Monday, March 31, 2008

This Day in Presidential History (Civilian Conservation Corps)

March 31, 1933--With both houses of Congress having passed the measure, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed into law an act creating the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The legislation provided employment for young men in the Great Depression and gave FDR a claim second only to distant cousin Theodore Roosevelt as the nation’s greatest environmental President.

The subprime mess has led observers to call for the kind of financial regulation that comprised a major part of FDR’s famed “Hundred Days” after his inauguration. But in all the reevaluations of his Presidency, the CCC should not be overlooked.

In poring over almanacs and chronologies in preparation for my blog, I have been struck by the furious pace of change occurring simultaneously under the New Deal and Nazi Germany. But Hitler and FDR took office with mandates to repair their nation’s economies. But, Jonah Goldberg’s infamously titled Liberal Fascism to the contrary, there the resemblance ends.

Hitler’s revival of the German economy involved more than full employment or even the revving up of his country’s war machine, as cataclysmic as that proved to be. As Gotz Aly’s Hitler's Beneficiaries: Plunder, Racial War, and the Nazi Welfare State makes plain, the Nazis bolstered the economic well-being of most Germans through redistributing property they seized from marginalized groups such as the Jews. That made the German public deeply complicit in the crimes of the Nazi regime from day one, whether or not they knew of the mass extermination of entire groups that occurred during the Holocaust.

Contrast that with his opposite number—and eventually, implacable enemy—across the ocean. “On a very wide front and in the truest possible sense,” wrote journalist Joseph Alsop, in FDR: A Centenary Remembrance, "Franklin Delano Roosevelt included the excluded." He not only helped the worst-off Americans stave off starvation—gave them “relief,” if you will—but provided them with educational opportunity that would open doors for them throughout the rest of their lives.

These objectives were manifest in the CCC. The program put to work 3 ½ million men, ages 17 to 28, in 4,500 camps throughout the country. They made $30 a month, keeping $5 to $8 for their own needs in the camp while sending the rest home to their families. In all, it’s estimated that $600 million was sent home to the enrollees’ dependents over the nine years of the CCC.

Equally important, the CCC furnished these young men with an education. Hundreds of thousands attended nighttime classes, achieving, depending on how far they progressed, literacy, high school diplomas (back when they meant more than they do now), and even college degrees. In this way, the CCC represented a dry run for the G.I. Bill enacted in World War II, which swelled the ranks of the postwar middle class.

FDR’s commitment to the environment was more than longstanding—it was practically bred in the bone. Like cousin Theodore, he was a dedicated bird-watcher (though he quickly abandoned his childhood interest in taxidermy when the necessary preparations made him ill).

Thomas Patton’s essay “The Forest Plantations at Hyde Park” in FDR At Home: A Collection of Essays (edited by Nancy Fogel, 2005), he had tramped through the woods and fields surrounding his home as a boy, and, except for five years (1919-1923) when he was serving as Assistant Secretary of the Navy and recovering from polio, he ordered tree seedlings every year from 1912 until his death in 1945. He applied what he learned through the forestry program he implemented as governor of New York, which The Journal of Forestry called the “largest and most constructive yet adopted by any state.”

Moreover, his commitment to what came to be nicknamed his “Tree Army” was total. While preparing an organizational chart for the CCC, he noted, “I want personally to check on the location scope etc. of the camps, size work to be done etc. FDR.” [sic]

A USA Today article on the CCC noted that there’s a group called the National Association of Civilian Conservation Corps Alumni. Their Web site disclosed that there were two CCC camps within five miles of where I live in Englewood, N.J. Writing on another Web site, one CCC alumnus, Sterling B. Gleason, recalls working on Palisades Interstate Park—and, when they had a chance afterhours, going to the nightclub Ben Martin’s Riviera.

Unfortunately, with America’s energies turning to the war effort, the CCC was dismantled in 1942. In an age when America’s environmental needs grow more acute and so many of the nation’s youth can use employment that will teach them good work habits, I believe it should be revived.

Movie Quote of the Day (“Bull Durham”)

“I believe in the Church of Baseball. I've tried all the major religions, and most of the minor ones. I've worshipped Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, trees, mushrooms, and Isadora Duncan….I've tried 'em all, I really have, and the only church that truly feeds the soul, day in, day out, is the Church of Baseball.”
--Annie Savoy (played by Susan Sarandon), in Bull Durham, written and directed by Ron Shelton

Sunday, March 30, 2008

This Day in Literary History (Chester Gillette’s “American Tragedy”)

March 30, 1908—At 6:14 am, 25-year-old Chester Gillette was executed for murdering pregnant lover Grace Brown on an Adirondack lake, giving rise to a century of speculation over what really happened on the afternoon of her death and—more important for our purposes here—a novel and movie generally acclaimed as classics of their genres: Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy and George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun, respectively. 

Unlikely as it might seem, two 1925 novels acclaimed for their critical examinations of the American Dream sound like the same tabloid story. Think about it: A young man of humble origins comes east, finds a job that leads to unforeseen complications, gets involved with a girl and a crime from this illicit involvement, then dies himself. 

You don’t notice it as much in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby: Even though the thin plot, as H.L. Mencken noted, can read like “a glorified anecdote,” that soaringly romantic style pretty much waltzes you around the room with nary a misstep, leaving you exhilarated and wondering how it all went by so fast.

Consider this sentence, from the section on the party where Nick Carraway meets Gatsby: “The lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun, and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music, and the opera of voices pitches a key higher.” The book is filled with that—you’ll find it on just about any page. 

But it’s hard not to be aware of the tabloid source with Theodore Dreiser, whose sentences, when they’re not stepping all over your toes for what seem like an eternity, tell you what to think, backing you into a corner, practically pawing at you—much like the novelist’s hot pursuit of attractive women, no matter how insuperable the odds might have seemed against him (in his younger days, lack of money; in old age, the obvious; throughout adulthood, conspicuous ugliness). 

As evidence (and that’s the right word, considering the trial in the last part of his novel) of the contrast with Gatsby, I offer this, Clyde’s “genii of his darkest and weakest side,” answering his moral objections to murder: “Pah—how cowardly—how lacking in courage to win the thing that above all things you desire—beauty—wealth—position—the solution of your every material and spiritual desire.” 

Moreover, while the legal consequences of the fatal accident at the heart of Gatsby are resolved quickly (the eponymous hero is willing to take the rap for Daisy, then is gunned down in his pool), Dreiser devotes an extraordinary amount of attention to the trial of Chester Gillette’s fictional counterpart, Clyde Griffith. The former journalist knew that God (a concept he had otherwise rejected along with the Roman Catholicism of his childhood) was in the details. 

(Another point in common for the two novels: both were adapted by the Metropolitan Opera: Gatsby, by John Harbison; American Tragedy, by Tobias Picker.) 

An American “Crime and Punishment” 
It’s easy to see how the case of Gillette, with his feverish desire for sex and success, could have fascinated Dreiser—his own yearnings easily matched those of the callow young man at the heart of this upstate New York tale of crime and punishment. In Theodore Dreiser: An American Journey, 1908-1945, biographer Richard Lingeman concludes that the novelist’s “profound loneliness” created in him “sympathy with the outsiders looking in, those who didn’t belong, who desire the light and warmth within the walled city.” 

Gillette’s family had been moderately prosperous, owning a hotel, restaurant and carting company, until his parents joined the Salvation Army. That meant, of course, giving up all worldly goods. 

Chester followed them, but as time went on became increasingly disillusioned with this life. Two relatives who remained prosperous arranged for him to attend Oberlin Academy, but he failed out. Eventually, he made his way to Cortland, N.Y., where he found a job in a skirt factory owned by an uncle and became the lover of Grace Brown, a farm girl. 

Newspaper accounts of the time wildly exaggerated the presence of a rich other woman in Gillette’s life. It’s unclear if Dreiser (who began following the case even while toiling away as a New York magazine editor) was aware of this example of yellow journalism, but it provided a perfect complication and motive for his character. 

Grace’s pregnancy created a crisis for Chester: she wanted to marry him and he wanted no part of it. In July 1906, the two took a boat trip on Big Moose Lake. Nobody knows exactly what happened next (partly because of a botched autopsy), but Grace’s corpse was later discovered in the lake. Gillette’s pattern of deceit (including an assumed name at the hotel where he stayed with Grace that matched his initials) quickly put him under suspicion. 

Subsequently, prosecutor George Ward insisted that Gillette, while alone on the lake with Grace, had struck her with a tennis racket and tossed her out of the boat. Gillette maintained that she had accidentally drowned and he had fled in panic, but motive and a mound of circumstantial evidence (tied together so tightly by Ward that his presentation would be used as a model in law schools for the next several decades) convinced a jury otherwise. Gillette was confined to Auburn State Prison before being executed a year and a half after the death of Grace. 

The Cultural Afterlife of a Bloody Death 
Fascination with the case did not die with Gillette. In particular, Dreiser would doggedly research it as background for his own novel. 

