Culture

The Corner

A Smoke-Filled Room

The latest episode of Jaywalking is dotted with politics, war, and music — the usual. I begin with music by Frederick the Great. (Secretary Jim Mattis had reminded me of him.) At the end, I have Paderewski, playing the “Revolutionary” Etude of his countryman, Chopin. Ed Rowny, one of our outstanding generals, died the other day at 100. He loved Paderewski, and had a hand in returning the great man’s remains to Poland.

Paderewski was both a musician and a statesman. In fact, he was prime minister of Poland, representing that country at the Paris Peace Talks after the war. WFB loved to tell the following story:

“What was your name again?” said Clemenceau. “Paderewski,” said the Polish PM. “Any relation to the pianist?” asked Clemenceau, brightly. “I am the pianist,” replied Paderewski. Clemenceau blinked. He then said, “And now you’re in politics?” “You could say that,” answered Paderewski.

Clemenceau’s reply: “What a comedown.”

(WFB once told this story when introducing me at an event, as a writer who split his time between politics and music.)

Last week, I had a little post that involved “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” the song by Kern and Harbach. In this latest Jaywalking, I play a recording of that song, with Helen Forrest and Benny Goodman.

In response to my post, a reader of ours — Thank you for your (ongoing) service, sir! — dropped me a line:

In 2006 I got promoted. They took my beautiful, wonderful platoon away from me, and do know what those jerks did? They put me in charge of logistics for my battalion. I was furious. I was so angry I couldn’t see straight. I told all the guys in my new office that this was now a smoking office. “Smoke in here all you want,” I said.

My Sergeant Major busted in while we were all puffing away and screamed, “What do you people think you’re doing?”

I told him, “Sergeant Major, we’re smoking.”

“Who gave you permission to do that?”

“I did, Sergeant Major. I’m the boss in here. I said this is now a smoking office.”

He looked at me and squinted. “It’s now a smoking office, huh?”

“Yeah,” I said. I’m not normally so bold, but I was furious that they’d taken my platoon from me.

Without a word, he walked out. I thought he was going to tattle on me to the battalion commander, but he came back a minute later and lit up a cigar.

“Good sh**,” was all he said, and from then on he came and smoked cigars in my office.

P.S. Paderewski had wild hair. Pianist’s hair. In fact, Irving Berlin wrote a lyric about him: “And with the pedal I love to meddle / When Paderewski comes this way. / I’m so excited if I’m invited / to hear that long-haired genius play.”

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