Friday, September 30, 2011

Flashback, September 1936: Post Runs a-Mok on Fitz

The fragile sense of self-esteem maintained by F. Scott Fitzgerald developed a mile-wide crack when The New York Post published a savage interview with the novelist. The article by Michael Mok, “The Other Side of Paradise,” depicted the former literary wunderkind as washed-up on the occasion of his 40th birthday. The interview was so pitiless, especially in its relentless focus on Fitzgerald’s alcoholism, that he would shortly attempt suicide.

Mok found Fitzgerald at his nadir. It had been 11 years since his classic The Great Gatsby had appeared. Now Fitzgerald, having squandered most of his money during “the Jazz Age” (a phrase he coined, though he preferred classical music), not only faced the high probability that his wife Zelda would ever recover her mental health, but also that he would have to pay for her institutional care.

But that was hardly the only load on Fitzgerald’s spirit as he sat down with Mok at the Grove Park Inn in Asheville, N.C. (where he was visiting Zelda):

* Fitzgerald was staring at serious debts to, among others, his publisher, Scribners ($9,000), and his literary agent, Harold Ober ( $11,000);

* Early in the summer, he had fractured his shoulder, and he still required the services of a nurse; and

* In August, Ernest Hemingway turned on the older writer who had once championed him. In the short story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” the protagonist tosses a jibe in the direction of “Poor Scott Fitzgerald,” giving popular currency to a wisecrack rejoinder to Fitzgerald’s “The rich are different from you and me”: “Yes, they have more money.” (An annoyed Fitzgerald convinced Hemingway to change the name of this character to “Julian” when it was collected in book form, but it was still unmistakable who was being lampooned.)

Mok did allude in his piece to a rumored suicide attempt by Zelda that Scott stopped just in time. Otherwise, only one note of sympathy —quickly extended, then just as quickly snatched away (“With his visitor he chatted bravely, as an actor, consumed with fear that his name will never be in lights again, discusses his next starring role”)—appears throughout.

A clue to the journalist’s not-so-hidden agenda was sounded in the first couple of paragraphs. The young Fitzgerald was depicted not as an uncommonly gifted artist leading a generation of writers disillusioned by the world’s worst war to that time, but as the “poet-prophet of the post-war neurotics” (i.e., the Lost Generation). Worse, he was “cocksure [and] drunk with sudden success.” A single word—“drunk”—is planted in that sentence like a bomb that will detonate shortly, as Fitzgerald was depicted continually as rambling and so sick he couldn’t write for more than a few hours a week.

It is important to state this now: this was not Rupert Murdoch’s right-wing scandal rag, but a liberal broadside a couple of owners removed from the Australian media mogul. Mok’s attitude toward Fitzgerald reflected a prevalent attitude during the Great Depression: What right did someone who once made so much money have to complain about now? Why, Fitzgerald needed some self-discipline to get his life back on track again! Those attitudes sound a bit like contemporary media attitudes toward entertainment personalities in the grip of substance abuse.

I have called the interview “savage,” but in the years since nobody ever claimed that Fitzgerald was misquoted or taken out of context. His comments seemed blurted out, even when cryptic (e.g., he refused to explain what he meant by, "A series of things happened to papa. So papa got depressed and started drinking a little”). Moreover, they seemed all of a piece with his remorseful, reflective essays of the period, later collected by Fitzgerald’s Princeton friend and “artistic conscience” Edmund Wilson into The Crack-Up.

Mok would have had to plug up his ears and notice virtually nothing of what transpired that night in Asheville, N.C. So the question inevitably arises: what led Fitzgerald to be so painfully garrulous and self-pitying? A couple of explanations seem plausible: a) as an alcoholic, he had no internal censor; and b) in the Twenties, Scott and Zelda had given reporters acres of good copy, and consequently they came off as unfairly good-looking, intelligent, creative, fun-loving free spirits. Few minded how much money they made or spent back then; more than a few people were doing the same thing. Perhaps Fitzgerald expected similar favorable treatment now from this journalist unknown to him. That wasn’t what he received this time.

If Fitzgerald’s rueful “Crack-Up” pieces, then being released in Esquire, were, as I’ve just indicated, similar in tone to what Fitzgerald said in the interview, then the shock value of Mok's interview to contemporaries had to lie elsewhere. It resides in this, I think: the sense of shame still accruing to alcoholism then. Alcoholics Anonymous was only in existence a year, and it would not appreciably grow in the U.S. in the 1930s.

When Fitzgerald saw his babbled words in print, and sensed the reaction of friends and the public, it was too much for him, and he swallowed morphine. Fortunately, he survived the suicide attempt. In his better moments, once he sobered up, he grew remorseful, remembered his responsibilities, returned to his typewriter, and became again the professional who would take care of those he loved.

The writer Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (The Yearling, Cross Creek), who visited Fitzgerald not only after the Mok interview, caught something of this sense when she recalled “as a writer, except for the times such as this one has been, when his misery holds him up too long, his masochism will not interfere with his work… He has thrown himself on the floor and shrieked himself black in the face and pounded his heels—as lots of us do in one way or another—but when it's over he'll go back to his building blocks again.”

For that reason, the saga of Fitzgerald didn’t end with his suicide attempt. After recovering, he moved to California, where he wrote for a medium that had fascinated him for the past two decades: film. As insidious--and, occasionally, disastrous (a bender led to the termination of his MGM contract)--as his alcoholism was, he continued to work, paying for Zelda’s care and his daughter Scottie’s school expenses.

Fitzgerald could act abominably while under the influence, but--in a way Mok certainly never understood, judging from the interview--he somehow managed to get to his feet, again and again. When he died of a heart attack in December 1940, he was well along in what, even in its unfinished state, shows him at close to peak form: The Last Tycoon.

If Mok is recalled at all these days, it’s as a vulture who tried to pick apart a broken genius. At the time, neither he nor any of his readers could guess that, only 30 years later, Fitzgerald would be appearing frequently on high school and college English reading lists, or that, by the centennial of his birth in 1996, his likeness would appear on postage stamps, a symbol of his enduring achievement, tangible evidence of grace attained despite inner torment.

Quote of the Day (Ralph Waldo Emerson, on Being “Thankful for Small Mercies”)

“I am thankful for small mercies. I compared notes with one of my friends who expects everything of the universe, and is disappointed when anything is less than the best, and I found that I begin at the other extreme, expecting nothing, and am always full of thanks for moderate goods…. If we will take the good we find, asking no questions, we shall have heaping measures.”—Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Experience

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Quote of the Day (Babe Ruth, on “The Only Real Game in the World”)

“You know, this baseball game of ours comes up from the youth. That means the boys. And after you're a boy and grow up to play ball, then you come to the boys you see representing clubs today in your national pastime. The only real game in the world, I think, is baseball. As a rule, people think that if you give boys a football or a baseball or something like that, they naturally become athletes right away. But you can't do that in baseball. You got to start from way down, at the bottom, when the boys are six or seven years of age. You can't wait until they're 14 or 15. You got to let it grow up with you, if you're the boy. And if you try hard enough, you're bound to come out on top.”—Babe Ruth, address on “Babe Ruth Day” at Yankee Stadium, April 27, 1947, quoted in Robert W. Creamer, Babe: The Legend Comes to Life (1974)

This time of year is useful for remembering the basics when it comes to sports, and who better to remind us than the Sultan of Swat, Babe Ruth?
Forget about the 300-plus-pound mastodons that are already colliding with each other on the gridiron, increasingly leaving in their wake injuries that may leave them unable to walk or to remember a thing in a decade or so. And for my money, you can forget about basketball, or soccer, or ice hockey, or anything else you care to come up with.
The last extraordinary week—even the last 24 hours—and the playoffs about to occur should be enough to remind us that, for all its problems, baseball may take its sweet time unfolding, but when it finally comes to its third act, it leaves you laughing, crying, shaking your head, gasping over it all. More people than I’d like to think of have tried to defile the game, but its intricacies and, yes, beauty have survived the worst thrown at it. It is, as The Babe said, the only real game in the world.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Photo of the Day: Great Furball Meets Young Customer

After awhile in New York City, you learn not to be surprised by unusual sights. (Listen: one morning, on my way to work eight years ago, I saw a whole troop of young men streaming out of Fox TV headquarters, dressed in formal wear--and all wearing masks. They were, I realized with a start, contestants on the short-lived Monica Lewinsky Dating Game for the 21st century, Mr. Personality. Heck, I realized, if I were on a show with Monica Lewinsky, I wouldn’t want to show my face, either!)

