Friday, April 27, 2007

U.S. Grant

"Grant was manipulated by the managers and operators of a post-Civil War spoils system that subordinated every facet of the federal government to their own devious ends. Grant merely presided at the White House during the height of the Gilded Age while the spoilsmen and big-business moguls not only ran the country, but ran off with most of the gilt." -- Nathan Miller.

The man who became the toughest Union general of the Civil War was a shy, sensitive and somewhat squeamish child who showed little promise in anything except taking care of horses. Little more could be said of U.S. Grant through his career at West Point Military Academy (from which he graduated 21 of 39 cadets), his Mexican War service under General Zachary Taylor (other than that he was cast as "Desdemona" in fellow soldier James Longstreet's production of Shakespeare's Othello while awaiting battle), or his subsequent military service and attempt to establish a farm in St. Louis, all of which culminated in his having to accept a job as a clerk in his father's leather goods store in Galena, Illinois at the age of 38 in order to provide for his family.

Although Ulysses S. Grant was born on this day in 1822 in Point Pleasant, Ohio, it was the Civil War that gave birth to U.S. Grant as a historical protagonist, though perhaps his leviathan patience (which he cultivated while breaking horses in his youth) was the key to his fortunes as a general. His successes in the recapture of Fort Donelson in Tennessee and at the Battles of Shiloh and Vicksburg earned him Lincoln's admiration and the nickname "(U)nconditional (S)urrender Grant." The essence of his strategy was to keep hitting General Lee's Confederate Army and to simply outlast him, which he ultimately did as Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865.

In the turmoil that followed Lincoln's assassination, the Republicans and the country not surprisingly looked to the non-ideological war hero for comfort. Grant served two terms as president (from 1869 to 1877) and was considered for an unprecedented third term in 1880, though his administration was scandal-ridden and he exercised little control over the rampant activities of the Northern industrialists who elected him or the efforts of Reconstruction politicians to limit the scope of freedom for the African-Americans who were freed during the War. Grant's own conduct was beyond reproach ethically speaking, and in the final analysis he seems to have been the victim of most of the scenarios in which he was involved following the War.

After retiring from politics, Grant lost his fortune when his son Buck's brokerage firm went bankrupt, and braved cancer while writing his Memoirs in order to provide an income for his family. He died of throat cancer on July 23, 1885 at Mt. McGregor, New York.


Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Pope Joan Myth

From the 13th to the 17th centuries, there was a persistent legend, told both within the Roman Catholic Church and by the Church's enemies, that a woman had once served as pope. In the most common version of the tale, a young woman from Mainz who had studied in Athens, dressed as a man, settled in Rome as a cleric and was elected pope as "John Anglicus," styled as John VIII, after the death of Leo IV in 855. Her real gender was exposed two years later, however, as she rode in a procession from St. Peter's to the Lateran, giving birth to a child (from a secret liaison with a secretary-deacon) on a narrow street between the Colosseum and S. Clemente. Enraged, Roman onlookers are said to have tied her to her horse's tale, dragged her around the city in disgrace and stoned her to death, to be succeeded by Benedict III.

Her first "biographer" was a 13th century senior scholar within the Church and later the archbishop of Gneisen, Martin Polonus, who acknowledged her existence in his otherwise dispassionate chronicle of popes, but observed that because of her fraud she was not included in the official papal registry. Subsequent writers, including Petrarch and Boccaccio, embellished the tale, but the basic facts seem to have been accepted as truth by the Church and its partisans for a few centuries -- a bust of Pope Joan had stood among the gallery of pontiffs in Siena Cathedral until 1601, and allegedly John XXI had accounted for Joan in numbering himself as the XXIst John in the papal list.

Catholic writers began to bristle at the notion of a female pope in the 16th century, but the legend was considered "demolished" by a Protestant writer, David Blondel in the 1650s. Nonetheless, modern proponents of the "Pope Joan" myth point to some unusual traditions which seem to have grown up within the Church as evidence of her existence -- including the curious pontifical election ritual practiced from the 10th to the 16th centuries in which the selected candidate was required sit in a birth-chair with a hole underneath at the time of investiture, allegedly so that a representative cardinal could inspect the candidate's gender, and the tradition that subsequent popes allegedly avoided the narrow street on which Joan supposedly gave birth. Subsequent soundings of the "Pope Joan" story include Emmanuel Royidis' novel Pope Joan (1954), a film starring Liv Ullmann (1972) and a popular Victorian card game.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007


Fire inspector and linguistic philosopher Benjamin Lee Whorf was born on this day in 1897 in Winthrop, Massachusetts.

An intellectually curious but nonetheless average student of chemical engineering at MIT, following his graduation Whorf became a fire prevention engineer and inspector for the Hartford Fire Insurance Company. While working for the insurance company in 1924, Whorf became interested in linguistics, exploring philosophical conflicts between science and religion through the work of a long-forgotten linguist, early 19th century dramatist and mystic Antoine Fabre d'Olivet.

Whorf began to study the Aztec language in 1926, and by 1928 was publishing Aztec translations in academic publications. Although he did not posses a doctoral degree in linguistics, Whorf's writings and visionary approach to problems of language sufficiently impressed the Social Science Research Council that it granted him a research fellowship to study manuscripts in Mexico in 1930. With the arrival of famed linguist Edward Sapir at Yale in 1931, Whorf's remarkable accomplishments in the field of linguistics were allowed to flower: Whorf wasted no time in enrolling in Sapir's courses at Yale, and Sapir encouraged Whorf to expand his inquiries and assisted in providing Whorf a background in classical linguistic thinking.

By 1937, Whorf was a part-time lecturer in linguistics at Yale. His Language, Mind and Reality (published in 1941) became a highly influential work among linguists, anthropologists and structuralist literary critics such as Roland Barthes; although it was an attempt by Whorf to popularize linguistics for the lay reader, it also advanced the revolutionary notion (which he co-formulated with Sapir) that the "shape" of a culture's language imprints itself firmly on that culture's experience of the world, containing the ideas about what a culture's environment or universe consisted of -- and therefore that objective reality is not really something that is "out there" but rather that our experiences are manufactured by us within and through our linguistic system.

