Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Quote of the Day (David Letterman, on the NCAA Tournament and GM)

“The N.C.A.A. tournament starts out at 65, then it goes right to 64, then 32, then 16, then four, then down to just one. I mean, it’s like G.M. stock, really, when you think about it.”—Talk show host David Letterman

Monday, March 30, 2009

Quote of the Day (Billy Wilder, on Marilyn Monroe)

"I have discussed this with my doctor and my psychiatrist and my accountant, and they tell me I am too old and too rich to go through this again."—Writer-director Billy Wilder, on working with the chronically late Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot, quoted in Paul Peachey, “Billy Wilder, The Gruff Filmmaker Who Gave Marilyn Monroe Her Best Roles, Dies at 95,” The Independent, March 29, 2002

Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of the release of Seven Like It Hot, voted as the number-one comedy of all time two years ago by the American Film Institute—and #14 among films of all kinds by AFI. I’m not sure it would get my vote—Wilder’s own The Apartment, a satire of postwar office business and sexual politics, cuts deeper, as sharp in its way as Richard Yates’ novel Revolutionary Road or cable TV’s Mad Men, and yet offers a more positive take on the transformation wrought by love.

But Wilder’s 1959 breakneck comedy about two jazz musicians (played to uproarious effect by Tony Curtis and especially Jack Lemmon), disguising themselves as women to avoid the Chicago mob following the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, might pack more enjoyment per frame than any other comedy I can recall.

For a movie filled with so much fun, its production was grueling—much of it courtesy of Monroe, still at the height of her popularity and allure, but already beginning the descent that ended in her death three years later.

Seldom has any actress been trashed so thoroughly by her director and male co-star as Monroe was by Wilder and Curtis. Time, however, can permit perspective, self-knowledge, candor and occasionally forgiveness. In later years, both Wilder and Curtis would speak of Monroe with a rueful recognition that, no matter how aggravating Monroe could be, she was also instrumental in the enduring popularity of one of the true milestones in their filmographies.

Wilder might have been spoiled by working twice (Sabrina and Love in the Afternoon) with Audrey Hepburn, whose talent was only exceeded by a professionalism and warmth that made virtually every man on the set—from the lowliest gaffer to the leading man—fall in love with her.

In contrast, Monroe’s tardiness added to the cost of filming, and her groggy inability to recall lines when she did arrive on the set complicated every scene. (It didn’t help that Monroe was pregnant during filming. Sadly, it ended, as with her other pregnancies, in a miscarriage.)

The difficulties created by Monroe were legion—the two- and three-hour morning waits; the 50-plus takes of single scenes; the filming at the Hotel Coronado in San Diego (so that Monroe would not consume even more time by being transported to the set).

Wilder’s revenge didn’t end with her banishment from the wrap party at the end of filming. He immediately let loose with comments like the one above, and The Apartment contains a caricature so obvious that, even with a blonde with a breathy voice, the filmmaker felt it necessary to have one character say: “I can’t pass this up—she looks like Marilyn Monroe.”

After her death, Wilder had reason to think better of the actress that had so exasperated him. He started by admitting that, despite her weaknesses, the camera loved her. Later still, he noted: “She was an absolute genius as a comedic actress, with an extraordinary sense for comedic dialogue. It was a God-given gift. Believe me, in the last fifteen years there were ten projects that came to me, and I'd start working on them and I'd think, 'It's not going to work, it needs Marilyn Monroe.' Nobody else is in that orbit; everyone else is earthbound by comparison.”

Monroe’s pre-Some Like It Hot history with Curtis was complicated by a different factor from the director’s: the two had had an affair nearly 10 years before. Post-production on their classic, when asked what it was like to work with her, the actor said, in one of the most famous judgments ever rendered by one actor on his female co-star, that kissing her was “like kissing Hitler.”

Long after her death, Curtis admitted he had made the remark as a joke in reaction to what he thought of as a stupid question. Maybe some of his feelings about her at the time owed to sexual frustration, as he admitted in his autobiography that during their romantic yacht scene, Monroe made extra sure he was aroused.

Innocence was displayed as much in Monroe’s performance as it had been four years earlier in her prior collaboration with Wilder, The Seven-Year Itch, but her frothiness in the previous film had been replaced this time by vulnerability, at its height during her delivery of “I’m Through With Love.”

Like another blonde who died at age 36, Princess Diana, Monroe became as known for that vulnerability—a private life filled with torment, and dread of the media machine she had previously fed—as she was for her glamour.

It was natural that Elton John would adapt the Bernie Taupin lyrics to their song “Candle in the Wind” for the occasion when “the people’s princess” was buried. To his credit, Elton early on—as Wilder and Curtis eventually did—came to see the screen goddess as “something more than sexual,/More than just our Marilyn Monroe.”

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Quote of the Day (Soren Kierkegaard, on Prayer)

"Prayer does not change God, but it changes the one who offers it."—Soren Kierkegaard, Purity of Heart Is To Will One Thing (1846)

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Quote of the Day (William James, on Friendship)

“Most men’s friendships are too inarticulate.”—William James letter to his friend Carl Stumpf, May 26, 1893, in The Thought and Character of William James, by Ralph Barton Perry (1936)

I’m glad that even so brilliant a philosopher and prose stylist like James could feel that words were inadequate to convey all that he owed to someone else. I am experiencing something similar right now as I think of how much dinner last night with my longtime friends Pat, Louise, Cathy, Margaret and Laura meant to me. The words might be so hard to write because the feelings they convey are bound up so tightly in my heart. “Thank you” doesn’t begin to say all you feel for someone you’ve known since high school, and even longer. These endlessly smart, funny, and vivacious women have known me for too long—and accept me anyway. Amazing.

Friday, March 27, 2009

This Day in Presidential History (Andrew Jackson Wages the “Petticoat War”)

March 27, 1829—By appointing longtime friend John Eaton as Secretary of War, President Andrew Jackson set in motion a scandal involving the wife of his new Cabinet member, Margaret O’Neal Timberlake (“Peggy”) Eaton. The resulting imbroglio became the first time in American history that the fate of an entire administration hinged on perceptions of a woman that some gentlemen, far less gallant than President Jackson, would regard as a tramp.

I first heard about the so-called “Petticoat War” in a course at Columbia University taught by one of the history department’s legends, James Shenton. As the professor, a born showman, narrated the course of the affair, I sat agog in my seat, hanging on every word. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

The Eaton Affair would not be the first political sex scandal of the American republic—that dubious honor belonged to the Alexander Hamilton-Maria Reynolds affair—but it was the first—and, to this date, still only—instance in U.S. political history when the character and loyalty of every single Cabinet member was judged not so much by how firmly they adhered to Presidential policies but by how they treated one particular woman who not only was not the President’s wife but also was not someone he even regarded in a remotely romantic or sexual way.

My high school classmates would have paid much more attention if they’d been taught about this instead of, say, the Tariff of Abominations. Peggy Eaton, you see, was the kind of fun-loving, pretty, provocatively dressed girl that guys go nuts over. Somehow, however, females, then and now, are much less forgiving of such behavior.

One thing you must understand about Washington, D.C. in the Age of Jackson: the women might have been mature wives of powerful men, but in terms of cliques and the overwhelming force of feminine disapproval, it was Mean Girls all the way. And the Queen Bee of the Mean Girls—at least for a time—was the wife of the Vice-President of the United States. But more on that in a minute.

The obloquy endured by Peggy Eaton reminded the President more than a little bit of what had happened to his beloved wife, Rachel Donelson Jackson, in the prior year’s dirty election campaign.

In a classic bit of mudslinging, followers of John Quincy Adams had cast aspersions on the couple’s character, for allegedly living not only in sin but bigamously. (The charge sprang from the fact that the Jacksons had mistakenly believed that their marriage was valid because Rachel’s no-good first husband had obtained a divorce when, in fact, he had only requested permission to file for one.)

Shortly because Christmas in 1828, Rachel died, probably of a heart attack brought on by the attacks on her. Jackson could do nothing anymore to save her, but he had a powerful memory of those who had slandered her. In effect, Peggy Eaton came to represent for him the injustice inflicted on his dear wife—and he would not abide it.

Some years ago, I rented a film about the cause celebre, The Gorgeous Hussy (1936), with Joan Crawford as the scandalous woman. On the surface, it seemed to have everything you could want in an MGM film of the Thirties: plush sets, great costumes by the ubiquitous studio designer Adrian, a subject of compelling interest, and a terrific cast (including up-and-coming actors James Stewart, Robert Taylor and Franchot Tone and the member of the “Royal Family” of stage and screen, Lionel Barrymore).

My heart fell, however, when Barrymore, playing Jackson, delivered an oration that generations of schoolchildren once knew was the work of Daniel Webster: “Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!”

I moaned especially because, with Webster already in the picture, there was no conceivable reason to assign his words to someone else. At the time, I thought of what I usually do when Hollywood mucks about with history: “The facts were amazing enough. Why couldn’t they leave well enough alone?”

MGM not only got the story wrong by adding “facts” that weren’t there but by bowdlerizing the ones that were. Hollywood’s censorship arm, the Hays Office, had the studios quaking over just how much they could reveal about private lives without the threat of boycotts over alleged obscenity. Maybe MGM banked on Crawford’s previous record for playing floozies (Rain) and proletarian working girls (Grand Hotel) to clue the public into the fact that Peggy Eaton was, despite her very young age, a Woman With a Past. But the facts of her life ended up so obscured on the big screen that moviegoers could be forgiven for wonderining what the “hussy” part of the title was all about.

