Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Quote of the Day (Vivian Gornick, on Persisting at Writing)

“It's terrible, not to be able to work every day, but every day, in my long writing life, to come up against the fog in the head. The inability to think, to write another sentence. There are many days when I don't write anything. But I always sit down at the desk. Absolutely. Every morning, religiously.”— American feminist literary critic, journalist, essayist, and memoirist Vivian Gornick quoted by Alexandra Schwartz, “Look Again,” The New Yorker, Feb. 10, 2020

(Photograph of Vivian Gornick taken Oct. 4, 2018, through YouTube by librairie mollat.)

Monday, April 29, 2024

Quote of the Day (Michael Oakeshott, on Conversation)

“Conversation is not an enterprise designed to yield an extrinsic profit, a contest where a winner gets a prize, not is it an activity of exegesis; it is an unrehearsed intellectual adventure. It is with conversation as with gambling, its significance lies neither in winning nor in losing, but in wagering. Properly speaking, it is impossible in the absence of a diversity of voices: in it different universes of discourse meet, acknowledge each other and enjoy an oblique relationship which neither requires nor forecasts their being assimilated to one another.”— English philosopher and political theorist Michael Oakeshott (1901-1990), The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind (1959)

TV Quote of the Day (Jerry Seinfeld, on Pain-Relieving Ingredients)

“Then they tell you about the pain-relieving ingredient. There's always gotta be a lotta that. Nobody wants anything less than 'extra-strength. 'Extra-strength' is the absolute minimum. You can’t even get 'strength.' Strength' is out now. It's all 'extra-strength.' Some people are not satisfied with 'extra,' they want 'maximum.’ Give me the 'maximum-strength.’ Give me the maximum allowable human dosage.’Figure out what will kill me and then back it off a little bit.’"—Stand-up comedian and sitcom star Jerry Seinfeld, “Jerry Seinfeld: ‘I’m Telling You for the Last Time’”, original air date Aug. 9, 1998, written by Jerry Seinfeld, directed by Marty Callner

Happy 70th birthday to Jerry Seinfeld!

Sunday, April 28, 2024

Quote of the Day (Fyodor Dostoevsky, on ‘The Man Who Lies to Himself’)

“Above all, don't lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to such a pass that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love, and in order to occupy and distract himself without love he gives way to passions and coarse pleasures, and sinks to bestiality in his vices, all from continual lying to other men and to himself. The man who lies to himself can be more easily offended than anyone. You know it is sometimes very pleasant to take offence, isn't it? A man may know that nobody has insulted him, but that he has invented the insult for himself, has lied and exaggerated to make it picturesque, has caught at a word and made a mountain out of a molehill -- he knows that himself, yet he will be the first to take offence, and will revel in his resentment till he feels great pleasure in it, and so pass to genuine vindictiveness.”— Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1880), The Brothers Karamazov (1880), translated by Constance Garnett

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Moses Mendelssohn, Urging ‘The Right to Be Different’)

“Let everyone be permitted to speak as he thinks, to invoke God after his own manner or that of his fathers, and to seek eternal salvation where he thinks he may find it, as long he does not disturb public felicity and acts honestly toward the civil laws, toward you and his fellow citizens. Let no one in your states be a searcher of hearts and a judge of thoughts.”— German-Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786), “The Right to Be Different” (1783), in The Jew in the Modern World: A Documentary History, Second Edition, edited by Paul R. Mendes-Flohr and Jehuda Reinharz (1995)

Saturday, April 27, 2024

Quote of the Day (George Santayana, on Hatred)

“A man’s hatred of his own condition no more helps to improve it than hatred of other people tends to improve them.” —Spanish-born American philosopher, essayist and poet George Santayana (1863-1952), Reason in Common Sense (Vol. 1 of “The Life of Reason”) (1905)

Friday, April 26, 2024

This Day in Yankee History (Peterson, Chambliss Swapped in ‘Friday Night Massacre’)

Apr. 26, 1974—In a multi-player trade derided at the time as “The Friday Night Massacre,” the New York Yankees sent a former All-Star pitcher who had deeply embarrassed the club to the Cleveland Indians for a quiet first baseman who helped return them to glory after 12 years away from the postseason.

The reports two weeks ago that Fritz Peterson died last October reminded me of the scandal that engulfed the pitcher a half-century ago—then, after a few minutes’ reflection, of the subsequent trade involving him that became one of the building blocks in the revived Yankee dynasty of the Seventies.

If you thought you saw a pun in the headline for this post, you are correct.  The Bronx Bombers had sat stony and red-faced when veteran lefty Peterson and younger starter Mike Kekich admitted in separate March 1973 press conferences that they had swapped wives and children the prior summer.

