Saturday, December 31, 2011

This Day in Presidential History (Lincoln Fends Off Critics)

December 31, 1861 As the first year of his administration drew to a close, President Abraham Lincoln sought to ease the concerns of a small group of meddlesome but highly influential Congressmen that the direction of the effort to crush the Confederacy needed to be changed quickly. Seldom has the Clausewitz dictum that war is the continuation of politics by other means been demonstrated so much as in Lincoln’s attempt to maintain unity between the nation’s representatives and its armed forces, as well as among the states.

The postwar public deification of Lincoln should not blind us to the fact that, well into his administration, he had neither a master plan to win the Civil War nor the extensive military experience that provided instant credibility for George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower on national-security issues. His was, inescapably, a reactive Presidency: “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me,” Lincoln wrote in a letter in April 1864.

The subject of this letter was the measures Lincoln had adopted to advance the Union effort. His observation that “indispensable necessity” had guided him throughout, despite seeming policy changes, can be seen nowhere more vividly than with the slavery issue.

As much as he had felt a bone-deep hatred for "the peculiar institution" since a trip down the Mississippi to Louisiana in the early 1830s, Lincoln felt that he had to tread cautiously in stamping it out, and not only because that action would break a campaign promise only to limit its spread,  not to interfere where it curently operated. Use of slaves to crush the Confederacy by force might only lead border states such as Kentucky and Missouri to throw in their lot with their secessionist sisters farther south. The President preferred colonization and/or compensation emancipation for slaveholders. The failure of these proposals, along with reverses in the eastern theater of the war, led him to conclude later in 1862 that necessity required “military emancipation.”

But Lincoln had not reached this point when he and his Cabinet met with the Joint Select Committee on the Conduct of the War on the last day of 1861. Only appointed by the House and Senate less than two weeks before, the Republican majority on this group were already giving the President severe agita, and much more would come from them by war’s end. While well-meaning and capable of performing useful investigations (on such matters as military supply abuses, the Fort Pillow massacre, and Union troop deaths in Confederate prisons), they were also already driving the President crazy with their preference for state militias over West Point-trained soldiers, as well as their relentless urging to take Richmond, never mind the preparedness of Union troops for doing so.

Now in their sights was the Army of the Potomac’s new commander, General George B. McClellan. “Little Mac” had long put off any move toward invading Virginia, claiming that the less than two months he had had since being appointed commander was hardly enough time to train, provision, and organize his 100,000 troops. But discussions with other military commanders led the committee to believe that the general could have moved far sooner. This added to their initial grievances against him: his Democratic leanings and his stand against interfering in any way with slavery.

Even McClellan’s latest claim to Lincoln--that he was in bed with typhoid--cut the general little slack with the group. Senator Benjamin Wade from Ohio, the committee chairman whose lack of diplomacy led a reporter to call him "grim as a bear in ill health," got right to the point: “Mr. President, you are murdering your country by inches in consequence of the inactivity of the military and the want of a distinct policy in regard to slavery.”

This put Lincoln in a bind. He did not want to undercut the man he had chosen to succeed General Winfield Scott as America’s leading soldier. At the same time, unlike Confederate President Jefferson Davis—not only a West Point graduate, but also a hero of the Mexican-American War and Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce—Lincoln had no sterling military credentials. Not only had he made himself conspicuous by opposing the conflict that started Davis’ upward trajectory, but he liked to joke about the limits of his own service record—three months in the Illinois militia in the Black Hawk War of 1832.

And so, the President chose, when he wasn't cheerleading the war effort, to bring the committee's Republicans and his balky general closer together. On New Year’s Day, Lincoln wrote McClellan to put aside his "uneasiness" about the joint committee's "doings": "You may be entirely relieved . . . The gentlemen of the Committee were with me an hour and a half last night; and I found them in a perfectly good mood. As their investigation brings them acquainted with facts, they are rapidly coming to think of the whole case as all sensible men woud."

Had Lincoln lived in the 21st century, it’s unlikely that this letter, however well-intentioned, would have done him any good. Just imagine this, a scenario repeated, with only slight variations, in recent years: lack of progress in the war leads the Democrats to regain control of Congress. When Lincoln removes McClellan from command, the Senate investigates. McClellan, called to testify, produces the President’s letter. “Honest Abe” ends up looking like a spinmeister, The Great Dissembler rather than the Great Railsplitter.

Over the next two weeks, the joint committee grew increasingly outspoken about the President's trust in his commander. Indiana's George Julian was stunned to find that the President and his Cabinet had no information on any of McClellan's plans, and that "Mr. Lincoln himself did not think he had any right to know, but that, as he was not a military man, it was his duty to defer to General McClellan."

Even at the time, Lincoln’s trust in his general didn’t sit well with several people, not just the Joint Committee. Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase made it plain even during the meeting that he agreed with the Congressmen and Senators.

More influential was Attorney-General Edward Bates. He, like Chase and Secretary of State William H. Seward, had battled Lincoln for the Republican nomination as President, but, with instincts more conservative than Chase’s, could not be written off as a radical abolitionist.

In his diary, Bates confided his dismay over what he had just witnessed: "The Prest. is an excellent man, and in the main wise; but he lacks will and purpose, and I greatly fear he, has not the power to command." In dealing one on one with the President,  however, he was far more diplomatic, able to couch his tough love in legal arguments that Lincoln would find compelling.

It would not do for Lincoln to defer so often to McClellan, Bates claimed. The Constitution had explicitly vested in him power as Commander in Chief. Thus, Lincoln should "organize a Staff of his own, and assume to be in fact, what he is in law."

Lincoln was motivated enough by Bates' claims that he took out a book on military strategy from the Library of Congress. He became increasingly wedded to the idea of simultaneous attacks by Northern forces to prevent Confederate troop movements. While he continued to find the committee bothersome, they had shaken him enough that, from this point on, he challenged "Little Mac" more often to take the fight to the enemy.

As for the Joint Committee: They should be given due credit for recognizing early that McClellan was unsuited for his job and that emancipation was not only moral thing to do, but a weapon to destroy the Confederacy. But their thinking on other matters was terribly flawed. Their military favorites were leaders such as John Pope, Ambrose Burnside and Joseph Hooker--commanders hardly better than McClellan.

Their thinking about Lincoln was as myopic as it was cruel. After his assassination, several members were delighted that the President's successor, their former Democratic colleague, Andrew Johnson, would be far more vengeful against the South. By the end of Johnson's term, as he opposed one Reconstruction measure after another, Wade and company would have abundant reason to understand how wrong they had been about Lincoln, who, for all his seeming slowness, had embraced emancipation while eventually finding the commander who would put his strategy for dismembering the Confederacy into action.

Flashback, December 1941: Wartime Film Short Marks Ford-Hepburn Affair

A little more than two weeks after Pearl Harbor, Hollywood swung into action behind the war effort with Women in Defense, a short documentary directed by John Ford and narrated by Katharine Hepburn (pictured). Their relationship had led Ford, then Hollywood’s hottest director (two consecutive Best Director Oscars), to a painful moral dilemma and, more recently, a surprising resolution.

Hollywood’s gung-ho attitude toward the war might seem hard to believe nowadays, but there was surprisingly little anti-war dissent in the film community, for these reasons:

* The U.S. had suffered a surprise attack by the Japanese, so there was no question who was the aggressor;

* As the children of immigrants--or even immigrants themselves--Hollywood’s studio moguls, a heavily Jewish group, were understandably anxious to demonstrate patriotism to a public that still evinced all too much anti-Semitism;

* The moguls also wanted to defeat Hitler, whose mistreatment of Jews in both his country and lands conquered by his forces was already manifest (even if the Holocaust was only barely beginning);

* The most leftist elements in Hollywood--Communists and fellow-travelers--switched from opposition to support of the war following Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union.

As my friend, fellow blogger Dennis Brady, noted in a recent post about the 8th Army Air Force, a number of Hollywood stars, notably including Clark Gable and James Stewart, served with distinction in the war.

