Thursday, February 25, 2016

'What’s Love?' -- a short story

Author Harry M. Zubkoff in the '70s
Harry's books were his greatest possession. In 2011, he wrote an email to dear friends describing his 2007 move with my mother, from their house to an apartment: “The most traumatic thing about moving for me is that I had to get rid of a thousand books or more, but now I’m starting to accumulate them again.” 

Unfortunately, he parted with hundreds more when he prepared to move again in 2014 to an elderly friendly community. During another painstaking process, my dad (then 92) held up one book at a time, told us (his family) a brief story about it, and decided which pile it should grace – “keep” or “donate.” As for stacks of
long-stored boxes, he insisted he “keep them all.” I never imagined that only months later, after he passed away, I’d open those boxes to find unpublished novels, stories, and poems he’d written over a lifetime.

In one of those stories, Harry tells a tale of someone else who was making a move, and moving on with his life.

“After all,” said Pop, “what’s love? Is it more important than food? Will it fill an empty stomach?” His face crinkled up as he smiled, and his eyes almost closed.

“Listen,” said Phil, his eyes fixed grimly on the road ahead, “don’t give me any of that curbstone philosophy. Maybe love makes me miserable, but I’m still crazy about her, even if she is marrying that half-baked jerk.”

“Aha!” said Pop. “Then it is love that’s bothering you. You have that look.”

“What look?”

“My boy,” said Pop, “when you’re as old as I, you’ll know what look I mean. What’s your name?”

“Phil. Phil Kimberly. What’s yours?”

“Everybody calls me Pop. How old are you?”

“Twenty-one,” said Phil. “By the way, I really appreciate this lift. It’s a long walk from Chicago to Buffalo.”

“That’s all right,” said Pop. He glanced quickly at Phil, while his big hands guided the truck carefully through the night. “Are you hungry?” He asked softly.

“No,” said Phil.

“Well,” said Pop, “what’s hunger, after all? An emptiness in your stomach. What’s an emptiness? Nothing. So what’s hunger? Nothing! Just the same, wouldn’t you like to stop at the Truck Bar up ahead and have a bite with me?”

“Okay, okay,” said Phil. “I guess maybe I could go for a cup of coffee, at that.”

“Fine,” said Pop. “Anything is better than nothing, especially on an empty stomach.”

* * *

In the lighted restaurant, Phil looked even younger than twenty-one. Only his stubborn jaw kept him from looking like a boy of sixteen.

“Would you like to tell me about her?” said Pop, two sandwiches and two cups of coffee later.

“I don’t know,” said Phil. “There isn’t much to tell. We wrote to each other while I was in Vietnam, and she promised to wait for me. But when I came home, I was broke and I just couldn’t afford to get married. I don’t have a job and I can’t find a job. Now I ask you, would any guy in his right mind get married without a job and no prospects?”

“Some people do,” said Pop, “but go on. What happened?”

“That’s all there is,” said Phil. “I guess she got tired of waiting. Anyway, she told me she decided to marry some guy who was chasing after her all the time I was overseas. A guy with a job who has something to offer, I suppose.”

“I see,” said Pop, “and being the noble young man you are, you decided she’d be better off with him so you ran away. Right?”

“It’s not that so much,” said Phil. “It’s just that all of a sudden I got fed up with being a nobody, without a job and no chance of getting one. So I thought I’d just go to New York and see if I could get a break there.”

“Yeah,” said Pop, I know. You figured to make a quick fortune there and then come back for a visit someday and show her what she could have had if she’d waited for you. Come on, let’s go. I’ve got a schedule to keep.”

* * *

It was raining steadily on the steel top of the truck cab, and the wind moaned past the side windows, monotonously, soothingly.

“There’s plenty of room to relax, if you’d like to take a short nap,” said Pop.

“No, thanks,” said Phil. “I don’t feel like sleeping.”

“Ah, well,” said Pop, “after all, what’s sleep? You close your eyes, you stop thinking, your mouth opens, your muscles relax, your heart beats slower, your blood moves slower and it’s almost like being a little bit dead.”

“That’s a nice, morbid thought,” said Phil. “Do you always talk like that?”

“Oh, it’s just a habit, I guess,” Pop shrugged. “Being alone on the road so much gets a guy to thinking. There’s not much else to do but drive my truck – it’s my own, by the way – and think, except when I pick up hitchhikers like you. Then I drive and talk.”

“You think I ran away, don’t you?”

“Well, partly,” said Pop, “but I also think that you don’t love the girl. Not really.”

“Oh, but you’re wrong,” Phil protested. “I do love her. That’s why I left. I don’t mean to be noble exactly, but – well, you know what I mean. Maybe I didn’t think it all out like you did, but you figured it about right back there in the restaurant.”

“No,” said Pop, “you don’t love her. Consider, now, what’s love? It’s a desire for someone. A desire to share your life with someone, to make a home together, to raise a family. Not to leave her, to spend the rest of your life apart. That’s not love. That’s a sacrifice. Maybe not even a sacrifice. It’s probably just your pride that makes you want to run away. Your pride, that won’t let you stay and face her and everyone else.”

“Look,” said Phil, “if you want to give me lectures like that, just stop the truck and I’ll get out and walk.”

He sat back in the seat, his stubborn jaw sticking out at an absurd angle.

Pop laughed.

“That’s your pride speaking again,” he said more gently. “Look, Phil, let me tell you a story. It’s about a guy I knew once. We’ll call him Joe. Joe was in pretty much the same boat you’re in. Oh, he wasn’t a veteran and he didn’t have a problem in adjusting to civilian life after a war, or anything, but he did live through some pretty hard times.

“Anyway, he didn’t have a job when he fell in love. Nice girl, too. But instead of running away, like you, he married her. He really loved her, you see, and couldn’t imagine a life for himself without her.

“Well, they had three kids, and with each one things were a little tougher. Believe me, son, they had a mighty rough time of it. They even lost one child because they just didn’t have enough money for doctors and medicine. But they never stopped loving each other, not once, and today they’re just as happy as anyone would want to be. He still isn’t making much money, but they’re together, and that’s what counts. And if they had it all to do over again, they still wouldn’t do it any differently.”

They were both silent for a moment, lost in thought, while the big truck droned steadily through the night.

Phil broke the silence.

“That doesn’t prove anything,” he said. “Maybe it worked out okay for them, but that doesn’t mean it would for everyone. And besides, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t ask a wife of mine to go through so much … hardship. It just wouldn’t be right for me, that’s all.” He wondered if the mythical Joe were Pop himself. But no, Pop wasn’t old enough. He was no more than thirty-five, maybe forty at the most. Still, he did look as though he’d known many hardships in his life. Well, maybe he had.

* * *

He woke up when the truck stopped. It was just getting light out and it had stopped raining.

