Saturday, July 31, 2010

This Day in Literary History (Richard Simon, Carly’s Dad and Publishing Founder, Dies)

July 31, 1960—In a way, the third, fatal heart attack of Richard Simon came as a mercy. Suffering from heart disease, depression and delirium for the last several years, the co-founder of Simon & Schuster had found himself sidelined not just in the firm that had published Albert Einstein, Pearl Buck, Will and Ariel Durant, and Sloan Wilson, but also in his own household, where his wife was conducting an affair with a man 20 years her junior who’d been hired as a companion for her pre-adolescent son.

Simon’s decline fascinates me, not merely because it powerfully influenced one of my favorite singers, his daughter Carly Simon, but because it foreshadowed the takeover dramas that his firm (under new management) and the entire publishing industry would experience a couple of decades later amid the mergers-and-acquisitions frenzy. In addition, the Simon psychosexual drama would also provide material for a sometime guest in his household, Irwin Shaw, who drew on it for his novel Lucy Crown.

(This whole story has also been set out, in nonfiction form, in several accounts: Marie Brenner’s August 1995 Vanity Fair account of Carly’s relationship with her mother; Timothy White biography of the singer’s former husband, James Taylor; and Sheila Weller’s Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon—and the Journey of a Generation.)

Even many people who never picked up a book by Richard Simon’s firm—or solved a crossword puzzle, a hobby given greater prominence when S&S published the first best-selling crossword-puzzle book in 1924—know the publisher, at least obliquely, through songs by Carly, the youngest and most famous of his three musically inclined daughters. (The other two were Joanna, an opera singer, and Lucy, composer of the Broadway musical The Secret Garden.)

“Hello, Big Man” took its title from the response of her mother Andrea, a telephone operator at S&S, when she first heard her future husband’s opening greeting: “Hello, little woman.”

But the relationship between Richard and Andrea had declined sharply by the time of his death two decades later, as chronicled in Carly’s “That’s the Way I Always Heard It Should Be,” released in 1971.

In this first major hit of Carly’s career, friend and lyricist Jacob Brackman helped her depict, in a simple but stark opening, the atmosphere of alienation, emotional unavailability, and death-in-life that prevailed in her Riverdale (N.Y.) home as an adolescent—a household that sounds like an upper-middle-class Ethan Frome:

“My father sits at night with no lights on
His cigarette glows in the dark.
The living room is still;
I walk by, no remark.”

The emotionally broken and defeated man of these lyrics was a different person in the early 1940s. A later S&S editor, Michael Korda, recalled that in his prime, Richard Simon displayed an instinct for marketing that complemented friend and bookish partner M. Lincoln Schuster. (Schuster is the bespectacled one in the accompanying image.) Several of Richard’s brainstorms—feeding the cravings of newspaper cross-puzzle fans with a full-length book (with a pencil attached so they could start working on it immediately), igniting the contract-bridge craze by publishing Charles Goren, and encouraging amateur photography with his own book on the subject—made his firm a growing force in commercial publishing by the early 1940s.

It all started to come apart in 1944, when Simon, Schuster and their hard-driving partner, Leon Shimkin, sold the firm to retail giant Marshall Field. Following the sale, the trio stayed on under long-time management contracts.

But Simon’s initial opposition to the buyout left him marginalized in the new order at his old firm. The new owners’ attempt to placate him with an imprint of his own, New Ventures Books, did little to mitigate his restlessness and frustration.

By 1953, Simon’s growing infirmity provided an opening for Andrea Simon to take a belated form of revenge for the unusual situation he foisted on her at the start of their marriage. Beginning with their honeymoon, Andrea had watched in dismay as Richard, nettled by not having consummated the relationship, a) daily cabled his family’s longtime surrogate mother, “Auntie Jo” Hutmacher, on the progress of the relationship; b) installed “Auntie Jo” and Andrea’s mother in a rented apartment together, for no apparent reason of compatibility; and c) named his and Andrea’s first child Joanna—an amalgam of “Auntie Jo” and his own mother, Anna. At some point in all of this, Andrea figured out the truth: “Auntie Jo” had been the teenage Richard’s first lover, and two decades later she was still a part of his life.

With Richard increasingly sullen, remote and frail, Andrea could claim, relatively plausibly, that six-year-0ld son Peter needed a playmate. At some point, however, Columbia University student Ronnie Klinzing became Andrea’s, too. When Joanna discovered a passageway between Andrea’s room and Ronnie’s, her mother did not deny the obvious implications.

This bizarre psychosexual drama affected Carly more than her socially assured sister. She was already suffering from one emotional deficit: lanky and gawky at the time, Carly did not fare well at all in any competition with Joanna and Lucy for the affection of her father, who pretty much ignored her. Her realization of her mother’s affair, however, pushed her into a web of phobias (including stammering, agoraphobia and stage fright) that would plague her into early adulthood, and even beyond.

The atmosphere of the house, permeated by Andrea's eroticism and Richard's close-mouthed acquiescence, also, in a way, contributed to Carly’s future career. Now, you might argue that she came by her artistic inclinations through heredity (brother of a jazz drummer, Richard had reluctantly, at his father’s urging, put aside his dream of a career as concert pianist), or even by environment (the Simon girls sang “A Real Nice Clambake” for its lyricist, Oscar Hammerstein II, a house guest). But I think it’s more plausible that the pressure of her own circumstances did so.

As Carly's stammering worsened, Andrea advised her on a remedy: “Sing it.” Her daughter did so. The future Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee took the first halting steps toward fame as one of the great “confessional” singer-songwriters of the 1970s as an attempt to ferret out truth and her own self-esteem in a family environment that denied her both.

That career has also been the real foundation for whatever affluence she has had in adulthood. Simon & Schuster long ago left behind the world of its co-founder, and Carly, because of her father’s agreement to sell it, has not benefited from its earnings since then.

The company would, in any case, be a vastly different place from the one Richard L. Simon and Max Schuster built in the 1920s with only $8,000 of relatives’ money. Its culture had changed for good in the 1980s, when it took over my old company, Prentice-Hall. Simon & Schuster's corporate parents over the years (including Gulf + Western and Viacom) have exerted pressure on the firm to produce profits. Not only has that resulted in shifts toward blockbuster titles rather than blacklists and toward marketing rather than editorial sides of the business, but it has also placed additional stress on the publishing arm's subsidiaries. Prentice-Hall, for instance, went from a paternalistic orientation to one increasingly swept up by the nostrums of the day (e.g., "synergy") during my years there. I imagine it has only worsened in the two decades since.

Quote of the Day (A Centenarian’s Surprising Secret of Longevity)

"Three cans of Miller High Life a day and a shot of good booze at 5 p.m."—Agnes Fenton, of Englewood, N.J., 105 years old tomorrow, describing her daily ritual since 1943, quoted in Giovanna Fabiano, “Turning 105, Englewood Woman Credits Luck and Liquor," The Record (Bergen County, N.J.), July 31, 2010

Friday, July 30, 2010

Quote of the Day (Jack Rohan, on Casey Stengel)

''The worst thing you can do is think you're important. Outside of Casey Stengel, how many individuals are important in this world?''—Longtime Columbia University basketball coach (and onetime college baseball player) Jack Rohan, quoted in Frank Litsky, “Jack Rohan, 72, Coach of Columbia Basketball,” The New York Times, September 11, 2004

The influence of Casey Stengel—born on this date in 1890 in Kansas City, Mo.—extended beyond his glory years as Yankee manager from 1949 to 1960. Earlier this week, The New York Times profiled Hall of Fame inductee Whitey Herzog, who recounted how, when he was a minor leaguer with in the Yankees’ farm system, Stengel must have “walked me down the third-base line 75 times a day teaching me that good base running boils down to anticipation and knowledge of the defense.” Herzog would apply such lessons years later as the Mets’ third-base coach, as well as during his stints managing the Kansas City Royals and the St. Louis Cardinals.