Like composer Charles Ives, Whorf continued to work full-time in the insurance business while he produced the works by which he would be remembered in another field; just a year before his death on July 26, 1941, Whorf was promoted to Assistant Secretary of the Hartford Fire Insurance Company, even as he became in high demand for articles and lectures on linguistics.

Benjamin's younger brother Richard Whorf was a Hollywood film actor and director, noted for his biopic of songwriter Jerome Kern, Till the Clouds Roll By (1946). Apropos of nothing, critic James Agee wrote that Till the Clouds Roll By was "a little like sitting down to a soda fountain de luxe atomic special of maple walnut on vanilla on burnt almond on strawberry on butter pecan on coffee on raspberry sherbert on tutti frutti with hot fudge, butterscotch, marshmallow, filberts, pistachios, shredded pineapple, and rainbow sprills on top, go double on the whipped cream" -- although it does lead me to wonder whether you can translate that into Aztec.


Monday, April 23, 2007


King Ethelred II, known as "the Unready," died on this day in 1016 in London.

Ethelred's life did not begin auspiciously. At his baptism (around 968), he "made water in the font" (i.e. urinated), which St. Dunstan interpreted to mean that the English people would be slaughtered in his lifetime.

The half-brother of King Edward the Martyr, Ethelred assumed the English throne as a youngster following his half-brother's murder in 978 -- although there was widespread speculation that Ethelred was complicit in the crime. This fact made it more difficult for him to raise an adequate defense against the encroachment of the Danes in 980. He rashly ordered a general massacre of Danes in England on St. Brice's Day, 1002, resulting in the murder of the sister of Sweyn Forkbeard, the King of Denmark, who eventually conquered the island and forced Ethelred to flee in 1013.

Following Sweyn's death, Ethelred was reinstated to the throne, only to face a decisive onslaught by Sweyn's son Canute, resulting in the installment of Ethelred's son Edmund to the throne, and Canute's virtually certain accession, shortly before Ethelred's death.

Ethelred's well-suited nickname, "Unready," was derived from a play on his name: "Ethelraed" meant "noble counsel," to which was added "Unraed" meaning "no counsel" or "ill counsel." The epithet was later mistranslated as "Unready."

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Sunday, April 22, 2007

The History of Mr. Henry Fielding

Henry Fielding was born on this day in 1707 in Sharpham Park, Somerset, England.

The son of an army general, Henry Fielding studied Greek and Roman classical literature at Eton and was subsequently encouraged by his cousin, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, to go to London and make his career as a writer. He had a quick success with the play Love in Several Masques (1728) before a brief stint at the University of Leiden, after which he returned to devote himself to writing for the London stage. In 1730, he had another huge popular success, The Tragedy of Tom Thumb, which according to legend made Jonathan Swift laugh for the second time in his life.

Since writing was a hand-to-mouth existence, Fielding assumed the management of the New Theatre, and wrote over a dozen plays that debuted there, including the political satire Pasquin (1737). His period of relative financial success came to an abrupt end when Sir Robert Walpole caught wind of Pasquin's anti-Whig message and passed the Theatrical Licensing Act with the express intention of kicking Fielding off the London stage.

In search of financial stability, Fielding became editor of an opposition journal, Champion, while studying at the Middle Temple. He entered the bar in 1740, but after briefly serving as a circuit judge, due to gout and asthma he failed to pursue active practice. Instead, he found his way into a new literary medium. With the publication of Samuel Richardson's Pamela (1740), the "epistolary novel" was all the rage, although Fielding was fairly disgusted by Richardson's cloying sentimentality and rigid conventional moralizing. In response, Fielding wrote an published a parody of Pamela, known as Shamela (1741), amounting to a lusty 70-page abridgement, exposing all the pretensions and moral ludicrousness of Pamela through a comically twisted point of view of Richardson's original plot. Despite his exasperation with Richardson's book, Fielding was captivated by the possibilities of its form.

The following year, Fielding published his own novel (liberating it from Richardson's epistolary format), The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews (1742; about a virtuous young footman who is fired by his lady for resisting her advances). He described it in his preface as a "comic epic poem in prose," attempting to dignify the status of the novel while exhorting future novelists to use the form as a mirror held up to the prevailing society, revealing truth and exposing hypocrisy. The following year he published The History of Mr. Jonathan Wild, the Great (1743), an ironically admiring narrative based on the career of a well-known criminal, which recent critics have claimed was actually a veiled attack on Walpole.

In 1744, his wife Charlotte died, and 3 years later Fielding caused a scandal by marrying his wife's maid, Mary Daniel, who was pregnant with his child. During this period of social exile, Fielding penned his best-known novel, The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749), by which he said he intended "to promote the cause of virtue and to expose some of the most glaring evils, as well public as private, which at present infect the country" -- although Samuel Johnson called the book "vicious" and "corrupt." Like Joseph Andrews, the often bawdy Tom Jones is a comic tale about the pretensions of rank, but it is also an object lesson on the nature of happiness and goodness, showing Fielding at the height of his powers as a storyteller and social observer.

Meanwhile, his political exile having ended with the Walpole's fall in 1742, Fielding was appointed justice of the peace for the City of Westminster, London, in 1748. Taking his new position with the utmost seriousness, he worked strenuously to rid Bow Street (the magistracy headquarters) of corruption and made effective crime-fighting his mission, launching his reform of the police force with "An Enquiry into the Causes of the Latest Increase of Robbers" (1751). In 1753, Fielding obtained a small grant from the crown to establish London's first professional police force, known as the "Bow Street Runners" -- 12 men whose first task was to investigate a series of London murders. He resigned his post due to ill health and was succeeded by his half-brother, Sir John Fielding.

