When my father informed the management of The New York Times of his need to retire from the newspaper in February 1972 because of poor health, his editor, A. M. Rosenthal, summed up Jack Gould's thirty-five years of service as a reporter and television critic: "There are not many men of whom it can be said that they created a place in the newspaper business that will always be identified with their name, but by God, you are one of them." Since the advent of television during the late 1940s, my father had covered and commented on the medium that changed the nature of American society. He came to the post of television critic from a background as a working reporter and from an improbable family heritage in the American aristocracy.
In his private conversation, Dad always regarded himself as a journalist who became a television critic by force of circumstances. He was never happier than when he was on the telephones at home chasing an exclusive or canvassing his many sources inside television from the Times office where his disorderly desk, laden with cigarette stubs, testified to his obsession with his story. Yet he also felt a larger responsibility as a critic because of the platform that the Times afforded him, and he harbored aspirations for television to be a medium of communication and education.
My father was an awkwardly dressed man with a perpetual cigarette, a distracted manner, and a shy demeanor. In his prime as a critic during the 1950s, he was, said one of his coworkers, "a guy who always sneaked off on vacation because he hated maudlin displays such as people saying: 'Have a nice vacation, Jack.'" His unassuming character deflected queries about his ancestry in the New York City upper crust and his knowledge of the foibles of the well-to-do. On his father's side, he traced his lineage back to the Revolutionary War. He would have been eligible for membership in the Society of the Cincinnati, except that he thought patriotic organizations pretentious and absurd. Judge James Gould of the Litchfield (Connecticut) Law School and a founder of American legal education was another notable ancestor. My father's mother was the youngest of the eleven children of banker Harvey Fisk; his firm, Fisk and Hatch, had helped Jay Cooke finance the Union military effort in the Civil War. Dad's favorite relation was his aunt Susan Ludlow Warren. For many years, "Aunt Susie" was the reputed mistress of J. P. Morgan Sr.
My father, John Ludlow Gould, was born on February 5, 1914 in New York City. His middle name reflected his connections with the Ludlow family of New York. His parents, John Warren Dubois Gould and Evelyn Louisa Fisk, were married in 1910 and had a daughter, Evelyn, (known in the family as "Fitter") in 1911. My grandfather graduated from New York University and was a civil engineer. He served in the Interior Department during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt and had worked on irrigation projects in the West. By the time my father was born, John Warren Gould had become a specialist in reorganizing bankrupt companies. My grandmother, Evelyn Fisk Gould, attended Bryn Mawr for several years but did not finish college. She had taken courses in colonial American history with the young Charles McLean Andrews, who became famous for his historical work on the American Revolution. In the early 1960s, when I was reading Andrews for my orals at Yale University, she would fondly recall "the handsome Professor Andrews" of her youth.
My father grew up in comfortable circumstances, though some of the family money had been lost in the crooked investment schemes of my great-uncle Pliny Fisk, an unscrupulous Wall Street financier who persuaded his sisters to back one of his many losing ventures. During World War I, John W. D. Gould served with Herbert Hoover in the U.S. Food Administration, an experience that reinforced the staunchly Republican tradition of the Gould family.
As a boy, my father attended the prestigious Allen-Stevenson School in New York City, where the sons of the elite readied themselves for prep school. He also took part in the drilling rituals of the Knickerbocker Grays, a Manhattan equivalent of the Boy Scouts for upper-crust lads. When my father reached the age of ten, his parents began looking for the right prep school in New England. They visited the Kent School on September 19, 1924, and it was agreed that "young John" would go there. The next day my grandfather died suddenly of a heart seizure at the age of forty-five.
In later life, my grandfather's death and his contribution to his son's upbringing rarely were discussed. A certain degree of scientific aptitude may have passed from father to son, since Dad already was fascinated with radio. He owned a shortwave set and sometimes listened to broadcasts from London.
His father's death left Dad with his mother and sister in what had suddenly become tight circumstances. There was not much money, and neither of the two women was adept at practical matters. Dad seems to have been a lonely, self-sufficient boy who spent time with himself and his radio. He entered Kent School in the fall of 1927. Because of his family's situation, he was a partial scholarship student. The school labeled him "an average American youth. If he did not contribute anything to the school, we would not expect him to cause any trouble." He remained at Kent only until the late winter of 1928, when my grandmother withdrew him during an influenza epidemic. Since my aunt had chronic health problems, my grandmother did not want to risk further illness to her only son.
In 1928 my father enrolled at the Loomis Institute in Connecticut, where he spent the next three years. He never adapted to the structured, elitist atmosphere of the place, and his grades were mediocre. With a friend he edited the Loomis Post, an early example of an underground newspaper. Two issues have survived that feature news stories from the school and even a gossip column called "High Spots." Dad pulled the column in the second issue because he did not "wish to make some people laugh by slamming or offending others." A few months later he received faculty discipline for being at an off-campus restaurant at midnight.
At various points in his Loomis stay, Dad ran away and was found in seedy hotels in New York City. Not long before he died he told my brother Richard that a faculty member at one of the schools he attended had molested him sexually. In the wake of the episode, he fled the school. This third-hand story is impossible to verify, but there was always a cloud over his memories of Loomis. He often said ruefully to me that he had been "thrown out of the best prep schools on the East Coast." Although tolerant of gays in his professional life, he reacted with intense anger when a homosexual in Connecticut approached me during my teen years.
His Loomis career came to a definitive end in the spring of 1932. He returned to New York without graduating. He received a high school diploma from the Brown School of Tutoring in the summer of 1932. He was then admitted to New York University but either decided not to attend or did not have the $250 tuition in the depths of the Great Depression. He said much later, "There was a backlash—maybe I was part of it—against higher education."
My father's lack of a college education was a sore spot with him for the rest of his life. In his early years as a critic he sometimes felt the absence of a collegiate preparation in the liberal arts and occasionally called on more educated friends, such as television producer and literary agent Franklin Heller, for assistance in reviewing plays and nightclubs. Yet he distrusted academics as pompous and impractical, and he found it ironic that I became a professional historian. Those in television who labeled him as an intellectual when he was alive and scholars who now call him a "highbrow columnist" are far off the mark.
