BRIAN LAMB, HOST: When was the first time you got to know George Washington?
Mr. JAMES THOMAS FLEXNER, AUTHOR, "MAVERICK'S PROGRESS: AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY:" Well, I hope I did did get to know him. I would say it
was somewhat of a lengthy process. I mean, he was a pretty complicated
man, and I didn't the first time I met him, so to speak, I didn't
understand him very well.
LAMB: Where did you meet him?
Mr. FLEXNER: Well, he he I began I was writing various books in the
period of Washington's lifetime, and he began he kept appearing as
secondary characters in these various things I was writing, and he never
seemed to fit the Washington that I had learned out of legend. And I
gradually built up out of that the idea that I ought to try to really do
something new about him altogether, and yet as I have said, I wanted to
get back to to the original material and pay no attention to anything
that was published after his death, except, of course, if if it dealt
with his earlier times. But the but there's been a whole there were
thousands of biographies of Washington.
LAMB: How many in the end, how many words and how many different volumes
about George Washington did you write?
Mr. FLEXNER: Well, I wrote four volumes, and those were quite
considerable sized volumes. And then I condensed them all into a single
LAMB: And this is the single volume that I have in my hand here, and this
is the one that the new speaker of the House in 1995 said that everybody
ought to read. Did that surprise you?
Mr. FLEXNER: Well, I was sound sound asleep, until my telephone began
ringing, and my various of my friends called me and said, `Look in The
New York Times.' And then this is really very funny, because then when I
took my dog out for a walk and I know the whole community everyone had
seen it and congratulated me. And when I went to my club, which has
different political opinions, everybody attacked me.
LAMB: Why did they attack you?
Mr. FLEXNER: Because they didn't approve of Newt Gingrich. A lot of
people don't, as you well know.
LAMB: What do you think of him?
Mr. FLEXNER: I'm a not do not feel I was capable of an opinion because
one thing that I did on this was I was very anxious to to keep it from
getting involved with contemporary events, so that do writing about the
past, I have not passionately kept up with what is going on from day to
LAMB: The you know, you mentioned your club. Is that the Century Club?
Mr. FLEXNER: That's the Century Club. Yeah.
LAMB: The reason why I bring it up is I've got this New York Times review
of your book here...
Mr. FLEXNER: Yes.
LAMB: ...and and by the way, your book's called, "Maverick's Progress."
What what what's the `maverick' all about? Are you a maverick?
Mr. FLEXNER: That's what I consider I am.
LAMB: What does that mean?
Mr. FLEXNER: Well, the the story is very interesting. In the good old
days when they when the cattle all out in the West they were all
up put out together, the the various cattle were branded the cows
branded by the owners. And the the a man by the name of Maverick, who
was politically powerful, had it arranged that if there was no brand, it
was his brand. So not only did that get him his own cows, but all the
cows that escaped from being branded by others. And so the Maverick
meant someone who ran with the herd that was not carrying anybody's
LAMB: I started to read John Russell's the opening of John Russell's
review in The New York Times several weeks ago. He says, `In a far
corner of a club library in midtown Manhattan' obviously the Century
Club library `there is what might be called a baby grand sofa. On that
sofa, a plump little pillow is hand embroidered with the words `Jimmy
Flexner slept here.' Is that true?
Mr. FLEXNER: Well, that that's basically true. It was that wasn't
exactly the wording. It it it did it did have a a G.W. This was
done by the president of the club, who did needlework to keep amus keep
himself amused. And he had George Washington's signature across the top
of the pillow, and then he had that I slept there.
LAMB: The next paragraph's the one I want to read and get your get your
reaction to. He says, `And sure enough, James Thomas Flexner does sleep
there, four or five afternoons a week, for not more than 25 minutes. He
is never disturbed. Conversation is hushed, as he pads his soundless way
toward the sofa. Once there, he slips into dreamland, in a pose
reminiscent of the antique "Sleeping Eros" in the Metropolitan Museum.'
Mr. FLEXNER: Well, I haven't met the this Sleeping Eros, so I don't
know how much I resemble him.
Mr. FLEXNER: I gather he was a female. I don't know.
LAMB: Is it true that you do spend 25 minutes there sleeping on that
couch every day after lunch?
Mr. FLEXNER: I do go there every day after lunch. Whether it's 25
minutes at all, I couldn't say.
LAMB: Were you aware that people were watching you do this every day?
Mr. FLEXNER: Well, after all, it was quite conspicuous. I'd say it was
a very surprising thing, because it's the only place in the whole club
where anyone could sleep, and how I happened to get I think it was
because the then president of the club wan embroidered this pillow and
then put it in there.
LAMB: On one of the reasons that we even have this program called
BOOKNOTES is is because of a woman who wrote a book that was celebrated,
the most recent time, in 1987, and her name is Catherine Drinker Bowen.
Mr. FLEXNER: Oh, yes. She was a cousin of mine.
LAMB: That's why I bring it up. I noticed in reading your book that
Catherine Drinker Bowen the book that was so celebrated was "Miracle of
Philadelphia," but she wrote a lot of other books. How did you relate to
her, and what what what kind of a cousin was she?
