Sunday, August 31, 2008

This Day in Criminal History (Jack The Ripper Kills First Victim)


August 31, 1888—A frightening new chapter in urban violence—and one of the great unsolved crimes in history—began in the wee hours of the morning in the Whitechapel district of London, as the body of a prostitute, Mary Ann (Polly) Nichols, was discovered—the first victim of the archetypal serial killer: Jack the Ripper.

Occurring as they did in Victorian England, the Whitechapel horrors may be a bit hard to recreate for 21st-century readers and filmgoers. In a way, it seems so quaint, like the gaslit streets in those days.

It shouldn't. To understand the climate of fear The Ripper created, remember—and my readers in the New York area who are now of a certain age won't have trouble doing this—how unnerved you felt by the "Son of Sam" in the summer of 1977. (Even his letters, taunting police with their inability to solve the case, harked back to the London correspondence in which The Ripper christened himself). Remember the criminal patterns: the location of the victims, the manner of their deaths, the evil that came out of nowhere only to strike again with sudden insistence. Remember the media trumpeting of the story.

But you can also plunge yourself into the circumstances of the Ripper case itself. Start with the mortuary photographs of the five victims who died at the Ripper's hands between August and November 1888 in London’s East End--if you dare. The photos are gray, almost ghostly, but the faces register tumultuous shock and, as time went on, greater and greater mutilation.

As time goes on, with more and more scientific techniques, literary deconstruction, etc., the number of theories proliferate. On one of the more comprehensive Websites devoted to the event, the “Casebook,” I counted no less than 21 suspects, including, of all people, Alice in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll!
A couple of years ago, a new, composite electronic photograph was even produced of what was deemed “the most likely suspect.” (See the photo accompanying this post.) Hmmm… Somehow I doubt this is going to end the speculation about his identity...

Establishing a Pattern

I’m not sure why fiction writers have gone to such extraordinary lengths to reinvent the facts of the case. In actuality, even the physical environment in the immediate hours before the first murder was ominous. Heavy, incessant rain, accompanied by thunder and lightning, blanketed Whitechapel the night before—adding to the desperate circumstances of 44-year-old Polly Nichols.

Nichols was already on the downslope of a profession that, then as now, had no use for the aging. Her brown hair was turning gray; five front teeth were missing; and others were slightly discolored. A turbulent marriage had ended several years before when her husband was able to demonstrate in court that his wife was a hooker.

In the grip of alcoholism, Polly was running through all her last chances, having stolen money in a job as a domestic servant in which she’d been placed by a social agency, then being kicked out of her lodging house because she couldn’t produce enough “doss money” (slang for the money for a night’s lodging). Never mind, she said: “See what a jolly bonnet I’ve got now.” At 2:30 a.m. she told a friend she’d met by chance that she’d drunk away her doss money already three times that night, but she’d find a way to get it soon.

She never had the chance. Sometime between 3:15 a.m, when two policemen passing separately along Buck’s Row noticed nothing unusual, and a half hour later, when the body was discovered, Nichols was murdered. Whoever did it, the coroner’s report concluded, the results were brutal: “A circular incision…completed severed all the tissue down to the vertebrae. The large vessels of the neck on both sides were severed....”—and a lot more in this vein.

Remembering the Ripper in Fact, Fiction and Film

Much like another media phenomenon, the sinking of the Titanic, Jack the Ripper has inspired all kinds of studies. In a few months, there’s even going to be a conference on him, held in, of all places, Knoxville, Tenn. (a most unlikely setting for violence, it seems to me—the only things that get murdered down there with any regularity are cheating-hearts ballads by Hank Williams wannabees).

Just how much the case has sunk into the modern consciousness is revealed by this fact I discovered from the Internet Movie Database Web site: There have been no less than 52 films or teleplays that have dealt with The Ripper. They include some obscure TV shows that, if they're likely, will turn up periodically for cable (recycled trash TV—what a great way to save the planet!).

Other treatments, however, are at least intriguing, often deeply satisfying—and even classic:

A) "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper"

As a teenager, I came across this short story in a crime anthology. By chance a few years later, I discovered what seemed even then a rather old TV adaptation of this. Several factors made the original story and the adaptation worthwhile:

1) The story was written by Robert Bloch, who achieved fame more than a decade later for penning the novel on which Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho was based. Like fellow horror-suspense practitioner Richard Matheson, Bloch did much of his best work at mid-century, starting out in pulp publications, graduating to novels, and dabbling in TV series to pay the bills. Bloch’s fiendishly clever tale, set in Chicago in 1943 (the same year in which the piece was published), follows a London detective and an associate, John Carmody, who believe that The Ripper, 55 years after the Whitechapel murders, has turned up in the Windy City.
2) Bloch was inspired to write this story (which, if this essay by Eduardo Zinna is to be believed, was "the first modern work of fiction in t he English language to call him by his trade name") by the fact that the killer had christened himself in a letter to a news agency. "I was fascinated," Bloch wrote in his autobiography, "by the phrasing the murderer used for self-identification and upon due reflection, realized that these five words could constitute both the title and the plot of a short story."
3) Bloch saves his best stroke for the last line, one of those trick endings that make you re-read everything that came before it to see if it coheres (it does).
4) In 1961, an episode of the TV series Thriller (is this where Michael Jackson got the title?) aired, an adaptation of Bloch's story written by one "Barre Lyndon." (It sounds to me like a pseudonym for a scribe disgruntled by what had been done to his handiwork—though IMDB lists "Alfred Edgar" as an alternative name. Maybe that's a pseudonym, too--aren't the Edgars awards for best mysteries of the year?) The British detective chasing the modern Ripper was the familiar British character actor John Williams; the director was, of all people, Ray Milland. (I guess film work was getting scarcer for a former Hollywood leading man who was now struggling with a receding hairline.)
5) More than two decades after this short story, an episode of Star Trek, “Wolf in the Fold,” aired in which the suspect in a Ripper-style crime was chief engineer Scotty. (No, he didn't do it. I'm not even going to dignify that twist by calling this comment a "Spoiler Alert." Only an idiot could think good ‘ol Scotty could have done the foul deed!) The author of the teleplay was—natch!--Robert Bloch.

B) "The Lodger"

I don’t know why I’ve never gotten around either to reading the original mystery novel on which this was based, by Marie Belloc-Lowndes (sister of British man of letters Hilaire Belloc), nor the 1926 Alfred Hitchcock adaptation, his first thriller. Well, one of these days I will!

The story itself sounds irresistible: an elderly couple, fallen on hard times, are glad to take in a lodger who appears to be a gentleman. For a long time, they’re willing to put up with his little oddities, such as carrying around a long, brown bag and conducting all kind of “scientific experiments.” Still, there’s something about him…

I’m not at all surprised that Hitchcock directed this. It wasn’t just because one of his later films (Frenzy) concerns a modern Jack the Ripper type, or that two of his finest films (Psycho and Shadow of a Doubt) gradually peel away the criminal chaos lurking beneath a seemingly normal exterior. No, as Donald Spoto noted in his biography The Dark Side of Genius, Hitchcock had been addicted to sensational crimes as a Cockney youngster in London. I’ll bet he couldn’t wait to read everything he could get his hands on concerning the Ripper.

C) “From Hell”

I’m not a fan of this Hughes Brothers film, even though it’s interesting to see Johnny Depp try out a variation on the moody Victorian outsider that he later assayed, to Oscar-nominated effect, in Sweeney Todd. The problems are twofold: a) Heather Graham is miscast as Irish prostitute Mary Kelly, and b) The violence, though necessary, is still way over the top.

The film holds interest because of its source material, one of the “graphic novels” that Hollywood has turned to increasingly over the last decade. Film has been, from the inception of this communication form, an image-centered genre, with dialogue and story decidedly subservient. (Not too many people can remember the plots of Josef von Sternberg’s Hollywood collaborations with Marlene Dietrich, but more than a few people can recall her electrifying look from Blonde Venus.) Directors, however, have turned to the graphic novel as a new form of film noir, including such movies as The Road to Perdition, Sin City, and 300.

D) “Murder by Decree”

In an essay in Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies, British historian David Cannadine undercuts any claims for the theory of the Ripper offered by this film, which took its thesis from Stephen Knight’s Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution. So don’t watch the film with any belief that you’re watching, God forbid, historical fact—though, to be fair, the only person who might think that any film featuring Sherlock Holmes on the trail of the Ripper could be historical would be Dan Quayle. (David Letterman had to instruct the former V-P, of course, that Murphy Brown was fictional. And he wasn’t the only politico who ever mistook a fictional character for real life: Former Gov. Hugh Carey of New York gave a speech in which he cited Miss Jane Pittman as a historically important African-American.)

No, Murder by Decree is just plain fun to watch. Forget about Professor Moriarty: History’s most elusive killer is easily the greatest adversary ever faced by history’s greatest detective. It was inevitable that somebody, somewhere, would pit the great Victorian detective – who had gotten his start, after all, shortly before the Whitechapel murders—against the killer. The notion of a great royal conspiracy to squelch the truth about royal involvement with a crime does not, at this juncture, seem so far-fetched. (Why, for instance, would Anthony Blunt remain in the royal family’s employ as Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures for 15 years after they knew of his involvement in the Cambridge spy ring—unless he had discovered something about the Duke of Windsor’s embarrassing involvement with Fascism when Blunt ferreted out materials in private German archives late in WWII?)

Watch this film, finally, for two actors at the top of their game—Christopher Plummer as Holmes and James Mason as Dr. Watson. It’s easy to understand here how Holmes and Watson became such fast friends. And for once, a film shows that the greatest detective of them all was not only possessed of a mighty brain but a mighty heart.