Three months after the scandal exploded, the Yankees had no compunctions in unloading Kekich, who had seldom mastered the requisite control to go with his fastball. But it was another matter for Peterson, who won 20 games in 1970 and, if he could overcome a back injury incurred in spring training in 1974, could have returned to form.

In a 2015 interview for the “Bleeding Yankee Blue” blog, Peterson recalled that he had told Yankee President and General Manager Gabe Paul that he wouldn’t mind if he ended up being traded, as long as it wasn’t to the Philadelphia Phillies or the Cleveland Indians. The executive assured him he had nothing to worry about.

So much for promises, especially those made in baseball’s pre-free agent era. 

Paul wound up dealing Peterson to the Indians along with righthanded starter Steve Kline and relievers Fred Beene and Tom Buskey. In return, the Yankees received righthanders Cecil Upshaw and Dick Tidrow, as well as the trade's linchpin, Chris Chambliss (pictured).

(Perhaps Paul's only concession to Peterson's feelings was that the trade occurred one month after Cleveland bid goodbye to Kekich, which meant that any clubhouse awkwardness with the onetime great friends would be eliminated.)

No matter how much about Peterson’s role in the wife-swapping scandal may have angered the Yankee brass, he remained a favorite in the clubhouse, which valued his on-field pinpoint control and delighted in his off-field pranks.

Most of all, teammates like Thurman Munson, Bobby Murcer, and Mel Stottlemyre wondered publicly about the wisdom of getting rid of 40% of the pitching staff during a transition year for the team—its first since 1964 without manager Ralph Houk.

With Richard Nixon’s abrupt firing of Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox still on the minds of many, the farewell to Peterson and the three other Yankee pitchers inevitably became known as “The Friday Night Massacre.”

The 1971 American League Rookie of the Year, Chambliss had followed up with a combined .281 his next two seasons. 

But, with a subpar .243 BA with the Yankees in that first season after the trade—and with Buskey performing creditably coming out of the Indians’ bullpen—it looked like the Yankees had gotten the worst of the transaction. There was no telling how long he’d last with impulsive owner George Steinbrenner calling the shots.

Within a couple of years, all these concerns would fall by the wayside. If the trade wasn’t as lopsided as, say, the St. Louis Cardinals receiving Lou Brock for Ernie Broglio, it still, in the long run, decisively benefited the Yankees.

After two seasons with the Indians, Peterson would be traded to Texas in 1976, then retire. The careers of Kline and Beene would also flame out.

As their stars fell, the long-term advantage of the deal for the Yankees became more apparent. Although Upshaw would be traded after his 1-5 season, Tidrow—whose nickname “Dirt” mirrored his blue-collar grit—became a dependable long reliever and spot starter.

Chambliss was even better, rebounding in 1975 with a .304 batting average. Through the end of the 1970s, he proved a model of consistency, with his BA ranging from .274 to .293.

Although Reggie Jackson, the slugger who replaced Chambliss in the cleanup role in 1977, may have been the self-styled “straw that stirs the drink” for the Yankees, Chambliss helped cement the team being cobbled together by Paul.

In the field, Chambliss was smooth, earning a Gold Glove in 1978. At the plate, if he did not hit prodigious home runs in batches, he rarely slumped, laying off bad pitches enough to wear down opposing pitchers and easing the way for the rest of the lineup. (He would successfully preach the same gospel of plate discipline as the Yankees’ hitting coach in the 1990s.) 

In a clubhouse that became increasingly dominated by large egos, Chambliss presented an unassuming but necessary contrast.

But this quietest of men became known for one particularly loud at bat: his dramatic, ninth-inning walk-off homer in the 1976 American League Championship Series off Kansas City Royals reliever Mark Littell—sending the Yankees on to the World Series for the first time since 1964.

When Paul pulled off another trade that brought rookie second baseman Willie Randolph to the Yankees from the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Bombers had solidified the right side of their infield with intelligent, consistent players who, by rarely making mistakes, contributed mightily to their late Seventies dynasty.

Quote of the Day (Carl Sandburg, on Poetry As ‘The Opening and Closing of a Door’)

“Poetry is the opening and closing of a door, leaving those who look through to guess about what is seen during a moment.”—Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet and biographer Carl Sandburg (1878-1967), Good Morning America (1928)

TV Quote of the Day (‘I Love Lucy,” After Lucy’s First Driving Lesson)

[Ricky Ricardo staggers away, dazed, after he and Lucy return from her first driving lesson.]

Ethel Mertz [played by Vivian Vance]: “What's the matter with him?”

Lucy Ricardo [played by Lucille Ball]: “Oh, he got mad at me while I was driving through the Holland Tunnel.”

Ethel: “Ricky let you drive through the Holland Tunnel?”

