Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Quote of the Day (Evelyn Waugh, on an Early Example of L.A.’s Spiritual Culture)

“Aimee Thanatogenos spoke the tongue of Los Angeles; the sparse furniture of her mind—the objects which barked the intruder's shins—had been acquired at the local High School and University; she presented herself to the world dressed and scented in obedience to the advertisements; brain and body were scarcely distinguishable from the standard product, but the spirit—ah, the spirit was something apart; it had to be sought afar; not here in the musky orchards of the Hesperides, but in the mountain air of the dawn, in the eagle-haunted passes of Hellas. An umbilical cord of cafés and fruit shops, of ancestral shady businesses (fencing and pimping) united Aimee, all unconscious, to the high places of her race. As she grew up the only language she knew expressed fewer and fewer of her ripening needs; the facts which littered her memory grew less substantial; the figure she saw in the looking-glass seemed less recognizably herself. Aimee withdrew herself into a lofty and hieratic habitation.”—English novelist Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966), The Loved One (1948)

Seventy-five years ago this month, British editor Cyril Connolly published in his magazine Horizon this “Anglo-American Tragedy” by Evelyn Waugh. Its appearance in this forum was partly the author’s favor to Connolly, who was trying to keep the magazine afloat—and partly Waugh’s effort to sound out how news of his bitingly satiric take on America would be taken across the Atlantic, where it would be published in book form in November.

Much like Charles Dickens a century before, Waugh had not been particularly impressed by what he saw on his trip to the U.S. in 1947. His natural dyspepsia would have been provoked anyway, over how much the American film industry misunderstood his novel being considered for adaptation, Brideshead Revisited.

But he was positively astonished by the funeral practices he found at Hollywood’s famous Forest Lawn—simultaneously commercialized and saccharine. It sanitized the grim reality of death and, in its way, repudiated the need for the spiritual redemption he felt when he converted to Roman Catholic.

You can sense this even in the passage above. Aimee Thanatogenos is an airhead who has taken to a “lofty and hieratic habitation,” scarcely encumbered by “the sparse furniture of her mind.” Indeed, her grasp of reality—“the facts which littered her memory”—is only growing weaker.

This female character’s name was cunningly constructed by Waugh. The first name would have struck an immediate chord with L.A. habitues, who would have heard an echo of the famed revivalist preacher Aimee Semple McPherson, who had died only four years previously.  This fictional Aimee is a vapid evangelist for “Whispering Glades,” Waugh’s stand-in for Forest Lawn.

But on another level, the character’s first and last names spoke directly to the novel’s themes. “Aimee” is French for “loved one,” the American funeral industry’s preferred designation for the deceased. “Thanatogenos” is Greek for “deathborn,” another nod to this character’s job: cosmetician at “Whispering Glades.”

Waugh had resisted handing over film rights to Brideshead Revisited. He undoubtedly wished he had done the same with The Loved One. He died within days of the London premiere of Tony Richardson’s adaptation of his novella, and it is not believed that he had a chance to view the film.

But he must have known that the product was as mangled as the bodies that arrived at Whispering Glades. When I saw the 1965 film this weekend, I couldn’t believe it was by the same director who had brought Tom Jones to such vivid life two years before. It had added material to its source and updated it, to no real purpose.

Right from the get-go, Waugh seems to have had misgivings about the project, especially after learning the first screenwriter was Christopher Isherwood—not just the kind of British expatriate he had sent up in his book, but also, with W.H. Auden, a thinly veiled subject of his ire in Put Out More Flags. (Later, Terry Southern would punch up that draft with more contemporary material.) To no avail, Waugh had tried to get his name taken off the credits for the movie.

Moviegoers—as well as those like me, who caught the film this weekend on TCM—would have been struck by actor Robert Morse, whose English accent seemed to have slipped somewhere over the Atlantic.

Moreover, inevitably, as will be apparent from the passage I provided, there was no cinematic equivalent for Waugh’s prose style, which amply fulfills the ideal he evoked in the 1955 essay “Literary Style in England and America”:

“The necessary elements of style are lucidity, elegance, individuality; these three qualities combine to form a preservative which ensures the nearest approximation to permanence in the fugitive art of letters.”

(The image accompanying this post shows actress Anjanette Comer, who played Aimee in the film. For fine insight into Waugh's novella, see Jeffrey Manley's blog post from the Website of the Evelyn Waugh Society.)

Monday, February 27, 2023

Quote of the Day (Joe Queenan, With the Excuses We Need for Not Recalling a Name)

“When the likable chap at the PTA meeting first introduced himself in 1994, you did not realize that you would keep bumping into him for the next 27 years. So you didn't commit his name to memory. Also, there was a lot of noise in the room that day. And you'd just had a root canal. As the years passed, it only became more embarrassing to say, ‘I'm sorry, but I'm not sure I ever caught your name.’”—Columnist Joe Queenan, “The Rising Shame of Not Knowing a Name,” The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 11-12, 2021

No wonder that more than a few of us baby boomers would support Queenan’s proposal for a National Amnesty Day, “where it is permissible to go out and ask people their names, without fear or embarrassment, even  if you have known the person in question since the Pirates won the World Series.”

