Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Quote of the Day (John Travolta, on His Irish Ancestry and Talent for Mimicry)

“I’m half-Irish. My mother was Irish. Deadly with imitations. Loved mimicking people. And we all grew up with this fine art of how-well-could-you-get-someone-down.”—Oscar-nominated American actor John Travolta quoted in Steve Daly, “Face to Face in ‘'Face/Off,’'' Entertainment Weekly, June 20, 1997

What Travolta (like yours truly, a product of Englewood, NJ) is talking about, in a sense, is his uncanny “ear” for how people talk. While acting is the obvious vehicle for this talent, others of Irish descent channeled that into writing instead:  John O’Hara, George V. Higgins, and James Joyce.

(The image accompanying this post shows Travolta in the movie Primary Colors, in which he played Jack Clayton, a Presidential candidate with a Southern accent and a smooth way with words—surely not like anyone the American people have ever encountered, right?)

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Quote of the Day (Fran Lebowitz, on What Different People Talk About)

“Great people talk about ideas, average people talk about things, and small people talk about wine.”—American humorist Fran Lebowitz, Social Studies (1981)

Happy 70th birthday to Fran Lebowitz. Like Dorothy Parker, to whom she’s often compared, she made her reputation as a sardonic New Yorker but was actually born in New Jersey. And, as with Ms. Parker, many people wish that she could have written more over the years.

Photo of the Day: Sign Noticed in Nyack NY

I took this photo over a month ago in Nyack, NY—many of whose residents, like a great number nationwide, hope to translate this into reality exactly a week from today.

Monday, October 26, 2020

This Day in TV History (William S. Paley, Broadcast Titan and Philanthropist, Dies)

Oct. 26, 1990— Not merely in declining health but something worse for him—growing irrelevancy—longtime CBS chair, philanthropist and socialite William S. Paley died at age 89 of kidney failure in New York City.

For nearly six decades, this son of a Jewish cigar-maker was the broadcasting equivalent of the 19th-century robber barons: leveraging an initially small operation into a multi-unit empire, charming when he could get his way easily and ruthless when he couldn’t, then late in life lavishing cultural institutions with sizable donations that burnished his reputation (in his case, money given to the Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Broadcasting, renamed the Paley Center for Media in his honor).  

With an assist from his father, Paley assumed control of CBS in 1928. Contrary to the myth he created, he did not initially see the value of the financially ailing radio stations he was buying, but had to be persuaded to make the transaction. Two decades later, the same pattern of coming around reluctantly to a new medium repeated itself when he had to be convinced that TV would not threaten his radio interests but complement them.

In terms of vision, Paley was no match for RCA/NBC archrival David Sarnoff, who as early as 1916 had predicted in a memo that music, news, sports, and even lectures would be someday be broadcast through "radio music boxes." But NBC’s “General” inadequately defended his network against Paley’s 1950 “talent raids” that brought Jack Benny, Amos 'n' Andy, Edgar Bergen, Red Skelton, and Burns and Allen over to CBS.

Paley built his empire through charisma yet maintained it through caprice. He responded to the passionate advocacy of talented figures but could also leave them so guessing about his intentions that he alienated them. One example was newsman Edward R. Murrow, who became a CBS star with his reports from London early in WWII but left the network over its wavering commitment to the news.

Murrow’s was just case of someone who enjoyed the media mogul’s warm companionship only to see him turn cold. Another such figure was In Cold Blood writer Truman Capote, who would not only enjoy holidays abroad with Paley and his second wife, the glamorous socialite Barbara or “Babe,” but once even had them once transport his beloved bulldog to Europe on their private jet, according to an interview with Kansas FBI agent included in George Plimpton’s 1997 oral biography, Truman Capote.

That all changed in 1975, when the author retailed scandalous gossip about Paley in a notorious Esquire preview of his projected novel Answered Prayers. The CBS head’s claim that he had fallen asleep while reading the article was almost surely false, but it deprived Capote of the attention he craved—and then he followed it up by never having anything to do with the writer again.

Before Capote fell out with his friend, he colorfully put his finger on the acquisitive instinct that dominated Paley from youth to old age: “He looks like a man who has just swallowed an entire human being.” An avid modernist art aficionado, Paley collected female conquests as much as he did modernist paintings. He could be generous, even gallant (financially supporting an old love, actress Louise Brooks, when she fell on hard times), but also cold enough to drive another to suicide.

It was Capote’s revelation of another liaison by Paley (thinly fictionalized as “Sidney Dillon,” a “conglomateur, adviser to Presidents”) in a hotel room that precipitated the end of their friendship and darkened the last days of Babe Paley, who was dying of cancer at that point.

Like an aging monarch, Paley was unwilling to relinquish his power and perquisites, successively forcing out a pair of men most felt were being groomed to take the helm from him: Frank Stanton, CBS president for 27 years, then anointed successor Thomas Wyman. But the September 1986 coup against Wyman proved disastrous, as Paley’s ally, Laurence Tisch, subsequently embarked on cost-cutting measures that undercut the “Tiffany Network” aura of class it had taken the chairman years to cultivate.

By the end of his life, this once-vital corporate titan owned less than nine percent of stock in the company he had built, so he could not influence events as he once did. By then, too, Sally Bedell Smith’s biography In All His Glory had questioned his pretension to business visions while exposing his aloofness and cunning.

But, if he wasn’t what he wanted the world to think he was, Paley had managed for years to sustain a media empire that, unlike the one overseen by Rupert Murdoch, did not debase Americans’ cultural tastes or undermine their belief in verifiable fact.