Lucy: “Well, he didn't mean to. I got caught in the stream of traffic and I couldn't stop.”

Ethel: “But you drove all the way through the Holland Tunnel!”

Lucy: “Halfway through.”

Ethel: “What do you mean, ‘halfway?’”

Lucy: “Well, Ricky was late for rehearsal, and I saw an opportunity to... How was I supposed to know there wasn't room to make a U-turn?”

Ethel [astonished]: “You made a U-turn in the Holland Tunnel? Oh, brother, that must-a been somethin'.”

Lucy: “Yeah. The policeman said the cars were backed up all the way to East Orange, New Jersey.”—I Love Lucy, Season 4, Episode 11, “Lucy Learns to Drive,” original air date Jan 3, 1955, teleplay by Jess Oppenheimer, Madelyn Davis, and Bob Carroll Jr., directed by William Asher

Lucille Ball died 35 years ago today at age 77. She made two other long-running series in the 1960s and 1970s, The Lucy Show and Here’s Lucy, but they were really just variations on I Love Lucy.

Lucy Ricardo might have been a madcap redhead, but the woman who created her was unbelievably shrewd—as seen in the fact that she became the first woman to own her own studio as head of Desilu Productions. To her we owe not just her own much-imitated sitcom, but a sci-fi series she gave the go-ahead to put into production: Star Trek.

Starting out in RKO Pictures in the late 1930s, Ball envied the deference with which everyone at the studio regarded Maureen O’Hara. At that point in her career, Ball had to content herself with being known as “Queen of the B Movies.”

With her move to television in the early 1950s with husband Desi Arnaz—and her huge success with their joint vehicle, I Love Lucy—Ball acquired a new nickname: “The First Lady of Television.”

Thursday, April 25, 2024

Quote of the Day (James Bryant Conant, on Diversity of Opinion in Higher Ed)

“Diversity of opinion is not only basic for the welfare of our universities but for that of the entire nation.” —American chemist, educator and diplomat James Bryant Conant (1893-1978), “Education in a Divided World” (1949), in American Higher Education Transformed, 1940–2005: Documenting the National Discourse, edited by Wilson Smith and Thomas Bender (2008)

Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Flashback, April 1924: Merger Sends MGM Roaring

A century ago this month, what became the most structured—and successful—studio in Hollywood’s Golden Age was formed with the merger of Metro Pictures Corp., Goldwyn Pictures and Louis B. Mayer Productions.

Though theater chain magnate Marcus Loew orchestrated the deal, the prime mover for the next 27 years in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer—MGM for short—turned out to be a Ukrainian emigrant who not only celebrated American values onscreen, but even pushed his actual birthdate up to July 4 to coincide with that of his adopted country.

In his office in Culver City, studio head Louis B. Mayer may not have been the most hated movie mogul (that dishonor probably goes to Jack L. Warner), but he was the most paternalistic—an executive you wanted on your side and dreaded to cross.

Those in “L.B.”’s lair might find themselves subject to shouting (MGM president Nicholas Schenck, who, upon Loew’s death, dealt with the theater side of the business from New York), groping (young musical star Judy Garland, who, according to notes for an unpublished memoir, claimed she finally summoned the nerve to tell him to stop), and crying (matinee idol Robert Taylor, who, after having his boss cry on his shoulders, gave up his demand for more money).

Directors might fume at rushed production schedules, favorite scenes left on the cutting-room floor, or being replaced mid-production.

But all of these C-suite theatrics produced as many as 50 films a year, including Gone With the Wind, all-star vehicles like the Oscar-winning Grand Hotel, beloved musicals such as The Wizard of Oz —and, in 1937, in the midst of the Great Depression, a princely yearly salary of $1.3 million for Mayer.

The roaring lion appearing at the start of its films may have been MGM’s most instantly recognizable branding element, but its most important asset was its stable of actors.

“More Stars Than There Are in Heaven,” the studio’s advertising slogan went—a boast that held true from the silent era (e.g., Greta Garbo, Jack Gilbert, Buster Keaton, Lon Chaney) well into the coming of sound (Clark Gable, Myrna Loy, Jean Harlow, Gene Kelly).

The Culver City complex was a true movie factory—“scattered over six separate lots, cramped and shedded and separated from one another by public thoroughfares,” with Lot 1 given over to stages  dressing rooms, and offices, according to James Curtis’ 2011 biography of the studio’s most respected actor, Spencer Tracy.

Here, stars were manufactured virtually from whole cloth (Lana Turner, Ava Gardner), shrewdly redesigned when found to be imperfect elsewhere (Tracy, Wallace Beery, and Marie Dressler); or imported from Europe (Garbo and Hedy Lamarr).

