31 December 2016

Berlin Memoir, Part 2

[In Part 1 of my “Berlin Memoir” (posted on 16 December),  I told you about how I happened to start this reminiscence and introduced some of my earliest experiences  in Berlin—including how I ended up there.  This memoir isn’t really presented in chronological order—it’s more a “stream of consciousness”—but I strongly recommend reading Part 1 before embarking on Part 2 or the subsequent chapters because I explain things when I first discuss them and don’t repeat the explanations again later.  (The same goes for translations of German terms I drop and definitions of army jargon and abbreviations I throw around.)] 

When I first arrived in Berlin, people with security clearances like me were not allowed either to go into East Berlin or to drive the Autobahn to the Zone.  When my car arrived at the port of Bremerhaven from the States, I had to hire someone to go there, retrieve my car, and drive it back to Berlin.  (There were NCO’s who made extra dough doing this service.  I’ll bet they were pissed when this restriction was lifted!)  We either had to fly over the SZOG or take the U.S. military train.  We couldn’t use the Bundesbahn, the German railroad, under any circumstances (one reason was that the Berlin railroad depot was an S-Bahn station—controlled by the East Germans even though it was on our side of the Wall; I wasn’t even allowed to go in there), but we could travel by American, British, or French military train.  Ours, called the Duty Train, went to Helmstedt and Frankfurt; the Brits’ went to Braunschweig (Brunswick), which was their border town, and back (I never took it); the French Train Militaire went to Frankfurt, too, and then on to Strasbourg, and I did take it once to visit friends in France one Christmas-New Year. 

We could also fly on any of the Allied military flights, though that meant using the AB’s, of course.  The American AFB was also the civilian airport, Tempelhof (the one in The Big Lift), but the Brits and French had their own, Gatow and Tegel, respectively, and they were out in the boonies.  I never used them.  (Tegel is currently the city’s main international airport—until 2018 when it’s expected to be superseded by the new Brandenberg Airport, now under construction.)  We were also allowed to fly civilian planes in and out of Berlin—but only one carrier was authorized: Pan Am.  This was because it was the only airline that pledged never to land in East Germany under any circumstances; Air France and British Airways wouldn’t make such a pledge.  (No other carriers, including Lufthansa, were permitted to fly into West Berlin.  Aeroflot, the Soviet airlines, flew into East Berlin’s Schönefeld Airport, now one of Berlin’s two international terminals.)  I can’t say that that made me feel especially safe, though.  The Army was worried that if the plane made an emergency landing in, say, Erfurt or Dresden or something, the Soviets would grab me and take me off to Potsdam and interrogate me for all the secrets I knew.  Okay, but what’s worse, landing alive in the GDR or going down in flames because the plane can’t make it to Berlin or back to the Zone?  (As far as the Army was concerned, I was expendable.)  I kinda figured, pledge or no pledge, if a Pan Am plane was in trouble over East Germany, that pilot was gonna put it down.  Happily, I never had to find out.

We were never cleared to travel in the SZOG or East Berlin—I regret that I never got to go to the Berliner Ensemble—but after about a year, we could drive in and out of the city.  But we couldn’t drive unaccompanied.  When we arrived at the checkpoint—Bravo going out of the city or Alpha coming back in—we’d have to go to the MP desk and announce that we needed an escort.  That meant we had to wait there until someone driving a military vehicle, an official car, or, as a last resort, a green-plated POV was willing to drive along with us and keep us in sight.  (Yeah, right!)  The idea was supposed to be that if we got picked off by the Soviets or got lost en route, they could go on ahead and report the incident at the other end.  (We could not be escorted by someone else who needed an escort, by the way.)  The truth of the situation was, of course, that as soon as we made the necessary declarations at the MP station and got on the road, no one waited for anyone—there were no speed limits on German Autobahns—so the whole thing was a paper reg.  I never heard of anyone getting pulled over, and I never heard of anyone getting in trouble for not sticking with his escort.

I said I regret not getting to see the Berliner Ensemble, but that’s not precise.  I can’t really regret it—it wasn’t something I could have done and I missed my chance.  The B.E. was, of course, in East Berlin and I wasn’t allowed to go there.  It was never possible, never in my control.  (I’ve gotten to see them since, after reunification when they’ve performed in New York City.  See my report on The Threepenny Opera on 22 October 2011.)  The army encouraged GI’s to go to the East, especially in uniform, to exercise our right to do so under the four-power occupation—and, as the army put it, to “show the flag.”  As I’ve noted, the Occupation Agreement gave each of the four powers unrestricted access to all of the city and among people without the security clearances that I had, hopping over to East Berlin was very popular. 

But the army was too paranoid at that time in the Cold War that people in sensitive positions would be targets for false arrest and kidnapping, so MI personnel and others were prohibited not only from going to East Berlin or into East Germany, but even from merely entering an S-Bahn station in the West because it was considered East German territory.  I kept hoping that the restrictions would loosen up, just as the driving restrictions had—but that was too much for the Cold War era. 

I always had this odd feeling because right over there was a third of the city I was living in, and I’d never seen it.  I’d been to Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, and Warsaw—but I’d never seen East Berlin even though I was as close as a few yards away.  I’d have given almost anything to get to see Brecht’s theater as close to the way he intended as possible after his death.   Also, a lot of the historical city was in the Eastern Sector—and I’m a sightseer.  The East Berlin opera was supposed to be much better than the West’s—I wouldn’t know anyway: I’m not an opera fan.  Shopping was much cheaper, even at the one-to-one exchange rate mandated for West Marks to East Marks.  Antiques were more plentiful, as was crystal (made in Czechoslovakia) and some other items.  I can’t say I missed shopping at the Russian PX—it was a popular spot, lots of souvenirs: Red Army watches were popular, and uniform belts, a couple of which I got through a friend—and the antiquing might have been fun.  (I did get a neat old clock, but I had to get it through an NCO who had a sideline of buying them in the East, restoring them, and reselling them to guys like me.)

Showing the flag in one way or another was a very significant result during the Cold War, and Berlin, being what it was politically and geographically, was a center of this effort.  The civilian air service into Tempelhof was as much a symbolic part of this as it was a matter of transportation, and the decision of Air France and British Airways to combine their flights but not abandon them was certainly a manifestation of it.  (Around the time of my arrival in Berlin, France and Britain jointly decided that there wasn’t enough air traffic into the city to maintain separate services and they combined flights by alternating the flag carrier.)  So were the Berlin Orientation Tours of GI’s from the Zone and the encouragement of Berlin personnel to go to the Soviet Sector in uniform. 

