Perry Wolff

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,

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,


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,





Sep 192017

Dan Rather and Walter Cronkite

In 1980, it was announced that Walter Cronkite would leave CBS News. There were two leading candidates. Roger Mudd, a brilliant correspondent who had ended Teddy Kennedy’s presidential hopes with a devastating interview and who had anchored The Selling of the Pentagon. Or Dan Rather, who had covered Vietnam over a long period and done a fine job during the assassination of President Kennedy.

At the time we had a beach house on Fire Island. Eric Sevareid and his new wife were one wooden walk away from us. Of all the correspondents with whom I worked, he was the closest and the wisest. He had not only reported on three wars, he had been under consistent enemy fire. In World War II, he was shot down in Burma and although he had not been wounded, he had been under dangerous conditions for days. Neither he nor I ever talked about it, but each knew the other had faced death. He read The Friend, admired the style and gave the book to his sons. I was flattered. My young son was pleased when Eric presented him with two stone Indian arrowheads he had found in Minnesota. Year before, when he was courting a new wife, he brought her to Paris for Tuulikki’s (my wife) tacit approval.

On the porch facing the sea, Eric asked me which correspondent I preferred.

“If Cronkite is going, that’s enough for me. They’re both good.”

“I want Rather.”

I knew he did. He had persuaded Dan to go to night school to shore up his education, and he had been instrumental in sending the young man to London as Chief Correspondent. England took some of the west Texas parochial out of him, and it introduced him to Saville Row suits.

“Dan’s your protégée. “

Eric said, “He’s too much like Murrow. He likes the trench coat. He’s a war lover.”

“But he’s your man?”

“Mudd would be safer. He’s less eccentric. But there’s a problem. For family reasons Roger never went to Vietnam. I think a war makes the difference.” He added, “I have an appointment with Paley. He wants to know which one to pick.”

Eric saw the head of CBS and Rather got Cronkite’s job.

Yet there was another story. The sales research department made tapes of both correspondents and showed them to test audiences for months. The head of sales reportedly said that Dan Rather scored higher, specifically “a million dollars or more in yearly billings than Roger Mudd.”

What troubled me was that company policy made all jobs mortal. That meant Dick Salant, president of CBS News, would have to retire at the mandatory age of 65. The Golden Age of news was there because of him. Salant understood the economics of running a commercial network, but he designed that firewall between news and entertainment. For example, when 60 Minutes began, it limped now and then towards celebrity television. At the beginning, ratings were low and reviews were bad. Dick asked me to share the executive producer job with Don Hewitt. I told him the job couldn’t be shared.

Equally troubling was that Dick’s successor, Bill Leonard, had only a year to oversee the transition from Cronkite to Rather. He was forced out by mandatory retirement.

After Leonard left, the new presidents came and went. They were respectful, but I was overage in grade. They didn’t try to get rid of me; they just paid little attention and cut back my staff. I noted the projects they approved were all cheap ones—stock footage mostly, and documentaries that did not require foreign travel.

The change came slowly.


Dan Rather and Walter Cronkite,



Sep 172017

I became the CBS News specialist in black documentaries.

I knew no blacks when I grew up. None at kindergarten, none at grade school. When we became middle-middle class, Bess hired a schwarze for heavy cleaning half a day on Thursday. I paid no attention to her; she paid no attention to me.

There were no Negroes in my Chicago high school. In my sophomore year I found black, big band jazz at the College Inn in the Sherman hotel.

Each of my friends and I would carry a glass and a slice of lemon peel from home to the hotel’s men’s room. To avoid paying an entrance fee we’d sling our coats on a stall door, fill the glasses with water, add the lemons and go upstairs with false gins and tonics. We stood before the Count Basie band and marveled. Eight brass, four saxophones, percussion and piano from ten feet away. How loud, how brilliant the beat! After the full band roared, Count Basie played a few quiet notes on his piano—a trill, an open tenth, silence, silence—and once more the blast of the full orchestra.

It was at the same College Inn where “Fats” Waller broadcast a comment that ended his radio career.  He looked at the all-white dancers and said into his microphone, “Where are all the poor people tonight?” The remark was annoying to dancers who just wanted romantic relations, not race relations.

In a saloon on Wabash Street, I was introduced by nodding heads to a professional jazz pianist named John no-last-name. Joe Shack, a white friend and talented pianist, made the introduction. John was so talented that when Lionel Hampton, the world’s best vibraphone player, played on the upper octaves of a piano, black John accompanied him on the lower octaves. Later, Joe and I mourned John no-last-name. The black genius was a gambler, and when he didn’t pay his bets, the Chicago mob broke his fingers.

College days. There were a few blacks at the University of Wisconsin, but there was no mingling. I won the drama prize for a one-act play, Georgia on my Mind, derived from a story I read about Benny Goodman’s trio: Goodman, Gene Krupa and Teddy Wilson. Wilson, who was black. was denied a hotel room in Atlanta while the two whites were accommodated.

