Saturday, December 31, 2005

Forgotten John Collins

Film director John H. Collins was born on this day in 1889 in New York City.

Originally a set designer for the Edison studios, John H. Collins was a film director before the golden age of silent film took shape. Though largely forgotten, film scholars during the 1960s and 70s began to recognize the stylistic maturity of Collins' work, and some have called him one of the finest American film directors of the period. Among his 28 films, almost all of which starred his wife Viola Dana, were Children of Eve (1915), Blue Jeans (1917), and The Cossack Whip (1916), "parts of which," according to critic James Card, "look as though it could have been made by one of the Russian revolutionary directors."

Collins' promising career was cut short by the 1918 influenza epidemic -- the same one getting all the press these days as the world gears up for avian flu; he died in New York City on October 23, 1918.


Friday, December 30, 2005

John Peter Altgeld

SLEEP softly * * * eagle forgotten * * * under the stone.
Time has its way with you there, and the clay has its own.
"We have buried him now," thought your foes, and in secret rejoiced.
They made a brave show of their mourning, their hatred unvoiced.
They had snarled at you, barked at you, foamed at you, day after day,
Now you were ended. They praised you, * * * and laid you away.

The others that mourned you in silence and terror and truth,
The widow bereft of her pittance, the boy without youth,
The mocked and the scorned and the wounded, the lame and the poor
That should have remembered forever, * * * remember no more.

Where are those lovers of yours, on what name do they call
The lost, that in armies wept over your funeral pall?
They call on the names of a hundred high-valiant ones,
A hundred white eagles have risen, the sons of your sons,
The zeal in their wings is a zeal that your dreaming began
The valor that wore out your soul in the service of man.

Sleep softly, * * * eagle forgotten, * * * under the stone,
Time has its way with you there and the clay has its own.
Sleep on, O brave hearted, O wise man, that kindled the flame—
To live in mankind is far more than to live in a name,
To live in mankind, far, far more * * * than to live in a name.

-- Vachel Lindsay, "The Eagle That is Forgotten," a tribute to John P. Altgeld

The son of immigrant farmers, John Peter Altgeld taught school and held down common laborer jobs while studying law, entering the Bar in 1871. Three years later he was elected state attorney in Illinois and, bolstered by a fortune he made in real estate, ran unsuccessfully for Congress (1884) and U.S. Senate (1885).

In 1884, he wrote Our Penal Machinery and its Victims, in which he criticized the American justice system for being oriented against the poor and encouraging brutality by delivering brutal treatment of prisoners, and he began to express pro-labor stands, although he took no public position on the Haymarket incident in 1886. That year he was elected to the Cook County Superior Court, where he spoke in favor of abolishing sweatshops and child labor, prompting the Chicago Tribune to label Altgeld a "follower of Jefferson -- and Karl Marx."

Nominated for governor by the Democrats in 1892, he campaigned on non-radical issues and won, but soon after courted controversy by issuing a proclamation against the lynching of an African-American in Decatur, Illinois, and, most famously, by pardoning the surviving members of the Haymarket affair (Messrs. Fielden, Neebe and Schwab) with an 18,000-word supporting essay which denounced the uses of capital and government authority against the laborer.

He was criticized around the country as a friend of anarchy, but this only emboldened Altgeld's radical pro-union stance: while President Cleveland tried to break the Pullman strike of 1894 with federal troops and injunctions, Altgeld demanded that Cleveland withdraw the troops, and spoke out against the corrupt control of the White House by the captains of corporate wealth, describing the Cleveland administration as "the slimy offspring of that unhallowed marriage between Standard Oil and Wall Street."

Despite his radical reputation, Altgeld might have won the 1896 Democratic presidential nomination were it not for his foreign birth; instead he supported William Jennings Bryan and ran unsuccessfully for reelection as governor (although he polled better than Bryan did in Illinois). He lost a bid for mayor of Chicago in 1899 and began a law partnership with the famous Clarence Darrow, before succumbing to a cerebral hemmorhage on March 12, 1902.

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Tuesday, December 27, 2005

The Disciple Whom Jesus Loved

The Feast of St. John, one of the original 12 disciples of Christ and the supposed author of the Gospel which bears his name, is celebrated on this day.

The sons of a Galilean fisherman, John and his brother James the Greater (thought to be the older of the two) were among the first disciples called by Jesus. Jesus nicknamed them "Boanerges," the sons of thunder, for the zeal which occasionally spurred them to reactionary excess, such as the time they wanted to call down fire from heaven to burn the Samaritan towns which did not accept Jesus.

Along with James and Peter, John was among the inner circle of Jesus' followers, the privileged confidantes who would witness Jesus' raising of Jairus' daughter from the dead, the Transfiguration (when Jesus went to the mountain top and was transfigured, his face and clothes becoming white and shining as light), and Jesus' final "Agony in the Garden" before his arrest.

In the 4th century, John was identified as the author of the fourth Gospel; John himself, it is surmised, is only referred to in the Gospel as "the disciple whom Jesus loved," leading to some speculation that it was a follower of John who wrote down John's oral recollections and actually compiled the Gospel. Nevertheless, early church fathers ascribed it to John, whom they identified with the eagle in Ezekiel's vision of God's retinue of beasts.

While the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke share a lot of the same basic material, the Gospel of John is notably different. The first 3 Gospels show glimpses of Jesus and do their best to illustrate his divinity, but John spells it out in no uncertain terms: Jesus is the son of God, the light and life of the world, and when John tells of Jesus saying "It is finished" just before his death and the rising of his spirit like the eagle with which John was identified, God's purpose for Jesus has been served. John's Gospel is also one of contemplation on the meaning of Christ's life on Earth, in particular on the importance of charity as a bond among members of Christ's community.

Tradition holds that John continued to be an important member of the early church after the resurrection, supposedly leading the mission of the church to Ephesus, where it is surmised that he wrote his three Epistles. Following the meditative vein of the fourth Gospel, the first Epistle articulates love as the essence of Christianity and the thing that separated this Faith from pagan traditions, while the second and third Epistles stress the importance of, and the difficulties with, defending the Faith against false propaganda.

The last book ascribed to John is Revelations, which is so different in style and orientation from the Gospel and the 3 Epistles that it is somewhat difficult to fathom it as the product of John or his followers; authorized versions of the Bible hedged their bets and called the author of Revelations "John the Divine" as opposed to "John the Apostle" or "John the Evangelist."

However, if one wished to equate all of those "Johns" as aspects of one beloved friend and follower of Christ who survived to old age (even surviving unscathed, according to legend, being dipped into boiling oil!), it is not difficult to imagine the scenario. Under the persecution of the Roman emperor Domitian, John the lifelong Christian agitator was banished from Ephesus to the distant, desolate island of Patmos. From its rocky hilltops, John addressed his divinely inspired revelations to his fellow sufferers in the Faith in order to comfort them, offering them hope through a vision of God in control of all time and in which Christ would achieve a final victory over Satan. As the supposed last survivor of Christ's inner circle, John the son of thunder had the most time on Earth to meditate on the meaning of Jesus' life and death as he had witnessed it -- the graduate most likely to become a divine seer and prophet.

While some sources say John eventually died in Ephesus, others says that he simply ascended to heaven; this view was apparently disfavored by the church, however, which took avid pride in finding relics of the disciples. One site in particular in Ephesus emerged as the official site of John's tomb. By the 6th century, the healing power of dust from John's tomb was famous, and a popular tradition (cited by St. Augustine) held that the Earth over his grave heaved as if John were still breathing underneath.

"He was not a vindictive man, but he wrote 'in the spirit' with a frightening sense of the reality of good and evil, a reality whose bitterness burned, but whose sweetness was inexpressible." -- R. Brownrigg, on John the Divine.


Sunday, December 25, 2005

The Childhood of Jesus of Nazareth

Now that Christmas has arrived, many of us in the Northeast U.S. are right this very minute huddled around the Christmas tree, clutching our robes about us for warmth, as we poke our hands through dry fir needles in search of the next brightly wrapped gift for giving. Whether we know it or not, however, this holiday's most essential activity involves spending uninterrupted time with the children in our lives -- if not our own (as in my case, since I don't have any), then those of our loved ones.

With sugary treats, new toys and tinsel drifting around our living rooms like confetti, within one 24-hour period we have the opportunity to see the great gamut of childhood's humours: the wide-eyed excitement, the wild, unfocused kinetic energy, the selfishness, the rash misjudgments -- but also, the gratitude, the love, and the peaceful sleep that follows a day of thrills and spills. Everything that our children are can be found in this one day -- which is probably why so many adults who are not so used to being around children sometimes dread Christmastime.

This day also reminds us that Jesus of Nazareth, the oft unnamed subject of today's festivities, was once a child, too. But what was he like as a child?