Sunday, February 26, 2023

Spiritual Quote of the Day (G.K. Chesterton, on the Conversion Experience)

“The sages have a hundred maps to give
That trace their crawling cosmos like a tree,
They rattle reason out through many a sieve
That stores the sand and lets the gold go free:
And all these things are less than dust to me
Because my name is Lazarus and I live.”—English man of letters—and Roman Catholic convert— G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936), “The Convert,” from The Collected Poems of G. K. Chesterton (1927)

I came upon this set of spiritual verses in perhaps an even more powerful reflection: the late Presidential speechwriter Michael Gerson’s 2019 Washington Cathedral sermon sharing his struggle with depression, and the religious consolation that sustained him day to day.

Saturday, February 25, 2023

Quote of the Day (Steven Schier, on Jesse Ventura’s Gubernatorial Victory as a Bad Omen for American Politics)

“[Jesse] Ventura’s election [as governor] carries important implications for politics in Minnesota and the nation as a whole. His triumph seems so beyond the pale that a lot must be happening in our politics to cause it. And a lot is. Jesse’s ascendancy underscores the great and growing weaknesses of our two major parties with the public. It reveals that third parties have a future in American politics only if national campaign finance and voter registration rules come to resemble those now in force in Minnesota. The success of Ventura’s unorthodox, low-budget campaign ads exposes the shortcomings of conventional political advertising. And, perhaps most disturbingly, Jesse’s rise to the top confirms the growing power of celebrity and entertainment in American politics.”—American political scientist Steven Schier, “Jesse’s Victory,” The Washington Monthly, January/February 1999

Schier’s article struck me as prescient in a way that few analysts could have imagined nearly a quarter-century ago, particularly for Presidential elections. The “great and growing weaknesses of our two major parties” and “the growing power of celebrity and entertainment in American politics” were both on full display in 2016, and in the years since.

But what Schier didn’t anticipate was that another candidate, on a national stage, could spring from the same world of wrestling that spawned Jesse Ventura. That person (do I even have to say his name?), noted The Atlantic’s James Fallows seven years ago, specialized in humiliation: “inflicting it on others, avoiding it oneself.”

In one wrestling match before that candidate’s unexpected foray into politics, continued Fallows, he had shaved the head of rival promoter Vince McMahon—“a spectacle [featuring] every ritual of dominance, emasculation, ridicule, and humiliation—even with all allowances made for the phony melodrama on which pro wrestling is built.”

Even the parade of insulting nicknames trotted out by that candidate is redolent of the world of wrestling, with its arch-villains: “Sleepy Joe,” “Crooked Hillary,” “Lyin’ Ted," “Low-Energy Jeb,” and now, God help us, “Meatball Ron.”

I never thought, though, that professional wrestling could produce the flood of conspiracy theories promoted by that Presidential candidate or Mr. Ventura (who, over 12 years ago, claimed that the attack on the World Trade Center resulted from a government plot—a suggestion made on his cable TV show called, yep, “Conspiracy Theory”). (See Tony Pierce’s blog post from the Website of the Los Angeles Times.)

Jesse Ventura served a single term as governor of Minnesota. But years from now, historians will still be analyzing how, even in his short time as candidate and officeholder, he paved the way for the phantom menace of contemporary American politics.

(The image accompanying this post, showing Ventura with Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, was taken at a press conference on trade, held on October 5, 2000.)

Friday, February 24, 2023

This Day in Legal History (Marshall Makes Case for Supreme Court in ‘Marbury v. Madison’)

Feb. 24, 1803—In his first, stealth move to simultaneously uphold federal power and to assert the Supreme Court as a partner equal to the President and Congress, Chief Justice John Marshall set down for the first time the concept of judicial review— the ability of the Court to declare a Legislative or Executive act in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

That power, unmentioned in the text of that foundational national document, has been essential in establishing the Court as the ultimate authority of the validity of a law. It has also helped make the Court an eternal bone of contention for political parties.

Marbury v. Madison was the most unorthodox case on which to build a judicial revolution. I can’t think of another important case, for instance, where:

* a justice’s own brother was called on as a witness to verify a fact;

* the justice arguably had his own conflict of interest in this case;

* the Presidential administration being sued was not represented in the courtroom because it wished to confer no legitimacy on the plaintiffs;

* the Attorney General, called as a witness by the plaintiffs, declined to answer because of executive privilege and his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination; and

* more importantly, as historian Henry Adams aptly put it in his History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson, “Where a judgment was to turn on a question of jurisdiction, the Court commonly considered that point as first and final.”

In other words, if the Court lacked jurisdiction, the case should proceed no further.

In contrast, Marshall first argued at length that the principal plaintiff, William Marbury, had been damaged when Jefferson’s Secretary of State, James Madison, failed to deliver Marbury's commission as Justice of the Peace in the District of Columbia —but only then stated that the Supreme Court lacked authority in this instance.

Legally, all of the foregoing was highly unusual, even problematic. But, in a case with overwhelming political importance, Marshall’s resolution was shrewd and startlingly successful.

In a sense, the title of the case was a misnomer. The real adversaries were not William Marbury and James Madison but Thomas Jefferson and John Marshall.

Though alike in certain ways—second cousins, slaveholders from the Virginia interior, careless of dress, with a fondness for fine liquor and good company—the two men could not have been more opposed.

