Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Quote of the Day (Phyllis McGinley, on Discipline, ‘The Groundwork of All Art’)

“Discipline is the groundwork of all art. The abstract painter has to know first how to draw, the symbolist to write ordinary lines. And the poet, no matter how soon he intends to throw overboard his formalism, has first to be capable of a correctly rhymed and metered stanza.” —Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet Phyllis McGinley (1905-1978), “The Light Side of the Moon,” The American Scholar (August 1965)

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

TV Quote of the Day (‘The Andy Griffith Show,’ With Barney Targeted by a Flirtatious Speeder)

[An attractive out-of-towner, who has vowed to fight her speeding ticket in Mayberry’s court, works her feminine wiles first on Barney.]

Elizabeth Crowley [played by Jean Hagen]: “Say... Do you sing?”

Deputy Barney Fife [played by Don Knotts]: “Hmm?”

Elizabeth: “Well, it just struck me...You bear an amazing resemblance to Frank Sinatra. The same magnetism, the same appeal.”

Barney: “Noticed that, did you?”

Elizabeth: “You've been told that before?”

Barney: “No, but...I've noticed it myself. Frankie and me are sort of birds of a feather, you might say.” [Chuckling.]The Andy Griffith Show, Season 2, Episode 3, “Andy and the Woman Speeder,” original air date Oct. 16, 1961, teleplay by Charles Stewart and Jack Elinson, directed by Bob Sweeney

Monday, May 29, 2023

Flashback, May 1973: ‘Rhymin’ Simon’ Continues to Propel Paul’s Post-Artie Career

The 50th anniversary this month of the release of There Goes Rhymin’ Simon would have been reason enough to write about this LP that cemented the commercial strength of Paul Simon apart from longtime partner Art Garfunkel.

But two bits of news about the singer-songwriter over the last week may well bring to a close his remarkable pop career.

First, Simon released Seven Psalms, a CD that is, by all accounts, not a pop recording at all. With his continual quest to experiment with musical textures (including from outside North America), there is a real question if he cares to return to the rock ‘n’ roll or folk genres that inspired him in the first place.

The second bit of news is the report that, during studio sessions for Seven Psalms, he “quite suddenly” and mysteriously lost most of the hearing in his right ear. After nursing for several weeks the unsuccessful hope that his condition would soon improve, he now wonders if he will be able to perform live ever again.

Certainly other singers and musicians have dealt for years with hearing impairment (indeed, I was astonished to discover, from this 2018 AARP article, just how extensive that list is—everyone from Ozzy Osbourne to Barbra Streisand).

But, at 81 years of age and following a nasty bout of COVID-19 as well, Simon’s opportunities to take the stage will diminish, while his periodic bouts of insecurity and depression may very well increase. In that case, even the creative energy needed to compose a song may well ebb. So it becomes an open question whether we will hear from him in any creative forum.

The Wall Street Journal review that first alerted me to the release of Seven Psalms noted that it was only the 15th studio album of Simon’s six-decade career. If it turns out to be an unexpected career valedictory, it makes it all the more worthwhile to retrace his artistic evolution--including There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, the second album in his solo career.

In a post from last year, I expressed my abiding enthusiasm for “American Tune” as a powerful lyrical statement on the state of the country, both at the time of its composition (the divisive Vietnam-Watergate era) and today.

I did not realize until further researching the song now, however, that it was based on the 18th-century J.S. Bach chorale “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden” (translated, appropriately enough, as “O Sacred Head Now Wounded"). The mood is one of resignation amid “the age’s most uncertain hour.”

It is a distinct outlier for an album otherwise brimming with looseness, optimism, and humor, reflecting Simon’s joy as a husband (“Something So Right”) and new father (“St. Judy’s Comet”).

In contrast, the album’s first single, “Kodachrome,” is a rollicking retrospective just before the onset of middle age, with the narrator recalling his school days and life as a bachelor. Its jaunty, carefree tone would have been one that other Americans who, like Simon, came of age in the Fifties would have identified with, as the nation indulged in a nostalgia craze that saw the Broadway premiere of Grease, the movie premiere of American Graffiti, and, on TV, the first episode of Happy Days.

“Going Home” was the original title of the song, but it was only a temporary phrase. As he told veteran deejay Scott Muni in a 1988 interview, "I was thinking as I was doing it, 'Well, I'm certainly not going to call the song 'Going Home,' there must be 250 songs called 'Going Home.' That's not going to do anything. 

Knowing his ambivalence about any association with his days with Garfunkel, I wouldn’t have been surprised if he also resisted any comparison with their hit “Homeward Bound.”

“Kodachrome” turned out to be a felicitous replacement, at least lyrically. (The use of a branded name led the song to be banned from the BBC.) From it emerged those “nice bright colors” in the refrain, and “everything looks worse in black and white” as a wry comment on the women he knew when he was single.

A couple of years after “Kodachrome’s” release, at an assembly at my high school, the opening line—“When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school”—provoked many students to leap to their feet, undoubtedly to the discomfort of the administration and faculty.

There Goes Rhymin’ Simon represented something of a studio departure for Simon, both in the number of multiple producers (not just Simon and his longtime producer from the albums with Garfunkel, Roy Halee, but also Phil Ramone, Paul Samwell-Smith, and even the accomplished Alabama studio musicians, the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section) and the number of multiple voices (also including the New Jersey folk music duo Maggie and Terre Roche, as well as the gospel quintet, the Dixie Hummingbirds).

