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A Journalist's New Novel Looks into Philly's Old Political Machines

Steve Lopez was an award-winning columnist for the "Philadelphia Inquirer" for twelve years. In his novels, Lopez confronts political corruption and greed as he did in his columns. His new novel is called "The Sunday Macaroni Club" (Harcourt Brace and Company). Lopez is now Senior Writer-at-large for Time Magazine.


Other segments from the episode on June 16, 1997

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 16, 1997: Interview with Steve Lopez; Commentary on radio journalism.


Date: JUNE 16, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 061601NP.217
Head: Steve Lopez
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

In his 12 years as a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Steve Lopez wrote about the city's politicians with both outrage and amusement. He took a special interest in the South Philadelphia politicians who ran what was left of the old political machine. They were known for graft, corruption, and mob connections, but still managed to win elections, even while under indictment.

Now Lopez tells a fictionalized version of their story in his new novel "The Sunday Macaroni Club." The main character is a politician who's just gotten out of prison and has set himself up as a political consultant.

Lopez first joined the ranks of big city columnists turned novelists a couple of years ago with his book "Third and Indiana," which was set in a North Philadelphia neighborhood famous for its thriving drug trade.

He still writes columns, but now they're for Time-Warner magazines. I asked Steve Lopez to describe the Sunday Macaroni Club at which the politicians in his new novel get together.

STEVE LOPEZ, NEWSPAPER/MAGAZINE COLUMNIST AND AUTHOR OF "THE SUNDAY MACARONI CLUB": The club is a gang of sort of over-the-hill politicians who are part of the old machine that used to exist in every big city, and they're sort of out of the loop now because their time is behind them and there are reform movements in the big cities -- and these guys just can't give it up because it's all they know; it's how they operate; and they're holding on.

And they have their meetings on Sundays, and the leader of the gang, whose name is Augie San Gemino (ph) insists on cooking. He wants no help in the kitchen. He's going to make the macaroni. He's going to make the gravy, as they call it, not sauce, in his kitchen in South Philadelphia, and they are going to talk business. So that's what it comes from.

GROSS: Based on a real club in Philadelphia?

LOPEZ: Well, not -- the cooking macaroni, no, not necessarily, but the characters -- many of the characters -- in this book were inspired by real people that I met on the streets over the years, working as a columnist.

GROSS: How would you describe the breed of Philadelphia politician that interests you?

LOPEZ: Describe the breed -- well, it's a quirky one. It's a mutant strain of politician is what it is. I had encountered nothing like it, and it's why I wrote so much about them. I'm not from the East Coast.

I grew up in Northern California near San Francisco, where, you know, there may have been some games being played, but they were nowhere near as blatant, as out in the open, and as much an accepted part of the culture as they are in Philadelphia and many other East Coast cities.

And it's as if they lived by these rules. One rule is, I guess you could say: there is a short-cut to everything, so why use the normal process, whatever it is.

If it's paying a ticket; if it's getting a permit -- whatever you might do, there's somebody who can give you some help. And probably the other rule that governs this breed is that whatever anybody else might take, you are morally entitled to grab first, even if it involves an illegal act.

It's sort of hey -- it's as if they've happened upon a car accident, and, you know, "well, I guess we can take this, we can take that -- these people aren't going to be needing it." That's the kind of thing -- it's a feudal system. It's dividing up whatever is there.

GROSS: How did this part of the Philadelphia machine work in its heyday?

LOPEZ: In its heyday? Well, it -- it was before I got to Philadelphia, but you know by all accounts it worked extremely well if you were on board. If you were voting for the right people and if you were saying "yes" when you supposed to say "yes" and just nodding and mostly just, you know, keeping your mouth shut -- "I didn't hear nothin'; I didn't see nothin'" -- then you were OK.

The problem is that there is a flip side to a well-oiled machine, and it's that if you're not on board, it will crush you. You'll be crushed like a cockroach. And so if you don't want to play the game -- if you don't want to vote for the people that you're told the vote for; if you don't want to pay, you know, proper respect to the right people -- then you're -- you could be in some big trouble.

