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Q&A: ‘Mad Men’ Creator Matthew Weiner Talks LA Jews and the American Dream

And things Jews overhear while passing for white people

David Samuels
April 03, 2015
Larry Busacca/Getty Images
Larry Busacca/Getty Images
Larry Busacca/Getty Images
Larry Busacca/Getty Images

If I could meet any Jew for a dry martini at the Carlyle Hotel, I would choose Matthew Weiner, the creator of the most influential iteration of the mid-century American story and one of the great show runners in the new golden age of television. So, I felt lucky when I got the chance to do just that a few weeks ago. But we met at 11 a.m., so the only drink available was a Bloody Mary. Still game, I ordered one for myself (vodka; extra horseradish), but Weiner just asked for a coffee with milk.

It wasn’t exactly how I imagined it, but we settled in to our comfortable surroundings and talked about the Jews for almost two hours, until he went off to have a more perfectly set-designed lunch, probably at the Rainbow Room or some other suitably mid-century modern midtown location. The version of our conversation that follows has been subjected to the moderate degree of editing appropriate to a publication that is read both by Jews and by the people who love them.

You’re one of those Los Angeles Jews, right?

I grew up in Hancock Park in Los Angeles. I went to a school where you know there was like 120 kids in my class, probably 15 Jews. And I lived in a world where I heard a lot of stuff. I don’t know if I noticed it or not, but when I was teaching at a school, I was 19 or 20 years old it was a summer job in college. I overheard this in the faculty room: “Adding money and education doesn’t take the rude edge out of people.”

Gee, I wonder which people they meant?

I knew the subject already: Somebody’s mom was coming to complain about their kid. And then, interestingly enough, as the Korean minority started making its impact, which is when I was teaching, I started hearing all the same clichés again: “They’re clannish, all they care about is money, they,” you know, “they’ll do anything to get their kid into medical school. I don’t know who they think they are.”

New York Jews are different than Los Angeles Jews, though. Don’t try to wiggle out of it.

New York is the homeland. We have our own version of it, and it’s not exactly New York. There’s a lot of shadow New York, as you remember when Pete Campbell went to Cantor’s. And there are so many transplanted New Yorkers in Los Angeles. My father’s from Brooklyn, my mother’s from the Bronx. I don’t know if anybody knows that. My dad went to Stuyvesant, my mom went to Bronx Science, both my grandfathers worked in Manhattan. And so, New York is the homeland, the motherland. Sending bagels from H&H when somebody has a baby and stuff.

Did you come here as a kid?

Well, I lived in Baltimore until I was 11, but our Los Angeles version has its own thing. I became friendly with Larry Gelbart, who grew up in L.A., and he had a good explanation of it. His family was from Chicago originally. You sort of take whatever, you’re kind of an immigrant to Los Angeles, but Los Angeles has its own thing. A lot of the history, a lot of the flavor of Los Angeles Jewry has to do with show business. It’s not like a Carnegie Deli kind of thing—it’s literally like the synagogues were founded by these people. The country clubs were founded by these people. The restaurants have sandwiches named after them. And they’re very assimilated. That’s kind of the history of the show.

What lies beneath the surface of that sunny California acceptance?

There was a thing at my high school called the Sons of Hitler. It was a scandal. And it was four or five boys printing up cards and writing graffiti, it was in the LA Times—this is when I was there. They are the scions of some of the most powerful people in Los Angeles. I finally had someone say something to me as an adult, explain it me, through a third party at a party, saying like, “Let me tell you about Matt in high school” or whatever. It was like going behind the curtain. And I’m saying it in direct answer to your question. This guy said, “You guys, that was our school and this was our world and then you guys came in and you were there with your big mouth and your black hair and your leather jacket.” That’s what he said. And I was like, “Oh my God, what, am I in like Chariots of Fire?” This is Los Angeles, the Sopranos was on the air, this was like 2004.

