Sunday, August 26, 2007

Speak, memory

A couple of weeks ago I got an email from someone named Jackie Sanders. She's working on a film about Arlene Francis, and wondered if I was the same Karen Wickre whose name she found on a cassette tape in Francis' things which her son, Peter Gabel, had lent Jackie for research. The strangest part is that she, ahem, Googled me and found me at, well, Google. She nailed my email address (I forgot to ask how many naming schemes she tried).

So anyway, I reached her in New York and we chatted about her project. Most people today probably don't even know Francis, but she was a radio, film and TV star from about the 40s-70s. (Not sure she was as well known in the 30s, when she was for a short time on the WPA payroll.)

Photo found at

Likely she's best known today as a panelist on What's My Line? along with those other leading lights of the day, Bennett Cerf, Dorothy Kilgallen and Kitty Carlisle. (I even watched this show.) I was in this heady mix because at the tender age of 26 I interviewed her at her apartment in New York (upper East Side, I seem to recall) about her (minor) work in the WPA Federal Theatre Project. This was my first "real" -- connected to my studies and meaningful to me -- job just after grad school, as oral historian for an NEH-funded project at George Mason University. I interviewed about 200 people who had been paid by the FTP between 1935-39, when it was killed by HUAC.

Sanders sounds savvy and committed - she's done a ton of research and has found many Francis partisans. She even got one of my thespian heroes, Cherry Jones, to narrate! (Jones already knows the realm of the FTP, having played Hallie Flanagan in that odd but endearing film, Cradle Will Rock.)

The whole thing made me think about long-past experiences - how fleeting (or not), how memorable (or not), how life-shaping (or not). I can't say Francis herself had a huge impact on me - god knows research was a lot harder then, and I probably didn't appreciate all she'd done - but I do remember that she was gracious to a nervous young woman fiddling with a tape recorder. I doubt there was anything too revelatory in her remarks, but perhaps it filled a niche in her own memory - after all, I was interviewing her c. 40 years after the FTP ended. And now, it's 30 years since I did that work. There's a kind of baton-handing effect here I like thinking about.

The other baton-handing has to do with getting in touch with one of my George Mason colleagues from that long-ago time. Urk: he's now a grandfather of four. My memories are (of course) frozen back then. Has everyone but me really gotten this old? =8-/

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