Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Quote of the Day (David Brooks, on GOP Possums)

“The wingers call their Republican opponents RINOs, or Republican In Name Only. But that’s an insult to the rhino, which is a tough, noble beast. If RINOs were like rhinos, they’d stand up to those who seek to destroy them. Actually, what the country needs is some real Rhino Republicans. But the professional Republicans never do that. They’re not rhinos. They’re Opossum Republicans. They tremble for a few seconds then slip into an involuntary coma every time they’re challenged aggressively from the right.”—David Brooks, “The Possum Republicans,” The New York Times, February 28, 2012

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Song Lyric of the Day (Fleetwood Mac, on Love’s Ire)

“Packing up, shacking up’s all you wanna do.”—“Go Your Own Way,” written by Lindsay Buckingham, performed by Fleetwood Mac, from their Rumours LP (1977)

This lyric isn't sung so much as spit out; more than an accusation, it’s an all-out, red-faced, vein-popping shout of rage. Stevie Nicks, whose turbulent romantic relationship with Lindsay Buckingham inspired the song, vented her own resentment to about her ex-lover‘s line every time she sang its backup vocals: “He knew it wasn't true. It was just an angry thing that he said. Every time those words would come out onstage, I wanted to go over and kill him," she told Rolling Stone.

“Go Your Own Way” was the first of four singles from Rumours, released 35 years ago this month. It had been two years since Fleetwood Mac’s prior, eponymous pop smash, during which time the two couples in the band—husband and wife John and Christine McVie, and POSSLQs Buckingham and Nicks—had split. (Complicating matters further, drummer Mick Fleetwood's marriage was crumbling, and sometime after the divorce he would take up with Nicks.)

If the album title acknowledged tumult, "Go Your Own Way" pointed fingers, found fault. Deal with it, it said. It reeked of disbelief (how could you do this when I loved you?), even as it unconsciously hinted why the relationship went awry ("maybe I'd give you my world"--then again, maybe not). It was the love song turned inside out--as a piece in The Daily Beast noted, one of the classic “F--K You Songs.”

It’s hard to believe that the members of the group have managed to live all this time since without killing themselves or each other. Indeed, with their drug abuse, their egos, their sexual roundelays, and the creative use they made of all this, Fleetwood Mac can be thought of as a Seventies counterpart to The Mamas and the Papas.

“Go Your Own Way,” though topping out lower than the other three Top 10 Rumours singles (“Dreams,” “Don’t Stop” and “You Make Loving Fun”), feels more powerfully at the center of the LP than this trio. In fact, it made the Rock and Roll Hall of Fames 500 Songs That Shaped Rock ‘n’ Roll"--the only Fleetwood Mac tune to make the cut.

For my money, no other tune on the LP (which went on to win the Grammy for Album of the Year and to go multiplatinum) surpasses it for sheer, unvarnished, blistering fun. In a way, it all starts with the opening chord—left unresolved throughout the rest of the song, like the relationship that Buckingham can't leave behind. You can practically feel the singer-songwriter, the studio mastermind behind this and the rest of the album, attack the guitar strings until his fingers bled.

Contrast this with the Wilson Phillips cover version, the centerpiece of their 2004 comeback album, California. All of these gorgeous harmonies have everything except what made the original great in the first place: love and pain and the whole damn thing.

Monday, February 27, 2012

TV Quote of the Day (Paula Abdul, on the ‘Heart Dept.’)

“You manifest with abundance in the heart department.”—Paula Abdul to contestant Chris Rene, on The X Factor, quoted in “Sound Bites,” Entertainment Weekly, December 16, 2011

Someday, this quote will make its way into Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, according a level of immortality to Paula Abdul. In the meantime, you have to wonder if her 15 minutes of fame--extended on American Idol, then, inexplicably, on The X Factor---are about to end, given Simon Cowell’s recent announcement that she’s being let go from the latter show.

According to recent scuttlebutt, Ms. Abdul was none too happy with her change in employment status. At this point, if she’s thinking anything about “the heart department,” it’s as she holds a firearm and aims for that particular portion of Cowell’s anatomy. (Many past contestants on his shows may wonder if that organ of his is, indeed, functioning.)

Should Ms. Abdul ever be indicted for any offense related to the above, there’s a good chance that no jury in the nation would find her guilty of offing the Botox-injected, supercilious, talent-challenged judge-producer--unquestionably, the worst British import since the redcoats in the American Revolution.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Quote of the Day (Paul Laurence Dunbar, on the ‘Majesty of God’)

The earth, a mantle falls away,
And, winged, we leave the sod;
Where shines in its eternal sway
The majesty of God.”—Paul Laurence Dunbar, “Night,” in Complete Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar (1913)

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Theater Review: Sondheim’s ‘Merrily We Roll Along,’ at Encores!

“How can you get so far off the track?/Why don't you turn around and go back?” the chorus asks in Merrily We Roll Along—and for three decades, that question has bedeviled the show’s creators. For Stephen Sondheim, the most significant influence in musical theater in the last half-century, the challenge has always been how to get back on track a musical that, by the end of its original 16-performance Broadway run, had provoked the execration of critics and the desertion of audiences, not to mention a two-decade professional split from longtime friend and director Harold Prince. (See a prior post of mine on this.)

This past Sunday, I attended a matinee at the tail end of a two-week revision of the show at City Center, where it ran as part of its “Encores!” series of neglected musicals. This series has, since 1994, presented concert versions of old shows in which singers will often appear with scripts in hands. But this show felt far more like a finished, polished production.

In the past, a couple of Encores presentations--the Anne Reinking-Bebe Neuwirth production of Chicago and the Patti Lupone-led Gypsy--resulted in Broadway runs. Predictably, Ben Brantley of The New York Times put the kibbosh on that idea for Sondheim‘s show: “By the end you felt that same old mixture of exhilaration and deflation that ‘Merrily’ — beautiful and damned ‘Merrily’ — always inspires.”

Reactions of past (and, in Brantley’s case, present) critical naysayers haven’t meant the end of Merrily, though. Longtime New York deejay Jonathan Schwartz has a phrase for this type of show: “a distinguished failure,” a musical that might not have proved popular but had much merit. (Think Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Allegro, or Jerry Herman’s Mack and Mabel.) Others—myself very much included—would call this genre “the cult musical,” underscoring the level of devotion many feel for an underdog property.

The original-cast album of Merrily was the first Sondheim soundtrack I ever purchased, and, like Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run, it made me a fan of the artist for the duration. I was drawn to its magnificent, if uncharacteristic, brassy sound, and with the passage of time its themes—of friendship and the compromises along the path of life—have only deepened its meaning for me.

Thankfully, not only fans have refused to lie the show die, but also Sondheim, the late writer of its book, George Furth, and James Lapine, who has functioned as Sondheim’s principal collaborator since the end of the association with Prince. Before this latest production, they had worked on three different permutations of the show over the years: at LaJolla Playhouse, New York’s York Theater, and in Leicester, England.

The show needed all this attention because of its challenges. It was based on source material--George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s play of the same name--that itself bombed on Broadway in 1934. Sondheim, Prince and libretto writer George Furth kept the same reverse-chronological narrative technique of that show. Recent critics have likened that approach to the film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, but the much more relevant similarity is to Harold Pinter’s Betrayal—where, like this, not only a wife is sacrificed but friendship.

Additionally, Sondheim and his collaborators tested audience sympathies through the story of three friends that, we learn from the opening scene, have gone their separate ways: Franklin Shepard (played in this production by Colin Donnell), Broadway composer turned sellout Hollywood producer; his nerdy lyricist partner Charlie Kringas (Lin-Manuel Miranda), who on his own has written a Pulitzer Prize-winning play; and Mary Flynn (Celia Keenan-Bolger), an alcoholic novelist whose one bestseller is years behind her. It’s hard to sympathize with successful people who are miserable, critics sniffed--ignoring the fact that Rodgers and Hart’s classic Pal Joey has an out-and-out heel for its protagonist.