The historical Jesus is a shadowy figure, one not easily revealed even by the most literal reading of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, given the narrative contradictions, gaps and pointed allusions to Old Testament prophecy. The most obvious and formative of the latter is the New Testament’s identification of Jesus as the Messiah who would lead his people to glory, a fulfillment of the visions of the prophets that a great king, descended from the line of David, would be born in Bethlehem and "execute judgment and righteousness on the Earth" (Jeremiah 23:5, Micah 5:2).

Whether or not Jesus was born in Bethlehem is even a matter of dispute within the Gospels themselves (St. John apparently thinks not), but millions of us Christians have been schooled in the story of how an angel came to Mary (who was betrothed to Joseph, a carpenter) and told her that by a miraculous virginal conception she would bear the son of God; and that the couple traveled to Bethlehem from Nazareth together to appear for a Roman census, and there Mary gave birth to Jesus in a manger, among the sheep and the shepherds as their was no room in the local inn.

Following in the prophetic vein, Matthew relates that Herod, king of Judea, heard about the birth of a future great king in Bethlehem and ordered a massacre of all male children in Bethlehem under the age of 2. Fleeing from Herod’s butchery, Mary and Joseph took their infant son (foster son, in Joseph’s case) and hid in Egypt.

After the flight to Egypt, the Gospels tell us little of Jesus’ youth, but the Apocryphal Gospels of Thomas and James give life to other uncomfortable legends, illustrating Jesus’ awareness of his own divinity and his impatience with ordinary mortals. The stories tell of how he frequently scared his playmates by performing minor miracles, once even turning the neighborhood children into goats, causing their mothers to cry; of how he exhausted the patience of his teachers by professing to know more than them; and how his parents had to suffer eviction by suspicious landlords due to Jesus’ supernatural mischief, until they finally returned to the back country in Nazareth. These legends are indeed uncomfortable, for we are unaccustomed to seeing Jesus acting in this way, but they are nonetheless familiar. It is the kind of normal childhood petulance that we encounter every day, with the added feature of Jesus' divinity fueling its volume.

St. Luke next finds Jesus when he was 12, at the traditional age of one's bar mitzvah, on a trip to Jerusalem with his parents. When his parents leave to return to Nazareth, Jesus stays behind, and 3 days later they find him in the Temple, firing sharp questions at the rabbis.

"Why are you looking for me?" Jesus asks. "Did you not know that I must be in my father’s house?" His vocation, it seems, is taking hold in him.

All of this gives us something to remember when we assess the humours of our own precocious, mischeivous children on this day filled with unusual holiday treats: there will come a time when, like this Jesus in the Temple, a sense of purpose will take hold in them, and our young man or young woman will decide for themselves to "put aside childish things." It may not happen at age 12, but it will happen -- in some measure, some day.

In the meantime, most of us need not worry about our children turning the other neighborhood children into goats -- so at least we can be thankful for that.

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Saturday, December 24, 2005

Michael Curtiz

Film director Michael Curtiz was born on this day in 1888 in Budapest, Hungary.

A member of the National Hungarian Theater, Curitz became one of the pioneers of the Hungarian film industry, directing at least 37 films there prior to 1920. He briefly interned at Nordisk in Denmark, learning film art from Mauritz Stiller and Victor Sjostrom, and following the nationalization of the Hungarian film industry in 1917 and exile in Germany and Austria, Curtiz arrived in America in 1926.

In time he developed a reputation for rising above poor scripts and low budgets to create well-crafted films for Warner Brothers -- as well as for being overbearing and mercurial on the set with his crew and actors. Some of Curtiz's best work was in the swashbuckling films of Errol Flynn (Captain Blood, 1935; The Adventures of Robin Hood, 1938, co-directed with William Keighley; and The Sea Hawk, 1940), and some early Bette Davis vehicles (Cabin in the Cotton, 1932; and 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, 1933), although neither Flynn nor Davis could stand to work with him.

Curtiz's best known film is Casablanca (1942, with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman), for which he won a Best Director Oscar, again an example of Curtiz making the most of mediocre material -- in part, through on-the-set re-writes by Howard Koch.

As the studio system declined, so did Curtiz's career, although he was still actively working at the time of his death in 1962.

Curtiz is also infamous for some deathless Hungarian-American malapropisms, such as the one he uttered to a prop-boy ("Next time I send a fool, I go myself!") or, to a child actor ("By the time I was your age, I was fifteen").


Friday, December 23, 2005

The Dagobert Code

On this date in 679, an obscure 28-year old warlord styled as Dagobert II was assassinated in the Foret de Woevre, near Stennay, Lorraine.

One thing about being on the losing side of history, especially 7th century history, is that there is no one left to tell your side of the story with any accuracy. Nonetheless -- call it "underground history," call it "pop culture revisionist fantasy," if you will -- here in the 21st century there is a persistent suggestion (whiffs of which have been taken up famously, for example, in Dan Brown's best-selling novel The Da Vinci Code, and in Larry and Andy Wachowski's Matrix film trilogy) that the Merovingian dynasty of French kings met their end as a result of the breach of a bargain between Clovis I and Pope Anastasius II: specifically, that in exchange for Clovis' baptism and renunciation of a centuries old claim (embarrassing to the Church) that Clovis' family was directly descended from Jesus Christ, that the Church would be prepared to support Merovingian claims to the throne of the Holy Roman Empire.

For Clovis to have been seduced by such a bargain was the fatal error, according to the theorists, because by placing his progeny in a position of deriving their legitimacy from the Church, he guaranteed that the Church would, little by little, take all meaningful authority and legitimacy away from the Merovingians when it was politically expedient to do so.

To the most devoted theorists, Dagobert II was the last defiant Merovingian claimant to the throne. By 651, when Dagobert was born to Sigibert III, even though the Merovingians still retained their royal titles, the authority of the Frankish kings had already been largely usurped by the "mayors of the palace" -- in this case, an administrator named Grimoald. When Sigibert died in 656, Grimoald immediately dispatched the 5-year old Dagobert into the care of the bishop of Poitiers so that he could place a pliable family member on the throne.

Although Grimoald's intent may have been to have the child murdered, the bishop was apparently reluctant to carry out the deed. Instead, the bishop exiled the child to Ireland, to be raised in the monastery at Slane. There Dagobert found a mentor in St. Wilfrid, who educated and prepared him to assume royal duties. In 671, Dagobert married a Visigoth princess and moved to Rennes-le-Chateau, where he convinced his mother to back his claim to the Austrasian throne of the Franks. With the help of St. Wilfrid (who perhaps saw in Dagobert an instrument of mending fences between the Roman and Celtic wings of the Church), Dagobert was crowned king in 676.

Dagobert moved quickly to consolidate his authority and, in defiance of his former mentor, raised a larger treasury at the expense of the Church with the aim of reconquering Aquitaine, which had seceded from Merovingian territory about 40 years earlier. Dagobert's independence apparently caused significant distress among both ecclesiastics and secular administrators, and legend has it that the then-current mayor of the palace, Pepin the Fat (grandfather of Pepin the Short, the first Carolingian king of France), ordered Dagobert's assassination, which came at the hands of one of Dagobert's servants, who lanced him in the eye (a la Harold II and William Rufus of England) as Dagobert rested during a hunting trip.

The Church apparently did not pause to grieve Dagobert's death, and there is little evidence of him left in the records and contemporary histories of the Frankish line. On the other hand, Dagobert had enough of a cult following among his subjects to merit canonization as a saint -- not by the Church, but by a local conclave -- in 872. Modern conspiracy theorists see Dagobert's death as the beginning of an underground period of Merovingian activity by which, through shadowy organizations such as the Knights Templar and its shadowy subcommittee, the Prieure de Sion, the Merovingians have secretly regained control of the seat of European power and have promoted the European Union as a second Holy Roman Empire to replace the one they lost, controlling (in Lyndon-LaRouchian terminology) the prime levers of international industry and finance.

If that is the case, perhaps there is no good doggone reason to cry over "spilt Dagobert" today; indeed, it is sometimes unclear whether today's Merovingian conspiracy theorists stand in favor of, or against, the legacy of Dagobert II.

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Thursday, December 22, 2005


Lucille Mulhall died on this day in 1940 near Mulhall, Oklahoma, in a tragic car-truck collision.

Born in 1884, Lucille was the daughter of the legendary traveling showman Zack Mulhall. Growing up around horses and cattle, Lucille learned riding and steer-roping at an early age, and eventually became well-known as a great trick rider and roper, performing in her father's show as well as in the 101 Ranch Show and as a featured performer in New York.

Her delicate appearance often fooled her contemporaries. Theodore Roosevelt once bet her a white Stetson hat that she couldn't rope a coyote. He lost. Lucille's second husband, Texas oil man Tom Burnett, also lost when he bet Lucille she couldn't rope and tie a steer in 30 seconds. She did it in 28 seconds.

Will Rogers claimed that Lucille Mulhall was the first woman to be legitimately referred to as a "cowgirl."

