Perry Wolff

Aug 142017

Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin on the moon; July 20, 1969

December 7, 1941, the day Pearl Harbor was attacked, I was on Langdon Street in Madison Wisconsin. April 12, 1944, the day Franklin Roosevelt died, I was on a hillside in Germany.

The day man first landed on the moon, twenty-five years later, was expected to be a similar nation-binding day. Two months before the event I was commissioned to do a documentary: A Day in the Life of the United States. It wasn’t supposed to follow the mechanics of the Apollo 11 mission. It was to be a portrait of the United States on a summer Sunday afternoon.

I sent out 43 camera teams. Anybody at CBS News who had an idea needed only to jot it down. I received over a hundred suggestions and commissioned thirty one. The only requirement was that they be photographing at the moment of touchdown.

What we would like to show you, our great great grandchildren, are some of the things that usually go unrecorded: the sound of our accents, the look of our faces, how we were with one another—on the day man first landed on the moon.

History, you’ll know on what day the Vietnam War ended. You’ll know whether the racial tension in this country tore us apart. We hope you’re there, history. We hope we didn’t blow the world apart…or pollute our genes… or disappear in the apocalypse.

In my twenties, one of my favorite writers was John dos Passos, author of the trilogy USA. He is not read much today. USA was an attempt to make a literary photograph of the whole country; a collective word portrait of America in the late 20’s, rather than a series of plots. Although there was no television, there were movie newsreels. In USA, dos Passos wrote a series of views called The Camera’s Eye, and Newsreels; imaginary pictures as if photographers were there.

In 1969, now that the cameras’ eyes were truly there, I could follow the writer’s vision.

Correspondent: On the day man landed on the moon, our forty three cameras recorded only one hundred hours of American life…and Americans gave up some five billion hours of their lives this day.

If you listen closely, you’ll hear some of the short stories that make up the great American novel of our times.

FILM CLIP: the lower East Side of Manhattan—

Merchant: Hey, we talk languages here. (TALKS SPANISH) Hey, I got it on sale here. Hey, help me keep my wife in the country.

FILM CLIP: Birney, Montana—

Man: Money doesn’t make a bit of difference as far as happiness is concerned.

Woman: Oh the heck it doesn’t! You’ve got to have enough to live on, to pay your bills and send you kids to school. And if you don’t have that amount of money, and you can’t do it —-

FILM CLIP: Brookline Massachusetts Old Age Home—

Interviewer: Do you fear dying?

Old Man: Well I’m not in any hurry about it. I’m thoroughly conscious of the fact it’s coming, so why fight it?

FILM CLIP: Chicago, Illinois, 43rd and Langley—

Black Man: We blacks have been here since Jamestown, but we haven’t cleared customs yet. Four hundred years of traveling, and it’s been economy class all the way.

FILM CLIP: Las Vegas, The Little Chapel around the Corner—

Preacher: So now that the two of you have found each other and are come together, perhaps we can be at the end of having just two halves.

FILM CLIP: Las Vegas, The Slots—

Woman: I don’t get along with him. He went over the baccarat tables and he’s playing with one hundred dollar bills, so he said “Here honey, here’s some nickels, go have fun at the slots.”

On the day we landed on the moon we picked up many people watching other news. One day earlier, Senator Teddy Kennedy had driven off a bridge in Massachusetts. A woman with him had been drowned. The senator went into a nearby town, but before he reported the incident, the political power of the Democrats surrounded him, and his press agent, one David Burke, refused to let anyone say anything. The news department at CBS had appropriated one of my camera teams and it was hanging around Edgartown waiting for Burke to let the senator talk.

“Burke’s a hard ass,” the newsroom supervisor said.

Later, I would find out how hard.

Celebrities were watching…


Pamela Churchill: I think the moon is romantic.

Herman Mankiewicz (writer of Citizen Kane; director): You’ve got to have some suspense going for you when you get there. You know you just can’t get there and then—-you know it’s a big nothing. They get there…they’ve got to get there just in time for something.

Pamela Churchill: And they spend two hours there—-what do they do for two hours?

Mankiewicz: Study their lines if they’re working for me. (LAUGHTER)

FILM CLIP: Travis Air Force Base, San Francisco—

Correspondent: Even before July 1969, Vietnam had become the longest war in American history. A quarter of a million men had been wounded in that combat. The wounded were brought in ambulances, and before they were hospitalized again, a full colonel who was a finance officer addressed them. The amputees listened to his speech.

Colonel: Now when you left the live fire area, most of you left all or at least a part of your personal gear behind. Submit a claim for all items of personal property which are lost. Please bear in mind the only way old Uncle Sam can repay you for your personal property which has been lost is for you to submit a claim to the government for reimbursement.

Now the tax exemption that you all enjoyed in the live fire area, gentlemen, will continue so long as you remain in the hospital. So when you start to make out these stateside income taxes, be mighty certain that you take full advantage of all the exemptions you’re entitled to. Exemptions are might hard to come by in the states, gentlemen, so use what you brought with you.

Any questions on this?

Hold on a long shot.  Silence.

Then, on that Sunday afternoon, July 20th, 1969—

Houston: 60 seconds.

Eagle: Lights on. Down 2 1/2. Forward. Forward. Good 40 feet. Down 2 1/2. Picking up some dust. 30 feet. 2 1/2. Faint shadow. Forward. Forward. Drifting to the right six down, a half. Forward Contact light. Okay Engine stop ACA out of detent.

Houston — Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.

Houston: Roger, Tranquility. We copy you on the ground. You’ve got a bunch of guys about to turn blue.

It took me twelve months to edit the material I received from the 32 teams.

This was the first film I made that went significantly over budget. I had held those crews for an extra day and the overage was significant. Then president of CBS News asked me what had happened. I told him. I wasn’t sure the astronauts could get off the moon in their flimsy return craft, the LEM. If July 20th wasn’t to be a day of triumph, July 21st would be a day of national mourning. Washington had made similar contingency plans. Salant agreed. Nothing more was said.

I was no Dos Passos, and I hadn’t captured the spirit of the continent. But, strangely, America’s interest in space, even the moon, began to fade. July 20, 1969 was not Pearl Harbor, nor the death of a great president. The Space Program took up less space and less airtime in the following year.

I edited a thousand hours to two hours, and was asked if I could cut fifteen minutes so a sports event could run late. A Day in the Life of the United States ran on Labor Day Weekend, to a small audience.

Twenty years after Apollo 11, I came back to the event. I did more research. It got me fired.

In all that data recorded above, I missed two cues: “Program alarm twelve-oh-one” and “Program alarm twelve-oh-two.” Twenty years later my research discovered the technical reasons Apollo 11 should not have landed on the moon. Computer malfunction. The corporation that built the computer complained to the corporation that paid my salary.

I should not have known about the complaint.



Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin on the moon; July 20, 1969:


Aug 092017

Laurence Olivier

Twenty years after World War II my combat memories no longer throbbed. Twenty years is more than half a generation. Writing about an event twenty years later is neither journalism nor history. I embarrassed myself because I could not rise again to those first emotions. “Every hero becomes a bore at last.”

Yet World War II had an afterglow unlike any war ever since. The evil that was destroyed was greater than the evil of war.
Victory over evil set the style of “1945,” a broadcast made in 1965.

The images came from the battles of World War II. The bearded, unshaven, frightened, resolute, dirty faces of youths in combat were counterpoint to William Walton’s music and Shakespeare’s words from another war.

Henry V addressed his troops before the battle of Agincourt, centuries earlier. Laurence Olivier spoke these words over the faces of men in battle:

He that outlives this day and comes safe home
Will stand a tiptoe when this day is named.
Old men forget; but none shall be forgot
But he’ll remember with advantage
What feats he did that day: then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words,
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
This story shall the good man teach his son
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered,
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.
For he that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother…

It took weeks to edit the faces of combat troops into that passage. William Walton’s music underscored Shakespeare’s word and dictated the pace of the editing. When it was finished, it became one of the finest montages in my memory.
It was in black and white, of course. The paradox is that color is the way we see: color images are documentary. Black and white is another time, another place; an imagined reality.