But Los Angeles was not integrated. Los Angeles had restricted country clubs. And Hancock Park had a cotillion. And someone from my high school was arrested for defacing a synagogue. And there was, especially in Hancock Park, which was the old L.A. money, there was a thing of like, no show business here. W.C. Fields couldn’t live there, Cecil B. DeMille couldn’t live there, but it was a lot about keeping Jews out. Nat King Cole was the famous person who worked his way in there, and it was one of the most humiliating stories you’d ever heard in your life.

But when I was growing up, the mayor of Los Angeles was Tom Bradley, an African American, and you just sort of think, “Well, everything’s over.” Ronald Reagan doesn’t seem anti-Semitic, and he was in show business. But it was still really, really strong. Sterling Cooper is more like my high school in the ’80s than it may have been like an ad agency in the 1950s or ’60s. I’m not as angry, but I have overheard a lot of stuff of the type that an African-American person is never going to get to hear, unless it’s like the Eddie Murphy sketch where they’re wearing whiteface.

The old SNL sketch, where he finds out white people get everything for free.

Everybody knows what Rosh Hashanah is here whether they’re Jewish or not. You watch Lost Weekend, and you see that the pawn-brokers close on St. Patrick’s day—they have some kind of deal that the Jews will observe the Irish holiday, and the Irish observe the Jewish holiday. That is New York City. You know Rachel Menken says it’s not. I lived in a world of the white power elite of Los Angeles where there was a lot of sexism and anti-Semitism, and I was in their homes, observing.

What you are telling me is that Mad Men is a Jewish show.

I did expect that somebody in what I considered to be the Jewish press or some Jewish reporter would notice that I was putting it out there. I remember reading a review in the Wall Street Journal from Dorothy Rabinowitz, who I think is probably about 15 years younger than, maybe at most, than the fictitious Rachel Menken. It was a big deal to have that character, that’s all I can say. I’m from the generation that was raised to keep it to yourself. Don’t announce it, blend in.

The department store business—that was an interest of mine that actually preceded advertising, the family department store. Originally Rachel had a different family name belonging to a real department store. But I legally couldn’t do that. So, I had to find a Jewish name that was not associated with a department store. I mean, good luck. Literally every single city in the United States had one. Casper, Wyoming, has a Jewish department store. You know there’s Kobachnik, there’s Hutzler’s, there’s Hess, and Kress and Preske.

One of the fascinating things for me about your show is a sense in which I feel like a huge part of the audience and the discussion around it is driven by nostalgia for Cold War structures and certainties, while the show is undermining that nostalgia in a thousand different ways. Yet people still trip on how cool it would be to be like the guys and girls in Mad Men.

Yeah, they cannot be talked out of it. When I heard people wanted to be Don Draper, I’m like, “I think you want to be Jon Hamm. Don Draper looks great and has a troubled life. Jon Hamm lives like that every day in our world. Jon Hamm is the voice of Mercedes Benz. That’s what you want.” He’s not a guy whose daughter walked in on him having sex.

Well, there was the Cold War, of course, but there was structure in the country, and better art, and better writers, and all that cool mid-century modern design.

I just started looking at that period and saying, “Look at the dreams that people had in America.” The American Dream being, not some advertising slogan, but mobility, the G.I. Bill, the largesse of America around the world. You can doubt all the motives and say we wanted missiles in Turkey, fine. But the Marshall Plan you know, we gave money to those places to encourage democracy and even to encourage dissent.

There is this subversive streak in America that has to do with talking about what’s wrong with America. And sometimes maybe we shouldn’t do it in front of strangers, because they jump on it. You know when you meet someone from a foreign country and they think that because you live in America you must imagine yourself to be in the middle of a race war in which you hate black people and I’m like, “What? What are you talking about?”

So, I was like, “Well, maybe it’s a myth on some level, but there was a guy on my corner when I first got married, a Cambodian immigrant who had fled the Khmer Rouge, I think he might have been missing a finger. And he started a donut shop—there was one famous Cambodian who came to Los Angeles and started a whole chain of them. But this guy, I don’t think he’s connected to him, I think he was just like—

Donuts. That is how I will enter into the American Dream.

