“Bertolucci died,” my wife said, checking the pinging on her smartphone.
Immediately, we were transformed to the Baths of Caracalla, where the grand director was making “La Luna” in the Roman summer of 1978 – with two broken arms.
There was a lot going on in a month when Romans normally head for the countryside during the annual shutdown known as “Ferragosto” – taking one major Roman Catholic holy day and turning it into a one-month holiday.
Pope Paul VI had died on Aug. 6 in the summer retreat of Castel Gandolfo and the Vatican took an ungodly time getting the Pope to St. Peter’s for the funeral.
I was sent there by the Times, as a learn-on-the-spot religion reporter. Pretending I knew something, I speculated on who would be the next Pope. (All wrong, of course.)
Then the Times went on strike, leaving me in Rome with a borrowed friend’s apartment near the Piazza Navona. How sad. I sent for my wife, and we wandered the city.
A friend of ours had a connection to another major event in Rome that summer – the making of a movie by Bernardo Bertolucci, in the Baths of Caracalla – a film called “La Luna” with a theme of incest, starring Jill Clayburgh.
Our friend sent a limo to take us to Caracalla for the day, where Bertolucci was directing with casts on his arms. He had been carrying a camera, peering down into it, and had fallen off a step or a platform, and had broken both arms, but he persevered admirably.
Now he bravely balanced the camera on the two casts, still framing scenes as they would appear through the lens, as directors do. A cadre of assistants hovered around him as he tottered on the steps to the stage, lest he fall again. The whole project was in his broken arms.
My wife and I hung at the edge of the proceedings with our friend, whispering, perhaps even giggling a bit. Nobody seemed to mind except for Jill Clayburgh, who was gearing up for the tangled emotions of the film, wearing elegant high heels on the uneven ancient stones of Caracalla.
She shot us a look or two, and we piped down.
That’s all I remember, except for lurid jokes and set gossip we culled here and there. It was, of course, Rome. Matthew Barry, the young New Yorker who was playing Clayburgh’s son, had to preserve his pasty-white coloration for uniformity during the shooting, so they enticed him indoors, day after day -- no beach, no outdoor trattorias. I wondered how they kept him indoors.
* * *
Our friend called for the limo and a stalwart Roman driver took us toward Centro Storico.
I forgot to say, it was also a dangerous time in Italy, threatened by the Red Brigade.
The former Prime Minister, Aldo Moro, had been kidnapped and murdered in May and more violence was feared.
“Aren’t you afraid of the Red Brigade?” I asked the driver in my minimal Italian.
He tapped the solid dashboard of his limo, to signify protection of some sort, and he said, “The Red Brigade should be afraid of us.”
I took his word for it.
* * *
Several years later, my wife was walking on Madison Ave., looking in shop windows, and she spotted the reflection of an elegant woman a few feet away, looking at her, as if to say, “Who is that?”
Jill Clayburgh could not place her, and kept walking.
I never saw “La Luna,” which did not get great reviews, apparently.
That’s my only memory of Bertolucci – carrying on, with all the force of a great Italian director, in the August heat, in Caracalla.
There I was on the F train, creeping (and I do mean creeping) through my home borough of Queens on Tuesday.
My friend Jerry Rosenthal was in his first spring training in 1961, being switched from shortstop to second base.
The coaches were swatting grounders during infield practice, concentrating on the double play with a bunch of strangers, trying to claw their way up the Milwaukee Braves’ farm system.
“I was figuring out the steps on my own,” Rosenthal recalls. Get to the base. Turn. Throw to first.
The stranger on line behind Jerry offered his critique: Jerry did not know jack about making the double play, and was going to get killed.
“You’ve got to cheat toward the base,” Ron Hunt told him, while executing his own double-play pivot. “Plant your foot and throw the ball.”
Jerry remembers the stranger as “very acerbic, but not mean spirited.”
It should be noted that the year before at Cedar Rapids, Hunt had batted .191 and committed 37 errors in 121 games. However, he offered advice -- even to a rival.
Hunt also delighted in patrolling the sparse training clubhouse, pulling adhesive tape off the bodies of teammates, but not in a mean way, Jerry Rosenthal adds. (An all-conference shortstop at Hofstra who came back from being hit by a pitch near the eye, Jerry played two years in the minors, admiring teammates like Rico Carty and Bill Robinson and opponents like Lou Brock, and later taught school in Brooklyn, and is great company for his love of the game.)
Ron Hunt became the Mets’ first young star – scrappy and opinionated, the epitome of The Youth of America that Casey Stengel swore was in the pipeline.
Hunt was in the news the other day, in a lovely article and video from Ken Davidoff in the New York Post, detailing how Hunt, now 77, is suffering from Parkinson’s disease, quite possibly the toll from being hit by 243 pitches in a 12-year major-league career, and throwing his body around in the field and sliding into bases.
Right here, you could switch over to Davidoff’s depiction of a grouchy but idealistic baseball lifer, now suffering:
I first met Ron Hunt in spring training of 1963 He had inched forward in the Braves’ system and the Mets had drafted him out of AA ball.
In those days, rookies were discouraged from being brash. Show us something, kid. Based in funky St. Petersburg – long before the move to eternally desolate Port St. Lucie -- the Mets played exhibitions on the Gulf Coast and inland Florida. Rookies got to ride the bus, so Hunt was designated for a game in Sarasota. I had already discovered that he was a blunt and willing talker, with opinions on anything.
