Tuesday, January 31, 2012

TV Quote of the Day (For Suzanne Pleshette, on What Would Have Been Her 75th Birthday)

Dr. Robert "Bob" Hartley [played by Bob Newhart]: [Unhappy with Emily's choice of marriage counselor] “Emily, I thought you were supposed to find someone neutral.”

Emily Hartley [played by Suzanne Pleshette]: “I did.”

Bob: “She's a woman!”

Emily: “That's right, Bob. I said neutral, not neuter.”—The Bob Newhart Show, “I’m Okay, You're Okay, So What's Wrong?”, Season 2, Episode 10, air date November 17, 1973, written by Earl Barret, David Davis and Lorenzo Music, directed by George Tyne

I’m a fan of both Alfred Hitchcock and John O’Hara, but it was unfortunate that two films—one directed by the “Master of Suspense” (The Birds), the other adapted from a novel by the Pennsylvania writer (A Rage to Live)—wasted the talents of the wondrous young actress Suzanne Pleshette. (Hitchcock particularly seemed put off by the Method-trained brunette; Pleshette later recalled that the director seemed to regret casting her as the woman who loses her boyfriend to blonde Tippi Hedren. Maybe that’s why her character ended up pecked to death by the mysteriously vicious avian creatures.)

Fortunately, television found a place for her. In one of her numerous appearances as a guest on The Tonight Show, where her off-screen bawdy sense of humor was barely contained, someone noticed that she hit it off with comedian Bob Newhart, and she was soon cast his wife in his eponymous show, one of the signature hits of the MTM series factory.

Pleshette, born on this date in 1937, died at age 70—way, way too soon for her legion of fans, particularly those of us who felt that her throaty laugh and shrewd but understanding wifely smile made her the best reason to tune in every week for six seasons of The Bob Newhart Show. She was the closest television counterpart to the vivacious wife played by Irene Dunne in classic Thirties screwball comedies such as The Awful Truth and My Favorite Wife.

I never really cared to watch Newhart’s follow-up series in the Eighties--probably because I couldn’t imagine a better on-air partner for him than Pleshette. I’m sure he had fans like myself in mind when he conceived the series finale of the latter show, which depicts him in bed with his first TV wife rather than the younger, blonde one--the past eight seasons all a dream.

That finale became so famous that in 1999, a headline in the humor publication The Onion read, “Universe Ends as God Wakes Up Next to Suzanne Pleshette.”

Monday, January 30, 2012

Quote of the Day (Comic Merrill Markoe, on Living by Herself)

"One great thing I noticed about living by myself: all of my annoying habits seem to have disappeared."—Humorist Merrill Markoe, quoted in "Quotes," Reader’s Digest, October 2011

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Quote of the Day (William Ellery Channing, on Being ‘Content With Small Means’)

“To live content with small means.
To seek elegance rather than luxury,
   and refinement rather than fashion.
To be worthy not respectable,
   and wealthy not rich.
To study hard, think quietly, talk gently, 
   act frankly, to listen to stars, birds, babes, 
   and sages with open heart, to bear all cheerfully,
   do all bravely, await occasions, hurry never.
In a word, to let the spiritual,
   unbidden and unconscious,
   grow up through the common.
This is to be my symphony.” American Unitarian clergyman, writer and philosopher William Ellery Channing (1810-1884), “My Symphony

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Flashback, January 1077: Emperor Yields to Pope in Snows of Canossa

In one of the most extraordinary moments in the papacy’s two-millennia history, the former Benedictine monk Hildebrand—having become, against his wishes, Pope Gregory VII, and now known to history as St. Pope Gregory VII—brought the German emperor Henry IV to heel by making him stand barefooted outside the castle where the pontiff was staying in Canossa, Italy, shivering for three days in the severest winter temperatures in years, before granting absolution and rescinding the excommunication under which the ruler had been placed.

The good feeling between the two, however, was short-lived. Henry, smarting from the indignity he had to endure, struck back at the pope when he had the chance, invading Rome and forcing Gregory into bitter exile seven years later.

“How many divisions does the Pope have?” Joseph Stalin once asked. The question, though sardonic, got to the heart of papal authority. Nowhere, I would argue, was the issue joined more momentously than in the snows of Canossa. Indeed, I would rank it among the half-dozen most dramatic moments in the history of the popes. (The other moments, in case you were wondering, are the upside-down crucifixion of St. Peter; Pope Leo the Great’s visit to Attila the Hun outside Rome to persuade the barbarian ruler to leave the Imperial City alone; Pope Julius’s assumption of an army to quell unrest; and the unsuccessful attempt on the life of John Paul II).

The issues that Gregory confronted during his papacy bedeviled the church for the next few centuries as well, even down to the present day: simony, lay investiture, and clerical celibacy. In the evolving understanding of the relationship between Church and state, the battle between the pope and the emperor didn’t settle matters, but it made matters impossible to ignore.

For a quarter-century, Hildebrand had been the power behind the throne for six different popes, all of whom came to respect his administrative ability and integrity. The former quality might have endeared him to the successors of St. Peter, but the latter asset made him something more astounding: the clear favorite as pope for the populace.

The legend of his selection as pope was completely out of character with the way affairs were already being conducted in the highest reaches of the Church in this age, as political horsetrading took place to secure this office. Instead, right during the funeral of Pope Alexander II, the crowd began to chant, “Hildebrand shall be pope!” His earnest protestations that he wasn’t worthy of the position proved unavailing with the College of Cardinals, who immediately fell behind the crowd’s lead and elected Hildebrand by acclamation.

Less than two years later, Gregory was confiding to his friend Abbot Hugh of Cluny, France, that he felt overwhelmed by the challenges facing him: "The Eastern Church has fallen away from the Faith and is now assailed on every side by infidels. Wherever I turn my eyes--to the west, to the north, or to the south--I find everywhere bishops who have obtained their office in an irregular way, whose lives and conversation are strangely at variance with their sacred calling; who go through their duties not for the love of Christ but from motives of worldly gain. There are no longer princes who set God's honour before their own selfish ends, or who allow justice to stand in the way of their ambition.”

As archdeacon of Rome for the past 14 years, Gregory knew as well as anyone how much turmoil the Church was enduring. The fall of the Roman Empire had left a vacuum of order that only the Church had been able to fill. Later, as new European rulers struggled to unite the fragmented realms that dotted the continent, they sought papal blessing on their power.

At the same time, for all the need these rulers felt for the Church, they also saw Church officials as elements to be used as part of their own power structure. They would couple rights to temporal property and duties with their own conferring of the bishop’s pastoral staff and ring. Frequently, they appointed friends as bishops. This made eminent sense to them, for in the loyalty-based feudal system they could have greater certainty of allegiance to their rule. Henry IV of Germany, a twentysomething royal, was one of these believers in what came to be called lay investiture.

The principle did not, however, make sense to many Church reformers, particularly Gregory. At this point, the hereditary nature of feudal lordships and vassals made particularly thorny the issue of married priests and bishops. In particular, during the 10th century “Rule of the Harlots,” several popes became strongly associated with the corrupt aristocratic family the Theophylacti, and especially wife Theodora and her two daughters, who exerted undue influence over papal elections through marriages, affairs and conspiracies. With simony, the buying and selling of church offices, also rampant, both within the Church itself and among rulers making ecclesiastical appointments, scandal loomed.

