More of the Right Stuff

On the morning of Saturday, Feb. 1, Tom Wolfe got a phone call from NBC’s Today show. “I had just gotten up,” he said. “They said, ‘Can you come on and talk about the shuttle?'” He was confused. “At first, I thought they were talking about the shuttle between Washington and Boston. I had no idea.”

Soon, it became all too clear: The space shuttle Columbia , with its seven astronauts, had burned up re-entering the earth’s atmosphere.

As it happens, the shuttle that carried that crew was built in 1979, the same year Mr. Wolfe published The Right Stuff , his New Journalism tome to the early test pilots-Yeager, Conrad, Grissom, Glenn-who first faced down the evil odds of rocketry and were willing-Willing? Delighted!-to claim the glorious spacestuff for the U.S.

But that sort of mythology all seems far away now. It’s difficult to connect the steel-chewing cowboys of the Florida tarmac, who were dedicated to Flying & Drinking and Drinking & Driving, to these new, barely known seven, who went suddenly and horribly from C-Span anonymity to full-blare Fox tragi-fame. As Mr. Wolfe confessed, he, like a lot of people, had stopped following the shuttle program very closely these past years. The 1960’s space race and its jolt of national urgency was so much stardust memory. The space shuttle, he admitted, “began to seem like a complex airliner.”

Until Feb. 1, when that airliner became a comet, raining grief and debris on the nation.

But in the wake of the Columbia tragedy, Mr. Wolfe, a romantic, wasn’t plagued with petering, defeated ideas about space travel. He knew: Men had died before; NASA had faced scrutiny before; the public had lost its stomach for risk before. The Apollo 1 fire in 1967-which claimed Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Roger Chaffee and Ed White, the first American to walk in space-held NASA back for two years!

To the contrary, Tom Wolfe is ready to go to Mars. “I’m a romantic about the idea of going to all these different planets and, my God, maybe some day leaving this galaxy-to me that’s romantic .”

Mr. Wolfe said NASA had to regain a sense of mission. His first thought on the subject was the early, pre- Apollo idealism, before the fabled space race-back, for instance, in 1958, when the space shuttle was still called the X-20 Project and was seen as a sort of low-watt concept. NASA was ready to man Mars, for God’s sake! Mr. Wolfe recalled Wernher von Braun, the early 1930’s German rocket genius who ended up heading what is now the Marshall Space Flight Center for NASA. “He was very thoughtful about the whole thing,” he said. “If the sun dies-and eventually it will-what happens to … human beings? We haven’t even discovered a flea out there. We need to build ‘a bridge to the stars,’ he thought, which would be getting people off the earth with spaceships and somehow creating settlements on some other body in the universe.”

“But NASA didn’t really have any philosophy to sell to the nation,” he concluded, “and as a result the budgets started shrinking. I mean, they could barely keep the lights on in Houston.”

The space race with the Soviets, said Mr. Wolfe, while it propelled the first launches and eventually the Apollo 11 moon landing, had a short shelf-life and no fallback philosophy. “Congress didn’t want to spend any more money on this. And I dare say the citizenry in general were not interested any longer because it really was a contest with the Soviets.

“After a while,” said Mr. Wolfe, “the Apollo missions began to seem anticlimactic to people.”

The only person who seemed to have a philosophy about the whole thing, the long-range purposes of space exploration, was Wernher von Braun,” he said. “And it didn’t look too great to have a former member of the [German] Wehrmacht as your philosopher.”

The space shuttle itself was a symbol of NASA’s scaled-back concept of space travel. “They more or less settled for the shuttle just to keep the program alive,” said Mr. Wolfe. “And to make it more salable in terms of selling it to politicians and the public. As soon as they could, it was going to be used for taking a lot of civilians up.”

Of course, that idea ended in 1986, when schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe, the first citizen astronaut, perished in the Challenger .

“You think about the length of time it took between the deaths of the three astronauts in Apollo 1 -that program was just stopped. It was dead in its tracks until they just worked and worked and worked on it. It was that way after the Challenger flight. Everything is stopped for a long time. And they’ll stop now.”

But it will return. Mr. Wolfe said the astronauts of the Columbia -Husband, Brown, Anderson, Clark, Ramon, Chawla and McCool-while they weren’t gritty test-pilot types, were basically the same as their predecessors. “These people knew the risks,” he said. “They knew what they were doing. They wanted to do it. And there are plenty of others more than willing to take the next flight, I’m sure.”

As Mr. Wolfe wrote, the men and women who become astronauts aren’t praying for their lives when the evil odds roll their way, they’re thinking: “PLEASE DON’T LET ME FUCK UP.”

“That’s what Buzz Aldrin was saying in the papers this morning,” said Mr. Wolfe. “You’re not so much afraid for your hide, but are you going to look like somebody who gets rattled, or can’t carry out the experiment? And the only thing they had to do in those early flights was hit the button at the right moment when they were re-entering earth’s atmosphere.”