Another aspect of the effort were the highly visible “liaison” patrols each force sent into the others’ sectors of the country to keep the lanes of access open.  One of the more specialized and less-known army units in Berlin was the U.S. Military Liaison Mission, essentially an overt intel unit.  All four of the occupation powers had their versions of this organization, whose ostensible mission was to serve as liaison between the parent force and the forces of the other three powers.  To do this, USMLM ran regular patrols in high-powered, four-wheel-drive vehicles, painted OD but in a matte finish that wouldn’t reflect light and carrying special equipment such as a powerful radio with an extra-long antenna and both high-intensity headlights and a set of infrareds, into the SZOG all the way to Potsdam.  (Each of the other occupying forces had the same kind of vehicles, though they were models indigenous to the home country.  The Brits, for instance, drove similarly-painted Land Rovers.  While the three Western Allies directed their patrols toward Potsdam, the Soviet HQ in East Germany, I don’t really know where the Soviet patrols went, other than West Berlin.) 

The actual mission of the liaison patrols was to keep an eye on the Soviet and East German troops scattered around the SZOG, and each patrol took a different, carefully planned, circuitous route from Berlin to Potsdam in order to make a sweep of as many Red Army installations as they could cover, taking photographs whenever they could of the units’ equipment, disposition, manpower, facilities, and so on.  The patrols, which ran 24/7, kept tabs on the units’ readiness, training, maintenance, and routine so that they could act as an early-warning system for possible hostilities: if a number of Soviet units were out of their barracks at a time when they weren’t usually scheduled for maneuvers, it might be an indication that troops were assembling for some kind of attack or raid.  The USMLM patrols had detected this very occurrence in 1968 when units of the 40th Tank Army surrounding Berlin had moved out to spearhead the assault on Czechoslovakia to quash the Prague Spring.  Along with the busloads of Soviet soldiers and airmen which arrived regularly at the American PX in Dahlem—the Red Army didn’t allow its soldiers to wander around West Berlin on their own; they organized their forays and controlled where the soldiers went and what they brought back to the East—the liaison patrol vehicles, with their distinctive non-reflective paint jobs, were among the most visible reminders of where we were and what was going on there.

Living in Berlin was crazy-making, as you might guess.  We were on an island 110 miles inside East Germany, surrounded by a wall.  Two walls, actually—it was a double wall with a no-man’s land in between.  (Outside the Wall, the city was surrounded by the Soviet 40th Tank Army, as I mentioned.  Not a brigade or even a corps—an army.)  You couldn’t go very far in the city—and West Berlin alone was two-and-a-half million people at the time—without literally running into the Wall.  It made you claustrophobic.  GI’s stationed in Munich or Frankfurt, when they needed to get away, could get a pass or leave and just split.  Drive or take a train, all they needed was a couple of days’ notice to get their papers and they could go off wherever they wanted pretty much on a whim.  For us to leave Berlin—and this wasn’t just for the folks with clearances; it was everyone—we needed special movement orders, dubbed “Flag Orders” (because they had a full-color symbol of the flag—Stars and Stripes for GI’s, Union Jack for Brits, Tricolor for the Froggies—at the top of the page), and that took up to a week under ordinary circumstances. 

Then, of course, for us with the clearances, we had to get reservations on the Duty Train, a military flight, or a civilian plane (until we were permitted to drive out), and that was difficult to do at the last minute.  You could hang around Tempelhof and wait for an Air Force hop if you were willing to go anywhere, of course, but that made planning trips tough.  (I did do this once, though.  I met my parents in Athens and flew into Athenai AB.  It was the return trip that Colonel Halvorsen piloted into Berlin.)  And leave travelers were low-priority: you could be bumped for official travel (including cargo) or someone with a higher rank (which wasn’t hard when you’re only a first looie).  There was no such thing as a spur-of-the-moment trip out of Berlin—it took planning and paperwork no matter if it was a month or a day. 

And of course, people stationed in the Zone could drive out of the city or town for a few hours when they were off duty without any paperwork—just take a country drive or go sightseeing in the area for an afternoon.  I couldn’t do that in Berlin—there was no place to go!  Very claustrophobic.  The trade-off was that Berlin had the best of everything—the best PX, the best O-clubs and NCO clubs, the best recreation facilities, the best hospital, even the best quarters—of any place in USAREUR (U.S. Army, Europe).  Generals from the Zone used to come to Berlin to play!  The Berlin Army Hospital, by the way, had the best mess hall I have ever heard of—except one my dad told me about during the war years.  It was so good—they even had Chinese and Hawaiian food sometimes—that when we had business at BAH (checking medical records was part of our personnel investigation routine), we tried to work it out so we’d be there for lunch.  Beat the PX snack bar—across the street from our office—all to hell!  GI’s in Berlin even had some unusual perks: in uniform (which didn’t include MI agents), for instance, they could ride the busses and U-Bahn for free.  We also got our housing for free, courtesy of the German government—because Berlin was still under occupation—and they were excellent!  My BOQ, for example, was a one-bedroom garden apartment.  Married NCO’s had apartments in high-rises that German civilians would kill to live in.

Berlin was pretty far north, though.  During the winter, the sun wasn’t up yet when I went to work and it had already set by the time I went home.  My last job in Berlin was in a basement office.  If I didn’t get out for lunch, which happened occasionally, I’d never see the sun all day.  That could get depressing after a while.  Seasonal affective disorder wasn’t commonly known back then, but there was a lot of alcoholism in Berlin.  There were also suicides, maybe one every other month or so.  I don’t know if there were more of those in Berlin than elsewhere in the military, but it wouldn’t surprise me.  (We often had to investigate suicides to determine if there was a security reason for it, especially if the soldier had had a clearance or access to anything sensitive.  I never saw one that was, though.) 

The pressures of military life, especially for the very young, were exacerbated by the strangeness of the alien environment, the isolation of Berlin, and, for the personnel of Berlin Station perhaps more than others, the added stress of the secrecy and sensitivity of our routine.  One of our soldiers, a teenaged specialist who ran the photo lab, got himself hooked on heroin—and he did it deliberately in order to get mustered out of the Army.  He had been good at his job—he helped me immensely and expertly on a big project that involved a great many photographs, including copies of old prints—and, by all accounts, was a good soldier and a nice, bright kid; his act shocked us all when he revealed his addiction.  How desperate must he have been to choose one of the worst drugs he could think of and to set out purposely to become addicted.  There were certainly easier ways of getting out of the Army, less lasting and destructive.

Actually, even as far north as Berlin is, the weather’s not much worse in the winter than it is in New York—just darker.  It’s not Alaska, though—the sun does come out.  It’s funny, but when I knew I was being sent to Berlin, I figured it was cold up there.  It never got hot in Koblenz or Bonn, in the middle of the country (and the same latitude as Labrador), so I figured Berlin, way up north, would be cold.  I was arriving in late July, but I figured it’d be cool, so I packed fall clothes—nothing for summer.  I arrived in a normally warm late-summer season not unlike New York—all the rest of my belongings were still in transit by ship, of course, so all I had was what was in my suitcase.  And it was all wrong for the weather.  I sweltered until I could get to the ’X and buy more appropriate jackets.  (Remember, we wore civvies—business suits and sports jackets.)  I guess I was lucky the ’X didn’t operate like civilian stores back home—by July and August they’d have been stocking fall clothes and I’d have been SOL.

