LEONARD LOPATE with Phong Bui
On the occasion of the forthcoming 25th Anniversary celebration of WNYC’s Leonard Lopate Show at the Great Hall on March 25th, the legendary show host paid a visit to Art International Radio to talk with publisher Phong Bui about his life and work.
Phong Bui (Rail): Having read your brother Phillip Lopate’s essay “My Brother, My Life (with apologies to Pasternak),” which was included in the book Brothers (edited by Andrew Blauner, 2009), and considering the complex nature of sibling rivalry, I thought it was rather telling. He felt all the things that really shape who you are and who he is, go back to the fact that you were closer and identified more with your mother who had a flamboyant, outward, even histrionic personality as opposed to your father who was a rather withdrawn, self-taught intellectual, that really wanted to be a writer but never was. Do you think that’s an accurate observation?
Leonard Lopate: Yes, to some degree, although my father was an autodidact—and actually I’m probably more of the autodidact than Phillip is—but my mother was interested in the arts. She drew quite well even though she never really thought of herself as an artist. She was an actress and very much on all the time, whereas our father was a bit of a depressive personality who, as you just said, wanted to be a writer. So Phillip ended up being the writer and I ended up being the artist and probably was the more gregarious of the two for a while. However, when we were kids we wanted to do both. I wrote and drew and he wrote and drew; and one day we actually sat down together and decided that I would be the artist and he would be the writer.
Rail: You mean there was a pact made?
Lopate: Yes, it was our way of dividing the world up, though later I did try my hand at writing a novel and Phillip was a big help.
Rail: Has the novel ever been published?
Lopate: No, and it never should be. But it was a wonderful experience writing it.
Rail: Can you tell us a bit of your family background?
Lopate: Frances, my mother was born into an immigrant family in Brookline, outside of Boston and Albert, my father, who was also the child of immigrants, was born in Jamaica, Queens. My mother’s parents died when she was very young, and she wound up coming to Jamaica to live with one of her sisters. She was part of a large family—the youngest of eleven—so the oldest ones were old enough to act as her parents. She lived with the second or the third of the daughters and at a certain point she met my father in Jamaica, where I was born at Mary Immaculate Hospital. My parents had a candy store during WWII in Ozone Park and then after the war they moved to Brooklyn and that’s where I lived all of my life until I was an adult.
Rail: Where in Brooklyn?
Lopate: In Williamsburg. We lived at 352 Broadway, across the street from the Commodore Theatre at 329 Broadway. The Commodore was closed in 2002 and torn down in 2007. We lived facing the L, which means that if the trains stopped in-between the Marcy and Hewes stations, people could look into our window. It was a poor neighborhood then and it hasn’t become as gentrified as other parts of Williamsburg.
Rail: So, it was a humble beginning.
Lopate: Yes, but my parents were both intellectuals of sorts. My father was very well read—we always had a lot of books in the house. My mother never went to college but she was smart. In fact she had ambitions to go into show business, which she did after the kids were all grown-up and left. She also did some acting for a few TV commercials. You remember the famous 1970s Alka-seltzer commercial “momma mia that’s a spicy meatball”?
Rail: Yes, only because it was still shown occasionally in the 1980s.
Lopate: That was my mother.
Lopate: Yeah, Mamma Magadini puts the plate of spaghetti in front of an Italian-American man played by the actor Jack Somack. She also had small roles in a few movies.
Rail: Despite a rather humble upbringing, all four children had artistic ambitions. You and one of the two sisters wanted to be painters, Phillip wanted to be a writer and succeeded in doing it, and the last sister was a musician.
Lopate: That’s right.
Rail: In your case when and how did you begin to think of yourself wanting to become a painter?
Lopate: I became obsessed with art at a very young age and by the time I was in my teens I was haunting the galleries on 57th Street and Madison Avenue. It was an exciting time. In those days I’d always take Phillip along with me, and we would be wearing torn jeans and torn polo shirts. There were many times we were the only visitors at the Sidney Janis Gallery, other than Mr. Janis himself standing in the middle of the galley wearing a smoking jacket and a bow tie. On the walls would be a Mondrian, a de Chirico, a de Kooning, and maybe somebody else would show up at some point. But when some millionaire collector would come in to possibly buy a painting, Mr. Janis would slip us a catalogue and quietly ask us to leave.