For all its manifest clumsiness, An American Tragedy solidified his reputation as America’s premiere realistic novelist, rescuing him from a period when his life was very much on the brink following a decade-long struggle with bluenoses and publishers (76 rejections of his work in 1918 alone). 

The photograph of Chester Gillette accompanying this blog, with its blank, unformed good looks, brings to mind Montgomery Clift and one of the central films in his short but influential career: A Place in the Sun. All of the actor’s anguished, inarticulate longings (with who knows how much of it related to a closeted existence he could not disclose) show up in his close-ups with Elizabeth Taylor. 

The sight of the two of them together made me wonder how they might have fared if director George Stevens had chosen to adapt The Great Gatsby instead of An American Tragedy. His 1951 adaptation of Dreiser is a triumph on virtually all counts, all the more impressive for following a 1931 version of the book that Dreiser loathed. For his skillful work, Stevens won a Best Director Oscar. 

If Stevens could have found the grace notes in Dreiser’s lumbering, brooding hulk of a novel, what might he have accomplished with a work that (to borrow Fitzgerald’s phrase) would have been “commensurate with his capacity for wonder”? Certainly the two leads might have made it easy to conjure up the haunted dreams of James Gatz, a counterpart if there ever was one to that other Heartland refugee, Clyde Griffith. And Shelley Winters could have made a fine, blowsy Myrtle Wilson. 

Most of all, with his mastery of movement (watch Clift stumble through the forest after Winters drowns) and sound (the victrola that comes to the end of a song, then keeps skipping, all the while suggesting the obliviousness of Clift and Winters as they make love off-camera), Stevens might have found a cinematic approximation of the Fitzgerald book that many believe is inherently unfilmable.

Two years ago, the centennial of the death on the lake that started all of this attracted a flurry of reporters journeying up to Herkimer County, N.Y. This year, attention has been renewed with Hamilton College’s publication of The Prison Diary and Letters of Chester Gillette, edited by Jack Sherman and Craig Brandon. Gillette’s writings are evidently silent on whether or not he killed his lover, but they are filled with accounts of his reading. 

Although Gillette’s letters to Grace read at the trial revealed a cold lover wanting out of his predicament, his diary—as one might expect for a young man pursuing all that life could bring—is filled, rather poignantly, with his aspirations (he dreamed about visiting Egypt and riding in a hot-air balloon).

Quote of the Day (Crane)

The livid lightnings flashed in the clouds;
The leaden thunders crashed.
A worshipper raised his arm.
"Hearken! Hearken! The voice of God!"

"Not so," said a man.
"The voice of God whispers in the heart
So softly
That the soul pauses,
Making no noise,
And strives for these melodies,
Distant, sighing, like faintest breath,
And all the being is still to hear."
--Stephen Crane, Poem 39, The Black Riders

Saturday, March 29, 2008

This Day in Military History (American Troops Leave Vietnam)

March 29, 1973—With President Richard M. Nixon declaring "the day we have all worked and prayed for has finally come," 2,500 troops—the last remnant of America's combat forces—departed Vietnam.

This blog post today, however, will not be about the troops who came home, but the ones who were never able to—including the young man in the photo here.

The American withdrawal came nearly nine weeks after the Paris peace agreements ending the 11-year-old Vietnam War. Make that "seeming to end the 11-year-old conflict."

The withdrawal did bring to a conclusion American's military role in Southeast Asia. But it didn't result in the "peace with honor" that the Nixon Administration had been publicly advocating, but rather what National Security Adviser (and later Secretary of State) Henry Kissinger called, in diplomatic parlance, a "decent interval" between an American exit and what he told Chinese ministers in July 1971 would involve "let[ting] political realities shape the political future"—i.e., accepting a Communist takeover if events evolved in that manner.

In another sense, of course, the war never ended, and not simply because, as William Faulkner wrote in Requiem for a Nun, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." This time, we are fighting the war over its lessons. Given ideological divisions then and now, as well as misunderstanding of Vietnam, its history, its people, and its factions, not to mention deception by Presidents from both political parties, more heat than light has been and is still being shed on the war. All of this is not surprising, considering that more than 58,000 lives were lost in Vietnam.

That statistic may be too much to grasp. Sometimes it's better to focus on one or two cases, as I will do now.

My friend Brian has brought to my attention an instructive interactive online Vietnam War Memorial created by Footnote and the National Archives. Featuring the largest photo of The Wall on the Internet, it allows you to find names, service record and casualty reports.

If my experience is indicative, you'll need to exercise some patience as the site processes your request, depending on the amount of site traffic at that time of day. Once it does, however, you will find much to move your heart.

Let's take two examples —James Thomas Gordon and William C. Ryan Jr., the serviceman pictured here. Both Marines were associated with St. Cecilia—either the now-closed high school or the still-existing parish—in Englewood, N.J. I chose them because they were, literally, close to home for me. I'm sure you'll find similar cases where you are.

From this site, and from what I've been able to piece together elsewhere, here are mini-bios of these servicemen who died all too young.

James Gordon was a 20-year-old rifleman with the U.S. Marine Corps when his tour of duty began on October 14, 1967. The corporal had passed his 21st birthday and the four-month mark in Vietnam when he died in small-arms fire. A younger brother, Michael, attended my elementary school, four years ahead of me.

Born in Hoboken, William Ryan grew up in Bogota, N.Y. Nicknamed "Billy" and "Rhino," he became a three-sport star at St. Cecilia High School. He graduated from St. Francis College in Loretto, Penn, in 1966, and was recruited by the Marine Corps the following summer.

After marrying a fellow St. Francis student, Ryan went to flight school in Pensacola, Fla., and trained in El Toro, Calif. and Miramar before shipping out to Vietnam in August 1968.

Lt. Ryan was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and many Strike/Flight Air Medals. That is a tribute to his tremendous skill and resourcefulness as a pilot. Perhaps even more extraordinary to me is that he flew 300 combat missions. Imagine that—day in, day out. The mind boggles at this kind of courage.

On May 11, 1969, Lt. Ryan was flying over Savannakhet Province in Laos when his aircraft was hit by hostile ground fire. His remains have never been recovered, so he is listed on the MIA/KIA rolls. In addition to his wife, Judy, 1st Lieutenant Ryan left a year-old son, Michael Sean Ryan.

The remnants of Lt. Ryan’s plane and unopened parachute were discovered in 1993—two decades after the last American combat troops came home. As I look now at his photo, and another I found of Corporal Gordon’s, what comes to mind is the Wilfred Owen World War I poem, “Anthem for Doomed Youth”:

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
- Only the monstruous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.

No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells; -
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, -
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Quote of the Day (Byron)

“When people say, 'I've told you fifty times,’
They mean to scold, and very often do;
When poets say, 'I've written fifty rhymes,'
They make you dread that they'll recite them too.”
—George Gordon, Lord Byron, Don Juan

Friday, March 28, 2008

This Day in Theater History (“The Philadelphia Story” premieres)

March 28, 1939—Relegated to the slag heap by Hollywood, Katharine Hepburn took Broadway by storm in The Philadelphia Story, a comedy of manners written especially for her by Philip Barry, which premiered on this night at the Schubert Theatre.

I have written about Barry, one of the premiere playwrights of America’s version of Restoration comedy, for The Recorder: The Journal of the American Irish Historical Society (“The ‘Fox’s Eye’: The Celtic Sensibility of Philip Barry,” Fall 2002). Today I’d like to focus on Hepburn—which is entirely appropriate, given that this comeback vehicle certainly did.

In the summer of 1938, Hepburn was licking her wounds from her recent Hollywood experiences. A change-of-pace role in Sylvia Scarlett (1935), where she played a woman disguised as a boy, had unnerved audiences with its hints of sexual ambiguity (and added fuel to the Tinseltown rumors of a lesbian relationship with Laura Harding, who had given up her own New York theater career to accompany her friend out to California).

So stark was the fall from grace for this star who had already won an Oscar for Modern Glory that even better roles in more conventional films, such as the screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby and the screen adaptation of Barry’s Holiday, did not succeed in erasing the damaging assessment of a film distributor who placed her high on a list of actors considered “Box Office Poison.”

Missing out on the role she so badly coveted—Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind—and offered increasingly insulting fare, Hepburn left Hollywood for Fenwick, the family compound on Long Island Sound.

Two major events occurred over the next few months. The first, on September 21, was the Hurricane of 1938, which tore the house apart and forced her and her family to rebuild the structure, more durably this time with brick. The second was a summer afternoon tea with Barry, from which she rebuilt her career on more solid foundations.

The two major accounts of this afternoon interlude that I have come across are contained in Anne Edwards’ A Remarkable Woman: A Biography of Katharine Hepburn (2000) and A. Scott Berg’s Kate Remembered (2003). The second of these—sort of like Edmund Morris’ Dutch, about Ronald Reagan—is an account by a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer who inexplicably went mad. Morris invented a fictional character—himself!—as a foil for Reagan; Berg’s intimate account of his friendship with Hepburn appears to have been so rushed into print after the legend’s death that it did not even have an index. (Some free advice, Scott, as you work on your long-awaited Woodrow Wilson project: the President’s been dead for over 80 years, so there’s no excuse for not having an index now. Do yourself –and us—a favor: include one this time.)

