There is properly no history; only biography.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
(this could take awhile--it's a huge book!)
Check a Sheila
AND THATs THE TRUTH SORT OF
27 June 2004
It has often been pointed out that history is written by the victors. In reading any work, whether a biography or a history text, it is good to remember that the writer had an opinion and that opinion is going to be reflected in the words that appear on the page (or, in the case of someone like Michael Moore, on the screen).
Every single word of the work can be 100% accurate, but the choice of what facts to chronicle and which to leave out color the overall picture that the work is presenting.
There is a lot of criticism about Bill Clintons book, claims of this being his attempt to shape his place in history. Well...duhhh. Of course it is. Just as much as the near canonization of Reagan following his death picked and chose among the pieces of his career to paint the former president in the most positive light. Clinton may not dwell on his dalliances throughout his life preferring instead to focus on the positive, just as no one outside the gay media focused on the Reagan administrations role in the spread of AIDS throughout this country.
There is a great propaganda war going on against Fahrenheit 911 (which I definitely plan to see). What I love about the Bush administration's reaction is that everyone I've heard interviewed admits they haven't seen the movie, but know that it's a bunch of lies. The spokesperson for a group based in Sacramento which is trying to get movie theatres to stop showing it admits that they haven't seen it and don't need to see it to know that it's a bunch of lies.
Moore admits this isn't a documentary in the strict sense of the word. Of course it's his opinion, but he states that every single word in the movie has been checked and double checked for authenticity and that his aim is to wake the American public (and especially the American media) to the fact that we need to question our leadership and not take everything at face value.
I am a big fan of Michael Moore and appreciate what he's doing. But I learned a lot about shaping history when I wrote The Lamplighters Story: 1977-1987.
Ten years before, I had been privileged to work with two talented women, Alison S. Lewis and Carolyn McGovern, to put together a book which would chronicle the first 25 years of The Lamplighters, San Franciscos Musical Theatre company. Alison and Carolyn collaborated on writing that book and generously added my name as author, when all I really did was to transcribe the interviews, conduct a couple of the 50 interviews myself, and help choose the photos.
After Gilbert died, I wanted there to be a book which chronicled his contributions to the company as Musical Director during the 10 years which turned it from a good quality community theatre to a first class semi-professional theatre. I didnt know if I actually had the ability to write an entire book, but I wanted to try. The basic text was mine, with input and help from Alison, but I was the one who made the decision about which direction the book would take.
This was as much my story as it was Gilberts and the Lamplighters, because I was involved in most of the events which the book chronicles as well.
During the period of time, and for a few years prior to Gilberts death, the principal tenor for the company was Robert T. Wood, or "Woody" (the guy on the right in the photo). I remember vividly the first time I saw Woody on stage. It was the 1972 production of The Merry Widow and he was playing Danilo. Wed seen years of competent but uninspiring tenors cross The Lamplighters stage. Suddenly there was this person who exploded onto the stage, with a powerful voice, a commanding presence, a sensuality, and a magnetism that took hold of everyone in the audience, especially the women. All the women were in love with him, and probably a lot of the men as well.
Woody continued to take the lead roles for many years following that first appearance. There has never been a more poignant duet, before or since, than the Mabel-Frederick duet in Pirates of Penzance when done by Woody and Rosemary Bock.
During the writing of Book 1, I was assigned to interview him. We discovered we had a lot of interests in common (especially a love of Judy Garland). That first interview also answered the burning question we three authors wanted to know: is he or isnt he gay? Yes, he was/is gay and his partner, Phil Delthlefsen turned out to be a lifelong friend of one of my good friends.
Out of that interview a friendship grew between Woody and Phil and myself, which I explained in greater detail here. That entry also explains how Woody, without warning, brought a skreeching halt to our friendship following Gilberts death, at a time when I was most vulnerable. (A friend at the time asked him "Do you have to do this now?" and he responded "This is exactly the time to do this to her." I asked the friend to ask him if he would return a very special tape he borrowed from me--a tape of Gilbert, which I prized and could not duplicate. He told her to tell me to "go fuck herself.") He refused to allow Phil, who had become my best friend, to speak to me--not even to tell me goodbye. Phil never communicated with me again and several years later dropped dead of a heart attack.
When I wrote The Lamplighters Story, I got my revenge for the pain I had suffered at Woody's hands. And I knew I was doing it.
(A good lesson to learn: never mess with a writer, or a potential writer.)
Every single word in that book is true. Every single episode happened. But as I got into the writing, I discovered that a writer could pick and choose from among the wealth of material to present an overall picture which was slanted in the way she wanted.
I didnt completely trash Woody. That would not have been fair--or accurate. He remained, for most of that time, the leading tenor, though at the time of the writing of the book, he was beginning to show his age and realized that one could not continue to play lovesick 20 year olds when one is pushing 50!
But I could choose to tell stories that were not entirely complimentary. For all his talent, he also had a volatile temper, witnessed frequently by everyone in the company, and was very temperamental. Had we been on good terms, I would have left out the story about the time he stormed out of a rehearsal and refused to do a performance because he had a cold, while another performer (who, as it turns out, was probably in the early stages of AIDS) was feverish and huddled up next to a heater to keep warm but went on to do the show anyway.
Had we been on friendly terms, I would not have published the one glowing review about an up and coming young tenor, whom Woody despised, which mentioned something about it being nice to see someone age-appropriate in the role of the young ingenue.
Had he been at all nice to me, I would have omitted publishing his bad reviews, but since he was not, I tried to figure out how I could--within accurate context--show that he wasnt always wonderful.
I think I managed to keep a balance between the good and the bad (and the book was OK'd by the Lamplighters higher-ups whose job it was to approve the content--and who were all aware of the rift between myself and Woody, and who had, themselves, had their share of unpleasant experiences with him), but the end result does not paint Mr. Wood in an entirely favorable light and it was done deliberately because hell hath no fury like a woman scorned...and because, as Mr. Clinton says, I could. It was my story to tell.
I dont know if Woody ever read my book. My gut feeling tells me that he was advised not to and he probably did not. But Id like to think that he did. It really doesnt matter. The book stands as my version of history. Completely accurate, but definitely slanted in the direction I intended it to be slanted.
Im sympathetic to Bill Clinton and Michael Moore these days. I know exactly what theyre doing, how, and why.
The lesson to be learned is not to take anything at face value. Historians are human. And the people who write the stories are the ultimate shapers of history for future generations. Be nice to them.