Starting in 2000, John interviewed Ruth Ann Overbeck, helped found the Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project, and ran its popular lecture series for 15 years. He worked tirelessly to help found the Hill Center and was a member of the Community Foundation Board. He became an essential friend and editor to Mary Z. Gray as she wrote 301 East Capitol Street: Tales from the Heart of the Hill. These activities followed a working life that took him from a South Dakota farm childhood to producing campaign media for advocacy groups and candidates including George McGovern, Ramsey Clark, Leon Panetta, and Bennett Johnston. He capped his career at the Pew Charitable Trust. While Franzen characterizes life as "mostly happenstance," this interview portrays someone faithfully following his broad interests in history, writing, media, and politics in ways that made connections benefitting Capitol Hill on both local and national levels.
Interview with John Franzen
Interview Date: February 11 and 22, 2016
Interviewer: Stephanie Deutsch
Transcriber: Betsy Barnett
Editor: Bernadette McMahon, Elizabeth Lewis
photo by Elizabeth Dranitzke
DEUTSCH: This is Stephanie Deutsch with John Franzen. John, can you just …
FRANZEN: Okay. This is John Franzen. I don’t talk very loud.
DEUTSCH: Okay. Well, if you start to get too low, I will remind you.
FRANZEN: All right.
DEUTSCH: John, why don’t we start off with you telling me about where you grew up and a little bit about your childhood.
FRANZEN: Well, I grew up on a farm in a thinly settled corner of South Dakota. [Interviewer laughs] On both sides of the family, we were farmers, homesteaders, all from Sweden. They came to Minnesota, the Dakotas, and my paternal grandfather homesteaded for five years in Montana. In fact, my father was born in a homestead shanty on the plains of Montana near Flat Willow.
DEUTSCH: Did you call it a homestead shanty?
FRANZEN: Well, it was a little house.
DEUTSCH: Is that it?
FRANZEN: No, the picture there on the mantle is actually my schoolhouse. I put that up for you, Stephanie, because I knew you’re very interested …
DEUTSCH: Oh, thank you!
FRANZEN: … in these …
DEUTSCH: One room schoolhouses.
FRANZEN: … one room schoolhouses. That is the schoolhouse where I learned to read …
DEUTSCH: Oh, my gosh.
FRANZEN: … in South Dakota. One room, seven kids in eight grades. And I was the first grade. And then I was the second grade. [Both laugh] There were only two families populating that school, our family and the Kristoffersons. The Kristoffersons had, I think, about a dozen kids. [Interviewer laughs] So, it was my brother and me and the Kristofferson kids for those first two grades and then after that we went to town school, which was about five miles away.
DEUTSCH: How’d you get to town school?
FRANZEN: We were driven originally. This was before the school district expanded. The town was Langford.
DEUTSCH: L-A-N …
FRANZEN: L-A-N-G-F-O-R-D. And before the school district expanded you actually had to pay tuition to come into town. And …
DEUTSCH: Even though it was a public school.
FRANZEN: Right. And because we were districted in this little school—Hickman #2 is the designation for that little country school. It had electricity but no running water. There were two outhouses in the back and also a shed, which we called the barn, where you could park your horse, if you had a horse. [Interviewer laughs] Which I didn’t. [Interviewee laughs]
DEUTSCH: Did the Kristoffersons come on horses?
FRANZEN: No, they lived close by and they walked. My brother and I were dropped off in the morning. We were two and a half, a little over two and a half miles away, so we were typically dropped off in the morning. And on a nice day we would walk home at the end of the school day.
DEUTSCH: Two and a half miles?
FRANZEN: Yeah. And in bad weather we’d get picked up. [Pause] It’s actually a pretty good way to go to school. If you have a good teacher. That’s the key, of course.
FRANZEN: If you have a good teacher, you actually learn a lot from the other students.
FRANZEN: You’re all in the same room. You’re sitting there working on your first grade arithmetic or whatever, but you’re hearing the sixth grader, the seventh grader, the eighth grader doing what they do and it’s often more interesting.
FRANZEN: So, [Laughs] you learn ahead of your grade and those older students can also help you.
FRANZEN: They help with the teaching, literally.
DEUTSCH: Who was your teacher?
FRANZEN: So, it was an interesting way to go to school. Mrs. Wallace, Cornelia Wallace, was my first grade teacher and she was quite good. My second grade teacher, Mrs. Zulke, not so much. And it was after that year, where I basically sat and drew pictures all year, that my parents decided this is not working well and we’re taking these kids to town. So, that’s where we went for the rest of my school days. This was a town of about 400 people at the time.
DEUTSCH: And the town was Langford?
DEUTSCH: So, high school?
FRANZEN: So, that’s where my older brother and I went for the rest of our school days and the younger brothers went as well. There were six brothers.
DEUTSCH: Oh, gosh. Oh.
FRANZEN: Yeah, my father had a house full of free labor.
DEUTSCH: [Laughs] And you were number two?
FRANZEN: And he put it to good use. Yes, I was number two.
DEUTSCH: Oh, my gosh.
FRANZEN: Yeah, people tend to think of growing up on the farm as an idyllic existence. And it has its good points. But it’s not at all a normal childhood. I was driving a tractor regularly by the age of eight or nine, doing a lot of heavy manual labor. That was just the way it was. Everybody had to pitch in.
DEUTSCH: What kind of farm was it?
FRANZEN: Well, we had a few chickens and a few hogs, but mainly it was cattle and grain.
DEUTSCH: How many acres?
FRANZEN: Oh, it wasn’t very big for South Dakota. Including rented land and pasture, it was about 1,500 acres. And that was combined with my grandfather’s farm. My father and grandfather farmed together. My grandfather’s place was two miles away and we ran back and forth regularly. So, I worked, at least in the summers, almost every day with my father and grandfather. And you pick up a lot of practical knowledge growing up on a farm that can be useful to you later in life.
DEUTSCH: How to fix things.
FRANZEN: You have to be a mechanic, a carpenter, an electrician, a welder. You learn some animal husbandry. You learn the facts of life very early if you grow up on a farm. [Both laugh]
DEUTSCH: Yes, if you’re paying attention.
FRANZEN: Yes. I have no regrets about it at all, but I must confess that I really wanted to get out of there. I decided at a pretty early age that this was not the place for me and I wanted to get to a place where conversation didn’t revolve around the weather and farm machinery. I was interested in art. I had an aunt who would slip me books, and I was reading sort of ahead of my years because of that. But my childhood recreation revolved around hunting and fishing and sports. I was very involved in sports.
DEUTSCH: What did you play?
FRANZEN: Football, basketball, track. In a small school you can do all three. And I played in the band. I played a trumpet, not very well, because I didn’t practice very regularly.