To say that Hepburn was surprised by Barry’s overture would be an understatement. Though she had done a superb job with the screen version of Holiday, their crucial working experience remained eight years before in the play The Animal Kingdom, when Barry had helped engineer her firing as understudy. His explanation for the personnel change on the eve of that play’s opening did not feature his usual elegant dialogue: she was “simply no good.”

But now the playwright needed a comeback as badly as Hepburn. A master of high comedy, he had written in the 1930s seven plays that, while often ambitious in subject and stagecraft, had left audiences cold because of their interest in mythology and allegory. So, when he phoned from Maine and invited himself down for tea, the two were in almost equal positions.

The playwright, every bit as dapper in person as the characters in his drawing-room comedies, spelled out for the actress two of his projects. Significantly, both featured a judgmental daughter who can’t understand her father. (Barry’s own infant daughter had died four years before, leaving the playwright devastated.)

The first scenario, about a father suffering from despair, would be left unfinished at his death 11 years later, completed by longtime friend Robert E. Sherwood, and performed posthumously: Second Threshold. The second dispensed with drama and focused on a rich young divorcee on the eve of her remarriage, which ends up being disrupted by the ex who has never really left her life.

Kate thought the second idea “more fun,” and well she might—in attitudes, intonations and even life experiences (the first-husband hanger-on suggested Hepburn’s ex, Ludlow Ogden “Luddy” Smith), the heroine Tracy Lord unmistakably echoed herself. This was a part she could own because she lived it.

Proving she was as shrewd a businessperson as she was talented at acting, Hepburn, with help from past beau Howard Hughes, snapped up the movie rights—a decision that before long paid enormous dividends.

Over the next several months, the comedy went through the fits and starts that shows often make before opening, with many of the problems caused by Barry’s traditional difficulty in writing a satisfactory last act. In the end, however, he pulled it together, and the cast—including up-and-comers Joseph Cotton, Van Heflin and Shirley Booth—meshed perfectly. The Philadelphia Story was a critical smash.

More important, it was a financial one for Hepburn, whose windfall from more than 400 performances on Broadway and another 250 in the road company came to close to half a million dollars. And that was not even counting that movie deal, which also empowered her to get the casting (good friend Cary Grant and throw-in James Stewart, who earned his only Oscar in the role) and director (George Cukor) she wanted in the bargain.

The film’s witty dialogue highlighted her flair with comedy, and the romantic situation—three men in love with her—erased any lingering audience memories of Sylvia Scarlett. (Hepburn’s glamour would be heightened further when she was lovingly photographed two years later by another former beau, George Stevens, in Woman of the Year—her first collaboration with Spencer Tracy.) Hepburn’s Hollywood image—the willful goddess humanized—had taken root, and though she might stumble once or twice again, she would never suffer another losing streak.

Quote of the Day (Greer)

“Libraries are reservoirs of strength, grace and wit, reminders of order, calm and continuity, lakes of mental energy, neither warm nor cold, light nor dark. The pleasure they give is steady, unorgastic, reliable, deep and long-lasting. In any library in the world, I am at home, unselfconscious, still and absorbed.”—Germaine Greer, “Still in Melbourne, January, 1987,” Daddy, We Hardly Knew You (1989)
(Funny—that’s just what I’ve been saying all these years!)

Thursday, March 27, 2008

This Day in Southern History (Congressman Shoots Black Man)

March 27, 1908—Confronted by a black man on a Washington, D.C., streetcar, swigging out of a bottle, Democratic Congressman and diehard Prohibitionist James Thomas Heflin of Alabama chose the calm, rational response: shooting the fellow. Amazingly, this politician would not only escape punishment, but continue in his old post and even win higher office, where he would become a historic embarrassment.

This year, as an African-American, for the first time in history, stands an excellent chance of winning a major-party nomination for President, it’s useful to look back a century to discover the state of race relations then. This relatively little-known episode is as good a place to start as any. The fact that it is almost forgotten says much about how casually racism of the most vicious kind was once woven into the fabric of political life.

I first came across this curious incident in, of all things, a baseball book: Cait Murphy’s Crazy ’08, or what she calls “The Greatest Year in Baseball History.” In addition to its account of that landmark year (for Cubs fans, who saw their team win its last World Series, it’s been only downhill since then), the book includes a number of interesting asides on the wider cultural climate in the country, including this one sentence that made me sit up and take notice: “In March, a congressman from Alabama, James Heflin, shoots a black passenger on a Washington streetcar for insulting him.”

What!!??? I asked myself upon reading this. I knew I had to write about this for the blog.

Nearly 75 years later, the name “Heflin” would have been immediately associated with Howell Heflin, a genial sort who, like his uncle, served as U.S. Senator from Alabama. Unlike his forebear, Howell quickly recognized which way the political wind was blowing and reaped much good will and many votes from blacks who exerted their right to vote in the wake of the civil rights movement.

If Howell Heflin was an example of the “New South,” then “Cotton Tom”—so nicknamed for his advocacy of the cause of farmers—was practically an archetype of the unregenerate bigot. Even George Wallace and Jesse Helms weren’t so nakedly anti-civil-rights or racist. No less an authority than Southern historian Diane McWhorter has labeled him—as you’ll see, not without justification—“the biggest boob in the history of Congress.”

Yet this exotic political creature existed in enough quantity on Capitol Hill at one time that, when the creators of the 1947 musical Finian’s Rainbow satirized a loudmouthed politico as “Senator Billboard Rawkins,” they knew that audiences would associate him with Senator Theodore Bilbo or, if their memories extended just a bit further, to “Cotton Tom” Heflin.

Before the shooting incident, Rep. Heflin made noise less with firearms than with his mouth. After President Theodore Roosevelt invited Tuskegee Institute President Booker T. Washington to the White House for dinner, the Alabama congressman announced that if an anarchist happened to explode a bomb under the table where the two men dined, then “no harm would have been done.” (Two years later, Heflin was shocked to enter a sleeping car only to find that he had to share it with Washington, who was occupying the lower berth.)

A mere month before the shooting, Heflin tried to insert a clause into a bill that would segregate D.C.’s streetcars. That ploy didn’t work, but it wasn’t the last time he’d provide what Daniel Patrick Moynihan later called, in a much different context, “boob bait for the bubbas.”

Shootings are not to be taken lightly, particularly when the assailant leaves someone seriously wounded, as in this case. But Heflin not only got the case dismissed, but began to proclaim it one of the high points of his career to date.

Most people would say that arrived six years later, when he successfully co-sponsored a bill creating Mother’s Day, but even that was not unmixed with calculation: Heflin believed—correctly, as it turned out—that the bill would take the edge off voters who loathed his opposition to women’s suffrage.

In 1920, Congressman Heflin moved up to the U.S. Senate, where he propounded more idiotic (oh, I’m sorry, we have to be objective here—controversial) positions against federal child-labor legislation and Roman Catholicism, and for Prohibition.

It was the latter two stances—not, unfortunately, his racism—that brought Heflin’s political career to an end. Al Smith’s Catholicism and opposition to Prohibition led Heflin to support Smith’s Republican opponent, Herbert Hoover, in the 1928 election.

Then as now, just as it’ll probably be 20 centuries from now, parties don’t like turncoats. Even though many Southern Democratic officeholders had their issues with Al Smith, few went to the point of endorsing his opponent or to calling their party’s nominee “the hireling of the Pope.” Alabama’s Democratic Party voters weren’t amused, and they responded by denying Heflin renomination in 1930.

Still, Helfin didn’t give up. By a one-vote majority, his former colleagues decided to let him speak about the $100,000 (this in the midst of the Depression), 15-month voter-fraud probe they had authorized the election won by his opponent, John Bankhead (yes, that’s the uncle of the salty actress Tallulah).

Given two hours, Heflin took five, replete with the African-American dialect and red-faced ranting that had fueled his career to date. But the clubby Senate doesn’t like anyone who makes it look like a laughingstock (even when it really is), as Joseph McCarthy would learn to his horror more than 20 years later in his censure vote. Two days after the kind of performance that led Time Magazine to label the senator “Tom-Tom” Heflin, his former colleagues tossed out his claim and with it, his last chance for a political resurrection.

In Finian’s Rainbow, Senator Rawkins is magically transformed, by the wish of a leprechaun, into a black man, and suffers enough for his pains that he becomes a civil-rights advocate. Al Smith, had he been alive, might have chuckled at the transformation, as would “Cotton Tom’s” 1908 shooting victim.

Quote of the Day (Bobby Fischer)

“Children who grow up without a parent become wolves.” – Bobby Fischer, the late chess grand champion, quoted in The Wall Street Journal, March 22-23, 2008
(Perhaps this at least partially explains why Fischer—who never knew his own father—became paranoid in his final years. May the soul of this mad genius be at rest now, beyond all “wolves.”)