Thankfully, Lapine has gone back to basics with the show. Gone are the tacky sweaters (e.g., BEST FRIEND, EX-WIFE) that sent everyone into conniptions on the unwisely-spent money of the original; in its place are video montages that give a sense of what the three friends meant to each other through the years. Gone are actors barely out of their teens, attempting (unsuccessfully, by most accounts) to portray convincingly characters across a quarter-century span; instead, the plot action has been shortened to 19 years, making it easier for actors in their late 20s or early 30s to act both ends of the musical’s age spectrum.

More important, the emphasis is back where it belongs: on the music.

How do all these changes add up? From a stagecraft viewpoint—Lapine’s specialty—the changes are more noticeable, and welcome. From the viewpoint of music—Sondheim’s bailiwick—it’s more or less a wash.

The best songs from the original stay in this version: “Not a Day Goes By,” “Old Friends,” “Good Thing Going,” and a witty send-up of the extravagant hopes engendered after Kennedy’s election, “Bobby and Jackie and Jack.” One “new” song, “That Frank,” is a slightly reworked version of “Rich and Famous.” The truly “new” songs here—“It’s a Hit!”, “The Blob,” “Growing Up,” and “Musical Husbands,” the kind of sassy, massive production number that Jerry Herman and Cy Coleman mastered in 1960s Broadway smashes—advance character and plot, but are unlikely to be taken to heart by Sondheim aficionados.

Unlike other Sondheim shows such as Sweeney Todd, Company and Follies, Merrily features younger characters, attracting performers who tend not to be marquee names. That diminishes its box-office potential and highlights the need for skillful performances in the lead roles.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, himself a composer and lyricist (In the Heights, Bring It On: The Musical), shines the brightest among the three leads, delivering the show’s most sustained (if uncomfortable) comic highlights in his bravura interpretation of a nationally broadcast nervous breakdown, “Franklin Shepard Inc.”

Celia Keenan-Bolger’s voice, while not classically powerful or beautiful, is steady and audible over the full orchestra, and she manages to wring every emotional note out of Mary’s Dorothy Parker-ish, guys-don’t-make-passes-at-girls-who-wear glasses lovelorn cynic.

The blandness of Colin Donnell (most recently, the heartthrob male lead of the Roundabout production of Anything Goes) actually works in favor of this production—the problematic protagonist becomes not so much the heel of prior incarnations but a man too weak to withstand temptation.

Vocally, the most gifted cast members are two supporting actresses: Betsy Wolfe, as Frank's good-hearted first wife Beth, and Elizabeth Stanley, as her successful, a musical comedy star-mantrap, both of whom perform magnificently in their solos ("Not a Day Goes By" and "Musical Husbands," respectively).

It’s not enough to ask whether the flaws of Merrily We Roll Along remain ineradicable. The more important question is, are they disabling? The answer is: Not at all. Those of us who caught this most recent production count ourselves blessed that we finally saw, in New York, a production of the show that minimized its faults and offered some of the most thrilling songs in the entire Sondheim catalogue the way they were meant to be played: with a full orchestra. This production’s creators really did have a “Good Thing Going” this time.

Quote of the Day (Anthony Burgess, on His Ideal Reader)

“The ideal reader of my novels is a lapsed Catholic and failed musician, short-sighted, color-blind, auditorily biased, who has read the books that I have read. He should also be about my age.”—Anthony Burgess, interviewed by John Cullinan, “Anthony Burgess, The Art of Fiction #48,The Paris Review, Spring 1973

This is the second consecutive instance when the “Quote of the Day” comes from a man of letters I saw, only a couple of years before their deaths, in the early 1990s.Yesterday’s post featured Robertson Davies, a Canadian journalist-playwright-essayist-novelist. I saw Anthony Burgess the subject of this post, born on this date in 1917 in December 1991, one of a series of authors who came to the Teaneck, NJ, campus of Fairleigh Dickinson University.

Like the other writers I saw at that venue during this time (who, besides Davies, included Tom Wolfe, Jay McInerney, Thomas Flanagan, Edna O’Brien, Tim O’Brien, Mary Gordon, and Shelby Foote), the British author, most famous for A Clockwork Orange, was introduced by the Southern, mellifluous moderator of FDU’s Literary Society, Dr. Gene Barnett.

Burgess’ voice was distinctly different: sly and dry (rather like today’s quote), canny about entertaining an audience, as you might expect from the son of a mother who was a singer-dancer and a father who played the piano in music halls and silent cinemas. It was also the voice of someone unillusioned about life but ready to get on with it, as you might expect of someone whose mother and only sibling perished in the worldwide influenza epidemic of 1918, and who himself, four decades later, was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor.

That tumor, Burgess said to those of us in the audience, had spurred his productivity, as he felt the need to provide for his wife (and presumed widow) in the event of his death. Within three years he had written seven novels under his own name (including A Clockwork Orange); two more under a pseudonym; translated three more French novels in collaboration with his wife; and begun to write screenplays.

After all this activity, it eventually became apparent that he had been misdiagnosed, Burgess observed. But the self-discipline needed to write his steady stream of books remained.

Born a Catholic, Burgess fell away from the Church in early adulthood, largely because of its attitude toward sex. Yet, like James Joyce (whose Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man impressed him greatly), he could not efface all aspects of the theology he rejected. Above all, Burgess said on the night I saw him, he was left with a belief in free will. That manifested itself, surprisingly enough, in A Clockwork Orange.

The original U.K. edition of this dystopian novel includes a concluding chapter missing from the American version: 18-year-old narrator Alex has a vision of domestic bliss, involving a wife and son, far different from his previous thuggishness. (Burgess’ American publisher evidently felt the writer was unable to face the possibility of unregenerate evil, so the material was deleted.)

One final note, so to speak: Burgess’ reference to a “failed musician.” The novelist viewed with irony the arc of his career--he had composed more than 250 musical works over six decades, but is best known for his fiction. Well, perhaps his readers have been spurred to listen to the classical music he returned to almost obsessively throughout his written work.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Quote of the Day (Robertson Davies, on Reading as Interpretative Art)

“The great works of imagination--the masterworks of poetry, drama, and fiction-- are simply indications for performance that you hold in your hand, and like and musical scores they call for skilled performance by you, the artist and the reader. Literature is an art, and reading is also an art, and unless you recognize and develop your qualities as an interpretive artist you are not getting the best from your reading. You do not play a Bach concerto for the solo cello on a musical saw, and you should not read a play of Shakespeare in the voice of an auctioneer selling tobacco.”-- Robertson Davies, Reading and Writing (1992)

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Quote of the Day (Bob Haldeman, Behind the Scenes With Nixon in China)

“One building issue is the problem of [Secretary of State William] Rogers. He called me today to say that he was concerned about the news reports as they were building at home, which pointed out that he wasn’t involved in any of the important meetings, and was being kept out of things. He was obviously uptight about being left out of the meeting with Mao [Tse-Tung] on Monday, and made the point that if there’s any other meeting with Mao, he wants to be sure that he is included. He also was carping about the fact that [National Security Adviser] Henry [Kissinger] had two NSC people in the Chou meeting with the P [President Nixon], while there were no State Department people there. Later today, Henry charged in, furious, because he’d learned that Rogers had raised, with the foreign minister, the question of their participating in writing the communique, and the Foreign Minister had said no, that Prime Minister Chou [En-lai] had assigned it to Dr. Kissinger, and Mr. Chiao. So it put Rogers in a rather embarrassing position. This is a problem that’s going to continue, I think, on a similar basis.”—H.R. Haldeman, diary entry for February 23, 1972, The Haldeman Diaries: Inside the Nixon White House (1993)

In Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Captain James T. Kirk is given the unenviable task of escorting an ambassador from his implacable enemies, the Klingons, on a peace mission to the Federation. When he asks why he’s been chosen for this unlikely assignment, Mr. Spock tells his friend, the space-age cold warrior, of “an old Vulcan proverb”: “It took Nixon to go to China.”

