Sunday, February 28, 2010

Flashback, February 1910: Bernard Shaw’s “Misalliance” Misfires, Only to Flare Back Into Life

Sometimes a play, initially successful, fades from memory—and deserves to. As discussed in a prior post of mine, such was the fate of Bye Bye Birdie, which the Roundabout Theatre Co. recently reanimated, with unexpectedly ghoulish results.

The lack of performances—in some cases, relative obscurity—of other pieces is inexplicable and undeserved, though. On the latter list, George Bernard Shaw’s frothy 1910 comedy, Misalliance—which premiered this month 100 years ago at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London—ranks high.

Over the years, other Shaw plays have been performed far more often, either because of ease of staging or a theme judged relevant to the point of urgency (the anti-war Heartbreak House). Misalliance has tended to get lost in that shuffle. It shouldn’t.

Audiences at its first run didn’t quite know what to make of this latest effort from the late-Victorian theatrical provocateur. They largely stayed home, and the reaction from critics gave them no excuse to come out.

Max Beerbohm, for instance, normally an admirer of the Anglo-Irish playwright, complained in the Saturday Review about the characters’ lifelessness, Shaw’s “present habit of writing ‘debates’ instead of plays," and especially the artistic carelessness of it all: “Misalliance is about anything and everything that has chanced to come into Mr. Shaw’s head. It never progresses, it doesn’t even revolve, it merely sprawls.”

The man who helped Shaw avoid the ignominy of a very public closing was King Edward VII—a merry monarch always obliging to the playwright. During the run of John Bull’s Other Island (1904), for instance, the king went into such a fit of laughter that his chair broke.

Six years later, Edward’s assistance was not as freely given: He died. London theaters, observing a period of mourning, closed, including the repertory company that was showing Misalliance as part of its Charles Frohman Repertory Season. Neither Shaw’s play nor the Frohman festival was a success, and the producers quietly chose not to reopen Misalliance after the mourning period ended. It was a case of eleven performances and out.

Shaw was having none of the idea that the play was his fault. He pointed to Frohman as the cause of the difficulties because he “cut out what he considered the highbrow parts of the plays and made the rest unintelligible.”

What might have disconcerted Shaw’s contemporaries—you sense it a bit in Beerbohm’s half-apologetic, half-exasperated response—is that the show does not belong to any single genre. It’s part English drawing-room comedy, part French bedroom farce (all those hiding places!), part Ibsenite-Shavian debate on an issue of the day (or, in Shaw’s case, issues plural—marriage, diplomacy, imperialism, militarism, feminism, etc.), and part something not seen before: the theater of the absurd. (How else to explain an aviatrix—a very new phenomenon in 1910, by the way!—crashing into the greenhouse of a quiet country estate at the exact same time a seemingly meek clerk pops up on the scene with gun in hand?)

Let’s not forget, too, the kind of self-referential jokes you might find in, say, later movie comedies, such as the Bing Crosby-Bob Hope “Road” movies (e.g., in discussing the concept of the “superman,” autodidact-underwear tycoon John Tarleton, thinking of the playwright who created Man and Superman, advises: “Read whatsisname!”)

Revivals 30 and 40 years later lifted the play’s reputation, but there’s still the perception that Shaw is all talk, talk, talk. I don’t buy much of this.

I’m not only unperturbed when I encounter his duels of wit on the printed page, but even on the stage. Look, I’m of Irish extraction, okay? Talk was even more plentiful among my forebears than the grass that springeth green in the old country.

The recent production of this Shavian chestnut—mounted by the Pearl Theatre Co., a New York troupe which specializes in classics—made an excellent argument for more frequent revivals.

I hadn’t planned to see the comedy right away, but the crowds—deprived of the chance to stand in line at the TKTS booth the day before because of one of this winter’s bitter blasts—had come out in full force for a Broadway show that day. The Pearl Theatre offering was the only one that interested me.

Every previous show I had seen performed by the classical repertory company was held at its old home in the Village, at one of my 1980s haunts, the movie revival Theater 80 St. Marks.

Over the last dozen years or so, I probably took in about a half dozen shows there, including a marvelous production of Candida starring Joanna Camp in the title role. Ms. Camp and husband Shepard Sobel, the company’s founding artistic director, moved last year to Albuquerque, N.M.

This first season under the guidance of new artistic director J.R. Sullivan, then, is also the first in the company’s new home at New York City Center Stage II, on 55th Street. I had missed the Pearl’s inaugural production in its new site, John Millington Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World.

But I was pleased to see that the new space retains its old intimacy—seating for 150, in a three-quarter thrust configuration—while presenting enough background space to provide for plenty of action (a necessity in Misalliance, which at various points requires all kinds of scampering around).

The Pearl’s repertory company had a field day with Shaw’s idiosyncratic characters. Particularly droll were Dan Daily in the central role of Tarleton, continually amazed at the unexpected confusion at his estate; Sean McNall as the hapless clerk-turned-anarchist-turned-assassin; and Erica Rolfsrud as the beguiling Polish aviatrix Lina Szczepanowska (the last name is a delicious continuing joke through the second half of the play, along with the rigorous physical-fitness regimen to which Lina subjects her unsuspecting male admirers).

The Pearl doesn’t appear to have lost its verve one iota in the move uptown. I hope to catch the company while I still can in their current production, an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Hard Times.

Quote of the Day (Rev. Peter Marshall, With a Timely Supplication to God)

“Save Thy servants from the tyranny of the nonessential. Give them the courage to say ‘no’ to everything that makes it more difficult to say ‘yes’ to Thee.”—U.S. Senate chaplain Peter Marshall (1902-1949), prayer of Feb. 10, 1947

Saturday, February 27, 2010

This Day in Presidential History (Lincoln Advances in Republican Race With Cooper Union Address)

February 27, 1860—Abraham Lincoln—a railroad lawyer with a couple of terms in the Illinois state legislature, one term in Congress and no executive experience whatsoever—redefined his image over the course of 24 hours with an electrifying speech at the Grand Hall of Cooper Union and a photographic session with Mathew Brady. After the election, the candidate who had once been dismissed as a regional phenomenon would say, “Brady and the Cooper Union made me President.”

The Cooper Union speech was delivered in New York, a city that would resolutely turn its back on him until five years later, when the President’s funeral procession was viewed by thousands of grief-stricken Gothamites (including six-year-old Theodore Roosevelt) who finally understood what he stood for.
“Death has suddenly opened the eyes of the people (and I think of the word) to the fact that a hero has been holding high place among them for four years,” observed diarist George Templeton Strong, “closely watched and studied, but despite and rejected by a third of this community, and only tolerated by the other two-thirds."

Strong was referring to the fact that the city and state of New York tended to vote Democratic. At least in early 1860, whatever Republican sympathies New York possessed went to favorite son William Seward, the state’s former governor and current U.S. Senator.

Nonetheless, Lincoln felt correctly that the city, as the growing media capital of the United States, could not be ignored. To make a good impression, he was willing to research his speech for months in the law library in the Illinois state house, take five different trains over three days to get to New York—then fidget while Brady lifted his collar and smoothed his unruly hair as far as possible before taking his picture.

And that was all before the speech.

I have been terribly remiss in not writing before about the terrific exhibit at the New-York Historical Society, "Lincoln and New York". The exhibit has been running since last October, but it will still be around for three more weeks before closing, and it’s eminently worth seeing. It highlights the circumstances behind the speech, as well as the President’s evolving relationship with the city that, then as now, is a) overwhelmingly Democratic, and b) fervently anti-war.

The venue for the event, originally Henry Ward Beecher’s Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, was changed at the last minute to Cooper Union (then known as Cooper Institute).

This was not an address, or a speaker, that would have gone over well in today’s 30-second soundbite, image-conscious rhetorical environment. Brady’s photograph, soon widely reproduced, gave the lanky Midwestern a physical dignity that many did not see upon first beholding him, including many in the audience. And that voice, when first heard, was high and shrill.

Even in the context of Lincoln’s subsequent career as perhaps the greatest of President-writers, this address is not filled with memorable phrases or sentences. But it fit in very well with a technique he had learned as a circuit lawyer in his state: play to the audience.

The Republican audience, in this case, needed convincing and reassuring—convincing of his credibility as a candidate, and reassuring that, contrary to Democratic charges, theirs was not a sectional party, that they were not guilty of instigating John Brown’s attempted slave insurrection, and that they had not engaged in historical fraud by insisting that the federal government had the right to ban slavery from the territories.