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Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Ugly Tom

"Giotto born again, starting where death had cut short his advance, instantly making his own all that had been gained during his absence, and profiting by the new conditions, the new demands -- imagine such an avatar, and you will understand Masaccio." -- B. Berenson.

Masaccio, a giant in the history of Western art, was born Maso di ser Giovanni on this day in 1401 at Castel San Giovanni di Altura.

Although he was not known to have shown particular artistic talent as a youth and was not associated with any great teacher of painting, Masaccio (loosely translated as "Ugly Tom") managed to enter the Florentine guild of painters, the Arte dei Medici e Speziali, at the age of 20, having demonstrated his full competence as a painter. Rather than look to other painters as mentors, however, Masaccio studied the works of the sculptor Donatello and the architect Filippo Brunelleschi, two artists who, as successors to Giotto, had fully embraced classical antecedents and instilled them with the life and spirit of their age.

In his first known work, the San Giovenale Triptych (1422), Masaccio followed the example of his mentors by shunning the decorous and other-worldly International Gothic style which still pervaded Florentine painting of that era: his saints exist in real daylight, have human weight, they are visibly uncomfortable and display grim faces; the Christ child is a chubby, awkward baby sticking two fingers in his mouth.

Most importantly, however, like Giotto, Masaccio wanted to demonstrate dramatically that intellectual distinction and learning were essential aspects of the great painter -- pictorial symbols abound in the Triptych, such as the grapes of the Eucharist in the child's hand and the stiffness of the child foretelling the scene of the Pieta.

In 1425, Masaccio began his collaboration with Masolino (loosely translated as "Fat Tom") on the frescoes of the Brancacci Chapel at the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine, and painted the fresco which is acknowledged by many as his masterpiece, the Tribute Money. Depicting the story of a confrontation between St. Peter and a Roman tax-gatherer (as told in Matthew 17:24-27), upon which local church leaders sermonized in favor of the payment of taxes to earthly rulers to support defense, Masaccio treats the event almost as contemporary journalism, showing Christ and his disciples in the plausible light and shadows of an Arno Valley landscape.

His Crucifixion (1426) showed a sophisticated understanding of the use of perspective, and is specifically designed to be seen from a low point of view, as was his final known work, Trinity (1427-8; fresco at Santa Maria Novella in Florence). In Trinity, we see the unity of all that was great in Masaccio's work: the sculptural reality of the figures, portrayed in an elaborate architectural setting with a keen sense of the tricks of perspective in realization of the theories of Brunelleschi; and the dramatic, literary character of the scenario, imbued with mysterious yet evocative visual references to past and present.

He died an untimely death at the age of 26, cause unknown, leaving behind an astounding body of work for a man his age which can only be explained by a combination of uncommon drive and vision.

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Tuesday, December 20, 2005


Designer Cliff May, one of the first and most influential proponents of the California Ranch House, was born on this day in 1908.

Although he had not been trained as an architect, Cliff May had a greater impact on architecture in California than probably any licensed professional. Beginning in the 1930s, May began to draw upon his understanding of the lifestyle of the familial, hospitality-oriented culture of the early Mexican hacendados who lived in Alta California during the colonial period.

With low roofs, deep eaves, profiles closely contoured to the land, built with local materials, generally one-room deep, open floor plans and extensive use of patios, May's homes advocated a modern architectural style which, while not self-consciously referring to historical antecedents, was freely inspired by the somewhat innocent, earnest home styles of the Alta Californians. They also gave families coming West an opportunity to "make the most of the climate they had come to enjoy." May worked closely with landscape architects, such as Thomas Church, to create intimate natural settings to be seen through May's carefully planned picture-window views.

His homes were cheap to build and accessible; his house plans were published by Sunset magazine during the 1940s, and by the 1950s there were so many "ranches" being built that they became synonymous with tract housing in the West -- leading one critic to refer to the May-inspired homes as "ranchburgers," with a nod to Ray Kroc's similarly far-reaching transformation of the gastronomic landscape during the same period.

May's original ranch designs, however, still survive as demure, graceful interpolations of Old World and modern values. May also designed the headquarters of Sunset magazine in Menlo Park and the Robert Mondavi Winery in Oakville, California. May died on March 29, 1989.

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Giovanni Boccaccio, who died on this day in 1375 in Certaldo, Italy, was born to an unknown Parisian woman, the illegitmate son of a Florentine merchant who had gone to France on business. When Giovanni was 3, his father took him away from his mother to Florence, where the father soon married a Florentine who bore him another son, on whom Giovanni's stepmother doted.

From that point on, the most productive core of Giovanni Boccaccio's life and work can be explained as a series of episodes about searching for or losing feminine affection. His father sent the neglected teen to school in Naples, the playland of Italia (where it was said that no young woman who arrived as a virgin would leave as one). There Boccaccio studied business for 6 years, followed by a 6-year course in canon law.

Although wasting these 12 years on something other than developing his skills as a poet would be his lifelong regret, Boccaccio settled well into the Neapolitan social scene, eventually becoming the lover of Maria D'Aquino, the illegitimate daughter of King Robert. Maria would become his Beatrice and his Laura, styled in his writings as his "Fiammetta" ("flame") -- although it should be said that while he admired the work of Dante and Petrarch and their chaste devotion to their muses, unlike his courtly heroes Boccaccio had actually embraced his muse in the flesh, and thus his passions could not help but be expressed more earthily.

With Maria as his inspiration, Boccaccio wrote a string of somewhat mediocre romances drawing upon earlier sources: Filocolo (1336-8, on the ancient love story of Floire and Blanchefleur), Filostrato (1339, with the Trojan War as his setting) and Teseida (1339-41, the first Tuscan epic poem). While spotty, they were popular, becoming the inspiration for several of Chaucer's works.

Maria soon grew tired of Boccaccio and dumped him, and shortly thereafter he was recalled to comparatively austere Florence by his overstressed, financially strapped father. He wrote 2 stilted moral allegories before finding his footing with Fiammetta (1343), in which he reversed the roles of himself and Maria D'Aquino, relating the story of the agony of a woman abandoned by her lover.

To support himself, Boccaccio accepted several diplomatic posts on behalf of the Florentine government while writing his masterpiece, the Decameron (c. 1348-53), about 10 fashionable young people (the late Medieval versions of OC kids, no doubt) who flee Florence during the Black Plague to a country villa and tell each other tales to pass the hours -- 100 rich, colorful, sometimes bawdy stories about clever women and clumsy men, the pious and the depraved, the king and the beggar -- through which Boccaccio showed his virtuosity in shading different voices, passions and moods.

Although Boccaccio was somewhat dismissive of the work (a first edition was not printed until near the end of his life), later generations mined it deeply as it became a compelling source of theme and story for Chaucer (again), Shakespeare and Dryden, among others. Impoverished at 37, Boccaccio met the great Petrarch, who invited him to join his household for a time as a kind of literary junior partner. The influence of Petrarch and his own receding faculties as a womanizer turned him away from Italian vernacular (except for one last vicious swipe at the fickle character of women in Corbaccio, 1354-55) toward writing scholarly works in Latin. For a time he supported in his household a rather disagreeable Greek scholar who made, at Boccaccio's request, the first translation of Homer into Latin.

From about 1360, Boccaccio entered the clergy and assumed a most austere lifestyle; only Petrarch convinced him not to burn his writings and his library. His final literary gesture was his delivery of a series of public lectures in Florence about Dante's Divine Comedy.

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Monday, December 19, 2005

The Indestructible Richard Leakey

"Few people actually like Leakey but almost everyone respects him. He commands spectacular personal loyalty but he picks up enemies like the animals to which he dedicated part of his life pick up ticks; he takes about as much notice of them, too." -- Miles Bredin.

Richard Leakey was born on this day in 1944 in Kenya.

The second son of famous paleoanthropologists Louis and Mary Leakey, big Richard Leakey characteristically avoided getting into the family business initially, dropping out of high school and starting a safari business before teaching himself to be a pilot.

In 1964 he led an expedition to a fossil site he had seen from the air, but finding that the archaeologists got all the credit for the find, Leakey went to England briefly to study for a degree before his impatience got the better of him and he managed to maneuver himself into the directorship of the National Museum of Kenya at age 24. The directorship provided him with the platform from which to lead paleoanthropological expeditions near Lake Rudolf (Turkana), funded in part by the National Geographic Society.

Despite being diagnosed with a terminal kidney disease, there he supervised the discovery of a Homo habilis skull in 1972 and a Homo erectus skull in 1975. In 1979, his kidney condition having progressed to end-stage renal failure, he received a transplant from his brother Philip (with whom he had not spoken for 20 years) and was back digging after only 8 months. In 1984-5, he found 2 of the most remarkable specimens ever: a nearly complete skeleton of a Homo erectus boy, and the first-ever skull of the species Australopithecus aethiopicus.

