The Heart of the Mouth of the South


I remember once winning a team game of Trivial Pursuit because Jamie knew that two-time America’s Cup winner Ted Turner was nicknamed the Mouth of the South. He had read a biography of him but I never knew much about Mr. Turner beyond his ownership of the Atlanta Braves and Superstation TBS and that he was a marketing genius. (TBS broadcast its shows at five minutes past the hour, ensuring that each show received its own line in TV Guide.)

I hadn’t really thought about Mr. Turner in years until the other day when I read that he is suffering with Lewy body dementia, a disease that leaves him tired and forgetful. Described as “a mild case of what people have as Alzheimer’s,” this made me sad, as Ted Turner was incredibly kind to me on one of the worst days of my life.

My grad school friend Jonathan Levin was murdered in May 1997 just a few years after we left NYU. He was tortured then shot execution-style by one of his former students who wanted to rob him. The window of time between the discovery of Jon’s body and his funeral was jammed with shrieking headlines and jangling telephones as the story dominated the national news, due to Jon’s personal relationship with media power (his father was Gerald Levin, CEO of Time Warner Inc.) and because it checked most of the significant New York City crime story boxes – black on white coupled with class disparity combined with the overarching randomness of how lives cross paths in New York.

The day of the funeral dawned hot and humid. I was thinking and feeling a panoply of things as I showered and dressed in a black and white silk Chanel suit and black stiletto pumps. I had attended funerals before but they had all been low-key, family affairs.   Judging by the news coverage of the crime, I expected this, the penultimate act of the drama, to be pandemonium.

And it was. The blocks surrounding Park Avenue Synagogue were closed to traffic so we explained to the NYPD officer manning the barricades why we wanted to drive there. Noting our formal attire, my red nose, and the damp, balled Kleenex surrounding me on the car seat and carpet, he waved us through. A dark-suited employee of the funeral home then approached Jamie and handed him a placard through the open window and told us to put it on the dashboard. If it weren’t visible we would not be permitted to join the funeral procession from the synagogue to the cemetery on Long Island.

When we were within a block of the temple, another funeral employee approached and motioned for us to exit the car, explaining that we needed to walk from here. He seemed to be explaining something to Jamie but I wasn’t listening. It was too crowded and far too noisy. Mourners from every aspect of Jon’s life thronged the wide sidewalks and spilled into the street. The nation’s media elite huddled together near small clusters of people my age. Dozens of wailing teenagers hugged one another while more photographers than I had seen anywhere except the Academy Awards snapped frantically at all of us.

Clutching hands we walked toward the surging crowd tentatively, unsure where to go. Another funeral employee approached us and, after determining our relationship to Jon, directed us to an area of the sidewalk that appeared to be reserved for graduate school friends because immediately I saw Rachel, Patti, and a few other former classmates.

The entire event ran with the precision of a military maneuver. Friends from each segment of Jon’s life were catalogued and ushered into the cool building in a particular order and seated together in one location. I have no idea how the social status of each group was determined but somehow Jamie and I ended up next to Jane Fonda and Ted Turner.

After wiping my eyes with a tissue, I poked Jamie. “You know if Jon could lift the lid of that coffin and look around he’d be embarrassed at all this fuss. And when he caught sight of our seat mates, he say, ‘Holy shit! Jane Fonda is at my funeral!’” Jamie stifled a snicker as the cantor began his song and Jon’s family started their long and sorrowful progress to the front of the church. The siblings and step-siblings clung to one another so tightly that they seemed to move as one undulating entity. Carol’s face was ashen but her head was high. Keening in agony, Jerry staggered, leaning on his bodyguards for support. Filled with my own anguish, I barely noticed the service.

Exiting afterward the hot sunshine seemed almost cleansing after the grimness of the sacrament. More dark-clad factotum led us to our car and instructed us to observe the traffic patterns carefully and not become disconnected from the procession as we would probably be unable to find the cemetery on our own. Pointed north on Park Avenue, Jamie steered his car into place and soon we were following the screaming sirens of the NYPD as it escorted us to the city limits.

Eventually, the long, sad, parade turned right through enormous wrought iron gates into a cemetery. Regretting my shoe choice, I stumbled over the dry and clumpy ground to the graveside.   While much of what the rabbi said that day has receded into the mists of my memory, I do remember his calling upon each of us to toss a shovelful of soil onto the coffin as a way of sharing the labor and saying a final goodbye to the corporeal remains of Jon, but to do so holding the spade backward so we never forget the unnaturalness of the act.

