Tuesday, August 30, 2011

This Day in Film History (Valentino Funeral Sparks Mass Hysteria)

August 30, 1926—A week after his sudden death from peritonis, an invitation-only funeral mass was held in midtown Manhattan for Rudolph Valentino—but thousands more lined up outside St. Malachy’s Church to gawk, whisper or wail over the silent-screen romantic idol, dead at age 31, gone seemingly before he had barely appeared onscreen.

For the last decade, I have walked a couple of blocks from where I work to attend masses on Holy Days of Obligation at St. Malachy’s. I’ve come to have almost a proprietary feeling for the so-called “Actor’s Chapel” located in the heart of the Broadway theater district.

I can’t begin to imagine, though, what it must have been like to be in the church on this late summer day 75 years ago. Today, critics of the Archdiocese of New York and the Roman Catholic Church complain about its unwillingness to bend in any way, but the Church was even more disinclined to do so back then.

In a way, though, the Church’s insistence on maintaining old norms would have appealed to the deceased, an immigrant with Old World values struggling to hold onto his dignity and to make sense of the new medium he had conquered and the celebrity culture it had spawned. This High Solemn mass, to be followed a week later by a second one out in California, where Valentino would be laid to rest, stood in absolutely stark contrast to the hysteria occurring in the two weeks since the news broke that the star was gravely ill.

Some modern viewers have felt that, without dialogue, Valentino looks melodramatic in the films that made him a star: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, The Sheik and The Son of the Sheik. But his acting style was nothing compared with the over-the-top behavior of his fans at his wake the prior week at the Frank Campbell Funeral Home in Manhattan.

Estimates are that as many as 100,000 people lined up outside the funeral parlor for a chance to pay tribute--no, in so many cases, simply to see--in the flesh the celluloid fantasy projected several times his size onto big screens in movie palaces. It became more than a matter of crowd management--it was more like riot avoidance.

Four thousand red roses were sent to the home at the behest of Pola Negri, who claimed that she had been engaged to the star at the time of his death. Outsized reactions such as this seemed, in turn, to spark outsized rumors, the most persistent of which was that the body on view in the bronze casket on a raised pedestal was not Valentino himself, but a wax likeness meant to save his corpse from the final indignity of being viewed in a hothouse atmosphere by thousands.

The atmosphere surrounding Valentino’s death represented a kind of dividing line in American popular culture. Before, mass outpourings of extreme grief were expressed over the deaths of Presidents or great soldiers. Valentino’s wake marked the first time that the public burst out in such grief over the departure of a celebrity.

Before his death, the actor had been engaged in a media-management campaign--not just promoting The Son of the Sheik, but figuring out how to tamp down the criticism now beginning to come his way. The catalyst: a Chicago newspaper that printed a story that the person who installed powder puffs in the men’s room of a ballroom had been inspired by what we would now call the “metrosexual” look of the actor.

Valentino hadn’t reacted well to the “Pink Powderpuff” story at all. The action he would have taken in his native Italy--challenge the anonymous author to a duel--was regarded as preposterous and hilarious when he suggested it, in all seriousness, to reporters.

Over the years, as with many Hollywood stars, it has become difficult to discern the real reason for Valentino's anger. Some, pointing to the actor's two very short marriages, have suggested that he might have been terrified at exposure of his bisexuality.

But whispers about homosexuality or bisexuality have been spread about nearly every major male star over the years. Valentino might simply have been annoyed at the simple aspersion on his masculinity.

It was in this confusing atmosphere that another unusual incident in the last days of Valentino occurred: a dinner with journalist H.L. Mencken. What was curious about this was that the cynical Mencken, then at the zenith of his influence on American intellectuals and the cultural scene, did not count moviegoing among his hobbies.

But in 1926 he was conducting a brief, secret affair with a female Hollywood screenwriter, and it was the latter who helped Valentino--impressed by one of Mencken’s essays--reach out to the journalist for advice on how to handle the media beast.

Mencken’s advice was blunt: ignore whatever they write about you. But at dinner, Valentino began to explain why he couldn’t do that.

Against all odds--not just his lack of identification with the stars of a new medium that downplayed the written word at the expense of the image, but also his lack of sympathy with immigrants--Mencken began to like the young man for his simple dignity. And so it was that, on the day of the star’s New York funeral (a second would be held on the West Coast, prior to burial), Mencken’s column on the matinee idol appeared.

The piece became one of the classics of Mencken’s five-decade career, but was among the most atypical of the bunch. It relied less on observation than on a frank participation in an event surrounding his subject (his dinner with Valentino). And, rather than dispatch his subject with not just irreverence but savagery, as he had done with William Jennings Bryan the year before, Mencken extended deep understanding and sympathy with someone caught in the American star-making machinery, and utterly unable to extricate himself:

“Here was a young man who was living daily the dream of millions of other young men. “Here was one who was catnip to women. Here was one who had wealth and fame. And here was one who was very unhappy.”

Valentino was one of the first movie stars to try to figure out how to keep the ravenous entertainment industry from destroying his privacy and his image. Since then, others have become shrewd about doing so. But, as seen in the recent Newsweek story on jailed private-investigator-to-the-stars Anthony Pellicano, others will resort to far more desperate attempts at keeping their image pristine than Hollywood’s prototypical romantic idol did.

Photo of the Day: The Meeting Bowl

I took the accompanying photograph last week, before Hurricane Irene scared the crap out of virtually the entire Eastern Seaboard (and which, the more you see images of people in distress on TV, convinces you that this was not overblown by the media and/or government authorities).

About 15 years ago, while visiting New Orleans during the holiday season, I asked a hotel clerk what life was like down there the week before the Sugar Bowl. “Imagine thousands of drunken maniacs descending all at once on this fair city,” he said, in ripe tones that could have come from a Tennessee Williams play.

That week, I thought of all the bowls that consumed America: not just the Sugar Bowl, but the Orange Bowl, the Rose Bowl, the Cotton Bowl, the Bluebonnet Bowl, the Liberty Bowl….Being then in the city that furnished much of the background of the Lestat chronicles, I wondered when the Crescent City was going to get around to having a Rice Bowl. Give cash-hungry colleges enough time, I thought, and they’d even dream up a Tidy Bowl (or, in football terms, a “Tie-D Bowl”).

I never figured that New York would be bowled over by all this, but, judging from the little spectacle I saw last week, I was mistaken. Leave it to the Big Apple, however, to come up with a variation—okay, a very, very weird-off-the-charts variation—on all of this.

The Meeting Bowl you see here was a work of public sculpture near Father Duffy Square. You would think, given all the vacant office space the city has now, that it doesn’t need any more than it has already. But you would be wrong.

The sign accompanying this proclaims that it’s “temporary and playful urban furniture with a gentle rocking motion.” After an earthquake this past week, a “rocking motion,” no matter how gentle, is going to make a lot of baby-boom New Yorkers wonder if their parents might not have been so wrong after all in warning that certain mind-altering substances could produce unexpected bad flashbacks.

Who would use this Meeting Bowl, then? Pols? Not likely--like creatures that crawl along the ground, they prefer to work under cover, unexposed to the light. Ordinary people? Not likely, either.

