Wednesday, August 30, 2006

California Wine

Pioneer California vintner Agoston Harazsthy de Mokcsa was born on this day in 1812 in Futtak, Hungary.

Harazsthy was an international wheeler-dealer long before it was fashionable -- a man of European charm, connections and some obvious talent who took risks and found occasional success, but also encountered his share of suspicion and bad luck. The son of a Hungarian general whose family had grown wine grapes for generations, Harazsthy became a member of Emperor Ferdinand I's guard unit at 18, and rose through the ranks of Hungarian nobility by the time he was 25, serving as private secretary to Archduke Joseph and as a delegate to the Diet. He became involved with the revolutionary movement of Louis Kossuth; but after Kossuth's arrest in 1837, Harazsthy was ostracized and forced to emigrate to the U.S.

He did so with a flourish, arriving in Washington, D.C. and introducing himself in his full dress Hungarian guard uniform to the likes of President Tyler and Daniel Webster. Through the intercession of Lewis Cass he managed to sell his Hungarian estate, move his family to the U.S., and stake his stead in Sauk City, Wisconsin (which he called Szeptaj, or "beautiful view"), where he opened a brickyard, established an emigrants' aid association, grew wheat and corn and attempted to start a vineyard. The climate proved too harsh for wine grapes, and poor harvests led him to start over on a wagon train to California, but not before the Wisconsin legislature honored him with a state dinner.

He arrived in San Diego by the end of 1849 and, self-styled as "Count Harazsthy," he became the first sheriff of San Diego County. He was noted for cleaning up the rough seaport and quashing violent Indian protests over his attempted enforcement of taxes at Agua Caliente, although he was charged with a conflict of interest in the building of the jail. He stepped down and was elected to the state legislature, where he argued for the separation of California into north and south states.

Still determined to grow good wine, however, he left San Diego for San Francisco, where Franklin Pierce appointed him assayer to the U.S. Mint in 1857. He bought land at Sonoma that year, and while he succesfully fought a charge of embezzlement which forced him to resign from the Mint, he began to introduce European varieties of grapes to replace the lackluster Mission vines -- the first Zinfandel, Tokay and Muscat of Alexandria grown in California -- flouting tradition by planting the vines on dry, thinly-soiled hillsides rather than rich, flat land.

His wines soon gained a reputation, winning the medals at the state fairs in 1858 and 1859, and in effect launching the California wine industry. In 1859, he wrote the first monograph on California wine, which prompted the California legislature to appoint him to a committee to report on improving winegrowing in California. Believing he had the legislature's blessing, Harazsthy financed his own trip to Europe, where he purchased $10,000 worth of prime grapevines and cuttings, as well as olive, pomegranate, lemon and orange cuttings for growing in California. He returned to California and published a popular and influential book, Grape Culture, Wines and Wine-Making (1862), half travelogue and half agricultural manual; but the legislature, mistaking his Democratic politics for support of the Confederacy, withheld reimbursement for his trip. A venture capitalist named Ralston came along to bail him out, but Ralston became frustrated with Harazsthy's slow, deliberate techniques and maneuvered Harazsthy out of the vineyard by 1866.

He decided to start over once again, this time with a sugar plantation in Nicaragua, but after just 2 years he drowned, on July 6, 1869, near Corinto while trying to cross a river on his mule. By 1880, much of the grapes Harazsthy had planted were destroyed by root blight, but not before heartier cuttings were returned to Europe to save European vineyards from another plague of root blight.

In 1989, Harazsthy's Sonoma home was rebuilt and turned into a state park.


The Kingfish

Charismatic and brash, Huey Long and his loudly broadcast populist rhetoric were viewed by many American leaders of the day as threats to the principles of private property. At home in Louisiana he was vilified by the landed gentry, who saw him as an ambitious, corrupt demagogue, and virtually worshipped by the Louisiana poor who heralded him as their champion, a modern day Robin Hood. In truth, he was a good bit both, but wherever one stood one had to admit that he was an exceptionally gifted politician, a seducer of sympathies probably unmatched in the 20th century until the rise of another Southern governor, Bill Clinton.

He was born on this day in 1893 in Winn Parish, Louisiana. Starting his career as a traveling salesman, Long patched together an education in the law and began to practice in 1915 with the conscious goal of entering politics. In 1918, he led a well-publicized defense of Socialist state senator S.J. Harper against a trumped up violation of the federal Espionage Act, and later that year parlayed his notoriety into a seat on the Louisiana Railroad Commission. For 8 years, Long honed his characteristic down-home style and stole headlines with a righteous rant against big oil companies and utilities.

He lost the 1924 governor’s race, but battled back to win the statehouse in 1928, with decisive leads in the rural parishes to overcome his weak showing in New Orleans. As governor, Long plowed money into new roads, bridges, hospitals and schools, and modestly shifted tax burdens away from the middle class to corporations and the wealthy. In the process of directing reform, Long masterfully consolidated his personal power, constructing an impenetrable statewide machine through shameless political patronage and building an enormous, under-the-table pool of political mad-money by appropriating a portion of the salaries of all public employees.

Even Long’s supporters admitted that Long had assumed the powers of a dictator, calling him the "Kingfish" (a name taken from a character, played by Freeman Gosden, on the Amos n’ Andy radio show). In 1930, Long won election to the U.S. Senate, but continued to serve as governor until 1932, when he secured the succession of a docile, lap-dog crony.

As a critic of the Hoover administration, Long campaigned actively for Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, but Long soon broke with Roosevelt over his lack of a strong commitment to redistributing American wealth along equitable lines. Long opposed New Deal legislation with fiery filibusters, and announced his own economic program, known as the "Share the Wealth Plan," calling for higher income taxes; liquidation of all fortunes in excess of $3 million; a $1 million limit on personal income; granting federal "homesteads" of $5,000; and an annual federal income subsidy of $2,500 -- all in the service of taking from the rich and giving to the poor.

Through national radio addresses, 2 "autobiographies" (Every Man a King and My First Days in the White House, both 1935) and a ceaseless public appearance tour, Long established the beginnings of a national populist movement which was widely seen as a potential springboard for a 1936 or 1940 presidential candidacy. As his popularity soared, he also showed his vulnerability: a man of Ruthian appetites, he could embarrass himself handsomely in public. During one notorious drunken revel, he pissed on the trouser leg of a blue-nosed country clubber on Long Island; yet he somehow overcame such embarrassments armed with his extraordinary personal charm.

His popularity and his vocal opposition to what he described as the tyranny of New Deal bureaucracy led Roosevelt privately to refer to Long as one of the "2 most dangerous men in America" (the other being Douglas MacArthur). While Long survived an impeachment attempt in 1929, as well as IRS and FBI investigations ordered by Roosevelt, he would not survive the visceral ire of the New Orleans elite in his own backyard. Just as his national movement began to reach a fever pitch, Long was fatally shot on September 10, 1935 in the Louisiana capitol building by a New Orleans physician, Carl Weiss, who apparently had an obsessive hatred of Long not uncommon among his social set.

Although Long’s "Share the Wealth" movement, temporarily prolonged by political allies such as Father Coughlin, Dr. Francis Townsend and Rev. Gerald L.K. Smith, collapsed without Long’s personal magnetism to support it, his political legacy lived on in Louisiana. His wacky brother Earl served as governor and his son Russell was a U.S. senator; and surely the improbable successes of Edwin Edwards and David Duke, among others, find their model to some degree in Huey Long’s career.

Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel All the King’s Men (1946) was a fictionalization of Long’s rise and fall. Despite all the warts, Long was cited as one of "10 Outstanding Governors of the 20th Century" (Weeks, Harvard Institute of Politics, 1981).


Tuesday, August 29, 2006


One night in 1939, Charlie Parker stood up in an after-hours chili house in Harlem during a pick-up gig and began to blow his sax along with some guys playing "Cherokee," a tune recently made popular by a Count Basie recording. To analyze what was different about his playing that evening is "inside baseball" -- he improvised on the upper intervals of the chords instead of the lower, whistling a line which required harmonic resolutions which mystified the folks sitting in with him that evening. When the smoke cleared, however, jazz music had begun to enter a new era. The change was so radical, in fact, that it completely alienated older jazz musicians, who derided his style by referring to it as "that Chinese music." Up was down, black was white in Parker's deliberately contrarian world, but nonetheless his approach was exciting to younger players and enthusiasts for its departure from mainstream swing.

It should be no surprise, then, that it took a self-absorbed sociopath to blaze the trail for players like Dizzy Gillespie, Kenny Clarke and Thelonious Monk. Born on this day in 1920 in Kansas City, Kansas and dotingly raised by his mother after his song-and-dance man father abandoned them, Parker's mother bought him an alto saxophone, which in his bristling antipathy against any kind of authority he insisted on teaching himself to play. He dropped out of school at 15 and clumsily tried to sit in with Kansas City bands, but was howled off the stage. He practiced in isolation until he could move with ease from any one key to any other of the remaining 11 keys, not understanding perhaps that most jazz was played in just 4 keys and that all he really needed to know was a few chords to play in a band. He played a summer-long gig at an Ozarks resort and honed his technique, spending his free time copying Lester Young solos.