Mr. FLEXNER: Well, I don't know. She she was a second; wasn't a first
cousin, but there was some family connection. And we became good friends
and got on very well together. She was a lovely woman. She was rather a
wild woman. She was not not she had she was not a very handsome
woman, but she was endlessly full of energy, and she could sound like a
horse running down and I think she wrote good books, don't you?
LAMB: Well, we we certainly got a good run on "Miracle of Philadelphia,"
which was the story of the Constitution and all that. And she wrote some
other books there. And it comes up in here, I think from time to time,
on some of the other books that you talk about having written or tried to
write. You tried to write a a a biography on John Adams. What
Mr. FLEXNER: I didn't get on with him. I I've never I never got on
with him. He by and large, I found it was of interest to write about
people whom you didn't particularly like, because it widened what you
could understand, if you come to understand them. But John Adams, I just
couldn't get on with, so I think he kept all kinds of of theoretically
revealing diaries, and then I discovered, as I was going through these
and I was starting to write, that the really important thing that was
happening in there was that he was getting interested in the woman he
married, and What was her name? And he married her and she was a
tremendously powerful figure in his life. But all these revelations
didn't have in them what was obviously the most interesting thing that
was happening. And that rather col cooled me down about going on with
John Adams, because I felt that I didn't like him or unde really
understand him to begin with. And then I decided that all this there
were whole layers of camouflage which I couldn't find my way through.
LAMB: I tried to count the number of books that you've leasted listed
out here. Do you know what the total number is? It depends on whether
you count the volumes and all, but it's either it's somewhere in the
order of 26, 27 books. That, if that, if you count all the volumes of
both your history of of the paintings and and and also the history of
George Washington. When where were you born?
Mr. FLEXNER: I was born on the corner of 62nd Street and Lexington
Avenue in New York City, at home.
LAMB: It's only about 20 blocks from here, from where we're sitting here
in the Algonquin Hotel.
Mr. FLEXNER: And about 20 blocks from where I live now.
LAMB: And that was in the year 1908.
Mr. FLEXNER: That's right.
LAMB: What were your parents like?
Mr. FLEXNER: Well, my father my father had an amazing career. He he
came from a family more more or less impoverished Jewish family in in
Baltimore, and they were having very hard times, and he proved to be the
family dunce. And he was he fell went out of school when he was
less less than in the eighth grade and was put in menial jobs to
make to bring in a little money, which he wouldn't couldn't keep. And
then he came down with typhoid fever and got separated off, and they had
a little garden where he could sit, and it was the first time that he'd
ever had any quiet in his life, and he was reborn. He appeared, got out
and got a job in a drugstore, and from then went on to being, with the
help of Mr. Rockefeller, a creator of what is now Rockefeller
University. It was then called the Rockefeller Institute. And he was an
LAMB: When did he die?
Mr. FLEXNER: I can't re I can't really remember.
LAMB: Years ago? I mean, was it 30, 40 years ago?
Mr. FLEXNER: Good many oh, more than that. He was considerably older
than I was, and he died, I suppose, when I was in my 40s.
LAMB: You were born in 1908.
Mr. FLEXNER: That's right.
LAMB: Makes you, if I count right, 88 years old.
Mr. FLEXNER: That's right.
LAMB: What's it feel like to be 88?
Mr. FLEXNER: Well, there were some ages I would prefer. All...
LAMB: What was your what's your favorite age? What was your favorite
time in your life?
Mr. FLEXNER: I suppose it would depend on on what I was doing at the
time. I don't think I didn't really think of myself as being different
ages. I could tell you which of the projects that I worked on I got the
most pleasure out of, but I would have a hard time telling you how old I
LAMB: Which projects were they?
Mr. FLEXNER: Well, I think that obviously, George Washington was the
thing that interested me the most. And, as you know, I wrote a good many
books on the history of American painting, which were, really,
path finding books. And, when I wrote them, the American painting was
considered so inferior to the European, there wasn't a single professor
of American painting in any American college. But now it's very much the
LAMB: What was your mother like?
Mr. FLEXNER: Well, my mother was was redheaded, at a time when when
red hair was just beginning to come into fashion. She was a very quiet
woman. She was was also a writer, and, what can you say? I mean, she
was, I think, a lovely woman, and she and Father got along very well.
They came from the different sides of the railroad tracks, because her
family had been the leading family in Baltimore, and father's family had
come in as very impoverished immigrants.
LAMB: Bertrand Russell is a relative somewhere back there, I understand.
Mr. FLEXNER: Yes. Well, he he had married one of Mother's cousins.
There was a branch of the family my mother's family moved to England,
and through that, I had various interesting contacts. Most important to
me was that Bernard Berenson, the art critic, was married to one of my
mother's cousins, and that got me started on my interest with painting.
I originally met him when I was 17, and we always got on very well.
LAMB: Who was Bertrand Russell?
Mr. FLEXNER: Bertrand Russell well, now that's a that's a very good
question. He was a philosopher and a mathematician.
LAMB: Did you know him?
Mr. FLEXNER: Well, I met him very he was one of my mother's cousins
whom I met only very casually. He didn't like he didn't put up with
young with young boys. They were believed they should keep their
mouths shut, while B B Bernard Berenson enjoyed very much his
association with me.