GROSS: Now, you say that you got to Philadelphia after the heyday of the machine. This was around 1986 -- you got to the city.

LOPEZ: Right.

GROSS: So which of -- you know, who within this cast of characters most interested you and where were they in their political careers?

LOPEZ: Well, I -- we could say that they heyday was, you know, in the past, but there was still some wonderful things going on. In fact, a city councilman with connections to the local mafia was indicted in one of the most astoundingly stupid crimes that I've ever seen committed anywhere.

He basically went to -- there was a developer who at the time was this great civic leader who had rebuilt the skyline and was everybody's hero because Philadelphia was, you know, it was a down-and-out city.

This man brought it back and we had a restaurant renaissance and, you know, businesses opening up in downtown. And this councilman with connections to the mob, goes to this developer and says: "if you want that next development introduced in city council, it's going to cost you $1 million, and I've got the mob to back me up on this."

So the developer immediately runs to the federal government, and they set up a sting, and this guy goes away. And so, although most of that sort of activity was, you know, 10, 20, 30, 40 years in the past, there was still some of it, and I was just so fascinated by it.

Especially, I think, because of where I came from, where it's kind -- I was working as a columnist in San Jose, California and, you know, I'd be happy if there was the suggestion of, you know, maybe a dirty campaign contribution on a sewer bond issue or something. I mean, that was about as dirty as it got out there.

And it's tough. A columnist doesn't want to go to meetings. A columnist wants to go to court and hang out with the police and go out on the street. And so when I came here, all of those things were more accessible.

I can remember sitting in San Jose reading the newspapers because I worked for the same company that owns the newspapers in Detroit, and Miami and Philadelphia, and reading on my lunch break the Philadelphia Inquirer, while I was working on some ridiculous column that didn't even interest me -- and see photos of public officials being dragged out of city hall in handcuffs.

And I just -- I knew that if I was going to continue as a columnist and a street columnist -- not the kind of columnist who sits behind a desk, you know, and pontificates on the issues of the day -- but somebody who actually gets out there and gets dirty -- that this was the place for me, even though the best years were already in the past.

GROSS: What are some of the things that shocked you when you went to Philadelphia, that you found Philadelphians kind of took for granted?

LOPEZ: Well, little things such as when I went through my first election in Philadelphia and I heard people talking about all of the street money that would be out there, I said: street money? What is that? They said, well, that's, you know, they get wads of money in their pockets, the ward leaders, and right before an election they go around paying people.

And I said: paying people for what? And they said: Paying to get out the vote. And I said: you can't do that -- you can't do that. That corrupts the entire system. You can't go up to someone on the street and say, look, here's $20 vote for my guy. And they said: well, what are you talking about? That's the way it is.

I can remember when they talked about street money, deciding I had to see this. I had to actually see the street money itself. So I called one of the ward leaders, a man named Ron Donatuchi (ph), who was a city official. He was the Register of Wills.

I said: Ron, I just have to see this. I have to actually physically see money changing hands because, as you know, I've got a little bit of a problem with it, and I want to actually see this.

And he said: sure, come on down; no problem. That's another thing that's interesting about the culture: there's very little shame. It's a city without shame; a culture without shame, for the most part. So, I remember going down and, again, it was one of those little clubhouse places that exists, you know, in the streets of South Philadelphia where this culture over the years has been so prevalent.

And Ron sat behind a desk and one of his henchmen stood in front of the desk and was the door opener -- that was his only assignment. Who knows what other payroll he might have been on, but that was what he did right then and there. And they would one at a time let guys in.

They would come down; they would sit down; and Ron would ask them if they were going to get the vote out -- Are you going to this for me? Are you going to do that? And the guy would just sit there nodding "yes, yes, yes, yes, yes." Ron would pull open the drawer -- this desk -- and take out a wad of money -- tens and twenties -- and just count it out and just slap that wad right down in front of him: there you go. There's your street money.

And I went back and wrote about this and thought that I had written this wonderful, you know, expose.

GROSS: Right.

LOPEZ: And people looked at me and shook their heads. They said: what's so awful about that? And I said: well, it's just wrong. I couldn't articulate it any better than that. I just said: well, it's wrong.

