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India’s Journalistic Source of Narrative Nonfiction 

Muzamil Mattoo/NurPhoto via Getty Images

First published in 1940, Caravan ceased operations in 1988 and was relaunched in 2010 by a new set of ambitious staffers as India’s only magazine dedicated to narrative journalism. For Virginia Quarterly Review, writer Maddy Crowell profiles the monthly magazine and its driven executive editor, Vinod Jose, who she describes as ”one of India’s more subversive journalists,” ”practically inseparable” from his journalism. She knows. She interned at Caravan six years ago. She explores the magazine’s unique identity, its history, and its inspiration.

For India’s young intellectuals, the magazine quickly became an essential venue, cutting an anomalous figure in a media environment rife with sensationalism and government flattery. “Caravan is this lonely but incredibly brave beacon in this unending toxic sewage, fake news, social media violence,” said Deb. “It has been going it alone as far as Delhi is concerned.” It was neither entirely a literary magazine nor a newsweekly nor just a book review, but a combination of all three in the form of a periodical that, as Mishra put it to me, “analyze[d] the news with adversarial politics.”

She also examines its future. Revisiting it in 2020, she finds a magazine facing dangerous challenges to its existence and freedom. Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the powerful Hindu-nationalist organization, is building its New Dehli headquarters outside the magazine’s headquarters. Caravan and RSS have a tense adversarial relationship, partly due to the magazine’s frequent investigations into the organization, partly due to the magazine’s defense of Indian democracy. Threats of violence are taken seriously. ”Living under a constant, simmering threat is, for Jose, evidence that he’s doing something right as a journalist,” Crowell writes. The situation is worsening.

As tense as the atmosphere was for India’s free press following Modi’s first election, things have only worsened since. A number of editors claim to have been bullied by Modi loyalists seeking to remove online coverage that was critical of the BJP; newspapers that have published negative stories have been penalized financially, often through the loss of government-funded advertisements. At the same time, journalists at mainstream outlets have become ever more explicit, if not boastful, about their political connections. When Arun Jaitley, the BJP’s finance minister, died in August 2019, a reporter from one of India’s largest television channels, Times Now, tweeted: “I’ve lost my Guiding Light my mentor. Who will I call every morning now?”

Most sinister of all, the censorship of Modi’s critics has escalated into violence. Since he first came into office, twelve journalists have been killed because of their work, and at least nine have been imprisoned. In 2017, the prominent journalist and editor Gauri Lankesh was gunned down in the early evening in front of her estate in Bangalore. Lankesh, an outspoken feminist and human-rights activist famous for her left-wing tabloidesque attacks on Hindu-nationalist figures, was a close friend of Jose’s—the two had worked together covering contentious riots in Goa in 2005. Her death confirmed the seriousness of what Indian journalists were up against under the new regime. Not long after, a right-wing nationalist followed by Modi on Twitter posted: “One bitch dies a dog’s death all the puppies cry in the same tune.”

After Lankesh’s murder, Jose began implementing protocols for Caravan’s staff to follow: All communications are now handled on encrypted channels, such as ProtonMail or Signal (WhatsApp, he believes, is compromised in India), and reporters working on sensitive stories are instructed to be especially vigilant in protecting their sources. And yet, like almost everyone else I spoke with at Caravan, Jose wasn’t all that interested in talking about the government’s intimidation. “You can’t slow down your work just because something has happened. There are certain requirements of the job.” Rather, he was eager to know whether I’d been following their coverage of the mysterious death of Indian special-court judge Brijgopal Harkishan Loya (twenty-eight stories and counting), or whether I’d read their cover story about how the RSS had been systematically infiltrating India’s intellectual spaces.

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The Criminalization of the American Midwife

Illustration by Ellice Weaver

Jennifer Block  |  March 2020  |  32 minutes (8,025 words)

Elizabeth Catlin had just stepped out of the shower when she heard banging on the door. It was around 10 a.m. on a chilly November Wednesday in Penn Yan, New York, about an hour southeast of Rochester. She asked her youngest child, Keziah, age 9, to answer while she threw on jeans and a sweatshirt. “There’s a man at the door,” Keziah told her mom.

“He said, ‘I’d like to question you,” Caitlin tells me. A woman also stood near the steps leading up to her front door; neither were in uniform. “I said, ‘About what?’” The man flashed a badge, but she wasn’t sure who he was. “He said, ‘About you pretending to be a midwife.’”

Catlin, a home-birth midwife, was open about her increasingly busy practice. She’d send birth announcements for her Mennonite clientele to the local paper. When she was pulled over for speeding, she’d tell the cop she was on her way to a birth. “I’ve babysat half of the state troopers,” she says.

It was 30 degrees. Catlin, 53, was barefoot. Her hair was wet. “Can I get my coat?” she asked. No. Boots? She wasn’t allowed to go back inside. Her older daughter shoved an old pair of boots, two sizes too big, through the doorway; Catlin stepped into them and followed the officer and woman to the car. At the state trooper barracks, she sat on a bench with one arm chained to the wall. There were fingerprints, mug shots, a state-issue uniform, lock-up. At 7:30 p.m. she was finally arraigned in a hearing room next to the jail, her wrists and ankles in chains, on the charge of practicing midwifery without a license. Local news quoted a joint investigation by state police and the Office of Professional Discipline that Catlin had been “posing as a midwife” and “exploiting pregnant women within the Mennonite community, in and around the Penn Yan area.”

Catlin’s apparent connection with a local OB-GYN practice, through which she had opened a lab account, would prompt a second arrest in December, the Friday before Christmas, and more felony charges: identity theft, falsifying business records, and second-degree criminal possession of a forged instrument. That time, she spent the night in jail watching the Hallmark Channel. When she walked into the hearing room at 8:00 a.m., again in chains, she was met by dozens of women in grey-and-blue dresses and white bonnets. The judge set bail at $15,000 (the state had asked for $30,000). Her supporters had it: Word of her arrest had quickly passed through the tech-free community, and in 12 hours they had collected nearly $8,000 for bail; Catlin’s mother made up the difference. She was free to go, but not free to be a midwife.

