George Malko '56 - The Road Most Definitely Taken
Editor's Note: This piece is part of our ongoing "Roads Taken & Not Taken" series. Haverford grads who want to share their own story of roads taken (or not taken) since graduation should drop us a line.
I arrived at Haverford intending to be a chemistry major—“Look, ma, I made smoke!”—and graduated a French major—“Ou sont les neiges d’antan?” I spent a year at the Sorbonne because Bill Cadbury, then our Dean, told me to go on my own but bring back proof that I had attended classes and taken exams. I did better, earning a diploma with a “Mention Bien.”
Living and studying in Paris confirmed for me that a huge part of my Russian soul would always cling to Europe, even as I knew how lucky I and my family had been to make it to the United States where I grew up and was primarily educated. Also in Paris, I realized I wanted to try to write; I didn’t declare that I was going to be a writer, which to my way of thinking is an identity. I simply realized that writing was what I had to try.
I got into New York Radio & TV through my Haverford classmate and dear friend, the late Rodney Clurman. He got me hired as a reporter/writer on a Mr. & Mrs. radio talk show which was broadcast live five nights a week from the Waldorf Astoria’s Peacock Alley. God, it was fun, I was in show business and I was being paid to write! Or so I told myself; what I really did over the fourteen months I was there was research and then pre-interview an incredible array of talk-show guests: celebrities, politicians, athletes. In its own way, it was a kind of grad school; it didn’t teach me how to write, but it did force me to learn how to interview and how to research source materials.
A few years later I had a great job at CBS News but they wouldn’t let me write. I was constantly being told “Not yet,” without any sense of when that “yet” might be. I was married, living in Rome making documentary films for CBS, and again, it was a hell of a lot of fun. But in a moment of what might have been almost arrogant clarity, I knew that if I was going to find whatever it was I was looking for, I had to go out on my own. So I quit.
By the 70s and 80s, I had had my first feature and TV movies produced, a novel published, some plays produced, and I had an office on West 57th Street. Yes, it was a lot, but that true sense of something authentic coming out of me continued to be elusive.
One morning I got into the elevator and was stunned to find myself standing next to Dean Cadbury. I said good morning and he said, “Good morning, George,” and went on to explain that he had retired from the college, he and his wife were living in New York, and he had an office in the building.
We saw each other often. I always greeted him with, “Good morning, Dean Cadbury,” and he would always reply, “Good morning, George.” We got some looks of curiosity, but nothing more, even as I felt I had a lingering term paper due.
In those years, as my work progressed, and as I struggled to finish another novel, I did a wide variety of writing to support myself and my family. This included writing a few films which accompanied art exhibits at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. One was on the magnificent unicorn tapestries.
Not long after the show opened, I got a letter from Dean Cadbury. “Since moving to New York,” he wrote, “we have had the opportunity to enjoy the city, taking in all sorts of shows and exhibitions. Imagine my surprise and delight when, attending the tapestry exhibit at the Met, we watched the accompanying film, and then saw that you had written it. Congratulations, it was wonderful. Thank you.”
Stunned and deeply touched, my reply was clumsy. I wanted to tell him what his words meant to me and I failed. I wanted to find a simple way of telling him what it felt like to know that I hadn’t let him down, but it didn’t come out right.
That letter has never left me, and it has taken me a while to grasp that what it did in that moment was give me a sense of validity.
These days, I have a new novel out to publishers, a book of Chekhov translations published a couple of years ago, a new screenplay just completed. And I teach, which brings me back to Bill Cadbury.
For over ten years I’ve been in the Department of Dramatic Writing at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, as well as visiting professor of screenwriting at Cuba’s International School of Film and Television. I sometimes wonder what might have happened had I not switched majors. I would most certainly have taken Physical Chemistry with Prof. Cadbury. And I probably would never have gone to Paris, and never have written. And never have gotten that letter from him. And would never have been able finally to say what it has meant to me.
George Malko '56 teaches and writes in New York City.