Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Flashback, August 1921: FDR Contracts Polio

Franklin D. Rooseveltblessed with a patrician heritage, a famous name, and good looks—thought he and his family were merely in a struggle to put out a fire near his family summer home on Campobello Island in Maine in the second week of August 1921.

Instead, the following 24 hours began a fight for his life in which he found his personal advantages counted for little or nothing. Ultimately, he was forced to more actively manage his medical treatment, rethink his career and the plight of the downtrodden in this country, and he discover the importance of thinking of the box when it came to public policy.

For much of the rest of the month after he fell mysteriously and catastrophically ill, Eleanor Roosevelt—still figuring out what place she would have in the private and public life of a husband who had been unfaithful to her three years before—now found that relationship disrupted even more than before.

To her, on this vacation resort that was medically understaffed, fell the responsibility of easing the distress of her husband until help arrived; figuring out whether physicians’ advice squared with her husbands’ condition; and deciding when and how to inform her overbearing mother-in-law, Sara Delano Roosevelt, about the grave danger now facing the son she had tried to save from harm.

FDR’s struggle with polio has long fascinated me, for historical, dramatic and personal reasons. That fight became the crucible for the indomitable personality who carried the United States through the Great Depression and World War II, perhaps the greatest crises any President faced since Lincoln dealt with the Civil War.

Broadway and film audiences applauded Ralph Bellamy’s bravura performance as FDR in Sunrise at Campobello. But that heroic version of the future President’s ordeal, as engaging as it was, was written more than six decades ago, when Eleanor was still alive and the family was sensitive about detailing tensions in their household.

As one of the fans of the Bellamy movie long ago, I thrilled to the idea of its hero defying incredible odds to stake out a new life for himself and a New Deal for the American people.

Some years later, I discovered a fact about a family member that brought this chapter in FDR’s life even closer closer to home.

In a blog post written 13 years ago, I discussed how my grandaunt, Hannah Riordan Spollen, an Irish survivor of the Titanic, had worked as a domestic servant for several years at Bellefield, the estate of FDR’s friend and next-door neighbor Thomas Newbold, where she would take the wheelchair-bound Roosevelt up in the elevator. (Bellefield now serves as the National Park Service headquarters at FDR’s estate.)

An Investigation and an Infection

Amid the multiple, rapid traumas that gripped the Roosevelts and the nation in the quarter-century after FDR’s medical crisis, a kind of amnesia developed over an investigation that had clouded his political future in the summer just before his health emergency.

As Assistant Secretary of the Navy under Woodrow Wilson, FDR had approved a sting operation to ferret out homosexual sailors in Newport, R.I. A Senate subcommittee report deemed the operation entrapment and blamed it squarely on Roosevelt.

To be sure, the Republican-controlled Congress had ample reason to discredit FDR, the 1920 Democratic candidate for Vice-President who, at age 39, had a bright and seemingly limitless future ahead of him. But the report was stressful and damaging to him.

In late July 1921, FDR traveled to Bear Mountain State Park for a giant Boy Scout jamboree. It was meant to provide a setting for the kind of stress-free, meet-the-constituent events that any politician worth his salt welcomes—and which would get his mind off the questions being raised by some in the media about the Newport scandal.

Epidemiologists now believe that the water in Bear Mountain was contaminated, providing a kind of petri dish for the polio virus--and, due to FDR's recent stress and prior medical history of typhoid fever, scarlet fever, and respiratory illness, his immunity system was weakened. It took nearly two weeks, but when the virus took hold of an exhausted FDR on Aug. 10, the impact was devastating.

Once he and his children had put out the forest fire that day, he swam in a lake, followed by a dip in the icy Bay of Fundy. What began as a pre-dinner chill had turned the next morning into a high fever.

The Roosevelts’ regular physician on Campobello thought Franklin just had a severe cold. A second Eleanor was able to get thought at first that the cause of the crisis a blood clot in the lower spinal cord, then decided it must be a spinal lesion. But these diagnoses were wrong, as was the treatment for both: massage therapy to improve circulation.

Finally, on Aug. 25, an orthopedic surgeon surprised Franklin with a diagnosis of infantile paralysis—i.e., polio—and ordered an end to the massage therapy, which may have been worsening his condition.

By mid-September, Eleanor and FDR’s political adviser Louis Howe—who had rushed to the family cottage to help her with round-the-clock care of Franklin—had to arrange his transfer to New York Presbyterian Hospital for further medical observation and treatment. They devised an operation that became, in somewhat lessened fashion, the template for his life going forward: a complex, linked transportation system and news management that fell somehow short of modern notions of transparency.

FDR was taken on an improvised stretcher off Campobello, with Howe intentionally misdirecting reporters to a different spot on the island than the one they expected.  From that point on, FDR would go by boat, truck, and rail to Grand Central Station—a jumpy journey that exhausted him.

Once the polio diagnosis was made and accepted by FDR and his family, the debate over his future began. Franklin’s mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt, preferred that he come home to Hyde Park, recuperate, and forget about politics.

But wife Eleanor and Howe did not want to foreclose that avenue for him—and Franklin, with his invincible optimism, decided that somehow, he would re-enter politics in some capacity, while doing all he could to recover fully. He even offered advice to another physician, Dr. William Egleston of South Carolina, on treatment of polio patients based on his own experience. (That 1924 letter also is one of the most extensive descriptions he ever provided on his personal ordeal.) His enthusiastic patronage of the Warm Springs spa Warm Springs in Georgia made it the prime place for polio patients to receive therapy,

Of course, FDR was not fully successful in achieving his hopes. Though he retained his upper-body strength to an impressive degree, he was never able to walk again without even limited adjustments for his disability—including a wheelchair, heavy braces, a male companion (often eldest son James or an aide) whose arm he could hold when he rose to his feet, and just a few steps to walk. Fiercely proud, and wanting all who came in contact with him to approach him as they would anyone else, he did all he could to minimize his condition. (He even largely got the press to accede to his request not to photograph him in his wheelchair; only a handful of such pictures exist out of the thousands of him in the Presidential library at Hyde Park.)