Crazed people who don’t mind being exposed to the elements? Now you’re talking…

Quote of the Day (Ozzy Osbourne, on “The Jelly I Call My Brain”)

“Over the past forty years I've been loaded on booze, coke, acid, Quaaludes, glue, cough mixture, heroin, Rohypnol, Klonopin, Vicodin, and too many other heavy-duty substances to list in this footnote. On more than a few occasions I was on all of these at the same time. I'm not the f------ Encyclopedia Britannica, put it that way. What you read here is what dribbled out of the jelly I call my brain when I asked it for my life story. Nothing more, nothing less.”-- Ozzy Osbourne, I Am Ozzy (2010)

That’s called truth in advertising, folks—nothing more, nothing less.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Quote of the Day (Oscar Wilde, on the “Chilling Touch” of Facts in History)

“But in the works of Herodotus, who, in spite of the shallow and ungenerous attempts of modem sciolists to verify his history, may justly be called the ‘Father of Lies’; in the published speeches of Cicero and the biographies of Suetonius; in Tacitus at his best; in Pliny's Natural History in Hanno's Periplus; in all the early chronicles; in the Lives of the Saints; in Froissart and Sir Thomas Mallory; in the travels of Marco Polo; in Olaus Magnus, and Aldrovandus, and Conrad Lycosthenes, with his magnificent Prodigiorum et Ostentorum Chronicon; in the autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini; in the memoirs of Casanuova; in Defoe's History of the Plague; in Boswell's Life of Johnson; in Napoleon's despatches, and in the works of our own Carlyle, whose French Revolution is one of the most fascinating historical novels ever written, facts are either kept in their proper subordinate position, or else entirely excluded on the general ground of dulness. Now, everything is changed. Facts are not merely finding a footingplace in history, but they are usurping the domain of Fancy, and have invaded the kingdom of Romance. Their chilling touch is over everything. They are vulgarising mankind.”—Oscar Wilde, The Decay of Lying: An Observation (1889)

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Movie Quote of the Day (“Body Heat,” on Proper Attire for a Lady Out on the Town)

Ned Racine (played by William Hurt): “Maybe you shouldn't dress like that.”
Matty Walker (played by Kathleen Turner): “This is a blouse and a skirt. I don't know what you're talking about.”
Ned: “You shouldn't wear that body.”—Body Heat (1981), written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan

It’s that body, strolling outside on a hot, muggy summer night in Florida, that grabs the attention of seedy, incompetent small-time lawyer Racine. But it’s the voice coming from that lissome form that, like the sirens of ancient Greek literature, lures him to destruction in Body Heat, which premiered on this date in 1981.

“You’re not too smart, are you? I like that in a man,” coos married socialite Matty Walker to Racine. Most normal people, as soon as they hear a line like that, would probably regard that as a warning, thank the lady for a few minutes of beguiling company and be on their way.

Unless, that is, you’re a horndog that this siren could size up as a sucker from miles away. Or unless, like Racine, you can hear the infinite promise conjoined in the unconcealed contempt, all wrapped up in some vague mid-Atlantic accent that advertises places and adventures you’d love to imagine.

Kathleen Turner’s voice came by way of a nomadic upbringing as the daughter of an American diplomat, where she was not only exposed to different exotic accents (many of which show up in her own smoky tones) but also learned to adapt to endless situations. In other words, she learned to shift identities--providing great technical equipment for an actress, as well as, in this case, a bone-deep understanding of what Turner called her character’s “obsession” and “single-mindedness.”

The fevered, twisty relationship between Turner and William Hurt has always been the selling point of this tribute to classic cinema that now has become classic itself. But don’t miss the fine performances by a pre-Cheers Ted Danson as fellow attorney Peter Lowenstein (a role inexplicably rejected by Jeff Goldblum), J.A. Preston as shrewd but sorrowful detective Oscar Grace (“Everything is just a little askew; pretty soon people start thinking the old rules are no longer in effect"), and, in two scenes where he briefly walks off with the picture, a young and terrific Mickey Rourke as an arsonist who tries to warn the oblivious Racine about his fate. (In the case of the latter, see this YouTube excerpt.)

From the Seventies through today, Hollywood has repeatedly tried its hand at neo-film noir, but outside Chinatown, this might be the best reinvention of classics such as Double Indemnity or The Postman Always Rings Twice. It was the film debut of both director Lawrence Kasdan and star Turner, and, for all the success they had later on in that decade, in certain ways this marked the high point for both.

Flashback, August 1956: “Prince” Party Marks Apex of Olivier, Rattigan

Terence Rattigan loved the good life, and he proceeded to celebrate it again with a grand soiree at his country estate in Sunnydale, England, close to where his screenplay for The Prince and the Showgirl was being filmed. Anyone seeing the host—not only the creator of hits on Broadway and the West End, but also reputedly the highest-paid screenwriter in the world—together with the male star of the movie, Laurence Olivier, could be forgiven for thinking they were on top of the world.

But already, both men sensed that, beneath the placid surface of their lives, dangers lurked, and that they would never have it so good again. Their problems involved two women—both connected to this particular film property—and an up-and-coming playwright-screenwriter.

Two Women--Both Trouble

One of the two women was Olivier’s wife, actress Vivien Leigh, who had originated the role of “the showgirl” in the original stage version of the film (then titled The Sleeping Prince). The play, Rattigan didn’t mind admitting, was a trifle, a confection whipped up the year that Elizabeth II was crowned queen, when the whole island was even more absorbed in all things royal than ever before.

British critics and audiences weren’t exactly wild about it, either, leading Rattigan’s good friend Noel Coward to offer some tongue-in-cheek consolation: ““Don’t worry, Terence. I not only f--- up some of my plays by writing them, but I frequently f--- them up by acting in them as well.”

Rattigan, then, was thrilled when this unlikely property drew interest from an even more unlikely source: Marilyn Monroe, whose ambition was to act in a film with Olivier.

At first, Olivier was thrilled about working with Monroe, too. Upon first meeting her, he wrote about how he would break the news to Leigh if he went ahead with his idle fantasy of an affair with the blonde bombshell. He thought she was sweet, enchanting. But not for long.

You have to love the accompanying photo of Monroe surrounded by Olivier and Leigh. First of all, it is so staged. You can tell that the three principals--all acutely aware of how they looked on camera--must have sensed how this shot would look like once it was snapped. But more important, as consummate actors, they’re expressing an affection for each other that they didn’t feel in life, except maybe fleetingly.

Within only a week or two, the actor-knight was fuming over the actress’ chronic tardiness, her inability to get through scenes quickly, and the excessive influence of her adviser Paula Strasberg, wife of Actors’ Studio coach Lee Strasberg. For her part, Monroe suspected—probably correctly—that her director-star wanted her in this role less for her acting skills than her proven box-office ability.

Soaking all this up, with some humor but also with an insecurity to match Monroe’s own, was Leigh. It would have been out of the question for the Oscar-winning star of Gone With the Wind and A Streetcar Named Desire to repeat her stage performance on screen. While the fortysomething Leigh could have gotten away with being a showgirl onstage, the big screen, with its often giant, pitiless closeups, would have exposed the evidence of the years starting to show on her still-beautiful face.

Early in the filming, then, when Leigh inquired of Olivier’s assistant Colin Clark how the movie was progressing, she smiled, with a touch of minx, when he told her that it really wasn’t going well at all.

Olivier must not have believed his horrible fortune. If he had thought he was getting a respite from one mentally unstable woman--his wife (more on this in a minute)--he was badly mistaken. A quarter-century later, in his memoir Confessions of an Actor, he acknowledged that, when all was said and done, Monroe had given “a star performance,” observing particularly that “no one had such a look of hurt innocence or of unconscious wisdom.”

Middle-Aged Angst

Even that recollection, however, was tinged with lingering difficult memories of the filming, as well as what was occurring in his personal life. “I was fifty. What a happy memory it would have been if Marilyn had made me feel twenty years younger--but I was upset by her insolence, which showed my age, I suppose….Maybe I was tetchy with Marilyn and with myself, because my career was in a rut.”

Even though Monroe, like Olivier, showed up at Rattigan’s party, the soiree gave the director a few hours to forget about his middle-aged angst. Rattigan, too, was able to forget momentarily the sense that his own career and life had slipped out of gear and he might not be able to get back on track.

Ever since the spring, when John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger had electrified the London theater world, Rattigan had worriedly taken in the critical hosannas that erupted over this drama of working-class alienation and towering fury, realizing that his own brand of theater--in which somewhat more genteel characters struggle against misfortune and shame with barely repressed despair--was no longer in favor. He feared, with reason, that his heyday was over.