Jamie and I joined the line snaking forward listlessly. Funeral home employees handed a series of shovels to mourners as they approached and soon Jamie and I were separated and pushed to opposite sides of the grave. Crying so hard I could barely see and feeling rather than seeing the wooden handle shoved into my hand, I approached the mound of dirt trepidatiously. Time after time I attempted to dig a bit onto the curved head of the shovel but I couldn’t make it work. Suddenly, standing in the burning sun in a pencil skirt and five inch heels while clutching an uncooperative garden implement seemed like the nadir of my life. I couldn’t even say goodbye to my friend properly. I began to wail and if I could have handed the spade to the next person without looking like a bigger fool I would have done so. Staring shamefacedly through my tears at the mound of dirt in front of me, I realized that two indistinct but shiny cowboy boots had appeared next to my pointy toes. A gentle baritone wafted into my ear. “Let me help you.”

Two strong arms went around mine and guided them to the dirt, gracefully scooping a large portion, and then helped me toss it into the grave. That finally over, I flung the shovel and stumbled to the safety of the pavement where I could nurse my humiliation in private.

I felt Jamie’s presence and, looking up, blew my nose into an already-sodden Kleenex. “Well, that didn’t go well,” I muttered. “I feel like an idiot.”

Jamie cocked his head. “Why?”

“Because I couldn’t make the damned dirt stay on the shovel.”

“No one could. That’s the point of the exercise.”

I stared at him wide-eyed. “You did.”

He shrugged. “Not much. No one got very much.”

“That man who helped me did. He was really strong and knew what he was doing.” I blew my nose again.

“Do you know who helped you?”

Digging in my handbag for Kleenex I shook my head. “Some guy wearing cowboy boots. That’s all I saw.”

“It was Ted Turner.”

My head snapped up. “Really?”

Jamie nodded. “Yup. He owns a pretty big ranch so I guess he has had some shoveling experience.”

It wasn’t his shoveling ability that impressed me. It was his kindness to an emotionally shattered young woman at one of the most horrible moments of her life.

I have never again met Ted Turner; I have never even seen him except in magazines and Internet news stories. I doubt he thought twice about what he did that day, but it has remained with me forever.

Hollywood Squares – Foreign Edition


When I was at Trinity College, Oxford University, we had all sorts of ways of passing the time when we should have been writing and relieving the stress that we brought on ourselves for not sitting at our desks and writing. We walked or biked to Marks & Spencer’s for snacks then took the long way home by the Isis – really just an alternative name for the Thames which derived from its ancient name, the River Tamesis – snapping photos of nervous punters in wobbly rented boats as we complained about the grad school work load. Every Thursday we went to karaoke night at The Bulldog Pub. On Friday afternoons Staircases Five and Six were filled with the sounds of whooshing slamming doors as we rushed about collecting toiletries and clean laundry and paperbacks, hoping to reach the rail station in time to catch a decent train to London, one that would allow us to buy show tickets and have dinner at a pub on the Strand.

On regularly scheduled sunny weekday afternoons, the porters opened the enormous black wrought iron gates and allowed tourists in to view the quad. Often on these days, we chose to avoid writing by playing Hollywood Squares.

To play the game, people who lived in Staircase Six whose rooms faced the quad hung out their windows on the first, second, and third floors – like the stars in the boxes – and Jon Levin played Peter Marshall asking idiotic literary questions of whoever walked past (from dons to Japanese tourists) who was willing to play with us. Because we had no light boxes under our windows we had to remember whether we were X’s or O’s and some of the most raucous laughter ensued when Patti or I forgot our letter and leaned dangerously far out the jamb to shout “airhead – how did you get in this school, anyhow?” insults at one another. If we liked the looks of the “contestant” we would just lie so he or she would “win.”

It barely mattered as there was no prize for the victor, anyway. And since I lived on the first floor, my room was one of the ones that tourists most peered in after shoving aside the hydrangea bushes so now I was there to explain the velvet-covered window seat, the narrow bed with a stuffed Eeyore on it, a gas fire that only worked with the insertion of pound coins, and the desk piled precariously with books and an open laptop whose cursor cursed silently at me for my sloth.

I left Oxford well over twenty years ago: I had forgotten all about playing Hollywood Squares until I came across a photo of myself framed by the casement window of my residence hall room, dusty velvet drapes shoved to one side and a pale blue wall behind me. The memory makes me laugh even as a lump fills my throat. It was such fun being a grad student. We didn’t know that the future held the breakup of the group of friends, destroyed partly by the responsibilities of adult life – marriages, childbirth, distant employment opportunities – and mostly, by the crack of the murderer’s bullet as it entered the base of Jon’s skull.

But I don’t want to think about that now; I want to smile at the young woman with the tangled blonde hair, wearing a white Gap button-down, framed by pink hydrangeas as she waits patiently to spew forth a comedic answer to Jon’s silly question about Pyramus and Thisbe.

Truth is a beautiful, terrible thing.


