Journal Entry #53

Four elegies.

FOR A LONG TIME we made a group I took to calling “the scrum.” We were like-minded souls, ever supportive of one another, ever encouraging. We were all writers. The scrum was a sort of anchor in my life, and maybe for the others, too, to one or another degree. Apart from our natural friendships and the value we placed on these, we were bonded because beleaguered. We kept our heads when all about us were losing theirs these past years and blaming it on those who didn’t. We used to meet at bistros in the West Village, or Midtown if all found it convenient. Given our geographies, we connected much of the time by telephone and the mail.

There were five of us. Then last week time took a tragic toll. Sherle Schwenninger died at midweek. As we were reeling from that loss, Steve Cohen left us Friday. Now we are three. We assemble here in grief, grief to pained distraction, we find, and to write our reflections on these treasured friendships. Peter Kaufman, another friend, joins us for reasons he will make clear as he writes.

——— P. L.
September 22, 2020.

Sherle R. Schwenninger

Kidnapping Sherle

LAKEVILLE, CONN.—G age & Tollner was one of those legendary New York restaurants, relics from the gilded age of dining out—up there in city lore with Delmonico’s, Luchow’s, the Stork Club, the Copa. But it was in Brooklyn. Gas lights. Cherry wood and mirrors. Mae West ate there. Babe Ruth. Jimmy Durante. And it was famously mobbed up, which mattered to me. It was like the Luna Azure restaurant in The Godfather, which the movie called Louis Restaurant, and which was modeled on another old restaurant in the Bronx. That’s where Michael Corleone shot Sollozzo and the police captain. Which is what I needed.

For Sherle’s 40th birthday, or maybe 50th, or maybe 45th —I can’t remember now—Ian Cuthbertson and I kidnapped him. We picked him on the street in a limo I had rented—I got out first, Ian came around the other side, and we stuffed him into the back seat. We rode him out across the bridge in Brooklyn—he had probably never seen it—and we were all wearing suits. Dark suits. Sherle was wearing his, anyway, but Ian and I had dressed up for the day. We didn’t say anything the whole ride. It was like this:

—only it was ridiculous. I probably said something to him from the movie, like, “I’m hoping we can straighten everything out.” Patted him hard on the shoulder. And Ian elbowed him in the ribs. We may have frisked him.

Anyway, Gage & Tollner. It was beautiful inside that cold February afternoon, and pretty empty. We had a great meal and we treated him.

We treated him because he was an unbelievably generous, kind, and good man, and we loved him. We had drinks and oysters and steaks. He was into it. He relaxed a little as he sat there laughing. One of the smartest men you could ever meet. Big-picture smart. Could contextualize any policy decision and explain it and guide you along the roadmap of issues while data points just floated out of him and right by you, like fluffed-up seeds through the air from a cracked-open milkweed pod.

One of my goals in life after that lunch became to make him laugh whenever I saw him—to laugh as much as he did that day. Not easy, but I did okay. For a hundred reasons, I miss him terribly.

——— Peter B. Kaufman.

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Stephen F. Cohen

Stephen Cohen, R.I.P.

NEW YORK—History will prove much kinder to Stephen Cohen than many of his erstwhile colleagues who dropped him like a hot potato when he refused to go along with the nation’s collective descent into the madness we now call “Russiagate.” It is one of life’s sad ironies that the last few years of his life found him being “cancelled,” the 21st century equivalent of the Soviet rectification campaigns that he studied for much of his career.

Steve’s courage and intellectual integrity is no surprise to those of us who had the good fortune to know him. Despite the insults (or worse), he remained excellent company whenever I had the chance to meet up with him. He never allowed disappointment or bitterness to poison relationships with friends. Whether it was discussing the New York Knicks, his longtime championing of basketball tournaments for poor ghetto kids, his attempted pursuit at a professional career in golf (the futility of which he realized when he began competing in his youth against Frank Beard, a reasonably successful golfer on the P.G.A. tour in the 1960s), or his encounters with Mikhail Gorbachev, Steve was consistently engaging, and full of good humor. No matter what the topic, dinner always seemed too short when we were together, because his stories were so compelling.

