Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Exhibit Review: ‘The Royal Family’ of Broadway, Hollywood—and Fort Lee, NJ

In the late 1920s, when the George S. Kaufman-Edna Ferber comedy The Royal Family played to packed audiences at the at the Selwyn Theater, audiences knew that the group in the title were not Britain’s Windsors but an American acting dynasty strongly resembling the Barrymores. When Paramount Pictures adapted the play for the big screen in 1930, the studio felt it best, considering the many non-theater aficionados outside the Big Apple, to tack “of Broadway” at the end of the title.

Over the last century, with siblings John, Lionel, and Ethel filming one classic after another—and with John’s granddaughter Drew making her own contribution to the industry as an actress-producer—the Barrymores could just as easily be called “The Royal Family of Hollywood.” Now, with an exhibit about the multi-generational thespians now running in a film center named for them in northern New Jersey, they could also be labeled “The Royal Family of Fort Lee.”

In a late January blog post of mine that related my discovery of the Barrymore Film Center, I promised that I would discuss a first-floor exhibit on the family that runs through the end of March. It really is must viewing for anyone interested in film and theater history—even, more broadly, New Jersey and Fort Lee history.

The exhibit curators have scoured far and wide for photos, posters, sculptures, props, and other materials associated with John, Lionel, and Ethel Barrymore. Separate walls tell the story of each sibling—all loaded with talent, looks, and money, but also with more than the normal share of offstage drama that actors often encounter.

The dynasty started not with this trio but with John Drew, who became an actor and theater manager after emigrating from Ireland in the 1830s. In turn, his daughter Georgiana, herself an actress, wed Herbert Blythe, an Indian-born British stage actor professionally known as Maurice Barrymore. It is he who, in effect, became the patriarch of “The Royal Family.”

A talented comic actor who became one of the first Broadway stars to star in vaudeville, Maurice did well enough financially to buy a summer cottage in what is now the Coytesville section of Fort Lee, several blocks from the film center. (Despite ardent efforts by film buffs, that house was demolished 22 years ago.)

As the museum chronicles, Fort Lee, because of its proximity to Broadway, the Hudson River and Palisades, became the de facto birthplace of the American film industry. It’s appropriate, then, that three of Maurice’s acting progeny, all of whom spent much of their youth in the town—Lionel, Ethel, and John Barrymore—came as close as you can get to being present at the creation of this narrative art form.

(Oddly enough, though the three had more than 300 screen appearances among them, they only appeared together once on the big screen—the 1932 film Rasputin and the Empress. A poster for that movie, part of the exhibit, is the image accompanying this post.)

Moviegoers of the past few decades are likely to be familiar with the four decade career, as actress, producer, talk-show host, and gossip-page fixture, of Drew Barrymore. But her triumphs and travails pale in comparison with the great sibling triumvirate who dominate the Barrymore Center exhibit.

Still, you’ll likely be in for something of shock when you first enter the exhibit room to see a photo of a young woman who bears a startling resemblance to the current best-known member of the family. But it’s not Drew but Ethel Barrymore—a similarity all the more surprising because Ethel was Drew’s grandaunt rather than, more directly, her grandmother.

Among the items that depict Ethel here are a photo, a portrait, a bust of the actress, and a poster from her first movie, The Nightingale, shot in 1914 right in Fort Lee.

Unlike her brothers, “The First Lady of the American Theater” worked primarily on the stage, as she followed in the tradition of her grandfather, John Drew, as star and manager of Broadway’s Ethel Barrymore Theater, which the Shubert Organization created as a vehicle for her.

A guide at the museum told me that her favorite member of the family was Lionel Barrymore, and the artifacts on display make a compelling case for his versatility.

Then in their toddler stage, films in the silent and early talkies era left Lionel and many other denizens of Hollywood skeptical about their cultural potential—even when, as in his case, he went behind the camera to direct, rather than his usual position in front.

(He is best known, of course, for his performance as miserly Mr. Potter in the Yuletide classic It’s a Wonderful Life—a kind of American counterpart to his annual radio broadcasts over two decades as Scrooge in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.)

The creative instinct that Lionel couldn’t display, even as a well-compensated contract player for MGM Studio, he satisfied by picking up a paintbrush or playing the piano and oboe. While walking through the gallery, you’ll hear his First Piano Concerto and Memoriam on the Death of John Barrymore.

Although Ethel and Lionel displayed more self-discipline, John Barrymore has always fascinated me the most of the trio. His talent was matched by an appearance that gave rise to the nickname “The Great Profile.”

