Remembering Mary Higgins Clark (1927-2020)

The characters in my books are resilient and resourceful. When calamity strikes, they carry on.”–Mary Higgins Clark.

America's "Queen of Suspense," novelist MARY HIGGINS CLARK (1927-2020). Photo © Bernard Vidal.

America’s “Queen of Suspense,” novelist MARY HIGGINS CLARK (1927-2020). Photo © Bernard Vidal.

There are times in our lives when we hit that proverbial fork in the road… when our feelings of self worth are shaky and we’re in need of a reminder of how incredibly blessed our lives have been.  Mary Higgins Clark’s recent passing did that for me. January 31, 2020 was a sad day for her millions of fans around the world for sure. For me, news of her death hit closer to home.

Remembering Mary and the impact she had on my life as a writer and friend also reminded me of the many other remarkable people I’ve been fortunate to meet and work with during the course of my career. Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award recipients; Newbery and Caldecott honorees; Oscar, Emmy, Golden Globe, Peabody, and Christopher Award winners… super achievers, icons, legends in the publishing, film and TV industries.

In the case of Mary Higgins Clark, I not only interviewed her several times as a journalist and PR professional, but was delighted to work with her during my Corporate Communications stint at her career-long publisher, Simon & Schuster, and during my 11 years as Director of the Christopher Awards.  We also met and mingled at various charity events in Manhattan.

MARY HIGGINS CLARK with me JUDITH TROJAN, Director of the Christopher Awards, at the 54th annual Christopher Awards gala in Rockefeller Center, NYC, February 27, 2003. Photo: Paul Schneck.

MARY HIGGINS CLARK with me JUDITH TROJAN, Director of the Christopher Awards, at the 54th annual Christopher Awards gala in Rockefeller Center, NYC, February 27, 2003. Photo: Paul Schneck.

During my tenure at The Christophers, we honored Mary with a Life Achievement Award at our 54th annual Christopher Awards gala on February 27, 2003. Five years later, she graciously accepted my invitation to present a well-deserved Life Achievement Award to her friend and fellow Simon & Schuster author, historian David McCullough, at our 59th annual Christopher Awards gala on April 10, 2008. It was a spectacular evening in Rockefeller Center, made all the more memorable by Mary’s presence and her charming, heartfelt speech honoring her pal, David McCullough.

At the time of Mary Higgins Clark’s death at age 92, the perpetual #1 New York Times best-selling author had written 40 suspense novels, four short story collections, a his­torical novel, a memoir and two children’s books. She collaborated with another best-selling author, Alafair Burke, on the Under Suspicion series; and co-authored five suspense novels with her daughter, author Carol Higgins Clark.

With more than one hundred million copies of her books in print in the U.S. alone, Mary Higgins Clark consistently topped both The New York Times Best Seller Hardcover and Paperback lists simultaneously, which, needless to say, was a remarkable and singular achievement in the publishing world.

Mary Higgins Clark perusing her first book circa 1969, a biographical novel about George Washington. The book was re-issued in 2002 with a new title, "Mount Vernon Love Story." Photo courtesy Simon & Schuster.

Mary Higgins Clark perusing her first book circa 1969, a biographical novel about George Washington. The book was re-issued in 2002 with a new title, “Mount Vernon Love Story.” Photo courtesy Simon & Schuster.

But reaching that pinnacle wasn’t easy.  Not surprisingly, her protagonists were invariably feisty women who prevail in the face of unexpected adversity. Raised in the Bronx, Mary, an Irish-Catholic, lived that plotline firsthand.

Her father died suddenly when she was 10, and her husband’s untimely death in 1964 left her a young widow with five children, ranging in age from five to 13. Like her mother before her, Mary struggled to keep her family afloat. But she never lost sight of her goal to write books.

As a teenager, Mary Higgins window shopped her way past pricey Fifth Avenue department stores, fantasizing about the glamorous dresses she’d wear someday as a famous author. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Young Mary Higgins’ compulsion to write paid off handsomely. She grew up to become Mary Higgins Clark, America’s “Queen of Suspense.”

The interview with Mary Higgins Clark that I share with you below is edited and condensed from the original published in the Fall 2007 issue of Healthy Edge magazine.  We chatted by phone, she from her seaside home in Spring Lake, New Jersey, on July 24, 2007. It was a beautiful summer day that found her hard at work on her latest novel.  This was not to be our last interview; but it proved to be the most intimate, focusing less on specific career highlights that we’d covered in the past and more on the personal life experiences that strengthened her faith and shaped her life’s work.

With refreshing candor, Mary revisited a series of heart-rending family tragedies and personal challenges as a daughter, sister, wife, widow and single mother with career aspirations that would have broken the best of us.  But she was born and bred in the Bronx, afterall. This witty, street smart Irish storyteller of deep faith made it abundantly clear how and why she’d surmounted these personal setbacks… and flourished.  Despite its often dire subject matter, this remains one of the most enjoyable and inspiring interviews I’ve ever conducted.  I will never forget her and, believe it or not, how much she made me laugh on that sunny summer day in 2007.

Judith Trojan:  As a young woman, with a budding literary career, you had five school-age children and your terminally ill husband, Warren, to care for. How did you cope?

Mary Higgins Clark: Well, of course, you know what you start with. I had 14 years and nine months of a wonderful marriage. A lot of people don’t get that. For five years, we knew that Warren was dying. Every Christmas and every birthday, I was so grateful we had one more. In fact, I wrote an article, “The Five Years that Taught Me How to Live,” for Redbook magazine. I had to work because Warren had changed jobs. It was exactly the job he wanted. Before he took the new job, he said, ‘If I have a physical, I won’t get it.’ I said, ‘You can’t live as though you’re going to die. Tell them you have so much money, you don’t want to know anything about their pension plan,’ which was the biggest joke in the world.