Writers and directors presented special cases. Their talents consisted of presenting stories and crafting images were deemed crucially important in creating films for a mass audience. Over the next four years, Ford, Frank Capra, John Huston, George Stevens, and William Wyler would cooperate with the War Department, the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Marine Corps, the Army Pictorial Services, the Army Educational Program, the American Armed Forces First Motion Picture Unit, and other units in explaining, both to servicemen and their worried families, “Why We Fight” (to use the title of Capra’s seven-film series). They would counter the black art of propaganda, as practiced by Josef Goebbels and Leni Riefenstahl, with a more benign variety.

Women in Defense, released on Christmas Eve, was a good case in point.  The 10-minute film, with a script by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, depicted women as instrumental in preparing for the coming war, working in scientific, industrial, and voluntary-services activities such as sewing parachutes in silk, testing chemicals on mice as part of health programs, shaping bullets and other munitions, and giving out blood that might be used later with wounded soldiers.

Viewers caught up in aspects of the film that would seem familiar to them—Hepburn’s upper-crust diction, Ford’s homey images of communities coming together—would not know at the time that the relationship between the star and her onetime director contained its own love, longing, and pain, tried by circumstance and the passage of time.

Five years before, shortly after filming concluded of their flop Mary of Scotland, Hepburn and Ford seemed on the brink of marriage, particularly following their idyllic trip to her family home, Fenwick. But the devoutly Catholic Ford interpreted the death of his father immediately afterward as a divine judgment on their illicit relationship, and Hepburn’s offer to his wife Mary--$150,000, in return for ending the marriage and granting him access to his beloved daughter Barbara—only hardened Mary’s opposition to their union. “Jack is very religious, he’ll never divorce me,” Mary predicted confidently. “He’ll never have grounds to divorce me. I’m going to be Mrs. John Ford until I die.”

That is how it turned out, but for the next five years, the Ford-Hepburn affair had a curious half-life. They never spoke of marriage again, and by 1938 Hepburn had decamped for the East Coast while Ford stayed in Hollywood. But they remained fond of each other, and, even as the actress was pursued by billionaire aviator Howard Hughes, the possibility of a permanent union between the two seemed out of the question so long as Ford figured in the background.

Then, in 1941, several developments changed the nature of the relationship between Ford and Hepburn for good:

* Ford’s sense of betrayal over Hepburn’s affair with Spencer Tracy. Ford gave Spencer Tracy his first break in Hollywood with Up the River (1930), but relations between the two cooled after the actor rejected the lead in Ford’s adaptation of The Plough and the Stars. Within a week of the start of production of Hepburn’s first film with Tracy, Woman of the Year, as industry insiders began to gossip about the possibility of an affair between the two MGM stars, Ford traveled cross-country to Washington, D.C., where he would begin serving as part of what later became the Field Photographic Unit under William “Wild Bill” Donovan, head of the CIA’s precursor, the Office of Strategic Services. Cast and crew members on his films, long given to interpreting what his sometimes mysterious actions (or even lack of them) betokened, had no doubt that this was his way of registering disapproval.

* The death of Mary’s first husband. Though Ford and Mary had married in 1920, it had not been a Catholic ceremony, because the bride was divorced and Protestant. By 1941, Mary’s ex-husband had died. Her conversion to Catholicism removed the only obstacle to the religious ceremony that Ford had long wanted.

* Pearl Harbor. Mary, complaining of loneliness, had traveled to DC to see her husband off to his new naval job when the Japanese attack on December 7 occurred. Perhaps the prospect of death in a war now at hand decided John. Before the month was out, the couple was at last married by a Catholic priest in the National Cathedral in Washington.

Ford, who would be promoted to Captain in the U.S. Naval Reserve by war’s end, continued to create films of distinction while n the armed forces. He won two more Oscars, this time for Best Documentary, with The Battle of Midway (1942) and December 7th (1943). (At Midway, where he was wounded in the shoulder and elbow so badly that he was temporarily knocked unconscious, he is said, while filming in an exposed watertower at the height of the battle, to have yelled “at the attacking Zeroes to swing left or right--and curs[ed] them out when they disobeyed directions.”)

Ford’s World War II works, concluding with the fictional full-length feature They Were Expendable (1945), depict the conflict less as a matter of glory than as sacrifice for an ideal. That might also characterize his relationship with Hepburn. Given his devotion to Catholicism, marriage to the star, at least while his wife was alive, was out of the question.

But the great director, crusty to cast and crew to the point of abusiveness, still carried a noticeable soft spot for the actress. His rollicking 1952 valentine to Ireland, The Quiet Man, featured a chief female character named Mary Kate Dannaher. It’s impossible not to read those the first and middle names without thinking of the two most important women in his life. When Hepburn came to visit, as he was dying in March 1973, he threw her off-balance first by telling her she was beautiful, then by asking if she knew that he loved her.

It is one of the curiosities of Hollywood biography that unconventional, freethinking Connecticut Yankee Kate Hepburn gave her heart to two Irish-American Catholics unwilling to divorce their wives and bent on self-destruction: Ford and Tracy. The only way that I can begin to understand this is by thinking that each relationship began with admiration for two film professionals who had virtually no equals at their craft, then passed into an understanding and love for the sensitivity that these men hid as much from themselves as from the world.

Quote of the Day (Euripides, with a Thought to Ring Out the Old Year)

“Time will explain it all. He is a talker, and needs no questioning before he speaks.”—Greek playwright Euripides (ca. 480 B.C.-406 B.C.), Aeolus

Friday, December 30, 2011

Quote of the Day (Edith Wharton, on “Mute Melancholy” Ethan Frome)

“The next morning, when I looked out, I saw the hollow-backed bay between the Varnum spruces, and Ethan Frome, throwing back his worn bearskin, made room for me in the sleigh at his side. After that, for a week, he drove me over every morning to Corbury Flats, and on my return in the afternoon met me again and carried me back through the icy night to Starkfield…. Ethan Frome drove in silence, the reins loosely held in his left hand, his brown seamed profile, under the helmet-like peak of the cap, relieved against the banks of snow like the bronze image of a hero. He never turned his face to mine, or answered, except in monosyllables, the questions I put, or such slight pleasantries as I ventured. He seemed a part of the mute melancholy landscape, an incarnation of its frozen woe, with all that was warm and sentient in him fast bound below the surface; but there was nothing unfriendly in his silence. I simply felt that he lived in a depth of moral isolation too remote for casual access, and I had the sense that his loneliness was not merely the result of his personal plight, tragic as I guessed that to be, but had in it, as Harmon Gow had hinted, the profound accumulated cold of many Starkfield winters.”—Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome (1911)

I should have written about Ethan Frome in September, on what would have been the centennial of its publication by Scribner’s, but the date slipped by. Perhaps it’s for the best: Ever since I read this as a high-school freshman 37 years ago this month, it’s impressed me as the most wintry of fiction.

The 1993 film adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novella was a major disappointment. It had all the hallmarks of a production that would have come close to matching its high literary quality, especially with the leading actors in the rural love triangle: Liam Neeson as Ethan Frome, Joan Allen as his shrewish wife Zeena, and Patricia Arquette as their pretty young servant, Mattie Silver. Unfortunately, the pacing was glacial, a far cry from the original source’s concentrated, searing plot.

The description above alone is highly cinematic, filled with precise, economically selected details that accumulate to heavy symbolism.

Consider the name of the village: Starkfield. Can you think of a name more resonant in classic American literature? It evokes an environment in which everything is stunted. Production for both crops and mills is meager, and the barrenness extends to the Fromes’ marriage, which has produced no children (Zeena, several years older than her husband, is constantly sickly) and only a joyless fidelity that is no substitute for love.

The above description of Frome, coming from the novella’s prologue, is preceded by another in which the narrator is brought up short by the sight of the taciturn farmer, “the ruin of a man,” characterized by “a lameness checking each step like the jerk of a chain—which, we’ll discover shortly, implies the restrictions imposed by Frome’s marriage.

Frome’s bearskin is “worn”—i.e., tattered, beaten-down, defeated. His silence during his drive practically becomes absorbed into the larger “mute melancholy landscape, an incarnation of its frozen woe.” The subdued repetitions (Frome’s “silence” and the “mute” landscape, “melancholy” and “woe”) work in counterpoint to the talk about him in the town. Most ironically, the surprising and grim conclusion overturns nearly everything that Harmon Gow had hinted.

