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Walter Cronkite in 1991 (Washington Post photo)

Walter Cronkite in 1991 (Washington Post photo)

Today I’m thinking about how, back in the summer of 1992, I had a phone conversation with Walter Cronkite.

The occasion was a High Profile cover for The Dallas Morning News, a story about author James A. Michener, then 85 years old. I had spent an amazing day with the hospitable Mr. Michener — just the two of us, talking, having lunch at a local Chinese restaurant, then talking some more — at his summer home in Brunswick, Maine.

By the time I went home, I had a list of his friends and associates I wanted to chat with. And the one I was most eager to contact was Mr. Cronkite, then 75 and still busy as ever, though retired from the CBS News anchor chair for 11 years.

Over the 10 years I was a High Profile reporter, I often placed such phone calls to secondary sources who were as famous as, or even more famous than, the people I was profiling. Cesar Chavez, Lady Bird Johnson, Dan Rather, Ross Perot, Lloyd Bentsen, Barbara Walters, Franco Zeffirelli, Dame Joan Sutherland — ordinary folks like that. There were only a few times when I was a little nervous about making those calls.

The call to Mr. Cronkite was one of those times.

I mean, this was Walter Cronkite. How many times had I watched him on our family’s TV set as that deep, reassuring voice informed me about the tragedies and triumphs of the 1960s and ’70s? How often had I heard him introduce himself: “This is Walter Cronkite…”? Or sign off with, “And that’s the way it is…”?

Thousands of times, surely, over some three decades. I probably knew that voice as well as I knew my own father’s.

So yes, I was nervous. But I called his office at CBS and left a message for him. And a few days later, my phone rang, and that unmistakable voice informed me: “This is Walter Cronkite.”

So hypnotized was I that I had a little trouble remembering to scribble my notes. But he was kind and patient, and we talked for 10 or 15 minutes, mostly about Mr. Michener and their friendship. Among other things, he told me that his favorite Michener book was Chesapeake.

In the story I wrote (published on Aug. 16, 1992) I ended up using an anecdote about one of their adventures aboard Mr. Cronkite’s beloved sailboat, the Wyntje:

“One time when we went sailing on Chesapeake Bay, we picked Jim up in Oxford, Maryland. We were sailing to Annapolis, and it got nasty out there. Jim was getting pretty wet, and I was worried about him, so I asked if he’d like to go below. But he wouldn’t.

“Eventually the storm passed, and I told Jim that it was lovely of him to insist on staying with me.

“He said, “Walter, I couldn’t afford not to stay on deck. The State of Maryland just made me an honorary Admiral of the Chesapeake. How would it be if they heard I went below in a storm?’ “

I went home that day and told our then-13-year-old daughter (who had met Mr. Michener on our Maine trip): “Guess who I talked to today for my Michener profile?”


“Walter Cronkite!”

“Wow!” Pause. Puzzled look on her face. “Who’s Walter Cronkite?”

I then realized that Mr. Cronkite had retired from the anchor desk when she was only two years old. “He used to be the anchorman on CBS,” I told her. “He’s really iconic, really famous and respected among journalists. Well, among everyone who’s a grownup, really. I can’t believe I got to talk with him!”

All these years later, our daughter is now 30, married and the mother of two small children. I know that Walter Cronkite will never mean to her what he meant to my generation, or to her grandparents’. She’ll never think of any news anchor as “iconic,” really. The communications world has changed so radically that there will never be another news figure with the kind of respect, authority and clout that Mr. Cronkite had.

He was a serious journalist, a real newsman. He did his job well, he loved his work, and he helped to change the world and make it a better place. That’s the best way any journalist can hope to be remembered.

Home is the sailor, home from the sea. Godspeed, Uncle Walter.

Harry Potter & The Half-Blood Prince

Harry Potter & The Half-Blood Prince

Thanks to a media preview screening, I’ve already seen Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, which officially opens with midnight showings on Wednesday.

It’s safe to say this film is highly anticipated: Across the lobby, fans already were queueing up for another screening five hours later, at 7 p.m., one of those first-come-first-seated promotional showings. And to be honest, they’ve really been waiting longer than that; the new HBP movie’s opening date got pushed back from last fall. So hardcore Potterheads have had about nine months to crank up their squee levels.

hp6intposter1Number six in the series is the darkest yet, as the boy wizard’s fan base surely knows. It pays a good deal of attention to certain key aspects of the J.K. Rowling book, while other parts of the original story, as always, must fall by the wayside — even with a running time of two and a half hours, something’s gotta go.