That he was shunned for expressing unpopular views didn’t stop Stephen from speaking truth to power when he felt it necessary to do so. Notwithstanding the disgusting slurs (“Putin’s poodle” was a particularly absurd one), he continued to speak on important issues (especially on Russia and the renewed dangers of nuclear warfare) with a depth of knowledge and academic rigor that put to shame his opponents, who even to this day don’t have the honesty to admit how sadly mistaken they were in perpetuating America’s collective descent into today’s mass insanity. Many of these people remain at their prominent perches in the media or government, but I’m sure history will not be kind to them, which I’m confident will not be the case with Stephen Cohen.

It is indeed sad that Steve did not live to see his views vindicated, but he has a substantial written record that will more than stand the test of time. It was an honor to know him and a blessing to have learned so much from this wise and truly warm soul.

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Sherle Schwenninger

BRILLIANT IS an overused adjective, but it is right to use it when discussing my friend Sherle Schwenninger. And yet that adjective still doesn’t encompass what was truly wonderful about the man. There was another side to Sherle: the patient, kind mentor who always made time for his friends and colleagues to share his encyclopedic knowledge willingly and to do so with a grace that is all too rare to see in today’s world. I never felt I was holding up my end of the bargain and would say as much to him. He would smile and respond with that wry grin of his and tell me not to worry about it.

I am grateful to Sherle for many things: his wisdom, his boundless encouragement of my intellectual pursuits, and the sheer breadth and depth of his knowledge in countless areas, ranging from political economy to climate change. He was one of the righteous among us in pursuit of a better world and a common truth, even if that meant spelling out views that did not fit with the prevailing conventional wisdom. But when did express a view, whether one agreed with him or not, you knew that Sherle reached it after openly exploring and considering all possibilities, with an intellectual rigor and integrity rarely seen in a world dominated by superficial Twitter-sized sound bites. He therefore became my “go-to” guy when I heard or read something that instinctively didn’t ring true, because I knew that Sherle would be able to clarify my instincts, or disabuse me of my folly.

On a personal level, I was always struck by Sherle’s kindness. He was always available when I sought his counsel either on a personal matter of relative insignificance or an idea I wished to develop, in which I knew his insights would prove invaluable. Many times, I would receive a writing commission from a well-regarded publication thanks to Sherle’s unprompted recommendations (such was his reputation that this was always sufficient; he was the gold standard in that regard). That no obvious benefit redounded to Sherle was immaterial: It was typical of his generosity and he displayed it repeatedly on multiple occasions. And because Sherle brought so many other friends and colleagues together via the World Economic Roundtable, and various other fora, I knew that my experience with the man wasn’t unique. It was a common thread running consistently throughout his life.

This is a very sad and divisive period in history. Precisely the kind backdrop in which esteemed figures such as Sherle Schwenninger are desperately needed. He was someone who (in the words Matthew Arnold), was able to see life steady and see it whole. You will be dearly missed, my friend.

My special thanks, whose even-balanced soul,
From first youth tested up to extreme old age,
Business could not make dull, nor passion wild:
Who saw life steadily and saw it whole.

——— Marshall Auerback

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Remembering Two American Originals: Sherle R. Schwenninger and Stephen F. Cohen

WASHINGTON—Last Thursday morning I woke to the completely unexpected and equally unwelcome news that Sherle R. Schwenninger had died unexpectedly in his apartment in Manhattan. Sherle, as friends and colleagues have noted elsewhere, was maybe the most lucid yet heterodox thinker on U.S. foreign policy in the entire country, but was rarely in the headlines himself. To my everlasting embarrassment, I had only a vague idea who he was some years back, when Katrina vanden Heuvel suggested I ring Sherle—a friend and editorial advisor she respected. I think Katrina had an inkling I might see eye to eye with Sherle on a number of things, and given that outside of her husband, Stephen F. Cohen, there were increasingly few who fit that bill. So I did as she suggested, and after that initial call, we have been rarely—be it over email or phone or during the lamentably few times we saw each other in person, not been in touch.

And that was to my great benefit, because when Sherle talked, you never stopped learning.

I get a sense that there was a self-assigned role Sherle carved out for himself over the years, as a teacher and mentor.

Thinking about Sherle, I recall a short exchange from Robert Bolt’s Man for All Seasons:

Sir Thomas More : Why not be a teacher? You’d be a fine teacher; perhaps a great one.
Richard Rich : If I was, who would know it?
Sir Thomas More : You; your pupils; your friends; God. Not a bad public, that.