The most natural detail in this description might also be the most symbolic. Ethan’s bay, we are told, is “hollow-backed.” Similar to the term “broken-backed,” this implies that the horse is staggering beneath a crushing weight, just as Ethan is in his daily existence. The impact of burdens, on both the horse and its master, is profound: “hollow-backed” is a common equine deformity (a back curved abnormally downward), reflecting Frome’s own disability.

The narrator is driven in Frome’s sleigh, the vehicle that, by the story’s end, will lead to the farmer’s death-in-life. At the same time, Wharton cannot simple promote a weakling pummeled by circumstance. A tragedy requires a hero, someone whose strength makes inevitable his decision to rebel against fate. And so, she provides a quick suggestion of latent possibility, a “brown seamed profile, under the helmet-like peak of the cap, relieved against the banks of snow like the bronze image of a hero”—a Berkshires Achilles.

Such a hero must be strong indeed even to think of defying the bonds of society’s conventions. Wharton memorably evokes Frome’s failure to remake his world because it is a fictional incarnation of her own. Three years before the novel’s publication, in an effort to break free from her unhappy marriage, she had embarked on an affair with the American journalist Morton Fullerton. (Indeed, the first initials of the novella’s lovers clue us in to their fictional inspirations: Ethan=Edith, Mattie=Morton.)

One might ask how Wharton, a product of the New York aristocracy, could write so convincingly of the Berkshire poor. It’s easy enough to ascribe it to imagination (and you can practically hear Wharton guffawing in her autobiography, A Backward Glance, over the reviewers who stated, incorrectly, that she had never seen the Berkshires before she wrote about them). But, if she might not have been able to understand Ethan Frome’s economic plight, Wharton understood the psychological bonds that restricted and deformed her failed hero all too well.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

TV Quote of the Day (Mary Tyler Moore, on a Different Kind of Family)

Mary Richards (played by Mary Tyler Moore): “Mr. Grant? Could I say what I wanted to say now? Please?”
Lou Grant (played by Ed Asner): “Okay, Mary.”

Mary: “Well I just wanted to let you know that sometimes I get concerned about being a career woman. I get to thinking that my job is too important to me. And I tell myself that the people I work with are just the people I work with. But last night I thought what is family anyway? It's the people who make you feel less alone and really loved. [She sobs]
And that's what you've done for me. Thank you for being MY family.”--The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Season 7, Episode 24, “
The Last Show,” air date March 19, 1977, written by Allan Burns, James L. Brooks, Ed Weinberger, Stan Daniels, David Lloyd, and Bob Ellison, directed by Jay Sandrich
Mary Tyler Moore, 75 years old today? Where did the years go?

How many performers are lucky enough to lead one classic TV series, let alone two? How many, in both cases, end the show while it's still on top? How many influence an entire generation of women with a landmark depiction of a single woman in her 30s, happy in her job and her life? As one of those women, screenwriter-director Nora Ephron, wrote in an essay on The Mary Tyler Moore Show in Prime Times: Writers on Their Favorite TV Shows (2004): "You made it possible for millions of Americans to stay home on Saturday night and not feel they were missing anything. For that alone I love you."

From the moment she began playing young suburban wife and mom Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show, Mary Tyler Moore endeared herself to TV audiences. With then-husband Grant Tinker, she went on to tweak the workplace-comedy format for the series named after her that began its run in 1970.

Though her own series included Mary Richards’ friends Rhoda Morgenstern and Phyllis Lindstrom, the heart of the show was the newsroom WJM-TV. It’s a testament to Moore’s healthy ego--and sense of what made for great television--that she so often played straight lady to her fellow cast members, transforming a bunch of supporting players into more like an ensemble in which she functioned as first among equals.

As the show evolved, it became increasingly clear that Mary’s workplace was, as the above quote indicates, a second family. The ending for the show devised by her, Tinker, and their marvelous creative team at MTM, now that I think of it, has only gained in meaning with time. The funny--but capricious--fate of WJM (the company acquiring the station cleans house, terminating everyone but incompetent anchorman Ted Baxter) now seems like a harbinger for all that has befallen journalism and the American economy as a whole in the years since.

If the workplace is a form of family, as so many of us feel about the arena where we spend so many of our waking hours, then its changes take on enormous importance. When those changes happen for no good reason, they can tear at the fabric of your life. On the other hand, if you’re lucky, you’ll meet someone like Mary Richards, who’ll make you laugh and lift your heart, even in the darkest moments.

I write “someone like Mary” because there really is only one Mary Tyler Moore. Over the last few years, she’s battled health issues (e.g., loss of peripheral vision due to diabetes, removal of a benign tumor from the lining around her brain). When she receives a Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award presented by Van Dyke next month, then, I’ll be among those cheering the loudest, from one of the millions of living rooms she graced as a funny, warm, infinitely luminous presence in the television age, the one who "turned the world on with her smile."

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Quote of the Day (Edith Wharton, on the Evil Rich)

“In spite of the balmy temperature and complicated conveniences of Faxon's bedroom, the injunction [I.e., ‘Make yourself at home‘] was not easy to obey. It was wonderful luck to have found a night's shelter under the opulent roof of Overdale, and he tasted the physical satisfaction to the full. But the place, for all its ingenuities of comfort, was oddly cold and unwelcoming. He couldn't have said why, and could only suppose that Mr. Lavington's intense personality intensely negative, but intense all the same must, in some occult way, have penetrated every corner of his dwelling. Perhaps, though, it was merely that Faxon himself was tired and hungry, more deeply chilled than he had known till he came in from the cold, and unutterably sick of all strange houses, and of the prospect of perpetually treading other people's stairs.”—Edith Wharton, “The Triumph of Night” (1916)

Mention “winter” and “Edith Wharton” in the same sentence and the immediate association is with her classic novel, Ethan Frome. This year being the centennial of that marvelous tale of fate and thwarted love in the Berkshires, don’t be surprised if I post something about it before 2011 draws to a close.

But for me, Wharton has become linked with winter not just through this tragedy, but through her ghost stories. Brought together in the compact but choice collection The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton, they might not have been as long, various, or tantalizingly ambiguous as those of friend and mentor Henry James, but to me, they surpass “The Master” in their evocation of atmosphere and, for want of a better phrase, the chill factor--and none more so than “The Triumph of Night” (even the title haunts me).

From its beginning, this tale is about imbalance and psychological disorientation. George Faxon has been hired as a secretary for a wealthy New Hampshire woman, but she’s forgotten about his arrival. His surmise has been acquired “through long experience,” suggesting vulnerability at the hands of the rich. His plight is worsened by exposure to weather so brutal that it almost becomes a character in its own right. (“Dark, searching and sword-like, it alternately muffled and harried its victim, like a bull-fighter now whirling his cloak and now planting his darts.”)

He’s seemingly rescued from this situation by Frank Reiner, who brings him to the home of his uncle, captain of industry John Lavington. But, as seen in the passage above, Lavington’s mansion is unsettling. Faxon simply can’t get a handle on it (he “couldn‘t have said why”)--especially the presence of a figure that mysteriously materializes and disappears in Lavington’s study with nobody else even noticing him.

By the time the night is through, Faxon realizes that this other visitor, focusing “eyes of deadly menace” on the guileless Reiner, is Lavington’s doppelganger, or double.

Like a New England Hamlet, Faxon bemoans his fate as the only person who, witnessing an apparition, is given the responsibility to prevent evil (“he, the one weaponless and defenceless spectator, the one whom none of the others would believe or understand if he attempted to reveal what he knew--he alone had been singled out as the victim of this dreadful initiation”). His panicked flight leads to tragedy, a breakdown and the lasting recognition that “he might have broken the spell of iniquity” had he acted immediately.

“The Triumph of Night” belongs to a group of stories written around 1910 that emphasize male characters; this and two others, “Afterward” and “The Eyes,” are ghost stories. A decade later, she would write of this milieu in which she grew up with increasing nostalgia, but at this point she left no doubt that much of the wealth of the Northeast aristocracy was acquired through fraud. “The Triumph of Night,” then, becomes not just a tale of the supernatural but also a moral consideration, an examination of the desperate and evil lengths to which the rich will go to prevent their own ruin.