Several years back, a respected senior midwife faced felony charges in Indiana, and the county prosecutor allowed that although a baby she’d recently delivered had not survived, she had done nothing medically wrong — but she needed state approval for her work. The case, the New York Times wrote, “was not unlike one against a trucker caught driving without a license.” As prosecutor R. Kent Apsley told the paper, “He may be doing an awfully fine job of driving his truck. But the state requires him to go through training, have his license and be subject to review.”

But what if the state won’t recognize the training or grant a license? 

Catlin is a skilled, respected, credentialed midwife. She serves a rural, underserved, uninsured population. She’s everything the state would want in a care provider. But owing to a decades-old political fight over who can be licensed as a midwife, she’s breaking the law.  Read more…

Unearthing the Story: An Interview with Peter Hessler

Penguin Press

In the fall of 2011, Peter Hessler arrived in Egypt, with his family — twin toddlers, and his wife, the writer Leslie Chang. The two had met in China, where Hessler first landed as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1996. His first book, River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, details his two years teaching English. Two other books, Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China and Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory, followed. After leaving China in 2007, the family settled in southwestern Colorado, where they are now based. A few years later, they decided to wipe the slate clean and move to Egypt. But just as they planning their move, the Egyptian Arab Spring started, sending the country down the chaotic path it has followed until today.

Hessler’s latest book, The Buried: An Archaeology of the Egyptian Revolution, chronicles both the revolution itself, and the lives of the people they met during their five years in Cairo. It’s a deep look at what is, in some ways, the oldest country in the world, and it bears the hallmarks of Hessler’s work: vivid scenes, elegant narrative arcs, and a long lens that examines the links and gaps between Egypt’s troubled present and its ancient past.

Today, Hessler is a staff writer at The New Yorker. He won a National Magazine Award for his 2007 National Geographic story, “Instant Cities,” and in 2006, Oracle Bones was a National Book Award finalist. In 2011 he was named a MacArthur Fellow. After leaving Egypt, his family returned to Colorado again, before decamping this year for another stint in China, where Hessler plans to teach at Sichuan University, 20 years after he first taught at Fuling Teachers College. Frank Bures spoke to him about the value of language, learning from John McPhee, and what your garbage man can teach you.

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Frank Bures: You built your career writing about China, but how did you start writing in the first place?

Peter Hessler: My first interest was in 10th grade. I had an English teacher in high school who thought that I had some talent at it, and encouraged me. She was the one who made me think seriously about becoming a writer. That was one of the reasons I ended up at Princeton, because they had a good creative writing program. I was encouraged there by Russell Banks, who was my teacher and a thesis advisor, and also John McPhee.

I originally was interested in fiction. I didn’t do journalism in high school, didn’t work for a paper or anything, and at Princeton I never published a word in a college publication. Later, after I took McPhee’s class, I started doing a little freelancing. In grad school overseas I started shifting towards nonfiction, partly because I couldn’t sell short stories. It was hard to publish them, whereas I could publish my travel pieces and essays and get paid for them, and that was encouraging. But I was still unsure when I joined the Peace Corps at age 27. I’d published a lot of travel pieces, but I’d never held a job in journalism, and the kind of stuff I published wasn’t enough for me to support myself.

I didn’t do journalism in high school, didn’t work for a paper or anything, and at Princeton I never published a word in a college publication.

FB: What kind of travel pieces had you done?

PH: The New York Times used to have these essays. The first one I wrote for them was about taking the Trans-Siberian train. Because after I finished grad school at Oxford I traveled for six months, and I consciously researched stories along the way, thinking that when I got home I would write pieces, and possibly write a travel book. I wrote the train essay, and just sent it to a name on the masthead at the Times, and by some miracle they read it and published it. After that I started doing some stuff for them as a freelancer.

FB: When did you start thinking about books?

PH: When I joined the Peace Corps, I wanted to learn Chinese and become a better writer. But I didn’t think I was going to write a book about that experience. I felt I was too young, and I really was. I didn’t have the maturity to write a book, nor did I really have the material at that point. But I did take a lot of notes. It was my way of processing what was going on. I would write about experiences I had, or encounters with people, things on campus, but just in a diary format. And I tracked a lot of my students’ writing because they were such beautiful writers, and I thought they were fascinating people.

Then with six months to go, we got Internet for the first time, and I got back in touch with people. If it had been any earlier, it probably would’ve been a distraction, but at that point it was good to start thinking about the future.

He said, ‘It’s there. It’s in you. You just need to do it.’

I had written to John McPhee throughout my time there, and he had written back often. But now we were on email, and I remember writing to him because I was thinking about applying for journalism jobs, and applying for an internship at Newsweek in Beijing. John wrote me a long letter, telling me: “You should write a book about Fuling.” Because he’d read these letters. He said, “It’s there. It’s in you. You just need to do it.”

That was a powerful moment, because I hadn’t thought about it. Once I got that email and started thinking, it immediately made sense. When I went back through all my notes in my diaries, I realized, “I’ve really got a lot of stuff here.” But I could also see what I needed: more detailed descriptions of the landscape, and some deeper observation of the community and of the city.

FB: Did you write the book then?

PH: No, I didn’t write the book until I left. I went back to my parents’ home in Missouri, and I decided I would take about half a year. I was 29 years old and I had never held a job. I had college debt, so I felt a lot of pressure. I was applying for journalism jobs at the same time, sending out resumes to The New York Times, Washington Post, and Time, pretty much anybody who had a China bureau, and I got form rejections across the board.

When I finished the book, I sent a resume to Amazon, because they had sent me a recruiting thing when I was in Fuling. I had no idea what it was. I guess my life could’ve been pretty different. I sent them a resume, but they never wrote back.

I was so depressed by that point. I had completely lost all perspective. I just wanted to get rid of the thing and put it behind me and do something else. After a couple weeks of this sort of thinking, I finally sent the book out to agents, and a couple of agents were interested. I went to New York and met with them, and I ended up signing with a young agent named William Clark. He sold the book to HarperCollins, and it happened very quickly. It wouldn’t be considered a big advance, but it was enough to pay off all my college loans, and suddenly I realized, “I can just go back to China on my own. I don’t need a job. I’ll just go and figure it out.” And that’s where Oracle Bones starts, in that I was just showing up, and I had a part-time assistant position at The Wall Street Journal, for $500 a month, and that gave me a base.

I was so depressed by that point. I had completely lost all perspective. I just wanted to get rid of the thing and put it behind me and do something else.

