Wednesday, November 30, 2011

This Day in Presidential History (Lincoln Client Beats Murder Rap)

November 30, 1856—At 3 in the morning, after six hours of deliberations, the jurors in a sensational murder trial in Springfield, Ill., came to an agreement. When the prosecution and defense teams assembled, citizens discovered, frequently to their anger, that the victim’s wife and nephew, accused of adultery and charged with administering him poison before beating him to death, had been acquitted—due in no small part to their counsel, an attorney reputed to be among the best in central Illinois: Abraham Lincoln.

Some years ago, I remember reading that during his time on the Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall was the only one of the justices then serving who had ever defended men on death row. It made me wonder how many Presidents had similar experiences.

As it happened, 27 of our nation’s chief executives have had a legal education, taught law, or held a legal post, but far fewer, I suspect, have ever defended men subject to the death penalty. In fact, only two come immediately to mind: John Adams, who managed to win the acquittal of redcoats for their involvement in the Boston Massacre, and Lincoln.

You would think, a century and a half after his death, that there would be nothing left to write about the Great Emancipator, but you would be wrong. One of the richest avenues for exploration in Lincolnia involves the quarter-century from his admittance to the Illinois bar in 1836 to his departure for Washington to become President at the time of the nation’s greatest crisis.

Editions of his private letters and public papers have been issued for many years, but to a large extent his legal work remained uncollected and unexplored. That has begun to change significantly. Now, instead of having to travel to Springfield to laboriously review the records of his cases, scholars can peruse them at any time of the day from the comfort of their homes, through a Web site called “The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln.”

Michael Connelly has written about “The Lincoln Lawyer,” but the 16th President was the real McCoy. Lincoln was involved in approximately 5,000 cases during his 25 years as an attorney, with his most significant client being the Illinois Central Railroad. As Stephen B. Oates notes in Abraham Lincoln: The Man Behind the Myths, one special mark of his high standing in the state was that he argued appeal cases for other attorneys, including participating in 243 cases before the Supreme Court of Illinois.

A number of these were dry as dust, but 30 cases that Lincoln took on were murder trials. The large American public, if they know anything about the latter at all, are likely to have gleaned their information from the 1939 John Ford classic, Young Mr. Lincoln, starring Henry Fonda.

That motion picture is far better for its bravura storytelling and loving depiction of communal events that evoke nostalgic Americana (e.g., tug-of-wars, pie-eating contests) than for conveying the reality of history. It was based only loosely on a real-life murder case, one that occurred not when Lincoln was just starting out but in 1858, when he had already established his legal reputation and was in the midst of his campaign for the Senate against incumbent Stephen A. Douglas.

That film got one thing right--Lincoln did indeed use an almanac to prove that the prosecution’s star witness could not, as claimed, have witnessed a murder by the light of the moon. However, Lincoln did not then use Perry Mason-style cross-examination to expose the actual murderer, but merely secured the acquittal of his client.

Something similar happened in the case of George Anderson, a successful Springfield blacksmith found bludgeoned to death in May 1856. Suspicion quickly turned to his widow and nephew, who were rumored to be having an affair. So sensational were the circumstances that the case would be the most notorious seen in the city for the rest of the century.

Lincoln could have worked for the prosecution, but eventually threw in his lot for the defense team because he believed the two innocent of the crime. His contribution to the case was crucial: persuading the judge to exclude testimony suggesting that Jane and Theodore Anderson had engaged in adultery, an act itself in violation of the law at the time. In her account, The Case of Abraham Lincoln, Julie Fenster observed that Lincoln’s gambit was critical in undercutting the prosecution’s attempt at suggesting a motive for the crime.

Lincoln and the rest of the defense team succeeded in saving Jane and Theodore Anderson from the gallows. But the case of the cuckolded blacksmith was never solved.

The case does, however, open a window into a comparatively little-known aspect of the President’s pre-White House life: his legal practice. Lincoln’s office contained, according to a former student and clerk named Gibson Harris, “somewhat dilapidated” furniture and a floor that was never scrubbed. Potential clients who had been told he was an ace attorney might have received an initial shock upon looking at his cluttered desk, which usually contained a bundle of papers into which he would quickly stuff items he thought might be relevant soon.

“Some years ago,” his partner William Herndon recalled, “on removing the furniture from the office, I took down the bundle and blew from the top the liberal coat of dust that had accumulated thereon. Immediately underneath the string was a slip bearing this endorsement, in his hand: 'When you can't find it anywhere else, look in this.'"

His legal practice allowed Lincoln to regain his psychic bearings and secure income for his growing family when he returned to Springfield, after a single, disappointing term in Congress, in 1849. When he departed the city, for what turned out to be for good, in 1861, Lincoln contemplated a similar outcome after his time as President was up. "If I live I'm coming back some time,” he told Herndon, “and then we'll go right on practising law as if nothing had ever happened."

All kinds of blogs have dealt, in one way or another, with President Lincoln (including, on certain posts, the one you’re reading now). But one of the more interesting ones I’ve come across is The Abraham Lincoln Blog, maintained by Geoffrey Elliott.

Quote of the Day (Jorge Luis Borges, on Dictatorships and Writers)

"Dictatorships foment subservience, dictatorships foment cruelty; even more abominable is the fact that they foment stupidity. To fight against those sad monotonies is one of the many duties of writers."—Attributed to Latin-American author Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986)

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Quote of the Day (Wendell Phillips, on ‘Incorporated Wealth’ as a Threat to the U.S.)

“I confess that the only fear I have in regard to republican institutions is whether, in our day, any adequate remedy will be found for this incoming flood of the power of incorporated wealth.”—Wendell Phillips, address in The Music Hall, Boston, October 31, 1871, in Wendell Phillips, Speeches, Lectures and Letters: Second Series (1891)

Today marks the bicentennial of the birth of Wendell Phillips (1811-1884), who was enormously famous in his own time, considerably less so in ours. I have no doubt that if he were alive today, Bill O’Reilly would call this Boston blueblood (a Mayflower descendant with enough inherited wealth, between himself and his wife, to leave his job and concentrate on public speaking) a “patrician pinhead,” or perhaps even worse. 

Phillips deserves to be better remembered. As the United States continues to wrestle with questions involving racial and economic equality, his causes and his method of promoting them—full-throated, uncompromising advocacy—remain as pertinent today as they did when he unsettled the conscience of 19th-century America.

For a short but provocative analysis of Phillips’ life and thought, you can’t do much better than Richard Hofstadter’s brilliant The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It (1948). Indeed, it’s one of the strongest chapters in that history. As Nation columnist Jon Winer wrote, in a post for the blog History News Network: “even today, when the left famously dominates academia, who would have the chutzpah to put this abolitionist and socialist on the same plane as Jefferson, Lincoln and FDR?”

Unlike many of the other 11 portraits in the book--notably, Jefferson, William Jennings Bryan, and Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt--the chapter on Phillips doesn’t really take this agitator to task. In fact, he’s celebrated as a voice for “resistance and rebellion.” Moreover, Hofstadter contended, there was something hypocritical about castigating Phillips for “standing always for extremes that public opinion would not sustain”: “Somehow the same historians who have been indulgent with men who exaggerated because they wanted to be elected have been extremely severe with men who exaggerated because they wanted to free the slaves.”

