Our Peerless Pundit
Bernie Yudain has been reporting the Greenwich scene with wit, wisdom and a "delicious crabbiness" for seventy-plus years
In winter Bernie Yudain came down with a bad case of laryngitis. He imagined his affliction to be a godsend to his many friends, who, he says, believe “I talk too much and too often and too long.” Curiously, his loss of speech coincided with an attempt by this magazine to pin him down for an interview. A touching if baffling modesty had caused him to decline for many years, but in a moment of weakness, he relented. Now he appeared to be regretting his decision psychosomatically.
When Bernie’s voice returned, with a bit of residual gravel in it, he was confronted with “the busiest week I’ve had in a long time.” The assigned reporter said morosely that he’d been given an unusually punishing deadline. Could Bernie please leave the eye doctor hanging? Or the luncheon club? It was then that the newsman in him took pity — though not before remarking, “Geez. Why’d they give you so little time? They must be afraid I’m gonna kick the bucket.”
The bucket does not appear to be nigh. There was a little scare in 2003, but Bernie rose from his bed crankily wittier than ever, with a svelter body to boot. He’ll be ninety in July and still turns out an indispensable twice-weekly column for Greenwich Time. Every Wednesday and Sunday, Bernie writes on whatever subject he pleases: his pastoral New Canaan boyhood (a crowd favorite); his high-toned days at Time Inc.; forgotten characters from Greenwich’s past; “scrapers” and “bad manors” as Bernie calls tear-downs and their replacements; Greenwich versus “outside media snipers”; Democrats versus Republicans (with an edge, though never a free pass, to the GOP); the bankification of Greenwich Avenue; his beloved spy books; the coarsening tenor of modern life.
The Yudain prose style is learned and spry, with merrily cascading sentences. Here’s Bernie on vexing trends in graphic design: “I confess I write this with aging eyes, but there are millions in the same boat whose only culpability is a whimsical phenomenon called longevity, thanks to advanced medical science and a benevolent Providence.” And on the demise of the American chestnut tree: “What that proud tree had once been we could gauge by remaining skeletons of dead trees, towering silver monuments that explained to us why this particular specimen had once rivaled the American oak as a mighty symbol of arboreal grandeur.”
Sometimes a delicious crabbiness sneaks in: “Congress is now nothing but a blood-sport arena without a trace of comity or common sense, a turbulent snake pit of small-minded poseurs in a venue where once some giant statesmen strode.” “The autumn leaves haven’t turned to gold, as the lovely ballad has it, but to towering mounds of brownish mush ... .” Usually the crabbiness sidewinds toward a sly, dry humor: “Only a few days to Christmas, and given the harsh spate of bitter, icy winter weather, we could stand a few days of global warming, if Al Gore can spare them.”
Bernie possesses a fine eye for the animating detail: “Topping had a lady friend, known as ‘the Countess,’ who followed him here from France and was conspicuous around the town because of the pet monkey that always rode around on her shoulder.” Then there’s his lusty delight in words, words, words. One encounters “chilblains,” “purlieus,” “pantywaists” and “myrmidons” all in a single column — about football.
But most invaluable is Bernie’s deep-tissue knowledge of Greenwich. No other writer will ever approach it. In what reads like a flagrant typo, Bernie began reporting here seventy-one years ago, smack in the middle of the Great Depression. How many journalists can claim to have worked the same beat before Pearl Harbor and after 9/11? Bernie is surely the only one who remembers when Byram threatened to change its name to West Belle Haven; who interviewed Herbert Hoover; who covered the great rat infestation of 1939 and the rape case of 1940 that brought a young lawyer named Thurgood Marshall to town; and who can recall the unique tenor of Greenwich’s prewar hysteria, circa 1941: “Early on, we learned police had received a frantic telephone call from a backcountry matron who said there was a Japanese soldier in her garden. A flying squad of cops sped off to the site, armed and ready for action. Turned out the invader was a uniformed Filipino chauffeur who had been assigned to go look for his employer’s missing Pekinese.”
Buttonholed, finally, for his interview, Bernie strides with youthful (or at least middle-aged) vigor up the rain-spattered steps of the Indian Harbor Yacht Club. His rangy physique is dressed in worn chinos and a thick bright sweater — not the trademark bow tie and tweed jacket — but on his ancestrally Russian cheeks plays the usual sheen of barely suppressed amusement. He settles himself in the Grill Room, which normally affords a sweeping view of Greenwich Harbor but today is socked in by fog — and so there’s nothing to do but drift shiplike into the past.
