Thursday, January 31, 2008

This Day in TV History ('The Wonder Years' Premieres--Minus Jean Shepherd)

January 31, 1988 – The ABC series The Wonder Years, which offered a gently comic retrospective of a turbulent time in American history, premiered immediately following Super Bowl XXII, beginning a successful and acclaimed six-year TV run.

Only a couple of years younger than the show’s hero, Kevin Arnold, would have been at the time, I identified enormously with the series. Unlike so many other series, it never reached a point where it “jumped the shark,” and its final episode was as beautifully elegiac as the rest of its run.

So, like many other fans, I have mourned the fact that the series is not yet on DVD (except for a couple of Christmas specials), and pounce whenever I do catch a stray episode on cable TV. (I think it’s on "TV Land" these days. At least, I hope it still is).

In the accompanying photo are actors Josh Saviano (playing nerdy best friend Paul Pfeiffer), Fred Savage (Kevin Arnold), and Danica McKellar (the girl next door that Kevin holds a torch for, Winnie Cooper). 

(By the way, McKellar has enjoyed the most interesting post-show life of any of the cast members—indeed, probably of any former child star I can remember. She continues to act, but more amazingly, she has had a paper published in Journal of Physics A: Mathematical and General, and even wrote a book, Math Doesn’t Suck: How to Survive Middle-School Math Without Losing Your Mind or Breaking a Nail.)

I did not realize until recently that The Wonder Years was associated with radio legend
Jean Shepherd (who is probably best known nowadays for his role as the offscreen narrator of the 1983 Yuletide comedy A Christmas Story) – or that the association could have been even more explicit but for the great man’s cantankerous nature.

I made this discovery by accident last week, when I read The New York Times obituary of the fine actress
Lois Nettleton. It turned out that she was the ex-wife of Shepherd – producing one of my usual responses to such a revelation – “What???!!!”

Immediately, needing details, I turned to a biography that I had bought but not yet started to read—Eugene B. Bergmann’s
Excelsior, You Fathead! The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd.

I had imagined a more –well, rambunctious— mate for the comic legend than Nettleton. And sure enough, Bergmann confirmed that the curmudgeonly Shepherd didn’t really appreciate his kind and lovely wife, even though virtually everyone else in his circle could.

It was while flipping through the index that I noticed that Shepherd was connected in some way to The Wonder Years.

As it happens, the narrative style of the show – an adult voice-over commenting comically on events of his childhood, delivering the life lesson learned at the episode’s close – drew heavily on Shepherd’s radio broadcasts. The show’s producers even auditioned him to do the narration, but ultimately rejected him. An embittered Shepherd subsequently felt not just that the show had passed him by, but that it had wronged him by using his stories without attribution.

Was Shepherd right? Hard to say.

Hollywood is notorious not only for reusing the tried-and-true but even for outright script thievery, and it was probably worse back then, before Art Buchwald’s successful suit against Paramount over his unacknowledged contribution for the Eddie Murphy film Coming to America.

At the same time, this was, after all, Shepherd, a man with more than enough private shadows to match his on-air sunshine. I can’t even conceive of a man born over a generation before the events of The Wonder Years acting as the narrator of this quintessential Baby Boomer series. (In any case, Daniel Stern gave magnificent voice to the older, ironic, offscreen Kevin.)

I prefer to think of Shepherd the only time I ever got to see him, at the annual convention for the Direct Marketing Association about 20 years ago. He was the luncheon speaker. Much of the speech was probably familiar to his longtime radio fans, but one line scored big with the conventioneers: “Once you get on a mailing list, not even God can get you off!”

This Day in Religious History

January 31, 1915 – Thomas Merton, a convert to Roman Catholicism who became one of the most influential spiritual authors of the 20th century with reflections on contemplative living, civil rights, and non-violence, was born in France, “in the year of a great war.”

Merton’s 1948 confessional masterpiece, The Seven-Storey Mountain, immediately conveyed his preoccupation through the rest of his life with how his divided inner nature reflected a world alienated from God: “Free by nature, in the image of God, I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and my own selfishness, in the image of the world into which I was born. That world was the picture of Hell, full of men like myself, loving God and yet hating Him; born to love Him, living instead in fear and hopeless self-contradictory hungers.”

Throughout my four years at Columbia University, I was dimly aware that one of the most celebrated Catholics of the 20th century had graduated from there several decades before.

But I had no real idea of the nature of his life’s work—and, more important, had never read any of his books –until several years ago, when I came across the following quote from his autobiography in a review in The Washington Monthly:

“October is a fine and dangerous season in America. It is dry and cool and the land is wild with red and gold and crimson, and all the lassitudes of August have seeped out of your blood, and you are full of ambition. It is a wonderful time to begin anything at all. You go to college, and every course in the catalogue looks wonderful. The names of the subjects all seem to lay open the way to a new world. Your arms are full of new, clean notebooks, waiting to be filled. You pass through the doors of the library, and the smell of thousands of well-kept books makes your head swim with a clean and subtle pleasure. You have a new hat, a new sweater perhaps, or a whole new suit. Even the nickels and the quarters in your pocket feel new, and the buildings shine in the glorious sun.”

Reading that passage, I was immediately struck by the urge to buy the book, and I did so.

It’s easy to gauge from the first couple of sentences the extraordinary visual legacy that Merton’s father, a painter, left his son. Later, the cadences might remind you of simple, concrete Biblical verses, or even the classics of 18th-century English literature he studied under famed Columbia professor Mark Van Doren.

Merton’s description of his first encounter with the campus on Morningside Heights is not as beautiful, but just as vivid in its way:

“All around the campus were piles of dirty snow, and I smelled the wet, faintly exhilarating air of Morningside Heights in the winter time. The big, ugly buildings faced the world with a kind of unpretentious purposefulness, and people hurried in and out the glass doors with none of the fancy garments of the Cambridge undergraduate—no multicolored ties and blazers and scarfs, no tweeds and riding breeches, no affectations of any kind, but only the plain, drab overcoats of city masses. You got the impression that these people were at once more earnest and more humble, poorer, smarter perhaps, certainly more diligent than those I had known at Cambridge.”

Almost as secular then as now, Columbia nevertheless left an enormous impression on Merton, just as it has on me – a fact I was reminded of most forcefully last year, at my 25th reunion, as well as, more subtly, whenever I pick up a classic and am reminded in some way of a course I took at the school. It left its brand on me as surely as twelve years of St. Cecilia Elementary and High School did – and that’s saying something.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I began perusing my copy of Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father and turned to the section on his time at Columbia. In contrast to Merton’s tactile, lengthy discussion of the university, Obama’s was oddly abstract and perfunctory.

Obama graduated only one year behind me, and as an African-American came from a background even more alien to the Morningside Heights campus than mine or Merton’s.

I’ll undoubtedly return to the book, not only because I want to know more about this man who stands such a great chance of securing the Democratic nomination for President now, but because, from everything I’ve heard so far, his memoir is uncommonly reflective and evocative for one written by a politician. But I’m still puzzled as to why the university left such an evidently small imprint on Obama’s life.

Quote of the Day

“Love is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone-we find it with another.” -- Thomas Merton
(See today’s “This Day in Religious History”)

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

This Day in Cultural History

January 30, 1933—On the same day that a real-life contemporary villain seized power halfway around the world, a fictional hero from America’s Western past premiered on Detroit’s WXYZ radio station: The Lone Ranger.

The character—lone survivor of an ambush, saved by the Indian Tonto, and wearing a mask as he sought vengeance—was created at the behest of tight-fisted station owner George Trendle and fleshed out by writer Fran Striker (who also wrote the long-running Green Hornet series). One of the early actors to play the Lone Ranger (and the one who claimed to have come up with “Hi-yo, Silver!” because he couldn’t whistle for the horse) was George Stenius, who became better known in later years as film director George Seaton (most notably for the Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street).

Besides some 3,000 radio episodes, the show also ran on TV for eight years, starring Clayton Moore as the Lone Ranger and Jay Silverheels as faithful sidekick Tonto.

Various elements of the show—the mask, the white stallion and silver bullets, the Lone Ranger’s “Creed” —became a part of American legend. But the character—a combination of Robin Hood and Zorro—also fed the American public’s deep and eternal fascination with outsider-vigilante figures who act outside the law in order to save it.

From a TV commercial commercial from the early ‘70s hawking a classical music set, starring that most British of character actors, John Williams (the detective in Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder), I first learned that the theme I had grown up with was actually Rossini’s “William Tell Overture.” I did not know until now, though, that the musical motif was chosen because it was in the public domain and, therefore, nobody had to be paid royalties for its use. Just another example of how cheap—I’m sorry, parsimonious—station owner Trendle could be!

This Day in World History

January 30, 1933 – Ending months of a political standoff and governmental paralysis, Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany by President Paul von Hindenburg. To many Germans, the move by the 76-year-old former Field Marshal seemed to signal the passing of leadership to a vigorous new leader. In fact, it presaged national catastrophe.

