Friday, July 31, 2009

Red Sox Nation on Mass Suicide Watch

"I think you clean up the game by the testing. I test you, you test positive, you're going to be out. Period. If I test positive using any kind of banned substance I'm going to disrespect the game, my family, my fans and everybody. And I don't want to face the situation so I won't use it. I'm sure everybody is on the same page."—Boston Red Sox “slugger” David Ortiz, quoted by Nick Cafardo, “Deep Thoughts From Ortiz,” “Extra Bases: Red Sox Updates and Insights,” The Boston Globe, Feb. 16, 2009


Sorry. It’s out of my system now.

Don’t get me wrong: I have no wish to poke fun at Big Papi himself. One of my cousins, a trustworthy, discerning fellow if I ever saw one, told me a few weeks ago at a party that he had had the pleasure earlier in this decade of meeting Ortiz in the Caribbean, where the DH-first baseman was playing winter ball.

My cousin was mightily impressed with the affability and lack of ego of Ortiz, who, at that time, expressed the hope that he might land with one of two contenders: the Yankees or the Red Sox. Obviously, we know how that turned out.

Ortiz could have gotten a dig in at A-Rod (who would have deserved it a thousand times over) earlier this year for testing positive, as more than one of his teammates have done in the past. Instead, he was the soul of graciousness.

No, my beef is not with the Bosox DH, but with the Red Sox Nation that lionized him beyond all reason. For the last year or so, they’ve been crowing an awful lot that they’ve won the World Series twice in the last six years, reversing Babe Ruth’s curse, and without benefit of the juicing that went on in the Bronx Zoo.

Now, it looks as if all that moral preening was a trifle premature. The Yankees and Mets (another New York sports team that administered the Curse of the Bambino when the Yankees were out of the running one year) were so heavily represented in the Mitchell Report on performing-enhancing drugs (PEDs) only because baseball's designated investigator (and Bosox investor) was able to land one hanger-on from these two ballclubs to point the finger at their teams. Only a bunch of idiots would have thought that their own club wouldn’t have their share of juicers.

But, as they’ve pointed out in the most tiresome manner over the last several years, the self-styled “Idiots” have all been up at Fenway, rockin’ and rollin’ their way since 2004.

This morning, wondering how Red Sox Nation was taking the news that Big Daddy had tested positive for PEDs, I got a copy of the nerve center for the crazed fans, the Boston Globe. There, tucked into the lower left-hand corner of the editorial pages, was the most expected, if predictable, of hand-wringing headlines: “Say It Ain’t So, Papi.”

Any publication whose parent company (The New York Times) possesses a 17% ownership claim in an organization they cover would, under normal circumstances, be afraid of conflict-of-issues questions—unless, of course, you’re the insufferably smug Globe, which has that close financial relationship with the Red Sox. Then, you cater to a fan base that at the moment looks bent on mass suicide over their favorite.

Several weeks ago, I had a friendly argument with a co-worker about my contention that Big Papi was taking steroids, HGH, or something else not yet detected. “Spoken like a Yankee fans,” he said dismissively.

Now, I could say that I take no pleasure in events proving me right. But if I did, I’d be like Big Papi, in the statement above: i.e., lying through my teeth.

Sorry. I couldn’t resist. It won’t happen again…

Where was I?

Oh, yeah…

I’d like to say that I had some special deductive powers that led to my conclusions about Ortiz. But I’m not Sherlock Holmes in the slightest. I didn’t have special knowledge that anyone who follows baseball with even mild interest didn’t have already. All the facts were in plain sight, like Edgar Allan Poe’s “Purloined Letter.”

For me, three sets of circumstances clinched the case:

* Before coming to the Red Sox, Ortiz posted no special numbers in six seasons with the Minnesota Twins. As noted by Russell Wight on the Web site “Bleacher Report,” he averaged .266 and one home run in 29 plate appearances. The Twins, one of the better organizations at nurturing young talent, were willing to let him go—perhaps thinking he might find it hard to overcome his tendency to strike out often. By the end of 2003, though, Ortiz had hit 31 homers, on his way to a five-year stretch when he and fellow juicer Manny Ramirez formed the most devastating 1-2 punch since Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris in their 1960-64 heyday.

* How to explain, then, the home run surge? The consequence of batting in front of Ramirez? Of playing in a hitter-friendly park? Of a promising hitter coming into his own? Of superior coaching by the Red Sox staff succeeding where others had failed? Puh-leez. Overcoming a penchant for strikeouts, and for raising one’s home run totals and batting average, can’t be done so dramatically, so instantly, without better health or peace of mind. Unless you have pharmacological assistance, of course.

* By the end of the 2007 season, Ortiz was not only being hailed as the greatest clutch hitter in Red Sox history but as the greatest clutch hitter of his generation. A few even wondered if he might be the greatest clutch hitter of all time. It didn’t take me longer to figure out what was wrong with this picture.

Now, of course, it’s all changed. The criticism that Curt Schilling justifiably directed at Jose Canseco now applies equally well to Ortiz: he accomplished nothing significant in his career without the benefit of PEDs.

How different with other known users. Say what you will about Barry Bonds, but he was on the way to career totals of 500 homers and 500 stolen bases—numbers that, by themselves, would have guaranteed him a plaque in Cooperstown—before he made his disastrous decision to check out Balco's offerings. Even Alex Rodriguez (who, as my longtime readers know, I have little if any affection for) at least has been a five-tool player.

But Ortiz? Take away the home run and batting average marks that, we now know, were chemically enhanced, and what do you have? A guy who can’t throw, who is such a menace in the field that the DH could have been invented for him, and who can only steal a base when the entire infield decides it’s time for a mass siesta.

At the same time that Ortiz’s reputation is being reevaluated, we might want to do the same thing with the two wonder boys of baseball management, Billy Beane and Theo Epstein.

Earlier in this decade, with one playoff appearance after another, Beane’s "Moneyball" philosophy was the talk of baseball. Nowadays, with his team far out of the running, it’s fair to wonder if Joe Morgan wasn't right in wondering how much of its earlier success owed to all the talk about on-base percentage versus having some young guns on the mound and a guy who was hailed as the second coming of Lou Gehrig—a juicer by the name of Jason Giambi.

And Epstein? Even before the revelation about Ramirez and Ortiz, the Mitchell Report noted that the Sox GM used to inquire about players’ steroid use before going ahead with deals. Even after being told that reliever Eric Gagne had been a user, Epstein pulled the trigger on bringing him to the team. Not exactly rewarding integrity, was he?

Likewise, the Mitchell Report fingered Jeremy Giambi—who, incidentally, preceded Ortiz on the Bosox depth chart at DH at the start of ’03—as a PED user.

And this might not be all. Earlier today, pitcher Bronson Arroyo said he wouldn’t be surprised if he were one of the 100 or so unnamed players still left on the PED list from ’03, as he used androstenedione and amphetamines before they were banned by baseball.

Who else might be else on the list? Once I never gave a second’s thought to the possibility that Pedro Martinez might be, but since the revelations about A-Rod in the winter, it’s been known that the former great Red Sox pitcher was one of a number of players (including known users A-Rod, Miguel Tejada, Juan Gonzalez, and Ruben Sierra) linked to Angel Presinal, who major league baseball felt was so unsavory that it banned him from the private areas of every ballpark after he was caught with a "gym bag full of steroids" meant for Gonzalez in 2001.

The more Ortiz goes on, the more likely he is to damage the reputation he developed with fans ever since his arrival in Beantown. His latest statement is a beaut: “I am trying to find out what's going on. When I get my stuff together, I'll let you guys know.”

What’s there to find out? He used ‘roids or he didn’t, and can say so accordingly.

Ortiz is signed through the end of the 2010 season, but I wonder if Epstein might not buy out the contract and release him a year earlier. The “slugger” will be facing something he’s seldom known in his time with the Bosox: a skeptical press. The questions are going to mount about how much his recent slump is due to the normal injuries a 30-plus player has versus the sudden, irrevocable decline that so many PED users experience.

Like the Baltimore Orioles’ front-office power Frank Cashen in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Epstein has been remarkably unsentimental over the last few years, dealing fan favorites like Bill Mueller, Kevin Millar, Derek Lowe and Dave Roberts when he felt their time was up. I’d be surprised if he didn’t act in a similar fashion with Ortiz.

For all too many in Red Sox Nation, this week represented the end of the innocence. The shame of it is that they should have realized it sooner.

