Oct 302017

The Dream, 1935 – Henri Matisse

I had done many cultural programs for CBS. I had either coached or written one-hour broadcasts featuring Stravinsky, Casals, Picasso, Gauguin and the Julliard music school. The obligation to broadcast high culture might have been a legal and moral duty, but in financial terms high art meant low ratings. When public broadcasting became of age, commercial broadcasting was happy to shift both art and responsibility to PBS.

I wanted to work for public broadcasting, but until the woman who had rejected Images of Jesus was fired, I could not catch their eye. Luckily one of my previous colleagues at CBS had moved into the congressionally funded Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB).

I was asked to do a series of shows on high art. The first was an essay on Matisse.

The Museum of Modern Art mounted a retrospective of the works of Henri Matisse, one of the most celebrated painters of the 20th Century. Almost a million people visited the exhibit. Just before it closed, PBS funded an archival visual record and an audiotape of the curator, John Elderfield. The technique was similar to the earlier film I had done on Picasso. Unlike CBS, where editing immediately followed filming, public television provided no money for completion.

Public broadcasting is a perpetual beg-a-thon for the independent producer. I spent three years searching for funds. I had the good fortune to be sheltered by Great Projects Films and its chief, Dan Polin. Dan is a brilliant documentarian and experienced at writing grant proposals. He kept our heads just above deep-water debt. The quarters on 42d Street and Eighth Avenue were far dingier than CBS News. (After eight in the evening, the hookers were on the street, a reprise of those Army days in Paris when I had first seen a Matisse. An odalisque print hung in Edward VII ‘s brothel, Le Sphinx, where I had an unauthorized tour.)

Now I had a freedom I had not known at the commercial network. No one could change anything I wrote. No one asked for a meeting to discuss the project. A later grant from CPB forbid them to edit or participate in the work, nor could the other not-for-profit contributors say a word. There was no silent urging to make the program more erudite or aimed specifically at the sexually active age group commercial sponsors prefer.

I speak well enough, so I narrated it myself. There would be no correspondent rewriting a line or two to fit his accent or his television image. My rule to myself was the same as I had urged on the producers who worked for me at CBS News. “Write and speak the script to an imagined friend, smarter than you, but who did not have the advantage of spending time and money in research.”

The initial two nights spent shooting at  MoMA were insufficient. I went to other sources: books, museums, and the organization that held Matisse’s copyrights. I learned to haggle.

Three years later,  MOMA’s contribution had all but disappeared. In the final cut were only three shots used from the original shooting. The curator had been polite but I hadn’t seen him again. Because we had initialed an agreement with the museum stating we would seek their advice, a meeting was scheduled before final production. Dan Polin, John Elderfield, and I met in the office of the woman in charge of public relations for the museum.

She was exquisite and elegantly dressed. Her breasts would have interested Matisse. Although she had not quite finished reading the work script, she bubbled with ideas. “A woman speaker would just fit Matisse because he so painted women! We have many feminine celebrities as members. Meryl Streep comes to mind. I could take her to lunch and ask her to narrate. Or Amanda. Glitterati!

“Miss, I am the narrator.”

She didn’t hear me. “Of course I‘ll finish the script before I send it to the star,” she said. “I‘ll make my comments, and then pass them on to John. And then you will incorporate his suggestions.”

“What’s that?”

“It was Mr. Elderfield’s work, and he should have the last word. The say-so.”


“Why no?”

“Because you are asking for final control of the script,” I said.

“Yes. We are the Museum of Modern Art.”

“Final cut. That’s a control I refused to give to the Pentagon. And you didn’t hear me when I said I was the narrator.”

There was a long pause. Beauty mutated into perplexity.

Dan Polin interjected politely. “This meeting is now over.” We stood.

“Please leave a copy of the work script with the curator,” she said. “John, make your comments. I’ll take care of this and we’ll meet later, Mr. Wolff.”

We sent the last script but there was no response until after broadcast. Just before it aired, the Museum threatened to stop it because we did not have the legal right to use three shots. We paid them $5,000 and never heard from them again.

Three years after two nights of shooting, the project finally aired.

The art critic of The New York Times snarled at An Essay on Matisse. She wrote that the show was superficial, boring, and made her yearn for  MOMA. She misspelled my name. I wrote an angry letter to the newspaper complaining that if an art critic could review a TV show, then a television critic could review an art exhibit.  And since their art critic had her facts wrong, I suggested that all critics be apprenticed to the obituary department where the facts—at least the spelling of names—had to be right.  The Times did not acknowledge my letter—because I did not send it.


