Sunday, January 31, 2010

This Day in Literary History (Birth of John O’Hara, Doctor’s Son and Short-Story Master)

January 31, 1905—John O’Hara, an Irish-American fiction writer who anatomized American social classes with the precision and skill his father brought to medicine, was born in Pottsville, Pa., a mining town he would transform into “Gibbsville.”

Richard Yates, who has experienced something of a revival since his death nearly two decades ago, had little use for O’Hara—rather ironic, since the two had so much in common, including a desperate thirst for drink (at least in O’Hara’s younger days), a consciousness bred from experience of how precarious social standing can be, and a deep, abiding appreciation of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

But most of all, they shared a crotchiness of near-legendary proportions. An early Seinfeld episode, guest-starring Lawrence Tierney as Elaine’s perpetually pissed-off papa, was based on Yates, father of the onetime girlfriend of the sitcom’s co-creator, Larry David.

O’Hara could be even tougher, as he was likely to flare out at someone at a moment’s notice. One of the most-used expressions in his work is the phrase “cut him dead,” an abrupt and unbending silent treatment given a former friend—a technique used by the writer as much as it was used against him.

And yet, this pill of a man was capable of strong and enduring friendships. His best friend, to the latter’s death, was Philadelphia Story playwright Philip Barry; he worshipped Fitzgerald’s talent so much that he even got over watching his friend making a drunken pass at O’Hara’s ex-wife; and he came constantly to the hospital to read to John Steinbeck when the Grapes of Wrath novelist had an eye operation.

But of all his contemporaries, the one with whom he might have had the most in common was Ernest Hemingway. (Again, he was willing to overlook an annoyance made at his own expense: Papa's jibe that a collection should be raised for the status-conscious O'Hara to send him to Yale.)
Both, you see, were the sons of doctors, men who figure prominently in their children’s thinly disguised fiction about the initiation of youth into the mysteries of life. Both fathers left their sons psychic legacies burdensome in the extreme, though for different reasons. They must have had some great conversations at the bar about this.

Dr. Clarence Hemingway practiced in Oak Park, Ill., a railroad suburb of Chicago. On numerous nature outings into Michigan, he taught his son about the importance of ritual—a right way and a wrong way to do things, even something as seemingly simple as catching and cooking fish. He appears as doctor-father in several stories about Hemingway’s alter ego Nick Adams, “Indian Camp” and “The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife.”

Dr. Patrick O’Hara enjoyed a thriving practice in the Schuykill River coal-mining section of eastern Pennsylvania, about 100 miles away from Philadelphia. While Dr. Hemingway tended to the needs of Native-Americans in “Indian Camp,” Dr. O’Hara labored on behalf of Irish and Eastern Europeans in “The Doctor’s Son.”

From the beginning, critics noticed similarities between the terse styles of Hemingway and O’Hara. They certainly admired each other’s work. O’Hara couldn’t have asked for a better blurb for his first novel than the one provided by Hemingway: “If you want to read a book by a man who knows exactly what he is writing about and has written it marvellously well, read Appointment in Samarra."

Nothing if not loyal, O’Hara returned the favor 16 years later, at the nadir of Hemingway’s career. While virtually every other critic on the planet was panning Papa’s first novel in a decade, Across the River and Into the Trees, O’Hara planted his feet and, in a doughty review for The New York Times Book Review, declared—right in his first sentence!--that his friend was “the most important author living today, the most outstanding author since the death of Shakespeare.”

Both authors’ fictional stand-ins—Hemingway’s Nick Adams, O’Hara’s James Malloy—learn about two realities of adult life—sudden, unexpected death and infidelity—by following around their father in the course of his practice. Yet the stories feel—and are—different, because of narrative point of view.

“Indian Camp” is seen through the eyes of Nick Adams as a child and is told in the third person. Moreover, it depends crucially for making us understand the impact of what Nick learns about nature from the sensory detail that Hemingway loved. The story, then, though written in the past tense, feels immediately lived and reported.

“The Doctor’s Son” appeared in O’Hara’s first book of short stories and was written about the same number of years after the events it chronicles as “Indian Camp.” However, it’s written in the first person, reflecting the author’s experience as an adolescent.

More important, unlike much of the rest of O’Hara’s early fiction, it is not compressed and telegraphic in style, but novella-length, almost ruminative in style. It anticipates the major development of his life in the 1950s: a near-death experience that forced him to give up drink, turn his energies almost entirely to his writing, and resolve that, before he was through, he would get down on paper, for the generations to come, a vanishing world—“The Way It Was,” to use the title of one of the handful of plays he wrote.

Both writers’ bildungsroman stories are informed by ambivalence toward their fathers. “The Doctor’s Son” depicts Patrick O’Hara as heroic to the point of absolute exhaustion in dealing with the flu epidemic of 1918, yet the father in the story—like his real-life counterpart—is also brusque and annoyed that his son might not be fulfilling his potential. In “The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife,” Nick decides not to spend time with his mother, even though his father is already showing signs of being weak and dominated.

Finally, Drs. Hemingway and O’Hara started their sons on perilous paths into adulthood. Clarence Hemingway had to depend on his wife’s income from teaching music to make ends meet. In increasingly frail physical and mental health, he committed suicide in 1928. Patrick O’Hara was actually prosperous, but by dying intestate he left his oldest son unable to attend the college of his choice: Yale.

Their upbringings left Hemingway and O’Hara with a vertiginous sense of their place in the world. Hemingway complained that Oak Park was a place of “wide lawns and narrow minds.” As for O’Hara, he couldn’t wait to leave Pottsville early, but, particularly in the last 15 years of his life, he returned to it almost obsessively in his Gibbsville novels and short stories. (The latter, by the way, might constitute the most substantial contribution to that form in 20th-century letters. How many other American writers have ranged so widely through the different American classes?)
Both O'Hara and Hemingway lived into late middle age, but only O'Hara published prolifically in the last 15 years of his life. His work comes to feel more memorial than that of his fellow doctor's son.

Movie Quote of the Day (“Ace in the Hole,” on Prayer)

Lorraine Mimosa (played by Jan Sterling): “I don't go to church. Kneeling bags my nylons.”—Ace in the Hole (1951), written by Billy Wilder, Lesser Samuels and Walter Newman, based on a story by Victor Desny, directed by Billy Wilder

Today’s post might, at first glance, look out of place on this blog, when Sunday “Quotes of the Day” are given over to religious/spiritual themes. I’d argue to the contrary (which, longtime readers will know, is my wont).

I’m aware, as much as anyone, that overt religious sentiment was exceedingly rare in a Billy Wilder film. I know that he fled Europe in the 1930s because he was born into a Jewish family (one that, tragically, stayed behind and perished in Auschwitz), but I’m not sure how much he held to the faith of his ancestors when he reached the U.S.

None of this is to say, however, that this delightful cynic did not hold to a moral code. And, in Ace in the Hole, a film that examined his early calling—journalism—with particular unblinking amusement, he regarded the postwar landscape of his adopted country as a kind of Hieronymus Bosch vision of modern hell.

I’ve meant to write about this seminal entry in the Wilder filmography for a long time, but for one reason or another kept avoiding it. Then I received some inadvertent prodding from my college friend (and fellow cinephile) Steve. I can’t equal either his colorful prose or his shrewd observations, but…here goes.

There are, to be sure, users and exploiters in this film, perhaps more than in any other Wilder directed. But there were also principles and (surprisingly for Wilder) sacred observances whose violation provoked his wit and righteous anger. The loss of a soul, he tells us, is not pretty.

A treasure-hunter in some Indian caves in New Mexico gets trapped when a mountain tunnel caves in. His physical predicament mirrors the psychological dilemma of down-on-his-luck reporter Chuck Tatum (played by Kirk Douglas), who has been driven to the vast empty reaches of the Southwest and away from the urban Northeast he loves because of drinking, adultery, a casual approach to the truth, and other large and small betrayals of body and spirit.

Leo Mimosa’s enclosure, Chuck hopes, will allow him to break out of his own career trap through a string of scoops. There’s a short, simple way to save Leo—solidifying some cave passages--but to keep his string of headlines going Chuck needs to involve Leo’s wife Lorraine, the rescue engineer, and the town sheriff in an elaborate web of deceit: that a whole new tunnel, taking days to build, is required instead.

All of this is perpetrated on a public that, several years after “The Good War,” is so caught up in sensation that it has lost whatever sense of purpose and self-sacrifice it once possessed.

