Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Camerado, This is No Book


"Like Ravel's Bolero and Botticelli's Birth of Venus, [Leaves of Grass] . . . has long been a high-end aphrodisiac." -- N. Gillespie.

When it was revealed in the midst of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal that President Clinton had given young Monica a copy of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass as a gift, literate America smirked and giggled and knew exactly what was up: ripe Bill had developed one suggestive, broad-shouldered, bare-chested, musky, sun-tanned calling card for himself. He had also apparently given a copy to Hillary when they were courting.

At a time when English poetry could be perceived to have been bred in an atmosphere of relative confinement, on a cramped island, within cramped drawing-rooms and cramped clothing, Whitman's poetry was self-consciously exposed, bathing nude like the woman in Manet's Dejeuner sur l'herbe in the open air of the great Western continent, nurtured by political liberty and expectant of democratic destiny. And people who were never all that comfortable in broad daylight were disquieted by what he wrote.

Walt Whitman was born on this day in 1819 in West Hills, Long Island, New York. He grew up in the cramped quarters of Brooklyn, left school at 13 to continue his education in print shops and newspaper offices (as editor, for instance, of the Brooklyn Eagle, a Democratic paper, until his support for the abolitionist Free Soil Party got him fired), and aspired to become a writer. He took a furtive step toward a writing career with a sophomoric romance about the evils of alcohol; but after moving to New Orleans to accept a job with the Crescent in 1848 for just two months, he was reborn as a writer.

After breathing in the sultry, heavy air of the Mississippi delta, he returned to Brooklyn, took up carpentry and began the first edition of his life's work, Leaves of Grass, first self-published, anonymously, in 1855. Not simply a book of 12 poems, Whitman styled the collection as an autobiography of sorts ("Camerado," he wrote, "this is no book/ Who touches this touches a man"), but one in which the universal myth of Whitman, rather than the reality, is composed. In poems such as "I Sing the Body Electric" and "Song of Myself" he celebrates the beauty of the human body and sensual experiences -- his own and others' -- "turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking and breeding."

The book was roundly criticized by the literary establishment for its unorthodox form (rhythmic lines, drawn from his studies of music and conversation, within which the traditional concepts of meter were disregarded) and supposedly vulgar content, but Ralph Waldo Emerson greeted the work as "the beginning of a great career." Whitman quickly followed the first edition sketch with a 2nd edition the following year, reworking some of his original poems and including 21 new ones, such as the "Sun-down Poem (Crossing Brooklyn Ferry)"; and in 1860, he found a publisher for a 3rd edition, including the "Calamus" poems, detailing a homosexual love affair gone bad (leading some to speculate that Whitman was a homosexual; when pressed, however, Whitman denied he was a homosexual and claimed to have fathered 6 illegitimate children) and "A Word Out of the Sea" (later known as "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking").

With the onset of the Civil War, Whitman resolved to leave his bohemian life behind and concentrate on serious matters. His spiritual sobriety deepened when his brother George was wounded at Fredericksburg. Traveling there to visit him at a battleground hospital in 1862, he was horrified by the sight of heaps of amputated arms and legs, but instead of turning away he went to Washington to volunteer as a nurse at the Army hospital while working as a federal government clerk.

In 1865, Whitman published two volumes of poems about the Civil War, Drum Taps and its sequel, which contained an elegy to the recently assassinated Abraham Lincoln, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd." (Lincoln, perhaps predictably, was an admirer of the early editions of Leaves of Grass.) After being chased out of the government for writing indecent material, Whitman found a number of critical supporters, both in the U.S. and in England. He settled down in Camden, New Jersey, lecturing occasionally, producing new editions of Leaves of Grass (a 9th authorized edition appeared in 1892) and enjoying his status as a legendary man of letters. He died on March 26, 1892 in Camden, New Jersey.

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Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Hawks


Film director Howard Hawks was born on this day in 1896 in Goshen, Indiana.

Raised from the age of 10 in Pasadena, California, Hawks enjoyed a lifelong love affair with speed and man-made machines. He attended Phillips Exeter, obtained his mechanical engineering degree at Cornell, raced cars and planes, and worked during the summers as a prop boy for film studios in Hollywood. Possessed of an exceptional education, a fine taste in clothes, upper-crust manners and a thirst for adventure, he would not stay in the prop room for long.

After a stint as a flight instructor in the U.S. Army Air Corps in World War I, Hawks shared a house in Hollywood with seasoned director Allan Dwan and budding film talent Irving Thalberg, Hawks landed a position in the story department during the early 1920s at what was to become Paramount Pictures. His work with Paramount sufficiently impressed William Fox, who invited him to direct films just as the silent era was ending.

Hawks' first sound film, The Dawn Patrol (1930, with Richard Barthelmess and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.), was a successful mix of action-packed aerial stunts and believable, fast-paced dialogue -- the latter being a hallmark of all of Hawks' films, in that he always tried to cast intelligent actors who were capable of riffing around the written dialogue. His Scarface (1930, with Paul Muni and George Raft; produced by fellow airplane-addict Howard Hughes and written by Ben Hecht, Hawks' frequent collaborator) is considered to be one of the most violent gangster movies of the 1930s (modeled on the life of Al Capone), as well as one of the wittiest and most entertaining.

Many of Hawks' films seemed to center on male friendship, and his foray into the "screwball comedy" genre beginning in the 1930s (typified by Twentieth Century, 1934, with John Barrymore and Carole Lombard; Bringing Up Baby, 1938, Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant; and His Girl Friday, 1940, with Grant and Rosalind Russell) seemed to bring along with it the notion that men and women could be friends as well as lovers, another periodic theme in Hawks' work.

During World War II, Hawks directed Humphrey Bogart in two of his greatest films. To Have and Have Not (1944) was the result of a bet between Hawks and his drinking buddy Ernest Hemingway that Hawks could not make a good movie out of Hemingway's worst novel. Hawks hired William Faulkner to help with the screenplay, brought along a teen magazine model phenom discovered by Hawks' wife for the female lead (who turned out to be Lauren Bacall), and won the bet. In The Big Sleep (1946), Hawks expanded upon the Bogart-Bacall fantasy through a witty adaptation of Raymond Chandler's labyrinthine novel.

The final two decades of Hawks' career were devoted mostly to John Wayne vehicles -- Red River (1948), Rio Bravo (1959, with Dean Martin as the drunken cowboy), Hatari! (1962), El Dorado (1967) and Rio Lobo (1970). Hawks also produced the seminal sci-fi flick The Thing (1950). He was celebrated during the 1950s by Francois Truffaut and other European critics as one of the great Hollywood directors who managed to rise above the Hollywood factory condition to display a consistent cinematic style over many years, a model auteur of American cinema. The ubiquitous "buddy/cop" films of the 1990s owe a debt to Hawks, but are pale echoes; of late, I would venture to say, the most faithfully Hawksian items on the planet, in both form and substance, have been on TV, in such vehicles as Aaron Sorkin's Sports Night (1998-2000) and West Wing (1999-2006), as well as in the projects of Sorkin's imitators.

Hawks died on December 26, 1977 in Palm Springs, California.

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Monday, May 29, 2006

Tenzing


"Seven times I have tried [to climb Everest] . . . not with pride and force, not as a soldier to an enemy, but with love, as a child climbs onto the lap of its mother. Now at last I have been granted success, and I give thanks." -- Tenzing Norgay.

Sherpa mountaineer Tenzing Norgay, born probably around 1914 in Tsa-chu, near Makalu, Nepal, traditionally celebrated his birthday on this date. Perhaps it is because this was the date (May 29, 1953) that Tenzing realized a lifelong ambition when he successfully scaled the world's highest mountain, Mt. Everest, with New Zealander Edmund Hillary in an expedition led by Col. John Hunt -- a feat never before achieved.

Tenzing grew up in the shadow of Everest, in the Himalayan village of Thame, but left Nepal when he was 18 to become a professional porter in Darjeeling, India. At that time, Nepal was closed to foreigners, so foreign expeditions to Himalayan peaks usually began in Darjeeling and entered the Himalayas from the Tibetan plateau, so ironically Tenzing was to gain more mountaineering experience in the Himalayas by moving away from Nepal. He quickly established himself as an indefatigable porter (almost seeming to have a third lung on high altitude treks), a successful communicator (he learned to speak Nepali, Hindustani, English and a smattering of French, German and several other Indian dialects, in addition to his native Sherpa and its close relative, Tibetan) and eventually an effective sirdar (chief guide).

By the time he scaled Everest, he had been a veteran of six prior Everest expeditions (probably more than any other active mountaineer in 1953), beginning with the British expedition of 1935, and he had scaled other important peaks, such as Nanga Parbat in Pakistan, Nanda Devi in northern India (which he regarded as his toughest climb) and Kang Peak. Queen Elizabeth II (who was about to be crowned when the news of Everest's conquest came) awarded Tenzing the George Medal (although she could have given him an honorary knighthood as a non-British subject, demonstrating an unfortunate cultural bias). Later, encouraged by his friend Jawaharlal Nehru, Tenzing helped to establish the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, and was its Director of Field Training, training hundreds of Indian climbers in the mountains close to Kanchenjunga.

Tenzing died on May 9, 1986 in Darjeeling, India. His son, Jamling Tenzing Norgay, was climbing leader for the 1996 IMAX expedition on Everest.