Forty years after the 37th President’s extraordinary week in Red China, “Nixon going to China” is shorthand for a rapprochement with a foe that only the hardest of hard-liners can conclude. After that event, it seemed, anything was possible.

The images of Richard Nixon with Chairman Mao Tse-tung, the very symbol of world Communism on the march, gave a tremendous boost to the President in the year of his re-election effort. (Four months later, the Watergate burglary occurred, giving a double meaning to the Chinese astrological cycle designation for 1972: “The Year of the Rat.”) Over the long term, the move was part of a four-corner diplomatic maneuver in which Nixon sought to move China to nudge North Vietnam toward a more favorable negotiating position at the Paris peace talks, and to use China in turn to prod the Soviet Union toward better relations (including the first SALT treaty).

But, as the passage above from the diaries of Nixon chief of staff Bob Haldeman indicates, the week also brought to the fore a trend occurring within the U.S. delegation: the growing chasm between the State Department and the upstart agency, the National Security Council. Assuredly, prior Secretaries of State had not always seen eye to eye with the men (and they were all men back then) heading this new agency created by National Security Act of 1947. But no other NSC head before Henry Kissinger had sought so relentlessly to cut the President’s senior Cabinet member out of the all-important information loop.

Kissinger found a willing ear in Nixon, who had views of foreign policy strong enough that he wouldn’t have minded acting as his own Secretary of State. Since he couldn’t do that, Nixon appointed to the office a longtime friend who happened to be inexperienced in foreign policy: William Rogers. The latter has often been characterized by historians as weak, but the Haldeman diary entry here demonstrates that even Rogers had his limits: he was not going to be humiliated in front of the media during the most important foreign-policy initiative by the President.

Nixon didn’t think much of several units within the State Department. The Latin American division, he felt, was a “disaster area,” and, his investigation as a congressman of Alger Hiss could not have inspired confidence. Above all, he noted, in a top-secret discussion with Chinese Premier Chou En-Lai (pictured here with the President), the State Department had been given only the most sanitized version of the 500-page summary of Kissinger’s secret July 1971 talks with Chinese officials because the department “leaked like a sieve.“

Not long after the election, Haldeman was deputized with urging Rogers to hand in his resignation. The news rankled the Secretary of State, who 20 years before had helped Nixon survive his “slush fund” scandal by urging him to address the nation on TV in the “Checkers” speech. But Nixon and Haldeman ended by doing Rogers a favor: he wasn’t around to be consumed by the growing Watergate scandal that burst on the administration the following spring.

State Department-NSC tensions hardly ended with Rogers’ resignation (and Kissinger’s assumption of both posts). Cyrus Vance and Zbigniew Brzezinski had worked together before they joined the Carter Administration, but they quickly fell out over policy differences. The pattern repeated itself in the Reagan Administration, with first Alexander Haig bickering with Richard Allen, then George Schultz watching angrily as Robert McFarlane and John Poindexter did the President’s bidding in fomenting the Iran-contra mess. It is very likely that some President in the not-so-distant future will create another mess involving two governmental units out to defend their foreign-policy prerogatives.

Photo of the Day: At the Cathedral for Ashes

I took this photo at noontime yesterday, after I had joined thousands of others on line outside New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral for AshWednesday.  The line was long but, thankfully, it kept moving.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Quote of the Day (John Paul II, on the ‘Vineyard of Christian Charity’)

“The vineyard of Christian Charity is short of workers; the Church is calling you to it. Do not wait until it is too late to help Christ in prison or without clothing, Christ persecuted or a refugee, Christ who is hungry or without a roof. Help our brothers and sisters who lack the bare necessities to escape from inhuman conditions and to reach true human advancement.”—Pope John Paul II, Lenten Message 1979

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Photo of the Day: Breaking Clouds

I took this image this past Saturday of Overpeck Creek in Bergen County, NJ, from the Palisades Park shoreline in Overpeck County Park, looking west toward the waterway’s Ridgefield Park side.

Quote of the Day (Thomas Flanagan, on Historical Fiction)

“The voices which only seem to be speaking to us, being in fact our own voices, have been instructed by all that we know about the past, all the contradictory things that we feel about it, all that we have imagined about it. Those voices make possible for us imaginary selves, imaginary opposites, imaginary others. Historical fiction licenses those imaginings in ways that history itself, history proper, does not.”—Thomas Flanagan, “History as Fiction, Fiction as History,” lecture at Berkeley, February 29, 1996, collected in There You Are: Writings on Irish and American Literature and History, edited by Christopher Cahill (2004)

Monday, February 20, 2012

Flashback, February 1842: Fatigued Dickens Feted by NYC, Then Bites Its Hand

In 1989, Tom Wolfe wrote a controversial Harper’s essay, “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” questioning why writers were neglecting the rich subject of American society for minimalist engagements in navel-gazing.

The kind of fiction Wolfe had in mind was the great urban novel of the 19th century, especially realistic depictions of Victorian London by Charles Dickens (pictured here in 1842 by American painter Francis Alexander). Of course, when it came to America, Dickens had gotten there first. He had so much to get off his chest that it took him two books to do so: American Notes for General Circulation (1842) and, the following year, Martin Chuzzlewit.

(In the 1980s, I heard a college professor tell an audience at my local library that the one Dickens novel he assigned his students was the latter. It was not only Dickens’ longest work but, at the time anyway, his only novel not covered by Cliff Notes. I guess you could say the prof had a bit of a sadistic streak…)

Americans were outraged to find that this young author they had read so enthusiastically had leveled some of his most devastating criticism against their republic.

But Dickens, unlike many other Europeans, had not visited this country merely to confirm his prejudices. He initially had feelings of great regard for the United States and had been delighted at what he saw at his first stop, Boston.

But, as he continued what became a punishing six-month tour of the United States, Dickens’ idealism about the young country began to flag. He was exhausted by his clamorous fans and hosts, disgusted by many institutions, and resentful over the nation’s refusal to consider a subject he regarded as of the utmost personal importance: copyright laws that would help ensure a steady stream of income for his rapidly growing family.

I’m surprised that the subject of Dickens in America has been of so little interest to filmmakers. The only ones that come to mind are a 1995 Masterpiece Theatre mini-series adaptation of Martin Chuzzlewit, and a 1963 episode of Bonanza featuring Jonathan Harris (Dr. Smith of Lost in Space) as Dickens, incensed that a Virginia City paper was reprinting his work without permission.

Dickens came to America in January 1842 with his wife Catherine for several reasons:

* After a five-year burst of nonstop writing activity that produced The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop, and Barnaby Rudge, his nerves badly needed a break.

* In the same way that more recent writers have seen articles as a means of financing their vacations, Dickens thought he’d be able to make money out of what he saw.

* American publishers, continuing a tradition that began with Benjamin Franklin the century before, were flagrantly violating the copyright of British authors such as William Wordsworth and Sir Walter Scott—and Dickens knew exactly how much he lost each time an American publisher stiffed him on royalties.

* Dickens thought he saw in the United States an alternative to the squalid conditions of his own country, and wanted to see if the young country matched “the republic of my imagination.”

The 29-year-old author was disappointed, in one degree or another, in all of these hopes.

Dickens could not have been more delighted with Boston. He came to the city in January 1842 at the most opportune time: five years before the Irish Potato Famine drove to its streets emigrants facing the most desperate poverty and the greatest urban squalor. He remembered that when he first glimpsed the city on a Sunday morning, “the air was so clear, the houses were so bright and gay…that every thoroughfare in the city looked exactly like a pantomime.” He was similarly enthralled by the intellectuals such Boston and Cambridge intellectuals as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, William H. Prescott, Charles Sumner, and Richard Henry Dana, praising “the humanizing tastes and desires [they]...engendered.”