Anyway, over the last several weeks, a block or so from where I work at Rockefeller Center, various costumed characters, representing the M and M’s World store, appear on the northern part of Times Square and mingle with tourists. Here is just one example of making an investment in tomorrow’s customers now. A shrewd marketing decision, if you ask me…

Quote of the Day (The Monk Kenko, on “Longing in All Things for the Past”)

“When I sit down in quiet meditation, the one emotion hardest to fight against is a longing in all things for the past. After the others have gone to bed, I pass the time on a long autumn’s night by putting in order whatever belongings are at hand. As I tear up scraps of old correspondence I should prefer not to leave behind, I sometimes find among them samples of the calligraphy of a friend who has died, or pictures he drew for his own amusement, and I feel exactly as I did at the time. Even with letters written by friends who are still alive I try, when it has been long since we met, to remember the circumstances, the year. What a moving experience that is! It is sad to think that a man’s familiar possessions, indifferent to his death, should remain unaltered long after he is gone.”—Buddhist monk Yoshida Kenko (c. 1683-1350), from his Essays on Idleness, translated by Donald Frame, excerpted in The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present, selected by Phillip Lopate (1994)

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Quote of the Day (Gene Mauch, on Losing-Streak Terms)

“Losing streaks are funny. If you lose at the beginning, you got off to a bad start. If you lose in the middle of the season, you're in a slump. If you lose at the end, you're choking.”—Baseball manager Gene Mauch, skipper of the famously choking 1964 Philadelphia Phillies, quoted in Glenn Liebman, Sports Shorts: 2,000 of Sports' Funniest One-Liners (1993)
Baseball history is filled with famous tailspins: the ’64 Phillies, the Yankees in the 2004 American League Championship Series, the 2007 Mets. These are so improbable that every time it happens you say, “We’ll never see anything like this again.”
And then a series of startling events will occur that make you wonder: This couldn’t be happening again, could it?

Monday, September 26, 2011

Artists’ Exhibit at Rockaway

A week ago, I journeyed out to Rockaway, N.Y., to Fort Tilden, at the Gateway National Recreation Area, for the opening reception for ArtSplash, a multimedia art exhibit by the Rockaway Artists Alliance, a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) arts organization comprised of individuals who view the arts as vital to the health of our community.

The other day, a fellow blogger told me there hadn’t been much of compelling interest in the art world recently, but I think, as what anything else, that it’s just a matter of knowing where to look. The kind of paintings and photographs on display at ArtSplash show that fine art can be created--and displayed--anywhere, not simply in Manhattan.

(One of those whose works is on display is my longtime friend Stephanie. Her very, very fine landscape photographs were in a special display in a small building on the grounds, in the image accompanying this post.)

Stephanie's photos will remain on exhibit till this Sunday, Oct. 2, and the larger ArtSplash show till October 16. Both can be seen on Saturdays and Sundays only from noon to 4 pm. I urge anyone reading this to go out to view all these excellent works, as well as to support the Rockaway Artists Alliance itself.

Quote of the Day (Rodney Dangerfield, on His Typical Luck With Women)

"A girl phoned me the other day and said ‘Come on over, there's nobody home.’ I went over. Nobody was home."--Attributed to comic Rodney Dangerfield (1921-2004)

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Quote of the Day (John Newton, on Where God Has Placed Us)

“It is no great matter where we are, provided that the Lord has placed us there, and that He is with us.”—Anglican minister and hymnwriter (“Amazing Grace”) John Newton, letter of August 1775, quoted in The Works of the Rev. John Newton, Late Pastor of the United Parishes of St. Mary Woolnoth and St. Mary Wool-Church-Haw, Lombard Street, London (1831)

Saturday, September 24, 2011

This Day in Presidential History (Grant Shows Daring, Absorbs Lessons at Monterey)

September 24, 1846—If a novel were ever written about the Battle of Monterey, you could do worse than title it A Tale of Three Presidents, for this action in the Mexican War involved the current chief executive of the United States; a general he suspected of harboring ambitions for that office; and a junior officer who drew lessons from their turbulent relationship when he himself commanded the nation’s army and was elected to America’s highest office.

These three men were, respectively, James Knox Polk, Zachary Taylor and Ulysses S. Grant (pictured right). Polk, a workaholic President who did not survive a year out of the White House, was intent not only on bringing Texas into the Union as a slave state, but also on facing down army commanders who a) did anything to short-circuit that aim, or b) might want to run for President themselves. Taylor’s actions in concluding the engagement at Monterey typified Polk’s micromanagement of the war—a pattern of continual interference with his generals virtually without parallel in Presidential history.

Taylor had only come to occupy his current position as the key American commander in the war because of Polk’s hostility to General Winfield Scott, who did little to hide either his Whig Party sympathies or his opposition to the President‘s policies—stances which led the Democratic Polk to give pride of place in maneuvering against Mexico to Taylor.

On the morning of the 24th, Taylor prepared for a fourth day of battle. The prior three had been difficult--especially the last one, featuring door-to-door street fighting in Monterey. But superior American artillery power, and the disorganized Mexican command, gave unpretentious “Ol’ Rough and Ready” the upper hand. More remarkably, Taylor, for the third straight battle, had beaten a force that considerably outnumbered his own and that was well-entrenched in ground with which it was familiar. It was a triumph of his leadership.

But now, Taylor’s victories had led the Whigs to view him, too, as potential Presidential timber. The Polk administration, not thrilled by this prospect, cast about for a pretext upon which to clip the general’s wings--one soon provided, through no fault of his own.

The Mexican general, Pedro de Ampudia, requested a parley with Taylor on the 24th. The two generals worked out an eight-week truce in which Ampudia's troops were permitted to evacuate the city, taking with them their weapons and one six-gun battery. Taylor admitted that the terms were generous to the foe, but he felt that his prior victories would allow Polk’s administration to gain an upper hand in negotiating the end of war and the session on favorable terms to the U.S. Besides, he was not sure how much longer he could continue, as his own ammunition was running low. Lacking access to the still relatively new telegraph, Taylor determined to make the best short-term arrangement he could. Upon hearing the news, the Polk administration made it plain that they felt that Taylor had usurped his authority and that he had not pressed his advantage. Pointedly, their subsequent communications with him refused to thank him for his victory.

The administration then awarded overall command to Scott, who, as ranking general at the start of the conflict, should have had it anyway. Scott proceeded to reel off victories as impressive, and maybe even more so, than Taylor’s.

Again, with Polk’s unwillingness to yield any inch on direction of the war’s denouement to his commander, the relationship between the President and his general unraveled--perhaps even more so this time, as it involved nasty squabbling between Scott and some senior officers, and an eventual Congressional investigation that cleared Taylor of wrongdoing.

Compared with the struggles that the army’s two leading generals waged against Polk, Grant’s participation in the battle and larger campaign was relatively minor. But it would prove decisive for the course of his career.

As World War I turned out to be for the generation of armed-forces commanders in World War II, the Mexican War proved to be a great training ground for important American generals on both sides in the Civil War, including Grant himself, Robert E. Lee, as Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis, George McClellan, Joseph Johnson, Jubal Early, A. P. Hill, Meade, P.G.T. Beauregard, Joseph Hooker, James Longstreet, Winfield Scott Hancock, and George H. Thomas. The Mexican War enabled these young soldiers, many recent West Point cadets, to form a bond with one another. Later on, when they split along sectional lines in the Civil War, Grant knew enough about the Southerners--most important, Robert E. Lee--not to be overawed by them.