I imagined and dramatized the indignant conversation, particularly words by Benny Goodman, a white jazz God. (I met him many years later. He would not have been indignant about racism.) Georgia on my Mind was chosen as the best one act of the year. Unfortunately, I was in the Army when the piece was performed to a mixed audience, and nobody wrote to tell me how the Negroes felt.

My racial ignorance continued in the military service. I never saw a black in combat, even during the Battle of the Bulge. Blacks were service troops. We knew their outfit as the Red Ball Express. They delivered supplies and went back to the rear echelon. The war was white-on-white.

It was only when I returned to Chicago and produced radio documentaries on race relations that I spent time among the Negroes. I took my tape recorder into the South Side ghettos and did interviews with community leaders. Being the one white among a group of blacks always meant wariness on both sides.

A decade later, things warmed up in New York when Of Black America won so many prizes. Until then, programs on race relations won high praise and low ratings. The series was an exception.  Bill Cosby was pleased with the results. His staff joked with me, but there was no social intercourse.

For that matter I never shared a meal with Bill Moyers, the correspondent on The Vanishing Family – Crisis in Black America a documentary that won more awards than any program in the history of television. It also changed America’s welfare pattern.

Moyers had been imposed on me by CBS News’ management, which didn’t know what to do with one of the most brilliant reporters of the time. He came with a small staff of excellent producers and fine ideas for documentaries.

We were asked to examine the welfare program, always a controversial subject. I always insisted that the first paperwork describing a project should end with the sentence “CBS news will investigate.” It meant that we had formed no previous opinions other than the subject needed study. After the team had done its homework, a decision would be made as to whether or not to commence filming.

At that time, the welfare program was a subject of much print discussion. But no one had done a detailed investigation into its flaws. Our initial search took some two months. No cameras were present. The producer and her associates went into the field, into the Newark ghetto where the peril was so obvious.

There never was a budget meeting. Only the camera crews and the editors were not on staff. Six more weeks of shooting, and eighteen weeks of editing—almost a year of work for a one hour documentary. Standard practice.

I could not understand why Bill Moyers was socially distant. I was willing to be his enlisted man, but I usually had closer contact with other correspondent-stars while most documentaries were in process. Taciturn as they were, Eric Sevareid and I, and later Dan Rather and I shared matters apart from business.

After Eric retired we continued to see each other. Sevareid had done three commentaries a week on the CBS Evening News, and as I learned later, this was the job Moyers most wanted.

Every four years, as meat-and-potatoes-television, Eric and I would do a stock footage resume of previous conventions. As the years went declassified, documents became more available. Some ten years after the 1964 Conventions, Eric gained access to earlier FBI documents. His assistant sent me copies.

Lyndon Johnson and Bill Moyers

In 1964, young Bill Moyers had been press secretary to President Lyndon Johnson. Johnson wanted the Democrats to nominate him by unanimous acclamation. He wanted solid hurrahs for his Vietnam policies and his civil rights legislation. He wanted no trouble with the assassinated President’s brother, Bobby Kennedy, and he expected complete loyalty from his vice presidential choice, Hubert Humphrey. There was to be no on-screen noises from the growing black power movement. The FBI was asked to conduct wiretaps on Humphrey and the militant blacks who might disturb a first ballot nomination by acclamation.

The FBI agreed to conduct the bugging. Cartha de Loach was assigned as officer in charge of the surveillance. He reported in writing to ‘Preacher.’  ‘Preacher’ was Bill Moyers.

“You will be pleased to know the Humphrey job has been successful,” De Loach wrote to the press secretary. Moyers passed on the reports and transcripts to Lyndon Johnson, who spent hours listening to the wiretaps.

Then Moyers asked de Loach to arrest some of the militant blacks. The FBI denied the request as a violation of free speech.

Although Sevareid had sent me the documents, we decided not to use them in the broadcast. Eric said, “That was years ago, and Moyers was the President’s loyal press agent. Anyway he was just a kid in his 20s.”

I was more troubled. Moyers’ essays on public morality did not square with his ordering of secret wiretaps. Somehow, years later, Bill Moyers was told I had the de Loach transcripts. Maybe that’s why there was coolness.

Yet, when he went into the field and reported on The Vanishing Family, his work was brilliant and impeccable. At the beginning, he and I thought the thrust of the report would be that the welfare system needed only fine-tuning. But the deeper the investigation, the more inept an inept government program called Aid to Dependent Children became apparent. The aid went to the mother and child. The father was relieved of responsibility; thus the program destroyed the black family. Moyers followed our research and discarded our preconception of fine tuning the existing government program. Impeccable journalism.

The producer, Ruth Streeter, led us. For weeks, she and her associate, Kate Krull, went into the darkest part of the Newark ghetto to choose the subjects for Moyers to interview. We chose Newark because it was closer to us, and because there were no doubt that the conditions there were similar to those in other inner cities.

