Thursday, July 31, 2008

This Day in Irish History (Gaelic League Founded)

July 31, 1893—In a brief afternoon meeting at Martin Kelly’s rooms at 9 Lower Sackville Street in Dublin, nine men formed the Gaelic League (Conradh na Gaelige), an organization dedicated specifically to preserving the Irish (or Gaelic) language. Though originally non-partisan and non-sectarian, the group ended up bolstering the cultural revival and sense of pride indispensable to the cause of Irish independence two decades later.

The Irish language had reached a state of crisis at the time of the get-together that included Kelly, Douglas Hyde, Eoin McNeill, Fr. Eugene O’Growney, and five others. The 1851 Census showed nearly 320,000 people whose sole language was Gaelic, while another 1.2 million spoke at least some words. Already, however, several developments were leading to an alarming decline that saw those figures drop to 38,200 and 642,100, respectively:

* The primary educational system introduced by Britain—the so-called “National Schools”—prohibited the teaching and use of Irish. Only English was allowed, with boys caught speaking Irish beaten with “tally sticks.”
* If any Irish were fortunate enough to make it to university, they would have to listen to professors at Trinity College who would say that they “despised Gaelic as a language fit only for helots and corner boys,” or that “there was not a single Gaelic text that was not ‘religious, silly, or indecent.’”
* Even those held in high esteem by the common folk—Daniel O’Connell and the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy, for instance—came to see English as a method of advancement in an environment still viscerally biased against Catholics.
* The Irish Potato Famine led to a depopulation in the Western areas of the country, which had until that point been disproportionately filled with Gaelic speakers.

The efforts of Hyde—the son of a Protestant rector, a man who had learned Irish from local tenant farmers—stemmed the tide of the erosion of the language. As first President of the Gaelic League, he was instrumental in encouraging Irish as a living language. According to biographers Janet Egleson Dunleavy and Gareth W. Dunleavy in their book Douglas Hyde: A Maker of Modern Ireland, he preferred to five people speaking Irish to ten people trying to read it.

In time, learning Irish became seen as a kind of political statement. Many of the signers of the Proclamation of the Republic—notably Padraig Pearse—were members of the Gaelic League. Hyde himself would go on to other firsts—notably, the first professor of modern Irish at University College Dublin, as well as first president of the Republic of Ireland.

Quote of the Day (Saroyan)

“Nothing good ever ends.” – Novelist/playwright William Saroyan, born on this date 100 years ago

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Song Lyric of the Day (Dietz)

“The world is a stage; the stage is a world of entertainment!”—from “That’s Entertainment!”, lyrics by Howard Dietz, music by Arthur Schwartz

(The lyricist partner of Schwartz—“Dancing in the Dark” is another one of their credits—as well as Vernon Duke, Jerome Kern and Jimmy McHugh, died on this date in 1983 at age 86 of Parkinson’s Disease.)

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Quote of the Day (O’Connor)

“It was early in August when Frank Skeffington decided--or rather, announced his decision, which actually had been arrived at some months before--to run for re-election as mayor of the city.”—Edwin O’Connor, The Last Hurrah (1956)

(The author of one of the greatest—no, make that two of the greatest—American political novels was born in Providence, R.I., on this date in 1918. He died in 1968, only 49 years old, and I can’t help lamenting how much the literary world lost with his untimely passing. His friends lost something more: the infinite pleasure of his company. As you might guess from the dialogue of his novels, he had a great ear for dialogue who made listeners chuckle with his accomplished mimicry. Reminiscenses from friends such as Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and Alfred Kazin were invariably warm and fond.

I wrote that O’Connor wrote two great political novels. The second is now forgotten when it isn’t being confused with a later product of another medium: All in the Family (1966). Like The Last Hurrah, it was viewed as a roman a clef—in this case, since it dealt with a rich Irish-American patriarch, a charismatic politician son, and a second son who served as campaign manager, as a commentary on the Kennedys. The controversy might have initially spurred sales, but it probably lessened its critical reputation—unfairly, I think, since the events of the book, by their conclusion, diverge considerably from that of the famous Massachusetts clan.

If you want another side of O’Connor, I urge you to hunt down The Edge of Sadness (1961). If it was All in the Family’s lot to be confused with a sitcom, it was this other novel’s misfortune to be overshadowed by a catchphrase spawned by another novel from the same year—Catch-22, by Joseph Heller. O’Connor beat Heller for the Pulitzer Prize—a move widely interpreted as O'Connor's consolation prize for being snubbed for The Last Hurrah.

The Edge of Sadness features an often-hilarious protagonist in Charlie Carmody, but the character who by the end of the book stands out the most is the narrator, Fr. Hugh Kennedy, a burnt-out case and recovering alcoholic. His assignment to a decaying inner-city parish looks like a dead end, since he has little or no rapport with his immigrant flock. Bit by bit, however—like most of us—Fr. Kennedy receives grace in unexpected ways. As with The Last Hurrah, O’Connor has caught perfectly an institution in transition. You won’t find a heroic priest out of the Bing Crosby-Spencer Tracy-Gregory Peck mode of the 1930s and 1940s, but you’ll certainly find one believable and human--one who, like St Paul, "rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation," might serve as an appropriate humble stand-in for Christ in a post-scandal clerical world.)

Monday, July 28, 2008

This Day in Presidential History (FDR and the Holocaust Eyewitness)

July 28, 1943—For approximately an hour and twenty minutes, Franklin Roosevelt met secretly with Jan Karski, an agent of the Polish government-in-exile, who gave him the fullest account he had heard to date of what posterity knows as the Holocaust.

Though he left out what he had experienced himself as an eyewitness—robberies, beatings and stabbings of Jews transported from Czechoslavakia to the transit depot in Izbica Lubelska in Poland, 40 miles from the extermination camp of Belzec—what Karski told the President was grim enough:

* He informed the President of the existence of one of the most infamous concentration camps, Auschwitz.

* He told him of conditions of Jews in the Warsaw ghetto, which were so desperate that they had led to an uprising against the Nazi regime that had been harshly crushed.

* He said that 1.8 million Jews had already been killed in Poland.

* He passed on the belief of the commanders of Poland’s underground Home Army that if the Allies didn’t intervene within the next year and a half, the Jews of their country would “cease to exist.”

The problem that this courier from the Polish underground faced was only partly that the crimes he was describing lay beyond the capacity of most people’s imaginations. Just as worrisome was America’s experience with atrocity stories in World War I. Edward Bernays, who became known as a public relations genius after the war, admitted afterward that his colleagues whipped up anti-German sentiment in Latin America by spreading around atrocity stories.

One thing that Karski had going for him was this: as a Christian, he could not be accused of special pleading on behalf of Europe’s Jews. Moreover, as the interview came to an end, the 29-year-old Karski could not help but feel comforted by the President’s words: "You will tell your leaders that we shall win this war. You will tell them that the guilty ones will be punished for their crimes. You will tell them that Poland has a friend in this house."

In some ways, FDR was as good as his word. He was determined to bring the Nazis to heel—and did. He was determined that Hitler and his henchmen would be punished—and, as soon as the Allies won the war, they initiated the Nuremberg trials. But in the unspoken yet implied promise of his last words, he did all too little—and far too late—to halt the Nazi death machine.

A half century after the White House meeting,
Karski told interviewer Hannah Rosen that his visit did not have an effect on the President. In contrast, John Pehle, later head of the War Refugee Board, claimed that the interview led ultimately to the creation of that humanitarian organization.

What makes both men’s statements tenable is FDR’s way of dealing with people. He was used to charming everyone, thinking it would do no harm in telling someone exactly what he or she wanted to hear. He told his longtime friend (and Secretary of the Treasury) Henry Morgenthau Jr. that he was a juggler and that, even if he seemed inconsistent, he was willing to mislead in order to win the war. At the same time, as Michael Beschloss noted in his superb history, The Conquerors, the war was already so straining his capacity to keep multiple balls in the air that he could sometimes not recall having committed to a particular course of action.

With the fall of the Iron Curtain, the charge brayed most consistently by FDR’s vociferous GOP critics—that Eastern Europe fell under Soviet sway because of the President’s concessions at
Yalta—has lost its potency. And, as The Wall Street Journal reported this past weekend, the regulatory systems he engineered, which had been systematically stripped away beginning with the Reagan Revolution, are coming back with a vengeance now because of the current distress in the financial and housing industries.

But over time, the question of
FDR’s passivity in the face of the Holocaust has gained greater potency. It threatens one of the most enduring parts of his legend and legacy: that he was, to borrow the subtitle of the James MacGregor Burns biography, “The Soldier of Freedom.”

In moving America away from isolationism, Roosevelt took a number of huge risks that could have gotten him impeached, including
an undeclared shooting war in the North Atlantic. But one wishes he could have gambled once more and acted faster, when it would have counted, to save more of Europe’s Jews from the gas chambers.