Sometime in late 1932, Dad wangled a job as a copy boy at The New York Herald Tribune for a salary of $12 a week, which was soon reduced as an economy measure to $10.80. Still, in the depths of the Depression, to have any job at all was a privilege. His boss was city editor Stanley Walker, a wiry, cynical Texan who was already a famous figure in the Manhattan newspaper world. Walker had been in the job four years, and under his tutelage the Trib was known as "the best journalism school of all." After a few months, Walker spotted my father's talent and allowed him to try his hand at brief stories from the day rewrite basket. Longer assignments followed, and by the spring of 1933 Dad was promoted to the staff, "something unheard of at the Times or Daily News," he recalled in 1980. Walker used his young reporter and another staffer, Sanderson "Sandy" Vanderbilt, to bamboozle unwary and boring visitors about his "aristocratic" employees. "Mr. Gould," Walker would intone, "will you please go over and ask Mr. Vanderbilt to come here."
Thin, redheaded, and tireless, my father reveled in the daily work of the newspaper game. Later in life he remembered combing the city for the family with the largest number of children after the Times had a feature on the same subject. "I spent about three days in Harlem visiting police houses, fire houses, and welfare groups. I found two bigger families. Alas, the fathers were almost as numerous as the children." On the job, Dad learned how to write under the watchful eye of Lessing L. "Engel" Engelking, the night city editor. Once Engel had him "rewrite the lead on a story fifteen times until he had what he wanted." When the two men met later that evening at Bleeck's, the watering hole for newspapermen, Engel "with a beaming smile came over to me and said: 'I owe you a drink.' It was a happy newspaper and Stanley in major measure made it so."
Dad developed a specialty in the city's theater district at a time when the Federal Theater Project of the New Deal was a hot story. He cultivated sources inside the office of Hallie Flanagan, the project director, and achieved a series of exclusives that frustrated the theater staff of The New York Times. "Someone at the Times," he reminisced, "called Hallie Flanagan . . . to protest and threaten to keep the project out of the Times Sunday drama section." The informant, he said, "promptly gave me another story to use the following Sunday. The Times saw red."
By late 1937 the Times and its theater reporter Sam Zolotow had had enough. He learned from my father that the Tribune would not give him a raise despite his frequent exclusives on Federal Theater Project stories. Zolotow told my father he had asked Brooks Atkinson, the Times theater critic, "to get you off my back by hiring you. He did."
My father went to work at The New York Times on October 4, 1937 at a salary of $50 per week, with the title of reporter city staff-drama. He noticed the difference between working for the Times and the Tribune almost at once. "As a Herald Trib reporter I often had to wait and wait for some crumbs. As a Times reporter I was ushered in almost immediately." His first byline story appeared on October 14, 1937 in the "News and Gossip of the Night Clubs" column. He commented that the Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey bands were proving "that swing can be effectively dished up without making an incision in the ear drums of the paying jitterbugs."
Joining the Times enabled Dad to make another professional change. His byline at the Tribune had been John L. Gould, a formal title that he disliked. At the Times he was able to start fresh as "Jack" Gould, even though the newspaper preferred the use of correct first names.
He was the third-string theater critic behind Atkinson and Lewis Nichols. The assignment fell to him of covering a new show that the International Ladies Garment Workers Union presented, Pins and Needles. His rave review was one of his first appearances as a critic of the live drama that he championed in his television days. Nightclub acts occupied most of his time, and he learned early about the underside of show business. He recalled evenings "spent with Capone thugs in Dinty Moore's while the FBI sits hours in my home trying to learn where they are." He also listened to the nightclubbing sons of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and heard them "drop hints of White House doings, a boon to our national desk."
In his travels around the entertainment world, my father often stopped at the Theater Bar run by Louie Bergen on 45th Street. At this hangout for the younger crowd, he met my mother, Carmen Lewis, then a production assistant for theatrical producers Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse and in time Dwight Deere Wiman. Just when and how they met was always a little hazy, but on one late-night occasion during my teens, my mother argued with him about some disputed point. He leaned forward and said to me: "Lew, let this be a lesson to you. Don't marry a woman you pick up in a bar!"
Born on July 1, 1911 in Bay City, Texas, my mother had graduated from Rice University in 1932. She had flown airplanes and remembered riding in the rumble seat of a Ford with Roy Hofheinz, future developer of the Houston Astrodome. She left Houston in 1935 to try her luck on Broadway. She obtained her Actor's Equity card, but her real passion and talent was for a backstage role. By 1938 she and my father were living together.
My mother's family had deep and controversial ties to Texas politics. Her attorney father, Richard R. Lewis, ran for mayor of Houston in 1938 and finished a distant third. Her maternal grandfather, Robert L. Autrey, owned the Southern Select Brewing Company in Galveston and had been a leader in the liquor industry's efforts to stave off prohibition in the state. In 1917 Autrey took $156,000 as a personal loan to then-governor James E. Ferguson, an act that helped to produce Ferguson's impeachment and removal from office when the governor refused to disclose its origin. Autrey was also the silent financial backer of the Maceo family that ran dice games ("galloping dominoes" in our family) and other aspects of organized crime in Galveston during the 1930s.
Their upbringings differed, but from the time they met, my parents shared one common trait that prevailed the rest of their lives: smoking. Their tastes ran to unfiltered Chesterfields and Camels, and each of them ran through three or four packs daily. Ashtrays were everywhere, but the ashes and butts spilled out into the rest of their living space. The smell and the residue of the habit permeated their lives and mine. Neither of my brothers smokes, nor do I.