Back in Kansas City and later in Chicago and New York by the end of 1940, Parker showed he had enough talent to play, but he bounced around from band to band as he alienated musicians with his perverse, sometimes abusive behavior. For the prime-time gigs (with the bands of Earl Hines, Noble Sissle or Billy Eckstine), he stuck largely to the old forms; but jamming in the after-hours clubs, he began to show his amazing improvisational powers, drawing his slow, thin vibrato through harmonic explorations, breaking up rhythms, experimenting with pitch and liberally quoting non sequitir musical quotations from old jazz or traditional tunes -- often at a machine gun tempo with which most sax players of the period could scarcely dream of keeping up. More so than many of the bop players who followed, Parker's playing was his snickering way of telling the world that he was right and they were wrong; it was his private rebellion against everyone.

By 1942, he was playing with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, who had begun similar experiments, in the Eckstine big band, but the popularity of their after-hours gigs inspired them to go to Hollywood for a successful series of concerts. Fed up with Parker's erratic behavior and drug abuse, Gillespie soon afterwards left Parker in L.A.

"Bird" (as he was known) was by this time deeply addicted to heroin and alcohol, indulging all of his appetites (for food, drugs, drink and women) like a wild man-child, and though he continued to play well, the excesses stopped him cold as he suffered a physical and mental breakdown in 1946. Perhaps fortuitously, he was arrested on a minor charge and confined to the Camarillo State Hospital, where his health began to improve.

He returned to New York in 1947 and had a tremendous year, touring with his own band comprised of drummer Max Roach and trumpeter Miles Davis; but he was back on drugs and booze, and if anything his obstinate personality turned nastier and more arrogant, leading Roach and Davis to quit in 1948.

He had become a larger-than-life figure by then, however, and was worshipped by younger players as he continued to play clubs (including Birdland, named for Parker himself) and concerts. Narcotics officials succeeded in getting his cabaret license revoked in 1951, limiting his regular playing as ulcers consumed his insides. He enjoyed a few more triumphant performances and recordings, notably a 1953 Massey Hall concert which reunited him with Gillespie and Roach alongside bassist Charles Mingus and pianist Bud Powell, but following a suicide attempt after he threw a public temper tantrum during a gig at Birdland, Parker checked into Bellevue for a couple of weeks to recover.

It was not enough; he wandered around Greenwich Village in an aimless haze for almost a year before he showed up on jazz salonist Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter's doorstep, dying there within a few days, on March 12, 1955. He was in such poor condition that the medical examiner estimated his age at 53; he was 34.

Tributes from other musicians flowed, including Mingus' "Gunslinging Bird," the full title of which was "If Charlie Parker were a gunslinger, there'd be a whole lot of dead copycats." Clint Eastwood's biopic, Bird (1988, with Forest Whitaker) attempted in its way to rehabilitate Parker the human being, but at least it reintroduced Parker's music to a 1980s audience.



It sometimes comes as a surprise to modern readers that John Locke, whose political theory had a direct influence on such movers and shakers as Thomas Jefferson, Edmund Burke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, was a leading thinker in his day in such fields as the theory of knowledge, education and medicine; yet almost everywhere he applied his gifts, he sought to advance a natural foundation for liberation and tolerance.

Born on this day in 1632 in Wrington, Sussex, England, Locke grew up in the midst of Oliver Cromwell's turbulent Puritan Revolt against Charles I, and his father fought in the service of Cromwell's Parliamentarians. Young Locke attended Christ Church College, Oxford University, where his eyewitness experience of the Puritan Revolt no doubt led him to chafe within the scholastic confines of Oxford. While Oxford bred classical scholars, Locke was more interested in modern thought, chiefly the writings of Rene Descartes, whose star was rising on the continent. Locke graduated in 1656, obtained his master's degree in 1659, and sat in on natural science lectures given by Robert Boyle.

In his first philosophical work, Two Tracts on Government (1660-62), written at a time of political crisis and instability, Locke argued the conservative position that the formation of the state requires citizens to abandon their natural liberty and obey the commands of the sovereign, even where such edicts were not required by the laws of nature. In 1665, Locke acted as secretary on a diplomatic mission to Brandenburg, where he saw the success of a society founded upon religious toleration. Locke embraced the necessity of religious tolerance, except for atheists (whose aim, it seemed, was to strike down all morality) and Catholics (who were intolerant of other faiths by nature and constantly contradicting sovereign power by claiming superior authority).

On his return to Oxford, he found it in disarray due to the onset of the plague, and began to engage in medical research. Although he was not a physician, he was asked to become personal physician to Anthony Ashley Cooper, 1st earl of Shaftesbury, and in fact Locke successfully supervised an operation on Shaftesbury to remove a cyst from his liver.

Shaftesbury was convinced that Locke had saved his life, and the two became fast friends as well as philosophical comrades; Shaftesbury was also an avid proponent of religious tolerance. For better or worse, Locke found his fortunes tied to Shaftesbury: when Shaftesbury became lord chancellor in 1672, he named Locke his secretary of presentations, the lord chancellor's proxy for ecclesiastical matters; when Shaftesbury was dismissed, Locke lost his job. As Shaftesbury fell into increasing disfavor for his anti-Catholic brand of religious tolerance, after receiving his medical degree Locke escaped to France in 1675.

In and out of England, France and Holland during the next decade and a half, Locke was suspected of sedition by Charles II for his close ties with Shaftesbury, but Locke would not speak freely enough in the presence of Charles' spies to build a case for his arrest (although he was expelled from further privileges at Oxford). Nonetheless, by 1689, Locke had indeed shifted from the unquestionably loyal positions he took in the Two Tracts, and with the succession of William and Mary in 1688 he felt safe for the first time to publish the views he had been cultivating since the 1670s.

In his Two Treatises of Government (published 1689), he took on Robert Filmer's notion of the "divine right of royalty" to rule, advancing instead the notion of government as a relationship of trust. Outside of the state, humans are in a perfect state freedom, restricted only by natural law. In order to secure one's natural rights vis-a-vis others with competing interests, humans will forego their natural condition and, by "contract," enter a civil society in which personal freedoms are protected by the state and the will of the majority is otherwise followed. For Locke, the only end of government was to secure fully the natural rights of life, liberty and property, and governments which infringed upon these natural rights could rightfully be overthrown (he cited the "glorious, bloodless revolution" and arrival of William III in England as a worthy example of this principle at work).

In An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (published 1690), Locke performed a revolutionary critique on philosophical traditions of knowledge espoused by the Cambridge Platonists, who held that logical principles were innate tools of the human mind. In the spirit of ideological tolerance, Locke dismissed this somewhat authoritarian notion as a threat to freedom of thought; instead, he argued that humans are born as blank slates, and that experience (in particular, sensation and reflection) is the source of all ideas, even that which we understand as pure logic. Locke also analyzed, for the first time in the history of modern philosophy, the subjects of language and meaning as instruments of knowledge, observing that words imperfectly signify our imperfectly interpreted, imperfect sensations of the material world, but that we communicate ideas nonetheless through a practical tolerance of individual perceptions.

Locke had returned to England in the company of Mary II in 1689, and retired to the home of Lady Damaris Cudworth Masham (his some-time lover) and her husband Sir Francis Masham, settling in as the intellectual leader of the Whigs in Parliament. In his later years, he wrote shorter works on education, Christianity and economics. He died on October 28, 1704 in Oates, England.


Monday, August 28, 2006

Breach of Promise

William C.P. Breckinridge, a notorious Democratic U.S. congressman from Kentucky (1885-95), was born on this day in 1837 in Baltimore, Maryland.

A member of a prominent Kentucky family (his grandfather, John, was a U.S. senator and attorney general, and his second cousin, John C., was U.S. vice president), William served as a cavalry colonel in the Confederate Army and ultimately as Jefferson Davis' body guard during the Civil War. After period of post-War rehabilitation as an editor and law professor, Breckinridge followed the flow of family bloodlines into politics, serving in Congress, showing his oratorical prowess and getting mentioned as possible presidential material.

On his political rounds, he lectured at women's schools on the virtue of chastity. During a rail trip in 1884, the married congressman met 17-year old Madeleine Pollard, a student at Wesleyan Female Seminary in Cincinnati, and began illicit affair with her, siring two children with her as he smuggled her from Cincinnati to Lexington to Washington. After almost 9 years, however, when the then-current Mrs. Breckinridge passed away, Mr. Breckinridge shocked Miss Pollard and his friends alike when he took Louise Scott Wing as his wife.

Miss Pollard countered by hauling Breckinridge into court on a claim of breach of promise, and the whole sad affair burst onto the front pages of the newspapers. Breckinridge at first denied that he had any relationship with Miss Pollard, but afterwards, when his story unraveled, he claimed that Miss Pollard was a "fallen woman" who did not deserve the law's protection. Public opinion quickly turned against Breckinridge, and the jury awarded Miss Pollard $15,000.

Breckinridge nevertheless ran for reelection in 1894, crying, a la Swaggart, as he asked for his constituents' forgiveness in a speech at the Louisville Opera House. The turnout for the election was the highest in the history of the district, resulting in Breckinridge's defeat by a few hundred votes.