The balance of the text recalled the events of that momentous year: the end of the war; the beginning of the cold war, the atomic bomb. A last sequence was a very long passage without narration after these words: “The human desire to take up peace swept over everything else.”

No words for five minutes. Images of the troop ships coming home. Images of men hugging and kissing their families. The veterans who obviously boomed in bed led to very good long shot of a dozen newborn babies squalling in their hospital cribs.

The sequence was cut to music not often heard in the years that followed. Morton Gould had orchestrated “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” into a brisk and overwhelming hymn of triumph. Trumpets, violins, clarinets marched at a 120 beat.

We have had no reason to sound a note of triumph for the wars after 1945.

The next to the last words of my script:

Somewhere in our atmosphere hang electrons released at Hiroshima; but somewhere in our collective spirit lies the knowledge that we fought for something that is eternally right—and we won.


Laurence Olivier: NY Daily News

Aug 022017

March 7, 1969: CBS News Reports Televises “The Homosexuals” hosted by Mike Wallace.

In more modest days CBS News had rules about screen credits. The front credits could not contain anyone’s name, and the back credits could not be longer than thirty seconds. All credits were to be approved by a vice president; and no administrator, including vice presidents, could take any screen credit, ever.

It was different in the commercial television and film worlds. The opening credits are often mystifying. The directors and writers are union members and their credits were unalterably placed by hard labor-management negotiations. The Writers Guild of America takes the next to the last credit; the Directors Guild of America is last. The producers are not unionized. That’s why there are many, many producers’ credits.

In America today a dollar buys what a nickel bought at the beginning of the 20th Century. The same pressures apply in front screen credits. Inflation.

In mid-20th Century, a producer was the man who put the whole thing together. Producer inflated to Executive Producer, and for some time he was the man who put the whole thing together. But because there were no unions to protect the title, inflation continued. Today Executive Producer denotes any executive who touched the project—the fundraiser, the lawyer, the agent, and almost anyone who executed the deal. In short, anyone who has a telephone can call himself a producer.

What you rarely see today is the only title deflated over time. Associate producer meant the producer’s mistress and it is almost never used.

When I was promoted to executive producer, both the title and the job made me uneasy. Superficially, I was to oversee the producers’ expense accounts and budgets. (I fired only one producer for cheating. He found a restaurant in New York with the same name as a distinguished men’s store. He charged fictionalized dinners and came away with a new suit. His television work was less imaginative.)

What was more difficult was judging the process of an investigative or cultural report. I would drop into the cutting rooms and look at rushes coming in from the field. Or, as the broadcast neared completion, I could be an editor-coach. It required aggressiveness.

The subject of the first broadcast on which I was to take executive producer credit was homosexuality.

In the mid-1960s, public discussions of homosexuality were rare. The Stonewall riots were a few years away. No serious documentary had ever been done on the subject, but for two years, CBS had been filming interviews. The subject was to be covered scientifically and a leading psychiatrist was to guide Mike Wallace through the discussion.

I don’t know if Eugene Spratti caused my distaste for the topic. Before I had reached puberty, and just after he had, Eugene cornered me in a basement coal bin on Cornelia Street in Chicago and tried to put his erect penis in my face. I screamed, and he ran.

During my tenure at the American Museum of Natural History, I had heard behavioral scientists discuss the matter. Same-sex intercourse existed in some primate species. I think the question was whether monkeys who practiced it were the social rejects of the group. But those were distant words, long ago.

The homosexuals interviewed by Mike Wallace were lit with shades around the lights. Their faces were interrupted by shadows shaped like palm fronds. The key interview was between Mike Wallace and Gore Vidal. Wallace reflected the homophobia of the time, but Vidal was hardly defensive. The psychiatrist-expert was earnestly dogmatic. To the greatest degree, homosexuality was the mother’s fault. Mothers-child problems caused homosexuality, and on this broadcast only males were shown and discussed.

It was too much for me. I had not participated in the planning, shooting nor preliminary editing. For every minute on the screen, there were at least thirty minutes of out-takes I had not seen. I would not put my name on the credits.

I tried to explain my decision to Fred Friendly, who said, “There has never been a CBS Reports without an executive producer credit. But take your credit off. We’ll run the show in a time when no one will see it.” Then he added, “I tried to fix it for a year or so. I thought maybe you could do it. We’ll bury it in the schedule.”

I tried to explain my decision to Mike Wallace, who said, “Listen to my closing. Maybe it will change your mind.”

I listened to that brilliant voice at its most persuasive. I was not persuaded. Years later, Wallace asked me why he had been such a damn fool to do the show. Unfortunately, the CBS News Library was well run and had filed the script properly. A gay employee found it and distributed it. Mike has had to live with it ever since.

My experience with “The Homosexuals” reminded me of a promise I had made to myself after writing soapy dramas in Chicago. I wrote the scripts and then someone came in to change the lines and the readings I had heard in my head. He was called the director. Obviously, to insure my writing, I had to become a director. I then found that as the writer-director, there was some fellow on the phone telling me I was either over-budget or over the time limit. He was the producer. I had to become a writer-director- producer to further insure my writing.

The next logical step beyond writer-director-producer was to go into the insurance business—become an executive producer or vice president. In either case the writer, would be lost.

What I wanted to do were broadcasts that I wrote, directed and produced by myself. Non-fictional essays. At first I had to plead for two a year; later I was urged to do more. Still later, when another executive producer was promoted to a vice presidency, a senior vice president, Bill Leonard asked me if I would like to be a junior vice president. It was only fair, he thought.

I refused. All vice presidents are disguised insurance agents.

Bill was much relieved. “I would have had to lower your pay by ten thousand a year. Anyway, I’d lose two great documentaries a year.”

I remained a writer, and what I did lose were the stock options I would have received as an executive. In television and movies writers are enlisted men, at best non-commissioned officers.


March 7, 1969: CBS News Reports Televises “The Homosexuals” hosted by Mike Wallace:

Jul 312017

Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow at the CBS news desk, 1960.

Some eight years after World War II, radio gave way to television. Walter Cronkite became the most noted broadcast correspondent on television succeeding Edward R. Murrow, the most famous radio correspondent.

It was not easy for Murrow or any of the radio correspondents on his team. Words now had to work with pictures, and radio broadcasters had to adapt to the camera. Even in the simplest format—a camera filming their face as they spoke— faces always say unspoken words to the viewers. Murrow was handsome, rugged. His air was foreboding and portentous as befit wartime. Cronkite’s features were ordinary, less handsome, safe, and secure. America wanted no more risks.

Publicly the two correspondents were cordial. Privately they disliked each other. At a dinner given by a reporter of lesser rank, Murrow and Cronkite exchanged drunken barbs. They squabbled to the point of taking unloaded pistols off the wall and threatening each other. “It wasn’t comedy,” the hostess told me.

Those who admired Murrow for the journalistic standards he had set in wartime were disconcerted to see him perform journalistic sin. He hunted celebrities. His series Person-to-Person was an interview show. Remote cameras moved through in the homes of the rich and famous while he chatted with stars. He tried to be both dignified and sycophantic. Each show was carefully rehearsed before the celebrities were interviewed. Nothing was investigated or challenged.

“There is high Murrow, and then there is low Murrow,” said Fred Friendly, high Murrow’s producer.

I asked Eric Sevareid why Edward R. had slid.

“He told me he needed the money.”

The CBS Evening News was renamed the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite.

Eric accepted the role of news analyst, some 400 words a day. Just his face to the camera, no film clips inserted. Eric, who never adjusted fully to either radio or television, would visibly gulp on the air. Cronkite was furious.

“Three gulps today,” Walter said. “We could have gotten another item on tonight, but Eric had three swallows. Goddamn, I counted them,” he was quoted as saying.  Cronkite was in New York, Eric in Washington.

“We are still too close”, said Eric. “Walter has tenacity, but no vision,” he told me.

I call that period B.C., before cable. Or B.C.E, before computer editing. At that time, though eighty percent of the country had television sets, at most they could receive seven channels. Only three networks provided independent news coverage. Video journalism was not yet a threat to print reporting, but both faced the basic dilemma of their craft.