It all stemmed from Mayer’s frequently expressed belief that the movies were the only business where the assets walked out the gate every night, and Thalberg’s understanding that “without stars, a company is in the position of starting over every year.”

And, long before Hollywood went endlessly to the well with the “Star Wars” and Marvel series, MGM milked the commercial value of multi-film franchises, including:

*The 12 Tarzan movies made by Johnny Weissmuller from 1932 to 1948;

*The six “Thin Man” movies starring William Powell and Myrna Loy;

*The nine Doctor Kildare movies made by Lew Ayres;

* Mickey Rooney’s 15 “Andy Hardy” films from 1937 to 1946;

*The 10 “Maisie” comedies with Ann Sothern as a lovable Brooklyn showgirl; and

* The “aqua-musicals” of “America’s Mermaid,” Esther Williams.

Several Mayer lieutenants were crucial in churning out all this product:

* Irving Thalberg: Nicknamed the “Boy Wonder” by the press and “The Last Tycoon” by F. Scott Fitzgerald (who fictionalized him as the title character of his posthumously published Hollywood novel), he served as production head of the new studio and a kind of surrogate son to Mayer, before dying of pneumonia, after a dozen years of overwork as the epitome of a Hollywood creative producer, at age 37.

* Eddie Mannix: Installed as a studio snitch by Nicholas Schenck, he soon went over to Mayer’s side, where, as general manager, he became LB’s indispensable “fixer”—soothing insecure stars, along with squelching innumerable scandals involving pregnancies, fatal auto accidents, abortions, a precursor of Harvey Weinstein's sexual harassment crimes—and, some have argued, the murder of “Three Stooges” director Ted Healy.

* Howard Strickling: Head of publicity, the studio exec in charge of communication was, ironically, afflicted with a communication handicap of his own—stuttering. But, 24/7, he controlled access to the industry’s greatest assembly of talent, rewarding reporters who played ball and punishing those who didn’t.

* Howard Dietz: Head of advertising and publicity at the studio for 30 years, he not only came up with its famous lion (an idea he borrowed from the mascot of his alma mater, Columbia University), but also pursued a simultaneous sideline as the lyricist partner of Arthur Schwartz.

The landmark 1948 Supreme Court case United States v. Paramount effectively ended the quarter century of studio dominance by outlawing the block-booking system of selling multiple films to a theater as a unit and by recommending the breakup of studio-theater monopolies.

Three years later, Nicholas Schenck finally resolved his multi-decade clash with Mayer by persuading the studio’s board of directors to replace the mogul with writer-producer Dore Schary, who would suffer the same fate as his predecessor five years later.  

By the 1960s, MGM’s onetime ability to achieve profit margins even with handsomely mounted productions had devolved into boom-or-bust blockbusters that left it vulnerable to takeovers. It’s now a subsidiary of Amazon. 

Quote of the Day (Christopher Morley, on Conversation Among Three Versus Two)

“Very often conversations are better among three than between two, for the reason that then one of the trio is always, unconsciously, acting as umpire, interposing fair play, recalling wandering wits to the nub of the argument, seeing that the aggressiveness of one does no foul to the reticence of another. Talk in twos may, alas! fall into speaker and listener: talk in threes rarely does so.” — American journalist, novelist, essayist and poet Christopher Morley (1890-1957), “What Men Live By,” in Mince Pie (1919)

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Quote of the Day (Tracy Chapman, on Questions and Songwriting)

“In some ways, writing a song is about asking and answering questions: ‘Who is this character, why are they doing this and where is the story going?’ When I was young, I thought all these questions could be answered with the first iteration of the song. I’m not as enamored with this idea that the very first thing that comes to mind is what I have to remain committed to.”—Singer-songwriter Tracy Chapman, interviewed by Lovia Gyarke, “Origins,” T: The Style Magazine of “The New York Times,” Apr. 21, 2024

The image accompanying this post, of Tracy Chapman at the 2009 Cactus Festival in Bruges, Belgium, was taken July 10, 2009, by Hans Hillewaert.

Monday, April 22, 2024

Quote of the Day (Jewel, on Life as One’s ‘Best Work of Art’)

“I remember writing at that age [16-19] that I didn’t want my music to be my best work of art — I wanted my life to be my best work of art. I take music seriously, but I take that promise to myself more seriously.”— American singer-songwriter, poet and humanitarian activist Jewel, interviewed by Lovia Gyarke, Origins,” T: The Style Magazine of “The New York Times,” Apr. 21, 2024

The image accompanying this post, showing Jewel at Yahoo Yodel 2009, was taken Oct. 13, 2009, by Yodel Anecdotal/Yahoo! Inc.

