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Behind the scenes with Arthur Unger

He toured with the Beatles. He interviewed celebrities.
Saturday, April 7, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 5:59 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
A young Arthur Unger poses for a portrait. Unger's life as an entertainment journalist is cataloged in files and recordings to MU's Western Historical Manuscript Collection.

Shortly before he died in 2004, entertainment journalist Arthur Unger began helping to catalog articles, notes and personal memorabilia he had donated to MU’s Western Historical Manuscript Collection.

That process brought up memories for Unger — and, as it often was during his more than four decades on the job, a tape recorder was rolling to capture his recollection.

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“‘We have Al Pacino and he doesn’t do interviews, but he’d like to try one with you,’” Unger recalled being told. “‘We’re setting this up at the hotel, we’re taking a suite and would you want to do the interview?’

“I couldn’t believe it — I said yes. I went there, and there was Al Pacino. He had ordered nuts and hors d’oeuvres, sitting in this little suite at the Algonquin. We proceeded to do the interview. I said, ‘It’s a mystery to me, why did you ask for me?’”

The answer was Pacino’s girlfriend at the time, actress Tuesday Weld. “‘I saw the interview you did with her, so I thought I’ll try it, too,’” Unger recalled Pacino saying.

Unger never got to finish cataloging his life’s work. He died of a heart attack while vacationing in Paris with his partner, Raul Nuñez. That has left the job of cataloging the large collection drawn from Unger’s rich career, which must also be easy to use, to David Moore, a historian in the manuscript collection at Ellis Library.

“It was important to Mr. Unger that the collection be used,” Moore said. “That was one of the biggest conditions of his donating the collection here.”

Unger decided to donate his materials at the urging of friends and family. Before MU got involved, the majority of his audiotapes — which Unger called his “notebooks” — went to the Television History Archive Library at Syracuse University in New York. A few other pieces, like Beatles memorabilia, were sold at auction.

At MU, Unger’s alma mater, his files take up 15 feet of shelf space, or about 15 moving boxes’ worth. They are arranged by category, with books and magazines separated from files with articles and notes in them. Written across the top of each file are titles that ring with recognition, such as “Lucille Ball” and “Joan Crawford.”

It’s a time capsule of the entertainment industry in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. “The little kid is unbelievable,” Unger recalled thinking about Michael Jackson when he interviewed the Jackson Five. “The sparks fly from his eyes.”

Also on the tape made shortly before he died, is a memory of Grace Kelly that provides a window into Unger’s convictions. Once, he had an interview scheduled with Kelly, the actress-turned-princess. When he was required to sign an agreement that anything he wrote could be censored, Unger balked.

“I discovered that was a terrible thing to do, that you don’t turn your back on a princess,” he said. Instead, Unger got an interview with Kelly’s husband, Prince Rainier of Monaco.

Interviewing seemed to come naturally to Unger, and it was clear to Nuñez and others who knew Unger why Pacino requested him. “In a sense, rather than asking questions, it was like a conversation,” Nuñez recalled from his home in New York City. “He spoke a lot himself, and he opened up the person that was being interviewed.”

Nuñez and Unger were together for 44 years. “I witnessed his evolution, so to say,” Nuñez said.

Arthur Unger was born in Brooklyn on March 29, 1925, where he lived with his parents, a brother and a sister. During World War II, he served in the Army as a cryptographer. After the war, he came to MU under the GI Bill and, in 1949, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in journalism.

Unger’s first job as a journalist was at a car magazine, but it wasn’t long before he was able to follow his original plan and get into entertainment journalism.

In the 1960s and ‘70s, he owned, edited and published a teen magazine called Datebook, now out of print. Later, he became the television critic for the Christian Science Monitor, where he worked until 1988. After retiring, he still wrote articles occasionally for Television Quarterly.

Pacino is one of dozens of famous and influential people Unger interviewed between 1960 and 1988. One of his most extensive relationships was with the Beatles, with whom he traveled during the first two years of their American tours.

In 1964 and ’65, he published special issues of Datebook, titled “All About the Beatles.” Once, he even acted as a decoy with three other members of the press so that the Beatles could escape a concert without being mobbed by their overheated fans. Unger recounted the event in an article for the Christian Science Monitor titled “I Toured With Them, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah.”