For two hours, Lincoln employed several means to make his case:

*set at work at once to go after the presumed Democratic nominee—his former rival for the U.S. Senate, Stephen A. Douglas—who had insisted that "Our fathers, when they framed the Government under which we live, understood this question just as well, and even better, than we do now." Lincoln showed that, Douglas’ notion of “popular sovereignty” to the contrary, the federal government had banned slavery in the Northwest Ordinance.

* employed logic repeatedly to rebut emotional charges by slaveholders. After failing to win re-election to Congress, Lincoln, in an effort to improve his skills as a lawyer, mastered Euclidean geometry. The skill enabled him to reduce an argument to simple propositions that could be tested, proved or discarded. You can see it in the following passage from the Cooper Union speech:
“Meet us, then, on the question of whether our principle [restricting slavery in the territories], put in practice, would wrong your section; and so meet as if it were possible that something may be said on our side. Do you accept the challenge? No! Then you really believe that the principle which ‘our fathers who framed the Government under which we live’ though so clearly right as to adopt it, and indorse it again and again, upon their official oaths, is in fact so clearly wrong as to demand your condemnation without a moment's consideration.”

* used historical precedent to buttress his case. Lincoln cited not only George Washington and Thomas Jefferson—crucially, Southerners (and Southern slaveholders)—in support of his claims, but also alluded to Nat Turner’s insurrection in Southampton and even England’s Gunpowder Plot of the early 1600s.

* poured scorn on the opposition. To Southern Democrats who claimed they were supporting constitutional principles, but were prepared to leave the Union if a Republican were elected President, he noted: “In that supposed event, you say, you will destroy the Union; and then, you say, the great crime of having destroyed it will be upon us! That is cool. A highwayman holds a pistol to my ear, and mutters through his teeth, ‘Stand and deliver, or I shall kill you, and then you will be a murderer!’”

Lincoln’s Cooper Union speech might have been delivered in a different age—one willing to listen for a couple of hours to politicians spouting, yet regard the whole spectacle as entertainment—but he made sure it directly addressed voters’ concerns and respected their intelligence. It did not, however, try to compromise on principle.

In an interesting piece for the Huffington Post, Joseph Margolick argues persuasively that President Obama can use the same rhetorical strategies in rescuing his health-care program. Let’s see how that turns out.

Quote of the Day (Katharine Hepburn, on Character)

“To keep your character intact, you cannot stoop to filthy acts. It makes it easier to stoop the next time.”—Katharine Hepburn, quoted in Reader’s Digest, September 2009

Friday, February 26, 2010

Quote of the Day (Pietro Aretino, on Winter)

“Let us love winter, for it is the spring of genius.”—Attributed to Pietro Aretino (1492-1556), Italian poet, prose writer, and dramatist

Oh, yeah? Easy for you to say, Signor Aretino, with that Mediterranean climate of yours. Just you try the Northeast U.S.A.

What I want to know is: If that’s the case, then where are all the freakin’ Einsteins running around these days? And why haven’t they figured out how to keep us from slipping on ice or throwing our backs out from shoveling foot after foot of snow this winter? Huh? Huh???

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Quote of the Day (Millicent Fenwick, Setting Straight a Male Dimwit)

“That's the way I've always felt about men. I only hope you haven't been disappointed as often as I have."—New Jersey politician Millicent Fenwick, telling off a male colleague who objected to the Equal Rights Amendment she advocated because he had “always thought of women as kissable and cuddly and smelling good," quoted in “House Freshmen Enliven the Capitol Singles Scene,” People, February 24, 1975

It’s inconceivable to imagine the patrician, outspoken, decidedly uncuddly Congresswoman Millicent Fenwick—born on this date 100 years ago—in today’s Republican Party. But in her way, she was every bit the character that Sarah Palin is—but the creator of witticisms rather than the subject of them.

How many pipe-smoking grandmothers do you know, for instance, who inspire a comic-strip character—i.e., Lacey Davenport of Garry Trudeau’s “Doonesbury”?

Oh, by the way—Frank Lautenberg, after pouring huge amounts of his personal fortune into the campaign, defeated Ms. Fenwick for a seat in the U.S. Senate in the 1980s, pounding home the notion that at age 72, she would be too old to be a freshman senator.

One wishes the ailing senator, a speedy recovery these days as he battles cancer, but it is curious to note that he did not believe age disqualified him from running for reelection for the same office again a couple of years ago, at age 84. Something about “experience” being an advantage, even, I think was his argument…

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

This Day in Classical Music History (Carlisle Floyd’s Bible Belt Opera, “Susannah,” Premieres)

February 24, 1955—The folk opera Susannah, an adaptation of the Apocryphal Biblical tale of sexual hypocrisy that was re-set by composer Carlisle Floyd in a fundamentalist Protestant, rural Tennessee community, premiered at Florida State University (FSU). Like Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, it has outlived its McCarthy-era origins to become a performing-arts warhorse—in Floyd’s case, perhaps the American opera most performed by regional companies.

A regional company was, in fact, where I saw it performed a year and a half ago at the Chautauqua Institution, featuring all 44 students in that unique venue’s School of Music Department. The open-air backdrop in this upstate New York cultural mecca probably served the work even better than it would have been if staged in Chautauqua’s usual, more conventional, fully enclosed opera site, Norton Hall.

I didn't know what to expect of this work. I doubt if I’ve attended more than a half-dozen operas in my life. Moreover, one of my college friends had been rather dismissive of Floyd years ago when I asked him about the composer’s newest work at that time, Willie Stark (1981), an adaptation of All the King’s Men. But this particular performance was so accessible and well-performed that I sat enthralled throughout.

Jay Jackson’s staging—open-air in the back and sides—took on an undoubtedly different dimension as the evening went on. The plot’s growing darkness was paralleled by the weather just outside.

I suppose you could argue that the crack of thunder in the second act signaled the impending troubles in this musical tragedy. I'm not sure how much the closing of the side doors of the barn might have limited the suggestion of the play's mountain landscape or its crowd scenes, but the thunder and ferocious pounding of rain certainly drowned out a couple of singers.

Drama aplenty existed without even nature’s unexpected backup assistance.

Why has this opera become such a staple, not just for smaller regional companies but even larger institutions such as New York City Opera (where it opened a year after its FSU premiere) and the Metropolitan Opera (where a 1997 run gave Renee Fleming one of her many career triumphs to date)? Some of it has to do with the imperatives of running a contemporary opera company; some, with changes in American culture over time; and some with the work itself:

* Its verisimilitude derives from Floyd’s own familiarity with the environment. The son of a Methodist minister in North Carolina, Floyd was able to catch every nuance of the predominant tone of the Bible Belt: itinerant preachers, revival meetings, and an enclosed community that at its best can provide warmth and shelter but at worst can shun the outsider. By writing the libretto as well as the score, Floyd did not have to explain to a collaborator what he meant: he could translate his experiences directly.

* An American subject by an American composer offers a break from foreign classics done ad infinitum. Verdi and Wagner might provide the tried-and-true box office for opera’s aging audiences, but performing-arts companies—not just opera companies, but straight theater as well—also want either to try out new works or introduce audiences to lesser-known ones. Floyd’s opera affords these companies a chance to break this new ground.

* Accessible songs permit a wider range of performers tackling the work. Floyd’s “musical drama in two acts” seamlessly integrates folk tunes, hymns and dances. Though he created orchestration for it, Susannah can also be accompanied simply by a piano, as occurred at the Chautauqua performance I attended. The Act I aria “Ain’t It a Pretty Night” can be (and has been) sung as audition pieces by young sopranos, but divas of greater experience, such as Ms. Fleming, can also weave their spells with the song. New York Times critic Bernard Holland complained 11 years ago, in his review of the Metropolitan Opera performance, that the piece contained “no layers, no resonances, no implications beneath the surface,” but those who have seen the show over the years would differ.

* America’s culture wars provide the piece with continuing relevance. In certain ways, somewhat like the far more cynical musical theater piece, Chicago, Susannah might have been more than a generation ahead of its time. The televangelists of the 1980s increased the prominence of the Religious Right—but this enhanced position also opened up electronic preachers such as Jimmy Swaggart to charges of corruption because of the way they lived their private lives.

The Crucible, as I hinted earlier, arose from the 1950s politics of fear. Drama companies today, however, view it just as much as a critique of America’s lingering Puritan mores. (In the play, cries of witchcraft originate from the confused environment surrounding the female adolescents in the Rev. Parris’ household.)

Similarly, Floyd created his work out of the culture of suspicion wrought by McCarthyism. The elders in the opera, just like those in the colonial Salem of Miller’s play, incite hysteria in New Hope Valley, Tenn., in order to project elsewhere their own embarrassment over happening upon Susannah, who is innocently unaware that she’s being watched as she bathes nude.

