Monday, July 31, 2006

Celebrity Poker: Albania, 1935

From an era long before "Celebrity Poker" became a staple of basic cable TV -- indeed, from an era before there was basic cable TV . . . this little New Yorker story, vintage 1935, illustrates another kind of celebrity poker:

A quartet of gentlemen adventurers connected with the Standard Oil Company, and headed by a Mr. Owen, have just returned from Tirana, the capital city of Albania, with a surprising little tale. Seems that after a strenuous summer of surveys in the Balkans, they came to Tirana with hopes of finding excitement and gaiety. Tirana, however, turned out not to have any night life at all: no night clubs, no theaters. After a late dinner, the four retired to their hotel suite and settled down to an evening of draw poker. Beside them, a tall French window overlooked a darkened city. Far away across the city, a light shone in the royal palace; elsewhere there was nothing. In about ten minutes, the telephone rang. Mr. Owen answered and was addressed first in Italian, then in French, and finally in English. He replied in English, and a small sad voice inquired, "Is it bridge or poker?" He said it was poker. "This is King Zog speaking," the voice went on. "I wonder if I could come over and take a hand." Owen told him to come right ahead. He arrived 15 minutes later, played for the rest of the evening, and lost the Albanian equivalent of $1.50, after which he bought them a round of drinks at the hotel bar. Seems he keeps a telescope at the palace, and manages to get in quite a little night life that way.

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Sunday, July 30, 2006

Bang a Gong

Marc Bolan, leader of glam group T. Rex, was born Marc Feld on this day in 1947 in Hackney, London. He was the spacey, cherubic, fragile leader of British power pop during the 1970s, a genre distinguished by ripe, simple grooves, "fat, distorted guitars . . . [and] an overarching folkie/hippie spirituality," according to S. Erlewine. A teenage model, Bolan plunged headlong into psychedelic folk music in 1965 and formed the band Tyrannosaurus Rex (later shortened to T. Rex) in 1968, becoming a major force in British pop music by the early 70s with hits such as "Ride a White Swan" (1970), "Hot Love" (1971) and the glam-classic "Bang a Gong (Get it On)" (1972). His stage persona -- usually sequined and feather-boa'd, always androgynous -- attracted the attention of teens, fomenting the fan phenomenon of "T-Rextasy." Bolan's music was disposable, yet it somehow served to make fellow glam-guy Elton John seem more credible, and at the same time it provided elliptical inspiration to British punks in the late 1970s such as The Damned and The Jam. Bolan died when the Mini 1275 GT driven by his girlfriend, singer Gloria Jones, crashed into a tree in Barnes Common, London on September 17, 1977.


Saturday, July 29, 2006

Think Pink!

Fashion editor and arbiter Diana Vreeland was born on this day in 1903 in Paris. As fashion editor and later editor-in-chief of Harper's Bazaar (1936-62) and editor of Vogue (1963-71), Vreeland was for many years a most forceful, charismatic, flamboyant and keeningly witty author of the last word on contemporary fashion and design.

Beginning with her "Why Don't You . . .?" columns in the 1930s, she drew dynamically upon images from a variety of exotic and old world sources -- from bullfighting to dance to gypsies to equestrians -- to juxtapose and astonish in the service of creating sophisticated image fantasies for a sophisticated audience of society dames, New York intellectuals and Broadway chorines. As Richard Avedon observed, "Vreeland invented the fashion editor. Before, it was society ladies who put hats on other society ladies."

Her observational bon-mots were legendary: "Pink," according to Vreeland, "is the navy blue of India"; and blue jeans, in her opinion, were "the most beautiful things since the gondola." But the wacky glibness of her commentary sometimes overshadowed the deliberateness of her visual sensitivities and propensities. Delighting in contrast, she sought in the visible world around her a balance between the refinement that had long been a hallmark of upper-class fashion as an indiom, with a sense of wildness and lively exploration, inviting cultural pluralism into women's wardrobes -- enticing smart women to wear "bright yellow shantung pyjamas," or dark red Louis XIV pumps "with a bright red handkerchief printed with wall-paper roses," or "little striped boleros trimmed with gold beadings and fringes," or an Italian driver's coat, or black astrakhan booties, or "a black wool skirt split to the knees, revealing a flask of [splendorous Hindu] parlor-pink pants" -- as a way to liberate and inspire.

Her expansive approach was easily parodied, and she was lampooned by Kay Thompson in Funny Face (1956, with Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire), as the fashion editor who tells her followers to "Think pink!"

She died on August 22, 1989.

"She's a genius but she's the kind of genius that very few people will ever recognize because you have to have genius yourself to recognize it. Otherwise you just think she's a rather foolish woman." -- Truman Capote.

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Friday, July 28, 2006


Since the rise of Hollywood, Washington had not seen anything resembling the arrival of a glamorous first lady until Jackie Kennedy moved into the White House. Indeed, the previous three first ladies (Mrs. Roosevelt, Mrs. Truman and Mrs. Eisenhower), covering a period going back to 1932, were known for their almost stubbornly maintained lack of charm. At the age of 31, she was the youngest to arrive since Frances Folsom Cleveland, but she also had a style which was a breath of fresh air -- with her youthfully coiffed brown hair and coquettish smile, she appeared on the covers of America's magazines wearing glittering evening gowns, and sleek suits and pillbox hats. Her path into the pop culture consciousness was even further helped by the popularity of a kind of Jackie Kennedy housewife-alter ego, "Laura Petrie," the character played by Mary Tyler Moore on The Dick Van Dyke Show.

Born on this day in 1929 in Southampton, New York and raised amid wealth in Newport, Rhode Island, Jacqueline Bouvier was dubbed "Queen Deb of the Year" by the newspapers, and studied at Vassar and the Sorbonne before receiving a degree in art from George Washington University in 1951. She briefly worked as the "Inquiring Camera Girl" for the Washington Times Herald before meeting the dashing young senator John Kennedy. They married in September 1953, receiving a long-distance blessing from Pius XII and a lot of press coverage. She and John had two children, Caroline and John, Jr. (a third was stillborn and a fourth died at birth), and Americans enjoyed for the first time since the dawn of the television era pictures of a president's young children playing in the White House when the Kennedys moved in after the 1960 election.

Jackie was an energetic partner in the creation of a White House culture that the press dubbed "Camelot": she directed the restoration of the White House and conducted a TV tour of the White House in February 1962; and she indulged her interest in the arts by inviting the world's finest musicians, artists and intellectuals to visit. She accompanied her husband to Dallas on that fateful day in 1963 when, as they sat together in an open convertible, John Kennedy was mortally wounded by an assassin's bullets. Dressed in couture suits, she was the focus of the nation's mourning.

The facts that later emerged about her less-than-perfect marriage -- with the president cavorting around the White House pool with naked internettes and engaging in countless other dalliances -- were unknown until the 1980s, which is why it probably came as such a complete shock to Middle America that Jackie would marry a Greek shipping millionaire (Aristotle Onassis) in 1968 -- after the assassination of Bobby Kennedy would cause her to want to flee the limelight completely, and move to a private island. The nation's curiosity about Jackie and her children would not subside, however, as tabloids scrambled for any unfocused photo of them enjoying their self-imposed exile.

After Onassis' death in 1975, she returned to New York and, while trying to maintain her privacy, became a book editor for Viking and Doubleday, shrewdly using her own celebrity to snare celebrity bestsellers (such as Michael Jackson's Moonwalk), but nonetheless employing a keen intelligence and discrimination in her work.

She died of cancer on May 19, 1994 in New York City. Portions of her art collection and personal effects were auctioned by Sotheby's in 1996, taking in over $34 million.



Socialite and philanthropist Aida de Acosta Breckinridge, a real "get-it-done" woman, was born on this day in 1884 in Elberon, New Jersey.

The daughter of wealthy Cuban parents, Aida de Acosta attended the Sacred Heart Convent in Paris. While she was there, she became fascinated by the flying experiments of Alberto Santos-Dumont, who was in Paris testing his dirigible, the Santos-Dumont IX, by flying it around the Eiffel Tower. Attracted by the young woman's curiosity, Santos-Dumont began giving her ground instruction in the operation of his craft; and one Sunday afternoon (June 29, 1903), without a warning of his intentions, he impetuously hoisted the 19-year old de Acosta into the basket of the dirigible, started the engine and let loose the ropes, sending her on a 5-mile course and giving her instructions from his bicycle on the ground. By this impromptu flight, Aida became the first woman ever to pilot a dirigible. Her parents, reading about the incident in the newspapers, were so mortified by their daughter's un-ladylike display that they immediately dragged her back to New York.