Tweet of the Day (Simon Sinek, on Dog People Versus Cat People)

“The difference between dog people and cat people: dog people wish their dogs were people. Cat people wish they were cats.”— English-born American author and inspirational speaker Simon Sinek, tweet of June 23, 2018

The image accompanying this post shows French actress Simone Simon in the 1942 horror classic Cat People, about a young woman who turns into a panther when stricken by jealousy. Now that’s taking this whole cat thing a bit too far, wouldn’t you say?

Sunday, April 21, 2024

Quote of the Day (Michael Wood, on Destroying Rivers and the Past)

“The health of our rivers is vital to everyone. If you love history, it is even more pointed, for in our landscapes are carried all our histories. Destroy a river and you also lose its past; it is akin to losing part of our collective memory. We live in times of the degradation of landscapes across the world, caused by poverty but also by the deliberate actions of the rich and powerful. And in Britain these disasters threaten not only our environment and our physical and mental wellbeing but our history, too.”— English historian, broadcaster, and documentary filmmaker Michael Wood, “Michael Wood on…The History Carried in Our Landscapes,” BBC History Magazine, April 2023

Professor Wood’s article deals with rivers in Great Britain. But these waterways—from the Hudson and Potomac in the east, through the Mississippi and Missouri in the heartland, to the Columbia in the West—have been crucial not only to American commerce but also American culture.

The Passaic River in northern New Jersey might not be as famous as these, but it has been as important to those lining its shores. This waterway has been essential to commerce in the area, but also shamefully abused, even listed in 1970 as the second most polluted river in the United States.

In September 2013 I took the image accompanying this post, of a revived tract of land on its banks: Riverfront Park in Garfield.

The creation of Riverfront Park shows what can be done with great effort in a concentrated area. Much remains to be done elsewhere along this 80-mile-long river to ensure the health of residents in the area—and the maintenance of historical memory of how the waterway helped give birth to America’s manufacturing industry.

In addition, the stream forms the backdrop to William Carlos Williams’ poem Paterson, which, the doctor-turned-writer noted, “follows the course of the Passaic River, whose life seemed more and more to resemble my own: the river above the Falls, the catastrophe of the Falls itself, the river below the Falls and the entrance at the end into the great sea."

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Flannery O’Connor, on Why ‘The Artist Penetrates the Concrete World’)

“St. Augustine wrote that the things of the world pour forth from God in a double way: intellectually into the minds of the angels and physically into the world of things. To the person who believes this—as the western world did up until a few centuries ago—this physical, sensible world is good because it proceeds from a divine source….The artist penetrates the concrete world in order to find at its depths the image of its source, the image of ultimate reality. This in no way hinders his perception of evil but rather sharpens it, for only when the natural world is seen as good does evil become intelligible as a destructive force and a necessary result of our freedom.”— American short-story writer and novelist Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964), “Novelist and Believer,” originally delivered at Sweet Briar College, VA, reprinted in Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose (1957)

Saturday, April 20, 2024

Quote of the Day (Peter Davison, on Criteria for ‘The Perfect Biographer’)

“If there were a perfect biographer, he or she would be the following: a real writer, one who understands how to construct and recount a labile and sensuous narrative; a master of research, in both documents and interviews; a person who is tactful in dealings with relatives, librarians, lovers, executors, children, parents, and editors; one who is so cannily devoted to the personality of the biographical subject as to pursue every true lead and abandon every false one; one who cares so deeply about the precision of the text as to check every fact again and again, every document, every photograph, every rumor. But, beyond the conscientious practice of these skills, the biographer's genius lies in having the sympathy and imagination to create the story of a life about which the subject’s ghost would say, ‘That’s as close to me as anybody else could be expected to get.’ The biographer’s worst temptation is to transform the subject into someone preferable to the original.”—American poet and editor Peter Davison (1928–2004), “To Edit a Life,” The Atlantic Monthly, October 1992

As a lifelong reader of biographies—and, now, a biographer myself—I read this passage by Davison with great interest, knowing just how difficult it is to meet all the qualities he mentions.

But, when I think of a biographer who changes how his subject is perceived, rendering him in all his complexity and in the context of his times, I think of Ron Chernow (pictured). 

He has made his greatest mark on American culture with a biography of Alexander Hamilton that helped inspire the long-running Broadway musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda, and has won the Pulitzer Prize for his life of Washington.

But even before that, I had been enthralled by Titan, his account of John D. Rockefeller, which built on his background as a financial journalist. In the process, he pierced the membrane of what he called “silence, mystery and evasion” surrounding this paradoxical billionaire.

(The image accompanying this post of Chernow was taken Sept. 13, 2004, by the U.S. Department of the Treasury—the institution founded by his subject Alexander Hamilton.)

Friday, April 19, 2024

Movie Quote of the Day (‘My Favorite Year,’ As a Film Idol Returns to a Favorite Haunt)

Alan Swann
[played by Peter O’Toole]: “We'll be two for dinner. Telephone the Stork Club.”

Alfi [played by Tony DiBenedetto]: “You sure you mean the Stork Club, Mr. Swann?”

Alan: “Certainly. It's been a year and a half. Surely they've repaired the wall of the bandstand by now.”— My Favorite Year (1982), screenplay by Norman Steinberg and Dennis Palumbo and based on a story by Palumbo, directed by Richard Benjamin

It had been over 40 years, during its original release, since I’d seen this rollicking comedy, inspired by young TV writer Mel Brooks’ attempt to keep the rambunctious Errol Flynn (the “Alan Swann” character) safe and sober before his appearance on Your Show of Shows

Watching the movie again on TCM was like revisiting an old friend, with plenty of smiles and memories abounding.

Quote of the Day (Lord Byron, Dreaming That ‘Greece Might Still Be Free’)

“The mountains look on Marathon—
    And Marathon looks on the sea;
And musing there an hour alone,
    I dream’d that Greece might still be free;
For standing on the Persians’ grave,
I could not deem myself a slave.”— English Romantic poet George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824), “The Isles of Greece” (1821)
Two centuries ago today, Lord Byron died of a fever in Missolonghi, contracted while participating in the Greek War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire.
In some ways, his demise was filled with the kind of ironies that would have amused the creator of the mock epic Don Juan: Despite using his own fortune to raise an army to fight for the Greek cause, he was able neither to win any battles outright himself nor reconcile opposing factions; and he died not on a battlefield but at the hands of doctors whose bloodletting technique fatally weakened him against his fever.
At the same time, by focusing international attention on the Greeks’ struggle for autonomy, he brought an attention to the fight that it might not have received otherwise.
He is still remembered as a hero in that nation to this day, even though in his native England his reputation is more ambivalent, with respect for his enormous writing skill sometimes obscured by a private life that might charitably be termed complicated.
For more on Byron’s full-throated advocacy of freedom and liberalism at home and abroad, I urge you to read Paul Trueblood’s essay in the January 1976 issue of The Byron Journal.
The eight-year Greek War of Independence is examined in this fascinating online exhibit, coinciding with the conflict’s bicentennial, from the University of Michigan Library.
Byron’s involvement in the conflict occurred in the context of Britain’s diplomatic maneuvers, which the exhibit discusses hereAmerica’s “Greek Fever” also forms part of the exhibit.

Thursday, April 18, 2024

Quote of the Day (Michel de Montaigne, on Humor)

“Our own peculiar condition is that we are as fit to be laughed at as able to laugh.”— French essayist Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), “On Democritus and Heraclitus,” in The Complete Works: Essays, Travel Journal, Letters, edited by William Hazlitt, translated by Donald Frame (Everyman Library, 2003)

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Quote of the Day (Aristotle, on Shame and Shamelessness)

“We now turn to Shame and Shamelessness; what follows will explain the things that cause these feelings, and the persons before whom, and the states of mind under which, they are felt. Shame may be defined as pain or disturbance in regard to bad things, whether present, past, or future, which seem likely to involve us in discredit; and shamelessness as contempt or indifference in regard to these same bad things. If this definition be granted, it follows that we feel shame at such bad things as we think are disgraceful to ourselves or to those we care for. These evils are, in the first place, those due to moral badness. Such are throwing away one's shield or taking to flight; for these bad things are due to cowardice. Also, withholding a deposit or otherwise wronging people about money; for these acts are due to injustice. Also, having carnal intercourse with forbidden persons, at wrong times, or in wrong places; for these things are due to licentiousness. Also, making profit in petty or disgraceful ways, or out of helpless persons, e.g. the poor, or the dead-whence the proverb 'He would pick a corpse's pocket'; for all this is due to low greed and meanness. Also, in money matters, giving less help than you might, or none at all, or accepting help from those worse off than yourself; so also borrowing when it will seem like begging; begging when it will seem like asking the return of a favour; asking such a return when it will seem like begging; praising a man in order that it may seem like begging; and going on begging in spite of failure: all such actions are tokens of meanness. Also, praising people to their face, and praising extravagantly a man's good points and glozing over his weaknesses, and showing extravagant sympathy with his grief when you are in his presence, and all that sort of thing; all this shows the disposition of a flatterer. Also, refusing to endure hardships that are endured by people who are older, more delicately brought up, of higher rank, or generally less capable of endurance than ourselves: for all this shows effeminacy. Also, accepting benefits, especially accepting them often, from another man, and then abusing him for conferring them: all this shows a mean, ignoble disposition. Also, talking incessantly about yourself, making loud professions, and appropriating the merits of others; for this is due to boastfulness. The same is true of the actions due to any of the other forms of badness of moral character, of the tokens of such badness, etc..: they are all disgraceful and shameless.” —Greek philosopher Aristotle (384 BC-322 BC), Rhetoric, Book II, translated by W. Rhys Roberts (350 B.C.E.)