It took a while for River Town to come out, because I took a long time editing it. But there was a lot of stuff going on that year and people were starting to get interested in China. So I very quickly had a lot of work. After about a year I got a break with National Geographic and The New Yorker. I was on the ground there for just a little more than a year when I sold my first story to The New Yorker in 2000. Then a week later I sold my second story to them, and we were pretty much off and running.

FB: It was a great time to be writing about China.

PH: Yeah, I was very lucky. I was at the right place in the right time. But it did take some faith, because it was very discouraging earlier, when I was rejected for those jobs and living at my parents’ house. I didn’t grow up with any money, so I couldn’t rely on anything else. And the college debt weighed on me.

FB: Was there anything you learned from John McPhee that influenced the way you write, or think about writing?

PH: There were huge numbers of things that I learned from him. There’s technical stuff. Probably one of the best examples is a “set piece.” He’d teach us that in his course, and show us an example from his writing. It’s something, actually, that a lot of journalists don’t learn, because you only do it in long-form writing, but it makes you think differently about the structure and organization, and that was a really useful lesson to have as a young writer. The example he gave came from his Alaska book, where he’s on his trip through the Alaska back country, and they see a bear. The thing shifts to maybe 1,000 or 1,500 words about bears, and it’s no longer in his experience. It talks about the nature of bears, things they do, and their size. There’s all this, of course beautifully written, but it’s a way of getting background information in an interesting way. It also allows you to step away so the voice doesn’t get stale.

McPhee had a lot of technical lessons, but I think the most important thing was the deeper ways of thinking about writing. One of them, for me, was that you can do fascinating creative writing as a nonfiction writer. I had always been so focused on fiction that I was kind of turned off by the newspaper style of writing. My parents didn’t get The New Yorker, so I didn’t realize there were these other ways of writing nonfiction, and that it could be just as dynamic and fascinating as fiction, and just as artistic.

FB: How did you and Leslie choose Egypt?

PH: There are a couple things. We wanted something different from China. We wanted a different kind of challenge, and something that would give us a new perspective. We wanted to study a language that would be fascinating and rich. I like the idea of a place with a long history, and especially with ancient history because I like archeology. But we also needed it to be a place that would interest The New Yorker. I couldn’t go to Portugal, right? I mean, how many stories about Portugal are you going to write for The New Yorker? I had to be able to support my family.

We thought about India, but I didn’t like the way that there wasn’t one language that unified it, and it seemed like maybe it was too close to China in some sense. So we eventually settled on the Middle East. It was going to be Damascus or Cairo, because those are good places to study Arabic. We were leaning toward Damascus for a while, but once the Arab Spring started it was clear that Cairo was the place. But we’d never been there. We showed up in Cairo with these kids, and neither Leslie nor I had ever been to Egypt.


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FB: Having kids myself, I can’t imagine a move like that.

PH: When I look back, it’s totally crazy. Leslie and I, maybe we’re delusional or something, but we’re also pretty calm people. It helps, too, if you’re doing this with somebody else who’s totally on board. It was definitely a hard first year. I mean, I think the whole thing was hard, because it’s hard with little kids to do something like that, and it’s hard to be in the midst of this chaotic political period. It was very intense. But it’s an engaging place. The people are likable, even though Egypt has problems on a level that we had not experienced in China. There’s serious dysfunction in many aspects of Egyptian society. But it was a phenomenal experience, and I was also fortunate in that I did get to know individuals who brought some light to what was going on, and not just in the sense of understanding. They were engaging, positive people that I liked to spend time with. Sayyid, and Manu and Rifaat, our teacher. We loved it.

FB: What’s your feeling about the importance of learning the language of a place where you’re writing about or living?

PH: To me, it was fundamental. I’m not interested in writing in-depth about a place where I’m not at least doing my best to learn the language. In Egypt I didn’t become fluent like I was in Chinese, but I was very conversant, comfortable with somebody like Sayyid. I could spend a lot of time with him and his family and understand what’s going on, and that was really important to me.

FB: With Egyptian Arabic, what did you learn about Egypt that you wouldn’t have learned without that?

PH: There’s the deep religious nature of the language, and the impact of religion on the language itself. It’s fundamental to that language. I think that that’s pretty rare in the world. There aren’t that many cultures where you have the religion so deeply embedded in the language. It’s a huge part of what you’re saying when you’re using these terms all the time.

I had always been so focused on fiction that I was kind of turned off by the newspaper style of writing.

The language also makes you think a lot about the Pharaonic world, and the ways in which it lasted or didn’t last. There are remarkably few Pharaonic words in Egyptian Arabic. It’s quite striking. There are probably more Turkic words than there are Pharaonic words. But it’s also striking that a lot of those Pharaonic words are very foundational, like the vocabulary for agriculture has a lot of Pharaonic stuff in it, and the word for women, the word for water, the word for land, the Nile, the river. These are things that have deep roots, and those survived the adoption of Arabic.

FB: I love how in both The Buried and Oracle Bones, you’re writing about the distant past and the present, and finding connections and divergences. Do you think that was one of the reasons that you were attracted to Egypt?

PH: I definitely liked the idea of this place with an incredibly rich ancient history. I think there are always some people who say, “Well, that’s not really relevant to what’s going on today.” But I don’t believe it disappears. There are too many echoes that you can see. Also, it’s not just whether things stay the same. I’m not saying that everything is static, but more what I’m saying is that the ancient Egyptians were brilliant politicians, and a lot of what they did politically we see echoes of. For example, their use of nostalgia. Even 3,000 or 4,000 years ago, they were already writing nostalgically about the past, and the perfect political world of the past. That’s an effective political strategy. It’s what Trump does now. People do this all over the world.

FB: What’s your sense of the difference between how people in China and Egypt relate to that distant past?

PH: It was a huge difference. The Chinese are much more comfortable with it, and there are a couple reasons for this. The main one, of course, is they see their history as an unbroken line. It’s a very powerful thing to have that link. Egypt does not have that. The other huge difference is that the last Egyptian to declare himself Pharaoh was somewhere in the second century BC, and from that point until 1952. there was not a single Egyptian leader.

FB: What was the biggest challenge as a writer in Egypt?

PH: It was getting enough language, and being able to do that while the revolution was going on and while I had small children. I couldn’t study all the time the way I had in Fuling. In Egypt I was having to go report on stuff, and I had kids to take care of.

