Thursday, December 31, 2009

Quote of the Day (Catfish Hunter, on His Pitching)

"Well, I had some friends here from North Carolina who'd never seen a homer, so I gave them a couple.”—Pitcher James Augustus (Catfish) Hunter, quoted in Roger Angell, “The Sporting Scene: Wilver’s Way,” The New Yorker, November 26, 1979 

There were other landmark legal cases involving Curt Flood, Dave McNally and Andy Messersmith, but for all intents and purposes, the modern era of free-agency in baseball began in earnest when the New York Yankees announced on this date in 1974 that Catfish Hunter had concluded a deal with them for five years and $3.5 million—piddly stuff now, compared with, say, Alex Rodriguez’s contract, but much more than anyone else was getting at the time. (Dick Allen had the highest salary for 1974, at $250,000.) 

I remember that I was over a friend’s house that night for New Year’s Eve when the news broke. My friend Jimmy, a Yankee fan like myself, told the group of us: “Mark my words: The Yankees are on the way back to the World Series.” It took another year, but he was right.

Oakland A’s owner Charlie Finley had only himself to blame for the departure of his Cy Young Award-winning pitcher. Charlie O. welshed on contributing $50,000—half of Hunter’s salary—to a life-insurance fund. In response, arbitrator Peter Seitz declared Hunter a free agent, and George Steinbrenner came courting with his money and talk of Yankee tradition. 

The above quote from Hunter—delivered at a postgame press conference in the 1974 World Series, after he had yielded two homers in Game 3 against the Los Angeles Dodgers—shows part of the reason why he was hugely popular with his teammates. He was self-deprecating about his own accomplishments, which made it all the easier for teammates to accept his country-boy needling. (On Reggie Jackson: “When you unwrap a Reggie bar, it tells you how good it is.") 

The regular-season accomplishments that earned Hunter a plaque in Cooperstown—the first regular-season perfect game in the majors in more than four decades, five 20-win seasons, 224 career wins, more than 3,400 innings pitched—only tell part of what he meant to his teams. 

When the game was on the line in the postseason, Hunter rose to the occasion. He appeared in 12 of the 16 post-season series played in the American League from 1971 through 1978. Not so coincidentally, he was on the winning side 10 times. In more than the obvious way, he was the great money pitcher of his time, the one you'd want on the mound when the game was on the line. 

Catfish didn’t aim to strike out batters, but to control the location of pitches and the tempo of the game. He joked about his penchant for yielding homers, but unlike so many of today’s pitchers, who drive me crazy by getting ahead in the count 3-0, giving up a walk, then throwing a home run to the next batter, Catfish’s homers tended to be less damaging because otherwise he kept men off the basepaths. (In 1974, he led the AL with the fewest walks per nine innings pitched.) Once he gave up the homer, he’d immediately call for another ball and take care of business with the next batter. 

Like a Yankee ace of an earlier era, Whitey Ford, Catfish didn’t waste time on the mound. This seems to be a forgotten art in this age. When players don’t spend as much time out on the diamond, they don’t tire as quickly in the late innings. 

Hunter had the last of his 20-game seasons in his first year with the Yankees. After that, the toll of all his earlier innings, as well as diabetes, eroded his performance, though he could contribute at crucial points when he had to. (His six wins in August 1978, following months when he’d been riddled with pain, were crucial in helping the Yankees make their epic comeback from 14 games behind the Red Sox.) 

In George Steinbrenner’s heyday, the Yankees’ owner could be remarkably crass when his major free-agent signings didn’t turn out well. But even he knew better than to jump over Catfish, the grown-up in the Bronx Zoo of the 1970s. When Hunter’s star appeared on the decline, Steinbrenner summed up his legacy, crisply, generously and entirely appropriately: 

"Catfish Hunter brought respectability to the Yankees. Without him, we would never have been world champs. If he never pitches another ball, he has been worth every cent." 

Sadly, Hunter passed away in 1998 from ALS, the same disease that took the life of the earlier Yankee great Lou Gehrig. But while he’s left this life, he’ll always remain in the hearts of Yankee fans.

Quote of the Decade (Andy Borowitz, Summing Up 10 Years in Initials)

“This decade went from Y2K to WTF. I think those are the bookends.”—Humorist Andy Borowitz on the Leonard Lopate Show, WNYC-FM, December 30, 2009

Hasta la vista, ‘00s! Happy New Year, faithful readers!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

This Day in Basketball History (Future Knicks Bradley, Russell Meet in Holiday Tournament)

December 30, 1964—In a performance acclaimed one of the "All-Time Top 10 College Basketball Moments at Madison Square Garden," Princeton’s Bill Bradley scored 41 points, pulled down nine rebounds, and held the player he was guarding to a single point, hearing the first cheers in the New York arena where he’d make his professional home for 10 years. .

But his effort in the Holiday Festival Tournament semi-final against top-ranked Michigan came to naught. His fifth foul, coming with Princeton 12 points up with less than five minutes to play against their heavily favored opponents, allowed the Wolverines—featuring Bradley’s future Knick teammate Cazzie Russell —to overtake the Tigers and win, 80-78.

For the general public, the performance by the Ivy League senior confirmed that he was indeed the real thing. The crowd that day gave him a three-minute standing ovation after he was forced to leave the game.
For Bradley, believe it or not, it may have meant more. I don’t mean simply telling him he could excel at the fabled Garden, a sports venue he had never played before. No, I think it further instilled two bits of knowledge that would serve him in good stead throughout his subsequent career as athlete and politician:

1) Ferocious preparation and self-discipline could help him master any realm in which he decided to enter; and

2) Despite his best efforts, he might still lose, and he should not treat the defeat as the end of the world but learn what he could from it and move on.
Or, as he told audiences at the time: “You’ve got to face that you’re going to lose. Losses are part of every season, and part of life. The question is, can you adjust? It is important that you don’t get caught up in your own little defeats.”

In cold print, that philosophy sounds almost like a truism. Try telling that to certain politicians, though.

That profession depends, from election to election, on personal validation, and a number of Presidential aspirants, at one time or another in their careers, have experienced defeats at the polls as a kind of second death. Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton, and Al Gore all experienced these as soul-crushing, and the losses left them, in many cases, smaller, even damaged, men.

In contrast, Bradley comes across as something like the embodiment of Rudyard Kipling’s “If”—i.e., one of those who can “meet with triumph and disaster/And treat those two imposters just the same.”

The most striking instance of this came when he lost the 2000 Presidential nomination to Al Gore. Once a series of losses in the primaries forced him out, he moved on with the next stage of his life, without walking around like a duck struck on the head with a paddle, without making up enemies’ lists, and without biting his lips, turning red-faced, or striking back at opponents in autobiographies.

Bradley started on two Knick teams that won NBA champions, but recalling the ones that got away—without fixating on it—kept his ego in check and his sanity intact.

In the 1970s, I saw him asked in a TV interview about John Starks’ disastrous 2-for-18 shooting drought in Game 7 of the 1994 championship series against the Houston Rockets. Bradley was asked: Would Starks ever be able to live this down?

Sure, Bradley said, though the excitable Knick guard would have to get used to memories of it. He recalled his own experience in 1971, when the Knicks were unable to repeat as champions because he missed a buzzer jumper in the deciding game of the Eastern Conference finals against the Baltimore Bullets. He could still hear from New York cabbies, years later, “Ya bum, how could you miss that shot?”

If you’d like to get a sense of what Bradley was like in his college years, start with New Yorker writer John McPhee’s A Sense of Where You Are. It’s a fascinating book—for its place in the author's career, for the light it sheds on a great American story, and for its treatment of the major issue changing American society—and, shortly, Bradley’s game—at the time: race.

Not long after his 1977 bestseller about Alaska, Coming Into the Country, McPhee began to write, in almost obsessive fashion, about inanimate objects rather than people (e.g., Basin and Range, The Control of Nature). This might have been the nadir of The New Yorker (not counting when Tina Brown asked Rosie O’Donnell to serve as a “guest editor”), in the period when editor William Shawn made a specialty of the legendary “50,000-word piece on zinc” (perhaps best illustrated by E.J. Kahn’s multi-part series on “The Staffs of Life.”)

But the Bradley profile, more than a decade earlier, showed, despite its sometimes overly worshipful tone, just how good McPhee could be. It’s a great foreshadowing of the athlete-politician’s later career, and filled with all kinds of interesting details (e.g., how Bradley scrubbed his hands before games to eliminate excess perspiration and oil, increasing friction that would enable him to grip the ball better).

Many stories of athletes hinge on the obstacles—poverty, a disability—they faced growing up. McPhee’s profile might be the first I’ve read that shows how a life of privilege posed difficulties for its subject in becoming a basketball great. The banker’s son also sounds remarkably old-fashioned these days because of his college membership in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

The game against Michigan is also intriguing because of the much-anticipated faceoff with Cazzie Russell. The two men, later teammates on the Knicks, proved, after retirement, that there was far more to their lives than the mere ability to shoot a basketball. Bradley’s career, as author and three-term U.S. Senator from New Jersey, is well known. Russell—later a basketball analyst and coach with Savannah College of Art and Design—is a minister, now serving as associate pastor of Live Oak Community Church in Savannah.