Mary Higgins Clark at home with husband Warren and their kids in 1961. Photo courtesy Simon & Schuster.

Trojan:  His illness must have been terribly difficult for you both.

Higgins Clark: He had constant chest pains. The doctor told him ‘Get a lot of rest. Don’t run for a bus, don’t pick up the baby, don’t wrestle with the boys.’ Don’t. Don’t. Don’t. They told us he would have a major heart attack and die because all the tests showed that his arteries were almost totally clogged. That was before bypass surgery.

Trojan: Did you ever have hope for a positive outcome during that time?

Higgins Clark: Warren had said, ‘If I can last 10 years, there will be an operation.’ So, there was always that little peephole of hope. He died in 1964, and the first bypass operation was done a year later. How many lives has it saved? Warren looked healthy. He had always been a terrific athlete. He turned 45 less than two months before he died. I was 36.

Trojan:  Did heart disease run in his family?

Higgins Clark: His father had a stroke in his 50s. Warren was a heavy smoker. You couldn’t get him off it. In the end, when we got that verdict from the doctor, he said, ‘Of course, no smoking; it’s a nail in the coffin.’ I gave up smoking, but Warren couldn’t kick the habit. I told him, ‘The prescription was not that I give it up while you keep it up.’

Mary Higgins Clark sold her first suspense novel to Simon & Schuster in 1975. She remained with S&S for the rest of her life. "It marked a turning point in my career," she remembered.

Mary Higgins Clark sold her first suspense novel to Simon & Schuster in 1975. She remained with S&S for the rest of her life. “It marked a turning point in my career,” she remembered.

Trojan:  What advice would you give to moms today who find themselves widowed at a young age?

Higgins Clark: Be grateful you have your children. I wasn’t sure if I was pregnant when Warren died. I wasn’t, but I was secretly thinking I could handle six as well as I could handle five.  I remember running into a very nice man I knew in town who said, ‘You’re handling Warren’s death very well.’ I said, ‘Do I have a choice?’ When you really look at it, you do not have a choice. You have to accept what you can’t change.

Trojan:  You suffered through an inordinate number of losses in your early life—first your father, both brothers, your husband, your in-laws—one after another. The death of your husband and your mother-in-law, both on the same day, must have been devastating.

Higgins Clark: My mother-in-law loved her son so much. She knew how bad Warren was and said, ‘I don’t want to survive him.’ She was sitting by his bed. He had one of those crushing heart attacks that you hear the pain. I was downstairs and heard his ‘Agh’ all through the house. I thought the oxygen tank had exploded. I raced upstairs, and his mother was trying to hold the oxygen tube over his face. I started CPR. When she saw that he was dead, she just said, ‘Oh Warren,’ and collapsed and died. Really, they died together. Her heart simply gave out.

Trojan:  What a tragedy.

Higgins Clark: Four months later, her second son died. I thought God gave her a break that she died before she would have to see another of her sons die.  She was a very good woman, a most charitable woman.

Trojan:  During WWII, your older brother, Joseph, joined the Navy. I’m sure you and your mother feared for his life in combat, but instead he died during basic training.

Higgins Clark: It certainly was not something we expected. He got spinal meningitis and had a fever of 104 and violent headaches. They had him in sick bay for a week before they took him to the hospital. He was only 18.

Trojan:  Your younger brother, John, lost his wife and child in quick succession and then died an untimely death from a fall. How did you get through all that?

Higgins Clark: There were so many at one time that it just seemed as though there was blow after blow after blow. Of course, you have a constant sadness. You can’t lay that on other people. But a fact of life is that people die out of their time.

“Kitchen Privileges: A Memoir” by Mary Higgins Clark was published by Simon & Schuster in 2002.

Trojan:  In reading your memoir, I was intrigued by your mother. No matter what tragedy befell her, she forged ahead.

Higgins Clark: I think the great grief of her life was Joseph. The loss of my father was, of course, devastating; but there’s something about losing a child. He had been a ‘preemie,’ and she never left his side during that first year; she was so afraid he would slip away. She would have thrown herself across the tracks for any one of us, but there was something so tender about her relationship with Joseph.

Trojan:  What attributes best describe your mom?

Higgins Clark: My mother never stayed angry, even if she had a reason to be mad at someone. She always had a sense of humor. Her heart was broken, but she was never gloomy. She never said ‘Why me’ to me or my brothers. When you have faith, if someone is sick, you can storm heaven with prayers. And you take comfort that there has to be a reason for all this; there must be a bigger plan that you don’t know about.

Trojan:  Was your mom’s resilience following the sudden death of your father a model for you when your husband died?

Higgins Clark: Since I knew how much I missed my own father, I knew exactly how much my kids would miss theirs. I thought it was my job to be a mother who didn’t take the grief out on them, but also to do the best I could because I knew how much they would miss him.

Trojan:  In the 1950s and 1960s, most mothers didn’t work or have the kind of goals and drive that you had. Your husband didn’t seem to be threatened by your determination to write. He sounds like a prince!

Higgins Clark: He loved it. Warren’s attitude about it was, ‘Look, so many people try and don’t make it. Go ahead, but think of it as a hobby. Some women bowl, you write.’ When my work started selling, no one was prouder than he.

Trojan:  Throughout your career, you’ve given generously of your time to various Catholic causes and to literacy. Why literacy?

Higgins Clark: I’ve always been active in the literacy program in New York and have done a lot with former First Lady Barbara Bush. I think the biggest gift you can give someone is education, and there’s nothing more basic in education than to be able to read.

Trojan:  You were a Bronx girl, yet you’ve lived much of your adult life in New Jersey. How have your hometowns impacted your work?