Exactly. And when my wife and I first got married, he actually slept in the store. And we then bought a house on this same street and he continued to go to this donut place, and his kids worked there. And then his kids went to college and then other people worked there, and all the sudden it wasn’t open 24 hours anymore. And I said to my wife, “That’s not made up. That guy actually came here and did that. You can’t do that anywhere.” And he’s an American, his kids are Americans, they’re going to face prejudices and things like that, I understand. But you can live in Great Britain forever and never be British.

I felt like, I’m going to tell a story about opportunity and living in a world of excuses and victimhood. I’m going to say, “Look at how tough these people are.” When you see Disney movies, early Disney movies, and you think like, Who thought you could show Bambi to a kid? But during the Great Depression, plenty of kids went through extreme hardships. Those people were tough.

So, I just realized that I was being a little hard on the whole thing. Don Draper is an amazing story. And Rachel Menken’s expression of her relationship with Israel, for example, was something that I grew up with. I wanted to say that. It’s very important to me.

The bearing of the actress [Maggie Siff] who plays Rachel, there was something in her that was exactly conveyed, that was so expressive of a deep intuition about her character, of her sense of self and her place in her family. I knew that woman. I was actually engaged to her once.

She reminds me of women in my family, honestly. I’m a big fan of powerful women, and also of powerful Jewish women in particular. It’s funny because orthodoxy is extremely sexist. Orthodox Judaism. And at the same time, the ultimate goal for a man to study all day long requires that his wife have industry. So, you look at the leaders of the women’s movement, there are Jewish women who are cutting-edge in almost every field, especially in the 20th century. There’s a nice lineage.

Right, although you know in the Forward, the old Yiddish-language newspaper that used to play such an important role in the Jewish community in New York, they had a regular feature, a full page of all the men who had left their families, with their pictures. I think a lot of Jewish men came to America and couldn’t work or provide for their families, and felt castrated, and so they left.

Oh, I didn’t know that. I don’t consider those guys castrated, they’re more like Don Draper for me.

Maybe you’re right. They just took off with some floozy. But however you slice it, those Jewish men were maybe the flip side of some of those Jewish women.

But thinking back on those immigrants, and then on the Holocaust, it’s a strange thing now with Jews in America, because they suddenly don’t count as a minority group anymore. They did a 180, from being the definition of a minority group to being the embodiment of white-skin privilege. Especially to white elites, who may find it useful to position the Jews as flak-catchers.

Well, here I can quote something that I read in Tablet—Howard Jacobson’s comment that the Holocaust made it taboo to be anti-Semitic, but now they can direct all of those words and emotions at Israel and not realize that it’s the same thing.

I think they realize it.

It’s the same sentiments, the same clichés.

Israel is definitely a useful word. But when someone looks at you and says, “Those Israelis are worse than the Nazis,” I think both parties know what’s being said, and to whom.

I remember the first time I saw, sometime early in the Intifada, that thing in Time magazine where they used Israel and genocide in the same sentence. I thought, “Wow, they must love doing that.”

I think it also plays into a particular politics in the media world in New York, which has been dominated by Jews for a long time. So, people come in, they feel like outsiders, and now they have a club that the Jews can’t dominate, even though of course they still try. And that combines in a funny way with the energy of new media, because old media is the thing that was supposedly owned and run by Jews. Therefore, the Israel-is-the-most-hateful-and-oppressive-country-on-earth meme is great because it expresses two kinds of hostility at once: The old resentments, and the will to power of the new medium.

Actually, I cannot agree with all that. It’s part of the story of the show, actually: The generation that was in the media that has a Jewish background or is actually Jewish is a minority—but soon as you own 20 percent of anything and you’re a minority, you own all of it, right? We learned that in high school. Our class was 10 percent Jewish, so therefore it’s 50 percent Jewish in people’s minds. Maybe they’re in charge of the yearbook and the newspaper, and the student-body president and the water polo team, but there is really only 10 of them. They don’t own anything—they are over-represented.

