Jul 15, 2020 • 11M

Ann Kerr, part 2: Falling in love with Beirut

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Henry Abbott
Award-winning hard truths about the NBA since 2005.
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Above is a eleven-minute podcast, part of a series telling the incredible story of Ann Kerr. You can read the script of it below. Part 1 is here. There is more to follow.

Ann Kerr writes books, teaches courses, sits on boards, paints watercolors, coordinates Fulbright Scholars, and oversees four generations of family who are involved in everything from local British government to large-scale construction. But within her family, the thing that wins Ann off-the-charts praise is that, for a few minutes of episode nine, she appears in ESPN’s Michael Jordan documentary “The Last Dance.” 

“I couldn’t believe it! They were so complimentary!” Ann exclaims on a Zoom call with mutual friend—The New Yorker’s exceptional writer Charles Bethea. “I don’t think sons compliment their mothers very easily!” Then, because she’s Ann, she asks Charles and me if we compliment our mothers. Parenting is woven in.

Charles had the idea to talk to Ann in a pandemic because … well … as we wrote in setting up this series, she has a certain wisdom that feels relevant. (A TrueHoop reader emails: “She's had more than her share of darkness, but has learned how to focus on the light. She's exactly the sort of person I want to read about these days.”)

She knows about death and tragedy, especially because Malcolm Kerr, her husband of 30 years and the father of the four Kerr children, was assassinated in 1984. She wrote a book about that period of her life called “Come With Me from Lebanon,” that came out a decade later. Skill is rising from adversity is poignant now.

I bought a used copy of her book which arrived through the mail. I show her on Zoom that it’s autographed. “A lot of people, it seems,” she replies, “have gotten rid of my book.” I find that hard to believe: It’s incredible.

Steve makes appearances in Ann’s story. She feels most of the Kerrs are like Malcolm, in the sense that they are frequently on the verge of saying inappropriate things. Ann notes that Steve also says he is like Malcolm. But that doesn’t sit well with her because, she notes, Steve is more “diplomatic.” 

Like her. At one point (ironically, after a call from a diplomat), Malcolm accepts a job as the president of the American University in Beirut. Steve is the senior star of the Pacific Palisades high school basketball team, with dreams of getting a scholarship to play in college. The Kerrs decide to split up for a year—Ann will solo parent Steve and Andrew in California. Now and again, Ann flies to visit Malcolm, leaving Steve and his younger brother Andrew with less-than-normal supervision. After two and a half weeks in Lebanon, Ann returns to notice signs that there might have been some partying in her absence. The living room ferns, she notes in the book, smell like beer. On Zoom she adds that she asked Steve why the kitchen floor was so clean.

“Oh,” she remembers Steve replying, “we just spilled some yogurt.” 

Ann didn't believe a word of it, but let it go. Because, she says, she understood the bigger picture. She was just happy both boys were happy and healthy.

Diplomacy. Now we’re getting into the wisdom of Ann Kerr.

A little peek behind the scenes of our audio project:

Many people stretched to make this happen. For starters, 85-year-old Ann Kerr lives alone in California, Charles was in Oregon, I’m in New Jersey. So the key audio engineer of this projet was Ann herself, recording a voice memo on her iphone. She then agreed to an additional session recording what she described as “the racy parts” of her book. Jarod Hector did amazing voiceover work as Malcolm. Charles and everyone at TrueHoop—Jessica, Adena, Judy, David, Jarod—weighed in. It was all sliced and diced on a short turnaround by the brilliant Michael Hanson, a friend of Charles’. We will repeat all of this in upcoming episodes—there are more racy parts of Ann’s book to come.

And, just for fun, or for people who prefer reading to audio--here’s a peek even further behind the scenes. This is the inexact script I shared with Michael, which is not terribly accurate to the actual finished audio.

Ann Kerr’s book “Come with me from Lebanon,” opens with a scene of the aftermath of her husband’s assassination. Then, in a surprise, the book unspools, in loving detail, the story of 30 years with Malcolm Kerr. They raised four children--the coach of the Golden State Warriors, Steve Kerr, as well as John, Susie, and Andrew. These days she’s fond of referring to them as “TWO PH.DS, AN M.B.A. AND AN N.B.A.” Much of their early lives together were in California but the rest was at a very special place—the American University in Beirut. Malcolm was the president of AUB when he was killed.

ANN [not verbatim]
Malcolm essentially achieved a dream, and it was my dream too. We both loved the place. We had gone back and forth there on sabbaticals.

Three of our four children were born there, Susie, John, and Steve

He was on the board of trustees

We knew maybe in line

Turned out to be the right place, the right person, the wrong time

This is the story of how Ann Kerr came to love Beirut, and Malcolm.

ANN [not verbatim]
Junior year abroad, purely out of a sense of adventure.

I thought India might be fun, my parents said no go to Europe. We found AUB.

Approval of minister in Santa Monica. SO unusual in letting me go. 

Too exhilarated to sleep at the end of that extraordinary first day in Beirut, I sat propped up in bed under a small light writing to my parents and sister, trying to describe all that had happened that day. It was difficult to convey in words the wonder of all the new sights and sounds and smells, the charm of my roommates, and the distinctive beauty of the AUB campus. But for me, writing was a way of sorting things out and making my family a part of these new experiences. In the past I had always been homesick when I went away from home—to summer camp as a child and when I started college—but in Beirut I was too captivated with all that I was doing and seeing to be homesick.

There was a sequence. We first met at a bar. Hahaha. Then there was a tea dance at the hostel. No one’s ever heard of a tea dance. And then we had the same Ottoman History class, taught by a very famous Ottoman historian. And I didn’t know anything, and Malcolm knew everything, so I needed him to help me with my homework. One thing led to another, the rest is history.