Fielding's last novel, Amelia (1751), was not as spry as Joseph Andrews or Tom Jones, its relative sobriety informed by his close-up view of criminal society. In 1754, seeking a better climate for his asthma, Fielding journeyed to Portugal, but died there shortly thereafter. His last book, The Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon, was published posthumously the following year.


Saturday, April 21, 2007

Pat Brown

Pat Brown, Democratic governor of California, father of Jerry Brown, was born Edmund G. Brown on this day in 1905 in San Francisco, California.

Nicknamed for American patriot Patrick Henry (whom Brown is said to have quoted often as a boy), Pat Brown worked his way through evening law school and entered the bar in 1927. He entered the political arena almost immediately, running unsuccessfully for a California state assembly seat as a Republican from the San Francisco area in 1929. Switching to the Democratic Party, he was elected district attorney of San Francisco on his second try in 1942, was elected attorney general of California in 1950, and in 1958 became only the second Democratic governor of California since the 19th century.

A folksy, gregarious Catholic liberal who enjoyed the benefits of a Democratic majority in the state legislature, Brown's policies led to the expansion of the California school and highway systems, and to the irrigation of portions of the California desert. Although he was morally opposed to the death penalty, he enforced it on several occasions as governor -- including with respect to robber/rapist/autobiographer Caryl Chessman.

In 1960 he was briefly considered to be a "favorite son" candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, and he angered John F. Kennedy partisans by being too slow to support Kennedy for the nomination; once he did throw his support to Kennedy, many of his California delegates ended up voting for Adlai Stevenson for the nomination. Brown was re-elected in 1962 in a heated battle against ex-Vice President and former presidential candidate Richard M. Nixon by about 300,000 votes. In both 1960 and 1964 he was mentioned as a possible vice-presidential nominee, but publicly took his name out of contention, explaining that "Being Governor of California is more important than sitting and waiting for a President to die."

Brown's second term saw an increase in public unrest, including anti-Vietnam War protests and the violent Watts riots in 1965, and by 1966 when he faced Ronald Reagan in his bid for a third term, his popularity had gone into sharp decline. Brown's impolitic mocking of Reagan during the campaign certainly didn't help, as he rather notoriously quipped, "I'm running against an actor, and you know who shot Lincoln, don't cha?" Brown lost to Reagan, 58% to 42%.

Pat Brown died on February 16, 1996.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Patty Griffin, with Scott Miller, at the Byham

Admit it – you have music running through your head, too. And half the time, you can’t even say what it is, or where it came from, while it is happening. Later, however, there are times when an old piece of music comes along that brings back a flood of familiar emotions – not just a memory, but a chance to re-experience some significant series of events. This happens to me a lot when I’m listening to Patty Griffin. Her songs -- with their splendid character studies, still lives and tableaux -- figure prominently in my re-experience of the time around which my wife and I started to date. Perhaps it was fitting, then, that, on a week when my wife is out of town, I decided to take myself to the Byham Theater to see Patty Griffin in concert.

Before I get into that, however … it was my pleasure last night to “discover” Scott Miller, who opened for Patty Griffin. With a voice like a street-smart choir tenor, Miller plies an effervescent variety of country-blues Americana -- layering in bittersweetness and laugh-out-loud humor, with a penchant for sardonic confessions and self-deprecation that calls his Sugar Hill label-mate Rodney Crowell to mind. His heart-on-yer-sleeve guitar work is rockin’ nimble, too. There are times when it appears that he’s just playing music to break up his monologue, which is surely part of the charm of his act. After saluting Western Pennsylvania with a brief, grinning discourse on the Whiskey Rebellion (a subject near and dear to my heart, as I am finishing a first draft of a documentary script on it for Inecom Productions), he breaks out into a ditty entitled “Drunk All Around This Town,” which bears quoting:

Well I been drunk all around this town
The downside-up to the upside-down
Y’set ‘em up, boys, I’ll knock ‘em down
Well I been drunk all around this town

I drank shooters with the college boys
The girls are cuter where they card the door
Daddy’s money makes a lot of noise
Well, I drank shooters with the college boys

I drank bourbon with the lawyers, too
Their power ties and their wing-tip shoes
‘Cause even Republicans get the blues
So I drank bourbon with the lawyers, too …

… and there Miller’s humor and his skills as a writer and performer all seem to converge. It’s always a great thrill to encounter a doggone real live human being in the opening act of a concert.

Of course, it was Patty Griffin’s night. Every time I see her in concert, I am always struck at how such a tiny, delicately beautiful woman can emit such a big voice. True, the timbre of her voice is pint-sized, deceptively so – and she uses this pint-sizedness to great nostalgic, atmospheric effect on an old French hymn she sings at the beginning of the concert, as a tribute to her late grandmother who passed away last fall at age 99, sounding like a Northern Appalachian version of Edith Piaf. It is a voice of great capacity, though, and at times it fills the nooks of this old vaudeville palace, and all of the crannies, too.

At the same time, Griffin’s voice always has a fine point on it, and one revels in its searching detail. Like the experience of watching blue jays dart around among the trees outside my home, I marvel at the way she gracefully swoops and soars and glides her way through the last incantations of a tune like “No Bad News” from her most recent album Children Running Through, never smacking face-first into a tree trunk, always finding a perch. And, the exquisite intensity of it, as she reaches an emotional crescendo – that patented Patty Griffin moment in numbers like “Crying Over” or “Trapeze” -- can absolutely scalp you.

Griffin’s great gift as a live performer emerges directly from her love of what she does. She giggles, confessing “I love my job,” while the Pittsburgh crowd roars its approval. On a rockin’ number, “Getting Ready,” she forms a jamming circle with her superb band, led by guitarist Daniel Lancio, her pony tail bouncing as she stomps her feet and thrashes away at her acoustic guitar, doing her business with infectious glee. The theme carries through to her quieter live moments as well; while “Up on the Mountain,” a gospel-infused song inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final sermon, is a fine song on Children Running Through, Griffin’s live performance of the song outshines the recorded version, and you can just see it in her flushed face that, in part, it’s her gratitude to a warmly appreciative audience that inspires her to such heights.

