Charlottesville, Lester Bookbinder and the American Dream.


In the late 1970s and early 80’s my art director and I had the pleasure of working with Lester Bookbinder, a photographer and commercials director from New York. A perfectionist, he arrived in London with a large plate camera, an unerring eye for visual drama and a Buster Keaton level dead-pan delivery. A man with a mordant wit, not to say a maudlin soul.

He made women look sensational for Chanel No 5 and Pretty Polly tights, and somehow made Angel Delight, a dessert made from powders in a box, look edible.

I am staring at his portrait of Harpo Marx, in costume, a crazy old man mugging crazily to camera.

Lester cared little for product and nothing for message. He liked objects, form. The way a horse looked up and was suddenly more alive, the way an earing’s small movement created drama is what excited him. To make inanimate things stunning and surprising, that was Lester’s métier. And he never just hacked it out. Once, when he seemed to linger overlong over a pack shot when we were antsy to go to lunch, I asked him what was wrong with the beautifully-lit shot he had lined up.

“It’s a perfectly fine pack shot” I offered.

“It’s last year’s pack shot”, his eye never leaving camera.

One day he asked if I wanted hear the joke about the American Dream.

This was clearly an ambush. I bit anyway.

He said the American Dream was 14 million negroes (this was before they were blacks) swimming back to Africa.

“That’s it”? I asked.

“They each had a Jew on their back.”

“How could they swim with a Jew on their backs?”

“That’s the Dream.”

When I told this to my father, a man who had slipped out of Europe in 1939, left everything end everyone behind, and arrived in New York with hope, he was shocked.

Its cynicism offended him on multiple levels. It was in bad taste. It offended him as a Polish-born Jew. And it outraged him as a relatively newly minted American. He was  full of faith in America as only those who find survival, salvation and success on the American shore can be.

He had belief in America’s promise to an immigrant and was proof of America’s once undoubted power to resurrect people.

Watching the long line of torches marching through Charlottesville in the night, and the “superior” white men with their home-made Nazified outfits, like some Chaplin film without a decent wardrobe budget, I wanted to reach through the screen grab each and shout in their faces: look in the mirror, fuckhead! Superior to what? Superior to whom?

Can you play centerfield like Wllie Mays?

Can you make music like Duke Ellington?

Can you play the piano like Nina Simone?

Can you write like Ralph Ellison or Toni Morrison?

Can you speak in complete sentences like Barak Obama?

Superior? You white guys aren’t superior, you’re pathetic.

Randy Newman, in that stupendous American album, Good Old Boys (“Good old buys from LSU; went in dumb, came out dumb too…”), described exactly what you are superior at:

“We’re rednecks, we’re rednecks: we don’t know our ass from a hole in the ground. We’re rednecks, we’re rednecks: we’re keeping the niggers down”.

I’ve been re-thinking Lester’s joke.

It wasn’t very funny then, but more Importantly, it seemed untrue.

Not today.

Unhappy white men are out for satisfaction and justice, their “birthright”. And that means blacks and Jews and immigrants and anybody who doesn’t look like them beware.

And you can forget the protections of the Constitution and the rule of law when the head of state is their inspiration and cheerleader.

There’s a line from The Second Coming in which Yeats summed up much of the dark side of the 20th century.

“The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

Now the ranks of the worst include the President of the United States.