Monday, May 31, 2010

Quote of the Day (Robert Ingersoll, on Our Nation’s Dead)

“These heroes are dead. They died for liberty – they died for us. They are at rest. They sleep in the land they made free, under the flag they rendered stainless, under the solemn pines, the sad hemlocks, the tearful willows, and the embracing vines. They sleep beneath the shadows of the clouds, careless alike of sunshine or of storm, each in the windowless Place of Rest. Earth may run red with other wars – they are at peace. In the midst of battle, in the roar of conflict, they found the serenity of death. I have one sentiment for soldiers living and dead: cheers for the living; tears for the dead.”— Robert Ingersoll, Speech at Indianapolis, Ind., September 21, 1876, in Complete Lectures of Col. R.G. Ingersoll (1998)

Sunday, May 30, 2010

This Day in Baseball History (Ruth Plays Last Game)

May 30, 1935—Once better paid than the President of the United States, not only credited with spurring the New York Yankees to their tradition of glory but even with saving the national pastime itself in the wake of the “Black Sox” scandal, Babe Ruth bowed out of major-league baseball in a quiet, most un-Babe-like way: not at the cathedral of sports, Yankee Stadium, but at the Philadelphia Phillies’ decrepit Baker Bowl, grounding out meakly to first base, misplaying a ball in left field, injuring his knee in the process, then taking himself out at the end of the first inning.

Playing out the string and out of condition, The Babe had, only five days before, given fans one last reminder of how he had transformed the game—and why he had been its principal box-office attraction—by clubbing three homers for the visiting Boston Braves at Forbes Field, home of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The last of the trio was so Ruthian—sailing over the right-field grandstand, rolling over into neighboring Schenley Park, in what witnesses claimed was the longest drive ever recorded at Forbes—that fans might have been forgiven for thinking he was reviving his game.

If only he’d retired immediately afterward…

Not Quitting While Ahead

But professional athletes never know to quit while they’re ahead, do they? We love the storybook ending—Ted Williams homering in his last at-bat (and, characteristically, almost as a point of honor, perversely refusing to tip his hat to the Red Sox crowd that had sometimes booed him); John Elway and Michael Strachan, going out as Super Bowl champions; or Rocky Marciano, retiring undefeated and unscarred as heavyweight champion.

Instead, we get Mickey Mantle, hanging around for four seasons too long on weak knees, his lifetime batting average diping below .300; Muhammad Ali, refusing to retire after taking back the heavyweight championship from Leon Spinks, until his nervous system had sustained more blows from ring foes; or the New York Giants’ Y.A. Tittle, in an unforgettable image, knees sunk to the turf, his bald head smeared with cuts from the beating he took from the Pittsburgh Steelers in his final season.

Most of these latter athletes didn’t realize until too late that their skills were irreversibly declining. To his credit, that couldn’t be said for Ruth. He had wanted to call it a day after his 1934 season with the Bronx Bombers, when his 22 homers were nearly half of his total from only two years before that.

No, The Babe stuck around, despite his age (40), terrible knees and dismal playing condition (245 pounds, the heaviest of his career), for another reason: to fulfill his dream of managing a major-league franchise someday. To do so, he was prepared to part ways with the team on which he became an American legend.

A Quest to Manage

Ever since the death of Yankee skipper Miller Huggins, Ruth had hoped to segue from player to player-manager to strictly manager. In those years, it was not uncommon: John McGraw, Rogers Hornsby and Bill Terry had done so. There seemed no reason, the Bambino thought, why he couldn’t, too.

Yankee owner Jacob Ruppert demurred. Ruth might have resented the man who settled in eventually as Huggins’ successor, Joe McCarthy, but Ruppert felt loyalty to this crusty baseball man who had brought another world championship to Yankee Stadium in 1932.

There was another, not unimportant factor at work, too. McCarthy might have excelled at strategy and teaching players the fine points of the game, but he was even better at discipline, at making players cut out the crap and concentrate on winning.

Ruth could never compete in this area. As a player, he had been a virtual law unto himself, a hellraiser of awe-inspiring proportions. As a manager, any attempt he would make to enforce the kind of rules he had so blithely disregarded would be dismissed as rank hypocrisy.

“Colonel” Ruppert had made it a point that he would not release Ruth before the end of his playing career, but the owner’s commitment to McCarthy brought a parting of the ways. Ruth had missed out on a chance to manage the Detroit Tigers, but the Yankees got word that another franchise might be interested in the services of their on-the-way-out legend.

That led to the formerly unthinkable prospect of the greatest slugger in baseball history belting his final round-trippers not with the Yankees—not even with the team who hired him (and let him go) originally, the Boston Red Sox—but a squad that had been finishing out of the running for even longer than the Bosox: their hometown rivals (if you could call them that), the Boston Braves.

Beantown Fiasco

Enter Judge Emil Fuchs, president of the lowly Braves, desperate to stave off bankruptcy. A bug planted in his ear by Boston Mayor James Michael Curley—that Ruth, a huge draw in the city the prior year, would be great to have as a manager—made the financially strapped owner consider this as an option.

Fuchs already had a manager in Bill McKechnie, but there were ways of getting around this. He could secure Ruth’s services first as a player, then promise more.

The “more” part is where it became interesting. Had Fuchs the owner presented to Fuchs the judge the kind of agreement he proposed for Ruth, he would have at least immediately hauled him into chambers and demanded what was going on. More likely, he would have judged the pact null and void.

A February 23, 1935 letter from Fuchs to Ruth spelled out in written form what they’d discussed over the phone the day before. In addition to $25,000 in a straight-salary contract as a player, he’d also receive “an official executive position as an officer of the corporation”; a share of the profits “during the terms of this contract”; an option to purchase “at a reasonable figure” stock in the Braves; exact amounts spelled out in a separate contract between him, the club, “and as the case may be, with the individual officials and stockholders of the club”; and appointment, for the 1935 season, as “assistant manager.”

That last position was especially curious, chiefly because it had never been created before. As Ruth was given to understand, it meant that McKechnie would consult with him on strategy in the upcoming season. In 1936, when the latter moved up to general manager, Ruth would succeed him in the dugout.

The letter became more and more curious as it went along. By its conclusion, Fuchs was writing that first, before Ruth became manager, McKechnie’s loyalty would have to be amply “rewarded”. Maybe Ruth would like to become a manager eventually, maybe even an owner or part-owner of a major-league club.

Or: “It may be that you may discover that what the people are really looking forward to and appreciate in you is the color and activity that you give to the game by virtue of your hitting and playing and that you would rather have someone else, accustomed to the hardships and drudgery of managing a ballclub, continue that task.”

Ruth was so desperate to manage that he was willing to look past all these mealy-mouthed promises and flimsy escape clauses. Before long, baseball fans were surprised to hear that he’d been given his unconditional release by Ruppert and was heading up to Beantown.

Ruth’s time with the Braves—the exhibition season and two months of the regular season—turned out to be disastrous for all concerned.

McKechnie, really not a bad sort, would have had to have been a saint to solicit Ruth’s opinion. He didn’t.

Ruth, already in sorry physical shape, wasn’t helped by various ailments. In the outfield, this player—once possessed of one of the most feared throwing arms in the game—needed constant assistance from his centerfielder.

Worse was what happened at the plate. In 28 games and 72 at-bats, Ruth compiled only a .181 batting average with six homers (half coming from the Forbes Field performance) and 12 RBIs.

Ruth should have heeded the advice of his wife Claire and quit immediately after his Forbes Field game, but he wanted to keep his promise to Fuchs to visit the remaining clubs on this road trip. But he and the owner were now feuding constantly, and two days after bowing out of the Phillies contest, matters had come to such a pass that Ruth gathered reporters together at his locker to tell them he was out of the game.

As bad as the Braves' experiment with Ruth was, it was also probably the highlight of that sorry squad that year. His six HRs, in only two months of playing time, ranked second for the entire team. Their 38-115 record was the worst recorded by a National League franchise in the 20th century. (The New York Mets, with a 40-120 record in 1962, had an excellent excuse: They were an expansion franchise with a combination of mostly untried youngsters and vets on the downswing in their career.)

McKechnie and Fuchs, each in his own way, got what was coming to them. The long-suffering manager, freed from his Job-like sufferings in Beantown, went on to manage the Cincinnati Reds to a National League pennant in 1939 and a World Series championship the following year. Fuchs was forced to sell the Braves one month after he gave Ruth his unconditional release, and resorted to bankruptcy in 1936.