At his first synod a year after becoming pontiff, Gregory threw down the gauntlet to the German bishops, denouncing the simony and clerical marriage so widespread among them. They resisted and, when Henry refused to remove one bishop who owed his office to simony, Gregory sought to counteract him.

Gregory’s moves were uncommonly bold. He not only excommunicated Henry—declaring his relationship with the Church and its community gravely impaired—but also that the emperor’s subjects were, in these circumstances, not bound by any loyalty to him. While rulers had removed popes before, no pontiff had ever dared to depose a monarch.

The excommunication by Gregory gave leave for German bishops to rebel openly against Henry. He could not retain power without making peace with the pope. Yet, though he had invited Gregory north into Germany, the pope, suspicious of his intentions, stopped in northern Italy, at the nearly impregnable castle at Canossa possessed by his friend and protectress Matilda.

In his 1983 history of the Papacy, Keepers of the Keys, Nicholas Cheetham disputes the commonly held notion that Henry stood barefoot out in the snow. The monarch was, however, dressed as a penitent before the castle gate, and stayed there for three days running.

At last, convinced of Henry’s sincerity, Gregory met with him, held a mass of forgiveness and lifted the excommunication. Henry, however, annoyed at subjecting himself to the pope, went back on his word as soon as he got back to Germany.

Three years later, Gregory renewed Henry’s excommunication. For the next four years, Henry sought to enter Rome and replace Gregory with his own anti-pope. Gregory’s own position had become more precarious, as the Italian populace had wearied of war. The last straw came at the moment of what should have been the pope’s triumph, when Gregory’s Norman ally, Robert Guiscard, returned to Rome with such overwhelming forces that Henry and his anti-Pope, Clement, were obliged to withdraw. But Guiscard’s troops, excited by the prospect of the ancient city’s riches, looted Rome and massacred many of its inhabitants--who, at this very moment, also watched in horror as their homes were consumed by fire.

The Romans blamed Gregory for their plight, and now he was forced to leave himself. He died a year later, in 1085, a dozen years into his pontificate, with his last words sounding like the prophet Jeremiah, wearied and beaten down because of his love of God: “I have loved justice and hated iniquity; that is why I am dying in exile.”

Gregory did indeed hate iniquity, but he did not see that his attempt to protect the autonomy of the Church provided a justification for papal supremacy that later pontiffs would exploit. The attempt to root out simony foundered under his successors, and the practice became a key charge in Martin Luther’s furious indictment of the Church in the 16th century.

The most enduring fruits of Gregory’s actions were bans on lay investiture and married clergy. In the centuries since Canossa, the Church continued to be hard-pressed by temporal powers, but it is difficult to think how much worse its plight might have been if it had left to kings the ability to appoint bishops. Moreover, for all the clear difficulties that a lack of married clergy present to the Church, it is also the case that it would have been far more difficult to send married ministers instead of single men with no family ties around the world to evangelize.

Photo of the Day: Saturday in Bryant Park

Today, with a few minutes to spare before I saw the Roundabout Theatre’s production of The Road to Mecca (a review on that will come later), I walked over to Bryant Park. With one of the nicest days of this winter at hand, I wanted to get a shot of how this spot behind the Central Research Library in the New York Public Library system looked. As you can see, a full crowd was out in force to enjoy the day.

For a period not so many decades ago, Bryant Park fell into the kind of urban decay and disorder that once bedeviled New York City. Its more recent beautification and revival demonstrates what concerned citizens can do when they put their minds to it.

Quote of the Day (Umberto Eco, on Thomas Aquinas)

“[I]t is hard to understand how scandal could come from this person, so unromantic, fat, and slow, who at school took notes in silence, looked as if he weren't understanding anything, and was teased by his companions. And, in the monastery, as he sat at the table on his double stool (they had to saw off the central arm to make room for him) the playful monks shouted to him that outside there was an ass flying and he ran to see, while the others split their sides (mendicant friars, as is well known, had simple tastes); and Thomas (who was no fool) said that to him a flying ass had seemed more likely than a monk who would tell a falsehood, and the other friars were insulted.”—Umberto Eco, “In Praise of St. Thomas,” in Travels in Hyperreality: Essays (1986)

Have you ever read a piece whose first few sentences left an extraordinary impression on you? Such was my experience 25 years ago, when I read this essay by bestselling Name of the Rose novelist Umberto Eco in the Autumn 1986 issue of The Wilson Quarterly. The vivid opening in question went like this:

“The worst thing that happened to Thomas Aquinas in the course of his career was not his death, on March 7, 1274, in Fossanova, when he was barely 49, and, fat as he was, the monks were unable to carry his body down the stairs.”

Well! Let me tell you, that’s not the kind of anecdote I would have been likely to hear during 12 years of parochial school. More’s the pity, I think. It would have helped many a student, then and now, to know that the greatest scholar-saint of the Middle Ages carried on his own (ultimately losing) battle with gluttony, but that somehow he’d endured to achieve his staggering life work, Summa Theologica.

The Eco quote above hints at the reputation that St. Thomas Aquinas, whose feast day is celebrated by the Roman Catholic Church today, acquired in his early years as “the dumb ox.” There’s a danger, when such rich anecdotes are employed, that the reader will dwell on that eccentric little story to the exclusion of all else.

But Eco knows, from his years of lecturing on semiotics at the University of Bologna, that such stories also hook readers as they grapple with an important argument of the author’s: “Within Thomas’ theological architecture you understand why man knows things, why his body is made in a certain way, why he has to examine facts and opinions to make a decision, and resolve contradictions without concealing them, trying to reconcile them openly.” Reacting to the cross-currents of his time--surging Islam, renewed interest in Greek philosophy--Thomas succeeded in overturning old Church strictures against Aristotle, while forging a solid theological synthesis that has withstood constant assaults across the centuries.

In other words, as his age experienced the first whiffs of the material world, Thomas—not a heretic or revolutionary, Eco agreed, but a “concordian”—“simply gave the church a doctrinal system that put her in agreement with the natural world.”

Friday, January 27, 2012

Flashback, January 1907: Synge’s ‘Playboy’ Causes Dublin Riot

At Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, the company’s initial good feelings about the reception of John Millington Synge’s new three-act comedy were rudely destroyed at its Saturday night premiere on January 26, 1907, when the audience took offense, midway through the play, to what one theatergoer called “an unusually brutally coarse remark.”

The line in The Playboy of the Western World that set off a week of rioting and debate came from young protagonist Christy Mahon, who, when told he could find other girls besides the one he loves, remarks: “It’s Pegeen I’m seeking only, and what’d I care if you brought me a drift of chosen females, standing in their shifts itself, maybe, from this place to the Eastern World?”

One word in particular—"shifts,” an Irish expression for ladies’ undergarments started the donnybrook. The company might have inadvertently heightened the impact of the remark, however, by substituting for “chosen females” the more geographically precise, but earthier, phrase, “Mayo females.”

