Saturday, October 31, 2009

Movie Quote of the Day (“Young Frankenstein,” As The Good Doctor and Igor Interact)

Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (played by Gene Wilder): “Igor, help me with the bags.”

Igor (played by Marty Feldman): [Imitating Groucho Marx] “Soitenly. You take the blonde, I'll take the one in the turban.”

Dr. Frankenstein: “I was talking about the luggage.”—Young Frankenstein (1974), written by Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks, directed by Mel Brooks

Give yourself a Halloween treat and watch Wilder and Brooks’ tricks in Young Frankenstein, the horror movie parody to beat them all. My favorite bit: Igor’s hump (“Hump? What hump?”), shifting from one side to the other.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Theater Review: “Is Life Worth Living?”, by Lennox Robinson

A few weeks ago, I made a point of looking up a New York City theater troupe that, over the last few years, has received respectful but not overwhelming attention in the local press for such past productions as Susan and God, by Rachel Crothers; The Glass Cage, by J.B. Priestley; and The Fifth Column, by Ernest Hemingway. The specialty of the Mint Theater Company—unearthing “worthwhile plays from the past that have been lost or neglected”—is one that I think is sorely needed.

The preview performance I saw, of Is Life Worth Living?, met all of my expectations. This comedy from the 1930s, which closed a week and a half ago after a run of several weeks, is a wry valentine to the impossible world of theater in the manner of Moss Hart’s Light Up the Sky and the George S. Kaufman-Edna Ferber dramedy, The Royal Family (now itself being revived on Broadway).

Playwright Lennox Robinson (1886-1958) was, early in the last century, both a constant supplier of new product for the Abbey Theatre and a director of the legendary Dublin dramatic venue. Until the 1960s, I learned from the post-show “talk-back” discussion, the only other show revived more often at the Abbey than Robinson’s The Whiteheaded Boy was John Millington Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World.

It’s a different story nowadays: Robinson has almost completely fallen off the critical radar. In my local county library system—a pretty fair-sized suburban collection—only a couple of Robinson’s plays are listed. Surprisingly, in the New York Public Library, what few copies exist of his many plays are in archives rather than in general circulation.

Maybe the Mint Theater Company’s adept production will renew interest in Robinson. They treated his play with no attempt to update it or shift it to another time and place, which seems to be the theatrical fashion these days (see The Roundabout Theatre’s After Miss Julie, a “revisal” of the misogynistic August Strindberg drama that I’ll be reviewing in the not-too-distant feature).

Robinson’s droll eye focused on the inhabitants of the Irish seaside town of Inish, whose lives are turned upside down by a visiting theatrical troupe. John, the owner of the Seaview Hotel, describes his fellow residents as “quiet, decent people,” and that they are, but they are also innocent enough to have their heads turned completely by the likes of Chekhov, Strindberg and Ibsen.

Throughout, a balance is exquisitely maintained between the townspeople and the husband-and-wife acting team of Hector de la Mare and wife Constance Constantia.

Robinson affectionately contrasts the bohemianism of Hector and Constance (Hector continues to mount plays bigger on critical acclaim than box-office appeal, he notes, because “they may revolutionize some person’s soul”), and the provincialism of the residents, who find that plays written abroad years ago unexpectedly open windows into their own lives in their small corner of the Emerald Isle. Before long, the middle-class residents are doing such uncharacteristic things as bursting into tears over a long-held secret, or, in one politician’s case, defying party orthodoxy because of the environmental theme of Ibsen’s Enemy of the People.

The cast acquitted themselves well, particularly Paul O’Brien as the genial hotel owner who welcomes the acting troupe initially as a way to boost tourism to his town and hotel, only to get much more than he bargained for; Bairbre Dowling as his wife, whose fervent interest in clothes becomes a comic bone of contention as the play progresses; and Jeremy Lawrence, picked for the Dail (the principal chamber of the Irish Parliament) for his milquetoast ways, only to change because of Ibsen’s example.

In the talk-back discussion, Ms. Dowling’s father, Vincent Dowling, a lifetime associate director and former artistic director of the Abbey, recalled how, as a youth, he had met Robinson, who could be “slightly sardonic, but in a lovely way.” For instance, after listening to a pompous artistic director of the 1950s drone on and on at an anniversary celebration for the theater, Robinson, asked for a few remarks of his own immediately afterward, began: “And now, for a few facts…”

Is Life Worth Living? proved well worth seeing. I intend to keep an eye out for future productions to see if the Mint Theater Company can duplicate its impressive lead-off this season. Its space at 311 West 43rd Street in New York might be small, but, as Spencer Tracy remarked of Katharine Hepburn in Pat and Mike: “What’s there is ‘cherce.’”

Quote of the Day (Norman Mailer, on the Ali-Foreman Fight in Zaire)

“Ali, gloves to his heads, elbows to his ribs, stood and swayed and was rattled and banged and shaken like a grasshopper at the top of a reed when the wind whips, and the ropes shook and swung like sheets in a storm, and Foreman would lunge with his right at Ali’s chin and Ali go flying back out of reach by a half-inch, and half out of the ring, and back in to push at Foreman’s elbow and hug his own ribs and sway, and sway just further, and lean back and come forward from the ropes and slide off a punch and fall back into the ropes with all the calm of a man swinging in the rigging. All the while, he used his eyes. They looked like stars, and he feinted Foreman out with his eyes, flashing white eyeballs of panic he did not feel which pulled Foreman through into the trick of lurching after him on a wrong move.”—Norman Mailer, The Fight (1975)

The eyes, we hear, are the windows of the soul—but as Norman Mailer saw the Muhammad Ali-George Foreman heavyweight bout in Zaire on this date in 1974, the eyes of the challenger functioned as weapons, just as surely as his fists and legs, processing intelligence and enhancing deception in a fight that nearly every observer gave Ali no chance of winning.

Interviewed by Howard Cosell after the fight, Muhammad Ali christened his technique for nullifying George Foreman’s advantage in firepower “rope-a-dope.” The phrase, though contemptuous, of course, of his opponent, also underplayed the very real risk that the former heavyweight champion of the world took to reclaim his crown by lying against the ropes.

Beginning with round two, Ali was bargaining that he could absorb enough punishment from Foreman—who not only was undefeated but had made short work of his prior rivals—that the then-champ would exhaust himself. In the eighth round, "The Greatest" sprang his trap, lashing out at the now-tired champ and knocking him to the canvass. (Foreman got to his feet, a little too wobbly, after the standard ten-count, KOd.)

I have to admit here that I was unimpressed by Mailer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Executioner’s Song. All those pages of flat prose, supposedly meant to evoke the deadly calm of the “nonfiction novel’s” Western setting, only left me bored stiff.

In contrast, take a look at the passage here—by no means atypical of Mailer’s larger account of the fight in book form. The verbs leap out and come out at you fast, in short bursts—much like Foreman’s punches.

But take a look at the similes, too: “like a grasshopper at the top of a reed when the wind whips,” “like sheets in a storm,” “like stars.” Superficially, they might look like mixed metaphors, if you will, but underlying each is the sense of danger bred by the verbs. (Even “stars” indicate the kind of navigational point sought on the high seas in a storm.)

After the “Rumble in the Jungle,” a weary but satisfied Ali told Mailer, “Maybe they’ll admit that now I am the professor of boxing.” Similarly, Mailer was hoping for his own vindication and return to form.

Last week, I wrote of Mailer’s extreme disappointment over losing the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1969. In the early 1970s, he went into something like a funk. (A low point: his meditation on Marilyn Monroe, Marilyn, which critic John Simon derided as a “labor of lust…a grisly roller-coaster ride along a biceps gone berserk.”)

“What is genius but balance on the edge of the impossible?” Mailer had written on Ali. It might just as well have been written about himself. The Fight represented Mailer in fighting trim, before he lost his balance in the last few decades of his life with works of elephantine ambition that nobody could wish longer (e.g., Ancient Evenings, Harlot’s Ghost, The Castle in the Forest).

Thursday, October 29, 2009

This Day in Business History (Wall Street Experiences “The Great Crash”)

October 29, 1929—With a shuddering fall, the New York Stock Exchange concluded months of speculative frenzy—and strong signals that an abrupt correction was about to ensue—with a full-scale panic. With a record 16 million shares of stock sold, “The Street’s” tickers couldn’t keep pace with the ferocious trading volume.