Not to be kept under wraps, Miss de Acosta began to make a name for herself in charitable causes, starting a milk fund for poor children. She married Oren Root (nephew of diplomat Elihu Root) in 1908 and subsequently gave birth to 2 daughters, but during World War I she sold "Victory" bonds -- raising more than $2 million, a record-breaking sum, from stunts such as having Enrico Caruso sing to Wall Street from the steps of the Treasury Building in New York. After the War, she went to France with the American Committee for Devastated France, helping to provide food, shelter and day care to displaced families.

In 1922, while on vacation, she developed an eye inflammation, which turned out to be glaucoma; shortly thereafter, she and Root were divorced in Paris. After several operations, she managed to recover sight in one eye, and (following her marriage to her old friend, ex-assistant secretary of war Henry S. Breckinridge; they would divorce in 1947) she was inspired to raise over $5 million for what eventually became the Wilmer Opthalmological Institute at Johns Hopkins, opened in 1929. She followed this in 1944 by organizing the world's first bank for corneal transplants, the Eye Bank for Sight Restoration at the Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital, an enterprise to which she devoted much of the rest of her life with indefatigable energy and an uncanny ability to keep people from saying "no."

De Acosta was also known as a patron of the arts, serving as New York City art commissioner (appointed by Fiorello LaGuardia in 1935) and financing such projects as Robert Flaherty's documentary, Twenty-Four Dollar Island (1925).

She died on May 26, 1962 in Bedford, New York.

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Thursday, July 27, 2006

Victor Noir

A republican who opposed the regime of Napoleon III, Victor Noir became tragically mixed up in a quarrel between his colleague, Paschal Grousset, and the cousin of Napoleon III, Prince Pierre-Napoleon Bonaparte. Noir visited the Prince to deliver Grousset's challenge to a duel, but an altercation ensued, and the Prince shot and killed Noir on January 10, 1870. His death provoked demonstrations against the Empire, and probably hastened anti-Napoleonic sentiment before the demise of the Second Empire only months later. For his own part, Bonaparte was acquitted of murder by a special high court in Tours, having claimed that Noir provoked him by slapping him in the face, although this was disputed by an eyewitness.

Noir was buried in Pere Lachaise, where he now enjoys more fame than he did in his time. Upon his grave is a detailed life-sized sculpture of Noir as he must have looked the moment after he was fatally shot, right down to the top hat lying forlornly at his feet. Legend has it that the monument has special powers: young wives wishing to get pregnant go to Pere Lachaise to rub Victor Noir's somewhat prodigious crotch for luck, over the years leaving a conspicuous shiny spot. Upon close inspection, it also appears that a fair number of visitors have rubbed Victor Noir's nose, for reasons unknown.

Victor Noir was born on this day in 1848 in Attigny, France.

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Wednesday, July 26, 2006

'Kefauver Hearings'

Democratic U.S. senator and presidential candidate (Carey) Estes Kefauver was born on this day in 1903 in Madisonville, Tennessee.

Known on the campaign trail for his trademark coonskin hat, horn-rimmed glasses and broad grin, Estes Kefauver was an Ivy-educated country boy with an insatiable appetite for publicity. A track star and student newspaper editor at the University of Tennessee, Kefauver returned to his home state after Yale Law school to practice in Chattanooga, where he entered politics by organizing a local government reform movement and securing an appointment as chairman of the local planning board. In 1939, he was elected to Congress, where he supported New Deal programs such as the Tennessee Valley Authority and became a thorn in the side of the old conservative guard of Tennessee Democrats.

When he ran for U.S. Senate and won in 1948, he successfully toppled the Memphis political machine of Boss Crump, who had attempted to brand Kefauver as a "pet coon" to Communists; responding to the charges, Kefauver went to Memphis and donned his coonskin hat, declaring, "I may be a pet coon, but I'm not Boss Crump's pet coon!"

Shortly after he reached the Senate, Kefauver became chairman of the special committee on organized crime in interstate commerce, a post he used, a la Joseph McCarthy, to secure for himself the new spotlight offered by live television. His amoebic investigations of organized crime focused not only on big city mobsters like Frank Costello and Tony Accardo, but also on the pop culture eruptions they supposedly inhabited and financed, such as boxing and gambling, as well as pulp porn and comic books. Although the investigations were not particularly successful (none of the 22 contempt citations issued by the committee held up in court, and almost none of the committee's recommended bills passed), they did succeed in hounding a few marginal players out of business and getting the comic book industry to adopt self-censorship, and they made Kefauver a household name. He also won one of the first-ever Emmy awards, for "outstanding public service."

He parlayed his fame in a run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1952 and beat President Truman in the New Hampshire primary, causing Truman to announce his intended retirement; but the Democratic establishment passed over the rambunctious Kefauver in favor of the more demure Adlai Stevenson. He tried again in 1956, but dropped out early and snagged a spot as Stevenson's running mate; the two lost to Eisenhower and Nixon.

As a senator, Kefauver was one of only two Southern Senators (the other being Albert Gore, Sr.) who refused to sign the "Southern Manifesto" (1957), a statement against the U.S. Supreme Court's desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education; stood alone in the Senate against a measure that made it a crime to belong to the Communist Party (1954); and sponsored the Kefauver-Harris Drug Control Act (1962) which, in response to the thalidomide crisis, required the FDA to determine that a drug is both safe and effective before licensing it for sale.

Unbeknownst to the public, Kefauver apparently had a gargantuan sexual appetite and frequently had his staff procure prostitutes for him during his lecture and campaign tours -- ironically enough, since prostitution was a subject his committee investigations also touched upon.

Kefauver died on August 10, 1963 in Bethesda, Maryland, after collapsing from a heart attack on the Senate floor.

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Tuesday, July 25, 2006


Louise Joy Brown -- born on this day in 1978, the daughter of Gilbert and Lesley Brown -- was the most famous newborn of her time, due to the uniqueness of her conception. Her parents were childless for 9 years due to a blockage in Lesley Brown's fallopian tubes which prevented eggs from reaching her womb. Dr. Patrick Steptoe of Oldham, England, and Dr. Robert G. Edwards of Cambridge sought to remedy this by operating to remove an egg from Mrs. Brown and combining it with sperm from Mr. Brown in a culture dish. After 2-1/2 days, when in Edwards' words, "she was a beautiful eight cell embryo," the future Louise Brown was implanted in Mrs. Brown's womb.

37 weeks later, Mrs. Brown gave birth to a normal, healthy 5-lb., 12-ounce Louise by cesarean section. Although the procedure had been tried numerous times before, it had never been successful. At least initially doctors credited the early return of the embryo to the womb as a key factor in making the in vitro fertilization (IVF) procedure work, as well as the doctors' attention to the delicate matter of convincing the mother's system to receive the implantation.

By 1998, there had been 29,000 babies born with the assistance of in vitro fertilization in the United Kingdom, including Louise’s younger sister Natalie, and tens of thousands worldwide. On her 20th birthday, Louise delivered a message to the public, stating "I’m glad mum and dad were given the opportunity of having IVF 20 years ago. I wish this was available to all who need it now."

Monday, July 24, 2006


The American media, with its habit of producing instant celebrities without intensive labor or talent, occasionally lights upon a latently talented person and actually becomes an instrument for her evolution. One such media star was Amelia Earhart (born on this day in 1898 in Atchison, Kansas), a tomboy who wore gym suits as everyday clothes and delighted in shooting rats.

When she was 23, she had her first plane ride, and knew immediately that she wanted to learn to fly. While taking flying lessons and eventually sidelighting as a somewhat wobbly air show barnstormer, she drifted into pre-med studies at Columbia, a failed career in photography and social work in Boston when her big break came. In 1928, a group headed by explorer/publishing heir George Putnam and Admiral Richard Byrd sought to finance the first flight of a woman across the Atlantic, a year after Charles Lindbergh's historic first solo flight across the Atlantic. The original candidate for the trip, a wealthy Brit named Mrs. Frederick Guest, had to pull out due to family objections, so Putnam and Byrd cast about Boston flying circles for a suitable replacement.

Earhart wasn't the most accomplished of woman pilots, but there weren't many to choose from in Boston, and it didn't hurt that she somewhat resembled the lean, freckled Lindbergh. There was a catch, however: Earhart was only going to be a passenger in a plane flown by two men; the objective was to fly a woman across the Atlantic for the first time, not to have a woman pilot a plane across. Disappointed, Earhart nonetheless accepted the mission for the adventure, and on June 18, 1927, she landed in Wales after a 21-hour flight from Newfoundland with Wilmer Stutz and Louis Gordon at the helm. Putnam handled her publicity carefully; while Stutz and Gordon were quickly forgotten, Earhart received a ticker tape parade in New York City and her fresh Midwestern face began to appear in magazine endorsements. Her mother even cashed in on a baking ad.