It was the end of Breckinridge's political career. He died on November 18, 1904 in Lexington, Kentucky.

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Sunday, August 27, 2006

Kongfuzi, or Confucius

American pop culture, in its habitually rude and fuzzy way, tends to place Kongfuzi somewhere between a temple deity worshipped by "Confucians" in China, and a caricature of a bearded old wise man who writes fortune cookies or punch-lines for Earl Derr Biggers.

Notwithstanding the gradual stimulation of a temple-going "cult of Confucius" among nobles in China (something Jesuit missionaries mistook for an organized religion when they reported on the phenomenon to the West in the 16th century, renaming Kongfuzi "Confucius"), Kongfuzi was a minor bureaucrat but an honored teacher, whose ideas came to dominate Chinese ethical and political philosophy for much of the last two and a half millennia. At the height of his official influence during his own lifetime, he served as chief of police, staring down thugs on the mean streets of Lu.

Dirty Harry he was not, however; soon after his appointment, beleaguered by the jealous back-stabbing of other bureaucrats and minor nobility, Kongfuzi was forced out of his position and driven into exile, wandering through the states of Wei, Song, Chen, Cai and Chu looking for an enlightened ruler who would value his ideas, but instead meeting indifference during a period of heightened factional violence and unrest.

He returned to Lu in 484 B.C.E., settling down to teach his political philosophy and to edit what have come to be known as the "Confucian classics," including The Great Learning, The Doctrine of the Mean, and the Analects. As a teacher, he was a great popular success, attracting more than 3,000 students and 72 official "disciples," as well as earning the title "Ultimate Sage-Teacher"; still, it was not until the Han Dynasty (beginning 206 B.C.E.) that the Chinese nobility began to distinguish Kongfuzi's thought from other thinkers of his time and to canonize his works as officially-favored doctrine, assisted by the elaborations of Mencius, Xunzi and other subsequent disciples.

Kongfuzi's ideas must be seen as having grown out of the period of social and political chaos that robbed the Chou dynasty of emperors of their legitimate authority, ceding it to factions controlling each of the states of imperial China. In his own view, Kongfuzi merely sought to re-establish the social order in the way that the so-called "ancient kings" had established it, and that by introducing the ancient values Kongfuzi was merely acting as the messenger of older ideas.

The key concept in Kongfuzi's thought is ren, translated as "love of man" -- a humanitarian insight into the society that surrounds one, the highest virtue and the ultimate goal of receiving a proper education in "gentlemanly ways." To attain ren, good citizens practice li, a combination of rituals, customs, manners and protocols that, for Kongfuzi, were not necessarily fixed, but represent the acceptable social rules for one's time and place. The higher principle that helps to shade these proprieties is yi, or righteousness premised upon rationality. Thus, guided by reciprocal, practical respect and empathy for others within one's community (yi), one cultivates virtue (ren) by practicing good moral habits (li). However, ren was not, for Kongfuzi, merely a system of self-realization; his view was that the purpose of education was to guide individuals to the attainment of ren in order to create a governable, peaceful society.

In his teachings on the best practices of rulers, Kongfuzi de-emphasizes legislation and traditional law enforcement in favor of governing "with morality, as if he [the ruler] were the Northern Star, staying in his position, surrounded by all other planets." Ultimately, the ruler who governs with morality and as a moral example will be more effective, in Kongfuzi's view, than one who governs by strict law enforcement. As he writes in the Analects: "If you lead people with political force and restrict them with law and punishment, they can just avoid law violation, but will have no sense of honor and shame. If you lead them with morality and guide them with li, they will develop a sense of honor and shame, and will do good of their own accord."


Saturday, August 26, 2006

Cristoforo Colombo

Denounced by some as a slaver and a thief, celebrated by others as the man who brought European civilization to the wilderness of the Western hemisphere, Christopher Columbus is at once a stock character on the stage of history about whom even schoolchildren can muster a few key facts, and yet something of a mystery when one attempts to view him in three dimensions. It is easiest and most faithful to render him as a man of action.

Born on this day in 1451 in Genoa, he was a sailor from the age of 14, settling in Lisbon in the 1470s after being wrecked off the coast of Portugal during a fight with some Venetian galleys; and over the years of voyages to Madeira and the Azores he became convinced that it was possible to reach Asia quickly by sailing west from Europe.

At the age of 33, he attempted to convince John II of Portugal to finance his unusual scheme in 1484, but John figured he had already spent good money and received good value in India by the Eastern route. Spain, on the other hand, had few possessions outside Europe other than the tiny Canary Islands off the coast of Africa. Thus it was with great economic interest that Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain eventually (after Columbus shopped the idea around England and France) invested in Columbus' gambit in 1492, hoping to find an easier trade route to India which might allow them to beat the Portuguese at their own game. With Isabella, however, it was more than just a financial matter; she hoped, and Columbus himself believed, that a Spanish route to India would result in the conversion of the Asian peoples to Christianity. The College of Salamanca advised against the investment, not on the basis that they disagreed with Columbus' assessment that the Earth was round, but because they believed the ocean stretching between the shores of Spain and the shores of China was unfathomably and impractically vast for navigation.

Nonetheless, with Spanish sponsorship, Columbus sailed from Palos on August 3, 1492 in 3 ships, the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria, which were shabby and ill-equipped by Portuguese standards. After two months of sailing without land in sight, with Columbus' crews near mutiny, they spotted land on October 12. Columbus disembarked, with a letter to the grand khan in hand and an Arabic interpreter in tow, only to find the friendly, naked Arawak natives of what would come to be known as the Bahamas. Still in pursuit of China, Columbus set sail again and found Cuba (which he named Hispaniola) and started a small Spanish colony there with 40 members of his crew.

When he returned to Spain in March 1493, he maintained that he had found a new route to Asia, although skeptics cautiously settled on the notion that he had discovered some previously uncharted Indian islands ("Indies") far across the Atlantic. More importantly, Columbus brought back some gold with him, which intrigued Isabella and Ferdinand and spurred them to apply for and receive from Alexander VI the exclusive right to colonize the islands on which Columbus had landed, regardless of what they were.

Columbus was now hailed as a hero, and for his efforts he managed to extract a knighthood, the rank of Admiral of the Ocean and Viceroy of the Indies, and 10% of the wealth his voyages would reap. He returned with 17 vessels and 1,500 men in 1493, and was instructed to convert the natives to Christianity, expand the reach of Spanish power over the resources in the Indies and continue his search for the Asian ports. Upon reaching Hispaniola, he found certain indigenous factions were none too happy to see the Europeans, and Columbus inaugurated the practice of sending military expeditions inland to subdue the intransigent locals, slaughtering many of them, placing others into slavery (threatening to cut off the hands of those who did not collect their daily quota of gold for the Spanish treasury) and holding others hostage for more gold.

Upon his return in 1496, he found that the Spanish were not happy with his progress -- indeed, Isabella was horrified by his delivery of Indian slaves to her court -- and his exclusive license for exploration was terminated. During his third expedition up and down the uncharted South American coast (1498-1500), Columbus was arrested and placed in irons by the Spanish royal emissary, Francisco de Bobadilla, for "interference" -- although one suspects that he was really being punished for his poor administration of the colony at Hispaniola, which by that time was in disarray.

In hindsight it appears that the wild-eyed, arthritic old sailor had begun to lose his mind, struggling against the tide of cognitive dissonance between his lifetime goal and the magnitude of what he had actually accomplished by threatening to hang anyone who denied they were in India. Back in Spain, he managed to redeem himself in the eyes of the court (in part by appealing to their humanity; he insisted on wearing his chains until Isabella could see them), and was given one last fleet in 1502, which he used to explore the south shore of the Gulf of Mexico. He returned, ill, in 1504, and died in relative obscurity two years later in Valladolid, Spain.

Ultimately this blunt and grasping Genoan whose ill-formed vision drove him westward left little direct impact on the lands which he encountered, but he did test the endurance and capabilities of Spanish ships and their crews, brought new lands indelibly into the European consciousness and within the reach of European entrepreneurs, and set in motion the conquest and transformation of an entire continent.


Pictures of Old Montana

"Never was she described as English or American by her admirers. They just called her a Montanan . . . for she is the very embodiment of the spirit of that great state." -- M. Charter.

Photographer and diarist Evelyn Jephson Cameron was born on this day in 1868 at Furze Dawn Park, near Streatham, England.

Cameron, the daughter of a successful English country gentleman and merchant, took up ranching on the Montana plains with her husband, Ewen Cameron in 1889, and shortly thereafter began to chronicle her life in the American West by writing a diary and teaching herself the craft of photography. Her photos became well-known locally; for 35 years she labored semi-professionally, carefully recording the barren badlands landscapes and the hard-bitten people who lived there. In her stark photos she revealed, from an intimate, honest point of view, the unconventional beauty of her adopted home.

Her local notoriety began to fade after he death, on December 26, 1928 in eastern Montana, following an appendectomy, but her remarkable body of work was rediscovered in the 1970s. A comprehensive survey of her work can be found at Evelyn Cameron: Frontier Photographer.