More than two decades ago, in his memorable novel about a later “Master of the Universe” brought to heel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe caught the mania of 1980s speculation at its height with one telling sentence: “It was the sound of well-educated young white men baying for money on the bond market.”

Nearly 60 years before, that same almost animalistic scene was enacted, in a far more frightening fashion, by the disappearance of money. A security guard at the time, quoted in Robin Santos Doak’s Black Tuesday: Prelude to the Great Depression, recalled that traders "hollered and screamed, they clawed at one another's collars. It was like a bunch of crazy men. Every once in a while, when Radio or Steel or Auburn would take another tumble, you'd see some poor devil collapse and fall to the floor."

Black Tuesday brought America face to face with a decade of financial and moral carelessness. Payment was now due on the bill.

In the fall of 2008, the American media were awash with stories about similarities between the Crash of 1929 and the Crash of ’08. What’s remarkable in each instance is how few people who were supposed to know better—including Ben Bernanke of the Federal Reserve, supposedly an expert on the Great Depression—only realized the gravity of the situation when the crisis was upon them.

On March 25, 1929—exactly three weeks after the inauguration of Herbert Hoover as President—what the New York Daily News called a “selling avalanche” occurred, as margin calls wiped out the holdings of many investors, including neophytes to the markets. That should have been a yellow light that something was wrong with the economy. But two days later, the market’s decline was arrested, lowering people’s guards again.

In March 2008, the collapse of Bear Stearns should have served as a warning that major Wall Street institutions were shakier than thought. Again, however, many ignored the signs of the time.

In some respects, the months leading up to Black Tuesday were darkly comic. In what other light can you think of the following events:

* Early in 1929, an astrologer—a confidant not only to Hollywood stars like Charlie Chaplin but also financial types like J. P. Morgan—predicted a rising stock market.

* In August, a brokerage firm run by Michael Meehan opened an office aboard ocean liners, the better to allow passengers on their week-long cruises to Europe to buy and sell shares.(Just think: If sudden lurches on the ocean didn’t make them seasick, the convulsions of the stock market would do the job.)

* Even after the Great Crash, the need for illusion remained great. One post-Crash headline read, “Brokers Believe Worst is Over and Recommend Buying of Real Bargains.”

Did you catch Ron Chernow’s op-ed in The New York Times last week on The Great Crash? He notes that “the blatant stock market abuses were comprehensible to ordinary citizens, quite unlike the exotic credit derivatives and mortgage-backed securities that baffle us today.”

Well, I don’t know about that. If the Great Crash were so simple, why are economists still arguing over its causes? And why did it take so long (a full decade, until the start-up to World War II) to right the economic ship?

In recent years, it has become something of an intellectual fad to decry the “myth” of stockbrokers throwing themselves from buildings upon learning about the Great Crash. But it may be that there’s an underlying layer of truth to these persistent stories.

In this week’s American Experience special on The Crash of 1929, Craig Mitchell, son of National City Bank head Charles E. Mitchell, noted that “By noon on Black Thursday there had been eleven suicides of fairly prominent investors.”

Chernow’s article points out that financial reform of Wall Street following the ’08 crash has not started in earnest. True, but it even took awhile for the supposedly more clear-cut villains of the 1930s to be brought to justice. It should not surprise us that something similar could happen now.

Quote of the Day (Samuel Burchard, Losing an Election for the GOP With a Gaffe)

“We are Republicans, and don't propose to leave our party and identify ourselves with the party whose antecedents have been rum, Romanism, and rebellion. We are loyal to our flag.”—Rev. Samuel Burchard, October 29, 1884, coining an alliterative phrase that lost the election for his Presidential candidate, James G. Blaine (pictured left)

In keeping with the spirit of Burchard, pastor of the Murray Hill Presbyterian Church, I have come up with my own alliteration to describe October 29, 1884: DDD—i.e., the Day of Double Disaster. Well, disaster for Blaine, anyway.

The day would have been bad enough for its evening event: a “prosperity dinner” at Delmonico’s restaurant, featuring 200 of the nation’s robber barons gathered for the Republican Blaine. As Henry Graff noted in his biography of Blaine’s opponent, Grover Cleveland, the sight of so many tycoons pulling up on the street in their carriages was “simply out of place” amid an economic downturn. But then, as now, the GOP were unfazed by plutocratic pornography.

(Before I get buzzed by those of a more conservative persuasion, I hasten to add that today, Democrats have their own fat cats—including this one.)

In some ways, this second disaster, in my opinion, was worse than the one earlier in the day, as Blaine seemed untroubled by the specter before him and the event’s masterminds, having planned this well in advance, seemed not to have a clue about the potential P.R. fallout—especially the New York World cartoon called “The Royal Feast of Belshazzar Blaine and the Money Kings.”

But the controversy that really made the difference in the election was one that the “Plumed Knight,” who had been angling patiently for the nomination for the last eight years, was utterly unprepared for, probably because of utter exhaustion. Both Democrats and Republicans were convinced that the election would turn on New York, just as in 2004 both parties’ major consultants correctly concluded that the Presidential sweepstakes would ride on Ohio.

In an attempt to win this swing state, Blaine had crisscrossed it nonstop in these closing weeks of the campaign, so that on the morning of the 29th, as he sat down for a meeting with a group of Protestant ministers at New York’s Fifth Avenue Hotel, he was catching his breath—and collecting his gray matter—when Burchard dropped his bombshell.

I believe it was columnist Michael Kinsley who coined the phrase, “A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth.” If that’s the operative (if unofficial) definition, then there ought to be another term for a politician undone (or at least put in hot water) by a supporter’s big mouth, as Blaine was. (Maybe we can call this “The Wright Stuff,” after the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who placed his longtime congregant, Barack Obama, in his own political cauldron in 2008.)

Each of the three ‘r’s identified by Burchard was problematic for the Republicans. The least difficult was the third ‘r’, “Rebellion,” a reference to the divisions still left, a generation later, by the Civil War. Since the war, the GOP had adopted the so-called “waving the bloody flag” strategy—reminding voters that, while they had supported the Union cause unreservedly, Southern Democrats had been instrumental in the secession movement and many Northern Democrats opposed fighting the war to its conclusion. But now, with Reconstruction having ended, the efficacy of such appeals had worn off—and, in the South, could be counterproductive.

“Rum” was a phrase close to Burchard’s heart, as an advocate of Prohibition. With the establishment of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in 1874, the movement was gathering momentum, though not enough yet to pass a constitutional amendment, as it did in 1918.

But the Republicans, like the Democrats, regarded the movement at this point with extreme caution, if not distaste. Much of the reason stemmed from the source of votes. Of the approximately 1,000 voting booths in the city during this single election, some 60% were located in saloons. The appeal of this “reform” movement was lost on New Yorkers and other city residents.

But it was the “Romanism” part of Burchard’s introduction of Blaine that caused the biggest ruckus. Afterward, the minister claimed that he hadn’t intended to insert the word—it simply sprang to mind as he was hunting spontaneously for a third item to complete his ringing phrase.

Maybe age had something to do with it, too—when he retired a year later, The New York Times reported that he was “the oldest member of the Presbyterian Church in this country.” Age eliminates the self-censorship button that many people maintain.

Whatever the cause might be, Burchard probably didn’t have to rummage far in his subconscious to dredge up his bit of anti-Catholic bigotry.

“Romanism” proved so toxic because it was adjacent to “Rum.” At the time, immigrant Catholics were being blamed for all kinds of urban unrest, including poverty, violence and corruption—all associated by much of the public with alcohol.

Here’s why Burchard’s remarks held so much peril for Blaine: He believed that he could finally swing the Empire State into the Republican column.

Despite his association with the so-called “Blaine Amendment” that sought to eliminate government funding for parochial schools, the leader of the “Half-Breeds” (the moderate conservative wing of the GOP) thought he stood a decent chance to win Catholic votes this time. He had, for starters, gotten under the skin of the British government during his brief service as Secretary of State under President James Garfield.

More important was his background: Not only was his mother Irish Catholic, but his sister was a mother superior in a convent. How could anyone be anti-Catholic with those kinds of associations?

Someone with associates like the Rev. Burchard, that’s who, according to Democrats. Blaine didn’t do or say anything immediately after Burchard’s outburst to signal disapproval. The only explanation I have for his curious inaction was exhaustion; the last six weeks of the campaign would see him make approximately 400 speeches, addresses so Dickensian in their flamboyance that he would be indisposed afterward.

