Thursday, September 30, 2010

Eulogy for My Mother

I delivered the following in memory of my mother at the conclusion of her funeral mass at St. Cecilia’s Roman Catholic Church in Englewood, N.J., this past Monday. I don’t ordinarily share much personal information about myself or my relatives on this blog, but this time, the example of my mother’s life called for an exception.

First, on behalf of myself and my family, I’d like to thank everyone in this beautiful church that my mother loved so much—and many other people who couldn’t be here today—for the care you showed us and our mother throughout a prolonged, painful period.

We have just heard in the Gospel about Our Lord’s grief over the loss of his friend Lazarus. But the story of Lazarus didn’t end with loss—it turned into affirmation. And so it is here today, as we celebrate the simple life but infinite value of Nora Tubridy.

We remember that Mom felt blessed that she survived a sickly childhood to go on to live a long life, filled with family who adored her.

We remember what Fr. Hilary at yesterday’s wake and Fr. Joe in today’s homily spoke of with characteristic eloquence—that God’s promise of eternal life through the Resurrection—the same promise my mother believed so devoutly all her life—is being fulfilled now in her case.

And we remember not what we lost these last few days, but what we gained over a lifetime—an extraordinary example of thoughtfulness, generosity and self-sacrifice.

Our mother suffered, among other ills, from heart disease. You could say, in that superficial, physical sense, that she had a bad heart. But in the senses that really mattered—emotionally, spiritually—she was the great beating heart of our family.

Nobody put into practice more what she always preached to us: “Self-praise is no recommendation.”

In fact, if there was a single thing I would have changed about her, it might have been her great shyness. Otherwise, far more people would have realized that she was an inexhaustible source of something all but impossible to find in ordinary life: unconditional love.

From the moment she met Dad in the summer of 1951 in the Catskill town of East Durham, N.Y., in the “Irish Alps,” she was supportive and attentive to anything he could want.

For her three boys, she was sensitive to unvoiced anxieties and sorrows: about a grade, a job, or worst of all, a girl. She would give us more than enough time to work out our feelings, but also know the exact moment to step in, with that tough Bronx love, to tell us we would get over it—and we should.

She was our greatest cheerleader and promoter. She believed each of us had special stuff, and helped us find it through the sheer force of that faith and love.

She treasured all her life Grandpa, Nana, my aunt Mary, my uncles Johnny and Ben, but what was especially extraordinary to us was her role, for 26 years, as caregiver for her twin brother Pete, who, like her, was quiet and unassuming. She did this until she was well into old age herself and experiencing the first symptoms of Parkinson’s. Quite simply, she sustained his life.

Over the years, we became familiar with so much about her:

* daily calls to her beloved sister and best friend, my dear Aunt Mary;
* the exclamations “Ah, gee” or “the poor thing” over something you said or did;
* her delight in tickling her three rambunctious boys;
* the way, during our life growing up in the Bronx, she would spot my brother John near a corner hot-dog vendor, wrap 35 cents in a napkin, and drop it out the window so he could buy a hot dog and Yoo-Hoo;
* saying multiple rosaries;
* listening to Dorothy Hayden’s Irish music show every Sunday night;
* cooking as many as four meals a day to accommodate the schedules of the four males in the house;
* waiting up till one or two in the morning for the return of whichever son was out;
* her questions, when we returned from a road trip or event, about everything we ate;
* standing in the middle of West Street, when a son was heading off to college or returning to an out-of-state home, waving until the car disappeared around the corner, then turning back into the house with a catch in the throat and a tear in the eye;
* the clear but elegant handwritten letters—virtual models for the old Palmer Penmanship method—that she mailed those of us away from home.

There’s nothing momentous about this list. But each small act mattered. Our mother showed the enormous power of St. Therese and her “simple way.”

All our lives, we knew how gentle this woman was. But I think it was only in the last few years, when she endured endless heartache—including the deaths of two beloved brothers, a sister, and brother-in-law all within 15 months—and interacting, debilitating complications from Parkinson’s, heart disease and macular degeneration—that we learned how tough and brave she really was. She even managed to crack a joke as her condition worsened in the hospital, two nights before she died.

She lost up to 60 pounds, yet somehow the beauty of those blue eyes shone all the more. And one morning during her last week in the hospital, when she woke to find me at her bedside, as weak and exhausted as she was, barely able to talk, she repeated exactly what she did with our whole family throughout our lives—she reached out with a hug and kiss.

As understandable as it is, we must not mourn her unduly anymore. Instead, we should rejoice that she left the best of herself in each of us—and that even now, she is our personal angel, saving a place for us in Heaven, ready to warm our hearts with hot tea and that soft, sweet voice humming “Toura-lura-lura.”

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Quote of the Day (Sigourney Weaver, on Her Spur to Success)

“Having arrived at Yale [School of Drama] feeling I could do anything, I was told I had no talent and should leave. I went to the school psychiatrist, but I had to pay after five sessions and didn’t feel like I could ask my parents to pay more money to send me to a school that didn’t want me. So I just sort of had a quiet nervous breakdown. But if the school had been more encouraging, I don’t know if I would have stayed in acting. When they told me I couldn’t be an actor, then I had to be a successful actor.”—Sigourney Weaver, quoted in Amy Wallace, “A Stand-Up Woman: 10 Questions for Sigourney Weaver,” Reader’s Digest, October 2010

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

TV Quote of the Day (TV Writer Glen Mazzara, on “Nash Bridges” vs. “M*A*S*H”)

“On Nash Bridges, the cop is always driving a big yellow cop car and always finds a parking space right outside of the place he wants to go. That doesn’t feel real. Whereas on a show like M*A*S*H the characters always had to duck down before they entered a tent. That feels real.”—Glen Mazzara, scriptwriter for The Shield, describing the difference between his first series, Nash Bridges, and the TV classic M*A*S*H, quoted in Nick Edwards, “Drama Behind the Drama,” Financial Times, August 28, 2010

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Quote of the Day (James Piereson, on Columbia University’s Core Curriculum)

“If the objective of a liberal education is to identify the permanent and perennial issues in the midst of flux and change, then Columbia’s Core serves that purpose more directly than most alternatives. In judging the two curricula, one does not face a close call. Columbia and Harvard are playing in different leagues. If it were a football game, Columbia would beat Harvard by several touchdowns.”—James Piereson, “Columbia Beats Harvard,” The New Criterion, September 2010

Monday, September 20, 2010

Quote of the Day (Leonard Bernstein, on Jazz)

"Jazz in the 20th century has entered the mind and spirit of America; if an American is a sensitive creator, jazz will have become part of his palette, whether or not he is aware of it."—Leonard Bernstein, “The Absorption of Race Elements Into American Music” (Harvard Bachelor’s Thesis, 1939), in Findings (1982)

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Quote of the Day (Thomas Merton, on the “Ordinary Duties” of Life)

“It is in the ordinary duties and labors of life that the Christian can and should develop his spiritual union with God.”—Attributed to Thomas Merton (1915-1968)

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Quote of the Day (Booker T. Washington, on “Questions of Social Equality”)

“The wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremest folly, and that progress in the enjoyment of all the privileges that will come to us must be the result of severe and constant struggle rather than of artificial forcing. No race that has anything to contribute to the markets of the world is long in any degree ostracized. It is important and right that all privileges of the law be ours, but it is vastly more important that we be prepared for the exercises of these privileges. The opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory just now is worth infinitely more than the opportunity to spend a dollar in an opera-house.”—Booker T. Washington, “The Atlanta Exposition Address,” delivered September 18, 1895

Frederick Douglass had been dead less than a year when Booker T. Washington appeared before a white audience at the Atlanta Exposition on this date in 1895. It’s a safe bet, however, that the fiery abolitionist leader—who, on Independence Day in 1852, excoriated his countrymen for excluding blacks from the promise of freedom—would have found little to his liking in this speech.

