Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Quote of the Day (James Thurber, on Aging’s Impact on Writing)

"With sixty staring me in the face, I have developed inflammation of the sentence structure and a definite hardening of the paragraphs."—Humorist James Thurber (1894-1961), New York Post, June 30, 1955

Funny…Just past the half-century mark, I've already experienced what afflicted Thurber at a more advanced age—though my high school English teachers, I believe, must have noticed this syndrome in me more than three decades ago!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Quote of the Day (Nancy Franklin, on Eliot Spitzer, Love-Gov-Turned-Talking-Head)

“I was practically blown out through the back of my couch, I was so repelled by the sight of him. I found him unpleasant to listen to and to look at….I don’t think anybody really wants to watch him. They’ll tune in one or two times to see him. But he’s very loud. He’s very arrogant. He’s very smart. But he’s not really right for television.”—New Yorker television critic Nancy Franklin, on disgraced former NY Governor Eliot Spitzer’s appearance filling in for Dylan Ratigan on MSNBC, quoted in Felix Gillette and Reid Fillifant, “It’s Spitz-o-phrenia!”, The New York Observer, June 28-July 5, 2010

Now comes the news that CNN has hired the former “Steamroller” to appear with the Washington Post’s Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Kathleen Parker in a primetime slot.

If CNN chief Jonathan Klein were wise, he’d want to advertise the show as a kind of 21st-century counterpart to James J. Kirkpatrick and Shana Alexander in the old “Point Counterpoint” segments of 60 Minutes back in the ‘70s (lovingly recalled by Saturday Night Live devotees for inspiring parodies that invariably climaxed with Dan Aykroyd pausing a beat before unleashing on his on-air partner, “Jane, you ignorant slut…”). He should do anything but remind viewers of its more recent and familiar antecedent: Crossfire, the faceoff between bow-tied conservative Tucker Carlson and whichever liberal Klein could throw against him in an ideological mudfest.

Not a few viewers (I count myself among them) will share Ms. Franklin’s revulsion toward Mr. Spitzer (and roll our eyes the first time the ex-governor flashes the warmest smile he can manage at Ms. Parker--who, with her conservative outlook and blond haircoloring, seems ready for her Fox News closeup). “Client #9” is likely to reverberate in the back of our consciousness, too.

But, much as I might dislike it, Spitzer’s “very loud” and “very arrogant” mien is not likely to work against him on cable TV. Any medium that can absorb Bill O’Reilly, Keith Olbermann, Glenn Beck, and Rachel Maddow is not likely to blink at another bulging-eyed, ideological flame-thrower.

Welcome to your new arena, Mr. Spitzer. Just watch those lions on the way in.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Quote of the Day (James Zazzali, on Growing Up Catholic in the ‘40s)

“Those Sisters of Charity, appropriately named, dedicated their lives to us. They lived in a decrepit convent and taught in a decaying school with as many as 98 in the first grade classroom. They labored to give us the basics, pounding the ‘three Rs’ into us for eight years. With that same dedication, they taught the fourth ‘R’ — Religion. They did not whisper superstitions or the patent leather shoe ‘nunsense’ that popular culture suggests. Rather, they taught us to respect a moral code premised on Judeo-Christian values. Those Old and New Testament lessons and stories kept most of us out of trouble for a lifetime.”—James J. Zazzali, “Remembering Bygone Days at Sacred Heart,” The Newark Star-Ledger, June 25, 2010

This guest column for the Star-Ledger by James Zazzali, a former chief justice of the New Jersey State Supreme Court, struck a chord, I’m sure, with many Catholics of a certain age about the pre-Vatican II Church—one that, the author makes plain, scared the crap out of congregants even as priests and nuns gave of themselves unstintingly to keep their students on the straight and narrow.

Also striking a chord, I think, will be this post by blogger L. Craig Schoonmaker, detailing how Zazzali’s church, Sacred Heart, of the Vailsburg neighborhood of Newark, came to be closed. The story—of how church officials decided on the whole thing several years ago, then sprang it as a fait acompli before appalled parishioners had a chance to come up with alternatives—is all too familiar by now to thousands of Catholics across the country who’ve seen their churches and schools summarily closed.

No matter what their faults (at times, considerable), the hierarchy of earlier days at least had the foresight to look out for its heavily immigrant flock (including those like my grandparents on my mother’s side). In a time when the sexual-abuse scandals are testing parishioners’ faith as never before, Church leaders would be well advised not to close a church with the same cold-bloodedness as, say, Blockbuster Video shuts down a particular location.

Otherwise, they’ll find enough less good will than they have right now the next time another crisis like the sexual-abuse scandal arrives.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Quote of the Day (Somerset Maugham, on Truth vs. Fiction)

“Truth is not only stranger than fiction, it is more telling. To know that a thing actually happened gives it a poignancy, touches a chord, which a piece of acknowledged fiction misses. It is to touch this chord that some authors have done everything they could to give you the impression that they are telling the plain truth.”—W. Somerset Maugham, A Writer’s Notebook (1949)

Friday, June 25, 2010

Quote of the Day (Carly Simon, on How She Got Swindled)

“I felt that I was second best, and I wasn't getting the kind of attention that a pasha like myself would want. [Ex-husband] James [Taylor] just always was much more of a worker bee than I, and therefore it reflected in the kind of attention from a business manager that one would expect."—Carly Simon, on why she made the disastrous decision to change her then-money manager for the budding criminal Kenneth I. Starr, quoted in Max Abelson, “He’s So Vain: Carly Simon and the Wannabe Madoff,” The New York Observer, June 14, 2010

“Haven’t Got Time for the Pain” might have been one of her singles when she and JT were the Taylor and Burton of rock ‘n’ roll in the 1970s, but these days I suspect it’s another story. As she celebrates her 65th birthday today, Carly Simon is undoubtedly singing the blues not only over her drawn-out lawsuit against Starbucks, but also, even more so, over being defrauded of $15 million by Starr.

(Contrary to popular perception, Ms. Simon might have grown up privileged, as the daughter of a co-founder of publishing firm Simon & Schuster, but not that privileged. Her father sold the firm seven years before his death in 1960, before the company really earned major money in the Sixties and Seventies. So she is at pains to let interviewers know that she is not really an heiress.)

Over a decade ago, watching the Warren Leight memory play Side Man, about the often ill-starred lives of jazzmen, it struck me what financial naifs so many musicians are. They live for their art and pay little attention to survival—until it’s too late.

A year or two ago, Ms. Simon was looking forward to retiring, cushioned by wise investments from her album sales over the years. It looks like that dream is now on hold. Ms. Simon learned a hard lesson: Never trust anyone who promises a 28% rate of return on investment. If she wants to emerge from financial dire straits, she probably has some combination of these three choices:

* Perform in front of live audiences (an admitted stretch, given her intermittent stage fright over the years);
* Record as many CDs as she can; or
* Write her memoirs (the title is self-evident, isn’t it? No Secrets).

In any case, much to her consternation—but to the delight of her many fans—it looks as if she’ll be singing for her supper for awhile.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

This Day in Film History (Hawks, Faulkner Take on “Pharaohs”)

June 24, 1955—It’s not every day that a film written by a Pulitzer- and Nobel Prize winner gets made. It’s even rarer when the literary lion in question takes up the project after, not before, winning these laurels.

But that’s with happened with William Faulkner, whose collaboration with director Howard Hawks, Land of the Pharaohs, opened in general release on this date in the United States. Faulkner wasn’t sole scribe on the project, mind you—Harry Kurnitz and Harold Jack Bloom were listed as co-screenwriters—but still, Warner Brothers was delighted that the world-famous novelist (in the image accompanying this post) lent his prestige to this movie starring Jack Hawkins, Sydney Chaplin and a young starlet named Joan Collins.

Faulkner’s time in Hollywood in the Thirties and Forties produced five credited screenplays (including the classics To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep), and 15 uncredited ones (including Mildred Pierce). After the Malcolm Cowley-edited The Portable Faulkner revived interest in his fiction, he had little financial incentive to continue writing screenplays—especially if it was one of those epics of ancient times that Hollywood turned out in such regularity in those years, such as Land of the Pharaohs.