The prior March, Hindenburg had won the Presidential election, but had been unable to secure a majority over National Socialist (Nazi) leader Hitler or the Communist party. Through the following summer and fall, with Germany plunged into economic depression, the 14-year-old Weimar Republic became mired in successive elections with no majority winner and Hitler declaring that he would hold out for “all or nothing.”

By January, pressed by major business leaders such as the Krupps to accept the former WWI corporal as an alternative to Communist rule, and confident that only three Nazis among the 11 ministers would keep the shouting upstart in line, Hindenburg offered the Chancellor post to Hitler.

The 43-year-old leader, who had made no secret of his hatred for Jews and Communists in Mein Kampf, the fevered autobiography he had written while jailed for a failed coup attempt a decade before, took the oath of office at noon.

U.S. opinion varied widely on the events occurring in its former WWI foe.

Several newspapers, including the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, warned correctly that Hindenburg might find it harder than he expected to surround Hitler with sufficient conservatives to prevent his brown-shirted thugs from assuming total power.

On the other hand, the word from the American capital was that these fears were likely overblown. “Many authorities here believed his acquisition of power might be better for Germany and for Europe that the alleged menace of his shadow constantly hovering near power as it has for two years,” reported The Cleveland Press. “Experts based this belief on past events showing that so-called ‘radical’ groups usually moderated, once in power.”

Ah, yes…Those “experts.”

Quote of the Day

“I get a lot of cracks about my hair, mostly from men who don't have any.” -- Ann Richards
(Thanks to Brian for the suggestion)

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

This Day in Sports History

January 29, 1915 -- Jacob Ruppert and Col. Tillinghast L´Hommedieu Huston purchased the New York Yankees from the baseball team’s first owners, Frank Farrell and William S. Devery.

A certain member of the Tubridy family once went by the name of Ruppert. Unfortunately, if there’s any relation to the Yankee owner – whose family fortune was made in the brewery industry, and who earned his sobriquet “The Colonel” because of a short stint in the National Guard—it’s at best a distant one. Therefore, our family of diehard fans has been unable to score free tickets to the Bronx Bombers all these years, leaving us all the poorer (spiritually as well as financially).

At the time of the purchase, the franchise was a distinctly poor relation to the older occupants of the Polo Grounds, the New York Giants, managed by John J. McGraw, whose two-fisted style depended on defense, the hit-and-run, tight pitching, and getting in the face of umpires.

Within a few years, however, with the help of general manager Ed Barrow and managers Miller Huggins and Joe McCarthy, Ruppert (who bought out Huston several years later) transformed the team into a powerhouse. Over the years, it has won 26 World Series, to say nothing of 39 American League pennants (even though I just said it).

Oh, yes—there was someone else involved in the team’s success early on—one George Herman Ruth, nicknamed “The Bambino” and “The Babe” – the transformative player who boosted attendance so much that it made possible a new home for the team in the Bronx—“The House That Ruth Built.”

This Day in American History

January 29, 1802 – Three days after Congress passed an act establishing a library within the U.S. Capitol, John James Beckley was appointed the first librarian of Congress, at a salary of $2 a day.

Faithful readers, you just knew I had to get to a post about a library or librarian sooner or later, didn’t you?

When I first read about this appointment, my reaction was, “Another underpaid librarian.”

My second thought was, “Typical—once again, the government stiffs just the person who can give it information and intelligence.” (Though, come to think of it, the idea of congressional “intelligence committees” is a misnomer—politicians on The Hill don’t know or don’t want to know what they should.)

The more I learned about John Beckley, however, the more I wondered if he were really underpaid. I’m still on the fence on the notion.

To start with, Beckley was no librarian.

At the time, this was no insuperable obstacle—the post would not take on its current mantle of professionalism until Melvil Dewey (yeah, the guy who invented that classification system we still use – but also an anti-Semite and someone who enrolled so many female students in Columbia’s library school that he was credibly accused of what might today be regarded as sexual harassment).

Nor was he a professional writer, the other profession common to individuals who have filled this post (notably including poet Archibald MacLeish and historians Daniel J. Boorstin and James H. Billington).

In fact, the most important association that Beckley had with books was bringing Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man to the attention of James Madison.

No, Beckley got his job for what is an all-too-familiar reason these days: he was a longtime supporter of the party in power.

In one way, the English-born Beckley epitomized the American Dream, rising from indentured servitude to become a three-term mayor of Richmond, Va., as well as the first clerk of the House of Representatives.

Yet old habits died hard, because though he had left his indentured status behind, Beckley’s rise through the political ranks was aided by the politics of deference in which government by an elite still held sway in Virginia (as, in fact, it did through many of the states, at least till the rise of Jacksonian Democracy). Specifically, he hitched his wagon to Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

It was as clerk of the House of Representatives and loyal adherent to the new party that his Virginia patrons had founded, the Democratic-Republicans, that Beckley performed the service that might have endeared him to Jefferson as much as any other. For he had access to confidential papers, including the secret of Alexander Hamilton’s affair with Maria Reynolds.

The outsized influence of Hamilton in the new government led Jefferson to strike out at him. “Hamilton is really a colossus…without numbers, he is a host unto himself,” he wrote Madison.

To take down the “colossus,” Jefferson worked behind the scenes, urging (and, some charged, bankrolling) the minor poet and State Department clerk Philip Freneau to edit the pro-Jeffersonian National Gazette.

An even more golden opportunity presented itself when scandalmonger James Callender—who also had Jefferson as his patron—exposed the Hamilton-Reynolds liaison.

Hamilton blamed Monroe’s protégé James Monroe for the leak. Happy to watch Hamilton embroiled in the republic’s first sex scandal, the Democratic-Republicans weren’t talking publicly, but Monroe himself believed that Beckley was the one responsible for exposing the affair.

Beckley continued to role up firsts, becoming a kind of combined James Carville and Daily Kos, attacking Federalists (often anonymously, behind the scenes, in numerous pamphlets), becoming what is often regarded as the first political campaign manager (in Pennsylvania) and writing the first campaign biography (of Jefferson, in 1800).

Beckley died five years after assuming his post. His tenure began a 60-year period when the head of the Library of Congress was little more than a political hack.

Thomas Jefferson played an enormous role in the rise of the Library of Congress—especially when he made available his own invaluable collection of books to the institution after the British had burned it during the War of 1812—but he did it no favors by making its first staffer a product of the politics of deference and the politics of personal destruction.

Quote of the Day

“I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.” – Groucho Marx

Monday, January 28, 2008

This Day in World History

January 28, 1547—King Henry VIII of England died, ending the 38-year reign of a tyrant of unquenchable appetites who changed the course of British and world history.

I love mnemonic devices as means of helping me remember all sorts of esoteric facts (such as HOMES, an acronym for the Great Lakes). The couplet that generations of schoolchildren remembered about the fate of Henry’s wives -- “Divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived” – strikes me as particularly inspired, if a bit flip about their ultimate fates.

In the early ‘70s, I remember watching The Six Wives of Henry VIII as a summer mini-series on CBS (this was probably after WNET had broadcast it earlier), and was enthralled by its depiction of the massive monarch.

In a reminiscence of the show in his Masterpiece: A Decade of "Masterpiece Theater" (1981), the series’ urbane host
Alistair Cooke made as well-argued a case as you can get for Henry as a complicated figure: “a fine musician, a remarkable athlete, linguist, mathematician; a statesman of imagination and industry who unified the government of England, Wales and the northern provinces and whose foresight in building a navy made possible the later defeat of the Spanish Armada and opened the Atlantic to the colonizing of America; a theological scholar subtle enough to find plausible pretexts, other than his ire at the Pope and his fear of Spain, for wanting to break with Rome.”

How even-handed an assessment. How reasonable. How British.

And how beside the point.

The problem with Cooke’s picture is that it’s Henry as a young man. Moreover, it overlooks the instinct to carry all before him that was present from early in his career. Cardinal Wolsey told another adviser, “I warn you to be well advised and assured what matter ye put in his head; for ye shall never pull it out again.”

I’ve come to think of Henry as a psychopath with a scepter, much of it the result of his own doing.

The king’s appetites for food led to a bloated frame—and resulting ulcers on his leg. By his mid-40s, he had grown so abnormally obese that in one four-year period his waist increased by 17 inches. (That's why I like the portrait accompanying this blog.)

Two jousting accidents left him depressed and belligerent.

The miscarriages suffered by his first two wives and the lack of children from his three children, coupled with his physical torments and rages, a
diagnosis of syphilis one that cannot be dismissed out of hand.

In a fascinating essay contributed to Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies (1995), Richard Marius made a revisionist case against the depiction of St. Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons, and even disputed the notion that Henry was a “raging maniac.”