Pitching for the White Sox was Herb Score, whose career had been disrupted by a line drive that hit him alongside the eye in 1957. Score was trying to hang on. After the game, I asked Hunt how Score looked to him.
“He don’t have shit,” Hunt told me. “He’s just cunny-thumbing the ball up there” – an old baseball expression for a junkballer.
The rook surely did not hold anything back. And he was right. Herb Score never pitched in the majors again. Three weeks later, Hunt jumped ahead of five or six other second baseman to open the season for the Mets, and he became a fixture, first with the Mets, later with four other teams. The Mets enjoyed him, called him “Bad Body” for the way he slouched and slumped his way around, infuriating rivals by getting hit by pitches, sliding hard into bases, bunting with two strikes, and other anti-social acts.
In the age of the Launch Angle, I must add that Hunt was the antithesis of today’s model player, who swings from his butt, every pitch, trying to propel a home run. Hunt hit only 39 homers in 12 seasons and today would surely be scorned by the analytics experts hunched in front of their computers. The Mets have a second baseman named Jeff McNeil who batted .329 in 63 games as a late-blooming rookie last season, and the last I heard the Mets don’t sound convinced he should be a major-league regular. I’d like to hear Ron Hunt’s take on that.
Hunt has opinions on everything. For a decade or two, he ran a baseball program in the St. Louis area, his own funds, his own rules, trying to make tough kids even tougher, while he also ran his farm.
Ken Davidoff catches him perfectly. Ron Hunt, with a nasty condition, sounds just like the opinionated teammate Jerry Rosenthal met in 1961 and I met in 1963. May he have a testy opinion about his illness, and tell it where to go.
One of the great joys of reading the New York Times these days is the occasional and highly literate essay by Margaret Renkl, an Op-Ed contributor based in Nashville.
Renkl writes about life out there in the Real World -- if upbeat and evolving Nashville (say I, an old Nashville hand) -- can truly be called the Real World.
In Monday's Times, Renkl suggests a technique for countering the discordant blares and roars and whines of -- no, she does not say that! -- the mechanical lawn-blasters who have invaded our otherwise serene lives.
She talks about the garden crews that most of us employ to blow leaves around for hours at a time. (Disclosure: I recently hired a very nice crew that not only collects leaves but also seems to have produced new green grass on my ugly patch of crab-grass.)
The crews in our neighborhood seem to intentionally vary their attacks so that, from March into December, there is always a group of hard-working guys whose decibel output reminds me of my freshman year at Hofstra College, when its direct neighbor across the turnpike was Mitchel Air Force, with planes warming up 100 yards away. Good for concentration on philosophy or history.
To make a statement about the ugly noise in our leaves, Renkl proposes digging out prehistoric tools employed by our fellow homo sapiens back in other centuries -- an implement with a long handle and slender tines. She describes, rather lasciviously I might add, the joys of slow, careful interplay with leaves. At least, that's how I read it.
In fact, it sounded like so much fun that I went out and practiced my raking, putting some leaves in bags but saving some for the little things she says inhabit the earth. I will take Renkl's word on that part; she does, after all, live out there in the Real World. (For those of us who do not have a lawn, I might suggest paring raw vegetables or cleaning a few windows. Therapy is therapy.)
Try it! And look up the work of Renkl in the Times and elsewhere. She is right up there with Dan Barry and Sarah Lyall and Corey Kilgannon, whose every article I read avidly, for choice of content as well as for style. Renkl is what the great editor Gene Roberts calls, in his eastern North Carolina accent, "a rahter."
And not only a rahter but a therapist. After reading her essay, I felt relaxed enough to tackle the front page.
* * *
Here is Renkl's gem of an Op-Ed piece:
And recent works:
He looked like a garden gnome with an accent out of "Mayberry RFD," but when the subject veered to immigrants or demonstrators, Jeff Sessions would tighten up.
He wasn’t funny, then.
Then he was less of a Mayberry character than the town storekeeper who kept his Kleagle robe on a peg in the back room, more out of “To Kill a Mockingbird” or “In the Heat of the Night.”
He had a mission, seemed to me – to restore the good old days of the ‘50s – the 20th Century or maybe even the 19th.
Somehow he got in the way of Trump’s Ultimate Solution, and he had to go.
Then he got lucky. Compared to Trump, he became Fightin’ Jeff, the People’s Choice, remembering his lawyer past, respecting legal niceties like “recusal.”
The version I will miss most was created by the captivating Kate McKinnon on “Saturday Night Live,” who presented Sessions as a cuddly little elf who could fit in small spaces and flash a Howdy Doody smile to the world.
Lucky is the public figure mimicked by McKinnon, even with her glint of deviltry behind the entertainment as she portrays Sessions, Rudy Giuliani or the sewer-dwelling leer of Kellyanne Conway. She is a gem.
There are plenty of ghouls and monsters left to portray. I will still tailor Saturdays to be in front of the tube at 11:29 PM just in case Kate McKinnon is up first.
But I will miss the kewpie-doll grin of Jeff Sessions, so much better on Saturday night than any other time.
* * *
I am not the only one. The Huffington Post reports on a great national angst:
When friends in Jerusalem and the Upper West Side send the same link, it makes sense to read it -- and pass it on. Roger Angell, 98, has some thoughts on election day and citizenship.
What could be more American than an essay on voting by a hallowed member of the writers' wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame?
(The art was a bonus. I found it on line, and consider my posting it here as an endorsement for any artist who can put these three dudes in the same work.)
has filed an interview with, of all people, me.
It's on his blog. (Just past photo of rat!) My thanks for his interest. GV
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see: