Thursday, 18 November 2021 06:32

Mort Sahl: An Appreciation

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Bill Davy delivers a moving and quite-personal reflection on the life and legacy of political satirist Mort Sahl, who risked his career and livelihood to pursue the truth in President John F. Kennedy’s assassination and influenced a generation of Americans in the process.


America has just lost the best friend it ever had. On October 26th, Mort Sahl—actor, writer, director, teacher, political satirist and Jim Garrison investigator—passed away in Mill Valley at age 94.

Mort invented the modern form of political satire—hell, he transcended it. In the early 1950’s in clubs along San Francisco’s North Beach with names like the hungry i and the Purple Onion, this new young talent was riffing on the political headlines of the day in an almost jazz-like, improvisatory way. Eschewing the square looking business suit look of most comedians, Mort sported a V-neck sweater, toted the day’s newspaper, and delivered his lines in a rapid-fire staccato rhythm—like a Paul Desmond or Stan Kenton on bennies (Kenton especially was an early hero and even mentor of Mort’s). Mort’s routine would equally take the piss out of a Republican or a Democrat, it didn’t matter. Mort always took up the mantle of the loyal opposition, sometimes bringing on controversy and trouble. One night in the basement club, the hungry i, after a rather tame joke targeting Ike (“They’ve just brought out the Eisenhower jacket. It has a lapel that buttons over the mouth.”) some patrons took offense and rolled the garbage cans from outside down the club stairs which opened up onto the stage.

Word of Mort’s brand of comedy spread rapidly, especially after influential newspaper columnist Herb Caen took up Mort’s cause (“I don’t know where Mr. Sahl came from, but I’m glad he’s here”). Established comedians and other show business people were soon coming up to see the hot new comic, with Eddie Cantor providing some early mentorship. By the end of his first year playing to packed houses at the hungry i, Mort was earning $3,000 a week—in 1954 money.

With this success came bigger venues, college campuses, and, of course, TV. Along with that came a newer circle of friends: Sinatra and Martin, Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller, Hefner, Belafonte, Brando, and Julie London (“Now there was a woman,” Mort once told me, not in any way lascivious). Mort and Paul Newman had once been roommates. Mort was married early on to actress Sue Babior, but after 27 months they were divorced. Mort was soon smitten with an actress names Phyllis Kirk, best remembered at that time as Nora Charles opposite Peter Lawford’s Nick on The Thin Man TV series.

NBC hired Mort to cover the 1956 Democratic convention. Mort was a firm supporter of the Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson. The intellectual and eloquent former Governor of Illinois (and perennial democratic candidate) appealed greatly to Mort and the two would become lifelong friends.

Mort also led the way in the recording of comedy albums. There were a couple of studio-recorded albums out there, but when Mort took the stage on January 26, 1958, the first modern live comedy LP, The Future Lies Ahead was born.

Naturally, Hollywood came calling and Mort was soon co-starring with Alan Ladd (All the Young Men), Sammy Davis, Jr. (Johnny Cool), and Tony Curtis and Sharon Tate (Don’t Make Waves). Bookings at the premier venue of the time, the Copacabana, soon followed. In 1960, Mort made the cover of Time magazine.

Mutual friends brought Mort into the Kennedys’ orbit. Mort was soon writing jokes gratis for Senator John Kennedy’s presidential campaign. After the election, Mort went back to being the loyal opposition. Jack loved it, but word got back to the old man who now considered Mort persona non grata. (“Doesn’t Sahl know the meaning of loyalty?”)

Mort split with Phyllis Kirk and was soon linked with Dyan Cannon and later Yvonne Craig. While his career thrived, his “rebellious nature did rub some people the wrong way.” Nevertheless, he was looking forward to the 10-year anniversary of his first performance at the hungry i. The date was November 22, 1963.

II

To many, the assassination of President Kennedy was a life altering event, few can quantify it the way Mort later could. As Walter Cronkite led the nation in “communal crying,” the country served witness to 3 murders that weekend (JFK, Officer Tippit and accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald at the hands of “patriotic night club owner” Jack Ruby). As Mort reported shortly after, “Oswald was killed in the basement of the Dallas Police while surrounded by 40 cops—41 if you count Ruby.”

Within days, LBJ appointed a “blue ribbon” commission, an idea actually foisted on him by National Security State veterans Eugene Rostow and Joe Alsop. Named the Warren Commission after its reluctant and browbeaten leader, Chief Justice Earl Warren, the commission was quickly hijacked by its 2 civilian members, former CIA Director Allen Dulles (who Kennedy had fired) and Cold War stalwart John McCloy, along with various ambitious junior counsel (Arlen Specter for example) who were out to enhance their resumes. The result was preordained (lone nut Oswald killed JFK on his own) and the media reaction predictable.

Mort smelled a rat, but began working the assassination slowly into his act. The catalyst was the credible critical work that began to emerge: Mark Lane’s Rush to Judgement, Harold Weisberg’s, Whitewash and many others. Later, he would wheel out the entire Warren Report and its 26 volumes on stage. Mort would read some of the more ridiculous and irrelevant sections from the Warren volumes (Jack Ruby’s mother’s dental chart for example). Around this time, Mort also met and married amateur athlete and the first Asian-American Playboy centerfold China Lee.

Shortly thereafter, Mort was presented with the Nielsen ratings for his LA TV show. Ostensibly, they showed that his ratings had dropped from a 3.0 to a 1.0 share overnight. Station management told him outright that “he talked too much about the Kennedy death.” (Mark Lane had been a guest four times) Mort was fired on the spot. After a 39 week successful run, Mort was convinced “outside forces” were at work. He took to the microphone to relay his suspicions. His listeners agreed. Signs began appearing along Sunset Boulevard calling for demonstrations at KTTV. The station’s switchboard lit up and over 35,000 letters came into the mail room. Mort gave a press conference where he revealed he had received a memo from management ordering him to “lay off” the Kennedy assassination. Finally, it was admitted that KTTV had “misread” the Nielsen ratings. Although there was a drop in the first hour of the show, during the second hour the show added some 30,000 viewers. In fact, Mort had as many as 250,000 viewers per quarter hour. Instead of being fired in disgrace, Mort was given a 13-week renewal and a salary increase. His first guest after his renewal was Mark Lane.

III

On February 17, 1967, the New Orleans States Item ran a page one story with an above the fold banner headline that read: “DA HERE LAUNCHES FULL JFK DEATH PLOT PROBE.” The article revealed that the Orleans Parish District Attorney, Jim Garrison, was investigating a New Orleans based plot to assassinate JFK and that the office had already spent some $8,000 on travel expenses so far. On the 18th, Garrison held a press conference and announced he had a suspect—David Ferrie. A CIA contract pilot, virulent anti-communist, and mentor to young Oswald when he was in Ferrie’s Civil Air Patrol unit, Ferrie denounced the whole thing as a joke. But he was hardly doing much laughing. As he had done just after the assassination, Ferrie spent his final days engaging in activities which clearly displayed a consciousness of guilt. He eventually broke down and admitted much incriminating information to the DA’s Chief Investigator Lou Ivon. Three days later, Ferrie was found dead of “natural causes”—age 48. Garrison’s number one suspect was dead, but Garrison’s case wasn’t. He turned his attention to the man he had hoped Ferrie would implicate. On March 1, 1967, Garrison announced he had arrested the manager of the New Orleans International Trade Mart, Clay Shaw. The international media descended upon New Orleans—the whole world was watching. So was Mort Sahl.

Mort turned to China and asked, “Is he corrupt?” (China’s brother would soon be the sheriff of neighboring Jefferson Parish). “No,” she said. “I’ve known him ten years. He’s incorruptible.” Channel 11 sent Mort down to New Orleans to get an interview. Getting in the cab in New Orleans, Mort said, “4600 Owens Boulevard.” The driver replied: “That’s Jim Garrison’s house! I’ll let you off on the corner. I don’t want to get shot.” Mort walked to the door and rang the bell. A 6’6” giant of a man wearing a bathrobe answered the door. “I’m Mort Sahl and I came down here to shake your hand.” Garrison said, “I hope you’re available to do a lot more than that.”