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

This Day in New York History (The Vanderbilt Fancy-Dress Ball)

March 26, 1883—P. T. Barnum’s troupe was in New York on this Monday night, but that wasn’t the only circus in town. At approximately 11 pm, a mob gawked at the city’s wealthiest families sashaying out of their carriages into the new limestone palace of William K. Vanderbilt and his wife Alva, who were throwing the “fancy-dress” ball to end fancy-dress balls to celebrate the opening of their new home at 52nd Street and Fifth Avenue.

For nearly a decade, on my way to and from work, I passed by the spot that housed one of the legendary events of the Gilded Age, unaware, like nearly all New York’s midtown workers and tourists, of what had once happened here.

Vanderbilt’s mansion must have been something to see. When I visited the mansion owned by William’s more private brother Frederick up in Hyde Park, N.Y., the tour guide told our group that the wondrous home we were gaping at was nothing compared with William’s.

Now, however, William’s humble little Fifth Avenue abode has gone the real estate version of the way of all flesh, with stores and offices taking up what had once been a monument to gaudy excess. Too bad: the rich in those days were sort of like a contemporary Hollywood starlet after implants: they had paid a lot for what they had gotten, and by golly, they were going to show it!

The preparations for the event—which, at a then-astronomical $250,000, was the most expensive fancy-dress ball given to date in the U.S. —were discussed in hilarious detail in Matthew Josephson’s satirical muckraking history, The Robber Barons. From reading his account, it seems that enough costumers and milliners were employed in the task to fill Napoleon’s army at its zenith.

But the coming affair caused consternation to Caroline Schemerhorn Astor, the grande dame of New York high society, who had never deigned to call on any Vanderbilt—starting with Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt, the founder of the family fortune in shipping and railroads.

Egged by her friend, the social observer and incurable snob Ward McAllister, Mrs. Astor had become obsessed with “The Four Hundred,” a list of society’s biggest muckety-mucks. By sheer coincidence, they happened to be the people that passed muster with Mrs. A. Conspicuously missing from the list were the Vanderbilts.

Commodore Vanderbilt’s Dutch lineage was not that far removed in length from Mrs. Astor’s. But he gave all the appearance of the worst kind of parvenu with his swearing, his constant tobacco-chewing, and especially the way he kept blithely missing spittoons with the excess from his mouth. (Okay, I might have had a problem with that, too, if I had the kind of antique furniture possessed by Mrs. Astor.)

For years, this exclusion didn’t matter to the Commodore or his son, or their wives. But it did matter to the 30-year-old wife Alabama-born wife of the Commodore’s grandson William.

Alva Vanderbilt was intent on entering high society, and she was went about doing so with the same battering-ram force that those peasants exerted on the Bastille in David O. Selznick’s 1935 version of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Alva hit Mrs. Astor on her greatest point of pride, inviting everyone from The Four Hundred. Everyone, that is, but Mrs. Astor’s daughter Caroline.

That would not do at all. So Mrs. Astor pulled herself together and, at long last, called upon Mrs. Vanderbilt.

The young Astor girl got her invitation, and the Astors and Vanderbilts had created one of the great grand alliances of history. Unlike those involving the U.S., Britain and the U.S.S.R. in World War II or the Kennedy and Cuomo clans more recently, this one remained intact through the years.

But most important was the event at hand: all systems were go were go for the party of the century.

More than a century and a quarter later, it’s amusing to read about citizens in a supposedly egalitarian republic dressing up, without irony, as a Venetian princess, King Louis XVI, or an “Electric Light,” of all things, with white satin trimmed with diamonds, and with a diamond headdress.

Josephson caught the moment in all its unapologetic Gilded Age glory, as “the dancers formed in the gymnasium on the third floor, moved down the grand staircase of Caën stone (fifty feet high), and swept through the great hall (sixty-five by twenty feet) into a drawing-room (forty by twenty feet whose whole wainscoting of carved French walnut had been torn from a French chateau and hauled across the ocean).”

The Vanderbilt’s modest little house-warming party have been faintly echoed through the years in such events as Truman Capote’s costume ball of the 1960s and Malcolm Forbes’ 70th-birthday party in Morocco. But for setting the standard, nothing beat Alva Vanderbilt’s.

Quote of the Day (Rita Mae Brown)

“Art is moral passion married to entertainment. Moral passion without entertainment is propaganda, and entertainment without moral passion is television.” – Rita Mae Brown

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

This Day in Labor History (Triangle Factory Fire)

March 25, 1911—In the worst workplace disaster in New York City history before 9/11, a half-hour-long fire broke out near closing time at the Triangle Waist Company in Greenwich Village, leaving 146 dead. The outrage provoked by the incident led to action on long-unheeded calls for better fire-protection measures while launching a wave of social-welfare legislation and leaders who paved the way for the New Deal.

One of my memories of 9/11 is the photograph of the “Falling Man” hurtling toward death below to avoid being consumed by the fire raging inside the Twin Towers. Just such a sight—much less novel then—greeted many New Yorkers 97 years ago as they beheld one young woman after another jumping to her death out of the Asch Building near Washington Square.

All through elementary and secondary school, I heard nothing about this crucial event in American history. In fact, the first time I came across it was in the superlative chapter on Alfred E. Smith in Robert A. Caro’s biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker.

I would hope that modern texts remedy this problem, but I doubt it—kids nowadays are lucky they can figure out in which century the Civil War occurred. In certain ways, however, I believe that March 25, 1911 should be committed to memory as surely as July 4, 1776.

Both dates, in their ways, marked a movement away from heavy-handed control by an elite and toward greater freedom—in one case, for white American males of property; in the later one, for the economically oppressed laborer, frequently female and foreign-born.

So, if I were to design a syllabus to teach this event, what would I choose?

Well, I’d start with So Others Might Live, a fine account of New York’s Bravest by journalist-historian Terry Golway. The section on the Triangle fire is short—only a half-dozen pages—but they give an excellent précis for the conditions that led to the blaze and the Fire Department’s helpless anger in combating it.

It also discusses an Irish-American Cassandra, department head Edward Croker, a chief as blunt as he was fearless, who, for his repeated warnings about high-rise office and factory buildings, had to endure constant smearing by business interests for being the nephew of past Tammany Hall boss Richard Croker—until events proved him right.

After Golway’s history, I’d assign David Von Drehle’s Triangle: The Fire That Changed America, for a deeper understanding of the background, events and people involved in that day. Though the extent of the tragedy was unusual, the labor conditions that made it inevitable were anything but. Harassment for petty rule violations had sparked a massive waist-union strike only the year before, and at the time of the fire, a hundred accidents occurred in American workplaces every day.

But the Triangle sweatshop, Gotham’s largest blouse-making operation, requires a Dickens to evoke. Its 500 or more workers, mostly young Jewish and Italian women, crouched over their machines. Only the walls and floors met the owners’ claim that the building was fireproof; the fabric and other materials on the factory floor represented potential kindling.

Worse, the operations on the upper floors lay just beyond the reach of fire department ladders and doors were locked because of fears of employee theft. When the rickety fire escape collapsed, then, it meant certain death for the fire’s victims, 123 of whom were women.

The New York Times won the Pulitzer Prize for its “Portraits in Grief” after 9/11. On a somewhat smaller scale, facing heavier odds because of the distance of the years, Von Drehle was about to compile his own version of this for the Triangle victims, by combing through countless news articles and a long-lost transcript of the trial involving the factory owners (whose acquittal on manslaughter charges brought howls of execration on their heads).

Von Drehle’s account makes clear why the disaster was a landmark event in American immigrant and labor history, but it was also a watershed in American political and urban history. In particular, in the fallout from the tragedy, Tammany Hall—the same political machine that, only a decade before, successfully ran a mayoral candidate with the proud slogan, “To Hell With Reform”—at least partly redeemed its corrupt, largely inglorious history.

For this third phase of the event, Von Drehle should be read in combination with Caro. The indispensable man at the center of this phase was one of the great sphinxes of New York history, Tammany’s chieftain, Charles Murphy. Film buffs know Murphy in fictionalized form, as “Jim Gettys” in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, but in real life Murphy kept his own counsel as he shrewdly navigated the political shoals.

Now Murphy acted, giving the go-ahead to his Tammany lieutenants in the Albany state legislature, Al Smith and Robert F. Wagner, to investigate the blaze and what led up to it. Their work led to 25 workplace safety bills in 1912.

More important, that work helped stave off a socialist insurgency in the city (perhaps partly answering Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous question about why there was no socialism in the United States) and launched the careers of several illustrious figures: Smith, the governor whose tenure became a kind of laboratory for later New Deal legislation; Wagner, later a U.S. senator and proud patriarch of a line of politicians who figured in city history for nearly three-quarters of a century; and Frances Perkins, who later, as FDR’s Secretary of Labor, became the first female to serve in the Cabinet.

