The Time I Hired Bill O’Reilly’s Gardener

“No man is a hero to his valet,” goes the old proverb.  In the case of Bill O’Reilly, no man’s a hero to his gardener.
O’Reilly’s high profile job loss reminded me of an incident that occurred during the first year of his Fox tenure.  I was seeking a gardener to take care of my small property on the north shore of Long Island, and one candidate, “Jeff,” gave me a list of customers who could vouch for his expertise.
The names, each followed by a phone number, were something like this:
John Smith
Mary Jones
Bill O’Reilly
Bob White
Jane Doe
I did a double-take when I saw O’Reilly, as I knew he lived in Manhasset, not far from me. “Is this Bill O’Reilly from TV?” I asked. “Yeah,” Jeff replied. “He’s the guy at Fox.”
At the time, I was Geraldo Rivera’s senior producer Continue reading "The Time I Hired Bill O’Reilly’s Gardener"

Steve North: Channeling the Father of Television

"Don't waste your time", the editor of a new magazine about television advised me. "We went to the old guy's house and just could not get him to focus. All he talked about was his place in Florida".

It was 1981, and the publication's debut issue noted that Vladimir Zworykin, known as "The Father of Television", was nearly 92 years old and living in Princeton, New Jersey, near the RCA Laboratories where he had served as director.

Despite the warning, I asked for Zworykin's phone number. At the time, I had successfully interviewed quite a few extremely old folks for the two radio stations where I was news director, and I was fairly certain the drive from New York City to Princeton would be worth it.

My conversation with Dr. Zworykin turned out to be one of the most memorable of my career, and I was reminded of it when I heard that the Television Academy Hall of Fame would be posthumously inducting Philo T. Farnsworth on March 11. On its website, the Academy refers to Farnsworth as "The Forgotten Father of Television", adding "the first crude television image was created from the Farnsworth system when a photograph of a young woman was transmitted... on September 7, 1927."

The debate over just who gets credit for the device that changed the world began in the 1920s and continues to this day. A play by Aaron Sorkin about the dispute made it to Broadway in 2007, and a popular video game created in 2011 called "Iron Brigade" features a character ironically named "Vladimir Farnsworth". Zworykin himself modestly said he was just one of hundreds of scientists involved.

Despite the fuzzy and complex history of TV's creation, it seems reasonable to say that the contributions of both Farnsworth and Zworykin were key to the development of electronic television. And when I arrived at Zworykin's tree-shaded home in Princeton on a warm July day in 1981, I let him tell the story.

Born on July 30, 1889 in a town a couple of hundred miles from Moscow, Zworykin recalled a pivotal moment in his childhood. His father owned a fleet of boats, and at age five, the captain of one of the vessels was showing him around.

2013-03-11-zwyorkin2.jpeg"He took me on the top of the boat, and he pressed a button", Zworykin recalled in his thick Russian accent. "I heard some buzz from the bottom, in answer from the mechanic. That impressed me. Of course, I asked permission from the captain... and I pressed the button. That's the first time I touched an electrical appliance", he said with a chuckle, thinking back to that day in 1894.

In 1912, the young man earned a degree in electrical engineering, having studied with a pioneer of cathode ray tube technology, Professor Boris Rosing. He continued his education in Paris, then worked with radio in the Russian army during World War I. In 1919, he emigrated to the U.S. and soon was employed by the Westinghouse corporation.

It was there that Zworykin concentrated on the iconoscope camera tube, which, along with kinescope picture tube, laid the foundation for the first non-mechanical television system. I had read about the comment made by a Westinghouse executive who came to see what this Russian immigrant was up to, and asked the scientist to tell me the now-legendary anecdote.

"The first demonstration (of television) was in September of 1923, for the director of Westinghouse", Zworykin said. "Picture was very simple, but I was able to show from the window of my laboratory the boats going by, and that produced a very big impression on me. Finally, I succeeded to make the tube on which you can reproduce the moving picture".