Later, Garrison would take Mort down to the wine cellar at the Royal Orleans Hotel and open up his case file. Mort cleared his calendar and signed on as $1 a year investigator for the DA’s office. Sahl took an apartment in New Orleans and began punching the clock at the office like any other investigator or Assistant DA. Mort went from making millions a year to approximately $13,000. To pay the bills, Mort would play college campuses and make the occasional TV appearance. On one appearance on The Tonight Show, Mort challenged Johnny Carson to have Garrison on the show. Carson took up the challenge and Garrison was booked. Mort prepped Garrison. One can only guess who prepped Carson. Since Carson’s network NBC just ran a hit piece on Garrison, it’s not hard imagining the ringleader of that farce, Walter Sheridan, having some sort of input to Carson’s belligerence. What is known is that Carson lied about who did brief him. When Mort asked Carson who would question Garrison, Carson replied, “I will. I holed up one Saturday afternoon and read the Warren Report.” As Mort noted, it took him 27 months to read the report and its 26 volumes.

Carson’s antagonism and constant interruptions forced NBC to issue thousands of form letters apologizing for Carson and explaining that Johnny had to play devil’s advocate. Mort replied: “The devil doesn’t need an advocate.” This only further infuriated Carson, who would never again have Mort or Garrison on his show.

Mort had better success with Hefner and set up a lengthy interview for Garrison in the October 1967 Playboy. The interviewer, Eric Norden, gave Garrison a reasonably fair hearing. The American public had never heard this level of detail before on the subject.

The more Mort advocated for Garrison in Hollywood, the more his “free thinking” friends started abandoning him (“Let it go, Mort”). One notable exception was the brave Art Kunkin, publisher of the L.A. Free Press, who routinely covered and interviewed Garrison.

With the acquittal of Clay Shaw in 1969, Mort still played some clubs and talk shows, but the opportunities were drying up. With the Garrison probe winding down, the staff presented Mort with a plaque:

To

MORT SAHL

The Best Friend

John Kennedy

Ever Had

From

                                    Jim Garrison              Jim Alcock

                                    Andrew Sciambra     Louis Ivon

New Orleans

May 29, 1969

It was time to ride on from New Orleans, but Mort found that to be a hard prospect. As he wrote in 1976:

I’ve been trying to ride out of New Orleans for ten years. New Orleans is the most important city in America in the last hundred years. It’s where Oswald was bred, where he worked for Guy Banister and Naval Intelligence, where David Ferrie was, where Clay Shaw was, where Gordon Novel was, where the command post was. It was where Victor Marchetti first reported that he heard Richard Helms express concern over Garrison’s upcoming prosecution of Clay Shaw. It was where William Colby, addressing a convention, said that he could not deny that Shaw was a CIA agent. It was where Senator Schweiker promised to focus future investigations directly on the New Orleans area and where the lawmaker pointed out that Lee Harvey Oswald had contact with anti-Castro Cuban groups. And it was there that the District Attorney made the initial, and what was to be the only, thrust to seek justice for the fallen President. Even the Senate Intelligence Committee agrees on the significance of New Orleans in the plans to murder President Kennedy.

IV

With the 1970’s, Mort had a seemingly bottomless resource pool from which to draw material from. With the nation embroiled in Watergate, Mort enjoyed a brief renaissance. He released an album (Sing a Song of Watergate) bringing his unique perspective to the Watergate scandal (“With Nixon’s departure, we witnessed the second assassination of a President by the CIA in ten years”).

During this season of inquiry (Watergate, the Pike Committee, the Church Committee, Zapruder film on TV, the House Select Committee on Assassinations, etc.), the timing was right to bring a unique voice to the airwaves of DC.

In 1978, a commercial aired on a local DC TV station. A man was shown sitting on a park bench in front of the White House reading a newspaper. A voice intoned, “Mort Sahl is coming to WRC radio. Weekdays at 4:00.” Among others, a 22-year old kid fresh out of college and sitting at home was watching.