From 1989 to 1994, he directed the Kenya Wildlife Service, initiating a shoot-to-kill policy against ivory poachers by which he almost single-handedly caused a dramatic reduction in the worldwide ivory trade. A plane crash in 1993 resulted in both of his legs being amputated below the knee, but if anything his profile, influence and public service within Kenya only increased: in 1999, he was appointed head of the Kenya Civil Service, promising to stamp out corruption and attempt to restore Kenya's economic health. He left the Service, embattled as usual, in 2001 -- but observers believe we haven't seen the last of him yet.

His wife Meave continues to hunt for the remains of early hominids (she discovered a new species, Australopithecus anamensis in 1995) and his daughter Louise has also managed her own fossil digs.


Saturday, December 17, 2005

The Cat Girl, Lilly Christine

Walter Winchell called her "genuine Gee-whiz boy-bait"; when Esquire featured color pinups of her, the issue was an immediate sell-out; and college youths who journeyed to Broadway to see her whip her long peroxide-blonde hair around the Wintergarden stage doing a cat dance in Mike Todd's Peep Show, or to New Orleans to see her voodoo love potion dance at Prima's 500 Club, came away in awe. "The touch that puts the final polish on her act," gushed an undergrad critic from North Carolina, "is one of the warmest and most human stage personalities seen anywhere. Her dance routines are nothing short of a work of art and her muscular control is nothing short of phenomenal."

Lilly Christine, known in burlesque houses and 1950s men's magazines as the "Cat Girl," was born Martha Theresa Pompender on this day in 1923 in Dunkirk, New York.

As a fixture of the 1950s American subculture of erotica, Lilly Christine's image was carefully cultivated for maximum romance and mystery: it was said she was born in New Orleans, the green-eyed child of a Norwegian athlete and his Swedish girl; that she studied yoga, sunbathed in the nude and kept a strict vegetarian diet; and when asked about the occult motifs she used in her performances, she would reply, for publication, "Yes, I am a voodoo priestess."

Although it is true that she knew her way around the lingo of Caribbean mysticism and Eastern erotica, and that she took exceptionally good care of her taut, butterscotch physique, she was in fact an Italian-Polish divorcee from upstate New York. She was still a big draw in nightclubs -- with a nice beach apartment on the east coast of Florida and all secrets still intact -- when she died of peritonitis at the age of 41 on January 9, 1965.



Listeners of the 19th century crowned Beethoven as the greatest of all composers and proceeded to carve his name in marble on the fronts of concert halls from Sacramento to Eger. Partly in backlash, partly as a result of the rediscovery of the mastery of Bach and Mozart and the post-modern unwillingness to cast assessments of singular pre-eminence in any kind of stone, Beethoven has been cut down to human size and is no longer as often referred to as "the greatest"; in fact, the 20th/21st century preoccupation with personality has often led us to choose to dwell on his very human, very personal circumstances -- his volatile temperament, his failures in love, and his deafness, each played out somewhat grotesquely in the film Immortal Beloved, 1994, starring Gary Oldman.

The result is that it is almost impossible to give a fresh listening to his music today; nevertheless, its passion continues to draw us in, as Beethoven is still probably the most often performed composer in concert halls around the world.

Born or baptized on this day in 1770 (the sources waffle on the point), the son of a drunken tenor at the court of Bonn -- Ludwig Van Beethoven showed moderate musical talent as a child. His father wanted to make him into a lucrative child star; instead, Beethoven's development as a musician was deliberate, fostered by local musicians with whom he performed in the Bonn Orchestra until he was 17, when during a visit to Vienna he performed for Mozart, who was enthusiastic about Beethoven's talents as an improviser.

When he returned to Vienna in 1792 (shortly after Mozart's death) to study with Joseph Haydn, he was instructed by an old family friend to "receive the spirit of Mozart from the hands of Haydn"; but Beethoven, at that time, was already showing the stubborn independence of mind and spirit which has inevitably shown through in his finest compositions (and destroyed most of his personal relationships, incidentally), shrugging off Haydn and sneaking lessons with Salieri and Albrechtsberger, among others, whom he also largely ignored.

Although he occasionally lived in the households of nobility, on the whole he supported himself as a hired virtuoso pianist, known for his electrifying, wildly effusive improvisations. At 30, he realized that he was losing his hearing, an absurd condition for a man who had devoted himself to music and one which increased his already disproportionate sense of isolation. He dealt with deafness (as he did with all of his maladies, emotional as well as physical, the latter of which included chronic intestinal trouble) by plunging himself into his writing -- an exercise which he undertook with temples a-bulging and teeth a-gnashing, totally unlike the apparent effortlessness of Mozart's style of creation.

Some of his earliest important compositions (Piano Concerti Nos. 1, 1795, and 2, 1794-5; the Septet, op. 20, 1799; the Symphony No. 1, 1800) were demure pieces inspired by the classicism of Mozart and Haydn which did not reveal the spirit he showed in his live performances, but he did begin to show his Romantic sensibilities in such works as the Pathetique sonata (1797-8). Although the germs of his Romanticism had been simmering in his personality all along, they were tugged through their incubation period by the cultural and political milieu of his time: Goethe and Schiller, whom Beethoven greatly admired, were bringing literary Romanticism into bloom, and the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon (at least initially) gave hope to Beethoven's revolutionary spirit. When Beethoven finished his Symphony No. 3 (1803), he had initially given in it the name "Bonaparte," but when he discovered that Napoleon had declared himself emperor (proving himself to be nothing more than an ordinary despot in Beethoven's eyes), Beethoven abruptly renamed the symphony Eroica.

Eroica was a "heroic" renovation of the symphonic form: taking the logic and protocols of classicism as his starting edifice, Beethoven knocked out a few interior walls, making the "space" of the symphony larger and filling it with dramatically contrasting colors, dozens of motifs, and a weightier final movement, all in the service of a much more raw, emotionally direct and personal world (critics like to say, more "democratic") than that created by the decorous symphonies of his predecessors.

After the Eroica, Beethoven's "worldwide" acclaim grew steadily (although at times the public greeted his newer works, which built upon the expansiveness of Eroica, with bewilderment -- including his most famous work, the blockbusting Symphony No. 5, 1808, with its mind-numbingly famous dot-dot-dot-dash theme; his opera Fidelio, 1805-14; and the Piano Concerto No. 5, the Emperor, 1809) until the crowned princes of Europe paid court to him at the Congress of Vienna in 1814, at which time he unveiled his Symphony No. 7 to universal approval.

From 1814 to 1820, his public heard little from him while he busied himself with raising his nephew Karl (none-too-successfully) after the death of the boy's father. Just when everyone believed, based on the few pieces which he did release during the period (such as the unfathomable Hammerklavier sonata, 1819), that the deaf genius had gone mad and near-silent, Beethoven began a new period of feverish productivity. His final period seems to have been Beethoven's conscious last attempt to get it right, to convey the feelings existing deeply at his core wrapped in almost unearthly layers of wisdom and acceptance; and without the aid of hearing, he conceived his works on paper in a much more elaborate fashion than their overall effect would suggest -- blotted, intensely interwoven tapestries of counterpoint, unconstrained by the old formal rules, which nevertheless leave an impression of unstudied inevitability.

The Symphony No. 9 (the Chorale, with the final movement being a setting of Schiller's "Ode to Joy" for chorus) and the Missa Solemnis were the transcendental capstones of the period, the translation of the personal to the universal. Beethoven himself conducted the debut performance of the two pieces in May 1824, and was unaware of the explosive applause at the end of the Symphony's finale until a member of the chorus turned him around. He was still making plans for new pieces when he hitched a ride in an uncovered milk wagon during a trip back to Vienna, caught a chill and died 3 months later.


Friday, December 16, 2005

Jane Austen, Poolside

In the 1990s, when Jane Austen's novels became the basis for some moderately popular film productions (among them, Sense and Sensibility, 1996, with Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet and Hugh Grant; the BBC's Pride and Prejudice, 1995, with Jennifer Ely and Colin Firth; and Emma, 1996, with Gwyneth Paltrow -- not to mention Amy Heckerling's gleeful adaptation of Emma for the 90210 zip code, Clueless, 1995, starring Alicia Silverstone), a tabloid "photograph" cleverly depicted the 19th century spinster-novelist sitting poolside in Hollywood, in kerchief and gown, taking calls from her manager and her agent.

Not too shabby for a woman who was, during much of her life, "no more regarded in society than a poker or a fire-screen, or any other thin, upright piece of wood or iron that fills the corner in peace and quietness," according to her contemporary, Mary Mitford.

Despite the fact that the whole notion of a female novelist was regarded by some as a sign of moral decay in her time, of the thousands of novels published in English during the first half of the 19th century by man or woman, Austen's have proven among the most durable -- stylistically unobtrusive and eminently readable, yet unmistakably a part of the literary canon for their intelligence and observational detail.