Unfortunately both were exceeded by a raucous lifestyle that spawned a million anecdotes—most, remarkably enough, true. (When asked if the very young Romeo and Juliet had a physical relationship, he cracked, “They certainly did in the Chicago company.”)

Committing his father to Bellevue in 1901 was a searing experience for John, but he could not escape the family propensity for substance abuse—and he seems to have passed this genetic inheritance to children Diana and John Drew Barrymore and the latter’s daughter, Drew.

By the early 1930s, John was having trouble showing up on time for studio work and memorizing his lines. Within a decade, as a has-been Shakespearean actor in the stage comedy My Dear Children, he verged close to self-parody.

But the exhibit also includes evidence that John at his best was an electrifying, even pioneering, actor, such as the chair and dagger he used in a 1920 stage production of Hamlet (proclaimed for years as the best many had seen) and the suit of armor he donned for Richard III.

If you have a chance, see the Barrymore exhibit before it closes March 26. Both aficionados of this legendary family and those with only the slightest inkling of what they once meant to the early film industry will come away with greater appreciation for this trio who left their unmistakable marks on American entertainment.

Quote of the Day (Dana Gioia, with an ‘Alley Cat Love Song’)

“The fireflies court in the sweetgum tree.
The nightjar calls from the pine,
And she seems to say in her rhapsody,
‘Oh, mustard-brown Fred, be mine!’
The full moon lights my whiskers afire,
And the fur goes erect on my spine.”—American poet, critic, translator, and essayist Dana Gioia, “Alley Cat Love Song," from Interrogations at Noon (2001)
The accompanying image of Dana Gioia was taken Sept. 4, 2015, by Star Black.
(Thanks to my college friend Greg for inspiring me to look up more work by this talented poet.)

Monday, March 20, 2023

Quote of the Day (S.J. Perelman, on Immortality)

“Immortality is a chancy matter, subject to the caprice of the unborn.”— American humorist and screenwriter S.J. Perelman (1904-1979), The World of S. J. Perelman: The Marx Brothers' Greatest Scriptwriter (2006)

Sunday, March 19, 2023

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Blaise Pascal, on Humanity’s Lack of Vision)

“For after all what is man in nature? A nothing in regard to the infinite, a whole in regard to nothing, a mean between nothing and the whole; infinitely removed from understanding either extreme. The end of things and their beginnings are invincibly hidden from him in impenetrable secrecy, he is equally incapable of seeing the nothing whence he was taken, and the infinite in which he is engulfed.”—French philosopher and logician Blaise Pascal (1623–1662), Pensées (Thoughts), translated by Charles Kegan Paul (1901)

Saturday, March 18, 2023

Photo of the Day: Fort Lee Mural

This afternoon while in Fort Lee, a few miles from where I live in Bergen County, NJ, I had a little extra time, so I took a five-minute walk north of the George Washington Bridge. 

I’ve become accustomed to how much the borough has changed over the years. But the mural you see here—and which I promptly photographed—was a sight I hadn’t come across before.

The mural, located at 1637 Palisade Avenue, was unveiled this past August. It was created by Dan Kitchener, a London-based artist whose street art can also be seen in Tokyo, Hong Kong, Russia, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere in Europe.

Quote of the Day (Ralph Waldo Emerson, on the American Libertarian Streak)

“It is the age of severance, of dissociation, of freedom, of analysis, of detachment. Every man for himself. The public speaker disclaims speaking for any other; he answers only for himself. The social sentiments are weak; the sentiment of patriotism is weak; veneration is low; the natural affections feebler than they were. People grow philosophical about native land and parents and relations. There is an universal resistance to ties and ligaments once supposed essential to civil society. The new race is stiff, heady and rebellious. They are fanatics in freedom; they hate tolls, taxes, turnpikes, banks, hierarchies, governors, yea, almost laws.”—American essayist, philosopher, and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), “Historic Notes of Life and Letters in New England,” Atlantic Monthly, October 1883; originally written in 1867, reprinted in Emerson, Lectures and Biographical Sketches (1909)

Friday, March 17, 2023

Quote of the Day (Flann O’Brien, As a Guardian Schools His Orphaned Nephew on Age and Culture)

“One evening Mr Collopy asked me where the morning paper was. I handed him the nearest I could find. He handed it back to me.

  –This morning’s I told you.

  –I think that’s this morning’s.

  –You think? Can you not read, boy?

  –Well… no.

