W.P. Norton

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In Anthony Shadid, W.P. Norton on February 23, 2012 at 2:47 pm


“My favorite years in journalism
happened at the Daily Cardinal.”
—Anthony Shadid and W.P. Norton.
From a 1987 Peter Barreras photo.
Feb. 19, 2012 — Anthony Shadid was a whirling dervish of a writer as far back as 1987, when he started reporting for the Daily Cardinal, the student-run newspaper where we served 40,000-something readers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
In his own words, “My favorite years in journalism happened at the Daily Cardinal. I look on those days as incredible, with a lot of nostalgia, with a lot of fondness,” he says in this UW video posted in 2011. “I kind of learned how to be a reporter in those days.”
PLAYING FOR HISTORY: Anthony Shadid (front right) runs the scoreboard as Daily Cardinal staffers cheer the home team to victory in a 1987 basketball grudge-match against opposition paper the Badger Herald. (Left to right): Christina Pretto, Rob Gebeloff, Jon Coifman, Sarah Kershaw, Tom Vanderbilt, Renee Botta, Jim Foti, and W.P. Norton. From a photo by Peter Barreras.
His preternatural reporting powers made me feel the bitterest kind of professional jealousy in the years that followed our respective flights from the Cardinal nest. But those ill feelings vanished in February 2011, when he emailed me a far more courteous note than I had any right to expect in answer to a question I’d asked him about what was already being called the Arab Spring. His message was dated on St. Valentine’s Day — nothing more than a coincidence, of course, but a sweet one nonetheless: we hadn’t talked in 21 years.
Precisely 30 days later, Anthony and three New York Timescolleagues were taken hostage by forces loyal to Libya’s then-dictator. With wide eyes and gritted teeth, several dozen of us former Cardinal colleagues came together on Facebook and other social media. The closed Facebook group now called “Shadid Brigade, Daily Cardinal Division” was where we went to stoke hopes, ease anxieties, and trade whatever news we could scrounge about the fate of our friend.
The Times quartet was dogged by death-threats and beatings, with photographer Lynsey Addario suffering the near-constant degradations of sexually assaultive groping by her guards. The cruelest fate had been suffered by their driver, a local hire who was subject to immediate summary execution on March 15, day one of their ordeal.
We followed the six-day drama through the March 21 finale, when Libya’s then-dictator freed Shadid-plus-three to the custody of diplomatic personnel who shuttled the four across the Turkish border to freedom.
I emailed Anthony to tell him of our joy. There was no theoretical limit to what he might achieve in years to come, I told him. High political office was in his future, if he wanted; maybe even a Nobel Prize, or perhaps the presidency of a university, if he ever chose to take it easy. More Pulitzers (he’d already earned two) would be child’s play.
Indeed, late last year the Times put Anthony up for a third Pulitzer — a rare trifecta in the history of American journalism. There are good reasons to think his name will be on that prize, too. (It transpires that the Pulitzer committee proved me wrong. It is nothing less than criminal that Anthony’s brilliant New York Times reporting on the Arab Spring of 2011 was passed over for that honor.)
Pride trumped envy as I recalled to Anthony how I’d handed him my New York Times campus stringer gig some 24 years before, and strongly endorsed his candidacy for the stellar internship he held at Madison’s longtime powerhouse of an alternative weekly newspaper, Isthmus.
I further stressed that it had never once occurred to me that helping him would make a whit of difference to his career, because I saw his rise to superlative achievement as inevitable even then. Handing off these minor boons to Anthony was something I saw as a matter of public service — the right thing to do for those publications in particular, and for the institution of journalism writ large.
I can only guess how absurd may have been heard the grand effusions of my message to Shadid by its recipient. He was the Mozart of modern journalism, I said; letting himself ever get that close again to such extreme risks as a desert combat situation would be incredibly selfish, would threaten the unforgivable loss of a voice that the world badly needed to hear.
No violation of privacy is being committed, I hope, in quoting Anthony’s emailed reply, which I received on March 29, 2011:
“I read your note twice, and I’m going to keep it, even if it is far too kind. The Cardinal days seem like so long ago, but they really were the place we all became who we are.”
Anthony Shadid died at age 43 on Thursday, Feb. 16, 2012, on assignment for the Times in Syria, reportedly of an asthma attack. Let’s be clear; Anthony would have done the things he did even if I had never been born. But I do treasure the many greatnesses he so freely shared among those of us who had the luck to spend our Daily Cardinal days working with the greatest generation of journalists yet fledged by a newspaper that marks 120 years in business on April 4, 2012.
The sorrows of the moment are eased however slightly by the knowledge that I told him so before that chance was taken from us all.

