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Food for Thought

How We Got To Sesame Street

Tim Madigan remembers Tim Cooney (1930-1999).

“My ideas evolved from long hours in local bars, talking, talking, talking, always about morality. People were always asking ‘Who do you think you are, Socrates?’ They said it with contempt, but I would smile and say, ‘Thank you.’” – Tim Cooney

The television show Sesame Street recently celebrated its 40th anniversary. To commemorate the occasion there have been a host of events, including the publication of several books. A review of one of them, Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street by Michael Davis, caught my eye when I saw a mention in it of the late Timothy J. Cooney, ex-husband of J oan Ganz Cooney, the creator of Sesame Street. Tim was a fascinating person in his own right, and I immediately bought the book to see what it had to say about him, for I had gotten to know Tim in the last decade of his life, well after his marriage had ended.

I first met Tim a few years after the publication of his book Telling Right from Wrong (Prometheus, 1985). It had generated a great deal of publicity, not primarily because of its content (it’s an extended argument as to the importance of differentiating matters of opinion from matters of fact) but because of the controversy over how the book came to be published. Cooney had held governmental jobs as a speech writer and as a member of the administration of New York mayor John Lindsay. He and Joan Ganz had been very active in causes connected with President Lyndon Johnson’s ‘Great Society’, and one of Tim’s main intellectual concerns was to understand the relationship between theory and practice. How to Tell Right from Wrong, as our opening quote makes clear, came about after extended late-night Socratic barroom dialogues and discussions with assorted friends, social activists, and general members of society. An avid reader of philosophers both historic and contemporary, Cooney felt a need to develop an argument against ethical relativism which would have as its highest concern a defense against political thinking and practices which could ultimately lead to the destruction of humanity.

Like many non-academics, however, Tim found that getting a hearing for his views on moral reasoning beyond the tavern crowd was not easy. He did correspond with professional philosophers, including Peter Singer, but after he had put his thoughts together in a manuscript he was unable to find a publisher. He faced the usual Catch-22 situation most first-time authors encounter: publishing houses told him he needed to find an agent before they could consider looking at his work; but agents told him he neede d a publishing track record in order for them to consider taking him on. He was also told that it was unlikely that the views of someone without proper academic credentials would be taken seriously, no matter how cogent or persuasive his arguments might be. Thus Tim came up with a desperate plan to get attention. He forged a letter from Robert Nozick – at the time one of the best-known contemporary philosophers and ethical theorists – extolling the virtues of the manuscript, and sent it to various publishers. Keenly aware of the irony of using such a means to get attention for a book promoting objective ethical standards, he nonetheless reasoned that the end of getting the book into print would justify the means, and intended to make the publisher aware of the deception after the book was in print: then at least his main arguments would get a fair hearing. Random House did accept the book for publication, and had set it in type, but then the editors there learned of the Nozick forgery, at which point the publication was cancelled. As if that wasn’t bad enough, it seems that the book had been accepted not because of the ‘Nozick’ letter at all, but due to its own merits, and might well have been published by Random House if Tim had not sent the forgery.

Paul Kurtz, the editor of Prometheus Books, learned of the controversy, and after reading the manuscript decided that it did deserve publication, and put it into print, along with an Afterword by Cooney detailing his reasons for engaging in such a deceptive act. I was working for Paul at the time, and became interested in the case, so, when I found myself in Manhattan on business, I contacted Tim to find out more about him.

Like all who knew him, I was immediately impressed by his charisma, his larger-than-life personality, and his quick wit. He was like a Damon Runyon character come to life [cf Guys and Dolls]. And in many ways he was indeed a modern-day Socratic figure too, engaging in vigorous discussions with people from all walks of life on pressing ethical matters. A few hours in Tim’s presence would be both exhilarating and exhausting.

I thereafter made it a point to visit with him whenever I found myself in New York City, and I enjoyed interacting with him and his colorful cast of cohorts in such legendary bars as Caliban’s and McCormack’s. He never tried to justify his act of forgery, admitting that by his own standards he had committed a wrongful act, and he ruefully pointed out that he understood better than anyone how the deception put the nail in the coffin of his reputation as a spokesperson for ethical reflection. But as he put it in the Afterword: “I can only appeal to what I felt was my desperate situation and say that I am sorry for the trouble I caused others, just as a starving man can say to the person he stole money from that he is sorry, but he really felt he had no choice.” (p.157.)

The forgery matter points up a quite obvious aspect of Tim’s character: his tendency towards self-destructive behavior. To put it bluntly, he was an alcoholic who was clearly drinking himself to death. For all his intellectual acuity and good humor, there was a dark side to Cooney that I witnessed all too often. At the drop of a hat he could become belligerent, and his wit could become cutting and cruel. The last few times I was with him were particularly difficult, and while saddened by the news, I was not surprised to learn that he had died primarily from complications due to his alcoholism. He often told me that the only reason he was alive at all was because of the kindness shown to him by his ex-wife, who continued to pay for his apartment and other needs, since he was incapable of holding down a job.

This side of Tim’s life came back to me when I read Michael Davis’ book, which has several passages detailing the many unsuccessful attempts Cooney made to overcome his addiction, and the pain he caused those around him during these struggles. Davis writes: “In the years leading up to the launch of Sesame Street and the ascendency of Joan Ganz Cooney, Tim Cooney had bolstered his wife’s confidence and made things happen for her with his connections and convincing charm. But as Joan evolved into a celebrated figure – almost a three-name brand like Mary Tyler Moore – Tim began to withdraw into alcoholism, depression, and rage. On the one hand, he was immensely proud of Sesame Street and was thrilled that it was assisting poor children. On the other, ‘It made him feel unimportant,’ Joan Cooney said. ‘His tendencies toward self-destruction were made much worse by my success, although he loved what I was doing and would help me by reading over and editing press releases and speeches that I would give. He wanted the success for me, but he became less and less visible in his own mind.’” (p.263.)

I can’t help reflecting that the success of Sesame Street has certain aspects of the film A Star is Born. But it is important to note (as Davis’ book makes abundantly clear), that although Joan Ganz Cooney had the idea for the show, her husband’s influence in getting it finally on air was not negligible. Foremost was his constant encouragement and support, particularly when the reigning sexist attitudes made several potential supporters refuse to back the project if a woman was to be its head. He urged her to never surrender on this point and allow others to take credit for and shape the project of which she had dreamed. In this regard, Tim’s concern for putting theory and practice together helped to make possible one of the most important cultural institutions in the history of television. It is fitting therefore, as the Sesame Street celebrations continue, to remember the tortured street philosopher who played a role in bringing it into existence.

© Dr Timothy J. Madigan 2010

Tim Madigan’s favorite Sesame Street character is Oscar the Grouch.

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