  –Well, may the sweet Almighty God look down on us with compassion! Do you realize that at your age Mose Art had written four symphonies and any God’s amount of lovely songs? Pagan Neeny had given a recital on the fiddle before the King of Prussia and John the Baptist was stranded in the desert with damn the thing to eat only locusts and wild honey. Have you no shame man?

  –Well, I’m young yet.”—Irish novelist, newspaper columnist, and civil servant Brian O’Nolan, AKA Flann O’Brien (1911-1966), The Hard Life: An Exegesis of Squalor (1961)

Thursday, March 16, 2023

Quote of the Day (Jason Gay, on That Awful March Madness ‘Bracketology’)

“There's a gargantuan economy around the alleged art of bracket expertise, and even a bespoke term, ‘bracketology,’ which is so groan-worthy it should be flown out to the middle of the ocean, detonated, and never be allowed to recirculate back into the language. In the coming days you will hear from people who will lecture you persuasively about the merits of a program you didn’t even consider. You will consult the worthy services of the Journal's famous ‘Blindfolded Bracket’ March Madness machine. All of this information has the potential to be useful, but the end result will be the same: We are all going to lose to someone who filled out their bracket while riding down to the lobby in an elevator.”—Sports columnist Jason Gay, “A Loser’s Guide to the Madness,” The Wall Street Journal, Mar. 14, 2023

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Quote of the Day (Alexander Pushkin, on One “Whose Heart Experience Has Chilled’)

“Blest he who’s given to believing,
  Who sets aside cold intellect,
  Whose heart, enjoying bliss delightful,
  Rests like a traveller drunk at nightfall
  Or (gentler) like a butterfly
  That settles on a flower near by;
  But sad is he who lacks illusion,
  Whose head is steady, never stirred,
  Who hates each impulse, every word,
  Foreseeing always their conclusion;
  Whose heart experience has chilled,
  Whose urge to reverie is stilled.”—Russian poet, playwright, and fiction writer Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837), Eugene Onegin: A Novel in Verse (1833), translated by Stanley Mitchell (2008)

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Quote of the Day (‘Grumplestiltskin’ Grant, Showing His Surly Side to Ashley Graham and a Worldwide Audience)

Ashley Graham: “What’s your favorite thing about coming to the Oscars?”

Hugh Grant: “Well, um, it’s fascinating. The whole of humanity is here. It’s vanity fair.”

Graham: “Oh, it’s all about Vanity Fair. It’s let loose and have a little fun. What are you most excited to see tonight?”

Grant: “To see?”

Graham: “Yeah. I know that you watch a few of the movies. Are you exited to see anyone win? Do you have your hopes up for anyone?”

Grant: “No one in particular.”

Graham: “Okay. What are you wearing tonight, then?”

Grant: “Just my suit.”

Graham: “Your suit? You didn’t make your suit! Who designed it?”

Grant: “I can’t remember…My tailor.”

Graham: “That’s okay. Shout-out to your tailor! So tell me, what does it feel like to be in Glass Onion? It was such an amazing film, I really loved it. I love a thriller! How fun is it to shoot something like that?”

Grant: “Well, I’m barely in it. I’m in for about three seconds.”

Graham: “But still, you showed up and you had fun, right?”

Grant: “Uh, almost.”—Hugh Grant and Ashley Graham quoted by Michael Ausiello, “Oscars: Hugh Grant Shuts Down Ashley Graham in Mesmerizingly Awkward Red Carpet Interview,” www.tvline.com, Mar. 12 2023

Movie fans who only know Hugh Grant as the bumbling but winning lead in rom-coms like Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Love, Actually had a chance to see him without a script at the Oscars on Sunday night. This recent spectacle will not exactly burnish his reputation as a charmer.

Former flame Elizabeth Hurley, who still remains on good terms with the English actor, revealed to talk-show host Andy Cohen eight years ago that Grant’s peevishness had earned him the nickname "Grumplestiltskin" among her friends. His dialogue above with supermodel Ashley Graham should tip you off how he acquired that surly sobriquet.

You will get no argument from me about the general inanity of the so-called "red carpet" (or, this year, "champagne-colored carpet") chatter before the industry’s main event of the year. Nor will you hear me disagree that what transpired between Grant and Graham was still better than Will Smith’s slap of Chris Rock in last year’s controversial telecast.

But, from the moment that Ms. Graham mistook Grant’s reference to William Makepeace Thackeray’s Victorian satire of human vainglory for an allusion to the glitzy magazine famous for its Oscar parties, it was all downhill. The actor’s lifted eyebrows at the end of their exchange said far more than his clipped answers about his contempt for the whole circus.

