|Fortune in My Eyes|
A New Jersey boy who fled to New York City as soon as he could, Rothenberg began his work life as a Broadway publicist and producer. That life exposed him to the talented and glamorous. For example, at a small London dinner party he attended as the young protege of producer Alex Cohen, the guests included Ingrid Bergman, her daughter Pia Lindström, Sir John Gielgud, and the actress Joyce Carey.
In 1966, Rothenberg heard about a prison play by a Canadian writer, John Herbert. When he received a copy of the script, "I was up all night, reading and rereading Fortune and Men's Eyes. I was devastated by what I read" and resolved to produce the play off-Broadway himself. When he could not raise enough money, he "committed the cardinal sin of producing" and took out a bank loan to cover the shortfall himself.
While the first reviews were mixed, the play attracted enough business to remain open. A sociology professor asked if he could bring his 30 students and stay to discuss the play with the cast after the final curtain. A note in the program that night invited the entire audience to stay, and during the discussion one member of the audience shouted, "This is a lot of crap. These characters are all stereotypes, and I don't buy any of it."
In response, another man stood to say, "This play is so real that I thought I was back in my cell. . ." Rothenberg invited the man, Pat McGarry, who'd done 20 years to join the on-stage panel. McGarry convinced Rothenberg the play "was a mirror for the lives of men whose stories had never been told. Fortune was about the system's destruction of the spirit and how society would pick up the bill at a later date." The play led in almost a straight line to the founding of The Fortune Society in 1967 which helps ex-offenders re-enter society.
So Rothenberg's memoir is much more than an account of his brushes with celebrity. He has profound and interesting things to say about criminal justice in the U.S. He was called into Attica during the horrific 1971 riot that resulted in 39 men dead and hundreds wounded. While many of his heart-warming stories are about men and women who were able to turn their lives around after prison, not all are—just as in real life. For some former prisoners, life on the outside is too stressful.
With his theater contacts, Rothenberg was able to make The Fortune Society happen. Alvin Ailey, one of his friends, joined its advisory council. He offered tickets to the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater on nights they were not sold out, leading one ex-offender to quip, "When you get out of prison in New York, you get forty dollars, a baloney sandwich, and two tickets to Alvin Ailey."
Midway through the memoir, Rothenberg announces something many readers will have suspected: "I am a homosexual…gay…queer…whatever word is being used this year." Born in 1933, Rothenberg grew up in the time when no one talked openly about homosexuality and "fairy" was a gut-clutching insult. Caught up in the gay rights movement of the early 1970s, he came out to his mother (and includes the moving letter he wrote her) and to the The Fortune Society leadership.
He told his associates, all ex-offenders, he was gay, he was going on The David Susskind Show to announce it, and he was prepared to submit his resignation as the Society's executive director. "This was greeted with a long pause; everyone was looking at one another. Kenny Jackson broke the silence and asked, 'What are you going wear on television?'" Not the response he expected, and when Rothenberg suggested his coming out might affect the Society's support, one of the others said, "You've stood beside us for six years, telling us to be honest about our past lives. Why not give us the same opportunity to stand by you?"
The man has had a fascinating life and his memoir is filled with incident and anecdote. Nevertheless, it is difficult to tell what Rothenberg is really like, perhaps because for his first 40 years he had to mask what he was really like and the habit is hard to break. I would like some examples of regret, failure, bad judgment to provide some balance for all the glamor and success. Still, Fortune in My Eyes is well worth your time if only for Rothenberg's experiences with and observations about criminal justice.