Earhart's modern media miracle financed her dream to become a real pilot, and become a real pilot she did. Later that year, she was the first woman to fly solo round-trip across the U.S., stopping frequently for hugely attended personal appearances along the way. In 1931, Earhart married Putnam (a "marriage of convenience," as he managed her career), and set a world altitude record (18,415 feet). On May 20, 1932, Earhart flew a bright red Lockheed Vega from Newfoundland to Ireland, finally becoming the first woman, and only the second person, to fly solo non-stop across the Atlantic. In 1935, by this time one of the most perennially famous women in America, Earhart was the first person to fly solo from Hawaii to California.

At the age of 40 in 1937, Earhart undertook her most ambitious mission, a round-the-world trip. With navigator Fred Noonan, she began in Miami, landing in Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Dutch Guiana, Brazil, French West Africa, Chad, the Sudan, Ethiopia, Karachi, Calcutta, Rangoon, Singapore, Java, Darwin, Australia and Lae, New Guinea -- 20,000 miles in about 3 weeks. On July 2, 1937, on her way from New Guinea to Howland Island, a tiny speck in the Pacific, the U.S. Navy lost contact with her, and no trace of her was ever found.

Her disappearance has been the subject of rampant rumor and speculation. Following one preposterous mythical strand, the movie Flight for Freedom (1943, with Rosalind Russell and Fred MacMurray) depicted a story about a woman aviator who became deliberately lost at sea so that the U.S. had an excuse to investigate the area and examine Japanese military preparedness. It is more likely that brave Amelia Earhart and her comrade Mr. Noonan simply lost their way.


Friday, July 21, 2006


Here was a man with giant mandibles, biting great chunks out of the first half of the 20th century everywhere he went (and he did go almost everywhere) and chewing up forests-worth of newsprint with his gargantuan appetite for self-promotion. Despite being filled with noisy boxing matches, bullfights, safaris, deep-sea fishing jaunts, love affairs, bar binges and the occasional war, Hemingway's life might not be the sort that should have survived in legend -- there were so many contemporary "sportsmen" with disposable incomes competing for immortality in seeming worship of Teddy Roosevelt's setting the bar for manhood at the turn of the century -- but the manner of Hemingway's self-promotion set him apart. Populating his fiction with thinly-disguised autobiographical portraits and fantasies, he is now considered to be one of the greatest writers in American English.

Yet, perhaps for his chutzpah and his increasingly unpopular machismo, he has been and continues to be maligned by some within the literary establishment for his supposedly guttural, terse writing style -- an unfair assessment of what is often lyrical, understated and rhythmic writing. Hemingway made no bones about acknowledging his debt to journalism, calling his style "cablese," a variation of the prose written by foreign correspondents in transatlantic cables to their home papers: literate, if sometimes staccato, the overall effect being the result of polish rather than decorative elaboration, his aim being to imbue each word with its own equal weight within finely balanced sentences. The Annual "Bad Hemingway" contest notwithstanding, it is very difficult to imitate his style. It is actually much easier to write "bad Faulkner." I do it all the time.

Born on this day in 1899 in Oak Park, Illinois, Ernest Hemingway was the son of a physician. After high school he moved to Kansas City and briefly worked as a reporter on the Star, learning the writing lessons from the Star style guide which would become his artistic credo: "Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English, not forgetting to strive for smoothness. Be positive, not negative." Kept out of the Army due to bad eyesight, he apparently could not be kept from driving ambulances in World War I, and was seriously wounded at 18, dubbed by the newspapers as the first American casualty in Italy. His experiences recuperating in an Army hospital in Milan , and his affair with an American nurse, formed the basis of his later novel, A Farewell to Arms, 1929.

He returned to the U.S. as a minor celebrity with a talent for storytelling, and soon caught on as a European correspondent with the Toronto Star. He plunged headlong into the expatriate community of writers and artists swirling and posing around Paris, befriending some of them, including Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein. With their encouragement, in 1923 he published his first collection of short stories, featuring one of his many alter egos, "Nick Adams," followed by two novels in quick succession: The Torrents of Spring and The Sun Also Rises (both 1926). The Sun Also Rises made him America's star novelist abroad, yet one critic scoffed that it was one of the "filthiest books of the year."

Hemingway's preoccupation with Spain -- particularly with bullfighting -- was revealed in Death in the Afternoon (1932), but Spain would become more than just a canvas for him. His return to reporting, coincident with the publication of an adventure novel about political commitment, To Have and Have Not (1937), led him to campaign in sympathy with the Loyalists against Francisco Franco and the fascists during the Spanish civil war: he raised money for them and tirelessly publicized their cause with newspaper reports, a play (The Fifth Column, 1938) and the most popular of his novels, For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940). He covered World War II, and settled in Cuba after the War, swimming and fishing and drinking, and writing less frequently.

In 1952, he published The Old Man and the Sea, the last significant piece he would release in his lifetime, and for it he won the Pulitzer Prize. Two years later, while hunting in Africa, he was severely injured during the crashes of not only his own chartered plane but the plane which came to rescue him, and thereafter suffered from severe headaches and decreasing mobility. A lifetime of other accidents (he seemed to be prone to them), heavy drinking and tough living had also taken its toll on him, leaving him gloomy and increasingly banished from the kind of life he preferred to live. In 1954, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, but was too ill and injured to attend the ceremony. His exile from his beloved Cuba after Fidel Castro's revolution played itself out in Cold War politics between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in 1960 was also a bitter disappointment. He was suffering from extreme depression and had made two suicide threats before, when on July 2, 1961, Hemingway shot himself in the forehead with a shotgun in his home in Ketchum, Idaho.

Since his death, several books have been patched together from his notebooks, including a memoir of Paris during the 1920s (A Moveable Feast, published in 1964) and the novel The Garden of Eden (1986). There have, of course, been numerous films based on his works, perhaps the best among them (although not the most faithful to their sources necessarily) being Howard Hawks' To Have and Have Not (1944, with Bogart and Bacall) and The Killers (1946, with Burt Lancaster). Understanding that his life had threatened to overshadow his work, Hemingway wrote in 1950: "I want to run as a writer; not as a man who had been to the wars; nor as a bar room fighter; nor a shooter; nor a horseplayer; nor a drinker. I would like to be a straight writer and be judged as such."

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Stage actress Renee Maria Falconeti was born on this day in 1892 in Sermano, Corsica. Falconetti started as a music hall singer at Le Boeuf Sur le Toit in Paris in 1914. She established herself as a dramatic actress in Racine's Phaedre at L'Avenue, and later appeared in numerous stage productions there and at the Comedie Francaise, including La Vie d'une Feeme and Le Carnaval des Enfants.

At the height of her fame she agreed to appear (with shorn coif and no makeup) in Carl Dreyer's silent film La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (1927), and despite the fact that she suffered at Dreyer's belligerent style of direction, the film is an acknowledged masterwork of cinema, and the only surviving showcase of Falconetti's power as an actress. Throughout much of the film, Falconetti is shot in close-up with the revealing effects of high-contrast lighting, presenting in silence one of the most intense representations of mental and physical anguish in the history of film -- as well as capturing the status of icon. As Jean Renoir noted, "That shaven head was and remains the abstraction of the whole epic of Joan of Arc."

It was Falconetti's first and last film. Afterwards, she returned to the stage and bought L'Avenue theater, but the theater flopped, leaving her financially ruined. When France was invaded by the Nazis, Falconetti fled to Switzerland, then Brazil, then Argentina, where she made a meager living in small acting and singing jobs. After World War II, she hoped to return to the Paris stage, but fearing she was overweight, she went on a crash diet and died within several days, on December 12, 1946 in Buenos Aires.


Thursday, July 20, 2006

Mrs. Peel

Actress and icon of cool Diana Rigg was born on this day in 1938 in Doncaster, England.

After a childhood spent in India, in 1957 Diana Rigg landed on the York Festival stage as "Natasha Abashwilli" in the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art production of Bertolt Brecht's Caucasian Chalk Circle. Soon afterward, she became a fixture of the Royal Shakespeare Company (e.g. as "Cordelia" in Peter Brook's production of King Lear), seemingly destined for a career of prestigious literary revivals.

When she left RSC in 1964 for a job on a jokey TV crime-fighter adventure series (replacing future Bond girl Honor Blackman), eyebrows raised. Critics sniffed, but with Rigg on board The Avengers (co-starring Patrick Macnee as "John Steed") became one of the most popular British entertainment exports of the 1960s. As "Mrs. Emma Peel," Rigg had "a disarming sexiness, the best leather wardrobe in the history of television and a mean karate chop" (R. Dougherty, Salon). She was a TV revolutionary, too, in the sense that she was a charming woman with a piercing intelligence, acting in a man's world and frequently bettering men at their own games, a woman whose judo moves and physical prowess enabled her to make an impact with her body without merely being a slinky sex kitten. Steed and Mrs. Peel also captured the essence of 1960s London as stylish, eminently civilized, sophisticated crime-fighters who traded clever bon mots and toasted their successes with champagne.

After The Avengers, Rigg made other passes at pop culture (as James Bond's only bride in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, 1967, with George Lazenby, and in her own NBC sitcom, Diana, 1973-4), but also cycled easily back from pop icon to the stage, always with that cool, rich voice and indelibly acute intellect -- starring, for example on London and/or on Broadway in Abelard and Heloise (1971, Tony nomination), Phaedra Britannica (London Theatre Critics best actress, 1975) and Medea (1994, best actress Tony). She returned to series television as the host of Mystery!, the PBS anthology series (replacing Vincent Price), in 1989, and did star turns in the miniseries Mother Love (1990) and Rebecca (1996, best supporting actress Emmy).

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Wednesday, July 19, 2006


After he lost 49 out of 50 states to incumbent Richard Nixon in the disastrous 1972 Democratic campaign, and after the exposure of the abuses of power waged by Nixon and his crew in the Watergate affair led to numerous convictions and the resignation of Nixon himself, George McGovern wrote: "I have to live with the knowledge that, not only did I lose the election, but I lost it to the most discredited man ever to occupy the White House." He occupies a unique position in recent history as the electoral martyr in a not-so-fair fight, but one for whom no great feeling of passion is summoned. Respect, yes -- but not passion.

Born on this day in 1922 in Avon, South Dakota, McGovern was a World War II combat pilot who settled in as a professor of history and government at Dakota Wesleyan University, the earnest, serene, soft-spoken McGovern served briefly in Congress before John Kennedy appointed him director of the Food for Peace Program. The prestige from that stint contributed to his election to the Senate in 1962, where he focused on poverty issues (particularly as chairman of the Select Committee on "Unmet Basic Needs"). After the assassination of his friend Robert Kennedy just before the 1968 Democratic convention, McGovern waged a three-week candidacy for the nomination as a successor to Kennedy's Vietnam peace candidacy, but disappeared in the confusion which led to the nomination of Hubert Humphrey.

He seemed like a long-shot at the beginning of the 1972 campaign, with a young, close-to-the-ground campaign staff he capitalized on the wobbliness of Edmund Muskie's campaign, placing a convincing 2nd in New Hampshire (Muskie's own backyard) and sending Muskie to the showers soon afterward. After George Wallace was sidelined by a would-be assassin, only Humphrey stood by as a potential threat to McGovern's most improbable nomination, waging convention floor fights over credentials which, while unsuccessful in conquering McGovern, hobbled his hoped-for harmonious launch. McGovern's first choice for his running mate, Sen. Tom Eagleton, stumbled into controversy when he admitted to having undergone shock therapy for depression. After first guaranteeing his support for Eagleton ("1,000 percent"), McGovern coolly shrugged to the party leadership and chose Kennedy relative Sargent Shriver as Eagleton's replacement on the ticket.

The same capacity McGovern had for riding out stormy weather without panicking made him a colorless campaigner, however; coupled with the Republicans' success in tarring him as the ultra-liberal candidate of "amnesty, acid and abortion" (a refrain begun by his Democratic primary opponents) and a loss of confidence from his core supporters over his perceived waffling on the issue of ending the Vietnam War, he suffered a decisive defeat in November.

He lost reelection to the Senate in 1980 in the midst of the anti-Jimmy Carter backlash, and went back to teaching, until he surprised everyone by announcing yet another presidential candidacy in 1984. If the 1972 campaign seemed quixotic, his 1984 bid for the Democratic nomination was downright sisyphean: tooling around New Hampshire in a rented car with one volunteer staffer, running far behind his own wunderkind campaign manager from 1972, Gary Hart, McGovern nevertheless managed to survive on vapor for a few primaries. He stole some choice moments, coming on much as the same disengaged, slightly cranky Bodhisattva he was in 1972, as the only one of the candidates who seemed to have been guided by a moral compass and a sense of duty to humanity. Yet the effort was quickly forgotten.

In 1996, he wrote a moving reminiscence on the death of his daughter Terry, who struggled with alcoholism, and in 1998 President Clinton appointed him to the ambassador-rank position of UN representative to the Food and Agriculture Organzation in Rome. Perhaps as an indication of his "elder statesman" status, George W. Bush asked him to stay on in the position in 2001. Later that year, McGovern was appointed global ambassador on world hunger by the United Nations.

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The Microwave Oven

Percy L. Spencer, the inventor of the microwave oven, was born on this day in 1894 in Howland, Maine.

An orphan who never finished grammar school, Spencer got his training in radio electronics from the U.S. Navy. After World War I, he joined Raytheon as its 5th employee. During World War II, in conjunction with MIT physicists, he pioneered the use of magnetron vacuum tubes to change the shape of electromagnetic waves into "microwaves" and created combat radar equipment modules which were practical for use in bombers and effective enough for U.S. pilots to spot periscopes of German U-boats. The U.S. Navy awarded him the Distinguished Service Award, its highest civilian honor, for his innovations.

In 1945, however, Spencer stumbled upon the idea which would be his most lasting achievement: while standing in front of a radar power tube at the Raytheon factory, he reached into his shirt pocket and found that a candy bar he had put there had melted into a gooey mess. Sending an assistant out for a bag of unpopped popcorn, Spencer placed the bag in front of the waves emanating from the magnetron and watched as the popcorn began to pop. In another test the next day, he put an egg in a kettle in front of the magnetron; when an innocent colleague peeked into the kettle to see what Spencer was up to, the egg exploded in his face -- but Spencer was able to determine that the yolk was cooking faster than the white, meaning that by using the magnetron, he was able to cook food from the inside out by vibrating molecules inside the food. It was this phenomenon that would make the microwave ideal for pasteurization and sterilization as well as for basic food preparation.

Raytheon developed Spencer's idea and unveiled the first microwave oven, the Radarange, in 1947; it stood 6-feet tall, weighed 250 lbs. and cost about $3,000. In 1965, Raytheon acquired Amana Refrigeration and began selling more practical models. By 1975, sales of microwave ovens outpaced gas ranges, and over 200 million microwave ovens were in use by the end of the 20th century. Spencer died on September 8, 1970.

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Probably the most prominent "New Leftist" in American academia during the 1960s and 70s, Herbert Marcuse was born on this date in 1898 to prosperous Jewish parents in Berlin, and served in the German Army in World War I. He looked on approvingly as the rule of Wilhelm II was replaced by a Social Democratic government, although he grew disillusioned with its progress in light of the murders of Communist leaders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.

In 1922 he received his doctorate in literature from the University of Freiburg, and after working in a Berlin bookshop for a time, he returned to Freiburg to study with Martin Heidegger. There he began to weave together strands of Marxist thought with existentialist and phenomenological themes, asserting that socialist principles ought to inspire individual liberty, not just collective freedom from capitalist exploitation. He found particular inspiration in Marx's previously unpublished "1844 Manuscripts," in which Marx described a form of psychological alienation as a key ailment within capitalist society.

In 1933, Marcuse formed the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, with the aim of developing a "critical social theory" to articulate arguments at the nexus of Marxist economic analysis, social theory and cultural criticism. The Nazis were particularly affronted by this, and by the following year, Marcuse fled to the U.S., where he would house the Institute at Columbia University. In 1941, he published his first major work, Reason and Revolution, in which he argued that Hegel's philosophy of state did not provide a rationale for German fascism. In the same year, Marcuse joined the U.S. Office of Secret Services, eventually working as head of the Central European bureau of the Department of State by the end of World War II, submitting a report on the cultural aspects of Nazism ("Presentation of the Enemy") and authoring a civil handbook on de-nazification before leaving the government in 1951.