Quotes of the Day (Edwin Edwards and Peter Cammarano, Demonstrating Touching Confidence in The Electorate)

“The only way I can lose this election is if I’m caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy.”—Former Louisiana Governor (and current jailbird) Edwin Edwards, handicapping to reporters his chances of winning a 1983 election against GOP opponent Dave Treen, quoted by Jeremy Alford, “The Cajun Express,” The Independent Weekly (Lafayette, La.), September 28, 2008

“Right now, the Italians, the Hispanics, the seniors are locked down. Nothing can change that now. I could be, uh, indicted, and I’m still gonna win 85 to 95 percent of those populations.”—Just-resigned Hoboken Mayor Peter Cammarano III (the guy in the accompanying photo, doing the perp walk), discussing his prospects for winning a runoff election for his office last year, quoted in United States of America v. Peter Cammarano III and Michael Schaffer

Mr. Cammarano, you just have been, uh, indicted. Your unique political science theory is about to be put to the test in ways you couldn’t imagine in 2008.

Unlike ex-Gov. Edwards—who displayed such a raffish charm that his bid for a pardon by George W. Bush was supported by politicians in both parties, even old rival Dave Treen—Cammarano has displayed only monstrous hypocrisy. He campaigned as a reformer, if you can believe that—bringing to mind the adage by columnist James J. Kilpatrick that reform consists of throwing your rascals out and putting my rascals in.

Moreover, Cammarano served as state legal director of Sen. Bob Menendez’s campaign a few years ago. I’d love to hear about the kind of advice he served up then.

Edwards and Cammarano epitomize the two different styles of corruption perpetrated by politicians on the good citizens of Louisiana and New Jersey.

New Jersey politicians are as much fun as a highway full of oil refineries on fire. If they squeezed silver dollars even a smidgen harder than they do right now, the poor coins would scream for relief. They meet the people they shake down in the kind of diners that Tony Soprano and his wrecking crew used to frequent on the HBO series.

Moreover, it’s all part of what Acting U.S. Attorney called, referring to the environment in which Cammarano operated, “an ethics-free zone”—i.e., the entire Garden State. The culture of corruption permeates every level of state government and law, even traffic court—where, because of our gazillion municipalities’ need to make money, it can easily cost a citizen more than $400 to cop a plea to wipe out points on a license for a moving violation that could otherwise leave you paying a surcharge for several years on your car insurance.

(In the 44-person indictment just handed down by the Feds, even rabbis ended up indicted, for God’s sake. I’m still suffering from cognitive dissonance, as I try to square the concept of representatives of the religion of The Law—you know, Moses and the 10 Commandments—breaking all sorts of them. Will someone explain to me how they got involved in this sorry mess?)

All of this wouldn’t be so hard to take if our politicians were entertaining. But the only thing funny about our public officials are the Quasimodo-like humps they’ve grown in carting out ill-gotten booty. The booty they stole, especially aggravating in a bum economy, from us.

Louisiana, taking its cue from the New Orleans motto, “Let the good times roll,” has by far the more cheerfully colorful crew of crooks. I think that if I’m going to be had, I’d rather be done by them.

Governor Earl Long, Edwards’ predecessor, is a case in point. Younger brother of Huey Long, committed to a state mental hospital by his wife after coming out for black voting rights, ol’ Earl managed to check himself out of the institution and run for Congress, all the while flaunting his relationship with stripper Blaze Starr. (You might remember the Paul Newman movie about this, Blaze.)

Here’s one of the things I like best about the fellow A.J. Liebling called “The Earl of Louisiana.” In the 1950s, he decided to backtrack from a position he’d taken, upsetting some of his most loyal supporters. An anxious aide asked how to finesse voters displeased that he’d gone back on his pledge.

Long’s response—paradoxically breathtaking in its brazen honesty—is one that I wish my state’s small-time double-talkers would try once in a blue moon: “Just look them in the eye, and tell them I lied!

Thursday, July 30, 2009

This Day in Civil War History (Union Fiasco at Battle of the Crater)

July 30, 1864—Having tried readily repulsed head-on and flanking maneuvers against Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant hoped for greater success with one of the most daring operations of the Civil War: a mine that would be exploded under Confederate entrenchments east of Petersburg, Va., panicking the defenders so much that the position could be easily taken.

It seemed like the kind of audacious scheme that could end the drawn-out war—sort of like British General James Wolfe’s scaling of the seemingly impregnable Plains of Abraham that resulted in the French loss of North America in the Battle of Quebec in 1759.

But in war, as in so much else, execution is everything. Unfortunately, the Battle of the Crater, as it came to be called, produced a fearsome loss of life for the Army of the Potomac, in a campaign that was already piling up so many casualties that Northern anti-war sentiment was running at a fever pitch more than three years after Fort Sumter.

All might be fair in love and war, but you couldn’t tell that to the man responsible for pitching the idea of the mine to Grant: IX Corps Commander Ambrose Burnside, whose principal contribution to history turned out to be the flamboyant mutton chops that wayward linguists, in a truly backhanded tribute to its progenitor, called “sideburns.”

Before the war, Burnside was supposedly jilted at the altar by a Southern belle named Lotte Moon. Afterwards, he began to sport the tonsorial style that made him famous—in my humble opinion, to hide the deep shade of crimson the Virginia teenager had left him with.

Burnside was no luckier in war, believe it or not. In contrast to some of the vainglorious louts who preceded Grant in leading the Union effort in the eastern theater of operations, Burnside begged off—twice--when Lincoln asked him to lead the Army of the Potomac, saying he wasn’t worthy of command. At the Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862, where he ordered one fruitless charge after another upon Marye’s Heights, he demonstrated how right he was to be modest.

Now, in the coming engagement, as the Federals attempted to end what was looking more and more like a remorseless siege, Burnside showed once against the decency and vision that made others momentarily think him fit for command, along with the lack of nerve that left his troops slaughtered.

What I like about General Grant is that, when stymied, he always sought another way, even if unconventional, to advance his goal, most memorably in his Vicksburg campaign the year before. That situation occurred again here, when Burnside came bearing an idea from the 48th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. Several soldiers in the regiment, hailing from the Schuykill Valley coal-mining region, looked out at the Confederate position ahead of them and said they could blow it “out of existence if we could run a mineshaft under it.”

In his legendary three-volume history of the Civil War, Shelby Foote noted that the commander of the Army of the Potomac, General George Gordon Meade, assented to Burnside’s scheme at least partly because it would keep his men busy, and there seemed no better ideas at hand besides another assault upon the rebels that might end in a bloodbath.

Maybe so, but that’s not why Grant agreed. His Personal Memoirs outline his rationale for going along with the idea:

* He didn’t want Lee to transfer troops west, where they were desperately needed against William Tecumseh Sherman, who was advancing at twice the speed into enemy territory as the Army of the Potomac.

* He knew that Rebel “intelligence” had already sensed the building of the mine—and had completely exaggerated its scope, believing it would not only encompass the Confederate entrenchments but the entire city of Petersburg itself. An ill-defined threat, Grant believed, would work as much to the advantage of the operation as no knowledge of the mine at all.

* He saw the mine explosion as part of a larger campaign in which a diversion would be created—Lee would be drawn away from the south side of the James River, leaving only 18,000 men to defend the Petersburg rail hub that Richmond, the Confederate capital, relied on as its transportation lifeline.

Burnside, delighted that someone was taking his ideas seriously again after the Battle of Fredericksburg, had his men working on the tunnel for a month before the date set for the assault. He’d even picked out the division that would lead the way: an African-American unit that he had admirably prepared for what he hoped would be their desired hour of glory, one that would make Northern politicians and generals think of newly freed slaves as heroes rather than ditch-diggers.

From this point on, Burnside made one mistake after another. It all started when Meade countermanded his assignment of the well-drilled African-American regiments to lead the assault at the Crater.

Meade sensed—correctly—that reporters were denying him credit for his army’s advances and lumping its reverses at his feet. (The media were punishing him for discipline he’d meted out to a Philadelphia reporter for an unfavorable article.) No way did Meade want to be blamed for ordering untried African-American troops on a risky mission that could unleash a bloodbath. Use the white divisions instead, he told Burnside.

Burnside was doubly dismayed—he’d been told this only the day before the battle, and the fresh black regiments he’d trained would now take a backseat to white divisions.