Do you report news that journalists think the public needs? Or do you report news the public wants to hear? Of this, much more later.

Journalism sometimes imitates dentistry. Something rotten is discovered, and the decay is drilled on painfully. Then the hole is filled and something equally decomposing is searched for. The difference between a dentist and a journalist is that the tooth surgeon has gone to school for years and is licensed by the government. The first amendment to the U.S. Constitution specifically says any journalist can operate without a license. In the days of this writing, some fourteen million people publish blogs on the Internet, and they can post their insights without fear.

But for me, journalism means editorial supervision, meaning layers of editors to question and check the filed reports. Someone in news management read my copy, saw my cuts and suggested changes, most often for the better. Blogging is not reporting.

One of the safeguards in medicine is peer review. At the better hospitals a group of medical professionals review the practices of individual doctors and medical techniques. The same sort of peer review for journalists was suggested by Frank Stanton, and given a name, “The National News Council.” It had some fifteen members who worked for magazines, newspapers, and television journalism, and whose views varied from specialty to specialty, from right to left. The New York Times was invited to join, but refused. “Nobody judges The Times, but The Times, said their executive editor Rosenthal.

Back in the fifties, the highest rated show was NBC’s “The Sixty Four Thousand Dollar Question (1955 – 1958),” a quiz show of great suspense that used empathetic amateur answerers. It spawned imitators and attracted high ratings and great income. But the producers of the show (with some executive connivance) fixed the results. The amateurs were taught how to look puzzled and sweat and blurt answers given to them before the broadcast began. Congress was shocked and held hearings. The threat was that some stations might lose their licenses to others who could promise higher broadcasting virtues.

A few years later, when CBS was caught fixing the winners on high rated, big money quiz shows, CBS cancelled five daytime quiz shows and announced a series of twenty prime-time non-fictional documentary broadcasts to be called CBS Reports. The star was to be Edward R.Murrow, and his producer was to be Fred W. Friendly. Fred had started in radio with Ed Murrow. When he moved to television, he and Murrow attacked Senator Joseph McCarthy in a documentary daring for its time, See It Now. It was before tape recording and only a kinescope remains. (Whatever the journalistic virtues of the broadcast might be, years later the editor told me that she had made McCarthy look foolish by bringing up the audio on his nervous laugh: “I made his snicker into something grotesque. But the bastard deserved it.”)

The series restored some of the lost virtue of the network. In the beginning, Ed was the star but along the way the way he was dropped. To his friends he blamed Friendly. Murrow had trouble with management and resigned to become head of the USIA.

I received word that Mr. Friendly wanted to see me at length. He had been appointed president of CBS News, and he wanted someone to take over the investigative documentaries. I felt awkward when I entered his office. He was direct.

“These days the Vietnam story has made us all issue oriented. For that and budget reasons, cultural shows like The Roots of Freedom are over. I want you to take over my old job. You are the new executive producer of CBS Reports. Congratulations.”

I had heard this might happen. I was somewhat prepared.



“I don’t want to be just an executive editor. I’m a writer. I want to do some shows of my own.”

“You are now in charge of CBS Reports. I always kept two shows for myself. You can do the same. But for the rest the overseer and the last word is—.” Friendly poked at me with the index finger on his right hand. Specifically he pointed with the knuckle. The rest of the crooked once broken finger pointed right back at him.



Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow at the CBS news desk, 1960: The University of Texas at Austin, Briscoe Center for American History, Digital Collections



Jul 252017

King Paul I and Queen Frederica

Before portable electronic cameras, before computers, before digital editing—when television was young—we were strung together on the Parthenon by three cameras connected to the control truck by long cables.

The first camera established the Parthenon from the front. The third would take close-ups of the royal couple.  The second camera was a long shot down the colonnade of Doric column clearly showing entasis. The minister of fine arts would know I had listened to him about curving the columns for the human eye. Donovan started with a few seconds of the first camera, establishing the front view. Then the long shot down the colonnade.  Then he cued the correspondent to ask the first question:

“What would Socrates have thought about the Parthenon?”

In my for instance script, I had written:

He would have disliked it immensely. To Socrates, Athens had become an imperial militaristic state, and the Parthenon was an example of hubris, overwhelming pride.  Remember, the same people who built it put him to death.

That is part of what I had written for King Paul and Queen Frederica and sent in black binders across the Atlantic and the Mediterranean in diplomatic pouches. Eric Sevareid asked the question as the three of them stepped into long shot. On camera, in plain view, the king of Greece responded by opening the black binder and turning the pages, looking for the answer.

My second Greek tragedy had begun.

In short, neither of them had done the research Mrs. Kennedy had done. They knew some things, but not others. They were friendly people, but less than monarchial and less than learned about Greece history. I had to go to an emergency plan, feature film trickery.

I stayed up all night rewriting the script and putting it on teleprompter. The next day, I seated Their Majesties and had them read the script three times to get some change in intonation. Then Tom Donovan shot them in very long shots as the walked through the Parthenon. At a future time we could dub their readings over their meanderings. The long shots were intercut with extreme close-ups of the one Royalty who was supposedly listening to the other Royalty.

At a reception that night, Frederica was anxious about how she looked.

“You are a beautiful woman, your Highness,” I said. “And King George did very well.”

“Am I? Did he? Tell me a bit about yourself, Mr. Wolff.”

“I should tell you that after the war, I helped guard the castle where you grew up. Hanover Castle.”

Queen Frederica was so pleased that she went upstairs and brought me a spoon, topped by a small coin of the Hanseatic League. I still use it to put sugar in my coffee.

I went to New York and pieced it together in two months.

The American Ambassador to Greece requested a copy, which was duly sent. I received word that Their Majesties were sorely disappointed. So were the TV critics.

The king died the next year. The Monarchy was overthrown two years later and the new, deposed king, Constantine, became a Rolls Royce salesman in London.

I learned there was not much moral difference between chutzpah and hubris. I had committed both sins.

There was one pleasant dissent from disgust.

Tuulikki and I were invited to a large White House dinner with hundreds people we did not know. One was the President of the United States, John Kennedy. He saw us and came over quickly to take my hand.  He said specifically: “I saw that show on Greece and learned a lot from it.  It was excellent, and that New York Times critic is a potato.

“Jackie is in Greece and I wish she had seen it too!”

Then he took my wife’s right hand with his left hand and smiled at her.



King Paul I and Queen Frederica:


Jul 202017

Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne in The Visit, 1958

I went to Versailles where the curator suggested Princess Grace of Monaco might do a tour of the Chateau similar to the Tour of the White House. For that permission, he expected CBS to raise funds for the restoration of the castle, and there also might be petites remerciments for those who helped. A Grimaldi State Counselor was called but Her Serene Highness had made a deal with the Music Corporation of America to do A Tour of Monaco with Princess Grace. In short, I had Versailles, but no Marie Antoinette.

Audrey Hepburn, neither presidential nor royal, but certainly regal, was in Paris, on the set of a turkey-to-be-born, Paris When It Sizzles. Miss Hepburn met me in her dressing room. Her eyes were very large, her white, fair skin was crosshatched with the thinnest of lines, and she was scared. She needed help from her co-star, William Holden. He had once done a documentary called William Holden’s Hong Kong, as part of a tax write-off. The reviews had not been good.

“Don’t do it,” Holden said to Audrey. “People like us shouldn’t do television because it doesn’t make any difference that I looked like hell, but people expect you to look good. I mean Audrey, how could you work without an eye light?”

I tried to respond. I said earnestly that Mrs. John F. Kennedy looked well despite our lighting backwardness. I evoked schoolchildren learning about the arts if Miss Hepburn would tour the most famous chateau in the world. I played the theme of Franco-American relations, Benjamin Franklin and Jefferson at the Court of Louis XVI, and while I couldn’t say what the money would be, Mrs. Kennedy had done it for nothing, but an agreement could be worked out en principe, and our business affairs department could talk to Miss Hepburn’s agent.