The difference between Bolt’s fictional Rich and the very real-life Sherle was that Sherle wouldn’t have needed convincing. His public will never forget him: Sherle was unfailingly encouraging and generous with his time. He challenged the way you thought about the world and about our country’s place in it. He was disgusted by the complacency, and in some cases, opportunism and outright fraudulence of a number of those who passed themselves off as the so-called “leading foreign policy thinkers” of our day.

The last time I saw Sherle it was by pure chance. I had a meeting scheduled at the old Nation offices off Irving Place and had some time to kill. As I was walking just south of Madison Square Park, about a half-block ahead of me, say, on Broadway around 20th, I thought I caught sight of him.

So I sped up, and sure enough. Upon reaching him, he turned, arched an eyebrow and with that kind of permanent imperturbability that was so familiar to those who knew him, said, as though he couldn’t be less surprised: “So, James, I see you’ve decided to escape D.C. for a day or so?” I got him to join me at the Old Town where I was headed, and we had a couple of beers and a few laughs.

It’s hard to believe there won’t be time for any more.

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Stephen Cohen wants to speak to you…’

IN AND AROUND 2013–14, there were a few of us who were publicly dissenting from the standard line with regard to what was unfolding in Ukraine. The dominant media narrative was one of Black Hats vs. White Hats, i.e., the Russians vs. the West. But things were not that simple. At the time I had begun writing for two small D.C.–based magazines, and to my surprise (and consternation) was invited to speak at the U.S.–Russia Forum on Capitol Hill.

There was a post-event gathering at the Russian Embassy on Wisconsin Ave. As I was leaving, I thanked the U.S.–Russia Forum’s impresario, Ed Lozansky, for the invite, when Ed said to me: “Stephen Cohen wants to speak to you.” I think I might have said, “Why?” I didn’t want to bother him, and besides, what do they say about the disappointment that often follows after meeting your betters?

So I went over with Ed, and Steve thanked me for having once coming to his defense in a magazine article. We had a quick, friendly chat, and Steve and Katrina invited me to meet them for dinner next time I was in New York. A couple months later, I took them up on it.

Dinner on Riverside Drive was always memorable. I think it was the intrepid journalist Abby Martin who asked me some years back at a Nation Christmas party if I had ever been over to the Cohen’s apartment for dinner. I said I had and she asked, “Can you believe how nice they are?” I understood what she meant. These are people who have been in the public eye for decades. Steve advised George H.W. Bush. They were friends with Gorbachev. But Steve and Katrina were extremely welcoming, kind, interested, and interesting. Exceptionally so. There were few things I enjoyed more than eating Chinese takeaway over vodka and cigarettes and listening to Steve hold court.

One time, I was over for dinner and I regret to say that I committed what was perhaps the gravest sin there was in Steve’s eyes. I (quite accidentally) stepped on their cat, Sox. The cat yelped! And then in that great raspy voice Steve gave me the business: “Carden, we invite you over and you step on our cat?!!?”

Steve loved Sox, and at the age of 23, predeceased Steve by only a week or so. There is some comfort in the thought that the two old friends are together now.

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THE MENTOR-IN-CHIEF, that was what Steve was to me, the author and journalist Lev Golinkin, and the scholar Pietro Shakarian—both of whom I am happy to call friends. Steve would definitely let you know what he thought. He could be tough but he always provided much needed perspective. When things were rough, especially during the last several years, when accusations of unpatriotic disloyalty were being thrown around with abandon (and by liberals of all people), Steve was always able to lend some perspective.

The last time I saw Steve was about a month or so before the world changed (again) for the worse. In late January, Steve was the featured speaker at the Committee for the Republic’s annual Russia Salon, held at the Metropolitan Club, not far from the White House.

It is a rare and lucky thing to think the last time you saw someone it may have been one of the very best times. I think in this case it might be so. Steve was at the top of his game, as was Katrina, who gave a lovely toast at the post-event dinner hosted by the ever-gracious John Henry. A small post-post-party of Steve, Katrina, the journalists Max Blumenthal and Anya Parampil, and my date Mariana retired to the bar of the Old Post Office building (it currently goes by another name) for a celebratory round. The six of us had a great time. We were all proud of Steve and impressed by the tour de force he delivered at the Met Club earlier that night.