Overall, I felt this sixth film compares favorably with the three more recent entries in the series. (The first and second installments of Harry Potter, directed by Chris Columbus, were huge box-office successes — but were blown away artistically by No. 3, Alfonso Cuaron’s critically acclaimed The Prisoner of Azkaban, which set the standard for all Potter movies thereafter.)

What will Rowling purists quickly spot as hits and misses in Half-Blood Prince?

Draco in HBP

My major complaint is that I’d have loved to see the book’s opening chapter dramatized. That chapter, “The Other Minister,” discusses a series of disasters in the Muggle world, which are really caused by rampaging Death Eaters, followers of the wizarding world’s evil Lord Voldemort. I was hoping for a couple of scenes with the Muggle Prime Minister (who simply would have to have been played by Michael Sheen, Tony Blair’s cinematic alter ego) and the new Minister of Magic, Rufus Scrimgeour (who will be played in the next Potter film by Bill Nighy).

However, screenwriter Steve Kloves (back after a hiatus from Order of the Phoenix) and director David Yates (returning for his second Potter film in a row) chose to show us, rather than tell about, one of the disasters: a new bridge that inexplicably collapses in a freak storm, thanks to Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter) and a couple of other Death Eaters, the creepy Carrow siblings.

Slughorn in HBP

And instead of giving us scenes from the hilarious chapter with Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore retrieving Harry from the Dursleys’ home, we get Harry in a railway coffee shop, flirting awkwardly with a comely young waitress before Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) whisks him off to persuade Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent) to return to Hogwarts as the new Potions professor.

Another big departure: After Harry is deposited at the Weasleys’ home, The Burrow, a fiery Death Eater attack makes it clear that no place is safe. In the book series, a similar attack happens at a Weasley family wedding. But that event happens not in Book 6, but early in Book 7, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. So it seems safe to assume the wedding’s not going to happen in the film series, because the bride and groom don’t show up in this movie at all. Neither does the surly house-elf Kreacher, although he’ll surely appear in the movie version of Book 7.

Lovers of Quidditch will be happy to see one last airborne match in this installment. And as in the book, teenage hormones rampage through much of the film, with “snogging” and humorous romantic situations to leaven the increasingly darker themes of death and loss.

Ginny and Harry in HBP

The leading trio of Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) are joined by Ginny Weasley (Bonnie Wright), Ron’s sister who has grown up to be Harry’s love interest, and who gets much more screen time in this film than in the previous ones.

Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch) is happily daft as ever, and the lovelorn Lavender Brown (Jessie Cave) is all over her “Won-Won.” There’s a wonderful set-piece with the Weasley twins, Fred and George (James and Oliver Phelps), in their amazing Diagon Alley joke shop.  Meanwhile, a solitary Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) lurks miserably about, determined to carry out his secret mission for Voldemort and restore his family’s lost honor.

Other Hogwarts teachers, such as Minerva McGonagall (Maggie Smith), Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) and Rubeus Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) get a few crucial scenes each, but I felt Snape in particular got short shrift in this film, considering his importance to the series. We never even see him teaching Defense Against the Dark Arts, formerly Harry’s favorite class at Hogwarts. (And has anyone else out there ever wondered what it would have been like if they’d cast Daniel Day-Lewis as Snape? He’s the only actor I can think of who just might have out-Snaped the amazing Rickman.)

Voldemort’s craven sidekick, Peter “Wormtail” Pettigrew (Timothy Spall), is fleetingly spotted in the “Spinner’s End” scene, which also introduces a badly miscast and horribly made-up Helen McCrory as Draco’s mum, Narcissa Malfoy. (Why, oh why didn’t they get Naomi Watts for that role?)

Frank Dillane

Frank Dillane

In his scenes as 11-year-old Tom Riddle, young Hero Fiennes-Tiffin (nephew of Ralph Fiennes, who plays Voldemort) holds his own with Gambon’s Dumbledore, projecting a youthful malevolence appropriate for the boy who will grow up to be the Dark Lord. It’s also worth noting that Riddle at age 16 is played by another scion of a British acting family: Frank Dillane, son of actor Stephen Dillane (who played Thomas Jefferson in HBO’s John Adams miniseries). The two young actors bear enough resemblance to each other that it becomes easy to believe this is the same boy at different ages.

