BWW Interview: For Arlene Alda, the Bronx is Definitely 'UP'

In advance of the release of her book Just Kids from the Bronx, Telling It Like It Was: An Oral History this past March (http://www.amazon.com/Just-Kids-Bronx-Telling-History/dp/1627790950/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1446424284&sr=1-1&keywords=just+kids+from+the+bronx), award-winning photographer and author Arlene Alda already had received praise from an impressive list of such luminaries as President Bill Clinton, Barbara Walters and Alice McDermott. Reflecting her own origins, Alda interviewed panoplies of well-known Bronx natives, including Al Pacino, Regis Philbin and Mary Higgins Clark, all of them great achievers in their fields. From these interviews she gleaned their unique oral histories, over sixty in all, spanning six decades.

On November 12, Alda will appear with her husband Alan Alda as part of the San Diego Center for Jewish Culture's Jewish Book Fair at the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center in La Jolla (www.jfcc.org), to detail some of the book's fascinating aspects. Here, Alda shares some of her own motivations and memories.

EM: Arlene, you are impressively multitalented, having been a professional clarinetist with the Houston Symphony Orchestra, then an award-winning photographer and author of nineteen books. Did you grow up wanting to be all three, or did you take these leaps as the spirit moved you?

AA: I grew up with mixed dreams, but the farthest-ever thing from my mind was writing. It was never on my wish list. It never even entered the equation. Music with my passion, and as you know because of your own background, it's something that you grow up with, that you do early in life. From the time I could remember, music was my passion, though I didn't start playing clarinet until I was 13. Prior to that I played the piano, poorly I might add, [Laughs] which made me tell my mother, "Please no more lessons." Thank goodness, I knew I loved music and that I had a good ear. But putting the two clefs together with the two hands was very difficult. [Laughs] I wanted to play more than practice. When I switched to clarinet I was like a duck in water. But I didn't think about writing until, as you say, the spirit moved me, and it came as an adjunct to the photography. Photography was in my family in that my father was a commercial lithographer and an amateur photographer. He took the family pictures, and used our one and only family bathroom as the darkroom, [Laughs] so my introduction to photography was in the form of warnings. "Stay away don't come in, we need to be in the dark" - and when I was allowed in, "Don't touch anything. It's poison."

EM: And yet, you still became a photographer.

AA: That wasn't part of my thinking when I started taking pictures, because I'm very goal oriented. The pictures themselves were what I was after. The means of expression, and the way to get there was through the darkroom. It kind of happened. And I loved darkroom work. For 15 years before I started doing color photography all I did was black-and-white photos in my darkroom. The writing came much after that.

EM: Do you find the writing more difficult, or is it like apples and oranges?

AA: Both. [Laughs] More difficult and also like apples and oranges. The only thing that carries over for me - and maybe you have found the same thing - writing has cadence, it has rhythm, it has structure and meaning. Those elements of music I feel in the writing as well. The words have meaning just as musical notes have meaning, and the rhythms have to be right. You can't strike the same note over and over again in the same rhythm. You feel it out. I think it was musical training that very much helped me feel out what writing was all about.

EM: I completely agree. Rhythm is terribly important. It doesn't feel right if you don't feel the pulse. It's not going to read right either, especially when you're writing about music.

AA: Exactly.

EM: In the midst of all of that you became a Fulbright Scholar. What was that experience like?

AA: It was probably one of the most life enhancing and life changing events in my life. I had been a music major at Hunter College - it was truly a passion. I got the Fulbright to study in Germany at the Cologne Hochschule für Musik, the conservatory there, and that was going to be my life. Little did I know it wasn't going to be my entire life. [Laughs] But it was life altering, going abroad. Here I was a kid from the Bronx. I never went away for summers, so I didn't have that experience of being away from home until college when I was a counselor one year at a hotel in the Catskills. Basically I was very naïve. I hadn't traveled in the United States. My first trip away from home for any length of time was to Germany in 1954, when Germany was still not totally put together yet. So it was culture shock and incredibly wonderful to be studying there. It changed my view of what the world was. For the first time I realized architecture was not just something pictured in a book, and geography was real. Rivers that flowed through cities were not just on maps. The history was real. It all conspired to make me a much better person. Ultimately it was life altering in another way, because the same time that I was in Europe Alan was in Europe on his junior year abroad From Fordham, and he met a close friend of mine on his boat coming back from Europe at the end of the year. It was his friendship with our mutual friend that made at the meeting between Alan and me possible.

EM: That was truly meant to be. In many ways.

AA: [Laughs] In many, many ways.

EM: Post-World War II, how did your parents feel about your going to Germany?AA: Even when I was applying for the Fulbright in Germany, my parents didn't flinch about that. They were all behind me. In college I took German and my father understood German. He spoke a number of languages. They were very much for anything that meant I was going to experience the world the good way.