LAMB: At some point you met I can't remember where it was Was it either
in a classroom or something? Robert Frost.
Mr. FLEXNER: Oh, that was just very casual. He he appeared in my
school and read a few of his poems in my English class because he was a
friend of our English teacher. I I admired his poetry very much, but I
didn't know him.
LAMB: How long I mean, have you lived all of your life here in
Mr. FLEXNER: Well, I have spent I have lived for various periods of
time abroad. And also, I moved for a while. Wishing to live in the
country, I moved and became a sort of a parasite on Yale; I needed a
first class library and and wanted to live in the country, so I lived
outside of Yale in Connec in Connecticut. But by and large, I'm a New
LAMB: What do you think of this town?
Mr. FLEXNER: Oh, I love it dearly. I don't know it very well. I don't
get around terribly much these days.
LAMB: Why do you like it here so much?
Mr. FLEXNER: Well, I think it is it it is a great center of culture
and life and so forth and so on. It has a great thing I was a trustee
of the New York Public Library, and that that was a wonderful place, and
I'm fond of it. It's the place I was brought up, place where I walk my
LAMB: Where did you go to college?
Mr. FLEXNER: Harvard.
LAMB: What years? Do you remember?
Mr. FLEXNER: Now that I do remember: 1929.
LAMB: Somewhere in your book I don't know if I can find the quote you
say that oh, yeah, `My four years at Harvard. I never mentioned, in
social situations, the books I published, the prizes and honors I've won,
but I do not hesitate to state that I'm a Harvard man.' Why is that?
Mr. FLEXNER: Well, I think it it it gave me a wonderful base. You
mee you go to college, the four years, really, when you're moving
from from being a boy to being a man, and it was a wonderful place for
this to happen, because you are moderately well shut in, and at the same
time, you were in a tremendously lively community. And Harvard was very,
very good because it encouraged eccentrics, and I was pretty much of an
On the other hand, I was allowed to address the Harvard commencement on
what was really a radical speech on what should be the subject matter of
poetry in a machine age, in which I argued that you couldn't really write
a poem about dif daffodils these days because it was a poet away from
the I think it I was a little extreme about this. But they not only
did they let me deliver it at the commencement, but they printed it up
and sent it out, as a college release, all over the country. Started my
being a maverick and spoiling me.
LAMB: Wh what are the you know, over your life, you say you're an
eccentric. What are some of the more eccentric things you think you've
done in your life?
Mr. FLEXNER: Well, for one thing, I've written books on every kind of
subject. I mean, u usually, say if you were a good boy, you'd take a
subject and you you stick to it. And I have written on many s many
subjects always on my own. I never allowed anyone to see a manuscript
of mine until it was finished. I never discussed it with anybody.
LAMB: Who was your first publisher?
Mr. FLEXNER: Viking Press.
LAMB: How long did you stay with Viking?
Mr. FLEXNER: Well, I stayed with them through three books, and
then then they then they played the dirty on me. I can say that
because, of course, it was an altogether different firm. I started doing
for them "The History of American Painting," and they told me that
a this was all people who are now dead and gone, so I'm not talking
about anybody alive and they told me that they had showed it to a
distinguished critic, and he told them my reputation would be ruined if
it was published. And I happened to know him, so I asked him, and he
said, `I've tried to get them to publish it, and they just wanted to get
rid of it.' But, at the same time, I was not heartbroken, because
Houghton Mifflin's editor in chief was mourning that Viking had it. So
as soon as I got this letter, I called him on the phone and I said, `You
know, I think I can get this away from Viking.' And they published it.
LAMB: How long were you with Houghton Mifflin?
Mr. FLEXNER: I you know you know, I'm like the old woman who lived in
a shoe. You I think I did about five or six books with them.
LAMB: Who came next?
Mr. FLEXNER: Well, then then there was a sort of a chop suey of
publishers. I had books published by one publisher and then they didn't
like the next one. Of course of course, one of the things I did that
was very unsuitable was I didn't continue writing on the same subject in
the same way, so as soon as the publisher was sitting down and thinking,
`Ah, we've got something nice here,' I'd give him something else, and
then I'd have to find a new publisher who would sit down and say, `A ha!'
But I didn't want to do the same thing over again. I tried tried to
finish off with what I what I was doing and then find something else.
LAMB: Go back to George Washington. Who published that?
Mr. FLEXNER: It was published by Little, Brown, the whole the whole
shooting match. And I didn't actually, I had signed the contract with
them for one volume, and I very quickly realized that I couldn't possibly
do it in one volume, and there was some difficulty on that. But finally,
they decided to let me publish one a volume which on Washington's early
career before the Revolution, and that was a great success. And so I
went on and then we signed a contract for three, and then it that grew
to four, and then I decided after all this, I could do it do it in one
volume, by using the the four books as a sort of a base for it. And
then I then I had great fun with it. I because I didn't have to do any
research and I knew that I had to cut it down to one fifth, and one happy
summer I sat in the garage in the country and did nothing but write. I
didn't have to do any research at all.
LAMB: How much on site you know, did you go to Mt. Vernon and...