I had a weird experience the other day. A friend had been telling me about a painful and scandalous incident that happened in her small upstate town. A local man, the son of a well-respected family, had just returned to prison after a parole violation; he had been released after serving two-thirds of the sentence imposed for stalking and murdering a college girl who had rejected his amorous advances over twenty years ago.

This idea of parole got me thinking about Corey Arthur, a young man currently serving a twenty-five-year-to-life sentence in Stormville, New York for robbing and executing my graduate school friend, Jon Levin. As this May will mark the twenty-year anniversary of Jon’s death I wondered whether Corey remained incarcerated or had been paroled; I wondered whether he had even asked for parole and how he would fare in the world again if – when – it were granted. So I did what everyone does; I Googled his name, followed the links to a story, and what I saw stunned me – a photo of me standing with Jon and some classmates in front of the Junior Common Room at Trinity, Oxford. Big as life in Newsweek’s online edition, the photo accompanied an extremely long article and a thirty-minute video (also showing me and my dorm room at Oxford) oozing sympathy for the convicted killer and questioning everything I know to be true about Corey, Jon, and me.

Here is the truth that I know. Corey Arthur murdered Jon. He tortured him by cutting his throat repeatedly to encourage Jon to surrender his ATM code and after getting it and clearing the daily limit from the account, he placed a gun at the base of Jon’s skull and pulled the trigger. Then he walked away.

Unless Corey didn’t do it, a theory put forth by the young man himself for belief in and promulgation by the Newsweek reporter. And, of course, the author believes that Corey couldn’t have done it because he is “remarkably polite” to the reporter. When he telephones the reporter (as he does fairly often including during the delivery of the writer’s child) Corey “always” asks after the reporter’s wife “with an unhurried solicitude that makes the question more than perfunctory.” Whenever the writer visits him at Green Haven Correctional Facility, Corey “strides eagerly toward [him] as if [they] were old friends.” Evidently coldblooded killers are inconsiderate, unfriendly, and unconcerned about spousal wellbeing; ergo Corey cannot be a murderer.

Corey is not merely innocent but beatific in the face of miscarried justice; he is never “angry or given to self-pity” despite “maintain[ing] that he is not culpable of murder” insisting that “other men, whose names he will not tell . . . are the real killers.” Oh. Well, that explains it, then. The SODDI defense, as an ADA mocked it at trial. (It stands for “Some Other Dude Did It.”) Charles Manson used it. Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald did, too. Corey Arthur says that he didn’t do it and because the reporter thinks Corey isn’t “dumb enough to call up his favorite teacher, leave a message on his answering machine, go to his Upper West Side apartment . . . torture and kill Levin . . . and then simply go to ground . . . “ it must be true. The reporter, a Dartmouth graduate, considers himself an exemplary judge of people, a better judge than those jurors who, like me, sat in the steamy courtroom absorbing the miserable trial testimony for days on end.

Not only is Corey smart, he is also “ready to receive compassion without exploiting those who offer it.” Evidently that is because he “writes poetry” and draws “sinuous and lush, dreamy but precise” things that remind the reporter “of the great Mexican muralists.” The reporter is attempting to help Corey publish a graphic novel because “we both believe his life is rife with material for such an enterprise.”

Graphic is indeed the word. It doesn’t get much more graphic than what Corey did to Jon literally and to the rest of us figuratively.

After finishing reading, I played the video that sharpens and deviates slightly from the article’s innocence thesis. In the film, Corey never says that he didn’t kill Jon; rather, after extolling Jon as a “cool” teacher, he professes that he was torn apart emotionally by a glance at Carol, Jon’s mother, at the trial and he reads us the text of an unanswered letter of apology he sent to Jerry, Jon’s father. He is distraught that he has brought such calamity and loss upon them, an interesting perspective for someone who didn’t murder their son.

The interviews (of one of our classmates and one of our professors) are edited so sharply that they express the movie’s thesis – regardless of who actually slit Jon’s throat and blew away most of his skull, Jon brought it about himself by failing to respect professional boundaries by attempting to befriend Corey after he dropped out of school. Evidently, Corey is an expert at “receiv[ing] compassion” but I suspect that there was more “exploitation” than the author wishes to see.

I understand the concept of the freedom of the press. I understand that an author must gain the trust of his subject if he hopes to learn anything new.   I understand that a writer’s only responsibility is to tell the truth as he sees it. What I don’t understand is why an investigative journalist would investigate so narrowly that he sees nothing but a dark and slender tunnel, the only light provided by the flickering candle of manipulation held by the inconsistent man sitting behind the bars and aching to get out . . . unless, of course, the writer was searching not for the truth but for the confirmation of his own prejudices.