Tales of the supernatural need not be simply gory fright fests; they can also memorably evoke the sorrows and evils created by our most compelling everyday concerns. That includes the world of work and finance.

It amazes me that, three years after the Wall Street collapse, no film of the supernatural has considered these events. (Even the skullduggery of 1980s Wall Street, far milder in effect than the one with such explosive consequences in 2008, eventually inspired the Oscar-winning script for Ghost.) As for supernatural fiction, it feels more genre-dominated than ever, less likely to be taken up by masters of mainstream literary fiction such as Wharton, who, with subtlety and concision, knew how to suggest evil all the more terrifying for being initially immaterial.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Quote of the Day (Oscar Levant, on a Politician)

“I once said cynically of a politician, ‘He'll double-cross that bridge when he comes to it.’”—Pianist-composer-wit Oscar Levant, in The Memoirs of an Amnesiac (1965)

Oscar Levant, born in Pittsburgh on this date in 1906, was a close friend of George Gershwin. He is probably best known to film fans for musical comedies that highlighted his caustic wit, such as An American in Paris and The Band Wagon. For the two decades before his death in 1972, his mounting neuroses, stage fright and hypochondria led to several stints in mental hospitals, inspiring increasingly self-directed humor.

I prefer his one-liners directed at outside targets, such as today’s quote—a statement that, I think, never really goes out of fashion.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Flashback, December 1931: Churchill Nearly Killed in Car Accident

In what may have been the low point of his decade outside the British Cabinet, Winston Churchill was struck by a car late one evening while crossing New York’s Fifth Avenue, barely escaping with his life.

Even Churchill’s alleged “premature” birth (likely a story concocted by his parents so that Victorian society would not know they had slept together before marriage) led biographer William Manchester to joke: “He never could wait his turn.” That same boundless, ceaseless energy explains how his near-fatal accident on December 13, 1931 occurred.

From the start of his public career 30 years before, the future Prime Minister had the reputation of a young man in a hurry. At age 37, he was named First Lord of the Admiralty, the equivalent of America’s Secretary of the Navy. Yet the same dash and energy led him to incur risks, including backing the disastrous 1915 Dardanelles expedition, a controversy that threatened to leave him with the same fate that befell his father Randolph: “a man with a brilliant future behind him.”

Even after painfully working his way back into the upper reaches of the government, Churchill had thrown it all way, resigning from the “shadow cabinet” of Conservative Party leader Stanley Baldwin, in profound (and mistaken) disagreement with its position on Indian independence.

Now he not only had more time on his hands than ever, but a continuing, pressing need to meet his extravagant expenses. Personal economy was impossible for this former Chancellor of the Exchequer (the British equivalent of Treasury Secretary), so he needed to earn sizable sums when he wasn’t attending sessions of the House of Commons.

Like the earlier American statesman Theodore Roosevelt, Churchill saw writing as a means of earning a livelihood while keeping his name before the public. He had started a book tour in December, with his first lecture, “Pathway of the English-Speaking Peoples” (a characteristic theme of his later writings and work), being particularly well received.

Around 10:30 pm on December 13, Churchill was running late for an appointment with Bernard Baruch. Having forgotten the address from the last time he visited two years before, he was fuming at himself when he stepped out of his taxi. That might have made him doubly forgetful that American cars drove on the opposite side to British ones, so he looked left instead of right. He hadn't gotten too far when a car going 35 miles per hour threw him to the pavement.

Rushed to Lenox Hill Hospital, Churchill was diagnosed with a scalp wound, two cracked ribs, considerable bruises and pleurisy. When the motorist who hit him visited the out-of-power politico, Churchill assured the 26-year-old Italian-American--so distraught that he had called the hospital repeatedly to check on the victim’s condition--that the accident was all his own fault, since he hadn’t been looking in the right direction. (I hope that the motorist held onto the autographed book that Churchill gave him before he left, A decade later, when the author had finally reached the top of the British political ladder, the value of the signature had grown exponentially and would have earned a nice sum for the Yonkers man, identified in contemporary press reports as either a cabby or an unemployed truck driver.)

Churchill sent a telegram to his friend Dr. Frederick Lindemann, asking him to calculate the force of the impact involved in the accident. The Oxford University physicist complied, but couldn’t resist the teasing suggestion that Churchill’s chubbiness had cushioned him from the full force of the car.

Churchill had hoped he could continue with his lecture tour, but lingering weakness while in the hospital convinced even this famously obstinate man that it was out of the question. Instead, he made do by turning the accident into an article for Britain‘s Daily Mail. (“I do not understand why I was not broken like an egg-shell or squashed like a gooseberry,” he wrote.)

On New Year’s Eve, he and wife Clementine sailed for Nassau in the Bahamas for further rest and relaxation. Even with beautiful weather, that must have been a sweet agony for this most restless of men.

I first came across the story of Churchill’s near-fatal accident in the superb 1980s Masterpiece Theatre mini-series, Churchill: The Wilderness Years, 1929-1939, starring Robert Hardy in the finest performance I’ve seen of the great man. It was brought to my attention once again by Matthew Continetti’s article, “A World in Crisis,” in the January 3 issue of The Weekly Standard.

Continetti’s article is a maddening mishmash--one moment offering striking parallels between the world situation at the time of the accident and our own, the next moment setting out preposterous similarities between the American President that year, Herbert Hoover, and Barack Obama. But one of his points seems incontestable: “if the car had been traveling just a little bit faster, the history of the twentieth century would have been irrevocably altered.”

How, exactly? Let’s assume for a second, for the sake of argument, two otherwise eminently contestable points: 1) that America would have willingly helped a different British Prime Minister as the mother country faced the Nazis alone in 1940; 2) that Britain’s Parliament and public would have followed another leader in standing fast. What then?

Would a different Prime Minister have established as good a working relationship with Franklin Roosevelt as Churchill? Not likely. For all their policy differences (downplayed in Churchill's war memoirs), it still seems clear that the two were basically simpatico. Both men, because of their WWI governmental experience, loved their country’s navies; both had a flair for the telling phrase; both had been instrumental in moving their country toward the modern welfare state (as David Lloyd-George’s Liberal Party colleague, Churchill championed old-age pensions and unemployment insurance two decades before the New Deal); and both possessed abiding affection for the other’s country (FDR graduated from the Anglophilic prep school Groton; Churchill’s mother was the Brooklyn-born beauty Jennie Jerome.)

Which British politician would have replaced Churchill as the face of British defiance? No Labour Party figure would have done so; not only did they not have the votes to take charge in 1940, but during the 1930s their strongly pacifist wing had been no better than most of the Conservatives in appeasing Hitler.

Among Conservatives, Lord Halifax, Neville Chamberlain’s Foreign Secretary, had been the alternative to Churchill at the time of Chamberlain’s resignation as Prime Minister. But the Labour Party quickly indicated that Halifax was unacceptable in leading any coalition War Cabinet.

Which of Churchill’s fellow “insurgents” (Conservative opponents of Chamberlain’s appeasement policy) would have stepped to the fore? Consider the list: Leo Amery, Duncan Sandys, Harold Nicolson, Godfrey Nicholson, Leonard Ropner, Derrick Gunston, Ronnie Cartland, Ronnie Tree, the Duchess of Atholl, Paul Emiys-Evans, Vyvyan Adams, Louis Spears, Bob Boothby, Victor Cazalet, Brendan Bracken and Jack Macnamara. While they were figures of undoubted talent, none had Churchill’s extensive experience--nor, even more crucially, his ability to frame an argument for public consumption through oratory.

Alternative history--i.e., speculation on how the past might have turned out given a change in an event--can be fun to explore, and Churchill himself delved into it while visiting America, even writing about how a win at Gettysburg would have resulted 40 years later in an anti-German pact among Britain, Theodore Roosevelt and the Confederate President, Woodrow Wilson.

But one trembles to think what would have happened if "The Last Lion" had not been around to roar against Hitler--and all lovers of words would be left with an immense gap, minus the speeches tand memoirs this Nobel laureate for literature would pen to steel his nation for its "finest hour."