Exactly when and how their mutual enmity developed is still disputed by historians. But by the late 1790s, that dislike had hardened into something toxic: differences founded as much on personality as on early American party politics.

In March 1801, when Marshall—appointed Chief Justice just before John Adams turned the Presidency over to friend-turned-rival Jefferson—administered the oath of office to his fellow Virginian, the two men were taking the measure of each other, not realizing that their quarrel over the nature of government would dominate the rest of their lives, and beyond.

Jefferson was the head of the Democratic-Republican Party, which now not only held the Presidency but, for the first time, both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Marshall was the most significant surviving officeholder in a Federalist Party that, nobody knew at the time, would never dominate the executive or legislative branches of the United States again.

There were few if any Jeffersonian positions that Marshall agreed with, whether it was friendly relations with revolutionary France, rising democratic sentiments across the nation, or states’ rights. More viscerally, the Chief Justice loathed the new President as a faithless friend of Marshall’s commanding officer in the American Revolution and postwar political mentor, George Washington.

Perhaps above all, Jefferson feared Marshall’s formidable intellect and persuasive powers. “When conversing with Marshall,” he observed, “I never admit anything. So sure as you admit any position to be good—no matter how remote the conclusion he seeks to establish—you are gone. So great is his sophistry, you must never give him an affirmative answer, or you will be forced to grant his conclusion. Why, if he were to ask me whether it was daylight or not, I’d reply, ‘Sir, I don’t know. I can’t tell.’”

The outgoing Federalist majority in Congress furnished Jefferson with a pretext to strike back by passing, in the last days of their session, the Judiciary Act of 1801, which created new courts, added judges, and gave the president more control over appointing judges—and, by increasing offices for Federalist party members (including Marshall’s brother James), resulted in what the Chief’s biographer Richard Brookhiser termed a “lame-duck potlatch.”

Jefferson’s Congress retaliated not only by undoing these expanded judicial appointments in the Judiciary Act of 1802, but also by eliminating summer sessions of the Supreme Court. The next chance for Marshall and his like-minded justices to counterattack came when Marbury and several other “midnight judges” appointed in the last hours of the Adams Administration asked the Court for a “writ of mandamus” ordering Madison to deliver their commissions.

Marbury wouldn't have had to do if Marshall hadn't been struggling to deal with the first transition between opposing political parties in Presidential history. 

Serving as Secretary of State before Adams finally prevailed upon him to take over as Chief Justice, Marshall had been so busy affixing his seal to all these commissions that he didn’t ultimately make sure they were delivered. He asked his brother James to do the job. They were still on the secretary’s desk would Madison took over. Jefferson ordered that the commissions stay right there. 

Nowadays, judicial-ethics mavens would have had a fit over Marshall ruling on a case in which he figured, even if peripherally. But this was a new republic, with the rules being made up as people went along--and Marshall would be there at the foundation.

With Jefferson not wanting the administration represented in the court, Marshall had to resort occasionally to extraordinary means just to determine facts. Such was the case when James Marshall was called to testify about the non-delivery of the commissions.

Finally, on February 24, Marshall read aloud the ruling. This, in itself, was a break with prior practice, in which the justices handed down their own separate decisions.

Marshall, in writing and delivering the opinion himself, was having the Court speak as one voice. Moreover, because the ruling was a unanimous 6-0, he had succeeded in “massing the court,” or presenting a united front—an effective device for gaining legitimacy in controversial cases.

Marshall answered “yes” to the first two questions before the justices: Did Marbury and the other plaintiffs have a right to receive their commissions, and could they sue for their commissions in court?

Two statements in particular, both of which continue to reverberate with clarity and authority to the present day, seemed guaranteed to provoke Jefferson into another act of retaliation against the judiciary: "A Law repugnant to the Constitution is void" and "It is emphatically the duty of the Judicial Department to say what the law is."

Then Marshall pulled his masterstroke. Even though Marbury was entitled to the commission, he could not rely on the Judiciary Act of 1789, since Constitution did not permit the Court to have original jurisdiction in this matter. Therefore, the Court would not order the White House to give Marbury his office.

What to make of this maneuver? Jefferson had been left, it seems, with a victory: this and other judicial appointments that could obstruct his power had been vacated.

It was, in fact, nothing of the sort, but rather, as noted in Michael Glennon's excellent overview of the case in the Summer 2003 issue of The Wilson Quarterly, "a masterwork of calculated restraint, feint, and cunning, an opinion that laid claim for the courts to the greatest of government powersthe final say as to what the law iseven as it left Marshall's opponents no effective response."

In later years, the President realized that Marshall had a loaded pistol at his disposal in the doctrine of judicial review. Jefferson would decry Marbury v. Madison and subsequent decisions of the Marshall Court.

At the same time, Marshall solidified a judicial institution that had appeared increasingly irrelevant. Turnover on the Supreme Court had been rapid, in no small part due to the belief that it was the weakest of the three branches of government, with its power continuing to ebb. When he had taken over, R. Kent Newmyer told Brian Lamb in a C-Span "Book Notes" interview in 2002, "the institution was pretty much on the ropes.