Henri Matisse’s discoveries gouged the eyes of the art critics of his time. His detractors called him, King of the Beasts.

I found an old black-and white photo of an outdoor urinal, a pissoir, on the Boulevard Montmarte. On it, scrawled graffiti:

Matisse rend fou.”  Matisse drives you crazy.

Matisse = l’absinthe.”  Matisse is like dropping acid.

Not at all what he intended with his art. For Matisse, art was “a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.”

Because he often drew naked concubines on their beds, “armchair” seemed inappropriate to me. “Bed” would be better. Bed for love, bed for sleep—this is why I find his work both relaxing and exciting.

What made him “Roi des Fauves” or King of the Beasts, was his use of color. For example, he drew a portrait of his wife with a lurid green stripe down her nose. On one side of the green line is the face of one woman, on the other side is another woman. Since the Renaissance light and shadow had been the traditional ways of showing character contrast in the same individual. Amélie’s two moods are expressed in color, not light.

I have always resented verbal descriptions of pictures, so I won’t go on about his art. If there is a Matisse near you, go see it. If there is a well-printed art book,  buy it.


Matisse’s character attracted me.

He was French to the core. During World War II, his wife and daughter worked in the Resistance. The Germans imprisoned both. When some Americans offered to smuggle him out of his country, he refused to leave.

He said, “I have given the matter careful thought. My feelings about leaving France at this time are quite decided. It seems to me I would be deserting. If anyone who has any value leaves France, what remains of France?”

The two greatest artists of the century were Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. They were friends and rivals. Picasso had the reputation of a womanizing revolutionary, but Picasso’s reputation is exactly what Matisse didn’t want. When Matisse became famous, another New York Times journalist was sent to interview him. She found “not a slovenly eccentric but a man of simple and unaffected cordiality.”

He was no mad genius, nor fixated artist. In the photograph of the time he and his family are wearing riding clothes. “Tell the American people I am a normal man; I have a comfortable home, I ride horseback. I am a devoted husband and father, and above all I have three fine children.”

He had middle-class worries about going broke, or even blind. He thought he’d support his family by playing a violin on a street corner. There’s often a violin in his paintings. He insisted that his son Pierre learn the instrument for the same reason.

Yet he decided to be a beast. Even an impoverished, bourgeois fauve.

“I decided to discard verisimilitude. Why should I paint the outside of an apple, however exactly? What possible interest could there be in copying an object which nature provides in unlimited quantities? Accuracy is not truth!

I had a dealer who took everything I painted in the academic style at four hundred francs each. It was a living. One day I finished one these pictures. I knew on delivery I would get the money… but I knew if I continued, it would be my artistic death. The hands of the butcher and baker were outstretched. But I destroyed the painting and I count my emancipation from that day.”

He hired a helper who did chores around the studio. Lydia Delektorskaya was an orphan from Siberia who spoke no French. One day he asked her to change from her working smock into a gown made of a Persian textile. He painted my favorite Matisse, The Dream, and he wrote a note about the painting:

“Nothing is more gentle than love, nothing stronger, nothing higher, nothing wider, nothing more pleasant, nothing more complete, nothing better in heaven or on earth.”

(I wish I could send a copy of The Dream to whomever is reading this.)

A critic of the time wrote, “Matisse is not the first lunatic who has tried to paint the soul.”

His wife Amélie, the woman with the green stripe down her nose, was furious. She left him with the note: “You may be a great artist, but you are a bastard.”

He went to New York to visit his son, Pierre.  He went to America a number of times and he liked the American spirit. He wrote: “The great quality of modern America is in not clinging to its acquisitions. Over there, love of risk makes one destroy the results of the day with the hope that the next day will provide better.”

Matisse had reason to admire America. Claribel and Etta Cone of Baltimore were friends of Gertrude Stein. Early on they bought many Matisse paintings now hanging in the Baltimore Museum. One, Pink Nude, shows Lydia recumbent on a sofa. It took the artist six months to complete, and it had sixteen versions. After each nude session Lydia dressed herself again in her working smock and photographed the day’s work on black and white film. Then she erased with kerosene the passages the artists wanted expunged. We found all sixteen shots. By using dissolves and narration we showed how Matisse changed his mind sixteen times. The slow montage took ten seconds of screen time and the reviewer at the Times reluctantly called the sequence “enlightening”.