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Sunday, May 28, 2006

State v. Pearce 'What's the Use' Chiles, Part I


Ask anyone. I've spent thousands of hours -- poring over pages of microfiche; tracking down gravestones in unmapped graveyards; cold-calling innocents from the phone book; examining dusty, brittle books in dark, unloved corners of libraries from California to New York; and cajoling corporate PR flacks – all in the service of researching the biographical details of dead Americans about whom most living Americans could really care less.

I do have my standards. Usually my targets are pioneers of some kind, first-movers within a budding social, political or cultural institution who've been unjustly neglected by the keepers of the canon.

But not Pearce Chiles. Pearce Nuget Chiles was a ne'er-do-well, a scoundrel. A decent enough ballplayer, but a scoundrel. In two partial seasons with the Philadelphia Phillies (1899-1900), he was a late-inning pinch hitter whose lifetime at-bats to runs-batted-in ratio rivals that of Joe DiMaggio (22.04 to Joe’s 22.53) and a thoroughly disruptive baserunning coach, known for his devilishly ingenious system of stealing catcher's signals by employing an electric buzzer device hidden in a mud puddle in the third base coaching box. And as the late Lee Allen (organized baseball's Vasari in Florsheims) came to find before me, Pearce Chiles is one the most slippery, elusive historical characters major league baseball has ever produced.

First, there's the problem of nomenclature. Around the same time Pearce Chiles was knocking around from one minor league club to another, there was a flashy second baseman playing in Cleveland called Clarence Algernon Childs, better known as "Cupid." Cupid Childs should be better known today than he is – he retired with a higher on-base percentage than any second baseman in the Hall of Fame except Rogers Hornsby and Eddie Collins. However, Hall of Famer Christy Mathewson was guilty of careless conflation when, in his book Pitching in a Pinch (1912), he accuses the innocent Cupid Childs – not Pearce Chiles – of the sign-stealing scheme.

If that weren't bad enough, the year after Pearce Chiles "retired" from the Phillies, a utility player named Pete Childs made his debut in St. Louis, and quickly flamed out. Sportswriters of the period were understandably flummoxed, interchangeably referring to Pearce Chiles as "Pete Chiles," "Pete Childs" and, occasionally, "Pierce Chiles," "Pearce Childs," or "Pierce Childs."

Then there's his retirement. For a number of years, Lee Allen had the last word on Pearce Chiles. At the end of his research file on Pearce Chiles, there was a one-page form letter with typed interlineations from the Texas Department of Corrections, dated May 18, 1967. Regarding "CHILDS, Pierce, TDC #20498 (Active)," the Department informed Allen that "The subject was received in this Institution on June 22, 1901, from El Paso County . . . [and] was dXXXXXXd escaped from the Texas Department of Corrections on August 15, 1902." That was the last trace of him that Allen was able to find. The Macmillan Baseball Encyclopedia, long the standard reference work on major league baseball, lists Pearce Nuget Chiles' status as "Deceased" in lieu of giving a definitive date and place of death – a good guess, but an unconfirmed fact.

All scoundrels have parents, the families who spawned them. Pearce Nuget Chiles was born on May 28, 1867 in Deepwater, Henry County, Missouri, the fourth child and only son of Alfred M. Chiles and his wife, Amanda Rutherford. There were Chileses all over Henry County, having decamped there from Virginia. Unfortunately, Pearce's father died when Pearce was 8 years old. Pearce received $325 in the will. By the looks of Pearce's later behavior, it appears that his poor mother Amanda and his older sisters Martha, Anna and Lilley were no match for Pearce's . . . exuberance.

Although the exact date has as of yet eluded me, Pearce Chiles entered organized baseball, probably in his late teens. Unlike some ballplayers of the 19th century who tended to ply their trade near home, Pearce seems to have thought nothing of traveling far and wide, playing for one minor league club after another. By 1895, a reporter in Phoenix was referring to Chiles as a "crack ballplayer." Unfortunately, however, the article was a crime report.

Chiles must have returned to Deepwater for his mother’s funeral (she passed away on July 10, 1895) and gotten into some mischief. Having arrived in Phoenix in the Fall for the Winter League, word reached him that the authorities were after him. According to the February 11, 1896 article in the Los Angeles Times, Chiles "was wanted in Missouri for illicit relations with a sixteen-year-old girl there. As the age of consent in that State is eighteen years," the article went on, "the charge against him is constructive rape." Chiles, however, got the jump on the local authorities, and lit out of Phoenix just ahead of the arrest papers.

In the Summer of 1896 he had been signed to play in Hartford, but I've never confirmed that he made it there. He seems to have played in Galveston in the Texas League during this period, by then having acquired an unusual nickname. His habit of taunting opposing batters when they hit their pop-ups to him by shouting "What's the Use?" before stylishly catching the ball encouraged sportswriters to call him "Pearce 'What's the Use' Chiles," or sometimes, "Pearce 'It's No Use' Chiles." He wasn’t shy about adding insult to injury, and reporters noted that he often found himself in trouble with local authorities, but managed to get out of trouble on the goodwill of his baseball compatriots.

See Part II.

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State v. Pearce 'What's the Use' Chiles, Part II


See Part I.

Turn-of-the century baseball had plenty of room for guys like Pearce Chiles, though. Baseball of the gay nineties vintage was about as nasty as baseball could get, as the unfailing Bill James describes: "Players spiked one another. A first baseman would grab the belt of the baserunner to hold him back a half-second after the ball was hit. Players tripped one another as they rounded the bases. Fights broke out more days than not. Players shoved umpires, spat on them, and punched them. Fans hurled insults and beer bottles at the players of opposing teams." The most successful managers were the ones that could train their players in the cleverest, dirtiest and most brutal ways to win.

Although 7 out of 9 players on the diamond might have felt like calling him a jackass on a good day, Chiles’ lawlessness on the field was considered leadership in those days. Thus, Chiles served a stint as the player-manager of the Lancaster Maroons in the Atlantic League – a money-losing team, but a winner with a record of 82-50 – before going to New Orleans for the Winter.

So it was that the Philadelphia Phillies probably thought they had someone who was future coaching material coming when Pearce "What’s the Use" Chiles joined the Phillies’ camp in Charlotte, North Carolina as a 33-year old rookie during the Spring of 1899.

He played for the "Yannigans," the alternate squad that faced the Phillies' starting line-up in practice games, but batted well and meshed well with the regulars. At their North State Street lodgings, Chiles and starting first baseman Duff Cooley were acknowledged as the best billiards players in camp. Meanwhile, Cooley rounded up a singing "Quintette" consisting of himself, third baseman Billy Lauder, pitcher Red Donahue, and shortstops Monte Cross and Dave Fultz, performing old-time classics such as "The Bridge the Heart Burned Down" and "You’ll Get All That’s Coming to You." The Quintette began to steal so much attention among the local women that reserve catcher Morgan Murphy conspired to start his own musical group; and in typical wise-ass fashion Chiles joined, along with outfielders Delahanty and Flick, to form a quartet better focused on clowning than harmonizing. By the time the club returned to Philadelphia for the start of the season, they had stolen the hearts of their Charlotte hosts.

Chiles made his debut on April 18, 1899, pinch-hitting for pitcher Chick Fraser in the 9th; although he doubled and scored, the Phillies went down against the Senators, 6-4. The Philadelphia Inquirer referred to him as "the bright particular star of the matinee." But on a club that included future Hall of Famer Nap Lajoie at second base, future Hall of Famers Ed Delahanty and Elmer Flick in left and rightfield, and base-on-balls king Roy Thomas in center, there wasn't much playing time available for the new fellow. The papers would often refer to Chiles as a baserunning coach rather than as a player. Still, as a late-inning sub (often for Flick), Chiles managed to bat .320 and knocked in 76 RBIs in 354 plate appearances. That year, the Phillies finished 3rd behind Brooklyn and the Braves, but had a superlative record of 94-58, and Chiles' place on the club in 1900 (see photo above, with Chiles standing at the far left) seemed secure.

The authorities are silent as to Chiles' activities during the Winter, but one can assume that he was probably up to no good. The following Spring, Chiles was collecting splinters again until a team bust-up availed him of some starts. Nap Lajoie and Elmer Flick, it seems, were always in each other's way a bit – during the previous Spring, Flick had blown up at Lajoie over some on-field slight. On May 30, their tensions erupted when Flick picked up Lajoie's bat in the clubhouse and announced that he would be using it that day. Lajoie begged to differ, upon which Flick dared Lajoie to stop him. In the ensuing exchange of punches, Lajoie knocked Flick silly a few times, while Flick gave Lajoie a black eye and a cut on the face. The piece de resistance was when one of Lajoie's blows missed Flick and hit a locker behind him, resulting in Lajoie breaking his thumb. Flick threw a tantrum on the way out, vowing never to play with the Phillies again. With Flick out of the lineup for awhile, Chiles got the chance to fill in for him for a couple of days at rightfield. By June 4, however, Flick was back in the lineup, and Chiles was back on the bench.