The Greatest Disappointment of a Triumphant Career

Amazingly, though rejected once by the Yankees, Ruth looked to them again to revive his managerial hopes. But all they would offer was a post with a minor-league team, the Newark Bears. The proud slugger, believing that other former players—former players of less than his caliber, at that—had gone straight into leading at the major-league level, scoffed at it as an insult.

In 1938, Ruth jumped at one last chance to manage, this time with the Brooklyn Dodgers, who hired him as their first-base coach. But at the end of the season, his heart was broken once again when the team hired Leo Durocher—a player Ruth had once dismissed as “the all-American out”—as their manager.

His inability to become a manager was the greatest disappointment of Ruth’s career. To be sure, both the Braves and the Dodgers exploited his box-office appeal. But if he had looked deeply into himself, Ruth would have understood that ultimately he was the one chiefly responsible for this failure, because of his own lack of elementary restraint and self-discipline as a player and his proud refusal to manage at anything less than the major-league level.

Quote of the Day (C.S. Lewis, on His “Only Real Treasure”)

"I am progressing along the path of life in my ordinary contentedly fallen and godless condition, absorbed in a merry meeting with friends for the morrow or a bit of work that tickles my vanity today, a holiday or a new book, when suddenly a stab of abdominal pain that threatens serious disease, or a headline in the newspapers that threaten us all with destruction, sends this whole pack of cards tumbling down. At first I am overwhelmed, and all my little happinesses look like broken toys. Then, slowly and reluctantly, bit by bit, I try to bring myself into the frame of mine that I should be in at all times. I remind myself that all these toys were never intended to possess my heart, that my only real treasure is in Christ."—C.S. Lewis, The Business of Heaven: Daily Readings From C.S. Lewis (1984)

(Thanks to my friend Steve for the inspiration)

Saturday, May 29, 2010

This Day in Revolutionary War History (Tarleton and the Making of an Atrocity Story)

May 29, 1780—The British called their brief but bloody encounter near the border of North and South Carolina the Battle of Waxhaws Creek. American patriots, however, dubbed it “Buford’s Massacre,” and blamed one commander for it: Col. Banastre Tarleton.

In his biography of Nathanael Greene, Washington’s General, Terry Golway called Tarleton, with some justice, “the most feared British commander of the war.” He was also, arguably, the most controversial: in the case of the closest possible contender, both the Americans he betrayed and the British he joined agreed that they had very little use for Benedict Arnold as a person.

British MP and man of letters Horace Walpole noted that Tarleton boasted of "having butchered more men and lain with more women than anybody else in the army.” But the colonel who headed the British Legion was not accused during and after the American Revolution of having superabundant testosterone. The question was whether or not he was a war criminal.

How you answered that question often depended on whether you were British or American. Even Hollywood has waded into the controversy, with Mel Gibson’s The Patriot featuring a villain based on Tarleton.

Tarleton’s reputation owes much, though not exclusively, to what happened in the Waxhaws District of South Carolina. He’d been assigned by General Charles Cornwallis to use his mixed force of cavalry and light infantry to catch Abraham Buford, one of the few Continental commanders still at large in the Carolinas after the disastrous rebel defeat at Charleston.

Tarleton demonstrated one of his assets as a commander--the ability to move fast--in his pursuit of Buford, covering 100 miles in 54 hours by riding day and night. When he finally got wind that Buford was in the vicinity, Tarleton sent him a note that considerably exaggerated his forces and demanded the Americans' surrender. Buford wouldn’t hear of it.

Using his troops’ speed to maximum advantage, Tarleton quickly crumpled up the Continentals at the resulting battle. When it was all over, 113 Americans were dead and 203 captured.

Tarleton’s claim in his postwar memoir—that his men began to kill indiscriminately after he’d been thrown from his horse and pinned, leading his troops to mistakenly believe he’d been fatally wounded under a flag of truce—has been taken up by his admirers/apologists since then. The colonists had their own story: that Tarleton, not wanting to bother with prisoners, ordered a renewed attack after the rebels surrendered.

The colonists were not above creating atrocity stories to fan propaganda, as had happened 10 years before with the Boston Massacre. (It had fallen to John Adams to win acquittal for the British soldiers charged in that case.) But "Tarleton's Quarter" (i.e., no mercy) became a rallying cry for the Americans in the two-year campaign of escalating intimidation and reprisals that was about to occur in the Carolinas between British troops, loyalists and patriots.(One subsequent example: "Pyle's Hacking Match," when Loyalist troops, falling for the lie by "Light-Horse Harry" Lee--Robert's father--that his legion of patriots were actually Tarleton's dragoons, allowed the rebels to come beside them on the road, where they proceeded to saber, bayonet and shoot their astonished opponents.)

Tarleton’s own actions, before and after Waxhaws, also contributed to his heinous reputation. He roamed through the Carolina countryside, pillaging crops as he went along. For his efforts, the aggressive cavalry rider was dubbed “Bloody Ban” by the Americans.

Tarleton’s comeuppance came the following year, at the Battles of Cowpens, where he lost badly, and Guilford Courthouse, where he lost much of his right hand.
One indication of Tarleton's low estimation in the eyes of the colonists came after Yorktown, when, as part of Cornwallis' defeated forces, the colonel was forced to surrender. He asked special protection from French General Rochambeau, who reluctantly acceded. At a subsequent dinner, American officers invited their British counterparts to dine, but specifically asked that "Bloody Ban" not join them.
His advocates depict Tarleton as, at worst, a bit of a rake, and because of the fog of war it is not certain how much of his villainous reputation is merited. But there was, assuredly, much in his military and political career, even aside from his exploits in the American Revolution, that was not admirable:
* He inherited a good position in life--an upper-class education at Oxford and £5,000--from his father, who had been lord mayor of Liverpool. But, like many sons of the aristocracy, Tarleton gambled the latter away, forcing him to look to the military to start over.
* He did not get along particularly well with superiors. Immediately after the war, he raised a ruckus with a memoir that criticized Cornwallis. Nearly a quarter-century later, he served in the Peninsular War under the Duke of Wellington--by several accounts, not particularly happily.
* He also served in the military in Ireland, in the period when the British tightened its grip on that country.
* In Parliament, he opposed William Wilberforce's campaign to end slavery in the empire, at least partly because so much of his family wealth was tied up in the practice.
* Many of his countrymen regarded him as a war hero when he came home, at least partly because of his wounds. When he finally won a seat in Parliament, he was not above using these to theatrical effect. "For God and country," he would exclaim at the height of debate, waving his maimed hand in the air lest anyone miss the point.
The image accompanying this post, by the famed portrait painter Sir Joshua Reynolds, shows Tarleton as he wanted to be remembered: not as "Bloody Ban," but dashing, in the heat of battle, wearing a helmet of his own design. The "Tarleton Helmet," with its fur comb over the top and plume at the side made of metal and leather, became a familiar sight among British light cavalry during the Napoleonic Wars. Its inventor managed to live on until 1833, honored in Britain but definitely not in North America.

Quote of the Day (Patrick Henry, Starting a Revolution)

"Caesar had his Brutus, Charles the First his Cromwell; and George the Third - ["Treason!" cried the Speaker] - may profit by their example. If this be treason, make the most of it." – Patrick Henry, Speech on the Stamp Act in the Virginia House of Burgesses, May 30, 1765

As I indicated in a post from a year and a half ago, it took a comparatively long time—into his late twenties, actually—before Patrick Henry (1736-1799) began to find his way in life, as a foe of entrenched privilege, in “The Parsons’ Cause,” a case involving public funding for Anglican ministers—and one of the significant early milestones in the American separation of church and state. In a sense, he found his way by finding his voice, in an address to the jury that won Henry a reputation for eloquence.

Now look at the above quote—perhaps the orator’s most famous, after “Give me liberty or give me death.” Posterity has given him a reputation as one of the firebrands of the period leading up to the American Revolution, but there’s another quality that strikes me in this: a sense of cool improvisation.

Interruptions in the middle of a speech can catch almost anyone off-guard, especially a new legislator who had only taken his seat nine days before, as was the case here.

But Henry was not only unruffled by the outburst from the Speaker of the House of Burgesses, but delivered an almost astonishing comeback line. He was used to thinking on his feet, able to spin a web of words from the sketchiest of notes, as he had done the day before—245 years ago today—when he took seven resolutions scrawled on the blank leaf of a law book and put them before the House of Burgesses.