A further irony: with the accommodationist message of his address, Washington, a former slave, became the leading spokesman for African-Americans, a position he held until his death, after two more decades of tireless work. (To that phrase “tireless work,” I should also include the adjective “ineffectual” and "frustrating," because Washington, an inveterate lecturer, had to become used to separate-but-equal—and substandard—accommodations on his numerous travels.)

Especially after the civil rights movement, Washington was dismissed as an Uncle Tom by many revisionist historians, notably his Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, Louis Harlan. (For a small sample of the latter’s work, see his summary of the educator in this entry from The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture). More recently, historian Robert Norell, in Up From History, has attempted to restore some balance to this sometimes overly harsh skepticism, noting the incredibly harsh environment then faced by African-Americans, including Washington himself in Tuskegee’s home state, Alabama. (Earlier that year, he had saved the life of a local African-American lawyer from a white mob, but only by refusing to acknowledge he had hidden the man in his own home.)

In certain ways, the key to Washington’s position might be found in one sentence quoted above: “No race that has anything to contribute to the markets of the world is long in any degree ostracized.” That touching absolute faith in the marketplace continues to reverberate today (you can almost hear the voice of black conservative columnist Thomas Sowell speaking that line), but I’m afraid that it is contradicted by the facts of history.

One of the few businessmen who did confirm Washington’s belief was Gus Busch, who really did not care about the color of the fans of the team he owned, the St. Louis Cardinals, as long as they drank his beer. But far more often—and especially in the six decades between Washington’s so-called “Atlanta Compromise” and the young Martin Luther King Jr.’s leadership of the Montgomery Bus Boycott—American businessmen have been anything but enlightened when it came to the marketplace and human rights.

A final irony of this address: The refrain “cast your buckets where you are” came to be associated with what blacks would give up, but Washington also used it to undercut the relative position of another group: immigrants. White businessmen need not look to other white, foreign-born workers for cheap labor, he promised: They could get the same thing from native black workers—except that, in the case of the latter—a “patient” group—capitalists need not worry about the strikes then beginning to take hold in America.

In his desperate attempt to assure the survival of African-Americans, then, Washington ended up using his considerable prestige to undermine the status of his own race and immigrant whites. “Up From Slavery”? Perhaps, but not by much.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Quote of the Day (Noel Coward, on Claudette Colbert)

“Claudette Colbert insisted on being filmed from only one angle, which complicated everyone’s lives in these early television days. In filming Blithe Spirit she was so uncooperative that Noel [Coward] swore he would wring her neck—if he could find it.”—The Letters of Noel Coward, edited by Barry Day (2007)

I had intended to post this quote today in the belief that September 17 was the birthday of Claudette Colbert, but it appears I was late by four days. (The original year I had for her birth—1905—also appears to be late, by two years, but it was and is a Hollywood actress’ prerogative to slice a few years off one’s age.) In any case, the quote was so good that I couldn’t let it sit unused for long.

I first became aware of the situation that drove Coward crazy—the actress’ insistence that she be photographed on one side of her face—when my high school sponsored a Career Day in which parents spoke about their jobs.

One parent with an especially interesting one—a cameraman in the television industry—mentioned in passing some of the particular challenges of dealing with Hollywood legends. Alan Ladd was so short that directors had to take special steps to make it appear he was at least at tall as his female co-stars. And Colbert wanted only her left profile to be filmed. Evidently, a nose injury left her with a slight bump on the right side, which cameramen came to christen, because of the infrequency with which it was seen, “the dark side of the moon.”

Colbert’s self-protective instincts paid off in the end: Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, audiences came to love the way her face would light up with sass.

The shot of the actress in the accompanying post was taken from I Cover the Waterfront. I like it because she appears ready to break out in one of her characteristic screwball comedy poses: merriment.

Colbert was not my favorite screwball comedienne (that would probably be Irene Dunne, the subject of a recent post of mine), but she did make at least three major contributions to the romantic comedy genre: It Happened One Night (1934), which netted her a Best Actress Oscar; Midnight (1939), starring Don Ameche and a wonderful but visibly aging John Barrymore; and Palm Beach Story (1942), her collaboration with writer-director Preston Sturges and co-star Joel McCrea.

After the 1940s, she pretty much confined herself to television and the stage. She lived on until 1996.

As for that name: No way when she was starting out was the Parisian-born actress going to make it in the movies with her real name—Emilie Claudette Chauchoin—so the more euphonious “Claudette Colbert” was born.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Quote of the Day (William Hazlitt, on Liberty and Power)

“The love of liberty is the love of others; the love of power is the love of ourselves.”—English journalist and literary critic William Hazlitt (1778-1830), Political Essays, With Sketches of Public Characters (1819)

The image accompanying this post is a self-portrait of the great essayist—in its way, as evocative as the one he painted of his friend Charles Lamb that I mentioned recently. The self-portrait, created when Hazlitt was only 24, captures the duality, the war between the light and dark sides of our character, hinted at in this quotation.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

This Day in Holocaust History (Hitler Springs Nuremberg Laws on World)

September 15, 1935—Perhaps the fateful step toward the destruction of Europe’s Jews in the Second World War began because of an accident of political timing: a cancellation of a major event that left a void in the news. But typical of Adolf Hitler, he seized the moment for his own ends, announcing the Nuremberg Race Laws on the last day of the annual rally of the Nazi Party faithful.

Some—perhaps many—might dispute the importance I’ve assigned to this event in the context of the Holocaust. If you’re going to talk about importance, what about the Wannsee Conference of 1942, when the Nazis began to systematically organize the vast apparatus of the death camps? Or what about December 7, 1941, which saw the passage of the ominously titled “Night and Fog Decree,” in which Hitler broke free from international treaties and conventions in the treatment of prisoners?

But all the necessary groundwork for these terrible events, I would argue, had been prepared in 1936, when, with a stroke of the pen, Hitler:

* deprived German Jews of their rights as citizens;
* empowered the most radical anti-Semites in his party by codifying their demands;
* sowed the seeds for his later massive and unthinkable crimes with an early public use of the term “Final Solution” (of the so-called “Jewish Question,” that is);
* gave scientifically justified racism the force of law; and
* gave momentum to bureaucrats who would, for now, be confined simply to isolating Jews, but later would provide the fig leaf of the law to the mass murder of vulnerable minorities.

But first, a little background on what was expected to happen—then what did.

From the early 1920s until 1938, the Nazi Party held massive rallies each September in Nuremberg. Meant to demonstrate the party faithful’s absolute bond with The Fuehrer, they had evolved into multiple-day events.

Originally, Hitler had been expected to address the Reichstag on this last day of the rally concerning the League of Nations and Fascist Italy. Not long before the speech, however, he was persuaded to cancel the event.

Casting around for something to do to fill the vacuum, Hitler hit on a remedy: fan the fires of anti-Semitism that he had done so much to create in the beginning. That summer, Jews had come under even greater pressure in Nazi Germany than before, facing boycotts and even threats against their safety in public swimming pools.

Two years into the Third Reich, a struggle still existed between, for want of a better term, “moderate” and “radical” anti-Semites. I’m not sure “moderate” is the right word to be used about such an ugly tendency, but at least those espousing this view didn’t mind if Hitler dragged his heels on moving against the Jews. International reactions had to be considered, they contended, and how could the government even function if many of its best civil servants were forced out overnight?

Hitler gave irresistible support to the radicals, as he announced that henceforth Jews:

* Were no longer considered “citizens” of the Reich but “subjects”;
* Not only could no longer marry Germans but also could not have sex with Christians; and they
* Could not even hire young Aryan women to help manage the house.

But there was one problem with this enabling legislation (not surprising, considering that it had been drafted so quickly that its framers used the back of a hotel food menu, after midnight, to come up with the law): Jewishness was not defined. That meant that it was up to civil servants—party legal experts who, somehow or other, found the means to circumvent the law—to come up with suitable criteria for the term.