Bostonians were so excited to see him that they didn’t make a peep when he pleaded for international copyright protection—a subject that struck as much at the economic livelihoods of editors and printers in America as they did Dickens himself.

New Yorkers were beside themselves as they read how Boston had gone all-out for the author. Gothamites, not to be outdone, wanted to give him the biggest greeting given to a foreigner since the Marquis de Lafayette toured America nearly a half century after the start of the Revolutionary War.

And so, they hit on the gaudiest celebration of all, the “Boz Ball” (named after the pen name Dickens had adopted with his first published writing, eight years before). Appropriately enough, they proposed to show him their love with this ball on Valentine’s Day.

The soiree was held in the Park Theatre, which, with capacity seating of 3,000, was the largest arena in the city. Tickets, sold at $5 each, were snapped up almost immediately, and even though some lucky buyers tried to scalp them for as much as $40 apiece, nobody was willing to part with their chance to see the social event of the season.

The “Boz Ball” was an event like no other: “the greatest affair in modern times … the fullest libation upon the altar of the muses,” according to Gotham diarist Philip Hone. Only Donald Trump could have matched its spirit of excess:

· Carriage traffic stretched for a quarter mile from the theater;
· The ballroom was decorated with characters from Dickens’ plays;
· Dickens entered the hall accompanied by a general in full-dress uniform, serenaded by the tune “See the Conquering Hero Comes”;
· Tableaux vivants throughout the night pantomimed scenes from Dickens’ novels;
· Guests, one female attendant wrote a friend, consumed “50 hams, 50 tongues, 28,000 stewed oysters, 10,000 pickled oysters, 4,000 candy kisses, and 6,000 candy mottoes. (Oysters, she allowed, might be in short supply following the event.)
· Somehow or other, amid the food, guests and tableaus, space was found—barely—for dancing.

In a letter to close friend and future biographer John Forster, Dickens could hardly stop including details of the night. But the managers of the Park Theatre, who ordinarily had to deal with less-than-capacity crowds for their handsome building, proposed to make more money with another ball at less than half the price.

As the night of the second gala approached, Dickens begged off because of a sore throat. Park Theatre management, fearing the wrath of paying customers, requested a doctor’s certificate. Nothing doing, Dickens responded. It may not have been entirely coincidental that, almost immediately afterward, he announced that he would accept no more invitations to public dinners or receptions.

But there was one more he had to make in the meantime: the “Dickens Dinner,” held four days after the Boz Ball. The banquet, held at the City Hotel, was hosted by Washington Irving, the most famous American author of the time. Lately Thomas’ 1967 history, Delmonico's: A Century of Splendor, observed that for years afterwards, this banquet was regarded as “a model of gastronomy.”

After this, the mood began to sour on both sides. Though Dickens succeeded in getting more than two dozen prominent writers (including Irving) to sign a petition to Congress concerning international copyright, American newspapers began to take sharp exception to his call for creative protection.

For his part, Dickens was growing metaphorically and physically sick and tired of the experience. He loved his visits to the theater, but not to the social institutions he had told his hosts he was also there to document: prisons, almshouses, police stations, a lunatic asylum, and the seedy parts of town. The Tombs, in particular, provoked his disgust (“a place, quite unsurpassed in all the vice, neglect, and devilry, of the worst old town in Europe”).

All this tramping around, in dismal midwinter weather, left Dickens and his wife with colds and sore throats. As they traveled south, their disposition didn’t improve at all. The justification of slaveowners for “the peculiar institution” especially angered him (“Blot out, ye friends of slavery, from the catalogue of human passions, brutal lust, cruelty, and the abuse of irresponsible power”).

Though sales of American Notes that fall were enormous in the United States, the book outraged many of those who had once hailed him. The response of the anonymous reviewer of The New Englander was typical:

“These Notes are barren of incident and anecdote, deficient in wit, and meagre even in respect to the most ordinary kind of information. They give no just conception of the physical aspect of the country of which they treat; much less do they introduce the reader to the homes and firesides of its inhabitants. Nor could any thing better have been expected, since Mr. Dickens merely skimmed over the country, seldom remaining longer in a place than to learn its name, to acquaint himself with the facilities of eating, drinking, and sleeping, afforded by its principal hotel, to note down a few particulars respecting its public buildings and institutions, and to inquire with a professional feeling concerning its alms-houses, its prisons, and its purlieus of low vice and wretchedness . . . . The perusal of [the book] has served chiefly to lower our estimate of the man, and to fill us with contempt for such a compound of egotism, coxcombry, and cockneyism.”

Edgar Allan Poe summed up the general feeling more succinctly: the book was “one of the most suicidal productions, ever deliberately published by its author, who had the least reputation to lose.”

A quarter century later, Dickens returned to the United States, still professing his high regard for this country. This time, the abolition of slavery had eliminated one source of one of his most fiery criticisms of the nation (though it would take two decades more, by which time Dickens was dead, before Congress finally passed international copyright legislation).

Nonetheless, something about this rambunctious country exhausted this writer who, with all his bursting energy, liked to call himself “The Inimitable.” On another visit to New York in December 1867, the writer who, T.S. Eliot wrote, created characters “of greater intensity than human beings” grew so tired after a marathon studio session that he vowed never to be photographed again.

The image taken at this time, therefore, is the last known photograph of the author that nearly everyone--including the city he had turned against--couldn't get enough of.

Photo of the Day: Elevation

I took this picture yesterday near the Maine Memorial, by the Columbus Circle entrance to Central Park.

Quote of the Day (Abraham Lincoln, Flashing His Wit)

"If I really had two faces, do you think I'd hide behind this one?”— Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), responding to Stephen A. Douglas’ charge in a debate that he was “two-faced,” quoted in Richard Norton Smith, “Lincoln v. Douglas: Ambition and Humor on the Illinois Campaign Trail,” Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies, Grand Valley State University, 2006

Twenty years ago, watching a trailer for Wayne’s World, I groaned when I heard Garth’s line about Tia Carrere’s Cassandra: “If she were a president, she would be Baberaham Lincoln.” But I suspect that Abraham Lincoln let loose more than his share of groaners in life, too.

You don’t get a sense of it from the grave, godlike figure in the Lincoln Memorial, nor even in the more human-sized statue outside the New-York Historical Society that I snapped a few months ago (pictured here). But Lincoln loved to laugh, and to bring others in on the joke.

Some of his humor would be regarded today as politically incorrect: heavily ethnic-based, for instance. These were the kind of tales he’d relate in the company of other circuit rider attorneys in Illinois when they had lots of time to kill. 

Additionally, as Joshua Wolf Shenk demonstrated convincingly in his fine study, Lincoln’s Melancholy, humor was a defense mechanism to help the President ward off the depression that plagued him most of his life.

But many of his jokes, such as his response to Douglas, were strategic. They defused the impact of his homely appearance and, in the wild guffawing that ensued in this case, made the audience forget what Douglas was referring to in the beginning. 

The impact was similar to the “Fala” speech, FDR's hilarious counterpunch to (true) GOP charges that he’d sent a government plane to retrieve his beloved Scottie when the dog was inadvertently left behind on a trip, or Ronald Reagan, facing a potentially devastating question at an early Presidential press conference, asking, “'How can you say that about a sweet fellow like me?''

It’s difficult to think of another President who better illustrates what one of Lincoln’s 20th-century successors in the White House, Dwight Eisenhower, meant by the following: "A sense of humor is part of the art of leadership, of getting along with people, of getting things done."