Perhaps King George III, his ministers, and Parliament thought that their subjects would grumble about the Stamp Act, which required the colonists to pay a tax on every piece of paper they used. Henry’s Stamp Act Resolves, however, introduced a mere two months after the legislation passed (remember that, in those days, it took far longer for news to travel across the ocean), put them on notice that they were profoundly mistaken, and had now stirred up a hornet’s nest.

Nowadays, Henry’s speech has taken on additional historical interest, for a reason many would not have dreamed of years ago: the question of how he expressed his controversial thoughts, and if he even backed away from it.

There were, of course, no electronic devices to record verbatim what speakers said. Moreover, as I indicated above, Henry tended to talk extemporaneously. Even his “Give me liberty or give me death” address was a reconstruction by an early biographer, William Wirt.

A more recent biographer, University of Pennsylvania historian Richard Beeman, has sifted through the available documentary records about “If this be treason” and, intriguingly, found one contemporary eyewitness who claimed that, almost immediately after blurting out his statement, Henry hastened to assure the House that he remained a loyal subject of the crown. Doing so, I would suspect, would predispose this group of conservative aristocrats to look more kindly on resolutions that, after all, were rooted in established British rights, such as the right to be taxed by one’s representatives.

Beeman’s biography has been well-received and his research sounds extensively painstaking. On the other hand, there are other reasons to suppose that the traditional account of Henry’s words might not be not that far off the mark.

1) In his summation in the Parsons’ Cause case, Henry had already called into question the moral authority of the King and his ministers to force the Virginia colonists to fund Anglican ministers: “A King, by disallowing Acts of this salutary nature, from being the father of his people degenerated into a Tyrant, and forfeits all right to his subjects’ obedience.” Would he have muted his opposition to a measure even more egregious?

2) Henry might not have cared that much for putting conservatives into the right frame of mind to listen to his arguments. He introduced his resolutions, after all, when many were away from Williamsburg. All he needed was 24% of members to reach a quorum. The group ended up passing four of the seven resolutions he introduced.

3) Another eyewitness retained a vivid memory of what he heard. Thomas Jefferson, then a 22-year-old student at William and Mary College, happened to be standing in the doorway of the House of Burgesses during Henry’s electrifying address. Years later, political differences would convert Henry and Jefferson from allies into foes.

But even after this point had been reached, Jefferson still remembered Henry’s opposition as blunt and full-throated. "I well remember the cry of treason," Jefferson wrote afterward, "the pause of Mr. Henry at the name of George III, and the presence of mind with which he closed his sentence, and baffled the charge vociferated."

Years later, Jefferson would have had every reason to deprecate Henry’s utterance, if he could have done so. He didn’t, suggesting that knowledge of it was so well-known that to dispute its impact would have been laughable.

Ten years before the outbreak of the American Revolution, Patrick Henry had let the British government know, in no uncertain terms, that opposition to its meddling in colonial affairs would not be confined to Massachusetts. Ten years before Lexington, he had fired his own rhetorical shot heard 'round the world.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Flashback, May 1940: Britain’s Desperate Hours, at Home and Dunkirk

With Nazi invaders trying to tighten their vise around His Majesty’s land forces across the English Channel, Winston Churchill waited anxiously as a massive movement to save the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) —Operation Dynamo—swung into high gear at the French port of Dunkirk.

At the same time, Churchill had to stave off deep uneasiness about the course of the war, both from the British public—which had just learned that its Belgian allies were capitulating—and from inside his own Cabinet, where Lord Edward Halifax, the foreign secretary he inherited from Neville Chamberlain, took issue with the Prime Minister’s policy of fighting Adolf Hitler to the bitter end.

The six-month “Phony War”—the illusory calm following the invasion of Poland in September 1939—had been abruptly broken in April 1940 by Hitler’s decision to invade Denmark and Norway. The next month, the situation deteriorated at a frightening rate, as General Heinz Guderian now took the innovative mechanized warfare he had employed, to devastating effect, in Poland—the tank, backed by airpower—to advance 30 to 40 miles a day, seizing whole chunks of territory in Western Europe in no time.

All of a sudden, not only were the Netherlands and Belgium overrun, but France’s supposedly impregnable Maginot Line had been pierced, as Nazis forces punched a hole in the Ardennes forest. By May 23, with Boulogne taken, Guderian was on the brink of annihilating the British and French forces pushed into the land pocket against the French coast.

One of the two “fearsome alternatives” facing Churchill and his inner circle of “War Cabinet” members—to move south toward the Somme, with or without French and Belgian cooperation—had been set aside as no longer feasible. But the other choice was as perilous in its own way: evacuate from Dunkirk, leaving behind virtually all artillery and equipment, and get as many soldiers back as they could, given the Germans’ superiority in the air.

Hitler’s order the next day to halt Guderian’s advance, in order to allow German troops to refit before breaking another French line to the South, gave the BEF a crucial 48 hours to prepare to evacuate. At a little before 7 pm on May 26, the final order had been given to start getting at least a relatively small contingent out of Dunkirk.

In the early days of what would become one of the great legends of the war, expectations for how many British soldiers could be transported to safety were miniscule. Churchill himself believed that no fewer than 50,000 men would make it home.

By May 27, Herculean efforts were being made to locate all manner of small craft—lifeboats from liners, tugs, yachts, fishing craft, pleasure boats—that could help transport the men from the beaches of Dunkirk. Many of these ships weren’t serviceable, but this was a moment when every possible ship counted, and enough were useable to get more men out than virtually anyone dreamed possible initially.

Two of the eventualities that Churchill feared—loss of materiel and the soldiers’ exposure to withering fire from the sky—did come to pass. But by June 4, 338,000 troops—one-third French—managed to make it to England.

Churchill’s six-volume memoir of The Second World War is one of the best ever written by a statesman, but it can’t be relied on as the first and last word about events, since he glossed over some behind-the-scenes deliberations. In particular, the threat posed by Halifax—invisible to the public as a whole, but looming large at Whitehall—has to be reconstructed from other sources.

A useful supplement to Churchill’s version is John Lukacs’ short but incisive Five Days in London: May 1940, concerning May 24-28, when the British Cabinet deliberated whether to enter peace negotiations with Hitler.

In Their Finest Hour, the second volume of his wartime memoir, Churchill left the distinct impression that the Cabinet was of one mind. For instance, in describing one such meeting on May 28, of 25 members of his “Outer Cabinet,” he describes how, after stating his intention—“Of course, whatever happens at Dunkirk, we shall fight on”—“Quite a number seemed to jump up from the table and come running to my chair, shouting and patting me on the back.”

From other accounts of that meeting, we know that this was true, as far as it goes. But, as Lukacs demonstrates, the Prime Minister was silent on just why this particular meeting was so crucial. Earlier in the day, at a meeting of the smaller, more influential War Cabinet at the core of diplomatic and military strategy, Halifax—one of the arch-appeasers in Chamberlain’s government—had wondered aloud whether Benito Mussolini’s offer to mediate between Germany and the U.K. should be explored.

The challenge from Halifax—the original choice of Chamberlain and the King to become Prime Minister when the Labour and Liberal Parties mounted a no-confidence vote against the Conservatives—was significant. Had he quit the Churchill Cabinet on the spot, it was a real question whether Churchill would have been able to survive at the top. At this point, Halifax and his old chief retained more loyalty among Conservatives than Churchill, still regarded as a politician of brilliance but also unsteady (and sometimes bibulous) judgment.

The positive reaction of the Outer Cabinet, Lukacs argues, enabled Churchill to return in the evening to the War Cabinet and demonstrate that he had his own solid core of followers behind him. In addition, Chamberlain—now, through hard experience, disabused of any notion that Hitler’s word could be relied on in solemn treaties—sided, in his post as Lord President of the Council in the coalition government, with Churchill and against Halifax.

German Reichmarshal Herman Goering sent the might of the Luftwaffe down on the English and French forces struggling to survive on the beach and in the sea, but in the end he couldn’t make good his promise to the Fuehrer that his airforce would finish off the Allies. An Englishwoman at my local library, noticing my books on World War II, observed: “We were all saved by boys in the air.”

The utter abandonment of artillery and equipment and a hasty retreat should have made, by normal calculations, one of the most ignominious defeats in British military history.

But this was not an ordinary military encounter. The British had lived to fight another day, stretching their resistance out long enough for the Americans and Russians to join forces with them a year later in the Grand Alliance against Hitler.

For a long time, historians agreed virtually unanimously with Churchill that only a British victory, no matter how long and tough the odds, could keep the nation from falling under the sway of Hitler. In 1993, John Charmley’s Churchill: The End of Glory not only undercut overblown claims for the PM’s greatness, but sought to argue something far more controversial: that, by not sounding out the chance for a separate peace with Hitler, Churchill ensured that he would be presiding over the end of the British Empire.

