Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Mike Wallace – The Unasked Question

The news bulletin scrolled across the bottom of my TV screen. In recent decades, I had become inured to such scrolls. When I was growing up, the phrase “News Bulletin” scrolling across one’s television set was a riveting signal. Housewives stopped ironing, shoppers congregated around display TV sets in department stores, and hearts skipped a beat, as a nation waited in anticipation to learn if a president had been shot, war was about to be declared, or a NASA launch had ended in tragedy. Today, the trivialization of newsworthiness in the public consciousness has led to news bulletins to alert us of inconsequential developments in ongoing made-for-TV dramas like the Casey Anthony or George Zimmerman trials, or details of the latest arrest of Lindsay Lohan or Paris Hilton. So I did not expect my heart to skip a beat, as it did, when the scroll continued with the words “Mike Wallace has died.”

I had wanted to meet Mike Wallace for some time. The closest I ever came was a brief encounter with Lesley Stahl, which really didn’t count because at the time it would be another 14 years before she would join him on his 60 Minutes news documentary program. I was covering then-candidate Jimmy Carter’s arrival in South Florida on a campaign stop and they had cordoned off a section of the tarmac at a small airfield for members of the press. We were all jammed into close quarters, like sardines in a tin, without segregation by size, type, or prominence of the news organizations we represented. Sam Donaldson was there with an ABC News camera crew, a Miami Herald reporter was chatting with some photographers, weighed down by clunky 35mm cameras with intimidating lenses and camera bags that looked more like overnight luggage, but my attention was drawn to a reporter in a safari style leisure suit and a Jungle Jim hat. He was from a small shopper called The Hallandale Digest and my brief conversation with him made me realize Hunter S. Thompson did not have a monopoly on quirky, gonzo journalism. Lesley, however, exuded a palpable aura of professionalism. She struck me as a tough, no-nonsense, professional. To this day, I still recall the moment “Safari Sam” hit on her while were waiting on the tarmac for Carter’s plane to arrive. I don’t recall the exacts words he used, but I think it was along the lines of “hey, babe, why don’t we grab a drink afterwards.”  Lesley shot him a glance that was more powerful, more excoriating, than any wordsmith could pen. With naught but her intense countenance, she silently eviscerated the braggadocio, whose bluster dissipated faster than air escaping a punctured balloon.

Mike Wallace began his career as a radio announcer and game show host, but honed his interviewing skills as the host of several talk shows in the 1950s. Two of particular interest to me were the “Mike and Buff” show and “All Around the Town,” both featuring Mike Wallace and his then-wife Buff Cobb.  Mike and Buff began as a radio program called “Two Sleepy People” before moving to the nascent medium of television. It was one of the first morning shows and one of the first to be broadcast in color. Mike and Buff would debate a topic, interview experts, and strive for a consensus before the last sponsor’s commercial. The second program was an evening show in which they conducted live interviews from various New York restaurants. Buff Cobb went on to be a panelist on the TV quiz show “Masquerade Partyfor the next eight years. At some point during its run, she and Wallace divorced.

I had wanted to meet Mike Wallace for some time, not because I was a journalist or because of any admiration I had for him as a journalist. No, I had wanted to meet the famed reporter because there was a subject about which I longed to interview the man renowned for his decades-long career as an interviewer. I’d have settled for being able to ask him a single question. He probably wouldn’t have wanted to answer it, but then, those are the best kind of interview questions.

Since genealogy is one of my hobbies, I would often turn to my grandmother for tales of our family history. We haven’t had many writers in our family, but several have become attached to our family tree through marriage. My grandmother had an older cousin named Alton Brody, who married the daughter of the famous newspaper editor, humorist, and author Irvin S. Cobb. I once  stopped in Cobb’s hometown of Paducah, Kentucky and paid my respects at his grave. Elisabeth Cobb, also an author, is buried next to her father. She had a daughter from a previous marriage, before she wed my cousin Alton, named Patricia Chapman. Rather than following in the family tradition of writing, Patricia chose to pursue a career as an actress. Patricia settled on a stage name her mother Elisabeth had been known by... Buff Cobb.

I don’t know if Buff Cobb was a good actress; that was before my time. But over the years, I hunted down what few photos I could find of the now obscure actress. She was truly a captivating woman. I wanted to learn more about her, but in the pre-Internet era, my research was limited to Irvin Cobb’s biography and a photo-feature on Buff in the April 8, 1946 issue of Life magazine (why Life chose to put a giraffe instead on the cover and relegated young starlet Buff’s swimsuit photos to the magazine’s interior remains a mystery to me).

I’m sure one day in the not too distant future I’ll join Mike Wallace in whatever newsroom awaits us writers in the afterlife, and I’ll pin him down for that elusive interview and ask the question I never had the opportunity to pose. I won’t ask him about the stories he covered, the celebrities he interviewed, or his venerable career in my first chosen profession. I’ll throw him a curve ball by asking the uncomfortable question most men would chose not to address. “Mike,” I’d say, “tell me about your ex-wife. What was Buff Cobb like?”

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