Friday, December 31, 2010

Quote of the Day (John Quincy Adams, Surveying His First Tumultuous Year in Office)

“The year has been the most momentous of those that have passed over my head, inasmuch as it has witnessed my elevation at the age of fifty-eight to the Chief Magistracy of my country; to the summit of laudable, or at least blameless, worldly ambition; not, however, in a manner satisfactory to pride or to just desire; not by the unequivocal suffrages of a majority of the people; with perhaps two-thirds of the whole people adverse to the actual result. Nearly one year of this service has already passed, with little change of the public opinion or feelings; without disaster to the country; with an unusual degree of prosperity, public and private.”—John Quincy Adams, diary entry for December 31, 1825, in Memoirs of John Quincy Adams: Comprising Portions of His Diary From 1795 to 1848, edited by Charles Francis Adams (1874)

As the final minutes of his last, tumultuous year ticked away, ambition, pride, peevishness and gloom vied for pride of place in the mind of John Quincy Adams, as they invariably did. Perhaps better prepared for the Presidency than any occupant of his office before or since, the sixth President noticed, to his deep chagrin, that “perhaps two-thirds of the whole people” opposed the outcome of the election of 1824 that had allowed him to reach his nation’s highest post.

In addition to serving as U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, Adams had labored in just about every important diplomatic post his young nation held, climaxed by two terms as arguably the greatest Secretary of State this country has ever had. (The latter post was particularly crucial, because three prior occupants--Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe--ended up becoming President.) These events gave him years of knowledge of leaders, events and other nations--and historians ever since an unparalleled insider account of the formation of the early republic.

In John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life, Paul C. Nagel termed Adams’ daily diary “the most discerning and useful personal journal kept by an American,” one that “deserves to rank near, if not next to, that of Samuel Pepys.” The President had jotted down impressions of the day haphazardly as a child and youth, at the urging of his father, John Adams, and with almost Puritan regularity since 1795.

But now the demands of his job--and the mental strain caused by the circumstances in which he became President--increasingly consumed the time and energy he needed to devote to his diary, a task he had more and more frequently regarded as necessary not simply as a record of events but as a means for correcting his faults.

No winner of the Presidency--no, not even George W. Bush--has been subjected to as many ferocious assaults over how he obtained the Presidency as the second Adams president. The situation was not only as bad as he depicted it in the above quote, but even worse.

In the four-way election of 1824--a contest whose heavy sectional results foreshadowed the even more ominous count 36 years later that produced Abraham Lincoln and the consequent secession of 11 Southern states--Adams had only placed second in terms of popular and electoral votes. But because neither he nor his rivals was able to muster a majority in the Electoral College, the election was thrown into the House of Representatives, where Adams became the winner.

The “Era of Good Feelings” under President Monroe was, in fact, a holiday from history, as far as partisanship was concerned. The collapse of the Federalist Party only scrambled the American tendency to form political factions.

Fatally, Adams did not recognize that the party system was returning with a vengeance. Like his father, he thought he could govern by appealing simply to the best interests of the nation, without resort to factions. Like his father, he would be turned out of office, after a single miserable term, for his well-intentioned error.

Backers of Andrew Jackson, the winner of the popular and electoral vote, were soon charging Adams with a “corrupt bargain” that made Henry Clay Secretary of State. (The Kentuckian, ruled out of consideration in the House because he placed fourth among the candidates, had swung the support of his state behind Adams.) It didn’t matter that Adams only extended the offer to Clay after the House vote had been taken, or that the incoming President, in an effort to unify the country, also asked Jackson and the other losing candidate in the election, William H. Crawford of Georgia, to join his Cabinet. (Both refused.)

Jackson supporters, who would eventually form the modern Democratic Party, were intent not only on blocking Adams’ re-election but on preventing enactment of any of his proposals--and he had many.

I can’t think of a President who has aimed higher--or been stymied so consistently by opponents--as Adams. His first annual message to Congress, submitted (as was the custom in those days, in writing rather than in person) just a few weeks before his last diary entry of the year, contained every bit of the “laudable, or at least blameless, worldly ambition” on which he prided himself.

With a fervor that no other President before him had displayed, he not only defended the necessity of internal improvements--e.g., roads, canals and the railroads then coming into existence--but the constitutional basis for their funding by the federal government.

Unfortunately, the sheer breadth of Adams’ visionary proposals--participation in the first Pan-American congress, internal improvements, a national university, even an astronomical observatory--stunned his entire Cabinet--even Clay, whose “American System” was fully embodied in the internal-improvements program. The program was virtually dead on arrival when it reached Capitol Hill, where the Jacksonians agreed to only a couple proposals: westward expansion of the Cumberland Road into Ohio and the building of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal.

Adams being Adams, he couldn’t help but contrast his belief in the impact of his work (“an unusual degree of prosperity, public and private”) with the storms already swirling around his character (“little change of the public opinion or feelings”). A reader of the Latin classics, he believed that the kind of “base and formidable conspiracy” that undid the ancient Roman Republic was also undermining the young republic he now led.

The President lost so much weight during the next four years that his clothes hung loosely on him. It was with a kind of relief that he yielded the White House to Jackson, whom he now regarded, following his own losing re-election campaign, as a kind of barbarian.

In fact, Adams was able to achieve far more as an ex-President than as a holder of “the Chief Magistracy of my country.” Within two years, he was elected a Congressman from Massachusetts.

From this perch, he not only was able to champion the pursuit of knowledge and science by spearheading the formation of the Smithsonian Institute, but, in defying the infamous “Gag Rule” that stifled congressional debate on slavery, he struck a blow for freedom of speech and against the institution of slavery that, he increasingly believed, represented an “outrage upon the goodness of God.”

In recent years, scholarly and popular attention--including a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography and a Broadway play--has focused on Andrew Jackson. In his own way, however, Adams was every bit as fascinating as Old Hickory.

All the attributes--intellectual brilliance, independence of mind, ambivalence of office-seeking and office-holding, and mental depression--that informed his rise to the Presidency and frustration in the job are present in today’s “Quote of the Day.” By the time of his death in 1848---felled by a stroke on the floor of the House, where he was opposing the Mexican War as a kind of Trojan horse for expansion of slavery--he richly merited his nickname "Old Man Eloquent."

Thursday, December 30, 2010

This Day in Film History (Silent “Ben-Hur” Debuts)

December 30, 1925—It was already the bestselling novel of the 19th century, the greatest Broadway success of its time, and the subject of additional books, signs, toys and ads. And it was no different when the first full-length film version of Ben-Hur premiered at the George M. Cohan Theater in New York City--everyone wanted to be part of this multigenerational, multimedia phenomenon.

Spectacle represented a huge part of the appeal of this project--including the epic galley battle and, of course, the thunderous chariot race that climaxes this tale of vengeance and faith. And people not only wanted to see a spectacle in the form of the finished picture, but even in the course of filming.

What separates a Titanic from a Cleopatra, aside from millions in profits? Certainly not expense, nor even pre-release troubles.

A Vanity Fair article on the 1963 Elizabeth Taylor behemoth noted that “It took two of everything to get Cleopatra in the can: two Twentieth Century Fox regimes, two directors…and more than two years of shooting.” Yet nearly four decades before the release of that film, Ben-Hur had already set the template, becoming a cost-overrun horror show because of changes in costumes, scripts, directors and even principal actors.

The on-location Roman sets for Ben-Hur were so lavish, so beyond anything experienced before, that crowds of spectators (including F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald) turned out to gawk.

Yet the film’s producers decided they needed to rein in a production exacting unexpected costs both in monetary terms (its approximate $4 million in costs set a record for the time) and in human life (a stunt man was killed during the shooting of the chariot race scene, and several accidents also occurred). To impose some order on what was turning out to be a mess, they turned to Fred Niblo, who had already scored hits with The Three Musketeers and The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Sets and costumes were scrapped as the crew relocated to where the studio could keep a better eye on them: Culver City, Calif.