“Time for breakfast,” said Pop, seeing his eyes open. “You must have been pretty tired.”

“Yeah,” Phil yawned, “guess I was. What time is it?”

“Almost five. You’ve been sleeping over two hours.”

“I’ve been thinking,” said Phil, “about that guy Joe you were talking about. I can’t help wondering how it would have worked out if he hadn’t gotten married right away, if he and his girl had waited till they could afford it.”

“Well,” said Pop, “let’s eat first, and then I’ll tell you another story.”

* * *

The countryside looked freshly washed and the air smelled sweet and clean in the early morning. The big truck seemed to drive itself with only an occasional nudge from Pop’s capable hands. Now he looked older, somehow, or more tired, and his voice was slightly husky as he spoke.

“This guy’s name was Joe, too,” he said, “and like the other Joe, he didn’t have a job either when he fell in love. So he decided to wait. Well, he waited and he waited and because his girl was so fine and understanding about it, almost eight years went by before he realized it. By that time, he was making enough to get married, even by his standards.

“But then a terrible thing happened. You see, after being a bachelor for so long, the thought of marriage suddenly became terrifying to him. What’s even worse, he realized that he didn’t love her after all. Not enough to give up his so-called freedom, anyway.

“On the other hand, he was aware of the sacrifice his girl had made, waiting so long for him, and ruining her chances for another marriage. Who would marry a girl who had been engaged to one man for eight years? And besides, she did love him, or at least she claimed to. No, in all fairness to her, he just couldn’t leave her flat. His conscience just wouldn’t permit it.

“So he married her. And their marriage has not been a happy one. No, it has not been a happy one. They’ve been miserable together, just plain miserable.”

“Well,” said Phil after a moment, “that’s not an encouraging prospect, is it?”


“Of course,” Phil went on, half to himself, “that’s kind of carrying it to extremes. After all, who’d expect two people to stay engaged for eight years? I know I certainly wouldn’t ask any girl to do that. I mean, she might want to wait for me, but we wouldn’t be engaged. She’d be free to go out with other guys, too. That way, if someone else came along, she wouldn’t be tied down, so to speak. Anyway, you see my point, don’t you?”

“Sure,” said Pop. “What you’re saying is that it couldn’t happen to you. Maybe to someone else, but not to you.”

“Okay,” said Phil uncomfortably, “have you got any more stories up your sleeve?”

“As a matter of fact,” Pop smiled, “I have. Just by way of variety …”

“I know,” Phil interrupted, “This guy’s name is Joe, too.”

“Yeah,” said Pop, “how did you know? Anyway, this Joe was something like you. Young, very much in love, and not earning enough money to marry on. His girl, her name was Norma, would have married him. She was working, and she could have continued working, but no, he was too proud – or foolish – to let his wife work.

“Well, she waited for a couple years, but when she saw that Joe wasn’t getting any closer to setting the date, she broke it up and told him that she couldn’t wait any longer, that she was going to marry someone else.

“So he ran away, just like you. And for ten years he worked away from home, making a decent living and wondering all the time what happened to Norma. Do you know what the tragedy of his life is? It’s this, that for ten years he wanted nothing so much as to go back to her, but he never had enough nerve. He was a coward.

“For ten long years, his mind was full of her. There never was another girl for him. Many times he almost wrote to her. But he never made it. So for ten years, he lived like half a man. You see, Phil, a man without a woman to love is only half a man. Why, he never even knew if she married the other guy. He only wondered, and wondered, and sometimes in the lonely night, he even cried.”

The truck had reached the outskirts of Buffalo before Phil spoke again.

“I can’t go back,” he said miserably, “I’d feel like a fool.”

“A fool?” said Pop. “What’s a fool? Someone whose pride has been hurt. Nothing more. All of us have been fools at one time or another. All of us have too much pride.”

“Besides,” said Phil, “I’m broke. I can’t go back like this, with nothing to offer her.”

“You have yourself,” said Pop, “and your future. But it won’t be a good future unless you share it with someone.”

“Okay, okay, you win,” Phil sighed, then grinned. “Can I hitch a ride with you on your return trip?”

“No,” said Pop, “I’m not going back – not for a while, anyway.” He smiled, and for an instant he looked almost as young as Phil. “You see,” he added, “I’m getting married today.”

“No kidding!” Phil gasped.

“Yes,” said Pop, “it took me ten years to get back here, but I finally made it. You see, she never did marry that other guy. She’s been waiting for me all this time, and if I’d come home the day after I ran away, we’d have been married ten years by now.

“Someone once said that experience is the name we give to our mistakes, Phil, so don’t make the same mistake I did. You’ll never forgive yourself, not if you really love her.”

“Pop,” said Phil, “I’ll send you an invitation to our wedding. What’s your address?”

“Just send it to Joe and Norma Poppin, care of the Poppin Trucking Company, Chicago.”

“Thanks, thanks Pop, thanks for everything. And I really do love her, too.”

“Well, after all,” said Pop, “what’s love? An extra heartbeat. What’s a heartbeat? Life. So what’s love? Why, it’s life itself! Good luck, Phil.”


Copyright 2016
Elaine Blackman 

Thursday, February 18, 2016

‘Black Market Murder’ – a mystery, of course

Hobby fiction-writer Harry Zubkoff in Buffalo with Jeanette and son, circa 1949

Possibly Harry's pilot ID 
Harry wrote the following story when he lived in Buffalo, N.Y., before his 1949 move to Maryland at age 28. Like many of his tucked-away writings, I discovered the yellowed, typed pages held together with rusty paper clips. I have to wonder what Harry would've thought about these fictions if he had taken another look in his old age, say, 60 years after he wrote them. We'll have to trust that he would have been as proud as ever.

(Note: During WWII, the government issued ration stamps to purchase gasoline and other necessities.)

It was 2:00 Monday afternoon when the strident ringing of the telephone startled Handy Marker as he was dozing in the comfortable leather chair in his office.

“Handy Marker speaking,” he mumbled into the phone.

“Hello, Handy, this is Al.” The voice at the other end was large and hearty, with an undercurrent of laughter running through it.

“Yes, Al, how do you feel today?” Handy’s voice flowed as his words brought to mind the hazy, but nonetheless pleasant recollection of the party he and Al had attended the night before.

“A little tired, Handy.” The hearty voice sounded slightly hoarse. “Say Handy, if you’re not busy this afternoon I’d like you to stop in and see me.”

“Why sure, Al. I’ll come right now, if you want.”

“No, no. Not now. Say about 4:30.”

“Okay, Al. Anything wrong?”

“Well, I’d rather not talk about it over the phone, Handy, but I … there is something wrong and I need some good advice.”

“I’ll see you at 4:30, Al.”