In general, I prefer Simon’s songs from his collaboration with Garfunkel to his solo work. But his penchant for trying out new sounds and musical directions (demonstrated even more dramatically with Graceland and The Rhythm of the Saints) is something to be respected, and the results in these cases, as with the best of There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, are entirely admirable.

The public certainly embraced it. “Kodachrome” and “Loves Me Like a Rock” each shot to #2 on the singles chart, and the album as a whole sold two million copies in its first year alone. A late friend of mine said she regarded Bob Dylan as America’s pop poet and Simon as its pop psychologist. By that standard, Simon was expressing the mood of a generation transitioning from youthful protest to something approaching private happiness—still tentative, but hopeful.

Quote of the Day (Ambrose Bierce, on a ‘Theater of War’)

“No country is so wild and difficult but men will make it a theater of war.”— Journalist, Union Civil War soldier, and satirist Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914?), “A Horseman in the Sky,” originally published in 1889 in the San Francisco Examiner, revised as part of Bierce’s short-story collection Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (1891)

The story of the last days of Bierce may be most familiar to readers and film fans through the 1985 Carlos Fuentes novel Old Gringo, as well as the movie adaptation four years later starring Gregory Peck, Jane Fonda and Jimmy Smits. Fuentes said he became interested in the cynical Bierce when he read Tales of Soldiers and Civilians as a teen.

I chose the above quote for my Memorial Day post. Readers desiring more information about the impact of the Civil War on Bierce-- a decorated Civil War veteran, forced out of the fighting because of a head wound—and how it left him with a belief in war’s absurdity and the determination to convey its “rattle and roar” in unsparing, exact detail, might want to read this post of mine from nine years ago.

Sunday, May 28, 2023

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Exodus, on the Thunder, Lightning, and Covenant at Mount Sinai)

“Moses went up the mountain to God.
Then the LORD called to him and said,
‘Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob;
tell the Israelites:
You have seen for yourselves how I treated the Egyptians
and how I bore you up on eagle wings
and brought you here to myself.
Therefore, if you hearken to my voice and keep my covenant,
you shall be my special possession,
dearer to me than all other people,
though all the earth is mine.
You shall be to me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation.
That is what you must tell the Israelites.’
So Moses went and summoned the elders of the people.
When he set before them
all that the LORD had ordered him to tell them,
the people all answered together,
‘Everything the LORD has said, we will do.’
On the morning of the third day
there were peals of thunder and lightning,
and a heavy cloud over the mountain,
and a very loud trumpet blast,
so that all the people in the camp trembled.
But Moses led the people out of the camp to meet God,
and they stationed themselves at the foot of the mountain.
Mount Sinai was all wrapped in smoke,
for the LORD came down upon it in fire.
The smoke rose from it as though from a furnace,
and the whole mountain trembled violently.
The trumpet blast grew louder and louder, while Moses was speaking,
and God answering him with thunder.
When the LORD came down to the top of Mount Sinai,
he summoned Moses to the top of the mountain.”— Exodus 19:3-8a, 16-20b
One of the Mass readings on this Pentecost Sunday featured this episode from Exodus. Even as I listened amid an otherwise quiet church, these verses sparked the imagination in ways that Cecil B. DeMille couldn’t surpass in The Ten Commandments.
Amid all the sound and fury of the "thunder and lightning," "smoke," "furnace," and "very loud trumpet blast," along with the consequent verb "trembled," it’s important to remember that what is depicted in this awesome display and ceremony is the covenant between God and the once-enslaved Israelites, who will now be “a kingdom of priests, a holy nation”—as long as His “special possession” remains true to His laws.
The image accompanying this post, Mount Sinai, was created in 1570 by the Greek-born Spain painter El Greco (1541-1614).

Saturday, May 27, 2023

This Day in Business History (Birth of Sumner Redstone, ‘Relentless' Media Empire-Builder)

May 27, 1923— Sumner Redstone, who used his brilliant intellect and self-described “passion to win” to become an envied, feared, often toxic media-entertainment mogul, was born in humble origins in Boston.

Just as Orson Welles and co-screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz interspersed episodes in the lives of Samuel Insull and Joseph Pulitzer to augment their thinly veiled portrayal of William Randolph Hearst in Citizen Kane, so have the creators of Succession used tales surrounding Redstone and Donald Trump to bolster their Rupert Murdoch-based depiction of Logan Roy.

Unlike Murdoch or Trump, but like Logan Roy, Redstone not only grew up in a lower-class neighborhood but briefly lived in a house with no inside bathroom.

Like Murdoch and the fictional Roy, Redstone had seemingly groomed younger people (including his children) to take over from him, only, in his 70s and even 80s, to dismiss them with little to no warning.

Far more than Trump and even Murdoch, he left rivals alternately worried and fuming about his next negotiating gambit, leading Barry Reardon, a distribution executive at rival studio Warner Brothers, to moan to Premiere Magazine in 1994: "Being a competitor of Sumner Redstone’s is a fate worse than death. He never lets up. He’s relentless.”

Redstone's corporate buccaneering amassed a fortune that enabled him to control, at one time or another, CBS, the Paramount film and television studios, the publisher Simon & Schuster, the video retail giant Blockbuster and a host of cable channels, including MTV, Comedy Central and Nickelodeon.