Nevertheless, Roosevelt did indeed re-enter politics, even running ahead of the goals originally set by himself and Howe (New York Governor 1932, the Presidency 1936). He used his office to publicize The March of Dimes, the campaign that ultimately bankrolled research for a polio vaccine.

The effort to eradicate polio has succeeded so markedly that the last Americans stricken by the disease are in their late sixties or seventies, and diminishing daily.

A man in a wheelchair, then, inspired a nation to rise to its feet again during the Great Depression.

(The image accompanying this post comes from the 1960 film adaptation of Sunrise at Campobello, showing Ralph Bellamy and Greer Garson as, respectively, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Bellamy repeated his Tony Award-winning role for the big screen, while Garson was nominated for an Oscar as the future First Lady.)

Quote of the Day (Poet Patrick Kavanagh, on Being ‘Lost in Compassion's Ecstasy’)

“And you must go inland and be
Lost in compassion's ecstasy
Where suffering soars in summer air 
the millstone has become a star."—Irish poet and novelist Patrick Kavanagh (1904-1967), “Prelude,” in Irish Poems, edited by Matthew McGuire (2011)

Monday, August 30, 2021

TV Quote of the Day (‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show,’ As Lou Advises Ted on a Tempting Job Offer)

[WJM anchorman Ted Baxter has just told his colleagues that he’s received a more lucrative job offer as a game-show host. He’s been waiting unsuccessfully for someone to persuade him to turn it down, until…]

Lou Grant [played by Ed Asner]: “Stay.”

Ted Baxter [played by Ted Knight]: “What? What did you say, Lou? Lou? Did... Did you say something?”

Lou: “Yeah. I said stay.”

Ted: “Gee. That's one of the nicest things anyone ever said to me. I'd like to stay, Lou. I-I love it here, but... but this is my big chance.”

Lou: “For what, Ted? So you can go to New York and become a quizmaster? Is that what you want people to say when you walk down the street? ‘There goes Ted Baxter. He's a quizmaster.’”

Ted [chuckles]: “It's not that bad, Lou. Just the way you say it makes it sound terrible.”

Lou: “Oh, yeah? Then you say it, Ted. Say, ‘Ted Baxter is... a quizmaster.’” [With greater emphasis now, practically hissing the words out in contempt]: “Ted Baxter is... a quizmaster. You see?”—The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Season 6, Episode 5, “Ted’s Moment of Glory,” original air date Oct. 11, 1975, teleplay by Charles Lee and Gig Henry, directed by Jay Sandrich

When I saw the headline on Facebook yesterday about the death of Ed Asner, my heart sank. With his demise—the third this year of an original cast member—one of the last links to one of the favorite shows of my youth was gone.

The above exchange illustrates how Asner could take the words in a script and turn it into something sidesplitting. Not even the deadly repetition of the word “quizmaster” quite does the trick. Rather, it’s in the way Asner spits the word out, as if he can’t wait to dislodge something so commercial, so gross before Lou can get to a word he honors: “newsman.”

Asner’s death came 35 years to the day of Ted Knight’s funeral—the first time that all the stars of the sitcom had gathered together since the landmark sitcom went off the air, in perhaps TV’s most fondly remembered finale, in 1977. Let’s hope that Mary, Valerie, Phyllis, Gavin, Ted, Georgia, and Ed are sharing laughs in a Valhalla of comedy legends even now.

Fans who watched the seven-time Emmy-winning actor over the years knew that there was far more to Asner than the Lou Grant role he played for 12 seasons, first on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, then on the dramedy Lou Grant.

Obituaries I’ve read have cited his voice-over work in animated series and movies. But much of his one-off work in the Seventies and Eighties, though perhaps harder to find on video these days, are also worthy of mention, displaying his dramatic range in Roots (a drunken sea captain haunted by his role in the slave trade), A Case of Libel (as a lawyer in the McCarthy Era), Anatomy of an Illness (as editor Norman Cousins), The Gathering (as a difficult father trying to make amends with his family before dying), and Tender is the Night (as a tycoon who has sexually violated his daughter).

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Flashback, August 1936: Hemingway Weighs Price of Fame in ‘Snows of Kilimanjaro’

When Esquire Magazine published “Snows of Kilimanjaro” in its August 1936 issue, readers unfamiliar with the recent circumstances surrounding Ernest Hemingway would have regarded the short story, rightly, as one of the finest of his career, representing an artistic summit analogous to the African peak which served as the ultimate destination of his fictional character Harry.

With prior short stories and novels preoccupied with the theme of death, his return to the subject would not, at first glance, seem unusual. 

But this time, the treatment became more coruscating, even self-lacerating, as Hemingway created a protagonist with fears all too close to his own—and imagined a heedlessness in the face of danger paralleling the same tendency in himself.

In its own time, the story raised more than a few eyebrows because of its shot at F. Scott Fitzgerald, who a decade before had offered Hemingway both a useful introduction to influential Scribners editor Maxwell Perkins and astute editing advice, when the fledgling fiction writer needed both.

Fitzgerald’s recent series of confessional essays, later collected as The Crack-Up, had recounted, in what now seems oblique if elegant terms, his emotional anguish. Together with his 1934 novel Tender is the Night, that malaise suggested self-pity—or, put in more basic terms, weakness—to Hemingway.

Fitzgerald felt rightly aggrieved when he turned to page 200 in the August issue of Esquire only to read:

The rich were dull and they drank too much, or they played too much backgammon. They were dull and they were repetitious. He remembered poor Scott Fitzgerald and his romantic awe of them and how he had started a story once that began, "The very rich are different from you and me." And how some one had said to Scott, Yes, they have more money. But that was not humorous to Scott. He thought they were a special glamourous race and when he found they weren't it wrecked him just as much as any other thing that wrecked him.

