Oral History: Laurence Lerner

2022.08 - Laurence LernerNarrator: Laurence Lerner
Interviewer: Skye Doney
Date: August 10, 2022
Transcribed by: Teresa Bergen
Format: Audio
Total Length: 1 hour, 39 minutes, 57 seconds



Begin Track 1, August 10, 2022

Doney: Yeah, so we’ll do sort of a call and response. I’ll ask the questions and then, you should also just think of them as loose guidelines. We don’t have to follow them rigorously. If you want to expand on anything at any point, please feel free to. We don’t have to march through them in any systematic way.

Lerner: Okay. I was looking at the questions last night and thinking about things that I haven’t thought about in a very long time.

Doney: Well, good.

Lerner: Being back on the Madison campus.

Doney: Well, that’s excellent that they’re prompting some introspection. So today is August 11, 2022. This is Skye Doney. I am with Dr. Laurence Lerner, who received his PhD in June of 1970. He worked with Merle Curti to write a thesis titled “The Rise of the Impresario: Bernard Ullman and the Transformation of Musical Culture in 19th Century America.” And so, Larry, we’re just going to start at the very beginning with where were you born and what kind of milieu were you born into? If you could talk a little bit about your childhood and your family background and your early schooling. Or any potential family members or teachers who encouraged you in your studies. Basically we’re interested in—

Lerner: Well—

Doney: Yeah, go ahead.

Lerner: Okay. I was born in the borough of the Bronx in New York City. In a working-class neighborhood. I am a first-generation American. My parents were both immigrants from Europe. My mother arrived in 1918 and my father about 1930, I’m not even sure. They were cousins. I think theirs was an arranged marriage; they were betrothed to one another as children.


Although we lived in the Bronx my parents were married in Montreal. Both my mother and my father were visiting cousins over Christmas. My mother once said that she went to Montreal for holiday parties; possibly to get engaged. Instead they were married on December 29th, ca. 1932.

Apparently my grandfather (my father’s father), who never left the Ukraine, (which was where my parents were born) sent a postcard in Yiddish to my father’s eldest brother in Montreal suggesting it was time for Rose and Murray to get together. So they did.

Doney: That’s great.

Lerner: One reason I became interested in history is due to the fact that I have no history. My parents never talked about Europe. Only very occasionally did they make an indirect comment. They refused to talk about their life in Europe. I don’t think it was a very positive environment, nor was it unhappy, but it was a very difficult life. With all the pitfalls of immigration and culture clash, they were grateful to immigrate to the United States. My mother’s mother died prior to WWI, but following my grandfathers departure for the United States. Before my grandmother died, however, my mother’s father remarried in the United States, effectively abandoning his wife and 3 children, including my mother. Ultimately, at the end of WWI and during the 1918 pandemic, my grandfathers two surviving children were brought to the US. Upon her arrival in the US my mother was stricken with the Spanish flu. As a result, thirty years later, she came down with Parkinson’s disease.

Doney: Oh, no.

Lerner: I don’t think my mother was formally educated. She was a very smart woman and was artistic. She was very striking for her time and had an incredible sense of style. My father was a lawyer in Europe. When he came to live with his family in Montreal he became a factory worker.


My father couldn’t afford to go to school upon his arrival in North America. He registered at McGill in Montreal, but was subjected to antisemitism. On one occasion he was forced to jump out of a window. After he arrived in the US following his marriage, my father acknowledged the dire circumstances of the depression period and never returned to school. He married and supported his lifestyle by becoming a factory worker, and remained a factory worker in the fur trade his entire working career. However, as a retiree, he morphed into a Gray Panther (a senior advocacy movement) which he found very satisfying. That was his secret life which I discovered in the Rathskeller at the UW union. I assume that the Rathskeller is still there, I don’t know.

Doney: It still is.

Lerner: I was having lunch with David Shannon, my first major professor, and a group of history grad students. David lived in NYC while teaching at Columbia, and started talking about the New York Times. Of course, being an obnoxious, provincial New Yorker, I always carried a copy of the Times with me. David recalled how difficult it was to read the Times on the subway. I said, “Well, there is a special way of reading the Times on the subway” and started to give a demonstration.


I opened the newspaper and stumbled across an article about my father (which included a group photo in police custody) who was a leader of a rent strike at the cooperative housing development where he lived called Co-op City (at the time the largest coop in the US with something approaching 40,000 residents). My father defied and threatened a judge when arrested: “I dare you to send me to jail because I’ll have a heart attack and die,” or something along those lines. I could not believe that my quiet, intellectual father who spoke 5 languages, occasionally submitting letters and opinion pieces to the Times, and was a published poet, would say that. That was his secret life which I first uncovered in the UW Rathskeller. I did not find out about his new life in detail until he died. His funeral was attended by over 300 people and he was greatly appreciated by his peers at Co-op City. The community honored his memory by naming the concert hall after him.

In terms of education I went to a local public elementary school in the Bronx and then to a New York specialized public high school, Music & Art. I was a singer and had a very nice soprano voice, but ended up with only a reasonable bass voice when my voice changed. I never intended to become a professional musician. I felt I wasn’t good enough, and I think I was correct. All of my life I always had an interest in music. As I said before, I didn’t have a history, I didn’t know my antecedents, I could not trace three generations of my family, I did not inherit an old family bible or any keepsakes or antiques. As a result I became interested in old things, or family-related objects, even historical architecture which was plentiful in New York City, especially in Harlem where my high school was located on the CCNY campus. However, at that time this interest was embryonic, very casual.