Reaction to this tense interview on social media was swift, and mostly against Grant.

Much the same division of sentiment followed after he acted as presenter with Four Weddings and a Funeral co-star Andie McDowell. Some called his description of how he looked without moisturizer funny; others thought it tasteless.

I voted for “tasteless.” In fact, when I first heard Grant’s description of his face, I thought I must have been mistaken, that he was resorting to the stuttery style of speaking that had endeared him to so many.

Clearly, he had ad-libbed while on stage, as you might have guessed from Andie McDowell’s surprised reaction to what was meant to be a compliment to her appearance.

Richard Gere was banned as a presenter for 20 years after ad-libbing at the 1993 ceremony, but at least he did it for a good cause: a protest against the Chinese government for its mistreatment of Tibet. What should the Academy do about Grant’s tacky, raunchy joke?

“The only thing an actor owes his public is not to bore them,” Humphrey Bogart reportedly said. Maybe.

But entertainers owe each other what all human beings owe the rest of humanity: courtesy. That attitude exudes grace and is more essential to what we call “class” than something ephemeral and maybe ill-gotten like money.

Over the weekend, it was missing from Grant’s repertoire. I guess we will find out soon, once he’s had some time to consider what he did and to craft an apology, if it was ever really part of his carefully crafted persona.

(The image accompanying this post, of Hugh Grant at a charity fundraiser held in South Bank, London, was taken Mar.15, 2011, by Julien Rath.)

Monday, March 13, 2023

Quote of the Day (Christopher Buckley, on the Face of China’s Leadership)

“Well, to be sure, China was clearly intent on becoming daguo (a new word in Bird's vocabulary), a ‘great power.’ But it was going about achieving this goal in a relatively quiet, deliberate, and businesslike way. It was hard, really, to put any kind of definite face on China. The old Soviet Union with its squat, warty leaders banging their shoes on the UN podium and threatening thermonuclear extinction, all those vodka-swollen, porcine faces squinting from under sable hats atop Lenin's Tomb as nuclear missiles rolled by like floats in a parade from hell — those Commies at least looked scary. But on the rare occasion when the nine members of China’s Politburo Standing Committee, the men who ruled 1.3 billion people — one-fifth of the world’s population — lined up for a group photo, they looked like a delegation of identical, overpaid dentists….After days of studying photographs of the individual Politburo members, Bird still could barely tell one from another; though the one in charge of state security did at least look like a malevolent overpaid dentist.”—American novelist Christopher Buckley, They Eat Puppies, Don't They? (2012)

Tensions between China and the US are the highest in my lifetime, what with questions on the origin of COVID, allying with Russia, making threatening moves towards Taiwan, and surpassing the US as the world’s dominant economy. Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power into his own hands, in a way not seen in that country in decades, doesn’t make matters any easier.

Now, you can read this very serious Brookings Institution explanation of the latest members of China’s Politburo. But I must confess that it’s hard for me to think of this motley crew in the same way after reading Christopher Buckley’s satiric take on them in the above passage.

After more than a decade, however, Buckley might want to return to the subject of China. This time, with Xi’s continuing grip on the drills of power, he might want to show the Chinese Politburo of “dentists” themselves left toothless.

Sunday, March 12, 2023

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Rabbi Abraham Heschel, on ‘The Prophet’s Will’)

“The prophet’s will does not faint; his mind does not become a mist. Prophecy is consciousness and remembrance of the scandals of priests, of the callousness of the rich, of the corruption of the judges. The intensity and violence of the prophet's emotions do not cause his intelligence to subside…. The prophet is not a person who has had an experience, but one who has a task, and the marks of whose existence are the consistency and wholeheartedness in the dedication to it.” — Polish-born American Jewish theologian Rabbi Abraham J. Heschel (1907-1972), The Prophets (1962)

Saturday, March 11, 2023

Quote of the Day (Budd Schulberg, on Gwyneth Paltrow’s Oscar Speech Omission)

“I watch the Awards shows year after year and I have noticed a trend. When Gwyneth Paltrow won for Shakespeare in Love, she thanked the producer and her agents. She thanked her hairdresser and every member of her family. She must have thanked 50 people. But she never mentioned the writer. She didn’t even mention Shakespeare. They don’t want to thank the people who created their characters and who put the words in their mouth. There can’t be anything without the writer.”— Oscar-winning screenwriter and novelist Budd Schulberg (1914-2009), quoted in “The Real Contender: A Conversation with ‘On the Waterfront’ Screenwriter Budd Schulberg,” Hudson Reporter, July 29, 2000

Budd Schulberg, with more than 80 years of experience in the film community as the son of a studio executive, screenwriter, and observer of the industry, was venting about the lack of respect so long accorded to scribes in Hollywood.

