Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Mark Rylance and Shakespeare's 'Measure for Measure'

Among Shakespeare’s plays, Measure for Measure (first performed in 1604) has never been one of my favorites. Apparently, I’ve not been alone in my assessment. As the venerable G.B. Harrison observed:

Measure for Measure is one of Shakespeare’s unpleasant plays, and has, on the whole, been roughly treated by the earlier critics . . . It is not surprising that critics should disagree, for the play presents a stark problem of human conduct: When a woman is offered the choice of saving a condemned man – her brother, as it happens – at the cost of her own chastity, what should she do? As Shakespeare states the problem there is no simple answer . . .

Few of Shakespeare’s comedies could possibly have happened in real life, but usually no one takes the stories too seriously, because they never touch the deeper levels of emotion. This play in its earlier and middle scenes has been too powerful. Emotions have been so painfully stirred by the central problem that the critical instincts demand an answer. A profound moral issue has been stated, and we are not to be satisfied by a series of plots and stratagems, no matter how ingenious . . . He treated his puppets seriously, and he made them human, with the result that the soul of the play became too great for its body.
Harrison is certainly correct that Measure for Measure is a “plots-and-stratagems” play. Vincentio, the Duke of Vienna, tells his confidantes that he is traveling to Poland, and he appoints his conscientious follower, Angelo, as his deputy, with the full power to condemn the guilty to death. A young gentleman named Claudio, who has secretly become betrothed to Juliet, is arrested on the accusation of having sired Juliet’s unborn child out of wedlock; and Angelo, with a great show of self-righteousness, condemns Claudio to death. Claudio’s sister, the equally self-righteous Isabella (who is studying to become a nun) pleads with Angelo for mercy, but, as Harrison says, “suddenly the old restraint snaps,” and Angelo offers Isabella a non-negotiable proposition for her brother’s release – that Isabella must give Angelo her chastity in exchange for Claudio’s life. Meanwhile, the Duke has taken on the guise of a lowly friar, who advises Isabella to consent to the bargain, only to pull a switch and substitute Mariana, a woman to whom Angelo was once betrothed but whose dowry was lost at sea, as his bed-mate. Angelo satisfies his lust without the trick being revealed (somehow), but when pushed to honor his end of the bargain, he refuses to release Claudio, calling for his head. The Duke tries to fool Angelo with the head of a substitute condemnee; luckily for the Duke, another prisoner’s head becomes available unexpectedly, and in the ensuing “reveals,” Angelo is ordered to marry Mariana, Claudio is reunited with his Juliet, and the Duke asks Isabella to marry him – an ending, says Harrison, that is “more symmetrical than convincing.”

It probably says something about me that, on the evening of Pittsburgh’s worst blizzard of December 2005, I decided I needed to see Mark Rylance and his traveling Shakespeare’s Globe troupe perform Measure for Measure at the O’Reilly Theatre on December 7. On the way in, Pittsburgh’s streets were still clear of snow and I still agreed with Harrison that Measure for Measure was one of Shakespeare’s unpleasant plays; but after seeing Rylance’s production, whistling as I gingerly passed to the right of fish-tailing 18-wheelers on snow-clogged Route 22 East, I had a different view.

In his farewell tour as artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London, Rylance took a gamble, at least from the box office point of view, that he’s been known to take in the past by presenting Measure for Measure in accordance with “original practices.” For today’s attention-deficit-disordered consumers of entertainment, saying that something is being presented in accordance with “original practices” is akin to telling us that this week’s episode of Desperate Housewives will be broadcast in black-and-white, with no dialogue track, accompanied only by Gaylord Carter on the organ – we expect a maddeningly primitive and stilted presentation.

“Original practices,” when it comes to playing Shakespeare, actually means that a play is presented on a bare stage, with handmade period costumes and period music, and most significantly, with an all-male cast – yes, that’s right, men playing women’s roles.

Instead of yielding a maddeningly primitive and stilted production of Measure for Measure, Rylance’s “original practices” actually has the effect of enlivening a moribund play – giving a neglected manuscript the chance to be understood through the lens of contemporary social relations.

For starters, Rylance encourages a certain level of interaction between his cast and the audience, fostering the kind of winking intimacy that one imagines must have been present when Shakespeare originally staged his productions, in a smaller London, amid the camaraderie of local playgivers and local playgoers. Lucio is allowed to ask a question of the audience and wait for it to answer him; the Duke is permitted to acknowledge the audience’s laughter over a bit of business; and an audience member may be pulled onto the stage at the conclusion of the piece, to help perform the closing dance number. Rylance apparently loves this stuff: legend has it that while playing Hamlet, after a woman in the audience spontaneously answered Rylance’s “to be or not to be” with a “that is the question” rejoinder, Rylance turned and pointed to the woman and declared, “Indeed, madam – that is the question.”

The darker passages of Measure for Measure are largely unspoiled by this freewheeling interaction. In fact, Harrison’s concern about the juxtaposition of comedic contrivances and deeper emotions is mitigated here in the post-M*A*S*H era, in which we have grown accustomed to the “dramedy” template, and in which our favorite “puppets” are allowed to experience deep turmoil.

More to the point, however, is the way in which Rylance’s deployment of “original practices” has the effect of emphasizing the things about Measure for Measure that connect with modern audiences. G.B. Harrison says, writing in 1948, that the play raises a question about the value of chastity. We’d put it another way today – we’d say that the play concerns itself with the sexual harassment of women, raising uncomfortable questions about power structures that pit women petitioners against those would prey on them. This aspect of the play is actually heightened by the fact that men are playing women in Rylance’s production. Imagine if, in your next human resources workshop, male mid-managers are asked to play female assistants in a role-playing exercise, and perhaps you can begin to understand what I mean by this. In having men play out scenes of sexual harassment, the play presents itself almost as a kind of ritualized catharsis, a mimetic acceptance of personal responsibility that in itself is quite powerful to behold.

The all-male cast also has the effect of universalizing the central concern of the play: the ways in which the administration of justice, arbitrary and often cruel, rubs up against the inviolability of human individuality and choice – the sovereign government against the sovereign me. In context, Shakespeare can perhaps be forgiven if he fails to answer questions in Measure for Measure – its first performance, after all, was before the Court of King James I, and to answer the questions would have been to call attention to uncomfortable issues of governance in the presence of He who Governed. Shakespeare here prefers to allow a benevolent observer (the Duke) and chance resolve the dramatic conflicts, and (if you'll please forgive the post-modern gloss) to leave the unanswered questions to be pondered in the silence before and after the play. That, in itself, is astonishingly subversive.

Rylance, at the helm and on the boards, swerves into Shakespeare's realm of controlled chaos. As the Duke, Rylance is “like a flustered God who's set the universe in motion and is surprised by the imperfect results,”as Timothy Gray wrote in Variety – he dithers and he hevers, with the fear of being out of control implacably written across his brow.

A friend of mine, a member of the board of the Pittsburgh Public Theater, seized upon the humility in Rylance’s performance and took the opportunity to tell Rylance that it reminded him of Peter Falk doing Columbo. Rylance thanked him and said he’d always appreciated Peter Falk’s work. Rylance offered another presumably iconic performance as his model, but unfortunately my friend doesn’t remember what the model was. (If my friend’s amnesia ever clears, I will let you know.)

As it has often been said, you have to be nuts to attempt to produce Shakespeare today, with all its layers of critical outerwear, and Rylance indeed may be certifiably nuts – he apparently is one of that dunderheaded school who believes that Bacon or one of his cronies actually authored Shakespeare’s works. Nevertheless, I hope that Mark Rylance’s swan song with Shakespeare’s Globe does not signal an end to his relationship with Shakespeare. I hope and suspect he’ll be back soon, undressing another neglected Shakespearean text to find the subversive spots and the post-modern stripes underneath.

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Monday, February 27, 2006

Bring Back the Puppet Heads

This morning, Howard Kurtz had an interesting squib (via TV Newser) on CNN’s Jack Cafferty, Wolf Blitzer’s curmudgeonly sidekick in The Situation Room, with a rundown of printed opinion that concludes that Cafferty is a sort of madman, “anti-Bill O’Reilly” from the populist Left. Cafferty himself counters that he is not kvetching from the Left or the Right, but rather that he is politically independent, striking out at whatever smells bad in the political landscape.

It has often struck me that Cafferty, both on The Situation Room and formerly on CNN’s American Morning, functions within a role that has a long history in network news. As the character who might just say anything, he’s a lot like Charlemane the Lion, the puppet that used to kibbitz with Walter Cronkite on the CBS Morning News during 1954-55. J. Fred Muggs, Dave Garroway’s chimp friend on the Today show during the same period, was of course a considerably less articulate fellow of the same genre.

Network news traded in its puppets (and its wild animals) for madmen long ago. As much as I am continually entertained by Cafferty, I wouldn’t mind so much if his voice came from a puppet head. Same goes for O’Reilly. If we’d only dress our TV madmen -- from whatever end of the political spectrum -- like puppets, then at least we’d know how seriously we were supposed to be taking them.