It was risky work. The crime rate was so high, the streets so obviously dangerous, that the cameramen asked for physical protection for themselves and their equipment. Ruth hired a Newark cop, Shahid Jackson, to organize and help us pay for a protective guard.

Detective Jackson was raised in the slums of Newark. He told the camera that as a young man he “was lucky I didn’t get caught for some of the things I did. I grew up in the streets, and I still have some of the street in me.”

Shahid spoke the backbone of the documentary. He and Moyers were watching the women of the ghetto at the post-office on the day they called ‘Mothers’ Day’—the day the welfare checks arrived.

Jackson: “They know their food is going to be there, because with the welfare check come the food stamps. Welfare is what they are married to. They’re more married to welfare than to the guys lying in bed with them ‘cause he’s just a physical thing. The whole backbone of the family is coming out of government offices.”

Moyers: “And the men?”

Jackson: “A lot of guys I know just goes around lookin’ for welfare mothers. They may have six and make a little money from each of them. That’s their job, that’s their hustle.”

Ruth Streeter found one of the hustlers. Astonishingly, his name was Dickensian— Timothy McSeed. He had been imprisoned three times and hadn’t had a job in years.

The Father to be (McSeed): I ain’t thinking about holding up my sex, my man. If a girl she get—carrying a baby, that on her. I’m not going to stop my pleasures because of another woman.

Moyers: “What about birth control? Condoms?”

McSeed: “Girls don’t like them things. They don’t like them things. They tell me you take the things off. They figure you saying they filthy or they dirty or something.”

Moyers to another mother: “Why didn’t you want to get an abortion?”

Mother: “Because I wanted his baby. I liked his legs.”

Moyers: “His legs?”

Mother: “I got a thing for bow-legged boys. I just love them.”

Moyers to the mother: “Did you think about birth control?”

Mother: “No. I didn’t think about birth control. I was afraid of birth control because I always heard birth control give you cancer, and all that stuff. I wouldn’t want no man holding me down because I think I could make it as a single parent. Male figures aren’t important in family.”

Moyers to the father: “How many children do you have?”

McSeed: “Six. (laughs) I got six kids by four women.”

Moyers:He’s twenty six. He had two additional children by two other women, but one died in infancy and the other was aborted.”

Moyers (to McSeed ): “How did it feel to have those kids?”

McSeed: “Well, you get to see…if it’s something you’ve done…like carpentry…like artwork. Like they might grow up to be doctors or actors, and you can say, ‘Look that’s my boy or that’s my girl. You know there’s some people can’t have children at all.”

Moyers: “Doesn’t it make you feel bad that you can’t support your kids?”

McSeed: “Well, the majority of the mothers are on welfare. And welfare gives them the stipend for the month. So what I’m not doing the—the government does.”

Moyers: “On Father’s day, mother and father had their third son.”

Mother: “Fat-faced little baby! You hungry?” (Offers breast)

McSeed: (Looking at his newborn) “I’m the king! I’m the king! I got strong sperm. Most women say, ‘McSeed , you a baby-maker!’”

Moyers: “Why don’t you get married?”

McSeed: “Well, see, I’m old fashioned: I want a big wedding, that’s that. And my uncles and my aunts, you know, they all had their little tuxedos and I’m going to have mine, too.”
No writer would dare compose such grotesque dialog. A year earlier, in emotional fiction, Alice Walker had written The Color Purple. Her theme was the same: homes without men, child-women who had to be both mother and father, men who would neither father their children nor honor their women.

The broadcast brought hundreds of reviews and one sobering statistic. Of the 67 prime time hours on the three networks that week, The Vanishing Family rated 64th.

Naturally, the broadcast was repeated. But the local stations always resented low-rated documentaries that led into their local news. The hold-over audience was small and the local ratings dropped, and cut into their advertising revenue.

The good statistic came from Washington, DC. There the show had rated tenth. Legislators on both sides of the aisle requested copies, and California paid for three thousand tapes.

Within CBS, a committee of black women went to management and pointed out their families had not vanished, and the implications of the broadcast smeared all black women. Nothing was said to me.

The Vanishing Family won several Emmy Awards, as well as three Peabody’s, the Columbia Journalism School citation for the Best Broadcast of the Year, the Polk award, and I won a Writer’s Guild plaque.

I went to the Columbia Journalism award and accurately said I was just the coach. I refused to go to the others. Ruth, Kate, and Bill had been in the field. I had stayed safely in the CBS building and helped with the verbal and picture editing. The prizes were theirs, not mine.

I learned later that Moyers was hurt because I did not attend the other honoring ceremonies.

Timothy McSeed went back to prison several times on drug and robbery charges. He called Ruth Streeter several times from jail and asked for help she could not give. One of the women died. We lost touch with all the principals.

Years later, changes were made in the welfare program, based in part on The Vanishing Family, the nickname of the revised Aid to Dependent Children bill when it was in committee hearings.