Quote of the Day (Percy Bysshe Shelley)

“If Winter comes, can spring be far behind?”-- Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Ode to the West Wind”
(Don’t mind all the recent late-March wind—which, contrary to rumor, has not been caused by this blog! Spring is now officially here. As Sheryl Crow might say, “Soak Up the Sun”)

Monday, March 24, 2008

This Day in Film History (Hustons Find Oscar 'Treasure')

March 24, 1949—In an unprecedented—and still unrepeated—Academy Award feat, father and son Walter and John Huston won Oscars for the same film, as The Treasure of the Sierra Madre proved what other Hollywood directors/producers, with less talented relatives, had been claiming for years about nepotism: Don’t knock it till you try it.

"Many, many years ago,”
Walter Huston (seen here on right, with co-stars Humphrey Bogart and Tim Holt) joked as he accepted his Best Supporting Actor statuette, “I raised a son and I said to him, if you ever become a writer or director, please find a good part for your old man."

The Barrymores may have been Broadway’s “Royal Family,” as the thinly disguised 1927 dramedy by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber called them. But on film, in an unbroken string over three decades, the flame of Walter, John, Anjelica and Danny Huston has burned brighter and longer.

Both families share two things: Irish roots and troubles with substance abuse.

Maurice Barrymore, father of John, Lionel and Ethel, took his stage name from an Irish peer who had been an ancestor. Canadian-born Walter Huston was the child of Scottish and Irish parents, and John moved to Ireland in the 1950s, even becoming an Irish citizen in 1964.

The drug and alcohol addictions of the Barrymores, stretching from John and Lionel down to granddaughter Drew, have been chronicled ad nauseum by biographers and tabloids and don’t bear repeating here. Less well-known is John Huston’s rough year in 1933, when he was arrested for drunk driving twice and was involved in an auto accident that left a young woman dead. (The grand jury absolved him of blame, but he was so traumatized that he left Hollywood for a year.)

While exuding a glamour and tragic quality that have eluded the Hustons, the Barrymores have not equaled them in sustained quality of cinematic achievement.

Just consider this: Even when the films he wrote and/or directed aren’t appearing on TV,
John Huston’s voice lingers in modern American film.

In White Hunter, Black Heart, Clint Eastwood tries to find a midpoint between his own steely tones and the tobacco-tarred, gin-soaked timber of Huston’s intonation, in a film that consciously echoes the older director’s experiences filming The African Queen

More recently, Daniel Day-Lewis may owe his Best Actor Oscar for There Will Be Blood less to his well-known physicality than to his camouflaged British accent in favor of an American one that mimicked Huston’s gravelly Noah Cross in Chinatown (another film featuring an evil capitalist who wrecks a child as much as an ecosystem).

The mysterious force of greed that seeps through Chinatown is addressed even more squarely in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. For one of the most uncompromising entries of his often-superb, always fascinating filmography, John Huston turned to his father for a pivotal role.

I’m afraid that there’s a certain breed of cinephile who ignores a film for the sole reason that it’s not in color. By definition, that deprives them of the thrill of seeing Walter Huston in action.

Smoothly seguing from vaudeville to theater to talkies, then from leading man to supporting actor, Walter Huston displayed wide range for directors as varied as D.W. Griffith (Abraham Lincoln), Frank Capra (American Madness), William Dieterle (The Devil and Daniel Webster), Michael Curtiz (Yankee Doodle Dandy), and Lewis Milestone (Rain, in a performance that keeps getting more relevant with the years, as a repressed preacher).

Now, his son posed a different challenge: dispense with his dentures to play an old prospector in John’s cinematic recasting of the novel by B. Traven (a recluse who carefully shielded his identity even as he gave permission for his story to be filmed). John judged correctly, though, that his old man wouldn’t mind the blow to his vanity so long as he could steal scenes as the wizened coot, and so he did.

Today, certain scenes in the film verge close to political incorrectness, especially when the three prospectors encounter Mexican bandits. But more often than not, the film succeeds in its multiple gambles—its location shooting south of the border (a choice that, the director shrewdly guessed, would keep Warner Bros. studio heads at arm's length), its pessimistic themes, and the casting of the three male leads. (At various times during the film’s six-year gestation, John Garfield and Ronald Reagan had been mentioned for the role that ultimately went to Tim Holt; George Raft was conceived of as greedy, murderously paranoid Fred C. Dobbs, the character ultimately played by Humphrey Bogart; and Edward G. Robinson was an early choice for Walter Huston’s part.)

Fittingly enough, John Huston capped his unexpected late-career flowering by directing daughter Anjelica in Prizzi’s Honor (gaining him an additional honor as the only filmmaker to direct a parent and child to acting Oscars) and The Dead, in which father and daughter tipped their caps to their Celtic roots, bringing to moving life the James Joyce novella about misunderstandings and family secrets. (John’s son Danny has also made his mark as a screenwriter and actor.)

Many of the best films of John Huston’s career have focused on failed dreamers and noncomformists—not just The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but also The Maltese Falcon, The Asphalt Jungle, Moby Dick, and The Man Who Would Be King

In an unhappy childhood spent shuttling between his divorced mother and father—who had decided to leave the seeming security of a job as an engineer for one as a vaudevillian—young John appeared to be collateral damage in one of these unfulfilled quests. The film he created as an adult for himself and his father provided a most un-Hustonlike happy ending after all.

Quote of the Day (Paul Laurence Dunbar)

“We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.”—Paul Laurence Dunbar, “We Wear the Mask”
(With Barack Obama’s painfully personal and candid speech on race last week, let’s all hope that that “mask” comes one step closer to being discarded once and for all.)

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Hey Eliot, How's Tricks?

Over the past two weeks, as the "Sheriff of Wall Street" and Time's "Crusader of the Year" became better known as "Client 9," I was content to let the Albany panjundrums pontificate, the lawyers litigate, the pundits fulminate, and poor Silda Spitzer fumigate (the family's Fifth Avenue premises, that is, of all traces of her hornswogglin' hubby, many hope).

But before Eliot Ness—no, make that Eliot Mess—slinks off to whatever uncertain future awaits him (and
"Saturday Night Live" had as good a guess at this as anyone) and we forget this whole sordid saga, it's worthwhile reviewing why he fell so hard so fast.

To be sure, ideologues from all parts of the political spectrum have offered predictable responses to Governor Spitzer's unraveling—from schadenfreude over the comeuppance of Corporate America's chief tormenter (The Wall Street Journal), applause for being worldlier, European-style, than we used to be about sex (The New Yorker's Hedrick Hertzberg), to annoyed handwringing over Mr. Clean getting dirty (The New York Times).

A recent issue of New York Magazine, it seems to me, gets closer to the heart of the matter, starting with a
cover that definitively locates Spitzer’s brain. John Heilemann's “A Pants-Down Primer” also performed yeoman service by reviewing, Letterman-style, the top 10 reasons Bill Clinton survived Monicagate while Spitzer collapsed almost immediately.

(As for who was crazier, Clinton or Spitzer, ask yourself which scenario as a potential lothario you would prefer: Breaking the news to a hitherto-unknowing wife who had long believed in you, or risking the possibility that a wife thisclose to divorce on an at least one other occasion would discover you in the act – which Ol' Bill did on
at least a half dozen encounters with Lewinski that occurred while Hillary was in the building.)

After reading Heilemann's piece, however, I felt that all his cogently presented rationalizations for the difference between Clinton and Spitzer could be boiled down to this concise formula: Draco Malfoy x Seth Pecksniff = Eliot Spitzer.

Allow me to explain. The "
Draco Malfoy" part needs no introduction to youngsters—especially my nephews Sean and James, who have devoured each succeeding Harry Potter book and movie like the 1992 Bill Clinton consuming every Big Mac within five miles of each campaign appearance. They'll instantly recognize Malfoy as the insufferable Pure Blood who bullies Harry and friends all over Hogwarts Academy.

Indeed, like Donald Trump, Spitzer is a son of a real estate magnate, as arrogant a child of privilege as has ever existed—and real-life embodiment of Draco. For confirmation—and a portent of his own doom—recall prospective candidate Spitzer’s attempt to send up his take-no-prisoners style in a November 2005 appearance on The Colbert Report, in which he explained his secret of success as a childhood soccer “enforcer”: “You play hard, play tough, and hopefully you don’t get caught.” 

Quite a contrast with Bill Clinton who, whatever else his detractors have said about him over the years, was hardly a spoiled kid.

Seth Pecksniff, on the other hand, appears in a work of one of the great influences on J.K. Rowling, Charles Dickens: Martin Chuzzlewit. Pecksniff is not so familiar as other characters in the Dickens corpus because he springs from the longest novel by the great Victorian (and, a professor I heard once say at a local lecture, the only one without Cliff Notes).

But Pecksniff is a distinctly Dickensian type in his unctuous hypocrisy as he utters high-minded moral principles he has no intention of living up to. A little bit like Spitzer, who leaked rumors to the press about New York Stock Exchange chair Richard Grasso making his secretary his mistress—all without a shred of proof ever offered—all while the then-Attorney-General was already engaging in far more risky business himself.