Moreover, the original Ben-Hur, George Walsh, had only shot one reel of film--a test, mind you--when he experienced the indignity of hearing about his sacking secondhand from co-star Francis X. Bushman, who read about it in the papers. (Rudolph Valentino was the overwhelming popular choice to play the title character, the same way that Clark Gable would dominate the Rhett Butler sweepstakes in Gone With the Wind--but Ramon Navarro was eventually judged a suitable replacement for Walsh by studio and public.)

Like Cleopatra, Ben-Hur also went through two studio changes. Goldwyn Pictures had bought the film rights from a producer of the stage play, Abraham Erlanger, but then Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer inherited the project.

(Oh, I forgot to mention that the original screenwriter, June Mathis, was also yanked from the production. But are you really surprised by this, faithful reader? After all, Hollywood runs through screenwriters the way Larry King does wives. I mean, what can you say when you learn that at least five screenwriters slaved over the Tom Hanks film, Turner and Hooch? Come on--how many ways can you tell the story of a dog?)

After all the migraines and agita, was it all worth it? For the filmmakers, perhaps not. The film grossed $9 million, but the cost overruns and the lucrative deal made by Erlanger loomed so large that MGM made few if any profits.

For the public, it was another story, as they got to see all the technical power that Hollywood could bring to a property, with all kinds of records set in the process: 48 cameras used for the sea battle, the most edited scene in film history (200,000 feet of film boiled down to a mere 750 feet for the chariot race) and, perhaps, the largest cast (a purported 125,000).

Americans had already proved they would snap up anything connected to the name Ben-Hur since the novel’s publication in 1880. The gargantuan success of the latter provided much-needed balm to the ego of Lew Wallace, who, after a controversial performance as a general at the Battle of Shiloh in the Civil War, had been popping up, Zelig-like, throughout the postwar period: as a judge during the trials of the Lincoln conspirators, again as a judge investigating the horrors of Andersonville prison camp, as a commissioner deciding the disputed Presidential election of 1876, and as territorial governor of New Mexico when Billy the Kid was raising a ruckus.

It was during his tenure in the latter post that Wallace wrote his second--and by far most successful--historical novel. Intellectuals would never put him in the same company as Hawthorne or Melville, but with Ben-Hur this Hoosier-born romantic man of action effected a broadening of American literary culture that the elites could never manage.

Because of its religious subject matter (in a brilliant stroke of marketing, the novel was subtitled, “A Tale of the Christ”), Ben-Hur became the first book other than the Bible even found in many homes. For a former soldier who acted upon a challenge by noted agnostic Col. Robert Ingersoll, it must have been especially gratifying to hear from many readers that Ben-Hur even led them to convert to Christianity.

When he wasn't writing melodramatic claptrap (especially involving the vamp Iras), Wallace created lean, sinewy prose that only a man of action could produce and only the motion picture could do full justice to, as in these sentences from the sea-battle scene:

"At last there was a sound of trumpets on deck, full, clear, long-blown. The chief beat the sounding board until it rang; the rowers reached forward full-length, and, deepening the quiver of their oars, pulled suddenly with all their united force. The galley, quivering in every timber, answered with a leap....There was a mighty blow; the rowers in front of the chief's platform reeled, some of them fell; the ship bounded back, recovered, and rushed on more irresistibly than before."

Two other ways in which adapting Ben-Hur to film made history:

* In 1907, a pioneering motion-picture company, Kalem, filmed the chariot scene without getting permission from General Wallace's estate. His son pounced with a lawsuit that was eventually decided in his favor in a 1911 Supreme Court precedent-setting decision that extended copyright law to the new medium of film.

* In 1959, MGM, in dire straits, bet the ranch on a remake of Ben-Hur. It raked in $40 million in its first year alone, along with 11 Oscars (including a Best Actor statuette for Charlton Heston and Best Director honors for William Wyler, who, during production of the silent version, had served as one of 60 assistant directors for the chariot-race scene). It was not unlike the stupendous bet made by the villainous Messala on the printed page and screen, except with a much more agreeable outcome.

Quote of the Day (John Clare, on Boys in Winter)

“The schoolboys still their morning rambles take
To neighboring village school with playing speed
Loitering with pastimes leisure till they quake
Oft looking up the wild geese droves to heed
Watching the letters which their journeys make.”—John Clare (1763-1864), “Schoolboys in Winter,” in The Portable Romantic Poets, edited by W.H. Auden and Norman Holmes Pearson (1950)

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Quote of the Day (T.S. Eliot, on the “Chance of Greater Sin”)

"Servant of God has chance of greater sin And sorrow, than the man who serves a king. For those who serve the greater cause may make the cause serve them, Still doing right: and striving with political men May make that cause political, not by what they do But by what they are.”—Archbishop Thomas Becket, in T.S. Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral (1935) 

Somehow this past year, I missed writing about two anniversaries related to T.S. Eliot, including the 45th of his death and the 60th of his verse drama, The Cocktail Party. I would have missed discussing the 75th anniversary of the publication of his most famous verse play, Murder in the Cathedral, except that another date provided me with an opportunity to discuss it. 

On this date in 1170, Archbishop Thomas a Becket--recently returned to England after seven years on the continent, where he had fled after fearing for his life—was murdered. 

He wasn’t the first archbishop to die violently, nor the last (the long, grim line of highly placed Roman Catholic martyrs extends from St. Peter to Archbishop Oscar Romero, and undoubtedly more recent ones I’m not aware of). 

 But the site of the crime—on the altar of the archbishop’s own cathedral, in Canterbury—shocked the English public. When it became common knowledge that the four assassins were acting on the half-wish, half-command of the prelate’s friend-turned-enemy, King Henry II (“Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?"), unrest grew to such a state that three years later, Henry felt obliged to proceed to the cathedral for public penance, kneeling before the tomb of Becket while a crowd of priests and monks took turns striking him with a rod. 

It’s not an accident that interest in Becket and another English “Thomas” engaged in a long, ultimately fatal battle of wills about a royal named Henry, Thomas More, peaked twice in the last century, in the exact same two years. More’s canonization occurred in 1935, the year that Eliot’s drama made its stage debut. The two events occurred as Adolf Hitler threatened virtually every major church in Germany as part of his larger attempt to crush all opposition as he marginalized, disenfranchised, then annihilated the Jews of his country. 

Twenty-five years later, with the Soviet Union trying to snuff out religious sentiment behind the Iron Curtain, Paul Scofield electrified Broadway audiences as More in A Man for All Seasons, and Anthony Quinn and Laurence Olivier were facing off as Henry and the Archbishop of Canterbury in Jean Anouilh‘s Becket. Becket and More, then, became heroes of conscience for a Western Christian civilization desperate to maintain portions of the private realm from the encroachment of an all-powerful state. 

I had a difficult time in choosing between the Eliot and Anouilh dramas (particularly because, in the case of the latter, I still have a powerful fascination with the 1964 cinematic adaptation with Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton in the roles of Henry and Thomas). Even after picking Eliot, I could have selected a different quote from that play (notably the most famous couplet, “The last temptation is the greatest treason,/To do the right deed for the wrong reason”).

I ended up picking the lines above because they are so jarring in the context of the play, like a streak of lightning across a dark sky. A poet obsessed with heritage and antiquity is sounding an unexpectedly contemporary note. 

At the heart of the conflict between Henry and Becket was the archbishop’s refusal to accede to the king’s command that accused clerics be tried in the civil realm. (In one case that particularly brought a public outcry, one priest had been acquitted in an ecclesiastic court on a murder charge.) 

In a long essay on Becket, G.K. Chesterton scoffed that the modern understanding of the argument between the king and his former friend--that is, the relationship between church and state--had nothing to do with what was really at stake. Much as I admire the great contrarian, his reading in this case is simply a case of denying the obvious. The proper place of church and state had everything to do with this tragedy. 

In fending off the arguments of the four tempters, Eliot’s Becket argues for a church as a center of a rightly ordered world. But in the quote above, he briefly acknowledges the grave potential in one of the temptations he quickly dismissed: power. 

When popes and theologians looked to scripture for sources of church authority, more often than not they cited Christ’s charge to his first among equals among his Apostles: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give to you the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16: 18-19). 

A more powerful element, however, was fear--the well-founded concern of what would happen in a society without a clerical bulwark against both anarchy and political oppression. Burnt into the collective memory of the Church--and especially the popes--were Roman emperors’ persecution of the early Christians, and Pope Leo the Great’s meeting with Attila the Hun that saved the Eternal City from slaughter. 

By Becket’s time, however, the potential for ecclesiastic abuse of power loomed large. Henry had banked on a reaction against it when he sought to extend his legal jurisdiction over the church in his realm. 

Moreover, two centuries before Martin Luther took aim at Rome for its corruption, Geoffrey Chaucer was already satirizing, in Canterbury Tales, the abuse of clerical privilege by at least two pilgrims to Becket’s shrine, in “The Friar‘s Tale“ and “The Summoner’s Tale.” 

One hundred and fifty years ago, Charles Dickens, immersed in centuries of anti-Catholic feeling, had little sympathy for the martyred archbishop and his defense of church privilege. His need to explain why Henry would threaten his old friend leads to a pile of suppositions in his Child’s History of England

“He [Becket] may have had some secret grudge against the King besides. The King may have offended his proud humour at some time or other, for anything I know. I think it likely, because it is a common thing for Kings, Princes, and other great people, to try the tempers of their favourites rather severely. Even the little affair of the crimson cloak must have been anything but a pleasant one to a haughty man. Thomas a Becket knew better than any one in England what the King expected of him. In all his sumptuous life, he had never yet been in a position to disappoint the King. He could take up that proud stand now, as head of the Church; and he determined that it should be written in history, either that he subdued the King, or that the King subdued him.” 

Today, nearly a millennium after Becket’s murder, the Church is dealing with the fallout from a hierarchy who employed the martyred archbishop’s method of dealing with accused clerics: i.e., let us handle it, not the state. The results, in the case of the priest abuse scandals, have not been pretty. 

The usual suspects--that is, revisionists--are all too aware of the implications of this. In a 2005 poll of historians on the worst Britons of all time that was published in BBC History Magazine, John Hudson of St. Andrews University nominated Becket as the 12th century’s worst villain, barely containing himself: “Those who share my prejudice against Becket may consider his assassination in Canterbury Cathedral on 29 December, 1170, a fittingly grisly end."

Somehow, in Hudson's view, outrageous state sanction of murder by Henry has assumed second place behind Becket's alleged "greed." But that was bound to happen, given the tenor of our time.

But it needs to be said: Though, despite Chesterton, the relationship between church and state was at work in the Becket-Henry conflict, there was no solid concept of separation of church and state at this point in history. That would need to be resolved over the course of centuries, with landmarks including the battle over the establishment of the Episcopal Church in Virginia in the 1780s (pitting Thomas Jefferson and James Madison against Patrick Henry) and France's 1905 law mandating separation of church and state in the wake of the Dreyfus Affairs.

Eliot's Becket, in his agony of conscience, has hit upon the special need of clergy for eternal self-vigilance. Their position holds special potential for the "chance of greater sin/And sorrow" than one who serves the state, because abuse of a sacred trust matters more in the hearts of the people who hold their faith as dear as their lives. The Church is now, to its great shame and sorrow, re-learning the meaning of these lines.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Quote of the Day (Clarence Day, on His Father and God)

“I thought of God as a strangely emotional being. He was powerful; he was forgiving yet obdurate, full of wrath and affection. Both His wrath and affection were fitful, they came and they went, and I couldn't count on either to continue; although they both always did. In short God was such a being as my father himself.”—Clarence Day, “God and My Father,” in The Best of Clarence Day (1948)

This past holiday season, like others for the past half-century or so, featured that 1944 Judy Garland chestnut, Meet Me in St. Louis. Fans like myself glory in the wonderful songs (such as “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”) and even director Vincente Minnelli’s painter-like eye. Fewer people realize that the screenplay was based on a series of autobiographical sketches by New Yorker writer Sally Benson. I don’t know how many people at this stage have even read her 1941 book that inspired the film.

Another piece of Americana, likewise based on autobiographical sketches that originally appeared in The New Yorker, suffers much the same fate today. More than 70 years after it originally opened, Life With Father, by Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse, remains the longest-running straight play in Broadway history, with more than 3,000 performances, and the 1947 adaptation starring William Powell as the title character and the incomparable Irene Dunne as his beloved Lavinia remains a Turner Classic Movies perennial. (The two appear in the image accompanying this post.) There was even a TV version of the show in the 1950s, starring character actor Leon Ames (not having to break a sweat as the beleaguered but goodhearted paterfamilias, having played the role a decade earlier in Meet Me in St. Louis).

More people, I think, are aware that this droll play and movie derive from the reminiscences of Clarence Day (or, to be technical, Clarence Day Jr.) than know about Sally Benson’s connection to the seminal Garland-Minnelli musical. But I still don’t think many have actually gone back to the original sources: the short book that started it all, God and My Father, and, when that proved successful, two later books that quickly found a readership in the mid-1930s: Life With Father and Life With Mother.

Day Jr.—who died on this date in 1935, at age 61—wrote much of this material as a way of getting his mind off of the ferociously painful arthritis that increasingly afflicted him toward the end of his life. He didn't live to glory in the success of Life With Father as a book (a Book-of-the-Month Club hit) and play.

I picked up a copy of The Best of Clarence Day at a local used-book sale. In dipping into it, I’ve responded in much the same fashion that New Yorker readers did at the time. It’s like luxuriating in a bubble-bath from which you’ll continually chuckle—kind of like Edith Wharton’s Old New York, only focusing on the white-collar middle class rather than the aristocracy, and with affectionate humor rather than needling satire.

The above quote, from the first sketch in “God and My Father,” points obliquely to the central situation of the subsequent play and movie: Clarence Day Sr.’s relationship with the Almighty—or, as it turns out, his very tenuous connection to the deity, since he has never been baptized. In fact, “Father” has a few beefs with the way the Man Upstairs runs things, just as a perusal of the morning paper is likely to set him off on fulminations against the city government. (“He didn’t actually accuse God of gross inefficiency, but when he prayed his tone was loud and angry, like that of a dissatisfied guest in a carelessly managed hotel.”)

Set in the 1880s and 1890s, Life With Father was viewed as a nostalgia piece when it first appeared, in much the same way that reruns of Happy Days are today. (Indeed, Mr. Cunningham, with the same qualities of outer crustiness but inner goodness of heart, is like a Clarence Day Sr. without the “damns” or the quizzical relationship with God.)

Nowadays, though, in a more secular time, filled with people far more hostile toward organized religion than Clarence Day Sr., the stratagems of “Vinnie” Day to have her husband baptized are likely to appear to be something from another, less tolerant planet. A good example is the otherwise endlessly insightful All That Glittered: The Golden Age of Drama on Broadway, 1919-1959, by Ethan Mordden.

Author of more than a dozen books, Mordden has forgotten more about the American theater than you or I could ever learn in a lifetime. He’s particularly good on the genesis of the play Life With Father, noting, for instance, that the autobiographical nature of the material required that producer Oscar Serlin, along with Lindsay and Crouse, obtain signed separate agreements from Day’s mother and his surviving brothers in order to mount the production.

But “Vinnie” Day’s concern for her husband’s soul strikes Mordden as less well-intentioned or even quaint than as “downright genderist,” an only somewhat milder version of “our own age of ever wilder encroachments on democracy by religion fascists.”

If the otherwise estimable Mordden had looked more closely at Day’s original source material, he might see that Clarence Day Sr. would have as much of a bone to pick with Mordden’s worldview as with the divines of his own late Victorian age. “Father” was put off by the clergy and disliked the demands made by religion, but at the same time, “It disgusted him when atheists attacked religion: he thought they were vulgar.”

Moreover, not a few of the modern “Vinnies” of the world even share a point in common with Clarence Day Sr.: They have their own arguments with God. They wonder how a being whom they revere could place so many obstacles in their path, and in their worst mental anguish even question why God would even feel the need to take someone they have come to love so much.

Monday, December 27, 2010

This Day in Film History (Rita Hayworth Sued by Her Studio)

December 27, 1955—The long-fraught relationship between Columbia Studios and star Rita Hayworth took a sharp turn for the worse, as the studio sued her for refusing to appear in the planned Biblical epic Joseph and His Brethren—presaging the end of a nearly two-decade association.

Hayworth didn’t show up for the proceedings, having departed for Europe with her two daughers to clear her head from the fallout of her latest marital disaster. In any case, the sex symbol didn’t want to be anywhere near studio head Harry Cohn.

Now, if you look hard enough you’ll eventually find something good in every person, no matter how seemingly evil they are, and Cohn did bail out some people down on their luck.

But in the main, his reputation—lecherous, crude and tyrannical—was well-deserved. Actress Jean Arthur and director Frank Capra had no use for him, and comedian Red Skelton, observing the size of the turnout for Cohn’s funeral three years later, let out one of the most wicked one-liners in Tinseltown history: “It proves what Harry always said: Give the public what they want and they'll come out for it.”

Hayworth particularly loathed the man, claiming he subjected her to sexual pressure in order to obtain good roles.

This time, Cohn was presenting her with the female lead in a big-budget picture, Joseph and His Brethren. Louis B. Mayer, out of power after nearly three decades at MGM, now an independent producer, had sold this property to Cohn.

Cohn had high hopes for this project. The 1950s, after all, were the era of the sand-and-sword Biblical epic. As a Time Magazine piece from June 1953 noted, the advent of widescreen and the chance to lure older viewers out of the home with wholesome subject matter made such films an event that would help the movie studios compete with television. At the time of that article, Quo Vadis? and The Robe had recently mined box-office gold, and before the decade was out Cecil B. DeMille’s remake of his The Ten Commandments and William Wyler’s version of Ben-Hur would bring all the money the moguls could ever dream of.

You can imagine the pitch the studio made to Hayworth—whom it had signed back in 1937, when she wasn’t even 20 years old—on why the project was bound to work:

“Rita honey, everybody knows this story. It’s got everything—betrayal, love. It’s got class written all over it. Know Eugene O’Neill? Well, his father James played in this story for two years, and Thomas Mann wrote four volumes about it…You’re asking me if I personally have read them? Come on, I’m too busy making sure my best stars get just the right vehicle!

“Which is what I’m doing for you now! Look, you saw On the Waterfront, right? Well, we got Lee J. Cobb from that to play Potiphar, and Clifford Odets to write the screenplay. It’s gonna be in Technicolor, and we’re sparing no expense on the costumes—in fact, we’ve got them planned now, you wanna see them?

"In other words, this is first-class, all the way. Now, whaddya say?”

Rita said she wanted time to think about it. In particular, she wanted to check with her latest (fourth) husband and producing partner, Dick Haymes.

Cohn and the rest of the Columbia top brass waited impatiently. Over the last several years, they had presented Hayworth with a couple of movies that could have been major financial and even critical successes for her: Born Yesterday and From Here to Eternity. But, for one reason or another, she had dragged her feet or turned them down.

They didn’t like the idea of Haymes (widely derided as a Svengali, though some later observers, such as biographer Ruth Prigozy, dispute the notion as arising from anonymous and/or biased sources) nosing around the project, either.

Three decades after his death, controversy still swirls about this singer-actor who could have been another Frank Sinatra.
Actually, the best way to think about Haymes is by imagining if The Chairman of the Board had never made his great comeback. Both men were big recording and film stars in the 1940s, but were coming apart at the seams in the early 1950s: depressed, hitting the bottle and desperately holding on, after several well-publicized marriages and romances, to a a screen goddess (in Sinatra’s case, Ava Gardner).
Sinatra’s connection to Gardner helped him land the role that saved him from the entertainment scrap heap: Maggio in From Here to Eternity. Now, Haymes hoped he would have similar luck, holding out for the role of Joseph himself in his wife’s proposed picture.
But the studio was not at all happy about the crooner’s presence in Hayworth’s life, let alone in one of her pictures. And now, a veritable perfect storm in the couple’s personal and professional lives brought them to the brink:
• Hayworth was tense from having to maintain civil relations with ex-husband Aly Khan—the man she had left Hollywood for at the end of the prior decade—in order to retain custody of their child.

• Haymes had his own child-support and alimony issues resulting from two failed marriages.

• Columbia was allegedly behind the scenes in a failed but (to Haymes) costly attempt to deport the singer to his native Argentina.

• In June 1955, Columbia sued Hayworth for defaulting on a $17,844 note she signed the prior December.

• Not surprisingly, with all of this money flying out the door to lawyers, Hayworth and Haymes were miserable and drinking heavily. Their marriage, after two years, was on the rocks.

So, though Columbia was willing to offer Haymes $50,000, the possibility of him starring as Joseph was a deal-breaker. Hayworth didn’t help matters by not returning an advance payment Columbia offered as an inducement to star in Joseph and His Brethren.

At this point, Cohn may well have fully lived up to his reputation for crude intimidation, telling Hayworth in no uncertain terms what she had for years and what she would be left with: "All you had were those big things and Harry Cohn. Now you just have those two big things."

By the time of the lawsuit, the marriage to Haymes was kaput, along with the movie. From then on, the studio and the woman it had transformed into an international sex symbol—the WWII pinup, the dancing darling of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, the temptress of Gilda—were headed for their own parting of the ways.

The writing was clearly on the wall in Pal Joey, the 1957 musical in which she co-starred with Sinatra and the blonde being groomed as her replacement at Columbia, Kim Novak. (To add insult to injury, Hayworth--despite a striptease number that recalled her incendiary similar moment from Gilda, "Put the Blame on Mame"--was playing a woman older than Sinatra, even though she was in fact two years younger.)
From this point forward, Hayworth’s screen appearances would be inconsistent and sporadic. She could not capitalize on fine roles in Separate Tables and The Story on Page One, partly because, like Gardner, heavy drinking exacerbated the usual problem faced by fortysomething actresses in those days before cosmetic surgery entered its golden (or, one should say, plastic) age.

“Whatever you write about me, don’t make it sad,” Hayworth told one interviewer. But you really can’t do otherwise. It’s not just that her erratic behavior in subsequent years—associated solely, for far too long, with drinking—in fact also resulted from Alzheimer’s Disease.

No, the disastrous marriage to Haymes was part of a longtime pattern of allying herself to strong men she could look to for emotional support. This, in turn, may well have resulted from Hayworth being a victim of incest at the hands of her father.

Barbara Leaming, who first floated that idea in her biography of Hayworth, If This Was Happiness, heard it secondhand from one of the goddess’ ex-husbands, Orson Welles. Any account from the latter, who loved to embellish the simplest tale, can hardly be accepted as gospel truth.

But I sense that this particular story has a hard core of fact to it. One frequent after-effect of child molestation, after all, is substance abuse.
Hayworth was, in fact, a shy homebody, hardly like the mantrap she played so often onscreen (as you might be able to tell from the image accompanying this post). But she could never really possess the security she craved so desperately from men. The men she hoped would be strong enough to protect her as an adult either exploited her or were too weak themselves to be any good for anyone else.

What Did You Do in the Great Blizzard, Mike?

The word for yesterday and today was shovelinglots of shoveling.

The worst thing is, I’m still not done yet.

For Exhibit A, turn to the photo accompanying this post, taken from my front porch. You’d never know it, but running from the lower left to upper right of this picture, there’s actually a wall, only you can’t see it because my area of Northern New Jersey received two feet of snow. Close to 30 inches accumulated from the drifts blown by all those winds, thus concealing the stone wall in front of my house.

The funniest headline of the weekend was in the local daily, The Bergen Record, yesterday morning: “Northeast Braces for Looming Blizzard; Forecasters Expect 11 to 16 Inches to Fall.”

Add on another 10-12 and you’d be closer to the mark, fellas.

As late as Friday, as I recall, the meteorologists were expecting the snow only to “graze” my neck of the woods. Long Island, these wise men were saying, would be the area really hit.

Guess we know what happened to that prediction, don’t we?

The events of the last weekend reinforce one of my most strongly held contentions: that the idea of a science of weather is a misnomer. When it comes to getting the facts on the ground right, weather forecasters are about as reliable in my book as astrologers—and, for the record, I hold the latter in abysmally low regard.

