«CORA WEISS ORAL HISTORY PROJECT The Reminiscences of Cora Weiss Columbia Center for Oral History Columbia University PREFACE The following oral ...»
prisoner of war is absolutely horrific in any war, no matter who your wardens are. So that experience, of course, is terrible. But they came to it from a different place, and that may have helped.
Q: As the war wound down, I’d like to talk to you about some of the activities that you then picked up on, or moved toward, et cetera, et cetera. Before we get to the shipment of wheat to Vietnam, let’s talk about your radio program.
Weiss: Oh, I loved it! More people could hear you on the radio than you can have for dinner.
Q: How did that come about?
Weiss: You know, that’s a good question. It was a kind of interim activity. I had a program on WRVR, which was in the basement of the Riverside Church, never dreaming I would ever be up in an office on the nineteenth floor. My producer was Robert Siegel, whom you can now hear every afternoon at four o’clock on NPR [National Public Radio].
Q: Now, how did that come about, that you hooked up with Riverside for a radio program?
Weiss: I don’t know how I got there, but I know that I was interested in hearing from women.
The program was called Cora Weiss Comments. At that time in my thinking, in the evolution of my thinking, as long as you had ovaries, you could be on the other side of the mic with me. I
one of, maybe, only two programs on the air where women were the anchors. It was early. So my producer was Robert Siegel. He was just starting out in his radio career. My engin— Q: And you were in a room in the basement of Riverside?
Weiss: In the basement of the church, was where RVR [WRVR] had its studios.
Q: Well, somebody must have okayed that.
Weiss: Okayed— Q: Having you— Weiss: —me?
Q: Giving you a program.
Weiss: You know, it was a noncommercial, public program. I don’t—no. I mean, come on.
[laughter] How can I remember? It was 1970-something.
Weiss: Oh, they had a wonderful program called The Apartment Gardeners, a couple who taught you how to keep your plants indoors. They had that kind of stuff. It was great. And they had progressive music, jazz music. I loved it. The music was great. Anyway, I don’t know any of those other details [laughter] about how it happened. It happened, and I had the program for about three years. It was once a week, but because it was not commer— Q: On what day?
Weiss: Well, that’s the interesting question. Because it was not financially supported by a food or sponsor, they could move me around. So sometimes it was Sunday morning at nine o’clock, when you were probably listening, having coffee and a bagel and the Sunday [New York] Times.
Or it was Sunday night at six o’clock, when there were fewer of you because you were having pizza dinner with your kids. It was usually on weekends, as I recall. But my name and the program were in every single issue of the New York Times, which ran radio programs.
Q: Oh, right!
Weiss: I found all of those clippings. I don’t know where they are now, but I found them. It’s a stack of New York Times radio schedules. And there was Cora Weiss Comments! So that was interesting to me, because I don’t think you can get the radio schedule in the Times anymore.
Weiss: But I love radio, and I still do. I listen every morning, getting up in the morning, NPR is automatically on. It’s a wonderful, wonderful vehicle. Fast-forward: during our program with the Department for Disarmament Affairs at the U.N. [United Nations] in 2002, 2003, we provided radios to women who went into the fields and discovered that it was an extraordinarily valuable way of involving them in a peace education program. But it was also an empowering idea, and it filled a huge void, because women in the fields are the last to hear the news that a storm is coming, that a flood is coming, that a war is coming. So they’re the first to be victims. This idea of a simple radio—very, very, very basic—caught on, especially, I think, in Niger, it was very popular. It was used by the lovely guy Idi Cheffou, who ran the peace education program in Niger, with former combatants. So radio has always been an interesting thing for me. I love it.
Q: How large was your audience? Do you have that?
Weiss: Well, you could never tell, because they weren’t members, and because also, many of the programs that I did in the early ’70s were taped, because they never knew where they were going to put them. So there was no audience feedback. I didn’t get questions. Some I did, you could call in. But many I couldn’t.
Q: Who were some of the people you had on? Who was the most—as they ask me all the time— who was the most interesting person that you ever talked to?