At the end of the first act, Lady Augusta Gregory, one of the theater’s artistic directors, sent a telegram to her company partner, poet William Butler Yeats, who was lecturing in Scotland: “Play great success.” But by the curtain, she’d had to send another, acknowledging that the show had been “broken up” because of the offensive word.

Two nights later, Gregory, noting not just a packed house but one with an unusually high concentration of males in one section, correctly surmised that the disorder at the premiere was about to be repeated. She not only took the precaution of securing police protection, but also college athletes who might discourage the ruffians.

Neither tactic worked. In fact, the mob regarded the athletes as a challenge rather than an impediment to their mischief, and pummeled one of the would-be burly protectors to such an extent that he had to be carried out by one of the actors he was ostensibly guarding. From the moment the curtain rose, nearly 40 men, many equipped with tin trumpets, managed to make the play inaudible.

On Monday, February 4, Yeats--back in Dublin by this time, and having issued an invitation to debate the meaning of the play--told Abbey playgoers that the play demonstrated the rise of "a new thought, a new opinion, that we had long needed."

The reception for The Playboy of the Western World was nothing like that given at the Abbey to Synge’s Riders to the Sea, when the audience was so overwhelmed by the one-act tragedy they had just witnessed that they sat in stunned silence at the show’s conclusion.

Instead, Playboy brought to the fore internal tensions within the company, as well as the adversarial relationship that was developing between its prime movers an overwhelmingly Protestant Irish group and the larger Irish Catholic Dublin populace that, in its nationalist fervor, took quick offense against anything that remotely smacked of the hated stock “stage Irishman” character fostered by their longtime British overlords.

Many on that second, even more tumultuous Monday performance agreed with Joseph Holloway, a local architect who later claimed that, over 40 years, he had never missed an Abbey show. Synge, he wrote testily in his diary, possessed a “dungheap of a mind.” But he also recorded a dissent by another theatergoer, George Roberts, who said, “The play is the finest ever written if you had only the wit to see it!”

Contemporary critics and theatergoers are far more likely to side with Roberts, seeing Playboy of the Western World as a landmark in world drama, a truly original work that matched a hilarious plot twist (a cowardly youth who, mistakenly believing he’s killed his bullying father, becomes the hero of the countryside) with language that raised common peasant speech to levels of unexpected poetry and eloquence.

Time proved that Playboy of the Western World was one of the cornerstones of the Irish Literary Renaissance, a significant outpouring of talent and genius in a small land whose liberties had been traduced and language nearly destroyed by a colonial power. It became one of the best-known works of the Abbey, the first state-subsidized theater in the world.

Photo of the Day: Demarest Railroad Depot

I’m a sucker not just for railroads but also for the stations that once dotted their lines. Thisparticular station, in Demarest, N.J., several miles north of where I live, was considered “the handsomest of the line” on the Northern Railroad of New Jersey. Until my (very) early childhood, in the early 1960s, passenger trains stopped here.

My area needs another rail link to New York very, very badly. In the last few years, transportation planners and government officials have, variously, tied themselves in knots or (in the case of Gov. Chris Christie) badly fumbled the ball on this issue. I rue the years when this country made our passenger trains economically unfeasible. We have lost something environmentally useful and—in the case of this depot—aesthetically pleasing in the process.

Quote of the Day (Clive James, on U.S. vs. Foreign Talk Shows)

“In Britain and Australia, most of the talk shows go on the air once a week for a limited season. In America it is more like once a day forever. The host's huge salary is his compensation for never being free to spend it. The schedule is crushing, and the top-of-the-show monologue, if the host were to write it on his own, would need a full day’s work, with no time left over for all the other preparation he has to do.” Clive James, Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts (2007)

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Quote of the Day (Anthony Trollope, on Winter in England)

“The comic almanacs give us dreadful pictures of January and February; but, in truth, the months which should be made to look gloomy in England are March and April. Let no man boast himself that he has got through the perils of winter till at least the seventh of May.”—Anthony Trollope, Doctor Thorne (1858)

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Photo of the Day: Colors of the (Fall) Day

I took this photograph what feels like a long time ago: late October 2008, around Concord, Mass. I’d like to think it’s Walden Pond, but I didn’t label this when I had the chance.

Quote of the Day (Tennessee Williams, on Memory)

“Memory takes a lot of poetic licence. It omits some details; others are exaggerated, according to the emotional value of the articles it touches, for memory is seated predominantly in the heart.” Tennessee Williams, Stage Directions for Scene 1 of The Glass Menagerie (1944)

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Photo of the Day: Now, What Was That About Snow?

I took this photo of Depot Park, down the street from me in Englewood, N.J., after rain had washed away the weekend snow. Towering in the back, partly hidden by trees, is my spiritual home for virtually my whole life, St. Cecilia’s Roman Catholic Church.

Quote of the Day (Edith Wharton, on the ‘Social Aristocracy’ of Her Youth)

“The readers (and I should doubtless have been among them) who twenty years ago would have smiled at the idea that time could transform a group of bourgeois colonials and their republican descendants into a sort of social aristocracy, are now better able to measure the formative value of nearly three hundred years of social observance: the concerted living up to long-established standards of honour and conduct, of education and manners. The value of duration is slowly asserting itself against the welter of change, and sociologists without a drop of American blood in them have been the first to recognize what the traditions of three centuries have contributed to the moral wealth of our country. Even negatively, these traditions have acquired, with the passing of time, an unsuspected value. When I was young it used to seem to me that the group in which I grew up was like an empty vessel into which no new wine would ever again be poured. Now I see that one of its uses lay in preserving a few drops of an old vintage too rare to be savoured by a youthful palate; and I should like to atone for my unappreciativeness by trying to revive that faint fragrance.”—Edith Wharton, A Backward Glance (1934)

Yes, I know that I had two posts, on the short story “The Triumph of Night” and the novella Ethan Frome, at the end of last year. Some of you might have a feeling of déjà vu over this.

But it seems to me we can never celebrate enough the achievement of Edith Wharton, born on this date in 1862. She would be appalled to know that her childhood home, at 14 West 23rd Street, instead of featuring select people of her class being invited to afternoon tea, has been converted into a Starbucks that provides liquid refreshment to the masses (or, at least, those of the masses okay with paying the inflated New York price for varying species of coffee).

She was a snob, sorry to say. But among the giants of American literature, that’s a relatively venial sin. The important thing was that she could write brilliantly--clearly, elegantly--and that she was not blind to the failings of the “social aristocracy” in which she was born.

The excerpt from Wharton’s autobiography quoted above points to an evolution in her thinking about the past and her class. She was still capable of the kind of sublimely witty observation she tossed off in The Age of Innocence: “An unalterable and unquestioned law of the musical world required that the German text of French operas sung by Swedish artists should be translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of English-speaking audiences.”

But “twenty years ago” from the publication of A Backward Glance, World War I had blown the world to hell. For all its restraints on individual freedom and the ability of men and women to form what a character in The House of Mirth called “a republic of the spirit,” the New York elite had at least preserved order--a value in noticeably short supply not just in war-torn Europe, but afterward, in Prohibition America.

As she eyed the past, Wharton must have felt as if she were commemorating ghosts. Her memoir was dedicated “to the friends who every year on All Souls Night come and sit with me by the fire,” and her last tale, completed before her death in 1937, was the ghost story “All Souls.”