When Harry and Dumbledore journey to the cave where Voldemort has hidden one of his Horcruxes — a personal relic containing a piece of his irretrievably damaged soul — Yates recreates the scene almost exactly as Rowling imagined it. And it is both dazzling and fearsomely scary. Even when you know exactly what’s coming, the moment when an Inferius grabs Harry is still enough to make you gasp.

It does not do to be too much of a purist with these movies; after all, watching a film is not the same experience as reading a book. But seeing what Yates can do with such a powerful scene makes me wish again that he’d had the chance to direct the first two films as well. There were so many moments in this new film where I was completely, happily absorbed in the story — never mind that I know the entire plot inside out. That’s the mark of an adroit director.

Fortunately, we know Yates is shooting the final two Potter movies. Deathly Hallows is already in production and will be released in two parts, in 2010 and 2011. With twice as many hours to tell the last story, even diehard fans may be satisfied that justice will be done to their beloved wizard’s saga.

As one of those annoying people who would rather read a good book than do just about anything else, including work for a living, I have finally found a way to make my obsession semi-respectable: I am anointing myself as a book blogger.

To celebrate, here is the first of what I hope will be a series of blog tours with interesting authors. (And muchas gracias to my baby sister, the blogger known as the Little Fluffy Cat, for recently educating me as to what a “blog tour” actually is.) I’ll continue to write about other subjects, too. But this venture promises to be fun for me, and I hope it will be for you, too.

With that in mind, let’s start the fun now.

Sarah Bird

Sarah Bird

My inaugural blog-tour Q&A is with award-winning Austin novelist Sarah Bird, the author of one of my all-time favorites, The Yokota Officers Club (Knopf). Her seventh and most recent novel, How Perfect Is That, has just been reissued in paperback (Pocket Books, $15). Sarah is a regular columnist for Texas Monthly, and she is also [full disclosure here] a personal friend.

Backstory: I profiled Sarah for The Dallas Morning News shortly after Yokota was published in 2001. We spent a 110-degree summer day toodling around Austin, hitting some of her personal landmarks such as the LBJ Library, the University of Texas, and Seneca House, the real-life Nueces Street co-op that was the setting for Sarah’s first comic novel, Alamo House.

How Perfect Is That

How Perfect Is That

Seneca House makes a major reappearance in How Perfect Is That, which The News called “a perfect, curl-up-with-a-margarita splash of summer fun…wickedly good.” Its heroine, if you can call her that, is Blythe Young, a trailer-trash Cinderella who married up — way up — into Austin society, snagging Henry “Trey” Biggs-Dix III, “a scion of one of America’s wealthiest dynasties.” But now the marriage is kaput and Blythe has been pre-nupped into poverty. She’s trying to maintain her social standing and make a living as a high-end caterer, and she’s failing miserably. How miserably? She can’t afford to get a Pap smear. And her plight gets worse, and skankier, and funnier, by the page.

Here’s the fabulous Sarah Bird, on How Perfect Is That and other writerly topics:

Now that How Perfect Is That is out in paperback, is it safe for you to reveal to us how its hardcover readers reacted to it? Was there a love-hate thing going on there?

Joyce, hello!  What a doll baby you are, in general, but in particular for allowing me to jump into your digital world like this.

It’s quite interesting for me to talk about a book that was published a year ago.  In that year, I’ve read all the reviews — I am definitely not one of those lofty writers who can hold themselves above the fray and ignore reviews — and had lots and lots of discussions about How Perfect Is That.

The one piece of the reaction to this book that is utterly different from any of my others is how stunningly polarized it is.  More than anything else I have ever written, How Perfect does seem to be a love-it or hate-it read.  This came across very dramatically for me in following the reviews on Amazon.  Until yesterday, I had no — none, zero — four- or three-star reviews.  All fives, twos and ones.   (Oh, Joyce, I don’t think I’ve ever gotten one star before, and reading those one- and two-starrers, I did wish I were an above-the-fray author who never bothered herself about such matters.)

This dramatic lack of middle ground has led me to two conclusions:  One, if a book is foisted upon a reader as a “comic novel,” if the foisterer promises that this will book will make you lose bladder control, and if the reader then does not find the book to be a laugh riot, that reader will be mightily irritated.  Irritated enough to let Amazon know about it.  Apparently, novels that are held out to be comic — unlike thrillers, romance, or even general mid-list literary fiction — don’t miss by inches.  They either synch up with a reader’s sensibilities, what he or she thinks is funny, and are a dead-on hit, or they don’t work at all.