Here’s what the people of Andrew Jackson’s Washington knew—or thought they knew—that filmgoers of the 1930s had a tough time learning from The Gorgeous Hussy: Even before the age of 16, mind you, one boy was rumored to have killed himself over Peggy O’Neale, two others had dueled over her, and a third would have eloped with her, only the damned fool knocked over a flower pot while climbing out the window.

But Peggy soon found herself the object of even more attention. She was the daughter of a DC tavernkeeper, a profession in which one was likely to see the most powerful, interesting men. At first, it seemed that one of these men would be John Timberlake, a Navy purser whom she married. But his heavy drinking and long absences from home were not exactly endearing in the end.

On the other hand, there was the U.S. Senator from Tennessee, John Eaton. Tall and handsome, he was very attentive, even helping her family out financially when Timberlake was totally unable to do so. And he had connections—like General Andrew Jackson, who was grateful to Eaton not just for supporting him in Washington but for writing the first campaign biography about him.

Timberlake’s death in a foreign port might have appeared providential to the merry widow and her admirer, but half of Washington knew enough about their close relationship to suppose that the sailor’s death was a suicide brought on by his wife’s illicit ways. Even Eaton’s acceptance of the advice of Jackson—if you marry her, they’ll come around—didn’t do the trick.

Things came to a head with Eaton’s appointment to the Cabinet, which was made not on the basis of ability or even party considerations, but because of his closeness to Old Hickory. Some were not hesitant about expressing their disapproval, most notably Floride Calhoun, wife of Vice-President John Calhoun.

Floride would have been appalled by the notion, but once she’d been a bit like Peggy Eaton: a beautiful young woman who’d utterly enthralled a man on the rise. John Calhoun remained under her emotional sway--rendering him instantly vulnerable because of Floride's snub.

Before long, all the Cabinet spouses--and, more important, their husbands--refused to have anything to do with the Eatons. Well, almost all: Secretary of State Martin Van Buren, a widower who didn’t have to worry about amrecalcitrant spouse, could be as nice to her as he pleased.
Eventually, matters came to such a head that Jackson was forced to call a meeting of his Cabinet (minus Eaton) over this issue. The President spoke to them as sternly as he later would to the state of South Carolina when it clamored for disunion. Peggy Eaton, he declared, was not only innocent of these charges, but before her marriage to Eaton she was as pure as a virgin.

Imagine you’re a Cabinet member hearing this, faithful reader. Not only can you not believe you’re talking about a woman instead of, say, relations with Great Britain or how you’re going to raise money, but you groan as you recall a fact that the President, in his zeal to defend the honor of this woman, has conveniently forgotten: Peggy Eaton already had two children before she married John Eaton.

Eventually, Van Buren devised a way out of this situation—have everybody (including himself) resign. The President was so grateful that he accorded “The Little Magician” (so named for wizardry in creating the coalition that elected Jackson) America’s most prestigious diplomatic post—Ambassador to Great Britain.

Just one little problem with this: Ambassadorial appointments, then as now, required Senate approval. The Whigs weren’t about to consent. That left the vote tied. The tie-breaker was the Vice-President.

Put yourself in Calhoun’s spot. “Old Hickory” had a well-deserved reputation for not forgetting a slight. But Calhoun’s wife was against it, and the Vice-President might find himself in the doghouse over it.

In the end, Calhoun decided not to risk the doghouse, voting against the appointment. After the vote, Jackson opponent Henry Clay consoled Van Buren by telling him that he might have lost an ambassadorship but he’d gained a Vice-Presidency.

So it proved to be, as Calhoun decided to leave the Vice-Presidency and resume his quest for the Presidency as U.S. Senator from South Carolina, where he became the principal voice for the slaveholding South over the next two decades. Van Buren got the Vice-Presidency, then the Presidency—though, after the Panic of 1837, he may have experienced more than a few moments when he wished he hadn’t.

And Peggy Eaton? Her story is too interesting to end here. I’ll pick up on it again later in the year.

Quote of the Day (Finley Peter Dunne, on Necessities for a Library)

“Th' first thing to have in a libry is a shelf. Fr'm time to time this can be decorated with lithrachure. But th' shelf is th' main thing.” -- Finley Peter Dunne, “Books,” in Mr. Dooley Says(1910)

Not anymore, it isn’t. Finley Peter Dunne’s “Mr. Dooley” remains, a century later, an unerring commentator on all things political (“No matther whether th' constitution follows th' flag or not, th' supreme court follows th' iliction returns.'') But he could never have imagined a digital age that has put at risk the physical entity—“th’ shelf”—of the library itself.

Nowadays, you see, a shelf means space, and space means money. It won’t do to have too much of the latter. It’s not only corporate and association libraries that are looking to conserve shelf space, but even public libraries.

How else to explain the shameful state of affairs involving the Donnell Library branch of the New York Public Library system? People are rightly shaking their heads over the news from earlier this month that Orient-Express Hotels Ltd. was backing out of its plans to buy the branch building in Midtown Manhattan that contained a real jewel of a multimedia collection.

The Orient-Express deal had been conceived as a means of pumping money into a renovation of the Central Library on 42nd Street. Yet even before the deal came apart, eyebrows should have been raised by the fact that the new place to be created for the Donnell branch—part of a building housing a new hotel—would actually constitute less space—a first floor and an underground area—than the enormously popular branch that closed last year.

Ezekiel J. Donnell, the Irish-born cotton merchant for whom the branch was named, would gag—not only what had become of the building named after him, but how the heads of the library system could engage in such monumental mismanagement and business folly. In the process, they also turned off a number of dedicated, knowledgeable longtime librarians in the branch who couldn’t get over what was happening to the place they had worked so long and so well.

A few months ago, O Magazine featured a story—complete with photos that made this librarian and bibliophile envious—on Oprah Winfrey’s private library. Say what you want about the TV host, but this is a lady who values, like Mr. Dooley, “th’ shelf.” I guess the people in charge of the New York Public Library don’t anymore.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

This Day in Basketball History (Magic, Bird Duel in NCAA Tournament)

March 26, 1979—In what remains the most-watched NCAA final ever, Earvin (Magic) Johnson and Larry Bird gave a preview of their NBA duels over the next decade.

The game itself was anticlimactic, as Indiana State couldn’t compensate for the subpar performance of the double- and sometimes triple-teamed Bird and fell to the Magic-led Michigan State, 75-64. But with the much-ballyhooed show, “March Madness”—the winnowing down of NCAA tournament teams on “The Road to the Final Four”—took a giant step forward, the same way that the Super Bowl did with Joe Namath’s guarantee of victory did before the Jets’ contest with the Baltimore Colts.

Some years ago, after another championship with the Chicago Bulls, Michael Jordan produced much head-shaking when he referred to his teammates as “my supporting cast.” But the ancillary players were precisely the ones who made the difference in the Bird-Johnson final in ’79.

With Bird only connecting seven of 21 field-goal attempts, it was imperative that the rest of the previously undefeated Indiana State players step into the breach. But the next two highest ISU players only produced 27 points. Meanwhile, MSU—already benefiting from Johnson’s 24 points—received an additional boost from the combined 34 from teammates Greg Kelser and Terry Donnelly.

The self-styled “Hick From French Lick” was disconsolate in the lockerroom after the loss, dismayed as much by his inability to produce a victory for the ISU fans he had come to cherish as much as by his poor performance. Years later, this ultimate competitor still politely but firmly declined to discuss the defeat with reporters working on retrospectives—it still hurt too much to remember it all.

But Bird would have other days of glory, as would Magic, of course. Their arrival in the NBA in the coming year would be a godsend for a league suffering from perceptions that its stars were one-dimensional showboats who put their need to shoot before all else.

Bird and Magic revived, in all its glory, the concept of team basketball—the kind that Knick fans of a certain age such as myself still yearn for whenever we remember the mantra “Look for the open man” preached by Coach Red Holtzman.

In the new-look NBA for which Magic and Larry Legend helped to pave the way, one of the emblematic moments became Jordan’s willingness to pass up the chance to win the championship himself by flipping the ball instead to his wide-open teammate John Paxton. It’s the same style that the two future stars of the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics were demonstrating in 1979. In other words, they were elevating the level of the game for their teammates.

Quote of the Day (Moss Hart, on Theater as Escape)

“I have a pet theory of my own, probably invalid, that the theatre is an inevitable refuge of the unhappy child. Like most pet theories, this one also contains the fallacy of too broad a generalization. But certainly the first retreat a child makes to alleviate his unhappiness is to contrive a world of his own, and it is but a small step out of his private world into the fantasy world of the theatre….Here on a brightly lit stage, before a hushed and admiring audience, are people doing the very things he has played out in his fantasies: assuming heroic or villainous guises, bathing in the applause and love of a hitherto hostile world.”—Moss Hart, Act One: An Autobiography (1959) 

Years ago, my college friend Greg Burke urged me to read the theatrical memoir Act One. I knew the author, Moss Hart, from his 1930s comedies with collaborator George S. Kaufman (You Can’t Take It With You, The Man Who Came to Dinner), but didn’t know he had written about himself. 

