Koch on the French … And Then There Were None

Koch on the French

An impassioned crowd gathered at a solidarity rally for Israel in midtown recently roared its approval as speaker after speaker vowed to stand by the Jewish state and denounced Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat for failing to discourage the unraveling of the Middle East peace process. But the demonstrators seemed less certain how to react when former Mayor Ed Koch took the stage and, unexpectedly, angrily declared war on the French.

“The French would sell their family out for a contract,” Mr. Koch said. A few people cheered. Mr. Koch, who was in France in the Army during World War II, went on to recount a modern tradition of anti-Semitism by the French, beginning with the collaboration between the Vichy government and the Nazis during World War II, through the statements this month from the French government condemning Israel for the recent outbreak of violence in the Middle East.

“I believe that they have to be castigated,” Mr. Koch subsequently explained to The Observer . “The French have always been anti-Semitic. The French under the Nazis were great collaborators. They rounded up 76,000 French Jews, and the Germans didn’t even ask them to! It’s all a myth about the French opposition. In fact, the major opposition to the Nazis were the communists.”

But Mr. Koch, do you really believe that the French would sell their family out for a contract?

“That was a little hyperbole,” Mr. Koch said, “but they are doing it in effect with Iraq. The French have violated the international sanctions, and the reason that they do it is that they want oil contracts. They want Iraq to pay the money which Iraq probably still owes them for the nuclear-bomb plant the French built for them in 1980.”

What about our obligation to defend France as a fellow member of NATO?

“Let me say, I hope there’s never a World War III, but if there–God forbid–were, and I were in the Congress, I would not vote to assist France.”

Did Mr. Koch have anything nice, anything at all, to say about France?

“Great food,” Mr. Koch said.

The press attaché of the French Mission to the United Nations, Alain Gavillet, would not be drawn into an international war of words. “Mr. Koch is free to make any comment he wants,” he said.

–Josh Benson

And Then There Were None

Four years ago, a Wednesday night bridge game founded by literary agent Todd Keithley was regularly attracting large crowds of bookish twentysomethings. Like Mr. Keithley, many were ambitious up-and-comers on the publishing scene, more often than not holding degrees in the humanities from Yale.

As an assistant editor at Penguin-Putnam and St. Martin’s Press, and later as an agent at Jane Dystel, Mr. Keithley recruited player after player from the publishing world. He convinced one player, Jennifer Westhoven, a television news producer, to join while standing on a ticket line at the Ziegfeld. They played for four hours at a time at crusty dens like the Manhattan Club and the Beverly Bridge Club, as well as at Starbucks and Xando.

“He’s the most charismatic geek you’ll ever meet,” said Joanna Cagan, a former colleague of Mr. Keithley’s at Penguin-Putnam. “He got me hooked.” She wasn’t the only one. “It was like Todd’s bridge cult,” she said. “People would talk about projects and have lots of off-the-record discussions about sales.” It got so popular that Newsweek sent a reporter to write an article on the game.

But now the Wednesday night game is dead. No one played during the summer. Lately, Mr. Keithley is satisfied if he can strike up the odd match with his group’s three only remaining members: Simon Lipskar, an agent at Writers’ House; Dan Greenberg, an agent at James Levine; and Kelley Ragland, an editor at St. Martin’s.

On a recent Thursday, they met for a game at Eureka Joe on Fifth Avenue and 21st Street. “We had those few months where everyone was playing–then there were 10, and then eight,” Ms. Ragland said. Some people got bored. Some just moved away. Others just got fed up.

“There was too much bridge for too long,” David Donsky, an English teacher in Manhattan, said. Mr. Donsky had learned to play bridge in Nepal while he was in the Peace Corps. But no amount of inner calm could make Mr. Donsky endure a four-hour game of bridge. “You couldn’t leave or talk once you started. There was no post-mortem after a match. After a while, I kind of drifted away from it.”

Mr. Keithley taught Danielle Perez to play three years ago when they both worked at Penguin-Putnam. “I played for a good couple of years,” Ms. Perez said. After a while, though, she said the prospect of spending Wednesday nights playing bridge “sort of lost its allure.”

“I always had a lot of work,” she said. “I just kind of realized I don’t want to spend 10 hours a week playing bridge.”

Jodi Wilgoren, a writer for The New York Times , and her friend Sarah Gorham, a lawyer, simply stopped showing up when everyone else also stopped showing up. “The group just kind of fell apart,” Ms. Gorham said.

As the game went into decline, Mr. Keithley did everything he could to turn people out. He paid a friend $15 to learn bridge, offered lavish bridge deck giveaways and organized a “bridge couplet” contest. The winning couplet? Ms. Cagan’s “I used to play bridge quite a bit / Then I quit.”

It didn’t help that Mr. Keithley demanded attendance at Friday night instructional sessions. “I’m a sportswriter, but I’ve never seen anything as intense as Wednesday night bridge games,” Ms. Cagan said. “It was staggering how much time the game was taking up. Not only did you have to play every week, you had to show up for special lessons on the side.”

But there was something else wrong. Ms. Cagan felt excluded. “I went to Rutgers–New Jersey State, basically,” she said. “But 80 percent of them went to Yale. People always said to me, ‘So, you went to Yale.’ No. I didn’t.”

A series of mergers at Penguin-Putnam in the 90’s that sent many employees packing didn’t help Mr. Keithley’s bridge game cause, either.

“Like a lot of publishing houses these days, it was editorially a sinking ship,” Ms. Cagan said. “There were mergers and firings. Great groups of friends were disbanded.” When Ms. Cagan quit her job to become a freelance writer, she also quit playing bridge. “I think my sanity is a little better now,” she said.

For the group’s remaining members, all that remains are the memories–and the slow and painful process of trying somehow to put the pieces back together again. There is also one overwhelming question. Why?

According to Ms. Gorham, the game collapsed when Mr. Keithley’s girlfriend moved to North Carolina. “It fell apart because Todd fell in love,” she said.

For others, the group’s demise had more to do with contrasting priorities. “There were some men there looking for dates and there were no women there looking for dates,” Mr. Greenberg said.

“A bridge game’s not a good place to go to chase skirt,” Mr. Lipskar said. “There were people there who were disappointed. They were hoping that it would be more of a young publishing meet-and-greet kind of thing than it was. We were more geeky than expected.”

Everybody turned out when the Newsweek reporter came to a game. “It was exciting,” Mr. Keithley said. “People who hadn’t come out to play in weeks came out. We’d spent a ton of time preparing for it.”

But the resulting article, called “Young Fogies,” wasn’t exactly what Mr. Keithley expected. In it, Art Chung, an infrequent player, said that “[bridge] is a way for young people to test the waters of adulthood in an ironic way.… I don’t think we’ll be playing bridge when we’re 40, because then it’ll be too real .”

Reached for comment, Mr. Chung said that, indeed, he’d eventually gotten sick of the bridge and switched to playing poker. He added, “There were a few annoying people. It was like, do I really want to see XYZ? They were just kind of dorks.”

–Ian Blecher Koch on the French … And Then There Were None