Mr. FLEXNER: Oh, yes. Mt. Vernon was tremendously good and kind to me.
By the time I went there I I started out by doing by doing a lot of
research in books, because I and in what was printed in manuscripts, and
one thing and another, because I thought that I would better understand.
But I saw if I set out and would explore and when I went to Mt. Vernon,
they could not have been more helpful. They realized that by getting to
know the building and all the rest of it, and out in the environs
they they put me, I could say that almost I could embrace the thing and
say, `I slept with George Washington,' because they I wasn't allowed to
sleep in the mansion house, but I was allowed to have the cabin right
next door. And if during the night I wanted to go out and see what the
moon looked like as as Washington had seen it, I would crawl up and get
them to get the guard dogs in, and I was allowed to wander around. And
I it was tremendously in in informing.
LAMB: In the introduction of the single volume about George Washington,
you say this you say, `I have been amazed by the infantile glee with
which people I have met made fun of my writing a biography of
Washington.' Who who would make fun of you?
Mr. FLEXNER: Well, the this was all mixed up with my saying that the
reaction of people to fathers. He was regarded as the father of this
country, and to some extent, they revol revolt against a father was
some something that they were deeply psychologically pleased with. But
then, of course, Washington stood for certain things, and I was I also
wrote, as I didn't by any means censor anything. I was afraid that I
would be attacked from the right for having said things that were
uncomplimentary about Washington.
LAMB: Were you?
Mr. FLEXNER: No. Now the amazing thing was I was attacked from the
LAMB: For what?
Mr. FLEXNER: Because I had made Washington into a lovable human being,
and they liked to look down on the Founding Fathers as a bunch of
semicrooks who were undermining the American people.
LAMB: You also say in this introduction, `I've discovered, sometimes to
my considerable embarrassment, that the current attitude toward
Washington and toward me as his biographer is often hostile.'
Mr. FLEXNER: Well, now that was that that was that that was at that
time that they they they wanted to tear down the Founding Fathers, you
know. The whole question of the of the attitude of the a generation to
its forebearers varies very much was what they want to do and want to get
away with, and what they don't approve of, or whether whether they do.
The and Washington is is and I also said in this book that he lived in
every in everybody's mind, that he was a a a living ghost in the mind
of every American. And whether they got on with him or whether they
didn't was, to some extent, a personal reaction, and would tie up with,
as you know, as I said, in this case, with the the the who the people
who were more radical found Washington as a stuffy old guy.
LAMB: What years did you do your research on George Washington?
Mr. FLEXNER: I'm no good on that.
LAMB: Well, I remember reading here that you kind of started everything
Mr. FLEXNER: That's very possible.
LAMB: But how many years? Do you remember how many you you...
Mr. FLEXNER: I think I spent about I forget something like six or
eight years, but that produced the four volume big four volume, and the
one the one volume.
LAMB: How did it sell?
Mr. FLEXNER: Well, they sold very well. The they also the the four
volumes won a special Pulitzer Prize which is only given only been given
about 10 times in the history of the Pulitzer Prize. And they so they
didn't make me a vast fortune, but on the other hand, they supported me
LAMB: Now in your lifetime, how have you made your money? Has it all
Mr. FLEXNER: Yep. Well well, I was I I did act as consultant in
various kinds of things, but these were just I helped for instance, I
helped Colonial Williamsburg build a when they wanted to keep
automobiles from their streets, they built a a large reception center.
May have been there. It's some miles out of town, and then people were
supposed to leave their cars there. And I helped in the creation of that
with an interesting connection. They they got in some some very modern
architects who were good at crowd control and so forth and so on. They
were building a very modern building. And then they thought they had to
put a get something in there that would prepare you for the 18th century
con village, and I got in there to try and work out some ways of
bringing these two together. And fortunately, the all of the architects
were screwballs and mavericks even as I was, so we got on very well.
LAMB: You have one the main reason we're talking to you is about this
book you've got right here, on your autobiography. When did you start
Mr. FLEXNER: Well that that took me quite a considerable amount of
time. It took me about five or six years. I think it's partly because I
had to make a great sorting, and you have an aw awful lot of memories,
and you've got to sort out the ones that you think are important, and the
ones that will go together and make an intelligent account of your life.
LAMB: If somebody were to buy this book it's published by
Fordham how what would they learn about you? What what different
things did you concentrate on?
Mr. FLEXNER: Well, I think I just I think I just had to give you a
simple answer, I concentrated on myself. I wasn't trying to sell
anything. I was trying to actually, of course, it's also a very
interesting thing as a introspection. I mean, I I wasn't trying to or
I did the few things. For instance, if I mentioned any any women in
any way that had gotten close to my life, I was very cl careful not to
give any names.
LAMB: You mean the names that are in here aren't their names?
Mr. FLEXNER: Right. But usually they, rather in fact, it was a choice.
I mean, if the woman was dead, I felt that I could use her name.
LAMB: Who was Mari?