And, in a way it has not yet become painfully obvious for Trump or Murdoch, debility at the end of his life exposed Redstone’s troubled relationship with a daughter he had teased with the prospect of succeeding him.

The driving force behind Succession might be the same joke used by Murdoch and Redstone as octogenarians: that they had no intention of ever dying. That disbelief in the iron law of mortality underlies the power struggle in both the series and the lives of Sumner and Shari Redstone.

In his appearance and conversation, Redstone worked overtime to counter any impression that the years had diminished his faculties. He dyed his hair red, bragged to talk-show host Larry King in 2009 that he had “the vital statistics of a 20-year-old,” and even lied about his age (lopping off 20 years).

Perhaps as much to persuade himself as King’s millions of viewers, Redstone continued: “Even 20-year-old men get older. Not me. My doctor says I’m the only man who’s reversed it. I eat and drink every antioxidant known to man. I exercise 50 minutes every day.”

At the time of the King interview, it was already apparent to Daily Beast editor at large Lloyd Grove, that Redstone was less like a 20-year-old than like King Lear: “With his empire crumbling, his family fractured, his legacy in doubt, and his grasp of the true nature of his predicament not immediately evident, Redstone resembles a modern-day version of Shakespeare’s tragic hero.”

By the middle of the next decade, charges that Redstone was no longer competent to run his affairs—let alone his company’s—had burst into public view, courtesy of litigation by Shari—though Sumner would hang on, a hideous husk of his former self, until he was 97.

At the time of Redstone’s death in August 2020, his story as a self-made man led many, even among the overwhelmingly liberal reading audience of The New York Times, to overlook the gamier aspects of his life.

And indeed, there is much to admire in a man who took the modest perch provided by his father (who himself rose from linoleum peddler to owner of a small chain of drive-in theaters) and graduated first in his class at Boston Latin, the city’s leading public school; went to Harvard on a scholarship; cracked Japanese military and diplomatic codes as part of a team of cryptographers in WWII; became partner in a leading DC law firm after the war; then abandoned all that to begin building a series of holdings that would eventually be valued at more than $80 billion.

But the window that began to open up in the last decade of Redstone’s life revealed after his death “an astonishing saga of sex, lies, and betrayal,” according to Unscripted: The Epic Battle for a Media Empire and the Redstone Family Legacy, by New York Times journalists James Stewart and Rachel Abrams.

According to this account, Redstone:

* spent $500,000 promoting the Electric Barbarellas, a talentless all-girl band;

* amended his trust more than 40 times to add or remove beneficiaries;

* dated women who became increasingly younger as he aged;

* sent a flight attendant he was pursuing a crystal‑encrusted handbag in the shape of a panther, along with the (surely redundant) note, “I’m a panther and I’m going to pounce”;

* reportedly tried to date grandson Brandon Korff’s girlfriends, annoying the 25-year-old so much that he sought out TV’s “Millionaire Matchmaker” Patti Stanger to find a companion for the lecherous old man—a move that backfired when that companion, Sydney Holland, and another Redstone girlfriend siphoned off $150 million from the increasingly senile businessman before being ushered out of his life at last;

* badmouthed Shari for so long that she was ignored when she warned about the perilous course set by Viacom CEO Phillipe Dauman, and wrestled with CBS CEO Leslie Moonves for control of National Amusements, the entity owned by Sumner and Shari.

If Sumner Redstone’s empire had been built by his personal tenacity (he survived a Boston hotel fire by hanging off a window ledge, leaving a hand maimed for the remaining 40 years of his life), it teetered at the end of his long life because of his toxicity. 

His wealth and position couldn’t disguise the fact that he had degenerated into a dirty old man, endangering the sprawling conglomerate he had built over a lifetime through his personal caprice and the maddeningly complex corporate structure that had allowed him to operate for so long without contradiction by those who worked for him.

(That structure was analyzed in 2018, at the height of the Redstone family litigation over CBS and Viacom, by Eduardo Gentil, on the Website of Cambridge Family Enterprise Group.)

The attached image of Sumner Redstone is from Kingkongphoto & from Laurel Maryland, USA; © copyright John Mathew Smith 2001.

Quote of the Day (Theodore Roosevelt, on a ‘Square Deal’ for All Americans)

“If a man is good enough to be put up and shot at, then he is good enough for me to do what I can to get him a square deal.” —U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), Remarks Upon Receiving a Memento From the African-American Citizens of Butte, Montana, May 27, 1903

One hundred and twenty years ago today, Theodore Roosevelt tried out the same phrase for different audiences to describe his vision of an executive who would mediate the divisions roiling America: the “square deal.” The term proved so popular that several successors in the Oval Office adapted it to characterize their own domestic programs.

Over the past 20 years, while other White House occupants have risen appreciably (Ulysses S. Grant) or plunged just as drastically (Andrew Jackson) in C-Span’s Presidential Historians Survey, Roosevelt has remained consistently at #4, placing him among the “near great” among those holding our nation’s highest office. Crucial to his success was his use of what he called his “bully pulpit.”

Few Presidents have surpassed TR as a phrasemaker. Mark Mancini’s 2018 Mental Floss article identified 11 of them, including “square deal”—his shorthand for a fair arrangement.

When he came to the mining town of Butte in May 1903 on a cross-country tour, Roosevelt vowed to deal even-handedly between the claims of union workers and capitalists—a position that had won him considerable acclaim when he helped achieve a settlement in the anthracite coal strike crisis the prior fall.

