Category Archives: Boston

A Christmas Carol (my story–not Dickens’s)

With the arrival of the December holidays, we’re surrounded by the sounds of holiday music.  Much of this music celebrates religious holidays, but some of it has become beloved secular songs.

I’ve always loved holiday music, ranging from traditional Christmas carols to more elevated music composed by serious composers.  I especially relished singing Christmas music with my high-school and college choral groups.

My high-school experience was memorable.  Our school chorus was invited to sing carols in the plaza of the Chicago Sun-Times building. We joyously sang at this site on Michigan Avenue adjacent to the Wrigley Building, just north of the Michigan Avenue Bridge. What a fabulous time we had, singing a number of well-known carols in the freezing cold while bundled-up passers-by watched and listened. (Sadly, the Sun-Times building was demolished around 2004, and its plaza is now occupied by an enormous blot on the riverscape along the Chicago River: the 92-story T…. International Hotel and Tower, built by our twice-impeached former president.) 

As a college student at Washington University, I joined two choral groups that sang holiday music with the St. Louis Symphony.  First, as a member of the university’s Women’s Chorus, I sang with the symphony in “L’Enfance du Christ” (“The Childhood of Christ”) by Berlioz.  By my senior year, I was part of the wonderful university Choir. We did a lot of singing, including a holiday-timed presentation of Handel’s “Messiah.”  Singing these two pieces, as well as Brahms’s “A German Requiem,” with the St. Louis Symphony created some of my favorite WashU memories.

The holiday season and its music also revive a memory from my much younger childhood.  When I was about eight, my parents shopped for a piano so I could learn how to play.  I remember viewing a handsome model at the Lyon & Healy store on Wabash Avenue in downtown Chicago, where the salesman had a great sales pitch.  He told us this piano was worth a great deal more money than L & H was asking because it was designed for a wealthy pooh-bah who’d returned it to the store only because he wasn’t happy with some feature or another.  True story or not, my parents scooped up this gorgeous piano, and it became a highlight of our otherwise ordinary living room.

Mom immediately set about arranging piano lessons for me.  Somehow she came up with Rachel G., a woman whom I remember as a rigid unsmiling taskmaster (taskmistress?), lacking in patience, whose lessons became a dreaded part of my existence.

At first Rachel G had a fairly kind approach.  She introduced me to classical music in very simplified form, and I did glean a basic knowledge of composers like Mozart, Haydn, and Bach in child-designed sheet music.  Truthfully, I didn’t retain much of their biographical information, but I painfully made my way through the simple arrangements of some of their most famous melodies.  I later progressed to slightly more advanced arrangements of major classical pieces, like the Soldiers’ Chorus from Gounod’s “Faust” and the theme from Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto in B-flat Minor.  Remarkably, I’ve saved almost all of my sheet music, shuttling it around the country during numerous cross-country moves, and I still have them, decorating the piano that now sits in my apartment.

One day fairly early in our relationship, Rachel G brought a new and very simple piece of music for me to learn.  It was a well-known Christmas carol:  “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”  The front cover of the sheet music, with a cover price of 30 cents (a 25-cent price is crossed out), portrays a Dickens-era group of four carolers, led by a man in a top hat and bright plaid coat.  In big letters, the cover notes that it includes one of six different “Carols you love to sing and play.”  Inside, we read that this carol was the creation of Phillips Brooks and Louis H. Redner and that Walter Lane arranged the very simple collection of notes and lyrics.

Phillips Brooks was the Episcopal rector of a Philadelphia church (later rector of Trinity Church in Boston) who was inspired to write the words of the carol by his visit to the city of Bethlehem in 1865.  Three years later, he finally wrote the words, and just before Christmas, he asked Redner, the church organist, to add the music.  Redner later recalled that the simple music was “written in great haste and under great pressure….Neither Mr. Brooks nor I ever thought the carol or the music…would live beyond that Christmas of 1868.” 

My parents weren’t members of any church, Christian or otherwise.  They—especially my father–were pretty casual about religious observance of any stripe, including their own.  My grandparents, who’d emigrated from Eastern Europe, were probably unfamiliar with American Christmas carols, but my American-born parents never objected to my singing them. 