Monterey provided an opportunity for Grant to shine--in particular, through the willingness to take calculated risks to win a battle. While graduating only 21st out of 36 at West Point, he had made a name for himself with his equestrian skills. In fact, recalled his friend Longstreet, "he was noted as the most proficient rider at the academy." At Monterey, that skill came in handy at the most opportune time.

One of Grant's abiding characteristics was restlessness. As a recently appointed regimental quartermaster he had already been ordered to stay at camp. But curiosity got the better of him, and he ended up close to the line to get a better view of the fighting when the American troops received the order to charge. Rather than slink back, Grant joined them, and was fortunate to survive a charge that ended up with one-third of the Americans killed or wounded in only a few minutes.

On the morning of the 23rd, the Americans were forced to fire up at Mexican troops, who, shielded by sandbags, were shooting down at them from behind the roofs around the central plaza. Before long, General Garland, alarmed that his men were running short of ammunition, asked for a volunteer to carry a mission to divisional commander General Twiggs, asking for more ammunition and/or reinforcements. Grant stepped forward to accept the task.

Let’s stop at this point to consider the implications of this move. Fifty years ago, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Mackinlay Kantor wrote a speculative history, If The South Had Won The Civil War, which took as its central departing points from what actually occurred a) a Union loss at Gettysburg, and b) an equestrian accident at the beginning of the Vicksburg campaign that ended up killing Grant. The latter was not at all a far-fetched notion: the future commander of Union forces in the war, his son Frederick recalled, liked to ride horses most people considered unmanageable.

Now Grant was facing considerably greater perils: dodging bullets in territory he didn’t know well, from snipers he couldn’t see. But Grant was unafraid. His solution to the problem made the most of his equestrian skills while allowing him to evade enemy fire: He rode on the side of his gray horse Nellie with one foot hooked on the cantle of the saddle and an arm around Nellie’s neck. He made it through without a scratch.

Grant’s courage was of a piece with perhaps his most important decision of the Civil War: how to take Vicksburg, the redoubtable fortress holding the key to controlling the Mississippi River and cutting the Confederacy in half. At this point, Grant recalled a highly unorthodox maneuver made by General Scott after the Monterey campaign—i.e., cut loose from his base. Grant’s subordinate, William Sherman, had been fearful of such a move. But when he saw the result—a victorious campaign—he decided to employ a similar tactic in Georgia and have his troops live off the fat of the land in his famous March to the Sea from Atlanta to Savannah.

Grant absorbed two other lessons from the Mexican War. First, he saw how Polk undermined Taylor and Scott—two commanders of vastly different styles but each enormously skilled. His judgment of the administration’s resulting maneuvering was blunt: “The Mexican war was a political war, and the administration conducting it desired to make political capital out of it.” As the cancer-ridden odd soldier rushed to finish his Personal Memoirs nearly 40 years later, he pointed out the contrast between Abraham Lincoln, who was “willing to trust his generals in making and executing their plans,” and successor Andrew Johnson, who was fatally handicapped by his warring feelings of bitterness and insecurity in dealing with the South during Reconstruction.

Even more pointed was his characterization of the war as a whole, “an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory.” His summary of the results of Polk’s land-grab for Texas (and much of the rest of the current American Southwest) from Mexico echoes Lincoln’s Second Inaugural on the penalty levied by God on America for extending slavery: “The Southern rebellion was largely the outgrowth of the Mexican war. Nations, like individuals, are punished for their transgressions. We got our punishment in the most sanguinary and expensive war of modern times.”

Song Lyric of the Day (Shawn Colvin, Invoking Hemingway and Sebastian)

"If you could save me a place in heaven
With a clean well lighted room
I'll muscle up to Armageddon
And I'll wave to you darlin' be home soon."--Shawn Colvin, "Climb On (A Back That’s Strong)," written by Shawn Colvin and John Leventhal, from Colvin’s Fat City CD (1992)

In his Republic, Plato called for banning “harmonies expressive of sorrow,” as they did not comport with his ideal of “the essential forms of temperance, courage, liberality, magnanimity, and their kindred.”

I wouldn’t go that far— at times, inchoate but overwhelming emotions need to be given form before they can be purged. And sometimes you not only need to grieve, or just vent the disorders of your heart, but also hear how someone else has journeyed into fear, and come out beyond it.

But sometimes you need to leave the sad songs to the side, at least for a little while, and move on. And in those instances you need more than simple stoicism in the face of what “Invictus” poet W.E. Henley called “the fell clutch of circumstance.”

In those situations, I think that Shawn Colvin’s uplifting song from her Fat City CD rises to the occasion. In fact, Plato might even be willing to allow this rather slyly subversive tune slip into the curriculum of his highly regimented ideal state.

“I Don’t Know Why,” another song from Fat City that has become one of the most popular songs of Colvin’s career, might also stand for my perplexity about why “Climb On (A Back That’s Strong)” didn’t exceed it—or much of the singer-songwriter’s later work—in popularity. It had an unobtrusive but expressive Bruce Hornsby on piano, ace producer John Leventhal at the controls, vocals by Colvin at her most self-assured—and the above wry, allusive lyrics by Colvin and Leventhal.

To be sure, there are some who recognized the song for the standard it should have been, and, in the hands of an influential interpreter, might still become. For awhile, it was the theme song of the series Party of Five, and it also appeared on the soundtrack of the peerless Jack Nicholson-Helen Hunt dramedy, As Good As It Gets.

But it’s never really received the same type of attention as the forceful but very, very, very downbeat Sunny Came Home. I’m sure Colvin performed the song live early in her career, but I’m not aware that she’s done so more recently.

(At least, I haven’t seen it among Colvin’s live CDs, nor her live performances on YouTube. The one performance I found of this song was by the a capella troupe USC Reverse Osmosis. A member of the group from a few years ago, Natalie Storrs, delivered a powerhouse version of the song in this YouTube clip.)

If Colvin doesn’t play this much anymore, it’s unfortunate. In this song, she doesn’t want to survive gloom—she wants to kick it to the ground and soar over its remains. So early on, she urges, “So let’s give it up sad bones/’Cause we all fall on hard times.” And shortly, she’s about to become playful.

The best place you can see it is in the quartet of lines I’ve quoted above. She’s putting together a pair of well-known titles you wouldn’t think of mashing up—Ernest Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” and “Darling, Be Home Soon,” by the John Sebastian-fronted folk-rock group of the Sixties, the Lovin’ Spoonful—then bending them to her own purpose. (She changes one word from the Hemingway short-story title—“Place” to “Room”—to fit her rhyme scheme.)

Slipped between those allusions is a lyric not merely unusual, but unforgettable: “I’ll muscle up to Armageddon.” It introduces the theme she addresses in the next stanza: the overturning of sexual stereotypes.

Addressing the (unheard) male of the song, she announces that, for relating to her “the story of love,” he can be “the woman you need/If you just let me be the man I am.” It’s an exchange of gender roles: he’ll take on the thoughtful/sensitive trait traditionally associated with women while she assumes the strength long thought, in the code of machismo, to belong to men.

The song is, in fact, something of an argument with the Hemingway code. “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is as succinct an expression of the existential despair facing modern man as any in the entire canon of Papa. An old man, only a week removed from a suicide attempt, hangs out in a café--the “clean, well-lighted place” of the title--in contrast to a dank, dingy bar, where depression can cling to all within. The café is a quiet refuge, but still, all who pass through, such as the old man, must negotiate by themselves with the struggle against “nada,” which is present everywhere. (As in the parody of the Lord’s Prayer that climaxes the story: “Our nada who are in nada, nada by thy name…”)

None of this is in Colvin's worldview. Taking on the world and its nadas is easier when done with two, including one ready to shoulder a heavy emotional burden (“a back that’s strong”).

Before I had an iPod, or even a sizable CD collection, I had Fat City on tape cassette, a form that lent itself to my car studio system. A good many times, even when I had arrived at my destination, if “Climb On” were still playing, I wouldn't turn off the car but instead allow the song to continue to the end, letting Colvin’s soaring voice envelope me like a folk-rock balm in Gilead. It gives me hope that I, too, against all odds, can “muscle up to Armageddon.”