Movie Quote of the Day (‘Arthur,’ In Which Our Hero Meets the Really Ruthless Rich)

[Much to his discomfort, Arthur is meeting the father of his prospective fiancée.)

Burt Johnson [played by Stephen Elliott]: [smiling broadly] “When I was 11 years old, I KILLED a man.”

Arthur Bach [played by Dudley Moore]: “Well, when you're 11 you probably don't even know there's a law against that. Is Susan here?”

Burt [oblivious as he reminisces]: “I knew what I was doing. We were poor. He came into our house to steal our food.”

Arthur: “Well, he was asking for it.”

Burt: “I took a knife, and I killed him in the kitchen.”

Arthur [laughing nervously]: “You, uh... probably ate out that night, what with that man lying in your kitchen.”

Burt: “You seem to find humor in everything.”

Arthur [nervously]: “Yeah, sorry.”—Arthur (1981), written and directed by Steve Gordon

Even though Arthur has been out nearly 40 years now, I had only caught bits and pieces of it over the years until this summer, when I viewed it in its entirety on TCM. There are so many aspects of this comedy to savor, starting with the performances of Dudley Moore and Sir John Gielgud.

But what I think has been overlooked over time is the sheer toughness of Steve Gordon’s screenplay, which pulls off something pretty stunning: Despite its surface sunniness, a throwback to the Cinderella rom-coms that Jean Arthur, Carole Lombard or Claudette Colbert might have made in the Thirties, this film is under no illusions about the rich.  

Released in the first summer of the Reagan Administration, it offers a caution that the men who profited the most in this era would have no one’s interests but their own in mind. They may be different from you and me, as Scott Fitzgerald maintained, but they don't have more charm, just more money--and the muscle to maintain it.

Burt Johnson may be the most dramatic example of the abusive 1% here, but he’s not the only one. While visiting his grandmother, Martha, Arthur shares his feelings for Linda, the thief he had encountered while she was filching a necktie at a department store.

Yet Martha warns him bluntly that he will be disowned if he does not marry longtime rich girlfriend Susan: "We are ruthless people. Don't screw with us!"

Knowing that he is gravely ill, the butler Hobbes likewise warns about the dangers of defying his family, in some of the strongest lines of tough love ever delivered on film: “Poor drunks do not find love, Arthur. Poor drunks have very few teeth, they urinate outdoors, they freeze to death in summer. I can't bear to think of you that way."

When salvation does come nevertheless for Arthur, it comes in the only realistic scenario possible. In church, as Burt Johnson pummels Arthur for jilting his daughter, Martha simply can’t abide an outsider delivering punishment to any member of her family, no matter how wayward she might regard him. Coming to the aid of her grandson, after all, does not contradict what she said earlier. Notice the subject of her first sentence: We are ruthless people. 

So the rich turn on each other, only this time it comes through blows rather than lawsuits.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Quote of the Day (Kellogg’s 1934 ‘Baseball’ Guide, With Fielding Advice That the Dodgers Can Use)

“Good outfielders will tell you not to be too tense. If your wrists and hands are rigid you’ll increase your chances of fumbling. Be relaxed when you catch the ball.”—“How to Catch a Ball,” Kellogg’s “Baseball” Guide (1934)

I was pleasantly surprised when a friend sent me last week the 1934 Kellogg “Baseball” guide you see here. I had just finished writing a post about Jimmie Foxx, and the guide took me back to the world of the Philadelphia A’s and Boston Red Sox slugger of the Thirties. The tips in this pamphlet offered the kind of advice from him and other future Cooperstown greats that American boys would have received at the time.

It was comforting to discover that, before designated hitters, armies of relief pitchers, and sluggers advised by hitting coaches not to worry too much about strikeouts if they could put the ball out of the park, some elements of the game of the past have managed to carry over.

After last night’s game, I’m sure that Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts might have wanted to get the above passage into the hands of centerfielder Chris Taylor. With only one strike to go to secure victory and a 3-1 World Series advantage, Taylor and Dodgers catcher Will Smith committed a cascading series of errors that frightened their fans with what one Twitter user termed “a double Buckner”—a reference to the Red Sox first baseman unfairly tagged the goat of the 1986 World Series for a ball that skidded through his legs.

Maybe the Boys in Blue will recover and this set of defensive miscues occurring in a mere 10 seconds will be forgotten in the ensuing era of good feeling. But if the Dodgers don’t win the series, expect Roberts to be put on the same “Win This Year or Else” clock that Aaron Boone is on following his deeply problematic pitching strategy in Game 2 of the American League Divisional Series with the Tampa Bay Rays.

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Bill Bradley, on the Moral Questions That Politics Avoids)

“How can a people that wages war on nature reflect God? How can a society with grating poverty amidst great wealth remain just? What is it that guides one through life? What is it that one yearns and strives for? Politics shrinks from even acknowledging these basic questions. It is easier to give a response based on a poll than one that flows from your heart.”—Former U.S. Senator from New Jersey, Presidential candidate, and New York Knicks basketball player Bill Bradley, Time Present, Time Past: A Memoir (1996)

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Flashback, Fall 1980: Righteous Brothers Cover Lifts Hall and Oates’ ‘Voices’

Hall and Oates had already recorded all their projected songs for their album Voices, but they still felt another was needed. An oldies tune they heard on a jukebox near their New York City studio, they quickly realized, was the missing ingredient in their mix.

The only cut on their LP not written by the duo, “You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling”—released in late September and climbing the charts rapidly in October 40 years ago—fit perfectly with the aural tone they were trying to achieve in their first self-produced album. More important, it marked a turning point in their careers, launching a string of platinum-selling albums and helping them sell out arenas in the first half of the Eighties.