The 7th child of a country parson (born on this day in 1775 in Steventon, Hampshire, England), Jane Austen was encouraged to develop the elegant skills necessary for her intended trade -- middle-class wife and mother -- receiving instruction in music, drawing and dancing, and acquiring a good knowledge of literature from her father's 500-volume library; she especially admired the works of Samuel Johnson, William Cowper and Samuel Richardson.

However, Austen never married (she seems to have been involved in only two brief courtships, one which was apparently cut short by meddling relatives of the young man who felt that the daughter of a penniless clergyman was not a worthy match, the other by her beau's sudden untimely death), and she spent her life staying in the extra bedrooms of family members. She began writing for the amusement of her family, lampooning 18th century sentimental romances by injecting common sense into the customarily over-the-top melodramatic circumstances.

In her 30s, she began to pursue novel-writing seriously, if somewhat secretly, doing her best to hide the fact that she was writing from the people with whom she lived, and during her lifetime publishing her novels anonymously -- Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814) and Emma (1816). With the use of an omniscient third-party narrator peering into the consciousness of her fallible yet sympathetic and highly perceptive female protagonists, Austen's works are objects of "statecraft" and diplomacy wittily played out in the drawing rooms of the British gentry. Although her little world is one of highly restricted gender relations, with economically disadvantaged mothers and daughters searching for husbands from among the landowners and parish pastors without being permitted to be seen to be searching, her intelligent heroines rise above their circumstances as social catalysts and keepers of the moral and ethical identity of England, as well as its culture and its destiny.

In March 1817, her novels having achieved some measure of popular success, Austen became seriously ill with Addison's Disease, a malfunction of the adrenal cortex, and died while seeing her physician in Winchester, just 3 days after writing a comic poem marking St. Swithun's Day. She was buried in Winchester Cathedral. Her novels Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were published posthumously later that year; by the 1830s, Austen's works were already considered to be popular classics.

The roll of cinema credits for Ms. Austen has continued into the 21st century, with three new versions of Pride and Prejudice: a version set among Mormons and college students (2003), a Bollywood adaptation called Bride and Prejudice (2004), and a new "faithful" version starring Keira Knightley (2005).

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Thursday, December 15, 2005

Chico Mendes

"My dream is to see this entire forest conserved because we know that it can guarantee the future of all the people who live in it . . . If a messenger from the sky came down and guaranteed me that my death would help to strengthen our struggle it would even be worth it. Experience teaches us the contrary. I want to live." -- Chico Mendes, 1988.

The man whose life stands almost as a symbol of the fight to preserve the Amazon rainforest actually began his struggle as a way of preserving the economy in which he grew up. The Amazon rainforest is the world’s largest and most ecologically diverse forest on the planet, a mystical sanctuary for ecologists around the world. When Chico Mendes (born on this day in 1944 near Xapuri, Acre, Brazil) was a child, however, the forest had been his family’s livelihood for generations -- not for lumber to be harvested there, but for the latex to be tapped from its living Hevea trees.

Mendes was a rubber tapper from the age of 9 and never had a formal education, but he learned to read from a local left-wing revolutionary and absorbed world political news from the Voice of America, Radio Moscow and BBC World Service. During the 1960s, public homesteading laws in Brazil made it possible for wealthy ranchers to move into the far reaches of the isolated state of Acre where Mendes plied his trade and indiscriminately clear out trees for cattle grazing; while by the 1980s only 130 ranchers controlled lands in Acre, their activities (both their poaching and their violent strong-arming) has led to the displacement of over 100,000 rubber tappers and their families.

In the 1970s Mendes became a member of the Catholic church-supported Confederation of Agricultural Workers, through which he and his mentor Wilson Pinheiro began to set up human blockades, long lines of rubber tappers and their families, to literally place their bodies between the loggers’ chainsaws and the trees. These nonviolent protests had limited success but did serve to attract attention to the plight of the rubber tappers. The ranchers responded violently, however, using local police to threaten, torture and kill many rubber tappers, and eventually murdering Pinheiro in 1980.

After the murder of Pinheiro, Mendes assumed the leadership of the rubber tappers’ movement, and through the First National Rubber Tappers’ Congress, Mendes was able to get enough support to convince the Brazilian government to establish "extractive reserves" in which only renewable resources, such as latex and Brazil nuts, could be harvested. This attracted the attention of the international environmental community, which assisted him in successful lobbying efforts in Miami and Washington, D.C. to stop the Inter-American Development Bank from funding a major road into the forest which had been promoted by cattle ranchers. Mendes had not initially thought of his struggle as an environmental struggle, but a political and economic one; nevertheless, he loved his homeland and recognized the power of the ecological arguments for the preservation of his ancestral land, and embraced the international movement with heart and mind.

In 1987, Mendes was awarded the UN Global 500 Prize and a medal from Ted Turner’s Society for a Better World, but the local ranchers and corrupt police in Acre did not care about Mendes’ international accolades. To them, he was a pariah, and on May 24, 1988, Mendes received his official, anonymous notice that he would be killed, a ritual among the strongmen in western Brazil. Despite warnings to the local federal police, who turned a deaf ear, Mendes was murdered 7 days after his 44th birthday with a shotgun blast to the chest while on his way to take a shower in his backyard bathhouse.

Mendes’ death made the front page of the New York Times, and within 48 hours the international press had descended on tiny Xapuri, leading an embarrassed Brazilian government to move in with a small army and arrest Darci Alves Pereira for the murder. Although there had only been 8 convictions in connection with the over 1,500 rubber tapper murders between 1964 and 1989, Pereira and Pereira’s father Darly, a notorious ranch strongman, were convicted of Mendes' assassination, although Darly’s conviction was overturned for lack of evidence in 1992. It is surmised that forces connected with the ranchers' newspaper, O Rio Branco, participated in the conspiracy behind Mendes’ death.

While at least 21 "extractive reserves" comprising 8.2 million acres have been set aside in Brazil as a result of Mendes’ efforts, they only represent about 1.5% of the Brazilian Amazon, and deforestation continues at staggering rates into the 21st century.

[A cinema note: John Frankenheimer made a film about Mendes, The Burning Season (1994), starring Raul Julia.]


Wednesday, December 14, 2005

You say Martooni, I say Martini

Some of my friends warned me that I was biting off more olive than I could chew by taking on the rhetorically gifted Judge Bork with regard to mixological activism and the Martini (see my previous post, "The Martini, and the Understanding of the Framers"). Just as I was girding myself for a nasty letter from the Hudson Institute, however, I suddenly come to find that I have some fellow with the presumptuous moniker of "Dr. Cocktail" on my tail -- who claims (see his comment at Martini Republic) that I was "a trifle disingenuous" in my assertion of the authenticity of an olive-garnished Martini at the expense of the Martini garnished with a twist of lemon.

Okay, now, in the sentence above I was being a trifle disingenuous in my haste to dismiss Dr. Cocktail. I have long known of Dr. Cocktail, and have admired his fascinating website, CocktailDB. Indeed, although he probably won't remember it, I have actually corresponded with Dr. Cocktail regarding some trivial matter concerning chamomile grappa.

Nonetheless, I am buoyed by the support of other Martini enthusiasts, including Lonnie Bruner of DC Drinks (who additionally wishes to point out, in case you were thinking of it, that vodka does not belong in a Martini) and certified mixologist Steven Soto of Newport Beach, California, who concurs with the purity and appropriateness of the olive, helpfully confessing: "My style of adding the vermouth is a squirt in the shaker, swish it, toss it in the sink, then continue making the martini."

It may be years before this issue can be settled, and I will certainly be the first to volunteer my palate to the cause.

In the meantime, Dr. Cocktail, in response to your comment -- I just want to point out to you that John Adams was one of the signatories of the Olive Branch Petition of 1775, which indicates an early predilection for the olive. Even if it is true that he later repudiated the little green dupe, I guess I'm wondering why I should even consider the opinion of a Founding Father whose favorite drink was Madeira wine. I'll stick with Mr. Embury, thank you very much -- an excellent lawyer as well as an excellent bartender.

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They Never get Dressed

"The nudes of Puvis de Chavannes never get dressed . . ." -- Odilon Redon.

An engineer who took up painting after a trip to Italy, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (born on this day in 1824 in Lyons, France) painted symbolic, eerily quiet and somewhat naive pastoral scenes, often decorated with ethereal female nude figures. One of his favorite models (and, for a time, his mistress) was painter Suzanne Valadon.

Stylistically, he is somewhat beholden to Academics such as Ingres, with their stiff compositions, but perhaps because of his flat lighting and coloration, he was associated in the public mind with the avant-garde, and was on friendly terms with such Impressionists as Edgar Degas and Berthe Morisot. He was a contributor to the fund set up by Monet to purchase Manet's Olympia for the French government.