After I left CBS, I attended a lunch honoring the most important man in the history of television news, Frank Stanton. On the dais were the correspondents and executive producer of 60 Minutes. Bill entered late. There was no room for him on the dais. The only seat available was facing me. He sat down, looked at me, got up and left.


The Vanishing Family, YouTube

Lyndon Johnson and Bill Moyers, Eve’s Magazine


Sep 112017

Joseph Colombo, in suit, marches in an anti-FBI demonstration.

I wrote an investigative report on the Mafia. When it was screened for the officers of CBS News I was told to get out of town at once, even before broadcast. What we didn’t know was that the Mafia was investigating us. The mob’s expert was the elevator operator at 115 west 45th, a building whose space had been rented for my unit.

An Essay on the Mafia was broadcast just before the release of The Godfather starring Marlon Brando. The film had been shooting on the streets of New York and The Italian American Civil Rights League had put pressure on Paramount Films to delete some words and scenes. They staged a rally at Columbus Circle protesting the defaming of the Italian community to a large crowd. One Joe Colombo who was shot the morning of the rally had organized the gathering.

All local TV stations covered the event. We had access to ten hours of crowd footage. Through police connections we had access to the mug shots and records of a number of spectators. We showed them, close up, and in some cases dissolved to their official mug shots as photographed by the NYPD or the FBI. For example, close to the speaker’s platform we found:

  • Peter “The Snake” Candarini had twenty two arrests and eight convictions.
  • Frank “Hots” de Sapio had twenty-two arrests for burglary, assault and robbery.
  • Tony “The Gawk” Augello was arrested by the FBI one week later. They found two loaded thirty-eights in his car.
  • Dominick “Big Dom” de Angelis, a gambler, was found dead on a Brooklyn corner with five hundred dollars in his pocket.
  • And twelve more, either in close up or zoomed into close-up. The New York Police identified at least one hundred faces in the crowd with criminal records.

During the four months of editing I kept the sequence under wraps. The editor, John Dullaghan, would lock the editing room door each night. His assistant was Ali Riaz, a bright Pakistani-American.

Our two on-camera Italian journalists were Nick Pileggi, who would later write a number of movies about the mob; and Luigi Barzini, a member of the Italian Parliament’s Permanent Committee on the Mafia. The broadcast was an attempt to stop the stereotyping of the Italian Americans as Mafiosi. Indeed, the original title of the broadcast was The Italian Americans. I wanted to keep the investigation into the American Mafia as a minor theme until the last moment.

The Italian-American story has been told, written and published at length by historians and sociologists, but in the popular mind it has been overshadowed by the drama of the Mafioso. The major theme of the broadcast was that the publicity around the Mafia is a corruption of the Anglo-Saxon’s traditional suspicion of the dark eyed Mediterranean.

Pileggi explained that the Mafia numbered at most 5,000, and the American Italian community numbered between ten and twenty million. Barzini noted that a small part of every immigrant group has made its way from the working class to the middle class by way of crime. The British, the Swedes, the Germans, the Irish, and the Jews all had an early criminal element. The Italians took over during Prohibition.

After the rally at Columbus Circle, we filmed The Italian American Civil Rights League marching and picketing the FBI’s New York headquarters. But they were not really militant. Instead of protest songs they sang and marched to Arrividerci Roma.

As a concession, the FBI stopped using the words Mafia and Cosa Nostra in its press releases. Even if the agency didn’t change its suspicions.

The working title of the broadcast, The Italian Americans, did not allay the suspicions of the Civil Rights league. They asked for an audience with CBS News and met with a vice-president to whom I reported. David Fuchs did not want to disturb our investigation. He said nothing to me. We continued editing.

Ali Riaz, the assistant editor, told me that he knew some of the wise guys we were researching. He hung out with them. Mulberry Street was a neutral zone, and Riaz lived nearby. Ali promised that he would say nothing, but he warned me there might be some pressure put on the broadcast. He also had connections with some policemen. As in Chicago, where Nelson Algren had pointed out to me, the New York police and minor criminals were woven into a crazy plaid.

115 West 45th had one elevator with a noisy sliding steel gate. Our offices required a key to open the lock just beyond the elevator gate. The elevator operator on the second shift was very big and very surly. He was not a CBS employee.

John Dullaghan came to me and said someone had entered his editing room the previous night. He was almost certain he had double-locked the editing room door and the door to the elevator. We were alarmed.

Two days later, John found an arm of his editing machine on the floor. It had been deliberately placed in the line of sight. Nothing had been touched.

At the time, Ali had access to the police files. A few days later he gave me a document. It was a mug shot of the elevator operator. The assistant editor asked me not to ask him any questions. He had obtained the police record of the elevator operator who had been a locksmith arrested for safecracking. He lost his license and went to prison for a short stay. After his release, he joined a union—a subsidiary of a construction union tied to the Mafia.