They settled on using as the legal basis for the determination an individual’s grandparents. Thus, three Jewish grandparents constituted a “full Jew”, while those with fewer were defined as Mischlinge (Germans of mixed race). If that was still not easy enough to figure out, the Nazis created elaborate instructional charts.

After these racial edicts, Hitler turned his attention to re-establishing Germany’s military might and saber-rattling to see incur retaliation from the victors of WWI. But he had provided a clear warning signal to Germany’s Jews that their status within the nation was being systematically undermined.

Moreover, in a short speech that night, he sounded an ominous note with a phrase that would resound years later: what he had tried to do, he said, was to "achieve the legislative regulation of a problem which, if it breaks down again, will then have to be transferred by law to the National Socialist Party for final solution."

When Hitler finally devoted greater attention to the “Final Solution” after 1941, the bureaucratic and legal infrastructure for deciding that Europe’s Jews possessed “life not worthy of life” was in place. That infrastructure began to be built, in a serious way, starting with the Nuremberg Laws.

Quote of the Day (Doug Ramsey, on Bill Evans, Peerless Jazz Pianist)

“Among pianists, [Bill] Evans, who died 30 years ago Wednesday at age 51, is as immediately identifiable as [Art] Tatum, Earl Hines, Teddy Wilson and Bud Powell. In artistry and influence, he is their inheritor and successor. With the exception of those who specialize in stride or boogie woogie, virtually all jazz pianists who developed from the early 1960s on learned from Evans and, if they could, adapted aspects of his playing.”—Doug Ramsey, “Emulating Bill Evans,” The Wall Street Journal, September 14, 2010

Ramsey’s article describes why Bill Evans (1929-1980) was a musician’s musician—notably, a technique that made him first an integral side man to Miles Davis, then a compelling leader of his own trio. But no writing, no matter how good (and Ramsey’s is very good indeed), indicates why Evans has burrowed into the hearts of so many listeners such as myself. Only listening to the music does that.

Here’s one example of his matchless artistry: a performance from YouTube of one of my favorite songs, “My Foolish Heart.” Marvel—then weep for the fact that we don’t have even more examples of such beautiful work from this sensitive artist who died all too young.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Quote of the Day (Chelsea Handler, on “Jersey Shore”)

“The charming, sophisticated cast of ‘Jersey Shore’ is here. Don’t applaud. They’re the reason MTV doesn’t play your videos.”—Chelsea Handler, host of the 2010 Music Video Awards, September 12, 2010, quoted in “Lady Gaga Wins Big in MTV VMAs,” “Ozarks First,” September 14, 2010

Earlier this year, a friend (and he knows who he is!) objected to a post of mine about Jersey Shore. No, he didn’t complain about what I wrote, but about the image accompanying the post.

If I absolutely had to include a picture of a cast member, he said, why did it have to be “The Situation”? Why couldn’t it be of a woman on the show?

His wish is my command. After casting your eyes at this image, don’t you see how Jersey Shore’s Snookie (whom Cathy Horyn of The New York Times, in a most interesting comparison a few weeks ago, likened to the youthful Elizabeth Taylor) brings to mind an additional word besides “charming” and “sophisticated”: statuesque?

Yeah, yeah, that’s the ticket!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Quote of the Day (Robert Louis Stevenson, on “Perpetual Devotion” to Business)

“But it is not only the person himself who suffers from his busy habits, but his wife and children, his friends and relations, and down to the very people he sits with in a railway carriage or an omnibus. Perpetual devotion to what a man calls his business, is only to be sustained by perpetual neglect of many other things.”—Robert Louis Stevenson, “An Apology for Idlers”, Cornhill Magazine, July 1877

The image of Stevenson accompanying this post, by the way, is from a painting of Stevenson by John Singer Sargent.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Quote of the Day (St. Ignatius of Loyola, on Spiritual Progress)

“Let each one remember that we will make progress in all spiritual things only insofar as we rid ourselves of self-love, self-will, and self-interest.”—Attributed to St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), founder of the Society of Jesus

Saturday, September 11, 2010

This Day in Baseball History (Rose Surpasses Cobb as All-Time Hits Leader)

September 11, 1985—When the nearly 60-year-old career-hits record held by Ty Cobb was surpassed, it was done by a player, Pete Rose, fully the equal of “the Georgia Peach” in desire to excel—but also, it would turn out in a few years, a match for the Hall of Famer in a tendency not only to exceed yardsticks of excellence set on the diamond but also in codes of conduct off the field.

Rose lost no time in beating Cobb’s record of 4,192 on this evening. Latecomers to the game might have been annoyed that the Cincinnati Red legend slapped a hit (characteristically, it was a single) off the San Diego Padres’ Eric Show in the first inning.

Unlike, say, Alex Rodriguez, Rose never showed nervousness. In this case, he didn’t have to, anyway: as player-manager, he could keep writing his name on the lineup card, not having to worry that he might lose his position to a younger, better player.

The evening was treated as one of the great moments in baseball. Rose received a Corvette, along with a phone call from President Ronald Reagan. It was all in keeping with a carefully burnished public image with few if any public dissenters.

As I indicated last year in a post marking Rose’s banishment from baseball, the man who broke Cobb’s record for hits was “an irresponsible, skirt-chasing, records-obsessed, gambling-addicted, felonious has-been.” That conduct was present from the beginning of his career, as were the well-springs of Cobb's behavior.

What were the sources of each man’s competitive fury? One incident spurred Cobb in particular: three weeks before he made his debut in center field with the Detroit Tigers, his mother accidentally shot and killed his father. (The pathologically jealous William Cobb was sneaking around the house, hoping to catch his wife in the act with a lover, when she, suspecting the silhouette near the window was an intruder, shot and killed him. She would be acquitted of murder seven months later.) "I did it for my father,” Cobb admitted later about what drove him. “He never got to see me play ... but I knew he was watching me, and I never let him down.”

Young Cobb, like young Rose nearly 60 years later, provoked the anger of team veterans. Some took the rookie hazing beyond the acceptable limits because they wanted him off the team. Tiger manager Hughie Jennings permitted the razzing to proceed until, convinced that Cobb had the guts not to back down, he finally passed the word that it had to stop.

Rose survived his own hazing in 1963. Reds veterans, annoyed that manager Fred Hutchinson was benching second baseman Don Blasingame—who’d hit .281 and played creditable in the field the year before—in favor of the 22-year-old Rose, gave the youngster the business.

Rose’s attitude didn’t help matters. His competitive drive—notably, sprinting to first base after a walk—was so comically histrionic that sharp-tongued Yankee pitcher Whitey Ford had already christened him “Charlie Hustle.” Whatever latitude teammates might have given him for brashness (the same confidence meant he’d hit anybody under any circumstances) quickly vanished when they realized something else almost immediately about him: he felt the unwritten rules of the game didn’t apply to him.

Years later, pitcher Jim O’Toole remembered an incident in Pete Rose: Baseball's Charlie Hustle, by Mike Towle: During spring training, the Reds had gone to Mexico City. At one club, Rose had called a stripper over to the table “and bingo, he had her down on the table doing something no one should be doing in public….I broke in a few years earlier than that, and if I had done something like that as a rookie, I would have found myself right back down in Double-A. But Pete got away with a lot of stuff that normal players couldn’t have gotten away with. He was just different.”

Veterans took extreme exception to a rookie assuming such prerogatives for himself. The only way Rose survived that season was because of an outlet that would never have occurred to the racist Cobb even if it had been open to him: assistance from African-American veterans. Vada Pinson and Frank Robinson, who knew all about snubs because of the color of their skin, made sure they took Rose under their wing. They not only made him feel accepted, but taught him some of the niceties of the game.

In another sense, they could only get so far with him. New York Met fans still seethe over the fight Rose picked with shortstop Bud Harrelson during the 1973 playoffs. Less understandable, because it occurred with no high stakes involved whatsoever, was Rose’s home-plate collision with catcher Ray Fosse during the 1970 All-Star Game—although it’s the type of play that Cobb, who sharpened his cleats (the better for stealing bases), might have appreciated.

