Airing A Life On The Air

Radio talk-show legend Barry Farber recounts his stories from both sides of the microphone.

10/23/2012
Staff Writer
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During his five-plus decades as a radio talk-show host, Barry Farber has reigned as a leader of his profession and interviewed, by his own count, some 10,000 guests — how many questions has he asked on-air? You do the math — and met some of the best-known figures of the second half of the 20th century and served in the U.S. Army and run for political office and established a reputation as both a rare Jewish conservative and a master of foreign tongues by studying, with varying degrees of success, more than two dozen languages and, most recently, writing about his life’s path in “Cocktails with Molotov: An Odyssey of Unlikely Detours” (WND Books).

But this afternoon Farber is in the guest’s seat. In his own Upper West Side apartment.

“If you were interviewing Barry Farber,” comes the question, “what would be the first question you would ask him?”
Farber, who has whittled extemporaneous repartee into an art form, is silent.

“That’s a real tough one,” he finally says in his North Carolina drawl as smooth as the honey of a 100 beehives.
He offers a few suggestions, more to himself than to his guest, then offers a question.

“With all your background — 50 years on the air,” Farber says, “how come you’re not on the air on a New York station?”
At 82, he still likes to open with a toughie.

The answer, he explains over a few hours in a wood-paneled living room of the apartment where he has lived — and often conducted interviews — since 1964, in a review of a career that has taken him from Greensboro to an Olympic Games and Communist-occupied Eastern Europe and political conventions and several venues in-between, is the vagaries of a youth-obsessed, ratings-driven business. With TV dominating the talk-show biz, Farber, no longer the flashy, new kid on the broadcast block, has found himself in recent years on satellite radio and cable radio (a few nights a week on crntalk.com), since leaving his last fulltime job, on the ABC Radio Network, more than a decade ago.

“I have no regrets,” Farber says. “I can’t complain.” Radio’s been good to him. “It gave me a nice life.” He shares some of those stories in “Cocktails with Molotov.” (The title is the summary of a brief encounter he had in 1956 with Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet foreign minister for whom the home-made gasoline bomb is named.)

In 82 short chapters, Farber — “the only wrestler anybody had ever heard of who took Norwegian grammar books on out-of-town wrestling team trips,” according to his 1987 book, “Making People Talk” (William Morrow and Company) — writes about the most-memorable people he met and his lifelong love affair with foreign languages. Many of the stories have a Jewish theme; most, by his own design as an outspoken opponent of Communism and other forms of oppression and prejudice, share a theme of “freedom”; some paint him as an innocent naïf who succeeded despite himself.

Take “Alfred Hitchcock Answers My Most Brilliant Question.” That’s the chapter about the time in 1963 when the British filmmaker’s “The Birds” was about to open. He granted an interview with “an unknown talk-show host with an unknown radio show over a local New York radio station.” Farber had just started his radio career. He and a sound engineer went to Hitchcock’s suite at the St. Regis Hotel, recording equipment in hand.

Setting up the various cords and cable, and finding a proper power line, took a while and tested the producer’s patience. “Hitchcock,” Farber writes, “instinctively resigned himself to the fact that he’s been taken hostage by the two biggest yo-yos in broadcasting, and the smartest thing to do at that point was to relax and enjoy it.”

Farber, he thought to himself, might save his skin with a piercing, probing, thoroughly unpredictable opening question. Hitchcock “will forgive us for all these upscuddles,” Farber told himself. “He will love this question. He will put his arm around me as we leave and tell me how much he enjoyed the interview.”

“Mr. Hitchcock,” Farber began, “I’m going to give you a plot right now and let you direct it. A famous movie director is being interviewed on a local radio show and he’s going to be murdered. How would you stage it?”

“Without, I promise you, a moment’s hesitation,” Farber writes, “Alfred Hitchcock intoned in that lugubrious British accent, ‘Well given the proper interviewer, he could be bored to death.’”

“If it turns out there’s a special broadcaster’s section of heaven, and Saint Peter asks me to offer a reason on my behalf why I should be admitted,” Farber concludes the story, “I’ll tell him, ‘Even though Alfred Hitchcock turned me into a smoking crater, I left every bit of it in the tape!’”

Much of the book has that don’t-take-yourself-too-seriously tone, as the public face — or voice — of Farber yields to the private, behind-the-scenes perspective, alternately dropping names (and Farber’s met some of the biggest ones) and reminiscing over the largely unknown heroes he’s met (officers in various countries’ armies, teachers and taxi drivers and some Hungarian anti-Semites).

Much of the time he writes about his romance with foreign languages, a series of relationships that began when he learned Spanish and French in elementary school, then quickly branched into Norwegian and … and the list keeps on going.

“I love the nature of foreign languages,” the entrée it offers into other psyches and cultures, Farber says. “I even liked Hebrew School.”

Farber, who in the 1990s formed a separate Language Club and Jewish Language Club where aficionados any number of tongues could practice their conversational skills over dinner at a Manhattan restaurant (kosher, for the latter club), divides his own collection into languages he’s “married” (mastered the grammar and various technical requirements thereof) and those he’s only “dated” (taught himself to speak without delving into grammatical complexities.)

An avid suitor, Farber so far has married Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Dutch, Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, Mandarin Chinese, Indonesian, Hungarian, Finnish, Russian, Serbo-Croatian and Yiddish. And he’s dated Hebrew, Cantonese Chinese, Albanian, Ukrainian, Czech, Polish, Bulgarian, Arabic, Twi, Wolof, Bengali, Haitian Creole, Japanese, Hindi, Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian and Greek.

Why has Farber, a “very prayerful Jew” who wears his ethnicity on his sleeve and makes himself readily available to Jewish causes that need to borrow his voice, never married Hebrew?

“Guilty,” he pleads. The reasons are demographic; he usually betroths languages whose native speakers number in the scores of millions. Hebrew isn’t big enough. When he encountered Hebrew as an adult, he decided that “it wasn’t spoken by that many people.”

“My motives for learning various languages have ranged from chance and youthful energy (Norwegian) to wanting a vital tool for my work (Spanish) to processing refugees (Hungarian) to getting dates with women whose looks I liked (Swedish) to proving I wasn’t an idiot for almost flunking Latin (Chinese),” he wrote in “How to Learn Any Language” (MJF Books), his 1991, anecdote-filled guide to his self-taught techniques.

That book cites “blonde languages” (not surprisingly, Swedish among them) and “brunette” languages (including Turkish, Arabic and Hebrew.) Apparently people partial to redheads must remain mute.

Farber’s apartment — which he shares with his wife and business partner Sara Pentz — is packed with the artwork and knick-knacks of a career on the air and on the road, of books in and about countless languages. His memory, he says, is filled with the inspirational people whose paths he has crossed. His time is still taken up with reading and working.

Isn’t there a word in one of his languages for “retirement”?

No.

Does he ever pinch himself, that, as a Jewish boy from the South, he has fared so well in the Big Apple?

No, again. “So many have done so much more.”

One final question.

When Farber meets God one day, what will he ask Him?

This time, he doesn’t hesitate.

“I pray every single day,” Farber says. In heaven, “I’ll ask God if my prayers over the years have any weight in me being here.”

steve@jewishweek.org

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