Their indignities have been legion—they have watched in frustration as:

*their terrific script goes into “turnaround,” or development hell; or as

*their script is given to one or more other writers for polishing (Turner and Hooch, the early Tom Hanks film that teamed him with an ugly dog, went through eight different writers!); or as

*their script gets turned by some combination of other writers, directors and producers into something radically different (or, in the words of William Holden’s hack in Sunset Boulevard about his last project, it “was about Okies in the Dust Bowl. You'd never know because when it reached the screen, the whole thing played on a torpedo boat”); or as

*they are banished from the set so they can’t object to the director's damage to their work; or as

*the angrier ones try to use whatever meager leverage they’ve accumulated to protect their scripts by becoming directors themselves, as with Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder; or finally, as Schulberg noted,

*actors forget to say thanks for writing the lines that helped them win the biggest professional honor of their careers.

But, if Schulberg had lived almost a decade longer, his outrage might have been, if anything, even more intense than what he conveyed in this interview.

After all, that producer that Gwyneth Paltrow thanked in her weepy speech on Oscar night almost a quarter century ago? It was Harvey Weinstein, a figure she later described as a “bully”—and now, of course, not just the poster boy of the #MeToo movement but also a felon convicted of rape and assault.

By the way, “the writer” Paltrow neglected to mention? It was actually two: Marc Norman and Sir Tom Stoppard—and that year they shared the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for Shakespeare in Love.

So let’s see tomorrow night who thanks the writers—and who, like Paltrow, for whatever reason, never gets around to it.

Friday, March 10, 2023

TV Quote of the Day (‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show,’ With an Unusual Birthday Gift—For Ted Baxter, That Is)

Sue Ann Nivens [played by Betty White]: “Happy birthday, Ted. It’s a book. I hope you don’t already have it.”

Georgette Franklin [played by Georgia Engel]: “Don’t worry, if it’s a book, he doesn’t have it.” —The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Season 5, Episode 2, “Not Just Another Pretty Face,” original air date Sept. 21, 1974, teleplay by Ed. Weinberger and Stan Daniels, directed by Jay Sandrich

Thursday, March 9, 2023

Quote of the Day (John Keats, on ‘The Poetry of Earth’ in Winter)

“The poetry of earth is ceasing never:   
  On a lone winter evening, when the frost    
    Has wrought a silence, from the stove there shrills   
The Cricket’s song, in warmth increasing ever,   
  And seems to one in drowsiness half lost,   
    The Grasshopper’s among some grassy hills.” —English poet John Keats (1795-1821), “On the Grasshopper and Cricket,” Dec. 30, 1816, reprinted in The Complete Poems of John Keats (1994)

Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Quote of the Day (Cate Blanchett, on Roles for Mature Actresses)

“Men are boys for such a long time and really don't start getting the great roles until they're in their mid-thirties. But then they've got a long time to do them, whereas for women, it's all about playing younger and younger and younger. They start when they're 18 and go till they're 28, maybe 35 if they're lucky. I remember [veteran actress] Rosemary Harris saying to me that, in her sixties, she was coming into a whole swathe of work because she was one of the few women who hadn't had anything done, who actually looked her age, because when people try to find a 60-year-old now, there are none. I'm in it for the long haul.”—Two-time Oscar-winning actress Cate Blanchett quoted by Mark Salisbury, “Cate Blanchett: Women in Hollywood Icon 2006,” Premiere Magazine, October 2006

At age 53, Ms. Blanchett is closer to the 60-year-old mark that she noted in the above interview. But, with another Oscar nomination for Tar, she is indeed, as she vowed, “in it for the long haul.”

Just as remarkably in youth-oriented Hollywood, she will not be the only 50-plus nominee in the Best Actress category. She will be joined by Michelle Yeoh, age 60. It will be an interesting race between the two.