This latter contention, I believe, is untenable. The British public—all of Europe, in fact—had learned, time and time again, that Hitler’s promises not to make more demands or take over more territory could not be trusted. Who is to say that, with a peace treaty in hand, he still would not have invented a pretext for invading a country whose institutions were diametrically opposed to all his dictatorship represented?

A final word about Halifax. By the end of the year, Churchill asked him to yield his post in favor of the man he had succeeded as Foreign Secretary after the Munich Agreement: Anthony Eden. Halifax was sent packing to Washington, where, by general agreement, he served his boss--and onetime rival for power--loyally and ably through the end of the war as the British ambassador to the U.S.

Quote of the Day (Henry David Thoreau, on the Highest Compliment He Ever Had)

“The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when someone asked me what I thought, and attended to my answer.”—Henry David Thoreau, “Life Without Principle,” The Atlantic Monthly, October 1863

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Quote of the Day (Clint Eastwood, on Guarantees)

“If you want a guarantee, buy a toaster.”—Clint Eastwood in The Rookie (1990), written by Boaz Yakin and Scott Spiegel, directed by Clint Eastwood

Good advice to remember during the current round of playoff series, the next time a professional athlete, thinking he can match Joe Namath and Mark Messier, makes a prediction of victory he can’t fulfill.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Quote of the Day (Budd Schulberg, on 1920s Hollywood)

“For me, it was Home Sweet Home, a lovely place to play with lions and alligators, to ride my bike down lanes of pine and pepper trees, and to make lemonade from my own lemon tree. But by the time I was in the third grade I had learned the hard lesson that filmmaking was anything but glamorous. Not only was it hard, tedious work, with the same scene shot over and over again until a temperamental director had decided it had achieved perfection, it was also a place inhabited by demoniac film producers and conniving movie stars.”—Budd Schulberg (1914-2009), on his childhood as a son of a Hollywood production head in the silent-film era, in Moving Pictures: Memoirs of a Hollywood Prince (1981)

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Quote of the Day (Oscar Wilde, on his “Pit of Shame”)

“In Reading gaol by Reading town
There is a pit of shame,
And in it lies a wretched man
Eaten by teeth of flame,
In burning winding-sheet he lies,
And his grave has got no name.”—Oscar Wilde, from “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” (1898)

The last, tragic act in the life of Oscar Wilde—the dandy who, who like fellow Anglo-Irishman George Bernard Shaw, conquered the late Victorian theater scene through his wit and paradoxes—began in earnest when he was sentenced on this date in 1895 to two years of hard labor for “gross indecency”—his society’s shuddering term for homosexuality.

The playwright—whose fortunes took a perilous nosedive following the triumphant premiere of his greatest comedy, The Importance of Being Earnest, a mere three months ago—was taken to Reading Gaol (now known as HM Prison Reading, and re-designated for young offenders), a penal institution only 30 miles from London, but light years removed in sensibility from the high society whose social code he had satirized onstage and flouted off.

In a prior post, I noted that Wilde started on his path of self-destruction when he received a ferocious calling card from the Marquess of Queensberry, father of his young male lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. Instead of ignoring or even laughing off the misspelled insult (Queensberry called him a “Sondomite”), and/or fleeing for the Continent, as many wise friends counseled, Wilde heeded the advice of the peevish Douglas and sued Queensberry for criminal libel.

Within three months, Wilde’s entire world had turned upside down. Queensberry’s attorney, Edward Carson, got his client off with a parade of witnesses testifying to the playwright’s patronage of “rent boys,” or young male prostitutes.

Now the legal prey rather than the pursuer, Wilde found that he had run afoul of the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act, which outlawed homosexual acts.

The two trials broke his reputation, but hard labor broke his body and spirit.

Two major writings emerged from his confinement. De Profundis (literally, “from the depths”), a letter addressed to Douglas, featured a title that could just as easily been used in place of The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

The Ballad appeared in February 1898, nine months after Wilde’s release from prison, under the pseudonym “C.C.3”—his prison number. In a real sense, it suggested his attempt at a new identity.

Gone was the dandy who mocked everything, including, famously, his own-self-importance, at his first trial. (Questioned whether he adored any man younger than himself, he responded: “I have never given adoration to anybody except myself.”)

In his place was a more sorrowful persona, one now intimately familiar with absolute despair (“The world had thrust us from its heart,/And God from out His care.”).

Penniless, guilty over the early death of his long-suffering wife, his health broken, Wilde died in 1900, only three years after his prison term ended. His deathbed conversion to Roman Catholicism—a faith he had explored as a college student—was signaled in Ballad, however, as he considered the only means out of his shame and despair:

“How else but through a broken heart
May Lord Christ enter in?”

Monday, May 24, 2010

Flashback, May 1980: Force Is With “Empire Strikes Back”

Sequels have difficult acts to live up to, and few as much as The Empire Strikes Back, the follow-up to Star Wars, the 1977 film that drew famously long lines even as it broke one box-office record after another.

George Lucas had so much riding on this: not just fan expectations, nor even an entire franchise that would enable him, at last, to make the films he wanted free of studio interference, but also his financial well-being. To finance the $33 million production, he used his profits from Star Wars, then received a bank loan. It didn’t seem like a good sign when Empire went over budget, because of inevitable production snafus, by $10 million.

Lucas needn’t have worried. Maybe The Empire Strikes Back was the only one of the six movies in the Star Wars cycle not to top $300 million domestically. But otherwise, everything went according to plan, and then some.

As the Memorial Day weekend came to an end in 1980, The Empire Strikes Back stood at the top of the box-office heap, on its way to becoming the top-grossing film of the year. Lucas made back his investment in three months.

But the movie had also, surprisingly for a sequel, earned at least a modicum of critical acclaim for adding emotional complications to what had been at heart, in the original, a mere throwback to the Flash Gordon sci-fi serials of the early sound era. Luke Skywalker’s ongoing confrontation with the evil Darth Vader now featured a surprise that added an unexpected Freudian undercurrent to Lucas' projected saga of the Jedi Knights.

Some more icing on the cake: In a film cycle that powered up modern film merchandising as we know it, Empire added another quirky, beloved character: diminutive Jedi master Yoda, who looked like Making of the President author Theodore H. White and sounded like one of Time Magazine’s odd inverted sentences from the Henry Luce era.

This time, Lucas stepped away from the director’s chair, while an initially reluctant Irvin Kershner assumed his old role. But really, could you honestly say that you could have told the difference between the two?

If you want to observe the divergence between the two movies, look to the screenwriting credits. In Star Wars, that belonged to Lucas himself. But a film consists of more than simply a simple scenario—what also makes it credible are characters acting believably and dialogue that rings true.

By common agreement of several key cast members, Lucas provided neither. One of the funniest moments in Carrie Fisher’s recent one-woman show Wishful Drinking came when she described her startled reaction to Lucas’ claim that “there’s no underwear in space.” Veteran British thespian Alec Guinness, used to embodying multiple characters of staggering variety and complexity onstage in Shakespearean roles and onscreen in Alexander Mackendrick comedies and David Lean epics, kept wondering aloud what was going on with his character this time, the sagacious Obi-Wan Kenobe. Most memorably, Harrison Ford, according to John Seabrook’s terrific retrospective on Star Wars in The New Yorker, told Lucas, in no uncertain times: “George, you can type this crap, but you sure as shit can't say it.”

Faithful reader, I sat enthusiastically, like much of the rest of the world, through Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and The Return of the Jedi. But I bailed out after the 1999 film that ostensibly begins the whole saga, The Phantom Menace.

It wasn’t only because I objected to the all-around idiocy of Jar-Jar Binks, or even to the foul notion of killing off Liam Neeson as young Annakin Skywalker’s mentor, but also to the preposterous name Lucas bestowed on the latter, Qui-Gon Jinn.

(The latter—which rhymes with “Algonquin”--reminds me of Mark Twain chuckling at the name James Fenimore Cooper gave the mighty brave in The Leatherstocking Saga, “Chingachgook”—“pronounced Chicago, I think,” he wrote. Perhaps in that spirit, in his spoof Spaceballs, Mel Brooks, as the mysterious, gnomic knight master, announces: “I’m Yogurt—just plain Yogurt!”)

But Empire, as I’ve indicated, rang some interesting changes on Lucas’ stock characters. This time, after outlining his story, he turned the screenwriting chores over to hands less caught up in technical razzle-dazzle, as he was, and more on characterization.