In reading McPhee’s account, it’s hard not to be reminded of the similarly starry-eyed treatment that sportswriters (usually white) accorded Larry Bird years later. Both players’ intelligence and self-discipline were extolled. In contrast, their close African-American counterparts in terms of all-around excellence—Magic Johnson, in Bird’s case; Oscar Robertson, in Bradley’s—were often hailed in physical terms.

Bradley, one suspects, would probably be mortified by this unthinking slighting of blacks. As a teammate of African-Americans, he became annoyed at what he regarded as “white skin privilege.” As a rookie NBA player, he’d receive all kinds of ad offers, but black teammates whose skills he regarded as superior received none.

In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Bradley’s fame was such that he even inspired a nickname for a nun in my high school, St. Cecilia’s in Englewood, N.J. Her doctors told this Sister of Charity—normally given to teaching the fine points of English and Latin--not to become too excited at games—“ ‘ mind your ticker,’ they tell me”—but she couldn’t help herself.

So, when an opponent dribbled up the court, Sister Margaret Bradley would raise her arms and, in a high, piping voice, exhort our players, echoing the now-familiar chant from Madison Square Garden: “Okay, boys—DEE-FENSE, DEE-FENSE.” As a result, she came to share a nickname with the great Knick, one of two she eventually had: “Dollar Bill.” (The other nickname—“Sister Omar”—led her to tell her class, “I know you call me that, but don’t forget—he was a four-star general!”)

Quote of the Day (W.H. Auden, on Winter and Poetry)

“The winter months are those in which I earn enough dollars to allow me to live here in the summer and devote myself to the unprofitable occupation of writing poetry.”-- W.H. Auden, quoted in Eric Ormsby, “Auden & America,” The New York Sun, March 5, 2008 (“Here” is Ischia, an island off the coast of Naples)

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Quote of the Day (Marge Piercy, on Getting Through the Workday)

“I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
Who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
Who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
Who do what has to be done, again and again.”—Marge Piercy, “To be of use,” in Bill Moyers, Fooling With Words: A Celebration of Poets and Their Craft (1999)

Monday, December 28, 2009

Quote of the Day (A “30 Rock” Writer, on Meeting Tracy Morgan)

“The first day I met him, I had a small Afro, and he was like, ‘You know, if you want to get dreads, you should get your girl pregnant and put the placenta in your hair.’ And I was like, ‘What the f--- … are you talking about?’ But from that point on, I thought, Any brain that can make that up needs to be studied.”—30 Rock scriptwriter Donald Glover, on encountering the inimitable Tracy Morgan (pictured here) for the first time, quoted in Amos Barshad, “Overachiever: Donald Glover,” New York Magazine, November 29, 2009

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Quote of the Day (Jessica Powers, on “Garments of God”)

“He is clothed in the robes of His mercy, voluminous garments --
not velvet or silk and affable to the touch,
but fabric strong for a frantic hand to clutch,
and I hold to it fast with the fingers of my will.”—Jessica Powers, later known as the Carmelite nun Sister Miriam of the Holy Spirit (1905-88), from “Garments of God,” in Invisible Light: Poems About God, edited by Diane Culbertson (2000)

Saturday, December 26, 2009

This Day in Yankee History (The Bosox Sale of Ruth: The Conspiracy Theory)

December 26, 1919—Babe Ruth liked a nice cold beer as much as the next fella (okay, maybe a bit more than the next fella), but in later years he was unable to shake the belief that his purchase by the New York Yankees from the Boston Red Sox—concluded on this date—had been facilitated “over a few glasses of beer” between the Sox owner and one of his two Bronx Bomber counterparts.

It’s not what you think—Col. Jake Ruppert of the Yankees didn’t get Red Sox owner Harry Frazee soused in the family brewery. No, it was the other Yankee “Colonel”, Tillinghast L'Hommedieu Huston, who was a drinking buddy of Frazee. With Frazee’s New York office just two doors from Yankee headquarters, Ruth believed, the idea of a deal might have been broached over some liquor refreshments.

The consequences of the deal were so momentous, of course, that fans of both the Red Sox and the Yankees have concluded that only an act of drunkenness or some other use of mind-altering substances could have sparked it.

Over the years, talk grew more and more loudly about the “Curse of the Bambino.” (When the Yankees won their 28th World Series this year, a particular fervent fan—a co-worker of mine—claimed that the Curse hadn’t really been lifted—not even after Bruce Springsteen performed an exorcism at Fenway. No, the Bosox, he said, won their two championships in ’04 and ’07 because “their ‘roids were better than ours.” “The Curse Lives!” he proclaimed.)

Even at the time the Ruth deal went down, it was not popular with Red Sox Nation, folks. The $125,000 transaction—along with a side deal involving a $350,00 loan to Frazee from Ruppert and Huston, who took a mortgage on the Sox’ stadium as collateral—was not announced for another 10 days. Why—to let the lawyers haggle over some clauses? To let that decade’s version of spin doctors figure out how to tell fans their favorite slugger was gone? I don’t know, but whatever the reason, it didn’t work.

Now, Frazee had his apologists, to be sure, the same way Prince Charles’ flunkies will always claim that you can’t blame the randy royal for steppin’ out on Princess Diana because, after all, she was a bimbo—which, even if true, doesn’t excuse anything. Frazee supporters will point to Ruth’s hellraising, his demand that his salary be doubled, and, as a last straw, his sitting out the final day of the Red Sox dismal 1919 season. But nobody has ever really bought this specious reasoning.

The most common explanation—that Frazee sold the Bosox’ best player because he needed to fund a musical, No, No, Nanette—has been much debated over the years. For awhile, the new vogue idea became that this was an urban myth. But a few years ago, Leigh Montville, in The Big Bam, seemed to produce evidence which strongly suggested that this theory was true after all.

But I’m surprised that a far simpler, more sinister theory hasn’t come to mind yet. Something of this kind, after all, must have occurred when you consider how one-sided the deal turned out to be—and of how many people (everyone, it seems, except Frazee) sensed its potential:

*Yankee manager Miller Huggins, in urging Ruppert to get Ruth to raise the Yankees out of the second division, observed that with the short right-field stands at the Polo Grounds (the home the Bombers then shared with the New York Giants), the slugger would hit 35 homers in a season, thereby eclipsing the mark he’d already set this past season.

* No other players were involved in the Ruth deal, and Frazee’s protestations at the time to the contrary, the money was not used to secure any combination of players of remotely comparable value.

* In the past season, his first as an everyday player after several as an ace starting left-handed pitcher, Ruth had set a record for homeruns.

It’s true that Ruth was a player of outsized talent. But I’m sorry—just one player is not enough to ensure that not only will a team be deprived of a championship for 85 years, but that this same team will not even exceed the .500 mark for the next 15, as happened to Boston after Ruth left.

A curse has been the traditional means for describing this run of bad luck. It’s almost as if a kind of mighty, world-altering act of vengeance is required, such as the whammy Alberich lays on anyone who gets his hands on the ring in Wagner’s Ring cycle.

But why on earth hasn’t someone come up with something far more consistent and logical that fits the facts?

Yes, I mean a conspiracy theory. After all, it’s been used to explain just about every aspect of American history, so why not the American pastime?

In short, why couldn’t Frazee be the greatest betrayer in American sports infamy? In magnitude, his offenses might exceed James Wilkinson, commander in chief of U.S. army under Thomas Jefferson, who had already taken a secret oath of allegiance to Spain? He might even approach the Roman Catholic cardinal at the heart of the Vatican who takes an oath to Satan, thereby ensuring the durability of bloodthirsty creatures of the night, in John Carpenter’s Vampires, a film remarkably woolly-minded even for that horror genre.

Because rest assured: Harry Frazee not only drained the Bosox of blood in the Ruth deal, but kept doing so.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, whenever the Yankees needed a key player for a pennant run, they invariably turned to the Kansas City Athletics. Look at who the Yanks landed: Roger Maris, Clete Boyer, Ralph Terry, Ryne Duren—all of whom played an essential role, of one kind or another, for the Bombers in this period.

The rest of the league complained that the A’s received so little in return, it was almost as if the Yankees treated them as their own personal farm team. In fact, Arnold Johnson, owner of the A’s, was a real-estate business owner of Del Webb, a co-owner of the Yanks.

Where do you think they got the idea of such close collaboration? Here’s my theory, and it works as well as any other explanation of the facts regarding the Ruth deal: Frazee was doing the same thing with the Yankees three decades before. Among the other players besides Ruth shipped to New York in the Frazee years: Herb Pennock, Everett Scott, Waite Hoyt, and Joe Dugan--all exceptionally helpful in the Bomber rise to greatness in the next decade.