Jokes about New Jersey were no laughing matter to Mary Higgins Clark. She intentionally set more than a half dozen of her best-selling suspense novels in New Jersey to shed positive light on her adopted home state. This is one of them, published by Simon & Schuster in 2018.

Higgins Clark: All my life I have had to defend the two places that I have lived–the Bronx and New Jersey. This is why I’ve written books specifically set in New Jersey, to try to get people to appreciate our state.

Trojan:  Despite all of the responsibilities you’ve shouldered as a single mother of five, you’ve never lost sight of your personal goals. You wanted to write, to travel to exotic places, to wear those gowns you admired in shop windows along Fifth Avenue. You were also determined to graduate from college. How old were you when you got your degree?

Higgins Clark: I was 48. I gave myself a prom. It was a darn good party!

Trojan:  How do you manage to maintain your energy level, especially on grueling book tours?

Higgins Clark: Travelling has gotten so obnoxious now with the security and getting there early. There are so many delays. That has made going out on tour less attractive. But it’s really a pleasure when you meet people who say they’ve read every one of your books, or who say how they were able to escape while reading one of them at a time when they were either sick or had terrible grief. I’ve had four generations stand in front of me—13, 35, 57 and 75— and great grandma says, ‘We all read your books, dear!’

Trojan:  In retrospect, what stands out most in your life beyond the losses we’ve discussed and the great success you’ve achieved through your writing?

Higgins Clark: I’ve been very blessed. I’ve been married since 1996 to John Conheeney [1929-2018].  So, God gave me a good man at the beginning and a good one at the end! After Warren’s death, I knew I was going to educate my children, that I would never depend on a man to do it, rich or poor. I worked hard to make it happen. I wanted them educated, and I wanted them to do well.

Trojan:  Some women have been known to choose a man over their kids.

Mary Higgins Clark and John J. Conheeney dancing at their wedding in 1996. They were married for 22 years when he passed away in 2018. Photo courtesy Simon & Schuster.

Mary Higgins Clark and John J. Conheeney dancing at their wedding in 1996. They were married for 22 years when he passed away in 2018. Photo courtesy Simon & Schuster.

Higgins Clark: Following Warren’s death, I just thought I would not get involved. Suppose I married a guy with a lot of money who said, ‘I want you to bake cookies, and I like four of your kids and I don’t like the fifth.’ I made a deal with God: ‘Don’t take the kids and, I promise you, I will never ever be one of those ladies who’s sleeping around, promise.’ Better the picture on the wall of a father who loved them, than somebody who might find one or the other a pain in the neck.

Trojan:  What life lessons would you most like to pass on to your children and grandchildren?

Higgins Clark: Be aware of how blessed you are. Look around at the education you’ve had, at the home you have, the friends you have, and the health you enjoy. Be grateful because so many people have nothing and some less than nothing. Someone once said, ‘If you want to be happy for a year, win the lottery. If you want to be happy for a lifetime, love what you do.’ Ω –Judith Trojan

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The Poison Squad Provides Food for Thought on American Experience

The 50-year crusade for food safety by U.S. government chemist Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley (1844-1930), leading to the creation of the FDA, is the timely focus of John Maggio's new documentary THE POISON SQUAD for AMERICAN EXPERIENCE. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

The 50-year crusade for food safety by U.S. government chemist Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley (1844-1930), leading to the creation of the FDA, is the timely focus of John Maggio’s new documentary THE POISON SQUAD for AMERICAN EXPERIENCE. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

“One obsessive, determined person can change the world, and he did.”

If you care about the purity of the food and beverages you consume, then grab a bottle of Pepto and keep it handy as you watch The Poison Squad, the latest installment in WGBH Boston’s Award-winning American Experience series debuting on PBS tonight, Tuesday, January 28, 2020, 9:00 – 11:00 p.m. ET. (Check local listings for air times in your region and  http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/ and the PBS Video app for streaming and http://ShopPBS.org for DVD availability.)

You may need to take a swig or two of the pink stuff during the first half hour of this fascinating two-hour documentary, but please stick with it.  As The Poison Squad wends its way through the back alleys of the blossoming food manufacturing industry during the last half of the 19th and early 20th centuries, it’s often not a palatable picture. It was a period when Americans transformed from healthy agrarians into city folk chiefly dependent upon food and beverages processed cheaply and sloppily for mass consumption by powerful food manufacturers.  If our grandparents didn’t grow their own produce or raise cows and pigs, they bought what they assumed to be the same clean meat and produce packaged and sold in their local markets.

Unfortunately, there were no standards and practices in place to assure the cleanliness of food processing plants, confirm packaging claims, or question the toxicity of additives used to bring questionably fresh food and beverages, including milk for children, back to “life.” Slaughterhouses, meatpacking plants and the dairy industry were rife with unsanitary assembly lines and non-existent refrigeration.  At the top of the food chain, industrial giants like Heinz, Pillsbury, Nabisco, Coca-Cola were well-connected in Washington and seemingly untouchable.

As a result, by the late 19th century, Americans were consuming a hearty dose of garbage. The only thing “pure” about foods like honey and maple syrup, for example, was their primary ingredient: “pure corn syrup.”   Unsuspecting Americans mistakenly thought they were buying such staples as butter (beef tallow, pork fat and worse) and coffee (chicory and sawdust). Chemical additives like copper sulfate, borax, sodium benzoate and formaldehyde were used to freshen up food and beverages as they were being canned and bottled. When it wasn’t being used in food processing, formaldehyde was the go-to embalming fluid during the Civil War.  And borax was a popular cleanser and ant killer.

In 1902, Congress authorized funds for human trials of controversial food additives to determine their safety. Dr. Harvey Wiley (third from left in back row), then Chief of the Bureau of Chemistry, tested the additives on 12 young men who became known as “the Poison Squad.” Photo courtesy of the FDA.