DEUTSCH: So, when time came to go to college did you …
FRANZEN: Yeah, I went off to a liberal arts college in Minnesota called Concordia. It’s in Moorhead, Minnesota. A good, small liberal arts college.
FRANZEN: Concordia, yeah. I was recruited to play football for the University of South Dakota. Turned that down. I decided, although I really got very enthusiastic about football in high school, I decided I’d been there and done that and it was time to move on and …
DEUTSCH: Had your older brother …
FRANZEN: … work on my brain.
FRANZEN: Instead of running into things with my head. [Interviewer laughs]
DEUTSCH: Had your older brother gone to college?
FRANZEN: Yes. Yeah. We were the first generation to go to college. He went to another liberal arts college in Minnesota, Gustavus Adolphus.
DEUTSCH: Mm-hmm. So, college?
FRANZEN: Yeah, I loved college. I really blossomed there. I found a community of scholars, people who were discussing ideas that had been floating through my mind and I didn’t think that anybody else had thought of them. [Laughs] But there was a whole world out there that it introduced me to. It was wonderful. And I went on from there to graduate school at McGill University, in English. I majored in college in English and philosophy, a double major. And went to grad school in English.
DEUTSCH: Grad school at McGill?
FRANZEN: Mm-hmm. I was a teaching assistant there. I taught two sections of freshman English. Teaching assistant is a misnomer. I was a teacher.
FRANZEN: There wasn’t anybody else teaching those kids. I enjoyed that a lot. I did not otherwise enjoy grad school. It kind of made a grind out of literature.
DEUTSCH: It’s not fun like college.
FRANZEN: No. And moved on from there pretty quickly. I thought I was going to get a Ph.D. I decided no, I don’t like grad school. So, I switched from the Ph.D. program into the M.A. program, accelerated my load, and finished it in a year. While also writing book reviews for the Montreal Star.
DEUTSCH: A little louder, John.
DEUTSCH: If you can.
DEUTSCH: Yeah. Book reviews for the Montreal Star, that’s fun. I think writing book reviews is a great way to learn how to write.
FRANZEN: Yeah. Well, I did it for the money.
DEUTSCH: You learn how to think.
FRANZEN: I didn’t have any money, so [Laughs] I had to take up a little …
DEUTSCH: It’s not a very good way to earn money.
FRANZEN: It’s not. But, if you’re living on $200 a month …
FRANZEN: … it’s a little bit of supplement. Went on from there to Europe. I headed off to London thinking I was going to get a job there. Very quickly discovered that I couldn’t get a job there without a work permit and you couldn’t get a work permit without a job.
FRANZEN: Yes. But, I had a friend in Amsterdam, a wonderful gal that I had dated in college, and I went to see her and I wound up staying there with her for about a year. And then stayed on in Amsterdam for another year after she went back to the States. I worked there for a medical and scientific publisher as a desk editor. I wasn’t pursuing a career in editing.
DEUTSCH: This was in English, I assume.
FRANZEN: Yeah. They published in English. They needed people with English skills. And it was a job to keep food on the table. And I just used that opportunity to travel a bit, write and read, and try to figure out what I was going to do with the rest of my life. And I eventually figured out that I was coming back here to get involved in politics and particularly in trying to end the Vietnam war.
FRANZEN: I came back in September, excuse me, August of 1971.
FRANZEN: Actually flew into Halifax, Nova Scotia, hitchhiked from there to Montreal, spent a night or two with some friends there, and then hitchhiked down to New York. And was dropped off at the west end of the George Washington Bridge.
FRANZEN: At about nine or ten o’clock at night.
FRANZEN: This was the weekend before Labor Day, 1971, and with my two suitcases I walked across the George Washington Bridge ...
DEUTSCH: Oh, gosh!
FRANZEN: … into New York.
DEUTSCH: When they make the movie of your life, John, [Interviewee laughs] I think that’s the opening. Walked across the George Washington Bridge at night with your suitcases.
FRANZEN: And that got me to the—there’s a bus station at the Manhattan end of that bridge. I dropped a dime in the pay phone and called my cousin whom I had never met. He was a generation older. Herbert Dean. He was a professor at Columbia University.
FRANZEN: And by some miracle he was home and said come on down and I could stay there that night. I had made no arrangements whatsoever with anybody. [Laughs]
FRANZEN: This is the way I was living my life at the time. So, I got on the subway, took the A train by mistake. I was supposed to take the Broadway local. I took the A train and got off on 125th Street in Harlem at about 10:30 or 11:00 o’clock that night. And, seeing where I was, I walked from there up through Morningside Park to Columbia and his apartment house. I stayed there with him for a few days until I kind of got my feet on the ground, found a room, etc. Well, jumping ahead, I eventually found the McGovern campaign headquarters in New York, asked if they could hire me, find me something to do. They said they didn’t really have anything to do. We were well ahead of the primary season at that point. This was …
DEUTSCH: Okay, because this is ’71.
DEUTSCH: So, he’s not the nominee yet.
FRANZEN: No, no.
FRANZEN: Far from it. But—
DEUTSCH: Had that been your goal? I mean had that been sort of a vague plan?
FRANZEN: Yes, by that time I had decided that was my goal. I was just going to volunteer for the McGovern campaign. Go out and knock doors, do whatever they asked me to do. But, at that point, there was nothing for me to do in New York. But a fellow there at that headquarters said, “Well, if you’re willing to go up to New Hampshire, there’s a campaign organization there. Ask for a man named Joe Grandmaison—he was the manager in the state—and …
DEUTSCH: Joe —can you spell that?
DEUTSCH: Oh, grand maison.
DEUTSCH: Okay, got it.
FRANZEN: Big house, as we sometimes called him.
DEUTSCH: Joe Big House.
FRANZEN: [Laughs] A wonderful, crazy man. Anyway, I got on a bus, went up to Manchester, got off the bus, walked into the headquarters, said “Here I am, what can I do?” The first day I put up a banner, I cleaned the office, and a week later I was the press secretary for McGovern for President in New Hampshire. Not that I knew anything about being a press secretary, but I could write a little. And Joe decided that he could teach me what I needed to know. The press secretary that had been there through the summer had gone back to college and they needed one. So.
FRANZEN: It fell to me.
DEUTSCH: And I assume that was a job, they could pay you, probably not well.
FRANZEN: Absolutely. It was a paying job. I got $35 a week and a place to sleep. And you know how, basically, things went from there with that campaign. We didn’t win the New Hampshire primary, but we came in way ahead of expectations. It was the beginning of the end for Ed Muskie’s campaign.