I didn’t really become interested in history as it relates to music until I was in college. I did my undergraduate work at NYU. I was a member and a manager of the NYU Glee Club. At some point the glee club was celebrating an anniversary. I decided, as manager, to employ a promo technique to get people to attend concerts. We created an archival display on several of the NYU campuses in New York employing both old textual materials (programs, photos, etc.) and tapes of musical performances. That was my first involvement with music as history or history as music and that is how I started to think about music in cultural and historical terms but not necessarily in musical terms. It was very pubescent. When I arrived in Madison, my focus was on my master’s essay which was in labor history, not music history. I’m not sure when music entered into the equation. I didn’t like political history. I felt that history as it was taught in America’s public schools was a series of presidents and dates. And ex-presidents. At least it was taught that way in my schools.


I always thought of music and art in general terms; in Madison I tried to think of the arts in conceptual terms and identify a way one could discuss music, or the performance of music, as it relates to history. How does art relate to history? How does culture relate to history? I had my first actual encounter with this dilemma when I was a TA for David Shannon’s class in twentieth century American politics meeting in B-10 Commerce, is that still there?

Doney: I think the Commerce building, I’m trying to remember, it’s renamed. But I can’t remember off the top of my head. [Now Ingraham Hall at the corner of Charter and Observatory].

Lerner: Okay. Well, there was this enormous room where Shannon lectured on twentieth century American politics. The seat capacity of the room was humongous. I think there were 270 or 300+ seats, which meant that we had an undergraduate enrollment of 270, or whatever the room’s capacity. Grad students had to stand or cut class, as there were no seats for them. Attendance was not taken. I was a TA, an administrative TA. During that period, probably [19]61, [19]62, [19]63, I developed a lecture for that class on music and the Great Depression. How music told the story of the Great Depression. I gave that lecture, which included text, tapes (“Pins and Needles,” “Brother can you spare a Dime,” “There’s no Depression in Heaven,” “Roosevelt’s Back Again”), and poetry (Langston Hughes). I delivered that lecture two or three times. I recently came across the tapes for that lecture. I can’t believe I saved them for 60 years. That was the first time I related history to music in a professional, even a possible scholarly fashion.

Conceptually I was very taken with Henry Farnum May’s (1915-2012) book on the genteel tradition, The End of American Innocence (1959). May was talking about a concept in history. When I wrote my master’s essay “The Fear of Revolt in 1912, The Impact of Syndicalism on the Genteel Tradition in America,” which was about the Lawrence, Massachusetts, textile strike in 1912, I tried to utilize May’s concept. The Lawrence strike was run by the IWW, the International Workers of the World,


which created a fear of revolt in the editorials of the genteel American press, and hence in America. At least that’s what I tried to document, I don’t think very successfully. That was the first time I tried to follow a conceptual approach to American history.

Doney: That’s great. I wonder, so we’re in Madison. But before we talk more about Madison, I wonder if we could just talk a little bit more about your time at NYU and how it was you decided to continue your studies after the undergrad in history. And whether there were particular instructors or faculty on that campus that encouraged you. Go ahead. No, I was just going to say, well related how, why UW-Madison after you made that decision?

Lerner: Well, there were two historians that I related to, both on a personal level and a historical level. One was Marshall Baldwin (d. 1975), a medievalist. One can’t deal with medieval history in straight chronological terms. It’s just not there. I remember reading such books as the Waning of the Middle Ages, etc., which were very conceptual at a time when history was taught chronologically.

The American historian on campus that I admired was a UW graduate, Bayrd Still (1906-1992). He was chairman of the department, the all-university department, and my college department. He was an urban historian and wrote Mirror for Gotham (1956). I liked the way he taught the American history survey. When I was graduating and couldn’t determine what I was going to do after college, I called him and suggested graduate school. At that point, Wisconsin was considered one of the top five departments in history. It was Wisconsin, Harvard, Columbia,


and UC, Berkeley, and possibly Yale. Or Michigan. They were the five or six top departments in American history. I didn’t want to go to Columbia because I was there a lot as an undergrad; I had many friends at Columbia. I hung out on the Columbia campus as an undergraduate, so going there as a grad student would not be a new experience. I couldn’t get into Harvard as the guys in my class who went to Harvard in history had better grades than I.

After speaking to Professor Bayrd Still at NYU, who did some intervention for me, I went to Wisconsin primarily because of him.

The irony was that everybody from my NYU graduating class who went to graduate school in history, two of them went to Harvard and three of them went to Columbia. All ended up on the Madison campus the year following my arrival as getting a master’s degree at both Harvard and Columbia was such a horrendous experience, grad students could not wait to leave and go elsewhere for their doctorates.

Doney: (laughs) Okay.

Lerner: One of my undergrad classmates, Nick Papayanis (1940-2004), received his master’s degree at Harvard and then came to Madison [PhD in 1969 under Harvey Goldberg]. Several other students whom I met at Wisconsin left Harvard as well. At Harvard and Columbia grad students did not have any or at best very little access to faculty. It was all very, very difficult. Grad students felt it was just not a place to be. I felt vindicated.

Doney: That’s really interesting. And then, so when you applied to come to Madison, did you have to a field or a major professor at that point?

Lerner: No. You picked a field, history. I had no idea what cultural history or intellectual history was. I don’t remember how I ended up in David Shannon’s seminar. It might have been that he wrote on socialism. I think he wrote one of the early histories of socialism. I was thinking of doing something about labor unions, and socialism seemed a close fit. In addition there was the legacy of John Commons (1862-1945). That was what the University of Wisconsin History Department was known for: John Commons and his work on labor unions. I completed my MA


under David Shannon and realized that my interests shifted. Shannon was a Curti student and he suggested I move to Curti. So that’s what I did.

Doney: Awesome.

Lerner: And I started thinking in broader, non-political and non-chronological terms.

Doney: Yeah, that’s great. So what year did you arrive in Madison?

Lerner: Sixty-one.

Doney: Okay. And what was Madison like in [19]61? And what were your first impressions of the campus and of the community?

