"The NPR Interviews, 1996" edited by Robert Siegel, is available now in paperback (Houghton Mifflin, $12.95). This is the third in the annual series of the best National Public Radio interviews from the past year, in this case, 1995.
Siegel has been the host of NPR's "All Things Considered" since 1987. He has collected more than 100 interviews by personalities including Mary Tyler Moore, Maurice Sendak, Julia Child, Sidney Lumet. He also includes interviews with scientists, theologians, doctors and journalists.
In the book's introduction, he asks: "Why read radio? The sound is gone, the infinite textures of the human voice fade on flat paper. Listen here for the nervous titter of the Dalai Lama, the feline seductiveness of Eartha Kitt, the brisk military manner of Colin Powell, and you will listen in vain. Those traits have all deserted the text, leaving behind only words. And therein lies the value: the words."
That may be true, but without the clues delivered by voice, some of these interviews feel downright hostile at times. In a 1995 interview with Nancy Sinatra, interviewer Scott Simon tries to ask the singer's daughter about her father's ties to the Mob.
He softens her up by saying: "(If) you work in nightclubs, you don't hang out with kindergarten teachers."
Nancy Sinatra: "Exactly."
But then Simon goes on.
Simon: "I think there are historians who will ague that in 1960 no one could be under any illusion about what Sam Giancana was doing or what his help represented. He was the head of the Chicago Mob."
Nancy Sinatra: "I'm waiting for a question."
Or this exchange with the stereotypically perky Mary Tyler Moore, interviewed by Daniel Zwerdling.
Zwerdling: "Well, you give me an example of the thing that makes you the most nervous when you're with friends, when you feel like you're going to be revealed as not as intelligent as they think you are."
Moore: "You're like the analyst from hell, aren't you? No, I really don't want to. Let's go on." You might wonder why Sinatra or Moore submitted themselves to interviews if they didn't want to answer questions. The answer is simple - both were pushing recently published books. They wanted the sales but didn't appear quite willing to answer the uncomfortable question.
I appreciated the little surprises found in several interviews. For instance, Bob Edwards found out that Julia Child practices what she preaches when she gives us permission to eat fat.
Edwards: "Well, what do you make of all the stories about cholesterol and fat and the richness of food?"
Child: "I think that for a normal, healthy person, the idea is moderation and small helpings and a great variety of food, and then moderate exercise and weight watching and have a good time."
Edwards: "Did you ever have a Big Mac?"
Child: "I prefer the Quarter Pounder."
In another Edwards' interview, journalist David Brinkley was forthright about the trouble he'd caused over his long career, beginning with an incident that occurred during his coverage of the civil rights movement.
Brinkley: "In the course of reporting all this activity in the South, I managed to antagonize great numbers of Southern whites who were opposed to integration, and they hated what I as saying on the air. I was offering no opinions; I was just telling what was happening. And one of our stations in the South so hated me...that the owner hired a local tinhorn to come on the air each night after me, given the assignment to 'answer Brinkley's lies.' On the strength of his fame from answering my lies he ran for the U.S. Senate. His name is Jesse Helms."
Linda Wertheimer also solved a mystery on the air. She interviewed the man and the woman who were captured in a famous photograph, "The Kiss" by Alfred Eisenstadt, on Aug. 14, 1945. The photo made the cover of Life magazine.
The famous kiss between an unknown nurse and a sailor was just a random event that took place in a crowded and jubilant Times Square. It was only in 1980 that the nurse was identified and in 1995 the sailor was identified.
She interviewed Carl Muscarello of Florida and Edith Shain of Santa Monica on the 50th anniversary of V-J Day, the day that marked victory over Japan during World War II. Muscarello, a retired police officer, recalled the kiss: "I just walked over and grabbed her and very gently planted a long, luscious kiss on her beautiful lips...and when I was out of breath I just stepped back and ... drifted off into the crowd, ran off and kissed a few more ladies and got on the subway and went back to my home in Brooklyn."