You may like what you’ve heard of Patty Griffin’s work, if you’ve been paying attention the last several years, but like me, you haven’t heard her properly until you’ve heard her live.

[Even so, you might want to try her album, Children Running Through, at your earliest convenience.]


Monday, April 16, 2007


"An unfailing intellect, imperturable temper, great self-reliance and as great modesty, seeing the right clearly, pursuing it steadfastly, he lived and died." -- Bishop Milton Wright, in a eulogy to his son, 1912.

History lumps Wilbur and Orville Wright together, but they were very different characters, both essential to the breakthrough at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on December 17, 1903 that launched the phenomenon of aviation.

Born on this day in 1867 near Millville, Indiana, the elder of the two brothers, Wilbur was a handsome, serious, dedicated student who hoped to follow in his father's footsteps (who was a progressive bishop in the Church of the United Brethren in Christ) by going to Yale and becoming a minister. Just before he was to graduate from high school, however, Wilbur was playing street hockey and got hit in the mouth with a hockey stick, losing all of his front top teeth. Ashamed of the way he looked, he developed heart palpitations that overlayed his depression and self-doubt, and shortly thereafter he abandoned all hope of pursuing the life plan he had mapped for himself. Instead he consigned himself to the inside of the Wright home for three years, reading and caring for his mother who was dying of tuberculosis.

Avid young Orville pestered his brother out of his melancholy, inviting him to join Orville's fledgling printing and newspaper business and later, as a partner in the brothers' hand-crafted bicycle shop. His attention to engineering issues at the bicycle shop and the ongoing press accounts of the developmental failures of would-be aviators Otto Lilienthal and Samuel Langley (among others) encouraged Wilbur to begin to think about the possibilities of machine-powered flight.

He and Orville began to think of the aviation riddle as three separate problems: (1) building wings that would lift the weight of the pilot and the motor off of the ground (something Lilienthal had already done with his gliders), (2) having a power plant to propel the craft through the air, and (3) the most difficult problem, having a way to control the craft once it was airborne. Wilbur thought that being able to twist the wings, a mechanism later to be known as "wing warping," would give the pilot control over his craft, and began to experiment with a biplane box kite he and Orville built, with wings braced with wires which could be twisted to make the kite bank and turn. They reported their success with wing-warping to Octave Chanute, then considered the country's expert on aeronautics, who immediately recognized that they were ahead of most of the people who were working on flight.

In 1900 the brothers began to test their glider designs at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, an isolated stretch of dunes on the Atlantic coast which offered them privacy and by reputation the steadiest winds in the U.S. The first year they learned that their initial wingspan did not create enough lift to raise a human being off the ground, but that the control mechanisms seemed to work when the craft was flown as a kite; the following year, amid torrential rains and mosquitoes, they learned that a larger wingspan permitted the glider to carry Wilbur on short hops, but that the controls, theoretically based on Lilienthal's calculations of lift tables, couldn't keep Wilbur from smacking into the ground and splitting open his forehead.

After developing a revised set of lift tables back in Dayton, they returned to Kitty Hawk in 1902 with a new glider design, and following intense discussion and debate, fitted the back of the glider with a hinged tail rudder which was linked to the wing-warping mechanism. The moment Wilbur launched from the top of West Hill, he knew that the control mechanism finally worked. In 1903, they reappeared in Kitty Hawk with a new glider, the Flyer, fitted with an engine and propellers built by their bicycle shop mechanic Charley Taylor. Without press coverage or government observers, at 10:35 a.m. on December 17, Orville lifted off in the Flyer for the first sustained powered and controlled flight in history, a mere 12-second voyage. Taking turns at the helm, the brothers made three more flights that day, Wilbur's being the longest at 59 seconds and 852 feet.

When they tried to inform the press, the U.S. government and the Europeans (who, within the next 5 years, were to make strides through the work of Alberto Santos-Dumont), all quarters refused to believe that the little bicycle shop mechanics had actually achieved flight. The Wrights secured their patents and went underground for awhile, hoping to find financial backing for their technology. After Santos-Dumont claimed the title of "father of aviation" with his wobbly 200-foot hop in 1906, Professor Chanute pleaded with the Wrights to put on a show.

Wilbur went to LeMans, France, and on August 8, 1908 effortlessly took off before a wide-eyed crowd, turning and banking with ease. The French conceded defeat, and Wilbur became the toast of Europe. After a successful test for the U.S. government, a crash and a recovery, Orville joined Wilbur on the grand tour of the continent, with "princes and millionaires . . . as thick as fleas," flying demonstrations before delighted onlookers. By the end of the tour, the world's first barnstorming pilot had grown tired of barnstorming, and Wilbur dragged Orville back to Dayton in 1909 to continue to work on airplane designs and defend their patents against infringements in a series of lawsuits.

Wilbur died of typhoid fever at the age of 45 on May 30, 1912, only catching a glimpse of what his work would do to transform the lives of human beings forever.


Sunday, April 15, 2007

Brunelleschi's Dome

"In the taut curves of its profile, the force of its volume, and the dynamism of its upward leap, the shape of Brunelleschi's dome suggests the new absolute of the Early Renaissance, the idea of the indomitable individual will . . ." -- F. Hartt.

Filippo Brunelleschi, known to his contemporaries as Pippo, died in 1446 in Florence at the age of 69.

While his early rival, Lorenzo Ghiberti, would be known principally for just two works, the bronze doors on the north and east portals of the Baptistery of Florence, Filippo Brunelleschi is best known today for just one unconventional and breathtaking accomplishment, the design of the cupola for the Duomo, the Cathedral of Florence, which he worked on intrepidly with eyebrows gleefully raised high for 20 years.