“Cheap, Audrey,” said Mr. Holden. “They work too fast. They expect you to get ten minutes a day or more into the can. And the lighting, oh my God, the lighting! ”

Both Holden and I spoke too fast. We brought her distress. She was so gazelle-eyed, so sensitive, so refined that I felt I should not exhale carbon dioxide into the same air from which she took oxygen. I left.

The unoriginal sin and easy money of journalism is reporting on celebrities. Of the millions of people who watched A Tour the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy, I think very few concentrated on the president’s home. Jackie was the celebrity and the focus.

Then I sinned. I assembled celebrities in Athens for two broadcasts on Ancient Greece. In the mid-1960s, Greece was a monarchy.

Her Majesty, Queen Frederika, was about Jackie’s age; her husband King Paul, a decade older than JFK. The queen was pretty, the king simple and dignified. They agreed to do a tour of the Parthenon, the most famous artifact of Ancient Greece.

The structure is atop a steep hill, the Acropolis, (fortress on a hill), some 500 feet above sea level. Below the Parthenon is the Theatre of Dionysus, where drama was invented. I brought the most famous stage actors of the 1930s and 40s to the world’s oldest theater. Alfred and Lynn Lunt broke their retirement in Wisconsin to come to Greece.

I visited them twice in Genesee Junction and explained my plan.

It’s a challenge for two elderly people.” Alfred said.

“It’s one we deserve,” Lynn said.

“It will be nice to get away from the pins on the bed,” Alfred said. “She sews in bed, and when I go to sleep, her pins stick me in the ass.”

They were friendly, eager and kind to a young man who had not seen them at the peak of their career.

Two fine actors of the contemporary theatre would support them; Alfred Drake and Rosemary Harris. They would do scenes from Greek drama, the first of all theatrical forms.

The Parthenon and the Theatre of Dionysus were not quite the White House but they were noble enough.

The overarching idea would justify the celebrities. A series called The Roots of Freedom, and Greece, where democracy began, was the earliest root in the West.

The Athenian roots had dirt on them. The Greek polis excluded women from the electorate. The Greeks had slaves who had no rights. The requirement for all voters was that they must be able to walk to the voting place and back to their homes in two days. Anyone who couldn’t hike it to Athens was disqualified.

The hillside theater they used was named for the god of the drunks: Dionysus. The plays that opened in Athens have never closed. They have had a twenty-seven century run.

My plan: first, Greece, where democracy was invented, followed by Rome. The Romans began the design of a Republic, ruled by law. There was much grime on the Roman root: gladiators, slaves, crucifixions and all the dirty roots movies have exploited, but the idea of a nation ruled by an elected legislature was a freedom never seen before. No one had ever made a movie about Rome’s greatest achievement.

Roman comedy, to be done in the Theatre of Ostia Antica, a suburb of modern Rome. The Romans had no great playwrights, but they had the comedies of Plautus and Terence who wrote funny things on the way to the Forum. Broadway has copied their clowns.

The Renaissance in Italy, and the Comedia del’Arte in Florence. Then court dances of Louis XIV in France and the French Revolution. Then Shakespeare …then Parliament. Then the American Revolution.

Greece would be first. I made five round trips.

I bribed a drunken guard to let me climb the hill at night and enter the Acropolis alone. I walked up a path leading to the Parthenon. The structure had been a temple, then a Christian church. When the Persians conquered Greece they used it as an ammunition dump. In the 17th century, by error, the artillery shells blew off the roof and destroyed most of the interior.

As I climbed, sense memories erupted. I heard my feet crunch on the stones as they had in the rubble of the abandoned villages in German town. The moon suddenly dimmed, almost fully shaded by clouds. The weak shadows recalled the dim light of artillery searchlights reflected from the clouds above the WWII battlefields.

Above, the looming Doric carcass of the Parthenon. It hung over me, another victim of an old war. It was threatening, not ennobling. That shattered stone monster was fifty times larger than that ruined small church from which I fired my single shot as a sniper.

War had made the Parthenon, virgin Athena’s apartment into a diseased stone brothel.

Much like the last night I walked through the Museum of Natural History, I was terrified by the weight of the past, the uncountable numbers of generations between me and the men who made what was now ruined.

Youth generally fears the past. For the young, history is so large as to be unknowable and threatening. Age fears the future—the brave new world coming will confuse the older generation that spawned it. Inevitably, brave old worlds must fade.

The dead of the Age of Pericles were god-men: writers, artists and statesmen whose influence built a civilization. Yet Greece was shattered and defeated fifty years after Socrates. The Greek intellectuals became servants to their conquerors instead of rulers of Athens.

Mixed in the moonlight and stones were awe and fear. On that climb to the Parthenon, I feared both yesterday and tomorrow. The past was the ruin above. The future was the practical means to bring electric cables up a rocky path for a television broadcast. Greece had no television facilities. I would have to import everything electronic.

In the following trips, I saw administrators, curators and other experts.

I met the royals. Tatoi, the king’s residence, was more like an English manor house than a palace. The family gathered in a downstairs room, which needed a decorator. The walls were orange, and contrasted with the colors of a number of throw rugs. The knit carpets had been hand woven by poor women who belonged to the queen’s favorite charity. His Majesty sat on a soft chair that resembled one in everybody’s living room, with doilies on the arms and an anti-Macassar behind his head. Certainly another gift from the charity. Their children bustled in and out.

The center of the family room was a large Steinway Grand. Princess Sophia played the third movement of a Mozart sonata. She would become a sedate queen of Spain, but that night she was a young girl playing a lively scherzo.

Tuulikki, who had spent time at Berlitz, addressed the King and Queen in good enough Greek. They were startled and pleased. Prince Constantine, who would become king, and then be thrown out, noticed my wife was trembling. He brought her a scotch and water.

It might seem strange that a Monarch and his queen would be on the side of a representative democracy, but Their Majesties had almost no political power in the country.

For example, King Paul sold butter from his farm. He packaged it with the name Tatoi, the royal residence, on the carton. He had a royal seal imprinted in blue. A neighbor copied the box exactly, except the design was in red. His Majesty asked my best friend and attorney, Thomas Ryan, whether such an imitation would be a violation of American trademark restrictions.

“Probably,” said Thomas.

King Paul said, “I can’t do anything about the laws of this country.” He was pleasant, but exasperated.

I had no idea how much Paul and Frederika knew about Ancient Greece. But the Minister of Fine Arts scared me. He dwelt on the architecture of the Parthenon and used the word entasis several times. Since his English was excellent, I thought I ought to know the word, but finally I asked its meaning.

“Entasis is the art of shaping the columns to fit the perspective of the human eye. The columns are not straight. They are gently curved so the eye seems them as straight. Entasis is humanity in architecture.

“Your American architects are more interested in strength than in humanity. Almost all your buildings are built in right angles. The triumph of an engineer’s graph-paper mind. Squares on squares. The result is to make them top-heavy and threatening. I don’t like walking through Manhattan. I am nothing and the buildings crush me into the ground. There are no right angles in Greek columns or temples.”

I decided to read more about architecture. I was sure the king and queen of Greece would talk to the minister of fine arts about entasis before the taping.

I sat in the Theatre of Dionysus with my typewriter. Plato, Aristotle and Socrates had sat on the same hillside. I typed the big brown fox jumped over… while I had myself photographed. Here, in this theater the two faces of drama were seen for the first time. The mask of comedy, the mask of tragedy—they both came from this state. The first   arose in the first free society. It was not coincidence. Then I went to an island in the Caribbean and poured through a dozen books on the history of Ancient Greece.

The plan for the Royals was the same as for Mrs. Kennedy. I would write a guide script, a “for instance” text.  It would contain the questions the interviewer might ask, and the answers the king or the queen might give. Their undoubtedly superior knowledge could fill in the details and rewrite as Jackie had done.

Once back in New York I received a call from the minister of fine arts. He requested copies of the research books I had been reading. All books, including those I had underlined. The Greek Embassy in Washington sent a messenger that afternoon. The research would go to Their Majesties through diplomatic pouch, even my tattered pocket books.