Now began four major mistakes made by Burnside that doomed a plan that had promised so much:

* He was so dispirited by the change of plans that, rather than pick the leader of the charge himself, he left it to his division commanders to pick lots for the honor. The “winner” was Gen. James Ledlie, the least experienced of the three.

* Burnside had not acted to clear away the debris and entanglements that inevitably got in the way of his troops after the fuse was finally lit—after a delay of an hour and a half. The troops were left to make their way through the opening in painfully slow single file.

* Burnside had allowed to be chosen, in Ledlie, someone not only inefficient but nowhere to be found when his raw troops needed him to guide them through the confusion of the explosion. The reason why? Ledlie was swigging on a bottle of rum far away from the lines, as he was wont to do when the stress got to him—or, as Grant bitingly put it, he had “found some safe retreat to get into before they started.”

* Burnside failed to implement quickly orders that could have spared thousands of Union casualties. As Union troops flooded into the Crater, they stalled and became sitting ducks for Confederate reinforcements. Around 9:30 am, nearly five hours after the “immense mushroom” rose from where the explosion occurred, Meade gave the order to cease a follow-up attack and withdraw. Burnside, however, did not transmit this for nearly three hours, leading to a horrific loss of life. (Much of this was perpetrated by Rebels incensed not only by the prospect of losing a battle to former slaves, but also by being blown to Kingdom Come while sleeping. )

What transpired next between the hapless Burnside and Meade—whom someone memorably described as “a damned old goggle-eyed snapping turtle”—was something to behold. Meade began to dress Mr. Mutton Chops down, demonstrating, in a staffer’s description that I love, insults that “went far toward confirming one’s belief in the wealth and flexibility of the English language as a medium of personal dispute.”

(It kind of reminds me of George Washington at the Battle of Monmouth, where, rounding upon insubordinate general Charles Lee, he is said to have turned the air blue with his language for miles around.)

After that exchange of views, Meade wanted Burnside cashiered immediately, court-martialed for incompetence and God only knows what else. Grant—who described the battle as “the saddest affair I have witnessed in this war”—inclined toward the subtler approach: sending Burnside home on leave. That’s what happened in the end.

Burnside finally found an arena he enjoyed: politics, serving as governor and then U.S. Senator from Rhode Island. But in the years after his death in 1881, historians tended to remember that 4,000 Union troops, against only 1,000 Confederates, became casualties because of his botched operation at the Crater.

Song Lyric of the Day (Moraes and Jobim, with a Quintessential Summer Song)

“Tall, (and) tan, (and) young, (and) lovely
The girl from Ipanema goes walking
And when she passes, I smile - but she doesn't see…”—“The Girl From Ipanema,” composed by Antonio Carlos Jobim, Portuguese lyrics by Vinicius de Moraes, English lyrics by Norman Gimbel, sung by Astrud Gilberto in English and Joao Gilberto in Portuguese, with Stan Getz on saxophone, on the LP Getz/Gilberto (1964)

One of my favorite deejays, WNYC-FM’s Jonathan Schwartz, has said that American beaches were dominated by the sound of “The Girl From Ipanema” in the summer of 1964. No wonder. Maybe you’d have to go back to Leonardo with his Mona Lisa to find the female of the species evoked so indelibly, between Stan Getz’s smoky sax and the words and melody by Moraes and Jobim.

(Time to debunk a myth here: the two did not compose it in a bar. The truth is interesting enough: they were inspired by 18-year-old Heloisa Eneida Menezes Paes Pinto, now known as Helo Pinheiro, stopping by frequently at the restaurant the songwriters frequented, on her way to pick up cigarettes for her mother. Being an unconscious muse has given Helo celebrity ever since then. In the last decade, even in her sixties, she’s posed for Playboy with her youngest daughter and appeared on America’s Next Top Model.)

Astrud Gilberto (whose photo accompanies this post), who had not sung professionally before this record, did so memorably now, picking up the cue from her husband at the time, Joao.

All in all, this became the song that fed countless Norteamericano, middle-aged males’ fantasies of lying on a beach, unconstrained by family, eyeing lissome Latin American ladies. You can almost see the wheels spinning in the brain of Mark Sanford: “Hey, what’s wrong with oodles of ogling?” (I think we know the answer to that by now, don’t we?)

But read that last line in the quote above—in its quiet but unmistakable way, it concerns sexual frustration as surely as the far more aggressive Rolling Stones hit of the next year, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” Listen, fella: It’s not just that when you smile, “she doesn’t see” but that she doesn’t see you—undoubtedly because she has a boyfriend her own age, you besotted midlife fool!

One more thing: Only seven years before releasing this Grammy-winning song, Stan Getz was so sore about the music industry that he told Down Beat Magazine that he would get his high school degree, then go on to become a physician. The magazine reprinted his 1957 interview with John Tynan in its May 2009 issue, with this quote about his instrument, the tenor sax:

“Apparently there’s nowhere new to go. All the avenues appear to have been explored. Of course, there will always be the one guy that’s going to burst through the blockade. I don’t know who he is, but he’ll come along one of these days and there’ll be something really new in tenor sax playing again.”

Little did he know that this “one guy,” who would look abroad, where he would pick up and spread stateside the whole bossa nova craze of the Sixties, was himself.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

This Day in Pop Music History (“Mama Cass” Elliott Dies, Urban Legend is Born)

July 29, 1974—Her plus-size figure inspired considerable jokes at her expense, not to mention loneliness. But the London death at age 32 of singer Cass Elliott—better known as “Mama Cass”—only multiplied the stories in the cruelest—and most inaccurate—manner possible: by inspiring the persistent, and dead wrong, urban legend that she choked to death on a ham sandwich.

As a youngster, I recall vividly, a skit on The Carol Burnett Show had Elliott, a sometime guest, being complimented on her healthy, cavity-free teeth. How did she manage this? “I brush 16 times a day,” she answered. “Once after every meal.”

I can’t tell you why I remember that bit of comedy so well after all these years but forget the songs she sang that hour—the reason why Burnett had her appear in the first place. Elliott’s marvelous contralto, I'm sure, was in evidence that night, just as it had been when she formed not just an indelible, but a central, part of The Mamas and the Papas.

I was only well into my thirties before I became aware that the group that performed “California Dreamin’,” “Dedicated to the One I Love,” “I Saw Her Again Last Night,” and other hits was a kind of forerunner of Fleetwood Mac, another group that spun irresistible pop gold with a heady mix of deft studio work and expertly arranged vocals before coming undone (or, in the case of the Seventies supergroup, nearly so) by rampaging egos, a manic principal male songwriter, intragroup romantic entanglements, and enough drugs to service a nationwide pharmacy chain.

Instead, what stuck with me immediately as a preteen about the Sixties group were their gorgeous harmonies, pouring out of transistor radios, inspiring some of the earliest joyful memories in the soundtrack of my life. Among their hits: “Creeque Alley,” a witty account of how they coalesced in the folk-rock scene of the time, featuring a refrain that must have been hard for Elliott to listen to: “And no one's gettin' fat except Mama Cass.”

She may have been a good sport about such jokes at her expense, but it all had to hurt. Elliott was certainly desperate to lose weight: She would go as high as 294 before starting crash diets. One weekend of diuretic treatment in a hospital would result in a fast loss of 20 pounds.

But it was never enough. She wanted one of the “Papas” in the group, Denny Doherty, but—much to his late-in-life regret—the weight of his dear friend put him off.

His choice for a lover ended up being far more conventional, if understandable: picture-perfect fellow group member Michelle Phillips. “You can have any man in the world,” Elliott told the blonde beauty. “Why take the man I love?”

Elliott could wisecrack with the best of them about her romantic life: “It’s easy to find boyfriends. I buy them a motorcycle, a leather suit, and put them in acting school.” The truth was nastier: she did have lovers, remembered musician Denny Bruce, but they were “basically there for her drugs.”

After “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” her big solo hit, Elliott’s career advanced only fitfully. Her death occurred as it was on the upswing again, two nights after the conclusion of a two-week, sold-out engagement at London’s Palladium.

The manner of Elliott’s death was not the only urban legend that the rock era has given rise to (Ricky Nelson’s death in a plane crash, allegedly caused by the singer’s freebasing of cocaine, is particularly notorious). Nor was the ham sandwich the only surmised cause of death (this being the era of counterculture paranoia, assassination by the CIA was sometimes mentioned, along with rumors of drugs and a pregnancy courtesy of John Lennon).