Ace in the Hole might only have been rivaled by Kiss Me, Stupid (1964) as the worst flop of Wilder’s long and legendary career, but he was rightly proud of his work here. In its bitterly sardonic satire on human greed and folly, it’s cinema’s answer to Ben Jonson’s Volpone.

The role of Chuck provided Kirk Douglas with perhaps the least sympathetic of the hard-edged anti-heroes in which he specialized at this point (Champion, Detective Story, The Bad and the Beautiful). But the part of bottle-blonde, two-timing Lorraine proved a career-changer for Sterling, who, until then, had been relegated to something far closer to her real-life persona: elegance.

Though it features no private eyes, Ace in the Hole (which, after its disastrous premiere, was withdrawn and re-released with a new title, The Big Carnival) has, I think, correctly been viewed as a variation on film noir. The darkness within the cave is analogous to what's inside Chuck's soul. And Chuck and Lorraine, like the larcenous couple at the heart of Wilder’s great venture into the noir style, Double Indemnity, see the husband who forms the third part of their triangle as their ticket to something more.

In fact, Chuck and Lorraine’s affair is portrayed even less sympathetically than Walter and Phyllis’. How can a pair of murderers come off better than a pair of users? Simple: the way to hell is lit in Double Indemnity through a grand if illicit passion; the relationship between Chuck and Lorraine, on the other hand, feels like no more than the mating of scorpions.

The best way to convey a moral, Wilder realized, is to pretend to do anything but that. That’s one way to interpret that company name listed behind Lorraine in the photo accompanying this post, “The Great S&M Amusement Corp.” (Hollywood’s censors—the so-called “Hays Office”—must have been too busy fighting with Wilder about something else to realize the joke lurking in the background of this frame.)

The above quote offers a useful means of examining their complementary relationship. The act Chuck persuades Lorraine to commit—attending church to pray for her husband’s safety—is hypocritical, given her almost comical irreverence; but the manner in which Chuck discovers the cave-in and Leo’s background feels like a violation.

Chuck and his reporter-sidekick have come into an office out in the middle of nowhere when they hear loud murmuring, almost imploring, in the next room. Chuck ignores his companion’s urging not to go in, finding Leo’s mother, a Hispanic woman, praying, simply but devoutly, for her son's safe deliverance. She is completely unaware of Chuck's presence, which feels like a massive intrusion, similar to the betrayal of trust he will soon perpetrate on her son and the larger community.

Leo’s entrapment, Chuck suggests in an article that forms a part of the media frenzy that soon ensues, may be a form of retribution for intruding into the sacred space of Native Americans—“The Curse of the Seven Vultures.” But his own retribution for a similar offense comes at the hands of his female partner in corruption and artifice.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

This Day in Presidential History (Jackson Survives 1st Assassination Try Against Prez)

January 30, 1835—Andrew Jackson’s attendance at a Congressman’s funeral almost ended in his own, the result of the first attempt on an American President’s life.

The shooting—actually, two shots at close range—also led to the first Presidential assassination conspiracy theory. It was peddled by none other than Old Hickory himself, who, though he may have been wrong about the ultimate agent behind his attempted assassination, correctly sensed the dark currents of disunion and madness that resulted in Abraham Lincoln’s murder 30 years later.

Along with John F. Kennedy, Jackson belongs on the short list of Presidents whose life spans exceeded their life expectancies. Though JFK was only 46 when he was assassinated, he had dodged death at least a few times before: in WWII, surviving an attack on his PT boat; two years after the war, enduring the onset of Addison’s disease and being given last rites by the Roman Catholic Church; in the mid-50s, suffering through two failed back operations.

Similarly, his predecessor—the first Democrat in the White House—had survived brushes with death. In the American Revolution, Jackson—the only President ever to be a POW—was slashed in the head and on the left hand by the British, then contracted smallpox; in middle age, he was left with bullets from a duel and a gunfight that left him in deep discomfort for the rest of his life; then, after the War of 1812, he endured malaria, dysentery and chronic abdominal pain. Oh, and did I mention rheumatism so bad that he complained it made it hard even to write?

By the time of his second inauguration in 1833, the President looked so frail that that diarist Philip Hone, observing the proceedings, was ready to lay “large odds” that Jackson wouldn’t survive the exertions of the day.

That thought might have entered the minds of more than a few Congressmen who were gathered, like Jackson, to pay their last respects to their colleague Warren Davis of South Carolina. Dampness in the Capitol that day would only have solidified the feeling. But danger came not from a virus, but from a virulently insane house painter who suddenly appeared as Jackson stepped out of the Capitol and started walking down the East Portico with two of his Cabinet members.

Let’s stop for a minute and consider this episode, from the standpoints of American culture, Presidential studies and Jacksonian historiography.

Most people consider John Wilkes Booth the first Presidential assassin, but Booth was only the first to succeed in killing a President. Richard Lawrence, the unemployed English emigrant now intent on doing in Jackson, was really the first. (Historians don’t count the fellow who punched Jackson in the face. HE dismissed it, I suppose the reasoning goes, so why shouldn’t they?)

Yet surprisingly, until recently, Lawrence’s attempt was seldom discussed by Jackson historians. Even Arthur Schlesinger Jr. left it out of The Age of Jackson, a history so filled with irony, brilliant characterization and bravura storytelling that it won its 28-year-old author the Pulitzer Prize. Likewise, a fine, in-depth Web site devoted to the Presidency, operated by the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs, does not mention it.

That neglect has encouraged non-historians not to consider it, either—including Stephen Sondheim. If a Presidential assassin who left his mark by ending the life of the President was what he aimed to portray, then what were Sara Jane Moore and Lynette (“Squeaky”) Fromme (Gerald Ford’s would-be killers) doing in his lineup of characters?

Back to Lawrence, then. He blamed Jackson for all his misfortunes, but it’s hard to find any substance in this:
* Jackson was responsible for his father’s death—a truly strange claim, given that Mr. Lawrence had died nine years before his son came to the U.S.

* Jackson was also responsible for him losing his job--again, it’s hard to see the logic for this, particularly since, unlike the state of affairs that would ensue in two years, the U.S. economy was not in a panic.

* Jackson’s death would make money more plentiful—perhaps his logic being that the demise of the President would clear the way for the continued existence of the Second Bank of the United States, which Jackson had sought to destroy. (See my prior post on the Second Bank and its unfairly talented but deeply corrupt head, Nicholas Biddle.)

* He, Richard, was , in reality, nothing less than royalty—Richard III—and Jackson was his clerk.

The rest of this post will consider three aspects of the case:

* What happened next;

* What Jackson thought had happened;

* What could have happened if Lawrence found his mark.

Worst Target for an Assassination Ever

Really, I don’t think this subhead is in the slightest way hype. Despite his manifold infirmities, Andrew Jackson might have provoked more violent feelings—and violence—than any other man in antebellum America. In his late 60s and ailing, he was still dangerous.

Why, after all, does someone survive not just so many ailments but so much heartache, following the death of his beloved wife Rachel just after his election in 1828? If you were Jackson supporters, you said it was because God Himself was looking out for him.

Maybe yes, maybe no, ultimately speaking. But there’s another reason, much closer at hand, for Jackson’s endurance: he wanted to smite his enemies for their injustice, then outlive them.

All that time in the service of his country and on the frontier also made Jackson a master at what might seem impossible to you and me: thinking fast—and lethally—in life-and-death situations. And so, as he caught side of Lawrence’s pistol, then looked at what he had at hand—a cane--some advice he once gave a young friend probably echoed in his mind: Don’t swing a cane at head level—it’ll only be deflected; instead, hold it like a spear and punch the assailant in the stomach.

Oh, I just wrote Lawrence’s "pistol," right? Better make that pistols, plural. He had taken the precaution of bringing along a second firearm for the occasion, in case the first misfired. Good thinking—except that the second misfired, too.

(This did not occur because firearms were more balky things in the 19th century than they are today, though they indubitably were. The air in and around the Capitol was actually responsible. It was cold and wet to begin with. Worsening matters for Lawrence, according to Jon Meacham’s biography of Jackson, American Lion, was that a large, unfilled space, originally intended to hold the remains of George Washington, existed in the Rotunda, increasing the mistiness in the Capitol on that day—and, unluckily for Lawrence, rendering both his pistols useless.

And a good thing, too: Washington police later tested the errant weapons and found they worked perfectly.)

