a series of
partings, and regrets; and when one is young, one quickly meets new
people who seem to replace the old ones.
Excerpted from THE COLUMNIST © Copyright 2001 by Jeffery
Frank. Reprinted with permission by Simon and Schuster. All rights

The Columnist
by by Jeffrey Frank

  • Genres: Fiction
  • hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • ISBN-10: 0743212533
  • ISBN-13: 9780743212533