But Marius’ own portrait of the king is, if anything, of a man far more dangerous than the movie image he disputes. “In public, especially in his younger days, he could be viperlike in his cunning. Henry remained personally friendly, almost to the last, with many of the people he destroyed—including [Thomas] Cromwell and Thomas Cardinal Wolsey.”

Make no mistake, then: this was a cruel and capricious ruler who sent loyal retainers to the gallows when he wasn’t hounding them to a premature grave, a man who broke with Rome not for any serious theological disagreement but (contra Alistair Cooke) because of the result of a sexual liaison.

This was an imperious monarch who fomented what historian Eamon Duffy called a “
stripping of the altars” and helped sever a people who had no argument with the Pope from a religion to which their ancestors had adhered for centuries.

Yet a triumphant Protestantism dubbed Henry’s older daughter “Bloody Mary” and, even today, in a nation where church attendance has dropped precipitously, the initials “D.F.” (for “Defender of the Faith,” the title given by the pope to Henry for his defense against Luther) are retained on coinage. Go figure.

(For an excellent 1914 contrarian view of pre-Reformation England, please see
History of the Catholic Church From Renaissance to the French Revolution, by the Jesuit historian James MacCaffrey.)

Henry has proven an irresistible subject for stage, film and TV, starting with Shakespeare’s Henry VIII. His reign presented three actors with the opportunity for plenty of scene-chewing, landing each Academy Award-nominated roles—Charles Laughton in The Private Life of Henry VIII (the one winner in the group); Robert Shaw in A Man for All Seasons; and Richard Burton in Anne of the Thousand Days. On TV, he’s been portrayed by Keith Michell (The Six Wives of Henry VIII) and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers (the recent Showtime series The Tudors).

Michell’s portrayal may be the best at detailing the gradual devolution of this monarch into physical and emotional decrepitude, but Shaw’s seems to me to penetrate the most to the heart of a type of absolutist impulse that achieved its apotheosis in the 20th century: a leader of surpassing hail-fellow-well-met charm one moment who can, on a dime, turn into a tyrant who poses an overwhelming danger to anyone unlucky enough to be within the vicinity of his wrath. (For a contemporary counterpart, see Forest Whitaker’s Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland.)

Quotes of the Day

“Being an independent means that we can argue issues in good faith instead of vilifying opponents as agents of evil. It means scoring poorly on rating scales of ideological purity. It means accepting as axiomatic the idea that no political party or ideology has a monopoly on truth or an immunity to hogwash.”—Steven Tiger, posting in response to Stanley Fish’s “Against Independent Voters,” reprinted in The New York Times, January 27, 2008

“A plague o’ both your houses!”—A dying Mercutio, to the feuding Montagues and Capulets, in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet

(Amen to Mr. Tiger and Mr. Bill)

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Required Reading

Gone Baby Gone: A Different Kind of Boston Crime--Churches for Sale

With this post, I'm inaugurating an alternating series of occasional posts of "Required" and "Non-Required" Reading. As I conceive the categories, "Required Reading" will highlight articles of a serious and/or lengthy nature. "Non-Required Reading" is likely to be shorterand/or more fun.

Whether I maintain these categories, or whether they will collapse, like the initial distinction Graham Greene drew between his serious works and "entertainments," only time will tell.

Though I'll flag noteworthy articles in major publications such as The New Yorker, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, I also think it's useful to draw readers' attention to material that may not be mass market.

One of these is Architecture Magazine, which, in its December 2007 issue, covers a topic that will sadden all faithful Roman Catholics when it doesn't outrage them.

Writer Bradford McKee and photographer Camilo Jose Vergara have collaborated on "Church, Going," a long article (with series of images) on Roman Catholic properties – particularly in the Archdiocese of Boston, now closing 65 parishes – being put on the market.

The Dennis Lehane novel (and recent movie) Gone Baby Gone considered the ramifications of a kidnapping, exploring past history and its implications for the present. It’s a whodunit.

The crime of despoiling a critical element of American Catholic patrimony, in contrast, is being accomplished largely in broad daylight. Moreover, it is a whydunit.

The bills are coming due now on nearly a half-century of church misconduct related to the sex-abuse scandal. (Which, I’ve always maintained, was not a priest abuse scandal but an archbishop-supervision scandal.)

And it's not confined to Boston anymore: Last September, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, in the wake of a record $660 million sex-abuse settlement, evicted three nuns from a small convent in the downtrodden area of Santa Barbara. (Nice work, Cardinal Mahony. Really showing that spirit of charity!)

As the Architecture article points out, the number of Catholic parishes has fallen from 19,331 in 1995 to 18,634 in 2007. Although a population shift from the Northeast and Midwest to the Sunbelt accounts for some of the closures, the Church shouldn't take refuge in an upturn in demographics.

Sunday mass attendance has fallen from 74 percent in the late 1950s to about 33% today. Moreover, a phenomenon that helped the Church cope with previous migrations—the replacement of one ethnic group in a parish by another—may no longer be as operative as it once was: the influx of Hispanics is not having the sizable effect it should because of the inroads that charismatic faiths are making in this group.

Kenneth Gibson, the first African-American mayor of Newark, once observed: "Wherever American cities are going, Newark will get there first." The same might be said for Boston in the American Catholic church: The first to absorb the immigrant throngs in great numbers, after the Irish Potato Famine; the first archdiocese with a sexual abuse crisis on a catastrophic scale; and now, perhaps, the first to enter a “brave new world” in which they put a smiley face on the notion that less is more, at least when it comes to church buildings.

A beautiful example of Italian Renaissance Revival architecture— the former Blessed Sacrament Church on Centre Street in Boston's Jamaica Plains section (seen in the picture accompanying this piece)—has been "suppressed" by the Boston Archdiocese since 2004.

The enormity of its ecclesiastical pillage is catalogued in the following paragraph:

"The absence of pews sends echoes throughout the eight enormous stone columns along the aisles, some of which have been stripped of their capitals. Beneath the soaring barrel-vaulted nave and the 135-foot-high dome, the eyes of painted prophets still stare down from the ceilings."

Since the Second Vatican Council, the laity have been told that we are the Church. These lost buildings are proof of this.

Far more than the executive-level decisions of archbishops, these buildings are theproducts of thousands – not just those who gave their hard-earned money over the years, but also architects, engineers, contractors, painters, sculptors, stained-glass craftsmen, and simple laborers who brought these works of art into being.

They were beautiful. Through no fault of their creators or the people who loved them, they are now being lost.

Don't think it can only happen in Boston. It can happen elsewhere. As a matter of fact, it is.

In a particularly heinous example, the Archdiocese of New York has been attempting these last few years to close St. Brigid’s, a surviving refuge for thousands of immigrants that came to the city in desperate flight from Ireland's Great Famine in the 1840s.

The archdiocese claims it has no plans to sell the building, but it has clearly acted in a high-handed fashion regarding its disposition. In July 2006, a judge asked the archdiocese and a committee formed to save the church to appear in her court for arguments concerning the building’s ownership.

Before the meeting could take place, a wrecking crew demolished the stained-glass windows and remaining pews. It was a crime against a faith community, a crime involving the defacement of art, and a crime against history itself, for among the demolished stained-glass windows were the names of victims of the Famine and of benefactors of the church.

I know, I know that buildings are less important than the spirit of charity that should animate a faith community, that the word "church" itself means community more than a physical structure, and that the most beautiful house of worship becomes lifeless without a compelling minister or vibrant, believing flock. And yet, all of this misses the point.

A church springs from a community and enhances it. It contains past, present and future—"the hopes and fears of all the years," in the lyrics of the Christmas carol. It is about commitment andendurance—words as rock-solid as the stone from which it is built.

The Roman Catholic Church didn't become the sprawling institution it is today with the instincts of CEOs closing underperforming locations. In a 1998 New York Review of Books essay, the late novelist John Gregory Dunne analyzed the career of James Cardinal McIntyre of Los Angeles, who improbably abandoned a career in construction to enter the priesthood – and recalled enough about his old craft to dress down contractors who offered estimates he regarded as outrageously high. Together with Francis Cardinal Spellman of New York, he formed a kind of bicoastal axis of church empire builders.

I can just hear the dismay of many friends who recall these clerics' reactionary brand of ecclesiastical, military and socioeconomic politics. Nor will I defend the cardinals' actions or beliefs.

But compared with other would-be empire builders in the secular world—whether the malign neo-Roman schematics of Albert Speer or the more well-intentioned glass-box architecture of Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe—they at least left structures of grace and beauty.

If at times (okay, lots of times) they ran their feifdoms like General Motors, at least they acted more like Alfred P. Sloan than Roger Smith, envisioning a broader world rather than a contracting one.

But right now, church leaders are in their Roger and Me mode—issuing press releases, ducking parishioners outraged by church closings as foolishly as they were sidestepping grand juries at the height of the sexual abuse crisis a few years ago.

