Symposium

Impressions and digressions from your point of view

Illustrations by Rowan Wu ’18

Columbo on Campus

by Barbara Florio Graham ’56

He’s ageless, that bumbling detective in the rumpled raincoat. Since his first appearance in 1968 as Columbo, through his last appearance as the character, in 2003, Peter Falk delighted television audiences around the world. I still love to watch Columbo, amazed that Falk always remains the same, even though co-stars, settings, and locations change over the years.

But I remember him most clearly in a Barnard College production of Thomas Middleton and William Rowley’s The Changeling.

 

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Illustration of Falk

It was 1955, and as a member of the Drama Workshop, I had been appointed stage manager for our current theatrical offering. Workshop director Norris Houghton divided his time between producing plays at the off-Broadway Phoenix Theatre and teaching drama at Barnard. After we had decided to attempt The Changeling, we ran into a casting problem. We had been unable to find a student actor to play the crucial role of De Flores. Would we be willing, Houghton proposed, to consider a young actor he’d just auditioned for the Phoenix? At 29, he was just a few years older than most of us and had decided to leave his business career for acting. Houghton felt certain he would take part in our amateur production to gain experience playing the villain in a Jacobean melodrama.

We agreed, and Falk joined our cast. He was treated just like the rest of us. The photo accompanying a newspaper article on the play did not even identify him by name.

One of Houghton’s clever ideas for portraying the duality of De Flores’ personality was to give Peter a disfiguring port-wine birthmark on the left side of his face. His initial entrance was on the floor level, where a single spotlight picked up the handsome profile as he crossed in front of the stage and mounted the steps onto the platform. Then, with a flourish of his black cape, he turned to the audience, revealing the grossly deformed left side of his face for the first time. The audience reacted with a collective gasp. (None of us at that time realized that Peter had an artificial eye. He’d lost his right eye to cancer at age 3, and it gave him an odd squint and a droopy eyelid. It actually gave his handsome face more character.)

Peter was easy to work with, asking for no special consideration from our student group. But then came production week. I was overwhelmed with the mechanics of running the backstage apparatus, juggling light and sound cues, directing the stage crew, and even pulling the curtain by hand. Peter came to me in his costume, announcing that he would need an athletic supporter. “Fine,” I replied. “Buy whatever you need, and we’ll reimburse you.”

“You’re the stage manager, right?” he answered, in the gruff voice we all came to know years later as Lt. Columbo’s. “You buy it.” I was too intimidated to argue. This was the uptight ’50s, an era when sanitary products were kept discreetly behind the counter, and there were no ads for men’s bikini underwear.

I’d grown up in a second-generation Italian household, with two sisters but no brothers. I wasn’t sure what an athletic supporter looked like and had only a vague idea of what it was for. I went to the campus pharmacy, to the gentle, elderly man from whom I bought “unmentionables,” in a whisper, when the store was almost empty. I explained that I was stage- managing a play whose male characters were attired in doublet and hose, and he, bless him, understood immediately. “What size?” he asked. Panic colored my cheeks. “Why don’t you take a medium,” he suggested when I didn’t answer. I grabbed the package, paid him, and rushed out the door.

I left the parcel in Peter’s dressing room. Five days later, the Changeling curtain went up, on time. I didn’t forget any cues, nothing fell over as we changed the sets, nobody forgot their lines, and Norris Houghton told us he was proud of our accomplishment. Soon after, Peter Falk was cast as the bartender in the acclaimed Phoenix production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh and went on to Hollywood for his first movie role.

Over the years, Falk acted in more than 50 films, was nominated for two Academy Awards, appeared in more than 75 Columbo episodes and other movies for TV, won five Emmys, and starred on Broadway. He was the first actor to be nominated for an Oscar and an Emmy in the same year, and the original Columbo (which aired for seven seasons) has been shown around the world.

In 1989, when he was 62, Falk revived Columbo, becoming executive producer. He began to write and direct new episodes, earning another generation of admirers. Most of us will forever remember him in his rumpled trenchcoat, pointing that cigar, and saying, “Just one more thing.” But every time I see Peter Falk on TV, I think about The Changeling and that athletic supporter.

I never did find out if it fit.