FRANZEN: I went on from New Hampshire, from state to state. I went out to Oregon for two months as communications director, two months ahead of that primary. I wound up doing a lot of other things besides communications there, just because there were holes to be filled. We won that primary with more than 50 percent of the vote with more than half a dozen people on the ballot. It was our first West Coast win.
DEUTSCH: John, I have a question for you. At what point in all this did you actually meet the candidate?
FRANZEN: Oh, I traveled with him in New Hampshire when he was in state. So, I actually had met him. Being from South Dakota …
FRANZEN: … I had met him …
DEUTSCH: Okay, had ...
FRANZEN: … when I was a kid. I met him at the state fair. I met him in my hometown when he came campaigning.
DEUTSCH: So, you actually knew him.
FRANZEN: No, I did not know him.
DEUTSCH: Not, not.
FRANZEN: I’d shaken his hand. South Dakota is so small in terms of population that you can meet your senator …
FRANZEN: … face to face without any trouble, just by showing up. And, actually, George McGovern was, I think, the key person who persuaded my father to switch parties and become a Democrat. McGovern built the party in that state, one by one, on three by five cards, as he traveled around in his Chevrolet.
DEUTSCH: You must have learned a lot about politics from him.
FRANZEN: Yes, not in South Dakota, but later I did learn a lot from him. He was a wonderful man, still one of my heroes. Thoughtful, articulate, a true patriot, a gentleman.
DEUTSCH: I can’t imagine higher praise than that.
FRANZEN: Yeah. Well, from Oregon I went eventually to Miami and set up the press office for the national convention down there for the campaign in the Doral Hotel. And from there I went to Chicago for about a month and did communications for Illinois. And then Joe Grandmaison, whom I’d worked with in New Hampshire, called me from New York—he was running the campaign in New York at the time—and asked me if I would be willing to come there and do press and communications for him. So I wound up spending the last two months of that campaign, the general election, working communications for New York.
Everything came crashing down, of course. We lost in a landslide to President Nixon. And I wound up here in Washington after that campaign. I had seen Senator McGovern at a fundraiser at Tavern on the Green a week or two after the election. There was a small debt that had to be paid off and Stewart Mott put together a fundraiser at the Tavern on the Green restaurant. I showed up there, not because I could give any money but because somebody gave me a ticket. I think it was Joe Rauh who gave me his ticket, R-A-U-H.
FRANZEN: And at that event I was talking with the senator and he told me that he was planning to put together an organization here in Washington with the aim of keeping all these thousands and thousands of McGovern volunteers involved and active in politics and issue advocacy. And would I be interested in helping him run that? Well, I had absolutely nothing to do in New York. I didn’t have a job. And I said, well, of course, I’d be happy to do that. He didn’t ask me to run it, he asked if I would help out. So, I came down to Washington with a friend.
DEUTSCH: Had you ever been here before?
FRANZEN: Oh, yes. I’d passed through during the course of the campaign. I visited once in the summer of ’67 with my roommate, my college roommate, when I was traveling around. I came on down, rented a basement efficiency apartment on Constitution Avenue from Steve and Nicky Cymrot. [Laughs]
DEUTSCH: Basement apartment on Constitution?
DEUTSCH: Was it the same apartment where Steve and Maygene Daniels were living?
FRANZEN: I don’t know, I don’t think so.
DEUTSCH: That’s how they started out. [Laughs]
FRANZEN: [Laughs] This is all … My later connection with Steve and Nicky is completely coincidental. It has nothing to do with that. But it is one of life’s stranger coincidences that I did rent from them for several years and lived quite comfortably in this little place on Constitution Avenue.
DEUTSCH: And what did this organization—what did it end up being?
FRANZEN: Well, that’s an interesting question. Once I got settled, I showed up at the McGovern Senate office. McGovern had told me in New York that they didn’t have the headquarters yet, starting out we would just have to work out of the Senate office, his Senate office. Fine. So, I show up at his Senate office.
DEUTSCH: So, he was still in the Senate?
FRANZEN: Yes, mm-hmm. Yep.
DEUTSCH: Interesting. So, you don’t have to resign from the Senate to run for …
FRANZEN: Well, he was not up that year. He …
DEUTSCH: But hadn’t he just lost the election.
FRANZEN: He’d lost the election but the Senate is on a six year cycle …
FRANZEN: … and he was not up for re-election in 1972. So, he was running again in 1974.
FRANZEN: At any rate, I show up at the Senate office and I say to the receptionist, “Here I am. Where do I sit?” [Laughs] She said, “Who are you and why are you here?” And I explained that the senator had offered me a job in this fledging organization that was going to keep the McGovern volunteers involved in public life. Well, to make a long story short, or maybe to make a short story shorter, there really wasn’t an organization.
DEUTSCH: [Laughs] It was more of an idea than an actual thing.
FRANZEN: It was an idea. It was a wish. There was no job for me. It was really, I think, his way of saying he really wished he could do something for me. And there was an effort that was started, but it really didn’t go anywhere. And the long and the short of it was that I didn’t have a job. And here I was in Washington. I didn’t have anything to go back to New York for, so I looked around. Eventually found a job with an organization called the Movement for Economic Justice. It was a community organizing effort run by a fellow named George Wiley, W-I-L-E-Y. It was kind of a clearinghouse for community organizations around the country, providing them help, staff, advice and guidance. His idea was that he was going to organize the middle class. He had run an organization, which he founded, called the National Welfare Rights Organization, N.W.R.O., which organized welfare mothers.
DEUTSCH: It was National Welfare Rights? …
FRANZEN: Rights Organization, yes. And that had actually had some success. But it kind of blew up. I don’t know the whole history there, to be honest. But he had turned to this new idea. Well, I worked there with him and his staff for most of that first year. Decided that it was not really for me. Left to help run a United Mine Workers district election campaign in Alabama in the fall of ’73, which was an interesting experience. The United Mine Workers had been run up until a year or two before that by a scoundrel named Tony Boyle.
DEUTSCH: Mm. I think I remember that.
FRANZEN: There was a reform movement within the union that tried to oust Boyle and his cronies and eventually succeeded. But before they succeeded Boyle had a rival, Jock Yablonsky, and his family murdered in their beds.
FRANZEN: Yes, he was a rather tough customer. Eventually he was defeated by the movement called Miners for Democracy, headed by Arnie Miller. So, by this time …
END OF TAPE 1/SIDE 1
TAPE 1/SIDE 2
DEUTSCH: Okay. 1973. You’re working for Miners for Democracy?