Still, my mother, usually reticent, seemed disturbed by Rachel G’s selection.  I think she viewed the carol as a religious piece of music, and she disliked the idea of my playing religious music in our home.  Before my lesson began, she uncharacteristically spoke up.  I don’t recall the exact words spoken by either my mother or Rachel G, but I could grasp the tense tone of the conversation. 

Looking back, I suspect that Rachel G was most likely Jewish, so her choice was somewhat curious.  But I’ve concluded that her choice was based on the music, not the words.  Its super-simple musical arrangement was clearly suitable for the level of my ability.  So, as a conscientious music teacher, she stood her ground. 

In the end, Rachel G must have soothed my mother’s concerns because I went on to learn, haltingly, the music of “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”  I still have the fragile paper copy of the sheet music.  And I still love to play its beautiful melody in my still halting fashion.

When my family moved from Chicago to LA when I was 12, my parents sold our gorgeous piano, and our fortunes never led to the purchase of another one. That ended any possibility that my piano skills would ever improve.  I grew up to deeply envy skilled pianists who undoubtedly had more benevolent instruction and a piano literally at their fingertips.

The carol I learned to play, thanks to Rachel G, has endured.  When I viewed “Christmas in Connecticut,” a fan-favorite Christmas movie that appeared on TV last week, I watched star Barbara Stanwyck romanced by star Dennis Morgan.  In one delightful scene, he charmingly plays “O Little Town of Bethlehem” on her piano while she’s trimming her Christmas tree. 

“O Little Town” lives!

Hangin’ with Judge Hoffman

POST #7

This is the seventh in a series of posts that recall what it was like to clerk for Judge Julius J. Hoffman from 1967 to 1969.

The “Chicago 7” Trial

            In the spring of 1969, shortly before I was to leave my clerkship, a new case arrived in Hoffman’s chambers.  It resulted from a grand jury’s investigation into the events that had transpired in Chicago the previous summer, just before and during the Democratic National Convention in August 1968.  Eight men, later known as the “Chicago 8,” were accused of violating a new federal law, the Anti-Riot Act, by inciting demonstrations and violent encounters with the police in the streets and parks of Chicago.

            Countless books and articles have been written about this trial, sometimes called the Chicago “conspiracy trial,” and I’ve also seen a number of dramatic presentations on the stage, TV, and film. I don’t question the validity of any of these and won’t comment on them here.

            In 2020, a new film, written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” appeared on our screens.  I’ll comment briefly on that film later.

            Because I clerked for Judge Julius J. Hoffman from 1967 to 1969, and because I lived in Chicago during that tumultuous time, I want to state my personal comments on the trial and the events that led up to it. 

            In this post, I’ll state my point of view as someone in a unique situation, working with Judge Hoffman at the very outset of the case, and who–after the trial was over—briefly talked to him about it.

First, some background 

I began my clerkship with Judge Hoffman during the summer of 1967, and I served as his junior clerk until the summer of 1968, when I became his senior clerk for a year.  My two-year clerkship ended during the summer of 1969.  Throughout my clerkship, I was living in my hometown of Chicago.  To help you comprehend the significance of the trial and surrounding events, I want to put them into some sort of context.

My remarks are based on my personal recollections of Chicago during those years.

            First, I was well aware of the rampant corruption in the city.  At the time, I sometimes described the city’s government as a “benevolent dictatorship.” Looking back, I no longer view it as “benevolent,” but it certainly was a dictatorship.

            The city’s government was dominated by one man:  Richard J. Daley, who served as the city’s mayor from 1955 until his death in 1976.  He not only held the executive leadership role, but he also made sure that local ordinances and everything else he wanted were enacted by a complicit city council filled with his acolytes (I recall only one dissenter during those years, an alderman named Leon Despres).  In addition, he decided who would fill local judicial openings.  As a result, the state courts were rank with incompetent judges loyal to Daley and his machine.

            Federal judgeships were somewhat different.  Many if not most of the judges were more or less independent of Daley, at least once they were on the bench.  Even though these judges probably were not totally lacking corrupt motives of their own, most of them (including Democratically-appointed judges who had some connection to Daley in their past) were not necessarily loyal to the Daley regime. 