Lerner: Okay. As I said earlier, after I spoke to Bayrd Still and he arranged got me admitted, I came to Madison to visit. I was shell-shocked that I was accepted, but it turns out it was not very difficult to get admitted to Wisconsin in those days. A friend of mine, whom I’d met in fifth grade, was driving to the Air Force Academy to teach. He dropped me off in Madison and I stayed at the Madison Inn on Langdon Street. Madison was very empty. My first impression of Madison was a very, very sleepy town. I probably went to the history department office. I remember looking for a place to live. I was in the UW Commons having dinner while I was still living at the Madison Inn. I think it was my second day in town. I met a mathematician from Peoria, Illinois. He became my roommate at the University Club and that’s where I lived the first two or three years in Madison. I later moved to Fiedler Lane, which was out near the Beltline, in a new, modern apartment. After my marriage we lived on Chamberlain Avenue, near the President’s house, and across the railroad tracks from the experimental farm and the ice cream store.

I spent two or three days in Madison and returned to New York. I came back to attend classes at the end of August or in September and moved into the University Club. Madison in September was a very different place, it was jammed. I couldn’t believe the number of undergraduates.

Doney: (laughs) Yes.


Lerner: I just couldn’t believe it. I decided if I had gone to a school like the University of Wisconsin at Madison, I would have had such a nice time partying, I would have flunked out. I had never seen, and I never heard of anything like Madison. At that point, there were 42,000. It was unbelievable.

Doney: Yeah.

Lerner: Madison was also very interesting; everyone had a group. People were focused on dormitories or fraternity life. The graduate students, at least the graduate students in American history, had the State Historical Society where everyone gathered. That created the nucleus of people I dealt with on a daily basis. I was fortunate; due to my residency at the U Club I was able to meet a broader swatch of the graduate student population. The history grad students, especially the Americanists, had difficulty meeting grads in other departments.

Of course, you always could meet people at the bars. For a quick drink there were always the State Street establishments, filled with undergraduates. If you were a TA that could prove awkward as your students could end up being your drinking buddies. As a result, many grad students who were in long-term residence (beyond MAs) gravitated toward bars that were away from the State Street nexus.

It was really a very strange existence. I lived in a three-block or four-block area of Madison for my first two years. I slept at the University Club. Across the street was the Historical Society where I spent my days. Across Langdon street was the Union where I ate. You would occasionally go up Bascom Hill for classes. Today with the new history building next to the U Club current history grad students must get claustrophobic.

Doney: Wow. (laughs)

Lerner: It was very, very limited. Maybe that was good for me. It was intellectually an expansive experience but geographically it was not. Even the laundromat was on University Avenue, a block away from the University Club. Everything was centrally located, and so that was fine with me.

Doney: Yeah. Yeah. Makes it simple. Straightforward.

Lerner: Right.

Doney: Well this is — go ahead.

Lerner: The environment was very, very intellectually stimulating and it was very intense. In a way it was magical, because the interchange of ideas was overwhelming. Even in casual conversation you were challenged. You ate and slept history; you were just hanging out with history. There was always someone discussing, dissecting one point or another.

You asked about my political associations in Madison. In those days, there were, in the history department especially, two very diverse grad political universes. That was not necessarily the case in other departments. In the math, eco, and English departments for example, this dynamic environment re politics did not exist. The history department, or rather the graduate students of the history department were unique. There were those that were very involved in politics and those that were indifferent. I fell into the indifferent category. My group, if I can call it that, lived and worked around the lower campus; sometimes we migrated out to the Beltline


for better housing. Do these terms make sense to you?

Doney: Yeah, they still make sense. I can actually see the University Club right out of this window.

Lerner: The politically active group (left wing but not really; everyone was liberal) lived in rooming houses on Mifflin Street. There was a geographic split as well as an ideological split between the two groups. “Ideological” is not entirely correct. It was more of a social and cultural difference, but not along individual economic lines. Economic lines were very blurred; it was more along aspirational lines. During our first year when my group (not a good designation) went drinking, we went to the bars on State Street. The other group usually opted to have house parties on Mifflin Street. I remember the groups as being very polar. We really didn’t associate or interact socially. We spoke to one another but did not socialize.

Two of the group who were politically active and very outspoken were Freddy Sapora (a Mosse student) and Ronny Radosh, who wrote about the Rosenbergs [PhD in 1967 under William Appleman Williams]. Radosh was very active in the Mifflin Street group. I think that he might have been a Williams student. A woman, Eileen Janes, was also involved with that crowd. She went to England on a Fulbright and I believe she is/was a British academic.

After my first or second year, I remember being in Shannon’s master’s seminar. There were very few students in the master’s group who actually went on to PhDs. Shannon discouraged people from going on for PhDs. I was surprised by his approach and not sure what his criteria was. We became friendly after he left Madison to become the provost at the University of Virginia. He really cut out a lot of people. I didn’t realize that’s what was done. I did not think of a master’s degree as being a terminal degree. Shannon was quite articulate about it and suggested directly to specific students that while he couldn’t prevent them from going on, he suggested that they do not pursue a PhD. Most, if not all, of these “designated” grad students either left campus or enrolled in other areas, especially law.


After the first year, or after the first year and a half, the number of history grad students really shrunk. This smaller group were the students I hung out with, and our lives were centered at the Society Library. Ultimately that group was reduced to just the Curti students. Does that answer your question?

Doney: Yeah, it does. And I just, I think that yeah, you’ve spoken toward a lot of the following questions about the reputation of the department at UW and what your fellow students were like. And you also talked about who you studied with at UW and your graduate advisor. Were there any — or your thesis advisor. Were there any other professors or classes or moments during those initial years, I would say up to the completing the MA, that stand out in your mind?