FRANZEN: Right. There were holdovers at the district level, the state level, holdovers from the Boyle regime, including in Alabama. And a young fellow down there persuaded me to come down and help him with a campaign. There was a district election campaign coming up. Three offices—president, secretary, and treasurer, I believe it was. And one of our reform candidates was black. This was 1973. That was only ten years after the Birmingham church bombing and the Selma march. So you had the race factor overlaid on this really ugly …
FRANZEN: … union politics history. And I was there for only two or three months before that election. We did succeed in getting one of the three candidates elected. Started to turn the corner for the union in that district. It’s the only campaign I’ve been involved in where the candidates carried revolvers. I was offered a gun. I turned it down. But we did, Bill and I, did make a point of never sleeping in the same place more than two nights in a row.
FRANZEN: So, we got around, met some wonderful people. I learned what Southern hospitality is really about.
DEUTSCH: Ate some good food, I bet.
FRANZEN: Some. [Laughs]
DEUTSCH: Very diplomatic.
FRANZEN: The following year, 1974, I served as press secretary in a couple of campaigns in New York. In the primary campaign I did press for a fellow named Tony Olivieri. He was a state assemblyman, talented young guy, appeared to have a great future. But it was a three-way contest between two male Italian-Americans and one female Polish-American [Laughs] in New York. And that math didn’t work very well. The other Italian-American was Mario Cuomo. Both of us lost and Mary Anne Krupsak won. I then worked in the general election for Ramsey Clark, who was challenging Jacob Javits for the Senate seat. Did press in that campaign, met some wonderful people. Doing a campaign in New York is really fun because of the people that just show up in the headquarters. Harry Belafonte would drop by. Mel Torme would sing for your fundraiser. [Laughs] We lost to Javits, but it was a fun campaign and I really enjoyed working with Ramsey Clark. He kind of went off the deep end eventually in my view, but he was a good and honorable man.
I came back here, got a job in the Congress. I worked as a legislative aide and ghostwriter for Michael Harrington, Congressman from the 6th District of Massachusetts. And I spent, oh, about a year and a half working for him. This was right after the Watergate election. The Watergate babies had taken over the Democratic caucus, well, not taken over, but were making a huge impact in the Congress. It was an exciting time to be working there. A lot of reforms were underway. But legislative aide was not really a very good fit for me. Or, at least, that particular Congressman was not a very good fit for me. He was a difficult boss. Good man, but a difficult boss. And I decided I wanted to do something else.
A friend of mine from New York days was working at that point for a group called The Dirty Dozen campaign. It was the League of Conservation Voters actually. She was working for the League of Conservation Voters. And she knew of this young fellow out in California, in Monterey, who was running as a challenger to a Republican Congressman who was on The Dirty Dozen list. The Dirty Dozen was a group of Congressmen that they had identified as having particularly bad environmental records.
FRANZEN: And the 16th District of California was good territory for environmentalists actually. And this fellow had had a close call, the incumbent had had a close call in the previous two elections there, and looked like he might be vulnerable in this one. Anyway, it was this young fellow named Leon Panetta …
FRANZEN: … who was running against him. Leon needed a campaign manager. And we got linked up, met at the Democratic National Convention in New York actually, sat down, talked for an hour or two, and he offered me the job. So, off I went to California.
DEUTSCH: So, he’s running for Congress for the first time.
FRANZEN: That’s right.
FRANZEN: That’s right. He had worked as a staffer here in the U.S. Senate actually for Tom Kuchel, a senator from California. He had worked at HEW [the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare] as head of the Office for Civil Rights. It was in charge of school desegregation. And had a big falling out with the Nixon administration because he took the view that he was actually supposed to enforce the law on desegregation. He had worked briefly for Mayor Lindsay in New York as head of state, city, federal relations, and then went back out to Monterey, his hometown, and practiced law with his brother and had switched parties. He started out as a moderate Republican. There were still moderate Republicans back then. He switched parties and decided to run for Congress against Burt Talcott. Well, we won that campaign, we won that election. It was a district that had been Republican for 40 years. Talcott had been in for 14 years. Leon asked me to come back here and serve as his chief of staff for his first term, which I did. And then he asked me to manage his re-election campaign, which I agreed to do if he would let me produce his campaign media.
FRANZEN: His advertising. This was something that I seen others do, produce campaign media, that is. And had worked with media consultants. And had wound up producing a bit of it myself by default, either because the campaign didn’t have enough money or because what the media consultant had written was, in my view, not all that good so I wound up re-writing things and so forth. And it is something that I had gotten more and more interested in. I really started to focus on it in the McGovern campaign where we had this wonderful filmmaker, Charles Guggenheim, producing the commercials. Charlie didn’t view himself as a media consultant. He never would have used that term. But he was a very fine filmmaker. He won a couple of Academy Awards for documentary film. And he had produced political commercials for Adlai Stevenson, Bobby Kennedy, and he was doing them for George McGovern. And I watched how he did it and, most importantly, I saw the effect of what he did. I saw what happened in the campaign in New Hampshire after the TV went on the air, the paid TV.
DEUTSCH: So powerful.
FRANZEN: Amazing. Yes. After slogging around the state for a year and standing still at 6% in the polls, knocking on doors, visiting bowling alleys and diners and what have you, and having to identify himself to people and spell his name for interviewers, suddenly Senator McGovern was being stopped on the street by people who would say “Oh, you’re George McGovern.” And they would introduce themselves to him. This was a sea change in the campaign. It happened overnight. And what had changed is that we had gone on the air with our media. And I had …
DEUTSCH: So, you’d seen the impact.
FRANZEN: Yes, I had seen this. I thought wow! That is really cool. So, I started paying more and more attention to that part of the campaign process. At any rate, I had decided by 1978 that that was something that I would like to do and Leon said “Sure, you can do that.” He trusted me to be able to do that. And in 1978 we ran a good strong re-election campaign against a fairly strong challenger. Beat him soundly. And I came out of that campaign with a reel of material, TV and radio and print, a package that hung together well, and, using that as my calling card, I went out and started soliciting clients. I just decided …
DEUTSCH: So, are you still working for Panetta?
FRANZEN: No. I had left him at the end of that term.
DEUTSCH: Okay. So, now you’re going out on your own.
FRANZEN: Yeah, although he became a client in 1980 and ’82 and ’84 and so forth. For sixteen years I produced all of his campaign media, but I started serving other clients as well. Starved for a couple of years and eventually it really took off and I had a successful little business going. So, over the next couple of decades or more …
DEUTSCH: What did you call yourself?
FRANZEN: … I produced media campaigns … Eventually I called it Franzen and Company, a very small operation. I deliberately kept it small and turned down offers to partner up with other consultants. I never had more than, I think, five staff. That number’s a little misleading because I had an extended family of consultants, of camera crews and freelancers, editors, what have you, around the country …
DEUTSCH: That you could use, yeah.