Quote of the Day (Henrik Ibsen, on “Castles in the Air”)

“Castles in the air - they are so easy to take refuge in. And so easy to build, too.”—Playwright Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906), The Master Builder (1892)

Sunday, December 26, 2010

This Day in Football History (Lombardi’s Packers Lose in 1st Try at Title)

December 26, 1960—The National Football League’s past met its future—and, for once, the past won. On their home turf at Franklin Field, the Philadelphia Eagles defeated the Green Bay Packers, 17-13.

The Eagles, winning their third NFL championship, had reached the summit--and a couple of people associated with the team, perhaps sensing it, decided to leave while they were on top. Head coach Buck Shaw and quarterback Norm Van Brocklin, the league’s MVP, both announced afterward that they were retiring. And though he would stay another two seasons, Chuck Bednarik, the team’s versatile center-linebacker, would be the league’s last “two-way man.” By the 1962 season, age and injuries would send the Eagles hurtling down to last place.

The cellar was where the Packers had long resided, but everything was different now under head coach Vince Lombardi (in the image accompanying this post, of course). The team, posting only a 1-10-1 record under predecessor Ray “Scooter” McLean in 1958, had responded to the constant prodding of Lombardi—previously, an assistant coach for the New York Giants and, further back, head coach at my high school, St. Cecilia’s of Englewood, N.J.—with their first winning record in 12 seasons the next year (7-5). Then, in 1960, they won their first division title in 16 years.

In a December 26, 1960 preview of the championship game, Sports Illustrated writer Tex Maule, noting that the Packers were “a sound football team,” still accurately predicted that they would have trouble with “Van Brocklin’s keen, probing aerial game.” And so it came to be—but not, however, before The Pack gave Eagles fans some serious heart palpitations.

The Packers actually outgained their veteran opponents and bested them in time of possession. Two Eagle turnovers early in the going gave the Packers terrific opportunities, but all they could come away with were three points.

It turned out, then, that a 13-10 Packer lead late in the game turned out to be too precarious to maintain. A 58-yard Ted Dean kickoff return put the Eagles deep in Packer territory, giving “The Dutchman” Van Brocklin time to pick apart the Packer defense. Seven plays later, Dean made it into the end zone on a five-yard sweep.

One minute and twenty seconds remained on the clock as the Packers’ QB, Bart Starr—hailed by Maule as “the smartest (academically speaking) quarterback in the business”—tried to engineer his own drive. He almost pulled it off, too, marching the team down the field until the final dramatic play of the game.

The Packers were on the Eagles’ 22-yard line when Starr, noticing that everyone else was covered, threw a swing pass to rugged fullback Jim Taylor. You can see the action without benefit of highlight films through the words of the peerless Red Smith: “That wonderful running back ducked his head like a charging bull, bolted like an enraged beer truck into Philadelphia‘s congested secondary, twisted, staggered, bucked and wrestled one step at a time.”

Taylor managed to get to the nine-yard line and would have made it into the end zone but for Bednarik. The latter, 35 years old, pressed into service by Coach Shaw to play both sides of the line because of injuries, had already played 58 minutes of the game when he had his appointment with destiny.

A Bednarik hit earlier that year, on Frank Gifford, was so ferocious that the Giant running back was out of commission for 18 months. But his tackle now, against Taylor, was more significant.

"The tackle I made on (Jim) Taylor was the greatest play I ever made," Bednarik later remembered (in an interview posted on the Eagles' Web site). "When I saw him swing out of the backfield I took off. After catching the (Bart Starr) pass I tackled him to the ground and started watching the clock: four... three ... two ... One.”

At last, hearing the gun go off, Bednarik relented: "Taylor, you can get up now. This ****** game is over!"

A dejected Taylor lay on the ground for a full half-minute before rising from the turf. As David Maraniss relates the scene in his great biography of Lombardi, When Pride Still Mattered, his injured backfield teammate, Paul Hornung (whom I wrote about last week), came over to console him when Bednarik wrapped his arms around the two younger men, saying “they had a helluva football team and would be back in the championship the next year.”

Lombardi--and his team--felt the same way. In the somber lockerroom afterward, the coach abandoned the barking tones his players had gotten used to for the last two seasons and addressed them quietly and matter-of-factly. At the start of the game, he said, they might not have felt confident against a veteran team, but now they knew they could hold their own. “This will never happen again,” he assured them. “You will never lose another championship.”

And that’s how it turned out throughout the rest of Lombardi’s tenure as head coach of the team, which eventually won five NFL championships and the first two Super Bowls. In 1971, the year after his death, Lombardi was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, followed by nine of his players from that 1960 youthful dynasty-in-the-making: Taylor, Starr, Hornung, Forrest Gregg, Ray Nitschke, Willie Davis, Jim Ringo, Willie Wood, and Henry Jordan.

Quote of the Day (Gospel of Matthew, on the Holy Family Threatened by Tyrants)

“When Herod had died, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, ‘Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.’ He rose, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go back there. And because he had been warned in a dream, he departed for the region of Galilee. He went and dwelt in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He shall be called a Nazorean.’”—Matthew 2: 19-23

This portion of the Gospel of Matthew is not simply about how Jesus came to live in Nazareth, nor even about the damage wrought by tyrants—the slaughter of boys two years old and under, discussed in the immediately prior verses—but about the persistence of cruelty. Herod the Great’s massacre of the innocents doesn’t merely echo Pharaoh’s similar massacre of the innocents in Genesis, but foreshadows the modern wholesale butchering of children that became epidemic in the horrible 20th century.

Cruelty persists in another fashion here: the hereditary nature of tyranny. In reading the above quote, my eye was stopped short by one name: Archelaus. In the various cinematic accounts of the life and death of Christ, this son of Herod the Great is nowhere to be seen, and he appears only this once in the Gospels. Who was he?

The Jewish Encyclopedia notes that in the Temple, Herod Archelaus started his reign by promising “to have regard to the wishes of his subjects,” in much the same way that leaders nowadays promise a break from their awful immediate predecessors.

But within nine years, the Jews and Samaritans—famously at odds with each other, as we know from the Gospels—found unexpected common ground. Their hatred for Herod Archelaus was so intense that they both petitioned their Roman overlords to oust him for what the historian Flavius Josephus, in Antiquities of the Jews, termed “barbarous and tyrannical usage of them.” (It didn’t help that 3,000 people died during Passover riots breaking out over the rehabilitation of two Jewish teachers burned alive for protesting a golden eagle—regarded as an idol—placed in the Temple at Jerusalem.) Amazingly, that petition was granted, and Archelaus was exiled.

This short passage from Matthew is, in a sense, a study of good and bad seeds.

Joseph raised the “good seed,” Jesus, who preached and lived a life of good works, and who has been remembered, with special love, every year at this time. The structure Jesus erected, the Church, remains—though under assault now, from within and without, as it was in his time.

The “bad seed,” Archelaus, emulated his father through public works and jealous intelligence on rivals. But nothing remains of what he built, and if he is remembered at all now, it is only with a shudder.

(The image accompanying this post, by the way, is by Guido Reni, St. Joseph With Infant Christ in His Arms (1620s)

Friday, December 24, 2010

This Day in North Carolina History (George Vanderbilt Shows Off the Biltmore)

December 24, 1895—It required hundreds of laborers over six years, but now George Vanderbilt was ready to unwrap a most unusual sight for his family in time for Christmas—a house that not only leaves mouths ajar in our time, but, even more surprisingly, in his own, when robber barons engaged in what sociologist Thorstein Veblen called “conspicuous consumption.”

Over the years, before I finally had the chance to see this vast Asheville, N.C. estate for myself, I heard two major hints about the grandiosity of The Biltmore:

1) Local scapegrace Thomas Wolfe noted, in his debut (and still bestselling) novel, Look Homeward, Angel: “Several rich men from the North had established hunting lodges in the hills, and one of them had bought huge areas of mountain land and, with an army of imported architects, carpenters and masons, was planning the greatest country estate in America—something in limestone, with pitched slate roofs, and one hundred and eighty-three rooms. It was modeled on the chateau at Blois.” Unfortunately, when I was a teenager I didn’t have a clue what Wolfe was referring to—though most of his readers in 1929 would need few if any such hints. In fact, I didn’t figure out what he meant until I was past 50, when I actually visited The Biltmore.