So now the second pistol is no good, and Lawrence looks up to find no support from onlookers, who have been suddenly roused and alarmed by the small explosions from the pistols. (In fact, even Jackson opponents such as Congressman Davy Crockett of Tennessee are about to tackle him.)

And worst of all, here comes Old Hickory himself, raising (his) cane, just as he had previously advised his young friend to do, striking his would-be assailant several times.

It was about this time, Lawrence later told investigators, that he felt genuine concern for his own safety. Men who had crossed Jackson, in one sense or another, before could certainly relate.

Lawrence was quickly subdued and taken away. In comparison with today’s convoluted legal proceedings, he came pretty quickly to trial, too—a mere two and a half months later. Francis Scott Key—yes, the composer of The Star-Spangled Banner—prosecuted him, but all Lawrence’s talk about being Richard III persuaded jurors that he’d be better off in medical settings where he could be watched carefully, and that’s where he went.

Only the case didn’t end for Jackson.

Old Hickory Smells a Conspiracy

Jackson knew he had enemies, and had even survived physical assaults upon his person in the White House. (Two years before, he had refused to have prosecuted a former navy lieutenant, Robert B. Randolph, who struck him in the face.) But now, he was certain it had reached a whole other level: a conspiracy to murder him, concocted by fellow members of the federal government.

He even had a ringleader for the plot: Senator George Poindexter of Mississippi, a former supporter-turned-opponent. What led Jackson to think this?

* Poindexter had thrown his support behind Jackson’s vice-president, John C. Calhoun, in the nullification crisis that resulted when South Carolina protested against the “Tariff of Abominations.”

* He scorned Jackson’s small group of informal advisers so much that he had helped popularize the nickname for them, the “Kitchen Cabinet.”

* He had accepted two large personal loans from Biddle.

* Perhaps not so surprisingly, he had, against Jackson’s wishes, supported rechartering the Second Bank of the United States.

* Jackson credited—and further disseminated—scuttlebutt that Poindexter had persuaded his third wife to marry him by offering her $20,000.

* Poindexter had taken exception to this, noting that at least he hadn’t taken her from another man—an echo of the charge that had plagued Jackson about his relationship with his beloved deceased wife Rachel.

* Poindexter had become a rival of Martin Van Buren’s, Jackson’s Vice President and handpicked choice to succeed him.

Poindexter, loudly proclaiming his innocence, demanded and won an investigation by his peers. In support of his claim, Jackson offered two affidavits saying that Lawrence had visited Poindexter’s house. Both had major holes owing to the motivations of the witnesses, however, and the Senate dismissed the allegations against Poindexter.

That left Jackson’s supporters to say what supporters of assassinated figures have cried out ever since, but especially in the 1960s: that the atmosphere of the times had become so poisoned that it had inflamed the gunman.

What Might Have Been

Ever since Lincoln, the deaths of prominent politicians who have been assassinated have inspired speculation about what they might have done had they never met their fate.

So far as I’m aware, nobody has created this kind of alternative history for Jackson. It might be because, unlike Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, and JFK, he was past not just his first term but even the beginning of his second term. The major fight of his administration—the destruction of the Second Bank of the U.S.—had already run its course.

It’s doubtful that Van Buren could have done anything to stave off the economic disaster that would make him a one-term President. The kind of deep Presidential involvement with the economy that became the norm after the New Deal was still more than a century away. For all intents and purposes, the legacy of Old Hickory, for better or worse, was complete.

Quote of the Day (Red Smith, on Entertainer-Mayor Jimmy Walker)

“The crowd was in the Long Island Bowl for the second Sharkey-Stribling fight and the preliminaries were stumbling to a close and there came the rising whine of sirens from outside. A stir and a babble ran through the crowd and heads turned away from the ring and it seemed everyone was standing and craning. Down an aisle swept Jimmy (Walker) with his retinue, with a hand uplifted in jaunty response to the shouts that greeted him. And that entrance was more exciting than any of the fifteen rounds of brawling that followed.”—Red Smith, “As He Seemed to a Hick,” in The New York Herald Tribune, 1946, reprinted in To Absent Friends From Red Smith (1982)

This quote shows, as if you needed a reason, why Red Smith was more than just a great sportswriter, but also a Pulitzer Prize-winning one, with prose as elegant as his subject here, James J. Walker. The magical qualities it ascribes to New York’s mayor in the Roaring Twenties struck me full force as I wrote my prior post on the present occupant of Gracie Mansion, Mike Bloomberg.

Over the last couple of generations, a vogue has emerged for running government as a business. So many people have subscribed to this notion that it has helped elect charm-challenged functionaries like Bloomberg, Jon Corzine and Mitt Romney.

But when you’re talking about business in this context, which company head do you have in mind, a builder or a destroyer—Steve Jobs or “Chainsaw Al” Dunlap? It’s an important question, because the businessman-politician depends crucially for his authority on prosperity, and once that’s gone, so is nearly every shred of the electorate’s interest in his well-being.

But people make an awful lot of allowances for charm, don’t they? You can hardly find a more classic example than Walker, described flatly by Smith as “the most charming man you ever met.”

You can understand what Smith was talking about by checking out the accompanying photo. It’s easy to imagine Walker being born fully formed, with a boutonniere in his lapel, a melody in his heart and a quip on his lips.

The 20th century provided unparalleled opportunities for entertainers to enter politics: Texas radio entertainer-entrepreneur Pappy O’Daniel, Sonny Bono, “The Love Boat’s” Fred Grandy, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and, also in California, George Murphy (as Senator) and Ronald Reagan (as governor). (After the latter’s midnight swearing-in, he turned to Murphy, an old film song-and-dance-man, and cracked: “Well, George, here we are on the late show again!”)

If “Gentleman Jimmy” Walker wasn’t the first of the entertainer-turned-politicians, he was awfully close. The son of an Irish-born alderman, he made his living for a while as a young man on Tin Pan Alley, cranking out such tunes as this one, with a title he would certainly take to heart in years to come: “There’s Beauty in the Rustle of a Skirt.”

To be sure, President Kennedy’s grandfather, John “Honey Fitzgerald” Fitzgerald, didn’t require much coaxing to break into “Sweet Adeline,” and if you want to understand how Alfred E. Smith bonded with voters, then look for the short clip of him belting out his campaign theme song, “The Sidewalks of New York,” that was included several years ago in the TV documentary series The Irish in America: The Long Journey Home.

Maybe it was that shared love of song that led Smith to notice the young Walker and help propel him up the ranks of Tammany Hall, where he would eventually successfully challenge John Hylan for Mayor.

It was Walker’s great good fortune to become Hizzoner when Gotham assumed its status as the leading financial, media, and industrial city of the world. It was his misfortune still to be around when the music ceased after Black Tuesday in 1929.

It’s somehow appropriate that “Beau James,” as he came to be called, was mayor during the Jazz Age. In fact, if you could have equipped him with a Southern accent, he could just as easily have fit in down in jazz capital New Orleans, where “Let the Good Times Roll” could have served as a campaign slogan.

It was under Walker that New York staked its claim as the nerve center of what might later be viewed as the blue state sensibility. At the height of a censorship debate in Albany he cracked, “I have never yet heard of a girl being ruined by a book” (shortened, not long thereafter, to “No girl was ever ruined by a book”).

If anyone knew anything about girls, it was he. Cocktail waitresses added spice to the illegal speakeasies he frequented, and seven decades before Donna Hanover Giuliani announced on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral that “America’s Mayor” had broken their marriage irretrievably, New Yorkers reacted with much greater equanimity when the Catholic Walker left his wife for showgirl Betty Compton.

Residents didn’t seem to mind that, nor a penchant for traveling outside the continental U.S. that exceeded Mayor Bloomberg’s. But after the stock market crashed, Tammany corruption became harder to ignore and Walker was enmeshed in a corruption probe.

Still, it was risky for Franklin Roosevelt to involve himself in the Seabury investigation into these matters, not least of all with the Irish-Americans who were part of Walker’s (and his own) base. Years ago, my godfather, my Uncle Johnny, could still flash with anger in asking how FDR could destroy a mayor who made sure that my uncle’s down-on-their-luck family had a turkey delivered to their apartment on Thanksgiving.

In September 1932, Walker abruptly resigned, then sailed off to Europe soon thereafter. He endured several years of lonely exile (Smith indelibly describes the former mayor calling up reporters while abroad just to shoot the breeze) before returning home. For awhile, it seemed that the answer to a tune he penned in his younger days--"Will You Love Me in December As You Do in May?"--was going to be a firm "no."

Whatever his faults—and they were many—Walker at least did not spend his time out of power in endless bitterness, and perhaps for that reason even a number of his former opponents found it difficult to carry a grudge against him. In fact, Fiorello LaGuardia—the anti-corruption candidate who Walker beat for reelection in 1929—even appointed his old rival to be municipal arbiter to the garment industry, eight years after Walker’s fall from power.

Walker’s last years were spent doing what his background eminently fitted him for: head of a record label. He died in 1946 and was buried in Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Westchester County. (My uncle would, I strongly suspect, be tickled pink at the prospect that the mayor he loved is buried on the same grounds that he is.)

The entertainment world was not through with New York’s “Night Mayor.” In 1957, Bob Hope starred, uncharacteristically, in a film based on Gene Fowler’s affectionate biography, Beau James.

Over a decade later, Frank Gorshin—just a couple of years removed from his turn as The Riddler on TV’s Batman—headlined a Broadway musical about Hizzoner, Jimmy, with Anita Gillette as Betty Compton. Unlike another musical about a New York mayor, Fiorello, this musical lasted only 84 performances. Undoubtedly, “Beau James” would have shrugged the whole thing off with a wisecrack, then have a few laughs at the nearest bar when it was all over.

Friday, January 29, 2010

This Day in WWI History (Future “Desert Fox” Rommel Makes Mark in France)

January 29, 1915—Evidencing the daring that would make him one of the most feared commanders in another European war a quarter-century later, 23-year-old German lieutenant Erwin Rommel led his company on a raid in the Argonne region of France.

I’m one of those people who are fascinated by what famous men and women were like before they achieved renown—you know, a “Before They Were Stars” perspective.

(Several years ago, as a Christmas gift, I even received a combination book-video package on this very theme. You’d never believe the trash John Travolta and Tom Hanks were forced to do in their early days! Let me put it this way—if they could find and destroy that early footage, they would.)

Haven’t you always been curious about what Clark Gable did before he became “The King” of Hollywood…how Lou Gehrig bided his time at Columbia before getting the chance to play for the Yankees…why George S. Patton tramped over every inch of ground he could while fighting in France in the First World War?

Patton knew very well what he was about—preparing the way for future glory, if not in this war, then in the next that he was certain would come.

Young Rommel had the same thirst for glory, but unlike the far more colorful and controversial American, there was nothing predestined about his profession—no mystical belief that, courtesy of reincarnation, he’d been a great warrior in another life, nor a deep family tradition of military service (a prior Patton had fought for the South at the Battle of Gettysburg). Mathematics teaching, not the military, was his father’s profession.

Yet from an early age, Adolf Hitler’s future “Desert Fox” wanted to join the Kaiser’s Imperial Army. At age 18, he volunteered as an officer-cadet, and was a lieutenant by the time war broke out five years later.

In the fall of 1914, Rommel was not much older than the 35,000 German university and technical college students who had volunteered for the army, many of whom would die in November at what came to be called the Kindermord (the Massacre of the Innocents). He could be forgiven for wondering what kept him alive when so many others had died—particularly since he himself had been wounded during the fighting in France.

By late January of the following year, recovered from that wound (the first of three he sustained in the Great War), Rommel was ready for his next mission. He threw himself into it with a will. His exploits would provide his regiment much-needed encouragement at a time when they had begun to realize they were engaged in an increasingly futile stalemate on the Western Front.

There was nothing physically prepossessing about Rommel: he was five feet eight inches, with brown hair and eyes and a slender, if moderately muscled, build. But he was about to attract attention in his battalion for his leadership.

If you want an idea of what I’m talking about, then consider this reminiscence by Major General Friedrich von Mellenthin, who served under Rommel as a lieutenant colonel in the Afrika Corps:

“Between Rommel and his troops was that mutual understanding which cannot be explained and analyzed, but which is the gift of the gods. The Afrika Corps followed Rommel wherever he led, however hard he drove them…the men knew that Rommel was the last man to spare Rommel.”

For a leader to command respect—particularly in wartime—he needs to show that he will make the same supreme effort he demands of others. Rommel did this and more in this mission.

Maybe the lieutenant had already learned that the kind of frontal assault he’d seen already was not going to work in this situation, either. In any case, he pulled off something very different on this occasion: sneaking with his men out of the trenches, using cover, before falling on the French front lines.

Planning the assault was one thing; achieving it, something else entirely. Here’s what the operation required of Rommel:

* He crept through the French wire first, urging his men to follow;

* He crawled back when they stood still, despite his repeated order to advance;

* He said if they didn’t move, he’d shoot the commander of his lead platoon.

Now his infantry company was ready, and it promptly stunned the French defenders by capturing four blockhouses that were used to house artillery positions.

Then he faced a crisis. Receiving an order to withdraw because his battalion was unable to provide support, he found his company surrounded. What to do?

As he understood it, Rommel could a) keep shooting until his ammunition was exhausted, then surrender; b) obey his order to the letter and withdraw immediately, risking the lives of half his men; or c) hit the enemy at a vulnerable point, then take advantage of the confusion to withdraw. Rommel chose c), extricating his men with minimal casualties.

In Knight’s Cross, biographer David Fraser summed up the philosophy that Rommel was already implementing in this engagement:

“Rommel believed that in battle success goes to the commander who seizes opportunity and exploits it; and that only he, rather than his superior, can perceive opportunity in time. His military philosophy, therefore, was one of encouraging, to the maximum, independence of judgment and action within an overall plan; and it was an independence which he exhibited from the first days of combat until the very end.”

For his actions in the Argonne, Rommel won Germany’s famed Iron Cross, the first officer in his regiment to be so honored. He would serve with similar distinction later in the war on the Romanian and Italian fronts. A slogan soon became popular: "Where Rommel is, there is the front."

In a strong element of symmetry, Rommel likewise made his mark first in WWII in France, when, heading up the Seventh Panzer Division, he perfected, on a grand scale, with mechanized units unavailable in World War I, his own method of fighting: lead from the front, evaluate the situation firsthand, then move on the double, using surprise and firepower to take the battle to the enemy.

Though his success led to his promotion to field marshal—and the campaigns that made him world-famous in North Africa—Rommel soon grew annoyed by Hitler’s tactics. While some of his own generals questioned his penchant for risk-taking,he thought it was insane to fight to the last death, and strongly urged Hitler to think of alternatives.
Though he did not participate in the planned July 1944 plot to kill Hitler, Rommel had advance knowledge of it and had been mentioned as a possibility to head post-Reich Germany if the assassination attempt succeeded, since he was respected by the Allies for stressing professionalism instead of brutality.

Rommel’s decades-long attempt to balance independence of action with obedience had at last foundered. Hitler, discovering his knowledge of the assassination conspiracy, offered him the choice of suicide or a public trial that could shred his reputation and endanger his family. Rommel opted for death at his own hand, downing the pills he was given on an automobile ride, bringing to an end a remarkable career.

Song Lyric of the Day (Bob Dylan, on the Agony of “To Know and Feel Too Much Within”)

“People tell me it's a sin
To know and feel too much within.
I still believe she was my twin, but I lost the ring.
She was born in spring, but I was born too late
Blame it on a simple twist of fate.”—Bob Dylan, “Simple Twist of Fate”, from the Blood on the Tracks LP (1975)

In Fred Goodman’s marvelous account of the rock-music business of the 1970s, The Mansion on the Hill, there’s a priceless scene from late 1974. Bob Dylan is playing to a small group of musicians several songs from what would become Blood on the Tracks.

The room is packed, so Graham Nash has to listen just outside the door and can’t see, but he doesn’t mind a bit—Dylan’s songs are amazing.

Nash’s reverie is interrupted by another listener, Stephen Stills. The man just can’t play guitar, Stills tells his CSNY bandmate. An outraged Nash feels this criticism is utterly beside the point.

Who am I to gainsay someone of Stills’ guitar skills when it comes to assessing Dylan on this instrument? And truth be told, despite the contention of New Yorker editor David Remnick that Dylan is one of the great singers, his voice wasn’t great shakes, either—more charitably described as “expressive” than “excellent.”

But Nash was absolutely correct in how he reacted to Blood on the Tracks. It’s one of those LPs that deserve to be placed in a time capsule as representing the best of the singer-songwriter era—or, indeed, the past half-century of rock ‘n’ roll. “His poetic distillation of love, memory, coincidence and fate was as close as rock music has come to great literature,” wrote Adam Sweeting in a Guardian profile 10 years ago.

Faithful reader, I fell down on the job two weeks ago, failing to observe that January 17 marked the 35th anniversary of the release date for Dylan’s song set on fractured love. Trouble was, much of the media—at least from what I can see—did, too. Shame on us all.

When it came out, the LP was hailed as proof that “Dylan was back”—not just physically recovered from his motorcycle accident of the Sixties (he’d been back from that for awhile), but back as a songwriter who mattered. That hope proved elusive. Sure, he subsequently had another protest hit (“Hurricane”); he could still surprise (his period as a born-again Christian positively flummoxed everybody); and he could come up with isolated songs that were excellent (the Oscar-winning “Things Have Changed” from Wonder Boys), and whole albums that were good (Time Out of Mind).

But Blood on the Tracks is the last album, from first to final cut, that can be judged indisputably great.

Listeners could not help but notice the timing of the album’s release—when Dylan’s marriage to former model Sarah Lowndes was on the rocks. That perceived connection between real life and art annoyed the songwriter, who claimed that these recent songs had been inspired by his reading of Chekhov.

Wipe that smirk off your face. How much more do you want the man to say about a situation that hurt too much? Dylan was merely heeding the advice of fellow poet Emily Dickinson: “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.”

After a decade and a half of paying tribute to old musical gods, of smashing them, of experimenting, of playing with lyrics and his own image, Dylan was singing from the heart, simply and powerfully, as if sensing the whole range of emotions involved in a longtime intimate relationship with another human being was enough.

Of the thousands of cover versions of Dylan songs over the years, two artists have, I think, done the best job with their takes on Blood on the Tracks. Shawn Colvin performed a dazzling rendition of “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” from her Cover Girl CD, and Mary Lee’s Corvette did a tribute at Arlene’s Grocery in New York several years ago that won so much (justifiable) acclaim that it ended up being released as a CD.

“You’ll never know the pain I suffered nor the hurt I rise above,” Dylan sings in “Idiot Wind”—then, while we’re still absorbing this, he projects into the heart of his former lover: “And I'll never know the same about you, your holiness or your kind of love.”

It’s an astonishing transition, one he pulled off at will, time and again, in this masterpiece that does not sound dated in the slightest, all these years later.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

This Day in Pop Music History (“We Are the World” Recorded)

January 28, 1985—Late in the evening, following the American Music Awards, an all-star gallery of pop musicians streamed into A&M Studios in Hollywood to record “We Are the World,” a milestone in musical humanitarianism.

The session could have produced well-meaning chaos. After all, Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie had written the lyrics for the tune—meant to raise funds for African famine relief—at the last minute. Combining the vocal styles of several musicians, never mind 45 with incredibly distinctive ones, is not easy. (There was also the matter of all those limos pulling up in front of the studio--how to maintain crowd and media control?)

Master producer Quincy Jones, however, kept everything on an even keel, helped in no small part by the well-meaning but pointed advice he offered everyone: “Check your egos at the door.”

The event wasn’t the first all-star pop musicians’ humanitarian fundraiser (The Concert for Bangladesh, to name one prominent example, was held 14 years before). It wasn’t even the first to gather musicians in a studio (two months before, Bob Geldof had rallied a largely UK supergroup, Band Aid, to record the megaselling single “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” for the same cause of famine relief).

Nevertheless, the impact of “We Are the World” was huge, becoming the fastest-selling American pop single of all time. In the quarter-century since the release of the single and video, according to the Web site for the effort, USA for Africa, $63 million has been raised from sales of the album, single, cassettes and related merchandise.

The driving force behind the effort should not go unmentioned: Harry Belafonte (in the image accompanying this post, of course). The involvement of the charismatic singer-actor surely would not have surprised those who recalled his prominent role in organizing and fundraising for the civil-rights movement in the 1960s, including the 1963 March on Washington.

In the mid-1980s, Belafonte’s original idea had been to mount a benefit concert featuring black musicians for African relief, but he came around quickly to an idea by Ken Kragen—a manager whose client was Richie—that an American counterpart to Band Aid—i.e., an even more diverse gathering of musicians in a studio—would be even better.

I think there’s a reason why the best-known quote coming from this event was Jones’ “Check your egos at the door.” When you get right down to it, is there a better way for getting anything done in this world?

(By the way, it’s once more into the breech for several organizers of this effort. Richie and Jones are organizing an all-star remake of the tune, to benefit this year’s urgent humanitarian cause: Haitian relief. Stay tuned…)

Quote of the Day (Somerset Maugham, on Writing Obscurely)

"People often write obscurely. The writer has a vague impression of what he wants to say, but has not, either from lack of mental power or from laziness, exactly formulated it in his mind. This is due largely to the fact that many writers think, not before, but as they write."—W. Somerset Maugham, The Summing Up (1938)

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Quote of the Day (John Paul Stevens, on Campaign Finance Reform)

“While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.”—Associate Justice of the Supreme Court John Paul Stevens, dissenting from the high court’s 5-4 decision rejecting corporate spending limits, quoted in Adam Liptak, “Sidebar: After 34 Years, A Plainspoken Justice Gets Louder,” The New York Times, January 26, 2010

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Quote of the Day (Comic Albert Brooks, on Opening Before Rock Acts in the Early ‘70s)

“It was way before comedy was in or even popular. Let’s face it, these people did a lot of drugs and they wanted to hear the loudest music they could. I think there’s an old Chinese adage that says, ‘Sixteen sleeping pills does not make for a good comedy audience.’ They took a lot of these downers and would sit there waiting for Sly and the Family Stone, and the disc jockey had to come out and tell them I was there.”—Comedian Albert Brooks, appearing on public radio’s “Fresh Air,” December 19, 1996, reprinted in Terry Gross, All I Did Was Ask: Conversations With Writers, Actors, Musicians, and Artists (2004)

Monday, January 25, 2010

Quote of the Day (Comic Brian Kiley, on the Ideal Date for Sis)

“When my sister was in high school, she went out with the captain of the chess team. My parents loved him ‘cause they figured any guy who took three hours to make a move was okay.”—Comedian Brian Kiley, quoted in “Laugh!”, Reader’s Digest, February 2010

Sunday, January 24, 2010

This Day in British History (Winston Churchill Dies)

January 24, 1965—Exhausted in mind and body from nearly 60 years of service to his nation, Sir Winston Churchill, “The Last Lion” who rallied Great Britain to stand virtually alone against Adolf Hitler, died 10 days after a devastating stroke, at age 90.

A state funeral—the first authorized in the 20th century for a commoner—was held at St. Paul’s Cathedral after the body lay in state for three days at the Palace of Westminster. The representatives of 110 nations gathered at the funeral testified to Churchill's immense importance.

If you want a fuller explanation of my view of Churchill’s career, see this post I wrote on the occasion of his birth. For now, I’d like to consider something else, a matter of far more consuming interest to our health-conscious world than to Churchill’s contemporaries (or, I daresay, to the great man himself): the secret of his longevity.

The revelation comes courtesy of prolific British journalist-historian Paul Johnson, in his new, concise biography, Churchill. In 1946, about to enter Oxford, the adolescent Johnson asked the statesman, then past 70 years old, to what he attributed his success.

The answer could just as well cover his longevity: “Economy of effort. Never stand up when you can sit down, and never sit down when you can lie down.”

Similar words of wisdom were offered by Ronald Reagan, another head of government who managed to live into his 90s. I don’t agree with much of what he stood for while President, but the following observation of his sure rings true: “They say that hard work never hurt anyone, but I say, why take a chance?”

(So what if this is what the Tower Commission Report, on the Iran-contra scandal, meant when it noted, “President Reagan's personal management style places an especially heavy responsibility on his key advisors”? Details, details!)

Remember all of this as you start your work week, faithful reader…

Quote of the Day (Pope John Paul II, on the Poor)

“The poor of the United States and of the world are your brothers and sisters in Christ. You must never be content to leave them just the crumbs from the feast. You must take of your substance, and not just of your abundance, in order to help them. And you must treat them like guests at your family table.”—Pope John Paul II, “Homily at Yankee Stadium,” New York, October 2, 1979

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Quote of the Day (Francis Bacon, on the Hazards of Public Life)

“Men in great place are thrice servants: servants of the sovereign or state; servants of fame; and servants of business. So as they have no freedom; neither in their persons, nor in their actions, nor in their times. It is a strange desire, to seek power and to lose liberty: or to seek power over others, and to lose power over a man’s self. The rising unto place is laborious; and by pains, men come to greater pains; and it is sometimes base; and by indignities, men come to dignities. The standing is slippery, and the regress is either a downfall, or at least an eclipse, which is a melancholy thing.”—Francis Bacon, “Of Great Place” (1609)

With dizzying foresight, philosopher/politician/essayist Francis Bacon (1561-1626) sensed not only his own catastrophic reversal of fortune (he’d be removed from office for accepting bribes from those appearing before his court), but also that of politicians all over the world, all the way to the present.