Temperature-inappropriate clothing was not my only wardrobe malfunction, though.  My last gig had been at Fort Holabird, the Intel School in Baltimore.  (I was at USAINTS from March to June 1971.  We were the last class to go through there after the Intel Center and School opened at Fort Huachuca, Arizona.  Holabird, a former transportation post built in 1918 in Dundalk, down near the Baltimore docks, was where the Watergate crooks were imprisoned after it was vacated by the Army.  Let me tell you—they were well and truly punished by having to stay there!  What a hole.)  Anyway, Baltimore is—or was—a men’s clothing manufacturing center.  (A family friend from Baltimore was in the business—he made uniforms, of all things.  I got my dress blues from him, and he made me a gift of a new Class A felt cap as a going-overseas present.)  There were lots of men’s apparel factories in Baltimore, and they all had outlets. 

Since I knew by then I was going to Berlin and that I would be wearing civilian clothes, I stocked up on all the latest styles of suits and jackets and shirts.  Now, remember, this was the early ’70s—remember what the styles were then?  I was into Mod and boldly colored shirts, wide ties, very tailored jackets.  I had some six- and eight-button double-breasteds, some boldly pin-striped fabrics—I even had one suit that had a take on the Norfolk jacket—with a belt in the back.  How was I to know that when I got to Berlin, the dress code—unwritten, of course—was FBI-plain, with dark suits, narrow lapels, thin ties, and white shirts.  After the second day of being in the office, just being introduced and getting oriented, I got a message from the CO through Lieutenant Lurey that my attire was inappropriate and that I needed to get some conservative jackets and shirts.  (The other agents, by the way, were delighted with my clothes.  It was the first chance they had to see what men were wearing back home and they wondered how I dared wear them to work.  In a few months or a year, the ’X and the Army had caught up some with the States and I was able to get back into my Baltimore wardrobe.  By then I wasn’t alone—other new agents, both officers and EM’s, had joined the unit and came with stateside styles.  I was a trend-setter, don’cha know.)

My CO, a funny little light colonel named Pat Collins, didn’t hold my fashion faux-pas against me for long, fortunately.  (He, by the way, had a penchant for black leather trench coats.  He should bitch!)  After I’d been in the unit for a while, I got an assignment which was to end up dominating the rest of my time at Berlin Station (until I became a spook accountant, that is).  This concerned “exfiltration,” the process of helping Easterners escape into West Berlin and West Germany.  Well, Colonel Collins asked me to put together a report on what we knew at that time about the personalities and methods of exfiltration, which was no longer an officially sanctioned activity for U.S. personnel.  (In the late ’40s, the ’50s, and the early ’60s, exfiltration was an official, if clandestine, project of the U.S. government to bring out scientists, engineers, and other useful and high-profile people.  By my day, most of those kinds of people who wanted to leave had been brought out, so the U.S. disbanded the operation.) 

I went through the files with the help of one of the German legmen who did the interviews at Marienfelde, the refugee processing center in Berlin—he knew all the incidents of exfiltration and could guide me to the appropriate case files—and I wrote up a one- or two-page report summarizing what we knew.  Colonel Collins read it and decided it was worth expanding and asked me to add more detail for a report he could take to a staff meeting with one or the other of the generals.  That meeting was later that day, so I pulled together my notes and dictated an expanded version of the report to one of the secretaries who typed it as I dictated.  Talk about hot off the presses!  Colonel Collins went to his staff meeting, and the report so impressed the general—whichever one it was—that he ordered up a full staff study.  (The colonel was also taken with what he saw as two of my special talents: one, that I always seemed to have a little more info in reserve whenever he needed it; and, two, that I used “civilian” words like ‘aegis’ and such.  Some people are easily impressed—as we shall see.) 

From then on, I was the station expert on exfiltration.  I soon knew everything we had on the activity, most of the names involved, many of the cases, and all of the methods employed.  One day, as I was walking down the first-floor hallway, Colonel Collins—in his black leather trench coat—came down the stairs and greeted me: “Here’s Collins’ Commando.”  (Fortunately for me, no one else was in the corridor at the time.)  Any case that smacked of exfiltration was sent to me.  I was the go-to guy for exfiltration, and my staff study, which ended up a big book with illustrations, photos, and charts, became a best-seller in the intel community—not just in Berlin but across USAREUR.  (This was the project with which that young photo technician helped me so expertly—the one who hooked himself on heroin.) 

We had to produce a sanitized version of the study for the Brit and French military intel and the German cops, BfV (Bundesamt für Verfassungschutz – Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution – the West German counterpart to our FBI), and BND (Bundesnachrichtendienst – Federal Intelligence Service – the equivalent of the CIA) because they all wanted copies.  I was almost-famous—except no one knew who I was.  (I  don’t think my name appeared on the study actually.  Some people knew it was mine by word of mouth.  Not that it was a secret, so when someone found out it was my study—like the time I was at the British intel unit for something or other—he got all excited.  My first—and so far only—taste of celebrity!)

One weekend after I had become the unit exfiltration expert, a frat brother from college who was stationed in Frankfurt called to tell me he was coming to Berlin and asked if we could get together.  He was coming up with a colleague, a captain who’d served with Colonel Collins.  When they got to Berlin, they went to see the colonel first, then came over to my place.  “Man,” said my classmate, “your CO thinks you’re the greatest thing since sliced bread.”  Apparently, Colonel Collins spent much of their time together extolling my great accomplishment.

This episode has a tragic coda, however.  As you may know, this was the time of a lot of domestic terrorism in Germany, mostly perpetrated by an anarchist group called the Red Army Faction—more commonly known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang.  The RAF—ironic initials—liked to blow up U.S. and Allied facilities and kidnap German businessmen.  A couple of months after my schoolmate and his colleague came to visit, at about 7 a.m. on 11 May 1972, the RAF set off a bomb at the I. G. Farben Building in Frankfurt.  That’s where the HQ of the U.S. Army in Frankfurt was located, and my friend’s colleague was killed in the blast.  He had two little daughters, one only 12.  In all of the Vietnam war years, he was one of only three people I knew who was killed by violence.  I don’t even remember his name now.

My little exfiltration staff study did include one semi-major coup.  The common wisdom was that there were established gangs who organized and carried out the exfiltrations—like mini-Mafia families.  One of the things I did in the study was put together what the Germans called a WKW Schema.  (WKW stands for Wer Kennt Wen—“Who Knows Whom.”)  It’s a line-and-block chart that shows the connections among all the personalities involved, tracing contacts, phone calls, collaborations, and so on.  I discovered—and proved—that the gangs were a myth.  There were, in fact, a half dozen or so exfiltration leaders who could organize a team to carry out an operation as needed, but there were no permanent organizations.  The same operatives would work for any number of leaders, and all the leaders knew one another and cooperated with one another.  This was a revelation—no one had figured this out because no one had ever pulled all the info together into one place before so that the pattern became obvious.  So, from that moment on, I was the expert. 