Second conclusion:  It can be a challenge to read about a character who makes moral choices that you, the reader, wouldn’t.  My “heroine,” Blythe Young is a user and an abuser.  A striver and a conniver.  A climber and whatever rhymes with –imer.  Bad two-timer?  Annoying street-mimer?  All right, not the last two, but she is a scoundrel.  The big question hanging over the book is, “Can she be redeemed?”  The bigger question that I was addressing was, “Can she be really funny in the process?”

A few months ago, when I needed to make myself feel confused and depressed, I did a bit of self-Googling.  A series of random links led me to a site that proposed that my first novel, published in 1986, Alamo House:  Women Without Men, Men Without Brains, was the first chick lit book ever.  Who knows?  Though someday it might be remarked that How Perfect Is That was the first in another line:  Bitch Lit.

Did your male readers react differently to Blythe than did females?

I’m going to do a dangerous thing and generalize:  Females are much more likely to demand that a protagonist be someone she can relate to.  Not necessarily like, but someone who would make pretty much the same moral choices that she would.  I’d say that this is even truer if the protagonist and the author are female.

Why did you use your old Austin co-op’s real name, Seneca House, this time around — why not make it “Alamo House” again?

Yay!  Thank you, Joyce, for noticing.  When I wrote Alamo House, I used the name of the co-op where I lived while going to graduate school at UT, Seneca House.  Norton published that book and, fearing libel suits, had me expunge all ties to the real world.  They told me I could call the co-op either Magnolia House or Kudzu House.  Okay, that last is a joke, but New York at that time, early eighties, had a much harder time understanding that Texas was not the South.

I’ve was delighted that Knopf had no problems allowing me to use the real name of my old co-op, which I have a great deal of affection for.

Just exactly how much did you know about Austin high society, prior to writing How Perfect Is That? And how much did you have to exaggerate said society for comic effect?

How Perfect Is That involved a different sort of research than I’d ever done before.  For the high-society sections, I had to go to school on fashion, shoes, handbags, which designers are in, which are out, what each one signifies, the whole semiotics of apparel.  Fortunately, many kindhearted souls in high places helped me with the high-society research by sharing their worlds with me, allowing me to glimpse lives that are a round of charity galas, private jets, and Dom Perignon by the crate.

The low-society stuff was much easier since, like my heroine, I did actually live in a UT co-op boarding house called Seneca House while I was getting my master’s at the University of Texas.  But in that day and age, it housed female graduate students.  It has since morphed into a co-ed, mostly undergraduate, sometimes feminist, mostly vegan, generally activist house which the current residents were kind enough to allow me to visit several times.

So both worlds had their own anthropology, and getting the anthropology right is one of my chief joys in writing.  Mostly, though, I found it hilarious imagining what it would be like to have Barbara Bush as your mother-in-law.  What a weekend with that whole crew might be like.

Pretty much everything was exaggerated.

Do you still get nervous before book signings? Are you finding that using “new media” (such as blog tours) has made promoting your books any easier?

Such a timely question since this is, literally, my very first day of book blogging ever and it is making me oddly nostalgic for the old ways and old days.  Alamo House was published in the mid-eighties at about the same time that readings and signing started becoming popular.  Prior to that, practically the only writers who toured had won Pulitzers.  It just wasn’t that common.  So it took a while for me to get comfortable with this new public aspect of writing.

It started to fall into place for me when I started to think of signings as parties and I was the hostess.  It truly all clicked for me with this book.  Because of my heroine’s fondness for all cocktails — be they grain-, fruit-, or chemical-based — I was inspired to ask Tito’s Vodka to be my sponsor.  They agreed, and my mantra became:  A Buzz With Every Book.

Wow, Joyce, end of “nerves” for everyone.  And, P.S., my apologies to your readers who came to signings in any non-indie bookstore, because, gosh darn it, those big corporations just could not get into my Buzz With Every Book program and let me serve cocktails.

So, at this point I don’t know what effects new media will have.  I am kind of sad, though, about anything that keeps people from getting out of their houses and having a cocktail.

Can you talk about the new novel you’re working on? How about the film adaptation of Flamenco Academy — is it really happening?

Yes, I can!  I am ecstatic that Knopf — my dream publisher, home to my dream editor — has given me a contract for the next one which should be out Fall 2010.  It is about a single mom facing the prospect of an empty nest.  She’s worried about her daughter leaving home, and flat-out terrified that her only child won’t go to college.