(Incidentally, besides Stengel or Herzog, the same article mentions another astute baseball mind of a different kind: my friend Jon Springer, of the superb “Mets by the Numbers” blog (and book by the same name).

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Quote of the Day (Hugh Hefner, Showing How Time Flies)

“I'm now a Twitter bug. When I was a kid, I was a jitter bug.”—Playboy founder and codger-in-chief Hugh Hefner, on the hobby he developed after receiving an iPad from current girlfriend Crystal Harris, on CNN Larry King Live, July 22, 2010

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Quote of the Day (Eleanor Roosevelt, on Standing Up for Beliefs)

“I have never felt that anything really mattered but the satisfaction of knowing that you stood for the things in which you believed and had done the very best you could.”—Eleanor Roosevelt, “My Day” column, November 8, 1944

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Quote of the Day (Woodrow Wilson, on Making a Living vs. Enriching the World)

“You are not here merely to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and to impoverish yourself if you forget the errand."—Woodrow Wilson, “Address at Swarthmore College, October 25, 1913,” in The Politics of Woodrow Wilson: Selections from His Speeches and Writings, edited by August Heckscher (1970)

(Thanks to my friend Brian for the suggestion.)

Monday, July 26, 2010

Quote of the Day (Robert Graves and Alan Hodge, With a Principle of “Grace of Expression”)

“OVERLONG SENTENCE. Sentences should not be so long that the reader loses his way in them.”—Robert Graves and Alan Hodge, with one of 16 principles related to “grace of expression,” in The Reader Over Your Shoulder: A Handbook for Writers of English Prose

Poet, novelist, and memoirist Graves (in the image accompanying this post), born on this date in 1895, also co-produced, with Hodge, what is arguably the most audacious of the many guides to clear modern prose. I say “audacious” because how many other writers would list George Bernard Shaw, Ernest Hemingway and Aldous Huxley among the sinners against the sound English sentence? If even such illuminati were guilty of the some literary transgression, perhaps there’s hope for the rest of us.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Flashback, July 1950: James Stewart Starts New Phase as Western Hero

By the end of July 1950, Hollywood’s oldest movie genre—the Western—had put James Stewart back among the film world’s box-0ffice elite for the first time since the start of World War II. In the process, the two films, Winchester ’73 and Broken Arrow, helped inaugurate the so-called “psychological Western” and established a form of Tinseltown economics with stars such as Stewart replacing the old studio system as the new center of gravity.

Premiering within nine days of each other, Winchester ’73 and Broken Arrow formed half of a quartet of movies starring Stewart that were released in this year.

The other two—Jackpot, a genial but slight comedy, and Harvey, a piece of delicious whimsy about a gentle tippler and his invisible six-foot-plus rabbit—could have been released in the star’s pre-World War II era with MGM, when his slow-talking, aw-shucks manner made him a natural to play the young man next door.

The first major Hollywood star to enlist in the armed forces after Pearl Harbor, Stewart had subsequently been decorated for bravery. But he had seen too many people die—comrades he had befriended and foes he’d shot down in the sky—not to be chastened by the experience.

You can sense these encroaching inner shadows in his first major postwar release, It’s a Wonderful Life, but there was still enough starry-eyed idealism in George Bailey for the public to associate the actor with his other prewar work with director Frank Capra (You Can’t Take It With You and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington). Maybe the lack of box-office success for It’s a Wonderful Life owed something to the public’s disinclination to accept a view of human possibility that still stressed the positive.

Stewart had tried a Western before (Destry Rides Again, in 1939), but it had played off his early innocent, idealistic image. In contrast, Winchester ’73 and Broken Arrow introduced the public to a new, tougher, more complicated Stewart. The actor would never really attempt a villainous role, as good friend Henry Fonda would do in Once Upon a Time in the West, but the public’s acceptance of him in the two gimlet-eyed Westerns would make it possible for Stewart to expand his range further in the decade with Rear Window, Vertigo and Anatomy of a Murder.

Winchester ’73 was notable as the beginning of the actor’s collaboration with director Anthony Mann. Other director-star teams (Sternberg-Dietrich, Ford-Wayne, and Scorcese-DeNiro) have attracted more attention over the years, but none re-focused a career the way that Mann did in his noteworthy movies with Stewart.

Several months ago, in watching Night Passage (1957), I was sure it was another Mann-Stewart film. It wasn’t, but it was supposed to be. Mann had picked the location, cast and crew, and even directed the pre-credit sequence, when what was supposed to be his ninth film with the star ended abruptly in a quarrel over a script Mann regarded as a rehash of their prior work.

Before they reached that sorry parting of the ways, however, Mann and Stewart had worked on five other Westerns that effectively remade the genre. Oh, their Western still had the kind of action sequences and stunning cinematography that, say, Ford and Howard Hawks had employed. But Mann and Stewart were now pioneering another kind of Western hero—one driven not simply but justice, but by an obsessive quest—Captain Ahab way out West.

Broken Arrow, directed by Delbert Davies, was notable as one of the first Western scripts that sympathetically viewed the plight of Native-Americans. It took awhile before this attitude became more general in Western films.

Winchester ’73 had a more immediately effect on Hollywood, but in the only way in which members of the film community know how to speak to each other: through the medium of money. Stewart’s agent, Lew Wasserman, pioneered a deal that made his client a very rich man—and himself one of the powers-that-be in the industry.

For a percentage of the profits, Stewart agreed to make Winchester ’73 and Harvey for Universal Studios, which was down on its luck at that point. His subsequent healthy payday led other Hollywood stars to look for similar deals—and enabled to help Wasserman expand his talent agency, MCA, directly into film and television production. That, in turn, led the agent to become head of the studio whose deal with Stewart had made it all possible: Universal.

Quote of the Day (Archbishop Sheen, on Travel and Theology)

“Travel merely confirms the teaching of theology that humanity is one. The accidental differences of color and race and what jingles in the pocket are of little concern. The longer I live the more I become convinced that in the face of injustices we must begin to say I love. Kind deeds are not enough. We must learn to say I forgive.”—Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, Treasure in Clay: The Autobiography of Fulton J. Sheen (1980)

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Flashback, July 1925: Darrow Cross-Examines Bryan at Scopes Trial

In a confrontation as heated as the Tennessee weather that week, William Jennings Bryan, the most radical major-party Presidential candidate until Jesse Jackson, endured hours of cross-examination on the literal interpretation of the Bible by Clarence Darrow, the longtime “attorney for the damned.” When it was over, Darrow had not managed to avert a sentence of guilty for client John Scopes for teaching evolution, but he had left Bryan’s reputation as a populist in tatters and spawned some of the most simplistic assumptions in America’s long history of culture wars.

Appropriately, a trial that began as a stunt climaxed as one. The defense team at the Scopes “Monkey” Trial had no more intention of getting anything useful out of Bryan’s testimony than the prosecution had of putting the defendant’s livelihood and human rights at risk.

For a trial that was not just massively but maniacally covered (it was the first time a legal proceeding was filmed or broadcast live over the radio), innumerable myths have spring up about the eight-day case in Dayton, Tenn. Most of these derive from Inherit the Wind, by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, especially in the 1960 film adaptation starring Fredric March and Spencer Tracy in the principal roles.

Lawrence and Lee could probably claim some form of dramatic license just by naming the two adversaries “Matthew Harrison Brady” and “Henry Drummond.” But so much of the centerpiece of the movie—Bryan’s cross-examination—was taken from the Scopes trial transcript that viewers could be forgiven for thinking just about everything in the film was true. Hollywood’s distortion of history, ranging from elementary facts to larger issues regarding the major figures’ motivations, fits in perfectly with what historian Garry Wills wrote about the trial in Under God: Religion and American Politics (1990): “Almost everything about the Scopes trial has been misinterpreted, and it is the ‘educated’ part of America that has accepted the distortions.”