Monday, January 23, 2012

Photo of the Day: Brownstone View, Upper West Side

This photo, which I took at the end of the year, shows somewhere in the vicinity of 76th Street.

Quote of the Day (Will Rogers, on How Elections Are Like Marriages)

"Elections are a good deal like marriages. There's no accounting for anyone's taste. Every time we see a bridegroom we wonder why she ever picked him, and it's the same with public officials." Attributed to American humorist and man-of-all-media Will Rogers (1879-1935)

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Photo of the Day: Two for a Ride In the Park

Yet another photo I took, on the last Friday of 2011, in Central Park.

Song Lyric of the Day (Craig Finn, on How the Cross Exists For Those ‘Confused and Cold and Scared’)

“We're awake and we're aware
That we're confused and cold and scared
And the cross reminds us that He died for me and you.” Craig Finn, “Honolulu Blues,” from his Clear Hearts, Full Eyes CD (2012)

I had never heard of Craig Finn, nor his longtime rock ‘n’ roll band the Hold Steady, let alone this new solo CD, until I read David Carr’s profile of the singer-songwriter in today’s New York Times. Originally from Minnesota, Finn now resides in Brooklyn, where, according to the article, he now attends, when he can, St. Anthony-St. Alphonsus Roman Catholic Church.

For those who went to hear this tune, here’s the YouTube link.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Song Lyric of the Day (David Crosby, Influencing Newt?)

“So you see what we can do
Is to try something new —that is if you're crazy too
But I don't really see, why can't we go on as three.”—“Triad,” written by David Crosby, from the CD 4 Way Street, performed by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (1971)

What a difference sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll makes! In October 1967, Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman sacked Byrds bandmate David Crosby for pushing the group too hard to play his songs. The last straw was probably “Triad,” which the future CSNY legend later stated was about “lust and perversion.” Even for the bohemian atmosphere of Sixties rock ‘n’ roll, Crosby’s mating call for multiples was the equivalent of stepping on the third rail.

But the song did end up getting performed--not just by CSNY, but also by Jefferson Airplane, on their 1968 “Crown of Creation” LP. And so, it began to penetrate, slowly, into the general public consciousness.

Could it be that one of those affected was Newt Gingrich? You’d never think that the man who advised members of the Occupy Wall Street movement to go home and take a bath would ever consort with protesters who took a walk on the wild side. But in the late 1960s, while a grad student at Tulane University, that’s exactly what he did. It was beyond simply going one toke over the line. No, it turns out, according to an essay by Tim Wise, that during this time, Gingrich also backed the idea that the student newspaper should be allowed to print photos of nude statues with enlarged genitalia, along with shots of the sculptor himself also in the altogether.

Maybe at one of these protest sessions, Newt first heard Crosby’s musings about a different kind of love. That might be speculation, but where else could such an innocent, impressionable mind such as Gingrich’s find out about this stuff?

In the old days, they used to call “this stuff” “free love,” but today’s Tea Party-friendly Newt would probably call it something else. “Free,” after all, sounds vaguely Communistic. He’d probably want to label it “an opportunity relationship,” though the “opportunity” sounds as if it would have benefited one person only: himself.

Which brings us, inevitably, to his role in the increasingly nutty GOP Presidential race. The same day that Gingrich heard that Rick Perry was not only withdrawing, but throwing his support behind him, the news broke of the ABC News interview with the former House Speaker’s second wife, in which Marianne Gingrich claimed that he pressed her for an “open marriage” as their relationship came to an end.

Former White House speechwriter Peggy Noonan wasn’t alone among Republican old pros when she speculated, in her weekly Wall Street Journal column, that the latter news “is going to have an impact. ” The funny thing was, that view turned out to be dead wrong--at least for now.

It’s hard not to interpret Gingrich’s double-digit victory margin in the South Carolina primary as “Annoy the Media Day.” How else to view this tally as anything but that, in a state with evangelicals who, under normal circumstances, would shake their heads and flood talk-radio stations with complaints about the shame of this all?

In the wake of the Clinton-Lewinsky imbroglio, all the old, familiar rules about politicians and sexual waywardness have been scrambled. Clinton and Rudolph Guiliani went out of office with sky-high ratings, but the public didn’t look so kindly on others. Arnold Schwarzegger earned a “Sperminator” tag for knocking up the family help, and John Edwards finds himself with all doors to future high office closed to him for the foreseeable future, even if he survives his current simultaneous legal and health crises.

In this world-turned-upside-down, Anthony Weiner lost favor in his heavily Democratic district in New York--yes, the same place that most South Carolinians probably view as akin to Sodom and Gomorrah--after his experiments with social media turned him into a national joke. How unlike the big, fat wet electoral kiss South Carolina voters just bestowed on Gingrich!

Predictably, Gingrich has lambasted the media for dredging up a matter more than a decade old and not concentrating on real issues. Many people are going to find that a bit odd coming from the same politician who brought up a matter nearly a half century old--i.e., his speculation that the “Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior” that President Obama inherited from his father is “the most accurate, predictive model for his behavior.”

Gingrich has called Marianne Gingrich’s claim about the open marriage “false,” but he is saying this on the stump. Were he to be hauled into court on the matter, he might be forced into an admission to the contrary (as Bill Clinton was, five years after denying any involvement with Gennifer Flowers), or run the risk of having a jury weigh his ex-’s truthfulness versus his own. Based on his past admitted adulteries and his reprimand for violating House ethics rules, such a test is hardly a slam dunk for Gingrich.

Like Clinton--so like him in his academic leanings outside of politics, his baby-boomer background, his outsized ambition and ego, and his difficulties with marriage vows--Gingrich has become a marker in the culture wars. Some, in fact, might find him a bizarre cross between Clinton and Edwards, then somehow squared--a serial philanderer who cheated not just on one wife, but two--wives, be it noted, who were about to experience severe health crises.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Photo of the Day: View From Central Park West

I’m much taken with views toward a river. So I couldn’t help pulling out my camera, while standing at Naturalists’ Gate on Central Park West, and shooting this street scene of the view west. Off, far in the distance, even beyond the shaft of light at the vanishing point of this shot, looms New Jersey, where I live.

Quote of the Day (Richard Henry Lee, With an Early Blow for American Liberty)

“As the Stamp Act does absolutely direct the property of the people to be taken from them without their consent expressed by their representatives and as in many cases it deprives the British American Subject of his right to trial by jury; we do determine, at every hazard, and paying no regard to danger or to death, we will exert every faculty, to prevent the execution of the said Stamp Act in any instance whatsoever within this Colony. And every abandoned wretch, who shall be so lost to virtue and public good, as wickedly to contribute to the introduction or fixture of the Stamp Act in this Colony, by using stampt paper, or by any other means, we will, with the utmost expedition, convince all such profligates that immediate danger and disgrace shall attend their prostitute purposes.”--From the Leedstown (or Westmoreland) Resolves, co-authored by Richard Henry Lee, February 27, 1766

The half-century relationship between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson is so overwhelming that it practically sucks the air out of all remaining discussion of the Continental Congress. You’d think they were the only important allies in the struggle to declare American independence. But not only were they not the only allies in Independence Hall in 1776, but Jefferson probably wasn’t even Adams’ key partner in the Virginia delegation.