That is why he told the Silver Bow Labor and Trades Assembly of Butte that day that he was “one who tries to be an American president, acting upon the principle of giving a square deal to each and every one.”

But during his visit, the President also acknowledged a gift from Butte’s black minority: a pair of silver scales. At a time when Jim Crow legislation was abridging voting rights and African-Americans were subjected to rampant lynching, he pointed out his personal debt to the group for their part at San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War, the battle that made him a national celebrity—"In Santiago I fought beside the colored troops of the 9th and 10th Cavalry”—before the sentence in this “Quote of the Day.”

As this account in Dickinson State University’s Theodore Roosevelt Center indicates, TR, finding that the phrase was gaining traction with audiences, began to use it in other speeches and his private correspondence. It soon came to describe the hallmarks of his domestic policies: consumer protection, corporate regulation, and conservation.

When he began to stake out his opposition to successor William Howard Taft in 1910, Roosevelt came up with another phrase: the “New Nationalism.” TR and Taft's successful Democratic opponent in the Presidential campaign two years later, Woodrow Wilson (no mean phrasemaker himself), implicitly drew a contrast with the phrase “The New Freedom.”

Subsequent Presidents with similar ambitious legislative goals then used variations on these:

·         The New Deal”: Samuel Rosenman floated four different possibilities for the pledge that Franklin Roosevelt made when he accepted the nomination at the 1932 Democratic Convention. The candidate placed no special importance on what Rosenman called the “two monosyllables,” and the speechwriter disclaimed any intention of fusing the slogans of TR and Wilson, according to Safire’s Political Dictionary. But the phrase appealed to Progressives desperate for a return to activist government amid the Great Depression.

·         The Fair Deal”: The popularity of FDR’s domestic program led successor Harry Truman to call for his own comprehensive program in the 1949 State of the Union address. Whether he intended to or not, “fair” also echoed TR’s “square.” Only some of Truman’s proposals ended up being enacted. But his call for national health insurance would lay the groundwork for Lyndon Johnson’s Medicare program.

·         The New Frontier”: Just as FDR did a try run of “New Deal” when he accepted the Democratic nomination for President, John F. Kennedy used a variant when he did so in 1960. JFK used it to describe what he would do to meet the uncharted territory of new challenges facing Americans. But, even as he sought to distinguish this program from its forebears, JFK embodied the kind of youthfulness and energy that had characterized TR nearly 60 years before.

·         The Great Society”: First deployed at Ohio University and the University of Michigan in the run-up to his 1964 Presidential campaign, Lyndon Johnson’s phrase for his program contained no words that echoed any of these earlier programs. But, in his civil-rights and anti-poverty legislation, he sought to extend and surpass anything achieved by his predecessors.

·         The New American Revolution”: Speechwriter William Safire used this as the theme of a 1971 address in which Richard Nixon called for revenue sharing. The idea, as historian Richard Norton Smith noted, was to reverse “the flow of power, dollars and decisions to Washington that had commenced 40 years earlier with the New Deal.” Yet, while the movement has informed much of conservative policy ever since, the phrase itself never really caught on to describe the larger administration program.

·         The New Foundation”: “The New Spirit” didn’t really catch on after Jimmy Carter’s 1977 inaugural address. Two years later, his speechwriting team sought, with a notable lack of enthusiasm, to take a different tack in evoking the programs of his predecessors, according to Martin Tolchin’s account of the 1979 State of the Union address. But, though the phrase may have struck a chord with the builder in Carter, it came off as lukewarm and played out—a bad omen for his reelection campaign the following year.

·         The New Beginning”: Ronald Reagan, an admirer of FDR as a young man, continually re-deployed phrases of the three-term President, such as “rendezvous with destiny.” His echo of FDR’s “New Deal” during his acceptance speech at the 1980 Republican National Convention and in his inaugural address the following year was fully in keeping with that rhetorical tendency. At the same time, while Reagan equaled TR’s success as a vote-getter, his full-throated embrace of free-market, loosely regulated capitalism was arguably a reversal of the Republican Roosevelt’s more ambivalent view of big business.

Friday, May 26, 2023

TV Quote of the Day (‘30 Rock,’ In Which Jack Defines ‘Ambition’)

“Ambition... is the willingness to kill the things you love and EAT them in order to stay alive. Haven't you ever read my throw pillow?” —Jack Donaghy [played by Alec Baldwin] in 30 Rock, Season 5, Episode 6, “Gentleman's Intermission,” original air date Nov. 4, 2010, teleplay by John Riggi, directed by Don Scardino

Thursday, May 25, 2023

Joke of the Day (Demetri Martin, on Why ‘Swimming is a Confusing Sport’)

“Swimming is a confusing sport, because sometimes you do it for fun, and other times you do it to not die. And when I’m swimming, sometimes I’m not sure which one it is.”—Stand-up comic Demetri Martin in Comedy Central Presents: Demetri Martin, Season 8, Episode 14, original air date Mar 19, 2004, written by Demetri Martin, directed by Paul Miller

I chose this quote for two reasons: 1) With Memorial Day coming up, pools are opening and swimming will be, for many people, “a confusing sport” again; and 2) today is Demetri Martin’s birthday.