Barbara Florio Graham is the author of Five Fast Steps to Better Writing (20th anniversary edition), Five Fast Steps to Low-Cost Publicity, and the award-winning Mewsings/Musings. She continues to write and serve as a publishing consultant to other authors. Her website, http://SimonTeakettle.com, is popular with writers, entrepreneurs, and cat lovers.

spring in a plague year

by Judith E. Johnson ’54

 

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Illustration of a window with a view of a tree

the space our deaths leave
is an apparent emptiness, not a real one
outside my window the forsythia spins
gold from the powder of last year’s chrysanthemums

and daffodils wake up their brief lives
the earth will not cry over our spent tulips
but find a use for them, and the cardinals still weave

their nest on a low, floating branch
and splash their bright bleeds into my jeweled fountain not one of them cares what presidents fail to say
or what the suits in their corporate drabness

buy, sell, or ignore
we are all going about our business

making our lives

generous and green

Judith E. Johnson is a poet and writer. She has served as president of the Poetry Society of America and is now retired from teaching at the State University of New York at Albany, where she was professor of English and women’s studies and held several posts, including associate dean of undergraduate studies and chair of both the English department and the department of women’s studies.

Life Is a Highway

by Dara Meyers-Kingsley ’83

My daughter Ava ’17 has always been a “car girl.” In her Barnard application essay, she even wrote about a game she played with her dad — Evan Kingsley CC ’84 — while driving north at night on the Saw Mill River Parkway every Sunday, coming home to Westchester from music rehearsals. They would try to guess cars’ make, model, and year by the design of their tail lights. The one who could identify the car farthest away was the winner. She applied early and was accepted.

At Barnard, Ava chose the fastest lane. She studied economics and finished a semester early. After graduation, Ava threw her hat in the ring for her dream job: working at the corporate headquarters of Audi of America. (She had come home from the hospital as a baby in her grandfather’s red Audi A4, after all.) She was chosen from a pool of 1,000 candidates to join the strategy team in northern Virginia doing volume planning and determining the future of the Audi brand. Soon after, she settled into her own apartment in Arlington, Virginia, made new friends, and spent evenings playing the guitar in a band called Camo Chic with co-workers from Audi.

 

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Illustration of a car

Nothing made Ava happier than auto industry shop talk, all day, every day. Barnard gave her the tools she needed as the only woman in the conference room, and she began a fast-track rise. (She also gained notoriety for winning the women’s arm-wrestling contest during a corporate Octoberfest one year.) And she enjoyed her daily commute, first driving a VW GTI stick shift and then moving into a red Audi TT that she nicknamed “Flamin’ Hot.” On Friday afternoons, she volunteered for “STEM for Her: Drive Like a Girl,” working with high school students interested in engineering and science by coaching them in a competition to envision innovation for the automobile. She had established a whole new life for herself on her own.

Then the road took a turn. After experiencing several days of a sore throat that wouldn’t go away, Ava drove herself in Flamin’ Hot to a Virginia emergency room for a strep and blood test. Several hours later, she was diagnosed with leukemia. Since then, she’s spent more than 100 days in the hospital in three rounds (the second two at NYC’s amazing Memorial Sloan Kettering). After the most punishing chemotherapy and radiation, she received a stem-cell transplant for an entirely new immune system, and she is now in remission.

Living back at home, Ava is driving again in the new six-speed manual Mustang that she bought herself as a present for her perseverance. Her natural love of driving, coupled with the need for mobility after such confinement, is a joy. There are plans for getting back on life’s highway, with almost all pistons firing, this coming year. Watch out, world. Soon cancer will be in the rearview mirror as she picks up speed.

Dara Meyers-Kingsley ’83 is a distinguished lecturer at Hunter College, where she also directs the Muse Scholar Program and the Office of the Arts, teaching and mentoring arts students and building bridges to New York City cultural institutions. 

Expires in March of 2020

by Simone Norman ’15

I took a lot of things with me when I left college. The plots of some books. Facts about people in other places. Information about ... subjects. But the day I graduated from Barnard, in May 2015, I walked off campus with one of the most important and enduring relics of my college tenure: an IUD.

I remember the 30 seconds of discomfort, the friendly Primary Care Health Services provider who inserted the device, and what she said as I walked out of her office: “Don’t forget, it expires in March of 2020.” That future month seemed more hypothetical to me than eventual; I couldn’t even imagine what my life would look like five years from then.

Fast forward to March of 2020, and my IUD is straining to pump out the final dregs of expired synthetic hormone. Once I get it replaced, I’ll be toting one less treasured artifact from college. So, in the midst of all this nostalgia (and to procrastinate making that dreaded replacement appointment), I thought I’d advise seniors on the top three things they should take with them when they graduate.