Meanwhile, logistical troubles: Greece had no television. None at all. This required renting recording gear from RAI, the Italian Broadcasting System. The trucks, wires and all other equipment had to be sent by sea from Bari, on the east coast to Pireaus, the Port of Athens. Then everything had to be taken up the steep hill of the Acropolis. Dick Sedia erected a control room next to the Parthenon.

Royalties have their retinue, and so do celebrities. Our control room was visited by the Greek Prime Minister Georgios Papandreou and his cortege, and by the head of Italian television, who wanted to sell Greece Italian technical gear so that Athens would enter the television age with Italian equipment.

The queen sealed off the site for several days, disappointing and infuriating hundreds of touring Germans.

I received a phone call from the chief guard at the bottom of the hill. He told me that a Mr. James Michener and a Mr. Harpo Marx wanted to see the Parthenon. Michener’s wife had been my secretary for a brief period in Chicago. I didn’t know Harpo Marx, but as we shook hands he whipped his wig out of his pocket, put it on his head, and made that immortal face.

William Paley, the chief of the network, was flying in from New York. Paley didn’t care much for TV celebrities, (after all he bought and fired them) but royalty and the Lunts met his social standards. However, his father died and he flew back home.

The Lunts had starred in forty plays and only one movie, The Guardsman, in 1933, which had been a critical and commercial success. The same year, they had been offered a two-picture deal for one million dollars, which they refused. Of movie making Lynn said, “We can be bought, but we cannot be bored. No more films.”

They had retired four years earlier, but, as their press agent said they said, “The opportunity to bring their classical skills to the most modern of theatrical forms was irresistible.”

A stringer was there from the New York Times, a film crew from an entertainment show on CBS, as well as one of top agents from the theatrical world.

I could delegate almost everything to my staff, but it was up to me to protect my script. I had been unable to contact the Lunts directly, except by telephone.

“I’m doing the script,” Lynn said. “Dear boy, don’t worry. We’ll be prepared. I once missed Spain entirely when I was opening in Madrid. Get the part down, that’s always first with me. By the way, Mr. Wolff, I understand my acting lines, but who is this person, Lynn Fontanne?”

(I had written some narration lines for her.)

“That’s you, Ma’am.”

“But I’m never me. I’m always a character in my parts.”

“I’m certain that you can find something in yourself that will be straightforward and direct.”

“I like that. ‘Straightforward and direct’. Clever, Perry.”

I was elated by the compliment. She was charming, and at 77, still seductive.

Tom Donovan, the director, was worried about lighting. The Athens sunlight had once been so bright that in World War II the occupying German troops installed traffic lights with high intensity bulbs. Twenty years later the city’s famous smog had begun. Donovan had been shooting the long scenes with Rosemary Harris and Alfred Drake and the in-and-out sun had proven difficult. He told me their performance had been excellent once they had become used to the masks.

With deference and admiration, he placed the Lunts in their positions. He went back to the control room and started taping.

Lynn Fontanne said sweetly, “Stop.” She removed her microphone cable and started towards the remote unit. “I want to see what I look like.”

What she looked like was a 77-year old woman in smoggy sunlight on a hillside in Athens. To me, she was a wise, elderly Lysistrata and the embodiment of the Greek Chorus.

Donovan knew better. As Miss Fontanne came to the steps, Tom shouted to the video-man. “Spill whites! Spill whites!”

In black and white television there’s a knob that whitens the picture. It is similar to a flash bulb. It blanks out the lines of age but makes the skin look thick.

Lynn Fontanne was noted for the quickness of her wit and her concern about her image. When my wife and I had taken the Lunts to dinner in Paris she did not like the color of her handbag. She gave it to Alfred. “You carry it for the evening, dear. I’ve made a mistake.”

He did, and passed it off as a sweet eccentricity.

Her most famous quotation was concerning her age. She had concealed it for years, even to her husband. “I lie to everybody. Naturally I lie very well, being an actress.”

There was no way she could lie about the old, lined lady she saw in the Athenian sunlight.  She yelled across the Theatre of Dionysus, Sophocles’ stage.

“Alfred! Alfred! They have made me look like Sophie Tucker! They have made me look Jewish!”

That was how Act One of a new tragedy opened in the Theatre of Dionysus. I had created amateur night in daylight. Nothing worked. The Greeks may have watched theater in sunlight, but for centuries the West had seen drama in darkened theaters, darkened movie houses, darkened rooms.

Putting masks on the actors made them look grotesque and stupid. The close-ups of the masks were ugly cartoons. Our age is used to seeing faces, close ups, in television and movies. Once a lens is used, drama means eye contact, facial gestures. There were no eyes, lips, cheeks, nor head movements in our masked Greek photography.

Later, the New York Herald Tribune’s critic wrote a review I have never forgotten. “It is a month before Thanksgiving, but CBS has served the turkey.”



Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne in

Jul 032017

Jacqueline Kennedy and Perry Wolff during filming of A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy.

On St. Valentine’s Day 1962, one out of every three Americans saw A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy.  The worldwide audience was over one hundred million.

She didn’t want to do the broadcast, and neither did I. Her press secretary later told me that Mrs. Kennedy preferred a book rather than a television show.

Jackie wanted to re-do the interior of the White House. She asked the photographer David Douglas Duncan to publish an elegant art volume. Duncan was eager to do it, but he required that the building be shut down for two days so he would have freedom of movement.

President Kennedy said, “The last time the White House was closed was when the British burned it down in 1812.”

Television was a second choice.

For my part I told Dick Salant, the head of CBS News, the tour sounded like something I would read about in the National Geographic while waiting for the doctor. I wanted to go to Vietnam. Dick said, “Please do it for me, and Blair Clark”.

I had done Blair small favors when he was the second man in our Paris news bureau. He had a rapid rise from correspondent to executive vice president of CBS News because he had gone to Harvard with the president and knew him well.

I once asked about his relationship with Kennedy. He told me he had written a great part of While England Slept, supposedly authored by John F. Kennedy. Blair had kept quiet about the ghosting. Jack had returned the favor in part by allowing CBS to do the show—in black and white. The network had not yet converted to color.

Jacqueline had an ironic sense of humor, masked as innocence. She knew her husband had made the deal, but she asked us: “Can’t CBS photograph this in color? NBC has color.”

Blair knew the deal was done, and he knew she knew. Nevertheless honor must be preserved. He frowned. “Jackie, do you know how much those color cameras weigh?”

“No, I don’t, Blair.”

He nodded grimly. She mimicked his nod.

Nobody knew how much a color camera weighed, but the quid had been quod.

I was silent that first meeting. She wore a green dress that matched the largest emerald ring I have ever seen. I learned later that Joe Kennedy had given it to her when she agreed to stay with her unfaithful husband. She saw me and didn’t see me. It was the same look Helen May Thatcher projected in eighth grade when I asked if I could walk her home. So did Blossom Stein, and so did Lois Wisch. Men learn rejection early and get used to it. Women learn rejection later and are hurt more by it.

Her dismissal is why I didn’t direct. I asked Franklin Schaffner to work with Mrs. Kennedy. He was as handsome as Gregory Peck and a lot younger. (He went on to make Patton, The Planet of the Apes, and Papillion.) During the taping she admired and trusted him.

I didn’t see her again until the day of the recording. In the meantime, I recruited a research staff in Washington and New York.

Refurnishing the White House had been a goal of Harry Truman, but Congress only gave him enough money to rebuild the cracked interior structure. There were no government funds for redecorating. (When the interior was razed, President Truman sent one of the Adam mantelpieces to his home in Missouri. Jackie wanted it back. President Truman paid no attention to her request.)

After Truman, when the Eisenhowers had moved into the president’s house, a Republican Congress voted funds to refurbish the building. Most of the old furniture came back from storage. One of the permanent staff told me that Mrs. Eisenhower went to a leading department store in New York and asked their decorators to finish the job.

Mamie was an Army wife. She had lived in many homes, from Ike’s captaincy, through his five stars and his presidency. When questions about colors and paints came to her, she’d say, “Paint it pink.” The only sign of the Eisenhower restoration was the men’s room—which obviously Jackie did not visit. The walls of the toilet were still pink, even through the Johnson Presidency when I last saw it.

Mrs. Kennedy was not seeking government funds. She wanted financing from private sources.