But that didn’t mean Faulkner still didn’t feel compelled to write for Tinseltown, at least in this case. The bond of friendship and loyalty to Hawks ran deep.

As late as 1945, when Faulkner’s work was out of print and the financial wolves were not too far from his door, Hawks had enabled him to keep going with well-timed film work. They had the same interests (notably, flying) and could sit together quietly for hours together, hardly saying a word but somehow understanding each other.

So, as Jay Parini tells the story in One Matchless Time: A Life of William Faulkner (2004): In mid-September 1953, after a binge of whiskey and Seconal landed him in the hospital, Faulkner was back home at his beloved Oxford, Miss., home Rowan Oak when Hawks called him from Paris with the offer of a film project: Land of the Pharaohs. The director was so anxious for Faulkner’s services that he agreed to go along with the novelist’s request not to fly to France until his latest novel, A Fable, was completed. (Faulkner family lore even holds that Hawks phoned Rowan Oak eight times before the Nobel laureate acceded to his wish.)

A good thing, too, because within a month Faulkner had collapsed again from another binge.

Part of this might have related to Faulkner’s near-constant thirst for alcohol, but, in a letter to his beloved mother, he also expressed frankly his reluctance to fly to Europe for the project: “I dread going very much, hoped until the last something would happen and I would not have to. But it may not be as bad as I think.”

It was.

Faulkner’s date of arrival in France was December 1, 1953. Hawks waited and waited with Kurnitz, but their collaborator was nowhere to be found.

It turned out that Faulkner, rather than flying to Paris, went to Geneva, then took a train to the City of Lights, where, after an obligatory stop at a bar, he ended up rather the worse for wear, with a four-inch slash across his forehead. Somehow, the confused writer made clear to the cops attending to him that he needed to meet Hawks, and they obligingly dropped him off at the director’s hotel.

Hawks decided that if they were going to get any work done, they needed to get away from Paris, where all sorts of opportunities for trouble lay in wait for Faulkner, so he spirited him and Kurnitz to Stresa, Italy, then to Switzerland.

What came from all of this? Well, it was one of the few failures in Hawks’ long and storied career (not surprising—Faulkner admitted afterward that, since neither he nor Hawks knew any pharaohs personally, he made them talk like Southern generals). Hawks didn’t get back to directing again for another four years. When he did, he was so thrilled with the product—the John Wayne western Rio Bravo—that he eventually repeated the plot twice more (El Dorado and Rio Lobo).

At least the premiere in Memphis, Tenn., afforded Faulkner a nice cocktail party, plus the chance for a swell family reunion. And the making of the film gave the film colony—and Faulkner scholars—lots more legends to dine out on.

I chuckled reading the reviews of the DVD. Quite a few males of a certain age had very pleasant memories of the young Ms. Collins, dressed in the movie with as little as the film censors would allow in those days.

For much of her early career, the actress was thought of as a kind of poor man’s answer to Elizabeth Taylor. Hawks and Faulkner, however, surely must have sensed something different in her. How else to explain, for instance, the classic line they gave her as the seductive Princess Nellifer—“ Even a queen may be lonely”—except as a kind of Vamp-in-Training for her later career-capping turn as Alexis on Dynasty?

Quote of the Day (Amanda McKittrick Ros, with Some of the Worst Dialogue of All Time)

“Speak! Irene! Wife! Woman! Do not sit in silence and allow the blood that now boils in my veins to ooze through cavities of unrestrained passion and trickle down to drench me with its crimson hue!”—Amanda McKittrick Ros, Irene Iddlesigh, quoted in Miles Corwin, “The Last Page: Words to Remember,” Smithsonian, June 2009.

Mark Twain called this book “one of the greatest unintentionally humorous novels of all time,” while Nick Page called Amanda McKittrick Ros (1860-1939; yes, there's only one "s" in that last name) “the greatest bad writer who ever lived.”

“Cavities of unrestrained passion” summons up a potential new literary genre: romance novels about dentists, e.g., The Passions of the Wisdom Tooth. Hey, why didn’t Irving Stone think of that title?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Quote of the Day (John Barrymore, on Romeo & Juliet)

“They certainly did in the Chicago company."—Actor John Barrymore (1882-1942), noted authority on Shakespeare and women (not necessarily in that order), when asked if Romeo and Juliet had a physical relationship, quoted in Peter Hay, Broadway Anecdotes (1990)

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

This Day in WWII History (Hitler’s Armistice Exacts Vengeance on France)

June 22, 1940—Following a blitzkrieg whose speed shocked a nation with still-fresh memories of trench warfare from a generation before, the demoralized French political and military leadership were forced by a vengeful Adolf Hitler to sign an armistice with the Third Reich—in the exact same railway car where Germany capitulated to Marshal Ferdinand Foch in November 1918.

In a preamble to the agreement, Hitler claimed he had not chosen the mode of surrender for vengeance. Few if any people believed him—not a German nation delighted at reversing the results of World War I; not a French government that, in the last seven years, had yielded to one of his demands after another, in no small measure due to guilt over the draconian Treaty of Versailles; and not reporters such as William L. Shirer, who observed, through an open window, that Hitler had chosen not only the same railway car but the same table and even the same seat used by Foch.

Shirer rendered the scene vividly both in Berlin Diary (1941) and his later account of the catastrophic fall of France, The Collapse of the Third Republic (1969). As Der Fuehrer arrived at the little clearing in the forest of Compiegne, then stopped to read the commemorative plaque marking the scene of the previous surrender, the reporter saw Hitler’s “face light up, successively, with hate, scorn, [and] revenge.”

Hitler didn’t bother to hide his contempt as he signaled to General William Keitel of the German High Command to read aloud the terms. What Keitel read directly refuted Hitler’s claim that the site had not been chosen for its symbolism: the Germans would “efface once and for all by an act of reparative justice a memory which was not for France a glorious page in her history and which was resented by the German people as the greatest shame of all time.”

At this point, many in France were too weary to think they could effect a reversal of fortune. At least some of those ready to continue the fighting were already choosing a misplaced target. "If we had even two-thirds of Germany's planes, we should have won the war," one French aviator complained to war correspondent Sonia Tamara five days before the surrender. "Why did America not send them in time?" The understandably frustrated airman, however, might have looked to the flawed leadership of his nation and Britain's first--especially at this moment. The key to France now lay in the hands of the octogenarian Marshal Petain, the hero of the Battle of Verdun in World War I, who had decided that the only way to save his country now was to capitulate to Hitler and hope for the best. It was a tragically wrong decision that began four years of a collaborationist regime that permitted the Nazis to wreak havoc on the nation’s sovereignty--and inspire hypocrisy among those of its acquiescent citizens who did not join the Resistance.

One particular incident at the armistice signing ended up being used by the West to make Hitler look not merely arrogant, but even ridiculous. At one point, the dictator raised his leg awkwardly high while stepping backward. Documentarian John Grierson, director of the Canadian information and propaganda departments, discovered that, by looping the odd movement repeatedly, he could make Hitler's odd movement look like an impromptu jig.

As propaganda, this is not quite the black art of the trade as practiced by Joseph Goebbels—but it was one of the few things happening at this point to make Hitler look like anything less than an all-conquering hero. It would take an extremely tall, comparatively unknown 50-year-old soldier, Charles DeGaulle--with the help (at least until he tired of his arrogance) of William Churchill--to maintain the will of the Free French movement. Four years after the French pilot's complaint, Americans would arrive to save France again, as they had done a quarter century before.

Quote of the Day (Raphael Holinshed, on St. John Fisher)

“The hat came as far as Calais, but the head was off before the hat was on.”—Raphael Holinshed, on Bishop of Rochester John Fisher, executed on orders of King Henry VIII before he could receive his cardinal’s hat, quoted in Peter Ackroyd, The Life of Thomas More (1998)

Today marks the feast day of martyrs Thomas More and John Fisher, both canonized in 1935 for refusing to accept King Henry VIII’s title of head of the Church in England. Their sainthood was declared at a moment when new forms of tyranny—Fascism on the right, Communism on the left—convinced Rome of the need for positive models for witnessing to the faith against the demands of an all-powerful state.