Movie Quote of the Day (“Animal House”)

“Fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life, son.”—Dean Vernon Wormer (played by John Vernon), after expelling John “Bluto” Blutarsky (played by John Belushi), in National Lampoon’s Animal House, written by Harold Ramis, Doug Kennedy, and Chris Miller

(“Fat, drunk and stupid” might not be a good to go through life, but it’s a surefire way to reap a bonanza at the box office and become one of the most gloriously anarchic, raunchy, irreverent comedies of all time. Yes, Animal House premiered on this date 30 years ago. It launched the film career of John Belushi and was practically a recruiting movie for fraternities all across the country. If you want to see the film in all its glory and then some, don’t settle for it cut up and miniaturized on network or cable TV – you must buyThe 25th Anniversary Double-Secret Probationversion. Accept no substitutes! Toga, toga, toga!!!)

Sunday, July 27, 2008

This Day in Military History (Korean War Ceasefire Signed)

July 27, 1953—More than three years after hostilities broke out, a ceasefire brought the Korean War to a standstill. An expected peace treaty was never formally concluded, leaving in place an unsettled state of affairs in which nuclear tensions have arisen, particularly over the last two decades.

One of the most popular nicknames of the conflict is “The Forgotten War,” but it could just as easily be titled “The Misunderstood War.” At the time it was fought, it was justified as a struggle to prevent another Munich-style appeasement of a totalitarian power. Twenty years later, after the film and TV series M*A*S*H, it was seen as a precursor of another treacherous Asian land conflict, Vietnam.

The war had its own unique challenges (notably the first postwar proxy battle between the superpowers; the first post-World War II conflict in which war was not formally declared; and the first postwar conflict in which limited war rather than unconditional surrender became Washington’s guiding policy).

But Korea did resemble these two seemingly sharply different wars—as well as the Iraq War, the war over Filipino independence, the Civil War, the War of 1812, and the American Revolution. All these conflicts flew in the face of the glorious military traditions celebrated in school texts, ending up being far more protracted and messy than many initially expected.

The war began on June 25, 1950, less than six months after
Harry Truman’s Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, described an American “defensive perimeter” in the Pacific that ran through Japan, the Ryukyus, and the Philippines. Critics later charged that the exclusion of Korea gave Joseph Stalin the green light to aid North Korea in its push against the 38th Parallel.

By the time U.S. Lieutenant General William K. Harrison and his North Korean counterpart, General Nam Il, signed the ceasefire, the casualties and overall costs of the war were appalling, including the following (I am using median numbers, rounded to the nearest 100, from
Twentieth Century Atlas’ list of death tolls for major wars and atrocities of the last century; precise counts, particularly at this late stage, are well-nigh impossible):

* North Korea: Military deaths 316,000, civilian deaths one million, with most of its industrial capacity devastated.
* South Korea: Military deaths 113,000; civilian deaths 547,000.
* China: 416,000, and threatened with a ruinous economic boycott by the U.N.
* United States: 54,000
* Other UN forces: 2,200

Notice the country missing: the Soviet Union. The closest I can find to any number for them—299—is contained on
this Web site. I don’t see any reason not to accept this as true.

If that’s the case, it lends credence to a view I heard on a C-Span panel discussion held last year, following the publication of the late David Halberstam’s The Coldest Winter. One panelist, diplomatic historian William Stueck, observed that for nearly two years, peace talks at Panmunjom got nowhere because of Stalin’s intransigence. Even Communist China, which had assisted the North, wanted a way out of the stalemate that had taken hold. Only Stalin’s death in March 1953 helped break the diplomatic impasse.

Now, if the U.S.S.R.’s low casualties do reflect the correct state of affairs, Stalin’s opposition makes perfect sense. Three hundred of his countrymen dead cut no ice with a paranoid madman who could have had that many purged in one night, if he wanted to. He was content to let everyone else pay the cost of the fight—even his ostensible allies, the North Koreans and the Chinese. The more they bled, the more they’d have to depend on him.

The other aspect of the war’s conclusion concerns the role of
Dwight D. Eisenhower, who managed to do within eight months after taking office what had eluded his predecessor, Harry Truman, in two and a half years: settle the conflict.

Ike’s October 25, 1952 speech, in which he made the famous promise, “I shall go to Korea” in order to assess the situation—a vow on which he made good after his election, in early December—undoubtedly galled Truman, particularly with its sharp declaration that the war, “perhaps more than any other war in history, simply and swiftly followed the collapse of our political defenses.” The former President couldn’t have been made much happier with the successful conclusion of the conflict on the watch of the man who criticized him.

In light of what Stueck notes about Stalin’s death, the election of Eisenhower does not appear quite as decisive in bringing the war to a conclusion as it did before. In another way, however, it did.

As the leader of the “Crusade in Europe,” Ike had the credibility to make the ceasefire stick in a way that Harry Truman would never have been able to do, with a Gallup Poll approval-poll rating even lower than George W. Bush’s right now. (Though if—make that when—the current economic crisis worsens, that will undoubtedly change, to Dubya’s discomfort. The way popularity plunges in Presidencies—kind of like an out-of-control elevator—may it’s changed already!)

Against Truman, Ike’s Secretary of State,
John Foster Dulles, would have gone public vociferously with his opposition to a ceasefire that, for all intents and purposes, returned things to the status quo ante. Under Ike, Dulles had to swallow his misgivings or else, like William Jennings Bryan and Cyrus Vance, resign in protest and end his diplomatic career. As it was, only the lunatic fringe of the GOP was prepared to call the ceasefire appeasement. But the American people would have no part of calling its greatest World War II hero the second coming of Neville Chamberlain.

The ceasefire did create a Tale of Two Nations. One, South Korea, whose autocrat,
Syngman Rhee, was forced to resign, went on to become an economic force in the East. The other, North Korea, saw untold misery after being brought to illegitimate birth by the totalitarian Soviet Union and Communist China.

While the U.S.S.R. has ceased to exist and China has taken with a vengeance to the advice of Deng Xiaoping that "To get rich is glorious," North Korea lives on as the Grendel of Marxism—isolated, resentful, yet still capable of inflicting massive, unexpected damage.

The last week-long vacation that I spent in DC, I felt profoundly moved during my visit to the
Korean War Veterans Memorial. The image accompanying this posting (which I found on the Web) conveys some of what I’m talking about. Imagine this field of 19 poncho-clad, weary figures on patrol, trudging across rough terrain in freezing conditions.

It’s an image far removed from the equestrian glory of so many earlier wars, or even of Augustus St. Gaudens’ stalwart image of Admiral David Farragut in Madison Square Park in New York. But it’s certainly a reminder of the silent heroism needed to endure ambiguity and the political and military mistakes of those who send young men to war.

Quote of the Day (Lyndon Johnson)

“The men who have guided the destiny of the United States have found the strength for their tasks by going to their knees. This private unity of public men and their God is an enduring source of reassurance for the people of America.”—Lyndon Baines Johnson

(The sense of humility in the above quotation is a side of LBJ, who was born on this date 100 years ago today, all too rarely seen in his public or private encounters. Too bad he couldn’t have exhibited it more often. Unfortunately, one wonders how much this egocentric politician meant this statement. If the public sensed that he did, it might have been at least somewhat more willing to stay on his side when his Presidency came apart under the pressure of Vietnam and domestic disturbances. One wonders whether a sense of fallibility—and a greater reliance on God—might have helped this master of man as he coped with the burdens of his office. The index to Robert A. Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate does not contain a single reference to any sense of spirituality. But perhaps, in his heart of hearts, his passion for racial justice was triggered, in some underlying sense, that no child of God should ever feel lesser than others.)

Saturday, July 26, 2008

This Day in Criminal Justice History (Precursor to FBI Founded)

July 26, 1908—It is difficult to imagine the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) earlier than the appointment of longtime director J. Edgar Hoover in 1924, but in fact it came into being as part of a departmental reorganization and struggle with Congress in the administration of President Theodore Roosevelt on this date.

Even when it was established, the Bureau of Investigation (as it was known then) sparked fears that it might lead to “secret services,” “black cabinets,” “and a network of spies and detectives. Does this mean its critics were prescient civil libertarians? Hardly.

The beef that these critics—mostly on Capitol Hill—had with the new agency related to matters such as federal vs. state authority, the necessity to keep up with new legislation and executive directors—and, most galling to Congressional grandees, executive branch investigations of members of the legislative branch over land fraud.

For years, the Department of Justice relied on Secret Service agents on loan from the Treasury Department for ad hoc investigations. President Roosevelt’s vigorous use of his office through new executive orders and revived enforcement of dormant statutes made this no longer possible.

Things came to a head in 1907 when the President appointed as
Attorney-General Charles J. Bonaparte (yes, he was the grandnephew of that Bonaparte). The new A-G not only didn’t like the idea of continually importing new agents, but also of having little budgetary control over them.

At the same time, Congress became up in arms when T.R. and Bonaparte used their borrowed Secret Service agents in an investigation of an Oregon land fraud case that resulted in the conviction of a U.S. senator and congressman. (One of these agents, the flamboyant Irish-American detective
William J. Burns, went on to become Hoover’s immediate predecessor at the Bureau.)

In the spring of 1908, Roosevelt tried behind-the-scenes persuasion with Speaker of the House Joe Cannon, urging him to delete a provision in an appropriations bill calling for an end to the Secret Service loan practice, noting that it would “materially interfere with the administration of justice and will benefit only one class of people—and that is the criminal class.” In further elaboration of his theme, Roosevelt added a comment that has continued to be trotted out by politicians since then when it comes to crime programs: “There is no more foolish outcry against this than ‘spies’; only criminals need fear our detectives.”