As he replaced the receiver, Handy could not help thinking that Al sounded worried. But that wasn’t like Al. Not Al Honesty. That big galoot never worried about a thing.

“Oh well,” he shrugged, “he’s probably got a hangover; I know I have.” As he resumed his interrupted nap he was dimly aware of a feeling of self-satisfaction that Al should be asking him for advice. Of course, he was Al’s closest friend and it was only natural that … Ah, how we do admire the wisdom of those who come to us for advice!

It was exactly 4:30 p.m. on Handy’s expensive wrist watch when he tooled his powerful coupe through the snowy ruts of the driveway leading into Al Honesty’s Service Station. He drove past the gas pumps and parked beside the small building, which housed a modest office and a tiny rest room – a building so familiar to thousands of similar stations.

As he sauntered around to the front of the building, he slanted a cigarette between his firmly chiseled lips and applied flame from his lighter. Then, his hat adjusted at a rakish angle, he pulled the door open.

The joyous greeting in his heart was frozen on his lips. For there, lying on his back in the middle of the floor was Al Honesty. It was immediately apparent that Al was dead.

For one moment of incredulous shock Handy stood petrified in the doorway. Only gradually did he become aware of the details of the scene before him. The thin, but noticeable gash in Al’s exposed throat, with blood still oozing out of it. The wicked-looking dagger lying beside him on the floor, its blade shining dully where it was not covered with blood. And the man sitting silently at Al’s little desk, his hand still resting on the telephone.

An innocent enough setting for tragedy.

The Inspector turned his impassive gaze on the man, still silently seated at the desk.

“You called Headquarters?” It was more a statement than a question.

The man stirred and sighed. He was short and stout, with jet-black wavy hair and incredibly black eyes. His normally olive complexion had turned a sickly, sallow color.

“Yes,” he murmured in an almost inaudible voice.

While they talked, the Inspector’s assistant was directing the activities of the Homicide crew. They were operating with the smooth precision of a well-trained football team, yet they scarcely made a sound.

“What’s your name?” asked the Inspector.

“Allen Carmello,” replied the black-haired man.

“What’s your business?”

“I run a gas station down on Jersey Street.”

“What are you doing here?”

“Why – why –” he was obviously fumbling for words. “I – that is, Al Honesty called me and asked me to come and see him at 4:15.”

“Yes?” the Inspector prompted.

“I was delayed a little and I had a flat tire about a block from here so I walked from there. I guess I was a little late.” He trembled, as from a sudden chill. “When I got here,” he continued in answer to the Inspector’s relentless gaze, “I found him like that – so I called Headquarters.” His voice trailed away curiously.

The Inspector, an old, old hand at this game of question and answer, regarded him quietly for a moment, trying to put a mental finger on a flaw.

“Hey, Chief,” cried his assistant suddenly, “this knife’s got the initials A.C. on it.”

The Inspector’s steel-grey eyes seemed to bore holes through Carmello. The man lost all vestige of his self-control.

“No, no,” he cried brokenly, “I didn’t do it, I didn’t do it. They framed me. I didn’t do it!”

Handy watched the grim scene with distaste.

At that moment the Medical Examiner walked in, exuding the faint scent of a morgue. The Inspector pointed to the corpse and stood by silently while the doctor made his preliminary examination.

Handy, fully himself now, lit a cigarette and studied the wall above the desk where Al’s gasoline permit hung. Hanging beside it, elaborately framed, was a beautiful certificate, proclaiming Al Honesty President of the Local Service Station Organization. He almost smiled as he recalled the party last night which had celebrated Al’s election to that coveted position.

When the Medical Examiner had finished, he rose and faced the Inspector.

“This man’s throat has been cut as neatly as though it had been done by a doctor,” he said.

“What time did it happen?” asked the Inspector.

The doctor frowned. “It’s hard to say exactly until I’ve made an autopsy,” he muttered. “But I’d say offhand that it was sometime between,” he consulted his watch, “four and four-fifteen. I’ll send the boys in to take him out.” And he walked out.

“How soon will I have your report?” shouted the Inspector after his retreating figure.

“Sometime tonight,” came the reluctant rejoinder.

“Damn all doctors!” the Inspector exploded.

“Physicians mend or end us,
Secundum artem; but although we sneer
In health – when ill we call them to attend us
Without the least propensity to jeer.”

Handy quoted the lines absently and was immediately sorry, for the Inspector turned the full batteries of his camera eyes on him.

“What’s your name, son?” he sounded almost friendly.

“Harry Marker.”


“I’m a writer – mystery stories and other foolish things.”

“What are you doing here?”

“Well – I might have come for gas.”

“Your car isn’t parked by the gas pumps.”

“Hmm – you are observant, aren’t you? Well, the truth is, Al Honesty happens to be – or was, a close friend of mine. He called me this afternoon and asked me to stop in at 4:30.”

“He liked to make appointments, didn’t he?” Inspector Donaldson murmured in an aside.

“What time did you get here?” he asked.

“It was exactly 4:30,” said Handy displaying his wrist watch. The Inspector looked at it a moment, thinking.

“Was this man,” pointing to Carmello, “here?”

“Yes, he was.”

Abruptly, he whirled on Carmello.

“What kind of flat tire did you have? Blowout or leak?” The question was so completely unexpected that even Handy blinked.

“L-l-leak, I guess,” Carmello stammered.

“Listen Carmello,” all at once Inspector Donaldson became a friend and a confidante, “you’re in a jam. Who do you think is trying to frame you?”

“I d-d-don’t know, Inspector.” He looked terror-stricken and his lips were quivering uncontrollably.

Inspector Donaldson regarded him for a few seconds, his all-seeing eyes seeming to pierce through to his innermost secrets. Then, with a sigh, he straightened his massive shoulders.

“Sarge,” he directed wearily, “bring him along back to the office.”

“You’d better follow us down to Headquarters, son,” he remarked. “I’ll need you when I fill out my report.”

“Inspector,” said Handy, “have you got any ideas? Do you think he did it?” He pointed at Carmello.

“We’ll talk about that later, son.”

“But I’ve got to know. Look, Inspector, I know I’m not a detective, but I have written mystery stories and have got imagination. And from what I’ve seen and heard in here, there are possibilities. And,” he added slowly, “I think you’ve seen them.”

He paused breathlessly. A faint glimmer of interest showed in the Inspector’s eyes.

“Maybe you have too much imagination,” he commented dryly. “But go ahead, let’s hear it.”

“You’ll have to ask this fellow – uh – Carmello a few more questions, first.”

“That’s why I’m taking him down to Headquarters,” was the Inspector’s calm rejoinder.

“Then can I just sit in on the questioning?” asked Handy, hopefully.