The combination of Malfoy and Pecksniff in one real-life person, it seems to me, creates an entirely new prototype in our cultural life, like one of those names that becomes shorthand for terrible moral choices: Benedict Arnold, Vidkun Quisling, Joseph McCarthy. In large measure, that accounts for the near-universal outrage inspired by the astonishing Spitzer scandal. 

(I don't think I can bear the triumphalism all over Wall Street about his downfall--this, from a group of people more than a few of whom, it's safe to wager, have developed permanent stoops from hauling out their ill-gotten gains.)

As evidence of what I'm talking about, consider the following:

* "
An old senile piece of s___" —Spitzer's description to a Republican lawmaker about State Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno, who drove Mr. Clean to such extremes that he ended up being investigated and reprimanded by state Attorney-General Andrew Cuomo. (Incidentally, have any of my readers heard of a young "senile piece of s___"? Didn't think so. Makes you wonder what they're teaching now about redundancy and other grammatical matters at those institutions that prepared Spitzer for life—the New York prep school Horace Mann, Princeton and Harvard Law School).

It’s now a war between us. I'll be coming after you"—the Sheriff of Wall Street's warning (one that, predictably, his press secretary denied, but which has the unmistakable whiff of the truth) to John Whitehead, who had dared write a Wall Street Journal op-ed challenging his pursuit of AIG chair Hank Greenberg.

* "
Come on—I'm from the Bronx!" – Spitzer accepting a challenge to step outside by California's attorney general, not noting that he's a native of Riverdale instead of the tougher South Bronx (unlike your faithful correspondent!).

* "
Listen, I'm a f---ing steamroller, and I'll roll over you and anybody else!" – Spitzer to state Assembly Minority Leader James Tedisco. (James Taylor’s “Steamroller” has worn better over nearly 40 years than Spitzer’s, I think it safe to say)

Day One, Everything Changes” – Spitzer’s promise as he took over as governor—though what changed was that in the coming 14 months, he made George Pataki, a lackluster predecessor with no visible accomplishments after three terms in office, look like the second coming of Governors Dewey and Smith by comparison.

You have no standing to lecture me; you’re part of the system that is the whole problem in this state”—Spitzer in the least profance part of a tirade directed against Dan Cantor, an ally from the Working Families Party, who had tried unsuccessfully to offer some friendly words of advice.

Spitzer friends-apologists-enablers such as the egregious Alan Dershowitz (the real-life inspiration for lawyer-TV commentator “Alan Crudman” in Christopher Buckley’s hilarious No Way to Treat a First Lady) say that prostitution is a victimless crime. I’m not going to rehash all the comments, pro and con, about that hoary (or is that whore-y?) claim.

But I find it instructive—Spitzerish, if you will—that the governor was well into patronizing “Kristen” and friends all the time he was
bragging to New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof about a new state law clamping down on sex trafficking, including tougher penalties against johns. Is it just me, or is there a slight case of psychic disassociation going on here?

You still think there was no “victim” here? Then look at the photo accompanying this blog entry. I could have chosen virtually any one from hundreds of the ex-governor, but I picked this one for a reason.

It’s Silda. It’s the face of someone who gave up her own job as an attorney—one, incidentally, in which she made more money than Spitzer—to look after him and their children. 

It’s the face of someone who has to figure out how the husband who’d been with her on Valentine’s Day had the last of a string of unprotected sexual encounters with a hooker only 24 hours before. 

It’s the face of someone whose life is imploding.

One line jumped out at me from
Spitzer’s resignation statement: “As I leave public life, I will first do what I need to do to help and heal myself and my family.” How typical—thinking of his own needs first, then those of others. How like Draco Malfoy and Seth Pecksniff. 

It’s the moment when “Eliot Spitzer,” new cultural prototype, is at his most revealing—and most revolting.

This Day in Sports History (The Great Gretzky)

March 23, 1994—In Los Angeles, Wayne Gretzky slapped the puck into the net against Vancouver goalie Kirk McLean for the 802nd goal of his career, eclipsing the previous record set by childhood hero Gordie Howe. It was just another milestone in a statistic-laden career probably only matched in professional sports by the Yankees’ Babe Ruth.

As a 10-year-old in Brantford, Ontario, Gretzky had been visited by Howe, who, out of curiosity, wanted to see for himself a youngster who was already mighty prolific at scoring—385 goals in just 85 games. The older sports legend gave the budding phenom advice that was heeded: Work on your backhand.

As Gretzky achieved fame in the 1980s and 1990s with the Edmonton Oilers, the Los Angeles Kings, the St. Louis Blues, and the New York Rangers, Howe remained a constant and appreciative fan of the man who surpassed each of his records one by one. (Entering the league, Gretzky wanted to wear the same number that Howe had —9—but it was taken, so he took the next best thing—99.) Yet the two could not have been more different.

Howe piled up his scoring totals day in, day out, year in, year out. If you attempted to interfere with the puck while he was within five feet of it, God have mercy on you, because Howe wouldn’t, making sure you got a nice, sharp elbow that would send you flying. (Admittedly, this was nothing like the mayhem perpetrated by Derek Sanderson in the 1970s.)

If Howe beat opponents with sheer durability and grit, Gretzky defeated them with blinding speed. If Howe’s playing style was strictly blue-collar—he had a job to do, and he’d find a way to get it done, every day, come what may, no matter how much his bones ached—Gretzky’s was more Hollywood, a natural for the highlight reels. (And he was not a puck hog—Mario Lemieux, himself a scoring wunderkind, called him “probably the best passer who ever played the game.")

His sense of speed and puck-handling flash was made for Hollywood—and wouldn’t you know that The Great Gretzky ended up marrying actress-model Janet Jones in July 1988, in a union dubbed “Canada’s Royal Wedding.” (I enjoyed Jones’ most notable Hollywood film, The Flamingo Kid, but more for its unpretentious coming-of-age story and the fun supporting turn by Richard Crenna than for the lead actress’ thespian skills—such as they were.)

In a 2004 poll, respondents to a survey by the Canadian Broadcasting Co. voted Wayne Gretzky one of the 10 greatest Canadians of all time. That’s how seriously they take their hockey up there!

Quote of the Day (Flannery O’Connor)

“The sins of pride and selfishness and reluctance to wrestle with the Spirit are certainly mine but I have been working at them a long time and will be still doing it when I am on my deathbed. I believe that God's love for us is so great that He does not wait until we are purified to such a great extent before He allows us to receive Him.”—Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being
(Happy Easter!)

Saturday, March 22, 2008

This Day in American History (End of Prohibition)

March 22, 1933—With the backing of new President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Congress approved the Beer and Wine Revenue Act, anticipating full-scale repeal of Prohibition by legalizing sale of beer and wine with alcohol content of 3.2%. At the same time, the President—an enthusiastic if unskillful martini mixer himself—couldn't resist taxing the now freely-flowing beer and wine to fund his multitude of expensive New Deal programs.

(The Eighteenth Amendment instituting Prohibition would not be formally reversed until the 21st Amendment, which was approved in December.)

Why didn't more people complain then about how the government giveth and the government taketh away? Maybe they were so pleased not to be "dry" anymore that it didn't matter.

Or maybe it was a case of having something bigger on their minds, like how to find jobs in the middle of the worst Depression this country had ever seen. One-quarter of the nation out of work—now if that wasn't enough to drive a whole country to want a drink, I don't know what was.

In any case, the country celebrated with alacrity—probably none more so than the literati who made opposition to Prohibition practically a union card for admission into the ranks of the avant-garde. Leading the way was iconoclastic man of letters H.L. Mencken, who made sure that at midnight on April 6, when the new law went into effect, he was first at the bar of Baltimore's Rennert Hotel. The next day's issue of his paper, the Baltimore Sun, featured a photograph of its most famous columnist, the "High Priest of Brew," quaffing a nice cold one.

The groundswell against Prohibition represented a stunning turn of events from even a few years before. To be sure, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution and its enabling legislation, the Volstead Act—twin measures constituting what Herbert Hoover termed, in his most harrumphing style, a "great social and economic experiment, noble in motive and far reaching in purpose" —had provoked widespread circumvention of the law ever since it went into effect in 1920.

But as late as 1931, advocates of "Repeal," as the anti-Prohibition movement was called, expected that it would take another decade to achieve their goal. The sudden collapse of support for legislative attempts to enforce temperance, then, testified to the national revulsion against the hypocrisy and criminality (the Mafia got its big boost through bootlegging during the Roaring Twenties) engendered by Prohibition.

One of these Prohibition opponents was Columbia University President Nicholas Murray Butler. Andrew Sinclair's Prohibition: The Era of Excess quotes the Nobel Peace Prize winner and past Republican candidate for President in a typically stuffy moment: "My own feeling toward prohibition, is exactly the feeling which my parents and my grandparents had toward slavery. I look upon the Volstead Act precisely as they looked upon the Fugitive Slave Law. Like Abraham Lincoln, I shall obey these laws so long as they remain on the statute book; but, like Abraham Lincoln, I shall not rest until they are repealed."