Rail: So was it in high school that you began to paint?
Lopate: I was interested in being an artist much earlier, but it began in high school. I managed to take some classes with the social realist painter Isaac Soyer (the youngest of the three siblings, the others being the twins Moses and Raphael Soyer) at the Brooklyn Museum. And then, because I had skipped a grade, I went to Pratt Institute when I was 16. I was very unhappy there because there was so little fine arts in their curriculum then, so I took classes at night at the Brooklyn Museum Art School with Reuben Tam.
Rail: The abstract landscape painter.
Lopate: Yes, and he was a terrific teacher.
Rail: When was it?
Lopate: This was between 1955 and 1956 because I went to Brooklyn College the next year in 1957. And then I had to quit school and went to work for a year because my parents had real financial difficulties. After that, I went to the Chelsea School of Art in England, which was a major moment in my life. I arrived on my 20th birthday and the headmaster was Lawrence Gowing, who was one of the most wonderful people I have known in my life.
Rail: Who was, in addition to being a highly respected writer, curator, and teacher, also known as an eccentric personality?
Lopate: Yes. He later headed the Tate and was knighted by the Queen. He had a terrible stutter, but he was brilliant, and he was generous to me to a fault. And my girlfriend was the prettiest girl in the school, and I thought, wow, this is it, I have it made, because everyone in England thought I was a great artist. I hung out with David Hockney and Ron (R.B.) Kitaj. Everyone I knew in England predicted that I was going to be a famous artist. But when I came back to New York, all of that melted away; I got a job as a delivery boy with a paper company. A couple years later I went back to Brooklyn College and that’s when I studied with Ad Reinhardt, got my degree, and then went to Hunter Grad School, which was incredible in those days. Among the teachers there at that time were Robert Morris, Mark di Suvero, Rosalind Krauss, Tony Smith, Ron Gorchov, Ray Parker, and Ralph Humphrey. And Mark Rothko, who had health problems and was very depressed, decided to teach a class for a semester, and I was in that class.
Rail: That’s remarkable. But before we go further, what sort of painting were you making as an undergraduate and during the time you went to England?
Lopate: Well, when I was young I painted very realistically. I had that kind of eye and the facility. But by the time I was 18 or 19 I was painting very much under the influence of Philip Guston’s abstract paintings.
Rail: Louis Finkelstein referred to them as abstract impressionism.
Lopate: Well, mine weren’t that exactly. I called mine my pizza paintings because they looked like the surface of a pizza. And I did that for a while. I’ve always remembered the great moment when Alex Katz sat in for Reuben Tam at the Brooklyn Museum and he looked at my work and asked, “How old are you?” And I said, “nineteen.” And he said, “You got what it takes, you’re going to make it.” I’ve always been grateful to Alex Katz for that, although he doesn’t remember telling me that. Anyway, when I was at Chelsea School of Art, I was the star of the school because I was an American and I painted in an abstract expressionist style while they were making muddy brown paintings á la Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff.
Rail: While you were at Hunter, was there a specific teacher who you thought was important to your early formation?
Lopate: Ralph Humphrey was a wonderful painter and an amazing teacher. He had the unusual ability to talk intelligently and sensitively to the level of each student—wherever they were in their development—without making them feel inferior or confused.
Rail: Did you study art history with Leo Steinberg?
Lopate: No, but I managed to take classes with Rosalind Krauss and James Harithas who thought he was going to get the job at the Whitney, but didn’t, so Hunter hired him to teach modern art history. It was such an exciting time. Anybody who was serious about wanting to be an artist had to chose between going to Yale or Hunter where I actually thought the faculty was better.
Rail: That’s what most people said. Did you manage to graduate?