But the ham sandwich rumor was the hardest to dislodge because of Elliott’s struggles with the weight scale, and because it sprang to life because of premature speculation by her own doctor. (He told the press that he had seen a sandwich by her bedside.)

But guess what? Not only were no traces of a sandwich ever found in her throat when the coroner examined the body, but the sandwich lay untouched. Elliott had died of a heart attack, with her circulatory system undoubtedly strained to the breaking point not just by her size but by her back-and-forth weight shifts. But she was not the active participant in her own death that the rumor implied.

All of this obscures a fact associated with her death that is demonstrably true: it occurred in the same Mayfair flat of singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson where The Who’s drummer Keith Moon died four years later.

Nilsson, who had been in the habit of renting the apartment out to friends during the six months of the year when he couldn’t be in town, was understandably shaken by the second death in four years there. Moon’s bandmate Pete Townshend bought it so Nilsson wouldn’t have to step foot in it again. A quarter century later, asked what he would say to Moon if he ever encountered him in the afterlife, Townsend responded: “You owe me five thousand pounds back rent.”

Quote of the Day (Groucho Marx, With a Blurb to End All Blurbs)

“From the moment I picked up your book until I laid it down, I was convulsed with laughter. Some day I intend reading it.”—Comedian Groucho Marx (here with Thelma Todd), in a dust-jacket blurb for his future screenwriter S.J. Perelman’s book, Dawn Ginsbergh's Revenge (1929), quoted in Perelman’s The Last Laugh (1981)

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

This Day in Literary History (Shelley Elopes With 2nd Teenage Bride)

July 28, 1814—At 5 in the morning, a chaise whisked Percy Bysshe Shelley and the daughter of his hero William Godwin off to France. The elopement with 16-year-old Mary Godwin—better known today as Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, author of Frankenstein—was the poet’s second in four years with a teenager—and solidified his reputation for flouting contemporary mores.

Much of the life and loves of the poet who desired to be one of the “unacknowledged legislators of the world” could be said to be a forerunner of the lifestyle of late-20th century pop/rock stars, in rather startling ways.

In the latter period, the objects of young girls’ affections were, more often than not, rock ‘n’ roll singers; in the 19th century, these sensitive bad boys tended to be Romantic poets, like Shelley and good friend, Lord Byron. In both cases, I suspect, there was an underlying motive that the woman wanted from her partner: write about me, the way Bob Dylan did about Joan Baez (“Visions of Johanna”) or Paul McCartney did about wife Linda (“The Lovely Linda,” of course).

On the versifiers’ end, motives might have been even less pure. A heart that loved only one object would build “a sepulchre for its eternity,” Shelley warned in “Episychidion.” Here’s how Stephen Stills translated that sentiment into current parlance: “Love The One You’re With.”

Percy and Mary had known each other for a year and a half, but the relationship had only became intense in the last two months. By early June, Percy was dining with Godwin and his enchanting daughter daily. By the end of the month, Percy and Mary had become lovers, even consummating their relationship by the graveside of Mary’s mother, early feminist theorist Mary Wollstonecroft.

Now the story begins to sound, for awhile, like something out of Romeo and Juliet, or Anna Karenina. You’d think that Mr. Godwin would be a bit reluctant in lashing out against a young poet who was financially supporting him. But the philosopher was old-fashioned in ways that Shelley hadn’t appreciated. And so, he banned Shelley from his home.

In intellectual candle-power, class, pedigree, and—we can’t forget—looks, poor Harriet Westbrook Shelley couldn’t compete with her not-much-younger rival. Harriet might have agreed with the sentiment voiced more than a century and a half later by folksinger Dory Previn, who found husband Andre Previn bewitched by good friend Mia Farrow: “Beware of Young Girls.”

Nevertheless, the life Percy built for himself and Mary in the next several years began to resemble the one he had with Harriet:

* Irish sojourn: Over the years, singer Marianne Faithfull—wanting a break from the madness of London, and, I recall once, saying she wanted to be among people forgiving of her past ways—has spent time in Ireland, even celebrating it in one of her songs, as “This land I go to when I’m tired/And need to see and walk in green.” In 1812, Percy and Harriet went to the Emerald Isle to campaign for social reform. He returned a few years later, this time with Mary, to lecture on the same subject. Then—as happened much later—the governmental authorities didn’t approve.

* Menage a trois—In the 1960s, David Crosby’s song “Triad,” with its bold call for expanded intimate relationships—“I don't really see, why can't we go on as three”—was controversial enough to ensure his departure from The Byrds. More than 150 years before, I think you can just imagine how Shelley’s similar feelings went over. In August 1811, he had invited friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg—like himself, expelled from Oxford earlier in the year for writing a tract called The Necessities of Atheism—to share their household. Harriet wasn’t keen on the idea. After the poet ran off to the continent with Mary, he took along her “chaperone” and half-sister, Jane Clairmont (who over the next five years, in a series of head-spinning personal changes, renamed herself Clara, then Clare, then Claire). He invited Harriet along, too—but she, in despair over the breakup and raising her two children by Shelley alone, committed suicide. Then, in early 1815, Hogg made another guest appearance in the Shelley household. His old friend, wanting to be hospitable, urged Mary to be a bit more friendly when Hogg came onto her. Mary, like Harriet, was not keen on the idea. Hmm...why not?

* Social ostracism—Shelley’s political radicalism, atheism and free-love principles made him persona non grata in England. He and Mary moved to Italy, where the restless couple spent their longest period of time. One night, while vacationing at Lake Geneva, the couple’s circle of friends—including Byron—sat up, at the latter’s suggestion, telling ghost stories. Mary’s became the basis for Frankenstein. A doctor present, John Polidori, used his famous patient, Byron, as the basis for a character who later became the prototype for Dracula, the “Twilight” series, and countless other vampires too ghoulish to count.

Eight years after running away, Shelley died in a drowning accident. His personal life was a mess, but what we remember him for—and what drew his two wives and friends to him in the first place—were his verses, much beloved by my writing hero, F. Scott Fitzgerald. He might have lived a rock-and-rock lifestyle before its time, but his best work remains fresh, original and powerful and will undoubtedly last longer than even the overwhelming majority of the greatest songs of the rock era.

Quote of the Day (Philip Hone, on 19th-Century New York’s Version of Swine Flu)

“Poor New York has become a charnel house; people die daily of cholera to the number of two or three hundred that is, of cholera and other cognate diseases. But this mortality is principally among the emigrants in the eastern and western extremities of the city, where hundreds are crowded into a few wretched hovels, amidst filth and bad air, suffering from personal neglect and poisoned by eating garbage which a well-bred hog on a Westchester farm would turn up his snout at. It is remarkable that the three lower wards of the city, which in yellow-fever times were the seat of the disease, are now nearly exempt from the cholera, and the upper wards, our place of refuge from the pestilence of those days, have become almost exclusively the scene of ‘death's doings.’”—Philip Hone, diary entry for July 28, 1849, in The Diary of Philip Hone, 1828-1851 (1910)

The two major New York diarists of the 19th century are usually acknowledged to be Philip Hone and George Templeton Strong. Their combined daily jottings cover approximately 6 million words and more than 40 years in the life of the city, stretching from the rise of Jacksonian Democracy to the early post-Civil War period.

The two had something else in common besides the urge to record the doings of their world incessantly: membership in Gotham’s upper crust, giving them an eagle’s-eye—i.e., often unforgiving—view of the city’s new arrivals. You can see it in Strong’s horror at the New York City Draft Riots in the Civil War, in his wish to declare “war…on the Irish scum.”

Hone was scarcely better, as you might infer from the quote about the “emigrants” in their “few wretched hovels.” His attitude, unfortunately, was a common one in the 19th century, when diseases like cholera were blamed on the poor.

In thinking of how swine flu differs from cholera, I thought of how globalism hastens transmission of the new disease. But cholera and other dreaded epidemics of the 19th century were spread by the same phenomenon that characterizes globalism: advances in transportation and communication. Only, in the case of cholera, it was canals, roads, and steamboats that sped the disease. (In his History of the United States of America During the Administrations of James Madison, Henry Adams pointed to the signal advantage that New York began to enjoy because of Robert Fulton’s boat, the Clermont, and the Erie Canal.)