For all too many politicians, the mere chance to change the world isn’t enough. The opportunity to cash in on overstuffed and overpriced memoirs, hefty lecture fees, or service on boards of directors seems too far off. Always they can hear the heckles of the crowd. They wonder, “Why do they have to pick on me—someone who only wants good?” They want to feel the love.

Some candidates, like the Victorian Teddy Roosevelt, are perfectly content with mass adulation, though they make themselves unhappy trying to achieve it. Others want to feel the love in the most literal way. Count among the latter John Edwards.

The Nonpareil Narcissist

Most normal people, upon reading the rest of this post, might think Edwards wouldn’t like it. Nonsense. The one thing this nonpareil narcissist hates above all is beyond ignored. Even contempt is preferable by comparison.

And yet, aside from one or two oddballs who greeted his admission of paternity of his child with campaign videographer Rielle Hunter as a “bombshell,” just about everyone else is downplaying it. The other day, when I checked their Web sites, even his most prominent state newspapers were pushing the item pretty far down on their homepage.

Far-right conservatives believe that this is simply part of the liberal media conspiracy. I think the reasons are more basic: a) nobody believes him about anything anymore, and b) because of that, he is no longer a player in American politics.

Edwards is not, of course, the first Presidential candidate (or President, we know now, all too well) to have committed adultery, and most assuredly he won’t be the last. All the same, it’s worth spelling out how his offense differs from most, if not all, other examples of literal love in the political realm.

Unexalted Company: Tonya Harding and Joey Buttafucco

Edwards’ admission that he really did have a baby with Rielle Hunter is about the most anti-climactic news to come down the pike since Tonya Harding ‘fessed up before a judge that yup, she did know something about that low-life husband of hers whacking skating rival Nancy Kerrigan on the kneecaps, or maybe even since Joey Buttafucco scratched his woolly head and admitted that he and Long Island Lolita Amy Fisher were sharing a little more than pizza.

Not exactly exalted company for the erstwhile boy wonder of the North Carolina tort bar, the U.S. Senate, Vice-Presidential and Presidential candidate. But really, the same phenomenon held true, for all three people—the same absurd type of offense, the same indignant initial denial, the same mountain of evidence indicating to the contrary, the same admission reluctantly extracted only under the inexorable pressure of the law.

The news was first reported more than two years ago, but it took Edwards a little while to admit it. You know how Southerners are—they like to do things a little more slowly down there. Why, it might have taken him more than an hour before he made a pass at Hunter.

A New Political Hazard: Vengeful Former Aides

Poor Elizabeth Edwards has started to come in for her share of abuse, too, courtesy of disgruntled ex-staffers who blabbed to authors John Heilemann and Mark Halperin in the just-published Game Change. If it’s any consolation to the beleaguered couple, they were in good company among Presidential power pairs—just about every twosome come out the worse for wear in that book except the Obamas.

Tell me, faithful reader, do you think it’s entirely coincidental that the winners emerged virtually unscratched from the sniping of aides? This anonymous carping is a hazard of public life that would have bewildered Bacon. It may well be, as Madame Cornuel observed, that no man is a hero to his valet, but the last several decades have proven this even more true of Presidential candidates and their staffers.

Contrary to her public “St. Elizabeth” image, the authors claim, Edwards’ wife would berate him in front of staffers for stupidity. There’s an implication that he was glad to be on the road, away from her, where he could be subject to all kinds of temptation, including the one to which he succumbed.

I’d like to put in a word in defense of Ms. Edwards. It’s not simply that there’s a nasty blame-the-victim note to the aides’ often-anonymous sniping, or that she deserves sympathy over the loss of a child or her own ongoing battle with cancer. It’s that what she was saying was true—her husband was demonstrably stupid. He proved it by risking his candidacy on a fling.

Beware FCFs

And not just a fling with anyone. The business card Rielle Hunter handed out on her first encounter didn’t feature the initials F.C.F. (First-Class Flake), but it came mighty close with its inscription: BEING IS FREE—RIELLE HUNTER—TRUTH SEEKER.

(Poor Diogenes—he used only a lantern to search for an honest man. Who knows how far he would have gone with a video camera, a blond mane and a flirtatious smile?)

Further warning signs: Introducing herself as a “witch” would make most people at least edge for the door. And not terribly much digging would have revealed that the lady’s real name was Lisa Druck and that, a generation before, Jay McInerney had based the silly, self-destructive party-girl protagonist of his novel Story of My Life on her.

You’re supposed to run away from women like this, just as you should steer clear of women who spell the name “Jennifer” with a “g” instead of a “j”, or of interns with the disconcerting habit of flashing their thongs at you on short acquaintance.

One Last Barrier to Political Adultery Left Standing

Yes, the template for surviving sex scandals was set by Bill Clinton in the 1992 Presidential race and his impeachment crisis a half dozen years later. Yet even “the Comeback Kid” might have been hard pressed to overcome the circumstances in which Edwards soon found himself.

I think it’s fair to say that Americans don’t take kindly to guys who cheat on wives with an incurable disease.

Edwards should have quit the Presidential race when he had the chance in late 2007. He could have cited the overwhelming difficulty he’d had in raising funds to challenge front-runner Hillary Clinton and the unexpected upstart Barack Obama.

Instead, he kept going, in the vain belief that he could win the Presidency—or, at least, walk away with another Vice-Presidential nod or an Attorney-General nomination. The press—very much including the National Enquirer—would have been much less likely to investigate someone who had retired to private life. He could have concentrated on repairing the damage to his marriage and family.

Instead, in his pursuit of power and folly, Edwards:

* Ensnared Elizabeth as much as himself in his disregard of reality;

* Induced aides to cover up for him;

* Persuaded one of these aides, longtime friend Andrew Young, to take the rap for him as the baby’s father;

* Even urged Young to “get a doctor to fake the DNA results”—even steal a diaper from the baby to confirm the results; and

* Would have led his party over a cliff if, by a twist of fate (say, a victory in the Iowa caucus), he’d been able to win the nomination or even establish himself as the clear runner-up. (Remember all the talk last year about how Obama was following a Lincolnesque “team of rivals” strategy in picking his Cabinet?)

Scandals and Their Relative Importance

The lies not only didn’t end with his withdrawal from the race, but didn’t end with his initial admission of adultery. In 2008, in an updating of Richard Nixon’s misleading “modified-limited-hangout route,” Edwards finally copped to the affair but not to being the daddy. It was only when more revelations confronted him—not to mention legal issues—that Edwards admitted everything.

You won’t get an argument here that many of the above details are rancid, and that the campaign aides who ran to Heilemann and Halperin with their gamy revelations are no great bargains themselves. (Only Edwards’ narcissism could eclipse that of campaign functionaries who go through life thinking that things could have worked out better for the leader to whom they had dedicated months of their lives if only their advice had been heeded.)

But you’re going to have a far tougher time complaining that there are bigger scandals, like the war.

Oh, yes, the war. The one that Edwards voted for and supported until it became politically inexpedient to do so.

Or the financial crisis created by fat cats.

Oh, yes, fat cats. Like the type of candidate who gets a $400 haircut, who invests substantially in subprime-mortgage lenders and an offshore hedge fund—making him roughly about as likely to go after them as George W. Bush would unleash the Justice Department on oil-company execs.

Edwards’ aides sound like they blabbed all night into tape recorders, but in a fundamental sense their feelings of aggrievement are understandable. The two largest domestic issues we face, both interrelated, are gross inequality and economic insecurity. They’re not only crucial to our lives here at home, but to the credibility of the American experiment abroad.

By virtue of his background growing up and his oratorical skills (extensive enough, James Carville has said, to rival those of Bill Clinton), Edwards had the chance to be a credible spokesman for those concerned about these issues. Unfortunately, his blatant hypocrisy—not merely in concealing a lunatic affair, but in wrapping himself up in the accouterments of power and the good life—sidelined him.

A jury now is considering whether Edwards used campaign funds to keep Rielle Hunter quiet. But, no matter what their ultimate judgment, his ignominy will be worse than simply a campaign infraction.