FB: In Oracle Bones you say that in writing narrative nonfiction stories, you’re collecting fragments and organizing them into stories. Some of your stories have arcs that span years. How do you know when a fragment, or something that you’ve collected, is part of that story?

PH: It’s an instinct you develop over time. It took me a while to get there, but by the time I left China I had a pretty good sense of this. When I was in Colorado, for example, and I was reporting on the uranium industry in my corner of the state, and I ran into a town where everybody was telling me to talk to the pharmacist, because he knew everything. That confused me, because why would a pharmacist be somebody who knows a lot? Then I talked to him and realized, well, there’s no medic, there’s no hospital anywhere near here, so he’s basically like a doctor.

I feel like when you start with an issue or a theme, maybe you’re dehumanizing people from the start.

He also mentioned the story of some loner in town who died and left him half a million dollars, and at that point my instinct kicked in and I thought, “There’s something going on here.” So I left him out of the uranium story, with the idea that I was going to pursue this. I didn’t know where it was going to go, but I thought there was something there. You get those instincts over years of writing stories and books. The same thing in Egypt when the garbageman, Sayyid, kept bringing me stuff from the neighborhood and he knww so much about people.

FB: Do you typically start with an idea?

PH: It’s usually either a person or a place. It’s almost never an idea. I don’t start with themes or issues. Partly that’s my instinct, but partly it’s also deliberate because I feel like when you start with an issue or a theme, maybe you’re dehumanizing people from the start. Maybe you’re fitting them into a larger narrative or idea that isn’t appropriate. So I tend to start either with a place or a person, and then the issues and the themes are secondary. They come in as I get to know the person or the place.

So I get to know Sayyid. Then I start to learn about him. Then that leads me into the informality of Cairo and the self-organization of those communities. Then it also leads me into gender relations, because I start to get to see how him and his wife interact. It leads me to issues of education, because I realize that this incredibly intelligent person is illiterate, and I get to know what his children are doing in school, and educate me in new perspectives. But it all starts with him.

FB: And now you guys are going back to China. Where are you going to be?

PH: We’re going to Chengdu. I’m going to teach for a year at Sichuan University. It’s been 20 years since I taught in Fuling.

FB: Is Chengdu near Fuling?

PH: It’s close. I wanted to teach in Fuling, but I wasn’t allowed for political reasons. I could do it in Chengdu. I’ll also be tracking down my former students and seeing what they’re up to, and revisiting Fuling.

FB: Are you going to write a sequel to River Town?

PH: I suspect some kind of follow-up book. But, I don’t know. I always wait until I’m into it before I really know what form it’s going to take. I do want to build on that experience, and I want to try to write something about how this place has changed and what it feels like on the ground, both for the people involved and for me as an observer. I’m also interested in my former students, who were a remarkable generation, because they were born around the time that Mao died, and they grew up with the changes. I’m curious to know more about their perspective on what they’ve seen and what they’ve lived through, because they’re middle-aged now.

FB: Is your plan to be there for a year?

PH: Right now, I think we’ll be there for five years. I’ll do one year of teaching, and then transition to writing full-time and reporting. Leslie is finishing her Egypt book, and then she’ll transition to writing. We also want our children to learn Chinese.

FB: How did you guys meet?

PH: I was working at The Wall Street Journal as an assistant, and she was a journalist, or a correspondent for them in China. I was the lowest guy on The Journal totem pole, and she had a real job, back in ’99. But we didn’t date then. We were in the same circle of friends, and then in 2003 we started dating.

FB: Can you say what Leslie’s Egypt book is about?

PH: It’s about women factory workers in Egypt. She reported on the factory in Alexandria. She has really good stuff, and she’s partway through it now.

FB: That will sit nicely on the shelf next to Factory Girls.

I’ve never wanted feedback from anybody while I’m writing, because I add in stuff a lot while I’m going, and I want to be the one to shape it.

PH: I think the two books will be interesting. My book and her book also will be interesting because we’re looking at Egypt from slightly different angles. There are some cross-themes, and it was fun to have these projects being researched at the same time. It helps, I think, both of us to have all these conversations while we’re doing research.

FB: Do you guys read each other’s work, like Joan Didion and John Dunne?

PH: Pretty late in the game. We don’t do it as we’re working. I’ve never wanted feedback from anybody while I’m writing, because I add in stuff a lot while I’m going, and I want to be the one to shape it. Actually, for this last book, she didn’t read it until pretty late in the process because I think she was feeling a lot of pressure for her book and trying to get it going, and I didn’t feel like I wanted to throw it on to her. She needed to focus on her thing, but I think that was a little bit of an unusual time, just part of the whole challenge of doing these projects with young children. We’re both very supportive, and it helps a lot in terms of the reporting, because each of us is learning things that help the other person.

FB: With two writers in the family, how do you balance your life and work?

PH: I guess that develops kind of naturally. It’s all we ever knew together, because both of us were writing from the time we met. The hardest thing about having two writers is probably financial, and lack of stability. Neither of us have a steady paycheck, but we had kids so late, and then both of us had the good fortune to start in China, which was a good place to get established. Though we would never write together. We have no interest in that. We are not a team of writers. It’s an individual sport, like running.

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Frank Bures is the author of The Geography of Madness and editor of Under Purple Skies: The Minneapolis Anthology. He writes about travel, culture, language, science, outdoors, narrative, and belief for publications such as Harper’sAeonLapham’s QuarterlyThe Washington Post MagazineOutside, and the Best American Travel Writing

Editor: Aaron Gilbreath

Images Present Themselves: A Conversation With Photographer Burk Uzzle

The famous Woodstock photo by Burk Uzzle.

This month is the 50th anniversary of Woodstock. Originally billed as the “Woodstock Music & Art Fair presents An Aquarian Exposition ­— 3 Days of Peace & Music,” the gathering changed American culture in unanticipated ways. Photographer Burk Uzzle became an unwitting documentarian of the event, and captured an image so representative that it became the cover of the Woodstock soundtrack album. Uzzle’s career spans six decades. He documented the tumultuous 1960s and continues to be a powerful example of how an artist can function as an agent of change. I spoke with him earlier this year in his studio in Wilson, North Carolina.

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Tom Maxwell: Can you describe your experience taking that iconic picture and your experience being a photographer at Woodstock?