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Quote of the Day (C.S. Lewis, on God and Anxiety)

“Anxiety is not only a pain which we must ask God to assuage but also a weakness we must ask Him to pardon; for He's told us to take no care for the morrow.”--C.S. Lewis, letter to Mary Willis Shelburne, November 27, 1953, quoted in Collected Letters, Volume 3: Narnia, Cambridge and Joy, 1950-1963, edited by Walter Hooper (2007)

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Quote of the Day (Wendell Willkie, on ‘Indivisible’ Freedom)

"Freedom is an indivisible word. If we want to enjoy it, and fight for it, we must be prepared to extend it to everyone, whether they are rich or poor, whether they agree with us or not, no matter what their race or the color of their skin."—Wendell Willkie, One World (1943)

Wendell Willkie, born of humble origins on this day in 1892 in Indiana, was one of the great meteors of American political history—a man with no prior elective or appointive office who (with some help from Time Magazine publisher Henry Luce) took the Republican Convention by storm in 1940. In the subsequent election, this lawyer and utilities executive presented the most serious challenge that Franklin Roosevelt had faced up to that time, a real alternative for Americans with serious qualms about the President’s bid for a third term. Four years later, he was a spent political force. His fate illustrates much about the perils of bipartisanship, as much now as then.

After the 1940 election, something extraordinary happened: FDR called on his erstwhile opponent to act as his “special representative” to Great Britain, the Middle East, China and the Soviet Union. One World, a result of these indefatigable travels, urged America to join international peacekeeping efforts in the postwar world.

Willkie, who left the Democratic Party because of what he saw as the New Deal’s anti-business approach, had not yielded one iota in these beliefs. Yet, when he saw a mortal threat to the nation in the form of Fascism, he (like fellow Republicans Henry Stimson, William J. Donovan and Frank Knox) was prepared to make common cause with FDR in urging Americans away from isolationism. His willingness to see eye to eye with the President even on this one subject proved too much for many in the GOP, who voted for Thomas Dewey in the 1944 primaries. Willkie died that fall after a heart attack, but his days as an influence among Republicans was already over as quickly as it began.

In contrast to today’s politicians, Willkie demonstrated that it was possible to oppose a President on ideological grounds—even to engage, at points, in sharp attacks indeed (he accused FDR toward the end of the 1940 campaign of warmongering)—and not stoop to pettiness. Policy provided ample opportunity by itself for disagreement, as well as occasions when human rights and the national interest bound normal foes together. It's inconceivable that he would have engaged today in nonsensical smears involving the President's father or anti-colonial beliefs.

As talk has grown louder of a brokered GOP convention, it’s inevitable for a student of history to wonder what would Wendell think of all of this? No matter what one’s political leanings, it’s not too far a stretch to suspect that someone with his corporate background would have serious misgivings about Obamacare. Even if it became known to today’s voters, the secret of Willkie's mistress, New York Herald Tribune book editor Irita Van Doren, would not by itself prove an insuperable barrier to GOP evangelicals who are inexplicably making googoo eyes at twice-divorced, who-knows-how-often-adulterous Newt Gingrich.

But the man who wrote the quote above would be appalled by a party that still reaps the benefits of the cynical “southern strategy” begun by Richard Nixon in 1968. That same party, now as it did then, would regard as anathema a lawyer—indeed, a dyed-in-the wool capitalist—nevertheless prepared to defend the civil liberties of a Communist before the Supreme Court. His response then was as sharp and true as it would be in 2012: “Those who rejoice in denying justice to one they hate, pave the way to a denial of justice for someone they love.”

Friday, February 17, 2012

This Day in Jazz History (Thelonious Monk, Bebop Pioneer, Dies)

February 17, 1982 After years of progressive withdrawal first from recordings, then from concerts, then from the company of fellow jazzmen pianist-composer Thelonious Monk died at age 64 in Englewood, NJ, from complications of a stroke. Once the subject of a Time Magazine cover story one of only four jazz musicians accorded that honor at the time he spent his last years in seclusion at the Weehawken, NJ home of longtime patron Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter.

The life and work of the composer of such standards as “Round Midnight” and “Straight, No Chaser” fascinates me for reasons extending beyond the off-center songs that amazed and perplexed jazz aficionados in the postwar years.

There was, for instance, his association with Bergen County, NJ, where I live. Not only did he die in my hometown, but one of his most fascinating tunes (one that has ended up on my iPod), the May 1954 recording “Hackensack,” from his Criss-Cross LP, takes its name from the location of his studio (maintained by engineer Rudy Van Gelder, a kind of Zelig who always seemed to be around every major jazz recording). On his blog, recording artist and Grammy-winning producer Joe Henry hailed “Hackensack” for “its playful melody, its willful dissonance, and its swinging take on the blues.”

Van Gelder would go on to establish a new, state-of-the-art facility in Englewood Cliffs, NJ, in 1959, but the Hackensack original was the spot of Orrin Keepnews’ indelible introduction to the offbeat ways of Monk. The Riverside record producer had enlisted the services of estimable musicians Kenny Clarke and Oscar Pettiford on his first project with Monk. The group was to go from the music label’s midtown Manhattan offices across the Hudson to Van Gelder’s Hackensack studio.

“I was relieved when Monk arrived almost on time,” Keepnews recalled, in an autobiographical piece collected in Robert Gottlieb’s fine anthology Reading Jazz (1996), “just after Pettiford, but Clarke was nowhere to be found. We waited with growing impatience and concern; we telephoned everywhere; eventually Thelonious suggested using a substitute.” Keepnews resisted the idea of using a relative neophyte for this initial session, and Van Gelder agreed to hold off for another day. “Kenny, when finally located, insisted quite convincingly that Monk had told him the date was scheduled for the next day. It was not the last time that Monk was to indicate a lack of concern for such routine things as time and place and passing on the kind of basic information that is important to ordinary people.”

For a time, Monk’s considerable eccentricities encompassed mostly his cavalier disregard for time, his hats, his tendency to dance onstage, his staring into space, and his mumbling. But he would need to be hospitalized for mental illness, and the disease worsened even more dramatically in the late 1960s.

Just what the exact disease was remained indeterminate at the time. Autism, Tourette’s Syndrome, and schizophrenia were commonly suggestged. In a recent biography, Robin D.G. Kelly presents evidence for a diagnosis of manic depression.

Whatever the condition was, pharmacology, then in the comparative dark ages, was in no state to treat it. Thorazine and Lithium were both tried, to no lasting positive effect. In fact, Kelly, while acknowledging in an online Atlantic Monthly interview that Lithium might have helped diminh Monk’s worst episodes, also believes that it “contributed to an unwillingness or a lack of desire to play.”

But in the end, it all comes back to the important thing: the music. Critic Dan Morgenstern, in his book Living With Jazz, notes vividly the nature of Monk’s technique at his creative zenith, before the wayward thoughts in his mind overwhelmed the sounds only he could hear:

“To Monk, the piano was a sounding board. A study should be made of his use of the pedals, both the damping and sustaining one. He used his feet as unorthodoxly as he did his hands, and as percussively. He struck his notes, aware that the piano is a percussion instrument, a big, tunable drum. His technique may have been eccentric, but it was intensely functional….He knew exactly what he wanted from the instrument.”

For Love of the Game: Gary Carter, 1954-2012

“You see, I always have been a fan of the game first and a ballplayer second. Maybe that’s why I had the love and passion for this great game so much.”—Catcher Gary Carter, induction speech, Baseball Hall of Fame, July 23, 2003

Thanks, Kid, for displaying the heart of a champion everywhere you went. You brought a love for the summer game and an indomitable spirit. All fans, no matter what their allegiance, can only tip their hat in tribute and marvel at you. Rest in peace.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Quote of the Day (Francis Galton, on Evolution and Eugenics)

“I was encouraged by the new views to pursue many inquiries which had long interested me, and which clustered round the central topics of Heredity and the possible improvement of the Human Race.”—Sir Francis Galton, Memories of My Life (1908)

It’s funny how some of the major advocates of science-based racism fell short of their own warped standards of perfection. In the last century, you need only look at Joseph Goebbels, Heinrich Himmler, and the object of their psychopathic veneration, Adolf Hitler. In the Victorian Era, the unprepossessing physical specimen would have been Sir Francis Galton (pictured), born on this date 190 years ago today.