We were reclining on the living room couch in his parents’ house in the increasingly well-worn middle section, not making any of our old pretenses of trying to study Ottoman history or Malcolm vainly attempting to teach me to play chess. His parents were out and the mood was mellow. In a few simple words he asked me to marry him. Although the suggestion did not come as a complete surprise, I remember marveling at how decisive Malcolm was. How could he be sure, when we had known each other only five months, that he really wanted to marry me? Always more prone to pondering and to detail than Malcolm, and with a certain shyness, I hemmed and hawed and gave an elated but indefinite reply.

I wrote to my parents to tell them that this young man I had been describing in my letters over the past five months had proposed marriage. I recounted all the admirable qualities that attracted me to him—his special brand of humor, his nice family, his intelligence, his integrity, and the easy rapport and fun we had together. The thought occurred to me that it might be difficult for parents to feel happy about their first child finding the man she wanted to marry halfway around the world—a man they didn’t know and a place they had never seen—but I was too much in love to dwell on those thoughts for long.

In the early 1960s the Kerrs moved to the house where Ann still lives now, high on a hill over Pacific Palisades. Malcolm was a professor at UCLA. They went about the business of raising children.

Malcolm was gaga over his kids. He was busy an awful lot of the time. Sometimes I felt very put upon, as I think I put in the book. He was always flying off to interesting places, and four kids is a lot. But we had these sabbaticals. I came alive, and it was hard, because then we’d come back here and it was back to the kitchen.

ANN [not verbatim]
I tried to get the kids to go to Sunday School, but Malcolm won completely. With pancakes, and bacon, and basketball in the driveway.

His competitive talents were really honed by playing with his father and his older brother. 4.5 years older. John. John really coached him. But if Steve lost to them he was so hard on himself. I won’t go into too much detail. In case he hears this. 

From the moment it emerges that Malcolm might be a candidate to run AUB, the Kerr family knows Malcolm could be killed—as a symbol of America. 

His son John wrote a letter “Tell Dad that I think he’s the best Dad imaginable. I think last night was the most homesick I’ve ever been … hearing about Sadat has made me nervous about Dad going to Beirut. It sort of reminded me that someone doesn’t like you they just might shoot you.”

When Malcolm got the job, it stirred up a lot of issues.

ANN [not verbatim]
A professor grading papers for 20 years, at that point you want to go on and do something that has more meaning, that had huge meaning for him.

Push comes to shove, who would he choose, choose his family or AUB

We all have these dilemmas.

Malcolm and I gradually came to the conclusion that we couldn’t both go to Lebanon and leave our children. Susie should continue graduate school, and I would spend the school year in Pacific Palisades with Steve and Andrew. I went back to California early enough to be with Susie and John for a few weeks before they had to return to college, and Malcolm soon joined us for a week’s vacation to coincide with our twenty-sixth wedding anniversary. The joy and fun of all being home together again and the likelihood of Malcolm’s departure gave us pause to doubt the course we had set.

The outgoing president of AUB was kidnapped. Beirut was in turmoil. What did it all mean for Malcolm? Would his new job be delayed until things calmed down, or sped up so he could take charge sooner?

They were in Pacific Palisades eating breakfast when the ambassador called.

The phone call dropped like a bomb … the year-long separation suddenly loomed in front of us for what it was, and the dangers of living in Beirut began to cancel out the virtues of returning to AUB. In that brief phone call, the ambassador had disrupted the exclusiveness of our family life. I remember resenting Malcolm’s readiness to leave us so quickly, knowing full well that we had both committed ourselves to this endeavor and that his eagerness and impatience to get on with things were very much in character. Malcolm was not one to get cold feet, but I was getting cold feet for him, and I wished illogically that we could be out of all this. The job I had so looked forward to as something we were going to do together was now pulling us apart.

ANN [not verbatim]
I would go visit Malcolm, what we called our conjugal visits …

At one point Ann returned to find the living room ferns smelled of beer.

We had someone staying in our little house. I think he was a partygoer too

Really funny. I remember asking how did the kitchen floor get so clean?

Steve said “we spilled a little yogurt”

Anyway I took it in stride, knowing what was going on

ANN [not verbatim]
Steve does claim that he’s like his father and that always rankles me a little bit because he didn’t get his father’s impatience, his other siblings did, his father had a short fuse, I was always afraid to say the wrong thing. Steve is more diplomatic. 

Steve and I were talking after dinner the other night as we were washing dishes about how lucky he was to have such a privileged life. A few minutes later he murmured pensively, “No—I don’t have my Dad.” But then we rationalized that he had been pretty lucky to be under the same roof with you for as long as he had. (And I wanted to add, now to have me staying home with him while he finished high school.)

While Malcolm was settling into his new job in Beirut he wrote letters to his family, which often attempted to make Beirut sound attractive, as the idea was one day the family would join him. But even Malcolm had mixed feelings.

I often wish at odd moments that I could return to the quiet routines of UCLA and Pacific Palisades—certainly from the point of view of home and family, Sunday evening TV, Steve’s basketball games, the UCLA swimming pool, walks with Hogie, and hugs with everybody …

But not from the Meaning of Life point of view, and I cannot regret making the move.

HENRY It seems he describes most people’s meaning of life. Do you see what I mean?

ANN You’re right! You’re right! The so and so, why did he have to go over there! Of course! Nothing’s very black and white, you know?

Next time: Steve moves to Arizona to play for Lute Olson, Ann and Andrew move to Beirut to be with Malcolm.