Burk Uzzle: I had gotten up early one morning and left the little lean-to that I’d made for my wife and two children, and just went out to walk around. As the light came up, people started to wake up and roll out of whatever they were sleeping in or on or whatever mud puddle they were trying to transcend, and I just walked around.

This couple was standing up, wrapped in a blanket, holding each other and trying to stay warm. I think maybe they were one of the very few couples standing. Most people were still asleep. It was just so beautiful, the way they were holding themselves up and wrapped in a blanket. It all composed very nicely with the hillside in the background and the foreground objects on the left and the side. It lent itself to a very beautiful composition.

‘We’ll just go and make a nice little day trip out of it, going into the music festival.’

As I walked up to them, I did the sort of body compose technique which street photographers do. I would sashay to the left or sashay to the right so that when I got to within the right amount of distance to make a nice composition with them standing there, filling the frame as much as it needed to be filled, they were perfectly placed. Then I quickly raised my my Leica loaded with black and white and took a few frames, and then I took my normal lens off of that camera and took a few more frames on the Leica loaded with color film. I did not have a lot of color film, because I’d gone up there to camp out with my wife and sons, and we got locked in. The rain came and the crowds came. Once we were there, we couldn’t get out.

TM: Were you on assignment?

BU: No, I had turned down all assignments. I don’t like to work on assignments — at least when it’s something that I think is important. It’s fun to do commercial assignments where somebody needs me to go be an eloquent spokesman for an oil company or whatever, but when something is happening like Woodstock or Martin Luther King’s funeral, or the pictures I do these days driving around the United States or in my studio, I don’t want any direction from any kind of editor whatsoever.

TM: You just sensed that Woodstock was a big deal.

BU: Right. I had heard about it and about the bands that were going to be there. It sounded like good music. I was living in New York, so we all decided to get out of the city for a weekend. I think it was the director of Magnum Photos in New York, to which I belonged at the time, she and her husband owned a lot of acreage up in the Catskills near Woodstock. We decided to camp on a trout stream very near to Woodstock. We pitched our tent and were having a great time on the side of the stream for a couple of days.

Then the morning the festival started, we decided, “Well, let’s drive over to Woodstock and go hear a few tunes. Then we’ll come back tonight and get back in our tent. We’ll just go and make a nice little day trip out of it, going into the music festival.” Once in, we couldn’t get out.

TM: You said something very interesting to me, that most of the other guys were taking pictures of the bands, of the musicians.

BU: Well, they were all working on assignment. Their editors had told them to be sure to get pictures of this musician or that musician. Like I say, I don’t like to work on assignment, so I had been offered assignments but declined. I was free to respond to what actually happened.

TM: Not to get too inside baseball, but as a freelancer you also own the negatives of whatever it is that you shoot.

BU: That’s correct. I do that anyway. I would never give up copyright to anything. Even all the years I was at Life magazine, the reason I did not accept a staff position at Life magazine when offered a job was because I wanted to own the copyrights. I said, “I’d like to work for you, but I’d rather just have a contract, be a freelancer, and I’ll own the copyright to all my negatives.” That was one of the very few smart business decisions I ever made in my life.

TM: How old were you when you entered into that agreement with Life?

BU: Life hired me when I was 23. I was the youngest photographer they had ever hired. That was a good way to start learning how to be a good professional or educated. They sent me all over the world. I had never wanted to go to college. I, to this day, break into a cold sweat if I go into a classroom of any sort. I have spent time in prisons and I have spent time in colleges, and I don’t like either one of them. They both make me feel the same way.

I have spent time in prisons and I have spent time in colleges, and I don’t like either one of them.

TM: To pull back a little bit, the year before you attended Woodstock, you were taking pictures of Martin Luther King in his coffin. What a roller coaster that must have been.

BU: It was a roller coaster. Martin Luther King had become a hero of mine because he was my very first magazine assignment when I was about, oh, I don’t know, 19 years old.

I had quit my job. The only salaried job I ever had in my life was in Raleigh, North Carolina, as a staff photographer for the News & Observer, where I was paid, I think, $48 or $50 a week. My wife was seven months’ pregnant, so I had to find something to do. I was hired on as an assistant to a very good magazine photographer in Atlanta. He was out of town one week, and Jet magazine called up and said, “We need your boss to go and photograph Martin Luther King tonight.” I said, “Well, he’s out of town.” They said, “Well, can you take pictures?” I said, “Yeah, I’m his assistant. I was a newspaper photographer until I moved here.” They said, “Well, would you run over and photograph Martin Luther King sitting on his couch in his home? He’s a young unknown. Nobody has heard much about him, but he seems like a promising young preacher and he has a father who is a great preacher.”

I took the assignment, visited his church in Atlanta, and went to his home and did the picture. Jet magazine published it, and they continued to hire me to do more assignments. I continued to follow him. That was the beginning of the decade of social protests in the United States. It was a very interesting decade. I got beaten up. You get banged around a lot when you’re trying to photograph the kinds of demonstrations that were going on all through the ’60s, but I did. That was my first year of social protest.

TM: Did you feel that being a documentarian was, in fact, a political act?

BU: I felt that, as I do now ever more strongly, artists are probably the only people who can make a real difference with the nature of the political corruption in the country now. It’s up to the artist to do their best to photograph, to document, but do it interpretively so you bring our own sense of truth and dignity to the pictures you’re taking. You do that and you get them published as often as you can and as well as you can. That’s what I endeavor to do.


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TM: Can you give me an example of one of your photographs that embodies what you just described?

BU: Life magazine gave me an assignment to spend time on death row in Chicago’s Cook county jail, because there was a man named Paul Crump, who the warden had described as sort of a hero of the jail. He had been sentenced to death, but he was doing a lot of wonderful things in the jail, attempting to mentor people and making them better people. In fact, there was a fellow in there that was having an epileptic seizure. My friend, Paul Crump, saved his life. He knew exactly what to do for him.

That story was published in Life magazine. It had so much response. People were writing all kinds of letters on Crump’s behalf to the governor, that the governor actually commuted his sentence to life imprisonment instead of death.

TM: As the decade progressed, the 1960s became more violent and divisive. There’s an extraordinary image, one that when I visit you and look at it, it shocks me in its beauty and in the way it describes the scene, which is of King in his coffin and a woman touching his face in a very loving and open and innocent gesture. I wonder if you could describe that moment.