(Let's leave aside the way Nick conflated opposing a racist, soul-destroying institution with sneaking around a misguided attempt at moral busybodyism, or with his almost comical injection of himself into the whole thing. No, if you ask me, Nick might have better spent his time by "not resting" until he had eliminated the quota system that drastically restricted Jewish faculty hires at his university. But that's a story for another day.)

Some years ago, a new kind of sport on college campuses was inspired by repeats of The Bob Newhart Show. Every time another character entered his apartment with the greeting "Hi, Bob!", some student would down a drink—presumably getting buzzed midway through one half-hour episode and well on his way to oblivion by the end of a TV Land marathon.

Imagine what some of these students could have done with the literature inspired by the Prohibition Era! Every time a character downs one, they drain one in response! Let's not even consider Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, since that featured expatriate imbibers. For our purposes, we'll stick closer to home—we'll have more than enough material to suit our purposes right there.

One contender for poet laureate of Prohibition might be Joseph Moncure March with his long poem The Wild Party (later adapted—twice—into a musical). Starting from its opening lines—"Queenie was a blonde and her age stood still,/And she danced twice a day in vaudeville"—it reads like a tabloid story come to life.

Lyricism so beautiful it makes you gasp at times also blinds readers of The Great Gatsby to the fact that, at heart, it is every bit as excessive and violent as March’s tale. Everybody knows that the eponymous “hero,” Jay Gatsby, is a hopeless romantic who decides that the best way to get the money to win his girl Daisy back is by becoming a bootlegger.

But it’s forgotten just how often the euphoric consumption of alcohol in the novel is followed by violence. Gatsby’s party begins with “yellow cocktail music” played by the orchestra and ends, several drunken hours later, with “women … now having fights with men said to be their husbands.” A party with Tom Buchanan’s mistress, Myrtle Wilson, ends, several drunken hours later, with Buchanan breaking Myrtle’s nose. The last meeting with Gatsby and Daisy starts in West Egg, moves to a party and more drinking in Manhattan, and ends—several drunken hours later—with Daisy accidentally running over Myrtle Wilson.

But even more than Fitzgerald, the writer most associated with the speakeasy culture might be John O’Hara. The two early novels that won him his reputation—Appointment in Samarra and Butterfield 8—might have been published after the end of Prohibition, but they are set in that period. Moreover, many of his later short stories set down, with almost documentary accuracy, what it was like to live through that era.

In the novella "Imagine Kissing Pete," part of his woefully underappreciated trilogy Sermons and Soda-Water (1960), O'Hara, speaking in the voice of alter ego James Malloy—like himself, a middle-aged writer forced by circumstance to stop drinking cold—could still write sternly that Prohibition bred "a cynical disregard for the law of the land" and "made liars of a hundred million men and cheaters of their children." He even traced its malign influence on "West Point cadets who cheated in examinations [and] the basketball players who connived with gamblers."

O’Hara is a far more powerful voice against Prohibition than Butler, all the more so for being so disillusioned. But now, a word on behalf of the Prohibitionists.

As counterproductive as their legislation was, at the time of its enactment there had been no real effective way to counteract alcohol, a scourge that had destroyed families. Women such as Cary Nation and Frances Willard had been the driving forces behind the anti-saloon movement, and it was no coincidence that the amendments for Prohibition and women’s suffrage represented virtually the last hurrah of Progressive legislation.

It would take Bill Wilson, founder and longtime head of Alcoholics Anonymous, to create an organization and method for attacking alcohol abuse. The seeds of his idea, however, would not come until 1935—two years after repeal of Prohibition.

Quote of the Day (Thurber)

“Why do you have to be a nonconformist like everybody else?” —James Thurber
(Thanks to Brian for the suggestion)

Friday, March 21, 2008

Paul Scofield, Actor—and Man—for All Seasons, R.I.P.

British stage and screen actor Paul Scofield passed away yesterday from leukemia at age 86. I have been awed by his film appearances (too few, to my way of thinking) in Henry V, Hamlet (with Mel Gibson), The Crucible, and, in a role especially close to my heart, Columbia University professor-poet Mark Van Doren in Quiz Show. But I honor him especially for his memorable Oscar-winning turn as Sir Thomas More in possibly my favorite (that, or On the Waterfront) film, A Man for All Seasons.

From the obituaries, it seems that Scofield didn’t appear more on celluloid because it meant being away from his home and his wife of 65 years, the actress Joy Parker. Actors and directors have been unanimous in praising not just his onstage skill but also his offstage unassuming nature—which stood him in good stead in the roles that made his reputation.

Scofield died during Holy Week—appropriately enough for an actor whose greatest roles, many theatergoers agreed, were as More in A Man for All Seasons and as the “whiskey priest” in the stage adaptation of Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory.

After reading excerpts from Richard Burton’s diaries, I’ve always felt that the Welsh actor, with his fierce intelligence, self-loathing, and addictions to alcohol and women, would have been the ideal choice to play Greene’s God-haunted cleric. But Burton, with an almost unactorly abasement of ego before the man who beat him out of an Academy Award in 1966, insisted, "Of the 10 greatest moments in the theater, eight are Scofield's."

My favorite Scofield moment on film occurs toward the end of A Man for All Seasons. After being convicted of treason based on false testimony, More begs leave to speak to the court.

Watch the skillful interplay between Scofield’s body and voice as he gradually but unmistakably moves toward one of the greatest courtroom perorations in cinema history.

Playfully ironic wit, sophistication and grace have been More’s hallmarks throughout the film to this point—necessities, really, for anyone who hopes to sway a jury or win over a ruler in council. All that’s over—with the verdict given, Scofield’s wide, pensive eyes and sagging shoulders tell you all you need to know about More’s exhaustion from imprisonment and the lengthy struggle to keep his wits about him.

Paradoxically, however, the absolute certainty of doom frees More—something you can see in the way Scofield pulls himself up to his full 6-ft.-2-inch height--as the prisoner serenely but unmistakably points out that his conscience and his rights as an Englishman have been abused by the king he loyally served.

His voice steadies now, settling into the groove carved by logic and faith that served him well all his life: “I am the king's true subject, and I pray for him and all the realm. I do none harm. I say none harm. I think none harm. And if this be not enough to keep a man alive, then in good faith I long not to live.”

Now Scofield plants his feet, his back straightening, all the steel entering it, as a saint might need to leave behind the friends, family and life he loves. You sense that, at long last, the long-anticipated explosion is about to come.

And here, for virtually the first time in this long scene of close-ups and medium shots, Fred Zinnemann pulls the camera back, allowing the actor’s magnificent voice—one that the director likened to “a Rolls Royce being started” —to fill the courtroom as More, the longtime loyal counselor, shocks the audience by flinging down his defiance against all the forces that have sought unsuccessfully to traduce his conscience: “Nevertheless, it is not for the Supremacy that you have sought my blood, but because I would not bend to the marriage!”

Robert Bolt’s play contains some of the meatiest lines in the last half-century of drama, but so indelible was Scofield’s impact in this role that I can’t recall another actor—besides Charlton Heston, in a TNT performance that only suffered by comparison with his famous predecessor’s—daring to tackle this part.

We have seen many a rake’s progress on screen over the years. In thrilling fashion, Scofield depicted a saint’s.

Blogger “Steve on Broadway” offers an excellent tribute to Scofield.

This Day in Presidential History (Dean, Nixon and Watergate)

March 21, 1973—Watergate began to unravel, eventually bringing down a Chief Executive just re-elected in a landslide, when President Richard Nixon ignored counsel John Dean’s warning that the mushrooming scandal was “a cancer on the Presidency.”

Perhaps more than any other event in modern history, Watergate contributed all kinds of phrases to the American political lexicon: “at this point in time,” “inoperative,” “modified limited hangout,” “twisting slowly, slowly in the wind,” “the Big Enchilada,” “expletive deleted),” and “stonewall it” (the phrase that finally led to a mass affirmative vote on the House Judiciary Committee in favor of Nixon’s impeachment, thus forcing his resignation). But Dean’s phrase stands out for being the most descriptive and the most prescient.

For two hours on this morning, the President met with Dean and chief of staff H.R. Haldeman on the coverup arising from the break-in at the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate Hotel. Within the past week, Newsweek had run a cover story, "Nixon's Palace Guard," on the growing evidence of ties between top aides and the seven Watergate defendants.

Now, Dean spelled out as much as he knew: that deputy campaign director Jeb Stuart Magruder knew much about the bugging; that White House special counsel Charles Colson might also have been involved; that campaign fundraiser Herbert Kalmbach had provided funds for the defendants’ attorneys; and—the topper—that E. Howard Hunt was blackmailing them for $122,000 more or he’d reveal all he’d done for the campaign and administration, including a break-in at the office of the psychiatrist of Daniel Ellsberg, the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers.

The amount of attention throughout this day on Watergate signaled the President’s increasingly preoccupation with the scandal. He and his staff finally understood the legal and political gravity of the situation. “We now have a different problem than we did during the election,” wrote Haldeman in his notes on the day (later printed in The Haldeman Diaries: Inside the Nixon White House). “We’ve got to figure all the problems and possibilities.”