Ode to Guitar George

In W.P. Norton on February 23, 2012 at 2:44 pm
me and N

G.M. Norton; Afro-Cuban demon mask; the artist as a young man.

When I was 15—before Russia, before Obama, before the internet, before Chapman and the Dakota—when I was 15 me and my father, G.M. Norton, lived for a while in an abandoned sauce factory in Madison, Wis.

They’d long since stopped making the sauce there. And it would be a while before the property would be transformed into the condominiums of the Johnson Building that stands there now on East Washington Avenue, next to the car wash with the big Octopus head.



But it was a building with a couple of floors and the kind of elevator with a heavy mesh cage that you fling open or shut with a crash, and we were there for a couple of strange months in the winter of 1979, and so was Uncle George for part of that time. My honorary Uncle George, that is.


Uncle Guitar George

And it came to pass that on certain nd nights, there we’d be at a table in the former break room of the factory under the fluorescent lights, George and me.

There were cases of cold Huber beer, and Camel filters, and a guitar, and warm-hearted hours of instruction in the classics: the warm, curvaceous and supple notes of the beginning of “Norwegian Wood.” The breathless dextrousness of the rapid-fire blues plunked out of the little finger on “I Feel Fine.”

It seems I played in 15 bands after that, and mainly the bass, because there were many better guitarists in the vicinity at the time.

But in that Madison factory on a cold winter’s night, with Huber and Camels and a beat-up old acoustic held together with duct tape, Guitar George sat across the table and taught me how to coax more than notes from a piece of wood and catgut strings.

So thanks Uncle George, and cheers to you for those times you made the factory feel almost like home.

I happened to be in New York City when George Harrison died in 2001. At dusk I gathered amongst the many hundreds at Strawberry Fields, singing along with the throng while two brave buskers strummed every number in the Fab Four catalog on acoustics. I don’t recall a single mic or amp being used: just the two steel-strings. It was a joyful thing, much in contrast to Dec. 8, 1980.

The Emperor Project

In W.P. Norton on February 23, 2012 at 2:41 pm


THE CALL CAME late one weekday night. It was Todd Moore with another one of his crazy schemes. He called it ”The Emperor Project,” and my father was the centerpiece of it.

The first Emperor Norton was an Englishman named Joshua Norton who came to gold-rush San Francisco in hopes of striking it rich. He made a fortune but soon lost everything speculating on rice. Norton’s mind snapped. He declared himself Emperor of America and Protector of Mexico, got a bicycle, and started pedaling around the streets of San Francisco demanding tribute. People bowed, scraped and offered free meals to their mad monarch. He died convinced of his regality.

My father never dabbled in any commodities outside a barroom or donut shop. But he was possessed of a certain sovereign scowl, accented by an imperious Beethoven brow. Throw in the salt-and-pepper hair, Yukon Jack mustache and slightly crooked 6’1” frame and you had the perfect candidate to restore the monarchy.

”The basic gestalt will be Bukowsky meets the Hapsburgs, with a healthy dose of Farouk thrown in,” Moore said. ”Rather than play against type, we’ll just toss any notions of benevolence right at the start. His Mendacity will issue his own money and stamps. He will sell deeds and titles. He will have a Web site, the better to foist other merchandise on his followers. They will be known collectively as The Whelmed.”

The longer my friend went on, the more confident I became. The coin of Norton II’s realm would be called the Bunion. Upon high-denomination Bunions would be inscribed various Latin phrases: Porcus En Volatu (When Pigs Fly), and whatever the translation is for Oh, My Aching Dogs. The Emperor would issue proclamations and offer to settle disputes between tiny Third World nations.