The first screenwriter who took a crack at the sequel was Leigh Brackett, a veteran who had not only worked on several Howard Hawks films (e.g., The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo) but had carved out a niche in science fiction. In reading her (admittedly unfinished) script, though, Lucas felt disappointed.

Yet at this point, going back to her for a rewrite, even were he so inclined, was out of the question, because Brackett was dying of cancer. Not much of her script was retained onscreen, but Lucas made sure she shared screenwriting credit, in tribute to her professionalism under extraordinarily trying circumstances.

Lucas then turned to the young Lawrence Kasdan, who would go on to write Raiders of the Lost Art for Lucas, then tackle, on his own, Body Heat, The Big Chill, and The Accidental Tourist. In an interview a decade ago, Kasdan recalled the process of turning out this script as being “fun,” though how much it was is open to question, given that pre-production had already begun and Lucas and Kershner needed to review the evolving script every couple of weeks in “very intense, highly adrenalized” story sessions.

Song Lyric of the Day (Gram Parsons, on Las Vegas)

“Ooh, Las Vegas, ain't no place for a poor boy like me
Every time I hit your crystal city
You know you're gonna make a wreck out of me.”—“Ooh Las Vegas,” written by Gram Parsons and Ric Grech, performed by Gram Parsons, from the Grievous Angel LP (1974)

Today, I pay tribute to my work colleagues who are now gathered for our company’s annual convention in the “crystal city” described by Gram Parsons (1946-1973).

It’s the better part of valor, I believe, for bloggers not to comment on matters that take place in the organizations that pay their daily wages. But Las Vegas itself—well, that’s another matter.

Offhand, I can think of only four distinctive and beneficial contributions to American culture made by the desert metropolis:

1) The statue of Elvis Presley, with a guitar slung over his shoulder, in the Las Vegas Hilton;

2) The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s hit song, “Viva Las Vegas” (and the numbers he shared in the movie of the same name with the young Ann-Margret);

3) Bruce Springsteen’s equally electrifying cover version of said tune; and

4) Andrew Bergman’s underrated but hilarious 1992 film, Honeymoon in Vegas, starring Nicolas Cage, Sarah Jessica Parker, James Caan—and featuring 15 skydiving Elvises in its climax.

(Notice a pattern here, folks?)

Sure, I’m bothered by any city where it takes a taxi to get to Sunday mass because it’s too long and too hot to walk the one-to-two miles from the hotel to church. And I have to admit I blinked when the pastor announced that one of every 10 dollars in the collection plate each week came courtesy of chips that were subsequently cashed in.

But I shouldn’t have been entirely surprised by any of this. After all, I distrust any city where slot machines are in airports, waiting to deprive me of my few and hard-earned dollars—to “make a wreck out of me,” as Parsons sings—even before I get to my hotel room.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Quote of the Day (Pope Benedict XV, on Peace and the “Germs of Former Enmities”)

“…[I}f in most places peace is in some sort established and treaties signed, the germs of former enmities remain; and you well know, Venerable Brethren, that there can be no stable peace or lasting treaties, though made after long and difficult negotiations and duly signed, unless there be a return of mutual charity to appease hate and banish enmity.”—Pope Benedict XV, Pacem, Dei Munus Pulcherrimum (On Peace and Christian Reconciliation) (1920)

No, I didn’t miss something from the Roman numeral or use an incorrect photo. The pontiff in question is not the current controversy-plagued Benedict but the last one to take this name before him as successor to St. Peter.

Historian-novelist Thomas Fleming had a thought-provoking blog post in which he wondered why the news media didn’t consider at greater length why Cardinal Ratzinger took the name of an early 20th-century pope upon his election. “As a German, I think we can be fairly sure he is trying to remind the world of the tragic story of his predecessor, and how close he came to bringing World War I to an early conclusion.,” the noted historian-novelist noted.

There are many aspects of Benedict XVI’s reign that can—and should—raise some eyebrows, but his initial act—a claim of nomenclature—suggested that he had a strong sense of the possibilities of his position.

Benedict XVI has, on more than one occasion, not always with the greatest of ease, tried to position the Roman Catholic Church in this age of terror as a central point of reason-informed faith between the secular West and the Islamic world. In the age of total war that began with World War I, Benedict XV (1854-1922) similarly asserted himself as an impartial religious emissary of peace between the Allies and the Central Powers.

In one sense, the former Giacomo della Chiesa repeated, in the papal encyclical Pacem, Dei Munus Pulcherrimum—promulgated on this date 90 years ago--the same warnings about the threat to peace that he made since his election to the papacy in September 1914.

But, as can be seen in the quote above, Benedict was as prescient about the war’s aftermath as he had been about the scale of the carnage in the recently concluded conflict. Adolf Hitler had not yet emerged as a political force in Weimar Germany, but already the pontiff sensed the potential for a political and spiritual bacillus (“the germs of former enmities”) spread by the vengeful Treaty of Versailles.

The outbreak of war had broken the heart of his immediate predecessor, Pius X. Benedict took up the burden of putative peacemaker with a stouter heart. He was used to being underestimated, ignored and even ridiculed. One look at the image accompanying this post clues you in as to why.

He’s almost receding into the background of the photo, isn’t he? Indeed, his small, bird-like appearance gave rise to his nickname in archdiocese of Bologna, il piccoletto—i.e., “The little one”--and he would need patience as the two sides in the war ignored his appeals to end what he called the “degrading slaughter.”

Benedict’s call for a Christmas truce in 1914 was met with resounding silence. The following year, the Italian government not only ignored his plea for a negotiated peace, but was so angered by his strict neutrality that, in the Treaty of London that sealed its entry into the war on the side of the Allies, all parties to the pact secretly agreed to turn a deaf ear to his peace moves toward the Central Powers.

Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points has been hailed by admirers as a lost basis for a lasting peace. But in August 1917, before Wilson had formalized his famous diplomatic talking points, Benedict had already anticipated him with a “peace note” that called for freedom of the seas and taking into account the aspirations of nationalities.

The papacy of Benedict also began a period when the Vatican sought to end its isolation since the 19th-century unification movements in Italy and Germany. An accomplished diplomat, he believed in dealing with the world as it was. Critics make a serious mistake in concluding that the concordats between the Vatican and Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany hint at sympathy between the popes and Europe’s rising Fascist powers. That error can be best understood when it’s remembered that the Vatican had, in the 1930s, also attempted a treaty with the Soviet Union.

Despite the Vatican’s request to participate in the Versailles peace talks, the Allies refused to extend an invitation to Benedict to attend. Perhaps it was just as well: it’s doubtful whether the pontiff who had decried “the suicide of Europe” could have stomached it as the powers that be settled on another death pact.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

This Day in Literary History (Zelda Fitzgerald Suffers First Nervous Breakdown)

April 23, 1930—Hearing voices, Zelda Fitzgerald, muse and artistic competitor of the author of The Great Gatsby, entered Val-Mont Clinic in Switzerland, as she took another step on the road to mental deterioration following a nervous breakdown the month before.

Zelda had considerable talent for writing, but F. Scott Fitzgerald made it clear that he was the literary breadwinner in the family. Looking for a field that Scott couldn’t enter, she took up painting, then pursued more determinedly what had until then been a longtime hobby: ballet.

Exactly a month ago, Zelda had suffered a psychic collapse while she was ramping up her ballet routine. When her taxi became stuck in a Parisian traffic jam, she became so alarmed about being late for her dance lessons that she jumped out of the vehicle and began running through the streets in her ballet clothes.

Scott promptly checked her into as clinic outside Paris, from which she discharged herself on May 11. Two weeks later, she checked into Val-Mont.

At this juncture, it is probably impossible to sort out the causes of Zelda’s mental distress. Just offering a diagnosis is problematic. Most of the psychiatrists who treated her early believed she was schizophrenic, but her last doctor believed she had untreated bipolar disorder. (Years later, it was also disclosed that during her remaining 18 years of off-and-on confinement, one of her attending doctors had had a pattern of inappropriate relations with female patients, and that Zelda might have been one of these victims.)

The notion of untreated bipolar disorder can’t be dismissed out of hand—the 1930s were still, after all, something like the Neolithic era of modern psychiatry. (George Gershwin's psychoanalyst diagnosed the composer's dizziness and intense headaches as symptoms of neurotic depression when they in fact represented the onset of the brain tumor that would kill him at age 38.)

A second question then came to the fore: how much of Zelda’s troubles derived from her own fragile mental state, and how much was due to Scott?