Despite an adversarial relationship with the press from early in his Presidency—really, perhaps, going back to the beginnings of his career—Nixon had been able to stage-manage events largely as he wished, mostly due to Americans’ traditional trust in their Presidents.

From this day onward, however, control of events increasingly slipped out of his grasp. Like the metaphorical medical condition that Dean predicted, the bad days started to outnumber the good ones.

Nixon’s command of the political terrain was not only undermined by his “silent majority’s” recognition that he had committed what journalist Theodore H. White called a Breach of Faith, but also by the resignation a month later of Haldeman, a former advertising executive who had helped resurrect his boss from the political dead by remolding his public image for the 1968 campaign.

In elementary school I seized each day’s paper to see what Nixon’s gang was up to. High on my hate list was Haldeman, who, with his humorless mien, drill-sergeant crewcut, and absolute command of the President’s schedule, became known among the press and Washington inner circles as “Nixon’s S.O.B.” and “The Iron Chancellor.”

Today I’m inclined to feel more compassion for this aide who received as much abuse from Nixon as he inflicted on others. It could not have been easy to work for a self-centered, obsessive political junkie who, after more than a decade of close interaction, did not know the number of children in Haldeman’s family.

It was even harder to try to guess which of his boss’ statements was a momentary irrational thought and which an unbending order. Retired New York Times columnist William Safire revealed that, in Nixon’s first year in office, a bad landing on Air Force One prompted a singular tirade by his former boss: "That's it! No more landing at airports!" Haldeman listened, nodded, then paid the order no further mind.

Two days after the meeting among Dean, Haldeman and Nixon, Judge John Sirica read in open court a letter from Watergate defendant James McCord, disclosing political pressure from on high to plead guilty and hinting at the involvement of others not identified during the trial. The revelation was the first of a daily round that eventually led to convictions for 25 Watergate figures, as well as the first resignation (and later pardon) of an American President.

After all this time, it’s amazing to think not only that some doubted this paranoid micromanager could have instigated the cover-up, but also that they also discounted the possibility that he ordered the original break-in, too.

More and more actors over the years have played either Nixon or a thinly fictionalized version of him, including Peter Riegert, Jason Robards Jr., Frank Langella, and Anthony Hopkins. But for my money, the best was Dan Hedaya, complete with jowls, hunched-over frame, and hooded scowl, in the 1999 film Dick (whose charm only begins with that short but extremely appropriate title). It lays out the real story of how Watergate came to be revealed.

It’s a tale involving two giggly teenage ditzes, Betsy and Arlene (played by Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams, respectively), who on a tour of the White House, recognize G. Gordon Liddy as the weirdo they saw skulking around the Watergate Hotel, where Arlene resides.

“Tricky Dick” attempts to gain their silence by hiring them as “official White House dog watchers” (for the obstreperous Checkers) and, later, the more official-sounding "Presidential youth advisors,” but they outsmart and outlast the presiding political genius of their day. Along the way, you’ll learn all sorts of secrets never divulged on those Watergate tapes (e.g., the girls set off a “Hello, Dolly” sing-along at a summit by accidentally distributing marijuana-laced brownies to the principal adult participants).

When you’ve finished watching this unbelievably realistic film, remember who first told you (or reminded you) about it….

Quotes for Good Friday

“Alone of all creeds, Christianity has added courage to the virtues of the Creator. For the only courage worth calling courage must necessarily mean that the soul passes a breaking point - and does not break.” --G.K. Chesterton

“1st Roman Soldier—You see me slip the old spear into him?
2d Roman Soldier—You’ll get into trouble doing that some day.
1st Soldier—It was the least I could do for him. I’ll tell you he looked pretty good to me in there today.”--Ernest Hemingway, “Today Is Friday”

“I do not expect ever to solve the mystery of the cross, but I do take heart in the unlikely good news that the cross has already solved me.”--Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Derelict Cross,” in The Christian Century, reprinted in The Best Christian Writing 2002

“Christ died for all men—not just the ones you know and like.”
--"Catholic textbook" cited in The Quotable Quotations Book, compiled by Alec Lewis (1980)

“I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.” --Abraham Lincoln, speech in Washington D.C., 1865 (the President was assassinated on Good Friday only weeks after this speech)

“But He was dying for a dream,
And He was very meek,
And in His eyes there shone a gleam
Men journey far to seek.”
--Countee Cullen, “Simon the Cyrenian Speaks” (1924)

“One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: Aren't you the Christ? Save yourself and us!’
“But the other criminal rebuked him. Don't you fear God," he said, "since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.’
“Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’
“Jesus answered him, ‘I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.’”
--Luke 23:39-43

Thursday, March 20, 2008

This Day in Literary History (Stowe's “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” Creates Firestorm)

March 20, 1852—Written by a daughter, sister and wife of ministers, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe, was published in book form in two volumes, becoming a nationwide sensation—and bringing North and South one step closer to war—because of its author’s moral outrage over slavery.

The novel drew considerable attention even while serialized in an abolitionist newspaper, The National Era. Faced with a looming publisher’s deadline, the author used her three daughters to help transcribe and finish her work.

The immediate impetus for the book was the Fugitive Slave Act, which Stowe despised for making Northerners complicit in the recovery and return of captured slaves. For a key element of the novel—a slave mother’s grief when her child is sold—Stowe channeled her own emotions after losing her 18-month-old boy Charlie in 1849 to cholera.

Explaining why she felt compelled to write her most famous book, Stowe explained: "I wrote what I did because as a woman, as a mother, I was oppressed and broken-hearted with the sorrows and injustice I saw, because as a Christian I felt the dishonor to Christianity -because as a lover of my country, I trembled at the coming day of wrath."

It took less than a decade, but eventually she did get to experience that “coming day of wrath.” In 1862, when she finally had the chance to meet an anti-slavery President, Abraham Lincoln, towering over his diminutive guest, joked: “So you’re the little lady who wrote the book that started this great war.”

That “great war” soon took its toll on her own family. Already drinking heavily when he enlisted in the Union army, son Frederick became a full-fledged alcoholic after being badly wounded at Gettysburg. Rehabilitation—including stints in a sanitarium and moving to Florida, where he tried to manage a coffee plantation—ended badly. In 1871, after shipping out for the West Coast in a last-ditch attempt to save his life, Frederick disappeared, never to be seen again.

Stowe’s novel has experienced swings of opinion as extreme as any other work in American literature. In her own time, when it was not bringing down upon her head howls of execration from Southerners, her work was read over and over—selling more than 300,000 copies in the U.S. and over a million in Britain in its first year of publication. The fame of her narrative spread when it toured the country in countless stage adaptations (from which she gained not a nickel in royalties) as well as wallpapers and even songs about her character Little Eva.

By the middle of the 20th century, however, the phrase “Uncle Tom” had become shorthand for African-American too subservient to whites. Lending crucial support to this change was novelist and critic James Baldwin, whose Notes of a Native Son (1955) lashed out against Uncle Tom’s Cabin—what Baldwin acidly labeled “Everybody’s Protest Novel”—as “a very bad novel, having in its self-righteous, virtuous sentimentality, much in common with Little Women.”

A trenchant essayist, Baldwin was also far more subtle at characterization than Stowe. But sentimentality is not disabling in literature in and of itself—otherwise, how would Dickens have survived the modern turn from his unmistakable sentimental mode? It might also be argued that, if Stowe were not sentimental, she could not have otherwise have thrust Americans face to face with the reality of slavery.

With the rise of the women’s movement, greater respect has been given to Stowe and her artistic aspirations, in and out of literature. A year and a half ago, The Annotated “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” edited by Henry Louis Gates and Hollis Robbins, appeared to considerable acclaim.

Stowe wrote 30 books—about one a year—throughout her career, and they helped immensely in supplementing the income of her husband Calvin, a preacher who wrote one book over the course of his long lifetime, a scholarly tome on books of the Bible. She was also an enthusiastic painter. Her abiding sense of toleration, not just toward blacks but also groups such as Roman Catholics, has also won her deserved esteem, especially when placed in a time of virulent prejudice.

Twenty-one years after the publication of her most famous book, Stowe, Calvin and three of their daughters moved into a 17-room Victorian cottage in the Nook Farm community of Hartford, Connecticut. Her next-door neighbor was Mark Twain, author of the other 19th-century novel that most bitterly attacked slavery: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

On two occasions over the last few years I’ve taken guided tours of the Stowe house, now preserved as the Harrier Beecher Stowe Center. I came away with a greater appreciation for the multifaceted character and achievement of this pioneering novelist. The house not only contains furniture from the period (40% original to the home) but also first editions of her books and several paintings Stowe created.

I was also surprised to learn that she had collaborated with her sister Catharine on The American Woman’s Home, a precursor to Martha Stewart-style living advice, and that she practiced what she preached, including narrow, open shelves in the kitchen to allow her to use what she saw.