By the time we were ready to tape, my researchers had the provenance and location of every artifact in the public rooms. The curatorial staff of the White House cooperated fully.

I thought Mrs. Kennedy might want to discuss her plans with Blair or me but the press and social secretaries could not make an appointment. I asked that the correspondent, Charles Collingwood, meet with her. Another refusal.

On the morning the shooting commenced, fifty-two men in the technical crew were waiting. We were to begin at nine in the morning.

Mrs. Kennedy was late.

I had three scripts prepared, all color coded. Pink, if she appeared and would just walk through the rooms while Collingwood narrated. Green, if the first lady wanted to do the interview seated. If she arrived with the green script in hand, we would photograph her and at the end of the interview, we would tape the objects she discussed. The third was the white script, and it was based on a conversation while she walked through the rooms. I wrote the narrator’s questions and her suggested answers.

I sent all three scripts to her press secretary and heard nothing.

Mrs. Kennedy was late because she had her hairdresser come from New York, and the shuttle was delayed. She entered with a white script in hand. She had marked it up and corrected it considerably. She knew exactly what she wanted to say, and almost everything she said was factually correct.

She and Collingwood and Schaffner talked off-camera before each segment, and then they walked through the room under discussion. It took about five minutes to block the movements. Then Frank would roll the cameras and the first take was the last take. She was amazing.

The first floor entrance room, the curatorial rooms, stories about Abigail Adams and Jefferson; upstairs to the public room. The State Dining room, the Red Room, the Green Room, (and a dig at the Winterthur Museum because they had only sent replicas of the Ulysses Grant chairs.). The public rooms on the first floor.

During the small technical breaks, I joined Mrs. Kennedy and Charles Collingwood. I overheard him trying to persuade her to come to his hotel after the shooting for relaxing champagne with him and his wife. He did it two times when I was within earshot. I knew Louise Collingwood was in New York. When Jackie looked away, I grimaced and said, “Charlie!” He glared at me. “Why not try?”

The formal entrance to the White House is on the north side. Just inside the foyer were two benches covered in heavy silk.  She was smoking unfiltered Pall Malls. On the bench was an ashtray. I realized how nervous she was when she missed the ashtray and put out the cigarette on the expensive French silk covering. She didn’t notice her mistake, despite the odor.

The last room we photographed was next to the Lincoln Bedroom. It was unfinished. Swatches of decorating clothes were pinned to the wall. Old furniture had been shoved into the room. It was the perfect place for Jackie to pitch for support through her committee.

Then the President entered. After Charles Collingwood asked him what he thought of the first lady’s efforts, Kennedy pulled a sheet of paper from an inner pocket and scanned it quickly. “I’m ready.”

He asked Americans to see what his wife had done and invited the children especially to visit the White House the next time they were in Washington

We broke the camera crew. I offered Jackie a chance to view some of the taped rushes in the evening. At eight o’clock that evening, the President and his guests came to the White House screening room. The editing crew had made a rough cut of the shooting. I sat directly behind the presidential couple. When the projection was finished I saw him turn, put his arm around her and look at her with admiration and pride. What I saw in that fleeting moment was the look of love—or at least great admiration—from husband to wife.

Then President Kennedy turned to me.

“Mr. Wolff, Jackie was wonderful and well photographed. I was terrible. I had just come from a briefing at the State Department and my tone was all wrong. Could I possibly do it again tomorrow morning?”

It was an offer I couldn’t refuse. The remote crew and equipment was due in Akron, Ohio late the following day for The Pillsbury Bake-off Contest.

The next morning, Mrs. Kennedy wasn’t there for the retake. She had gone riding instead.

When JFK arrived he wore a different suit. The long shot shows the two of them. He wears a blue suit with no pattern. But when he is alone on camera he’s wearing a striped pattern. Similarly, a woman had to sit where Jackie’s chair so he could make eye contact. My wife was the understudy.

The crew scrambled, but they were a half-day late for The Pillsbury Bake-off Contest and overtime had to be paid.

It took us several weeks to edit the primitive two-inch tape. There are ninety-nine edits in the finished broadcast and no commercials. Because the broadcast was short by a minute and a half we needed filler. I called Jackie’s press secretary. We arranged a voice-over section on the paintings already donated and a request for money to buy those she wanted.

I came to the White House with sound equipment. She read the voice-over copy in a whisper that did not overcome the background noise. I asked her to speak up.

She flashed, “This is my normal speaking voice. You will just have to adjust to it.”

“Mrs. Kennedy, the voice you are using now is not the voice you used in the recording.”

“Oh? I only have one voice, Mr. Wolff.”

I saw then what the world would see after the assassination. A steel will enclosed in a velvet glove.

She spoke more loudly on the next take.

What astonished me was that her press secretary was one of the President’s known long-time mistresses. Jackie’s steel had had to be tempered well to stand for the sexual betrayal. Yet wife and mistress conferred easily, head-to-head.

The secretary was also carrying on an affair with a handsome young CBS correspondent who had worked for me. He was afraid that the president would be angry if he learned his mistress had still another lover.

All three networks carried the tour on the weekend of Valentine’s Day 1963. It made news in every major medium. It also made a profit for CBS, which sold re-broadcast rights to ABC and NBC.

The salesmen from CBS marketing came to me before the broadcast aired. I was asked to make a coffee-table book. I wrote it in a month, using the final text and stills taken during the broadcast. It was favorably reviewed and even touched the best seller lists. I added some essays of mine, including one entitled, “Queen Fever:”

Martha Washington had decided not to copy British Royalty. She would not receive guests while seated as Queens did. Every First Lady since then has had to stand during formal receptions. Mrs. Washington would not wear a crown or a tiara, and that custom exasperated some First Ladies—one of whom, Van Buren’s beautiful niece wore an Indian headband with three feathers stuck in the back.

Mrs. Kennedy read the book and liked my inserted essays. It became her gift to foreign dignitaries.

When the President was killed the following November, Mrs. Kennedy went into mourning. She received so many messages of condolence that it was impossible for her to write answers.  Blair Clark came to me the following spring. “Jackie wants to use television to thank the people who sent sympathy notes to her. She asked me to ask you to do it.”

“Who’s the contact? Her press secretary?”

“She’s out now. Way out. Call Bobby Kennedy’s office. He’s Jackie’s protector.”

I went to Washington and met the Attorney General. When I came into the room, he didn’t look up. He fumbled with papers on his table for too long a period. He told me what Mrs. Kennedy wanted. But as he listed the requirements, it was more likely they were what the Kennedy clan wanted the widow to say. They wanted money.

Teddy would speak, Bobby would speak, Jacqueline would speak (but her material would be written this time by Richard Goodwin). Bobby demanded the program be scheduled for an hour when Telstar, one of the first satellites between Europe and America, would be available for twenty two minutes. Robert Kennedy would arrange for the heads of Germany, Ireland and England to appear during that short time.

I asked whether the present president of the United States, Lyndon Johnson, should also be included.


I said one of the reasons the White House Tour had been successful was that Mrs. Kennedy had no script. Why burden her with one?

Goodwin would write her spontaneous remarks, I was told sharply.” Thank you, Mr. Wolff, and all the rest of your contacts will go through Goodwin. Don‘t call here.”

A month later, the crew and I arrived at the Hyannis port compound. I was introduced to the patriarch, Joseph Kennedy. Because of a stroke, he could neither speak nor walk. His nurse told us that he expected us to clean up after ourselves, and not mar any of the walls or furniture. He raised a bony finger and pointed it at me. I assured him that we had placed drop-cloths on the porch and in the single room from which Jackie would speak. We’d be careful. We were.

Word was sent from Bobby Kennedy’s house that the staff had prepared a sandwich and Coke lunch for all. We were grateful.

Before she did her speech, we sat on the stairs of her house. She was much warmer and praised the book. She particularly liked the essay on Queen Fever. At the time I was flattered, but thought it politeness. But then she added, “Mr. Wolff, you write very well. Very well.”

It was the second “very well” that went beyond politeness.

She made an unexpected friendly gesture. She squeezed my upper arm and looked into my eyes. Warmth. Almost affection.