E) “Pandora’s Box”

The great Louise Brooks silent film about Lulu, dangerous symbol of sexuality, features Jack the Ripper in its final minutes. He becomes the force of society reaching out to punish Lulu for the unrest and destruction created when men come in contact with her. I

nitially, many felt that the American actress was completely wrong for this product of late German expressionist symbolism. Instead, Pandora’s Box became her most lasting cinematic monument—so much so that her luminous essay collection, Lulu in Hollywood, used her character’s name as an instant touchstone in selling the book.

It’s highly doubtful at this juncture whether the identity of Jack the Ripper will ever be conclusively established. It’s not just that many documents connected to the investigation have been lost over the years; it’s also that any definitive conclusion would put out of commission a virtual cottage industry of criminologists, conspiracy theories, scholars and hopeless obsessives.

Quote of the Day (Donne)

“Wilt Thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which was my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt Thou forgive that sin through which I run,
And do run still, though still I do deplore?”—John Donne, “A Hymn to God the Father”

Saturday, August 30, 2008

This Day In British History (Notting Hill Race Riots)

August 30, 1958—Post-imperial Britons, used to turning on “The Beeb” (that’s the BBC for us Yanks) and watching civil-rights unrest in the South in the United States, were shocked at the outbreak of their counterpart to “The American Dilemma,” in the Notting Hill riots.

The disturbances, some of the worst in British history, lasted a week, spreading to the nearby Notting Dale section of the city, with whites facing off against West Indian blacks who had settled in the neighborhood.

Earlier this year, I came across a Financial Times article that highlighted Notting Hill's current desirability as a London residence. That didn't surprise me—the 1999 Julia Roberts-Hugh Grant film Notting Hill, with its depiction of a haven for mild eccentrics and media-weary American movie princesses like Roberts, was practically a brochure for this part of West London. Had I worked for the local real estate association, I’d have ordered the DVD in bulk and sent it out all over the world (even if I did find it a lame comedown from screenwriter Richard Curtis’ prior triumph with Grant, Four Weddings and a Funeral).

It was a shock, then, to read in the article that a half century ago, Notting Hill was far from the trendy address that Grant’s typically befuddled but charming used-book store dealer—let alone Elle Macpherson, Stella McCartney, or Conservative candidate for Prime Minister David Camerson--would favor. What had happened a half century ago to bring about these terrible, American-style disturbances? How had the neighborhood become so fashionable in the years since?

Some months ago, watching the Tony Richardson film Look Back in Anger, I was struck by one of the scenes that had been added in the adaptation from John Osborne’s “Angry Young Man” play. Perhaps in an attempt to “open up” the stagebound plot, perhaps in an attempt to make its anti-hero more sympathetic to an American audience, Jimmy Porter (played by Richard Burton) goes to bat—ineffectually—for a Pakistani stall owner being hassled by a London cop.

Americans in 1959 might have felt a bit more sympathetic to the frustrated misogynist after seeing that. British filmgoers, however, would have been better clued into the import of the scene—an acknowledgement of the fact that the safe world of God and Country was yielding to a more desperate atmosphere. The film was released one year after the Notting Hill riots brought that realization to the fore.

London was not, of course, always an island of serenity. Dickens fans know as much, particularly if they’ve read his first historical novel, Barnaby Rudge, his tale of the Gordon anti-Catholic riots of 1780.

You might argue that race is a far different matter than religion. Religious as much as racial prejudice, however, involves transforming one group into “the other.” In contrast to the United States, Great Britain, other parts of Europe, had been racially and ethnically homogeneous through the 19th and much of the 20th century.

Despite the labor discontent that convulsed the city and the country, a common Anglo heritage provided common ground. That would change early in the postwar era, for reasons I’ll explain shortly.

The incident that set off all of this turmoil was, as these things usually are, trivial: an argument between a husband and wife at Latimer Road Tube Station, taking place on the August bank holiday for Britain. What fanned the flames of the unrest was the identity of the couple: a Swedish woman, Majbritt Morrison, and her Jamaican husband, Ray.

There already had been some tension between the neighborhood and Ray, who was involved in pimping and had had his windows smashed recently. The whites began to come to Majbritt’s defense, but she didn’t want their support. At this point, the crowd sentiment shifted decisively the other way, as she and her husband were heckled home.

The next day—Saturday the 30th—Majbritt Morrison was not only enduring insults about her involvement in a biracial relationship but also stones, glass, and even an iron bar thrown at her back. Before long, Ray’s friends became involved. Whites were forming mobs, sometimes in the hundreds, rampaging in the streets, in an orgy of beatings, glass-breaking, and fights with a suddenly overwhelmed police force. Most blacks stayed indoors during the melee, but some began to fight back with the whites.

Guess where the height of the fighting was at this point? Totobags Café, in Blenheim Crescent – today, the site of the travel bookshop where Notting Hill was filmed.

How did this all come about? Ray Morrison typified shifting racial and ethnic patterns that were unnerving Britain at this time. Labor shortages at the end of World War II led the British government to encourage immigration—first from the Continent, then, when that proved insufficient, from what were then their West Indies possessions.

The latter proved all too amenable to the advertising pitches. With the West Indies experiencing overpopulation and unemployment, more and more people from the islands—heavily young and male at first—began to stream into the U.K—125,000 strong between 1951 and 1958.

West Indians settled next to working-class whites in Notting Hill, producing culture shock on both sides. Terrified of displacement, whites reacted with typical measures born of suspicion:

· “Colour bars” that refused to serve blacks;
· “Shebeens” that spring up – illegally—to serve West Indians; and
· Housing discrimination, including signs blatantly proclaiming, “No Coloureds.”

In a BBC report broadcast earlier this week, Velma Davis, who had come to the neighborhood as a young woman from her native Trinidad only the year before, remembered the storefront signs that greeted her and others when she came: "no blacks, no Irish, no dogs, no children."

The shock on the part of West Indians was profound. Many had been educated by British colonial administrators to believe in Great Britain as the “Mother Country.” What they found obviously didn’t match these colorblind ideals. The tense atmosphere of the time was recreated in Colin MacInnes’ novel Absolute Beginners, transformed into a 1986 David Bowie film.

The riots forced a major reevaluation of British racial policy, just as protest in the U.S. did the same thing there. Britain passed its Race Relations Act in 1965 banning racial discrimination, one year after America had done so in the Civil Rights Act.

Half a century on, Notting Hill has been transformed into the home of bankers, media types and celebrities who are enchanted by the profusion of Victorian town houses. A year after the riots, blacks created the Notting Hill Carnival, now the world’s second-biggest after the one in Rio de Janeiro.

Periodically, however, disturbances have still occurred at these events, demonstrating that the insidious aftereffects of racial and class distinctions remain as ineradicable here as they are in the U.S.—or, indeed, I would argue, anywhere in the world where people come together in mass numbers to form multicultural societies.

Advice from Groucho Marx for Reading the Major Parties' Platforms

“Those are my principles, and if you don't like them... well, I have others.”

(I have not been able to track down the exact source where Groucho is supposed to have said this. But it sure sounds like something he’d say, and I've never read it attributed to anyone else. In any case, it certainly fits the situation the electorate has endured probably since the Democrats issued the first party platform in 1840: that is, promises that bear little if any relationship to the views of the party nominee, or what he (or she) might do if lucky enough to win election.)

Quote of the Day (Addison)

“It is folly for an eminent person to think of escaping censure, and a weakness to be affected by it. All the illustrious persons of antiquity, and indeed of every age, have passed through this fiery persecution. There is no defense against reproach but obscurity; it is a kind of concomitant to greatness, as satires and invectives were an essential part of a Roman triumph.”—Joseph Addison

(Wise words to remember, as Barack Obama, John McCain, Joe Biden—and now, Sarah Palin—take their lumps from what H.L. Mencken called the “Gang of Pecksniffs”—i.e., the press.)

Friday, August 29, 2008

This Day in Invention History (Zip-Pid-Dee-Doo-Dah for the “Clasp Locker”)

August 29, 1893—More often than not, a major element of modern life takes a while to evolve—and seldom more so than in the case of the humble but necessary zipper, which on this date took a step forward with the patenting of a “clasp locker.”

Millions put pants on every day without a clue how the essential mechanism that holds it together came into being. Oh, sure, we know that back in the Stone Age, some hirsute Neanderthals went around in furs that would never have made it onto anyone’s best-dressed list, sort of like the not-yet-evolved man-apes running around at the start of 2001: A Space Odyssey. But aside from that, we guys assume that this apparatus was always there. I mean, really—after George Washington had quenched his thirst with a mug of rum (his favorite drinks: rum-laced eggnog and rum punch), how was he supposed to take care of his bodily functions?

The first step toward the zipper as we know it occurred in 1851, when Elias Howe patented an “Automatic, Continuous Clothing Closure.”

A-Triple C. I love the sound of that! With a talent for snappy abbreviations, Howe might have made a great sports-page editor, conjuring up an athlete’s major qualities in pungent initials, or maybe he’d be even better as a Washington bureaucrat during the New Deal, when alphabet-soup agencies were all the rage (AAA, CCC, NRA, TVA, FCC, CWA, ad infinitum).

But instead he was a 19th-century Yankee, grimly focused on rescuing women like his wife, who had taken on sewing work in a desperate attempt to pay the family’s bills when he had become sick. He couldn’t think about the next invention when he was busy battling predators who disregarded his patent on his one for the sewing machine. So the A-Triple C would have to wait.

Fast forward 42 years. There was a guy with a back so balky that it wouldn’t let him tie his shoes. Only this guy had a Chicago buddy, Whitcomb L. Judson, who was really handy, with a dozen patents—and not just little stuff, but things like motors and railroad braking systems. If he could do so much for so many people, Judson surely realized, why couldn’t he help a pal?

So he set to work on an alternative to those lengthy, godawful shoelaces in men’s and women’s boots of the time. The result: a “clasp locker.”