Well, that is quite a list that Aristotle has compiled of the traits of a shameless person. It’s so vast, so wide-ranging, that under normal circumstances, it would be hard to find one person who met so many. 

(Even George Santos, pictured here, has been brazen in his lying and in pledging an all-volunteer comeback campaign for Congress—but he doesn’t fit the bill for the “licentiousness” mentioned by Aristotle.)

But we don’t live under normal circumstances these days, so I can think of one person who does meet these criteria. In fact, he’s very much in the news right now.

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Quote of the Day (O. Henry, on One Advantage of a Low Salary)

“My salary as bookkeeper in the hardware concern kept at a distance those ills attendant upon superfluous wealth.” —American short-story writer William Sidney Porter, aka O. Henry (1862-1910), “Confessions of a Humourist,” in Waifs and Strays: Twelve Stories (1917)

Monday, April 15, 2024

This Day in Film History (Death of Wallace Beery, Oscar-Winning Lovable Lug)

Apr. 15, 1949— Wallace Beery, whose burly frame and gruff voice propelled him from supporting roles to an Oscar-winning box-office mainstay, died of a heart attack at age 64 at his Beverly Hills home.

The character actor, one of the busiest of the silent and early sound eras, started in the entertainment industry at age 16 with Ringling Brothers Circus as an assistant to the elephant trainer, then transitioned to musical variety shows before heading west to Hollywood in 1913.

Over the next 15 years, he appeared onscreen 150 times, chiefly at Keystone, Universal, and Paramount Studios, before the arrival of sound led the industry to a virtually wholesale liquidation of much of their talent.

Beery was looking for work when “Boy Wonder” MGM producer Irving Thalberg sensed potential in the actor. 

It was a shrewd guess: Within a year, the illness and death of Lon Chaney opened up an opening for a plum role as a three-time murderer in jail for life in The Big House, and screenwriter Frances Marion, noticing Beery eating spaghetti at the studio’s cafeteria, reminded her of San Quentin prisoners she’d interviewed during her research for the movie.

Beery was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for the role, and he would win it for playing a washed-up prizefighter desperately providing for the son he loves in the 1931 movie The Champ (remade, to far less box office and critical acclaim, in 1979 with Jon Voight).

Throughout the Thirties, MGM did everything it could to milk their suddenly hot property for everything he was worth, in such films as Mexican outlaw Francisco Villa in Viva Villa!, grasping capitalists in Dinner at Eight and Grand Hotel, and Long John Silver in Treasure Island.

The last three roles could be at best edgy and at worst treacherous. But the studio assembly line that emphasized typecasting increasingly frustrated the actor so that, by the end of the decade, his acting “took on the boozy self-consciousness of a department store Santa with a chronically overdeveloped sense of his own charm,” according to Tom Sutpen’s February 2006 post from the blog for Bright Lights Film Journal.

Audiences couldn’t get enough of the actor. With his lined face and beefy build, he looked like one of them, and film fans weren’t as besotted with physical perfection as they would become in later decades. They were disinclined to believe that someone seemingly so earthy and easygoing could be unprofessional and perhaps violent away from the cameras.

It did not become known till years later, then, after MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer and his PR crew were no longer around, that the reality regarding Mayer was quite different.

There seems little doubt, for instance, that Beery couldn’t stand juvenile actors, because they had the unconscious habit of stealing scenes from them. As adults, Dickie Moore, Margaret O’Brien, and Jane Powell all described him as abusive, and O’Brien even accused him of stealing her lunch!

But the youngster who seems to have suffered the most at Beery’s hands was Jackie Cooper. The success of The Champ led the studio to pair the two in three more pictures that must have been absolute agony for the youngster.

The extent to which Beery wreaked havoc on adults is just as egregious as his conduct towards juveniles, if more disputed. One of the more persistent stories that emerged after his death was that he and two friends got into a drunken brawl in 1937 with Ted Healy that resulted in the death of the creator of The Three Stooges.

Details have varied over the circumstances surrounding Healy’s death, and I am inclined to believe that Jon Ponder, in this “West Hollywood History” blog post, disproved the story.

But it says something about both Beery’s dark side and MGM’s fabled ability to fix scandals that so many industry observers were ready to credit the tale.

At the time of Beery’s death, he was involved in a paternity suit, charged by actress Gloria Schumm with reneging on an agreement to give her child his first name. The court dismissed the proceedings after the actor’s death.