Despite media coverage noting about “land sharks” and “the tools of thieves,” the House of Representatives paid no heed to T.R., even though as President he was, in effect, the head of their party. With the start of the new fiscal year on July 1, Bonaparte would have to do without Secret Service agents.

Except that the A-G proceeded to pull an end-run around the House. On July 26, he ordered nine Secret Service agents hired under the old rules, 13 civil-rights investigators, and 12 “examiners” (who audited the accounts of U.S. attorneys, marshals and clerks) to investigate such areas as antitrust, peonage and land fraud—an agenda resonant with a Progressive agenda of reform. That fall, he slipped a reference into his annual report about the reorganization/expansion of the department. Hardly anybody noticed.

Nobody, that is, until his boss, T.R., made his feelings known about what had happened and why it was needed. In his annual message to Congress that December, he announced, “The chief argument in favor of the [Secret Service] amendment was that Congressman themselves did not wish to be investigated.” Their amour proper wounded, Congress gave the enormously popular but annoying (to them, anyway) T.R. a nice little shove as he left the White House by overwhelmingly rebuking him.

Nevertheless, the President had his detective force, and in time it had more than its share of action. The first significant expansion of its agenda came following passage of the Mann Act in 1910, which banned the transport of women across states for immoral purposes. But its greatest period of growth came under Hoover—who, ironically, was hailed at the time of his appointment for bringing scientific management—one of the promises of governments of the Progressive Era—to the Bureau.

Quote of the Day (Truman)

"It is hereby declared to be the policy of the President that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin."—Executive Order 9981, signed on this day in 1948 by President Harry S. Truman

(Some lawyer—maybe Clark Clifford, the President’s counsel?—came up with the wording of this order, but no matter—it is, rightly, associated with Truman, and has become one of his greatest legacies.

With this step, the civil-rights movement took a giant step forward. It was all the more impressive in view of Truman’s own background from a slaveholding state in the antebellum era that had not looked favorably upon civil rights, as well as vociferous opposition from segregationist Southern Democrats and from top military brass. Together with his recognition of the state of Israel and his signing of the legislation to implement the Marshall Plan, this forms part of a trio of landmark legislation passed in a year that has become more famous for his “whistle-stop” campaign.”

Just how much this legislation was needed is suggested by Clifford’s
Counsel to the President: "I thought the Navy at times resembled a Southern plantation that had somehow escaped the Civil War. Blacks swabbed the decks, shined shoes, did the cooking, washed the dishes, and served the food. Virtually no other jobs were open to them."

Though he had already notified Congress earlier in the year on his intention to remove discrimination from the armed forces, Truman still faced powerful countervailing pressures not to do so, including from Southern Democrats. His campaign had tried to placate them by rejecting the strong civil-rights platform (including desegregation of the armed forces) advocated by Hubert Humphrey at the Democratic Convention, but when that effort was overridden, renegade Southern Democrats bolted the convention and nominated Strom Thurmond for President on the “Dixiecrat” ticket.

Even after the announcement of the executive order, anonymous high Army officials leaked to the press that they felt they were not included as part of the move, necessitating a public announcement by Truman that the order applied to all parts of the armed services. In certain ways, Truman’s bold move came just in time—within two years, the U.S. would be at war in Korea, ostensibly to fight for another country’s freedom, and it would not have looked good to have our own troops still facing discrimination. By the end of that war, virtually all of the armed forces were integrated. Since then, the armed forces have become one of the areas of American life most open to advancement by African-Americans.)

Friday, July 25, 2008

This Day in Holocaust History (Conference for Saving Hitler's Jewish Victims Concludes)

July 25, 1943—With Adolf Hitler’s master plan for mass murder moving ahead virtually unimpeded, approximately 1,500 people trade ideas on how to halt the killings by attending the Emergency Conference to Save the Jewish People of Europe in New York City’s Commodore Hotel. The event was part of a campaign employing tactics to influence public opinion that are taken for granted today but that at the time caused no end of controversy, including full-page newspaper ads, public rallies, and lobbying of the President and Congress.

Though intended to raise alarms about the massive human-rights abuses occurring in Europe, the conference was highly risky for its organizers because it held the potential to embarrass and annoy
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had included American Jews as a key component of his New Deal coalition.

Yet the principal force behind the protest, a Zionist emissary from Palestine known as
Peter Bergson, had grown desperate in the face of an administration that not only refused to take military action to halt the death camps, but that softpedaled the fact that Jews formed a disproportionately large number of Hitler’s victims.

Though the FDR administration’s inactivity flummoxed such prominent Jewish Democrats as Secretary of the Treasury
Henry Morgenthau and the Rabbi Steven Wise, a co-founder of the NAACP, ACLU, and the American Jewish Congress, they refused to break with him.

And really, when you think of it, how much maneuvering room did they have? Would they back the Republican Party? Not very likely—the GOP had made few if any attempts to woo them. The attitude of the American people did little to move them in this direction. “Americans don't like Jews much better than do Nazis," observed Fortune in 1939. The sad thing is not that this statement could be made, but that more than half of all American surveyed agreed with this statement at the time.

Bergson, however, made few concessions to good opinion. The last time he had done so was when he changed his name (born Hillel Kook, he changed it to Bergson to avoid embarrassing the Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Abraham Isaac Hacochen Kook). His response to Wise ought to stand as a standard reply by any ethnic or religious leader when faced with the charge of being a “self-appointed” leader:

"Who empowered you? We represent the conscience of the Hebrew nation. We represent ourselves. You are an American clergyman and a member of the Democratic Party.... On the day on which one square yard of Palestine will be free, I shall be there as a citizen, and abide by the decision of whoever will be the government of the Hebrew people.... Whereas you will then continue to be an American clergyman, member of the Democratic Party."

A play by Hollywood screenwriter Ben Hecht, We Will Never Die, was a sellout in half a dozen cities, giving Bergson enough revenues to organize the Emergency Conference to Save the Jewish People of Europe. Two million European Jews had already died. The meeting, which began on July 20, included a host of panelists who laid out, in deep detail, how the Allies could go about saving the rest before it was too late, including on such topics as transportation, relief, international relations, military action, religious appeals, and public opinion.

Most important of all, Bergson assembled a coalition that stretched across the ideological spectrum. He had already demonstrated an impressive ability to enlist unexpected people in his cause—notably the Irish-American
Congressman Andrew Somers, whose antipathy toward British imperialism was one that Bergson shared. Somers ended up sponsoring a bill in favor of the Committee for a Jewish Army. As former New York Mayor Ed Koch has noted, Somers spoke out repeatedly in favor of Bergson’s group and castigated Britain for keeping Jews out of Palestine, thereby putting himself in serious jeopardy with FDR.

The Emergency Conference featured 19 co-chairs ranging from the conservative (Herbert Hoover) to the liberal (Democratic Senator Edwin Johnson). It was hard for FDR to dismiss such a broad, blue-ribbon group of speakers. Later that year, Bergson’s efforts led to a Congressional resolution urging the creation of a U.S. government agency to rescue Jewish refugees.

The War Refugee Board that FDR finally created in January 1944 had a small budget, but it has been credited with saving the lives of 200,000 people in the last year and a half of the war.
To me, it’s virtually inconceivable to think of modern political advertising, pressure-group advocacy, or humanitarian intervention efforts without the contribution of Bergson. At the same time, his clash with Rabbi Wise over the proper approach to gaining FDR’s aid might be thought of as a forerunner of the more recent split in their religious community that
Samuel Freedman chronicled in Jew Vs. Jew. This early struggle, fought on somewhat different grounds than the one Freedman depicted, featured an American assimilationist (Wise) against an Israeli who believed power—whether through military force or aggressive concerted action—was the best means of ensuring the survival of their people.

For the most part, FDR’s actions regarding the Holocaust have not excited as much controversy as those of Pope Pius XII. But, while it is true that he saw the threat posed by Hitler far earlier than the great majority of his countrymen, it is also true that political considerations, as well as his own background, prevented him from taking the kind of preventive action that Bergson wanted.
It is true that exaggerated atrocity stories in WWI had led Americans to be suspicious of similar claims in WWII, so the President had to tread carefully in breaking isolationist sentiment. Nevertheless, there might have been a bit more to it.

In 1942, the President shocked his Irish-American economist, Leo Crowley, by saying, “You know this is a Protestant country, and the Catholics and Jews are here under sufferance.” That lord-of-the-manor spirit—that sense of “How can you possibly doubt someone like me who has done so much for your people?”—forms an element of his relationships with the out-groups who formed such a key part of his political base. That characteristic has to be weighted—not just purely military considerations—when one evaluates the validity of his inaction regarding the Holocaust.

