Jul/Aug 2012 Nonfiction

Career Antics: Anthropologists, Aging, and a Crack at the Celebrity Circuit

by Julia Braun Kessler

We are ever reluctant to embrace the idea of mortality. While growing up, we yearn for maturity, seek to be taller, stronger, more capable in every way, to be free for searching out our distinct persons and pursuing a life we ourselves can choose. We stubbornly reject the reality that even we will grow older. That reckoning does come along, however, and with it regrets: at missed opportunities, roads not taken, and most particularly, at the swift passage of time.

I myself was still at that blithe, breezy time of life when such unwelcome meditations on the subject of aging came forth to affront me. You can bet that I resisted, refusing to associate with the inevitability of the process. Such a decrepit state might be for others, but not for me! And all this happened when I went out looking for a job, just after our return from our Roman junket.

As ever, I needed a job to supplement our meager income. And aging was the subject of an editing position I had managed to find. So whether the question grabbed me or not was inconsequential. By now, we certainly knew after our earlier years abroad that we couldn't turn back from the superior educational path we had embarked upon for our kiddies. At least all three of them would be in school this time, so I was free to pursue a professional life.

This re-entry proved more hectic even than after our first year in Europe. The older two, teenagers by now, had all kinds of ideas, notions of their own. Worse still, they were finding it more tedious than ever to adapt again to the sluggish American pace of education after their French Lycée experience and their life in Italy. That the public schools could not serve them was already evident. Yet they now refused our local Lycée, the school they'd happily attended earlier.

So, once again, there we were, on the hunt for a sensible solution. Some superior private educational institutions were functioning in Los Angeles then, yet not only was their tuition exorbitant, but, what with three children to account for, such costs were escalated. And there were greater obstacles. While I could turn up a fine, secular school for my daughter, it was more difficult for the two boys. The best of such schools in Los Angeles were Episcopal in denomination.

The very same dilemma had faced us in Italy—but this time, it was right here: American, Californian, and Protestant. Wholly secular parents that we were, as ever negligent of our own Jewish origins, how might we subject our vulnerable boys to such prayer-filled days as were practiced at these seats of learning? Years back in Firenze, there had been those genial nuns to bring their Catholicism lore forward without half-knowing it. At least in Roma, if Catholics, the schoolmasters were not priests. But now this, among our own? It was iffy, if not altogether unacceptable.

Well can I recall my own Mamma's reaction to our deliberations and how adamantly she spoke up against them. She was furious that we were even considering it. This elder boy need be more concerned with his Bar Mitzvah plans. As for the little fellow still in the earliest grades, he'd be fine in the public schools and was hardly worth fussing over. You can believe that it took some hearty work to convince her that our children already knew who they were and could make amply clear where their loyalties lay, no matter what they faced at school. If nothing else, that lesson had been taught early in their European experience.

My daughter was luckier. She was to attend a superb secondary school called Westlake School for Girls, on a fine campus just east of UCLA. There, already on a partial scholarship, she could not only maintain her languages, but continue to acquire an excellent educational grounding.

Thus did our lives in Los Angeles begin once again. My husband resumed his University duties upon his return, while I took up my own position, diving into the intricacies of how people regard the question of getting older across the world. The Andrus Center for the Study of Aging was a group which had come into being fairly recently, given the steady increase in America's elderly population and the elderly's longer life span. Its aim was to confront growing concerns about the plight of older Americans. And since that group was associated with the University of Southern California in downtown Los Angeles, it meant I must travel a considerable distance from home each day.

At work at Andrus, I found a group of anthropologists from the University focused on studying the customs, habits, and patterns various cultures around the world held towards their older people. The anthropologists were eager to compare such seniors' lives to those aging here in the United States, to discover the general regard, or lack thereof, for elderly populations between cultures.

Among the anthropologists were those who studied tribes in Africa and communities in the remote islands off Yugoslavia. There were others working in ethnic groups right here in the States, seeking to discover our own country's altering patterns, to examine the current adjustments for old folks among Latino-American families, the in-house care among Black relatives, as well as revived attempts to provide community for elderly Jewish groups. Experiences in each of these clusters could produce further clues to how American seniors could themselves emerge and be regarded in America's future.

The ongoing African study, pursued in Tanzania, would uncover surprising patterns among the elders. Research focused on the tiny tribe of the Chiagga, a people still virtually primitive in custom, and where, by tradition, the old had consistently been awarded much adulation and respect. At the same time, anthropologists were watching for changes, as the tiny community was more and more exposed to Western influence. The wonder of this study came forth with the observation that the Chiagga elderly found themselves currently gaining greater prestige rather than suffering its loss.