Frazee had no particular affection for Beantown—in fact, he said the best thing about Boston was the train ride back to New York. His heart was not in the game, but in musicals such as No, No, Nanette (which, incidentally, toured all over the world before finally coming to the Big Apple in 1925, five years after the Ruth transaction). Once Frazee took over the Red Sox in 1917, the team went steadily downhill. His mismanagement was so infectious that it even continued after he sold his ownership stake in 1923.

So there it is, Red Sox Nation—a traitor in your own midst, all the way at the beginning. Only a conspiracy of such monstrous proportions could have ensured defeat so long-lasting. Just a few years before, for $450,000, Ruppert and Huston had purchased, in Ruppert's terms, "an orphan club without a home of its own, without players of outstanding ability, without prestige."
For a comparable price for getting "one of the most selfish and inconsiderate men that ever wore a uniform" off Frazee's hands, Ruppert and Huston had changed all of that. And it all had been done for the equivalent of a song.

Quote of the Day (Albert Einstein, on Whom We Exist For)

“Each of us is here for a brief sojourn; for what purpose he knows not, though he sometimes thinks he senses it. But without deeper reflection one knows from daily life that one exists for other people— first of all for those upon whose smiles and well-being our own happiness is wholly dependent, and then for the many, unknown to us, to whose destinies we are bound by the ties of sympathy.”—Albert Einstein, “The World As I See It,” in Living Philosophies (1931)

(Thanks to my friend Holly for the inspiration for this quote.)

Friday, December 25, 2009

This Day in Basketball History (Bernard Shows Nets He’s King of the Court)

December 25, 1984—Bernard King, dealt to the New York Knicks in a trade for another talented but troubled player, Micheal Ray Richardson, showed his former team the New Jersey Nets what they had passed up when he scored 60 pounds against them at Madison Square Garden. It all went for naught, however, as the Nets still managed to defeat the Knicks 120-114.

King’s achievement—a record for a single player at the Garden, not surpassed until eclipsed recently by Kobe Bryant—capped a 2 1/2-year period when the 6-ft.-7-in. small forward became one of the unstoppable offensive forces of the game. He was a mission on a mission--not just to lead his team to a title, but to overcome the drug addiction and problems with the law that bedeviled him early in his NBA career.
King took care of the second, more personal issues, but the first part was beyond his control--especially when, a couple of months later against Kansas City, an injury ended his season and his dominance.

Between the great Red Holtzman era of the late Sixties and early Seventies and Pat Riley’s Patrick Ewing-led squad of the Nineties, the one bright spot was provided by King. His two full seasons prior to his record-setting Christmas Day explosion contained 20-point-per-game scoring averages, but that doesn’t really gauge his importance.

You really have to look to the playoffs, where King elevated his game—really, carried an otherwise mediocre team on his back—in epic showdowns against powerful opponents. In his first season, the Knicks lost in the second round to the eventual champion Philadelphia 76ers. In his second season, he prevailed over Isaiah Thomas and the Detroit Pistons, overcoming fever and two dislocated fingers to pour in 44 points in helping New York capture Game 5 and the series. More amazingly, King forced a Game 7 against a far better balanced (Bird-McHale-Parrish-Johnson) Boston Celtics lineup before losing in Beantown.

By Christmas Day ’84, King was leading the league in scoring with a 32.9 ppg average. He poured in 40 points against the Nets by halftime in this game before Nets coach Stan Albeck decided that if he were going to be beat, it would have to be by someone else. To that end, King faced one different matchup after another in the second half, all designed to deny him the ball. It worked--or, at least, slowed him down. (The one Net who didn’t guard him was kid brother Albert King, then sidelined with an injury.)

Bernard’s own later knee injury meant that this explosive player never achieved the Hall of Fame status for which he seemed destined. It took him two years to rehab it, by which time the team brass decided that keeping their fingers crossed that the recovering King would mesh with their prized rookie Patrick Ewing wasn’t a feasible proposition. They released him in 1987. (Closing a circle, King finished his career--which included more than 19,000 regular-season points and countless TV highlights--with the team where he started: the Nets.)

On any short list of top moments at the Garden in the last 40 years, King’s ferocious Christmas Day performance would have to place high. No other Knick left as many what-ifs, or left you shaking your head so much asking, "Can you believe what he just did?"

Quote of the Day (Maeve Brennan, on Christmas “Waifs”)

“It was shameful thing to be a waif, but it was also mysterious. There was no accounting for it or defining it, and over and over again she was drawn back to her original idea—that waifs were simply people who had been squeezed off the train because there was no room for them. They had lost their tickets. Some of them never had owned a ticket. Perhaps their parents had failed to equip them with a ticket. Poor things, they were stranded. During ordinary times of the year, they could hide their plight. But at Christmas, when the train drew up for that hour of recollection and revelation, how the waifs stood out, burning in their solitude. Every Christmas Day (said Isobel to herself, smiling whimsically) was a station on the journey of life….She, Isobel, looked them all over and decided which ones to invite into her own lighted carriage. She liked to think that she occupied a first-class carriage—their red-brick house in Herbert’s Retreat, solid, charming, waxed and polished, well heated, filled with flowers, stocked with glass and silver and clean towels.”—Maeve Brennan, from “The Joker,” in The Rose Garden: Short Stories (2000)

In Isobel’s formulation, waifs simply don’t fit in anywhere. The same might be said for longtime New Yorker contributor Maeve Brennan (1917-1993), who created a slim but choice body of short stories and “Talk of the Town” pieces but died in relative obscurity.

I first came across Brennan in her posthumous short-story collection set in her native Dublin, Springs of Affection (1997). To my knowledge, Brennan—who came to the U.S. when her father was appointed first Irish ambassador to the U.S.—published two Christmas stories. “Christmas Eve,” in Springs of Affection, is written through the eyes of a child and the mother who wants to protect her from life’s sadness. It’s a lovely piece whose nostalgia serves as slim but necessary gauze covering deep, ordinary family unhappiness.

“The Joker,” which appeared in the December 27, 1952 issue of The New Yorker, is different in tone. “Herbert’s Retreat” was inspired by Sneden’s Landing, a Rockland County, N.Y. community that, over the years, has become a kind of arts enclave, with such famous residents as Gerald and Sara Murphy (the Riviera expatriates who served as the models for Dick and Nicole Diver in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night), Angelina Jolie, and Al Pacino.

Already, by the end of the paragraph quoted above, Brennan telegraphs that Isobel fancies herself a kind of Lady Bountiful. Instead of three magi, it’s three “waifs” who come to her cottage.

In his warm and perceptive appreciation of his colleague prefacing Springs of Affection, New Yorker fiction editor (and short-story writer) William Maxwell finds some of Brennan’s Herbert’s Retreat stories to be “satirical in tone, and…heavy-handed.” Well, “The Joker” is satirical, but I prefer “tough-minded” to “heavy-handed” in describing its impact.

Its sentences, dense with detail, summon a world of gentility—even if, as in this case, it results more from a husband’s high corporate position rather than earlier generations' inherited wealth—and unconscious condescension: “The tablecloth was of stiff, icy white damask, and the centerpiece—of holly and ivy and full-blown blood-red roses—bloomed and flamed and cast a hundred small shadows trembling among the crystal and the silver.”

According to recollections by Brennan’s niece, Yvonne Jerrold, the writer did not conform to the conservative mores expected of women in deValera-era Ireland. Part of her Catholic education, however, must have left a bone-deep impression, for Brennan’s portrait of Isobel shows a modern, female Pharisee, who fulfills the letter but not the spirit of the religious law: “She felt it was only fair that she should help those less fortunate than herself, though there was a point where she drew the line. She never gave money casually on the street, and her maids had strict orders to shut the door to beggars. ‘There are places where these people can apply for help,’ she said.”

These peopleplaces they could apply for help…Isobel would be horrified by the suggestion, but you can hear an echo of Ebenezer Scrooge’s inquiry about whether the workhouses and the Poor Law weren’t still in effect. It turns out that she’s also somewhat like Mrs. Jellyby from Dickens' Bleak House: i.e., someone all for humanity in the abstract, but not in the nearby, smelly, needy flesh.

Of the three “waifs,” Vincent Lace—Irish would-be poet, failed academic, confirmed drunk—is the most finely wrought. You sense from his pretensions (even the surname suggests insubstantiality and “lace-curtain Irish”) that this was a type Brennan knew all too well.

The fact is that Isobel really does not care for the waifs she’s invited. And when a fourth unexpected visitor that she treats as another waif turns out to be “the joker” of the title, Isobel discovers that those she invited return her ill opinion.

It’s bad enough that Isobel’s sense of philanthropy springs from misplaced pride—an instinct to guard against especially in this season. But she also exhibits either little compassion for the forces that brought “the waifs” to their present state, or appreciation for what makes them human beings in the first place.