Lerner: Well, there were three professors who stand out in my mind aside from the people that I really worked with, namely David Shannon and Merle Curti. After Merle died, David Cronon (1924-2006) signed off on my dissertation. The three really memorable people were Professor Helen White (1896-1967), chair of the English department, Walter Rideout (1917-2006), who was an Anderson scholar in the English department (American literature was my minor field), and George Mosse. Helen White was a real character. She used to eat dinner at the University Club every night so I casually got to know her. She would always wear purple and white, not the same clothes, but always shades of purple and white. She followed that practice so she could pack in a hurry. If she had to go someplace, she didn’t want to have to think about clothes.

Doney: Oh, interesting. 

Lerner: In addition she never cooked at home and kept her research notes in her oven. Professor White lived across the street from the side entrance of the University Club, and was a fixture there. She was one of the campus characters.

Walter Rideout was a very interesting


man in that he let you do what you wanted to do. In other words he let you hang yourself. I found that approach beneficial and challenging, but I was successful with that protocol. I took a seminar with him: Anderson, Hemingway, and Faulkner. I decided to follow the approach I used with history and deal with the material not in a chronological or linear approach but in a circular fashion. In one of Faulkner’s novels, I think it’s The Sound and The Fury, there’s a short story that’s part of the novel, “The Bear.” In my seminar paper I wrote about the railroad tracks that were running through the story and through the entire novel. Rideout was very supportive in utilizing an unusual ploy writing about the symbolism expressed by the railroad tracks rather than conventional literary criticism. He thought I had a very good point and was very, very encouraging.

And then there was George Mosse. George Mosse was something of a campus character. Everybody knew who he was. Unlike Merle Curti, who was a Pulitzer Prize winner and extremely well-known professionally, was not especially known to undergraduates. George Mosse on the other hand, was a cultural phenomenon on campus. As, by the way, was William Appleman Williams, but I never really got to know him well.

I took George Mosse’s course because his thinking of history was very, very conceptual. He followed a theme in German history that impacted European civilization as a whole: the Volk, V-O-L-K. That was his approach and he just hammered it home. I disagreed with it to some extent, but it was an interesting concept. Mosse was able to articulate a concept, a singular theme, and tie history together. Not necessarily chronologically, but by thoughts and actions and the way people reacted to political history.

Mosse had a very large following, both in undergraduate and graduate students. While he expressed a very stern demeanor and sort of huffed and puffed a lot, he was very approachable. Mosse gave himself to his students which was a very unusual phenomenon in elite academic circles. The Madison faculty as a whole was very unusual; they taught and catered to their students.


At other major schools, it was very hard to see a faculty member. I have a son who has a doctorate in history, European history. He did his PhD at Columbia but it was not possible for him to see his big name major professor. The thesis advisor was just inaccessible. It seems as if the practices of the 1960s continued into the twenty-first century.

The Wisconsin faculty, the history faculty in particular, was very accessible. They always had time. They were in their offices. Their doors were open. While they published and did a lot of research, they really felt a responsibility to their students, which was especially unusual in graduate school at that time. I don’t know what it’s like now.

Doney: I think it’s a lot like then. It varies. But that overall, at least within the European program, which is what I know best, the faculty are still very approachable.

Lerner: In my day the history faculty let you be adventurous and creative; they let you do your own thing. In 1969, Jack Wilson (a fellow grad student who was close to Curti and eventually ended up on the faculty of Smith College) told me that Curti, in his advanced seminar, mentioned a younger student who was working in musicology. I didn’t consider myself someone who was interested in musicology but he must have been talking about me. I was the only one who was doing anything remotely related to music. Of course I found that very flattering. In reality what I was trying to do was document the business of music, rather than music itself, and document the dissemination of music (a line that I used in those days) and how music in the United States evolved from an art form to a commodity. That was the critical difference between the presentation of art music or classical music in Europe as opposed to America.

In hindsight the Curti observation re musicology was very ironic, as it was conveyed as I entered a seminar room for my oral defense. By then I had no choice but to leave academic life and seek professional alternatives. If there were no teaching jobs available in the academic arena then I had to look for career options elsewhere . The only reason I completed my dissertation was directly related to my compulsive personality as opposed to any intellectual fulfillment.

Doney: Oh, this is a perfect —

Lerner: [unclear] of European music. I’m sorry?

Doney: I was going to say that’s a perfect transition to an opportunity to talk about your move from labor history and your MA to the history of music for your PhD. So you talked a little bit about some of your colleagues being dissuaded from continuing on to the PhD, but you did continue. Can you talk about that decision and then maybe your committee and then how you landed on your specific thesis and pursued that research?

Lerner: I started doing


research and my research took forever. I finished my required classwork when I completed my master’s, which was in [19]63. I finished the residence requirement. I was married in [19]63. My wife was a graduate student in the English department. We did not leave Madison until January or February of [19]66 to do research on my dissertation. I didn’t finish the dissertation or get anywhere close to completion until sometime in mid [19]69. I missed the date to get a [19]69 degree (my orals were in late summer) so that’s why it’s a [19]70 degree. I think of it as being completed in [19]69.

I wanted to do something relating to music in America. Not musical appreciation, but rather the dissemination of musical culture. In the early to mid-nineteenth century when compared to Europe, the status of “art” or classical music in the US resembled a wasteland. There was little if any classical music performed in the United States and what existed was not widely disseminated. Classical music then as now was not part of the big business of music.


A sprinkling of art music was always available in America, but it was not until 1825 that Lorenzo da Ponte (1749-1838) tried to sell art music (via Italian opera) to a broader base of the American population. These early efforts were not financially successful but they did establish that there was an audience, presumably a somewhat limited audience, to pay for and appreciate this exotic form of entertainment.