It marked quite a turn from the start of 1980. After Top 10 hits such as “Rich Girl,” Sara Smile,” and “She’s Gone,” Daryl Hall and John Oates had struggled in their albums of the late Seventies to stay at that level. The best they could manage was the single “Wait for Me,” which only reached No. 18 on the charts.

Part of the problem was how to mesh their interest in “new wave” music with the “Philadelphia Sound” of rhythm and blues that they had grown up with—or, as the title of their greatest hits album several years later put it, “Rock and Soul.”

Hall and Oates and their record label, RCA, could have been forgiven for thinking the first single from Voices, the optimistically titled “How Does It Feel to Be Back,” would mark their return to their pop peak. With its use of a jangly Rickenbacker guitar, it was, as I heard a WNEW-FM refer to it at the time, “The Beatles Meet Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.” But it only made it to the Top 30, down a bit even from “Wait for Me.”

Ultimately, the duo’s instinct for the song they needed to complete their album proved fortunate. Subsequently, they differed slightly on exactly where they heard “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” (Hall recalled it being played in a downtown nightspot called the Mudd Club, while Oates remembered in his 2017 memoir Change of Seasons that they were in a pizza joint). But each recollected that the Righteous Brothers hit came at the end of their recording sessions, that they recognized how compatible it would be with their own vocal style, and that they recorded the song with the rest of their band the next day in only a few hours.

Only the year before, for his 52nd Street album, Billy Joel had paid lavish tribute to the Righteous Brothers with “Until the Night,” matching his own lyrics and melody to the grandiloquent “Wall of Sound” employed by their producer, Phil Spector. This time, though, Hall and Oates set the classic Barry Mann-Cynthia Weil composition in what Oates called the “punchy and sleek” style of the rest of their LP—one that avoided overdubs.

For all the difference in aural arrangements, Hall and Oates harked back to the vocal style of their predecessors as purveyors of “blue-eyed soul”: Oates emulating the dark baritone of Bill Medley, Hall finding his groove in an approximation of Bobby Hatfield’s falsetto.

Their instinct for the right song for them was justified by events in the fall of 1980. “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” climbed to Number 12 on the charts, bettering the performance of “How Does It Feel to Be Back” and giving Voices continued radio exposure—and then the deluge:

*“Kiss on My List,” Hall’s collaboration with Janna Allen, sister of his girlfriend Sara, vaulted to Number 1 shortly after the new year;

*The ebullient “You Make My Dreams” jumped to Number 5;

*Propelled by its four singles, Voices spent 100 weeks—nearly two years—on the Billboard chart.

Having achieved success themselves with a cover song, Hall and Oates a few years later saw a younger artist score a hit with one of their Voices songs: the ballad “Every Time You Go Away,” which British singer Paul Young took to Number 1.

As the British singer Joe Jackson would do in a couple of years with his albums Steppin’ Out and Body and Soul, Hall and Oates felt that their sound benefited from exposure to the polyglot sounds of New York City:

“Living in New York at the time, you had punk and New Wave,” Oates told David Chiu in an interview for the Web site Ultimate Classic Rock. “We were living in the Village. We were in the vortex of all this energy that was happening. And so the music reflected it. It always has reflected where we were at the moment and the environmental and social influences of what was going on around us, because as songwriters, that's all you really have to use as your inspiration.”

The pair continued to record in the same vein in their subsequent LPs in the next few years: Private Eyes, H2O, and Big Bam Boom. Buoyed by MTV videos that, though laughable by their own admission, gave them additional exposure, they achieved superstar status.

“The momentum and success of Voices ushered in the next wild chapter of our career,” Oates recalled in Change of Seasons. “We had done it. We had produced ourselves and in doing so, tapped into the core of who we were as writers, artists, and producers. We’d once again found a sound. There was no turning back, but we had no idea what lay ahead. As it turned out, this new phase was, for many fans, the beginning of Hall and Oates.”

Amazingly, unlike, say, the Everly Brothers and Simon and Garfunkel, Hall and Oates have been able to maintain their partnership unfractured. Each was adept not only at singing, but also at songwriting and playing multiple instruments. Neither, then, felt threatened or jealous of the other’s skills, and they have not differed radically over the direction of their music. The result is that they have stayed together long enough to become the most successful duo in rock ‘n’ roll history.

Quote of the Day (Edgar Allan Poe, on a Jesting Dwarf’s Revenge on a Sadistic Leader)

[Hop-Frog the dwarf-jester said to the king]: “ ‘Just after your majesty, had struck the girl and thrown the wine in her face…there came into my mind a capital diversion—one of my own country frolics—often enacted among us, at our masquerades: but here it will be new altogether….I will equip you as ourang-outangs…. The resemblance shall be so striking, that the company of masqueraders will take you [the king and his seven advisers] for real beasts—and of course, they will be as much terrified as astonished…’.

“And now, while the whole assembly (the apes included) were convulsed with laughter, the jester suddenly uttered a shrill whistle; when the chain flew violently up for about thirty feet— dragging with it the dismayed and struggling ourang-outangs, and leaving them suspended in mid-air between the sky-light and the floor….

" ‘Ah, ha!’; said at length the infuriated jester. ‘Ah, ha! I begin to see who these people are now!’ Here, pretending to scrutinize the king more closely, he held the flambeau to the flaxen coat which enveloped him, and which instantly burst into a sheet of vivid flame. In less than half a minute the whole eight ourang-outangs were blazing fiercely, amid the shrieks of the multitude who gazed at them from below, horror-stricken, and without the power to render them the slightest assistance….