Mr. FLEXNER: Well, Mari Mari was an amazing thing actually. She was a
Welsh girl, an English in London connected with the Labor Party. Her
father was the editor of the Daily Herald, which was the big Labor
newspaper. And she was an absolutely wild fascinator and she fascinated
crowds of people, which could be quite embarrassing. And she and I got
on ve got on very well, and then things got too heat too heated. And
she was she w she, fortunately, married a a a baronet, and there was
a Burke's baronetcy. So I was able to look up and make sure that she was
dead, and that she had no children. And then I felt I was able to write
about her with her own name.
LAMB: Was she the one that died very young?
Mr. FLEXNER: Yes.
LAMB: How old was she when she died?
Mr. FLEXNER: Oh, she was had run for Parliament, but the L Labor Party
can candidates were nominated in by the central group, and they would
send out y youngsters to run in districts which was anti labor, so there
wasn't wasn't any chance of their really winning. And she had run for
Parliament. And then, very dramatically, I was in the United States
sitting in a garden when a mysterious letter appeared. And out of it
fell my last letter to Mari, and then a letter from her husband's
secretary saying that she had that she had died. He had found this
letter and he was sending it to me. I couldn't find out what it what
she died of.
LAMB: There are a lot of stories in here about your love lives over the
Mr. FLEXNER: Well, I that was important. I don't know about you, sir.
LAMB: Why why did why did...
Mr. FLEXNER: You looked you look to me as if as if you were not
immune or are not immune.
LAMB: Why why did you think people would want to read about this?
Mr. FLEXNER: Well I think it is always an interesting subject.
Actually I was rather taken aback, although I was very grateful for the
review in the Sunday Times that made a certain amount out of the my
relations with the girls.
LAMB: Well, as a matter of fact, they did. I can go back and read it
here. It says, `Readers of his autobiography will find that Eros,
sometimes sleeping, but not often wide awake, has played a great role in
Mr. Flexner's life. In none of his many earlier books has this been so
clear. He is candid about it in a manner rarely met with in print,
in in the days of his youth. If he loved and lost, he tells us how and
why, taking the blame upon himself. If he loved and won, he never boasts
about it. An old style ardor is matched with an old style chivalry.' Did
you like that?
Mr. FLEXNER: I did. Yes, I I li I liked it. I was a little worried
about it, but then I discovered that it pleased everybody. I haven't got
a single criticism from anybody about the amount of discussion there was
about my relations with women, which, of course, are very important in
LAMB: Who was your first who's the first woman you write about in here?
Mr. FLEXNER: H her name is not in this thing. She was the daughter
of of a major figure in Greenwich Village in the old days, and I
don't don't I don't know even whether I gave her first name. But this
didn't get very far. I was a freshman and one thing and another. The
first real the first really, really, really one was this wild Mari, this
w wild Welsh girl who had a great effect on my life.
LAMB: W why didn't you marry her?
Mr. FLEXNER: Well, I I say s I say this in the book so I can say it.
I didn't trust that she, being as volatile as she was, that she ever
would make a faithful wife.
LAMB: `As volatile as she was, she'd never make a faithful wife.'
Mr. FLEXNER: Well, she was very very passionate. One time this
is this is a story that's in here. This was very f very funny. The
Socialist Party in in America was presided over by a wonderful man by
the name of Norman Thomas, who actually did a great deal of pre to
proph who prophesized the New Deal. And she had the idea which the the
British Labor Party had the idea that neither of the republic American
parties amounted to anything. They were all in it in sort of a m in
maybe just a mixture. And then if the Labor American Labor Party the
American Socialist Party could build up to get a few a certain number, a
thousand votes, why then, all the liberals in both of the big political
parties would join up and they would have a party like the British Labor
And she had the idea, although she was only 20 years old, that she would
marry me and come over to America and organize this. And I would
have would have enjoyed it, if I wouldn't have got involved,
particularly if Norman Thomas was a friend of mine. What he would made
out of this she was Welsh what he would made out of this Welsh fire
brat. But I thought that was something I wasn't going to get mixed up
LAMB: Your first wife's name?
Mr. FLEXNER: Beatr was Agnes.
LAMB: Where did you meet her?
Mr. FLEXNER: Well, she I met her originally when she was at Bryn Mawr,
and my brother was teaching at Bryn Mawr, and my family was very much
involved with Bryn Mawr. The great creating president was my aunt, and
i we got to know each other that way, and then we got married. And I
was married to her for 10 years.
LAMB: What happened to the marriage?
Mr. FLEXNER: Well, sh she began feeling that she wasn't realizing.
It's all in there it's kind of that kind of question is very
complicated to answer.
LAMB: Is she still alive?
Mr. FLEXNER: She's as far as I know still alive.
LAMB: When was the last time you saw her?
Mr. FLEXNER: Four or five years.
LAMB: And you've been divorced for how long from her?
Mr. FLEXNER: Mmm, 30, 40. I'm an old man, you know.
LAMB: W what about your second wife?
Mr. FLEXNER: Oh, she's theoretically at home at this moment along with
her cat and my dog.
LAMB: Where did you meet her?