Now when I got a little smarter and when I watched a little bit more how these guys operate, I have to say that I went through this transformation in my 12 years of writing about these guys.

GROSS: What was the transformation?

LOPEZ: That it was gray. That it wasn't as simple as a black and white issue -- they were good guys or they were bad buys -- that there was actually some middle ground.

GROSS: What was the good they were doing?

LOPEZ: The good they were doing was that if you were on board, and if you gave them your support, you could get anything done. You could, I mean, legitimate work that needed to be done. Let's say that you wanted to build something like a deck on the back of your house, you could be jammed up, you know, in the agencies in the city for months.

In fact, that's part of the whole system. That's the way it works. It's -- you're intentionally jammed up so that you're going to go and use somebody who has the power to give you immediate access. And they would solve problems like that for people.

Or, you know, maybe a better example is the recreation center is run down, and it's going to take years to get the -- you know, the appropriations through the proper channels. But here's a powerful politicians whose got connections.

He's a part of this culture, this machine -- two phone calls, and they've got eight trucks out there and they've fixed up the recreation center and the kids are, you know, having a much better time out there.

So there was that element of it. They do some good work. And the other thing that happened as I became a little less naive was I began to wonder: well, is this any worse than what the modern-day politician does?

GROSS: Meaning what?

LOPEZ: Meaning -- particularly with -- in the area of campaign finance. I mean, the campaign contributions were not always on the up-and-up, and I had a problem with that. This guy's feeding this candidate under the table.

You know, there's a kick-back involved. This guy's going to get contracts as a result of it, and I would look at that and throw my hands up and "oh my God, this is appalling -- let's get the district attorney out here."

But how's that so much different from what happens today? And in the book, The Sunday Macaroni Club, Augie San Gemino, the leader of the gang, says: let me ask you something? What's worse -- this guy putting money in a bag and handing it to me directly?

Or what they've got today where you put money in a bag, you hand it to a political action committee; they hand it to maybe the state party chairman, who gives it to the national political party, who gives it to the same guy. He said that's three or four lies. Ours was much -- a much more noble way. It was only one lie and it was direct.

And so in that respect, I mean, that's how politics worked. People buy favors and access and what those guys did often was no worse than what happens today in politics.

GROSS: My guest is Steve Lopez, former columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. He now writes for Time-Warner. His new novel, The Sunday Macaroni Club, is a comic novel that is about the Philadelphia political machine.

Let's take a short break and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

Back with Steve Lopez, and he's a former columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, now writes for Time-Warner, and has a new novel about the Philadelphia political machine called The Sunday Macaroni Club.

I'd like you to do a short reading from your new novel "The Sunday Macaroni Club." And this is a scene set in a diner, where the leader of this political gang holds court all the time.

LOPEZ, READING: "Augie's daily routine was to make morning mass at St. Mary Magdalene; stroll the Italian market; then come by Millie's, where dusty trophies lined the shelves, the Christmas garland never came down, and the radio played standards all day long, unless the TV was on."

"Some of the regulars came in early and stayed until Falcone (ph) shooed them out for napping or until their wives came in after them. Augie gradually made his way across the chessboard tile floor to his table, where the morning paper and two cups of coffee waited. Tina, the waitress, always set him up the second he came in."

"Augie sat facing the front door, and the wall behind him was plastered with photos of Augie hosting one visitor after another at this corner table, going back to when he was a young man. The angles of his face had hardened and his shoulders had softened, but the look in his eyes was the same as in the photos. It said: work with me or I'll bury you."

"From this modest corner in this blue-collar neighborhood hangout, at Eighth and Christian Streets, Augie San Gemino once ruled the world. A ceiling fan moved slow as the years above a red-checked table that was confession box, altar, bank, courtroom, and woodshed. Augie carried himself as if it were still all those things; as if he still commanded respect and fear."

GROSS: You wrote about a real Philadelphia politician, Buddy Cianfranni (ph), who used to hold court in a South Philadelphia restaurant and had pictures of him holding court right behind his chair.