Susannah left me interested in seeing how Floyd’s other operas (besides Willy Stark, they include Of Mice and Men and Cold Sassy Tree) stand up. I found this one exceedingly well-crafted—a major, if critical, examination of an intolerant strain that sometimes enters American religious life.

Quote of the Day (Ellen Goodman, on Cellphones)

“When did I first come down with cellphone rage, you ask?’’—Ellen Goodman, “The Latest Rage,” Boston Globe, March 21, 1999, reprinted in her collection Paper Trail: Common Sense in Uncommon Times (2004)

Unlike Ms. Goodman, the crucial question for me is not when I first felt cellphone rage—ancient history, as far as I’m concerned—but when I'll stop feeling it.

The recently retired Globe columnist’s beef was with cellphone users who simply had to share their lives not only with the other person on the line, but with everyone within listening distance. Mine is more fundamental: With the technology.

Today, for instance, for no apparent reason, after I turned on my phone, it asked me for a security password. It never required it before in the month or so I’ve had it. Why, in heaven’t name, did it do so now?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Quote of the Day (Christopher Fry, on the “Frozen Misery of Centuries”)

“The human heart can go the lengths of God.
Dark and cold we may be, but this
Is no winter now. The frozen misery
Of centuries breaks, cracks, begins to move;
The thunder is the thunder of the floes,
The thaw, the flood, the upstart Spring.”—Christopher Fry (1907-2005), “A Sleep of Prisoners” (1951)

Monday, February 22, 2010

This Day in Music History (Birth of Frederic Chopin, Befuddled and Doomed Romantic)

February 22, 1810—Frederic Chopin—consumptive, bewildered lover of French writer George Sand, the Romantic genius who, together with the more flamboyant Franz Lizst, made the piano the instrument par excellence for mid-19th-century virtuosi—was born in Zelazowa Wola, Poland, near Warsaw.

Or, at least, that’s what his birth certificate—written several weeks after the fact—says. The composer-pianist begged to differ, pointing to March 1 as his birthdate. Characteristically about his life, even that elemental fact is open to interpretation and challenge.

There is also the matter of the composer’s sexuality. Notwithstanding his affair of several years with Sand (the pseudonym adopted by Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin), some have speculated, on the basis of ardent youthful correspondence as well as his preference for male friends, that the composer might have gay, or at least bisexual.

At this point, any attempt to ferret out the truth is probably doomed—because of that age’s attitude toward anything outside heterosexual norms; notions of privacy that consigned many, many letters to the flames; and, simply, the passage of time (contemporaries, of course, can’t be interviewed at this juncture!).

The important thing about him, of course, is simply the music—meditative, free-flowing, at times heartbreaking—exhibiting some of the same qualities as one of my favorite jazz pianists, Bill Evans. And indeed, it turns out, the composer of “Waltz for Debby” and other great songs counted Chopin as one of his influences, and the Polish-born composer created his classical pieces in an improvisational style that prefigured jazz.

The sensitive, artistic Chopin is far removed from right-wing Patrick Buchanan, whose visage inspired one of my friends—who, by his own admission, tends toward the liberal, even leftist, side of the political spectrum—to admit that one fact, and one fact only, might make him vote for the cable rabble-rouser: “I’ve always wanted to see a guy who looks like a bartender in the White House.”

Imagine my surprise, then, in 1992, when I read that Pat Buchanan had listed Impromptu as one of his favorite films of recent years. What--the then-preferred candidate of the “Pitchfork Brigade” enjoying a biopic not just about cross-dressing Sand, but about the man who (in a phrase the commentator would probably use) lived in sin with her?

Nearly two decades later, I am—obviously—still not over my initial shock over this discovery. But if you ever have the chance to rent this sprightly film, I strongly urge you to do so.

It not only includes a typically brilliant performance by Judy Davis as the astonishingly prolific Sand, but an atypical—and marvelous--turn by Hugh Grant, when he was still first and foremost an actor, not the winsome rom-com leading man he became after Four Weddings and a Funeral. (Yes, there are the two stars in the image accompanying this post.)

After the latter film, there was a brief flurry of talk that Hugh might be the successor to Cary. Despite the contemporary actor’s considerable charm, such comparisons have done him little good.

But in one sense, a single leitmotif, if you will, runs through both Grants’ role—one that, as it happens, however one might regard his sexuality, also ran through Chopin’s life: suspicion of women.

What I love about Sarah Kernochan’s marvelously witty script for Impromptu is that it takes a life story—Chopin’s—that, because of its denouement (the pianist died at age 39, unable, because of political unrest and his declining health, to return to Poland), has all the potential in the world for a maudlin treatment, but instead—triumphantly—turns it into a delightful romp filled with arch repartee.

Chopin’s anxiety about women—and especially the potential for this one woman, Sand, to upend his life, with her strength and passion, in a way he’ll never understand—is established right from the first scene where they meet.

Chopin—who, because of his frailty and essential shyness, preferred small, intimate gatherings to the big halls that his decidedly randier friend Liszt played—is alarmed to find an unknown presence drinking in every note of his etudes and nocturnes. Just who are you? he asks:

Sand: “I am your slave, and you have summoned me with your music.”

Chopin: “Oh, yes. I think I know who you are: I have heard you described. Madame Sand, rumor has it you are a woman, and so I must ask you to leave my private chambers.”

Sand: “Have I offended your modesty? I apologize. Only play me one more piece and I'll go.”

Chopin: “No! This is ridiculously improper. And frightening, as well.”

Under James Lapine’s direction, Davis as Sand embodies less the spirit of one of Chopin’s swooning etudes than a late 20th-century American folk-rock song: Shawn Colvin’s “Climb On (A Back That’s Strong)”—i.e., hers.

Two other aspects of Chopin’s life and career—among many others—deserve mention.

First, he was a child prodigy, performing his first public concert by age seven. As I mentioned in a prior post on a major Chopin influence, Mozart (another prodigy who died before age 40), child prodigies leave me envious. At an age when they were figuring out the intricacies of a complicated instrument, I was lucky to be able to master a baseball scorecard.

Second, there was Chopin’s relationship to his homeland. As Clive James writes in Cultural Amnesia: “Chopin had been a pioneer of what was to become every talented Polish exile’s historical position: he was under continuous pressure to represent his country.” Though Chopin lived virtually all his short, adult life outside Poland, he requested to be buried in his native land, and today his musical achievements are—rightly—considered a significant source of national pride.

Quote of the Day (Charles Dickens, With Acute Understanding of Personal Finance)

“Credit is a system whereby a person who can not pay gets another person who can not pay to guarantee that he can pay.”—Popularly attributed to Charles Dickens (1812-1860)

Though I’ve seen this quotation all over the Internet, I have yet to pinpoint the exact source of it from the work (or even life) of Dickens. Yet I’m completely inclined to find its attribution to him entirely credible.

The subject of credit, you see, was a sore one for Dickens. His two improvident fictional patriarchs, David Copperfield’s comical Mr. Micawber and Little Dorrit’s far more serious William Dorrit, owed their origins, to one extent or another, to his father John. Indebtedness led Dickens pere to be thrown into Marshalsea Prison—and the future novelist, in a wound that never healed, to be forced to labor in a blacking factory as a tween.

As an adult, Charles needed all of his superabundant energy to maintain his wife and 10 children, but he could also show some asperity to those who, in turn, hit him up for funds. Bleak House’s Harold Skimpole, for instance, whose impracticality has a practiced quality that enables him to shamelessly sponge off friends, was based on the poet Leigh Hunt.

One suspects that Dickens would find tremendous fodder in the current American financial environment—particularly with the Federal Reserve, the secretive sachems who determine who gets a life preserver in the current shark-infested waters of finance—and who ends up gasping, sinking like a stone beneath the surface, without credit. He had mixed feelings about this country, but he would surely find in the America of our time—a world filled with chicanery and desperation—an eerie reflection of the Britain of his own age.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

This Day in Literary History (“The New Yorker” First Published)

February 21, 1925—The first issue of The New Yorker—featuring on its inaugural issue this date, though it appeared two days before, on a Thursday—was a somewhat different beast than it is now.

Most strikingly, Harold Ross, the first editor of the magazine that would revolutionize the American short story by publishing the likes of “the three Johns” (Cheever, O’Hara, and Updike), did not mention fiction in his initial prospectus of the magazine. It took a couple of years and the key addition of Katherine White, the magazine’s first fiction editor, to move it in this direction.

The tone—amused sophistication, “not for the lady from Dubuque,” in Ross’ pungent phrase—was also different from the at-times turgid, colorless periodical that Tom Wolfe sent up in 1965 in an enormously controversial profile of Ross successor William Shawn, “Tiny Mummies! The True Story of 43rd Street’s Land of the Walking Dead!”

