by CJ Verburg
The Only Woman in the Room by Rita Lakin
This delightful memoir offers a rare look behind the scenes at some turning-point TV shows back when television was first taking off: Doctor Kildare, The Mod Squad, Peyton Place, The Rookies. Rita Lakin didn’t set out to be a Hollywood screenwriter — in those days, that wasn’t an option for a woman. Widowed with three young children, her urgent quest was to support her family. Not surprisingly, she got in the the back way, as a secretary. Hard work and some lucky breaks turned a few brick walls into doorways, and for the next 25 years Rita Lakin rode the roller-coaster: sometimes given a hand, sometimes kicked in the face. She shares the fun she had meeting celebrities, and also breathes 3-D life into names the rest of us only see in the credits, such as Aaron Spelling and Sydney Pollack. Not least, she reminds us that the key to success is collaboration, not confrontation — though there are moments when you do have to stand your ground, go out on a limb, or just close your eyes and jump.
Nero Wolfe meets the civil-rights movement. Published in 1964, A Right to Die is a fascinating literary-historical periscope into the language and attitudes of left-leaning successful white men (e.g., author Rex Stout) when the fight against racism was first gaining traction. The politics are muted, but there’s a jaw-dropping racist outburst from one character whose prejudices have been hidden until Wolfe rips back the curtain.
This particular case enters the West 35th St. brownstone of the famous detective in the person of Paul Whipple, whom Wolfe (and his assistant and narrator, Archie Goodwin) met many years ago at Kanawha Spa in West Virginia. Then, Whipple was a student at Howard University and kitchen staffer at the Spa; now, he’s a Columbia University professor and the father of a young man who works for the ROCC (Rights of Citizens Committee) in Harlem. Paul Whipple opposes his son’s plan to marry a wealthy white volunteer. Wolfe owes him a favor; but as he sets out to repay it, a simple inquiry mushrooms into a murder investigation.
Racial attitudes and information in the U.S. have expanded so much since 1964 that this book feels more dated than most of Stout’s mysteries from that era. Still, definitely worth reading!