LOPEZ: Buddy is an example of one of those characters that I was appalled at when I first took a look at him. And he is somebody who I later came to really appreciate.

And, yes, he did, for many years, pretty much run the city out of a little diner called "Stanley's Coffee Shop." This was after -- this was actually after his height. This was after prison, to be more specific.

Like a lot of these characters who -- in public office, Augie went off to prison for a while.

GROSS: This is your fictional character, Augie.

LOPEZ: Augie did, but also Buddy. Buddy the real character in Philadelphia went to prison. He got "jammed up" as they say, and as Buddy will tell you, I mean, the first time I met him, I said: well, how could you do all of that?

And he said: well, I might have bent the rules a little bit, but I didn't invent it. And that's sort of the, you know, it's a -- it's exoneration that's, you know: I didn't start this stuff. I'm just doing what you have to do to survive.

But I was fascinated by this. I mean, imagine this: A guy with that kind of political clout; who was calling the shots; who was determining which candidates will become judges; which council members are going to be reelected; who's going to go to state senate; who's going to be in Congress.

A lot of those decisions were influenced to a great degree by a man named Buddy Cianfranni, who to this day is still doing this kind of work. He's moved out of Stanley's Coffee Shop -- I think Stanley's shut down for one reason or another -- but he is still working out of one of those little clubhouses and in the recent election, he got his judges elected.

GROSS: What do you mean when you say "his judges?" What kind of relationship does he have with them?

LOPEZ: In many cases, not a direct or a personal relationship. What happens is one of the party members will go to Buddy and say "we've gotta take care of this guy."

This guy's old man -- you remember who he was? -- this is the guy who used to take care of us down at, you know, Second and Snyder (ph). He's a good kid. He's going to be a team player. This is a guy we need to get in there.

So that sort of thing -- so what Buddy does is and what Augie does in the book: you start making the calls. You get in touch with the ward leaders because although they don't have quite the power and the clout they used to, that's still part of the political system.

You -- the ward leaders are the people who get that street money in their pockets, and with it, they go out and they knock on doors and they try to get people to come out, and they hand them a card that says "vote for this judge. Buddy says this is the guy to vote for."

And you do it because you know that Buddy's going to be able to get you something for it, just as Augie in the book is going to be able to get your something for it.

GROSS: You're so interested in how the whole constituent services aspect of local politics works. You need your pothole fixed. You go to your local guy. He pulls some strings, and you owe him in return. Did you ever need something fixed that required going to your local guy and getting some strings pulled?

LOPEZ: No, I insisted on doing it the way that I grew up with. One time I came out of my house -- and I live in downtown Philadelphia. They had not picked up the trash for three weeks, which sometimes happens. They just -- you know, it's not the most efficient crew.

And there had been a snowstorm and my trash is piling up, it's piling up, it's piling up. I finally get it all out there; the trucks finally come by and they miss my trash -- the kind of thing that happened to me fairly often.

And I always had to wonder: is this payback? So there's no -- you know, there's my trash sitting there. You can't leave it on the street or you're going to get cited for it. So I had to bring it -- I live in a place that doesn't have a yard -- so I've got to bring it back in. Here's this rotting trash that's in my house.

Now, the Philadelphia way to do that -- the big city way to do it -- you call your committeeman who maybe calls the ward leader who maybe calls the city councilman who calls the streets department who -- which sends a truck and they pick it up. I can't do that. I was writing about that system. I couldn't participate in it.

GROSS: Right.

LOPEZ: So I had to suffer -- I had to suffer through this. And what I did was, I put my trash out there the next week, all right? I hear the trucks. I go out. Thank God, they have picked it up. You know, I have paid whatever penalty I had to pay for who knows what crime. They have finally picked up my trash, but I looked and a bag is scattered. It is scattered on my sidewalk and in the street.

And I go out -- and I'm in a hurry because I'm on my way to the office -- and there's no other way to do it, but on my hands and knees, I picked it up. I pushed it all into a little bag, and on my way to my car, which of course had a ticket, I dropped it into a city waste can.