A later complaint by Michael Kinsley—that Shawn made a fetish out of lumpy globs of fact, relevant and arcane alike—was implicitly contrasted in Wolfe’s description of Ross’ sophistication—and what this meant for the quality of his magazine:

“Ross was moody, explosive, naïve about many things, and had many blind spots when it came to literature and the arts—and all of this partially disguised the real nature of his sophistication. Ross’ sophistication actually had a rather refined English—Anglo-Saxon—cast to it. To Ross, sophistication involved not merely understanding culture and fashion but avoidance of excesses, including literary and artistic excesses. He didn’t want anything in the magazine that was too cerebral, Kantian, or too exuberant, angry, gushing, too 'arty,' 'pretentious,' or 'serious.'….He didn’t want it to seem as if anybody were straining his brain and showing off or wringing his heart out and pouring soul all over you. This idea was very special, very English.”

Wolfe’s point about the magazine's irrelevance was overstated—the magazine would, later that year, print the last published short story of J.D. Salinger, and it would continue to present distinguished fiction and nonfiction by Alice Munro, Truman Capote, Jonathan Schell, and many others—but, from subsequent accounts even from old hands of the magazine, he absolutely nailed the positively recessive, sometimes phobic qualities of Shawn that made this most storied of great American magazines an insular, even inbred creative workplace.

That eccentricity even crept into its hiring practices. More than a quarter century ago, looking for a job after my undergraduate days came to their inevitable end, I applied, like thousands of English majors over the years, a oThe New Yorker. Hearing nothing, I assumed that was the end of it.

Until, that is, I received a call—a year later, when I had not only accepted but became entrenched as a copywriter in a publishing company.

When I first received the message at home about the affiliation of my caller, my first thought was, Oh my God—The New Yorker! A job offer, maybe?

My second thought was, Why is he calling now—one year after I applied, after 9 pm on a Sunday, on the Fourth of July weekend, when most normal people my age from New Jersey are at the shore partying?

The editor began to quiz me on the phone, gauging my capacity for a fact-checking job. The questions, for the most part, needed no more than a simple yes or no, and with each yes my excitement built. Was it my imagination that arrangements would be made for a job interview—or maybe that even a full-fledged job offer, right then and there, might occur?

And then one little question with what I sensed was obscure but deadly import: “Do you know German?”

My heart stood still. I successfully resisted the urge to ask if “Ich bin ein Berliner?” or that cherished Christmas carol, “Stille Nacht” (“Silent Night”) might count. Instead, my guttural grunts resembled those by Ralph Kramden on a quiz show before he offered the first thought that came into his head, the (of course) incorrect answer, “Ed Norton.”

Finally, I offered the only correct response: “No, I don’t.”

The rejoinder from the voice was what I feared--kindly but unmistakably disappointed: “Oh, I’m sorry. You see, the opening we have is for someone who knows German. Not an expert necessarily, just a good working knowledge for fact-checking any manuscript that might come in.”

After I got off the phone, I racked my brains to recall any New Yorker piece where a “working knowledge” of German was necessary. I couldn’t. But subsequent accounts of Shawn—including Jay McInerney’s hilarious roman a clef about his own disastrous stint as a fact-checker late in that regime, Bright Lights, Big City--have convinced me that this was the type of gratuitous knowledge the would love to have at his beck and call, just in case.

Well, no matter. Even with its faults, The New Yorker has remained the ongoing weekly that, against all odds of changing tastes in demographics, reading tastes and technology, continues to produce the best in American fiction, magazine journalism, commentary and humor.

Oh, yes—humor. That was a big part of what Ross wanted to bring the New York sophisticate who was his ideal reader: a "reflection in word and picture of metropolitan life . . . with gaiety, wit, and satire." Wolfe’s summary—“never anything more than a rather slavish copy of Punch”—may or may not be accurate, but there are far worse things to be.

Consider the stable of humor writers who joined Ross in the magazine’s early days: people like Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, Wolcott Gibbs, James Thurber, S. J. Perelman, Alexander Woolcott, Ogden Nash, and Clarence Day. And remember that Ross was instrumental in the creation of the one-line caption for cartoons.

The Kindle I received for Christmas misses many of the graphic elements of other newspapers and magazines, but life would be inconceivably poorer for me if my new high-tech toy couldn’t bring up for me the week’s New Yorker cartoons. I’m glad the magazine is still around, even if I never had the chance to work for it.

Quote of the Day (The Vatican Groans, Dylan Creaks & Croaks)

“The article by Giuseppe Fiorentino and Gaetano Vallini [a ‘semiserious guide’ to the to the top ten rock and pop albums of all time in the Vatican’s official newspaper, L’ Osservatore Romano] said that [Bob] Dylan was excluded from the list despite his ‘great poetic vein’ because he paved the way for generations of unprofessional singer-songwriters who have ‘harshly tested the ears and patience of listeners’ with their tormented stories.”—Chiara Vasarri, “The Beatles, Michael Jackson, and U2 Make Vatican Newspaper’s List of Best Albums; Bob Dylan Snubbed,” “Speakeasy” blog for The Wall Street Journal, February 15, 2010

“Harshly tested the ears and patience of listeners”? Think someone in the Holy See has a bad case of buyer’s remorse about Dylan’s Christmas in the Heart CD?

You remember that one from the fourth quarter of last year, right? The mere news of it spread merriment throughout the world. (In fact, The Nation headlined its review of the befuddled responses, “Bob Dylan’s Christmas Album: Is This a Joke?”)

Comedy is not pretty, as Steve Martin has said. Neither, from the minute or so I was able to listen without running for the hills, is what Dylan did to “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “The Christmas Song.”

The sound resembles someone’s grandpa stepping in front of a microphone and deciding he’s got to sing. And I’m not talking about Tony Bennett (who, if he’s not a grandfather, is certainly old enough to be one) in his vermouth-smooth delivery, but a cranky type, croaking out lyrics because, he figures, he’s old enough to do what he wants and he doesn’t have to listen to anyone anymore. The type who is not just a so-called industry “heritage artist” but a heritage artist who’s a world legend, and therefore your label had better smile and accommodate him, no matter how misconceived you might believe his musical project to be.

How did the Vatican’s equivalent of the evil eye cast Dylan’s way come to pass?

Did the Holy Father express a desire to find out more about youth culture? Did an aide recall something about Dylan being “the voice of a generation,” forgetting that the generation in question was the baby boomer one that came of age in the Sixties? Did said aide run out to the local record store (no iPod for the pontiff?) and get his hands on the very latest by this Great Artist?

The consternation in the Vatican must have been something to behold as Pope Benedict was fitted out with headphones to listen to explicitly religious songs from the CD, such as “The First Noel,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.”

Imagine the members of the Curia exchanging worried glances after a few minutes of this, as the gentle, shy face of Il Papa Ratzi was replaced by the harder-edged one inevitably called to mind in those quarters as belonging to Gottes Rottweiler...

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Quote of the Day (Catherine Zeta-Jones, on Her Male Admirers)

“I’ve had a few marriage proposals from the crowd, but I think to myself, ‘Gosh, they must be living on Mars to think that I’m not married.’”—Catherine Zeta-Jones, the dream of countless photographers and tabloid editors, on the male admirers she’s charmingly shooed away while appearing on Broadway in the musical A Little Night Music, quoted in Tanner Stransky, “Checking in With…Catherine Zeta-Jones,” Entertainment Weekly, February 5, 2010

Well, Ms. Z-J, the short, flip answer to your concern might be put this way: Men are from Mars, women are from Venus. (Or, at least, the individuals you’re evidently thinking of must see you as something like the ancient goddess of love and beauty.)

But we don’t do “short” and “flip” here (well, “short,” anyway). So, for those extraterrestrial males who, you conjecture, might not be aware of it, I’ll perform a public service and state now that you’re Mrs. Michael Douglas.

But I think something else is involved with these importuning swains besides a dearth of information.

A friend of mine (and he knows who he is!) is the self-appointed head of the Phi Zeta Beta Society. Until I read Ms. Z-J’s comment, however, I had no idea that this ad-hoc (no membership fees!) organization had a contingent of stage-door Johnnies lining up in such force to see her in Stephen Sondheim’s classic.

Based on that sample, it seems a safe wager that my friend’s group might outnumber the combined, unduplicated membership rolls of AAA, AARP, and god-knows-what-else alphabet-soup association. Heck, it might even be bigger than the Pentagon and CIA combined.

