Lawrence Wascher: A Rare, Personal Look at Oliver Sacks’s Early Career

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The world was saddened to learn of neurologist and best-selling author Oliver Sacks’s terminal illness through a recent op-ed. With Sacks’s new autobiography out this month, Lawrence Weschler shares early stories and diary entries about Sacks, his close friend, before Sacks achieved worldwide fame.

 writes: This past February 19, fans and friends of Oliver Sacks learned, by way of an article he published in The New York Times, that the great neurologist and medical chronicler had terminal cancer. “Nine years ago,” he explained, “it was discovered that I had a rare tumor of the eye, an ocular melanoma. The radiation and lasering to remove the tumor ultimately left me blind in that eye. But though ocular melanomas metastasize in perhaps 50 percent of cases, given the particulars of my own case, the likelihood was much smaller. I am among the unlucky ones.”I have been both a longtime fan and a longtime friend of Sacks’s—and, what is more, had once, for a period of four years several decades ago, been his impending biographer. Back in those days, in the early 1980s—some years after the publication of his not yet celebrated masterpiece Awakenings and just before the spate of books, beginning with The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, that would bring him fame—Oliver was something of a recluse, living alone in a modest clapboard house out on City Island, in the Bronx, commuting each day to his medical rounds at the state hospitals and nursing homes that constituted his principal employers. Back then, he had relatively few friends and was regularly available for the frequent meals and forays that came to constitute the early days of our friendship.I had originally written him a letter, sometime in the late 70s, from my California home. Somehow back in college I had come upon Awakenings, published in 1973, an account of his work with a group of patients who had been warehoused for decades in a home for the incurable—they were “human statues,” locked in trance-like states of near-infinite remove following bouts of a now rare form of encephalitis. Some had been in this condition since the mid-1920s. These people were suddenly brought back to life by Sacks, in 1969, following his administration of the then new “wonder drug” L-dopa, and Sacks described their spring-like awakenings and the harrowing siege of tribulations that followed. In the book, Sacks gave the facility where all this happened the pseudonym “Mount Carmel,” an apparent reference to Saint John of the Cross and his Dark Night of the Soul. But, as I wrote to Sacks in that first letter, his book seemed to me much more Jewish and Kabbalistic than Christian mystical. Was I wrong?
Oliver Sacks, medical storyteller extraordinaire, in Manhattan on the edge of the Hudson, 1990. By Ken Shung/MPTVImages.com.

Oliver Sacks, medical storyteller extraordinaire, in Manhattan on the edge of the Hudson, 1990. By Ken Shung/MPTVImages.com.

He responded with a hand-pecked typed letter of a good dozen pages, to the effect that, indeed, the old people’s home in question, in the Bronx, was actually named Beth Abraham; that he himself came from a large and teeming London-based Jewish family; that one of his cousins was in fact the eminent Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban (another, as I would later learn, was Al Capp, of Li’l Abner fame); and that his principal intellectual hero and mentor-at-a-distance, whose influence could be sensed on every page of Awakenings, had been the great Soviet neuropsychologist A. R. Luria, who was likely descended from Isaac Luria, the 16th-century Jewish mystic.

Our correspondence proceeded from there, and when, a few years later, I moved from Los Angeles to New York, I began venturing out to Oliver’s haunts on City Island. Or he would join me for far-flung walkabouts in Manhattan. The successive revelations about his life that made up the better part of our conversations grew ever more intriguing: how both his parents had been doctors and his mother one of the first female surgeons in England; how, during the Second World War, with both his parents consumed by medical duties that began with the Battle of Britain, he, at age eight, had been sent with an older brother, Michael, to a hellhole of a boarding school in the countryside, run by “a headmaster who was an obsessive flagellist, with an unholy bitch for a wife and a 16-year-old daughter who was a pathological snitch”; and how—though his brother emerged shattered by the experience, and to that day lived with his father—he, Oliver, had managed to put himself back together through an ardent love of the periodic table, a version of which he had come upon at the Natural History Museum at South Kensington, and by way of marine-biology classes at St. Paul’s School, which he attended alongside such close lifetime friends as the neurologist and director Jonathan Miller and the exuberant polymath Eric Korn. Oliver described how he gradually became aware of his homosexuality, a fact that, to put it mildly, he did not accept with ease; and how, following college and medical school, he had fled censorious England, first to Canada and then to residencies in San Francisco and Los Angeles, where in his spare hours he made a series of sexual breakthroughs, indulged in staggering bouts of pharmacological experimentation, underwent a fierce regimen of bodybuilding at Muscle Beach (for a time he held a California record, after he performed a full squat with 600 pounds across his shoulders), and racked up more than 100,000 leather-clad miles on his motorcycle. And then one day he gave it all up—the drugs, the sex, the motorcycles, the bodybuilding. By the time we started talking, he had been pretty much celibate for almost two decades.

