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WBAI’s War and Peace Broadcast: 35 Years Later

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We broadcast a documentary produced by the Pacifica Radio Archives about Pacifica Radio station WBAI’s 1970 War and Peace broadcast. It includes excerpts from the 1970 marathon reading, interviews with the original producers, new readings performed specifically for this broadcast, and a lot more. [includes rush transcript]

We broadcast a documentary produced by the Pacifica Radio Archives about WBAI’s War and Peace broadcast, 35 years later. It includes excerpts from the 1970 production, interviews with the original producers, new readings performed specifically for this broadcast, and a lot more. This is from the Pacifica Radio Archives.

  • WBAI’s War and Peace Broadcast: 35 Years Later

- Pacifica Radio Archives War and Peace Broadcast: 35th Anniversary

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is from the Pacifica Radio Archives.

BRIAN DESHAZER: I’m Brian DeShazer, Director of the Pacifica Radio Archives. In June 2005, while doing a much-needed inventory, I was going through a shelf of un-catalogued reels. On one, I saw Anne Bancroft’s name written on the spine. And next to it was another box, and another after that, with names like Dustin Hoffman, Richard Avedon, Joseph Heller and legendary Pacifica producer, Elsa Knight Thompson. And then I saw the words, “War and Peace.”

These were the tapes of one of the most ambitious broadcasts ever, with one of the largest casts. It enthralled all of New York City as it went nonstop day after day. News media wrote about the event, and listeners struggled to stay awake, so as not to miss anything. They emptied store shelves of the book throughout the city and gathered to talk about Natasha, Pierre, Napoleon and his tragic mistakes. During the height of the Vietnam War, when the country was so bitterly divided, the War and Peace broadcast, if only for a few days, brought together Republicans and Democrats, hippies and yippies, veterans and protestors, friends and foe.

AUGUST HECKSCHER: Princess Ellen smiled. She rose with the same unchanging smile, the smile of a perfectly beautiful woman, with which she had entered the drawing room. There was a slight rustle of her moss and ivy-trimmed ballgown, a gleam of diamonds, lustrous hair and dazzling white shoulders as she moved toward Anna Pavlovna. Passing between the men who made way for her, not looking directly at any of them, but smiling on all as if graciously granting them the privilege of admiring her beautiful figure, her shapely shoulders, back and bosom, which in the fashion of the day were very much exposed, she seemed to bring with her the glamour of the ballroom. Ellen was so lovely that not only did she show no trace of coquetry, but on the contrary appeared to be almost embarrassed by her undeniable, irresistible and enthralling beauty. It was as if she wished to diminish its effect, while being powerless to do so.

BRIAN DESHAZER: That was August Heckscher, reading from the first few pages of War and Peace. The person who came up with this idea worked in WBAI’s drama and literature department on some days and the switchboard on others and even hosted her own show on Russian music on other days. Her name is Kathy Dobkin. This is Kathy in an interview from 1970.

KATHY DOBKIN: I happened to be reading something one day that said that the final volume of War and Peace was sent to the publishers on December 4 of 1869. And this gave me the idea that until December 4 of 1970, this is the year of the centennial of its publication.

BRIAN DESHAZER: She presented the idea to station management in the form of a memo.

KATHY DOBKIN: September 28, 1970. To Bill Henderson and Milton Hoffman, from Kathy, regarding “Read the Memo.” An absolutely brilliant idea occurred to me over the weekend. Tolstoy’s War and Peace was completed — at least the first draft — on December 4, 1869. Therefore, this is the 100th anniversary of this novel, which many have called the greatest book ever written. How about a marathon reading of it, to go on continuously and to be done a la the Satie “Vexations” with relay readers, using our staff and listeners to come and read for half an hour or for a chapter, etc.? I figure that 24 hours a day, interrupted occasionally by music, not necessarily Russian, we can do it between Friday primetime and Monday primetime. What do you think? Kathy Dobkin.

BRIAN DESHAZER: This was going to be a huge project, primarily because, as Kathy said:

KATHY DOBKIN: Originally, my idea was to have it done live, because it seemed neat.

BRIAN DESHAZER: If each reader read approximately ten pages, there would need to be at least 146 readers to get through the 1,455 pages. Almost immediately, Kathy’s neat idea was modified to prerecord as many people as possible. One of Kathy Dobkin’s biggest supporters was WBAI’s drama and literature director, Milton Hoffman. In 1970, during an interview with Kathy, he explained to her his excitement for the project.

MILTON HOFFMAN: When you approached me with the idea, as you said, I was very enthusiastic, and I think that one of the main reasons is that it was the chance to create a very unique radio event and to utilize the freedom that we have at WBAI, the place, you know, WBAI exists because we can do things that no one else can do. I felt that this would make a very exciting radio event, as I said, as well as using something, using our freedom, because, as we know, freedom doesn’t mean anything unless you really try to use it.