Most exfiltration cases were small matters, investigated quickly and disposed of without much effort.  One exception was the case involving Berlin’s Deputy Provost Marshall.  (The Provost Marshall, or PM, is the military equivalent of the chief of police.  The Provost Marshall’s Office, known as the PMO, is the military counterpart of police headquarters.)  We had gotten a report, from one of the German legmen who was interviewing refugees at Marienfelde, that a refugee couple had been sneaked into Berlin in a green-plated car.  (The private cars, or POV’s, of GI’s in USAREUR and USAFE bore bright green license plates with black lettering.  Very distinct from the long, thin black-on-white German plates in shape and size, POV tags resembled stateside plates.)  The couple reported what time they had gotten into the city—or their arrival at Marienfelde provided this info, I forget, but we knew pretty accurately when their car had crossed Checkpoint Bravo.  They had only seen the car from the rear—because they were climbing into the trunk when the car stopped on the Autobahn in East Germany (which is how they knew about the green plates, of course)—but they described it as a particular German model (I forget now what they said it was).  From the crossing lists, we determined the likely suspect—the Deputy PM! 

I had to go over to Andrews Barracks, the compound in Lichtenfelde where the PMO was located, and scope out the parking lot.  I found the DPM’s car—a blue AMC Javelin, which looked from the rear almost exactly like the German model the couple described.  (They’d never have known a Javelin, of course, so they saw it as a model they knew.)  I had a Polaroid and, just my luck, as I was taking photos of the DPM’s car, out of the PMO the major walked.  “What are you doing taking pictures of my car?” he demanded.  I stammered some unconvincing lie—and he knew something was up.  Not that there was much he could have done: one advantage of Berlin’s geographic isolation was that you can’t just slip out and lam.  I went back and wrote up my report, including the evidence of the crossing lists and my judgment that the DPM’s Javelin looked from the rear exactly like the German car the refugee couple described, submitting the photos as evidence.  Our Ops Officer, a captain who was our second-in-command, the equivalent to the XO in other units—Colonel Collins was out of town, a fact which would play a part in what was to follow—decided that since this was a case involving a member of the forces, it was legitimately a military police matter. 

(Exfiltration was an odd duck, legally.  It wasn’t against any U.S. or West German laws, but it was against U.S. Army regulations.  But that only affected uniformed personnel; civilians weren’t subject to military regs.  That’s what made it so hard to control.  When a civilian was caught doing exfiltrations, the USCOB had to step in and exercise his authority over all matters within the American Sector.  He expelled the person from Berlin.  But a soldier could be disciplined under Army regs, so this major was subject to investigation by his own people—the MP’s.) 

I compiled my report and immediately shipped it off to the PM for his action.  Later that evening, at one of those briefings I had to attend in the secure room, the Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence of USCOB, a full colonel, asked off-handedly about the case.  I told him what my conclusions had been, and said that my Ops Officer instructed me to pass the case off to the PM for action.  “You sent it classified, didn’t you?” he asked, clearly assuming the answer.  “No, sir, I didn’t.  There isn’t anything classified in the report.  I sent it FOUO.”  That’s “For Official Use Only,”  not a classification, but a use designation.  “You sent a report implicating a senior officer of the PMO through Brigade distribution unclassified?  That’s potentially embarrassing information and anyone can look at it!”  He was livid.  I was terrified. 

“Classification isn’t authorized to avoid embarrassment, sir,” I gulped.  I was right, and I knew it, but I was pretty sure that wasn’t going to help me now.  I had a bird colonel furious at me, and there was nothing I could do.  I was entirely alone in that room.  I don’t know what I was thinking about, but I was pretty sure I was dead.  Believe it or not, I don’t remember what happened right after that.  The DCSI must have sent me back to my unit to wait for his decision or something, because I ended up in the Ops Officer’s office—it was late by now, but for some reason the Ops Officer was still in the Station.  He assured me I was in the right, but he was only a captain himself.  He did point out that as Ops Officer and, in the absence of Colonel Collins, the acting CO, all materials sent out of the unit went out under his signature.  He was ultimately responsible, and I had merely done what I was instructed to by my superior.  I wasn’t sure what that would accomplish, except maybe get us both hanged—but I guess I felt better that a) he’d stand with me and b) he would affirm that I was right according to the regs. 

But just then, the cavalry rode in!  Colonel Collins got back from his trip and came straight to the office.  I don’t remember if he’d already heard of the flap or had been headed to the office anyway and learned of it when he got in—but he backed me to the hilt, told the DCSI that not only had I done what I was told to do, but had done it exactly right.  (Collins’ Commando!)  I don’t know what I did after that, but if I didn’t get very drunk, I sure should have.  Still, ever since that incident, even though I was 100% correct, the DCSI didn’t like me.  I guess as much because I beat him, in a way, as because I had caused potential embarrassment to the forces.  (The major was shipped out to Helmstedt, I believe, to that satellite outpost of the Berlin PMO and soon left the army.  He knew his career was over even if he wasn’t prosecuted.  I figure he deserved whatever happened to him—for being stupid if nothing else.)

[I hope the visit to West Berlin in the 1970s has been interesting so far and that you’ll come back to the blog for Part 3 in a few weeks.  I pick up then with the biggest investigation I handled while I was at Berlin Station—that one case takes up the entire chapter.  I imagine you’ll see why when you read it.  (I should remind readers that everything I’ve written in this memoir is true and as accurate as my memory will permit.  If anything you read strains credulity, it’s not because I embellished or fabricated, but because the world of Cold War Berlin, the army, and Military Intelligence was just . . . well, different.  The 2½ years I spent as an MI Special Agent at Berlin Station wasn’t like anything else I’ve lived through in my 70 years.)]

26 December 2016

"It's a Wonderful Life Was Based on a 'Christmas Card' Short Story by Philip Van Doren Stern"

by Daven Hiskey

[A week or so ago, I watched the perennial Christmas-season feel-good movie It’s a Wonderful Life (RKO, 1946), one of director Frank Capra’s best known and, arguably, most beloved films.  Famously starring Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey, one of his most iconic roles, along with Donna Reed as his devoted wife, Mary; Thomas Mitchell as bumbling Uncle Billy; Lionel Barrymore as mean, old Mr. Potter; and, of course, Henry Travers as Angel Second Class Clarence, It’s a Wonderful Life is either your favorite holiday indulgence or, if you’re a Grinch, the bane of your Christmas season.  I fall into the former category—though my father used to say he hated the movie (I don’t believe he really did).  Of course, everyone knows Wonderful Life is a Christmas movie—but what I hadn’t noticed until I was sitting watching it this time around, is that it’s my Christmas movie.