Marshall changed all that, through his intellect, his charm, and his 35 years as Chief (still a record in that post), as I discussed in a later precedent-setting ruling of his, Gibbons v. Ogden. Perhaps most of all, he retained his influence through his shrewd political insight that he should not invite a reaction by overstepping his authority. 

So, though he claimed the right of judicial review, that authority would not be exercised again until 1857, two decades after his death, in the enormously controversial Dred Scott decision--a ruling that also confirmed that Marshall was the first Court practitioner of what Felix Frankfurter would call "judicial restraint."

(There are many fine discussions of Marbury vs. Madison, but one I would recommend is Nicholas Mosvick's blog post this time last year on the Website for the National Constitution Center.)

Quote of the Day (Liana Fix and Michael Kimmage, on the ‘Rules-Based Order’ Putin Left Long Before Invading Ukraine)

“[Vladimir] Putin projected a conciliatory air early in his presidency, although he may have harbored hatred of the West, contempt for the rules-based order, and an eagerness to dominate Ukraine all along. In any case, once he retook the presidency in 2012, Russia dropped out of the rules-based order. Putin derided the system as nothing more than camouflage for a domineering United States. Russia violently encroached on Ukraine's sovereignty by annexing Crimea, reinserted itself in the Middle East by supporting Assad in Syria's civil war, and erected networks of Russian military and security influence in Africa.”— Liana Fix and Michael Kimmage, “Putin’s Last Stand: The Promise and Peril of Russian Defeat,” Foreign Affairs, January/February 2023

TV Quote of the Day (‘Parks and Recreation,’ as Ron Explains How He Discourages Chumminess)

Ron Swanson [played by Nick Offerman]: “When people get too chummy with me, I like to call them by the wrong name to let them know I don’t really care.” —Parks and Recreation, Season 4, Episode 3, “Born and Raised,” original air date Oct. 6, 2011, teleplay by Aisha Muharrar, directed by Dean Holland

Thursday, February 23, 2023

This Day in Presidential History (‘Old Man Eloquent’ Adams Dies in Congress, Combating Slavery)

Feb. 23, 1848—Two days after casting a loud “no” vote in the House of Representatives on a war he abominated for extending slavery, then suffering a massive stroke as colleagues watched helplessly, former President John Quincy Adams died in a private room just off the chamber where he had revived his reputation.

As he expired, the 80-year-old Adams—a son of America’s second President who had struggled to cope with high parental expectations, as well as with his own ambition, unrelenting conscience, and, very likely, a major depressive disorder—conveyed a sense that his taxing personal journey was complete. “This is the last of earth; I am content,” were his reported last words.

In the last couple of days, with the news that Jimmy Carter has gone on hospice care, many observers have noted that, whatever his failures in office, he rewrote the playbook on how post-Presidencies could be conducted.

But, with no disrespect to the ailing former President, Adams achieved a greater impact in less than half the time—a little less than 19 years after he departed the White House, versus 42 years for Carter.

That impact was achieved because, while Carter concentrated on non-governmental service, Adams was elected and reelected to the House of Representatives, a body where to this day, no other President has served after leaving the White House.

(Other ex-Presidents have been consequential after leaving the White House, but not to the extent Adams was, nor as happily. In 1875, Andrew Johnson went back to the Senate, only to die just a few months later. William Howard Taft became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, a position he preferred immensely over the Presidency. Theodore Roosevelt was so unhappy over being out of the Oval Office that he ran for his old post in 1912 against his former friend Taft, opening up a fatal split between the conservative and progressive wings of the Republican Party.)

I believe that places can often express the essence of a historic person far more vividly than words can. In the case of Adams, two places yield special insights into his character.

One is National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol. Before this space was converted to an area where states could honor their most significant citizens, it served as the Hall of the House of Representatives.

When I toured this room some years ago, a guide not only pointed out that Adams had his fatal collapse at his desk here, but also this was where he had rattled opponents in debate.

To be sure, much of his effectiveness derived from his careful preparation for wording speeches and figuring what was most likely to unsettle adversaries, but he was also aided by the spontaneous insights he gained from a certain spot, where a mere whisper on one side of the room could echo to where he was standing.

The second place that provides a vivid sense of Adams is Peacefield, in Quincy, Mass.—for four generations of the family that lived here from 1788 to 1927, nicknamed “The Old House,” but now run by the National Park Service. I visited there 20 years ago, but vivid memories from my day there still linger.

The globes in Peacefield’s study belonged to John Quincy—a subtle reminder of a dazzling diplomatic career in which he not only served as America’s minister to Prussia, Russia, and Great Britain, but also altered the contours of the world’s maps by negotiating Florida’s purchase from Spain while he was secretary of state.

(Indeed, back in 1981, when American Heritage surveyed historians about “The Ten Best Secretaries of State,” Adams was the first choice of 80% of the respondents. I doubt if that result would change 40 years later.)

Adams’ son Charles Francis Adams built on the property a “Stone Library” to house the more than 6,00 books that his father acquired during his lifetime.

The most dramatic items in this library, and perhaps the ones cherished most by generations of the Adams family, are a Bible and a desk. They mark a vindication of sorts for the dedicated but politically frustrated Adams.