One other similarity between the two players: involvement in gambling. Rose’s is well-documented—and finally, after 15 years of stonewalling after his banishment from baseball, confessed. Cobb’s is far murkier.

A former Tiger teammate, Dutch Leonard, claimed after the 1926 season that he, Cobb, and two Cleveland Indian players, Tris Speaker and Joe Wood, had conspired to fix a game in the 1919 season. The matter eventually came to the attention of baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who eventually exonerated the accused players.

But ever since then, many have wondered if Landis was trying to contain another potentially damaging baseball gambling scandal on the order of the “Black Sox” series of 1919. A scandal involving a future Hall of Famer (or, in the Cobb-Speaker affair, two) would have wounded America’s pastime as much in the 1920s as it did 60 years later. Cobb--who, like Rose later, had been serving as player-manager for his longtime team--moved on from the Tigers in his last two years in the big leagues, playing for Connie Mack's Philadelphia Athletics.

Quote of the Day (9/11 Victim John O’Neill, on America)

“You have been born in the greatest country in the world. It is well to learn the ethnic backgrounds of your parents, to love and cherish the ancient folklore. But never, never forget, you are an American first. And millions of Americans before you have fought for your freedom. The Nation holds all the terms of our endearment. Support, defend and honor those who duty it is to keep it safe.”—Former FBI counterintelligence chief—and, later, World Trade Center security head and 9/11 victim—John O’Neill, in a letter to his grandson, quoted in Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (2006)

Friday, September 10, 2010

Quote of the Day (John O’Hara, on Ernest Hemingway)

“The most important author living today, the outstanding author since the death of Shakespeare, has brought out a new novel. The title of the novel is "Across the River and Into the Trees." The author, of course, is Ernest Hemingway, the most important, the outstanding author out of the millions of writers who have lived since 1616.”—John O’Hara, “The Author’s Name Is Hemingway,” The New York Times Book Review, September 10, 1950

I recall reading some years ago that Clark Gable made a biopic about Irish politician Charles Stewart Parnell that was not only universally panned, but might have been the worst flop of his career. Virtually the only place on earth where it did succeed was China—leading the love of his life, Carole Lombard, to have an airplane fly overhead with a message to cheer him up: “Millions of Chinamen can’t all be wrong.”

Everybody needs someone like Ms. Lombard in their corner if they’re not going to go insane, someone who’ll support them no matter what. John O'Hara (in the image accompanying this post) have had a well-deserved reputation for being cantankerous, but in his secretly sentimental way, he could also be as fiercely loyal as they come to friends like Philip Barry, John Steinbeck, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.

The latter two in particular could test his tolerance. A drunken Fitzgerald fondled O’Hara’s ex-wife in full sight of him one night. And Hemingway got off one of the nastiest and most recited one-liners about O’Hara’s wish for greater society credentials: “Someone should take up a collection to send John O'Hara to Yale.” Yet O’Hara stood by them, whether because of his admiration for their work, understanding of their alcoholism, gratitude toward their praise for his work when he was starting out, or some combination of these.

In any case, you have to ask: What were the editors of The New York Times Book Review thinking when they assigned O’Hara to review Hemingway’s Across the River and Into the Trees? Their friendship had to have been well-known to the editors, so in advance it was doubtful the review could be written objectively.

The review, appearing only two days after the publication of Hemingway’s first novel since For Whom the Bell Tolls a decade before, may have given him false confidence in the overall reception of the book. Before long, other reviews would take it to task unmercifully, and it would even inspire a wicked New Yorker parody by E.B. White: “Across the Street and Into the Grille.”

Nobody sensed it at the time of O’Hara’s review, but the most influential writer of the first half of the 20th century was entering a decade of creative decline, hastened by physical and mental ills only beginning to surface. Hemingway would rally his energies once more to produce The Old Man and the Sea, but its Pulitzer Prize notwithstanding, few people would put it in the same league as his best from the 1920s: The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, a dozen short stories.

In his review, O’Hara took note of the “self-pitying” tone of Hemingway’s protagonist, Col. Richard Cantwell, but immediately dismissed the idea that it reflected Hemingway’s own attitude. O’Hara’s delicate handing of the mater was thoughtful, generous—and, in retrospect, wrongheaded.

Before this, and for only once afterward, in The Old Man and the Sea, the Hemingway protagonist had redefined the nature of heroism. He never triumphed—indeed, he’d lost everything—but salvaged something from the wreckage through flinty stoicism.

Now, in Cantwell, Hemingway had written a character more than a little in love with easeful death. And the prose, once sinewy, had likewise grown softer.

Song Lyric of the Day (James Taylor, on Aging)

“September grass is the sweetest kind
Goes down easy like apple wine
I hope you don't mind if I pour you some
It’s made that much sweeter by the winter to come.”—“September Grass,” lyrics by John Sheldon, performed by James Taylor, from his October Road CD (2002)

Thanks to my friends for the birthday greeting, and for being there for me through the years.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Quote of the Day (Eugene McCarthy and James Kilpatrick, on the Parameter, a Political Beast)

“To persons of limited horizons—those lacking the world view of, say, the editors of Foreign Affairs—a Parameter may look like a perimeter. It is not.  .  .  .  In the world of politics, Parameters live to be defined. Their arms embrace the illimitable and the unknowable, but usually they embrace the expendable. ‘Within the Parameters of our budget,’ people say. Then the Parameter, like the squid, emits an inky cloud and disappears.”—Eugene J. McCarthy and James J. Kilpatrick, A Political Bestiary: Viable Alternatives, Impressive Mandates and Other Fables (1979)

The recent death of retired conservative columnist James J. Kilpatrick (in the image accompanying this post) did more than bring to mind his 1970s jousts on 60 Minutes with Shana Alexander, which inspired the great Dan Aykroyd-Jane Curtin “Point-Counterpoint” skits on Saturday Night Live. It also led me to a fine appreciation of his writing skills by Andrew Ferguson in The Weekly Standard, which in turn brought to mind his collaboration with former Presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy, A Political Bestiary.

True, cartoonist Jeff MacNelly made his own, not insignificant contribution to this wry satire on the clich├ęs that grow in the peculiar soil of Washington. But in the quote that Ferguson included—one that I’ve reproduced here—it’s easy to see the mocking wit and literary grace that the two authors—one, Kilpatrick, a DC outsider by profession; the other, McCarthy, by inclination—brought to this project.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

This Day in Southern History (Huey Long Assassinated)

September 8, 1935—A 42-year-old U.S. senator, the linchpin of a political dynasty, whom detractors called ruthless and admirers hailed as progressive, was in the midst of challenging an incumbent President from his own party when he was assassinated, setting off endless controversies about his legacy as well as conspiracy theories surrounding his death. 

No, I’m not talking about Robert F. Kennedy of New York, but Huey Long of Louisiana. 

The circumstances of their lives and deaths, you can tell from the first paragraph of this post, were similar in many ways. But in the years since his death, Kennedy has enjoyed much better press than “the Kingfish.” 

It’s been more than 40 years since RFK was murdered in a Los Angeles hotel by Sirhan Sirhan, but the wound of what might have been still stings. Forty years after his death, however, Long did not evoke similarly weepy nostalgia, but instead, in that Watergate era of fears of corrupt, all-controlling executives, a sense of relief that the nation was spared the dictatorial style he honed in Louisiana, first as governor, later as Senator. 

It won’t do to dismiss or forget Long that easily. Five years ago, Americans discovered, to their astonishment, that deep divides still exist along racial and class lines in his state. Yet those fissures would undoubtedly have been a thousand times worse without the grand infrastructure—schools, hospitals, roads, etc.—and services he put in place. 

Contemporaries never made the mistake of ignoring Long. RFK has been lionized on disc (Black 47’s “Bobby Kennedy”) and the big screen (Emilio Estevez’s “Bobby”), but he has not become fodder for novelists in the same manner that Long did. 