Happy evenings with friends like that are all too rare. It’s a good memory.

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THIS GROUP REMEMBRANCE was the brainchild of the distinguished journalist and author Patrick Lawrence. I thank him for the opportunity to contribute, and for his friendship.

Patrick, Steve, Sherle, Marshall Auerback (and occasionally Sherle’s longtime collaborator Michael Lind) and I spent years writing to each other multiple times a day. We would try and meet a couple of times a year for dinners in Manhattan. The deaths of Steve and Sherle last week were a—how else would you describe it?—knockout punch. The camaraderie and sense of community engendered through our yearslong correspondence has been long a source of ideas, inspiration and, indeed, fortitude.

Steve and Sherle were American originals. Steve was a proud son of Kentucky, Sherle of Nebraska. They each did things in their own way. They were the best this country has to offer. And, as I look back, I am by turns surprised and honored to have known them at all.

——— James W. Carden,
Washington, D.C., September 22, 2020

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NORFOLK, CONN.—The column I now write for Consortium News has traveled extensively over the years. Back at the turn of our century it lived at Bloomberg News, an unpleasant abode apart from the extraordinary fees it brought in. I was frequently at odds with the chief editor for the column’s twice-weekly political and ideological transgressions. I was writing, I had to assume, for bond traders with no special interest in what I had to say about foreign affairs. Who else was reading me, I used to wonder. It was a strange time, as I look back on it now: isolation amid ease, or the other way around.

One day the telephone rang at the old farmhouse where I lived then. It was a reader I’d never met but who seemed to know the column well. This impressed me straightaway. He was plainly a man for whom ideas mattered greatly, and he spoke generously of my efforts. After a time and with courteous reserve, he suggested we might meet when I next trained into Manhattan. I readily agreed.

Sherle Schwenninger was the man I met at the other end of a train journey some while after that telephone call. Subtly at first and then not so, life changed from that moment on. It was richer. I was exposed to more ideas and more people were exposed to mine. Though little in life changed by way of circumstances, I was not so isolated, I found. I began to feel as if I were part of some loose community I couldn’t possibly describe as it lay beyond definition.

These were Sherle’s great gifts to me over what probably works out quite precisely to twenty years. As it was during that first telephone call, a stranger to a stranger, so it was until my last conversation with him a few days before he died last week. It was two decades’ worth of generosity, of encouragement, of bringing me into this or that of his many intersecting or tangential circles. There was a selflessness about Sherle that anyone alive in our self-interested world could not but note and appreciate. In this way Sherle was made of different stuff, wholly engaged with the world around him but not, in the best sense, entirely of it. I found this so honorable a part of Sherle.

Sherle and I lost touch when my farmhouse ménage came undone a few years after we met and I returned to Asia, reluctantly, for six years I hadn’t had in my plans. When I came back to the States, in 2010, our friendship naturally resumed. A decade’s rewarding connection followed. Over time, and as my road (professional, personal) would turn stony, Sherle watched carefully and sometimes offered guidance in the way of a mentor. He was always there, no matter the matter to hand. His concern was always utterly authentic. To my regret, I wonder now if I ever managed to repay Sherle in kind, for he seemed to ask very little of his friends.

I shall honor my friend for the remainder of my years. He will never be far from my thoughts, as if hovering at the side, watching out just as he did in life. I have already taken to talking to him as a psychiatrist friend taught me to talk to my mother after she died—out loud. Sherle’s Midwestern reserve, which I greatly admired, was such that there were long passages in his life that one knew little about. It was of no matter. What mattered of Sherle, and I think to Sherle, was what he showed me and what I knew.

It pained me, when word came last Thursday, that Sherle had died alone in his Manhattan apartment. When we spoke a few days before the end, Sherle told me he had hit a stony patch of his own and would have to decide whether to begin another of the big projects he got going over the years or retreat—not quite my word—to the family farm in Nebraska where he grew up. He had told me years earlier that at some point he was likely to go back. “A great many of us will miss you if it comes to that,” I replied when he spoke of this last week. I am fortunate to have had occasion to make the point. I hope he knew this as he died, and I know he knows this now.