In the popular imagination, for instance, the notion has taken hold that Bryan believed literally in every single word of the Bible. But a careful examination of the following small portion of the trial transcript—part of Darrow’s cross-examination of Bryan--reveals that the great orator and three-time Democratic nominee for President was not what would nowadays be termed a fundamentalist:

CLARENCE DARROW: Do you claim that everything in the Bible should be literally interpreted?

WILLIAM JENNINGS BRYAN: I believe everything in the Bible should be accepted as it is given there. Some of the Bible is given illustratively; for instance, "Ye are the salt of the earth." I would not insist that man was actually salt, or that he had flesh of salt, but it is used in the sense of salt as saving God's people.

DARROW: But when you read that Jonah swallowed the whale -- or that the whale swallowed Jonah, excuse me, please -- how do you literally interpret that?

BRYAN: When I read that a big fish swallowed Jonah -- it does not say whale.

DARROW: Doesn't it? Are you sure?

BRYAN: That is my recollection of it, a big fish. And I believe it, and I believe in a God who can make a whale and can make a man, and can make both do what He pleases.

DARROW: Mr. Bryan, doesn't the New Testament say whale [Matthew 12:40]?

BRYAN: I am not sure. My impression is that it says fish, but it does not make so much difference. I merely called your attention to where it says fish, it does not say whale.

DARROW: But in the New Testament it says whale, doesn't it?

BRYAN: That may be true. I cannot remember in my own mind what I read about it.

DARROW: Now, you say the big fish swallowed Jonah, and he remained how long -- three days -- and then he spewed him up on the land. You believe that the big fish was made to swallow Jonah?

BRYAN: I am not prepared to say that; the Bible merely says it was done.

That hardly ended the distortions associated with the Stanley Kramer film. Among the other misimpressions:

* That Bryan’s testimony took place inside the courtroom. Temperatures were so high and the courtroom was so packed that the cross-examination was moved outside.

* That Scopes was targeted right in his classroom while teaching Darwin. Though Scopes had previously taught from the textbook George William Hunter's A Civic Biology: Presented in Problems (1914), he had not done so on the day specified in the indictment. In fact, Darrow did not want to place his client on the witness stand lest the fact emerge at cross-examination—and the case be thrown out before it could be appealed.

* That Scopes was locked up at the start of the trial. This was an invention of the film, but there was no chance of it happening. For starters, the town fathers were not out to stamp out evolution (though they surely wouldn’t have minded it) so much as to increase tourism. (It was in the midst of a recession that had resulted in the town's population declining by half.) They believed—correctly, as it turned out—that the media would be out in full force if they could mount a challenge to Tennessee’s recently passed legislation banning the teaching of evolution in schools. Moreover, the whole thing was a put-up job: not only did the schools superintendent and owner of a local coal mine ask Scopes if he were willing to, in effect, act as a “test case” against the new Tennessee law, but a couple of members of the prosecution team were also friends of the schoolteacher.

* That Bryan bullied Scopes’ girlfriend. Never happened. In fact, not only did the “Great Commoner” offer to pay Scopes’ fine for teaching the class, but the defendant wrote in his memoir (published decades later) on his continuing admiration for Bryan.

* That Bryan’s testimony represented the turning point of the trial. Judge John Raulston, it was certainly true, was not in any way, shape or form impartial, but he was surely correct that Bryan’s testimony was highly irregular. His ruling should have carried the day, except that Bryan, eager to air his views, said he had no objection to the defense motion. (That horrible mistake was compounded by the fact that Bryan had not argued a case in nearly three decades.) In any event, Raulston ruled, the day after the testimony, that the jurors were to disregard every bit of it.

* That Bryan suffered a fatal heart attack toward the conclusion of the trial. The heat—not to mention Darrow’s cross-examination—was rough on Bryan, who suffered from diabetes. But he did not die immediately after his day on the stand, but five days after the end of the trial, in his sleep.

* That, despite their clash, Darrow retained deep respect for Bryan. The closing scene of the film shows Drummond reproving cynical reporter E.K. Hornbeck for his cruel summary of Brady’s life. In fact, Darrow was just as scathing. When he was told by reporters that Bryan had died—perhaps from a broken heart over the trial, it was suggested—Darrow muttered bluntly that it had to do more with "a busted belly," then offered something more palatable for public consumption.

*That H.L. Mencken, though displaying contempt for Bryan, kept an ironic distance from Darrow. The Hornbeck character was based, of course, on columnist-editor-lexicographer H.L. Mencken. Unlike his character in the film, Mencken acted as a virtual consultant to the Scopes defense team. In the modern media environment, that connection would itself be the subject of controversy because of the writer’s extreme lack of objectivity.

* That the case represented the Waterloo for teaching evolution in the schools. Not really. Scopes lost the case before Judge Raulston, but a higher Tennessee court overturned the verdict on a technicality (the jury, not Raulston, was supposed to figure out the size of the fine)—exactly what Darrow was hoping to avoid. He wanted the law to be overturned on its merits, rather than the denouement in this case.

*That Bryan objected to evolution largely because he couldn’t accept the notion of man’s descent from apes. This might be the greatest distortion of all in the movie. The crux of Bryan's opposition came down to what he believed to be a natural consequence of Darwinian evolutionary theory—the notion of “social Darwinism.” A number of robber barons had argued that, since evolution favored the strong, they had no obligation to help the poor to survive. Bryan disagreed vehemently, and counterposed the Chritian “gospel of love” against it.

Quote of the Day (Reggie Turner, on His Literary Fortunes)

“The rare editions of my books are second editions.”—Reggie Turner (friend of Max Beerbohm and Oscar Wilde), quoted in Joseph Epstein, “Why Cry Over Split Milk?”, in The Weekly Standard, May 10, 2010

In case you’re wondering, faithful reader, that’s not a typo in the above article title. For an article about typos, the headline writer clever added one.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Movie Quote of the Day (Debbie Allen, on How to Achieve “Fame”)

“You got big dreams. You want fame. Well, fame costs. And right here’s where you start payin’!”—Audition judge Lydia (played by Debbie Allen), in Fame (1980), screenplay by Christopher Gore, directed by Alan Parker (1980)

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Quote of the Day (Elizabeth Hardwick, Recalling Summer Jazz in the South)

“In the summer the great bands arrived. Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Chick Webb….They were part of the summer nights and the hot dog stands, the fetid swimming pool with chlorine, the screaming roller coaster, the old rain-splattered picnic tables, the broken iron swings. And the bands were also part of Southern drunkenness, couples drinking Coke and whiskey, vomiting, being unfaithful, lovelorn, frantic.”—Elizabeth Hardwick, recalling her childhood in Lexington, Kentucky, in Sleepless Nights (1979)

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Song Lyric of the Day (Elvis Costello, on History)

“History repeats the old conceits,
The glib replies, the same defeats.”—Elvis Costello, “Beyond Belief,” from the Imperial Bedroom LP (1982)

Monday, July 19, 2010

TV Quote of the Day (“Freaks & Geeks,” on Helpless Teen Love)

Neal Schweiber (played by Samm Levine) to best friend/fellow "geek" Sam Weir (played by John Francis Daley): “The dance is tomorrow. She's a cheerleader. You've seen Star Wars 47 times. You do the math.”—From the Pilot Episode of Freaks & Geeks, written by Paul Feig, directed by Jake Kasdan, air date September 25, 1999

Freaks & Geeks belongs with Gary David Goldberg’s 1992-93 series Brooklyn Bridge among the small group of critically acclaimed, memory-based comedy-dramas that never achieved the audiences or longevity they deserved (unlike, for instance, The Wonder Years). After years of clamoring from the cult audience established in its short run, executive producer Judd Apatow’s 1999-2000 series (most of which aired originally on NBC, with Fox Family Channel picking up the unaired episodes), however, now exists on DVD for you to enjoy. Let your freak flag fry.