The English Bible was presented to John Quincy by Mendi tribesmen in gratitude for his Supreme Court arguments that won freedom for the Amistad slave mutineers in 1841—an episode in American history dramatized in Steven Spielberg’s 1997 drama Amistad.

The desk symbolizes John Quincy’s service in the House of Representatives from 1830 to 1848—a tenure that served as balm to a spirit made miserable by an ineffectual single term as President and wounded by scurrilous campaign charges.

(During Adams’ failed Presidential re-election bid in 1828, Andrew Jackson’s supporters claimed that the President had pimped for the Czar while minister to Russia, and that, in an “unfair bargain,” he had appointed Henry Clay secretary of state in return for Clay’s bloc of votes in Congress in the disputed election of 1824.)

But throughout his post-Presidential career, John Quincy’s resentment was transformed into positive energy on behalf of a cause.

As the most visible surviving link to the founders of the republic as the son of a signer of the Declaration of Independence, he became the most valuable asset of the anti-slavery movement.

Leading an eight-year effort to overthrow the “gag rule” that restricted congressional debate on slavery and threatened the constitutionally guaranteed right of petition, Adams earned the nickname “Old Man Eloquent.” 

And, like freshman Congressman Abraham Lincoln, Adams had attacked the Mexican War from the outset, regarding the conflict as a pretext for adding a slave state to the Union.

Adams’ anti-slavery advocacy formed just part of his wider opposition to Jacksonian policies on the rights of non-white peoples. As President, he had called for better protection of Indian Territories. 

By 1841, having watched his successor’s “simultaneous operation of fraudulent treaties and brutal force,” he confided to his diary his sense of impotent rage over “this abomination”: “It is among the heinous sins of this nation, for which I believe God will one day bring them to judgement—but as His own time and by His own means.”

Adams was more successful during his post-Presidency in steering the nation towards another goal of his Presidency: government investment in scientific research. He was influential in seeing that the curious bequest of English scientist James Smithson—calling for “an Establishment for the increase and diffusion of Knowledge" in the United States—was carried out when Congress created the Smithsonian Institution in 1846.

And one of the late, most gratifying periods of his life came in 1843. As he journeyed west to speak at the dedication of the Cincinnati Observatory, crowds turned out in droves to see this politician who had battled so stubbornly—and often at such a steep price to his mental well-being—for the causes of a lifetime.

For all the high intelligence, integrity, and unswerving patriotism that enabled Adams and other members of his family to achieve greatness, they also suffered an unrelenting, even puritanical pursuit of perfection, overwhelming depression, and tragedy when they couldn’t measure up to the near-impossible standards they set for themselves.

“If you do not rise to the head of your country…it will be owing to your own laziness,” John Adams advised his oldest and most dutiful son. John Quincy did so, but his brothers, wilting under their father’s disapproving eye, fell victim to alcoholism and depression, as did two of his own sons nearly 30 years later.

Often cold and austere, John Quincy made his British-born wife Louisa so miserable that only with great reluctance did she abandon her White House plans for a tell-all memoir about their marriage.

Adams tortured none of his loved ones, however, worse than himself. Assessing his life to date on his 45th birthday, he confessed to his diary:

“Two thirds of a long life are past, and I have done Nothing to distinguish it by usefulness to my Country, or to Mankind— I have always lived with I hope a suitable sense of my duties in Society, and with a sincere desire to perform them— But Passions, Indolence, weakness, and infirmity have sometimes made me swerve from my better knowledge of right, and almost constantly paralyzed my efforts of good.”

Others took a more generous view of his legacy. In an unprecedented gesture, thousands of mourners filed past his bier for two days as he lay in state in the Capitol.

Four years later, when he joined John, his mother Abigail, and wife Louisa in an enlarged family crypt, the ornate coffin prepared by Congress for him proved too large for his sarcophagus, halting the ceremony while stonemasons worked hurriedly to widen the enclosure.

The mishap aptly sums up a family that, to their despair and posterity’s favorable judgment, refused to fit into the narrow political confines of their day.

Quote of the Day (Oliver Goldsmith, on ‘The Man of Wealth and Pride’)

“The man of wealth and pride
Takes up a space that many poor supplied;
Space for his lake, his park’s extended bounds,
Space for his horses, equipage, and hounds:
The robe that wraps his limbs in silken sloth
Has robbed the neighbouring fields of half their growth.”—Anglo-Irish poet, playwright and novelist Oliver Goldsmith (1728-1774), “The Deserted Village” (1770)

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Spiritual Quote of the Day (St. Pope John Paul II, on Lent)

“Lent is a time that makes us think about our relationship with ‘Our Father’; it re-establishes the order that should reign between brothers and sisters. Lent is a time that makes us jointly responsible for one another; it detaches us from our selfishness, small-mindedness, meanness and pride; it is a time that enlightens us and makes us understand better that we too, like Christ, must serve.” —St. Pope John Paul II (1920-2005), Message for Lent 1981

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

TV Quote of the Day (‘Get Smart,’ As Max Resists Disassembling His Robot and ‘Friend’)

[The robot Hymie—originally programmed by Maxwell Smart, then seized and reprogrammed by KAOS—has attempted to assassinate Chief before being stopped by Smart. Now, the agent is reluctant to obey his superior’s order to disassemble this robot that had once saved Max’s life.]