Coexisting with this group of music lovers were a parallel group of concert managers operating during the latter nineteenth century promoting music (and supposedly their financial well-being) working out of New York and European capitals. At the outset they were mostly European and in some cases extended families: Max Maretzek (1821-1897) and his cousins Max (1835-1892) and Maurice Strakosch (1825-1887) including Maurice’s sister-in-law, the world famous diva Adelina Patti,(1843-1919).There was also the French hustler, Bernard Ullman (1817-1885),who followed in the footsteps of the greatest humbug artist of all time, P.T. Barnum (1810-1891), the first man who really dealt with music as a commodity, something that was hyped. Barnum brought Jenny Lind (1820-1887), the Swedish Nightingale, to America in 1850 for a concert tour. Barnum hyped Lind as if he was promoting an elephant and succeeded in making Lind, at that time, the wealthiest woman in the world, amassing over $10,000,000 in today’s dollars($350,000 in nineteenth-century dollars) during the course of two American tours in the 1850s. Barnum was the first person, essentially, to make money in the United States by the presentation of high art music. I don’t know if that makes sense to you.

Doney: Yeah, yeah, it does. Yeah.

Lerner: The person who followed closely in Barnum’s footsteps was Bernard Ullman. When I started to think about my dissertation, I intended to do a chapter on each of the major impresarios. Soon reality set in and the need for a job, for which a completed dissertation was mandatory. As a result I only submitted the Ullman chapter as my dissertation with a long introduction and many lengthy footnotes covering Ullman’s competitors, including Maretzek, the Strakosch brothers and William Steinway (1835-1896), the founder of Steinway and Sons and the most “respectable” of the impresarios.

In the 1850s and following, Steinway, of the Steinway piano factory, discovered that the best way to sell a piano was to


give performances around the US by European virtuoso artists accompanied by a Steinway piano. Steinway had a subdivision of the company, run by Charles Tretbar, that sponsored concerts using a Steinway piano in conjunction with a prominent artist. In 1962 or [19]63 when I was doing plank road research for Alice Smith, who was the historian at the State Historical Society, I discovered ads in several 19th century newspapers from towns along the Fox River Valley selling Steinways as well as articles describing how, in the 1860s, Steinway would deliver grand pianos over plank roads.

By the time I left Madison in [19]66, I was aware of this group of impresarios. As I said earlier, my original plan called for a chapter on each impresario. When I finally started to write, I realized that Ullman was going to be the dissertation and I would use the other materials I accumulated in later scholarly publications. However, I was faced with my nagging inner conflict of why was I pursuing this? There were no jobs. There simply were no jobs.

Doney: Yeah.

Lerner: I was married, I had a child, and I didn’t want to be put in the position as many other contemporary history grad students of moving from year to year on temporary jobs until a permanent position opens up.

Doney: Yeah.

Lerner: I hurriedly finished the dissertation, realizing that I couldn’t get an academic teaching job. And I just went out to get a job to make a living. To support my family.

Doney: Yeah. Well before, maybe before we talk about that decision and about your post-UW-Madison career, I wanted to give you just a chance to think about


or talk about this unique decade in Madison, the 1960s. Unique to the whole country. So I just wondered if there was anything else about the [19]60s in Madison or about your time while conducting research that stood out or that you wanted to touch on.

Lerner: Well, it’s very interesting. The big explosion at Van Vleck Hall must have happened in [19]66, when they tried to blow up the math building?

Doney: The Sterling Hall bombing?

Lerner: I’m sorry?

Doney: The Sterling Hall bombing? That’s August of 1970.

Lerner: Well, maybe, no, 1970 would have been too late. There was another attempt at a bombing. The story ended up on the front page of the New York Times. When my mother saw that a bombing, or attempted bombing, took place at the University of Wisconsin, she turned to me and said, “Did you have to go there?” I said, “Well, I didn’t go there for politics. I went there because it was one of the five top schools in history.” I don’t remember the other four, as you already know. UW was considered one of the top five departments in American history. By the way, I used to say that I was born and bred in a big city. If I was going to teach American history, I had to find out what America was like. That was one of my rationales —

Doney: Oh, nice.

Lerner: — for not going to Columbia or NYU for a PhD. I had to find out what the country was like. How can you teach American history with a background of New York City?

Doney: (laughs) Fair enough.

Lerner: So I — yeah, go ahead.

Doney: I just said fair enough. That’s a good point.

Lerner: Okay. That was one reason I was anxious to come to Wisconsin. I loved New York and always wanted to come back to New York and live in New York. However, I also wanted to get out of New York and see what the rest of the country was like. I lived in California for a while as a kid. But I really wanted to see the country. I knew people were different. New York was different from the rest of the country. I wanted to find out what small town America was like. Wisconsin gave me that orientation and Wisconsin made me think about things in a very different light.

But one thing about Madison is that Madison, probably Berkeley and Madison,


were not isolated from the rest of the world. Even though you weren’t directly involved in politics or social causes you were on campus, being part of the University of Wisconsin community. Students were very, very aware of what was going on in the country and what was going on around the world. Everyone talked about world affairs. People, especially socially aware grad students (and we all were to some degree) didn’t talk about isolated phenomena on campus; you talked in terms of a worldview.

It was on the Madison campus that I met people like Jeff Greenfield (b. 1943), who later wrote Robert Kennedy’s (1925-1968) speeches and had a career as a political commentator. He was not part of the Mifflin Street crowd. He was part of the Langdon Street crowd. He was very upscale in the way he thought and dressed but was very politically motivated.

Now, okay, you asked me to talk about something else and I lost track of it.

Doney: No, this is just sort of open-ended on the [19]60s, before we move to your post-UW-Madison career.