It took a long time for the seed Greg had planted to grow, but nearly 20 years later, his unchecked enthusiasm, along with my growing interest in the memoir as a genre, led me to hunt down this title.

Within a couple of pages, as Hart related his first exposure to the bright lights of Broadway, as a 12-year-old Bronx youth disregarding his mother’s worries about his safety, I was swept up in his confident voice. 

I don’t have an exact date on this, but Act One was published in September 1959. Though it spent a whole year on the New York Times bestseller list (including 22 weeks in the number-one spot), it fell out of print for awhile, and even after it was reissued in a new edition a few years ago, it didn’t attract much attention. 

The memoir is unlikely even now to receive the kind of 50th-anniversary celebration that, for instance, greeted Lolita and On the Road a few years ago.  More’s the pity--in its way, reality can be as compelling as any fiction. 

As Greg and I, not to mention thousands of other readers, can attest, Hart’s chronicle of his progress from a Dickensian childhood to the toast of the Great White Way has not lost a bit of its verve over the years, even if the world he longed to enter—and finally managed to conquer—has changed in a thousand ways. Great storytelling endures. 

I hope that this year, some critic at a mainstream media outlet—and not simply humble, little-noticed bloggers that I can think of—gives this memoir the affectionate retrospective it deserves. (So far as I know, only one major critic has done so—the Washington Post’s incomparable Jonathan Yardley, who jumped the gun with his reconsideration of the book last year.) 

What accounts for the autobiography’s brilliance? Start with what it isn’t—a stale regurgitation of the greatest hits of a lifetime, a “then-I-met…” chronicle, or a stale retrospective of an entertainer filtered through the anonymous voice of a ghostwriter. 

To be sure, other show-business professionals show up here (most memorably, Kaufman and the now-forgotten Charles Gilpin, a brilliant African-American actor who, after originating the title role of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones, descended into alcoholism and chronic inability to find employment in the theater.) 

But the main character is Hart himself—his hunger, his drive to escape his neighborhood of “dray wagons, pushcarts and immigrants." 

In discussing his breakthrough hit, a satire about Hollywood’s uncertain transition to talkies, Once in a Lifetime (1930), Hart tips his cap to Kaufman not only for his generous public acknowledgment of the younger man’s contribution to their comedy, but for teaching him the whole carpentry of playwrighting—creating initial interest, sustaining suspense, and leaving the audience with a thrilling ending. How well Hart learned these lessons can be seen in this narrative, too. 

I cherish this account for another reason: Over the years, the behind-the-scenes aspects of drama have increasingly intrigued me. Yes, histories of American theater will plumb this book for insight into matters like the “little-theater” movement that gave Hart his start. 

But this memoir stays fresh—and, from what I have heard, has inspired countless theater professionals to this day—in its examination of the psychology of the starry-eyed people who long for the stage and stick with it despite every kind of disappointment. 

Sadly, Hart only lived to write about than less than half of his life, dying of a heart attack (his third) only two years after publication of this book. To fill out the rest of his extraordinary life story—and to see how he smoothed out the rough edges of even what he did cover—you’ll want to turn to Steven Bach’s biography, Dazzler: The Life and Times of Moss Hart

Don’t expect Bach to deliver the effervescence of Hart’s showbiz fable—the writer-producer, after all, had been testing his version of his success story for years, like the Atlantic City tryout of Once in a Lifetime. He had gauged the effect of his telling of certain incidents through early 1930s interviews and, more recently, to wife Kitty Carlisle, who tried to help him overcome insomnia by urging him to relate parts of his life story he had not gotten around to telling her before—in effect, talking himself to sleep.

But Bach does round out the story Hart couldn’t complete—the playwright’s even bigger successes with Kaufman after Once in a Lifetime; his continuing triumph on his own as playwright (Light Up the Sky) and musical collaborator (Lady in the Dark, with Ira Gershwin and Kurt Weill); his screenwriting triumphs (most notably, the Judy Garland remake of A Star Is Born); and, most notably, given his declining health, his rescue from disaster, as sure-handed director, of two Lerner and Loewe musicals, My Fair Lady and Camelot. He also touches on the shadows in the playwright’s life, including depression over his bisexuality. 

Among the points Bach has corrected about Act One are that Hart: 

* Lengthened his purgatory as a Catskills summer-camp social director from four to six years; 

 *Moved back his discovery of Times Square from 1918 to 1916, to heighten his youthful inexperience;

 * Neglected to mention his co-author on plays written during his first days in the theater in the 1920s, Eddie Eliscu; and, most important, 

* Romanticized his Aunt Kate—crediting her with introducing him to the world of theater by taking him to shows, but concealing a mental illness so severe that she made a play for her brother-in-law, then, after being ejected from the household, scrawled curses on the Hart family’s subsequent residences, and even set a fire in a major Broadway theater. 

I’m not one who is fond of altering even small facts in a memoir: They open up avenues to outright fictionalization that often prove impossible to resist, and the discovery of these damages the trust that readers have in the genre. (I’m afraid that one friend’s cynical comment—“They make everything up, anyway”—is all too typical.) 

Stephen Colbert’s term “truthiness” was echoed nearly a half century ago, when director George Abbott told Hart that he had created “a truth-ier truth” about the theater world. Abbott touched on the quality that has made Act One so compelling over the years: The way that those who love the theater most deeply believe that every reverse is crushing and every curtain call a balm to the spirit, the irresistible manner in which it compels you to root for its up-from-the-mean-streets underdog. A show can’t succeed? The facts be damned. 

Over six years ago, I was lucky to see a production of Once in a Lifetime at the Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York. I wish it would be revived on Broadway. Better yet, I wish its creator’s account of its making, Act One, would be embraced by a whole new generation of readers.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Quote of the Day (Henry David Thoreau, with Words Applicable to My Friend Stephanie)

“As surely as the sunset in my latest November shall translate me to the ethereal world,and remind me of the ruddy morning of youth; as surely as the last strain of music which falls on my decaying ear shall make age to be forgotten, or, in short, the manifold influences of nature survive during the term of our natural life, so surely my Friend shall forever be my Friend, and reflect a ray of God to me, and time shall foster and adorn and consecrate our Friendship, no less than the ruins of temples.”—Henry David Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849)

Thoreau loved nature and sought to capture its beauty through the magic of his pen; my friend Stephanie has an equal appreciation of it, and, in the bargain, is possessed of more wanderlust than the New England Transcendentalist. Stephanie’s feelings for nature are conveyed not so much in words, however, as in the striking power of her photography.

Today, on her birthday, I say thank you to Stephanie for her ability to “reflect a ray of God.” I hope she’ll go on doing so for a very, very long time!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Quotes of the Day (on the Necessity—or Lack of Same—for Film Tax Incentives)

“If this tax incentive disappears, so will New York City productions. Without state action to support this much-needed tax relief, many shows and movies, especially independent films, will consider locations outside New York.” -- Bill De Blasio and Steve Buscemi, “The State Needs to Protect New York's Marquee Value,” The New York Daily News, March 20, 2009

“Our interviews with film industry executives and state officials suggest that political dynamics which characterize interstate incentive competition for film production shoots are more than likely to intensify. This view parallels research undertaken on the topic of business location and tax incentives, in spite of the belief that the cumulative effects of such incentive benefits are open to question and frequently doubtful.”--Isaiah A. Litvak and Marilyn M. Litvak, “Economic Development and U.S. State Film Incentives,” Economic Development Journal (Vol. 8, No. 1), Winter 2009

The Daily News has more readers, by several orders of magnitude, than Economic Development Journal, a quarterly publication of the nonprofit organization International Economic Development Council, a group with a mere 4,500 members. Nevertheless, the Litvaks’ analysis of the effectiveness of state film tax incentives deserves to reach a readership as wide as that of the op-ed by DeBlasio and Buscemi (respectively, a New York City councilman representing Brooklyn and the actor-director perhaps best known as The Sopranos’ Tony Blundetto).

In fact, DeBlasio and Buscemi’s argument inadvertently ratifies the Litvaks': i.e., that film execs and lobbyists are playing state governments like an orchestra of virtuosi. That argument boils down to this: If we don’t get that tax incentive, we’ll shoot in Vancouver.

God knows that New York is not the most industry-friendly environment among the states. Nevertheless, to these ears, anyway, the film industry is sounding an awful lot like George Steinbrenner and other sports executives over the years who have continually made noises about relocating their franchises to other, presumably more attractive locales—often after state taxpayers have already given them sweetheart deals on stadiums they built, oh, only 20 years before.

In a time of rapidly massive government deficits, state officials are going to have to look very skeptically at the whole notion of tax incentives for film and other industries. Maybe the advocates are right, but they’re going to have to work much, much harder to prove it. Those deficit shortfalls loom larger than ever, and the American taxpayer will have many more questions about the best way for them to be made up.

Monday, March 23, 2009

This Day in Presidential History (T.R. Goes on African Safari)

March 23, 1909—Less than three weeks after he left the White House he had come to enjoy so much, a wildly appreciative crowd at the New York pier of 23rd Street and Sixth Avenue bade Theodore Roosevelt bon voyage as he left on the S.S. Hamburg for an African safari.

The former President had broached the idea of the trip nine months earlier to Charles D. Walcott, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, which ended up co-sponsoring the expedition with the National Geographic Society.