I had heard of Mort Sahl, but knew very little of him or his work. I knew even less about the Kennedy assassination. At 4:00 on October 16, 1978, I tuned in. To say I was gob-smacked would be an understatement. I had never heard this kind of unique perspective on current events or dissertations on history told through a covert Cold War lens. All articulated with unbelievable wit and humor. And then there was the Kennedy assassination. Mort was not only a scholar on the event, but had much first-hand knowledge through the Kennedys, etc. A dizzying array of names I had never heard of were tossed out: Prouty, Garrison, Lane, Marcus, Flammonde, Weisberg, and literally dozens of others. Somehow I needed to gain this forbidden knowledge. I began haunting the local libraries (slim pickings), which soon turned into trips to the Library of Congress where I took notes and Xerox’d pages of rare (suppressed?) volumes. One name kept coming up more than others in Mort’s monologues: Jim Garrison. I couldn’t find his book, so I had to Xerox pages at the Library of Congress. I had more luck tracking down the 1967 Playboy interview. After reading it multiple times, the Garrison thesis made the most sense to me of all of the critical literature I had read.

I finally worked up enough nerve to call into Mort’s show—the first and only time I would ever call into a radio show. Greeting Mort with a line that cracked him up put me at ease (“Mort, you’re like a breath of fresh carbon monoxide”). Most of Mort’s call-ins lasted about 3 minutes—we talked for 10: Garrison, Clay Shaw, New Orleans, MIGS in Cuba, movies. We covered a lot in those ten minutes. Fortunately, I had my tape deck running and taped this show and many others. I had hundreds of hours of tapes which, unfortunately, over time has been whittled down to about ten. But these ten hours are some of my most cherished possessions. The quotes are priceless and timeless. Mort’s true loves, America, women, films, and justice always shined through. It’s also amazing how prescient the man was and how little the human condition has changed over the decades:

Mort: This is the only time in history where people join groups to become individuals.

Mort: In a world without romance, it is better to be dead.

Mort: Garrison had, what Freud described as, “relentless integrity.”

Mort: (After a caller had expressed concern that Ted Kennedy would be killed if he ran for President and went after his brothers’ killers.) Imagine. You’re conceding that murders are now part of the body politic.

Caller: If David Ferrie hadn’t died, how would it have affected the [Shaw] trial?

Mort: It would have changed American history. I can give you my solemn word on that. It would have changed American history. The names that bear on the history of this country are names that most Americans don’t know. Names like Guy Banister and David Ferrie.

Mort: I don’t believe Ferrie was in Dallas that day. That’s not where his post was. You know, there were several posts. New Orleans was part of it. Galveston. Several cities. It was a major operation. The assassination was the crystallization of all the people that resented Kennedy making their move, because the President had promised (many people who are in the government now can verify this) that he would remove everybody from Viet Nam and that he would split the CIA into a thousand pieces. He never lived to do it.

Later a caller identifying himself as a 20-year CIA veteran called and berated Mort for trying to obtain information from the CIA via FOIA:

Caller: The CIA is a damn good organization. Them and the FBI both. Thank God we’ve got these boys…with every bum coming up the street having a right to read it (FOIA releases)…You don’t have the information and you’re trying to get it and you’re not going to get it! I think your naive! How do you like that? [click]

Mort: And I think you’re a party to murder, how do you like that?

Mort was in the right place at the right time and evoked some of the more classic Mort lines. The Jonestown Guyana mass suicide was fresh in the headlines (“You all jump on the bandwagon very easily saying Jones is a madman. Jones is crazy. The point is you don’t ask enough questions - of yourself I might add”). The House Select Committee on Assassinations was preparing their final report (“I urge everyone listening to write to Ted Kennedy to continue the investigation. Jim Garrison was vindicated. The truth hurts, but the lies will kill you”).

Despite having a great show that performed well in the ratings, after just five months Mort was homesick and had had enough. Mort asked for and obtained permission from NBC to quit the show. The final show aired on March 9, 1979.