(I’m sure its members enjoy their principal activity—ogling Ms. Z-J—far more than America’s military and intelligence establishments do theirs.)

Several logical explanations exist for the cascade of decent and (depending on the paucity of the monetary inducement) indecent proposals that the actress has received:

* Temporary insanity. One possible side-effect of Ms. Z-J opening up her kimono to a fellow cast member onstage in character as Sondheim’s middle-aged actress Desiree, is acute myocardial infarction among male audience members. (Opinions differ as to whether, on at least one occasion, an unplanned wardrobe malfunction occurred or, as those associated with the show insist, the wish was father to the thought among men in attendance that performance.) A second side-effect is acute, though short-term, derangement resulting in the belief that they stand a chance with the Oscar-winning actress.

* Mr. Douglas is losing his life force. Michael Douglas has now joined father Kirk among the rolls of Social Security beneficiaries. Ms. Z-J’s father is younger than her husband. A good quarter-century younger than Michael, she is not that much older than his son Cameron from his first marriage. Her oblivious male suitors evidently have a vision in mind of the couple—either now or in the not-so-dim future—akin to that between superannuated general Sid Caesar and Ann-Margret, as the appropriately named Jezebel Desire, in Neil Simon’s Sam Spade parody, Cheap Detective (a spoof with the kind of obvious and—well, cheap—laughs that bloggers of low taste enjoy).

In other words, the second that Mr. Douglas kicks off—or even begins to slide off—these admirers want to be around his grieving—and suddenly richer--widow.

* Mr. Douglas isn’t losing his life force. In an AARP Magazine profile earlier this year, the actor-producer spoke of “some wonderful enhancements [that] have happened in the last few years—Viagra, Cialis—that make us all feel younger.” It was all he could do not to start roaming through Cupid’s grove right on the spot.

But Douglas has to be careful just how much of his old self these virility wonder drugs preserve. Let’s put it this way about Mr. Douglas in his prior marriage: If Tiger Woods needed good references for the best sex-addiction clinics around, he could have done far worse than consult with the star of Fatal Attraction.

Old dogs sometimes find it difficult not to bound off the porch and go for a good run. A Viagra- or Cialis-enhanced Mr. Douglas needs to resist that urge if his wife is off appearing in a movie or show.

Cat’s prenup, you see, supposedly awards her, in the event that their marriage goes kaput, $2.8 million for every year they’re married and an additional $5 million if he's caught tomcatting. (Not surprisingly, Ms. Z-J regards prenup agreements as “brilliant.”)

In about another year, in other words, if such a sad eventuality should come to pass, Ms. Z-J’s current admirers want to be around the vengeful—and about-to-be-much-richer, by-more-than-$30-million—ex of Mr. Douglas the second that she becomes a free woman.
The second and third scenarios I've just outlined boil down, in a way, to the same principle: Nothing ventured, nothing gained. It's the same one that governors and senators of little name recognition and/or experience have employed for years when they look in the mirror each mirror, see a potential President, and decide that obstacles be damned--they're throwing their hat into the ring.

And so, as she approaches her big moment in A Little Night Music and urges, “Quick, send in the clowns,” Ms. Z-J can imagine the gentlemen lining up outside her stage door and, very truthfully, warble: “Don’t bother, they’re here.”

Friday, February 19, 2010

This Day in Baseball History (Ace Denny McLain Suspended for Gambling)

February 19, 1970—Baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn’s suspension of Denny McLain for involvement in a bookmaking operation began a downward spiral in which the two-time Cy Young Award winner ended up suspended two more times that season, out of baseball within three, and in a seemingly unending circuit of bankruptcy, divorce and criminal courts over the next three decades.

At first glance, the title of the autobiography of later raucous pitcher David Wells, Perfect I’m Not, sounds like an echo of one by the Detroit Tiger’s righthanded ace, Nobody’s Perfect. But listen more closely: Wells’ is flatly declarative about his night-owl escapades, whereas McLain’s is the last refuge of amoral people worldwide: Everybody does it.

Wells’ halfhearted exercise regimen resulted in a bad back and an early departure from his scheduled start—and the Yankees’ pivotal loss--in the 2003 World Series against the Florida Marlins. But McLain’s association with bookies not only sidelined him for most of the 1970 season, but, more crucially, put him out of commission for many of the last frenetic weeks of 1967, when the Tigers were locked in a four-way, down-to-the-wire pennant race.

McLain’s three-month suspension coincided with my first serious interest in the national pastime. All I knew at the time was that he had won a combined 56 games in the last two seasons, and that he was as bright a star as the game had.

I didn’t understand until much later how necessary his suspension was for the integrity of the game, or how his career came to constitute one of the worst cases of wasted talents multiplied by absolute amorality in the entire annals of a sport far gamier than we’d care to admit. (As far back as 1865, members of the New York Mutuals had been involved in betting on a game.)

Even the slightest baseball trivia fan knows that McLain became the last winner of 30 victories in a season in 1968.

Unfortunately, many will also know that what should have been his Hall of Fame trajectory was considerably shortened through no fault but his own, and that during his post-career he would be convicted of offenses whose seriousness—racketeering, loan-sharking, extortion, cocaine possession, and stealing from his company’s pension fund—and redundancy sorely strained Americans’ natural wish to forgive and forget someone who commits a mistake.

Most baseball fans didn’t have a clue what was going on in the weeks after September 18, 1967. As if the first-place Tigers hadn’t suffered enough of a blow earlier that day—a 10th-inning, come-from-behind win by the hot Boston Red Sox—word got out that they’d be without McLain’s services for the most crucial stretch of the season. The talented 23-year-old, still with a chance to secure 20 wins and a pennant for his team, was suddenly, and mysteriously, injured.

What happened? Hard to tell, especially because McLain changed his story a few times. (Story A: he’d stubbed two toes while he woke up after watching TV. Story B: he injured them when he ran after raccoons rummaging in his garbage. Story C: he kicked something--a water cooler? a locker?--after a heart-breaking loss.)

But sometimes the simplest story makes sense, and in February 1970 Sports Illustrated provided one: he’d become involved in a bookmaking operation as a partner, then had his toes stepped on and dislocated by a mobster who told him he’d better pay a $46,000 gambling debt.

Unlike Pete Rose or the infamous “Black Sox” of decades earlier, McLain had not bet on his own team. Bowie Kuhn could only establish that McLain thought he was a partner in the bookmaking operation and was probably the victim of a confidence scheme.

Still, several teammates thought their ace was gone for one, maybe two, seasons. Kuhn’s three-month ban, then, was something of a relief.

McLain’s return came on July 1, against the New York Yankees. As a Bronx Bomber fan, I can remember watching the game on TV, as well as the intense interest in the contest (71 writers and nearly 54,000 fans—the most in nine years--showed up at Tiger Stadium) and the announcers who observed that the pitcher, for all his greatness, tended to serve up “gopher balls.”

And that’s what happened then, too, as McLain was forced to leave the game in the sixth inning behind 5-3, having served up homers to Jerry Kenney, Bobby Murcer and Thurman Munson. It was a portent of the fastball that had suddenly gone AWOL.

It would take me all day to tell all of the strange, sad things that happened to this once-great pitcher thereafter, but here’s just a few of them, besides the ones I’ve already mentioned:

* After baseball, his weight ballooned to more than 300 pounds;

* In 1992, a beloved daughter died in a tragic car crash;

* In the late 1990s, while in prison for financial hanky-panky with his company’s pension fund, he came to share a cellblock with John Gotti Jr.; and

* In his third autobiography, this felon—who continually let down his teammates, his fans, and especially his family—had the nerve to write that his teammate, Hall of Famer Al Kaline, was guilty of dogging it at times in the field.

Quote of the Day (Jon Stewart, Venting About Twitter)

“Why do I have to follow CNN on Twitter? If I want to follow CNN, I can follow them on CNN.”— Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, voicing my own feelings about this micro-mini soundbite form of modern communication, quoted in “Soundbites/TV,” Entertainment Weekly, 2009 Year-End Special Issue

Tell ‘em who’s boss, Jon!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Quote of the Day (Liz Phair, Surely Wishing She Could Have Her Last Sentence Back Now)

“There’s no moisture, no hint of green left in the land. The mountains look as dry and cracked as a mummy’s tongue, and I can’t believe anyone ever made this trek on horseback. They call this stretch of road the Devil’s Playground, and there’s a sign along the highway with a skull and crossbones on it and a little silhouette of a roadrunner that says LAST GAS FOR 30 MILES. IF YOUR CAR BREAKS DOWN, NO ONE'S GOING TO COME LOOKING FOR YOU. MEEP! MEEP! Thank God I’m driving a Prius, I think.” [Emphasis in original.]—Liz Phair, “Exile in Greenville,” The Atlantic Monthly, March 2010

Musician-writer Liz Phair’s piece aims for enough snarkiness to take the edge off all that earnestness that inevitably surfaces as she whipsaws in Phoenix between a NASCAR event (The Checker O’Reilly Auto Parts 500—is this for real???) and the 2009 Greenbuild Expo on eco-conscious design—two events occurring simultaneously. Only in America!

