Faith Middleton is one of this country’s major radio personalities. In her long career, much of which has been on NPR where she currently has, among others, a program called “The Faith Middleton Show,” she has, by her count, interviewed about 20,000 people. She has also won two Peabody Awards, journalism’s highest honor.
“I’ve interview on average three people a day,” she said. “Five days a week for 20 years and loved every minute of it.”
But on this occasion she was not interviewing me. I was interviewing her. We were sitting on the sofa in my living room here in East Hampton.
Faith Middleton, a slender, tall and handsome woman, grew up in Hartford, Connecticut, the daughter of two Scottish parents. Her father ran a restaurant for a while, then was a salesman. Also for a while, he was a prizefighter. Her mother worked in the private homes of the wealthy, sometimes as a social secretary, a cook or a maid. Middleton has a sister who is 13 years older and also an older brother, who later in life, also became a professional boxer with a final record of 52 wins and two defeats.[expand]
“My mother often said those were the only two fights when, before the bout, she had been unable to bring him her vegetable soup.”
As a small girl, Faith found that her family moved around a lot as her mom’s employment situations changed.
“We often lived in the mansions where my mother worked,” she said. “We were living in the Kennedy Compound in Hyannis Port the year Jack Kennedy ran for President.”
They also lived in Florida in the wintertime, mostly because by this time her mother had become ill. Indeed, when she was 14, her parents died, first her mother and then, a month later, her father.
“My sister Sally was my savior,” she said. “She was also my best friend at that time. And still is. She was 27 when our parents died and she took me in to her home with her husband and kids in Manchester, Connecticut. There was this little sewing room they made into a bedroom for me. That’s where I went to high school, in Manchester.”
Faith thought she would be an artist and study at the Hartford Art School. But with her parents gone, there was no money for her to go to college.
“But then a dean at my high school heard about this and found me and said he would help me. He arranged for me to apply for scholarships. And I was accepted and went to Eastern Connecticut State University studying to be a teacher. But I soon dropped the teaching idea. I wasn’t meant to be a teacher.”
She graduated with degrees in English and sociology. She had no idea what she would do with these degrees.
“Tell me how you got your first job,” I asked.
“I had gone to a dance in my junior year of college. I met a reporter there who gave me his card. He worked for The Willimantic Chronicle and said he could probably get a job there for me. So I applied and met with the editor. I thought maybe he’d want me to sell ads.
“The editor asked me one question. Do you type? I told him I had edited the school paper. He said here’s your desk and typewriter. You’re the women’s editor. Well, I just loved it immediately.”
“And that was it?”
“That was it. Soon, they switched me to hard news. I stayed there several years. Then I had jobs at several other newspapers, The Journal Inquirer in Manchester, The Providence Journal, where I became the chief Sunday feature writer, then at Connecticut Magazine. They had called and asked if I would like to be editor. What an opportunity. So I went and I stayed there three years.”
“What happened after that?”
“Some new guy bought the magazine. Then he came in and fired everybody, the whole staff, including me. Sometimes they do that.”
“So then what?”
“I got a job offer from The Washingtonian to be their number two editor. I took it, but I wasn’t all that happy about moving down there. I think my lack of enthusiasm was in my voice.
“The editor called me in Connecticut one day. ‘You’re not communicating with me,’ he said. ‘You’re not coming.’ He had heard it in my voice. He was right. I was not coming.”
It was at this point, in 1980, that in a very strange way, Faith found her way into radio broadcasting.
Connecticut Public Radio, in its early days then, called, and asked if she would like to work with them.
“They asked me to come in and do a voice test. At the test, I thought I was terrible. They asked me to pronounce the names of a list of classical music composers. So I did that.”
The job they offered her was to be co-host for a show called “On the Town.” Her co-host did the Broadway show scene. He’d interview someone in “I’m in the Money.” She’d interview some poor people.
“After awhile, the programmers said this was really two separate shows. So he got his, and I got mine, ‘The Faith Middleton Show.’”
At this point, she realized that there was something really amazing about doing radio broadcasting.