Yet, though the Roman Catholic Church links the two on this common feast day, their personalities—and posthumous fame—differ dramatically.

My initial misimpression notwithstanding, the two men were not executed on the same day. Fisher (in the image accompanying this post)—confessor to Henry’s estranged wife, Catherine of Aragon, and an unremitting foe of the monarch’s divorce from her and re-marriage to Anne Boleyn--was the first to be tried and executed, on this date in 1535.

Pope Paul III, unaware, because of slow communication in that time, of Fisher’s great danger by early 1535, thought he could draw Henry and the bishop closer by naming the latter a cardinal. The pontiff certainly did nothing at this point to maintain the Church’s reputation in those years for worldliness.

Henry, by now well launched on his tyrannical, psychopathic later period, was so enraged by the appointment that he fulminated that the bishop would die before he had a chance to wear his red hat. Five days after being brought to trial at Westminster, Fisher was brought to the gallows. More followed two weeks later.

Most of the college-educated, it seems safe to say, know something about More. If Utopia, a staple of college literature courses, didn’t produce that result, then Robert Bolt’s play and screenplay about the humanist-politician, A Man for All Seasons, has assured his lasting fame.

Not only is Fisher’s name recognition today nowhere near as great as his fellow martyr’s, but a general appreciation for his life and supreme sacrifice is distinctly lacking.

To modern eyes, Fisher is a less sympathetic figure than More—a man unencumbered by family, not so gifted with wit, not dreading the loss of his position or even his life. An age that regards clerical insistence on Church prerogatives versus the state is also likely to be suspicious of Fisher’s advocacy of this as concealing criminal activity.

He also, as recent More biographers Richard Marius and Peter Ackroyd make clear, engaged in activities that not merely Henry but nearly any medieval monarch would regard as treasonous—chiefly, contacting Eustace Chapuys, ambassador from the court of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, about a possible invasion of England by this aggrieved nephew of Catherine’s.

But the assumptions of Fisher’s world about loyalty are not ours, and if he did not possess More’s supple intelligence, anguished loyalty to the king, and all-too-human love for the good things of this world, he had something else: a stubbornness that stiffened his backbone when everyone else was losing theirs. Alone among all the bishops in England, he withstood Henry’s five-year campaign of intimidation to bring the Church to heel if he didn’t gain his divorce. And, though he insisted on the Church’s autonomy within England and wrote fiercely against what he perceived as the heresies of Martin Luther, he was also a bitter critic of weakness in the Church both among fellow English bishops and even in Rome itself (where, he charged, leaders of the Church “neither fast nor pray, but give themselves up to luxury and lust.”)

Like More, Fisher endured months of confinement that weakened him and would have destroyed other men, but he did not bend. Allowed a few words before his execution, he prayed that Henry would receive good counsel. His body was so emaciated that onlookers marveled that his corpse (left naked after the execution on the scaffold until sunset) could emit so much blood. His parboiled, severed head was exhibited on a pike by London Bridge as a warning that anyone who followed his example would be treated as a traitor.

Nowadays, posterity has a far different idea of which of the two—the unflinching man of God or the intolerant royal—truly lost his head as a result of the Anne Boleyn affair.

Monday, June 21, 2010

TV Quote of the Day (“Parks and Recreation,” With One Male’s Faith in His Attraction for Women)

“Call me a romantic, but I believe by the end of the night I will have between one and four new girlfriends.”—Tom Haverford (played by Aziz Ansari), on Parks and Recreation (Season 2, Episode 22, “The Master Plan”), written by Greg Daniels and Michael Schur, directed by Dean Holland


“Romantic” is not the first word to come to mind here.

“Stupid”? That’s closer.

“Delusional”? Now we’re talking!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

This Day in Financial History (Dinner—and a Deal—at Jefferson’s Place)

June 20, 1790—The reigning spirit of Washington is not the first American President but the longtime host of TV’s “Let’s Make a Deal,” Monty Hall. The origin of our nation’s capital, its financial structure—even, arguably, the federal system itself—bears witness to this point, as Thomas Jefferson secured a grand bargain between Alexander Hamilton and James Madison during one of the most consequential dinners in American history.

One of my high school history teachers once chuckled over an ingenious but incorrect answer submitted by a nonplussed student on a recent test. “Logrolling,” he read aloud to our class, was “the process of floating a piece of lumber down a river.”

In actuality, the term—or at least how it applied in this context—meant mutual compromises that facilitated legislation. In other words, trading votes—or one hand washing the other.

The deal sealed between Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, our teacher noted, was logrolling par excellence. Most historians would agree with him. Adam Goodheart, for instance, has even called the repast at Jefferson’s apartment on New York’s Maiden Lane one of “10 Days That Changed History.”

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, I remember reading, bemoaned the increasing need of Congressmen to raise money for re-election back in their home states. Members tended to open up more, his thinking went, when they had a chance to down some sherry with each other.

Seemingly proving this point: Sharing Secretary of State Jefferson’s legendary hospitality, his fellow Virginian, Madison, and Hamilton—already emerging, over at the Treasure Department, as the chief member of George Washington’s Cabinet—temporarily put aside differences that were already looming as crucial in order to get something of what they wanted.

Hamilton was assured that Jefferson and Madison would not throw their weight against his plans for the federal government to assume the staggering Revolutionary War debts of the 13 original states—a cause near and dear to the Northern states, who had not yet gotten around to paying these off.

In return, Hamilton gave up his dream of making New York the permanent political as well as financial and media capital of the U.S. by backing Southerners’ wish that it be located on the banks of the Potomac River—a location below the Mason-Dixon Line, between two slave states.

Well, that’s how the story goes, anyway—only the whole thing sounds just a little too cut and dried. It comes principally from Jefferson himself, who, like Winston Churchill, was determined not merely to make history but to influence its interpretation through his own writing.

Before he died at age 83, Jefferson had not only presented his necessarily biased version of the writing of the Declaration of Independence, but also of the denouement of debates over debt assumption and the nation’s capital. Hamilton, of course, was dead 21 years before, courtesy of his duel with Jefferson’s despised Vice President, Aaron Burr, so he never had the chance to tell his version of events.

Had Hamilton lived, we surely would have had a far different tale—though not, be it said, the definitive word on the subject, either. It’s still an open question whether the secret conversations and silent understandings that took place outside Maiden Lane, before and after the dinner, would have been related. But it’s a virtual certainty that the other side—Northern, Federalist—would have been expressed logically and pungently.

First, let’s see why Jefferson’s intervention on these two matters turned out to be not only timely but providential.

George Washington found waiting for him something of the same thing that confronted Barack Obama when he assumed office 18 months ago: a ticking financial time bomb. To finance the American Revolution, each of the states had gone into debt. But, as Joseph J. Ellis explains in His Excellency: George Washington, figuring out just how much debt was involved was nightmarish.
Think of 13 different ways of monitoring floating bond rates, converting currency, and making revenue projections. Even Washington, a business micro-manager if there ever was one, threw up his hands at making sense of it all. Here, he said, handing it off to Hamilton. Why don’t you figure it all out?

Washington’s former aide-de-camp did so. When he was done, he reported that the total debt of the new country—foreign, federal and state—was more than $77 million—a terrifying figure in those days. If the U.S. couldn’t get its house in order, it would, in effect, become a financial ward of the Old World’s financial powerhouses.

Rather than attack the debt problem in components, Hamilton proposed consolidating them, with the federal government taking over responsibility for the whole thing. The federal debt would then be funded at par, with a new National Bank handling everything.

Jefferson and Madison regarded Hamilton’s entire proposal with distaste. They not only feared a central financial colossus, with all kinds of possibilities for the massive corruption that afflicted European capitals, but also were angered because southern states had already paid off their debt. There simply wasn’t any financial justice in Hamilton’s scheme, they felt.
At the same time, Congress was arguing over a provision in the Constitution for a national capital. Hamilton would have liked it for his home state, New York, but others differed. Pennsylvania put in its claim for Philadelphia, and the Southern states—particularly Virginia—clamored for a presence below the Mason-Dixon Line.