Cafferty, O'Reilly and their countless imitators can't seriously be classed as "news" or even "infotainment," and certainly not as genuinely analytical political discourse -- the appropriate name for it may be "opinotainment," a post-vaudevillian, post-Catskills form of stand-up comedy dressed up as opinion. And I, for one, would much prefer to see it delivered by a lion puppet.

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Oh, Not Him Again!

Consumer activist and presidential candidate Ralph Nader, known as "St. Ralph," was born on this day in 1934 in Winsted, Connecticut.

Although the concept of consumer advocacy had existed before Ralph Nader exploded onto the scene in the 1960s, it had lain in atrophy. Muckrakers like Ida Tarbell or Upton Sinclair managed to raise enough of a fuss about monopolies or meat-packing to bring about reforms in the early part of the 20th century. After World War II, however, a rise in the seductive power of advertising through radio and TV, a period of general economic stability, advances in domestic technology and significant disposable household income converged to create an atmosphere in which, to some degree, consumers had become complacent about the benefits of goods, and manufacturers had become complacent about the level of product quality required in order to achieve financial success.

Nader had read all the muckraking books by the time he was a student at Princeton and Harvard, and after law school in 1959 he entered the bar to exact "the qualitative reform of the Industrial Revolution," working briefly as an aide to assistant secretary of labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

In 1965, Nader published Unsafe at any Speed, which accused General Motors of covering-up safety defects in the early models of the Chevrolet Corvair. The book turned out to be a high-pitched siren above the whir of normalcy; no one had so publicly and dramatically shifted the blame for the extent of road accident injuries motorists to manufacturers, and it made GM so uncomfortable that it hired a private detective to find some dirt on Nader. The detective was unsuccessful (Nader worked late into the night and seemed to have no vices), but Nader found out and broke the story to the U.S. Senate committee on auto safety, culminating in an apology from the president of GM and the passage of the Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966. GM discontinued the Corvair in 1969.

Meanwhile, the GM matter sketched the outlines of the Nader mythology: he was singularly uncharismatic, lived in an $85 per month rooming house, wore cheap, unfashionable clothing, didn't own a TV or a car, and he worked so much on good deeds that he didn't have time for vacations or dating; and by 1971, his monk-like dedication to the consumers' best interests had made him (according to one poll) the 6th most popular figure in the U.S. The notoriety assisted Nader in fundraising and recruiting, and he assembled an army of lawyers and activists known as "Nader's Raiders" (formally called "Public Citizen") to confront the bosses on such matters as insurance, the environment, labor practices, safety standards, corporate influence over government and fair access to the courts for injured parties. Their activities contributed to the creation of, among other things, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Occupational Health and Safety Act, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Consumer Products Safety Administration and the Freedom of Information Act.

During the Reagan years, Nader fell out of favor for a time and was portrayed as the source of trade-snarling regulations and litigious climate which caused the U.S. to lose its competitive edge in the global marketplace. In the wake of Reagan era deregulation, Nader's public image subtly shifted back from hoary anachronism to Socratic, truth-telling survivor.

Since the 1970s, populist voices had urged him to run for office, and his refusal to do so always seemed to confirm his independence, but in 1992 he permitted his name to be used in a largely ignored write-in campaign during the New Hampshire primary. As the nominee of the Green Party in 1996 and 2000, Nader campaigned actively. Contrary to his own opinion that "information is the currency of democracy [and] its denial must always be suspect," Nader squirmed his way out of campaign disclosure laws and refused to make his personal financial statements available as the major candidates did, giving some rhetorical credence to the claims (no doubt flushed out by his corporate enemies) that he secretly lived in a posh Washington townhouse and made millions on speaking engagements and by "selling short" on the stocks of the corporations he was attacking.

In 2000 (his peak vote-getting year, coming in 3rd place with 2,882,955 votes and 2.74% of the popular vote), he earned the wrath of moderate liberals when it turned out that the 97,000 votes he received in Florida ended up making the difference in the entire election, throwing it to George W. Bush, whereas if Nader had stepped aside Al Gore, the lesser evil, would have received his votes. Nader was unrepentant, observing of his critics, "I think they have lower expectations and are therefore willing to settle for a stagnant, indentured corporate Democratic Party that can't even save our legislature from control by the extreme right wing of the Republican Party." While the sentiment was brutally consistent with the themes he had developed over the prior 40 years of crusading, it was possible that the clarity of his principles was beginning to be lost on some of his former supporters. In 2004, he did not receive the support of the Green Party, appeared on only about 35 state ballots, and came in a more distant 3rd place with only 404,285 votes.

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Sunday, February 26, 2006

A Man Named Cash

"He knows how to fill up a room. Elvis Presley had it. Bob Dylan has it. Geronimo probably had it. Jesus Christ had it. Johnny Cash has it." -- Marty Stuart.

While we await the outcome of the Oscar race and the fate of the critically-acclaimed biopic Walk the Line, starring Joaquin Phoenix as the legendary singer/songwriter Johnny Cash, let us take a moment to recall Cash himself, who was born on this day in 1932 in Kingsland, Arkansas. The real thing is always better than an imitation.

Although thought of primarily as a country musician, the "Man in Black," Johnny Cash, stands as an arresting and influential figure in the pantheon of pop music, a member of both the Country Music Hall of Fame (the youngest inductee at the time) and the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame. With his mighty, sonorous baritone sounding like one’s father just before a whipping, rambling over a lean guitar line, Cash’s music at its best is basic and pure.

He liked to write songs as a teen, growing up in Depression-scarred Arkansas, but it wasn’t until after high school, when he was serving in the Air Force in the early 1950s, that he bought his own guitar and began to think seriously of music as a career. After leaving the USAF, he showed up at Sam Phillips' Sun Studios in Memphis in 1955, where he was offered a contract and sidled up to other Sun stablehands Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley. His informal sessions with Perkins, Lewis and Presley were later released as The Million Dollar Quartet, but Cash established himself as a solo artist from the start, with rockabilly hits "Cry, Cry, Cry," "Folsom Prison Blues," and "I Walk the Line," all 3 of which were top country hits with some cross-chart appeal during 1955-56.

He stood out like a vulture at a tea party wearing all black at the Grand Ole Opry while the other stars were decked out in rhinestones in 1958, but he was encountered as a refreshingly authentic and unadorned persona by the fans. By the early 1960s he was playing 300 shows a year around the country, and to keep himself from collapsing from exhaustion he developed an amphetamine habit which alienated him from his first wife. With Columbia Records he was branching out musically, recording gospel tunes and concept albums on railroad songs and Native Americans, but his personal life was a shambles (including scrapes with the law over starting a forest fire and smuggling pills) until he married June Carter in 1968 and returned to his fundamentalist Christian roots.

Carter had written one of his best known songs for him, the endlessly transformable anthem of self-conscious co-dependence, "Ring of Fire" (1963). The rejuvenated Cash was ubiquitous at the end of the 1960s, with a successful TV variety series, a hit concert LP and documentary Johnny Cash at San Quentin (1969, featuring his biggest hit, "A Boy Named Sue," written by Shel Silverstein), an appearance on Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline album (also 1969), a part in The Gunfighter (1970) with Kirk Douglas, and a concert with John Williams and the Boston Pops. During the 1970s, his popularity declined somewhat, but he remained busy as a social activist, campaigning for prison and Native American reforms as well as working with evangelist Billy Graham. The 1980s found him teaming up with old cronies to moderate success, with Perkins and Lewis as The Survivors (1982) and with Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson as The Highwaymen (1985 and 1992).

He unleashed a masterpiece in 1994 with American Recordings, the first of 4 projects with producer Rick Rubin -- a stirring acoustic collection of his own songs and selections from Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen which opened the ears of a new generation to his sepulchral, apocalyptic murmurs, as well as to his avuncular warmth and humor. By the end of his run with Rubin, he was making evocative, off-genre acoustic covers of such recordings as Beck's "Rowboat," U2's "One Love," Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus" and Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt" -- the latter of which was the subject of an MTV-VMA-nominated video by Mark Romanek.

Cash, beset by Parkinson's Disease, diabetes and heart troubles near the end, died 4 months after the death of his beloved June, on September 12, 2003 in Nashville, Tennessee.


'The name is Marlowe . . . Kit Marlowe'

The playwright and spy Christopher Marlowe was baptized on this day in 1564 in Canterbury, Kent, England.

The son of a shoemaker, Marlowe's intellectual gifts were recognized early by a local philanthropist, who sent him to the prestigious Kings School. He went on to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, from which his benefactors expected he would pursue a career in the clergy, but literature and theater were more to the impetuous young man's taste, and he showed his talent in them by translating Lucan's De Bello Civili into blank verse and Ovid's Amores into rhyming couplets, and writing his first full-length play, now lost, The True History of George Scanderbeg (1582), about a heroic yet chaste Albanian prince who is kidnapped and renamed by the Turks, but returns to lead his people to victory.