(These will mostly be intangible things, but I do encourage adventurous seniors to take what you physically can from campus, like those few extra sugar packets and Diana sushi containers you’ve collected in your dorm room. I took my thing with me by getting it implanted in my body. For your stuff, you should probably just invest in a new suitcase.)

 

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Illustration of an IUD
  1. The contact information of every single person you interacted with. I’m not being facetious. You don’t have to be their friend, or even have that awkward “Let’s get lunch!” conversation, but you should definitely grab their email addresses or link up on social media. At some point down the road, you will need a foothold for a job application, or to fill a room when your flaky roommate suddenly moves out, or to corral just as many bodies as you can fit in the audience of your one-person show premiering in a grungy Brooklyn basement theater.
  2. An alumna library card. Apply for one! It’s really cool that you can retain access to Barnard’s extensive catalog of resources. Plus, you can hang out in the library and pretend like you have stuff going for you long after graduation.
  3. Pride in your accomplishments. I’m serious! Whether you got Phi Beta Kappa or just crammed your way to a degree, you undoubtedly worked really hard. Your professors, family, and friends are all very proud of you. Take that feeling and cherish it! Get it implanted physically in your body.

Just don’t forget to get it replaced in five years’ time.

Simone Norman ’15 is a comedian and actor living in Brooklyn. She has performed standup, improv, and sketch comedy at venues and festivals throughout the city. She is also a writer, with bylines in The New York Times, Elle, Teen Vogue, and Reductress. You can catch her on the new CBS: All Access animated show Tooning Out the News, from executive producer Stephen Colbert.

 

 

A Silver Lining

by Jami Bernard ’78

I’m not shy, so I’ll just say it — while a student at Barnard, I received many awards, honors, and distinctions. The Frank Gilbert Bryson Prize came along with a $500 check. I got a free room in Furnald as a perk of being editor-in-chief of the Barnard Bulletin. But the one distinction of which I was not proud was becoming the first person ever turned down for the Senior Scholar Program.

This is a program in which “a qualified student” spends her senior year working on a particular project, and I proposed that I use the time to write a book. What kind of book Um, a novel? Very literary? A vaguely defined story about a young woman who wants to date a cute yet remote guy in her dorm?

Story and character arc, theme and structure? Well, let’s not get bogged down in details.

“You’ve taken a very literature-heavy course load,” remarked one of the several professors who interviewed me around a long conference table. “Have you considered trying other classes, such as psychology?”

 

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Illustration of books and a hand scribbling

Psychology this, Professor So-&-So! I took the news of my failure to qualify for the Senior Scholar Program with the same grace with which I historically took rejection — seething rage, bouts of depression, becoming a cauldron of conspiracy theories. (They had it in for me! Especially the 16th-Century Literature professor who did not care for my theory that the poet John Donne could not have become religious after such a randy youth!)

In a last-ditch effort to persuade the panel, I spent a weekend feverishly writing a two-page “short story” about my sister wearing a woolen scarf to bed to ward off vampires.

“When did you write this?” someone asked when I faced the panel again on Monday. “This weekend,” I said with pride. “In one weekend?” The professor sounded shocked. “N-no, of course not,” I said, attempting to backpedal. “What I meant was that I finished it this weekend.”

No one bit.

One member of the panel, professor of chemistry Bernice Segal, returned my work in a manila envelope, which I only had the courage to open 20 years later. She had kindly given me what I recognized as excellent notes on my vampire vignette. I tried to look her up to thank her, but she had died in 1989.

In my senior year, I instead took courses in French (I now live part-time in France), linguistics (a deeper dive into words and wordplay), psychology (my book clients tell me it’s like having a shrink), anthropology (the last course taught by the great Margaret Mead ’23), and film (Ann Douglas’ class spurred me on to a 20-year career as a film critic).

I have since had 10 books published and am wrapping up the 11th.

Painful as it was, missing out on the Senior Scholar Program was a blessing in disguise. The panel was correct in sensing I was in no way prepared for life, let alone writing a book, too. It wasn’t the only time someone at Barnard had the unenviable task of saving me from myself.

Jami Bernard ’78 was a film critic for The New York Post and The New York Daily News and is the founder of Barncat Publishing, where she works with writers who are struggling to finish and polish their books.

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