Lopate: No, I was three credits short. I had a crisis, which was I discovered there was another artist whose work looked very much like mine. And by this time I had gone from being an abstract expressionist to making paintings that were inspired by Ellsworth Kelly. In fact one of my teachers said, you should really pay attention to this artist whose name I had never heard before, then one day I was walking down 57th Street and there was this image of what looks like one of my paintings on the cover of ARTnews. I freaked out and within a couple years I had quit painting.
Rail: What next?
Lopate: My marriage then fell apart and that’s when I wrote a novel. I was floundering around for a while, and did a little of everything. I worked in advertising, wrote copy for ad agencies, I worked in the record business, and I thought I was going to have my own company selling records on television.
Rail: Oh really? What sort of record company?
Lopate: The kind that you wouldn’t buy records from. [Laughs.] You remember Boxcar Willie and Slim Whitman.
Rail: Oh yeah, the country music singers. Slim Whitman had a hot single “Rose Marie.”
Lopate: And “I Remember You.” [Sings: “I remember you… You’re the one who made my dreams come true.] Anyway, we sold a lot of records of all sorts, Kate Smith’s greatest hits, Pavarotti’s recording of greatest operas, and so on. And I was very successful at working for somebody else, and then I was supposed to have my own business, but it didn’t work out. Just by accident a friend called me and asked me if I wanted to do a radio show at WBAI, which was at the time going through a major crisis. It was Easter time and he asked me if I wanted to do a gospel show because I know a lot about gospel music, which was the music that I grew up with in Bedford-Stuyvesant. My family was right next door to a church where gospel music was being performed every weekend. Besides, it was a time when radio was full of wonderful materials and I would listen to Blues, Gospel music, and then R&B. In any case, I did one show, and they invited me back and within a few months I had my own talk show and then I just did whatever I wanted. Before I knew it, I ended up being at WBAI for eight years.
Rail: But before WBAI, you did spend some time at WKCR?
Lopate: Yes. And that was because my brother, Phillip, was going to school at Columbia, and he was hosting a jazz show on WKCR. But I actually was the jazz guy so very quickly Phillip just gave me the show, which I did for about a year. But I wasn’t that serious. It was like a college kid show. You know where you say, “And now we’re going to play John Coltrane playing ‘Giant Steps.’ Here he is, John Coltrane, ‘Giant Steps,’ Atlantic Records. John Coltrane.”
Rail: Right. [Laughter.]
Lopate: And then when the record was over you would say, “That was John Coltrane with Giant Steps. Tommy Flanagan on piano, Paul Chambers on double bass, and Art Taylor on drums.” You know, it was like that. I wouldn’t call that serious radio. Then what happened was I did the show on WBAI for eight years, it was from midnight to 5 A.M. every Monday night. And I learned a lot about doing radio and then the host of this show on WNYC died. He had a heart attack and I was the third person they tried out and I wound up with the show. That was March 5, 1985 and the first hour and a half was Pegeen Fitzgerald who was a radio legend in New York. And then she died and it became my show.
Rail: 1989. She died sometime in June. What was that experience like working with her?
Lopate: She was very generous. She taught me a lot about how to relate to an audience. It was apparent to me very quickly that if she didn’t like me she could have made my life miserable because that audience was her audience. Instead she said wonderful things about me and always made me feel like I was somebody she appreciated. And so when she died that audience just stayed with me.
Rail: Did you manage to meet her husband, Edward Fitzgerald?
Lopate: No, he had already died in 1989 when they were on WOR. And she was fired from WOR and that’s how she wound up on WNYC. And by the time I arrived there were programs, for instance, called Senior Edition, which was all about social security, medical conditions, and other concerns for the elderly, and so on, which I was happy to do, but I also wanted to do other things. And older people didn’t just want to hear about medical issues either. They also wanted to hear other pleasurable things. That was when I brought in writers and artists, and quickly, the show developed as one of the places for cultural discussion to occur. Even though it was a very modest station, one thousand watts in those days. But we had nice studios and I had an incredible guest list from the start.
Rail: Does the producer do all the booking or do you do it all yourself?
Lopate: No, I had a producer who did all of that. It was actually a little rocky at the beginning, but when Melissa Reeves, now Melissa Egan, became the third producer and we sat down and we discussed what we wanted and we agreed that this could be a really exciting show and I would trust her and she would trust me and we’ve been working together ever since. She’s been there a bit longer than I have but yeah we’ve been working as a team for at least 23 years.