The media have trumpeted Edwards’ “love child,” but the phrase is a misnomer. It implies that real feelings were shared. Edwards’ great passion was not for his wife or his mistress. He had fallen for The Greatest Love of All: Himself.

The media have gone from cacophony to silence, leaving a loneliness—a confrontation with himself—that Edwards was unprepared for, a fall from grace that would even have astonished the shrewd but corrupt Francis Bacon himself.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Theater Review: “Bye Bye Birdie,” from the Roundabout Theatre Co.

This weekend, two productions I attended come to an end: the Pearl Theater Company’s Misalliance, by George Bernard Shaw, and the Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of the 1960 Charles Strouse-Lee Adams musical, Bye Bye Birdie.

You might have heard a lot—little, if any, of it complimentary—about the latter.

Now, on more than one occasion, I’ve written—in the contrarian spirit of this blog’s title—against critics who’ve piled on concerning certain plays. (See, for instance, my review of Hedda Gabler, starring Mary Louise Parker.)

But Birdie forces one onto barren, thankless terrain, the kind only Clarence Darrow could relish: defender of the damned. This revival doesn’t deserve such a stout defense.

So let’s get this over with quickly, shall we?

* This production, in keeping with the notion of truth in advertising, should have been titled Bad, Bad Birdie.

* Once again, the Roundabout has erred grievously in casting someone with whom they had a congenial experience before in roles for which they’re unsuited now--i.e., the two leads, both of whom appeared before in Cabaret for the company. (Prominent prior examples: Natasha Richardson in A Streetcar Named Desire and Alan Cumming in The Threepenny Opera.)

* One such actor, John Stamos, has the bad luck of assuming the role of skittish, mother-dominated publicist Albert Peterson, acted on Broadway a half-century ago by one of the most nimble, graceful musical comedy hands ever to step on a stage: Dick Van Dyke. Stamos can sing—a little—but can’t dance. If he can act, it’s in a production I’ve never seen. (His expression in the accompanying image captures pretty well what he must have been feeling throughout this misbegotten production: "What did I let myself in for?")

* Gina Gershon has it worse than Stamos. She can’t sing or dance (unlike the woman who created her part of Peterson’s secretary-eternal girlfriend Rose Alvarez, Chita Rivera), and she has no credibility at all playing a Latina.

* The always-terrific Bill Irwin (as Harry MacAfee) and Jayne Houdyshell (marvelous as Albert’s mother) are wasted in subsidiary roles.

* If you really like the songs by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams (including the standard “Put on a Happy Face”), then hunt down the original Broadway cast album.

* The after-show lecture “talk back” at the matinee I attended, featuring John Gilvey, biographer of the show’s original director, Gower Champion, was far more entertaining than anything preceding it.

* The song “The Telephone Hour” should have been given a title that more aptly matches the contents of the entire production: “Stinkeroo Central.”

* If you have a mad desire to go out and see the show this weekend, save your money. We’re in a recession, and we might as well combat waste and abuse in entertainment as much as in government and business.

Quote of the Day (Ozzy Osbourne, Channeling His Inner Austin Powers)

“All the girls ran out of the venue screaming. Isn’t the whole point of being in a band to get a shag, not to make chicks run away?”—Ozzy Osbourne, recalling the first time his band played their song “Black Sabbath”, in I Am Ozzy (2010)

I can still recall the few times one of my brothers played the Black Sabbath album he’d bought in the early Seventies. Thank God he didn’t make a habit of it, or the damage to my ears would undoubtedly have been irreparable—sort of like the damage to Ozzy’s ego when—not so coincidentally!—the very same music drove comely young groupies out of their hall en masse.

Oh, yeah—I guess you’re wondering about the picture. Women might not have had their way with Ozzy at this point (ca. 1970), but drugs were only just beginning to do so—which is why he doesn’t look anywhere like the human wreck he is now.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

This Day in Tennis History (McEnroe Expelled From Grand Slam Event)

January 21, 1990—Nobody gets through organized baseball without knowing, “Three strikes and you’re out”—but John McEnroe, not realizing that this was a new rule in professional tennis, ended up being ejected from the Australian Open, the first player to be disqualified from a Grand Slam event in more than a quarter century.

The player, heading into the twilight of a great career, was actually ahead of opponent Mikael Pernfors in the fourth round when his on-court slide into insanity began. When it was over, a crowd of 150,000 in Melbourne booed at the astonishing results—McEnroe disqualified after scores of 1-6, 6-4, 5-7, 4-2—but he had only himself to blame.

When I began college, rumor had it that my school was one of McEnroe’s choices after he graduated from Manhattan’s Trinity School. (He ended up accepting an offer at Stamford before touring pro.) Given the publicity already circulating about his career, several of us in my freshman class decided that tennis’ loss was Columbia’s gain.

(Sometimes, in my more fanciful moments, I imagine McEnroe confronting one of our Contemporary Civilization instructors about an assigned text. Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents seems appropriate, I think, don’t you? “Where does this jerk come up with the idiotic ideas about the ego and superego?” I imagine him saying, then, leaving classmates with jaws agape, turning on the instructor himself: “And where do you get off, assigning this shit?”)

By the time the young player had gotten to Wimbledon, the British tabs were all over him, calling him “Super Brat” and—it’s hard to shake the implication of a jibe at his ethnicity—“McNasty.”

I can’t say that I am an inveterate tennis watcher, but it seemed that every time I watched Wimbledon or the U.S. Open from about 1974 to 1984, either McEnroe or Jimmy Connors was competing in the finals—attacking the net, grunting loudly as they chased balls all over the place, leaving themselves utterly spent at the end of their games. I marveled at the skill and never-say-die spirit they brought to the game. Well, all but one aspect of it, anyway.

Every time McEnroe turned on an umpire—which seemed to happen more and more as the years went on—I shook my head. I had that same feeling I would get just while watching Earl Weaver (or, just a few years later, his brother in spirit, Lou Piniella) go toe to toe with a baseball ump—spewing curses and spittle, circling his quarry, turning his cap completely around so he could go eyeball to eyeball, kicking dirt everywhere, even, in moments of most sublime madness, throwing an offending base into the outfield.

One of McEnroe’s classic moments came at Wimbledon, when he berated one ump as “the pits of the world.” But this incident could easily be multiplied.

The following are the three strikes that led to McEnroe’s epic Blunder Down Under:

* glaring at a lineswoman for making a bad call, all the while bouncing his ball meaningfully—and perhaps menacingly—on his racket;

* smashing his racquet—twice—after two wide forehands; and

* complaining about chair umpire Gerry Armstrong for citing him for racquet abuse, then, after calling for the Grand Slam chief of supervisors, Ken Ferrar, swearing at him, loud enough so fans courtside and on TV could hear.

Suddenly, McEnroe heard the unexpected—and dread—words from Armstrong: “"Default Mr. McEnroe. Game, set, match."

In a way, this epic cranial meltdown had been coming for more than the last several minutes. I’d say the road that took McEnroe to this point began six years earlier, when Bjorn Borg withdrew from active participation in tennis.

Suddenly, the person who had forced McEnroe to raise the level of his game—to be Bill Russell against Wilt Chamberlain—was gone. With it went motivation. A volatile marriage to actress Tatum O’Neal didn’t help keep his head straight, either.

In the press conference after the Australian Open catastrophe, McEnroe admitted he had had made a mistake, not realizing that under the new Code of Conduct, the path to disqualification was shortened by a step: first a warning, then a point penalty, then a default.

"I can't say I'm surprised," said McEnroe. "It was bound to happen."

An interesting remark, if you stop to think about it. McEnroe had been gambling that he had, in effect, one more professional chance of winning through intimidation. He miscalculated, ending up losing his first chance at a major in six years.

Theater Review: “Wishful Drinking,” Created and Performed by Carrie Fisher

“Celebrity is just obscurity biding its time,” Carrie Fisher observes—but with Wishful Drinking, she staves off obscurity for quite a bit longer than what one might expect from someone whose exploits would, under normal circumstances, make her one of those has-beens on “Celebrity Rehab.”

I never got around to reviewing this one-person show before it closed on Sunday at Studio 54. Not that it mattered: it would have done fine with or without my two cents. I’m sure the Roundabout Theatre’s creative honchos would have been delighted if Ms. Fisher had elected to stay longer, what with the way Bye, Bye, Birdie unexpectedly tanked this season. But I guess she had other cities to conquer.