Quote of the Day (Wes Nisker, Making Like a Buddhist Woody Allen)

"Before I became a Buddhist, I worried about my life. Now I worry about my next life."—Buddhist teacher, author, radio commentator, and performer Wes Nisker, quoted in "Laugh!", Reader’s Digest, September 2011

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Quote of the Day (St. Augustine, on the Importance of Jesus' Birth)

“You would have suffered eternal death, had he not been born in time. Never would you have been freed from sinful flesh, had he not taken on himself the likeness of sinful flesh. You would have suffered everlasting unhappiness, had it not been for this mercy. You would never have returned to life, had he not shared your death. You would have been lost if he had not hastened to your aid. You would have perished, had he not come.”— St. Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 185, on Christmas

I Triple-Dog Dare Ya to Have a Merry Christmas!

If you don’t…well, what happened to Ralphie could happen to you!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Quote of the Day (Charles Dickens, with an Early Version of Scrooge)

"In an old abbey town, a long, long while ago, there officiated as sexton and gravedigger in the churchyard one Gabriel Grub. He was an ill conditioned cross-grained, surly fellow, who consorted with nobody but himself and an old wicker-bottle which fitted into his large, deep waistcoat pocket....

"A little before twilight one Christmas Eve, Gabriel shouldered his spade, lighted his lantern, and betook himself toward the old churchyard, for he had a grave to finish by next morning, and feeling very low, he thought it might raise his spirits, perhaps, if he went on with his work at once....

"He strode along until he turned into the dark lane which led to the churchyard—a nice, gloomy, mournful place into which the towns-people did not care to go except in broad daylight, consequently he was not a little indignant to hear a young urchin roaring out some jolly song about a Merry Christmas. Gabriel waited until the boy came up, then rapped him over the head with his lantern five or six times to teach him to modulate his voice. And as the boy hurried away, with his hand to his head, Gabriel Grubb chuckled to himself and entered the churchyard, locking the gate behind him."--Charles Dickens, "The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton," from The Pickwick Papers (1836)

December 1836 was usually busy even for the naturally hyperkinetic Charles Dickens. On the 22nd, his comic operetta The Village Coquettes was performed; earlier in the month, he befriended his eventual biographer, John Forster; and he anxiously awaited the birth of his first child, which would occur a week into the new year.

The last event was no small reason why the 24-year-old journalist-turned-novelist finished writing “Number 10” of The Pickwick Papers on December 23. The installment, which would appear in the December 31 serialization of the novel, was necessary to be whipped out--and fast--to take care of his new, and already growing, family.

The Pickwick Papers, Dickens recalled later, was written largely on the fly. But his many gifts of observation and narrative were already on display in his initial attempt at a novel, and the above quote offers a good opportunity to see these qualities at work. (I myself stumbled upon this story-within-a-novel in the Everyman's Library anthology, Christmas Stories.)

The quote offers something else, too, which I found surprising: The way his imagination reworked characters, even after initial publication.

The other day, listening to a radio performance of A Christmas Carol, I found myself saying many of the lines before the actors did. This was hardly due to my memory, but more likely testified to how much I--how much all of us--have heard the work over a lifetime. After so much exposure, responses to this work become automatic--unthinking, even. Maybe it helps to step back, to think of this thousand-times-told tale (60 film adaptations alone!) afresh.

That, in essence, is what the tale of Gabriel Grub can do. It is, according to theologian Mark D. Roberts, writing for the blog “Patheos,” “like looking at the charcoal sketches of an artist getting ready to paint a masterpiece.”

Both tales involve nasty old men so miserly that they scorn Christmas celebrations. Even their surnames epitomize their psyches: the hard “gs” in “Grub” and “Scrooge” indicate how obdurate they have become with age. Indeed, they are such lost cases that paranormal visitors (dream goblins in the first, the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future in the second) are required to effect drastic change in them on Christmas Eve.

But Ebenezer Scrooge has made a far more vivid impression on readers over time than Gabriel Grub. You could argue, I suppose, that Grub’s occupation--gravedigging--already leaves him sharply inclined toward the vision of final things with which he’ll be afflicted this night. But more than this is at work.

First, “The Story of the Goblins” is only an “inset story” in a larger picaresque tale (Pickwick) heavily indebted to Cervantes, Smollett, and other novelists given to shambling stories. By the time of A Christmas Carol, Dickens had become adept at creating his own narrative structures.

Second, the passage of seven years had given him more perspective on this story that, according to a 2007 article in the British newspaper The Guardian, he had first heard about a Danish gravedigger. The ills of the Industrial Revolution were more widespread than even Dickens himself--famously, one of its early victims as a child worker in a shoeblacking factory and warehouse--suspected. The Gabriel Grubs of this world were not merely spiritually dead themselves, he realized, but caused the same condition in others.

Third, an entire novel allowed him to draw out the full psychological implications of the story and give the protagonist a deeper, more understandable background. He could also render in greater detail how obsession with money (a condition with which he had become increasingly familiar with because of the need to provide for his family) could deform lives.

Fourth, the novel allowed Dickens to pile on plot developments so shattering that they could effect an instantaneous change in his protagonist. Grub, fearing his experience with the goblins will make him the laughingstock of the community, disappears for a decade before returning virtually unrecognizable. The change in Scrooge is overnight, enabling a more rapid conclusion--and the possibility of endless theatrical interpretations that would have overjoyed this most theater-loving of novelists.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Quote of the Day (Kobe Bryant Divorce Weighed by ‘Left Coast Sports Babe’)

“In Vanessa Bryant’s statement that she and Kobe are divorcing, she asks for ‘privacy during this difficult time.’ Not that I wish the woman any harm, but if she wanted privacy, she should have married someone other than Kobe Bryant. Wonder what happened between the Bryants? Did the lockout dent Kobe’s jewelry budget?” “Left Coast Sports Babe” comic, on NBA superstar Kobe Bryant, “Kobe Locked Out?”, December 18, 2011

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Photo of the Day: Wooden Soldier, Rockefeller Center

I took this shot a couple of weeks ago, just as the holiday tourists were beginning to descend on Rockefeller Center in earnest, of this wooden soldier—one of the more striking sights in a midtown Manhattan filled with them during Christmas.

Quote of the Day (Vaclav Havel, on the ‘Contaminated Moral Environment’ of Communism)

“We live in a contaminated moral environment. We fell morally ill because we became used to saying something different from what we thought. We learned not to believe in anything, to ignore one another, to care only about ourselves. Concepts such as love, friendship, compassion, humility or forgiveness lost their depth and dimension, and for many of us they represented only psychological peculiarities, or they resembled gone-astray greetings from ancient times, a little ridiculous in the era of computers and spaceships. Only a few of us were able to cry out loudly that the powers that be should not be all-powerful and that the special farms, which produced ecologically pure and top-quality food just for them, should send their produce to schools, children's homes and hospitals if our agriculture was unable to offer them to all.” Vaclav Havel, “New Year’s Address to the Nation” after his election as President of Czechoslavakia, January 1, 1990

The life and career of playwright-dissident-statesman Vaclav Havel (1936-2011), who died over the weekend, was a standing rebuke not just to totalitarianism but also to the habits of mind to which even politicians in a democracy can slip when spin becomes, by ever-so-artful degrees, lying. He showed that, while words alone might not be sufficient in political discourse, they are an indispensable starting point in framing arguments and, as he put it, "living within the truth."

We are about to find out not only if that example will not only prove an enduring object lesson to the countries involved in the "Arab Spring," but whether the parties that followed his path toward freedom behind the Iron Curtain will have the backbone to tell their constituents the hard choices that await them in the worst economic crisis since the end of the Cold  War.

Vaclav's crucial recognition--that in politics (especially in politics) moral considerations still need to be brought to bear--is analyzed in a fine post by the blogger “Archbishop Cranmer.” (No, not the archbishop executed in the 16th century, but the contemporary British blogger using the name as a pseudonym.)

