corrections to BuzzFeed's Tom Lehrer article

assembled April 9, 2015 by Jeff Morris, with additional updates July 27, 2015

One year ago, BuzzFeed posted this article about Tom Lehrer, and I've been meaning to post a reply ever since then. I enjoyed reading it and felt like I learned a lot of interesting tidbits. I especially enjoyed the pictures, most of which I was surprised never to have seen before. Nor had I seen his "Dissertation On Education" in which he pulls a classic Lehrer by inventing the word "larva'ed" to rhyme with "Harvard" - great stuff!

I know the article was well-researched because they talked to me for hours and we exchanged many e-mails over the two months or so they were working on the article. They obviously talked to many other people at length as well, and seemed intent on making it a definitive profile. Anita asked me to clarify several very specific points, so I know it was their goal for it to be totally accurate.

However, as will happen with anything, some mistakes crept in. Tom himself told me he counted 37 mistakes in the article, but also told me he's seen worse and that's better than par for the course!

I will list some specific mistakes below, but I first want to address what I feel is a major misinterpretation of Tom's attitude, which affects the whole tone of the article. Tom is very proud of the songs he has written, and is not dismissive or disinterested at all. The article seems to say that he doesn't care about them anymore, but this is far from the truth. I have known Tom for 20 years, and during that time we have talked extensively about his songs and his career in show business. He is often amused that anyone would care about the minor details I tend to ask for, but has been happy to dig up old documents to provide me with answers. If he didn't care at all about his former career, he'd have hung up on me long ago.

I think what people find hard to understand is that he's not interested in being a celebrity. That does not mean he is turning his back on what he did in the past. He just doesn't care for experiencing the trappings of fame. He doesn't require an adoring public telling him how great he is on a daily basis. He doesn't need reporters asking how he's spending his time. He doesn't want a record company pressuring him for new material. And really, who would? Most celebrities express dislike for these things, but they get caught in the lifestyle before they realize it, or they accept it as part of the business and they enjoy the work they do enough that they are able to deal with these pressures. But he didn't enjoy performing enough that he wanted to sacrifice his academic career or his personal freedom, and also he felt concerned enough about his reputation and his fans that he didn't want to turn in sub-par performances, so when he started to do that, he quit.

But he is rightfully proud of his past work, and keeps up to date on its use today. I think he is tickled when someone covers one of his songs, especially on TV. For instance, in 2011 he sent me a message saying that Daniel Radcliffe's performance of "The Elements" had hit 2 million views on YouTube. He also maintains a lengthy list of all the records and CDs people have released with versions of his songs, including a surprising number of foreign translations. Someone who didn't care a whit about his old songs wouldn't be interested in these sorts of things.

I brought up this point to Anita after the article was published, and was afraid she had misinterpreted something I said to arrive at her conclusion. However, she said she got this picture of Tom's attitude from talking to many different people about him, and therefore feels it's a valid conclusion and doesn't plan to change the article. I don't know precisely who said what, but I am kind of surprised by this. I can only guess how this happened. Perhaps they were people who don't know Tom as well, and didn't understand what he was really saying when they talked to him in the past. Perhaps they are people who knew him well long before I met him, and his attitude has changed in the meantime. Perhaps he has given this impression intentionally to stop people from pestering him. It's hard to say how this myth got perpetuated.

I just wanted to give my viewpoint here, because the Tom Lehrer I know is a different person from the one painted in the BuzzFeed article. Of course, I'm only able to give my interpretation of Tom's feelings, and when he reads this he will probably tell me I got some things wrong as well. Hopefully I'm closer to being on the right track though.

Within the section below you will find more evidence that he is anything but turning his back on his musical career.

Now I will list some specific lines in the article that I have a problem with, many of which are more factual in nature. I pointed these out last year as well, and was surprised they weren't interested in correcting them. They did correct a few minor grammar/punctuation issues I pointed out, and they made a correction (not submitted by me) regarding when he started at Harvard and what dorm room he was in. I feel like his dorm room number is a minor detail compared to some of my points, but it's their article.

I debated listing these in order of importance or order they were mentioned in the article, and I went with the latter. Some of these are nitpicky while others are more significant.

(Bold text represents quotes from the article.)

Here are some further thoughts not connected to specific quotes or errors in the article.

I enjoyed talking with Anita while she was working on this article, and I thought I was being very helpful. I expressed concern at the beginning about the possibility of factual errors and being misquoted, and she assured me they were very careful. I guess this goes to show how easy it is to misunderstand someone and how imperfect spoken language is at relating thoughts. I know in my mind what I'm thinking, but when I say it in words, which someone else hears or reads, it goes into their mind in a slightly altered state, and may be taken out of context since they can't sense everything else in my mind at the time. But without the power of psychic transmission from one mind to another, this is what we have to work with.

I guess everyone who deals with the press has this problem. Anyone who reads an article about themselves probably always finds mistakes here and there. I wished I had been able to review the article prior to publication and offer some corrections, but it's their work and not mine. I'm not in control, I just contributed.

I believe it was in the 1991 interview with Dr. Demento that Tom said something along the lines of: "I said what I had to say and I got out. I wish more people would follow my example." This gives a pretty good understanding of his attitude. Instead of hundreds or thousands of songs by Tom, we have dozens. Would we admire him more if we had thousands? It's doubtful. I cannot think of a songwriter off the top of my head who has written thousands of songs that are all top notch. There are bound to be some clunkers after so many. Tom judiciously chose his best work to release and left the business on a high note. If he had continued to put out albums until he was completely devoid of inspiration, we would not hold his total work in such high regard. Isn't the old show biz adage "Always leave 'em wanting more"? Think what would've happened had Elvis Presley stopped making movies after the first four. He might be more highly regarded as an actor rather than so much of his acting career being panned. Tom knew when to quit - just as you start to descend from your peak, rather than when you're sliding down the other side of the mountain full speed.

I hope I've corrected some details and clarified some of Tom's viewpoints. Of course, all of this is my take on it, and I'm sure there are times when I've misinterpreted something Tom said or did as well.

I'd love to hear more from David Robinson and others interviewed for this article. I shared with Anita the text of some extensive interviews I did with Tom, and I thought perhaps in return she could send me her interviews used for this article. However, she said that was against general journalistic practice. Did I then violate a journalism code of ethics by sharing my interviews (which I previously used for a magazine article), and if so why did she happily accept them rather than warn me about what I was doing?

One other note, I am a bit disturbed at BuzzFeed's semi-stalking of Tom. He replied to their first letter nicely enough, but then they stopped by his house uninvited. And they published in the article information about his street and house, the type of car in the driveway, and a hint at what they believe to be his e-mail address. Just because this is information available to the public (anyone can walk by someone's house and note what car is in the driveway, or in some cities see it on Google Maps street view) doesn't mean it belongs in such an article. I wouldn't appreciate people publishing details about my house without my consent. I think it is this kind of behavior that makes Tom want to avoid being a celebrity.