Jun 292016
April 9, 1942: Major General Edward P. King Jr. discusses terms of surrender with Japanese officers

April 9, 1942: Major General Edward P. King Jr. discusses terms of surrender at Bataan with Japanese officers.

In April of 1942, on the way to a lecture on American history I stopped by the journalism building to read the Associated Press bulletins. Some 78,000 troops (66,000 Filipinos and 12,000 Americans) on Bataan had surrendered. There had never been an American surrender of such size. I was so filled with shame and tears that I volunteered to serve in the Army that very day. I would have to go anyway, and I thought it better to volunteer than be drafted.

There had been a few months between the attack on Pearl Harbor and my decision. It had be prompted by a few words from a professor who taught aesthetics, and introduced me to Santayana’s sonnets. Professor Taylor could have been a tennis pro, as well as a scholar. He taught me a two handed backhand in exchange for my chalking the tennis courts. He called a meeting of some fifty or us who were wavering between academia and the military.

“Gentlemen,” he said, “I have some advice for you. Shit or get off the pot.”

Harold Taylor made me a soldier. My patriotism was mixed with my fading Marxism. I had never been among the working class until I was a lowly, lonely enlistee in the Army. The proletariat is crude: a fact not always recognized by the Marxists.

I was disturbed the first day at Camp Grant. My blood pressure measured so high the medics refused to accept me as a soldier. I was asked to come back the next day before a uniform could be issued.

In the barracks my proletarian inductees suggested I work for a discharge by drinking stimulants such as ketchup or booze. I was advised to masturbate but stop before orgasm. Anything to keep the blood pressure up and escape service. Unfortunately, the next morning my vitals were satisfactory. I was issued uniforms and shipped to Fort Eustis, Virginia for twelve weeks for basic training in anti-aircraft skills. Sometime later I had to endure a second basic training for the infantry. Camp Claiborne, near the swamps of Louisiana.

I wrote a sonnet in the five-beat meter George Santayana used:


This is a thin, discordant counterpoint
To oratory and the martial strain,
A marching file is weaving out of joint
And greasy clouds are spilling steady rain
On rifles pointed down, on standards cased,
On hopes of home that lie in muted throats
As tenuous ideals become erased
By swamps and fascists wearing khaki coats.

We are the tutored mob, the infantry
Redeemers of some words we vaguely know,
Who soon shall find the sharp philosophy;
That moment when a whistle’s final blow
Shall signal the deploy and we disperse
Alone and tangent to the universe.



Major General Edward P. King, US Army in World War II, The Fall of the Philippines, by Louis Morton, ibiblio.org/hyperwar/USA/USA-P-PI/USA-P-PI-26.html




Jun 272016

Perry Wolff_The Quiet AnswerThe year I joined WBBM in 1947 was the same year the station bought tape recorders. The earliest machines could be carried from place to place, but they weighed over twenty pounds. It took some time to see that tape was not like vinyl records. Unlike discs, which simply recorded sound, tape could be edited. I asked an engineer to find a pair of scissors and cut out an unnecessary section of a speech. He joined the next section to the previous one with Scotch tape, which went “pop” in the playback. With experimentation and by cutting the sticky tape on an angle, the pop became almost inaudible.

Whatever the early drawbacks there was one great advantage. The black people being interviewed need not come to the studio in the very white Wrigley Building. An engineer and I could go to the ghettos and get opinions not spoken on Michigan Boulevard.

Once Durham left, WBBM asked me to do a replacement series. No actors, no recreation, just people talking to our correspondent and being recorded on the improved tape recorders. Chicago has always had a race problem, and the late forties were no exception. The program manager was worried.

“Here’s the title, and don’t change it and don’t ask me how to do it.” The title is: The Quiet Answer.  Keep things quiet, please.”

The focus of the series was injustice in real estate. White speculators would buy a house in a white community and sell it to a black family. Neighboring whites would panic and sell out quickly. In turn, middle class blacks would pay more to get out of the dangers in the black ghetto. As a secondary result, police protection in the former white area would diminish by fifty percent. I wrote and produced seven hours in the hot summer of 1947 and won a Peabody, in the days when the Peabody committee gave only seven radio awards and three television awards.


I was proud but WBBM was cheap. The ceremonial lunch and the awards were given in New York, and the Chicago station manager wouldn’t pay my train fare or give me time off.

Technology sometimes leads journalism. The next year an even smaller tape recorder came on the market. I was able to stow it into the trunk of the car and activate it in the driver’s seat. I strapped the microphone under the dashboard. I did a series on narcotics addiction.

“There may be a few crazy whites who use cocaine”, a police captain told me, “but in this town the problem is with the niggers. At worst the whites smoke pod but the real hop heads are blacks.”

Coca Cola originally got its name from cocaine.  Cocaine was outlawed because whites in the south thought it drove blacks mad.

