- - Sunday, November 8, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

PEOPLE!: A MEMOIR

By Sol Sanders

Deeds Publishing, $19.95, 383 pages

Readers who remember Mel Brooks‘ hilarious routines as the Two Thousand Year Old Man — the quintessential old Jewish codger who has seen it all, knows it all, and is going to tell you all about it — will have no trouble enjoying “People!,” veteran journalist Sol Sanders‘ rambling, far-reaching and often moving memoir. While not two thousand years old, Mr. Sanders is pushing 90 … and has he got a tale to tell.

Although it ranges around the globe, his story is a uniquely American one, and of a special kind: that of small-town Southern Jewry. As a Jewish friend of mine from New York once remarked, “What you’ve got to understand about Southern Jews is that they’re very Jewish, but they’re also very Southern.” Such is Sol. Raised by immigrant parents in a small community in rural North Carolina where his parents, the only Jews in town, ran a successful variety store, young Sol’s love of woods, streams, farm animals and local characters was sometimes overshadowed by a sense of otherness, of apartness from his surroundings and those populating it. This gives his early reminiscences both an authentic feel and a critical objectivity that might otherwise have been lacking. Perhaps it is this same ability to absorb and appreciate the world around him while viewing it with an outsider’s eye that made Sol Sanders a born journalist long before he knew anything about the profession. It is also possible that his homosexuality, which he discusses candidly but, mercifully, not at excessive length or in morbid detail, enabled him to understand and empathize with people, places and situations very different from himself over a long, globe-trotting career in Europe, Asia and Latin America for major publications including the Christian Science Monitor, U.S. News & World Report, Business Week and The Washington Times, among others.

But enough of the amateur psychology. The results speak for themselves. Although it often reads like a hastily-dictated letter to friends, or a fragmentary rough draft for a larger, more structured work, “People!” is an engaging and informative read. Many a big name is dropped, but never with a dull thud. This comes as no surprise to me since I met Sol on one or two occasions during my years in the Reagan White House and learned that, besides being a great raconteur, he was friendly with such notable Cold War Warriors as U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick and CIA Director Bill Casey. Both appear in his memoir along with dozens of world leaders like India’s Nehru, Pakistan’s Ayub Khan, Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, and past and present journalistic legends like Rupert Murdoch and the late Joe Alsop. All are captured in a few perceptive paragraphs, often with a surprising sidebar or two.

All well and good, but I have to confess that some of my favorite depictions are of obscure friends or relatives of the author. I was particularly taken with his sketch of his paternal grandmother, ” … hardly five feet tall but packed [with] fabulous history [and] full of energy in that little frame … She came to visit us one summer and the shock of finding … that my Mother did not run a kosher kitchen only dawned on her and Mom once she had arrived. The solution was that she took one of my Mom’s saucepans, scrubbed it, prayed over it for half a day, and then ate only boiled tapioca [for] the two weeks she stayed with us.”

But maybe I’m biased, since we are told that his grandmother “looked for all the world like a stand-in for Maria Aleksayevna Ouspenskaya, a star of the Moscow Art Theater who became … well known … on Broadway and then [as] a character actress in … Hollywood.” Some readers may recall Madame Ouspenskaya as the old gypsy woman who befriends werewolf Larry Talbot (played by Lon Chaney Jr.) in “The Wolf Man.” As for me, I’ll always remember Madame Ouspenskaya as the lady who gave a few acting lessons to my beautiful Aunt Arman back in the 1930s.

Which is just one of scores of memories, big and little, funny and profound, that Sol Sanders shares from a colorful life and an impressive career. Once you get past his confession that, “Copy-editing, alas! has never been one of my strong points,” you’re bound to enjoy these slightly rickety recollections. But be warned: there may be moments when you could swear that you’re listening, not to Sol Sanders, but to Mel Brooks‘ Two Thousand Year Old Man.

Aram Bakshian Jr., a former aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, has written widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

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