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MY WELL-TRAVLED COLUMN was appearing in Salon by the spring of 2015, and my editor gave me all the space I wanted. I had begun to conduct lengthy Q & A exchanges with people I chose carefully for the interest and worthiness of their thinking. The Ukraine crisis had erupted with the American-cultivated coup a year earlier, and Russia had become a topic still hotter than it has long been among Americans. The Q & A pursuit led to a splendid place at that point: I arrived in late March at the Riverside Drive apartment of Stephen F. Cohen—he always insisted on the “F,” for Frand—the honored Russianist. We recorded for what must have been a solid two hours and change.

Steve was kind to me that day. He made sandwiches, having asked in advance what kind I preferred. I was so frightened of the new digital recorder I brought with me that we kept it going during our breaks. I’d announce to Michael Garofalo, who did the transcript, “Michael, We’re pausing here. The tape will run on for a while before we resume.” It occurred to me afterward Michael was treated to a goodly amount of irreverent banter during those interims. Steve and I spent them getting to know one another. I think this was important to him. He was beset with dreadful illiterates and know-nothings by this time—people critical of his views on Russia because they didn’t match the orthodoxy—and bore a certain wariness. This was the beginning of our Scoundrel Time, as I look back upon it now. It wasn’t an easy time for Steve, I knew even then. I never saw him flinch and am certain he never did.

As I sat a short time later to edit the transcript, it came to me this was more than a standard question-and-answer interview in the usual mold. We had produced a document of some consequence, some lasting value, it seemed to me. I cleaned up the transcript but edited out nothing. It ran to nearly ten thousand words in a two-part series.

Steve was very pleased. In a short time those two parts made it into several languages, not least Russian, and circulated widely for many months. A friendship kindled. Stevie, I came to call this distinguished man. He never objected, dear fellow.

One of Stevie’s great gifts was one for making the people he met feel important when they were in his presence. This must have come natural to him for the simple reason those he met and spent time with were important to him. Katrina vanden Heuvel has just published in The Nation something more in the way of a love letter than an obituary. It is here. I marvel at Stevie’s generosity now I’ve read it: I will speak for myself and no one else, but I was rather small beer when put against this larger-than-life man’s many high deeds and eminent friends. Bless him all the more for the hand of friendship he extended to me.

When the scrum gathered for dinner in Manhattan, I and the others writing here used to hope expectantly that Sherle would come, and even more that Stevie would descend from the Upper West Side. We never had much luck with Sherle—I used to reckon he couldn’t afford a share of a dinner bill, and he wouldn’t accept offers to cover him. Things were like that then (and remain so, indeed). With Stevie we had more luck. If memory serves we always tried to find a resto near a subway stop that served his line conveniently. It was always a special delight to assemble knowing he would be among us for the evening.

When I heard in the summer that Stevie was ill I waited an interval and sent him a note. “How’re you doing, Stevie?” I wrote. “Ever in my thoughts & those things called prayers.” Steve sent back a message I’ll always treasure: “Grateful for your well wishes, but also counting you will make your own voice heard in ways we need, bestest, Steve.” That was Stevie, ever encouraging of those around him.

Many others knew this side of Steve, even from a distance. “The death of Stephen Cohen is a huge loss to what little is left of public sanity in the United States,” Diana Johnstone, the celebrated Europeanist, wrote in a note from Paris when news of Stevie’s death reached her. “His wisdom drew on knowledge but also on generosity of spirit, on his inherent capacity to regard the people he studied as fellow human beings.”

I cannot do any better and see no reason to try.

Some time before the end came last Friday, when Steve’s chemotherapy was taking its awful toll and things seemed to turn for the worse, I sent him another note with a link to a recording. It was to Nat Cole’s rendering of Nature Boy, which I have long treasured. The link is here. “Something easeful, just coupla mins,” I wrote:

The greatest thing you’ll ever learn
Is to love, and be loved in return.

I simply know from everything I knew of Steve Cohen that he understood this truth. One could detect this in the way he lived if one had a chance to look at all carefully.

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HOW FORTUNATE AM I to have known these two as friends. Earlier in the summer I lost another friend of another sort—a rich man who lent me money when my back was pinned flush to the wall. When I expressed my sadness to a doctor I know he replied, “You’re here and alive. The lesson is, ‘Live.’” So it is twice more now.

——— Patrick Lawrence.

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