The Marcel Marceau We Never Knew

We’re losing several special entertainers these days. Just a few weeks ago Luciano Pavarotti, the greatest opera singer of our time, went to that big choir in the sky. Then yesterday the news came out that Marcel Marceau, the famous French pantomime, died at the age of 84. You probably know him for his clown makeup, his “walking against the wind” routine, and what I think was the best joke in Mel Brooks’ “Silent Movie,” where he got the only spoken part!

However, there was another side to Marcel Marceau, and I wish I had known it while he was alive; he was a hero before he became a performer. Originally his name was Marcel Mangel, but during the Nazi occupation of France his father was taken to the Auschwitz concentration camp, and never returned; he changed his last name to Marceau to hide the fact that he was Jewish. Then he and his brother Alain joined the Free French to fight back, and because he knew English, Marcel eventually got to be a liaison officer, working with General Patton’s army. Only after the war did he go into acting; I guess you shouldn’t expect mimes to get chatty about their life stories. Rest In Peace, Marcel; you earned it, and it looks like France finally has a president (the first since De Gaulle, anyway) who fully appreciates what you did.

However, the main headline for yesterday was the controversial visit of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to New York City, to speak at the UN and Columbia University. Apparently Columbia has a tradition of inviting this country’s enemies; Adolf Hitler’s ambassador to the United States spoke there in 1933. The university president justified the visit of a known terrorist-sponsor, religious fanatic and Holocaust denier by throwing some “hardball” questions at him, but it amazes me that nobody mentioned how much he looks like one of the militants who held the Americans hostage in Iran for 444 days, back in 1979-81. Even presidential candidate Mitt Romney didn’t mention it, and he called for Ahmadinejad’s arrest.

Probably the best part of the visit was when somebody asked about Iran’s record of abuse against women and homosexuals, and Ahmadinejad said, “In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals, like in your country. We don’t have that in our country. In Iran, we do not have this phenomenon. I don’t know who’s told you that we have it.” At least there he was truthful, though he didn’t explain why, as this cartoon does.

Finally, have you noticed that today’s dictators seem to be S.O.B.s from the get-go? In the past, most tyrants had some redeeming factors: Mussolini made the trains run on time; Kemal Ataturk singlehandedly modernized Turkey; Hitler brought Germany out of the Great Depression in only two years; Ferdinand Marcos was smart and married to a beauty queen. Thus, they were appealing to some folks at first, and only turned bad later. However, I have yet to see what anybody could like about Ahmadiniejad, and other modern tyrants (Bashar al-Assad, Kim Jong Il) would be losers you had never heard of, if their fathers hadn’t put them at the top of the heap.

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