“Yes, son, I think we can arrange it,” he replied, while his right hand, with its powerful stuffy fingers, absently stroked his cheek.

As they were filing out, Handy reached up and detached the framed certificate from its hook on the wall and tucked it under his arm. Inspector Donaldson glanced askance at him but said nothing.

In front of the gas pump, where the Squad Car was parked, the Inspector took the Sergeant and one of the other detectives aside and spoke to them in a low voice for a few minutes. He was evidently giving them some unorthodox instructions, for both men looked violently surprised. Handy, leaning against one gas pump, gazed unseeingly at the figures beneath the glass face, thinking furiously.

The Inspector, finished issuing mysterious orders, settled himself into the car and waved as he drove off, leaving the Sergeant and his cohort behind. As he turned toward his own car, Handy noticed things. One; the sergeant had departed, walking, and the other detective had gone inside the little building. Two; the figures under the glass face on the gas pump represented the last disbursement of gasoline as 19.7 gals.

“That reminds me,” he muttered, “I’d better buy some gas on my way down to Headquarters.”

Twenty minutes later, having filled his gas tank (10 gals. – 2 C stamps) he was seated in Inspector Donaldson’s office, with the Inspector and an alert-looking, bright-eyed man who had been introduced as District Attorney Farrell.

The Inspector was leafing through several typewritten reports on his desk, and, from time to time during the next few hours, more reports were delivered by silent stenographers.

“Did you know anything about Al’s family, son?” asked the Inspector, his eyes casually raised to Handy’s.

“No, I didn’t,” Handy regretted. “He never mentioned anything about his family connections to me. As a matter of fact,” he almost grinned, “I don’t know if he was born or hatched.”

“Hmm, ahem,” the Inspector cleared his throat while the District Attorney lit a cigar and concentrated on some vague point on the ceiling.

“His parents died ten years ago in a train accident. He was forty-four years old, he had a brother forty and a sister thirty-six. His brother joined the Army three years ago, spent two years in the Pacific killing Japs and deserted when he came home on furlough. The F.B.I. is still looking for him. His sister married seven years ago, but her husband died two years later and she collected the insurance and disappeared. We’re still looking for her.” He paused for breath.

“Quite a family,” muttered the District Attorney.

The Inspector grunted, but whatever he had to say was interrupted when his erstwhile assistant, Sergeant Bolton, entered the room, bearing bags of sandwiches and coffee. Handy and the District Attorney both noticed the glance of understanding that passed between him and the Inspector.

For the next ten minutes, the four men consumed sandwiches and drank coffee, but not a word was spoken. Handy, his brow furrowed in concentration, found it difficult to reconcile this little scene with the previous conceptions of police work.

When they had finished, the Inspector left the room with the Sergeant, leaving Handy and District Attorney Farrell alone for a few moments. He returned with Allen Carmello, whom he seated under a lamp. Then, resuming his own seat behind his desk, he spoke.

“Carmello,” his voice was almost soothing, “you told me before that you arrived at Al Honesty’s station a little late for your 4:15 appointment. Is that right?”

“Yes, sir.” Carmello had regained control of himself, but the corners of his mouth still twitched a little now and then. Handy wondered, suddenly, if he were acting or …

“You also said,” the Inspector continued, “that you were delayed a little and that you had a flat tire a block away and walked from there. Is that right?”

“Yes, sir.” There was an air of tension about him.

“What delayed you?”

Handy smiled to himself in approval. This Donaldson knew his business.

“My – Herb – he’s – he works for me.” Carmello was visibly trembling again. “He was out on a service call with the truck and I had to wait till he got back before I could go.”


“I had to use the truck to go. And besides, I couldn’t leave my station alone.”

“What time did he get back?”

“It was ten after four. I remember bawling him out for being so late.”

“Where was this service call?”

“Oh – it was way down on the East Side. One of my best customers.”

“Mr. Carmello, where did you keep your knife?”

“Why – why – in my desk at the station.”

“I see. Now tell me, who do you think would want to frame you?”

“I don’t know, Inspector. Honest, I don’t.”

“What did Al Honesty want to see you about?”

“I don’t know that, either. He just called and asked me to come over and see him.”

The Inspector raised an eyebrow in disbelief.

“It’s the truth, Inspector,” Carmello pleaded. “He’s the President of the Service Station Organization, and he could have called anybody to come and see him and – well, it’s his privilege,” he finished lamely.

A quiet-footed stenographer stole in, deposited a sheet of paper on the Inspector’s desk, and stole out again. Then the phone rang and the Inspector spoke quietly for a minute and hung up.

He pressed a button on his desk and when the Sergeant appeared in the doorway, motioned him to take Carmello away.

“Now, son,” he said, turning to Handy, “why did Al Honesty want to see you?”

Handy frowned. “I don’t know,” he replied. “He said he wanted some advice and he sounded worried.”

“Was he in the habit of asking you for advice?”

“No, he wasn’t. That’s why I know he must have been pretty much upset.”

The Inspector sighed, his fingers absently stroking his jaw.

“What do you make of this, son?” he asked slowly.

It was a challenge. No, it was an invitation. The District Attorney stirred in his seat and gazed at Handy with his bright eyes. Handy lit a cigarette idly and took several deep drags.

Must uphold the honor of mystery-story writers and other foolish things, he thought to himself, wryly.

“Well, Inspector,” he said aloud, “I may be off the track and somehow, I don’t think we have all the facts, but – here’s how it looks to me.” He drew a deep breath. “This Carmello is either acting or he’s being framed. Let’s assume for the moment that he’s being framed. If so, who had the opportunity to frame him? And the first one that comes to my mind is the fellow who works for him. He had access to Carmello’s knife. He was responsible for Carmello’s original delay because he was late getting back from a service call – he says. And he could have tampered with Carmello’s tire so that it would go flat before he reached Al’s place. These are possibilities, mind you, and I can’t see any motive at all but – well, I’d pick him up and question him if I were you.”

Inspector Donaldson smiled, the grim wrinkles under his eyes folding into genial lines.

“That,” he said as he pressed the button on his desk, “is exactly what we’ve done. Oh Sergeant,” to the opening door, “bring him in.”

The Sergeant reappeared with a medium sized, sandy-haired man in tow, a man with huge bags under his pale green eyes. Handy wondered if they were from dissipation or lack of sleep.

“What’s your name?” asked the Inspector quietly, when the man had been seated.

“Herbert Jenkins, Sir.” His voice was thin and cracked.

“You work for Allen Carmello?”

“Yes, sir.”

“This afternoon you went on a service call for Carmello and returned late. Is that right?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Where was it?”

“Down on the East Side. Mr. Gardin, one of our best customers wanted … I told the Sergeant all about it.”

“Never mind. What time did you leave him?”

“About a quarter to four, sir.”

