Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Sydney J. Harris and Dr. Haledjian

When I was growing up, I didn’t read much newsprint – even though on most days we received two papers.  But I didn’t ignore the newspaper altogether.  During baseball season, for example, brother Pete and I would daily pour over the sports section, reading the account of last night’s game and carefully studying every statistic and listing available.  And, of course, I read the comics.

There were two other features in the Post-Gazette that I distinctly remember from childhood.  These were:  a feature called “Two-Minute Mystery,” and the Sydney J. Harris column, "Strictly Personal.”

If I remember correctly, Two-Minute Mysteries appeared only during the summer, at least in the Post-Gazette.  It was a short column that spun a mystery story and gave the reader the chance to solve it – presumably in two minutes.  Donald J. Sobol authored the column and it was syndicated through the Associated Press.  It first appeared in 1959 and lasted until 1968.   Best of all, it starred the famous sleuth and criminologist, Dr. Haledjian.

I remember that there was always a group of us at home who would grab the paper for Sobol’s column and set our minds upon finding the solution.  And woe unto him who disclosed the answer before we had a chance to read it.  Inevitably, there would be a discussion comparing our guesses to each others and Sobol’s “correct” answer (printed upside-down below the column), and what we thought of the quality of that day’s installment.  It tended to be a competition of sorts – like everything else we did – to see who could solve the mystery.  Unfortunately, I was never very good at it and, as often happened in matters of this sort, I took a backseat to Dad and my older brothers.

Of course, the quality of the column varied, and some were impossible, requiring some specialized knowledge, for example, that muscles swell immediately after exercise.  And some – well – just didn’t make much sense.  In one mystery, an English professor's suicide note is considered fraudulent and a product of foul play because it contained a split infinitive.  Sobol in his solution naturally assumed that, because (1) English professors always follow grammatical rules, even when distraught and suicidal, and (2) that all English professors accept that “don't split infinitives in English” is such a rule, it must have been murder.  If anything, however, the often-strained logic only made it more fun and I found myself eagerly waiting for the next day’s installment. 

Anyway, here is one mystery that even the brilliant Dr. Haledjian couldn’t solve.  Answers can be written in the comments.
For years Mrs. Sydney, the wealthiest dowager in New York City, had vainly tried to outwit Dr. Haledjian.  As the famous criminologist selected a cigar from the tray held by the Sydney butler, a wicked gleam came into his hostess' eye.  It was time for playing stump-the-detective....”  John DeMott, Paul Houk, and Lee Roach were partners in a successful New York jewelry business," began Mrs. Sydney.  "Last January they flew down to the Florida Keys to spend a month at DeMott's lodge."  One afternoon DeMott took Houk, an avid fisherman but a non-swimmer, out on his forty-foot cruiser.  Roach, whose hobby was bird watching, remained behind. "Roach says he was sitting behind the lodge when he spied an exotic orange bird, belonnging to a species new to him, fly by. He followed it to the front of the house, and through binoculars watched it building a nest, high in a palm tree."  Quite by chance, he moved the binoculars out to the water and saw DeMott and Houk struggling on the yacht.  Roach says DeMott shoved Houk over-board and held his head under water.  "DeMott claimed that Houk had leaned over the side to gaff a fish, and, losing his balance, fell into the ocean.  He drowned before DeMott could reach him."  The coroner ascribed death to drowning.  At the trial, it was simply DeMott's word against Roach's.  "The jury deliberated less than five minutes," concluded Mrs. Sydney. "No doubt, my dear doctor, you won't need so long to realize who was lying."  Haledjian didn't.  Do you?

The other column I remember from the Post-Gazette of my childhood was Sydney J. Harris’ “Strictly Personal.”  Mostly, the column was Harris’ ruminations about pretty much anything that was on his mind, and it was more philosophical than political.  I’m not sure that anything like it exists today in newsprint, with the possible exception of the New York Times’ column “The Stone” that, according to the Times, “features the writing of contemporary philosophers and other thinkers on issues both timely and timeless.”  But, Harris was much less abstract and ponderous than most of what I read in the Times column.

He also had a curious occasional feature titled, "Things I Learned En Route to Looking Up Other Things,” in which he simply listed odd facts he had picked up along the way.  The facts listed could not be more random:  A few examples:
  • If a cat died in ancient Egypt, family members were required to shave off their eyebrows as a sign of mourning.  (And citizens were not infrequently executed for the ‘crime’ of killing a cat.) 
  • No king of Sweden for 100 years in the 17th century could speak the language of the country (since the time of Charles II in 1697 to the reign of Gustavus in 1792). 
  • “Fascism” as a political term was adopted by Mussolini from one of the Aesop’s fables showing that, while sticks could be easily broken one by one, they were irrefrangible if tied together in a bundle. (the Latin word for a bundle of sticks was fasces, which were brandished by the lictors of ancient Rome as symbols of authority.)  
  • The will Stephen Girard, endowing Girard College (for orphan boys) in Philadelphia, expressly prohibited clergymen from coming onto the premises of the school.
I don’t so much remember reading the column myself as much as I remember Dad reading it.  He was a big fan of Harris and, as far as I can recall, read the column at every opportunity.  He often would comment on it over breakfast or read sections to anyone who would listen.  I seem to recall that not everyone shared Dad’s high opinion of Harris, and that there was sometimes discussion on this point.  