One of Ellis’ most amusing sections of his biography of Washington is a discussion of this “residency question.” You can’t help but shake your head at the idea of painfully shy, diminutive Madison earning the frightening nickname “Big Knife” for the way he cut the heart out of other states’ proposals for the capital while the question still circulated in committee. (That was a lot of metaphorical hand-to-hand combat, because 16 different sites had been suggested.)
Hamilton had become known as the go-to guy representing Northern interests in the matter when word got around that he’d arranged to meet Sen. Robert Morris of Pennsylvania, away from the Congressional floor, walking down by the Battery in Lower Manhattan. (Hamilton’s intricately arranged meeting turned out to be less fruitful than he wished: the Pennsylvania and Virginia delegations had already privately agreed that Philadelphia would get the temporary capital while a permanent site would be chosen along the Potomac.)
Jefferson and Madison wanted the capital in the South to reflect the region’s—but especially Virginia’s—prime place in the new union. Locating the permanent capital along the Potomac River would have an even greater implication, however: unlike in, say, Philadephia, where abolitionism was beginning to rise, slaves would find it far harder to slip away from their masters when they were located between two slave states.
Jefferson’s account of how the dinner was set up is seemingly matter of fact, but once you understand the context—i.e., what he left out—it seems self-serving.
When he encountered the “haggard” Hamilton, the Treasury Secretary had complained about “the disgust of those who were called creditor states; the danger of the secession of their “members and the separation of the states.” Jefferson conveniently forgot that slavery was already, even before the invention of the cotton gin, becoming so entrenched in the Southern economy that delegates to the Constitutional Convention had to avoid the subject of slavery altogether, lest it excite the fears of slaveholding states.
It is ironic indeed that Jefferson and Madison, the behind-the-scenes creators of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, would criticize Northerners on the issue of secession. Also, does a Hamilton in "uncouth and neglected" dress sound possible?
Here's what does ring true--Jefferson notes that "as the pill (of assumption) would be a bitter one to the southern states, something should be done to soothe them." That turned out to be an agreement to locate the temporary capital in Philadelphia, with the permanent one being sited on the Potomac.

Debt and real estate: two subjects that politicians still quarrel endlessly about. Do you think it was all that different in 1790?

Quote of the Day (St. Margaret Alacoque, on the Sacred Heart)

“Behold the Heart that has so loved people so and is loved so little in return!”—Attributed to Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647-1690), on the Sacred Heart

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Quote of the Day (Suzanne Vega, on Her Song “Caramel”)

“It’s a mixture of my own experience and feelings, things I know to be true, and fantasy. A worse but more interesting life. If I had given into that temptation, there would have been chaos and pandemonium.”—Suzanne Vega, on her song “Caramel,” quoted in David Honigmann, “Girl-Power,” The Financial Times, June 12, 2010

As a Columbia alum who had occasion to visit the famed Morningside Heights eatery, I’ve felt a curious identification with Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner.” And her “Luka” compels my interest for its emotionally wrenching narrative by a child-abuse victim.

But for the witching rhythms that can transport you far beyond anything you’ve ever known, only one song can do: “Caramel.” It offers simple but spellbinding songcraft about the allure and dangers of desire. (“I know your name/I know your skin/I know the way/These things begin.”)

It’s a minor disappointment of my life that I never got to hear Ms. Vega when we were both students on Morningside Heights—me at Columbia, she across the street at Barnard. It would have been something to catch this artist when she was in the process of finding her voice.

Last weekend, Ms. Vega trace her life's trajectory—including how she came to write “Caramel”-in an interview with The Financial Times. It comes at a particularly fascinating moment in her career: an attempt to take hold of her financial future, now that the whole recording industry has gone kerflooey because of the digital revolution.

Specifically, the singer-songwriter, according to a New Yorker profile a few months ago, is taking a leaf from Dar Williams and Carly Simon by re-recording a number of her old songs (starting this past week, with Love Songs), with new arrangements, then releasing the product independently. It's a way of reviving her back catalogue as the major labels let them go out of print.

How will this turn out? That remains to be seen.

I bought Carly Simon’s attempt at this, Never Been Gone, just as I have most of her albums. The results of these largely new acoustic arrangements were spotty—from great successes to misconceived experiments.

More fundamentally, however, fans—make that, in this more cold-blooded age, “musical consumers”—are likely going to be reluctant to accept the same old wine in different bottles.

Right now in the music industry, I don’t think it helps to discourage artists such as Ms. Vega from doing what they can to survive. True “heritage artists” such as James Taylor and Carole King have such rich songbooks—and such devoted followings across generations—that, no matter how few units they might sell these days, their live performances will still attract capacity crowds. Other artists, not quite as well-established, such as Ms. Vega, don’t have that luxury, and so need all the help they can get—including innovative ways of promoting their backlists.

Friday, June 18, 2010

This Day in Military History (Napoleon Meets His Waterloo)

June 18, 1815—The European monarchies brought to an end two decades of on-and-off warfare with France—and the hopes of Napoleon Bonaparte for re-establishing an empire that straddled much of the continent—as Britain’s Duke of Wellington and Prussia’s Gebhard Leberecht von Blucher defeated the Little Corsican 12 miles south of Brussels, Belgium at the Battle of Waterloo.

Even a genius eventually makes mistakes. It was Napoleon Bonaparte’s misfortune to make at least two on the same day. His subordinates—including brother Jerome Bonaparte and trusted commander Marshal Ney—contributed to the loss, too. But none compared in magnitude with those of the military commander who had once made mincemeat of his opponents by tearing up the old military rulebook.

In the July 2010 issue of Armchair General Magazine (table of contents only in this link; you’ll have to buy the issue for the article), military historian Bevin Alexander analyzes how the ancient Chinese military sage Sun-Tzu might have assessed the decisions of Napoleon and Wellington on this history-changing day.

To be sure, the Duke of Wellington made a questionable decision before the battle when he didn’t link up quickly enough with ally Blucher. By not massing his forces right away, he allowed Napoleon—who had escaped from exile on the island of Elba to return as emperor and reconstitute the Grand Army—the opportunity to defeat their forces in turn. This, in turn, could have dealt a devastating blow to the plan of the Seventh Coalition—the governments of Britain, Prussia, Russia, Sweden, Austria, The Netherlands and a number of German States—to crush Napoleon with overwhelming force.

But, compared with Wellington's, Napoleon’s errors were more numerous, more stubborn, more damaging, and more just plain inexplicable.

First, as Alexander explains, instead of executing a flanking maneuver that might have achieved surprise, Napoleon launched a massive frontal assault, preceded by enormous artillery fire to soften up the British, against an enemy led by a highly competent commander and well entrenched atop a formidable ridge.

(Alexander doesn’t mention the similarity, so I will: Napoleon’s Grand Army faced the kind of odds against dislodging Wellington’s forces that Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia would against George Meade’s Army of the Potomac on Cemetery Ridge.)

Second, worsening his chances of victory, Napoleon waited until mid-day before issuing the order to attack. If he was going to carry the day, he should have acted before Wellington and Blucher could join forces.

Following the lead of most historians, Alexander ascribes that decision to the emperor’s need to wait until the field—slick and mud-spattered from a recent downpour—dried. But I wondered how much that would restrain a normally audacious leader.

It took a fascinating review of the battle from, of all places, the Web site for the International Museum of the Horse (located—but naturally!—in Lexington, Ky.) for me to figure out why the emperor acted with such uncharacteristic slowness.

French cavalry forces actually outnumbered Wellington’s and Blucher’s 16,000 to 13,000. And Napoleon ascribed special importance to them, believing that “without cavalry, battles are without result."

Wellington was not so enamored of it as his opposite number. As an avid equestrian and military commander, the Duke knew all too well how horse and rider could lose their heads. Animals could react skittishly on fields affected by inclement weather, while cavalry leaders, like aristocrats on a fox hunt, could get caught up in the thrill of the chase.