Lerner: In the [19]60s, politics was always in the air. One just talked about politics all the time. While you didn’t necessarily agree with people, you weren’t in an elite, little collegiate community that was geographically or intellectually isolated and unaware of the world at large. That’s all I can say about it. I know from other people, from friends who were in other graduate programs, that this was not the case at other schools. In Madison you learned to tolerate other people. Politics was not necessarily as it is today, a dividing, divisive factor in the nation. Politics in the [19]60s was something to discuss, consider, and then work things out. It was not confrontational; it was thoughtful. You had contrary points of view, but that was okay. And it’s very different than now —

Doney: Yeah.


Lerner: — in this country. In Madison in the 1960s, individuals’ politics were all over the place. If you discussed politics in Madison, you presented a point of view and you didn’t have to hammer it home.

As I recall, there were parties Saturday night primarily on Mifflin Street, as grads lived in large boarding house situations. Sometimes students rented the whole house and a group lived together. Students simply just talked about politics and it was only talk. There wasn’t this hostility that there is today.

Doney: Yeah, more of a sense of possibility and of debate.

Lerner: It was really a sense of debate, yes. This is what you did in class, and this is what you did outside of class. And there wasn’t this extreme hostility. There was someone, and in fact, it became something of a joke. A graduate student, I think a Williams student, his name was Jim Gilbert [PhD in 1966 under William J. Taylor]. He came from Chicago. His mother was running for some office in a Chicago suburb.


He used to mock her because she went out on the campaign trail wearing her mink coat. He was very, very left wing. One time he accidentally dropped a listing of his stock holdings. Oh, sure, he can afford to be leftwing because he has this kind of money. It was certainly not from his experience nor from his background that he was leftwing.

Doney: That’s funny.

Lerner: He ended up marrying the switchboard operator at the University Club, whose name I have forgotten. The second young lady on the switchboard was Gerry Mollenhoff, an undergraduate whose father was a very well-known, liberal, Washington journalist, Clark Mollenhoff. In Madison one could not escape politics.

Doney: Well then, let’s talk about you. You mentioned your decision, the academic job market sort of pushed you to finish your PhD and then to begin looking for alternative career paths. Can you talk a little bit about how you got interested in outreach, development, fundraising and philanthropy? How did that career shift take place?

Lerner: For a while I worked in the textile business. Getting involved with textiles provided a possibility that I could buy fabric for men’s clothing manufacturing which was my wife’s family business. That opportunity did not materialize as the family decided to go out of the manufacturing business and use the facilities


they owned in New York as commercial rental properties,

Doney: Okay.

Lerner: Prior to my foray into textiles I met an executive recruiter who was trying to break into servicing the securities business. In the [19]60s, Wall Street firms decided they needed professional economists on their staff to write newsletters. Prior to that, the newsletters were primarily written by stockbrokers. My responsibility was to identify PhDs in economics who wanted to work on Wall Street. As I knew many PhDs in economics who were earning $16,000.00 a year and could offer them $75,000 to temporarily abandon academic life and switch industries, it was not a difficult sell and I was quite successful.

Doney: Oh, wow.

Lerner: Obviously there was some hesitation on behalf of certain people. Most of my candidates, however, were willing to try out Wall Street. It was my role to fit the personality of the firm with the personality of the individual. I would have to coach the candidate how to dress for their interviews as Wall Street executives did not want to face a frumpy guy in a tweed sport coat. They wanted to see a guy in a stand-up suit, dressed to reflect their image.

While we were very successful for a number of years, I felt compelled to do something more intellectual. I went to work for Business International, which was a consulting firm originated by Orville Freeman (1918-2003), who I think was Kennedy’s Secretary of Agriculture, maybe?

Doney: Okay.

Lerner: Freeman formed a consulting firm when he left government that did work primarily for major banks and multinationals


conducting customized research projects. My job at Business International was to do comparative compensation and benefits surveys for the multinational corporate community. If a large bank wished to relocate a senior executive to another country, for example, and keep them as a satisfied employee, it was necessary to maintain parity between the employees’ overseas lifestyle and what they enjoyed in the United States. We had to develop programs that would rationalize costs and be satisfactory to both our corporate clients and their high level executives.

Doney: Oh, interesting.

Lerner: While at BI, my former partner at the headhunting firm asked me to take on an assignment. A Jewish social service agency was looking for a director of research. My partner knew that recruiting with or for a religious oriented entity was a sensitive issue for me as a result of my experience at Bowling Green State. I was offered a job at Bowling Green with an incredible salary but an unusual proviso that I consider being the Jewish face of the college to the group of primarily Jewish prospective students who were recruited from Long Island. I might have been naive, but I was insulted (in hindsight it was probably intended as a compliment) and did not accept the job. David Shannon said that if I took the job I would die a very rich man, as there was no place in Bowling Green to spend that kind of money. In view of the BG experience my former


partner hesitated to approach me, but times changed and I was becoming more realistic about the world. After a long and tedious search there was no one who wished to be straightforward about the end use of the jobs’ product, which inhibited job candidates. As a result I took the position and not only earned a commission as a recruiter but gained a job that was extremely challenging (as it had yet to be defined) and paid a corporate level salary as opposed to typically low academic compensation.

The United Jewish Appeal, a large social service fundraising agency for the American Jewish community, had very specific goals in mind. The UJA’s market was individuals (potential donors) with assets in the high seven figures and incomes that were approaching seven figures. They were looking for potential major donors so I inadvertently became involved in, and became one of the early, if not one of the first, users of prospect research. It was not called prospect research at the time as we were very discreet. Most people, including UJA staff members,had no idea of the parameters of my job. I looked for ways of identifying individuals having a lot of cash who might wish to donate to a worthy charity.

Doney: Yeah.

Lerner: There were many mechanisms that we devised; do you know what 144 stock is?

Doney: I don’t.