Now the good news!  Enter Dr. Harvey W. Wiley (1844-1930) with a medical degree from Indiana University and another degree in chemistry from Harvard in hand, as well as lessons gleaned from growing up on a farm.  Armed with a passion to insure clean food and a take-no-prisoners evangelical zeal inherited from his progressive dad, Wiley kept his eyes on America’s kitchen tables from his perch as Chief of the Bureau of Chemistry in the Department of Agriculture.

In 1902, he embarked upon a controlled experiment with a panel of 12 young men who came to be known as “The Poison Squad,” to whom he fed food and beverages laced with chemical additives commonly used by food manufacturers of the day.

“In exchange for free food and five dollars a day, these volunteers agreed to eat only the meals served by Dr. Wiley, submit to a battery of physical examinations after each meal, and promise not to sue the federal government if they were sickened in the process.”  Yes, some got sick, but no one died.

As Wiley faced off with government officials who were in the back pockets of the food industrialists, he was supported by some fascinating allies.  Since women were the prime shoppers and cooks for their families, Wiley received a boost from powerful leaders of the women’s suffrage movement.

Teddy Roosevelt’s on again, off again support of Wiley’s cause thread throughout the film… from Roosevelt’s early stint on the battlefield through his terms as governor of New York and President of the United States.  Rough Rider Roosevelt remarked that he would rather eat his hat then the putrid canned meat served in soldiers’ rations.

Influential cookbook author Fanny Farmer and author Upton Sinclair, whose explosive novel, The Jungle (Doubleday, 1906), exposing the disgraceful conditions in the Chicago meatpacking industry, were also key to Wiley’s success.

Emmy Award-winning writer/director/producer John Maggio (recently interviewed in FrontRowCenter) peppers The Poison Squad with vintage film clips and photos as well as insights from culinary historians, investigative journalists, popular cookbook author Mark Bittman, and Deborah Blum, the author of The Poison Squad (Penguin, 2018), the book on which Maggio’s film is based.

In 1906, Dr. Harvey Wiley’s crusade finally paid off, leading Congress to pass the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act, the first consumer protection laws in U.S. history, paving the way for the creation of the FDA.

Despite its late 19th and early 20th century timeline, The Poison Squad is remarkably timely today.  Cancer-causing chemicals and air pollutants are returning to our environment in a big way, as the Trump administration caters favor with big business by weakening or eliminating long established bans and restrictions on their products. Lax food labelling, e.g., fish, is also a continuing area of concern.

American Experience: The Poison Squad debuts on PBS tonight, Tuesday, January 28, 2020, 9:00 – 11:00 p.m. ET (Check local listings for air times in your region and http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/ and the PBS Video app for streaming and http://ShopPBS.org for DVD availability.)— Judith Trojan

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A Whale of a Tale Debuts on PBS Nature

PBS NATURE wildlife filmmaker Tom Mustill became obsessed with whales after a humpback whale almost breached on top of his kayak in Monterey Bay, California. Photo© Viralhog.

PBS NATURE wildlife filmmaker Tom Mustill became obsessed with whales after a humpback whale almost breached on top of his kayak in Monterey Bay, California. Photo© Viralhog.

“The mystic-marked whale remains undecipherable.”Herman Melville, Moby Dick.

If like me, you are captivated by whales and emotionally invested in their health and well-being, you will definitely not want to miss The Whale Detective, a tantalizing bit of personal whale lore recounted by wildlife filmmaker Tom Mustill.

In September 2015, a 30-ton humpback whale breached and just missed landing on Mustill and his friend Charlotte as they kayaked in Monterey Bay, California. They miraculously survived. But the traumatic close encounter haunted Mustill.  He became obsessed with the whale’s intentions.  Was the whale putting on a show? Was it a deliberate aggressive act aimed to topple the kayak and crush the kayakers?  Or did the humpback mistakenly cut its breach too close then turn away so as not to hurt them?

Tom Mustill’s personal mission to determine the motivation of “his” whale, subsequently named “Prime Suspect,”and, in the process, learn more about the species that almost killed him is played out in his latest film for the PBS Nature series, The Whale Detective.

Filmmaker Tom Mustill and fellow kayaker,Charlotte Kinloch, holding onto another whale watcher's kayak after surviving the whale breaching onto them in September 2015.  Photo© Michael Sack Sanctuary Cruises.

Filmmaker Tom Mustill and fellow kayaker,Charlotte Kinloch, holding onto another whale watcher’s kayak after surviving the whale breaching onto them in September 2015.  Photo© Michael Sack Sanctuary Cruises.

Nature: The Whale Detective debuts on PBS tonight, Wednesday, January 8, 2020, 8:00 – 9:00 p.m. ET. (Check local listings for air times in your region and http://www.pbs.org/nature and the PBS Video app for streaming and DVD availability.)

Monterey Bay off the coast of California is an expansive, deep and rich whale feeding and breeding ground. It not only lures various species of these extraordinary mammals, but is a magnet for their fans:  avid whale watchers from around the globe, as well as marine biologists, behaviorists and concerned citizens who photograph, record, study, save (untangle) and examine post-mortem the showstopping whales that breach, feed and mate around and under them.

Self-described whale detective Tom Mustill interviews these locally-based whale aficionados and reviews their extensive research and close encounters, paying special attention to the photos and viral videos shot by others before, during and after his near-death confrontation with the breaching humpback in 2015.

Although Mustill’s film is just under one-hour long, it manages to highlight some fascinating work being done to study and protect various species of whales but most especially humpbacks. And in the end, it reminds us, that we, as humans, hold their fate precariously in our hands. Whale expert Dr. Joy Reidenberg underscores the importance of protecting whales from human detritus as she performs a necropsy on a young beached whale killed by a ship’s massively damaging impact.

