Lou Cowan: design by Liza Cowan

Elegy for a Mentor

The political protests that overwhelmed American campuses during the Sixties were mostly over by the time I arrived at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, but I needed more than just a week of orientation to get acclimatized. I had been a student at Hebrew University from 1967 until June of 1970. Jerusalem then was small, secular, and quiet. The Upper West Side was squalid, noisy, and political. More than 50 years later, I still think about my good fortune in having found a mentor to ease the transition. Louis G. Cowan wasn’t an obvious choice – in fact I had chosen his class by default since no other elective appealed. “Problems in Media Management” was open to both Journalism and Business students and, in 1971, I was the only woman in the room.

I barely noticed when yet another man – tall but otherwise unremarkable, carrying a briefcase – walked in. He put it down and picked up a piece of chalk. Then he drew a large dollar sign on the blackboard.

That was a crass way of starting a journalism seminar, I thought, with a 23-year-old’s scorn. I was in journalism for the writing. This instructor, Mr. Cowan, was obviously in it for the money. Next to the dollar sign, he drew three large circles: Venn diagrams that represented diverse markets. Over the course of the seminar, he said, a series of guest lecturers would discuss the business of media, audience segmentation, and the roles of advertising, government regulation and the new technologies that were coming into play in the early 1970s. He turned out to be on first-name terms with them all: the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the most famous television sportscaster of the time, a former press secretary of a U.S. President, foundation heads, producers, editors and publishers, and the President of the National Council of Negro Women.

They shone beside their deferential host, a quiet, mysterious figure at the J-School who invited his students to an individual meet and greet in his wood-paneled office dominated by an enormous poster of the First Amendment. At my first meeting with Mr. Cowan, I said I had grown up on the West Side of Manhattan and was the daughter of Czech Jews: concentration camp survivors and refugees from Communism. I had graduated college in Israel, and worked as a reporter for the Jerusalem Post. I planned to earn my living as a magazine journalist.

The author’s 1970 press card

Mr. Cowan listened without interrupting. I assumed we had little in common and certainly didn’t think he’d become my mentor. I wanted a woman mentor who, I thought, would better understand who I was and what I wanted to write. Mr. Cowan was neither a woman nor a writer. A couple of months later, I had become so interested by his seminar that I was delighted when his secretary set up a second appointment.

By then, I had learned that, apart from teaching this seminar, Mr. Cowan seldom visited the Journalism School and arrived by a chauffeur-driven car. He preferred to work from his home, a penthouse apartment at the Westbury Hotel on Madison Avenue. I had often walked past that hotel awning on my way to and from my high school. Now, I was ushered into an elevator and then into a parlor with a working fireplace.

Back then no one questioned the propriety of meeting a professor in his home; my only question was: how could he afford to live in a hotel? But the culture of the class did not encourage gossip and there was no Wikipedia page to click. I read Mr. Cowan’s biography for the first time in a shocking front-page New York Times obituary five years later: “Louis Cowan. Killed With Wife in a Fire; Created Quiz Shows.”

It was then I learned he was born in Chicago in 1909, the son of a “mixed” marriage: Lithuanian Jewish cement-bag dealer Jacob Cohen and Hetty Smitz, daughter of mid-19th century German Jewish immigrants. His parents soon divorced and he was raised by his mother, and Uncle Harry Smitz. Harry was a successful lawyer and a diabetic, then thought doomed to an early death, who never married and became a surrogate father to his nephew. In 1921, Lou became fascinated by the new medium of radio and was one of the first people who heard the Chicago Grand Opera broadcast from downtown Chicago. By 1924, he was following the presidential conventions and the election of Calvin Coolidge on his own radio. He experimented with programming through high school and college but admired print journalists and, after graduating from the University of Chicago, looked for work as a newspaper reporter.

But jobs were scarce in 1931. In part because of the antisemitism he encountered, in part because he wanted a clean break from his estranged father, he changed his surname from Cohen to Cowan. Then he founded a public relations company geared toward radio.

At the Westbury, I sometimes spoke with Mrs. Cowan. The former Pauline Spiegel was a grandchild of the man who founded the Spiegel mail-order catalogue after its department store burned down in the great Chicago fire. A Sarah Lawrence College grad and herself a radio buff, “Polly” Spiegel married Lou Cowan in 1939. Both interested in producing radio shows, they came up with the idea for Quiz Kids, the first game show to star smart children. Quiz Kids became a nationwide hit, ran for 13 years and became their ticket out of Chicago. In 1941, Mr. Cowan joined the Radio Division of the Army Bureau of Public Relations, then the Office of War Information in D.C. Then  FDR appointed Lou Cowan to head the Voice of America. 