It's time for the grandchildren and great-children of the people who built churches to save their spiritual homes before their spiritual landscape looks like Flint, Michigan.

This Day in Cultural History

January 27, 1885 – Jerome Kern, one of the half-dozen most important contributors to the Great American Songbook, was born in New York City to a first-generation German-Jewish family. The 16-year-old was able to overcome his father’s insistence on joining the family retail business by making a spectacular mistake: singing an order for 200 pianos rather than the two he was assigned to secure. (Well, it was just two decimal places off!)

Together with lyric partners such as Oscar Hammerstein II, Guy Bolton, P.G. Wodehouse, and Dorothy Fields, Kern wrote, for Broadway and Hollywood, such enduring standards as “All the Things You Are,” “Smoky Gets in Your Eyes,” “Ol’ Man River,” “A Fine Romance,” and “The Way You Look Tonight.” Everybody knows this—or should.

But did you know that Kern also compiled one of the greatest book collections in American history? I didn’t either, until I was working for a brief spell at an antiquarian book magazine during what seems like a lifetime ago.

Like yours truly, Kern had a mania for collecting—but unlike yours truly, his earnings during the Roaring Twenties enabled him to purchase on a grand scale invaluable rare books from the past few centuries (think first editions of Robinson Crusoe and Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”). Eventually, because of his increasing musical workload and need to pay more attention to his wife’s precarious health, Kern reluctantly decided he had to part with his collection.

The resulting booksale is still regarded as a highlight of antiquarian book history. It was actually two sales, spread out over the first two weeks of 1929, with the collection sold off in pieces to maximize sales. The items were sold separately rather than as a unit to maximize their sales potential.

The price for the entire collection--$1,729,462—capped a period of madly appreciating prices on the rare-book market, much like the stock market. In fact, the antiquarian book market would not see prices as high on a number of items for another 50 years.

Kern’s decision to sell the collection in early 1929—just before the onset of the Great Depression—illustrates that the great composer’s acute sense of timing was not only confined to music.

Quote of the Day

"Those who say they give the public what it wants begin by underestimating public taste and end by debauching it." – T.S. Eliot

(Words for today’s network executives to remember as they contemplate evening schedules filled with “reality programming”—one of the greatest misnomers coined in the television era)

Saturday, January 26, 2008

This Day in Cultural History

January 26, 1908 – Jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli was born in Paris, France. Often hailed as the godfather of his instrument, he came to public attention as part of Django Reinhardt’s Hot Club of France quintet.

Grappelli’s counterpart on the classical violin, Yehudi Menuhin, once commented: “Stephane is like one of those jugglers who send 10 plates into the air and recovers them all." I have four examples of what Menuhin means—and of his own dazzling collaboration with Grappelli—in four songs on my iPod: “The Lady is a Tramp,” “Night and Day,” “All the Things You Are,” and “A Fine Romance”—from their CD, Menuhin & Grappelli Play Berlin, Kern, Porter, and Rodgers & Hart (1985), a collection that is variously lyrical and antic.

Grappelli died in 1997, having delighted fans in concert well into his 80s. Someone with a touch so pure could be graced only by God, so I’m sure he is now performing similar wonders for St. Peter behind the pearly gates now.

Quote of the Day

"A healthy male adult bore consumes each year one and a half times his own weight in other people's patience." – John Updike

Friday, January 25, 2008

This Day in Theater History (Death of ‘Rent’ Composer Jonathan Larson)

Jan. 25, 1996— Composer
Jonathan Larson died of an undiagnosed aortic aneurism at his home in Manhattan, just after giving an interview about his new groundbreaking rock musical, Rent, and on the day of its first preview performance off-Broadway at the New York Theater Workshop. 

After seven years in gestation, the adaptation of Giacomo Puccini’s opera La Boheme, with a signature song called “Seasons of Love,” was about to embark on different kinds of seasons in short order: a season of mourning, a season of triumph, and a season of litigation. 

Critics were soon hailing the musical for its songs and topical treatment of issues like AIDS (the late-20th century counterpart to the deadly disease of La Boheme, tuberculosis). Before long, crowds would compel the production to move to a Broadway venue, where—like Sunday in the Park With George, one of the great musicals of Larson’s hero and role model, Stephen Sondheim—the show would end up winning the Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize. 

On opening night, Larson’s sister told The New York Times: “This is the best and worst moment of my life. This play was Jonathan. It is totally my brother.” 

While the musical certainly reflected the composer’s life and environment as a penniless artist struggling to make ends meet in Alphabet City, other voices soon rose to claim that the work owed heavily to them as well as to himself.

In her 1998 book Stagestruck: Theater, AIDS and Marketing of Gay America, lesbian writer-activist Sarah Schulman claimed that there were scenes and events in the musical that derived from her novel of eight years before, People in Trouble

Though Schulman decided not to sue for copyright infringement, dramaturge Lynn Thomson chose a different course. Hired to work with Larson to shape his play by the New York Theater Workshop, Thomson sued the composer’s estate after his death, saying she wrote a number of its lyrics, as much as a quarter of its script, and was entitled to a portion of the show’s swelling royalties. The case was closely watched in theater circles because of the chance for a legal precedent that would fundamentally redefine the role of the dramaturge in the making of a show. 

Though a judge ruled that Thomson had contributed some copyrightable material, she was not entitled to a claim of authorship or, consequently, a share of the royalties—a judgment upheld in appeals court. 

But Thomson filed a second suit two years later. The two parties reached a settlement in September 1998 that included an undisclosed payment to Thomson and a credit for her as dramaturge on the show’s playbill. 

After 12 years and a film version in 2005, the musical was playing to dwindling audiences by the time I saw it last month. I was not surprised, therefore, when the show’s producers recently announced its closing date —June 1, 2008, when it will become the seventh-longest-running show in Broadway history. (I will be offering a review of the show soon on this blog.)

Quote of the Day

“Never be a pioneer. It’s the Early Christian that gets the fattest lion.”—Saki (the pseudonym for H.H. Munro)

Thursday, January 24, 2008

This Day in Cultural History

January 24, 1862 – In New York City at 14 West 23rd Street, Edith Newbold Jones was born to a pair of socially prominent New Yorkers. The girl grew up to marry, take her husband’s name, and, as Edith Wharton, become the first woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her novel The Age of Innocence, an examination of the “Old New York” uppercrust into which she was born.

Where to start writing about Wharton? Should I discuss her graceful, clear-as-a-country-brook style? Her waxing and waning literary reputation over the years? Her Gilded Age “cottage” in the Berkshires, now restored to its former beauty? Hollywood’s heightened interest in her work over the last two decades? The comparatively little known but downright chilling ghost stories she wrote throughout her career, all the way up to her death?

Any of these would do—and, if this blog lasts long enough, maybe I’ll tackle all of these. But I thought I would share just one item: the portrait in her autobiography, A Backward Glance (1934), of
President Theodore Roosevelt.

Temperamentally, the novelist and the politician would seem to possess little in common: one, a woman who depended on solitude and skeptical vision to etch her satires of her class; the other, a male who thrived on being “in the arena” of politics.

But the two, born within four years and four blocks of each other, sprang from the same time and socioeconomic background, wrote incessantly, and were deeply ambivalent about their class. Roosevelt lashed out against “malefactors of great wealth” while Wharton’s fiction continually returned to the conflict between sexual freedom and a highly stratified social hierarchy.

Wharton’s short reminiscence of the President is warm and revealing, reflecing this pair’s deep affinity for each other, even on the infrequent occasions they met.

Wharton, a distant cousin of TR’s second wife, Edith, had known him since her “first youth,” she noted, but they did not really click until Roosevelt, succeeding to the White House upon the assassination of William McKinley, asked her to lunch, where they could talk about a book of hers he admired, The Valley of Decision.

According to Wharton, except for small circles such as those revolving around John Hay, Henry Adams, and Roosevelt’s friend Henry Cabot Lodge, Washington was an inhospitable place for the intellect. Not surprisingly, the ardent bibliophile Roosevelt was delighted to find a kindred spirit when Wharton came to lunch. “Well, I am glad to welcome to the White House some one to whom I can quote “The Hunting of the Snark’ without being asked what I mean!” the President cried in relief upon seeing her.

On another occasion, at a reception surrounding commencement ceremonies at Williams College, the President encountered her again and, temporarily shaking off his academic hosts, he went off into a corner with her to speak about a new history he’d just read. “But that was the President’s way,” she wrote, “and as everybody knew him, everybody forgave him; and moreover they all knew that in another ten minutes he would be cornering someone else on some other equally absorbing subject.”