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Taking His Shot at Politics

Tintype innovator and America's first presidential nominee from a socialist party, Simon Wing, was born on this day in 1826 in St. Albans, Maine.

Simon Wing helped to popularize the tintype -- an inexpensive photographic process involving the making of pictures on enamelled iron which was introduced by Adolphe Alexandre Martin in 1853 -- by opening studios across the country and inventing new cameras. Starting as a daguerrotypist in Waterville, Maine when he was 20, Wing patented the earliest "multiplying camera" (which Wing dubbed the "Gem Camera") in 1860, by which he was capable of making as many as 616 half-inch square images on a single iron plate using multiple lenses. By the 1870s, Wing had opened tintype studios in Boston, Detroit, Toledo and as far west as Sacramento and San Francisco, making affordable photography available to the working class of America for the first time in history, and continued to patent improvements to his cameras. In his Boston shop, he made tintypes of each member of the Massachusetts legislature, and a small group of Boston politicians loved to frequent his establishment.

Perhaps as an extension of Wing's interest in both his working class clientele and the theater of politics (or maybe it was just pure political altruism), the retail photography magnate joined America's first socialist political party, the Socialist Labor Party -- led in the 1890s by militant Marxist theorist Daniel DeLeon, with the goal of converting the American Federation of Labor and other unions to its ranks. Although it was clear that Wing was a mere dilettante in the cause of socialism, at the nominating convention in New York City in 1892, Wing was nominated as the Party's first presidential candidate, with electrician Charles Matchett as his running mate. DeLeon himself later remarked that Wing's principal qualification for being nominated was that he resembled "Uncle Sam."

Wing placed last among party-supported candidates in the November election with 21,164 votes, behind Democrat Grover Cleveland (the winner, with 5,556,918 votes), Republican Benjamin Harrison (the losing incumbent, with 5,176,108 votes), Populist James B. Weaver (1,041,028) and Prohibitionist John Bidwell (264,133).

Although he served for a time as treasurer of the Boston section of the Socialist Labor Party, after 1892 Simon Wing was not a factor in party politics. He died December 17, 1916 in Charlestown, Massachusetts.

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Friday, August 25, 2006


"We had individuality. We did as we pleased. We stayed up late. We dressed the way we wanted. I'd whiz down Sunset Boulevard in my open Kissel . . . with several red chow dogs to match my hair. Today they're sensible and end up with better health. But we had more fun." -- Clara Bow, 1951.

Silent film star Clara Bow, known as the "'It girl," was born on this day in 1905 in Brooklyn, New York.

Clara was rescued from her impoverished home (her father was a Coney Island waiter) when she won a movie fan magazine beauty contest at 16. After a succession of bit parts, she hit the big time in 1925 when producer B.P. Schulberg turned the Paramount Studios publicity machine on, reinventing Bow as an energetic, carefree flapper, a party-girl who leaped out of the pages of F. Scott Fitzgerald, with her bobbed red hair, cute bee-stung lips and bright brown eyes. In 1927, she starred in Elinor Glyn's It, and Glyn endorsed the casting choice, pronouncing Bow the greatest living example of "it" -- a quality which subsumed sex appeal and an unconscious, animal-like vitality. In fact, Glyn said four people in Hollywood had "it": Bow; actor Tony Moreno; Rex, the wild stallion (a Hal Roach animal star); and the Ambassador Hotel doorman. Her portrayal of the flirtatious ambulance driver in William Wellman's Wings (1927) was another notable success.

Before the end of the silent period, however, Bow's popularity began to decline, with rumors of her gargantuan sexual appetite (exaggerated, especially the untrue story that she once serviced the entire USC football team) stimulating an ounce of Midwestern moral outrage of the type felt in the wake of the Fatty Arbuckle and Wallace Reid scandals. In the late 1920s, she suffered from mental and physical exhaustion, but tried her hand at a few talking pictures nonetheless. True, her Brooklyn accent did not rest easily on the ears, but it was no worse than the accent of early talking star May McAvoy; the truth was that the time of the flapper had passed, and America was uncomfortable with the loose-living alcoholic daughters it had suffered during the Jazz Age.

Miss Bow was a hangover memory when she eloped with cowboy actor (and later lieutenant governor of Nevada) Rex Bell in 1931. While Bell led his public life, Bow spent a great deal of time in sanitariums. She died in 1965.


Thursday, August 24, 2006

Dorothy Comingore

As Charles Foster Kane's "singer" and somewhat simple-minded second wife "Susan Alexander," giggling, shrieking, crying and doing jigsaw puzzles in the great hall of Xanadu in Citizen Kane (1941), Dorothy Comingore gave a performance of remarkable range which, at times, is uncomfortable to watch for its nakedness. She never really had a chance to show what she could do before or afterward.

Born on this day in 1913 in Los Angeles, the daughter of a labor activist who helped to organize the printers at the Los Angeles Times and the dockworkers in San Francisco, Comingore attended Berkeley and studied religious philosophy. She inherited her father's political commitment to leftist causes, and after college, while modeling for artists in Taos, New Mexico, she married Robert Meltzer, who shortly thereafter was killed fighting the fascists in Spain. She returned to California and joined the Little Theatre in Carmel, where she was spotted by Charlie Chaplin, who invited her out for tea to talk "theater and politics."

The otherwise insignificant event got press coverage (as Chaplin's private life often did) and landed Comingore a contract at Warners, working under the name "Linda Winters." She languished there and at Columbia, in part for her precocious, feminist insubordination and in part for her tendency to try to improve working conditions for the technicians behind the camera.

When Orson Welles first arrived in Hollywood, he screened a number of older movies, and noticed Comingore in a B-feature called Prison Train (1938). Married by this time to screenwriter Richard Collins and expecting her first child, Comingore got a call that Welles wanted her for Citizen Kane. Welles told her not to worry about being pregnant, that they'd film in a hurry. After his gift of a role, Welles proceeded to treat her rather poorly on the set; later critics saw this as Welles' way of inspiring the kind of disgust you see in Comingore's eyes near the end of story, and if that is the case, the technique might have appealed to Comingore since she had studied Stanislavskian method acting. Critics who liked Kane liked Comingore very much, but her already-checkered reputation with studio execs was not helped by the backlash against Kane from much of the Hollywood inner circle.

Apart from a few minor triumphs (The Beggars are Coming to Town, on Broadway, 1945; The Big Night, 1951), Comingore's next years turned painful. She was hauled before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952 (most likely on a tip from her ex-husband), where she flippantly refused to answer questions. Branded as a "red," she was blacklisted in Hollywood. Collins then used her alcohol problem and her "red" connections to gain custody of their two children later that year. In 1953, she was arrested for allegedly soliciting a pair of Los Angeles County vice cops, but the charges were dropped (after Comingore's jail photo made the papers); later that year, she was committed to the psychopathic ward of the state mental hospital.

She was convinced that she was being harassed by the government for her politics, which (true or not) led her to exhibit paranoid behavior, constantly moving to avoid detection after her release from the hospital. It was the beginning of a long, slow descent into darkness. Happenstance brought her to seek refuge from a New Year's Eve blizzard in a small country store run by a Connecticut postman, and time and relative solitude apparently helped to heal her. She eventually married the postman, living out her days with their 2 dogs and 10 cats, rarely feeling the need to acknowledge her Hollywood past. She passed away on December 30, 1971 in Stonington, Connecticut.


Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Krazy Kat

Cartoonist George Herriman, Creole creator of the comic strip Krazy Kat (beginning in 1914), was born on this day in 1880 in New Orleans.

Krazy Kat -- an ironic, surreal fantasy set in a fictional Southwestern desert mesa known as Coconino, in which Krazy, a romantic addle-brained optimist, carries a torch for the beady-eyed realist Ignatz Mouse, despite the fact that Ignatz's favorite activity is throwing bricks at Krazy's noggin.

The strip was long appreciated by critics, who noted Herriman's devotion to Cervantes' Don Quixote de la Mancha throughout his work; at the height of its popularity, art critic Gilbert Seldes, in his book The Seven Lively Arts (1924), called Krazy Kat "the most amusing and fantastic and satisfactory work of art produced in America today." Herriman's comic strip also inspired a jazz-pantomime ballet, scored by John Alden Carpenter (1922), and an apocalyptic novel, by Jay Cantor (1987).

Herriman died on April 25, 1944 in Hollywood.


Saturday, August 19, 2006


Andrea del Castagno died of plague on this day in 1457 in Florence, around the age of 36.

Castagno's reputation served a centuries-long prison sentence for a crime Castagno could not have committed: Vasari wrote that the violent Castagno was so jealous of the painting of his friend Domenico Veneziano that he murdered Domenico one night, and later confessed to the murder on his own deathbed. The only catch, unearthed in the 19th century, was that Castagno had died before Domenico.

While there is now no reason to believe Castagno was a murderer (thus freeing us for a more objective critical assessment of his work) it somehow seems appropriate to imagine that Castagno was an ill-tempered character: contrast his tortured, psychologically dark portraits of the saints with Domenico's serene figures, and the styles give a particle of truth to Vasari's lie.