Perhaps it was a combination of boredom and Chiles' natural instinct for larceny that sent Chiles out with Morgan Murphy to devise a crafty, totally illegal plan to steal the opposing catcher's signals, a technique that came to light one September afternoon against Cincinnati. It went as follows: Murphy, sitting behind the centerfield wall with a spyglass, would see the signals that the opposing catcher would make to the pitcher regarding whether the next pitch would be a fastball or a curve, and would relay the contents of the signal to Chiles via an electrical signal – over a wire that extended from Murphy's location to the third base coaching box, where, barely exposed, it would give Chiles a little shock. Chiles would then give a prearranged hand signal to the batter. Observers had remarked that Chiles had a strange leg twitch when he coached, so all was explained when Reds shortstop Tommy Corcoran stopped the game and found the buzzer device under Chiles' foot with the assistance of the umpire and the police.

On the following day, Chiles got his wise-ass revenge: he switched to first base and started his leg twitching again; but this time, when the Reds stopped the game and dug out the coach’s box, they found nothing. The incident, though, would be the beginning of the end of signal stealing for the present, as league officials went on a witch hunt for variations on Chiles’ theme perpetrated by other clubs.

That year, the Phillies finished in 3rd place again, but with the considerably less heroic record of 75-63. In October, Chiles' name appeared on the Phillies' official reserve list -- which suggests that, despite the fact that Chiles only hit .216 in 111 at-bats in 1900, the Phillies thought they had room for the 35-year old scoundrel on the 1901 squad.

See Part III.

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State v. Pearce 'What's the Use' Chiles, Part III


See Part I.
See Part II.

El Paso's first ever Mid-Winter Carnival opened on January 16, 1901. Miss Claire Kelly presided as Carnival Queen, with a court of twelve Maids of Honor, while attractions at the Carnival included an electric fountain; Lunette, the Flying Lady; Bosco, the Snake Man; a simulated volcanic eruption; roping, tying and rough riding contests; confetti and serpentine battles; and bullfights daily, just across the border in Ciudad Juarez.

People came from miles around to attend the Carnival, which of course drew all manner of commercial exhibitors, jugglers, acrobats and street entertainers. Also on hand were the usual bunch of thieves, con-men and pickpockets who could always be counted on showing up wherever there were big crowds. Pearce Chiles was there, too. We will never know what mischief he got into at the Carnival (he seems to have paid a $101 fine for some infraction there), but we have some idea of what he hoped to accomplish after it was over. What we do know comes from the official court records of Chiles' case.

On an eastbound train, the G.H. Limited, rolling through southern Texas and heading for Hot Springs on the evening of February 15, 1901, Chiles and his faceless companion, a D.B. Sherwood, spotted a young, recently discharged soldier, a fellow named Benjamin F. Henry from Albany, Georgia, and thought they had found an easy mark. According to Henry's testimony, the affable Sherwood struck up a conversation with Henry, and was soon sitting next to him for the ride. A while later, Chiles came down the aisle, stopping at Sherwood's shoulder and asking him for a light for his pipe. Sherwood pulled out a matchbox and handed it to Chiles. Chiles feigned difficulty opening it and protested to Sherwood. "What are you trying to do?" he asked. "Poke fun at me?" Sherwood insisted that there were matches inside the box, but Chiles still couldn't open it, finally handing the box back to his accomplice, declaring, "I can't open it, and nobody else can, either. I will bet you $50 or any amount of money that he," referring to Henry, "can’t open it." Sherwood leaned over and whispered to Henry, "How much money do you have? Bet it and we will win." Henry demurred, but Chiles kept the con alive, betting Sherwood $5 and saying, "I'll pay this man a dollar for every dollar in his pocket if he can open the box."

Sherwood handed the box to Henry, who opened it without difficulty. Chiles said, "All right. I am an honest man. I pay every time I lose." "Pay him $5," Sherwood said, pointing to Henry. "No, I won't," said Chiles. "He hasn't got any money on his person." Henry then admitted that he had $95 in his pocket. As Henry got his money out to show Chiles, Chiles and Sherwood engaged in a little pretend argument over the bet, and in the ensuing confusion, Sherwood got a hold of Henry's money. The thieves disappeared out of the coach, but Henry managed to raise the conductor and the brakeman, and before long, Chiles and Sherwood were in the custody of a state ranger.

In jail awaiting trial in El Paso, Chiles reached out to the folks who had always been able to help him in the past – his baseball compatriots. According to George Girsch, writing in the August 1958 issue of Baseball Digest, Chiles wrote a letter to one of his friends in Philadelphia. How Girsch got his hands on this letter, and where it is today, I do not know, but it reads in part:

"Friend Billy,
i taught that i would right you in regards to what happened to me while on the train i left this town on my way to hot Springs last friday night and while on the train a man had a match box which is hard to open so i bet him he could not open it while i counted on my fingers so i won and he had me arrested . . . so i dont know any body hear and hafto stay in jail this man told all kinds of lies and did not tell the truth at all So i want you to goe and get some good men to right to this Prosecuting atorney and tell him that I aint no theift . . . Dont let them put it off for this is a Bad country to have trouble in . . ."

Neither his friends nor the Phillies came to his aid. For a time, Chiles banked on the idea that Benjamin Henry would not return to El Paso to appear as a witness against him. When he later heard that Henry had arrived and had already testified at Sherwood's trial, he thought people were kidding with him; but after the news of Sherwood's conviction, Chiles folded, and according to the El Paso papers, pleaded guilty. The report from the sports pages read:

"Pearce Chiles, the famous coach and buzzer manipulator of the Philadelphia club, is now lost in the sea of despair. He has signed a new contract, but not for any $2400, nor will any American League team try to steal him away from his new employers. Chiles is to do two years on the Huntsville convict farm, and his uniform will be back and white, with the number 24876 across his back. He will not stop at the Fifth Avenue Hotel, but will sleep in an abandoned hog pen, and his daily menu will include sour bacon, hominy, corn bread and pure water. Incidentally, Chiles will be allowed to work from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., and the work will be so different from that of last year that it will be an interesting novelty . . . Such is the fate of Pearce Chiles. How this man ever got on the Philadelphia team is a mystery. He was run out of Kansas and Texas years ago for serious crimes, and now gets the two-year trick for working a flimflam game."

My inquiry with the Texas Department of Corrections yielded no details of his escape from the Huntsville Prison on August 19, 1902, after serving less than sixteen months of his sentence. An administrative assistant wrote, "The above referenced individual was received from El Paso county, Texas for Theft of Person a 2 year sentence. Due to the age of this information that is all the information available to us. We are sorry but this is all the information we are allowed to give."
He apparently had the chutzpah to play a stint with the Natchez Indians in the Cotton States League at the end of the 1902 season. After that, it seems that the slippery con-man made his way to Portland, intending to play for the Portland Browns club in the Pacific Coast League, but he was quickly dismissed from the team in February 1903 after getting arrested for an alleged assault on a young woman named Roe. As Sporting Life reported the incident, "Chiles struck her in the face, blackening her and loosening her teeth." Today, Portland doesn't seem to have any record of the incident. The following month, Pacific Northwest League president W.H. Lucas strenuously denied that Chiles had been signed by the League’s San Francisco club, declaring that “Chiles will never be permitted to play in the Pacific Northwest League so long as I am president of it.”

Later in 1903, Chiles was playing for Fortuna, a semi-pro club in a one-horse northern California town. After that, he seems to have disappeared.

Leave it to the larcenous fellow to cover his tracks so well. Did he flee to Canada? Or Mexico? Did history intervene, leaving him an unidentified victim of the San Francisco earthquake or the sinking of an ocean liner? Or did he just fade away -- like thousands of roving oddjobbers, good and bad ones alike, without roots or loved ones? It's possible we won’t ever know the final chapter of this strange, sad little story.

[With helpful correspondence from Joe Dittmar.]

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Saturday, May 27, 2006

Silent Spring


"Carson -- a believer in Atlantis, by the way -- writes as a mystic as well as a scientist; her style is Thoreavian in this way. She links our existence to the cosmos, and makes the sea's great mysteries explicable. She plumbs the depths." -- R. Sullivan, on Carson's "Sea" books.

Rachel Carson, born on this day in 1907 in Springdale, Pennsylvania, was the catalyst for the environmental movement which erupted in the 1960s in the U.S. with her book Silent Spring (1962), an exposé on pesticides and their effects on wildlife.

A graduate of the Pennsylvania College for Women and Johns Hopkins, Carson studied aquatic life, becoming one of the first 2 women staff biologists at the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries in 1935. She proved to be an excellent writer, her 1937 article in Atlantic Monthly, "Undersea," becoming the basis of her first book, Under the Sea-Wind (1941). By 1949, she was chief editor of the publishing programs of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Her second book, The Sea Around Us (1951) was a bestseller and won the National Book Award. The attention that book brought to her led to her receiving a Guggenheim fellowship, which permitted her to take a leave of absence and write another book, The Edge of the Sea (1955). Her niece’s 5-year old son, Roger Christie, became the inspiration for a 1956 magazine article, "Help Your Child to Wonder" which was later turned into a children's book; the following year her niece died and Carson adopted Christie.

For all these accomplishments, Carson would be little remembered today were it not for an inquiry from her friend Olga Huckins, who had witnessed the destruction of wildlife in her bird sanctuary after spraying with pesticides, about the potential dangers of the pesticide DDT. Using data from prior studies, Carson wrote a moving indictment about the lack of responsible oversight in the pesticide industry. DDT had been created by Paul Muller, who won a Nobel Prize in 1948, as a result of biological warfare experiments. When it began to be used on insects in farming during the 1940s and 50s, crop yields increased dramatically; DDT was, as a result, considered to be a miracle of modern science.