To be sure, Phillips could be intemperate in his rhetoric—comparing the South, for instance, to a giant brothel for its subjugation of female slaves. And his refusal to endorse Abraham Lincoln for a second term--even after the President had issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and the only conceivable alternative was a Democratic Party and candidate (George McClellan) with no real interest in doing anything about slavery--makes you wonder if he was willing to lose all in an effort to gain all--a stance that will seem quite familiar to those on left-wing Democrats today so sorely disappointed with Barack Obama that they're thinking of throwing their votes away in the next election. (Even as Phillips mourned Lincoln’s assassination, he reflected that perhaps his death had removed one of the most formidable foes of a universal franchise for freedmen--a thought that turned out to be unbelievably mistaken when the President’s successor, Andrew Johnson, turned out to be not merely considerably worse but positively reactionary. There is an excellent chance, of course, for the same outcome in 2012.)

Yet the movements that Phillips supported, considered decidedly fringe at the time--abolitionism, women’s suffrage, Irish independence, and the rights of labor--would in time carry the day. Unlike many in the Republican Party, he did not abandon the struggle for equal rights when the Civil War was over, but pressed on to strike at the gap between rich and poor that was already opening up at the dawn of the Gilded Age. “The social civilization which condemns every third man in it to be below the average in the nourishment God prepared for him, did not come from above; it came from below; and the sooner it goes down, the better,” he told the International Grand Lodge of the Knights of Saint Crispin in April 1872.

He used another argument, in this same address on “The Labor Question,” that echoes strongly today: “Let the debts of the country be paid, abolish the banks, and let the government lend every Illinois farmer (if he wants it), who is now borrowing money at ten per cent, money on the half-value of his land at three per cent. The same policy that gave a million acres to the Pacific Railroad, because it was a great national effort, will allow of our lending Chicago twenty millions of money, at three per cent, to rebuild it.”

It’s not hard to think of what Phillips would say today: If we can bail out Wall Street, can’t those Americans who have seen their homes foreclosed be helped, too?

Photo of the Day: Shadows on the Lawn

I took the image accompanying this post a week and a half ago at Davis-Johnson Park in Tenafly, N.J.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Movie Quote of the Day (Irene Dunne, As a “Writer of Wide Reputation”)

Theodora Lynn (played by Irene Dunne): “I suddenly realized I was a writer of wide reputation and most of it bad.”—Theodora Goes Wild (1936), directed by Richard Boleslawski, screenplay by Sidney Buchman, based on an original story by Mary McCarthy

When I told a work colleague nearly a quarter-century ago the title of this great film I’d just seen at one of Manhattan’s late, lamented revival houses, The Biograph, she responded, “It sounds like a porno movie!” I’m sure many others have had that same initial reaction in the years since whenever they saw it listed on the schedule for Turner Classic Movies.

I’m not sure why Theodora Goes Wild has not entered the screwball-comedy pantheon with It Happened One Night, Bringing Up Baby, Nothing Sacred, My Man Godfrey or Easy Living. In a way, it seems all of a piece with the reputations of the creative team behind this most underrated of cinema’s great romantic comedies.

Maybe one place to start is with Richard Boleslawski. The Russian-born director (whose career is summarized by a short but perceptive post by Katie Richardson on the blog Obscure Classics) helmed some of the more interesting films of the early sound era (Rasputin and the Empress, Men in White, The Painted Veil, Les Miserables), but had the rotten luck to die only a year after this unexpected hit for Columbia Pictures, leaving him no time to develop the long filmographies associated with other creators of the screwball genre such as Frank Capra, Howard Hawks, Ben Hecht, or Preston Sturges.

Take a look again at Boleslawski’s pictures: They’re serious dramas, not comedies. That lack of a track record in the genre led leading lady Irene Dunne (in the photo accompanying this post, with co-star Melvyn Douglas) to have grave misgivings about this project.

Dunne wasn’t known for comedy, either, but for that reason it might have been even more important that someone experienced in the genre could broaden her range beyond the tear-jerkers (Back Street) and musicals (Show Boat) that audiences knew her for so far. She got along well enough with the director during filming—Dunne, as virtually all her colleagues testified, was nothing if not a lady—but her confidence in Boleslawski was sorely tested when, for one scene, he ordered a crew member to fire blanks from a pistol just below her rear end to achieve the flustered reaction he hadn’t been getting from her to that point. Surely, she must have thought that even the suspension she’d been threatened with if she didn’t do this property would have been better than the near-heart attack that Boleslawski gave her.

Fortunately, they both had a sparkling screenplay by Sidney Buchman to work with. Slowly but surely, the latter (a graduate of Columbia University and a scribe at Columbia Pictures) had been building a reputation as script collaborator and script doctor. Theodora began a series of scripts (including Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and The Talk of the Town) that made him mogul Harry Cohn’s go-to writer at Columbia. (By the late ‘40s, he had finally acquired some real power, as a producer at the studio, when his career was cut short by Hollywood’s blacklist.)

The great quality of Theodora Goes Wild, all the way down to its uproarious ending, is surprise. Other characters in the film don’t know what to make of Theodora, the church organist in one of those narrow-minded rural towns of yore who secretly writes a Peyton Place-style scandalous bestseller. Neither did audiences and critics of the time, who were bowled over by the comedy and its vivacious leading lady, an actress finding her comic voice in a film that hilariously sends up small-town hypocrisy and the joy of notoriety.

(By the way, speaking of that last phrase: when I checked out the film’s credits, it seemed perfectly plausible that this material would be based on a story by Mary McCarthy. The novelist-critic who years later would leave jaws agape with her scandalous semi-autobiographical novel of 1930s Vassar, The Group, and her short story about a promiscuous bohemian young woman, “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Suit,” would seem a natural to write the kind of material in this film. It seems, however, that this McCarthy--Mary Therese McCarthy--is not the film’s McCarthy--Mary Eunice McCarthy. Oh, well--one less interesting tidbit to write about!)

“Dunne doesn’t just see the joke—she is radiant with it, possessed by it and glowing with it,” writes critic James Harvey in Romantic Comedy in Hollywood: From Lubitsch to Sturges. “Nobody else does this so completely or to quite the same degree; Dunne takes us inside her own amusement—rich, energizing, seemingly inexhaustible.”

Dunne’s performance did more than provide her with her first Academy Award nomination since the 1931 western Cimarron. It also put her on the A-list whenever romantic comedies were being cast. The following year, she was nominated for an Oscar yet again, for The Awful Truth, the first of three collaborations with Cary Grant (who, toward the end of her life, told screenwriter-director Garson Kanin that she was his favorite leading lady, partly because co-starring with her was less like work than like a “flirtation”).

By the end of her career, Dunne had five Oscar nominations, and in 1985, five years before her death, she received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Fans like myself only wish that her talents could have been discovered sooner so that we’d have even more great performances from her. A loving and luminous tribute to her can be found on the Irene Dunne Project.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

'This Day in Film History (Porter’s 'Under My Skin,' 'Easy to Love' Debut)

November 27, 1936—Given a three-year contract by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Cole Porter proceeded to prove he was worth every penny of his $3,000-a-week salary with his first original Hollywood score, Born to Dance. The musical yielded two standards, “Easy to Love” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”--the latter being, in my opinion, what Frank Sinatra memorably called “Cole Porter’s shining hour.”