One of Professor Lohman’s ex-cons, Broadway Jones, a former bootlegger, lectured on the change in fashionable drugs. In the 20’s Jones had been a bouncer at an opium “den”, frequented by the best people, “including Sophie Tucker.” Opium is best smoked slowly through a pipe. Opium is a heavy wad of dried poppy fluid, stripped from the plant and massaged into a ball. But in a laboratory the wad could be refined down to heroin. The lighter opiate derivative is injected with a light needle and moved quickly for a higher price.

Opiates had been legal until World War I. Dissolved opium was the health drink for many elder and proper ladies. They were called “ladies nighttime elixirs.” Almost every drug store in the country sold laudanum. While still illegal in the 20’s, smoking opium pipes was not considered a major police problem. The elegant and the famous had their favorite addresses in New York. Opium dens were richly furnished. The elegant smoked, and never used a needle.  But one day Miss Tucker burst into Broadway’s salon shrieking, “There’s a dope addict here. The bastard has a needle in his arm!”

He was shooting heroin, of course.

Algren viewed marijuana as the opium users viewed their dried poppy leaves–something social, and hardly illegal.

“Some junkies like the ritual of shooting up as much as the drugs”.

He invited me to a shooting session and gave me a small sample.

The first user unscrewed a standard yellow light bulb and replaced it with a red one. He tied his upper arm with elastic until the vein appeared on the surface. The needle went in and the subject pumped the syringe several times. Under the red light, the blood was black.  The color pleased him.

“Great stuff,” he told us when he had finished pumping. His companion went through the same ritual.

“Great stuff.  It hits right away.”

I had made arrangements with the toxicology lab at the University of Illinois.  I sent the sample Nelson had given me to the lab. Two days later I received a call from the scientist.

“Wolff, I hope you didn’t spend too much money on that sample. It’s probably the most expensive after-dinner mint you ever bought.”

Yet I had seen the relief and relaxation on the face of the man who had shot up. He may have been addicted to drugs, but he was certainly addicted to the ceremony.

My good friend, Nelson Algren, a writer best known for his 1947 novel The Man with the Golden Arm, thought drugs ought to be made legal and dispensed through doctors and hospitals—a system tried in Britain. It didn’t work, partially because visits to the doctors, hospitals and pharmacies were too sterile and did not satisfy the need for clandestine ceremonies and rituals…like black blood.

Harry Anslinger, the head of the narcotics bureau of the Department of the Treasury, was infuriated. Algren and his friends were being watched. That’s why I got a call from the narcs.

They came to my office in the Wrigley Building. They made sure I understood that if I were caught with dope I would be busted. They emphasized there‘d be no pass for investigative journalists. I had a few pills in the desk drawer. As soon as the agents had left, I flushed away my possible jail sentence.

Professor Joseph Lohman, soon to be sheriff of Cook County, later treasurer of the State of Illinois, agreed to be my consultant. He asked two of his students, one black and the other white, to help me with my research.

My first set of interviews was at the Joliet Illinois Prison. The convicts jailed on dope and related charges volunteered to be taped. I used only one interview: a handsome woman arrested on a drug related charge.

“Why did you start using drugs?”

“My man was a user. I begged him to stop. I begged him but he wouldn’t.”

“And then?”

“And then—if he wouldn’t come to me, I came to him. I loved him.”

It was very emotional and I believed her. Until, under the table, she shoved her foot gently into my crotch. A sexual SOS.

My black researcher, Jim Howard, suggested I go to the United States Health Service Hospital in Lexington Kentucky. It had a voluntary program for withdrawal. James knew three black users who would go with us. The users each bought a box of Hershey chocolates to give them a sufficient high until they got to the hospital.

The director met me took me to his office and said: “You can’t be a user. You’re overfed. Users are always underfed. They don’t give a damn about food. Tell you what, we’ll say you’re a Red Bird. Red Birds talk fast and slur their speech.”

Red Bird was the street name for Seconal, a red sleeping pill. He knew his drugs.  “Methadone—was invented by the Germans in World War II as a pain killer. The second part of methadone is ‘adone’ which comes from their name ‘Adolphine’ from their tribute to Adolph Hitler.”

He added, “Remember, everybody here is voluntary. Even though they walk out on us, at least for two weeks they’re not using needles.”

The government program for opiate detoxification was two gulps of liquid methadone each day. Coupled with counseling, the voluntary patients could expect to be free of their opiate cravings.

Jim and I stayed in our cell for only four days. We weren’t there to kick the habit.  We were there to get information and contacts for the broadcasts. Many of the patients weren’t there to kick the habit, either. They too were looking for contacts. They wanted to buy drugs cheaper–“find a New York connection,” one of them said. Lexington was a mall, a continuous convention of The Narcotics Users of the Mid-West.