Maxwell Smart [played by Don Adams]: “You can't destroy Hymie. Hymie's my friend!”

Chief [played by Edward Platt]: “Max, this ‘friend’ just broke through my office door, smashed my desk to pieces, and almost strangled me with his bare hands. How do you explain that?”

Smart: “I said he was my friend, not yours.”—Get Smart, Season 2, Episode 1, “Anatomy of a Lover,” original air date Sept. 17, 1966, teleplay by Gary Clarke (under his birth name, "C.F. Lamoreaux"), directed by Bruce Bilson

Monday, February 20, 2023

Quote of the Day (Abraham Lincoln, on Success Through Avoiding ‘Personal Contention’)

“Quarrel not at all. No man resolved to make the most of himself can spare time for personal contention.” —President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), letter to Capt. James M. Cutts, October 26, 1863, in Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 6.

As President during the Civil War, Lincoln could not avoid “contention,” nor could he in his marriage. But his patience towards the difficult Mary Todd Lincoln was extraordinary, and his disagreements with opponents were based on policy—what to do about slavery and secession— rather than personality.

That goes a long way towards explaining how he held together a still-young Republican Party—a coalition founded simply on opposing the extension of slavery into new territories—as well as Northern and border states with fundamental disagreements during the war on what to do with slavery even where it existed.

Lincoln could affect not simply events but people, as seen in how he handled the messy situation that gave rise to the quote above. He appears to have delivered these remarks in person to Captain James Cutts, a brother-in-law of the President’s longtime Illinois political rival, Stephen A. Douglas.

Cutts had been court-martialed for several offenses, including arguing with fellow officers—the “personal contention” to which Lincoln referred.

On appeal, Lincoln approved Cutts’ convictions but reduced the sentences to a written reprimand.

The effect of his shrewd advice to the 26-year-old soldier was profound: Cutts took it to heart enough that he decided to prove his worth on the battlefield rather than through fisticuffs. He would receive the Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery at the battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania and Petersburg.

Sunday, February 19, 2023

This Day in Irish-American History (Playwright Philip Barry Scores 1st Broadway Hit With ‘You and I’)

Feb. 19, 1923— Starting a career that would see him become an integral part of the “Golden Age of American Theater,” Philip Barry achieved his first Broadway success with a comedy written for a college class that won him a prize—and enough money to assure he could make a living from the theater to marry the woman he loved.

You and I, premiering at the Belmont Theater in its first of 174 performances, launched the 26-year-old playwright on a quarter-century run as one of the leading lights of the Great White Way, with several of his plays—The Philadelphia Story, Holiday, and The Animal Kingdom—adapted into classic films.

Those works, like his first, were comedies of manners in which razor-sharp repartee was joined to piercing insights into the lives of the rich and well-born.

Barry also served as a key signpost of Irish-American success in the worlds of theater and literature. He made his Broadway debut the same year—and with more success—than F. Scott Fitzgerald would achieve with his play The Vegetable; a year after George Kelly enjoyed a long, profitable run with his comedy The Show-Off; and in the same decade that Eugene O’Neill steered American theater away from its former shallowness into more probing, psychologically oriented considerations of the human dilemma.

While the quartet were most consistently popular in the 1920s, the overturning of traditional norms during that time—and the subsequent collapse of the bubble prosperity with the Great Depression—led them to deeper, more pointed examinations of how personal conduct could survive under such an onslaught.

At that point, popular and critical regard for their work became harder to come by.

The unstable Fitzgerald became a casualty of this more negative reevaluation—and O’Neill would require superb posthumous productions of his last plays (The Iceman Cometh, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and A Moon for the Misbegotten) to remind people of his greatness. Kelly, a member of the famous Philadelphia clan that also produced his brother John, an Olympic medalist and wealthy contractor, and niece Grace, lived with restraint and carefully managed his income.

The fickleness of success seemed far away for Barry when You and I packed the Belmont Theater. His play, colored by the anxiety of long-term failure, simultaneously celebrated a commitment to one’s muse and to one’s heart.

It was a triumph Barry knew intimately. He had followed his ambition to writing drama, even in the face of strong opposition from his brothers, who wanted him to take over the family’s stone-quarry business. He had followed his heart just as strongly, as hinted in his stage directions for the play’s ingenue, based largely on his fiancée and eventual wife, Ellen Semple—herself a talented artist:

She is about nineteen, slim, of medium height, with a decidedly pretty, high-bred face, lovely hair, lovely hands, soft, low-pitched voice  —whatever she may be saying. Heredity, careful upbringing, education and travel have combined to invest her with a poise far in advance of her years. She has attained the impossible—complete sophistication without the loss of bloom. Her self-confidence is an added charm —free, as it is, from any taint of youthful cocksureness.

The solid Broadway run of You and I also brought much-needed credibility to Barry’s Harvard drama instructor, George Pierce Baker. Barry had revised and renamed this play he had conceived of for Barry’s class, the “47 Workshop.”

By winning the prestigious Richard Herndon Prize for the comedy, the playwright was not only guaranteed a Broadway production, but also was able to vindicate the instructional methods of Baker.

