Night Out: Grandma, Grandson … Colleagues

by admin November 8, 2016 at 7:25 am
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Alexander Heffner, the host of “The Open Mind,” and his grandmother Elaine Heffner at her Upper West Side home.

Credit
George Etheredge for The New York Times

If you have not, over the course of the last six decades, tuned in to various public television stations to watch “The Open Mind,” here’s what you have missed: a 30-minute public-affairs-focused interview program that covers topics ranging from civil rights to pornography to baseball, and features guests running the gamut from blues musicians to judges to Nobel laureates.

This year, the show turns 60. It was, for nearly its first 58 years, hosted by Richard Heffner, a historian and professor who died in 2013 at age 88. In its last few years, it has been hosted by Alexander Heffner, 26 and a 2012 graduate of Harvard.

But the real star of the show is Elaine Heffner, 89, Richard’s widow and Alexander’s grandmother. She is the program’s new executive producer and longtime muse.

“Water, Pellegrino or vodka?” she said in welcoming a guest on a recent evening to her large Upper West Side home. Flitting about the apartment to collect drinks, Dr. Heffner was dressed in tailored pants, a sweater and sensible flats, looking not a day over 80.

She and her grandson were soon to depart for a dinner date. But first, there was a quick check-in with “The PBS NewsHour,” which was playing on the television in the living room.

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Ms. Heffner and Mr. Heffner at La Mirabelle. Ms. Heffner’s husband, Richard, a historian and professor who died in 2013 at age 88, hosted the program for nearly its first 58 years.

Credit
George Etheredge for The New York Times

She leaned against a cushioned window seat, the sprawl of the Hudson River and New Jersey behind her. Mr. Heffner sat on a chair near the television, not quite reclining, his back never touching the cushion.

He loved as a young boy watching his grandfather prepare his “Open Mind” scripts, and as a student at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., and then at Harvard, he hosted radio programs that prepared him for his current gig. Mr. Heffner speaks in long, structurally complicated, grammatically perfect sentences. He often calls his grandmother “Elaine.”

Dr. Heffner is the mother of two and grandmother of four, a psychotherapist who has been on the faculty of Weill Cornell Medical College since the 1980s, and a consultant to the elite Diller-Quaile School of Music (which makes her something of a well-known figure to a certain sort of Upper East Side parent).

Dr. Heffner graduated from Cornell after World War II, and completed her doctoral studies at Columbia in the 1980s, after her two sons had grown. “I didn’t go to my doctoral graduation because it was the same year my son was graduating from law school and I didn’t want that competition,” she said.

In the apartment vestibule, Mr. Heffner helped his grandmother put on her coat as she bade farewell to her poodle, Cassie. They set off for the eight-block walk to La Mirabelle, a classic French restaurant. Mr. Heffner made a few calls on his mobile phone, and his grandmother worried about the way that youngsters jaywalk while distracted by technology.

She doesn’t text, but she is no Luddite. She is learning what “streaming television” is all about, and she maintains a blog called “Good Enough Mothering.” Women today, she said, “feel just as conflicted and guilty about working or not working as they did in the 1970s.”

Her husband was a champion of her career and an editor of her writing. “One of the last things he gave me before he died was a reprint of ‘Commas for Dummies,’” she said. “He would tell me, ‘You just worry about the writing, and I’ll take care of the commas.’”

At the restaurant, Dr. Heffner was greeted by name by the maître d’, and she and her grandson sat at a corner window table. They often go to hear jazz after a meal, but tonight it will just be dinner (soft-shell crab for her, duck for him, wine for both) and a catch-up on the guests.

Recently, Mr. Heffner has hosted Vincent Fella Hendricks, the director of the Center for Information and Bubble Studies at the University of Copenhagen, and the journalist Ahmed Shihab-Eldin. The idea is to try to book people potentially on the cusp of renown. This was a talent of his grandfather’s: He had before-they-were-famous guests like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1957.

Mr. Heffner was excited to tell his grandmother about a big-name booking: Joe Weisberg, the creator of the FX program “The Americans.” It will actually be Mr. Weisberg’s second appearance on “The Open Mind.” “He was a guest of my grandfather’s as a little-known spy novelist,” Mr. Heffner said.

Dr. Heffner brought her own institutional knowledge to the booking. It happens that Mr. Weisberg’s wife, Julia Rothwax, is the daughter of old friends of her and her husband’s. “Remember the Joel Steinberg trial? Harold Rothwax was the judge in that case,” she said, recalling he had a bicycling accident yet refused to stay off the bench. “He was trying the case, and it was a big thing and his hands were in casts.”

They are good together this way, grandson and grandmother, millennial and octogenarian, one an old soul, and the other who is young at heart.

Correction: November 7, 2016

An earlier version of this article misstated the decade in which Elaine Heffner completed her doctoral studies. It was the 1980s, not the 1960s.

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