The “new views” to which Galton (1822-1911) alluded in the quote above derived from cousin Charles Darwin’s epochal 1859 study, The Origin of Species. It’s been said that genius is not far removed from madness, and Galton treaded that line consistently—including, to preposterous effect, an equation linking male-pattern baldness to brain activity. (It may have been the first time in history that mathematics was employed to demonstrate that physical disfavor was a sign of genius. Talk about self-interested work!)

Now, this eccentric polymath (exploration was among his many endeavors) strove to prove that a) intelligence could be inherited and b) that laws should be propagated to help winnow out the more feeble-minded. He even coined the term for his pseudo-science: eugenics. Darwinians who dismiss how interrelated the work of Darwin and Galton is are best advised to read the fifth chapter of The Descent of Man (1871), “On the Development of the Intellectual and Moral Faculties,“ where Galton is cited approvingly several times.

Over the years, it’s become increasingly common to tie Christopher Columbus to the demographic decimation that virtually wiped indigenous tribes from North America. But there’s a far more direct line between Galton and the Holocaust.

This was the man who, after all, indicated that North American Indians were ''melancholic''; Negroes possessed ''neither patience reticence nor dignity''; and the Irish, after the potato famine, became ''low and coarse.'' Undesirables who procreated, he believed, should be declared “enemies of the state.” There really wasn’t that much distance between that statement and Hitler’s euthanasia program, which sought to eliminate “life not fit for life”--a kind of trial run for the gas chambers.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Photo of the Day: They Might (or Might Not) Be Giants

When I first snapped this shot of a Times Square billboard nearly two weeks ago, I was thinking of titling it “The Biggest Losers.” It feels eons ago now, but at the time the New York Knicks’ lineup looked stripped-down, they were terrified at the prospect of injuries to stars Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire, and coach Mike D’Antoni was uneasily laughing off inquiries about his employment prospects. The team seeemed to have no chance of making the playoffs--and, worse still, Isaiah Thomas was still circling around in owner Jim Dolan’s orbit, maybe unable to coach the team but casting a baleful shadow once again.

You’ll notice, I’m sure, one face missing from this billboard, the one who has rescued the Knicks from the dead and put a genuine smile back on D’Antoni’s face. Tonight against Sacramento, Jeremy Lin led the team to its seventh straight win.

How long can he keep this up? Will Carmelo and/or Amar’e demand the ball and disrupt the web of Jeremy’s game? Will opponents figure out his faults and stop him cold? Will injuries restrict his future?

Who cares? Right now, the Knicks are playing the most joyful basketball in years. If he’s not putting the ball in the basket himself, Lin is making a terrific pass to someone who is. (Tonight against Sacramento, 13 assists!)

So the Knicks, I’m sure, are now trying to figure out how to put together another billboard that will capitalize on the unexpected Linsanity phenomenon. In the meantime, however, may I suggest that they please resolve the dispute between MSG and Time Warner Cable, my local provider, that is keeping me from watching Knick games on anything other than post-game news highlights?

Quote of the Day (John Barrymore, on How Movie Lenses Treat Faces)

“If you stay in front of the movie camera long enough, it will show you not only what you had for breakfast but who your ancestors were.”—Stage and screen actor John Barrymore, quoted in Peter Hay, Movie Anecdotes (1990)

The last couple of days, like much of America, I absorbed the nonstop coverage of Whitney Houston’s death. Aside from the changes in the once-glorious voice before her passing, I pondered her altered looks in the last decade, including a TV appearance late last year on Access Hollywood. Her face--once thin, then downright gaunt--had grown heavier. Did her more-mature hairdo set off the face differently? Did she appear fleshier because she was (temporarily) healthier? Or, as was rumored at the time, had she undergone Botox treatments or more radical plastic surgery to camouflage the cumulative effects of aging, alcohol and cocaine abuse, and violence at the hands of ex-husband Bobby Brown?

We don’t know, and even with the saturation coverage of all things medically related to her now, I’m not sure we ever will. But something had happened to the once-radiant face that burst on the music scene in videos for “Saving All My Love for You” and “How Will I Know?” It signified the abuse of a talent as much as the snuffing-out of joy.

With John Barrymore, born on this date in 1882, there was no need to speculate. The stage and screen idol knew just what he was talking about in the quote above. He might have been one of the consummate substance abusers of all time, but he was also as skilled at every aspect of his craft as they came. (Laurence Olivier, who went an Oscar for his own interpretation of Hamlet in 1948, recalled decades later the electrifying effect of seeing Barrymore in the role of the melancholy Dane onstage in the 1920s.)

Barrymore never felt the need to resort to Houston's pitiful evasions and denials of substance abuse. It would have been pointless to do so. After all, in the decade before his alcohol-hastened death in 1942, the camera had been recording the deterioration in the austere good looks that had once earned him the nickname “The Great Profile—and the art of plastic surgery, still in its relative infancy, could not camouflage, let alone reverse, the relentless damage.

In his silent films, Barrymore’s face is still unlined. By the 1930s, however, he was seguing into character roles by necessity. His eyes often pop--no surprise, perhaps, as he was consulting cue cards more frequently because of his failing memory. By the time he played Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet (1936), the face looks puffy and tired, and he appears by far the senior even in a cast notoriously older than their characters.  By Midnight (1939), the lines crowd around the eyes.

Two films made earlier in the decade forecast where matters were headed for The Great Profile. In A Bill of Divorcement (1932), his eyes fill with anxiety as he describes the madness he dreads. The actor might have been channeling his own worst terrors: his father’s insanity had resulted from venereal disease, and Barrymore worried that his alcoholism would produce the same result.

Dinner at Eight (pictured here), made only a year later, was, then and even now, one of the most nakedly terrifying self-portraits an actor ever put on screen. The original George S. Kaufman-Edna Ferber play modeled the character of alcoholic matinee idol “Larry Renault” on Barrymore. (The script even refers to the actor’s nickname.)

It’s impossible to resist the conclusion in his final scene, after Lee Tracy’s cynical publicist has scolded him as "a corpse," that Barrymore is peering into his own abyss. His features slackening, the actor pulls on his face, as if to disprove Tracy’s contention that he is “sagging like an old woman.”

But terrible self-knowledge has overcome Renault/Barrymore, and there’s nothing for him to do, once he’s turned his gas-jets up, than to arrange himself so that when his body is found, “the Great Profile” will manage to look, once again, to its best advantage.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Photo of the Day: The Glow of a Heart

“Love isn't something natural. Rather it requires discipline, concentration, patience, faith, and the overcoming of narcissism. It isn't a feeling, it is a practice.”—Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving (1956)
Starting this past weekend, Times Square has run a promotion by architectural firm Bjarke Ingels Group: If you hold your hand over a large button, a fluorescent “heart” within a 10-ft. crystalline cube begins to glow. When several people put their hands over the button, the heart really glows.  I took this shot on Friday, as clumps of passersby began to gawk and/or line up for photo opportunities.

Oh, yes: Happy Valentine's Day!

Monday, February 13, 2012

Quote of the Day (John Forsythe, With Welcome, If Un-Thespian, Modesty)

“I figure there are a few actors like Marlon Brando, George C. Scott and Laurence Olivier who have been touched by the hand of God. I’m in the next bunch.”—John Forsythe quoted in Anita Gates, John Forsythe, ‘Dynasty’ Actor, Is Dead at 92,” The New York Times, April 4, 2010

Sunday, February 12, 2012

This Day in Rock History (Jagger, Richards Set Up in Drug Bust)

February 12, 1967—When he answered the door at his Sussex, England estate that evening, Keith Richards, somewhat the worse for wear after using LSD at his party, disregarded the urging of Marianne Faithfull, girlfriend of Rolling Stones bandmate Mick Jagger, that if he ignored the visitors outside, they would just go away.

