When Brooklyn was the World is a book I gave to my grandmother years ago for Christmas. Its title is very apropos to my grandmother’s feelings about Brooklyn, as Brooklyn was not only “the world” for the first part of the 20th century, but it was her world -and it truly represented the world – to her. Both of my parents grew up in Brooklyn – Dyker Heights, Bay Ridge, and Park Slope – to be exact. I was born in Brooklyn and raised in Manhattan along with my three siblings, but was raised very intimately connected to the Brooklyn that my grandmother held so close to her heart and the Brooklyn of my parents’ generation. As a Manhattanite of my generation, Brooklyn and the outer boroughs were known as “Bridge and Tunnel” – places connected by the bridges and tunnels to the borough of Manhattan known to the world through the movies, media, and music as the city that never sleeps -New York, New York. New York City is a labyrinth of land masses connected by the most beautiful bridges in the world, including the most historically and architecturally important one – the Brooklyn Bridge. What many people take for granted is not only how critical these bridges (and tunnels) are to our daily way of life, but how critical they are to connecting all of us and to transporting all of us – literally and figuratively – to places we have never been. The Brooklyn Bridge in particular transports me to a place in time that may no longer exist, but still resonates so clearly in the present and holds so much possibility for the future.
This past year has been a year of building (and rebuilding) bridges: bridges to the past that tell a very important story to our present and future generations about not only history, but our present and our future. Strangers on a Bridge is the first-hand account of my grandfather James Donovan’s role in Cold War history: his defense of Russian spy Colonel Rudolf Abel and his negotiations for Abel’s exchange with American U2 pilot Frances Gary Powers. This book was originally published in 1964, but was reissued in August, 2015 by Scribner, and is now #1 on the New York Times Best Sellers list in espionage. I was successful in this quest to have my grandfather’s story told again, because of research, persistence, negotiations and the support of my family. But I was also successful because of the blockbuster film dramatizing the same historical events that Steven Spielberg has brought to theaters worldwide, with Tom Hanks so skillfully and authentically playing my grandfather and Brooklynite Amy Ryan perfectly playing my grandmother: Bridge of Spies. This story is told in a beautiful original screenplay written by Matt Charman with the help of the Coen Brothers. It is a breathtaking film bringing my grandfather’s story to life on the big screen, sharing a piece of lost history with a generation (or two) who may remember it, but who maybe did not know the whole story, and sharing a piece of lost history to new generations who knew nothing about it. Many films are out right now ( including the beautiful Brooklyn) which are so very worthy of our attention, but very few films – if any – convey a world that set the stage for who America is and what we stand for as a nation. Bridge of Spies is a masterpiece of a film presenting America as the master architect of bridge building, of freedom, justice, and standing up for what is right at whatever cost.
The climactic scene of Bridge of Spies appears where else, but on a bridge. Not just any bridge however, but the Glienecke Bridge (otherwise known as the “Bridge of Spies”) a Bridge connecting (or dividing in this case) the opposing East and West Germany. The drama of the scene unfolds as Rudolf Abel and Francis Gary Powers walk from one side to the other, back to their respective homes – “Strangers on a Bridge” passing each other in the early morning hours on February 10, 1962. What each does not realize however, are the deft back channel negotiations that it took to make this historic exchange possible. Jim Donovan was a bridge builder: a connector of competing and conflicting ideologies and world views, a masterful architect of progress, of creating something that was never there before, of overcoming obstacles, and reaching a goal that is not within reach unless there is that one common ground: the bridge. Like a bridge, he was formidable and stood tall and proud on behalf of American values. He stood up for what he believed in and never wavered. As Rudolf Abel calls him in the movie, he – like a bridge – was “Stoike Mugique” – its literal translation: “standing man.” When I spoke with a Russian friend of mine, she actually went further to say that “Stoike” conveys courage, tenacity, persistence. “Mugique” is not just any man, but a rugged, strong man. So he – like a bridge – was “Stoike Mugique”.
I have been especially captivated in the last year by the beauty, allure, magic, and symbolism of bridges. In a year marked by the telling of my grandfather’s story to the world through the reissue of Strangers on a Bridge and the film Bridge of Spies, I wish the coming year to be marked by making new connections, transcending boundaries, reaching far-flung destinations that were seemingly out of reach before, to crossing over to places beyond all of our wildest dreams, to remaining steadfast and strong in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. 2015 was one of those groundbreaking years for me and I can’t help but think that 2016 holds more of the same….for all of us. Here’s to 2016 and a year filled with building bridges of all kinds and to being
Oh, and Brooklyn is the world once again! My grandmother would be beside herself.