He obtained a chair at Brandeis and began his most productive period as a philosopher. In Eros and Civilization (1955), he synthesized Marx and Freud (less suspiciously than Wilhelm Reich had tried to) and postulated a non-repressive society in which self-fulfillment could be naturally cultivated through libidinous play, non-alienating labor and open sexuality; the book became a touchstone for 1960s New Left intellectuals. He became the first leftist to openly criticize the politically paralyzing Marxist dogma of the Soviet Union in Soviet Marxism (1958), staking out his position as a social Marxist. In One Dimensional Man (1964), he elaborated on his social Marxism, showing how advanced industrial societies create false needs, integrating individuals into an unbreakable cycle of production and consumption and eradicating dissent through industrial management, advertising and a corrupted mass media; with the seductive power of capitalist toys, luxuries and affiliations, according to Marcuse the revolutionary potential of the working class had been eradicated and the allegedly impending "capitalist crisis" predicted by orthodox Marxists had been averted.

He retired from Brandeis in 1965, and became the sole elder statesman of a youth-oriented radical movement while teaching classes at UC San Diego -- the tall, charismatic, white-haired European, smelling of fine cigars and driving a used Peugeot, the only mature inductee of long-haired peace and liberation movements. His "Essay on Liberation" (1969) celebrated the current campus causes, from opposition to the Vietnam War to the general liberation of the "hippie" movement, while Counterrevolution and Revolt (1972) offered a more darkly realistic assessment of the potential success of such movements in light of the "counterrevolution" of the right-wing establishment. His final book, The Aesthetic Dimension (1979), he saw art as an essential component of emancipation, celebrating "bourgeois" art for its indictment of bourgeois society and criticizing the typical Marxist aesthetics that promoted a sterile notion of "proletarian culture." He died on July 29, 1979 on a visit to Starnberg, Germany.

Marcuse's work is now often considered marginal within 20th century American philosophy, although the availability of unpublished material seems poised to reveal Marcuse as a multi-dimensional critic of the intermingling forces of economy, culture and technology, one whose conclusions perhaps offer greater hope than the despairingly deterministic views of his French counterparts such as Baudrillard and Ellul.

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Tuesday, July 18, 2006

John Glenn

John Glenn was born on this day in 1921 in Cambridge, Ohio.

Glenn was selected as one of the original seven Mercury astronauts in 1959 following a distinguished career as a Marine and Air Force "exchange" pilot, having flown 63 combat missions in Korea (alongside a fellow pilot, the baseball legend Ted Williams) and setting a transcontinental jet flight record from Los Angeles to New York in 3 hours and 23 minutes. He quickly became a favorite with the press for his courteousness, confident spokesmanship and apparent patriotism, and was widely expected to become the first American in space.

Instead, Glenn waited until after Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom made their sub-orbital flights to become the first American to orbit the Earth on February 20, 1962. In the Mercury capsule Friendship 7, Glenn circled the Earth three times. As Glenn started his second orbit, having observed the presence of strange "fireflies" outside his craft, flight controllers picked up signals that his capsule's heat shield was loose. If the heat shield were to break free, Glenn's capsule would burn up during re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere, so ground control advised Glenn not to jettison the capsule's retrorocket pack, which was strapped on top of the shield. The capsule re-entered without incident, and upon Glenn's return he became the most celebrated national hero since Charles Lindbergh.

President Kennedy early on identified Glenn's charisma, and encouraged him to consider running for Senate from Ohio with Kennedy's sponsorship. When Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, however, Glenn put his political plans on hold. Having been grounded by Kennedy in the service of Kennedy's political objectives, Glenn left the space program and entered business as an executive with Royal Crown Cola. He remained close to the Kennedy family, and was the person called upon to tell Bobby Kennedy's children of their father's death in 1968.

Glenn took a run at the Senate in 1970 and was beaten badly, but succeeded in 1974, entering the Senate as a middle-of-the-road Democrat. As one of the more visible members of the Senate, he was briefly considered as a running mate for Jimmy Carter in 1976. In 1983, Glenn declared his candidacy for President, and for a time the pundits thought they had identified a front-runner in Glenn: a legitimate hero, whose story would be retold for younger voters in Philip Kaufman's film of Tom Wolfe's book, The Right Stuff, scheduled for release in the fall of 1983. The film, although excellent, did not do well at the box office -- and neither did Glenn's campaign. He did not enjoy the relentlessness of the national campaign, nor the gamesmanship, and withdrew from the race prior to the Convention after several disappointing primary showings, leaving Vice President Mondale, Gary Hart and Jesse Jackson to slug it out for the nomination. He continued to serve in the Senate, being temporarily staggered by public charges that he interfered in the federal investigation of Lincoln Savings and Loan owner Charles Keating; although Glenn was cleared of the charges, his reputation suffered.

In January 1998, the 77 year-old Glenn was chosen by NASA for an upcoming shuttle flight as a payload specialist to study the effects of weightlessness on aging, leading comedian Dennis Miller to quip, "Senator Glenn has been cleared to pilot the space shuttle, but he has not been cleared to leave the left turn blinker on the whole way." Glenn defended his selection, demonstrating an impressive knowledge of physiological literature on aging and reminding the press that it would be foolish to send a sick, inexperienced 77-year old when he was battle-tested, healthy and available. His triumphant return to space took place in October 1998, and back on Earth he was given a second ticker-tape, New York City parade after 36 years, before retiring from public life.

"I don't think this is what Von Daniken had in mind when he was talking about 'ancient astronauts.'" -- Felix Blueblazes, 1998.

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Monday, July 17, 2006


Financier and fur magnate John Jacob Astor was born on this day in 1763 in Walldorf, Baden.

Astor came to America in 1784 with $200 in his pocket intending to join his brother in his New York City butcher's shop. As Astor's ship approached Chesapeake Bay, however, it became stuck in ice, and as Astor waited two months on ship for the Bay to thaw, he learned about the trapping and fur trade in the American West from an experienced fellow passenger. By the time thaw came, Astor had decided to enter the fur business.

By 1800, benefiting from the opening of Canadian trade routes under a treaty between the U.S. and England and by obtaining permission to trade in ports previously exclusively available only to the British East India Company, Astor was the dominant figure in the American fur industry, amassing a fortune of $250,000. Although he continued to operate in the fur industry, he became one of the earliest American capitalists to diversify, using his money to buy large tracts of land in and around New York City. His land holdings would become the basis of the Astor family fortune which sustained several generations.

Astor had planned to establish a network of fur-trading posts in Oregon to trade with China and the Far East when war with England broke out in 1812; and to assist the cash-poor American government in what became known as the War of 1812, Astor and financiers Stephen Girard and David Parish bought and resold $10 million in government war bonds with borrowed money, and made a handsome profit in the process.

Astor survived by his wits rather than his learning: Horace Greeley's Tribune described him as an aggressive man whose poorly scrawled notes often set "spelling and grammar equally at defiance," and his business methods were often questioned as unethical (such as his practice of plying the Northwest Indians with liquor in order to make deals with them). In later years, he cultivated a kinder and gentler image as a philanthropist whose bequests helped to fund the New York Public Library system. At the time of his death on March 29, 1848 in New York City, he was thought to be the wealthiest man in the U.S., with an estimated fortune of close to $30 million.


Sunday, July 16, 2006

'Say it Ain't So'

Shoeless Joe Jackson was born on this day in 1889 in Pickens County, South Carolina.

An illiterate textile mill laborer from South Carolina, Jackson had great natural batting talent, and for a time he rivaled Ty Cobb as the greatest hitter of the American League. Having led his team to the AL pennant at the peak of his powers in 1919, Jackson's brilliant playing that season helped to set the stage for what has come to be known as the "Black Sox Scandal." Just prior to the World Series, Jackson's teammate, first baseman Chick Gandil, approached a Boston bookmaker with a plan to throw the World Series to the underdog Cincinnati Reds in exchange for $80,000, which was probably fronted by New York gambler Arnold Rothstein. Gandil then enlisted the help of several key White Sox players who either openly shared his lack of ethical restraint, or who had developed a conquering resentment of the draconian cheapness of the owner of the Sox, Charles Comiskey.

Jackson clearly shared the conspirators' sense of resentment of their surroundings; however, there is little evidence to suggest that Jackson was an active participant in the conspiracy: he played exemplary baseball during the World Series, even as his teammates made obvious gaffes on the field. After the Sox lost the Series to Cincinnati, teammate Lefty Williams explained to Jackson that the conspirators had told the gamblers that Jackson was part of the conspiracy, and presented Jackson with $5,000 as his cut from the scheme. With the $5,000 in hand, Jackson made an effort to tell Comiskey about the conspiracy but was rebuffed. With pressure mounting from the newspapers, which began running stories about the fix, Comiskey turned around and offered a $10,000 reward for information about the alleged scheme, and vowed that if any of his players were involved, he would make sure there would be no place for them in major league baseball.