My parents became officially engaged in the summer of 1938, but their marriage had to wait until her father finished his mayoral race. Having a daughter married to a "Yankee" would not have been a political asset in Houston in the late 1930s. And my father had to make a trip to Europe with his mother. It was not his first such voyage across the Atlantic. He told me later that he had been to Germany and had once been so close to Adolf Hitler he could have spit on him. That moment probably came in 1936. In September 1938 the liner Georgic took him to London during the Munich crisis. He recounted to my mother in one of his daily letters to her, "This town all has the war jitters." He stopped by an exhibition of radio and television that he called "pretty damned good too," though it seemed expensive by American standards.
After he returned from England, they endured another separation while my mother went out of town with the show Knickerbocker Holiday. Dad reported to her about his interview with Clare Boothe Luce. She was, he wrote, "a real bitch," and he "would rather have talked to a tombstone." In the interview that appeared in the Times, he called Luce "The Terror of Park Avenue" who had a "charming and keen personality."
My parents were married on November 25, 1938 in New York City's Church of the Transformation, the Episcopalian institution popularly known as the Little Church around the Corner. I was born on September 21, 1939, and my brothers Richard (1942) and Robert (1946) followed during the years our family lived in New York. We lived in a brownstone house on McDougall Street in Greenwich Village reportedly occupied years before by Louisa May Alcott. My mother had wisely invested several hundred dollars in a show in which she worked. When Arsenic and Old Lace became a long-running smash hit, the extra income she received helped put the three of us boys through college.
During the early 1940s, my father became embroiled in the prolonged battle between the American Society of Composers, Artists, and Publishers (ASCAP) and Broadcast Music International (BMI) for control of the copyrights and performance rights to the nation's popular songs. From that subject he moved to an even more controversial topic, the American Federation of Musicians (AFM)and its fiery president, James C. Petrillo.
Anxious to enhance the income of the federation's members and suspicious of changing technology, Petrillo instituted a series of recording bans and other devices to pressure record companies for greater royalties for working musicians. These tactics kept Petrillo on the front pages throughout World War II. Petrillo was wary of most reporters who covered him. Dad became the notable exception. Fearful of germs because one of his sons had died of an infection, Petrillo appreciated that my father understood and respected his concerns about hygiene. The union leader came to trust and confide in my father. As a result, the Times broke numerous exclusives about the AFM and its president. In 1947 Dad was subpoenaed to testify in federal court about whether Petrillo had declared in public that he would disobey the Lea Law that Congress had enacted to control his activities. My father's coverage of Petrillo facilitated his transfer to the radio department of the Times in the early years of the war.
Although Dad was draft age during World War II, he was classified as 4-F because of tuberculosis in one eye and chronic stomach ulcers. Then as later, his diet was a mixture of coffee, cigarettes, and sandwiches, and his health fluctuated between fair and poor. He and my mother rode around New York City on his motorcycle in what must have then seemed a Bohemian lifestyle. They often sent me at the age of two or three across the street to bring them back cigarettes from the neighborhood store. Occasionally, I would receive a lemon ice as a reward.
My father's dedication to his job continued long after he left the city room of the Times. In his third floor study, he installed his radio equipment and spent countless hours monitoring shortwave broadcasts. On July 25, 1943 he heard Samuel Grafton, a commentator broadcasting on the Voice of America for the Office of War Information (OWI), analyze the surrender of Fascist Italy. Grafton called Italian monarch Victor Emmanuel, who was replacing Benito Mussolini, "the moronic little king." Recognizing that the OWI was taking a stand that differed from the policy of the Roosevelt administration, Dad called his editors and filed a story that as it played out led to a shakeup in the OWI. Two weeks after the story ran, my father's salary went from $80 a week to $92.
In September 1944 his life took a sudden turn. The radio critic of the Times, John K. Hutchens, announced "that he could not take another year of listening to Jack Benny." Hutchens moved on to the book review and left Dad handling the radio department. After a few weeks in limbo, my father asked managing editor Edwin L. James whether he was "going to run the damn thing or did he have someone else to put in?" Dad was named editor and critic that same day. On Sunday, September 10, 1944, he became radio news editor at a salary of $100 a week.
Within a month, Dad's readers got a preview of television that was to come after the war ended. In October 1944 he reviewed a presentation of The Boys from Boise, a musical comedy that he deemed "a valuable and important step toward television's own self-sufficiency." Yet for the next two years radio remained preeminent. Dad covered the successful attempt of the U.S. Army in January 1946 to bounce a radio signal off the moon, a forerunner of space developments that followed during the 1950s.
By 1946 my mother and father had concluded, as their family grew to three sons, that the house on McDougall Street was no longer big enough. With overcrowding of schools in Manhattan on the horizon, they made the move to suburbia that so many others would make during the next decade. They bought a house in Stamford, Connecticut, on five acres of land that had furnished topsoil for the Merritt Parkway during the late 1930s. The torn-up terrain enabled them to acquire the land for a modest price of $19,000, and they moved there in 1947. Backing up on the Mianus River, the place had a huge pond that iced up enough in the winter for skating. Along the pond's steep banks, blackberries and blueberries grew wild in abundance. It was a great home for three young boys.
For my mother, the move to Connecticut was not something that served her interests. From an active theater career, she became a housewife isolated in the "back country" of Stamford with young offspring to transport to schools, appointments, and recreation. She later said that she had been "trapped in a men's locker room for twenty-five years." Although she was active in a local dramatic group called the Playmakers, it was not Broadway, and she experienced many of the frustrations and the sense of lost opportunities that Betty Friedan would examine in The Feminine Mystique.
My father set up his reviewing office in the rear part of the house, and from there he followed the new programs that early television produced. Not content with just reviewing, he spent four or five days at the office chasing stories, interviewing television insiders, and working his confidential sources. Most weekdays he took the Merritt Parkway into New York and reached Times Square by a circuitous route that combined speed and complexity. On other occasions, he became a commuter on the New York, New Haven, and Hartford railroad. While others rested on weekends, he went into New York on Saturday mornings for breakfasts with Frank Stanton of the Columbia Broadcasting System, a personal relationship that often resulted in exclusive stories.