BRIAN DESHAZER: With Milton on board, the project began to pick up speed. Management was going to give them several days to do the reading. But instead of using anonymous volunteers and readers, it was suggested they try to bring in some name people. They had barely two months to do the entire project, and they had no idea how to contact celebrities, so they decided to let it be known publicly, that they needed readers. Once again, Kathy Dobkin.

KATHY DOBKIN: There was an item that made the press, saying they heard that WBAI had a crazy idea. They were gonna read all of War and Peace. And I think it said they were looking for actors. We started getting calls, and the press just got hold of it and went with it. But it became such an important event that I think the station really began to back us.

BRIAN DESHAZER: One of the people they convinced to read was Dustin Hoffman. Again, Milton Hoffman, no relation.

MILTON HOFFMAN: I went to Dustin Hoffman’s office, which was on the East Side of New York, not far from the old WBAI. That’s where we actually recorded. He didn’t come in. And this was a little office. And I remember his first wife was there. And she wasn’t sure if he should be doing this. But it was clear that, you know, he wanted to make this a good reading.

KATHY DOBKIN: He slunk to the floor, got the book out and never looked up. Just read. It was wonderful.

DUSTIN HOFFMAN: “Eh bien, Monsieur, your little princess is very nice, very nice,” said the viscount after seating himself beside Hippolyte in the carriage. “Very nice indeed.” Kissed the tips of his fingers, and quite French. Hippolyte snickered, burst out laughing. “And you know, you’re a terrible fellow with that innocent way of yours,” continued the viscount. “I pity the poor husband, that little officer who gives himself the airs of a reigning prince.” Hippolyte snickered once more and through his laughter, retorted, “Ha, you said our Russian ladies couldn’t compare with your French ladies. One must know how to tackle them.”

BRIAN DESHAZER: There were two people, in particular, that Kathy Dobkin absolutely had to have included in this reading. One was Morris Carnovsky; the other was Leo Tolstoy’s daughter, Alexandra. Alexandra was an amazing person in her own right, who after emigrating to the United States, founded the Tolstoy Foundation. Here is Victoria Wohlsen, the current executive director of the Tolstoy Foundation speaking about Alexandra.

VICTORIA WOHLSEN: She was very concerned to make sure that both educational needs, health concerns, and cultural preservation and ability to view things from an open perspective were propagated and continued along after her father’s death in 1910. As I mentioned earlier, she was effectively his secretary and his confidant. So she was infused with the ideas and ideals of humanitarian work.

KATHY DOBKIN: We found out that she was in Valley Cottage. I sent her a letter asking her to read. She wrote back that she was ill. I sent her another letter, saying that we would come there, we would do anything. She said, well, she just broke her arm. I wrote — we badgered her. I just kept pushing and pushing. And finally, she said, and I have the letter: Well, maybe you guys could come out to Valley Cottage. Only, she said it with a very thick Russian accent.

Bob Kuttner, who was program director, had a little red Corvette or the equivalent, a little red sports car. And he decided that he would drive Milton and me out to Valley Cottage in the little red Corvette. There were only two seats in the front. So Bob is sitting in the driver’s seat. I’m sitting on Milton’s lap with the tape recorders and the War and Peace books, which we have here. And we drove a little more. And we entered a little 19th century Russian village with peasants tilling the soil. And Alexandra in her house, in front of all of her father’s books behind a glass cabinet, with her arm in a sling. And she read her favorite passage. We asked her what she wanted to read.

KATHY DOBKIN: The next reader is Alexandra Tolstoy, who will read pages 335 to 344 of her father’s novel War and Peace.

ALEXANDRA TOLSTOY: At eight o’clock Kutuzov rode to Pratzen at the head of Miloradovich’s fourth column, the one that was to replace Przebyszewski’s and Langeron’s columns, which had already descended the hill. He greeted the men in the foremost regiment and gave the command to advance, thereby indicating that he intended to lead the column himself. On reaching the village of Pratzen he halted. Prince Andrei was behind him, among the immense number of men comprising the Commander in Chief’s suite.

KATHY DOBKIN: You know, when I met Alexandra Tolstoy, I thought, I say my father, I mean Alexander Dobkin. When she says her father, she is speaking of him, of him! She was the youngest daughter. She was with him when he died. And I had read about her my entire life. And this was her dad. Now, he wasn’t much of a dad, from what I’ve read. But to be in the same room with Alexandra Tolstoy was absolutely, for me, mind-boggling. It was kind of an astonishing feeling.

BRIAN DESHAZER: By this point, Kathy and Milton were bringing in volunteers to help them edit tape. Using razor blades and splicing tape, with that many readers, they needed a team of people working on cleaning up the reads and timing them out and helping them with the schedule.

KATHY DOBKIN: In walks this person, this Francie Camper. There was something about her that kind of struck us. And she seemed smart, and she had this glint in her eye. She was a volunteer. She was a kid, she was a little tiny girl, for God’s sake.