Tuesday, March 7, 2023

Quote of the Day (Virginia Woolf, on Why Reading a Novel is a ‘Difficult and Complex Art’)

“To read a novel is a difficult and complex art. You must be capable not only of great fineness of perception, but of great boldness of imagination if you are going to make use of all that the novelist – the great artist – gives you.” —English novelist-essayist Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), “How Should One Read a Book?,” originally delivered as a lecture at Hayes Court Common School, Kent, England, Jan. 30, 1926, reprinted as a book in 2020

Monday, March 6, 2023

Quote of the Day (Lewis Black, on Kellyanne Conway)

“She’s not the person you hire when you need to explain what a crazy man meant. She’s the person you need to get when you want to get rid of your daughter’s cheerleading rival.”—American comedian Lewis Black, on former Trump communications adviser Kellyanne Conway, quoted by Anne Thompson and Kate Erbland, “Trump, Triumph and Speaking Truth to Power: Politics Take a Bow at 2017 Writers Guild Awards,” IndieWire, Feb. 20, 2017

For years, people have mouthed the cliché, “Politics makes strange bedfellows.” This past weekend, with the news that Trump diehard Kellyanne Conway and her tweeting husband George will be divorcing, we can now say, “Politics makes ex-bedfellows.”

The natural tendency in a case like this is not to allow political differences to color how one feels about the breakup of a couple in the public eye. That’s particularly the case for the Conways, who not only have children who will be collateral damage in the breakup of their marriage but who also are traditional conservative Catholics for whom divorce is close to anathema. There are sad, even tragic, aspects to this story.

But…this is Kellyanne Conway we’re talking about, folks. In the cutthroat world of political spin, she has, like the pirate Blackbeard, asked no quarter and will get none.

For the last seven years, nobody was in serious doubt how long Kellyanne would put up with the “crazy man” to whom Black referred above. The real question, we came to see, was how long she could put up with George.

Now we know. The answers to those questions are not to her benefit. 

Some have likened the Kellyanne-George marriage to the James Carville-Mary Matalin union. I don’t think that analogy quite cuts it. 

You have to look further back, to the John and Martha Mitchell marriage and divorce, to see something closer to this—another case where a spouse, originally all in with her husband’s President, cried out in protest when that boss finally cried the line. (Luckily, there is little likelihood that George Conway, an affluent attorney, will be gaslit, the way that poor Martha was by the Nixon administration during Watergate.) 

Kellyanne is the best current embodiment of the George Orwell statement, "In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible." I must say, I had more respect for Reese Witherspoon's Election character Tracy Flick after seeing Conway's tired act.

In her memoir last year, Kellyanne seemed to be preparing the way for her divorce by accusing George of “tweeting by cheating,” of violating their marriage vows to “love, honor, and obey” with his social-media rants against her boss.

But, if she is horrified by “cheating but tweeting,” how can she feel about a Troll-in-Chief addicted to the same thing, as well as cheating by real cheating—on his wives, with those with whom he engaged in business for the last half-century, and on the country?

(The image accompanying this post, of Kellyanne Conway speaking at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland, was taken Feb. 23, 2017, by Gage Skidmore from Peoria, Arizona.)

Sunday, March 5, 2023

Spiritual Quote of the Day (St. Augustine of Hippo, on the Traits of the City of God)

“The king is Truth, the law is Love, and the duration is Eternity.”—Roman Catholic memoirist, theologian, and bishop St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD), Letter 138, to imperial envoy and Roman martyr Flavius Marcellinus (A.D. 412), in Letters of St. Augustine

Saturday, March 4, 2023

Quote of the Day (Thomas Paine, Foreseeing the Need for Social Security)

“The contrast of affluence and wretchedness continually meeting and offending the eye, is like dead and living bodies chained together. Though I care as little about riches as any man, I am a friend to riches because they are capable of good. I care not how affluent some may be, provided that none be miserable in consequence of it. But it is impossible to enjoy affluence with the felicity it is capable of being enjoyed, while so much misery is mingled in the scene. The sight of the misery, and the unpleasant sensations it suggests, which, though they may be suffocated cannot be extinguished, are a greater drawback upon the felicity of affluence than the proposed ten per cent upon property is worth. He that would not give the one to get rid of the other has no charity, even for himself.”—English-born American patriot and pamphleteer Thomas Paine (1737-1809), Agrarian Justice Opposed to Agrarian Law, and to Agrarian Monopoly; Being a Plan for Meliorating the Condition of Man (1797)

Thomas Paine is most famous for laying out the case for American independence in Common Sense, then sustaining that cause through “the times that try men’s souls” in The Crisis Papers. Less well-known is his advocacy for bridging the growing gap between rich and poor through something like the modern welfare state.

Indeed, he has been called “The Father of Social Security,” and Agrarian Justice, one of his last great pamphlets, can be found on the Website of the Social Security Administration.

Paine was appalled not just by the wretched poverty he had seen in France and his native England, but also by religious rhetoric regarding it as the natural order of the world. (Indeed, he had thought of withholding publication until war had ceased between the two countries, but decided to express his thoughts immediately when he heard of a sermon by an English bishop entitled, “The Wisdom and Goodness of God, in having made both rich and poor.")