His influence can be felt in the idealistic, stylized renderings of Georges Seurat, and in the use of color by Paul Gauguin and Odilon Redon, among others. Among his better known works are The Balloon (1870, at left) and its companion piece The Pigeon (1871), Hope (1872; later copied by Gauguin) and the St. Genevieve panels at the Pantheon in Paris (1876-98).

Puvis de Chavannes died on October 24, 1898 in Paris.

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Margaret Chase Smith

U.S. Senator Margaret Chase Smith was born on this day in 1897 in Skowhegan, Maine.

A schoolteacher by profession, in 1930 she married newspaper publisher Clyde Smith, who shortly thereafter was elected to Congress from Maine as a Republican. Just before he was about to run for his third term in Congress in 1940, Smith suddenly died, and Margaret decided to run in his place. She was successful, and served 4 terms in Congress before winning election to the U.S. Senate in 1948, earning an astounding 71% of the vote and becoming the first woman to be elected to both the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate.

She earned a reputation for articulateness, an occasional independence from Republican orthodoxy (she was among the first Republicans to criticize Joe McCarthy during the Army-McCarthy hearings), and her astonishing attendance at 100% of all roll call votes during several terms, and was mentioned as a possible vice presidential running mate to Dwight Eisenhower during the 1952 election.

When asked at that time what she would do if she woke up one morning to find herself in the White House, she cracked: "I’d go straight to Mrs. Truman and apologize. Then I’d go home."

In 1964, she announced her candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination, but failed to make much of an impact in a poorly funded, understaffed bid. She lost her last try for re-election in 1972, characteristically relying on her record without advertising, engaging a professional campaign staff or making extensive campaign appearances. She passed away on May 29, 1995.


Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The Martini, and the Understanding of the Framers

The ever-lovin' Wonkette reports that the combative, famously "Borked" former U.S. Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork has gone out on a limb with yet another controversial stand in a recent letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal:

Martini's Founding Fathers: Original Intent Debatable

Eric Felten's essay on the dry martini is itself near-perfect ("Don't Forget the Vermouth," Leisure & Arts, Pursuits, Dec. 10). His allusion to constitutional jurisprudence is faulty, however, since neither in law nor martinis can we know the subjective "original intent" of the Founding Fathers. As to martinis, the intent may have been to ease man's passage through this vale of tears or, less admirably, to employ the tactic of "candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker."

What counts in mixology is the "original understanding" of the martini's essence by those who first consumed it. The essence remains unaltered but allows proportions to evolve as circumstances change. Mr. Felten's "near-perfect martini" is the same in principle as the "original-understanding martini" and therefore its legitimate descendant. Such latter-day travesties as the chocolate martini and the raspberry martini, on the other hand, are the work of activist bartenders.

Mr. Felten lapses into heresy only once. He prefers the olive to the lemon peel because the former is a "snack." Dropping a snack into a classic drink is like garnishing filet mignon with ketchup. The correct response when offered an olive is, "When I want a salad, I'll ask for it."

Robert H. Bork
The Hudson Institute

I, too -- along with the estimable Ms. Cox -- happen to agree with Judge Bork's assessment of the silliness of such creations as the chocolate martini and the raspberry martini. Indeed, if we're throwing silly drinks around, I would immediately hurl an apple martini into that very same swill-bucket.

However, I would observe that Judge Bork's arguments regarding the heresy of the olive as a garnish for a true martini reveal the problems inherent, in both jurisprudence and mixology, within Judge Bork's use of "original understanding" as a decisional methodology.

We all have our favorite framers. I prefer John Jay, for example, to Ben Franklin -- but that's just me, I suppose. In the world of the cocktail, I prefer David Embury, who offers his own opinion regarding the perfect martini in The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks (1948; reviewed by yours truly in a previous post here). After citing several popular yet mediocre recipes for a martini, Embury offers the following as a preferred formula:


1 part Lillet Vermouth
7 parts imported English Gin
Stir well ["If you shake the martini, it becomes a Bradford," according to Embury] in a bar glass or Martini pitcher with large cubes of ice and pour into chilled cocktail glasses. Twist lemon peel over the top.

The distinction between the Martini and the Gibson is simple. The Martini is served with an olive, the Gibson with a small pickled cocktail onion.
If you can get olives stuffed with any kind of nuts, they make the perfect accompaniment to a Martini.

Embury insists that his 7-to-1 ratio was derived after extensive experimentation, and that it is the proportion "most pleasing to the average palate," although some have been known to prefer a ratio as high as 10-to-1.

You and your framer can protest all you want, but if my framer says I can have an olive (even an olive stuffed with a nut!), then by the Constitution of this great land of ours, I will have one.

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Sales Guru

John Patterson, one-time president of National Cash Register (NCR) and a legendary sales strategist, was born on this day in 1844 near Dayton, Ohio.

A former mining equipment salesman, Patterson and his brother Frank bought the National Manufacturing Company in Dayton, Ohio, makers of a newfangled cash register, in 1884, and turned the sleepy company into a well-oiled country-wide sales machine. Now considered to be a prophet of modern selling techniques, Patterson instructed his salesman with the use of a detailed sales manual, known as the N.C.R. Primer, complete with sales scripts and psychologically astute "stage directions" for approaching "probable purchasers" -- as well as holding internal sales contests and conventions. He also created demand for receipts by touting their evidentiary value, thereby pumping up demand for a machine that could produce them automatically.

Patterson's approach had an immense influence on American business: it is estimated that between 1910 and 1930 approximately 1/6 of all top American executives were former students of Patterson's training at NCR, among them his son-in-law Thomas J. Watson, subsequently the head of IBM. His legend persists today, after a fashion: syndicated sales columnist and shock lecturer Jeffrey Gitomer has recently revised and revived Patterson for the 21st century with his book The Patterson Principles of Selling, dissecting Patterson's ideas and using them to provide a road map for today's salespeople.

When he wasn't building superhuman salesmen, Patterson was suing competing cash register manufacturers for patent infringement and finding other ways of undercutting the competition. However, sometimes what goes around, comes around: in 1912, Patterson, Watson and NCR were convicted of violating the Sherman Antitrust Act -- based on the government's assertion that NCR's business represented 95% of the cash register market and was thereby an illegal monopoly -- as well as for other shady selling tactics. Shortly after their conviction, while the case was on appeal, Patterson and Watson became national heroes by arranging for relief for the victims of the Great Dayton Flood of 1913. Thousands petitioned President Wilson to pardon Patterson and Watson, but the gesture became unnecessary when their convictions were overturned in 1915 based on improperly admitted evidence.

After his antitrust episode (for which Patterson ultimately fired his son-in-law Watson), Patterson became an enthusiastic supporter of Wilson's foreign policy, converting part of his operation to the manufacture of military equipment and even traveling to Geneva in support of Wilson's ill-fated League of Nations gambit. Patterson died on May 7, 1922 near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.


Of Habits and Memory

Psychologist Mortimer Mishkin was born on this day in 1926 in Fitchburg, Massachusetts.

"The work of Mortimer Mishkin and his colleagues at the National Institute of Mental Health is tracing the route by which the sensory information in the visual area of the cortex is transmitted to the limbic system where it is stored and integrated with processes of memory and learning . . . Mishkin's work is clarifying the great debate between the behaviorist and cognitive approaches to understanding how memory and learning take place . . . Habits, which have been described by behaviorists as automatic stimulus-response connections that take place whenever there is an adequate reward, are designated by Mishkin as the more basic process that operates at all levels of life, from the most primitive one-celled organisms to man. A cognitive process of self-reflection and thinking is not required for the formation of such habits. The acquisition of information, knowledge and a self-conscious and self-driven memory system, as described by the cognitive-learning theorists, requires the evolution of a 'cortico-limbic-thalamic' pathway that is characteristic of all the more advanced life forms, such as mammals and man

. . . Mishkin's research and current investigations in the 'multichannel integrations of normal behavior' . . . provide a new experimental research base for studying how information is transmitted, transduced, and sometimes 'stuck' in a state-bound form so that it becomes what people ordinarily label as a 'problem' or a 'symptom.'"

-- E.L. Rossi, The Psychobiology of Mind-Body Healing.


Monday, December 12, 2005


One of the great pop singers, perhaps the greatest, of the 20th century was born on this day in 1915 in Hoboken, New Jersey.

The son of an ex-boxer, Francis Albert Sinatra quit school early to sing like his early idol Bing Crosby, and at 19 he won Major Bowes’ Amateur Hour radio contest as part of the Hoboken Four. As a soloist he got a steady gig with the Harry James Orchestra, then with Tommy Dorsey’s band, but when he branched out on his own in 1942, he transformed the pop culture landscape.

Skinny and big-eared but with a warm, husky and sensitive voice and undeniable charm, Sinatra’s fanatically loyal teenaged female fans -- known as his bobby-soxers -- began to shift the focus of the pop music industry from bands to singers, and in effect became the prototype of all teen idols. Unlike many who followed, Sinatra had genuine talent, bringing smoothness and precise enunciation to the still-developing genre of microphone singing, displaying a natural gift for subtly shading song lyrics, a value little appreciated in mainstream popular music outside of Billie Holiday (to whom he often acknowledged his debt) until Sinatra showed the way.