Freaks & Geeks was set in 1980, only two years after I graduated from high school, so it was comparatively easy for me to identify with the situations in the show. But I suspect that, if you add cellphones and laptops, audiences covering four decades would find something in it that touches on their own experiences—whether an inane gym class, a guidance counselor with ulterior motives trying to be your friend, the school bully, or, as in the situation above, the pretty girl you don’t have a prayer of getting.

Would that Apatow had followed the funny but thoughtful tone of this dramedy instead of resorting to the tastelessness of his subsequent films (e.g., The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up). Nevertheless, you can still enjoy the show because of the other careers it furthered (Spider Man’s James Franco, ER’s Linda Cardellini, Knocked Up’s Seth Rogen) or simply for the quality of the writing and direction. (In particular, the homecoming dance sequence in this episode, in which awkward Sam finds himself face to face with his dream girl, helps make this one of the most exhilarating pilots ever filmed.)

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Quote of the Day (Miguel de Cervantes, on Mercy)

“Though the attributes of God are all equal, to our eyes that of mercy is brighter and loftier than that of justice.”—Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote, translated by John Ormsby

Among the forms of mercy practiced by my pastor this muggy summer was his sermon yesterday, which reflected the sound advice he recalled receiving from mentors as a young seminarian: “Be quick, be brief, and be gone.”

Saturday, July 17, 2010

This Day in Presidential History (Truman Sizes Up Stalin at Potsdam)

July 17, 1945—Meeting for the first time, Joseph Stalin and Harry S. Truman, along with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, began deliberating in Potsdam, a suburb of a Berlin too shelled by war to provide decent deliberations, on what they hoped would be the endgame of World War II.

Instead, the roots of distrust, already planted earlier in the year at the Yalta Conference, continued to grow at the Potsdam Conference, as the new American President and the longtime Soviet dictator came to inaccurate conclusions about each other.

Already, divisions were springing up between East and West over Soviet control of territories in Eastern Europe. At Yalta, the United States and Great Britain had clung to a thin reed of hope that the Soviet Union would conduct free elections in Poland. That hope turned out to be an illusion.

Truman’s approach to governing differed in many ways from that of his predecessor, Franklin Roosevelt, but it’s instructive to see how wrong both were about the Soviet leader. Both notions rested, in a sense, on confidence in their own judgment. FDR believed that there was virtually nobody immune from his immense charm, even a Soviet dictator credibly believed to be second only to Hitler in the mass-murder department (by some counts, perhaps even worse). Truman, on the other hand, thought Stalin could be brought to his senses by applying good, old-fashioned Midwestern plain speaking.

Truman was working in his study at noon on the 17th when he looked up to see Stalin in the doorway. After the two engaged in social chit-chat and posed for pictures in the garden, the President confided to his diary, “I can deal with Stalin. He is honest, but smart as hell.”

You read that statement—“I can deal with Stalin”—and it sounds like a foreshadowing of Margaret Thatcher’s advice to Ronald Reagan’s about new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev: “We can do business with him.” I am not an admirer of Thatcher or Reagan, but they turned out to be correct about Gorbachev. Truman and FDR--not to mention Lord Mountbatten, who thought that telling this Marxist revolutionary about his connections to the Romanovs would result in an invitation to visit Russia--were wrong about Stalin.

Truman’s perception of the Soviet leader appeared to be something on the order of Tom Pendergast, the Kansas City city boss who had helped boost the President’s career. In that political environment, if you wanted something done, you took it to the political machine.

What neither FDR nor Truman could perceive, until it was too late, was that Stalin was not just an authoritarian but a paranoid mass murderer.

For his part, Stalin couldn’t help comparing Truman unfavorably with FDR, believing that the former failed haberdasher couldn't match the patrician, upstate New York aristocrat. ("They couldn't be compared. Truman's neither educated nor clever.") He had no idea that Truman would summon his nerve and face up to the U.S.S.R. over the next few years.
Truman might have thought he could “deal with Stalin,” but was also determined, even at this point, to get tough with him. The West’s ability to sway matters in Eastern Europe was, at this point, limited (Stalin wouldn’t budge on Poland, but agreed to join with the U.S., Britain and France in administering occupation zones in Germany).

With Germany defeated, only Japan remained to be subdued. Enormous casualties at Okinawa had convinced the U.S. and Britain that Soviet participation was absolutely vital for the upcoming invasion of Japan.

But news of the successful testing of an atomic bomb at Los Alamos, N.M., the day before Truman met Stalin changed, much of the calculus of negotiations at Potsdam. After receiving notification of the test, Truman approached Stalin on July 24 without an interpreter present and told him the Americans had a “new weapon of unusual destructive force.” Stalin replied imperturbably that he hoped it would be used against Japan.

Once again, Truman made a mistake in gauging the Soviet leader’s psychology, but for a different reason. Stalin wasn’t impressed by the news because he knew about it already. Spies had not only alerted him to the existence of the Manhattan Project since March 1942, but put him onto the momentous "Trinity" secret the week before Truman hinted at it. The Soviets were already trying to duplicate all this research on their own (though it would take more atomic spying before the Soviets would have their hands on the bomb).

Revisionist history since the 1960s has fostered the notion that Truman ordered the dropping of the atomic bomb more to impress the Soviets with Western strength than as a means of saving the lives of American servicemen. His belief that he could “deal with Stalin”—that forceful determination would make the Soviets live up to their agreements—lent credence to this notion.

But the seismic shock of American casualties in 1945, even as Japan continued to suffer grievously, seems to have been more decisive, as well as the continued intransigence of the Japanese imperial government.

The Potsdam Declaration on July 26, calling for unconditional surrender, was rejected by Japan. At that point, pressure grew inexorably for the tragic decision to drop the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

TV Exchange of the Day (“Scoundrels,” on Photographers and Supermodels)

Heather West (played by Leven Rambin): “Mom, Rene is a brilliant artist. See? Totally legitimate. He shot Gisele Bundchen when she was 14. You know what she made last year?”'

Cheryl West (played by Virginia Madsen, pictured here): “Some dirty old man very happy?”—“And Jill Came Tumbling After,” Premiere Episode of Scoundrels, teleplay by Lynnie Gray and Richard Levine, directed by Julie Anne Robinson, original air date June 20, 2010

Friday, July 16, 2010

Flashback, July 1980: Bench Sets All-Time HR Mark for Catchers

Johnny Bench set a record for most career home runs by a catcher with his shot off Montreal’s David Palmer. The 314th round-tripper for the Cincinnati Red slugger on July 14, 1980, also gave rise to one of the great congratulatory telegrams of all time, from the man whose mark he surpassed, the New York Yankees’ Yogi Berra: “Congratulations, John. I knew my record would stand until it was broken.”

Bench had a few other things in common with Yogi, besides power: both were multiple-MVP Hall of Famers (Berra with three, Bench with two); both were winners when it counted, in the World Series; and both were at the heart of the most feared lineups of their age, with Berra eventually gaining 10 World Series rings and Bench two.

Over the decades, certain positions have produced rather good-humored arguments about which of a trio of contemporaries happened to be the greatest. In the early part of this decade, discussions revolved around shortstops Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Nomar Garciaparra; in the Fifties, they involved New York centerfielders Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Duke Snider; in the Seventies, the fights raged over catchers Bench, Thurman Munson and Carlton Fisk.