Coward, a mutual friend of Rattigan and the Oliviers, felt the same fears about his future place in the British theater that afflicted his playwright confidante. But at least in early summer, Coward thought he could stave off public disaffection for awhile with a box-office success: Ms. Leigh in his new play, South Sea Bubble.

Filled With Forebodings”

Coward’s confidence evaporated when Leigh announced to the press on July 12 that she was expecting a child by Christmas. While cabling his congratulations to her and Olivier, the playwright confided to his diary his considerable annoyance about replacing his star --and his enormously perceptive take on what the pregnancy might mean for her:

“I also think, from Vivien’s point of view, that it is a highly perilous enterprise. If anything goes wrong it will very possibly send her around the bend again; she is over forty, very, very small, and none too well balanced mentally. I am filled with forebodings and a curious sense of having been let down.”

Coward was right to feel unease. He had been privy to much of the couple’s agony earlier in the decade, as, during a U.S. appearance in the “two Cleos” (Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra and George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra), Leigh began to show stronger and more frequent symptoms of manic depression. A further strain had developed between husband and wife over her affair with co-star Peter Finch on the set of the 1954 film Elephant Walk. Her nervous breakdown on location required that she be replaced by Elizabeth Taylor.

At this point, another consideration comes into play: Was Leigh really pregnant? The possibility that she might not have been was raised by Donald Spoto in his 1992 biography of Olivier:

“Still slim, no one could have guessed that she was four months pregnant, and no medical records confirming her testimony have been uncovered. In view of Marilyn Monroe’s imminent arrival and assumption of Vivien’s role, there was widespread speculation that the pregnancy was a deception designed by Vivien to maintain a hold on Olivier’s attention.”

But Spoto’s footnotes on this reveal no sources about any of this. In contrast, in his biography of Olivier, Terry Coleman includes the testimony of Olivier’s sister-in-law Hester Ives St. John, who vividly recalled the devastating denouement: a middle-of-the-night call from Leigh’s GP to a gynecologist, who, after examining the star, said: “I’m sorry, we couldn’t save it. It was a girl.”

Curtains on One Marriage and Three Lives

Leigh was devastated by the miscarriage. By Christmastime, instead of celebrating the birth of the first child of their 16-year union, she and Olivier were quarreling. Matters worsened during Olivier’s appearance in Osborne’s The Entertainer, when the actor, already so worn by his demanding role as has-been vaudevillian Archie Rice that he needed rejuvenation injections, was subjected to humiliating fights in front of cast and crew by Leigh.

By 1958, after Olivier had begun an affair with Joan Plowright, who played his daughter in Osborne’s drama, the marriage of Britain’s most famous theatrical couple existed in name only.

Olivier divorced Leigh and married Plowright in 1960. Marriage to the younger woman gave him the stability and family he couldn’t have with Leigh. As for Leigh, though she embarked on a new long-term relationship, she continued to think of herself as Lady Olivier.

When Leigh died in London in 1967 from tuberculosis, Olivier, notified of her death, discharged himself from the hospital where he had been recuperating from surgery for prostate cancer, entered her flat through a side door to avoid the waiting press, then stood alone at her bedside, praying for forgiveness, he later wrote, “for all the evils that sprung up between us.”

As for Rattigan, he was nominated for a Best Screenplay Oscar for adapting his own Separate Tables in 1958, but otherwise he fell into the irrelevance that he feared would come to pass. For 10 years, it has been said, he couldn’t enter his favorite London club because he couldn’t bear the awkwardness shown by other members over his lack of a West End hit.

As I wrote earlier this year, it was only shortly before his death in 1977 that the tide began to shift somewhat in Rattigan’s favor--and a more sustained comeback is occurring this year, in the centennial of his birth.

A Story Retold on Screen

Later this year, the months of anticipation and agony surrounding The Prince and the Showgirl will be reenacted onscreen in My Week With Marilyn, a biopic based on a memoir by Colin Clark.
The new movie by Simon Curtis, which will premiere in another month at the New York Film Festival, contains a cast that looks well-matched to its real-life originals. Michelle Williams, though more petite than Monroe, seems very capable of capturing her vulnerability. Playing what might be her most interesting role in years--Vivien Leigh--will be Julia Ormond.

But the closest match of star to subject in the film might be Kenneth Branagh as Olivier. Like Olivier, Branagh is an actor-director who won considerable acclaim on stage and screen for his adaptations of Shakespeare, later fell into something of a middle-aged funk, and was once considered, with former wife Emma Thompson, as a successor to Olivier and Leigh as Britain’s royal thespian couple. He is, then, extremely knowledgeable about the stresses placed on career and marriage by enormous fame.

Oddly enough, I don't see among the cast members anyone who will be playing Rattigan. In one way, though, I'm not surprised. As William Holden's sardonic screenwriter-gigolo, Joe Gillis, noted acidly in Sunset Boulevard: "Audiences don't know somebody sits down and writes a picture; they think the actors make it up as they go along."

Quote of the Day (Jeremiah, on God in the Heart “As A Burning Fire”)

“Thou hast deceived me, O Lord, and I am deceived: thou hast been stronger than I, and thou hast prevailed. I am become a laughing-stock all the day, all scoff at me. For I am speaking now this long time, crying out against iniquity, and I often proclaim devastation: and the word of the Lord is made a reproach to me, and a derision all the day. Then I said: I will not make mention of him, nor speak any more in his name: and there came in my heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I was wearied, not being able to bear it. For I heard the reproaches of many, and terror on every side: Persecute him, and let us persecute him: from all the men that were my familiars, and continued at my side: if by any means he may be deceived, and we may prevail against him, and be revenged on him. But the Lord is with me as a strong warrior: therefore they that persecute me shall fall, and shall be weak: they shall be greatly confounded, because they have not understood the everlasting reproach, which never shall be effaced.”—Jeremiah 20: 7-11

As you might have guessed from the dramatic contrast between the light and the dark, the image accompanying this post was from a painting by Rembrandt, The Prophet Jeremiah Mourning Over The Destruction Of Jerusalem (1630).

Friday, August 26, 2011

Quote of the Day (Angelina Jolie, Likening Acting to Therapy)

“It’s [acting] like being in therapy, in a way. You’re drawn to certain roles because they question something about life, or about love, or about freedom. You ask these questions as you grow up: am I strong enough, am I sane enough? Do I understand love, do I understand myself?”-- Angelina Jolie, quoted in Matthew Garrahan, “Lunch with the FT: Angelina Jolie: Acting Is Like Being in Therapy,” The Financial Times, July 30, 2011

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Quote of the Day (James Baldwin, on Love “Like the Lightning”)

“Love is like the lightning, and your maturity is signaled by the extent to which you can accept the dangers and the power and the beauty of love.”—James Baldwin, interview of November 7, 1986, in Terry Gross, All I Did Was Ask: Conversations with Writers, Actors Musicians, and Artists (2010)

Photo of the Day: Bocce Nation at Bloomberg Beach

These days, you never know what you’re going to find at “Bloomberg Beach,” the nickname that New York Daily News columnist Mike Lupica bestowed on the newly created pedestrian mall around Duffy Square in midtown Manhattan a few years ago. Case in point: this “Bocce Nation” promotional space created this week.