But the director muttered something to Zworykin's immediate supervisor and left the room. "The moment he left, I come to my boss and said 'What did he say?' He said (to my boss), 'Will you put this guy to work on something more important?!'" Nearly 60 years later, Zworykin laughed at the memory.

We were sitting in a small parlor on the first floor of Zworykin's home for the interview. I had closed the doors to the room, saying it needed to be quiet, as this was being recorded for radio, but the real reason was to avoid any distractions. The ploy worked well, and we spoke at length about his more than 120 patents for devices ranging from the electron microscope to electronically-controlled missiles to radiation detectors.

And then we returned to the subject of television. "Let me ask you a simple question", I said. "Do you watch it?" Zworykin's face turned somber as he replied. "Frankly, no. The technique is wonderful. I didn't ever dream it would be so good, the color and everything. It is beyond my expectations".

Suddenly, the frail old man's voice became loud and strong, as he continued. "But the programs! I would never let my children even come close to this thing! It's awful what they're doing!"

"What's wrong?" I asked. "What should they be doing?" "First", he said, wagging his finger, "they have to remove the majority of the sex pictures!" Settling back a bit in his chair, he added, in a softer voice, "Probably they're making a lot of money".

The remark, reported a couple of weeks later by UPI on Zworykin's 92nd birthday, made headlines. The New York Times wrote "TV Turns Off Its Father", and the audio version was broadcast coast to coast.

I concluded the interview, which turned out to be his last, by speaking with Zworykin about the 27 major awards he'd received, including the National Medal of Science, the nation's highest scientific honor. I took one photo of him gazing at all the plaques and statuettes, and another of him holding a replica of the iconoscope.


Then I asked how he'd like history to remember him. "Personally, I not care. I'm very flattered. But I wouldn't work for that (recognition) only. I worked for 70 years in television."

Zworykin passed away the next year. More than three decades later, I often think of him as I watch my 52-inch flat-screen HDTV, imagining what his reaction would be to both the technology and the content. And I'm always grateful that he ignored the advice of that executive who, back in 1923, couldn't realize the significance of those blurry images on that flickering screen.

Steve North is a broadcast journalist with CBS News.

Steve North: Tolstoy: A Voice From the Past

The end of the line came one century ago for Leo Tolstoy, who died in a railroad station where he had taken ill. It was ten days after the 82-year-old Russian novelist fled his family estate, where due to his intolerably troubled marriage, he had been living a life filled with much war and little peace.

I recently watched The Last Station, the compelling new film about Tolstoy's tumultuous final months, with more interest than most moviegoers, as I believe I'm the only journalist who ever interviewed, on audiotape, one of the few people who were in the "last station" with Tolstoy in 1910.

The story of that highly emotional deathbed interview begins in 1884. Tolstoy's tyrannical and perpetually-pregnant wife Sofya was about to give birth to the 12th of their 13 children, when, as he recorded in his diary, she "began to nag me about some horses." Leo decided to leave, but on the road, felt sorry for her and returned home. "I had just fallen asleep," he wrote, "when she came and woke me up. 'Forgive me,' she said, 'the baby is coming. Perhaps I shall die.' Then she went upstairs. The birth began. What should have been the most joyous event in a family went by like something unnecessary and hard."
Despite that inauspicious beginning, the child, Alexandra, later was the light of her famous father's life. Known to all as Sasha, the young woman became his secretary in 1901, daily transcribing his nearly illegible writing, and more importantly, trying to shield him from her mother's increasingly bizarre outbursts.

It was Sasha Tolstoy who I interviewed in 1978, on the 150th anniversary of her father's birth. At age 94, she had long been his only surviving child, but she was far too frail to attend any of the gala celebrations that were held in Washington, Moscow, and Paris. In fact, she had been confined to bed for two years following a massive heart attack, with an oxygen tank next to her and nurses always nearby.

At the time, I was news director of a radio station in Rockland County, N.Y., not far from Sasha's cottage on the grounds of a refugee organization she founded in 1939, a decade after leaving the Soviet Union. The Communists had confiscated most of the Tolstoy riches, arrested Sasha five times, then imprisoned her for a year, despite her having received three medals for battlefield valor during World War I, during which she commanded medical units.