“The idea that my words would fly into the air without having to have me write them down, I had first thought, wouldn’t work for me. But then I listened to them. And I decided yes, print was intimate, but radio was even more intimate. Because it’s just sound, people listen to just one voice and attend to it more carefully. There’s a connection.”
Thus Faith Middleton developed this speaking voice that so many people-millions of them-love, which is really not far from what it had been before, apparently, and which is really not much different than the way she speaks today in my living room.
The voice that comes from this very beautiful woman is soft, gentle and warm, but with emotions hinted at in every sentence, just the slightest variation of a feeling in a certain direction that you pick up and latch on to and wonder where it goes from here. It really is quite remarkable. And it’s a voice that is inquisitive and smart and non-threatening and somehow very much a voice that you want to be around.
But for her, she says, the voice is just a tool.
“My dream every day is to present an amazing person. I say to the listener-listen to this!”
Faith interviews in the following categories: culture, food, sustainability, news, politics, entertainment, poverty, history, medicine, humanity and art. (She’s just completed a six-part series of interviews in New York at the Museum of Modern Art.)
“Who are the most interesting people you have ever interviewed?” I asked. “And why? Who comes to mind.”
She answered this by coupling a certain person with an extraordinary incident they had told her.
“Well, Mary Martin. She told me about a time when she was asked to attend a fundraiser and re-enact the famous Peter Pan scene where she flies over everybody. They rigged her up with a wire and at a certain point, she came flying over the crowd-it was about 1,500 people-with this fairy dust in a small sack she had been given and which she slowly sprinkled down onto everybody.” Faith paused. “Whatever it was sent them all off choking and fleeing the scene.
“And then there was Willie Ruff, a jazz musician. Later in life he was a professor at Yale in their music department and was selected to be one of the first people to go off to China from America. It was a cultural exchange. China had been closed off from the West for a hundred years. In any case, as you know, jazz is all about improvisation. He was told, however, that in China, there is no improvisation. You play what is written down. So what he did when he got on stage was call up this Chinese piano player from the audience to play a theme he knew. After he played it, Ruff played it on his French horn. Then Ruff asked that they both play it together, and after one time through the theme, the piano player continued to stay with the theme, but Ruff went off on a very passionate riff. In the audience, people were gasping and moving around. Improvisation had come to China.”
“Playwright Arthur Miller. I was interviewing him at his home. And I saw this strange portrait, clearly of him, on the wall of his kitchen in magic marker. I asked him about it. He told me that he had been on the phone one day when Alexander Calder, the sculptor, who happened to live next door, came in. Miller had held up his hand. He’d be a few minutes on the phone. So Calder looked at the wall, then looked at a magic marker on the table and spent the next 10 minutes making the picture. ‘We’ll never scrub it off, of course,’ Miller told me.”
Who else had she interviewed? Well, everybody. Aaron Copeland, Sid Caesar, Gloria Steinem, Lyn Redgrave, Julia Childs, Anna Devere Smith (the playwright and actor who mimes the many characters who make up her plays and does all the parts,) Yehudi Meduen, Yo Yo Ma, Pincus Zuckerman.
Faith Middleton remained single for many years. But nine years ago, she met the love of her life, Fern Berman.
“We’ve been married three times,” Faith told me. “The laws keep changing, so we have to keep getting married again and again.” They share a home on Long Island Sound, at Stony Creek, Connecticut.
The two of them go everywhere together, or so it seems. Fern was in my living room too for this interview. And she will be with her for the next month as Faith Middleton interviews some of the interesting people in the Hamptons, every day, at the Wolffer Estate tasting room where she will be holding court with all her microphones and soundmen and equipment for her “Faith Middleton Show,” live, from Sagaponack.
Faith Middleton’s shows, “The Food Shmooze,” “Politics, Burgers & Beer,” “Book Show,” “On the Road,” and “The Faith Middleton Show,” can be found on almost any NPR station in the New York Metropolitan area at 3 p.m. and 9 p.m., Monday through Friday, at WNPR.[/expand]