Within five years, as the baby boom exploded in the Stamford school system and double sessions loomed for children there, my parents moved once again to neighboring Old Greenwich. They purchased a three-story house on Long Island Sound that had served as the residence for servants on an adjoining estate. The twelve-room house had enough room for three boys and ample space for my father to work.
There Dad adopted the routine as a critic that he followed for the rest of his career. He believed that it was essential to watch programs as they occurred at home, just as other viewers were doing. On the third floor of his new residence, he had a rambling office overlooking the Sound, and he furnished the room with three television sets, his radio receivers, a comfortable bed and his well-worn typewriter. On many evenings he wrote under a tight deadline of 11:15 or 11:20 P.M. when his copy had to be at the desk in New York. That meant for a program ending at 11, he had less than a half-hour to prepare a 300- to 750-word review.
We could watch the program with him but could not say anything while the show was in progress. Once it came time to write, we all left the room and the typewriter began its rhythmic chatter. When all went well, he would have the review ready and be dictating to the copy desk in New York around 11:15. He took some notes as he watched, used background material sent to him in advance, and no doubt wrote parts of the reviews in his head. Some nights the words came slowly and the tension was thick in the room. Years of practice and routine usually produced a quality appraisal in the available time.
The other primary responsibility was his regular column for the Sunday Times. That became known to all of us as the dreaded "Sunday piece," a longer essay that either reviewed at greater length some show of the preceding week or explored a larger issue facing the medium. Because of the Sunday paper's deadlines, this assignment had to be done by Tuesday. Thus my father often had only a hectic two-day period at the beginning of the week to produce his Sunday remarks. In these extended discussions of television and its future, Dad had a kind of personal editorial page on which he could offer prescriptions for ways to improve video. He did not write a sermon each week lest he become dull and strident. When an issue such as blacklisting of alleged Communists arose or the quiz shows scandals occurred, he used his pulpit effectively.
On occasion, Dad also wrote articles for The New York Times Magazine and its prickly editor, Lester Markel. In that forum he took up even larger issues about television than those he addressed on Sunday. Faced with the potential college expenses for three sons, in the 1950s he wrote a children's book, All About Radio and Television, which explained the technicalities of electronics in simple and clear language. The "foxhole" radio he taught us to build was a key feature of the text. The book sold several hundred thousand copies and was translated into numerous languages.
As a critic of television, my father followed a general philosophy of his role over the course of his career. He never spent much time reading what his colleagues in the critical craft said about their profession. Instead, he hammered out principles and guidelines for himself as television evolved. From the outset, he never exaggerated his own influence over the medium and its performers. "Most criticism," he wrote in 1972, "is useless and wasteful in a mass medium distributed for free." He knew that he might assist a good show with a favorable review, and his endorsement might affect someone's career, as happened with newsmen David Brinkley and Howard K. Smith. But he also understood that he could not guide public taste or change the verdict of the ratings for shows he liked but viewers did not.
My father recognized that his influence as a critic rested on his connection with The New York Times. Particularly during the 1940s and early 1950s, New York City was the center of television production and Hollywood remained, in the words of John Gunther in 1947, "a suburb of the Bronx." Television executives read the Times and The New York Herald Tribune daily as they commuted to work. As a result, Dad and his main competitor, John Crosby of the Tribune, had a significant influence on what the leaders of television thought and did. As an industry journal put it in 1954, "Even though the network brass are aware that their Nielsens are not likely to fluctuate a bit because of a critic's opinion, they wait breathlessly for The Word from the men who write the reviews."
My father had an unparalleled platform from which to offer his opinions about television. Yet that opportunity could vanish quickly if he were not judicious, balanced, and objective. The Times management gave him a good deal of latitude for his evaluations, but his work received constant scrutiny from editors and the newspaper's publisher.
When he evaluated an individual show, my father began from the assumption that "a medium which daily pre-empts the attention of millions of adults and children surely cannot be ignored." To judge how well television performed, he believed that it must be evaluated "in light of contemporary life as a whole, just as the theater, movies, and books are." He was sensitive to his detractors' claim that he lacked the intellectual and artistic competence to judge well everything that video offered. As he summarized it, this indictment contended that "the cultural conceit of the television critic is unparalleled in its fundamental arrogance." He then asked, "Is there any difference between a critic who judges all kinds of programs and a network executive who thinks he can select all kinds of programs?"
When he watched an individual program, my father sought first "to understand what the program is trying to accomplish, then I try to analyze whether it has succeeded in its aim." He resisted the argument of some television insiders that he should apply less stringent standards to programming that sought to elevate the medium's cultural aspirations. If a show such as Omnibus or an operatic presentation fell short of excellence, he believed it was his responsibility to say so, even though he had hoped that the program would be an artistic success.
Dad's aesthetic preferences grew out of his experience covering nightclubs and theaters in the 1930s. He favored the spontaneity of live television over film and later videotape. His musical tastes ran to the Broadway shows and swing-era sounds of his reporting days. As a result, he admired the witty lyrics of Lorenz "Larry" Hart over the sentimentality of Oscar Hammerstein II. Family lore had it that he predicted after seeing a performance of Oklahoma in 1943 that it would flop. Yet he also watched with rapt attention the classical performances of Arturo Toscanini and Leonard Bernstein. He had no patience with modern jazz or with rock and roll. His most famous and oft-quoted judgment in the popular music field occurred in 1956 when he wrote that Elvis Presley had "no discernible singing ability."
While my father's critics in the television industry charged that he came at programs from an elitist and high-brow perspective, he watched and enjoyed regular programming of Westerns, situation comedies, and game shows. In the 1950s, when he relaxed after his reviewing chores of the day were done, he laughed at programs such as Jerry Lester's Broadway Open House with its ribald humor and burlesque-era sketches. But when it came time to evaluate a program, he struck a different pose. "I haven't got any preference for program types," he said in 1958. "I judge programs one by one."