Contemporaries of Marlowe seemed to think he particularly identified with Scanderbeg, which may explain his willingness, shortly after receiving his B.A. in 1584, to enter Queen Elizabeth's service as a spy. At that time, many European heads of state were either assassinated or suffered assassination plots as part of the shifting of power between Catholics and Protestants. William the Silent of Orange, Henry III of France and Henry IV of France all fell victim to assassins, but the English secret service (under Sir Francis Walsingham) kept Elizabeth safe with the era's most successful network of espionage, and there is evidence that Marlowe played a role in foiling the Catholic "Babbington Plot" of 1587 as an agent of the Queen. His role as a "double agent" in the Catholic-Protestant conflict may also explain the charges of "atheism" (still punishable by burning at the stake) leveled against him by rival playwright Thomas Kyd, which were pending against him at the time of his death.

While acting in the Queen's service, Marlowe also began to write for the London theater company of the Admiral's Men. His first performed work, the ambitious Tamburlaine the Great (1586-7) burst onto the London scene as the first play written in English blank verse. Other successes, including The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (1588) and The Famous Tragedy of the Rich Jew of Malta (1589), follow the theme he essayed in Tamburlaine of a larger-than-life protagonist who is driven by a passion that ultimately destroys him. In these plays and in Edward II (1594), Marlowe shows his ability to endow the blank verse line with intense dramatic power, in effect paving the way for the finest work of William Shakespeare, his London contemporary, and John Milton.

A notoriously reckless character, Marlowe's death remains suspicious, especially in light of the fact that he was in the company of three government spies. He met his colleagues at a roominghouse, and soon a brawl erupted over who would pay the bill. Marlowe drew his dagger and hit Ingram Frizer on the head with the flat of it; whereupon Frizer wrestled the dagger away from Marlowe and stabbed him over the eye. Marlowe died, swearing (presumably on May 30, 1593 in Deptford, England), and Frizer was let off with a claim of self-defense.

A small number of mush-headed scholars have claimed that, due to his political intrigues, Marlowe actually faked his own death and went into hiding, using his superior knowledge of classical antiquity, geography, astronomy and the like as the ghost-writer of Shakespeare's greatest plays. This bit of wishful thinking obviously underestimates the value of his known achievements, of the impact that a 29-year old smart alecky rapscallion could have on generations of readers to come. His super-suave portrayal by Rupert Everett in Tom Stoppard's film Shakespeare in Love (1998) is entertaining, but of course Marlowe's real story might have made a great movie on its own.

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Saturday, February 25, 2006


While most of the Impressionists were initially viewed by contemporary critics and buyers of art as gloomy revolutionaries, the sunnier personality of Pierre-August Renoir (born on this day in 1841 in Limoges, Haute-Vienne, France) and his Impressionist depictions of people at play did much to change their minds and hasten the acceptance of the style.

The son of a tailor, Renoir moved with his family to Paris when he was 4. The composer Charles Gounod was his choir-master at school, and considered Renoir to have some musical talent; but it was painting that he enjoyed, and he was apprenticed to a porcelain painter at the age of 13. Some writers suggest that his porcelain and fan painting had a formative effect on his style as a painter, particularly in his precise use of the brush, his handling of surfaces and texture and his delicate touch. It also provided him with his earliest artistic heroes, as much of his time in the fan painting trade was spent copying earlier masters such as Fragonard and Watteau.

He studied with Charles Gleyre in 1861, there beginning his friendship with Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley and Frederic Bazille, and later studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. The first among his friends to achieve modest success in the art world (his Lise having met with uniform praise at the Salon in 1868), Renoir spent a year in the cavalry in 1871 and returned to find his paintings in demand among upper-middle class patrons.

He painted in the outdoors with Monet at his home at Argenteuil and shared in Monet's observations about color and its reflection. Renoir's paintings were very different from Monet's, however: for Renoir, people, not nature, were the focus, and in such paintings as La Loge (1874), Le Moulin de la Galette (1876) and The Luncheon of the Boating Party (1881), the pinkish-white skin of the elegant middle class at leisure seemed almost to be a source of illumination (albeit a reflecting source) in his paintings.

As he began to receive commissions from his wealthy patrons, Renoir slowly drifted away from Impressionism, a stance confirmed by his exposure to Raphael's work during a trip to Italy in 1881 and repeated visits with Paul Cezanne during the 1880s. From that point on, Renoir sought to reconcile the plein-air approach of the Impressionists with the sense of grandeur, dignity and simplicity of the classical painters. Despite criticism for his abandonment of the style which earned him success, he replaced free brushwork, spontaneous composition and a rainbow palette with linear refinement, gracefully contrived poses and drier coloration (such as in Grandes Baigneuses, 1884-87).

Partially due to an eye condition and arthritis, his painting during the first years of the 20th century had a broad, almost Expressionist feeling; and to relieve his eyes and hands, he took up sculpture. He died on December 2, 1919 at Cagnes-sur-Mer.

"Though he gave women a seductive appearance in his paintings, and conferred charms on those who had none, he generally took no pleasure in converse with them . . . he himself once said 'I paint women as I would paint carrots.'" -- G. Riviere.


Friday, February 24, 2006


"He was a gentle, kind man, a storyteller, supportive of rookies, patient with fans, cheerful in hard times, careful of the example that he set for youth, a hard worker, a man who had no enemies and who never forgot his friends. He was the most beloved man in baseball before Ruth." -- Bill James

Baseball legend Honus Wagner, known as the "Flying Dutchman," was born on this day in 1874 in Chartiers, Pennsylvania.

Wagner was the most unlikely-looking of shortstops, even when he began to play professional baseball in the Atlantic League in 1895: he stood 5' 11", weighing 200 pounds; and he was barrel-chested, thick-necked, long-waisted and noticeably bow-legged, with orangutanian arms that enabled him, said Lefty Gomez, to tie his big shoes with his thick hands without bending down.

Yet without question he was one of the great athletes and best all-around ballplayers of his time, and in 21 seasons in the major leagues (3 with the Louisville Colonels, the rest with the Pittsburgh Pirates) he was to dominate National League batting statistics the way Ty Cobb dominated the American League, leading the league in batting 8 times, slugging 6 times and stolen bases 5 times. He was also an exceptional fielder; contemporaries liked to describe his fielding abilities in terms usually reserved for steam-shovels.

By way of contrast to Cobb, however, Wagner was as sunny and likeable a fellow as one could imagine. He was also mindful of his influence on children, and since he did not like the idea of children being lured to smoke cigarettes, he halted the use of his picture on cards sold by the American Tobacco Co. in 1910, with the result that only about 20 American Tobacco Honus Wagner cards were known to exist in the 1990s, making it among the rarest of old baseball cards. In 1991, the now-beleaguered hockey star Wayne Gretzky purchased one of these Wagner cards at auction for $451,000.

When Wagner retired in 1917 (with a lifetime batting average of .327), he had amassed more hits, runs, total bases, runs batted in and stolen bases than any player up to that time.

He later served as a coach for the Pirates -- some say more as a mascot -- and lent his name to a Pittsburgh sporting goods store which still thrives today, his garrulous caricature appearing on the storefront. A developer was recently rebuffed by the Carnegie, Pennsylvania zoning hearing board in its attempts to turn Wagner's old home there into a bed-and-breakfast in time for the All-Star Game, which this year will be played in Pittsburgh's PNC Park. To these "memorials" one must also add the heroic larger-than-life statue of him by Frank Vittor that stands outside PNC Park, a reminder to today's fans that giants used to walk the Earth.

Wagner was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame with the elite inaugural class in 1936. He died on December 6, 1955 in Carnegie.

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Thursday, February 23, 2006


Georg Friedrich Handel was born on this day in 1685 in Halle, Saxony.

The son of a musicthropic barber-surgeon, young Georg Friedrich practiced keyboard playing on a muted spinet in the attic while bearing up to his father's demands that he prepare for a career in law. The Duke of Saxe-Weissenfels happened to hear the young maestro play the organ, and was so enthusiastic that he handed Handel, Sr. a sack of gold and told him to encourage young Georg by procuring music lessons for him.

By the time he was 12, Handel had mastered oboe, violin and keyboard, was composing church music at the Halle Lutheran church, and had begun to amass a reputation as a prodigy-organ soloist. He dutifully enrolled in law school after his father died in 1697, but he soon drifted back to music as a violinist in the Hamburg Opera under the direction of Reinhard Keiser. Keiser first encouraged the teen phenom, handing him a libretto for an opera and persuading him to try his hand at composing for the stage. When Handel turned out a highly successful Italianate opera (then all the rage), Almira (1704), Keiser jealously drove him out of Hamburg.

He landed in Florence, where he aspired to write more Italianate operas, but instead made an instant impression with an Italianate oratorio, La Resurezzione (1708), conducted by Corelli at its premiere. Now heralded as "Il Sassone" ("the Saxon"), Handel enjoyed celebrity-status as a composer and master organist. In 1709, he was goaded into a keyboard competition against Domenico Scarlatti which, like an old-time Addie Joss-Ed Walsh pitching duel, resulted in something like a dead heat: Scarlatti was given the edge at harpsichord, but Handel was conceded the organ crown -- leading Scarlatti to cross himself whenever Handel's name came up thereafter.