What could possibly be wrong? the rock-‘n’-roll guitarist thought. There was simply a “little old lady” out there, along with more than a dozen uniformed dwarves.

Despite the highly improbable appearance of so many diminutive creatures in matching clothing together at one time, Richards greeted the unknown visitors with open arms. They promptly presented him with a warrant to “search the premises and the persons in them, under the Dangerous Drugs Act 1965.” The law found what it expected to find and arrested those inside.

Well, some of those inside. While Richards, Jagger, and art dealer Robert Fraser were hauled off to the pokey, the drug dealer who had supplied most of the mind-altering substances that night, David Schneiderman—a.k.a. “The Acid King” —was not only left mysteriously untouched by the police, but was not pursued in connection with the case when he almost immediately disappeared.

It took four more decades to confirm, but the suspicions of The Rolling Stones and the rest of the counterculture—that the partiers at Richards’ Redlands home had been set up by police and press acting together—turned out to be true. The ensuing case not only proved a major legal battle of the British Establishment vs. the rising youth culture, but also an early indicator of what has been much in the news recently: that the News of the World was collaborating with police to violate the privacy of celebrities.

The Stones’ manager-producer, Andrew Loog Oldham, promoted them as the nasty, surly, evil counterpart to the Beatles’ nice boys. This was largely hype (it was Jagger who attended the London School of Economics, and Lennon who beat early bandmate and friend Stu Sutcliffe to such a pulp that he believed he had caused the latter’s early death). For all the wonders it might have created for the group’s sales, it also sparked a backlash among people who believed them tools of the devil.

One incident after a Stones gig, when the musicians, refused a much-needed bathroom break at a gas station, relieved themselves nonetheless, made some of the newly-suspicious anxious to induce some humility in them. Among this circle were the brass at The News of the World (NOTW).

Given a seeming scoop—i.e, that one of the group was using narcotics—News of the World reported that the one in question was Mick Jagger. The Stones’ lead singer sued and won because—perhaps on the theory that all druggy rock ‘n’ rollers look alike, anyway—the scandal rag guessed wrong as to the identity of the drugged-out musician: It was Brian Jones.

Now the Fleet Street rag was doubly anxious to get Jagger because he had made them all look like fools. Soon, they found themselves in cahoots with the police.

NOTW had first attempted to work through Scotland Yard, but that agency had thrown cold water on the idea, noting that any arrest would just make martyrs of Jagger and Richards. The Chichester police were more open to the publication’s advances.

The police didn’t have much time to plan this operation, but they didn’t need much. In a preview of the black ops that have gotten Rupert Murdoch’s enterprise in trouble since then, the phones at Richards’ estate were being bugged. A motley crew of law-enforcement officials were gathered together on the spur of the moment.

What happened after Richards opened the door to them has now passed into legend. Blasting from the speakers was Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35”—you know, the one that goes, “Everybody must get stoned.” The 21-year-old Faithfull, grabbing a fur rug to cover herself, was so surprised at what she called “the coppers” making free with the house that she dropped her impromptu covering.

(Perhaps the police avenged themselves for their sexual frustration at this moment by spreading a cruel—and, Faithfull insists, false—rumor involving Jagger, his woman and a Mars bar.)

Jagger and Richards received the support you might expect from other members of the British Invasion--notably, The Beatles and The Who--but unanticipated aid from an influential member of the British Establishment helped to turn public opinion in favor.

William Rees-Mogg, in an editorial titled "Who Breaks a Butterfly Upon a Wheel?” for the paper he edited, the London Times, blasted their unduly harsh sentences after they were found guilty at the subsequent trial. (Jagger was sentenced to three months in prison for possession of four amphetamine pills, and Richards to 12 months for allowing his home to be used for smoking cannabis.)

The musicians were being made examples because of their fame, Rees-Mogg contended. (Jagger, for instance, was a first offender who was caught with a French seasickness pill in his pocket. The medication was sold over the counter in France but required a prescription in England.)

There was a real question whether the slight Jagger would have survived a lengthy prison spell. The Times editor, however, changed the climate of opinion enough that the public did not squawk when the two Stones’ sentences were drastically reduced (to less than two days) on appeal.

When I saw the NOTW connection to the case, I immediately wondered about any involvement of Rupert Murdoch. As it happens, the Australian press baron didn’t take over this paper for another year. This particular incident demonstrates that the wiretapping of celebrities had been going on even before his arrival (though, to be sure, he could have changed the environment of the newspapers he bought, if he had been so inclined).

As for The Acid King and his disappearance: According to a 2010 article in London’s Daily Mail, David Schneiderman changed his name to David Jove, then moved to Hollywood, where he became a small-time producer and filmmaker. Eighteen years after the incident, a female friend introduced him to dinner companion, Marianne Faithfull.

The bust had had a deleterious impact on the former sweet-voiced singer, who, tired of her bad-girl image, decided to embrace it. A decade of drug abuse had followed.

In this 1980s dinner, Faithfull abruptly announced to her friend that the male to which he’d been introduced was none other than the Acid King, and he should be avoided like the plague. Her friend took her advice. (Later, Schneiderman admitted to his daughter--herself a rock musician--that he had helped set everything up at the behest of federal officials in the U.S. and U.K. who wanted to discredit the band and cause them legal problems.)

Schneiderman died in 2004, shunned by Hollywood for drug use so rampant that even it couldn't abide it.

Quote of the Day (Cardinal Bernardin, on a ‘Consistent Ethic of Life’)

“The primary intention of the consistent ethic of life…is to raise consciousness about the sanctity and reverence of all human life from conception to natural death. The more one embraces this concept, the more sensitive one becomes to the value of human life itself at all stages…. This consistent ethic points out the inconsistency of defending life in one area while dismissing it in another. Each specific issue requires its own moral analysis and each may call for varied, specific responses. Moreover different issues may engage the energies of different people or of the same people at different times. But there is a linkage among all the life issues which cannot be ignored….

“There are those who support abortion on demand who do not grasp or will not discuss the intrinsic value of human life and the precedence it should take in decision making. The issue—the only issue—they insist, is the question of who decides, the individual or the government.

“Who decides is not the issue. We all decide, but we make our free decisions within limits. In exercising our freedom, we must not make ourselves the center of the world. Other individuals born and unborn are as much a part of the human family as we are.”—Joseph Cardinal Bernardin (1928-1996), “Deciding for Life” (Message for "Respect Life Sunday"), October 1, 1989

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Gisele Jinx?

I’m not sure of the provenance of the image attached to this post, but it sure conveys a Churchillian sense of triumph—a premature feeling that might have turned into rancid disappointment and anger inside the very famous young woman flashing this sign.

For the faithful in New England, the New York Giants’ come-from-behind win in the Super Bowl must have felt like (with apologies to Yogi Berra) Deja Blue All Over Again.

But the outburst by losing quarterback Tom Brady’s celebrity wife, Gisele Bundchen, rubbed salt in the wound. Fox Sports’ Bill Reiter went so far as to suggest that it might spell the end of “The Patriots’ Way.” That, for those of us previously unfamiliar with the term, is the code of omerta imposed by coach Bill Belichick that had succeeded, for much of the past decade, in keeping within the family the inevitable tensions occurring when testosterone-turbocharged young men, striving past every ache and pain and Monday-Morning-Quarterbacking session by fans, fall short in the quest for perfection on any given Sunday.