Now we knew who had been breaking into the fifth floor editing room. The problem was there wasn’t anything we could do about it. He stole nothing. He used his locksmith skills to open two doors, dismount a piece of equipment, and then leave, stealing nothing. One day, knowing that my door was open and two of my staff were in sight, I told him I had something to show him—his mug shot. I told him if he didn’t stop it, I would post it in the lobby for everybody to see before they got into his cage.

There were no further illegal entries.

From then on; however, I was uncomfortable riding to the fifth floor. He may have been showing off his discarded locksmith skills or he may have been showing the mob’s displeasure.

I went to the CBS Labor Relations officer to see if he could talk to the local union, but since nothing had been stolen, nothing could be done.

Richard Salant heard of the forced entries. Shortly afterwards he saw a final cut of the broadcast. The story of the elevator operator and the close-ups of the criminals bothered him. He thought I might be in trouble.

“Get out of town,” he said.

“Luigi thinks he can arrange a tour of the Vatican,” I replied.

“Just get out of town.”

Tuulikki and I spent a week in Rome waiting for An Essay on the Mafia to air.

In the early morning after the broadcast, I called my office. I was told Riaz had something important to tell me.

“I was with some of the wise guys last night,” he said. “Two of the men who we shot in close up.”

“Were they mad?”

“Absolutely not. They cheered. They were on TV. And the rest of the guys in the bar applauded them. Matter of fact, three others we might have shown were sore that we didn’t take their pictures.”

Not quite the end of the story. Luigi didn’t get permission to tour the Vatican. A year or two later, the assistant editor was arrested. Someone tipped off the police that Riaz had used CBS phones to lay off bets, relaying wagers from the bettors to the bookies. He went to prison for a short time.

When he got out, I asked him who turned him in.

“That elevator operator! He’s not a made man, but his union reports to the wise guys.”



Joseph Colombo, in suit, marches in anti-FBI demonstration,




Aug 302017

Walter Cronkite

I was the executive producer of The Selling of the Pentagon. Broadcast scholars now say that program was the most important documentary in the history of electronic journalism. I spent tense hours in the editing rooms working with the producer, Peter Davis. The scope of the First Amendment was tested by the war in Vietnam and by The Selling of the Pentagon.

America lost the war in Vietnam. Sensible people knew it was over years before the ruling class in Washington would own up to defeat. The United States government had long maintained a branch of Hollywood on the Potomac paid by taxpayers. The Selling of the Pentagon was an investigation into the public relations films and shows done by the military and underwritten by tax dollars.

The Selling of the Pentagon

Based primarily on an almost unnoticed book by Senator Fulbright and directed by Peter Davis, this CBS News documentary was investigated by the government. Many books, doctoral theses and essays were published in the years following. The broadcast had flaws, but in the main it nailed the Pentagon and forced it to change its propaganda.

Davis’s work was brilliant.

  • He caught the Army staging elaborate demonstrations with live ammunition of military weapons for invited VIP civilians.
  • He found the Pentagon had sent five of its own film crews to Vietnam to stage a battle in which our forces were triumphant.
  • He found further demonstrations in which children were encouraged to fight with each other and play with military weapons.
  • Compared to the amount spent by the Pentagon before the war, the public relations budget increased by fifty times.

Television had done so many Vietnam documentaries that the original ratings of The Selling of the Pentagon were low. After the military and its hangers-on in the press attacked the show, it was rebroadcast a month later to larger numbers. The House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce (today the Committee on Commerce and Energy), whose chairman represented a district flushed with military funds, led the attack. He was the same Harley Staggers who had investigated Project Nassau. His ally was another congressman from Louisiana who came from a district similarly endowed. Once more the legal argument was that the outtakes and notes could be turned over to the government. It was a replay of the Haitian story.

There was a storm within CBS. William Paley, chairman of the board, went behind the back of Frank Stanton, president of CBS. Paley tried to make a deal with the Speaker of the House. The Speaker said he did not have the power to overrule Staggers’ Committee.

Dick Salant, the president of CBS News, and I discussed the outtakes. I told him I had taken a reel of small trims home so that not all of the outs could be sent to the government. (I had done the same with trims from Project Nassau.) Salant thought that was a good idea. He took seven reels and hid them in the trunk of his car. We agreed we would give up the scraps only if Stanton asked that we do.

I was given warning by Peter’s wife, Josie Mankiewicz Davis, herself a brilliant writer. “You aren’t letting Peter do all those crazy things are you? Peter thinks that anyone who wears khaki becomes a fascist by osmosis!”

I trusted Peter Davis, but when the storm broke I was told to review everything once again. I called for the original transcripts of the interviews. I matched the original typescripts against what had appeared on the air. It was a tedious job, and I asked two researchers to help me. There were some forty hours of synced sound and a few errors became apparent.

  • An official had said “no” as an answer to a question, but the editor had entered a “yes” instead.
  • The same question had been asked several times, and the editor had made a composite answer from different takes.

