I had the privilege and the unforgettable education to be George’s associate producer for a number of years at 60 Minutes.
When I think about being on the road with with George – whether we were in Rwanda or New Jersey, the words that come to mind contradict each other:
George flew by the seat of his pants, and yet he was always somehow in control. His childlike enthusiasm was dazzling and it was maddening. It led him to the most amazing journalism and the most disorganized work habits. He was brilliant and he was wild.
One minute I would watch him literally take a running leap onto a baggage cart in the Nairobi airport – this patrician, award-winning producer suddenly, gleefully coasting by me when we were supposed to be going through customs unobtrusively. The next minute I would watch him skillfully convince a reluctant subject to tell his story on camera for the first time.
One minute George was recklessly jumping into a van in Goma, Zaire with a video camera under his arm – heading off to a refugee camp where he’d been warned was too dangerous; The next minute he was returning to our hotel – exhilarated, triumphant -- with remarkable footage no one else had.
One minute he landed a rare prison interview with Toto Constant – one of the most notorious, controversial Haitian exiles, who turned out to be on the CIA’s payroll. The next minute we were shooting the interview in Toto’s cell jail, and I watched as George surreptiously tore off pieces of illicit Big Macs to hand to Constant under the table – even though we were under strict rules not to bring him any food.
George may have needed reigning in at times – I can’t count how often I chided him for hunkering down in his office all day, tinkering with “Charlie Wilson’s War,” only to emerge at 7 pm, booming, “Let’s get to work!” But as much as he procrastinated, he was also a taskmaster -- not because he gave orders, but because of the passion he required. No apathy allowed. No detachment. Stories, (like life, it seemed for George), were there to be seized and relished -- wrung dry. I think of how he literally bounced around the edit room, while Lisa Orlando -- a gifted editor, and I wilted from the late hour or the tedious footage. How determined he was to make each moment in a piece as affecting as possible. Lisa and I would BEG George to move on to the next section, while he hopped up and down at the sight of one single camera shot he loved, exclaiming, “Ooo! Ooo! Ooo!”
He would push us so hard to make a story suspenseful, to drum home what mattered, never settle for colorless language or the obvious picture. He taught me, more than anything, to grab a listener and tell him or her that something exciting was coming, something crucial, something not to be missed.
His zeal carried over to his family….He didn’t just adore Susan and all his girls. He marveled at them. I unfortunately never met his two older daughters till this sad occasion, but how I remember Little Susan and Jane when I would go to George’s house for dinner on a weeknight. I remember not just their beauty and vitality as grade schoolers running around the apartment in bare feet, but the way George talked about them. Like they were magic sprites who astonished him every day.
And the way he spoke of you, Susan Lyne, set a high bar for the rest of us married folk. I don't have to tell you how awed he was by everything you do and how well you do it. How luminous, wise, and accomplished you are, and how consistently kind. I always loved the warm chaos of your home, and I stored a secret hope to replicate it years later when I started my own family.
* * *
In all the stories I worked on with George, one of his repeated admonitions stays with me the most: It always started with my name, uttered with George’s inimitable scolding but affectionate tone: "Abigail…" he’d force me to look him in the eye: "Be. Brave." That mantra is emblazoned on my consciousness, both as a journalist, and as a human being.
It never occurred to me that George himself was vulnerable. I am still in shock that anything could knock him down.
He taught me more than I ever let on. More than I ever got the chance to tell him.
George, young reporters everywhere have lost one of the truest mentors.
I already miss you.
And I’m trying – really trying -- to be brave.
I have a piece in New York Magazine, called "How Do You Spell Ms." It begins...
In the years leading up to the birth of Ms., women had trouble getting a credit card without a man’s signature, had few legal rights when it came to divorce or reproduction, and were expected to aspire solely to marriage and motherhood. Job listings were segregated (“Help wanted, male”). There was no Title IX (banning sex discrimination in federally funded athletic programs); no battered-women’s shelters, rape-crisis centers, and no terms such as sexual harassment and domestic violence.
Few women ran magazines, even when the readership was entirely female, and they weren’t permitted to write the stories they felt were important; the focus had to be on fashion, recipes, cosmetics, or how to lure a man and keep him interested. “When I suggested political stories to The New York Times Sunday Magazine, my editor just said something like, ‘I don’t think of you that way,’ ” recalls Gloria Steinem. “It was all pale male faces in, on, and running media,” says Robin Morgan, who was Ms.’s editor in the late eighties and early nineties.
But in the mid-sixties, feminist organizations such as New York Radical Women,Redstockings, and NOW began to emerge. On March 18, 1970, about a hundred women stormed into the male editor’s office of Ladies’ Home Journal and staged a sit-in for eleven hours, demanding that the magazine hire a female editor-in-chief. Says feminist activist-writer Vivian Gornick, “It was a watershed moment. It showed us, the activists in the women’s movement, that we did, indeed, have a movement.”
Read the rest by clicking here to New York Magazine.
Writing a song for the bar and bat mitzvah on Saturday morning made me confront what I want to be saying to my own children.
As the Jewish new year approaches, I’m thinking especially about three strangers last month who gave my family their own water bottles when they saw us faltering on a difficult hike.
Last August, we were in the midst of an unremitting vertical trek up Aspen Mountain– (the vertical drop is 3267 feet) and no one had prepared us for such a steep trajectory; our friendly hotel had sent us off with a few miniature water bottles in the morning, assuming (we learned later) that we would only go as far as the first summit. When we told them later that we continued to the peak (don’t they know New Yorkers always need to finish what they start?), they were incredulous: “Your kids did the whole climb?”