Born to Dance is known to pop music and film aficionados for a nifty bit of trivia: It’s the only one of James Stewart’s nearly 100 films, TV programs and short in which he sang. (The great star joked in That’s Entertainment that his tune, “Easy to Love,” somehow became a hit despite his rendition, but he was being unduly modest: Porter himself thought Stewart had a perfectly fine voice and, when given the opportunity to have someone else in the film sing this song, affirmed that the 27-year-old MGM contract player would do just fine.)

More crucially, Stewart was at the receiving end of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” as female lead Virginia Bruce sang it to him in an attempt to convince his character of the sincerity of her love. For those who think the classic Hollywood musical should exploit the medium’s great asset—motion—and that dance is indispensable in this regard, the film also offers an instrumental reprise of the tune, with husband-and-wife team Georges and Jalna (seen in this YouTube scene) attempting to catch some of the magic emitted by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

In his breezy recap of the Great American Songbook, The House That George Built, Wilfred Sheed broke down how the gay songwriter was able to translate his own experiences into tunes that a broader heterosexual public could experience: “He had the formula down cold for alchemizing lust into romance, and for selling the customer on a lifetime of bliss in exchange for a few trifling minutes of hoop-di-do; but mainly because, like the greatest seducers, he meant what he was saying. More than anyone, he craved the happy ending he was selling, and was even more heartbroken when he didn’t get it. For the time being, anyway.”

Porter was part of a massive exodus of Broadway tunesmiths who, when the Great Depression left one musical after another dying on the vine, decamped for Hollywood. For all the lovely weather and cushy salaries they enjoyed, however, it wasn’t easy for composers in Tinseltown. They were at the beck and call of producers who could torpedo their best work for the most idiotic of reasons. (“Over the Rainbow,” written for an even greater MGM musical than Born to Dance, The Wizard of Oz, almost suffered this indignity before wiser heads prevailed.) They might have been kings of Broadway, but in Hollywood they represented just another set of hired hands, even having to submit to auditioning their songs for producers--a prospect filling Porter, for one, with deep unease.

Richard Whiting had made the long trek out West early in the decade; the Gershwin brothers did so, like Porter, in 1936 (“They Can’t Take That Away From Me” was a product of their collaboration there); and Johnny Mercer would follow a year later. Among the few musical craftsmen to bridle at their time in the sun were Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, who, despite creating two of their greatest hits in Hollywood (“Isn’t It Romantic?” and “Blue Moon”), could not wait to get back to Broadway by mid-decade.

In a prior post on Dinah Washington, I discussed why her cover version of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” was especially memorable. But, in truth, the song has proven adaptable to many different musicians, many of whom have managed to leave their own distinctive interpretations of it. Frank Sinatra, in the 1956 hit that thrust this work forever into the Great American Songbook, lent a quality of confidence overriding all obstacles; Katharine McPhee, in a performance with Chris Botti, endowed it with flirtatiousness; and Diane Krall slowed it down to emphasize the pain and vulnerability of the lyrics (“This affair never will go so well”).

On the Web site Jazz Standards, musicologist K. J. McElrath cites several reasons for its great adaptability by jazz musicians in particular, including the number of intermediate steps that allow singers to traverse its wide Bb to the F range, and the lack of “color tones” that allow musicians to, in effect, fill in the gaps.

Quote of the Day (Cardinal Newman, on What to Prepare For)

“We ought not to be sanguine about anything; the right rule is to hope nothing, to fear nothing, to expect nothing, to be prepared for everything.”—John Henry Cardinal Newman, The Anglo-American Church, October 1839

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Quote of the Day (John Updike, on Children, Laughter and Fiction)

“Perhaps one reason we laugh so much in childhood is that so much is unexpected and novel to us, and perhaps fiction revives that laughter by giving us back the world clearer than we have seen it before.”— John Updike, Higher Gossip: Essays and Criticism (2011)

Photo of the Day: Leafy Morass

It might be a bit late this year, but the leaves are coming down in earnest now. I took the accompanying photo two weeks ago in my backyard, and, even after raking, a few straggling leaves remain on our trees.

Friday, November 25, 2011

This Day in Presidential History (Reagan Aides Circle Wagons Over “Iranamok”)

November 25, 1986—Only a dozen years after a Republican President was forced out of office because of scandal, the possibility became a live one again when Attorney General Edwin Meese not only admitted that Ronald Reagan had authorized arms for hostages, but broke the news that at least one member of the National Security Council had used at least proceeds from the weapons shipments to fund the contras opposing the Marxist government of Daniel Ortega.

History has dubbed the scandal that consumed the attention of the nation for the following nine months Iran-contra—a clumsy name whose sole virtue might be that it attempted to capture the wide-ranging nature of an astonishing series of events. But there’s another name for the scandal, coined by the liberal magazine The New Republic, that is pithy while conveying the insane quality of the whole affair: “Iranamok.”

At a reading of Democracy at New York’s 92nd Street Y a year or two after the scandal broke, Joan Didion remarked that one plot element in her novel was a what-if scenario—i.e., what if Lee Hart and General Richard Secord had an affair? Both these names have faded from the public consciousness, but Secord is one of many names in Iran-contra that should not be forgotten, even as the nation has turned its attention to recent events considered more momentous (the War on Terror) and trivial (Herman Cain’s confusion about President Obama’s Libya policy—and his own position on the matter).

Iranamok was built on an entire network of deceit, starting with the Reagan administration’s blithe assurances that they were complying with Congress’ Boland Amendment restricting CIA and Defense Department support of the opposition contra forces in Nicaragua. But perhaps none reached the level of the claim by Lt. Colonel OliverNorth (self-confessed liar turned preposterous American folk hero) that as he moved outside the realm of accountability to the American public, he had to balance “lies versus lives.”

In a word, no. Nobody, to my knowledge, has ever analyzed how the statement, already dubious when first expressed, has become more dubious with each passing day. The threat that the Reagan Administration saw was not in the Mideast but in Central America, which, in their fevered version, was in danger of seeing Nicaragua become another Cuban-style center for Marxism.

But the idea that Nicaragua ever posed a threat to the U.S. was ludicrous. Say what you want about about the Patriot Act, but it was passed in an environment in which several thousand Americans had died in an unprovoked terror attack and there was every possibility that another would occur sooner rather than later. Not only did the Communists of Nicaragua never launch such an attack, but nobody in his right mind ever believed it would. Even Ortega’s opportunity to create mischief around Latin America was becoming increasingly limited. For all the resources that the Reagan administration was pouring into the CIA, the news never really seemed to move up the ladder that the U.S.S.R. was being undermined from within by the costs of its involvement in Afghanistan and the struggle to keep its own restless republics in line. (Maybe this intelligence never went up the line because it contradicted everything they had believed for 40 years.) The U.S.S.R., under these circumstances, was finding it harder and harder to export Marxism into the region.

Instead, Americans looking at their newscasts 25 years ago were astounded to find that the President who spoke about “standing tall” against foreign threats--including famously, in the 1980 election, vowing not to negotiate with terrorists--had made a deal with hostage-takers and state sponsors of terrorism in Iran. Following the arms shipment, the three hostages released were immediately followed by another three taken. Secretary of State George Schultz, who had opposed the deal, was correct in calling it “a hostage bazaar.”

