Posted by: ritagone | February 25, 2015

Adversity Vaulters

I love stories about people who have achieved much in their lives after overcoming a childhood filled with adversity. Those kinds of stories give me hope and inspire me to inspire the younger people around me with courage and determination. If he can do it, if she overcame so much, I say, then you can too. Nothing can or should stop you or get in your way.

Mike Nichols – the comedian (with Elaine May) and director of stage, television and film who died last November and is only one of 12 people to have won an EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony Awards) – really could have had a movie made about his own life: born in 1931 to a prosperous Jewish family in Berlin, his grandfather was one of the first Jews killed by the Nazis as they began to assert their anti-semitic program. His father, a prominent Russian-born doctor, saw the writing on the wall and was able to move his family to America, sailing on the Bremen, when Mike was seven. On the ship he knew only two English phrases: “I do not speak English,” and “Do not kiss me” (presumably to keep away other potentially diseased immigrants travelling on the ship with his family).

Life in America was not easy for Nichols or his younger brother Robert. (The name Nichols was taken from his father’s Russian patronymic, Nicholaiyevitch.) His parents fought a lot. His mother was often ill, and his father wasn’t too crazy about his mouthy son. His mother, always sickly, wallowed in martyrdom. “Everything wounded her to the quick,” Nichols recalled. “’I raised you so you could say that to me? Thank you very much. I deserve that.’ It went on for days.” Elaine May, he discovered, “had the same mother,” out of which grew their classic sketch about the guilt-ridden rocket scientist who neglects to phone his martyred mother, who says she hasn’t eaten in days for fear of having her mouth full should he call. (“Someday you’ll have children of your own. And, honey, when you do, I only pray that they make you suffer the way you’re making me. That’s a mother’s prayer.”) If you are at all familiar with the Mike Nichols-Elaine May recordings, you will know instantly how his early years of turmoil and adversity were turned into comedy and laughter for those of us who listened and identified with what they were saying. (I think many of us had that mother, as it turns out.)

During his childhood he was “quietly unhappy,” Nichols admitted. “I felt strange and solitary. I didn’t fit.” It didn’t help that he had a German accent, had lost all his hair at four due to a reaction to a whooping cough injection, and therefore always wore a cap indoors. But he began to shake off his childhood traumas in college. “I began to think, ‘Yes, I had a tough childhood, I had all those problems – but enough already! Let’s get on with my life! Let’s start now!” And the rest was history. Although he had several failed marriages before he finally met and married Diane Sawyer, with whom he spent the rest of his life, for a guy like Nichols, whose early years were fraught with emotional chaos, his adulthood was, by comparison, a walk in the park.

Nichols loved to tell the story of the guy who had bullied him in school who came backstage at one of his theatrical performances to see him. Nichols asked what the guy was doing, and when told he was selling cars, flashing a grin, Mike Nichols replied, “Oh, I am so glad!”

Was it his sense of humor that got him through? His “you can do it” attitude? Mike Nichols as far as we know didn’t seem to have a relationship with God, so what gave him his strength? How did he not fall into the pit of despair, unable to dig himself out, as happened to so many in similar circumstances? An interesting existential and theological question, to say the least.

And whatever the answer, aren’t we glad that he was able to do so? Because the world has benefited so much from the talent of this man who was able to vault over adversity to great heights of creativity.


Mike Nichols

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