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Quote of the Day (Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., on ‘Knowledge and Timber’)

“Knowledge and timber shouldn't be much used till they are seasoned.”— American physician, teacher, and author Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. (1809-1894), The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table (1858)

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Quote of the Day (Ted Chiang, on the Double Meaning of ‘Aspiration’)

“It’s no coincidence that ‘aspiration’ means both hope and the act of breathing.

“When we speak, we use the breath in our lungs to give our thoughts a physical form. The sounds we make are simultaneously our intentions and our life force.”— American science-fiction writer Ted Chiang, The Great Silence, originally published in e-flux Journal, May 2015

Monday, May 22, 2023

This Day in Rock ‘n’ Roll History (Lewis Scandal Shows Why ‘Too Much Love Drives a Man Insane’)

May 22, 1958—With Elvis Presley drafted and in the Army until 1960, with two of his own songs massive hits, Jerry Lee Lewis seemed poised to assume the mantle of “The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.”

But it all came apart when, landing at London’s Heathrow Airport for an upcoming UK tour, the rollicking singer-pianist acknowledged that he had a new, very young wife.

Follow-up details soon revealed that he had left out interesting details about what his prior relationship with “Myra” was (first cousins, once removed) and when they’d wed (five months before his divorce from his prior wife had been finalized).

Some defenders of the musician claimed that Lewis didn’t see what he had done as out of the ordinary, as his own sister had reportedly married at age 12. But the fact that he claimed Myra was 15 rather than her real age of 13 strongly suggests that he knew his action had run counter to larger cultural norms.

The ensuing scandal brought consequences, both short term (cries of “cradle-snatching” in half-full arenas, uncomfortable interviews with the UK police, and cancellation of the tour after only three performances) and long-term (derailing Lewis’ career stateside).

He not only never reached his expected zenith in the rock ‘n’ roll firmament, but even had trouble getting bookings for several years, with his nightly earnings dropping from $10,000 to $100. 

When he did come back, Lewis reinvented himself as a country music artist—perhaps the right genre for musicians who crooned about “heartaches by the number” and the fans who loved them.

I wrote briefly on Lewis' cultural impact in a blog post eight years ago. But perhaps nothing illustrates why this original rock 'n' roll wild man was considered so unmanageable--and such a danger by the older generation--than this career-defining episode.

“Too much love drives a man insane,” he declared in “Great Balls of Fire.” He sang it like an exultation, but it could have served better as a warning to himself to tread carefully around females—particularly young ones related to him.

Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered much. As he told Rick Bragg in an interview for the 2014 biography, Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story, Myra "looked like a grown woman, blossomed out and ready for plucking ... I thought about her being 13 and all, but that didn't stop her from being a full-fledged woman."

My first sustained exposure to the story of the scandal came in the form of the 1989 biopic Great Balls of Fire! starring Dennis Quaid as Lewis and Winona Ryder as Myra. Though he re-recorded for the movie several songs that Quaid lip-synched, Lewis reportedly loathed the finished product for its inaccuracies. (Consider this: It used as its source the autobiography of his now-ex, Myra.)

Myra Gail Lewis was not the first—and would not be the last—woman that her husband would wed. This was the third union for the 22-year-old musician, and he would go on to have four more before he died last October.

Nor was it the last time his personal life would explode. A later wife would die in their swimming pool under mysterious circumstances, and another one would die of a drug overdose less than a year later—mirroring Lewis’ own descent into addiction to prescription drugs and alcohol.

There is an element of “might have been” to Lewis after his disaster. But a similar feeling attaches to the careers of other early rock ‘n’ rollers like Chuck Berry (upended by his own sex scandal, less than two years later), Elvis (trotted out by “Colonel” Tom Parker in increasingly mediocre movies), and Buddy Holly (death in a plane crash).

To his credit, whether he was at the top or bottom, Lewis always pulled out all the stops at his shows. Indeed, his lack of inhibition was a through-line from the stage to his private life.

In the wake of the singer’s death last fall, Cameron Gunnoe offered this perceptive observation in a post on the blog “Culture Sonar”:

“While Lewis’ pathological commitment to his own explosive temperament would bring about a host of problems for the musician over time, it would also endue his stage show with an intensity and fervor by which audiences would be driven regularly to borderline hysterics.”

The impact of these live shows can be seen most readily, perhaps, in Elton John—and, indeed, the English rock ‘n’ roller tipped his hat to “Killer” with a cover of “Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On” in the 2003 Sun Records tribute album, Good Rockin' Tonight.

Sir Elton simply stated the obvious at the time of Lewis’ death: “Without Jerry Lee Lewis, I wouldn’t have become who I am today. He was groundbreaking and exciting, and he pulverized the piano. A brilliant singer too. Thank you for your trailblazing inspiration and all the rock ‘n’ roll memories.”

TV Quote of the Day (‘Veep,’ With Jonah on Alexander Hamilton, ‘Our First Puerto Rican President’)

Jonah Ryan [played by Timothy C. Simons]: “You know what we really need? A cool name.”

Guy #1: “Libertonians. It says what we're about.”

Jonah: “No, it sounds like a gay a cappella group.”

Bill Jaeger [played by Seth Morris]: “I got it: ‘The Beltway Boys’!”

Jonah: “Jesus Christ, are you tag teaming this? Those are awful. I got it! How about ‘The Jeffersons’?”

Jeager: “That's pretty good but it also—you know this—happens to be the name of a—"

Jonah: “President, yeah, that's exactly why I like it, Jaeger. Tommy J, he's not all played out like George Washington or Hamilton."