“Did it work?” you ask. Well, to paraphrase a guy in the news again this week: It depends on what your definition of “work” is.

Okay, so the device—a complicated hook-and-eye fastener—jammed sometimes. I suppose, under certain circumstances, that could be considered a problem, like if you wanted to get somewhere in a hurry. Maybe that accounted for why, when Judson displayed the item at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago that year, people were curious, but not really agog. But come on—it did work well enough that Judson and his business associate, Col. Lewis Walker, sewed it into their own booths.

Still, the firm that Judson and Walker formed, Universal Fastener, didn’t really run to the races in the 16 years between the patent and Judson’s death. It took another Universal Fastener employee, a Swedish-born inventor named Gideon Sundback, to come up with a refinement.

It came about like this: The death of Sundback’s wife plunged him into a deep depression. Now, if his story had been filmed by Ingmar Bergman, the picture would have grown progressively more somber and grayer until, in the last reel, if you were still awake or not yet committed to a year’s worth of psychoanalysis, you would have noticed the light had completely gone out of the frame.

But this was the early 20th century, which took many of its precepts from American President Theodore Roosevelt, himself once a grief-stricken young widower who had gone off to the Dakotas after his wife and mother had died within 24 hours of each other.

In other words, Sundback got busy.

By 1913, he had come up with a “hookless fastener.” The device, featuring interlocking “teeth,” is pretty much the one we know today, but for a few refinements.

Which refinements? Well, like the word “zipper” itself. It came about by accident, when an executive at B.F. Goodrich, which decided to make galoshes with Sundback’s fasteners, slid the fastener up and down the boot saying, “zip ‘er up,” imitating the sound he heard—and giving birth to what was, for a time, a trademark. It wasn’t until the 1930s that the term began to be used for other kinds of apparel, spearheaded by French fashion designers acclaiming its use in men’s trousers.

At one point in the “Battle of the Fly” between the zipper and the button, Esquire Magazine even went so far as to claim that with the zipper, men would not have to experience “The Possibility of Unintentional and Embarrassing Disarray.” This, of course, was before the concept of a male wardrobe disaster had sunk into the collective consciousness.

Quote of the Day (Tocqueville—Part IV)

“In America the principle of the sovereignty of the people is neither hidden or sterile as in certain nations; it is recognized by mores, proclaimed by the laws; it spreads with freedom and reaches its final conclusion without obstacle.

If there is a single country in the world where one can hope to appreciate the dogma of the sovereignty of the people at its just value, to study it in its application to the affairs of society, and to judge its advantages and its dangers, that country is surely America.” —Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Volume One, Part One, Chapter 4, translated and edited by Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop

(Sovereignty has a long evolution, and Tocqueville’s word on the subject was by no means the end of it. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, however, has a useful working definition: “supreme authority within a territory.” In the same chapter in which he touches on the issue, Tocqueville also explains how the American Revolution thrust the concept of the sovereignty of the people outward from the township to the nation as a whole, and how the upper classes, surprisingly, hastened the new democratic order, even “in states where aristocracy had the deepest roots.”

At the end of this chapter, Tocqueville’s vision of sovereignty in the young nation takes on aphoristic force, as he beholds a phenomenon appearing from nullity to assume an overwhelming, mysterious force—reminding me of the force of God coming out of the whirlwind to speak to Job:

“The people reign over the American political world as does God over the universe. They are the cause and the end of all things; everything comes out of them and everything is absorbed into them.”

Electoral concession speeches rarely are memorable, but Walter Mondale’s, as Jimmy Carter’s running mate, in 1980 lingers in my mind. It had to have been a bitter pill to lose so badly, but Mondale did so with exceptional dignity, as he did more than two decades later in conceding the Minnesota Senate race to Norm Coleman. On the night of November 4—which turned out to be an unusually short way because of the size of the Reagan electoral landslide—Mondale told crestfallen well-wishers that the American people had “exercised their awesome power.”

Americans are about to concentrate on the race for the White House in earnest. For those disappointed in past results, it would do well to remember who has the “awesome power” of which Mondale spoke and which Tocqueville, virtually unique among snobby foreign visitors of his time, hailed
.)

Thursday, August 28, 2008

This Day in Political History (Daley Unleashes Cops on Protesters)


August 28, 1968—In Chicago, as delegates at the Democratic Convention prepared to nominate Hubert H. Humphrey for President, television viewers were stunned at what they saw from the Second City—ugly discord in the nation and in the party in charge.

Outside, in the city’s downtown, 26,000 city police and National Guardsmen, on orders of Mayor Richard Daley, cracked down on 10,000 protesters against the Vietnam War.

Inside the convention, while nominating George McGovern for President, his colleague, Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticut, noted pointedly that with the Senator from South Dakota in the Oval Office, “we wouldn’t have to have Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago!” With an irate Daley shouting back “You faker” and “Jew SOB,” Ribicoff smiled and said, “How hard it is to accept the truth.”

The convention in Chicago had consequences that would reverberate through the years:

* Students for a Democratic Society, the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (MOBE), the Youth International Party (Yippies) did not mobilize middle-class youths through the protest, as they had hoped, but annoyed the majority of the 89 million viewers to side with the cops, according to polls taken after the event.


* The protest split the old-style, blue-collar elements of the Democratic Party from the “New Left.” As journalist Mark Stricherz chronicled in Why the Democrats are Blue: Secular Liberalism and the Decline of the People's Party (2007), the Democrats decided to embrace groups that had been disenfranchised at the convention--young people, blacks, and college-educated suburbanites--with new delegate-apportioning rules. The core issues of these groups—opposition to the war, combating racism, abortion—were alien to the economic concerns that motivated the blue-collar Northern ethnic Catholics and Southern white Protestants who played key roles in the New Deal coalition.


* The man who championed these “Dutton Rules” (named for party activist Fred Dutton) was Senator McGovern, who would take the arcane nominating rules that he had helped shepherd into being and win the 1972 Democratic nomination for President in the process. That reminds me a bit of one of the funniest columns by New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, in which she noted how Dick Cheney, hired to vet George W. Bush’s Vice-Presidential selections in 2000, ended up being the running mate—sort of like a beauty-pageant judge who ends up with the tiara herself.


* The protest played into the hands of Richard Nixon, who had been making political hay all year with the notion of “crime in the streets”—and who, upon being elected President, put it in a vastly more convenient spot for him: in the Oval Office.


* The sheer messiness of the cop-authorized rampage authorized by Daley—combined with that of the 1972, Duttton Rules-dominated Democratic Convention—has led both parties to move increasingly toward the kind of boring, choreographed convention derided by David Frum in a recent Wall Street Journal article.
(This past week, the Democrats may have done the unthinkable: instead of persuading the electorate to turn out an unbelievably unpopular incumbent party, they might have bored viewers to death with umpteen repetitions of the word “change.” It's hard to produce the kind of electricity Obama did four years ago when everyone this time was not only singing from the same hymnbook, but doing so with the exact same notes.)

Although Mayor Daley despised the protesters as privileged kids, he had something in common with them that neither recognized at the time, and that is not even realized very well to this date. According to Charles Kaiser’s 1968 in America, Daley had told Bobby Kennedy already that he hated the Vietnam War.

For a particularly vivid account of these turbulent days in Chicago by an extremely interested—and uncommonly perceptive—observer, take a look at Private Faces, Public Places, by Abigail McCarthy, wife of (though, four years after the events, she was separated from) defeated candidate Eugene McCarthy.

From 1974 to 1999, Abigail McCarthy was a columnist for Commonweal, a magazine for moderate-to-liberal Catholics. Judging from her memoir, I’m sorry I didn’t read her more often while I had the chance. I doubt that even to this day whether any spouse of a major candidate has written an account so wrenchingly honest about the costs of campaigning on a candidate’s family. She knew all too well about this, having been hospitalized three times during the long primary season.

It was Abigail’s misfortune to come to Chicago after her third convalescence. If that wasn’t enough to send herback to the hospital, I don’t know what would. Especially as she relates what was happening in Grant Park as she looked out from the Hilton that day:

“From our windows we could see the menacing blue lines of police and the massing of the National Guard, the constant passing of the weird jeeps armed with front screens of flesh-tearing barbed wire….I listened in dread as the announcements from the police bullhorns bounced against the hotel walls and the refusals echoed back….With each police incident, with each person stopped and questioned, with each one shoved aside at the hotel entrances, the demonstrators in the park had more and more sympathizers in the hotel.”

One of the worst legacies of Richard Daley was an economically and racially polarized city. Miraculously, this past week witnessed an African-American sojourner who set down roots in this same city—now being led by Daley's son Richard—who won the nomination of his party, at a convention far more peaceful than the one that convulsed the City of Broad Shoulders 40 years ago to the day.

Quote of the Day (Tocqueville—Part III)

“It is not the use of power or the habit of obedience that depraves men, but the use of power that they consider illegitimate, and obedience to a power they regard as usurped and oppressive.”-- Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Volume One, Introduction, translated and edited by Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Quote of the Day (Tocqueville—Part II)

“Most Catholics are poor, and they need all citizens to govern in order to come to government themselves. Catholics are in the minority, and they need all rights to be respected to be assured of the free exercise of theirs. These two causes drive them even without their knowing it toward political doctrines that they would perhaps adopt with less eagerness if they were wealthy
and predominant.

The Catholic clergy of the United States has not tried to struggle against this political tendency; rather, it seeks to justify it. Catholic priests in America have divided the intellectual world into two parts: in one, they have left revealed dogmas, and they submit to them without discussing them; in the other, they have placed political truth, and they think that God has abandoned it to the free inquiries of men. Thus Catholics in the United States are at once the most submissive of the faithful and the most independent of citizens.”—Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Volume One, Part Two, Chapter 9, translated and edited by Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop

(Tocqueville’s observation was written before the Irish Potato Famine drove thousands to the U.S., placing before the U.S. an unprecedented dilemma of how to assimilate into the polity so many economically disadvantaged. It also exacerbated latent anti-Catholic feelings in a country largely descended at the time from British Protestants. It took more than a century before John F. Kennedy could overcome that—though the question of the “free exercise” of religion, and its place in the public school, remains as vexed as ever more than 170 years after Tocqueville wrote.)