“What time did you get back?”

“About ten after. Mr. Carmello bawled me out.”

“You know we can check with Mr. Gardin on that, don’t you?”

“Oh, but he wasn’t there, sir. I just fixed his car and came back.”

During this interchange of words, Handy intently studied Jenkins’ face. Instinctively he distrusted the man. The Inspector evidently shared this distrust, for his next question was blunt and forceful.

“Did you tamper with Carmello’s truck tire so it would go flat?” he demanded.

“Oh no, sir. I had barely pulled into the station, when Mr. Carmello jumped in and drove away.”

“Hmmm …”

“As a matter of fact, sir, the truck was very low on gas, almost empty, and I wanted to fill it up, but he drove away too fast.”

“Did you know Al Honesty?”

The question had a strange effect. Not a muscle of the man’s face moved, yet his pale green eyes suddenly had an unholy light in them. The District Attorney, veteran of many courtroom battles and wise in interpreting facial expressions, caught his breath audibly.

“Only slightly, sir.” The answer was innocent enough.

“Did you kill him?”

This time the reaction was violent. He got out of his chair and covered the three feet to the Inspector’s desk in a single, tigerish leap.

“No!” His thin, cracked voice was barely audible with suppressed hatred. “But I would have, if I had the chance. The d - - -  righteous rat.”

The outburst was so unexpected that the Inspector blinked several times before he spoke.

“Sit down, Jenkins,” he snapped. “Now, that’s better. Why didn’t you like him?”

But Jenkins’ lips were sealed. Not another word could they get out of him. Finally, the Inspector ordered the Sergeant to take him away, after which he sat and absently stroked his jaw with his eyes closed. The District Attorney paced up and down the room, also thinking. And Handy smoked furiously.

Suddenly he jumped up, muttering oaths under his breath.

“Inspector,” he said, “will you trust me? Will you let me do something, something that may break this case?”

“Now wait a minute, son.” The Inspector was disconcertingly calm. “This thing isn’t so tough. Besides, there are a few angles which you don’t know of yet.”

“Such as what?” murmured Handy.

“Oh,” the Inspector shrugged his huge shoulders, “such as, for example, this report on my desk which tells that Allen Carmello was dealing in black market gasoline and that Herb Jenkins was the contact man for the black market gang. Also, that Al Honesty, early this morning, notified the executive committee of the Service Station Organization that, by virtue of his authority as President, he was going to have a talk with Carmello and maybe order him to close down for two weeks. Also, that Mr. Gardin, the one whose car Jenkins serviced, says that his neighbor saw Jenkins leave at three-thirty, not at a quarter to four.”

The Inspector paused, breathless.

Handy remained standing, a cigarette smoldering unnoticed between his fingers.

“Say, you really get around some, don’t you?” he whistled.

“That, my boy,” said Inspector Donaldson, “is what a Police Department, and more especially a Homicide Squad, is for. That is why I have six men on my staff; and what’s more, that’s why I’m getting paid. The trouble with you mystery-story writers,” he added with a good-natured chuckle, “is that that is what you fail to take into consideration. You think that cops are dopes, and you forget that actually we do solve quite a few cases without the help of a Sherlock Holmes or an Ellery Queen.”

“Well, this is certainly an education to me,” Handy murmured. “By the way, Inspector, who did kill Al Honesty?”

“We’ll both know soon,” said the Inspector grimly.

“Then do you mind if I borrow one of your men for a private experiment?” asked Handy hopefully. “I’d rather not tell you right now,” he added hurriedly in response to the questioning eyes aimed at him. “Maybe I’m silly, and if I am, I’d rather keep it to myself, but then again, there is the possibility …” he spread his hand deprecatingly.

The Inspector said nothing. The District Attorney, whom Handy had begun to suspect had lost his tongue, rose suddenly, yawned and stretched.

“Well gentlemen,” he said, “I really must be going.” He winked at the Inspector. “And give this young fellow a break, Don,” he added, glancing at Handy.

“Nice guy!” exclaimed Handy when he had gone.

“Yes, he is,” the Inspector nodded as he pressed the buzzer, “and he doesn’t miss much either. Oh Sarge, send Matthews in here.”

Matthews was the detective whom Handy had seen at the gas station, the one who had remained there at the Inspector’s orders. In his hand he held two official looking sheets of paper and he handed them to the Inspector with a smile. “Mat,” said the Inspector, dryly, without looking at the papers, “Mr. Marker would like your help in the performance of a little experiment. See what you can do to make him happy.”

“Thanks, Inspector,” said Handy. “Now Mat,” he turned to the detective and in a low voice whispered some instructions in the man’s ear. “And when you come back,” he concluded aloud, “just stick your head in the door and say ‘yes’ or ‘no’.”

When Matthews had gone, the Inspector raised his head from the papers he had been reading and with a twinkle in his grey eyes jovially asked Handy whom he suspected.

“Blessed if I know,” Handy muttered, “but I will,” he added brightly, “when Matthews gets back.”

“Well, son,” the Inspector chuckled, “I’ve got the answer right here.” He tapped his powerful forefinger on the papers on his desk. “Listen to these two reports,” he went on in a brisk tone. “One; Matthews canvassed the neighborhood around Honesty’s station and found someone who will swear that he saw Carmello’s truck standing at the gas pumps about 4:00. That could only have been Jenkins’. Two; we’ve checked Jenkins’ fingerprints with the F.B.I., and he happens to be Honesty’s brother, the one who deserted from the Army.”

The words exploded, one by one, on Handy’s consciousness, till the whole picture was clear. He had thought … but there was still a possibility … must wait till Matthews got back, though. Automatically, he lit a cigarette and silently reviewed the whole case in his mind. He felt a sense of admiration for the Inspector, but that faint glimmer … still, the man knew how to get things done.

“Well,” he mused philosophically, “we’ll see at the end.”

Meanwhile, the Inspector had ordered Sergeant Bolton to bring two suspects in, and a stenographer, and another detective. The room was beginning to look like a small congregation was going on, when Handy was suddenly startled by the Inspector’s voice, speaking in harsh tones. He was addressing Carmello and Jenkins.

“One of you killed Al Honesty,” he began grimly, “and before that one gets out of here, he’ll confess.” There was a hush in the room.

“All right,” the Inspector went on. “Carmello,” his voice snapped like a whip, “we know that you’ve been dealing in black market gasoline; we know that Honesty called you down to talk to you about it with the idea of ordering you to close your station; we know that you have been chiseling on the black market gang so that they had to put a watch on you; we know that you were at Honesty’s place at the approximate time of the murder; and we know it was your knife that killed him. Are you ready to talk?”

By the time the Inspector had finished talking, Carmello was trembling violently, and beads of perspiration were forming on his forehead.