Weiss: I had Shirley MacLaine on. Now you have to remember the time. This is 1972 or ’3, and
while she’s on mic, she’s slumping over on the table with her head down, or she’s covering up her face, or— She’s doing all kinds of strange antics with her body so that I could never use her photograph. I have those pictures somewhere. [laughs] They’re very amusing. We became good friends after that. Oh, now you’re asking for names. There was a couple who wrote for the New York Times, Washington bureau. I had Carol Hill [phonetic] on, who was a novelist, and who taught English to prisoners at Rikers Island. She was terrific. Lots of interesting, terrific people.
Q: How would you find them?
Weiss: Frequently, they found me, or they were people I had for dinner, or who came to our parties.
Q: Any disasters?
Weiss: Well, a disaster meaning, “Was it a boring show?” Probably. But we tried to make it interesting. Once I went to Cuba, and brought a tape recorder with me, and came back with a lot of tape on the sounds of Cuba, and it started with big band music. That was pretty popular. I had a lot of fun doing it, and it allowed me to do other things during the day, because if it was taped, then I didn’t have to worry about showing up at the studio, although I was at the studio often.
They were wonderful people. The engineer was a young man who I think had just gotten out of jail on some minor drug charge. They were all interesting people, and I loved doing it.
Q: That’s very consciously “Women.” Weiss: Totally. I mean, that was what I cared about most. Because women didn’t have a microphone in those days, and we had to hear from women, to see if there was something worth listening to. I think I demonstrated that there was.
Q: Did you have local community activists, as well as—?
Weiss: Probably. You know, it was three years every week. So that’s 160 or more programs.
Q: Wow. I wonder if there’s an archive of that.
Weiss: I saved the tapes, but they’re on very old fashioned reels, and I have no idea where they are, because when we moved, we lost a lot of stuff in the move. But it’s one of the things I was determined to look for.
Q: Yes. Now, I know in the old days for AM radio—maybe for FM as well—the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] required that everything broadcast—
Q: —be kept. Because of the Orson Welles thing. They instituted all kinds of regulations after Orson Welles, that everything be kept. I don’t know if that applied to smaller FM stations or not, or— Weiss: You know, I don’t think anything applied to WRVR. [laughs] It was eventually bought by some horrible music program station, and it went out.
Q: Oh really?
Weiss: Yes. It didn’t survive. If I have the reel to reel tapes, then it’s not archived.
Weiss: Had, I should say. Because until I find them, I had them.
Q: Yes. It’d be interesting to find out if they’re still around, and what it was. But you did that until the station was purchased by whoever purchased it?
Weiss: No, it was purchased subsequently.
Weiss: Well it ran, I think, from ’72—I have to look at the clips from the Times, because that will tell me. ’71, ’72, ’73, it was— Q: ’74 to ’78.
Weiss: ’74—that’s when it was?
Q: Yes. That’s what I have.
Q: 1974 to 1978. Four years. That might have been three years depending upon the months.
Weiss: Yes, exactly. Well, thank you for that information. I stopped because [William S.] Bill Coffin called me and said, “Will you join me at the Riverside Church?” There was an interim of one year when I worked with Paul McCleary for Church World Service in what we called the God Box, on the south side of 120th Street. That was Church World Service, and we had a one
Q: How did that come about?
Weiss: There was a serious problem of—I don’t know if it was the weather. I think it was probably the weather. There was a lack of wheat. The war was over, and there was a possibility of starvation in South Vietnam. It was probably Paul McCleary’s idea. He was a remarkable—I shouldn’t say “was,” because I don’t know—I hope he’s still alive. He was the head of Church World Service.
Q: Which had been around since the ’40s.
Weiss: A long time. They had members from the Christian communities among farmers in America. They did humanitarian aid, basically. That was their job. But it was probably also proselytizing, because it was a Christian organization, and their boxes went with Church World Service labels on them. But I don’t think you had to convert to be eligible for a box of wheat.