FRANZEN: That I would work with. But I traveled the country doing, at first, mostly congressional campaigns for Democrats, and more and more over time I did work for advocacy organizations whose causes I supported, especially environmental groups, teachers organizations. I did work for AARP [American Association of Retired Persons], a number of others. But, at one time or another, I did work for almost every mainstream environmental organization in the country of a major size. I don’t want to give a laundry list of clients, but certainly one of the most interesting campaigns I was involved in was the last re-election campaign for Senator Bennett Johnston of Louisiana. This was 1990.
DEUTSCH: Bennett Johnston?
FRANZEN: Bennett Johnston, with a T.
DEUTSCH: And this was 1990?
FRANZEN: 1990, yeah. That was an interesting campaign because the opponent was David Duke.
FRANZEN: David Duke had been head of the Ku Klux Klan in Louisiana up until just a couple of years before that campaign. Which you’d think would have disqualified him out of hand, but he was actually an articulate, young, attractive candidate who’d re-packaged himself as kind of a Reagan conservative. And he was running in a year when the Louisiana economy was absolutely in the tank. The OPEC [Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries] cartel had fallen apart in terms of setting the oil price. That is a state that to this day is heavily dependent on oil and gas. The Louisiana economy was in a shambles. Young people were leaving the state, people were out of work, people were in many cases in desperate straits, scared, looking for someone to blame.
DEUTSCH: That sounds familiar.
FRANZEN: Yes. And David Duke was able to play to those fears and resentments very, very skillfully. It was an interesting campaign in part, just from a technical and professional standpoint, because we discovered early on that we could not trust the polling. We found a very, very high level of undecided voters in our baseline poll in that campaign, which was very strange, very unusual, almost unheard of in the case of a long term incumbent who was very, very well known. He had a recognition …
DEUTSCH: Bennett Johnston.
FRANZEN: Yes. He had a recognition factor of ninety-five percent or so and yet we had this huge undecided number, fifty percent or more. That is just a very unusual combination. So, we did a set of focus groups up in Shreveport. We had a suspicion of what was going on. We did focus groups with white voters only who had identified themselves as undecided in the telephone survey. And when we got these people talking comfortably among themselves, it very quickly became apparent that they weren’t undecided at all. They were going to vote for David Duke. They simply weren’t willing to tell a stranger on the phone that they were going to vote for David Duke. [Laughs] So, I’m sitting there behind the two-way mirror, along with the campaign manager and a couple of others, realizing wow! The polls are completely wrong.
DEUTSCH: Misleading or …
FRANZEN: But we don’t know how far to handicap for them. There is no way to measure just how wrong they are. So, we argued among ourselves in that campaign for the rest of the campaign as to how well Duke really was doing. Do we need to take him all that seriously or not? Do we need to attack him or not? I eventually won that argument and we did go after him very, very strongly by name in the last …
DEUTSCH: On the Klan?
FRANZEN: … four weeks or so of the campaign. Yes, [indecipherable] his background, right. There was an argument to be made that we shouldn’t attack him. It would just build him up, it would just energize his supporters, and so forth. My contention was that they were already energized and our people were not. We did drop the bomb. About three weeks out I was able to obtain some footage of him presiding at a cross burning …
DEUTSCH: Oh, dear. Mmh.
FRANZEN: … just a couple of years before and made a very powerful ad. I think the most powerful thing I’ve ever put on the air. The most negative ad I’ve ever put on the air. And also the ad I’m most proud of. We were doing nightly tracking polls at the time and declared support for Duke dropped by more than one-third in three days when that went on the air. Keep in mind, of course …
DEUTSCH: Wow! What year is this, John?
FRANZEN: This is 1990.
DEUTSCH: 1990. Wow!
FRANZEN: Yeah, yeah.
DEUTSCH: Declared support dropped by a third?
FRANZEN: By more than a third in three days. Now, again, you couldn’t trust the polls but you knew that something had shifted dramatically. We beat him. He actually broke forty percent. And, if we hadn’t gone after him with that attack and others, it’s my belief to this day that he would have won. Let me say this on behalf of the good people of Louisiana, I don’t think that many people in the state really wanted David Duke as their senator. But I think he became a vehicle for expressing your frustration and fear and anger and sending a message. But that’s a dangerous way to vote. [Recording stopped]
A little more on the campaigning first. [Pause] So, I guess the question is then what?
DEUTSCH: Then what? 1990, Johnston re-elected.
FRANZEN: [Laughs] I continued to do other candidate campaigns those years. I got drawn into initiative and referendum campaigns, particularly in California. I keep circling back to California in my career. Started with that Leon Panetta connection and went from there. Did work for the California Teachers Association. I produced the 1993 statewide campaign against a school voucher initiative in California, working with a wonderful crazy man named Bob Nelson. And that was a big success. That same initiative resurrected in 2000 and Bob and I did the campaign against it again and beat it again by more than 2-to-1. During all this time I continued to do work with Leon Panetta. When he left Congress in 1993 to join the Clinton administration, first as Budget Director and then as Chief of Staff at the White House, he became a [tenant] in my apartment here in the house. I have a apartment in the lower level. And, then, again, when President Obama asked him to come and run the CIA [Central Intelligence Agency] in 2001, he came back and, at that point the apartment downstairs was occupied, so he came and lived upstairs here on the third floor. So, I have this little guest suite on the third floor that became his home away from home in Washington for another four years …
DEUTSCH: Oh, my goodness.
FRANZEN: … as he served as CIA Director and then as Secretary of Defense.
DEUTSCH: You kept that pretty quiet.
FRANZEN: Uh, yeah. That was part of the deal. [Both laugh] Yeah, not many people knew about that. Well, immediate neighbors could see the comings and goings. The black SUV parked out front overnight and so forth. And there were cameras trained on the house and we had the doomsday phone here in the third bedroom. But it’s been a wonderful friendship all these years. He is somebody that I admire so much for his devotion to public service.
DEUTSCH: Where is he now?
FRANZEN: He’s back in California running an organization called the Panetta Institute for Public Policy. That has actually been there since he left the White House in 1997. He and his wife Sylvia started that institute with the mission of inspiring and training young people for lives of public service.
FRANZEN: It’s nonpartisan. It runs the congressional intern program for the entire C.S.U. system, California State University system, about, what, 24 campuses, something like that. All of those interns are trained first at the Panetta Institute before coming here. They run the program.
DEUTSCH: Where is it geographically?
FRANZEN: It’s on the Monterey Peninsula. And they run a leadership training course for student government leaders in the state, where they meet with members of Congress and military officers, scholars and journalists, various people in leadership positions to try to help them hone their skills as leaders, their skills at achieving consensus and compromise, and encouraging them to consider lives of public service.