Handel returned to Germany in 1710, taking the job as kappelmeister to George, elector of Hanover, at a salary 20 times what Bach was making in Weimar. Now quite the cosmopolitan dandy, Handel quickly grew restless and applied for a sabbatical in London, where he staged shamelessly commercial operas and dedicated some incidental pieces to Queen Anne, who awarded him a stipend to keep him hanging around London. In 1714, however, Anne died and Handel's proper boss George became George I of Great Britain, leaving Handel feeling a little like he had moved into his mistress' house and found that his wife was now his new landlord. While his relations with George were initially strained, George soon saw Handel as his goodwill gift to London. By 1717, when the king floated down the Thames in a barge accompanied by an orchestra playing Handel's Water Music -- which bobbed along with stately poise on trumpety sea-legs, heroically shifting its timpani sea-arse -- George and Handel were already partners in diplomatic service.

Handel promptly anglicized his name and returned to churning out more ghastly operas -- plotless, decadently-staged castrati-fests which showed flashes of original virtuosic musical inspiration stitched together by wanton plagiarism. London audiences, once captivated by all the visual and aural pyrotechnics, grew tired of the Italianate opera with the rise of popular middle-class operas in English, typified by John Gay's The Beggar's Opera (1728). Handel refused to learn the lesson all at once, however, and went broke supporting two opera companies until he decided to return at the end of the 1730s to his Florentine roots as a composer of his own unique brand of oratorios -- concert choral pieces written with the dramatic flair of opera, with libretti in English. Saul, Israel in Egypt, Ode of St. Cecilia, and L'Allegro, Il Pensieroso ed il Moderato (on a text by Milton) all proved to be popular and inexpensively staged pieces.

In 1741, the viceroy of Ireland invited him to write something for a charity concert in Dublin. In 24 days Handel feverishly produced a gargantuan oratorio on the coming of Christ called The Messiah. So frenzied was he that when he finished its finale, the "Hallelujah" chorus, the old impresario was literally overcome with religious ecstasy, stunned by the majesty of his own creation. The work -- accessibly tuneful, yet crafted for maximum dramatic effect -- instantly cast a spell on the premiere audience, and in successive performances it secured Handel's place, not simply as a successful hack, but as a sublime musical genius.

For a few generations -- until Beethoven achieved mythic status in his dotage -- it was Handel, not Bach, who was regarded as the greatest of the great. Handel basked in the glow of it for the next decade while continuing to write more music (notably the Royal Fireworks Music, 1749, which had its premiere marred by a fire from the fireworks which sent George II and his subjects scrambling). In 1751, however, Handel's eyesight began to fail. He had 3 operations by the surgeon who was working on Bach's eyes around the same time before going blind; he carried on another 8 years giving organ recitals and conducting until he died at 74. He was given an elaborate funeral at Westminster Abbey, reminiscent in pomp and excess of the staging of his own operas back in the 1720s.

The old joke about "Handel bars" would of course not evolve until well after the invention of the bicycle by Kirkpatrick Macmillan in the 1830s.


Peeps, Pipes or Peppies

Samuel Pepys, the writer known for his colorful, voluminous diary, kept from 1660 to 1669, was born on this day in 1633 in London. He died there on May 26, 1703.

Pepys' diary, which was written in coded shorthand and not meant for publication, was not discovered or published until 1825.

"Many times, at a fashionable literary dinner party, I have been tempted to discuss the Pepys diaries, but I have always been uncertain as to the proper pronunciation of his name. For example, if you said 'Peeps' the lady on your left would invariably say, 'Pardon me, but don't you mean Pipes?' And the partner on your right would say, I'm sorry, but you're both wrong. It's Peppies.' If Peeps, Pipes or Peppies had been smart enough to pick a name like Joe Blow, every schoolboy in America would be reading his diaries today instead of being out in the streets stealing hub caps." -- Groucho Marx.


Wednesday, February 22, 2006

George Washington

George Washington (born on this day in 1732 in Pope's Creek, Westmoreland County, Virginia) mostly lives for us as a stone face on Mount Rushmore, and his legend as "father of the country" serves to enhance that monolithic reputation; but his humanity can be seen in the artifice he used to command and lead, as well as in his early failures.

George's father Gus, a planter of 10,000 acres on the backwaters of the Potomac, died when George was 11, and afterwards George went to live on his brother Lawrence's posh estate at Mount Vernon. His admiration of Lawrence and his enjoyment of Mount Vernon inspired him to be a land magnate, and while still in his teens, he learned surveying and began to acquire land through first-crack risking and subtle manipulations. He also recognized, however, that British officers would sometimes be rewarded in land, so he set his sights on a British Army commission.

His first leadership assignment in the colonial British Army was an unmitigated disaster which probably precipitated the French and Indian War. At Jumonville Glen, Pennsylvania in 1754, Washington bushwhacked 40 French soldiers, and during the scuffle, one of his Indian allies mortally scalped a French diplomat; shortly thereafter, having supervised the construction of Fort Necessity in a tactically vulnerable spot, Washington and his small company were set upon and forced to surrender to the French, who tricked him into signing a confession of personal responsibility for the atrocity committed by the Indian ally. Feeling pressure from London, Washington resigned in disgust, but rejoined as the Jumonville incidents escalated into war, serving as aide-de-camp to Edward Braddock, and bravely leading the retreat following Braddock's fall at Monongahela in 1755 -- thus salvaging his reputation, although failing to receive a British Army commission from the King.

It has been observed that the expense of the French and Indian War required the British to raise colonial taxes, which inspired the American Revolution, and caused Louis XVI to do the same in France, precipitating the French Revolution -- which is quite a lot to hang upon Washington's spontaneous Jumonville ambush.

He resigned his colonial commission in 1758, entered the Virginia House of Burgesses and married a wealthy widow, Martha Dandridge Custis. They became one of the supreme "power couples" of Virginia as Washington settled into the role of gentleman planter and public servant. His sense of the unfair economic treatment of the colonies by the British grew as his awareness of his own achievements by his late-30s (an opulent estate, a wealthy wife, an honored name) became tiresome to him -- perhaps leading him to become one of the first wealthy Virginians to turn militantly against British rule.

He organized a Virginia militia with the express purpose of readying for a fight with the British, and by the time the minutemen met the Redcoats at Lexington and Concord in 1775, Washington was already a delegate to the Continental Congress, urging for a declaration of American independence and subtly suggesting himself as an American commander-in-chief by appearing everywhere in a military uniform of his own design.

In June 1775, he was unanimously chosen as the commander-in-chief, in part for the better part of his military reputation and in part because John Adams and other northerners wanted to show that independence was not just a New England screed. To expel the professional British Army from the continent, Washington had merely a few gangs of rag-tag, untrained short-timers under his command; his most significant resource was not a wealth of experience, however, but an ability to project the presence of leadership and inspire discipline and hope through the propagation of his unflappable persona through the ranks.

He managed to drive the British out of Boston in March 1776, but for much of the rest of 1776 Washington struggled from one destructive loss to another from Long Island through the New Jersey plains. As Christmas approached, he devised a plan to turn away from conventional fighting, in which he was inexperienced and outnumbered, adopting Indian guerilla tactics by crossing the Delaware in a sleet storm and attacking the rum-soaked enemy at the British barracks in Trenton on Christmas night. He followed that with another victorious ambush at Princeton in January 1777.

The victories themselves were small ones, but they restored Washington's confidence, propped up sagging colonial morale and enabled Washington to crank up the press machine to salvage his reputation among colonial leaders -- especially among rival generals, who thought Washington was a hobbyist in military drag. From the lessons of 1776, Washington's strategy emerged: stay in the conflict by stealth and cunning just long enough to exhaust the British purse and patience. His leadership held the starving, unclothed Continental Army together through the rough winter at Valley Forge in 1777, and with the momentum gained by the French recognition of American independence in May 1778 and the French assistance which followed, Washington's patient plan culminated in the surrender of British forces at Yorktown in October 1781.

Just before the surrender, when the Continental Army was feeling its greatest power, Washington's officers whispered that military rule would be a better alternative for a new nation than a Congress of squabbling civilians; but Washington, perhaps uniquely in the history of civilization up to that time, deferred to the civilian institutions which had supported him and did not assert dictatorial authority as compensation for his conquest -- and more importantly, held his officers in check when they were bristling for him to take over. He resigned his command after the peace treaty was inked in 1783, but was recalled from Virginia in 1787 to serve as president of the Constitutional Convention; upon its adoption, he was the choice by acclamation to serve as the first president of the United States.

In his new role, he marshaled many of the same resources which he used in winning independence (his leadership presence, his ability to calm the wayward passions of his charges and maintain the stability of his command) to create of presidency of precedents that would be long-held: limitation to two 4-year terms (broken only once), relying heavily upon a cabinet of his own choosing for advice and strategy (a cabinet which included Jefferson and Hamilton, no less), seeking the best talent outside of the ranks rather than relying on seniority to dictate his staffing decisions, and establishing the supreme authority of the federal government in Constitutionally-appointed affairs -- an authority which was challenged by the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, which inspired President Washington to mount his horse and ride into a potential battle which never occurred against rebels in the Pennsylvania frontier, the only time an American president has actually led troops into action.

