Diana Michaelis – in memory
WGBH was the alpha and omega of my mother’s career. Everything that came before — Smith College, the war, Paris, UNESCO — prepared her for National Educational Television (NET); and everything that followed, including her work as executive producer of an Academy-Award-winning documentary for VISTA, flowed from and somehow always returned to WGBH. She loved every minute she spent at the WGBH-TV studios at 84 Massachusetts Avenue, and for years afterward those days retained in our house the vividness of a creation myth. WGBH shaped my parents’ marriage, wired my older brother for a career as an ABC and CBS television producer, started me as an early viewer of “The 21 Inch Classroom” and lifelong PBS addict, and set the adult course of my mother’s life.
In 1959, to be a young woman and an associate producer and writer on a monthly television program moderated by Eleanor Roosevelt, the universally respected “First Lady of the World,” was to be truly present at the creation of the postwar cosmos. And though I was too young to have actual memories of her work (my brother, however, vividly remembers the fire that destroyed WGBH in November 1961), Diana spoke so often in later life about the people and ideas on “Prospects of Mankind,” I seem to remember her pre-interviewing everyone from the aged Bertrand Russell to the young Henry Kissinger to the impossibly young-looking Senator John F. Kennedy.
“Prospects of Mankind” was many things to my mother, but at the heart of the program was a family. The former Diana Ordway Tead of Forest Hills, New York, was the only child of overachieving and emotionally dysfunctional parents, and as she looked back at the end of her life on her days at “‘GBH,” she began to see that Mrs. Roosevelt had been for her a surrogate — the kind, tolerant, earthy, all-embracing mother of heart and mind. Producer and director Paul Noble, brilliant, funny, affectionate, was the brother that Diana had never had, while executive producer Henry Morgenthau III, paternal and avuncular, served also as a healer of old wounds.
Among my mother’s papers I find mimeographed program transcripts divided into VIDEO and AUDIO portions and labeled with a network logo that must have appeared brilliantly modern in 1959: a TV aerial atop a streamlined NET household. Those transcripts now look as distant from our dot-com age as Samuel F. B. Morse’s dot-dash transmissions would have looked to producers of educational television in the 1950s. For here is a program of ideas, of adult discussion, with “nothing in the way of visual interest beyond the faces of the four participants,” as one TV critic pointed out in 1960. Yet the perspective of “Prospects of Mankind” is actually broader, and the discussion of ideas more humanistic and truly worldwide than that of the televised brawls that today pass for an exchange of views in our global village.
To the end of her life my mother had a fierce commitment to educational television. In her last days in 1981, drugged with chemotherapy and sapped by radiation, she would often drift off late at night with the local PBS channel on. Night after night, she would exhaust the programming — Wall Street Week, NOVA, “Nicholas Nickleby,” reruns of “Upstairs, Downstairs.” My brother or I would enter her room after midnight to find her TV set crackling with hash — the salt-and-pepper static that used to fill screens when local stations signed off in those pre-round-the-clock days. I remember the wonder I felt one night when I came in to find the American flag fluttering on Mom’s TV screen. This was not my mother’s idea of television. The flag was a network sign-off (she must have defected that night to NBC and Johnny Carson), and as the black-and-white image cast its blue-gray light across her cancer-ravaged but still beautiful face, the stars and stripes waved in salute and, it turned out, farewell.
During my year at GBH (’59-’60) we all went to Brandeis U. to tape “Prospects of Mankind.” Following one program, as we we starting to pack up, Henry Morgenthau walks into the studio with a large cake. Be darned if it wasn’t Mrs. Roosevelt’s birthday. So we all gathered around her as she cut the cake and served it to us. Wooza!
Later in the year Mr. Morgenthau invited the twelve us to his apartment for dinner. What a class act.
Just a comment that in 1975, a woman in the Poughkeepsie housing office (where as an intern I accompanied a man who had to tell people their homes were going to be razed for ‘urban renewal’ ) whispered to me to not tell anyone I could type, a skill as an ‘educated’ young woman’ of course I had. I didn’t tell anyone, but it came in handy as I always had to do my own typing on those new fangled things called computers.
Women helping women has changed our society- I am grateful for Ms. Michaelis nuturing Susan Stamberg – a wonderful and exemplary radio reporter.
Dear David… I knew your wonderful mother in Cambridge during her WGBH years. I was in my early 20s, working (typing) at DAEDALUS, the AAAS scholarly journal.
A fellow secretary was a friend of your mother’s — Kay Strelsky (name at all familiar to you?). When I got married in 1962 and moved to Washington, my first job was typing (again! And I was really good at it!) at the New Republic.
After 9 months I got bored, and called around to people I knew. It was your mother who told me about the launch of the educational radio network – a precursor of NPR.
“What does a producer do?”
“A producer,” said your mother, “is someone who won’t take no for an answer.”
I could do that… I applied for a job… and went into radio for the first time. It’s now become a lifetime career, and I often think of Diana’s generosity and lively spirit and thank her.