EM: What was your initial motivation for Just Kids? Do you think of it as a love letter to your birthplace or is more than that?

AA: I drifted into the book, just as I drifted into everything good that happened in my life. I had no plans on writing this particular book. It happened when Mickey Drexler and I went back to our old building where both of us had grown up, the Mayflower in the Bronx. I hadn't known Mickey at the time, but when we met and decided to go back, it was one of these funny experiences where you say yes, this is the time, this is the place, this is what I want to do. His excitement about telling me about his childhood was a revelation to me because he was a very successful man who I knew nothing about, yet he grew up in the same building as I did. I knew there were many interesting, successful, prominent people from the Bronx of all ages who I knew nothing about and I'm sure the public knew nothing about - especially their childhoods, which are like the foundation for everything else. I thought it would be interesting to interview as many people as I could of different ages from the Bronx who would just talk about their childhood experiences. Ultimately it became the love letter. But I didn't know what it would be. Throughout the book there are some very dark stories of terrible things that happened. In a way I was grateful for the reality of it all. For many of us it was a childhood of great happiness and great explorations and growth, but for others it was not. It was a steppingstone to picking yourself up and out of the situation in which you found yourself. That interested me a lot. I purposely did not want to go the nostalgic path of, "Oh, wasn't it wonderful, I wish we were back there again." That was never the goal. I just wanted a real picture of different people's experiences, kind of like a puzzle. Everyone had a little puzzle piece, or a stitch in this fabric. I wanted to see what the picture was.

EM: How did you choose the people you interviewed?

AA: Very random. There was a lot of networking. Originally it was Mickey Drexler, Regis Philbin, Martin Bregman and David Yarnell. And then Neil deGrasse Tyson, Robert Klein, Jules Feiffer. These people I felt comfortable talking to because I know them. But as I networked I realized I had painted myself into a corner with a certain age group and certain professions, and that's not the story I wanted to tell. So I began to reach out to people who might know someone I did not know personally, and ultimately ended up with 64 interviews with people of a variety of ages and professions, from Carl Reiner who's 93 to Eric Zeidler who's 23.

EM: That's about as huge a range as you could get. Are there any personal favorites among their contributions - or is that an unfair question?

AA: It's not an unfair question. I so enjoyed meeting everyone and talking with them - most of them I talked to in person a few were on the phone - each time I did an interview I thought, this is fantastic. [Laughs] And crafting the stories was an amazing experience for me. So I can't say I had favorites but I was very grateful for those stories that had surprise elements in them, good or bad, because I thought the reader would also appreciate the complexity of childhood through those surprises.

EM: That's a perfect answer, thank you. In your own chapter, you share memories of your mom's Singer sewing machine. I, too, had an immigrant mother who sewed for a living and kept one of those treadle machines in the dining room, and I remember wishing for ready-made clothes as you did. In what ways was your mother a role model for you?

AA: In many ways. First of all she was a support system for me. She always encouraged me. No matter what the fireworks were between us I always knew she loved me very deeply and always had my best interests at heart. What she worked at turned me off because it was nonstop related to the house and family and keeping us going. It did not seem like a wonderful endeavor. At the time I saw it as counter to what I wanted to do with my life. Of course now I see her hard work as something entirely different. She would be the first one to say, "You can do anything you want. Get an education. This is America, it's a wide open field." She made sure I really got that message. I was very fortunate because I knew number of young women who didn't get that message, who were trapped in what was expected of them in their time. I think we all got mixed messages in that respect.

EM: But you had a talent - several talents.

AA: Well - luck. [Laughs]

EM: Do you still go back to visit your childhood home?

AA: I was back there just a few weeks ago for a photo shoot for one of the magazines. I go back periodically. I go to the Bronx Museum of the Arts, the Botanical Garden. There's a neighborhood near there, the Belmont section, which includes Arthur Avenue, the home of many good Italian restaurants. [Laughs] All my book proceeds go to children who live in the Bronx now. I go back to schools there. I read stories and do a lot of site visits to schools and organizations. I try to keep in touch. I just went to a see a swim program that I support at a community organization called Bronx Works. I know I'll go back again soon, because I want to see the kids compete. I feel very much at home in the Bronx.

EM: Your book reads very cinematically, almost like a PBS special. Are there any plans to produce it for TV?

AA: Oh, I'm glad to hear that, but no, I haven't had any plans beyond what I'm doing now - promoting the book so that more proceeds can be there for more organizations. I can see that some of the stories are very cinematic and lend themselves to something like a PBS special, but it would require so much getting permission from people, that the thought of even getting there is mind-boggling to me.

EM: That is completely understandable. Arlene, it's been an absolute delight to speaking with you. Thank you so much.

AA: Thank you, Erica.

Photo credit: Alan Alda

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