A curious young humpback approaches cinematographer Howard Hall. Photo ©Michele Hall.

While humans are their biggest threat, somehow whales seem to know that humans are also out to help them. Filmmaker Mustill joins an elite, specially trained crew on a dangerous mission to disentangle and cut a whale free from its “captor”… a rope snagged on the sea floor.

In one viral video, we see a humpback tuck a diver under its fin to protect her from a shark and swim her to the safety of her boat. The seasoned diver recalls at one point being eye to eye with the whale and the physically painful encounter that abruptly saved her life.

Surprisingly, humpback whales have not only been documented coming to the rescue of human divers, but fellow air breathing denizens of the deep as well. Humpbacks swim in to save the day when seals, sea lions, whale calves and dolphins are being bullied or attacked by killer whales.  As seen here in video footage, killer whales can be seen making a quick exit instead of facing off against their mortal enemies, humpback whales.

In the end, Mustill uncovers some fascinating tidbits about his whale’s origins and backstory. And there is every indication that “Prime Suspect” may, in fact, have simply goofed and made a bad breach on that September day in 2015 and choreographed an immediate “auto correct” so as not to hurt the kayakers.

THE WHALE DETECTIVE aka filmmaker Tom Mustill interviews a fellow whale "near-miss" survivor. Photo ©Tim Burgess.

THE WHALE DETECTIVE aka filmmaker Tom Mustill interviews a fellow whale “near-miss” survivor. Photo ©Tim Burgess.

This episode in the award-winning PBS series, NATURE, executive produced by Fred Kaufman, is a Gripping Films production for THIRTEEN PRODUCTIONS LLC and BBC Studios in association with WNET.

Nature: The Whale Detective debuts on PBS tonight, Wednesday, January 8, 2020, 8:00 – 9:00 p.m. ET. (Check local listings for air times in your region and http://www.pbs.org/nature and the PBS Video app for streaming and DVD availability.) –Judith Trojan

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Animal Reunions Tug Heartstrings on Nature Rebroadcast

Conservationist Damian Aspinall reunited with chum Kwibi after the gorilla, who was raised in Aspinall’s animal sanctuary in the UK, had been released for five years in a West African national park. Kwibi’s journey is documented in NATURE: ANIMAL REUNIONS. Photo courtesy Tigress Productions.

If you’ve ever doubted that animals are capable of forming enduring bonds with their human friends and caregivers, I urge you not to miss the rebroadcast of Animal Reunions, a 2016 episode of the PBS series, NATURE, airing tonight, Wednesday, January 1, 2020, 8:00 – 9:00 p.m. ET. (Check local listings for air times in your region and http://www.pbs.org/nature and the PBS Video app for streaming and DVD availability.)  I guarantee you’ll set aside your doubts and be moved to tears during the extraordinary reunions documented in this film.

My belief in the capacity of wild and domesticated animals to feel and show love and loss, not only for their own kind but for their human counterparts, was validated 25 years ago. At that time, I was a fan of ABC-TV News 20/20, when it featured empowering think pieces, as well as fascinating reports on “the better angels” of our nation. In a concluding segment one Friday night in 1995, host Hugh Downs explored the problematic exploitation of chimpanzees in the space program and biomedical research. Both of those dubious enterprises were finally being scrutinized, even by those who were employed to implement them. As a result, retirement sanctuaries for these physically and emotionally damaged chimps were starting to spring up.

Downs zeroed in on animal rights crusader Dr. Roger Fouts, then at the helm of Central Washington University’s Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute (CHCI). Fouts had pioneered communication with chimpanzees through sign language; his first pupil was a baby chimp named Washoe.  Another language studies student, Booee, was taught to sign by Dr. Fouts beginning in the late 1960s. But Booee was inexplicably sold to a medical research lab by his owner in 1982.  In the name of “science,” he was infected with, among other things, the Hepatitis-C virus.

ABC documented Dr. Fouts’ reunion, after a 16-year separation, with Booee, who was then forlorn and isolated in a small, barren lab cage. Would Booee remember his old friend and mentor and the communication they had shared?  As Fouts entered the lab and called out and signed to Booee, the chimp joyfully recognized Fouts, signed Fouts’ name and easily communicated and engaged in the games the pals used to play together. Booee reached out of his cage to kiss and touch Fouts.

When it came time to say goodbye, Fouts sadly noted Booee’s heartbreaking acceptance of his friend’s departure. The chimp continued to sign as Fouts waved and signed good-bye.  You can watch a repeat of this emotionally devastating broadcast @  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C0T8ozlxqJI

I was not the only viewer that night who was overwhelmed by this gut-wrenching reunion and its disturbing implications. I immediately wrote to ABC News to find out how I could help Booee. I was not alone. The episode drew unprecedented response and was subsequently updated with a report on Booee’s status.  The moral outcry incited by this ABC News coverage led to Booee’s retirement from medical research. But because he had been infected with Hepatitis-C, Booee could not be returned to Fouts.  The chimp was released into a sanctuary in California where he could live out his life in a healthier environment.

Dr. Jane Goodall receives a spontaneous goodbye embrace from Wounda, once a traumatized orphaned chimp, now grown-up, healthy and about to be released back into the wild. From NATURE: ANIMAL REUNIONS. Photo courtesy of Tigress Productions.

It’s apparent, as witnessed in the remarkable human-animal reunions documented on PBS in Nature: Animal Reunions, that animal researchers and conservationists have made great strides in the quarter century since that ABC News 20/20 episode aired. They have ably added to our understanding of interspecies communication, respect for animal emotions and feelings, and acknowledged the positive bond that can grow between wild animals and their responsible human caregivers.