The Tower Commission, appointed the day after Meese’s revelation of the diversion of funds from the arms sale to the contras, gave the Reagan administration a tremendous gift when it attributed the crisis to Reagan’s lax “management style.” The commission's report gave Americans still traumatized by the impeachment crisis of 1974 the opportunity to believe that laws were broken by a President not because of his criminality but because he was disengaged from the government he headed. The impression of disengagement (fostered by the President's own frequent jokes about his not-too-stringent work habits as well as his advanced age) enabled Reagan to escape the impeachment that doomed Richard Nixon on Capitol Hill. But, as Theodore Draper argued compellingly in his analysis of the labyrinthine scandal, A Very Thin Line, Reagan bears responsibility because of his twin obsession with freeing the hostages (even if it meant denying he was dealing with terrorists) and with keeping together the contras “body and soul.”

In a very real sense, a line can be drawn from Iran-contra to the disastrous chain of events that led the Bush II administration to beat the drums of war on the false premise that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. One of the forgotten but astonishing aspects of Iran-contra was the excessive dependence on a purported go-between to alleged Iranian moderates who failed 13 out of 15 questions on a polygraph test. Similarly, the Iraqi defector nicknamed “Curveball” concocted stories about mobile bioweapons trucks and secret factories to try to bring down Saddam Hussein’s regime. In both the Iran-contra and weapons of mass destruction fiascoes, ideological fervor led policymakers to place too much credence in sources that clearly did not warrant the slightest trust.

One last thing: Iran-contra can not only be seen as yet another of the scandals to which modern American Presidents have found themselves inevitably drawn, but also as a marker in the Red-vs.-Blue State divide that has plagued our government in recent years. The tumultuous Bork confirmation hearings have often been cited as a milestone in the latter regard, but the Iran-contra investigation, occurring at roughly the same time, serves as an equally compelling example. To understand why the supercommittee has had super trouble taming the deficit, it doesn't hurt to look back here.

The House Judiciary Committee in 1974 would never have been able to form a critical mass of committee members against Richard Nixon if the panel’s conservative Southern Democrats and moderate Northern Republicans had not made common cause. By the time of Iran-contra, the Inouye select joint House-Senate committee charged with investigating Iran-contra had become far more starkly divided between Democrats and Republicans.

One of the key GOP members of the latter panel was Rep. Dick Cheney, who was so nakedly partisan that even fellow GOP member Warren Rudman observed that he was “more interested in protecting the president than in finding out what had happened.“ Cheney later claimed to be annoyed at how junior members of the Reagan administration were “left out to dry.” Years later, that anger would inform his wrongheaded urging of President George W. Bush to pardon Scooter Libby on the dubious grounds that abandoning him would be like leaving behind a soldier on the battlefield. (A most interesting metaphorical stretch, especially considering that Cheney never spent a day in the armed forces.) Furthermore, an additional aim while on the select committee--preserving Presidential prerogative--became one Cheney pursued perhaps even more ardently, and with equally disastrous results, while serving as Vice-President.

The Iran-contra investigation was a muddle that settled nothing and simply left lying around for later Presidential use the possibility of a secret government-within-a-government. No Democrat or Republican should permit the existence of such a principle that undermines the system of accountability.

Quote of the Day (Ellen Barkin, on Her “PR Peeps”)

“Wow, heavy duty response. I love my muthaf***in PR peeps, but you know what? They can go f*** their muthaf***in PR selves. I’m flyin’ now.”—Actress Ellen Barkin, reporting the results of her Twitter followers when she asked them how she should respond to her PR team’s suggestion that she limit herself to “1 f--- a day” on her tweets, quoted in “Tweetin’,Cursin’, Barkin,’” The Daily, October 19, 2011
Can you think of a more thankless task than restraining the Sea of Love actress? Especially when, as she says, she's "flyin' now"?

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

This Day in Literary History (O’Hara’s “Assembly” Part of ‘60s Thanksgiving Tradition)

November 23, 1961--In what became a tradition throughout the rest of the decade, Random House published, on Thanksgiving, a feast for readers: another book by one of its bestselling authors, John O’Hara. Assembly marked a return to the short-story genre that O’Hara had forsaken because of an 11-year quarrel with the principal outlet for his short fiction, The New Yorker.

By the end of the Sixties, the enormously prolific author, a onetime acolyte of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, had surpassed them in the amount and variety of his short fiction. From 1960 to his death 10 years later, at age 65, he published seven story and novella collections: Sermons and Soda Water (1960), Assembly (1961), The Cape Cod Lighter (1962), The Hat on the Bed (1963), The Horse Knows the Way (1964), And Other Stories (1968), and The O'Hara Generation (1969), a best-of collection.

The 139 short stories, novellas and novelettes published in this decade are remarkable, in and of themselves, but they are even more so when one considers their commercial and artistic achievement. The prickly author may have given Random House hives, but there was a reason why it put up with his frequent bullying, sulking and demands: he made it lots of money. The novels, of course, were to be expected, but even the short stories sold far better than the norm. Assembly, for instance, went through three Random House and 11 Bantam paperback printings.

Fitzgerald, one of the more assiduous short-story writers of his age (approximately 160 published in his lifetime), complained about only having the same few experiences to fall back on. (See today’s Quote of the Day.) This was never an issue with O’Hara. While the main question eliciting information from the author of The Great Gatsby was the rather insolent, “How much money do you make?”, the author of Appointment in Samarra used his old skills as a reporter to interrogate people about their lives. Because he found women especially fascinating, he could also summon the charm that so many people missed because of his crusty exterior to get them to talk all about themselves.

Following a near-fatal ulcer in 1953, O’Hara had gone permanently on the wagon, pouring his energies into his typewriter instead of the nearest watering hole. That enabled him to avoid the early alcohol-hastened death and decline of Fitzgerald and Hemingway, respectively--and to go far beyond their work over a lifetime in the short form. The 374 stories he wrote over four decades was more than double Fitzgerald’s total, and eight times Hemingway’s.

None of this is meant to denigrate the very real achievements of Fitzgerald and Hemingway in the short form; it simply means that O’Hara belongs in their class as 20th-century masters of the genre.

O'Hara's break from short-story writing largely resulted from a negative review of his sprawling 1949 novel A Rage to Live by New Yorker critic Brendan Gill. His vow not to submit more articles to the magazine began to weaken by 1958, when former friend Wolcott Gibbs dourly joked that all O'Hara needed to come back into the fold was Gill's execution and approximately $50,000 in damages. 

Two years later, fiction editor William Maxwell pulled off the diplomatic coup of the decade--O'Hara's return to the magazine as a contributor--when he accepted for publication the marvelous novella "Imagine Kissing Pete." In the summer of 1960, the novelist plunged back into the form with brio, cranking out most of the stories in two sittings of three hours each.

When critics and biographers note that O’Hara could be his own worst enemy in not winning greater critical approval, they’re usually talking about his mile-wide truculent streak. But it might have been equally true of his commercial instincts. In his biography The Art of Burning Bridges, Geoffrey Wolff notes that O’Hara refused to have his stories anthologized because he thought they would cut into the sales of his story collections. 

That was a dubious judgment in any case, but it also meant that at least a generation of college students--as well as future English professors--would not be exposed to his exceptional short fiction.