America experienced major cholera epidemics in 1832, 1848 and 1864. At first, public-health authorities believed that the disease was a) not contagious, and b) spread by miasmic conditions induced by the physical and moral filth and decay of densely populated slums. Only toward the end of the century, when Robert Koch identified the cholera bacillus and rising standards of living and better sanitation practices were put into effect, did the scourge of cholera subside.

Monday, July 27, 2009

This Day in Film History (Prince’s “Purple Rain” in Boffo Box Office)

July 27, 1984—He might have stood only five feet tall, but the Minneapolis rocker Prince made a giant impact on the American cultural scene with Purple Rain, a film with strong resemblances to his own life and career.

The movie—which a timorous Warner Brothers, viewing as merely a musician’s vanity project, budgeted at only $7 million—went on to gross $68 million in the U.S. ($140 million in 2009) and to net the lecherous singer-songwriter a Best Original Song Score Oscar.

The accompanying soundtrack did even better, with four Top 40 hits and 24 weeks in the No. 1 spot on the Billboard chart.

Did you catch Brian Raftery’s oral history of the making of the film and soundtrack in the July issue of Spin Magazine? Unfortunately, the magazine has not put the contents up on the Web.

However, I urge you to go out and get a copy of the issue. Using the article in that issue and this link, you’ll be able to download a link to a CD filled with cover versions of the soundtrack.

I was never a Prince fan. The tales of his lasciviousness and eccentricities (only the late Michael Jackson made him look normal by comparison) turned me off. Yet I confess to having had something of a change of heart after seeing his extremely skillful set at the 2007 Super Bowl.

My curiosity and (at least somewhat) newfound appreciation for his musicianship, I suspect, will eventually lead me to rent the film from Blockbuster to see what all the fuss was about a quarter-century ago, when America obeyed his exhortation, "Let's Go Crazy."

Quote of the Day (Elie Wiesel, on Despair and Creation)

“Out of despair, one creates. What else can one do? There is no good reason to go on living, but you must go on living. There is no good reason to bring a child into this world but you must have children to give the world a new innocence, a new reason to aspire toward innocence. As Camus said, in a world of unhappiness, you must create happiness.”—Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize laureate Elie Wiesel, quoted by Michiko Kakutani, The Poet at the Piano: Portraits of Writers, Filmmakers, Playwrights, and Other Artists at Work (1988)

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Flashback, July 1974: Supreme Court Begins Nixon’s “Final Days”

Exactly 15 years after Richard Nixon achieved one of the high points of his career with the “Kitchen Debate” with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, the President could see the end of his public life, as the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously on July 24 that he needed to yield tapes and documents related to the Watergate investigation.

The resulting revelations, coming amid House impeachment proceedings, led to the President’s resignation two weeks later, as one sentence on those tapes—“I want you to stonewall it”—made clear even to Nixon’s most obstinate defenders that he was guilty of covering up the break-in at the Watergate Hotel by campaign operatives. Within two weeks, Nixon became the first President to resign from office.

In a post last year, I noted that Nixon’s announcement of his resignation occurred exactly six years to the day after he had accepted the GOP nomination in Miami. William Safire’s op-ed piece the other day in The New York Times, “The Cold War’s Hot Kitchen,” reminded me of the “kitchen debate.” For someone like Nixon, who replayed scenes from his past for the edification of aides, like an endless loop, the juxtaposition of past triumph and current agony must have seemed particularly galling.

I never agreed with an awful lot of Safire’s op-ed pieces for the Times, but his latest retrospective reminded me of why I enjoyed reading him anyway. More than any of the paper’s other op-ed columnists, before or since, his work was informed by government service and the personality of office holders. You could discount the natural prejudices this gave him, but you were left with a view of current affairs enriched by direct contact with history.

(I’ll never forget his account of how Nixon, after surviving a harrowing experience plane trip, berated aide H.R. Haldeman that they were never going to fly again. What an object lesson on the cocoon in which Presidents can find themselves—as well as a chief executive’s need for aides who don’t cater to his worst instincts.)

In the “Kitchen” piece, Safire got great comic mileage out of the Soviet apparatchik who elbowed his way toward the front of the Nixon-Khrushchev photo-op.

Fifteen years later, that same scene-stealer, Leonid Brezhnev, had become Soviet party chief—and Nixon, desperate to prove that he was still a major international player despite Watergate, disregarded medical warnings about a blood clot in his left leg, journeying to Moscow for his third summit with Brezhnev. The Soviet chief, knowing how weakened the President was at home, drove such a hard bargain that Nixon was unable to secure the agreement he wanted on arms-control cuts.

The Safire piece underscored that the Kitchen Debate turned on the superiority of American commerce and technology in serving the simple human needs of its people; the Supreme Court’s Watergate ruling, on the other hand, showed the superiority of American law and politics.

Do we really have to imagine what would have happened if this case came up in the Soviet Union—or even in Putin’s current Russia? The following might seem like belaboring the obvious—except that, for many people in the U.S. and beyond who see only a moral equivalence between this nation and the past and present incarnation of Russian authoritarianism, belaboring the obvious has become a necessity:

* Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein would never have hoped to expose this in the first place; they’d be jailed as soon as someone got wind of their nosy questions.

* There’d be no Judge John Sirica to extract the truth from original Watergate defendant James McCord about the involvement of higher-ups in the operation.

* No opposing party would scream when Nixon fired special prosecutor Archibald Cox in the Saturday Night Massacre.

* No Soviet Supreme Court would have dared accept United States v. Nixon, let alone rule against the President.

It was a cliché of the time, but amid all the squalling about government gridlock in the years since, the statement that “the system worked” during Watergate happened to be true. It was a triumph of our system of government not because of extraordinary men and women (though they certainly existed, as evidenced by Barbara Jordan’s eloquent explanation of why she was voting for the President’s removal from office: “I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.”)

No, the system worked because ordinary—make that even mediocre—public servants rose to the occasion. One who has been much remarked upon was Congressman Peter Rodino of New Jersey, an unassuming representative who chaired the House Judiciary Committee with exemplary fairness and wisdom.

The other—admittedly far more wobbly—figure was Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger.

Most of the time, Burger might have looked like a Chief Justice, with that big mop of white hair that made him look like something out of Hollywood’s central casting department, but he didn’t act like one. He was all too often a pompous ass. Even in administering the court’s docket, he annoyed just about every one of his colleagues—even someone who should have been something of an ideological soulmate, the conservative William Rehnquist (who, incidentally, recused himself from voting on the Watergate tapes case).

But in this one instance, Burger came to the fore when he had to. True, he discovered an “executive privilege” principle that, I believe, did not exist in the Constitution. According to Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong’s The Brethren, there was something of a flap on the court over the quality of Burger’s decision.

But at least the Chief grasped the essential point: even an acknowledged principle of executive privilege had to give way before the rule of law. In a criminal case, in which defendants were entitled to have as much evidence as possible, no one man—not even the President—stood beyond the law.

Moreover, underscoring the importance of the decision, Burger succeeded in having a united front, a unanimous court, behind his decision. As Earl Warren had a generation before with Brown v. The Board of Topeka, Kansas, he succeeded in putting full weight behind the decision by “massing the court.”

Nixon, recognizing the inevitable, bowed before the court’s decision. (Had he ignored it, as Andrew Jackson did John Marshall’s adverse ruling on Cherokee removal, the nation would have been plunged into perhaps the worst constitutional crisis in its history.)

On August 5, the White House released transcripts of three conversations the President had with Haldeman in the immediate wake of the break-in. In particular, the June 23, 1972 tape provided the “Smoking Gun” that his GOP defenders on the House Judiciary Committee claimed was still lacking in the case. There was no longer the slightest doubt that Nixon had ordered the FBI to abandon its investigation of the break-in.

Within a matter of hours, every Republican holdout on the committee announced their intention to reverse their vote. It was obvious, as Nixon later put it, that his “political base” had eroded, and he announced his decision to go on August 8.

Quote of the Day (Ernest Hemingway, on “What It Was All About”)

“Enjoying living was learning to get your money’s worth and knowing when you had it. You could get your money’s worth. The world was a good place to buy in. It seemed like a fine philosophy. In five years, I thought, it will seem just as silly as all the other fine philosophies I’ve had.