To its credit, this time the network refused to turn over the material. Frank Stanton ignored his boss, Bill Paley. He refused to answer the subpoena. He was charged with contempt with the threat he could be imprisoned.

The contempt recommendation was sent to the full House of Representatives. The House had never before rejected a similar request. For the first time in its history the full House rejected its committee’s demand. The practical result was that from that day on broadcast journalism had the same protection as print journalism. Nothing was written, but the electronic news people were told to act as if they worked for a print medium. Stanton had accomplished his goal. The Supreme Court would never have the opportunity to rule on the subject.

For me, the most serious problem was within our own house. A few years earlier Walter Cronkite, the anchor of the CBS Evening News, had blindly read the narration for a crude Pentagon propaganda film. The film showed a red tide flowing out of Russia and spreading down over the Western world. The film was entitled The Eagle’s Talon.

Cronkite read:

Starting in WWII the aggressive Communist tide had spread in Europe and Asia to engulf its neighbors. Communist China even now has plans to dominate Asia by mass murder…Our army is face-to face with communist threats around the world. To meet immediate threats on any threat we must build-up our land forces at home and overseas.

The Red Tide oozed from the North Pole through Canada and down to Texas. Crude, even for the times, but embarrassing. So much so that I suggested the Cronkite section be cut from The Selling of the Pentagon. The cut would protect Walter and CBS News. It could not be done because we would have faced the criticism of self-aggrandizing. None of the viewing committee could ask Davis to make the cut.

The Eagle’s Talon had been sent to community and church groups for screening. Before we knew what the result would be, I went through all the transcripts to check if the edits had been made fairly. Immediately I found a number that were questionable, but I needed the help of two researchers assigned to the documentary. But they had been sent into the field to see how many times The Eagle’s Talon narrated by Mr. Cronkite had been screened.

Cronkite was furious with me.

From then on the most trusted man in journalism mistrusted me.

The correspondent who headed the CBS Evening News was more than a voice. Cronkite sat on the planning meetings, indicated what stories he preferred to have covered or not covered. There was a code in the newsroom, WW, meaning Walter Wants.  WW was top priority—scurry without questions. One WW just before airtime was, for example, “How long is Greenland?” There was nothing Arctic in the whole newscast. He made journalistic decisions, including the final wording of the scripts. Although he was surrounded by vice-presidents, executive producers and producers; the anchorman was more powerful than the officer class. He never fired anybody directly, but he could have people sent to the brigs and stockades.

I don’t know why Cronkite fixated on me instead of complaining to the administrators above us, but I surmised it had to do with our troubles on Airpower fifteen years earlier. I had forgotten, but obviously he hadn’t.

The following year was an election year. On election night, the CBS set looked like a Roman amphitheater with rows of monitors and correspondents. I was in the pit. During a rehearsal checkout a vice-president approached me.

“You have to move, Wolff.”


“You are in Cronkite’s line of sight.”

Ten years later I stepped into an elevator. Cronkite was alone. He saw me, glared, exploded a growl and said something I didn’t catch. He stepped out to take another car.



Walter Cronkite,

The Selling of the Pentagon,

Aug 282017

William S. Paley

I was asked to write a speech for William Paley, then Chairman of the Board of CBS. The Emmy managers wanted to recognize him for his service to broadcasting. Paley had not been satisfied with the drafts his speechwriters had given him, so the job was passed to me.

I don’t remember what I wrote, but in the middle of his remarks a buried joke made the dinner audience laugh and applaud. The chairman did not expect the response and was highly pleased. So pleased that I was called in to help him write his autobiography; a task that had been in the works for several years and had passed through the pens of several other ghostwriters.

I arrived at his elegant apartment on Fifth Avenue. The elevator door opened and the first sight was a large Picasso painting of a man and his horse. The apartment itself had been done with high style by Billy Baldwin, a leading interior designer.

19th Century Empire Recamier Couch

There was one eccentricity. An Empire Recamier couch had a curved hand rest, and Mr. Baldwin had slit the silk so that the white stuffing was prominently visible. I never asked about it. Behind the couch was a lovely Gauguin from his Brittany period. It featured hooded women doing their washing by hand. Perhaps there was a workers’ connection between the ripped stuffing and laundry.

I had a connection to William Paley from outside broadcasting. Years earlier when CBS Chicago fired me, my Aunt Minnie suggested that Uncle Bert Billow get in touch with Sam Paley, William Paley’s father to see what could be done. Uncle Bert Billow was later found in a ditch, shot dead. He had been a union organizer. One of the locals he monitored was the Chicago Cigar Makers’ Union, presided over by Samuel Gompers, founder of the American Federation of Labor. Sam Paley was in the cigar business: La Palina Cigars.

Rolling cigars was a repetitious business. Many of the workers were Russian-Jewish immigrants, refugees from the same villages as the Paleys and the Billows. One of the conditions the union imposed on the elder Paley is that he employ a fulltime reader—a man who sat in a stool above the workers and read aloud while the workers hand glued the cigars. I never discovered the texts, except that Gompers required Marx be read.