Then there were the titles: Supreme Leader of the Whelmed, Lord High Reprobate, Grand Ogle of Fredonia, Sun Vizer of Plymouth, Marquis du Bijou, Earl of Bedlam, Fifth of Bourbon and Zircon of Primordia, Ottoman of Futonia, Light of Entropy, Widget of God, etc., etc.

Moore had worked a lot of jobs—teenage garbage man in Chicago, restaurant worker and performance artist in Seattle, small-town underground newsweekly publisher in Galesburg, Illinois. Now he was sliding into his mid-forties and an unprecedented second year as director of the Fort Atkinson, Wis., animal shelter. But it had already become clear that his biggest talent of all was for creating situations.

Two: Lutheran grit and amazing grace

His latest handiwork was a classic case in point: the presidential campaign of his white bulldog Louis. The gambit generated thousands of dollars for the shelter and got hits on CNN, USA TODAY and Australian radio. But Moore promised the emperor gig would leave Louis le Pooch for President in the shade. By the time he got to the climax—a coronation on a shoe-shine stand in San Francisco—I was sold.

”This thing has legs,” I said. Best of all, my father wouldn’t have to do anything: just supply a photograph for the Internet page where we’d sell the ancillary product line, show up for the coronation, and start raking in the dough. But a funny thing happened on the way to that shoe-shine stand.

It was the merry month of May. Norton II was winding down his second year substitute teaching at high schools in his hometown of Pocatello, Idaho. Mormonism and survivalist ideology had long replaced the potato as the chief export in the land of Mickey Militia and Trailer Tricia. Norton hated it.

Still, he felt some kind of duty to spend time with his mother, grandma Laverne Norton, a kind and bookish woman who weathered the shortcomings of those around her with equal portions of Lutheran grit and amazing grace. She had three brothers, my aged grand uncles Luke, Luther and Lyman. The rest of the family rounded out the cast like a country-western Norman Rockwell painting on acid: my 23-year-old cousin Rachel, with her high-piled honky-tonk hair and newborn baby. Rachel’s sweet sister Katie, wise far beyond her ten years.

Their mother, my forty-something aunt Crystal, a hard-partying country woman who grinds up pills and potions for the prisoners in the county hoosegow when she’s not standing behind a bar or in front of one.

Decades ago, Glen Michael Norton had prepared for his great escape by turning inwards and away from the hardscrabble crucible of his depression-era childhood. First it was books—H.L. Mencken, Erich Maria Remarque, Joseph Conrad. Then came radio, and the blue ribbon in a high school contest for best W.C. Fields impersonation. At 20 he signed up for the Army and shipped off for West Germany, where he drove an armored personnel carrier, machine-gunned spiders, lost his virginity and got drunk for the next three years. After his discharge in 1959, my father came back to the states, took the wet tour through Chicago and Milwaukee and finally found himself attending Idaho State University in Pokey on the G.I. Bill teat.

1965 was a good year for music; for my father, who graduated and won the Idaho Writer’s League first prize for fiction; and for me, who was born. Things seemed to go downhill from there. While my mother went to Berkeley, he held a post-office job in Haight-Ashbury in ’67. They left so he could take a high school teaching job in a one-horse Wisconsin town called Tomahawk in ’68. He lost it a year later and they split up. Then came life with a gaggle of bearded Jewish radicals at a farm commune outside Madison. He passed the ’70s in a blur of beer and business, running a gypsy furniture moving company out of the back of a ’57 Chevy pickup.

Three: All that jazz

Before you could blink, it was Morning in Ronald Reagan’s America, and the future emperor’s chariot was a donut van. He spent the next decade behind the wheel. Somewhere in there he found the time to earn a second degree, this one in teaching. He spent most of the early ’90s substituting in the inner-city schools of Milwaukee, away from the yuppie smugness of Madison. When the spirit moved, he would circle back to Pocatello and live there until the Mormons and militias became too much to bear. Then it was back to Madison for the summer before another Milwaukee school year. He was going to do it all over again one last time before he retired next year. Too bad Death had other plans.

The view from his room at William S. Middleton Memorial Veteran’s Administration hospital included a sparkling view of Lake Mendota, the lush greenery of Picnic Point, and an American flag snapping in the wind. I figured they gave the good rooms to the hardest cases, and it turns out I was right: the cancer had spread so far from his esophagus that his blood had deposited the stuff everywhere.