Just imagine: A small oasis of green in an ocean of asphalt—and even this is fake, an offering to the commercial gods. How typical of the urban dweller’s luck these days. Well, I guess you need your entertainment anyway you can get it these days, and there’ve been far worse ways of spending one’s time and dollars in the area over the years…

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Quote of the Day (Andrew Ferguson on Newt Gingrich, “Panicky Before Panicky Was Cool”)

“Reading the [Newt] Gingrich catalog, you get used to intimations — or are they threats? — of Armageddon. Windows are slamming shut, or are just about to, all over the place, all the time. ‘Time is running out,’ he wrote toward the end of ‘Window of Opportunity,’ 27 years ago. It’s no wonder that Washington thinks he’s so smart: Gingrich was panicky before panicky was cool. The political class runs on his kind of excitement, as one crisis of the century succeeds another, week by week. Politics on its own terms is so boring — decades of the same issues, the same interests, the same charges of heartlessness against Republicans and of profligacy against Democrats — that attention has to be stoked by artificial means.”--Andrew Ferguson, “What Does Newt Gingrich Know?”, The New York Times Magazine, July 3, 2011

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

This Day in Baseball History (Lefty Grove Loses Bid for Record—and His Cool)

August 23, 1931—Although batters didn’t want any part of Philadelphia Athletics ace Lefty Grove during this special season, on this date it was his own teammates who didn’t want to be around him. After a contest in which he lost his chance at a record 17th consecutive victory, Grove displayed his nasty stuff—not in the form of his blazing fastball but his blazing temper.

Following a 1-0 loss to the St. Louis Browns—a defeat that occurred because of an error by a substitute leftfielder--"I went in and tore the clubhouse up—wrecked the place, tore those stall lockers off the wall and everything else,” the surly southpaw related, in uncharacteristic tranquility, later. (The “everything else” included tearing off and shredding his uniform.)

Nor was Grove done yet. Even after his one-man wrecking-crew routine, the pitcher still hadn’t vented all his anger. But this time, instead of releasing it on hapless sub Jimmy Moore, he took it out on the man being replaced, leftfielder Al Simmons.

Why, Grove wondered, did Simmons have to choose this day—one in which the pitcher was trying to break the consecutive-win record jointly held by Walter Johnson and Smokey Joe Wood these last 19 years—to go to the doctor? Had Simmons been in the field instead of Moore, the pitcher felt, that routine line drive by the woebegone Browns’ Sky Melillo would have been caught and Grove would have been out of the inning without any damage.

Some guys explode, then forget all about it in a matter of minutes. Not Grove. For a full week, he wouldn’t talk to anyone. It would take several more years before he forgave Simmons.

When reading the vague outlines of this story, I wondered if the pitcher might have been better off changing his name to Lefty Grudge. This kind of competitiveness that curdles into churlishness, I reasoned, is the sign of an abnormal person—particularly since Simmons probably won, oh, 15 games almost singlehandedly for every one he “lost” for the A’s ace, what with a league-leading .390 batting average and a reputation as his team’s clutch hitter.

But as I read a bit more about “Bucketfoot Al” (a nickname derived from his unusual batting stance), I wondered if Grove might have had a point. Simmons enjoyed a Hall of Fame career, but he felt chagrined that he retired some 70 hits from the magic 3,000 circle. Had he not had to check out of games early—or miss some altogether—because of hangovers, he reasoned, he might have been able to pick up a few more hits along the way.

Surely Grove knew about this. I haven’t been able to discover the cause of the ailment that sent Simmons to the doctor (if that was indeed the true story), but if the slugger had to miss the game because of alcohol, maybe Grove had a right to be peeved.

Grove didn’t lose many other games that year. When he was finished for the season, he led the American League in earned run average (ERA), shutouts, strikeouts, winning percentage and wins, and tied for complete games. Then consider some of his other achievements in this period:

* A 46-4 record from July 25, 1930, through September 24, 1931—believed to be the best 50-game stretch by any pitcher in baseball history;

* An ERA of 2.06 in 1931, less than half the league average that year;

* Coming out of the bullpen to save five games.

Grove was instrumental in helping the A’s capture 107 regular-season games in 1931—and, more important, take the pennant by 13½ games over the New York Yankees, who still had Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in their primes. In fact, in a 1996 cover story called “The Team That Time Forget,” Sports Illustrated writer William Nack made a creditable case that the 1929-31 A’s belonged in any conversation with the ’27 and ’61 Yankees as the best team in baseball history.

There are all kinds of testaments to Grove’s greatness, including that he won 300 games in his career despite not pitching regularly in the major leagues till age 25, or that, even after an injury made him lose some speed, he continued to enjoy winning records each year till he retired at age 41. Stats maven Bill James has come right out and asked, “What argument, if any, could be presented against the proposition that Lefty Grove was the greatest pitcher who ever lived?”

But no statistics convey the quality of the lanky, fierce southpaw at his best more than an opposing player who said his fastball looked “like a flash of white sewing thread coming up at you.”

Given all that I’ve just written about Grove’s volatile temperament, many of my readers, I think, might look at the photo accompanying this post and wonder, as did Esquire in running one particular image of Richard Nixon throughout the 1970s, “Why is this man smiling?” (Well, sort of smiling, anyway: This was probably as close as Grove got to it in his career.) In Grove’s case, the occasion was the American League MVP trophy he won for his sensational 1931 season.

In case you’re wondering: unlike Ty Cobb’s, Grove’s temper subsided quite a bit after his playing days were through. Fellow residents of his hometown, Lonaconing, Md., and, later, Norwalk, Ohio, actually found him to be quite a friendly guy in the three decades between his retirement and his death in 1975. Who'd have thought it?

Quote of the Day (Tom Wolfe, on the Me Decade)

“It was remarkable enough that ordinary folks now had enough money to take it and run off and alter the circumstances of their lives and create new roles for themselves, such as Trailer Sailor or Gerontoid Cowboy. But, simultaneously, still others decided to go . . . all the way. They plunged straight toward what has become the alchemical dream of the Me Decade….The new alchemical dream is: changing one’s personality—remaking, remodeling, elevating, and polishing one’s very self . . . and observing, studying, and doting on it. (Me!)—Tom Wolfe, “The Me Decade and the Third Great Awakening,” New York Magazine, August 23, 1976

With his coinage of the phrase “Me Decade” 35 years ago today, Tom Wolfe further solidified his status as an astute, witty chronicler of the spirit of the age.

Monday, August 22, 2011

This Day in Southern History (Nat Turner Insurrection Terrifies Slaveholders)

August 22, 1831—The worst fear of Thomas Jefferson at the time of the Missouri Compromise—that slavery represented “a wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go”—was, for many of his fellow Virginians, borne out by the sudden outbreak of violence after midnight in Southampton County. Nat Turner, a literate African-American preacher continually beset by disturbing visions he believed “intended [him] for some great purpose,” led a half-dozen fellow slaves in a largely directionless but very deadly insurrection.

By the end of the day, the number in his group had swelled to about 40—and the number of his victims to around 60. Yet oddly, the leader of the most significant slave rebellion in American history –a figure who continued to symbolize African-American militancy more than a century after his death—took the life of only one person, a young woman, in the onslaught.

Even after most of his men rounded up, Turner hid and eluded capture for two months. He was finally captured in late October and hanged on November 11. His executioners then stripped off large pieces of his skin. His fate would be echoed years later in Herman Melville’s “Benito Cereno,” in which the head of an executed leader of a slave revolt on a ship faces the church of St. Bartholomew, an apostle who met his end in a particularly grisly way--with his skin also torn off. In these kinds of deaths, the skin that once offended a profoundly racist society was now reduced to a skeleton, completely indistinguishable from its oppressors.

The gnawing anxiety of Jefferson and other prominent Southern Founding Fathers concerning their human chattel was not an idle fear—at least to them. The possibility was usually too awful to be confronted directly. As with the reality of miscegenation all around them, it could only be dealt with through euphemism, misdirection, public denial, and--at most--private communications, often cryptic.

As I mentioned in a prior post, James Madison’s grandfather had died in 1732 through poison administered by two slaves—the first recorded murder victim in that area of Virginia. But there was another, larger, more recent example of slavery-engendered violence that worried Madison, Jefferson and other white southerners even more: the successful Santo Domingo rebellion of the 1790s that led to the murder of at least 60,000 whites.

Turner's rebellion not only confirmed the fears of many whites all over the South that African-Americans, whether slave or free, were not to be trusted, but also led to a wave of legislation that further restricted their freedom.