[Read the full story here, at Vanity Fair]

Early on, Oliver had agreed to let me write his biography, and I began filling what would become 14 notebooks of accounts of our meetings and conversations. Much of our time consisted of his telling me ever more (to his mind) scandalous tales in the hopes that I, too, might finally concur in his estimation that his homosexuality was a terrible blight, a disfiguring canker on his character, which I just as regularly refused to do. He would not be assuaged. Midway through the process, he began to have second thoughts about our whole biographical project. Was there any way that I could tell his story without the homosexual stuff? Alas, there wasn’t.
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THE PANTSUIT REPORT: Vanity Fair Cover

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THE GREATEST STRUGGLE OF OUR TIME

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 :

…It was after O’Donnell finished her last show in early February that she received what an O’Donnell ally calls a “vicious and heinous” e-mail from Shepard-Brookman. The producer denied leaking to the press, and then, according to people who have seen the e-mail, went on to tell O’Donnell that if she had leaked anything to the press it would have been a litany of transgressions by O’Donnell. Shepard-Brookman was suspended, and two weeks later, she was fired. The e-mail, her supporters suggest, was used as a foil by ABC to finally get rid of the most senior member of the old guard at the show. ABC denies this. “You could have read the e-mail as a threat,” says one ABC executive, who says it was “totally unprofessional.” “Well,” says a high-level show insider, “it may have been unprofessional, but it wasn’t untrue.”

Shepard-Brookman’s attorney would not comment.

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The Irony and the Ecstasy: Why Vanity Fair Should Be Viewed as a Complete Failure

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Amy Poehler Takes the Proust Questionnaire

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What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

– A good nap and a full house.

What is your greatest fear? 

– That I take this questionnaire too seriously and reveal my crimes and misdemeanors, or I treat this questionnaire too flippantly and bring shame to the House of Proust.

Which historical figure do you most identify with?

–  Cap’n Crunch.

Which living person do you most admire?

– Beyoncé/Beyoncé’s hair person.

What is your greatest extravagance? 

– Baby tuxedos, caviar pajamas, coal-powered private jets.

What is your motto? 

– “Yes please.”

Read more here

Illustration by Risko. 


Eye Candy: Eva Green on Sin City 2 Poster Controversy: ‘A Lot of Noise for Nothing’

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LOS ANGELES, June 6 (UPI)–Actress Eva Green said the MPAA ban of her sexy poster for Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is “a lot of noise for nothing.”

“I find it really sexy, actually. It’s kind of beautiful. But if it shocks people, I don’t know what to do about it. I don’t want to upset anybody…”

The Motion Picture Association of America rejected the poster of the actress, clad only a white dressing gown, that reveals her full silhouette beneath.

“…You have so many more violent things in the movie business and this is kind of soft. I’m not naked. It’s suggested.”

— Actress Eva Green

The MPAA denied the movie poster of character Ava Lord due to nudity, saying the “curve of under breast and dark nipple/areola circle visible through sheer gown” as grounds for rejection.

Green told Vanity Fair she didn’t see what all the fuss was about.

“Oh, my God, I heard about that,” she said of the rejection. Read the rest of this entry »


Chasing Pulitzers Has Ruined American Journalists. That’s Why They’re Edited by Brits

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Pulitzer Prizes winners proudly displayed in the New York Times building Photo: Getty

For The SpectatorToby Young writes: I was interested to read a story by Michael Wolff in USA Today saying that Graydon Carter may be about to step down as editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair. Carter has been at the helm for 22 years and was my boss during the three years I spent there between 1995 and 1998. According to Wolff, himself a columnist at the magazine, the runners and riders to take over are nearly all British.

“Our Yankee counterparts preen about, congratulating themselves on upholding the highest ideals of the fourth estate, whereas we focus on the bottom line and pride ourselves on keeping our papers afloat.”

Wolff thinks this is mainly because power within Condé Nast, the publishing company that owns Vanity Fair, has shifted from New York and towards London, home of Condé Nast International, a subsidiary that is now more profitable than the mother ship. No doubt there’s something in that, but the bigger reason must surely be because British journalists are so much better than their American counterparts.

“we also have an unerring nose for what will pique a reader’s interest, what we call ‘news sense’, and it’s this that makes us the best journalists in the world.”