“The dwarf seized his opportunity, and once more spoke:

“ ‘I now see distinctly,’ he said, ‘what manner of people these maskers are. They are a great king and his seven privy-councillors,—a king who does not scruple to strike a defenseless girl and his seven councillors who abet him in the outrage. As for myself, I am simply Hop-Frog, the jester--and this is my last jest.’

“Owing to the high combustibility of both the flax and the tar to which it adhered, the dwarf had scarcely made an end of his brief speech before the work of vengeance was complete. The eight corpses swung in their chains, a fetid, blackened, hideous, and indistinguishable mass. The cripple hurled his torch at them, clambered leisurely to the ceiling, and disappeared through the sky-light.”—American short-story writer, poet, and essayist Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), “Hop-Frog” (1849)

Years ago, I read numerous tales by Edgar Allan Poe for my high school and college English classes. But I had never focused on this late story until I read an essay on the horror and suspense maven in Neil Gaiman’s nonfiction collection, The View From the Cheap Seats (2016)

Gaiman hailed this story’s “terrible and appropriate cruelty,” and it has taken on other implications than those suggested when it first appeared in print. (Some critics believed at the time that this was Poe’s vicarious vengeance on those who questioned his courtship of a couple of women; others thought it arose from the revolts that had occurred in several European countries in 1848.)

Contemporary readers might point to other elements of the central characterization here: a leader who is caustic, abusive towards women, and mocking the disabled, who at length goes too far, triggering a spontaneous retaliation against himself and his corrupt toadies.

A chain, once used to facilitate oppression, becomes a means of liberation. The king’s counselors, who enable his sadism and abuses of power by cheering him on, share in his downfall.

Their fate also mirrors their relationship to the king and to each other while they were alive: “a fetid, blackened, hideous, and indistinguishable mass”—a warning that retribution, though coming late to men who exploit the marginalized and defenseless and to the circle that excuses these crimes, will surely arrive nonetheless.

Friday, October 23, 2020

Quote of the Day (Roald Dahl, on the Presence of a Ghost)

“The best ghost stories don’t have ghosts in them. At least you don’t see the ghost. Instead you see only the result of his actions. Occasionally you can feel it brushing past you, or you are made aware of its presence by subtle means… If a story does permit a ghost to be seen, then he doesn’t look like one. He looks like an ordinary person.”— British novelist, short-story writer, poet, screenwriter, and wartime fighter pilot Roald Dahl (1916-1990), introduction to Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories (1983)

(The image accompanying this post shows Claire Bloom and Julie Harris in the Robert Wise’s 1963 film The Haunting, an adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s chilling novel The Haunting of Hill House. Believe me, the atmosphere of this movie is about as far as you can get from the one Wise would make only two years later, the box-office smash The Sound of Music.)

Joke of the Day (Becca Kohler, on Fantasy Football)

“When my boyfriend plays fantasy football, I play fantasy new boyfriend.”—Canadian comedian Becca Kohler quoted in “Laughter: The Best Medicine,” Reader’s Digest, September 2015

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Photo of the Day: Rain Garden, Mahwah NJ

I took this photo at the start of this month while in Mahwah, at the northern edge of Bergen County, NJ. This rain garden, next to Winter’s Pond, filters rain water coming off hard surfaces such as roadways, driveways, parking lots and rooftops. The wildflower meadow here, seeded a year ago, filters and absorbs stormwater runoff and its pollutants before they enter groundwater and waterways. 

Quote of the Day (Roy Blount, Jr., on the Fine Art of Yodeling)

“In the abstract, yodeling may make us think of Walt Whitman’s ‘barbaric yawp,’ but a good streak of yodeling is elevated. It’s ageless, classless, beyond gender. Male yodelers come from deeper down and make a bigger jump into falsetto, but when any yodeler, young or old, commences gargling melody, he or she seems possessed, transported—not in a swoony American Idol way but as if the yodeler is channeling a bouncy, olden spirit. It’s not the yodeler doing the tonsil-juggling, it’s the yodel. An Aeolian harp being dragged by a horse—pleasingly— over washboard terrain. Steel guitar blended with locomotive chugga-chugga. Dozens of Easter eggs tumbling down a chute.” — Southern humorist and all-around man of letters Roy Blount, Jr., “Gone Off Up North: American Yawp,” Oxford American, Issue 58, Fall 2007 (Southern Music Issue Vol. IX)         

Since childhood, I had heard yodeling on TV and in movie theaters. But it is a whole different experience to hear it live, as I did 34 years ago when I first set foot in Switzerland. That night, several middle-aged men in lederhosen carried on vocally in the most carefree, merry fashion.

According to this piece by Roy Blount Jr., the Alpine version of yodeling did not derive from such close, intimate company, but rather from communicating over distances, where “your voice goes way up high….People addressing one another, or their goats or whatever, from Alp to Alp would have to shift way up high. They would have to use their clutch….And then, lacking many other forms of entertainment, they’d fool around with it some, yo-ohhh-d’ly-o’dly.”

You may have guessed, from what I’ve just written, that I’m hardly a longtime aficionado of this vocal form. But, after reading and listening (in guest appearance on NPR’s quiz show, Wait, Wait... Don’t Tell Me!) to Blount over the years, I was eager to discover what he had to say on the subject. I was not disappointed.