Animal Reunions recalls, in riveting fashion, more recent examples of how Great Apes, like chimpanzees and gorillas, as well as elephants and even cheetahs have formed lasting bonds with caring human beings.  The animal rights champions profiled include Dr. Jane Goodall, wild animal conservationist Damian Aspinall, chimp veterinarian Dr. Rebeca Atencia, wild animal photographer Kim Wolhuter, and elephant rehabilitator Edwin Lusichi.

The hour-long film narrated by actor Richard Thomas focuses especially on the years following the restorative rehabilitation of orphaned, traumatized and/or captive-born animals and their release back into the wild… and how they never forget and continue to cherish their human saviors.  It’s a must-see for anyone who respects the well-being of animals, wild or domesticated, and the depth of their emotional core.

Head Keeper Edwin Lusichi with once-traumatized orphan elephant Lempaute, as the pals reunite after the elephant’s reintroduction into the wild at Tsavo East National Park, Kenya. Lusichi recalls his tender relationships with elephants under his care in NATURE: ANIMAL REUNIONS. Photo courtesy Tigress Productions.

This evergreen episode in the award-winning PBS series, NATURE, executive produced by Fred Kaufman, is a Tigress Production for ITV in co-production with THIRTEEN Productions LLC for WNET.

Animal Reunions will be rebroadcast tonight on PBS, Wednesday, January 1, 2020, 8:00 – 9:00 p.m. ET. (Check local listings for air times in your region and  http://www.pbs.org/nature and the PBS Video app for streaming and DVD availability.)  I encourage you to watch with an open heart and a box of Kleenex within easy reach! And make 2020 the year you advocate for the rights and protection of animals in the wild and the preservation of their natural habitats! –Judith Trojan

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The Ricardos and the Mertzes Together Again for Christmas @CBS

In PARIS AT LAST!, the newly colorized, 1956 episode of the I LOVE LUCY SHOW, Lucy Ricardo (Lucille Ball) dials down her passion for Paris when forced to swallow a plate of snails and pay for the privilege with a wad of counterfeit cash. Photo: CBS ©2019 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

In PARIS AT LAST!, the newly colorized, 1956 episode of the I LOVE LUCY SHOW, Lucy Ricardo (Lucille Ball) dials down her passion for Paris when forced to swallow a plate of snails and pay for the privilege with a wad of counterfeit cash. Photo: CBS ©2019 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Lucy Ricardo on the streets of Paris? What could go wrong?  Thankfully, a lot… and just in case you’ve had your fill of the pre-holiday rat race, you’ll have ample opportunity to trade your seasonal belly aches for belly laughs when you join the Ricardos and the Mertzes in Paris at Last!

Originally broadcast on CBS in black and white on February 27, 1956, Paris at Last! is the latest classic I Love Lucy episode to be colorized and piggybacked with the rediscovered Christmas Episode, as part of CBS-TV’s annual I Love Lucy Christmas Special. This year’s hour-long Lucy Special will be broadcast on CBS tonight, Friday, December 20, 2019, from 8:00 – 9:00 p.m. ET/PT. Don’t miss it!

Surprisingly, Lucy Ricardo’s passion for Paris comes close to matching her zeal for Los Angeles… only this time, she’s not stalking her favorite Hollywood stars or conniving her way into the limelight as a singer, dancer or film actress.  She’s enraptured by the City of Light and is itching to hit the streets, soak up local culture and sample its culinary delights.  Escargot to go?  Lucy has a steep learning curve.

Lucy, Ricky, Fred and Ethel try to talk their way out of hard labor after they're arrested for passing counterfeit cash in PARIS AT LAST! The newly colorized episode of the I LOVE LUCY CHRISTMAS SPECIAL debuts on CBS. Photo: CBS ©2019 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Lucy, Ricky, Fred and Ethel try to talk their way out of hard labor after they’re arrested for passing counterfeit cash in PARIS AT LAST! The newly colorized episode of the I LOVE LUCY CHRISTMAS SPECIAL debuts on CBS. Photo: CBS ©2019 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Laugh out loud lately? I’m guessing not so much.  But I promise you will laugh… and laugh hard as you catch Lucy’s riotous contretemps over a plate of Parisian snails–“Maybe if I had some ketchup?”–and their prickly chef, as well as her gullible missteps with a con man who offers a better exchange rate for her cash and the shifty street artist who sells her faux instead of fine art. Every parlez-vous points Lucy and, by association, her husband Ricky and their pals, the Mertzes, in the same direction… to jail.

Will Lucy, Ricky, Fred and Ethel dodge the Bastille?  Only if they can plead their case to the French-speaking gendarmes. Hilarity ensues as Lucy’s innocent tourist faux pas are translated from English into Spanish, French, German and back again by a zany crew of recruits. This vaudevillian roundelay never gets old.  I still laugh when I see its hysterical reincarnation in a much repeated episode of Frasier.  However, nothing beats the original I Love Lucy version choreographed to perfection in Paris at Last! 

Who's the guy with the beard? Lucy and Santa share the spotlight in the annual I LOVE LUCY CHRISTMAS SPECIAL broadcast on CBS. Photo ©2017 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Who’s the guy with the beard? Lucy and Santa share the spotlight in the annual I LOVE LUCY CHRISTMAS SPECIAL broadcast on CBS. Photo ©2017 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Originally thought to be “lost,” the December 1956 Christmas Episode is a nostalgic Christmas eve visit to the Ricardos’ Manhattan apartment where Lucy and Ricky trim their tree and set out gifts to surprise Little Ricky, their Santa-obsessed five-year-old. Without missing a beat, Ricky and Lucy concoct a whimsical timeline for Santa to deflect their son’s questions and insistence on remaining awake to greet him fireside.