Joyce, here’s what I say about all film projects I have ever been involved with:  Don’t buy your popcorn until you’re in the lobby.  I would love for that novel [The Flamenco Academy] to become a film.  It’s been optioned by a wonderful producer, Anne Walker, who produced most of Rick Linklater’s films.  I had a grand time adapting it.  And now the script is in the hands of the gods.

Joyce, come back to Austin.  We’ll eat enchiladas at Curra’s.

Sarah Bird is the author of six previous novels, and writes a regular column for the magazine Texas Monthly. Her features appear frequently in other magazines, including Ladies Home Journal and Good Housekeeping, and she is also a contributor to She lives in Austin, Texas.

"American Adulterer" by Jed Mercurio

"American Adulterer" by Jed Mercurio

Here’s a review I wrote for the Books section of the Sunday Dallas Morning News:

By JOYCE SÁENZ HARRIS / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News
Joyce Sáenz Harris ( is a Dallas freelance writer.

American Adulterer is a strange, morbidly fascinating novel, one sure to generate a fair amount of negative reaction from people who will not read it. Those who do read it, however, will find it peculiarly sympathetic to its subject, President John F. Kennedy, even as it cuts a mythic figure down to very human, deeply fallible proportions.

British author Jed Mercurio, who has a medical background, begins with the conceit of using JFK as “the subject” of a psychiatric study. His actual name does not surface for many pages, but the identity of “the subject” is quite clear from the first sentence:

“The subject is an American citizen holding high elected office, married, and father to a young family, who takes the view that monogamy has seldom been the engine of great men’s lives.”

As the title promises, much of the book revolves around the subject’s libertine attitude toward sex. Yet there are no sex scenes as such in the book. Rather, there is suggestiveness, accompanied by matter-of-fact observations about sexual desire from a male point of view. It’s a man’s world in the early 1960s, and women are regarded subjectively when they are noticed at all.

Mercurio’s “study” posits that his subject’s extramarital sex life was a hobby bordering on addiction. Like other, less famous unfaithful husbands, this one was a compartmentalizer, a rationalizer. The other women in his life were not great romances; they were novelties, challenges for conquest, convenient vessels for physical release.

This could almost qualify as a nonfiction novel, so deftly does Mercurio weave together verified historical fact and sheer imagination. Obviously, we have no idea what really went on in JFK’s head, aside from his own public words, none of which had anything to do with his priapism.

His private life remains mostly a mystery, because those who knew him best, his wife and closest friends, remained loyal to the romantic myth they helped create. Mercurio does his best to strip away the mystery, creating a character who feels authentically like Jack Kennedy. The clinical approach lets the author speak authoritatively about his subject, as an analyst would. But the analyst is soon replaced by the novelist working inside his subject’s head.

It is not a comfortable place to be. Mercurio often dwells on how much physical pain Kennedy endured, how excruciating his days and nights were, and how much deception went into the public image of his youth and vigor. It becomes clear that, if he hadn’t been assassinated, JFK might well have died due to his medical and pharmaceutical issues before he could have served out a second term.

Some sections of American Adulterer have nothing to do with adultery. And those passages are the ones where the president is with his family, the very people who will most likely never read this book.

Although we see little of his parents or siblings (and surprisingly nothing of his brother and confidant, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy), Mercurio sketches exquisitely tender moments with Caroline and John Jr., scenes that portray JFK in exactly the way his family would like best to remember him.

Most affecting of all is the chapter having to do with the agonizing death of the Kennedys’ prematurely born son, Patrick: “His son shows in his few hours of life what every human being should. He seizes every breath. Like his father, he lives a life of pain but never surrenders. … He wonders, when his own end comes, how long he will fight, and if he will give in, and if he will show the courage the boy has shown, his beautiful, beautiful son.”

The dreadfully familiar ending in Dallas comes quickly and unrelentingly thereafter. Perhaps because I haven’t read a lot of assassination literature, I’d never realized why JFK couldn’t escape the fatal, second bullet. “This man wrecked his back saving a wounded comrade, but this is only part of the story,” Mercurio writes dispassionately. “The condition was exacerbated by his philandering in a hotel room in El Paso, and for these two inseparable reasons he wears a brace that holds his head high when otherwise he would be able to duck the next shot.”

Joyce Sáenz Harris ( is a Dallas freelance writer.