Quote of the Day (Allen)

"I was the captain of the Latent Paranoid softball team. We used to play all the Neurotics on sunday morning. Nailbiters against the Bedwetters, and if you've never seen Neurotics play softball, it's really funny. I used to steal second base, and feel guilty and go back. " — Woody Allen, from his 1960s nightclub act, quoted in James Gavin, Intimate Nights: The Golden Age of New York Cabaret (1991)

Thursday, July 24, 2008

This Day in Baseball History (George Brett’s “Pine Tar” Game)

July 24, 1983—In one of the most controversial, just plain bizarre incidents in the annals of the national pastime, longtime Yankee nemesis George Brett was called out after belting a go-ahead homerun in the ninth inning because he had applied too much of a sticky substance to improve his grip on the bat. The pine-tar incident was appealed to the office of the American League Commissioner, whose ruling overturning the umpires’ decision landed on the front page of The New York Times, earning more coverage than many consequential Supreme Court decisions receive.

The game against the Kansas City Royals came in the third—or was it fourth? (does it really matter?)—go-round of
Billy Martin at the helm of the Bronx Bombers. Naturally, critics fumed and fans chuckled, Billy was the one who called the foreign stuff to the attention of the umps.

What did you expect? Whenever there was trouble, Billy the Kid was in the thick of it, and had been going back to when he first came up to the Yankees in1950—at the Copacabana brawl (the incident that led to his trade from the Yankees was a celebration of his 29th birthday), with pitchers in bars, with Reggie Jackson in the dugout, with a marshmallow salesman in another bar, with bathroom attendants in a strip joint….Gosh, did I leave anything out?

And to be sure, on the baseball diamond Billy was a master of
gamesmanship. Not sure what that concept means? Well, Joseph Epstein, that wondrous practitioner of the familiar essay, had an article earlier this week in The Wall Street Journal, about the quartet of books by British author Stephen Potter that set the terms for it. Potter called it “the art of winning games without actually cheating.”

Now, I’m not saying that Billy strayed from the straight-and-narrow as far as ethics went, but let’s just say he would have found …limiting Potter’s description of gamesmanship as “the art of winning games without actually cheating”—though I bet he would have perked right up if he could hear Epstein define it as “how to strip doubt, undermine confidence, spread unease, and encourage hopelessness in one’s fellow human beings.”

The thing of it is, Billy had been known to do the very thing to the exact same team he was facing now. Come with me on a flashback to 1977, when the Yankees were down 2-1 in the American League playoffs to the Royals going into Game 4 .The starting pitcher for the Royals for this pivotal game was Larry Gura. Not taking well to the cut of the man’s jib, Billy exiled him to the Royals the first chance he had after taking over as skipper of the Yankees in 1975. Gura had gone on to enjoy a fair amount of success, and was doubtless bent on showing up his old boss.

And what did Billy think of Gura at this point? "If I had my way," said Martin the day before the fourth game, "I'd put a bodyguard around his house tonight and get him a chauffeur so he didn't get in an accident on his way to the ball park...The more he wants to beat us, the more fine he'll try to make his pitches. And when he gets too fine, that's when he can't get anything over."

Perhaps you know the rest—as Billy hoped, Gura got psyched out, yielding four runs in the early going of Game 4, and the Yankees went on the win the pennant and the World Series for Billy….

And now, here he goes again in July 1983, walking up to the umps after Georgie Ballgame has been accepting teammates’ congratulations for getting them thisclose to winning. He was bound to pull a rabbit out of his hat again.

But Billy can’t accept all the credit (or, if you’re a Yankees hater, the blame) for the protest. You see, Yankee third baseman
Graig Nettles had put him up to it.

Just like Nettles to do something like that. When the eccentric young pitcher Mark “The Bird” Fidrych was mowing down hitters right and left in 1976 for the Detroit Tigers, Nettles came out to the mound before the game and began spreading around black beans, just to disturb the rookie’s concentration. His teammates gave him the nickname “Puff” for his uncanny ability to play a practical joker or start a rumble with an opposing team, then disappear when you went looking for him.

As Nettles watched Brett complete his victory circuit around the bases, he quickly recalled how umpires had nullified a hit by the late Yankee captain Thurman Munson for having pine tar more than 18 inches from the knob of his bat. If the Yanks could lose by the rule, maybe they could win by it now. Quickly, he mentioned it to Billy, who asked the umpire crew about it.

So they went out and measured the stuff. Well, if an umpire had called Munson out for 18 inches of the stuff, what on earth were they going to do with Brett’s bat, which featured “heavy pine tar” 19 to 20 inches from the tip of the handle and a lighter version of the same for another three or four inches? Just what you’d expect. Yeah, this might have been a bad rule, and it certainly was an obscure rule, but rules were rules, and the Royals’ third baseman was out.

Not so fast, ol’ George said—and some other choice stuff, too, as he came running out of the Royals dugout faster than his longtime teammate John Mayberry could chase a nice, juicy steak. Thus started a donnybrook of epic proportions.

After the dust cleared, the umpire crew declared that Brett was still out. But now it was the Royals’ turn for gamesmanship, as they brought it to the attention of American League Commissioner Lee MacPhail. If George Steinbrenner ever had any lingering affection for the former Yankee GM, it was gone by this point, when MacPhail ruled that, yes, the bat was, technically, against the rules. But upholding what he termed the “spirit” of the rules, MacPhial overruled his umps. Forced to play out the rest of the game and protesting the whole while (star lefty Ron Guidry was playing center field for maybe the first time since, oh, Little League), the Yankees couldn’t muster enough runs to nudge out their old rivals.

Before the pine-tar incident, the Yankees showed signs of breaking out of their lethargy, going 17-10 for July. But in August, probably distracted from the task at hand by the fallout from that one at-bat, the Yankees only recorded a 54.8% winning percentage, and ended up in only third place for the year, behind the eventual World Series champs, the Baltimore Orioles.

Of all the comments about this strange, strange game—and the even stranger rule that inspired it—Goose Gossage, the closer who served up the gopher ball, had the best line of all: “I’ve always been proud of all the home runs I gave up,” said Gossage. “But that was probably my proudest one, because we had so much fun with it.”

Catfight of the Week!!!! (Omarosa Vs. Williams)

Actually, I would have voted it “Catfight of the Year,” but you never know what’s going to happen in the vast desert of daytime TV, where this might be superseded by another clash of the titans any day now.

Faithful reader, I confess to never having caught these two celebrities on the forums that bring them to an amusement-deprived nation’s attention-- Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth (even the name exhausts me!) on Donald Trump’s The Apprentice, or Wendy Williams on her eponymous radio show.

But, surfing the channels the other night, I was staggered by a half minute or so of such choice insults from these two ladies that I became convinced that they could form the core of a little coven all their own—if they could ever meet again without scratching each other’s eyes out.

Initially, I only caught the choicest bits on TV—a minute’s worth about the Angry Black Woman, the nose job, the Botox, the oh-surely-well-meant (!!!!) suggestion of Restylane, the counterthrust about the wig. Seeing it over five minutes, as in
this clip, is so much more entertaining, what with Wendy’s glacial stare, Omarosa’s barely suppressed cackles, the mutual attempt at Moving Right Along before it all came apart again, and the audience doing its part, whooping it up and leaping to its feet at the end of the five-minute segment.

If you’ve ever wondered how thrilled Kramer must have felt on Seinfeld when he exclaimed, in wonder, “Oohhh….Catfight!!!!”—watch this, before Fox—which has done so much to elevate the national cultural discourse—yanks it from the Web.

In the past, I always chuckled at the great H.L. Mencken one-liner, “When women kiss, it always reminds one of prize-fighters shaking hands.” In this instance, I think the two parties involved should bypass the preliminaries and head straight for the boxing gloves…

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

This Day in Irish History (Emmet’s Rebellion)

July 23, 1803—Five years after the United Irishmen failed to rid the Emerald Isle of British influence, one of the uprising’s surviving diehards, Robert Emmet, spearheaded another rising that, like others before and after, led to disaster and death.

But, like a Celtic version of Revolutionary War spy Nathan Hale, Emmet delivered a final statement before the court pronouncing sentence on him that reverberated with patriots long after the bungled sequence of events leading to his demise was largely forgotten.

There’s a good reason why an Irish name is attached to the proposition that whatever can go wrong will go wrong, because for years, Murphy’s Law determined the outcome of all Irish rebellions. So it was in 1803, when Emmet decided to strike a blow against the 1801
Act of Union between Britain and Ireland that had been passed in the wake of the “Year of the French” to bring the island more tightly under British rule.

Seizing Dublin Castle, the seat of British government, he believed, would set off the revolutionary spark that would destroy British rule. It was all set: post-’98 outlaws hiding in the Wicklow Hills had been alerted to expect a signal; the proclamation of the new Irish Republic had been printed.

Then everything fell apart, Murphy’s Law-style:

* One week before the event, an accidental explosion at Emmet’s arms depot set off British alarm bells about the chance for another revolt.

* As soon as the proclamation of the republic came off the presses, British authorities, knowing what to expect, seized it.

* With word of the insurrection largely squelched, Emmet ended up with only 90 men—nowhere near the 2,000 he judged he needed—to capture Dublin Castle.