The fluidity of identity is not just for Jews, it was for everybody. What I was trying to say is that you can invent your identity, and America is quite tolerant of that. Jay Gatsby is not Jewish.

I do think that we don’t get the same status as a minority because we’re white and that makes a huge difference. You can hide and pass and blend. Part of the story of Rachel Menken is that she’s not. She’s explaining to Don, she has a confidence about who she is, but that was what I thought of the nose-job generation. There were a lot of Christmas trees in those homes and a lot of like “Hey, you know, what’s wrong with this, let’s just be part of this thing.” And a lot of intermarriage. When I look at the media, I feel the same way. There are survival skills. But there is also a bending over backwards to not have a bias that I think has resulted in the conversation that then can get hijacked.

But to even in pride suggest that Jews dominated the media in any real way is foolish, David. Jews are over-represented; they do not dominate it. Even when they dominated the ownership of the studios, they were quickly taken over by public corporations. Jock Whitney is not Jewish. Gulf and Western wasn’t a Jewish company.

I feel chastened, and rightly so. But, to play devil’s advocate, Charlie Bluhdorn was the head of Gulf and Western when they owned Paramount and made The Godfather and all those other great movies. And he was Jewish, even though he denied it. He was bonkers, too.

But the point still stands: When you are half of a percent of a population and you are so overrepresented, or you’re paying attention to business or are successful in some way, it becomes, “Oh, it’s all of them.”

Do you feel that Jews in America are still a minority group and still outsiders, except we get confused in our own brains and imagine we are not?

I’m a writer so I’m an outsider. It’s not from being Jewish. But I do believe that having lived undercover that there is a large portion of the population that views us as outsiders. Which is a fact that we might not want to accept.

And that we are for some reason not part of multiculturalism, even though we do have a culture, and we are a minority. I definitely think we’re a minority. We need an ADL! It’s not about having a parallel universe anymore. Whether you want to admit it or not, you see in the history of the world the times when the Jews are getting comfortable, and then they wake up one day and realize that they can be cut out of this bargain at any time, even if they’re intermarried, even if they converted. I mean, what a shock for an entire generation of German Jews who became Protestants in the late 1800s to find out that their offspring were still Jews.

That’s right.

So, I might have started off the show in some way trying to do a critique and an observation of what had gone wrong in America. But I completely changed my opinion as I worked on it.

Wait, what was your original opinion?

That the Baby Boomers grew up and became the Reagan generation and their solipsism created this mess that we’re in right now—this mess being a combination of low self-esteem, low political influence, conservative reaction, and a kind of retrograde America that punished people who aspired.

Talk about the con-man bit, because you have more than one such character in Mad Men. There’s Don Draper, and the even more opaque character, Bob, both of whom are basically frauds. They’re self-invented men, and who knows what their actual name is or where they really came from. That’s the other side of Cold War America, these fantastical figures who are wearing the gray flannel suit and the tie, and yet underneath, who are they?

The fluidity of identity is not just for Jews, it was for everybody. What I was trying to say is that you can invent your identity, and America is quite tolerant of that. Jay Gatsby is not Jewish.

That’s right. This is a country that invented itself from scratch, made up a new name and a new system of government.

That’s the beauty of it. Samuel Goldwyn, his name was Goldfish, did you know that?

Goldfish? That’s funny.

And then he merged with a company called Selwyn, and changed the company to Goldwyn.

Which is a much better name than either Selwyn or Goldfish.

Which they said it could have been Selfish, which was the other version of it. And then he legally changed his name to the name of his company, backwards-wise. And they took him to court, either Lasky, or, who was his brother-in-law, or one of the previous partners took him to court, I don’t remember exactly, and tried to keep him from changing his own name to the name of the company. And the judge said, “You’re a self-made man, you should be able to have a self-made name.” And that to me, is Don.

And Ginsberg is the bookend to Rachel, the proud, self-assured Jewess?