One action during the heat of battle confirmed Wellington in his caution. Two British cavalry brigades, acting without orders, pursued the French down the road toward the Grand Battery. A counterattack practically decimated the two British brigades (the Scottish Greys came back with only one-sixth of their original 300 men), knocking them, for all intents and purposes, out of commission for the rest of the battle.

Throughout the battle, Wellington moved up and down his line, telling his men to wait and be ready. To one group, desperate to advance so they could at least move forward in the face of punishing artillery fire, he cautioned: “Wait a little longer, lads, and you will have your wish.”

I would add one last error to the ones enumerated by Alexander about Napoleon: the emperor underestimated the resolve of Blucher. The 72-year-old leader of the Prussian forces had led previous coalition forces to victory against him at the Battle of Leipzig, then had retired to farming when it appeared Napoleon had been forced out of power. The emperor’s “Hundred Days” after the escape from Elba led Blucher to re-join the fight.

Two days before Waterloo, Napoleon had beaten Blucher at Ligny, but the two corps he had dispatched to deal with the Prussian commander couldn’t catch him. In the early part of the battle, then, Napoleon was operating under powerful illusions: that Blucher’s forces had been not merely checked but roundly devastated, and that there was no way they could move 12 miles to the battlefield, with all their columns of infantry, cavalry and artillery, over muddy roads, fields and swamps, in time to make any difference.

By mid-to-late afternoon, Napoleon had a nasty surprise when he learned otherwise. The sudden presence of Blucher’s 30,000-plus troops solidified Wellington’s position and turned the tide of victory.

The cost was grievous to both sides—23,000 for the Allies versus 25,000 killed and wounded (plus 9,000 captured) for the French. But when it was all over, Napoleon’s dreams of reconquest lay in ruins. The British quickly made sure he would not escape to America, instead hustling him down to the far-away island of St. Helena, where he died six years later.

Movie Exchange of the Day (“The Blues Brothers,” on Lying to a Nun)

Jake (played by John Belushi), surprised as they arrive at their old orphanage: “What are we doing here?”

Elwood (played by Dan Aykroyd): “You promised you'd visit The Penguin the day you got out.”

Jake: “Yeah? So I lied to her.”

Elwood (incredulously): “You can't lie to a nun. We got to go in and visit The Penguin.”

Jake: “No... fucking... way.”—The Blues Brothers (1980), written by Dan Aykroyd and John Landis, directed by John Landis

Elwood is right: You can’t lie to a nun. But, as we find out in the following hilarious scene, Jake is right, too, to be wary of their spontaneous visit to the orphanage where they grew up: the decidedly pre-Vatican II Sister Mary Stigmata is about to leave her mark on them again.

I suspect I was far from alone in laughing like hell at Sister Mary beating the stuffing out of brothers Jack and Elwood. Yes, the rough-and-tough nun is a stereotype. But nearly every Catholic baby boomer at least knows of someone who’s experienced this particular form of discipline, and a number have known it firsthand as well.

I wish I got a kick out of the rest of the film—which premiered on this date in 1980—as much--even if the Catholic hierarchy has gotten over its uptight attitude toward the film upon its original release and now hails it as a "Catholic classic."

Like Caddyshack, another 1980 comedy that starred two leading members of Saturday Night Live’s Not Ready for Prime Time Players, The Blues Brothers has a frustratingly ramshackle structure. Yes, we know that comedy isn’t pretty, and there are some wonderful scenes here that make me wonder if my friend Jim isn’t right in regarding this as one of his favorite comedies.

But the whole thing is heavily reliant on raucous motion (the huge, squealing car chase) at the expense of wit. Moreover, funny bits just happen—they don’t build and develop. It feels exactly like what it was—a five-minute TV skit puffed up to two hours—and the strain shows.

In a way, director John Landis’ interaction with John Belushi here anticipates his later relationship with another breakout SNL star of a few years later, Eddie Murphy. The prior Landis-Belushi collaboration, Animal House, was a monster hit.

Two years later, however, momentum had swung away from the director and decidedly toward his star. The film was a hit—as of yet, nothing was going to stop Belushi.

But puffed up by ego, hopped up on drugs, the star was becoming considerably harder to work with. At one point, Landis couldn’t film a scene because Belushi was catatonic from a cocaine-and-Quaaludes combination. (In a couple of years, of course, he’d be dead all too soon.)

Similarly, in 1983, Landis helped Murphy avoid the sophomore jinx by making his second film, Trading Places, even more memorable than his debut, 48 Hours. By 1988, however, the Landis-Murphy partnership proved decidedly lame with Coming to America. The star’s gifts were still in evidence—in fact, they still are—but he was becoming less amenable to suggestions --and to the end of his remarkable ‘80s box-office run.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Quote of the Day (Virginia Woolf, on a London “Moment in June”)

“In people's eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June."—Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (1925)

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Quote of the Day (James Joyce, on the “Man of Genius”)

“A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery."—James Joyce, Ulysses (1922)

Today is Bloomsday. If you want an idea of the full meaning of that word—and of what a “man of genius” can do with the richness of the English language—then dive into Ulysses.

For years, I asked myself if I would ever get around to reading James Joyce’s demanding epic of 24 hours in an ordinary Dubliner’s life.

Yes I said yes I will Yes.

(If you want an infinitely more spirited rendition of that line from Molly Bloom’s famous soliloquy, see Sally Kellerman in Rodney Dangerfield’s Back to School.)

I finally stopped saying “yes” and did something about it. Nothing could have prepared me for the full panoply of tricks Joyce employed to render the nature of experience.

(Thanks to my friend Brian for the suggestion.)

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Quote of the Day (“The Apartment,” With Excellent—If Unsolicited—Advice for the Rising Corporate Exec)

Dr. Dreyfuss (played by Jack Kruschen) to C.C. Baxter (played by Jack Lemmon): “As your neighbor, I'd like to kick your keester clear around the block...I don't know what you did to that girl in there, and don't tell me, but it was bound to happen, the way you carry on. Live now, pay later. Diner's Club! Why don't you grow up, Baxter? Be a mensch! You know what that means?...A mensch - a human being!”—The Apartment (1960), written by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, directed by Billy Wilder

Often, I read the first few lines of reviews to sense whether the book, film or play in question is something I want to pay for. But increasingly, I’m sorry I read even that little of them. When negative ones don’t depress my interest in seeing a show I might otherwise have given a chance, their sheer idiocy raises my blood pressure.

The current Broadway run of the Burt Bacharach-Hal Davis musical from the Sixties, Promises, Promises, for instance, has been greeted with something less than hosannas, sometimes for reasons having nothing to do with the quality of the show.

Some claim that, even aside from the songs, the subject matter of the musical is dated. Even an Encores revival 13 years ago, The New York Times’ Ben Brantley thinks, only exposed the original’s “leering view of secretaries as disposable playthings.”

All those drunken office holiday parties, all those company execs sizing up the delectable female flesh all around them, would today be grist for sexual harassment suits. The general lechery level, it’s argued, is drastically down. The leering attitude toward hanky-panky is so retrograde, the argument goes.

I imagine that if these same critics feel that way about Neil Simon’s book adaptation, then the Wilder-Diamond screenplay which served as its source would hardly be exempt from their reasoning. If that’s the case, balderdash, I say. If it’s true that powerful men are being careful about their entanglements with women, then why do so many politicos continue to encounter zipper trouble?

In any case, almost anyone with even the slightest acquaintance with corporate life in 2010 would say that the opportunities for male executives taking a walk on the wild side have only expanded since Wilder’s cynical masterpiece, which premiered on this date 50 years ago in the gray-flannel-suit city in which it was set.

As for the argument that Wilder was winking at the whole corporate passing parade—well, the sequence from which the quote above comes—as well as the accompanying image—shows just how preposterous that whole argument is.

The elevator girl on whom C.C. “Chuck” Baxter has developed a major crush, Fran Kubelik (played by Shirley MacLaine), has attempted suicide in his apartment on Christmas Eve, heartbroken over her affair with her boss and Chuck’s, philandering Jeff Sheldrake (played by Fred MacMurray). Chuck, having enlisted the help of Dr. Dreyfuss, is forced to listen to a first-class tongue-lashing from his neighbor that is the moral high-point of the film.