You certainly didn’t have to for the Vietnam program. Anyway, Paul asked me to join them because I knew something about Vietnam that they didn’t. In one year, we raised ten thousand tons of wheat from American farmers. Then we had the idea of going with the wheat to Vietnam.
Or at least we would fly, and the wheat would go by ship.
But until 1978, not a single ship with an American flag had gone to Vietnam, during the whole war years and post-war years. So this was going to be the first ship to travel, not with an American flag, but from an American port. We went from Houston to Saigon with ten thousand
of, I guess, I’ve enjoyed doing, is mixing politics and culture. So we had the giant puppets—I can’t remember the guy’s name.
Q: The Bread and Puppet Theater?
Weiss: No, it wasn’t, but it was similar. These were huge, huge puppets that a guy named— somebody, something—made and came to Houston with. And we had music. We had Senator [Fred R.] Harris. Harris? Where’s the book? Can I take a— Q: LaDonna— Weiss: La Donna’s husband.
Q: Oh, okay. Oh, yes. Right, yes. Wasn’t he Native American?
Weiss: No, she was.
Q: She was Native American, Harris.
Weiss: Yes. He was an American senator. We should get that. I mean, I have the book so I can remember everybody’s name. Bill Coffin came. John Henry Faulk, who was a Texan humorist— brilliant, brilliant, and funny as all get out guy. He had his own radio program in Texas. Who
woman who worked for the YWCA [Young Women’s Christian Association] in Texas, or in Colorado—Colorado, I think. The farmer whose wheat was on the ship. We did a huge program at [John and Dominique] de Menil’s Rothko Chapel. There was Mrs. de Menil, and there was the Rothko Chapel, and they had a big empty field outside of the chapel, and that’s where we set up a stage and had a program. And people came.
The idea was to send off the first ship from the United States to Vietnam: a ship of wheat. Then Bill Coffin, and John Henry Faulk, and Paul McCleary, and Robert [Span] Browne, and the farmer, and the young woman who was from the YWCA at the university, and me: we got on a plane and flew to Saigon, and met the ship of wheat. They immediately made bread from it. I felt very guilty eating a piece of bread that was supposed to go to the hungry, starving Vietnamese.
We had a remarkable trip. Oh, you know who was with us? An important person from the Lutherans, Reverend Bartholomew. It’s all in the book. He had never had an experience quite like this before. So at one point, when we were with the foreign minister of North Vietnam, Nguyen Co Thach—T-H-A-C-H—he got up and walked out of the meeting. [laughs] So that wasn’t very comfortable or convenient.
Q: Walked out because he—?
Weiss: He was protesting North Vietnam. Right. There we were, trying to be a reconciliation delegation. Or at least, the war was over delegation. We took a trip together. Oh, on that trip, Bill Coffin did not come. He came in 1972, but a Bob [Robert Span] Browne came. He was an
Vietnamese woman, and resigned over the war in Vietnam, because of the war. He was a remarkable human being. Bob Browne. He was wonderful. Browne with an e. He later became the head of the Africa Development Bank, and set up a foundation called the 21st Century Fund, which gave grants to African Americans who were doing startups. Lovely, lovely guy. His wife—he died a while ago, and his wife Huoi died just recently, this past year. His daughter lives in one of these buildings, the Lincoln Towers: Mai, M-A-I.
He was written up—this is an interesting story—by a woman named Judy [Tzu-Chun] Wu, W-U, who’s an assistant professor of political science or history at the Ohio University, I can’t remember which branch. She wrote a book about Americans during the war in Vietnam, and one chapter was about Bob Browne, and then she came here to interview both my husband and myself, because we were both very close friends with Bob. We just had a reunion with Judy Wu;
her husband; her children; and Mai Browne, Bob’s daughter. It was very nice.
Q: What was the reaction among the Vietnamese?
Weiss: To the ship of wheat?
Weiss: They brought out everybody: to greet the ship, to greet us. They were incredibly
Vietnam’s not a war; it’s a country. The humanitarian response to starvation was very, very warmly greeted.