We brought no microphones. I remember bits of conversation. “H (Heroin) just passes through you and you pee it out. We’re trying to find some way to distill the hospital’s urine. We’re going to refine the sewage system and get the heroin back.”

“He didn’t think methadone would help. So he passed himself off as a cripple, hollowed out his crutch and stashed it with junk.  But they took the crutch away.”

“I do the orchestrations here. Billie Holiday just left. It’s sad.”

“What is sad?” I asked.

“I had to rewrite the orchestrations for the next chick. Up a third.”

Howard picked up a fair share of contacts on the south side of Chicago. He was given no names, but locations where drugs were traded. We staked out the sites. I gave some addresses on the air.

One was a corner on 43rd street next to a bar.

It cost me my job.

The brother of the head of WBBM owned the bar. The police were embarrassed. When I named the bar on West 43rd, police simply had to close it, even though they had taken the proper payoffs from the owner. Brother complained to brother. The head of the station then talked to the sales manager. I was invited to have a drink at the Wrigley Building bar where the WBBM sales manager reluctantly fired me. I had put the brothers in an awkward position. The cops had spared the correspondent, Fahey Flynn, “because he just read the copy, and anyway he was an on-the-air personality.”

Embarrassingly for everybody at WBBM, the series, Report Uncensored, won a Peabody award in 1950. Once more, someone else received it in New York. You can hear this radio series here. (You’ll have to scroll down to click to download the MP3 to your computer.)



Perry Wolff, “Broadcasting Telecasting,” April 30, 1951, page 26

Peabody Awards, “Broadcasting Telecasting,” April 30, 1951, page 26



Old Time Radio Downloads, Juvenile Delinquency in Chicago.



















Jun 212016


I began wearing thick glasses at age four. I was nearsighted. An optician noted that my eyes did not work together. I saw with one eye at a time, usually the left one. The suggested solution was a stereopticon device with slightly different photographs on each side. I was told to force myself to use both eyes at the same time and train the muscles to work together. The device made me throw up, so I threw it away. This meant I judged distance badly and could not perceive depth properly. That’s why I made so many errors in baseball. I was always the last one chosen, and always put in right field, far out of the action. I made so many errors that I was given a wicker basket to catch the high flies I missed.  I didn’t know it was my eyes; I thought myself inept. It was worse in tennis. If I took the net I could not focus on the oncoming ball. I was hit in the forehead several times.

I went to war as a sniper.

In combat I carried a Springfield ’03 rifle with a mounted scope. Around my neck a pair of field glasses. On my nose some very thick spectacles. I crawled through the lane just before daybreak and took up a position on the third floor of a demolished church north of Geilenkirchen, a town in the district Heinsberg, in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany.

The ground I wiggled through was wet. My eyeglasses were streaked with mud, as were my field glasses. The rifle’s scope was opaque. I couldn’t see. I tried to scratch the dirt off the field glasses, my spectacles and the sniper sight. I pulled my shirt out of my trousers to clean the glasses. The wet cloth further smeared the lenses. I fired one shot, and struck only the earth north of Geilenkirchen.

I think a mortar fired at me when I scrambled back to my squad. It hit the floor below the steeple and dust and debris enveloped me. Later I was permitted to complain to the company commander. I told him that my eyes were 20/800 uncorrected, that the ‘03 had a recoil kick that had hurt my right shoulder. I told him I should not have been placed in the infantry, or in that house the Germans had fixed in their mortar sights. I told him I had bleeding plantar warts on my feet. I could not be a good infantryman.

He brought me to the supply sergeant who took my sniper’s rifle and issued me a grease gun, more formally named the M3 SMG. It looked remarkably like the tool used for injecting grease into the axle nipples of vehicles. It was the poor man’s sub-machine gun.

The company commander said, “What you do with this is hold it in front of you and spray like a garden hose.“Do you think you could do that, Wolff?”

“Yes, sir.”


Jun 062016
CBS Building Exterior (photo: Landov)

CBS Building Exterior (photo: Landov)

I had sent all my awards home, along with some two hundred tapes of shows I had written, coached, or produced. I waited until early evening so I would not meet sentimentality in the corridors or elevators.

Three months earlier when I had lost favor, my colleagues fell away, as if I were infectious. Collegiality is not friendship.  I had no sympathetic friends. Two mail boys had passed my office a month or two before and had not seen me. 

One read the nameplate on the door and said, “Perry Wolff.  I thought he was dead.”

My office windows opened to a splendid view of the Hudson River. Fading sunlight flashed orange flecks on miles of steel grey water. I could see far beyond two bridges to a valley. A quarter moon sent a hesitant light.  The same moon that had ended my career.

