Apr 142017

Henry Varnum Poor

In 1956 the Air Force public relations machine was pleased to re-tell its history in World War II, but the war on Washington’s mind was the Cold War with the Soviet Union.

There was a notion that American Stalinists worked in the media. By clever distortions of story lines, narration, and dialog, it was thought that the Communist cause could seep into and corrupt the minds of the audience.

Peter, one of my editors, was the son of two old and famous artists. His mother had joined the Communist Party of the United States in the 1930s and her husband loved her. In the eyes of the FBI Peter had continued his beliefs far too long. The FBI came to see me about him. Until the early fifties non-fictional editors were usually blue collar workers. Many of them pronounced, “film” in two syllables: fill-um.  Peter was a Harvard graduate with a retiring mien but a sharp intellect.

When the two FBI agents came to see me I was prepared. I had gone to a friend in the CBS Legal Department. Robert Evans, Esq. was a conservative in fact, politics and deed. He gave me advice I used.

When the agents came to my office I asked to see their identity cards. They flashed them and started to put their wallets away.

“May I hold your identity cards? I want to verify your credentials. What is the phone number of your superiors?” They gave me the local number of the FBI. I talked to their supervisor. Holding their ID photos in hand I asked their manager to give me a physical description of the two men.

It was given with some reluctance. I returned the wallets to the two agents.

“What do you want to know about Peter?” I asked.

The conversation was curt and brief. He was admittedly the son of Henry Varnum Poor, a famous American architect, painter, sculptor, muralist, and potter; and Sophie Poor, who had been a member of CPUSA. I had nothing to tell them except that Peter was a fine editor.

I told the verified FBI agents there was no way Peter could twist the film he was making into a Marxist mode. The subject was the battle for the South Pacific island of Tarawa in 1943.

I had applied the procedure recommended by Legal. There were no handshakes when they left.

Colonel Pitchford later told me the FBI tried to lift my Q clearance.

The music of Richard Rogers, scored and conducted by Robert Russell Bennett, was overwhelming. It was the best of Broadway and the best of victorious emotions, remembered. I settled on a classical composer of operas, Norman dello Joio. The moods of Air Power were darker. Of immeasurable help was the CBS conductor, Alfredo Antonini. Dell Joio over-orchestrated and I would be at his side when Antonini opened the score.“Il stessa minestrone the same soup,” he would say, and he would thin out the orchestrations. Alfredo was a great conductor, and was equally literate in jazz. On CBS radio he was “Eddie Collins and the Gang” and he spoke no Italian when he and the band were swinging.

Unfortunately Alfredo was overweight and sweaty. For some reason classical audiences prefer their conductors gaunt, with sunken cheeks. Leonard Bernstein and Seiji Ozawa come to mind. Alfredo had a small career in the United States but a large one in Europe, particularly in Italy. He brought European audiences to American composers including Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber. His Italian connections would change my life.

For CBS, Air Power was a mild success. Fair ratings, no awards. In the next few years it re-ran three times in prime time. The network made a large profit. But Air Power never bested Victory at Sea.

I knew it was over for me when the colleague who had succeeded me was at a loss for my next assignment. He thought of a series to be called Ground Power. The sponsor of Air Power was willing to sign on, but he insisted on Walter Cronkite.

I resigned and had my contract torn up. I didn’t want to study war any more.

It wasn’t disaffection with CBS News.  Since returning from the war, I had had no trouble finding employment and it never occurred to me that I would be jobless, nor that I had “walked off the top of the mountain”, as a colleague said. Broadcasting had become il stessa minestrone. I wanted to change my life. After ten years of marriage, our son had arrived. We sailed from New York to Naples; husband, wife, son and cat.


Henry Varnum Poor: http://www.graham1857.com/publications/henry-varnum-poor/

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