* As Emmet set out to take the castle anyway, his force, armed only with pikes and blunderbusses—as close to a “pitchfork brigade” as you’re ever going to get, because their hopes of seizing firearms from captured stores rapidly evaporated—became distracted by a coach passing through the streets containing Lord Kilwarden, the Chief Justice. Instead of concentrating on the task at hand, they set upon the judge with their makeshift weapons, leaving him dead in the street and Emmet disgusted by their deterioration into French Revolution-style street rioters.

* The appalled Emmet went into hiding in nearby mountains, but was captured a month later. On September 20, he was hanged, drawn and quartered—the last person to receive this sentence from a British court.

Some historical figures, like George Washington, are less famous for their rhetoric than for their actions. But words can matter, in some instances, just as much. When Emmet was marched before the court to await final judgment, he delivered an address that would be quoted generations hence by Irish revolutionaries, most notably by Patrick Pearse, who revived interest in Emmet in the years leading up to the Easter Rising of 1916.

Over the years, Emmet’s words were quoted ad infinitum to bolster revolutionaries’ sagging spirits. They proved more than equal to the task: “Let no man write my epitaph… When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then, and not till then let my epitaph be written.”

The name “Emmet” had an equally intriguing afterlife in the United States. Thomas Emmet, Robert’s brother, fled Ireland for the United States with his family. On the boat over, he became acquainted with the American inventor-artist Robert Fulton, who, noticing the artistic talent of Thomas’ daughter Elizabeth, gave her some shipboard pointers. While Thomas Emmet prospered so well in his subsequent legal practice that he became Attorney-General of New York in 1812-13, Elizabeth made use of her burgeoning artistic skills to become a noted portrait pointer, a talent passed down in one form or another to the
succeeding four generations of female artists.

If Robert Emmet proved a man of mighty words, so did another descendant: the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright-biographer
Robert Emmet Sherwood.

Quote of the Day (Chandler)

"But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid." –Raymond Chandler, The Simple Art of Murder

(Progenitor of the hardboiled detective story, guide to the emerging Southern California urban culture, creator of one of literature’s imperishable characters, the wisecracking, untarnished and unafraid modern knight-errant Philip Marlowe—Raymond Chandler was born on this date in Chicago, in 1888. All hail the master!)

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Theater Review: "King Lear," at the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey

With less than a week before it closes, I urge my faithful readers to hie thee down—pronto!—to Madison, N.J., for the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey's (STNJ) no-nonsense production of William Shakespeare's King Lear.

I first visited STNJ nearly two years ago, for a laudable version of Richard III directed by Vivienne Benesch. Ever since then, I’ve ached to return. Last weekend, when the chance presented itself, I pounced, and was not disappointed.

If you’ve never visited STNJ, it’s on the campus of Drew University. The sylvan surroundings in which the ivied buildings encourage the delightful illusion that you’ve stumbled into The Bard’s Forest of Arden.

As with Richard III, however, I saw King Lear on the festival’s main stage, the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theater, an intimate setting where you’re never too far too see the action or hear the actors. Now in its 10th season as an adaptive reuse of an old gymnasium, the theater promises to get many more good seasons in, if the theater's management maintains its sure grip on audiences.

The current offering, King Lear, is not a sublime version of The Bard's arguable zenith as tragedian (the prime example, for my money, is the 1984 TV adaptation with Laurence Olivier, Diana Rigg, and Colin Blakely), but neither does it take the monstrously wrongheaded approach to Shakespeare memorably sent up by Richard Dreyfuss in Neil Simon’s The Goodbye Girl. (You remember—Richard III played by Richard Dreyfuss as a lisping, limping, flaming queen rather than the usual grinning villain. Thank God Paul Mullins didn’t try this in the production I saw!)

What STNJ has done, under the accomplished helmsmanship of artistic director
Bonnie J. Monte, is reason itself for celebration: Highlight, without nonsense weighing like barnacles, the major themes in the script—and, in the commanding performance of Daniel Davis, a Lear who, for all his foolish cantankerousness, remains every inch a king.

If your cultural tastes run more to sitcom than to classic theater, you're likely to recognize Davis from his six seasons as Niles the Butler on The Nanny. (Question: Why has TV taken to calling persnickety males “Niles”? Just asking.)

More’s the pity if that’s how you remember him, since the 62-year-old actor has appeared in all but six of Shakespeare’s play. The experience of watching him on Fran Drescher’s show won't prepare you for his turn here as the First Angry Man—the monarch who sent his kingdom hurtling toward a chaotic civil war with a mad plan to divide up his kingdom among his daughters, following a can-you-top-this contest in which he urges each daughter in turn express just how much she loves him.

Nowadays, I'm afraid you have to venture over to the Mideast (if you dare) to find a people with firsthand experience of how a hereditary ruler's caprice can rend a nation. In the West, where democracies or toothless constitutional monarchies hold sway, the closest equivalent to this situation would be the CEO of a family-run corporation who, anxious to enjoy sunny days in Florida, steps down—only to come charging back when he can’t stand how his handpicked successor is ruining the company and/or taking it in directions he doesn’t approve.

This sociopolitical element of Elizabethan-Stuart England has been lost, but the people of the West, facing the horrors of the 20th and 21st centuries, might find parallels in how to confront a radical evil born of resentment. They need only look at Shakespeare’s expert subplot involving the Earl of Gloucester, his legitimate son Edgar and his illegitimate one, Edmund.

Just as Gloucester and Edgar cannot credit until it’s almost too late that Edmund could turn on them, so the West has had all too much experience with dictators who use the Big Lie to attain power. Decent to a fault, Gloucester and Edmund are also frequently ineffectual in stopping the spread of this virus of power-grabbing and violence.

In this production, however, audiences will identify—perhaps even more powerfully now, in societies where longevity has increasingly stretched—with families flummoxed and split by the growing frailty of a parent. You will not be staggered by the evil perpetrated by Goneril, Regan and Edmund here, as in other productions—the cast members who bring them to life (Krisite Dale Sanders, Victoria Mack, and Marcus Dean Fuller) make them as familiar to us as the roiling emotions on display in so many American homes every Thanksgiving meal.

Cordelia (played endearingly by Erin Partin) enters smiling, her arm hooked in her father’s and singing softly to him. No doubt this is Daddy’s Little Girl—which makes it all the more shocking when she takes umbrage at the vanity contest for his benefit that her father is conducting. The ensuing conversation between Goneril and Regan is staged fast and sotto voce, but with all kinds of clues that previous confusion about their father’s quirks is crystallizing into recognition that he’s not the man—or powerful overlord—he once was.

It helps to have a Lear of simultaneous strength and complexity who can galvanize the plot, and this company has one in Davis. Watch in particular the Act II confrontation with Goneril and Regan, a progression from “I may go mad” to “I will go mad.” Listen to the dignified, proud reading of the “O, reason not the need” speech that accomplishes the gradual shift in audience reaction to his character from annoyance to empathy; watch how Davis clutches his arm to suggest the medical problems that might be undermining the strength and position of this once-vigorous monarch; and catch his weary trudge offstage, when he understands fully how much he has lost, politically and personally.

Especially, marvel at his final scene, when he transports the production, as his character lifts Cordelia’s corpse, to another emotional plane entirely, with a bellow of sorrow that is not merely moving but shattering. The whole unmannered but distinctive effect reminds me of Katharine Hepburn’s description of Spencer Tracy’s acting style: "He was a baked potato: solid, and you can have them without salt and pepper or butter.”

Mention should also be made here of several other noteworthy aspects of this production:

* With his blond hairdo, Matt Bradford Sullivan plays Regan’s husband, the Duke of Cornwall, like an aging Draco Malfoy, spoiled by access to privilege, with an unhealthy propensity to grasp even more power.

* As the Earl of Kent, Ames Adamson delivers an onstage acting lesson in how to milk one speech—the dressing-down of Goneril’s toadying servant Oswald—in a manner that the playwright himself would undoubtedly applaud if he could: blunt, vigorous, fiercely loyal, the kind of friend you’d want in a fight for your life.

* Steven Rosen’s exemplary lighting scheme grows darker as the play progresses, paralleling the increasingly harsh universe in which Lear finds himself at bay.

* Ms. Monte’s triumph is to present a real case of “shock and awe” onstage—our stunned recognition of losses that have occurred in this regression from a kingdom of order to a Hobbesian state of nature, and our renewed reverence for the forces of love and loyalty that light, however uncertainly, an increasingly bleak world.

Quote of the Day (Castro)

"Socialism means social justice and equality, but equality of rights, of opportunities, not of income."—Raul Castro, president of Cuba by virtue of his kid-brother relationship to that nation’s longtime El Jefe Fidel, quoted in Time, July 28, 2008
(The occasion: the need to soften his countrymen up for reduced government subsidies. Never pleasant, and particularly not now, when the Communist Soviet Union is dead and can’t finance them and what tourism there is from the U.S. dries up because of the dollar. What we are witnessing, folks, is the end of a half-century of illusion. Not for the people of Cuba, mind you, who probably have precious few after all this time, but for Western intellectuals who viewed the island as a bulwark against that capitalist tool and imperialist roader, Uncle Sam. It’s like the climax in George Orwell’s Animal Farm when a new sign appears: “All animals are equal. But some animals are more equal than others.”)