Hollywood recognized his charisma and put him in a few popular but lightweight musical comedies (notably, with Gene Kelly, Anchors Aweigh, 1945, and On the Town, 1949), but his career took a downward spiral coincident with the news that he was leaving his wife and 3 children for starlet Ava Gardner. Branded box office poison for the scandal surrounding his romance, Sinatra struggled by singing in nightclubs until, through his new wife’s influence, he landed the role of "Maggio," the wry, pathetic Army private, in Fred Zinnemann’s film of James Jones’ novel, From Here to Eternity (1953). He won a best supporting actor Oscar for his performance, propelling him into a whole new career as a serious actor, capped by his performances in prestige productions such as The Man with the Golden Arm (1956) and The Manchurian Candidate (1962, directed by John Frankenheimer).

The comeback was remarkable, but not as remarkable as the transformation of "Sinatra -- teen idol" to "Sinatra -- chairman of the board": as his tempestuous relationship with Gardner burst at the seams, Sinatra began to record a series of long-playing records (another departure from the norm -- Sinatra was the first great advocate of the thematic LP as a pop music medium) at Capitol Records by which he reinvented himself as the "most magnetic musical communicator and the ace mood-pitcher of the era" (as one biographer has put it).

Although he was not a jazz singer (a brief, promising fling with bossa nova and Antonio Carlos Jobim being the exception), his mature recordings showed a jazz man's grasp of the rhythm of pathos (the "tempo of the heartbeat" he called it), hanging back on the beat and letting his lush accompaniment lure him along. Adding a world-weary, bitter-edged swagger to his already evocative style in albums such as Songs for Swingin’ Lovers (1955), In the Wee Small Hours (1955), Come Fly With Me (1958) and September of My Years (1965), Sinatra laid down the definitive pre-rock pop music statements about grown-up love -- the great giddy heights as well as the regret and loss.

His swagger was a hallmark of his tabloid persona as well, as the defiantly pleasure-seeking hipster with the cool veneer and a volcanic temper underneath, the powerful star with rumored mafia connections, he was the ring leader of the "Rat Pack," an unofficial group of show biz cronies at the top of their form (Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop and sometimes Shirley MacLaine), cutting up and living the high life together in public. As such, Sinatra in the late 1950s and early 1960s was the middle-class American male hero: would that I could be Frank Sinatra, said the traveling salesman or the factory foreman, I would sling my coat over my shoulder with one hand, wear my fedora and my shirtsleeves, swig hard liquor from hi-ball glasses, flirt with broads in nightclubs and not take any crap from anyone. Luxury cars, cigarettes, steak dinners, Palm Springs, Vegas -- Sinatra said this was the way to live one’s life, with his jaded stylings over a Billy May arrangement at 33 rpm.

After throwing his weight behind party-pal John Kennedy's presidential campaign in 1960, he was ostracized by the White House due to his mob ties (conspiracy theorists love to speculate that when Sinatra's mob friends perceived that Sinatra had lost his White House playmate and any protection that gave them, they retaliated against Kennedy), and soon thereafter Sinatra's public party went private. After a brief and improbable marriage to 21-year old flower child Mia Farrow, Sinatra settled down to concert touring and charity with 4th wife Barbara Blakeley (the ex-wife of Zeppo Marx). In his later years, his music increasingly took a darker turn, although he remained one of the biggest draws in show business until shortly before his death.

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Eugene McCarthy, 1916-2005

"Clean Gene" McCarthy passed away on December 10, 2005 in Washington, D.C. at the age of 89.

Not to be confused with red-baiting Senator Joe McCarthy from neighboring Wisconsin, Eugene McCarthy (born March 29, 1916 in Watkins, Minnesota) was a liberal college professor who once studied for the priesthood before being elected to the U.S. House (1948) and later the U.S. Senate (1958) as a Democrat from Minnesota. With fellow Democrat and Minnesotan Hubert Humphrey, McCarthy helped shape the Minnesota Democratic Party as a clean and practical, yet visionary institution.

During the Johnson Administration, he became one of the foremost critics of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia, and was a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War. In what looked to be a hopeless campaign, McCarthy decided to challenge President Johnson for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1968 with the Vietnam issue as his centerpiece. To the surprise of the pundits, McCarthy nearly upset Johnson in the New Hampshire primary, getting 42% of the vote against a sitting president.

With success McCarthy found a more crowded field: seeing that Johnson was vulnerable, Senator Robert F. Kennedy announced his intention to pursue the Democratic nomination -- also as a "peace" candidate. Johnson then declared that he would not seek the nomination himself, clearing the way for Vice-President Humphrey's entry into the race, although as a supporter of Johnson's Vietnam policy. In the chaos following the assassination of Senator Kennedy, McCarthy's candidacy fell prey to the Democratic Party machinery, and Humphrey was nominated, only to lose to Richard Nixon in the general election.

McCarthy retired from the Senate in 1970, lodged marginal candidacies for president in 1972, 1976 and 1988 (in the latter two campaigns as an independent) and otherwise concentrated on writing poetry and witty, critical commentary on the political process. During the 1976 campaign, McCarthy sued the Federal Election Commission over "matching fund" rules which favored major party candidates; and while the Supreme Court found the Commission to have been formed in an unconstitutional manner, it left room for a reformation of the Commission and did nothing to meet McCarthy's concerns over the treatment of minor parties.

McCarthy was the cousin of writer/theater critic Mary McCarthy (The Group, 1963) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers star Kevin McCarthy.

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Sunday, December 11, 2005

Walter Knott

Walter Knott, farmer and amusement entrepreneur, was born on this day in 1889 in San Bernardino, California.

The story of Walter and Cordelia Knott's creation of Knott's Berry Farm, one of southern California's premier amusement parks and tourist attractions, stands in stark contrast to the planned vision of nearby Disneyland by Walt Disney.

After unrewarding years homesteading and working gold mines in the Mojave Desert and sharecropping around San Luis Obispo, California, the Knotts and their children settled onto 20 acres of rented land along Highway 39 in Buena Park, California. Knott planted berries and built a modest trade selling them throughout the 1920s. In 1932, Walter Knott began to grow a new hybrid berry, a cross between the red raspberry, the blackberry and the loganberry which he named the "boysenberry" after his friend, Anaheim parks superintendent Rudolph Boysen, who came up with the idea but could never make it work.

As times got rough during the Depression, Cordelia reluctantly began to serve 65¢ chicken dinners on her best china to passing motorists as a supplement to their income. With Cordelia's dinners and boysenberry pies as the star attractions, "Knott's Berry Place" became a popular roadside attraction, although even as Cordelia served 1,774 dinners on Thanksgiving Day, 1937, she steadfastly refused to admit that she was in the restaurant business.

The restaurant became so popular that their daughter Virginia added a gift shop in 1939, and in 1940 Walter Knott moved in some old buildings from Prescott, Arizona and began putting on an "Old West Ghost Town" cyclorama to entertain guests while they waited to be seated for dinner. By that time the farm had grown to 100 acres, all owned by the Knotts. Ploughing all his net income back into the business, by the 1970s "Knott's Berry Farm" became a full-fledged amusement park, with 4 theme sectors (Ghost Town; Fiesta Village, an homage to Spanish California; the Roaring 20s area; and an exact replica of Philadelphia's Independence Hall) as well as thrill rides (including the world's first corkscrew roller coaster).

In addition to its apparent lack of forecasted development, Knott's Berry Farm has always differed from its nearby rival Disneyland in its texture: unlike Disneyland, which designs its pathways in an effort to steer guests clear of tactile experiences with its buildings and trees, Knott's Berry Farm's more casual approach to foot traffic hides little of its rough-hewn and farm-like construction, giving it a kind of charm lacking in the highly artificial environment of Disneyland. If anything the park seems to have been guided by Knott's own perpetually folksy persona; even by the late 1950s, when the park was already a million dollar operation, Knott appeared on Groucho Marx's You Bet Your Life and simply described himself as a "farmer."

Sixteen years after Walter's death (on December 3, 1981 in Buena Park, California), the Knott family sold the park to Cedar Fair for $247 million in 1997, thereby jeopardizing the park's texture for posterity.

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Friday, December 09, 2005

Getting Some Perspective

Painter Paolo Uccello died on December 10, 1475 in Florence, Italy at the age of 78.

An early Italian Renaissance master, Uccello was an obsessive student of the science of perspective as proposed by Leonbattista Alberti. Legend has it that Uccello once refused to follow his wife to bed, acknowledging "What a sweet mistress is this perspective."