Although criticism was his major responsibility, Dad never stopped covering the news that television generated as well. Over the years he cultivated an impressive assortment of inside sources in the industry, many of whom called him at home with leaks and grievances that formed the basis for front-page stories. He guarded the confidentiality of his sources and never discussed what they said with us. He did not keep his correspondence systematically, out of concern for his sources. Some clues emerge from the fragments that are left. Frank Stanton told him much at their breakfasts, while NBC executive Joe Derby and ABC's James Hagerty shared exclusive stories with him in their time.
In his notes for a book about television that never got written, my father was candid about the major executives he knew. William S. Paley of CBS was "the master of indecision," while Frank Stanton was "the best Washington witness TV has had but a lonely man who works Saturdays." Leonard Goldenson of ABC was "a movie exhibitor lost in a bewildering world." David Sarnoff of NBC was "the master plumber with only minor interest in the quality of the water." Once Sarnoff got "away from his press agents and lawyers," he was "an engaging rough neck." Dad once told me that when Sarnoff was explaining the appearance of a new satellite that NBC planned to launch, he said, "Jack, think of a cunt upside down."
Over the years my father had a fascinating critical and personal relationship with Edward R. Murrow. They shared an addiction to nicotine and a passionate concern for the future of television as a positive cultural and political force in American society. When Murrow attacked Senator Joseph R. McCarthy on See It Now on March 9, 1954, Dad made sure that my brothers and I assembled to see the dissection of the Wisconsin lawmaker. Yet he also warned in his columns that the editorializing in Murrow's program could be dangerous in other hands. We heard much at home about the difference between the "Good Murrow" who spoke out for civil liberties and the "Bad Murrow" who pandered to popular taste in his interview program Person to Person. Dad's verdict in 1972 was that "the man who did more than any other for the documentary form enjoyed the very economic benefits from the operating principles he deplored." When CBS and Murrow had a falling out at the end of the 1950s, my father became the vehicle for the public disclosures that Frank Stanton used to embarrass and humiliate his network rival.
After his retirement, my father recalled one instance in the political realm when his intervention as a critic made a significant difference. It came in late October 1956 when the networks failed to cover the televised deliberations of the United Nations Security Council at the height of the Suez crisis. With the threat of war in the air and the presidential election just days away, he took to his typewriter to denounce "The Shame of the Networks." It was television's "darkest day" in his judgment, and his impassioned column produced both greater network attention to the UN and a flood of mail praising him for his stand. There was talk of a Pulitzer Prize, but that never happened.
Another column, earlier in 1956, drew a rather comical response. In it, he criticized the faith-healing tactics of evangelist Oral Roberts, who, as my father put it some years later, "always managed miraculous recoveries just before closing commercials." Irritated by the attack, Roberts urged his followers to write the Times. More than four thousand letters flooded in, forcing Arthur Hays Sulzberger to weave his way through the piled-up mailbags. Roberts also instructed his flock to pray for my father's salvation and for my father to see the error of his ways. A lapsed Episcopalian who recommended to us that we slip into the back of any church when we felt religious and pray on our own, Dad thought that Roberts's concern for his soul was an ironic touch in light of the evangelist's hard-sell tactics as a television pitchman.
My father kept his own political opinions out of his columns and reporting. He had long since abandoned the Republican allegiance of his youth, as I discovered when I enthusiastically told him at the age of thirteen in 1952 what a great candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower was. "We're Democrats in this house," he said as he sat me down for a long lecture on the social justice tradition of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Democratic Party. His liberalism owed a good deal to his experiences with the Federal Theater in the 1930s and his skepticism about big business as he saw it in television.
A sense of honesty and fair play shaped his reaction to the blacklisting of alleged Communists in television during the 1950s. He was an early critic of the booklet "Red Channels" and the way in which this list indicted performers for purported Communist ties without a fair hearing. When the actress Jean Muir was blacklisted in 1950, he was her most persistent defender. Although he knew some Communists, he never regarded those in entertainment as a threat to the nation. The publishers of "Red Channels" he deemed opportunists who ran a kind of protection racket of exchanging "clearances" of Communists for money from the networks.
Something of a closet idealist behind his skepticism about politicians and network executives, my father cherished hopes that television might prove a means of cultural and educational enlightenment for the United States. He welcomed every evidence of such programming during the 1940s and 1950s. As time passed, however, he saw the medium becoming more devoted to profits and predictability and less concerned with creativity and positive change. His fascination with television waned. As he asked in 1958, "How much interest can be generated about a medium which is losing excitement through a repetition of forms?" He hoped that the Kennedy years might restore some sense of optimism and progress to television. Newton Minow, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission under Kennedy, acknowledged that my father's columns helped shape his thinking about what Minow called "the vast wasteland" of television. Yet during the last decade of his work as a critic, Dad felt a growing sense of frustration and disenchantment about television. "I have been glued to the tube for twenty years," he would say to explain his malaise.
A constant problem for my father throughout his career was his uncertain health. Never careful about his diet, increasingly he subsisted on coffee, cigarettes, drinks in the evening, and nervous energy. Sometimes he simply drank too much, as did my mother. Finally, Dad's system rebelled with intense duodenal ulcers that plagued him until a portion of his stomach was removed in the late 1950s. By the time he was fifty he began to have symptoms of the circulatory problems that plagued him for the rest of his life. He joked about his condition and rarely complained in public, but at home it was evident that the pressures of his profession were consuming him.
My father loved working for The New York Times and gave the newspaper his deep personal loyalty. Yet the internal demands of his job added to the strain on his health and morale. The radio and television columns had their place at the back of the daily paper, interspersed with advertisements and notices about shipping news and other drab matters. Dad's columns and reviews competed for space in an obscure section of the paper, so readers had to make a special effort to find his criticism every day.
In addition, there was the never-ending problem of the television and radio schedule itself. Although TV Guide was gaining popularity with its weekly listings of programs, many readers in New York City still looked to their daily newspaper to find out what was on television each evening. My father spent endless hours balancing the limited space for program listings with demands from Arthur Hays Sulzberger for more news about reruns, color programming, and future shows. For movies, a previous review from the Times film critic was reduced to a phrase or two, and when viewers protested what the digested opinion said, Dad was the man responsible. Memo after memo flowed from management asking him for an improved, clearer, more readable schedule within a constricted space and for expanding network offerings. He never settled the problem to his or anyone else's permanent satisfaction.