Monday, July 21, 2008

This Day in Pop Music History (Peggy Lee Gives the U.S. “Fever”)

July 21, 1958—With a bass-and-drum riff, snapping fingers, and a come-hither voice insinuating knowledge of all things erotic, Peggy Lee’s cover version of “Fever” entered the Top 40 pop charts, where it peaked at $8.

The Forties and Fifties represented the golden age of the so-called “girl singer,” featuring, among other songstresses, Dinah Shore, Doris Day, Helen O’Connell, Teresa Brewer, Jo Stafford, Julie London, and Rosemary Clooney (who even titled an autobiography written in her seventies, with characteristic lack of pretension, Girl Singer). While possessing the scrubbed Nordic looks that would normally make her a full-fledged member of this musical sorority, Peggy Lee was different.

First, there was her carefully cultivated aura as the pop-jazz siren of suggestiveness. Like Norah Jones, Lee preferred caressing a lyric to belting it out, but with none of the current pop star’s shyness. Incendiary Blonde was the title of a 1945 Betty Hutton musical biopic about Prohibition Era nightclub owner Texas Guinan, but it might just as easily have described Lee and her effect on men in her prime from the Forties through the Sixties.

For an idea of this impact, take a look at the fine tribute written immediately after her death by
Terry Teachout, the superb Wall Street Journal cultural critic, whose blog did much to inspire the one you’re reading now. The spark that set off the young Teachout was his discovery, in 1968, at the height of the rock ‘n’ roll era, of “Fever” in his father’s record collection:

If a Hitchcock blonde could have raised her voice in song, then Peggy Lee, who died last Monday at the age of eighty-one, would have sounded pretty much like that, cool and self-possessed and…amused. But even at twelve, I got the message, and then some: what the lady on the record had in mind was pretty much what I had in mind twenty-four hours a day, except that her point of view was more informed. That was when I realized my father knew a thing or two about music.

Written by John Davenport, pseudonym of the prolific Otis Blackwell, and Eddie Cooley, “Fever” ascended the R&B charts in 1956 on the strength of its smoldering interpretation by Little Willie John. Two years later, in May 1958, Lee entered the studio and cut a cover version with her own distinctive contribution: new lyrics about Romeo and Juliet, Captain Smith and Pocahontas. (Studio musician
Howard Roberts probably became better known for his dexterous finger-snapping on this record than for the guitar work that was his bread and butter through the years.)

In the years since Lee’s recording, the song has been covered even more, including by Eva Cassidy, The Jacksons, Tom Jones, and, in a truly nightmarish Eurotrashing of the tune, Madonna.

The best I’ve heard of these was Elvis Presley’s, which followed Lee’s lead in its restraint. It was one of the songs he tackled on May 3, 1960, in his return to the recording studio following the end of his Army stint. Released as a single, this version was later included on the massive compilation, From Nashville to Memphis: The Essential 60s Masters. Paul Simpson’s The Rough Guide to Elvis indicated that The King, like Lee, added his own lyrics in the 1970s: “Myrna Smith and J.D. Sumner had a very mad affair/when their wives and husbands caught them/saw nothing but teeth and hair.” (Sumner was one of Elvis’ backup vocalists.)

Still, it’s Lee—or, as she insisted on being called when being introduced, Miss Peggy Lee—who truly made her mark on the song. It’s a barn-burner that survives almost any environment or context you can imagine. (I experienced this firsthand when I saw Paula Vogel’s shrill 1999 suburban satire, The Mineola Twins, performed by the Roundabout Theatre Co. ; Lee’s “Fever” might have been the single grace note of that misbegotten afternoon show.)

Aside from her sensual image, Lee made her mark as a lyricist—the only major female singer of her time to do so—with such compositions as "Manana," "I Don’t Know Enough About You," and the entire score of the animated feature Lady and the Tramp.

At the end of a long life of horrible tumult—a stepmother whose abuse inspired the Lee song, “One Beating a Day, Maybe More," four rocky marriages, epic lawsuits against the Hilton Hotel chain, Johnson’s Wax and Disney—obesity-induced diabetes left Lee in need of an oxygen tank and a wheelchair when she came out to perform. I’ve heard it claimed, though, that when the spotlight caught her snapping her fingers to the familiar bass-and-drum opening, men of a certain age were still known to break out into a sweat.

Quote of the Day (Ernest Hemingway, on Courage)

“A man can be destroyed but not defeated."—Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea

(After a slew of biographies, it’s more apparent than ever that Hemingway—born on this date in 1899—experienced the fight of his life not on the battlefield or in the boxing ring, but within a psyche weakened by genetic inheritance, his own machismo-driven attempts to live up to past exploits, and the primitive psychiatric treatment of the time. Take a look at that family predisposition toward suicide, one that claimed first his father, then his brother and a sister, then granddaughter Margaux. Even his son Gregory, who underwent a sex change operation in his final years, was afflicted with depression and died of natural causes in a jail after being arrested for indecent exposure. Is it any wonder, given these multiple tragedies, that the Nobel laureate also took his life?

Michael Reynolds’ excellent biography, Hemingway: The Final Years, chronicles the mounting damage in the last two decades of his subject’s life: several concussions during the war; two plane crashes on a single trip to Africa, with the second leaving him with a ruptured kidney, a sprained arm and leg, crushed vertebrae, a paralyzed sphincter, a burnt scalp and the temporary loss of hearing and eyesight; and excessive drinking. The plane crash led to high blood pressure, whose treatment necessitated a drug with depression as a side effect. In turn, the shock treatment he received to alleviate the depression left him with memory loss, a devastating deficit for a writer heavily dependent on sensory experience. His suicide in 1961 occurred on the first day after returning from his 36th shock treatment. Just think—today it could all be handled with Prozac or a similar anti-depressive.

I love this quote for the day because it illustrates the aspect of his work that I find continually compelling: his celebration of proud, unbowed losers, such as the fisherman hero of The Old Man and the Sea, Santiago. Within this circle of the destroyed-but-undefeated, we must count the novelist himself. After his death, a number of people chortled that the “Papa” who extolled “grace under pressure” could not face it himself. All such comments reveal is ignorance of what a devastating disease depression can be. The marvel is that, with his tangled family history and his increasingly grave physical ailments, Hemingway stuck to his craft for as long as he did, by force of will and self-discipline.)

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Theater Review: "Les Liaisons Dangereuses," by Christopher Hampton

Love, the supreme passion, is only a contest of icy calculation—sort of sexual fox-hunting—for the Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil, the debauched French aristocrats at the heart of Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Or so they tell each other. For the great irony of their high-stakes gamesmanship is that they are as consumed by hot passions as the people of whom they make sport.

I first read
Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ 1782 epistolary novel for a Columbia University course in my long-ago-and-far-away undergrad days, taught by the very fine Professor Lennard Davis. Though I found this tale of revenge and betrayal reasonably diverting (especially sandwiched between Samuel Richardson's insipid Pamela and Fanny Burney's boring Evelina), it never occurred to me, intellectually unformed pup that I was (yes, yes, I hear the inevitable cry: “What’s with the past tense, Mike?”), that it could ever be transformed into a drama that both overflowed with subtext and functioned as sturdy stage carpentry, complete with intriguing opening, sharply ironic reversals and a stunning denouement.

Christopher Hampton's successful 1987 stage adaptation, with Alan Rickman-Lindsey Duncan (early in these distinguished actors' careers), proved me wrong. This past spring, at its American Airlines Theatre on 42nd Street, the Roundabout Theatre mounted the first Broadway revival of the play since that acclaimed production. I was lucky enough to catch the show in early May on a Saturday afternoon matinee.

Though it closed earlier this month, I think it's worthwhile to revisit it—to discover what made it work and to analyze the vast disconnect between some critics' sharp opinions and the equally manifest lack of understanding of what they see.

I'm a Roundabout Theatre subscriber, but even if that weren't the case there was no chance that I would miss this production, especially since it featured one of my favorite actresses of stage, screen, TV, or any venue in any conceivable universe:
Laura Linney. In only one of her many roles have I felt that she was even slightly miscast, as the prim and plain Puritan wife Elizabeth Proctor in the 2002 revival of Arthur Miller's The Crucible that co-starred Liam Neeson.

Linney's work here came in for criticism by several reviewers, who carped that her prior work in virtuous roles little prepared her for Merteuil the icy schemer. As far as I’m concerned, this complaint just demonstrates how modern media criticism has become a license for peddling nonsense.

Laced with epigrams, double entendres and subtext, this drama of manners requires dexterous actors. Time and again, Linney demonstrated she was up for the challenge.

As the ancien regime widow and plotter Merteuil, tightly corseted at center stage, she sent out words winged with innuendo, arch malice, and resentment. Merteuil’s most famous line (“I always knew I was born to dominate your sex and avenge my own”) is uttered with typical haughtiness to Valmont.

But Linney really unearthed all kinds of layers in her character in a less-noticed speech, when she involuntarily blurts out to her former lover, "I wanted you before we'd even met. My self-esteem demanded it. Then, when you began to pursue me…I wanted you so badly. It's the only one of my notions that has ever got the better of me."