Yet another study in progress was concerned with various rural societies to be found among the remote islands off the coast of Yugoslavia. Since this research was conducted well within the years following WWII, that country remained solidly in the hands of a dictator and tyrant, Marshall Josip Broz Tito. The researcher pointed to the fact that survival to old age in this community remained most uncommon. Therefore, those who did remain were very few in number, and their experience and wisdom was still seen as an asset to the community. That fact could explain the special, almost godly treatment of such elders.

As for those anthropologists working on the domestic scene, vast contrasts were uncovered. How different our customs from the older, traditional societies! No protectionist treatment for our aged. Not in this youth-oriented America. Instead, our elders were sent off to seek their own way, to find new associates, other diversions, and most important, to seek a separate living space.

One study showed how many aging Jews, originating from other areas of our country and overseas, had resettled themselves in Venice, California, a small community on the west side of Los Angeles. Far away from former family and friends, they had chosen to retire to the safety of that little ethnic beach community. Their Synagogue's congregation was composed entirely of people in their own age group, and all kept close to it in hopes of making a new family. As the elderly viewed it, their grown children had little time "nor interest" in caring for them. Thus, in these, their later years, they chose assistance and company from strangers. Moreover, many expressed great relief at having found their own way into senior life so that they no longer needed to rely upon their offspring or immediate families.

Another local community receiving such particular examination was composed of Latino-American immigrants. This study would examine what Americanization of these particular folks had accomplished and determine its losses as well. Here, amply demonstrated, was evidence of the subsequent deterioration of the traditional Latin-American family relationships and their seniors. That same sheltering care observed in their "old country" surroundings, once common among them, seemed to have vanished with their progression within our culture.

Amid all that activity, my own assignment was to coordinate such results from each of these disparate cultural surveys, to try to weave a cohesive whole and gain a sense of the turmoil, upheavals, the constant changes in the coming arrangements. In effect, I was to make Old World practices relate to our own altering domestic scene. And along with this, I had to determine the prospects for the future of the growing numbers of older folk in our nation.

The work which emerged from it all was called "Life's Career: Aging: Cultural Variations on Growing Old," under the editorship and with an introduction by Barbara Myerhoff and Andrei Simic, two of the study's contributing professors. Not long after, I succeeded as well in finding a local house to publish it. The work came out in 1978 with Sage Publishers, Inc., of Beverly Hills.

My dissatisfaction with these results had been growing. Despite adequate recompense for the work, the truth was that all my efforts to bring a degree of readability, a clarity to these essays, to make them comprehensible to the reading public, had been thwarted. This resistance was, by now, quite familiar to me from my earlier work in the academic world. Social scientific jargon remained the preferred language of such researchers; any departures would not be tolerated.

To be sure, these anthropologists were experts in their fields. The stumbling block arrived only with my attempts to translate their findings into lay language, to make their work comprehensible to interested readers outside the University. Thoroughly invested in their own particular areas of specialization—their tribes, their ethnic groups, their sections of the world—such professors were unwilling to concentrate upon the potential cultural effect of their disclosures. They wanted nothing to do with what they termed the "populist" approach. So there was little I could do to convince them that such specialized language was hieroglyphics to the reading public. In short, proper academic language need prevail at all costs. George Orwell had once likened this condition years ago, when he compared such usage to "the defensive response of a cuttlefish squirting out ink." Here was merely another opportunity to produce scholarship for their bibliographic record.

It was then that the idea struck. Why not consider undertaking such a book to suit the public mood myself? Given our steadily escalating population of seniors, such a work might appeal to a large number of readers! After I casually mentioned this notion to a writer friend, he quickly set me up with a publisher. So there I was with a book contract.

High time to expose all Americans to the distinctly questionable future for those growing older in our culture. Not only would I investigate what this situation could mean for those living longer, but bring to attention the urgency of coping with such narrowing options. In our youth-oriented culture, America moved swiftly, brutally, favoring the most competent and competitive above any other. Opportunities and satisfactions late in one's life were ever dwindling. The question became: Where were independence, regard, and security to be found in these elderly American lives?