Friday, September 23, 2011

One Year Gone: Remembering My Mom

One year ago today, my mother, after a long, arduous struggle, passed away at age 92 from complications of heart disease and Parkinson’s, leaving all of us who loved her desolate. It took a long while to adjust to the black hole in my life, including the realization that I would never again hear her soft, sweet voice.

Several weeks after her death, I came across a kelly-green sweatshirt of hers. IRISH GRANDMA, it read, with the names of the four grandchildren she loved so much on it. Of course, considering the personalization, that bit of clothing would not be worn by anyone else. Yet I immediately realized that it was equally true that nobody else could really take her place in our lives.

But this post is not about myself, or any of us who mourned her. There was nothing unusual in the fact that we grieved—anyone who lives long enough is destined to do so, sooner or later.

What was unusual was her. There was nobody like my mother.

You would think that, a year later, I could adequately convey her essence to those who never had the fortune to know her. But thoughts of her, as frequently as they still come to me, appear with the quickness of lightning, illuminating the darkness when it feels blackest to me, then just as rapidly passing.

I could tell you about her deep gentleness and kindness, her unexpected, sly humor, her love of Irish music and dancing. But it still feels hardly enough.

And then I think of this: There wasn’t a time I can remember when she didn't look after the needs of someone else: her beloved twin brother Pete, whom she looked after he suffered a stroke and a host of other medical issues; my father; myself and my brothers; anyone who came to the house and warmed to her hospitality. It was unending, this toil, and, I understand now, could only be maintained through a love and faith that somehow surpassed it.

And all of that sustained her at the end, too, when her movements were restricted by the interacting effects of her long-term medical conditions and all she could offer were an unerring sense of what troubled someone else, and a sympathetic ear she could lend in their time of need. “She’s in a better place,” people say, and I believe it; as the poet Algernon Swinburne writes, “even the weariest river/Winds somewhere safe to sea.”

If I had the chance somehow to talk to her again, however briefly, I would reassure this woman who, true to her nature, worried so much about each of us, that we are, in fact, doing okay now. The only thing is this: We still miss her.

One person expressed my feelings on this far better than anything I could ever write: Abraham Lincoln. He certainly said and wrote more famous words, but few as heartfelt as these, expressed years after the woman who raised and loved him was gone: "God bless my mother--all that I am, or ever hope to be, I owe to her."

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Photo of the Day: Let’s Wok and Roll!

The young women in the accompanying photo were part of the festivities today in New York’s Times Square marking the North American preliminaries for the International Chinese Culinary Competition. (Preliminaries were also held in Taiwan in July.) The finals and award ceremony will also be held tomorrow (Friday) in Times Square.

With all my love of Chinese food, I’m sure I would have enjoyed the spectacle taking place in Times Square today. But I was too busy around lunchtime to observe these festivities. Now, it will only be through my olfactory-wakened imagination that I’ll be able to conjure up whatever culinary delights I missed today.

Quote of the Day (Ralph Waldo Emerson, on Genius as “Our Own Rejected Thoughts”)

“In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.”—Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” from Essays: First Series (1841)

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Photo of the Day: Upward Climb

Still another photo I took this weekend, while walking through the Tenafly Nature Center near me in Bergen County, N.J.

Quote of the Day (Truman Capote, on New York “Like a Diamond Iceberg”)

“It is a myth, the city, the rooms and windows, the steam-spitting streets; for anyone, everyone, a different myth, an idol-head with traffic-light eyes winking a tender green, a cynical red. This island, floating in river water like a diamond iceberg, call it New York, name it whatever you like; the name hardly matters because, entering from the greater reality of elsewhere, one is only in search of a city, a place to hide, to lose or discover oneself, to make a dream wherein you prove that perhaps after all you are not an ugly duckling, but wonderful, and worthy of love, as you thought sitting on the stoop where the Fords went by; as you thought planning your search for a city.”—Truman Capote, “New York,” in Portraits and Observations: The Essays of Truman Capote (2007)

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Photo of the Day: Pond Peace

This is another photo I took two days ago, while walking through the Tenafly Nature Center near me in Bergen County, N.J.

Quote of the Day (Philip Larkin, on Summer and Fall)

“Too often summer days appear
Emblems of perfect happiness
I can't confront: I must await
A time less bold, less rich, less clear:
An autumn more appropriate.”—Philip Larkin, "Mother, Summer, I" from Collected Poems (1989)

Philip Larkin died before global warming; otherwise, the British poet might have thought twice about likening summer days with “perfect happiness.” And I, for one, would dispute the line about autumn being “less bold” than summer. Gaze at the multi-colored foliage of a fall day, and see how well his thinking on this really holds up.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Movie Quote of the Day (Groucho Marx, Pitching Woo in “Monkey Business”)

Groucho (played by Groucho Marx): “How about you and I passing out on the veranda; or would you rather pass out here?”
Woman at Party: “Sir, you have the advantage of me.”
Groucho: “Not yet I haven't, but wait till I get you outside.”--Monkey Business (1931), story (unaccredited) by Ben Hecht and Roland Pertwee, screenplay by S.J. Perelman and Will B. Johnstone, with additional dialogue by Arthur Skeekman

This first Marx Brothers comedy written specifically for the screen premiered on this date 80 years ago. If Robert Osbourne is to be believed, this exercise in controlled mayhem began appropriately, as the four brothers came to the first day of production in each other’s clothing, impersonating another member of the quartet.

For the longest time, I thought the funniest thing ever said by screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz was about his egomaniacal collaborator on Citizen Kane, Orson Welles: “There but for the grace of God, goes God.” But now I've come across a quote from the chapter on the Marx Brothers in S.J. Perelman’s The Last Laugh that might rank up there with that classic bon mot.

In it, “Mank,” the script supervisor at Paramount Pictures for Perelman and Will Johnstone, warned the rookie screenwriters about the perils of working with Hollywood’s funniest foursome: “They’re mercurial, devious and ungrateful. I hate to depress you, but you’ll rue the day you ever took the assignment. This is an ordeal by fire. Make sure you wear asbestos pants.”

And so it proved, as, Perelman noted, it took “five months of drudgery and Homeric quarrels, ambuscades and intrigues that would have shamed the Borgias” before Monkey Business hit the big screen.

“Monkey business,” indeed!

Photo of the Day: Damage

I took this photo accompanying this post two days ago, while walking through the Tenafly Nature Center near me in Bergen County, N.J. I hadn’t been to this lovely site in several months, so my guess is that the tree in this shot came down during Hurricane Irene.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

This Day in German History (The Mysterious Death of Hitler’s Niece)

September 18, 1931—Even in a time when rumored intimate relationships between politicians and young women are greeted with shrugs, one involving a 27-year-old woman found dead from a gunshot wound is likely to elicit something else entirely. After all, the corpse of the attractive woman, Angelika “Geli” Raubal, was found in the Munich apartment of her uncle, whose ascension to power in Germany had suddenly entered the realm of distinct possibility.

Ultimately, the death was ruled a suicide. But questions about the involvement of Raubal’s uncle, Adolf Hitler—who would, in only 18 months, begin a 12-year reign of unparalleled terror as Germany’s dictator—have led one historian, Ron Rosenbaum, to term the case “Hitler’s Chappaquiddick.”

Yet, if possible, the circumstances surrounding Raubal’s death were far murkier and more controversial than those related to that of Mary Jo Kopechne. While Hitler, like Ted Kennedy, was considered a strong contender for his nation’s highest office, the German was not a liberal in a republic nearly two centuries old, but a far-right racist in the fragile Weimar Republic, with increasingly weak non-governmental institutions. Raubal was not a woman who, like Kopechne, had known the candidate primarily through his brother’s prior Presidential bid, but was the niece of Hitler’s half-sister, someone seen continually with the candidate over the last few years.

And there was this: Raubal was found dead not in the candidate’s car, but in a bedroom down the hall from his, with her uncle’s gun lying by her side.