Ben Daniels, who won an Olivier Award in Great Britain in this role, returned Linney’s volleys at every turn. He also proved a great improvement on John Malkovich in the 1988 movie version. I had always thought that Malkovich simply did not possess the good looks that made the character a ladykiller. Now, I realize, the trouble is more fundamental: that his Valmont practically slithers, snake-like, across the screen.

The Valmont of the stage—as Daniels and, I suspect, Rickman played him – is a man of action—in his element when he is most dashing around, plotting, lightning-fast. It takes this kind of character to initiate the series of events in Act II that make every scene shorter and more likely to lead to disaster for Valmont and his entire jaded society.

Though Jessica Collins did not capture the depth of torment of the object of Valmont’s careful seduction, the virtuous wife Tourvel, the rest of the supporting cast performed very well indeed.
Mamie Gummer, Meryl Streep's daughter, played Cecile, an innocent teenager (also seduced by Valmont) as much more of an idiot than Uma Thurman did in the film—and, judging from Hampton's script, in a manner that was far closer to the playwright's conception of the role. Welsh actress Sian Phillips—best known on this side of the Atlantic for playing an icy villainess in a different era entirely, Livia in the Masterpiece Theatre miniseries about ancient Rome, I, Claudius—invests Madame de Rosamonde, the closest thing to an undestroyed conscience and heart in the play, with maturity and understanding. Kristine Nielsen makes Cecile’s mother Madame de Volanges such a phony that the audience is immediately rooting for Valmont to make a fool of her—though the character is such an idiot that it takes her nearly the entire play to realize what he has done.

The curtain-closing scene, with its famous silhouette of the guillotine—a foreshadowing of the bloody fate awaiting this deeply corrupt society—now also includes an equally appropriate element of stage scenery, a metaphor for everything coming before it: a spider's web.

One of my favorite pastimes as a theatergoer is attending theater-enrichment activities. The Roundabout has offered a particularly stimulating example of this in its
Theatre-Plus programs. And one of the best examples of the latter featured a question-and-answer period between longtime Roundabout dramaturge Ted Sod and Caroline Weber, a professor of 18th century French literature and culture at Barnard College.

Professor Weber related how, as a career soldier sidelined from the action he craved, Laclos amused himself one year by writing a novel—his only venture into the genre—about a campaign of love rather than war, but one featuring equal amounts of strategy and tactics. She pointed out an even more surprising aspect of his background: his campaign, in the form of essays, for better educational opportunities for girls. In his novel, the fate of Cecile is a stark object lesson in the dangers of the only available opportunity of the time—a convent education that left its graduates not only intellectually vacant but hopelessly gullible.

Professor Weber was one of the best lecturers in this post-discussion series that the Roundabout has ever had in the decade in which I’ve attended performances. I’m sure nearly everyone in the audience that Saturday afternoon shared my hope that the theater’s management will bring her back for an encore performance soon.

Quote of the Day (Templeton)

“The idea that an individual can find God is terribly self-centered. It is like a wave thinking it can find the sea.”—Sir John Templeton
(The investor and philanthropist died last week at age 95. The foundation named after this Presbyterian layman has presented the Templeton Prize for Progress or Discoveries About Spiritual Realities, kind of the religious equivalent of the Nobel Prize. The award—open to living individuals of any major world faith whose achievements have stirred others to deepen their relationship with God—has been awarded to 35 Catholics since its inception, including Mother Teresa—given her six years before she was recognized with the Nobel Peace Prize—Canadian Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor, and the 2008 winner, Monsignor Michal Heller, a Polish priest-cosmologist.)

Saturday, July 19, 2008

This Day in Women's History (The Seneca Falls Convention)

July 19, 1848—In a decade of rising American sentiment for reform and world clamor for revolution, The Woman's Rights Convention met in the upstate New York community of Seneca Falls. The convention's Declaration of Sentiments, adopted a day later, was patterned on the Declaration of Independence, but took that document a step further: not only claiming that "all men and women are created equal," but that this inherent equality entitled women to the right to vote.

"The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries on the part of man towards women, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her,” the declaration passed by the convention noted. “To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world."

George III might have been the target of the colonists, but in Seneca Falls it was the entire male sex that was charged with subverting rights. The long list of grievances—matching in number (18) those against the clueless British monarch—included:

* denying her the right to the franchise;
* making her, if married, "civilly dead" in the eyes of the law; depriving her of property;
* framing divorce laws to benefit men;
* monopolizing employment;
* closing her off to "avenues of wealth and distinction" such as theology, medicine or law;
* perpetuating a double standard in morality that doomed many women but were never enforced against men.

Calling for the franchise was so radical that even one of the convention’s organizers,
Lucretia Coffin Mott, reproved the prime mover of the resolution, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, for making the delegates “look ridiculous.” But Stanton was not to be dissuaded, arguing that the right to vote was central to all the other freedoms. Her insight proved correct, as demonstrated years later by civil-rights workers in the South in the 1960s who braved threats to their lives to win the right to vote for their race.

Mott was not the only person to give way before Stanton’s polemical power. In his memoir, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, the great African-American orator recalled the impact of her arguments on his own way of thinking concerning women’s rights:

"I could not meet her arguments except with the shallow plea of 'custom,' 'natural division of duties,' 'indelicacy of woman's taking part in politics," the common talk of 'woman's sphere,' and the like, all of which that able woman, who was then no less logical than now, brushed away by those arguments which she has so often and effectively used since, and which no man has yet successfully refuted."

Just how far Douglass was moved by her arguments was seen on the second and last day of the convention, when Stanton’s resolution in favor of the franchise appeared ready to go down to defeat. Douglass’ speech calling for its approval moved many in the audience to vote in the affirmative.

Not only logic carried the day for Stanton, however. The year 1848 was one of those heady years—1968 and 1989 were others—in which it seemed that the forces of change would carry everything before it and the world really could be made anew. Revolutions in Italy, Ireland, France, and Prussia were causing established governments to tremble all across the continent. In America, rising agitation involved such causes as temperance, prison reform, treatment of the mentally ill, and abolitionism.

The magnetism and very presence of female speakers on abolitionist platforms divided the anti-slavery movement over tactics even as it gave further impetus to the women’s movement. The powerful eyewitness testimony of Sojourner Truth and the southern-born sisters Angelina and Sarah Grimke posed a dilemma for the anti-slavery movement: should they enlist the very public help of these females (who were often more compelling than men on the stump) or should these women accept where custom had always consigned them (i.e., the home)?

The issue came to a head at the
1840 meeting of the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London. After a floor flight, the so-called “Gradualists” (led by New York merchant Lewis Tappan) succeeded in banishing female members of the American delegation to a spot behind a curtain in the meeting hall’s balcony.

This physical position—not only not heard but not even seen—rankled Mott, a female delegate, and Stanton, the newlywed bride of a male delegate to the convention. Events and geography conspiracy to keep the two friends from joining forces again for eight years. What drew them together was an ideological fight on yet another cause—the Quakers’ position on slavery.

Mott, while visiting sister
Martha Coffin Wright, supported a local Quaker group calling for abolitionism. It was a good opportunity to meet Stanton, living nearby in Seneca Falls. The three of them, along with Quakers Mary Ann McClintock and Jane Hunt (Stanton was the only non-Quaker in the group), began over tea on July 13 to discuss women’s issues. They decided to call for a grand convention. Immediately.

It was amazing how much they did with almost no time and not a lot of publicity. Only a couple of local papers and Douglass’s abolitionist publication, North Star, were able to get advance word out about a meeting to be held the following week. Stanton and her fellow organizers also worried that, because of hot summer weather and the height of the farming season, attendance would be poor. Nevertheless, some three hundred people managed to pack the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel for the event. (Ironically, because even Stanton grew unnerved at presiding over such a politically risky gathering, men were not only admitted, but, in the person of Lucretia’s husband James, even allowed to head up the gathering.)

The convention received a large amount of press coverage, much of it mixed. While some editors, such as the New York Tribune's Horace Greeley, were sympathetic, others—notably the New York Herald's James Gordon Bennett-- adopted a tack that has been used repeatedly—and all too successfully—over the years: dismiss the organizers as hysterics and misfits. To that end, Bennett reprinted the entire text of the Declaration of Sentiments, believing that he was exposing the group for what they really were. Stanton, however, welcomed this as a means of spreading their ideas.

In the coming decades, America would become convulsed over the slavery issue, relegating women’s rights to the back of the national agenda. Two decades later, Stanton and her friend Susan B. Anthony would find themselves in opposition to Douglass when the latter called for adopting the Fifteenth Amendment, which forbade denial of the suffrage on account of race, color, or prior condition of servitude—but said nothing about gender. By the time women were granted the right to vote in 1920, only one signer of the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments—Charlotte Woodward—was even alive.

This summer, Seneca Falls will undoubtedly be experiencing more tourists than ever because of the anniversary of the convention. However, local history buffs don’t have to go that far to see a place associated with feminist history. Tenafly, N.J., has a National Historic Landmark, a two-story, white Victorian frame house that was the residence of Stanton from about 1868 to 1887.