            Judge Hoffman was a Republican appointed by Dwight Eisenhower and to my knowledge not connected in any way to the Daley machine, although I suspect that many members of the public thought he was. At a luncheon in Chicago in 2001, I was seated next to a prominent news anchor who voiced his assumption that Hoffman was part of the Daley machine.  I immediately corrected him.

Political developments during 1968

            By early 1968, many Democrats had grown restless with the presidency of LBJ.  National politics heated up when a number of men announced that they hoped to replace him.

            The heat became intense on March 31, when LBJ announced in a live TV appearance that he would not run again. (I recall watching him make that stunning announcement.) 

            LBJ reportedly dropped out because Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota had won 42 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire primary, while LBJ won only 49 percent.  McCarthy was the leading voice advocating an end to the Vietnam War, a position that was becoming increasingly popular.  McCarthy’s primary showing led Senator Robert F. Kennedy of New York to enter the race a short time later.   Like McCarthy, he ran on an antiwar platform and advocated a number of other popular positions.

Even before LBJ’s announcement on March 31, I—like so many others– had become disillusioned with him, despite all of his remarkable accomplishments in the domestic realm, because of his increasing and unwavering support of the Vietnam War.  I never considered supporting Republican Richard Nixon, who had run and lost to JFK in 1960 (and later lost his race for governor of California).  I loathed Nixon for a great many reasons.   But for a while, New York’s relatively moderate Republican governor, Nelson Rockefeller, seemed like a possible alternative to LBJ. 

During a visit to New York City to visit friends in early March, I accompanied one of them to a meeting of the NYC bar association, where Rockefeller was the main speaker.  As he finished his speech and left for the exit, I ran after him.  Just outside the building, I approached him and stuck out my hand to shake his.  “Please run for president,” I urged him as we shook hands.  He smiled and said, “Well, aren’t you dear?” before descending the steps to his waiting car. 

I often wondered how things might have turned out if Rockefeller had taken the advice I offered him on those steps before Nixon’s grip on his party became too strong to overcome.  A short time later, LBJ dropped out of the running, and the Democratic race was wide open.  Rockefeller no long held any real appeal for me.  Now, with LBJ out of the picture, I would decide who, among the Democratic candidates who remained in the race, I’d support.

The Democratic National Convention, which would choose the ultimate nominee, was scheduled to be held in Chicago in late August of 1968.

My life in Chicago

I tried to keep up with political developments that spring and summer, but truthfully, I was primarily focused on the things that dominated my everyday life.  First, there were my responsibilities as Hoffman’s law clerk.  Then there was travel, like my trip to NYC in early March.  I also spent time with old friends I’d known for years along with some new ones.  And then there was my attempt to meet potential suitors.  (I was focused on my career but not to the exclusion of marriage and kids.)

In April, Chicago was rocked by the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis.  Fires and looting broke out in parts of the city.  I recall visiting the apartment of someone I was dating at the time.  Together we stood at the windows of his high-rise apartment in Sandburg Village viewing the widespread fires we could see below.  I was immensely saddened by King’s death and the terrible destruction that followed.  But my own everyday life didn’t really change.

Was I aware of the efforts by antiwar activists who were gearing up for the DNC in August?  Just barely.  I often watched local TV news and read the daily Chicago Sun-Times, so I was vaguely aware that there was a Yippie movement headed by Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin.  Didn’t they publicize a stunt where they brought a pig to Chicago, announcing that it was a candidate for president?  Because that struck me as pretty ridiculous, it was hard to take them seriously.  

I probably had read something about Tom Hayden and the SDS, but I honestly knew very little about them.  I was also vaguely aware of the Black Panthers, led in Chicago by Fred Hampton, but their agenda didn’t have any noticeable impact on my everyday life.

I did follow the campaigns of the leading Democratic hopefuls.  Eugene McCarthy was my early favorite, but by early June I was considering shifting my allegiance to RFK.  I was therefore horrified, along with the rest of the country, when he was assassinated in the Ambassador Hotel in LA that June.  I had lived very near the Ambassador when I briefly lived in LA at the age of 12, where my family’s first home was a rented apartment on Normandie just off Wilshire Boulevard, a location very close to the Ambassador, and I had strolled near there.  That memory made RFK’s assassination even more real to me than it might otherwise have. 