The RRR speech was an answer from heaven from Democrats on the defensive over Cleveland’s possible fatherhood of a child out of wedlock. Senator Arthur Pue Gorman, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, gave the order to his underlings as soon as he heard Burchard’s phrase: “See to it that the statement is in every newspaper in the country by tomorrow.”

By the next day, when Blaine had his wits about him, he had denounced the minister’s statement, but it was too late by then. We’ll never know exactly how many votes the incident cost, but consider this: Blaine lost the election by less than three tenths of 1% of the total vote. He lost New York, too.

Of course Tammany Hall had the discipline and resources needed to mount a major offensive against Blaine, but for once the organization didn’t have to do much to convince people to turn out. Catholic priests were so incensed by the whole affair, in sermons the week before the election, they urged parishioners to vote against Blaine.

Thirty-five years later, when Carrie Phillips, a former lover of Warren Harding, was threatening to tell the press nasty things about the Republican nominee, GOP bosses found enough funds to pay for a trip to Asia that would take her and her husband outside the country until after the 1920 election. I’m sure Blaine wished he could have done the same thing for the minister that got him into so much trouble.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Will the Yankees Please Vote This Woman A Full World Series Share?

Increasingly, as the season has gone along, Alex Rodriguez has said he’s in “a good place.” I don’t care if it’s the Bronx, Minnesota, California, or Pennsylvania, just so long as the Yankee slugger stays there through the rest of this season and keeps making up for his prior futile Octobers.

By all accounts, A-Rod has not been terrorizing playoff opponents this year simply because he’s seeing the ball better, but because he’s more relaxed and less tense. And a big reason for that, teammates say, is the lady in the accompanying picture.

Colleagues on film sets indicate that Kate Hudson has the ability to light up a room. She’s certainly been helping A-Rod light up scoreboards with laser-beam homers. Evidently, her Oscar-nominated performance as a sweetheart of a groupie in Almost Famous is not terribly far from her real-life personality.

Just think: All these years, A-Rod has been paying God-knows-how-much-money to psychiatrists, PR consultants, weight trainers, cousins who buy steroids, etc. What did he come up with for all of that in the clutch? Nothing.

Now, look what one blond pixie has done for him—and, of course, the Bronx Bombers. In gratitude, I think the least the team can do is vote her a full World Series share (assuming, of course, they can overcome their lackluster Game 1 performance).

After all, another 4-homer, .400-batting-average streak for A-Rod should, by my calculations, help the Yankees win their 27th World Series—and that should help pay for that big nasty crack in the concrete pedestrian ramp found in the stadium last week. Don’t you think that’s money well spent?

Song Lyric of the Day (“Autumn in New York,” by Vernon Duke)

“Autumn in New York, why does it seem so inviting?
Autumn in New York, it spells the thrill of first-nighting.
Glittering crowds and shimmering clouds in canyons of steel;
They're making me feel I'm home.”--“Autumn in New York,” composed by Vernon Duke (1934)

A couple of Sundays ago, while visiting the New-York Historical Society, I took a short walk over to Central Park and absorbed the smells and sunlight associated with the mid-October day. I was especially taken with The Lake in the park—and, as you can see from this photo I took, so were many other walkers in the city that day.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

This Day in Presidential History (Reagan Speech for Goldwater Boosts Own Cause)

October 27, 1964—One week before one of the worst electoral disasters in its history, the Republican Party found a new hope in aging matinee idol Ronald Reagan, whose speech supporting doomed nominee Barry Goldwater ended up starting a boomlet for his own cause.

Two years before the half-hour address, “A Time for Choosing,” that thrust her husband onto the political stage, Nancy Reagan, according to Laurence Leamer’s 1983 biography of the couple, Make-Believe, confided to a college friend: “Not a day goes by when someone doesn’t come to the house and ask Ronnie to run for senator or governor or even President of the United States. It boggles the mind but maybe it’ll get me out of the carpool.”

Right after the carefully edited tape of Reagan’s Phoenix studio appearance from a week earlier had broadcast on NBC, however, a group in Owosso, Mich., moved a step forward toward getting Mrs. Reagan “out of the carpool” by establishing a Reagan for President committee.

Here’s the amazing thing: the speech almost didn’t come off, for two reasons:

* The GOP star in that year’s Presidential drama, Goldwater, didn’t want to be upstaged by the putative supporting player, Reagan—a personality quirk that must have made the veteran thespian chuckle when he heard about it. The candidate’s finance chair, Henry Salvatori, weighed in on Reagan’s behalf, according to Reagan: The Hollywood Years, by Marc Eliot.

* Two weeks before it was scheduled, the Goldwater campaign couldn’t come up with funds to pay NBC for airtime. To prevent the threatened cancellation, a group called The Brothers for Goldwater supplied the money. The chair of the group, John Wayne, saw in Reagan someone who could voice his own beliefs but without his significant liabilities, including his recent battle with cancer and questions over his nonservice in the military in WWII.

What came to be known as “The Speech” had evolved over the last 10 years, much of which Reagan spent as a PR spokesman for GE. No wonder, according to journalist Joseph Lewis’ What Makes Reagan Run? (1968), the actor told Goldwater, “There isn’t one kooky thing in the speech—it’s the same one I have been giving up and down the country for years.”

Well, not quite. Goldwater was rightly concerned how Reagan’s criticism of how Social Security evolved would be interpreted. In the end, it seems, he was persuaded to let Reagan go ahead because any gaffe the actor might commit wouldn’t be any worse—or more numerous—than the ones the candidate himself had already committed. (For instance, his televised comments about using the nuclear bomb had given many viewers the shakes already.)

The idea for Reagan’s address to the American public took root in earnest when Goldwater couldn’t make a $1,000-a-plate fundraiser at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Reagan’s friend Holmes Tuttle asked him to fill in.

“Dutch” Reagan was happy to oblige. He had already met and liked Goldwater and his policies, and had enlisted his brother Neil, an advertising man, to help the candidate frame his message with commercials.

(What a thankless task for Neil, by the way. A couple of years ago, HBO ran a documentary in which one person after another admitted, now that he was dead, what a fine fellow Goldwater was. Even Hillary Clinton copped to being a “Goldwater girl” in ’64! Back in the day, though, it was different. That scowl looked so ingrained on the Arizona Senator’s face that only surgery could remove it. He was not an inviting candidate--put it that way.)

Anyway, the response to Reagan’s speech at the Ambassador was rapturous. His friends then made their plea: He’ll juice up the passages about the candidate and will be ready for a prime-time address. With nothing to lose, Goldwater and his advisers at last bought into the idea.

The speech Americans heard on NBC appeared to be live, but was in fact a carefully edited version of what had already taken place in a Phoenix studio. It fit exactly into the 30-minute format that NBC allotted for commercials. But Reagan needed little editing. From long years of practice, he knew where to put the strategic pauses and emphases, when to insert a mocking one-liner, how the flow of words should be paced.

Over and over again throughout Reagan’s career, opponents made a critical mistake: underestimating him as simply a glorified pitchman. Joseph Lewis, for instance, was perfectly correct in noting that “A Time for Choosing” featured a frightening amount of eye-glazing statistics. But he didn’t adequately appreciate the way Reagan’s poetic phrasemaking resonated with Americans.

A few other points are worth mentioning about “The Speech”:

* Reagan’s speech subtly evoked the hero of his youth, Franklin Roosevelt, but then sought to undercut his legacy of affirmative government. Toward the end of his address, the actor told his audience, “You and I have a rendezvous with destiny.” A significant percentage of his audience would have recognized that last phrase from FDR’s speech accepting renomination at the 1936 Democratic Convention. But earlier in the speech, he recalled how Alfred E. Smith had left the party in the mid-1930s over its move to the left. Reagan’s criticism of Social Security and agricultural price supports, in fact, took on two of FDR’s programs.

* Like The Right today, he summoned the bogeyman of “socialism”—but, unlike today’s fire-eaters, he appeared so amiable he could get away with it. “It doesn't require expropriation or confiscation of private property or business to impose socialism on a people,” Reagan warned darkly—though he forget to add that it sure would help. At the same time, the smiling demeanor, the aw-shucks manner, and the acknowledgement that many liberals were “well-meaning” took the edge off what he said.

