Excerpts from the writings of Joseph Beck

Searching for the Real Sonia

(an article written after the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, written roughly four years after interviewing Judge Sotomayor for Hispanic Outlook Magazine)

A couple of weeks ago, on a Saturday, then, I decided to search for the real Sonia, or at least one that I perceived as honestly as I could. I climbed onto one of those bullet trains at Penn Station and, three hours later, stepped off at Union Station in Washington, fully intending to try to sit down and go face to face with her.

This was a pipe dream. Sniffing around Washington, talking with
other writers at their watering holes, being super persistent with her
Washington staff got me exactly nowhere, because I learned that she had been advised by the Obama appointment team not to talk to the press until after she was nominated.

I took another bullet back to New York, and on the way I realized something: Even if I could get Sonia to speak to me the total truth about her was unlikely. Who speaks the truth about themselves to anyone? People color their presentation with self-interest. Indeed, the truth is many times hard to know even if you try to speak it. It gets misremembered, modified, diluted to make you look good to yourself.

Then, it struck me, and I knew where I could find the truth. It would be in the hearts and minds of Sonya’s neighbors. Collectively, their perceptions, if I could get them, would paint a truthful portrait of her, and if they lied I had faith that my gut would tell me.

Of course first I had to find her neighborhood. I had a photo of her condo in the Washington Post, and the accompanying story said she patronized a neighborhood chicken restaurant named Dallas Jones Bar-B-Q.

When I got back to New York I drove down to the West Village and quickly found the restaurant and her building near it and though just an ordinary clean, red brick building, I couldn’t help but stare at it, thinking that a human being who lived in it was on her way to being one of the most powerful people in the world.

The neighborhood itself has a small-town America look, small, clean streets lined with shade tress and shops—a bakery, laundromat, restaurant, cafĂ©, and antiques store.

Paula Poundstone - Darwin's Comic Mouthpiece
(an interview conducted with Paula Poundstone prior to a performance in New York)

“When I’m on stage I can’t have anybody in my line of sight that I know. It makes me very nervous." I asked her why.

“It’s because I can’t take the opinion of someone I know,” she said. I asked about the mystery of what she does. Where does it come from? Share with me what the process is. “It’s a muscle really. Like any muscle, you have to work it to keep it in shape. You need to give it a workout. I do lots of shows and work at it. Some of these comics do great in small clubs and they all kill there. But the minute they get a comedy show or a series, they leave the clubs and work on their show for so long, the live performance muscle atrophies.”

She says the muscle is kept in shape with the chemistry and energy of the audience.
Where does your inspiration come from? “Charles Dickens used to take long walks. Not around the park, but miles and miles and he never stopped working. People work their own way and at the speed they are comfortable.”

Hector Elizondo - Man Of A Thousand Faces

(an interview with actor Hector Elizondo, discussing topics from his earliest auditions to his later film work)

“Hector Elizondo.” The secretary checked her appointment book. “Yes, you’re right,” she said nonchalantly. “Maybe they were running late. They shouldn’t be too long, if you want to wait,” she said with a smile.

“What?!” he asked, his voice rising. He paused for a moment. “Never mind, I’ll wait,” he said. After another hour and a half the three men returned. By this time the simmering Elizondo had told himself he was quitting the business, but not before he gave them a piece of his mind.

He held it together and auditioned for the part of God, disguised as a Puerto Rican steam bath attendant. When he finished he let loose and slammed the script on the table. “How do you people make an appointment with somebody and let them wait for an hour and a half…and then go to lunch?!” The three men sat wide-eyed and speechless. “You know,” he said, his voice straining, “having bad manners is much worse than being poor.” He turned to walk off the stage, stopped, and turned back. “If any of you have a problem with this, I’ll meet any of you out on the street and we’ll settle this now.”

Later that afternoon he arrived home to tell his wife he was hanging up this acting thing and that he was going to join the police force or act on a childhood dream--and become a social studies teacher. Before he could say more, his wife said his agent had called and that they loved him. He had the part. In fact, his performance earned him an Obie. Elizondo was the first Latino male to earn the award.