Few writers can match Blount for his rollicking, energetic gusto. I particularly love how he conveys the tactile experience of listening to yodeling that you get from this passage. It’s great how he juxtaposes ethereal words (“elevated,.” “falsetto,” “transported,” “swoony”) with decidedly earthier ones (“gargling,” “tonsil-joggling,” “chugga-chugga,” “tumbling”).

At the same time, he gives a concise, fun history of the great (Jimmy Rodgers, Cliff Carlisle, Ranger Doug of Riders in the Sky, Caroline Cotton, Emmett Miller) and the not-so-great (Johnny Cash and Jimmie Dale Gilmore) practitioners of yodeling.

(Yes, as you might suspect, the image accompanying this post depicts the singer Jewel, who, as Blount notes in this article, can “yodel her buns off.” When she performs “Chime Bells,” he observes, “It’s like seeing somebody who’s been drifting around on a big lilypad suddenly catch hold of a ski-rope and take off boogity-shoot over choppy water. All right! Now we’re hooking onto something!” If you don’t believe me—or Blount—then listen to her in this YouTube clip and judge for yourself.)

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Photo of the Day: Bent Trees, Rockland Lake State Park, NY

Over a week ago, heavy wind and rain had an effect on these trees I photographed while visiting Rockland Lake State Park this past Sunday. This 1,133-acre space is ideal for walking, and despite the threat of COVID-19, many people turned out to take in the lovely post-storm weather.

Quote of the Day (Harley Jane Kozak, on an American Adrift in London’s October Fog)

“The October day was murky with fog. And cold. I was wearing Robbie’s red rain slicker, but it wasn’t enough. How’d I get roped into doing this favor-turned-into-an-enigma-wrapped-in-a–Twilight Zone episode? Robbie had a lifetime of practice getting me to do stuff he didn’t like doing—pet immigration in this case—but I’d had the same lifetime of practice saying no. Yet here I was, and minus the pet in question. How had it happened? What had happened? And why? And where was my damned brother? Seriously, what was I supposed to do? Call 911? Was the number even 911 in England? And then what? I wasn’t one to chalk things up to supernatural forces, but it was a stretch to assume a criminal act. What self-respecting thief would want a plump, elderly cat? And why leave in her place this wheezing dog, straining at his makeshift leash, pulling me through London?”—American actress-turned-crime fiction writer Harley Jane Kozak, “The Walk-In,” in The Best American Mystery Stories 2019, edited by Jonathan Lethem (2019)

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Photo of the Day: Pascack Brook County Park, Westwood NJ

A week ago, I drove up to Westwood, several miles from where I live in Bergen County, NJ, and walked around Pascack Brook County Park. Besides the waterway at this 79-acre space’s center, I also was taken enough by the way sunlight highlighted the start of leaf-changing season that I took this photo.

Quote of the Day (Jordan Peele, on the ‘Jump Scare’ vs. ‘Slow-Building, Unnerving’ Terror)

“At one end of the spectrum, there’s the jump scare, and at the other end, there's slow-building, unnerving anticipation—the terror. For my money, terror is the best type of scare, because it’s the promise of horror to come. When the audience is in that state, you don’t have to do much. Their imagination is more powerful than any piece of imagery or any timing or misdirection you could do.”— African-American screenwriter-director Jordan Peele (Get Out, Us), quoted in Jonah Weiner, “The New Master of Suspense,” WSJ. Magazine, March 2019 (registration required for viewing)

(The image accompanying this post comes from Peele’s Get Out, with perhaps the most famous scene from that 2017 thriller: Daniel Kaluuya’s Chris as he descends into the “Sunken Place.” During these weeks leading up to Halloween, it’s well worth seeing how this Oscar-winning screenplay—with nods towards The Stepford Wives and Rosemary’s Baby—anticipated America’s unfolding real-life racial nightmare.)

Monday, October 19, 2020

Photo of the Day: Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Steepletop, Austerlitz, NY

Seventy years ago today, the personal “candle” that Edna St. Vincent Millay announced “burns at both ends” finally gave out when the 58-year-old poet fell to her death down steps in her home, with nobody around to come to her assistance.

Although in her youth a Greenwich Village bohemian, Millay had spent most of her last quarter-century quietly tending to her gardening, birds and poetry, in a Victorian homestead that she and her late husband Eugen Boissevain had lovingly refurbished.

In the late summer of 2017, I had already visited the homes of two other Berkshire authors, Edith Wharton and Herman Melville, when I decided to stop at Millay’s, Steepletop, across the border from Massachusetts in Austerlitz, NY. But unlike those two writers, Millay’s was a good deal more remote, involving not just getting off a main highway but ascending a high, twisting, gravelly road.

That remoteness meant that Millay could write in the seclusion she had come to crave, but it also complicated the difficulties that many American house museums faced in the wake of the 2007-09 recession.

This meant that, the spring after I toured (and, as you can see, photographed) the house and grounds, the operator of this National Historic Landmark, the Edna St. Vincent Millay Society, announced that it was facing severe financial pressures.

Subsequently it announced that the home would be closed indefinitely to visitors. In a 2019 Berkshire Eagle article, a literary executor for Millay was quoted as saying the current goal was “to continue to maintain, restore and safeguard the property,” even as they hope for donations while seeking “sustainable solutions, ideally an institutional partner or two to help us secure the site's future.”

I don’t envy the task facing the Edna St. Vincent Millay Society or similar nonprofit organizations these days. I hope that they will meet their goal, so that others may experience, as I did, tangible reminders of this groundbreaking female author, only the third woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry when she was awarded it in 1922.