* The heart of Reagan’s appeal was the belief in American exceptionalism. The conservative alliance with the religious right would come in the mid-to-late 1970s, and the fears of moral decline and of disorder in society had not yet taken root. But Reagan was already tapping into the long-held mystical belief that America was carved out for greatness--"A city upon a hill," in John Winthrop's phrase in 1630--and that those who stood with him were part of something far greater than themselves. “We'll preserve for our children this,” Reagan predicted toward the endof his speech, “the last best hope of man on earth, or we'll sentence them to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness.” That phrase, “the last best hope of man on earth,” evokes Lincoln’s plea, in his 1862 message to Congress, about the necessity to adopt his plan for compensated emancipation as a means to save the Union: “We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”

In his primary campaign, Barack Obama was attacked by Bill and Hillary Clinton for saying that Ronald Reagan had “changed the trajectory of America.” He was not making a value judgment—if anything, his entire political career opposed most of Reagan’s policies—but merely stating an indisputable fact. The governor of California and President of the United States halted and reversed the liberal tide in America, becoming the benign, grandfatherly face of Goldwaterism. For better and worse today, we live in the aftermath of the vision he espoused in “A Time for Choosing.”

Quote of the Day (Thomas Carlyle, on “Clever Men”)

“Clever men are good, but they are not the best.”—Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), “Goethe,” Edinburgh Review (1828)

Monday, October 26, 2009

This Day in Catholic History (St. Charles Borromeo Survives Assassination Attempt)

October 26, 1569—St. Charles Borromeo narrowly escaped the fate that befell England’s Thomas Becket for asserting ecclesiastical authority at the expense of civil law: martyrdom. The Archbishop of Milan, a prime mover behind the Catholic Church’s Counter-Reformation as an architect of the Council of Trent, was saved from assassination in his chapel when the fired bullet grazed him slightly.

Nowadays, the Renaissance Popes are remembered for their venality and abuses, very much including the practice of nepotism, while the city-states of Italy are mostly recalled for the glories of the art and artists of the time.

But all of that culture mixed almost inextricably with more objectionable tendencies, and in that respect the Papacy was as much shaped as shaper of its era. Orson Welles’ shadowy Harry Lime put it best in The Third Man: “Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

The larger Renaissance culture was frequently cutthroat, and, as I discussed in a prior post on the “conspiracy of the privies” involving the election of 15th-century pope Pius II, the Vatican was not much different.
Add to that the fact that many cardinals felt no loyalty to each succeeding pope and you can begin to understand why pontiffs began, to an alarming degree, appointing nephews to key church posts. After all, if they couldn’t trust their own family, who could they trust?

You might liken nepotism, in its way, to Abraham Lincoln’s use in the Civil War of "political generals"—the patronage practice of according senior army positions to key regional and ethnic constituencies neccessary for the war effort. Many of these “political generals” were hapless soldiers, but two turned out to be the best commanders on the Northern side: Grant and Sherman.

And so it was when Pius IV named his nephew Carlo, or Charles, Borromeo as his secretary of state. A tireless worker, trained in civil and canon law, Borromeo combined formidable administrative skills with a bone-deep personal asceticism that made him a model for the reforms he wanted to implement from the Council of Trent—ideas that quickly put him at odds with civil authorities when he took over the Archdiocese of Milan at the age of 28.

As Borromeo interpreted it, little fell outside his ken: hospitals, hunger relief, orphanages, colleges, catechisms, priestly formation—and clipping the wings of religious orders who had had their way, without any archbishop supervising them for 80 years. One of these orders was known as the Umiliati, or “Humble Ones”—who, if later accounts are to be believed, had become anything but that over the years. Eventually, members plotted to do away with the young archbishop.

Borromeo was with his staff in his chapel at Martins at 1 o’clock AM. In light of the events about to take place, English translations of lyrics to hymns being sung took on far greater weight: “It is time I return to Him who sent me” and “Let not your hearts be troubled."

The chosen assassin, Geronimo Donato, agreed to the hit for the price of 40 crowns. Those who hired him probably felt afterward that they hadn’t gotten their money’s worth. Oh, he rushed into the chapel, all right, and fired an arquebuse at the kneeling archbishop. The bullet did no serious damage to Archbishop Borromeo.

The young cardinal forgave Donato and interceded to have his life spared, but Pius V, who had succeeded Borromeo’s uncle as pontiff, was having none of it, and not long after he was apprehended, Donato was sentenced to death.

Already indefatigable, Borromeo must have felt that God had given him a reprieve. He lived another 15 years after the failed assassination. The archbishop’s identification with his flock only strengthened, as he sold some church property to care for the poor and stayed in the city to tend to the sick during a plague. He died at the age of 46, utterly spent from his labors.

It’s significant that, when Eugenio Roncalli chose the date for his installation as Pope John XXIII, he chose it to coincide with the Feast of St. Charles Borromeo, another cleric who had engineered a revolution in the church through a major council.

Quote of the Day (Washington Irving, Pointing the Way to Jon Stewart on Fake News)


Left his lodgings some time since, and has not since been heard of, a small elderly gentleman, dressed in an old black coat and cocked hat, by the name of Knickerbocker. As there are some reasons for believing he is not entirely in his right mind, and as great anxiety is entertained about him, any information concerning him, left either at the Columbian Hotel, Mulberry Street, or at the office of this paper, will be thankfully received.

P.S.--Printers of newspapers will be aiding the cause of humanity in giving an insertion to the above.”—Ad in the New York Evening Post, October 26, 1809, the first of several appearing at weekly intervals, written by Washington Irving

In January, I heard historian Elizabeth L. Bradley relate, on Leonard Lopate's WNYC-FM show, how Washington Irving achieved his first great literary success with the kind of faux-news that Jon Stewart would be delighted to pull off today. The 26-year-old Irving’s droll hoax about Diedrich Knickerbocker served as an appetizer to his History of New-York, a parody of an overly serious account that explained, but everything, about the city by Columbia University medical professor—and U.S. Senator—Samuel L. Mitchill. (You can listen to Ms. Bradley’s interview here.)

Irving persuaded a couple of friends to submit the notice to the Evening Post, then, every week for the next month, had another fake “item” about his down-at-the-heels gentleman, concluding with a book found in his lodgings and used to “pay off his bill, for board and lodging.” Said “book” was published on December 6, 1809—St. Nicholas Day, the same day when old-time Dutch New Yorkers celebrated “Sancte Claus.”

Line after line featured Irving’s send-up of pompous erudition. This description of Henry Hudson should have been a clue, if nothing else was: The great explorer was “a short, square, brawny old gentleman, with a double chin, a mastiff mouth and a broad copper nose, which was supposed in those days to have acquired its fiery hue from the constant neighborhood of his tobacco pipe.” My entire book, he was telling readers, is about blowing smoke.

Irving took the surname of his main character from a congressman (who eventually became a good friend, according to Andrew Burstein’s The Original Knickerbocker: The Life of Washington Irving). In turn, that surname became a kind of shorthand for all things Gotham.

As for the first name of the character: the young author couldn’t resist poking readers in the ribs with the phrase it sounded like: “Died rich.” That proved happily prophetic, as the book not only became the bestselling American work of fiction to that time but also unmistakably launched Irving on a career in which he became the first American author to live by his pen.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

This Day in WWII History (Fitzgerald In-Law Becomes Hero in Battle off Samar)

October 25, 1944—In a 2 1/2-melee off the Philippine island of Samar, a small force of American ships, facing desperate odds, withstood a ferocious surprise attack by the vastly larger Japanese Imperial Navy and saved thousands of General Douglas MacArthur’s soldiers.

One of the many heroes in the Battle off Samar was Rear Admiral Clifton Sprague. As the husband of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s younger sister Annabel, he might seem like a footnote to students of American literature. But, as a senior naval commander in the last significant challenge to American supremacy in the South Pacific, “Ziggy” Sprague is as much a major player as his more famous in-law.

In a post the other day, I considered MacArthur’s famous “return” to the Philippines. It would be criminal, though, to remember the general’s theatrical splash into the waters off Leyte without paying similar homage to the thousands of unsung servicemen who saved his force in this unforeseen postscript.