(Surprise, surprise—NASCAR is more eco-conscious than one might ever dream—at least as embodied by female driver Leilani Munter, who speaks—who’d have thought it?—about “carbon footprints.” Just what you might expect from someone whose homepage urges, “Life is short. Race hard. Live green.”)

Unfortunately, even before one gets to the end of Liz's first paragraph, there’s that one sentence—yes, the “Thank God” one--that inevitably sticks in the mind. It underscores, in a big way, one major disadvantage of print compared with online writing: the still-sometimes-lengthy lead time between when an article is written and edited and when it finally is bound and on newsstands.

Surely, Liz wishes for the few extra weeks that more immediate online writing might have provided. Then, either she could have come up with—or a helpful editor might have suggested—a sentence like the following, one that takes into account news of Toyota’s Prius recall: Thank God I’m driving a Prius with brakes that still work.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Quote of the Day (Dominick Dunne, With the “Ash Wednesday” Joke That Got Him Excommunicated From Hollywood)

"If the history of this movie is ever written, it should be called 'When a fat girl falls in love.'"—Novelist-essayist Dominick Dunne, in the documentary Dominick Dunne: After the Party, recounting his joke about Hollywood ‘70s superagent Sue Mengers that finished his career as a producer.

In the above headline, “Ash Wednesday” doesn’t refer to the day that begins Lent, nor the T.S. Eliot poem referring to the same, but to something far more unholy—a 1973 Elizabeth Taylor film that few people have seen (and I confess that I’m one of the holdouts), and that many of its principals, from all accounts, wish they hadn’t made.

Dunne, who produced this box-office bomb (and who is with La Liz in the photo accompanying this post), took aim at two people with his remark: the film’s screenwriter, Jean-Claude Tramont, and especially the latter’s fiancée, Sue Mengers, then at the height of her power in Hollywood. (Another 1973 movie, the Anthony Perkins-Stephen Sondheim-penned The Last of Sheila, has Dyan Cannon in a thinly veiled portrait of the agent.) The latter didn’t appreciate the attempt at a witticism, and before Dunne knew it he was listening to studio head Robert Evans telling him, Listen—it’s over for you here.

Some might say that Dunne’s banishment recalls producer Julia Phillips’ You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again, or even that of his acquaintance Truman Capote. But I think the writer who understood his plight most deeply would have been John O’Hara, another social-climbing Irish-American novelist who knew intimately the agony of what he called being “cut dead” by old friends.

A prior post of mine, on the 1953 TV adaptation of O’Hara’s best novel, Appointment in Samarra, related how O’Hara invited the then-young TV stage manager Dunne out with the rest of the crew that had worked on that night’s taping of the show.

Dunne absorbed a lot that evening from the veteran writer on how to elicit information and listen, but he would have been well advised to pay equally strong attention to the message of O’Hara’s cautionary tale of a drink-induced faux pas and its disastrous consequences.

O’Hara’s protagonist, Julian English, begins his downfall when, in a bit of drunken pique, he hurls a drink in the face of arriviste Harry Reilly. English’s doom is sealed when the social circuit in his town, Gibbsville, turns their back to him in record time.

Dunne must have felt that his fall—hastened by alcohol and cocaine—happened even more rapidly: One day he was making his little joke in Europe, then before he could take it back, it had traveled halfway around the world, where it appeared verbatim in The Hollywood Reporter.

Two days ago, Leonard Lopate’s WNYC-FM radio show repeated its interview with Griffin Dunne, son of the novelist and nephew of novelist-screenwriter John Gregory Dunne. Griffin, with the sad duty of promoting his father’s posthumous novel Too Much Money, spoke with sympathy but also unblinking honesty about his late parent, as well as with the kind of understanding that his own experience with the entertainment industry (as actor-producer in films such as After Hours) has given him.

One of his father’s most prominent characteristics, he said, was a tendency to say anything, a penchant that got him into legal trouble a couple of years ago when his speculation on the death of Washington intern Chondra Levy sparked a lawsuit from her onetime married lover, former Congressman Gary Condit.

Hollywood will forgive a lot, even embezzlement (was Griffin thinking of the David Begelman-Cliff Robertson controversy?), the novelist’s son noted, but it won’t forgive failure. The dismal box-office results of Ash Wednesday ensured that Dominick Dunne’s assiduous courting of friends—not to mention virtually the only livelihood he’d known in adulthood—was over.

Several weeks from now, Hollywood will engage in its annual smarmy exercise in self-congratulation at the Oscars about its tolerance. Keep in mind their cold-shouldering of Dunne if you insist on watching the ceremonies.

At the same time, remember that this one story, despite the efforts of Mengers, Tramont, Evans, et. al., had a happy ending: Dunne rose from (the thought is inescapable, given the circumstances, the film title and today) the ashes.

Nearly a decade later, at the nadir of his life—career and marriage over, trying to rebound from substance abuse, his beloved daughter murdered by a boyfriend who received a shamefully short prison term—he turned his world around and began a new career, as a writer who acted as a kind of avenging angel for crime victims (e.g., Martha Moxley, the teenager who, a jury found, a quarter century after her death, had been murdered by Kennedy cousin Michael Skakel).

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Quote of the Day (Rita Rudner, on Daydreaming)

“I’ve been doing a lot of traveling lately. Not for pleasure. Just for work. Because I don’t travel for pleasure. I daydream so much I’m not here half the time. Be a waste of money for me to go someplace; I would be someplace else…Doesn’t matter. I’ve gotten so good at daydreaming, sometimes I come back with a tan.”—Stand-up comic Rita Rudner, quoted in Phil Berger, The Last Laugh: The World of Stand-Up Comics, Updated Edition (2000)

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Lincoln Memorial: Two Men Behind Freedom’s Shrine

In 1939, when the democratic experiment seemed even more endangered from within and without than it is now, two figures—one fictional, the other real—came to the Lincoln Memorial in moments of high drama that transfixed America.

In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, a film that made numerous congressmen and at least ambassador (Joseph P. Kennedy) apoplectic with its seriocomic depiction of corruption in the Capitol, young Senator Jefferson Smith comes to the memorial late at night, just after a day in which he feels his cause is hopelessly lost. There, under the watchful eyes of Honest Abe, he has an encounter that renews his resolve to battle his state’s all-powerful political machine again.

The same year Frank Capra’s classic premiered, Marian Anderson gave a stirring concert at the same spot, invited there by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt when the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow the African-American contralto sing in their hall. Many people felt, then and now, that no venue could compare in majesty and historical significance to the nation’s monument to the Great Emancipator.

Those not too busy going to malls on President’s Day might have come across—or at least thought about—the great Washington shrine to Abraham Lincoln. Somewhat fewer people might have thought about how the message and image of that immensely powerful shrine were shaped. In particular, two men played crucial roles in the words and shapes carved in that neoclassical temple to liberty and union.

Royal Cortissoz: Summoning Lincoln’s Commitment to Union, Through Words

The first was Royal Cortissoz, who, though not exactly a household name today, was influential enough in his time, as lecturer and art critic for the New York Herald-Tribune, to make the cover of Time Magazine in 1930. Chances are, you won’t know him by anything he wrote over his long career, but rather because of the inscription he wrote for this nation’s tribute to Lincoln that millions of tourists in Washington have seen: “In this temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever.”

In “An Epitaph for Mr. Lincoln,” in the February/March 1987 issue of American Heritage, H. Wayne Morgan related the story behind this inscription. It seems that Cortissoz became enraged at some ham-handed editing of the inscription suggested by President Warren Harding, insisting that it be used as is or not at all. Luckily, he induced architect Henry Bacon to intercede with Chief Justice William Howard Taft, who had it carved, unchanged, ASAP.

Interesting, this involvement of President Harding, who still fancied that he knew a thing or two about stringing words together, not merely as what passed in those days as an orator (H. L. Mencken, dissenting memorably, called the style “Gamalielese,” after the President’s middle name) but because of his past as an Ohio publisher. The President wanted to tinker with the rhythm of the sentence, but he had the background—and the genuine passion—to insist on something more radical in its sentiment.