I think Jane Segal is the bookend. She’s just someone who happens to be Jewish.

That’s it, she’s beautiful and she’s a secretary and she’s you know probably not making it on her merits but she just happens to be Jewish. That’s the modern version of a Jewish character.

Right, part of the American wash. But I think it’s Ginsberg. He’s a little kid, he’s in a concentration camp, his parents are survivors, he can’t shake it. Rachel is composed, she has presence, she is structured. He’s a mess. He tries to be an American, but he flips out.

He’s a creative.

We know how iffy they are.

Honestly, that’s part of the story. They came into advertising—I’m talking about Jewish Americans—and they would be the only Jew in the company, and they were hired for their sense of humor. But by the time we’re at 1965, it’s getting much looser. So, it goes back to the earliest relationship with creatives in this story where you can’t push him around, and you can’t make demands because they’re not reliable. But you will get what you want if you sit back and wait. Right? That’s the way creative people are. Give them the deadline and then know the real deadline in your head.

So, Roger basically said, “Go get one.” Right? It was the most patronizing form of affirmative action, but other firms have them. That kind of crazy, Tom Wolfe-ian energy, linguistic energy, outsider energy, subversive energy, Mad Magazine point of view, comedian, free-bird attitude. That was really exploding. And that story of his, I wanted to remind people of how close it was, first of all, to the Holocaust. That guy was born in 1945 in a concentration camp. And I’m a huge fan of Maus, which I think that is one of the great masterworks. And then this guy, he says he doesn’t have any family. He is really trying to get away from all that. Wouldn’t you?

But the damage is too big. And he also has something wrong with him that has nothing to do with the Holocaust or anything else. Mental illness is mental illness.

When that character appeared, I was like, “Right, that guy’s going to go nuts.” And my friend was like, “Why?” I said, “His name’s Ginsberg, it’s Howl, he’s going to go crazy, just wait for it.”

I love Allen Ginsberg.

“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.”

I didn’t know why people were so surprised. He has not behaved normally the entire show. That was part of the story, too. That episode was kind of like, “Hey, guess what, it is exactly what you think it is. How could you be surprised that he was crazy?”

It’s always one of the best plot lines to pull off, just hide it in plain sight. “I told you so, but you didn’t listen.”

I do it all the time. It’s all based on your perception of entertainment.

The fact that you didn’t expect that is your problem. I’m playing it straight.

Exactly. He went crazy the year before when he said that there was an atomic bomb going off in his head. And the computer setting it off, you know. I think part of it’s that he was really funny and really handsome, and nobody wants it. But I always think about Sophie’s Choice, the great story of this Jewish American and this Polish woman and she has survived all this, and is the toughest person in the world, and he is mentally ill.

I agree that Sophie’s Choice may be the most-underrated American novel of the past 50 years, and I have some theories about why—beginning with the fact that Jews don’t like it. In that connection, I recall that the Ginsberg character occasioned a lot of interesting debate within the inner circle of Tablet, especially the first scene where he’s introduced, and you have the prayer in the house. Some people were annoyed by it. They thought it was a cliché.

Let me tell you something, that cliché of actually acknowledging Jewish practices is never done. Only Jews freak out when they see it. And like every religious ceremony or practice I’ve ever gotten near in my writing, every single person had an opinion about how it was done. When we did Father Gill, in the second year with him like putting on his vestments or getting undressed at night. You know we had consultants on these things. And I wanted him to have the full-on Ashkenazi accent. And the idea that they live in the Lower East Side and that he has told everybody that he does not have a family and that he lives with his father, who was clearly, extremely secular, and then bursts out with this—it’s like wiping the lipstick off your face when your grandmother kisses you. It embarrasses Jews to see that.

Jon Hamm directed that episode. And we had a conversation about building that cold-water flat. You know, my grandmother was born on Rivington Street. I’ve been in that apartment. They didn’t live there when I was little, but I visited it. And it still looks like that, with the bathtub in the kitchen, with the board on top of it as the counter, and so forth. That’s all real.