In other words, not only were the facts immediately apparent in the Raubal case strongly suggestive of the need for further vigorous investigation, but the failure to conduct it led to a road not taken in German history, the point at which Nazism could have been crushed before it inflicted monstrous harm.

What might a competent, unhindered police investigation have determined?

At very least, voters would have had to reckon with a leader known to have quarreled with Geli over her whereabouts. Even if neither Hitler nor his confederates could not be linked forensically to the woman's death, voters would surely--and correctly--wonder about a possessiveness so creepy that it drove Geli to suicide.

Unfortunately, no such untrammeled investigation was begun.

To start with, no autopsy was conducted. This meant that there would be no objective facts to counter the coroner’s conclusions: that Geli had taken her own life the day before her body was discovered; that her broken nose came from her fall after shooting herself, and that the bruises came after death.

Other aspects of the investigation lead one to suspect that not only was an odd incuriosity about the death holding sway among the police, but that a coverup was forming.

The “suicide register” listing the case, for instance, did not contain Geli’s real address. Had the document done so, more than a few people might have asked what she was doing in her uncle’s apartment. Their curiosity might have been piqued further had they known that, though Hitler’s half-sister Angela had brought Geli with her when the Nazi leader asked Angela to serve as his housekeeper, mother and daughter no longer lived in the same home: It was now simply Hitler and his niece together.

In addition, none of the four witnesses in the case, all employees of Hitler, were asked the most elementary of questions: what time did the Nazi leader leave his apartment on the day Geli died?

In another sense, this was not surprising, as the longest of the four statements consisted of less than 10 sentences maximum.Observers might have asked if the head of the investigation was an uninterested party: The chief police investigator, Heinrich Muller, would, only a year and a half later, become Reich Minister of Justice.

How might a credible investigation have proceeded?

* It might have asked why young women associated with Hitler became desperately unhappy. Geli was still a teenager when she and her mother first moved in with the Nazi leader. Two other teenagers linked closely to Hitler attempted suicide, but managed to survive: Maria Reiter (saved by her brother) and Eva Braun (who managed to live another 13 years after her initial attempt, only to commit suicide, this time successfully, within 48 hours after marrying Hitler). Another young woman, the actress Renate Mauler, met her end in a manner like Geli’s: she leaped, or was pushed from, a window in an asylum.

* It might have asked why, if Geli were unhappy enough to commit suicide, a letter found in her room had broken off in mid-sentence, showing no signs whatsoever of strain. The Nazis practically fell over each other with explanations for Geli’s death. Hermann Goering claimed her death had been accidental—a rather odd statement, considering that Geli was trained with handguns and the angle of the single bullet to her heart—downward—was highly unusual. But at least it wasn’t flagrantly contradictory to the long-known nature of her character, as the suicide explanation. Geli was friendly and vivacious, hardly the type to commit such a desperate act.

* What was Hitler doing with a new driver recently? Eric Maurice had gone to prison with Hitler in 1923 because of his involvement in the Munich beer hall putsch. Upon release, Maurice had served as the driver for the Nazi leader (who never drove himself). Was it true that Hitler fired Maurice immediately after he had asked his boss for Geli’s hand in marriage? Did his departure have anything to do with a rumored affair with Geli?

* Oh, and about pregnancies—had Hitler gotten Geli pregnant? This last point contradicts at least a couple of the wilder theories about Hitler (e.g., that he was homosexual, or that he had only one testicle). But it couldn’t be completely dismissed out of hand. If it were true, the consequences would invite not merely tut-tutting, but an explosive reaction. It started with Hitler’s pretense that, as one uninvolved with women, he was pure and devoted solely to Germany—a stance that would be exposed instantly as hypocritical if this particular rumor were correct. But people would notice other aspects of this situation, too, including that a) Geli was unmarried, b) she was a relative of Hitler’s.

Hitler had an alibi for his whereabouts on the day of Geli’s death, but considering that law enforcement did not even ask his employees when he left the apartment that day, it’s impossible to say how airtight it was.

But, even as Hitler continued his rise to power, some refused to back away from their beliefs about the real nature of Gelic's death. If Geli had committed suicide, Catholic church practice at the time would have denied her burial in consecrated ground. But her family’s priest, Fr. Johann Pant, granted permission for burial. As war clouds gathered in 1939, he frankly told a French newspaper of his refusal to accept the official verdict of suicide.

Another person disinclined to accept the Nazis’ explanation was Fritz Gerlich, a conservative German newspaper editor. Ever since the Munich putsch, Gerlich was bent on exposing the multiple lies of his nation’s phantom menace. He was undoubtedly a marked man beginning with a 1932 article that exposed one of the oddest consequences of Nazi racial theory: i.e., that the dark-haired Hitler was hardly the ideal blond Aryan hailed by Nazis.

But many believe that the report Gerlich was planning to file only weeks after Hitler’s assumption of power—an expose of the death of Geli Raubal—was what finally doomed him. We’ll never know for sure, because on March 9, Hitler’s storm troopers burst into the editor’s office, beat him to a pulp, destroyed the story he had on the pressed, and shipped him to Dachau.
More than a year passed before Gerlich’s wife learned her husband had died in prison. The notice, delivered by the Nazis themselves, dispensed with the editor’s belief in the power of words, but it got the Nazis’ point across in a characteristically thuggish manner: the steel-rimmed spectacles of the editor who had seen Hitler and his henchmen for what they were sent to Gerlich’s widow in a blood-stained envelope.

One of the best accounts that I have read of the Geli Raubal cases is in Ron Rosenbaum’s book, Explaining Hitler. The power of this account lies not simply in the way that Rosenbaum painstakingly reviews theories, refusing to credit anything some of the more preposterous theories about this particular case, but because the author will not accept that any possible rationales for how Hitler turned out as he did can possibly explain away the Holocaust.

Quote of the Day (Dag Hammarskjold, on What Life Demands)

“Life only demands from you the strength you possess. Only one feat is possible - not to have run away.”-- Dag Hammarskjold, Markings: The Diary of Dag Hammarskjold (1964)

The great U.N. Secretary-General never ran away from life, or his many responsibilities. He died on this day 50 years ago, in a plane crash en route to ceasefire negotiations in the Congo.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

This Day in Film History (“Lust for Life” Gives Van Gogh Respect Elusive in Life)

September 17, 1956--It took nearly a decade to get it on screen, but when Lust for Life premiered in New York, critics hailed the adaptation of Irving Stone’s 1934 biographical novel about Vincent Van Gogh as one of the finest depictions of an artist ever created for film. Shamefully, Hollywood did not even nominate the film for Best Picture, preferring then-fashionable widescreen blockbusters such as Giant, The Ten Commandments and the winner, Around the World in 80 Days--but the critical consensus on the film’s value continues to hold.

To give audiences as strong a sense as possible of the painter’s works, producer John Houseman and director Vincente Minnelli drew on the resources of two dozen museums around the world, even one in the U.S.S.R. On-location filming in Europe, including in many areas where Van Gogh lived, worked and painted, gave the movie a great feeling of realism--and, even more important, Minnelli, a painter himself, implemented a color scheme for the film that mirrored that of the Dutch post-Impressionist artist.

More crucial than anything else about the film, however, was the casting of Kirk Douglas as the tortured artist. The Oscar winning names linked to the role over the prior decade had included Spencer Tracy, Van Heflin and Yul Brenner. The likelihood is good that any of these actors could have done a creditable job.

With his tough-guy image, good looks and raw physicality, Douglas was not the actor many would have thought of immediately for the part. One Hollywood veteran who certainly felt that way was John Wayne, who told Douglas: “Christ, Kirk! How can you play a part like that? There's so goddamn few of us left. We got to play strong, tough characters. Not those weak queers."

But, no matter what his prior roles, Douglas had brought to each of them unparalleled intensity. Had the actor cared to debate the point with Wayne, he could have mentioned that Van Gogh, like Wayne’s role that same year, Ethan Edwards in John Ford’s The Searchers, was not just an intense or conflicted character, but an obsessive who ends up anti-social, isolated and marginalized.

