12.26.2008

memories of oz elliott

As I mentioned here, Osborn Elliott died earlier this year. I didn't write about him when he passed away at the end of September, and I want to share a few personal memories of him now.

Oz's primary background was as a journalist and editor. He took over the editorship of Newsweek magazine and changed it from a little-read, stodgy also-ran into Time's major competition. He was dean of Columbia University's School of Journalism, and deputy mayor of the City of New York under mayor Abe Beame. The Asia Society, which he was involved with for many years, established the Osborn Elliott Award for Excellence in Journalism on Asia in his name.

Oz was also the person on whose story playwright John Guare based his play (and later, movie) "Six Degrees of Separation". The person claiming to be Sidney Poitier's son - but who was actually a con artist - showed up at Oz's door one night. In the movie, at the dinner party you'll see a quick shot of a senior gentleman in a bow tie. That's an inside reference to Oz.

I knew Oz when he was Chairman of the Citizen's Committee for New York City, a nonprofit organization that he founded and chaired for more than 30 years. The Citizens Committee was dedicated to increasing grassroots participation. It sponsored community gardens, helped young activists organize, funded neighbourhood improvement groups, and the like.

Oz had an idea to create a "mayor's march" - a March on Washington to speak for cities, and to call on the federal government to restore funding for cities. He was the driving force behind the march and I was his assistant. It was 1992. I was 30 years old, temping and writing essays while my young-adult novel made the rounds at publishers.

The march was a tough sell. It was rough going to build interest and momentum, until a strange coincidence occurred. Just weeks before the scheduled date, the Rodney King verdict was announced, followed by riots and urban uprisings. Our march suddenly gained visibility and, to some extent, helped people peacefully blow off some steam. Crowd estimates ranged from 75,000 to 200,000 people, not enormous by US standards, but many long-term alliances formed and strengthened, and we helped return urban issues to the national agenda.

No matter what the relative success or failure of our march, working with Oz was an invaluable experience for me. I attended meetings with City officials and aides, labour leaders and peace activists; I learned a tremendous amount about politics and the inner workings of Getting Things Done; I went to events with mayors from all over the US; I had breakfast at Gracie Mansion; I met people like Jessie Jackson, Mario Cuomo, Arthur Schlesinger and David Dinkins; and I learned so much about writing from watching Oz edit. In return, I worked my butt off and enjoyed Oz's crazy company.

I have many enduring memories of Oz. I'll share two of them.

In our office, the world was divided into "good guys" and "fascists". Some of you may be offended by that polarization, but it was a useful shorthand for knowing - before you took a phone call or shook a hand - what you could expect from someone and what kind of language to use.

Wealthy, white, patrician, Oz knew only this division. All were welcome and all were equal, as long as they were "good guys". Our working circle included faces of all colours, backgrounds, orientations and expertise. If you believed in social justice, you were a good guy. The rest were fascists.

The other memory is a little New York City moment. After the march, while I was still working with Oz, the Democratic National Convention was in town. New York was even more crowded than usual, and midtown was swarming with cops. The City was supposed to be on its best behaviour for all the visitors.

Oz and I were in a cab, stuck in crosstown traffic. I mean stuck - just sitting, not moving.

To our surprise, a police officer greeted us through the open window. "How are you today, Sir? I'm sorry for the inconvenience, there's some traffic in Times Square, we're doing our best to get things moving."

Oz - picture him, a senior gentleman with white hair and a bow tie - said, "Oh, we're not tourists, no need to be nice to us. Just say 'fuck you' and move on."

I don't think the cop actually heard Oz; it was very noisy and he had probably moved on to the next car. But we both got a great laugh out of it.

As I said earlier, Oz was brilliant, talented and incredibly generous with his time and talents. He was also deeply committed to social justice. Newsweek remembers him as a "giant of American journalism and a tireless crusader for revitalizing America's cities"; the obit in the New York Times briefly mentions our march and the Six Degrees connection.

5 comments:

L-girl said...

The Citizens Committee's website has a page about him and are taking donations in his name: link.

impudent strumpet said...

Wow, you know cool people!

L-girl said...

It was a very cool experience.

Anonymous said...

An interesting man. I'm glad to know more about him.

L-girl said...

Thanks Lillian.