This Day in Television History (Stempel Takes Down Quiz Show Industry)


August 27, 1958—Herbert Stempel, former champion on the TV quiz show “Twenty-One,” seething over the popularity of the man who unseated him, Charles Van Doren, told Manhattan prosecutor Joe Stone that the show was fixed. The charge started a series of revelations that were like acid raining pouring on the game show history—slow, inexorable, a stain on the reputation of the television industry.

Van Doren’s memoir of the scandal, printed last month in The New Yorker, held special interest for me, and not merely due to the fact that I’d seen the “American Experience” special and Robert Redford docudrama Quiz Show based on those events. The legend of his father, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who taught the likes of Thomas Merton and Jack Kerouac, left residual luster for the English Department when I entered Columbia University in 1978. The whole family, it seems, had some kind of connection to the school: Charles himself was an English instructor there at the time he rocketed to fame and notoriety; uncle Carl had been on the faculty before leaving to become a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer; and Charles’ son and nephew would both graduate from the college in the 1980s.

The blogger of My Open Wallet has an interesting analysis of Van Doren’s piece. Van Doren’s downfall, she believes, was “tied to a desire for money”—something she can’t understand, given that he came from a privileged background. As fine as her piece is, though, I believe it misses the point. Whatever money Charles received from his father, it would not have been through his own efforts.

The issue of identity, I think, was crucial here. As an instructor, Charles was so overshadowed by his father that even his own students didn’t take much notice of his celebrity on Twenty-One.

Or consider what to me is the most artfully constructed scene in the piece—his springtime walk down a country road with his father. The scene and the accompanying dialogue set up something out of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”—an alternative path not pursued, ushering in a lifetime of regrets.

As Charles recalls the scene, his father was dressed “in overalls, denim shirt, and boots, like the farmers he was descended from.” Tellingly, this was “the father I loved best,” not the elegant, erudite academic he could never match on the turf of Morningside Heights.

Had Charles Van Doren’s account been written before Quiz Show, it would have provided screenwriters—and the marvelous Paul Scofield, playing his father—with wonderful elliptical dialogue, practically Jamesian in its undertones, as father and son find a lifetime of questions hanging between them but no way to resolve them, especially this one: “You know, I’ve never been certain you wanted to live my life over again—be a professor at Columbia or anywhere.”

New York Times blogger Stanley Fish takes issue with this same reserve, asking why Van Doren did not confront the issues that readers had on their minds: “Why did you do it? What was going on in your mind? What about the moral issues?” Fish seems to have missed a key point, something strongly implied in the country road scene between Charles and Mark: Father and son came from a time far removed from our own, before the Oprah-Larry King culture of going on national talk shows for absolution.

I did like another aspect of the piece: its reminder that, despite television’s attempt to drive the game-show hosts off the air, certain aspects of so-called “reality shows” hark bark to the worst aspects of the game shows: the distortion of real people into more conflict characters; the manipulative music; the willingness to bend people to her purposes.
Van Doren reminds us, for instance, not just about the grubby ways that the producers of the show used to manipulate appearance (e.g., long, drawn-out answers, a contestant's patting his brow in the hot glass booths) but the more subtle but outrageous distortions of reality (Herb Stempel wasn't a down-on-his-luck City College student but a married man whose wife, wearing a Persian lamb-coat, had to be shooed from the set to avoid blowing his cover).

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

This Day in Literary History (Jack London Ends Seal-Hunting Adventure)


August 26, 1893—Seventeen-year old Jack London landed in San Francisco after a seven-month seal-hunting expedition that inspired much of his later fiction—and that brought to the surface the weakness for alcohol that would probably contribute to his death 43 years later.

In thinking of London, what sprang to my mind first was his Klondike fiction. You know what I mean—The Call of the Wild, White Fang, and that most terrifying of short stories, “To Build a Fire.” But I’d forgotten about an equally famous book set in a different environment: The Sea Wolf, the genesis of which may have begun when London heard, while on board the Sophie Sutherland from California to Japan, about a ship’s captain whose murderous tyranny over his men would later suggest that of Wolf Larsen.

That novel, like so much of his other work, reflects London’s obsession with the struggle for existence—one that he was living in a real way as a teenager, when his jobs, in short order, included oyster pirate, fish patrolman, seaman, jute-mill and power plant coal-shoveler. London’s hope to end his days as a “work beast” led him to embrace socialism.

Yet that same belief in Social Darwinism—that some men are destined to lose, and deservedly so, in that struggle—led him to a position that, given his otherwise radical record, sounds at first off-putting to his admirers, then so downright embarrassing that it needs to be “set in context,” excused, muttered into oblivion. For London, you see, was racist.

It’s a bit of a surprise to read literary scholars saying that the attitudes of London’s characters should not be taken as his own; that one should distinguish between London’s “racialism” (the belief that races possessed characteristics that determined their behavior and achievements) and society’s “racism” (the belief that such characteristics rightly consigned these groups to degradation or discrimination); and that in writing about race, London was merely, as a professional writer needing to make a buck, giving the readers of his day what they wanted. Doesn’t sound like much of an intellectual hero to me. How about you, faithful reader?

All of this sounds like empty rationalizations when placed against London’s New York Herald column on the 1908 fight in which Jack Johnson beat Tommy Burns to become the first African-American heavyweight champion. “He was a white man and so am I,” London wrote of Burns:

“Naturally I wanted to see the white man win. Put the case to Johnson and ask him if he were the spectator at a fight between a white man and a black man which he would like to see win. Johnson's black skin will dictate a desire parallel to the one dictated by my white skin."

Comments such as those went a long way toward creating the popular groundswell for a “Great White Hope” that would put Johnson “back in his place.”

I wonder what the racial attitudes were on board the vessels of the time that contributed to this virulent attitude. After all, in Moby Dick, the crew of the Pequod is a multiracial society that has joined together on its quest for the white whale.

London also began to show signs of a thirst for alcohol that he would write about nearly 20 years later in John Barleycorn. A long midnight swim from Yokahoma to the Sophie Sutherland, anchored a mile out in the harbor, became the basis for an essay he published when he returned (briefly) to high school in Oakland in 1895.


Though some opposing theories have been put forth in recent years over the cause of London’s death, a leading one continues to be suicide, the final manifestation of extreme behavior that might have first come to the surface in that midnight swim on the seal-hunting expedition that London and his shipmates thought had made a man of him.

Quote of the Day (Tocqueville—Part I)

“To a stranger all the domestic controversies of the Americans at first appear to be incomprehensible or puerile, and he is at a loss whether to pity a people who take such arrant trifles in good earnest or to envy that happiness which enables a community to discuss them.

But when he comes to study the secret propensities that govern the factions of America, he easily perceives that the greater part of them are more or less connected with one or the other of those two great divisions which have always existed in free communities. The deeper we penetrate into the inmost thought of these parties, the more we perceive that the object of the one is to limit and that of the other to extend the authority of the people.

I do not assert that the ostensible purpose or even that the secret aim of American parties is to promote the rule of aristocracy or democracy in the country; but I affirm that aristocratic or democratic passions may easily be detected at the bottom of all parties, and that, although they escape a superficial observation, they are the main point and soul of every faction in the United States.”—Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835

(I confess only to channel-surfing through part of the 1993 remake of Born Yesterday, because Melanie Griffith, Don Johnson and John Goodman could in no way measure up to the actors who originally played their characters—Judy Holliday, William Holden and Broderick Crawford. But one sequence from the remake stood out for me. It came when Nora Dunn, playing a journalist, asks Griffith if she’d actually read Alexis de Tocqueville. The point of the scene soon becomes apparent: More people quote Tocqueville than actually read him.

A couple of years later, with the book’s reputation as a classic—and this film sequence’s satiric point—still in mind, I bought a copy of this political science lodestar, intending to read it when I got the time. Well, it’s 700 pages, and I still haven’t gotten through the whole thing. But if I could make it through
Ulysses and Anna Karenina eventually, I know I can make it through this shorter, pre-modernist title.

The Democratic and Republican conventions this week and next offer a good pretext for reading this 19th-century French observer of America. During his tour of America, he interviewed Andrew Jackson, well settled into his first term as President, where he had inaugurated a new, non-deferential style of American politics, as well as the embittered candidate he had defeated, former President John Quincy Adams, a man derided for stiffness who, in turn, viewed his opponent as an ignoramus. In certain respects, it’s possible to see a contemporary counterpart for them in George W. Bush and Al Gore.

From what I have gleaned from
Democracy in America so far, Tocqueville discovered much that remains true about America even today—including its preference for practicality over theory in politics, the place of private institutions in this country, and the contradictions in a polity that valued the common man and yet came nowhere close in its race relations to fulfilling its egalitarian ideals.

Was it Mark Twain who defined a classic as a book that nobody reads? Maybe. But from what I’ve read so far, I can gather more about the American experience and the nature of the people who create it from Tocqueville than from the Democratic and Republican Party platforms
.)

Monday, August 25, 2008

This Day in Film History (Selznick Lands Gable as Rhett Butler)


August 25, 1938 – Producer David O. Selznick took the first crucial step on the long road to Tara by signing Clark Gable for the role of Rhett Butler in the adaptation of Gone With the Wind (GWTW). Securing the services of the “King of Hollywood,” however, required giving Gable’s studio, MGM—the same company ruled by Selznick’s father-in-law, Louis B. Mayer—distribution rights and 50% of the profits.