Perhaps that wasn’t true, though. Perhaps as you went along, you did learn something. I did not care what it was all about. All I wanted to know was how to live in it. Maybe if you found out how to live in it you learned from that what it was all about.”—Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises (1926)

My recent post on the birth of Ernest Hemingway, along with my friend Maura’s list of “15 Books That Stuck”, brought to mind the title that, as a sophomore in high school, finally made me take Hemingway seriously: The Sun Also Rises. For me, no single passage summed up the existential struggle at the heart of the novel so well as this one. As a teenager, I despaired of the possibility of learning “what it was all about.” “How to live in it” seemed far more realistic.

Through his narrator-protagonist, Jake Barnes, Hemingway gave voice to his career-long argument with God. The genital wound incurred during World War I that cuts Barnes off from love with Lady Brett Ashley also symbolizes a civilization left emotionally impotent by the carnage and savage disillusionment associated with the War to End All Wars.

At the time he wrote the book, Hemingway was divorcing his first wife Hadley. His new wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, was a devout Catholic. The novelist would convert to Catholicism in 1927 and his novel about the Lost Generation reflects, in part, the aching hope that his new faith would fill a void in his life.

Jake Barnes is an observer and odd-man-out of his group of lost souls for another reason besides his wound: his Catholicism. His faith tests him and, in ways any sinner can understand, continually finds him wanting. His good friend Bill Gorton asks if he’s a Catholic. “Technically,” Jake answers. He has lapsed, but believes, despite his devastating loss of certainty, that it remains “a grand religion.”

By himself, on the first day of the festival in Spain, Jake attends Mass. Perhaps he is prompted by the thought that the festival is a religious one. In any case, amid the noise and haste of life, he longs for quiet and peace.

To some extent, he finds this on his fishing trip with Gorton, whose banter not only lightens a grim novel but, under the guise of foolery, makes some important points. “Remember,” he tells Jake, “the woods were God's first temples." The woods are also the only place where Jake can be himself. (Given the central importance of nature in just about every Hemingway novel, he would probably identify any god he believed in as a god of nature.)

Bill utters another phrase of powerfully pregnant meaning in the novel: “simple exchange of values.” The “values” are not the byproducts of simple commercial transactions but rather the codes by which civilization lives. Jake’s circle hopes to forget their losses by devoting themselves to drink and promiscuity, but it only leads to emptiness and disorder.

Hemingway keeps the struggle for faith at equipoise, as glimpsed in the closing scene between Brett and Jake. The 34-year-old Brett is congratulating herself on rejecting her 19-year-old matador lover and saving him from ruin. She decides that “deciding not to be a bitch” is so good, “It’s sort of what we have instead of God.”

“Some people have God,” Jake responds. “Quite a lot.”

There is not really a “plot” to The Sun Also Rises; nothing changes irrevocably as a result of the holiday in Pamplona. In another sense, though, the lack of resolution nearly mirrors Hemingway’s endless quest—“how to live in it”—when the world has exploded. Even embracing faith does not ensure nirvana; the struggle against meaninglessness continues.

And yet, as the Ecclesiastes passage that gave the book its title indicates, “the earth endures forever.” Maybe Jake does, as he hopes, “learn something”: how to live stoically, without illusion, maybe even with some of the values that friends Brett, Robert Cohn and Mike Campbell have rejected. That’s one way to interpret the famous final exchange between the would-be lovers Brett and Jake, when she tells him that they could have had a fabulous time together. “Wouldn’t it be pretty to think so?” he answers.

The Sun Also Rises, born out of tangled, complex motives (including jealousy over the relationship between the real-life models for Brett and Robert Cohn), gains so much of its power because it is about painfully fallible human beings. As honestly as Hemingway treated anything else in his work, his depiction of the struggle to live ethically and with faith acknowledges both the necessity for a system of values and the immense difficulties involved with sustaining it.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

This Day in Military History (Brits, Yanks in Costly Battle of Lundy’s Lane)

July 25, 1814—It might not have been the full-fledged disaster that other American land operations were in the northern theater of the War of 1812, but the Battle of Lundy’s Lane was equally decisive in shaping its outcome. And, like the larger war, this battle marked by conspicuous heroism was also characterized by major blunders, making it the bloodiest of the whole conflict.

One of these blunders was committed by an American commander who came out of this theater of the conflict with an enhanced reputation, Brigadier General Winfield Scott (seen in the image accompanying this post). Today, we know him as the greatest American soldier between Washington in the American Revolution and Grant in the Civil War. His reputation began, in a serious way, in ferociously hot conditions, in a spot where he would rather not be.

It was the greatest irony of Scott’s life that, in the most convulsive military conflict of his career, the Civil War, he would be regarded as a superannuated hero who needed to be replaced, even though, as commander in chief of the Union Army, he formulated the "Anaconda" strategy that was later employed to strangle the Confederacy. But the paradoxes of his career don’t stop there, because not all the failures of “Old Fuss and Feathers’ career were as pronounced as his detractors claimed and not all the successes as clear-cut as his supporters believed.

Case in point: Lundy’s Lane. Tipped off that the British might be planning an attack on the American side of the Niagara River, Scott marched out of Chippewa toward Queenston. The Americans came to a tavern (one of the few not burned in the area by American partisans) owned by a widow named Mrs. Wilson, who, when questioned by Scott, said (probably disingenuously) that the British numbered “about eight hundred regulars, three hundred militia and Indians, and two pieces of artillery.”

For the last several years, Scott had been chomping at the bit, waiting for a chance to show that he could do better than the aged Revolutionary War generals then in control of the army (not unlike George McClellan would act toward him 50 years later). Now was his opportunity. He didn’t stop to wait for reinforcements from his superior officer, General Jacob Brown, or to obtain any estimate of enemy strength besides the Widow Wilson’s. By the time he realized his mistake, he was facing seven pieces of British artillery, not the two mentioned by Mrs. Wilson, was outnumbered, and was caught in a crescent formed by redcoats.

Scott could have withdrawn from this disadvantageous position, but it might have demoralized his troops and dented his growing reputation as a military commander. His only choice, then, was to attack now. At six o’clock pm, Scott’s 1,500 troops attacked the 1,700 led by his opposite number, British Gen. Gordon Drummond.

What ensued then was one of the more picturesque—and deadly—battles of the war. By sunset, 500 of the 750 in Scott’s First Brigade had been cut down. An informal ceasefire took place in which both sides received reinforcements. After an hour, American and British troops faced off against each other again in pitch-black darkness, where soldiers often only saw their opponents through the flash of musket fire.

In his history Flames Across the Border, 1813-1814, Canadian historian Pierre Berton wrote of this “confused melee in which friend and foe are inextricably intermingled, struggling in the darkness, clubbing one another to death with the butts of muskets, mistaking comrades for foes, stabbing at each other with bayonets, officers tumbling from horses, whole regiments shattered.”

Scott would have two horses shot from under him before he himself would fall from a wound. He was just one of 860 U.S. casualties, and the toll was particularly devastating on his regimental commanders (seven out of 10 died or were wounded). Drummond lost 878 men, and one of his generals, Phineas Riall, was wounded and taken prisoner by the Americans.

Oh, did I mention that this fighting took place in a cemetery? An appropriate place, don’t you think? Nobody surrendered when it was over—both sides’ troops were too exhausted to do much more of anything except collapse.

British troops disposed of the corpses quickly. The bodies were in such thick clumps that British and some American soldiers and horses were thrown together and burned in a massive funeral fire.

Forced to abandon the battlefield by exhaustion, the Americans would never have so good a chance in the northern theater again. The same prize that had eluded them in the American Revolution during the joint Benedict Arnold-Richard Montgomery expedition--Canada--fell through their hands again. Within six weeks, they would not even be concerned with adding new territory but with keeping what they had, as Washington itself was invaded.

Quote of the Day (Alexander Pope, on Vice)

“Vice is a monster of so frightful mien,
As, to be hated, needs but to be seen;
Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,
We first endure, then pity, then embrace.”—Alexander Pope, Essay on Man, Epistle Two (1734)

Friday, July 24, 2009

Quote of the Day (Lord Byron, on Jealous Husbands)

“A real husband always is suspicious,
But still no less suspects in the wrong place,
Jealous of some one who had no such wishes,
Or pandering blindly to his own disgrace,
By harbouring some dear friend extremely vicious;
The last indeed's infallibly the case:
And when the spouse and friend are gone off wholly,
He wonders at their vice, and not his folly.”—George Gordon, Lord Byron, Don Juan, Canto the First

Thursday, July 23, 2009

This Day in Art History (Caravaggio Gains 1st Public Commission)

July 23, 1599—A 28-year-old painter with a stormy personal life, Michangelo Merisi a Caravaggio (better known to history as simply Caravaggio) gained his first public commission: chapel side-panels depicting dramatic events in the life of St. Matthew.