Aunt Minnie decided against appealing to Sam Paley. By that time Bert Billow had left the labor movement to become a bailiff in the corrupt Cook County judiciary, and Sam Paley had taken his company to Philadelphia, where his son William hired a group of unorganized women to oversee the new machines that could roll cigars.

William Paley’s autobiography, As It Happened, gives no credit to the ghostwriters who shaped the book. At the time I entered, the primary ghostwriter had taken to alcohol. Paley asked me to be the ghost of the ghost. I was to tell no one of my work.

We sat at a Louis XV ormolu desk. The kneehole was just large enough for the boss, and I sat next to a leg whose metal embossing scratched my pair of expensive French leather shoes. In the middle of the table was a very large silver bowl blooming with two dozen expensive black pencils. Behind us stood John Dean, Paley’s valet, who carried his arms in perpetual parentheses.

I wrote at home, brought the revisions to Paley and he slowly copied them in pencil into his manuscript. They were now his changes. The ghost of the ghost was hidden. He was graceful with me. I was from Chicago and I knew something about his father and the cigar business. He liked a few of the early changes. We had three-course lunches together. When the work was finished he offered me a lift to my office. He had two cars: the first driven by a chauffeur who had studied at Agnelli Driver Training and had learned the basic tactic of avoiding kidnappers by driving in reverse at high speed. The second car had some sort of armed guard in it.

Paley would get out of the car at Black Rock, the corporation headquarters, and the second car would peel off. The moment the Paley was out of the car, the lead driver took off the cap of his uniform and reluctantly drove me to my office. He said nothing, and left me on the wrong side of a busy street. The servant knew more about class distinctions than the master.

It may have been because of our distant family connection, or just luncheon talk in his elegant dining room, but Paley was friendly and respectful. When he asked about my war experiences, I told him about my meeting with Henry Kissinger during the Bulge.

“I see Henry often,” he said “He wants a little too much from me.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, he wants to be on the board of CBS. He’s a good social friend but we don’t need him,” Paley continued. “Henry called one day and said that NBC and Sarnoff wanted him for their board, but he preferred CBS. Then he told me, ‘NBC is offering a large sum, stock options, and a car and driver.’”

Paley continued. “I told Henry ‘what a generous offer! Take it, take it. We can’t come close.’ He tried to be too sharp with me but we’re still friends.”

“Do we put this in the book?”

“No, it would embarrass Kissinger.”

The end of the affair began when I told Paley that the manuscript had an error of omission.

“You left out somebody.”


“Frank Stanton is barely in the book. You and he made many decisions together.”

He reddened. “What do you know about him?”

“I have never met him. But he was so courageous with his stand on The Selling of the Pentagon.”

“Skee, you go home and write down everything you know about him. I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”

I wrote that night and returned the next morning. What I knew about Frank Stanton was second hand. It turned out to be accurate. President Truman asked him to be Secretary of Commerce. Eisenhower placed him in his shadow cabinet if the Soviets wiped out Washington.  Johnson gave him the choice of Secretary of Commerce, or second Secretary of State.

What Paley didn’t say is that Stanton had a far more respectful press than he, the Chief Executive Officer of the Columbia Broadcasting System. And that’s why the President of network would not be included in As It Happened.

Paley read my notes, threw them aside and turned to me. “Stanton spent too much time in Washington and too much time with businessmen. You don’t know anything about the nasty side of Frank Stanton. He is not like us. You and I get red when we get mad. Stanton and Murrow turn white when they are angry.”

He turned red while he excoriated Stanton. Then he threw away my notes. The ghost of the ghost was being exorcised. I became past tense in his next sentence.

“I suppose you would like some compensation for the work you have done.”

“No thanks, Mr. Paley.”

“There has to be something.”

He had a small Giacometti oil on his desk. I looked at it.

“Are you crazy?” he said.

Paley and Stanton were generals, in business terms, top management. Several echelons separated me from them—about as far as I was separated from General Bolling of the 84th Division during the war. My contact with Paley was coincidental, and I met Stanton just once in my forty two years at CBS. Paley’s agents bought him Gauguins and Picassos: Stanton, by himself bought Jackson Pollacks. Paley’s billets were Louis XV and XVI; Stanton’s command post was furnished in Knoll chairs and Eames décor. Paley bought and sold television stars and shows, Stanton built the business side of the network. Together they created the Tiffany Network. Together they created CBS News, the finest broadcast news operation of their day. On the very day Stanton turned 65 Paley turned him out; forced him to resign.

In his diatribe against Stanton, Paley had told me, “Stanton spends too much time in Washington.”

There may have been many reasons to get rid of him, but certainly one was the accolade given to Stanton after he risked jail rather than give the government outtakes of the documentary, The Selling of the Pentagon, broadcast during the Vietnam War. His stand gave television journalism the same First Amendment protection as print receives.