I just dropped it in -- this is a small bag, a bathroom-size bag -- I go off to work. I do my job. I get home, open my front door, and somebody has slipped a ticket under my door for disposing of personal waste in a municipal public waste can, which you are not allowed to do.

So I knew then that it truly was the city where no good deed goes unpunished.

GROSS: Did you ever write about this in a column?

LOPEZ: I wrote about it, and I had to go to court. I went to court because they wanted me to pay this fine, and if I lost, it was going to be like $400. And I said: I am picking up the trash that you guys, first of all, didn't pick up and then scattered all over my street. They said, well, the reason for this law is that those city waste cans overflow and they're a mess and people -- they're a health hazard.

And I said: I understand that, but let's be more reasonable here. I have a tiny little bag of trash that's in the bottom of the waste can. I picked it up off the street after you dropped it. Well, you're going to have to come into court, sir.

So I went and -- oh, I did win. I did win. They had the -- the ticket was dismissed, but with no political connections at all. I did it on the up and up, fool that I am.

GROSS: Steve Lopez -- he's written a new novel called The Sunday Macaroni Club. He's a former columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer and now writes for Time-Warner magazines. He'll be back with us in the second half of our show.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Steve Lopez.

His new comic novel, The Sunday Macaroni Club, was inspired by the aging politicians who once ran Philadelphia's political machine -- the politicians he used to write about in his 12 years as a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

You know what I've always wondered about -- when you're a columnist, you almost have to have a little epiphany three times a week. You know, you have to have this little revelation either about yourself or the world around you. And in the normal scheme of things, people don't usually have that many epiphanies a week.

Did you ever feel like you had to force a revelation just to have something to write about?

LOPEZ: Only, only about twice a week.


It's actually another reason I left that job. You -- nobody can have as many opinions as -- on anything -- that columnists are expected to have. And I really have always thought that after you've been a columnist in a town for maybe five years, they should take you -- you know, people should come; there should be committees -- take you by the hand, walk you down to the river, and push you off a pier or something because you just keep resurrecting these -- the same issues, the same characters.

And it's -- yes, there were many, many, many times when I didn't -- I frankly didn't have anything to say, but the newspaper doesn't care that you have nothing to say today. They're looking at that space and it's open and it's yours.

The advantage I had, and this served me well, was that I was interested in a variety of things. So I didn't always have to do a column that was my opinion on something. I could get in my car. I could go down to South Philadelphia.

I could sit with Buddy Cianfranni at Stanley's Coffee Shop and just watch him work, with his own little table there; his own phone; a photo of himself on the wall; and a sign that said: you learn here. And go back and write a column that wasn't about opinion or anything else. It was a little postcard from the city.

And so that's what kept me alive for a while, was the ability to keep changing scene and shifting tone and that's -- if not for that, I would have jumped out a window.

GROSS: In the acknowledgements for your new book, The Sunday Macaroni Club, you thank your dialogue coaches. Who are your dialogue coaches and what did they help you with?

LOPEZ: My dialogue coaches are Michael Reversa (ph) and Joey "Mambo Joe" Delbono (ph). And these are two characters that I have known since I got to Philadelphia. One of them is a printer at the newspaper, and thinks that he knows everything there is to know about anything. And the other guy runs a small business that I won't identify -- I won't identify the nature of the business.

And he would -- I would -- he had a newsstand near city hall, and I would go there on my rounds and say: "hey, what's up Joey?" And he would say: "Tommy D. is going to flip. They're going to arrest him later in the week, and he's going to turn against all the bosses, all the Mafia gang."

And I would look in that little newsstand at this little guy who was telling me this, and say: what a blowhard. You know, how can anybody possibly know the inner workings of the Mafia, the police department, the U.S. Attorney's office that well -- and he's -- here he is, selling, you know, the morning newspaper.

And, you know, later in the week, I'd get to work -- hey, Tommy D. has flipped. Tommy is fingering everybody in the mob. He is in police custody. And so I started making more frequent trips to that newsstand, and he just knew things.

But beyond that -- beyond knowing things, and having wonderful, wonderful stories about this culture, he spoke the culture. And it's something that I can now write, after listening to it for years and years and years.