The centerfielder argument was resolved, in its way, as amicably as you can get: all three men eventually won World Series rings and plaques in Cooperstown. Even the shortstop arguments of this past decade have abated, as Garciaparra’s career declined after he left the Red Sox and A-Rod switched to third in deference to Jeter’s place with the Yankees.

But the ‘70s catcher dispute still left its share of bitterness, largely because of the player whose career was shortened the most, in a tragic plane accident: Munson.

If pressed, I would cede primacy among catchers to Bench, who not only possessed awesome power but one of the most blistering arms in the business. (Brooks Robinson, a foe in the 1970s World Series, later observed that the first time he saw Bench throw out a runner heading for second, the ball “stayed at a level of about two feet off the ground all the way. It was like a bullet. He zipped it right out there.”) And, Yankee fan that I am, I still have to tip my cap to Fisk for his extraordinary durability.

But the fiercely proud Munson bristled over comparisons to his great rivals not just for position bragging rights but for championships. Munson—who, like virtually all Yankees worth their salt, hated, just hated, all things Red Sox—had an additional reason to hate Fisk: he felt sportswriters preferred his league rival because of his smoother image.

Munson was also miffed at how the media treated Reds manager Sparky Anderson’s comment after his star became the 1976 World Series MVP: “Don’t ever compare anyone to Johnny Bench.”

Munson had a right to feel annoyed. His team might have been swept in the Series that year, but it was in no way due to their catcher, who batted .529 over the four games—a performance that, under different circumstances, would have netted him the championship MVP.

Nevertheless, Munson might have done well to pay attention to the truth expressed so vividly in Berra’s famous telegram. Records are meant to be broken. Twenty-four years after Bench surpassed Yogi’s mark, the two men—along with Fisk and Gary Carter—showed up at a tribute to Mike Piazza after the Mets catcher surpassed not just Berra and Bench, but now Fisk, with the 352nd homer of his career.

That night in 2004, Piazza spoke with a true sense of history and wonder about “the catching fraternity.” Indeed—I’m not sure even the most knowledgeable of baseball fans can appreciate viscerally the game awareness, pride and toughness it takes to squat behind the plate, day after day, absorbing every kind of physical punishment—then get up and smack home runs. In that light, it’s difficult to imagine where the Yankees and Red Sox rivalry of the past decade would have been without their stalwart backstops, Jorge Posada and Jason Varitek.

TV Exchange of the Day (“Seinfeld,” on George Steinbrenner)

Jerry Seinfeld (played by Jerry Seinfeld): “So what's Steinbrenner gonna do if he doesn't get his calzone?”
George Costanza (played by Jason Alexander): “What's he gonna do? That's exactly the point! Nobody knows what this guy is capable of! He fires people like it's a bodily function!”—“The Calzone,” Episode 20, Season 7 of Seinfeld, written by Alec Berg and Jeff Schaffer, air date April 25, 1996

Just think of it—even on the day he died, the guy who put the fear of God in George Costanza stole the headlines—from the All-Star Game!

All sorts of reminiscences and commentaries (including a truly bizarre one from Rush Limbaugh) are pouring out on George Steinbrenner. Let’s stipulate right away that he won more championships than any other New York owner (even the Maras); that Yankee tradition meant a great deal to him; and that he was capable of many acts of private kindness.

I’m still bothered by the bullying that Seinfeld satirized. One of his great—and all-too-appropriate—quotes went, “I will never have a heart attack. I give them.” The first part of that statement proves that the longtime Yankee owner was no Nostradamus, but the second part was demonstrably true, or close to it.

I’m afraid that Steinbrenner’s attitude is all too symptomatic of what’s wrong with today’s business world. Daily abuse and humiliation rituals seem to be the first resort of all too many company executives—and the economy these last few years may have only worsened the situation. That produces all too much physical and psychological sickness, with all kinds of consequences in family life and the larger American society. There's a price to be had for this, and that should not be forgotten in Steinbrenner's case, even with the natural tendency not to speak ill of the dead--or, to at least present a balanced assessment of the deceased.

May The Boss know fully the peace he seldom realized in life for himself or others.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

TV Quote of the Day (“30 Rock,” on a Boss’s Juggling of Girlfriends)

“You’re going to juggle them? No! Even you can’t pull this off, Jack. Mrs. Doubtfire shimself could not do this.”—Liz Lemon (played by Tina Fey) to boss Jack Donaghy (played by Alec Baldwin) about dating two women at once, on 30 Rock, quoted in “Sound Bites,” Entertainment Weekly, May 7, 2010

This Day in Film History (Lois Moran, Fitzgerald’s “Tender is the Night” Ingenue, Dies)

July 13, 1990—When Lois Moran, 81, died of cancer in Sedona, Ariz., few were alive who remembered her brief heyday as a film and stage actress six decades before. But thousands more knew her indirectly, as the inspiration for Rosemary Hoyt, the innocent who stepped into the charmed circle around seemingly magical couple Dick and Nicole Diver, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic 1934 novel Tender is the Night.

Did Fitzgerald have an affair with Moran? The point is disputed. To her dying day, Moran publicly insisted that she had not. Ernest Hemingway, who did not hesitate to peddle sometimes highly dubious stories after the death of his onetime friend Fitzgerald, implicitly supported that claim when he said Scott had never had an extramarital relationship until wife Zelda went insane.

Most Fitzgerald biographers, from what I can tell, think there was an affair, and the novelist certainly left that impression in the plot of a book that became increasingly autobiographical over the course of its creation. (As Andre Le Vot’s perceptive 1983 biography noted, Tender followed a familiar pattern: it resembled less and less its original starting point—in this case, Gerald and Sara Murphy, two American expatriates living on the Riviera in the mid-1920s—and more and more Scott and Zelda themselves.)

In another way, however, it’s immaterial whether Scott and Lois consummated the relationship. It’s indisputable that Fitzgerald was infatuated by the actress; that he captured the youthful silent-screen star at the evanescent moment when she was maturing into beauty and sophistication; and that his heavy attention to her provoked Zelda.

The Fitzgeralds first met Moran at a party thrown at Pickfair, the home of Hollywood stars Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, when the starlet was 17 years old and Scott was 30. She had been cast in the silent-film classic weepie Stella Dallas, and Hollywood studio execs as well as audiences were already agreeing with Mordaunt Hall’s assessment that “She is not like the usual run of dolls’ faces so prevalent in motion pictures. She is winsome, and wholesome, and earnest in her acting.”

Lois’ twice-widowed mother and manager Gladys was more clinical—and, to her daughter’s benefit, more level-headed—about what the actress brought to the screen: “Lois had no other specific talent that I had observed," she told a reporter from Picture Play in 1931, "but she was emotionally sensitive, fairly pretty, and free from self-consciousness. And with those three qualities, any girl can learn to be a successful actress."

Fitzgerald would hardly have regarded her as “any girl.” It’s easy to imagine the indelible impression she made at the Fairbanks’ party in this description of Rosemary Hoyt when first seen on the Riviera in Tender is the Night:

“She had magic in her pink palms and her cheeks lit to a lovely flame, like the thrilling flush of children after their cold baths in the evening. Her fine forehead sloped gently up to where her hair, bordering it like an armored shield, burst into lovelocks and waves and curlicues of ash blonde and gold, her eyes were bright, big, clear, wet, and shining, the color of her cheeks was real, breaking close to the surface from the strong young pump of her heart. Her body hovered delicately on the last edge of childhood—she was almost eighteen, nearly complete, but the dew was still on her.”

