Jonathan Schwartz is a New York radio legend. I remember cutting school one day when I was about 15, sneaking back home, and lying on my bed, listening to him play Sinatra on old WNEW-AM. Seeing as later this month I’ll be celebrating my annual 21st birthday, that would have been about … six years ago. In those days, he would work weekdays and Saturdays at WNEW-AM, playing Frank, Ella, & Co. singing standards, and Sundays at rock station WNEW-FM. He was unique, and his Sunday cabaret show would feature the likes of Judy Collins, Joni Mitchell, and Tony Bennett.
Schwartz, who is the son of the late composer Arthur Schwartz, of Schwartz & Dietz fame (The Bandwagon, “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan,” etc.), is best known as possibly the world’s reigning expert on Sinatra’s music, and was a one-of-a-kind raconteur on WNEW-AM. (“Eleven-three-oh … in New York.”)
He was a short story writer and novelist—I never read his stuff, so I can’t say how good it is—and occasionally he would just make up stories. Once he played a song involving daffodils or pansies or marigolds (but not tulips!), after which he fabulated a tale in which Sinatra and his entourage of tough guys like Jilly Rizzo were passing a field of flowers, somewhere out in the countryside. Sinatra had the driver stop, and made everyone get out, take off their shoes and socks, and go tiptoeing around, counting the flowers, or measuring the marigolds.
These days, following the demise of WNEW-AM (1992) and its successor, WQEW-AM (1998), Schwartz is ensconced weekends at leftist WNYC, of National Public Radio, and does a show weekdays on XM satellite radio that you have to pay for. The local pizzeria carries it. The music is great, just like his old weekday afternoon show, but if there’s any patter, it’s lost amid patrons’ conversations.
Schwartz never talked politics on ‘NEW or ‘QEW, that I can remember. He once tried his hand at interviewing then-New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, about 20 years ago, but flubbed it.
WNEW-AM was sold in 1992 to “a financial-information entrepreneur,” some mook named Bloomberg. As the clock was running out on ‘NEW, someone put a deal together, whereby the New York Times would lease one of its twin stations—which played identical programs—WQXR-AM, to a group seeking to preserve the old ‘NEW format. Thus was WQEW-AM born. But in 1998, the Disney people offered the communists at the Times a pot of gold, to let them lease the station for little kids’ music.
All Christmas week, with no more live programming, the station instead ran recordings of classic shows with guests like the late Nancy Lamott and Burton Lane, talking and performing their music in the studio. I have a shoebox somewhere of recordings I made off the radio that week.
And so, as if it hadn’t been bad enough, losing Sinatra that year, when the clock struck 12 on January 1, 1999, it was a most unhappy New Year for those of us who love the best in American music, when American music was the greatest in the world. Eventually, the Times sold the station to Disney.
WQEW-AM still had a large audience (I don’t have any numbers handy), but it skewed old, and major advertisers refuse to spend serious money on older demographics, no matter how many middle-class consumers are involved.
Once Schwartz started working at WNYC in 1999, he revealed himself to be a conventional lefty, either socialist or communist. When the fiftieth anniversary of the execution of the Rosenbergs passed in 2003, he mentioned awkwardly in passing that he had often walked by their apartment building as a boy. Just that. Nothing about their being traitors. At the same time, he refrained from calling them victims of “anti-Communist hysteria,” as communist Pinch Sulzberger’s New York Times did.
It’s a tricky business, hosting an entertainment show with a politically diverse audience…when you really want to talk politics. It’s easy to offend a portion of the audience, without gaining listeners elsewhere. Things are much safer with a politically monochrome audience. But it’s also a much smaller audience than the one Schwartz enjoyed at WNEW-AM and WQEW-AM.
One Sunday a few springs ago, Schwartz gave in fully to his NPR side. He was talking about his old family friend, the lyricist Alan Jay Lerner (My Fair Lady, Gigi, Camelot, etc.). It seems that in one room of Lerner’s Manhattan apartment, the lyricist was fond of throwing cigarettes, filter-side up, underhanded at the ceiling. The ceiling was covered with cigarettes, sticking by their filters.
It was a charming, funny story from the Smoking Era … until Schwartz ruined it with an NPR moral:
Alan Jay Lerner, killed by cigarettes.
To give you an even better idea of the NPR sensibility, the host that followed Schwartz that day approvingly told a story—I can’t vouch for its truthfulness—of MSNBC host Rachel Maddow waiting in the green room of a talk show. Seeing Rush Limbaugh pass in the hall, Maddow bellowed at him, “Hey Rush, you fat f–k!” (Can you see into the hall at those places? Had Maddow stepped into the hall for a smoke, I mean, break? Beats me. I was only a guest on a cable TV talk show once, 21 years ago, and can’t remember.)
The WNYC guy thought that cursing out Rush Limbaugh for no reason was the greatest thing. He was bleeped, but not completely.
So, to make a short story long, Schwartz has just begun his show today, and recalls the following story.
When Woody Allen was having his problems, one of Mia Farrow’s two ex-husbands, I can’t for the life of me remember which one—said he’d break Woody Allen’s legs. I just can’t for the life of me recall if it was Frank Sinatra or Andre Previn.
But then it’s back to the present, as Schwartz mentions, in the course of describing someone else,
I’m an MSNBC kind of guy.