Nonetheless, Uccello displayed an astonishingly original approach, ultimately taking his studies almost to the point of comedy: in his most famous works, the panels comprising The Battle of San Romano (c. 1445), weapons and pieces of armor seem to have fallen on the ground along grid-like Albertian orthogonals which illustrate the underlying perspective of the picture, and one soldier has even managed to die along one of these orthogonals. In his dramatic fresco Deluge (1445-47) in the Green Cloister at Santa Maria Novella in Florence, lightning bolts and ark hulls converge on the vanishing point and a ladder floats in perfect parallel to the ark, once again revealing the Albertian grid.

Uccello's quirky use of perspective may have resulted in two of his patrons complaining of the "unconventionality" of his work, and he seems to have received few commissions. It is thought that he was asked to repaint an equestrian portrait of Sir John Hawkwood in the Duomo because his deadpan use of perspective logic resulted in too much of the horse's underbelly being shown.

Despite his overarching interest in perspective, Uccello had a light touch when painting human figures, as shown, for example, in the charming, delicate St. George and the Dragon (c. 1456).

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Short and Sweet

Charismatic silent film starlet Clarine Seymour was born on this day in 1898 in Brooklyn, New York.

She entered films at barely 18 to supplement her family's income following the onset of her father's illness, first appearing in a few Thanhouser films and a Pathe serial with Perils of Pauline star Pearl White. Eventually she settled into a series of routine slapstick comedy shorts in support of circus clown Toto, but she cared little for that job; after she refused to perform a stunt in a Toto film, she was sued by her studio, Rolin -- unsuccessfully, as it turned out; yet as a result of the ruckus Clarine thought she was all washed up in pictures at age 19.

Shortly thereafter, however, she took a screen test for famed director D.W. Griffith, who found her to be a charming, effervescent "modern" girl, a perfect counterpart to Griffith's stable of post-Victorian heroines such as Lillian Gish. In her first film for Griffith, The Girl Who Stayed Home (1919), Seymour played "Cutie Beautiful," a little modern American cabaret girl, attempting to straighten out her war-avoiding beau. Although the film itself was not particularly admired at the time of its release, Motion Picture Classic gushed that "Griffith has a genuine discovery in Miss Seymour, whose playing is vivid in every detail," adding that Seymour's "fascinating 'shimmie walk'" was a phenomenon unrivaled since "Dorothy Gish's little disturber came gliding across the silversheet with piquant boisterousness." (In those days, the hacks sure knew how to blather.)

Clarine Seymour's shimmying legs, incidentally, were apparently the star attraction around Griffith's little film company. At the end of each day, Griffith's crew would drop everything to watch her hike her skirt up a little to board the red Pacific Electric streetcars.

Griffith next tapped her to play the sophisticated, jazz-loving "other woman" to Lillian Gish's stoic True Heart Susie (1919) in one of Griffith's better films of the period, followed by a turn as "Chiquita" in Griffith's Western melodrama Scarlet Days, roundly considered to be Griffith's worst film. In 1920, Griffith gave Clarine her first (and unfortunately her last) starring role, as a half-breed South Sea pagan named "White Almond Blossom" in The Idol Dancer.

Critics were again impressed by the brown-eyed sprite. Photoplay proclaimed that Seymour "plays the dramatic scenes with enough fire and sincerity almost to convince you that she is what she pretends to be, a dusky island belle," while Variety noted that she had the "most charmingly photographic face" of the film.

She then went into rehearsal for a supporting role in Griffith's Way Down East. As studio hanger-on-turned-reporter Harry Carr remembered:

One day I met little Clarine Seymour as she was coming out of a rehearsal -- a breathing space between scenes. 'My Gosh,' she said, 'I'd rather die than rehearse this darn thing any more.' She never had to. In a week she was dead. She had been taken to the hospital for a minor operation to which no importance was attached. Her mother was smiling as she saw Clarine wheeled from the operating room. 'Everything all right?' she asked, smiling. 'Your daughter has not more than twenty minutes to live,' was the grave reply.

The cause of Clarine's death, which occurred on April 25, 1920, has long been described as "strangulation of the intestines" following routine surgery, but Lillian Gish insisted that Clarine fell ill from exposure to the winter elements during location shoots for Way Down East. She was poised for greater things, having just signed a 4-year contract with Griffith, rumored to be worth $2 million.

Critics of Griffith's work lament Clarine Seymour's passing because of what might have come from their association over the next several years. Without Seymour and some of Griffith's other stalwart repertory players (Gish soon left to pursue her career elsewhere), Griffith developed a schoolboy crush and a casting fixation on Carol Dempster, a mediocre actress at best, and went on to produce a serious of indifferent, increasingly anachronistic melodramas in the 1920s. Seymour's presence among his troupe may have inspired him to modernize his tales -- she had the soul of a flapper before the flapper became trendy -- or so such critics say. As critic Anthony Slide put it, somewhat indelicately, "Nowhere is the tragedy of Clarine Seymour's death more pointed than here: if only she might have lived and Carol Dempster died, how much better would Griffith have fared in the coming decade."


Thursday, December 08, 2005

Camille Claudel

The older sister of poet Paul Claudel, Camille Claudel (born on this day in 1864 in Fere, France) showed talent in clay modeling at an early age, and her indulgent father sought to guarantee her an education in the arts, enrolling her at the Academie Colarossi, one of the few art academies open to women. In her teens she also began receiving weekly informal lessons from local sculptor Alfred Boucher.

When Boucher left for Italy in 1883, Auguste Rodin (by that time already a celebrated sculptor) took over Claudel's weekly lessons. In a modern echo of the Heloise and Abelard affair, Rodin (the teacher, age 43) and Claudel (the student, age 19) became lovers; but in the 19th century version of the familiar tale, the lovers stayed together for 15 years, even though Rodin had a long-term relationship and a son with Rose Beuret. Claudel became Rodin's studio assistant, helping Rodin produce some of his finest work (including assisting on Rodin's Burghers of Calais, 1895, and Gates of Hell, 1900) and more or less sacrificing her own career in the process.

Although Rodin's warm, naturalistic style influenced Claudel in her work, wrenching her away from the academic, classical style she clung to in her youth, her solo work also inspired Rodin, her Jeune Fille a la Gerbe (1887) being a precursor, for example, for Rodin's Galatea. Professional jealousy apparently led to Rodin's emotional distance from Claudel; and in the early 1890s as Claudel began to realize that Rodin would never leave Rose for her, her work began to take on a style quite apart from the influence of Rodin, one more cognizant of art nouveau currents, concerning itself with the elegant play of light on smooth surfaces.

Her final separation from Rodin in 1898 severely wounded Claudel, providing the inspiration for her L'Age Mur (1895-1907), a depiction of Claudel begging Rodin on her knees not to leave. On her own at 34, she had to battle against the prejudices afflicting female artists as well as critics who believed that the presence of Rodin was the best of her art; unfortunately, the combination of poverty and her anguish over Rodin took its toll on her mental health. In 1906 she attempted to destroy her sculptures, and after 1913 she was confined to a series of mental institutions for the rest of her life. She died in 1943.

Her affair with Rodin was the basis for a play by Henrik Ibsen, When We Dead Awake (1899) as well as an acclaimed film, Camille Claudel (1988; starring Isabelle Adjani, with Gerard Depardieu as Rodin).

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Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Craters, Cosmos and Chronicles

Herbert Shaw, another bard in the long tradition of literature emanating from the U.S. Geological Survey (having served there as a geologist from 1959 to 1995), was born on this day in 1930 in San Mateo County, California.

In his book Craters, Cosmos and Chronicles: A New Theory of Earth (1994), Shaw applied non-linear dynamical systems analysis to the study of meteorites and attempted to identify a relationship between the interior dynamics of the Earth and the entire record of each meteorite hitting the Earth since pre-Cambrian times. In the process, Shaw proposed the possibility of synchronicity between physical occurrences as diverse as volcanic eruptions, meteoroids, biochemical genetic changes, mass extinctions and intergalactic dynamics, positing that instead of viewing such phenomena as randomly disassociated from each other, that they are instead a pattern of interactions occurring within what Shaw described as the "Celestial Reference Frame," a "limitless chain of 'resonances' linking terrestrial microcosms to galactic macrocosms," in the words of writer Mike Davis.

Shaw was an incorrigible scientific eclectic, known to cut a swath in such diverse specialties as magma rheology, thermal modeling, experimental geochemistry and even fractal geometry and linguistics (not to mention poetry, sculpting and painting) -- which corresponds with his desire in Craters to recast the many disciplines of earth sciences as essential parts of one whole, a truly interdisciplinary geo-cosmology.

In the world of science, it may be true that the 20th century was the century of the physicist, but at the end of the 21st century, it is quite possible that we will all be in awe at the breathtaking prescience found in the ideas of our 20th century geologists. Or, what the heck -- maybe Shaw was just crazy.

Shaw passed away on August 26, 2002 in Menlo Park, California.

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