From 1934 to 1946, a half-dozen novelists took a crack at rendering The Kingfish’s life and death in fiction, according to Keith Perry’s critical study, The Kingfish in Fiction: Huey P. Long and the Modern American Novel

Ironically, the most famous, Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize-winner, All the King’s Men, was the one most loosely based on his life. There were others by Hamilton Basso, John Dos Passos, Sinclair Lewis (It Can’t Happen Here), and Adria Locke Langley's A Lion is in the Streets (later, like All the King’s Men, adapted for film, this time starring James Cagney as the Long stand-in). 

Sixty years after the shooting, Joe Klein (writing as “Anonymous”) used All the King’s Men as a kind of template for his own novelistic study in ambivalence about a compromised Southern progressive, Primary Colors

Why so much literary interest in Long? For all the overtones of Greek tragedy evoked by the death of Bobby Kennedy, his life didn’t pose in stark terms, the way Long’s did, the elemental questions posed by the political process, such as whether the end justifies the means. 

Take a look at the roll call of governors from roughly the 1870s to the Roaring Twenties, when Long came to power. A dispiritingly high percentage of these came from the “Bourbon” set of politicians in the governor’s seat, conservatives intent on spending as little as possible on basic services for the state. 

Long broke that pattern, and nearly five decades after his death, many ordinary people who allowed themselves to be filmed for Ken Burns’ documentary on Long spoke highly of how the governor-senator positively affected their lives. 

Long’s take-no-prisoners style in assuring passage of his programs, however, along with certain aspects of his populist stances (e.g., “Share the Wealth” clubs that advocated redistribution of the incomes of the most affluent), led many to wonder if a homegrown version of Fascism was appearing in the U.S. 

None other than President Franklin D. Roosevelt—who had received crucial support from Long at the 1932 Democratic Convention—privately believed that the politician was one of the two most dangerous men in America. (The other “dangerous man” was General Douglas MacArthur.) 

The fiery opposition to his positions and his leadership style (Long had to fend off an impeachment move while governor), it somehow seems appropriate, ended in equally vociferous reactions to his death. 

For years, the accepted version of Long’s death was that it came at the hands of Dr. Carl Weiss, the son-in-law of a judge being gerrymandered out of office by a set of bills that the Louisiana legislature was then passing. Weiss encountered Long in the State Capitol building in Baton Rouge, and to the horror of eyewitnesses a hail of bullets was exchanged. Dr. Weiss was gunned down immediately by Long’s bodyguards, while Long died from his wounds two days later. 

Yet, surprisingly enough, as outlined in Robert Travis Scott’s article in the New Orleans Times-Picayune on the 75th anniversary of the shooting, the most fundamental forensic evidence from the case—e.g., the bullet, the gun—did not receive what we would think of as standard identification and preservation. 

To the annoyance of Long’s band of admirers today, then, questions impossible to dismiss have lingered as to whether a) Long died directly from the crossfire of his own bodyguards rather than from the bullet Weiss was able to fire, or b) whether Weiss merely got into fisticuffs with Long, and that his guards, to cover up their overreaction, arranged the evidence to point in the direction of Weiss rather than themselves. 

A quarter century to the day of the assassination, Huey’s only slightly less colorful brother Earl Long was buried, after 18 months in which he a) took up with stripper Blaze Starr, b) his wife committed him to a mental institution, c) he checked out of said institution and ran for Congress, d) he won the race, and e) he died after a second fatal heart attack while in the hospital.

Exchange of the Day (Peter Sellers and Blake Edwards, on Divine Intervention in Film)

“I just talked to God, and he told me how to do it!”—Peter Sellers, interrupting the beauty sleep of his Pink Panther director Blake Edwards with an overnight phone call, explaining how a particularly difficult scene could be filmed.
“Peter, the next time you talk to God, tell Him to stay out of show business!”—Edwards to his star the next day, after he madly took his advice and saw the disastrous results.
--Sellers and Edwards quoted in Clifton Fadiman and Andre Bernard, Bartlett’s Book of Anecdotes (2000)

Peter Sellers was born on this date 85 years ago. As the exchange with Edwards indicates, the comic star could be as mad as a hatter.

At the same time, he was such a genius that his death at age 54 from a bad heart makes you wonder what more he might have accomplished had he lived even five years longer.

Then you remember the other side of Sellers, and wonder what other brilliant work he could have put on screen while he was alive--if he hadn’t been insane.

Case in point: Billy Wilder’s 1964 film, Kiss Me, Stupid.

What, you don’t remember this? Not surprising, because a) the movie—generally derided at the time as “smutty” (plot: an aspiring songwriter, desperate to get his latest tune sung by a Lothario of a singer, played by Dean Martin, makes his nubile young wife available to the entertainer)—might have been the most resounding flop of the great writer-director’s career, and b) though cast in the film, Sellers had to be replaced because of a heart attack.

Six years ago, in a Wall Street Journal reminiscence, a supporting actor in that film, Tommy Nolan—later a book reviewer and biographer of Ross Macdonald and Artie Shaw—wrote how Sellers wrecked that film: first by making increasingly impossible demands, then by taking amyl nitrates on his mid-shooting honeymoon, the better to keep up with his frisky young bride, Britt Ekland—the latter act leading to the cardiac condition that plagued him for the rest of his life.

And yet, Nolan couldn’t help but express his admiration for Sellers. The star's replacement in Kiss Me, Stupid, Ray Walston, was a fine, responsible human being and as professional an actor as you could get. But Sellers, Nolan concludes, would have been something else again. His takes were so wildly inventive, his improvisations just so plain brilliant, as to be beyond that of any normal good actor.

Whenever he feels a “damp, drizzly November” in his soul, Ishmael tells us in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, he sets out to sea. My remedy is much less extreme and expensive—and, to me, funnier and far more gratifying. Put me in front of any of Sellers’ five “Pink Panther” movies and I’ll be laughing helplessly in no time.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Quote of the Day (Peggy Noonan, for her 60th Birthday)

“What we need most right now, at this moment, is a kind of patriotic grace - a grace that takes the long view, apprehends the moment we're in, comes up with ways of dealing with it, and eschews the politically cheap and manipulative. That admits affection and respect. That encourages them. That acknowledges that the small things that divide us are not worthy of the moment; that agrees that the things that can be done to ease the stresses we feel as a nation should be encouraged, while those that encourage our cohesion as a nation should be supported."—Peggy Noonan, Patriotic Grace: What It Is and Why We Need It Now (2008)

More often than not, I disagree with conservative Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan. But she has practiced the patriotic grace she called for two years ago, as she has criticized President Obama for his policies rather than for the all-too-otherwise-prevalent GOP belief that he’s a Muslim Marxist. And at least she’s not hanging with the crazies (though seeing NJ Gov. Chris Christie, rather than the Tea Party, as the future of the GOP, as she did a month ago, is, at best, what might be termed only an incremental improvement.)

Her column remains the first thing I turn to each weekend edition of the Journal. You see, I feel that I have to. Unlike other columnists, whether liberal or conservative, whose opinions are not only so predictable but so rabid that I know what they’ll express before I set eyes on the piece, Ms. Noonan still has the capacity to surprise me.

At some point, she’ll put within two covers her best Journal articles over the years. Until then, though, the best place to start with her is in her memoir of speechwriting in the Reagan White House, What I Saw at the Revolution. More than 20 years later, it remains wise and witty about the madness bred inside those who live within the bubble of a President and his advisers. All incoming administrations would be well advised to read it.

Oh, I almost forgot: happy 60th birthday, Ms. Noonan.

Monday, September 6, 2010

This Day in Theater History (Sondheim’s “Follies” Triumphs in Concert)

September 6, 1985—Its purpose was to create a fuller record of one of the pivotal musicals of the postwar period, but the concert version of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies gave the audience at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall the thrill of a lifetime: an all-star cast singing songs that challenged, amused, tore hearts out, and summoned ghosts from a theatrical and national past that felt ever more elusive.