We’d set out with energy and enthusiasm on a clear bright morning, but almost immediately we were feeling the press of the altitude, the uncomfortable warmth of the maturing sun, and the never-ending ascent. We passed a famous socialite on the trail, and she was complaining loudly to her husband in an exasperated voice: “Why did you tell me this was easy? This is a nightmare.”
Her husband quipped to us, (without introducing himself,) “If you later hear that we got divorced, you’ll know why.”The socialite finally decided to stop and hike back down.
We pressed onward, which meant upward.
I won’t bore you with the ensuing stages of fatigue (how many times I repeated, “I thought I was in good shape,”) nor will I recount the confusion and dismay when we lost the trail (we managed to take a wrong turn, land on an uncertain path, and add an extra hour to what should have been a three-hour journey,) nor will I relate my temptation to give up (if it hadn’t been for my husband, David, I would have flagged down a lone passing jeep.)
But just when I felt I’d have to lie down and sleep on the stony soil, a middle-aged Asian American named Keith passed us looking stalwart and downright jolly. “How are you folks faring?” I asked a stupid question I knew the answer to: “Do you think they have the equivalent of a snow patrol crew up at the top? Might they send water down if we called up to the lodge?”
He shook his head, with an understanding look: “Take a sip of my water.”
I refused. “We couldn’t possibly…We’ll be fine.”
He insisted. “Pour my water bottle into your empty one. I do this hike once a week; I’m used to it. I don’t need the water.”
After more lackluster protestations, I accepted. I was honestly worried about my children and felt delinquent in my parental duty to keep their engines running. I knew they were strong enough, capable, (and miraculously, uncomplaining,) but they were visibly depleted and I knew we had a ways to go.
Marveling at his kindness, we rationed precious sips of Keith’s miraculous gift, and soldiered on.
An hour later, another dehydrated pause. David kept up the pep talk: “We’ll get there and we’ll feel great that we finished.”
But my legs were failing me. I couldn’t keep going up and up and up. My breathing was strained.
Another stranger came to our rescue: I’ll call him Rugged Bill. This time he handed over his bottle with a merry flourish, and insisted we keep it and give it to the gondola operator when we got back down.
"The gondola." Those two words sounded like an impossible dream.
More vertical trudging. More pelting sun. More altitude.
A third stranger: Annie. She gave us organic energy gummy bears from her backpack.
No tiny snack ever tasted so good. We thanked her like she was Moses leading us out of Egypt.
20 minutes later, we were at the summit of Ajax Mountain. We had glorious Gatorades in our hands and a panoramic view sparkling around us. We felt triumphant and traumatized at the same time.
What stayed with me, more than the challenge of those four-plus hours, was the selflessness we encountered on the path. Three people who didn’t know us, whose last names we will never learn, came to our rescue – without fanfare or expectation. They just helped. Easily. Instantly. Without asking for anything back. Without chastising us for embarking ill-prepared. With just a “good luck,” and a smile.
Maybe this humanity was no miracle, but it sure felt like one. These three strangers reminded me of the kind of uncomplicated goodness that’s all too rare in the world. These gestures didn’t depend on any relationship – prior or future. They were just instinctual acts of empathy.
And they allowed my wobbly family to take another step.
In this new year, I hope I can give that impulsively, that readily, to a stranger. Or two or three or a hundred. I plan to remember Annie, Bill and Keith – and give my proverbial bottle of water – again and again, keeping their anonymous, unhesitating generosity constantly in mind.
Here's what I've realized about blogging. Jewish guilt gets in the way. Because one feels guilty about assuming that one's own thoughts or foibles or adventures might be at all intriguing to strangers. Or even to friends. But I'm resolved to start saying what I'm thinking. And all candid reactions are welcome if you think I should shut back up.
"...examines the complex relationship between the practical and the passionate self, the realist and the dreamer, and the importance of those moments in life that make you feel 'airborne.'"
‘The good news is, you’re all in the show.’ These words, uttered by famed theatrical director Hal Prince, changed Abigail Pogrebin’s life. At the tender age of 16, along with a then 21-year old Jason Alexander, she was cast in the Stephen Sondheim production, Merrily We Roll Along—notable as the only flop in the legendary composer’s otherwise beloved repertoire, which includes the award-winning musicals Into the Woods, Follies, Sweeney Todd, and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. The theories as to why this particular project didn’t roll merrily along are addressed in Pogrebin’s introspective Kindle Single, but more than that, it examines the complex relationship between the practical and the passionate self, the realist and the dreamer, and the importance of those moments in life that make you feel “airborne.” Forgive me for the pun, but this Single is a true ‘Showstopper.’
- Reviews & Praise
http://amzn.to/iw6Zs8 I wrote about my experience in the original cast of the ill-fated (but now much-beloved) Sondheim musical, "Merrily We Roll Along" on Broadway. It was a remarkable adventure getting chosen, rehearsing, and then watching things unravel as fast as they did. It also gave me perspective on how life promises and disappoints. Kindle Singles are a wonderful new Amazon addition -- inexpensive and digestible. Authors so far include Christopher Hitchens, Jon Krakauer, Susan Orlean, Jodi Picoult, and Mark Bittman. I hope you'll download "Showstopper" -- you don't need to own a Kindle. Just Google "Kindle for Mac" or "Kindle for PC." And let me know what you think: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dwight Garner calls Styron's "Reading My Father" an "ardent, sophisticated and entirely winning memoir." Buy it if you haven't and get one of the few remaining tickets for my conversation with her at the Manhattan JCC next Wednesday April 27: www.jccmanhattan.org