Woman #1: “Hamilton wasn't a president.”

Jonah: “Then why the f--- did they write a musical about him? No, he was our first Puerto Rican president.”

Jaeger: “ 'The Washingtones.’”

Jonah: “No, I am the white Hamilton of the Jeffersons and that's our name. To The Jeffersons!”

Everyone else: “To the Jeffersons!”

Jonah: “That's right. No one's going to keep us down because we are moving on up!”—Veep, Season 6, Episode 6, “Qatar,” original air date May 21, 2017, teleplay by Steve Hely and Armando Iannucci, directed by Becky Martin

Sunday, May 21, 2023

Spiritual Quote of the Day (St. Thomas Aquinas, on Goodness and Beauty)

“The beautiful is the same as the good, and they differ in aspect only. For since good is what all seek, the notion of good is that which calms the desire; while the notion of the beautiful is that which calms the desire, by being seen or known. Consequently those senses chiefly regard the beautiful, which are the most cognitive, viz. sight and hearing, as ministering to reason; for we speak of beautiful sights and beautiful sounds. But in reference to the other objects of the other senses, we do not use the expression ‘beautiful,’ for we do not speak of beautiful tastes, and beautiful odors. Thus it is evident that beauty adds to goodness a relation to the cognitive faculty: so that ‘good’ means that which simply pleases the appetite; while the ‘beautiful’ is something pleasant to apprehend.”— St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) [Angelic] Doctor of the Church, Summa Theologiae (1485)

Saturday, May 20, 2023

Quote of the Day (Samuel Johnson, on Kindness)

“Kindness, at least actual, is in our power, but fondness is not.”—English man of letters Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), 1782 letter to James Boswell, quoted by Boswell in The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791)

Friday, May 19, 2023

This Day in Baseball History (Gehrig’s Columbia Clout Starts Lou Lore)

May 19, 1923—Not yet in Yankee pinstripes, Columbia University sophomore sensation Lou Gehrig gave evidence of the power that would make him one of the greatest baseball players of all time with a home run that became the stuff of legend.

Fans of the future Hall of Famer and the screen idol who played him nearly two decades later, Gary Cooper, will recall the scene from the popular 1942 film The Pride of the Yankees that focused on this moment. 

It’s a real-life version of the bust-the-fixtures highlights that occur so often in The Natural, except that in this case it didn’t occur in a fictional major-league ballpark but on Columbia’s real-life South Field, where it was reported to be the longest homer hit there to that time.

But did Gehrig’s blast really knock out a window in the School of Journalism? What got me interested in this question was Leslie Zukor’s article in the new Spring/Summer issue of Columbia Magazine.

Contemporary accounts, Zukor indicated, varied in where they said the homer landed. My old newspaper, The Columbia Daily Spectator, pointed to “in front of [the School of] Journalism.” Similarly, The New York Times reported that the ball came down “in the small campus surrounding the School of Journalism building.” The Hartford Daily Courant, which covered Columbia’s opponent that day, Wesleyan University, claimed that “the sphere went over the center field stands and hit the School of Journalism building.”

What do we have here? A Bunyanesque blast that flew 400 feet and destroyed the psyche of Wesleyan pitcher Joseph Layton “Layt” Moore that day. But it doesn’t seem to have destroyed any windows. So where did this notion come from?

Maybe eyewitnesses simply misremembered the end point of the home run, or maybe, from so far away, they took their best guess about where it should have gone. But, if tracing the legend to a single source or sources is difficult, it’s easier to cite what gave the story “legs”: The Pride of the Yankees.

In that box-office smash, the reporter who will become Gehrig’s great advocate and friend (Walter Brennan’s “Sam Blake”) is talking to the phenom’s football coach (Gehrig was on a football rather than baseball scholarship to the school) when the sound of breaking glass interrupts their talk at the same time it puts an exclamation point on it.

In a way, that scene is typical of so much about the film and its tendency towards sharpening and shining up actuality. 

A major truth of Gehrig’s career is at the core of this scene: he was already an athlete of raw but astonishing skill just waiting to be discovered by the wider baseball world. He did indeed give observers something to talk about that day: not just his plate productivity—that homer, a single and two walks—but his three-hit throttling on the mound. (The same thing had happened a month earlier, in a game against Ivy League rival Cornell, when Gehrig hit--you guessed it--"a towering and legendary home run, possibly the longest in Hoy Field’s history," according to Jeff Stein's 2015 article in the Ithaca Voice.)

But it’s far more questionable whether Gehrig busted the window at Columbia's School of Journalism. And he didn’t need a sportswriter to boost his status: Yankee superscout Paul Krichell (who would go on to alert the team to, among others, Phil Rizzuto and Whitey Ford) had discovered him over a month before at a game against Rutgers, and by the time of the Wesleyan game had persuaded Gehrig to sign with the Bronx Bombers. As a matter of fact, there wasn’t a “Sam Blake” (the closest equivalent in Gehrig’s life was probably sportswriter Fred Lieb).

There’s another aspect of this scene that is not so immediately apparent: this astounding feat occurs, in effect, off the field. 

Before being cast, Cooper had no interest in baseball, and he had to undergo intense training by coach and former player Lefty O’Doul in the art of hitting. The star’s lack of ease with the bat probably contributed to the odd fact that, in a movie of roughly 2 hours and 10 minutes about a tremendous baseball player, less than 10 minutes feature any action on the diamond.