Pippo's father was a member of the Cathedral design committee when Pippo was a child, so he had grown up with models and drawings of the early designs for the Cathedral. By the age of 21, however, Brunelleschi has entered the goldsmith trade, and in 1402 he was optimistic about his chances of winning the public competition being held to select a sculptor to create new bronze doors for the north portal of the Baptistery outside the Cathedral. His competition effort was well received, but in the end he placed second to Ghiberti -- and he never forgave him. After his disappointment Brunelleschi found it easy to give up sculpture for architecture, and served along with Ghiberti on the Opera del Duomo committee of 1404, doing his best to make the young sculptor look silly by exposing Ghiberti's lack of engineering expertise at every opportunity.

It is possible that the beginnings of Brunelleschi's vision began to take hold when the committee asked then-current Cathedral architect Giovanni d'Ambrogio to lower his three semi-domes. In 1407, as Vasari records, the Opera del Duomo adopted Brunelleschi's suggestion that a drum be inserted between d'Ambrogio's semi-domes and the center, thus preparing to "lift the weight off the shoulders" of the semi-domes to accommodate a massive central dome. Brunelleschi's influence on the evolution of the Cathedral's design increased in the years that followed until the Cathedral was finally declared his own project in 1420. Thereafter, the Cathedral ultimately took on the characteristics of what is often called Brunelleschi's "paper architecture," his conception of proportional architectural shapes as if on paper, elegantly partitioned and measured across the eye's plane with a geometric simplicity and order unseen in Gothic architecture.

The gigantic central dome itself, visible for miles around Florence, was literally the crown of Brunelleschi's career as a designer, a triumph of engineering as well as a stylistic statement which in some ways set the optimistic tone for the century of Renaissance artistic expression to follow. Brunelleschi solved the engineering problem of building such a large, tall dome -- the largest, tallest dome ever made until that time -- by erecting an internal dome with an exceptionally strong herringbone masonry pattern, surrounded by oak reinforcing beams held together with iron chains and fixed to stone buttresses which connected the inner shell with the outer shell.

While working on his lifetime project, Brunelleschi also managed to work on other projects, such as the Ospedale degli Innocenti (begun 1419) and the Chapter House for Santa Croce (1433), and he revolutionized the plan of church interiors with his designs for San Lorenzo (1425) and Santo Spirito (1434).

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Thursday, April 12, 2007

Speaker Bankhead

William B. Bankhead, Democratic U.S. Congressman from Alabama (1917-40), speaker of the House (1936-40) and father of actress Tallulah Bankhead, was born on this day in 1874 in Moscow, Alabama.

In return for all of the assistance Bankhead had provided Franklin Roosevelt in getting his "New Deal" legislation through Congress, Roosevelt had allegedly promised Bankhead the vice presidency for the 1940 election, but instead threw the post to Henry Wallace. Bankhead complained privately, "The Convention was an ordeal that will not be soon forgotten. I venture to say that it was the most un-American and dictatorial meeting ever held by the great Democratic party . . . President Roosevelt has double-crossed me for the last time. I shall never forgive him for the way he acted."

Within two months of his complaint, on September 15, 1940, Bankhead died; good soldier Sam Rayburn succeeded him as speaker, and Roosevelt's "New Deal" lived to see another day.

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Monday, April 09, 2007


Charles Baudelaire was born on this day in 1821 in Paris.

Rebelling against his stepfather, Baudelaire briefly lived the luxurious life of a dandy on the money left to him by his father, but soon found himself overwhelmed by debt. He began his freelance writing career at age 24, and while his earliest writing showed enthusiasm for revolutionary principles, it soon came to expose his disillusionment. He achieved fame as a critic, taking as his causes the music of Wagner and the painting of Delacroix.

In 1844, he withdrew from Paris society, exiling himself to a somewhat tragic relationship with the treacherous Jeanne Duval, a mulatto, for 14 years. In his apartment-outpost on the Ile St-Louis, he experimented with drugs (the experiences with which he described in Les Paradis Artificels, 1861), shunned the literary fraternity, considering authors like Victor Hugo to be second-rate, and refused all attempts at help or sponsorship. By 1857, he was already a notorious character in Paris artistic circles, suspected of all sorts of personal depravity, when the French government took him to court over his verse collection, Les Fleurs du Mal, which the government called immoral. He was ultimately convicted of obscenity and blasphemy, was fined, and had six of his poems banned in France until 1949.

While he produced a large and accomplished body of prose, he is remembered for his poems, the small sum total of which appeared in Les Fleurs du Mal. When the collection first appeared, the typical subject matter of his poems -- ranging from erotic love poems to Duval, his "Black Venus," and to Mme Sabatier, his "White Venus," to lesbianism, revolt and decay -- was considered to be lurid; by way of contrast, his style in the treatment of such themes was cool and balanced. After his death, in the 1880s, Symbolist poets such as Stephen Mallarme identified Baudelaire as their ancestor.

From 1856 to 1865, Baudelaire translated the works of Edgar Allan Poe into French (he had spoken English since he was a child, his mother having been born in England), launching Poe's great popularity in France during the 1870s and 1880s. Shortly before his death from a paralytic stroke at age 47, Baudelaire was engaged in a prolonged diatribe against all things Belgian, having recently returned from an unsuccessful lecture engagement there.


Sunday, April 08, 2007

Ice Queen

Sonja Henie was born on this day in 1912 in Kristiana, Norway.

The blonde, blue-eyed ingénue who dominated and changed the style of international figure skating competition also turned out to be a cunning marketeer, a trait she may have inherited from her father, a leading Norwegian furrier who owned the first automobile in Oslo. Sonja Henie learned to ski almost as soon as she could walk, but by 5 she was immersed in studying dance with Love Krohn, teacher of the great ballerina Anna Pavlova. With Pavlova as her role model-by-proxy, she began to skate at age 6, taking her first Norwegian championship at age 10.