Selznick’s own contract as an independent producer with United Artists required that they had the right to distribute all his films from 1938. This meant, in effect, that principal shooting for GWTW could not begin until 1939. By that time, Selznick would be shepherding three films through one stage of production or another—GWTW, Intermezzo, with the new young Scandinavian star Ingrid Bergman, and Rebecca, with the eccentric but extraordinary new director he’d just hired from England, Alfred Hitchcock.

Imagine that—three high-profile projects, all under the watchful eye of a perfectionist whose memos on every aspect of a production took forever for their recipients to read. To accomplish all of this, you could be a) a master at organization, b) filled with tremendous natural energy, and/or c) really hopped up on drugs.

I don’t think a) comes into play here – anybody who focuses on every tiny detail would not, most management consultants would say, really be well organized. But Selznick was certainly b) and c). He carried Benzedrine, his medication of choice, in his trouser pockets and even passed it around to production assistants.

All of the readers of Margaret Mitchell’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Civil War novel had definite ideas of how the book should be filled. One was silent-film “America’s Sweetheart” Mary Pickford, who, off the screen, was far shrewder than the innocent characters she once played. She urged that Selznick sign Margaret Sullivan for Scarlett and Clark Gable for Rhett.

There had been talk bruited about getting Warner Brothers' Errol Flynn for Rhett, but the choice of America’s fans was, overwhelmingly, Gable. You really have to be a habitual watcher of Turner Classic Movies, where you can get an idea of his full output, to understand the hold he had on American moviegoers in the 1930s. If you were on the set of a movie and he liked you, the impression he could set off was palpable. The max exuded sheer magnetism.

But if he didn’t take to you…Woe betide. Frank Capra nearly found this out on the set of It Happened One Night, before he got the star to relax and trust him. George Cukor, the initial director of GWTW, was not so fortunate. Within one week after Gable had arrived on the set, the star’s annoyance began to set in. When Selznick got a look at the dailies, the inevitable clash occurred, and Cukor was out. A pity, too: he and Selznick, though they had worked well together on David Copperfield, would never collaborate on another film again.

In the closing months of 1938, unable to start shooting in any meaningful way, Selznick decided to take the time to concentrate on securing the ideal Scarlett. That story of endless screen tests --and who knows how many hissy fits flying between starlets and their beleaguered agents--is one for the metaphorical tomorrow—which, as we all know by now, is another day.

Song Lyrics of the Day (Ira and George Gershwin)

“Love is sweeping the country!
Waves are hugging the shore;
All the sexes
From Maine to Texas
Have never known such love before.”—“Love Is Sweeping the Country,” from Of Thee I Sing, book by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, lyrics by Ira Gershwin, music by George Gershwin)

(The citation above corrects a slight error in the headline—George Gershwin did not, of course, write the lyrics to this musical, but I’ve decided to redress the wrong done him by the Pulitzer Prize committee when they awarded his collaborators the Pulitzer Prize but not him. To their way of thinking, only the words counted. Well, it wasn’t the first time that the board made a mistake, and it surely won’t be the last.

Opening on Broadway in 1931,
Of Thee I Sing was the first musical comedy ever to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Several years ago, I hunted down, at the Paley Center for Media in New York, a 1972 TV version of the show, featuring, among others, Carroll O’Connor, Cloris Leachman, Jack Gilford, Ted Knight, and David Doyle. The show was broadcast on CBS, and when you look at the actors and consider their backgrounds, the most obvious qualification of many of them was that they were stars of then-popular series on the “Tiffany Network.” Of all the actors, the one who came off the best was Michele Lee—not surprisingly, as she had achieved fame on Broadway in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Amazingly, no movie has ever been made of this landmark musical—the Marx Brothers toyed with the idea, only to go with another script, Duck Soup. So the CBS show, for better or worse, is what we have to put up with. I can’t wait until I have the chance to see another version of this musical.

For years, the most relevant part of the show was the character of Alexander Throttlebottom, whose name became synonymous with Vice-Presidents who do nothing but attend funerals in the name of the President. That hasn’t been as much the case since Jimmy Carter made Walter Mondale a significant player in his administration. Over the last decade, however, a more surprising point of similarity was noticed: the President in the musical, John P. Wintergreen, who won the election on a platform of “love,” is sued by a young Southern lady, triggering the threat of impeachment proceedings.

This week, as the Democrats gather in Denver—and later, when the Republicans convene in St. Paul--it’s not a bad idea to remember the acid truths of the Kaufman-Ryskind-Gershwin musical, which showed, in the midst of the darkness of the Great Depression, that chuckling about politics can be as healthy for the battered American psyche as singing
.)

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Museum Review: "Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition," Carnegie Science Center, Pittsburgh


At the beginning of the month, my brother John and I visited this exhibition (which, incidentally, runs through September 1). The centennial of the doomed ship's sinking is only a few years away now, but so many are still fascinated by it, as demonstrated once again by the throngs who lined up with us to pass through this traveling exhibition.

If you're not a member of the museum, you'll pay $20 to see the exhibition—and that price does not allow you to see anything else in the Carnegie. (Even museum membership only gets you $6 off that price.) Particularly if you're bringing family members, you might as well pay Titanic-style accommodation costs, while you're at it! (We'll get to those latter costs in a moment.)

But, since the supposedly “unsinkable” luxury liner had as one of its passengers a grandaunt of ours (whom I discussed in a prior blog post), my brother and I felt we had to see this exhibition while it was in town (and equally important, while I was). We had our issues with the museum’s pricing structure in this case (don’t even get us started!). But after the exhibition, when all was said and done, we had better understood what our grandaunt, Hannah Riordan Spollen, had experienced as a 22-year-old woman on that terrifying maiden—and final—voyage.

I’ve read several books and watched several movies on the Titanic (including, yes, the blockbuster that induced thousands of Japanese teenage girls to attend “Leo Cry Parties”). But seeing the 260 artifacts on display culled, culled from over 5,500 recovered between 1987 and 2004, puts the catastrophe in a far different light than I’d ever known before.

But let’s get back to that issue of price, okay? No, not the museum’s—the boat’s. The exhibition confirmed, in pretty dramatic fashion, one of the truest aspects of James Cameron’s much-hyped multi-Oscar extravaganza: that class reigned supreme on the boat. My grandaunt and other third-class passengers paid about $30—over $600 in today’s currency—while a “deluxe first-class ticket” would have cost $48,000.

Upon entering the exhibition, my brother and I were each given a replica boarding pass for an actual passenger. At the end of the exhibition, we and other exhibition attendees got to see whether our passenger survived the trip.

I was delighted with my “passenger,” even though I already knew he had gone down with the ship. The poor fellow was triply unfortunate—not only the bearer of the name Archibald Butt, not only one of the ship’s victims, but an eyewitness, as a military aide at the White House, to another ongoing disaster he was powerless to avert—the split between his original employer, Theodore Roosevelt, and the latter’s handpicked successor-turned-rival, William Howard Taft. (We’ll see if President Medvedev of Russia disagrees with the predecessor who picked him, Vladimir Putin. If Vlad the Invader takes such policy divergence as personally as T.R., the danger to their country will be considerably graver than it was to the Republicans in 1912, who only lost control of the White House for eight years.)

I’ve been fascinated by Major Butt ever since hearing about him in the American Presidency seminar I took at Columbia University with Professor Henry Graff, who told us that the unfortunate major’s correspondence represented an important source of information on the Roosevelt-Taft split.


The military aide’s fate proved crucial in the aftermath of the sinking. The owners of the vessel, the White Star Line, stonewalled when pressed for details of the disaster, even after the President specifically wired for news about Butt. Their intransigence incensed the normally good-humored Taft, who then eagerly assented to a congressional hearing into the disaster that caused heart palpitations for White Star.

It’s become the fashion these days at museums to put out items that can be touched. A popular example at the Titanic exhibition was a simulated iceberg cooled to the same temperature of the water during the “Night to Remember.” People smiled as they touched the big ‘berg—though you can bet that nobody kept their hand on it for too long. You can definitely understand after that tactile experience why many more passengers on the ship died of hypothermia rather than drowning.

Now, as to the pieces themselves—they’ve been recovered rather than restored. That is to say, what you see is pretty much how the artifacts looked after being drudged from the North Atlantic floor. Remarkably, a set of perfume bottles even survived virtually intact. Each item, in its own way, tells a story—of the survivor/victim to whom it belonged, of the ship culture of the time, and of the larger society.

I wish the exhibition could have focused more on the reasons why the ship capsized. (A new theory, promulgated by TV deep-sea divers John Chatterton and Richie Kohler in the upcoming book Titanic’s Last Secrets, by Brad Madsen, holds that the ship had fatal flaws even before it set sail—including weak expansion joints and not enough lifeboats—and that it was therefore vulnerable when it grounded on the iceberg, scraping the bottom of the hull and opening another hull.)

Quote of the Day (Lewis)

"Faith, in the sense in which I am here using the word, is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods.... Make sure that, if you have once accepted Christianity, then some of its main doctrines shall be deliberately held before your mind for some time every day. That is why daily prayers and religious reading and churchgoing are necessary parts of the Christian life.”—C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Quote of the Day (Pascal)

“When we come across a natural style, we are surprised and delighted; for we expected an author, and we find a man.”—Blaise Pascal

Friday, August 22, 2008

This Day in Rock History (Mike T. Sees “The Boss” at MSG)


August 22, 1978—Less than a week before going off to Columbia University for freshman disorientation, I finally saw the musical hero of my high school years. On that Tuesday, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band played the second concert in a three-night engagement at Madison Square Garden. His first headline engagement at the Garden, the gig came in the middle of what many fans of “The Boss” still revere as the pivotal tour of his storied career.