Direct, outspoken, and even sexually frank, Millay’s verses were listened to rapturously on the reading and lecture tours that Boissevain arranged for her. More often than not, her many admirers gave up trying to imitate her intensely personal style. ("I was following in the exquisite footsteps of Miss Millay, unhappily in my own horrible sneakers,” Dorothy Parker noted sadly about her own poetry in a 1965 Ladies Home Journal interview with a young Gloria Steinem.)

When I visited, the library represented the best opportunity to understand the deep intellect that informed her poetry, as it was stocked with 3,000 volumes that included poetry, the classics, contemporary current novels, and reference books in English, Spanish, French, German and Latin that she used in creating not only her verses but also operas and other dramatic works.

“Vincent,” as she was known to friends, does not currently enjoy the passionate following she had in the Jazz Age. But, even as the conservators of her home wait out the current recession, I hope that readers will savor her work, including these verses on the property she loved so well published after her death:

   “I hear the rain, it comes down straight;

               Now I can sleep, I need not wait

               To close the windows anywhere.

               Tomorrow it may be, I might

               Do things to set the whole world right.

               There’s nothing I can do tonight.”

This Day in Art History (N. C. Wyeth, Painting Patriarch, Dies in Tragic Train Accident)

Oct. 19, 1945—Forty-three years to the day that the creative, adult part of his life began when he stepped off a train in the Brandywine River Valley, painter and illustrator N. C. Wyeth died when a train collided with his car a few miles from his home and studio in Chadds Ford, PA.

A powerful, sometimes overwhelming influence in his family, the 63-year-old Newell Convers Wyeth left his survivors—a wife and five grown children—devastated by the loss of him and the grandson/namesake in the car with him. 

For years, they—and local residents who had grown used to his longtime presence—wondered to what extent the accident represented a culmination of his last few years of mounting melancholy and self-doubt over an inability to be taken seriously as a producer of fine paintings rather than of popular commercial art.

Above all, several questions lingered afterward about the passing of this patriarch with three children and a grandson who followed him into the painting trade:

*Why did he take his grandson out of the car, point to two men husking corn in the morning light, and tell him, within earshot of onlookers: “Newell, you won’t see this again—remember this”?

*Had he been conducting an affair with daughter-in-law Caroline? If so, was a child conceived from that relationship, as local rumor had it?

*When Wyeth came to the railroad tracks, had he been blinded by the morning light, suffered a heart attack—or intentionally committed suicide?

Growing up in the 1960s. I never imagined that the artist behind the Scribner illustrated classics I was devouring (Robert Louis Stevenson, James Fenimore Cooper, and Jules Verne) could have been involved in an incident easily a match for the mystery and drama I was reading. 

Nor could I imagine in the mid-1980s, when I read the breathless accounts of the secret cache of nude “Helga” paintings by son Andrew, that the whiff of scandal had clung not only to him but to his father and even grandmother?

The mystery surrounding Wyeth’s death is ironic, considering that so many other aspects of his life were so extensively documented. Not only is his Chadds Ford studio intact, but he left a trove of correspondence culled by Andrew’s wife Betsy and published as The Wyeths:The Letters of N.C. Wyeth, 1901-1945—a thumping volume of more than 800 pages.

Figuring out what led to the accident is difficult, as the following needs to be weighed:

*Wyeth, when he pointed out the cornhuskers to his grandson, may have been urging him to absorb the physical elements of every experience—something he constantly urged his sons to do—or he may have been voicing his last desperate thoughts;

*Wyeth may well have been having an affair with Caroline, but a pregnancy was less likely, concluded David Michaelis in his 1998 biography of the painter—and, in any case, a child from that liaison would not necessarily have led Wyeth to take his own life;

*Wyeth may well have had a heart attack, since, with more than 300 pounds on his 6-ft., 1-in. frame, he had become badly overweight; but, on the other hand, the additional pounds may also have contributed to a helplessness that preceded suicide.

Moreover, suicide would not have been out of character for a man traumatized by a mother who was overprotective and chronically depressed. When not boosting his artistic inclinations, Hattie Wyeth manipulated him into feelings of guilt, and N.C. adopted the same behavior with his own children—instilling his artistic precepts on the one hand while building more space for his children on his property even after they married so he could control their destinies into adulthood.

So far, what I have written explains why Wyeth’s life was tragic. But we remember him because, despite his fears about its ultimate merit, his work was indeed distinguished.

For starters, the lucrative commissions that Wyeth disparaged (“You’ll grow out of that,” he responded when Betsy told him how much he admired them)—his illustrations for Scribers—enriched the texts on which he worked, adding elements not always readily apparent from the written word. For instance, Robert Louis Stevenson described Jim Hawkins’ departure from home tersely in Treasure Island. But Wyeth’s illustration of the scene depicts Mrs. Hawkins looking away in tears, while Jim walking into the foreground with a blank expression that scarcely conceals his anxiety for the future.

This and other works benefit from a realism so powerful that, for example, Wyeth kept costumes, cutlasses, and flintlocks in his studio for reference and inspiration. The works show up to even better advantage on the walls of the Brandywine River Museum of Art, as the book illustrations are at heart smaller reproductions of larger paintings.

Like his teacher, Norman Pyle, and Norman Rockwell, Wyeth was a master of narrative art whose work, unlike that of so many contemporaries, endures more than a century after their original creation. His versatility extends beyond the printed page, as he also created murals on display in the Federal Reserve Bank, Boston, Hotel Roosevelt and Franklin Savings Bank, both in New York City, as well as magazine advertisements and calendars.

It may take a while, but in time Wyeth may also be remembered for his late-career paintings as well, and not just indirectly, as the father of Andrew and grandfather of Jamie Wyeth.

