September 22, 2023

Goodbyes and Grief in Real Time

The ellipsis hinted that he’d have more to say later, and he did. “We never stop learning from our mothers, do we?” he asked on July 25. By then his mother, Patricia Lyons Simon Newman, 84, had spent several nights in the intensive care unit of a Chicago-area hospital. And Twitter users around the world were getting to know her, thanks to the short bursts of commentary by Mr. Simon, the host of “Weekend Edition Saturday” on NPR.

The tweets captured the attention of a significant portion of the social-media world for days.

Mr. Simon wrote on Monday morning that “her passing might come any moment,” and that evening it did, when she died after being treated for cancer. Borrowing from “Romeo and Juliet,” he wrote, “She will make the face of heaven shine so fine that all the world will be in love with night,” and then stopped tweeting for half a day.

“When I began to tweet, I had almost no thought that this was going to be my mother’s deathbed,” Mr. Simon said in a telephone interview on Wednesday, after the outpouring of emotion — his Twitter audience’s as well as his own — had made national headlines. His mother, he said, had originally gone into the hospital for a blood test.

“As it got more serious, she was just so marvelously entertaining and insightful,” he said. “I found it irresistible.”

In the past he might have done that through a book or a recorded segment for his radio program. (Mr. Simon commented on the deaths of his father and stepfather in his 2000 memoir, “Home and Away.”) But the Internet enabled him to celebrate his mother and mourn her in real time, creating the sense this week that an online community was collectively grieving with him.

The online reactions were overwhelmingly positive; some people thanked Mr. Simon for letting them get to know Ms. Newman and described what she had in common with their own mothers. A smattering of online comments, he said, were critical, suggesting that sharing such intimate moments was inappropriate. “Exploiting his mother’s last days for ratings and fame,” read one comment accompanying an ABC News article about Mr. Simon’s tweets.

“Social media is most poignant when it gives us a window on stories that would otherwise go untold,” said Burt Herman, a co-founder of Storify, an Internet company that markets what it calls social storytelling tools. “The stories can be voyeuristic, like a couple fighting at a Burger King. But at their best, these stories give us a deeply personal view into life’s inflection points, whether it’s a revolution abroad or an intimate moment between a mother and son.”

Mr. Simon said he wanted people to know that “I wasn’t holding my mother in my arms and tweeting with my free hand.”

He added: “As you may know, an incurable illness like this is a lot like war. There are moments of panic and anxiety, separated by hours of tedium.”

Sometimes Ms. Newman gave Mr. Simon, and by extension some of his 1.2 million Twitter followers, a reason to smile or chuckle: “Believe me,” she told him on Saturday, “those great deathbed speeches are written ahead of time.” Sometimes, she seemed to want Mr. Simon to share bits of advice. On Sunday, he encapsulated this thought from his mother: “Listen to people in their 80s. They have looked across the street at death for a decade.”

Mr. Simon resumed posting to Twitter on Tuesday; he jocularly recounted how the couple who run a cremation service call themselves “posthealth professionals.” During the interview on Wednesday he cried while expressing thanks for the “love and support and prayers” from people. He said he had given precisely no thought to the societal implications of sharing his mother’s life and death.

But others have. “We have reached a point in the way we think about our lives where our stories of struggle and loss feel like they no longer belong solely to us,” said Joe Lambert, founder of the Center for Digital Storytelling in Berkeley, Calif. Being able to broadcast them, on Twitter or elsewhere online, “feels like a gift to those grieving in our families, our communities and as far as a tweet might reach.”

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In Memoir, Amanda Knox Testifies in Public Court of Approval

Those assertions are among the many in “Waiting to Be Heard,” the long-awaited memoir that is Ms. Knox’s most extensive public testimony since she was convicted, and then acquitted, of killing her 21-year-old British roommate, Meredith Kercher.

“Until now I have personally never contributed to any public discussion of the case or of what happened to me,” Ms. Knox, 25, wrote in an author’s note at the end of the book. “While I was incarcerated, my attention was focused on the trial and the day-to-day challenges of life in prison. Now that I am free, I’ve finally found myself in a position to respond to everyone’s questions. This memoir is about setting the record straight.”

