Archive for January 19th, 2006

Ben & Claude

So in my last post I got kind of distracted by the burglary of my stuff from my dressing room (I still haven't heard from the Philadelphia police detectives -- maybe they have more pressing concerns?), and I didn't get to mention the cool celebration I'd attended earlier on Tuesday morning.

Okay, I say "earlier" -- this is a relative term. For a touring theater performer, Ben Franklin's famous "Early to Bed, Early to Rise" dictum might perhaps suggest rising at the crack of noonish. But since this was Ben's 300th birthday, I bravely dragged myself out of bed and rushed down to a really old part of Philly for their annual parade -- starting at 11 a.m. -- in honor of the great man.

The parade began at the American Philosophical Society, which Franklin founded (natch), and made its way a few short blocks to his grave, at the Christ Church cemetery. The paraders were an eclectic mix: Franklin scholars, librarians, city dignitaries, kilted bagpipers (because "Dr." Franklin had gotten his honorary degree in Edinburgh?), a whole lot of Freemasons (Franklin had been one), and several members of the wonderful Friends of Franklin organization. A member of this last group, who'd seen my Franklin show, recognized me and pulled me into the procession. It was a beautiful, cold, crisp morning, and one thing that struck me was that everyone seemed to be smiling -- with the notable exception of a lone man who sullenly held up a sign proclaiming the eternal presidential ambitions of Lyndon LaRouche.

We all crowded into a corner of the cemetery where a prayer was said on behalf of Franklin (whose own religious views were quite democratic, by the way -- he gave generously to many churches, including the substantial sum of $800 to help build the city's first Jewish synagogue). Then a dignitary said a few words, though he was partially drowned out by a helicopter that hovered above us (there was lots of press, including a cluster of TV cameras -- Ben, the great self-publicist, would've loved it). I thought of stepping on a nearby platform to get a better view of the proceedings, but fortunately realized in time that it was actually a very large gravestone.

But I have to say that I still didn't feel totally connected to Franklin. The Franklin I've come to know through my own little researches was -- beneath all his accomplishments, and his deserved fame -- intimate and down-to-earth. These grand and elaborate proceedings, invoking God and country, though heartfelt, didn't evoke that easy, joyful plainness I associated with Ben: Much as I longed to, I didn't feel his presence.

After that ceremony, I headed over to the Downtown Club, where I'd been comped into a fancy luncheon to raise money for Franklin-related projects in Philadelphia. One of the honorees was to be Claude-Anne Lopez, the brilliant Franklin writer who is really the heroine of my monologue Ben Franklin: Unplugged. As a Jewish teenager in Nazi-occupied Belgium, Claude had miraculously managed to escape to America, where she settled in New Haven with her husband, a professor at Yale. Eventually, after their two sons were grown, Claude -- who had never graduated from college -- wandered over into Yale's collection of Franklin papers one day in the '50s and ended up becoming one of the world's great Franklin scholars. (For starters, check out her charming book Mon Cher Papa: Franklin and the Ladies of Paris.)

Like Ben himself, this ferociously intelligent woman must have been quite an exacting parent. (At the parade I met one of her sons, who told me that for one of his recent birthdays, Claude had sent him a refrigerator magnet that read: "You're Never Too Old To Find Room for Improvement in Your Middle-Aged Son!") As a friend -- and she has become a dear one to me and my family (she calls me "Joshua the Bear," since I'd once described myself over the phone as looking somewhat bearlike) -- she is a total delight. I love Claude. And I was thrilled that, though she is somewhat frail these days (she's in her mid-80s), these Philadelphia "Franklinistas" (as she calls them) had arranged for her to be honored and to give a talk.

Claude's speech, which was typically charming and erudite, focused on the confusions of one of Franklin's grandsons, William "Temple" Franklin. Temple, the issue of Franklin's son William and an unknown "woman of low repute," had originally been placed in an orphanage in England. Ben -- in London on an ultimately futile diplomatic mission -- took him out of the orphanage and raised him as "William Temple"; the boy didn't know anything about his parentage. Claude speculates that it was only on the boat ride back to America, in the tumultuous year of 1775, that Ben revealed to Temple that he was in fact his grandfather, and that William Franklin (then the Royal Governor of New Jersey) was his father. At the luncheon, Claude began by reading from a diary she has imagined for the teenaged Temple, and which she is currently posting in online installments.

The luncheoneers sat at round, numbered tables, listening politely. It was a fancy crowd: philanthropists, politicians, and those ever-present Masons (no LaRouche guy, fortunately). I watched Claude as she spoke in a firm voice, with her charming accent -- this representative of a vanishing generation of European Jewry. What a remarkable country we have, where all the cultures of the world somehow join together in this still-fragile American democratic experiment! And yet, though I felt a strong kinship to Claude, I still felt as out of place as I usually do at big-ticket events.

And then Claude did something. After reading her entry from Temple's "diary," she called Ellen Cohn, the current editor of Yale's Franklin Papers, up to the lectern. Ellen has always struck me as being quite shy, so I suspect that it was only the mighty force of Claude's will that got her up there. She's also an expert in Franklin's love for music, and Claude -- it turns out -- had asked her to lead us all in singing a love song that Ben had written to his wife, titled "I Sing My Plain Country Joan." (I realize that his wife was actually named Deborah, but I believe that "Joan" was his pet name for her.) At the end of each verse was a line that began "My dear Friends," which Ellen asked all of us to join her in singing.

Well, the song was charming and lovely. And as we all sang along with the last line of each verse, I looked around at everyone's faces -- and I saw delight, joy, humanity. I felt Franklin in the room.

Here's the last verse:

Some faults we have all, and so may my Joan,
But then they're exceedingly small;
An now I'm us'd to 'em, they're just like my own,
I scarcely can see 'em at all,
[All:] My dear Friends, I scarcely can see 'em at all.

As I walked back to my hotel, on crowded blocks past discount-clothing stores and fast-food joints, I recalled a moment from my New York childhood. I was about eight (the age my own son is now), and I'd recently been greatly troubled by nightmares in which my father (then a very hearty man in his 40s) appeared to be old and dying. I wanted time somehow to stop, so that everything would stay the same as it was. But for some reason, as we waited on a subway platform, my question came out like this: "Dad, is there a god?"

Dad, ever the rational materialist, explained to me that, as he had never seen proof of a deity, he'd have to say no. And yet I persisted, as eight-year-olds do: "But if there is a god, what's he like?"

For a time, my father stood there, thinking. Then he said, "Well, if there is a god, then he's all the people, if they would work together."

6 comments January 19th, 2006


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