How can I make that claim, given the successive triumphs he’s had live over the years? It wasn’t just fan nostalgia for their (and my) bygone youth—it was the singer’s need to reconnect with his true believers following a year-long lawsuit, even to expand that base, that was unique in the annals of Brucedom:

* He was trying to prove that he wasn’t just the product of record company hype as the “New Dylan,” that he’d be around for longer than the Bay City Rollers or even Peter Frampton, two other much-hyped musicians of the mid-‘70s;
* He was moving back toward larger arenas—a move he had shunned for three years under his former manager; and
* He was relaunching his career after an extraordinarily bitter breakup and lawsuit with his original manager and producer, Mike Appel.

As I look online at a ticket stub for that event, showing that orchestra seats were just $9, I wonder if my mind is playing tricks on me. Prices couldn’t have been that low then!


Maybe I don’t remember it because I was caught up in value—the money’s worth that Springsteen delivered that memorable night. He was a brother in spirit to Yankee slugger Joe DiMaggio, who, when asked why he always played with abandon on the field, replied: “Because there might be a kid out there who’s never seen me play before.”

After waiting in our upper-tier seats for a half hour, my older brother and I leaped to our feet as the E Street Band came onstage around 8:30 pm. With the roar of the crowd cascading around them, their short, wiry leader strode to the microphone and asked, “Have you heard the news?” A pause, then more insistently: “Have you heard the news?” Suddenly, he and the band launched into their all-stops-out cover version of Elvis Presley’s “Good Rockin’ Tonight.”

I was acclimating myself to the sonic assault when The Boss upped the ante on what this song would mean for me. “I want you to bring along my rockin' shoes,/'Cause tonight I'm gonna rock away all my blues,” he promised. For the next four amazing hours, my fears—my blues—would be rocked away, too, in what Springsteen once called “the rush moment you live for.” Like everyone else in that capacity crowd, I was wrapped up in that “rush moment” with him.

That night, I understood, because I was living it, why the legend of Bruce was so tied up overwhelmingly with his live performances. A record’s grooves were a wholly inadequate vessel for containing his primal energy.

As exhilarating as “Good Rockin’ Tonight” was, nothing could prepare me for “Badlands,” not even two months of daily listening to the album it anchored, Darkness on the Edge of Town. “Badlands” wasn’t a song, it was an anthem, a summons to reject the “in-betweens,” proof positive that “it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.” And, finally loosened from the Appel legal tar baby, he was ready to reclaim the title he’d set down unwillingly for what seemed an eternity—“a king ain’t satisfied till he rules everything.” Elvis was dead; long live The Boss!

In that 22-song set, 13 tunes lasted more than five minutes, calling on reserves that no other musician in my memory has ever surpassed. My friend Brian remarked, two years later, after seeing him in another concert with me: “The man’s got to be on speed.”

I prefer another explanation. “The ocean was something then,” Burt Lancaster said in the film Atlantic City—and so was Springsteen, likewise a force of nature, unstoppable.

It was the right moment for him, and for us. Nearly two decades later, he remembered in an interview that those four-hour marathons-cum-rock ‘n’ roll revival shows might have lasted so long because they filled an emptiness in his life—one that, since then, had been eliminated by second wife (and backup singer) Patti Scialfa and their children. Not surprisingly, given that he wanted to be with his kids (and sure, advancing age), he cut back to only about 2 1/2 hours when I saw him in the Meadowlands in the '92 tour in support of Human Touch and Lucky Town, No matter—he gave it his all years before, and we were all young enough to go to the wee small hours of the morning, too.

I could go on and on about the way that Springsteen reworked songs everyone thought they knew by heart, such as “She’s the One”; of the unexpected pleasures of an entirely new instrumental, the giddily exuberant “Paradise by the C”; of the interplay with The Big Man, Clarence Clemons; even of how, in the final song, “Quarter to Three,” he snatched a young woman from the audience, carried her to the microphone, and shouted to the delighted crowd, “This is my little sister!” (That would be Pamela, who later appeared in Fast Times at Ridgemont High and dated its star, Sean Penn.)

But let’s just say this: Five years after the heyday of Clyde, Willis, Dollar Bill and Dave D, the Garden had found another champion—and one that wouldn’t be retiring anytime soon. My brother had to practically carry me out of the Garden, but at least I was as delirious as much as exhausted.

Several years ago, a friend of mine told me about one day when she was working at a video store down by the Jersey Shore. A coworker had given her an unusually heavy number of videos to file away. “You did it again!” my friend told the co-worker. “Why do you always do this to me?”

My friend went on and on for a minute in this fashion, while the co-worker motioned for her to stop, even motioning as if to indicate that there was something behind her she might want to be aware of. “What?” my friend asked, in exasperation. “What???”

At this, she finally turned around, only to encounter The Boss, having taken in every word of her tirade. My friend practically reeled at the sight of him.

“I always like it when someone earns what they work hard for,” the rock ‘n’ roll bard of the common man said at last, grinning like a Cheshire cat.

The Boss certainly worked hard on August 22, 1978. I’m convinced that that night, and the other two, before and after, changed his life. It did mine.

Quote of the Day (Alfred E. Smith)

“Upon the steps of this Capitol, where twenty-five years ago I first came into the service of the State, I receive my party's summons to lead it in the nation. Within this building, I learned the principles, the purposes and the functions of government and to know that the greatest privilege that can come to any man is to give himself to a nation which has reared him and raised him from obscurity to be a contender for the highest office in the gift of its people.”—New York Governor Alfred E. Smith, speech accepting the Democratic Party nomination for President, at the State Capitol, Albany, N.Y., August 22, 1928

(In popular memory, Al Smith is remembered nowadays as the first Catholic ever to win a major party nomination for President; as a failed candidate swamped by Herbert Hoover in an electoral landslide; and as the New York governor superseded by his friend-turned-rival, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Nothing sums that up better than a scene in the otherwise very fine cable TV biopic of FDR’s struggle with polio, Warm Springs, showing Smith—puffing away on a cigar, every inch a pol in a smoke-filled room—dismissing any future threat from FDR with the suggestion that by the next election, he’d probably be dead anyway.

But “The Happy Warrior” deserves far better, as one of the most innovative politicians in American history—indeed, as the one who pointed the way toward the New Deal, starting with his work in the New York State Assembly ensuring workplace safety following the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911, then during his own terms as governor.

The best short account I know of Smith is contained in a long chapter in Robert A. Caro’s epic biography of Smith’s parks commissioner, Robert Moses
, The Power Broker.

But if you’d like a visceral idea of his charm—of why people warmed to him—then I’d recommend that you watch the “Up From City Streets” episode in the TV documentary The Irish in America: The Long Journey Home. Though in certain ways that four-part series could only do the most superficial justice to a complex history, this episode concentrates in fascinating detail on Smith, recreating his career with the help of rarely seen newsreels—including one of the politician singing what became his 1928 campaign theme, “The Sidewalks of New York.”

Next month, I’ll have more to say—MUCH more—on one particular aspect of Smith’s failed campaign: his courageous confrontation in Oklahoma with the vitriolic anti-Catholic smears launched against him. Despite the differences between his time and ours, it parallels, in unmistakable ways, the current rancid Internet campaign against Barack Obama as a “Marxist Moslem.” Think about that last phrase for a half hour and, at that end of that time, please tell me if you’ve ever heard of another such person. I’ll bet you haven’t. That’s because it’s a contradiction in terms.

But for now, I’m going to confine myself to one particular aspect of Smith’s campaign: radio. Smith’s 1929 autobiography,
Up to Now, takes note of the impact of radio on his Presidential campaign—and, indeed, this was the first convention acceptance speech ever broadcast in this still relatively new medium, as well as the first TV news event, though THAT technology was so new that the candidate probably didn’t even understand how to discuss it.

Let’s see how Smith viewed the wireless telegraph and its effect on politics: “Radio replaces the antiquated method of attempting to circularize the electorate by the mailing of speeches of acceptance and of debates. A large part of these documents was always wasted. Nothing makes such an impression on a person as the spoken word. Oratory and the power of speech will always be effective.”

Spoken like a Tammany Hall tactician. Certainly correct in its way, but still…Limiting.

For Smith and FDR, radio was like paint—but while the former viewed it in a utilitarian light, the latter used it like an artist. Smith knew the value of radio, but with traces of his Lower East Side background as proudly displayed as his brown derby, the candidate only knew
what radio could do. Roosevelt understood how to use it. Smith was like a house painter who knew a nice color would make a building more attractive to buyers; Roosevelt was a Michelangelo who could inspire awe by dipping into the full spectrum of tone colors in his voice.

There were undoubtedly times in the 1930s when Smith deeply resented how this mastery enabled the man who nominated him for President in 1924 beat him to the Oval Office in 1932. But by the beginning of the 1940s, as Hitler mobilized Germany for war with mesmerizing radio oratory, the bitter former candidate might have understood that FDR’s mastery of the same medium enabled him to rally the free world against the Nazi terror. The two former New York governors had reconciled by the time of Smith’s death in 1944
. Smith's 1928 convention speech not only pointed toward a new means of communication in politics, but a new understanding of the role of government--one that, after 20 years of experimentation with unregulated markets, we are learning all over again.)

Thursday, August 21, 2008

This Day in Presidential History (JFK’s East German Mistress-Spy)


August 21, 1963—Justice Department officials quietly but hastily deported Ellen Rometsch, a 27-year-old brunette from East Germany, in an attempt to prevent disclosure of possibly the most explosive secret of President John F. Kennedy: his sexual involvement with an alleged Communist spy.

I learned about this scandal in two of the more substantial, less gossip-ridden histories of the Kennedy years: Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63, by Taylor Branch, and The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Khrushchev, 1960-1963, by Michael Beschloss. Branch and Beschloss write vividly but carefully from oral history memoirs and primary sources, with a view of the President that is sober and balanced. In other words, they have produced neither hagiographies nor anti-Camelot screeds, earning credibility in their accounts of this episode.