2) Over 20 years ago, visiting the Vanderbilt Mansion in Hyde Park, N.Y. (owned by George’s older brother Frederick), I marveled at its size to a tour guide. “Actually, it’s more like a bungalow compared with The Biltmore,” he told me.

Six weeks ago, after touring The Biltmore, I decided that the Vanderbilt Mansion guide might have exaggerated the difference between the two, but not by all that much.

One hundred and fifteen years after George Vanderbilt celebrated the Yuletide with his family with a trimmed tree, holiday feasts and a coaching party, they still celebrate Christmas in a very big way at The Biltmore.

Maybe tourists come in the greatest numbers in the summer, but they should consider coming in the last two months of the year, as I did, when shorter nights provide far more photo opportunities of the tree on the front lawn or, as in the accompanying picture I took, of the numerous gaily decorated statues.

At that first Christmastime, the guests at The Biltmore would be as astonished as I was, I’d bet, by the three-mile approach road to the mansion. When you’re driving out of the estate after the sun is down, as I did, you’ll wonder why you’ll get to the end of it, and pray that no creatures are going to dart from the side of the road in front of you.

But when you’re entering—well, that’s another story. The road, like the rest of the grounds, was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, then nearing the end of an illustrious career, but wanting to go out with a bang.

“I call it ‘the WOW factor,” a Biltmore tourist told me about the approach road. But Olmsted called it ‘building anticipation.’”

Whatever you call it, it works. “Hasn’t Olmsted done wonders with the approach road?” wrote architect Richard Morris Hunt to George Vanderbilt in 1892. “ It alone will give him lasting fame.”

Given Olmsted’s work on Central Park, that might be stretching matters. But there was little doubt that, like the rest of the property, it was awe-inspiring.

It seemed richly appropriate that George Vanderbilt’s portrait hangs over the entrance to the library, because books formed the bedrock of his considerable intellectual tastes from early on. He would accompany his father into London on bookbuying trips even as a youngster, and by the time he was done even the Biltmore’s walnut shelves could contain only less than half of his 23,000-volume collection.

Vanderbilt appears as an aesthete in the John Singer Sargent portrait. He certainly doesn’t have the hardened look that his father and grandfather (the original family fortune builder, Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt) possessed. He reminded me of Lewis Raycie, the young American whose taste in art run counter both to his father and contemporary taste, in Edith Wharton’s novella “False Dawn.”

Wharton had another person in mind when writing this initial segment of her Old New York quartet of novellas—James Jackson Jarves, who collected works of art by underappreciated Italian painters of the Renaissance. Both Vanderbilt—who, unlike his brothers, did not go into the family business (he ran The Biltmore as a self-sustaining unit)—was just the kind of connoisseur with elevated tastes that Wharton would have appreciated.

I wasn’t surprised, then, to find out that Wharton was a childhood friend of Vanderbilt’s wife who spent considerable time at the mansion; and that, in fact, a decade later, she was there to witness George and Edith Vanderbilt distributing presents, in the huge Biltmore banquet hall, to 350 workers on their estate.

Quote of the Day (Washington Irving, Publicizing the English Custom of Mistletoeing)

“The mistletoe is still hung up in farm-houses and kitchens at Christmas, and the young men have the privilege of kissing the girls under it, plucking each time a berry from the bush. When the berries are all plucked, the privilege ceases. “—Washington Irving, “Christmas Eve,” in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1820), in History, Tales and Sketches (Library of America Edition, 1983)

The above quote is contained in a footnote, preceded by a phrase noted especially by young men worldwide in all the years since: i.e., that the mistletoe is “hung up, to the imminent peril of all the pretty housemaids.”

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Quote of the Day (Vince Lombardi on Paul Hornung, Prodigal Son and “Golden Boy”)

"You have to know what Hornung means to this team. I have heard and read that he is not a great runner or a great passer or a great field-goal kicker, but he led the league in scoring for three seasons. In the middle of the field he may be only slightly better than an average ballplayer, but inside the twenty-yard line he is one of the greatest I have ever seen. He smells that goal line."--Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi on his running back, Paul Hornung, quoted in George Sullivan, The Great Running Backs (1972)

A helluva lot of American guys in the 1960s undoubtedly secretly hoped that if they were ever reincarnated, they’d come back as Paul Hornung’s fingertips. It wasn’t only that he was a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback at Notre Dame; that, with Jim Taylor, he formed the “Thunder and Lightning” tandem that powered the Packers to one championship after another; or that Vince Lombardi called him the most versatile man ever to play the game.

(If you want an idea of his style, see this YouTube clip showing his TD run against the Cleveland Browns in the 1965 NFL championship game.)

No, not to put to fine a point of it, but Hornung may have scored more off than on the gridiron. After all, what’s a guy to do when, even in college, he returns to his dorm room to find a young lady, waiting expectantly for him? Even in the accompanying image, fresh after a victory, he looks as if he can't wait to meet someone who's caught his eye.

His reputation as a stud, however, might have been sealed for good when John M. Ross, in America Weekly, described him as a “205-pound Adonis” who “constantly runs the risk of becoming the first player in history to be carried triumphantly from the field on the soft shoulders of a shrieking female horde.”

This, I submit, is akin to the Daily Telegraph drama critic who hailed Nicole Kidman’s appearance in The Blue Room as “pure theatrical Viagra.” It’s the type of publicity you want printed and spread far and wide.

Lombardi, a Victorian at heart when it came to women, had a soft spot in his heart for the hellraiser he continually fined for rules infractions. It even survived the coach’s sense of betrayal when he discovered Hornung had lied to him about betting on Packer games.

When Hornung finally ‘fessed up, the coach agreed to go to bat for him at Commissioner Pete Rozelle's office, then, rather like a surrogate father, told him what it would involve, in language that his star, a fellow Catholic, could understand perfectly: “You stay at the foot of the cross. I don't want to see you go to the racetrack. ... I don't want to hear about you doing anything. Keep your nose clean, and I'll do my best to get you back. But, mister, stay at the foot of the cross."

It’s impossible to believe, but the swift young back who “ran to daylight”--and into the arms of many a young lady--turns 75 today (and--far sadder--that teammates like Max McGee have already passed on). Happy birthday, Golden Boy!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Flashback, December 1940: “Great Gatsby”’s Fitzgerald Dies at Work on Hollywood Novel

He had rejected his lover’s frantic urging to see a doctor immediately, saying he had an appointment with one the next day anyway--but F. Scott Fitzgerald’s delay proved fatal, as he was struck down by a heart attack at age 44. Death came on December 21, 1940, as the author of my favorite novel, The Great Gatsby, was still only halfway through what might have stood alongside it as his best work: his novel about Hollywood, The Last Tycoon.

In November, Fitzgerald experienced his first coronary incident at Schwab’s Drugstore in Hollywood. But his imminent and unmistakable warning sign of trouble came the night before his death, when he and his companion, gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, were attending a movie that, in a way, summed up his overwhelming preoccupation: This Thing Called Love, starring Melvyn Douglas and Rosalind Russell.

A bout of dizziness at the movie mortified Fitzgerald, who felt that it would set tongues wagging about his condition about his condition again in Hollywood, where he struggled mightily with the drink and with studio executives who mangled his scripts. He had good reason to feel this way, and to worry about additional medical diagnoses: though he hadn’t had a drop of alcohol in Graham’s presence since January, years of drinking and smoking had resulted in hardened arteries and an enlarged heart.

And so, death came, ironically enough, while the Tales of the Jazz Age author was listening in Graham's living room to classical music: Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, which had just swelled to its climax (according to the later account by Graham’s son, Robert Westbrook, in Intimate Lies), when Fitzgerald rose to his feet, clutched the mantelpiece and fell.

Fitzgerald had stopped believing in permanent happiness a long time ago. Whatever high spirits he had displayed with wife Zelda in the first decade of their marriage had crumbled in the face of his alcoholism and her confinement to mental institutions. By the time of his death, nearly everyone who met Fitzgerald remarked on his ineffable sadness--far removed from the expectant young writer in the picture accompanying this post, taken two decades before.