She was an extraordinary person in her own right, and I spent nearly a year trying to convince her caretakers to let me speak with her. Finally, the iron-willed Sasha told her doctors she indeed wanted to talk about her father one last time, and felt strong enough to do so. I got the phone call, grabbed my tape recorder and camera, and was at her side within an hour.

At first, it was difficult to comprehend that the energetic, boisterous young woman I had been reading about in history books and this feeble old lady were one and the same. Sasha was lying propped up on a big pillow, looking astonishingly like the photos of Leo on the wall above her (albeit beardless), her white hair pulled back in a long braid, and her large hands, brown-spotted with age, clasped together above the covers.

What were her thoughts now about her father, the passionate crusader for nonviolence and social justice who was once described as "one of the most remarkable of all men, one of the shapers of the world we live in"? "My thoughts about him never changed," she began... "that he was a great man, that he wanted only good for the people, that he preached goodness, love, God... everything a man lives by."

Her breathing was labored, her voice hoarse and heavily accented, but Sasha seemed to gain strength the longer we spoke. We discussed what she called the Soviets' "enslavement of the Russian people," and what Tolstoy might have thought of the women's liberation movement. ("Very much against it!")
In fact, she told me, it was better that Tolstoy did not see the changes that had taken place in the nearly seven decades since his death. "Oh, God, he would be so disappointed, because the world has gone absolutely crooked. They don't live for each other, they don't live for the good of people, they don't live for religion, and he would be so disappointed in the world of today."

In The Last Station, Sasha's parents are elegantly portrayed by Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren; she is played by Scottish actress Anne-Marie Duff.

Mirren's Golden-Globe-nominated performance is over the top (and under the water...she flings herself into a pond at one point), and pretty much what I expect the real Sofya was like, based on all I've read and what Sasha told me.

"Did you realize that not only your father's books, but your family's life, was filled with great drama?" I asked her. "Yes. I was there. I saw when my mother had paranoia, and she tortured him. She didn't know what she was doing, because she was not well."

Sasha paused for a moment, perhaps realizing she was literally getting the last word in the long-ago mother-daughter dispute. "My mother died in my arms," she continued, "and she was quite different. She said 'Alexandra, will you ever forgive me? I know that I tortured your father.' I said, 'Mother, I know you were sick,' and I made friends with her, and we kissed each other before she died. I was the only one who took care of her 'til her last breath."

Her father's last breath was perhaps the first global media event of the modern age.

Reporters, photographers, and a Pathe newsreel crew staked out the provincial railway station in Astapovo, and hourly reports on Tolstoy's condition were flashed around the world. Did you realize, I asked Sasha, the intense interest of the press? "I knew it," she recalled, "but I never thought about it, because I was so preoccupied with my father's sickness that all the world to me seemed inane and uninteresting."

As for the final spoken words of this master of the written word, Sasha said they were interrupted. "When he was dying, he said (in Russian) 'I love eternity.' He wanted to finish the sentence, but it was his last words. He didn't have time. He died."

Sasha was beyond consolation. "I was lost," she later wrote. "Life was not worth living." But she did go on, surviving her father by 69 years, passing away peacefully at age 95, the year after our interview. The conversation was published globally by UPI and People magazine, and broadcast throughout the U.S. and then behind the "Iron Curtain" on Radio Free Europe.

Sasha once composed an essay about the Tolstoyan philosophy of the "joy of death," so I concluded by asking how she was dealing with what was clearly her final illness. "I am not sad about myself, because it prepared me to go to another world. I'm not afraid. The only thing is, I'm sorry to part with those whom I love."

With that, Sasha Tolstoy, weeping softly, leaned back on the pillow and closed her eyes... satisfied that for the last time, she had brought her father's momentous message to the world.

Photos: 1. Leo Tolstoy and his daughter Alexandra (Sasha); c. 1905 2. Alexandra (Sasha) Tolstoy at home in Valley Cottage, NY, in 1978, with photos of her father on the wall above her bed. C. Steve North

You can read more from Steve here.