Lerner: Okay, 144, that’s lettered stock. In the early [19]70s, when a lot of companies, private companies, were going public, the owners received stock as compensation for their business interests. The Security Exchange Commission limited the amount of 144 stock that an individual could sell in any given period as they had to maintain the equilibrium of the markets. If you owned 100,000 shares of a company, for example, and only several hundred shares were trading in any given day, you could not sell your entire block in one trade. This stock was called lettered or 144 stock. You had to apply to the Securities Exchange Commission to sell the stock and sell it on a specific schedule which could take months.

Doney: Okay.

Lerner: The legislation provided if you gave a number of shares of the stock to a 501(c)3 they had the right to sell it at any time and not abide by the cycle mandated by the SEC. The tax deduction triggered by the sale of the charity’s owned stock could offset a portion of the donors’ taxable obligations, so many of these paper millionaires chose to gift stock, hopefully as a gracious philanthropic gesture, but more likely as a tax shelter. In order to sell, one had to petition the SEC and those documents were in the public domain. So we monitored the list of potential sellers in order to identify potential donors. This pattern became a common practice for a number of these entrepreneurs.


— I don’t know if this is making any sense to you. Is it?

Doney: Yeah, I’m following.

Lerner: If the original stockholder could increase the pool of stock that was already sold by gifting shares to a charity (who by law could immediately sell their securities) the donor could not only increase their cash flow by the sale of a larger block of shares, but could qualify for a tax deduction on the securities they donated, thereby lowering their taxable obligations and yielding the donor an even greater amount of cash. I became involved in philanthropy via the back office by devising strategies that helped both the donor and charities. Later I became involved in the actual creation and giving — solicitation — of gifts.

Doney: Great.

Lerner: If that makes sense.

Doney: It does. Yeah.

Lerner: I remained a back-office operator doing what is now referred to as prospect research. We also tied the information we gathered into — this is the very early stages of computers — Dun & Bradstreet and created a database of both donors and prospects (current donors are always prospects because they can donate more) so if there was any change in a major donor or prospect’s business that would benefit a charity, i.e. to generate cash so the donor/prospect could contribute — the charity would be aware of the opportunity and take advantage of the situation. Example: selling a piece of real estate that generates enormous capital gains. If you give a specific percentage of that property to a charity prior to the consummation of the sale, the donor/seller could generate a tax deduction which might generate a sizable tax offset thereby enabling the donor to generate more cash.

Doney: Okay.

Lerner: Years later I tried to merge my academic background and my fundraising/philanthropy expertise when I became the chief operating officer of the Alumni Federation of NYU, inc., the independent alumni corporation. Following that I joined the administration of Manhattan College


as vice-president of development and created a development operation where none existed.

Doney: That’s great.

Lerner: I never lost track of my academic interests. I started to collect in an obscure area of American folk art called tinsel paintings, or reversed paintings on glass. Art Recreations, published in 1869, described how to create tinsel paintings, as they were conventionally known, or reverse paintings on glass backed with lead foil. In this Art Recreations, instructions suggested that these works of folk art be backed with newspapers. It occurred to me that if one gathered a number of these paintings one could not only tell the date they were created but identify the geographic area where they originated. In this way one could actually see how a cultural form moved from one area to another.

Doney: Interesting. Yeah.

Lerner: And so that’s — I’m sorry?

Doney: I just said that’s really interesting.

Lerner: I collected about 350 tinsels. I was getting old and my wife was sick so we decided


to downsize. I donated most of the collection to the American Museum of Folk Art and the balance of the collection to the Kohler Foundation who agreed to distribute them to historic houses in Wisconsin erected at the turn of the nineteenth century. Tinsel paintings were an historically accurate accessory in a living room or a parlor in the time of gaslight or lamplight as they reflected light into a room, much as a mirror, so adding more illumination. The Koehler Foundation shifted gears, however, so part of my collection is now housed in Madison at Edgewood College. Edgewater College?

Doney: Edgewood.

Lerner: Edgewood College recently opened a new art gallery and had no permanent collection. So part of my collection of tinsel paintings formed the nucleus of the Edgewood College permanent art collection.

In 2013 there was a show at the American Folk Art Museum featuring my collection. The published catalog, Foiled: Tinsel Painting in America, is the first and only quasi-scholarly work on this relatively unknown sector of American folk art.

Oh, I now remember how I got involved in the impresarios. Do you want to know that?

Doney: Yeah. Absolutely.

Lerner: My wife was a research assistant to Professor Tom Tanselle (b. 1934) of the English Department (recently retired as VP of Guggenheim Foundation), who was doing a project based on a collection of Little Magazines at the University of Chicago Library. Periodically we drove to Chicago where my wife did research (for which she was paid) while I went to the Newberry Library to seek out their holdings related to music. The Newberry Library had a large collection of programs of what was known in the late 19th c as the Theodore Thomas Traveling Orchestra, which later became the Chicago Symphony. Theodore Thomas (1835-1905), their conductor, had his origins with the New York Philharmonic.

When I finally got to New York in early [19]66, I discovered a manuscript collection at the New York Public Library relating to the Sousa Band. These discoveries were critical as the history faculty at the University of Wisconsin would not approve a dissertation topic without presentation of what they considered adequate resources. One had to present manuscript sources for a dissertation. In their estimation this was what a dissertation was all about.

Doney: Yeah.

Lerner: The doctoral candidate must be able to identify and gather resources, especially manuscript materials and utilize those resources in the body of the dissertation. While the sources I originally submitted were exemplary there were no manuscript materials. Thus the value of my dissertation then and even today is the identification of a large body of extant manuscript sources that relate to the presentation of music in the United States, including the Theodore Thomas Collection at the Newberry Library, the David Blakeslee Papers (incorporating materials relating to the formation of the Sousa band)


at the New York Public Library, the William Steinway Journals now at the Smithsonian and formerly part of the Steinway Archives, and the George Templeton Strong manuscript diaries relating to music at Columbia. These materials establish the existence of America’s musical highway, the circuit travelled by the Sousa Band, the Theodore Thomas Traveling Orchestra (before it became the Chicago Symphony) and earlier, the Italian opera companies, to disseminate art music in the US.