Swimming slowly through an intravenous sea of morphine, my father got ready for his last trip. One of the first letters was to a former student from Tomahawk High School.

“Terminal with extreme prejudice,” he wrote.

One day a Medflight chopper landed on the bay outside his window.

“Black helicopter,” he murmured, looking skywards with his clear blue eyes. Visitors kept him amused, and a fast-talking, flashing-eyed Austro-Hungarian horsewoman friend of mine named Patrice brought flowers from her garden.

A week after admission the emperor got himself discharged against medical advice. Not only was the news bad, but he had lost the room with the good view. Relocated to my apartment, he began the countdown.

Death comes for some of us like a chill desert wind. Others imagine boney fingers gripping the handle of a scythe. My father saw the blond, beautiful Jessica Lange in “All That Jazz.” He was determined to meet the end with as much style as he could muster—preferably on a frozen Madison lake, in the middle of the night, with an Army .45 caliber handgun. The image would be completed by a white scarf, a split of champagne, a tattered copy of Rilke’s verse and a single red rose. Patrice promised to handle the floral arrangement.

Black overcoat, white snow, red blood, steam rising over the body on the frozen ice—it sounded beautiful as the vision was spun out over a bottle of Korbel extra dry at a dinner graced by our equestrienne colleague. They raised their glasses and he made the final toast: “Vive la morte.” He had seven days to live.

Four: Last words
Moore called again several nights later. Watching people’s parents die had developed into a kind of sideline, he explained, his Midwestern twang burbling up slowly from the bottom of a whiskey-and-water ocean. The Emperor Project was history, of course. But even this final wrinkle confirmed the essential rightness of the concept, Moore figured.

“Most people who know they’re going to die turn into wining lumps of protoplasm and primal fear,” he said. “But Norton’s going out with real courage. He’s got a ton of class. And it makes perfect sense, considering the life he led. The guy spent his life with a phenomenal amount of courage. He was a kind of POW of corporate America. He never caved. And the thing is, I’m on the same curve.” The donut curve, I said to myself.

The big plan hit a snag. This being liberal Madison, it was impossible to buy a.45 within city limits. And there was the mess to consider. Besides, the lakes wouldn’t freeze for another six months. With some reluctance, the emperor settled on an alternative to the Rommel option.

Doctor Lisa Moody of the VA was a brunette and no Jessica Lange, but she was pretty enough, and she had prescribed a sufficient quantity of sublingual morphine capsules to either keep a man in dreamland for three months or kill ten in a night.

Next weekend was Friday the 13th, followed by Flag Day on Saturday and Father’s Day on Sunday. So he had his pick of ironic dates to do the deed. In the event, fate had the last word. That Saturday afternoon he walked wrong, hurt his right leg and lay in bed suffused under a sweaty panic, tormented by the vision of being strapped to a hospital bed for half a year while he watched his body turn to dog food.

I helped him get ready: pint of Absolut vodka, drinking glass, bottle of morphine, Dramamine to settle the stomach. It was around 6 p.m. We exchanged last words.

“I love you,” he said. It was the first time he’d ever said the words to me. I went to spend the night at Patrice’s country dacha.

As he worked on the vodka and the 125 remaining capsules, the phone rang. It was a former student from the Tomahawk days.

“Funny you should call,” my father said. They talked for around half an hour.

Five: “A pleasant evening, all in all”
Around midnight I had the feeling that it was over.

Moore met the cops the next morning at my place. They found three notes. The first one was in the mailbox with the front door key. “Todd, enter with care; keys are expensive! Sorry about brunch. N.”

The second was an admonition: “I am not ending my own life out of despondency over ill health, but rather taking advantage of an incredible piece of good fortune in the form of all those dreamy little pills, in the more than hospitable setting provided by my son and his and my friends. All of these are a fat wallet found on the sidewalk with no ID in it.”

The third recorded the phone call, time of ingestion—8:15 p.m.—and some last words: “This should do it. A pleasant evening, all in all.” On this note was a drawing of a heart in the form of skull and crossbones torn into lower and upper halves.

The grizzled police sergeant nodded as Moore told the story of the Idaho fiction prize, the emperor project, the diagnosis. When he came to the donut-delivery years in Madison, the sergeant paused and looked thoughtful: “You know, I probably knew him.”