T.R.’s ostensible purpose was scientific: while hunting big game in Africa, he would collect specimens for the Smithsonian. (Three naturalists wound up accompanying the group.) But he also knew that this would also be a good opportunity for his handpicked successor, William Howard Taft, to emerge from Roosevelt’s shadow.

Things did not work out quite as planned, in terms of the second objective—partly because Taft alienated the Progressive wing of the GOP, and partly because Roosevelt himself had second thoughts about his rash, public re-election promise in 1904 not to pursue another term.

The ex-President returned nearly 15 months later grimly resolved to throw his hatsin with his Progressive supporters, even if it meant splitting the Republican Party—which is what happened two years later, when Roosevelt, running as a Progressive candidate for President, outpolled Taft but divided the GOP enough to ensure victory for Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson.

Even the scientific aspect of the trip was a mixed bag. True, the Smithsonian got its samples. But it’s dismaying that America’s first great conservation President combined with his son Kermit (the expedition’s official photographer) to bag 512 animals just between the two of them alone (the entire group killed more than 6000 animals), including some of the last remaining white rhinos.

Moreover, the publicity bonanza reaped by the expedition led to a surge in “safari tourism” that has endangered wild game in Africa.

I want to discuss another, more successful, aspect of the trip, however: how it bears on the career of Roosevelt as bibliophile and author. I just had to comment here because of my recent post on the reading habits of Presidents.

As TR followed his itinerary—Nairobi, the vicinity of Mt. Kenja, the Loita Plains, Lake Victoria, Lake Albert, then up the Nicole to Khartoum—he lugged along, in a light, shiny aluminum case, a “pigskin library” given him as a gift by sister Corinne. The collection took its name from the fact that most of its books were bound or rebound in pigskin.

The former President’s subsequent account of his trip, African Game Trails (named a “book of the year” by the New York Times), begins with what sounds to my ears like a distant echo of the famous start to Virgil’s Aeneid: “I speak of Africa and golden joys.”

If classical diction found its way into Roosevelt’s writing style, it wouldn’t be surprising, because his collection of 60 volumes in the “pigskin library” included such past (and, in most cases, future) mainstays of the literary canon as Twain, Scott, Cooper, Thackeray, Dickens, Poe, Browning, Emerson, Longfellow, Lowell, Bunyon, Macaulay, Milton, The Federalist Papers, and the Bible.

Then as now, the press loves a controversy, and this time it sought to underscore the difference in the Rough Rider’s reading interests with that of President Charles W. Eliot of Roosevelt’s alma mater, Harvard. Eliot and Roosevelt had famously tangled a year before, when the President and his Assistant Secretary of State, Robert Bacon, had objected strenuously when Eliot suspended two members of Harvard’s rowing team on the eve of its big, closely watched match with Yale. The press made sure they highlighted how T.R.'s reading diverged from the "Harvard Classics" championed by Eliot.

Roosevelt’s penchant for lugging his enormous personal literary collection with him into even the most rough-and-ready environments was inherited by son and namesake Theodore Roosevelt Jr. One of the most vivid sections of Rick Atkinson’s An Army at Dawn related how this rumpled brigadier general carried his copies of Bunyan and a history of medieval England with him into fields of distant battle, and how he regaled senior officers in his unit by reciting from memory long passages from Kipling.

Another echo of the President’s trip found its way into the news of his death in 1919 transmitted by his younger son, Archie. When the ex-President--worn down by exertions of “the strenuous life” and by the death of another son, Quentin in WWI--died in his sleep, Archie informed his brothers in far-off France with a one-sentence cable that not only evoked their father’s ferocity but also his African adventure of ten years before: “The old lion is dead.”

Quote of the Day (Groucho Marx, on Rights to a Name)

“You claim you own Casablanca and that no one else can use that name without your permission. What about ‘Warner Brothers’? Do you own that, too? You probably have the right to use the name Warner, but what about Brothers? Professionally, we were brothers before you were.”—Groucho Marx to Warner Brothers, 1947, from Groucho Marx, The Groucho Letters: Letters From and to Groucho Marx (1967)

The correspondence of Julius “Groucho” Marx was donated, at the institution’s request, to the Library of Congress. You’ll understand why after reading this and almost any randomly selected example from this book, which is more than a record of a life in the movie business but also a virtuouso display of wit.

In this quote, Groucho, on behalf of himself and his brothers, takes on the legal department of Warner Brothers, which threatened a lawsuit over the title of the trio's film A Night in Casablanca. (The studio felt it was too reminiscent of their Oscar-winning picture from five years before, Casablanca.)

One would think that Groucho’s initial response would have put the studio’s legal eagles in their place. Instead, they asked for clarification of the prospective film’s plot—twice—as if any Marx Brothers plot made sense.

The last of his three letters appears, mercifully, to have done the trick, as he explained there’d been “some changes” in the plot: “In the new version I play Bordello, the sweetheart of Humphrey Bogart,” with brothers Chico and Harpo as rug merchants who enter a monastery on a lark—“a good joke on them, as there hasn’t been a lark in the place for fifteen years.”

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Quote of the Day (John Henry Newman, on Each Person’s Work)

“Everyone who breathes, high and low, educated and ignorant, young and old, man and woman, has a mission, has a work. We are not sent into this world for nothing; we are not born at random; we are not here, that we may go to bed at night, and get up in the morning, toil for our bread, eat and drink, laugh and joke, sin when we have a mind, and reform when we are tired of sinning, rear a family and die. God sees every one of us; He creates every soul, . . . for a purpose. He needs, He deigns to need, every one of us. He has an end for each of us; we are all equal in His sight, and we are placed in our different ranks and stations, not to get what we can out of them for ourselves, but to labor in them for Him. As Christ has His work, we too have ours; as He rejoiced to do His work, we must rejoice in ours also.”—John Henry Cardinal Newman, "God's Will the End of Life," from Discourses Addressed to Mixed Congregations (1849)

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Jean Harlow and George W. Bush: Very Unlikely Readers

Kitty (played by Jean Harlow): "I was reading a book the other day..."

Carlotta Vance (played by Marie Dressler—making a full stop at the mere thought of this): “Reading a book?????” –Dinner at Eight (1934), based on the play by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber, screenplay by Frances Marion and Herman J. Mankiewicz, with additional dialogue by Donald Ogden Stewart

“In the 35 years I've known George W. Bush, he's always had a book nearby. He plays up being a good ol' boy from Midland, Texas, but he was a history major at Yale and graduated from Harvard Business School. You don't make it through either unless you are a reader.”—Karl Rove, “Bush Is a Book Lover: A Glimpse of What the President Has Been Reading,” The Wall Street Journal, December 26, 2008

In January, one of the finest ensemble comedies ever produced by Hollywood, Dinner at Eight, had its 75th anniversary. Don’t settle for the bronze remake broadcast in the early 1990s by TNT. Like the bottle-blonde bombshell played by Jean Harlow in the original, don’t take anything less than gold—i.e., the marvelous script and all-star cast magnificently handled by George Cukor.

For my money, the last scene is the best. My description of the dialogue doesn’t do it justice; watch the short but sweet YouTube excerpt.

I confess that I experienced something like Marie Dressler’s feelings of astonishment toward Harlow when I heard that George W. Bush planned in his post-Presidential future to describe “the toughest decisions I had to make and the context in which I made them,” according to his early January interview with Fox News’ Brit Hume. My initial thoughts were distinctly nonplussed: How could the President write a book when he showed few signs of profitably reading any?

The general tendency among recent Presidents is that they don’t write much. One exception has been Jimmy Carter, who, like Theodore Roosevelt when he started a family, made whatever money he could on the strength of his pen.

Look, I know what the ex-President and handlers mean when they say he’s “writing” a book—he’s engaging a ghostwriter to do the heavy labor, despite the claim that he’s producing 1,000 to 1,500 words each morning for his projected volume for Random House, Decision Points.
There’s no harm in this—and, given the state of the economy, you might argue that he’s counteracting at least some of the unemployment his administration did so much to unleash on the global economy.

The one 20th-century President long assumed to be the most gifted writer, Jack Kennedy, we now know, claimed more than his work entitled him. Three decades ago, examining the family archives, historian Herbert S. Parment demonstrated persuasively that JFK was, at best, nothing more than an editor of other people’s work for his collective biography of six senators, Profiles in Courage—a title (and Pulitzer Prize) that did wonders for his credibility with the intelligentsia.

If he wasn’t really a writer, JFK was surely an avid reader. As a child and teen, shuffled off to school by his preoccupied parents, he began the almost daily struggle with health that would plague him, in ways unrevealed for years, all the way to his assassination.

Cursed with poor health, he was blessed with curiosity—a characteristic he indulged continually in long periods in hospitals and school infirmaries. Throughout life, his tastes were idiosyncratic and omnivorous, ranging from David Cecil’s biography of Lord Melbourne to Ian Fleming’s James Bond. (The historical Regency aristocrat and the fictional Cold War spy provided role models, of very different sorts, for the future President.)

Moreover, unlike many people today—including, unfortunately, myself—Kennedy could recite long passages from his favorite works with little or no prompting. At a reunion of PT 109 boatmates in the White House, he launched into Shakespeare’s “St. Crispin’s Day” speech from Henry V (“We band of brothers, we happy few…”). More ominously, on a date with his future wife, JFK rattled off Alan Seeger’s haunting WWI poem best known for its opening line, “I have a rendezvous with death.”