On the morning of Nov. 2, 2007, Ms. Kercher was found semi-naked, her throat slit, wrapped in a duvet and left in her bedroom in their villa in the picturesque town of Perugia. Ms. Knox, a college student from Seattle who was spending her junior year abroad, and her boyfriend at the time, Raffaele Sollecito, were accused by Italian prosecutors of killing Ms. Kercher in a sexual escapade gone wrong, along with Rudy Guede, an Ivory Coast native who was eventually convicted of Ms. Kercher’s sexual assault and murder.

An appeals court acquitted Ms. Knox and Mr. Sollecito two years after their original conviction, and they were released. But in March, Italy’s highest court overturned that decision, ordering a new trial sometime in the next year.

A copy of Ms. Knox’s book, which is scheduled for release on April 30, was obtained by The New York Times. The memoir prompted a highly competitive auction early last year, with seven publishers bidding on it and Ms. Knox receiving a reported $4 million advance from HarperCollins. Publishers were convinced that the intense publicity the case received, with its lurid details and the courtroom spectacle of two Italian trials, would make the book a big seller.

In 463 pages, Ms. Knox recounts her darkest moments in prison — at one point, she writes, she imagined committing suicide by suffocating herself with a garbage bag — as well as her routines there. She says she practiced Italian, wrote letters to family and friends and read books by Dostoyevsky and Umberto Eco.

Ms. Knox exhaustively lays out her defense, describing her whereabouts on the night that her roommate was killed. She says that she and Mr. Sollecito were smoking marijuana, reading a Harry Potter book aloud in German and watching the film “Amélie” at his apartment. (“Around our house, marijuana was as common as pasta,” Ms. Knox wrote, recalling that one of her roommates taught her how to roll a joint properly.) 

She pointed to the Italian prosecutors who she said willfully ignored and manipulated evidence while they clung to the theory that she and Mr. Sollecito were responsible for Ms. Kercher’s death. A conversation with her mother from prison was distorted to help place her at the scene of the crime and promptly leaked to a British newspaper, she writes.

Prosecutors were just as adamant in making their case, presenting DNA and forensic evidence in court that they said proved her guilt.

According to Ms. Knox’s account, the police interrogated her for hours and sporadically slapped her on the back of her head. Her requests to use the bathroom were denied. Eventually they goaded her into signing a statement that implicated herself and an innocent man, Patrick Lumumba, her boss at a bar where she worked.

Confused and panicking after being taken to prison, Ms. Knox asked to make a phone call. “The guard looked at me like I’d asked for caviar and prosecco,” she wrote.

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Media Decoder Blog: Lena Dunham to Create New Comedy Show

With a series that she stars in, produces, writes and occasionally directs, and a book she is contracted to deliver, Lena Dunham clearly does not have enough to do.

Now she has a new deal with HBO, the network that for her series “Girls,” to create yet another comedy show. Ms. Dunham is teaming with Jenni Konner, an executive producer on “Girls,” to write the pilot for a show about the life and work of a personal shopper in New York.

HBO has not officially announced the show but the network confirmed Ms. Dunham’s participation Thursday. The show will be based on a memoir by Betty Halbreich, “All Dressed Up and Everywhere to Go,” that told of her career working as a shopper for the Bergdorf Goodman department store, buying merchandise for the rich and famous of Manhattan. HBO had previously purchased the rights to the book.

News of the new series was first reported on the Web site Deadline Hollywood.

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Paul Allen: Microsoft and Me

Allen works hard in the pages of “Idea Man” to prove Coach Carroll’s point that he is a tech visionary. He was in the 10th grade and Bill Gates in the 8th when they met in the computer room of the Seattle private school both attended. A few years later, in the mid-1970s, the two were eating pizza when Allen speculated about the possibility that one day people would read a newspaper via computer. Gates, Allen tells us, dismissed the idea as lame-brained. Ouch.

There are a lot of moments like this in a memoir that isn’t so much Allen’s life story as an extended brief arguing that Paul Gardner Allen deserves a prominent place in the pantheon of pioneers who gave us our wired world — to prove, as Wired magazine once said of him, that he is not just the “accidental zillionaire.”

Allen spends chapter after chapter arguing (sometimes convincingly) that he was as critical to the founding of Microsoft as his legendary former colleague — but the more he stays with the topic, the more plain it becomes that Microsoft would have been nothing without Gates. Recovering from Hodgkin’s disease but mainly just sick of fighting with his more forceful partner, Allen abruptly quit in 1983 to venture out on his own. Somehow Microsoft managed just fine without him.