Tweet of the Day (Andy Richter, on a Burning Question From His TV Watching)

“Watching The Strain, and have a general question: who maintains the lightbulbs that are always burning in forgotten underground movie tunnels?” — American actor, writer, comedian, and late- night talk-show announcer Andy Richter, October 6, 2014 tweet

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Photo of the Day: Gazebo, Horsey Centennial Park, Harrington Park NJ

My eye would have been caught anyway by the ¾-acre triangle formed by Harriot Avenue, Harriot Place and Parkside Road in Harrington Park, NJ. But the crowning feature of Donald T. Horsey Centennial Park (named after a town clerk who served 42 years) is this covered gazebo, which makes it a real community center.

As you can tell from this photo I took a few days ago, this spot has been decorated for Halloween. But newlyweds have also been known to use it as the backdrop for wedding photos.

Spiritual Quote of the Day (William James, on ‘The Characteristics of the Religious Life’)

“The characteristics of the religious life…[include] the following beliefs: that the visible world is part of a more spiritual universe from which it draws its chief significance; that union or harmonious relation with that higher universe is our true end; [and] that prayer or inner communion with the spirit thereof—be that spirit 'God' or 'law'—is a process wherein work is really done, and spiritual energy flows in and produces effects, psychological or material, within the phenomenal world." — American philosopher and psychologist William James (1842-1910), The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (1902)

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Photo of the Day: Our Lady of Victories, Harrington Park NJ

Earlier this week, on my way to visit an area park, I spotted Our Lady of Victories, then turned around and photographed it. It reminded me of the one other, sad occasion several years ago when I visited this Roman Catholic church in northern New Jersey.

Quote of the Day (Peter Bogdanovich, on the Magnetism of Montgomery Clift)

“[Montgomery] Clift had been a kind of unacknowledged leader. His performances in [Howard] Hawks’ Red River (his first movie, though [Fred] Zinnemann’s The Search was released earlier), in [William] Wyler’s The Heiress, in [George] Stevens’ A Place in the Sun, heralded a new acting style. It came to be known, inaccurately, as the Method. After Clift came Brando, and after Brando, James Dean. Clift was the purest, the least mannered of these actors, perhaps the most sensitive, certainly the most poetic. He was also remarkably beautiful. Over eight years he acted in eight films, became a teenage heartthrob as well as a popular star with older audiences. He was nominated for Best Actor Oscars three times in six years and should have won each time. He gave at least four performances – in Red River, in A Place in the Sun, in I Confess and in Zinnemann’s From Here to Eternity – that remain among the finest anyone has given in the movies.”— Peter Bogdanovich, Who the Hell’s in It: Portraits and Conversations (2004)

Montgomery Clift was born 100 years ago today in Omaha, Neb. Bogdanovich describes meeting this “most romantic and touching actor of his generation” at a 1961 showing of I Confess at a New York revival house.

As a result of a horrifying car accident three years before that wrecked his looks, Clift was on the downside of his career and five years away from his death at age 46. (I discussed that career- and life-changing incident in this post from 11 years ago.)

Bogdanovich’s narration of this encounter is profoundly poignant and moving. But to get beyond the tragic facts of his life to why we continue to value Clift’s work—the sheer labor, intensity and sensitivity he brought to each role—I recommend this post from the blog “And So It Begins” by director Alex Withrow.

Friday, October 16, 2020

Commentary: Curbside Pickup—A Light on the Retail Landscape

After so much negative news about the impact of COVID-19 on stores, the front page of this past Sunday’s New York Times was a welcome sight with its examination of the rise of curbside pickup.

Granted, it took seven months after stores began to implement this measure in response to fears of the pandemic before the Gray Lady gave this topic the treatment it deserved, and there wasn’t anything to know about the phenomenon now that couldn’t be learned then. But better late than never.

None of the contradicts my point two weeks ago that the loss of many more physical stores continues to be a live possibility with potential for grave damage, both to the retail real estate industry and to their communities nationwide.

But, because of its visibility, the Times article will shine a spotlight on a subject that other reporters on smaller papers will want to examine for the implications for business in their cities and towns.

In one sense, Ann-Marie Alcantara’s July Wall Street Journal piece deserves credit for getting there first. But it was oddly silent on one crucial aspect that Sapna Maheshwari and Michael Corkery highlighted in the Times: how curbside pickup mitigates the dilemma of “the last mile,” the expensive final step in delivering merchandise to the customer.

As I read these two articles, several questions that came to mind that I hope will be addressed soon by general-interest reporters rather than those who write for more narrow retail-focused publications:

* What merchandise is best suited to take advantage of additional consumer impulse buying at the point of pickup?

*How will parking spaces be allocated in the future to allow for easier customer pickup of goods?

*If more space is allotted on the sidewalk for pickup, will this materially affect store interior space?

*If less space is devoted to retail interiors, what will malls do with their vacant square footage, and how will this affect tenant mix?

*To what extent will leases be modified to account for merchandise bought online but picked up at physical locations?

Unlike, say, drive-in theaters, which have enjoyed a minor revival since this spring, curbside pickup will likely remain an enduring feature of the retail landscape even once COVID-19 fades as a threat. It is a natural development of technological changes that have come into their own after considerable tinkering over the last 20 years, as companies evolved from multi-channel retail (enabling customers to purchase wherever they shop, but with the physical and digital elements functioning as separate “silos”) to omni-channel retail (seamless integration into a “phygital” experience for the consumer).