Of the over 200 PBS stations that were offered An Essay on Matisse, only twenty carried it when first presented. Except for New York, Boston and Washington, of the remaining seventeen, the broadcast was the lowest rated of the night. The ratings were so low as to fall into the area of statistical error. All in all, I estimate a few less than a million people saw it. About the same number who stood in line at  MoMA.

Immediately after An Essay on Matisse aired in New York I received a number of congratulatory phone calls from friends. Then silence.

It seems strange that three years of work should end with a few calls. But that is the irony: the more massive the medium, the weaker and less personal the response. Way back when my novel was published there was a book party, and while nobody was greatly emotional, momentarily I was, because my friends admired me. When my feature films played in France and New York, I could sit in the audience and feel the response. But in television, there’s just a flash in the face for an hour, and then it the work is gone, almost forever. Tuulikki and I watched An Essay on Matisse from our bed.

“And what did you think, darling?”

“It really was good. I like Matisse. I’d like to see the tape again sometime, and you are a genius and I love you.”

“Do you want to read?”


There was some revenge taken on the New York Times review.  A close friend said, “You were reviewed by the Times. It was a bad review.”

“I didn’t read it. Who reads television reviews?”

Then came the good news. The people at CPB in Washington didn’t read the reviews, didn’t look at the ratings, but urged me to do a companion film on Pablo Picasso for which they would provide sizeable funds. “We don’t care much about ratings when it comes to doing our duty,” said the head of programming.

Even more good news: a friend in Hollywood suggested we submit the program for an Oscar. Not an Emmy, but an Oscar. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is far more prestigious than The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. The Oscar is for films, the Emmy is usually for tapes. To compete, we would have to make a film of our tape.

It was technically possible to make the transfer. It took two expensive days to turn the electrons into chemical salts. The casualty was that in the transfer, Matisse’s glorious colors faded somewhat.

Films are shown in film houses, so we had to rent a theater in Hollywood for a week of direct projection. It wasn’t terribly expensive, and nobody I knew went to see it. Then, along with some thirty other short subjects, a committee judged it.  An Essay on Matisse, with four other short documentaries, was nominated for the gold short subject documentary statue.

Fifty years earlier, I had won my first award, a Peabody, for a radio series. At the time the Peabody Awards were only three years old. They came into being as a radio equivalent for the Pulitzer prizes. Only eight medals were given that year, and while the Oscars were already in existence, the Emmy Awards were five years away from taking form. As the years passed, the eight Peabody Awards became sixteen, then twenty. The Emmys started modestly, but at the last count some sixty winners were announced. The expansion also inflated the Oscars.

The reason was not a rise in merit, but a rise in income by increasing the number of categories, medals and statues. More backstage people joined the Academies, paid their dues and their dinner tabs. Awards are given for minor achievements like short subjects (An Essay on Matisse) or technical virtues incomprehensible to a general audience. Award shows are relatively inexpensive to produce, and the celebrities show up for no pay.

The Oscar is the leading award show and I was flattered. The Great Projects crew flew to California. I spent a few hours writing and memorizing a graceful, witty, totally improvised speech. Tuulikki selected a subtly tie-dyed high necked, flowing dress made by her Japanese designer, Reiko.

I don’t know what Henri Matisse would have made of the dresses the ladies wore to the Oscars. His concubines are sometimes partially or fully nude. But the dresses of the ladies of that evening plunged deeply, barely covering nipples and pubic hair. A lady usher in a double breasted jacket opened the door of our monstrously long limousine and saw Tuulikki’s dress which covered her from neck through ankles.

“That’s the most elegant garment of the evening,” the attendant said. “That‘s Japanese tie dye. How subtle.”

Matisse knew fabrics and was inspired by their patterns. He used a Japanese tie dyed textile as drapery in a painting done in his small hotel room in Nice.

As we entered, I saw a number of young men and women in formal dress standing to the side. They were dress extras, hired by the Academy to fill the chairs if someone left to go to the toilet, or get a drink. All seats were to be occupied so that the long shot of the audience would show no empty chairs.

On our left was Suzanne Farrell, the muse of George Balanchine and one of the great ballet dancers of our age. She was the subject of a long documentary. When she did not win, Ms. Farrell and her producers got up and left. Three dress extras were immediately sent to sit in the empty chairs for the next hour and a half.

We stayed in our seats. The critical moment was the opening of the envelope for our category. Unlike the camera shots of celebrities whose faces were onscreen when their categories were announced, no cameras searched us out. We were neither celebrities nor officers; we were enlisted personnel. For a moment, before the envelope was torn open, the camera director cut to our title, An Essay on Matisse, along with the titles of the other short films in our category.  I heard cheers, big hoots from my colleagues who had flown in from New York.