Although my mentor, who rarely dipped into autobiographical mode, never talked about his Jewishness with me, I came to suspect that it was the Holocaust and their subsequent move to New York that shocked both Cowan and his wife, the former Pauline Spiegel, into a re-examination of their family histories.

Louis G. Cowan’s career took off after the war, while producing shows for the new medium of television. He produced more than 50 TV shows, including the children’s classic “Captain Kangaroo” and the adult “$64,000 Question,” so popular that on the nights it aired, the nation’s crime rate dropped and even President Eisenhower asked not to be disturbed. He joined CBS as a producer in 1955 and was appointed its President in 1958.

“His reign was short lived,” the New York Times reported in his obituary. “In December 1959, he resigned in the wake of disclosures that contestants who had agonized over questions in Mr. Cowan’s dramatic ‘isolation booth’ had been coached by program officials. Mr. Cowan, said he had known nothing of the rigging of ‘The $64,000 Question’.” He was then 50 years old.

When I took his seminar a decade later, I was a print snob who only vaguely remembered the quiz show scandal but Mr. Cowan seemed to me too principled to have been involved in anything rigged. Perhaps because he reminded me of my gentlemanly father, I didn’t think about what he knew and when, like some of my classmates. “I was dying to ask but I never did,” David Thorne told me much later, after I looked him up and discovered David had become a publisher and President Obama’s ambassador to Italy. “He alluded to it, talked about challenges of things ‘getting out of control’ but I thought it was none of my business to ask questions.” David found in Cowan a rare older man who supported his work. “I come from a conservative Republican family and there’s a lot of baggage that comes with that background,” he said. “My parents were anti-anything that wasn’t WASP. They hated the New York Times and thought Democrats were dirt. Lou was a Democrat. I could tell he was Jewish… He kept saying ‘you’re special, you’re unique, you have the ability to make things happen in the world.’ No one had ever said that to me before.”

Michael Rothfeld, who became a publishing executive at Time, Inc., and theater producer, also never asked Mr. Cowan what he knew. “He took the fall for CBS. God forbid any of the others would. He once told me: ’Remember, you meet them on the way up and on the way down.’” 

Mr. Cowan introduced me to people too. Since one of his seminar guests was Herbert Mitgang, an editor at the New York Times’ new Op-Ed Page, he asked me to analyze a sample of Op-Ed contributors and present my results to the seminar. That was easy. In 1971, there were almost no young, minority or female writers on the page. As Mr. Cowan had perhaps anticipated, Mr. Mitgang invited me to submit an Op-Ed. I wrote about the parallels between the TV show Mission Impossible and America’s policing of the world: my first article in the Times.

Toward the end of the semester, Mr. Cowan met with us to discuss what we would be doing after graduation. David and Michael had plans mapped out. I had no savings and no career strategy. I only knew that I wanted to write. For a couple of years I had been thinking about children of people who had been in concentration camps – but I needed a paying job. Mr. Cowan asked, as though the thought had just occurred to him, if I might like to meet with The New Yorker editor William Shawn. How did he know William Shawn? I didn’t ask him but asked his secretary Mrs. Krasny, who told me I should never assume there was anyone Mr. Cowan didn’t know. Moreover, she said, he took pleasure in connecting his connections.

The New Yorker was, in 1971, where most of my literary idols and teachers published and I took the subway to its old offices at 43rd Street off Fifth Avenue in an altered state, like Dorothy going to Oz. A shabby elevator let me out before a drably-dressed receptionist who led me down a narrow corridor to an unmarked door. Then she said “knock twice and enter.” A small bald man was sitting behind a very large desk. When he stood up to greet me, I saw he was also very short. “Sit down,” he said. “Sit down anywhere.” I looked around and lowered myself onto the only place to sit, a small sofa. I noticed there was nothing on Mr. Shawn’s desk but a manuscript, a lamp and a box of tissues. He asked whether I found journalism school “of value.” I replied, “Somewhat,” and then told him about my friends, my writing, and my teachers who had published in The New Yorker. After a couple of minutes, he asked if I might like to be a fact-checker. I should have felt ecstatic. But instead, I burst into tears.