BU: This was in Memphis, and his body was going to be shipped to Atlanta to be buried. We decided that we would hang out there and wait to hear what was going to happen. They announced they were going to open up the funeral home where his body was being kept, for just a short time. They let myself and about three or four other photographers in, and just a very few people, apparently close friends, to view his body in the open casket.

Indeed, one would see the expected kind of thing, where people would see his body and throw their hands up in horror. and cry and carry on and grieve in very visible, loud ways. We all took those pictures. Then, all of a sudden, this one woman came by, and she just reached over and caressed his face in the most loving, beautiful way, and then moved on. That picture was on the same role of film as one of the pictures of one of the very loudly demonstrating women, which became the cover of Newsweek. It was such a beautiful and tender photograph.

It’s up to the artist to do their best to photograph, to document, but do it interpretively so you bring our own sense of truth and dignity to the pictures you’re taking.

A friend of mine, who lived in Chapel Hill, was here in my studio one day, looking at all the Newsweek outtakes. He saw that picture. He said, “This is such a tender photograph. Why don’t you send it off and get it scanned and get a print made of it?” which I did.

TM: Had you ever made a print of it?

BU: I had never printed it.

TM: It was just on the roll.

BU: It was just on the roll. Newsweek had taken a look at the film and they saw what they wanted and gave me the film back. Magnum sold those pictures around the world a few times. I had never printed it, and by then, that transparency was here in Wilson. The Ektachrome film in those days was not very stable, and the picture had faded terribly, but I sent it off to the man who did a lot of my scanning, Todd Gangler at the Art & Soul Lab in Seattle. He managed to salvage the picture and make a decent file out of it, which could be printed. He made a print of it, and we hung it here in the studio.

One day a tour came through the studio. One of the people in the tour saw that picture on the wall and said, “Oh, do you know who that is?” I said, “No, I have no idea. She was just a women who was being very tender with Martin Luther King.” He said, “That’s because she was one of his mistresses.” He told me her name, which I regretfully forgot to jot down. He told me their story and that Martin Luther King had a big, long history of having lots of mistresses—and indeed, that’s how J. Edgar Hoover kind of kept him in line, by threatening to tell his secrets. He never did, and Martin Luther King kept on keeping on. That picture was here and so it was interesting to know the story about it.

TM: Moving forward then to Woodstock, and you’re there because it feels like some place you should be, and you probably had a limited amount of film. You probably got a lot of good pictures, but that couple in the sleeping bag on that hill, you said the composition offered itself up to you. You could recognize how to compose the frame pretty quickly. Did you think it was anything other than a good snap when you took it?

BU: I felt, at the moment I took it, that it was a really lovely picture. I understood right away that it was a very beautiful composition. It was one of the tenderest things I had seen. It was very dark. It was a slow exposure, hand-held camera. The color film, in those days, was not very fast, before the days of digital. But yeah, even then, I felt that it sort of summarized the feeling of the place. I had been running around photographing all the people getting undressed up by the pond and so forth, and the people who had wandered away from the stage to take their clothes off and go skinny dipping in one of the little lakes up there. There was a sense of beauty and peace about the men and women who were in the nude, wandering around and having a great time. The event seemed very likely to turn itself into a people story rather than a music story. They summarized that. They were the essence of it.

TM: That’s key, really, isn’t it — because the publications who put photographers on assignment to take pictures of the well known musical groups , that was sort of a one-way communication. You concerned yourself with some of the half-million people that made up the population of that temporary community, which was the real story.

BU: Right. The people became the real story. Well, back to the story of the film: We were only expecting to stay there a few hours, for the day at most, having a couple of kids that were first-graders, basically. I stuck a pocketful of black and white film in my pocket, and we carried a little knapsack with some canned fruit and animal crackers and a poncho. You never go anywhere with kids without a poncho. That was our story, so I quickly ran out of that film.

I realized I had to shoot very selectively, and I would do one or two frames at a time rather than the characteristic three and a half rolls anytime you would see anything. I said, “Hmm. This is pretty interesting.” I kept going down to the stage. I knew a lot of the photographers, and I would borrow color film. I would tell them, “You know, the most wonderful things are happening up on the hills. People are all taking their clothes off!”

The event seemed very likely to turn itself into a people story rather than a music story.

There was one Magnum photographer who was a really good friend of mine, Charles Harbutt. I said, “Charlie, you’ve got to get up there and take some of these pictures! There is great stuff to see.” He said, “No, the editor wants me to be sure to get Jimi Hendrix and Ravi Shankar. I’ve got to get Ravi Shankar. The editor would be furious with me if I left the stage and took those photographs, just photographed people when I need to be photographing musicians.” I said, “Well, in that case, would you loan me some film?”

There were two or three occasions when I would go down and borrow a few more rolls of film from him. That picture, the cover picture, was taken on film I borrowed from Charlie Harbutt.

TM: Momentos, like souvenirs or photographs, often tend to stand in for memories and they can replace a memory. because it recalls this thing for you. “Remembering a past event is a present experience,” as Alan Watts tells us. Is your relationship to past pictures now different than it was at the time that you took them, or can you describe any where that might be the case?

BU: Yes. My relationship with American society — the nature of our culture all through that decade — it was pretty rocky. It had been a bad, hard decade. In fact, two weeks after Martin Luther King’s funeral, I photographed Robert Kennedy’s funeral. I remember marching down the streets in Cicero, New York with the people of color, and people were throwing bricks off of rooftops, trying to hit us on the head. This is not a nice thing to do. It doesn’t make you feel really good about your country.

John Kennedy had been killed, Robert Kennedy had been killed. I saw it in Ethel and Robert’s faces at Martin Luther King’s funeral. I could see that they knew that he was going to be killed. How could he not be killed, and he was! Two weeks later, I photographed his funeral. Woodstock happened, and Woodstock is when American culture turned on a dime. You could see it all around. You could see the way people treated each other. You could see people that were expected to riot, and people were expected to hurt each other, because they were described as wild-assed hippies or whatever they were. They were being really nice to each other. They were taking care of each other. It was raining. It was muddy. There was not a lot of food. But people were really trying to help each other through this event. I think that picture summed up that feeling. It became a profound moment of spiritual peace, sociologically speaking.

I think that picture summed up that feeling. It became a profound moment of spiritual peace, sociologically speaking.