The French mathematician and philosopher Condorcet had preceded Paine in recommending a social insurance scheme for the aged and for young people just starting out in life, but Paine demonstrated for the first time how it might be economically feasible with a proposal for a 10% tax on inherited property.

His thinking was all the more remarkable because, as implied by the second and third sentences in the passage above, he had not in the slightest abandoned his belief in the right of private property.

It would take the worst excesses of the Industrial Revolution and the need to defuse the rising labor radicalism it unleashed for others to lay the political foundation for Paine’s prescient economic idea.

Now, it has taken such root with the American public that Senator Rick Scott was forced to exclude Social Security and Medicare from his proposal to “sunset” federal legislation, once it became a potential campaign target for the Democratic Party.

For more information on the background to Paine’s pioneering pamphlet, I recommend Bernard Vincent’s discussion in The Transatlantic Republic: Thomas Paine and the Age of Revolutions, and a 2014 interview with Brown University political scientist Alex Gourevitch on “The Junto,” a group blog on early American history.

Friday, March 3, 2023

This Day in Scientific History (Robert Hooke, ‘London’s Leonardo’ and Newton Nemesis, Dies)

Mar. 3, 1703— Robert Hooke, considered the foremost experimental scientist of the seventeenth century, died at age 67 in London, having sped his decline by trying different drugs and medical remedies that did nothing to cure his maladies.

Hooke’s achievements were so numerous, in so many different fields, that he has been labeled “London’s Leonardo.” I will list these inventions and discoveries shortly, for those readers (more than a few, I believe) unfamiliar with them.

But right now, I should tell you why I wanted to write about him in the first place.

No matter how staggering or monumental a scientist’s advances might be, these do not interest me in and of themselves. When I was young, you could look these up in a print encyclopedia—and now, even more swiftly, through a Google search. But a few minutes after your research, you would be likely to remember none of what you read.

No, it’s not the cool, objective man in a lab that draws my attention, but another figure in the field of science: the compulsive searcher for knowledge, doggedly and sometimes foolishly pursuing what may seem like dead ends—and then, when he makes his startling discoveries, in a proud defense of his work, revealing that he is subject to the same quirks, jealousies, anxieties, and pettiness as anyone without his brilliance.

Students may not realize it from the dull science texts they have to read, but Hooke was definitely a genius of this latter type. Possessed of abundant curiosity, he became a curious figure in his own right—not just during his own lifetime, but for historians of science who have tried ever since to puzzle out the background of a titan who ranged across physics, astronomy, chemistry, biology, geology, even architecture and naval technology.

Among his accomplishments were:

*improving the design of the compound microscope;

*discovering, observing, and naming the “cell,” the fundamental unit of life;

*writing Micrographia (1665), the first textbook in English to feature observations made under a microscope, beautifully illustrated by Hooke himself;

*inventing the balance spring, the used in mechanical watches, alarm clocks, kitchen timers, marine chronometers, and other timekeeping mechanisms;

* inventing the universal joint, the iris diaphragm, and an early prototype of the respirator;

*formulating Hooke’s Law, which states that the amount of force applied to an elastic object is proportional to how far it stretches;

*theories about fossils and the possibility of long-lost species nearly two centuries before Darwin;

*serving as assistant to the pioneering chemist Robert Boyle, including experiments on air pumps;

*collaborating with Sir Christopher Wren on problems of longitude and comets;

* serving as Chief Surveyor and helping rebuild London after the Great Fire of 1666.

But Hooke was all too human—just how much, though, not known until his diaries were published in 1935. He wrote as quickly as his active worklife allowed, about virtually all aspects of his existence—including his liaisons, indicated by a special symbol, to prevent them from being easily read and understood by prying eyes.

Quarrelsome and paranoid, Hooke was unfortunate enough to make an enemy of a similarly choleric character: Sir Isaac Newton. Hooke, habitually inclined to believe he had been insufficient credit by other scientists, complained in a similar fashion about correspondence he had had with Newton concerning gravity.

For a reader trying to find a modern equivalent of the feud between Newton and Hooke, consider the bitter relationship between NBA Hall of Famers Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas—in each pair, a legend whose fame extended beyond his field to the wider culture, but who continues to denigrate a rival decades later.

Newton was unlike scientists such as Christian Huygens or Johannes Hevelius that Hooke had contended with: he could carry a grudge forever, displayed what biographer James Gleick has described as “implacable ruthlessness” towards scientific foes, and wielded enormous institutional authority as president of the Royal Society.

