A Boy Named Chinky
I hate mirrors, thought the boy. Especially this one. The full-length looking glass in the bank lobby was unforgiving. It revealed all. And, sadly, there was little about his appearance that this little boy liked.1
Those skinny bowed legs. Ugh. Later in life, having become intensely competitive, he would force those skinny legs to run the half-mile on his college track team. His time would be respectable, but he would nonetheless give up in disgust when he realized half the team ran faster. Even at age eight, Myron Wallace wanted to be the best—which brings us to the face that stared back at him in that mirror. What to do with that face? Complexions that surrounded him in Brookline, Massachusetts, were snow white and freckled. This was Kennedy country.
“One of my claims to fame is the fact that Jack Kennedy was born five doors away from me, about a year before me,” says Mike. “We went to grammar school together for a very short time.”2
Mike’s coloring was darker than the other kids in the neighborhood. His skin was olive, like a gypsy’s. And those eyes, squinty and slanted. That’s why the other kids called him “Chinky.” Everyone had a nickname in those days, and little Myron Wallace was as close to Oriental as the Irish neighborhood lads had seen. He didn’t particularly mind the moniker. It had an edge.
“Vanity!” teased his father, Frank, cuffing him gently on the neck, as he retrieved “Chinky” from the lobby of the bank, where he remained gazing at his own reflection.3 The doorman opened the door for them with a friendly nod. Everyone loved Mr. Wallace. A man of his word. A man of integrity.
As Mike puts it: “My dad was the gentlest, sweetest, really most honorable fellow that a son can imagine.”4
The elder Wallace succeeded in America from the most humble of circumstances. As a fifteen-year-old immigrant from Kiev at the end of the nineteenth century, Friedan Wallick (whose name was changed at Ellis Island) began selling groceries from a pushcart on the streets of Boston. With a keen mind and a strong will, he soon landed a job at the Standard Grocery Company, where he met his future wife, Zina Scharfman, a bookkeeper, also from Kiev. Zina was tiny, no taller than 4'5", but powerful—a force to be reckoned with. She came from a family of ten, one of numerous middle children who needed to establish a high-relief personality in order to stand out.
Gentle Frank was impressed by the sheer strength that came in such a small package. They wed and had four children in quick succession—two girls and two boys. Mike (born Myron) was the youngest and by far the most temperamental.
He came into the world on May 9, 1918, near the close of World War I. Frank had established his own wholesale grocery company at this point, Frank Wallace & Sons—though neither of his two boys would follow in his footsteps, despite the fact that the business was booming. Frank was one of the pioneers in establishing grocery stores in a unified chain. With several million soldiers still deployed in Europe, the demand for transatlantic food supplies had become staggering. Sensing opportunity, Frank teamed with several partners and invested in a boatload of Jamaican ginger bound for Europe, but the ship never made it. A sudden storm swallowed the vessel whole, sinking it without a trace. The cargo was uninsured—and Frank lost everything.
He left the grocery business in dejection, and in a nod to his own recklessness, became an insurance salesman. Too proud and too principled to declare bankruptcy, Frank Wallace ended up rebuilding himself and paying off every penny he owed. That’s why at the bank and elsewhere Frank Wallace was considered an honorable man.
Throughout his career, Mike would pride himself on the kind of integrity he learned from his father. Despite the gun-slinging bravado of his 60 Minutes persona, he held himself to a high standard when it came to the rules of journalism—so much so, that when this value came under fire later in life in a series of very public and humiliating lawsuits, it nearly destroyed him.
Mike uses few words to describe his mother, Zina: “upwardly mobile” … “moody” … “humorless.” She was the family disciplinarian. Where Frank’s nature was sweet and forgiving, Zina came off as strict and uncompromising. Her demand for obedience was at odds with Mike’s antiauthoritarian nature and the two locked horns with regularity. Says his co-biographer Gary Paul Gates: “He was absolutely the mischievous one. Basically he had the kind of personality as a kid that he did as an adult.