While much else about Roosevelt (including bellicosity and the celebration of Anglo-Saxon “manifest destiny” that lies at the heart of his two-volume pre-Presidential history, The Winning of the West) has not aged well in our more politically correct age, this almost childlike curiosity about anything and everything remains deeply appealing. Not for nothing was one of his many books entitled A Book-Lover’s Holiday in the Open. (Even that title evokes a chuckle, as if he were balancing a copy of Macaulay in one hand while bagging an elk in the other.)

A habitual coffee drinker reputed to have coined the future advertising slogan “good to the last drop!” while visiting Andrew Jackson’s Nashville home The Hermitage, Roosevelt might have been the most wired man in Washington, and you practically share his infectious enthusiasm in Wharton’s description. It’s easy to see how so many wanted to follow him in everything.

But TR probably transmitted his bibliophilia to nobody so much as his children, including his namesake,
Theodore Roosevelt Jr. I have not yet started the first volume of Rick Atkinson’s “Liberation Trilogy” about the American destruction of the Third Reich, An Army at Dawn, but I just had to buy it as soon as I peaked at his vivid description of Theodore Jr.

Gassed in WWI and left with a permanent limp, Ted Jr. rose to become vice president of the Doubleday publishing house in the 1930s. With war looming again in Europe, he re-enlisted, brought copies of The Pilgrim’s Progress and a history of medieval England with him, and cheerfully endured challenges from the staff officers in his brigade by reciting long passages from Kipling.

If the general public remembers the younger Roosevelt at all these days, it’s likely because of reruns of The Longest Day, in which he was played by Henry Fonda. But that marvelous actor added much of his own taciturnity to a real-life brigadier general whose rumpled, intellectual nature became as noted as his valor in battle. (The only general in the first amphibious wave on Omaha Beach on D-Day, Ted Jr. waded ashore-- arthritic knees, faulty ticker and all -- then led several assaults along the beachhead under such constant enemy fire that his superior, Omar Bradley, described it as the single bravest act he witnessed during the war.)

All that restless intellectual energy, all that recklessness with one’s life that Wharton noted in Roosevelt and that Theodore Jr. displayed in military service, were also present in another President:
John F. Kennedy.

Unlike TR, JFK did not really write the history that established his literary credibility, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Profiles in Courage, playing at best a supervisory role in its preparation. And unlike the Roosevelts, who displayed a Victorian sexual morality, Kennedy acted more like a Regency rake.

But like TR, JFK showed the world a surface exuberance that hid a thoughtful interior—in both cases, probably the consequence of sickly childhoods that left each man inner-directed, bookish, and absolutely certain that “the strenuous life” must be grasped in all its essentials because it will be lost all too soon.

“Black care rarely sits behind a rider whose pace is fast enough,” Roosevelt observed. Numerous family tragedies growing up, as well as his own brushes with death, also made Kennedy all too familiar with “black care.”

JFK often asked his wife to recite his favorite poem, WWI poet-soldier Alan Seeger’s “I Have a Rendezvous with Death.” Frequently with aides, he would bring to mind Henry V’s “St. Crispin’s Day” exhortation to his troops—“We band of brothers, we happy few.” Underlying the famous Shakespeare speech was the possibility of death at Agincourt.

One of my uncles, who served on a PT boat in the South Pacific next to Kennedy, told me several years ago that ever since coming home from the war, he felt he had been living on borrowed time. The same realization fed the burning drive that everyone noticed in Kennedy.

Shrewdly, Wharton detected “something premonitory in this impatience” to know more and live more on the part of her fellow New Yorker. It’s impossible to shake the same feeling about Roosevelt’s son, or about the other Harvard grad who achieved the Presidency while still only in his early 40s, only to die all too young.

Quote of the Day

"The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity." – Dorothy Parker
(See particularly Edith Wharton’s description of Theodore Roosevelt in today’s “This Day in Cultural History.”)

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

This Day in American History

January 23, 1789—Capping a three-year period of advocacy, fundraising and construction, the first Catholic institution of higher learning in the United States, Georgetown, was founded by Bishop (later Archbishop) John Carroll of Baltimore.

Though never a formally appointed chancellor of the (initially small) academy, Carroll was, like many academic leaders of the present day, well-connected—and, in an age when anti-Catholicism was virulent in the young republic, exceptionally so.

Early in the American Revolution, he had traveled to Quebec in an unsuccessful attempt to win French-speaking Catholics to the patriot cause, in a delegation that included his cousin
Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence. Just as remarkably, the bishop’s brother, Daniel Carroll, was one of only two Catholic signers of the Constitution – and an owner of a major piece of real estate that later formed the District of Columbia.

Taking a cue from the school’s founder, its first student, William Gaston, was vitally interested in politics, even serving two terms in the House of Representatives. Since then, the school’s proximity to the Capitol has made it a magnet for those hoping to enter government service.

The school’s Web site mentions a number of its current alumni, including Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia; broadcast journalist Maria Shriver; Project Hope founder William Walsh; Tony-award winners Jack Hofsiss and John Guare, author William Peter Blatty; NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue; and basketball star Patrick Ewing.

Oh, yeah…and one
William Jefferson Clinton, the answer to a trivia question: Who is the first graduate of a Catholic university ever to become President of the United States?

(No, it wasn’t Jack Kennedy, whose father decided to stick it to all those stuffy, constipated Boston Brahmins who turned their noses up at him and his money by sending his boys to Harvard.)

Also worthy of mention are members of two clans formerly of St. Cecilia’s Church in Englewood, N.J.: the McDermotts and Nortons (the latter family’s recent additions to Georgetown also include a few members of a gaudy gallimaufry of cousins who are, like the stars in the sky, beyond counting).

This Day in Cultural History

January 23, 1964 —The latest drama of guilt and personal responsibility from Arthur Miller, After the Fall, starring Jason Robards, Jr. and Barbara Loden (pictured with the playwright here), opened at Lincoln Center. The production quickly became swallowed up in controversy—like so much of the playwright’s life to this point, as much for political as personal reasons.

The tragedy marked the first time in over a decade that Miller had worked with Elia Kazan, the director who had not only influenced a generation of more naturalistic theater and film actors but had also shepherded two of Miller’s key plays onto the stage: All My Sons and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Death of a Salesman. But the two friends’ opposing decisions on “naming names” before Congress at the height of the Hollywood red scare—Kazan acquiescing, Miller defying—fractured their friendship.

But the two former friends came together to collaborate on the inaugural production of a new repertory theater then being installed at Lincoln Center. Surmounting their disagreements over politics—and disregarding in particular those who claimed that “friendly witnesses” before HUAC should be professionally shunned—Miller and Kazan came together over a play that, for all its traditional Milleresque musings on responsibility, the Holocaust, and the obligations of marriage and family, also featured at its center a thinly veiled version of the woman who had been lover to Kazan and wife to Miller—Marilyn Monroe.

The news of Monroe’s death came as Miller was finishing After the Fall. Inevitably, given the open wounds of a marriage that had collapsed during the disastrous filming of The Misfits, the central situation of the play—a fortysomething angst-ridden liberal, “Quentin,” confronts a past that includes his blacklisting and his failed marriage to a substance-abusing entertainer, “Maggie”—was inspired by the relationship between the playwright and Monroe.

But the decision of the actress playing Maggie, Barbara Loden, to wear a blonde wig sealed the identification with America’s recently deceased sex symbol, to the near-total exclusion of the play’s nettlesome themes and challenging dramaturgy, including the spartan setting and the non-linear plot.

More than twenty years after its premiere, Miller was still bitter in reflecting on the play’s reception in his autobiography, Timebends: “With a few stubborn exceptions the reviews were about a scandal, not a play, with barely a mention of any theme, dramatic intention, or style, as though it were simply an attack on a dead woman.”

I first became aware of the play ten years later, in the midst of discovering his other dramas, in a 1974 TV production that included Christopher Plummer as Quentin, Faye Dunaway as Maggie, and a pre-Lou Grant and pre-Sopranos Nancy Merchand as Quentin’s mother.

Other attempts have been made to mount the play, including one by New York’s Roundabout Theatre Co. and, in a remarkable attempt to free it from the link to Monroe, a 1990 Royal National Theatre production in London that featured, as Maggie, a black actress, Josette Simon. But, with the legend of Monroe burning brighter with every year, the play remains a handful for any director and cast.

Monroe’s bewitching of one male after another is astonishing, and not only because she intrigues gays as much as heterosexuals. (Think of Andy Warhol’s pop art paintings of the star, or Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind” tribute to “Norma Jean.”)

She also led an American statesman (and, possibly, his Attorney-General brother) to flirt with disaster by engaging in an affair; she led a proud ex-ballplayer ex-husband to contemplate wedding her again after her divorce from Miller came through; and she led a prize-winning novelist (Norman Mailer) into one of the most embarrassing books of his career, a dissection of the meaning of her life.

But the male she may have transfixed the most was Miller, for he ended up writing about her a second time, in what turned out to be his last production, Finishing the Picture.