I think if you’re an African American, and you’re watching Django, and you start seeing slaves, the first thing that happens is you think, “Why are they doing that? The whole world’s going to see this, see us as slaves, and I know there is going to be revenge and everything, but why are they doing that?” I think it embarrasses people because it is totally the truth.

Isaac Singer wrote probably 2,000 stories, right? And the ones that take place in America, those two guys are in all of them. That’s not a cliché, that’s an observation. Anybody who went to Barney Greengrass in the ’70s saw those old survivors who talked in those heavy accents. They were all there.

That interests me, because it’s an ongoing conversation that I have with my wife, which is about—

Our self-hatred?

The peculiarities of American Jewish self-consciousness. Which is foreign to me, I admit, since I am culturally a WASP writer who likes sailing, Triscuits, and Thomas Pynchon.

Listen, you write for Tablet. So you obviously don’t have an issue.


But people do.

My wife says, and I think she’s right, that part of the peculiarity of American Jewish consciousness after the war is a measure of denial that the Holocaust happened. Their brothers, cousins, parents, or whatever, had been murdered in a kind of unimaginable way. So what does that say about us? Could it happen here? Should we have done something to help them? The guilt and fear were so overwhelming that people were just like, “Let’s not think about that. Let’s please not think about those people at the edges, with the heavy accents and the tattoos on their arms.”

I don’t know if that’s entirely true. But there is a tradition—

When you finish this answer I’m going to tell you a funny fucking story about the Jews of Los Angeles.

—there is a tradition of immigration that has to do with assimilation and success. And as you know, you can go on the Upper West Side here and you can see the Portuguese Jews were here when Central Park was a farm. So, well before Bolshevism it was already like, this is your embarrassing poor country cousin. It’s a class issue.

Kike is a word invented by Jews. From Kikeleh, the little circle that illiterates made, because they couldn’t write their names.

One of the things I was trying to do in that Babylon episode is explain that to white America, they look the way the boat people look to us. They were assumed to be indigent, uneducated, farmer class, or working class people who had been displaced through genocide. No one assumed that there would be a dozen Nobel Prize winners from eight blocks down here on the Lower East Side.

And America in general as I’ve mentioned in the show, Lyndon Johnson, they asked him why he supported Israel, he said because it’s right. Without any hesitation. America embraced the idea that that victim was now fighting a war to secure their state. You know what Exodus is about, you’ve seen the movie, you’ve read the book. It was a best-seller in the United States, not just with Jews.

So, I think that as someone who’s family was really unaffected by the Holocaust, my grandfather had one brother, but my family was here from the Russian Revolution on, there was so much bending over backward to make sure that those people could come here. All the way to the point of that the waves of immigration in the ’80s from Russia and Persia were both overseen by a lot of Holocaust survivors. I don’t think people realize this.

That is more an L.A. thing, I think, than a New York thing, that sense of openness and generosity toward newcomers. That’s one reason I like L.A. in theory much better than New York. It’s a more welcoming, American place.

My mother-in-law and this crowd, they became social workers. That’s how concerned they were. So, I don’t think people are denying the Holocaust. I enjoyed the article in Tablet that was about how it’s the obsession and defining moment for American Jewry.

So, the most cogent version I can muster is this: Whether American Jewry was asleep at the wheel, whether it was about the St. Louis or whatever they were unable to get done with Roosevelt during the war, that was definitely a source of guilt. But don’t act like American Jewry is not involved in the creation of the State of Israel. And my father said it was a great moment, a change in his thinking. I remember him telling this story about collecting money for the JNF. Some guy said to him when he was shaking the can, saying, “Can you give money to support to plant trees in Israel?” And some guy said, “You know that money’s used to kill Arabs.” My father said he went home and asked his dad about it. He did not realize that’s what they were doing.

“They shoot Arabs, don’t they?” And they did.

I still have not been to Israel, believe it or not.

In your whole life?