After he died, I returned to supporting Eugene McCarthy, but I ultimately resolved (with reservations) to support LBJ’s vice president, former Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey, as the most electable of the Democratic candidates for president.  Humphrey had a long and admirable record as a liberal Democrat who had supported civil rights legislation and other liberal causes for many years.  But although he earned the support of liberal senators like Fred Harris of Oklahoma and Walter Mondale of Minnesota, he faced vehement opposition because of his adherence to LBJ’s Vietnam policies.  He spoke out against Senator McCarthy and Senator George McGovern’s call for an immediate end to the bombings in Vietnam, an early withdrawal of troops, and setting talks for a coalition government with the Viet Cong. 

Humphrey didn’t enter any of the primary elections held in 13 states, but he won the party nomination at its chaotic convention in Chicago in August.  He lost the November election by less than one percent of the popular vote, but he carried only 13 states. 

The Democratic convention and the events surrounding it led to the trial of the “Chicago 7.”

My vacation that summer

I planned to take my summer vacation during the convention for a simple reason: A close friend who lived in NYC asked me to join her on a road trip that would leave Chicago just as the convention was beginning. I was living paycheck-to-paycheck (my salary was $6,000 for the year), so I jumped at the chance to get an essentially free ride to NYC. 

My friend was coming to Chicago for a wedding, and we would leave on our road trip to NYC on Sunday, August 25, just as the convention was about to begin.  I planned to see friends in NYC and Boston, and then travel from Boston to Cape Cod with another close friend.  Because I was busy making my vacation plans, I was largely insulated from news about the convention.

In Hoffman’s chambers, things at this point seemed routine.  I was largely preoccupied with ruling on the case of The Inmates of Cook County Jail, which I’ve discussed in Post # 4.  As I mentioned in that post, I left my semi-radical opinion on Hoffman’s desk on Friday afternoon the 23rd for him to read while I was away.  (I was later amazed on my return to Chicago to learn that he’d read this opinion from the bench during my vacation.)

I was living that summer at 1360 Lake Shore Drive (where the rent on my studio apartment was a whopping $140 a month).  My mother lived a few miles farther north at Lake Shore Drive and Aldine.  Leaving my mother’s apartment the Saturday night before I was to take off on my vacation, I rode on a bus that drove through Lincoln Park (the largest park on the North Side of the city) en route to my apartment.  I was startled to see masses of people gathering in the park shortly before the convention was to begin.  During the work week, I’d been similarly shocked to see U.S. Army jeeps driving up and down city streets in downtown Chicago when I walked to work in the Federal Building on Dearborn Street. 

Both unprecedented sights made me wonder exactly what might happen in the city during the convention.  But these somewhat shocking events weren’t front and center in my mind.  I remember feeling kind of glad to be leaving town and avoiding what promised to be ominous events happening in Chicago while I was away.

Did I follow the news during my road-trip vacation?  Not really.  So I was pretty much unaware of what was happening at the convention.  But once I arrived in NYC, I stayed with a friend in Greenwich Village and, on the night that became notorious, I watched the convention with her and her husband on their living-room TV.  Needless to say, I was shocked by what I saw.  And terribly embarrassed by the behavior of Chicago’s Mayor Daley, revealed for all to see on TV.  I remember watching Senator Abe Ribicoff speaking at the podium, nominating George McGovern for president, and defying Daley, whose henchman booed the U.S. senator from Connecticut.  Daley was caught on camera mouthing expletives about Ribicoff that TV wouldn’t or couldn’t describe.

At the same time, TV news coverage highlighted what was happening elsewhere in Chicago.  The convention was held at the International Amphitheater, a considerable distance from the center of the city.  But a multitude of antiwar protesters had gathered in the very large downtown park, Grant Park, located adjacent to Michigan Avenue.  These protestors created havoc as they began to move onto Michigan Avenue.  The resulting chaos, and the violent reaction to the protestors by the Chicago police department, seen across the world on TV, was later described as a “police riot.”