You can get a sense of what American journalists’ priorities are from looking at a 96-page report that the New York Times has just produced about… the New York Times. I’m not talking about the words, obviously, which are far too boring to read, but the pictures. On page three of the report, there’s a photograph of the paper’s top brass gathered around a computer terminal, having just discovered that the Grey Lady has won yet another Pulitzer prize. The staff are gathered around them on the stairs — hundreds of them — and one of the editors is looking up and humbly applauding them: ‘Well done, folks. You knocked it out of the park… again.’

“Not ‘the best’ as in the most worthy of praise — we leave that to our American cousins — but ‘the best’ when it comes to spotting stories.”

That’s what most American journalists care about — winning prizes that affirm just what noble tribunes of democracy they are. In Britain, we have less lofty ambitions. For us, it’s all about selling newspapers and — pathetic hacks that we are — producing stories that people actually want to read. Read the rest of this entry »


Ruth Marcus: Monica Lewinsky Does Hillary Clinton a Big Favor

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For The Washington Post, Ruth Marcus writes:

…Lewinsky, who alone among the protagonists in the national soap opera saw her life irreparably shattered. Bill and Hillary made millions on the speaking circuit. Lewinsky, she writes for the June issue of Vanity Fair, “turned down offers that would have earned me more than $10 million, because they didn’t feel like the right thing to do.”

Despite a master’s degree in social psychology from the London School of Economics, Lewinsky has never really held a steady job…

Still, 16 years after the scandal broke, she is recognized nearly every day. Now 40, she has never married. Read the rest of this entry »


Hillary’s Lament

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Woody Allen: ‘If Ronan Farrow Is Frank Sinatra’s Son, Mia Farrow Lied Under Oath’

ronan Farrow Mia FarrowMary Chastain  reports:  Director Woody Allen said his only biological son may very well be the son of Frank Sinatra. If it is true Allen claims ex-love  Mia Farrow lied under oath just to receive child support.

I pause here for a quick word on the Ronan situation. Is he my son or, as Mia suggests, Frank Sinatra’s? Granted, he looks a lot like Frank with the blue eyes and facial features, but if so what does this say? That all during the custody hearing Mia lied under oath and falsely represented Ronan as our son? Even if he is not Frank’s, the possibility she raises that he could be, indicates she was secretly intimate with him during our years. Not to mention all the money I paid for child support. Was I supporting Frank’s son? Again, I want to call attention to the integrity and honesty of a person who conducts her life like that.

He addressed the issue in The New York Times op-ed he published to dispel claims by his adoptive daughter Dylan Farrow that he sexually abused her when she was seven-years-old. He uses the Ronan situation as evidence he did not abuse Dylan because Farrow cannot be trusted. He mentioned the Yale New Haven Hospital case, which said Farrow coached Dylan and brainwashed her into believing Allen molested her.

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George W. Bush is a Hipster Icon now and Vanity Fair is Angry about it

President George W. Bush embraces firefighter Bob Beckwith while standing in front of the collapsed World Trade Center

President George W. Bush embraces firefighter Bob Beckwith while standing in front of the collapsed World Trade Center

Emily  writes:  Apparently, the kids these days just think George W. Bush is the bee’s knees. He paints, he loves cats, he’s awesome at the Internet, he writes consoling letters to football kickers who lose important match-ups for their teams and he takes selfies with Bono at major world leaders’ memorial services. And the hipsters are falling as hard for GWB as they did for PBR and Beats by Dre.

Vanity Fair, the sophisticated glossy tome of old Hollywood whose most recent achievement was a near-defamatory observation of Gwyneth Paltrow’s lack of reality in selecting cooking utensils, is old enough to remember when you young whipper-snappers were all “Bush sucks!” and showing up at high school anti-Bush rallies with all manner of creative slogan apparel and diagnosing his apparently impaired cognitive ability in Huffington Post puff pieces. But now that he’s stumbled into something of an image revival, they would like you to please get your George W. Bush limited edition self-portrait lithograph off their front lawn.

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Out in the Cold: Vanity Fair Turns on The Messiah’s ‘Closed-Off Attitude”

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The Lonely Guy

He’s a community organizer who works alone. What was once his greatest strength—he kept his cool and didn’t need feedback—is now a liability

Todd S. Purdum writes:  When Barack Obama arrived in Washington almost five years ago, the universal assumption was that the young president—who had, after all, won office by exploiting every connective tool of the national social and electoral network—would run his White House in sharp contrast to the bunkered, hunkered-down George W. Bush.

Like so much conventional wisdom, that impression has proved dead wrong. In fact, Obama’s resolute solitude—his isolation and alienation from the other players and power centers of Washington, be they rivals or friends—has emerged as the defining trait of his time in office. He may be the biggest presidential paradox since Thomas Jefferson, the slaveholder who wrote the Declaration of Independence: a community organizer who works alone.

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