DEUTSCH: Well, speaking of public service, are you ready to talk about community things or …
FRANZEN: Well, I should probably just mention the Pew Charitable Trust …
DEUTSCH: Oh, Pew Charitable Trust.
FRANZEN: … in terms of career and that will go quickly. I reached a point about eight or nine years ago where I kind of burned out on the campaign media business. I just did not want to get on one more airplane ... [Both laugh]
DEUTSCH: I know that feeling with infinitely less experience.
FRANZEN: … to go and pitch one more prospective client in some far flung part of the country. And I wound up taking a job, a real job, for the first time in a very long time, for the Pew Charitable Trust. And I spent five years there with Pew, serving as Senior Communications Officer. Basically I was doing the same kind of thing for them that I had been doing in my little business. I was helping their various issue advocacy campaigns with their strategic planning and message development and advertising. I enjoyed it a great deal. Very impressive organization, they do wonderful work. Working for that large an organization was a little uncomfortable sometimes just because I was so accustomed to running my own show. You know, small self-proprietorship, you make a decision and you do it.
FRANZEN: You hire someone. You lay them off if you have to. You can make a decision and turn on a dime. And …
DEUTSCH: An organization can’t do that.
FRANZEN: An organization the size of Pew does not turn on a dime. And that’s just the nature of the beast. But, those were a good five years. [Pause] I decided to retire from Pew in February of 2014 and I have been theoretically retired since then. [Pause]
DEUTSCH: Okay, but not idle. Theoretically retired, but not idle.
FRANZEN: Not at all.
DEUTSCH: When did you—well, let’s talk about the Hill Center.
DEUTSCH: Because I know that’s been a big …
FRANZEN: Yeah, if you want to talk about my involvement in the community, you should probably start before that by just a couple of years. I lived in this neighborhood for more than two decades before I really got involved in the neighborhood.
FRANZEN: I was very busy. I was very involved in public life but I was not involved in local public life.
END OF TAPE 1/SIDE 2
TAPE 2/ SIDE 1
FRANZEN: As I was saying, I had lived in this neighborhood for more than two decades, not really being part of the neighborhood. And I knew more about the 16th District of California or the 2nd District of Colorado than I knew about my own block. And I’m not exaggerating. I didn’t read the Metro section [local news of The Washington Post]. I was focused on the national picture, the “big stuff” [Laughs] in my benighted view.
DEUTSCH: So, what …
FRANZEN: Well, I eventually got dragged to the [Capitol Hill] Community Foundation annual dinner, by Janet Crowder actually, a friend. And I was seated—I believe this was in the spring of 1999—I happened to be seated at that dinner beside this woman named Ruth Ann Overbeck. This was totally random, as far as I know. And here was this smart as hell, charming woman who knew a lot about the history of this neighborhood, I realized. She was a historian by profession and her avocation was Capitol Hill history. I learned later that she had been planning for many years to write the definitive history of this neighborhood as a neighborhood, as a place where people lived, not just as the site of the U.S. Capitol. At any rate, at this dinner, I made a mental note to myself: “This is somebody you ought to get to know, invite her to dinner, whatever.” Just a really interesting person.
And by that time I had started to pay attention at least to the local architecture here. I was aware of the annual house tour for the [Capitol Hill] Restoration Society; I had gone on a few of those tours. I had started to pay some attention, but really wasn’t involved as a participant in these various community groups and organizations. But meeting Ruth Ann changed that, but in a very odd way. Later that year … I never did get to invite her to dinner, didn’t get around to it. You know how these things go.
FRANZEN: But later that same year I got a phone call from Nicky Cymrot, who was the president of the Capitol Hill Community Foundation back then, as she still is. And she asked me did I happen to have a tape recorder or could I find a tape recorder? She knew that I was in media, so perhaps I had something to do with tape recorders. [Interviewer laughs] She told me that Ruth Ann Overbeck had come down with a very aggressive cancer and she was soon going to die. And the book about Capitol Hill that she had intended to write was never going to be written. But Ruth Ann had agreed to do a tape-recorded interview or set of interviews where she could download her knowledge of the neighborhood to the extent that she was able.
DEUTSCH: Was that Nicky’s idea? Those interviews?
FRANZEN: I’m not sure whose idea it was. I think it originated either with her or with somebody at the Community Foundation. And I said, “Well, that’s really interesting. Who’s going to be doing the interviews?” Nicky said, “Well, we haven’t found that person yet.” [Laughs] So, I wound up volunteering to conduct those interviews. And, with my tape recorder, I would show up at Ruth Ann’s house over on 12th Street [SE] on days when she was able to talk. And I was able to get free.
DEUTSCH: What year was this? Remind me.
FRANZEN: This was 1999. Excuse me. By this time it was early 2000. The winter of 2000, going into the spring. She was quite ill by that time. All of these interviews were conducted with her lying down.
DEUTSCH: How many did you do? How many interviews did you do?
FRANZEN: I don’t remember how many interview sessions we did, but we collected about 24 hours of material, starting with the Nacotchtank Indians who were here at the time of first White contact and going forward from there.
DEUTSCH: Could you spell that? The name of the Indians?
FRANZEN: No, but I could look it up.
DEUTSCH: [Laughs] I could, too, probably. Nanotchtank.
FRANZEN: [Laughs] Nacotchtank. Those interviews are preserved in transcript form on the Overbeck Project’s website, CapitolHillHistory.org. You’ll find it all there. And, so, Ruth Ann and I became friends through this process as she was dying. And I conducted the last interview with her at Sibley Hospital only two or three days before her death. I shouldn’t have done the last one. She was in very bad shape, barely coherent. But she wanted to do it, she insisted on doing it.
DEUTSCH: Because there was more of the story to tell?
FRANZEN: Oh, yeah. We never really got to the end. But we got a lot, we got a lot of good material. Well, in the next several months those recordings were transcribed, and I had to do quite a lot of work on cleaning up the transcriptions and so forth. I delivered this tome, this transcript, to the Foundation. It got passed around among board members. It was given to one of our local papers here, The Voice of the Hill, and they serialized it over about nine months. Ran the whole thing in the paper.
And the Foundation board decided—they wanted to do something to memorialize Ruth Ann beyond that—that it would be a good thing to start an oral history project in her name. And that was the start of the Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project, which continues to this day. They asked me to chair it. I chaired what we called the steering committee. And we went and found this wonderful couple, Bernadette and Jim McMahon, to serve as the project managers. And to this day Bernadette and Jim run the oral history part of the project. Dozens of volunteers have stepped up to help, to conduct interviews, to do the transcriptions, to help with the archiving, and so forth. And, by now, we have more than 200 interviews that we’ve collected with long-time residents and former residents of Capitol Hill. So, this is a permanent, accessible archive of everyday history of this neighborhood. We’re very proud of that achievement. And Bernadette and Jim, especially Bernadette, have just done wonderful work with that. Truly, truly a gift of great, great value to this community.