(That passage and how it evolved is indicative of the way Fitzgerald moved between short stories and the novel to try out themes, language and characterization. Similar language about another teenaged actress appears in his short story “The Hotel Child,” except that in this case the Lois stand-in was Jewish. Fitzgerald also writes about a similar character in other stories from the decade in which Tender was gestating, including “Jacob’s Ladder,” “Magnetism,” and “The Rough Crossing.”)

Lois may have admired Scott almost as much as he did her. Like him, she was an Irish-American born in a secondary metropolitan area (he, St. Paul, Minn.; she, Pittsburgh). Like him, she was enthralled by play-acting as an adolescent; like him, she was small (he, five feet, six inches; her, five feet, two inches), with delicate features that translated well on camera. In fact, she even got a screen test for him. (No copy survives of this, unfortunately.)

Scott never visited Lois unless Gladys was around, but Zelda quickly became jealous. Scott told his wife that unlike her, at least Lois had tried to do something with her talent.

This did not go down well with Zelda, who, from the mid-1920s on, had been turning in desperation to outlets for her talents, such as writing, painting and ballet. In a sign of her mounting distress, Zelda became so incensed over the Scott-Lois relationship that she burned in her bath all the clothes she had designed herself.

On their way home from Scott’s first failed foray into Hollywood in the 1920s, Zelda had it out with her husband all again over Moran, according to Sally Cline's Zelda Fitzgerald: Her Voice in Paradise. The cause: an interview in which Moran said her favorite authors were Friedrich Nietzsche, Rupert Brooke and Fitzgerald.

That bore all the signs of Scott’s little hobby of providing reading lists to young women. He didn’t help matters when he told Zelda he’d invited Moran to visit them out east. In a rage, Zelda threw out the train window the diamond and platinum watch that Scott bought for her a half-dozen years before. (The cost of that gift in today’s currency: $12,000.)

In all, Lois made 30 films from 1924 to 1931, and she would triumph on Broadway as well in the original runs of George and Ira Gershwin’s Of Thee I Sing and its sequel, Let ‘Em Eat Cake. Aside from a few regional theater productions, she largely retired from acting after she married aviation pioneer Clarence M. Young.

It’s interesting to note that in 1935, on the day she wed Young, she spoke on the phone with another older male friend: Fitzgerald. She was about to settle down to decades of quiet fulfillment as wife and mother; he, on the other hand, had five more years in which he would struggle under the weight of his wife’s institutionalization, payments for his daughter’s education—and his own alcoholism.

Quote of the Day (John Updike, on Bores)

“A healthy male adult bore consumes each year one and a half times his own weight in other people’s patience.”—John Updike, “Confessions of a Wild Bore,” Assorted Prose (1965)

Monday, July 12, 2010

Quote of the Day (Robert Klein, Recalling a 1950s Teacher)

“Nooo talking. Take these tags home. They’re to be used in the event you’re burnt beyond recognition in a nuclear holocaust….and nooo talking during a nuclear holocaust…I shall be taking names.”—Robert Klein, impersonating a teacher in 1950s air-raid drills, quoted in Phil Berger, The Last Laugh: The World of Stand-Up Comics, Updated Edition (2000)

Back in the mid-1970s, as a teenager, I had the chance to see Robert Klein in concert, as part of the Schaefer Music Festival at Central Park’s Wollman Skating Rink.

The outdoor, summer-night setting was unlike the enclosed nightclubs he was accustomed to, I’m sure. But it gave me a great sense not only of the world of stand-up comics, but also of this man’s particular style of wry, observational humor. Various deejays on WNEW-FM made me even more aware of his skills by playing routines from his album Child of the Fifties.

Not too many comedians were bigger than Klein in those years—something that HBO recognized when it headlined him on its first stand-up comic special in 1975. But—at least for me—Klein appeared to dip under the radar for much of the Eighties and Nineties, so I was delighted to see him again, this time onscreen, as Sandra Bullock’s dad in the 2002 film Two Weeks Notice. I hope I’ll continue to see him often in the years ahead, not merely as an actor but as a consummate humorist.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Quote of the Day (Thomas Merton, on Two Kinds of Lives)

“A life is either all spiritual or not spiritual at all. No man can serve two masters. Your life is shaped by the end you live for. You are made in the image of what you desire.”—Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude

Saturday, July 10, 2010

This Day in Revolutionary War History (Patriots Bar Blacks From Struggle for Liberty)

July 10, 1775—With their war against the world’s greatest imperial power still hardly off the ground, the Continental Army assured that it would be fighting with one hand tied behind its back, as recruiters were issued an order to avoid enlisting any African-Americans. The restriction, though written by Horatio Gates, then adjutant-general of the army, reflected the thinking of its new commander in chief, George Washington.

As historian John Carey has noted, “One of history’s most useful tasks is to bring home to us how keenly, honestly, and painfully, past generations pursued aims that now seem to us wrong or disgraceful.” Therefore, though it would be simple to blame the ban solely on the slaveholding Virginian Washington, at the beginning of the war, none of the colonies was particularly keen on arming slaves or even free blacks. (Even the northern ones restricted recruitment of African-American soldiers at first.)

Totally stigmatizing Washington for his responsibility for the order is not a particularly illuminating exercise, either. Far from being simply the army’s commander in chief, Washington was also the nation’s chief realist. Though circumstances led him, at the start of the war, to avoid doing anything to alienate Southern colonies, he would reverse himself on the role of African-Americans in the armed forces not just before the war was over, but before the year was out. Five thousand blacks served in the Continental Army throughout the conflict, and hundreds more joined the new nation's navy.
The more interesting question is this: did Washington's observations on the fighting ability of African-Americans begin an inner re-examination of slavery that resulted in him emancipating all those on his plantation within a few years of his death in 1799?

Aside from the obvious factor--racism--what other circumstances might have led to Gates' initial restricting order? It can also be seen:

* As a desire to limit anything that might drag down the effectiveness of the American fighting force. The relevant section of the order relating to blacks read: “You are not to enlist any deserter from the Ministerial (British) army, nor any stroller, negro, or vagabond, or person suspected of being an enemy to the liberty of America.” Yes, there certainly is something, to modern ears, ironic about “enemy to the liberty of America,” but the immediate context of the words around “negro” seems to group the race as malingers—perhaps, as Henry Wiencek suggested in his study of Washington as conscience-stricken slaveowner, An Imperfect God, the general assumed at the start of the conflict that blacks around the army were bound to be runaways.

* As a reflection of Southerners’ fears in the months preceding the order that the British would incite slave insurrections. General Thomas Gage’s march from Boston to seize ammunition at Concord has gotten all the historical attention for starting the war, but two days later, when Virginia’s colonial governor, Lord Dunmore, tried something similar, the political fallout took on a whole different dimension: by disarming citizens, it was feared, he was weakening their ability to quash slave uprisings. These were not exaggerated incidents: in the week just before Dunmore’s order, several slaves had been convicted of conspiring in such events.

* As indicative of the urge for security that takes hold quickly in nearly every American war. Gates’ order that day also took into account the foreign-born as possible fifth columns: “"You are not to Enlist any Person who is not an American-born, unless such Person has a Wife and Family, and is a settled Resident in this Country." In Massachusetts, Indians were also barred, in 1776, from enlistment in the militia.

The tragedy was, as Ray Raphael notes in A People’s History of the American Revolution (2001), that African-Americans had already fought bravely—even losing their lives—at Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill before Washington had Gates issue his order. And, for awhile, after a war council of Washington’s senior officers agreed that not only slaves, but even freedmen would not be allowed to bear arms in the conflict, it appeared that African-Americans would play no role whatsoever on the rebel side.

By the end of the year, however, Washington had, at least partially, walked back his order, noting that “Numbers of Free Negroes are desirous of inlisting” and that, therefore, they should not be discouraged from doing so. What prompted the turnaround was Lord Dunmore’s November 1775 proclamation of manumission to any slave joining the British cause, and the Continental Army’s own demographic dilemma—i.e., failure to meet its recruitment rolls.