The title of the volume holds a double meaning. It not only refers to the 26 stories collected or “assembled” here, but to the Assembly, the elite social organization that sets the rules for Gibbsville, the fictionalized version of O‘Hara‘s hometown, Pottsville, Penn. The use of the term in this second context clues the reader into the novelist’s continuing concern with the mores that govern society.

Assembly, like O’Hara’s other short stories of the decade, differs from his almost uniformly terse, hard-edged, often plotless short fiction in the 1930s and 1940s, in length, detail and attitude. Increasingly, he had taken to writing letters to his beloved daughter Wylie about his memories of growing up in the coal-mining region of eastern Pennsylvania. 

Perhaps he sensed that the attention of the younger generation was shifting elsewhere, and they needed to understand what life had once been like. He did not want to leave this process to "in the hands of the historians and the editors of picture books," he wrote in Sermons and Soda Water: “I want to get it all down on paper while I can. . . . at fifty-five I have no right to waste time."

That last comment ties O’Hara to writers who would follow him who, in their sixties and seventies, also wrote with a deepening consciousness of aging: John Updike and Philip Roth. In the past, O’Hara would have been tempted to regard most of his characters with almost Olympian irony. At this point in his life, however, he could only regard with compassion how desperately they grasped for moments of grace, love and happiness as they became more and more besieged by loss, illness, death, loneliness and despair.

O’Hara could write about Hollywood stars, Broadway actors, Wall Street up-and-comers, and Park Avenue grande dames. But I think he was most at home with the coachmen, coal-miners, barbers, journalists, doctors, country-club habitues, and others in Gibbsville, which he wrote about with the range and vividness of Thomas Wolfe’s Altamount and William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. 

The short-story collection Gibbsville is the indispensable place to start with this group, then. But I recommend that you hunt down the out-of-print 1980s edition of this, which is 10 stories and 300 pages more than the 2004 paperback reprint.

This is the richest opportunity for a reader to discover not just the full range of his characters from all walks of life, but also why he told Wylie that he believed strongly in the motto of her girls’ school, St. Timothy‘s: “truth without fear.”

Quote of the Day (F. Scott Fitzgerald, on How Authors Repeat Themselves)

“Mostly, we authors must repeat ourselves—that's the truth. We have two or three great moving experiences in our lives—experiences so great and moving that it doesn't seem at the time that anyone else has been so caught up and pounded and dazzled and astonished and beaten and broken and rescued and illuminated and rewarded and humbled in just that way ever before. Then we learn our trade, well or less well, and we tell our two or three stories - each time in a new disguise - maybe ten times, maybe a hundred, as long as people will listen.”--F. Scott Fitzgerald, “One Hundred False Starts,” in A Short Autobiography, edited by James L. W. West III

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Quote of the Day (Jack London, on the Decisive Break in His Life)

“A brain seller was only at his prime when he was fifty or sixty years old, and his wares were fetching higher prices than ever. But a laborer was worked out or broken down at forty-five or fifty. I had been in the cellar of society, and I did not like the place as a habitation. The pipes and drains were unsanitary, and the air was bad to breathe. If I could not live on the parlor floor of society, I could, at any rate, have a try at the attic. It was true, the diet there was slim, but the air at least was pure. So I resolved to sell no more muscle, and to become a vendor of brains.”--Jack London, “What Life Means to Me” (1905)

Jack London died on this date in 1916. For a long time, a number of reference books led me to believe that his death came by suicide. Now, the matter seems somewhat murkier: he was already worn down and deathly ill (alcoholism and renal failure among what afflicted him), so it’s still unclear if his morphine overdose was accidental or not.

But what is worth remembering about the author of The Call of the Wild, The Sea Wolf, and numerous great stories is not his death but what he made of his life. With the odds deeply against him, he became an autodidact and one of the most famous men of his time.

Ironically, though London was a racist who trumpeted a “Great White Hope” who could dethrone black heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, his fierce struggle to rise above his circumstances by improving himself intellectually resembled that of Malcolm X.

(By the way, from the way many American white-collar businesses are forcing 50-and-over employees into early retirement, they no longer seem to believe, as London did, that “brain sellers” are in their prime at this age. That is one of the tragedies of our time.)

Monday, November 21, 2011

Movie Quote of the Day (Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein’s Monster)

[Trying to evade the monster, Wilbur puts on a black cloak over his face]
Wilbur Grey (played by Lou Costello): [imitating Dracula] “Back! Back!”
The Monster (played by Glenn Strange): “Yes, master.”
Wilbur: [takes off cloak and turns to Chuck, played by Bud Abbott] “He thinks I'm Dracula!”—Bud Abbott and Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), written by Robert Lees, Frederic I. Rinaldo and John Grant, directed by Charles Barton

It’s fitting that this “Quote of the Day” features Victor Frankenstein’s monster and (implicitly) Dracula, for the two greatest monsters of the silver screen made their first appearances before film audiences in 1931. (I’m not counting F.W. Murnau’s 1922 silent Nosferatu, which used the Bram Stoker tale without permission.) Earlier this year, I wrote about the anniversary of Dracula; today marks the 80th anniversary of the wildly successful transfer to the screen of Mary Shelley’s 1818 shocker about the unintended consequences of scientific exploration.

Dyed-in-the-wool horror fans were probably disappointed that Lugosi and Karloff didn’t appear together in the Abbott and Costello comedy (Karloff had departed Universal Studios a few years before, feeling that the Frankenstein franchise was played out). But the two actors had, in any case, already appeared in eight films, with one of their best saved for last: The Body Snatcher (1945), Val Lewton’s adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic short story.

Though Karloff won enduring fame as the Frankenstein monster (a role that came to him, incidentally, only when Lugosi turned it down), his performance in The Body Snatcher is likely to linger longer in the minds of viewers. When we first see him, he appears to be a folksy, kindly Scottish coachman; by the end of the film, we know him as a grave robber and murderer whose smile is all the more sinister because he knows the worst secrets of the respectable medical establishment that pays him to do its dirty work.

By the way, I had a bit of a hard time coming up with this post. I wanted something that blended comedy and Frankenstein without resorting to the inevitable Young Frankenstein. Easier said than done.

Something about Dracula (Lugosi’s accent? The bloodthirsty count’s undisguised desire for wenches?) has made it a richer field for parody than Frankenstein. In fact, the only decent comedies that mine Frankenstein for laughs (a skit on The Carol Burnett Show, the Moonlighting episode “The Bride of Tupperman,” and even Young Frankenstein) end up looking for additional inspiration to its 1935 sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein. Maybe it’s the prospect of a female mate with such an unusual hairstyle that brings out the antic muse.

Photo of the Day: Blazing in Scarlet Battalions

No, I’m not going to Scarborough Fair. But this photo I took over a week ago at Overpeck County Park in Bergen County, N.J., struck me as a particularly vivid image of this autumn.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Quote of the Day (John Dryden, on the 'Careful Devil')

“But when to sin our biassed nature leans,
The careful devil is still at hand with means,
And providently pimps for ill desires;
The good old cause, revived, a plot requires.
Plots, true or false, are necessary things,
To raise up commonwealths, and ruin kings.” --John Dryden, Absalom and Achitophel, Part I (1681)

The 17th-century poet-playwright John Dryden was such a skilled satirist that he’d probably disdain Texas Governor Rick Perry as too obvious a target for someone of his gifts. Still, it’s hard to read Absalom and Achitophel, published 430 years ago this month, and not sense the contemporary relevance of Dryden’s demonstration of how false words can sway a populace and undermine a head of state’s legitimacy.