This is not the first time The Apartment has turned crucially on perception—not only how other people see us, but how we see ourselves.

Chuck’s earnest mastery of insurance arcane and corporate lingo gets him nowhere—until he stumbles into lending his apartment out to someone at his company in a position to help him. At the recent office party, Fran has just given a hint about her growing despair when she accepts from Chuck her broken mirror that he’s found. The broken glass reflects how she feels, she tells him.

Not long afterward, in this scene, Dreyfuss mistakenly believes that Chuck has been bringing one girl after another up to his apartment for liaisons. The reality is not that much better: Chuck’s climb up the corporate ladder has been facilitated by allowing his apartment to be used for senior execs’ affairs.

The scolding by Dreyfuss (delivered in terrific fashion by Jack Kruschen, who received a well-deserved Oscar nomination) is salutary for Chuck, an amiable guy who, by degrees, is learning all too readily how to use people. The doctor might be wrong about what Chuck really does in his apartment, but not that he’s gone astray. The climactic line from this speech—“Be a mensch!”—begins Chuck’s redemption.

The entire sequence following the discovery of Fran’s limp, near-lifeless body—the endless walking to keep her awake, Dreyfuss’ shocking slaps on the face, his verbal slaps at Chuck—is painful to watch. It’s also one of the best scenes in the entire Wilder filmography—one to which Wilder admirer Cameron Crowe pays direct homage in his own Oscar-winning original screenplay 40 years later, Almost Famous, when Kate Hudson’s sweet groupie Penny Lane also needs to be revived after having her heart broken by a thoughtless male.

From the first time I saw The Apartment nearly 40 years ago, it became one of my favorite films. For anyone wanting something as bracing as Dr. Dreyfuss’ scolding and slaps during the often-sappy holiday season, you can do what I’ve done and watch this more often than It’s a Wonderful Life. George Bailey’s life is saved, but the regeneration of Chuck Baxter is the funnier, more tenuous—and harder-won—victory.

Monday, June 14, 2010

This Day in Holocaust History (Auschwitz Receives 1st Prisoners)

June 14, 1940—Though it became a byword for the mass destruction of European Jews, the first prisoners received by Auschwitz on this date were 728 teachers, priests, and other non-Jewish Poles.

The final grim demographics produced by this concentration camp—more than a million dead, site of the greatest mass murder in world history--illustrates one of the pithiest summaries of who suffered during the Holocaust: “Not all victims were Jews, but all Jews were victims.”

This dilapidated, vermin-infested former Polish military garrison, which once contained a huge horse-breaking yard, had been hastily converted over the past month and a half by Jewish slave labor into a holding pen that broke the bodies and spirits of other political prisoners, gypsies, homosexuals, common criminals, Russian prisoners of war and Jews.

Look at the photo accompanying this post. The letters over the iron gate, ARBEIT MACHT FREI, translate roughly as “Work makes you free.” But it might as well have read, “Abandon hope, all you who enter here.”

I’m not sure even Dante could have conceived this particular version of hell. After all, as Edward R. Murrow reported in his radio broadcast of December 13, 1942, in one of the earliest news reports about the Holocaust, the Nazis were perpetrating “a horror beyond what imagination can grasp.”

Six concentration camps already existed either in Germany or the lands it had absorbed as part of its ruthless drive for lebensraum. But the Nazis judged the small town of Oswiecim (renamed Auschwitz by the new occupying force) to be particularly suitable for the first camp of this kind in Poland, for several reasons:

* it was centrally located in Europe;

* it was located near a major railroad junction, making it easy to transport prisoners to the facility;

* it was located in an area rich with coal deposits, creating the possibility for a unique—and lethal—public-private partnership with chemical cartel I.G. Farben;

* its military buildings might be crumbling, but at least they didn’t have to be created from scratch—and the fabled German industrial efficiency could make it useable in no time.

A key phrase should follow “German industrial efficiency” in the prior sentence: and slave labor. The Third Reich couldn’t spare any tools for this experiment in terror, so prisoners were forced to make do with stones instead. If the guards didn’t like the job done with so little, they beat you. It was just a small preview of what was to come.

Rudolf Hoss, promoted to commandant of the new facility because of his brutal efficiency at the Dachau concentration camp, threw himself into adapting the complex to its new use—driving up to 100 miles for the prisoners’ kitchen, hustling to the Sudetenland section of Czechoslovakia for bed frames and straw stacks, even stealing badly needed barb wire.

What made this elevated thug (he’d been imprisoned for murder in 1923) throw up his hands was the truly impossible assignment SS head Heinrich Himmler gave him after all this: triple the camp capacity. The commandant’s protest—it was impossible!—was met with no sympathy by his boss, who said: “For an SS officer there are no difficulties! When they come up, it’s his job to get rid of them. How you do that is your business, not mine.”

It would take another couple of decades for the term to be invented, but Himmler was already transmitting its essentials: plausible deniability. In a way, it’s the same defense used by the Holocaust denial industry ever since.

The death industry achieved irresistible momentum at Auschwitz after the Wannsee Conference of January 1942, where plans were put in place for “the Final Solution.” But the first steps had already been taken when the initial bureaucratic barriers toward opening and enlarging the complex were overcome in June 1940.

Song Lyric of the Day (Janis Ian, on “Friday Night Charades of Youth”)

“The valentines I never knew
The Friday night charades of youth
Were spent on one more beautiful
At seventeen I learned the truth.”—Janis Ian, “At Seventeen,” from her LP Between the Lines (1975)

From a distance of 35 years later, I recall going, just after freshman year in high school, to my local Korvettes, where you could pick up music for what, these days, seems like—well, a song.
On this particular early-summer day, my purchases consisted of the Doobie Brothers’ Stampede and Janis Ian’s Between the Lines. That embodied pretty well, I think, my schizophrenic musical sensibility—one part that wanted to lose myself in the electricity and sheer fun of rock ‘n’ roll, and the other that desired something more reflective.

An Internet reference site of varying degrees of accuracy indicates that on this date in 1975, the single from Janis Ian’s album, “At Seventeen,” was released; other sites can only pin the date down to “mid-June” 1975. Whatever the case might be, it’s a certainty that, by summer’s end, the song had struck a huge chord with hundreds of thousands of listeners like myself.

Eventually, it hit #3 on the Billboard Hot 100. Seemingly everybody knew this extraordinary story of how the onetime singer-composer of “Society’s Child” had become a hit at 15, a has-been at 17, and now, the pop comeback story of the year. (Heck, even the nun that ran my school’s library—not remotely anything like a fan of pop music—knew about her.)

In her autobiography, Society’s Child, Ian recalls the genesis of the song: idly picking up a New York Times Magazine article about a debutante, finding the line “I learned the truth at eighteen,” substituting the word “seventeen” for the last word in the quote because it scanned better, and coming up with the lyrics while plucking out the melody on a samba beat.

Yet the song was so personal and painful for her that not only did it take her several weeks to complete, but she was certain she’d never be able to play it in public: “I was sure no one else felt that way. Everyone else was more popular, more socially adept, than I’d ever been.”

What made the song such a hit (and no, I’m not talking here about clever promotion, though that came into it, too)? Another way of approaching the question is to ask, “What’s the subject of the song?”

To ask the question is, itself, a minefield. “The pain and awkwardness of adolescence” might be one answer, but that theme has been done to death (see Booth Tarkington’s Alice Adams, for instance).

To confine it further—that it’s about the pain and awkwardness of the proverbial female ugly-duckling—is reductive, even though Ian refers to herself as “ugly duckling girls like me.” But another issue comes into play here: the potential for clich├ęd, bathetic treatment of a generations-old dilemma.

What helps rescue the song from this, I think, is the absolute disparity between its soft production values—the singer-songwriter’s alluring voice, accompanied by her gentle horn arrangements—with lyrics that begin with the most direct, unflinching, brutal application to herself (“I learned the truth at seventeen/That love was meant for beauty queens”).