The photograph and video contain images of twenty-two other people besides Jon that the journalist chose not to interview. It cannot be that he couldn’t identify the rest because each of us autographed the border of the photo. It cannot be that he couldn’t find us because New York University’s Alumni Fund’s endowment requests reach all of us several times every year; most of us are on Facebook (thanks, Mark Zuckerberg!); the majority of us teach at public schools in the New York Metro area and our names appear on District websites; some of us are published writers and can be found by Googling as easily as I found the article about Corey. No, this reporter knew what he intended to say and he said it; he needed no dissenting opinions and therefore he sought none. He saw what he wanted to see, nothing more.

Nearly twenty years have passed. Gallons of ink have been spilled and hours of videotape processed and the song of tragedy continues, entrapping all of us in the echo of the events of May 30, 1997. I don’t think it will ever end.

It’s Not Always Sunny in New York City


New York, New York. The city so nice they named it twice.

New York is a magical place to live. There are terrific universities, great restaurants, and every aspect of high and low culture anyone could ever want. Every day is an adventure, yet buried below all of the nice things that have happened to me while I grew up in New York are a few painful events, the memories of which fade but continue to leave marks, pale shadows like the ashy, circular, black burns a fire’s sparks leave on a hearth rug. In June 2015, it was eighteen years since I began the process of surviving the murder of my graduate school friend Jon.  Although at the time, I recognized the horror of the day, I didn’t realize immediately the ancillary ramifications of it.  The gunshot killed Jon but also much more.

On May 30, 1997, someone who wanted to rob Jon also chose to kill him; intentionally chose, first by torture and then by a gunshot to the base of the skull, presumably to stop him from reporting the crime. He knew his assailant; it wasn’t random street crime. Perhaps if it were it would make more sense.

No one learned of the event until a few days later when Jon failed to appear for work. And then, as they say, all Hell well and truly broke loose, because Jon’s father was famous. Within two weeks the perpetrators, hardly criminal masterminds, had been apprehended and relayed their side of the story to the NYPD and the newspapers, then, ultimately, the English-speaking world. The numbness, which had begun with the initial shock, began to recede like an ebb tide, leaving an amazingly large amount of room in my heart for pain.

In mid-July 1997 I attended a pretrial meeting at the Manhattan District Attorney’s office with Jon’s mother, Carol.  At one point, after Carol had gone to the ladies room, I naively asked the ADA whether she believed that they would secure a conviction because I would hate for my friend to have died for nothing.  “I have news for you,” she replied curtly, gathering her papers, “your friend died for nothing, anyway.”   Her observation shocked me at the time, although later I realized that it was true. I couldn’t have believed her on that sweaty July afternoon, though, because to do so would have left me unable to attend the trial that fall.

I remember entering Manhattan Criminal Court uncomfortably that cool October morning, scanning the public gallery for empty seats, and then pulling a little notebook from my handbag to scribble quick impressions so I could remember later what my senses were too overloaded to process.

We watched jury selection – twelve regulars and eight alternates (I wrote in my journal “are they expecting a high drop-out rate?”) and wondered what might really be learned about people from voir dire.  I remember hearing the judge advise the jury to “use the same methods you use in your everyday life to determine if someone is telling the truth” and wondering what exactly those methods might be.  The character analysis skills learned in English class didn’t seem to work in this room, especially since some in the jury pool (“Juror number 6 is trying to get off; says he’ll only be paid at work for 2 weeks so he can’t stay for 6”) didn’t care to determine anything at all.

Among the worst moments of the trial were hearing from the Medical Examiner (“one puncture in the back of the neck – three shallow cuts across the throat – one right side stab wound which hit the liver – one gunshot wound directly into the brain”) and seeing the autopsy photos passed around (according to my journal, “one of the jurors has her head between her knees . . . Carol’s face is red, now white. I think she’s about to pass out . . . Jamie’s left the room . . . M.E. doesn’t recognize the photo of Jon because by the time he saw him the body was so badly decomposed.”)

After this, the long misery of jurisprudence, the moment I had previously thought was the nadir of it all – the second I learned of Jon’s murder – faded nearly to nothingness when a jury of my peers found Corey Arthur – the assailant who was arrested wearing clothes smeared with Jon’s blood – guilty of only second degree murder which earned him a sentence of twenty-five years to life.  That day paled, too, later, when Corey’s accomplice, Montoun Hart, was acquitted.

Then it was over.  Except it wasn’t over.  It isn’t over.  Every May 6 is Jon’s birthday and every May 30 is the anniversary of his murder.  Every June 2 is a recreation of the day his decomposed body was found.

Shakespeare was right when he wrote that the evil men do lives after them. Evil’s residue continues to blow over everyone involved in this event like ash from an incinerator.  There is no escaping it.