Mr. Shawn motioned toward the box of tissues. I didn’t want to be a fact-checker, I blurted out between sobs. I wanted to go to Mexico and write a novel about children of concentration camp survivors. One of my writing teachers had recommended I go to San Miguel de Allende. Mr. Shawn remained very still in his chair while I blew my nose, then counseled me to do it. It didn’t occur to me that maybe he thought I wasn’t right (as New Yorker rejection letters read) for the magazine. Then he stood up, took hold of my elbow and, with the top of his head barely reaching my shoulder, steered me back down the corridor and into the elevator.

When I reported all this to my mentor, Mr. Cowan didn’t chastise me for blowing my interview. Maybe Shawn was right, he said. Maybe it would be better for me to go write in Mexico. With a tact I recognize only in retrospect, he floated an unlikely idea. He administered the Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia University Survey and Awards Program in Broadcast Journalism. Every summer, one journalism student became a DuPont Laureate, screening hundreds of TV and radio submissions and helping the director write the annual report, published as a book. I could earn money, gain experience preparing a non-fiction book. and then go to Mexico. I soon became busy screening audio and videotapes. Then I flew off to Mexico to write my novel. I’m not sure I even said good-bye to my mentor.

I made an appointment to see him when I came back, in the fall of 1972. The novel I had titled We Who Came After the War was almost done and I was once again at loose ends. I was very lucky to have an agent, I told Mr. Cowan, but she intimidated me and she didn’t think that my subject – descendants of genocide survivors – was important. Why? Mr. Cowan asked. She wanted me to write an upbeat, commercial book. For example? She introduced me to an editor looking for an author for a book about alternatives to commercial household products: cleaning rugs with sauerkraut, was one of them. Mr. Cowan smiled and gave me the name of another literary agent. I still didn’t realize that Mr. Cowan was Jewish or that, when he was my age and starting out, his wealthy uncle had helped him out. The only time he ever made a reference to his personal life was a day I called him up and he said, “I hope you’re not calling with bad news. I’ve heard so much today, I don’t think I can bear any more.”

I don’t remember how he inquired about how I planned to support myself while establishing myself as a writer without embarrassing me but after I told him I planned to share an apartment with a classmate and was thinking about waitressing or babysitting, he floated the idea of my assisting his secretary. I could help her out by working part-time on the seminar and other projects. Like what? I asked. For example, he had long collected posters. How would I like to scout posters in the travel agencies on Fifth Avenue? My salary would be $5 an hour – the going secretarial rate at the time. I took the job, marveling that my mentor could pay someone to research his whims, too obtuse to appreciate that he was buying me writing time on his own dime.

He had so many connections with so many institutions; I was startled when I learned he was also involved with a project to audiotape Holocaust survivors. I hadn’t heard Mr. Cowan talk about the Holocaust. It would not be until 1978 that a television series put the term into public discourse. But a decade before the U.S. Holocaust Museum opened and before other American institutions began collecting Holocaust testimonies, a library applied to the National Endowment for the Humanities to fund 250 audio-interviews of American Holocaust survivors. If the grant came through, Mr. Cowan asked, might I wish to interview my parents for it?

Within the year, Mr. Cowan won the NEH grant to audiotape 250 American Holocaust survivors and hired me not only to interview my parents for it but to write up the final report to the Endowment. I still didn’t want to take a full-time job and hoped that We Who Came After the War would become a bestseller though my agent had received over a dozen rejection letters. It was only in the spring of 1973 that my mentor began to wonder aloud if I had considered teaching journalism. I wondered if Mr. Cowan was finally pushing me out of the nest. His timing, like his tact, was everything. He encouraged me to send out my resume to some 25 schools and universities in the city with journalism programs and to bill myself as his teaching assistant. I was hired as an Instructor at New York University’s Department of Journalism in the fall of 1974 and, in 1981, became the department’s first tenured female professor.

My mentor didn’t live to see it. Nor did he live to see my novel, reconceived and published as Children of the Holocaust, one of the first narrative non-fiction books about inter-generational transmission of trauma. Looking back, I understand how important it was that Mr. Cowan bought me time, asked me to write that report about Holocaust survivors. I had delivered a copy of it to him not long before he died in the fire at the Westbury Hotel.

I’m a decade older now than he was then. When I think about Louis G. Cowan’s role in my life, I remember his listening without inserting himself into the narrative, his good judgment and his consistent validation of his mentees. I wonder how he would have navigated the freedom of speech crises in universities today, not to speak of the many “problems in media management.” I don’t possess a fraction of his media experience or wealth or connections but when consulting with former students, I try to focus on what they need. I try to be a good mentor.

Helen Epstein (www.helenepstein.com) is the author of 12 books and hundreds of reviews and magazine articles. She is at work on a memoir about being a journalist.