Douglas was a painstaking actor who threw himself into every picture, not just going over his own lines but others'. He was not always easy to work with (Stanley Kubrick directed Spartacus on the condition that his six-film deal with the actor’s production company would then conclude), but at his best the results on the big screen revealed his characters’ raw hunger. During production of this film, his wife was concerned that he was taking too much psychologically back home with him each night.

Another bonus of using Douglas: when he grew his beard, he bore such a striking resemblance to the artist that several people who in childhood or young adulthood did a double-take.

Garnering his third Best Actor nomination, Douglas was favored to win this time. Unfortunately, he lost out to Brenner for The King and I. It took the actor awhile to swallow his disappointment. It remains the best performance of his long and honored career--and it ranks very highly, too, in the considerable filmography of Minnelli, who has garnered more attention over the years for his musicals, especially with his wife of the time, Judy Garland.

Quote of the Day (Richard Ford, on Where Writers Get Their Ideas)

"To my mind, not to believe in invention, in our fictive powers, but instead to think that all is traceable, that the rabbit must finally be in the hole waiting, is (because it's dead wrong) a certain recipe for the williwaws of disappointment and a small but needless reproach to mankind's saving capacity to imagine what could be better and, with good hope, then, to seek it."—Richard Ford, "Where Does Writing Come From?" Granta, Summer 1998

Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction writer Richard Ford is irked by the notion that his own imagination had little or nothing to do with the creation of his characters. So, it turns out, is screenwriter-TV producer Aaron Sorkin.

William Glaberson’s article in yesterday’s New York Times reported that four attorneys are claiming to be the real-life inspiration for the character that helped put Sorkin on the entertainment map: military lawyer Lt. Daniel Kaffee in A Few Good Men.

You can see why they would claim that. What client wouldn’t want his advocate grilling a hostile witness with, “I want the truth”?

Only Sorkin is having none of that, as seen in his disclaimer in an e-mail message to The Times about these claims: “The character of Dan Kaffee in ‘A Few Good Men’ is entirely fictional and was not inspired by any particular individual.”

That sounds like one of those pro forma statements you see at the beginning of novels or end of films. There may be two reasons for this: 1) Sorkin doesn’t want a defamation suit because of a fictional depiction based in reality, as happened when Joe Klein was sued by a Harlem librarian over Primary Colors; 2) he’s annoyed by anything that infringes on his literary autonomy in shaping and reshaping reality to fit his own ends.

I think, more likely, that it is the latter. Like Robert Frost, he believes in telling the truth, but telling it slant.

Or, as Col. Nathan Jessep might put it in A Few Good Men: You can’t handle the truth.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Quote of the Day (Francis Coppola’s Wife on the Madness of Filming “Apocalypse Now”)

September 16, 1976, Pamsanjan [The Philippines]. Last night Francis climbed up a scaffolding onto a lightning platform and just lay there. It was raining lightly, and when I climbed up, it was wet with standing puddles on top. He was about as miserable as I have ever seen him. It was his ultimate nightmare. He was on this huge set of this huge production with every asset mortgaged against the outcome. He kept saying, ‘Let me out of here, let me just quit and go home. I can’t do it. I can’t see it. If I can’t see it, I can’t do anything. This is like the opening night; the curtain goes up and there is no show.'”—Eleanor Coppola, “Print the Legend,” in Little White Lies, Issue 35 (The “Apocalypse Now” Issue)

The article from which this quote is taken includes juicy extracts from Notes: On the Making of Apocalypse Now, Eleanor Coppola’s diary of production of that troubled, flawed masterpiece by husband Francis Ford Coppola.

Don't let the accompanying photo fool you. The director was barely in control of this film, let alone his mind, throughout production and afterward, as he struggled to piece it together.

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness might have inspired this cinematic fever dream of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, but Conrad’s title could just as easily have applied to the director, cast and crew as they shot for months in the jungles of the Philippines.
By the time of this particular diary entry, the director had:

* sacked his original Willard, Harvey Keitel, after only two weeks of filming;

* watched Keitel’s replacement, Martin Sheen, play a drunken, nervous-breakdown scene that came all too close to reality;

* blinked in horror at the theft of the payroll one day;

* worked to get the production going again after a typhoon wrecked all the sets and caused a two-month delay;

* puzzled over how to film Marlon Brando when the handsome matinee idol of the 1950s showed up the first day massively overweight;

* overseen a production in which drug use was so rampant that a memo was circulated warning that “we have no influence whatsoever” on Filipino enforcement of local laws; and

*agonized over how to keep the project from falling further behind schedule and continuing to shoot over budget.

Ahead of the director was Sheen’s severe heart attack, Brando’s threat to walk out of the picture, the near-breakup of the Coppolas’ marriage because of Francis’s affair, thoughts of suicide, and frantic last-minute attempts to fit an incoherent ending into the rest of the film.

Francis admitted later, “Little by little we went crazy.” Who wouldn’t?

Photo of the Day: They Say the Neon Lights Are Bright on Broadway

I took this photo in midtown New York yesterday morning.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Quote of the Day (Nick Lowe, on How Seeing His Bathroom Turned His Life Around)

“When I woke up in this bath, I had a terrible hangover. It was lunchtime, and I’d been up all night, carousing and talking bullocks, and I looked at this bathroom covered in limescale, this rock star’s stupid bathroom, and I thought, This is a real metaphor for what has happened. I got out of the bath and caught sight of myself in the full-length mirror, and it was such a miserable sight, this unhappy cornered creature—it was like a thunderbolt: Right, today is the day everything changes. And it did.”—British musician Nick Lowe, on the turning point in his life and marriage to Carlene Carter in the early 1980s, quoted in Nick Paumgarten, “The Talk of the Town: The Right Frames,” The New Yorker, September 19, 2011

And so it goes...

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

This Day in NY History (Former VP Burr Dies Dies in Disgrace)

September 14, 1836—On the same day his second wife was granted a divorce from him, 80-year-old Aaron Burr died at a hotel in Staten Island. The former Revolutionary War colonel, lawyer, U.S. Senator, and Vice President, who had moved with a rapidity through politics that startled and even angered his contemporaries, had, in the end, been stilled by a stroke suffered two years before.

It was characteristic of Burr that the last public episode involving him would be controversial. It was uncharacteristic that it would bear all the hallmarks of a Restoration comedy.

Burr had married Eliza Jumel while he was in his late 70s. He had lost his first wife nearly a half century before, charming a succession of women since then. Perhaps he hoped that Madame Jumel, believed to be the wealthiest woman in New York, would provide him an element of safe harbor.

As so often happened with this too-clever-by-half man, he was badly mistaken. He had grabbed onto a tigress, a woman described in this way: “born a bastard, in youth a prostitute, in middle age a social climber, died an eccentric.“ The marriage foundered within a year, as the couple quarreled over how rapidly Burr was running through her money.

Madame Jumel gave him a strong legal kick on the way out the door. A simple divorce wasn’t enough for her: she charged him with taking a 26-year-old woman as his mistress. She did so because the woman in question, Jane McManus, was at that point in New Orleans and, therefore, unable to appear in court to contest the charge.

At first, Burr had pleaded that he was too old to be guilty of adultery. It could be called a tribute to his virility that so many refused to accept that as an excuse.

At last, exhausted by the legal struggle, Burr did not contest the adultery charge, but he refused to admit it and declined to provide alimony.

Burr had as much intelligence and charm as any leader in the early American republic. But now, in the declining days of his life, he had set tongues wagging again.

This time, people asked how a smart lawyer such as himself could get into this kind of mess. Thirty years before, they had asked how he had fallen from power so precipitously. If his enemies were hardly the paragons of virtue posterity long believed, it remains the case that his own character, not their excesses, is why his legacy is so radically different from theirs.

None of this is to say, though, that he left no mark on the future republic. It just so happens that his DNA runs through methods rather than words or institutions.

''He is as far from a fool as I ever saw,'' Andrew Jackson said, ''and yet is as easily fooled as any man I ever knew.''