The quote referred to the famous beginning paragraph of Fitzgerald’s short story, “The Rich Boy.” All things considered, his response to the younger writer he had considered a friend brimmed with restraint:

“Dear Ernest:

“Please lay off me in print. If I choose to write de profundis sometimes it doesn’t mean I want friends praying aloud over my corpse. No doubt you meant it kindly but it cost me a night’s sleep. And when you incorporate it in a book would you mind cutting my name?

“It’s a fine story– one of your best even though the ‘Poor Scott Fitzgerald etc.’ rather spoiled it for me.”

A change of the name from “Scott” to “Julian” for later collected editions of the story provided the merest figleaf concealing the author’s identity. The immediate effect of "Snows" was that it commenced “open season” on Fitzgerald, noted biographer David Brown’s Paradise Lost. The following month, New York Post reporter Michael Mok profiled Fitzgerald as an alcoholic wreck, his youthful promise evaporated at age 40. Not long after, Fitzgerald attempted suicide.

The very public jab at Fitzgerald puts Hemingway admirers such as me face to face with an unsettling situation in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”: a writer creating some of his most subtle, controlled and beautiful work, but unable to hide his more obvious, uncontrolled and ugly emotions.

The denigration of his early champion and friend took as much chutzpah as it did rewriting history. Nobody—certainly not Hemingway—made to Fitzgerald the wisecracking rejoinder about the rich included in the story.

Instead, the remark came at Hemingway’s expense, when he grandiosely remarked to visiting friends that he was studying the very rich. As biographer Brown noted, the fact that the crack came from a woman—the Irish writer Mary Colum—could only make Hemingway smart even more.

Decades later, however, knowing how Hemingway’s life turned out, many readers might feel that certain women in his life might have even greater reason than Fitzgerald for annoyance about "Snows," including his wife, Pauline Pfeiffer Hemingway.

Or, I should say, his second of four wives. Hemingway had written about her in Green Hills of Africa with what passed for his highest praise: the good sport who shared his big-fame adventures on the continent.

But, fatally for their marriage, Hemingway also associated her with the end of his youthful innocence: as the woman who lured him away from his first wife, Hadley Richardson, and introduced him to a world of wealth he believed undermined his discipline as a writer.

Then, after the Catholic Pauline insisted that they follow the rhythm method in intercourse to avoid a third pregnancy that, doctors had warned, could endanger her life, Hemingway found himself not merely creatively cosseted but sexually dissatisfied.

Hemingway responded, in troubling fashion, to an urge that had last darkened his work the decade before: attacking in print, in thinly fictionalized form, people who had once meant a great deal to him.

In 1926, he had made his reputation with The Sun Also Rises, a roman a clef whose characters—drawn from a booze-filled trip to Spain to watch bullfights—included an anti-Semitic portrayal of the writer Harold Loeb.

A year later, in a move that then-wife Hadley warned him against, Hemingway had used The Torrents of Spring to satirize Sherwood Anderson, an older mentor who gave helpful advice on his early fiction.

By the mid-1930s, Hemingway was lashing out—again, in veiled, fictionalized terms—this time against a trio of women. Two of the three would form the composite character "Helen" in "Snows":

* Jane Kendall Mason, who had engaged in an intermittent four-year affair with Hemingway while he was in Havana, spurred the creation of two of the most misogynistic works in all his fiction: “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” and To Have and Have Not.

* Helen Hay Whitney, an heiress who, speculates Paul Hendrickson in Hemingway's Boat, offered to help bankroll a future Hemingway safari—helping to inspire the “Helen” character in “Snows.”

*Pauline Pfeiffer Hemingway, the Arkansas heiress whose uncle had not only furnished the money for the Hemingway’s Key West home but also for the recent safari that gave rise to Green Hills of Africa

How could Pauline not have thought of herself when she read passages like this in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”?

“It was strange, too, wasn't it, that when he fell in love with another woman, that woman should always have more money than the last one? But when he no longer was in love, when he was only lying, as to this woman, now, who had the most money of all, who had all the money there was, who had had a husband and children, who had taken lovers and been dissatisfied with them, and who loved him dearly as a writer, as a man, as a companion and as a proud possession; it was strange that when he did not love her at all and was lying, that he should be able to give her more for her money than when he had really loved.”

Character assassination remained among the instruments that Hemingway employed throughout his life. Friends who found themselves at the receiving end of his inexplicable cruelty were, more often than not, bewildered by what might have caused the disruption in their relationship.

But, with Hemingway’s multiple eruptions in the mid-1930s, the motive may have been fear. Fame and fortune were complicating his life, propelling Hemingway towards creating a macho image he found increasingly difficult to maintain.

Although the printed version of “Snows” gave the protagonist’s name as, simply, Harry, the manuscript called him “Harry Walden”—a more explicit recognition of the simple life that Hemingway felt he was abandoning.

In an August 1968 article for American Heritage Magazine, Hemingway scholar Carlos Baker spelled out the consequences: “One of Hemingway’s recurrent motivations to literary creativity throughout his life was the conviction that he might soon be going to die without having completed his work or fulfilled his unwritten promise to his talents. At the time when he wrote this story he knew very well that he had climbed no farther than the lower slopes of his personal Kilimanjaro.”

Hemingway compressed his self-doubt into a single memorable sentence in “Snows”: “Now he would never write the things that he had saved to write until he knew enough to write them well.”