We also started a lecture series. As soon as we got the oral history …
DEUTSCH: Was that your idea? The lecture series?
FRANZEN: The lecture series was actually Steve Cymrot’s idea. He started saying “We should do a lecture series with this.” You know, a local history lecture series. And I agreed that that would be a good idea and, one way or another, I wound up coordinating that. So, that became my baby. And for going on 15 years now we’ve been doing these Overbeck History Lectures four times a year, first at the Naval Lodge at Fourth and Pennsylvania SE and now at Hill Center. We moved it to Hill Center just at the beginning of this season, in September of last year. So, by now we’ve done … what, 57 of these lectures?
DEUTSCH: It’s an astounding number.
FRANZEN: All of them on D.C. history with a particular concentration on Capitol Hill history. Again, history of the place as a neighborhood. Not as the seat of the federal government and all these important people, senators and congressmen and so forth, but as a place where teachers and writers and blue-collar workers, people of all backgrounds, live and work together.
So, that really pulled me into the neighborhood in a way that I had never been involved before. It was like going to school every day. [Interviewer laughs] On Capitol Hill. And one thing leads to another. In 2002, Nicky asked me if I would be interested in helping with this idea of creating something out of the Old Naval Hospital, this derelict building at Ninth and Pennsylvania [Avenue SE] that had been a hospital for the Navy, built in the 1860s, but badly in need of rescue. She and some others had gotten wind of the fact that the District government was going to issue a request for proposals for the renovation and reuse of that place. And I said yes.
I had been looking at that building for years, and it just really troubled me, angered me actually, that this fine old building with its monumental iron fence and the carriage house had been left to just go to ruin. Potentially a very valuable property in a prime location, right in the heart of the Hill. Why had this been allowed to happen? So I said yes, I would help. So a group of us would meet on Wednesday mornings. We formed a thing called The Old Naval Hospital Foundation. We would meet on Wednesday mornings and plan our approach, work out our proposal for how this place was going to be reused. Our first proposal to the city was to make it a new Southeast branch of the D.C. public library. The Southeast branch there at Seventh and, what is it? D?
DEUTSCH: Yeah. Between C and D. [The library is between D and South Carolina Avenue SE.]
FRANZEN: Right. It’s by far the smallest branch in the city and at that time it was in pretty serious disrepair. It was before the city had really gotten going on its library renovation plan. So, the idea was we were going to make it the new branch of the Southeast library, where we would have more space for that, and then on the upper floors we would have a kind of community center. It would be the Hill Center. It was Bonny Wolf who came up with the name Hill Center.
DEUTSCH: Was it?
FRANZEN: Yep. Well, that proposal and a competing proposal from another organization did not fly with the city. They withdrew the request for proposals and then we did a whole new round. And, on the second round, because there were problems with getting the D.C. public library system to cooperate, we dropped that idea entirely. We changed the configuration in the proposal and we presented the plan that would make this thing entirely a center for arts, education, and culture for people of all ages and backgrounds. Again, called the Hill Center.
DEUTSCH: John, who was part of that first, that original group?
FRANZEN: Oh, I hesitate to name names because I’m going to …
DEUTSCH: Forget someone?
FRANZEN: I’m going to forget people. But …
DEUTSCH: Certainly Steve and Nicky.
FRANZEN: The first round was Steve and Nicky [Cymrot], Bonny Wolf, Jennifer Smith, Donna Scheeder, the rector at St. Mark’s—Paul …
DEUTSCH: Paul Abernathy?
FRANZEN: Paul Abernathy was in that first group or at least very early in that group. Mark—oh, he became ambassador to Romania …
DEUTSCH: Oh, Gitenstein.
FRANZEN: Mark Gitenstein. There were several others. Eventually there was turnover. By the time we got to the end of the line, Guy Martin was very involved, did wonderful work as our in-house attorney. Hal Wackman got involved, was very helpful on the financial side of things, financial planning and management. A number of others.
At any rate, by 2007 we finally won that competition and the city gave us the go-ahead and we went out and raised about $11 million, some of it from the city itself, some of it from the federal government, and a big chunk of it also from the community. And Hill Center opened its doors in the fall of what? 2009, I believe.
FRANZEN: No, I’m sorry—2011.
FRANZEN: Jumping ahead here.
FRANZEN: It was a long, arduous process, threatening constantly to go off the rails. Many, many hoops to be jumped through but we made it. And the Hill Center has been a wonderful success. Along about the time …
DEUTSCH: It’s sort of hard to imagine the community without it now.
FRANZEN: It is, it is. It’s really become part of the neighborhood and the city really. It’s a citywide draw. About half of the people who come there are from elsewhere in the District, not from Capitol Hill, which is something that none of us would have predicted. It was a complete surprise to me.
Along about the time that I got involved with the Hill Center, I was also asked to come and serve on the board of the Community Foundation. So, that was about 2002, 2003, somewhere in there. No good deed goes unpunished. [Both laugh]
At the Hill Center now we are engaged in a big strategic planning effort, trying to set a course for the place for the next five years or so. And I’ve been heading up that effort as a member of the board. [Pause]
DEUTSCH: So, what’s on your docket for the future, beside staying with the Hill Center. I know you’re not doing the lecture—you’ve retired …
FRANZEN: Well, I’m handing off the Overbeck lectures to Nancy Metzger and Maygene Daniels at the beginning of the next season, which will be September. So, I’ll be there through the April or May lecture this year.
DEUTSCH: Mm-hmm. You have any big projects coming up?
FRANZEN: I’m involved with a number of things in my personal life. I’m very busy with an elderly aunt in Fargo, who’s …
DEUTSCH: I was going to ask you if you still get back to …
FRANZEN: Yeah. I have an aunt in Fargo whose affairs I manage now. I was able to get her moved into an assisted living facility about a year and a half ago. And she requires a significant amount of attention. I also am involved with a startup business down in the Norfolk, Virginia, area, a business that I started investing in a number of years ago. And I’ve been pulled onto an advisory board there, helping with strategy and messaging as we try to get this thing off the ground. Plus, of course, Hill Center is ongoing, the Community Foundation is ongoing, and trying to find a little time here and there to just enjoy life, travel, read, spend time with friends. [Pause]
So one thing leads to another. And it’s mostly happenstance, an accident. We flatter ourselves into thinking that we have control of our lives, we plan our lives. We decide what we’re going to do and then we do it. Well, there’s some of that, but mostly it’s just one damn thing after another. George McGovern offers you a job that doesn’t exist so you wind up in Washington. And wind up doing something else. You sit by Ruth Ann Overbeck at a dinner, just by chance, and wind up not only recording her knowledge of Capitol Hill but launching an organization in her name. It’s funny how things work out.