It might have been Jefferson who wrote the Declaration of Independence, but it was fellow Virginian Richard Henry Lee—born on this day in 1732—who introduced the blockbuster resolution “that these united Colonies are, and ought to be, free and independent States” (language that Jefferson incorporated as the climax of his document).

Revolutionary War historian Pauline Maier (American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence) has gone so far as to state, to American Heritage magazine, that Jefferson was “the most overrated person in American history." That might be stretching matters, but there’s no doubt that the Sage of Monticello benefited enormously from founding one of America’s two enduring parties and from his prolific, superb writing.

In contrast, Lee’s image in the popular imagination has been shaped disproportionately by the musical 1776, where, in his big number, he acts, in the words of historian-novelist Thomas Fleming, in an essay contributed to Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies, like “a giggling buffoon“ for whom “the idea of independence would never have occurred to him in a million years [without Adams and Ben Franklin]" before he "rides wildly off to do their bidding.” Adams, predictably, can’t wait to see the last of this galoot.

That scene might be the biggest departure from fact in the musical. The reality, as Fleming observes, is that Lee was, “after Adams, the most powerful orator in Congress.” (Certainly more so than Jefferson, who, throughout his long public career, could barely manage to make himself audible.)

Adams found few delegates outside of New England so congenial, in politics and temperament, as Lee:

* The latter’s deep, classics-based education gave him a common background and frame of reference as the Harvard graduate;

* His austerity made him, in Fleming’s words, a kind of “Virginia puritan”;

* His first bill in the House of Burgesses in 1759, proposing an end to the trafficking in slavery in Virginia, would have appealed to the deeply antislavery Adams;

* As a Virginian, Lee could be listened to in a way denied to John and cousin Samuel Adams, who were widely regarded as representatives of a hotbed of radicalism in Massachusetts;

* His bitterness toward corrupt elites (even though he himself was from a longstanding colonial aristocracy) in his state mirrored that of the rising Massachusetts lawyer-farmer; and

* His speeches on behalf of independence were exceeded only by the Adams cousins in number and fire.

That last quality is important. The American Revolution has frequently been contrasted with the French and Russian Revolutions as supposedly “conservative.” But that notion is deeply misguided, as Gordon S. Wood demonstrated in his brilliant Pulitzer Prize-winning study, The Radicalism of the American Revolution. You can sense just how mistaken it is by re-reading the quote that started this post--or, better yet, by reading the Westmoreland Resolves in their entirety.

Lee and the other signers of this document are not merely announcing their opposition to the controversial Stamp Act, or even that they will act against those who aim to collect it. No, they are threatening “immediate danger and disgrace” even to anyone who uses the hated stamps. Few other pre-Revolutionary documents bristle so much with ferocity.

There is a sequel to this story about the alliance between Adams and Lee. I’m not speaking here merely of the praise the aged Declaration signer and President heaped on his old colleague when Lee’s grandson wrote him in 1821 about the Virginian’s contribution to independence. (“As a public speaker, he [Lee] had a fluency as easy and graceful as it was melodious”).

No, I mean what happened on January 19, 1907--the centennial of the birth of Robert E. Lee, Richard’s great-nephew. The guest speaker for the celebration in Lexington, Va., at Washington and Lee University was Charles Francis Adams Jr.--great-grandson of John Adams.

A Union colonel during the Civil War who had fought against Lee at the Battle of Gettysburg, Adams had come to appreciate the Confederate’s refusal to obey Jefferson Davis’ desire for a guerrilla campaign at the end of the war, as well as the general’s personal qualities. Adams’ Lexington address had an extraordinary impact, raising the reputation of Lee in the North (where, until then, something of the odor of treason still clung to him) to match its nearly demigod level in the South.

Paul Nagel, a biographer of both the Adams and Lee clans, summed up the effect of Adams’ speech in The Lees of Virginia: “An old warrior himself, Adams had converted a Confederate general into civilization’s hope by arguing that Lee’s gentle, loving, selfless virtues must somehow recapture America.”

More than a century and a quarter after the summer of independence in Philadelphia, the Adams family of Massachusetts had, in its way, returned the favor to their Virginia allies and friends, the Lees.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Photo of the Day: Mr. T at the Central Park T

The Mr. T of the headline is not the massive personality of the big and small screen but the CEO of this blog. The “Central Park T” is near Naturalist’s Gate, across from the New-York Historical Society. This particular landscape configuration so caught my eye that I had to take the accompanying picture.

Quote of the Day (Meryl Streep, on Pretending)

“Pretending is a very valuable life skill.”—Meryl Streep, quoted in “Quotes,” Reader’s Digest, October 2011

Easy for you to say, Meryl, what with that new Golden Globe (for Iron Lady) to go with your Oscars and who knows how many other awards? But what if someone’s not ready for stage or screen?

Then, as they say, it depends.

If you pretend to be a police officer, for instance, you may wind up in court. If you pretend to have clients’ money when you don’t, same thing. If you pretend to be an honest, competent steward of the public trust…

Well, then you might run for President.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Movie Quote of the Day (Oliver Hardy, on ‘Another NICE Mess’)

Ollie (played by Oliver Hardy): "Well, here's another nice mess you've gotten me into."--The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case (1930), written by H.M. Walker, directed by James Parrott

For years, I’ve operated under the assumption that Oliver Hardy--born on this date in 1892 in Harlem, Ga.--used the word “fine” rather than “nice.” Not really so, though the reason for the misunderstanding is understandable.

Hardy and rubber-faced British foil Stan Laurel did make a movie from 1930 called Another Fine Mess, but the famous phrase was never actually used in that film, or any other. Instead, the operative word--in that movie, as well as another 15 stretching from 1930 to 1951--was nice.

Okay, it may be nice--or fine--that we’ve cleared that up. But here’s the really remarkable thing about the careers of Stan and rotund Ollie: of the movie comics chronicled in Walter Kerr’s seminal analysis The Silent Clowns, only this comedy duo not only maintained the level of their popularity into the sound era, but even raised it, to the point where many regarded the pair as the greatest film comedy team of all time.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

This Day in Exploration History (Scott Loses Race to South Pole, Then His Life)

January 17, 1912—Captain Robert Falcon Scott, reached one of the last Holy Grails of the Age of Exploration, the South Pole, only to find it a hollow victory. Not only had Norwegian rival Roald Amundsen beaten him in the race to the Pole, but now the 43-old British explorer and his crew found themselves in the vast reaches of the desolate Antarctic facing bitter weather that was worsening—and dwindling supplies.

“Great God!” Scott wrote in his journal. “This is an awful place, and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of priority.”

Two and a half months later, Scott and his men would perish. If he hadn’t achieved the goal to which he had committed the last dozen years of his life, though, he had won a place in the hearts of his countrymen, with his posthumously published journal acclaimed as an example of the kind of stiff-upper-lip resolve that had given truth to the line that “the sun never sets on the British Empire.”

In his last log entry, the explorer wrote: “Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman."