It was not part of my childhood. My parents did not go. I was bar mitzvah-ed and everything, but they did not go. They go now all the time, but they did not. And I felt a tremendous kinship and relation to the culture anyway.

You should go. They have great television now.

They have the best television. It’s all here now.

When I started hearing people say things about Arabs like this I was like, that’s racist. But I don’t live in Israel, so I don’t know.

People are awful racists all over the world. Including plenty of Israeli Jews. And screw them. But the idea that racism is an essential component of Jewish nationalism as opposed to any other kind of nationalism is just ridiculous. That statement is a form of racism directed against Jews. And screw that.

So, here’s my story about L.A. Jews. I promise you’re going to like it.

OK, yeah.

Twenty years ago, I was staying at a friend’s house and her dad was a personage of whatever note among California architects, and he had a dinner party, and the person sitting to my right was John Milius, who wrote Apocalypse Now, and—

I know John!

Right. I was like this is so cool, right? John Milius!!

Yeah, John’s the coolest.

He was so cool. And so he told me a cool story. At some point he was like, “You’re from New York, are you Jewish?” I was like, “Yeah I’m Jewish.” He’s like, “I got a good story for you. You know that I went to film school with Steven Spielberg, right? We’re friends.” I was like, “All right.”

He says, “So, one day I got a call.” This is sometime in the late ’80s, 1990s, something like that. So he got a call and it’s Spielberg, and he says “John, you’ve got to come over right away.”

You should ask John about being an L.A. Jew. He’s another one, he grew up in Bel Air. Anyway, go ahead. He says, “You gotta come over.”

He said, “ ‘You gotta come over right away.’ I said, ‘Is something wrong?’ He said, ‘Just come over, come over.’ And so I said, ‘OK.’ So, I get in my car and I drive up to the Spielberg mansion and I’m going through the gate, I parked the car, Steven comes to the door himself, and he’s like, ‘Come in here, John. I’ve got to show you something.’ And so I got in with Steven and we go in his living room and there are books all over the living room, dozens of books, like Time-Life books, open to these photographs of the ghettos and the gas chambers and whatever else. And he says, ‘John, did you know that they killed 6 MILLION Jews during the Second World War?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Did you know that they had gas chambers where they gassed Jews to DEATH.’ And I said, ‘Yes, Steven. I knew that.’ ”

I was so stunned, for a moment, and then I was like, “No, that’s bullshit.” And Milius said, “No, no, no, that really happened. Steven discovered the Holocaust when he was in his late 30s. He had no idea it happened.”

That is a great story. And I take your point. Meanwhile, his mother owns a kosher restaurant in Los Angeles, so it definitely must have come up.

His parents knew about it, for sure. But he was a suburban prodigy. Then he was doing Jaws, he was doing Close Encounters, E.T., he didn’t have time for much history until he was older. Plus it was California in the ’70s and ’80s. So it does make sense.

You know what, that’s amazing.

So, is that a story about Los Angeles Jews?

He’s from Arizona, he went to college in California but he’s not a Los Angeles Jew. So it’s not that. It’s hard to explain it, but it’s missing a little bit of the spiciness. I honestly think that we blend a little bit better, for better or worse. We pass a little bit better because it’s so casual out there.

I think it might have been James Wolcott who wrote this article with what I thought was an amazing observation at the time, which is that Howard Stern’s biography and Jerry Seinfeld’s biography both featured them with a cape on the front playing Superman. And then Kavalier and Clay I think was right after that, which was also based on the idea that this was the ultimate representation, that Superman was the ultimate representation of the American Jewish experience. I’m from another planet, my parents are aliens, I’m really great, nobody knows it, I have special powers. I can see through things. Believe it or not I can even fly, if I can just get these glasses off. And I feel there’s a little bit of that in Ginsberg.

Hah. That’s a perfect landing!

[Smiling] It was a pleasure to meet you.

David Samuels is the editor of County Highway, a new American magazine in the form of a 19th-century newspaper. He is Tablet’s literary editor.