Mr. FLEXNER: Well, that now that seemed to me to be a very very
interesting thing. I think coincidences that I wonder about. She when
my first wife began getting unhappier and unhappier, and then decided
that she would go to New Mexico to join some friends and decide what she
wished to do. And I was walking back through Central Park rather
disconsolately when I ran into a woman who I I hadn't seen for some time
because she disliked my wife. And when she heard that my wife was away,
she said, `I'm giving giving a cocktail party this afternoon.' And the
first thing I saw when I stepped in there was the most beautiful woman I
had ever seen. And she was th a fat Frenchman was with her, and then,
bless his little heart or bless his fat heart he got up and left left
LAMB: And what did you do?
Mr. FLEXNER: I, as a gentlemen, all I could do was take her out for
LAMB: There was a difference in your height.
Mr. FLEXNER: Yes. She's...
LAMB: She's a little bit taller than you, right?
Mr. FLEXNER: Yeah. Well, I'm short. And...
LAMB: How tall are you?
Mr. FLEXNER: I'm well, I'm about 5'6". I've lost a little bit in o in
my old age. But, fortunately, I'm very heavily built. If I'd had been
short and wi wispy, it would have been a great disadvantage.
LAMB: Wh what attracted her to you?
Mr. FLEXNER: I cannot imagine.
LAMB: Did she write?
Mr. FLEXNER: No, she was a sin she was a beautician and a singer. And
we we got on, and but but we and then then eventually my first wife,
still out in New Mexico, decided that she wanted a divorce. And so then
my second wife and I got got on a little bit more intimately, shall we
LAMB: How many children have you had?
Mr. FLEXNER: One.
LAMB: Her name.
Mr. FLEXNER: Her name is Nellie Helen...
LAMB: And where does...
Mr. FLEXNER: ...after my mother.
LAMB: ...where does she live?
Mr. FLEXNER: She lives in London. No, she lives in England. She used
to be. She has a house out in the country with her husband. He's a
writer of a different sort. He is a a historian of
m biographer historian of science, who has written a very successful
book about Darwin. And he and I get on very well, but we we write very
differently. He has a computer in his bedroom.
LAMB: How do you write?
Mr. FLEXNER: I I I I write by with a typewriter.
Mr. FLEXNER: No.
LAMB: Is it the old hunt and peck method, or is it...
Mr. FLEXNER: Well, I learned the hunt and peck method. I I've never
learned the touch system. As a newspaper man, we have been brought up
by you you ought and anyone who tried to use the the touch system on
the good old typewriters at the Herald Tribune wouldn't get anywhere.
You had to go after them with a bang.
LAMB: Now how did you write this autobiography? On what kind of a
Mr. FLEXNER: On on a very ordinary typ typewriter, electric, nowadays.
But not on any kind of one that one of the modern machines.
Mr. FLEXNER: I don't believe in them. I think they make books t much
LAMB: You you talk about this in the book, about your your method. But
go back to the George Washington biographies. Where did you write them?
Mr. FLEXNER: Well, almost always in libraries. My idea was that I would
get out of get out of the house, and I would have my breakfast, and my
fam my family would leave me a little al al a little bit alone, and
then I would get and go to whatever library I had set set up myself a
LAMB: Where did you spend most of your time? What libraries?
Mr. FLEXNER: Well, the New York Historical Society, New York Public,
which I'm a trustee, and then when the years when I was in the country,
at the Yale University Library.
LAMB: And you'd have a place there to go...
Mr. FLEXNER: Yeah.
LAMB: ...your typewriter...
Mr. FLEXNER: Typewriter and and and with my notes.
LAMB: What did you keep your notes on? How did you keep how'd
you how'd you file them?
Mr. FLEXNER: Well, the what I actually did was I I made pencil
corrections. And m my theory was that I had to go over everything three
times. And I tried to write as fast as I could the first time through,
which had the advantage of a great deal of elan and vigor and rhythm.
And I didn't bother as to whether I was getting how intelligent I was
ge getting or not getting. And then I believed that I would se the
second thing was to revise. And I made my revisions on the same
page in as the first thing. And then I had to go through it a third
time. And the third time I would have both of the the versions, the
original dash off one, and the thoughtful one before me, and I would very
often bring them together into what went on. And if at the end of
the if a at the time of the third one I wrote something new, I had to
still go through it again two times.
LAMB: Did you ever find yourself thinking, like you know, wake up in the
morning thinking like George you think George Washington would be
thinking in those days? I mean, were you that much into it?
Mr. FLEXNER: Well, I no, I don't think so. I I well, for one thing,
I was perfectly willing to recognize that that he was a much greater man
than I was. And I felt that you could stretch up, but I never for one
moment of course, I th thought he did some foolish things.
LAMB: Like what?
Mr. FLEXNER: Well, let's see if I can I if I can think of one at this
moment. I'm afraid that I can't, but he...
LAMB: Did you did you admire him for most of what he did?
Mr. FLEXNER: Oh, tremendously. I think he was one of the greatest men
in the history of the world. And that I came to from the from a
standing start. For one thing, he he managed to preside over this
extremely revolutionary rebellion and not have it slip into a
dictatorship the way all the others have. It was partly because he
refused to he refused it.
LAMB: You y in one of your chapters called, The Very Biggest Time, you
set a scene where you're having lunch with Barry Bostwick, the actor for
the CBS miniseries. And he wanted to find out from you, and he asked the
question, `What were Washington's five most important characteristics?'