Fisher’s show is, essentially, an audio-visual counterpart to her book of the same name. Before purchasing my ticket, I had bought her memoir for a friend, who later warned me that the best lines would be spoiled for me if I heavily perused this too-much-too-soon autobiography. Because I hadn’t done so, the lines came to me with the joy that surprise and freshness can bring.

“One-woman show” might be one way to describe Fisher’s performance; another might be “comic self-therapy.” If you want a sense of her tone, imagine Dorothy Parker, in all her biting glory, but not sinking under the weight of pills, alcohol and tristesse love affairs/marriages gone awry, but somehow rising to her feet, with even more material because of a wildly dysfunctional family.

How dysfunctional? So dysfunctional it requires the aid of a blackboard (in the image accompanying this post)—a hilarious prop you won’t find in Fisher’s book—to explicate all the marriages and liaisons ensuing from the infamous triangle involving her mother, Debbie Reynolds; her father, singer Eddie Fisher; and Elizabeth Taylor—that generation’s equivalent of the Jennifer Aniston-Brad Pitt-Angelina Jolie triangle, she helpfully translates for the audience.

Amazingly, Reynolds’ two-timing, drug-using ex (“Puff Granddaddy,” the wheelchair-bound octogenarian is now nicknamed) was not the worst of her mates. In fact, since two of them ended up swindling her of all her savings, the former ingénue of Singing in the Rain was being entirely accurate when she predicted to her daughter that Fisher “might turn out to be the good one.”

(Oh, did I mention that one of Carrie’s stepfathers had a hairdresser who moonlighted as a pimp? Or that Reynolds, responding to her daughter’s rejection of the notion that she might want to sleep with her stepfather, answered, in one of the great non sequiturs in history: “Just read The Enquirer, dear—it’s a weird world out there!”)

At the matinee I attended in October, Fisher invited to the stage her teenage daughter Billie, up in the Northeast for a visit, to try on a version of the mouse-like coiffeur Fisher had sported, to immortal effect, as Princess Leia in Star Wars. The occasion provided an opportunity to demonstrate how Hollywood filmmakers can be just as weird as the process of filmmaking. (Director George Lucas advised her that she couldn’t wear a bra under her white dress because “there’s no underwear in space.”)

The New York Times reported early in the show’s run that, at the request of Warren Beatty, Ms. Fisher deleted some risqué material on her former Shampoo co-star. Despite their short-lived marriage, Paul Simon also emerges relatively unscathed here. (She slips in that one of his lines from the song “Hearts and Bones” concerns their relationship, the story of “One and one-half wandering Jews” who “speculate who had been damaged the most.”)

Yet it wasn’t this constant family lunacy, or the insane demands of Tinseltown, or her own well-publicized struggles with drug abuse and bipolar disorder that provoked the most fascination at the performance I saw—it was Fisher’s 2004 discovery, in her bed, of a good friend, a gay GOP campaign consultant, dead of a drug overdose. Audience members asked her just about everything you could imagine, including, “Did you sleep with him?” and “Did he leave you any money?” (No and no were the answers.)

(The incident also led to the monologuist regaling her Blue State audience with an anecdote they ate up. Her friend the GOP operative, she related, had, in his younger years, known George W. Bush, who, as a wild and crazy fellow, could cut farts that would leave a big stink—sort of like the way he departed the Presidency, she said.)

If Reynolds was The Unsinkable Molly Brown, then her daughter, with her horrors recounted, faced and dispatched with one-liners, is in another realm of the eternal survivor entirely. “If you claim something, you own it,” she says—and she did so here to hilarious and triumphant effect.

Quote of the Day (Bruce Springsteen, on the Greatest Rock ‘n’ Rollers)

"The greatest rock 'n' roll musicians are desperate men. You've got to have something bothering you all the time."—Bruce Springsteen to Elvis Costello, Spectacle: Elvis Costello With Bruce Springsteen, Part 1, January 20, 2010

I had heard about Elvis Costello’s conversation-and-song series for Sundance, Spectacle, but last night was the first time I caught any of it. I came in only on the closing minutes of his first session with The Boss, but if this is anything like the rest of the series, I’m going to run out and buy the first season on DVD.

Though they’re contemporaries, both having risen to fame at the same time in the mid-to-late Seventies, Springsteen and Costello have carved out different styles and paths—the former painfully earnest, slowly burrowing out from Heartland Rock to embrace different musical textures; the latter ironic, perhaps the most wildly eclectic singer-songwriter of the rock era (how many people do you know of that have sung not only rock ‘n’ roll but have also collaborated with country-music artists, opera singers, The Chieftains, and Burt Bacharach?).

Yet, the two obviously formed a mutual admiration society last night, seguing from The Boss recounting the complementary singing styles of Sam and Dave to himself and Elvis performing a duet of the soul duo’s “I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down.”

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Quote of the Day (James A. Michener, on Character)

“Character consists of what you do on the third and fourth tries.”—Novelist James A. Michener, Chesapeake (1986)

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

This Day in Exploration History (Wilkes Claims Eastern Antarctica for U.S.)

January 19, 1840—Capt. Charles Wilkes, in the midst of one of the most significant scientific voyages in American history, sighted East Antarctica and claimed it for the U.S. Though not the first to discover Antarctica—that had occurred two decades before—he proved conclusively, by sailing and mapping 1,500 miles of its coastline, that it was a separate landmass.

Upon returning to American two years later, having circumnavigated the globe, Wilkes found both his achievements and his management style called into question by rival foreign mariners and domestic enemies who pressed a court-martial.

One particular charge—that Wilkes could not have possibly found this land mass—was, on the surface, buttressed when British explorer James Clark Ross claimed to have sailed across some of the land Wilkes had seen. In his attempt to establish national priority over France, whose explorer, Dumont D’Urville, cited the same January 19 date as the one when he had first sighted land, Wilkes then tried to backdate his discovery by three days.

It turned out that Wilkes’ mistake involving the land mass occurred because of the phenomenon known as polar refraction, which sometimes makes land below the horizon appear above it. (It also helped that the Australian who charged him with misrepresentation and mistakes, Sir Douglas Mawson, had made his own errors because of the same illusion.) It took 99 years, but eventually the Australian government put Wilkes’ name on the map of the land he explored. Moreover, two midshipmen backed Wilkes at his inquiry by claiming they had seen the same thing.

(Much of this international rivalry went for naught in the end, as the 1959 Antarctica Treaty made the continent an international zone--blessedly free of military operations, nuclear testing, and radioactive waste disposal.)

All but one of the other charges levied against Wilkes went nowhere, except for one. A court of inquiry found him guilty of exceeding the traditional maximum punishment of 12 lashes for individual miscreants. He had been conclusively—and, unfortunately, correctly—judged as a martinet.

An annoyed Wilkes took his lumps and went on special assignment in Washington to gather and summarize the results of his four-year circumnavigation of the globe. He had not been the first choice for this major expedition (believe it or not, he was the fifth), so this proud and flinty man was intent on making sure he achieved due recognition for his efforts. These achievements were extraordinary, including:

* 280 islands (largely in the Pacific) explored;

* 800 miles of Oregon mapped;

* More than 60,000 bird and plant specimens collected;

* Seeds of 648 species collected, later to be dispersed throughout the country;

* 254 live plants that would form the basis of the U.S. Botanic Gardens.

If only Wilkes had stayed on assignment in DC! But the outbreak of the Civil War found him acting in his usual peremptory fashion, nearly precipitating another conflict the Union did not need: with Great Britain.

Commanding the San Jacinto, Wilkes boarded the British mail ship Trent and arrested two Confederate emissaries, John Slidell and James Mason. The British were incensed, and though Northerners initially supported his actions, many had a change of heart after they reflected that a) Wilkes did not have permission from the government to seize the two diplomats, and b) the incident—with a neutral power having its ships stopped and men seized—was reminiscent of the impressment issue that served as a causus belli of the War of the 1812.

The Lincoln government released the two Confederates, largely defusing the tension that had developed between the Union and Great Britain. But Wilkes’ career was damaged irretrievably. Conflicts with the Navy Department later led him to publish rash letters in the newspapers.

For the second time, Wilkes had provided his enemies with a cudgel, as he found himself facing another court-martial, this time on grounds of disobedience of orders and insubordination. His sentence—a public reprimand and suspension from active service for three years—was reduced by President Lincoln to one year.

The hotheaded old sea dog returned to writing, dying in 1877. He is now interred in Arlington National Cemetery, though one doubts if his proud and angry spirit is at rest.