I’m not a religious person at all, but if there had ever been anything that happened in my life that would have made me believe in a higher power, it probably would have been Woodstock and seeing the way the couple in that photo held each other, and how everybody else treated each other. They were really a symbol. They were representative of a whole lot else that was going one. They were just the most visually eloquent example of it.

TM: Your work continues and your relationship to your subjects continues. Where are you at now as a photographer? What is it that you want to document?

BU: I have pictures hanging on my studio wall of an AR-15 I borrowed from a friend. Actually, I wrapped it up in what may even be the same little space blanket I had with me at Woodstock. There it is now holding an AR-15. Standing behind it are a dozen or so grammar school kids — black, white, multi-racial and what have you. I asked them to hold hands as if they were about to be shot. It’s a picture which I call “Targets.” It’s a terrifying and sad, horrible picture to have to look at.

Then there is another one where we already took a picture of a door that says “colored” on it. That was found a block and a half from where I live in the basement of a building that was about to be remodeled.

TM: That was meant for a bathroom or some segregated facility? It still has the word “colored.”

BU: Yes, it has “colored” on it. This is an easy thing to find in the South. Growing up, I would see these doors all the time. I borrowed the door, brought it to my studio, hung a noose over it, hired some black dancers to come and take their clothes off and stand on a little pedestal as if to visually paraphrase what used to happen when they’d get off the slave boats in Charleston or New Orleans to be auctioned off to slave owners. They were told to undress. There they are. It’s a very beautiful but troubling photograph because there they are. I had a friend make a noose to hang over their heads and I call that picture “Heritage,” because that’s the black heritage.

I have to do it. That’s why I am on this earth.

TM: Obviously, you put two black people into what is not a comfortable situation. Maybe as dancers, they’re used to being disrobed, but here they are with all of this horrible iconography that still casts a very long shadow over our society. What did they say to you?

BU: Well, I told them the same thing that I told the school kids that came here. I said, “I want to tell the story of violence. I want to tell the story. I want to do a photograph which speaks to the issues of violence in our culture today. I’m asking you to cooperate with me.” They happily agreed, “Absolutely, let us participate in telling the story. We’re honored and happy to do it. Let’s all work together to make this a powerful photograph.”

TM: What have you seen through your lens that gives you hope, because you still travel all over and shoot outside of your studio?

BU: I see in the landscape, I see the joy of the eccentricity of the Southern culture, which gives me great pleasure. Now the South is a very special place. It’s hateful and racist on the one hand, and it’s loving and poetic and eccentric on the other. Those two poles bounce off of each other almost within every block you see in a small town in Southern America.

I love to drive the backroads, the small towns. I find examples of both and then I photograph them and put them in my archive. I put them on my website and show them to museums. Sometimes I’m lucky enough for museums to buy these pictures and put them in their collections, although I was told a really interesting thing by a very good museum curator who lives and works in the South. “You will never sell any of these pictures that deal with racism to a museum in the South. They don’t want to touch it. They don’t want to be known for racism, so you may never, ever have a picture in the permanent collection in a Southern museum that deals with this.” I was recently on a trip across country, and in Austin, Texas, I went to see a museum and they said, “No, that’s not true. We could very well see ourselves buying these photographs for our permanent collection.” They looked favorably upon the box of photographs that I showed them. They said, “We want to keep all of this in mind.” I think there are some Southern museums that would buy them for their collection. So far, that’s been the most optimistic thing I have heard.

TM: You, of course, are undeterred in pursuing the things that you believe need to be documented.

BU: I have to do it. That’s why I am on this earth. I’m on this earth to photograph what I see around me, that which I love and that which hates me and that which loves me me back and that which I really dislike seeing. I trace a lot of it these days right back to Donald Trump. How can I not?

***

Tom Maxwell is a writer and musician. He likes how one informs the other.

Editor: Aaron Gilbreath

Nashville contra Jaws, 1975

Paramount Pictures, Universal Pictures, Illustration by Homestead

J. Hoberman | An excerpt adapted from Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan | The New Press | July 2019 | 30 minutes (8,492 words)

June 1975, six weeks after Time magazine headlined the Fall of Saigon as “The Anatomy of a Debacle” and wondered “How Should Americans Feel?,” brought two antithetical yet analogous movies: Robert Altman’s Nashville and Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. Each in its way brilliantly modified the cycle of “disaster” films that had appeared during Richard Nixon’s second term and were now, at the nadir of the nation’s self­-esteem, paralleled by the spectacular collapse of South Vietnam and the unprecedented Watergate drama.

In fact, in their time, Jaws and Nashville were regarded as Watergate films and, indeed, both were in production as the Watergate disaster played its final act in the summer of 1974. On May 2, three days after Richard Nixon had gone on TV to announce that he was turning over transcripts of forty-­two White House tapes subpoenaed by the House Judiciary Committee, the Jaws shoot opened on Martha’s Vineyard with a mainly male, no-­star cast. The star was the shark or, rather, the three mechanical sharks — one for each profile and another for stunt work — that, run by pneumatic engines and launched by a sixty-­five­-foot catapult, were created by Robert Mattey, the former Disney special effects expert who had designed the submarine and giant squid for the 1956 hit Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

Brought to Martha’s Vineyard in pieces and cloaked in secrecy, Mattey’s sharks took longer than expected to become fully operational, and Jaws was further delayed by poor weather conditions. Accounts of the production routinely refer to the movie itself as a catastrophe only barely avoided: “All over the picture shows signs of going down, like the Titanic.”

In late June, a month when Jaws was still unable to shoot any water scenes, and while Nixon visited the Middle East and Soviet Union in a hapless attempt to, as the president wrote in his diary, “put the whole Watergate business into perspective,” Altman’s cast and crew arrived in the city of Nashville. They were all put up at the same motel, with everyone expected to stick around for the entire ten­-week shoot.

There is a sense in which Nashville represented a last bit of Sixties utopianism — the idea that a bunch of talented people might just hang out together in a colorful environment and, almost spontaneously, generate a movie. Even by Altman’s previous standards, Nashville seemed a free­form composition. It surely helped that neophyte producer Jerry Weintraub’s previous experience lay in managing tours, for Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley among others, and packaging TV specials. Read more…

The First Book

Sarah Menkedick | Longreads | July 2019 | 38 minutes (10,294 words)

For me the low point came two months after publication, at a playground a few blocks from my house. I sobbed on the phone with my sister, eking out incomprehensible sentences about my career this, my life expectations that, writing this, the publishing industry that, until finally my sister said, “Maybe you should look for a different job?” and I realized the jig was up — I was doomed to keep doing this ridiculous and often seemingly pointless thing.