As Carson wrote in Silent Spring, "Over increasingly large areas of the United States, spring now comes unheralded by the return of the birds, and the early mornings are strangely silent where once they were filled with the beauty of bird song"; and the evidence suggested, she said, that pesticides such as DDT were slowly killing bird flocks. For Carson, however, the issue was not DDT, but the false notion of "control of nature" which chemical manufacturers were trying to exploit, a "phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man . . . It is our alarming misfortune that so primitive a science had armed itself with the most modern and terrible weapons, and that in turning them against the insects it has also turned them against the earth."

Pesticide companies, aided by such organs as Time magazine, called Carson a hysterical alarmist, but her poetic conjecture awakened the nature consciousness of American readers, leading President Kennedy to form a special panel to study the effects of pesticides on the environment. This led to the eventual creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, and to the ban of DDT in 1972 and its derivatives by 1975. Far from being an alarmist, scientists now believe that her descriptions of the potential dangers of pesticides were understatements. Carson died of bone cancer on April 14, 1964 in Silver Spring, Maryland, eight years before the DDT ban.

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Friday, May 26, 2006

Russell Edson


A near-recluse who whisperingly refers to himself as "Little Mr. Prose Poem," Russell Edson's curious one-page fables (published in numerous slender chapbooks, accompanied by his own quiet Picasso-esque woodcuts, including Ceremonies in Bachelor Space, 1951; The Clam Theater, 1973; With Sincerest Regrets, 1980; and The Tormented Mirror, 2001) typically expose innocuous circumstances imperceptibly spinning out of control into a surreal alternative universe in which, for example, a man might sautée his own hat, a hermit dwarf named Mr. Brain might eat shellfish off the Moon, and a father might erase his daughter Amyloo with a huge eraser.

Although the effect is often humorous, Edson's intentions are not exclusively comic. His visions, expressed in clinically minimalist and unemotional language, are sometimes sad and sometimes terrifying; they are -- in an age of official media soundbites that often have the effect of obscuring meaning and intention -- creepy bite-sized reflections of an everyday, modern way of life constantly on the verge of, or barely containing, deep reservoirs of chaos and insanity.

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Thursday, May 25, 2006

That Breckinridge Boy


Henry S. Breckinridge, a hale and hearty scion of an illustrious American family who pops up as a footnote in a lot of unlikely places, was born on this day in 1884 in Chicago, Illinois.

A member of the famous Kentucky Breckinridge clan (his great-grandfather, John, was a U.S. senator and attorney general; his second cousin, once removed, John C. Breckinridge, was U.S. vice president; his uncle, William C.P. Breckinridge, was a rather notorious congressman; and his cousin, Sophonisba, was a Hull House reformer), Henry Breckinridge's appearance at the birthday party of President Benjamin Harrison's grandson while still a youngster was considered noteworthy fodder for the Washington Post society pages.

After attending Princeton and Harvard Law School, without relevant experience Breckinridge was appointed Assistant Secretary of War by President Wilson in 1913, and shortly thereafter was charged with personally delivering $3 million in gold to Europe, to be provided to U.S. citizens stranded in Europe at the outset of World War I. He resigned in 1918 with Secretary of War Lindley Garrison over Wilson's failure to create a reserve force, and served briefly in the U.S. Army in World War I, seeing action as a battalion commander at Vosges, St-Michel and the Meuse-Argonne. After the War, Breckinridge won a bronze medal at the 1920 Olympics as a member of the men's fencing team, in the foil competition, and served as captain of the men's team in the 1928 Olympics.

As a practicing lawyer, Breckinridge represented Charles Lindbergh and acted as his intermediary in the unsuccessful negotiations for the release of Lindbergh's kidnapped child Charles, Jr. in 1932. He was, in fact, the first person Lindbergh called when he realized his infant son was missing, and he later served as a witness in Bruno Hauptmann's trial for the murder of the Lindbergh baby.

In the wake of the tragic crash of the Akron airship off the New Jersey coast in 1933, Breckinridge served as counsel to the joint congressional committee to investigate dirigible disasters -- not a coincidence, perhaps, since his then wife (second of three), Aida de Acosta, was the first woman to pilot a dirigible back in 1903.

He subsequently flirted with electoral politics as an anti-New Deal Democrat, running for Senate from New York as a Constitutional Party candidate in 1934 and entering Democratic presidential preference primaries against President Roosevelt in 1936 before supporting Alf Landon in the general election. Unlike his friend, Col. Lindbergh, however, Breckinridge was a quick supporter of stemming the tide of Nazism in Europe, declaring, "If Hitler makes one move to touch Iceland or Greenland, the United States should immediately occupy them and loose its sea and air power upon the Nazi bandit whose victory would mean the end of all civilized freedom in the world."

Breckinridge died on May 2, 1960 in New York City.

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Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Zimmerman


Bob Dylan was born Robert Zimmerman on this day in 1941 in Duluth, Minnesota.

When Senator Joe Lieberman, of all people, commemorated Bob Dylan's 50th birthday on the floor of the U.S. Senate in 1991, he referred to Dylan's air of "mystery" and his "refusal to play roles society might seek to assign him." The very fact that a politician should have become such an articulate critic of rock music is probably a testament to Dylan's power as a transformer, both of the role of rock icon as well as the roles of rock listeners.

As a youth, Dylan was a devotee of 1950s rock and roll who learned to play harmonica and guitar. While studying art at the University of Minnesota, he first heard Woody Guthrie, and was inspired to play folk music in coffeehouses under the name "Bob Dylan," taken from the poet Dylan Thomas. In Denver in 1960 he met bluesman Jesse Fuller, who was the inspiration for Dylan's signature harmonica rack. Fortified with a head full of blues and country-folk, Dylan moved to New York City in 1961, where his shaggy, ramblin'-man charisma attracted the attention of the Greenwich Village folkies. He also began visiting the dying Woody Guthrie in the hospital there.

Dylan's voice -- his skinny, metallic bear-growl -- was very different from the pastoral warbling of folk singers like the Weavers and Peter, Paul and Mary, and at first the impresarios weren't sure how to package him, at one point proposing that he sing duets with another obscure cabaret chanteuse named Barbra Streisand, but eventually they unveiled him in his first album as a modern-day traditional folk balladeer. Before he could be pegged as a mere revivalist, however, he released The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan in 1963, a collection of original songs (mainly political protest pieces such as "Oxford Town," about James Meredith's registration at the University of Mississippi; "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall," about nuclear holocaust; and the instant pacifist classic "Blowin' in the Wind") which rang like an overdue wake-up call through the sleepy pop charts, and revealed something of Dylan's personality for the first time: witty, edgy, caustic, sometimes angry, at any rate calculatingly conscious of mood and effect even at the gentlest margins.

While his impact on the folk community was instant and enormous as he began to tour with his some-time girlfriend Joan Baez, Time magazine made fun of him, saying he looked 14 at 22 and that his faintly ridiculous "accent belongs to a jive Nebraskan, or maybe a Brooklyn hillbilly"; but his style nonetheless gave shape to a generation of student protesters as the anti-war and civil rights movements were in their infancy. By the time he released The Times They Are A-Changin' (1964), Dylan the artist was morphing at break-neck speed, adding more R & B influence to his music and more Rimbaud to his lyrics, eschewing the role of political spokesman by singing love songs (!) at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964, and eventually, in Bringing It All Back Home (1965), flirting with the electronic sounds of the British Invasion.

During the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, Dylan played 3 rock songs wearing a tight suit, pointy shoes and a Stratocaster around his neck, with Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper in (loud) support, and was greeted with a mixture of shock and anger from folk fans who saw his betrayal as not being just a musical one but a selling out of the whole leftist movement for whom he had become an icon, while folk elder Pete Seeger reportedly ran around backstage trying to unplug cables.

Dylan had left the folkies behind, but had entered the mainstream as a rock-poet-guru. Full-fledged rock albums followed -- Highway 61 Revisited, 1965, and Blonde on Blonde, 1966 -- the former of which included the 6-minute, pulsing, crypto-poetic diatribe "Like a Rolling Stone," a song which he sang with laser-like viciousness at the Royal Albert Hall (or, according to the everlovin' Fathead, Free Trade Hall in Manchester, England - see comment below), backed by The Band, after a self-righteous folkie in the audience called Dylan "Judas!" at the top of his lungs in the spring of 1966.

The controversy was quieted when on July 29, 1966, Dylan suffered neck and head injuries in a motorcycle accident near his home in Woodstock, New York -- just 3 months after the motorcycle death of his friend, ex-girlfriend Baez's brother-in-law Richard Fariña. The accident seemed to turn him into a recluse, at least temporarily, as he recorded in secret with The Band; the material from these rehabilitation sessions was not released until 1975 as The Basement Tapes.

Emerging after almost 2 years of public silence, his next 2 albums -- John Wesley Harding (1967) and Nashville Skyline (1969) -- were pioneering country-rock sets which again fooled his following (who expected the psychedelia which was all the rage at the time), but which nevertheless produced a top 10 single, "Lay Lady Lay."