“What you say is true, Inspector,” he pleaded, almost whining, “but I swear I found him dead when I got there. And why would I have killed him with my own knife, and why would I have called the cops?”

Handy had to admit, ruefully, that the man’s defense was good.

The Inspector, however, focused his chilled steel eyes on Jenkins.

“You, Jenkins,” he continued in the same whip-like tones, “we know that you left Gardin’s car at 3:30; we know that you were at Honesty’s place around 4:00; we know that you had an opportunity to swipe Carmello’s knife; we know that you were contact man for the black market gang; and,” he paused to lend emphasis to his final statement, “we know that you’re an Army deserter and that you’re Al Honesty’s brother.”

Suddenly Jenkins broke. One moment he had been sitting there, composed and collected, and the next moment he was a quivering mass of flesh. His thin, cracked voice was hoarse when he spoke, and his pale green eyes looked hideous.

“No,” he rasped, “no, I didn’t do it, I didn’t, I tell you.”

“Why did you go to see him this afternoon?”

“I … I,” he licked his lips, “I was sent, because we knew he was gonna crack down on Carmello and … I tried to talk him out of it.”


“Carmello owed us money and we wanted it, and we couldn’t get it if he was forced to close.”

“Go on.”

“He wouldn’t listen to me … threatened to call the F.B.I. and turn me in … he knew they’d shoot me if they caught me.”

“So you killed him with Carmello’s knife and then …”

“No, no … you’ve got to believe me, I swear I didn’t … but,” he continued slowly, “if I had a knife, I would have.”

He subsided weakly in his chair, then suddenly pointed a bony finger at Carmello.

“He did it,” he shouted wildly, leaning forward, “he did it. He’s smart enough to do a thing like that. And he knew if Al made him close he’d be ruined. And he knew I went to see him. He framed me, the fat slob. He thought he could kill two birds with one stone, because no one would believe me. He knew I was Al’s brother and he knew I was a deserter. And he knew I hated Al and would have …” the expression on his face altered as he turned and faced the Inspector. All of a sudden he was calm again.

“Inspector,” he said quietly, “how did you know I went to see Al?”

“Someone saw your truck parked in his station about 4:00,” the Inspector replied.

“That proves it.” Jenkins sprang to his feet, and shot a vindictive glance at Carmello, who, strangely, had ceased trembling and was quietly smoking a cigarette. “He must have planted that guy, because I parked the truck a block away and walked to Al’s place – and I can prove that.”

The Inspector swung his steel-grey eyes to Carmello. There was no denying the sincerity in Jenkins’ voice. For a moment he allowed his eyes to bore holes through Carmello.

“Well?” he snapped.

“Okay, Inspector, I did it.”

At that moment Matthews stuck his head in the door, looked at Handy and said, “Yes!”

A half hour later, Carmello’s confession having been duly signed and witnessed, and Jenkins having been turned over to the local F.B.I., Handy found himself once more closeted with Inspector Donaldson. He withdrew the last cigarette from his crumpled pack and lit it thoughtfully.

The Inspector, with a satisfied air, lit a huge corncob pipe and looked at Handy out of those incredibly grey eyes.

“Now that it’s all over,” he remarked idly, “I don’t mind telling you that I really thought Jenkins did it. He’s a pretty bad egg.”

Handy agreed silently.

“By the way, son,” the Inspector continued, “what was that experiment of yours all about? In the excitement I almost forgot about it.”

“Once a detective, always a detective,” Handy chuckled, then sobered. “You see, Inspector, I suspected Carmello all along. When Jenkins came back to Carmello’s place, he said the truck was out of gas, or almost out of gas, but he didn’t have a chance to fill it up because Carmello jumped right in and drove away.”

“So what?” growled the Inspector.

“Well,” Handy continued imperturbably, “when I was at Al’s place I noticed that one of his gas pumps showed the last disbursement of gasoline as 19.7 gals. Now most cars have small tanks and won’t take that much gas, but most trucks will. So right away I figured that maybe Carmello pulled into Al’s place and filled his tank. Then he talked to Al. Maybe he didn’t mean to kill him when he went there; that’s why he drove in, and seeing that he was out of gas, filled up. And, incidentally, took the awful risk of being seen himself. Or maybe he filled up his tank after killing Al, when he was leaving and saw that he was out of gas. I don’t know. Anyway, after he killed Al, he probably fixed the tire so it would go flat and drove a block away and left the truck. Then he came back and called Headquarters. That was a pretty smart trick. But I figured that if his truck was full of gas, that we could prove he had been at Al’s before the time he said he got there … in other words, he must have killed Al, or else why go to all that trouble just to prove he was a few minutes late for his appointment. So I sent Matthews to look at his truck, and sure enough, the tank was full.”

The Inspector, who had listened intently to Handy’s words, solemnly rose, came around his desk and extended his huge hand.

“Put ‘er there, kid,” he exclaimed, and added, “contrary to public opinion, son, the cops don’t mind when an honest citizen like you out-thinks them – once in a while. But don’t let it go to your head,” he warned. “And incidentally, if you ever want a job as a detective, son, look me up.”

“I’ll remember that, Inspector,” Handy smiled, “and by the way, do you think you can detect a place where I can buy some gas – without stamps?” he asked as he ducked out the door.


Copyright 2016
Elaine Blackman 

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Heartfelt love songs of the Big Band Era (for the old and young alike)

Harry and Jeanette (also in photos below), July 1945
For the romantic in all of us, I combined three essays my dad posted on his original blog in 2011. Then 89 years young, he publicly shared his passion and knowledge of love songs from the Big Band Era. Of course, many already knew this; as a retirement hobby, Harry recorded music collections on audio cassette tapes, and later on CDs, and gifted copies to countless friends. I assume some of you still have them. To introduce each song, he recorded himself narrating bits of trivia (Lawrence Welk style!). 

I would say that Harry could feel the power of music, certainly love songs. He was a natural "music therapist." During my mom's last couple of years (she passed away in 2013), with dementia clouding her mind, Dad sang songs to her from their youth, and she quietly joined in, the words ne'er forgotten. 

You can click on the song titles in the essays below and listen to YouTube versions. At the bottom of this page, you'll see a link to a clip from one of Harry's recordings.

Irving Berlin's love story

Everyone in my generation knows who Irving Berlin is, or was, and all of us have heard and know many of the hundreds of songs he wrote. What is not so well known or remembered is the story of his love affair with his wife and the songs he wrote to note its ups and downs. He had been married briefly, in February 1912, but his wife contracted typhoid fever on their honeymoon in Cuba and died in July at the age of 20. For the next dozen years he worked full-time at his craft and became one of America's most successful songwriters.