By the same token, it can be said, no man was in a better position to understand Burr than Andrew Jackson. Old Hickory had also killed a man in a duel. Moreover, Burr laid the groundwork for Jackson’s destruction of the deferential style of politics in which Americans had continually turned to aristocrats to lead them, from George Washington to John Quincy Adams.

But Jackson had survived his involvement in dueling. For all political intents and purposes, Burr had not. I think much of it had to do with the fact that most people judged, correctly, that Burr was too clever by half.

In a syndicated column from the 1970s, Garry Wills disputed President Richard Nixon’s comparison of himself with British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, instead likening him to Burr. The parallels that Wills underscored were strong, including that:

· Both men served in the U.S. Senate before ascending to the Vice-Presidency;
· Both men attracted enemies early on because of their no-holds-barred tactics;
· Both men, when out of public office, were highly skilled attorneys;
· Both men served as Vice-Presidents under older men regarded as national heroes;
· Both men, after losing their chance to go directly from Vice-President to the Presidency, entered close, bitterly fought, unsuccessful statewide races;
· Both men fell from power and spent the rest of their lives in disgrace.

In the years since the column appeared, other historians have also pursued this historical analogy, though perhaps in not the way Wills intended.

Most notably, both men have become the poster boys of historical revisionism, with their causes advanced, oddly enough, by the liberals who once despised them. The likes of Gore Vidal, Tom Wicker, and Howard Dean have praised Nixon for his foreign-policy prowess (especially in his overtures to Communist China) and even for a more benign attitude toward big government than his GOP successors would display. Burr is now praised not only for believing in the equality of women (he provided his beloved daughter with an education equal to any learned man's), but for opposing the hegemony of the “Virginia Dynasty” of the Democratic-Republicans Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe.

But there was a reason why the odor of disreputability clung so strongly, despite his best efforts, to this antic, elfin (he was hardly taller than our smallest President, Madison) figure: the meanings and intentions behind words were fungible to Burr. He did not like to openly commit to strategems lese his freedom of action be inhibited. Thus, he gave one set of people one thing to believe, another group something else.

After all these years, it is still impossible to say exactly what Burr was up to in the chain of events that landed him before the U.S. Supreme Court in a trial for treason. Burr escaped with his life at that point because Chief Justice John Marshall insisted on more legally rigorous evidence for treason than that favored by the Jefferson Administration.

Before he had alarmed Jefferson with his ambiguous adventures in the Western states and the Louisiana Territory, or disgusted the Virginian with his opportunistic, equivocal positions on whether he’d let the Federalists vote for him over Jefferson in the House of Representatives in the disputed election of 1800, Burr had proven that he could be very useful indeed to the Democratic-Republicans in New York, where he had used newly formed Tammany Hall to move the state out of the grasp of Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists.

It was Burr's genius to see the potential for a benevolent association to be refashioned into a political machine--one that, under later leaders, would be epitomize the boss system in the United States.

Burr represented “a new power in the government,” according to Henry Adams’ epic History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson: “for being in public and in private life an adventurer of the same school as scores who were then seeking fortune in the antechambers of Bonaparte and Pitt, he became a loadstone for every other adventurer who frequented New York or whom the chances of politics might throw into office. The Vice-president wielded power, for he was the certain centre of corruption.”

As discussed in Gustavus Myers' history of Tammany Hall, Burr's top lieutenants, who continued to worship their old chief, remained in power well into the late 1830s. Martin Van Buren, an early admirer of the Vice President, would use and expand on Burr's methods in forming his own version of the machine, the Albany Regency. Finally, once Irish emigrants took power in Tammany, they took the machine to its ultimate level.

Joseph J. Ellis' American Creation includes less than a page on Burr, but in the methods he used to build Tammany Hall, the little colonel helped create the democratic process we know so well in America today--one in which participation in voting and even public office is open to a wider range of people than simply the elites contemplated at the time of the Constitution. That same process, of course, has also left the system for more open to corruption and demagoguery.

Photo of the Day: A Space in the Clearing

I took the accompanying image early this summer at Flat Rock Brook Nature Center, near where I live in Englewood, N.J.

Quote of the Day (Mark Twain, on Fenimore Cooper’s “Offenses Against Literary Art")

“[James Fenimore] Cooper's art has some defects. In one place in 'Deerslayer,' and in the restricted space of two-thirds of a page, Cooper has scored 114 offenses against literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record.”--Mark Twain, “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” (1895)

Mark Twain is hardly out of his corner, and already he’s delivered a staggering blow. I can report that he doesn’t let up from here, folks, as he takes after The Leatherstocking Saga (termed here “The Broken-Twig Series,” for its author’s propensity to add a plot development with a twig snapping in the forest) for its decided lack of realism and clumsy writing.

I doubt you’ll find a more delicious barbeque of a literary sacred cow anywhere. But here’s the thing: James Fenimore Cooper, who died on this date in 1851, a day short of his 62nd birthday, still manages to be read.

If you want an attack far more deadly and effective than Twain’s on Cooper, then consider the fate of James Gould Cozzens. What, you haven’t read him (let alone heard of him)? That has an awful lot to do with critic Dwight Macdonald, who laid waste to this Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist who had scaled the top of the bestseller lists and even been nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature. By the time Macdonald had disposed of him in a 1957 review, “By Cozzens Possessed,” the novelist’s reputation lay in ruins. Search for him now on postwar American literature reading lists in colleges--I dare you.

In contrast, Cooper has endured quite well, thank you. The strength of that position was underscored for me by a comment made over two decades ago by Alfred Kazin. At a question-and-answer period following a lecture at my local library, I asked the late eminent critic, regarding literary reputations, why James Fenimore Cooper continued to be assigned in colleges but Washington Irving wasn’t.

“When was the last time you read Irving?” he responded.

Had the asperity of the remark not caught me off guard, I might have answered, “About the same time I read Cooper.” I might then have followed it up with, “How many young readers would bother with Cooper at all if they weren’t made to read him?”

A rather less crass, more thoughtful response might have been that, for all his marvelously droll style (see my post from the other day on his A History of New York), Irving did not fashion a uniquely American style or genre. Cooper, on the other hand, created the western--or, as I like to think of it, the closing-of-the-frontier novel. It was the subject of the very first book he wrote in the Leatherstocking Saga, The Pioneers, and another title in the same series makes the point even more explicit: The Last of the Mohicans.

English professors inevitably end up tracing the development of genres rather than simply raising students’ appreciation for great literature. Consequently, Cooper gets a pass from academe for the same reason that Samuel Richardson does: i.e., he created a literary form that, for all intents and purposes in his native country, hadn’t existed before.

And then there’s Hollywood. When was it ever consumed by fidelity to works being adapted, let alone the things that mattered to Twain--verisimilitude in characterization and action?

And so, directors and producers don’t care a twig (sorry, Mr. Twain!) about plot. They’re going to change that, anyway. The important things for them are images, such as the one here, with Daniel Day-Lewis and Madeleine Stowe as the lovers in Michael Mann’s thrilling The Last of the Mohicans.

Mr. Twain would undoubtedly have wished that Hollywood had done equally well by him.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Quote of the Day (Dante Alighieri, on Fame)

“Worldly fame is but a breath of wind that blows now this way, and now that, and changes name as it changes direction.”—Attributed to Divine Comedy poet Dante Alighieri, who died at age 55 on this date in 1321, in exile from his native Florence

Monday, September 12, 2011

Quote of the Day (Washington Irving, on How New York’s First Legislators Made Law)

“The journal of each meeting consists but of two lines, stating in dutch, that, ‘the council sat this day, and smoked twelve pipes, on the affairs of the colony.’ -- By which it appears that the first settlers did not regulate their time by hours, but pipes, in the same manner as they measure distances in Holland at this very time; an admirably exact measurement, as a pipe in the mouth of a genuine dutchman is never liable to those accidents and irregularities, that are continually putting our clocks out of order.