Now, you have to be a pretty serious reader to top all of that. Yet Karl Rove, in his unstoppable urge to wipe the dirt clinging to his old boss’ reputation, has encouraged this comparison by claiming that Dubya gave his counselor a run for his money in a book-reading contest these last three years.

I want you to think about the numbers Rove is putting out there: 95 books in a single year, 2006. By my calculation, Bush’s total would not only surpass Kennedy’s reading pace but just about every other occupant’s in the Oval Office—even Theodore Roosevelt, perhaps the most hyperkinetic, and surely the most overcaffeinated, man ever to live in the White House.

Now, you’d think that, as a librarian, I’d find the idea of a bibliophile in the White House a source of joy. But I had a mixed reaction to Rove’s claim.

Now, I hate the phenomenon of “piling on,” whether it’s inflicted on a football player at the bottom of a dozen 300-pound mastodons or a politician hooted into retirement. Maybe it’s part of my training in parochial school, when the nuns urged charity on us. Or maybe it goes back to a statement from one of the Senators whom JFK celebrated, Thomas Hart Benton: “I despise the bubble popularity that is won without merit and lost without crime.”

So, I’m going to pay the ex-President a compliment he may not have received since, oh, just before the financial meltdown: I’m going to take him seriously—something, you might have noticed, that nobody else has been doing lately. (Down the street from where I work in Rockefeller Center, I swear I can still hear gales of laughter coming from the Cort Theatre, where Will Ferrell has been regaling audiences with You’re Welcome, America: A Final Night With George W. Bush. A broadcast of this event became HBO’s highest-rated comedy event in five years.)

Let’s think a bit more on that number of books claimed by Rove for the ex-President. Tell me, do you really want someone spending that much time with books in the White House? The same year – 2006—that Bush went on his reading spree, Iraq was headed to hell in a hand basket. I mean, I’d much rather that the President read Donald Rumsfeld the riot act than that he read Albert Camus’s The Stranger. (If reading the classic of mid-century existentialism was a brazen attempt to curry favor with the French—well, it didn’t work. Obviously.)

Then I wondered about those numbers that Rove was bandying about. Might he be interpreting the word “book” a little—well, liberally? Was the counselor including the daily briefing books that every modern President reads in the counts? Could the President’s right-hand man have been tempted to count one of those volumes—legendary monstrosities on the order of Norman Mailer’s Harlot’s Ghost (the novel that, after 1,000 pages, concluded with the two most dreaded words in the English language: “To Be Continued”)--as three?

Thoughts nagged me further on this. To save time and eye-doctor bills for the President, could eager assistants have created, to accompany these books, Cliffs Notes versions—those smaller precises that got so many students through high school over the years? Are these versions classified government secrets? Was Rove including these in his total? Was this steroidal inflation of the President’s reading habits itself a classified government secret?

During his administration, the President let himself be seen conspicuously carrying books around such as Jay Winik’s April 1865. (Several years ago, I heard an audience at the Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York rock with laughter when Winik was introduced as “the Bush administration’s favorite historian”—perhaps even harder than they would have if someone else had been named “the Clinton administration’s favorite moral philosopher.”)

Rove writes that you don’t make it through either Yale or Harvard Business School “unless you are a reader.” Well, yes, there is a way—if your father and grandfather were high government officials, making you a prime case of a legacy who, short of totally, totally fouling up, is going to get a pass through school so you can continue the family tradition of endowing the university.

It is striking that, for all the posturing about his reading, not even his closest associates really say that Bush is a curious person. That’s important to bear in mind, as we continue to assess Rove’s claims.

Because when you get right down to it, the simplest test of a statement by a government official is simply whether it sounds credible. Think of it this way: Several years ago, Bush, when asked about his favorite musicians, mentioned the Everly Brothers. Now, that sounds about right to me, and I bet it does to you, too. The duo were pretty big at the time Bush was growing up, and their style of country-influenced rock ‘n’ roll would have been particularly congenial to people from Texas (from which, you might recall, Buddy Holly hailed).

On the other hand, at a Hadassah-Wizo Organization fundraiser in Toronto in July 2002, Bill Clinton came out with this: “If Iraq came across the Jordan River…I would grab a rifle and get in the trench and fight and die (defending Israel).” If you find that a tad…well, over the top…(and I certainly did)...then I’m afraid you’d have to react similarly to Rove’s essay noting that George W. Bush devoured the likes of Dean Acheson, Mark Twain, James McPherson, Hugh Thomas, and the like.

In that light, Rove’s claim is reminiscent of the great Cary Grant line from Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest: “In the world of advertising there’s no such thing as a lie, only the expedient exaggeration.” Government and media types would term this “spin.” You and I, however, have another word for it: baloney.

Quote of the Day (Diablo Cody, on “The Soundtrack to My Life”)

“The soundtrack to my life is pure fondue: cheesy, gooey, prone to accidental seepage.”—Diablo Cody, “The Original Rock Stars,” Entertainment Weekly, May 16, 2008

Friday, March 20, 2009

This Day in Baseball History (Babe Didriksen Hurls Scoreless Frame Against Dodgers)

March 20, 1934—Demonstrating yet another quiver in her amazing repertoire of athletic skills, 23-year-old track-and-field sensation Babe Didrikson took the mound for the Philadelphia A’s, as only the second—and, at this point, still the last—woman to pitch in a major league exhibition game. (The first woman was the “Queen of Baseball,” Lizzie “Spike” Murphy, a dozen years before.)

The first Brooklyn Dodger (yes, Dem Bums!) that Didrikson faced walked; the second was hit with a pitch. Then, displaying a skill that thousands of male pitchers wished they had to this day, she bore down and induced the third batter, Joe Stripp, to hit an easily manageable line drive in an inning-ending triple play.

Her day at the diamond over, this second Babe (do I even have to name the first?) wasn’t even done yet, as she headed over to a nearby golf course and put on a driving exhibition for fans there.

The next day’s headline in the Washington Post was the kind that would have made many a proud male major leaguer groan, then drown his sorrow at the bar: “Brooklyn Fails to Hit or Get Run Off Girl in One Inning.” Good God, how can you endure being beaten by someone who not merely throws like a girl, but is one?

A year or so ago, remembering a mutual friend who had died, someone from my high school marveled at the vibrant woman’s athletic skill. “You know, she could outrun every guy in our class,” he said, still stunned that someone so healthy could die so soon.

Our friend possessed, on a small scale, the skills of Mildred Didrikson Zaharias (the last name came several years after her marriage to professional wrestler George Zaharias). Equally applicable to the two women was Annie Oakley’s song in her faceoff with Frank Butler in the musical Annie Get Your Gun: “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better.” When it came to a feat of skill, they could do virtually anything they turned their attention to.

In the magnitude of her accomplishments and the complexity of her character, Didrikson should be a sports biographer’s dream. I would say she also would make a terrific subject for a big-screen Hollywood film. Someone like writer-director Ron Shelton (Bull Durham, Cobb, Tin Cup), who is as fascinated by women as he is by sports, would know how to convey her unrelenting hunger to succeed, her brashness, her intelligence, and the vulnerability she dared not show the world.

Baseball fans like myself marvel that Babe Ruth excelled as a hitter as well as a pitcher. Well, imagine someone who could do everything that he—or, for that matter, Jim Thorpe—could do, but on an even wider scale: not just baseball, but basketball, track, golf, tennis, swimming, diving, boxing, volleyball, handball, bowling, billiards, skating, and cycling.

Just typing these tires me out! And you can imagine what sportswriters of the time must have felt. One day, she was asked if there was anything she didn’t play.

The two-word reply—fast and smartass—is the kind that made her a dream to cover: “Yeah, dolls.”

Movie fans will recall Didrikson’s cameo in one of the best-loved entries in the entire Spencer Tracy-Katherine Hepburn oeuvre, Pat and Mike (1952), about a female golfer and the male manager who takes her under his Runyonesque wing. That appearance brought to the surface a less attractive quality, albeit one shared with Ruth, Reggie Jackson, Muhammad Ali, and other male athletes too numerous to mention: competitive cockiness.

As reluctant to lose onscreen—in fiction, mind you—as she was in real life, Didrikson persuaded screenwriters Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon to rework their script so she would not choke in a head-to-head matchup with Hepburn’s character.

That maneuver was one that her many opponents on the golf course would have appreciated, as The Babe was known to survey a lockerroom before a tournament and ask, in her East Texas drawl, “What’d y’all show up for? See who’s gonna finish second?”

Over the past decade, biographers of Didrikson and Hepburn have suggested that the two shared something besides screen time and superb athleticism—i.e., an exceptionally shrewd awareness of how to manage the media, as well as tomboyishness that might have shaded into sexual ambivalence. Some of these contentions, I think, ring truer than others, though, which we’ll see in a minute.

Both Didrikson and Hepburn entered the business of image management in the mid-1930s. They found out the hard way that they had to.

Shortly after Didrikson came into the public’s consciousness during the 1932 Olympics by winning the first women’s javelin event and setting a record in the first Olympic 80-meter hurdle, not-so-subtle insinuations began in the media about the athlete’s sexuality—something that her short hair and tomboy exploits did little to quash.