The essential constitution of the astronaut-and the public’s perception of him-remains the same. “If you’re in a cocktail party and you say, ‘See that guy over there’-and they’re not very big-‘He’s an astronaut.’ And even if he’s not gone up to space yet, that room will suddenly converge on the astronaut. Because there is something-you talk about this admiration of the right stuff-it still exists on a far more unconscious level.”

-Joe Hagan

Martha Graham’s Ghost

The man who would be Martha Graham sat on the cheetah-patterned bedspread in his West 14th Street apartment. “I don’t play her small and petite,” said dancer Richard Move as he motioned to a photo of Graham hanging on the wall. On the other side of the room, a large vanity mirror hung behind a gurgling humidifier.

How could he? Large-framed and black-clad, with a prettier face than his idol, Mr. Move stood 6-foot-4 in his combat boots. A bull’s-eye of platinum blond had been dyed into the crown of his jet black hair. When he smiled, he revealed a mouthful of crooked teeth.

“She was larger than life. She loomed ,” he said with locked jaw.

“Her persona and her place in history is so large that somehow my height makes sense in that department. I think it’s that extremity and passion, and that complete commitment and sacrifice, that fascinates me about her.”

Were Graham still alive, who knows what she would make of Mr. Moves’ admitted obsession with her. Since 1994, he has been impersonating Graham in a series of downtown shows-first at the nightclub Jackie 60 and then, until 2000, at Mother-called Martha@ . And if all goes as planned, next he’ll be making the film-festival scene, promoting his turn as Graham in a strange little film about her life called Ghost Light , directed by Christopher Herrmann and featuring such staples of the 80’s downtown scene as Ann Magnuson, Debbie Harry and former fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi.

Figuring out what Graham’s surviving acolytes think of Mr. Move is not so unfathomable. Though Mr. Move said that his Graham impersonation is “foremost an homage,” he acknowledges that the dance guru’s extreme personality quickly lent itself to satire.

“She was a real egomaniac and she’s from another era, and I think that’s part of the humor,” he said. “People don’t speak in these exalted, mystical tones right now. Later in life, she was always in fur, bejeweled, perfectly coifed, always had to be loved.”

Though a number of Martha Graham Company dancers are involved with Ghost Light and the Martha@ series, others aren’t thrilled that their inspiration is being lampooned by a large man in drag.

Shortly before Mr. Move’s first performance of Martha@ , he received a cease-and-desist order from Ron Protas, Martha Graham’s estate holder-himself no stranger to controversy when it comes to Graham. Mr. Move’s alleged infraction: He had used a picture of Graham on the flyer. Ever since, Mr. Move has had to label all Martha@ paraphernalia with a disclaimer: “This is in no way connected to or sponsored by the Martha Graham Entities.”

Pearl Lang, a longtime student of Graham who has taught at the school and been involved in the company for decades, said that Mr. Move’s impersonation is “the most obscene thing I have ever heard of. Nobody should climb on anybody else’s back for a career,” she told The Transom. “I am totally and absolutely against the whole movie.”

However, Ghost Light ‘s director, Mr. Herrmann, said that his leading man plays Graham “really straight” in the film. “It’s still kind of campy, but you know Martha Graham was very campy,” said Mr. Herrmann. The film, which The Transom screened, is ostensibly about the making of a documentary about Graham’s final ballet. The filmmaker in Ghost Light is based on Hamptons documentarian Barbara Koppel, who incidentally doesn’t know yet that she was the model for the role. Ms. Magnuson plays the filmmaker as an ambitious and pushy journalist who is enamored of Graham, but at the same time makes fun of her. Meanwhile, Mr. Move walks through the film with his face frozen in a haughty frown, spouting lines from Graham’s autobiography. His imposing height and masculine physique leave the distinct impression that Ed Wood is alive and well and working as a casting director.

Mr. Herrmann said that despite its funny conceit, the film is true to life. “There’s one scene where Martha asks the guys to adjust their penises when they’re in rehearsal. People are like, ‘Did she really do that?’ Yeah, she did,” he said. “People don’t really know how funny Martha really was.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Move said he turns “a deaf ear” to the controversy surrounding his Graham impersonation. He explained that because people who were close to Graham-such as dancer Bertram Ross (whom she called “my skin”), Linda Hodes and Merce Cunningham-support him, he finds the opposition unfounded. “I think that some people feel like any time you infuse something with a little humor, they think ‘satire’ and ‘camp’ are dirty words, and that’s a kind of sensibility that finds what I do controversial and questions it. And I just think that’s a really old way of thinking,” he said, running his hands through the black roots of his platinum hair.

Mr. Move’s fascination with Graham began at the tender age of 15, when he took his first Graham dance class in his hometown of Fredericksburg, Va. His high school didn’t even offer modern dance, but his teacher took him to see a Graham performance at the Kennedy Center, and it was love at first sight. “I was close enough to see her bow,” he remembered.

“I became kind of obsessed with her, and this amazing life,” Mr. Move said. “I mean, it’s 1929 and the stock market crashes and we’re going into the Depression, and she’s a woman and she’s risking everything to rent a Broadway theater and do her work for one night and start an art form.”