(One common explanation for why no portraits of Hooke were made during his life is that Newton ensured that one was removed and destroyed at the Royal Society—a rumor that Dr. Felicity Henderson discussed in a fine2010 blog post for that organization. Thus, the image accompanying this post is an imagined one, from this century, with no certainty that it is like the original.)

Newton also outlived Hooke by nearly a quarter century, ensuring that his fame shone all the brighter, to Hooke’s disadvantage. It was no accident that Alexander Pope would write the epitaph, “Nature and Nature’s Laws lay hid in Night:/God said, ‘Let Newton be!’ and all was light.”

Far from achieving similar celebrity, Hooke came in for mockery on the stage, even during his lifetime. Thomas Shadwell’s 1676 farce The Virtuoso mocked the “new world” that Hooke had announced in Micrographia, leading the scientist to carp in his diary about the reaction of other playgoers who recognized him as the object of the ridicule: “Damned Doggs. Vindica me Deus. People almost pointed."

Far all his brilliance and the distance he had travelled from his humble origins, Hooke could never shake his hyper-sensitivity. Some of it may have derived from his appearance. A sickly child, Hooke developed curvature of the spine at the age of 16 that only worsened with time.

Maybe that was the reason for one of the discoveries about his private life made in his diaries: he had no intimate relationships with adult women of his class, instead consorting with house maids, as well as with his niece Grace.

The latter’s death at age 27 in 1687 was a blow from which Hooke never recovered. His intake of experimental drugs to deal with his mounting maladies (e.g., double vision, near-delusions) grew apace, leaving him essentially bedridden for the last year of his life.

Joke of the Day (Dino Stamatopoulos, on How “Cancel Culture’ Will Be Regarded in the Future)

“The idea of cancel culture will be embarrassing. But I’m too scared of being canceled to say that.”—Comedian-writer Dino Stamatopoulos, quoted by George Gurley, “Future Cringe,” The New York Times, Jan. 26, 2023

(The image accompanying this post, showing Dino Stamatopoulos at the Magic City Comic Con, was taken Jan. 17, 2016 by Steve Cranston.)

Thursday, March 2, 2023

Quote of the Day (William Rose Benet, on an Icy Lake)

“Ghost Lake’s a dark lake, a deep lake and cold:
Ice black as ebony, frostily scrolled;
Far in its shadows a faint sound whirs;
Steep stand the sentineled deep, dark firs.”—American poet and editor William Rose Benet (1886-1950), “The Skater of Ghost Lake,” from Golden Fleece: A Collection of Poems and Ballads Old and New (1935)
This narrative poem in a mysterious, Gothic mode is not the kind of work that tends to get written today. I suspect that it is not as heavily anthologized as it once was.
Sadly, I think its setting, a lake with “ice black as ebony,” is also one that is becoming increasingly beyond the experience of younger readers. 

In my childhood here in the Northeast, it was common for lakes and ponds to ice over in the wintertime, as was sliding down short hills in sleds.
But climate change has made such experiences more of a rarity. (Ski resorts, for instance, are turning to manufacturing fake snow to survive.) 

At some point in the future, I think it entirely possible that for readers in certain areas of the country, such chilly scenes of winter will have to be found in books and on film.

Wednesday, March 1, 2023

Quote of the Day (Ross Macdonald, on the Physical and Moral Environment of Southern California)

“There was nothing wrong with Southern California that a rise in the ocean level wouldn't cure.” ― American mystery novelist Ross Macdonald (1915-1983), The Drowning Pool (1950)

I can think of at least two American detective movies of the 1970s whose producers made a fatal mistake: taking their protagonist out of the setting that, in their original source, functioned almost as a character in its own right. One of these films was the 1978 remake of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, which transplanted hero Philip Marlowe from the “mean streets” of Los Angeles and Hollywood all the way to London.

Something not quite as dramatic, but ultimately just as fatal, occurred with The Drowning Pool, when Hollywood made a second film featuring Ross Macdonald’s answer to Chandler’s hard-boiled but decent private eye, Lew Archer (renamed for the big screen Lew Harper). Paul Newman (pictured) played the character again, as he had done in Harper in 1965.

But, for some reason I don’t know and can’t imagine, the film’s creative team decided to set the movie in Louisiana rather than in Southern California, where Archer/Harper functioned as a probing conscience. It was a terrible choice. This film was nowhere near as good as its predecessor, and—perhaps thankfully—Newman never played the role again.