The enthusiastic gathering at Barnes & Noble’s Westside Pavilion store honored Norman Corwin, a Los Angeles literary treasure. In turn, he made the event a celebration of writers and writing. Acknowledging the tribute to him, he also called out the names of some of the authors in the crowd and praised them and their work.
We had assembled recently for a signing of his new book, “Norman Corwin’s One World Flight: The Lost Journal of Radio’s Greatest Writer.” Norman, who is 99, had written the journal during his flight around the world in 1946. He had helped rally the nation during the war with his radio broadcasts and went on to write books and films as well as memorable radio scripts.
The flight was his reward for winning the first Wendell Willkie Award, established by admirers of the 1940 Republican presidential nominee. During World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Willkie a special envoy and sent him around world, visiting America’s allies. When he returned, Willkie wrote a best selling book, “One World,” whose goal is still far away.
One of benefits of teaching at USC was the opportunity it gave me and my wife Nancy to get to know Norman, joining a huge army of friends he has accumulated, probably starting shortly after his birth in Boston in 1910.
Norman, now wheelchair bound, couldn’t be heard at first. Barnes & Noble, possibly unaware of his star power, had not provided a microphone. Instead, his words were delivered to the crowd, by Michael C. Keith who, with Mary Ann Watson—both professors of broadcasting history—had brought the long- forgotten journal to publication. After a while, bookstore personnel, sensing the importance of their guest, located a microphone and brought it to the table. Norman took over the remarks.
His voice, while soft, is as clear and as sharp as his mind and wit. He took note of writers in the audience, including his USC faculty colleagues Jack Langguth and Joe Saltzman, and urged another to get working on a book. And he was pleased to note the presence of another L.A. literary treasure, Ray Bradbury, who made his way through the crowd to greet Norman and chat with him briefly. Bradbury also gets around in a wheelchair. Undoubtedly it wasn’t easy for him to get to Norman. When he made it, Bradbury and Norman provided a wonderful moment in Los Angeles literary history, and I hope someone got the picture.
Reading from the book were Norman’s friends Eva Marie Saint, the great actress, and her husband Jeff Hayden, the director. They alternated reading from passages of the book. All their selections were fine. This one about St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow’s Red Square gives a good sense of the great writing and wit that went into the book:
“I saw the church sitting under a distant cumulus cloud of overwhelming magnificence—a mighty towering cauliflower head crowned and studded with white, ivory and golden botryoids, the peaks rouged here and there by the rays of a sinking sun. The trunk of the cloud shaded to blues and purples out of the night that was advancing over the plains to the east. This apocalyptic mass sat, excessively and redundantly, on top of the most grandiloquent cathedral in the world, itself an architectural curiosity. I have seen some great skies in my years of looking up and down at clouds, but there never had been one to match that vision of tufts and battlements, that nest of hail and thunder, rising above the vari-colored, spiraling domes and cupolas built for a mad emperor.”
Afterward, we wanted Norman to autograph the book. The crowd was dense with others headed to Norman’s table on the same mission. But I still had enough of a reporter’s skill—and rudeness—to push my way through.
He wrote, “For Bill and Nancy. The best. Norman Corwin.” Actually he printed it. But his small, careful printing was somewhat similar to the neat cursive with which he wrote the journal. Brief handwritten excerpts begin each chapter.
“There was quite a throng to see us off,” he wrote as the journey began. There was quite a throng to see his book off, too.