If current American politics is a bloodsport (and it is), you should have seen the political scene in Dryden’s lifetime (1631-1700). Nowadays, involvement in politics can bankrupt you, leave you beholden to the Jack Abramoffs of the world, even make your mom wonder whether the guy every senator of a particular party is denouncing could really be the same boy she raised years ago.

In Dryden’s time, backing the wrong political horse could deprive you of position, force you into exile, land you in the Tower of London, provoke attack by thugs, even get you killed. Dryden either saw this happen to friends and relatives or, in a few cases, even experienced it himself. (He was assaulted two years before publication of Absalom and Achitophel, and lost the poet laureate position when he backed James II, the last of the Stuarts to sit atop the English throne.)

If Governor Perry knows his Bible as well as he assures evangelical voters in the GOP primaries, then he’s probably familiar with the source material for Dryden’s poem: the story in 2 Samuel of the revolt of Absalom, illegitimate son of King David, as urged on by David’s trusted counselor Achitophel.

But Dryden put that original tale in a much different context (more on that last word shortly). His readers construed his verse in the manner he had hoped: ancient Israel represented 17th-century England; King David, King Charles II; Absalom, the bastard son of England’s merry monarch, the Duke of Monmouth; and Achitophel, the Duke of Shaftesbury.

Dryden’s poem was published only days before Shaftesbury went on trial for treason. Instead of venting his own views in an editorial or blog post, as the overwhelming majority of commentators would do today, Dryden did so in verses of biting and elegant brilliance.

Restoration England was as rife as 21st century America with “Plots, true or false,” as well as with frustrated heads of state and demagogues who could disrupt the nation's stability with lies and innuendoes. A couple of years before the poem appeared, Titus Oates had sent the nation careening through a McCarthyite series of wild accusations, with Catholics the object of fear rather than Communists.

With the 2012 election growing ever nearer (less than a full year away!), the GOP candidates are coming up with their own plots and charges. Perry has become a major contributor to this campaign. President Obama, he charged in a recent TV ad, had called Americans “lazy.”

"Can you believe that?” Perry asked in the ad. “That's what our president thinks is wrong with America? That Americans are lazy? That's pathetic. It's time to clean house in Washington."

Can I believe that? Well, actually, no.

And now, we come to what I mentioned earlier: Context.

Campaign observers mystified why Perry had previously claimed Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke had committed actions “almost treasonous” were positively astonished by the governor’s pitiful debate performances, including the “Brain Freeze” spread everywhere by cable TV and YouTube. Now, they’re even more likely to ascribe his words to a case of swinging from the heels, in the desperate hope that he might strike a home run with the party’s conservative base.

But there’s a secondary meaning of “context”: President Obama’s own words. One of the wonders of the Internet and YouTube is that you can find somewhere, unfiltered, a nearly verbatim statement by a public official. On the White House homepage, you can find the news conference at the Sheraton Hotel in Honolulu last week in which Obama’s words were spoken. To wit:

“I think it’s important to remember that the United States is still the largest recipient of foreign investment in the world. And there are a lot of things that make foreign investors see the U.S. as a great opportunity -- our stability, our openness, our innovative free market culture.

“But we’ve been a little bit lazy, I think, over the last couple of decades. We’ve kind of taken for granted -- well, people will want to come here and we aren’t out there hungry, selling America and trying to attract new business into America. And so one of things that my administration has done is set up something called SelectUSA that organizes all the government agencies to work with state and local governments where they’re seeking assistance from us, to go out there and make it easier for foreign investors to build a plant in the United States and put outstanding U.S. workers back to work in the United States of America.”

There’s a lot more of that in a similar vein—the kind of boring professorial stuff that Obama can do in his sleep, and, judging from the dismayed tone of those who voted for him in ’08, the kind he has done that way all too much the last couple of years.

But find anything in the above where the word “lazy” specifically applies to American workers. If anything, the “lazy” parties in question are state, local and federal governments asleep at the wheel as their competitive advantage was undercut because of their refusal to promote the the USA. In fact, it’s the kind of claim that Perry, that longtime foe of government bureaucracy, has seldom been reluctant to make himself.

Perry’s refusal to back off his claim proved too much even for Bill O’Reilly, here trading his mad-dog persona for that of an unexpectedly more thoughtful truth-teller, much as he did when, at Roger Ailes' strong suggestion, he began to throw cold water on the birther controversy. The Fox News ringmaster asked this time if Perry wasn’t being misleading with this ad. Not at all, responded Perry. In fact, he said, he thought Obama was a socialist.

You have to wonder why Perry persists in such nonsense. Well, one could believe he’s a liar, as raving and rangy as the state he’s been elected to serve as its leading official three times now. Or we can accept his claim of authenticity at face value and believe he’s just really, really stupid.

Hmmm…Now we may be getting somewhere.

The three scariest words I’ve heard in awhile--the three words that most liberals might regard as the scariest in the English language--were ones I read applied several months ago, in an Irish Voice article, to Perry: “Bush without the brains.” That would account for the Great Debate Brain Freeze, as well as for this new incident.

According to two New York Times articles that dealt, at one point or another, with his grades, Perry was voted Most Popular in his high-school class, but he never made the honor roll, and his marks were as bad, if not worse, at the Texas A & M Corp of Cadets.

If, at any point, Perry wasn’t paying attention in English class, he might have missed an all-important session on antecedents. That might explain why he erred so badly in identifying the “we” in Obama’s talk quoted above.

At the start of this post, I speculated that Dryden might find Perry too obvious a target for his pen. But perhaps the poet really did grasp the nature of this fading Republican supernova. After all, how else to explain this Dryden rhyming couplet:

“Behold him setting in his western skies,
The shadows lengthening as the vapors rise.”

Photo of the Day: Storm Damage

Three weeks after the snowstorm that tore up much of the East Coast on the Halloween weekend, most municipalities and counties are still dealing with the fallout in the form of down trees and limbs. I took the photo accompanying this post last weekend in Overpeck County Park, near where I live in Bergen County, N.J. If the park is like most everywhere else I’ve driven around here over the weekend, the debris in the park hasn’t been picked up yet.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Quote of the Day (Lewis Carroll, on the “Caucus-Race”)

“'What is a Caucus-race?' said Alice…

'Why,' said the Dodo, 'the best way to explain it is to do it.'…

First it marked out a race-course, in a sort of circle, ('the exact shape doesn't matter,' it said,) and then all the party were placed along the course, here and there. There was no 'One, two, three, and away,' but they began running when they liked, and left off when they liked, so that it was not easy to know when the race was over.”—Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Last weekend, I had the good fortune of attending an exceedingly amusing, well-acted, and well-directed theatrical adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland at Dwight-Englewood School in Englewood, N.J. One scene in particular struck me with particular force: the caucus-race that Carroll described above.

The actors in the scene ran themselves silly. One minute one person was last, but because they were all running in a circle, that person was also, paradoxically, first. In fact, they all were first and last. There was no obvious person in the lead, and despite everyone’s exhaustion, no winners when the action ceased.

Why did all of this seem so familiar to me? I wondered. Where had I seen it all before?