“One of the things about understanding Wallace is that he is an expert and compulsive and unrelenting needler and ragger … I mean, this is his whole persona. If you can’t take his needling, then you’re not going to have a relationship with him. And I think he was that way as a kid.”5
Older brother Irving had wisely chosen the path of conflict avoidance, becoming the “good boy” of the family, a stance mimicked by his sisters, Helen and Ruth, as well. That left Mike with only one option: hell-raiser, a role he took on with gusto. The willful boy was particularly hard to discipline.
“My father would start to give him hell and Mike would have him laughing,” says Irving. “My father was never able to punish Mike. My mother could, though. My mother was a tough dame.”6
She needed to be tough with a son like Mike, who was stormy, willful and above all curious, always looking to do something exciting, out of the ordinary and often dangerous. So rambunctious was he that his exasperated mother actually summoned the police to their home to threaten her own son with arrest, hoping to terrify him into submission. It happened more than once.
On the first such occasion Mike was eight. Sitting on the stoop one day with a friend and armed with his keen powers of observation, Mike noticed the mailman delivering an identical piece of mail to every mailbox on the block. Further investigation revealed that the item in question happened to be free samples of chewing gum. Seizing the moment, the boys proceeded to help themselves to armfuls of free gum, until a neighbor spotted Mike’s hand in her mailbox. She blew the whistle on the boys, summoning Mike’s mother, Zina, who read her son the riot act but soon realized her maternal dictums would only go so far, given Mike’s rebellious nature. It was not the first time that he had been caught stealing.
“I was picked up for shoplifting at the five and ten cent store only a half a dozen times,” grins Mike.7
But Zina had had quite enough of it. So, to Mike’s shock, she flagged down the local cop. “Stealing is a crime,” deadpanned Zina. “You’re going to jail.”
Mike blanched in a sudden panic as the brawny beat cop entered the Wallace home and looked him in the eye. A long lecture ensued about the perils of embarking on a life of crime and the demeaning nature of jail time. Zina let Mike sweat it out for nearly ten minutes before dismissing the policeman, having extracted a firm promise from her wayward son never to steal again.
To both their credits, Mike remained true to his word. He crossed that particular misdemeanor off his list—but that left plenty of other ways in which to get into trouble. Two years later, at age ten, he found himself back in the hot seat.
In an attempt to clean up his image, Mike had joined the Boy Scouts. One day, he and a fellow scout assembled a pile of twigs and crumpled newspapers to practice lighting fires. They wisely took the precaution of having a bucket of water standing by to extinguish the flames. There was only one problem. The location Mike had chosen for his pyrotechnic practice was indoors—the basement of his apartment building, where paints and combustible solvents were stored.
Excitedly, Chinky struck a match and lit the pyre, which burst nicely into flames. The scouts shared a look of delight, oblivious to the impending disaster on their hands.
It was another neighbor, fortunately, who saved the day, galloping down the steps with a shriek. He pushed past the boys and grabbed some old carpets to smother Mike’s campfire. Then he took the young troublemaker by the ear and delivered him to his fuming mother. Again, Zina summoned the police. It happened to be the same cop.
The expected lecture ensued (fire safety and arson), but Mike was on to the routine by now and two years more mature. He argued back that he and his friend had taken proper precautions—the bucket of water and so on. The ten-year-old felt strangely empowered as he stood up to an authority figure more than four times his age. He realized that he had a gift. He had a voice. Though his preadolescent intonation was somewhat higher than the mellifluous baritone that later became his signature, Mike’s voice was already powerful.
As described by a childhood friend: “When we played baseball on the vacant lot near his apartment, we always got Myron to go up to the door and talk to people after we broke their windows. One time someone hit a ball through the window of the meanest man in town. We were sure he’d call the cops, so we sent skinny little Chinky to face this guy who was yelling and screaming. But old Chinky talked rings around him. He didn’t even ask us to pay for the broken window.”8
But while the young Mike had found a voice, the triumph was almost derailed by the physical transformation brought on a few years later when Mike hit puberty. He awoke one morning to the shock of what appeared to be an attack of chicken pox. It was, in fact, the worst case of teenage acne imaginable, a condition that haunted Mike throughout adolescence and precipitated the onset of a childhood depression so severe that he preferred overcast days to sunshine, for the sunlight made his facial pockmarks even more pronounced. “If the sun were there, I suddenly was exposed in all of my painful ugliness.” He takes a breath. “That was not a happy time.”9
Many adolescents faced with this level of torment simply would have withdrawn. And part of Mike did, eschewing team sports for the more solitary pursuits of tennis and studying the violin.