Bernard L. Yudain was born in Stamford on July 18, 1918 (“not generally considered a major holiday”) to Bertha Jaffe Yudain, once the prettiest girl in Dvinsk, Russia, and Morris I. Yudain, once an officer in Czar Nicholas II’s Imperial Guard who saw Rasputin in the flesh and called on Tolstoy at Yasna Polyana. The newlyweds emigrated to Stamford in 1907 and settled in New Canaan in 1920. Morris owned a haberdashery and later a real estate brokerage, though it was said he was an artist and intellect in his soul: He studied painting and sculpture in Riga, spoke ten languages fluently and played the violin. Of eight Yudain siblings, all but one went into journalism, gaining the house at 57 Hoyt Street an apt nickname: “the Fourth Estate.”
Bernie’s romance with newspapers began with eldest brother Ted, who would regale his younger siblings with action-packed stories from the field. “When the police caught bootleggers on the Post Road, he’d be standing right there when they’d be taking the stuff off the truck. Of course, that was a different era. For every two jugs they took away to be destroyed, one went into the locker room. Reporters didn’t report stuff like that. They probably got a jug to take home themselves.”
Bernie arrived in Greenwich in 1937, a skinny young man in a gray snap-brim fedora. Ted was managing editor of the local daily, then called the Greenwich News & Graphic, but radical changes were imminent. One day in the fall, a pudgy, pipe-puffing New York journalist of fading renown appeared in the newsroom. His name was Wythe Williams. Under sketchy circumstances, News & Graphic owner Albert Johnston had hired Williams as editor, and thus began the weirdest interlude in the annals of Greenwich journalism. (It was then that the paper acquired its lamely punning name Greenwich Time, “The Meridian for Daily News.” Ted left. Bernie stayed on.)
Williams wrote a daily front-page column titled “As the Clock Strikes,” which foretold, with eerie precision, the actions of that ascendant thug Adolf Hitler. Once word of the column spread, the national press corps was obliged to comb our small-town daily for world-shattering gossip. Time magazine crowned Williams “the suburban seer” well before he predicted, almost to the day, the outbreak of the Second World War. Bernie’s recollections of the Williams period are replete with shadowy characters in trench coats and trilbies hanging about the newsroom, murmuring cryptically into telephones. “Occasionally, we’d get reaction out of Germany, a shortwave radio, Goebbels screaming and hollering, calling Williams all kinds of dirty names and Greenwich Time terrible names,” Bernie told Arthur Holch in Journalism in Greenwich, a Friends of the Greenwich Library oral history. “It was very exciting. Nobody outside Byram had ever heard of us, and suddenly we were being denounced in Germany.”
Years later, Bernie solved the mystery of Wythe Williams. “It turns out he was a British intelligence plant — planted by somebody in the Greenwich establishment.”
Bernie spent his war years in Italy, first with a bomber group, then as a Rome correspondent for the venerable Stars and Stripes newspaper. Afterward, he assumed the managing editorship of Greenwich Time. One day in the winter of 1946, just before his 12:15 p.m. deadline, Bernie landed perhaps the biggest scoop in town history. “Jesus, I’ve got a beauty,” he called out to Ted Yudain, who had returned as editor. “We’ve got to bust open the paper.” Bernie had received a tip from a well-placed source — a New York banker whose identity he kept secret for many years — that the United Nations Organization planned to usurp, by eminent domain, the Greenwich backcountry for its world headquarters. “UNOville” would also bulge into neighboring Bedford and Stamford. An airport would wipe out Tamarack Country Club. Gone, too, would be the Round Hill Club, the Stanwich Club, the Greenwich Polo Club; gone the hamlet of Banksville; gone the Luce, Reed, Topping, Rosenstiel, Rockefeller, Tunney, Altschul and Benny Goodman estates.
“If that had gone through,” Bernie says, “there wouldn’t be any Greenwich.”
The tipster? Prescott Bush, moderator of the RTM, future senator and father and grandfather of U.S. presidents.
