It was easy for fans of Cuban-born writer Oscar Hijuelos to tell whom he was picking on when he was interviewed before an audience in the auditorium of the New York Times Building on June 25: It was The Times ‘ own Book Review section.
“You have to take these mites-who are presuming they know about the creative process-and put them aside, because otherwise you’ll regress yourself,” he boomed.
It was only a week since The Times had soundly thrashed Mr. Hijuelos’ latest novel, A Simple Habana Melody (When the World Was Good) , in the Sunday Book Review; nonetheless, Mr. Hijuelos crossed the enemy lines. And the author wasn’t about to be one of those lofty writers who claim to ignore reviews: Before the program started, The Transom overheard Mr. Hijuelos’ wife, Lori Carlson, telling a friend that the author of The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love was poised to make “a pointed attack.”
The Times review, written by Daniel Zalewski (an editor at The Times Magazine ), attacked A Simple Habana Melody in several keys, but singled out the plot twist that puts the book’s protagonist in Buchenwald during the war as particularly egregious. “In the novel’s most misguided and contrived move, Levis [Hijuelos' hero], a devout Roman Catholic, turns out to be a Holocaust survivor. (In what is canonically known as a Cruel Twist of Fate, his Jewish-sounding name gets him deported during his Paris sojourn.)”
What The Times didn’t realize was that this contrived move was actually based on the somewhat contrived life of Cuban composer Moises Simons (he wrote “The Peanut Vendor,” a song Mr. Hijuelos said you might hear “if you’re stuck in an airport at 3 in the morning”), who “was arrested by the Germans for being Jewish, who wasn’t, but ended up in a camp.” ( The Times shouldn’t get so down on itself: The only major paper to make reference to Simons in a review was The Dallas Morning News .) Mr. Hijuelos heard about Simons and had conceived of writing a biographical ballet about the all-but-forgotten composer, but couldn’t find out enough about Simons’ life to proceed; instead, he used the material he had as a rough plot sketch for A Simple Habana Melody , which Mr. Hijuelos considers “an homage.”
Mr. Hijuelos, trying desperately to be charming and self-effacing most of the time, began his attack on The Times coyly: “I read some review somewhere that said that it would be a ridiculous concept to say that a Cuban fellow could end up in a concentration camp …. I can’t imagine where I read that.” But soon afterward, the gentle sarcasm drip stopped.
“It’s easy to look at something from the outside and take it apart and dissect it,” he told the crowd, repeating the frequent complaint of the bruised writer. “But it’s different to actually create.”
But The Transom wondered whether Mr. Hijuelos’ most effective admonition was not to himself. Toward the end of the interview, responding to another audience question, Hijuelos paraphrased Bette Davis: “Being a writer isn’t for sissies.”
The Museum of Modern Art’s enormous Film Stills Archives-notoriously set to go into cold storage in Hamlin, Penn., after MoMa’s June 2002 move to Queens, to the dismay of many film scholars and critics-will remain available to “serious” researchers after all.
In January 2001, MoMA director Glenn Lowry had announced that there wouldn’t be room for the renowned archives in the Long Island City staple factory that will house MoMA while its 53rd Street mothership gets a $650 million face lift. Instead, the collection of four million movie stills dating back to the 1890′s would move with its curator, Mary Corliss, to 300 square feet of hallway storage space in the Celeste Bartos Center in Pennsylvania. But in January 2002, Ms. Corliss-who had been active in a 2000 MoMA strike-was unceremoniously fired. Access to the archive was suspended indefinitely, much to the dismay of its users, including the Tisch School’s Department of Cinema Studies at N.Y.U., the New York Film Critics’ Circle and directors like Martin Scorsese.
But in a June 11 letter obtained by The Transom, New York State Museum director Clifford Siegfried, responding to a disgruntled researcher, revealed that the MoMA holds a 1931 charter granted by the Board of Regents. That charter requires that the museum maintain a Collections Management Policy, which must include a “statement indicating intent to allow reasonable access to the collections by persons with legitimate reasons to access them.”