We didn’t win.

One of the CBS journalists I most respected was Jay McMullen, who had several Emmy statues. He once turned to me and whispered, “Awards are like hemorrhoids. Sooner or later every old asshole gets one. “

But it was pleasant to lose an Oscar in the company of friends.




Oct 162017

DVD Cover, Images of Jesus

During those last days at CBS, I received a call from Lee Boltin, who had been the chief still photographer at the American Museum of Natural History. He left the Museum to work for the Rockefellers. Whenever Laurance Rockefeller or members of his family went on expeditions, Lee was called in for photographic documentation. He amassed a large still library.

Each time Lee saw an image of Jesus Christ, he made a photo of the object. Now he wanted to make a documentary from his stills. Laurance funded the project. Lee had cancer. He knew he was dying, and he asked me to finish the work he had begun. He assigned the funds and the pertinent stills to me.

After I left CBS, I spent several months making a documentary called Images of Jesus — a history of Christianity told through photographed icons.

“How odd of God to choose the Jews,” wrote the British journalist William Ewer.

My friend and mentor Leo Rosten gave this response: “Not odd of God to choose the Jews. The goyem annoy Him.”

I think everyone feels uncomfortable entering a house of worship, a church, or a synagogue not his own.

As a writer in the house of language, it is difficult for me to think that “thee” and “thou” are second person familiar forms, equivalent to “tu” in French and “du” in German and Yiddish. For me “Thee” will always be so formal as to be capitalized. For me all Christian churches, no matter what denomination, are extraterrestrial. Yet I had accepted the assignment and started the research.

Lee’s photography led the way.  Because the glory was in the images, I wrote a short script…

While Jesus lived, no one made a record of his face. In his time, no one made a picture, or a sketch, or a painting. Since then every image of Jesus came from the minds and hands of those who lived after he died. Early Christians, by tradition forbidden to portray a graven image—at first too poor to pay for great art—scratched graffiti, signs that announced Jesus. A fish was the earliest symbol for Christ, the fisherman of men’s souls. The anchor was the hidden symbol of the cross because the cross was for criminals.

The first figurations of Jesus date from about 320.A.D. in the style of the ancient world — curly hair and no beard, an astonished shepherd boy.

The budget for the project was very tight, and I had to act not only as the writer-producer but also as the haggler-accountant. The editing equipment we rented was three technologies back. There were no cleaning facilities in the suite, but my enlisted status in the Army had taught me mop and broom skills. Nobuko Baba agreed to edit at union scale wages. The Japanese Jesuits had educated her and the subject matter interested her.

“To Hell with the Jesuits” was a notation I had seen on one of my friend Thomas Ryan’s legal lined notepads. Thomas was a Catholic in a constant state of grace. He acted as my unpaid religious guide, as he had on Luigi Barzini’s film, The Catholic Dilemma.

I had read about the schisms in Christianity but I had paid little attention to images, and the wars and killings those images had cost. I knew that the prevalent image of Christ in Europe was that of the crucifixion.

 Christ on the cross is the central symbol of Western Christianity. The portrayal of a God who felt the same pain humans feel makes it the most powerful image in Western Art. In the east in Byzantium, the central symbol of Jesus is not the cross, but a dark, bearded judge with the book of judgment in his left hand. His right hand gives a blessing. Later in Byzantium, small pictures called icons were placed close to the congregation. Some of the faithful fell down before the icons, carried them in processions, and lit the candles. This veneration horrified others who said only God was to be adored, not representations…even of Jesus or Mary or the saints. Those who would destroy the icons were called iconoclasts.

For some fifteen hundred years, the images of Jesus could be seen only in sacred places. The history of western art was confined to religious sites.

Every major artist through the Renaissance and many afterwards painted Christ. There were small geographical variations. In France, Italy, and Germany, there is only one nail through His feet. In Spain there are two. In Europe, Jesus is always white.

Then technology changed the way Jesus could be seen.

The invention of woodcuts and printing changed theology. For over a thousand years, the rich and the clergy had influenced the image of Christ. Now simple woodcuts like those by Dürer were bought by the illiterate thousands. For the first time, pictures of Jesus could come into the home. The technology underlay the Protestant revolt. Once more, images were destroyed. Inside the Protestant house of worship, there was only simplicity and literalness, so that no image stood between the believer and his God. According to Martin Luther, the over-elaborate Church costumes and architecture tainted the spirit of God’s Son. Jesus was not to be portrayed. So for hundreds of years, Protestants and Catholics went to war and slaughtered each other, in part because of the manner in which Jesus was shown.