Bernie was a star but a local one. Then, without his knowledge, a contingent of nationally known power brokers who lived in town designed a wider future for the gifted writer-editor. It started with Clare Booth Luce, whom President Eisenhower named ambassador to Italy in 1953. She was already a famous playwright, journalist and two-term congresswoman from Connecticut. (It had been Bernie who broke the story, back in 1942, that she would enter politics.) Clare asked Bernie to accompany her to Italy as an aide, and he happily accepted; but “my papers kept getting shuffled back” — an apparent foiling by a civil service bureaucracy loathe to accept interlopers.
Henry R. Luce, Clare’s husband and founder of the Time-Life publishing empire, pulled Bernie aside at a party and said, “Why do you want to go over to Italy with Clare? Why don’t you think about coming to work for Time?”
“Because nobody’s asked me.”
Here the plot strands get a bit tangled. Bernie interviewed with Otto “the Iron Duke” Fuerbringer, then Time’s assistant managing editor, but nothing happened. Bernie was dimly aware of continued maneuverings by Luce, but these seemed to be truncated by a call from Prescott Bush. Now a U.S. senator, Bush coaxed Bernie to Washington. “I think you ought to drop this Italy thing,” Bush said, as though it hadn’t been dropped for him. “You ought to come to Washington and get a job in the administration. I’m going to set up some meetings for you, a tour of the White House.”
Bernie selected a post with the Foreign Operations Administration under Harold Stassen, writing speeches, pamphlets and press releases, and so began his government/corporate middle period. This was 1954. The same year, Bernie married Jean Sinsheimer, a petite dark-haired beauty who worked as society editor of Greenwich Time and was descended from California ranching pioneers. Son David arrived in 1955. He grew up to be chairman of the Greenwich Young Republicans and later a Hollywood film producer; at pre-sent he consults for the Coventry Cathedral International Centre for Reconciliation, representing the Anglican Communion in the Middle East.
After Bernie completed two brisk years of government service, Time popped back into the picture. “Now you’ve got to come work for us,” said founder Harry Luce and publisher James Linen. All these years later, Bernie says with an abashed chuckle, “The whole thing was choreographed! And I had no idea. ‘Go get a little Washington experience, and we’ll bring you in.’ ”
A Luce biographer confirmed the puppeteering when he came across a cable from Pres Bush to Clare Luce. “It said, basically, the plot was moving forward. In retrospect it’s all very amusing, and I guess flattering — but it isn’t flattering that I never saw the grand design.”
Bernie’s career at Time spanned sixteen years and four very different assignments. After two years as Jim Linen’s right-hand man in New York, Bernie went to Washington to serve as Time’s catchall ambassador and handler of special projects. Despite the ambiguous job description, or perhaps because of it, Bernie remembers these years with particular fondness — even JFK’s complaint about the Time editors “who lived in Greenwich and ate at 21.” Bernie himself did a bit of everything. One day he would arrange a concert at the White House, the lovely Lady Bird Johnson at his side. On another he would pound out a column for brother Sid’s must-read Congressional newspaper Roll Call.
The Yudains lived in the leafy Cleveland Park section of town, surrounded by heavy-weight journalists and politicos. They shared a driveway with NBC’s Sandy Vanocur. Behind them lived Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach and his barnyard: blaring rooster, fractious goat, woolly mammoth of a dog. Then the Katzenbach house went mysteriously quiet. “The rumor spread, not only on the street but beyond, that the goat ate the rooster and the dog ate the goat, and that was the end of it,” Bernie reported in one column. While walking to work, he might spot “debonair Dean Acheson walking down the street with diminutive Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, always deep in conversation.”
As if on cue, David Yudain appeared at the lunch table to contribute a Washington memory of his own, no doubt clouded by his age at the time. In 1966 President Johnson appointed Bernie to the National Defense Executive Reserve, which meant that, in the event of a Cold War calamity, he would have been safely removed to a hollowed-out mountain as part of a government brain trust. As for David and Jean ... ?