V

Mort wanted more time to focus on his film career. He had written a comedy called How the West Was Shrunk. Mort’s friend Bob Kaufman wrote the screenplay and comic actor David Steinberg was attached to the project playing the Freudian psychiatrist who travels to the Old West to introduce the cowboys to Freudian analysis. The project never got off the ground. However, Mort would spend most of the 1980’s punching up scripts (Ordinary People, Tootsie, Sabrina, and a dozen others).

On October 11, 1987, Mort Sahl on Broadway opened at the Neil Simon Theatre. Essentially a 90 minute stand-up performance, it nevertheless garnered good reviews. It did fair business as well, but they didn’t push it very hard. The show closed shortly after the first of the year.

In 1988, Jim Garrison penned a second volume on his investigation: On The Trail of the Assassins. As with his first book, A Heritage of Stone, Mort is once again acknowledged. Around this time, a young filmmaker named Bob Weide began filming Mort and interviewing some of his close associates from not only Hollywood and San Francisco but New Orleans as well (Garrison made an appearance, as did his Assistant DA, now magistrate, Andrew Sciambra, who rarely gave interviews). Weide eventually sold his film to PBS, who aired it as part of the American Masters series on September 18, 1989.

During this time Garrison’s new book had been optioned by Oliver Stone and in 1991 became the blockbuster film JFK. Mort was not a technical adviser. However, Mort had landed a weekly talk/commentary series for the fledgling Monitor Channel. Mort Sahl Live! aired on November 16, 1991. It would be the highest rated show in the short history of the Christian Science Monitor network. On April 15, 1992, the Monitor Channel was shut down.

In 1997, as I was working on my own book Let Justice Be Done, I was invited to LA by a mutual friend of mine and Mort’s. Dinner was arranged at Ruth’s Chris in Beverly Hills. As my friend and I were finishing our martinis (in honor of Jim Garrison), Mort walked in looking a little stoop shouldered and drawn. Mort had told us he had just come from a meeting with LA District Attorney Gil Garcetti. A few months earlier Mort’s 19-year old son Mort Jr. had died of a heroin overdose. Ever skeptical, Mort wanted to ask the DA his own questions. As the dinner progressed, the mood did lighten. Mort and I agreed we would hook up again. As he left the table, Mort waved a small American flag on a stick—upside down, of course.

In 1999, at the same time my book was published, my first daughter was born. Amid this whirlwind of events, and to my everlasting embarrassment, I had neglected to send Mort a copy of my book. Word got back to me though: Could I send Mort a copy of my book and would I inscribe it? I had to pull myself up off the floor. Here was one of the most important influences in my life essentially asking me for an autograph. Who was I for christsake? I sent Mort an inscribed book straight away, along with a copy of his book, Heartland (1976) asking for his inscription. A couple of weeks later I received the book back in the mail with this inscription: “For Bill Davy—who courageously pursued the truth—and caught it! Mort Sahl” It is probably my most valued possession.

VI

In the fall of 2008, Mort began teaching at Claremont McKenna College. He taught one course in screenwriting and another he called The Revolutionary’s Handbook. On the required reading list, sandwiched in between Prouty and Garrison, was my own book. I must admit feeling a little humbled to be included on a college reading list along with the likes of Prouty, Garrison, Che Guevara, Shakespeare, Aristophanes, and Henry Miller. Mort invited me out to sit in on a class as a guest speaker. I flew out planning to stay a day. I stayed four. From the airport, I drove straight away to Mort’s bungalow on campus, a perk Claremont had hooked him up with. It had been a decade since I had seen Mort and was a little taken aback. He had been fighting cancer and was legally blind in one eye. Nevertheless, his spirits were high and so was his energy (I could barely keep up). After that first day, a group of us went to dinner, Mort, myself, a mutual friend, Director of the Gould Center for Humanistic Studies at Claremont Robert Faggen, and the most promising student from Mort’s class, a young man of about 19 or 20 whose name I no longer remember. A lot of good wine and good conversation flowed that evening and I remember thinking how lucky that student was to experience something like this. This is what college should be about.