I’m not sure why this story is not anthologized more. Even the man Brennan eventually wed, in a disastrous misalliance, St. Clair McKelway, had a “Talk of the Town” casual reprinted in Christmas at the New Yorker. Brennan’s tale deserves to be read, and the fine career and warm personality that preceded her own waif-like ending (she died homeless and destitute after a number of years of alcoholism and mental illness) deserve to be remembered.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

This Day in Pop Rock Music History (JT, Simon, Mitchell, Ronstadt Go Caroling)

December 24, 1974—In one of the most entertaining evenings in any Southern California holiday season, three couples—James Taylor and songstress wife Carly Simon (in the accompanying post), Linda Ronstadt and comedian Albert Brooks, Joni Mitchell and session drummer John Guerin—went house to house in the Hollywood Hills, serenading the inhabitants, then made their way to the West Hollywood Club known as The Troubadour, where the sextet continued their spontaneous caroling for lucky attendees at an opening-night performance of Flo and Eddie.

What a treat it must have been to listen to this group warble! Yet as far as I know, none of the proceedings were ever recorded. I mean, does a bootleg even exist of the Troubadour tunes?

Here’s what also gets me: major biographies of the participants that amazing night give scant, if any, attention to it. The one crooner who has described it, Simon, did so, in desultory fashion, in a 2002 “Ask Carly” Q&A from her Web site:

“Basically it was a gathering at James' and my house in L.A. James, Joni, Linda and myself started singing carols with others who were there (and you would be more able to fill me in on who they were than I) and we decided to go on over to the Troubadour and sing them there. It was impulsive and the kind of thing that should be done more. It was lots of fun and exuberant and if there is any more legend to it than that, I would love to know. It could be that there was and I’m not remembering it.”

Carly, Carly, Carly! I think this is one of those moments that, fleshed out just a bit more, would make a wonderful vignette in a memoir—the one for which you wrioe 50 pages, at the behest of your editor, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, before getting cold feet about revelations concerning other people.

But this incident has color and verve, and would tell a lot about its participants. And don’t let any possible haziness stop you—here’s how you can recreate it:

1) Invite anyone at the Troubadour that night—heck, any of your lucky Hollywood Hills neighbors—to e-mail you their memories of the event, the way Mitchell has done with various appearances from her legendary career on her Web site;

2) Dig out past photo albums and begin free-associating—it’s bound to trigger a memory, a la the way a single madeleine set off Proust’s epic Remembrance of Things Past;

3) Pick up any LP that you and the other singers made at this time and ponder what songs were special for them; or simply

4) Read through my account and simply react to it.

Nope, I wasn’t there that night (I was on the East Coast, though it was very possible that I had on the turntable a record by you, JT or Mitchell). But this account starts with facts, and from there you can supply what’s correct, what’s not, and, most of all, what’s missing—a place, an influence, a motive, an emotion.

Let’s start with place. Or, rather, two places: The Taylor-Simon house and the Troubadour.

The house, according to Timothy White’s fine 2002 biography of Taylor, was one James and Simon had rented for a two-month stay that turned into four, on Hazen Drive off Coldwater Canyon Drive, “in the brambled slopes where the coyotes come out at night to prey on household pets.” Given that environment, human company, like the ones Simon, JT, and one-year-old daughter Sarah had that night, would have been most welcome.

The Troubadour held double significance for Taylor. Not only had he played at the then-two-year-old club in 1970 with Carole King (the beginning of a mutual admiration society that would see him make hits of two of her songs, “You’ve Got a Friend” and “Up on the Roof”), but also where he first caught his future wife, as the opening act for Cat Stevens, a year later.

Okay: People.

At this point, Taylor and Simon were, of course, the (Elizabeth) Taylor and (Richard) Burton of rock—hugely successful and impossibly glamorous. Even their rented house underscored that connection—Taylor the movie star had been a prior resident, along with Mick and Bianca Jagger.

JT had hit an unexpected sales trough with the Walking Man LP, but was now in the L.A. area working on a follow-up, Gorilla, that would return him quickly to success. Simon didn’t know it, but a slow commercial decline was about to ensue with her next album, Playing Possum.

After several years of trying, Ronstadt had finally scored a pop solo success with the LP Heart Like a Wheel. Unlike Taylor, Simon and Mitchell, her forays into songwriting would be minimal. But her voice was an amazing instrument that, over the decades, would see her extend over a far greater range of styles than they could ever anticipate.

After several years of heartbreak, the singer thought she had found a truly nice guy in funnyman Brooks. She was moving into his house this Christmas, but several months later, according to a Rolling Stone article, her cartons were still in one room, unopened—because if they split, she’d rather not go through another packing job. It was almost as if she were donning protective gear in case of heartbreak.

Mitchell and Guerin (who had just served as a studio musician on the Canadian-born singer’s most successful album to date, Court and Spark) had also recently become an item, moving into a home in Bel Air. Already, however, issues of ownership, intimacy and freedom that had become the overwhelming themes of her songs were informing this relationship, too. According to a Time Magazine story about Mitchell at year’s end, she had accepted a caller’s invitation that she and Guerin come to a party, then told her listener: “But why don’t you ask John. If I suggest it, he’ll think I want to see my old boyfriends.” (Like, as it happened, Taylor.)

Finally, what might the group have sung this night?

Of the four singers, only Mitchell has never recorded a full Christmas album (she cut four songs in the late Seventies, only to shelve the project for the Mingus LP). But it seems a safe bet, based on what the other three singers put on their subsequent holiday albums, that “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” would have been on their spontaneous playlist. Another WWII era song, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” was a favorite of Simon and Ronstadt.

And who knows—maybe the group might have gotten around to singing Mitchell’s infinitely sad “River.” Taylor and Ronstadt are among the more than 100 musicians who have recorded the tune for commercial release, making Mitchell the only one of the group to record a song that, without intending it, has become a holiday standard.

In one way, perhaps it’s appropriate if nobody did record the merry carolers on this night. After all, a spontaneous performance of this kind is, by its nature, evanescent—like youth, even like Christmas at certain points in one’s life—making it all the more precious for those who’ve experienced it.

Quote of the Day (Lisa Toland, on How Scrooge’s World Remains With Us)

“While poor children in developed nations are mostly those living in former industrial centers, worldwide poverty and exploitation have even more faces. These are the modern-day Tiny Tims. Our London is any metropolitan area in the world. Our Bob Cratchits are in the United States and Europe, but also in Nigeria, Thailand, and North Korea. For a great percentage of the world—and especially for children—the current recession is not a new experience of great need; many have lived in poverty for generations, even centuries. Theirs is an unending recession.”—Lisa Toland, “The Darker Side of A Christmas Carol,Christianity Today, December 2009

So long as somebody, somewhere, justifies indifference to their fellow man by asking if the government doesn’t do enough for them; so long as these individuals, taking it a step further, ever declare, by deeds if not words, that “greed is good”; and so long as the belief that a spark exists in each of us enabling an 11th-hour reprieve of our lives—A Christmas Carol will not go out of date.

And I mean A Christmas Carol in all its variations. It’s a Wonderful Life is, of course, an American version of the tale, with Mr. Potter an unredeemed Ebenezer Scrooge. 

(I was just told today, at lunch, about a Saturday Night Live skit of years past in which the crew comes back to tidy up the major loose end of the latter film. A sample line from this “fabled lost ending”—George Bailey returning to announce, “I want a piece of you, Potter!”—gives an idea of the general tone of this sketch, with Dana Carvey as a terrific George and Jon Lovitz as Potter.)

I’m partial to the 1951 Alistair Sims big-screen version and George C. Scott’s 1984 TV version of Charles Dickens’ tale, but there are fans of the 1970 Albert Finney movie musical, Scrooge (I met one such individual while standing on line at Barnes & Noble this past week). 

There are even, believe it or not, fans of perhaps the lamest comedy of Bill Murray’s career, Scrooged (1988). (As far as I’m concerned, the misuse of the wondrous Karen Allen in the latter is almost as bad as anything the Victorian miser perpetrated on his employees.)

Lisa Toland’s piece, quoted above, is Janus-faced, but in a good way. Much of her discussion concerns why A Christmas Carol struck such a deep chord immediately upon release in 1843. 

(Churches, we learn, copped with the challenges posed by the increasingly mobile urban poor in varying ways: individual parishes, the old sources of charity, were overwhelmed; elements of the established church were so elitist that they felt removed from the plight of the downtrodden; while newer sects, such as the Methodists, helped to fill the breach.)

At the same time, in Toland's telling, contemporary events make Dickens’ depiction of want and greed all too relevant. 

I don’t think many of us this season will be able to forget the juxtaposition of two developments: the big banks’ hurried repayment of government bailout money, the better to escape restrictions on executive pay and bonuses, at the same time that thousands of Americans remain unemployed because of the madness bred by the banks’ greed.