Tom and I went to Canal Street in lower Manhattan to buy a crucifix for a baptism in his family. The Muslim merchant asked, “You want Jesus on the Cross or Jesus off the Cross?”

When we began to photograph the Irish Book of Kells, Tom asked,” Why would God send his Only Son as a Jew? He could have sent him to Ireland, for instance. Why is Christ a Jew?”

“Why did God send his only son as a Jew?” A theological mountain I cannot climb.

Until the age of colonialism, Jesus and Mary were always white. When Christianity came to dark people, mother and child changed color…and then Jesus became black. In Asia, the images of Christ’s blood and suffering were found offensive. In Chinese art, Jesus on the cross is small with no evidence of violence. If every man had God in him, then the eyes of Jesus could be Chinese. And if the West painted him on canvas, the Far East could paint him on silk. American Indians converted their totem poles to Christianity. A Mexican Indian wove a crucifixion in wicker.

Jesus was no longer a white Jew.

Gauguin painted him yellow, and painted a Nativity in which Mary was Polynesian. Gauguin painted himself as Christ. In New York in the 20th Century, Jesus was painted on a slatted steel door protecting a convenience store. While Jesus lived, no one made a record of his face. No sketch, no painting, no photograph. The look of Jesus has been created by Man.

The originating station was WETA in Washington. They forwarded a completed copy to PBS for national distribution. PBS rejected it on the basis that the photography was not good enough and that “in some places, the horizontal scan was improper according to PBS technical standards.”

Three years later, when I was more in favor at PBS, the new program director was candid with me. Images of Jesus was thought to be controversial. Religious controversy was not on the approved list of controversies. Vietnam, certainly; racism, certainly; sexism, but not too much; drug addiction, to some degree; but religion, don’t spend the money.

The head of WETA was Sharon Rockefeller. She found another distributor of public service broadcasts, and Images of Jesus appeared on hundreds of local stations. It stirred no controversy, but it embarrassed PBS because it won the prize for the best non-sectarian religious broadcast of the year. I received a Christopher award from a Catholic foundation. I never knew what the ratings were, but when the program was put on tape, it sold over twenty thousand copies.

Laurance ran out of tapes. His assistant called me and urgently asked if I could messenger six tapes to Rockefeller Center. He asked to be billed. I think the six tapes probably cost $18. I gave them to the Rockefellers free. A gift to Laurance. Philanthropy.

Later, I asked my taciturn Catholic lawyer friend if he liked Images of Jesus.  He said, “Only a Jew could condense the history of Christianity into fifty three minutes.”


DVD Cover, Images of Jesus, amazon.com

Oct 092017

Leo Rosten, author of The Joys of Yiddish

I have a violent temper. It doesn’t explode very often, but when it does I have a surge of adrenalin so tidal that it results in a two-day hangover. One snowy day in New York I walked in the middle of the street because the sidewalk was blocked. Some son of a bitch driving a Cadillac behind me honked. There was no place for me to go. He honked again. I turned around and punched his expensive auto. I couldn’t dent it, but I punched it again.

On the other hand, sometimes I have patience and reasonableness when I should have indignation. Sometimes these virtues are a mask for cowardice.

I was mugged on a misty day. A very large black man accompanied by a nine-year-old apprentice stopped in front of the Sherry Lehman wine store on Madison Avenue. He was better dressed than I and I took for him for a stranger in town with his son.

He asked, “Where’s West?”

I pointed to the other side of Madison Avenue.

He asked again, “Where’s West?” He was so tall I thought he might be talking about Jerry West, then a forward for the Los Angeles Lakers who were in town that day.

“I don’t know,” I said.

He had asked the question only to stop me and let some passersby go through. Once they were gone he said, “I want everything, or I will beat the shit out of you.”

My temper didn’t flair. My reasonableness may have been cowardice. He saw my watch and pointed at it. I gave it to him. He and the boy continued uptown at a more rapid pace.

I went home and called my friend and attorney, Thomas Ryan. He told me to go to the police precinct and report the mugging.

I did. I told them about the wallet and my watch, engraved with the CBS logo and my name. The police were friendly, and asked if I could identify the man from their mug book.

I tried. The identity images were blurred, particularly those of black men.

One of the cops said: “These aren’t photos. They’re just cheap Xerox copies. There’s not enough money in the budget to send real pictures to all the precincts in New York.