For the first three decades after his death, Scott’s care for his wife did not come under close scrutiny. Changes in beliefs about women’s need for autonomy, as well as the publication of Nancy Milford’s Zelda, opened the way to harsher questions about the novelist's influence on his wife.

Scott’s alcoholism certainly didn’t provide Zelda with the stability she desperately needed. Moreover, she presented him with an annoying dilemma: she was intelligent enough to appreciate his work, but also talented enough to create her own.

A flair for phrase-making, keen eye for detail and sense of irony informed Zelda’s writing. The latter gift was turned, a couple of years into their marriage, on Scott, who had appropriated some of her diary entries into his own work. In a satirical review of his novel The Beauty and Damned, published in the New York Herald-Tribune, she wrote:

"On one page I recognised a portion of an old diary of mine, which mysteriously disappeared shortly after my marriage, and also scraps of letters which, though considerably edited, sound to me vaguely familiar. Mr Fitzgerald...seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home."

In the years before her breakdown, several Zelda short stories had appeared in the magazine College Humor, with her husband sharing a byline, in some cases, to increase her fee.

But when Scott perceived a more direct threat—Zelda’s attempt to craft a full-length novel, submitted to his publisher without his knowledge, based on her experiences but also examining his alcoholism—he protested to his Scribner editor Max Perkins. Save Me the Waltz (1932), written during her convalescence, suffered from lack of publicity from Scribners, which abided by Scott’s wish not to promote the book so as not to encourage her “delusions of grandeur.”

And yet, Scott was hardly the sole contributor to her mental deterioration, nor even necessarily the decisive factor. Mental illness was a virulent strain in her Southern family: her grandmother committed suicide, as did her brother, three years after Zelda’s institutionalization. It should also be noted that Scott tried to secure for her the best psychiatric help in Europe after her collapse.

Moreover, even before the 1930 mental collapse that began her inexorable downward spiral, Zelda had alarmed friends by:

* suddenly bursting into laughter for no reason;

* grabbing the steering wheel of the car as Scott drove, almost plunging them off a cliff;
* taking an overdose of sleeping pills after the end of an affair with a French aviator;
* accusing her husband of sleeping with friend/rival Ernest Hemingway;
* practicing ballet lessons for up to 10 hours a day, to the point where she became wan and thin; and
* developing a crush on her female ballet instructor.

Zelda was released from the Swiss psychiatric clinic in September 1931, but suffered a relapse five months later. By this time, Scott—back in the U.S. , with funds running low—placed her in an institution in Baltimore. After he had applied pressure on her to give up writing, she took up art as therapy. But in 1934, after the publication of Tender Is the Night—in which the schizophrenic rich beauty, Nicole Diver Warren, was modeled on her—she suffered yet another relapse.

We now know that the relationship of Scott and Zelda, far from being simply a tragic love story, was also one of what Scott called “emotional bankruptcy,” marked by emotional manipulation and mutual recriminations. It is a fascinating case, not merely of literary history, but of how attitudes toward women’s ambitions and the psychiatric profession altered the treatment of a beautiful, talented, but profoundly troubled woman partnered with an equally glamorous, tormented--and personally and professionally jealous--husband.

Theater Review: “The Glass Menagerie,” by Tennessee Williams, from the Roundabout Theatre Co.

As the progenitor of the “memory play,” The Glass Menagerie has influenced all kinds of subsequent playwrights, including Brian Friel (Dancing at Lughnasa) and Neil Simon (the Eugene Jerome trilogy). That, coupled with the fierce lyricism and lack of Gothic overtones that increasingly characterized the later works of Tennessee Williams, might make audiences rather blasé about a drama they think they know all too well.

In an acclaimed production at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theater last fall, director Gordon Edelstein did much to dissipate the gauzy half-light in which this classic has been traditionally viewed.

Now, he has taken that production to New York’s Roundabout Theatre Co., using the intimate space of the Laura Pels Theater to expand our frame of reference for the show. I had seen several versions of this landmark 1945 drama—two movie versions, a regional production, and Katharine Hepburn’s 1973 TV adaptation—but this was the first to make me see the action in an entirely new light.

By a simple expedient—setting Tom Wingfield’s narration in a hotel room, while the main action occurs, as usual, in the cramped tenement he once shared with his overbearing mother and painfully shy sister—Edelstein heightens the autobiographical overtones of the play. Once Tom staggers in drunkenly, we are inevitably reminded of the playwright’s own death in a hotel room.

This emphasis on the play’s autobiographical elements makes more plausible a strongly implied aspect of this production: Tom’s homosexuality. A prior attempt at this interpretation—John Malkovich’s take in the 1987 Paul Newman film—fell apart because it was overly recessive and effeminate.

In contrast, Patch Darragh endows Tom with a palpable desperation that owes its urgency as much to secrets he can share with nobody close to him as much as to the crushing of his creative spirit in a soulless factory job. When Tom twirls around the family’s apartment with a scarf he was given by a male friend—and when he tells his mother Amanda that “There are so many things in my heart that I can’t describe to you”—the actions become charged with implications, without in any way altering a word in the text. Like Edgar Allan Poe’s “purloined letter,” Williams left the truth of his life out there for all to see—though few knew had to read the signs at the time he wrote the play.

Is this interpretation too confining in so strongly suggesting Williams’ life, dissolving any identification audiences might have with Tom (whose first name and initials, incidentally, match the playwright’s)?

Not at all. A character with the amorphous discontent of youth has now morphed into someone infinitely more complicated. Amanda may drive her son mad at points, but she’s not wrong to fear that Tom’s restlessness will make him, like his father, an unreliable drunk.

Far from a gauzy exercise in tender family nostalgia, it’s more readily apparent, The Glass Menagerie is something far tougher, as tortured and haunted as anything in the entire Williams canon. The poetry remains, but the family secrets, the illusions that help the characters cope with a dismal reality, and the guilt move this far closer toward Eugene O’Neill territory.

Above all, there is the enormous gap between their love for each other and what they cannot express.

In her key scene with the friend from the factory that Tom has invited to their apartment, Keira Keeley invests sister Laura Wingfield not just with the traditional emotional fragility but with a sense of tragic missed possibilities. She awaits Jim O’Connor’s kiss like a flower opening to sunlight—a strong image for a sexuality that, like Tom’s, she has been unable to experience in a way she had hoped and needed. In this same scene, Michael Mosley makes the most of his “Gentleman Caller” role, a young man whose natural friendliness leads him to make a mistake that will inadvertently harden the roles that each Wingfield desperately wants to escape.

But it is Judith Ivey who especially triumphs here, capturing Amanda as something more than a faded Southern belle or a harridan of a mother. The character emerges here in all of her intended and unintended humor (just one of her “rise and shine!” caterwaulings is enough to convey why Tom feels as crazed at home as at work). Yet this gifted actress also shows how Amanda’s constant hectoring springs as much from a powerful, desperate love for children that, she fears, she won’t be able to protect from the world or their weaknesses, as from her own failings.

The Glass Menagerie has been extended through June 13. It could—and really deserves to—run much longer. The Roundabout has staged its share of misconceived reworkings of classics over the last decade (e.g., Noel Coward’s Design for Living, with Alan Cumming), but this is not one of them. It’s revelatory in showing the myriad ways in which the infinitely gifted, troubled Williams could rend the heart.

Quote of the Day (H. Allen Smith, on When Things Do—and Don’t—Happen)

"Fetridge's Law, in simple language, states that important things that are supposed to happen do not happen, especially when people are looking or, conversely, things that are supposed to not happen do happen, especially when people are looking."—Humorist H. Allen Smith (1907-1976), A Short History of Fingers and Other State Papers (1963)

Friday, May 21, 2010

Quote of the Day (Joseph Epstein, on Typos)

“Why do people take such pleasure in discovering typographical errors—typos, in the trade term—especially in putatively august publications? I confess I do. Is there a touch of Schadenfreude in it? Not so much ‘see how the mighty have fallen’ as ‘see how sloppy, sadly incompetent, bereft of standards they have become.’ Catching a typo heightens the reading experience, making a reader feel he is perhaps just a touch superior to the author, his or her editors, and, it does not go too far to say, the culture of our day.”—Joseph Epstein, “Why Cry Over Split Milk?”, The Weekly Standard, May 10, 2010

Like Joseph Epstein in his characteristically droll and erudite personal essay, I have spotted typos aplenty myself and made more than my share of them.