Thereafter, Dylan began a long period of rambling which has never really ended: he moved back to Greenwich Village; performed at George Harrison's Concert for Bangladesh; debuted as an actor in Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1972), which featured his song "Knockin' on Heaven's Door"; and toured with The Band to packed venues in 1974. His 1975 release, Blood on the Tracks, a song cycle largely inspired by the dissolution of his marriage to model Sara Lowndes, proved he could still write wrenchingly about uncertainty, fear and the light of little kindnesses. He launched a large star-studded traveling show, the Rolling Thunder Revue, later that year (with such luminaries as Baez, Joni Mitchell, Arlo Guthrie and Allen Ginsberg as featured guests), followed by another tour in 1978, after which he mystified fans once again by declaring himself a born-again Christian and releasing 3 albums of praise music -- Slow Train Coming (1979), Saved (1980) and Shot of Love (1981) -- to mixed reactions.

After a trip to Israel in 1982, his album Infidels (1983) apparently signaled an ebb to his torrent of Christian fervor, with political lyrics in support of Israel's claims in the Middle East. The seemingly endless touring continued, with stints alongside Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and the Grateful Dead among others. He had a pop success in 1988 teaming with Petty, George Harrison and Roy Orbison as the "Traveling Wilburys," and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame later that year, but even getting bronzed did not slow his inspired reinventions.

At least 2 albums on either side of a near fatal heart episode, Oh Mercy (1989) and Time Out of Mind (1997, winner of Grammies for Album of the Year, Best Contemporary Folk Album and Best Male Rock Vocal), showed him in rare form: confessional, sarcastic, demanding intelligence and sensitivity from his listeners; at times transcendently philosophical but alert, still tapping his calloused fingertips against his skinny veins for pulse beats within which to count out his next incarnation -- every inch the cat-eyed guru who can't stand still.

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Monday, May 22, 2006

The Nun Also Wears Prada


After Monday morning mass at La Basilique du Sacré Coeur de Montmartre.

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Things I Learned This Weekend #2


• While visiting Moët & Chandon in Epernay, I learned that the terms “Mon Valley” and “Appalachian Basin,” so often used by Western Pennsylvania expats, are in no way interchangeable with the terms “Marne Valley” and “Zone D’Appellation,” used by champagne enthusiasts everywhere;

• I learned that Finland has a fascination with Monster Metal Rock, and that the Eurovision Song Contest judges -- this year anyway -- have a fascination with Finland;

• I learned that the more that I drink, the better my ability to communicate in French gets -- and, incidentally, that the better my French gets, the more it turns into Spanish; and

• While attending mass at Notre Dame de Paris, I learned that the source of all Paris hay fever may be . . . ceremonial incense emanating from Notre Dame de Paris.


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Sunday, May 21, 2006

Plato


The thinker about whom Alfred North Whitehead observed that all subsequent philosophy served as a footnote was born around 427 B.C.E. into a comfortable, privileged class (his mother was a descendant of the statesman Solon), during a time when order was crumbling: 5 years before Plato's birth, Athens and its allies locked itself in a bloody war with Sparta for supremacy in the Greek world, a conflict which lasted until Plato was 23. It would not be unreasonable then to imagine that Plato's lifelong fixation on a perfect, "real" world beyond the realm of workaday sensations and perceptions was born out of a longing for the tranquility arising from just consensus and selfless abstraction.

As a teenager in Athens, Plato began to sit at the feet of Socrates. While other teachers in Athens, generally identified as "Sophists," taught young men how to be materially successful in life by instructing them in the arts of public speaking and emotional persuasion, Socrates pressed Plato and his other students to examine the roots and depths beneath the plastic surfaces of Athenian political performance and its avid marketing machinery, through the active and lively use of reason. (Think Noam Chomsky vs. Tony Robbins.) After the authorities caught on to Socrates' penetrating brand of subversion and condemned him to death in 399 B.C.E., the 29-year old Plato fled Athens for Italy (where he studied the mathematical theory of Pythagoras), Sicily and Egypt, briefly served in the military, and may have been captured, imprisoned and sold at a slave market before being freed by a sympathetic philosopher with a pocketbook.

At the age of 40, Plato returned to Athens and opened his Academy (named for its proximity to a park dedicated to the Athenian hero Academus). Stepping into the empty sandals of his late mentor Socrates, Plato became the primary teacher of a student body of both men and women (Aristotle among them), his interests focused upon philosophical inquiry, mathematics and law in the service of training young Athenians to be ethical public officials.

Plato's Dialogues, which remain among the most dramatically compelling works of philosophy ever written, give us a sense of his teaching style, stressing an exchange of ideas over book learning and placing himself within the center of the action as a fellow truth-seeker, one who had literally been through the wars. His earliest surviving dialogues (among them Protagoras, which asserts that virtue is knowledge and can be taught; and Gorgias, on ethics) are thought to be faithful representations of Socrates' thought, but the later dialogues (including Crito, on obedience to laws; Apology, a dramatization of Socrates' defense at his trial; Phaedo, the death scene of Socrates, which includes a discussion of Plato's theory of the Forms; Symposium, discussions of beauty and love; Parmenides and Sophist, further analyses of Forms) show Plato's own thought maturing.

The central metaphor which Plato uses to describe his theory of Forms is that of prisoners bound face-first against the wall of a cave, unable to move their heads to see anything but dim shadows on the wall in front of them projected by a fire behind them (a flashback, perhaps, to his own time in captivity?) -- the point being that all we are able to perceive in life is a mere shadow of an abstract, perfect reality that exists beyond perception. For Plato, concepts such as Beauty, Goodness and Love transcend their everyday usages in their abstract Forms, providing a fixed and permanent reality which may be experienced only by emerging from the cave and leaving the fickle world of perception behind.

Another of Plato's metaphors is perhaps even more instructive in understanding Plato's aims: in the Republic, Plato spins a tale about how the human soul lives in a perfect realm before it enters the human body, and that before it enters the body it must cross a dry desert before crossing the river Lethe (the river of forgetfulness); the more the soul gives in to the temptation of drinking from the river, the less of the perfection of the Forms it will remember upon entering the body. The myth perhaps reveals Plato's sense of nostalgia for an unknown time in which Justice, Goodness and Truth were uncomplicated by the layers of ego, prejudice and stratagem which existed in Athenian society after the Peloponnesian Wars, showing an awareness of how the sense of oneself in one's own body within chaotic times interferes with ethical living.

Yet in nostalgia, for Plato, there was a sense of hope. If one of the prisoners in that dim cave should escape and see the light, it would be his duty to return and lead the rest of the cave-dwellers toward perfection -- hence Plato's dedication to teaching future leaders of Athens to become "philosopher-kings," to look beyond ego, prejudice and stratagem in an effort to build a more perfect society.

Plato engaged in one experiment along these lines: at the age of 60, Plato went to Syracuse to become the tutor to the young Dionysius II, but due to what he perceived to be Dionysius' weakness of character and the treachery of Syracuse political institutions, Plato would not realize the ideal "city-state" in Syracuse. Even after the disappointment of Syracuse, Plato continued to teach young people in Athens, hoping to free a few young souls from the cave.

After Plato's death in 347 B.C.E., his Academy lived on for another 900 years in Athens, until it was closed by Justinian for its supposed pagan leanings. Interestingly enough, Plato's invitation to ascend beyond perception on an intellectual and emotional level became a point of departure for many theologians, from the Jewish philosopher Philo Judaeus to St. Augustine, in addition to countless later philosophers within the secular tradition.

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Saturday, May 20, 2006

Into the Raging Waters


On Sunday evening, May 20, 1928, a small group of men and women had gathered near a band stand in Drake Park, Bend, Oregon, to listen to a boyish, 39-year old carpenter – a fellow who was just passing through Bend on his way home to Portland, and who had a few things on his mind that he wanted to share with the assembled crowd. The carpenter, one Frank T. Johns, was just warming to his subject when the cries of children across the river interrupted him.

At that moment, a 10-year old boy named Jack Rhodes was fishing with his young pals Johnnie Sullivan and Rex and Morris Bevens on the banks of the Deschutes River in Bend, Oregon. He had his sights set on a particularly large trout that he knew had been hiding in a deep pool near a footbridge.

It was getting late, closing in on 8 o'clock, but Jack was determined to catch that giant trout. In his haste to drop his hook one more time, Jack accidentally got his line stuck on the footbridge. The other boys concentrated on their own lines while Jack labored to free his hook from the bridge. Without a moment's warning, however, Jack lost his balance and tumbled into the Deschutes below the footbridge. While Jack clung to the footbridge, the boys reached down with a jointed fishing pole and tried to pull him out. Jack grabbed onto the pole, but then the jointed pole unexpectedly extended, sending Jack back into the cold water. The swift current quickly carried him downstream.

From where Frank T. Johns stood across the river, he instantly sized up what had happened. Without hesitating, Johns jumped from the band stand platform and threw off his jacket. Running to the river's edge, Johns dove in.

The waters of the Deschutes were an overpowering force. Johns struggled as he swam against the current toward the boy, shouting back over his shoulder once or twice for someone to bring out a boat. As Jack continued to try to swim to safety, Johns called ahead, telling the boy not to fight against the current and that help was on the way. The roar of the river was loud, though, and Jack couldn't hear him.

Johns reached the boy in good time, considering how strong the current was; but battling against the mighty Deschutes had taken quite a bit out of the carpenter, so that by the time he had reached Jack Rhodes, Johns was out of breath and cramping. As Johns caught hold of Jack, Jack went under, and Johns went under to secure him. Then Johns knew he didn't have enough strength to keep them both afloat. With all the muscle he could muster, Johns shoved Jack toward the opposite shore.