Students in the latter’s class gained practical experience by mounting their plays on a makeshift stage far from the unforgiving eyes of New York critics. Many in the Harvard faculty had viewed Baker’s class with condescension and disdain.

But Barry’s success signaled that such a pedagogical approach could work in a real-world setting, and such other “47 Workshop” alumni as Sidney Howard, S.N. Behrman and Edward Sheldon effectively answered the naysayers, as I noted in this prior post on Baker.

You and I sprang from the urbane, witty side of Barry that not only captivated audiences but won him friends like artist Gerald Murphy, novelist John O’Hara, and Wall Street financier and Secretary of Defense James Forrestal. There was another side—less successful, more experimental and preoccupied with religious and ethical concerns—that came to the fore in later years.

But, in whichever vein he worked, Barry was a diligent craftsman on whom nothing was lost or wasted.

In 2018, You and I enjoyed its first New York revival in 95 years at the Off-Broadway Metropolitan Playhouse. COVID-19 and the social disruptions of the last few years have led to more change in the New York theater scene than I recall during my lifetime. 

But when all is said and done, I hope theater producers and directors will look at Barry with the same fresh eyes they are using to assess everything else with.

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Jay Shetty, on Devotion, ‘An Unmotivated, Uninterrupted Act of Loving Service’)

“The definition of devotion I was introduced to during my time as a monk was an unmotivated, uninterrupted act of loving service. I still love that definition and wouldn’t alter it, because it's beautiful and pure…It requires discipline, and has to be dedicated to something—a higher purpose. It’s also a point of connection through which we can try understanding other people, because what you're devoted to demonstrates who you are.”—English former monk, purpose coach and podcast host Jay Shetty, “Soapbox: The Columnists—WSJ. Asks Five Luminaries to Weigh in on a Single Topic; This Month: Devotion,” WSJ. Magazine, Spring 2023

Saturday, February 18, 2023

Photo of the Day: Westervelt-Vanderhoef House, Clifton NJ

I saw the Westervelt-Vanderhoef House while visiting Weasel Brook Park in Clifton last weekend. If you think this place looks historic, you’re right—built in 1720, it’s one of the oldest buildings in Passaic County.

It originally belonged to Gilbert Vanderhoef, owner and operator of a flour and gristmill. After moving into the hands of the Westervelt family, the property continued to operate as a gristmill until 1897.

The house, which was restored a few years ago, is now used as a meeting space and houses exhibitions on the history of Clifton, Passaic County, and Weasel Brook Park.

Quote of the Day (Victor Hugo, on Life and Love)

“Life is a flower, and love is its honey.”—French playwright, poet, and novelist Victor Hugo (1802-1885), Le roi s'amuse (“The King Amuses Himself”) (1832)

Friday, February 17, 2023

This Day in Theater History (Moliere, Stricken Mid-Performance, Dies Offstage)

Feb. 17, 1673—Maybe he was tempting fate, but, just as
Moliere was mocking doctors in the latest satire he'd written for his troupe, The Imaginary Invalid, he began to cough and gasp towards the end of the comedy's fourth performance. 

The audience, at first stunned, fell into familiar laughter when they saw the French actor, director, theater administrator, and playwright grinning. But he had been coughing up blood and had to be carried home in a sedan chair.

Moliere frantically urged his company to summon his wife and a priest to hear his last confession, but neither arrived in time before he died, at age 50, succumbing to a seizure brought on by tuberculosis.

Why didn’t Moliere call for a doctor as he expired? I can think of four possibilities:

1) He knew his case was hopeless at this point, as he’d been suffering from TB for several years, refusing to let it curtail his creative activity;

2)    2) He thought doctors were incompetent and/or useless;

3)    3)  He dreaded physicians (an attitude not entirely excluding Possibility #2, given the state of 17th-century medicine); and

4)    4)  Dialogue he’d written for himself in his new farce, a broad wink to the audience, might have revealed how he thought men of medicine would react to his emergency: “Your Molière’s an impertinent fellow… If I were a doctor, I’d have my revenge… when he fell ill, I’d let him die without helping him. I’d say: ‘Go on, drop dead!’”

But the choice of the two people that Moliere (the pseudonym adopted by Jean Baptiste Poquelin) did want at his side echoed the two major controversies of his life and career. 

There was a two-decade difference in age between him and wife Armande, at a time when significant age gaps between spouses were even more snickered at than they are now. 

Adding fuel to the wisecracks aimed at him: the rumor that Armande was either the sister of his former mistress or her daughter by Moliere.

(Remember: With no such thing as exercise regimens, understanding of diets, or regular checkups, a 50-year-old man in 1673 was more like 60—at least.)

Moliere was fully aware of what a buffoon he looked like to his critics. The School for Wives (1662), written not long after his marriage, featured the playwright himself as a foolhardy bachelor bound and determined to wed a pretty young thing. 

And in The Misanthrope, the title character is nearly undone not just by his judgmental temperament but by his jealousy of the younger, flirtatious woman he loves.

As for a priest to hear his confession: the Roman Catholic Church came closer to wreaking vengeance on him than the medical profession did. Though Moliere had been careful in Tartuffe and Don Juan to show that he despised religious hypocrisy rather than the practice of religion itself, the Church saw these plays as direct attacks on the institution. 