By the song’s end, Ian had radiated beyond herself to a larger group of misfits (“those of us with ravaged faces”), to whom she offered emotional salve (“It was long ago and far away/The world was younger than today”) for surviving the most artificial society ever concocted by the mind of man: the American high school. (The case of Phoebe Prince, the Irish-born teen driven to suicide by cyberbullying at South Hadley (Mass.) High School, illustrates the viciousness that still exists in adolescence.)

The song “Society’s Child” became a cause celebre because of its then-daring theme of interracial dating, but, as important as it was in the history of pop music's treatment of serious social issues, it does not, at this distance, speak as universally as “At Seventeen.”

People can still relate to the arbitrariness of the “games,” “charades”—in short, the role-playing—involved with fitting into the cliques and expectations imposed by a social structure of other youngsters, all trying to hide their own insecurities in a desperate quest for elementary acceptance and love in a time of wrenching personal change.

Even conformity—especially conformity—imposes a price, Ian observes. After all this time, going over the lyrics again, I was pulled up short by the lines about “debentures of quality and dubious integrity” and “in dull surprise when payment due.”

For the last three decades, we as a society lost track of the concept of debt, until it all came crashing down in this recession. In a tough-minded fashion belied by the soothing textures of the song, Ian assures us that, in the most fundamental social relations, emotional debt exacts a price on those who bargain away their loss of selves.
One thing I was surprised to learn about Ian is that, in recent years, besides writing music, she has also taken up creating science-fiction. The English teacher who taught a semester's course on this genre preferred the term "alternative futures," and perhaps that's what Ian sees in it--a way to imagine a world far less painful, far more tolerant of imperfections and differences than ours.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Quote of the Day (Isaac Bashevis Singer, on a Higher Intelligence)

“There is a plan to this universe. There is a high intelligence, maybe even a purpose, but it’s given to us on the installment plan.”—Isaac Bashevis Singer, Conversations, edited by Grace Farrell (1992)

Saturday, June 12, 2010

This Day in Presidential History (Skeleton-Laden Harding Emerges Victor From GOP “Smoke-Filled Room”)

June 12, 1920—With the heat rising and Sunday coming, GOP delegates broke their deadlock at the national convention in Chicago by nominating, on the 10th ballot, a candidate far back when the confab began: Senator Warren G. Harding of Ohio.

The night before, a select group of party leaders met in a room in the Blackstone Hotel to end the impasse. The unexpected result gave rise to the political phrase, “smoke-filled room,” to describe private deliberations marked by secret deal-making and, frequently, chicanery.

(Ironically, the hotel—now rescued from oblivion and run as the Marriott Renaissance—is a nonsmoking institution today.)

Little did the bone-tired, panicky conventioneers realize that, in picking the least objectionable candidate, they had, ironically, chosen someone not only less qualified for the Presidency than his rivals, but one carrying considerably more personal baggage. Decades before Bill Clinton and John Edwards, a major party had to scramble behidn the scenes to contain a “bimbo eruption.”

Harding represents one of the most noteworthy object lessons in the vicissitudes of Presidential reputations. At the time of his death in 1923, he was mourned intensely, like another handsome, charming senator who made it to the White House, only to die in his third year in office: John F. Kennedy.

Yet Harding’s reputation was damaged far more quickly than Kennedy’s by post-death revelations—and, at this juncture, despite new revisionist scholarship, the likelihood is not great that his standing will rise appreciably.

Not that interesting work hasn’t been produced, over the last 20 years, about his life. Carl Sferrazza Anthony, perhaps the foremost chronicler of First Ladies, has illuminated Harding’s strong-willed wife Florence—and, by necessity, her husband—in a major biography. John W. Dean—yes, of Watergate fame—brought knowledge of the hometown he shared with Harding (Marion, Ohio) and a lawyer’s sense of evidence in an idiosyncratic, small-scale, but useful corrective to earlier treatments.

And, most recently, James David Robenalt, in The Harding Affair, was able to flush out surprising new secrets about Carrie Phillips, the former lover whose threat to go public with revelations of their affair set in motion what historians believe might be the first recorded case of an American political party paying hush money to c0ver up a candidate's sex scandal.

If only the Republicans had been able to call on Teddy Roosevelt this time! The former President might have bolted his party to run as a Progressive in 1912, but by 1918 he had mended enough fences with old adversaries that he was emerging as the odds-on favorite to win a third term. But sorrow and shock over the death of his son Quentin in World War I had exacerbated lingering health issues, and he had died in January 1919 at the age of only 60.

The three major GOP candidates at the Chicago convention a year later each had a significant base, and equally significant liabilities:

* General Leonard Wood, TR’s former commander in the Spanish-American War, had been hurt by a campaign-finance scandal.

* Illinois Governor Frank Lowden was also damaged by the same Senate inquiry as Wood.

* Senator Hiram Johnson of California, who had served as T.R.’s running mate in 1912, had solid Progressive credentials, but he was resented by the Woods and Lowden camps for instigating the Senate inquiry.

Even the man presiding over the convention, Woodrow Wilson's nemesis over the League of Nations, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, had his ambitions, but he realized at this point that he was probably too old.
At Chicago, both Wood and Lowden found themselves deadlocked at roughly 300 votes each, with Johnson lagging and Harding, with 85 voters, back still further. As anxiety mounted, Harding’s principal aides, Will Hays and Harry Daugherty, were able to sell their man as the least objectionable candidate.

When the GOP party elders inquired if there were any problems with his background, Harding said there weren’t. I guess that depended on how you defined "problems."

Harding should have known Carrie Phillips would trouble his candidacy. Three years earlier, Phillips—by this time, because of a long residence in Germany, a sympathizer of the Kaiser (and, Robenalt believes, an informant of the German ruler)—had threatened to go public about their 15-year relationship if Harding voted for America's entry into World War I. He called her bluff by voting for the declaration., but it was a narrow escape.

Before the convention, Phillips threatened again to tell all. Harding put her off this time by saying he'd only be able to do it with the financial largesse of the Republican Party at large.
And so, after the convention, high-level officials in the party paid Phillips and her husband $20,000 to take a long, pre-election trip to Japan—plus a smaller monthly fee that would cease only with Harding’s death.

This new-found affluence didn’t last long for the Phillipses. Harding’s death put an end to the monthly check from the GOP, while the Great Depression wrecked their fortune. Carrie Phillips died in 1960 with her liaison whispered about in Marion but few in the wider world wiser.

But that did not mean Harding’s philandering was successfully concealed. Toward the end of his relationship with Phillips, Harding met Nan Britton, a young woman who had conceived a schoolgirl’s crush on him. Her 1927, The President’s Daughter, claimed that her child, born in 1919, had resulted from their affair, which continued when he entered the White House.

Dean, finding no material evidence to support Britton’s claim, has called on DNA evidence taken from the descendants of the Brittons and Hardings in order to determine the truth. All this will establish definitively, however, is the baby’s paternity. It is equally conceivable that Harding did have relations with Britton but that, due to sterility, he did not impregnate her.

Within a year of Harding’s death, the news media were running stories about the Teapot Dome scandal, as well as other misdeeds of “The Ohio Gang” whose pending revelations had produced Harding’s unexpected death. An image was formed of an incompetent, lazy chief executive more interested in golfing, drinking and smoking cigars with cronies, and, of course, yielding to female embraces to concentrate on government. That image is deeply ingrained, and there is enough truth to it that it will be impossible to shake it completely.
Other factors will, I think, prevent Harding from ever remotely approaching the retrospective glow that Kennedy still retains, despite philandering even more extensive than the Republican:
* Jack and Jackie Kennedy formed a collective image of glamour that Warren and his formidable wife--nicknamed "The Duchess"--did not possess (though it was said that Warren "looked like a President," Florence was not attractive);
* Kennedy, with the help of speechwriter Ted Sorensen, delivered some of the most memorable speeches of the 20th century; Harding--despite having been a newspaper editor and publisher--spoke in a kind of high-flown but meaningless oratorical style memorably dubbed by H.L. Mencken, after the President's middle name, "Gamalielese" ("It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it.")
* One of the seeming achievements of the Harding administration--an American economy in hyperdrive--was, it is now clear, fueled, at least in part, by lax regulation of Wall Street that was repeated more recently these last 20 years--helping to put the American economy over the cliff.
* One of Harding's finest moments--a denunciation of lynching in the Deep South--ended up producing no significant legislation; Kennedy, though painfully slow in advocating civil rights at the start of his administration, enforced desegregation and pushed at last to dismantle American-style apartheid by the time of his assassination.

