THE BLIND MILTON DICTATING PARADISE LOST TO HIS DAUGHTERS: Mihály Munkácsys oil painting is on permanent view in the Edna Barnes Salomon Room on the third floor of the New York Public Library and is worth a special trip before or after a visit to John Milton at 400: A Life Beyond Life, which will continue through June 14 in the first floor gallery in the Humanities and Social Sciences Library. According to the brochure accompanying the exhibit Miltons influence touched Charles Darwin, Helen Keller, Malcolm X, Mark Morris, and numerous heavy metal bands.
My rationale for this week’s potpourri is that the subject is the ultimate potpourri, Manhattan, where you can go from John Milton to Sonny Rollins without missing a beat.
Right now, though, I’m thinking about longtime Princeton resident Robert Fagles, who died last Wednesday. All the obituaries, including the one in Town Topics, will of course mention his acclaimed translations of Homer and Virgil, but with this column at my disposal, and with Milton among its subjects, I’d rather quote his colleague and fellow translator, Robert Hollander, who, according to an October 2006 New York Times piece by Charles McGrath, once compared him to “a young John Milton, schooling himself, learning his craft, before making his assault on Parnassus.” I’m also thinking of the part he played in one of Logan Fox’s warmest Micawber memories. “We were both early birds,” Logan told me last year a few weeks before Micawber Books closed its doors. “Almost every morning at around 6:30 I’d be walking up to the store, and I’d see him across the street on his way to the library to work on his translations, and we’d give each other a wave, and then go into our respective worlds. It was one of those special Princeton experiences.”
Davis at 100
Translators are impersonators, or at least that’s what Robert Fagles implies in the McGrath article. Speaking of the art of translation, he also said “Cadence is everything,” which could just as easily serve to define the art of that most brilliantly cadenced impersonator Bette Davis. She belongs in this potpourri because she was born 100 years ago this Saturday. Having devoted a birthday column to her arch rival Joan Crawford, how can I not at least mention the woman Terrence Rafferty calls “the greatest of Hollywood actresses”? As I found out last week, it’s impossible to write of Joan Crawford without mentioning Bette Davis and even harder to write about Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? without reference to the Bette Davis impersonation (“What a dump!”) that provides the play’s opening thrust. Then there was Kim Carnes’s hit, “Bette Davis Eyes,” and Madonna’s reference to her in “Vogue” (“Bette Davis we love you”), not to mention the U.S. Postal Service’s plan for a Bette Davis stamp this year. Even people who have never seen her films know how she held a cigarette. More to the point, she turned up last week in jazz legend Sonny Rollins’s conversation with Gary Giddins at the CUNY Graduate Center, which is the event that lured me into the city.
A Night in the Apple
When friends heard I was planning to spend the night in Manhattan, they suggested it might be fun to stay at the Algonquin, the ultimate literary/show biz hotel that not long ago promised published writers a discount. At $490 a night for a single room, a healthy discount would have come in handy, and I tried, having once been interviewed there as “a young Hoosier author looking at the writing game.” After a chilly is-he-kidding? online silence from the Algonquin, I tried some more sensible options but the rare $100-$150 a night singles were all booked up. So I decided to go all out for New York nostalgia and stay at the West Side YMCA on 63rd Street, which once housed my old school, McBurney. In case you’re interested, you can get a clean if not spacious room with a bath and most of the usual perks (shampoo, hair dryer, bedside radio/alarm, TV) for $150 a night. If you don’t mind sharing a bath, you can do it for $50 less, and you’re just around the corner from Lincoln Center and half a block from Central Park. As for the building itself, it’s a smoky Romanesque Gothic sort of a character with a tiled lobby area steeped in the aura of mid-century Manhattan, especially if you used to play after-school games of ping pong in the room adjoining the cafeteria.