All 5,500 tickets for this performance, along with the following night’s, sold out in less than three hours. Sondheim, never one to miss an irony, must have wished that the original run of Follies, back in 1971, had received a similarly ecstatic reception from the public. Instead, like most of his other productions over the years, it was a critical darling but a popular underperformer, running for less than a year and losing $800,000. Despite the overwhelming brilliance of the songs, it was undoubtedly difficult for audiences in the middle of the Vietnam War, struggling for escape amid massive disillusionment, to confront a show about the reunion of a troupe of former showgirls (reminiscent of the Ziegfeld Follies) and the anger and disillusionment let loose as a result.

Seventeen years ago, historian John Steele Gordon, explaining in American Heritage why Follies made his list of the 10 all-time greatest musicals, noted its consistently piercing take on relations between the sexes: “if you have ever realized, much too late, that you were in love with someone (‘Too Many Mornings’); if you have ever been really, really angry with your spouse (‘Could I Leave You?’); if you have ever been dumped by someone you can’t help loving still (‘Losing My Mind’), this score can have the impact of an emotional ICBM.”

By the mid-1980s, Sondheim had become to the American musical in its post-Rodgers and Hammerstein period what Beethoven was to classical music in the wake of Haydn and Mozart: the apotheosis of everything they stood for, yet a successor who pushed daringly into entirely new territory. None of his work demonstrated this paradox more than Follies.

To those who questioned whether he could write a hummable tune in the manner of the great masters of the musical, Follies included songs heavily reminiscent of Rodgers and Hammerstein, the Gershwins, Porter, Arlen, Berlin, and Romberg. But the show’s sensibility—urban (and urbane), somber but not cynical, but with enough psychological baggage to justify a decade in psychoanalysis—could only have come from Sondheim.

Unfortunately, all those who, like Gordon, believed that Follies was Sondheim’s greatest score were overwhelmingly disappointed by the original-cast soundtrack for the 1971 production. In the era of the LP, several songs had to be left off the single disk, reducing the breathtaking variety of styles and moods. Just as scandalous in its way, in keeping with the circumstances of the production (quick, record the show before it closes!), the sound was rushed.

The two-LP “Follies” in Concert set recorded for RCA Victor solved these problems while providing a bonus for Sondheim devotees: 45 minutes of background music that the composer created for the 1974 French film Stavisky.

Sondheim fans being who they are, they wondered why they couldn’t get even more. After all, a complete audio recording of one of the greatest American musicals wasn’t simply welcome, but the minimum necessary. While the show’s producers were at it, why couldn’t they have gone for a complete video record, too?

They’re talking, of course, about the documentary concerning the making of the concert. The intent of this latter special, evidently, was shooting similar to D.A. Pennebaker’s 1970 documentary on the recording of the original-cast album for Follies' great predecessor, Company.

However, in the case of Follies, less than 50 minutes of the video recording were devoted to the songs themselves. With all due respect to director Herbert Ross’s yeoman work in bringing the show together in only four days, most fans still beefed that they could dispense with the behind-the-scenes comments and been perfectly content with the show and nothing but the show.

Well, what they found on audio was treasure enough. “Follies” in Concert not only drew together a quartet with major experience in musicals—Lee Remick, George Hearn, Barbara Cook, and Mandy Patinkin—but equally talented supporting players: Carol Burnett, Elaine Stritch, Phyllis Newman, Adolph Green, and Liz Callaway.

The 1985 concert version, no matter how quickly it came together, could never equal the high-wire offstage drama of the original 1971 show, as chronicled in Ted Chapin’s present-at-the-creation Everything Was Possible: The Birth of the Musical “Follies.” Still, the new recording offered something for nearly everybody.

Vocally, the one performer in the concert version who did not match the others was Lee Remick. I suspect that many fans like myself would still have found the show somewhat diminished without the fire-and-ice elegance she brought to sassy showgirl-turned-sophisticated-diplomat’s-wife Phyllis Rogers Stone. (See the YouTube clip of her big production number, “The Story of Lucy and Jessie.”)
In any case, if there was one performer in the show whose position was secure, it was Remick. The actress and the lyricist-composer had gone out for awhile around the time of the flop Anyone Can Whistle (1964). If the homosexual Sondheim had not been struggling with his sexual orientation at the time, they might well have married. The two remained close for the rest of Remick’s life.
Somehow, it seems appropriate that the last role in which she was cast—one from which she had to withdraw before the recurrence of the cancer that took her life—was as aging beauty Desiree in the 1991 Los Angeles production of A Little Night Music.

Quote of the Day (Martin Luther King Jr., on the Dignity of Labor)

“Whatever your life's work is, do it well. Even if it does not fall in the category of one of the so-called big professions, do it well. As one college president said, ‘A man should do his job so well that the living, the dead, and the unborn could do it no better.’ If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted, like Shakespeare wrote poetry, like Beethoven composed music. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper, who swept his job well.’”—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., "Facing the Challenge of a New Age," address at the Institute of Non-violence and Social Change, Montgomery, Alabama, December 3, 1956

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Quote of the Day (St. Anthony of Padua, on the Beauty of Creation)

“Our thoughts ought instinctively to fly upwards from animals, men and natural objects to their Creator. If things created are so full of loveliness, how resplendent must be the One who made them! The wisdom of the Worker is apparent in such handiwork.”—Attributed to St. Anthony of Padua (1195-1231)

Saturday, September 4, 2010

This Day in Film History (Irene Dunne, Vivacious Screwball Queen, Dies)

September 4, 1990—Irene Dunne, who brought grace, vivacity and allure to several of the finest romantic comedies of Hollywood’s golden age, died of heart failure at age 91 in Los Angeles.

An Image search function of Google confirms the judgment of Florenz Ziegfeld (no slowpoke in appreciating femininity) in casting her in a Chicago production of Kern and Hammerstein’s Show Boat

But the image I picked, oddly enough, is one of the few that capture one of her characteristic moments in her screwball comedies, where intelligence, wit and understanding of the poor, deluded male of the species were at a premium. It's a face lit by joy, ready to unleash a zinger.

The screwball comedy, a genre that Hollywood has fitfully tried to imitate (What’s Up, Doc?, TV’s Moonlighting) but has never really equaled, provided the finest moments of their careers to several actresses, including Carole Lombard, Claudette Colbert, Jean Arthur, and Myrna Loy. But Dunne might have been the most versatile of the whole bunch.

I mean “versatile” not simply in the variety of genres she took on in a film career lasting a bit more than two decades, but also in the variety of textures she could bring to a single role and single film.

She started in Hollywood with weepies like Back Street (1932), where she kept her dignity in a part that could have been played simply as a hapless victim. Before long, she was also making her mark in musicals, where she had excelled on Broadway before heading west. She appeared in the earlier—and, to most observers, better—of the two screen versions of Show Boat (1936).

Her comic scenes in the latter convinced studio heads that she’d be right for a full-fledged comedy. Dunne, no fan of the genre (at least, as far as her own work was concerned), was so reluctant to take on the property that she risked suspension by traveling to Europe so she wouldn’t have to do it. 

Luckily she gave in, and Theodora Goes Wild, released the same year as Show Boat, gave her one of her five Oscar nominations, while opening up a whole new range of films for her.

(By the way, can I stop her and complain about the injustice of Hollywood ignoring her continual brilliant work while awarding a statuette to the likes of Cher?)

Indeed, in his perceptive study, Romantic Comedy in Hollywood, From Lubitsch to Sturges (1987), film critic James Harvey makes a persuasive case that Dunne was “the most dazzling screwball comedienne of them all.” 

Theodora is not as well-known today as some of the other classics of the form, such as It Happened One Night, Bringing Up Baby, Twentieth Century, or His Girl Friday, but that only means that—if you’re uninitiated to all things Dunne, as I was nearly 25 years ago—it will surprise and delight you all the more. In the film, Harvey notes, Dunne “doesn’t just see the joke—she is radiant with it, possessed by it and glowing with it.”