In his Farewell Address (1796), he warned against partisanship, but while able people would follow in his footsteps, none of them possessed the strength of persona to avoid inevitable factionalism; with Washington's departure, America's two-party system was born. In retirement, he accepted a command in preparation for possibilities hostilities against France following the XYZ Affair, but his services were never required. He was mourned as the first and greatest hero of the new nation when he died almost 3 years after the end of his presidency, on December 14, 1799.

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Monday, February 20, 2006

'I Just Can't Seem to Paint Nice Things'

"I just can't seem to paint nice things."--Ivan Albright.

Ivan Albright was born on this day in 1897 in North Harvey, Illinois.

Albright was the son of a portrait painter who studied with Eakins. He learned drafting as a boy and aimed to become an architect. His stint in an Army medical unit making surgical drawings during World War I, however, inspired him to become a painter instead -- though his painting would thereafter be influenced by the surgical techniques he witnessed in the Army. He developed his personal style away from the New York scene in Chicago, a style typified in his first major work, Into the World There Came a Soul Named Ida (1929-30), a portrait of an attractive 21-year woman which he transformed into a carbuncled old crone looking into a mirror. Like many of his portraits to follow, the painting was a kind of cumulative document showing all the changes in an individual's appearance which would be produced by time and decay.

With his aesthetic interest in mortality, it was not surprising that Albright would be tapped by Hollywood to paint the title painting for the climax of the MGM film of Oscar Wilde's novella The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) -- a black-and-white film, except for four views of Albright's painting, which appeared in gory color. (The portrait of Gray as a young man was completed by Ivan's twin brother, lesser known painter Malvin Albright.) Albright also experimented with film himself and left copious notebooks in which he mused over the relationship between words and images. He died in November 1983.


Sunday, February 19, 2006

She Traded Her Sarong for an Apron

Somewhere out there, there lives a housewife, known to her friends and family for her radiant charm, who is celebrating her 94th birthday today.* I hope she forgives me for bringing to light a little tale that received some tabloid attention about 75 years ago. It has a happy ending.

Dorothy Janis was a minor silent film starlet, born Dorothy Penelope Jones on this day in 1912 in Dallas, Texas. There's an emphasis on "minor" here: Dorothy Jones was a mere 15 years old when she tagged along with her cousin, a Hollywood extra, onto the Fox Studio lot, but the 5'-0", 94-lb. high school student was immediately noticed by a casting director for her dark, exotic good looks and was cast as an Arabian girl in Fleetwing (1927).

Within a year, although she was just 16, Dorothy Janis (as she came to be known) was signed by Metro to a 5-year contract. Metro said publicly that Janis was 18 and half-Cherokee; neither fact was true, and Metro seemed to know better enough about her status as a minor to have her contract supervised by a court. After a pair of silent 'horse operas' (Kit Carson, 1928; and The Overland Telegraph, 1929, with Tim McCoy), Janis won the romantic lead opposite hunky Ramon Novarro in a part-talkie, The Pagan (1929, directed by W.S. Van Dyke), notable for the fact that Janis (without a chaperone at 16), Novarro and the entire cast and crew went to Tahiti to make the film, back in the days when location shooting was extremely rare. The film is kind of a cult-hit among aficionados today, in part for Novarro's popular recording of "The Pagan Love Song," featured in the movie.

Dorothy made one talkie (Lummox, 1930, directed by Herbert Brenon) before joining director Harry Gerson and another crew for a tour of the Malay Peninsula to make a film to be entitled The White Captive. When the company returned to Hollywood at the end of 1930, however, the studio found that Gerson's footage was virtually unusable; worse yet, poor Janis found herself at the epicenter of a tabloid scandal.

Sidney Lund, a newlywed sound technician who traveled with the White Captive company, apparently formed a crush on Janis during the 6-month trip, inspiring Mrs. Lund, a former vaudeville dancer, to file for divorce and to sue Janis for $25,000 for "alienation of affection." Mrs. Lund's claim was all the rage in Hollywood at the time: earlier that year, Clara Bow settled a "love theft" suit by the wife of a Texas physician, and Josef von Sternberg's wife had unsuccessfully sued Marlene Dietrich. Nevertheless, it was typically a difficult claim to prove (you had to first establish that there was love in the marriage, then that said love was destroyed by the defendant, and finally that the defendant destroyed said love maliciously), and probably even more so where the virginal Janis was concerned.

Mrs. Lund eventually got her divorce but dropped her suit against Janis; White Captive was never released; and the 19-year old Janis -- movie star, world traveler and enfant celebre -- perhaps understandably left behind her singular Hollywood career to visit an aunt in Chicago, where she met and married dance bandleader Wayne King.

Meanwhile, California abolished "alienation of affection" lawsuits in 1939. By 2001, all but 9 states had abolished the cause of action, citing the sense in which such lawsuits irresponsibly assume that some people (in our case, Mr. Lund) have no control over their own emotions as being a bad basis for damages. On the other hand, in states such as Hawaii, North Carolina and Utah where the claim is still recognized, family advocates argue that it provides an effective disincentive to monkey business. In 1997, a woman in North Carolina won $1 million worth of disincentive from her ex-husband's monkey business partner.

Dorothy and her husband apparently needed no such disincentives; they were together for over 50 years, until King's death in 1985. Few knew or could even have imagined that the happy housewife and mother of two once wore a sarong in the Tahitian jungles listening to Ramon Novarro croon the "Pagan Love Song."

* Some sources suggest that this is actually Dorothy's 96th birthday. Either way, she sure has lived a remarkable life -- I'll let you do the math adjustments if you'd prefer to find her to be two years older.

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Composer and cellist Luigi Boccherini was born on this day in 1743 in Lucca, Italy.

The son of a professional double bass player, the genial, sentimental Boccherini studied in Rome as a youth and returned to his native Lucca as a virtuoso cellist. He made his first major impression as a teen composer traveling around Europe with his father and the violinist Filippo Manfredi, playing well-received concerts of Boccherini's two-part sonatas and reaching Paris in 1768. There the ambassador from Spain invited Boccherini to become a chamber composer in the court of the Infante Luis, the brother of Charles III, in Madrid.

Despite the ambassador's promises, Boccherini's 1770 reception in Madrid was not as grand as the receptions he had been receiving around Europe; nonetheless, Boccherini admired the fact that several members of the royal court were accomplished string musicians and he settled gratefully under Luis' patronage, adopting Madrid as his home -- a city on the far fringes of the European music scene. As the big fish in a small pond, Boccherini wrote a number of lyrical string quintets set in a variety of moods, including the quintet in E, op. 11, which contains his famous "Minuet" -- the kind of playful yet weightily constructed Late Baroque chamber music which would garner him the teasing moniker of "Mrs. Haydn." Also famous is his "Night Music of Madrid," the string quintet in C, op. 30, which humorously approximates the sounds of a summer's evening walk through the streets of Madrid, including a riotously unstable performance by a group of blind buskers and the march of a military band.

Quintets were, to say the least, an unusual medium (quartets were the norm), but for Boccherini they were probably dictated by the fact that Luis also had a noted string quartet, the Font family, in his retinue, and the quintet form gave Boccherini the opportunity to display his own virtuosity without offending the least facile Font by leaving him out of the group.

The Infante and his wife died in 1785, but by that time he had caught the ear of the cello-playing Frederick William II of Prussia, who invited Boccherini to become his court composer. (It is believed that Boccherini fulfilled that role from over 1,500 miles away in Madrid rather than joining the court in Berlin, which if true makes him a striking pre-Internet example of long distance employment.) Frederick William died in 1797, however, leaving Boccherini in the wilderness without a patron. He stayed in his Madrid outpost, living on a meager pension from the estate of the Infante and earning a few extra pesetas from his compositions, including a few written at the request of the French ambassador in Spain, Lucien Bonaparte.

In all, Boccherini produced 137 string quintets, 91 string quartets, over 50 string trios (over 350 chamber works in all), 30 symphonies, a dozen cello concertos and an opera, although many of his works were lost or destroyed during the Spanish Civil War. He survived the death of his wife and daughters and died on May 28, 1805 in Madrid, Spain at the age of 62, in poverty and relative obscurity.

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Antonello da Messina

The painter Antonella da Messina died on this day in 1479 in his hometown of Messina, Italy at about the age of 49.

Despite having spent only a year and a half in Venice (1475/6), Antonello da Messina is considered to be the most influential painter in Venice of the 15th century, urging Giovanni Bellini toward his great mature works. Vasari said he was the first Italian to paint in oils, a claim which has been disproven, but nonetheless he was a pioneer of the medium.

The son of a Sicilian stonecutter, it is supposed that he received his early training from a minor Flemish-influenced painter in Naples (where he probably first saw the work of Jan Van Eyck), and that in his 20s he worked alongside Petrus Christus, Van Eyck's pupil, in Milan. His affinity with the Flemish style made his work startlingly different from the work of contemporary Italian painters, with its quiet absorption of living details bathed in bright daylight and shadows. His St. Jerome in His Study (see below, 1450-55; National Gallery, London) is an inquiry into the saint's interior life through an exploration of the ordinary artifacts of his scholarly chambers, with the lion lurking in the shadows on the majolica floor representing the palpable reminder of St. Jerome's desert hermitage.