Milton in Manhattan
Pushing through the doors of Port Authority into the Eighth Avenue mob scene around 2 p.m. on a matinee Wednesday is an intense experience, and the intensity doesn’t really let up until you get to Bryant Park and the New York Public Library, where I took the elevator to the third-floor McGraw Rotunda outside the Main Reading Room. As I was paying my respects to Edward Laning’s monumental W.P.A. mural series The Story of the Recorded Word, a guide said, “Don’t miss seeing Milton and his daughters in the next room.” She was referring to Mihály Munkácsy’s 1877 oil painting The Blind Milton Dictating “Paradise Lost” to His Daughters. If you intend to visit the library’s exhibit, “John Milton at 400: A Life Beyond Life,” it’s worth a special trip from the first-floor gallery to the Edna Barnes Salomon Room on the third floor to see the Hungarian artist’s rendering of the somberly-attired English poet and his three intimidated-looking daughters. Except for some color in the furnishings and in the youngest girl’s rosy cheek, this is so dark a painting, you can almost feel your own sight dimming as you take it in. You can also imagine Rembrandt brooding over the painter’s shoulder. Everything is muted and indistinct, Milton slumped in a chair, head down, legs apart, the murky atmosphere closer to hell’s “palpable obscure” than anything suggesting the presence of the “heavenly muse” whose aid he invokes for his “adventurous song,/That with no middle flight intends to soar.”
After mingling with painted poets, writers, and financiers in the Salomon Room (Truman Capote in a jaunty hat staring hopefully at the indifferent Astors on the opposite wall), as well as actors like young Charles Coburn and his wife as Orlando and Rosalind in As You Like It, I stopped by the CUNY Graduate Center to find out more about the Rollins event, set to take place in a basement auditorium of the old B. Altman building whose Christmas displays used to be part of that great seasonal ritual of window gazing; then I walked through the digital dream world of Times Square whose monster displays are still haunted by the faces of pop culture past, Marilyn, Sinatra, Jimi Hendrix; then on up past the new Columbus Circle to my room in the YMCA building where J.D. Salinger went to school (but, like me, only for 9th grade) and where the Holden Caulfield wannabe who killed John Lennon stayed. Go west on 63rd and if you can get around Lincoln Center, you might find the site of Theolonius Monk’s home and on the same street the Blue Note studios where he and Sonny Rollins and other jazz greats made records. On my way down Central Park West to hear Rollins talk about those days I passed the spot where I crossed paths with Jackie Gleason one morning on my way to school and said, without thinking, as if we were old pals, “Hi Jackie!” and he said, “Hiya, kid.”
The Colossus Speaks
There he is then, Sonny Rollins, age 77, talking with Visions of Jazz author Giddins as free and easy as a man on his front porch before a SRO audience at the CUNY Center. Even to those of us who had seen him in his prime, it was nothing less than historic. If you’ve been in the thrall of such an imposing player — at his best, probably the most purely dynamic jazz musician of his, or maybe any, time — it’s a pinch-yourself moment, to be present when the colossus comes out from behind his golden horn. With Giddins, his most enlightened and articulate admirer, leading the conversation, he opened up and gave the adoring crowd an hour and a half that in some ways, incredibly, was as good as a 90-minute performance that everyone there became part of, a whole theater full of sidemen and women.
Accomplished improvisers, like accomplished translators and actors, are expert impersonators (cadence, again, is everything) who translate into their playing the everything-that-lives-is-music world around them, including the sounds and sights in the moviehouses they frequented as kids. More than any other player, Sonny Rollins has been the translator of songlines from Tin Pan Alley to Hollywood, the whole ridiculous and sublime mass of phenomena passing across the country’s movie screens in the so-called golden years. That’s why it was exciting to hear him talk about his youthful encounters with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Swing Time (their finest outing) and, still more exciting to hear him recalling the impact of the music in Bette Davis’s The Letter: “There’s a fantastic movie and it couldn’t be done without music.”
Now close your eyes and think about a 10-year-old kid from Harlem sitting in some dark moviehouse watching Warners’ slick improvisation on Somerset Maugham exotica, dazzled by the relentless score that Bette Davis will kill and lie and die to (Max Steiner’s version of the knocking at the door in Beethoven’s Fifth), followed by the essence of oriental mystery, a sinuous, snake charmer’s lament winding its way through the proto film-noir foliage only to be shattered by the sound of gunfire as Bette Davis steps out onto the verandah and empties her revolver into the body of her lover.
That night we heard the litany of his influences from the man himself — Fats Waller, Louis Jordan, Coleman Hawkins, and Lester Young — but who would have thought he’d bring Astaire and Rogers, Jerome Kern, Bette Davis, and Max Steiner into the conversation? Talk about a potpourri. Only in New York.
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