The other unseemly tale involving Beery and adults concerned Gloria Swanson, who claimed that, on the night of their wedding (which fell on her 17th birthday), he returned from the hotel bar to rape her. When the future Sunset Boulevard star became pregnant, she wrote in her autobiography, he gave her a concoction that induced an abortion.

The marriage only lasted two years. It would take six decades, but Swanson would finally have revenge of a sort on her ex in her memoirs. 

She related in its opening pages the story of his mistreatment of her. Combined with the other stories that others have come out with, it makes laughable the Los Angeles Times obituary that observed that he was “soft spoken, unexcitable and entirely lacking in temperament at home.”

TV Quote of the Day (‘30 Rock,’ With ‘Country Jenna’ Foreshadowing ‘Country Carter’)

Jenna Maroney [played by Jane Krakowski]: “Did you hear what happened? I am so upset.”

Liz Lemon [played by Tina Fey]:Oh, no. Okay, let me explain...”

Jenna: “I came in here to shoot these tennis promos, and they had blue gels on the lights. You know that makes my teeth look see-through. You weren't here to do your job, Liz.”

Liz: “Okay, well, Josh quit.”

Jenna: “Who? Jack's counting on Country Jenna to save the show, but I just want to understand what it is that's distracting you from the one thing you've been told to do.”

Liz: “Really? You wanna know what I've been doing?”

Jenna: “Yes, Liz. Enlighten me.”

Liz: “Jack is hiring a new cast member.”

Jenna [Screaming at the top of her lungs]: “If it is a blonde woman, I will kill myself!” — 30 Rock, Season 4, Episode 1, “Season 4,” original air date Oct. 15, 2009, teleplay by Tina Fey, directed by Don Scardino

Quote of the Day (James Kaplan, on How ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ Was Unlike Anything on TV Before)

“The show [Curb Your Enthusiasm] wasn't quite like anything that had been on TV before. The real-life details (there were deadpan talking-head interviews with [Jerry] Seinfeld, [Richard] Lewis, Jason Alexander, and Rick Newman, the founder of Catch a Rising Star), the handheld camera (an acknowledged presence in several scenes), and the improvised dialogue made the show much closer to the bone than Seinfeld. Seinfeld was scherzo, its fun stemming from the constantly shifting play among its troupe of four. [Larry] David's new form was simpler and starker. There was a basic triangle: Larry; Jeff, his manager, who helps get him into trouble (usually in the form of telling lies and keeping secrets Larry being spectacularly bad at the latter); and Cheryl, his wife, who calls him to account.”— American novelist, journalist, and biographer James Kaplan, “Angry Middle-Aged Man,” The New Yorker, Jan. 19, 2004

I came across this quote and the larger article from which it comes a couple of days after the series finale of Curb Your Enthusiasm. I bet that James Kaplan never thought that the subject of his profile, Larry David, expected his show to conclude a full two decades later.

The factors that Kaplan points out did make the show unusual, and, indeed, account for much of the devoted audience it built over the years. 

But, I would argue, David’s series only follows in the footsteps of Garry Shandling’s talk-show parody, The Larry Sanders Show, in what I have heard called a “neuroticon.”

This mini-genre follows, documentary-style, a prominent figure in TV comedy—or, rather, his highly exaggerated alter ego—through his self-absorbed, often self-defeating, private life—or, as Kaplan puts it, “routinely managing to annoy or infuriate everyone around him.”

That protagonist interacts with equally exaggerated versions of real-life celebrities who frequently are the star’s friends. The main character eventually irritates his long-suffering wife enough that she grows tired of his antics and divorces him.

Given the public attention and affluence that have come to David over the last 35 years, it was a surprise for me to read, in Kaplan’s profile, that, before Seinfeld was picked up, David was “a standup comic in trouble...middle-aged, single, living in a building with subsidized housing for artists on the West Side of Manhattan, and just scraping up.”

Every time he took the stage as a stand-up comedian, David told Kaplan, he was “taking my life in my hands…Every time I went up, I thought I was putting my life on the line.”

It didn’t get any better with the pitch that David and friend Jerry Seinfeld made to NBC executives for what became Seinfeld. Whatever these suits were feeling about the proposed star, “they would have gotten rid of me without even thinking about it,” David remembered.

Believe it or not, in a viewing habit similar to The Larry Sanders Show, I only began to watch David’s HBO sitcom after it had concluded filming. Now, I am finding out what I missed over 12 seasons and nearly a quarter-century—and, through streaming, have gotten a close relative to do likewise.

Many longtime viewers will cherish moments from this comedy of cringe for a long, long time from now, as Abby Alten Schwartz explains in this February article from The Huffington Post.