[Here’s how I figure that bit of arrogant claim-laying.  The diegetic Christmas Eve of the movie is 1945, right after the end of World War II (VJ Day, 2 September 1945), but the movie had its official première on 21 December 1946, its New York City release date, just in time for Christmas that year.  (It opened in Los Angeles on 26 December, Boxing Day.)  As it happens, I was born on 25 December 1946.   (Yes, I just turned 70 yesterday.  Happy Birthday to me!)  So, the movie was essentially my birth announcement—or, looked at slightly differently, it was a gift to my mother on the occasion of the birth of her first son.  No wonder I’ve always had a soft spot for It’s a Wonderful Life!  (I can’t explain my dad’s expressed feelings about the movie.  I think he was just being contrarian.)    

[Something else I didn’t know about It’s a Wonderful Life was its origins.  I came across this article on the website Today I Found Out, posted by Daven Hiskey on 23 December 2011 (http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2011/12/its-a-wonderful-life-was-based-on-a-christmas-card-short-story-by-philip-van-doren-stern.)  I figured the movie’s 70th Boxing Day would be a good time to repost “It’s a Wonderful Life Was Based on a ‘Christmas Card’ Short Story by Philip Van Doren Stern.”  Enjoy!  ~Rick]

Today I found out It’s a Wonderful Life was based on a “Christmas Card” short story by Philip Van Doren Stern, which was originally sent out to around 200 of Stern’s friends and family in December of 1943.

The short story was called The Greatest Gift and was inspired by a dream Stern had one night in the 1930s.  Stern, already an accomplished author at this point, albeit a historical author, then proceeded to write the 4,000 word short story about a man named George who was going to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge, but was stopped when someone happened by and struck up a conversation with him.  The mysterious person eventually learns that George wishes he’d never been born and grants George his wish.  George soon discovers that no one he knows recognizes him and that many of the people he’d known were worse off in their lives because he had never existed.  Most prominent among these was his little brother who had drowned because he had not been there to save him.    George eventually gets the stranger to change everything back to the way it was and is now glad to be alive.

Stern initially sought to find a publisher for his short, 21 page story, but failed in this endeavor, so decided to make a “Christmas Card” style gift out of it and printed 200 copies which he sent out to friends and family in December of 1943.  This ended up being a gift that gave back, as the work eventually found its way into the hands of producer David Hempstead who worked for RKO Pictures.  RKO pictures then paid Stern $10,000 (around $124,000 today) for the motion picture rights to the story, just four months after Stern had sent it out.  Various adaptations were then written before the screenplay version of the story was sold to Frank Capra’s production company in 1945, also for $10,000.  Capra’s company subsequently adapted the story further and ultimately made it into It’s a Wonderful Life, which debuted in 1946.

Interestingly while the story was based on The Greatest Gift, the character of George Bailey was actually based partly on the founder of Bank of America, A.P. Giannini.  Giannini was also the inspiration for a similar character in Capra’s American Madness.  At the age of 14, Giannini left school and began working with his step father, Lorenzo Scatena, in the produce industry as a produce broker.  By the time he was 31, he was able to sell much of his interest in this company to his employees and had planned to retire.  However, one year later, he was asked to join the Columbus Savings & Loan Society, which was a small bank in North Beach, California.

Once he joined up, he found that almost nobody at the Savings & Loan, nor other banks, were willing to give loans to anyone but the rich or those owning businesses.  At first, Giannini attempted to convince the other directors at the Savings & Loan to start lending to working class citizens, to give them home and auto loans, among other things.  He felt that working class citizens, though lacking in assets to guarantee the loan against, were generally honest and would pay back their loans when they could.  Further, by loaning them money, it would allow working class citizens to better themselves in ways they would not have been able to do without the money lent to them, such as being able to buy a home or to start a new business.  He was never able to convince the other directors to begin lending to the working class.  So he raised funds to start his own bank, the Bank of Italy, which later became the Bank of America.

He then made a practice of not offering loans based on how much money or equity a person had, but based primarily on how he judged their character.  Within a year, Bank of Italy had over $700,000 in deposits from these working class individuals, which is somewhere around $15-$20 million today. By the middle of the 1920s, it had become the third largest bank in the United States.

Much like the fictitious George Bailey, Giannini kept little for himself through all this.  Despite that fact that the bank he started was worth billions at the time of his death, Giannini’s entire estate was valued at only $500,000 when he died at the age of 79 in 1949.  He avoided acquiring great wealth as he felt it would cause him to lose touch with the working class.  For much of his career, he refused pay for his work and when the board attempted to give him $1.5 million as a bonus one year, he gave it all away to the University of California stating “Money itch is a bad thing.  I never had that trouble.”

*  *  *  *
Bonus Facts:

  • The Greatest Gift was eventually made into an actual published work in 1944, one year after Stern had sent it out as a Christmas present, being published in Reader’s Scope magazine.  One month later, it was also published in Good Housekeeping under the title “The Man Who Was Never Born”.  Stern also managed to get it published in book form around this time, with illustrations for the story done by Rafaello Busoni.
  • When the motion picture rights of the story were first sold to RKO, Cary Grant had been slated to play the lead role of George.  When Capra acquired the rights, Lionel Barrymore ended up being the one to convince Jimmy Stewart to take the part, even though he initially didn’t want it, as it was too soon after he had returned from WWII.
  • Jimmy Stewart rose to as high as a Two Star General in the U.S. military.  In August of 1943, he found himself with the 703rd Bombardment Squadron, initially as a first officer, and shortly thereafter as a Captain.  During combat operations over Germany, Stewart found himself promoted to the rank of Major.  Stewart participated in several counted and uncounted missions (on his orders) into Nazi occupied Europe, flying his B-24 in the lead position of his group in order to inspire his troops.
  • For his bravery during these missions, he twice received the Distinguished Flying Cross; three times received the Air Medal; and once received the Croix de Guerre from France.  This latter medal was an award given by France and Belgium to individuals allied with themselves who distinguished themselves with acts of heroism.
  • By July of 1944, Stewart was promoted chief of staff of the 2nd Combat Bombardment wing of the Eighth Air Force.  Shortly thereafter, he was promoted to the rank of colonel, becoming one of only a handful of American soldiers to ever rise from private to colonel within a four year span.
  • After the war, Stewart was an active part of the United States Air Force Reserve, serving as the Reserve commander of Dobbins Air Reserve Base.  On July 24, 1959, he attained the rank of brigadier general (one star general). He finally retired from the Air Force on May 31, 1968 after 27 years of service and was subsequently promoted to Major General (two star general).
  • It’s a Wonderful Life was the first film Jimmy Stewart did after serving in WWII.  It came at a time when he was strongly considering quitting acting, as he didn’t know if he’d be able to continue after his experiences in the war.
  • On January 5, 1992, It’s a Wonderful Life became the first American program ever to be broadcast on Russian television.  A translated version, courtesy of Stewart and Lomonosov Moscow State University, was broadcast to over 200 million Russians on that day.
  • It’s a Wonderful Life was largely considered a flop after it was released and, partially due to this film’s poor showing at the box office, Capra’s production company went bankrupt and Stewart began to further doubt his ability to act following the war.  However, thanks to being considered a Christmas movie (which Capra himself claimed to be a surprise to him, as he didn’t see it that way), the movie steadily gained momentum over the years and today is considered one of the great classics in movie history.  Stewart himself stated that It’s a Wonderful Life became his favorite of all the movies he had done in his career.
  • It’s a Wonderful Life cost $3.7 million to make (about $44 million today) and only took in $3.3 million in its initial run in theaters.  This made it good enough for only the 26th best (out of 400+) gross take of American movies in 1947.  Incidentally, it did beat out Miracle on 34th Street in 1947 for gross revenue, being one position ahead of it.
  • While initially a flop with the public, It’s a Wonderful Life was nominated for five academy awards, though didn’t win any.  Today, it is considered by the American Film Institute as one of the 100 greatest American films ever made.  They also have it as the number one most inspirational American film of all time.
  • In the scene in It’s a Wonderful Life where “Uncle Billy” is drunk and leaving the party at George’s house, the sound of him apparently running into some garbage cans and falling down is heard.  In actuality, one of the crew members accidentally dropped some equipment after Uncle Billy walked out of the shot.  Rather than break character, the actor who played Uncle Billy, Thomas Mitchell, shouted “I’m all right, I’m all right!” and Jimmy Stewart also played along.  The take was obviously the one that made it into the movie, despite the gaff.  The stagehand that dropped the equipment was given a $10 bonus.
  • Donna Reed really did manage to hit the window in the first take of the scene where she makes a wish and throws a rock at the window.  Originally, they had planned to have her throw it and then had a sharp shooter standing by to shoot the window at the appropriate moment, to make it appear the rock had broken it.  This turned out not to be necessary as Reed had quite the throwing arm. 
  • Donna Reed grew up on a farm and, on a bet from Lionel Barrymore, demonstrated how to milk a cow on the set of It’s a Wonderful Life.
  • Over his lifetime Philip Van Doren Stern published over 40 books, mostly historical and many on the Civil War, to which he became one of the nation’s leading scholars.
[Philip Van Doren Stern was born in 1900 in Wyalusing, Pennsylvania.  He grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and New Jersey, and graduated from Rutgers University (New Jersey’s state university in New Brunswick) in 1924.  A historian as wall as an author and editor, some of his 40 books were on the Civil War, works  for which he was well regarded by scholars.  Stern compiled and edited many collections and anthologies of short stories, picture books, and books on historical subjects.  Stern died at 83 in 1984 in Sarasota, Florida.

[A personal anecdote concerning one of the “Bonus Facts” appended above:  When I was living in Germany as a teenager in the early 1960s (see “An American Teen In Germany,” 9 and 12 March 2013), a story about Jimmy Stewart made the rounds in 1962 or thereabouts, even appearing in the Stars and Stripes, the newspaper published abroad by the U.S. military.  (Along with the Paris edition of the New York Herald Tribune, we read the Stars and Stripes daily.)  He arrived in Spain and was in Madrid to do his month-long reserve duty  at Torrejon Air Base.  He pulled up to the five-star luxury Hotel Ritz and went to check in—but the Ritz had a strict policy of not accommodating actors, not even famous ones like Stewart.  So the world-renowned Hollywood star registered as Brigadier General James Stewart, U.S. Air Force Reserve, and was given a first-class reception by the hotel.]

21 December 2016

Michael Kaiser: Man of the Arts

[Michael Kaiser, director of  the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland, was, among other arts positions, president of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.  Here are two pieces focusing on Kaiser and his multifarious expertise in the performing arts.  First is the transcript of an interview by Jeffrey Brown from the PBS NewsHour (aired on 25 March 2015) concerning Kaiser’s book, Curtains? The Future of the Arts in America (Brandeis University Press, 2015), which explores the serious problem facing the performing and visual arts in the era of the Internet and other electronic media.  This is obviously a serious matter for artists and others who make their lives in the arts, but it also ought to be of great concern to all of us. 

[The PBS interview is followed by a Washington Post article by Katherine Boyle from 2013 about Kaiser’s arts management organization, a program that promotes the training of arts administrators.  It’s not a field to which most of us give much attention, but arts administrators are the managers and operators of theater companies, performing arts centers, dance troupes, museums, and orchestras both large and small all across this country, and audiences, communities, artists, and boards of directors all depend on these executives to manage, program, and budget their organizations efficiently and enticingly so that they thrive and bring in audiences and viewers as well as donors.  As the saying goes, it’s often like herding cats, and yet most arts administrators learn their trade in the school of hard knocks—because there are few programs that train people in the field.  The DeVos Institute is the exception.]

by Jeffrey Brown

When was the last time you went to the theater, or watched a modern dance concert? Why are Americans less connected to the arts?  In his new book, Curtains? The Future of the Arts in America, Michael Kaiser, a former chief of the Kennedy Center, American Ballet Theatre and others, considers what arts organizations can do to thrive and survive. Kaiser discusses his book with Jeffrey Brown.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: The plot thickens for the arts in America.

Jeffrey Brown has our conversation for the NewsHour Bookshelf.

JEFFREY BROWN: Have you been to the theater lately, seen a modern dance concert? Have your children? Will those theater dance and other arts institutions survive?

The questions are at the heart of a new book with a question in its title, “Curtains?: The Future of the Arts in America.”

Author Michael Kaiser has headed many arts organizations, including the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the American Ballet Theater and the Alvin Ailey dance troupe. He now heads the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland.

And welcome to you.

What’s the—if I say, what’s the essential problem, is it economic, cultural? What is it? How do you sum it up?

MICHAEL KAISER, Author, “Curtains?: The Future of the Arts in America”: We have faced many challenges in the arts for many years, but more recently, so much entertainment and arts are available online or in movie theaters. And they are becoming very important competitors to those who present live performances in their theaters.

JEFFREY BROWN: Just a new world of technology and entertainment and choices?

MICHAEL KAISER: Just as newspapers are challenged by the existence of online news, so are theaters and opera companies and ballet companies, particularly those in midsized cities, competing with the very large, famous organizations whose art is now available to people electronically.

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re also writing though about a first generation of an audience that has grown up—I forget—you put it as without a kind of traditional arts education, without exposure to the arts in the media, for example?


We—I enjoyed a great arts education in the public school system when I was growing up, but children today, most children don’t. And so we have a generation of children who are coming out of high school without the kind of background in the arts that I had and that many of my peers had.

And as a result, as they age and as they would typically become our subscribers and donors and board members, we worry that they won’t be there for us and for the arts in the future.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, therefore, you write too many people feel like the arts are irrelevant to them.