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

This Day in Film History (‘Wonderful Life,’ American ‘Christmas Carol,’ Opens)

December 20, 1946—Arguably Frank Capra’s greatest tribute to the common man he celebrated his entire career, It’s a Wonderful Life, opened in New York City. Though the movie was nominated for five Oscars (including for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor, for star James Stewart), it won none and languished at the box office. It would take another three decades of multiple showings on television before America recognized it as a classic.

You can examine this film from dozens of different perspectives, and they would all repay the scrutiny. It’s natural for many to focus especially on Stewart, in what might have been his quintessential Everyman role, or Donna Reed, still only in the early stages of her fine career.

But Stewart’s George Bailey needs a foil, a polar opposite who can test him and push him to the extremities of despair from which he needs to be rescued on Christmas Eve. That is supplied, in a masterful performance, by Lionel Barrymore (pictured left, with Stewart).

I have written a prior post about this movie as “An American Christmas Carol.” Its single greatest connection to the Charles Dickens classic was through Barrymore, who had made something of a holiday tradition in the 1930s with his radio broadcasts as Ebenezer Scrooge.

The actor was, in fact, ready to put his stamp on the role in the first American film version of it in 1938. His longtime studio, M-G-M, had cast him in the role when fate intervened. The death of Jean Harlow required reshooting of a few scenes of her last film, Saratoga. When Barrymore came back to that set for what was basically a mop-up operation, he slipped over a sound cable and broke his hip. For the rest of his life, he was confined to a wheelchair. (The role of Scrooge in A Christmas Carol went to the actor Barrymore recommended, Reginald Owen, who made something of a career highlight of it.)

By the time he signed up later that year as Grandpa Vanderkof in Capra’s adaptation of You Can’t Take It With You, Barrymore was in disabling pain. Arthritis in his “hands, elbows, feet and knees…[left him] stiff and knobby as old oak roots,” the director recalled in his memoir, The Name Above the Title. Only hourly shots got him through production.

When he heard about Capra’s first postwar production for his new venture, Liberty Films, Barrymore committed to the project without even reading the script, convincing MGM to loan him out for the project. In substance, if not in name, Mr. Potter was Scrooge, the film role that got away from Barrymore. You can practically see him tear into the part with relish.

More so than his accomplished siblings, John and Ethel, Lionel was not merely comfortable but accomplished with film--every aspect of the medium. He had been acting in short films as early as 1911, and had directed and composed as well as acted for the cinema.

In his most memorable outburst against the miserly small-town banker, Bailey lashes out against Potter as a “frustrated old man.” Barrymore had his own frustrations in life--not merely his terrible physical pain, but the sense of disappointment that he could not make a living out of what he saw as his real vocation: painting.

One of the things he learned about art--use all the colors in one’s palette--was something he employed in It’s a Wonderful Life. Barrymore's wheelchair becomes a prop--all the characters come to Potter, like some blighted sun god--and the most notable point when he moves it--right after discovering that George’s Uncle Billy has absentmindedly left him with the Bailey Savings and Loan’s cash--is the precise point when the plot propels forward in earnest. And then there’s that raspy voice--which the actor used most often beforehand to suggest an irascible but essentially kindly figure, but here to evoke villainy.

The ironic aspect of this, of course, was that, according to Capra, Barrymore was “the humblest, most cooperative actor I’ve ever known.” His performance stands out even amid the great cast of supporting players (Thomas Mitchell, Beulah Bondi, H.B. Warner, Gloria Grahame, Ward Bond, Frank Faylen, and Sheldon Leonard) that the director assembled for his Yuletide classic.

Quote of the Day (Caitlin Flanagan, on What Men Don’t Get About Women)

“There are certain things about women that men will never understand, in part because they have no interest in understanding them. They will never know how deeply we care about our houses—what a large role they play in our dreams for ourselves, how unhappy their shortcomings make us. Men think they understand the way our physical beauty—or lack of it, or assaults on it from age or extra weight—preys on our minds, but they don’t fully grasp the significance these things have for us. Nor can they understand the way physical comforts or simple luxuries—the fresh towel or the fat new cake of soap—can lift our spirits. And they will never know how much our lives are shaped around the fear of bad men and the harm they can bring us if we’re not careful, if we’re not banded together, if we’re not telling each other what to watch out for, what we’ve learned. We need each other’s counsel, and oftentimes it comes when we’re talking about other things, when we seem not to have much important on our minds at all.”—Caitlin Flanagan, “The Glory of Oprah,” The Atlantic, December 2011

Monday, December 19, 2011

Photo of the Day: From Heroes to Zeroes

I just had to snap pictures of two action figures, representing the New York Giants and the New York Jets, this morning as I passed the Tonic Sports Bar in Times Square on my way to work. They simply seemed so symbolic of their teams’ maddening seasons.

There’s the sense of premature jubilation in the raised fingers, followed by the crushing realization that they had failed to show up against teams they should have beaten handily. There’s the shameless appeal to the hometown crowd.

And it ends, of course, with those 00s. No, they’re not the jerseys of the great Hall of Fame center Jim Otto. Nor, as the makers of these statues of Big Blue and Gang Green probably believed, are they diplomatic ways of not associating a team with a single player. Instead, the numbers have become emblematic of the teams’ slide toward absolute oblivion.

Funny, isn’t it, that, for all their differences in temperament and coaching philosophy, Tom Coughlin and Rex Ryan now stand with their teams at the same ugly pass.

Tonic features karaoke. Perhaps, before their next game, Giant and Jets fans can sing a Tom Petty song. You know the lyric: “Baby, even the losers get lucky sometimes…”

Movie Quote of the Day (‘Pocketful of Miracles,’ on Its ‘Lady for a Day’)

Junior (played by Mickey Shaughnessy), seeing boozy beggar Apple Annie (played by Bette Davis) transformed into a duchess: “She's like a cockroach what turned into a butterfly!”—Pocketful of Miracles (1961), written by Hal Kanter and Harry Tugend, based on an earlier screenplay by Robert Riskin and the Damon Runyon short story “Madame La Gimp,” directed by Frank Capra

Fifty years ago today, Frank Capra’s remake of his 1933 Gotham fairy tale, Lady for a Day, premiered, with a bigger budget, bigger stars, and longer running time, in New York City. Its failure this time around led the great director to decide that the thrill was gone out of moviemaking in an age when a star (to his aggravation, only a middling one like Glenn Ford) could force him into a compromised product. Partly as a result, this would be his last completed feature film: three years later, he pulled out of Marooned when he tired of incessant studio demands for script approval and budgets.

Capra was right in this respect: among his quartet of holiday movies (the others: Lady for a Day, Meet John Doe, and, of course, It’s a Wonderful Life), this one ranked last. I’m afraid that, like another holiday film, Love, Actually four decades later, the final product of Pocketful of Miracles failed to deliver on its tremendous promise. Miscast are Bette Davis and Ford, as, respectively, the street woman desperate that the daughter who has lived abroad for years not realize how far she has fallen, and the unexpectedly tenderhearted racketeer who decides to turn her into a duchess (or, at least, appear like one). Moreover, the extra 40 minutes gained since Lady for a Day puffed up what at heart is a comic fairy tale.

Not to say that there aren’t moments, even whole stretches, of pure enjoyment. When he wasn’t coping with cluster headaches over his feuding co-stars, Capra delighted in his terrific group of supporting players not just Shaughnessy but also Sheldon Leonard, Edward Everett Horton, Thomas Mitchell (Uncle Billy of It’s a Wonderful Life), and especially Peter Falk, who was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his turn as Dave the Dude’s underling, the ironically named Joy Boy.

And then there is the dialogue. Much of the best of it sprang from unaccredited Jimmy Cannon (“superb slinger of Broadway’s argot,” Capra called him in his autobiography, The Name Above the Title). The sportswriter managed to blend seamlessly Runyon’s original lingo with his own, so it’s hard to tell the source of such lines as the above, or Joy Boy's exclamation upon seeing a room after a quarrel between Dave and girlfriend Queenie: “Look at this place, like the inside of a goat's stomach!"

For another Runyon Yuletide take, in undiluted form, you might want to turn to the short story “Dancing Dan’s Christmas,” in the Everyman Library anthology Christmas Stories. It now only features the colorful characters and hilarious dialogue that Hollywood and Broadway (Guys and Dolls) have long loved about Runyon, but also an O.Henry-style ending and a distinct undercurrent of danger downplayed on film and the stage (we are, after all, reading about people engaged in criminal enterprises).