The Italian Baroque master was intensely religious, and well he might be: he got into so many serious scrapes with the law that sometimes, it seemed, only serious divine intervention could extricate him.

In the 1980s, Todd Rundgren released the puckishly titled The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect. Caravaggio knew all about this syndrome, from first to last.

Even before his St. Matthew commission, the painter’s explosive temper led to trouble. In 1592, with his father dead for a decade and his mother having just recently passed on, he was so boiling over with hurt and grievances that he had to flee Milan—certain “violent quarrels” and the wounding of a police officer had made him a marked man.

Even after his St. Matthew commission brought him recognition and work, Caravaggio was in hot water continually. From 1600 to 1606, he went to trial at least 11 times, for crimes that included assault, libel and murder. (A good thing that none of those charges related to sexual orientation: the painter is now assumed to be homosexual or bisexual, a fact that, if proven in court, would have been a capital offense in the Italy of his time.)

An artist of such turbulent emotion was made for drama, and that element winds up in his paintings time and again.

It wasn’t as if such moments were unknown in Italian religious painting before—Leonardo’s The Last Supper, for instance, deals with the moment when Christ has just announced that one of his Apostles will betray him. But Caravaggio’s startling realism brought the viewer into the moment depicted on canvass in a manner seldom if ever seen before.

It started with chiaroscuro—his use of light and dark elements for dramatic contrast. You can see it at work in one of his panels for that first commission, The Calling of St. Matthew, where the dark world of tax collector Levi (the apostle’s name before his ministry) is illuminated suddenly from the right by the entrance of Christ and St. Peter. The tax collector, surrounded by four assistants, is startled to see Christ’s outstretched hand. He points to himself as if to say, “You mean me?”

Ironically, though the painter’s namesake and great forebear Michelangelo, inspired by ancient artists, had focused on the human body, his successors had gotten away from that. Caravaggio brought a renewed interest in bodily realism. He dispensed with the lengthy preparation that had become increasingly common, opting instead for working quickly and directly from the subject with his works on oils.

The Calling of St. Matthew and its great companion piece, The Martyrdom of St. Matthew (shown in the image accompanying this post), were created for the Contarelli chapel in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome. The chapel had been built with funds left over by the man who gave his name to it, the French Cardinal Matteo Contarelli.

Caravaggio was paid for the two paintings in 1600, but his work in the chapel wasn’t over. When a statue by another artist of St. Matthew and an angel was rejected, Caravaggio was approached about filling the space with another oil on campus. He complied, but his patrons must have been picky, because they rejected his, too.

No matter. Caravaggio might have had his faults, but unlike Leonardo, once he received a commission, no matter his personal troubles, he followed through on the assignment. He completed his second try at the altarpiece swiftly, being paid on September 22, 1602, more than three years after his first commission.

Caravaggio’s work was rapturously welcomed by his patrons, the common people who passed through the churches where they were housed, and other artists, who were mightily influenced by his work. Unfortunately the painter, forever on the run, had little time to enjoy his acclaim.

In May 1606, Caravaggio killed a man in a brawl arising from, of all things, a game of royal tennis. At one point, he had sought refuge in Malta, where yet another quarrel with a senior knight made him a desperately hunted man.

There is a painting of Pope Paul V that has been attributed to Caravaggio. The pontiff must have liked it, and perhaps the artist as well, because he was ready to extend a pardon to the beleaguered Caravaggio. Caravaggio was on his way back to the Eternal City when he caught fever and died on the beach at Port'Ercole in Tuscany on July 18, 1610, not even 40 yet.

Quote of the Day (W.H. Auden, on Time’s Indifference to Beauty)

“Time that is intolerant
Of the brave and the innocent,
And indifferent in a week
To a beautiful physique,

Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives;
Pardons cowardice, conceit,
Lays its honours at their feet.

Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardons him for writing well.”—W.H. Auden, “In Memory of W.B. Yeats

I had been meaning to use this poem ever since the news broke of Farrah Fawcett’s final hours. Something in the way that, three decades after her great fame as a ‘70s pinup and Charlie’s Angels star, she continued to spark the longings of men of a certain age fascinated me, reminding me inevitably of the Auden couplet about time being “indifferent in a week/To a beautiful physique.”

But the event that served as the excuse for looking at this poem—the hook, if you will—occurred 25 years ago today: Vanessa Williams’ reluctant resignation as the first black Miss America, because of explicit photos taken of her and later published in Bob Guccione’s rag, Penthouse.

Leave aside, hard as it might be, the question of Williams as a racial pioneer. A part of me still wonders why so much attention was paid to mistakes made by this young woman that forced the premature end of her beauty-queen reign, just as I shake my head now when I think about the hullabaloo over Carrie Prejean’s views on same-sex marriage.
Why care about what is done or said by a twentysomething female with not much life experience, whose major accomplishment to date is parading across a stage in a swimsuit?

(Let me hasten to add right here that Williams demonstrates one positive aspect of the decline of shame in America: the generosity involved in giving someone a second chance. She worked enormously hard to build and sustain her subsequent career as actress and singer. In the end, her career might have taken off anyway, because of her youthful glamour, but to her credit it did not end there, nor with the notoriety unfairly tagged on her by the egregious Bob Guccione.)

Some with a scientific bent think that interest in beauty is genetically hard-wired into us, an outgrowth of evolution—nature’s signal that the object of our gaze is healthy, a mate ideal for maintaining the species.

(Of course, this line of speculation has elements of the pseudo-scientific, too, as it can be extended to justify the likes of Mark Sanford, Ted Kennedy, John Ensign, Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, and John Edwards straying from their wives. If that’s science, I’m sure that spouses of these wayward politicos, for all their other ideological and personal differences, will gladly opt for any pre-Darwinian explanation for the existence of the male species, thank you very much.)

Maybe there’s a different element at work here, though—a mythological one.

Among the ancient Romans, the deities that seemed to hold the most interest were Venus and Adonis. Their looks made them seem especially fortunate (aside, of course, from Adonis’ fatal encounter with a boar).

Perhaps that’s one reason why Hollywood actresses of particular distance and allure—the Ava Gardners of the world—are known as goddesses. And perhaps that’s why the decline and destruction of beauty appalls and mesmerizes us. If even these people, unfairly blessed with an extra-long youth and health, are subject to the laws of decay, what hopes do the rest of us have?

When the media engage in overkill about vapid celebrities—models who think no great thoughts or accomplish no great deeds, such as Paris Hilton—our inner Jack Nicholson springs out of nowhere, like his vulpine alter ego in Wolf growling at Michelle Pfeiffer: “The problem is, aside from all that beauty, you’re not very interesting.” It’s only a short leap from that to say, “All that beauty isn’t very interesting.”

The fate of the beautiful, in these cases, becomes a warning to us, delivered with the matter-of-fact, Audenesque indifference of Bob Dylan in “Buckets of Rain”: “I’ve seen pretty people disappear like smoke.”

The past century might be one in which the whole notion of human—evolutionary—progress might have been overturned—not just because the struggle to overcome war, poverty and disease suffered repeated serious reversals, but because the rise of mass culture turned beauty into a far more exploitable, delusive, and even dangerous commodity than ever before.

The need to extend the period of one’s good looks—even to create the illusion of it over the course of a lifetime—proved once again that the business of beauty can be singularly ugly. Plastic surgery might as well be a tax writeoff in Hollywood, it’s so common. (For all I know, it already is.)

And yet, the drawbacks of it all are becoming more and more apparent. To start with, it’s unnatural.

Several years ago, I saw a picture of Gloria Vanderbilt with son Anderson Cooper in Vanity Fair. She’s eight-five; he’s half her age. Guess who looked younger? A mite freakish, wouldn't you say?

Submitting to the surgeon’s scalpel might not even be a Faustian bargain, let alone a real one. Even if done reasonably well, plastic surgery and Botox can leave an inert expression on the face—not good if you want to demonstrate emotions, as actors are called on to do. And there’s always a chance of a mistake—one that can make you look oddly different from what you were before, or simply dead.

And yet, for all that, we continue to worship our gods and goddesses, helplessly in thrall to beauty. Few epitomized that dilemma, for all the studied indifference of this poem and its self-evident confidence in his profession, more than W.H. Auden himself.