As the 1920 season came to a close with Jackson having one of his greatest years ever, a Cook County grand jury prepared to hand out indictments against the conspirators in the 1919 World Series fix -- including Joe Jackson. Although at trial the eight ballplayers were acquitted of any wrongdoing, baseball's newly-anointed first Commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, expelled the eight from major league baseball for life, stating that "(r)egardless of the verdicts of juries, no player who has entertained proposals or promises to throw a game, no player who sits in conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing games are discussed and does not promptly tell the club about it will ever play professional baseball."

Jackson played out the next 20 years under assumed names for textile teams, barnstormers and semi-pro clubs -- but his inimitable swing made him instantly recognizable to the fans who watched him play. He tirelessly and repeatedly applied for reinstatement to major league baseball, but it never came.

He died on December 5, 1951 in Greenville, South Carolina. Fated never to enter the Hall of Fame, he has nevertheless entered the realm of myth and legend as a character in W.P. Kinsella's novel Shoeless Joe and the popular movie it spawned, Field of Dreams.


Saturday, July 15, 2006


Jacques Derrida was born on this day in 1930 in El Biar, Algeria. He grew up in an atmosphere of terror as a Jew confronted by anti-Semitism, especially within Vichy-controlled Algeria during World War II. When he was 10, in fact, all Jews were expelled from Algeria's public schools, and violence against Jews was officially sanctioned.

In France from the age of 18, he was moved to pursue philosophy after hearing a radio broadcast about fellow Algerian native Albert Camus, and enrolled in philosophy courses at the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris. Although he was initially attracted to the thought of Jean-Paul Sartre, he later repudiated it and immersed himself in the writings of Edmund Husserl. By the 1960s, Derrida was teaching philosophy in Paris universities and became director of the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Science Sociales.

With Speech and Phenomena (1967), Derrida began to launch his critique of Western philosophy's treatment of "writing" as a poor stepchild of the "voice," which was typically thought to have a more intimate connection with thought and the essence of external philosophical truth. Employing an analytical method he called "deconstruction" (coined by Martin Heidegger), with close textual analysis of philosophical writings which attempt to dismiss the significance of "writing," Derrida revealed the internal inconsistency in attempts to define some higher reality: they are always built on metaphors and literary euphemisms. His rather nihilist proposal was that "there is nothing outside the text."

Language is a system, Derrida argued, not of objective connections between word and meaning, but of differences in sounds, as Saussure proposed. The task of the philosopher, in Derrida's view (expressed in Writing and Difference, 1978), is to analyze the system of language for its own properties rather than to imagine a reality beyond; to understand, for example, the expectations inherent in the way a writer organizes the differences which produce meaning in language, and the dynamics by which the writer seizes the reader's deference to his or her use of the text in order to transact communication (or fails to seize it). Although Derrida is not a literary critic, his use of "deconstruction" and his elevation of the status of the text spawned a popular movement in literary criticism. Derrida continued his campaign against transcendental truth outside of texts with an analysis of Plato in Dissemination (1972), focusing on the inherent indeterminacy of language.

Much of the rest of his writings have consisted of playful variations of deconstructive analysis. In Glas (1974), Derrida employs three columns of text to achieve a "discussion" among Derrida (in the center), Hegel (on the left) and Genet (on the right), illustrating that texts are distinguished primarily by the structure of their metaphors. He similarly took on Nietzsche in Spurs (1976); Freud in The Post Card (1980), using metaphors of postal communication to deconstruct psychoanalysis; and Heidegger in Of Spirit (1987). Derrida died on October 9, 2004 in Paris.

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Friday, July 14, 2006

What About Doug?

Katie Couric is on tour, preparing to take the CBS anchor's desk; Dan Rather is on Larry King, talking about those last, dark days at CBS; and even Walter Cronkite gets his due, with clip after clip of the old master being shown as evidence of what network news once was.

But what about Doug?

Douglas Edwards, CBS news correspondent (1942-88) and anchor of CBS's first nightly television news program (CBS Evening News, 1948-62), was born on this day in 1917 in Ada, Oklahoma. Edwards was the true CBS pioneer; he took his seat in front of the camera just three months after John Cameron Swayze made his debut as anchor of the Camel News Caravan on NBC, the first nightly network news show. After a succession of local radio jobs, he cut his teeth as anchor of a 15-minute nightly radio news show, then signed on with Edward R. Murrow in London in 1945, staying after the War to cover the Nuremberg Trials. He had enough of a following that CBS renamed the nightly news broadcast Douglas Edwards with the News in 1950. After Cronkite replaced him as evening anchor, Edwards served as anchor of The CBS Afternoon (or Mid-Day) News with Douglas Edwards from 1962 to some time in the 1980s. He was, before Cronkite, one of the most familiar faces on network television.

Edwards died on October 13, 1990 in Sarasota, Florida.

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Thursday, July 13, 2006

A Home

I am celebrating my fifth anniversary in my home -- designed by Frank Lloyd Wright apprentice Peter Berndtson around 1960-4 -- by bringing in a bunch of contractors, aided by an architect who understands the work of Peter Berndtson and can help me make choices that preserve Berndtson's vision and intent. This summer I am renovating two of the three decks on the second floor.

Another architect, Albert Walters, once said of Berndtson: "Peter was one of the most totally self-centered people I have ever known . . . [he] embodied the character of Howard Roark [from Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead] more than anyone I ever knew." Others have disputed this characterization (Edgar Tafel told me that Berndtson was a "nice man" -- whatever that might mean), but it is clear that in learning his craft at the knee of Wright, Berndtson also learned to emulate something of Wright's elitism and arrogance.

A some-time designer of stage sets, Berndtson joined Wright's Taliesin Fellowship in Wisconsin in 1938 and became one of Wright's most devoted pupils and disciples, working with the master on his renderings of the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. During the 1940s, Berndtson settled in Pittsburgh with his second wife, Taliesin architect and historian Cornelia Brierly, where he became an important designer of Wright-influenced residences -- "organic" structures which were designed with uncompromising discipline to be integrated with the land in their basic lines, their materials and their treatment of natural light. He passed away in 1972.

This excerpt from Miller and Sheon's book Organic Vision: The Architecture of Peter Berndtson, explains a bit about what is special about my particular house:

One house that tested all of the architect's ingenuity was 'Springwater Hills,' the home of Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Parkins . . . The Parkinses owned 40 wooded acres surrounding a handsome grassy knoll -- on which stood a typical late Victorian clapboard farmhouse with gable roof. Berndtson first saw the site in 1953. He suggested razing the small farmhouse and starting fresh. At the time the Parkinses felt the expense prohibitive and in any case did not want to start from scratch. Ten years later they began long discussions about adapting the house.

' Peter was amenable to an adaptation,' Parkins said. 'But he told me it would be a most difficult challenge to make his architecture come together with the existing building. We knew what he meant. He looked over the place a few times and then disappeared for about six months. When he finally came out with the plans, the drawings were incredible. We fell in love with his ideas right away. Even if we had been inclined to, after seeing what he intended we probably could not have looked for another architect. You just couldn't deny his work,' the Parkinses said.

'I said I thought Micarta surfaces would be practical in the bedrooms,' Arthur Parkins remembered. 'If you want that you'll need a different architect,' Peter replied.'

'We let him do what he wanted,' Loretta Parkins said, 'because everything he did was beyond our expectations. The house, with three decks on the second floor, four bedrooms and two baths, is like a sculpture. We have made no attempt to overdress it. Just a few flowers. Peter included corner flower boxes on the northwest deck. There was nothing that we didn't let Peter do. He had total freedom and we're not sorry!'

Parkins agreed. 'Peter had a unified design. He nurtured ideas like sculptural entities and he never deviated from his ideals.'

On of their house's most unusual features is a long walkway with a redwood canopy that extends many feet from the front of the house in the direction of a separate garage. The house has a strong Japanese quality with its stark redwood exterior. Except for one area of the original roofline, there is nothing to indicate the house's beginnings. Berndtson enclosed the original structure but refinished the interior as the core of his enlargement. It was a brilliant experiment.

One feature of the house that Miller and Sheon fail to mention, except in passing, is its surroundings -- the thick, green woods; the lush rhododendrons that hug the structure on the east and west sides; and the gentle hiss of the two springs that traverse the land on which it is situated. The land itself was part of the attraction for me, and one of the things that drew me to visit when I first read that this Berndtson house was for sale by the Parkinses. It was an emotional experience for me to wake up in this forest for the first time five years ago after moving in. In the master bedroom, with glass expanses on either side of the built-in platform bed, and narrow windows on either side of the fireplace at the far end of the room, it was easy to be overwhelmed by being enveloped within the forest's colors and sounds. In this most private haven, it was as if there were no sense of time.