In 1948, the film world produced its own account of his last voyage, Scott of the Antarctic, with Scott‘s log and personal effects of his crew loaned by the British Museum to enhance the near-documentary feeling of the movie. Ralph Vaughan Williams’ intense score only added to the mood of impending tragedy.

Nearly four decades later, Masterpiece Theatre would offer a rather less romanticized take on the expedition in The Last Place on Earth. The PBS miniseries, based on a comparative account of the Amundsen and Scott expeditions by Roland Huntford, presented a much less idealized version of the British explorer. Amundsen’s meticulousness in planning every detail was contrasted with Scott’s style of winging it, and the Norwegian’s willingness to learn from native peoples of the polar regions on proper clothing and the best animal to use for the polar push (hardy sled dogs) with Scott, so caught up in national chauvinism to appreciate these same insights.

Even Scott’s onetime crew member (on the 1901-04 Discovery expedition) and later polar rival, Ernest Shackleton, is coming in for greater respect now. Which one is getting the TV hero treatment? (See Kenneth Branagh in Shackleton.) Which is having papers written about him at Wharton, and even becoming the subject of extended learning plans on leadership? Which is being voted the greater polar explorer in a BBC poll?

Scott, even despite the compliment paid to him in the following quote from another British explorer, Apsley Cherry-Garrard, would have bristled at the conclusion: “For a joint scientific and geographical piece of organization, give me Scott; for a Winter Journey, Wilson; for a dash to the Pole and nothing else, Amundsen: and if I am in the devil of a hole and want to get out of it, give me Shackleton every time.”

Photo of the Day: Icy Premonition

Yet another photo I took on Saturday while in the largely empty field in Overpeck County Park, near where I live in Bergen County, N.J.

Last night, before going to bed, I saw more than ice on the ground--there was evidence of the white stuff. Now, I know that both the absence of cold temperatures and snow has been rather unusual so far this winter, but I still get concerned at the prospect, no matter how remote, of serious snow shoveling, so I was glad this morning to find no evidence of what I saw last night, except for a thin film of ice. (Which, come to think of it, is still unwelcome, as I’d have to walk in it later.)

Quote of the Day (Bill Cosby, on His Awful College Team)

"Every school - the name had a 'berg' at the end of it. Muhlenberg, Gettysburg, Shippensburg. We lost to all of them.” Bill Cosby, on his college football opponents at Temple University, quoted in Neil Genzlinger, “CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK: Mining Cosby’s Golden Past,” The New York Times, January 11, 2012

Well, according to an earlier Times story on the legendary comic and actor, Cosby exaggerated his team’s ineptitude--somewhat (5-11-2, in two seasons). It still sounds as if he rues not having listened to his grandfather’s advice when he was a young: “Do. Not. Play. Football.” The reason? “Your. Bones. Are. Not. Set. Yet.”

Quite a few professional football mastodons--including members of the 28 teams who won’t be going to the Super Bowl this year--are dealing with aching bones, or worse, this morning, undoubtedly wishing they had better sense than to get involved with the game.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Quote of the Day (Martin Luther King Jr., on Nonviolence and What Is ‘Worth Dying For’)

“This method [nonviolence] has a way of disarming the opponent. It exposes his moral defenses. It weakens his morale, and at the same time it works on his conscience, and he just doesn’t know what to do. If he doesn’t beat you, wonderful. If he beats you, you develop the quiet courage of accepting blows without retaliating. If he doesn’t put you in jail, wonderful. Nobody with any sense likes to go to jail. But if he puts you in jail, you go in that jail and transform it from a dungeon of shame to a haven of freedom and human dignity. And even if he tries to kill you, you’ll develop the inner conviction that there are some things so dear, some things so precious, some things so eternally true, that they are worth dying for. And I submit to you that if a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Speech at the Great March on Detroit,” June 23, 1963

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Photo of the Day: Icy Web

On Saturday, even with temperatures plunging dramatically and the wind picking up, I still felt the need for air and exercise outside. While walking the largely empty field in Overpeck County Park, near where I live in Bergen County, N.J., I took this close-up of a cracked frozen patch.

Quote of the Day (Fr. John Courtney Murray, on the ‘Spectacle of a Civil Society’)

“We face a crisis that is new in history. We would do well to face it with a new cleanliness of imagination, in the realization that internecine strife, beyond some inevitable human measure, is a luxury we can no longer afford. … Perhaps the time has come when we should endeavor to dissolve the structure of war that underlies the pluralistic society, and erect the more civilized structure of the dialogue. It would be no less sharply pluralistic, but rather more so, since the real pluralisms would be clarified out of their present confusion. And amid the pluralism a unity would be discernible—the unity of an orderly conversation. The pattern would not be that of ignorant armies clashing by night but of informed men locked together in argument in the full light of a new dialectical day. Thus we might present to a ‘candid world’ the spectacle of a civil society.”—John Courtney Murray, S.J. (1904-1967), We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition (1960)

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Quote of the Day (Alistair Cooke on Bogie, ‘Saved and Soured by Time’)

“It is fair to guess that far back in the Coward- Lonsdale era, [Humphrey] Bogart was always his own man. He no doubt stood in the wings in his blazer chuckling acidly over the asininities on stage, and he would have been the first man to question that youth ever deposited its bloom on him. But for a long time it obscured, in a sleek complexion, bold eyes and a lid of black hair, his essential and very individual character and its marvelous adaptability to one of the more glamorous neuroses of the incoming day and age: that of the hard-bitten ‘private eye,’ the neutral sceptic in a world exploding with crusades and the treachery they invite. He probably had no notion, in his endless strolls across the stage drawing-rooms of the Twenties, he was being saved and soured by Time to become the romantic democratic answer to Hitler’s new order. “—Alistair Cooke, “Humphrey Bogart: Epitaph for a Tough Guy,” in Six Men: Charlie Chaplin, Edward VIII, H. L. Mencken, Humphrey Bogart, Adlai Stevenson, Bertrand Russell (1977)

A cigarette never seemed far from the lips of Humphrey Bogart in his films, and on this date in 1957 it finally caught up with him, as he succumbed to cancer. Death concluded a career in which he became one of Hollywood’s most honored actors, but it hardly ended the public’s fascination with his persona.

That voice, one of the most distinctive of the sound era in Hollywood, epitomized the word “snarl.” It seemed redolent not merely of all the cigarettes that a Bogart character (or the actor himself) smoked, but of all the booze he consumed. It captured what mystery novelist Raymond Chandler meant when he observed that the actor could be “tough without a gun.”

It was a distinct surprise for me to learn, then, that Bogart’s beginnings were far more benign. Oh, I knew the odd bit of trivia that onstage, he had made famous the eternal cry of preppies: “Tennis, anyone?” But I hadn’t realized, until I visited the Ernest Hemingway Museum in Oak Park, Illinois, that Bogart’s mother, a prominent commercial illustrator, used her baby boy as a model for a baby food ad. (I wrote about this in a prior post.)

As you might expect, Bogart had a sour wisecrack about this: “There was a period in American history when you couldn’t pick up a goddamned magazine without seeing my kisser on it.” But with time, I’ve come to wonder about deeper affinities between Hemingway and Bogart.