Even the follow-up to the Columbia sequence (Gehrig disappointing his mother’s wish that he graduate with an engineering degree by signing with the Yankees) misattributes his motivation: it wasn’t to pay for her medical care, but his father’s.

Nobody should be surprised by such departures from history: Hollywood has always been uninterested in fidelity to fact, and Pride of the Yankees producer Samuel Goldwyn had no interest in a film about baseball (or even the subject of Gehrig) until he was told about "The Iron Horse's" “Luckiest Man on the Face of the Earth” speech on the day held in his honor in 1939.

As sportswriter Paul Gallico (who wrote the “story” for the Oscar-nominated film) wrote to Gehrig’s widow Eleanor during filming: “No matter what I know, we are going to catch hell from the sports writers so we might as well face it. None of the boys will ever understand what we were up against in trying to make baseball fit into a Sam Goldwyn movie.” (Not even the screenplay, co-written by fellow Columbia alum Herman Mankiewicz, seems to have improved its commitment to reality.)

In short, much of the early going in the movie consists of facts changed for no particular reason; characters or situations sandpapered from rough reality (Gehrig's possessive mother didn't have an ambivalent relationship to her daughter-in-law but a positively warlike one); or concern about a global reality that hangs over the portrayal of its driven subject (Gehrig's success was a demonstration to a world at war that America was a place where virtue and hard work was rewarded).

In the end, it didn’t matter. Whatever offenses against the truth occur in the first half of the film, from the moment that Lou and Eleanor notice the first distressing signs of the ALS that will end his livelihood and even his life, all of that is forgotten and forgiven.  

The poignant interplay between Cooper and Teresa Wright as Eleanor in the closing scenes underscores a larger truth that the testimony of his teammates and subsequent biographical research confirmed: that with the love and support of his vivacious wife, this shy, often insecure superstar faced a mystifying disease with an undaunted courage that inspired millions around the world, all the way down to the present day—including many with no real interest in what may have happened on his Ivy League campus 100 years ago today.

As for me: Gehrig ranks, together with Jackie Robinson, as my favorite baseball player. This blog post I wrote 14 years ago, on the 70th anniversary of the end of his extraordinary 2,300-consecutive game streak, goes a long way to explain why, I hope.  

But ultimately, the novelist Thomas Wolfe put it far more poetically than I ever could: the Yankee great, he wrote in You Can’t Go Home Again, embodied “the faultless velvet of the diamond.”

Joke of the Day (Steven Wright, on How He Reminisces)

“I like to reminisce with people I don’t know.”—Stand-up comic Steven Wright quoted by Jason Zinoman, “Deadpan Humor Ripens Into a Novel,” The New York Times, May 17, 2023

Thursday, May 18, 2023

Quote of the Day (Tim Harford, on Using the 3 C’s To Make Sense of Numbers)


“When advising people how to make sense of the world, I emphasise three C’s: calm, context and curiosity. Calm, because our emotional reactions to the numbers we see in the news are often stronger than rational thought; we should notice those reactions and try not to let them overwhelm us. Context, because numbers are meaningless without it; we need to understand whether they are large or small, rising or falling and the methods behind them. And curiosity, because the most important step in understanding the world around us is to want to understand. All too often we seize on factual claims to win an argument or signal loyalty to a viewpoint, rather than because we are eager to know more.”— “Underground Economist” columnist Tim Harford, “How to Turn Our Children Into Truth Sleuths,” The Financial Times, Mar. 18-19, 2023

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Quote of the Day (Stephen A. Smith, on How ‘‘The Sports Fan Cannot Be Taught’)

“I’m the kind of person that [says]: ‘This is what I said. Deal with it.’ [Former First Take on-air colleague Max Kellerman] was the kind of person that’s trying to convince you to side with him. One time I said to him, ‘You’re a boxing aficionado, ain’t you?’ He said, ‘Absolutely’ I said, ‘You know boxing better than anybody, right?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘Your friends that you grew up with, don’t they argue with you about boxing?’ He said, ‘Absolutely.’ I said, ‘Why do you think that is?’ I said, ‘The sports fan cannot be taught.’ They don’t want to learn from you. They want to hear whether you do or do not agree with them and why. Which is another reason I don’t allow them to debate me. Because I’m like, there’s no convincing you! You’re going to feel what you’re going to feel. So watch the show, deduce your opinions and be on your way.”—ESPN sports media personality Stephen A. Smith quoted by David Marchese, “Talk: Stephen A. Smith Sees Arguing As A Part of His Life: ‘I’m Under No Obligation to Tell You What the Hell You Want to Hear,’” The New York Times Magazine, Apr. 23, 2023

The image of Stephen A. Smith accompanying this post was taken Jan. 21, 2021, at a Q and A at The Moody College of Communication at The University of Texas at Austin.

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Quote of the Day (W.H. Auden, on ‘The Poetic Imagination’ and the Statesman)

"All poets adore explosions, thunderstorms, tornadoes, conflagrations, ruins, scenes of spectacular carnage. The poetic imagination is not at all a desirable quality in a statesman."— English poet, critic, and playwright W.H. Auden (1907-1973), "The Poet and The City," The Dyer's Hand and Other Essays (1963)

Monday, May 15, 2023

This Day in Literary History (Edmund Wilson Sr., Disappointed Supreme Court Hopeful and Dad of Literary Critic, Dies)

May 15, 1923—Edmund Wilson Sr., a former Attorney General of New Jersey and father of his namesake, the preeminent “Lost Generation” public intellectual (pictured here), died at age 59 in Red Bank, N.J., in the home that had given him and his only son little psychic comfort.