A bill proposed early the following year by Thomas Jefferson Randolph, grandson of the President, calling for gradual emancipation, compensation for masters, and colonization of freedmen outside the U.S., failed by only seven votes in Virginia’s General Assembly. What was passed in its place, in various forms all below the Mason-Dixon Line, was punitive legislation making the following actions illegal:

· Preaching by slaves and freed blacks without at least one white present;
· Paying anyone to teach slaves;
· Gathering any group of African-Americans to teach them reading or writing;
· Disseminating abolitionist literature of any kind.

The last restriction was enacted because the abolitionist tract David Walker's Appeal and William Lloyd Garrison's The Liberator appeared not long before the insurrection. Thus, hard-liners ended up restricting the activities of blacks, but the First Amendment rights of whites--all at a time when the franchise was being extended all over the South. The entire region had become a giant contradiction in terms.

Turner was born the same year as John Brown, whose raid on Harpers Ferry 28 years later would have more fateful and immediate consequences for the Union. Partly because Brown lived nearly twice as long as Turner, partly because Turner’s opportunity to write to other literate blacks was limited by the lack of education usually given slaves, primary source documentation is considerably more extensive for Brown than for Turner.

To be sure, novelists have hardly neglected Brown (see Russell Banks’ Cloudsplitter, for instance), but enough is known about his life and motivations to inspire as much, perhaps more, psychobiography as fiction. On the other hand, Turner’s life leaves an evidentiary gap that perhaps novelists more than historians are better able to fill, through the force of imagination.

William Styron surely must have felt that way as he worked on The Confessions of Nat Turner. Even on the surface, there was much about the rebel’s life that cried out for dramatization and/or an inquiry into motive, including:

* his mother’s attempt to kill him, after she noticed odd bumps and markings on his forehead after his birth;

* his white master’s delight in the child’s memorization of the entire Bible while no more than nine years old--an attitude that encouraged Turner to think he would be freed before long, which, when that did not occur, kindled a terrible, hidden rage;

* at least five visions or signs from the atmosphere that Turner interpreted as God’s will that he lead blacks to freedom;

* the fact that the only person Turner killed in the entire two-day rampage was a white woman, Margaret Whitehead.

The more Styron pondered Turner’s situation, the more he was struck by the preacher's dark, disturbing inner landscape. The Confessions of Nat Turner won a Pulitzer Prize for a powerful narrative drive and consideration of the tangled emotional interactions of whites and blacks that evoked comparisons to William Faulkner.

The year in which Styron’s novel was published, 1967, featured racial unrest in 128 American cities, most prominently Newark and Detroit. It was to be expected that the attempt of a militant African-American to strike a blow against a society that had made his people miserable--in Malcolm X’s formulation, to use “any means necessary”--would strike a chord in that period.

But part of Styron’s portrait of Turner--an implication that the revolt leader might be homosexual--sparked a firestorm of controversy, with a number of African-American intellectuals suggesting that Styron was a) being presumptuous to think that he, a white Southern liberal, could penetrate the mind and heart of an African-American of another century, let alone speak in his voice; and b) in effect, repeating the psychic emasculation of Turner and other slaves by questioning his manhood.

The most significant action of Nat Turner’s life occurred entirely within 48 hours. One hundred and eighty years later, it continues to provoke debate and discord concerning America’s most vexing questions related to aspiration, sexuality and race.

Photo of the Day: Rudbeckia

You might know this plant better as the Black-Eyed Susan (I certainly do). In any case, I took this particular photo of one up at the Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York last month.

Quote of the Day (Joe Queenan, on the Decline of the Playboy)

“The age of the playboy began to slip away in the 1960s when everyone started dressing as if they were affiliated with Three Dog Night, and people felt it worthwhile to contribute something to society. That just wrecked everything. Things got worse when the entire planet started exercising, watching their weight, ditching nicotine, wearing belted shorts, reading books by Thomas L. Friedman. It has reached unimaginably hideous depths in the age of the gated community, the speed dater, the Charlie Sheen victory tour, and the virtual dink.“—Joe Queenan, “Requiem for a Dream,” The Weekly Standard, August 8, 2011 (subscription required to read full article)

Joe Queenan, normally a hawkeye when it comes to cultural trends, has discerned most of the reasons for the decline of the playboy. But, I’m sorry to say, his text missed an obvious one, even though, inexplicably, his subtitle—“The International Man of Mystery Ain‘t What He Used to Be”—implied it.

I’m not talking about the hopeless love for Annette Bening and their four kids that have sidelined Warren Beatty (from the looks of it, probably permanently). Nor am I talking, as Queenan did in his opening paragraph, about the creeping decrepitude that has left Hugh Hefner one step away from the fate of J. Howard Marshall II, the nonagenarian oil man who, in his last pathetic days, became the would-be sugar daddy of Anna Nicole Smith.

No, I’m talking, of course (as you might have guessed from the photo accompanying this post), about Austin Powers’ disappearing mojo.

Mojo, I don’t have to tell you, can get you out of all kinds of jams. Mojo enables you to be an International Man of Mystery with a Carnaby Street wardrobe instead of a monochromatically dressed, middle-aged burnt-out “Circus” case from some John le Carre novel. And it gives you savoir faire to spare, which comes in pretty handy when you’re swinging on a very long but perilously thin rope of dental floss, with Elizabeth Hurley clinging to your neck for dear life.

But by the time of the third installment of the franchise, Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002), the thrill was gone. The plot resolution of Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me to the contrary, it was obvious that Dr. Evil had indeed succeeded in stealing Austin’s mojo after all.

So flaccid was Goldmember that the secret agent has not been seen in nine years, a near-decade in which not only the enemies of the free world ran amok abroad, but also the world monetary system was threatened (make that is threatened) with mass collapse. It’s as if Inspector Dreyfus of The Pink Panther Strikes Again had not only succeeded in obtaining a nuclear device that would allow him to get his hands on his longtime tormenter, Chief Inspector Clouseau, but had also managed to hook up with Goldfinger to do a whammy on the global economy. Were I Beyonce, I’d harangue my manager about why he had placed me with this turkey.

(Oh, wait: Until recently, Beyonce’s manager was her father. Never mind!…)

Now comes word that Austin Powers will be returning for another installment of the franchise, in Thunderballs (though it‘s unclear whether he‘ll be back in 2012 or 2013). Where was he when we needed him?

Undoubtedly, the dentally challenged one was so ashamed of losing his mojo for so long that he couldn’t bear to be around any fembots. It looks as if he may yet be in time to save the world, but I doubt if even his most "Oh, behave!" smile can stem the tide running against his own playboy species...

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Bonus Quote of the Day (A Leonardo Fan, on the Theft of the “Mona Lisa”)

“In a thousand years, people will ask of the year 1911: ‘What did you do with the Joconde?’”—Joséphin Péladan, novelist and aficionado of Leonardo da Vinci, writing of the theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre, quoted in Simon Kuper, “Who Stole the ‘Mona Lisa’?, Financial Times, August 6, 2011

Today marks the centennial of the most audacious art theft of the 20th century. Kuper’s fine article analyzes the blasé attitude that led security at the Louvre to underestimate the chances that perhaps their most prized possession would be stolen, as well as the unlikely perpetrator of the crime, an Italian who showed no signs of being caught until, for no apparent reason, he turned himself in to the authorities.

(For a more successful bit of detection—albeit one of the historical kind, and one that took centuries to solve—see this earlier post of mine about how art scholars a couple of years ago at last solved the mystery of the woman who sat for this world-famous portrait.)

Quote of the Day (St. Therese of Lisieux, on Prayer)

“I have not the courage to force myself to seek beautiful prayers in books; not knowing which to choose I act as children do who cannot read; I say quite simply to the good God what I want to tell Him, and He always understands me.”--St. Therese of Lisieux, The Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux (1898)

Saturday, August 20, 2011

This Day in Revolutionary War History (Washington Ties Vise Around Redcoats)

August 20, 1781—George Washington, having kept his army alive through a cautious-to-a-fault strategy that won him the nickname of the “American Fabius,” now saw the opening he wanted to strike the decisive blow he had vainly sought for six years against the British Army.