The morgue boys came and went. The deputy coroner—a sweet-voiced blonde named Kristi—took the pills and notes for evidence. I never had to see the body.

Two weeks later I wrote the obituary, which they published along with the tiny logo of an American flag. The text swooped over the highlights, avoiding too much detail and skirting the ragged edges. After all, these things are for the living, and there was always the folks back in Pocatello to consider. Besides, we Nortons always did look better on paper anyway.

(Author’s note: I wrote this in 1997, a couple of months after the events described.)

30 Rock Jack speaks for all of us now

In W.P. Norton on February 23, 2012 at 2:31 pm

We’re up on the roof of NBC’s New York headquarters at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. Jack’s talking Tracey Jordan out of shooting Kenneth. That is, we think he’s talking to Tracey but he’s really talking about the might-have-beens and missed chances that defined the career of the great Alec Baldwin.

“Tracey, you wanna destroy the goodwill you have, so you can go back to your easy TV job? Do TV. No one will ever take you seriously again. It doesn’t matter how big a movie star you are. Even if you had the kind of career where you walked away from a blockbuster franchise or, worked with Meryl Streep or Anthony Hopkins, made important movies about things like civil rights or Pearl Harbor. Stole films with supporting roles and then turned around and blew them away on Broadway. None of that will matter once you do television. You could win every award in sight. But be the biggest thing on the small screen, and you’ll still get laughed out of the Vanity Fair Oscar party by Greg Kinnear.”
That was author Tom Clancy’s “Jack Ryan” franchise, of course — the role that got hijacked by Harrison Ford after “Hunt For Red October.” And if it seems like just yesterday that Baldwin was in that romcom with Streep — something about “Complicated” — that’s because it was almost yesterday. The Hopkins vehicle was called “The Edge.” (Full disclosure, I had to look that one up.) And a gold star to anybody who can figure out the Kinnear/Vanity Fair/Oscar Party reference.

My point is that Alec Baldwin has really become a modern-day Antonio Salieri (you know, from “Amadeus”; you can look that one up yourself) — a stand-in and a symbol for the mediocrities many of us think, or fear, or know we’ve become. That means he’s speaking for all of us now. I’ll be 46 next month, and I think it’s time for a long think about whatever may be possible to salvage from the better part of the rest of my life.

For starters, I think I’ll try to be a little more like Jack when it’s possible. No drinking for me, of course. I’ll just have to stare out my office window holding a glass of Zevia on the rocks. But it won’t be the same.

Here’s to all of us also-rans, might-have beens and probably never will be’s. Alec Baldwin just made me feel a little less desperate about it all. Come over to my windowless office one of these days. We can step out to the parking lot, crack a couple ice-cold Zevias, and have a few laughs about how it was never going to work out anyway. In the words of Maestro Salieri, “Te absolvo, te absolvo, te absolvo.”

Now put the gun down, Tracey. We’re all going to have to come down off this roof someday.


In W.P. Norton on February 23, 2012 at 2:21 pm

Nov. 3, 2011 — So it’s goodbye to Morris Harris Philipson, age 85, man of letters, bon vivant, head of the University of Chicago Press from 1967 until 2000, quietly, this morning, surrounded by a number of his loved ones and a far greater number of his books — many of them written, edited, or published by his own hand.
Morris Philipson Morris Philipson Morris Philipson

Fitting for a man who said “li-chra-chure” without affectation, a man who built a career in the serious publishing world of the latter half of the 20th century as a writer, an editor and the longest-serving director of the University of Chicago Press — where, I’m told, hung a banner that proclaimed a single word: Courage.

Just look at some of the serious books he worked on!

  • Leonardo da Vinci (1966)
  • The Count Who Wished he were a Peasant: A Life of Leo Tolstoy (1967)
  • An Outline of a Jungian Aesthetics (1990)
  • Foundations of Western Thought: Six Major Philosophers: Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Berkeley, Hume, Kant (1964)

Then there were the novels—Bourgeois Anonymous (1964), The Wallpaper Fox (1976), A Man in Charge (1979), Secret Understandings (1983), and Somebody Else’s Life (1987). Don’t forget Everything Changes (1972), a children’s book.