Although my father got most of the public attention as the television critic of the Times, he did not run a one-man operation. In the 1940s and 1950s he received invaluable help from Val Adams and John P. Shanley. Lisa Hamel worked as his efficient secretary in the mid-1950s. His closest personal relationship was with Richard F. "Dick" Shepard, who joined the radio-television department in 1955 and spent eight years there. A kind, thoughtful man, Shepard added an incisive wit and wry style to the columns of the department, and he provided my father with a sounding board for his frustrations and reservations about the direction of television.
My father's tenure as a critic fell into three distinct phases. From 1947 to 1954, when the medium was evolving its modern form, he approached his critical work with eager expectation for what the television set might offer him. In 1951 the newspaper, under his overall guidance, produced an extensive and insightful appraisal of what television was doing to and for American society. My father drove himself hard during these years, and his health suffered as he grappled with a small staff and expanding responsibilities. In 1953 a taxing visit to Europe to look at foreign television, combined with worsening stomach problems, led him to consider changes in his job. The looming prospect of college expenses for my brothers and me was also on his mind.
So when CBS President Frank Stanton offered him a job in 1954 at the network with the undefined role of "information adviser," which would involve forecasting the future direction of the industry and a higher salary, he took it. He told friends, "It was a hard decision to make, but the new job is an exciting and interesting one." He resigned from the Times in the summer of 1954 and discovered almost at once that he had nothing real to do at CBS. Stanton had simply silenced him as a critic. My parents realized that he had made a dire professional mistake, and the job at the Times would soon be filled with his successor.
One evening after work he ran into Turner Catledge, the Times managing editor, at the Algonquin Hotel bar. Over a drink he mentioned his unhappiness with CBS. Meanwhile, the newspaper had not been able to find anyone as my father's successor, and Catledge asked him whether he would simply like to have his old job back. Catledge himself had once left the Times for another paper and then returned. He told Dad, "You can't describe this kind of experience. You must live through it to know what the Times means." Relieved and happy, my father agreed. The Times called the six weeks at CBS a personal leave of absence, and by September 1954 the ill-fated experiment was history. As my father wrote to his publisher, "After the strange and rich sauces of Madison Avenue, there is nothing quite like home cooking."
During the second major phase of his critical career, from the mid-1950s through the early 1960s, Dad enjoyed the peak of his influence. In 1956 the Oral Roberts controversy attracted wide attention. The Suez Canal debate at the end of the year illustrated his clout with the industry and the public. For his stinging assault on the inept performance of the networks, he received a Pulitzer Prize nomination from fellow critic Gilbert Seldes and then was the recipient of the George Foster Peabody Radio and Television Award in March 1957.
During the quiz show scandals of the late 1950s, Dad chastised his fellow reporters for their arrogance about the misfortunes of the video industry. After clearing his intentions with the management of the Times, he wrote a column about the time-honored practice of "the junket," in which reporters had their expenses paid to cover some event of interest to the corporation that picked up the tab. At the end of the piece he also mentioned "'the Christmas loot,' the practice of showering holiday presents upon the high and low in journalism."
This column had the most direct impact on my brothers and me of all the writing that my father did. For many years we had marveled at the arrival of the cases of grapefruit, oranges, and liquor that came magically to our house in Old Greenwich. One year there were suspenders with little cigarette packages or Stork Club ties. We couldn't have the liquor just yet, but we all enjoyed the fruit and other goodies. Then in 1957 and 1958 Dad began to refuse to accept the majority of the gifts before he wrote his 1959 exposé. Although John Crosby said that Dad "had fouled his own nest," my father's column did change the culture of taking gifts at the Times for a few years. Thereafter he refused to accept even the smallest gift from a broadcaster or publicist.
Two months after the junket column, he once again wrote a review that touched a nerve with his readers and illustrated his influence. He warned that The Play of the Week on New York's Channel 13, WNTA-TV, would end by January 30, 1960 because of a lack of advertising support for the drama series. Dad asked, "Is a season of perhaps twenty-six plays with fine casts worth a 3-cent postcard to WNTA-TV, 10 Columbus Circle, to demonstrate that there is a sizable audience for grown-up television? The viewer must help too." WNTA received twenty-eight thousand letters; others were sent to my father, some with monetary contributions, which he returned. Standard Oil of New Jersey came forward in January 1960 to sponsor the program. Michael Dann, a CBS executive, wrote to Dad, "It isn't often that a critic saves a show, and we are all grateful." The triumph proved only a temporary one. In mid-1961 Channel 13 became a noncommercial educational station, and The Play of the Week series ended.
During these productive years, my father's colleagues profiled him for the house publication, Times Talk, in an article that captured well his devotion to his work and his absentminded approach to everyday matters. He took home the overcoats of his coworkers, often forgot his keys, and came to the office dressed with mismatched socks and bedraggled suits. As he pursued an exclusive story he would say, "The roof is falling in," amid his round of phone calls and industry contacts. His reluctance to go on vacation was also legendary at the Times and at home. Several times he filed copy about stories that he had encountered while traveling. During the mid-1950s he spent a hectic and tiring day working as a television repairman in Stamford, Connecticut, and then wrote a piece for The New York Times Magazine about his adventures.
Shy and reserved on the job, he indulged in lengthy conversations when he came home in the evening. He would plop down the four or five evening newspapers he brought with him, sit on the living room couch (where his pockets left a small wealth of change amid the cushions), and recount the day's events. After the column was written in the evening, he would prepare a fried egg sandwich, open a bottle of Michelob, and talk into the night about television and affairs at the Times. A lifetime in the newspaper business left him with few illusions about humanity and its foibles, but he retained a vein of idealism that produced high expectations for himself and his family.