Mr. Move, who appears to be in his early 30’s-“A lady never comments on her age,” he said-began to work up his Graham impersonation in the 90’s. He interspersed monologues by himself-as-Graham with performances by guest artists. “It was almost like a vaudeville variety show of dance. And Martha was a big vaudeville star, so it was kind of a nod to her days in the Greenville Follies and vaudeville, which she was so involved with before she was involved in her career that we know her for,” he said.

“The idea is that Martha has never died, and she has now taken on this new reason in hosting this monthly dance series that she happens to curate, M.C. and host,” he added, blowing out a long plume of smoke.

As for the ironic content of his performances, Mr. Move said: “I think irony and humor is a way in, and I think that’s a very contemporary sensibility.”

Some who studied under Graham found Martha@ too ironic. “The one episode I saw at Mother was the old video of her and Helen Keller,” said Graham company dancer Miki Orihara. “That one I didn’t really appreciate because he made fun of Helen Keller also. To me, I was a little bit hurt.”

Ms. Orihara did give Mr. Move credit, however, for introducing Graham to “different types of audiences, more like what people call downtown dancers, who really think that Martha Graham is too snobby.”

Mr. Move said that as Martha@ evolved he made his performances more serious and melancholy.

Eventually he accrued an interesting fan base. By the end of his series in 1999, Mikhail Baryshnikov was his guest and was performing in his ensemble. Merce Cunningham performed with him twice and Mark Morris performed with him four times. Actresses Jessica Lange and Julia Roberts, and artist Francesco Clemente, among others, came to his shows. Many became personal friends. Bertram Ross saw the show but had one complaint. “‘You should wear a more blood-red lipstick.’ That was his big comment,” Mr. Move said.

And Mr. Herrmann said he got the idea for Ghost Light when he checked out Mr. Move’s show. At first, the director said, he was “concerned that it would be over the top.” However, working with the cast to tone down the film and scale back the humorous and theatrical aspects of the show convinced him that the movie could work. Graham would have approved, he rationalized. “She was a classicist,” Mr. Herrmann said. “One of the most eye-opening experiences for me was her taking me to the Kabuki in Asia and all of the characters are played by men. All mythological pieces are played by men. All Shakespeare is, too. In her eyes, it’s acceptable for a guy to play her.” Especially this guy, because “he channels her.”

-Alexandra Wolfe

The Daughter Is a Scamp

Tina Sinatra has declared herself the “keeper of the Sinatra flame.” And that apparently includes maintaining her father’s rigorous hatred of the press.

On Jan. 29, Ms. Sinatra-the spike-haired and eye-lined youngest daughter of the late singer-served as a host, along with New York Post columnist Liz Smith and 60 Minutes correspondent Mike Wallace, at the Museum of Television and Radio’s premiere of Sinatra Amidst the Pyramids , a heretofore unseen video of a concert that Sinatra père performed for then-Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in 1979.

A foreshadowing of Ms. Sinatra’s media manners came early when Ms. Smith introduced her co-host with a string of reminiscences that induced cries of nostalgia and chuckles from the audience. Taking her cue, a teary-eyed Ms. Sinatra told the crowd that Ms. Smith’s introduction was “the first good thing” a journalist had said about her in a long time.

The film suffers from sporadic blackouts, fuzzy photography and dizzying spins of the camera, but Sinatra’s matchless baritone permeated the photographic fog so that the entire screening room was cheering and clapping wildly by the film’s end. The Sphinx towering in the background provided an exotic element, and the Chairman of the Board’s occasional stage banter seemed to thrill the M.T.& R. crowd (except for Mr. Wallace, who halfway through the film, hotfooted it over to his colleague Bob Shieffer’s book party at Blue Smoke on 27th Street). Regarding the late Sadat, Sinatra said: “He really is a great cat.” And then motioning to the pyramids, he told the audience: “I don’t know how to tell you this, but I have two of those in my den back at home.” It sure would be interesting to see how Sinatra would play in Egypt today.

At the post-screening reception in the museum lobby, The Transom attempted to squeeze between the fur-clad benefactors surrounding Ms. Sinatra to talk about one of her latest projects: a modern-day remake of the 1962 film The Manchurian Candidate that had starred her father. We also wanted to ask her how as chief executive of Sheffield Enterprises-the company that licenses the late Sinatra’s name and likeness-she planned to market her father’s work to the younger cats who aren’t hip to Francis Albert.

Unfortunately, the minute we introduced ourselves, Ms. Sinatra looked like she’d taken a bite of a rancid cannoli. She shrunk wordlessly away from us while shaking her head.

In an attempt to make something of the event, The Transom sought solace-and a quote-from Ms. Smith the following morning. “She just doesn’t like the press,” she twanged in her Texan drawl. “She’s just her father’s child.”

Ms. Smith sure sounded like she knew all the answers. So we asked her about The Manchurian Candidate and that thumbsucker about marketing Frank Sinatra to a younger audience. “I’m sure she couldn’t give a shit about the younger generation,” Ms. Smith shot back. “She just wants to make a movie that would be commercially viable.”

-Zoe Slutzky More of the Right Stuff