I suppose that Dad liked Harris for the same reason that he was fond of G.K Chesterton:  Harris was clever, usually in support of a worthy cause, and he was profound without being obscure.  Harris may have also resonated with Dad because they were within months of the same age.  And, Dad was not Harris’ only fan.  In his day, Harris was immensely popular.  Time magazine once called Harris “the most quoted newsman in Chicago.  

Harris was born in London.  At five, his family moved to Chicago and he remained there the rest of his life.  He was a classmate and life-long friend of Saul Bellow.  Harris studied philosophy at the University of Chicago, and worked for several Chicago papers. In 1944, he began publishing “Strictly Personal,” which he continued to write for the next 40 years.  At some point his column was nationally syndicated, which is how it ended up in the Post-Gazette.

Despite having once written that “quotes are a way to lazy wisdom,” Harris was a master of the well-constructed sentence and could pack profound ideas into just a few words. Essayist, critic and editor Clifton Fadiman once referred to Harris as “America’s finest living aphorist.”  So, now he is remembered for these kernels of wit and wisdom.  Again, I provide a sample:
We have not passed that subtle line between childhood and adulthood until we move from the passive voice to the active voice — that is, until we have stopped saying “It got lost,” and say, “I lost it.”
Everyone admits that "the truth hurts" but no one applies this adage to himself — and as soon as it begins to hurt us, we quickly repudiate it and call it a lie.
Ninety percent of what we believe has nothing to do with the process of thought, but comes instead from the four sources of family inheritance, individual temperament, national culture, and economic self-interest; and while we cannot wholly cast off these shackles, we should at least recognize their cramping and distorting influence upon the free process of thought.
What we are looking for, I am afraid, is neither a true leader nor a true Messiah, but a false Messiah - a man who will give us over-simplified answers, who will justify our ways, who will castigate our enemies, who will vindicate our selfishness as a way of life and make us comfortable within our prejudices and preconceptions.
Terrorism is what we call the violence of the weak, and we condemn it; war is what we call the violence of the strong, and we glorify it.
The primary purpose of a liberal education is to make one's mind a pleasant place in which to spend one's leisure.
Intolerance is the most socially acceptable form of egotism, for it permits us to assume superiority without personal boasting. 
It's odd that the people who worry whether certain plays are "morally offensive" so rarely worry about the moral offensiveness of war, poverty, bigotry.
Our dilemma is that we hate change and love it at the same time; what we really want is for things to remain the same but get better.
Any philosophy that can be put in a nutshell belongs there.  (This is a corollary to Richard Feynman’s line “Hell, if I could explain it to the average person, it wouldn't have been worth the Nobel prize.”)
Who could blame Dad for liking Harris so much?

Sydney J. Harris


James R said...

I'll try my luck with the "Two Minute Mystery" but first I'll include some filler to keep the gist of the comment from showing up on the main page of the blog and act as a spoiler (or anti-spoiler). Ah, how we loved Dr. Haledjian mysteries!

I do remember Syd Harris but I have to be careful not to confuse him with the other column Dad loved—William Safire. The two had completely different political outlooks, although the column by Safire was limited to English words and usage.

Now my guess as to the lying murderer. I usually approach these as "What detail in the narrative is quite specific but largely unnecessary." It must be the orange bird building a nest. Without knowing, I'll say orange birds in Florida don't build nest in January. Thus, the despicable Roach is lying. On the other hand, it seems strange that the railing was low enough to gaff a fish and yet DeMott couldn't jump right in to save Houk!

Then again, if Houk couldn't swim, why would DeMott have to hold his head under. Roach's pants are definitely on fire.

Big Myk said...

I won't comment on your "solution" until others have a chance to respond.

As for Safire, I know that Dad liked his Sunday feature "On Language," particularly the piece on Mondegreens ("They hae slain the Earl o' Moray,/And Lady Mondegreen." And there's the story of the pastor who asked his congregation to "rise and sing Hymn No. 508, 'Lead On, O Kinky Turtle.'" Only later did the storyteller learn that the hymn was ""Lead On, O King Eternal.") I'm not so sure if Dad read the weekly syndicated column written by the former Nixon speechwriter.