For every Grantland Rice, who marveled that she was “the most flawless section of muscle harmony, of complete mental and physical coordination, the world of sport has ever seen,” there was someone like Joe Williams of the New York World-Telegram, who made no secret of his belief that “It would be much better if she and her ilk stayed at home, got themselves prettied up and waited for the phone to ring.”

It was phrases such as “that ilk” that must have nettled Didrikson, who was bent on attracting notice any which way she could. Why else would a person considered sane challenge the winning horse in the Kentucky Derby to a foot race? Why else would someone so accomplished already insist upon stretching her exploits in ways both small (listing 17 consecutive golf tour wins instead of 13 at her memorial museum) and large (claiming she could type 186 words per minute as a secretary, when her typewriting skills were—shall we say—not even remotely close?) (Her biographer, Susan E. Cayleff, claims that this propensity toward exaggeration derived from her seafaring Norwegian father, but I’m convinced these creative embellishments indicated at least a drop of Celtic blood.)

Her earthiness made her a veritable quote machine (her explanation of how she possessed so much power in so lithe a frame: “You’ve got to loosen your girdle and let it rip!”). But Didrikson recognized she could not win the public’s affection without changing how she was viewed.

In time—strongly encouraged by a friend who actually chased her around the house in an attempt to get her to look more feminine—Didrikson submitted to an extreme makeover involving new clothes, makeup, hairdos, hosiery, and slips. She even married Zaharias, who gave up his wrestling career as “the Weeping Greek from Cripple Creek” to manage her career.

Likewise, Hepburn made an adroit early adjustment that kept her future prospects within view. After a big splash with the first of her four Oscar-winning films, Morning Glory (1933), Hepburn hit a rough patch.

As explained in an October 2006 article in Vanity Fair and at greater length in his book Kate: The Woman Who Was Katharine Hepburn, William J. Mann shows how audiences were particularly confused by her gender-bending film Sylvia Scarlett (1935), in which her character disguised herself as a boy to be with Cary Grant. That film’s failure awakened concerns in Hollywood about her close relationship with BFF Laura Harding, an aristocratic friend who accompanied her when she first came to Tinseltown.

In short order, Hepburn righted herself, taking up more traditional romantic comedies. More attractive than Didrikson, she really did not have to stress her allure as much.

More controversially, Cayleff and Mann delve into their subjects’ sexuality. Of the two biographers, the circumstantial evidence would seem to support Cayleff more.

After a decade, Didrikson and her husband grew more emotionally distant, even as she achieved one triumph after another on the golf tour (including helping to found the LPGA). In the last half-dozen years of her life, that loss of emotional intimacy was made up to some extent by the athlete’s increasing closeness to Betty Dodd, another Texas golfer nearly 20 years her junior. Dodd even came to live in the Zaharias household and to sleep on a hospital cot by her friend’s side when Didrikson contracted the cancer that would kill her.

It’s impossible to say with absolute certainty at this stage, with all the principals dead, whether the Didrikson-Dodd relationship became overtly sexual. Lending at least some support to the notion is Zaharias’ resentment over being supplanted by Dodd, and his refusal to grant Didrikson a divorce.

Mann, I believe, is on somewhat shakier ground in presenting evidence for Hepburn’s bisexuality, partly because the actress had more male lovers than Didrikson (in addition to Spencer Tracy, there was also Howard Hughes and John Ford) and partly because he claims that not only was Hepburn bisexual, but also, on far flimsier evidence, Tracy.

By the time of her death, Didrikson had come a long way from the young woman who had shut out the Dodgers. In one sense, any discussion of her private life will lack nuance, in that notions of sexuality in that pre-Stonewall age are far murkier than we could understand today.

At the same time, such discussions can’t be entirely foregone. Like Hepburn’s, Didrikson’s career was built on defying stereotypes and forging an independent path in a male-dominated world. Infinite craft was involved in that process, and more than a little bravery.

And here is where I admire Didrikson the most: She displayed that same courage in defying the opponent she couldn’t defeat, cancer.

Only 14 weeks after an operation to remove cancerous lymph nodes, Didrikson played in a tournament again, and within another year she had won five more titles, including her third U.S. Open. As one of the first celebrities to admit openly to having cancer, she proved a powerful fundraiser in the fight against the disease in the few years she had remaining before her death in 1956.

Quote of the Day (John Wooden, on a “Perfect Day”)

“You can’t live a perfect day without doing something for someone who will never be able to repay you.”—Basketball Hall of Fame coach John Wooden

Thursday, March 19, 2009

This Day in Television History (C-Span Begins)

March 19, 1979—In a post-Watergate measure designed to ensure greater accountability and transparency, the House of Representatives went on television, as public TV and cable’s C-Span network began regular live coverage of congressional floor proceedings.

The hope for the new medium was expressed by the first representative to speak before the cameras, Al Gore Jr. The Democrat from Tennessee observed: “It is a solution for the lack of confidence in government. The marriage of this medium and of our open debate have the potential, Mr. Speaker, to revitalize representative democracy.”

It’s good that the future Vice-President used a rather than the before “solution,” because at this point, “lack of confidence in government” is perhaps more rife now than it was after the seamy revelations of Vietnam and Watergate. The solution to the lack of confidence, I’d say, is competent people who govern honestly. But there’s the rub!

Gore’s statement, however, does raise a question: Has C-Span changed the way Washington does business?

In a certain way, yes. Approximately 97 million cable/satellite households have access to C-Spa’s public affairs programming, and the notion that 39 million American watch it at least once a week should put a chill down the spine of corrupt lawmakers.

Only, as we’ve come to know well over the years, it hasn’t. A certain breed of politicians (cynics would say all of them) would try to steal a hot stove if they could.

C-Span has at least provided the following:

* Opportunities for politicians to check each other. Newt Gingrich took advantage of House rules that allowed members to make after-hours speeches when only C-Span cameras were around, repeatedly charging the Democratic leadership with corruption. House Speaker Tip O’Neill, who’d pushed for the live programming to begin with, finally got disgusted with Gingrich's bombast and ordered the cameras to pan all around the room to show the empty chamber.

* Nonpartisan coverage of politics. Conservatives gravitate toward Fox News and liberals toward MSNBC. The other various broadcast and cable networks, along with blogs and talk radio, have become increasingly partisan as well. C-Span is the one institution that airs House and Senate proceedings in full, and, whether you’re a devotee of Noam Chomsky or the American Enterprise Institute, you can hear them in full, unadulterated, in speeches that the 24-hour network broadcasts.

Quote of the Day (Spinal Tap, on How One Perk of Rock Stardom Passed Them By)

“We tried. There was no interest.”—Nigel Tufnel (played by Christopher Guest) of the “band” Spinal Tap, responding to the question, “How come there has never been a Spinal Tap sex-tape scandal?”, quoted in Michael Hogan, “Fanfair: Tour de Farce,” Vanity Fair, March 2009

“Duder,” in her blog “I’m Not Running Anymore,” wrote that she “almost fell off my chair laughing” when she read the above “interview”, as “Spinal Tap” prepares to celebrate its 25th anniversary this year. I had the same reaction.

Fans of This Is Spinal Tap will be delighted to hear that the group is intending to mount an acoustic concert series: “Unwigged, Unplugged, and Undead.” ‘Nuff said, dude!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Quote of the Day (Rose Kennedy, on Her Reaction to Tragedy)

“I just made up my mind that I was not going to be vanquished.”—Rose Kennedy to Barbara Walters, five years after the death of her son Jack and four months after Bobby’s assassination, quoted in Caitlin Flanagan, “The Uses of Enchantment,” The Atlantic Monthly, June 2008

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Exchange of the Day (Rickey Hendon and Barack Obama, on the Ethnicity of the Latter’s Surname)

ILLINOIS STATE SENATOR RICKEY “HOLLYWOOD” HENDON: “Senator, could you correctly pronounce your name for me? I’m having a little trouble with it.”
HENDON: “Is that Irish?”
OBAMA: “It will be when I run countywide.”—March 13, 1997, quoted in Ryan Lizza, “The Political Scene: Making It: How Chicago Shaped Obama,” The New Yorker, July 21, 2008

I only got around to reading Lizza’s long but (for a Presidential junkie like myself) compelling article a few weeks ago, even though it was published during the summer, as the candidate pondered his vice-presidential choice.

I can imagine the editors’ primary intention in assigning this—i.e., to chronicle Obama’s rise up the greasy pole of Chicago politics. But it also implicitly highlights Obama’s similarities to Jack Kennedy as simultaneously a transitional and transformational candidate and President.

The above exchange is a good place to start seeing what I mean. Rickey Hendon’s question was scornful rather than informational, because he knew all too well the pronunciation and derivation of Obama’s last name. What the African-American politician (now Assistant Majority Leader of the state general assembly) was about to do was to rough up Illinois’ new state senator—a guy who had come out of nowhere, at least as far as Chicago politics was concerned, and beat out Hendon’s colleague Alice Palmer for the State Senate seat.

Obama’s response to the question about whether the name is Irish—witty and whip-smart—recalls the JFK who charmed the nation in his thousand-day administration. (One of the latter’s better lines, upon being told that the Republican National Committee had adopted a resolution stating that he was “pretty much a failure,” was: “I assume it passed unanimously.”)