Although he was grateful for the part, the anger he felt at being mistreated and the injustice of it has been a driving force that has shaped his professional career and cemented a code of conduct he lives by.

A Birthday Party
(an excerpt from Mr. Beck's new play being directed by renowned director Ed Dennehy)


(Gravely serious)
She's getting worse, isn't she?


(long, uncomfortable pause)

You need to understand. We know there's no cure and we knew she was going to get worse. We just didn't think this quickly.
(They pause for a long moment, then the nurse speaks again.)


Look, you know that birthday party you were talking about? Why don't you have it next Sunday night, when Maria gets here?


No. Sunday is a week from today. The kids won't be ready. I won't be ready.


James, you’re not a young man either. No matter what else you do, it's not going to change things...or her condition. If you drive yourself too hard and get sick, you're both sunk. I'm already here full time now and I know that bothers you some, but it's for the best, for Lee. I know you want that for Lee.

The timing may never be perfect for you and the kids.


(He looks down for a moment, his face turns gravely serious)

Look. We’ve lived in this building for 35 years. This is our home. Our neighbors have been with us from when the kids were born.
(His voice cracking.)

I can’t tell you how many memories are in this apartment.

The Fuhrer's Gold

(From Joe Beck's latest novel about Nazi espionage in New York during WWII)

The plan was for them to emerge from the room wearing billowing rain parkas. Underneath the parkas they wore nothing but bathing trunks and thin water proof bags of supplies (cyanide pills, compasses, maps, matches, knives, Lugar pistols) wrapped around their waists. Mohlmann slipped inside the room unnoticed to check on their readiness. Hans and Gunther were both nineteen and exuded the eager-to-please energy of new recruits.

Hans stood 6’3” and came in at an unclothed 165 lbs. He belonged to a family of engineers and military men and grew up in Munich-untouched by the seductive lure the artsy city had on young men his age.

Gunther was the wrestler- with an appetite for life. At 5’9”, he sent the scale to 180 lbs. He had mischievous, dark eyes and laughed easily. Both men were exceptional athletes with mental acuity to match. Their training left nothing to chance. Their youth and skill was tempered with a wisdom that belied their ages.

When the men were ready, Mohlmann sent them out to meet the Chief of the Watch. A moment later, he slipped out of the room and took a circuitous route around the ship to meet the men. He needed to appear like he had just met the men he was sending topside.

It was time. Mohlmann looked at his first officer. The first officer peered through the periscope and slowly, deliberately turned it 360 degrees, stopping momentarily every 15 degrees. He pulled his head back and looked and faced Mohlmann.

“Ist Alles In Ordnung?” asked Mohlmann. He needed everything to be ready.
“Jawohl mein Herr,” said the first officer. Indeed, it was and the coast was clear.
Mohlmann, Hans and Gunther were handed pistols. Hans reached up to the ship’s ceiling and gripped the wheel on the ship’s lower hatch. He grunted it counter clockwise and pushed it up. A little water poured down on their necks.
One by one, the men clambered up the ladder inside the conning tower and up to the upper hatch. This time it was Gunther who reached the outer hatch first. He waited a moment to get the signal. The Officer of the Deck looked at Mohlmann. Mohlmann looked up and gave Gunther the signal. Gunther dogged the wheel counter clockwise. It squeaked and twisted open. He pushed it straight up and salty, American air poured in the ship.

The three men climbed up and out of the sub and stood on the deck of the conning tower. They closed the outer hatch. They held on to the rail and looked around. The two men saluted Mohlmann then shook his hand.
One after the other, the two men carefully climbed down the conning tower and slid into the water and each started a smooth, silent breaststroke for land. Mohlmann watched the men until the dark of the night swallowed them. He opened the outer hatch and climbed back in the sub, and shouted for the first officer to sound the alarm for man overboard.