Four italicized vignettes in “Snows” offer a glimpse of the stories Hemingway desperately wanted to write, in some of the most lyrical passages he ever wrote, including this one of an Austrian village he had visited with Hadley:

In Schrunz, on Christmas day, the snow was so bright it hurt your eyes when you looked out from the Weinstube and saw every one coming home from church. That was where they walked up the sleigh-smoothed urine-yellowed road along the river with the steep pine hills, skis heavy on the shoulder, and where they ran down the glacier above the Madlenerhaus, the snow as smooth to see as cake frosting and as light as powder and he remembered the noiseless rush the speed made as you dropped down like a bird….

And an even more nostalgic look back at Paris in the Twenties:

And in that poverty, and in that quarter across the street from a Boucherie Chevaline and a wine cooperative he had written the start of all he was to do. There never was another part of Paris that he loved like that, the sprawling trees, the old white plastered houses painted brown below, the long green of the autobus in that round square, the purple flower dye upon the paving, the sudden drop down the hill of the rue Cardinal Lemoine to the River, and the other way the narrow crowded world of the rue Mouffetard.

In his 1938 short-story collection, The First Forty-Nine, Hemingway concluded his preface with a note ironic and poignant in retrospect: “I would like to live long enough to write three more novels and twenty-five more stories.” In fact, he wrote three more novels published in his lifetime and about twenty short stories not collected till after his death in 1961.

But, except perhaps for For Whom the Bell Tolls, none of these approached in quality the works up to “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” that had made him such an icon of creative self-discipline. As an enthusiastic but none-too-adept amateur boxer, he knew the risks of softness and lack of alertness. Yet he had fallen victim to these dangers in the arena that mattered the most to him: writing.

Moreover, he had, with an uncanny sense of foreboding, anticipated the fate that overcame him in his last decade. As with his short story, a trip to Africa precipitated a medical crisis—in this case, two plane crashes in Uganda in 1954, in which he had suffered a fractured skull, a ruptured liver, a collapsed intestine, several broken vertebrae and a burnt scalp. 

As his fictional stand-in Harry had done in not cleaning his wound with iodine, Hemingway incurred further risk after the crashes by continuing to drink heavily. And his fourth wife, Mary, took on the same role of nurse assumed by fictional counterpart Helen in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” in tending to a husband who alternated affection with outbursts of contempt and abuse.

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Anne Frank, on God and Nature, ‘Solace in All Troubles’)

“The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quite alone with the heavens, nature and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be and that God wishes to see people happy, amidst the simple beauty of nature. As longs as this exists, and it certainly always will, I know that then there will always be comfort for every sorrow, whatever the circumstances may be. And I firmly believe that nature brings solace in all troubles.”—German-Dutch Holocaust victim Anne Frank (1929-1945), journal entry for Feb. 23, 1944, The Diary of a Young Girl (1952)

I took the image accompanying this post—Tappan Memorial Park in Tappan, NY—last October.

Saturday, August 28, 2021

Quote of the Day (Roger Kahn, on Baseball Talk and Action)

“No game is as verbal as baseball; baseball spreads twenty minutes of action across three hours of a day.”—American sportswriter Roger Kahn (1927-2020), The Boys of Summer (1972)

A half century ago, Kahn was being generous in gauging the length of time of a baseball game. From about 1950 to 1980, the average length of professional games that did not go to extra innings actually ran about 2½ hours, according to the Web site www.Baseball-Reference.com.

Then, the deluge, with the increasing importance of designated hitter and the rise of pitching specialists—not just starters and reliever, but now starters, openers, multiple mid-inning specialists, and closers.

The DH meant that, from top to bottom of the batting order, a pitcher could never relax. Managers, obsessed with pitch counts and favorable lefty-righty matchups, couldn’t resist making changes. And every time that happened, a two-minute commercial break—complementing the 17 similar breaks that occur during inning changes—took place.

As of June 6 this year, the average baseball game now runs to 3 hours and eight minutes.

Baseball has found all sorts of other ways to drag out action—like batters stepping away from the plate, fidgeting and doing all they could to disrupt pitchers’ rhythms. Pitchers have been encouraged to waste pitches while they were ahead in the count, only to miss when they wanted subsequent ones to be strikes, walking batters—with the next guy stepping up to the plate prolonging the agony by getting on base.

During games, there are on-field conversations that viewers might want to hear but can’t—like when a catcher banters with a batter, a batter gets to first base, or a mound summit (such as the hilarious one from Bull Durham in the attached image) considers what to do with the runner on and a dangerous hitter coming up. 

Then there are the words that can be all too readily guessed at, such as when a player or coach at the bad end of a call vents in no uncertain terms to an umpire about his eyesight, canine lineage or both.

Sometimes changes in strategy have compelled shifts in vocabulary. Statheads, skeptical about the effects of the stolen base, are doing their best to turn it into a dinosaur. On the other hand, medical acronyms have come to dominate on-air talk: ILs, ACLs, PEDs and COVID-19.

You will notice that how much of this talk occurs on the air, to fill up the time between action. But baseball aficionados are also, God help them, excreting more and more pre- and post-game chatter.

Sports talk-radio shows now function as a form of what Bob Dylan called, in a different context, an “Idiot Wind,” what hosts and listeners, assessing their teams’ losing streaks, competing for the title of MMME (Most Merciless Manager Executioner).

Maybe the only force that will compel baseball to compress all that surrounds what Kahn calls the “twenty minutes of action” is climate change. The way that things are going, there won’t be enough Gatorade to replace all the moisture players lose out in the field on days that have never been so hazy, hot and humid, with even night games providing less relief than before.

When that realization hits home, maybe the Lords of Baseball will finally understand that action counts but talk—at least, how they engage in it today—is cheap.

Friday, August 27, 2021

Photo of the Day: Covered Bridge, West Arlington VT

Maybe it’s because, as a New Jerseyite, I come from the most densely populated state in the nation. But whenever I see a covered bridge, it reminds me of the rural part of the country that I have rarely seen over the years.