Jack vanished shortly thereafter. Johns went under after the mighty push, and struggled four or five times to keep his head above the rapids before disappearing. Neither of them made it. Jack's body was found scarcely two hours later by some men who had arrived with a canoe to help with the search; Frank T. Johns' body was found the next morning, near the spot where the rescuers had found Jack.

The incident was commonplace in many ways – there are thousands of them to read about if you spend enough time cranking through old newspapers. What made this small tragedy slightly unusual, however, was that the carpenter, Frank T. Johns, had just been nominated by his party to run for president of the United States.

His daughter Mildred was 86 years old when I spoke with her. “I think I probably blot out certain things,” she said, apologizing for the haziness of her memories. She did, however, remember her father practicing speeches in the front room of their little brown shingle house on E. 40th Street in Portland. “He was a dear, dear man,” she recalled warmly.

There's more to the story here:

• about the Socialist Labor Party (SLP), the nation's first Socialist political party, which had in 1892 nominated an innovative tintype portrait photographer as its first presidential candidate;

• about how, by 1928, the SLP was considered to be the fringe of the fringe, a motley collection of dogmatic eggheads operating within an atmosphere in which Socialism in general, even the relatively popular brand of Socialism espoused by Eugene Debs and his successors, was on the decline in the U.S. -- assaulted from the Right by Hoover's FBI, diverted by the work of moderate labor union leaders, and outflanked by the Far Left's growing fascination with the Soviet Union;

• about how the bright-eyed, articulate carpenter, Frank Johns, found himself involved in the quixotic cause of the SLP and eventually served as its presidential nominee in 1924 -- jumping into the raging waters of electoral politics against President Calvin Coolidge, who famously declared that "the business of America was business," while the Democrats would emerge from a smoke-filled room with a compromise candidate, Wall Street corporate lawyer John W. Davis, and the moderate Left broke for Senator "Fighting Bob" LaFollette running as the standard bearer of the Progressive Party;

• about how Johns accepted the 1928 presidential nomination of the SLP, facing Republican Herbert Hoover and Democrat Al Smith at the peak of the Roaring Twenties, on the verge of the stock market crash and the Depression;

• about how Portland's laborers mourned him, and how Frank Johns posthumously won the Carnegie Hero medal, providing a small honorarium for his wife and surviving daughters;

• and about how the level-headed citizens of Bend, Oregon continued to remember the "Red" who plunged into the raging waters of the Deschutes River to save a child -- a gesture and a sacrifice that both transcended the unforgiving American political climate of the time, and encapsulated Frank Johns' personal commitment to humanity in peril.

More, at some point, in some forum . . .

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Balzac


Having seen Rodin's studies of Balzac, rendered in the nude, yesterday at the Musée Rodin -- well, one is rather grateful that the version of Rodin's monument that finally saw the light of day hid the fat fellow in a massive cloak (see left).

Honore de Balzac was born on this day in 1799 in Tours, France, the son of a peasant who had become successful following the French Revolution. He followed the wishes of his parents and enrolled in the Sorbonne to study law at 17. Having obtained his license to practice three years later, he convinced his parents to give him one year to pursue his ambition to be a writer. Living in a bare attic in Paris on a minimal allowance from his parents, Balzac had enough self-discipline to complete a dreadful tragedy before turning to writing the 18th century French equivalent of pulp novels, mostly under pseudonyms, in order to achieve financial independence.

In 1822, he began an affair with a woman 22 years his senior, Madame de Berny, who was to give him encouragement and lessons in tact. Eventually the affair subsided into friendship, but throughout his life Balzac seemed to pursue older women who had been disappointed in love, and who would make few demands on his time. He was not particularly handsome: only 5' 2" tall, he was stocky and had an enormous head, and usually appeared disheveled, too engrossed in his work to care how he looked. Rodin brilliantly captures his roughness.

In 1825 he interrupted his writing to pursue a publishing business, which ultimately crippled him financially for years. Out of the ashes of his foray into business came his plan for a 150-volume cycle of novels called the Human Comedy, a densely interconnected fictional study of every level of French society -- named, allusively, after Dante's similarly encyclopedic 14th century Divine Comedy. Beginning with his first successful novel, The Chouans (1829), Balzac wrote over 4 million words toward his plan. Imbued with irony and a strong sense of realism, the works of the Human Comedy reflected Balzac's view that the forces of nature make happy endings impossible, but at the same time, readers could enjoy Balzac's work for pure escapism, or for his superior powers of observation.

The novels also stand quite well as individual works, notable among them: The Magic Skin (1830, a Faustian tale about a man who receives a magic talisman made from the skin of a donkey), The Country Doctor (1833, about a doctor who makes up for a wicked past by giving his services away), Eugenie Grandet (1833, a portrait of a miser and his generous daughter), The Quest of the Absolute (1834, about a chemist who is driven mad seeking a way to convert base metals into gold), The Duchess of Langeais (1834, about a coquettish noblewoman who is transformed by true love), Pere Goriot (1834, an updated version of Shakespeare's King Lear), Cousin Bette (1846, the greatest of Balzac's novels, about a woman who conceals her machinations to be beloved by her family even as she ruins them one by one), and Cousin Pons (1847, about a man whose reason for living is his art collection). He also published a collection of bawdy tales in tribute to Rabelais, Droll Stories (1833).

Balzac literally wore himself out writing, working 20 hours a day drinking cups of strong coffee while producing the novels of the Human Comedy, completing 95 of the 150 proposed novels. In 1832, Balzac received an anonymous letter of praise from a correspondent initially known only as "the Stranger." Eventually, Balzac met his admirer, a Ukrainian noblewoman named Evelina Hanska, and they began a long distance love affair and correspondence. Although Madame Hanska was not anxious to commit herself to Balzac following the death of her husband, fearing that Balzac's spendthrift habits would ruin her, they married in 1850.

Making an arduous trip back to Paris from the Ukraine, Balzac hoped to surprise his new bride with his well-appointed home: instead, when they arrived, they found the door locked, the servant gone mad, and the house in disarray. Balzac fell ill and died three months later, on August 18, 1850, crying out for someone to send for "Bianchon" -- who, as it happens, was a doctor in one of his own stories.

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Friday, May 19, 2006

Malcolm X


Racial violence played a significant role in the make-up of the man who would be the first great proselytizer for the black-supremacist Nation of Islam movement and provide a more aggressive alternative to the gradualist, nonviolent approach of Martin Luther King, Jr. (whom Malcolm contemptuously referred to as "Reverend Dr. Chickenwing") for the aspirations of African America; but Malcolm X -- born Malcolm Little on this day in 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska -- was a more complex figure in the civil rights movement than the angry, "un-Kingly" street-hustler he is sometimes remembered as, one who ultimately saw the possibilities of black internationalism as a way of working with whites rather than opposing them.

His father was a Baptist minister who recruited for Marcus Garvey’s "Back to Africa" movement; he is thought to have been murdered in 1931 by white hooligans in Lansing, Michigan, as were 3 of Malcolm’s 4 uncles. His light-skinned mother was the product of the rape of Malcolm’s grandmother by a white man. Within 6 years after the death of his father, his mother entered a mental asylum, and Malcolm drifted into a life of juvenile delinquency. As early as 1942, under the name of "Detroit Red," he became involved in drug trafficking and bootleg whiskey in New York City, but soon the police began to catch on to him, so he fled to Boston and joined a burglary ring. In 1946 he was arrested for burglary, convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

While in prison, his brother Reginald encouraged him to study the teachings of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad. By the time he was released in 1952, he was a convert, and he joined Muhammad as a recruiter, setting up new temples in Boston, Philadelphia and Harlem. Largely through his charismatic work, the sect grew from a few thousand members in 1954 to over 40,000 in 1958.

Malcolm’s activities gained national prominence in 1959 when Mike Wallace hosted a 5-part TV documentary about the Nation of Islam called "The Hate that Hate Produced," which depicted the Nation of Islam (founded by Wallace Fard in 1930) as a sinister sect which advocated white annihilation. While the documentary frightened white America, it touched a chord with black America as the Nation of Islam’s ranks swelled to 100,000.

With the Nation’s membership increasing in the 1960s, African-American leaders were obliged to take Malcolm X seriously, yet Malcolm was publicly antagonistic of the mainstream of the civil rights movement, criticizing its leaders for consorting with white liberals, referring to the NAACP as a "freak . . . with a black body and a white head" and meeting blow-by-blow the optimistic rhetoric of Martin King. "We’re not Americans," Malcolm declared, "we’re Africans who happen to be in America. We were kidnapped and brought here against our will from Africa. We didn’t land on Plymouth rock -- the rock landed on us." His black nationalist posturing was no doubt a formative influence on Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, founders of the militant Black Panther Party.

People within the Nation of Islam movement began to bristle at his popularity, however, charging him with politicizing what had been a purely religious (if admittedly separatist) movement. When Malcolm made the mistake of declaring that the assassination of John F. Kennedy was a case of "the chickens coming home to roost," Muhammad suspended Malcolm from Nation activities.

