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A New York Minute (9)

2 Jan

January 2, 2011

Welcome to your New York Minute.

They say that you can find anyone anywhere at anytime in New York. And that may be true, because this week I’m broadcasting from the intersection of Rex Harrison and Allen Ginsburg. Well, so to speak.

Rex Harrison may be best known as Doctor Doolittle in the 1967 film- you guessed it- Doctor Doolittle.

Can we get a little Rex Harrison? That’s the stuff.

He was a wonderful actor. Noel Coward said he was “the best light comedy actor in the world—except for me.” Um, Noel Coward was talking about himself, not yours truly.

Rex Harrison died in 1986, leaving behind six wives (five of them exes, of course) two sons, and three step-sons. One of his sons, born to actress Lilli Palmer, was a bright lad named Carey.

Carey Harrison is the celebrated author of 35 stage plays and 16 novels. He has written for radio and television. Masterpiece Theater has dedicated 17 hours to his work. Among many other things, he is a book reviewer and a columnist. He has won numerous awards and is currently writing an opera.

And he was my English professor in Brooklyn College.

Now I have to be honest. When I was his student I knew nothing about any of that. I knew his father was a famous actor but that was as far as it went. Professor Harrison was, and presumably still is, a very nice man and a scholarly gentleman. I enjoyed his class, which was planned around the novel The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford. I recall coming up with an insight about some of the minor character’s names, which I realized were the names of lesser Knights of the Round Table. Despite probably having heard the same insight hundreds of times from hundreds of students, he made me feel as though I had really accomplished something, which I much later in my own career realized was a hallmark of a good teacher.

The class was small, about a dozen of us gathered around a large conference table in his office, which he used instead of a classroom. It was intimate. One thing I admired about him was his passion not for writing, but for curiosity. At one point in the novel a character drinks, I believe, a sloe gin fizz, though it might have been a mint julep. Any of you Ford Madox Ford nuts in the audience, write in and tell me which it was. Professor Harrison stopped us to ask us about the drink. None of us had ever had one. We knew it was an alcoholic beverage, and some of us knew what was in it, but that wasn’t good enough for him. He chastised us- in a kind way- for not knowing more. What did it taste like? How was it made? I suspect it was that level of passion and attention to detail that makes him such a successful man.

I took the class in the winter and he invited all of us to a holiday party at his home and one of my regrets is that I didn’t go. I was never much of a joiner, especially then, and the prospect of spending the night in the company of what were virtually strangers and my English teacher did not seem very inviting. But as I said, I had no idea who my professor was. Looking back, all the questions I could have asked, all the stories I could have heard, the potential valuable professional contact- Professor Harrison, if you listen to Flash Cast, and I’m sure you do, please, invite me back! And if any of his current students are listening, yo, hook me up, dudes!

But I did say I was broadcasting from the intersection of Harrison and Ginsburg.

Allen Ginsburg, as I hope most of you know, was one of the leading Beat Poets of the 1950’s. If you know nothing else of him, get out of the house and look up his poem “Howl.”

He was a poet, a hippie, and a postmodernist. He was a Buddhist, a protestor, and a professor. Yes, he too taught English at Brooklyn College.

I did not get to meet Professor Ginsburg, though I understand no one called him Professor. I took Professor Harrison’s class not long after Allen Ginsburg died. Professor Harrison brought us into the small and dingy English Department office they shared. It was nothing special. It was functional, painted with neutral, faded grey paint and stocked with slightly beat up and worn furniture like you’d find in a cheap walk-in clinic. From the surroundings you’d never guess two such distinguished men worked there, yet they did. Professor Harrison reverently pointed to Allen Ginsburg’s chair, which he never allowed anyone to sit in, and showed us Ginsburg’s plants, which Professor Harrison continued to water. And if you Ginsburg fans are wondering, the plants were ordinary ferns, not marijuana.

I can’t say that I appreciated any of that tale at the time, but now several years later and reading it back as I write, that’s a pretty good story. And where else could it happen but Brooklyn New York?


An audio version of this legend recently appeared in the amazing FlashPulp website. Check them out for awesomeness and goodies!


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