“WCBS TV could run a nice piece on the local news. Show a real photo and then show these miserable copies. Public service television. Budget cuts. Call your Mayor. Support the police.”

My watch was never found. The culprit was never found.

Senator Moynihan’s description of a conservative: “A conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged.”

Sevareid and I had done an hour interview with Moynihan before he had been elected. I had also met him when Luigi Barzini had me elected to a dining club chaired by Leo Rosten, an economist and the best-selling author of The Joys of Yiddish.

Leo called the group, “The Chaos Club” and he named himself, “The Board of Governor.” I was elected by Leo’s one vote to himself. The membership list was overwhelming, distinguished and conservative. It included Walter Wriston, the president of Citibank, Milton Friedman, Pat Moynihan and Alan Greenspan. However Leo had an inflexible rule. Any member elected to public office had to resign. His reasoning was that any politician had either to obscure or lie. So Moynihan and Greenspan had to leave.



Leo Rosten, author of The Joys of Yiddish,goodreads.com


Oct 022017

…came from several lines in The Moon Above, The Earth Below, broadcast twenty years after the first lunar landing. In the years after that glory, a great deal of hidden information became public.

Two decades later, “Man on the moon!” was a pleasant memory rather than an awesome anniversary. Twenty years later I wrote and produced a two-hour documentary mixing old and new footage with new information. It was my last documentary for CBS News.

I had known my time at the network had to end. All my protectors had left, and though the next two presidents of the division were hesitant, I was over age. Had I been an officer of the corporation I would have had to take mandatory retirement. Since I was not, someone would have to get rid of me—or I would have to quit.

My twenty-person staff had been reduced to two: an associate producer and a secretary. The greatest loss was a budget cut that stripped me from longtime news editors who knew the ethics of editing.

The later program, The Moon Above, The Earth Below, wouldn’t cost much. The small amount of new footage needed could be done in one day’s filming.

In the twenty years between broadcasts, both CBS News and the National Space Agency changed managements several times. Within limits, NASA opened its files. The recollections of scientists and astronauts who left the space program were available.

At the time of the approach to the first moon landing, there were no live pictures, just animated simulations and live audio.

When Apollo 11 reached the moon, the world saw only animation. But here is part what it heard:

Commander Neil Armstrong: Two thousand feet (above the moon). Two thousand feet. Forty-seven degrees.
Mission Control: Roger.
Armstrong: Program Alarm twelve-oh-one
Mission Control: Twelve-oh-one. Alarm, Alarm.
Armstrong: We’re go. Hang tight . We’re go.
Mission Control: Roger. Alarm. Twelve-oh-two.
Armstrong: Four hundred feet. Nine miles an hour.
Mission Control: Roger. Alarm. Twelve-oh-two.

It was my investigation into those computer malfunction program alarms, Twelve-oh-one and Twelve-oh-two, which ended my relationship with CBS News.

Those alarms meant disaster was so close, the mission should have been aborted. Protocol demanded Armstrong and Collins fire their ascent rockets and start back to earth. No moon landing.

At the moment, two astronauts were only four hundred feet above the moon. Protocol and safety were to be over-ridden. The space program had cost $25 billion and the lives of three previous astronauts. NASA’s decision: Risk two more lives, and don’t tell anybody about it for years.

Robert Jastrow, director of NASA’s Space flight Center, later declared, “It is cheaper, not dearer, to send men to the moon rather than to go there with robots.”

The men who landed on the moon left the space program within a year. Each astronaut was paid $17,000 per annum.

From “The Moon Above, The Earth Below,” the later broadcast, I wrote:

Dan Rather: Safety had been sacrificed to the goal of beating the Soviets to the moon. NASA had four priorities. The fourth was satisfying man’s curiosity about the mystery of the moon. The third was obtaining scientific evidence about the nature of the moon. The defense of the United States was the second urgency, but America’s leadership over the Soviets was the reason for Apollo 11. Who was first in space was first in the world, two Presidents had said.

Twelve-oh-one and Twelve-oh-two meant that the computer that was supposed to land the men could not do the job. The investigation into computer failure was blurred for years. IBM had built the device. Twenty years later IBM bought my new two-hour program. They asked questions they should not have had.

In the investigation, I found a villain and I found a hero. In later days, Neil Armstrong described himself as:

“I am, and ever will be, a white socks, pocket protector, nerdy engineer. And I take a substantial amount of pride in the accomplishments of my profession.”

He had also flown 57 combat missions in Korea.