Older Americans faced predicaments varying from poverty to loneliness and the want of family sympathy. My own aim was to call attention to that great need, to suggest techniques for coping, to find solutions for this isolation. I would seek to devise fresh means, techniques, innovative schemes, in hopes of gaining for them the chance at greater satisfactions of later life. To teach how to make an asset of those years, rather than a burden. And unlike my academic colleagues, I sought for a work that was intelligible to all readers. It was to become my first book, Getting Even With Getting Old.

The work came out to good reviews. Better still, with it a ripple of promotional fanfare. Never before had I heard of "promoting" a book, didn't even have a clue to what that meant. But I was a quick study then, and ready for action. So, with the encouragement and help of the Doubleday public relations "rep" right there in Los Angeles, a savvy ex-New Yorker named Betty Shapian, we went to bat together.

She and I hit it off from the first moment. As ex-New Yorkers, with our swifter speech patterns, our faster Eastern pacing, we felt comfortable. We had long since learned to parry all those quips that our California colleagues aimed at us about such habits. They made fun of us, mocking our soft "r"s or, hard "o"s! A common perception that Western speech was true American speech still reigned.

But in the media all that was of little consequence. So there was no stopping her in her vigorous campaign for Getting Even With Getting Old. Quite suddenly, I had discovered the limelight—that "fifteen minutes of fame" whose merit Andy Warhol had so often touted. And with Shapian at the helm, industriously soliciting interviews with newspapers, talk show hosts on radio, even some national morning television shows, the bookings kept coming. More surprising, inexperienced as I was, I managed to come through it all, and the taste of publicity even whetted my appetite for more.

I can well remember sitting in the "green room" at one of the first of those appearances, shuddering at the very thought of my time to get out there and perform coming up. Blessedly, as I watched the TV droning there in the waiting room, while the earlier performers for that show talked, a comforting kind of reassurance came to my assistance. How, I found myself asking, could I manage to look a greater fool than these people who had preceded me? Their ostentatious displays of fine figures, their pompous talk of achievement, followed by the endless chit-chat, gave me a good chuckle. So I breathed again, knowing I, too, could see it all through.

One of my favorite recollections from that sequence was when I sat with two well-known faces of the time, Regis Philbin and Kathy Lee Gifford, both casual, ever at ease, and explained that my subject was "aging!" The silence was deafening.

"Yes, indeed," I went on. "A bit of an 'off-putter,' I know! Who on earth wants to be thought old? In fact, when I first began talking about it, it was like I'd developed a communicable disease!" At least it got them laughing, and we went on comfortably from there.

At yet another such appearance, when I faced a popular network talk show host, a movie-star-looker named John Davidson, I took an even more daring stance by telling him an off-color joke about getting older. It was some yarn about an old fellow competing with some young bucks, first at golf, then at a pool table and finally at the bar, beating them at every bit of it. So when one of the young ones finally concedes that there's not a whole lot to this talk of "losing your marbles," the old guy tops them once more with his own tale, about forgetting. He says, "No, no, fellas, honest, you do lose your marbles! Why, just last week my wife was coming out of the shower and looked so attractive, I suggested we go to bed. She was aghast and instantly responded with, 'Harvey, just half an hour ago... ' I tell you, fellas, the memory goes!"

The consummate chutzpah of this strikes me to this day! Considering the numbers of people watching everywhere in our nation, the style of that joke and the time period in which it was delivered, it was outrageous, to be sure. But I did it, and it worked.

The book even sold reasonably well. But it predated the greater upheaval that was to follow five years later as numbers escalated and dissatisfactions multiplied within our nation. So it never did catch on widely enough to jump into bestseller-dom. Something of a disappointment, yes, but the greater blessing it brought was yet to come.

With it had appeared Betty Shapian, that dynamo lady of West Coast PR. And she found herself impressed enough by my moxie in media performance to offer me a job within her PR agency in West Hollywood. Said she, "Now that you've done the circuit, learned the tricks of the trade, you can see other writers through it with savvy!" Though this logic, I must admit, made little sense to me, a job was a job, and a lively one at that.

So I joined her and her staff daily at a snazzy Sunset Strip office to try my luck at snagging publicity for a raft of incoming new books and their authors. The use of such media for selling cereals, baked beans, or automobiles was a common practice, but to the "elite" book business, it was essentially new, and only coming to practice as a late development. Most writers continued to see themselves as "artists" and alien to such commerce. It was our business to urge them to join the fray, to see it as part of the job. They needed prodding, new skills in public speaking, coaching in their flailing attempts to communicate with the commercial world. All this must proceed in order to present a chatty, relaxed author, someone competent enough to pitch his or her work with panache.