Because he worked for The New York Times, he set forth certain ground rules for the family. As my mother often told us, our father was "a minor celebrity," and we must always behave as though whatever we did might appear on the front page of the Greenwich Time or a New York tabloid. We were warned that any display of the anti-Semitism that pervaded southern Connecticut during the postwar years was both wrong and inappropriate because of the Sulzberger family and the Times. That meant that my younger brothers had to forgo the swimming club that was a half-mile from our house because, as Dad put it, "they don't take Jews." My parents were not free of the racial and ethnic prejudices of that time and place, but they did their best not to pass on these biases to their sons.
Sometimes the subjects of Dad's criticism reacted with anger and written rebuttals to what he had said about their performances. My father believed that, since he had had his say in the Times, his detractors had a right to make their case as well. He often told me that he reviewed the performance of those who appeared on television and tried to separate his comments from personal attacks on those about whom he wrote. That may not always have been true of the New York personalities "Jinx" Falkenburg and "Tex" McCrary, with whom he seemed to have a running testiness, but for the most part Dad avoided the personalism and cheap shots in his journalism that would pervade the profession in the 1990s.
The targets of my father's criticisms did not always take a detached view of what he had said about them. In 1961 outspoken atheist Joseph Lewis filed a libel suit against Dad for his review of Lewis's appearance on the Betty Furness talk show. One of the guests was a man without arms and legs, and Lewis said that the man's condition raised questions about whether a compassionate God existed. Dad observed that "in casting aspersions on the efficacy of prayer and challenging God's presence because there are blind, mute and crippled among us, Mr. Lewis struck a note bordering on the sadistic." Lewis's legal action never went beyond the preliminary stages and eventually was dropped.
The final phase of my father's career as a critic began in the spring of 1962 when Turner Catledge overhauled the cultural/critical departments of the Times, known to other reporters as "Culture Gulch." For decades the critics had run their departments and reported to the city desk. Now they were placed under the supervision of a cultural news editor, Joseph Herzberg, who had been installed to coordinate their activities. In my father's mind, these changes reduced his autonomy within the paper and reflected management's lessening confidence in his performance as a critic. Further shaking his faith in the Times was the prolonged and bitter newspaper strike of 1962-1963. That walkout, with the erosion of morale that followed it, convinced Dad that the paper he had known and loved was changing in new and sometimes unpalatable ways.
An event that symbolized these problems came in the autumn of 1963 when he reviewed Lester Markel's television program News in Perspective, which featured Times reporters commenting on the issues of the day. The program was in conception a forerunner of the format of journalistic talking heads that would become popular in the 1980s. A brainchild of the talented and abrasive Markel, "it was a personal undertaking from start to finish. The dramatis personae happened to have been recruited from the Times staff," said Ivan Veit, one of my father's colleagues. When he saw the show, Dad knew he was in trouble. In his review he wrote, "The New York Times has everything to learn about doing news on television" because the program was "over-organized" and "a long discussion of disconnected fragments."
When the review came in to the night editor, he called Turner Catledge at home because of the potential reaction from Markel. "Jack Gould has written a terrible review about Mr. Markel's debut on Channel 13," Catledge was told. To which Catledge replied, "Well, why are you calling me?" The night editor replied, "Well, I didn't want to take the responsibility for running it." Before Catledge slammed down the phone he asked, "How would you like to take the responsibility for not running it?" And the column appeared. The fiery Markel took his displeasure to the columns of Time and Newsweek and sent my father a long and carping memo as well. Eventually the two men patched up their dispute, though the scars lingered. Ivan Veit told my father that he had "ordered a Congressional Medal of Honor for you with two oak leaf clusters."
In the summer of 1966, my father obtained an exclusive interview with President Lyndon Johnson about television issues. Dad was unimpressed with the president and later told me that it was an odd sensation to sit in the Oval Office and have its occupant lie to you. The incident gained some historical significance because the White House aide who arranged the event was former NBC President Robert Kintner. He had been brought out of retirement to help manage the inner workings of the Johnson White House. An insecure alcoholic, Kintner looked for ways to underscore his influence. To hype the importance of the interview, Kintner submitted a memo to Johnson reporting that my father had visited Kintner's office after his meeting with the president and said, "Why doesn't the President appear on television the same way he talked to me—the President is so gracious, affable and well informed." These words have appeared in several accounts of Johnson and the media.
When the quotation came to my attention in the mid-1980s, I asked my father what he remembered about the incident. He said that he left the White House immediately after the interview and did not see Kintner nor say what had been reported in the memorandum. The episode impressed me as a cautionary tale about relying on archival materials without double-checking the sources used.
By the middle of the 1960s my father's personal interest in television was waning. During a spring trip to Europe in 1966 he told my mother that he was concerned about his "attitude toward TV as a whole. I think I've just about had it, U.S., U.K., or whatever. I've run out of things to say and find myself repeating over and over." Talks within the management of the Times about using guest television critics added to my father's apprehension. He suffered a nasty fall during the European trip that underlined the uncertain state of his health.
Throughout the rest of the decade Dad remained an active critic, but his physical condition continued to give him problems. The exact nature of his ailment never came into clear focus. He experienced intense headaches, fatigue, and some depression. A lifetime of smoking and heavy drinking wore down his resources. In 1971 he again said to me, "I'm really written out on looking at the screen after twenty years." That year he relinquished his duties as a critic and devoted his energies to reporting about the television industry. In a final burst of productivity, he filed story after story about the medium's problems, including one about the Nixon Administration's plans to loosen regulation of broadcasting.
His last major exclusive came in January 1972. He received a leaked copy of the conclusions of the forthcoming report from the Surgeon General on the impact of televised violence. Throughout his career my father had written at length about the failures of broadcasters to address the needs of younger viewers. He had praised such programs as Ding Dong School and Captain Kangaroo and assailed the lapses in taste of such performers as Pinky Lee. In the case of the Surgeon General's report, he conveyed the information that a direct link between children and violence had not been identified. The resulting Times headline and his story diluted the impact of the report's other findings and set off a controversy among scholars of the issue that continues to the present.
