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Michael Markarian

Michael Markarian

Posted: June 8, 2009 06:27 PM

The Life of Cleveland Amory: Q&A with Marilyn Greenwald


For those of us who worked closely with Cleveland Amory, it's satisfying to see a body of work being developed about his life, career, and impact on the animal protection movement. First, in 2006, journalist Julie Hoffman Marshall produced "Making Burros Fly: Cleveland Amory, Animal Rescue Pioneer," a retelling of Amory's high-profile animal rescues and his founding of the Black Beauty Ranch. Now, this month, the University Press of New England has published Marilyn Greenwald's critical biography, "Cleveland Amory: Media Curmudgeon and Animal Rights Crusader."

Animal advocate, Cleveland Amory
Animal advocate, Cleveland Amory.

Greenwald, a professor at Ohio University's Scripps School of Journalism, chronicles Amory's life as a scion of the Boston Brahmins, his rise as a bestselling author and celebrated social critic, and his work as a crusader for the cause of animals. I worked for Cleveland at The Fund for Animals from 1993 until his death in 1998, and I was pleased that Greenwald's book captured his humor, wit, and so much more about his personality. I was also pleased to learn more about his early life and career since I personally knew him in his twilight years and was most familiar with his animal protection work.

I hope you'll read "Cleveland Amory," and I'm sure you'll enjoy it as much as I did. I had the opportunity to talk with Marilyn Greenwald about her book and about Cleveland's life, and I'm pleased to share that conversation and her insights here with you on the blog.

Michael Markarian: Many readers of this blog know Cleveland Amory as an animal advocate, but your book contextualizes Cleveland within his broader experience and life story. The subtitle of the book refers to him as "media curmudgeon and animal rights crusader"--do you see those as two separate parts of his life, or intertwined in some way?

Marilyn Greenwald: Those two aspects of his life were at one time separate but they became intertwined. The actual term "curmudgeon" was part of the name of his Saturday Review column, "Curmudgeon at Large," a free-wheeling column about culture, news, the arts, and his thoughts about life in general. He considered himself an old-fashioned "grump" who was skeptical (in a humorous way) about many contemporary aspects of life. Much of his other writing, including his reviews for TV Guide, could also be considered "curmudgeonly."

But gradually, Cleveland did begin to incorporate his passion for animals into his writing, including his Saturday Review column and, to a limited degree, his TV Guide column. In the former, he did publicize his and others' animal protection activities, and he did write about such controversial topics as the use of animals in laboratories. He was more subtle in the TV Guide column, where he would give negative reviews to hunting shows, like "American Sportsman," or positive reviews to shows that portrayed animals in a fair and positive light, such as "Flipper."

MM: The book follows Cleveland's life as he moved from chronicler of the pastimes of the rich to celebrity profiler to animal person. In your view, how did those different aspects of his life and career fit together?

Marilyn Greenwald's new biography
"Cleveland Amory: Media Curmudgeon and
Animal Rights Crusader."

MG: In some ways, his early career chronicling the lives of the privileged helped him develop his view that people were put on earth to help others, even in a limited way. The months he spent when he was a young man with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, in particular, drove home to him the idea that a life spent summering, wintering, and playing games was a wasted and shallow life--that's how he felt about the Windsors. Cleveland's parents, although they did have status and some money, tried to instill the idea of helping others in their three children, so the concept was not new to Cleveland.

By the time he became a celebrity profiler for Parade, in late middle age, he began to respect those people who did manage to achieve fame and still have a bigger purpose in life. Many of the celebrities he profiled, including Jack Lemmon, Gregory Peck, Walter Cronkite, Katharine Hepburn, Doris Day, and others, led multi-faceted lives and were not self-centered "celebrities," he believed.

In addition, many of his celebrity friends were more than happy to provide free publicity for his favorite cause--animal protection. Amory was one of the first animal advocates to realize and "use" the power of celebrity, because he knew those people had the ear of the public.

MM: Cleveland's image as a curmudgeon obscured for many the degree to which he was a people person. We understand that he could connect with people, but would you agree that he genuinely liked being with others, and was a social person to a great degree?