I wish that the Times and Journal reporters had canvassed more industry practitioners on ways to upgrade the customer experience with curbside pickup. In this regard, Brian Donnelly, marketing director at LivePerson, offered some suggestions, in a blog post for “Retail Customer Experience,” on how retailer can avoid leaving customers “confused in their parking lots, struggling to engage associates to fulfill their orders” (for example, providing “an automated way to initiate the fulfillment that doesn't rely on the consistent availability of a store associate”).

Though retailers are understandably focused right now on merely surviving a projected “second wave” of COVID-19 as the weather turns colder, make no mistake: they are already looking carefully at their initial experiments with curbside pickup as a fulfillment option. They will strive to build on their successes and minimize their weaknesses with a measure largely adopted out of grim necessity but now constituting a narrow but shining path into an unknown future.

Movie Quote of the Day (‘Tootsie,’ In Which ‘Dorothy Michaels’ Gets a Screen Test)

[“Dorothy Michaels”in her offscreen life, unemployed actor Michael Dorsey—has a screen test.]

Rita (played by Doris Belack): “I'd like to make her look a little more attractive. How far can you pull back?”

Cameraman: “How do you feel about Cleveland?”

Rita: “Knock it off!”—Tootsie (1982), screenplay by Larry Gelbart and Murray Schisgal, based on a story by Don McGuire, with uncredited contributions by Barry Levinson, Robert Garland and Elaine May, directed by Sydney Pollack

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Photo of the Day: Covered Bridge, Mahwah NJ

This covered bridge is adjacent to Winter’s Pond in Mahwah, a town I visited nearly two weeks ago. I took this photograph at that time.

Quote of the Day (Daryl Hannah, on Her Childhood Experience With Psychiatry)

"I went through a whole battery of tests. They gave me this Rorschach test and said: OK, what do you see? I said: I see a lion and a cave... and I'd tell these whole long stories and they'd go: OK, that's enough. And I'm like: 'Don't you want to hear the rest?' They showed me some other things. One was this picture of a guy sitting over a creek. He was holding a fishing pole, and on the end of the fishing line was a boot. They said: 'What is he feeling?' And you're supposed to give an answer like: 'He's disappointed,' or sad or whatever. I said he was thrilled. To me, he lost his boot the week before when he was fishing there, and now he'd found it. It all made sense! But they didn't ask me why, they just thought: 'That's the wrong answer.' They wanted to institutionalize me."—Actress and environmental activist Daryl Hannah, on her experience with psychiatry in childhood, quoted in Gaby Wood, “Interview: ‘I'm a Little Bit of a Nerd,'” The Guardian, June 6, 2009

(Photo of Daryl Hannah taken Apr. 10, 2013, by the World Travel and Tourism Council.)

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Photo of the Day: Tappan Memorial Park, Tappan, NY

Last week I visited this park, located behind Tappan Library, on a short drive across the New Jersey border into Rockland County, NY.

It would have required an aerial shot to convey the pond’s curve, but I was still taken enough with it to take this photograph.

Quote of the Day (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, on ‘Autumn, Heralded by the Rain’)

“Thou comest, Autumn, heralded by the rain,
  With banners, by great gales incessant fanned,
  Brighter than brightest silks of Samarcand,
  And stately oxen harnessed to thy wain!”—American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882), “Autumn,” originally published in his The Belfry of Bruges and Other Poems (1845), reprinted in American Poetry, The Nineteenth Century: Volume One—Freneau to Whitman, edited by John Hollander (Library of America, 1993)

 The rain-preceded fall that Longfellow evokes here arrived Monday and yesterday, courtesy of the remnants, up here in the Northeast, of Hurricane Delta. Leaves have not changed color very much yet, but many arrive lie in profusion on the ground already—and that number is certain to grow shortly.

(The image accompanying this post shows the Charles River in Massachusetts, a short walk from Longfellow's home in Cambridge. I took this picture while visiting the area 12 years ago.)

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Photo of the Day: The Enduring Legacy of a Supreme Court Justice

I am pretty sure that in the city of Jamestown, N.Y., more visitors come to the Lucy-Desi Museum, or even to the more recently opened National Comedy Center. But neither of these places, as fun and fascinating as they are to visit, is worth pondering for the tourist in this corner of southwest New York State as much as the Robert H. Jackson Center, a not-for-profit institution dedicated to commemorating the principles of a great Supreme Court Justice.

Much to his chagrin, Robert H. Jackson—appointed as an Associate Justice after serving as Franklin Roosevelt’s Solicitor General and Attorney General—never achieved his ambition of becoming Chief Justice. Moreover, with only 13 years on the Supreme Court before his death in 1953, he did not have the opportunity to serve even half the length that seems to have become the rule over the past couple of decades.

But Jackson indisputably made his mark on the high court through decisions that, for wit, pungency, personality, and grace of style, are probably exceeded only by Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. Moreover, when he served as the chief U.S. prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials after World War II, he delivered a powerful opening statement that stands as the definitive summation of the horrors perpetrated by the Nazi regime as well as the need for international law to counter aggression in the future.

COVID-19 precludes my wish that throngs could pass through this site, the historic Alonzo Kent Mansion. (Jackson practiced law for most of his professional career only two blocks away.) There, they could see exhibits devoted to his life and work, or attend events that highlight the continuing relevance of the issues that Jackson ruled on. I had an opportunity to visit 13 years ago, when I took this photo.

But, as America weighs—unfortunately, not with the gravity or non-partisanship it deserves—the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s now-vacant seat, it would do well to consider the words of Jackson that sit outside the center dedicated in his memory:

“The very purpose of the Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects…from political controversy. One’s…fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.”