END OF TAPE 2/SIDE 1
END OF INTERVIEW #1
TAPE 2/SIDE 2
DEUTSCH: I am sitting with John Franzen. It is February 22nd and we’re continuing with our interview. John, one of the things that you did for the Overbeck Project and that I know was personally very satisfying to you was interacting with Mary Gray and helping her produce her book.
FRANZEN: Yes, Mary Z. Gray, an amazing woman. Mary grew up in this neighborhood. She lived at 301 East Capitol [SE] above the family business, which was a funeral parlor. That building today is owned by the Folger Shakespeare Library. They use it for office space. But back then there was the funeral parlor on the first and second floors, the Zurhorst Funeral Parlor, Z-U-R-H-O-R-S-T.
DEUTSCH: Z-U-R- …
FRANZEN: And then the Zurhorst family lived on the third floor. Mary was born in 1919. She lived to be 96 years old. And when she was in her late 80s, we at the Overbeck History Project found out about her through a mutual acquaintance, a woman named Laetitia Yeandle [curator of manuscripts at the Folger Shakespeare Library]. And don’t ask me to spell that one, but I can look it up.
DEUTSCH: Because Mary was no longer living on the Hill then.
FRANZEN: Correct. She had lived in Silver Spring since 1939. But she grew up here in the 1920s. And Laetitia told us, “This is somebody you really ought to talk to.”
Mary was a writer. She was a freelance writer writing travel essays and humorous observations for The Washington Post, The New York Times, a number of other newspapers and magazines across the country. She got her first byline in the Post in 1940. And she worked as a speechwriter for the Kennedy-Johnson White House, starting in 1963. We contacted her. [Statement edited for accuracy: It was Maygene Daniels who contacted her to discuss being interviewed.] Mary said no, she didn’t want to be interviewed, she just wasn’t comfortable with that for some reason. But the conversation with [Maygene] and with others later in the Overbeck Project got her mind going about her early years here in the neighborhood. And she made a visit to the neighborhood in 2006, she said, with her daughter, where they happened to stop for a bite to eat at the Cosi, which was on Third Street?
DEUTSCH: Third and Pennsylvania [SE].
FRANZEN: Which happens to be exactly across the street from her grandfather Zurhorst’s house. It was the mystery house in her childhood. It’s a four story, four or five story pile of a house, brownstone and red brick. And she realized sitting there that’s Grandpa Zurhorst’s house, a house that she was actually warned not to go to when she was a child. There’d been a divorce, there was unpleasantness in the family that was not discussed with the children.
DEUTSCH: Just don’t go there.
FRANZEN: Right. And she didn’t actually figure out the mystery until five decades later or more. At any rate, she started writing. She didn’t set out to write a book, she just started writing down memories of childhood here in this neighborhood in the 1920s. And the memories came in no particular order, but over time she started sharing these musings with us in the Overbeck Project. And when I saw them, when I saw the first batch, I said, “Wow! This is amazing stuff.”
She was still in her late 80s, writing at the top of her powers, probably slower than in her younger days but every bit as well. And she told these wonderful, engaging stories about members of her family, about people and places in the neighborhood, that I saw immediately were not just fun to read but something of tremendous value to this neighborhood. So, I started communicating with her and encouraging her, as did others. Over time she and I became really good friends, and I took on the role of editor of what became this book, 301 East Capitol, Tales from the Heart of the Hill. We struggled like mad with that title. Not with the “301 East Capitol” part but with the second half. [We] didn’t hit on “Tales from the Heart of the Hill” until shortly before publication. The process took about five years.
FRANZEN: She was almost finished in about 2010, 2009 or 2010. But she was determined to find a “real publisher,” quote unquote. [Interviewer laughs]
DEUTSCH: I know that feeling.
FRANZEN: Yes. She had published a collection of essays, most of them, you know, republished pieces that had appeared in the Post, the Times, and so forth back in 1984. And Atheneum, a “real publisher,” had put that one out.
DEUTSCH: What was it called?
FRANZEN: It was called Ah, Bewilderness! Muddling Through Life with Mary Z. Gray. [Laughs] Wonderful droll essays about the vicissitudes of everyday life. But, of course, the publishing business is radically changed since 1984. Hardly anyone in that business anymore is interested in your memories and musings unless you’re a major celebrity or criminal. So, she was getting nowhere. She contacted agents. They would sit on the manuscript for months, not get back to her. Eventually, when she finally got their attention, they would say, “Oh, no, no, this is not commercial, this is not going to sell.” And she’d go on knocking on another door or two.
Eventually, I convinced her that this wasn’t going to happen by the old route, but that we could still get this book out by essentially self-publishing it. What we did was the Overbeck Project formed a thing called the Overbeck History Press, which is essentially my dining table. [Both laugh] And we used a self-publishing service and we got the book out. It finally appeared in January of 2012 and became a minor phenomenon in this neighborhood. It’s sold by now just about a thousand copies. We had some very successful book signings here in the community and had just a lot of fun with this project.
And, as I said, over the course of this effort, she and I became really good friends. She would call me up at all hours [Laughs] just to talk about life, something she’d read in the news, something in politics, what have you. And we would just laugh our heads off together. It was wonderful.
She lived in her own home in Silver Spring until, I believe, age 93 or 4, then moved to an assisted living facility and moved from that one to another one very shortly before she died. She was mentally clear all the way to the end, almost the end, two or three weeks before she died. She came down with pneumonia, couldn’t pull out of it, and died near the end of January in 2015, last year. She had just turned 96.
DEUTSCH: What a remarkable story.
FRANZEN: It is. It is. When you think back on worthwhile things that you’ve done in your life, I would put that project and that friendship very, very high on the list for me.
DEUTSCH: What was it that made it so special?
FRANZEN: Yeah. And the book. You’ve read the book.
FRANZEN: It’s enormous fun to read and it’s a true insight, collection of insights, into what this neighborhood was like all those decades ago. It really was a different world.
FRANZEN: This is a woman who was taken to meet Charles Lindbergh upon his return from his solo flight to Paris.
FRANZEN: She was taken to the White House to meet Calvin Coolidge. She saw a lot of changes in these parts, and in the country, during her lifetime.
END OF INTERVIEW #2