I really had to write this when I considered historian Rick Atkinson's article "What Is Lost When Veterans Pass?". One such veteran was a neighbor, a kindly, quiet fireman. It wasn’t until years later, after he had moved away from the neighborhood, that I discovered, in his obituary, that in World War II he was one of the “tin can sailors”—a veteran of destroyer carriers—the type of vessels responsible for carrying MacArthur’s forces. I wonder now if he saw action in the last titanic naval engagement of the war?

The Battle off Samar served as the climax of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, which lasted from October 23 to 26 and became the largest naval engagement in world history. The battle-within-a-battle resulted from the Japanese high command’s desire to take advantage of the hyper-aggressive tendencies of Admiral William F. Halsey.

“Bull” Halsey was characterized by nothing so much as the desire to take the war to the enemy anywhere and everywhere. In this instance, Vice Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa’s ships would serve as a decoy to lure Halsey away while the rest of the Japanese fleet swooped down on the suddenly vulnerable US 7th Fleet, under Vice Admiral Thomas Kinkaid, that was guarding MacArthur.

The desperate Japanese plan worked even better than they expected, as Halsey not only went after the decoy fleet but did not even leave one carrier group to cover the San Bernardino Straight for Kinkaid.

On the morning of October 25, Sprague discovered, to his alarm and anger, what “that sonofabitch Halsey” had done. His flotilla, “Taffy 3,” consisting of five carriers, three destroyers and four destroyer escorts was facing a fleet that not only was twice as fast as any of their own carriers, but a foe that a foe that enjoyed a 10-to-1 advantage in firepower. The nearest American heavy units were 65 miles, or more than three hours, away.

Essentially, the American ships realized, they were doomed anyway. But Admiral Kurita, the Japanese commander, thought that he was doomed, and acted accordingly. Max Hasting’s verdict in Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45 is powerful and apropos about the Japanese high command’s responsibility for the disaster they now invited: “Their ship recognition was inept, their tactics primitive, their gunnery woeful, their spirit feeble.”

And now, Taffy 3 was turning the tables on the largest group of surface ships ever put to sea by the Land of the Rising Sun. Their actions over the next couple of hours were extraordinary:

* sinking or crippling four heavy cruisers;
* strafing Japanese gunners with air attacks; and
* bluffing with "dry runs" when ammunition ran out.

The price paid by the men of Taffy 3 was steep: the loss of approximately 1,000 men, including 100 to exhaustion and shark attacks. But by their bravery, they had bought enough time for the other two Taffy groups to return to battle.

In the end, the Japanese paid more dearly for their unexpected attack. Throughout the Battle of Leyte Gulf, they lost 4 aircraft carriers, 3 battleships, 8 cruisers, and 12 destroyers, as well as 10,000+ killed.

Never again would the Japanese Imperial Fleet engage the U.S. Naval in a large-scale operation. Moreover, MacArthur’s forces would operate with a freer hand, using the Philippines to cut off the sea lanes to Japan, thereby depriving the empire access to increasingly necessary raw materials.

For an exceptionally fine history of the Battle off Samar, I would recommend The Last of the Tin Can Sailors, by James Hornfischer. Its account is not only very sound from the larger strategic point of view, but, through extensive interviews with surviving sailors, he was able to reproduce the hellish scenes—flaming fuel, ship wreckage, acrid smoke, the moans of wounded and dying men—surmounted by ordinary young men who became extraordinary heroes in those desperate hours.

Quote of the Day (Robert Louis Stevenson, Addressing a Critic of Fr. Damien of Molokai)

“But, sir, when we have failed, and another has succeeded; when we have stood by, and another has stepped in; when we sit and grow bulky in our charming mansions, and a plain, uncouth peasant steps into the battle, under the eyes of God, and succors the afflicted, and consoles the dying, and is himself afflicted in his turn, and dies upon the field of honor—the battle cannot be retrieved as your unhappy irritation has suggested. It is a lost battle, and lost forever.”—Robert Louis Stevenson, Open Letter to the Rev. Dr. Hyde of Honolulu (1890)

A few weeks ago, I had intended to write a post on the canonization of Fr. Damien Joseph de Veuster (1840-1890), the Belgian priest who sacrificed his life in tending to the lepers of Molokai, Hawaii. For some reason it slipped my mind until a sermon by my favorite priest brought it to mind again.

Last Sunday, that priest recalled how, as a child, he had been especially impressed how, after the shattering discovery that he himself was afflicted with the dreaded disease, Fr. Damien dispensed with his usual address—“My dear fellow Christians”—with the more fateful, “My dear fellow lepers…”

I , too, was moved by this, as I was by a lesser-known but still dramatic postscript, to the life of Father--now Saint--Damien. It came from, of all people, Robert Louis Stevenson.

Criticism of a selfless saint may seem a perverse relic of a time of virulent anti-Catholicism, except when we consider that our own age is not without such impulses. (How else to explain the odd monomania of Christopher Hitchens, an essayist of otherwise formidable polemical powers, in trying to tear down at every opportunity the achievement of Mother Teresa, in her way a female successor to Fr. Damien?)

Stevenson is, of course, best known today as a master storyteller (Treasure Island), and secondarily as a poet. But he also left a considerable number of essays, largely inspired by his wanderlust—which, in a way, is how he rose unexpectedly to the defense of a cleric who was not a co-religionist.

The Scottish writer’s letter is doubly surprising because he was a co-religionist of the letter recipient, the Presbyterian Rev. Dr. C. M. Hyde of Honolulu. As he admitted in the letter, Stevenson had even been grateful to Hyde for having him to dinner when the author was passing through that area of Hawaii.

Several years before, the Rev. Hyde had praised Fr. Damien for his efforts. But, for whatever reason, he had turned against the Catholic priest. In a letter to a fellow minister, the Rev. H. B. Gage of Sydney, Australia, Hyde—with a complete turnaround in temperament reminiscent of the man at the heart of Stevenson’s famous horror tale—let loose a diatribe against the “apostle to the lepers,” calling him a “coarse, dirty man, head-strong and bigoted”:

“He was not sent to Molokai, but went there without orders; did not stay at the leper settlement (before he became one himself), but circulated freely over the whole island (less than half the island is devoted to the lepers), and he came often to Honolulu. He had no hand in the reforms and improvements inaugurated, which were the work of our Board of Health, as occasion required and means were provided. He was not a pure man in his relations with women, and the leprosy of which he died should be attributed to his vices and carelessness. Others have done much for the lepers, our own ministers, the government physicians, and so forth, but never with the Catholic idea of meriting eternal life.”

Maybe that last sentence was the key to the change: it emits an unmistakable area of sectarian jealousy. Perhaps that resentment left Rev. Hyde more open to scuttlebutt than he would have been under normal circumstances.

The Rev. Gage passed Hyde’s charges along to a religious publication, the Sydney Presbyterian. That is where Stevenson, in mounting astonished fury, read it. Before long, his wife later observed, he had disappeared into the study, muttering and ready to write at white heat.

As a concession to his father, an engineer who did not want his son to take up anything as impractical as writing, Stevenson had studied the law, rather half-heartedly, as a young man. You can see how, given the unusual settings, eras and themes of his fiction, Robert might have been bored by wills, commercial law, and other dry-as-dust aspects of the legal profession.

But put him on his feet, once he had marshaled a ton of evidence, and addressing a jury, and I don’t think you could have find a more persuasive barrister—or, if you were on the other side, one who could put the case against you so damningly.

And that’s just what Stevenson did now to Hyde. Point by point, he swatted away the minister’s charges. He wrote as someone who had not only visited Molokai (against doctor’s orders) shortly after Damien’s death and had, over eight days, interviewed people who had known the priest, but as someone intimately familiar with a dread disease that had afflicted himself since childhood—tuberculosis, or “consumption”—and appreciated those who tended to the spirit as well as the body.

Stevenson’s letter, submitted to the Sydney Morning Herald in February 1890, filled the editor there with worries about legal action. Other publications in the British Empire and the United States, though, were not so timorous, and they gladly published the piece.

From the beginning, Stevenson served notice on Hyde that the minister’s own comfort—in marked contrast to Damien’s obvious distress—was fair game for comment:

“It may be news to you that the houses of missionaries, such as yours sir, on Beretania Street, are a cause of mocking on the streets of Honolulu. It will at least be news to you, that when I returned your civil visit, the driver of my cab commented on the size, the taste, and the comfort of your home.”