So we needed to devise kicky techniques, game plans. Any means, in short, to sell, sell, sell their work. You might well add that this was the easy part of the job. Tougher yet was to devise canny maneuvers to convince media folk that such messages would resonate with their audiences. Ever badgered newspaper and magazine editors needed to woo readers, TV bookers sought audience ratings to court their advertisers. It was a complex scene to absorb, especially for those sophisticated fiction writers, the theorists, philosophers or academics whose publishers had sponsored such promotion for their books.

To start, I'd seek out a lively pitch for each book, one that could appeal to mass audiences. In the trade, this came to be tagged a "hook." It needed to be dreamed up to move bookers into scheduling it. Next came the periodic reminders, the pestering—along with sales figures, book club acceptances, anything that could influence their choice in its favor.

My tone varied. With newspaper people, it went to casual, collegial, with suggested focuses for the article. For talk-show radio and TV hosts, where time was short, themes kicky, all needed to be simplified, sloganized, sped up. So did the job proceed, and well enough, too.

One factor among writers I had not figured on, however, was the frequency of egomania among them. There was a surfeit of such self-importance in many: popular novelists, no less with political analysts or editors, but especially among the bestselling authors. Not for one moment of each working day was I allowed to forget this. With these visiting "celebs," part of the job was to check grooming and their choice of outfit. I was expected to prime them in what we dubbed "media manners," a whole set of moves known as "keeping up the chat and cheer." I'd prompt with opening lines, rehearse performances, encourage playfulness as I squired them to radio and television studios, to luncheons at posh restaurants with newspaper editors.

Some of the displays of tantrum among these distinguished authors remain memorable still. The grumbling and grousing ran on, sometimes even from the "one-hit" authors or mere newcomers to superstardom. Why, they would demand, hadn't I solicited the program they adored watching, or turned up better exposures for their publicity tour? Wasn't I aware of who they were? In Chicago, such harangues went, they had been lionized; in Detroit, saluted, and just days ago their achievement was acclaimed in San Francisco! Nothing but praise, tribute to be heard everywhere; why so little in Los Angeles?

Expecting more, demanding more, given their unique merit, their genius! One author even had me chasing around all of Los Angeles for that day's copy of The New York Times (not easily available in those years); this, while managing to deliver him to his various appearances in sprawling Los Angeles. Still another demanded that I seek out a Kosher restaurants in which to conduct his interviews, wherever we happened to be in the City.

Despite it all, there was a far brighter side to all this celebrity company I was keeping. Theirs was often informative, learned talk, laced with insights into all kinds of unfamiliar subjects: in the sciences, visual arts, music, politics. Moreover, since I needed to study their theories or arguments and read their books as part of my job, it was always stimulating. I learned much from such experts daily.

Above all, I confess to my delight at being seen in the company of some of these notable names: Norman Mailer, Elie Wiesel, Robert Joffrey, Olivia de Havilland, Lady Antonia Fraser, Yusuf Karsh, P.D. James, the eminent conductor Sir Neville Mariner, the great cartoonist Jules Feiffer, and the distinguished psychiatrist Bruno Bettelheim.

There were all those bestseller types, too, like Irving Stone, Judith Krantz, and Jean Auel. Just to watch these folks as they gamboled down the aisles at lunchtime in the posh Bel Air Hotel or the Beverly Wilshire to be accosted by their fans was itself a howl. Some pranced, other scampered. Flattered or flustered, these authors gave an inside view of "fame" that was delightfully new to me. The very recollection of Norman Mailer's nonchalance at such attention from his admirers—his casual, haughty demeanor—still makes me chuckle!

Nor is this to speak of those "confidences" shared by several of the high and mighty, those tales told out of school. The great actress Olivia de Havilland, for instance, confessed to being so miffed back in the '40s at having been denied the part of Scarlett O'Hara, she had been reluctant to take the role that was offered her, that of Melanie in Gone With the Wind. She went on to cluck over how that part had then resulted in an Oscar for a best supporting actress that year!

The gracious writer, Lady Phyllis James, intimately discussed her own modest past, speaking of her upbringing in poverty and the loss of her husband while her children were still very young. She proceeded to confess that it was her desperate need to support that family alone that led to her extraordinary mystery-writing career.

Yes, those were heady days. Such tittle-tattle was all about me, and I loved every second of it. Upon reflection, all of it may well have been mere career capers, the contribution to what I then dubbed "encouraging journalism for the shredder." Little matter, for my bumpy ride with celebrity plays vividly in the memory.


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