Fred and Ethel Mertz join the fun as Lucy and Ricky wistfully recall Lucy’s unexpected pregnancy announcement at Ricky’s nightclub, and Ricky, Fred and Ethel’s subsequent clumsy effort, months later, to get Lucy to the delivery room on time. Welcome colorized flashbacks are intercut from these classic episodes.  The latter, still hilarious after all these years, continues to serve as the classic benchmark for all TV sit-com “birthing” episodes that followed.

The benchmark I LOVE LUCY birthing episode is now colorized and revisited in the I LOVE LUCY CHRISTMAS SPECIAL on CBS.

The benchmark I LOVE LUCY birthing episode is now colorized and revisited in the I LOVE LUCY CHRISTMAS SPECIAL on CBS.

Finally, in a musical interlude, Lucy’s attempt to sing “Jingle Bells” reminds Ricky and the Mertzes of the time tone-deaf Lucy crashed their barbershop quartet with disastrous results.  A flashback of their sabotaged performance is included.

You can read my original thoughts about colorization in a previous I Love Lucy Christmas Special post, but I’m happy to report that the colorization team continues to work their magic on the I Love Lucy episodes broadcast annually on CBS during the holidays without compromising the show visually or sacrificing its period charm. You can read my reviews of past I Love Lucy Christmas Specials at http://www.judithtrojan.com/2018/12/14 and   http://www.judithtrojan.com/2016/12/02  and http://www.judithtrojan.com/2015/12/23 and http://www.judithtrojan.com/2014/12/07

This year’s annual I Love Lucy Christmas Special will be broadcast on CBS tonight, Friday, December 20, 2019, 8:00 – 9:00 p.m. ET/PT. (Also check OnDemand, Netflix, and DVD for availability of vintage I Love Lucy episodes.)  Happy Holidays! –Judith Trojan

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Very Ralph Makes Its Stylish Debut on HBO

HBO’s VERY RALPH explores the genesis of designer Ralph Lauren’s brand and cultural impact. Photo: Les Goldberg, courtesy Ralph Lauren.

“I hate fashion. But I had the eye.”Ralph Lauren.

During the Sixties, when most of us were sporting tie-dye shirts and hanging peace symbols around our necks, young Ralph Lifshitz from the Bronx yearned for wider ties and special cut collars on his shirts.  Dubbed a “future millionaire” by his high school cronies, the snappy dresser styled and later custom tailored his wardrobe to match that of his favorite Hollywood stars–Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper and, most notably, Fred Astaire and Cary Grant.

By  1964, Ralph Lifshitz had fine-tuned the cut and provenance of the clothes and accoutrement he would wear, design and curate in order to manifest the lifestyle he aspired to. With his eyes on the prize, he started simply… with ties…then shirts, Menswear, Women’s Wear and home goods.  It was not long before American dreamer Ralph Lifshitz transformed into Ralph Lauren, a lifestyle designer driving vintage automobiles and a multi-billion-dollar global brand.

Man-about-town Ralph Lauren enjoying life in his fifties in one of his classic cars. Photo: Les Goldberg, courtesy HBO.

Man-about-town Ralph Lauren enjoying life in his fifties in one of his classic cars. Photo: Les Goldberg, courtesy HBO.

“Even as a young man, I had a story,” recalls Ralph Lauren in Susan Lacy’s new feature-length documentary, Very Ralph premiering on HBO tonight, Tuesday, November 12, 2019, 9:00 – 10:50 p.m. ET/PT. (Check listings for additional HBO play dates and availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand and partners’ streaming platforms.)

Susan Lacy, the Emmy®-Award winning creator and former executive producer of the PBS American Masters series, is now based at HBO where she has, in short order, produced and directed a stunning profile of Oscar®-winning activist Jane Fonda in Five Acts, and an intimate portrait of film director Steven Spielberg. (Both reviewed here in FrontRowCenter.)

In Very Ralph, Lacy’s latest film for HBO, she turns her camera on 80-year-old fashion icon Ralph Lauren, who, it seems, is a credibly contented family man approaching his sixth decade in business with very few skeletons in his closet. He admits to never going to fashion design school; and he does not draw or sketch designs but creates (styles and builds) his fashion and lifestyle collections collectively with his dedicated staff by this side.

With the big picture in mind, he orchestrates the backstory, clothing and product design, and marketing scenario for his collections much the way a film director, veteran film producer, costume or set designer approaches the making of a film. Lauren’s unorthodox road to success in the fashion design industry and the American cultural landscape piggybacks his artistic vision and business savvy into  classic lines of clothing and home furnishings that continually  refresh his iconic American brand.

Ralph Lauren chills with his sons, Andrew and David, at his beloved family hideaway in Amagansett, circa 1972. Photo courtesy HBO.

Ralph Lauren chills with his sons, Andrew and David, at his beloved family hideaway in Amagansett, circa 1972. Photo courtesy HBO.

Although Very Ralph is sketchy about the obstacles young Ralph Lifshitz faced as he climbed the ladder of success–from wide ties in the USA to Knighthood in the U.K.–the film does have a lot to say about Love. Ralph Lauren is admittedly a man in love…not only with American culture and the opportunities it has afforded for his unique manner of artistic expression, but also with his gorgeous wife and muse of 55 years, Ricky; with his parents, siblings and his three kids; his dedicated staff; and the comfort and amenities that his stylishly curated homes, home office and flagship store in Manhattan have to offer.