Mr. FLEXNER: What do I say there? I didn't answer...
LAMB: You say, `I was completely stumped. It was much too complicated.
Later, after he had been playing the part for a while, he told me that
everyone kept asking him, "What were Washington's most important
Mr. FLEXNER: Yes. Well, we had we put on some years after the books
had been published. But what actually happened was that Washington
had had never had very much of a history in in the theater or in
television, because the Washingtons that were being produced were too
woodlike to make a good subject.
And as soon as my books came out, then people began to think, `Here is
something that we can do.' And I had two or three abortive
invita questions. And then the General Motors decided in the first
place, a producer decided that they would get a script together.
And and the scriptwriter, I had the good fortune to get on with
beautifully. And we cooperated. And then General Motors suddenly
decided that they were g going to do it, and they spent, oh, millions of
But they were worried, because they felt that if something came out
that about Washington, that it would raise hackles. It might destroy
this sale of cause. So they came they really came to me, and they felt
that my books were so well known that they could stand behind me. And
they said they said, we they didn't try to make me putting Washington
up, go into the the the sentimental image, but they said to me, `If
you if there's ever anything in this thing that you disapprove of, you
tell us, and we'll take it out.'
LAMB: Did you ever disapprove anything?
Mr. FLEXNER: Well, I I didn't do it that way. What I discovered was
that that there were all kinds of barriers that had been built up
between the sponsor and the actor. I think the sponsor had to, if he had
something questioned, had to speak to his advertising his advertising
agency. He had to speak to general CBS and then finally finally. But
as I had no official position, I was able to just go anywhere I pleased.
And if something was coming on that I didn't like or that I disapproved
of, I could take it up myself with the director. And we got on very
LAMB: You say in here that the California teachers, in the midst of all
this, with the educator's kits that were being sent out about the shows,
and the the "Indispensable Man," the Washington single volume was sent
out, that the California teachers objected to this.
Mr. FLEXNER: Well, that that was one of the most amazing things that I
ever saw in my whole life. Ge the General Motors decided that they
would send a what what would be a box to all the schools in the United
States, which would contain information. It wou would one thing,
kindly, it would contain a copy of my one volume book. It would contain
reading for teachers and reading for children. And they got a group
of I don't know what they were in in California to make a sort of
a an indication as to what the thing should be, and when the thing came,
it was a complete slander. It made Washington out a crook. It
made it it made the went heavily into the maltreatment of women, the
maltreatment of animals, the maltreatment of blacks. And I don't know
where the hell where the hell they found these people. Of course, all I
had to do was to blow the whistle, and the thing was thrown in the scrap
basket, and we did something else.
LAMB: Would you solve the the the mystery once and for all about I
mean, you've got all of your love affairs in here. I want to know about
George Washington's alleged love affair with Sally Fairfax.
Mr. FLEXNER: Oh, I think that was very true, and I went in I did go
into that at some length. But e e exactly the the the woman What
was what was her name? The very attractive girl who was cast as Sally
LAMB: I can get it in just a minute. Sally Field not Sally Fields,
the Patty Duke.
Mr. FLEXNER: Patty...
LAMB: No, it's not Patty Duke. Jackie Smith.
Mr. FLEXNER: Jackie Smith. When she asked me one thing that the
producer allowed me to do was that I wa wandered the set, and I was very
careful not to wander it too often. He le let the actors sit down next
to me and talk to me. And she asked me whether I thought thought that
Washington had gone to bed with Sally or not, who was married to his best
friend. And I answered, `Well, I think it was questionable in any
direction,' and that I thought it didn't make very much difference.
LAMB: Do you have any idea how many of the four volume sets were sold
over the years?
Mr. FLEXNER: Oh, a great many. I have no and and and they were
translated all over the world. They were printed here and there. I have
no idea. But they they did very well, and it's still it still brings
me, in 20 years later, s some income. Not exactly enough for me to
s su support myself on, but it's still there.
LAMB: Let me ask you about this cover. Where was this photograph taken,
and how old were you when it was taken?
Mr. FLEXNER: Well, it it was the American Academy of Arts and Letters
decided they wanted to have pictures of all their members and they got a
photographer who was a hangover from the old Pach brothers P A C H
brothers they were the great Victorian photographers. And he took this
picture of me, I suppose about 10 years ago. And it it's a pretty fine
picture. Maybe it doesn't it doesn't look like me, but it helps the
LAMB: And there's a picture on the back of this book. Do you remember
when this was taken?
Mr. FLEXNER: That was taken when I was in my ear in my late 20s or
LAMB: The one thing we haven't talked about is your time with the New
York Herald Tribune. How long did you work there, and why did you leave
Mr. FLEXNER: Well, I worked there for a little bit more than a year, and
I was very, very happy there, and they treated me very well. And but it
was before the days of the the union known as the Newspaper Guild. And
I was worked six days a week for as long as the city editor wanted me to
work, and I had one day off, as I said. And I found that I couldn't my
nerves couldn't take it. And and, of course, it's very, very, very
nerve racking work, because every day you're doing something else.