The next three days I spent almost exclusively with Mort and it was like sitting with Socrates or something (except with a sense of humor).

A year or two later Mort reached out again. He was doing some gigs down in Palm Beach, Florida. Did I want to come down for a few days? I was on the next flight out. Mort was playing a gig at a former theatre that was now hosting stand ups and bands on nostalgia tours (KC and the Sunshine Band had played the week before). Mort had no one in his party, so I was sort of an entourage of one. I helped him get ready for the gig, assisted with the sound check, and got him a newspaper to use as his prop. Before the gig, we went back to where Mort was staying—the Palm Beach home of General Alexander Haig. Yes, that Al Haig. The Supreme Allied Commander of the NATO forces. The Secretary of State. The Presidential Chief of Staff. The “I’m in charge” Al Haig. Mort met Haig back in 1988, when Haig was running for President because, as he told Mort, he felt George H.W. Bush was a dangerous man. Mort and he found some common ground and Mort wrote a few jokes for the short-lived Haig campaign. And while the campaign may have been short lived, Mort and Haig became fast friends. I was introduced to Haig (“call me Al”) and his lovely wife. As I remember, his adult daughter was there as well. The guys retired to the living room with snacks and iced tea. I had to pinch myself and blink a couple of times to make sure this surreal scene was real. But the general was a fine host and a conspiracy theorist too! (He tried to push the Castro did it theory, evoking a laugh from Mort). As we left, Mrs. Haig took photos of all of us. It occupies a prominent place in my office.

The gig went off without a hitch. Mort was on top of his game and the audience agreed. After the show, we went next door to a restaurant and dined with the Haigs. Mort was feeling good and held forth at dinner, while we agreed to do this again for future gigs.

However, I had a strange premonition that this probably going to be it as I flew back the next day. I was initially proven wrong though. Sometime later, I received another call: Mort and Dick Gregory were going to do a series of shows together at the world-famous Mister Kelly’s in Chicago. Did I want to come up and assist? Same deal like Florida. My answer: “When do you need me to leave?” Soon. I just needed to stay in a holding pattern until the deal got finalized. I also knew Dick a little, as we had met in Dallas in 1998 when we both spoke at the same conference. And, of course, I was well aware of his work. Unfortunately, the gigs fell through. Doubly unfortunate was that Florida would be the last I would see of Mort. My premonition had proved true.

I kept track of Mort over the last few years. I was delighted to see him on Facebook and even working, doing stand-up (more sit-down at this point) every Thursday night at the Throckmorton Theatre in Mill Valley, even taking Q&A over Periscope/Twitter.

Mort’s influence is incalculable. It certainly is for me. There are currently three books in print, all published in this century either partially or in their entirety about Mort: Last Man Standing: Mort Sahl and the Birth of Modern Comedy by James Curtis, Revel With a Cause: Liberal Satire in Postwar America by Stephen E. Kercher, and Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950’s and 1960’s by Gerald Nachman. Indeed, in 2017 when I spoke at a conference at VMI’s Center for Leadership and Ethics, the moderator dedicated the program to Mort Sahl.

Mort’s closing words from his own book Heartland resonate more clearly now than ever:

Don’t be diverted by prefab threats. The populist suspicion of the federal government is maybe what stands between you and an unstated fascism now. My story isn’t special, but it’s strenuous. I took America at its word. We were right and we were wrong. We were right to pursue the murderers among us. We were in error in pleading our case for America in Beverly Hills and New York. Don’t appeal to the intellectuals. The hope of America is the heartland.

Vaya con dios, pal.

Last modified on Thursday, 18 November 2021 07:07
William Davy

Bill Davy has been writing and researching the JFK case, with an emphasis on the Jim Garrison inquiry, since the early 1990s.  He became a contributor to Probe Magazine and then did a monograph on Clay Shaw.  That long essay turned into his fine book, Let Justice Be Done: New Light on the Jim Garrison Investigation.  Thereafter he continued to write essays and reviews for CTKA, and has also spoken at various conferences on the JFK case.

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