It’s easy to detect a mistake made by others, particularly when you come to a piece for the first time. Repeated viewings make it harder to catch these—the mind’s instinct is to glaze over what you’ve already seen once.

I can't be the first to argue that computers might have made matters worse. Sure, your word-processing program might have a spell-check function. But as often as not, it will flag what’s fine in the text (the “dame” in “Notre Dame” triggers a response about outdated sexist usage) but not a thornier problem: a word spelled correctly, but not in the context in which it appears your text—“their” instead of “there,” for example.

The situation, for myself and others in the digital age, is even worse for bloggers, where the imperative is to post with speed rather than accuracy.

As the great disintermediating force in modern life, the Internet allows a blogger to become his or her own editor. This can be a decidedly mixed blessing.

On the one hand, there isn’t a gatekeeper who, for whatever reason, interferes with how you write. On the other hand, all too often, even the best of us needs to be saved from our worst mistakes—particularly when writing late at night, when the eyes grow so bleary that you can’t believe what you created when you re-read it the next day. (E.g., in choosing a label for a post, you select, say, “Smokey Robinson” instead of “Smokey Joe Wood.”)

And that brings in the army of regular readers from the Web, all ready to save you from your reign of error: what the late William Safire, in the pre-digital age, called “the Squad Squad.” After I’ve posted to Google, at least one of these sharp-eyed readers (and he knows who he is!) will alert me to a mistake. Sometimes, I’ll even catch it myself, after I’ve been away from the piece for a few hours and have a chance to re-read it with a fresh eye. Then I’ll correct it before posting it to Facebook, where the majority of my faithful readers--God bless 'em, every one!--reside.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Quote of the Day (P.J. O’Rourke, on our New Technological Lives)

“To say that our gadgets and appliances come ‘with all the bells and whistles’ is to indulge in anachronism. I haven't heard a bell or a whistle for ages. We wake up to the beep of alarm clocks and go to sleep to the sound of bad language beeped out on network TV. Then we're up in the middle of the night--the way I am right now--because of a loud, infrequently recurring beep, coming from who-knows-where in the house, indicating that a ladder needs to be dragged in from the garage to replace a battery in a ceiling-mounted smoke detector. Beep.”—P.J. O’Rourke, “But Enough About You: Beep, Beep, *&%ing BEEP!,ForbesLife, May 24, 2010

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Song Lyric of the Day (Pete Townshend, on Old Age)

“I hope I die before I get old.”—“My Generation,” performed by The Who, written by Pete Townshend, from the My Generation LP (1965)

Too late, Pete Townshend. You turn 65 today. You’re now part of what you shuddered at years ago as a rebellious youth.

Well, think of it this way: Despite some infirmities, you’re still very much what might be thought of as an active adult. And old age is better than the alternative.
Oh, yeah, I almost forgot--happy birthday!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

This Day in Theater History (Barrymore Stage Career Comes to Sodden End)

May 18, 1940—The stage career of John Barrymore, who had electrified audiences only two decades before with performances as Richard III and Hamlet, ended in self-parodying, drunken ignominy, in the last performance of the farce My Dear Children.

Alcoholism took away so much from the great actor: his emotional stability, his memory, his looks. At the end, he was left with nothing but his magnificent voice—seemingly ideal for radio, except that even here, his hands shook so badly that sound technicians complained that rustling script pages interfered with his delivery, so he had to read from chalk boards.

In the 1920s and 1930s, while decamped in Hollywood, which paid him far more handsomely than Broadway, Barrymore pretended he could return to the stage anytime he wanted. But he knew his failing memory would never allow him to achieve the heights he’d once reached. When he did finally go back to Broadway, it was only because bad debts—the result of alimony payments and wild overspending—forced him to do so.

His deterioration was now apparent for all to see.

Set in the Swiss Alps, about an aging actor and his three grown daughters, My Dear Children might not have been the kind of material that made him a matinee idol three decades before. Nor did it measure up to the best silent films (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) and talkies (Grand Hotel, Twentieth Century) that audiences had loved more recently.

But no matter the limitations of the material, playwrights Catherine Turney and Jerry Horwin—not to mention director Otto Preminger—would surely have preferred that Barrymore stick to his lines as written. Instead, he transformed a play with some pathos and rue into a frenetic farce.

When he drew a blank, as all too frequently happened, he simply ad-libbed, cracking jokes (on opening night out of town, in Princeton, to a stage manager frantically prompting him: “Just a little louder, darling, I couldn’t hear you”).

He was also prone to going off on long, wild tangents that gave fellow cast members fits as they waited in vain for cues. Ingenue and future film star Dorothy McGuire quit the tour after Omaha, noting that, despite her admiration for Barrymore’s gifts, she couldn’t watch him continually making a fool of himself.

Another cast member who tired of his act was his fourth and latest wife, Elaine Barrie. At 24, less than half his age, the young woman had met the actor several years before when he was in the hospital, drying out from his latest binge. She had assumed her surname even before she met him because, she thought, it sounded so much like him.

Mrs. Barrymore must have rued the day she got a part in the show, because her antics with her husband provided plenty of fodder for those who speculated how close the actors’ onstage performance reflected their offstage animosity. Addressing her as “you damned selfish brat” was the least of it. So vigorous was a spanking he delivered to his stage “daughter” that, for the next couple of years, spankings by actors with a little too much realism were termed “Barrymore-like.”

Ms. Barrie eventually quit the show. By the end of the year, unsurprisingly, the marriage, too, was over.

Critics were, predictably, unamused by all of this. (George Jean Nathan: “I always said that I'd like Barrymore's acting `till the cows come home'. Well, ladies and gentlemen, last night the cows came home.") Audiences, however, turned out in droves, not just out of town but on the Great White Way. The play could have gone on forever because of its built-in appeal—you wouldn’t be seeing the same show from one night to the next—except that its star got tired of it by the end of its run at the Belasco Theatre.

Perhaps “The Great Profile” knew that time was running out for him. In 1942, he collapsed on a radio show hosted by singer Rudy Vallee. A few days later, he died.

Unlike nowadays, where there’s a good chance that a good play will be taped, much of Barrymore’s best work onstage is unavailable. It has now entered the realm of legend, much like his offstage antics.
One of Barrymore's great movies, ironically, predicted his own sad end. Playwrights Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman, in their play based on the Barrymore clan, The Royal Family, depicted the actor as a farcical, heavy-drinking womanizer. Several years later, however, their Dinner at Eight--adapted into a 1933 George Cukor film--cut deeper.
This time, Barrymore himself played the role onscreen of washed-up matinee idol Larry Renault. At the end of the play, after his much-put-upon agent advises him that he's ruined his last chance, the camera pulls in on Renault/Barrymore. The Great Profile is now a study in emptiness and devastation, with no way out.
It was the same sad ending experienced by Barrymore's own father, Maurice, and foreshadowing the struggles with substance abuse experienced by daughter Diana, son John Jr., and granddaughter Drew.

Quote of the Day (Susan Sontag, on Truth)

“The truth is always something that is told, not something that is known. If there were no speaking or writing, there would be no truth about anything.”—Susan Sontag, The Benefactor (1963)

Monday, May 17, 2010

Quote of the Day (Woody Allen, on an Unintended Consequence of Surgery)

“I spent a thousand dollars to have my nose fixed, and now my brain won't work"—Woody Allen, quoted in Phil Berger, The Last Laugh: The World of Stand-Up Comics, Updated Edition (2000)

Sunday, May 16, 2010

This Day in Cold War History (Paris Summit Collapses Over U-2 Flap)

May 16, 1960—On the first day of an international summit in Paris meant to lower Cold War tensions, Nikita Khrushchev, First Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, brought up a spy plane shot down over his country to launch into a tirade against President Dwight Eisenhower, then stalked out of the much-anticipated confab, dealing a grievous blow to the American President’s hopes for a nuclear test-ban treaty.

The disastrous aftermath of the shoot-down of Francis Gary Powers’ U-2 plane did more than throw a monkey wrench into Ike’s plans to de-escalate the arms race. It also began what historian Michael Beschloss called “The Crisis Years,” the three-year period of near-constant military and diplomatic thrust and parry that climaxed with the Cuban Missile crisis. It also brought to an end any hope that the U.S.S.R. would be reformed from within until the accession of Mikhail Gorbachev a quarter-century later.

The origins of the U-2 incident lay in the growing Soviet technological capabilities of the early 1950s. By 1954, they had demonstrated a thermonuclear bomb, and the following year they had rejected Eisenhower’s “Open Skies” proposal that the U.S. and U.S.S.R. conduct surveillance overflights of each country’s territory to eliminate the possibility of surprise attacks.

