George Avakian and Cy Shain met in 1937, when Avakian was a freshman at Yale and Shain was a senior at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. They bonded over jazz, probably at the Onyx or Famous Door or one of the other clubs on West Fifty-second Street, and for the next seventy years they stayed in touch. On most matters–music, politics, baseball–they saw eye to eye. But on one thing they became great rivals, and it was serious business: the letters to the editor page of the New York Times.
It may now seem quaint, with even the greatest newspapers on the ropes, but for people of a certain age getting a letter published in the Times has always been a very, very big deal. Despite repeated attempts, Avakian, who became a legendary producer for Columbia and RCA Victor–Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Johnny Mathis, Duke Ellington and Miles Davis were among the many icons he recorded–couldn’t buy his way into the paper. But Shain, who held a variety of government posts in judicial education and prison reform in California, managed to crack the code. And how.
Thirty-nine times over the past decade Shain, who lived in San Francisco, was in the paper on all manner of suitably weighty subjects: the Iraq War, campaign finance reform, the death penalty, nuclear proliferation. He had six letters printed each year in 2001, 2002 and 2003. People who have spent lifetimes trying to break into the Times might equate Shain’s record with Babe Ruth’s in 1920, the year he hit more home runs by himself than any other team in the American League. Meanwhile, in the Bronx, Avakian kept typing away–and striking out.
What explained their very different fates? It wasn’t politics: both were lifelong liberal Democrats who loathed George W. Bush and everything he stood for. In fact, it was only with Bush’s election in 2000 that their epistolary enthusiasms began; each was around 80 at the time. But there, alas, the similarities ended.
Avakian couldn’t contain his anger, and as anyone who reads the Times well knows, on the letters page no one ever gets too worked up about anything. Friends to whom he would sometimes send drafts forever urged him to tone things down. But try as he might–which, truth be told, wasn’t very hard–catharsis always won out over pragmatism. It started at the very outset of the Bush II era. “How many words have been written about the mess in Florida? 4 million, 400 million? 4 billion?” he wrote during the fiasco following the presidential election of 2000. “There are only four words which properly sum up the whole situation. They are: The fix is in.'” Of course, it got spiked. In another letter, from July 2007, he called Bush “the most flagrant liar in the history of the American Presidency.” Ditto. Three months earlier Avakian–like Shain, a World War II veteran–asked if Bush would view the Iraq War differently if his twin daughters had served there “and came home with one arm, one leg and one eye between them?” That, too, got nowhere. Worse, such letters seemed to poison the well for Avakian. Even when he wrote something more tempered or innocuous–bemoaning, for instance, that A-Rod’s home runs in the reconfigured old Yankee Stadium would have been mere fly balls back in DiMaggio’s day–it was rejected.
Shain’s letters, by contrast, were perfect Times material, which is to say, reasonable. When he raised the issue of the newly installed George W. Bush’s intellect and work habits, he did so gently. When he denounced the rush to war in Iraq, his tone was measured. His harshest adjectives were “sobering” or “bone-chilling” or “downright frightening.” And while Avakian was either blunt or discursive, Shain mastered the Times formula: invariably three sentences, or thoughts, first introducing, then elaborating upon, then concluding, an idea. Though he made his points, it was always with a jab rather than a roundhouse. Shain’s letters had the efficiency of haiku and the elegance of sonnets.