In a few short years, Dunne was ready to try something even riskier than comedy—dramedies. Love Affair (1939), which would be remade twice (as An Affair to Remember and, again, Love Affair) began with the sophistication of a screwball comedy before taking an unexpected turn into far more serious territory two-thirds of the way through. 

The same thing holds true for Penny Serenade, Dunne’s third collaboration with one of her favorite co-stars, Cary Grant. (The first two—The Awful Truth and My Favorite Wife—were more traditional screwball comedies.)

Dunne is a joy to watch onscreen—and, if her co-workers in Hollywood’s Dream Factory are to be believed, a joy to work with, too. Grant thought that co-starring with her was not merely work, but practically a “flirtation.” 

Most revealing might have been Lucille Ball, who was taking the kind of sharp mental notes that would later serve her in good stead for decades as TV’s premiere comedienne. Harvey includes this telling anecdote from Ball, related to an American Film Institute seminar in 1974, about how Dunne worked:

“(Katharine) Hepburn 'telegraphed,' she said-'Well, I'm going to be funny'-whereas Dunne always surprised, even in repeated takes of the same scene. 'But I watched her do takes-literally, one day there were thirty-two takes-and twenty-five must have been different. She really worked on how to do that scene. Where Kate would do it the same way every time and telegraph it every time.'"

Dunne’s film career ended in 1952, nearly four decades before her death. She would live long enough to see the type of persona she maintained offscreen—reserved, deeply if conventionally spiritual (a devout Roman Catholic), and possessing a sprightly wit that made her a kind of modern American counterpart to Shakespeare’s Rosalind or Shaw’s Candida—an increasingly endangered species in Hollywood.

In searching the Internet for material on this vivacious, versatile actress, I found a blog devoted to her: The Irene Dunne Project. Few if any other actresses merit such extensive, gloriously loving attention.

Song Lyrics of the Day (John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Pleading for “Help!”)

“Help me if you can, I'm feeling down
And I do appreciate you being round.”—“Help!”, written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, performed by the Beatles on their Help! LP (1965)

The Beatles’ title single from their film Help!, on this date in 1965, reached the top of the U.S. charts, where it stayed for another three weeks. Its ascent was accomplished with the same breakneck speed (a little over a month since the film’s release) by which the Fab Four were living for the past year and a half, when Beatlemania became a serious American phenomenon.

Once you pay no attention to the rich but fast sound that producer George Martin conjured in the studio, it becomes obvious that the lyrics—primarily John Lennon’s, with a little help from Paul McCartney—echo “the cute Beatle’s” “Yesterday,” as a cry of the heart amid a time of confusion.

For a long time, I speculated about why a song so essentially melancholy could have such a souped-up production. It turns out that the Beatles’ two primary songwriters wondered the same thing: Lennon pleaded to release the song in a slow version, and McCartney would later play it live in the same fashion.

Maybe the thinking, by Martin and the studio heads at Capitol Records, was that the Beatles needed something bouncy, or at least something to distinguish it from “Yesterday,” which practically begged for its eventual classical underpinnings. They didn’t realize –or maybe they simply didn’t care—that by slowing the song down, the loss in energy would be compensated by a more visceral understanding of the lyrics’ emotional exhaustion—in much the same way, for instance, that for awhile in the 1980s, Bruce Springsteen’s live, acoustic version of “Born to Run” turned the song inside out, so it became about commitment—an end to running, if you will.

Lennon wrote the song for the simplest of reasons—the Beatles’ upcoming follow-up to A Hard Day’s Night needed musical material—but it turned out that the songs had about as flimsy relation to the movie’s plot as you can get, so he could compose virtually anything he wanted. Without intending to do so, he ended up writing about himself.

Was Lennon “the smart Beatle,” as the shorthand of the time held? That might be an exaggeration (McCartney, in Martin’s later recollections, was every bit as eager an innovator in the studio). But he was, without a doubt, the most irreverent, subversive, and anguished of the Liverpool quartet.

“Help!” came from what Lennon later termed “my fat Elvis period,” his term for a time when he was drinking and eating too much. But that wasn’t the half of it.

The kid from the streets of Liverpool with the sharp black leather jacket and sharp tongue to match had been replaced by a co-leader of the most wildly successful band on the face of the earth. That slicing wit was misperceived by most of the public as being indistinguishable from the group’s general good-humored frolicking. The married young father whose touring had only taken him to the Continent was now in the midst of a global sojourn, with his pick of eager young women at every stop along the way.

Nor can we forget the impact of drugs. Introduced to marijuana within the past year, the Beatles had taken to it so enthusiastically that they became too giddy for filming at points during the production of Help! As they began to fracture by decade’s end, Lennon’s drug use was more pronounced than any of his bandmates, and it undermined his competition with McCartney as leader of the group.

By the time Help! appeared, a book by Lennon, A Spaniard in the Works, had just been published. He and his bandmates were at the top of the music and movie worlds. They’d been honored by the Queen, which almost never happened to other musicians their age. They’d even gotten to meet their hero, Elvis Presley.

In short, the world was at Lennon’s command—but he felt only a hollowness inside. By the time that void was being filled 15 years later, courtesy of renewed commitment to Yoko Ono and their son Sean, Lennon had his fateful encounter with Mark David Chapman. In the meantime, he left this anthem about how bottoming out opens you up to others.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Quote of the Day (Vince Lombardi, on His Disgust with “Being Hard”)

“It’s no damn fun being hard….You berate somebody and you feel disgusted with yourself for doing it, for being in a job where you have to.”—Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi, quoted in Michael O’Brien, Vince: A Personal Biography of Vince Lombardi (1987)

Who knows where the desire for perfection, the urge to push himself and others to their physical and psychological limits, came from?

One thing for sure: it came with a price for Vince Lombardi. The above quotation—one with not even close to the circulation of one misattributed to him, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing”--is one indication of that price. The other was his death at age 57, on this date in 1970, by colon cancer. The disease, already in an aggressive stage when diagnosed two months before his death, was surely not helped by stress that ate away at him.

Like more than a few alumni of my alma mater, St. Cecilia of Englewood, N.J., I’m fascinated by this NFL legend who began his coaching career at my high school. Even if every single one of the stories about him is true (and I suspect that only 80% are), you still come away with a misleading portrait of the man. It’s like looking at the dark side of the moon and thinking you understand the whole thing.

Lombardi felt that part of his job involved motivating his players to achieve their best, and that this involved criticizing them until they could never forget they had messed up. Nearly all of the accounts I read, though, indicate that at some point, before the player was mentally broken, the coach would say or do something to build his confidence back up. He also knew who could bear up under his criticism and who would buckle.

At the same time, he was all too aware of what this managerial style did to himself. The element of self-disgust is impossible to miss in that quote.

Moreover, he felt guilt over the price paid by his family for his devotion to his work. He took his coaching job at the time of his death, with the Washington Redskins, partly because he was bored with being simply a front-office executive with the Packers, but also because he realized that his wife was becomingly increasingly lonely in Green Bay.

Later this month, a play will premiere on Broadway’s Circle in the Square Theater, called Lombardi, starring Dan Lauria (who played Kevin Arnold’s father on The Wonder Years). I hope the show runs long enough for me to see it.

What encourages me about this biodrama is that it is based on a superb biography of the coach that belongs on every sports fan’s bookshelf: When Pride Still Mattered, by David Maraniss. In each succeeding page, Maraniss narrates an incident that either troubles Lombardi’s defenders or stuns his critics. In other words, the coach emerges as fully human—the kind of person who constantly exhorted his players to surmount their flaws, but all too aware of the difficulties he had in overcoming his own.

It’s this latter Lombardi that interests me, not the cartoonish gridiron martinet whose legacy has been distorted by succeeding coaches with nothing like his tragic self-understanding (something you can sense in the image accompanying this post, where the coach looks far more vulnerable than victorious).