By legend Castagno was a shepherd who liked to draw while he minded his flock when he was discovered by a member of the powerful Medici family, who brought him to Florence and arranged for him to serve in an apprenticeship with a master (possibly Domenico, Paolo Uccello or Fra Filippo Lippi). After gaining fame in Florence as "Andrea of the hanged men" for his painting of an execution at the Palazzo del Podesta, he painted for a time in Venice (notably the ceiling frescoes at Codussi's Church of San Zaccaria, 1442), and in 1444 he returned to Florence. His sculptural renderings of figures within organized, credible spaces were distinct from those of his contemporaries by the inner life he gives them through a variety of approaches.

His portrait of St. Julian at SS. Annunziata (c. 1454) is as subtle yet convincing a picture of murderous guilt as had ever been seen in Renaissance painting; his Vision of St. Jerome (c. 1454) by contrast, shows a broadly convulsive, agonizing wilderness prophet, perhaps the most dramatic portrait of religious ecstasy in its time. His masterpiece is an under-appreciated Last Supper (1447), tucked away in a refectory at S. Appollonia in Florence: Castagno paints the familiar scene with a series of marble panels appearing behind Jesus and his disciples, which panels seem to reflect the respective emotional states of the players; behind Judas Iscariot, the panel erupts in a violent, irregular pattern with contrasting colors, suggesting (in a manner which presages the 20th century idiom of Abstract Expressionism) the inner turmoil of Judas at the instant at which, traditionally, the devil seizes Judas's soul.

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Gustav Caillebotte was born on this day in 1848 in Paris.

In his day, Caillebotte was thought of as an amateur painter and was much better known for organizing and financing some of the great exhibitions of Impressionist painting in Paris, showing side by side the works of such artists as Monet, Manet, Renoir, Pissarro, Degas, Sisley and Cezanne. Younger than the great painters, he was still a law student when Monet and Renoir started discussing the idea of a group exhibition. Caillebotte, who designed brightly sailed racing boats as a sidelight, befriended Monet, his neighbor at Argentueil, created a floating studio for him and infected Monet with his passion for gardening.

Behind the scenes in Paris, Caillebotte did more than almost anyone to further the Impressionist movement, raising funds to keep the artists clothed and sheltered and using his considerable skills at organization, diplomacy and advocacy to carve a niche of respectability for the rogue painters.

His own paintings, beginning in the 1870s, are powerful examples of the movement he helped to foster: in such works as Pont de l'Europe (1876), Paris Street: Rainy Day (1876-77) and The Floor Strippers (1875), Caillebotte shows a preference for viewing urban scenes from unusual viewpoints. Seemingly unstudied compositionally, Caillebotte paintings appear to be snapshots, catching ordinary people in unlikely spots within the frame of view: his figures often enter the foreground abruptly, or walk away with faces momentarily hidden by umbrellas or hats -- caring little for the artist's ordinary sense of order and harmony. Caillebotte combined this pictorial immediacy with a delicate sense of color and lighting effects, certainly less ethereal than his friend Monet, for example, and perhaps closer in spirit to the work of Manet or Degas.

When he died in 1894, Caillebotte bequeathed his personal collection of Impressionist works to the French government, which at the time was unfortunately unprepared to deal with such treasures, keeping them hidden from view for many years. Finally, most of the works in Caillebotte's bequest were permanently displayed at the Musee d'Orsay in Paris.

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Friday, August 18, 2006

Genghis Khan

An influential Mongol warrior had a son and named him Temujin after an enemy leader whose fighting skills he had admired. When Temujin was just 9, his father was killed; and shortly thereafter, Temujin was taken prisoner and placed in a heavy wooden collar. He soon freed himself, and helped his family subsist by snaring marmots and catching fish, hardening himself in the desolate Mongol plains for a life at war.

By his early teens, Temujin had earned a reputation as a fierce warrior, consolidating several tribes under his leadership. While still not 20, he married a child princess from a neighboring tribe for diplomatic reasons, only to have her kidnapped by the Merkit tribe. Temujin raised an army and decimated the Merkits, rescuing his bride and earning the respect of other tribes who felt persuaded to surrender to his leadership.

By the age of 25, Temujin had for the first time ever united all of the Mongol tribes under his rule, earning for himself the title of "Genghis Khan," or "universal lord." His secret was brilliant organization and strategy, rather than brute force. His tribes were required to maintain local defense forces, each of which was initially trained and disciplined by handpicked clan members; before any onslaught, Genghis relied heavily on advance scouts to detect weaknesses; and he used psychological terror, making sure the legends of his ruthless butchering were spread far and wide to persuade certain enemies to fold without a fight.

After consolidating Mongolia, he invaded China in 1206, using catapults and other siege machines to breach the Great Wall within two years of fighting. In 1219, in retaliation for the murders of two of his diplomatic envoys, he turned westward, and captured Turkestan, Iran and Iraq; following that with an invasion of northern India and Pakistan to the South. After invading Russia in 1222, Genghis Khan occupied land from the Persian Gulf all the way to the Arctic Ocean, from Poland to Korea. From conquered cities, Genghis drew even greater strength for his war machine, raising tax money and troops from the vanquished until his riders were "more numerous than ants or locusts" or than "the sand of the desert or the drops of rain" (i.e. at the conquest of Samarkand in Uzbekistan, for example, somewhere around 80,000 heavy cavalry, Genghis' dark horde, with hundreds of thousands of light cavalry archers shooting flaming arrows).

Under Genghis' rule, even though they burned temples and mosques in the service of conquest, the Mongols were surprisingly tolerant of religious differences; in addition to worshippers of Tengri, as Genghis himself was, Genghis' tribes contained Buddhists, Muslims and Christians, and no one was punished for worshipping a different god. He established efficient governments over his conquered peoples and provided them with ample food and security. Although his riders prized the gold, jewels, silk and women they commandeered during their raids, Genghis seems to have cared little for loot, instead viewing conquest itself as "man's greatest good fortune." He died on this day in 1227 around the age of 65.

Only 150 years after his death, of natural causes, was his empire to fall, principally due to in-fighting. Today he is remembered with pride in modern Mongolia as the founding father, Mongolia's George Washington, appearing "cat-eyed" on everything from the Mongolian currency to vodka labels.


Thursday, August 17, 2006

Tractor-Drivin' Beauty Queen

In September 1948, "Miss Minnesota" BeBe Shopp became the first woman to be crowned Miss America while wearing her formal evening gown instead of the usual swimsuit. Press photographers threatened to boycott the competition on account of the change in protocol, but were ultimately charmed by the 18-year old vibraharp-playing farm girl, who told them, "I drive a tractor. I clean the chicken coops. I mix cement."

While on her post-victory tour, she punctuated the Miss America Pageant's sudden body-bashful turn by declaring that "falsies are not honest" and that designer Louis Reard's bikini swimsuit was nothing but "a dab here and a bit down there and back there." "So much unrestrained nudity," she asserted, "has a bad moral effect on men, as well as on people generally. For France, maybe it's okay. But, I don't think that sort of thing is good for the thinking of people generally, which should always be clean thinking. The world needs lots of clean thinking."

Shopp subsequently became a Christian lay minister and a VISTA volunteer.

BeBe Shopp was born on this day in 1930 in Hopkins, Minnesota.


Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Messmer Gets His Due

Otto Messmer was born on this day in 1892 in West Hoboken, New Jersey.

A correspondence school art student, Messmer began his career illustrating fashion catalogues but, inspired by the vaudeville act and early animated cartoons of Winsor McCay, he started to try to break in to newspaper comic strips by contributing to Fun and the Sunday New York World. In 1915, he was hired by Raoul Barre Animated Cartoons, but didn't have much of a chance to prove his mettle before he shipped off to World War I as a telegraph operator in the Army Signal Corps.

After the War, he joined former Barre animator Pat Sullivan (fresh from Sullivan's stint in prison for statutory rape) in Sullivan's new independent shop to produce short travelogue parodies for Triangle Films. Asked to create a filler-series for Paramount in 1919, Messmer came up with an adventurous, wide-awake, lucky little cat-hero, painted black at Sullivan's request to save time -- and "Felix the Cat" was born. Sullivan, however, claimed credit for the cartoon's birth, and kept Messmer's name off the screen for over 175 silent shorts while "Felix" became a national phenomenon and Sullivan raked in the money on Felix merchandise.

When Sullivan's irresponsible lifestyle caught up with him and he died in 1933, Messmer found himself without a studio and with no rights to Felix. He happily and humbly continued to draw Felix, however, as a comic strip for Felix's owners (King Features), turned down the chance to direct more Felix cartoons in the 1930s (he thought of Felix as a silent cat, and was unwilling to take on the burden of giving him a voice and drowning him in Technicolor), and bounced around in various studios.

In 1937 he began an association with Leigh-EPOK, and while continuing to draw comic strips he became Leigh-EPOK's premiere designer of huge animated electronic signs for Times Square in New York for almost 40 years.

In the 1960s, as Joe Oriolo began to revive Felix for TV, Messmer finally got the recognition he deserved among the film animation community. Animation historian John Canemaker makes the case that Messmer was the unsung "inventor of character animation."