The book reads well. (Allen writes in the acknowledgments that Jeff Coplon, a seasoned ghost writer, “helped me to realize the book I had envisioned.”) And there’s a refreshing candor to the prose, too. Allen spends the better part of one chapter demonstrating how a meddlesome owner can foul up a basketball franchise; in another, he shows that being too smart by half can mess up a professional football team. He confesses to losing $8 billion investing in cable companies in the 2000s. And then there was his decision to sell the large stake he had amassed in AOL in the early 1990s. He kicks himself for letting Gates convince him that a pipsqueak like AOL stood no chance against Microsoft, but he also shares the colossal size of his blunder: selling, it turned out, was a $40 billion mistake.

Yet bum advice and lapses of vision are hardly the worst Allen has to say about Gates. The Silicon Valley way had always been to divide ownership in a new startup 50-50, but Gates, the son of a prominent lawyer, had his own ideas about what was fair. Allen had the original idea for Microsoft. The two worked the same breakneck schedule in those feverish weeks when the company was born. Yet Gates wrote the program that served as Microsoft’s first product, whereas Allen did the less glamorous work of creating the tools Gates needed to do his job.

Gates insisted on a 60-40 split; Allen passively agreed and then limply went along when Gates later proposed a 64-36 split because he had “done most of the work” and “gave up a lot to leave Harvard.” These and other similar anecdotes have been picked up by the business press, but Allen’s book is not nearly as bitter-sounding as those accounts suggested. He doesn’t seem mad so much as resigned to having been outfoxed by a junior titan who makes even Mark Zuckerberg look like a slacker.

Reading Allen’s book one almost feels sorry for him, though not because of an unfair partnership agreement that ended up costing him billions. Is it possible to be beside the point in your own memoir? Allen, nondescript and conventional, pales next to Gates, who comes across here as more peculiar than repellent. Allen’s Gates, awkward and gangly, walks around with chronically orange hands because he licks Tang from his palm whenever he needs a late-night sugar high. His Gates guzzles a dozen cans of Coke a day, eats chicken with a spoon and seems to enjoy nothing so much as singing Sinatra’s “My Way” in full throat. Even Allen tacitly admits he himself is not nearly as interesting as those populating his world: he devotes all of two sentences to the startup he created after he had ventured off on his own, yet gives us page after page of how much better Microsoft might have fared had people there listened to his advice.

And the author practically disappears in the last two-thirds of the book. He’s like Forrest Gump in his own autobiography. There’s Jagger chatting about gardens and Bono cajoling Mick to join in on a jam. But who’s that bland-looking bespectacled fellow in the picture? Oh, it’s his boat, his guitars. Allen is never so interesting as when he’s quoting others. He has only just met Paul McCartney but reports Sir Paul as saying, “Everyone wants to talk about John, John, John. You know, I wrote some songs, too.” That might have been a moment for the author to delve into his own psyche (“Bill, Bill, Bill, but I wrote some code, too, you know”). The book is supposedly a “memoir” — the word is right there on the cover — yet the author reveals almost nothing about himself. Peter Gabriel, he tells us, is the kind of person who will offer you a spot of afternoon tea. But after 350 pages, it’s not clear what kind Allen might be.

“Idea Man” describes Allen as a “billionaire technologist and philanthropist.” There’s precious little philanthropy in this book, though, beyond the Allen Institute for Brain Science, a research facility he bankrolled shortly after his mother began struggling with dementia.

On the philanthropy front his “partner in crime,” as he calls Gates, has bested him again. Allen mourns the old science fiction collection his mother sold for $75 so he creates the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame. He has adored Jimi Hendrix since childhood — so he spends $250 million building a Hendrix museum he names the Experience Music Project. Gates might have played his old high school chum at the birth of Microsoft, but at least he is trying to do good with all those extra billions that ended up in his pocket. Allen, in contrast, is the accidental billionaire who reveals himself to be little more than an overgrown kid playing with his money.

Gary Rivlin, a former New York Times reporter, is the author of “The Plot to Get Bill Gates.” His most recent book is “Broke, USA,” an investigation of businesses that cater to the working poor.

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Regrets and Resentment in Microsoft Partnership

In a memoir due out next month that is tinged with bitterness and regret, Mr. Allen accuses Mr. Gates of whittling down his ownership in the company and taking credit for some of his contributions.