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Wednesday, July 12, 2006

All-Star Sights

A Festooned Clemente Bridge on Sunday

Daves Parker and Winfield at the Legends Softball Game

Gary Carter and Fergie Jenkins

Honorary Coach Bill Mazeroski and a Collection of Legends and Celebrities

Some Kind of Primanti's Hallucination

A Serious Reporter from Venezuela's Meridiano TV

Bud Selig Can't Stand Still

George Will Loves This Game

Lynn Whitfield

The Red Carpet

Derek Jeter as Conquering Hero

Alyssa Milano

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Nationals Beat Themselves in Pirate-Like Loss

The usually impeccable Trevor Hoffman blew a one-run lead in the bottom of the eighth inning to give the American League All-Stars a 3-2 victory over the Nationals at PNC Park last night -- capping a string of consecutive victories over the senior circuit that has lasted since 1996. Mike Young, the Texas shortstop who punctured Hoffman's balloon with a two-run triple, won the game MVP award and a Chevy truck for his efforts.

That would be the only disappointment about last night's game -- or in fact, about All-Star week as a whole. Pittsburgh looked uncommonly beautiful for the events, the fans were switched on, and it certainly raised the spirits of Pirate fans to see Jason Bay and Freddie Sanchez pulling out sweet defensive plays during the game.

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Born to affluent Jewish parents on this day in 1884 in Livorno, Italy, Amedeo Modligliani, known as "Modi" to his friends, gathered his early artistic training in Italy -- steeping himself in Italian Renaissance traditions (including the work of Botticelli, who many critics see as Modigliani's spiritual ancestor), painting in a proto-Impressionist Macchiaioli style, and enjoying the life of a well-dressed playboy. In 1906 he arrived in Paris, where he became the model cafe-haunting bohemian, scratching out a living in a garret, womanizing and drinking to excess. Artistically, he became intrigued by the work of Cezanne and the experimentations of Picasso's "Negro Period," with its affinity for the elongated, stylized portraiture of African masks.

With these influences and a predilection for linear grace, he continued to paint in moderate obscurity until, under the influence of his friend Constantin Brancusi, he turned exclusively to sculpture in 1909, crafting limestone portraits under the influence of Greek kouroi as well as African masks. When sculpting materials became difficult to find with the onset of World War I, Modigliani returned to painting, although his style was now more boldly informed by his sculpting.

His paintings after 1914, almost exclusively portraits and nudes, had the feeling of sculptural objects -- detached from any realistic or definable background, contoured as with a chisel, with long necks, flat almond-shaped eyes, widely-set nostrils at the ends of profile noses in full face, and small, sad mouths, all enclosed within clearly drawn yet elegant outlines and roughly washed in thinly-applied paint. Unlike his inscrutable African mask antecedents, however, Modigliani's portraits were personal; they showed, without any sign of ham-fisted exaggeration, the moods and eccentricities of his subjects (such as his portraits of Max Jacob, Jacques Lipchitz and his wife, Jean Cocteau, and Chaim Soutine). His serene, subtly elongated nudes (such as his Nude, Courtauld Gallery, London, c. 1916, considered scandalous in its day and removed from a gallery window by order of the gendarmes; Nude on a Cushion, Collection Gianni Mattioli, Milan, 1917-18; and Reclining Nude, MOMA, New York, c. 1919) are of the same style, dominated by the delicate sweep of curved outlines and lushly graded flesh tones; they are in Arnason's words, "among the most beautiful and sensuous in the whole of art."

By the age of 35, however, Modigliani had descended deeply into alcohol and opium, and was plagued by tuberculosis. He had fathered a child by an teenaged art student, Jeanne Hebuterne, and she was pregnant with his second child when Modigliani succumbed to tubercular meningitis on January 24, 1920 in Paris. Just a few days after Modigliani's death, Jeanne committed suicide by throwing herself out of her parents' window.

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Balloonist and aeronautics engineer Joseph-Eustache Croce-Spinelli was born on this day in 1843 in Dordogne, France. Croce-Spinelli was deeply interested in manned flight and had not only made several balloon expeditions but had published articles on propeller design when on April 15, 1875, with Gaston Tissandier and an assistant named Henri-Theodore Sivel, he flew to 29,000 feet over India in the helium-balloon Zenith -- short of the altitude record set by James Glaisher and Henry Coxwell. Although the men had been advised by Paris physiologist Paul Bert about the supplemental oxygen required at such altitude, in the excitement they failed to heed the advice, and Croce-Spinelli and Sivel asphyxiated in the inhospitably thin air. Tissandier miraculously survived to tell the tale.

Croce-Spinelli's claim to fame, however, stems not so much from his contributions to aeronautics but from the design of his much-visited tomb at Pere Lachaise in Paris: the monument displays lifesized effigies of Croce-Spinelli and Sivel lying side-by-side, holding hands, bare-chested and otherwise covered in a shroud. The sculpture is obviously a tribute to their comradeship, but some have asserted, without further evidence, that Croce-Spinelli and Sivel were gay lovers. Heroic death in the company of one's peers was a heady theme for the post-Romantic French. Who's to say?

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Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Home Run Derby & Celebrity Toss

There used to be a cheap little black-and-white TV show called Home Run Derby that ran from 1959 to 1961. Hosted by Mark Scott, it pitted sluggers againts other sluggers in head-to-head competition -- like Gil Hodges vs. Willie Mays. Every show would begin and end with an announcer naming a litany of baseball stars who'd appeared on the show or would appear on the show, capped off by the words ". . . and many others" -- leading many young schoolchildren to wonder, no doubt, when that Latin slugger, Manny Uthers, would be on the show. But -- it was the 50s, and the Latin slugger hadn't quite been invented yet in America.

The patter on the show was classic Americana. In a typical episode, exchanges such as the following could be heard:

Scott: Boy, Mickey, Kenny Boyer sure hit that ball a long ways.
Mickey Mantle: He certainly did, Mark.
That's back when America surely assumed that Mickey Mantle went home after the show was over and had cookies and milk.

I'd never have guessed that from this meager beginning, Major League Baseball's Home Run Derby would emerge, and that it would be so much fun to watch. Last night was the 21st anniversary of MLB's version, so I guess it has some staying power. In front of a packed PNC Park crowd, Ryan Howard of the Phillies came back from behind, after little David Wright of the Mets surprised the crowd with 16 dingers in the first round, beating Wright in the 3rd round with a monster homer to left-center that bounced off of a Master Card sign, awarding a lucky fan 500 free airplane flights. Howard and David Ortiz put several home run balls into the Allegheny River outside PNC Park, initiating an impromptu game of bobbing-for-baseballs among kayakers paddling nearby.
As a backdrop to the conspicuous display of slugging, there were plenty of celebrities around at which to gawk. Directly in front of our section sat the MLB big-wigs and their guests, including baseball commissioner Bud Selig, who apparently travels with a big guy who opens bottles for him and stuff; George Will and his family; Lynn Whitfield; and many others (not "Manny Uthers"). George is, of course, known to be one of the foremost baseball fans on Sunday morning TV, but he got so excited when he appeared in a film clip on the Jumbotron, talking about Ted Williams, that he jumped and pointed at it, apparently doing his best to convince his sons that he's all-that when it comes to baseball.
Speaking of all-that, before the game, Alyssa Milano put in a cameo appearance down near the dugouts, shilling a line of ladies' baseball gear, trading body-checks with Derek Jeter and posing for photos with fans. A line of ladies' baseball gear? Because . . . when you think of Alyssa Milano, you think of baseball -- right? Anyway, that's one appearance I was not too happy about. Somebody should tell me when there's a chance that Alyssa and I are going to the same party -- we're not currently speaking to each other. Don't ask me about it, it's just too painful to talk about.

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Uncle Bob

Film director Robert McGowan, the trusty helmsman of the earliest and the best of the "Our Gang" comedies, was born on this day in 1882 in Denver, Colorado.

A Colorado fireman who suffered a career-ending injury, McGowan was a naturally gifted storyteller, arriving in Hollywood in 1913 hoping to break into movie production. He eventually caught on as a gag writer for silent comedies at Hal Roach Studios. When Hal Roach came up with the idea for a series of kid comedies in 1922, he turned the reins over to McGowan. Like a benevolent, respected old uncle, McGowan charmed wonderfully natural comic performances out of such children as Mickey Daniels, Mary Kornman and Farina Hoskins for the gleeful "Our Gang" short comedies during the silent period, always attempting to make sure that the children enjoyed what they were doing, filming them outdoors in an atmosphere of play.