I saw this play—an even more thinly veiled fictionalization of their crumbling relationship than After the Fall, occurring on the troubled set of The Misfits—not long after it premiered in Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in October 2004. It was hard to resist getting a ticket for a show starring Matthew Modine, Stephen Lang, Harris Yulin, Frances Fisher, Stacy Keach, Linda Lavin, and Scott Glenn.

The play moved along at a brisk pace, and, particularly with Lang and Lavin playing characters based on Actors Studio head Lee Strasberg and his wife Paula, included large doses of uncharacteristic and highly welcome humor from Miller. Moreover, it spotlights a dilemma omnipresent on nearly every film: the presence of insurance companies that can derail a production if a star becomes incapacitated or dies.

But one aspect of the play was disturbing: the character at the center of this turmoil is always seen in the most distressing of circumstances—running across the darkened stage naked in those moments when she wasn’t moaning in a drug- or alcohol-induced stupor. In fact, I can’t recall the Monroe character uttering a single intelligible syllable the whole night. It was as if Miller could not even allow his ex-wife a voice.

Terry Teachout, a prolific cultural critic whose blog has served as an inspiration for mine, dissents from the notion of Miller’s greatness that has prevailed once again after a mid-career fall from critical favor. In turn, I take issue with Teachout: Miller’s intense concentration on the family and personal failings as the source of tragedy—not one’s place in society—reinvented it for modern audiences without losing elements that had bound audiences from the Greeks to the present day.

The great irony of the playwright’s later life might have been that he never commented publicly—and only at the very end came to grips privately—with the tragedy of his post-After the Fall years: the 1966 birth of his son Daniel, stricken with Down’s syndrome.

Though it had been an open secret among his inner circle for awhile, a Vanity Fair article from this past fall led to much consternation in the blogosphere—especially over the notion that the wife Miller married after his divorce from Monroe, photographer Inge Morath, wanted to keep the baby.

Miller, however, was determined to keep it out of his life. Eventually the baby was placed in a Connecticut mental institution, where he remained for 17 years, under appalling conditions. The playwright never spoke of this fourth child and never mentioned him at all in Timebends.

Remarkable, once removed from the facility, Daniel improved and even thrived. In his last decade, Miller finally began meeting occasionally with his son, and, to his credit, changed his will shortly before his death so that his son might have a stake in the estate.

But one wonders about the psychic toll his longtime abandonment of his son took on the playwright. Miller’s creative output began to decline later in the decade, not long after the birth of his child—an ironic development in the life of a playwright whose work returns obsessively to the theme of fathers and sons.

Quote of the Day

“The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because they are generally the same people.” – G.K. Chesterton, Illustrated London News, October 23, 1909 (thanks to Brian for the suggestion)

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

This Day in Cultural History

January 22, 1968 – Several months after an initial special earned excellent ratings, “Rowan and Martin’s ‘Laugh-In” premiered on NBC and became an overnight success with its fast-paced sketches, one-liners, and guest cameo appearances.

Throughout its five-year run on Monday night, the comedy-variety series spawned a slew of cultural catchphrases, given great currency in their own time but without a lot of staying power: “You bet your sweet bippy,” “Veeery interesting,” “Here come da judge! Here come da judge!”, “Beautiful Downtown Burbank” and “Sock it to me!”

(The last was delivered at one point by GOP candidate Richard Nixon, in a successful attempt to counteract a lethal image—a combination of cutthroat politician and weeny. “Tricky Dick’s” appearance was almost as bizarre as his later Oval Office handshake with Elvis Presley – but decidedly less surreal than the fact that a photograph of this historic meeting has become
the most requested item at the National Archives.)

The show’s “hosts,”
Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, took on the usual roles that comedy teams assumed during that time: one (Martin) a dimwit, the other (Rowan) a suave straight man.

In the last few years, though, I have come to think of Rowan’s image as one of the most colossal frauds ever perpetrated on a TV audience, because early in the 1960s, the Las Vegas comedian had enraged mob kingpin Sam Giancana by making a play for his mistress, the singer Phyllis McGuire.

(Goodfella (slang)—n. – A Mafia gangster, given to fitting designated contract hits and people who rub him the wrong way with cement shoes. Synonym: “Wiseguy.”)

(Dumbfella (slang)—n. Anyone who sleeps with wife, mistress, broad, etc. of said goodfella. Ex.—Dan Rowan).

Some stars of the show saw their celebrity fade almost as soon as the series ended—Ruth Buzzi, Alan Sues, Arte Johnson, Judy Carne, and the execrable Tiny Tim. (For anyone younger than 40, wondering who this last person could be, aside from a character out of Dickens, here’s a piece of advice: Don’t go there, son!).

Others enjoyed a few other brief moments in the spotlight (Henry Gibson in the Robert Altman film Nashville, JoAnne Worley more recently on Broadway, in The Drowsy Chaperone).

The most enduring entertainment figures to come from the show are two actresses and one off-screen creative force.

Goldie Hawn became best known on the show as the ditzy blonde who gyrated in a bikini with wisecracks scrawled on her midriff when she wasn’t giggling helplessly at something or other. Within two years of her first appearance, she had won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Cactus Flower and was well-launched on a multiple-decade career as a comic force in films.

Lily Tomlin played Ernestine the nosy phone operator and Edith Ann, the mischievous six-year-old, before scoring a year-long Broadway hit in the mid-1980s with her one-woman show, The Search for Intelligent Life in the Universe.

The off-screen figure was
Lorne Michaels, a writer for the show who began to tire of its constraints. Nearly a decade after Laugh-In’s premiere—by which time it had become a spent force and shuffled off to TV Valhalla—Michaels created and produced another variety show, Saturday Night Live. More than 30 years after its first airing, that show remains a fixture in the TV firmament.

Quote of the Day

“A girl phoned me the other day and said, ‘Come on over, there’s nobody home. I went over. Nobody was home.” – comedian Rodney Dangerfield (1921-2004)

Monday, January 21, 2008

Appreciations: Sermons of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

As we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. today, it might do well for us to do something than argue about which Presidential candidate does or does not come closest to fulfilling his ideals (an enterprise that’s probably thankless, in any case).

What I’m talking about is doing something that seems to have gone out of fashion in an increasingly visual culture: i.e., read—in this case, his words.

Before he rose to national prominence as a civil-rights activist, and throughout his martyr’s journey from Montgomery to Memphis, Dr. King, of course, was a preacher.

Just how superbly he could summarize the lessons of the Gospel was something I learned nearly 10 years ago when I picked up a copy of
A Knock At Midnight: Inspiration From The Great Sermons Of Reverend Martin Luther King.

An early sermon, “
Rediscovering Lost Values,” from 1954, provides a glimpse of the pithy phrasemaking and the powerful moral vision underlying it that called hundreds of thousands to the call of equal rights over the next decade – not just in America, but all over the world:

“The trouble isn't so much that we don't know enough, but it's as if we aren't good enough. The trouble isn't so much that our scientific genius lags behind, but our moral genius lags behind. The great problem facing modern man is … that the means by which we live have outdistanced the spiritual ends for which we live.”

I discovered this in book form, at the Donnell branch of the New York Public Library. I understand now that it’s available in book-audio form. No matter in what form you experience this, however, King’s words remain today, as they were then, urgent, prophetic, and memorable. It's especially useful to read this in close conjunction with the work of another preacher-martyr of the 20th century, the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Also, in one of the best op-ed pieces that The New York Times has printed in many a year, Sarah Vowell, actress-author (Assassination Vacation), delivers a masterful summary of King’s life in “
Radical Love Gets a Holiday”.

This smart, opinionated, provocative piece will hardly please everyone (especially conservatives who still want to carve out a place on Mount Rushmore for Ronald Reagan). But amazingly, this self-described “culturally Christian atheist” (i.e., a Pentecostal who lost her faith in childhood) treats religious faith with something other than the condescension that has infected so many members of the mass media—most especially The New York Times itself.

This Day in World History

January 21, 1793 – In a point of no return for the infant republic, King Louis XVI of France was executed through a recent invention, the guillotine—embraced by revolutionaries as a more humane means of death than previous methods.

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning
The Radicalism of the American Revolution, Gordon S. Wood argued cogently for the transformative nature of that conflict and its implications for the world. Nevertheless, the prototype for later revolutions, especially those that convulsed the 20th century, was the one that occurred in France. Its pattern has become all too familiar: the overturning not only of a governing official but also a social order and religious institutions; powerful reactionary forces; and a dictatorship meant to quell rising disorder.

Over a year and a half before the execution, the King, increasingly chafing at his superfluous status as a constitutional monarch, had made an ill-advised secret dash with the royal family for the Austrian border before being apprehended. The move marked him as an enemy of the republic, and war with Austria—the native country of his queen,
Marie Antoinette—led all outsiders such as himself to be marked for death. (It didn’t help that Marie had been charged with writing letters giving away to Austria the troop movements of the Revolutionary Army.)