Messmer died on October 26, 1983 in Teaneck, New Jersey.

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Tuesday, August 15, 2006


A humorless, raw-tempered, 5'-4" to 5'-6" Corsican who possessed a vulgar twang when ordering his foie gras turned out to be the most influential French commander since Charlemagne, a fact which has left the proud French ambivalent about his memory. He was denied a burial in St. Denis, where the French kings are entombed, but given a dramatically set sarcophagus at the center of Les Invalides in Paris, inside seven nesting coffins ("to make sure he never gets out again," according to one wag).

Napoleon Bonaparte, born on this day in 1769 in Ajaccio, was the son of a minor Corsican nobleman whose family had never bothered itself with the dirty business of soldiering. Were it not for Napoleon being packed off to study at a military academy at Brienne, France, Napoleon might have followed his forefathers' footsteps as a gentleman landlord; but Napoleon became a voracious student of military history, and after completing his studies he joined the French artillery as a second lieutenant.

He was an active Jacobin as the French Revolution began, and when Corsica declared its independence, Napoleon completely severed his ties with his homeland, seeing his best hopes for advancement in supporting the revolutionaries. He became the hero at the British siege of Toulon, directing the focused barrage which resulted in French victory, and at 26, was promoted to brigadier general. Back in Paris, he happened to be on hand when a group of angry royalist protesters threatened to interrupt the revolutionary constitutional convention; he ordered a "whiff of grapeshot," a single artillery volley, to be fired at the crowd, which dispersed them so quickly that Napoleon was rewarded with the command of the Mediterranean army in Italy.

Following a quick succession of victories, by the end of 1797 he controlled most of Italy and Austria, and set his sights on Britain by attempting to disturb its Indian trade with an assault on Egypt. Avoiding a losing battle against Lord Nelson's fleet, Napoleon stopped his onslaught and returned to Paris, used the strength of his heroic reputation to assemble key supporters, and staged a quick coup over the Directory then ruling France, installing himself as first consul and leader of the French at age 30.

As an administrator, he was fast and effective -- he cracked down on street crime, began mandatory military conscription, and consolidated his power with new constitutions in 1802 and 1804, giving much to the appearance of democracy and the "sacred rights of property, equality and liberty" while ultimately giving himself the title of "emperor" (literally crowning himself in a ceremony in Paris on December 2, 1804, snatching the crown out of the hands of Pope Pius VII). His Napoleonic Code standardized laws, abolished serfdom, and provided freedom of religion and free education; it was the precedent for the laws of modern France, as well as Belgium, Quebec and the Louisiana Territory.

Successful at home, he grew tired of British attacks and restless for world domination. He planned to attack Britain, but his fleet was drawn into a devastating fight with the British at Trafalgar (led by Nelson again, who died winning); so Napoleon decided to move to the ground campaign (1805-7) in which he defeated Austria and Russia at Austerlitz, Prussia at Jena-Auerstadt, and Russia at Friedland using widely spaced columns of troops who lived off the land and moved with astonishing speed. By 1808, much of continental Europe was in his control, which he delegated to his brothers and nephews to rule over as constituent kings. His luck ran out, however, with an unsuccessful attack on Spain (in which he lost 300,000 troops) and the ill-fated invasion of Russia in 1812; his prize after slashing and burning his way across Eurasia was a self-immolated, abandoned Moscow, with no provisions for the winter. In retreat during 1813, Napoleon fought brilliantly against the coalition of Russian, Prussian, British and Swedish troops, but was defeated at Leipzig. He resisted an offer of a peace treaty with the coalition, which only inflamed his enemies, bringing them marching into Paris in January 1814; within 3 months, Napoleon had abdicated and accepted exile on the island of Elba.

In March 1815, however, he escaped and entered France at Cannes; his old compatriot Marshal Ney, sent to arrest him by Louis XVIII, instead joined him, beginning 100 days of moderately successful battles against the coalition. By June 1815, he and his troops had lost their spark, and Napoleon suffered his last, most decisive defeat at Waterloo, at the hands of Wellington and Blucher. Having already irrevocably changed the map of Europe, he surrendered again and was this time exiled to a British island in the South Atlantic, St. Helena.

This time, the formerly irrepressible Corsican settled into his fate gracefully, spending his time tending to his flower garden, horseback riding and playing with the neighborhood children. The Napoleonic legend sprang up almost immediately, fed by indulgent assessments by Lord Byron, Heine, Stendahl, Hugo and Walter Scott who saw him as the stabilizing harbinger of post-monarchial liberty, but balanced by popular preoccupations with his physical and emotional shortcomings.

Napoleon died on May 5, 1821 on St. Helena.


Sunday, August 13, 2006


"If I made Cinderella, the audience would be looking out for a body in the coach." -- Alfred Hitchcock.

Alfred Hitchcock's deliberately press agent-conceived public image -- the affably deadpan and macabre, rotund gnome who appeared in almost all of his films in winking cameos -- belied his meticulous, bullying personality as a director, although it did serve to create for him the franchise status of beloved ruler of the suspense-thriller (the so-called "Master of Suspense"), a status which is, in turn, somewhat belittling of a director whose technical skill and fluid use of the cinema vocabulary rivaled the best of the rest, no matter what their specialties of genre.

Born on this day in 1899 in London, after a harsh Jesuit upbringing, the chubby, unimpressive youth finished trade school (studying mechanics, acoustics and navigation) and in 1919 he insinuated his way onto the Islington studio lot of an American film unit, Famous Players-Lasky, with some of his own hand-painted title card designs. There he had the opportunity to watch closely and learn from the American filmmakers (who were far more technically-adept than British filmmakers of the time) while doing everything from scriptwriting, set decorating, editing and second unit directing, before Lasky folded the unit due to poor prospects in the British market in 1922.

He stayed on as independent film companies rented the Islington studios, and eventually began to direct for the new British studio of Balcon-Saville-Freedman. With admiration for the work of German filmmakers such as F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang, and an American sense of technical ingenuity, he did his best with below-average material, garnering critical attention when the material seemed to fit his particular literary sensitivities (and those of his wife, frequent collaborator Alma Reville). The Lodger (1926, with Ivor Novello) was his first success, and not incidentally it had a plot which would resurface in Hitchcock's best work -- the story of the innocent man accused and hunted by authorities and ordinary bystanders convinced of their moral superiority. By the time he made Britain's first sound film, Blackmail (1929, which went beyond the call of duty by featuring expressionistic sound gimmicks), he was already being hailed as the genius of British film.

Frustrated by being handed material unsuited to his temperament (including plays by Sean O'Casey and Noel Coward), he signed with Gaumont-British and was given free-reign over his choice of material, resulting in a string of 6 great and near-great thrillers which at their best combined breezy, witty dialogue with deathly ominousness: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934, with Peter Lorre), The 39 Steps (1935, with Robert Donat and the first in Hitchcock's line of cool blonde leading ladies, Madeleine Carroll), Secret Agent (1936, based on the Ashenden stories of Somerset Maugham, with Carroll, Lorre, John Gielgud and a sinister pre-Marcus Welby Robert Young), Sabotage (1937, adapted from a Joseph Conrad novel), Young and Innocent (1937) and The Lady Vanishes (1938, with Margaret Lockwood, Dame May Whitty and Michael Redgrave).

Selznick brought him to the U.S. in 1940, beginning a period which some rare critics and jealous supporters of British film see as the studio-tampered decline of his career, others as the beginning of the well-produced mature "masterpiece" period. With Rebecca (1940, from the Daphne DuMaurier novel, with Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier) he took a romantic novel and made it into a psychological thriller blessed with the opulent production values of Hollywood; it won the best picture Oscar that year, the only Hitchcock film to do so. After the stylish B-movie Foreign Correspondent (1940, with Joel McCrea and Laraine Day) and, strangely enough, a Carole Lombard screwball comedy, Hitchcock spent the rest of the 1940s making top-shelf suspense films with first-rate casts such as Suspicion (1941, with Fontaine and Cary Grant), a kind of full-length paranoiac joke of a thriller handled with grinning subtlety; Shadow of a Doubt (1942, with Joseph Cotten and Teresa Wright), in which evil, in the form of a long lost uncle, creeps in on a small-town American family; Lifeboat (1944, with Tallulah Bankhead), a technical challenge in which the action was confined to a lifeboat at sea; the Freudian thriller Spellbound (1945, with Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck and a Salvador Dali-designed dream sequence); Notorious (1946, with Bergman and Grant), a lushly realized tale of post-War double-crossing, both political and romantic; and Rope (1948, with James Stewart), his most audaciously conceived film, designed as one uninterrupted 81-minute shot.

Even as Hitchcock lent his image and black-humor predilections to a weekly TV anthology series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents without doing much work for it (1955-65; the theme, which became Hitchcock's personal theme music, was Funeral March of the Marionette by Gounod), most critics seem to agree that 5 of his 11 films from the 1950s were among his best: perhaps his most horrifying tale, Strangers on a Train (1951) in which a psychotic proposes an exchange of murders with a benign tennis pro then goes ahead with his side of the proposed bargain; Rear Window (1954, with Stewart and cool blonde Grace Kelly), in another constrained environment, arguably his best film; The Trouble with Harry (1956, with Shirley Maclaine), the blackest of comedies -- the trouble with Harry being that he is inconveniently dead; Vertigo (1958, with Stewart and cool blonde Kim Novak), a film of obsessions and nightmares, also a candidate for best Hitchcock film; and North by Northwest (1959, with Grant and cool blonde Eva Marie Saint), in which Hitchcock took the cross-country chase to its apotheosis, another arguable Hitchcock-best.