William S. Paley,

19th Century Empire Recamier Couch, Bonnin Ashley Antiques, Inc.

Aug 212017

Jay McMullen, writer and producer of Project Nassau

I was coach or player on some two hundred documentaries. I faced polite competition within CBS News, particularly from the newsmen who reported on a daily or weekly basis. They called themselves “hard news” and because documentaries took more time, the phallic overtone was obvious.

In those early days, there was a common problem for all electronic journalists, hard or soft. The question was whether the First Amendment protected television news as it did print news. Unlike newspapers or magazines, where anyone rich enough to buy a printing press could publish anything he wanted, the right to broadcast in assigned frequencies had been given by the Federal Government. The government could take back its gift – or in some ways restrain what was said on the electronic highways.

The simplest answer would be to get a decision from the Supreme Court, but Frank Stanton refused to force the issue. He was afraid that the conservative court would rule against TV News. There had to be another way to go.

In the meantime, we were instructed to answer subpoenas and turn over notes and outtakes. I received such a subpoena. The language was hostile and nasty. One James Kelly, a Federal Marshall was commanded to summon me to a sub-committee hearing headed by a southern aristocrat, Harley Staggers. Staggers was highly critical of the press, including television. In turn, for liquidity reasons, some of my colleagues called Chairman Staggers, “Blind Staggers”.

I spent four days before his committee while it investigated a documentary which never aired, Project Nassau. What we did not know at the time was that the FBI, the CIA and the Coast Guard had infiltrated Project Nassau.

The writer-producer, Jay McMullen, followed a group of Haitians who planned to overthrow the government in Port au Prince. The rebels purchased guns from an arms dealer in Atlanta. They planned to bring the weapons to Florida, stow them in a boat, and take off for the Dominican Republic from which they would strike Haiti. Project Nassau would follow the insurgents.

Jay and I were watching some rushes when the face of arms salesman appeared. Coincidentally another producer, Igor Oganesoff, was in the room and saw the face. He said, “That’s Earl Warbell. He went through CIA school with me, and he is still with the agency.”

We were startled. We did not know that Warbell was anything but a gun salesman. Nor did we know the FBI had also penetrated our operation. At the time carrying, automatic weapons from Atlanta to Florida was a federal offense. When the Haitian insurgents crossed state lines, the lead cameraman called the FBI. We knew nothing about the phone calls.

The United States government was at odds with itself. The CIA wanted the rebels to overthrow the Haitian government. But if the invaders came from a Florida port, the Coast Guard would be disgraced. Part of the Coast Guard’s mission was to stop the illegal flow of arms from Florida. It was impossible for their small fleet to intercept the thousands of boats in Florida’s waters. In any case there were only twelve insurgents in an auxiliary powered sailboat.

Yet if rebels succeeded in overthrowing Papa Doc, news coverage would follow and the Coast Guard might get unfavorable press for letting the sailboat slip through. The FBI had tipped off the Coast Guard who seized the boat, arrested the conspirators, got favorable coverage and ruined the CIA’s mission.

In the middle of the mess McMullen found the cameraman had faked some footage, and the whole project was called off. CBS had invested more than $100,000 in salaries and logistics. The footage was stored.

Two years later, the House of Representatives sent a subpoena demanding our notes and the outtakes. I oversaw the packing of the film, the outtakes, and the negatives. They were put in large cardboard boxes tied securely with large copper wires. Notices were placed on the cartons: HANDLE WITH CARE & NEGATIVE FILM ENCLOSED.

I received a nastily-worded subpoena from a subcommittee of the House Commerce Committee. I was called as a hostile witness, as was McMullen. Since we were hostiles, an attorney could accompany us, but he could only be consulted if we felt our Constitutional rights were being violated.

The low point for me came from a question put by a congressman: “Mr. Wolff, you say Earl Warbell was a CIA agent?”

“Yes, we had positive identification from one of our correspondents that the two of them were in the same training classes at the CIA.”

Congressman Moss indignantly replied, “This man is not a member of the CIA, nor has he ever been. I know because I personally called the CIA and they denied he had ever been in the agency. I personally called them!”

I started to ask, “Do you think the CIA would identify one of its agents?” when the CBS lawyer nudged me violently.

Moss said, “Please don’t turn to your attorney unless you think your civil rights are being violated. “

The House Committee recommended CBS be sanctioned by the FCC, but the oversight agency refused the recommendation.

The boxes came back exactly wrapped as we had sent them. It would have taken hundreds of hours and tens of thousands of dollars to examine the outtakes. Some rolls were so tiny that they probably could not have been spliced together. Bits of films are a lot different than reporters’ written notes.

Later, the scope of the First Amendment was tested by the war in Vietnam and by The Selling of the Pentagon, another documentary I coached.



Jay McMullen, writer and producer of Project Nassau,, Vet investigative reporter Jay McMullen dies, March 10, 2012.