Quote of the Day (Stewart)

“News used to hold itself to a higher plane and slowly it has dissolved into, well, me.”—Jon Stewart, Ultimate TV, February 2, 1999

Friday, July 18, 2008

This Day in Business History (“Avon” Founder Born)

July 18, 1858—You probably haven’t heard of David Hall McConnell, but you’ve surely heard of his company: Avon Products Inc., one of the great brand names in American enterprise and an employer of choice for thousands of women over the years.

The story of Avon is quintessentially American in that it was (and is) polyglot: The brainchild of the son of a Famine-era Irish emigrant (County Cavan), with a product line probably heavily influenced by French perfume manufacturers then peddling their wares in the States, and with a name taken from the English hometown of William Shakespeare, which reminded McConnell of the American town where his company was based.

As a salesman in charge of the southern territory for the Union Publishing Co. of Chicago, the twentysomething McConnell chafed in a business that was “not congenial” to him. Although they didn’t have a name for the concept then, he made the same dismaying discovery that the book publishing industry keeps having to learn over and over: unless you’re a bestselling “brand” author who give readers more or less the same experience from book to book, such as Danielle Steel, Mary Higgins Clark and Tom Clancy, publishing is a total crapshoots that resists efforts to market books as if they were bars of soap.

It surely irked McConnell that female customers were more likely to buy the products he used as inducements—perfumes—than the major objects of his quests, books. Then he had a brainstorm: while books were really one-offs, perfumes were consumed, so they had to be bought continually. So McConnell sensibly decided to leave the first industry for the second, and in 1886 founded the California Perfume Co. (The name was suggested by a then-business partner, who associated the state with a wild profusion of flowers.)

Know the old line, “Behind every successful man stands a woman”? Well, in McConnell’s case, he started out with two important women and ended up with a veritable army of them. In fact, I think it’s inconceivable that he would have succeeded without them.

The first woman was
McConnell’s wife Lucy, who helped him operate a combination of office, laboratory and shipping room in downtown New York, at 126 Chambers Street. This would have tested the patience of anyone, for they operated from a room only 20 x 25 ft. (McConnell’s instincts as a farmboy had been to do things on the cheap so as not to fall in debit.) Her participation was critical, since the business did not have its first $500 day until 1897, more than a decade after California Perfume’s establishment.

The second woman was
Mrs. Persus Foster Eames (P.F.E.) Albee of Winchester, N.Y., a 50-year-old woman who had been one of McConnell’s best employees at Union Publishing. It was Mrs. Albee who came up with the company’s business model of “depot agents” selling products door to door in their own neighborhood.

It’s hard to understand what a radical break that concept was from then-current practice. Direct selling in those days depended on commercial travelers arriving by rail in small towns throughout rural America. Coming from nowhere with little but a wave and a smile, these males created a great deal of understandable suspicion.

Now, a woman, working in her own neighborhood with people who knew her—that was someone who could be trusted. At the same time, women—whose only financial options at the time were housework, sewing, teaching, nursing, or working in sweatshops—found an entirely new avenue where they could make money and develop business acumen. Twenty years after its founding, 10,000 representatives and district managers were selling 117 different articles in 600 styles.

By 1897, attracted by country living, McConnell built a wooden lab in Suffern, N.Y., three floors high and 3000 sq. ft.—quite a bit roomier than his initial New York address. By 1971, the Suffern facility was 10 times its original size.

In 1928, after his inspirational vacation to Stratford-on-Avon, McConnell offered his first products under the Avon name – a toothbrush, a talcum, and a vanity set. Amazingly, the company doubled during the next decade—yes, the heart of the Great Depression. By the time of McConnell’s death in 1937, thanks to a nationwide print campaign and the sponsorship of a radio show called Friends (now, not that one, silly!), the company had doubled in sales. So prominent had the Avon name become that two years later, California Perfume became Avon Products Co.

Today, Avon is by far the world’s largest direct seller with 5.4 million Avon Representatives in
over 100 countries. For the full year 2007, according to the company’s
latest annual report, it posted revenues of $9.9 billion. It’s a long way from its start as a dream of escape by a harried, annoyed book salesman who learned that it paid to listen to women.

Quote of the Day (Goldwyn)

“If you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made.”—Movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn

(A motto as true for politics as for entertainment. I mean, you recall what James Carville calls politics, right – “Show business for ugly people”? If anyone would know, he would!)

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Sinuous, Sensational Cyd Charisse, R.I.P.

"Son, in this life, you don't walk by a red dress," the late baseball great (he should have been a Hall of Famer) Buck O'Neill once advised a protégée.

Millions of film fans took that to heart when they gaped at an impossibly leggy vision in red appearing with Fred Astaire in the 1953 MGM musical The Band Wagon. Oddly enough, the year before they also stared in slack-jawed astonishment at a figure in a green dress, in the Gene Kelly film Singin' in the Rain.

In both cases, the occupant of said dress was
Cyd Charisse, whose death from a heart attack at age 86 last month severed one more living tie to the cinematic form that best united the possibilities of sound and movement: the movie musical.

Some years ago, a friend recalled how her husband’s tongue kept inadvertently hanging out during a dance number spotlighting "The Girl in the Yellow Dress" (played by actress Deborah Yates—and by the way, could somebody please tell me whatever happened to her?) in Contact.

Over the years, even more film aficionados experienced the same sensations, on a more extended basis, in the MGM musicals featuring Charisse.

The actress-dancer’s death came out of the blue for me, since only the weekend before I’d seen her in It’s Always Fair Weather. This last collaboration between onetime friends Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen not only lived up to its billing—On the Town, 10 years after V-E Day—but, in its sour view of friendship and Eisenhower Era materialism, feels at times like a precursor of Stephen Sondheim’s wised-up musicals starting in the Seventies. It falls just short of greatness.

One reason why is that there's no love dance between Kelly and Charisse to compare with the delirious Central Park number, set to the strains of Arthur Schwartz' "Dancing in the Dark," in The Band Wagon (which Charisse regarded as her favorite scene in all her films). (Admittedly, this absence is not as unconscionable as Kelly's decision to ax the big dance number featuring co-star Michael Kidd, which appears to have been made to avoid the picture being stolen from its star-co-director.)

But Charisse did very nicely with "Baby, You Knock Me Out." In the politically incorrect parlance of the time, her "classy dame" shone all the more brightly among an all-male chorus that looked like all-too-realistic stand-ins for Stillman Gym's real-life plug-uglies.

The same film slipped in a fact that surprised me when I heard it, but which was confirmed by the obits: the brunette star stood only 5 ft. 6 inches!

Ten years ago, a high school friend of mine who was appearing in films bemoaned a particularly galling missed opportunity in his most recent, major Hollywood production: “They cut my big scene, Mike!”

Woulda, coulda, shoulda…I could write great lyrics—a whole musical, even!—on that one theme. The case of Charisse, however, reveals the truth behind the cliché.

Charisse’s heyday was not only half the length of male co-stars Kelly and Astaire (who, in his autobiography Steps in Time, gave her the appropriate nickname “beautiful dynamite”) but also of other major female musical stars of the time, Judy Garland and Betty Hutton (women whose uncertain temperaments gave them the reputations of “dynamite” of a different sort).

Her first appearance on the big screen was as “Lily Norwood,” opposite Don Ameche in Something to Sing About, in 1943. (The “Charisse” part of her later professional name came from her dance instructor Nico Charisse, whom she married in her teens. The “Cyd” part which gave that particularly euphonious name came after she signed her MGM contract.) It took the studio nine years to figure out what to do with the former Tula Ellice Finklea of Amarillo, Texas, while it offered plum parts to the likes of Katharine Grayson and Esther Williams.

“Broadway Melody Ballet,” in Singin’ in the Rain, changed all that. Years later, she joked that her second (and far longer-lasting) husband, Tony Martin, always knew who her co-star was: “If I was black and blue, it was Gene. And if it was Fred, I didn’t have a scratch.”

But Kelly did for her what he did for Reynolds in the same movie—made her a star. She would go on to appear not only in The Band Wagon and It’s Always Fair Weather, but also Brigadoon and Silk Stockings, which she took on the thankless role originally done (as a nonsinging part) by Greta Garbo in Ninotchka.

Sadly, at just the moment when storytelling, technological advances, and first-rate choreographers and stars brought the American movie musical to its artistic zenith in the Arthur Freed musicals of the late ‘40s and ‘50s, it all came tumbling down, courtesy of trust-busters, the threat of TV, and studio bean-counters who persuaded the moguls to save money by jettisoning the off-camera talent that gave musicals their wings. That spelled the end of her period of greatness for Charisse, who, aside from a few non-musical film roles, spent the rest of her professional career in television, clubs and theater, often with Tony Martin (who survives her).

Time, wrote the poet W.H. Auden in “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” is “indifferent in a week/To a beautiful physique.” But the magic of celluloid musicals preserves the young and the graceful forever in memory. Nearly 20 years ago, at a lecture given at Fairleigh Dickinson University, the novelist Mary Gordon made an uncharacteristic wisecrack: "I wish my legs were as long as Cyd Charisse's."

Anyone who ever saw that classy, talented perfomer—a woman who, in a mere half-dozen years, taught a half century of men never to walk past a red dress—knew what Ms. Gordon was saying.