Armstrong: Two hundred feet. Twenty one down. Thirty three degrees. Bring down the velocity. Down at nine.

Dan Rather: They were at nine miles an hour, forty feet above the moon, and they were supposed to abort the mission. The command to abort should have come from Mission Control in Houston. The computer whiz kid at NASA was 26-year-old Steve Bales. He was under great pressure; NASA’s 25 billion dollar pressure. The youngest man in the room was forced to make a quick decision. He said, “Go”.

Armstrong went.

There were only 30 seconds of fuel left and they were still 50 feet above the surface. Armstrong’s heart rate went to 160 beats a minute. (Armstrong later said: “I believe the Good Lord gave us a finite number of heartbeats and I’m damned if I’m going to use up mine running up and down the street.”)

I wrote:

Armstrong saw he could not land on the site selected by NASA and the computers. What was supposed to be a clear field was strewn with boulders the size of automobiles. It would be a fatal crash.

The computer and the site selectors at NASA had erred.

As a former pilot he took over. He disregarded computer guidance and tipped over the module so he could see what lay ahead. It was similar to landing a small plane from the side window. He glided past the crater. He directed Apollo 11 toward a field of his own choice. Ten seconds of fuel were left.

NASA didn’t know where he was.

Armstrong: Tranquility base here. The Eagle has landed.

My hero was Neil Armstrong, first human on the lunar surface. He disregarded a faulty computer and risked his life by landing at a site not surveyed by NASA.

It took the agency personnel some time to find him. He was four miles away from where they wanted him to land. When he touched the moon’s surface, he confused the world.

He mangled his first announcement. NASA’s public relations people had given it to him. He was supposed to say: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Instead he said: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

By leaving out “ahe confused almost everybody. It took several minutes for NASA’s PR people to correct the world’s press.

Neil Armstrong was an engineer, not an actor.

Just after he and Collins were on the moon, the Soviets tried to beat them by sending an unmanned spacecraft, Luna 15. It was to arrive on the moon and return to earth with lunar soil just hours ahead of the Apollo 11 crew. Instead it crashed just a few miles from them.

An American was first on the moon because we sent men with sense enough to override their computer.

About a billion people on earth saw the moon landing. Courtiers came to wake the Emperor of Japan and inform him of the moon landing. They did not have to wake him. He had watched a TV screen all night.

Yet some people did not care to watch. Hip and young people had been hearing about space for years. For some, space was square.

images — The Newport Jazz Festival —

Master Of Ceremonies: Hey—hey, they just landed on the moon, y’know. You might be interested. They made it. They made the moon. Anybody interested? Nobody interested. Goodbye, goodbye.

While they were on the moon, they were put through to the President of the United States, Richard Nixon. He congratulated them. There were two things the president did not tell them. The first was that his advisors had told him of the enormous risk in taking off from the moon. They had prepared a statement if Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin could not leave the lunar surface. The President would make a televised speech, and these are the words he rehearsed but never said to America:

Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace. These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery.…

They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by their nation… they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown…

Every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.

Also, President Nixon did not tell them that the aircraft carrier scheduled to pick them from the sea on return was scheduled to be the U.S.S. Kennedy. John Kennedy had promised the nation a moon landing, and it seemed fitting that a ship named for him participate in the event. Richard Nixon vetoed the choice and requested that the U.S.S. Hornet be the rescue vessel.

Just before the two men reentered the landing module for a successful ascent, Neil Armstrong made a curious remark: “Good luck, Mr. Gorsky.” Many years later, after Mr. Gorsky had died, Neil Armstrong explained his remark. Once when he was a kid, he was playing baseball with a friend in the backyard. His friend hit a fly ball, which landed in the front of his neighbor’s bedroom windows. His neighbors were Mr. and Mrs. Gorsky. As he leaned down to pick up the ball, young Armstrong heard Mrs. Gorsky shouting at Mr. Gorsky, “Oral sex! You want oral sex?! You’ll get oral sex when the kid next door walks on the moon!”

They returned to earth, to ticker tape parades, to a world that feted them and honored them. Armstrong received medals from 17 countries.

What made Neil Armstrong my hero was that he refused to become a celebrity. He was urged to run for senator. He was urged to run for president. Above all, he was offered millions on millions to endorse projects. He declined. He was his own man.

Neil Armstrong opened an electronics engineering firm, and become a professor at the University of Cincinnati. Like the old Roman Cincinnatus, the hero became a farmer. Now and then he would appear at space agency affairs. As for money and politics and fame, he was never available.