As a tiny 12 year old, Henie competed in her first Olympics in 1924 at Chamonix, placing 8th; but 2 years later she was challenging the 1924 gold medallist, Herma Planck-Szabo of Austria, placing a close 2nd to her in the 1926 world championships. On her way up the international rankings, she also drew raves for her short skirts, which better emphasized her graceful leg work, as opposed to the long skirts worn by her competitors. In 1927, Henie unseated Planck-Szabo in a controversial competition in which 3 out of 5 judges were Norwegian. Her breakthrough world championship in 1927 would, however, prove to be the first of an entire decade of uninterrupted major victories.

That year she also tentatively began her film career, appearing in a Norwegian film, Seven Days for Elizabeth. In 1928, she stretched the confines of figure skating as a sport by introducing dance routines into freeskating, and won her first of 3 Olympic gold medals at St. Moritz. By the 1932 Olympics in Lake Placid, her international competitors, British pre-teen Cecilia Colledge notable among them, were imitating her costumes, dance style and spinning repertoire, but Henie was still the unanimous choice for the gold medal.

In 1936, Henie announced that she would retire from amateur skating following the Olympics and the subsequent world championship to be held the following week, and although she succeeded in winning the gold and the world championship, this time she received stiff competition from Colledge. She obviously knew when to quit (ending her career with 14 national championships, 8 European championships and 10 world championships in addition to the Olympic gold medals), and how to proceed on her next career choice: within a year, Henie was in Hollywood with a contract from 20th Century-Fox, and her first American musical, One in a Million, became a huge hit.

Henie was not much of an actress (and "her accent was as thick as her ankles," as Schickel observed), but her skating numbers and her sunny persona served her well in a number of light musicals, including Thin Ice (1937), Happy Landing (1938) and Sun Valley Serenade (1941, with Glenn Miller); in 1938, she was ranked as the 3rd most popular box office attraction, after Clark Gable and Shirley Temple.

By the mid-1940s, however, fans were growing tired of her movies, so she took the big dollars she earned in Hollywood and poured them into her Hollywood Ice Revue traveling show (of which she was the star), exhibiting her typical combination of drive and perfectionism in assuring the quality of her productions. After two American marriages, she married her Norwegian childhood sweetheart, a shipowner, at 44. When she died of leukemia at 57 (in an airplane en route from Paris to Oslo), she was worth over $47 million.

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Saturday, April 07, 2007

Governor Moonbeam

The son of Democratic California governor Pat Brown, Jerry Brown (born on this day in 1938 in San Francisco) was certainly one of the most durable yet unorthodox political personalities of the latter half of the 20th century -- the one nationally recognizable American politician who could credibly be called a "maverick" for over 30 years. His ability to remake and renew himself demonstrates resourcefulness on many levels: he travels light, like David Carradine in Kung Fu, sleeps very little, and draws upon a deep well of religious and philosophical inspirations untapped by other politicians. He is the only politician, it seems, who can quote from Noam Chomsky, Martin Buber, Mother Teresa or Gregory Bateson, to name just a few of his heroes, with a pilgrim's zeal.

He originally studied for the Catholic priesthood, but graduated from Yale law school 4 years before being elected secretary of state of California in 1970. In 1974, after 6 years with Ronald Reagan in the statehouse, Brown was elected as the youngest governor of California (at age 34), cultivating an ascetic lifestyle which appealed to California populists: unmarried, he refused to take residence in the new governor's mansion recently completed by the Reagans, instead sleeping on a mattress on the floor of a rented apartment and driving a used car from the state fleet.

Just two years later, he was a late entry in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, running 3rd behind Jimmy Carter and Morris Udall at the convention. Warming up with an African safari with some-time girlfriend Linda Ronstadt in 1979 (his token foreign relations tour), he tried again in 1980, this time running against incumbent President Carter and Ted Kennedy. By this time, his credibility had been damaged by columnists around the country who referred to him as "Governor Moonbeam" for his suggestion that California might develop its own space program (not wholly implausible given today's commercial space industry) and other unfamiliar and seemingly impractical ideals.

He left the statehouse in 1982, having built a modest record of radical change in environmental protection, education reform and affirmative action in California, but his political career seemed to be over when he was beaten by Pete Wilson in a bid for U.S. Senate. Brown used the defeat as an opportunity to get back in touch with his spiritual roots, studying meditation with a Zen master in Japan and then working with Mother Teresa in the slums of Calcutta before returning to head the California Democratic Party in 1989.

In 1992, he launched an angry and entertaining yet quixotic 3rd campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, snarling at the role of lobbying dollars in the political process and barking out his "800" number at every public appearance, claiming the unqualified right to say "I told you so" to Democrats who became disillusioned with Bill Clinton's willingness to sacrifice judgment to the whims of his campaign contributors.

In 1998, Brown resigned from the Democratic Party and surprised pundits by waging a successful campaign for mayor of Oakland, California (getting 74% of the vote), a reflection of his shifting interest from the empty gamesmanship of national politics broadcast to a disconnected electorate, to nurturing, community-based mechanisms for meaningful change. He later re-registered as a Democrat, and was re-elected as mayor with over 60% of the vote in 2002. Proving his staying power, at the age of 68 he was elected attorney general of California just last year, defeating LA city attorney Rocky Delgadillo 63% to 37%.

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Friday, April 06, 2007

The Double Helix

Biologist James Dewey Watson, co-discoverer of the double helix structure of DNA (with Francis Crick) and co-winner of the 1962 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, was born on this day in 1928 in Chicago, Illinois.

Watson grew up in an intellectually curious household and was enough of a brainpower show-off as a youngster to be featured on the Quiz Kids NBC radio show. He studied zoology at Chicago but formed an obsession with genetics, overcoming his fear of organic chemistry long enough to get his doctorate at Indiana University in 1950 under Hermann Muller studying bacteriophages -- viruses which multiply inside bacteria. He went to Copenhagen on a fellowship, and in 1951 attended a lecture in Naples by Maurice Wilkins in which Wilkins described his use of X-ray crystallography in studying DNA.