By this time, however, my father had decided that it was time to retire. Tensions with his colleagues were growing, and he knew the quality of his professional performance was suffering. There are some hints that he was eased out. In any case, on January 25, 1972 he asked Abe Rosenthal to "quietly set in motion the procedures for my withdrawal from the Times." He told another executive at the newspaper, "My health isn't bad, simply erratic. I always prided myself on doing a day's work for a day's pay and when that didn't pan out I thought it wisest to call it quits."
When the announcement of the retirement came on February 15, 1972, the Sunday editor asked Fred Friendly, formerly of CBS News, to write a tribute. In 1969, Friendly had nominated my father for a Pulitzer Prize for his criticism. In the retirement piece, Friendly referred to Dad as "the conscience of the industry" and reviewed his contributions to the medium. Near the end, however, he speculated on my father's motives for retiring. He called him "a complex man, and The New York Times is now a complicated newspaper. As he would have put it, there is more here than meets the eye."
The oblique suggestion that my father's decision owed as much to reservations about the Times management as to his health had some basis in fact. In his private letters, Dad alluded to "the chaos at the Times." Yet he would never have made such complaints in public and what Friendly wrote mortified him. As he told Abe Rosenthal, "If I had any bitching to do it would have been with you and not outsiders. I detest public scenes involving myself."
Dad wrote a follow-up letter to the Times rebutting Friendly's claim: "After 26 years of staring at the tube on a daily basis the initiative was entirely mine." He added that "Fred's retirement from CBS News was fraught with emotion and bitterness; at the Times warm friends handle such matters differently." Fred Friendly told me in a telephone interview in 1993 that five or so years after these events he received a letter from my father. Dad apologized for the line about CBS News, which he said had been added at the insistence of Abe Rosenthal.
After my father's retirement, he received letters from those he had covered and those with whom he had worked, summing up what he had meant to television and its early development. His coworker Richard F. Shepard predicted "that in three or four generations no one will remember him clearly." Julian Goodman, the president of NBC, told him, "You have always gone about your work with diligent intelligence, and you have been a real force in the development of television." Reuven Frank of NBC News wrote, "You will be missed by the television business, the newspaper business, and, primarily, by the public whose interest you served far better than a lot of flamboyant and self-serving types we both could name." Finally, William S. Paley observed, "You were a good influence on the industry and you worked for the best interests of the public, especially the more discriminating part of it."
My father and mother lived in Old Greenwich for two years and then moved to Berkeley, California, where they remained until their deaths in the early 1990s. My father talked about doing a book of reminiscences, but nothing came of it other than a four-page outline. He wrote a few pieces about television and its prospects during the 1970s until his lack of stamina and energy made even such work no longer possible. He corresponded with Lester Markel, and the two old adversaries discussed collaborating. That too went nowhere. Authors writing about television regularly interviewed him, and he responded in the same conscientious manner that had marked all of his reporting. My mother died on March 1, 1991. My father's death came two years later on May 24, 1993 of complications arising from a gall bladder infection.
Although my father's criticism and reporting on television frequently have been cited in histories of the medium, assessments of his impact have been spotty. Some academic evaluations of his criticism appeared during his working career. A doctoral dissertation in 1980 analyzed his published work in a generally favorable manner, but most of the recent verdicts of newer scholars in television studies have been mixed at best.
The most frequently recurring indictment has to do with Dad's preference in the 1950s for live drama over filmed programming. His position, argue detractors such as Professor William Boddy, missed the change in entertainment technology during the decade and, worse yet, reflected an elitist, East Coast point of view in his judgment of good and bad shows. My father has become, to this line of thinking, an apologist for an elusive and to some modern analysts a nonexistent "Golden Age of Television" in the 1950s.
My father was not a sentimental man or one given to careless nostalgia. He knew that not all live television drama was priceless or enduring. What he cherished was the sense of possibility and excitement that live television conveyed. He deplored "the crucial loss of novelty in the medium. With his knowledge of the technical side of television, he knew why "efficiency prevailed and heart was lost." Yet his contemporary critics too readily accept the formulaic sterility of much prime-time television and tolerate that flawed product as the best the industry can do.
That his derisive comments regarding Elvis Presley have become his most quoted words would have amused my father. His judgments on Elvis prompted one scholar to say that he "led the charge to immobilize Presley," quite a feat for two newspaper reviews. To be sure, Dad missed Presley's emergence as a national cultural phenomenon. But the tawdry arc of Presley's career indicates my father's aesthetic assessment was not as far-fetched as historical second-guessing makes it appear.
My father always had his own critics during his time and in the years that have followed. The director Arthur Penn said of his reviews, "I don't think we paid much attention to him." Reuven Frank's memoirs assail Dad as someone whose "judgments were old-maidish, his writing tortured, and his tastes unsophisticated, but his power was palpable." In a recent biography of Gilbert Seldes, Michael Kammen joins his subject in relegating Dad merely among "the professional critics of television."
Other comments about my father's work and influence are more positive. David Bianculli, a contemporary critic, calls him "one of the first and best TV critics to serve on an influential newspaper." Sylvester "Pat" Weaver, the NBC executive who created the Today Show, said that Dad "had a strong sense of fair play." When my father died, Phil Rosenthal of the Los Angeles Daily News inquired, "Where would the television business be today if not for the formative influence" that Jack Gould exerted?
The appropriate answer to Rosenthal's question is my father's own work as a critic. Some of the best and more representative of his columns from 1947 to 1963 follow in this book. They would not have been the ones he would have chosen, but then he probably would have laughed wryly at the idea of the project as a whole. Yet he was proud of what he had written as a reporter and critic. I believe his work deserves to be more accessible than what the microfilmed editions of The New York Times now provide to researchers interested in his work and its impact on television. In these columns, readers will find those qualities that made Jack Gould such a positive force in the early years of television—integrity, idealism, and an intolerance for the second-rate. Abe Rosenthal had it right in 1972. My father had created a special place for himself in the history of American television and journalism during the twenty-five years of evaluating how a new medium reshaped the nation's culture.