When he died, his widow had to plead directly with King Louis XIV (someone that Moliere had been careful not to offend) to allow a Christian burial—an appeal only granted on the condition that the ceremony be done with no pomp.

Today, nobody but Moliere scholars knows the names of his critics. But in the three and a half centuries after his death, his work continues to entertain audiences and influence members of the profession for which he literally gave his life. 

Ever since I saw a local production of Don Juanand a 1970s PBS telecast of Tartuffe starring Donald Moffat and Tammy GrimesI have marveled at Moliere's slashing wit, as well as his sprightly dialogue rendered in Alexandrine rhymes (and translated superbly by American poet Richard Wilbur). 

I could not let this post go without discussing a bit more about the most dramatic exit he ever made. Have any other entertainers died under similar circumstances?

Well, yes. Interestingly enough, quite a few opera singers died onstage. (I suppose that the enormous vocal demands of their workand, sometimes, the singers' big framesleft them vulnerable.)

But there have also been several notable cases of other comic actors who, like Moliere, were struck down during a performance:

  • Redd Foxx, the example that sprang immediately to my mind, died of a heart attack in October 1991 during rehearsals for the sitcom The Royal Familyand cast and crew, remembering his many feigned attacks two decades before on Sanford and Son, did not immediately suspect anything was amiss this time;
  • Dick Shawn, perhaps best remembered as the hippie actor "LSD" in Mel Brooks' film The Producers, suffered a fatal heart attack during a performance at the University of California, San Diego's Mandeville Hall; and 
  • Al Kelly, a vaudeville comedian, died in the audience in 1966 right after delivering a Friar's Club roast of Joe E. Lewis.
(For more details on Moliere's death, see this fascinating 2013 post by French literature scholar and novelist Maya Slater, on the Oxford University Press blog.)

Movie Quote of the Day (‘Belfast,’ Revealing the Transatlantic Impact of Raquel Welch)

[Young Buddy and his parents momentarily escape from Ulster’s Troubles in the late 1960s by going to a movie theater to see One Million Years B.C. Early on, a shot of a young, buxom actress in skimpy prehistoric garb fills the screen.]

Ma [played by Caitríona Balfe]: “No wonder you brought us to this.”

Pa [played by Jamie Dornan]: “It's educational for the boys.”

Ma: “Aye. Raquel Welch is hell bent on education.”—Belfast (2021), written and directed by Kenneth Branagh

When I saw Belfast several weeks ago, I guffawed during this scene. Someone else who did, I have good reason to think, provided the “education” alluded to here: Raquel Welch.

When Ms. Welch heard that actor-hyphenate Kenneth Branagh had loved the film that catapulted her to stardom when he was growing up, the Sixties bombshell sent him a glossy signed, "To the boy from Belfast, from the girl in the fur bikini," according to Branagh’s commentary for the DVD of his Oscar-winning movie.

(BTW, the management of this blog decided it was best not to reproduce the image of the actress in that particular garb with this post. We cannot be responsible for baby-boomer males experiencing cardiac arrest at this flashback to their impressionable youth.)

Time is “indifferent in a week/To a beautiful physique,” the poet W. H. Auden observed somberly. 

Still, it came as something of a shock when I heard that Ms. Welch had died this week at age 82. Illness, decline, and death are not supposed to happen to film legends whose natural good looks are already magnified to fill the big screen.

Chances are, the desired career path of many Hollywood starlets is to begin as a sex symbol before transitioning to more challenging dramatic fare, as Sophia Loren, Ann-Margret and Jessica Lange did.  Ms. Welch did not travel all the way on that trajectory, though her time in the industry was substantial.

You will not find an argument here that Ms. Welch was an unappreciated or even underestimated acting talent. But she achieved something as remarkable in its way as critical acclaim would have been: success on her terms, not those of filmdom’s male power brokers.

For one thing, she risked being labeled "difficult" by standing up for her right, beginning with her adamant refusal to perform nude onscreen, despite intense pressure to do so. 

According to Anita Gates’ obituary of the actress in The New York Times, even art-house darlings Ismail Merchant and James Ivory resorted to that tactic while making The Wild Party. Ivory had no trouble bad-mouthing her in later years for what he depicted as unprofessional behavior on the set, but he had surely squandered much of the respect she might have given him by pressing her for intimate scenes.

She also dared to take on a major studio in court—and won. 

After being fired from Cannery Row in 1982, she braved MGM’s characterization of her as an aging star out to score a big payday, with her attorneys convincing the jury that the studio had only fired her after their original choice for her role, Debra Winger, became available.

Second, she stretched her talents whenever she had the opportunity. Most notably, she filled in very capably for Lauren Bacall in the Broadway musical adaptation of Woman of the Year, by many accounts winning over theatergoers with her own take on the role.

Finally, she had an irreverent, even self-deprecating sense of humor. That not only enabled her to survive the vicissitudes of an exploitative industry, but led her towards roles where the right director could make use of her wry instincts. Many will fondly remember her featured roles in the likes of Tortilla Soup, Legally Blonde, and a hilarious Seinfeld episode where she appeared as herself.  

“She was elegant, professional and glamorous beyond belief,” tweeted her Legally Blonde costar, Reese Witherspoon. “Simply stunning. May all her angels carry her home."