Armed with his insights on bacteriophages and, from Wilkins, the revelation that genes could crystallize, Watson joined the Cavendish Lab at Cambridge, where he met physicist Francis Crick. Watson was just 23 and Crick was 35, but Watson quickly earned Crick's respect as an uncompromising investigator with skills which complemented his own. Working together, they anonymously entered the feverish international race to discover the structure of DNA which captivated famous scientists such as Linus Pauling. As Crick and Watson built cardboard models of the DNA molecule, it was Watson who first articulated the similarity between the structure of two base pairs of nucleotides within DNA -- the adenine-thymine pair which was held together by two hydrogen bonds, and the guanine-cytosine pair also held together by hydrogen bonds.

Building upon that insight, Crick and Watson developed a model of the structure of DNA which suggested the means of replication which would be an essential process within chromosomal heredity, and they published their model in Nature (Apr. 1953).

Shortly thereafter, Watson left Cambridge for the California Institute of Technology, and later Harvard. In 1965 he published what became the standard work on molecular biology, The Molecular Biology of the Gene, and 3 years later wrote a best-selling memoir of his role in discovering the structure of DNA, The Double Helix. (The story was the basis for a TV movie, in which Jeff Goldblum starred as Watson.)

After running the Cold Spring Harbor Lab on Long Island, where his group discovered ras, the "oncogene" that causes cancer, Watson became the head of the Office of Human Genome Research at the National Institutes of Health, leading the effort to chart all 50-100,000 genes within the human genome. After a stormy tenure there, he resigned in 1992 and was succeeded by Francis Collins.


Thursday, April 05, 2007

Nasty, Brutish and Short

The pessimism of Thomas Hobbes' political philosophy is perennially summed up in a single "soundbite" from Hobbes' groundbreaking justification for the existence of sovereignty, Leviathan (1651): he argues that the natural human condition is a state of perpetual war in which "the life of people [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." In the 21st century, his words are altogether too compelling in the light of modern Darfur, Rwanda, Bosnia, Iraq, or any number of other brutal battlegrounds. His more generic point, however, was that in a civilized world, the fear of violent death causes people to create a state by contracting to surrender individual rights to the authority of an absolute sovereign.

In his own day, Hobbes was accused of concocting a secular excuse for the absolute authority of any successful strong man (i.e. Cromwell, contemporarily), as contrasted with the religious excuse of the "divine right of kings" advanced by Robert Filmer, but what is better remembered about Hobbes today is his glumly mechanistic view of human social behavior, in which beings are compelled by their nature to act selfishly in an atmosphere of fear, mistrust and appetite.

He self-consciously blamed his outlook on his mother's fears of the Spanish Armada while she was pregnant with him, but one can as easily see the brutality of the Puritan Revolt as a fitting backdrop for his philosophy. Born on this day in 1588 in Westport, Wiltshire, Hobbes grew up in financially secure surroundings (despite the fact that his father, a vicar, deserted the family after getting into a brawl with some of his parishioners) and studied at Magdalen Hall, Oxford before becoming attached to the Cavendish household as tutor and secretary in 1610. He made several trips to the Continent, meeting with Descartes, Gassendi and Galileo among others, and shortly thereafter published a treatise on motion. He also wrote and privately circulated Elements of Law, Natural and Politic (1640), a defense of the royal prerogative of Charles I, on the eve of Cromwell's rise, and as Cromwell took power, Hobbes (describing himself as a "man of feminine courage") fled to France. There he was appointed tutor to young Charles II (who called Hobbes "the bear"), and continued his philosophical writing, principally an anonymous critique of Descartes' mind/body duality in which Hobbes introduced his materialistic view that the soul dies with the body.

In 1642, he published De Cive, an inkling of his theory of government which he described in greater detail in Leviathan 9 years later. The publication of Leviathan, which emphasized naked human motivation to the exclusion of the hand of God in its analysis of social organizations, raised the suspicion of the French clergy as well as English royalists in exile, so Hobbes returned to England and tried to keep a low profile, busying himself with mathematics. Upon the accession of his ex-pupil Charles II in 1660, Hobbes was again in favor, but in 1666 the House of Commons ordered an investigation of Hobbes due to the apparent atheism of Leviathan. In some measure proving his own thesis, fear of persecution drove Hobbes to "repair" Leviathan by adding an appendix to bring it into line with church doctrine, and to write a logical analysis of the law of heresy by which he concluded that no earthly court could judge the crime.

At 84, he wrote an autobiography in Latin verse (!), and by 1675 had published translations of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey before retiring to the estate of the Cavendish family. Although the conclusions of his political philosophy resembled those of the empty-suited Filmer in that they recommend an absolute monarch, his practical analysis of what moves humans to form governments was a revelation in its time, an early explication of modern psychological principles which paved the way for John Locke's less bleak view of the social contract, and provided a basis for a secular ethical framework. The ever-fearful Hobbes managed to act to preserve his own life until the ripe age of 91, when not even a lifetime's worth of sheepish diplomacy could save him; he died on December 4, 1679 at Hardwick, England.


Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Takes a Licking, Keeps on Ticking

Timex watch pitchman and pioneer TV news broadcaster John Cameron Swayze was born on this day in 1906 in Wichita, Kansas.

"It takes a licking and keeps on ticking" is what the affable announcer was remembered for, but early TV viewers were more accustomed to hearing him say, "Ladies and gentlemen, and a good evening to you" as host the first nightly news program, Camel News Caravan on NBC (1948-56). Swayze read the news during a 15-minute broadcast, sponsored by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, in what was little more than a TV picture of a radio news program. Lacking the technology to present film or taped segments, Swayze would simply narrate from notes on paper, with a lit cigarette in an ashtray visible on his desk at the instruction of the sponsor.

In 1956, NBC shed the cigarette company sponsorship (at least in name) and hired Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, recently successful as commentators on televised coverage of the 1956 Democratic and Republican conventions, to replace Swayze.