The broadcast was a mess. Telstar failed. We could not get a consistent image from Europe, just the voices of the heads of state. The BBC director on the other side of the Atlantic wanted the show to be shifted to him, so Jackie would be reduced to just sound. He screamed into my headphone. I turned him off.

Jackie was not spontaneous. It was obvious that she was reading her copy from the teleprompter and was stilted in delivery. She knew it.

The other Kennedys spoke about the Kennedy Library they wanted to build at Harvard. What was supposed to be a response to millions of condolences became a fundraising event.

A month later their accountants billed CBS. The cost of the free lunch from Bobby’s compound was mailed to us. So was a bill for repainting and plastering the walls—some $5,000 as I recall. Nevertheless, we paid.

There had been several hints at CBS that “we ought to find another vehicle for Jackie.” As we were packing up the equipment I asked her if she wanted to do another subject—her interest in Thomas Jefferson, for example.

“Nothing I do later can be as important as the White House tour,” she replied. “You made it easier than I expected.”

I made another visit to the White House years later. I don’t remember who sent me to see Lady Bird Johnson and I forget the amenities, but the new First Lady came to the point right away.

“Are you one of the Kennedy people?”


“What I mean is you did the White House Tour, and did you get close to them afterwards?”

“I don’t see them.”

She led me to the projection room. “Lyndon called in the Signal Corps and made me talk about the changes I had made since Jacqueline Kennedy re-did the Red Room.”

She started the film. The Signal Corps had saved money by shooting the Red Room in black and white. Mrs. Johnson was certainly not Jackie. That’s what I told her. Lady Bird was a successful business woman whose public agenda was to clean up the ugly advertising on the American highways. Why imitate Jackie? I told her to burn the film and the negative and get a note from the Signal Corps saying no material had been retained.

She thanked me. “That’s exactly what I told Lyndon.”

Now that I was on her side, she could abandon the project. She invited me upstairs to have lunch with her. I expected elegance. I got a lean hamburger on a bun, black coffee and Sucaryl, a sugar substitute.

Mrs. Johnson was so emotionally grateful that she said (and I have never forgotten these words), “I said to Lyndon, ‘when you were a Representative, you didn’t listen to the military. When you were a Senator, you didn’t listen to those Generals. How come you are listening to them now?’

Vietnam’s epitaph.


The relationship between Frank Stanton, president of CBS and Lyndon Johnson, president of the United States was often too close for comfort.

On the days after John Kennedy was killed, television fulfilled its noblest function: it purged a fearful nation. For four days in November, from of the assassination to the funeral Frank Stanton cancelled all commercials. The president of NBC, Robert Kintner, was furious at the loss of revenue. The other networks had to follow.

Meanwhile, inch by inch, report by report, hour by hour, America moved from panic to tears and tragedy. War had been declared. The Soviets had ordered the assassin (who had lived in Russia) to commit the deed. A bomb had been placed in the Capitol. The federal government had placed foodstuffs in the New York subway, and a shadow cabinet had been appointed. (That was true, but dated from the Eisenhower era.) When there was nothing new to report, and the recapitulations needed rest, CBS broadcast classical music.

I was assigned a review of other assassinations. Eric Sevareid and I used old graphics that marked time to show the other killings: Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William Mc Kinley and the Chicago shooter who missed Franklin Roosevelt and slew the Mayor of Chicago, Anton Cermak.

The man to watch was Lyndon Baines Johnson, the vice president sworn into the Presidency on Air Force 1. Nobody in the media was closer to him than Frank Stanton, the man who made Johnson rich. In the 1930s, Johnson was a representative from Texas whose wife owned a small radio station in Austin, Stanton was a sociologist-scientist at CBS who persuaded the network to give affiliation to KTBC, guaranteeing the station a larger income. When television began, Johnson took a loan to buy the equipment, and CBS aided him. The net income to the Johnsons was estimated at $5,000 a week. Lyndon and Lady Bird were intensely grateful. (I learned all this when I conducted many hours of oral interviews with Frank Stanton for Columbia University.)

During the Vietnam War, Johnson often found fault with the CBS Evening News.

Stanton told me, “Every night at 7:01 pm the phone would ring when Ruth and I were at dinner. It would be the President complaining about our coverage. One night Ruth had enough, and said, ‘Frank I want my dessert. Just don’t answer. Make him call you at the office.’”

Frank drew a fireproof curtain between Lyndon Johnson and CBS News, and Johnson knew it. I was in the Washington bureau when the president decided to send 30,000 more troops to Vietnam. Instead of calling Stanton, Johnson personally asked the bureau chief to switch live to the White House at 9pm that night. It was not a new request, and the bureau chief refused. Lyndon called a half hour later and said, “If I escalate to 50,000 more troops can I get prime time?”

The answer was again no.


A Tour of the White House won all sorts of awards, including an Emmy, a Peabody and a duPont. I was sent to Washington for the ceremony. The Emmy bureaucracy wanted an award winner in the capital to balance the presentations in New York and Hollywood. Lady Bird Johnson accepted for Mrs. Kennedy. I accepted for CBS News and was called to the stage to receive an award certificate.

“The statue didn’t arrive on time,” the Emmy representative whispered.

An Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of United States, William Douglas, who was quite drunk, gave the certificate to me. It wasn’t exactly a certificate. It was the seating plan everybody received on entrance. But on camera and from a distance it certainly looked like a certificate.

After the success of Jackie’s tour I was urged to make a series of tours, preferably with Mrs. Kennedy. My superiors prodded me because their superiors pushed them.

As a colleague said, “Wolff, what they want is young broads and old stones.”

Bill Paley passed down an idea: Because Mrs. Kennedy had charmed France and particularly Andre Malraux; a tour of Versailles might be new and good.



Jacqueline Kennedy and Perry Wolff during filming of A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy: courtesy of Perry Wolff.

Jun 282017

Perry Wolff and Charles Collingwood discuss Berlin: Act of War in 1961.

A few weeks later the Cold War intervened. Germany was divided between east and west. Berlin had been split into an Allied command

and a Soviet zone, and the Germans of the east were flocking the west by the thousands. Berlin itself was isolated, cut off from American ground and rail supplies, except by one road in a narrow corridor.

A subject I suggested “Berlin: Act of War?” was immediately approved. I rounded up a small team, found Charles Collingwood as a correspondent and flew into Templehof, the Berlin Airport. Dick Sedia, the crew chief, rented a German video bus. It was driven from Darmstadt, the last town in the American zone, to the Brandenburg Gate, a dividing monument between east and west. Our equipment was in sight of Soviet tanks on their side of the Gate. Their vehicles were unbuttoned, hatches open to daylight, guns covered with tarpaulins.

We spent a day watching the East Germans stream to West Berlin. The border was open, and almost the whole professional class of the east was trying to escape. The footage was excellent as were the interviews.

We had checked into the Hotel Kempinski. On the second evening Charles, who liked nightlife, took me to a recommended café. He saw an unescorted girl leaving and apologized.

“According to Naval Regulations I am about to undertake the most unprofitable of fleet maneuvers,” he said. “I am going to make a stern chase.”

He followed the girl and I went to sleep. About two in the morning, Dick Sedia phoned me. “Get dressed, Perry. We may get blown up!”

Just a few yards ahead of our remote unit, the Russians were building some sort of wall near the Brandenburg Gate. The open border was being closed. Dick and I set up the cameras and lights and recorded the scene. The German owner of the remote bus was worried that the tanks would fire on his equipment. The Soviet armored vehicles had closed their turrets. The covers were off their weapons and their guns were slowly traversing the plaza in front of the gate. When Charles finally arrived, he did an improvised on-camera speech and we left the site as quickly as possible.

My first idea was to take the bus to the airport and ship the tapes on the first plane out, but Templehof was closed. We started down the protected corridor, the one road available to the Allies from Berlin to Darmstadt. A few miles out of town two East German cars overtook us, blocked the van and came out of their armored car carrying weapons. They spoke no English, but they made it clear they intended to search the bus.

“Verboten,” I said.

