Pubdate: Mon, 15 Jun 2009
Source: Nation, The (US)
Copyright: 2009 The Nation
Author: David Margolick
Note: David Margolick is the author of Beyond Glory: Joe Louis, Max 
Schmeling, and a World on the Brink and is working on books about 
Little Rock in 1957 and Your Show of Shows.
Also: MAP posted for our LTE writers as an exception.


A Longstanding Rivalry Between Old Friends Shows What It Takes to Get
into the New York Times.

It may now seem quaint, with even the greatest newspapers on the
ropes, but for people of a certain age getting a letter published in
the Times has always been a very, very big deal. Despite repeated
attempts, Avakian, who became a legendary producer for Columbia and
RCA Victor--Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Johnny Mathis, Duke
Ellington and Miles Davis were among the many icons he
recorded--couldn't buy his way into the paper.

But Shain, who held a variety of government posts in judicial
education and prison reform in California, managed to crack the code.
And how.

Thirty-nine times over the past decade Shain, who lived in San
Francisco, was in the paper on all manner of suitably weighty
subjects: the Iraq War, campaign finance reform, the death penalty,
nuclear proliferation. He had six letters printed each year in 2001,
2002 and 2003. People who have spent lifetimes trying to break into
the Times might equate Shain's record with Babe Ruth's in 1920, the
year he hit more home runs by himself than any other team in the
American League. Meanwhile, in the Bronx, Avakian kept typing
away--and striking out.

What explained their very different fates?

It wasn't politics: both were lifelong liberal Democrats who loathed
George W. Bush and everything he stood for. In fact, it was only with
Bush's election in 2000 that their epistolary enthusiasms began; each
was around 80 at the time. But there, alas, the similarities ended.

Avakian couldn't contain his anger, and as anyone who reads the Times
well knows, on the letters page no one ever gets too worked up about
anything. Friends to whom he would sometimes send drafts forever urged
him to tone things down. But try as he might--which, truth be told,
wasn't very hard--catharsis always won out over pragmatism. It started
at the very outset of the Bush II era. "How many words have been
written about the mess in Florida? 4 million, 400 million? 4 billion?"
he wrote during the fiasco following the presidential election of
2000. "There are only four words which properly sum up the whole situation.

They are: The fix is in.'" Of course, it got spiked. In another
letter, from July 2007, he called Bush "the most flagrant liar in the
history of the American Presidency." Ditto. Three months earlier
Avakian--like Shain, a World War II veteran--asked if Bush would view
the Iraq War differently if his twin daughters had served there "and
came home with one arm, one leg and one eye between them?" That, too,
got nowhere.

Worse, such letters seemed to poison the well for Avakian. Even when
he wrote something more tempered or innocuous--bemoaning, for
instance, that A-Rod's home runs in the reconfigured old Yankee
Stadium would have been mere fly balls back in DiMaggio's day--it was

Shain's letters, by contrast, were perfect Times material, which is to
say, reasonable. When he raised the issue of the newly installed
George W. Bush's intellect and work habits, he did so gently.

When he denounced the rush to war in Iraq, his tone was

His harshest adjectives were "sobering" or "bone-chilling" or
"downright frightening." And while Avakian was either blunt or
discursive, Shain mastered the Times formula: invariably three
sentences, or thoughts, first introducing, then elaborating upon, then
concluding, an idea. Though he made his points, it was always with a
jab rather than a roundhouse. Shain's letters had the efficiency of
haiku and the elegance of sonnets.

The Times has had more prolific correspondents than Shain; do a Nexis
search sometime for Felicia Ackerman of Providence, Rhode Island, or
Rachelle Marshall of Stanford, California, and see how often they come
up. The paper offers no prizes for the fiftieth or hundredth published
letter, nor would it: part of its mystique has always been that with
multitudes clamoring to get into print, there's no need for
recidivists. But over the past ten years, Shain probably appeared as
often as anyone. "You write a consistently thoughtful, articulate
letter, with what we journalists call 'sweep and scope,'" the paper's
letters editor, Thomas Feyer, once told him. (So good were they, Feyer
went on, that when the paper devoted a clump of letters to a
particular topic, it often put Shain's on top.)

As he grew older, then lost his wife, getting into the Times became
Shain's way of keeping engaged with the world and in touch with
friends, especially Avakian, since each appearance invariably led to
an exchange of e-mails. Still, Shain took to waiting two months
between attempts--in order, he once told Avakian, "to avoid wearing
out my welcome." The San Francisco Chronicle got his overage.

A couple of times he even gave seminars around San Francisco on how to
get letters published.

For all his frustration, Avakian was always magnanimous, even
good-humored, about his friend's successes.

On occasion he'd send drafts to Shain, too, thinking, perhaps, that
some of Shain's magic might rub off on him. "As they used to say on
Orchard St., 'Nu?'" he wrote Shain in September 2006. Always, Shain
was encouraging, counseling Avakian avuncularly--and futilely--to keep
his efforts, as he once put it, "short and sweet and to the point."
For Avakian, all three were problems--especially the "sweet."

Even the mighty Shain occasionally struck out. The Times wouldn't let
him liken Bush to a snake oil salesman, for example, or prophesy that
Harding, Coolidge and Franklin Pierce would soon welcome him into the
fraternity of worst presidents. But into early last year, his letters
continued to appear: the only good thing about Bush's State of the
Union speech, he wrote in January 2008, was that it was his last. And
but for one more effort that April, that letter turned out to be
Shain's swan song in the Times. Cancer and dementia took over.

Like most Times readers, Avakian didn't notice that Shain's efforts
had ceased.

But earlier this year, before heading to Los Angeles to collect a
lifetime achievement Grammy award from the National Academy of
Recording Arts and Sciences--he'd helped launch the organization
fifty-two years before and is a past president--he began planning for
a detour to see his old friend.

His telephone calls and e-mails went unanswered, so when he reached
San Francisco in early February, he went to Shain's house.

A neighbor told him a respirator had been rushed there a few weeks
earlier and that Shain, who lived alone, hadn't been seen since.

Shain had two daughters, but Avakian didn't know their married names.
Twice he went to Shain's local post office to ask about him, only to
get the runaround.

He left town to collect his award without seeing Shain or learning
what had happened to him. Twice he wrote San Francisco's mayor, Gavin
Newsom, asking for help tracking Shain down. Here too--as with all
those letters to the Times--he got no reply.

Shain, it turns out, was still alive, in a hospice, when Avakian had
come calling.

But three days later, on February 10, he died. He was 88. For months
before that, his daughters say, he'd withdrawn; still, their last
picture of their father shows him reading, or at least holding--well,
you can guess the publication, and maybe even the page. "I have many
friends who, like myself, will miss Cy's letters to the New York
Times," Avakian wrote the daughters after learning the news. Pleading
with him to tone things down, his friends, he said, had always cited
their father. "Unfortunately, the Times does not like my tone when I
write about Republicans," Avakian concluded, "and I refuse to change

The Times has not acknowledged that one of its more reliable voices
has been silenced.

Even all those gentle pronouncements and well-mannered jabs on the
letters page couldn't win Cy Shain the ultimate Times encomium: an

But undaunted, Avakian, who turned 90 on March 15, still sends in his

Some of them are about Obama, and since he actually likes the guy,
maybe he, too, will now crack the code.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Richard Lake