One afternoon, an elderly teacher, Louise Hannan, invited little Myron to her home for a special “private tutoring session.” He remembers feeling some trepidation as he climbed the steps of the Longwood Towers, and followed her inside the musty apartment. She was a graying woman with a puffy wig. Staring compassionately at the pimply boy, Miss Hannan asked for his hands. She guided them gently to touch her belly and the small of her back. Miss Hannan then proceeded to close her eyes and deepen her breathing, a series of long heaving sighs. It suddenly occurred to the boy what was happening.
“She was showing me how to breathe,” says Mike. “She taught me how to produce a voice.”10
With newfound control over his diaphragm, Mike’s voice became richer and deeper, and he soon became enamored of it, using it at every occasion that presented itself. He’d read directions for his teachers in class or do things on stage at school assemblies. He joined the Dramatist Society and got the lead in the school play.
Thus, Mike forced himself to become an extrovert, which marked the beginning of an emotional sleight of hand that he performed his whole life—being outwardly aggressive in an attempt to mask what he felt within.
Mike became intensely competitive, too, battling for better grades than the other students, and often succeeding. “It used to burn him up if someone did better than he did,” said a high school friend.11
Despite this drive, however, Mike’s classroom performance, unlike that of his siblings, proved inconsistent. Unable to produce more than a B- average, he turned his attention to extracurricular activities, becoming captain of the tennis team, concert master of the orchestra and sports editor of the high school paper.
One time, he got into an argument over a sports story with the editor-in-chief, a smart no-nonsense girl. Mike wanted his story to run on the front page—and she didn’t. So he rushed over and said, “You obviously don’t know a thing about journalism. You have no news judgment. You wouldn’t know a good story if it jumped out and bit you.”12
He harangued the poor girl like the browbeater he’d one day become on 60 Minutes. The editor just stood there flabbergasted, unable to get a word in edgewise. And finally she agreed to run the story.
Mike found that he relished the art of altercation. He argued at every chance he got. “Every week, he’d come in and give me 15 reasons why he didn’t have time to practice,” recalls violin teacher Harry Dickson, who later became conductor of the Boston Pops and the father-in-law of future governor Michael Dukakis.13
On the rare occasions when he did practice, Mike would open all the windows, so the whole neighborhood could hear him. Even at this young age, he liked being the center of attention.
In addition to all his other activities, Mike became Brookline High School correspondent for the Brookline Chronicle—$2 a column, or $4 a column if you made the front page. And Mike did his best to ensure that his stories received the prominence he felt was their due. His persistence paid off.
By senior year, Mike’s Brookline High classmates voted Myron Wallace “Most Prominent Boy.” Known by now for his personal voice, Mike chose to start the graduation Class Oration with the words of another:
Seven years ago tonight, in 1928, the Class Orator of that year began his speech in this manner:
“Classmates, the gates are open! This vast, confusing, 20th century world stretches before us, and with little fear, but great self-confidence we venture forth into this world of vexing problems. We see an era of unheard of prosperity, of new standards of living … a time of free thinking and free expression … Fate has placed us in this ultra-modern age.”
Would that we, in this, our last formal assemblage before our graduation, might be able sincerely to repeat those words!
The world is just as bewildering: free thinking and expression have become even a little more free. But the gates, once flung wide, have been blown almost shut by the winds of Adversity, and their steel riveted hinges, once diligently oiled, have been rusted into disuse by the storms of Depression.
And through those gates, indeed, in the words of Edmund Gosse: “The future comes like an unwelcome guest.”14
Copyright © 2012 by Peter Rader