Wit has not always been so prominent in Obama’s political skills set, but many other aspects of his personality and ascent parallel JFK’s. There was, crucially, the question of a style and background that seemed a step removed from the urban group he represented.

JFK won his first Congressional election in the twilight of an era when Irish-American voters in Boston still resented slights they’d received since the emigration resulting from the Great Potato Famine of the 1840s. His wife Jackie would later be surprised in his Presidential race that so many would hold her husband’s Catholicism against him—he was simply not serious about his faith in the same way that his brother Bobby was. (The one-liner that aptly sums up the two brothers’ attitudes: Jack was the first Irish Brahmin, while Bobby was the last Irish Puritan.)

As the son of an African father and a white mother, Obama seemed at times alien to a civil-rights establishment that had arisen in reaction to white dominance of city politics. His defeat of Alice Palmer was avenged in his unsuccessful Congressional race of 1999, when he lost to Congressman Bobby Rush by an embarrassingly high margin.

In addition, the attempt to find a sense of place figured prominently in both men’s lives. Recall New York Times columnist David Brooks’s famous description of Obama -- a man who, before he won the Presidency, was as restless in jobs as he was in places--as a “sojourner.”

It might surprise people who recall the Kennedys in Massachusetts, but so was JFK. Before his decision to run for Congress in 1946, JFK had been in all kinds of places—London (where his father had served ingloriously as U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain), New York (where Joseph Kennedy transplanted the family out of disgust with the Protestant establishment in Massachusetts), Los Angeles (where Joe Kennedy's brief ambition to become a movie mogul furnished his son with plenty of subsequent opportunities to date starlets), not to mention the South Pacific (his WWII service).

Key to both men extending their reach beyond their original audience were their successful overtures to the academic community. JFK did some intense courting of academics in the run-up for the Presidency; Obama, by reaching out to upper-middle-class, often white voters in Chicago’s Hyde Park.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day, Senator O’Bama!

Monday, March 16, 2009

This Day in Literary History (The Singing Career That James Joyce Threw Away)

March 16, 1904—In a Dublin singing contest, 22-year-old James Joyce, taking a break from writing poorly remunerated book reviews, won a bronze medal. Hoping for more, however, the disgusted entrant subsequently tossed the medal into the city’s Liffey river.

As prone to vent his anger as to reshape the English language, Joyce’s seemingly perverse action over the Feis Ceoil, an annual celebration of Irish traditional music, dancing and other cultural traditions, led many people to shake their heads over how odd and contrary he could be. And yes, he certainly held no small opinion of his worth.

In this case, though, his action might have resulted more from poverty than from egotism. A credible source for believing this was Oliver St. John Gogarty (the inspiration for “stately, plump Buck Mulligan” of Ulysses). In his memoir Intimations (1950), the writer-doctor recalled that his onetime friend had been poor at the time of the contest.

Consequently, Gogarty concluded, with the medal “useless for barter,” Joyce had simply chosen to get rid of it.

Quote of the Day (Rod Steiger, on the Importance of the Actor)

"The actor reminds people of the poetry of being alive."—Rod Steiger (1925-2002), quoted by Lillian and Helen Ross, The Player: A Profile of an Art (1962)

I discovered this title by the Ross sisters at a used-book sale at my local library. The Rosses (Lillian was a lifelong staff writer at The New Yorker) interviewed 55 actors and actresses (ranging from Cedric Hardwicke to Patty Duke), then reprinted the results, without the filter of their own questions.

The effect was to make themselves invisible and shine the spotlight on the actors—a refreshing (and, it now turns out, a far more journalistically ethical) approach to interviewing than that perpetrated by the New York Times Magazine’s snarky and execrable Deborah Solomon.

Turning to this book’s profiles at random, I’ve been struck not so much by the biographical details but by how the actor conceives of his work. Steiger’s self-insights, particularly in light of his subsequent career, are especially illuminating.

If Steiger was aiming for poetry, it must have been George Crabbe’s “Peter Grimes,” Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour,” or Edwin Arlington Robinson’s “Richard Cory”—all imbued with the bone-deep alienation, depression, and loneliness of “being alive.” The actor himself was fully, like the title of the Robert Frost poem, “Acquainted With the Night.”

Steiger’s most memorable characters were irrevocably scarred by disappointment or terror—Marty, the lovelorn butcher, in Paddy Chayefsky’s eponymous teleplay; Charlie, the mobbed-up lawyer brother of Marlon Brandon in On the Waterfront; Sol Nazerman, the haunted Holocaust survivor of The Pawnbroker; and Bill Gillespie, the racist police chief who eventually lets down his guard to Sidney Poitier’s Northern, African-American detective in In the Heat of the Night, the film that finally netted Steiger a long-deserved Oscar. Even the one dominant real-life character played by the actor, Napoleon, was, at Steiger conceived him, a drug addict.

Similarly, Steiger’s villains, though they might strike fear into your heart, were tormented, not hissable. Judd in the otherwise sunny Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma is a brooding solitary, hopelessly cut off from a community coming together out in a West that, he feels, has no place for him. And, in one of his true tour-de-force performances, as Christopher Gill in the underrated 1968 thriller No Way to Treat a Lady, Steiger shows how the multiple disguises of this serial killer spring from a sharply fractured personality who feels irresistibly compelled to lead police on a cat-and-mouse manhunt.

The more you read about his life, the more you feel that Steiger was inevitably drawn to these lost souls because he himself was one. An only child, he never knew his father, and over the course of his life he was married five times.

The sharp falloff in his career after winning the Oscar in 1968 might simply have been due to the bad choices that actors often make. But a 1979 cardiac operation and subsequent convalescence left Steiger clinically depressed, to the point where he thought for several years of killing himself and his wife of the time.

The quality of his roles did not improve from that point on, but I hope that Steiger found the relief he needed—some sort of recompense, anyway, for the light he shed in the early, brilliant part of his career, on people who’d live like you and me except for the fact that they find themselves, through no fault of their own, cut off from the light.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

This Day in Film History (Liz and Dick Wed)

March 15, 1964—Starting a whole new act in their turbulent life together, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor—the screen stars whose illicit romance on the set of Cleopatra made that film the talk of the world even before it opened—married in Montreal.

"For some reason the world has always been amused by us two maniacs," Burton observed not long before his death 20 years later.

The “amusement,” if one could call it that, was certainly in evidence upon their return to the United States after their wedding. In Boston, by the time they had gotten to an elevator, crazed fans had torn the sleeve off Burton’s jacket and chunks of hair and an earring from Taylor.

As a teenager, whenever I heard the media refer to James Taylor and Carly Simon as “the Burton and Taylor of rock ‘n’ roll,” I knew instantly what was meant: an impossibly rich and glamorous couple famed almost as much for their romances and substance abuse as for their wealth and the high (if often uneven) quality of their work.

Some years ago, I read excerpts in Vanity Fair Magazine from Burton’s diary, which he began a year after his marriage to Taylor. Seldom have I read more intelligent and better-written diary entries, and certainly not from someone in a profession more given to saying someone else’s words than creating one’s own.

At the same time, I don’t know, outside of the journals of John Cheever, if I’ve ever read a more self-loathing diarist. Much of the problem derived simply from Burton’s belief that his magnificent gifts were given to a profession that, on the scale of things, was simply useless. "I loathe loathe loathe acting. I loathe it, hate it, despise, despise – for Christ's sake – it," he wrote.

Extramarital affairs in the film world are hardly shocking anymore. But, when Cleopatra was being filmed in the early 1960s, it was still a big deal. Movie stars had only recently emerged from a studio system that cosseted its stars with all sorts of insulation, including publicists who knew how to spike a story with newspapers.

When photos of married stars Burton and Taylor "canoodling" flashed around the world, then, the surprise was palpable and the condemnation (the Vatican accused her, already infamous for stealing Debbie Reynolds’ husband Eddie Fisher, of “erotic vagrancy”) swift.

Over the years, the press and public came to associate the lives they portrayed onscreen together with the couple’s offscreen turbulent relationship—not just the infamous historical Antony-Cleopatra relationship at the heart of their hugely disastrous film (originally budgeted for $3 million, it ended up costing $42 million, or $300 million in today’s money), but also Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Taming of the Shrew, and—in a sorry indication of their eroding relationship and taste in roles—the TV film Divorce His/Divorce Hers.

After a dozen years, countless public shouting matches and private infidelities, the marriage was no more. But the two actors still cared for each other. Why?

In his case, it was that voice—not just the famous speaking one that, at its best, made audience members the world over want to go out and buy Shakespeare and Dylan Thomas, but also, as I’ve just suggested, that voice on the page—rueful, remorseful and passionate about her.

What about her? Garry Trudeau, in a title inspired by one “Doonesbury” character’s description of her at a low point in her life ("A Tad Overweight, But Violet Eyes to Die For") caught one obvious physical aspect of her appeal. But there was also her humor and, above all, her fierce loyalty.

Norman Mailer once termed Norman Podhoretz a “foul-weather friend”—i.e., someone who provided help invariably only when things were worst. As such male friends as Montgomery Clift, Peter Lawford, Rock Hudson, Roddy McDowell, and Michael Jackson learned over the years, Taylor was very much this type. There are far worse things to be in Hollywood, a place where, if you want to be sure of a friend, you'd better get a dog.