Interior life is central to his magnificent portraits, including his masterpiece Virgin Annunciate (above, c. 1465; Museo Nazionale, Palermo). Shown in three-quarter view in the Flemish manner which Antonello helped to popularize in Italy, the Sicilian-featured Virgin pauses gravely in the shadow of her blue veil, marking the text of Isaiah with the weight of one hand while the other is raised gently, marking her acceptance of her fate as much as her surprise in receiving the message. As with the portraits of Van Eyck, the background is dark, emphasizing the luminescence of the veil and her knowing face. Here Antonello manages to combine the best of both Flemish and Italian traditions -- the eye for household detail and the weight and grandeur of his subject -- in a work which transcended both, pointing (as the ever-perceptive Frederick Hartt observes) to the next century and the innovations of Caravaggio.

A glowing Portrait of a Man (c. 1465; National Gallery, London), placed in the same dark background, is sometimes thought to be a self-portrait. His Crucifixion (National Gallery, London) and St. Sebastian (Gemaldegalerie, Dresden) date from his Venetian visit, after which he returned to his workshop in the relative obscurity of Messina.

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Saturday, February 18, 2006

Jeremiah Gumbs and Anguillan 'Redependence'

Jeremiah Gumbs – poet, raconteur, resort host and patriot of the Caribbean island of Anguilla – was born on this day in The Valley, Anguilla in 1913.

As a young man, Gumbs worked in sugar cane fields in the Dominican Republic and at oil refineries on Aruba and Curacao before leaving the Caribbean for the U.S. in 1938, to study dentistry in Brooklyn. Before long, however, he was drafted into the U.S. Army. After his Army stint, he opened a small fuel mechanics company in New Jersey, and eventually became a leading citizen in Edison, serving as one of the founding members of the John F. Kennedy Hospital board of trustees. He never turned his back on Anguilla, however; he tirelessly raised funds for the improvement of schools and medical facilities in his homeland.

In 1959, Gumbs planted both feet back in the white sands of Anguilla when he and his wife opened Anguilla’s first beach-side resort, the Rendezvous Bay Hotel. Today it is not the swankiest Anguillan resort, but it is a most relaxing haven – and the place that to this day remains the most true to Anguilla’s tranquil, off-the-beaten-path milieu.

As early as 1956, however, the United Kingdom, which had ruled Anguilla from afar, joined Anguilla to two of its other Caribbean island charges – St. Kitts and Nevis – as one colonial protectorate. While St. Kitts and Nevis are within shouting distance of each other, Anguilla is located 70 miles to the Northwest, with the islands of St. Maarten, St. Barthelemy and St. Eustatius in between. St. Kitts and Nevis were cozy Caribbean bunkmates, but tensions rose in Anguilla due to its being so far away from its partners.

The last straw for Anguilla was when the United Kingdom granted independence to St. Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla in 1967. The gesture prompted one of the oddest uprisings of the 20th century, with Jeremiah Gumbs leading the way. While Anguillan rebels launched a military attack on the St. Kitts police presence in Anguilla to show that Anguilla meant business, Gumbs climbed onto the world stage in New York, pleading with the United Nations to let Anguilla separate from St. Kitts and Nevis and return to life as a British colony. With plots being hatched at Rendezvous Bay, Gumbs led a revolution to forsake independence and become a colonial possession once more.

By degrees, the Anguillans got their wish. In 1979, the island adopted its first constitution; in 1980, it was formally divided from St. Kitts and Nevis; and in 1982, the Anguillans finally received clear, unambiguous status as a British dependent territory.

In his later years, Jeremiah Gumbs became the king bee of his resort, paddling around in the surf at Rendezvous Bay with his golden retrievers Prince and Earl, and offering impromptu poems to his guests.

My wife (then girlfriend) and I were looking forward to staying at Rendezvous Bay and meeting Jeremiah Gumbs in the spring of 2004, but unfortunately, it was not to be. Jeremiah Gumbs passed away less than a week before we arrived (on April 8, 2004), and in a nod to their devotion to each other, his golden retriever Prince apparently followed quickly after him. Only Earl remained when we checked in, and it was heartbreaking to see him, standing in the surf up to his chest, baying after his departed playmates in the hazy afternoon sun. Despite the fact that Mr. Gumbs had passed away, however, we knew we could see his handiwork in the little bit of paradise in the Caribbean that he had built and lovingly preserved over the course of his life. And Earl did stop by our bungalow for an occasional visit.


Friday, February 17, 2006


Lola Montez, entertainer and adventuress, was born Marie Dolores Eliza Gilbert on this day in 1818(?) in Grange, County Sligo, Ireland.

Strikingly beautiful but with precious little talent, Lola Montez was one of the great self-promoters and most prodigious hedonists of the 19th century, propelling herself not only into theaters, newspapers and bookstalls, but into seats of European power. Although she styled herself as the illegitimate child of Lord Byron, she was actually the free-spirited daughter of an Irish soldier and his child bride, sent to live with friends of her Scottish stepfather after the death of her father when she was 7. At 19, in order to avoid an arranged marriage to a 60-year old judge, she eloped with a British officer in the Indian Army, but found herself abandoned by him in Calcutta.

She returned to England and, because she had been admired for her youthful twirling, she decided to become a dancer. Marketed as a "Spanish" dancer by Lord Malmesbury and Lord Brougham (finally adopting her Spanish moniker), she made the most of her dark beauty, tiny waist and voluptuous figure, but her first performance at Her Majesty’s Theatre in June 1843 was an artistic disaster. Undeterred, Montez toured Europe, where her beauty and reputation kept the houses packed for her performances as she befriended some of the leading literary and society lights. It helped, of course, that she was fluent in several languages, but her sexual adventurousness and outspoken off-stage persona made her fascinating to men of high station.

Despite an appalling performance at the Court Theatre in Munich in October 1846, old Ludwig I of Bavaria became smitten with her when she accosted him afterwards and displayed her glorious bosom to him. She was only too happy to take advantage of the fading king, accepting a palace he designed for her as well as the title of Countess of Landsfield in 1847. Then she began meddling with state affairs as the king’s proxy. When her harassment of the Jesuits and other "liberal" initiatives began to stick in the craw of uber-king Prince Metternich, he offered her $250,000 to leave. When she refused, Metternich undermined her authority by stimulating student riots against her. As the riots grew to the size of a full-fledged rebellion, Ludwig declared that he would never abandon Lola. "My crown for Lola!" he promised, and the students took him up on it, forcing him to abdicate. Lola unceremoniously left Munich on the midnight train, a victim of her own political naiveté; and although Ludwig had lost his throne and his woman, he continued to provide her with an allowance for several years.

Living richly on Ludwig’s largesse, Lola hopped from capital to capital, engaging in notorious love affairs with Nicholas I and Franz Liszt before the cash ran out. She met P.T. Barnum in Paris in 1851, who suggested that he could arrange a tour of the U.S.; unable to conclude negotiations with Barnum, she decided to conquer America on her own, arriving in New York in December. Now exploiting her "celebrity" more than her dancing, she acted in comedies and in a play about her own life which she commissioned, Lola Montez in Bavaria (1852). She moved to San Francisco where she married a newspaper editor and unveiled the dance which became her trademark: the Spider dance. Based on the tarantellas of ballet star Fanny Essler, Lola performed the dance in flesh-colored tights (a scandalous touch for the time) wearing a chiffon skirt covered with tarantula-sized cork spiders, and as she writhed and spun faster and faster, she would flick the spiders off her skirt. The finer audiences were shocked by the eroticism of her performances, but the Barbary Coast gold miners were enthusiastic if poorly paying fans. (It can fairly be said that erotic dance has come along way since Montez’s day.) Brawling fights with her husband over her spendthrift lifestyle -- imported foods, Cuban cigars, pet bears and parrots -- led to Lola Montez’s third and final divorce (she had married briefly in Switzerland after fleeing Bavaria).

By this time her delusions of grandeur were reaching pathological heights: letters from that period revealed her "plans" to capture California, cause it to declare its independence and rename it "Lolaland" with herself as its queen. In 1855 she made one final acting tour, this time in Australia, but exhausted by squabbles with her agents and a disintegrating entourage, she returned to New York and hit the stage as a lecturer before suffering a paralyzing stroke and dying in a boarding house, impoverished, on January 17, 1861 at the age of 42.

Although Montez has figured as a character in numerous films (notably Ken Russell's outrageous Lisztomania, 1975) and Max Ophuls made a film about her in 1955, no film has yet completely captured her excesses.

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Thursday, February 16, 2006

Edward Davis Jones

With the Dow Jones Industrial Average reaching a 4-year high yesterday, it is appropriate that we remember Edward Davis Jones, who died on this day in 1920 in New York City at the age of 64.