I can't speak it, but just listening to them -- listening to the way they talk; the way they think for all of these years. I said: they deserve a mention. I'm putting them in the acknowledgements, so there they are: two guys that nobody could have invented.

GROSS: What did they help you with in the dialogue?

LOPEZ: Well, they -- it wasn't technical assistance. It wasn't -- they didn't sit down and say "OK, let's see if you've got this right." You just know after hearing somebody, you know, rant as they do, for years. You've got it in your head.

You've got the right rhythms of it. You've got the sort of slipping into sentences sideways, and you're not sure where you're going to come out. Are you going to come out the beginning of the sentence? Or the end of it? Are you just going to take a little detour over here? You throw out little connectors; little articles are dropped, and it's just this sort of "boom, what did you come out of a tree or what?"

You know, somebody would say that to me, and I'd say: what? What are you saying? I mean, my ear -- it was like learning a foreign language and my ear wasn't tuned to it. And this was an attorney, by the name of Bobby Simone (ph), who just -- coincidentally just got out of prison.

And Bobby once said to me, he said "what? You come out of a tree or what?" And I said: "I have no idea what you said to me," and I'm trying to take notes, and I said: you've got to slow down. And he's -- I can't slow down, but I'll repeat it: "what d'you come out of a tree or what?"

And that kind of thing that you hear on the street down there, I began to pick up because it was so different from the straight kind of, you know, dull environment that I grew up in, and it -- there weren't characters like that outside of those in my own family who would, you know, stand on street corners, maybe scratching themselves, and yelling to everybody who came by because they know everybody and everybody's got somebody who'll say "yo, Joey."

I loved it. I felt like I was at the movies. I would go downtown and just stand around and look, and it was great entertainment. And those guys -- those guys, yeah, they never said: "no, this is how you do it. That's how you do it." They just -- just being themselves was a tremendous help to me, and I got a lot of dialogue out of them in both of the first two books and they're in the next one, too.

GROSS: You're going to be moving back to your home state of California soon for personal reasons. Feel bad about leaving Philadelphia, or is it time?

LOPEZ: Oh, it's going to be difficult to leave here, because there -- I love it. I have loved it. It's been wonderful and I wouldn't be moving back if not for, you know, my wife's -- my wife is a screenwriter and it would be better for her to be working out there. And my whole family is there.

I'm doing it not because I don't like it here. I have loved it here. I love the city and the culture, despite its faults. It's -- I love it not just because of -- for, you know, for the practical reasons, for the things that they manage to accomplish.

I love it because it's rich. These are characters that we're not going to see again. I was a columnist. I became a novelist. These were people that, you know, most writers would pay to create and here they were -- just paraded before me.

And I'd be sitting at home working on this novel, and you literally had to keep the newspaper open at your side to keep up with what was going on, because you can't make up anything more preposterous and ridiculous than what was actually happening.

I mean, I'd be writing a scene and open the paper, and Jimmy Tayune (ph), the councilman who went to prison, is writing a book in prison and the title of it is "So You're Going To Prison" and it's a guide for other people who might be going off to jail.

And you know, here I am writing a scene, and I think I've done something really original and imaginative, and there's Jimmy Tayune just blowing me out of the water, you know -- end up turning off my computer and walking around the block; tough place to write fiction.

GROSS: Well, Steve Lopez, thanks a lot for talking with us, and I wish you good luck in your move.

LOPEZ: Thank you.

GROSS: Steve Lopez is the author of the new novel The Sunday Macaroni Club. He's a former columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer and now writes for Time-Warner publications.

This is FRESH AIR.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Steve Lopez
High: Steve Lopez was an award-winning columnist for the "Philadelphia Inquirer" for twelve years. In his novels, Lopez confronts political corruption and greed as he did in his columns. His new novel is called The Sunday Macaroni Club. Lopez is now Senior Writer-at-large for Time Magazine.
Spec: People; Journalism; Books; Steve Lopez
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright (c) 1997 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. under license from National Public Radio, Inc. Formatting copyright (c) 1997 Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information please contact NPR's Business Affairs at (202) 414-2954
End-Story: Steve Lopez
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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