According to the letter, David Palmquist, the New York State Museum’s head of chartering, was dispatched to discuss the status of the stills archive, in light of the charter regulations, with MoMA’s chief counsel Patty Lipshutz. The result of the conversation, wrote Mr. Siegfried, was that “the Museum has agreed to make film stills from the collection available to serious researchers on a limited basis using its existing courier service,” provided that researchers first attempt to find what they need elsewhere, and “approach [MoMA] only if they are certain the required stills are only available from the Museum of Modern Art.” A MoMA spokesperson could not confirm the status of the archives.
But, according to the letter, Ms. Lipshutz confirmed that the archive’s stay in Pennsylvania was temporary, and that it would return to 53rd Street as soon as the MoMA renovation is complete in 2005.
“MoMA holds a charter from the Regent, and obviously they need to follow the rule,” said Mr. Palmquist, who was reached by phone. He added that the arrangements were made easier since the archive already had staff members in Pennsylvania, as well as an established courier service.
“Those were important considerations,” he said. “We’re not in the business of forcing them to do something impossible or prohibitively expensive.”
-Elisabeth Franck and
Be Proud of Who You Are
Although some of his friends called Josh Sagman “crazy” to consent to be filmed all summer (for what ended up as 100 hours, he now estimates) for the recent ABC mini-series The Hamptons , he said he’d been given enough reassurance by Barbara Kopple. She’d won two Oscars: for Harlan County USA , about a coal miners’ strike in Kentucky, and American Dream , about striking meat-packing workers in Minnesota. And here was a 28-year-old venture capitalist, an oxygen-bar purveyor and party promoter with a big house in Quogue (including a tennis court, a pool, two volleyball courts and a basketball court), on the other side of that same lens.
Now Mr. Sagman wishes he’d listened to his friends.
“It was weird-all the people that worked on the film were always so friendly to me,” he said. “I don’t want to sound, like, disappointed, but it was almost like once it came out … I mean, they filmed me for over a hundred hours. Last summer, I would wake up in the morning and have a camera, and I’d go to sleep with a camera. They’d just show up. The hard part for me was, they had emphasized how they were showing me as a young professional.”
Instead, we see Mr. Sagman at a Stuff magazine party going up to model Kylie Bax. “The camera lady said, ‘Go talk to her,’ and they pointed to a seven-foot blonde,” he recalled. “It was the end of the night; I was like, ‘All right.’ I would say I kind of feel manipulated [because] the only reason I did it-it wasn’t about being famous or being on television or anything. It was … I was hoping it would help my business.”
The premiere was held in Sag Harbor. On June 4, partygoers like Mr. Sagman were described as “shallow and superficial” in The New York Post . “It seems like, to me, I represent to these people the Antichrist, and I don’t understand why. Everyone’s taking pot shots at me! How do you handle it if you were in my position? Do you get upset or do you laugh about it?”
His mother had come up from Washington for the premiere. He said his parents weren’t upset about the documentary; he’s always received “unconventional love” from them, Mr. Sagman explained. His mother told him to keep his head up and “be the person that she raised me to be.”
“You know, it isn’t like I killed someone,” he said.
But he was enjoying his notoriety-up to a point. “I really take on a party persona in the movie, and my friends felt there was a lot more to me,” he said when it aired. “At certain points, it seems almost that I’m not that intelligent.”
Like when he puts the bra on his head in the Jacuzzi.
Ms. Kopple said she saw his performance differently.
“My take on it is that everybody who we filmed we really cared about tremendously, and we tried to film everybody, you know, true to who they are and what they are,” Ms. Kopple told The Transom in a phone interview. “And Josh, it wasn’t just about being a party boy, it was about somebody who loves life, who embraces it, who knows everybody and makes everybody feel so important when they’re around him, and so cared about. And tries to bring everybody in.”