In the months of reflection and travel which followed, Malcolm began to question some of his own ideas and goals. He made a pilgrimage to Mecca and visited a number of African countries in 1964, was treated as a celebrity by people of different races and engaged in searching dialogues regarding racism. By the time he returned to the U.S., he had converted to orthodox Islam and surprised critics by declaring that he did not believe all whites were evil. In a show of what might have been, he announced the formation of the Organization of Afro-American Unity as a platform for stimulating the interest of African world leaders in assisting black Americans in joining white America in a multicultural, humanist dialogue about rights and opportunities. His more cooperative spirit succeeded in alienating many of his followers. The Nation of Islam, meanwhile, was infuriated with Malcolm for setting up a competing movement and dishonoring Muhammad’s teachings by becoming an orthodox Muslim.

While speaking at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem on February 21, 1965, Malcolm was shot to death by members of the Nation of Islam; and although Elijah Muhammad denied any prior knowledge of the plot, Malcolm’s widow Betty Shabazz alleged that Muhammad’s successor Louis Farrakhan played a role in Malcolm’s murder until 1995, when she appeared publicly with Farrakhan to denounce the federal government for implicating her daughter Qubilah in a plot to murder Farrakhan. Interestingly enough, Farrakhan later drew upon Malcolm’s pre-OAAU rhetorical legacy in building his own following.

After Malcolm’s death, his celebrated autobiography, co-written by Alex Haley, appeared, and with the release of Spike Lee’s 1992 biopic (starring Denzel Washington), Malcolm’s memory was embraced by a new generation of young African-Americans as black baseball caps and jackets bearing a bold "X" became street fashion staples.

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Thursday, May 18, 2006

John Paul II


Born on this day in Wadowice in 1920, barely a year after Poland achieved its independence, Karol Wojtyla was the son of an intensely religious retired officer of the Polish Army. Karol's mother died when he was 10, but his native self-confidence propelled him as he became an outstanding student and athlete (a soccer goalie and an outdoorsman) with an interest in drama (both writing and acting). He entered Jagiellonian University in 1938, but after the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, he worked as a stonecutter and a chemical plant worker during the day while by night writing for and acting in underground theater groups such as the Rhapsodic Theater of Mieczyslaw Kotlarczyk.

The Rhapsodic Theater was wholly unlike Ernst Lubitsch's comic conception of a Polish underground theater group led by Jack Benny in To Be or Not to Be (1942); its defiance was not about spy-capers and fake beards, but about propping up the beleaguered patriotic spirit of the Poles through the clandestine performance of Polish-language works in violation of Nazi prohibitions. For Wojtyla, the defiance of the Rhapsodic Theater was inextricably linked with the hope provided by the teachings of the Roman Catholic church, a point of view he inherited from his father, who hoped he would study for the priesthood.

Following his father's death in 1941, it was with a measure of both patriotism and piety that Wojtyla eluded the Nazi standing order for the arrest of all young Polish men in Krakow and resumed his religious instruction in the underground seminary of Cardinal Adam Sapieha, the archbishop of Krakow.

After the end of World War II he resumed his studies openly, earning his degree in theology from Jagiellonian in 1946 while continuing to pursue his literary activities. In March 1946 he published his first collection of poems, Song of the Hidden God; and 8 months later he was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest. Sapieha sent Wojtyla to Rome to earn his doctorate, which he did in 1948 with a dissertation on faith according to St. John of the Cross. After serving as a parish priest in Krakow, he returned to Jagiellonian to study philosophy (particularly the ethical writings of Max Scheler), and he accepted an appointment as a professor of ethics at Lublin, where he gained a reputation as one of Poland's chief ethicists.

In 1958, Pius XII named Wojtyla bishop of Ombi. Shortly thereafter, he published his first major ethics work, a treatise on sexuality called Love and Responsibility (1960), which Paul VI would later rely upon heavily in writing his encyclical Humanae vitae (1968); in it, Wojtyla portrays sex as a mystery encompassing both body and soul, which is why he believes it is wrong to separate the bonding that comes through healthy sex from the act of procreation; artificial contraception, in Wojtyla's view, limits one's ability to give fully of one's self and creates distance between a husband and wife by denying part of the mystery. (As pope, he would reaffirm his support for Paul's Humanae vitae in Chicago in 1980, a source of concern particularly for progressive American and Western European Catholics who believed that the Church was out of touch with modern issues of sexuality such as abortion, homosexuality and birth control).

Wojtyla participated in Vatican Council II (1962-5, called by John XXIII), not only having a major influence on the Church's statements on its role in the Modern World and the doctrine of religious freedom, but showing himself to be a consummate networker, gaining world renown within the Church. In 1963, Paul VI named him archbishop of Krakow, and created him a cardinal in 1967.

During the 1970s, Wojtyla became a major voice in Poland against the Communist regime, working to secure greater tolerance for the activities of the Church. After the deaths of Paul VI and his successor, John Paul I, within scarcely a few months, the widely admired Wojtyla, at the relatively young age of 58, was elected pope on October 16, 1978 -- the first non-Italian pope to be elected since Adrian VI (Dutch, elected 1522). He took the names of his three predecessors, evidencing his will to carry out the aims of Vatican II.

The following year, he exhibited both his personal charisma and the influence of his pulpit by visiting his Polish homeland and meeting with the leader of the Solidarity anti-Communist movement, Lech Walesa; it is said that by his visit, John Paul II gave the Polish people the confidence to fight for freedom, and was the catalyst at the beginning of the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe and in Russia during the 1990s. It was an impressive debut performance in this service of John Paul II's ideas about the role the Church should play in a world increasingly violent world: the pope would make almost 200 official visits throughout the world, more than all his predecessors combined, in an effort to leave behind his personal imprint of love and peace.

His trips were all exceptionally well-staged and media-savvy, beginning with his ritual of kissing the ground of the foreign land he was visiting, followed by open-air masses attracting hundreds of thousands of listeners, and the delivery of homilies which gently drew upon local topical concerns. His instincts as an old actor were sharp; during a gathering in New York's Central Park in 1995, the aging pope paused during the delivery of a homily to sing a few bars from one of his favorite Polish Christmas carols, to the roaring approval of the crowd. "And to think," the Pope quipped, with comic timing worthy of the aforementioned Jack Benny himself as observed by one commentator, "you don't even know Polish."

Although he was seriously wounded in an assassination attempt in 1981 and some time later began to show the effects of Parkinson's Disease, John Paul II refused to simply take it easy, and in addition to his travels found new ways of reaching the public, publishing a bestselling book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope (1994) and releasing a hit CD of spoken words and chanted prayers accompanied by classical and contemporary music, Abba Pater (1999).

After his death on April 2, 2005, 4 million people from around the world converged upon Rome for his funeral, chanting "Santo subito!" ("Saint soon!"), as commentators observed that he was the one human being who had been seen in person by the largest number of other humans in the entire history of the planet.

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Barcelona Wins!


Spending a few days in London reminds us that football enthusiasm is a somewhat class-based activity. While the morning news programs tout the upcoming Champions League match between Arsenal of London and FC Barcelona at Stade de France in Paris, conversations with friends and business colleagues around Westminster yield vague shrugging when the topic turns to footie.

On our way to Waterloo Station yesterday, however, our driver Salim is enthusiastic, warning us that Barcelona, with its star player Ronaldinho, will win 5-nil. Now it seems like hundreds of Arsenal fans are boarding the Eurostar with us, and when we arrive at Gare du Nord, we hear boisterous Arsenal songs breaking out and see crowds of yellow-jerseyed young men buffeting about the station. Few stand in line with us for the taxis, which suggests to me that the Metro was probably a yellow blur. Our driver in Paris asks us if we're for Barcelona or Arsenal. "We're for peace," I say. "Me, too," he says. "Especially in my taxi."

That evening, as we stroll down Rue St. Andre des Arts following a rustic supper on Ile St-Louis, it begins to rain a bit, but that does little to dampen the excitement of football fans who spill out onto the street, craning for a better view of the match-in-progress on bistro TV screens.

Moments later, we are back in our 7th floor room on Boulevard Raspaill, and the rain has gotten harder. Kerstin is fast asleep and I'm nursing my surprise attack of Paris hay fever with a couple of shots of Cuervo. I'm watching the match on TV as Barcelona gamely scores twice during the thunderstorm to take the lead 2-1, and eventually the win.

The streets of Paris are quiet this evening on the edge of the 6th and 7th Arrondissements. No celebrating football crowds gather on the Champs-Elysees, either -- that, apparently, is only reserved for when Paris beats Marseilles.

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Monday, May 15, 2006

Faure


Composer Gabriel Faure was born on this date in 1845 in Pamiers, France.

Writing about music is about as easy and straight-forward as dancing about pies -- and writers about music have had a heck of a time writing about the music of Gabriel Faure. He was born 3 years after the death of Cherubini, the austere classicist; and by the time of Faure's death, Schoenberg was writing in 12-tone technique and Stravinsky had already debuted his Petrouchka. 80 years of musical innovation clamored through Europe during Faure's life, yet critics have never really found a place to put him among the styles of his many contemporaries.

My friend Carlo Caballero, in his book Faure and French Musical Aesthetics, has managed to draw some neat circles around Faure, adding much to one's understanding of Faure's inscrutable work. With apologies to Carlo, here is one way to approach Faure. Despite the influences swirling around him, Faure's works have a timeless sameness, revealing an aesthetic based on notions of sincerity (truth about the artist's interior life) and originality (a novelty of spirit, as opposed to a novelty of style, that is unique to the artist) -- aesthetic values that Faure tried to impart to his students.