In the Quote of the Day, one phrase from Cooke (who got to know Bogie and his last wife, Lauren Bacall, while covering the first Presidential campaign of Adlai Stevenson, whom the two actors backed) really strikes me: the part about a “neutral sceptic in a world exploding with crusades and the treasury they invite.” Actually, it hints at more than the Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe roles that Bogart played in classic film noir. It’s also the essence of the early, and best, Ernest Hemingway fiction.

Gary Cooper might be the actor most identified with the closest thing to successful adaptations of Hemingway that Hollywood ever made (i.e., the original Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls). His looks made him a natural for those works by the novelist featuring a love story, and his love of the outdoors made him a boon comrade to the novelist.

In contrast, Bogart was identified with what might have been the loosest adaptation of a Hemingway novel that Hollywood ever made: To Have and Have Not. I can’t imagine him competing with Cooper in the great outdoors. But in attitude, Bogie, rather than Coop, might be best regarded as the disillusioned but proud Hemingway Hero.

Consider what might be the key line of that novel, from its hero, Harry Morgan: "No matter how, a man alone ain't got no bloody fucking chance." It speaks of a too-deep knowledge of the world. Optimism is for chumps.

Lack of illusion might make you street-smart and tough, but it also makes you weary and sad—qualities that, I think, come through in the image accompanying this post. Like Hemingway's Jake Barnes, not to mention the later Frederic Henry, the Bogie hero is an outsider, no matter which side of the law from which he operates.

But, as the fascist threat loomed larger on the verge of WWII, Hemingway moved his protagonists—still doomed—to a recognition of collective action. War was a dirty business, but sometimes, as when facing a Hitler, there might not be any alternative, and in that case you’d better get it done and over with.

Bogart’s success with The Maltese Falcon moved him into a position where he could become Warner Brothers’ embodiment of America as reluctant—but, in the event, all the more effective—warrior and ally. Casablanca was only the most obvious example of how the actor became, to use Cooke’s formulation, “the romantic democratic answer to Hitler’s new order." There’s also his felicitously named character Sgt. Joe Gunn, leader of a polyglot American tank crew, hopelessly outnumbered against Nazis in North Africa, in the 1943 film Sahara.

More intriguingly, there’s Key Largo, in 1948—superficially an opportunity to bring together two of the iconic actors associated with the gangster picture, Bogart and Edward G. Robinson. In reality, it’s a political allegory of the fight against fascism.

“I had hopes once, but I gave them up,” Bogart’s war vet, Frank McCloud says.

“Hopes for what?” asks Robinson’s crime kingpin, Johnny Rocco.

“A world in which there's no place for Johnny Rocco.”

McCloud’s decision to act against Rocco parallels long-isolationist America’s entrance into the war. The actor who played the reluctant hero became such a symbol of his nation’s cool resolve that Nobel Prize-winning novelist Albert Camus--himself a member of his country’s Resistance--effected, with his cigarette and trench coat, the style of Bogart.

For an interesting take on the actor and his persona--not to mention the Stefan Kanfer recent bio, Tough Without a Gun--see this post from the classic-film blog “Out of the Past” from its creator, Raquelle.

Friday, January 13, 2012

This Day in Baseball History (First Lady Ump Wins First Legal Round)

January 13, 1972 The New York Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Bernice Gera in her attempt to become the first female professional umpire. The victory was short-lived, however, as five months later, the former housewife was subjected to such abuse from players and fans--and lack of support from male umpires--that she quit after her first game.

I first came across the story of Gera in a marvelous essay collection by Nora Ephron, Crazy Salad: Some Things About Women. Forget about her derivative, often snarky work as screenwriter and director: Ephron’s real calling is as an essayist. Her January 1973 piece on Gera, written shortly after the latter’s failed attempt at breaking into the game, is shadowed by irony: i.e., the would-be feminist icon who somehow failed the movement. Yet, for all Ephron’s wishes that everything would have turned out differently for Gera and womens liberation, you can’t help but like this baseball lover.

Four decades later--and two decades after Gera’s death--it’s even harder not to feel sympathy for her. Reading her story, you might wish that she had succeeded as a rule-breaking pioneer, but then might have been glad that she did not, when you consider the physical and psychic toll that prolonged disrespect might have exacted on her.

What Gera was facing was probably best described by a later woman who got closer--but still didn’t fulfill--her dream of becoming a major-league umpire, Pam Postema. “Almost all of the people in the baseball community don’t want anyone interrupting their little male-dominated way of life.,“ she wrote in her 1992 memoir, You’ve Got to Have Balls to Make It in This League. “They want big, fat male umpires. They want those macho, tobacco-chewing, sleazy sort of borderline alcoholics.”

It was even worse for Gera. Two and a half decades after Jackie Robinson broke the color line in baseball, Art Williams was having a tough time becoming the first black umpire in the National League (a situation recounted in Lee Gutkind’s 1975 The Best Seat in Baseball, But You Have to Stand). If a black umpire seemed difficult for many to accept even at that late date, the concept of a female umpire was impossible.

By Gera’s own later account, she didn’t really want to be a revolutionary, or disrupt the game she had come to love so well. She would have been content to have been a goodwill ambassador for baseball, serving in some sort of community relations program.

But matters took a turn for the worse when, after graduating from a Florida umpire-training school, she applied for a job with the New York-Penn League, near her Jackson Heights, N.Y. home. The league’s agreement to offer her a contract was rejected by the president of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, who unsuccessfully invoked a minimum-size requirement to try to keep her out.

The courage of Robinson, Curt Flood, and Roberto Clemente in breaking down racial, ethnic and labor barriers is not to be underestimated. Gera, however, was virtually isolated. The opposition of the male mossbacks of baseball, such as the now-justly-forgotten commissioner, General William Eckert (she would become an umpire “over my dead body," he vowed), was to be expected.

Less well known, however, was that Gera was taking her case through the courts without the help of the feminist movement, which was just then emerging as a significant political and legal force. According to a Craig Davis profile of Gera in a 1989 South Florida Sun-Sentinel article, not one women’s organization assisted her in her court battle. This made doubly ironic the later contention of many feminists that she had set back the movement when she quit her job.

Many were chagrined when Gera resigned after a single New York-Pennsylvania League game in Geneva, N.Y., in June 1972, less than six months after she won in court. It seemed as if she had one fight with a manager who didn’t like one of her calls, then threw in the towel. But it wasn’t that simple.

Gera had spent four years in court only to find that, the closer her dream was coming to fruition, the harder became the resistance to it. She continued to receive threatening letters and late-night calls, and the portents for her first game proved particularly ominous: Not only were fans taunting and abusing her, but the other umpire refused to speak to her as the game started. His behavior was startling and unprofessional, as it meant that these game partners would not know the elementary signals that would allow them to function as a working team.

That’s what happened in the sixth inning of the game, when Gera, momentarily confused by a play, immediately reversed herself. When the manager of the team suffering the reversed call rushed out to protest, Gera let him jabber on and on, feeling he had a legitimate gripe because she had initially blown the call. Finally, she felt compelled to act when he called into question her basic authority: “You made two mistakes. The first was leaving the kitchen; you should have been home peeling potatoes.” Gera ejected him, completed the last few innings, then, before the second game of the double-header, resigned.