Who was Ellen Rometsch? Start with the photo accompanying this blog. She looks like a somewhat more exotic version of Elizabeth Taylor, doesn’t she? Or, perhaps, one of the President’s other dangerous liaisons, Judith Campbell Exner.

Rometsch’s sexual loyalties were as shifting as her political ones. As a teenager she had joined the Communist Party Youth Group. In 1955, she flew to West Germany. With one bad marriage already behind her, she soon wed Rolf Rometsch, a sergeant in the West German air force. His assignment to his country’s military mission in Washington brought the couple to the U.S.—and, eventually, Ellen to the attention of the American President.

Even a five-year-old son did not slow her down, as she soon became involved in the swirling excitement of the Quorum Club, located in a three-room suite at the Carroll Arms Hotel, just across the street from the new Senate Office Building. This private social club was run by Bobby Baker, a former aide to Lyndon Johnson now coming under suspicion for influence peddling. The terms that were beginning to be applied to her included “party girl,” “courtesan,” “hostess,” and worse.

The Quorum Club’s central location made it convenient—in some cases, too readily so—for the Capitol Hill power players and fixers swirling about. "My wife is fond of the steak and sandwiches," claimed Congressman Bill Ayres.

The affair between Rometsch and JFK appears to have started in 1961 and continued for some time. Its days were numbered once FBI agents got wind of it and interrogated the young woman. Her prior East German background might have been enough to convince director J. Edgar Hoover that she was a spy for East Germany’s head, Walter Ulbricht. His leak to this effect, to journalist Courtney Evans, convinced Robert Robert that she had to be deported.

JFK’s affairs had the frequent thrill of danger, whether with a twenty-year-old intern in the White House press office (Marion Fahnestock), a Hollywood superstar (Marilyn Monroe), an artist who brought him LSD from Timothy Leary (Mary Pinchot Meyer), and a Mafia moll (Judith Campbell Exner). Yet, judging from his actions around this time--including unusually high interest in the Profumo sex scandal convulsing the United Kingdom at this time--none of them had the sheer political TNT potential of the Rometsch affair.

The problem was that it showed no signs of going away—particularly because of 1) ongoing investigations into the affairs of Bobby Baker, and 2) Hoover's in anything that might give him blackmail material over the President. (As if he didn't already have enough: not only knowledge of Rometsch and Exner, but, dating back to the early 1940s, of Inga Arvad, a Danish woman the FBI suspected of being a Nazi spy--and knew was the paramour of dashing young Lt. John F. Kennedy). In late October, reporter Clark Mollenhoff used a leak from Hoover to charge that “some prominent new frontiersmen from the executive level of government” were involved with the “party girl.”

Rushing once again to protect his brother’s interest, Bobby Kennedy pursued a two-track course: 1) dispatch an aide to Germany to convince the now-separated, now-annoyed Ellen from going public, and 2) persuade Hoover to steer Congress from investigating. In the second case, Hoover actually sat down privately with Senate leaders Mike Mansfield and Everett Dirksen to convince them that any exposure of this affair would ruin the reputations of senators from both sides of the aisle.
You'd think he'd learn from his scrape, but JFK couldn't resist a gibe at the institution in which he sat before becoming President. "Boy, the dirt he (Hoover) has on those senators," he remarked. "You wouldn't believe it."

Quote of the Day (Bierce)

“War is God's way of teaching Americans geography.”—Ambrose Bierce

(Not only our wars, Bierce might have added, but so do other people’s conflicts, from which we turn in bafflement, anger and shame. Consider this: On this date in 1968, the good citizens of Czechoslovakia awoke to find tanks manned by their fraternal brothers in Communism, the Soviets, as well as those of four other Warsaw Pact countries, invading their country. The move—taking advantage of an America mired in Vietnam, beset by takeovers of college campuses, and disorder in city streets—brought a premature end to the “Prague Spring” of careful experimentation with market and political reforms, one that would not be repeated until Communism fell in the Eastern bloc countries in 1989.

Fast forward 40 years. The media this week are filled with the reports of Russian strongman Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Georgia. Just like his Soviet predecessors, he cannot abide dissent in his “sphere of influence.” Well, what else do you expect from a former KGB goon? And isn’t “KGB goon” a redundancy?)

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Chautauqua Journal – Part III (Day 3—August 5, 2008)


Morning: Beating the Heat

On my way out to the Farmers’ Market near the front gate to pick up fruit for the next few days, I inhaled deeply. The air felt so much better than it did in the New York area. Temperatures were supposed to climb no higher than 79 degrees for the day. The atmosphere, with its early morning crispness and promise of later warmth, felt more like early May than mid-summer. I loved it.

My luck with the weather seemed to be holding. The night before I arrived, a wicked storm—an offshoot of the same one that bedeviled me in New Jersey at the onset of my trip—came through here, splitting a tree on Waugh, only a block away from where I was staying. I missed that, as well as—at least so far—unbearable heat and humidity.

On at least three prior vacations up here, I stayed in inns with no air conditioning, only ceiling fans. Since I happened to be several flights up each time, the heat rose, making sleep a difficult proposition at best. Worse than that, as an asthmatic who had recently put on weight, I felt breathing to be harder. (Thank God I’ve lost 50 pounds since then!) Though I enjoyed the camaraderie of those inns, the heat made it a necessity to book a room with air conditioning from then on.

Ironically, my vacation last year, in the first year I had air conditioning, coincided with the coolest period of the summer up to that point. The week before that, however, the temperatures had risen into the 90s. You just never know around here—it’s best to be prepared for anything.

Compared with the houses I stayed previously, the one I was in last year was not particularly friendly. However, this time, Carey Cottage Inn combined the personal atmosphere I like with the physical comfort I require.

New Faces on the Green?

Are the demographics of Chautauqua changing—or is it just my imagination? On Bestor Plaza (see the accompanying photo), as I was heading out to pick up The Chautauqua Daily, I could have sworn I saw more younger people—not so much children, but teens and adults younger than myself. In contrast to years past, there seemed to be fewer elderly people in wheelchairs or electric go-carts and more twenty- and thirty-somethings jogging or on bikes. Likewise, I even saw a few African-American faces—still not many, but, it seemed to me, somewhat more than I recall in my earlier visits here.

The issue is important, not just for Chautauqua’s long-range prospects for growth and survival but even for its heart and soul today. It impressed me at the welcoming tea at the Carey Cottage Inn two days ago how many visitors were not just returnees, but habitual ones. Many of these are middle-aged or even older. The only way I can square this with what I had just seen on Bestor Plaza was that the newer faces might be encountering this place for the first time.

But back to the returnees. What accounts for that still-sizable senior citizen component? Several factors, I think, all of which the institution is probably weighing carefully—or, at least, I hope they are:
* Senior citizens enjoy the
largest disposable income of any population group. Carey Cottage Inn provides some of the more affordable accommodations on the grounds. But couples in the family-formation years would find Chautauqua a far harder vacation to finance. I’m amused by a line from the 1969 Elvis Presley movie The Trouble With Girls in which he plays the manager of a traveling Chautauqua troupe from the 1920s (the only reason, I strongly believe, that anyone on these grounds would be even slightly interested in that flick). “Everyone can afford Chautauqua,” the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll says on the screen. Would that it were still so!

* Chautauqua appeals especially to anyone who enjoys reading and the arts. Of course, the long-term decline in readers has worried the publishing industry for years, and, I think, is one reason why public librarians have to some extent shifted their focus from books to media over the last two decades or so. As for the Internet—well, just check out this Atlantic Monthly article, “
Is Google Making Us Stupid?” (Thanks to my friend Brian for reminding me about this piece, by the way.) Art forms such as opera and classical music—you can even broaden it to the performing arts in general—are also in peril, and these are the genres that Chautauqua does so well. (The situation is not helped when people such as Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor under Bill Clinton, urges that the tax code be modified so that the rich give to the genuinely needy rather than the arts.)

* The spiritual ethos most present at Chautauqua is that of mainline Protestantism—Episcopalianism, Presbyterianism, Unitarianism, etc. But as
Joseph Bottum shows, over the last three decades most of the various sects in this movement have been declining in membership. I can’t even imagine megachurches, with their sheer massiveness, in the Victorian-era structures of Chautauqua—yet this is precisely the movement that is swelling the most in American religious life.

Afternoon: Elvis, Dolly, Calories and Catholic House


The issue of age came to the fore again at 3:15 pm, when Catholic House, like the other Chautauqua denominations, held its social hour. As I turned toward the parlor, ten to fifteen men and women were sitting in chairs holding sheet music, lifting their voices, first to “Hello, Dolly,” then to “Side by Side.” The average age of these singers ranged from two to three decades older than myself. I began to think about the Hall of Christ, a most unlikely showcase for a screening of The Trouble With Girls followed by an Elvis look-alike contest. It sounded like it could be fun, and certainly, with the rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack, more age appropriate for me.

Within less than 30 seconds, I began, to my dismay, to reconsider that proposition. It wasn’t only that the faces in Catholic House were warm and welcoming, as they had been on the two or three other occasions I’d come here over the years. No, I began to reflect, I recognized these show tunes—heck, I even knew many of the lyrics. I couldn’t say the same for Maroon 5, the Jonas Brothers, or other groups enjoyed by my niece and my three nephews. At 48, I had more in common with these senior citizens than with my younger relatives.

Considering all this, I cast my eye toward a table laden with all kinds of liquid refreshments, and especially homemade cakes and candies—in such variety and profusion that they could not all be consumed within the “social hour.” Moreover, they seriously strained my friend Steve Irolla’s factoid that “it’s a scientifically proven fact that calories on vacation don’t count.”