When he first assumed command in Massachusetts, Washington already did not have all the troops he expected. By the end of December 1775, only half his army was re-enlisting. By 1777, as the general understood he was engaged in such a long-term struggle that three-year enlistments would be required, filling army vacancies became harder still. That crumbled any resistance that Washington--or Congress--might have had to enlisting not just free blacks but also slaves.

It is believed that, because of actions such as Lord Dunmore’s, more African-Americans served as loyalist than patriot soldiers. But in at least two instances, African-Americans played major roles in Washington’s two most important battles of the war.

Colonel John Glover’s Massachusetts regiment, which contained a large number of blacks as well as whites, ferried him across the Delaware in the surprise attack (and victory) at Trenton. Nearly five years later, Washington chose the First Rhode Island Regiment--an African-American unit with white commanders--to carry out a critical nighttime attack that secured victory at Yorktown.

In history, changes of heart are more likely to come from several (or even more) episodes than from one single, Paul-on-the-road-to-Damascus one. Washington illustrates the point. He would remain a slaveholder to the end of his life, and even brought his slaves with him when he resided in Philadelphia as the nation's first President. But his thinking on the "peculiar institution" may have already begun to change.
In the closing years of the revolution, Washington had heard two of his finest young aides, Alexander Hamilton and John Laurens, call for manumitting slaves who fought for independence. Washington was not one fast for decision, but their arguments—and what he saw of the performance of African-Americans in the war—may have contributed to his eventual change of heart about slavery.
Washington's last will and testament contained explicit instructions not only for the emancipation of his slaves upon his wife’s death, but also for the education that would prepare them for life on their own. No other Founding Father—including fellow Virginians Patrick Henry (“Give me liberty or give me death”) or Thomas Jefferson (“All men are created equal”)—did likewise.

Quote of the Day (Pat Moynihan, Summarizing British Reactions to Past and More Recent Famines)

“I really did feel I was talking to Sir Charles Trevelyan 122 years ago, assuming all was well in Connaught, that the new potato crop was coming along nicely, and that in any event the Irish always were a bit disorganized.”—Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then assistant to the President for Urban Affairs in the Nixon administration, describing a meeting with a British official who claimed the malnutrition producing famine in Biafra was only 5 or 10 percentage points above normal, quoted in Sam Roberts, “Papers Show Moynihan in Full Voice Under Nixon,” The New York Times, July 3, 2010

You might think that it was mostly by academic training that the late Senator Moynihan possessed a long memory. But the tart voice coming out of the memo quoted above could only come from an Irishman with total recall for historical wrongs.

Moynihan’s sometimes vaguely Anglophilia manner (enhanced by a stint as a Fulbright Scholar at the London School of Economics in the early 1950s, as well as by a donnish air) could sometimes put people off. But anger over the Irish potato famine of the 1840s, at least on this one occasion, led him to burst out more like a former denizen of Hell’s Kitchen than Harvard Yard.

The bureaucrat Charles Trevelyan—father of the British civil service, and, in the late 1840s, the treasury administrator with primary responsibility for Irish famine relief—is the dominating sensibility—obtuse, hidebound by economic ideology—of Cecil Woodham-Smith’s great history of the Potato Famine, The Great Hunger.

The identity of the British official of the late 1960s who provoked Moynihan’s outburst is unclear from the Times article, but I certainly believe his type existed.

After all, that long blindness on the part of many British government officials persists into our own time. After all, it took the 12-year, $295 million inquiry by Lord Saville before a Conservative Party government finally admitted that government troops had fired without provocation on Ulster Catholics in a 1972 civil-rights march, in the day that will be forever known as Bloody Sunday.

Friday, July 9, 2010

This Day in Literary History (Samuel Johnson, Unlikely Groom, Weds)

July 9, 1735—If the dictionary he published two decades later had a word for “unlikely groom,” then Samuel Johnson could have used himself as an example to illustrate the point. At age 25, the future literary giant was not exactly Prince Charming material: poor, sickly, beset by so many twitches and tics that he was known as “The Great Convulsionary.”

In other words, think of him as a kind of 18th-century, real-life “Shrek.”

Amazingly, Johnson found his own counterpart to Princess Fiona: Elizabeth Porter, a mercer’s widow, given to painting her face even more thickly than ladies of that period usually did. Oh, and did I mention that she was more than 20 years older than Johnson?

But before you have visions of Mrs. Robinson, Susan Sarandon or Courtney Cox—you know, those associated with “cougars”—think again. “Tetty” Porter, as she was known, was short and dumpy.

So, what could have led these two lost souls together? A letter from Tetty to her daughter (who was closer in age to Johnson than her mom was), recounted in The Cambridge Companion to Samuel Johnson, gives a pretty good account of matters:

Mrs. Porter noticed upon meeting Johnson his “convulsive starts and odd gesticulations [that] tended to excite at once surprize and ridicule.” She also observed a face pockmarked from scrofula, his constantly blinking eyes, his odd feet and hand movements.

But after conversing with him, she wrote her daughter, she decided that “This is the most sensible man I ever met in my life.” Johnson was, as his later friend James Boswell amply demonstrated in his epic biography, an amazing conversationalist. Less than a year later, Mrs. Porter, now widowed, married Johnson.

In 1752, after reading the first issue of his publication The Rambler, she told him: “I thought very well of you before; but I did not imagine you could write anything equal to this.”

Not that the course of their marriage ran smoothly. By the end of it, Tetty had taken to drink and opiates. The couple had stopped sleeping together a long time ago.

Nevertheless, when she passed away at age 64, Johnson was disconsolate. “Pretty creature!” he would exclaim to bewildered bystanders after her death. If you want another idea of the author and why he felt this way, think of Jack Nicholson's character Marvin in As Good As It Gets—another writer whose physical/mental infirmities would, under normal circumstances, doom him to an irrevocably isolated, misanthropic life—until, like Mrs. Porter, a single mom finds what is good and true beneath his troubled exterior.

Quote of the Day (Dominick Dunne, on a Major Skill of His)

“I’m simply a very good listener. And listening is an underrated skill. If you really listen—if you’re really interested—someone is bound to talk.”—Dominick Dunne, quoted in Matt Schudel, “Dominick Dunne; Wrote About Crimes of Rich and Famous,” The Record (Bergen County, NJ), reprinted from Washington Post News Service, August 28, 2009

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Quote of the Day (Margaret MacMillan, on History as Therapy)

“History should not be written to make the present generation feel good but to remind us that human affairs are complicated.”—Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan, Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History (2008)

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Happy 70th, Ringo!

Few phrases seem as incongruous to me as the one in the headline above. A thousand replays of Ringo Starr and the other Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show have made it impossible to expunge the image of enduringly carefree youth, even if the boys eventually fell apart over money and ego problems and two are now dead.

And that great opening-credits sequence in A Hard Day’s Night—yes, they were the ones being chased through the train station by crazy fans, but they turned the tables by chasing the blues away—the “blues” in this case being nearly a decade of depressing British “kitchen-sink cinema” such as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, This Sporting Life, and the one that started it all, Look Back in Anger.

Ringo’s life offscreen and away from the drums hasn’t always been fun (he’s had to fight an alcohol problem), but he’s managed to keep his humor intact and not accumulated neuroses or pretenses. He really seems to believe it when he sings, “I get by with a little help from my friends.”

Peace and love, Ringo.