The image above is John Leech's woodcut from the 1843 edition, showing Scrooge extinguishing the Ghost of Christmas Past. That brings to mind a larger leitmotif of Dickens’ fiction, explained below in “The Reanimator,” Adam Thirlwell’s New Republic review of Michael Slater’s Charles Dickens:

“In his novels of reanimation, Dickens went for ghosts, for guilt, for bottled fetuses and effigies: for murder. His necromantic imagination needed corpses. Dead bodies are his constant prop. What else could he do? His subject was how strange the transition was between the live and the dead.”

There isn’t a word in Thirlwell’s excellent analysis of Dickens’ fiction about A Christmas Carol, but it’s impossible to read this paragraph without thinking of the great Victorian novelist’s greatest Christmas tale—and particularly the visits to Scrooge by Marley’s ghost, followed by the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. 

It brings to mind an irreducible fact about the holiday: while it springs from the birth of Christ, it takes place in nature’s season of death, when human beings are haunted by old regrets and people from the life to which we can never return.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Ridiculous Headline of the Day (Investor’s Business Daily, Alarmed About Obamacare)

SOCIALISM CREEPS IN AS AMERICA SLEEPS”—editorial headline in Investor’s Business Daily, December 22, 2009

Puh-leez. “Creeping socialism”—can’t the opponents of universal health care come up with something other than a cliché to describe their opposition to a bill that, even now, on the brink of passage, is heavily compromised and scarcely resembling what was originally advertised?

(Oh, and why does socialism always creep? Why can’t it gallop? Or at least make the phrase alliterative, Spiro Agnew-style, and say that it slithers?)

Few Capitol Hill participants in the health care debate have crowned themselves with glory, but throughout this entire process the GOP, to its shame, has been a uniquely obstructionist force. All it can do is stand there and mouth scare words or phrases, such as “Socialism.”

Go ahead—name me one concrete proposal the Republican Party has made this year toward extending coverage to the desperately uninsured. You can’t, can you?

That’s because the party hopes, with its hopeless intransigence this time around, to do what it did in 1994 against Bill Clinton: use a legislative debacle to jump back into the political game following an election where they lost the Presidency and both houses of Congress. This electoral revanchism is all part of what The New Republic’s Jonathan Chait calls “The Rise of Republican Nihilism.”

I write this sadly, as someone who believes that neither party has a monopoly on anything close to the truth, and that the two-party system is a necessity for keeping assorted rascals from running completely unchecked. Nevertheless: The Republicans are playing a dangerous game—increasing the cynicism of ordinary Americans, even while further endangering (as if they hadn’t done enough in this direction under the prior administration) the economic security of everyone.

Let there be no mistake: in our extreme medical insurance environment, affordable health care has not become so much an economic issue but a moral right. Yet the GOP has decided to get on the wrong side of history, unlike 1964, when enough of its members joined with Democratic liberals to enact landmark civil-rights legislation.

Investor’s Business Daily (IBD) is supposed to be written by journalists, who are supposed to be trained to avoid clichés. But keep enough company with multiple members of a certain type and you become infected with groupthink.

So now the editorial writers at IBD are parroting a business and right-wing party line dating back more than a century. A sidebar to Chait’s article, “Women’s Suffrage and Other Visions of Right-Wing Apocalypse,” lists some choice examples of such ostrich-like rhetoric.

Here’s my favorite, from a figure who remains an inexplicable conservative darling, Ronald Reagan, carrying a 1961 attack on Medicare to what can only be termed the realms of sci-fi fantasy:

“The doctor begins to lose freedoms; it’s like telling a lie, and one leads to another. First you decide that the doctor can have so many patients. They are equally divided among the various doctors by the government. But then the doctors aren’t equally divided geographically, so a doctor decides he wants to practice in one town and the government has to say to him you can’t live in that town, they already have enough doctors. You have to go someplace else. And from here it is only a short step to dictating where he will go.”


To be sure, significant problems exist in the current health-care legislation. And Mitch McConnell and Co. have a point: a nearly 2,000-page bill, rushed through committee, with only a handful of senators and White House aides understanding the fine points, is not a well-thought-out package.

But they’d sound a wee bit more credible if they’d subjected the similarly prodigious, rushed-through Patriot Act to the same level of scrutiny.

It’s not enough to be against something; you have to say what you’re for. If the GOP wants to be trusted with the responsibility of governing again, they need to step up and explain their positions. On health care, they haven’t, they won’t, and they deserve to pay the price at the polls for their willfulness.

To understand what’s at stake as Congress approaches its moment of truth, consider the following searing piece from Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, inspired by an anguished visit to a loved one at the hospital, and especially this passage:

“This is the only economically advanced nation where people can go bankrupt from medical bills. This is the only rich nation where people can die from lack of medical care—because they can’t afford it or because it’s not available."

At Christmas, the mind turns inevitably to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Bob Cratchit’s family in that holiday tale represented the kind of people—living on the knife-edge between survival and grief—who are becoming more and more prevalent today.

In Dickens’ time, the Cratchits (in Scrooge’s midnight nightmare) would have fallen into their personal abyss simply because not enough people recognized the consequences of massive, impersonal economic forces, such as the schools, the workhouses, the jails, and the courts.

Where is the contemporary novelist who would do to the U.S. health care system what Dickens did to Victorian Britain’s legal system in Bleak House—i.e., capture the beast in all its Brobdingnagian, soul-crushing complexity?

Well, below—again, from Cohen—is a good place to start:

“Behold the uninsured. Look at them in their terror. See their faces as they are denied coverage for pre-existing conditions or their look of despair because they cannot afford any insurance at all. Watch them ignore symptoms of sickness, pass up examinations or wait, often for hours and hours, for free medical services.”

I would love to see what Dickens would have done with the pundits and politicians who scream about “creeping socialism.” They’re a novelist’s—even a caricaturist’s—dream.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

This Day in World War II History (“Nuts!” to Nazis, at Battle of the Bulge)

December 22, 1944—General Anthony McAuliffe’s one-word response to a German surrender ultimatum—“NUTS!”—might have confused the Nazi commander battling him for control of the town of Bastogne, but it rallied the spirits of his rank-and-file soldiers who were then surrounded at this crucial point in the Battle of the Bulge. Since then it has entered American military legend as a symbol of blunt defiance.

McAuliffe (in the image accompanying this post) and the 101st Airborne Division, like the rest of the American forces on the Western front in Europe these last six months, had anticipated at least some R&R during the Christmas season. Pressed from the east and west, the Nazis appeared unable to strike any blow.

The Ardennes Forest—located at the thinnest point in the Allies’ broad front in the West, between Britain’s Bernard Montgomery to the north and American George S. Patton to the south—was, notes military historian Geoffrey S. Perret in There’s a War to be Won, where Omar Bradley “sent green divisions to get their first taste of war and a kind of rest area where badly mauled divisions took a breather.”

Having fought in the Normandy and Operation Market Garden campaigns, the 101st should, by all rights, have fallen into the second of these categories. Bastogne, in the midst of hilly, heavily forested terrain and a network of rural roads, was considered as unlikely a spot for action as there could be.

Instead, the 101st had been ordered by Allied commander Dwight Eisenhower right into the center of hell: Adolf Hitler’s surprise counteroffensive, the largest German offensive of the war along the Western Front. A quarter of a million Nazi troops were flung across an 85-mile stretch of the Allied front, from southern Belgium into Luxembourg, creating a 50-mile pocket or “bulge” in the Allied defenses.

Today, visitors to Bastogne will find, in the town square—named after McAuliffe—a Sherman tank and bust of the plain-spoken general. The commander had a good deal of confidence in himself, but even more in his men. They were about to prove him a good judge of their abilities once again.

The battle had begun on the 16th, when Hitler—aided by both a dearth of informed intelligence about the state of his forces in Germany, as well as by Allied commanders’ near-total disbelief that his troops were even capable of offensive action at this point—sent every fresh soldier he could scrape up through the thin point of the Allied front at Bastogne. Once he punched through that, the dictator believed, he could turn toward Antwerp and drive a wedge between the Americans and their German allies.

Much of the Battle of the Bulge was fought amid clouds and fog—a good meteorological metaphor for the diminished vision held by those who issued the orders in this campaign.

British and Americans underestimates of the Third Reich’s remaining fighting capacity had left them vulnerable, but Hitler held his own illusions. He wasn’t entirely wrong about the disagreements between Generals Eisenhower and Montgomery, but he mistakenly thought that they would refuse to fight together after this—and completely erred in believing that the U.S. would buckle after one heavy blow. (As Gerhard Weinberg points out in his epic history of WWII, A World at Arms, the exact opposite was true, as America had suffered the least of the Allies in the war to date.)

Hitler achieved the first thing he wanted—surprise—as American G.I.s at Bastogne soon found themselves completely surrounded by young, strong, well-fed opponents. In the wake of Operation Market Garden, they were:

* not at full strength;
* low on ammunition;
* short of winter clothing and footwear;
* unable to protect their field hospital from German attack;
* deprived of airborne supplies because of the terrible weather; and
* facing an enemy that outnumbered them by four times.

