Andy Rooney has a new book out, so he was happy to receive a visitor at his West 57th Street offices, located across the street from the rest of his colleagues at CBS’s 60 Minutes. There were four rooms, two employees, and it was quiet.
“We got our own little world here,” said the 83-year-old Mr. Rooney. “It is good-look, we got our own coffee. It certainly is good.” In the editing room were four television monitors for editing his weekly Sunday-night segments. Since 1978, he’s done over 800.
Mr. Rooney picked up a baseball glove. Didn’t he do a segment about hating baseball?
“I do hate baseball,” he said, sitting at a walnut desk he made in his woodworking shop upstate.
The phone rang.
“How was the trip to Florida? You should be here when I get in trouble!” Mr. Rooney said, laughing. “Had the one hand operated on, so now I gotta have the other one …. Well, it’s better. I can turn a door knob with my right hand now. Jeez, I can’t do anything-like holding a toothbrush is hard. All right, I got some guy here talking to me.” He hung up.
Earlier this month, Mr. Rooney caught fire for saying this to sportscaster Boomer Esaison on the latter’s MSG show: “The only thing that really bugs me about television’s coverage is those damn women they have down on the sidelines who don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. I mean, I’m not a sexist person, but a woman has no business being down there trying to make some comment about a football game.”
Don Hewitt, 60 Minutes’ executive producer, then suggested that Mr. Rooney do a piece on it for the show. So he did.
“I don’t know-I probably should have let it go, but I didn’t,” Mr. Rooney said.
“I think women have found it difficult to find some compensatory attribute to muscle,” he said. “I mean, men are stronger, and this is difficult to argue with. Women, though, are in so many ways, broadly speaking, better human beings. I don’t think the world would be in as much trouble as it’s in if they had been in charge, and I think the reason they have not been, originally, was muscle.
“I don’t know why people don’t say what they mean more often,” he continued. “There’s an awful lot of dissembling …. I am too critical, I recognize that. I don’t mind being critical, because there is so much in the world to be critical about. But I have a vindictive streak that is not attractive, even to me.”
Does he like being famous?
“It’s a pain in the neck,” he said. “I like the money, but other than that there’s not much good about it. I really dislike being recognized. I mean, if somebody comes up to you and says, ‘Hey, I like what you did last Sunday’-well, you can’t hate that. But then they want to be best friends. People come up to you in restaurants and say, ‘Hey, aren’t you Morley Safer?’ I got one yesterday I haven’t had in a long while-somebody said ‘Hi, Harry’ to me. Harry Reasoner.”
When he told Bernard Goldberg, the author of Bias , that he thought Dan Rather was “transparently liberal,” did it cause any problems with CBS?
“They were not happy about that around here at all,” he said.
Did Mr. Rather say anything to him?
He nodded. “Does a nod show on this tape machine?” he asked.
How does he stay healthy at 83?
“Drinking,” he said, laughing. “I played tennis until I got carpal tunnel.” I think it’s mostly genes. Also, I think the brain atrophies if you don’t use it, like muscles. And having to write something every day-I still get up very early in the morning. My clock is set at 5:27 and it never goes off.”
It was time to go. Mr. Rooney wanted to drive upstate to get to work on a chest of drawers he’d abandoned last summer to finish his book.
“I had it all set up in June,” he said. “I made the carcass of the chest and I cut the pieces for the drawers, and then I was going to dovetail the sides and put the bottom in. But then my publisher called and said, ‘You’re going to have that book by Aug. 5, aren’t you?’
“I never went back in my shop,” said Mr. Rooney. “Every once in a while, I go back in there and think to myself, ‘Jesus, I can see somebody coming into my shop a hundred years from now, and the chest is all covered in dust and cobwebs, and they’re gonna think whoever did this had this all set up, ready to go, and must have dropped dead or something.’ But no, I dropped into the book I had to finish.”
Barton Benes’ West Village studio apartment is a walk-in curio cabinet. There are African masks on the walls; there’s a statue of the Virgin Mary built of dollar bills; there’s a straw used by Monica Lewinsky. In the kitchen, alleged bone chips of Catholic saints hang over the balsamic vinegar.
“Here is a human toe that was found on the Williamsburg Bridge,” Mr. Benes said to a visitor the other day. “My doctor thinks that it may have fallen off a homeless person with gangrene.”
He pointed to a model airplane made out of tiny chunks of jet fuselage. “I found pieces of T.W.A. Flight 800 on the beach on Fire Island, right after it blew up.”
Nearby was a ring made out of actor Larry Hagman’s gallstones.
“That got me in The National Enquirer ,” Mr. Benes said.
The 59-year-old Mr. Benes has H.I.V. and emphysema. When he was particularly ill last spring, he formalized plans to bequeath his 850-square-foot home on Bethune Street to the North Dakota Museum of Art in Grand Forks, where it will be reconstructed. The apartment will be a permanent exhibit, and Mr. Benes’ ashes will be placed inside.
“It makes me comfortable that I get to live in my own pyramid now,” said Mr. Benes. “When I am gone, my collection won’t be in a museum basement. My brother said that he will still be able to visit me in North Dakota.”
In the meantime, the collection of Mr. Benes-who recently published a book called Curiosa: Celebrity Relics, Historical Fossils, and Other Metamorphic Rubbish -is still growing. “People give me things all the time,” he said as he pulled open a drawer. “Some woman once sent me fat from her liposuction. I also have a receipt for an expert-witness fee from a media mogul. You can’t print his name; he’ll sue me.”
Another relic was labeled “A gram of Picasso.” “I was high one night, and I scribbled on this Picasso lithograph I owned,” Mr. Benes explained. “I woke up horrified the next morning. I threw the lithograph into the blender.” He put the mulch in old cocaine vials. The vials sold out immediately. “I threw regular paper in the blender and sold ‘cut’ grams of Picasso,” he said.
Mr. Benes’ art dealer, Jill Weinberg Adams of Soho’s Lennon, Weinberg Gallery, said that the “street value” of one of the Picasso vials is several thousand dollars in Europe.
Mr. Benes said his interest in relics started when he stole the bone of a monk from catacombs in Rome in 1963. “Here is my latest stolen bone,” he said, indicating a small souvenir from a Czech church. “It is from the skull of a man who died of the Black Plague in the 14th century.”
Mr. Benes once obtained international notoriety for his controversial AIDS art. He made AIDS ribbons out of the ashes of his friend Brenda, who died of the disease. His traveling exhibit Lethal Weapons included a water pistol and a Molotov cocktail filled with his own blood. In 1994, Swedish health officials heated the exhibit’s pieces to 160 degrees for safety reasons. Two years later in England, a
Tory councilor tried to shut down the show on moral grounds.
The North Dakota Museum of Art, however, showed Lethal Weapons in 1994 without controversy. “People in North Dakota have no preconceived notion of art,” Mr. Benes said. “I think it has to do with the isolation. Whatever they see is art. Even school trips came.”
The museum’s director, Laurel Reuter, was pleased taht Mr. Benes decided to bequeath his apartment. “We’re pretty liberal in North Dakota,” Ms. Reuter said over the telephone. She said an archivist from the museum will travel to New York and videotape Mr. Benes’ studio to get exact measurements.
“With a small relic, I can make a big sensation,” Mr. Benes said. “A small thing can be more meaningful, more moving. I have this new project-somebody gave me a crate lid belonging to Sam Waksal. The crate had contained a telescope. I am going to make it into Martha Stewart–like handicrafts.”