Hearing that a naval fleet under the command of America’s ally France had proceeded to Chesapeake Bay, he began marching his troops south from New York down to Yorktown, Va., to trap Charles Lord Cornwallis

Over the course of the American Revolution, Washington had gained a force of detractors large enough to rival his ragtag army. The cause of their carping: that the general had not dealt a crushing blow to the redcoats, and that the tall Virginian might have looked like a general, but he didn’t lead—or win—like one. 

These critics had a point, to a certain extent. As far as tactics were concerned, Washington was not the best battlefield commander among the Americans. (That distinction, ironically enough, probably belonged to Benedict Arnold.)

But he was anything but the timid figure his critics believed. On the contrary, hard experience against the numerically superior, better trained British Army had taught him to rein in his own instinct for action lest he expose his forces to a battle of annihilation. He had to pick his spots—at Trenton, at Princeton, at Monmouth—and keep his army alive and in the field until King George’s ministers tired of the struggle of funding an army and navy across the ocean.

(I just realized that some of my readers might not be familiar with the term "American Fabius," though many of you might recognize a sideways allusion to it in a 30 Rock episode called "The Fabian Strategy." Washington's strategy, as implied by my last paragraph, was to avoid a pitched battle and wear down the enemy through attrition, as the ancient Roman general Fabius did against Hannibal.)

The course of action Washington was executing now--a campaign in Virginia--was not what he had planned in talking to Comte de Rochambeau, the general designated by the French to coordinate movements with American forces against Britain in the New World. Perhaps partly driven to avenge his crushing defeat by Sir William Howe in New York five years earlier, Washington had expected another campaign in that city, this time against Sir Henry Clinton.

But Washington, despite initial mistakes in the war, now demonstrated a flexibility and suppleness of mind that not only astonished his critics but that, more important, had gone missing from his British counterparts. Washington’s second in command, Nathanael Greene, had not defeated Cornwallis outright, but he had harassed the commander of the British army in the South enough so that his forces were considerably whittled down.

Before the battle of Princeton, Cornwallis, bypassing an opportunity to attack Washington, had bragged that he would “bag the fox in the morning.” Not only had “the fox” won that engagement, in a surprise attack on Cornwallis’ rear guard, but this time he was ready to take out the general in the kind of siege warfare that the British had long counted as a strength.

When you come to Wethersfield, Conn., as I did several years ago, you’ll likely be told that Washington and Rochambeau “planned the Yorktown campaign” when they met in May 1781 at the Webb House.

Not quite so: For the first few weeks after the meeting, Washington and the Frenchman plotted a campaign against Clinton in New York. The British general became even more convinced this would occur after a communication from Washington to the Marquis de Lafayette in Virginia mentioned this intention. 

But the Wethersfield meeting--the second such conference between Washington and Rochambeau--increased the two commanders’ comfort level with each other, so the American was prepared to listen and consider seriously a question from the Frenchman: If a naval reenforcement were to appear for the main French fleet, then proceeding to the West Indies, how did Washington think it should be used: in New York or Virginia?

As biographer Douglass Southall Freeman described the seeds of a future strategy planted in Washington’s mind at this point, it all sounds something like three-dimensional chess, “the solution of a complicated equation of at least five factors: the margin of superiority the Admiral [Francois Joseph Paul de Grasse] would possess, the duration of his stay in American waters, the number of troops he brought with him, the reenforcement of the British meantime, and the successful activity of the States to make the Continentals numerically effective and mobile.”

By mid-August, Washington received some electrifying news: de Grasse was not only heading toward Yorktown, but he had 29 warships with more than three thousand troops. But the French fleet would have to leave by mid-October, forcing Washington to abandon the New York campaign in favor of concentrating American and French forces at Yorktown.

By the 20th, Washington and his 2,500 American soldiers were on the move to Virginia, with Rochambeau following not far behind him. 

Despite a language barrier and a history of distrust between American colonials and the French in North America dating back for more than 100 years, Washington and Rochambeau had learned to cooperate with, respect and trust each other. It was the exact opposite situation with Clinton and his subordinate Cornwallis, who, over the last several years, had come to dislike each other. Cornwallis had used the distance from his chief to conduct a largely independent campaign in the South.

Cornwallis, warned by his engineers that Yorktown was not the most opportune place to station troops, had compounded his difficulties by being dilatory in fortifying his works there.

By the time he learned that Washington and Rochambeau’s forces would be bolstered not only by additional troops, but by French naval power, he was caught in Washington’s vise. 

When the siege of Yorktown began on September 28, Cornwallis was facing a combined American-French force of 16,000, along with de Grasse cutting off any escape route by the sea. Less than three weeks later, the British general surrendered. 

A persistent legend has it that the music played by the British band “The World Turned Upside Down.” If so, it could not have been more appropriate, for in the last engagement of the war, the greatest empire in the war at that point had lost the most important part of its overseas colonies to an undermanned, ill-clothed, ill-fed army kept alive by the indomitable will of its commander.

Quote of the Day (Mikhail Gorbachev, With a Russian Phrase I Wish Were Used Here)

"Don't hang noodles on my ears."—Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, lashing out at college friend and Parliament Speaker Anatoly Lukyanov for taking part in a failed coup against him, quoted in William Safire, “On Language: When Putsch Comes to Coup,” The New York Times, September 22, 1991

The Russian Revolution unfolded over an extended period of time, involving millions of people and the hopes of even more around the world. It was like a film epic—think Doctor Zhivago or Reds.

Nearly three-quarters of a century later, the failed coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, which began 20 years ago yesterday, involved only a small group of clumsy plotters and lasted all of two days. It was like a musical comedy—think Cole Porter’s Silk Stockings, with the would-be junta and their fellow travelers forced to do more fancy footwork in explaining what they were up to (including an embarrassing initial news conference after it had been announced that Gorby had retired for "reasons of health") than Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse ever had to perform.

By the start of the next year, anyone singing “Back in the U.S.S.R.” might as well have been engaging in ancient history, as Communism fell in the nation that gave birth to it as an international force.

In the first hours when news of the coup broke, the world held its breath, as it waited to see what would happen. By the time Boris Yeltsin, in his finest hour, rallied the populace, the coup conspirators were exposed as revolutionary revanchists, a kind of Totalitarian Gang That Couldn’t Plot Straight. (Even the junta's collective name and acronym--“The State Committee for the Emergency Situation," or, in the abbreviated form of its Russian name, “G.K.Ch.P."--seemed an unpronounceable and satiric variation on far deadlier alphabet-soup organizations that had spread misery and terror in the U.S.S.R. for years, notably the KGB.)

For me, nothing exhibited the spirit of the hours when it all came apart than Gorbachev’s sharp rebuke to Lukyanov. The latter had engaged in spin, prevarication, mendacity—oh, hell, just plain bull—in telling about his part in the plot against his onetime ally.

Gorby was having none of it. His response—“Don’t hang noodles on my ears”—translated, according to the late language maven Safire, as “Don’t try to make a fool out of me” or “Don’t hand me any of that guff.”

The former translation probably comes closer to the true meaning of this old Russian saying, but the latter would have appealed to an ancient, fiery Irish nun who taught third grade in my elementary school more than 40 years ago. Whenever someone made the mistake of acting up in her class, she’d scan the room and announce, “I won’t take any of your guff!!!”