Psycho (1960), his first film of the new decade, has turned out to be his most famous for its terrifying shower attack, but the violence of the film made it atypical of Hitchcock's output. His last films showed flashes of interest (including memorable sequences in The Birds, 1963, and Marnie, 1964, both with cool blonde Tippi Hedren; Frenzy, 1972; and Family Plot, 1974), but his greatest work was behind him as he settled into retirement as the living legend.

More often analyzed than any other filmmaker, credited by some with exploring and manipulating on celluloid the deepest fears and anxieties of the human psyche, accused by others of making "Faberge eggs," beautiful on the outside but empty on the inside -- Hitchcock cared little for the intellectual speculation, saying only that his job was "to put the audience through it."


Saturday, August 12, 2006

John G. Schmitz

John G. Schmitz was born on this day in 1930 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

A Republican congressman representing a portion of conservative Orange County, California and a long-time member of the John Birch Society, Schmitz was chosen in 1972 as the presidential nominee of the American Independent Party, temporarily reunifying factions of the organization which sponsored George Wallace's presidential candidacy in 1968. Wallace, however, was a nationally-known figure with a populist flavor to his rhetoric; Schmitz, while having a caustic sense of humor, was not well known. In the absence of a strong Southern candidate, incumbent President Nixon was able to run a "Southern strategy" aimed at bringing conservative Southerners into the Republican column, with the result that while Wallace polled nearly 10 million votes in 1968, Schmitz and his running mate Tom Anderson garnered only 1,107,083 votes in 1972.

Schmitz was later elected to the California state legislature as a Republican. With his state senate seat disappearing due to redistricting at the end of 1982, Schmitz pursued the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in California, but lost in large part due to the controversy surrounding his characterization of legislative hearing witnesses testifying against abortion restrictions as "bull dykes" with "hard Jewish and arguably female faces."

Shortly after the primary, the fate of his political future was sealed when it was revealed that he had fathered 2 children in an extramarital affair with one of his political science students, the affair having come to light when the woman was accused of child abuse. The abuse charges were dropped, but Schmitz admitted to the affair and thereafter lost credibility with conservatives.

One of Schmitz’s daughters by his wife, Mary Kay Letourneau, was convicted of statutory rape in a highly publicized trial in 1997, for her involvement with her 13-year old student -- with whom she had 2 children while he was under-age, and whom she has subsequently married.

Schmitz died on January 10, 2001 in Bethesda, Maryland.

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Friday, August 11, 2006

President for a Day -- Not!

A lawyer, slave-holding farmer, Democratic Missouri state legislator and judge, David Rice Atchison was appointed to the U.S. Senate to replace a senator who had died in 1843. His election to 5 consecutive terms as president pro tempore of the Senate beginning in 1845 made him eligible to take part in a persistent myth of presidential trivia.

The myth goes that after the expiration of President James K. Polk's term in office on Saturday, March 3, 1849, Polk's successor, president-elect Zachary Taylor, refused to be sworn in on Sunday, March 4 for religious reasons; under the Presidential Succession Act of 1792, so the theory goes, in the event of a vacancy, the president pro tempore would act as president.

Not unlike the claims the Continental Congress president John Hanson was the true first president of the U.S., the legal analysis upon which many people seem to conclude that Atchison (as president pro tempore) was president for a day is flimsy at best: nothing in the Constitution at that time required an incoming president to take the oath of office on any particular day (only that the oath be taken before the assumption of actual duties); certainly Atchison didn't take an oath of office to fulfill the duties of the president on March 4, 1849; and there is even some question as to whether Atchison was officially serving as president pro tempore on March 4 (his term having expired, technically, on March 3, his reelection occurring on Monday, March 5). Atchison, for his own part, never seriously believed that he had acted as president for the day, and in fact spent most of March 4, 1849 asleep.

Subsequently, however, some have stubbornly clung to the myth, including the 1913 edition of the Biographical Congressional Directory as well as Missouri governor Sam Baker, who in 1928 went to Atchison's home town of Plattsburgh to dedicate a $15,000 statue of Atchison commemorating his 24-hour presidency.

David Rice Atchison was born on this day in 1807 in Frogtown, Kentucky, and died on January 26, 1886 in Gower, Missouri.


Thursday, August 10, 2006

Phoolan Devi

Her poverty and her iron will, seemingly able to withstand violence and dire humiliation, conspired to make Phoolan Devi a country folk hero in northern India -- a diminutive woman with a bandana around her head and a poisonous look in her eyes who struck such fear in the hearts of some that they would swear that she was 6 feet tall with hair the color of dried blood.

Bandit, parliamentarian and poverty activist Phoolan Devi, known as the "Bandit Queen," was born on this day around 1963 in Shekhpur Gudda, Uttar Pradesh, India. Her father was a member of the Mallah caste, a sub-caste of the lower caste Sudras (farmers and laborers), who had been duped out of his share of some ancestral land by his manipulative brother Biharilal and nephew Maiyadin. In protest, the defiant 10-year old Phoolan convinced her 13-year old sister to sit with her in the fields of what used to be her grandfather's land, eating sweet chic peas raised by Biharilal. Maiyadin had the girls kicked off of the property by the village authorities, and had their parents thrashed for failing to curb the children.

Following the incident, Phoolan's impoverished parents endeavored to find suitable husbands for the girls to keep them out of trouble. At 11, Phoolan was sold to a 30-year old man for a cow and a bicycle, and, barely comprehending of sexuality, was raped by her husband. She became a mere household slave when her husband took a second, older wife, and was ultimately abandoned by her husband for her insubordination.

Back home, Phoolan was harassed by higher caste men who considered divorced teenagers to be loose women, but her unwillingness to be anybody's fool frequently landed her in hot water with local authorities -- until, in 1979, she was kidnapped by daciots, roving gang members who terrorized the countryside, and raped by the gang-leader Babu Singh Gujar. The gang's second-in-command, Vikram Mallah, protested Babu's treatment of Phoolan, and during the ensuing fight, Vikram killed Babu. Phoolan pledged herself to her protector, and together Vikram and Phoolan lived off the land and outwitted bumbling local police as they terrorized the rich and committed reprisal attacks against local corrupt officials who targeted the lowest classes.

After Vikram was murdered by a pair of higher-caste Thakurs who wanted to take over the gang, Phoolan was briefly held hostage (again being subjected to multiple beatings and rapes), but escaped to become the leader of her own gang of daciots which was later implicated in the cold-blooded execution of 20 Thakur men during a raid on a wedding at Behmai.

Although Phoolan claimed she was not present at the raid, her notoriety led Indira Gandhi's government to direct the police to make a deal for her surrender. After believing that she had secured an agreement that she would receive only 8 years in prison, on February 12, 1983 she surrendered to authorities before a cheering crowd of several thousand in a concert theater in Bhind, placing a wreath on a picture of Mahatma Gandhi before handing over her rifle and 25 bullets and being led away by police. Phoolan was charged with 48 crimes, including the massacre of the 20 men at Behmai, and due to delayed trials she ended up serving 11 years in prison, before emerging in 1994 as a lower-caste heroine.

In 1995 she formed a social welfare organization, Eaklavya Sena, and in 1996, following the publication of her autobiography I, Phoolan Devi, she was elected to the lower-caste house of the Indian Parliament. Although she was a formidable voice for the plight of poor Indian women, the cloud of unprosecuted criminal charges continued to hang over her, and northern Indian Thakurs were particularly bitter in their denunciation of the Bandit Queen as a murderer.

She was assassinated on July 25, 2001 in New Delhi. Several Thakurs were arrested and charged with conspiracy in her death.

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Tuesday, August 08, 2006


Tomas de Berlanga, a Dominican friar and bishop of Panama, died on this day in 1551 in Berlanga, Spain.

Berlanga made a career out of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. As bishop of Panama, he was directed by Charles V to go to Peru to intercede in the conflict between the joint captains of the newly established Spanish colony in Peru, Francisco Pizzaro and Diego de Amalgro. On his way from Panama to Peru, however, his ship went off course and drifted out into the Pacific Ocean, where he accidentally discovered the Galapagos Islands -- a collection of desolate lava piles which would become important 300 years later in the works of Charles Darwin, whose writings would shake the foundations of the Church which sponsored Berlanga's mission. By the time Berlanga reached Peru, Pizzaro had already sent Amalgro to Chile, rendering fruitless any attempt by Berlanga to arbitrate their dispute. Pizzaro later had Amalgro put to death.

Speaking of fruit, a persistent legend holds that Berlanga is responsible for the cultivation of bananas in the New World, having picked them up in an unscheduled stop in the Canary Islands on his way from Spain to Santa Domingo.