The influence of fathers on their famous literary progeny could comprise a book in itself. The relationship of Wilson, father and son, was especially fraught. Though the father won great recognition and financial rewards in his life, his fame has been completely overshadowed by that of his only child (to such a point that, while there are few useful photos of the father, there are quite a few--including the one I have here--of the son.)

Through much of a career that in which he was universally recognized as America’s leading literary and social critic, Edmund Wilson Jr. (who dropped the suffix early on) rebelled repeatedly against his father. Easier said than done.

Edward Sr. (whom I will designate as “Senior” from here out to distinguish him from his son) and several brothers had attended Princeton University in the 1880s and 1890s—which, when combined with his high reputation in legal circles, virtually assured entrance to that Ivy League school for his son.

But, if Senior furnished “Bunny” (the nickname given the future literary titan in childhood by his mother) with a standard for culture set very high, he also bequeathed him with a genetic and environmental legacy that the young man tried but failed to shed: depression all enveloping. 

Though I had read works by and about the more famous Edmund Wilson for years, I had never come across anything about his background until I read Christopher Benfey’s 2007 New Republic review of a biography of the critic that highlighted the filial relationship.

As I read about Senior’s late-life decline into lassitude from his earlier peak, I was reminded of nothing so much as Richard Simon, who, having been sidelined at the firm he co-founded, Simon and Schuster, became increasingly sullen, remote and frail—an atmosphere of alienation and emotional unavailability that daughter Carly memorialized in her first hit song, “That’s the Way I Always Heard It Should Be.” (I wrote about this psychodrama in this blog post from 13 years ago.)

Even at an early age, Senior’s achievements were substantive. He lost only one case in his entire career, and that was early on. Despite being appointed by a GOP governor (and being a Republican himself), his reputation for integrity was burnished when he secured guilty verdicts against 200 members of the Republican political machine in Atlantic City, including the boss himself, Louis “the Commodore” Kuehnle, Jr., in a case that Senior personally prosecuted.

The prestige accruing from this successful prosecution was so significant that the recently elected Democratic governor, Woodrow Wilson (no relation to the AG), seriously considered nominating him to the Supreme Court after his victorious 1912 campaign for the White House.

Instead, Wilson chose three other men: John Hessin Clarke, who only served on the court for six unhappy years; Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish justice, and a leading liberal voice on the court for the next two decades; and James McReynolds, an argumentative, racist, anti-Semitic blight on the bench all the way into the FDR administration.

I was unable to discover why the President passed over Senior. But already since his mid-30s, Senior had, according to an essay his son wrote in the mid-1950s, “passed into the shadow.” Evidence of this “neurotic distemper,” exhibited most obviously early on in hypochondria, became more pronounced as time went on.

In his final years, as his bouts with mental illness became longer and more frequent, Senior shuttled back and forth from home to sanatoria that he would check himself into in the vain hope of relief.

At some point early on, “Bunny” became aware of his parents’ profoundly dysfunctional union. (His mother had become deaf after doctors told her that the mentally unbalanced senior would probably not return to his old routine.)

The knowledge profoundly discomfited him. In an early skit he wrote, “The Sane Tea Party,” his father is depicted as “hopeless hypochondriac” Elgrim Sexton, whose face is ‘lined with the worry and anxiety of dying many deaths.” His uneasiness grew until, in his mid-30s, he had “an unexpected breakdown”—the same age that his father began to exhibit profound unease.

Two decades later—and especially after “Bunny” inherited the old stone house in Talcottville, NY, that his father had regarded as a refuge—Wilson’s feelings towards his father softened.

For one thing, he may have begun to identify with his father’s sense that, like Hamlet, “The time is out of joint; O cursed spite!/That ever I was born to set it right!” Senior was dismayed by the excesses of the Gilded Age following the Civil War, and loathed serving as an attorney for railroads, the epitome of corporate corruption in that era.

Bunny, who served as a nurse and as a translator at General Headquarters in WWI, felt acutely the postwar malaise that gripped other writers of his generation such as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald (a classmate of his at Princeton). The Roaring Twenties, much like the Gilded Age, profoundly disappointed those who had hoped for a better world.

Second, Bunny realized that, though he exhibited the same melancholy that had undone his father, he also possessed an openness to people with different points of view, and a similar searching, restless intelligence. Though a Republican, Senior would talk to anyone—including, unusually for someone in the business circles he frequented, Socialists.

Bunny’s biographer called his dad “a kind of instinctual Jeffersonian Democrat with a Tory coloring—a libertarian who had little faith in either big government or big business. His greatest desire was to be left alone.” In the same light, Wilson—who had briefly embraced Marxism during the Great Depression—arrived at a fundamental distrust of the uses of government, perhaps best expressed in the title of a cantankerous later piece, “The Cold War and the Income Tax: A Protest.”

Leon Edel, the editor of Bunny’s diaries, linked the habits of mind shared by father and son when he wrote of the “taproots of the son's imagination, his ability to live himself into the past as few historians have done, while maintaining a cool detachment (as his father had done); his supreme power of summary and utterance—qualities of both literature and the law.”