In his contrarian short bio, Warren G. Harding, John W. Dean (yes, of Watergate fame!) includes a fascinating short section on “the most daring and controversial speech of Harding’s political career”: his address to a segregated audience of white Southerners in Birmingham, Ala., in 1921. The President flummoxed his audience by coming out four-square for economic and political equality for African-Americans: “Whether you like it or not, unless our democracy is a lie you must stand for that equality.”

Cortissoz’s inscription, on the other hand, beautifully paced as it is—and certainly true, so far as it goes—ended up sidestepping the challenge that Harding flung down to Southern audiences—the same kind of challenge that Lincoln ended up posing by the end of his life. Sixty-one years after Fort Sumter, when the Lincoln Memorial opened, the one thing that the North and South could still agree on was that Lincoln stood for the Union, and that was a good thing.

There is a powerful and important way to think of the Union as the fulfillment of the hopes of liberty—i.e., as assurance that the republic would stand for majority rule, and not collapse into anarchy through the machinations of a minority.

But Lincoln—as John Wilkes Booth certainly came to realize—had come to advocate far more than that. As historians—and especially revisionist ones—never fail to point out, the Emancipation Proclamation did not free a single slave in the North, only those in the South, in territories the North had not yet controlled. Moreover, the President did not come out for universal suffrage for all African-Americans.

But the Thirteenth Amendment, supported by the President, ended slavery, and just before he was murdered, Lincoln suggested that African-American soldiers—as well as “more intelligent” blacks and those who had supported the Union during the war—should be given the right to vote.

The latter might not sound like much, but remember this: In a profoundly racist society, no American President had even advocated that much. Booth knew how radical it was, and as soon as he heard it, he was hell-bent on his assassination scheme.

The America of 1922 retained a nervous, still-pinched vision of what support for the Union meant. But the notion of Union could also be thought of in the terms that Daniel Webster—and Lincoln—believed: “Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!”

Daniel Chester French: The Image of Lincoln

So, there you have the words (aside from the immortal words of Lincoln himself, carved on the walls). But there’s also the image, the great and mighty statue of the seated, somber, impossibly wise President.

For an understanding of that, I suggest you journey up through the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts, to the town of Stockbridge. While you’re there visiting a museum dedicated to another artist indelibly associated with Americana, Norman Rockwell, you can stop, as I did some years ago, at Chesterwood, the home, studio and gardens of Daniel Chester French, the great sculptor who specialized in larger-than-life figures who flourished in extraordinary circumstances, such as The Minuteman Monument; the mounted George Washington in Paris; and the Lincoln Memorial.

The emotions French evoked—heroism, patriotism, sentimentality—often appear to be relics of a bygone era. Yet the sight of these works summon forth more than a glimmer of recognition; they also induce stabs of wistful nostalgia and dreams of a more innocent, more reverend time. “I fear my inclination,” French confessed to a friend in 1919, “is to ignore too much the gloom and emphasize the beauty and joy of life—leaving out the snake which alas! was devised with Paradise.”

French and Rockwell shared several common traits, besides their unabashed attachment to America and to Stockbridge. Both were born in New York City but came to Stockbridge in middle age when they were already well established in their careers. Both became famous while still only in their 20s and remained famous and productive into their 70s. Both achieved their enormous success through a fierce work ethic and a Yankee sense of thrift.

Standing in the studio of Daniel Chester French, your eyes taking in the numerous models and casts he created, you sense more than simply his talent and self-discipline. No, you realize, gazing up through the skylight, that French’s spirit was likewise sunny—an ideal medium to express the optimism of a nation finally united after the Civil War and coming into its own as a world power.

By the time he bought the Marshall Warner farm in Stockbridge in 1896, French was already in the third decade of a public career that had begun spectacularly with The MinuteMan Monument (commissioned 1871). The property captured his heart for much the same reason that artists were drawn to the Berkshires before and since: for the landscape. The view of Monument Mountain, he claimed, was the best “dry view” (i.e., view without water) he had ever seen.

Besides the skylight, the most striking aspect of French’s studio is the truncated railroad track running 50 feet from a tree outside to inside the studio. With so many of his commissions involving outside statues, French needed not just the natural light that streamed from above, but a total exterior environment. The railroad handcar enabled him to put his creations out in the open to test how they looked.

The studio’s examples of models in succeeding stages of development enable you to see how French settled on his overarching conceptions before fleshing out the details of his works. First, he presented clients with a “maquette,” a plaster cast of a of a simple clay “sketch” in three-dimensional form. Once the client approved French’s concept, the sculptor progressed to larger models, each time adding subtle details. In models for the Lincoln Memorial that are on display in the studio, for instance, French added a chair, then drapery.

French, along with Augustus Saint-Gaudens, was the sculptor of choice for his time. More than 100 commissions came his way during his career. The Boston-to-Washington corridor is filled with his work.

The Boston-Cambridge area contained his statues of the Irish-American editor John Boyle O’Reilly; historian Francis Parkman; John Harvard, founder of perhaps America’s most famous school of higher learning; and the allegorical figures of Truth, Romance, Music and Poetry on the doors of the Boston Public Library. Alma Mater holds a commanding view of the quadrangle at the center of Columbia University in New York City.

Washington, of course, holds his magisterial seated figure of the 16th President in the Lincoln Memorial. (Chesterwood visitors can see a unique counterpart to this in a garden in back, which contains French’s models for a standing Lincoln that was placed in Lincoln, Nebraska.)

Quote of the Day (Rule of “Civility & Decent Behavior” Mastered by Washington)

“Let thy carriage be such as becomes a Man Grave Settled and attentive to that which is spoken. Contradict not at every turn what others Say.”-- Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation (1595)

Stuart Weisberg’s Barney Frank: The Story of America’s Only Left-Handed, Gay, Jewish Congressman mentions that the Massachusetts Representative posts in his office one of George Washington’s 110 “Rules of Civility”: “Be not tedious in Discussion, / make not many Digressions.”

I have my issues with some of Frank’s positions, and his flip nature puts him in daily violation of this particular rule. But give him credit: he knows a good role model when he sees one. Moreover, as a bit of advice for any walk of life, not just politicians, this guideline is not bad.

After I read about this rule, I wondered what the other ones on the lengthy list were.

Well, in the first place, Washington didn’t create the rules himself. He copied them out as a teenager, probably at the behest of his schoolmaster. They were conceived in 1595 by a group that Washington, like fellow Virginian deists like Thomas Jefferson—and, indeed, the great mass of Protestant-dominated America of colonial times—actively distrusted: French Jesuits.

Like certain injunctions in the Book of Leviticus, a number of those assumptions, wrenched out of the context of their times, might strike moderns as quaint, petty, even ridiculous (“Kill no Vermin as Fleas, lice ticks &c in the Sight of Others, if you See any filth or thick Spittle put your foot Dexterously upon it if it be upon the Cloths of your Companions, Put it off privately, and if it be upon your own Cloths return Thanks to him who puts it off”).

And, despite his posthumous reputation, Washington, like Representative Frank, had his problems adhering to at least one of the rules: in his case, “Use no Reproachful Language against any one neither Curse nor Revile.” Though, after years of struggle, he usually managed to keep his temper in check, it could burst out when provoked unduly, as General Charles Lee learned early on at the Battle of Monmouth, when his insubordination nearly lost that battle—and Washington confronted his subordinate about it in no uncertain terms.

Still, the rules could be helpful, and not just for an ambitious young man who hoped at first to make his way into the British military, then into colonial society. Benjamin Franklin created his own 13 rules to live by, which, in one way or another, planted the seeds for the maxims scattered across his Poor Richard’s Almanack across the years. (Ben, too, had trouble living up to all of his rules, especially the ones about humility and chastity.)

What concerned Washington and Franklin remains a live question in America today: the matter of moral formation. Undoubtedly, the rules copied by Washington had an ethical rather than strictly sectarian component (making it easy to transfer from French Jesuits to Virginian Anglicans), but they were often taught in unabashedly religious schools.

In rather bastardized form, these types of rules degenerate into rules for success—the kind of thing parodied in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, when Nick reads the Franklin-like maxims that the young James Gatz set for himself. But, though it’s easy to condescend about the admonitions that Washington and Franklin copied or conceived for themselves, surpassing them is not necessarily better.

Character formation is considered a worthwhile goal by state education departments, but their method of achieving it can be abstruse (try getting kids to learn the fine points of comparative religions—understanding their own faith, let alone anybody else’s, is often beyond them). Sometimes simplicity, as Washington and Franklin could tell you, works best.

Washington certainly did adhere to one rule he copied: the one I quoted above. Part of the awe he inspired among his contemporaries derived from the gravitas he conveyed. He took a long time to say anything, but once he had, according to Jefferson, his judgment was impeccable.