What the Americans had in their favor, because of their stiff resistance, was time. The German counteroffensive needed speed to exploit the advantage they had gained by surprise. Instead, the 101st Airborne had forced them to wait for two days for fresh artillery to arrive. And now General Patton, dying to convert a desperate situation into a ferocious counterpunch, was moving his troops into position to relieve the beleaguered troops.

That was the situation on the morning of December 22, when two German officers and two non-commissioned officers approached the American perimeter carrying a white flag. Blindfolded and taken to the command post of the 327th “Glider” Regiment, they presented the German ultimatum.

If the American commander did not respond affirmatively to the ultimatum within two hours, the note threatened, “one German Artillery Corps and six heavy A. A. Battalions are ready to annihilate the U.S.A. troops in and near Bastogne,” with concomitant civilian casualties.

The soldiers immediately sent it up the chain of command to General McAuliffe, the Acting Division Commander. He thought at first that the Germans were getting ready to surrender. Upon being informed otherwise, he reacted with a disbelieving laugh: “Us surrender? Aw, nuts!”

He knew what he was going to do, but not how he would say it. Lt. Col. Henry Kinnard prompted him with, "That first remark of yours would be hard to beat." McAuliffe’s staff officers heartily agreed, whereupon the general sat down and wrote: "To the German Commander, 'Nuts!' The American Commander."

McAuliffe’s response puzzled the German officers deputized to receive it. An American colonel provided a translation--"If you don't know what 'Nuts' means, in plain English it is the same as 'Go to Hell'.” Then the colonel, annoyed by his visitors’ arrogance, added a gloss upon the text that was shortly borne out in action: “I'll tell you something else, if you continue to attack we will kill every goddam German that tries to break into this city."

A day later, clear skies enabled airdropped supplies to McAuliffe’s hard-pressed men. By the 26th Patton’s men had arrived to lift the siege at Bastogne. A month later, the Allies had gained back all they had lost, though at the cost of 76,000 killed, wounded or captured.

The Germans did not lose that much more, but proportionately, their losses were worse, because they could not replace their casualties. Moreover, Hitler’s push to the West left the Third Reich vulnerable to advances by the Soviet Army.

Yank Magazine correspondent Ed Cunningham painted an unforgettable picture of lost G.I. illusions, bitter sense of waste—and hard-bitten resolution to see the job through—following the battle in this look back in March 1945:

“Now you start to think about the people who said so confidently that the European war would be over by Christmas, and when you think about them you begin to laugh. You can laugh now—in spite of the ack-ack Christmas tree before you, the little blonde girl who cries at the sound of bombs, the old men pushing rickety carts on a convoy road running west, the Americans in crash helmets and combat overalls who ride east, and the people of the evacuated town that gives you the same feeling you get at a wake.”

Quote of the Day (Edwin Arlington Robinson, on a Wife’s Fear of Her Mate)

“She fears him, and will always ask
What fated her to choose him;
She meets in his engaging mask
All reason to refuse him.
But what she meets and what she fears
Are less than are the downward years,
Drawn slowly to the foamless weirs
Of age, were she to lose him.”—Edwin Arlington Robinson, “Eros Turannos”, in The Man Against the Sky (1916)

I don’t know about you, but I’ve known several women who’ve fallen victim to either emotional or even physical abuse at the hands of a husband or boyfriend. All too often, I’ve wondered what could have led these women—usually with so much going for them—to choose men so beneath them in every way.

I’m not sure one answer fits all situations, but Edwin Arlington Robinson—born on this date in 1869—provides a key that accounts for a number of these circumstances. The aging wife of this poem (her loss of individuality compounded by the lack of a proper name) is forced, as a younger woman, to weigh fears—the unease that something terrible lurks beneath the “engaging mask” of her lover, versus the dread that she will never know deep long-term intimacy. She decides the latter is a more terrible possibility, to devastating effect.

At the same time, the husband has his own terrors that transform him into a monster. “He sees that he will not be lost” implies that, but for her, he could easily be.

An old Irish proverb says, “Better strife than loneliness.” But the shattering reality of this poem is that strife produces loneliness, as the wife is not only isolated from her spouse, but also from the larger community that can only speculate about what has happened to her—in effect, allowing male dominance to continue unchallenged.

Like so much of Robinson’s poetry, this masterful short piece is set in a seaside town, and it echoes with liquid images, starting with that unusual word, “weirs”—i.e., dams used to obstruct water.

The wife’s psychological “weirs,” of course, are woefully inadequate. Robinson doesn’t spell it out—one of Robinson's persistent themes, of course, is the inscrutability of the human heart—but we can imagine all too well some symptoms: the initial charm she falls for; the first hint of disillusion; his relentless ridicule; his unpredictable explosions; his unapologetic unfaithfulness; the signs of slaps and worse physical mishandling that she tries first to excuse, then to hide; her growing separation from friends and other family members; and the final resigned acceptance that she's invested too much in the relationship to break away (“take what the god has given”).

Robinson tends to be overshadowed by a contemporary five years younger, Robert Frost. His much-anthologized poems “Miniver Cheevy” and “Richard Cory” (the latter adapted into a Simon & Garfunkel song) reflect the consequences of soul-destroying disenchantment. But I don’t think any of his other works match the psychological acuity and sheer power of “Eros Turannos.”

“Love the Tyrant”—the literal translation of the title—lends itself perfectly to what poet James Dickey pointed out about Robinson around three decades after the three-time Pulitzer winner’s death: “No poet ever understood loneliness or separateness better than Robinson or knew the self-consuming furnace that the brain can become in isolation, the suicidal hellishness of it, doomed as it is to feed on itself in answerless frustration, fated to this condition by the accident of human birth, which carries with it the hunger for certainty and the intolerable load of personal recollections.”

Monday, December 21, 2009

TV Quote of the Day (“The Gilmore Girls,” on an Appropriate Xmas Gift for the Hot Intellectual Boyfriend)

Lane Kim (played by Keiko Agena): “You got Dean a book?”

Rory Gilmore (played by Alexis Bledel): “Yeah, Metamorphosis.”

Lane: “Metamorphosis!?”

Rory: “It's Kafka.”

Lane: “Very romantic.”

Rory: “I think it is very romantic.”

Lane: “I know I’ve always dreamed some guy would get me a really confusing Czechoslovakian novel.”—The Gilmore Girls, “Forgiveness and Stuff,” written by John Stephens, directed by Bethany Rooney, original airdate December 21, 2009

Nine years since this show originally aired—where has the time gone? A couple of years had already elapsed when the image accompanying this post was taken. Rory and BFF Lane look closer to graduating than starting high school, as they are in the quote. Unfortunately, this was the only shot I could find of the two of them reasonably close to this timeframe.

You’re unlikely to come away singing “O Holy Night” after watching The Gilmore Girls during the holidays. In its first season, Rory’s rebellious young mom, Lorelai, sasses her stuffy, upper-crust father by intentionally conflating his mother, calling from London, with God, then finishes up by saying: “I still can't get over that I'm related to God. It's gonna make getting Madonna tickets so much easier.” The episode from which the above quote is taken begins with a minor emergency involving the “Before Mary” in the local Christmas pageant, who, inconveniently, ends up in the family way.

No matter. Over the past several years, when I began watching the now sadly departed WB-CW dramedy, I’ve come to think of the setting for the series—the fictional Stars Hollow, Conn.—as a kind of Bedford Falls for the group that New York Times columnist David Brooks calls “the Bobos” (i.e., bourgeois bohemians).

It’s a small town (based on the real-life Washington Depot in the Nutmeg State) containing local merchants, a town square, a gazebo, and quirky characters—not really the simple, struggling blue-collar types sustained by the Bailey Savings & Loan in It’s a Wonderful Life.

But like that classic bit of Capracorn, Stars Hollow has tons of snow—like my 1960s childhood (the decade which, I discovered from a Bergen Record article today, set a record—at least in this particular county--for the most white Christmases in the last century). It’s as if Al Gore and his warnings about global warming never existed.

In case you ever get too cold from all that vicarious snow, you can walk down to Luke’s Diner, where the proprietor dispenses hot coffee, along with an ingeniously concocted—if edibly questionable—“Santaberger” when Lorelai has trouble communicating with her daughter. (Luke’s gruff, laconic exterior conceals a good heart, much like his backwardly worn baseball cap hides a very full head of hair.)

And, even more plentiful than snow, the series had all that clever, whip-smart dialogue. If you exclude the first, best season of Cybill Shepherd in Moonlighting, this is probably the closest that a primetime series comedienne has come to the type of lines that came regularly from the mouths of Katharine Hepburn, Carole Lombard, Rosalind Russell, Irene Dunne, Jean Arthur, and other leading ladies of 1930s screwball comedies.