Eisenhower needed assurance that the Soviets weren’t leapfrogging the U.S. in missile science. Moreover, despite his credibility as the leader of the military alliance that took down the Axis powers, he needed a check on his own generals when they pressed for costly weapons systems if he hoped to keep the overall American budget in check.

Traditional reliance on spies, he felt, was inadequate toward meeting this threat. He had become enamored of a high-tech means that, the CIA convinced him, would be undetected by the Soviets: a long-range, high-flying reconnaissance plane beyond the reach of detectors. In addition, its state-of-the-art photographic equipment could take high-resolution pictures.

U-2 flights began in 1956. The CIA began to crow immediately that the flights were successful, but that depended on how “success” was defined. True, the planes were taking great pictures from above, but contrary to one of the agency’s central assertions beforehand, the flights were detected from the start by Soviet air-warning systems. Moreover, even boosters didn’t believe that its useful life could extend much beyond eighteen months to two years.

Khrushchev’s trip to America in 1959 had sparked new hopes for peace. But now, he had an additional concern: fending off Democratic charges that a dangerous “missile gap” loomed between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.

Eisenhower authorized one more U-2 flight, to be flown no later than May 1 because he didn’t want anything to provoke the Soviets on the eve of the summit. He could not imagine that the young pilot Francis Gary Powers would show up on Soviet air-defense systems; that Khrushchev would feel obliged to issue an order to bring the American plane down at all costs; that the plane would be shredded but that Powers would, amazingly, survive; or that Powers would choose not to use the suicide pill he had been given beforehand.

When Powers disappeared, the CIA reassured the White House that a) the plane would be destroyed if intercepted and b) pilots on such missions had been instructed to kill themselves anyway. So the White House put out a cover story that a weather plane had gone astray over Soviet airspace.

Eisenhower had handed a propaganda coup to Khrushchev, who promptly produced the wreckage of the plane and Powers himself. With egg on his face, Eisenhower had to admit that it was, in fact, a spy plane, though he justified it on national-security grounds.

Nevertheless, the summit planned for Paris—meant to take up the status of Berlin and nuclear-arms control—was set to proceed two weeks later. The Soviet leader had even indicated to his host, French President Charles de Gaulle, that it should continue.

Yet, as soon as the summit began, Khrushchev demanded the floor and began a denunciation of the U.S. that grew more vehement as it went along, at least partly because Ike would not go along with his demand for an apology.

Eisenhower fumed over Khrushchev’s grandstanding while British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was frantic over the end of his best-laid plans to bring East and West together. It was left to de Gaulle to remind the Soviet leader of just how bizarre his behavior looked to the outside world.

After noting that Khrushchev had given his assent to the conference even after the revelation of the plane, even though “You knew everything then that you know now,” he turned on his vitriolic guest in a memorable exchange:

“Yesterday,” deGaulle observed, “that satellite you launched just before you left Moscow to impress us overflew the sky of France eighteen times without my permission. How do I know that you do not have cameras aboard which are taking pictures of my country?”

“As God sees me,” Khrushchev replied (rather ironically, given that he led an avowedly atheist state), “my hands are clean.”

“Well, then, how did you take those pictures of the far side of the moon which you showed us with such justifiable pride?”

“In that one I had cameras.”

“Ah, in that one you had cameras,” de Gaulle concluded with crushing irony.

Khrushchev did not possess Joseph Stalin's murderous paranoia, but his behavior at the aborted Paris summit brought to a head tendencies that might have made him harder for Western leaders to deal with. His wild mood swings would be characterized, in a secret CIA document of the time, as evidence of “hypomania”; nowadays, “manic depression” or “bipolar disorder” might be the operative terms.

Back at the Kremlin and in Soviet diplomatic outposts, people shook their heads over the mercurial leader’s antics. KGB chief Alexander Shelepin was philosophical: “All I know is that there have always been spies and always will be. So there must have been a way for him to find another time and place to tell off Eisenhower.”

Instead of coming away with an agreement that might have assured some progress, Khrushchev had done the following:

* broken with the one American leader with the best credibility of selling a disarmament treaty to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Congress and the American people;

* solidified Allied support for the U.S;

* discouraged East German intellectuals who badly wanted a thaw in relations with the U.S.; and

* encouraged East Germany’s Communist leader, Walter Ulbricht, to continue to foment a crisis over Berlin.

Even Khrushchev’s wife—who knew his mood swings as well as anyone—was dismayed at the disastrous consequences of his actions. “Why didn’t you correct him?” she upbraided an aide, according to William Taubman's biography, Khrushchev: The Man and His Era. “If you don’t point out his blunders, who in the world will?”

Quote of the Day (Jeremy Clarke, on Matteo Ricci, Renaissance Man and Cross-Cultural Exemplar)

“For all [Matteo] Ricci’s academic and personal talent, his pre-eminent, enduring gift was a capacity to delight in the company of others. He was able to accomplish so much—translate geometrical principles into Chinese, engage pastorally in theological debates with some of the brightest Buddhists of his day, and joyfully welcome thousands of inquisitive scholars to his home—because of the mutual support and companionship of his friends. A few of these were his Jesuit brothers…But the vast majority of his friends were Chinese: the scholars, officials and local people he talked with on his travels and in the marketplace. To recall Ricci’s exploits, it is necessary to remember his company of friends.”--Jeremy Clarke on Italian-born Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), in “East Meets West: Matteo Ricci’s Cross-Cultural Mission to China,” America (May 10, 2010) (available only to subscribers)

Last Tuesday marked the 400th anniversary of the death of the Italian-born Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci—who, in addition to his clerical duties, was a mathematician, cartographer, translator, educator, musician, and philosopher—a bona-fide Renaissance man and Christian humanist. Clarke, an Australian Jesuit, pays full tribute to his many-sided genius, as well as how he pioneered “sophisticated and sympathetic East-West engagement”, in a piece in the Catholic weekly magazine America.

The novel and miniseries Shogun has done much to implant in the Western mind an impression of Jesuits in the Far East as astonishingly cunning in protecting their prerogatives. It can just as easily argued, though, that James Clavell’s views merely reflect longstanding English Protestant jealousy that they could not achieve the same foothold in the Orient as the Society of Jesus.

The Jesuit achievement in China, for instance, was secured not through cunning so much as a keen appreciation for native culture—something that today’s critics of imperialism should appreciate. The philosophy employed by the Jesuits at that time—“Indian in India, Japanese in Japan and Chinese in China”—is especially important to recall now, when forces in the Vatican rally attempt a rear-guard action to preserve the centralized authority of Rome.

Ricci—believed to be the first Westerner to visit China since fellow Italian Marco Polo three centuries earlier--and his Jesuit colleagues were able to win converts because they decided to blend into native culture. They not only spoke and wrote Chinese but ate Chinese food and even wore Chinese clothing.

Among Ricci’s accomplishments:

* constructing a large-scale world map;

* composing prayer books, apologetic works and catechisms;

* writing on topics as varied as the astrolabe, sphere, arithmetic, measure, isoperimetrics –and friendship;

* translating Euclidean geometry into Chinese—all the harder to do because there were no Chinese words for concepts like parallel lines and acute angles;

* writing a treatise on one of his great specialties—mnemonics, the study of memory. He taught the Chinese how to construct a mental “memory palace” that could help them conjure up, with the help of an image of a building, a series of facts. In urging them to assign storage spaces where these facts can “stay in the assigned positions,” he anticipated a central concept of 20th-century computing science.

Besides friendship and scholarship, Ricci exhibited another important trait in his mission: persistence in the face of discouragement and travail. Fr. Clarke takes note of all “The Wise Man From the West” endured during his ministry: “shipwreck, home invasion, violence, persecution and the daily travails of being a stranger in a strange land (especially in the early years).”

But a central part of his challenge was his initial strategy for converting China to Christianity: convert the Ming Emperor Wanli. Unfortunately, after landing in Macau, it took Ricci another 19 years to make it to the Forbidden City. Even in the nine years he had left to him, he never managed to meet the emperor. (Even gifts he sent-- including jewels and a clavichord—didn’t do the trick.)

Without abandoning this hope, Ricci eventually resorted, by necessity, to a less top-down strategy. He worked—and succeeded—in gaining the trust of many of the “influentials” of the empire—the scholar-officials who filled much of the bureaucracy. By the time of his death, an estimated 2,500 professed the Christian faith in China—the beginning of a church that, in the years since, has withstood all kinds of perils.