It’s come to that. They just have no connection.

MICHAEL KAISER: Both because of the education, but also because of ticket pricing.

We used ticket prices to balance our budgets for so many years, our tickets have gotten so expensive, that many people have felt priced out of the market and thought the arts aren’t for them because they simply can’t afford it.

JEFFREY BROWN: One of the things that struck me in the book is something we talk about on this program a lot, is the gaps in American society, the income gap, the wealth gap. You’re talking about a kind of arts gap.


JEFFREY BROWN: Arts for some, not for others.

MICHAEL KAISER: That’s true.

And we enjoyed over the last 50 years this explosion in arts accessibility to people all over America. We expect a theater company or a dance company or an opera company in our towns, even midsized towns, and I worry that that accessibility will change and diminish over the next 20 years.

JEFFREY BROWN: But can you give us some examples? What do you see around—you travel around the country a lot. Who is—where is this hitting? What kind of companies, for example, are being hit?

MICHAEL KAISER: It’s hitting orchestras first.

We read so many stories about orchestra union problems and union negotiation problems. That’s just a manifestation of a diminishment in ticket sales and in contributions. So when you look around the arts world right now, you see many, many organizations either doing less work or going away entirely.

This is true particularly of arts organizations of color, which is a very important part of our arts ecology that is starting to shrink.

JEFFREY BROWN: Which were fragile always. Right?

MICHAEL KAISER: Which is always fragile and is more fragile now.

And now we’re seeing it in midsized American cities and in their large classical organizations. And I worry that they will not be able to sustain themselves.

JEFFREY BROWN: But what you do see and you write about is—and again we see this in the rest of society—winners and losers.


JEFFREY BROWN: Some at the high end are going to do very well, you write, many at the low end, because they can get along basically on a shoestring. It’s the great middle.

MICHAEL KAISER: It’s the great middle that is at risk.

And the great middle is what made the arts accessible to all Americans over the last 50 years.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, what’s to be done?

MICHAEL KAISER: What’s to be done is arts organizations have to get more creative about the actual art they make.

I find that what happens is, so many boards and staffs feel the way you compete in this environment is to do what people want. So, we have lots of “Swan Lakes” and lots of “La Boheme”s.

But the problem is…

JEFFREY BROWN: Doesn’t that bring people into the theater?

MICHAEL KAISER: Well, not if there are great “Swan Lakes” and “La Boheme”s available in the movie theater, online from the Bolshoi or the Royal Opera House or La Scala.

Then you have to do something that’s really special. Artists have to get back to dreaming and stop planning their art to a budget. And an arts organization is doing great, including work consistently, even if it’s of modest size, it’s going to create and keep its audience and its donor base.

JEFFREY BROWN: But should arts organizations and arts managers be thinking of their institutions more as commodities, more as businesses or…

MICHAEL KAISER: We always had to think of ourselves as a business to the extent that we needed to balance our budgets to sustain ourselves.

But we have to think of ourselves more as creative enterprises who do really interesting work that engages our community. And those organizations that dream big and create amazing projects are going to do very, very well.

JEFFREY BROWN: I asked you for a negative example. Can you give me a positive example? Where are you seeing the kind of new thinking, or dreaming, I think is the way you put it?


The opera companies in Philadelphia, the opera company in Saint Louis both do great work and exciting work and interesting work. They get a lot of coverage. They’re both midsized art—opera companies. They’re not the size of the Metropolitan Operation or La Scala.

But they maintain the interest of their communities and their donor bases because their work is so interesting. So I think the organizations that do interesting work are the ones that are going to survive and compete well against online arts.

JEFFREY BROWN: And so your question in the title, “Curtains?” what’s—the answer is to be determined?

MICHAEL KAISER: To be determined, and I hope not.


JEFFREY BROWN: All right. On that, Michael Kaiser, thank you very much.


*  *  *  *
The Kennedy Center’s departing president will focus on another passion:
Teaching theart of arts management”
by Katherine Boyle

[The following article originally appeared in the Washington Post’s “Arts” section on 4 August 2013.]

Michael Kaiser starts his classes 10 minutes early, reminding students that they’re already late. Late in planning for a blockbuster ballet. Late to raise funds for a “Ring” cycle in 2017. Late in buffering their theaters and dance companies against volatile economic shifts. And though his students bring what seem to be insurmountable concerns — some worry that their governments will yank arts funding without warning — for the Kennedy Center president, it’s never too late for a turnaround.

The Kennedy Center hosted 36 international art managers for its annual month-long summer training program last month. The fellowship, now in its sixth year, brings together arts managers from 26 countries, including Argentina, Singapore and Pakistan. The intensive seminar is extra work for the Kennedy Center staff — all the top brass become teachers for the month of July — but for Kaiser, 59, teaching arts management is a labor of love, a passion he’ll devote his career to when he steps down as Kennedy Center president in December 2014.

“We spend so much money to train singers, dancers and painters, but we spend almost nothing to train and employ arts managers,” Kaiser says. “And as arts funding becomes more complicated, the need for these programs increases.”

Since his arrival at the Kennedy Center in 2001, Kaiser has led what could be called an overextended double life, managing the $200 million budget of the Kennedy Center while serving as president of the center’s institute for arts management. The institute began as Kaiser’s passion project but has since grown into the DeVos Institute of Arts Management, a $6-million-a-year nonprofit consulting practice that advises domestic arts groups and conducts seminars abroad. The project became the DeVos Institute in 2010, when Michigan philanthropists Betsy and Dick DeVos gave $22.5 million to ensure the growth of the arts training institute

Since then, the institute has flourished, providing seminars and at times, free arts management, as it did for 750 organizations after the 2008 financial crisis, despite its relatively small staff. Kaiser and his protege, DeVos director Brett Egan, 36, have taught and consulted in 50 states and more than 70 countries. Kaiser acts as the institute’s chief cultural diplomat, zipping to Ramallah, Muscat or Kampala for a few days at a time to teacharts management seminars. He also consults with institutions teetering on bankruptcy, taking on clients such as the Miami City Ballet and the Penumbra Theatre Company in St. Paul, Minn.

It’s a job he takes to naturally, glowing when he speaks of his work in Uganda or how his international fellows hosted festivals in Cairo during the Arab Spring. To some, it might seem as if Kaiser loves consulting more than his day job.

“I can’t say there’s one job I like more,” Kaiser said. “I’ll miss programming. But I know that I’m getting older. I can’t do both forever.”

There are few comparable figures in arts management, or even in the corporate world, who emulate what Kaiser is doing. For the director of a major performing arts center to spend his nights and weekends shaping the strategic plans of other institutions is rare, and perhaps it seems unrelated to the mission of a performing arts center president. Kaiser rejects this assumption, seeing the DeVos Institute as a central component of the Kennedy Center’s mission.

“It fits in perfectly with the nomenclature of the Kennedy Center, of being the nation’s performing arts center,” Kaiser said. “It’s one of the ways we’re known the best around the world, and it helps us with our international festivals.”

