An oral history and remembrance of a great adventurer and friend.
I don’t know how i first met Arnold Beichman, but I do know I’ll never forget him. The news of his death came as a shock, even though he was not far off his 97th birthday. At his peak he was a bustling tornado of energy and enthusiasm. As Commentary’s John Podhoretz put it, if we could bottle and take whatever he had, “we would immediately lead lives of energy and purpose, high good humor and great good feeling, and a sense that, though there were very dark forces at work in the world, the world itself was a wonderful place.”
When I last saw Arnold, at the Hoover Institution party in Washington, he was 95 and in a wheelchair but still brimming over with life. I last heard from him a few months ago. I had e-mailed him about Max Ascoli, a New York editor who published the Reporter in the 1950s. Arnold replied and concluded, “Any more questions? Ask away.”
Now, as I write this, I have a dozen more questions but I guess they’ll have to wait.
The obits said he was a “legendary anti-Communist.” He was that but it makes him seem far less interesting than he really was. If you asked him about Communists he knew in New York in the 1930s and 1940s, he could be spellbinding — it was his instant recall, wealth of detail, and the unexpected side alleys of his memory that would hold you — but he had so much more to offer.
He never wrote an autobiography. I asked him more than once if he planned to and he always said no. Actually, three volumes would have barely scratched the surface. He had decades of detail in his head and he liked to share it with you, but he knew that organizing his adventures and putting them down on paper would be a bore and an even greater chore.
At one point I embarked on my own oral history and he did sit down for a series of taped interviews. That was in 1991. His memory was almost photographic. He would surprise himself by his ability to recall names and details 60 years after the event with hardly a senior moment. But if he wasn’t going to write his memoirs, I knew it would be absurd for me to try.
Sometimes he gave the impression that he wasn’t much interested in the books that he had written. His best (maybe) was Nine Lies About America, with an introduction by Tom Wolfe. Arnold had also been a lifelong friend of the novelist Herman Wouk and he wrote a short book about him, too. He never mentioned it in my hours of interviewing and I only found out about it the other day. I have never seen a copy. I was with him at the Hoover Institution when his book on Soviet treaty diplomacy came out (1990). He had a copy in his office but he seemed not much interested. He threw it across the desk in my direction. “Here, you wannit?”
He wrote thousands of newspaper articles, or columns, but at times they felt perfunctory, too. He was an early adopter of the new computer technology and he wrote whatever he wrote as quickly as possible, using “macros” and high-tech shortcuts that his astronomer son Charles (a professor at Cal-tech) had taught him. Agonizing over a blank page was not his style.
HE GREW UP ON New York’s Lower East Side. His father arrived in New York in 1906 and the family — Arnold, the oldest, had two sisters — lived on Eldridge Street. It was a fourth-floor walk-up with no bathroom. His parents were orthodox Jews and their world had a radius of a little more than 100 yards. Yiddish was spoken at home.
They lived in New York City just as they lived in Kolk, in a province of Ukraine. In New York, the house was here. A block away was the store, a block away was the synagogue, a block away the kosher butcher. So why do you have to learn all these silly languages, like English? Although my father did pick up Italian.
Arnold learned the Torah “forward and backwards,” and the Prophets. He was grateful for his education in the Bible. Then he started to “play games” with his father, for example asking him, “Can God commit suicide?” Sidney Hook told Arnold that he used to try out the same tricks with his father.
Eventually Arnold rebelled, refusing to wear a phylactery and violating the Sabbath. “I lost interest in being an observant Jew.” No great guilt feelings. Solomon Beichman was unhappy, because he wanted Arnold to be a rabbi. But eventually he accepted that Arnold was “living in another country.”
But he was a major influence on his son. In 1933, Arnold suggested that his father might want to support Norman Thomas for mayor of New York. But Solomon wisely wondered what would become of his cotton goods store. If socialists could away take your property in the Ukraine, why not here too?
Arnold was short of stature — everyone in his class was taller. Napoleon overcame that, but how would Beichman “conquer the world”? He went to work for the school newspaper and found that reporters were the center of attention. Especially sports reporters. And the girls took a sudden interest. So that would be his career. He set his sights on Columbia University, which had a journalism school. (Now it’s a graduate school, but then it was for undergraduates.)
I wanted to break out of the East Side mold. I didn’t want to become a doctor. I wanted to be a newspaperman. I got into a long correspondence with H. L. Mencken, whose letters I have somewhere. I’d write him for advice. I wrote to Heywood Broun, a columnist on the New York World. I never thought I’d get into Columbia because they had a numerus clausus, a quota. It’s a phrase from medieval times. So many Jews could live here. At Columbia it was 10 percent.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?