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Flashback, September 1955: Blacklisted Actor Philip Loeb Dies in Suicide

The next time Ann Coulter rants about how there were no blacklist victims, somebody should stop her and ask how it came to be, then, that Philip Loeb, a 64-year-old actor chronically underemployed after being fired from the hit sitcom The Goldbergs, killed himself in New York City on September 1, 1955.

Yes, Ms. Coulter might retort that no single thing drives a person to suicide. Yes, she might point to Loeb's ongoing depression from the death of his wife and the institutionalization of his schizoid son.

But no honest accounting for why Loeb swallowed barbiturates in the Taft Hotel, can leave out the fact that several years before, General Foods, the sponsor of The Goldbergs, was so alarmed that he’d been fingered as a Communist that they demanded his ouster from the long-running radio and TV hit; that not even the show’s shrewd and resourceful star, Gertrude Berg, could get them to relent; that Loeb had been reduced to infrequent, less remunerative work; and that anguish over his family’s medical bills (and his own) was compounded by his inability to pay for them.

In the months before his death, Loeb’s despair was palpable to close friends. Another blacklist victim, screenwriter Walter Bernstein, wrote in his memoir, Inside Out: "I never saw Loeb smile, even when Zero (Mostel) was at his hilarious best."

Mostel and wife Kate allowed Loeb to live for awhile with them before he died. Two decades later, the larger-than-life actor would play a character, Hecky Brown, whose tragic fate mirrored Loeb’s in a movie that Bernstein wrote, The Front (1976), starring Woody Allen.

For a long time, I wondered why so many Hollywood liberals sat in sullen silence as director Elia Kazan received an honorary Oscar in 1998. Yes, “Gadg” might have owned up to regret about turning informer during the Red Scare of the 1950s, but many leftists had been equally unapologetic about conceding their own errors from the period, such as excusing the excesses of Stalin's Soviet Union.

Then I found out that Kazan had named Loeb, as well as seven other friends from his days as a union activist, before the House Un-American Activities Committee in April 1952. The director could justify his action by saying that everyone he’d named had been previously cited by someone else.

In Loeb’s case, that was true: five years before his death, he’d been listed in the rabidly anti-Communist magazine Red Channels as a Communist. Several aspects of his background made him vulnerable: his union activism with Actors Equity, his 1938 defense of Stalin’s “show trials,” and even his religion. (One-third of the 151 people listed as communist by Red Channels were Jewish.)
But Kazan’s testimony could have slowed, at least, the momentum of this campaign. Even if you don't buy Victor Navasky's overly broad whitewashing of the motives of Communists and former Communists targeted by McCarthyism in Naming Names (1980), you can't help but understand their visceral anger over the loss of a life.

Additionally, Loeb was not a Communist, he was at pains to say so repeatedly, and the J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI would clear him only a few days after his death. But it came too late for the actor.
After his termination from The Goldbergs, Loeb returned to the stage, where he had worked for three decades before his stint as the lovable father on the sitcom. But his last job came in 1953, in a revival, for $87.50 a week.

After this point, his prospects, already dim, became bleak:

* Supporters who initially sent him small checks stopped writing;

* He was forced to accept a $40,000 settlement from The Goldbergs that was less than half what he’d originally rejected;

* He developed cataracts;

* He was fired from a job teaching at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts;

* New York taxation authorities notified him that he owed $1,000—but he had less than $300 in the bank.

Loeb didn’t leave a suicide note, but it was obvious to those who knew him at the time—just as it should be to anyone reading about his life now (including Ms. Coulter)—what had caused his death. A letter to The New York Times expressed it best: he “died of a sickness commonly called the blacklist."
One other note: the particular form this particular “sickness” took was different—and, in some ways, more virulent—than the more famous blacklist emanating from Hollywood. The East Coast-based radio and TV industries employed more entertainment professionals at the time than the film studios, according to David Everitt’s A Shadow of Red: Communism and the Blacklist in Radio and Television. This meant that the reach of potential smears was greater.

Moreover, rather than originating from the House Un-American Activities Committee, the virus for this “sickness” was spread by a cabal involved with Red Channels: three former FBI agents, an upstate New York grocery chain tycoon, and an ex-naval intelligence officer.

In other words, a completely unofficial body had the power to affect actors’ employment—and, in the case of Loeb, life itself.

Quote of the Day (Charles Lamb, on the Desire for Excellence)

“I gain nothing by being with such as myself—we encourage one another in mediocrity—I am always longing to be with men more excellent than myself.”—English essayist Charles Lamb, letter to his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge, January 10, 1797, The Best Letters of Charles Lamb

One of these men “more excellent than myself” might well have been William Hazlitt, who, had he not decided to give himself entirely to his brilliant essays, might have done equally well with brilliant portraits such as this one of Lamb.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Quote of the Day (P.T. Barnum, on a World Without Promotion)

“Without promotion something terrible happens: nothing.”—Attributed to P.T. Barnum (in the accompanying image)

One Web site has called Phineas Taylor Barnum (1820-1891) “the Shakespeare of Advertising.” I’d go one or two steps further: If the showman wasn’t the founding father of all that is rude and vulgar in American culture, then show me someone who deserved the title more.

Sure, you can point to con men like the “Duke and the Dauphin” in Huckleberry Finn with their ruse about “The Royal Nonesuch,” but these charlatans depended on unlettered rural or riverboat rubes. In contrast, Barnum figured out how to use the rising urban mass media in the 1840s to hawk curiosities such as the dwarf “General Tom Thumb” and a slave reputed to be more than 160 years old who claimed to have nursed George Washington.

But on this date in 1850, Barnum came closer to Sol Hurok than to Jerry Springer, as he welcomed Jenny Lind, the “Swedish Nightingale,” to the docks of New York to begin a triumphant American tour.

A decade before, a tumultuous reception for Fanny Essler, Europe’s most famous dancing star, had impressed on Barnum that a cultural star rather than merely an oddity (such as a 21-year-old Quaker woman who, he claimed, was “nearly eight feet tall and weighs 337 pounds”) could also make money. He vowed to surpass that success.

Most Americans had not heard of the soprano whose vocal purity had already led the likes of Queen Victoria to throw flowers at her feet. That changed instantly as soon as Barnum paid Lind and her accompanists $187,000 in advance for a series of 150 performances in America.

Lind, a warm-hearted philanthropist but crafty businesswoman (she’d done all the negotiating with Barnum’s representative), soon had another nickname—“Barnum’s Bird”—because of the showman’s all-stops-out efforts to make her a household name. He ran not only reviews and advertisements, but also a contest to see who could write the best song for her.

Before long, it was nearly impossible to find an American who hadn’t heard of Lind. Diarist Philip Hone noted that “so much has been said, and the trumpet of her fame has sounded so loud, in honor of this new importation from the shores of Europe, that nothing else is heard in the streets, nothing seen in the papers, but the advent of the ‘Swedish Nightingale.’”

Barnum’s guarantee to Lind meant he was in pretty far over his head financially. But as soon as he saw the estimated 30,000 people at the New York waterfront to welcome the soprano, he began to breathe more easily. Her first show, on September 11, 1850, at New York’s Castle Garden, was a sellout, with some seats going as high as $225.

Before she reached 100 performances, Lind thought she could do better, and severed her contract with Barnum. Alone, she did not do as well financially as she had with the unique talents of America’s biggest promoter-huckster. But before their split, she and Barnum had pulled in more than $700,000 in gross receipts.

Was she any good? To be sure, she had her naysayers, such as Walt Whitman. Others, such as Washington Irving, were captivated by her silvery voice and earnest manner.

But in another way, it didn’t matter. Barnum had put Lind on the map, as far as America was concerned, with his monster publicity campaign, proving that talent alone can get a performer only so far. It was a lesson that other Americans would learn, over and over again, in the years since.