Biographies & Memoirs



I LIVED MORE than nine months of my life in Boulder, Colorado, one week at a time. There more than anywhere else I heard for the first time about more new things, met more fascinating people who have nothing to do with the movies, learned more about debate, and trained under fire to think on my feet. It all happened at the sleep-inducingly named “Conference on World Affairs.”

For sixty-six years, this annual meeting at the University of Colorado has persuaded a very mixed bag of people to travel to Boulder at their own expense, appear with one another on panels not of their choosing, lodge with local hosts who volunteer their spare rooms, speak spontaneously on topics they learn about only after they arrive, be driven around town by volunteers, be fed at lunch by the university and in the evening by such as the chairman, Jane Butcher, in her own home. For years the conference founder Howard Higman personally cooked roast beef on Tuesday night. The hundreds of panels, demonstrations, concerts, polemics, poetry readings, political discussions, and performances are and always have been free and open to the public.

In springtime in the Rockies, which some years didn’t preclude two feet of snow, the birds were singing in the trees, and I strolled beside the bubbling brook and looked upon the bridge where Jimmy Stewart kissed June Allyson in The Glenn Miller Story. In every place like this I have sacred places where I touch base in order to preserve the illusion of continuity. In April 2009, I paid what turned out to be a final ritual visit to Daddy Bruce’s Bar-B-Que, where I was greeted by Daddy Bruce Junior and purchased the Three Meats Platter to take away for Chaz. After untold decades in business, Daddy Bruce’s still lacks a refrigerator. All meats are fresh today, hickory smoked over real logs. Cold drinks are kept in a big picnic cooler filled with ice. The interior is large enough for a few counter stools, two tables for two, and Daddy Bruce Junior’s piano, on which he claims he can teach you to play in one day. I go back so far I remember Daddy Bruce Senior, famous in Denver for his free Thanksgiving feeds. Bruce Junior is eighty-two years old. At least Daddy Bruce’s is still here. These touchstones reassure me that I am, too.

“You know Tom passed?” Bruce asked me. “You always liked Tom’s.” Yes, I did. Tom’s Tavern is no more, replaced by—I can’t bear to tell you. There Howie Movshovitz the film critic and I would make an annual pilgrimage without fail, to talk about how we had been eating Tom’s hamburgers since 1969 and our “real” lives were a Platonic illusion separated by visits to Tom’s Tavern. Maybe that was more my theory than Howie’s.

Two doors down, the Stage House II is also no more. I walked into this vast used bookstore and art gallery when a thirtysomething man was unpacking cardboard cartons to open up shop. This was Richard Schwartz, an example of the sort of person a college town will attract: well read, intellectual, funny, setting down roots and making a difference, because a college town without good used bookstores is not worthy of the name. It was Dick who sold me my first Edward Lear watercolor. Let me tell you how engaging he could be. Telephoning me in Chicago, he started chatting with Diane Doe, my secretary at the Sun-Times, and something traveled through the phone wires and into their hearts. They were married for twenty-five years before Dick passed away. Now the site of the Stage House II is occupied by—I can’t bear to tell you.

Boulder is my hometown in an alternate universe. I have walked its streets by day and night, in rain, snow, and sunshine. I have made lifelong friends there. I grew up there. I was in my twenties when I first came to the Conference on World Affairs. I returned the next year and was greeted by Howard Higman, its choleric founder, with “Who invited you back?” Since then I have appeared on countless panels where I have learned and rehearsed debatemanship, the art of talking to anybody about anything. “Ask questions,” advised Studs Terkel, who gave the keynote one year. “If you don’t know anything, just respond by asking questions. It’s not how much you know.”

There are world-famous scientists there, filmmakers, senators, astronauts, poets, nuns, surgeons, addicts, yogis, Indian chiefs. One year Chief Fortunate Eagle, who led the sit-in at Alcatraz, was astonished to be picketed by a cadre of topless lesbians, who objected to—I dunno, the exploitation of Pocahontas, maybe. At Boulder I discussed masturbation with the Greek ambassador to the United Nations. I analyzed dirty jokes with Molly Ivins, the cabaret artist David Finkle, and the London parliamentary correspondent Simon Hoggart. I heard the one about the four-hundred-pound budgie from Andrew Neil, later editor of the Sunday Times. I found that the poet laureate, Howard Nemerov, had no interest at all in discussing his sister, Diane Arbus. I was on a panel about the Establishment with Henry Fairlie, who coined the term. Fairlie boarded at Higman’s house and eventually holed up in Boulder for a time; he was famous and successful but always out of pocket and held his eyeglasses together with Scotch tape. There Margot Adler, the famed Wiccan, drew down the moon for me. There I met Betty Dodson, the sexual adventurer, who arrived one year wearing a sculpted brass belt buckle in the form of a vagina. There I asked Ted Turner how he got so much else right, and colorization wrong. There Patch Adams turned up wearing a psychedelic suit and floppy red clown shoes. I rather avoided him until he chased me across a room and announced, “I agreed with every word of your review of that loathsome film about me.” From the basement of Macky Auditorium, I participated in Colorado’s first live webcast, although I’m fairly certain no one was watching. It was in Boulder that I bought my first real computer, the DEC Rainbow 100. And in Boulder that I fell quickly in love or lust several times, as is the way with conferences.