Debbie Reynolds and the Vatican were right—if you were a wife, you would definitely want to hide your husband if Taylor were within the vicinity. But in my book, humor and loyalty redeem an awful lot about a life.

Shortly before he died, explaining his ex’s appeal, Burton remarked to fellow actor John Hurt: “She still fascinates.” All her other surviving husbands and lovers would undoubtedly agree, as does the world, even as she struggles with illness (congestive heart failure) and the old age that beauty-besotted actors--like tempestuous lovers Liz and Dick--dread.

Quote of the Day (A Fordham Co-Ed, on “Facebook Fasting”)

“I went to church, and I thought what would actually bring me closer to God or give me a better sense of self? What takes up time in my day? Facebook.”—Rebecca, a Fordham University student, discussing why she gave up her five-to-10 hours per week surfing Facebook, quoted in Marlene Naanes, “Saving ‘Face’ With God: Catholics Give Up Networking Site for Lent,” AM New York, March 10, 2009

Dear Rebecca,

If, by the magic of the Internet, you or one of your friends comes across this post, I hope you’ll reconsider your decision. It might be one thing if a friend was urging you to do so.

But this plea might have more credibility coming from someone like myself, a middle-aged technophobe who, unlike you, still hasn’t mastered all the nuts and bolts of Facebook over the course of a few weeks: Sacrificing Facebook is not the best way to get closer to God.

To start with, despite everything you may have heard in elementary and high school, perhaps even college, Lent is less about sacrificing things in your life than about rededicating yourself to God. If it means closing out the distractions in your life—to go, as “Desiderata” says, “placidly amid the noise and haste of this world”—fine. But otherwise, boiled down to its most absurd extreme, Lent becomes a mere 40-day dieting program instead of the searching reexamination of our lives that it should be.

Even giving up Facebook, I think, would be counterproductive. I write this as someone who, though appalled at its lowering of traditional privacy barriers, believes strongly in its power to bring people together. Even the pope has hailed that and other social networks for “forging friendships and understanding,” though he warns that it can’t replace real social interaction.

Facebook’s unparalleled power to communicate and draw people together can be a powerful tool to help you and other Catholic students, at Fordham and elsewhere, do something meaningful for God during Lent.

Sure, some people have been known to report on the most idle doings of their day while online—and to engage just about everyone they know in the most time-wasting chatter. But how about putting Facebook to better uses?

Why not create, if you haven’t done so already, online communities for dealing with the most pressing problems that face and their communities today? Here is just a partial inventory of voluntary work crying to be done, and readers are invited to add to the list:

* Helping the elderly—men and women often suddenly and catastrophically hit with health problems, and frequently suffering from loneliness and depression—in hospitals, elder-care facilities or their own homes;

* Work at a foodbank or homeless shelter to aid those without food or a home;

* Volunteer at libraries—institutions used now more than ever by people looking for jobs or simply wanting entertainment they can obtain for free, but institutions also among the first to be targeted for draconian budget cuts;

* Join organizations for helping victims of emergencies (e.g., the “Seeds for Haiti” program, designed to get bean and corn seeds for Haitian farmers devastated by hurricanes, tropical storms and other weather-related disasters)

The list can go on and on. The point is to draw people together so they can connect—and act. Facebook can be an essential part of this process.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

This Day in Revolutionary War History (Alexander Hamilton Calls for Emancipating Black Soldiers)

March 14, 1779—A marginalized product of a slaveholding society, Col. Alexander Hamilton, wrote to the new president of the Continental Congress, John Jay, enthusiastically backing a proposal for freeing black slaves who fought in the Continental Army.

The idea had been pushed by Hamilton’s friend John Laurens. Hamilton’s fellow aide-de-camp to George Washington was in a real position to influence the future American republic’s attitude toward slavery—his father, the outgoing President of the Continental Congress, was also a major slaveholder in South Carolina. Now young Laurens—who matched Hamilton in his impetuosity and vehement abolitionism—was returning to his native state, hoping for congressional approval to raise two to four black battalions.

It might surprise some to discover that the man that Ron Chernow, in his epic biography Alexander Hamilton, called a “capitalist prophet” came so strongly to oppose slavery. Maybe the views of the future Secretary of the Treasury were aroused so strongly because in his way, he was as much an outcast as the slaves.

In his biography The Young Hamilton, James Thomas Flexner explored at great length the role of illegitimacy in spurring Hamilton’s quest for glory. Another spur—not too far removed from that—was the persistent rumor that Hamilton was a mulatto or quadroon.

No documentary evidence exists to support the latter notion. But the fact so many children in Hamilton’s West Indies were the products of miscegenation lent a credence to the rumor that the fiercely ambitious young man may have decided it was time to stop—by striking at the institution itself.

Moreover, the teenage Hamilton’s attitudes were crucially affected by his work in the St. Croix trading firm of Beekman and Cruger, where he not only saw for himself the pitiful physical condition of slaves, but also heard stories from sailors about the slaves’ harrowing transatlantic crossing.

The third strain in Hamilton’s thinking stemmed from a characteristic that he shared with the most important father figure in his life, George Washington: a realism born from fighting a difficult war. The daily struggles of provisioning an army without the benefit of sound currency or a strong central government had already impressed itself upon Washington’s aide. But now, he saw, the British were using slavery as a dagger aimed at the heart of the revolution.

Back in 1775, Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia, had given notice of Britain’s line of attack by promising freedom for any slave or indentured servant who fought for the crown. The impact was much like Abraham Lincoln’s similar but more famous “emancipation proclamation” in the Civil War: slaves escaped plantations in droves, depriving the southern economy of a crucial source of labor where slaveholding masters were waging war in defense of “freedom.”

By the time Hamilton wrote his letter in 1779, the British were bringing that war home in a far more devastating way to the South. Gen. Henry Clinton had decided to cut off the Southern colonies. In short order, the British took Savannah and Augusta, and South Carolina was coming within their sights.

Given all of this, Hamilton’s letter to Jay supports Laurens’ position with the same argument that President Lincoln would use for emancipation during the Civil War: the doctrine of military necessity. “I hardly see how a sufficient force can be collected without it; and the enemy’s operations there are growing infinitely serious and formidable.”

Lest Jay miss the point, Hamilton struck harder with it a few sentences later: “If we do not make use of them, the enemy will…and the best way to counteract the temptations they will hold out will be to offer them ourselves.” Hamilton was even prepared to use the slaves’ condition as an argument for their potential: their ingrained “habit of subordination” would make them ideal soldiers.

But Hamilton could not help traces of humane thinking creep into his analysis. He strenuously objected to the idea that they would be “too stupid to make soldiers,” and he argued that such thinking “makes us fancy many things that are founded neither in reason nor experience.”

One of those people who would disseminate such notions was Hamilton’s future rival in political philosophy, Thomas Jefferson. In Notes on the State of Virginia, the Sage of Monticello reeled off a whole slew of pseudoscientific notions, down to the quality of their skins, arguing for their basic inequality with whites, concluding with:

“Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me, that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous.

Southern attitudes toward slavery turned out to be closer to Jefferson’s than Hamilton’s. Laurens’ proposal not only could not overcome their opposition to a full battalion on their home soil (though Washington, coming around to the Hamilton-Laurens notion, eventually brought 5,000 slaves in his army, who, provided much of the so-called "ditch-digging" duties that made it easy for Washington to assign soldiers as needed).

Within 15 years, however, a couple of developments made it more unlikely that it would never happen without resort to arms.

First, Southern abolitionism lost its most effective advocate when Laurens himself died in 1782, in a senseless skirmish fought after Yorktown, when American victory had been essentially secured.

Second, 15 years to the day Hamilton wrote his letter to Jay, Eli Whitney received a patent for his cotton gin. Before, Southern planters would be lucky to wrest a pound of cotton a day from their crop; now, they could harvest 50 times that amount. The invention revived a Southern economy that had been battered by the war and still, in many cases, hadn’t recovered.

Yet Hamilton’s opposition did not go for naught. If Laurens was no longer around to push abolitionism on the Southern front, Hamilton could do so in his home state of New York. In the mid-1780s, he and Jay helped found the New-York Society for Promoting the Manumission of Slaves. In 1799, the state passed legislation freeing slaves gradually. By July 4, 1827, slavery finally ended in the Empire State.

That fact should not be allowed to just sit there. Remember that, when Hamilton came to New York as a King’s College (later Columbia University) student in the 1770s, more than three thousand slaves lived in New York City and more than 15,000 throughout the colony.

Here’s another way to put those numbers in perspective: next to Charleston, New York was the largest slaveholding city in British North America. Yet 50 years later, while slavery had become far more entrenched in the South, its moral legitimacy had eroded in the Empire State—in no small measure attributable to Hamilton.

Perhaps more tellingly, Hamilton’s doctrine of military necessity came to be practiced not only by Lincoln (another young man revolted by the practice of slavery) but by Robert E. Lee. In January 1865, Robert E. Lee had adopted Hamilton’s position for the South in the Civil War. Two months after Lee’s letter, in its final desperate days, the Confederate Congress authorized Jefferson Davis to recruit slaves as soldiers, with the permission of their owners.

Too little, too late, of course--as John Laurens and his great and good friend, Colonel Hamilton, could have told them.