The accusations surprised some in the small circle of early Microsoft alumni, as Mr. Gates and Mr. Allen have known each other since high school and have remained on friendly terms until recently. What’s more, Mr. Allen’s wealth soared largely because of Microsoft successes that came well after he left the company in 1983.

“I find the argument that you were cheated financially difficult to make when you ended up being so wealthy,” said Vern Raburn, who worked at Microsoft from 1978 to 2001 and ran its consumer products division. Mr. Raburn said he was friends with both founders and had not read the book or an excerpt from it that was published on Vanity Fair’s Web site Wednesday.

Mr. Raburn added that Mr. Allen played an integral role in the company’s early days, and that “Bill has gone out of his way to acknowledge that.”

In the excerpt, Mr. Allen also takes swipes at Steven A. Ballmer, whom Mr. Gates recruited as Microsoft’s first business manager in 1980 and who replaced Mr. Gates as chief executive in 2000.

Mr. Allen writes that in December 1982, after he learned he had Hodgkin’s lymphoma, he overheard Mr. Gates and Mr. Ballmer plotting to rob him of his due.

“They were bemoaning my recent lack of production and discussing how they might dilute my Microsoft equity by issuing options to themselves and other shareholders,” Mr. Allen said.

Mr. Allen said he burst into the room and confronted the two men, shouting: “This is unbelievable! It shows your true character, once and for all.”

Mr. Allen said that they later apologized, but that he had already decided to leave the company. The book, “Idea Man: A Memoir by the Co-Founder of Microsoft,” is to be published by Portfolio/Penguin, an imprint of Penguin Group USA.

In a statement, Mr. Gates said: “While my recollection of many of these events may differ from Paul’s, I value his friendship and the important contributions he made to the world of technology and at Microsoft.” A Microsoft spokesman said Mr. Ballmer declined to comment.

Mr. Allen, through a spokesman, declined to comment. The spokesman, David Postman, said the memoir was not meant to be an attack on Mr. Gates. “We are going to let the excerpt that is out there stand, and hope that people take the time to read the book and get the full picture,” he said.

The bitterness and sense of betrayal echo more recent complaints against Mark Zuckerberg, the youthful founder of Facebook, by Eduardo Saverin, a Facebook co-founder and Mr. Zuckerberg’s Harvard roommate, over Mr. Saverin’s reduced role and diminished stake in the company.

In a series of recollections that paint Mr. Gates in an unflattering light, Mr. Allen said that after he decided to leave, Mr. Gates made a “lowball” offer of $5 a share for Mr. Allen’s stake in Microsoft. Mr. Allen asked for at least $10 a share, and Mr. Gates refused. That decision eventually turned Mr. Allen into a billionaire.

“From the time we’d started together in Massachusetts, I’d assumed that our partnership would be a 50-50 proposition,” Mr. Allen wrote earlier in the excerpt. “But Bill had another idea.”

During Microsoft’s early years, Mr. Gates pressured Mr. Allen to reduce his stake to 40 percent and later 36 percent as Mr. Gates’s own stake rose to 60 and then 64 percent, Mr. Allen wrote. “Bill knew that I would balk at a two-to-one split, and that 64 percent was as far as he could go,” he wrote.

Stephen Manes, co-author of the book “Gates: How Microsoft’s Mogul Reinvented an Industry — and Made Himself the Richest Man in America,” said that much of what Mr. Allen recounts in the excerpt, including the fact that his ownership of Microsoft was reduced significantly, was reported in his book and others. He also said that while Mr. Gates and Mr. Allen collaborated closely, the two often argued vociferously.

“People told us about shouting matches,” Mr. Manes said. “There was an epic one that began in the office, continued in the elevator and went on in the parking lot for half an hour.”

After leaving Microsoft, Mr. Allen, who is 58, became known as one of the most aggressive investors in technology, though his record has been mixed. He is also the owner of the Seattle Seahawks and the Portland Trail Blazers.

People who know the two men said that they had remained friends until recently, and that Mr. Gates visited Mr. Allen frequently two years ago, when he was recovering from chemotherapy to treat non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

“Paul is a creative, charming and likable person,” said Carl Stork, who worked at Microsoft from 1981 to 2002 and held several executive positions. “I don’t know what Paul is trying to accomplish by trying to take something away from Bill. I am puzzled and disappointed.”

Christine Hauser contributed reporting from New York.

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