Nevertheless, the decision of the Convention, the republic’s new governing body, represented a reversal of their own ideals. A number of the radical Jacobins—including the rising advocate for repressive tactics against enemies of the republic, Robespierre – had once bitterly denounced capital punishment and its multiple and capricious manifestations under the ancient regime. Now, they had called for its use to stamp out internal enemies.

The dethroned king had endured four separate votes before coming to this pass, with the Convention deciding whether he was guilty of treason; whether the sentence should be final, or ratified by the people; what the nature of the punishment should be; and whether the punishment should be delayed.

Thomas Paine, the British-born radical pamphleteer who had championed the American Revolution in Common Sense before advocating for the French against British conservative Edmund Burke in The Rights of Man, had argued unsuccessfully that Louis should be deported to the United States, where he would have the opportunity for “rehabilitation.”

Paine’s plea (through an interpreter) for mercy and friendship with the more moderate Girondin faction in the Convention later led to his own imprisonment by the revolutionaries.

Louis (now, shorn of his title, known as Louis Capet rather than Louis XVI) was allowed only 24 hours, not the three days he had requested, to say goodbye to his family and make peace with God. After a nearly two-hour final parting with his family, Louis huddled with his confessor, Henry Essex Edgeworth, a native of County Longford, Ireland better known as “
L’Abbe Edgeworth de Firmont.”

In high school and college, while taking a couple of courses on world history that touched on the French Revolution, I was never required to read the history that was once the major analysis of the conflict:
The French Revolution, by Thomas Carlyle.

While understandable in certain ways, given a style that would now be considered florid and references that might seem obscure to modern readers (Carlyle’s book was published only some 60 years after the events), there are far worse histories of the period. My particular edition— from Heritage Press, with an introduction by Cecil Brown and illustrations by Bernard Lamotte—offers a particularly attractive way of perusing this demonstration of the definition of “classic” as a book that people no longer read.

At his best, Carlyle offers all the drama such a cataclysmic epoch deserves, as in his narration of Louis’ dreary processional to the scaffold, once the site of a statue to his predecessor, Louis XVI:

“At the Temple Gate were some faint cries, perhaps from voices of pitiful women: “Grace! Grace! Grace!” Through the rest of the streets there is silence as of the grave. No man not armed is allowed to be there; the armed, did any pity, dare not express it, each man overawed by his neighbors. All windows are down, none seen looking through them. All shops are shut. No wheel-carriage rolls, this morning, in these streets but one only. Eighty-thousand armed men stand ranked, like armed statues of men; cannons bristle, cannoneers with match burning, but no word or movement; it is as a city enchanted into silence and stone: one carriage with its escort, slowly rumbling, is the only sound. Louis reads, in his Book of Devotion, the Prayers of the Dying; clattering of this death-march falls sharp on the ear, in the great silence; but the thought would fain struggle heavenward, and forget the Earth.”

On the scaffold, Louis’ final words—his proclamation of innocence and forgiveness of his enemies—were quickly muffled by the drumroll of the guards. He was struck down by the guillotine at shortly after 10 am, 38 years old.

“At home this Killing of a King has divided all friends; and abroad it has united all enemies,” noted Carlyle. Shocked at the execution, England and Spain declared war. The resulting conflict would last, off and on, for more than 20 years, producing a strongman for the young republic, the
Emperor Napoleon.

Moreover, it would lead to the concept of a
nation in arms—not only mass conscription, but also the enlistment of the entire populace behind the war effort, in the form of sacrifices on the homefront that blurred the former distinction between soldier and civilian that underlay traditional concepts of the Christian “just war.” This is the necessary precondition for the idea of total war, which begins to take shape in the American Civil War but evolves to its present shape in World Wars I and II.

Quote of the Day

“Ten thousand fools proclaim themselves into obscurity, while one wise man forgets himself into immortality.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

This Day in American History

January 20, 1961 – On a bitterly cold day in the nation's capital, John F. Kennedy took the oath of office as President of the United States, the youngest man ever to be elected to the office.

To date, in a year when the United States contemplates electing several possible firsts in its next President – the first Italian-American and twice-divorced man (Rudolph Guiliani), the first African-American (Barack Obama), and the first woman (Hillary Clinton)— JFK remains the only non-WASP ever to occupy the Oval Office.

By general agreement, the two most memorable inaugural addresses of the 20th century were delivered by Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. I am fascinated by both men, as much for their weaknesses as for their many accomplishments.

But my interest has also been piqued by two family members—one, a relatively close relative; the other, the widow of a distant one—who knew them.

My grandaunt Hannah Riordan Spollen, a survivor of the Titanic, later worked for the Newbold family, the owners of the estate next door to FDR's home in Hyde Park, N.Y.

The Kennedys were connected to Michael Tubridy. No, not me (I was only four at the time of JFK's assassination, and eight at the time of Bobby's), nor even my father, but rather a distant cousin of my dad's with the same name. Therein lies a tale.

I first became aware of this relative at, of all things, my alma mater, Columbia University. The first time I met the professor who taught my American Presidency course, Henry Graff, he asked if I were any relation to Michael Tubridy the horseman.

Stunned, I told Graff that I had never heard of this Michael Tubridy. He explained that this man was a marvelous Irish equestrian whom he had seen at Madison Square Garden in the early 1950s.

Later that night, my father filled me in on the details of this relative, previously unknown to me. In his youth, he had been an exceptional soccer player, and when he had quit playing he had indeed become a horseman.

Professor Graff was also right about the date. My dad had gone to see his relative (a fifth cousin, or something similar) at the Garden around then. It would be the last time he would see him.

Only a year or so later, Michael Tubridy the horseman died in an equestrian accident. He had been warned that a particular horse was unruly, but was sure he could tame the animal. He was wrong.

(Come to think of it, this sense of overconfidence in taking on the impossible sounds like a common trait in anyone named Michael Tubridy. It might also explain why it has sometimes taken my father longer to perform some household handiwork than he originally anticipated—or why I continue to believe, against all odds, that I can post, at least a couple of times every day, to this blog.)

The rest of this story I learned from two different sources: a Vanity Fair article from over a decade ago on the Kennedy family's Irish connections (the article misspelled our family's surname – guess they gave their fact checkers the day off!) and a full-length book on the same topic, Thomas Maier's
The Kennedys: America's Emerald Kings.

Before he died, my father's distant cousin met the wife of a rising young American lawyer – Ethel Kennedy, whose husband Robert had not only helped mastermind his brother Jack's election to the U.S. Senate, but had also served for a time as minority counsel to Sen. Joseph McCarthy's Committee on Un-American Activities. When the young horseman passed away, Ethel and Bobby Kennedy invited Michael's grieving widow, Dorothy (Dot), Tubridy, to America. Eventually, Dot became friendly with Jack and Jackie Kennedy as well.

It was Dot Tubridy, with her friendly pestering, who eventually persuaded JFK—against the strenuous advice of his “Irish Mafia” of closest advisers—to become the first American President ever to travel while in office to Ireland.

As a representative of Waterford Crystal, Dot secured a crystal bowl that Irish President Eamon de Valera presented to Kennedy, complete with the Kennedy family crest. Using the crest, Jackie made a seal ring for her husband – which, he later told Dot, he had impishly used in sealing a letter to the Queen of England.

I doubt if Dot Tubridy would even still have a clue about her husband’s Irish and Irish-American cousins in the U.S. But it gives me a kick to have a relative who ended up being a footnote in history.

Quote of the Day

“Winning isn’t everything, but wanting to win is.”—Vince Lombardi (1913-1970), coach of the Green Bay Packers

(This is the exact quotation, folks. The other one popularly attributed to him -- which I won't even dignify here by repeating! -- comes from Trouble Along the Way, a 1953 film starring John Wayne; perhaps some of the confusion in the attribution arises from the fact that Wayne's character coaches a football team for a small Catholic school, as Lombardi had done only the decade before.)

Saturday, January 19, 2008

“Lombardi for President…Halas for Dogcatcher!”

As a teenager in downstate Illinois in the 1960s, my friend and former colleague Ann grew up in an environment where football ruled the roost, and particularly the Chicago Bears, the beloved team of Gale Sayers, Dick Butkus, and their beloved longtime coach and owner, George Halas. But there was one significant dissenter from the established order: her father.

In flagrant defiance of homestate sentiment, Ann’s father came to admire another team and its coach—one that regularly beat the Bears during crunchtime—and he wasn’t shy about making his feelings known. At the height of the season, he hung up a sign that made his opinions crystal clear to anyone passing by:

For President,
For Dogcatcher!

Vince Lombardi fever swept many other areas of the nation besides downstate Illinois in the 1960s. But, aside from Green Bay itself, there were probably few places more gripped by it than Englewood, N.J., where the Packers coach got his start coaching at my alma mater, St. Cecilia’s, and made his first professional mark as one of the two assistant coaches for the New York Giants. (The other was another future head coach Hall of Famer, Tom Landry.)