Rail: That’s remarkable. Did you know that you would be good at it from the beginning?
Lopate: I don’t know if I ever thought I was good at it. But you know on some level I knew I thought this is what I should do. I don’t want to do what other people do and I developed my own approach. And some people like it and some people don’t, but the audience built and then at a certain point WNYC, which initially was only on AM in those days but when we were moved from 8:30 AM to 8:20 AM and we went from one thousand watts to fifteen thousand watts or something. We just gained so much popularity. Also, we used to have classical music on FM and talk on AM but after 9/11 it was impossible for them to split the signal. So Brian Lehrer and I wound up simulcasting and the ratings shot up. And that’s the way it’s been ever since, so now WNYC just recently acquired WQXR and we can do classical music again.
Rail: So 9/11 was the turning point, so to speak?
Lopate: Well, things were changed by Internet radio podcasting. Now I have listeners all over the world. Somebody might be listening to our conversation in Helsinki, Johannesburg, Buenos Aires, Singapore, or other places, and we have no way of knowing how far the reach is but I suspect that there are people listening all over the world.
Rail: How much time do you need to go over the material before airtime?
Lopate: Couple hours.
Rail: And there must have been occasions of what is called dead air, when someone either is reluctant to talk or just completely bored. What do you do with those people?
Lopate: [Silence for a good 5 to 6 seconds.]
Lopate: What happens, of course, is you start talking a lot and then the audience writes you nasty little notes saying you got to let your guests talk. But the reason that you’re talking is because your guest isn’t talking. I’m sure you’ve had the experience where you’re looking at them and thinking, okay, you know, I asked you the question. Sometimes it’s because they’re thoughtful, so it may take more than a few seconds for them to verbalize it. Sometimes it’s because they simply don’t have a thought in their head. Other times they simply don’t talk. There have been cases where some were being difficult and confrontational. I’ve had a few people who made me think, if you don’t want to be pleasant and talk about what you do then why are you even coming to a radio show? And with artists you often run into a different situation all together where they think that they shouldn’t even bother talking and that the art speaks for itself.
Rail: And the opposite might occur, as well, where someone won’t stop talking, especially with politicians, whom I’m sure you have interviewed more than plenty over the years. I mean they are trained to deflect questions so that they don’t have to provide real answers. So how do you get them to stop talking?
Lopate: Well, you have no choice but to interrupt them. And if they are avoiding the question I have to do a follow up by saying, you didn’t really answer my question. And then if they avoid it the second time I move on and I figure that the audience is hearing that this politician is really not going to come through. And I think that it hurts them more than it hurts me. Otherwise, I normally don’t spend the whole time just asking that one question since I know that I’m not going to get the answer anyway. Well, I have to tell you this, one of the things that I think really helped our show when I started in the early 80s was we wanted to have writers and visual artists to come to the show, and we were told it wasn’t a good idea. But there were a lot of artists who wanted to come on and talk about their work. They weren’t getting a chance to talk about it anywhere else. And what I discovered was that if you talk about process then it doesn’t matter what the person does. If I’m talking to a novelist I’m not going to ask him why did you have Mary kill John on page 84.
Lopate: I’m going to ask instead how did he or she come up with the idea for the book, and so on. Same thing applies to a painter, a sculptor, a conceptual artist, and whoever else. It’s all about how they approach their work and how they come up with what they’ve achieved. Which is why the audience is interested in hearing how they’ve come to be what they are. And why they have succeeded and someone else has not.
Rail: It’s been nearly 25 years since you’ve been with WNYC. If we were to add up—five shows per week. That’s time.
Lopate: Two hours a day.
Rail: And in each of those two hours you include at least two or three guests. Multiply that into a month and into a year, that’s 7,500 shows, and over 20,000 guests. And that total times 25 years.
Lopate: I would think there have been some repeats, but it’s got to be close to 100,000.