The local people fed and feted the guests. The opening-night party was held for many years in a home downhill from the campus on Boulder Creek by Betty Weems, a much-married rich liberal with the manner of a southern belle. One year she introduced a new husband, a Texas oil man named Manro Oberwetter, who was a good sport but unused to Boulder. One night he interrupted a hootenanny in the living room by striking a large gong and announcing, “I don’t care if you all smoke weed. I don’t care if you all go skinny dipping with your dirty dingus magee flapping in the wind. But which one is the son of a bitch who left a turd floating in my pool?”

I stayed for many years in the home of Betty Brandenburg, Howard’s long-suffering assistant, and got a private glimpse behind the scenes. “Take your shower tonight,” she told me. “In the morning we need the bathtub to wash the romaine.”

I wrote about such events in a diary one year for Slate. “You give the wrong impression!” Chaz told me. “It’s not all witches and topless lesbians. It’s mostly serious.” Quite true, and improvisational, and surprising. In this lockstep world of sound bites, how refreshing to witness intelligent people actually in spontaneous conversation. It is unusual to listen to people in the act of having new ideas occur to them.

I could tell you about the Irish storyteller. The blind New Orleans pianist. The fire-walking astrophysicist. The SETI guy. But I want to be impressionistic. I want to describe a week when bright, articulate people think on their feet. No, not all pointy-headed elites. Over the years, Temple Grandin, who is autistic and the designer of most of the world’s livestock-handling chutes. Buckminster Fuller, who, when I said, “Hello,” responded, “I see you.” Dave Grusin, the Oscar-winning composer. A bricklayer. A monk. Designers of solar energy systems.

Ramin Bahrani, who won a Guggenheim while he was there, joined me for a week in 2009 to discuss his Chop Shop in minute detail. It was astonishing. The smallest details of the film reflected the vision of Bahrani and his cinematographer, Michael Simmonds. He explained why each shot was chosen. How each was choreographed. How the plot, which seems to some to unfold in a documentary fashion, has a three-act structure, a character arc, and deliberate turning points. Why there was a soccer sticker on the back of a pickup truck. How every visual detail, including the placement and colorization of junk in the far background, was consciously planned. How certain shots were influenced by Bresson, Antonioni, Alexander Mackendrick, Godard. How the colors were controlled. How he worked in real situations by backing off and using long shots. How he worked with nonactors for months. How twenty-five takes of a shot were not uncommon. How he had prepared on the location for six months. How the film was anything but improvised.

“I’d do anything to meet Werner Herzog,” he told me. We conspired to lure Werner to Boulder in 2010, where he joined Ramin in a shot-by shot analysis of Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Herzog’s famous accent is a work of art. It could make E. E. Cummings sound like the wrath of God.

I’d been doing the shot-by-shot approach at the CWA every year since about 1970. After watching Herzog and Bahrani do it together, I decided to call it a day. I won’t return to the conference. It is fueled by speech, and I’m out of gas. Why go to Daddy Bruce’s if I can’t eat? But I went there for my adult lifetime and had a hell of a good time.

Every year there is a jazz concert featuring world-class professional musicians, performing for free, convened by the Grusin brothers, Dave and Don. I heard a set of bongo drums played by Rony Barrak more rapidly and with more precision than I have ever heard before. I heard the flautist Nestor Torres playing Bach with all his heart and then segueing into Latin jazz, with songs he composed especially for the conference.

During one song, the charismatic jazz vocalist Lillian Boutté, from Germany out of New Orleans, was so happy that people started dancing in the aisles. People, to my knowledge, ranging from sixteen to eighty. You know these days how people when they’re dancing sometimes look intensely serious about how cool they are? Their arm movements look inspired by seizures and the hammering of sheet metal. These aisle dancers weren’t like that. They were feeling elevation. They weren’t smiling. They were grinning like kids. On the stage, the musicians were grinning, too. There was a happiness storm in old Macky Auditorium. After all their paid gigs in studio recording sessions, how often do fourteen gifted improvisational jazz and Latin artists get to jam together just for fun? All free, all open to the public. And a few blocks away, Daddy Bruce Junior ready to teach me the piano.

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