In NYC, I put that chaotic vision aside and went on to meet another friend in Boston.  We traveled together to Cape Cod, where we heard that Humphrey had chosen Maine Senator Edmund Muskie as his VP.  Muskie seemed like a good choice, and despite the turmoil in the Democratic Party, I was hopeful that the Humphrey-Muskie ticket could defeat Tricky Dick.

Flying back to Chicago to resume my life there, I discovered that things had largely settled down.  What had happened during the convention didn’t loom large in my mind as I began to pay close attention to the much more compelling 1968 election campaign.  The outcome would steer our country down Humphrey’s path or down a very different one.

In November, I was plunged into gloom by the dispiriting Nixon victory.  I remember watching election-night news coverage in agony as Tricky Dick’s votes added up.  I saw his victory unfold on my tiny black-and-white TV, seated on my sofa next to a date who’d asked me to accompany him earlier that evening to a performance of “Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris” at The Happy Medium.  Maybe because I associated the guy with that terrible night, I was OK when he gradually faded from my life.  I honestly didn’t care if I never saw him again.

Nixon’s victory changed everything. 

To be continued….

The Demise of the Flip Chair

It’s gone.  The not-so-badly worn, crumbs-in-its cracks, cocoa-brown chair faded in spots by the sun.  Our venerable flip chair is gone.

The flip chair followed us from the day I first found it on the spiffy North Shore of Chicago to a student’s studio apartment in DC.  And later, from three different apartments in Cambridge, Mass., to a charming one-bedroom in San Francisco.

And now it’s finally gone.

The chair served us well.  I discovered it at an estate sale in a posh section of Winnetka, Illinois, inside a grand house on a private road near the lake.  It was in perfect condition, and I thought it would be useful as an extra chair, just right for my daughters’ sleepover guests because it could flip out from its chair-like position into a bed.  A single-size bed that would turn out to be quite comfy.

One of my daughters first used it when her friend Katie stayed overnight and slept on the flipped-out chair.  Katie was a nice young girl, but she wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer.  After she went home, we found she’d left behind a copy of Teen Beat magazine.  My daughters, who didn’t relate to Teen Beat’s focus on vapid teenage idols, leafed through it, and none of us could help laughing when we saw that Katie had underlined certain stories.  Underlining stories in Teen Beat?  Our scoffing reaction was probably unkind, but we made sure that Katie never knew.  I think we called and offered to return her magazine, but I don’t think she took us up on it.

Other young friends slept on the chair once in a while, so we held onto it, figuring it might continue to be useful.  It finally justified its existence years later, when my younger daughter (I’ll call her Laurie) left to study law at Georgetown in DC.  We rented an SUV, stuffed it with her possessions, and stuck the flip chair into the mix.  When we arrived, it happily fit into the studio apartment she rented in Dupont Circle, and I slept on it myself a couple of times.  It was comfy indeed.

After law school, Laurie began work as the law clerk for a judge in Boston and rented an apartment in Cambridge.  The flip chair joined her there, and it went on to reside in two other apartments in Cambridge before Laurie moved to a one-bedroom in San Francisco.  There, placed next to a window in her living room, the chair basked in the California sun, its color fading.

I sat on it occasionally, but it wasn’t a great chair for sitting.  We clung to it, thinking it might serve once again as an extra bed for visitors.  But things changed dramatically about a year ago when Laurie’s new baby arrived on the scene.  The flip chair stayed in its place by the window, continuing to fade, while no one ever used it as a bed.

As the year went along, it became clear that Laurie needed to make room for some essential things for her baby.  Some of the old stuff had to go.  Beginning with two skinny chairs and a dented metal wardrobe, then a creaky IKEA chest of drawers and an unwieldy suitcase—all were set outside for takers driving by her apartment building.  And finally, the bell tolled for the flip chair.

Two days ago, Laurie shoved the flip chair into her elevator and carried it to the sidewalk outside her building, where a lucky scavenger could seize it and get a few more years out of it.  In its place is a large play yard for the baby, filled with a heap of his books and toys.  Clearly a much better use of the space where the flip chair once sat.

And so we said goodbye to the valued but largely ignored flip chair.  It won’t be missed, but it will be remembered as a quasi-member of the family, one whose tenure in our homes had finally come to an end.