These ideas, developed in the 1960s, surfaced again in my subconscious during the early 2000’s, when I realized that the tinsel paintings I amassed with their self-documented origins (via the local newspapers included in the tinsels’ backings) could parallel the musical routes or circuits that I attempted to identify thirty years earlier. I had this epiphany: what’s going on here? What is the relationship? I don’t know if I ever answered that, but I did document some of it, partially in my dissertation and partially in my long-lost research notes. With these two genres, one in music (the performance of music) and the other tinsel paintings (which was a popular art form rooted in the heartland of America) I could demonstrate that a vibrant cultural heritage existed in the United States. Americans did have culture. It was not only Europeans. The format existed but the aesthetic was different, just as the system or structure in Europe was patronage while the system in the United States was audience participation, box office, and money.


Doney: Yeah. That’s interesting how all of these are interrelated.

Lerner: Yeah. And I didn’t recognize these interrelationships in the ‘60s when I was working on my dissertation research. I discovered tinsel paintings decades later at an antique show. I bought one and carefully took it apart. I became curious regarding their origins. I discovered several books that included information on tinsels and how instructions for creating them were indirectly disseminated through newspapers and ladies magazines. What I did not understand then, and do not understand to this day, is why tinsel paintings, a uniquely American phenomenon and a true example of folk art executed by “the folk”, as opposed to the trained artists or amateurs of the educated elite, are not fully recognized as an art form in histories or anthologies of American art. To my mind tinsels are as “artistic” as Stephen Foster’s tunes.

Well, I don’t know how much more you can get from me.

Doney: So basically I think we’ve got just a couple more questions. And one is, they’re both actually circling back. One, this one is how about changes that you’ve noticed in fundraising for institutions of higher education and sort of how has your professional field changed over the course of your career? And then how you’ve remained active after retirement.

Lerner: Oh, okay. Well, fundraising,


Fundraising in the past was confined to back rooms. To suggest that fundraising was an activity practiced in secret is not an overstatement. Fundraising is ideally not practiced in public. Discretion, discretion, discretion. Still today there exists a widely accepted premise that talking about money is sordid. People are not open about fundraising. Charities seek funds not out of choice but necessity; the process is considered embarrassing by many, so institutions quietly and discreetly look for funds primarily from high net worth individuals. Ideally, funding is expected to be offered, not requested.

Colleges and universities, especially, originated the concept of annual fund drives as a mechanism to insure alumni loyalty and not necessarily as fund raising vehicles. In addition to annual funds, academic institutions and other charities concurrently seek major donors for capital funding projects resulting in named giving opportunities on buildings and institutions, etc. Annual fund giving alone is not sustaining. Realistically, $100 gifts are not meaningful when institutions/charities need resources for operating and capital expenditures.

During my lifetime, or professional lifespan, fundraising has been more or less reluctantly accepted but not condoned. The problem of identifying prospects, with deep pockets, remains. Hence the need for prospect research which, surprisingly, is still lurking in the closet.

Academic and institutional administrators are beginning to recognize that annual funds, aside from being a cash cow, can also be used as an indication of a donor’s willingness to fund a charity. It is apparent, if not always socially acceptable, that somewhere out there are individuals with money that is not visible but if identified might support an appropriate cause. The realization of this premise led to more aggressive methods of seeking funds for major educational and cultural institutions.

Due to pressing financial needs, prospect research emerged and flourished. More and more money is being raised in the United States today. But of course, people have more money. In addition, the US is the only country in the world where there’s a tax incentive to give charitable contributions. Nowhere else does a similar tax incentive exist. Philanthropy changed in that it has become more widely recognized and accepted.

Doney: That’s really, yeah.

Lerner: Does that answer your question?

Doney: It does. Yeah, thank you. Thank you for that, for sharing that insight.

Lerner: What was your last question?

Doney: It’s whether there was anything else you wanted to add about your time, about your youth, about your time at UW-Madison, or your career. Just open if we’ve missed anything.

Lerner: No. Fundraising is an unusual career for someone with my background. I was surprised when you asked me to participate in this oral history project. My career path is not what the history department would sanction. Ironically it is my training as a researcher and the structure of getting a PhD, that enabled me to succeed and be successful in the philanthropic world. When I first changed careers people suggested that having a PhD for me was a waste, but it wasn’t, in that being educated is not a waste.

Doney: Yeah. I think that the academy in general has realized that the PhD actually opens up a lot more opportunities than just the traditional academic career. I mean here, at UW-Madison, for instance, we do a lot of different panels and programming for PhD students to get them thinking about what the skills that they’re learning, what types of careers that might make possible for them. So I’m in the same boat. I don’t think it’s at all a waste. If nothing else, you get to spend a number of years pursuing something that deeply interests you. And while doing so, you learn a lot of skills that people coming just out of a bachelor’s or an MA don’t possess. And that makes you competitive in other ways.

Lerner: I don’t know how many PhD candidates there are in the department now. I’m sure they see the slim number of available academic positions. But I’m glad that they’re trying to redirect these individuals into different areas of the economy where their skills can be utilized. This was not the case in the 1960s. And I hope that changes.

Doney: Oh, yeah, I think, yeah. It’s very much changing. Yeah.

Lerner: I feel that I made a contribution, Not necessarily in the classroom, but elsewhere.

Doney: Yeah.

Lerner: My career path was not how I intended my nonacademic career to work out. Necessity dictated the actions I took. I hope this is helpful.

Doney: So, let me just right now stop the recording. Again, this is Thursday, August 11, 2022, Skye Doney speaking with Dr. Laurence Lerner. This ends the oral history.

End Track 1. 

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