In 1925 he met a young socialite, Ellin Mackay, 16 years younger than himself. It was love at first sight for both of them. She was the daughter of a millionaire, Clarence Mackay, the head of AT&T, and he strongly opposed the affair. Both were public figures, and the affair was prominently played up in the tabloids -- the immigrant Jewish songwriter and the debutante Catholic heiress. Mackay did everything he could to hinder the love affair, even sending his daughter off to Europe hoping she would forget him while they were apart. When they married in 1926, Mackay disowned his daughter and disinherited her from a substantial fortune. (They were reconciled after a few years as grandchildren came along and the marriage appeared to be permanent.) The marriage actually lasted 62 years, until Ellin died in 1988. Berlin died just nine months later, in 1989, at the age of 101.

During their turbulent courtship, Berlin wrote some of his most endearing torch songs, especially at the times when they were apart. A few examples: All By Myself; What'll I Do (When You Are Far Away); All Alone; and Remember. When they were together and happy, he wrote one of the great upbeat songs of our times -- Blue Skies, which was recorded by all the recording artists of the era. Then, when they were married, he wrote one of the great love songs of our times -- Always -- and gave it to his wife as a wedding present. The royalties from that song alone made Ellin Mackay Berlin an independently wealthy woman. Here are the lyrics for these two ever-popular songs:

I'll be loving you, Always, 
With a love that's true, Always, 
When the things you've planned,
Need a helping hand, 
I will understand, Always, Always. 
Days may not be fair, Always, 
That's when I'll be there, Always, 
Not for just an hour, 
Not for just a day, 
Not for just a year, but Always.

Blue Skies, smiling at me, 
Nothing but blue skies, do I see. 
Bluebirds, singing a song, 
Nothing but bluebirds, all day long. 
Never saw the sun, shining so bright, 
Never saw things, going so right. 
Noticing the days, hurrying by, 
When you're in love, my how they fly. 
Blue days, all of them gone, 
Nothing but blue skies, from now on. 

Expressing a heartfelt emotion

In 1909, 102 years ago, composer Leo Friedman and lyricist Beth Slater Whitson, wrote a song called Meet Me Tonight in Dreamland. They sold it to the biggest music publisher in Chicago, Will Rossiter, who bought it outright for a rumored $50. The song swept the country, and the sale of the sheet music made the publisher a wealthy man. Although there was no contractual arrangement to pay royalties, it was customary for a publisher who made huge profits on a song to share at least some portion with the writers. Rossiter refused to do so. Understandably unhappy with him, Friedman and Whitson wrote another song in 1911, which they took to another publisher who promised to pay royalties to them depending on sales. That song, Let Me Call You Sweetheart, actually became the best selling song of all time over the past 100 years. Sales of the sheet music alone, millions upon millions of copies and still in demand, as well as recordings by orchestras and singers, made the writers and the publisher independently wealthy.

Here we are, in 2011, 100 years later, and both those songs are still popular. What's the secret of such success? In my view, it's simple words coupled with an easily sung tune expressing a heartfelt emotion that any of us can relate to. So, sing along with me ...

Meet Me Tonight In Dreamland 
Meet me tonight in dreamland  
Under the silvery moon,                        
Meet me tonight in dreamland               

Where love's sweet roses bloom.          
Come with the lovelight gleaming           
In your dear eyes of blue.                      
Meet me in dreamland,                       
Sweet dreamy dreamland, 

There let me my dreams come true.                     

Let Me Call You Sweetheart
Let me call you sweetheart,
I'm in love with you.
Let me hear you whisper
That you love me, too.
Keep the lovelight glowing
In your eyes so true.
Let me call you sweetheart,
I'm in love with you.

A poignant love song

Of all the thousands upon thousands of memorable, popular songs ever written, the great majority of them were love songs. And of all the romantic songs of love and devotion, some of the most enduring and endearing were the songs of parting and separation. One such song came to my attention with a back story that tugged at my heart and brought tears to my eyes. I first heard it when Larry Clinton's orchestra recorded it with his songbird, Bea Wain, on the vocal in 1939. It didn't get much play at the time but later, when millions of GIs were going to war overseas, it became a little more popular, and again in 1952 during the Korean War, it enjoyed a revival with a rendition by Jane Russell in a movie "The Las Vegas Story".

It never attained great popularity in the top ranks of recordings, but the words grabbed me from the start and prompted me to look into it. What happened was that someone sent this poem to Hoagy Carmichael and asked if he thought it could be set to music. Hoagy worked on it, made a few changes to the lyric to fit into his melody, and then forgot it. That was in 1937. A couple years later, in 1939, looking through his files he found it again and arranged to publish it, but nobody knew who had written the poem. He and his publisher started a search and advertised in newspapers and magazines to find the author. It turned out to be Mrs. Jane Brown Thompson of Philadelphia, who had written it as an ode to her deceased husband and had it published in a magazine. It was introduced to the public on a network radio program by Dick Powell, one of the foremost singers and movie stars of that era. But Mrs. Thompson never heard it. She had passed away one day before the broadcast.

Can anyone read these poignant words and not feel the sadness and the deep grief that lonely widow was expressing?

I Get Along Without You Very Well

I get along without you very well, of course, I do,
Except when soft rains fall and drip from leaves, then I recall,
The thrill of being sheltered in your arms, of course, I do,
But I get along without you very well.
I've forgotten you just like I should, of course, I have,
Except to hear your name, or someone's laugh that is the same,
But I've forgotten you just like I should.
What a guy, what a fool am I,
To think, my breaking heart could kid the moon.
What's in store? Should I phone once more?
No, it's best that I stick to my tune.
I get along without you very well, of course, I do,
Except perhaps in spring, but I should never think of spring,
For that would surely break my heart in two.

Harry in the 1990s
In 2014, we donated most of Harry's extensive music (and book) collections to the Riderwood Village library in Silver Spring, MD.

Here's a clip of two songs with Harry's narration, from a five-CD set he recorded in 1994 at age 73. He titled the set "Sweet and Lovely." 

The URL is:

Copyright 2016
Elaine Blackman

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Two dads live on through tradition – and a passion for musical scores

My family poses at our home in Maryland, August 1968. My grandparents (seated) emigrated from Europe in 1922 with their baby (my mom), knowing all too well the plight of Jewish persecution and hardship portrayed in "Fiddler on the Roof." My dad's parents, too, escaped to America, circa 1910.  

When it came to show tunes from long ago, Harry Zubkoff was an expert, indeed a guru! I grew up listening to the albums “My Fair Lady,” “West Side Story,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” and on and on; my parents took me to plays, most in our D.C. area. Likewise, my husband and I took our two kids to musicals, old and new, many on Broadway. (And, what do you know, they grew up acting.) 