“In this manner did the profound council of New Amsterdam smoke, and doze, and ponder, from week to week, month to month, and year to year, in what manner they should construct their infant settlement -- mean while, the own took care of itself, and like a sturdy brat which is suffered to run about wild, unshackled by clouts and bandages, and other abominations by which your notable nurses and sage old women cripple and disfigure the children of men, encreased so rapidly in strength and magnitude, that before the honest burgomasters had determined upon a plan, it was too late to put it in execution -- whereupon they wisely abandoned the subject altogether.”—Washington Irving, A History of New York From the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty (1809)

Sunday, September 11, 2011

This Day in Classical Music History (Shelved “Gatsby” Music Revived)

September 11, 1986—Jay Gatsby was not easily dissuaded from his great, shimmering dream, and neither was John Harbison (left). After the composer saw his request to create an operatic adaptation The Great Gatsby ignored by the estate of F. Scott Fitzgerald, he pulled together some stray ideas into the short orchestral piece, “Remembering Gatsby,” which was performed publicly for the first time on this date by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Robert Shaw. Thirteen years later, when Fitzgerald’s classic novel finally premiered at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, Harbison’s “orchestra foxtrot” comprised the overture.

In choosing a topic for today, I felt strongly tempted to write about 9/11, or even about one of the objects of that day’s heinous attacks, the Pentagon, which began construction on this date exactly 70 years ago. But ultimately, this particular topic won me over, and not simply because it represents another oblique way to write about my favorite novel. (Even the title of this blog, of course, takes its inspiration from Fitzgerald’s rhapsodic ending to that book.)

Any foreigner who wants to divine the heart and soul of America can start with Fitzgerald’s perfectly crafted tale of his country at the height of the Jazz Age. There are things in it that al Qaeda—or, indeed, anyone of a fundamentalist faith—would find antithetical to their beliefs, notably adultery, heavy drinking, disdain for the past, the characters' overwhelming materialism and the absence of any real god (the famous “eyes of God” are depicted in a billboard ad observing “the valley of ashes”).

Of course there are so many things in the novel that abide, however, among them the belief that one can reinvent one’s self and the endless straining for grace. It depicts a secular society in a desert of spiritual values, but finds a kind of saving grace in the purity of purpose at odds with the violent trade of bootlegging at the heart of Gatsby’s quest (note that phrase about the “orgiastic green light”).

Adaptations of Gatsby have tended overwhelmingly toward stage, film and television, hinting at the deep respect for theater present in Fitzgerald even as a boy staging amateur plays. But I think he’d be equally delighted that the world of music—especially the world of classical music—has finally sat down and paid him attention.

A book of his short stories, titled Tales of the Jazz Age, has understandably led readers over the years to associate Fitzgerald with the new musical form taking his country by storm in the Roaring Twenties. But Robert Westbook, the son of the novelist’s later mistress, Sheilah Graham, reported in his book about their relationship, Intimate Lies, that it was classical music, not jazz, that really claimed his devotion. In fact, Fitzgerald was spending a quiet afternoon listening to Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony when he was struck down by his fatal heart attack in December 1940.

Now, let’s turn back to Harbison and his own indomitable attempt to capture the essence of Fitzgerald’s vision in music.

I haven’t been able to find any information about why the Fitzgerald estate turned a deaf ear to the composer’s wish to adapt Gatsby into an opera. It was just the kind of classy project that Fitzgerald’s surviving daughter Scottie always tried to encourage to preserve the memory of her parents.

But the request by Hardison--who, like many Princeton grads, was fascinated by the life and work of fellow alum Fitzgerald--went nowhere for a long while. (The subject matter held additional interest for Hardison because the time evoked, the Roaring Twenties, was when his father, an historian of the Reformation, held out youthful hope that he could carve out a living as a show-tune composer, “and this piece may also have been a chance to see him in his tuxedo again,” he recalled.)

In 1985, Harbison was prompted to revisit his aborted project when Robert Shaw, artistic director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, commissioned him to create a new work. Harbison scanned notes from his Gatsby opera and fashioned his “Remembering Gatsby (Foxtrot for Orchestra).”

I’ve heard neither this eight-minute creation nor the full-length opera that the Met eventually staged, but the most likely source for “Remembering Gatsby” would seem to be Chapter 3 of the book. Like all admirers of the novel, I’ve always retained a vivid mental picture of the summer parties at Gatsby’s mansion, and even recalled the marvelous phrase “yellow cocktail music” used to evoke the atmosphere. But it wasn’t until I re-read the chapter, in preparing this post, that I appreciated how subtly Fitzgerald worked his magic.

The chapter begins with a rather prosaic sentence: “There was music from my neighbors’ house through the summer nights.” The second sentence hints at the marvelous interplay between the actual event of the parties, how Fitzgerald employed this as a metaphor, and his further evocation of sound in non-music-related images: “In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.”

A couple of paragraphs later we’re introduced to the orchestra, whose size is fully of a piece with the immensity of Gatsby’s ambitions: ““By seven o’clock the orchestra has arrived, no thin five-piece affair, but a whole pitful of oboes and trombones and saxophones and viols and cornets and piccolos, and low and high drums.”

And now, the famous “yellow cocktail music” passage begins:

“The lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun, and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music, and the opera of voices pitches a key higher. Laughter is easier minute by minute, spilled with prodigality, tipped out at a cheerful word. The groups change more swiftly, swell with new arrivals, dissolve and form in the same breath; already there are wanderers, confident girls who weave here and there among the stouter and more stable, become for a sharp, joyous moment the centre of a group, and then, excited with triumph, glide on through the sea-change of faces and voices and color under the constantly changing light.

“Suddenly one of the gypsies, in trembling opal, seizes a cocktail out of the air, dumps it down for courage and, moving her hands like Frisco, dances out alone on the canvas platform. A momentary hush; the orchestra leader varies his rhythm obligingly for her, and there is a burst of chatter as the erroneous news goes around that she is Gilda Gray’s understudy from the FOLLIES. The party has begun.”

This is such a bravura piece of writing that analyzing it is a bit like revealing the secrets behind a magic act. It ends with “the party has begun,” but already we have, in a sense, watched the entire movement of this event. The third sentence sounds like the swelling and diminution of instruments in an orchestra. It’s all so giddy, the way listeners can get caught up in intoxicating music, and yet there are already hints of excess, like an orchestra without a conductor (as, in a sense, Gatsby is, since he’s present but unknown by the great mass of party crashers here).

The laughter, for instance, is “spilled” and “tipped out,” like the illegal liquor everyone’s consuming. The party seems to stop on “the erroneous news” that the gypsy is an understudy from FOLLIES—an echo not only of the false rumors about to be spread about Gatsby even before Nick Carraway meets him, but also of the ludicrous falsehoods Gatsby has created in fashioning a backstory for himself. And there’s that especially piquant phrase, “yellow cocktail music.” It not only marries an aural and visual image (something that only Fitzgerald, I think, would ever have the brass and technical skill to pull off), but also further develops an association that “yellow” will have by the end of the novel with corruption.

The foxtrot is hardly the first musical type that one might associate with classical music, but ever since George Gershwin had daringly mixed jazz with classical music in Rhapsody in Blue in 1924, virtually nothing could be ruled out of bounds for the American composer’s aural palette. (More recently, another piece I saw performed at the Chautauqua Institution had used the foxtrot in a classical work: “The Chairman Dances,” an outtake “Foxtrot” from John Adams’ Nixon in China.)

The eight-minute piece begins with the novel’s ending, the green light that Gatsby sees, evoked here by a cantabile passage for full orchestra. “Then the foxtrot begins,” Harbison later summarized the piece, “first with a kind of call to order, then a twenties tune I had written for one of the party scenes, played by a concertino led by soprano saxophone. The tune is then varied and broken into its components, leading to an altered reprise of the call to order, and an intensification of the original cantabile. A brief coda combines some of the motives and refers fleetingly to the telephone bell and the automobile horns, instruments of Gatsby’s fate.”

So often, opera has taken the kind of low passions associated with tabloid crimes and wedded them to a grandiosity that spills out of the confines of its vast concert halls. Such is the case with The Great Gatsby, a work that practically screams with Jerry Springer material (“crooked millionaires and their mistresses!!!”) but endows it with so much more.