When she heard the news, Dorothy Parker, normally quick with one-liners, was forced to borrow one written by her friend, from The Great Gatsby. It’s by “the man with the owl eyes” in Gatsby’s library, later one of only three mourners at the funeral, who sums up the former center of attention this way: “The poor son-of-a-bitch.”

In the next room at the mortuary where Fitzgerald’s body was prepared for the final services was Nathanael West, another novelist-denizen of Hollywood, whom Fitzgerald had supported for a grant. West and his wife had died in the same kind of stupid, wasteful auto accident that formed the turning point of Gatsby.

With Zelda attending the funeral, Graham agreed to the suggestion by Fitzgerald’s teenage daughter, Frances "Scottie" Fitzgerald, that it might not be appropriate for her to pay last respects.

Even with that, the funeral was not how the Fitzgerald family would have liked it: Not only was he laid to rest in Baltimore’s Rockville Union Cemetery in a pouring rain with only a handful of mourners there for this wild party animal and loyal friend, but the Roman Catholic Church had refused his request to be buried next to his father. (Fitzgerald hadn’t been a practicing Catholic in years, he had not received last rites, and his books were deemed immoral by church authorities.)

Yet Fitzgerald’s daughter Scottie went on to disprove his notion that “there are no second acts in American lives”--at least when it came to death. Thirty-five years after his passing, with The Great Gatsby on the syllabus of virtually every American high school and college (including Catholic ones), Scottie succeeded at last in having her father and mother re-interred in the churchyard of St. Mary’s in Baltimore. In a written statement, William Cardinal Baum of Baltimore correctly noted that Fitzgerald masterfully depicted the “human heart caught in the struggle between grace and death.”

Death--as depicted in Myrtle Wilson’s gruesome end in Gatsby, and as Fitzgerald experienced it in L.A.’s Pierce Brothers’ Mortuary, with his face heavily rouged--is ugly. But in the seven decades since he passed, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s work has left readers in the kind of transport of grace for which he strained his whole professional and personal life.

Movie Quote of the Day (Angie Dickinson, Bewitching The Duke)

Feathers (played by Angie Dickinson): “In case you make up your mind, I left my door open. Get a good night's sleep.”
Sheriff John T. Chance (played by John Wayne): “You're not helping me any.”--Rio Bravo (1959), screenplay by Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett, based on a short story by B.H. McCampbell

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Quote of the Day (General Patton, on Being “Born a Fighter”)

“So forever in the future,
Shall I battle as of yore,
Dying to be born a fighter,
But to die again, once more.”—General George S. Patton Jr., “Through a Glass Darkly” (1918)

On this date, in 1945, General George S. Patton Jr., died in Germany from injuries sustained earlier in the month in an auto accident.

“Old Blood and Guts” was not made for the peacetime world, as evidenced by his removal as head of the occupation of Bavaria for typically impolitic remarks regarding de-nazification policies and relations with the Soviets.

What’s extraordinary about the larger poem from which the above quote comes--written while the future legend was serving in World War I, where he became the U.S. Army’s foremost master of the tank--is his belief in reincarnation, a near-mystical belief that he had fought in other battlefields--and would do so again.

You might say, then, that he not only felt “born a fighter,” but reborn a fighter.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Quote of the Day (Richard Nixon, on the Irish)

“The Jews have certain traits. The Irish have certain — for example, the Irish can’t drink. What you always have to remember with the Irish is they get mean. Virtually every Irish I’ve known gets mean when he drinks. Particularly the real Irish.”—President Richard Nixon, giving vent to some of his unique views on American ethnic/racial groups, quoted in Adam Nagourney, “On Nixon Tapes, Disparaging Remarks About Ethnic Groups,” The New York Times, December 11, 2010

During the Watergate scandal, it was a point of pride for a number of people to make it onto Richard Nixon’s enemies list. (Bob Hope joked that Joe Namath landed on the latter because he hadn’t used any of the plays suggested to him by the President, such a diehard football fan that he had considered naming the Democrat Vince Lombardi as his running mate in 1968.)

For the last two decades, a kind of collective amnesia has aided revisionists hoping to remove the blemishes from the image of Nixon. But their efforts are continually undermined by what Alexander Haig, in another context, called “a sinister force”—the President himself, giving vent to his demons on his Oval Office tapes.

Now not just individuals, but entire ethnic groups, will be vying for pride of place in the Nixon hate sweepstakes. African-Americans (whom Nixon thought might be able to strengthen America “in 500 years”) and American Jews (draft-dodgers, according to a rather unscientific survey conducted solely in his own mind) are the leaders in this regard, with Italians running far, far back. (The latter, though they “don’t have their heads screwed on tight,” are disqualified because, he acknowledges, they’re “wonderful people.”)

Irish-Americans, however, are a special case. It’s too simplistic to think that this was a carryover from his thinking that the Kennedys and Chicago’s Richard Daley stole the 1960 Presidential race from him.

How, for instance, to account for the fact that Nixon’s ancestry was Irish Quaker? Or that a favorite pet of his, King Timahoe, was an Irish setter? I mean, don’t these last two items indicate an element of self-hatred in all of this?

You have to wonder what some of Nixon’s most diehard loyalists would have thought at the time of their boss’s feelings about them and their compatriots--whose long-time loyalty he had been trying to erode as part of a strategy of peeling away from the Democratic Party the votes of urban ethnic Catholic groups. I'm talking about people such as:

* Col. Jack Brennan, the aide who gave up a career in the military to follow his chief into exile in San Clemente in 1974;

* John McLaughlin, the speechwriter who left the priesthood because of his involvement with politics (and who since then has become even more famous for that stentoring voice, hectoring panelists on his political talk show);

* Pat Buchanan, another speechwriter who defended Watergate as merely “political hardball” (and who has since gone on to his own form of dubious fame in leading "the pitchfork brigade" of the GOP); and

* Rose Mary Woods, granddaughter of an Irish stowaway, who willingly demonstrated a preposterous move that supposedly caused an 18 1/2-minute gap on the Watergate tapes.

Despite their Republican leanings, these and other Irish figures in the Nixon White House displayed the same kind of fierce political loyalty that sustained Democratic political machines founded by the Irish. They had long had to set aside questions about his paranoia, his lies and his corruption. Had they known of the President’s darker musings, these aides could only have been stung by a prejudice so engrained that, for all their selflessness toward him, he would fundamentally not be able to reciprocate their loyalty because he could not be able to think of them beyond a hoary stereotype.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Quote of the Day (Henri Nouwen, With an “Advent Prayer”)

“We who are anxious over many things look forward to your coming among us….We are your people, walking in darkness, yet seeking the light. To you we say, 'Come Lord Jesus!'—Roman Catholic priest and author Henri Nouwen (1932-1996), from “Advent Prayer

Saturday, December 18, 2010

This Day in Presidential History (Wilson Weds Future “Acting President“)

December 18, 1916--In a short evening ceremony limited almost exclusively to immediate family members, Woodrow Wilson married Edith Bolling Galt, a wealthy 42-year-old widow who had helped him snap out of a life-sapping depression following the death of his first wife the year before.

The President and the new First Lady, hoping for the kind of privacy they had enjoyed for much of their courtship, fled under the nose of impatient reporters by leaving the ceremony (which took place in Mrs. Galt’s D.C. home rather than the White House) in an unmarked car, then taking a private railroad car to Hot Springs, Va., for a three-week honeymoon.

In a couple of ways, the wedding and its aftermath signaled the powerful influence that Edith Wilson would exert on her new husband--taking the couple in directions that the President’s quieter, more depressed first wife, Ellen Wilson, probably would not have approved:

1) The restriction of wedding guests to family members allowed Edith to keep at arm’s length "Colonel" Edward House, a powerful unofficial confidante of the President. The ban on outsiders was not total--her own servants and, more important, the President’s personal physician, Dr. Cary Grayson, had been allowed to attend, so House was free to interpret the lack of an invitation as a snub. Ellen had met with House about appointments and had allied with him in passing her major cause as First Lady, an “alley bill” meant to help African-Americans by clearing the worst sections of D.C. of substandard housing. Edith, however, immediately disliked House, and eventually succeeded in banishing him from the President’s company--just one of a number of advisers who found themselves on the outs when they found themselves, for one reason or another, on her bad side.