If Gorby had anything like the unyielding fury of that Sister of Charity, Mr. Lukyanov must have been like those children years ago in my school: awfully quiet in awaiting certain punishment.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Quote of the Day (Marilyn Monroe, on a Claim to Fame—and a Liability)

“I've been on a calendar, but never on time.”—Marilyn Monroe, Look Magazine, March 5, 1957

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Quote of the Day (Learned Hand, Revealing Limits to the Majesty of the Law)

"I don't know what Mickey Mantle is or does. Is it a man?"--Longtime federal Judge Learned Hand, quoted in “Nation: A Matter of Spirit,” Time, August 25, 1961

Harry Blackmun, a baseball fanatic, would never have come out with this kind of howler about the New York Yankee Hall of Famer. But that might have been the only measure by which the Associate Justice of the Supreme Court surpassed Learned Hand.

I’ve thought a good deal lately about Hand, who died on this date in 1961 at age 89, while still serving, after 52 years, on the federal bench. He’s often considered the best judge never to be appointed to the Supreme Court. More’s the pity for our country that he never ascended to the highest court in the land, for he had already demonstrated sagacity and literary grace in his opinions.

The latter quality is not to be taken for granted among the Supremes, as Jeffrey Rosen shows in his recent New Republic piece favorably comparing the quality of Elena Kagan's prose to her colleagues. I do have my beef with how Rosen could praise Antonin Scalia for his readable opinions without putting on the short list of quotable justices Robert Jackson, but at least he offers some choice other historical examples of winners and sinners on the Supreme Court.

Rosen cites among the latter Harry Blackmun’s Roe v. Wade opinion, but there’s another case that’s even more relevant to today’s “Quote of the Day”: Blackmun’s decision in the Curt Flood case.

The justice decided to prove the veracity of the nickname “Minnesota Twin” (Chief Justice Warren Burger also hailed from the Land of a Thousand Lakes) by larding one of his footnotes in the case with a list of just about every baseball legend going back to Cap Anson. Potter Stewart, scanning the eye-glazing list, told Blackmun that he’d join the majority in the case if one of his favorite players was added. Blackmun complied.

And guess what? After that silly display of his baseball knowledge, Blackmun still decided the case incorrectly.

On the other hand, the likelihood is high that, despite not knowing the difference between, say, Lou Gehrig and Lou Boudreau, Hand still would have been able to cut to the core of the case: i.e., whether major-league owners were using the reserve clause to restrict players’ ability to sign with their employer of choice and, thus, whether baseball deserved to be only sport not subject to federal antitrust law. At very least, one expects that he would have taken one look at Blackmun’s treasured footnote and come up with one of his lines that belong in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations: “Judges can be damned fools just like everybody else.”

I’ve always felt that literary style is a happy union of sense and sensibility. For an example of this, see this part of Hand’s address to a crowd of newly naturalized Americans in Central Park in 1944:

“The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women; the spirit of liberty remembers that not even a sparrow falls to earth unheeded; the spirit of liberty is the spirit of Him who, near 2,000 years ago, taught mankind that lesson it has never learned, but has never quite forgotten: that there may be a kingdom where the least shall be heard and considered side by side with the greatest.”

Would that this quote—a magnificent summary of the stakes in World War II—could only be carved into the Supreme Court building in D.C., where today’s justices would have to see and read it before rendering their decisions.

Photo of the Day: What’s Up, Daylily?

I took the accompanying photo of a daylily last month at the Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Quote of the Day (Rick Perry, with Loose, “Treacherous…Treasonous” Talk)

"If this guy prints more money between now and the election, I don't know what y'all would do to him in Iowa. I mean, printing more money to play politics at this particular time in American history is almost treacherous – or treasonous, in my opinion.”—Texas Governor—and new Presidential candidate—Rick Perry, on Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke, quoted in Abby Phillip, “Thrust and Perry: W.H. to Texan: Watch Your Mouth,” Politico, August 16, 2011

I know what you’re thinking: It’s been a long day, and you’re tired. You don’t want to wade through all of this Texas-sized bullchip.

Well, neither do I. But when a newly announced candidate--one, be it noted, from a large state, with a considerable war chest, amid an uncertain economy and, therefore, not only with a terrific chance of winning his party's nomination but of taking the general election in 2012--comes out with the kind of blathering above, we’d all better sit up straight and try to make sense out of it all.

If Texas Governor Rick Perry believes every word of this stuff, all the time, he’s an idiot. If he doesn’t, he’s the worst kind of demagogue. If he starts out not believing it but persuades himself, while delivering it, that he does, he should forsake the stump for the stage immediately.

What does Perry mean by “playing politics”? Is he implying that Ben Bernanke wants President Obama re-elected? Why would that be?

Start out with a fact, a not unimportant one: Ben Bernanke was appointed head of the Fed by George W. Bush. You remember him, right, Rick? A Republican? Not just that, but a conservative one? Oh, and one more hint: your predecessor as governor?

In other words, Bernanke’s appointment was pushed by a President not only dedicated to free-market principles, but one who barely displayed any interest in appointing Democrats to any office during his two Presidential terms, particularly in as high-profile as the one at the Fed. Maybe it was Bernanke’s academic background that led Perry to suspect Bernanke of being a crypto-liberal Democrat.

But there’s another little matter in Perry’s statement: those words “almost treacherous--or treasonous, in my opinion.” Some would question the wisdom of exciting the fevered brain of some talk-radio-addicted yahoo in a state with laws that look kindly on concealed handguns (like Texas!). Just imagine if said yahoo gets anywhere within the vicinity of Bernanke the next time he appears in the Lone Star State. Better yet, don’t.

But leave aside all of this. If Bernanke’s actions at the Fed are close to “treasonous,” what do you say about a governor who has speculated that his state could legally secede from the Union? That he is unworthy to follow in the footsteps of the first (great) GOP President, who told an audience that “as a nation of freemen we must live for all time, or die by suicide”? That he is summoning a dark past of anti-majoritarianism, recalcitrant racism and endless effusion of blood? That those 19th-century advocates of secession, Confederate Lost Cause mythology to the contrary, were guilty of treason? That thus, even before he can run in a single primary, Governor Perry has called into question whether he intends to fulfill the traditional Presidential inaugural pledge to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States“?

Photo of the Day: The Bulrushes of Piermont

That headline sounds like a family, doesn’t it? But the only family that’s being referred to, in the accompanying picture I took this past weekend, involves aquatic plant life growing at Piermont Marsh in Rockland County, N.Y.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Quote of the Day (Ross Douthat, on Mitt Romney)

“The thinking person’s case for Romney, murmured by many of his backers, amounts to this: Vote for Mitt, you know he doesn’t believe a word he says.”-- Ross Douthat, “Chris Christie’s Cue,” The New York Times, August 15, 2011

Photo of the Day: Kayak Krazy

As part of a group of photos I took this weekend up at the Piermont Marsh in Rockland County, N.Y., I captured one of the favorite activities of those who come to this spot: kayaking.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Song Lyric of the Day (Jimmy Webb, on “Dreams of Endless Summer”)

“Our dreams of endless summer
Were just too grandiose
Adios, Adios.”—Jimmy Webb, “Adios,” from his Suspending Disbelief CD (1993)

If I were to write A Portrait of the Blogger as a Young Man, I’d begin, as James Joyce did with his novel of initiation, with my first consciousness of sound—music, in this case. That would have been along about 1967 or ’68, when such songs as “Up, Up and Away,” “Wichita Lineman,” “Galveston,” and especially “MacArthur Park” seemed to be coming from every transistor radio within earshot of me.

What all of these songs I just named had in common was that they were written by Jimmy Webb, a 21-year-old who was turning the music industry upside down in that season. Today, as hard as it is for me to accept, the composer turns 65.

To tell you the truth, I don’t know how crazy Webb would be about being known strictly as a “composer” or "lyricist." For just about as long as he’s had a career, he’s wanted to be known as a singer-songwriter. To his frustration, his solo works have never sold as well as the cover versions by artists who include Glen Campbell, the Fifth Dimension, Richard Harris, Art Garfunkel, Linda Ronstadt, Judy Collins, Joe Cocker….the list goes on and on. The quality of his voice doesn’t match (most) of these artists, of course, but that in itself is not a bar to success, as Bob Dylan and Neil Young have risen to the top of the charts with what might euphemistically be called “distinctive” voices.