The broadcast closed with:

America’s interest in space has waned steadily since the first landing on the moon. Ten other men walked there, but they are footnotes to history. For decades, no human has been out of earth’s orbit. Today we stay within the shores of earth’s gravity, much as the ancient seafarers stayed with sight and safety of land. That other America, that other country, 20 years ago— they did things differently there.

The standard ethical procedure at the network required that I call in news officers to check my work before broadcast, in this case the president and a vice president of CBS News. David Burke was cold at the screening. I had included animations supplied by NASA but David thought they were too simple. He ordered up $50,000 worth of substitutes. There were no further comments from him, or the vice president, Joe P.

Joe had a word with me. “Go to Washington and see the representatives of IBM. They bought the show and want you to answer some questions.”

“Why am I going?”

“They bought the show. They want to talk.”

Unusual. I had never met the sponsors of any broadcast news, and sponsors were sealed off by a fireproof curtain. I thought the queries might be about promoting the broadcast. They were not.

IBM built the computer that failed. I was cornered between three large-sized IBM representatives. There was no polite exchange. They came directly to the point: “You talk too much about our computer failure.”

“How do you know what’s in the script? You haven’t seen it.”

“We’ve seen it.”

”You are not supposed to know what’s in broadcast,” I said.

“We bought it and so we know.”

“Go back to whoever leaked it to you and tell him to tell me.”

I was furious. I went back to Joe P. and told him that in all my years at CBS News, I had never had to get approval from the sponsor.

“It’s a money game now, at least for non-controversial documentaries. Play the game. Join up.”

It was over for me. I didn’t want to belong to an organization that had forgotten what it taught me. That earlier CBS had given me a good professional life and a generous pension. They didn’t want me, either. The parting took some time.

The Moon Above, The Earth Below had good ratings, and a fine press. An editing mistake was caught by a Florida paper, Space Times. The critic noted that the astronauts dancing on the moon were photographed in color. Color came with later flights. The free-lance editor made a mistake, and I missed it, but so did Burke. On the basis of the newspaper article Burke called in the CBS house lawyers. One later told me that every sentence was examined, every foot of film checked, and none of the attorneys could understand why so extensive a search was required. I was summoned to Burke’s office and fined $10,000. He was red-faced drunk. He threatened me physically when I tried to defend myself.

“Shut up. I can’t control my anger.” He raised his left fist and blessed himself with his right hand as if he were in church. “Such an error brings national disgrace on the narrator. There is no more Wolff unit.”

Larry Tisch, perhaps a baseball enthusiast, had sent the message. His double play was Tisch to Stringer to Burke. Wolff was thrown out at home plate. However, three months later, David Burke was thrown out too, fired for spending too much money.

I was still at CBS when Burke left. I was there when several months later as writer and producer of The Moon Above, The Earth Below, I won two Emmys and a Writers Guild Award for the broadcast. Joe P. sat at the Academy ceremony and though he looked uncomfortable, he congratulated me.

“Good job, Wolff!”

“Joe—go sit somewhere else.”

Revenge is not good when served old.

I resigned. There was no farewell party. Each successive day I brought home some files and tapes until the office was bare. Tuulikki had drawn a painting consisting of slightly grotesque heads with caved cheeks and no teeth. All talking at the same time. We called it CBS News and it now hangs in our living room. It was last to go.

I had few regrets leaving commercial television. I didn’t much like watching it. I had become a stranger in a world I never made. I came from BC, Before Cable, and I began to detest much of what I watched, until I realized that my dislike was generational. The fault was mine as much as it was the mediums. Television was responding to the sexually active, those between 19 and 49 who had money to spend. Ratings meant money. There was that flowing river, and there was that rusting pier.

The generation before mine wriggled its fingers at us, the greatest generation. Cole Porter wrote,

In olden days a glimpse of stocking
Was looked upon as something shocking
Now heaven knows, anything goes.
Good authors too who once knew better words
Now only use four letter words writing prose.
Anything goes.

Half a century ago, shortly after TV entered American homes in large numbers, it was attacked on the same grounds as it is today—it was destructive of morals, family life, overall decency, homework, dental hygiene, obesity, aggression, violence, reading habits and the finer things of life. The best answer I know came from David Fuchs who said, “I never restricted my children from watching television. I have four of them, and they all have Masters’ Degrees. The arguments are tedious on both sides. Leave them to the sociologists. It’s how they make their living.”


The Moon Above The Earth Below, www.allmovie.com.