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Quote of the Day (Luke, on Mary, ‘Handmaid of the Lord’)

“In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary. And coming to her, he said, ‘Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. Then the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ But Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?’ And the angel said to her in reply, ‘The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren; for nothing will be impossible for God.” Mary said, ‘Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.’ ” Luke 1: 26-38

Nobody else in the human race has ever been given the great honor and responsibility accorded Mary, but all of us, even the humblest, are called to give honor to God. Among the examples of this—not just in the United States, but around the world—are the artisans who have testified to their faith through their work.

Everyone knows the extraordinary examples of this in the Vatican, but I think that I and many of my fellow Catholics take for granted the many—and, more frequently than not, all but anonymous—architects, painters, sculptors, and stained-glass makers who have made even the ordinary parish churches little jewel boxes. I took the photo accompanying this post, for instance, a couple of years ago, while on vacation, in Staunton, Va., the birthplace of President Woodrow Wilson and home of the Blackfriars Playhouse. This particular Madonna-and-Child statue is just outside St. Francis of Assisi Roman Catholic Church. You can multiply examples of these around the country.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Photo of the Day: On Fifth Ave., Awaiting Xmas

I took the photo here last week of the window display in the Fifth Avenue Build-a-Bear store in New York.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Song Lyric of the Day (Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne, With a Xmas Song “In Three-Quarter Time”)

" ‘Merry Christmas, may your New Year dreams come true’
And this song of mine in three-quarter time
Wishes you and yours the same thing, too.”—“The Christmas Waltz,” lyrics by Sammy Cahn (pictured), music by Jule Styne (1954)

At one time, this particular tune was among the most heavily recorded in the Great American Songbook, at least around holiday time. Then, for a number of years, it seemed to fade.

And now? Making a comeback, I strongly suspect. Some fairly prominent performers have covered it over the years, including Peggy Lee, Audra McDonald, Kristen Chenoweth, Barry Manilow, Clay Aiken, the Carpenters and, of course, Frank Sinatra.

But this year it’s being covered in a holiday CD from She and Him (better known as Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward). In this YouTube video from their appearance on the "Tonight Show with Jay Leno," they show that the secret of the song lies in simplicity: stripped-down arrangements backing utterly heartfelt vocals.

As the song began to be played more recently, my frustration in identifying it grew. No hook gave me a clue as to its title--at least, none that I could hear.

In the end, the person who helped me unravel this mystery was the person who had made me cognizant of this tune in the first place: veteran deejay Jonathan Schwartz. Repeated listenings over the radio—especially Sinatra’s near-definitive version—subconsciously made me aware of its almost Old World appeal. What song form could embrace this?

It was probably after Schwartz played a Stephen Sondheim number—maybe the deceptively lilting “Could I Leave You?” from Follies, or, more likely, the entire soundtrack for A Little Night Music—before I tied the song’s form to the phrase that lingers the most in my mind: “this song of mine in three-quarters time.” At last I understood: Of course—it was a waltz. A Christmas waltz.

By the way, this is one of a very substantial list of Christmas songs written by Jewish composers and lyricists. Where would we be in the holidays without Cahn, Styne, Torme, Berlin, Livingston, Evans, Marks, Parrish, etc.? Musically diminished, that’s for sure. For many of us, Christmas is not only about exchanging gifts (and, yes, people, Jesus' birth), but also about love manifested to us each other, seldom more so than in the joy that bursts out in song--including this one, in three-quarter time.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Quote of the Day (Eric Sloane, on Sleighs of Yore)

“[Long ago] horse bells were [not] just ornamental….Sleighs were fast and silent….People walked in the road, sometimes right in the midst of sleigh traffic….In a few places…there was even a fine for sleighs…not properly equipped with bells.”—Eric Sloane, The Sound Of Bells (1966)

Nowadays, when I hear car wheels spinning in loud frustration in foot-deep snow and watch autos ride gingerly on roads lest they slide and crash, sleighs sound even more appealing they do in pieces of Americana such as the one accompanying this post: Currier and Ives’ The Sleigh Race. In the paragraph above, Sloane emphasizes the basic utility of sleighs, but for me there will always be a touch of nostalgia in all of this.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Quote of the Day (Walt Whitman, on “What I Started For”)

“But where is what I started for, so long ago?
And why is it yet unfound?” Walt Whitman, “Facing West From California’s Shores,” from Leaves of Grass

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Quote of the Day (Newt Gingrich, With His 4th No-Adultery Pledge)

"I will also oppose any judicial, bureaucratic, or legislative effort to define marriage in any manner other than as between one man and one woman. I also pledge to uphold the institution of marriage through personal fidelity to my spouse and respect for the marital bonds of others."(emphasis added)— Presidential candidate (and breaker of the Seventh Commandment) Newt Gingrich, in a letter to the Iowa-based group The Family Leader announcing his support of the group's positions, quoted in Chris Moody, “Newt Gingrich Takes His Fourth ‘No-Adultery Pledge,’” The Ticket blog, December 12, 2011

Legend has Henry of Navarre, late in the 16th century, shrugging off his Protestant faith by converting to Catholicism with the words, “Paris is worth a mass.” The same cynicism and shamelessness is present in Newt Gingrich’s agreement to a document that he has already violated in his two prior marriages. But are you honestly surprised anymore by what he would do or say in order to be elected?

Monday, December 12, 2011

Quote of the Day (Comic Jack E. Leonard, on One Person’s Failings)

“There is nothing wrong with you that reincarnation won’t cure.” Attributed to comic Jack E. Leonard (1910-1973)

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Quote of the Day (Somerset Maugham, on God as Infinite)

"A God that can be understood is no God. Who can explain the Infinite in words?”--W. Somerset Maugham, The Razor’s Edge (1944)

Saturday, December 10, 2011

This Day in British History (Edward VIII Abdicates With Prevarication)

December 10, 1936—King Edward VIII of Great Britain turned away from the burdens of monarchy, unable, he would tell an audience of rapt radio listeners 24 hours later, to carry out his duties “without the help and support of the woman I love.” That last phrase would echo down the generations and give the speech a romanticism at sharp variance with the emotional messiness and profoundly political ramifications of the crisis he precipitated.

Seventy-five years after Edward abdicated so he could marry a twice-divorced American commoner, Wallis Simpson, there can be no doubting the price he paid for his love. But even the speech that won him a measure of sympathy lacked candor in describing how the people around him influenced his decision.

“During these hard days,” he told the nation, “I have been comforted by her majesty my mother and by my family. The ministers of the crown, and in particular, Mr. [Stanley] Baldwin, the Prime Minister, have always treated me with full consideration. There has never been any constitutional difference between me and them, and between me and Parliament. Bred in the constitutional tradition by my father, I should never have allowed any such issue to arise.”

Virtually nothing in that last paragraph was true. His family was aghast at the pass to which he had brought himself, the institution of the monarchy, and his country; Stanley Baldwin, when not urging him to keep Mrs. Simpson as a mistress, as royals before (and since) have been wont to do, framed the political options in such a way that Edward could never make her his queen; ministers and Parliament had indeed made known their profound “constitutional difference” with him; and his own father, before dying the year before, had predicted, “When I am gone, the boy will ruin himself in six months." (In the event, it turned out to be closer to a year.)

Here in the U.S., we have witnessed an enormous change in perception of the man who became the Duke of Windsor. In 1972, the TV movie The Woman I Love, with Richard Chamberlain and Faye Dunaway as, respectively, Edward and Mrs. Simpson, portrayed the couple’s romance and anguish over the abdication with deepest sympathy. Last year, however, The King’s Speech depicted him as a mean fop who ridiculed his painfully stammering brother who succeeded him to the throne, George VI, as well as a man in helpless thrall to an adventuress who had learned an astonishing sexual skill in a Shanghai brothel.