God had presented the leper colony of Molokai as an “opportunity,” Stevenson wrote, for ministers of all denominations “to help, to edify, to set divine examples.” Damien had seized the opportunity; Hyde had not:

“I marvel it should not have occurred to you that you were doomed to silence; that when you sat inglorious in the midst of your well being, and Damien, crowned with glories and horrors, toiled and rotted in that pigsty of his under the cliffs of Kalawao—you, the elect who would not, were the last man on earth to collect and propagate gossip on the volunteer who would and did.”

I came across a thoughtful post by Ted Olsen on the “Christian History” blog that details the subsequent private correspondence of Hyde and Stevenson. In some ways, Stevenson did agree with Hyde—i.e., that Damien was “dirty, bigoted, untruthful, unwise, tricky”—but, more important, the priest was also "superb with generosity, residual candour, and fundamental good humour; convince him he had done wrong (it might take hours of insult) and he would undo what he had done, and like his corrector better. A man with all the grime and paltriness of mankind, but a saint and hero all the more for that.”

Stevenson also came to feel that he had been unduly harsh on Hyde. At the same time, he did not take back one iota his feeling that the Belgian priest had done heroic work.

For his part, Hyde was mortified that Gage had opened to public view a letter he had believed was for his eyes only. A young girl, the daughter of a colleague, recalled him saying, “I have just suffered the greatest undoing of my entire life. I am now being crucified by the most widely read author of our day and on the charges of telling the truth about that sanctimonious bigot on Molokai.”

Well, one’s sympathy only goes so far. For me, it stops at reading the word “crucified”—comparing the storm of criticism that fell on his head to Christ’s overwhelming physical and mental suffering—and the annoyance is compounded when he repeats his charge about Damien without acknowledging, as Stevenson did, Damien's overwhelming goodness.

The overwhelming power of Stevenson’s letter was recognized by Orson Welles, who, before his death in 1985, included this among a group of literary works that he recorded, including favorite authors such as Ernest Hemingway, Isak Dinesen, Oscar Wilde and Robert Graves.

Over the years, Welles’ colleagues in the film community worldwide have also taken notice of the apostle to the lepers. Two more prominent recent versions were Molokai, the Story of Father Damien (1999), directed by Paul Cox and starring David Wenham, Peter O’Toole, Sam Neill and Kris Kristofferson; and Father Damien: The Leper Priest (1980), a TV movie directed by Steve Gethers and starring Ken Howard as the Belgian priest.

The latter film featured its own off-screen drama: Only a couple of days into filming, original star David Janssen suffered a fatal heart attack. The footage featuring the former star of The Fugitive was scrapped and filming began again with Howard.

From his two-season run on network television as The White Shadow, you’ll remember that Howard is a tall, strapping blond man—a far cry from his character in the TV biopic. Naturally, he wore a heavy wig for his role—and benefited from Hollywood’s belief that people would not pay attention to noticeable differences between actors and the real-life people they portray.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Quote of the Day (Gabriel Garcia Marquez, on Everyone’s Lives)

“Everyone has three lives, a public life, a private life, a secret life.”—Novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, quoted in Gerald Martin, Gabriel Garcia Marquez: A Life

Friday, October 23, 2009

This Day in Literary History (Beckett Wins, Mailer Loses, Nobel Prize)

October 23, 1969—The committee deciding the Nobel Prize for Literature awarded it to Samuel Beckett, a 63-year-old Irish expatriate who liked to let his cryptic novels and plays do his talking for him.

By giving it to someone who hardly cared a fig for the attention, the Swedish Academy annoyed Norman Mailer, an extraordinarily voluble 46-year-old American who frittered his considerable energies away on misconceived novels, vanity film projects and quixotic political posturing (such as in the image accompanying this post, showing him in the middle of a 1969 mayoral campaign in New York City that was already choking with candidates).

In an interview in today’s issue of The Wall Street Journal, Philip Roth offers a mordant morsel of wisdom about the Swedish Academy and its award that, one wishes, Stormin’ Norman might have taken to heart: “I don’t expect anything from them. And they usually reward my expectations.”

In the winter of 1981, I covered for my college paper Mailer's appearance at the university’s school of the arts. I marveled not only at the glittering images and phrases that sprang spontaneously from him, but also his ironic send-up of his own well-known ego. After he finished writing his first novel, The Naked and the Dead (1948), Mailer related, he felt like “the biggest thing since Tolstoy—maybe even bigger than Tolstoy.” Re-reading it not so long later, he loathed it.

Mailer must certainly have felt in Tolstoyan territory when he got wind of a rumor that he was up for the Nobel Prize. The writer he emulated perhaps the most, Ernest Hemingway, had tried for a similarly weighty treatment of love and war in For Whom the Bell Tolls, and, 14 years later, he received the coveted prize.

When it came to the Nobel, Mailer might have had second thoughts about anything Tolstoyan. Amazingly, the Swedish Academy never presented the award to the great Russian novelist, even though he wrote for at least a decade after the awards were first presented. (Something, it was later revealed, having to do with the writer’s “"theoretical anarchism and mystical Christianity.")

Most authors, when snubbed by the group, confine their disappointment to their circle of friends. “You were my second choice,” John O’Hara write to his dear friend (and ’62 laureate) John Steinbeck.

Not Mailer, though. In The Prisoner of Sex, his argument with feminism published two years later, he opened with a vignette that, by almost any stretch of the imagination, would have to be called off-topic: i.e., the rumor that he was up for the Nobel Prize.
At first, the rumor set off the predictable Pavlovian response: “After twenty-one years of public life, he [there it is again, that Henry Adams-style use of the third person, thereby circumventing the usual observations—like here!—about the author’s egotism] had the equivalent of a Geiger counter in his brain to measure the radiation of advancements and awards in the various salients, wedges, and vectors of that aesthetic battlefield known as the literary pie."

Mailer then claimed that it was best that he didn't receive the award, as it would have "incarcerated him into a larger paralysis.” Do you believe him? I don’t.

Over the last 50 or so years, we Americans have gotten used to revelations about behind-the-scenes doings of Presidential campaigns, of the Supreme Court, even papal elections. In contrast, the deliberations of the Nobel committee seemed a closely held secret of some inner sanctum.

I was wrong—I just hadn’t looked that far or read enough. (Thereby undoubtedly confirming that group’s snotty dismissal of the “insularity” of American writers and the readers who keep them together, body and soul!) Then I came across this New Yorker article, from 11 years ago, by Michael Specter. It turns out that the six-person committee that makes recommendations for the finalists to the larger Swedish Academy has periodic brouhahas that explode into the open in the Scandinavian press.

And, if Mailer ever had occasion to look back on his regrets before he died nearly two years ago, he could have taken solace in his loss of the Nobel by considering that some laureates—even of recent years—are generally considered substandard, including playwright Dario Fo.

Quote of the Day (Lily Tomlin, on Cynicism)

Trudy the Bag Lady (played by Lily Tomlin): “I worry no matter how cynical you become, it’s never enough to keep up.”—Jane Wagner, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe (1985), performed by Lily Tomlin

Thursday, October 22, 2009

This Day in Rock Music History (Record Exec Blows Chance to Sign The Who)

October 22, 1964—Even the best of us blow it sometimes—just ask umpire Tim McClelland about those calls he wishes he had back the other night in the Yankees-Angels game.

That’s the only way I can see why ace record producer John Burgess of EMI Records would fail to see the potential in a group auditioning at London’s famous Abbey Road Studios. The youngsters were known at the time as the High Numbers. You and I know them better today as The Who.

I’m half-tempted to break into song over EMI’s head-scratcher. You know the tune I mean: “I Can’t Explain,” the single that the group released less than three months after their audition—the same song that wound up #8 on the UK charts and sent them on the road to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Some years ago, Victor Navasky and Christopher Cerf came out with The Experts Speak, a collection of quotes from would-be soothsayers who proved spectacularly wrong (e.g., Irving Thalberg to MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer, on box-office prospects for Gone With the Wind: “Forget it, Louis, no Civil War picture ever made a nickel").

I never got around to perusing what sounds like an amusing book, but Burgess’ quote about the group he’d just heard would probably take pride of place in it. He wrote one of the foursome’s two managers, Kit Lambert, that he wasn’t sure if the High Numbers “have anything to offer.”


Let’s get that laughter at Burgess’ expense out of our system right now…

Okay? Settled down? Let’s see if Burgess was the utter nincompoop his quote might lead us to suspect, or if The Who were really that good at the time.