Sportscaster Dick Schaap, echoing a comment made by an interviewee about Gera, noted, perhaps ironically, “She committed the cardinal sin of baseball--she admitted she made a mistake.” How times have changed! A year and a half ago, major-league umpire Jim Joyce manned up and admitted he had blown a call that cost a pitcher a perfect game. Even his teary greeting of the pitcher, the next time they encountered each other, was regarded as the epitome of honesty, even a guide to politicians on how to behave after a mistake has become all too public.

In contrast, reactions to Gera at the time for similar behavior amounted to, “What do you expect?” from the antediluvian crowd, and “She let down the movement” from the presumably more enlightened. And so, even though she vowed to Ephron, “Don’t count me out; I expect to be in baseball next year,” she would never umpire a professional game again.

The New York Mets have been taking it on the chin lately for the Wilpons’ financial misadventures. However, even a team that is otherwise horribly run can have real moments of grace. I’m speaking, in this case, of the Mets regime under M. Donald Grant. The team board chairman did succeed in, among many other sins, driving away star Tom Seaver and manager-to-be Whitey Herzog, but the team did during that time employ Gera for five years as part of its community relations and promotions team.

Nobody should ever have questioned the toughness of Gera, a product of a broken home in an industrialized region of Pennsylvania. Even to get to her one game umpiring, she had to endure a pioneer’s struggle, consisting, in Ephron’s words, “of the loneliness she will suffer if she gets the job, of the role she will assume as a freak, of the smarmy and inevitable questions that will be raised about her heterosexuality, of the derision and smug satisfaction that will follow if she makes a mistake, or breaks down under pressure, or quits.”

Two decades after her lawsuit and her exit from the game, Gera died after struggling against cancer, enduring at least 31 radiation treatments, medication that left her woozy, and an operation to restore the use of her right arm that only worsened matters. She was as tough and brave as they come--fully the equal of those who rejected her from the "summer game."

Quote of the Day (Tim Parks, on the ‘Excitement of Reading’)

“The excitement of reading is the precarious one of being alive now.”—Tim Parks, in Stop What You’re Doing and Read This!, edited by Mark Haddon (2011)

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Quote of the Day (Wolcott Gibbs, With Advice to Editors)

“Try to preserve an author’s style if he is an author and has a style.” New Yorker theater critic Wolcott Gibbs, quoted in Backward Ran Sentences: The Best of Wolcott Gibbs from the New Yorker, edited by Thomas Vinciguerra (2011)

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Quote of the Day (Richard Cohen, Likening Romney to ‘Archie’s’ Reggie)

"Mitt Romney is starting to get on my nerves. He reminds me of Reggie, the rich, handsome, athletic and effortlessly superficial character in the “Archie” comics. He does almost everything well, and he looks like a million bucks (leveraged for much more), but he rings hollow, like the class president who would bring glee to all of Riverdale High by slipping on a banana peel. I’d kill for that.”—Richard Cohen, “Romney’s Aw-Shucks Rhetoric Rings False,” The Washington Post, January 9, 2012

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

This Day in Theater History (‘Finian’s Rainbow,’ Filled with Irish Blarney, Opens)

January 10, 1947--From Edward Harrigan and partner Tony Hart in the 19th century to George M. Cohan in the first few decades of the 20th century, Irish-Americans have made major contributions to advancing the American musical. But perhaps the one that has helped perpetuate their image of whimsy, Finian’s Rainbow, involved no Celtic songwriters at all. The creators, E.Y. “Yip” Harburg and Burton Lane, were products of the Tin Pan Alley tradition, dominated largely by descendants of immigrant Jews.

When the musical was turned into a film 20 years later, it featured three other exceptionally well-known individuals of Irish descent: Petula Clark (then at the height of her career),  director Francis Ford Coppola (then beginning his), and Frederick Austerlitz, a.k.a. Fred Astaire (near the end of his, in this last musical of his).

You'll have to pardon the heavy-handed irony in the last paragraph, but in a way, it mirrors the libretto of this show, which is actually a satire on racism in the American South. The setting is an American state called Missitucky, and the show's race-baiting Senator Billboard Rawkins would, in the 1940s, have been a recognizable lampoon of Senator Theodore Bilbo. For his sins, he is turned into a black man, where he comes to see the errors of his ways.

In contrast, the primary image of the Irish in this musical is similar to what historian Terry Golway, author of The Irish in America, a companion volume to the PBS documentary series The Long Voyage Home, called “Hollywood's idea of acceptably Irish movies": i.e., "affable blarney that spoke to sentiment, not reality.” Finian's Rainbow premiered at a point when Ireland, though untouched by WWII (in which it stayed neutral), was also an economic backwater of Europe--in fact, still a year away from, at last, formally declaring independence from Great Britain. The rather dour aspects of the time were chronicled memorably in Frank McCourt's Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, Angela's Ashes.

Okay, so what if, as Wilfred Sheed wrote in his once-over-easy survey of the Great American Songbook, The House That George Built: "Although Harburg loved the idea of Ireland, his lyrics never really got out of the harbor [New York's, that is], or all that far from McSorley's Wonderful Saloon either."

Well, I suppose that the sly leprechuans and redheaded colleens of Finian's Rainbow are far better stereotypes than drunks, which  represents a far more pervasive--and enduring--image.

Moreover, I’m not sure that other non-Irish songwriters would have made a better job of this show. Harburg and Lane, at least, had an essentially sunny vision of life (“Look to the Rainbow”). In contrast, given the opportunity, Stephen Sondheim, I think, would have adapted Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy, which would have made an appropriate Celtic bookend to his British-set musical bloodbath Sweeney Todd.

One trait that the public frequently associates with Irish-Americans is the gift of the gab. Ironically, Harburg and Lane did not possess this, at least with each other throughout much of the production of this show, which premiered on this date at the 46th Street Theatre. A silly wisecrack made to cast members by lyricist and co-librettist Harburg about his partner ("Don't listen to him; he's only the piano player") on the first day of rehearsals led Lane to stop speaking to his friend throughout much of the musical’s 725-performance run. It's probably just as well, then, that none of the three Tony Awards the show earned in that initial run--for orchestra conductor, featured actor and choreography--involved the songwriting team, as it would have made for some awkward moments onstage.

Well, it didn't matter, I guess. The two collaborators, both Hollywood pros (Harburg wrote the dazzlingly witty lyrics to The Wizard of Oz), were thoroughgoing professionals who created a whole raft of songs so imperishable that they've even survived the libretto, now commonly regarded as blunt and anachronistic. Many of the 11 songs became standards, including "How Are Things in Glocca Morra?", "Old Devil Moon," "Necessity," "When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich,"
"Look to the Rainbow," "If This Isn't Love," and "When I'm Not Near the Girl I Love."

The current Broadway season, as outlined in a New York Times article from the other day about composer estates authorizing revised librettos, proves that faulty "books" such as this one are no obstacle to re-mounting shows with such glorious tunes. Even New York's fine Irish Repertory Theater, despite the musical's Celtic stereotypes, staged a revival not that long ago with Melissa Errico. Broadway witnessed a 2009 production with Cheyenne Jackson. I myself saw a very, very fine version performed in Philadelphia's Walnut Street Theater back in the fall of 2005.