A Brown University dropout who entered the newspaper business as a drama critic in Providence, Rhode Island, hard-drinking consummate networker Eddie Jones met the shy, professorial Charles H. Dow while working on the Providence Journal. Davis bought a piece of the Journal and attempted to turn it into a financial paper, but his co-owners disagreed; and after he lost his investment and his job, Dow got him a job with a Manhattan financial news service. In 1882, Dow and Jones started their own news service, Dow Jones & Company, which would focus on objective reporting about management moves, interest rate changes and other company moves.

Jones specialized in covering financial reports, having an uncanny knack for spotting portents in accounting information, but was even more effective as the man-within-earshot at the bar at the Windsor Hotel, Manhattan's "after hours Wall Street." At the office, he was the man in charge -- explosive, demanding, uttering profanities at every lurch, but also the clearest thinking resource when crisis arose.

He authored the business plan for Dow Jones' Wall Street Journal and presided over the business end of the paper for a decade before joining the dark side, becoming a broker with James R. Keene. The present day investment firm of Edward Jones, however, is in no way related to Edward Davis Jones.


Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Never Send to Know For Whom the Bell Tolls

John Bell, a Whig U.S. senator from Tennessee and presidential candidate, was born on this day in 1797 near Nashville.

As a congressman representing Nashville, Bell was a partisan of fellow Democrat and Tennessean Andrew Jackson, but following a personal rift with Jackson, Bell became the leader of the Whig Party in Tennessee, and became the bitter enemy of Jackson protégé James K. Polk, beating Polk to become speaker of the House. In 1841, President William Harrison appointed Bell as his secretary of war; but following Harrison’s death a few weeks later, Bell resigned along with other Harrison cabinet officials when it became clear that Harrison’s successor, John Tyler, was not committed to the Whig legislative agenda.

In 1847, Bell was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he adopted a non-confrontational stance with respect to slavery issues (despite the fact that he owned many slaves himself), supporting President Taylor’s plan to admit territories to statehood even though federal law prohibited the ownership of slaves in federal territories, thus ensuring free states where there had been free territories, while showing no patience for abolitionists who would outlaw slavery in the South.

As the Whig Party fell into decline, Bell supported Millard Fillmore’s Know-Nothing presidential candidacy in 1856. Bell saw the new Republican Party as dangerous to the preservation of the Union due to its strong anti-slavery rhetoric, yet could not adopt the unequivocally pro-slavery positions of the Democrats; in Bell’s view, the only way to stop sectionalism from growing was to ignore the slavery issue entirely.

If you thought the presidential election of 2000 was a bit crazy (and, admittedly, it was), the 1860 presidential election was downright wacky. In 1860, like-minded former Whigs and those who supported Fillmore ("venerable gentlemen representing a generation of almost forgotten politicians," most of whom "had retired from public life involuntarily rather than by choice," according to historian H.P. Nash, Jr.) nominated Bell as their presidential candidate under the Constitutional Union Party banner. Misunderstanding the intensity of the slavery issue, Bell was badly defeated in the 1860 election, which almost appeared to be two elections -- one in the North (Lincoln vs. Douglas) and one in the South (Breckinridge vs. Bell); Bell polled 12.6% nationwide, finishing in 4th place overall.

As the South began to succeed from the Union following Lincoln’s election, Bell reluctantly supported Tennessee’s secession. For the duration of the Civil War he lived in the deep South, pacing the floors of his house and lamenting the tragedy of the conflict. He died on September 10, 1869.

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Tuesday, February 14, 2006

A Slip of the Cup 'Twixt the Actress and the Ballplayer

Helen Dauvray -- born Helen Gibson on this day in 1859 in San Francisco -- made her name as an ingénue on the stage, having appeared as "Eva" traveling stage productions of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, and as "Little Nell, the California Diamond." In her 20s, she moved to Paris, studied at the Paris Conservatory and under the name "Dauvray," became one of the great stars of the New York stage with her role in One of Our Girls (debuted 1885). Although she played other roles (contemporary critics lament, for example, her unfortunate tendency to take on singing roles from time to time), her triumph in Our Girls became the staple of her touring repertoire, and made her a wealthy woman.

A bona fide darling of the press of New York, Dauvray rather astonishingly became involved with the rough-and-tumble world of baseball, sponsoring in 1887 the Dauvray Cup, a $500 silver trophy to be bestowed upon the winner of the "World Series" between the National League and American Association pennant winners. Shortly thereafter, she married Monte Ward (pictured at left), a dashing but mercurial ballplayer for the New York Giants and a Columbia-educated lawyer.

Perhaps consonant with her effort to reform Ward, she did her best to reform baseball during a time when fans would typically witness, during the course of a game, copious amounts of swearing, spitting and spiking. Dauvray wrote to National League president Nick Young concerning the raucous base-coaching of the St. Louis ball club: "There is no reason why base ball should not become to America what cricket is to England, but in order to accomplish that the players should do everything they can to refine and improve the game."
Her marriage to Ward, like her infatuation with baseball, was doomed to failure. They were divorced in 1890. But there were happy "Valentine" endings for both Dauvray and Ward. In later years Dauvray retired from the stage and became the wife of U.S. Navy Admiral Albert Winterhalter, and as his widow was given an honorable burial at Arlington National Cemetery upon her death on December 3, 1923. Monte Ward married golfer Katherine Wass in 1903, and lived happily and comfortably with her until his death on March 4, 1925 in Augusta, Georgia. He was posthumously elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1964.

The Dauvray Cup, last awarded in 1890, has unfortunately been mislaid. If you see anything resembling the cup pictured below, please contact the Baseball Hall of Fame. I'd imagine there might be some reward involved.

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Sunday, February 12, 2006

Dracula and the Fair Housing Act of 1968

Today we remember the 75th anniversary of the original release of the Tod Browning film classic, Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi. This commemoration, of course, inevitably leads me to contemplate the enactment of the Fair Housing Act of 1968.

Huh? What, you say, does a movie about vampires have to do with a piece of federal legislation designed to prohibit discrimination in sales and rentals of housing based on race, religion, sex, national origin or disability?

Well, Dracula may have looked like a movie about vampires, but I would argue that Dracula was actually a film about the nexus between immigration, bigotry and real estate – in effect, about housing discrimination.

Movies are undoubtedly products of their time -- and although this film was based upon a play that was based upon Bram Stoker’s turn-of-the-century novel, and although the setting of the film is largely in Yorkshire and London, the movie was made in Hollywood, and rather obviously reflected then-current American concerns.

In 1931, America was gripped by the Depression – a period marked by poverty and high unemployment rates. Not unlike today, when politicians like Tom Tancredo and commentators such as Lou Dobbs draw connections between a soft job market and the influx of new immigrants, the height of the Depression was also a height of American anti-immigrant sentiment. During the 1920s, American immigration policy permitted an average of 400,000 legal immigrants per year into the U.S. – many of them coming, during the most recent wave of immigration, as refugees from Central European conflicts. After the Stock Market Crash of 1929, both President Hoover and President Roosevelt clamped down on legal immigration, to the point that by the end of the 1930s, legal immigration to the U.S. was down to about 50,000 people per year – all this amid a deep distrust of Central European immigrants that mirrored the distrust of Western European immigrants at the end of the 19th century. Concomitantly, banks, insurance companies and even the Federal Housing Administration actively engaged in ethnic clustering of neighborhoods, discouraging or refusing to grant mortgages to social climbing ethnic families who wished to settle down in WASP-y neighborhoods.

All of which, of course, brings us back to Dracula. The movie begins with a real estate agent named Renfield, played by Dwight Frye, traveling through the Transylvanian countryside (located, conveniently, in Central Europe) to meet with a client, Count Dracula. As Karl Freund’s tracking shots take us through Dracula’s eerie crypt, we have no doubt that the Transylvanian is one scary, evil dude. This is moments later subtly confirmed as we discover the Count has three “wives.” Tsk, tsk -- these Central Europeans have no morals.

At any rate, the heavily-accented, sharp-featured Count -- played by Bela Lugosi, himself a circa-1920s Hungarian immigrant to the U.S. – has called upon Renfield to arrange for a lease of Carfax Abbey in Yorkshire, subject to the strictest confidentiality. “I trust you have kept your coming here . . . a secret?” the Count asks pointedly. Better, after all, to ambush the WASPs then give them enough warning to put up barriers to his entry.

Representing a style of classic old-school open-borders liberal, Renfield gives the future immigrant the benefit of the doubt and indulges the Count’s requests. A lease is signed, and they set sail for Whitby. By the time they arrive in England, however, Renfield is more than compliant – he is now completely under the spell of the Central European and his strange customs, driven to madness and deposited in a local sanitarium.

Once in England, Dracula wastes no time in going after what he really wants – English women. This, of course, is the unspoken fear of every xenophobe – not that the foreigner will take my job, but that he’ll take my daughter. A Soho flower girl meets her end without ceremony, and as suspicions mount, Dracula meets Dr. Seward (Herbert Bunston), the head of the sanitarium and his new neighbor, at a concert. Seward and his future son-in-law, John Harker (David Manners -- a Canadian actor playing a British gent as though he were an upper-middle class American) are immediately unnerved by the Count’s success with the women in their party, Dr. Seward’s daughter Mina (blonde, ivory-complexioned Helen Chandler) and her friend Lucy (Frances Dade, also blonde and fair). But when Dr. Seward mentions to the assembly that Dracula has rented Carfax Abbey, Harker momentarily takes on a hopeful note:

HARKER: The abbey could be very attractive, but I should imagine it will need quite extensive repair.