During the Weimar Republic, Auden and close friend Christopher Isherwood flocked to Germany’s capital because, in the latter’s summation, “Berlin meant Boys”—invariably beautiful ones.

It was Auden’s misfortune to take up with 17-year-old Chester Kallman in 1939. For all his formidable intellect and poetic genius, Auden was utterly captivated by his younger lover, to the point where he regarded their relationship as a marriage.

Naturally, within just a few years, Kallman was faithless, breaking Auden’s heart.

Amazingly enough, Auden might have been a worse judge of the value of his early, powerful work than he was of overs. Harmed by experience and an overactive artistic conscience, he edited out one of his indelible lines, “We must love one another or die,” from one of his landmark poems, “September 1, 1939.” (“We die anyway,” he said grouchily.)

I wasn’t surprised, then, to find that, in editing his collected works, Auden deleted the three stanzas at the top of this post. I’m not sure why. They don’t have the ferocious, metaphoric force of what famously follows (“In the nightmare of the dark/All the darks of Europe bark”), but Auden was at the top of his game when he wrote this—almost anything he committed to paper glittered.

I have never made any attempt to memorize this poem, and yet the verses are so vivid that I can call most of them to mind instantly. That includes the three stanzas quoted here. Like the rest of the poem, they drive home the point of the impermanence of life and of so many of our superficial values—very much including an inheritance from the ancients, the worship of the human body—while hailing what lasts: in this case, poetry that sustains the human spirit.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Bonus Quote of the Day (William Carlos Williams, on His Feelings for America)

“Of mixed ancestry, I felt from earliest childhood that America was the only home I could ever call my own. I felt that it was expressly founded for me, personally, and that it must be my first business in life to possess it; that only by making it my own from the beginning to my own day, in detail, should I ever have a basis for knowing where I stood."—Poet William Carlos William, in a July 22, 1939 letter to fellow poet Horace Gregory, explaining how he came to write his history In the American Grain, in The Selected Letters of William Carlos Williams, edited by John C. Thirlwall (1957)

Quote of the Day (Matthew Arnold, on Love in a World of Uncertainty)

"Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night."—Matthew Arnold, “Dover Beach”

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

This Day in Literary History (Hemingway Welcomed Into World By Young Man With a Horn)

July 21, 1899—Several hundred miles west of Garrettsville, Ohio, where Hart Crane, another future literary genius afflicted with alcoholism and an instinct for self-destruction, was being born, Ernest Hemingway made his entrance into the world in a manner that startled most of the good citizens of the leafy Chicago suburb of Oak Park, Ill.

At 8 AM, the town of 10,000 awoke to a blast from a cornet being played by the local obstetrician, 27-year-old Clarence Hemingway, welcoming the latest addition to his family.

With his future concern for appearances, the future novelist and short story writer, one suspects, would have enjoyed the direct, emphatic manner in which his father announced his birth, as well as the town doctor’s vivid demonstration of his own masculine prowess in siring more offspring.

On the other hand, with his aversion to flowery prose, he probably would have been appalled by the statement of his mother, Grace Hemingway, who wrote: “The robins sang their sweetest song to welcome the little stranger into this beautiful world.”

In prior posts, I discussed Hemingway’s tendency to stretch the truth (particularly concerning his World War I service) as well as the thread of depression that infected his genetic line. Far more can be said, however, about the Nobel Prize laureate’s life, and especially about the formative cultural influences of his family and hometown.

Not a word about Oak Park ever made it into Hemingway’s published work, but his experiences growing up in the town—at his birthplace on North Oak Park Avenue and another one on North Kenilworth Avenue—affected him for life.

Nearly five years ago, when I visited Oak Park, I was struck by the fact that it was home not only to Hemingway but to architect Frank Lloyd Wright. In fact, Grace Hemingway belonged to Oark Park’s Nineteenth Century Women’s Club, along with two-thirds of what would become the town’s notorious scandalous triangle—Catherine Wright, wife of the architect, and the latter’s mistress, Mamah Barthwick Cheney.

“I had a wonderful novel about Oak Park,” Hemingway informed an academic, Charles Fenton, in 1952, “and would never do it because I did not want to hurt living (sic) people….Nobody in Oak Park likes me I suppose. The people that were my good friends are dead or gone. I gave Oak Park a pass and never used it as a target.”

What irked Hemingway so much in later years about the place? Much of his ill-will was bound up inextricably with his feelings about his mother, who reflected the town’s moral conservatism.

Oak Park’s temperance bill, passed in 1872, lasted for a hundred years—even after the death of its most important native son—and Grace Hemingway lashed out at Ernest because of his drinking when he returned from World War I.

Hemingway blamed his mother for his father’s suicide in 1928. But her original sin, in his eyes, might have been the sexual ambivalence she instilled in him from an early age.

During my visit, I noticed a photo showing Hemingway in a blouse and his sister Marcelline in a pantsuit. Both had the same haircut. Until they were five or six, Grace—who had wanted a daughter when Hemingway was born--had the two siblings sleep in the same bedroom in two separate beds, play with identical dolls and with small china tea sets, and fish and hike together. For all intents and purposes, she treated them as twins.

In high school, Ernest took Marcelline to the prom as a date—a choice that might have been dictated by his mother.

In his posthumously published novel, The Garden of Eden, Hemingway’s protagonist is part of a bisexual ménage a trois, in a story that, biographers such as Kenneth Lynn now speculate, evince his longstanding fears of gender confusion.

Is it any wonder, as novelist John Dos Passos noted, that Hemingway was the only man he knew who really hated his mother?

But we can’t let the story end there.

Hemingway’s frequent subject matter—fishing, bullfighting, war, and other male rituals—led critics to regard him as a kind of glorified American primitive. But that is a stereotype at odds with the facts of his upbringing.

Hemingway came by his interest in these matters primarily through his father, who taught him the importance of ritual --i.e., doing everything correctly and in the proper order, including catching and cooking fish. (Dr. Hemingway, in wooing his future wife, took note of her lack of traditional feminine domestic skills by promising that she would never have to cook, and he was as good as his word for as long as he lived.)

But in his own way, Hemingway, though not as exposed to culture as much as, say, Henry James, probably grew up with as much acculturation in the arts as Willa Cather, whose work is permeated with it.

Grace Hemingway might have been something that her son loathed—a church lady—but she was a church lady with a decided artistic inclination that he inherited.

Before her marriage, she had hoped for a singing career. But as a victim of scarlet fever, she was sensitive to bright lights, rendering her debut a disaster.

(To console herself, she went on a cruise and bought 35 pairs of opera gloves, stopping at that point only because another glove would incur a tax.)

After marriage, Grace taught voice and served as a choirmaster. Her services were frequently employed in a number of the 40 churches in town at that point, meaning that she ended up making 10 times more than her husband, who often had to accept payment in whatever form his not-very-affluent patients could afford, including crops or chickens.

Hemingway’s birthplace actually belonged to Grace’s father rather than her husband. Upon er father's death a few years later, she used some of the proceeds from his estate to have a larger house built to her specifications (even though Clarence Hemingway was not sure the family could afford it). The new home featured a music studio and recital hall thirty feet square with a vaulted ceiling and a narrow balcony.

The Hemingway home featured an “imagination room”. Each of the children was taught an instrument and encouraged to tell stories, and several of Ernest's siblings became writers or artists in their own right.

A couple of other items in the Hemingway Birthplace and the nearby museum in his honor highlight other fascinating aspects of his childhood and youth:

* In the birthplace, a room for older children contains a series of pictures by famed magazine illustrator Maud Bogart, who used her son as a model for Little Jack Horner. That son, Humphrey Bogart, was the same age as Ernest Hemingway, and starred in the film version of the novel To Have and Have Not.

* At the age of two, Hemingway drew, on his father’s stationery, the following items: a giraffe, a sailor, two guns, Noah’s ark, a tree, a pipe, and a man on the moon—all testifying to his future love of adventure.

* As a little boy, Hemingway particularly loved his nicknames “Pecos Bob” and “Billy the Squirrel.”

* In high school, Hemingway’s writing was already drawing notice, with his compositions frequently read aloud in class as models. But he was widely regarded by classmates as “conceit(ed),” “carefree,” “unkempt,” and not especially popular with girls. The latter two traits were probably related, because right before starting classes, he would sometimes skin fish, and he might still reek of it by the time the school day began.