And covered bridges represent no state more than Vermont. In the 19th century, roughly 700 of these bridges existed there, as the men who built the state recognized that these coverings protected the timber structures over streams and railroads, with the ancillary benefit of calming animals that were crossing rushing waters. Since then, the "Historic Bridges" Web site operated by the Green Mountain State notes that the number has dwindled to a little over 100 of these structures, or more per square mile than any other state.

I live from the George Washington Bridge, a mighty expanse across the Hudson that is justly famous. But nobody breathes so much of Americana to me as the covered bridge. And how much more Americana can you get than one in a town associated with Norman Rockwell?

That would be West Arlington, VT. I happened to be in nearby Manchester two months ago, for a dear relative’s wedding that weekend. A short drive away took me to an inn that once belonged to the beloved New England artist. And just a stone’s drive away from that was this red bridge, crossing the Battenkill River, only two miles from the New York border.

Built in 1852, the bridge was badly battered by Hurricane Irene in 2011. Luckily, this mainstay on the National Register of Historic Places survived, and now endures as one of the most popular and picturesque sites for travelers and photographers in Vermont.

TV Quote of the Day (‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show,’ on Shallow But Good-Looking Guys—and the Alternative)

[Mary Richards has been dating a man who holds no interest whatsoever for her—except that he’s really, really good looking.]

Phyllis Lindstrom [played by Cloris Leachman]: “Be honest, Mary. Would you feel the same way about Paul if he were overweight, balding and bow-legged?”

Mary Richards [played by Mary Tyler Moore]: “Phyllis, that is so dumb. If he were that, he wouldn’t be Paul.”

Phyllis: “Well, I would feel the same way about Lars if he were overweight, balding and bow-legged.”

Mary: “Phyllis, Lars is overweight, balding and bow-legged.” —The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Season 5, Episode 2, “Not Just Another Pretty Face,” original air date Sept. 21, 1974, teleplay by Ed. Weinberger & Stan Daniels, directed by Jay Sandrich

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Quote of the Day (Truman Capote, on August in Italy, When ‘Everything Became Too Social’)

“In August everything became too social – and I do mean social – the Windsors (morons), the Luces (morons plus), Garbo (looking like death with a suntan), the Oliviers (they let her out), Daisy Fellowes (her face lifted for the fourth time – the Doctors [sic] say no more), then Cecil [Beaton] and John Gielgud came to stay with us, and we went to Venice on Arturo Lopez’s yacht.” —American fiction writer, essayist and screenwriter Truman Capote (1924-1984), Sept. 12, 1953 letter from Portofino, Italy to friend Andrew Lyndon, in Too Brief A Treat: The Letters of Truman Capote, edited by Gerald Clarke (2004)

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

This Day in Irish History (Brian Moore, Novelist-Screenwriter of Displacement, Born)

Aug. 25, 1921— Brian Moore, whose alienation from his ancestral faith and homeland took the form of a move across the Atlantic and a prodigious stream of novels, short stories and screenplays, was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Like literary hero James Joyce, Moore found history “a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” Though his father was senior surgeon at the Mater Hospital in Ulster, he was conscious of being a member of a beleaguered minority, the nationalist Catholic community of Northern Ireland. He felt doubly alienated when, at age 10, rebelling against what he saw as stifling church authority, he rejected his faith.

After serving in WWII with British Ministry of War Transport and early in the postwar period with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Association, Moore emigrated to Canada, where he worked as a journalist for four years. Along the way, he became a Canadian citizen—a status he did not relinquish even after residing in his last three decades in California.

When he turned his hand to fiction in his mid-thirties, Moore returned, if only in his imagination, to Ireland and what he saw as the repressive conformity and diminished prospects experienced in that  community. His first novel, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1956)—adapted three decades later into a film starring Maggie Smith and Bob Hoskins—was inspired by an elderly spinster known to Moore’s family.

It was not a surprise, given the censorship regulations of the time, that the novel was banned for indecency in the Republic. Closer to home, Moore’s devout mother not only griped about its “sex parts,” but cut out any of these before she mailed a copy of the book to one of her daughters, a nun.

From early on, filmmakers sensed the dramatic possibilities of Moore’s novels, with four of them adapted for the screen (most notably, The Luck of Ginger Coffey, starring Robert Shaw). But in 1965, he had a more signature opportunity to make his mark in cinema when Alfred Hitchcock, intrigued by The Feast of Lupercal, contacted him about working on an original screenplay. 

At the time, the reputation of Hitchcock still had magic, as his TV show had only recently left the air and the film Marnie regarded as an interesting failure.

What most people did not realize at the time was that making the latter movie had turned out unexpectedly traumatic for Hitchcock, as he lost interest in making it halfway through when actress Tippi Hedren spurned his advances. The studio that had previously allowed him wide latitude in shooting, Universal, was now making demands on the nature of his next material, including a more pop-oriented musical soundtrack and top box-office stars (Paul Newman and Julie Andrews) not necessarily to his liking.

Under these circumstances, Hitchcock felt more significant pressure than he had in years. According to a 2009 post on the blog Shadowplay, Moore had not felt especially interested in collaborating with the “Master of Suspense” on the screenplay, but his lawyer convinced him that he could use the money.

The team turned out to be a bad match. Moore was dismayed by Hitchcock’s lack of interest in character and the director was displeased by Moore's screenplay Moore. When Hitchcock tried to give screenwriting credits to the two men he turned to for a rewrite, Ted Willis and Keith Waterhouse, Moore took the matter for arbitration to the Writers Guild, which awarded sole credit to the novelist. Because the window of time for using Andrews was limited, Hitchcock had to start filming before he was satisfied with the script, a significant departure from his practice on other films, according to Charlotte Chandler's biography of the director, It's Only a Movie.

The eventual movie, Torn Curtain, a Cold War thriller, turned out to be a mess for everyone concerned. Moore’s comments to the press led him to be disinvited from the set and premiere, and Hitchcock saw his commercial and critical reputation take another hit. About the only benefit, for Moore, was that he did, as his lawyer had told him, now had enough money, this time to move to Malibu, where he remained for the rest of his life.

Moore’s later experiences writing for film and TV, while not as high-profile, were more pleasant, including The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne and Black Robe, in which he also acted as executive producer for this adaptation of his historical novel about a young French Jesuit missionary in New France. 

Particularly prescient was his 1973 TV adaptation of his novel Catholics, with a plot—a representative from the Vatican is dispatched to deal with a conservative priest whose intransigence threatens to open up a schism within the Church—that feels like an anticipation of current tensions under Pope Francis.

Altogether, Moore would write 20 novels before he died in Malibu in 1999 from pulmonary fibrosis. Since his death, his books have passed in and out of print here in the U.S., though they have been accorded a better reception in the U.K. His reputation may well endure, however, because he acquired a reputation of a “writer’s writer,” much esteemed by the likes of Graham Greene, Joyce Carol Oates, Thomas Flanagan, and John Gregory Dunne.

Dunne’s wife and screenwriting partner, Joan Didion, was especially generous in assessing their longtime friend, telling the Los Angeles Times' Tim Rutten:

“Brian truly honored fiction, by his reading of it, by his respect for it, and most of all by the wit and intelligence and power he brought to the writing of it. He understood the craft, the discipline, and he understood equally the discipline required to practice it. He had no patience for the postures and quasi-celebrity of the literary life. Writing was just what he did most days of his life, and he never stopped being thrilled by it, taking risks with it, taking it to the far edge of where he knew it could go.”

Quote of the Day (William Saroyan, on Failure and Wisdom)

“Good people are good because they've come to wisdom through failure. We get very little wisdom from success, you know.”—Pulitzer Prize-winning Armenian-American novelist, short-story writer and playwright William Saroyan (1908-1981), My Heart's in the Highlands: A Play (1939)

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Quote of the Day (Elizabeth Kolbert, With an Early Hint About Andrew Cuomo’s Management Style)

“[Andrew] Cuomo can be charming and funny in a dark, sarcastic sort of way, and, at least in front of me, he treated his aides with teasing good humor. But HUD is not considered an easy place to work. Cuomo is known to be a demanding boss who expects his staff to be available pretty much at all times. Even though he is now a Cabinet secretary [of the Department of Housing and Urban Development], he continues to function as if he were in the midst of a political campaign, revising speeches until the last minute and taking a disproportionate interest in media coverage. He tends to operate within a relatively narrow circle of advisers, and in the dozen years that I have covered politics I have never heard anyone’s staff members referred to so often by others as ‘minions.’”— Elizabeth Kolbert, “Cuomo’s Mojo,” The New Yorker, July 19, 1999

As of early this morning, Andrew Cuomo has officially lost his mojo—if one identifies “mojo” in his case as the office of Governor of New York—in part because he turned the people that others regard as staffers first into “minions,” then, more damagingly, into “victims” and “enablers.”

One wonders if this single paragraph buried in Kolbert’s 1999 six-page profile was her warning to readers to lift the hood of the Cuomo car (a metaphor that the auto-philic now-former governor might appreciate). When the sexual-harassment scandal broke out into the open in early spring, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist tweeted, “I covered his dad for many years, and confusing bullying for action seems to be a family flaw.”

Perhaps. But Mario Cuomo was never accused of hitting on female “minions,” or, for that matter, anyone. (After Andrew’s scandal broke, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who had covered his father as a young reporter, wrote, “I can tell you that the closest he ever made to making a move in his office was reaching for a book by Teilhard De Chardin to give me. I still have it.")

At his departure from office after three terms, for all his indecisiveness about seeking the Presidency and his late-night verbal jousts with reporters, Cuomo I was respected for his intellect and for taking stands on principle even if they cost him politically.  

The same will not be said for Andrew. Whatever hopes he may have harbored for a political comeback were pretty much dashed with his farewell address yesterday, when he blamed everyone but his dog Captain for his legal woes and political unraveling.

In its glowering, dark defensiveness, Andrew Cuomo’s last televised speech as governor could credibly be called “Nixonian.” But, in his shameless denial of sexual harassment against 11 women, the tone might be better labeled “Trumpian.”

Remarkably, over the course of nearly 40 years in politics, Andrew Cuomo did more than make enemies; he forget to make friends. All he had these years were allies who feared him. When his power seeped out, they abandoned him with a haste not so much unseemly as delighted.

In his last words to the public that tired of his antics, Cuomo implied that his downfall was caused by “a political firecracker on an explosive topic,” a fad of the moment: the #MeToo movement.

In actuality, it was caused not by enemies’ exploitation of a shift in public mood, but his own reworking of the feudal practice of droit du seigneur: i.e., a lord’s taking of what he saw as his sexual due from the females associated with his vassals.

In the process, he has wrecked all he touched: not just his future political prospects but also his brother’s credibility as a cable commentator, his aides’ careers, the TimesUp hierarchy he co-opted, and his family’s legacy as the hope of progressives.

About the only positive thing he has done is unite left and right—warring about every blessed thing under the sun these days—in a single belief: that he was a creep not to be trusted a day more with ultimate authority in the Empire State.

(The image accompanying this post was taken by Metropolitan Transportation Authority / Patrick Cashin, on a happier day for Andrew Cuomo, as he led the inaugural ride of the Second Avenue Subway on December 31, 2016.)

Monday, August 23, 2021

TV Quote of the Day (‘Yes, Prime Minister,’ on the Standard Diplomatic ‘Four-Stage Strategy’ for Crisis Responses)

Bernard Woolley [played by Derek Fowlds]: “What if the Prime Minister insists we help them?”

Sir Humphrey Appleby [played by Nigel Hawthorne, pictured]: “Then we follow the four-stage strategy.”