And wouldn’t you know it, no sooner had Mrs. Brady unleashed The Rant Heard Round the World against a taunting male Giant fan, when the Pats’ Ron Gronkowski—he of the most-talked-about bad ankle in New England since Curt Schilling’s much-hyped bloody sockwas videotaped at an aftergame party, moving as if his throbbing body part had miraculously recovered.

The Patriots' Yoko Ono?
It was a massive breach of the latter-day athletic Spartan code: instead of coming home with his shield (or helmet, in this case) or on it, the record-setting tight end was ready to dance on his, surely making a few fans wonder if he could have moved just as fast to catch Brady’s last-second Hail Mary heave into the end zone. It was a Patriot re-enactment of The Fall: first the sin, then the end of the innocence, all following a woman leading a man astray.

The whole sequence had many Patriot fans speculating if it all might have been part of a “Gisele Jinx.” Boston Globe’s Dan Shaughnessy succinctly summarized the developing consensus: “The notion of Gisele Bundchen as Yoko Ono will gather steam now that Brady’s wife has inserted herself into his professional business.”

What a fascinating turn of events—particularly for a woman who has, from all appearances, led a charmed life as the Uber-Supermodel.

The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women
A friend related, not so long ago, that he had developed a small, unexpected, but fascinating subset of his very busy legal practice: representing models. The practice of discovering and marketing beautiful young women, it appears, can be singularly ugly, with some agents ready to take gross financial advantage of these naïve youngsters.

My friend is far too modest to draw the inevitable conclusion, but there is obviously, in this environment, a burning need for an honest, competent, all-around good guy such as himself to act as legal eagle. (I can’t imagine that my friend, if he had junior male attorneys at his firm, would have a terribly difficult time convincing them to perform for such clients work that would normally be considered the worst kind of drudgery.)

I gather that my friend’s practice includes at least a couple of young women who prance down the catwalk, but I don’t know if any of them have yet ascended to the rarefied level of The Supermodel: the Christies, Cindys, Naomis, Elles, Tyras, and Heidis of the world, the ones who can say: “Go ahead, hate me because I’m beautiful! I’m crying all the way to the bank!” Such women have long convinced me that the term “pouting supermodel” is redundant.

Now comes Gisele. Perhaps her profane outburst that her hubby couldn’t be expected to throw and catch at the same time was simply, as Wall Street Journal columnist Jason Gay contends, a matter of a loving wife standing up for her man in an understandable, if inappropriate, way.

But who could doubt that this was a blow to the Patriots’ esprit de corps, an incident so grievous that it made the appearance of a previously unknown “New Belichick” (one given to smiling, if you can believe it) as evanescent as “The New Newt” in the GOP primaries.

Another one of my friends (and he knows who he is!) has sometimes expressed delight that Brady’s wife has a twin out there, presumably unattached. But outbursts such as Ms. Bundchen’s post-Super Bowl rant make one question the desirability of possessing such eye candy, for reasons going beyond what Jack Nicholson memorably told Michelle Pfeiffer in Wolf : “The problem is, aside from all that beauty, you're not very interesting.“

I’m not talking simply about the fact that, even after she stops walking down the runway and consumes her first Twinkie in two decades, there’s a good chance that Gisele will be netting more money than Tom. (On one side: income from apparel lines, diet/exercise books, reality shows in which she could deliver tough love to aspiring Pouty Supermodels; on his side, a pension which will be lucky to exceed his mounting medical expenses. Do the math.)

I don’t even have just in mind the elemental fight every morning for Mirror Time. From Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe to David Justice and Halle Berry, the longevity of unions between professional athletes and their glamorous spouses does not seem terribly long.

The Difficult Mixture of Football and Supermodels
There is also the issue of why a supermodel would even want to follow closely a game such as football. Football involving tackling is not, after all, unlike soccer, volleyball, softball (a cousin of baseball), or basketball, an activity in which a female is likely to participate at a young age. If you’re a supermodel with a loved one in the game, watching him chased (and, sometimes, upended) by 300-pound mastodons at unbelievable speeds is likely to seem like a Sunday horror show. As for all that complicated play-calling—well, what could be interesting about that?

Even after hours of hanging out with, say, Hannah Storm or Erin Andrews—both of whom might be able to translate the game into fairly understandable terms—professional football is simply not likely to be fully understood or liked by Gisele.

And that lack of understanding might go to the heart of why she missed some fairly elementary things, such as:

* If her husband’s receivers were so bad, then how come they caught a Super Bowl record 16 consecutive passes of his at one point?
* Why had her husband put the Patriots in such a vulnerable position with his safety on the Pats' first possession, as well as with his subpar fourth quarter (6 of 15, 64 yards, an interception)?

* She couldn’t have had Wes Welker in mind with her tirade, could she? Because if so, her husband was at least halfway at fault by throwing so poorly on the play.

* Instead of taking umbrage against the Giants heckler who claimed that Eli Manning owned her husband, why couldn’t she point out, with perfect reason, that her husband faced the Giants’ defense, not its offense—then ask, with equally perfect reason, how her heckler might have fared if he had Justin Tuck chasing him all day?

* Instead of questioning her own team’s wide receivers, she might inquired about the wisdom of Belichick’s plan in guarding against the Giants’ wide receivers—specifically, whether the odds of Mario Manningham staying in-bounds on a crucial play would begin to work in the latter’s favor.

Instead, Brady’s Mrs. has made matters unnecessarily awkward for herself and her husband. No matter how much the two of them might offer abashed apologies, from now on, there’s going to be quite a contingent of Patriot wives who, instead of helping Gisele flip the burgers at the next summer Brady barbeque, would much rather flip her the bird.

No, the sense that Gisele is Yoko, or Delilah depriving her husband of his powers at critical moments, can’t be entirely sustained. There are equally, perhaps even more, plausible explanations for why the Patriots dynasty has, as the Giants’ Brandon Jacobs stated with relish, been “decapitated.”

First, perhaps this is all divine punishment for Spygate—a use of videotaping against an opponent so egregious that the NFL imposed a heavy fine.The Patriots have not only not won a Super Bowl since then, but lost in the most agonizing fashion: first, when they were minutes away from concluding a perfect season, and second, when they were on the brink of avenging themselves for that earlier loss. Somehow, the term “genius,” once tossed around regularly about Belichick, sticks a bit more in the throat these days.

The Curse of Bridget Moynahan?
Second, might this be less Gisele’s Jinx than the Curse of Bridget Moynahan? The star of Blue Bloods, Sex and the City and Coyote Ugly has declined to criticize her ex-boyfriend, even after a) he dumped her, taking up with Gisele shortly afterward, and b) he left her pregnant, and even, for a short time before the birth of his first child, seemed distinctly unhappy about impending fatherhood.

But Moynahan's ex-beau, more than anyone, should know better than to read a public silence as ready acceptance of reality. After all, Brady, as someone of Irish descent, should understand that Moynahan can summon all sorts of forces beyond the ken of mortal man. She can pray to the saint for whom she is named, for instance, asking her to take her ex-boyfriend down a peg.

Or she can look in a far less benign direction. Something in the ancient Irish way of life lends itself to impenetrable mists, or calls on the supernatural. (With their groundbreaking tales of vampires, Sheridan LeFanu and Bram Stoker didn’t write from a vacuum, you know.)

If I were the Patriots, I would deeply worry about this curse of a woman scorned. Consider Kate Hudson, who last went out with Alex Rodriguez during the 2009 World Series, and split with him shortly afterward, supposedly over his incurable narcissism. The Yankees not only haven’t come close to winning since, but Kate's Curse seems to be a metastizing force. (How else to explain Brian Cashman's current case of lunacy?)

As he considers what Gisele Hath Wrought, Brady has experienced firsthand the meaning of these lyrics from Peter Allen’s “Don’t Wish Too Hard”:

“How I wished for you and now you’re here
Now I wish that I could disappear and go away.”