DRACULA: I shall do very little repairing. It reminds me of the broken battlements of my own castle . . . in Transylvania.
Oh, great, Harker thinks – the foreigner is moving in next door, and his junky place is going to drive down our property values.

When Lucy succumbs (literally) to the Count’s seductive power, Dr. Seward calls in Professor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) – an educated, erudite Western European immigrant, which makes him okay – to help solve the case. Van Helsing immediately suspects the Count of deviant behavior, and proves the point by revealing that the Count has no reflection in a mirror. Why doesn’t the Count have a reflection? Heck, do we think Dr. Seward would actually permit the likeness of a foreigner to be framed in his house? It is the collective preference of Seward and his WASP-y friends that the Count should be invisible. The crafty Count, however, tries his best to dismiss the Professor even as he compliments him, noting upon his introduction to the Professor that he is “a most distinguished scientist whose name we know . . . even in the wilds of Transylvania.” [Emphasis on “the wilds,” you know.]

But even as the Count begins to work his fatal charm on Mina, the Professor closes his net on the Count. In a classic confrontation between the good immigrant and the bad immigrant, the Count tries to intimidate the Professor:

DRACULA: Van Helsing! Now that you have learned what you have learned, it would be well for you to return to your own country.
How presumptuous of this Central European to be laying claim to this country. Has he no shame?

HELSING: I prefer to remain and protect those whom you would destroy.

DRACULA: You are too late. My blood now flows through her veins.

Such innuendo – this pointy-eared foreigner shouldn’t talk that way about our blonde heroine!

HELSING: . . . I will have Carfax Abbey torn down stone by stone, excavated a mile around. I will find your earth box and drive that stake through your heart.

In effect -- I will remove all evidence of your immigrant hide, my friend.

In a last ditch effort to turn Mina into “the foul thing of the night that he is” (the Professor’s words), the Count kidnaps Mina and takes her to Carfax Abbey. Harker and the Professor take off after them in pursuit, culminating in the Professor driving a wooden stake through the heart of the Count.

MINA: Oh, John! John, darling! I heard you calling, but I couldn't say anything.

HARKER: We thought he'd killed you, dear.

MINA: The daylight stopped him. Oh, if you could have seen the look on his face!

HELSING: There's nothing more to fear, Miss Mina. Dracula is dead forever. No, no, no! You must go.

MINA: But aren't you coming with us?

HELSING: Not yet. Presently.
And the movie abruptly ends. Either the Professor is already beginning to dismantle Carfax Abbey, or he’s preparing to rent it for himself.

As I said, movies are undoubtedly products of their times. A mere 37 years later, Congress’ passage of the Fair Housing Act would signal a change of attitude toward ethnic-based housing discrimination – and would certainly have given the Count the right to live in a WASP-y neighborhood without the fear of getting a stake driven through his heart.

Or maybe not. In today’s political climate, would it surprise me to see the release of a remake of Dracula, featuring a Spanish-speaking, Asian or Arabic vampire? Fair Housing Act or no Fair Housing Act -- no, it would not surprise me in the least.

[Dracula, which was originally released without a musical score, has since become available on DVD with an optional score by Philip Glass -- a composer whom many of my friends view to be as terrifying as Dracula himself. Nonetheless, it is a splendid treatment, and highly recommended.]

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The Origin of Darwin

"More than any other modern thinker -- even Freud and Marx -- this affable old-world naturalist from the minor Shropshire gentry has transformed the way we see ourselves on this planet." -- Desmond & Moore.

A mediocre student at Cambridge; a tentative young adult still in search of a career, somewhat of a disappointment to his prosperous, industrious family; and a devout creationist who occasionally suffered derision for his habit of quoting the Bible as unanswerable authority -- these facts seem to be at odds with the image of Charles Darwin, the most influential thinker of the 19th century, the scary, long-bearded radical who (as his critics, then and now, might say) reached down and plucked the Book of Genesis out of the ground by the roots and planted grasping science in its place.

Born on this day in 1809 in Shrewsbury, England, the grandson of two illustrious men of science and industry, naturalist Erasmus Darwin and pottery magnate Josiah Wedgwood -- the arc of this unpromising man's life, so difficult to calculate at age 22, was ultimately formed by inexhaustible curiosity about the natural environment and its deeper meanings than any desire for influence. As a youth he attended Samuel Butler's Shrewsbury School and did very poorly with the classical curriculum; entered Edinburgh University at age 16 to study medicine (to follow in the footsteps of his father), but couldn't bear to watch surgeries; and enrolled in Christ College, Cambridge at age 19 to study for the clergy, which he did listlessly.

All the while, however, Darwin enthusiastically indulged his interest in nature: at Shrewsbury, he spent much of his time collecting rocks and birds' eggs; at Edinburgh, he fell in with a taxidermist, as well as zoologist Robert Grant, who first exposed him to Lamarck's theory of heredity; and at Cambridge, he collected beetles and went on nature walks with botanist John Stevens Henslow.

Upon graduation, at Henslow's recommendation he was offered the chance to see the world before settling down in some quiet corner of England as a parish parson, and he signed on as an unpaid naturalist on the H.M.S. Beagle, which was set to survey the coast of Tierra del Fuego, Chile and Peru, and the South Sea Islands. His male-ingénue errand was to provide well-bred intellectual companionship to the ship's captain and to make a few notes about local flora and fauna; but the voyage transformed Darwin's image of himself.

He did make copious notes about the geology (heavily influenced by Charles Lyell, whose Principles of Geology he read while sailing), the flora and the fauna, but he also rode with the gauchos across the Pampas; encountered an armed revolt in Montevideo; and waded upstream through thick-jungled river valleys, helping to tow the ship's reconnaissance boats. In the Galapagos Islands, he became particularly interested in the slight variations in bird and tortoise species which seemed peculiarly suited to their distinct habitats from island to island, and made observations of them which would form part of the argument for his theory of evolution 20 years later.

Upon returning to England in 1836, Darwin suddenly had a calling in life; he was quickly accepted into the British scientific fraternity and began to establish his scientific reputation with Journal of Researches into the Geology and Natural History of the Various Countries Visited by H.M.S. Beagle (1839), The Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle (1840) and The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs (1842), all accessible and vividly written works of traditional science.

As early as 1838, however, while reading Thomas Malthus, Darwin recalled the birds and tortoises of the Galapagos and conceived the idea of natural selection -- the process by which certain advantageous traits are conserved and multiplied through reproduction which enables the adaptation of an organism to its environment. Through natural selection, Darwin surmised, the evolution of organisms unfolds. He kept silent, however, realizing that the scientific community, let alone the world at large, was not ready to accept a theory of such earthbound determinism; in England and elsewhere during the early 19th century, the hand of God was said to be seen in the spontaneous creation of species variations, and Darwin's theory would be considered blasphemous.

He continued to collect evidence for the theory, however, and drafted some preliminary sketches of it which he shared with his friends, Lyell and the botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker. Despite their urging, he would not publish the theory, until in 1858 when he received a paper from an amateur naturalist, Alfred Russell Wallace, which proposed the same theory which Darwin had been working on for 20 years. After Darwin's precedence was proven, the 2 presented separate papers on the subject before the Linnaean Society, after which Darwin published his classic elaboration on natural selection, The Origin of Species (1859).

The book was an immediate best-seller, and most of the scientific community (with some notable exceptions, such as Louis Agassiz and Darwin's old mentor Henslow) accepted his view; but as Darwin had predicted the orthodox clergy saw the theory as completely inconsistent with Genesis and ridiculed him. Broader-minded clerics, then as now, saw the trace of evolution suggested by Darwin as bold evidence of God's continuing creative presence in the world. Darwin's friend, T.H. Huxley (later known as "Darwin's bulldog") took up the defense, notably chastising the Bishop of Oxford for his narrow-mindedness, saying that he would "rather be related to an ape than to a man of proven ability who used his brains to pervert the truth."

For his own part, Darwin returned to writing and solving the issues at the edge of his theory. In The Variations of Animals and Plants Under Domestication (1868), Darwin advanced the theory of "pangenesis" -- the notion that cells throughout the body contribute instructions to reproductive cells -- to explain the workings of heredity; the theory was later disproven as the work of Gregor Mendel and Thomas Hunt Morgan eventually came to light. His Descent of Man (1871) attempted to apply natural selection to moral and spiritual traits, stimulating the work already begun by sociologist Herbert Spencer and launching a host of imitators noodling on the psychological and political implications of evolutionary theory.

Still a controversial figure at the time of his death on April 19, 1882, 20 members of Parliament nonetheless immediately moved to request that he be buried in a place of honor at Westminster Abbey; his tomb is located just a few paces away from those of Isaac Newton and Michael Faraday. The theory of evolution has had a profound influence on numerous modern scientific disciplines, as well as popular knowledge and political philosophy, and if anything has gained momentum as microbiology and genetics have provided it with more complex underpinnings.

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