By the time sound film came into vogue, McGowan had already made 68 silent "Our Gang" comedies and had nearly retired; but sound and new cast members (eventually including Jackie Cooper, Stymie Beard and Spanky McFarland) gave McGowan new energy, leading him to make some of the most entertaining entries in the "Our Gang" catalog from the advent of sound until he finally did retire in 1933. (His nephew, Anthony Mack, continued making the films from time to time along with other directors until the end of the series, sometimes under the name of "Robert A. McGowan" -- which is a shame because Mack wasn't nearly as talented as his uncle.)

What is also remarkable about his early sound films is their urban realism: in Pups is Pups (1930) for example, most of the action takes place within the confines of a smoky factory ghetto, shown in long shot at the beginning of the movie, his street urchins all coming from disadvantaged homes, with black children always mixing on friendly terms with white children -- because poverty, of course, loves company. His deft use of cross-cutting, outdoor locations, and a combination of slapstick with poignant scenes took away some of the stiffness which marked much of early sound film production.

Later he wrote gags at Paramount and directed a few comedies elsewhere, occasionally enjoying a round of golf with such friends as W.C. Fields or Oliver Hardy. He died on January 27, 1955 in Santa Monica, California.

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Monday, July 10, 2006

Italy Wins, and Legends Roam Pittsburgh

On a penalty kick shoot-out, no less. Having witnessed first-hand the focus and attention of the French fans on the Champions League final in Paris in May, when there was no French honor at stake, I can only imagine what the scene must have looked like oustide those bistros on Rue St. Andre des Arts during the match. Afterwards, however, instead of triumphant football crowds marching down the Champs-Elysees, I'm sure there were more than a few mourners clutching their half-empty wine bottles and banging their heads against lamposts, moaning the name "Zinedine Zidane." Say it ain't so, Zinedine.

Meanwhile, Pittsburgh kicked off its All-Star Baseball celebration yesterday with a high-scoring minor league "Futures" All-Star game, pitting American-born minor league stars vs. "foreigners"; the U.S. won, 8-5. Excellent performances were turned in by game MVP-winner Billy Butler, a leftfielder from the Wichita Wranglers in the Royals' system, who hit a two-run homer; and Curacao's Wladimir Balentien (currently playing for San Antonio in the Mariners' system), the DH for the "World" team who hit a homer and two doubles. Having been there to see it, I must confess that another player, Cameron Maybin of West Michigan (a Tigers' farm club) looks like he might be the real deal, going 2-for-3 and grabbing five shots to centerfield. Hall of Famer Ferguson Jenkins managed the World club in the Futures game, while Hall of Famer Gary Carter managed the U.S. club.

It was a lot of fun seeing all the old-timers milling around PNC Park on Sunday evening, even if it was a little surreal watching them play softball in the "Legends and Celebrity" game with the likes of Jimmy Kimmel, Sarah Silverman, Dean Cain, Franco Harris (who can't hit a softball for beans, although he proved he could lay down a decent bunt), Rob Reiner and Danny Masterson from That 70s Show.

Ozzie Smith and Ernie Banks were as gracious as always -- it's second nature to those guys to be able to convey how grateful they are to the fans and how wonderful it was to come to such a beautiful ballpark. Other fellows we've missed seeing on the diamond for some time and who participated in Sunday night's charade included Goose Gossage, playing a surprisingly limber first base; chatty Fred Lynn; Tommy John, whose history with his namesake surgery did not prohibit him from pitching for the Americans at age 63; John Kruk; Rollie Fingers; Daves Winfield and Parker; Bill Madlock; Bill Mazeroski (pictured), who received a heart-felt standing ovation from the hometown crowd; and Andre Dawson, who looks like he could still play if he really wanted to.

If anyone is counting, the Nationals beat the Americans 7-5 on the strength of Winfield's pitching and his 300-foot homer to left; Gary Carter was named the game's MVP.

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Sunday, July 09, 2006

The Monk

Author Matthew Lewis, known as "Monk" Lewis, was born on this day in 1775 in London. Lewis is remembered as the author of a notorious gothic novel of the 18th century, The Monk (1795), the story of a depraved monk, Ambrosio, which touched on such shocking topics as rape, incest, matricide, the selling of one's soul to the devil and the Spanish Inquisition.

Lewis spent his childhood in Essex and Paris, attended Christ Church College, Oxford, and began writing plays and romances (somewhat unsuccessfully) as a youth. While on vacation in Europe in 1792, he was moved by a meeting with Goethe. His father, however, tried to push him away from literature into a diplomatic career, getting him assigned to the British embassy at the Hague.

Bored with Dutch society, Lewis began to write again, and inspired by Ann Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho, Lewis began to work on The Monk. It created a sensation almost immediately after being published -- maligned as indecent and immoral by the literary elite while at the same time copied and plundered by lesser writers.

At 21, he returned to England as a member of Parliament for Hindon (ironically, the seat formerly held by gothic romance novelist William Beckford); and when he affixed "M.P." to his name on a second edition of The Monk, Samuel Coleridge and others expressed their outrage that a legislator should sully Parliament by drawing a connection between his salacious novel and his office. He was contrite (he purged the "M.P." from his third edition), but pointed out to his embarrassed father that while he perhaps had too much confidence in his own judgment, "twenty is not the age at which prudence is most to be expected."

Yet he veered away from respectability rather than to it in the ensuing years, writing trash melodramas for the stage (The Castle Spectre, 1797; Alfonso, 1802) which, as William Wordsworth observed, fit the public taste like a glove (although he himself admitted that while "very possibly nobody could write a worse tragedy" than Alfonso, "it is a melancholy truth that I cannot write a better one").

At 27, he had become quite cynical about his talent and celebrity. With his father's death in 1812, Lewis inherited a large fortune, including a West Indian plantation. In 1816, worrying over the condition of the slaves on his father's plantation in Jamaica, he undertook an exhausting, hazardous voyage there to do everything in his power to secure their safety and happiness, keeping a journal of his trip which after his death was published to critical acclaim (as Journal of a West India Proprietor). Returning to England, he found he could not stand to stay, so he passed time trading ghost stories with Byron and Shelley in Italy and returned to Jamaica once more before contracting yellow fever. He died at sea May 14, 1817 of yellow fever, en route from Jamaica back to England.

Critics, Coleridge and Walter Scott among them, expressed their disappointment that a man with such an uncommon gift for verse should have squandered his literary fortunes on tripe. Nevertheless, The Monk stands out as an influential novel to a generation of early 19th century writers, including Poe, Flaubert and Hawthorne.


Saturday, July 08, 2006


Artemisia Gentileschi, one of the few female painters of the Renaissance, was born on this day in 1593 in Rome.

Artemisia lost her mother at 12 and spent most of her adolescence learning in the workshop of her father, Orazio Gentileschi, a significant painter and follower of Caravaggio. At 17, as she was feeling her power as her father's finest pupil, she was raped by another artist in her father's studio, Agostino Tassi. Tassi was acquitted in the ensuing trial, during which her father's property was threatened and, most significantly, Artemisia was subjected to her own trial by ordeal -- she was put to the thumbscrew as a test of her veracity. She later married an obscure painter, a relationship which gave her the ability to practice her art in a man's world without further fear of scandal.

Her art, however, is distinctive for its feminine point of view, and perhaps even more so for its personal content, so temptingly equated with her biographical facts. Among her favorite subjects is Susannah and the Elders (first painted in 1610), a biblical tale in which a young girl is sexually harassed by some men in her community. Most male painters employed the subject as an opportunity to display the female form and usually showed Susannah as a flirtatious participant in the event; Artemisia also painted Susannah in the nude, but (according to some scholars) painted her as a self-portrait, and showed Susannah's anguish at the behavior of the men.

Her treatment of another biblical subject, Judith slaying Holofernes (c.1625), is Caravaggesque in its lighting effects, but is almost clinically violent in its depiction of two women, Judith and her maid Abra, slicing off the head of the Assyrian general.

Artemisia died in 1642. Her works were largely ignored until they began to be noticed by feminist art historians in the 1970s. Since then, she has become an icon of woman's history, and has been the subject of several fictional works, including Agnes Merlet's film Artemisia (1998) and Susan Vreeland's novel The Passion of Artemisia (2001).

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