Today, like much of America, I’ll be watching my favorite football team, the New York Giants, contend for the NFC title. I’m thrilled that they disposed of the hated Dallas Cowboys last week, but I won’t be as happy if they manage to pull a second consecutive upset against the Packers.

Like many other area fans, I have too much respect for the legacy carved out by Lombardi in that most unlikely of NFL franchises—not only the last of the small-town franchises that once commonly filled the league, but also currently the only nonprofit, community-owned franchise in the U.S. 

(Thank God, there’s no chance that the team will be moved by an owner—unlike what the now-late and certainly unlamented former showgirl and nightclub floozy Georgia Frontiere did with the Los Angeles—excuse me, St. Louis—Rams.)

Although I’m loath to include links that might run out within only a week or so, the following two are so noteworthy that I decided to make an exception in these instances.

Ian O’Connor, sports columnist for The Bergen Record (and, like your correspondent, a Saints alum), provides an excellent overview of the
New Jersey roots of Lombardi – not just with the Giants, but at St. Cecilia’s, where Lombardi not only served as coach but teacher.

If the definition of a good piece of journalism is that it enables you to learn something you never knew before or think of somebody or something in a new way, then this particular O’Connor column has it in spades, demonstrating that as a teacher, Lombardi not only made sure his players measured up to the standards he set for non-athletes, but exceeded them. (Something that cannot be said for other teacher-coaches since then.)

The same week that people have been remembering this New Jersey history, state politicians were trying to erase a very tangible reminder of Lombardi and others who contributed to its history. 

A USA Today article reports on efforts by State Senator Raymond Lesniak (D-Elizabeth) to rename rest stops christened after major state figures with those of corporate sponsors—not just Lombardi, but also Walt Whitman, Woodrow Wilson, Clara Barton and Thomas Edison, among others.

“It’s just taking money from advertisers and putting their name up,” Lesniak says. “It’s a lot easier than raising tolls.”

Let’s deconstruct this for a second, shall we? “Just taking money” doesn’t seem like much of a problem for Lesniak because it’s what politicians do —including Lesniak pal Jim McGreevy, who during his disastrous tenure in office went along with “pay for play” when he wasn’t trying to install someone in the state’s top security post whose only qualifications were serving as the governor’s boy toy. As for “raising tolls,” Governor Corzine is going to take care of that –in 2010, 2014, 2018 and 2022, when they’ll increase 50%.

But back to Vince…

A couple of years ago, I was surprised to learn that a man I had met periodically from time to time on my job was a former professional football player. His subsequent career, in academe and real estate, disguised what I would have otherwise surmised from his burly build. He told me that he had played for the Packers.

“Did you play for Vince Lombardi?” I asked eagerly.

No, he told me, he had joined the team a couple of seasons after their glory days. But he had received a memento of the coach’s tenure there when the team’s longtime trainer retired. It was a sign spray-painted with one of Lombardi’s favorite sayings, one that, I later learned, came from Gen. George S. Patton: “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.”

It turns out that there are still things to be learned about the coach, nearly 40 years after his death and even after the publication of a fine biography by David Maraniss, When Pride Still Mattered.

What impressed me particularly about this biography was not just that Maraniss’ exquisite balancing of the coach’s strengths and weaknesses, but also his understanding of Lombardi’s Catholic ethos. Exercise was a discipline in his physical life just as prayer was in his spiritual one.

Even Lombardi’s manner of speaking seems to come now from a particular time. When star player Paul Hornung admitted his involvement with gamblers, Lombardi promised to go to bat for him, but with an element of tough love mixed in.

“You stay at the foot of the cross," Lombardi said. "I don't want to see you go to the racetrack. ... I don't want to hear about you doing anything. Keep your nose clean, and I'll do my best to get you back. But, mister, stay at the foot of the cross."

Strip away the short, clipped sentences and you could be hearing the voice of a spiritual adviser, the head of an order. It reminds me a bit of my alma mater. I know almost nobody my age now who uses this religious shorthand anymore.

Just as dynamic priests, brothers and nuns had founded orders that transmitted the message of Catholicism to future generations in communities abiding by accepted rules, so St. Cecilia was permeated by the spirit of an order. The “founder” of this “order” was Lombardi.

Like Saints Bernard, Francis, Dominic, Ignatius Loyola, Elizabeth Seton, and Clare, Lombardi attracted followers through self-discipline and devotion to ideals, a figure who continued to inspire awe in his followers and could never be forgotten.

St. Vince’s followers were the coaches and athletes who walked in his footsteps and sought to follow his tradition a generation after he had left the school. They held their great communal celebration on Sunday, but not in the stained-glass confines of the church but on the sunlit fields of Winton White Stadium a half mile away.

This 5,000-seat cathedral of sports had been filled to capacity every Sunday that Lombardi had coached at the school. 

Over two decades later, when I was growing up, it was still packed with students, faculty and parents waving pennants, consulting their programs and munching hot dogs before game time. For the Thanksgiving game against our cross-town public school rival, Dwight Morrow, many lined the fences outside the sold-out stadium.

From the high seats in the stadium you could feel the snap in the autumn air and behold leaves turning color to the east, but after the opening kickoff you only paid attention to the field. But even now, a quarter century later, I can still hear the cascade of sound louder than the 1812 Overture that just a lone instrument – a drum, even a kazoo, for God’s sake —set off.

You would watch the head coach lean on the wide receiver’s shoulder and send him onto the field with the play, pace on the sidelines in anticipation, then pump his fist in the air or, if the play failed, chew out a player who fouled up. 

As the team pushed the ball relentlessly up the field and especially within the 10-yard line, we leaped to our feet and let loose a rumbling chant that reverberated across the stands like swelling brass: “Go, go, go, go, go, go…”

The crowd held its breath for a few agonizing seconds, peering through the turf flung up by twenty-two pairs of cleats to determine whether the play was a run or a forward pass. 

All at once our blood was up as our running back scissored through our opponent’s line, kicking his feet away from a linebacker’s attempted tackle, then dashing to the goal line trailed by a hopelessly diving defensive back.

Our fighting faith restored, we exploded in squeals and whistles and taunts at our rival that carried across the field and drowned out the plucky but tiny band of rival fans in our rivals’ rickety wooden stands.

And the cheerleaders, linking arms, wriggling from right to left and kicking up their heels, the epitome of sex appeal to every guy in the stadium, celebrated the touchdown with a chant incongruously sanguinary for a team with the gentle nickname, “Saints”:

Here we go ‘Celia, knock ‘em dead,
Great Big Saints gonna step on your head
Blood on the saddle, blood on the ground,
Great big puddles of blood all around.”

The fans celebrated even before the scoreboard ticked off the final seconds. Nananana, nananana, hey hey hey, goodbye, they taunted the other team. 

Then we piled into our cars and formed a madcap procession from the stadium back to the schoolyard a half mile away, honking horns and screaming lungs out in a wall of sound that made the entire city vibrate.

It would be impossible to write about the high school without coming to grips with football – and, more particularly, with the man who forever enshrined it in the school’s imagination and heart, Vince Lombardi. 

The future football legend was not the only famous person to have come from Saints; CBS News reporter Charles Osgood, for instance, attended the school in the late 1940s.

But as the child of Italian immigrants, Lombardi represented an ideal toward which the entire school community could aspire. He was proof that no matter how low you may have started in life, you would eventually be rewarded through hard work.

While at the school Lombardi taught chemistry, physics and biology in addition to coaching the football and basketball teams, and he was generally acclaimed by both male and female students as a gifted teacher. 

In fact, he honed two of his principal functions as a coach—instructing and motivating—in hundreds of classroom sessions in the eight years he spent at Saints.

After all these years—including more than a generation since the high school, like countless other parochial schools before and since, closed —my feelings about this game that consumed so much of our emotions back then are mixed. 

As I return home on a quiet late Sunday afternoon with the high school parking lot now vacant and still and the sun lowering somberly in the sky, I sometimes think of how less crowded with sight and sound such days seem now than they had been more than a quarter century ago.

The gridiron was a field of binding energy, a place that called forth all the latent talents and self-sacrifice of everyone, from parents staffing the concession stands to the runty kid patrolling the defensive backfield who wouldn’t have stood a chance of stepping on the field at a larger school.

It drew many of us closer, whether we were attending practices, games or the boisterous post-game parties. 

It gave us a tradition—the province of the old—and a game that enabled all of us to live or re-live the brightest moments of youth.

At the same time, the adulation given the athletes was excessive and bound to alienate virtually everybody else who just could never fit.

But one thing is for certain: neither I, nor anyone else who stepped into St. Cecilia when his disciples spread the gospel of St. Vince, could ever forget Saints football.