Well, the tradition was set! When my daughter and husband signed up for BroadwayCon, the first ever conference for Broadway fans, in January 2016, I tagged along – and I’m glad I did! I won’t go into details (you can find them on social media), however, one experience touched me in a big way.

You see, in a quiet snack area in the conference hotel, I had a nice chat with Michael Bernardi, son of Herschel Bernardi. Who? you ask. If you’re my age or older you may remember Herschel
Michael Bernardi and I discussed our dads.
Bernardi, the Hollywood actor and more. My dad and mom both were big fans. Because my dad tuned in, my brother and I watched him in “Peter Gunn” on TV (1958 – 1961), and listened to his Jewish-themed comedy album (“Chocolate Covered Matzohs” I think). Well, it turns out that Son Michael is following in his dad’s footsteps – literally. Michael now plays the role of Tevye, the patriarch in the “Fiddler on the Roof” Broadway revival. (He’s Tevye’s understudy, as well as Mordcha the Innkeeper.) On a panel with “Fiddler” cast members, he explained that his dad, too, played Tevye on Broadway. What’s more, Michael wears the pair of boots his dad wore – and, the shoemaker who sized the boots for Michael was son of the shoemaker who made the boots for Herschel!

Sadly, Michael was not yet 2 years old when he lost his dad at age 62; I was 62 when my dad died at nearly 93. Yes, our stories are different – on the other hand! (to quote Tevye) – as I told Michael, we are both perpetuating our dads’ legacy. I’m glad I approached Michael that day; it’s called synchronicity. And, who knows, maybe Harry and Herschel were there chatting, too. (By the way, Harry’s nickname back in the day was Heschel, no “r”.)

To complement my summary above, you’ll see two of Harry’s writings below. The first is a casual email that touches on his passion for show tunes. He wrote it to a young relative in 2010, when she was 18 and he 88. They were special “pen-pals” for a couple years, I
later learned, and continued to keep in touch through Facebook. From their emails, I found out pieces of my dad's life I’d never known. 

The second writing is one Harry posted on his original blog in 2011, in case you missed it. I added YouTube hyperlinks to his song titles, so you can click and listen if you like.

Harry's email – April 4, 2010

Here are some questions, if you want to answer them.

I got an album called “Showstoppers,” and it has some of the great songs from musical theater, both stage and screen. The trouble with me is that I get so carried away that I forget that most of these songs and most of the singers were popular long before you were born. I used to think that if you like musical theater you must naturally have to like all these old songs and performances, but I don’t think that way anymore. If you like all the musicals that became popular say in the last ten to twenty years, then chances are you won’t like these old songs and performances at all.

So, let me ask you a few questions. I’m going to list a bunch of the songs and the singers and ask you if you ever heard any of them, or even heard of any of them. For example, did you ever hear of Maurice Chevalier (a French star) who was in the movie “Gigi”? In that movie he sang, “Thank heaven for little girls, they grow up in the most delightful way.” For that matter, the title song, “Gigi,” was one of the great showstoppers of our times. (That’s my times, not yours.)

Now here’s a few more – singers and songs from musicals. Tell me if you ever heard them or heard of them. Gene Kelly – Singing in the Rain … Fred Astaire – The Way You Look Tonight … Judy Garland – Over the Rainbow … Gertrude Lawrence – Hello Young Lovers … Marlene Dietrich – See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have … Judy Garland – The Man That Got Away … Ethel Merman – You’re the Top …

I could go on and on, but that’s enough. My point, and my question, is: Do any of these songs and singers interest you? My guess is that they don’t. Of course, most of the great musicals, both the stage shows and the movies, of the 1930s and 1940s, get remade every 15 or 20 years. “The King and I” has been performed with new casts six or eight times since the original Broadway performance, and so has “42nd Street,” and so has “Fiddler on the Roof.” In fact, I’ll bet all the old musicals of the 1930s and 1940s and 1950s are still playing somewhere in the country, or in the world, somewhere right now, today.

Anyway, have you heard of some of the great musical performers of my generation – like Mary Martin, Eddie Cantor, Noel Coward, Lena Horne, Al Jolson, Eartha Kitt, Ted Lewis, Jimmy Durante, Sophie Tucker??? I would guess not, and I’d further guess that you would not be much interested in hearing any of their performances, either. And, I wouldn’t blame you at all, but, I thought I’d ask, anyway. Just so you know I’m thinking of you.

"Words and music" 

Every now and then someone asks me which is more important in a song – the lyric or the melody. That’s like asking which leg is more important, your right or your left. But the question reminds me of the famous story about Mrs. Oscar Hammerstein. She was at a party once where she heard two women talking about the musical “Showboat”.

“I just loved that song ‘Old Man River’ that Jerome Kern wrote,” one woman said. “Oh, no,” Mrs. Hammerstein broke in, “Jerome Kern did not write that song. What Jerome Kern wrote was ‘Tum, Tum. Tetum, Tum Tum Tetum’.  It was my husband, Oscar Hammerstein, who wrote ‘Old Man River’.” She was right, of course. Kern wrote the music and Hammerstein wrote the lyric, and no one can say which is most important to the song’s success. The two fit together perfectly. You cannot imagine any other words that would fit so well to that melody. And it is this coming together of words and melody that demonstrate the musical genius in American popular songs of our era – say, the first half of the 20th century.

Harry in his blogging days, 2011
Another question I’m often asked is which came first, the words or the melody. That’s a little harder to answer. It depends on who the composer is and who the lyricist is. There are examples of both instances. In another instance of the partnership between Kern and Hammerstein, when the Germans took Paris in 1941, Oscar Hammerstein wrote a nostalgic little poem mourning the loss of one of his favorite cities. It was The Last Time I Saw Paris and he gave it to Jerome Kern who promptly wrote the melody that made the poem famous. Who of us has not heard that song and ached for the people of Paris because of it? I was in Paris not long after we liberated it in the fall of 1944, and the song was played everywhere, no longer an ode to sorrow but now a joyful paean to triumph and liberty.

There are examples the other way, too. Richard Rodgers, in the first half of his musical career, worked closely with Lorenz Hart, the genius lyricist who gave us so many memorable songs. Rodgers would compose a melody and play it for Hart who would seem to forget it immediately. Days later he would scribble some words on a scrap of paper or an old envelope, and out of that process would come such unforgettable songs as Manhattan, My Funny Valentine, The Lady is a Tramp and dozens of others. So, in the end, who can say which is more important, the words or the music. We can only marvel at the poets of Tin Pan Alley, as they have been dubbed, and the masters of music who, together, gave birth to American popular music.

These “Fiddler on the Roof” cast members inspired thousands with personal stories, at NYC's first BroadwayCon. Michael Bernardi (far left) is reviving his dad's role. I hope I'm able to see their show.

Copyright 2016
Elaine Blackman