And then it struck me. Carroll’s absurdist exercise could, in fact, describe the never-ending quest for the White House. This year, in fact, you can’t find closer real-life examples to his characters than the Oval Office aspirants now running in the GOP primaries. (I hasten to add that the play’s creators were more intent on offering an old-fashioned, family-friendly show than political satire, so my perception was purely my own.)

There’s a constant attempt in the press to identify which candidate is up and who’s down, but until the first vote is counted, it’s pointless. Just as someone emerges as an alternative to Robo-Candidate Mitt Romney, something happens: a minor gaffe, a freshly unearthed scandal or conflict of interest, or a “What-the-Hell?” moment captured and posted forever on YouTube.

But none of the foregoing is necessarily fatal. After all, one version or another of it is afflicting all the candidates. The voters are watching daily so many candidates sucking wind in the race to the White House that they’re making allowances. The most conservative elements of the GOP didn’t have much use for President George H.W. Bush, but many took to his late-campaign slogan in 1992: “Annoy the media—Vote for Bush.” A generation later, they’re applying the same principle, with most interesting results, to all the GOP candidates. In fact, if they have any guiding principle at all, it seems to be: If the media say it, it can’t be true.

Even on Election Day next year, it won’t come to an end. If the eventual GOP nominee wins, he’ll begin campaigning for reelection, even while he’s picking his Cabinet, because that’s how Presidential "permanent campaigns" are run these days.

The only person for whom it all ends on Election Day is President Obama. If he wins, he can’t run for a third term. If he loses, it’s extraordinarily unlikely he’ll ever run for the Presidency again, even if, like Grover Cleveland, he wanted to do so. He’ll still be young, but the Democratic Party has not been kind of late to losing candidates.

Maybe Obama won’t mind, anyway. After all, modern Presidential politics has taken on an increasingly Alice-in-Wonderland quality to it, and Obama has had an increasingly pinched look around the corners of his mouth, as if he’s tiring of the Carroll-type nonsense of it all.

Photo of the Day: The Wings of (a) Man

I took the photo accompanying this post last Saturday, on what was easily one of the best days for weather this fall, in Overpeck County Park near where I live, in Bergen County, N.J.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Movie Quote of the Day (“Crazy Stupid Love,” on Demi and Ashton)

Jessica (played by Abaleigh Tipton) receives a message from shorter underclassman Robbie Weaver (played by Jonah Bobo) who's texting her while in class.

Robbie: [text message] “Hi, Jessica. FYI, Demi Moore is fifteen years older than Ashton K. They really seem happy. Love, Robbie.” Crazy Stupid Love (2011), written by Dan Fogelman, directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa

As it turns out, the message from lovesick Robbie was slightly premature. Not long after Crazy Stupid Love opened, rumors began circulating that Ashton Kutcher had been caught cheating by his wife. Now, Demi Moore has confirmed that she’ll be filing for divorce. (The Huffington Post recounts here scenes from their six-year marriage.)

I’ve never held much belief in Ms. Moore’s qualities as an actress. But am I right in thinking that her soon-to-be-second-ex (in line behind Bruce Willis) is not terribly far removed from the male bimbo he played for several years on That ‘70s Show? In addition to reports of his infidelity, what made me wonder anew was his recent tweet about how Penn State could ever fire Joe Paterno. (It seems he had no idea that the school’s sex scandal had been exploding in the media for the past several days.)

Hopeless romantics such as Robbie will just have to look elsewhere for examples of enduring love for older women…

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Photo of the Day: A Light in the Forest

Well, okay, maybe not a forest per se—more like a small stretch of woods. Anyway, here is the latest in a series of pictures dating back two weekends ago, when I had the chance to walk around State Line Lookout in Alpine, N.J.

Quote of the Day (Taylor Swift, on How Solo She Really Is)

''I don't have a boyfriend. I don't have, like, even kind of a boyfriend. I don't have someone that I'm texting that's a guy that might someday be my boyfriend. There's, like, nothing going on right now.''—Taylor Swift on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, quoted in “Soundbites,” Entertainment Weekly, November 4, 2011
Wow—I guess this means there won’t be any no thinly veiled (or not so thinly veiled) songs about ex-boyfriends for awhile, huh?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

This Day in Theater History (Sondheim Musical Opens Anything But ‘Merrily’)

November 16, 1981—If there was any justice in the world, Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along would have been as successful as the trio of musicals that finally established him as Broadway’s great creator of musical theater at the start of the 1970s: Company, Follies and A Little Night Music

The composer-lyricist and his longtime producer-collaborator, Harold Prince, had set much of the show in the Fifties, an era when they came to maturity; they were working from a script by their Company playwright, George Furth; and the songs answered resoundingly those critics always carping that Sondheim never wrote a tuneful show.

But a not-so-funny thing happened on the way to Broadway success. The critics called the show a mess, audiences stayed away (or often left without returning at intermission), and the production closed after only 16 performances.

Worse, the tensions created by the show created a fissure in the professional and personal association of Sondheim and Prince. Their friendship was strained for awhile, and it would be another 20 years before they worked together on another musical: Bounce.

In a way, the fate of Merrily might have been foretold by its source material. George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart wrote in what many theater aficionados (myself included) regard as the zenith of American theater comedy, the 1930s, a kind of American Restoration period.

But Merrily We Roll Along turned off audiences who quickly embraced two other works by these collaborators, You Can’t Take It With You and The Man Who Came to Dinner. The 1934 show wasn’t merely challenging because of its unconventional structure--a “reverse narrative” that goes back in time, a la Harold Pinter’s Betrayal--but also its unsympathetic narrator, a jaded 40-year-old playwright who has sold out his artistic vision, broken with his best friend and betrayed his wife. The show only lasted 155 performances and has never been revived on Broadway.

The same negative fallout was even more pronounced in the musical adaptation nearly 50 years later. Merrily was hardly the first musical about a heel, but the fate of that earlier landmark show, Rodgers and Hart’s Pal Joey, might have given Sondheim and Prince pause: It, too, became a success d’estime long after the original show tanked.

An unsympathetic lead was hardly the only problem facing Sondheim and Prince:

* The costumes turned out to be so inappropriate that Prince simply threw them out. Instead, he had characters wear T-shirts identifying themselves through their relationship to the main character, Franklin Shepard (e.g., “Best Friend,” “ex-wife”). That solution might at first have seemed cute. But it looked amateurish to Broadway audiences, who undoubtedly asked themselves why they were paying premium prices for a production whose value they couldn’t see as well as hear.

* Unlike the cast in the Kaufman-Hart play, who were largely 20-and-30-year-olds who played slightly younger and older than their real ages, Prince used actors in middle-aged makeup who, by play’s end, were revealed in their mostly teenage incarnations. But, as Sondheim noted in his collected-lyrics-with-memoirs, Finishing the Hat, such actors, no matter how talented, still find it hard to play characters considerably older than themselves.

* Instead of mounting the show out of town, Prince held tryouts on Broadway. Working the show's problems away from the Great White Way had become, by this time, too expensive. But word quickly spread, even before the production’s premiere, that there were problems.

* Both the show’s lead male actor and its choreographer ended up getting replaced.