Giving a tobacco company the "naming rights" to a network news program seems preposterous by today's standards, but in the early days of television, the "news" was mainly concerned with highly visible affairs of state (TV had not yet learned how to rake muck, or wallow in it), and health concerns about cigarettes had not yet entered pop consciousness. The relationship between TV news and big tobacco has remained respectful, however, notably forcing 60 Minutes host Mike Wallace to kill, at least temporarily, the broadcast of an interview with former tobacco research exec Jeffrey Wigand about industry knowledge of the addictive properties of nicotine in 1994.

After being replaced on NBC, Swayze moved to ABC to anchor its evening news broadcast for a year in 1957 before becoming the on-air spokesman for Timex for 20 years. Swayze died on August 15, 1995 in Sarasota, Florida.

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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Stop Them Damned Pictures

Boss Tweed, leader of the Democratic Tammany Hall political machine in New York City (c. 1863-1871), was born William Marcy Tweed on this day in 1823 in New York City.

A rough-housing dropout who became leader of the local volunteer fire company, Tweed entered politics as a defender of the immigrant poor, but was nipping at the till almost from the beginning, first as a grafting alderman of Manhattan, and then as a listless U.S. congressman (1853-55). Later as a member of the New York board of supervisors and state senator, he climbed to the top of the Tammany Hall machine and lined his pockets with millions of dollars (estimated at $30-200 million!) of city money from public works kickbacks and bribes, while controlling all Democratic Party nominations in New York. While Tweed got rich, New York got the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Bridge.

In the early 1870s, in the wake of city budget shortages, the New York Times began to run exposés on Tweed and his "Ring" of cronies, but even more damaging were Thomas Nast's stinging caricatures of Tweed as a gluttonous vulture in Harper's Weekly; as Tweed himself said, "Stop them damned pictures. I don't care so much what the papers say about me. My constituents can't read. But, damn it, they can see pictures!" In 1873, he was prosecuted by Samuel Tilden on corruption charges and sentenced to 12 years, but his sentence was reduced to one year. After he was released, the reform movement was in full swing, and he was arrested again on other charges.

In December 1875, Tweed escaped from prison and fled to Cuba on a Spanish ship, then to Europe. There he was recognized, purportedly from one of Nast's cartoons, extradited to the U.S. and brought back to prison, where he died at age 55, on April 12, 1878.

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Monday, April 02, 2007

Just the Facts

Jack Webb was born on this day in 1920 in Santa Monica, California.

Webb began his career as a radio announcer in San Francisco, but very shortly thereafter he was producing and starring in his own radio police-drama series, Dragnet (1949-52). Although he appeared in movies from time to time (in Dark City, 1950, he was a giddy, pencil-necked jazz fiend named "Augie"), Webb was a bona fide law enforcement groupie, and he made Dragnet his life's franchise, debuting it on television in 1952.

As the laconic "Sgt. Joe Friday" Webb wore gray suits with white shirts and narrow ties, trundling (almost marching) down the corridors of the L.A.P.D., his arms stiff at his sides. "Casual clothes" meant a white shirt with the top button open, revealing a white crewneck T-shirt underneath, and "being casual" meant listening to the hi-fi and grilling steaks at his spartan bachelor flat. Friday did not give the impression of being a master of detection or psychological gamesmanship, as Peter Falk would be as "Columbo"; rather, Joe Friday was an average Joe, pursuing "just the facts" without distraction, getting the job done. He's so square, he's cool.

During the first incarnation of the TV series, Ben Alexander played Friday's main partner, "Officer Frank Smith" (1953-59); after 8 years on hiatus, Webb revived the series in what became its better remembered version (1967-70), co-starring Harry Morgan as his quirky partner "Bill Gannon." Webb also produced Emergency (1972-77), a series about Los Angeles paramedics (co-starring his ex-wife Julie London and her husband Bobby Troup) and Adam-12 (1968-75), a show about L.A. patrol cops (with Martin Milner and Kent McCord).

Webb passed away on December 23, 1982 in West Hollywood.

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Sunday, April 01, 2007


Sergei Rachmaninoff’s fame could have rested upon his performances as a pianist and conductor alone, but he was driven to be a great composer from an early age.

Born on this day in 1873 in Semyonovo, Russia, by the time he was 19, he had finished a successful First Piano Concerto and a one-act opera, Aleko, but the critical failure of his First Symphony (1897) sent him into a debilitating depression, from which only hypnosis and a patient psychoanalyst were able to rescue him. During most of his career, however, Rachmaninoff battled against critics who saw his compositions as emotionally overwrought, technically exhibitionistic echoes of Late Romanticism which had been wholly replaced by the Modern explorations of rivals such as Igor Stravinsky. Worse than being told he was born into the wrong musical age, he was depicted by serious critics as being irrelevantly at the trailing edge of current music -- something like Pat Boone during the rise of Elvis Presley.

The fact that he fled Russia during the revolution of 1917 and settled in the U.S. probably also affected his critical reputation, branding him as a reactionary. While Stravinsky and Schoenberg were off turning concert halls into dens of "difficult listening," Rachmaninoff achieved great popularity with mass audiences. His Prelude in C# minor became so popular, in fact, that Rachmaninoff himself grew tired of playing it in public, and Van Cliburn’s recordings of Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto and Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini were international mega-hits.

Without the critical baggage, Rachmaninoff’s works can be characterized as lush, personal pieces displaying a cosmopolitan, rather than nationalistic, vibe. The Soviets, in their inimitable way of turning harmlessness into courage, banned Rachmaninoff’s music as representing the "decadent attitude of the lower middle classes" and "especially dangerous on the musical front in the present class war." Ironically, at least one Christian journal used the hypnosis episode, along with Rachmaninoff’s choral symphony based on an Edgar Allan Poe poem, The Bells (1913), as evidence that Rachmaninoff and his music were tools of Satan. With Soviets and Fundamentalist Christians debating his value as an artist out on the critical fringes, Rachmaninoff died on March 28, 1943 in Beverly Hills, California.