2) Keeping reporters in the dark later also became the modus operandi of Edith after her husband’s devastating 1919 stroke. His paralysis, in the words of historian John Milton Cooper in his recent biography, Woodrow Wilson, “brought on the worst crisis of Presidential disability in American history.” Edith would collude with Admiral Grayson in hiding the full extent of her husband’s condition not only from the American people but even from his Vice-President, Thomas Marshall, and the Cabinet. (In an especially outrageous case of press manipulation, she invited New York World reporter Louis Siebold to become the first reporter to interview the President after his alleged “recovery.” As historian-novelist Thomas Fleming has noted, the piece was a farce, saying nothing about Wilson’s limited attention span or his nearly-illegible signature--and even inventing a “footrace” between reporter and subject that the President supposedly won. Naturally, Siebold won a Pulitzer Prize for his fictional reporting.)

But let’s give Edith Wilson her due: she was not only deeply loyal to her husband, but brought out a private passionate side of him that most who knew him from his service as president of Princeton and governor of New Jersey could scarcely have imagined.

I sensed this passion when I visited the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum last month in Staunton, Va., the President’s birthplace. Near the entrance of the museum was a short note from the President to his beloved. How was it signed? By “Woodrow”? By “Thomas,’
“Tom,” or “Tommy,” all variations of his real first name? Not a chance. The note was signed, simply, “Tiger.”

As the son of a Presbyterian minister who maintained his faith throughout his life, Wilson had a reputation for being high-minded and humorless. If you want to know the truth, that impression was so sweeping that many people would probably have rather hung around with Dick Cheney at a White House social gathering.

But appearances were deceiving. In childhood, Wilson was the adoring object of attention from his mother and sisters, and in adulthood he loved having even more adoring women around him:

*As a law-school student, he had felt such overwhelming love for his first cousin that he got into academic trouble by ignoring his studies to be with her, and he was devastated when she rejected his marriage proposal.

* With Ellen Wilson, he got into the habit of sharing as much of his papers as he could, until her growing sense of depression led him to keep the most distressing details of his career from her.

* Taking vacation amid an epic fight with a graduate-school dean at Princeton, Wilson became acquainted with Mary Hulbert Peck, a vivacious divorcee. Neither Wilson nor Peck left any clear impression later of exactly what happened, but at the least it was intimate enough that Wilson felt obliged to beg forgiveness of Ellen for his foolishness. Yet Wilson’s reputation as a straight-arrow led opponents to scoff that he could never have gotten involved in such foolishness. The best comment on this was made by Wilson’s 1912 rival for the President, Theodore Roosevelt, who not only declared that he would not spread rumors about Wilson’s affair, but that these whispers were, on their face, incredible: “No evidence could ever make the American people believe that a man like Woodrow Wilson, cast so perfectly as the apothecary’s clerk, could ever play Romeo.”

* Wilson’s depression following Ellen’s death had been so total that some close aides feared for him. Then, within only six months of her passing, his headlong love affair with Mrs. Galt led the same aides to dread that the public would turn against him for remarrying so soon. (Particularly worrisome was an item in an edition of The Washington Post that had noted that the President had been "entertaining" Mrs. Galt. Unfortunately, that edition had to be recalled because of a racy misprint of the word that assured the paper's readers that the President had been "entering" Mrs. Galt.) The nervous aides even invented false rumors that someone had gotten hold of compromising information about his relationship with Mrs. Peck. In agony, Wilson threw himself on the mercy of Mrs. Galt, who supported him and went ahead with the ceremony.

Colonel House had been crucial in persuading Wilson to push back the wedding at least till a year after Ellen Wilson’s death. That could not have warmed Edith to him, and a couple of years later, as the fight over the League of Nations proceeded, she finally managed to drive him from her husband’s circle.

Movie Quote of the Day (C. S. Lewis, on Why We Read)

“We read to know we are not alone.”—Chronicles of Narnia novelist C.S. Lewis (played by Anthony Hopkins), in the film Shadowlands (1993), written by William Nicholson and directed by Richard Attenborough

Thursday, December 16, 2010

This Day in TV History (“One Day at a Time” Debuts)

December 16, 1975--Critics and fans were quick to note that the sitcom One Day at a Time, which premiered on this date on CBS, was produced by Norman Lear, already known for such boundary-pushing series as All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Good Times, Maude and Sanford and Son. But few viewers of the series starring Bonnie Franklin, Mackenzie Phillips and Valerie Bertinelli took notice of the opening credits, which revealed that the series had been created by writer Allan Manings and actress Whitney Blake.

It’s hardly surprising that Manings’ contribution was overlooked. As Joe Gillis, William Holden’s cynical screenwriter in Sunset Boulevard, notes, “Audiences don't know somebody sits down and writes a picture. They think the actors make it up as they go along.” But the lack of notice for Blake was another matter entirely. Amazingly enough, in a reunion 30 of the show’s stars on The Today Show 30 years later, Phillips, Bertinelli and co-star Pat Harrington still had no idea about the nature of her contribution.

Only a decade before the show's debut, Blake had concluded a five-year run in a sitcom herself: Hazel, starring the Oscar-winning character actress Shirley Booth as a maid. Maybe because she played second banana to Booth, Blake did not make the same kind of impression that other actresses of the time, such as Barbara Billingsley, Donna Reed or Jane Wyatt, did as TV moms.

If viewers were to recall Blake at all by 1975, it might have been because her blond good looks had been inherited by daughter Meredith Baxter, then not far into a long TV career of her own. By this time in her late 40s--an age that, at that point (and even, to a somewhat lesser extent, now) was regarded as a danger zone for leading ladies--Blake was running the danger of disappearing into the rabbit hole of TV memory.

But if Blake had barely registered as a TV mom herself, she made sure that she’d create a truly memorable one secondhand. It was Blake’s memories of raising Baxter and her siblings as a single mom that Manings, her third husband, channeled into the creation of Franklin’s character, Ann Romano.

Ann Romano might, in a way, be regarded as the missing link between The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Gilmore Girls. Allow me to explain.

Think of the situation common to MTM and ODAAT: A young woman, fresh from a busted-up relationship, relocates to a Midwestern city, where she hopes to start over and wash that man right out of her hair.

Actually, if Ms. Moore and her husband of the time, producer Grant Tinker, had had their way, there would have been an even larger similarity: Mary Richards would have been a divorcee, too.

But the Tiffany Network would have none of it. Not only were such characters practically invisible at the time (these didn’t get past the programming censors), but the network had a more prosaic concern: they were so afraid that Ms. Moore would be so associated with her previous great role as Laura Petrie that audiences would think she had run out on Dick Van Dyke!

Five years later, due in no small part to Lear, all the old taboos were gone--and Bonnie Franklin, better known for roles on the stage (notably Applause, the musical version of All About Eve), was far more of a blank slate than Moore. The top brass at CBS, then, were far more ready for an idea about a divorced mom struggling to make ends meet in Indianapolis with her teenage daughters. Blake and Manings brought the idea to Lear, who developed it further.

One Day at a Time went on to run for nine years and 209 episodes. Some of its DNA ended up encoded in the likes of Kate and Allie, The New Adventures of Old Christine, and The Gilmore Girls. (The latter show also featured an actress, Lauren Graham, who, like Franklin, was only in her early 30s when the show premiered--not much older than the actress(es) who played her daughter(s).)

The Gilmore Girls had one less daughter than One Day at a Time, but somehow the estrogen level seemed more amped up. True, Lorelai Gilmore had her diner love interest, Luke, but there’s a Sensitive New Age Guy lurking beneath his blue baseball hat (tipped off by the fact that he cooks but Lorelai doesn’t, which allows him to criticize her unhealthy eating habits).

“Sensitive” is not the word that comes to mind about Dwayne Schneider, the building superintendent played to perfection by Pat Harrington. With his moustache constantly twitching expectantly in the hope that Ann Romano would respond to his flirtatious hints, his cigarette dangling from his lip and his tool-belt hanging from his waist like a gun holster, the character became “the Burt Reynolds of the Boiler Room.”