You're sent out on some kind of a situation and you come in cold and you
have to try to, as far as you can, work out what the hell is going on
there and with perpetual stretching of your brain. And I found that my
nervous system wouldn't take it. And so I took a crazy job, which was I
became executive secretary of the Noise Abatement Commission of the city
of New York, which was at the age of less than 25. And it was my job to
silence New York. And you can tell how successful I was.
LAMB: Why did you leave tha how long did you spend with that job, and
how long did why'd you leave it?
Mr. FLEXNER: Well, I worked there a little more than a year, but then
the Depression came along and everything that was that reduced noise
cost money and the thing became impractical and the Noise Abatement
Commission went out went out of existence. I didn't mind seeing it go.
And then I put all my I never had a regular job after that.
LAMB: You tell us in the book you have anxiety neurosis.
Mr. FLEXNER: I have had, and I have it still, yes.
LAMB: What is it?
Mr. FLEXNER: Well, I get very nervous about things. When my wife is
late in getting home, I'm upset and in general. I mean, it goes it
comes and it goes. But it certainly was an important part of my life.
LAMB: How how for how many years did you have it?
Mr. FLEXNER: Well, I think I've had it since I was a very small child.
I had I got the idea tha tha that once as I was walking along in
those days, I had a German governess through Central Park, it suddenly
occurred to me and came in my mind that nothing that I saw around me
existed and I was absolutely alone. And this was all just a mirage. And
I had grabbed ahold of the governess' hand, although I didn't think it
was there, and this kind of thing. It it's got a name psychological
name, but I it when I I found it difficult to travel. This this came
and went in some ways. I f found it difficult to go away from home for
fear it woul wouldn't be there when I came back. And this was this was
part part of ...
LAMB: Do you want to write some more?
Mr. FLEXNER: About myself?
LAMB: About anything.
Mr. FLEXNER: Oh, sure. At the moment, this is well, this is rather
more editing than writing. I'm doing a for the foreign University Press
a sort of a what I call "Random Adventures," a collection of my various
shorter writings down through the years.
LAMB: This is for Fordham again?
Mr. FLEXNER: Yeah.
LAMB: Why is Fordham interested how did you get them interested in your
Mr. FLEXNER: Well, they it all started when they were doing a book on
New York history and became interested in the book about my one of
my that s su successful one about State Stockman, who was a Tory
during the revolution. And then we got on and they have they have
reprinted a great many of my books. And then when the time came and I
did this, they were get we were getting on so well, I got them do it.
And they have done a very good job.
LAMB: As you have gotten older, has there is it any part of this more
difficult for you?
Mr. FLEXNER: Well, one thing that's more difficult for me is I've had a
difficulty hard now to read my own handwriting. You ever get that?
LAMB: How how do you get around it?
Mr. FLEXNER: Well, for one thing I I I do manage to read it. Also, I
find it hard to ri hit the right keys on the typewriter. But I get
around it. And, furthermore, the people that one of the ladies at
Fordham who's right here can read my handwriting when I can't.
LAMB: Is there anything that you've not done in your life that that you
wanted to do?
Mr. FLEXNER: Oh, I suppose I would I suppose I don't think very much
i in in the serious sense, I can't think of anything. I
spent perfectly happy with what I did, and it was very various, this
maverick business. I mean, I wasn't held to any job. I wasn't didn't
have to when I finished a book on one subject go on and do another one.
I could write about anything I pleased and very often in my younger days,
my publisher would be displeased. He would be pleased with a successful
book in direction A, and instead of getting another book in direction A,
he'd get one in direction B and but my publishers were not amused with
this. So then I would have to find someone who was interested in B and
then he wouldn't like it when I'd bring in C.
LAMB: If we could see you when you were the most irritated in your life
about a relationship that had to do with writing and books and
publishers, when would have that have been?
Mr. FLEXNER: It's it's I think I I think you would have to state it
another way. It's more that I was I was worried about myself. I was
dissatisfied. And I know when a book was finished, I it was finished.
That's another thing. I I never went back and and revised a book. I
felt when I'd done it, it's as far as I was concerned, it was finished
and as y you noticed, they almost all the books that are print, but
they when a new edition came along, I didn't feel that I wanted to
tinker with it and do something else.
LAMB: We're about out of time, but we only have about a minute. If you
met Alexander Hamilton today and you wrote about him, would you like him?
Mr. FLEXNER: I think I'd be impressed by him. I don't think he'd like
LAMB: What about Benedict Arnold?
Mr. FLEXNER: Well, Benedict Arnold wouldn't like me at all.
LAMB: And what about John Andre?
Mr. FLEXNER: Well, the John Andre was the was an interesting figure,
but I no, I truth was I didn't want to like or not like them, and one
reason is I said that I gave up John Adams was because I disliked him.
Didn't that that I didn't dislike Benedict Arnold and didn't mean that
I wasn't able to think myself I'm boasting now think myself into his
character. The reason I gave up John Adams was I wasn't able to think
myself into his character.
LAMB: Our author, guest, James Thomas Flexner. This is what the book
looks like. "Maverick's Progress: An Autobiography" by Fordham Press.
Thank you very much, sir.
Mr. FLEXNER: Thank you.
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