In its infinite wisdom, voters for the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences never got around to awarding (or even nominating!) Lauren Graham the Emmy she deserved for her sassy portrayal of Lorelai. (In fact, the show was only nominated once—for Outstanding Makeup for a Series.) It makes you wonder whether democracy—at least as it’s practiced by the grand poobahs of American culture—is all that it’s cracked up to be.

But just about every cast member had a chance to shine, as in today’s quote. Each line was creator Amy Sherman-Palladino’s gift to her talented actors. Through the magic of DVD and syndication, all this dialogue represents a huge collective gift to an audience yearning for wit and warmth not just during the holidays, but all the year round.
P.S. As for anyone contemplating purchasing Metamorphosis for the CEO of this site (highly unlikely, given that the tale’s target reader is intellectual), my attitude is epitomized by Max Bialystock in Mel Brooks’ The Producers, as he reads the first sentence to see how it meets his requirements for his new show: “ ‘Gregor Samsa awoke one morning to discover that he had been transformed into a giant cockroach.’ Nah, it's too good."

Sunday, December 20, 2009

This Day in Theater History (Welles Makes Most of Supporting Role in Cornell’s “Romeo and Juliet”)

December 20, 1934—To her legion of admirers, the premiere of Romeo and Juliet at the Martin Beck Theatre marked Katharine Cornell’s shift from the melodramas that made her famous to more classic female roles.

But the show might have been more noteworthy because of a second-tier actor who in no time managed to annoy the more seasoned members of the company with the arrogance that accompanied his brilliance: Orson Welles.

An audience member that night, John Houseman, was so entranced by the startling 19-year-old that within three weeks, he would seek him out. Within a few years, the two formed a partnership—Welles as director, Houseman as producer--in Shakespearean revivals and other productions at the Mercury Theater that made Cornell’s star vehicle seem decidedly old hat.

Last weekend, I saw one of the few films interesting enough to lure me to a multiplex this entire year: Me and Orson Welles, an account of the troubled backstory behind Welles’ innovative, modern-dress version of Julius Caesar. Except for a few points where it oversimplified motives or events, the movie is, in the main, not only a vivid but a realistic account of this hinge moment in American theater history.

(More so, let it be said, than the interviews given by Welles over the year, which, if ever collected, could be called, in a variation on the legendary unfinished documentary that marked the end of his creative freedom in Hollywood, It’s Half True.)

In particular, the Richard Linklater film gave full credit to Welles’ genius while depicting the horrors posed to Houseman by his partner’s creative madness. (Among the exasperating traits of the wunderkind: hogging credits from subordinates and spending money the productions didn’t have.)

Though Welles appeared in Caesar as Brutus, his production—instantly hailed for making the Bard relevant to contemporary audiences by setting the action in Fascist Italy (giving oxygen to the current trend toward modern-dress versions of Skakespeare)—became known more for making the director the star than any actor in the company. Moreover, his ruthless approach to the text—in particular, the last 20 minutes were heavily cut—was at odds with the respectful, even laissez-faire version advanced by Guthrie McLintick, the director of Romeo and Juliet—and the husband of Ms. Cornell (who happened to be the producer of her own show).

Welles had acted in repertory for McLintick earlier in the year in Candida, The Barretts of Wimpole Street, and Romeo and Juliet. Welles being Welles, though, he wasn’t shy about expressing his opinion that he knew more about Shakespeare than anybody, McClintic included.

Adding to Welles’ resentment at the Broadway premiere was his shift from the part he had played out of town—Romeo’s antic, but neurotic and doomed, best friend Mercutio—to Juliet’s cousin Tybalt. (Brian Aherne got Welles' former role.) The result: constant bad-boy behavior (including, but hardly limited to, throwing a teacup at a stage manager who upbraided him for coming late to rehearsals). If Welles had turned up at any point as a corpse, the entire cast and crew could justifiably, a la Murder on the Orient Express, have fallen under suspicion.

But perhaps that sense of anger, that heightened sensitivity to a perceived slight, only added to the sense of coiled danger he conveyed as Tybalt.

One person who realized this—who understood how different he was from the overwhelmingly middle-aged principals of Romeo and Juliet—was the 33-year-old Houseman, who wrote years later, in Run-Through: “What made this figure so obscene and terrible was the pale, shiny child’s face under the unnatural growth of dark beard, from which there issued a voice of such clarity and power that it tore like a high wind through the genteel, modulated voices of the well-trained professionals around him.”
British actor-author Simon Callow has a terrific account of the genesis of this relationship in Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu, the first in his projected multi-volume biography of the star.

At 32, Houseman not only looked older than Welles but acted older--kind of like Professor Kingsfield in larvae form. Wherever the younger man went, others had marked him down for greatness, but Houseman’s struggle was harder. Romanian-born and British-educated, he had come to the U.S. in 1924, taking up his father’s business—grain trading—only to be wiped out in the Depression. By 1934, he’d directed a well-received version of the Gertrude Stein-Virgil Thomson opera, Four Saints in Three Acts, but he was at loose ends when he saw Welles.

It took another three weeks for the two to meet, when Houseman offered him a part that had been turned down by Paul Muni, in Archibald MacLeish’s Panic. After that, they proceeded from one astonishing production after another:

* organizing the Negro Theater Project for the Works Progress Administration, where they staged a “voodoo” version of Macbeth;

* forming the WPA’s Classic Theater, where Welles came into the public eye as actor-hyphenate by directing and starring in Doctor Faustus;

* staging Marc Blitzstein’s “proletarian musical” The Cradle Will Rock;

* scaring the daylights out of Americans with the Mercury Theater’s radio production of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds; and

* making film history with Welles’ rookie (and greatest) movie, Citizen Kane.

Strains that had been growing in their partnership finally led to a parting of the ways during Citizen Kane. Just as Welles had once deprived Sam Leve credit for the stage design for Julius Caesar, so now he tried to induce Herman Mankiewicz to forsake his screenwriter’s credit on Kane.

In the Leve incident, Houseman staved off major unpleasantness by giving Welles credit, but leaking to the theatrical community that Leve was responsible for the much-praised look of the show. This time, the producer refused to go along at all with Welles’ attempt to take sole credit for the script. (If anyone besides Mankiewicz was responsible for the final script, it was himself, Houseman believed, not Welles.) The dispute led to a chill in the air, then a rupture, then a definitive break in the relationship.

In the mid-1950s, Welles and Houseman had an encounter in a restaurant that, as described in the latter’s memoir Front and Center, soon turned confrontational. When do you intend to see my Moby Dick? Welles asked his old colleague. Houseman’s answer—when he could work it around seeing the hottest show in town at the time, Laurence Olivier’s Macbeth—did not at all please Welles.

Besides earning Oscars, both men shared something else in old age: indelible pitchman performances--Welles for Paul Masson wine, Houseman for Smith Barney. When Houseman passed away in 1988, it was only hours after the 50th anniversary of the drama that made him and his young partner the buzz of the entertainment world: The War of the Worlds. He survived his younger colleague by three years. One senses that Welles would not have been amused by the irony of the older man surviving him.

Quote of the Day (Francois Mauriac, on the Incarnation)

“The gentle child shivers with cold on the edge of a criminal world while angels promise peace to men of good will—a peace that can be discovered only after a full measure of suffering; but in the shadows of his birthplace Herod’s soldiers sharpen their knives for a slaughter of innocents that will apparently never end.”—Francois Mauriac, The Son of Man, translated by Bernard Murchland (1958)

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Quote of the Day (Judith Crist, on Being “A Movie Nut”)

“If you’re not a passionate devotee of film—or, in plainer language, a movie nut—you can’t really function as a critic. Why bother to criticize if you don’t care? The analogy is simple if carried on to human relations. When as children we’d accuse our mother of ‘picking’ on us, she’d say, ‘Of course a stranger wouldn’t. Only someone who loves you would.’ It is, after all, only the person who cares, who demands an adherence to standards, who dreams of the perfectibility of the beloved—and who refuses the easy out, who won’t settle for cheap and who will recognize sincerity and integrity, and cherish these, while scorning the specious and denouncing the cheap-jack.”—Judith Crist, “Honest—She Loves the Movies,” TV Guide, August 1970, collected in TV Guide: The First 25 Years, compiled and edited by Jay S. Harris in association with the editors of TV Guide (1978).

I guess I’m the type of “passionate devotee of film” that Ms. Crist had in mind—except that this year, I can only recall three new releases that I’ve managed to see. Filmmakers have just left me increasingly angry with either hopelessly crass or nihilistic offerings, and I have better things to do with my time—like watch old movies.

Her contemporary Pauline Kael got the cult fans (the “Paulettes”) and certainly the more high-prestige gig (The New Yorker), but if you wanted someone who didn’t brandish attitude or fixations so much like gun on the hip, then Judith Crist was the one for you.

Or for me, anyway, growing up. In her heyday in the Sixties and Seventies, she delivered verdicts on new releases for The Today Show, where she became network television’s first theater and film critic, and in such print publications as The New York Herald Tribune, New York and TV Guide.