* Sondheim and Prince faced a critical establishment ready to take them down a peg. Nearly three decades after the painful events, Sondheim chalked much of this up to jealousy: "Part of the reason for the virulent overreaction, I suspect, was that at the time Hal and I were resented as having become successful despite our maverick ventures....To have done shows like FolliesPacific Overtures and Sweeney Todd and still be living well was not our best revenge, it was theirs."

(One shining light in the production debacle: the casting of 21-year-old Jason Alexander as Broadway producer Joe Josephson. Yes, the man who later embodied George Costanza can be heard warbling quite well on the original-cast album about the two male songwriting friends’ need to come up with a “hummable melody.” Sondheim, noting that someone so young could be “an old pro,” marveled, “It was as if he had been born middle-aged.” It’s enough to make me wish Alexander had spent more of the last decade on musical comedy than on his misbegotten follow-ups to Seinfeld.)

All of this was unfortunate. Problems with the show's book aside, Merrily featured a number of Sondheim's most memorable songs, frequently covered by pop and jazz artists, including "Not a Day Goes By," ""Old Friends," "Like It Was," "Now You Know," "Good Thing Going," "Opening Doors," and "Our Time." These thirty-two-bar songs featured structures that created "hooks,"  yet, in their reprises, could include numerous subtle, often ironic changes.

My first prolonged exposure to Sondheim, in fact, came through a cover version of "Not a Day Goes By," featured on Carly Simon's underrated Torch LP. Curious about the song, and about the history of this failed show, I went out and bought the original-cast soundtrack, and quickly became part of the Sondheim cult.

Despite the bad taste left by the production, Sondheim was determined that the show would endure in some fashion. 

Four years later, James Lapine—now taking on Prince’s role as the author’s theatrical partner—directed another version of Merrily at La Jolla Playhouse featuring a revised book and some new (and some deleted) songs. Seven years later, in Leicester, England, Furth and Sondheim made changes they felt finally made the show workable, and a couple of years later, a London production won that year’s Olivier Award as Best Musical.

For some time, even as late as last summer, rumors circulated that the Roundabout Theatre Co. would stage a revival of the work. As so often happens with that illustrious company, it all has proven a tease, at least so far. Instead, it looks as if next year will bring a Lapine production in February as part of the Encores! Series in Manhattan, and, out in Cincinnati a month later, one of those John Doyle productions in which the actors not only act and sing but also play instruments. (Great for the resume, I suppose, but quite exhausting, wouldn’t you say?)

There are two reasons, I think, why Sondheim refuses to write off this property. Its production insanity aside, the show reflects a crucial period in his life: 1957, when he first won acclaim for the lyrics to West Side Story on Broadway. The adventures of Franklin Shepard, Charlie Kringas and Mary Flynn represent his musical answer to Moss Hart’s Act One: the serio-comic ordeal and triumph of a theatrical neophyte.

Second, the show became his declaration of independence as a music-man maverick. As his idealistic high-school characters sing in the show’s closing hymn, “The Hills of Tomorrow,” the way ahead may be “steep,” “But for those who dare/The world is there/To change!”
Three years after Merrily ended—temporarily—in disaster, Sondheim won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama with the first show he did with Lapine, Sunday in the Park With George.

Quote of the Day (James Wolcott, on NYC in the ‘70s)

“It wasn’t just the criminality that kept your radar alert, the muggings and the subway car shakedowns, it was the crazy paroxysms that punctuate the city, the sense that much of the city had suffered a psychotic break.”—James Wolcott, Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York (2011)

That sounds like the New York I knew in the late ‘70s, when I began attending Columbia University and became more familiar than I expected to be with the various lowlifes hanging around Gotham’s subways, among many other places. I can still remember as late as 1991 that the Port Authority Bus Terminal on 42nd Street was still a grungy and not-altogether-safe place after the rush hour traffic dissipated. Let’s hope that, in this age of budget cuts, we won’t see a similar “psychotic break” anytime again soon.

Photo of the Day: A Beautiful Day for a Walk

That’s the way it felt for me a week and a half ago, when I strolled through State Line Lookout in Alpine, N.J. I’m only sorry I got there in mid-afternoon, with the hours of light becoming increasingly scarce.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Song Lyric of the Day (Elvis Presley, Pleading “Love Me Tender”)

“Love me tender,
Love me true,
All my dreams fulfilled.”—“Love Me Tender,” words and music credited to Vera Matson and Elvis Presley, actually written by Ken Darby, performed by Presley (1956)

Fifty-five years ago on this date, Elvis Presley's Love Me Tender premiered at New York’s Paramount Theater, where thousands of fans lined up to see the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll in his first movie appearance. This was originally supposed to be a nonsinging role, but the film’s producers decided, given the King’s popularity, to add four songs.

Here was the moment when the mold was cast for Presley’s movie career. He wanted to be the next James Dean, and to that end had even seen Rebel Without a Cause 44 times.

But it was not to be. Hollywood, with its studio system entering decline, and the star’s manager, “Colonel” Tom Parker, decided to play it safe. They were thrilled to death by the immediate results--the movie made back its costs within days--and ignored the long-term cost to The King.

Presley’s screen test for producer Hal Wallis was actually pretty good, and his co-stars, then and later, testified to his professionalism. Yet even Elvis--make that especially Elvis--understood what had happened on his introduction to Hollywood. “That first one almost finished me off in the business…They rushed me in the thing to get my name, you know, on the marquee. And the picture wasn’t all that good."

Before long, he was stuck in one formulaic movie after another. He invariably played a highly self-confident but not too brash guy, whose principal preoccupation was reflected in one Sixties film title: Girls! Girls! Girls! Critics guffawed about his lack of range (he could play everything from a singing motorcycle driver to a singing doctor, they joked).

If you’re like me, you gnash your teeth at the lack of foresight--the sheet stupidity--shown by Parker when he rejected an offer for his client to star in the 1961 film adaptation of the Bernstein-Sondheim Broadway musical, West Side Story.

One of my favorite DJs, Vin Scelsa of WFUV, has noted that West Side Story, though not the first rock ‘n’ roll musical, is the first musical with a rock ‘n’ roll attitude. It’s all about sex, danger, and the sense that everything is riding on this moment. Who better to play its male lead, Tony, than Presley himself? His early TV appearances had certainly threatened the adult establishment, but he also could play tender--and unlike the actor eventually cast in the role, Richard Beymer, his voice wouldn’t require dubbing. And unlike the bland Beymer, he radiated charisma.

Yet Parker, more comfortable with tame fare that reflected the films that he liked to see, rejected the offer out of hand. A juvenile delinquent was not the type of role his client would play, he announced.

Lost was not only the chance for Elvis to appear in that year’s Best Picture Oscar winner, but also redirect his career after his Army stint. We can only rue the squandered opportunity.

What we are left with is a title song seeking a film to match its greatness. It’s simple but enduring, as you might expect from a melody harking back to the Civil War ballad “Aura Lee.” Adding new lyrics was probably just another job for Ken Darby, who gave his wife partial credit on the tune.

Elvis got his only songwriting credit on the song, even though, as with virtually all his other songs, he had little if any involvement with composing it. It was all part of the price of dealing with The Colonel.

Still, I suppose you can say, borrowing a concept from film critics, that Elvis was the song’s auteur--adding a style so indelible that other artists could cover the song, but never hope to match his version.

By the way, you can read an informative and entertaining account of the creation and reception of the film and its song here, in a post from the "Elvis-History" blog.