Much of this altered image reflects an effort by the House of Windsor and its friends to chip away at Edward’s image that turned out to be far more successful than their later one to prove Princess Diana a nincompoop. The friends of the Windsors had an unwitting ally in Edward himself, who disappointed millions of well-wishers. Blessed with good looks, charm, and wit galore (sample one-liner: “The thing that impresses me most about America is the way parents obey their children"), he eventually proved so embarrassing that he had to be sent away as governor of the Bahamas during World War II, lest he be seized by Adolf Hitler and placed on the throne as a pliant enabler of Nazi anti-Semitism.

Nearly 40 years after Edward’s death and a quarter century after his wife’s, much remains unknown about the circumstances of their relationship. Some of the wilder claims made about her, notably by biographer Charles Higham (e.g., spying for the Nazis), appears to be overstated. But Edward and Wallis evidently wrote enough indiscreet things that art historian Anthony Blunt was dispatched to German shortly after the war to retrieve their correspondence before it caused a major scandal--and Blunt’s knowledge of these secrets might have guaranteed him more than a decade of safety after it became known in British intelligence he had been a member of the Cambridge spy ring.

But put aside any hypothetical impact that Edward and Wallis might have had on the exposure of one of the most sensational intelligence secrets of the 20th century. We know for a fact that they affected history in even more astonishing ways.

First, Edward’s wish to marry Wallis in the face of opposition from his family, the Church of England, and the government proved to be the gravest threat to the prestige and stability of the British monarchy in two centuries, back to when the madness of King George III required that his son serve as regent in the 1810s. Any hope that Edward cherished that Wallis would become queen was quickly dashed when Baldwin advised Edward that the country would not accept this. Edward’s counter-proposal--new legislation installing Wallis as his consort but not queen--was rejected by both Baldwin’s Cabinet and the governments of Britain’s dominions. Furthermore, Baldwin ditched a last-ditch effort by Edward to appeal directly to his subjects to rally support.

As bad as the controversy over the Windsors’ treatment of Princess Diana became in the 1990s to the point where many wondered if the monarchy was even worth preserving at all it pales in comparison with the great might-have-been involved in Edward’s case. Had he pushed matters as far as he wished, the nation would have been split between what can best be described as the King’s party and those opposed to him. A country torn by party and class divisions did not need another.

Second, the abdication crisis distracted Winston Churchill from rallying forces within the government against Adolf Hitler. In the first volume of his World War II memoir, The Gathering Storm, the future Prime Minister who, throughout most of the 1930s, was in his “wilderness years,“ a back-bencher not in any ministerial capacity--related how the imbroglio broke amid “a great drawing-together of men and women of all parties in England who saw the perils of the future, and were resolute upon practical measures to secure our safety and the cause of freedom, equally menaced by both the totalitarian impulsions and our Government’s complacency.” The campaign was set to climax at a meeting at the Albert Hall on December 3 that would include representatives of all parties who hoped to take the initiative against Baldwin and his governmental allies in appeasement.

Instead, upon hearing the cry at the meeting, “God save the king,” Churchill replied that he hoped that “a cherished and unique personality may not be incontinently severed from the people he loves so well.” He immediately became known as the King’s supporter, a position formalized when Baldwin permitted Edward to consult with Churchill.

But the problem was that this had become a politically untenable position, so much so that Churchill--who seldom quailed at saying anything out of the mainstream--admitted in his memoir that “there were several moments when I seemed to be entirely alone against a wrathful House of Commons.” As bad, for the future of his country, was the impact on the cause he championed: “All the forces I had gathered together on ‘Arms and the Covenant’…were estranged or dissolved, and I myself was so smitten in public opinion that it was the almost universal view that my political life was at last ended.”

It was not, of course, but Edward’s role as head of state was over and, for all practical purposes, so was his contact with his people. Never officially crowned, he stepped down after 10 months in favor of his brother Albert, who assumed the throne as George VI. After Edward and Wallis (now given the titles of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, respectively) married in 1937, they toured Germany. The duke and duchess were kept at arm’s length by the royal family through the war and after, when they settled in France. He died in 1972 and his wife 14 years later.

It did not have to turn out like this. As a prince, Edward had won the hearts of his countrymen. He had what so many royals wish they could possess--the ability to relate to their subjects--and his calls for better treatment of veterans and decent housing for all won him many supporters who felt that he could make the ancient institution of the monarchy relevant for the 20th century.

The affair with Wallis Simpson, though, brought to the surface faults that had led his family to fear, rightly, that he was not suited for the responsibilities he was about to inherit. His drinking, loathing of being under a media microscope, shirking of duties, and series of affairs spelled potential trouble. The best summary judgment about Edward, made by biographer Philip Ziegler, feels absolutely right in weighing the would-be monarch's great potential against what he did with his life: "There is so much he could have done; he did so little.''

As for Wallis, the relationship seems to have begun strictly as delight in being in the company of celebrity and power, then, when the relationship became intimate (after Edward’s previous mistress made the mistake of requesting that Wallis look after him while she was away), as assurance to an aging flirt that she could still attract men. Especially after Edward threatened to commit suicide if she ever left him, she did not know how to terminate the relationship. We also now know, from a cache of surprisingly friendly letters she wrote to Ernest Simpson even as she began divorce proceedings against him, that she was terrified that legal discovery of her own adultery would mean that not only would her divorce from Ernest not be granted, but she would then be unable to marry Edward--thereby increasing the vilification to which she was subjected by the British public.

As much as is known about the case of Edward and Mrs. Simpson, it will probably be a few decades hence before anything close to the complete story will come out. The case was more than the Romeo-and-Juliet romance of forbidden love perceived by Americans; it also involved constitutional and even geopolitical issues that nearly everyone--including Edward, in his “Woman I Love” speech--did their best to obscure.

Song Lyric of the Day (The Beach Boys, With “Good Vibrations”)

“I’m picking up good vibrations
She’s giving me excitations.”—“Good Vibrations” (1966), written by Brian Wilson and Mike Love, performed by the Beach Boys

Perhaps no other cultural realm supports Robert Frost’s contention that “Nothing gold can stay” as much as the music industry--and few bands have done so as powerfully as The Beach Boys.

The best of the Beach Boys comes from the poignant sense of a passage in time. Summer doesn’t last forever; the “Surfer Girl” can’t stay young eternally; the Pet Sounds song cycle that started with “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” ends with “Caroline, No.” Is it any wonder, then, that the group’s production masterpiece “Good Vibrations” reigned atop the Billboard pop charts for only one week, reaching it on this date 45 years ago today?

“We were setting out to create a record that everybody would spook out to,” Brian Wilson told Paul Zollo in 1988. “It would scare people and that would be a really heavy record. And what we did was, we got so into it that the more we created, the more we wanted to create. You know what I mean?”

No, not really. But Wilson, his brains undoubtedly scrambled after years of mental anguish and drug use, did make a kind of sense almost immediately afterward in the same interview collected for Zollo’s Songwriters on Songwriting: “That record came together like nobody’s business. That really was a good record.”

Years ago, I remember, the baseball reliever Mike Marshall tried to analyze strikeout king Nolan Ryan’s success from the point of view of kinesiology. I remember thinking how beside the point it was to deconstruct what really was a phenomenon, maybe even a gift of the gods.

And that is how I feel about Wilson and the creation of “Good Vibrations.” You can talk all you want about the four different studios employed and the textures each created; the double- and even triple-tracking of voices to make them sound like 20 altogether; the use of unusual instruments such as a cello and a theremin; and the care lavished throughout six months of production and $10,000 in expenses—an unheard-of cost at the time.

What remains true, in the end, is that Wilson—in the precious moment before his psyche fractured amid record-company pressures, battles with cousin and group lead singer Mike Love, drug use and residual damage from abuse by his father—seized a creative bolt of lightning and produced textures of voice and instruments that nobody—not even himself—had ever achieved before on the pop-music scene. From what I have seen on You Tube, even his band (and despite Love’s recalcitrance and Brian's absence from the stage, they remained Brian’s) never came close to capturing in concert the same kind of excitement that exploded across the airwaves in late 1966.

The paradox of the Beach Boys and the youth culture they epitomized is that, even as their moment as leaders of pop music passed, they managed to create what Wilson correctly told Zollo two decades later was “an eternal record. Something that will recur in eternity.”