Anyway, Bernie was summoned back to New York in 1967 to head Time Inc.’s public affairs division. He went reluctantly. The empire was in decline. The legends were fading away. But Bernie did renew his Greenwich credentials, both as a resident and as a contributor of judicious editorials to Greenwich Time. Soon he removed himself to Time Inc.’s periphery, running a cozy little property called the New York Graphic Society, a publisher of art books and posters then based in Greenwich. Those unfamiliar with the Yudain art gene thought the move left fieldish. But deep inside Bernie’s lavishly appointed brain, beneath the political wiring and layers of arcana, reposes a miniature Rodin — not an imaginary one. Bernie would sit at his kitchen table molding wax opera figurines, then have them cast in silver. They are ornate and witty, and no less a jeweler than Cartier snapped them up to market from its Fifth Avenue showroom.
The Yudain biography gets lumpier still. In 1972 Bernie reentered the public sphere as Senator Lowell Weicker’s communications director. Bernie must have done something right. The following year, Weicker won rock-star fame for his blunt interrogation of Nixon’s flunkies. Meanwhile in Greenwich, Bernie honed his reputation for public affairs wizardry in the service of banks, corporations, Greenwich Hospital and assorted public enterprises, such as the town’s bicentennial and 350th anniversary celebrations.
The civic achievement for which Bernie is best known remains the founding (in 1957 with late brother Ted) of the Harpoon Club. In a town known for its empty suits and stuffed shirts, the Yudains thought it wise to “deflate some of the ego around here.” Each spring the Harpooners select a community pillar for public ridicule; governors, congressmen, selectmen, attorneys general, publishers, entertainers and moguls have submitted themselves to an eager panel of roasters, led by emcee Bernie. (In 1996 a still-unsullied Governor Rowland was the Fall Guy. One wonders if he left Greenwich Country Club that night hounded by a supposedly innocent BY quip: “John has the distinction of being the only existing unindicted felon from Waterbury.”) Bernie is especially proud of the Harpoon Club’s democratic, if entirely male, social mix. As he once noted: “All wear special green aprons to signify a common bond among the rich and famous and the low-net worthless, such as the writer.”
Here at Indian Harbor, it’s late afternoon and the Grill Room has emptied out. Only Bernie and his guest are left. He’s thinking about cycles, about the sealike motion of history that renews as it destroys. “Greenwich is changing and churning all the time,” he says. “I just love to watch this wonderful churning that goes on.” He does not buy into the myth of decline. Not quite. He does pronounce today’s upscale Greenwich Avenue “a plain disaster,” partly because his memory entertains so many friendly ghosts: Finch’s (now Starbucks), once the unofficial seat of local power; Conlons, across the street from the paper, where a sign read “Don’t laugh at our coffee. You’ll be old and weak yourself someday”; the Nigros’ Greenwich Restaurant; Bob Force’s Town House; Ray Dunn’s Greenwich Drug Store; the templelike Greenwich Library, where Saks now stands; the Pickwick Arms Hotel; and all the characters who populated these places.
But Bernie will indulge fond retrospection only so far. “Somebody said, ‘Nostalgia is the result of a bad memory.’ ” (One might disremember, for example, the old social barriers — racial, ethnic and religious — that once seemed so stalwart here. Considering this past, Bernie is especially taken with today’s spirit of ecumenicalism, the bonhomie among faiths and denominations.) All in all, he believes, the town has managed to preserve its essence pretty well. Well, the traffic is worse, and so are the drivers. And all those chain stores and sterile banks don’t radiate much local color. The money is ridiculous (“Kindergarten moppets all have agents to arrange play dates”), though good material for the column. But change is gentle here; Greenwich is still Greenwich.
Some would argue that the most constant thing about us is Bernie himself. (“Bernie knew Israel Putnam when he was learning how to ride,” his friend the screenwriter Jon Connelly remarks.) He is too humble to claim a role of importance for himself. “As long-suffering readers know,” he might begin a column, as though he believed his audience would welcome a laryngitis of the pen — then on he’d go, weaving together past and present, fact and opinion, research and anecdote in a kind of living Greenwich tapestry.
Only once did Bernie reflect seriously, in print, on his public role. The impetus was a friend’s question: Why did he keep writing his column when he might ease off into the sunset? Taken by surprise, Bernie answered lightly, “Because the guys at Greenwich Time let me.” But he kept turning the question over in his mind. Hadn’t he overstayed his season? Wasn’t it time for “new blood, fresh ideas” to take over his space? Time to say a graceful goodbye?
After strenuous reflection, he arrived at his answer: Nah. Not today.