A few weeks before this, I’d received my first letters from readers telling me how much they’d loved and needed the book, and I’d had another sister-to-sister phone call — just as wrought with emotion — in which I raved about all the deeper meaning and purpose of this milestone and how it wasn’t about the sales and the metrics but about what mattered blah blah blah. I ping-ponged like this for awhile, alternately aglow and despondent, hopeful and wretched, until finally I just started writing again and got on with it.

Read more…

Live Through This: Courtney Love at 55

Mick Hudson / Getty, istock / Getty Images Plus, Michael Ochs Archive / Getty, Vinnie Zuffante / Getty, pidjoe / Getty, Illustration by Homestead

Lisa Whittington-Hill | Longreads | July 9th, 2019 | 24 minutes (6,539 words)

It’s hard to tell whether Thurston Moore is being sarcastic or sincere. It’s probably a bit of both. “The biggest star in this room is Courtney Love,” says the Sonic Youth singer and guitarist in a scene from 1991: The Year Punk Broke. The documentary follows Sonic Youth’s summer 1991 European tour and features performances and backstage antics from their tourmates, including a pre-Nevermind Nirvana, Babes in Toyland, and Dinosaur Jr.

Moore comments during an interview with 120 Minutes, an MTV program that spotlighted alternative music in the days before the music channel became the home of teen moms and spoiled Laguna Beach brats. As Moore declares his love of English food to the host — most definitely sarcasm — Love is behind him trying to get the camera’s attention. She waves and appears to stand on something to make herself taller. Her efforts pay off and soon she is in front of the host, all brazen, blond, and sporting blue baby doll barrettes.

Tongue-in-cheek or not, Moore was right. Love’s band Hole wasn’t on the European tour bill that summer and their debut album Pretty on the Inside hadn’t even been released yet, but Love was already on MTV.

Read more…

We Still Don’t Know How to Navigate the Cultural Legacy of Eugenics

Illustration by Tom Peake

Audrey Farley | Longreads | June 2019 | 13 minutes (3,381 words)

 

On May 28, Justice Clarence Thomas issued an eyebrow-raising opinion. It concurred with the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold an Indiana law that requires abortion providers to follow a certain protocol to dispose of fetal remains and prohibits abortions on the sole basis of a fetus’s sex, race, or disability. It wasn’t the justice’s position that caught attention, but rather his method. In speaking to the law’s second provision on selective abortions, Thomas launched into a history of eugenics, the debunked science of racial improvement that gained popularity in the early decades of the 20th century.

Arguing that abortion is “an act rife with the potential for eugenic manipulation,” the justice offered a lengthy discussion of the origins of the birth-control movement in the United States. In this discussion, written for the benefit of other courts considering abortion laws, Thomas explains how Planned Parenthood grew in tandem with state-sterilization campaigns, providing the foundation for the legalized abortion movement. (As historians corrected, legal abortion preceded birth control, as it was not regulated until the 19th century.) The justice cites the disturbing rhetoric of Planned Parenthood’s founder, Margaret Sanger, who wrote in The Pivot of Civilization that birth control was a means of reducing the “ever increasing, unceasingly spawning class of human beings who never should have been born at all.” While conceding that Sanger did not support abortion, Thomas nonetheless argues that “Sanger’s arguments about the eugenic value of birth control in securing ‘the elimination of the unfit’ apply with even greater force to abortion, making it significantly more effective as a tool of eugenics.”

Thomas does not offer concrete evidence that American women actually abort fetuses solely because of sex, race, or disability. Nor does he explore the possible reasons for abortions related to these criteria, such as financial hardship or the lack of societal support for individuals with chronic conditions. His grievance with abortion boils down to this point: the practice is ill-borne. This claim is inaccurate, for reasons that historians swiftly noted; it also obscures the fact that eugenics did in fact initiate many traditions in this country, not all of which are perceived to be heinous today. Thomas’s incautious opinion, which echoes other voices in the abortion debate, unwittingly invites a more nuanced discussion of eugenics’ legacies.

Read more…

How the Cosby Story Finally Went Viral — And Why It Took So Long

Associated Press, Collage by Homestead

Nicole Weisensee Egan | An excerpt adapted from Chasing Cosby: The Downfall of America’s Dad | Seal Press | 14 minutes (3,614 words)

In October 2014 Bill Cosby was in the middle of a career resurgence. His biography by former Newsweek editor Mark Whitaker had just come out to rave reviews and was climbing the bestseller list. He had a comedy special coming up on Netflix and was in development with NBC to star in a family sitcom. He was about to embark on another comedy tour based on a special that had aired on Comedy Central the year before. The special, Far from Finished, was Cosby’s first stand-up TV special in three decades, and it attracted two million viewers.

It was as if the scandal in 2005 had never happened, as if fourteen women hadn’t accused him of heinous offenses. The book didn’t even mention Andrea Constand’s allegations, let alone her civil suit or any of the other accusers. And no one in the media was asking Whitaker or Cosby why.

The situation was clear: Cosby had successfully repaired what little damage there was to his reputation after Andrea’s case made the news. He slipped right back into his revered status as public moralist and children’s advocate, chalking up even more awards and honors, including his entrée into the NAACP’s Image Awards Hall of Fame in 2006 for being a “true humanitarian and role model.” Read more…

An Audience of Athletes: The Rise and Fall of Feminist Sports

womenSports, Bettmann / Getty

Britni de la Cretaz | Longreads | May 2019 | 26 minutes (6,609 words)

The idea for womenSports magazine was born in a car suspended over the San Francisco Bay by beams of steel. Several weeks before she captivated the nation by beating Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match in the fall of 1973, Billie Jean King sat in the passenger seat of a car and stewed. At the wheel was her then-husband, Larry, driving the couple from Emeryville near Oakland toward San Francisco on the Bay Bridge, and as Billie Jean flipped through an issue of Sports Illustrated, she complained, which is what she always did whenever she picked up an issue of SI. Read more…