A self-taught organist as a child, Faure's school inspector-father sent him to study in Paris, ultimately with Camille Saint-Saens, who encouraged him, introduced him to members of his circle such as Verlaine, Proust, Flaubert and Gounod, and helped him secure work. From his 20s to his 40s, however, apart from a stint in the Franco-Prussian War, Faure labored away as an organist in obscure posts in Rennes and Paris while writing mostly intimate pieces -- songs, short piano pieces and sonatas -- until he took dual appointments as the organist at La Madeleine and professor of composition at the Paris Conservatory in 1895. By then his music had found a small following among amateurs and critics, but it wouldn't be until 1905, when he was appointed director of the Conservatory (a post he would hold until deafness forced him to retire in 1920), that his compositions would begin to be considered by the broader public -- among them, his Elegie for cello and piano (1880), Messe de requiem (1887), Pavane for orchestra (1887), piano pieces and song cycles of works by Hugo, Baudelaire, Sully-Prudhomme and Verlaine.

Faure's work is often described as a dignified mesh of classical modes colored by subtle Impressionistic effects -- mild discords, metrical misalignments -- but it is even more typical to refer to Faure's music as "elusive"; Copland wrote of its "certain ungetatable quality . . . disconcerting to the uninitiated." It is probably more precise to say that, rather than beating us over the head with a composer's intentions, Faure's humble and dignified design is to give the initiative to the listener, to listen to his music with sincerity and originality.

Faure died on November 4, 1924 in Paris.

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Saturday, May 13, 2006

Washington Fringe Benefit


Wayne L. Hays, a notorious Democratic U.S. congressman from Ohio (1949-76), was born on this day in 1911 in Bannock, Ohio.

As chairman of the House Administration Committee, which controlled the travel allowances, parking spaces, office equipment and other basic amenities allotted to members of Congress, Wayne Hays was not only one of the most powerful U.S. congressman, but also one of the most feared and disliked, and he had a penchant for showing his respect for fellow legislators by referring to them by such names as "pipsqueak" or "potato head."

Thus, it was no surprise to anyone that when he rose to defend himself on charges of sexual and administrative impropriety in 1976 and complained that he had been called "arrogant, ruthless, cold-blooded, temperamental and mean" by his colleagues -- "no one complained about being misquoted," according to author G. Collins.

Earlier that year, Hays had divorced his wife of 38 years and married his Ohio district office secretary, with whom some assumed that he had been having an affair for some time. One person he had neglected to invite to his wedding was a 33-year old blonde named Elizabeth Ray, with whom he had apparently also been having an affair in Washington for several years. Worse yet, Ray was on Hays' Washington payroll, earning $14,000 a year as a clerk for the House administration committee's non-existent "oversight subcommittee." "I can't type, I can't file, I can't even answer the phone," Ray gleefully admitted to the Washington Post.

Coming not long after the "Wilbur Mills-Fanne Foxe" debacle, Hays' career and marriage went into a tailspin and Ray became a 15-minute celebrity -- appearing in Playboy and having a novel ghost-written for her (The Washington Fringe Benefit) -- the first perhaps of many "fallen women" of the late 20th century to exact revenge on philandering politicians or other celebrities by becoming a human publicity stunt. After Mills and Hays were foisted upon them by circumstances, the press (which had generally followed an unwritten policy of not covering such subjects since the 1880s), declared open season on the sexual indiscretions of politicians, leading to such headlines as the Gary Hart-Donna Rice affair, the many tawdry tales of Bill Clinton, and, of course, the most entertaining saga of Jessica Cutler. Hays would not live to see the latter two spectacles; he died on February 10, 1989 in Wheeling, West Virginia.

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Friday, May 12, 2006

Kate


Few women have managed to survive as stars in the cinema for as long as Katharine Hepburn has, although Hepburn's niche has always been a narrow one. Hepburn defined herself this way: "I have an angular face and body and I suppose an angular personality that jabs into people."

Katharine Hepburn was born on this day in 1907 in Hartford, Connecticut. With an upper-class New England accent (her parents were a prominent surgeon and a prominent suffragette) and metallic voice, finely chiseled bone structure and athletic, though graceful mannerisms, Hepburn has rather self-consciously been a stereotype (or role model, if you will) of the defiantly principled, intelligent, independent woman.

Shortly after her graduation from Bryn Mawr, Hepburn began playing roles on Broadway, and achieved critical success in The Warrior's Husband (1932) after having been hired, fired for insubordination and rehired for the role prior to the opening. RKO offered her a film contract; she asked for a ridiculous fee, was surprised to find that RKO would match her demand, and starred in 14 films of varying quality, including her debut A Bill of Divorcement (1932, directed by frequent collaborator George Cukor and co-starring John Barrymore), Morning Glory (1933, for which she won her first of 4 Oscars), Stage Door (1937, with Ginger Rogers) and Bringing Up Baby (1938; directed by Howard Hawks and co-starring Cary Grant).

Although she had her successes, Hollywood was often at a loss with what to do with her prickly persona, deciding in the late 1930s that she was not screen idol material (Hepburn says they branded her "box office poison"); and for her stridence and self-confidence she was often an easy critical target (Dorothy Parker once wrote that a Hepburn stage performance "ran the gamut of emotions from A to B."). Her friend Philip Barry then wrote a Broadway vehicle for her, The Philadelphia Story, which she starred in to rave reviews. She wisely bargained for the film rights before the play's debut, and after its success, was in a position to name her price when Louis B. Mayer attempted to purchase the play: she dictated the choice of director (Cukor) and co-stars (Cary Grant and James Stewart), and the film was a box office triumph in 1940.

During her next film at MGM, Woman of the Year (1942) she formed a personal attachment to co-star Spencer Tracy. Although Tracy was married, he had long been separated from his wife; Hepburn was married briefly many years before, and had been romantically linked with such people as John Ford and Howard Hughes. The Tracy-Hepburn affair was an open secret in Hollywood -- gossip columnists, out of deference to the highly respected couple, stayed away from the subject during the 27 years they spent together, until Tracy's death in 1967.

She acted with Tracy in a number of films through the 1960s, but also worked on independent "prestige" projects which provided a forum for her idiosyncratic screen presence: notably, John Huston's The African Queen (1951, with Humphrey Bogart), Suddenly Last Summer (1959, based on the Tennessee Williams play, with Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift), Long Day's Journey into Night (1962, based on the Eugene O'Neill play), The Lion in Winter (1968, as Eleanor of Aquitaine, with Peter O'Toole), The Trojan Women (1971, based on the Euripides play) and On Golden Pond (1981, with Henry and Jane Fonda). She passed away on June 29, 2003 in Old Saybrook, Connecticut.

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Thursday, May 11, 2006

King Oliver


Jazz legend King Oliver was born Joseph Oliver on this day in 1885 in New Orleans.

Beginning as a trombonist, Oliver learned some cornet from Bunk Johnson and began playing in dance bands (including some led by Kid Ory, who gave him his nickname "King") around New Orleans around 1907. He began to lead his own bands in 1912; somewhere in passing he encountered the teenaged Louis Armstrong, an up-and-coming cornetist, took a liking to him and showed him some tricks of the trade.

By the end of the teens, big, confident King Oliver was thought of as one of the three great New Orleans "jazz" cornetists, the other two being Bunk Johnson and Buddy Bolden. He played warmly, with an effect which suggested a human voice, and was a master at using a mute to achieve even more vocalistic effects.

Oliver left New Orleans in 1919 as the impact of jazz began to spread westward, and eventually ended up leading his Creole Jazz Band at Lincoln Gardens in Chicago in 1922. After a month, Oliver sent for Armstrong to join him as the band's second cornetist -- some say as a defensive move, since he knew Armstrong would surpass him in reputation. While the two-man cornet lineup was memorable in and of itself, Armstrong quickly established himself as the dominant talent on the jazz scene, eclipsing Oliver's gifts. Armstrong's pals (principally his future wife, Oliver's pianist Lil Hardin) attempted to talk him into going out on his own, but Armstrong felt he owed his debt to Oliver, and Oliver drew him into the famous 1923 recording sessions which would influence countless jazz players. Armstrong played his heart out, as Oliver's discipline kept the rest of the talented group (which included Hardin, Johnny and Baby Dodds) in line, keeping the balance between solo expressions and tight ensemble playing.

Convinced by Lil Hardin that Oliver was keeping him down musically and financially, Armstrong finally left the band in 1924, leaving Oliver to reorganize his remaining players as the Dixie Syncopators. He toured the country and continued to make superior recordings with such stars as Jelly Roll Morton, Clarence Williams and Red Allen. In 1931, however, Oliver's severe pyorrhea resulted in his teeth being removed; and since as a brass player he used his teeth to support his lip on his instrument, his playing days were officially over.

He continued to take bands around the South but the New Orleans style was beginning to fall out of favor, and he was marginalized by his own reputation as a pioneer -- just as the filmmaker D.W. Griffith was in Hollywood around the same time. Oliver eventually ended up working as a janitor in a pool hall in Savannah. Some poignant letters written by Oliver to his sister in New York near the end of his life survive, expressing his hope that he might be able to save enough money in his dime bank to buy a ticket to New York City. He only made it back posthumously; he died of a cerebral hemorrhage on April 8, 1938 in Savannah, Georgia, and was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.

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