MG: Absolutely. Every person I interviewed who knew him mentioned his charismatic personality, his wonderful sense of humor, and his caring attitude toward them.

Many told me about practical jokes he pulled on them, how he kept in constant contact with them, and how he just simply knew how to be a friend. And he loved parties and gatherings with friends and family. In addition, Amory tried to personally answer everyone who wrote or called him--fans and others he never met usually received a personal response from him and, in the case of some, a lunch invitation.

MM: You studied a great deal of Cleveland's writings, interviews, and other source material. What did your research reveal about his work ethic?

MG: He really didn't separate his personal life from his professional life. He loved writing and he loved his work in animal protection, and those activities dominated his life. And those to whom he was close were also involved in those activities. In many ways, he "worked" all the time, although I don't think he considered it a job the way most people define it.  He worked a full day the day before he died.

MM: What do you think made Cleveland an effective communicator, with the ability to take lesser-known issues and make them part of the national discourse?

MG: The short answer to that is his sense of humor. He was very smart and clever, so he could use humor to get people to listen to him. He never bored them. Like many brilliant people, he was also very quick, and could come up with a funny response immediately. He also had the ability to let people know how issues affected them; in other words, he didn't preach at them, but instead let them know how his cause directly affected their lives.

MM: The book reports on many of Cleveland's opponents (sport hunters, animal researchers, and others) and quotes his saying that one is judged "by the quality of one's enemies." What did Cleveland's enemies think of him and how did that shape his work?

MG: Cleveland was on the front lines of the animal protection movement because he was one of the first people to become a "face" of the movement. He gave speeches, wrote columns for newspapers and magazines, and spoke for the cause in a way that no single person had done. In that way, he was the one who was the target of the ire of those who disagreed with him. Many of his enemies accused him of being an egomaniac who sought the limelight; others said he twisted or exaggerated facts. Ultimately, Cleveland was so confident and self-assured and so devoted to the cause that he didn't let his critics bother him. In fact, he loved a good debate with them, and nearly always responded to their criticism--often with humor. Usually, criticism just fueled his enthusiasm. He often said that when one does important work, he or she will always have enemies.

MM: The animal protection movement was relatively young when Cleveland became one of its leaders, and by the time he passed away in 1998 the cause had become much more mainstream. What impact did he have on the history of the animal advocacy movement and what progress did he see during his lifetime?

MG: Cleveland came to the movement in middle age, and knew instinctively that he needed to instill his passion for it in younger people so that they could carry on his work. He managed to let young people know how important the movement was through humor and through raw energy--he was constantly promoting it one way or another in speeches, rallies, and appearances. He also had a knack for spotting young people with drive and talent (for instance, many of the top officials of the HSUS today, including Wayne Pacelle, and you, Mike, worked with him at The Fund for Animals, the advocacy group he founded).

He was also a natural public relations man who knew that the grand gesture (for instance, airlifting burros from the Grand Canyon) would get publicity and sympathy for the cause. He was one of the first to realize the value of sound public relations in promoting the cause, and was one of the first to use the power of celebrity.

He saw a lot of progress during his lifetime; most notably, the protection of wild animals and marine mammals in addition to domesticated ones, and the importance of lobbying and ensuring the passage of legislation to protect animals. He was key in making the animal protection movement mainstream in the eyes of the public.

MM: What legacy did Cleveland leave, and how do you see his vision reflected today in the work of groups like The Humane Society of the United States and The Fund for Animals?

MG: In general, many of the key players in animal protection today worked for Amory decades ago; he taught them the ins and outs of the movement and how to succeed in it, and he instilled in them a passion for it. He also taught them that no abuse is minor, and that cruelty hurts everyone. He also taught them the value of moderation to draw public support; he realized that radical methods might alienate people who would otherwise be sympathetic to the cause.

Specifically, of course, the animal sanctuaries he helped found still exist across the country--most notably the Black Beauty Ranch (now the Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch) east of Dallas, and the books he wrote that still deal with the movement and his philosophy of it are still read by many, many people each year. And The HSUS is still one of the first to respond to timely issues, such as the rescue of animals left homeless by Hurricane Katrina.