Sure, many people today would regard him as a big stiff, but to contemporaries he was, in the words of biographer James Thomas Flexner, “the indispensable man,” the one who would not be sidetracked by trivia from whatever mission he set out for himself, and the one he would not be swayed by considerations of power or personal profit. And, as a general rule, more than a few of today’s politicians could try to live better by the rules of etiquette that guided him.

Come to think of it, today’s Congress—and cable TV news shows of the left and right--could do with a lot less “thick Spittle” during debate.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Quote of the Day (Thomas a Kempis, on Love)

“Love is swift, pure, meek, joyous and glad, strong, patient, faithful, wise, forbearing, manly, and never seeking himself or his own will; for whensoever a man seeketh himself, he falleth from love.” –Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, translated by Richard Whitford

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Quote of the Day (The Duke of Windsor, on American Parents and Children)

“The thing that impresses me most about America is the way parents obey their children.”—Edward, Duke of Windsor, Look Magazine, March 5, 1957

(Thanks to Brian for the suggestion.)

Friday, February 12, 2010

This Day in Holocaust History (Birth of Julius Streicher, Purveyor of Hate)

February 12, 1885—In the quiet village of Fleinhausen, in the Bavarian section of Germany, Julius Streicher, the son of a teacher, was born. As an adult, he would only briefly take up the educational profession into which his father and some siblings entered, instead teaching Germany, through his newspaper and publishing house, rancidly racist principles that resulted in the deaths of six million Jews at the hands of the Nazi regime.

In Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer, the father of fictional alter ego Nathan Zuckerman, disturbed by a short story he regards as encouraging anti-Semitism, prevails upon a judge friend of his to send the young writer a questionnaire. One of the questions is, “Can you honestly say that there is anything in your short story that would not warm the heart of a Julius Streicher or a Joseph Goebbels?” That little incident vividly expresses the revulsion this propagandist can still inspire.

It’s hard to believe that Streicher was born 20 years after the last birthday that Abraham Lincoln ever celebrated. While the American used words to remind listeners of their shared humanity with a group they eventually freed, the Nazi publisher used his paper, Der Stürmer (translated, chillingly, as “The Stormtrooper”) in an inflammatory campaign that sought, in stages, to defame, disenfranchise, dehumanize, then destroy the Jews of Germany.

Like Adolf Hitler, Streicher was a decorated (Iron Cross, First Class) WWI veteran who threw in his lot with right-wing extremists in the fevered aftermath of the conflict. He gained credibility with Hitler by merging the German Socialist Party with the fledgling National Socialist German Workers' Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei), or Nazi Party. Almost overnight, according to Richard J. Evans’ The Coming of the Third Reich, Streicher’s action succeeded in virtually doubling the Nazi Party membership.

Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect-turned-armaments-minister, noted that in the years after the disastrous Beer-Hall Putsch of 1923, Streicher was one of only four men for whom Hitler employed the familiar address du. No wonder: while the presence of intelligent, urbane men such as Speer might have convinced some well-meaning citizens of Western democracies that the threat of Nazism was way overhyped, it was people such as the crude, head-shaven, whip-wielding Streicher who supplied much of the vicious energy of the movement. He was truly one of Hitler's foot soldiers.

It was Streicher who, in the 1920s, was ejected from one public meeting after another, often escorted out by police, for his incivility. It was Streicher who provided Hitler with a foothold in Nuremberg, then gave one of the speeches urging the overthrow of the Weimar government in the 1923 putsch. It was Streicher who organized the first boycott against Jewish merchants after Hitler seized power 10 years later.

Hitler expressed his gratitude by appointing Streicher a Gauleiter (district leader) of Franconia. In that post, Streicher displayed no real talent for administration but plenty for turning other Nazis against him. Running afoul of Herman Goering meant that he ended up being relieved of his government posts.

Hitler had enough residual affection for his old party comrade that he allowed Streicher to remain at Der Stürmer until the end of the Third Reich. That was where his evil genius lay, in any case. Day after day, for 20 years, his newspaper churned out anti-Semitic bile, often in the form of cartoons featuring Jews as, among other things, vampires.

His most baleful influence, I think, might have been on children. As a schoolteacher, Streicher learned how to reach young minds; as a publisher, he twisted them.

One particularly shocking example of his handiwork was Der Giftpilz (“The Poisonous Mushroom”), a children’s tale sometimes used in German classrooms, featuring all kinds of leering, innuendo-filled propaganda (e.g., a cartoon of an Aryan woman, “Inge,” visiting her Jewish doctor is accompanied by this caption: “Two criminal eyes flashed behind the glasses and the fat lips grinned.")

One minute with the contents of Streicher’s publications would be enough to convince anybody that his was an essentially pornographic imagination, and that’s exactly what turned out to be. When he was removed from office in 1940, a large cache of pornography was discovered in his home. For nearly 20 years, he had projected the contents of his own diseased mind onto an entire race.

Though his removal from office meant that he did not help plan the Holocaust nor participate in killings, Streicher was found guilty at the postwar Nuremberg trials and hanged for inciting Germans to commit mass murder. In his final statement at the trial, he vehemently denied any role in this: “I repudiate the mass killings . . . in the same way as they are repudiated by every decent German.”

It was one more big lie told by a regime that specialized in it. As early as February 1940, Streicher predicted in Der Stermer: “"At the end of this Jewish war the extermination of the Jewish people will have been brought about."

After 9/11, Americans were shocked to find that Saudi textbooks were filled with ant-Semitic stereotypes and invective very similar to those peddled by Hitler’s hate merchant. Yet, so far as I’m aware, nobody has ever set out to expose the Julius Streichers of the Arab world. More than 60 years after his death, on an entirely different continent from where he wreaked havoc, the falsehoods he spread continue to infect the minds of millions.

Quote of the Day (William Carlos Williams, on Artists’ Secrecy)

“That’s the release we get from writing, we may retreat there ourselves, into our own work (if you can call it that) from praise or censure—or contempt. Our poems are to us the mouse nest in the grass where we actually live and about which we feel, the less said the better. All artists are secretive and fly from a style which has been found out.”—William Carlos Williams, letter to Marianne Moore, November 7, 1944, in Selected Letters of William Carlos Williams, edited by John C. Thirlwall (1957)

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Quote of the Day (F.W. de Klerk, on Ending Apartheid)

“How would South Africa have looked today if we had not signed the agreements which were reached? We would not have exported one case of wine this year. [Wine is now one of South Africa’s healthiest export sectors.] We would have been totally isolated. South Africa would have been on a downward slope towards calamity and catastrophe. So the new South Africa, warts and all, is a much better place.”—F.W. de Klerk, quoted in Alec Russell, “Lunch With the FT: F.W. de Klerk,” The Financial Times, January 23, 2010

F.W. deKlerk, former President of South Africa, states in the Financial Times interview what would seem obvious to many in the West, but not to those in the unrelentingly racist state he once headed. That’s why his release on this date 20 years ago of Nelson Mandela is rightly celebrated as a major historical event.

Mandela might be the most widely admired leader of the past several decades—a civil-rights figure who, unlike Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was not only able to see the destruction of apartheid in his country but also to participate in his land’s new power arrangements.

Mandela endured 27 years in prison, but his patience had limits, as deKlerk bluntly admits. Once outside, the African National Congress leader pressed the man who freed him for further concessions to South Africa’s black majority.

Several times, Mandela called deKlerk out publicly for his go-slow, halfway measures. Though friends today, the two men—who shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 “for their work for the peaceful termination of the apartheid regime, and for laying the foundations for a new democratic South Africa"—had a testy relationship for quite a while in the mid-1990s.

The tenor of that relationship recalls a similar one between a human-rights icon and an ambivalent transformational agent in a rights-abusing state: Soviet scientist Andrei Sakharov and the last leader of the old Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev. From 1986, when he was released from prison, to his death in 1989, Sakharov acted as a burr in the side of the Communist Party’s General Secretary in urging greater democratization.

DeKlerk is scorned by Afrikaners who feel disenfranchised in the new South Africa born from the agreements with Mandela referred to in his quote, and Gorbachev is a non-person as far as most of the Russian electorate is concerned. (The nation’s loss of influence in Eastern Europe, along with the economic vertigo that ensued when Gorbachev tried to reform the government, remained in voters’ minds in the 1996 Russian Presidential election, when he received less than 2% of the vote.)

Both leaders will surely be judged more positively by historians, for actions that were not only morally right but—their internal hard-line critics to the contrary—were also absolutely necessary if their country desired legitimacy in the community of nations.