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Monday, August 07, 2006

The Impossible

Sculptor Maria Martins was born on this day in 1900 in Campanha, Minas Gerais, Brazil.

The charismatic wife of a Brazilian UN diplomat, Maria Martins -- known among the New York surrealists simply as "Maria" -- began sculpting religious themes in a style similar to Paul Gauguin's wood carvings, but by the 1940s her large bronzes were figures writhing in psychological anguish, erotically delineated female nudes whose blind faces are shown in the midst of elastic metamorphosis -- changing into claws, vestigial limbs and animalistic gapes.

Martins had an affair with Marcel Duchamp during the early 1940s (she was the inspiration for his last major piece, Etant donnes, 1947), and although she returned to her husband, Duchamp seemed to linger over the memory of the affair for some time afterward. Some critics have noted that Martins' piece, The Impossible III (1946), created around the time that her relationship with Duchamp was ending, seemed to have been a metaphor for her relationship with Duchamp: it is comprised of two abstract figures, one masculine, one feminine, whose faces explode at each other with jagged, angry tentacles -- drawn to each other implacably but unable to resolve their conflicts.

Martins died on March 28, 1973 in Rio de Janeiro.


Sunday, August 06, 2006

The Fleming Myth

No one can underestimate the value of the antibiotic penicillin once it was unleashed on wartime infections in 1941: it has saved millions of lives, reducing the risk of infection associated with surgery and combating the mortal power of diseases such as pneumonia and meningitis. Alexander Fleming, its discoverer, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1945, and lauded as an instant celebrity, the world’s great genius.

In truth, Fleming was an adequate researcher with good common sense who had gained a solid reputation as a bacteriologist, publishing useful if ordinary journal articles on diseases such as acne and syphilis. In 1921 he studied his own nasal mucus and discovered that it contained lysozyme, an enzyme which ate bacteria without destroying living tissue. The only problem was that it did not seem to kill the bacteria associated with the post-nasal drip itself. Although the substance was later isolated by others and put to good use, Fleming himself let the matter sit.

In 1928, he was working with staphylococcus and noticed that some kind of mold (introduced accidentally while he was away on vacation) was killing off the bacteria in one of his laboratory petri dishes. The mold turned out to be something known as "penicillium," and was being grown for other research purposes on another floor in his building. Fleming named the antibacterial substance "penicillin," performed a few experiments using live animals and published an article on it, but failed to grasp the full importance of it.

In 1935, however, Howard Florey and Ernst Chain read Fleming’s article and for several years tested penicillin in their quest for an effective antibacterial agent. After confirming its power, they put it into mass production. Fleming, meanwhile, had been laboring away in obscurity when news of the great discovery hit the airwaves, and much to the surprise of Florey and Chain, paid a call on them in 1940 -- by which time Chain had assumed that Fleming was probably deceased. Chain did not hear from Fleming again until 2 years later, when Fleming wrote to him requesting some penicillin for a friend suffering from meningitis, along with instructions for the proper use of the antibiotic.

Enthusiastic reporters eventually seized on the story of the unknown, unpretentious Scot and, coupled with the mass adulation that the effectiveness of penicillin itself inspired, turned Fleming into a superstar. Florey and Chain shared in the Nobel Prize, but not in the celebrity. For his own part, Fleming was painfully aware of the exaggerated claims made for him in the press, and kept a scrapbook which he sardonically entitled "The Fleming Myth."

Sir Alexander Fleming, who was knighted in 1944, was born on this day in 1881 in Lochfield, Ayrshire, Scotland, and died on March 11, 1955.


Saturday, August 05, 2006


Guy de Maupassant was born on this day in 1850 at Chateau de Miromesnil, France.

After fighting in the Franco-Prussian War, Maupassant made ends meet as a government clerk in Paris for about 10 years while harboring a desire to make his living as a writer. He entered into an "apprenticeship" with Gustave Flaubert, an old family friend, submitting everything he wrote to Flaubert's rigorously critical eye. Nearly everything he produced during this period he discarded, until the publication of his short story "Boule de Suif" (1880) a few weeks before Flaubert's death; the story was an overnight sensation.

For ten years after that, Maupassant worked tirelessly, turning out nearly 300 short stories, several novels and three hundred magazine articles. The short story was the medium in which he showed his mastery, however. Among his greatest: "The Necklace" (about a couple who work for 10 years to replace a lost borrowed necklace only to find out that it was a fake); "The Mother of Monsters" (about a woman who deforms her unborn fetuses to be sold as freaks to traveling shows); "A Madman" (about a judge who kills and sends others to death for his crimes); "The Putter-to-Sleep" (about a suicide factory); "The Old Man" (about a family who hold a funeral party for its patriarch -- only he refuses to die until everyone sits down to dinner); "Mother Savage" (about a mother who exacts revenge on the Prussian Army for killing her son by boarding four soldiers and burning her own house down); "Of Doctor Heraclius Gloss" (about a man who believes in reincarnation who is sent to an asylum for treatment, is cured, and then becomes obsessed with killing animals); "The Flayed Hand" (about an Englishman pursued by a severed hand); "Who Knows?" (about a man whose furniture comes to life and escapes his house); and "The Horla" (about an unseen, malevolent presence which produces madness in people).

Ironic and macabre, Maupassant's stories objectively portray humanity's horrors without revealing any moral point of view; for Maupassant, all humans are beasts, and all dreams are meaningless. Already suffering from recurring bouts of syphillis by the time he became a literary star, he suffered from severe migraines and tried fresh-air (on his yacht, the Bel-Ami) and drugs to combat them, to no avail. After the death of his brother in an insane asylum in 1889, he feared for his own sanity and twice attempted suicide. He entered an asylum in January 1892, and died there 18 months later, on July 6, 1893.

An impressive list of filmmakers have based their works on Maupassant's stories, including D.W. Griffith (The Necklace, 1909), Henry King (The Woman Disputed, 1928, with Norma Shearer), Kenji Mizoguchi (Maria no Oyuki, 1935), John Ford (Stagecoach, 1939, based on "Boule de Suif"), Robert Wise (Mademoiselle Fifi, 1944),and Jean-Luc Godard (Masculin feminin, 1966, with Brigitte Bardot), not to mention Diary of a Madman (1963, starring Vincent Price).


Friday, August 04, 2006


"Virtually every jazz musician able to hold his instrument properly has at one time or another been described as a genius; patently, the description is usually unwarranted. But if the term means anything at all, it describes Armstrong." -- J.L. Collier.

The grandson of slaves, Louis Armstrong -- born on this day (not July 4) in 1901 in New Orleans --grew up in the squalor of New Orleans' Storyville section, in which prostitution, booze and violence -- as well as ragtime, "hot" music and brass band marches -- were plentiful. On New Year's Day, 1913, Armstrong was arrested for shooting a pistol in the air and sent to the Colored Waifs' Home. There, at the age of 13, he began to play the cornet for the school band without knowing how to read music, sounding out the alto harmonies by ear -- he later learned to read music while working on Mississippi showboats.

Within four years he was playing cornet in the Kid Ory band (replacing the acclaimed King Oliver, who moved to Chicago), then considered to be one of the best jazz bands in New Orleans. Oliver invited Armstrong to accompany him in Chicago in 1922, and he immediately established himself as the most accomplished and inventive jazz cornetist in the city. In 1924, Armstrong married Oliver's pianist, Lil Hardin (his second of three marriages), who convinced him to leave Oliver's band for the Fletcher Henderson orchestra.

After a year, Armstrong switched to the trumpet (considered to be solely a classical instrument at the time), formed a band with Lil as leader and marched into Okeh Studios to begin recording the sides which became landmarks in the history of jazz, known as Armstrong's "Hot Fives" and "Hot Sevens" recordings. With a warm, full tone, clean attack and astonishing control of the high register of the trumpet, Armstrong's playing was immediately recognizable, his melodies conversational yet enclosed within a meticulously composed structure. He was also one of the earliest jazz musicians (both as trumpeter and vocalist) to take drastic liberties with the time signatures of his pieces, not only extending his phrases and depositing the melody in odd gaps between the beats as others had done before him, but setting whole phrases of melody in a time signature comfortably and richly irrelevant to the beat.

Armstrong toured tirelessly beginning in the 1930s, and for a time continued to make cutting-edge jazz records. By the 1950s, Armstrong was a popular star of stage, screen and radio, appearing in such films as Cabin in the Sky (1943; with Ethel Waters), High Society (1956; with Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra) and Hello Dolly! (1969; with Barbra Streisand). While his new audience loved his clowning and googly-eyed mugging as he sang pop songs, his early fans were saddened to find him shamelessly appealing to white markets and abandoning his jazz mastery. While Armstrong's oft-played, sentimental vocal rendition of "Wonderful World" (1958) has become something of an American classic, Armstrong the revolutionary musician can still be found in early trumpet triumphs such as "Hotter than Hot" (1927), "Potato Head Blues" (1927) and "Stardust" (1931). Perhaps the most profound legacy he left to jazz was on the outline of the art form itself: after Armstrong, jazz would also be a soloist's saga, not a tale of heroic groups. Armstrong died on July 6, 1971 in New York City.

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