Quote of the Day (Susan Sarandon, on Being Suddenly Single Again)

“I did a movie a long time ago where I had to fly in a glider. You get towed up in the air by a plane. At some point you pull the cord and you’re suddenly floating, and in your mind it makes absolutely no sense. But it’s exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. That’s where I am now.”—Susan Sarandon, quoted in Chris Nashawaty, “Susan Sarandon Talks to EW About Life After Split With Tim Robbins,” Entertainment Weekly, April 1, 2010

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

This Day in Literary History (Birth of William Faulkner’s Wild Great-Grandfather)

July 6, 1825—William Clark Falkner, the original of one of the major characters in the fiction of great-grandson William Faulkner, was born in Tennessee. Whatever commotion he might have caused after emerging from the womb, it was nothing compared with the swashbuckling path he would forge in his violence-filled and –shortened life.
(Note: Though some scholars give 1826 as the year of birth, I’m following here the lead of Faulkner biographer Jay Parini, who assigns it to 1825.)

When Malcolm Cowley was editing The Portable Faulkner, the novelist helpfully created a genealogical and chronological chart to help keep his Yoknapatawpha County characters straight. At points, the chart becomes not merely helpful but remarkable (Faulkner revealed the fate of some characters—something he had not done in his teeming fiction in some cases), and not merely for critics but, in one instance, for biographers.

What Cowley really wanted was for Faulkner to reveal more details about himself—like what he did in World War I. Not biting (unlike Ernest Hemingway, who, as I indicated in a prior post, had exaggerated the circumstances surrounding his very real and credit-worthy war wound), Faulkner put him off by reciting the heroics of someone he regarded as considerably more fascinating: his great-grandfather, the man for whom he was named:

“He was prototype for John Sartoris: raised, organized, paid the expenses of and commanded the 2nd Mississippi Infantry, 1861-2, etc. Was a part of Stonewall Jackson’s left at 1st Manassas that afternoon; we have a citation in James Longstreet’s hand as his corps commander after 2nd Manassas. He built the first railroad in our county, wrote a few books, made grand-European tour of his time, died in a duel and the country raised a marble effigy which still stands in Tippah county.”

The image accompanying this post—from a statue of Col. Falkner (the Nobel laureate added the “u” years later)—comes nowhere near to matching the dark, burning eyes in the photo of the Faulkner family patriarch in Parini’s biography, One Matchless Time. That showed a man who let nothing stand in the way of an acquisitive streak more deathless than he was.

William Faulkner’s description to Cowley is correct, as far as it goes. But, probably because his ancestor’s life was too filled with incidents, he didn’t mention other items, which I first heard about in the late great Carl Hovde’s American Literature class at Columbia University (and which Parini elaborates on):

* At age 15, WC (or, as his descendants often referred to him, the “Old Colonel”) got into such a bad fight with his brother that he nearly killed him. With undoubted wisdom, he decided that a change of scenery, further south, might be appropriate.

* In his travels, WC came across an uncle in prison on a murder charge. Perhaps negatively inspired by his example (surely there were a lot of potential land-grabbers who got into fights in this region, all of whom woudl eventually require legal counsel), he became a lawyer, even though he had no formal education.

* At age 21, WC got into another set-to, this time over a woman. He lost three fingers for his pains, along with his position in a state volunteer regiment.

* Here’s the fight I heard about in college that made my eyes pop: At age 24, WC found himself going mano a mano with a fellow who was sure the young lawyer had opposed his entrance into the local Knights of Temperance. (Let me get this straight: fighting over the Knights of Temperance?) This fellow had an intemperate reaction to rejection, taking it so personally that he pulled out a pistol and shot at WC at point-blank range. As Professor Hovde explained it, guns in those days had this swell habit of not always going off, and WC was an immediate beneficiary of this failure of firepower. He decided to turn the tables on his attacker with a weapon incapable of misfiring: a knife that he plunged into the other party. Yes, there was some trouble, but the jury bought his story of self-defense.

* He fought in the Civil War, in the manner described above by his great-grandson—only a bit more was involved. He developed a reputation for putting men's lives at risk that was remarkable even for many commanders in that war. He was voted out of the regiment he had helped raise, though he retained his rank of colonel.

* He made so much money from developing a railroad, as well as other business ventures, that by 1879 he’d earned $50,000—a nifty bit of change in those days.

* The Old Colonel also cut what passed for a literary career, including an 1880 novel called The White Rose of Memphis.

* In 1889, after a lifetime of constant motion, all things came to an end for WC when a business partner mortally wounded him in a duel, thus ending a remarkable life all too symbolic of the Deep South’s Gothic violence. WC's son decided against pursuing the matter because the murderer had plenty of friends who could make trouble for the younger Falkner in the business world. In any case, his great-grandson would give him a different kind of immortality in his third novel, originally called Flags in the Dust, then cut by an editor and reshaped into Sartoris.

Movie Quote of the Day (“Palm Beach Story,” on Men “Most in Need of a Beating Up”)

John D. Hackensacker III (played by Rudy Vallee, center of the accompanying image): “That's one of the tragedies of this life—that the men who are most in need of a beating up are always enormous.” —The Palm Beach Story (1942), written and directed by Preston Sturges

Monday, July 5, 2010

This Day in Theater History (Shaw Quits Job With Edison for Literary Career)

July 5, 1880—Putting behind him his last attempt at a conventional job, George Bernard Shaw quit the Edison Telephone Co. in London, determined to become a professional writer. It would take another five years before he was able to secure a steady gig as a music and art critic, and another dozen before his playwrighting career began in earnest.

How much good does a non-writing position do for an author? William Faulkner, a friend recalled, “made the damnedest postmaster the world has ever seen.”

On the other hand, Dashiell Hammett’s stint with the Pinkerton Detective Agency gave him a decidedly unromantic view of sleuthing that would come in handy when he helped to craft the hard-boiled detective genre, and I recall John Steinbeck’s widow Elaine saying that her husband’s early career in a succession of menial jobs gave him a deep sympathy with labor.

Let’s just say that Shaw’s employment by Edison placed him somewhere between these extremes of total uselessness and unexpected utility. The year before, the 23-year-old Anglo-Irishman had taken a job with “a company…formed in London to exploit the ingenious invention by Mr. Thomas Alva Edison.”

Many young men would have killed for such a job, but not Shaw. He not only had serious questions about the usefulness of Edison’s telephone equipment (“of such stentorian efficiency that it bellowed your most private communication all over the house instead of whispering them with some sort of discretion”) but also found himself something of a fish out of water.

Here’s why: Shaw’s co-workers in the crowded basement of the firm’s London offices were truly alien to him: “deluded and romantic men [who] gave me a glimpse of the skilled proletariat of the United States.” The next sentence of reminiscence is a gem of irony: you can just imagine how Shaw, whose mother taught music, must have been thinking: “They sang obsolete sentimental songs with genuine emotion; and their language was frightful even to an Irishman.”

And yet—something in their character appealed to the cerebral Shaw: ““They [the Americans] were free-souled creatures, excellent company: sensitive, cheerful, and profane; liars, braggarts, and hustlers; with an air of making slow old England hum which never left them even when, as often happened, they were wrestling with difficulties of their own making, or struggling in no-thoroughfares from which they had to be retrieved like straying sheep by Englishmen without imagination enough to go wrong.”

Shaw’s reminiscences of this period are contained in the Preface to his novel The Irrational Knot, which he wrote in 1880 but which did not see publication for another quarter-century, by which time he had become famous (and more or less established) as a playwright. Neither this nor the other two novels Shaw produced ever became commercial successes—and Shaw bluntly admitted to readers that he couldn’t stand the book.

That’s not to say, however, that he gained nothing from his experience. It did give him the opportunity to sharpen his wit and find his voice, with one-liners such as the following (on chess: “a foolish expedient for making idle people believe they are doing something very clever, when they are only wasting their time.” )

Shaw’s novel, incidentally, featured an Irish-American engineer—rather unlike any of his subsequent characters.