Woolley: “What's that?”

Sir Richard Wharton [played by Donald Pickering]: “Standard Foreign Office response in a time of crisis. In stage one, we say nothing is going to happen.”

Sir Humphrey: “Stage two, we say something may be about to happen, but we should do nothing about it.”

Sir Richard: “In stage three, we say that maybe we should do something about it, but there's nothing we can do.”

Sir Humphrey: “Stage four, we say maybe there was something we could have done, but it's too late now.” — Yes, Prime Minister, Season 1, Episode 6, “A Victory for Democracy,” original air date Feb. 13, 1986, teleplay by Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, directed by Sydney Lotterby

Over the past several months, whenever I’ve been able to do so, I’ve tried to carve out a half hour on Friday nights on a local PBS station to catch reruns of the 1980s British comedy Yes, Minister and its sequel, Yes, Prime Minister. Think of it as a transatlantic, male-oriented, less potty-mouthed predecessor of Veep.

The brilliance of the show, seen in the above lines, is its sharp, hilarious dissection of bureaucracy. Though some of its situations are unique to UK politics and government, it’s a delightful surprise to see how much of it translates stateside.

It can be enjoyed by conservatives or liberals alike, because though the policies of government officials may change, their behavior—protecting their turf, covering their rear ends—remains remarkably bipartisan, consistent with how people act in all large organizations.

The show’s co-creator, Antony Jay, described the inspiration for the series: “What I was told by a senior civil servant was that, in their heart of hearts, ministers really respect and admire civil servants and, in their heart of hearts, civil servants really despise ministers.”

His creative partner, Jonathan Lynn, later crossed the Atlantic to direct another political satire, Eddie Murphy’s underrated The Distinguished Gentleman, and the considerably more popular The Whole Nine Yards and My Cousin Vinny.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

This Day in Film History (‘The Big Sleep,’ 2nd Bogie Private-Eye Classic, Opens)

Aug. 22, 1946—With The Big Sleep, which premiered in Atlantic City, NJ, Humphrey Bogart became identified for the second time on the big screen with an archetypal hard-boiled detective.

Five years before, Bogart had starred as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, the John Huston movie often credited with launching in earnest film noir, a term created by French critics for a genre characterized by dark lighting, byzantine plots, skeptical heroes still capable of hoodwinking by alluring femme fatales, all set amid a violent, treacherous world.

Bogart’s portrayal of Spade—tough, wisecracking, intelligent while scoffing at intellectuals, with a surface cynicism concealing a strict moral code—had thrust him, once and for all, beyond the gangster straitjacket in which he found himself in his early years at Warner Brothers Studios.

Other actors have also portrayed The Big Sleep’s Philip Marlowe over the years (e.g., Dick Powell, Robert Montgomery, James Garner, Elliott Gould, and Robert Mitchum). But Bogart may be associated with the role most indelibly.

The Big Sleep helped land “Bogie” for the fourth straight year among the nation’s top 10 money-making stars. But the film’s success was hardly preordained. At one point, the actor’s marital woes stemming from his tormented affair with leading lady Lauren Bacall threatened to turn the production into a disaster.

The film would run a gauntlet of production delays, cost overruns, a year-long shelving by Warner Brothers, and reshot scenes before it saw the light of day. It would probably not have turned out half so well but for the careful guidance of director-producer Howard Hawks (whose 125th birthday I commemorated with this blog post from three months ago).

The movie resulted from the desire by studio head Jack L. Warner for a follow-up to the initial Bogart-Bacall teaming, To Have and Have Not (1944), also directed by Hawks. Hawks’ production company used the $50,000 forwarded by Warner to purchase the rights to the first novel by Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep, for $5,000—then pocketed the difference.

Hawks recognized in this material the same quality that led Huston to adapt The Maltese Falcon: edgy characters, surprising plot twists, and crackling dialogue. By his own account, he advised the first two screenwriters assigned to the project, William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett, “Don’t monkey with the book—just make a script out of it. The writing is too good.”

That didn’t mean that changes wouldn’t be made from page to screen. Chandler had included several elements—nymphomania, nudity, homosexuality, pornography, and a main character’s complicity in a crime—that had to be either eliminated or softened to pass muster with the movie industry’s censorship authority, the Hays Office.

Moreover, as Faulkner and Brackett worked on the screenplay separately, Hawks needed to fit the two parts together seamlessly, and—as a producer whose deal with Warner Brothers allowed him to make more money if he cut expenses—he changed locales for others that entailed lower costs.

But these were not even the biggest obstacles associated with the film, which can be seen virtually step by step in the memos, letters and production reports collected in Rudy Behlmer’s Inside Warner Brothers (1985).

After the first day of shooting, when Bogart had downed five or six drinks for lunch, his intake was cut back to one beer at that time of day. But that did nothing to curb his after-hours misbehavior.

On the morning after Christmas 1944, with Bogart not showing up for shooting, studio production manager T.C. Wright went to the star’s house, only to be told by Bogie’s estranged wife, Mayo Methot, that he had come in drunk and was still trying to sleep it off an hour and a half later.

That afternoon, by which time the star had finally straggled onto the set, Hawks drew aside Bogart—who had been mostly living away from home, uncertain about whether to reconcile with or divorce Methot—to administer some tough love. Not only was the situation with Bacall affecting Bogart’s performance, but his co-star’s, too, Hawks said.

Bogart, normally punctual and professional, was giving Warner Brothers fits with the absences and conferences required to deal with the situation—so much so that by December 29, the 64th day of shooting, the picture was already 30 days behind schedule, with corresponding costs incurred.

Hawks then did what he did best: improvise. Over the Christmas break, and in the lengthy daily delays caused by Bogart, he huddled with a third screenwriter, Jules Furthman, to figure out how to delete entire scenes and secondary sets. By the time it was over, he ended up only $15,000 over budget—a miracle, all things considered.