And, it seems, Ralph Lauren’s affection for family, friends and colleagues is amply reciprocated.  In Very Ralph, director Susan Lacy makes good use of her talent for amassing an articulate roster of notables to help tell Lauren’s story. The film is papered with reflections from family members and colleagues from fields of design (Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Karl Lagerfeld); publishing (Tina Brown); photography (Bruce Weber); fashion (Anna Wintour, André Leon Talley); home furnishings (Martha Stewart); and filmmaking (Joel Schumacher).  Models Naomi Campbell and Tyson Beckford celebrate Ralph Lauren as an early champion of diversity on the runway. And then there are the outliers like Woody Allen (a fan of Lauren’s corduroy pants); documentarian Ken Burns (who finds common ground in Lauren’s evocation of America’s heritage); and Hillary Clinton.

Ralph Lauren, formerly Ralph Lifshitz, as seen in Susan Lacy's VERY RALPH. Photo: Les Goldberg, courtesy HBO.

Ralph Lauren, formerly Ralph Lifshitz, as seen in Susan Lacy’s VERY RALPH. Photo: Les Goldberg, courtesy HBO.

Very Ralph will have a long shelf life in college and university classes focusing on Fashion Design and Marketing, as well as American Studies.  And if you regularly wear POLO RALPH LAUREN Menswear or sleep with Ralph Lauren’s HOME bedding collection, the film will give you more than enough incentive to continue supporting and buying his brand.

Executive Produced by Graydon Carter for HBO Documentary Films and Pentimento Productions, Very Ralph debuts on HBO tonight, Tuesday, November 12, 2019, 9:00 – 10:50 p.m. ET/PT. (Check listings for additional HBO play dates in the days and weeks ahead and its availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand and partners’ streaming platforms.)–Judith Trojan

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Buckle Up for Saudi Women’s Driving School on HBO

“I am used to sitting behind the driver in the back seat.”Sarah Saleh.

Sarah Saleh spent 10 years working the phones in the back office of a Saudi car dealership in the capital city of Riyadh. Now she’s posted out front in the showroom, greeting customers and making deals as a saleswoman. Her clientele?  Saudi women, just like herself, whose dreams of obtaining a license, buying a car and driving legally in Saudi Arabia have finally come true.

Gender equality has always been a slippery slope in Saudi Arabia. Brave Saudi women have been jailed and denounced as traitors if caught driving or protesting the female driving ban, the only such ban in the world. Others continue to be jailed for questioning the choke hold placed upon their lives by the time-honored dictates of male guardianship.

Sarah Saleh earned her coveted driver's license at the female owned and operated SAUDI WOMEN'S DRIVING SCHOOL. Photo courtesy HBO.

Sarah Saleh earned her coveted driver’s license at the female owned and operated SAUDI WOMEN’S DRIVING SCHOOL. Photo courtesy HBO.

The tide turned in September 2017 when Saudi King Salman announced that he would lift the ban on female drivers to take effect in June 2018. The back story and repercussions of this monumental “royal decree” are beautifully explored in Saudi Women’s Driving School, an hour-long documentary by director Erica Gornall, who somehow managed to bypass long-standing Saudi restrictions on foreign filmmakers and gain unprecedented access to her subjects at home, at work and on the road.

Saudi Women’s Driving School debuts on HBO tonight, Thursday, October 24, 2019, 9:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET/PT. (Check listings for additional HBO play dates and availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand and partners’ streaming platforms.)

Seven hundred instructors and 250 cars await eager female-only students in the SAUDI WOMEN'S DRIVING SCHOOL, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Photo courtesy HBO.

Seven hundred instructors and 250 cars await eager female-only students in the SAUDI WOMEN’S DRIVING SCHOOL, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Photo courtesy HBO.

Rarely has the refrain “less is more” been better realized than in Saudi Women’s Driving School. In a mere 60 minutes, the film paints an engrossing, clear-eyed picture of the challenges faced historically by Saudi women and the ways its resilient and highly educated female population attempt to circumvent and resolve the challenges they have faced in their misogynist society, including those incited by their license to drive.

The film interweaves its title focus on the world’s largest driving school (700 instructors and 250 cars situated on a massive, state-of-the-art campus) with the story of three articulate young Saudi women whose drivers’ licenses have opened doors they never could have imagined.

New car saleswoman Sarah Saleh sets her sights on owning a Ford Taurus as she nervously takes her first driving lesson, masters tricky roundabouts and tests to become a fully licensed driver.  We drive along with Uber driver Shahad al-Humaizi as she squires male patrons to their destinations, all the while plying them with pointed questions about their acceptance of female Uber drivers.  And feisty young engineering student and part-time race car driver Amjad Al-Amri recalls her lifelong dream to race, her passion to compete and goal to win a world championship.

Competitive race car driver Amjad Al-Amri, featured in SAUDI WOMEN'S DRIVING SCHOOL, has her sights set on winning a world championship. Photo courtesy HBO.

Competitive race car driver Amjad Al-Amri, featured in SAUDI WOMEN’S DRIVING SCHOOL, has her sights set on winning a world championship. Photo courtesy HBO.

It would seem, by most standards, that these young women, as legal new drivers, have realistic, easily achievable goals. Not so and not quite yet, clarifies historian Madawi al-Rasheed, who shines a light on the basic freedoms we all take for granted that are still not shared by Saudi women in their autocratic, patriarchal culture.  The driving ban is just the tip of the iceberg that young Saudi women are clearly eager to melt.

I encourage you to watch Saudi Women’s Driving School not only as a reminder of how much we, as Americans, have to be thankful for, but also as an incentive to acknowledge the brave women who fought historically for suffrage and reproductive rights and against slavery on our shores, and those women who continue to fight the good fight internationally against political, racial and sexual tyranny, as well as environmental decimation.

Saudi Women’s Driving School, directed by Erica Gornall and produced by Nick London, is subtitled and debuts on HBO tonight, Thursday, October 24, 2019, 9:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET/PT. (Check listings for additional HBO play dates and availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand and partners’ streaming platforms.) —Judith Trojan 

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