Rail: Wow. Have there been any particular interviews where you have felt in the presence of the interviewee, whoever that might be, that what you do has a real purpose?
Lopate: Many times.
Rail: Could you just tell us a few?
Lopate: This is probably not the best one but it’s one that I remember that came to mind immediately. When AIDS first became a major issue there was a judge who allowed the bailiffs to bring HIV positive defendants into the court holding them at a distance, they were wearing gloves, they really made them seem like they were lepers in our society. And a lawyer started writing letters to the New York Times complaining about the judge’s order saying that this prejudices juries. Well I put the two of them on my show and afterward, because they had a reasonable conversation—not the kind of “you’re a liar, you know you’re an idiot,” thing that you would get on lettuce pages—the judge changed his order.
Rail: That’s amazing, but how did you manage to get the two of them to be on the show?
Lopate: Well, thank God I had a producer who was clever enough to do that for me. Another example is when I discovered that Newtown Creek was not only terribly polluted but that Greenpoint was the site of the worst oil spill in North American history, worse than the Exxon Valdez. I did a few shows on the subject. And at the beginning nobody was paying any attention to it, even though a lot of people live in Greenpoint, and they were living over this terrible oil spill and it might very well have had an affect on their health. There are people who are concerned that there are higher cancer rates in Greenpoint. Consequently, Riverkeepers has credited our show with opening up this whole issue and now there’s a fight over whether it should be a Superfund site or whether there should be other ways to deal with it. At the beginning the oil company just said, well, it’s not our fault, some previous oil company did this. But recently they have started drilling some of the oil out of the ground and draining it out. And I believe we really had a major impact.
Rail: That’s terrific. Has there been a case where a particular artist would say things about his or her work that illuminates you in the understanding of the work? I know in September 2009 you had Robert Frank and Jeff Rosenheim, the curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Department of photographs, on the show talking about The Americans.
Lopate: That was a thrill.
Rail: Especially given that Frank has always been reluctant to talk about his work publicly.
Lopate: There had been another artist who really had a reputation for not talking. And so he came in with a famous curator and started talking right away and we all got along great. I don’t know, maybe he listened to the show, maybe he felt comfortable with me. And the curator looked at him at a certain point and said, “you never told me that story.” And I felt absolutely wonderful, you know I had gotten this artist; it was a man in this case, to tell stories that he hadn’t even confided in his closest friend.
Rail: Have you been as successful with politicians?
Lopate: Well, there was one case of a former secretary of state who won a Nobel Peace Prize. I’m not going to mention his name.
Rail: It’s quite obvious to us at this point I think. [Laughs.]
Lopate: He had written a book and I did a fair amount of research and discovered that many of the things he was claiming in his book were at odds with what other people were saying. So I’d say, “you know you said you went to blah blah blah,” and he’d start telling the story and I’d say, “well, what about this memo that has been made available to the public in the last year,” and then he’d have to back track. And I did an awful lot of that and at one point he said to me, off the air, “if I can’t answer these questions what am I doing here.” And I thought to myself, “you’re really telling me you don’t want to be here right now because I’m making you too uncomfortable.”
Rail: That’s intense.
Lopate: And that made me feel very good.
Rail: What could you tell us about when you interviewed President Obama in 2004?
Lopate: Well, he was then a junior senator and we had him on the show to talk about his recent election and his memoir (Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance). He was very charming and I thought this is a man with a real future, but I didn’t know he was going to be President of the United States. And if you would have asked me then I would have said, “wait a minute, a black man whose name is Barack Obama, not a chance.” Other than that, I can’t give political opinions. I am a person without opinions, at least on the air. I’m supposed to be really balanced, unlike Fox news.
Lopate: I think people can figure out where I stand.
Rail: One last question, Leonard, what would you suggest as a required ingredient for a good interview?
Lopate: First, good research. Second, the ability to listen. More importantly, the two combined into a conversation where you keep it rolling. One of the things that we all should avoid at all cost is reading the questions from a list of questions and no matter what the guest says going on to the next question. Sometimes it’s crying out for a follow-up, which means that they’re not really listening to what the guest is saying. That can be torture to the guest and the audience.
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