I had written a program about the moon, entitled The Moon Above, The Earth Below, that aired in 1989:


Our days and our years are measured by the sun and its warmth.  For most of us, the moon’s a wanderer…slipping in and out of our nights, as elusive as memory.  We live with it– but not by it.  That’s why we put these old scenes together, to drift back to a great day when the moon was at the center of our thoughts, and to remember three fine men who once went there and came back.

Just a few city blocks away, a ruined pier where years ago ocean liners left Manhattan.  Now rusted girders were twisted in a design no artist would dare to fashion.  A wreck, torn apart by disaster, age, and a powerful river.

I permitted myself a sentimental parallel.  That rusted, ruined pier, and dated a generation ago was me.  The Hudson was a river of ratings — or money–whose power could not be denied—or archived.  I gave myself that moment of self-pity.  Then I walked to the elevators that served both CBS Reports and 60 Minutes.  My carpet was drab, and theirs was green, the bright color of new money.

In the production of my last broadcast a small editing error had been made. What should have been a black and white image  was replaced by an image in color.  As producer, I was responsible.  The new president of CBS News David Burke, fined me $10,000 and refused to renew my contract.  He said I had brought disgrace on a noted and loved correspondent.

The broadcast included a scene of Senator Ted Kennedy’s actions on the night he drunkenly drove his car off a bridge in Massachusetts drowning a girl companion. The press had been shut out for nine hours afterwards until the Kennedy camp got their story straight. The press representative who had who had blacked out the press was the same David Burke who questioned my integrity.

 I thought it was one of the best films I ever made, and was so acknowledged by two Emmy’s, a Writer’s Guild of America award, good ratings and reviews.  But the corporate word had been said, and I was no longer a hero. My crime was that my salary didn’t justify my ratings.

On my last day at CBS—I had spent over forty two years of days—I was pleased to get out. I was delighted to meet no one on the elevator.  I found a taxi and left.

CBS News was just another office building in Manhattan.

Jun 062016

From 1948 to 1950, I worked at the Chicago radio affiliate of CBS. I won two Peabody awards. One was on race relations, the other on the sale of narcotics. The latter embarrassed the Chicago Police force. It also embarrassed the owner of the station who made his peace with the force by firing me. In New York a network Vice President, Hubbell Robinson, went to two lunches and accepted the awards. He airmailed me the medals. I went to New York in 1951.

Hubbell Robinson ABC Stage 67 1967 Original Press Photo

Hubbell Robinson
ABC Stage 67 1967 Original Press Photo

By chance I ran into Robinson on the corner of Madison and 51st. He asked me what I was doing. I told him I was out of work.

Robinson: “I always wanted to hire you, but we had to wait. That guy in Chicago is powerful at CBS, but do you want to come to work?”

Me: “I do.”

Robinson: “Do you have an agent?”

Me: “No.”

Robinson: “How much would you want?”

Me: “What’s fair, Hubbell?”

Robinson: “About four hundred a week.”

Me: “Fine.”

Robinson:  “You’re hired. Let’s go upstairs and see Sig Mickelson.”

Mickelson was in charge of the CBS News operation. He knew my work and was delighted to see me. Things moved very fast that afternoon.

I was asked, “What would you like to do?”

“That man who says ‘take one, take two, go to slide.’ I think he’s key in this business. The director, I mean.”

Sig said, “You can start tomorrow. Our studio in Grand Central Station is where the Morning News originates. The assistant director will show you the ropes.  Collingwood is the correspondent. Show up about five thirty in the morning.”

That’s how I entered television.

I never liked directing live television cameras, by the way. It was too much like plumbing. The pipes have to go straight. There was nothing creative about the assignment. It was like playing finger exercises on the piano.

I asked for a new assignment.

Mickelson thought we should do some cultural video and he suggested I go to the Museum of Modern Art and see if a series might start there.  At the time William Paley was on the board of MoMA.

The director of the museum granted me an audience. He didn’t mean to be insulting, or Dadaist but he looked at his television set and said, “I always think people working in TV are truly about that tiny size.” He had a 12-inch monitor. He pinched thumb and index finger close together, squinted through the gap and smiled.

I left quickly and angrily. I had met that same cultural snobbishness in radio.

The folklore of many American intellectuals is a presumed hierarchy of the arts. At the top, a generation back, was the search for the Great American Novel, the noblest of forms.

Today fictional films are the primary objects of awe. Auteurs, or Film Directors are at the apex. In descending echelon: the theater, the abstract painter, the print journalist, the small magazine critic. Scientists, lawyers and doctors are respected as technicians but not applauded. They are needed as plumbers are needed—in times of emergency.  At the very bottom is television and radio. Not only at the bottom, but unable to be redeemed. They have crossed the Styx. There can be no distinguished writers in electronic journalism.

The cultural elite thinks about television as they think about their toilet. They use it often but never talk about it in polite company.