Quote of the Day (Rene Balcer, on “Law And Order’s” Jerry Orbach)

"I always think about the show as before Jerry and after Jerry. You saw the weariness of 25 years of crime-fighting in New York written on his face."—Law and Order executive producer Rene Balcer, on star Jerry Orbach’s performance as Det. Lennie Briscoe, quoted in Amy Chozick and Ellen Gamerman, “'Law & Order' School of Drama,” The Wall Street Journal, May 21, 2010

NBC’s announcement that it was canceling Law & Order has sparked all kinds of retrospectives on the Dick Wolf cops-and-lawyers show, analysis of What It All Meant (for a typical example of the latter, see Bruce Headlam’s “This Crime Spree Made New York Feel Safe,” in The New York Times)—and, given the cast members that shuffled on and off over the 20-year-life span of the program, fan and critical summations of their favorites.

The last is an easy call for me. I watched the show with close to religious intensity for the dozen years when Jerry Orbach played Lennie Briscoe. After he died of prostate cancer in 2004, the modus operandi of the show remained the same—plots “ripped from the headlines,” lightly fictionalized to add some complications to the case—but its animating spirit had fled.

Other actors, capable in their way (e.g., Dennis Farina) might assume the role of the older detective, but what Orbach brought to the part--that crucial seen-it-all commitment to getting a dirty job done day after day—could never be replaced. Perhaps viewers sensed that, too— viewership was down by slightly more than half from a decade ago.

Generations of big-screen viewers have grown accustomed to the idea of “The New York Actor”—an individual who, sometimes by virtue of ethnicity, but always through sheer force of personality, imparts the force and electricity of the streets. Think Cagney, Garfield, DeNiro.

It shouldn’t have been surprising, on a show which, according to Chozick and Gamerman, employed nearly 21,000 individual actors over the years, that television produced, in Orbach, its own answer to movies’ New York Actor.

Diminished force might have been a necessity on a smaller screen. For two decades, as a young-to-middle age actor, Orbach had taken on landmark stage roles in The Fantasticks, Promises, Promises, Chicago, and 42nd Street. In the ‘80s, he had good, but only subsidiary, roles in high-profile movies (Prince of the City, Dirty Dancing). He was constantly working, but he was made for more, and it had to be slightly disappointing to him.

Orbach had read for the roles of Max Greevey and Phil Cerreta before finally being cast as Briscoe. The role fit from the beginning. (You wonder how much the show’s writers even patterned the part on Orbach: like his character, he was the son of a Jewish father and Catholic mother.) You couldn’t miss the asperity in Briscoe’s quips over a newly discovered corpse, the disbelieving challenge to a rich suspect’s alibi, or the anger directed at slick defense attorneys or other cops who violated his code of partner ethics.

Wolf kept the focus across the years on the case rather than the characters’ personal lives, but you always sensed more of a huge backstory behind Briscoe: the stress of the job, the years of drinking, the wrecked marriage, the fractured, guilt-ridden relations with his children. If his lanky frame looked slightly hunched over at times, no wonder—he seemed to be carrying not only the weight of his history, but of an entire city that could come apart at any moment without his and his partners' efforts to check criminal chaos.

In the late 1990s, Orbach provided me with one of those close encounters with celebrities that New York-area residents have come to expect but that, more often than not, still delight them. During intermission at a Saturday matinee for a Roundabout Theatre production, I blinked at the sight of the Law & Order actor a few feet from the bar, more erect in real life than on the small screen, engaged in conversation with someone.

My reticence—and strong belief that people deep in conversation should not, as much as possible, be disturbed—kept me from saying anything—a respite from the importunings of fans that celebrities must cherish.

If I could have managed to say anything relatively intelligible, it would have been that, with the skill he brought to his craft every week, he not only embodied all of us, but exemplified the best of us.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Quote of the Day (Bob Kerrey, on Spreading Rumors on Rival Candidates)

“In the old days — meaning the last time I campaigned in ’94 — if I had something hot on my opponent, if I had something that was really juicy, I would have gone to the bars where the journalists were and try to get them to print it. Not any more. I’d just have to post it on YouTube. It’s quicker. And it’s better for my liver.”—Former Democratic Presidential candidate Bob Kerrey, on how easy it is to catch opponents in exaggerations (including of their military service) today, quoted in Adam Nagourney, “Political Memo: Tempting Area for Exaggeration Meets Tools of the YouTube Era,” The New York Times, June 5, 2010

Thursday, June 10, 2010

This Day in Classical Music History (‘Tristan & Isolde’ Reflects Real-Life Wagner Drama)

June 10, 1865—The Munich premiere of Tristan und Isolde (Tristan and Isolde) should have placed Richard Wagner on the high, comfortable plateau he had needed so desperately throughout his career.

His creative acolyte, conductor Hans von Bulow, had battled recalcitrant musicians in the orchestra throughout rehearsals, but had now brought off the composer’s vision in brilliant fashion; after several postponements, the public had nevertheless greeted his three-act music drama with storms of applause; and, most of all, he now had a patron—King Ludwig II of Bavaria—who not only had taken care of his debts but had financed this really expensive opera.

But Wagner, being Wagner, had already incurred the proverbial wrath of the gods. It wasn’t only that he continued to spend other people’s money recklessly, that he told any and all about “the incomparable magic of my works,” or even that he tried to influence Ludwig’s politics.

No. Like the Arthurian tale he’d adapted, Wagner had embarked on a heedless love affair with von Bulow’s wife Cosima—not the first time he’d taken advantage of the wife of an admirer. Only this time the relationship produced a baby, as well as such a scandal that, by year’s end, he’d be forced into exile again.

I was first exposed to the work of Wagner for a music humanities course in college. As the various tenors and sopranos battled each other in ear-shattering duets, I came to agree with the assessment of Mark Twain in his Autobiography (or, rather, the assessment he passed along by humorist Edgar Wilson “Bill” Nye): “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.”

Wagner’s personality, most assuredly, was not better than his music. Harold C. Schonberg’s The Lives of the Great Composers, after the obligatory noises about the composer’s genius, offered this devastating conclusion:

“As a human being he was frightening. Amoral, hedonistic, selfish, virulently racist, arrogant, filled with gospels of the superman (the superman naturally being Wagner) and the superiority of the German race, he stands for all that is unpleasant in human character.”

In creating Tristan from 1857 to 1859, Wagner proposed to change the rules of the musical drama with an opera that used the orchestra, in startling new ways, to suggest unresolved chords and recurrent leitmotifs. He was already changing the rules of civilized social order by having an affair with poet-writer Mathilde Wesendonck, the wife of Otto Wesendonck, a wealthy silk trader. The relationship broke up his marriage and alienated Wesendonck, a benefactor.

As bad as that was, the scandal involving Cosima, the daughter of Wagner’s great friend Franz Liszt, was worse. It was so blatant that even Ludwig told the composer he needed to leave for awhile, until everything blew over. (Ludwig being Ludwig, he subsidized the exile of Wanger and Cosima in Switzerland for the next few years.)

In 1983, public television aired a miniseries on Wagner, starring Richard Burton (in one of his last roles) as the composer and Vanessa Redgrave as Cosima von Bulow Wagner. I have not yet had a chance to watch this, but I can’t imagine better casting than these two stars. Only they could begin to comprehend the scandal and controversy that followed in the wake of the composer and his wife.
(Incidentally, the image accompanying this post shows one of the original Munich performances of Tristan, with Ludwig Schnorr von Carelsfeld and wife Malvina in the title roles. Good thing the photographer took this shot, because, in another instance of the turbulence surrounding this production, the gifted Ludwig died after only the fourth performance, at age 29, of rheumatic fever.)