The second question is easier to answer: Burgess was not a dunce. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, he was considered a pretty savvy producer at EMI—finding talent for the label, digging up material for groups, helping to coordinate recording sessions. Among his successes: working with John Barry on the “James Bond Theme.” When Beatles producer George Martin departed EMI in 1965, he took Burgess along, which he most emphatically would not have done if Burgess had been lackluster.

Now, what about The Who?

Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle and Keith Moon were in transition at this point, including new management, a new name, new songs, and new elements in their live act that would make them a concert must-see. Let’s take all of this in order—which, as it happens, turns out to be pretty neatly chronological:

* New management: Pete Meaden had taken them over only five months before the audition. He was a devout Mod, a London youth movement at the time which today means little to people like my niece and nephews, except maybe that it provided grist for one of the most memorable bits of dialogue in the Beatles’ film A Hard Day’s Night (recalled in a prior post of mine). The Mods went in for flashy clothes, scooters, pills, and rock ‘n’ roll. Meaden’s time with the group was short (we’ll get to that), but he engineered a change in their style that made them musical spokesmen of a sort for his movement.

* New name: The Who started life in 1962 as The Detours before becoming The Who. It wasn’t until 1964 that the group in its most familiar form coalesced, as they recruited wildman Keith Moon as their drummer. When Meaden took over, he got the group to change its name from The Who to the High Numbers—evidently, “Numbers” was the preferred form of address when Mods met each other, and “High” referred the meds consumed so they could carouse all weekend. Whatever. Guess you had to be there at the time.

* New songs: The British quartet had already hit on their full-throttle playing style—“Maximum R&B,” they called it. But, like innumerable other up-and-coming British bands, they began by performing cover versions of others’ hits. Meaden took it on himself to write the group’s first single, “I’m the Face/Zoot Suit.” It got nowhere. Lambert and his partner, Chris Stamp, swooped down and paid Meaden 150 pounds to make himself scarce.

* New elements in their live act: The band had already developed a cadre of fervent followers, but in the month before their audition they created, through serendipity, the form of theatrical destruction that would make them famous. At the Railway Hotel in Harrow, Townshend accidentally smashed his guitar, then became so enraged that he went the whole hog and pulverized it. The following week, Moon, to demonstrate his fellowship, kicked over his drum-set. The fans loved it (even though the group at this point could ill afford to pay for the broken equipment).

One happy result of the encounter with EMI: The record company wanted to see more original material from the band, which gave Lambert and Stamp the leverage they needed to get Townshend to start composing.

November represented a change and upturn in the group’s fortunes. They changed back to The Who, and began a 16-week residency at London’s Marquee Club that soon became a smash. By this time they were also signed with Orbit Music, where producer Shel Talmy would take them under his wing in molding “I Can’t Explain.”

In later years, The Who would not forget their rejection, and made sure they had the last laugh over it. Buyers of their LP Live at Leeds found in the left pocket of the gatefold a whole cache of memorabilia associated with the band. Among the items: Burgess’ letter to Lambert.

Quote of the Day (The Real Estate Travails of Eddie Murphy)

“Funnyman Eddie Murphy won't be joking over this.

Nearly five years after his posh seven-bedroom Englewood, N.J., mansion went on the market for $30 million, the actor has slashed $15 million off the asking price.”—Chrisena Coleman, “Eddie’s House Sale: N.J. Estate Slashed From $30M to 15M As Murphy Finds Few Laughs in Economy,” The New York Daily News, October 21, 2009

Oh, good—now it’s in my price range!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

This Day in Western History (Sam Houston Becomes Cherokee Citizen)

October 21, 1829—Sam Houston—former Indian fighter, ex-governor of Tennessee, Presidential hopeful turned object of controversy and scandal—began the wilderness years of his public life by choosing to become a member of the Cherokee Nation.

Houston’s decision came at the age of 36, only one year older than Dante was when the poet described, in The Inferno, finding himself “within a forest dark,/For the straightforward pathway had been lost.” It followed the mysterious breakup of the soldier-politician's first marriage, and, in many ways, is the least documented period of his life.

At the same time, it would be a mistake to say that Houston joined the Cherokee only because he had hit a personal nadir. That would deny the bonds of respect and affection—not to mention the deep affinity—he felt for the Native-American nation since his teens. After all, the tribe had already taken him in—welcomed him—once before, when he felt most lost.

In 1809, Houston’s family was making a success of their move from Virginia to eastern Tennessee, but 15-year-old Sam—not unlike another towering figure on the national scene, Abraham Lincoln—was bored by chores. Unlike the future railsplitter, Houston lit out for Cherokee territory.

Taken in by Chief Oo-loo-te-ka ("He-Puts-the-Drum-Away"), the lanky teen was given the name Co-lon-neh, i.e. "Raven." He stayed with the Cherokee for another year and a half before returning to white civilization as a schoolteacher.

Andrew Jackson, Houston’s commander during the War of 1812, sensed possibilities in his protégé, and especially found useful his knowledge of Cherokee ways, enough so that “Old Hickory” helped land him a position as agent for the tribe. Houston’s rise through Tennessee politics followed, climaxing in becoming elected governor in 1827. If Jackson could make the White House, there seemed no reason why that path didn’t lay open to Houston, too.

In January 1829, Houston married 18-year-old Eliza Allen, a daughter in a prominent Tennessee family. By the spring, however, the couple had separated. Neither husband nor wife ever commented specifically on what drove them apart. Plenty of rumors swirled, however, including the following:

* Eliza was repulsed by Houston’s drunkenness;

* Eliza was in love with another man;

* Eliza was involuntarily repulsed by a seeping wound in Houston’s upper thigh, incurred 15 years before from an arrow at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. (This last rumor, the most interesting—and tragic—of the group, might, alas, be only an urban legend. A physician who examined Houston later claimed that the thigh wound had long since healed. What hadn’t healed was a shoulder wound, which had to be dressed nearly daily.)

The resulting hullabaloo led to Houston resigning from his office and heading out to Arkansas, where his old friend Chief Oo-loo-te-ka had relocated to be beyond the reach of white men. While visiting, Houston fell ill from malaria, then was treated with Indian medicine. In a real sense, then, he felt he was being healed physically as well as mentally.

It has been said that during this period, Houston’s alcoholism was so rampant that he was known among his adopted people as “big drunk” (he stood, according to various accounts, anywhere from six-foot-two to six-foot-six). Again, however, some perspective is in order.

The ex-politician was not doing nothing this whole time. Instead, he served as an ambassador for the Cherokee to whites. This might have been more important than ever to the tribe, since Jackson was now in the White House and making momentous decisions about members of the tribe still east of the Mississippi.

Those who didn’t know Houston in his teen years were now astonished to find him in Washington in Indian dress (such as the miniature accompanying this post), advocating for the Cherokee and denouncing corruption in the Bureau of Indian Affairs. “I am aware that in presenting myself as the advocate of the Indians and their rights, I shall stand very much alone,” he observed.

Moreover, he took as a wife Tiana Rogers, whose half-brother, Captain John, eventually succeeded Oo-loo-te-ka as chief. (Will Rogers, the beloved humorist, was Tiana’s nephew, three generations removed.)

What brought Houston back irrevocably to white civilization was what drove him away in the first place: controversy. In 1832, enraged by allegations of fraud by Congressman William Stanberry of Ohio, Houston got into a fight with him on Pennsylvania Avenue. Actually, it became more like a DC rumble, with Houston beating Stanbery with his hickory walking cane and the congressman retaliating by pointing his pistol at the chest of his big adversary. Luckily for Houston, Stanbery misfired.

Houston was arrested and tried before Congress for the attack. His defense lawyer, Francis Scott Key (yes, the “Star-Spangled Banner” composer), pleaded eloquently, as did Houston himself, but it was no use. The House voted him guilty and ordered him to pay a $500 fine.

Houston refused and, not wanting to have to deal with this issue anymore, decided to light out for another territory: Texas. There, a new life, San Jacinto—and his eventual destiny—awaited.

Quote of the Day (Francois Truffaut, Capturing What Sounds Like His Style)

“When humor can be made to alternate with melancholy, one has a success, but when the same things are funny and melancholic at the same time, it's just wonderful.”—French director Francois Truffaut (1932-1984), Jan. 15, 1980, published in Letters (1989), edited by Gilles Jacob and Claude De Givray

On this date 25 years ago, the film world grew a little darker, as Francois Truffaut died from a brain tumor at age 52. If he had only lived a normal lifespan! Just think—his film career had already lasted 25 years. An additional quarter century would mean he could have doubled his output.