No, as much as anything else, it might be Webb’s desire to take all kinds of chances with his lyrics and musical structures that has gotten in the way. Interviewed by Paul Zollo as part of a book called Songwriters on Songwriting, Webb practically chafes at the constraints imposed by the music industry:

“I can see a lot of things to be done with songs that haven't been done with them. We haven't seen a lot of songs written in free verse. We haven’t seen a lot of songs written in a chain of consciousness form with no particular verses, chorus or bridges.”

I started off this post with the James Joyce allusion partly because he’s a favorite of Webb. In fact, the famous opening chapter of Ulysses, which takes place in the Martello Tower in Ireland, is referred to, obliquely, in the songwriter’s “Sandy Cove.”

That title, as well as the hits of his early career, shows that Webb has one of the most powerful senses of place of any pop lyricist. For another example of this, consider the subject of today’s post, “Adios.” In quick strokes, this song (covered, hauntingly, by Linda Ronstadt) economically evokes young, heedless love, lived out against the backdrop of the California coast, with images of margaritas drunk in old cantinas and the “winter green” hills of the northern part of the state.

And then the above quoted lines, rendered in a dying fall, a kiss goodbye not just to a love affair (could it be the same woman who inspired "MacArthur Park," the woman with whom he was “besotted” in the mid-Sixties, Ronstadt’s cousin Susan?), but to an entire way of life, a world of the young that doesn’t have much use for the professionals in the workday world, not to mention the aging—a prospect understood years ago by Webb, the onetime wunderkind turned senior citizen today.

Suspending Disbelief went nowhere commercially—a crying shame, since it contained much of Webb’s most deeply felt, autobiographical work (see in particular “Elvis and Me”). But if you want to experience him at his peak as a solo artist, I’d recommend that you hunt down Ten Easy Pieces. I wrote earlier in this post that Webb didn’t really match the level of many of the singers who covered his work. Nevertheless, listen to what he does with his own songs.

After you hear the opening track, “Galveston,” in which he makes you rethink every way you've ever thought about this song, it will be impossible for you to think of anyone else who has so precisely located the empty spaces in the heart as well as this son of a Baptist preacher who was born in Elk City, Okla., on this day in 1946.

Quote of the Day (Erma Bombeck, With a Tried-and-True Method of Dealing with Kids)

"When my kids become wild and unruly, I use a nice, safe playpen. When they're finished, I climb out."—Attributed to Erma Bombeck (1927-1996)

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Theater Review: Chekhov’s “Three Sisters,” at the Chautauqua Institution

The photo I took of the Bratton Theater, the home of the Chautauqua Theater Co. (CTC), only begins to hint at its potential for certain kinds of productions. The theater's setting amid the peaceful upstate New York Chautauqua Institution makes it a natural for intimate productions—and, if the project features highly educated people in places far removed from cities, it practically begs for consideration. A play, in other words, like Anton Chekhov’s 1901 classic Three Sisters.

The CTC promised that this production would be “Chekhov’s masterpiece like you’ve never seen it”—and for once, this wasn’t false advertising. The real question was whether this worked.

On that point, opinions among Chautauquans, either those I spoke with at the time of the performance or found in the Chautauquan Daily, were fiercely divided. Some found this adaptation of the landmark tragicomedy of listlessness and desperation among turn-of-the-century Russian aristocrats not merely unconventional but even brilliant. But at a theater “talk-back” session with audience members that I attended, another customer told a staffer that it reminded her of Cirque de Soleil--and more than a few listeners nodded in agreement.

Unfortunately, there was more than a little truth to what this woman said.

CTC’s production closed nearly a month ago, but I think it’s still important, even after so much time, to offer my reaction. For one thing, the company’s season will run to August 19. (Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost is the last show to be staged.) Second, like many theatergoers who come up to this bucolic community in the summer, I feel not only passion but a kind of ownership of what I see. Theater, after all, is not produced in some kind of vacuum, but must take into account audience tastes even as it attempts to challenge and re-mold them.

Once an editor sat me down and identified immediately how copy I had just submitted needed to be changed. “Look, there’s nothing wrong with it grammatically or anything like that,” he observed. “But you have to let the words breathe.” Anything external to the words’ meaning, he elaborated, should be deleted so that the message could stand out more clearly.

The same principle—that simplicity works best—would have done wonders for this production. God knows that the CTC was not without rich resources—not just a script that expertly mixed mirth and melancholy, but also a group of talented actors (many already showing promise in their youth). Especially noteworthy: co-artistic director Vivienne Benesch as the oldest of the eponymous sisters, the middle-aged schoolteacher Olga; Lucas Dixon as Andrey, the sisters' brother, and Andrea Syglowski as their sister-in-law Natasha, gradually morphing into a household harridan.

Moreover, it cannot be said that guest director David Mertes shows contempt for the playwright. Only a handful of words were cut from the Russian great’s original play. Mertes also become famous in the theatrical community for productions he’s staged of Chekhov at his lakeside home in New York State’s Rockland County, which sound at least like labors of love and, perhaps for participants, represent unforgettable experiences.

Unfortunately, Mertes, for all the enthusiasm he brought to this project, forgot to let the play breathe. All kinds of directorial encrustations covered and practically suffocated this production, including:

• Back walls of the set that are designed to look like decommissioned nuclear reactors, for no sensible reason;
• Discordant, heavy-metal electronic music not only at odds with the meditative tone of the play, but more often than not, not containing Russian leitmotifs that might account for their inclusion;
• Unnecessary video monitors at the side of the stage meant to convey characters’ inner states;
• Mattresses pummeled every night as actors, attempting to illustrate their characters’ crushing boredom in the Russian equivalent of the boondocks, kept crashing into them;
• Plastic dolls used to suggest infants;
• A swing with a twentysomething female character pulled higher and higher to the ceiling, until you hope that the actress in the contraption had adequate insurance in case an accident occurred;
• Moonwalking/miming more suitable for a video by Michael Jackson than a Victorian-era Russian;
• Weird, repeated intonations by the actor playing a visiting Russian officer of his dear daughters.

In speaking to other theatergoers, I found that many had, like myself, left at intermission. The CTC rationalized it as the consequence of a long running time (3 ½ hours) that would have left the audience out at 11:30 pm.

The CTC was letting itself off too easily, however. Too many in the audience were leaving not because it was getting late to drive in that country setting, but because they had trouble, in the first 100 minutes before intermission, in making sense of the plot and characters, let alone protecting their eardrums from the periodic assault of the loud, inappropriate music. Without refreshments of any kind at intermission to tide them through what was already a long evening, the choice was practically made for them. They bolted.

To surmount the problem, the CTC offered to seat attendees in the second half of later shows anybody who left at intermission, so long as they held onto their ticket stubs. I took the advice of those who told me the second half would be better than what I saw previously, and they were right. In the end, I was glad I saw the play in its entirety, not only because I like to receive the full value of what I pay for but also because theater professionals should have every opportunity to fulfill their vision and to engage an audience’s attention.

For every attendee who felt this play was a failure, another believed that it rescued Chekhov from talky, dramatically inert productions they had seen. I’ve witnessed such wayward adaptations of Chekhov myself, and it’s a real danger to treat him in such a way that he becomes a museum piece.

But though this problem is apparent, so is the solution: Trust the playwright. Let the audience hear the voice of a writer who is more contemporary than many foolishly question: someone who understood the silly and tragic ways of people in love; a man who saw crimes against nature as clearly as he did crimes of the heart; someone who depicted the wealthy, the middle class and the poor with equal precision, like the doctor he was in real life.

Whenever I visit Chautauqua again, I hope to attend another CTC production. Maybe that time, they’ll balance the passion they brought to Three Sisters with a balanced, savvy appreciation of how much theatrical pyrotechnics on display here truly serve the best interests of a playwright.