After several minutes of circling the table and loading my plate, I struck up a conversation with a schoolteacher who, like myself, is of Irish-American descent, explaining my passion for Scott Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby that inspired this blog’s title. She told me that, though she was able to teach Gatsby to her rural students when she started teaching 30 years ago, it was no longer possible now—despite its relative brevity, the novel is “just too dense” for them these days, she said.

Like most of the population here, she leaned decidedly toward progressive stances on politics and religion. As a young woman, she recalled, she had been furious with Cardinal Cooke of New York for not speaking out against the Vietnam War. She stopped going to Mass for awhile, and these days found the Church’s refusal to ordain women an ongoing strain on her revived faith.

When I asked about the attitude of other denominations here to Catholicism, she told me that, except for a couple of scattered complaints from one or two denominations several years ago, the house had been welcomed by the community. Clearly Chautauqua prides itself on its tolerance, so much so that it has also voted affirmatively to increase the Jewish and Moslem presence on the grounds with enhanced facilities.

I wondered, though, if there might not be some limits to this sense of openness. I told her about a concert I’d attended several years ago, in which an African-American gospel group performed. The group’s vocal harmonies were uncommonly tight, and the singers—all male, incidentally—sang with enthusiasm and style. It must have been all the more disconcerting, then, when they saw so many members of the audience rushing for the exits. “They were not Chautauqua,” a woman staying at my house explained the next day, trying to sum up the inadequacies of the group that led so many listeners to bail out. That, of course, prompted an inevitable question that I stifled—if that group was “not Chautauqua,” in what way did they not fit?

So my initial suspicion had been correct—those who left early did so for no reason related to musical skill. So many white faces left at that point that some wags, had they seen it, would undoubtedly have referred to this as “white flight.” And it’s not that the institution is unaware of the racial imbalance here—a year and a half ago, after all, the board of trustees approved a resolution noting that racial diversity was “more limited than desired” and vowed to increase “the representation of African Americans and other racial minorities at Chautauqua.” (How they would do so, of course, remains at issue.)

So, why did so many whites leave this concert filled with African-American singers, musicians and songs? I can pinpoint almost the exact point in which this occurred—it was during a song called, “Miracle Worker.” In the lectures I’d attended at Chautauqua, the realm of the “miracle” did not exist. Everything in the prevailing Protestant atmosphere depended on rationality as the yardstick for truth. God as a “Miracle Worker”? Only in, at best, the most vaguely symbolic manner.

Quote of the Day (Carlin)

"Why do they lock gas station bathrooms? Are they afraid someone will clean them?"—The late comedian George Carlin

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Quote of the Day (Poe)

“Hereafter, perhaps, some intellect may be found which will reduce my phantasm to the common-place- some intellect more calm, more logical, and far less excitable than my own, which will perceive, in the circumstances I detail with awe, nothing more than an ordinary succession of very natural causes and effects.”—Edgar Allan Poe, “The Black Cat”

(A typical Poe horror tale, “The Black Cat” was published on this date in United States Saturday Post in 1843. It features the kind of mad, unreliable narrator found in other Poe tales of the macabre such as “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Tell-Tale Heart.” You’d be mad, too, if, like the protagonist in this story, you had become alcoholic, gouged out the eye of a cat, hung it, tries to kill another cat but ends up killing his wife instead, then walls her up in the cellar wall with the cat to conceal evidence of the crime.

The question arises how autobiographical this story is. Well, Poe at one point owned a black cat, and he supposedly killed a pet fawn belonging to his guardian’s wife, but that’s about it. Someone else actually identified with the events of the tale far more: Richard Wright, who as a child set fire to his grandmother’s house and later hanged a kitten with a string. Wright was impressed enough with Poe’s tale to allude to it in his 1940 novel
Native Son,
in which Bigger Thomas at one points confronts a cat and its “two green pools—pools of association and guilt.”

Incidentally, that 1934 film starring Bela Lugosi? It’s got virtually nothing in common with this story except the title. Actually, the film treatments that came closer to its essence were D.W. Griffith’s
Avenging Conscience and a 1968 Japanese version.)

Monday, August 18, 2008

This Day in Literary History (Nabokov’s “Lolita” Published in U.S.)


August 18, 1958—Taking a chance that four other American publishers had passed on, G.P. Putnam published Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov, without disruption. In fact, the novel would not face the same legal difficulties that had bedeviled it in Europe, where the authorities in Great Britain and France imposed censorship bans because of Nabokov’s explosive subject: pedophilia. Just remember to tell that to the next jaded Continental who kvetches about us “puritanical Americans”!

The novel almost didn’t see the light of day at all:

1) After “five years of monstrous misgivings and diabolical labors,” Nabokov carried his manuscript and all his notecards out to the incinerator behind his house before his wife Vera prevailed on him not to give up on the project.

2) Just finding a publisher became an ordeal. Despite the reputation he earned as a superb stylist in his memoir Speak, Memory (1948), the Russian émigré’s 12th novel (and his third in English) was considered radioactive. Nabokov had to go to Paris to find a publisher: Maurice Girodias of Olympia Press. The author was evidently unaware of Girodias’ reputation as a self-described “gentleman-pornographer”—someone who not only published the likes of Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, William S. Burroughs, the Marquis de Sade, and John Cleland, but also figures with less literary, far raunchier content.

The tale of Humbert Humbert and his infatuation with nymphet Dolores Haze—aka Lolita—caused considerable consternation in Europe. Publishing an English-language title in Paris might have seemed at the time a surefire way to slip the book under the censors’ radar, but it didn’t work—the book ended up banned for two years. In England, while one critic called it “the filthiest book I have ever read” (probably ensuring at least another 5,000 copies sold), novelist Graham Greene called it one of the best books of the year.

(Greene’s praise was not necessarily an unalloyed blessing. British readers with long memories would have recalled the novelist’s controversial comment over 20 years ago in his job as a film critic, where comments on Shirley Temple’s “dimpled depravity” and “neat and well-muscled rump” put him in the crosshairs of a libel suit by Twentieth Century Fox.)

All of this hullabaloo ensured that Lolita found a receptive audience when it was published stateside. It sold 2,600 copies on its first day in the bookstores and would go on to sell 100,000 copies in its first three months of publication, duplicating Gone With the Wind’s startling achievement of two decades earlier.

I first read the novel in Ann Douglas’ excellent Postwar American Literature class at Columbia University in 1982. I was unprepared for one aspect of its structure: it’s a road novel. It didn’t strike me at the time, but it followed by a year another novel in that course in which a protagonist took to America’s highways: Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. (In fact, a CNN story on Lolita even includes an interactive map.)

The émigré Nabokov’s take on America is far less Whitmanesque, far more satiric than Kerouac’s. The country that the European intellectual Humbert discovers is, like Lolita herself, innocent if somewhat trashy. It was a nation that was already experimenting with the motels and strip centers that would proliferate especially once the interstate highway system (brought into being only a couple of years before) came into its own.

Nabokov—a frequent road traveler himself in pursuit of his hobby of collecting butterflies—was so inspired by the oddball names he discovered in atlases that he came up with shameless puns such as this: “We had breakfast in the township of Soda, pop 1,001.”

(Speaking of Soda…Do you think that George Costanza of Seinfeld might have read this novel? At first, I might have said no. Portnoy’s Complaint would have been too close for comfort; Harold Robbins and Mickey Spillane, with their lack of artistry, would have appealed to someone like him who never let grace get in the way of a move on a woman, as witnessed his pursuit of Marisa Tomei. But if not from Nabokov, what the heck else could have inspired Seinfeld’s Sancho Panza to provide a couple with the name “Soda” for their child?)

Lolita was not the first major American novel to treat child molestation—in the 1930s, Nicole Diver of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is The Night and Gloria Wandrous of John O’Hara’s Butterfield 8 were both abuse victims. But these books were written from the perspective of third-person narrators who considered the victims as adults suffering the aftereffects of the abuse. That increases the distance and coolness with which readers view the sordid events.

In contrast, Lolita makes it impossible to turn away:

* The female victim is not an adult looking back, but a pre-pubescent;
* The elaborate seduction and subsequent acts are described rather than summarized or implied.
* The narrator is the predator himself, who employs humor and even addresses the reader as “Brother” on at least one occasion—a wheedling attempt at self-justification by a man who comes to indict himself more for the innocence of the girl he robbed than for the murder of an even worse pervert (Clare Quilty) than himself.

The name “Lolita” has become synonymous with young girls of dangerously budding sexuality. Amy Fisher, of course, was the “Long Island Lolita”; Sharon Stone’s daughter in Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers, who disorients Bill Murray with her lack of clothing, also is named after the Nabokov character.

And, despite his disdain for Freud, Nabokov has become the paramount creator of a psychological type, in the same manner that Machiavelli now stands for a style of politics removed from standards of morality or behavior. In “Don’t Stand So Close to Me,” the main character in the song by The Police “starts to shake and cough/Just like the old man in/ That book by Nabokov.” (A slight error—Humbert is middle-aged—but the idea of a dirty old man appeals to the common stereotype in this type of case.)

One last note: Nabokov might have drawn at least some of his inspiration from a real-life case involving a New Jersey girl, according to Nabokov scholar Alexander Dolinin of the University of Wisconsin. Florence Sally Horner, an 11-year-old Camden girl, was blackmailed by middle-aged car mechanic Frank LaSalle, who had caught her shoplifting a five-cent notebook. The two then spent the next 21 months on the road, like Humbert and Lolita, before Horner turned in her kidnapper.

In her attempt to regain a normal life, Lolita died in childbirth; Sally Horner’s life also ended tragically with her death in an auto accident at age 15. LaSalle—euphemistically called a “moral leper” by the judge—received a 30-35 year prison sentence for kidnapping.