After John Lennon commented, “We’re bigger than Jesus,” to a British reporter, Unger printed it in his American magazine, said his brother-in-law, Jerry Ferber of Connecticut. The scandal picked up quickly, and Unger received letters from fans and ex-fans from around the country. Some were outraged and demanded that Unger stop supporting the Beatles. Others were embarrassed and apologized for their fellow Americans’ touchy sense of humor.

Unger was known to have intimate working relationships with his subjects. They often told him things they might later regret. Once, he did an interview with Jean Stapleton while she was starring in television’s “All in the Family.” She had apparently said some critical things of another cast member, but Unger didn’t include those in his story.

“He ended up writing a very thoughtful piece,” said Victoria Irwin, a former colleague from the Christian Science Monitor now living in Virginia. “She (Stapleton) wrote him a note to thank him, but Arthur wasn’t like that. He wasn’t an ‘Entertainment Tonight’ type of reporter. He was interested in details of an actor’s life, not just flashy stuff.”

Unger looked for a deeper angle; he liked to interview people with something to say, his friends and family said. “He liked his interview with Ingrid (Bergman),” Nuñez said. “She really had something to say.”

Deep in the MU collection is a tape-recorded exchange between Unger and Otto Frank, a Holocaust survivor and the father of Anne Frank. It is a conversation about a proposed television special on a romance between Anne and Peter van Pels, who hid from the Nazis with the Franks in Amsterdam during World War II.

The TV special never occurred because of Frank’s reservations, but their conversation formed the script for a recent play by MU doctoral student Kevin Babbitt, “Being Frank.”

“They had important things to say about prejudice and discrimination in this country and the world,” Babbitt said just before the one-man play opened in January. “Unger shared as much as he asked.”

Unger also interviewed other journalists, such as Barbara Walters and Dan Rather. On the cataloging tape, Unger told this story:

“I was in Houston when there was a press conference with Nixon, at the end of Nixon’s term, and (Rather) was asking really rough questions. Nixon said to him, ‘That’s a pretty tough question, are you running for something?’ And Dan Rather said, ‘No sir, are you?’ I had that on tape, and Dan knows I have it on tape. He said, ‘Don’t lose that tape.’”

When he wasn’t in studios and hotel rooms connecting his readers to the celebrities they admired, Unger traveled. “We’ve traveled everywhere,” Nuñez said. “Tibet was a highlight. My favorite trip was one where we went around the world in 45 days.”

Unger often worked while he traveled, writing articles for the Christian Science Monitor from all over the world.

“Art got lost in the mountains of Greece, It was really cold, and he was afraid to fall asleep. He took diet pills to stay awake. He was found the next day by some monks, who took him back to the monastery,” Ferber, Unger’s brother-in-law, recalled. “He sent a large donation, and then they sent him a large, hand-painted icon. I inherited the icon, which I recently contributed to a Greek church. It’s on display there now.”

The icon depicts St. George and is now at the Christ the Savior Orthodox Church in Southbury, Conn.

Even though Unger retired, he never stopped working. “Art was always interested in the younger generation, in their schooling,” Ferber said. “They turned to him for questions when they had papers to write.”

Unger liked to play a paternal role. Though he never had children, he was very connected to the youth in his family and his community. He volunteered for a group called RSVP (Retired and Senior Volunteer Program) that does work with libraries, schools, nursing homes, museums, soup kitchens and hospitals.

Unger found his niche with the schools. He went in to New York City public schools and talked to them about a range of social issues. “He found reactions to old age, religious, race differences,” Nuñez said. “It was his main interest in the last years of his life.”

Unger’s intent with the collection now at MU was to share in sorting it all out. Over the years, he filed things as he went along, but some pages had been damaged or misplaced. Now the collection is somewhere between its original state and the organized final product.

“We’re going to keep weeding things out,” said Peter McCarthy, library information assistant for the Western Historical Manuscript Collection. “Sometimes we make better photo copies. Mostly, we get rid of duplicates and try to come up with some sort of order.”

The collection is open to the public; viewing it requires photo identification. The pages are safer at MU than they would be in private ownership. “We keep everything back here,” historian Moore said, gesturing to shelves where the boxes are kept. “It’s all acid-free paper, folders, acid-free boxes. The paper won’t age the same way here as outside.”

There was always the danger the collection would be destroyed, Nuñez, Unger’s partner, said. “It made me very glad for there to be a place for (them) to go.”


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