In the last two years or so I worked sporadically with Morris on putting together his last project, a remembrance of past things that included what seems to have been the intellectual idyll of boarding-school life at the now-defunct Cherry Lawn School in Darien, Conn. He was in the class of 1944. It was at Cherry Lawn where he roomed with Emil Oberholzer Jr., the son of a European doctor who had administered Rorschach ink-blot tests to many of the leading minds of that earlier time (perhaps 50 in all, Philipson recalled, including Dr. Sigmund Freud himself) only to die before ever publishing a single word on his findings.

There was a feeling of loss that circled around and around the story of Oberholzer’s lost Rorschach studies, much like the shadow of the absence of things Jewish that falls across certain pages of Philipson’s novels, most of whose central characters happen to be WASPS or secular Jews. However, I’ve had the privilege to have him share with me as-yet unpublished works concerning his New England youth and post-retirement ruminations on the Jewish-American experience that pick up the thread.

Our first task was for me to finish taking the dictation of a memoir, “Conclusions,” that he hoped to have “paged out” to 232 pages by June of this year. At the heart of “Conclusions” was the conceit that no actual book need be composed, just one perfect review that explained the essence of the original; had it in fact existed; but which, of course, there was no need to publish because the review would summarize it all so sublimely. If only we’d made it that far.

Cheers, M.P. And Courage.

Losing Anthony Shadid

In W.P. Norton on February 23, 2012 at 2:01 pm

Me and Anthony, circa 1987

Anthony Shadid was a whirling dervish of a writer as far back as 1987, when he presented himself for duty at the Daily Cardinal, the student-run newspaper where we served 40,000-something readers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Anthony (always Anthony, never “Tony”) swirled through our newsroom with the untamed force of a funnel cloud smashing through the storied Tornado Alley landscape of his native Oklahoma.

Anthony’s preternatural reporting powers made me feel the bitterest kind of professional jealousy in the years that followed his flight from the Cardinal nest. The ill feelings vanished on Feb. 14, 2011, when he emailed me a far more courteous note than I expected in answer to a question I’d posed about the so-called Arab Spring. In March of that same year, Anthony and three New York Times colleagues were taken by forces loyal to Libya’s then dictator.

Though dogged by degradation and threats of death, events would prove kinder to the Times quartet than to their driver, who was immediately subject to summary execution on day one of the ordeal. With wide eyes and gritted teeth, several dozen of Anthony’s former Cardinal colleagues and I came together on Facebook and other social media, following the six-day drama to its last act, when the Libyan dictatorship freed Shadid plus three.

There was no theoretical limit to what he might achieve in years to come, I emailed Anthony then. Further Pulitzers (he’d already earned two) would be child’s play, I said; even a Nobel Prize. High political office was in his future, I gushed; perhaps the presidency of a university, if he ever wanted to take things a little easier. Before his death, reportedly of asthma, at age 43 while on assignment in Syria this past Thursday, February 16th, the Times put him up for a third Pulitzer — a rare trifecta in the history of journalism.

One can only guess how absurd he may have found the many effusions of my message to Shadid. He was the Mozart of modern journalism, I said. Exposing himself further to such extreme risks as a desert combat situation would be incredibly selfish of him, and an unforgivable loss of a voice that the world badly needed to hear.

Pride defeated envy as I went on to recall how I’d handed him my New York Times campus stringer gig some 24 years before and strongly endorsed his candidacy for the internship he earned at Madison’s powerhouse of an alternative weekly newspaper, Isthmus. I stressed that it had never once occurred to me that my helping him would make a whit of difference to his career, because I saw his rise to superlative achievement as inevitable even then.

I hope to be committing no violation of privacy in quoting Anthony’s reply, time-stamped with the date of March 29, 2011: “I read your note twice, and I’m going to keep it, even if it is far too kind. The Cardinal days seem like so long ago, but they really were the place we all became who we are.”

Handing off these minor boons to Anthony was something I saw as a matter of public service — the right thing to do for those publications in particular, and for the institution of journalism writ large.

He would have gotten where he did if I had never existed. But I do treasure the fact of having had the chance to know him once. The sorrow of the moment is eased however slightly by the knowledge that I told him so before that chance was taken from us all.

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