Ah, film fans, why be greedy? The great critic-turned-leader of the French “new wave” had already created one of the great modern filmographies, including The 400 Blows, Jules and Jim, and The Last Metro—movies reflecting his preoccupations with childhood, relations between the sexes, and the passion for cinema that had saved his life as a troubled teen. Even his unintended swan song, Confidentially Yours, starring his lover, Fanny Ardant, is a fun homage to Hollywood film noir.

Above all, turn to Day for Night, his 1973 valentine to the mad, beautiful world of filmmaking. There is just one term for it—wonderful—and it won him a much-deserved Oscar for Best Foreign Language Picture.

Above all, with his deeply humane sensibility, Truffaut offered an example of how to produce an entire oeuvre of personal filmmaking: Work as often as possible, and remember--if it doesn't matter to you, the director, it won't matter to anyone else.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

This Day in World War II History (MacArthur Returns)

October 20, 1944—Splashing ashore in knee-deep water, in long, powerful strides, General Douglas MacArthur made good on his promise of two years before when he was compelled to abandon the fortress of Corregidor: “I shall return.”

Nobody could accuse the general of cowardice, and the “island-hopping strategy” in the South Pacific that brought him back to the Philippines—bypassing heavily fortified Japanese strongholds for more vulnerable points—saved thousands of American lives.

But, characteristically, MacArthur’s return—a huge morale booster for a Filipino population suffering under misrule under the Empire of the Rising Sun—was also marked by histrionics. Dwight D. Eisenhower, an aide to MacArthur during the 1930s, remarked that he had studied dramatics under the general—and you can see it in how the Pacific commander prepared for his landing and what he did upon getting to shore.

All through the morning, the general watched 200,000 of his troops offload seven miles off the shore of Leyte Gulf. At last, after his luncheon, he decided to come in with the third wave of the landings.

Just before he went in, he signaled to his public-relations staff: “Regard publicity set-up as excellent. I desire to broadcast from beach as soon as apparatus can be set up. After I have done so you can use records made to broadcast to the U.S. and to the Philippines at such times and in such ways as you deem best.”

After wading ashore, MacArthur repeated his dramatic walk. Why would he do so, particularly when snipers could have cut him down? Why, for the benefit of newsreel cameras, of course!

Standing by his side was the President of the Philippines, Sergio Osmena, who had been unable to persuade the great man that it might be safer to wait until the troops had eliminated Japanese resistance before they waded in. Now, with a mobile broadcast unit set up, MacArthur was ready to speak: “People of the Philippines: I have returned.”

The general continued for a few sentences, paying tribute to the “unswerving and resolute devotion to the principles of freedom” demonstrated by Filipino patriots. But what must have stood out for many a listener was this short sentence: “Rally to me.”

Somewhere along the line, MacArthur had forgotten that there is no “I” in “team,” nor in “Army.” His egomania was such that he had already been seriously contemplating running for President against Franklin Roosevelt, his commander in chief.

Military historian Max Hastings’ judgment on the general in Retribution: The Battle for Japan 1944-1945 is not without harsh truth: “MacArthur displayed a taste for fantasy quite unsuited to a field commander, together with ambition close to megalomania and consistently poor judgement as a picker of subordinates.”

David McCullough’s view, however, rings with truth, too: “There's no question about his patriotism, there's no question about his courage, and there's no question, it seems to me, about his importance as one of the protagonists of the 20th century."

Monday, October 19, 2009

Quote of the Day (Thomas Buchanan Read, Celebrating “Sheridan’s Ride”)

“The first that the general saw were the groups
Of stragglers, and then the retreating troops;
What was to be done? what to do?--a glance told him both.
Then striking his spurs with a terrible oath,
He dashed down the line, 'mid a storm of huzzas,
And the wave of retreat checked its course there, because
The sight of the master compelled it to pause.
With foam and with dust the black charger was gray;
By the flash of his eye, and his red nostril's play,
He seemed to the whole great army to say:
‘I have brought you Sheridan all the way
From Winchester down to save the day.’”—Thomas Buchanan Read, “Sheridan’s Ride” (1865)

Nowadays, I’ll wager, if students are asked to recall a quote associated with General Philip Sheridan, they’ll likely come up with his infamous (and possibly apocryphal) “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.”

But earlier in the last century, schoolchildren all across the land would commit to memory “Sheridan’s Ride,” Thomas Buchanan Read’s narrative poem of “Little Phil’s” dash from Winchester to Cedar Creek to rally shocked, demoralized and beaten Union troops in the climactic engagement of his “Valley Campaign” against Jubal Early.

I’m not against schoolchildren knowing about the “good Indian” quote, mind you—incomplete history might as well be false history. But they should also learn about the charisma that inspired Sheridan’s troops. That is what was celebrated in Read’s poem and remembered in the postwar era by many Northerners when they thought of making the general, like U.S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield, and Winfield Scott Hancock, a Presidential candidate.

(Whether the general was actually eligible for the office is an open question. Over the years, Sheridan’s mother changed her story several times about where he’d been born—first Ohio, then Albany, then on a ship bound for America from Ireland. The possibility also exists that he was born in County Cavan in the Emerald Isle itself. He would have been ineligible for President in the latter eventuality. Aside from any aspirations for higher office, virulent anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant feelings during the 1840s and 1850s, as Sheridan came to manhood, might have accounted for Mrs. Sheridan’s ambiguity on the subject.)

In August 1864, General Grant gave Sheridan the task of dealing with the Shenandoah Valley, the “bread basket of Virginia.” From the beginning of the war, Confederate commanders—notable Stonewall Jackson, John Breckinridge and Jubal Early—had ranged up and down the valley, reinforcing Robert E. Lee at will and sustaining the Southern war effort.

As he settled in for the long, drawn-out siege at Petersburg, Grant wanted as few distractions from that effort as possible, and Sheridan had carte blanche to burn anything of value in the valley. This he accomplished with a will—and what’s more, in a series of engagements in September and October, most notably at Winchester, Sheridan systematically reduced Early in force.

The Battle of Cedar Creek, which occurred on this date in 1864, pretty much finished off Lee’s hope of keeping the Shenandoah Valley in Confederate hands.

Ironically, Early thought he had a chance to reverse his fortunes by surprising the Union forces just before dawn on October 19. At first, the plan worked. But “Ol’ Jube’s” satisfaction with the outcome to date (no use sending more troops after the Federals, he told Gen. John B. Gordon: “They will all go, directly”) proved his undoing.

Sheridan was in Winchester, 15 miles away from Cedar Creek, having breakfast when he heard the low sounds of guns. As he crossed Mill Creek, he became fully aware of “the appalling spectacle of a panic-stricken army.” Spurring on his horse Rienzi, he encountered one group of stragglers after another, persuading them to turn back: “We are going to get a twist on those fellows! We are going to lick them out of their boots!”

And so he did. But it’s important here to lay out what happened next. If this had been, say, Sheridan’s Indian Wars subordinate George Custer leading the troops, he would have fallen immediately on the enemy, and to hell with the consequences.

But, as Shelby Foote pointed out in The Civil War, Sheridan waited, until 4 pm, when he had massed his troops and could face Early on equal terms. The former stock clerk and quartermaster mastered detail—and won the day. The Union troops gained back all they had lost, and then some.

The toast of the Confederacy only three months before for his maneuver toward Washington, Early now found himself blamed for the fiasco in the valley, then removed from this command. On the other hand, victory sealed Sheridan’s reputation as the third-greatest Northern commander of the war, just after Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, and he eventually succeeded them as head of the army.

A painter and poet, Thomas Buchanan Read is barely remembered today, but during the Civil War and its immediate aftermath, he attracted much attention with his patriotic verse, which he read in Union camps and at soldiers’ benefits.

The latter genre seems all but extinct now, but it made an enormous contribution during the Civil War, in the form of Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” John Greenleaf Whittier’s “Barbara Fritchie,” and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride.” It reminded a profoundly war-weary public that liberty was worth fighting for—even worth rallying for at the last extremity, as Phil Sheridan had done that memorable day at Cedar Creek.