Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Think Editor, Not Oatmeal

I was reminded at mass tonight that today is the 50th anniversary of the election of Pope John XXIII, the martini-drinking, cigarette-smoking, jolly Italian pope who called Vatican II and is beloved by pretty much everyone who knew him.

It's also the 50th anniversary of the death of Fr. Wilfrid Parsons, SJ. No, it's not the guy from Cocoon and Quaker Oatmeal -- that's Wilford Brimley. Wilfrid Parsons was editor of America from 1925-1936. Before I went to Australia I did some research on Fr. Parsons. There's a great story about him and his secretary. Apparently, he had a female secretary. I know, it's shocking. What is a priest doing working closely with ... a woman?

So, of course, the Jesuit Curia in Rome ordered he had to fire her. This, although Parsons said she was both good at her job and really needed the money. (She was newly married.)

Fine, he fires her, and replaces her with a man. Problem solved? You'd think. Except, the replacement was a non-Catholic. The provincial was not pleased. He prohibited Parsons from entering into a permanent contract with the man. His fears, apparently, were that a non-Catholic should not be seeing confidential material from America. Parsons tried to explain that the secretary only handles magazine correspondence, and has no contact with Vatican missile codes, the secret phone number for Fr. General or other "top secret" information. Still, the Provincial would not relent: "Even as a magazine-secretary I do not at all like the idea of having a non-Catholic since much magazine correspondence (that never gets into ‘copy’) may be of a nature that we do not wish non-Catholics to see.”

Talk about different times....

The other interesting piece of trivia about Parsons' run is that he began what is still the standard acceptance procedure of America: a submitted article is given to at least two editors, who give their opinion, and then it is passed to the editor-in-chief. If either editor says yes, the editor-in-chief is free to take it or refuse it. If both say no, he must pass.

Actually, in looking for a photo of Parsons online, I found one more little tidbit. In Nov, 1935, he wrote this letter to Time, criticizing its reporting:

I think you ought to know that you got off on the wrong foot on your Cleveland Eucharistic Congress story (TIME, Sept. 30). Whatever your good intentions were, from this editorial desk I have heard complaints about it from all over the U. S., and they seem to be growing in volume. Many readers of your paper, spontaneously and without any collusion, saw in the story many a sly dig against the Church and its personalities. You see, once it gets into people's minds that you have no respect for anything, they see in all of your airy remarks something sinister or at least unfriendly. Watch your adjectives!


Editor America New York City

Time responded:
Never were TIME'S intentions more sincere than in its effort to report thoroughly, seriously and fairly the preparations for Cleveland's Eucharistic Congress. Thoroughly astonished and disturbed was TIME, therefore, when it learned that its report had displeased many Catholic readers. If offense was given, TIME is more than sorry.—ED.

Do I sense some sarcasm in those abundant, earnest adjectives?

In May, 1935, Time reported another battle with Parsons:
Many a U. S. radio listener, one night last March, heard the first program in a 13-week series sponsored by the Mexican Government Tourist Bureau to advertise Mexico as a vacation spot. Lasting 15 minutes, the program went out over 15 stations of National Broadcasting Co.'s "Blue" network, covering the States East of the Mississippi, North of North Carolina. Angel Mercado's band tinkled Mexican popular tunes. In English, an announcer blurbed Mexico. In Spanish, a singer recited a poem to a musical accompaniment.

Not until last week did non-Spanish-speaking listeners learn that, translated, the poem went as follows:

Oh—the night I spent there
At the side of a girl
Of graceful and regal bearing,
Firm and wide proportions.
Later she sang to me,
Interspersing her song with kisses,
Some war song,
To the accompaniment of my guitar.
And then my heart
With enthusiasm filled
As if at the call of arms
In conflict had engaged.
But my greatest pleasure
Was when she disrobed of her flowing gown.
Like a flexible branch
She disclosed her beauty
An early rose
Which had broken loose from its bud
Boasting of all its beauty.

Knowledge of what the verses were all about might never have been spread but for the alertness of a Manhattan Jesuit, Rev. Wilfrid Parsons, editor-in-chief of America. From acquaintances who heard the broadcast he learned that the verses were only part of a long poem called En Elogio de Silves (A Eulogy of Silves), written by one Al-Motamid, an 11th Century Arab roue who lived in Seville. For Spaniards the piece parallels "Frankie & Johnnie." Further, Father Parsons learned that after the poem's recital the narrator sniggered coarsely, exclaimed: "But why go on? You know what happened!"

At once Father Parsons protested to NBC, which offered a number of explanations to the effect that someone should have been more vigilant. Father Parsons protested to the Federal Communications Commission, which started the motions of a routine investigation. Sixteen Catholic & non-Catholic Congressmen excitedly demanded that the Commission summarily revoke the licenses of all stations that broadcast the Mexican program.

Parsons was apparently very involved with the creation of the Legion of Decency and the Production Code for Hollywood films, which dictated the moral standards for Hollywood films for 20 years. Fellow editor Joseph Breen left America to work as head censor in Hollywood. For some time he was the most powerful man in Hollywood.

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