Indeed, the Kennedy Center’s 2009 festival “Arabesque: Arts of the Arab World” led to the partnership between the Royal Opera House in Muscat, Oman, and the Kennedy Center. Egan served as interim chief executive for a year when it opened in 2011.

Kaiser sees his arts management evangelizationas an important tool for cultural diplomacy, a mission that drives him to keep up a grueling schedule. How does one make the time for all this?

“I get up early and go to bed late, and I work seven days a week,” he quips.

The lessons of turnarounds

It’s arguable that the Kennedy Center never needed “the Turnaround King.” The Kennedy Center was not in crisis, although private fundraising has ballooned from a low of $27 million when Kaiser arrived to $80 million in 2013. The onetime opera singer began his management career in corporate consulting after receiving a master’s degree in management from MIT. He started his own consulting business for corporations and then switched to managing nonprofit arts organizations. In the ’90s, he was hired to direct the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the American Ballet Theatre and the Kansas City Ballet, companies that were deeply in debt. In 1998, Kaiser became head of the Royal Opera House in London and raised $100 million in 18 months. (He says that the British press called him “The Crass American,” not “The Turnaround King,” since asking for donations was considered to be poor form at the time.)

“Arts institutions fail for the same reasons, everywhere,” Kaiser says, noting that while cultures and circumstances differ, failure almost always comes down to a lack of resources. “You’re so worried about money, instead of talking about the great exciting thing you can do, you talk about what you’re going to cut. It’s done with the best of intentions, but it just doesn’t work.”

Kaiser has since developed a framework called “The Cycle,” a model that explains the interplay among art, marketing and fundraising as a cycle that grows over time. Every summer, it’s the first class he teaches when the summer fellows arrive in Washington. He and Egan co-authored a book by the same name that comes out this month [The Cycle: A Practical Approach to Managing Arts Organizations (Brandeis University Press)]. Kaiser has also written two books on arts management [The Art of the Turnaround: Creating and Maintaining Healthy Arts Organizations (University Press of New England), 2008; Conversation Starters: Arts Management Topics for Today (DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the Kennedy Center), 2011], and he regularly blogs about management tips.

His books led Lourdes Lopez to seek him out last year when she was named artistic director of the Miami City Ballet. She entered an organization that, she euphemizes, “had some problems,” after the forced resignation of longtime director Edward Villella. The company was said to be on the verge of bankruptcy. It was a precarious situation for a ballet company that had always had a stellar national reputation. Lopez and the board hired Kaiser to act as an independent consultant for the troupe.

“He interviewed every department head, did research, looked at revenue,” Lopez said. “Almost like a surgeon, he dissected the organization and gave us a comprehensive plan. It was so clear, and he took the board through it page by page.”

As for Kaiser’s attention to the company, Lopez said she’d send e-mails at 5 a.m. and Kaiser would respond immediately, saying, “Call me.”

“My guess is he doesn’t sleep,” Lopez added.

After a year spent implementing the plan, which focused on community outreach and engagement, Lopez said the company’s finances are improving.

“You can’t accomplish it all, but it gave us benchmarks,” Lopez said. “We owe him a lot.”

Kaiser notes that the Kennedy Center is one of the few institutions that provide comprehensive consulting for arts organizations. Since the institute is housed under the nonprofit umbrella of the center, fees are reasonable when compared to for-profit consulting fees. Kaiser says clients pay between $10,000 and $100,000, depending: “We’re not out there racking up the big bucks,” he said.

The Kennedy Center also benefits from having a massive fundraising operation to offset the costs of consulting and Kaiser’s travel.

“It’s a savvy investor that understand the utility of what we do,” Egan said. “I call us the plumbing behind the beautiful house. It’s hard for some people to get excited about what we do until you see summer fellows go on to create programs in Cairo or Alexandra [sic] in the midst of a revolution. Then you feel you’ve made a contribution that really matters.”

Bloomberg Philanthropies is among the foundations that have invested in DeVos to bring arts management courses to 245 arts organizations in New York City. For some of its grant programs, it has required organizations and boards to attend seminars on executive management or audience development with Kaiser.

“We sought them out because we care about providing tools for long-term success,” said Anita Contini, program lead for art and culture at Bloomberg Philanthropies. “These organizations have so few resources. . . . They often don’t think about managing operations for the long term.”

One-man cultural diplomacy

Foggy Bottom has long been the international hub of town, with the State Department as one of its most famous tenants. But in recent years, with reduced federal funding for cultural diplomacy programs, the Kennedy Center has taken on a greater international role of its own making — one where Kaiser acts as chief diplomat. It’s a self-assigned role that arose because so few countries have the history of private arts philanthropy that the United States does. And with governments across Europe, including Britain and the Netherlands, slashing funding for major arts institutions, fundraising prowess has become a sought-after American export.

“You’re truly investing in the strength of other cultures and not asking for much in return,” Egan said of the DeVos Institute’s growing international work.

While many countries welcome Kaiser’s help — he routinely meets with prime ministers or heads of states on his tours — not every country has welcomed him with open arms. Of all the places Kaiser has visited, France is among the most skeptical of his fundraising strategy. Kaiser recalls giving a speech at a theater in Paris where he doled out his usual fundraising advice. An official from France’s Ministry of Culture complained that his speech was about how the United States is better than France.

“Of course, that’s not what I was saying,” Kaiser said.

Kaiser’s international schedule won’t be lightening up when the Kennedy Center’s new season begins. In September, he’s launching a program in Croatia to teach strategic planning. In November, he’ll do the same in Vietnam. Kaiser admits that the travel is grueling.

“I spend a lot of time in airports,” he says. “It’s not just a time challenge but an emotional challenge, in a way, to have the emotional energy for all these assignments.”

Kaiser, who has always maintained his steely, workaholic demeanor, is clearly attached to his students, bragging about their work as a proud mentor would. He still advises former fellows via e-mail, such as Patrick-Jude Oteh of Jos, Nigeria, who ran the town's only theater amid violent insurrections. He’s quick with the names of current and past fellows, asking probing questions of them in class and remembering their latest projects when he calls on them.

On a bookshelf behind his desk, he keeps a framed photo of himself in Cairo, standing with 140 arts managers from around the Arab world. Of all the turnaround coverage he’s ever received, his favorite piece chronicles his trip to Ramallah to meet with the director of Al-Kasaba theater.

“Some of these places are challenged locations,” he says. “But in each one, people were piling in to learn about arts management. It’s not us saying, ‘Come see American art.’ This is us saying, ‘We think your art is important.’ In my mind, it’s the best form of cultural diplomacy.”

[In addition to Curtains?, the book featured in the PBS interview at the top of this post, Kaiser is also the author of   Leading Roles: 50 Questions Every Arts Board Should Ask (Brandeis University Press; University Press of New England, 2010).]