Kael could be waspish, but she could go oddly gooey over pulp violence from the likes of Sam Peckinpah and Brian DePalma if she felt their reflected an individual vision.

Crist didn’t even have those moments. Otto Preminger referred to her as “Judas Christ” (maybe it had something to do with her verdict on his overheated Sixties flick Hurry Sundown: “For to say that Hurry Sundown is the worst film of the still-young year is to belittle it. It stands with the worst films of any number of years.”) Billy Wilder, far more imaginative, said that inviting her to review a film was “like asking the Boston Stranger for a neck message.”

In the mid-Seventies, I saw Crist deliver an address to high-school journalists at Columbia University, where she served as an adjunct professor at the J-School. She was marvelously droll. I bet she was as smart, funny, and infectious about movies and writing with her regular students as she was with younger kids like myself.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Quote of the Day (Milton Berle, Displaying His Photographic Memory)

“You heckled me twenty years ago. I never forget a suit.”—Milton Berle, quoted in Phil Berger, The Last Laugh: The World of Stand-Up Comics, Updated Edition (2000)

Thursday, December 17, 2009

TV Quote of the Day (“Seinfeld,” with “Festivus for the Rest of Us”)

Frank Costanza (played by Jerry Stiller): “Many Christmases ago, I went to buy a doll for my son. I reach for the last one they had - but so did another man. As I rained blows upon him, I realized there had to be another way!”

Kramer (played by Michael Richards): “What happened to the doll?”

Frank: “It was destroyed. But out of that, a new holiday was born. ‘A Festivus for the rest of us!’”

Kramer: “That musta been some kind of doll.”

Frank: “She was.” – Seinfeld, “The Strike” episode, airdate December 18, 1997, written by Daniel O’Keefe, Alec Berg, and Jeff Schaffer, directed by Andy Ackerman

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

This Day in Civil War History (Thomas Annihilates Former Student Hood at Nashville)

November 16, 1864—Union General George H. Thomas (pictured left) had not lost a battle in the Civil War—and despite the anxieties of commander-in-chief Ulysses S. Grant, who wasn’t about to do so this day, either.

With an aristocratic Southern background that led many northerners to distrust his loyalty to the Union, and a sense of preparation so methodical he would not change even to accord with his superiors in the East, the general had taken his time to spring a trap on his former West Point student, Confederate General John Bell Hood. When the two-day Battle of Nashville was over, Hood’s brave but exhausted, underfed and underclothed army was on the run in pitch-black darkness and pouring rain.

Grant need not have worried: “Old Slow Trot” (a reference to Thomas’ gentle treatment of his horses—perhaps necessitated by a painful back injury) had, for all intents and purposes, defeated the Army of Tennessee so thoroughly that it ceased to exist as a fighting force.
As I mentioned in a prior post on the Battle of Chickamauga, Thomas has never received his due as a commander. Part of this related to his unflappable personality; part of it to the fact that his commanders regarded his destruction of the Confederate Army in Tennessee as a sideshow to William Tecumseh Sherman’s “March to the Sea” and Grant’s siege of Petersburg, both occurring at the same time.

But part of it, it must be said, related to Grant’s at times grudging account of his success. Grant’s Personal Memoirs still sounds annoyed, two decades after the campaign, on the events leading up to the battle:

“Hood was allowed to move upon Nashville, and to invest that place almost without interference. Thomas was strongly fortified in his position, so that he would have been safe against the attack of Hood. He had troops enough even to annihilate him in the open field. To me his delay was unaccountable—sitting there and permitting himself to be invested, so that, in the end, to raise the siege he would have to fight the enemy strongly posted behind fortifications.”

The next couple of sentences in the memoir—about the falling, freezing rain that made it difficult for armies to move—sounds like a perfunctory nod to reality. But Thomas, on the spot, rather than away in Virginia like Grant, was in a far better position to know the true state of affairs on the ground—particularly as it related to the battered forces of the enemy and the particular psychology of Hood.

Thomas had been an artillery and cavalry instructor of Hood’s at West Point. He probably knew enough about him from there, as well as his recent reckless Atlanta campaign against Sherman, to understand the nature of this brave, but now dangerously impetuous, opponent.

In the summer of 1864, Jefferson Davis replaced Joseph E. Johnston with Hood in an attempt to take the battle to Sherman for Atlanta. Sherman—who had been repulsed continually by Johnston, even as he kept grinding toward the Southern communications and commercial center—was delighted by this move, as Hood hurled himself against the Union commander, incurring stiff losses he could ill afford while losing the city in the bargain.

Wounded badly in love, and even more horribly in battle (his left arm was severely damaged at Gettysburg, and his right leg was amputated at the Battle of Chickamauga), Hood made a great impression with what Southern diarist Mary Chesnut called his “sad Quixote face, the face of an old Crusader.”

Over time, however, others weighed in with less romanticized viewpoints on him. In his vivid narrative history of the Tennessee campaign, Embrace an Angry Wind, Wiley Sword is unsparing about this fine brigadier elevated beyond his capacity: “a disabled personality prone to miscalculation and misperception…a fool with a license to kill his own men.”

After the Union capture of Atlanta, Hood decided to fall upon Sherman's supply lines extending all the way back into Tennessee. Sherman had a bigger game in mind that simply putting an entire army out of existence—he wanted to break the Southern will to resist—so he took most of the choice troops in his army for the “March to the Sea” and left Thomas to deal with Hood.

Hood’s campaign met with grave misfortune even before Thomas delivered the coup de grace. A miscommunicated order led to an unnecessary loss at Spring Hill. The Battle of Franklin was less forgivable: an assault ordered in a fit of pique, leading to what has been called “the Gettysburg of the West” because of the fearful casualty rate against an entrenched foe.

Still, Hood kept moving toward Thomas—a movement that deeply concerned Grant. So deep was the Union commander's anxiety that over six days, he issued three separate orders relieving Thomas from command. He was talked out of it the first two times by President Lincoln and his chief of state, General Henry Halleck, after receiving assurances from Thomas that, once he’d built up his forces sufficiently, he’d strike Hood.

The third time, despite believing that a commander on the spot was the best judge of his situation, the President reluctantly acceded to Grant’s urging to remove Thomas.

Grant went to his hotel in Washington to pack for his trip to Nashville, where he would take charge of the situation in person and replace Thomas with General John Schofield.

Instead, an entire campaign changed on the whim of an telegraph operator. This operator decided not to wire Grant’s order until he’d heard the latest news from Nashville.

It turned out to be fortuitous. Thomas proved as good as his word—and then some. Earlier in the day, when the ice storm had abated, he attacked Hood at last with a crunching, unexpected blow.

And now, we come to what may be the most fascinating aspect of Thomas’ attention to detail. It is, of course, inconceivable that the Confederate miscommunication at Spring Hill would have occurred on his watch. But he was at this point also prepared to use African-American troops to undermine their former oppressors.

Bob Redman has a fascinating piece on how Thomas deployed the African-American troops in small sorties with white troops, where they could gain useful experience, rather than parade ground drills. The Virginian watched carefully how they handled these duties, then gave two African-American brigades a key assignment: they would hold most of a Confederate corps on the right, while Thomas, with 40,000 men, fell upon it from the left.

The plan worked, to the great delight of Grant—who still couldn’t resist the inclination to tell Thomas to keep pursuing Hood. “The Rock of Chickamauga,” who’d been praised even by Grant for his incredible stand in that bloody 1863 battle, had now been transformed into the “Sledge of Nashville.”

Hood ordered new works to be erected to await Thomas’ next assault. Thomas repeated his stratagem of the 15th—use the African-American troops as a diversion while the main force fell on the left. This time, two Confederate corps were put out of commission.

Even though icy weather stymied Thomas in his attempt to cut off Hood, it didn’t matter. Having suffered 23,000 casualties out of the 38,000 troops before the Nashville campaign, the Hood was in no position to do anything. Thomas had achieved something that Grant, Sherman, Sheridan, and other Northern generals had not achieved: the destruction of an entire army.

As Grant, dying of cancer, came to the end of his memoir, he may have felt a more charitable tone was in order toward Thomas. His final judgment doesn’t take back what he said about the former subordinate he second-guessed from hundreds of miles away, but he does temper it with praise for his qualities as human being and defensive tower of strength.

“Sensible, honest and brave,” Thomas, according to Grant, “gained the confidence of all who served under him, and almost their love. This implies a very valuable quality. It is a quality which calls out the most efficient services of the troops serving under the commander possessing it.”

Grant still couldn’t admit that Thomas’ preparation for Nashville had sealed victory so completely: “I do not believe that he could ever have conducted Sherman’s army from Chattanooga to Atlanta against the defenses and the commander guarding that line.”

Undoubtedly cognizant of how this sounded, Grant immediately followed this with a more more generous view: “On the other hand, if it had been given him to hold the line which Johnston tried to hold, neither that general nor Sherman, nor any other officer could have done it better.”