FRANCIE CAMPER: I went to work as a volunteer at WBAI in 1968 at age 14 in order to cut school. You know, it was really a place where you could come up with a creative, innovative idea, and if it had any substance at all to it, the attitude was, yeah, go ahead and do it. And in that kind of atmosphere, an idea gathers so much momentum and so much energy, in a positive sense. And then everybody you know, you always want to be part of something that has those elements.

BRIAN DESHAZER: With Francie Camper editing all the reads, the momentum seemed to push them daily to new ideas and new ways to have fun with this.

FRANCIE CAMPER: At that point, I think we could get back to the original idea of this being a reading of, by and for the people. We had enough celebrities on board, certainly Bob Kuttner and the station was sold on the idea. We were becoming increasingly, I think, aware that we were onto something. And then, Kathy would come up — every day we would go into the station, and Kathy or Milton would come up with some idea, like, let’s get a New York City telephone operator. That was — we did that. Let’s get a New York City police officer. Let’s look up and see if anybody has the name, “War and Peace.” And we got the construction, one of the construction workers, who was helping to build the church, the new WBAI studios at that point. And so it was this conglomerate of very well-known and sort of intimidating people, who the switchboard operator was thrilled to be screening these calls, and people from the Bronx, who would speak about, you know, Natasha and the war.

KATHY DOBKIN: And for those of you who are unimpressed by big names, there will also be among many, many others, a Bronx high school student, New York City police sergeant, a drummer from the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, the foreman from the construction crew that worked on WBAI’s new studios, the architect who drew up the designs for WBAI’s new studios, representives from United Nations embassies and consulates, the typesetter of the WBAI folio, secretaries, housewives, businessmen and women, unknown actors, unknown actresses.

WBAI ANNOUNCER: WBAI staff members, board members and volunteers. WBAI subscribers, family, friends, and enemies of all of the above. Truck drivers, telephone operators and salesmen. Weekend golfers, translators, typists, anchormen, doctors, lawyers, teachers and many, many more.

BRIAN DESHAZER: No matter who they called and asked to read, it seemed anyone was willing to spend an hour with them, reading from the paperback, Signet Classic edition.

MILTON HOFFMAN: So I think you just give them a chance to speak Tolstoy’s words, and knowing that it has some life beyond that moment, I think just sort of had this chemistry. And I think that’s the chemistry that sort of carried us all the way through, which is that, you know, you really did build on these experiences. And it was fun. Each one of these people was a lot of fun. But it was also just the beauty of listening to the words being spoken sincerely.

KATHY DOBKIN: In talking about the words, I think we have to mention that the book we read from, the Signet paperback was translated by Ann Dunnigan. And the important thing about it was that it was the first American translation. It had been published just two years before, around the same time as the Soviet film came out. And we contacted — and I remember when it came out, I read it and was just bowled over by it, because until then, I think the only translation that was read in English before that was Constance Garnett, which was very good for its time but it was an old-fashioned translation. And Ann Dunnigan’s was just breathtaking and open, and it shed a whole new light on some of the words, albeit in English translation. And I forget if we contacted her or if she contacted us, but she soon became a very good friend. And she was very helpful and very supportive, and we all went out to dinner. And she was wonderful all the way. She was an amazing person.

MILTON HOFFMAN: And I think her translation really does account for a lot of that joy that happened during this, because no one — I don’t think any of the readers — and obviously we had this great range of readers — but I don’t think any of them felt the text was odd or difficult or of another time. They really, it felt — the language was right for 1970. And, you know, she deserves all the credit for that.

ANN DUNNIGAN: This is Ann Dunnigan, translator of War and Peace. Prince Andrei went to dine at the Rostovs and spent the rest of the day there. Everyone in the house realized on whose account he had come. And Prince Andrei, making no secret of it, tried to be with Natasha the whole time. Not only in the soul of the frightened but ecstatically happy Natasha, but throughout the entire household there was a feeling of awed anticipation, as if something of great moment were about to take place. The countess looked with sad and sternly serious eyes at Prince Andrei when he talked to Natasha and timidly started some artificial, inconsequential conversation as soon as he looked her way. Sonia was afraid to leave Natasha and afraid of being in the way if she stayed with her. Natasha turned pale in a panic of expectation every time she was left alone with him for a moment.

MILTON HOFFMAN: It was, in the end, the power of the idea, and just the appealing quality of it, that there was no other agenda. We weren’t trying to do anything, except have this great celebration of this great book. And, mostly, when you get people on the phone, they would say, yes, simply because everybody thought it sounded like fun. And I just want to say, I think it could not have happened without being at Pacifica. This is an event that is, in terms of broadcasting, that is only Pacifica. There is no other way it could have happened, no other set of circumstances that led up to it. And, as I said, I think it really is historically important that we invented the marathon broadcast.

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, 35 years ago, December 2 to December 6, 1970, WBAI’s historic, War and Peace broadcast. The documentary you have heard is part of a two-hour documentary that you can get at Today, Pacifica and community and public radio stations around the country are celebrating this historic broadcast. When we come back, Helen Thomas, the veteran journalist, reads Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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Actors, Journalists, Activists, Scholars and Others Continue the War and Peace Epic

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