The plot of the novel had been so complicated that even Chandler couldn’t recall who was responsible for one murder when called about it by Faulkner and Brackett. But now, the behind-the-scenes goings-on took on their own craziness.

With the end of World War II in sight, Warner decided to move up the release dates of several movies revolving around the conflict lest they seemed out of date before their premieres (including another Bacall picture, Confidential Agent). Though The Big Sleep had been shown to troops overseas already, it could wait before being viewed stateside—for a whole year, as it turned out.

In the meantime, Bacall’s agent, Charles K. Feldman, wrote Warner to complain that his client’s scenes needed to be beefed up. Although he had some specific scenes in mind that could be replaced (such as one where Bacall was veiled), he may well have been concerned that she would be upstaged by two other up-and-coming supporting female players, Dorothy Malone (as a flirtatious bookstore clerk) and Martha Vickers (as the Bacall character’s nyphomaniacal kid sister).

Hawks obliged, inspired by his affection for the ponies, creating dialogue revolving around horse racing with the same kind of racy Bogie-Bacall repartee that had made To Have and Have Not a sensation.

Throughout this piece, I’ve stressed the difficulties that Bogart created by his uncharacteristic lack of professionalism. But in justice to him, it also bears stating that he also contributed enormously to the ultimate success of The Big Sleep.

Hawks was in no doubt about that, observing, in an interview ultimately included in Peter Bogdanovich’s Who the Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors: “Without his [Bogart’s] help, I couldn’t have done what I did with Bacall. The average leading man would have got sick and tired of the rehearsal and the fussing around. Not very many actors would sit around and wait while a girl steals a scene. But he fell in love with the girl and the girl with him, and that made it easy.”

Chandler had a different, equally valid perspective on the actor’s quality: “All Bogart has to do to dominate a scene is to enter it.” Because he was in every scene and the action unfolded entirely through Marlowe’s eyes, Bogart’s performance had to carry the film.

With this intense focus on his leading man, Hawks set the template for Roman Polanski to follow nearly three decades later with his neo-noir classic, Chinatown, in which Jack Nicholson, like Bogart, appeared in every scene, becoming the audience’s surrogate in sorting through the multiple deceptions and red herrings of the plot.

Twenty years after The Big Sleep confirmed her hold on the public’s affections—and drew her close enough to her co-star that she married him—Bacall made an unmistakable reference to that film’s General Sternwood by appearing as another wheelchair-bound employer of a private detective in the 1966 Paul Newman neo-noir, Harper.

The first version of The Big Sleep had a logical explanation for its murders. But, while reshooting, Hawks made a discovery that would influence the remaining quarter-century of his career:

The plot, he told Bogdanovich, “didn’t matter at all. All we were trying to do was make every scene entertain. I can’t follow the story. I saw some of it on TV the other night and I’d listen to some of the things he [Bogart] would talk about and it had me thoroughly confused because I hadn’t seen it in twenty years.”

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Lisa Miller, on Two Threads Within Spiritual Life)

“Scientists don't define spirituality—we identify threads within human spiritual life. Two threads stand out. The first is our capacity to have a relationship with the sacred. People may call this God, the universe, a higher power or the force of life. It is the capacity to feel loved, held and guided, that we are never alone. The second thread is to share this with others.”— Lisa Miller, clinical psychologist and director of the Spirituality Mind Body Institute, Teachers College, Columbia University, quoted in Elizabeth Bernstein, “Bonds: Spirituality in the Lens of Science,” The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 18, 2021

Saturday, August 21, 2021

Quote of the Day (John Steinbeck, on America’s Westward Movement)

“Jody hardly knew when Grandfather started to talk…. ‘I tell those old stories, but they're not what I want to tell.…It wasn't Indians that were important, nor adventures, nor even getting out here. It was a whole bunch of people made into one big crawling beast. And I was the head. It was westering and westering. Every man wanted something for himself, but the big beast that was all of them wanted only westering….

" ‘We carried life out here and set it down the way those ants carry eggs. And I was the leader. The westering was as big as God, and the slow steps that made the movement piled up and piled up until the continent was crossed.

" ‘Then we came down to the sea, and it was done.’ He stopped and wiped his eyes until the rims were red. ‘That's what I should be telling instead of stories.’"—American Nobel Literature laureate John Steinbeck (1902-1968), “The Leader of the People,” in The Red Pony (1937)

The Red Pony was my first John Steinbeck book, and though I have read several more since then, this quarter of interconnected stories has resonated the most with me, along with Of Mice and Men.

“The Leader of the People” especially interested me with its themes of generational conflict (garrulous Grandfather annoys taciturn son-in-law Carl with his oft-told tales of pioneering and Indian fighting), the fascination of boys with adventure stories, and, as seen here, the meaning of the Western movement for the American spirit.

The devastation of the land, the displacement of Native Americans, and the violence and sense of loss involved in this migration are as necessary and important to recall as revisionist historians have told us over the last few decades.

But future historians would also have to incorporate what the California native Steinbeck sensed, over four decades after the U.S. Census Bureau officially declared the closing of the American frontier: that “westering” was possible not just because of a spirit of individualism, but also because of the aspirations and cooperation for the public good on those wagon trains crossing unfamiliar, untamed land.

For anyone wondering, the image accompanying this post shows Jack Elam as Grandfather in the TV movie version of The Red Pony, with Henry Fonda, Maureen O’Hara and Clint Howard as, respectively, the father, mother and young boy. It was broadcast in 1973, around the same time that I read the book, and though not as well-made as the 1949 big screen adaptation starring Robert Mitchum and Myrna Loy, I can still recall it vividly, nearly a half-century after the only time I viewed it.)

(This post is dedicated to the memory of my good friend Ann, who died three months ago. I am sure not only that she loved reading The Red Pony, but also that she would have enjoyed teaching it to her high school students.)