Not everyone saw that Josh Sagman in the film. By early July, the outrage over his televised antics (the constant chuckling, the partying, picking up girls and frolicking with them in a Jacuzzi, jumping out of an airplane, saying things like “My master plan is, I want to be successful”) still had not died down. He’s something of a pariah on the East End now, and a walking punch line. People yell things at him in public, like “You’re not too cool!”
Recently, the Post ‘s Page Six column ran an item saying that Mr. Sagman was chased out of a clam bar in Napeague after being recognized by rowdy locals and staff. (He says he left voluntarily.)
The worst came after the influential Hamptons newspaper Dan’s Papers called for a crackdown on share houses like the one Mr. Sagman runs, which are technically illegal. Soon the town of Southampton began sending police over to issue Mr. Sagman citations for too many cars in the parking lot, too much trash on the grounds, and other offenses that heretofore had never been vigorously enforced.
On July 8, Mr. Sagman said he’d been outside his East Quogue share house and putting a wealthy young debutante into her car. A neighbor was walking by, a woman who he said bought her house four months ago and has been patrolling the neighborhood all summer. She’s been very upset about all the noise coming from the 10 or 11 share houses in the immediate vicinity-the day before, there had been a party with 3,000 people and Vanilla Ice performing-and she’s been calling the police.
Mr. Sagman said he’s been trying to do everything to appease this neighbor.
The two dozen people in his house have been keeping it quiet and clean. He even sent her a bottle of champagne. But when he said “Good morning” to her, her reply before entering her house, according to Mr. Sagman, was “Fuck you, you scumbag piece of shit. I’m gonna get you.”
Sitting in the pool house at his lawyers’ Southampton beachfront house on Meadow Lane last weekend, he was wearing a Hugo Boss T-shirt, a Rolex watch, blue shorts and beach shoes. He looked tan and healthy. White teeth. A little goop in his hair. His chuckle wasn’t as strong, but he didn’t seem that depressed.
Recently, Mr. Sagman said, he met ad man Jerry Della Femina, who had made unkind remarks about him in the Independent and has gotten to know his daughter Jodi and other “big socialites” like Andrew Saffir and Daniel Benedict.
“I’m sure when they saw the documentary, you know, it made their skin crawl or whatever,” he said. “When they meet me as an individual, they see that I’m not that ‘Yo, what’s up, dude; what’s up, fellas?’ You know, how I came across.
“I would just say enough’s enough,” he concluded. “You know, get to know the real Josh Sagman before you write something. I just want basically people to know that I’m not a bad person.”
Mark Heller and Mike Heller, of the law firm Heller & Heller, were in the poolhouse too, watching over Mr. Sagman. Mr. Heller père is a stout, powerfully built man in his 50′s who once represented the Son of Sam (whose reign of tabloid terror is one of the reasons, he believes, people started flocking to the Hamptons in the late 1970′s).
They’re around a lot lately. Mr. Sagman is worried that the constant police visits to the house in Quogue could end up costing him tens of thousands of dollars on his time share, but the Hellers believe the citations he’s been getting are unconstitutional, and that although time shares are illegal, it’s a case of “selective prosecution.” The house, they reason, isn’t owned by Mr. Sagman, but by his corporation, JBJ Enterprises.
“These share houses have tremendously enhanced the local economy. They have been a wonderful thing financially, and when it’s convenient everybody thinks it’s wonderful,” the elder Mr. Heller said. “But when it’s otherwise inconvenient they want to attack them, so they want to bite the hand that feeds them. A guy like Josh brings out x -number of people to patronize a seasonal community, where these people wait for the Josh Sagmans of the world to come and buy their products and eat in their restaurants. And when a guy like him comes and does that, they think it’s wonderful. But then when a story comes out because he’s notorious, they want to throw the book at him and single him out.”
“For me, he’s one of the most beautiful characters that I filmed,” Ms. Kopple said when told about the trouble with the share house in Quogue. “I really like him and care about him, and I didn’t want anything negative or bad to come to anybody from doing this. I wanted people to feel proud about themselves. I think he should feel proud about who he is and what he’s about.”
Soon, the jury will be out. On July 11, the Hellers make their case in court.