“Nichts verboten,” I think they said. They wanted all pictures, everything we had taped.  Their side arms were in plain sight. There was no use arguing.

A flashback to the war was brought on by the color and cut of their uniforms. I had spoken to myself about giving a moral pass to any German under the age of thirty; the young ones could not have had anything to do with the Nazi regime. In the dark of me was the reflex of the concentration camp, Ahlem Hanover. In time, hate recedes to distaste.

The two-inch tapes were on the playbacks. I told Dick to give them the pictures; the recorded refugees, the closed subway station filled with faces filled with panic. The police demanded to see the first pictures to verify the images were truly there. They took two heavy reels, and let us go.

“They didn’t know where to look”, said Dick. “While Collingwood was chasing dames and you were sleeping, I saved your ass by dubbing a backup transfer, and hiding the originals. Here’s your story.”

I owed him. As payback I took him on later trips to Italy and Jordan.


Perry Wolff and Charles Collingwood: Torrance Press, August 13, 1961

Jun 262017

John R. Coleman

On my way back from Salinas, I stopped in New York and signed a generous contract Tom Ryan had negotiated. Although my job would not start until October, I would be given a full year’s pay. Sig needed me. I rented an apartment from plans in a building then being erected. The rental included a studio where Tuulikki could paint. Some of her paintings had recently been in a group show at Raymond Duncan’s gallery on the Rue du Seine.

We brought furniture from France and installed ourselves. John was enrolled in a bi-lingual school, but he learned English quickly from television. The only problem I had was that I had a nice office, a secretary, an expense account—but nothing to do. My immediate superior was pleasant enough, but my salary came from his budget, and I was an annoying over-the-budget item. Then I earned my salary.

President Eisenhower had been ill-advised by his economic team. They zigged when they should have zagged, and the economy went into a mild recession. In 1962, I was called on to produce “Money Talks,” a five-part series in prime time, hosted by Professor John Coleman in which he explained basic economic concepts such as gross national product and the Consumer Price Index. A year later, Coleman was tapped for the CBS project “College of the Air,” in which he taught an experimental course, “The American Economy,” that was carried on 241 affiliate stations and 54 educational channels. Imagine a commercial network devoting morning time to direct systematic classroom teaching.  Educational television on commercial channels!

CBS News did its duty, called it public service, and no one bothered with the ratings.

I was surprised when CBS spent the money to re-print and distribute all five lectures in an elegant soft cover. Years later Frank Stanton, president of the network, told me Eisenhower had watched the series and had his economic advisors see the re-runs. (Ike and Stanton were close and the President had put Frank into a shadow cabinet, in case the Soviet Union wiped out his sunlit cabinet.)

As the producer, I was just a plumber, as most producers are. I saw that the information flowed through straight lines. Nobody wants a creative plumber who puts the pipes into expressive circles. Nevertheless, the success of the five broadcasts had echoes. Stanton did not contact the producer. He went to the head of CBS News, Sig Mickelson, and congratulated him and passed on the gratitude from the President of the United States.

Sig must have talked to my immediate superior who had asked if he could fire me because I cost too much. This time money did not talk. I stayed on.


John R. Coleman:

Jun 232017

Sig Mickelson, the first president of CBS News

Our last two years in France were spent at 1 bis rue de Martignac, 7th Arrondisement, Paris. We lived in thirteen rooms furnished in authentic Louis XVI furniture. Our bedroom windows looked out to the L’Eglise de St. Clotilde, a double-spired church where Saint Saëns had been the organist. The buttresses across a narrow street almost protruded into our apartment. A portrait of our landlord, the aristocratic Baron de France, topped a wide winding staircase into the salon. The Baron was now elderly and dying.

The rent was two hundred dollars a month paid in American dollars to his eldest impoverished daughter, La Baroness de France. She was elegant, spoke excellent English, and very worried about her finances. I offered her a hundred thousand dollars for the whole building. (I didn’t have the money, but a close American friend who visited us said he would back me.) She refused, ruefully. He father had grown up at 1 bis rue de Martignac and until he died she could not sell the property.

Something had ended for me. The literary footpath that led to the 1920s and Hemingway, Henry James and Dos Passos had turned into a six-lane paved highway. The Moveable Feast had been warmed over too many times.

Years later, I did a documentary entitled, Our Friends the French, which included the following passages (you can imagine the illustrating visuals):

  • A quick history of the Franco-American insult.
  • 1781: Versailles, where the French King lived until they went broke.
  • The French Monarch became much annoyed with the popularity and simplicity of that American left-winger, Benjamin Franklin, our diplomat at Versailles. On New Year’s Day 1781, the king gave one of his lady friends a convenience needed even today—a chamber pot.


  • It was a small gift from a great King, but it began a greater tradition. In short Louis XVI started the movement: CUT TO GRAFTTI “Yankee Go Home.”
  • Lately the French have been bothering us a little too much. What seems to astonish the French is that it has taken us so long to rise to high resentment. The French have been waiting for it all the time. Many Frenchmen expect us to dislike their country because they know France has a superior culture and a longer history. Marianne of France, whom we liberated and fell in love with—is calling out our faults for the whole world to hear.

Mme. Falcoz once asked Thomas Ryan, my friend and attorney, “What do you think of France?

His reply: “Mrs. Falcoz, I think of France about as often as I think about Rhode Island.”

Before we left, an Algerian crisis threatened the country. It was feared the French generals in Oran were planning to seize the government in Paris. I had been in touch with the Paris Bureau. The chief correspondent was out interviewing high officials for television.

CBS radio in New York was impatient for fresh news. The back-up correspondent, Blair Clark asked me to take a sound engineer and see what we might find.  Large rolls of barbed wire had blocked the roads to Paris Orly Airport. I saw tanks on the runways. The sound of sirens was everywhere. We came back to the bureau. The technician cued the sound of sirens and I delivered and off-the-cuff report of what I had seen.

An hour later, a call came from Sig Mickelson. “I heard it in my car. Wonderful, we scooped everybody, and those siren sounds made the piece come alive. Skee, you have to come back. I need you.”

Despite St. Clotilde, despite Louis XVI, this expatriate was ready to go home. Paris was full of Americans at the time. The franc was cheap, the living was easy but like all immigrants, I was neither here nor there. Though my command of the language was better, I felt insulted when I was told I could not be an American because I pronounced French vowels so well. As a writer, I was disturbed by my illiteracy in the language.

Our son John was attending French Kindergarten. One day he cried, “Je veux mon cagoule! Cagoule! PAPA, CAGOULE!”

What in hell was a cagoule? We had to call Paul Andre Falcoz.

“He wants the hood for his cape.”

“Merci, Paul Andre.” We hung up.

I went to the Ecole Maternelle to bring John home. He said to a chum, “J’ai un drôle de père. Il ne sait pas parler français.” (I have a weird father. He doesn’t speak French.”)

Even worse. Tuulikki and I were planning a trip to the Burgundy wine country. We had maps spread on the floor. We showed him the villages from which our wines had come.

Beaujolais vienne de tout la region. Fixin vient de cette village.”

He interrupted us. “Papa, d’où vient le whiskey?”

We had been playing catch in the Bois de Boulogne, and I asked him in French to give me the ball. He kicked it, instead of throwing it. The grandson of Abe Wolff who had a tryout with the St Louis Browns! That settled it. This boy had to be brought back to his heritage.

At home, Kennedy was running against Nixon and the Americans were repeating the French errors in Vietnam. A lesser conflict was taking place in the upper echelons of CBS. Sig Mickelson wanted to fire Fred Friendly, the head of documentaries and replace him with me. He said nothing to me directly, but he knew how to talk to a writer-producer.

He came to Paris and said, “There’s a new technology. The kinescope process is finished. We now record programs on two-inch tape and edit carefully. It will change the whole business, and unless you come back, you’ll be playing catch up. And we’ll make you a good deal.”

“I’ll start packing,” I told him.

Sig continued, “By the way, CBS News and you are being sued for plagiarism in California. Take care of that first.”

“Where’s the suit?”

“Salinas, California. The lettuce capital of the world.”

I spent two days in New York and then I flew west.



Sig Mickelson: