April 17, 2019

…the consensus today is that the universe is speckled with black holes furiously consuming everything around them.
—Dennis Overbye, New York Times, April 11, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

The black hole has become Dennis Overbye’s muse. He holds it to the light like a diamond flashing metaphors and analogies. Thanks to Overbye, the grim morning ritual of the New York Times became a joyous reading experience last Thursday. For a glorious half hour, his word-drunk response to the phenomenon consumed the gloom of the Trump-driven news cycle and put the universe back in balance.

The day began with a cat, a sixteen-year-old black and white female who expects me to sit on the chaise by the window with her every morning and read to her from whatever book is handy, W.S. Merwin’s poetry, Green Eggs and Ham, King Lear, she doesn’t care, she’s not picky as long as I read quietly and her stomach gets rubbed, gently, gently, at the same time. On the morning in question, the book was Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and as fate would have it, I was reading the first paragraph under the heading “On the Afterworldly.” Which is how I went from Nietzsche’s view of the world as “the work of a suffering and tortured god” to the Times’ front page photograph of “a cosmic abyss so deep and dense that not even light can escape it”; from the Overman’s “colored smoke before the eyes of a dissatisfied deity” to the  Overbye’s “smoke ring framing a one-way portal to eternity.” Says Zarathustra: “Good and evil and joy and pain and I and you —  colored smoke this seemed to me before creative eyes …. Drunken joy it is for the sufferer to look away from his suffering and to lose himself.”

A few minutes later it’s drunken joy for the sufferer of the news of the day to read of “Monster runaway stars,” “the behemoth of nothingness,” “the doughnut of doom,” and “the unknown forces that reign at the center, where theoretically, the density approaches infinity and smoke pours from nature’s computer.”

Thus spoke Overbye, and on the facing page of the Times a feast of subheads: “A black hole is a hungry beast,” “Black holes can sing,” “Black holes are stellar tombstones,” “‘A black hole has no hair,’” “A black hole is not forever.” more

April 10, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

My life has a happy ending.
— Dexter Gordon (1923-1990)

It’s that time of year, Princeton’s in its glory, baseball’s here again, and I’m driving with the windows down listening to Dexter Gordon, a player for all seasons. I can choose from postwar wonders like “Dexter Rides Again,” where Long Tall Dexter comes charging, guns blazing, out of the box, or it might be the headlong post-penitentiary euphoria of “Daddy Plays the Horn” and “Stanley the Steamer,” or the sound of his early 1960s New York renaissance in Go, surely the only jazz album to make it into a Swedish novel in which a character who hears it feels “blessed, clear-headed and strong,” for when you’ve listened to Dexter “you tell nothing but the truth for a long while.”

That quote from Svante Foerster’s novel is among the riches in Maxine Gordon’s Sophisticated Giant: The Life and Legacy of Dexter Gordon (Univ. of California Press), which was the subject of a lively, jazz-ambient conversation late last month at Labyrinth Books between Maxine and Richard Lawn, the author of Experiencing Jazz, and All About Jazz’s Victor L. Schermer. The only thing  lacking was a set of speakers so that everyone present could hear samples of the tenor saxophonist’s massive sound; instead, people happily settled for the story of the fan who fainted when he heard the real thing in person.  more

April 3, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

With Town Topics set to print on Marlon Brando’s 95th birthday, I’ve been riding the wild west of cyberspace to Odessa, the birthplace of Charles Neider, who wrote the novel that inspired One-Eyed Jacks, possibly the most quotable western ever made and the only film Brando ever directed.

You might think the writer of such a book would hail from the Odessa in Texas where there’s an eight-foot-tall statue of a jackrabbit downtown. In fact, Charles Neider was born in January 1915 in the Russian city where Pushkin wrote part of Eugene Onegin and Eisenstein shot the cinematic landmark of the slaughter on the Odessa Steps for his 1925 film Battleship Potemkin.

When Neider died in Princeton in July 2001, the New York Times remembered him as a prolific essayist, novelist, nature writer and a devoted Twain scholar who edited, arranged, and introduced The Autobiography of Mark Twain (1959). The first time Neider read The Innocents Abroad, which is included in his edition of The Complete Travel Books, he must have smiled to find that Twain had “not felt so much at home for a long time” as he had when he visited Odessa, which “looked just like an American city …. Look up the street or down the street, this way or that way, we saw only America!”

Mentioned in passing in the Times obit was Neider’s book The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones (1956), which novelist Wirt Williams suggests “may be the greatest ‘western’ ever written” in his introduction to the 1972 paperback edition. Almost 40 years later, a July 2010 article in The Independent claims that Hendry Jones is “better than any other book on the subject of men, horses, and death, except Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry.”  more

March 27, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

Say you’re on a dream tour of literary capitals. Instead of London, you get off the train in the ramshackle world of Dickens. Instead of Paris, you disembark in the swarming, exciting metropolis of Balzac. Each time your expectations will be satsfied and exceeded by a variety of metropolitan possibilities. But if the train stops at Kafka, it’s another, darker story. The skies will be grey, if not drizzling, the wind will be stiff and harsh, the station will have a dreary, haunted look, and two men in overcoats will intercept you before you have a chance to get your bearings. They want your papers, only you have the wrong papers it seems. But who’s complaining? This is  the scene the guidebook promised. It’s only a dream, so enjoy your stay in Kafka, even if you don’t get out alive or in your right mind.

But imagine arriving in the sunlit splendor of another city with the same name, the station lined with smiling booksellers whose carts are stocked with volumes rich and strange. The station master not only shakes your hand, he gives you a hug. Everyone’s glad to see you. The girl driving the cab that takes you to your hotel is unthinkably charming, speaks English with an adorable accent, and offers to show you around town (by now the rain is gently falling), no strings attached, no design on your wallet. Would you be disappointed? Ask for your money back? Well, maybe.

Inspired by a Mistake

Just putting Kafka’s name at the top of this column is the equivalent of saying, “Close the curtains and prepare to be unnerved.” And it’s true that I’m returning to what might be called the scene of the crime, since a mistake is what set everything in motion. In my March 13 piece on Stanley Corngold’s new book Walter Kaufmann:Philosopher, Humanist, Heretic, I incorrectly attributed a quotation from Kafka to the “Letter to His Father” when in fact, the passage comes from Dearest Father (1953), a collection of writings centered on that famously unsent letter.

My atonement has been to read around in Kafka’s short fiction, sample some chapters from Amerika, his unfinished first novel (as are they all), and, in particular, plunge at random into The Diaries of Franz Kafka, 1914-1923, edited by his close friend  and executor Max Brod. As with the diary entries, I found the quotation in question at random, as if by accident, in the notes at the back of Corngold’s book. Here it is again: “I feel too tightly constricted in everything that signifies Myself: even the eternity that I am is too tight for me. But if, for instance, I read a good book, say, an account of travels, it rouses me, satisfies me, suffices me….From a certain stage of knowledge on, weariness, insufficiency, constriction, self-contempt must all vanish: namely at the point where I have the strength to recognize as my own nature what previously was something alien to myself that refreshed me, satisfied, liberated, and exalted me.” more

March 20, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

Ten years ago, my column about the Bryn Mawr Wellesley book sale featured poet and Princeton graduate W.S. Merwin’s memoir, Summer Doorways (2005), with its recollection of student life in the 1940s. Those were the days when poets Merwin and Galway Kinnell were waiting tables (“the only two waiters who had been on the job for so long without being promoted”) and frequenting the Parnassus Bookshop “in a house along Nassau Street.” The shop was run by Keene and Anne Fleck, who told Merwin about the proposed Creative Writing Program just getting started under R.P. Blackmur. At her urging, he wrote to Blackmur and asked to be admitted to the course. Blackmur’s assistant was a poet named John Berryman. The rest, as they say, is history.

Climbing Mt. Princeton

Curious to learn more about that bookshop on Nassau Street, I did some cyberspace browsing and found, as if on a table at a virtual Bryn Mawr, a volume called Breaking Through Clouds by Richard F. Fleck, who grew up in Princeton. In his account of climbing Mount Princeton (14,204 feet) in the Sawatch Range of the Rockies, Fleck recalls sitting in “the warmth and comfort” of his parents’ bookshop listening to “young poets” like Merwin, Kinnell, and William Meredith.

After coming away empty-handed on my mainly reportorial visit to the preview morning of this year’s book sale, I returned Saturday with the news of Merwin’s death fresh in mind and found a copy of his 1999 collection The River Sound abandoned on the discard table. Opening the volume at random to “Testimony,” which takes up 58 of the collection’s 133 pages, I found myself once again in Princeton with Merwin and Kinnell in those days “when we were too young/for the war.” The line that jumped out at me, however, referred to Mike Keeley (“we have been friends since both of us/were beginning to shave”), a clear signal that it was time to contact poet, translator, novelist and Professor Emeritus of English Edmund Keeley for his thoughts about Merwin. more

March 13, 2019

But if, for instance, I read a good book … it rouses me, satisfies me, suffices me.
–Franz Kafka (1883-1924)

Beginning Friday morning Princeton Day School will become a vast encampment of the homeless, with some 80,000 supplicants looking to be adopted and appreciated, and perhaps passed on to a comfortable, fulfilled life in distinguished surroundings. The southern border is a trumpian tempest in a teapot compared to the numbers of refugees seeking asylum at the Bryn Mawr Wellesley Book Sale.

Of course it’s nonsense, the idea that hard-nosed dealers, bibliophiles, and obsessive collectors will be paying $25 for the heartwarming satisfaction of giving homes to lifeless entities they actually intend to resell at a profit, or may never read, or may keep only to show off as collector’s ornaments. Still and all, “homeless” is the message spelled out when the doors close on the last day of the sale with multitudes ignored, abandoned, unwanted, scattered naked and alone on the tables, unclaimed after five hours at ten bucks a box.

Kafka’s Here

One author whose books usually find a home with patrons at the BMW sale is Franz Kafka. Most writers want to be read. For them there’s an element of truth in the homeless trope. Kafka, on the other hand, asked Max Brod to burn all his writings after his death, which would have consigned The Castle and The Trial to Borges’s “Library of Babel,” where “it is enough that a book be possible for it to exist.”    more

March 6, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

Sometimes I think a novelist made this man up. If you were creating a fictional jazz genius, would you name him Parker or Davis or Rollins or Gillespie? Or would you name him Tristano?”

Lennie Tristano (1919-1978) is for real. He was born in Chicago 100 years ago this month, March 19, 1919, and is the subject of a long, in-depth, consummately readable chapter in Jazz Masters of the 40’s (Macmillan 1966) by jazz critic Ira Gitler, who died February 23.

The fictional possibilities jump out at you from Gitler’s opening paragraph, where Tristano is “mentor, teacher, nursemaid, and confidant of a small cell of young musicians.” Outsiders are “apt to name the hypnotist Svengali when describing Tristano, although he has been totally blind since the age of 10.” Picture a blind Svengali also known as “the witch doctor” and you begin to see the novelistic slant of the message on the cover of Gitler’s book: “the lean days and brave nights of Bebop and the Hipster; musical revolt and intellectual curiosity; the sardonic beauty and necessary self-pity which formed the basis of Modern Jazz.”

According to Gitler, Tristano’s first job, at 11, was in an Illinois whorehouse, “downstairs at the bar.” He’d begun listening to and “fooling around with” a player piano when he was two. Imitating it, he tells Gitler, “gave me the clue.” His eyesight was weak from birth and, depending on your source, either influenza or measles left him vulnerable to total blindness. At eight he was placed in a handicapped class at a public school, and a year later he was in a state institution for the blind, where he studied piano, saxophone, clarinet, and cello and formed a band that occasionally played gigs off the grounds. At Chicago’s Conservatory of Music he wrapped up a two-year harmony course in six weeks, got his bachelor’s degree in three years, and his master’s in a year. When the school insisted that he pay $500 for the time that a full course normally takes, he turned down the diploma and began teaching his own students, as he would do for the rest of his life.  more

February 27, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

Early in his monumental bicentennial biography Frederick Douglass:Prophet of Freedom (Simon and Schuster), David Blight pictures Douglass sitting in a small room in Lynn, Massachusetts in the winter of 1844-45 at work on his first book, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. Looking back on his time at the mercy of a “slave-breaker” (“I was broken in body, soul and spirit”), he writes of Sunday strolls to a nearby viewpoint from which he would peer out at the ships on Chesapeake Bay. “There,” in Blight’s words, “he would allow himself an occasional burst of imagination, a daydream he would ten years later capture in a beautiful and haunting metaphor of freedom.” Blight calls the brief excerpt that follows “a passage for the ages” that captures “slavery and freedom with artistry unparalleled in the genre of slave narrative.”

In another brief excerpt from the same page-long passage, Douglass “speaks directly to the ships, trying to reenter a teenager’s imagination” with “a psalmlike prayer of deliverance” that renders “in the music of words the meaning of slavery’s potential to destroy the human spirit.” According to Blight, the prayer ends in language “reminscent of slave spirituals” that makes it possible for “today’s readers” to “stand with Douglass in the dark night of his soul along their own Chesapeakes and sense the deepest of human yearnings in their own souls.” more

February 20, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

And I’m conquered in a car seat,
Not a thing that I can do…
— Van Morrison, from “Cyprus Avenue.”

I’m driving down Nassau Street on a fine brisk late April afternoon in 1976 when something called “Bohemian Rhapsody” comes on the radio. Fresh from the birth of a son, I’m like a happy Ancient Mariner ready to stop people on the street to tell them my story, only instead of coming from the realm of the living dead I’ve been to the promised land of life and love. Now this piece of music erupting from the ancient Dodge Dart’s equally ancient radio, is giving me what I need, matching my emotional overload, speaking to and for me: “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?”

Somewhere between the stoplights on Nassau, I’m wrenched from “easy come, easy go, a little high, a little low” to “Mama, just killed a man, put a gun against his head, pulled my trigger, now he’s dead.” The words “life had just begun” rhyme with my first-time parental bliss, but not “I’ve gone and thrown it all away.” Looking back at the moment, I see the ultimate “little did he know” scenario. Go ahead, sing along, fool, blissfully ignorant of the highs and lows of the epic manic depressive opera of fatherhood awaiting you. Again, the song seems to know where I’m going. No sooner do the words “I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all” voice the lament I hear from my troubled son four decades later, here comes the zany, out-of-nowhere cry of “Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the Fandango,” a light opera Harpo Marx Bronx cheer for apocalypse (“thunder and lightning very very frightening”), and then, incredibly, absurdly, thrillingly, “Galileo, Galileo, Galileo, Galileo, Galileo, Figaro, magnifico!”  more

February 13, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

I was the first so-called black hippie.

Love’s Arthur Lee

On Valentine’s Day 1969, 50 years ago tomorrow, John and Yoko and Paul and Linda were heading for March marriages and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) was still on the Billboard album chart, where it remained until March 1 after 88 consecutive weeks.

Forever Changes (1967), the third album by the L.A. group Love dropped off the Top 200 after 10 weeks, having peaked at No. 154. It did better in the UK at No. 24 and returned to the chart in 2001, a year before admirers in the British Parliament passed a “light-hearted” motion declaring it “the greatest album of all time.” In 2008 Forever Changes was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. The title comes from a break-up story recalled by Arthur Lee in which the girl says, “You said you would love me forever,” and is told, “Well, forever changes.” Lee figured that since his band’s name was Love, the album’s title was actually Love Forever Changes. more

February 6, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

The only performance that makes it, that really makes it, that makes it all the way, is the one that achieves madness.

—Mick Jagger in Performance

Asked if the line spoken by Turner, the character he plays in Donald Cammell and Nick Roeg’s enduringly outrageous film, could serve as a motto for performing live with the Rolling Stones (“When the Sixties Went Dark,” TLS Dec. 21&28), Jagger admitted “there’s something in it — its more interesting performing on the edge than going through the motions.”

This being Oscar month, I’ve been thinking about performers and performing and how when Warner Bros bankrolled a film called Performance in 1968, studio executives thought they’d scored another Hard’s Day’s Night. The Rolling Stones might be lowlifes, the dark side of the Beatles, but they were the second biggest rock group on the planet, and with Mick Jagger starring, there was sure to be a best-selling soundtrack album. Money in the bank! What Warners got instead was Swinging London in hell, the Citizen Kane of decadence, unremitting cinematic anarchy swarming with sex and drugs, and not a word from Mick Jagger for the first hour, just a heavy dose of London underworld mayhem featuring James Fox as a ruthless enforcer on the run after killing someone against the mob boss’s orders. By the time Jagger entered, he was swallowed up in the chaos described in Jay Glennie’s Performance: The Making of a Classic as “a heady cocktail of hallucinogenic mushrooms, sex (homosexual and three-way), violence, amalgamated identities, and artistic references to Jorge Luis Borges, Magritte, and Francis Bacon.”   

According to legend, the wife of a Warners executive vomited during a test screening; the studio seriously considered destroying the negative; and at a sneak preview, most of the audience walked out. Shelved for two years, the film was savaged by reviewers when it was finally released in 1970. If there had been an Academy Awards category based on the reviews, Performance would have copped the Oscar for the most pretentious, repellent, disgusting, fundamentally rotten, and completely worthless motion picture of 1970.  more

January 30, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

Through long, long years I sang my songs. But when I wished to sing of love it turned to sorrow, and when I wanted to sing of sorrow it was transformed for me into love.

— Franz Schubert (1797-1828), from “My Dream”

If the metaphor popularized in the 1934 tune “Zing Went the Strings of My Heart” is on my mind, it isn’t because tomorrow, January 31, is the 222nd birthday of Franz Schubert, it’s because I’ve been listening to a Jazz Age guitarist from Philadelphia named Eddie Lang (1902-1933). What happens when Lang plucks the guitar strings, each note crystal clear, shining and separate, expresses something like the ebb and flow of love and sorrow Schubert muses on in “My Dream,” which was written in 1822 when he was 25 and had only six years to live. Lang was 25 in 1927 and had less than six years to live when he recorded much of the music that’s been haunting me for the past week, thanks to A Handful of Riffs, a CD with liner notes rightly referring to Lang as “one of the great originals,” the first to give the guitar “real soul in jazz.”

The heartstrings metaphor seems less banal when you put it together with a lyric about “a melody that haunted me from the start,” when “something inside of me started a symphony,” and “all nature seemed to be in perfect harmony.” And surely  there’s nothing to be ashamed of in a line like “Your eyes made skies seem blue again,” especially when sung on YouTube by a glowing sixteen-year-old Judy Garland a year before The Wizard of Oz. more

January 23, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

“Nothing in moderation!”

— Ernie Kovacs (1919-1962)

“All or Nothing!”

— George Antheil (1900-1959)

For the past week I’ve been revisiting the work of two Trenton-born revolutionaries who were inspired by the industrial mystique of the city that has proclaimed for some 80 years, in big letters on a bridge across the Delaware, TRENTON MAKES THE WORLD TAKES.

Pianist-composer George Antheil, “the bad boy of music,” created a sensation in the Lost Generation Paris of the twenties with his Ballet Mécanique, which caught the attention of better known composers like Aaron Copland, who said “George had Paris by the ear,” and Virgil Thompson, who envied him “the bravado of his music and its brutal charm.”

The cigar-smoking comic iconoclast Ernie Kovacs took television apart and put it back together again in the fifties. “Without Kovacs,” one critic noted in 2011, “there would have been no Saturday Night Live, no SCTV, no David Letterman or Conan O’Brien.” Laugh-In and Monty Python, among numerous others, could be added to that list. more

January 16, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

Had the trump of judgment blown, they could not have quivered more; yet still they felt no terror, rather pleasure.

—Herman Melville, from Moby-Dick.

The T-word again! I’ve been trying to think which great writer’s works are most evocative of the twilight zone we entered when Trump shut down the government rather than give up his fantasy of a border wall.

2019 being the 200th anniversary of Melville’s birth, I’ve just finished reading The Confidence Man (1857) and “Bartleby the Scrivener” (1853), both of which contain eerie intimations of the twilight zone. Not so nuanced are the closing walls pressing the victim of the Spanish Inquisition to the brink of the abyss in Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum,” with its last-second Hollywood ending as the French army enters Toledo. Given the ever-deepening menace of a foreign adversary, with twilight shadows verging on the depths of night, the present-day reality needs a writer who can suggest the subtle nightmare presence of powerful autocratic forces, like those, say, in Franz Kafka’s The Castle and The Trial, though what’s happening here begins to call for a variation on “The Metamorphosis” in which an entire country wakes up one morning to find itself transformed into a giant insect giving off an odor of kvass and speaking in a voice with a distinctly Russian accent.  more

January 9, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

Thanks to an anonymous troll among the twittering wallflowers of the far-right who posted a video meant to shame the youngest member of the House, the first surge of joy and hope I felt in 2019 came from a four-minute video made by some frisky Boston University students doing Breakfast Club dance moves on a city rooftop. It’s hard to imagine a more gloriously apt expression for what happened in Washington on January 3 than the sight of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez edging into view around the corner of that transformative moment with a big soundless shout of a smile, arms raised, black hair flying, as she uncoils, twirling, whirling, spiraling, the irrepressible embodiment of force and freedom. She and her fellow students were dancing to the music of the French band Phoenix, a number from 2009 called “Lisztomania,” with lyrics that have a ring ten years later, “This is show time, this is show time, this show time/Time, time is your love, time is your love, yes time is your love.”

Back to the Future

As the old year ended and the new one began, my wife and I were binge-watching a show that was too outrageous and irreverent for the networks in the mid 1970s. While revellers partied the night away in rainy Times Square, we were time-traveling to a daymare of small-town midwestern America, the home of Mary Hartman, mass murder, and the Fernwood Flasher.

The brainchild of All in the Family creator Norman Lear, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman ran every weekday night between January 1976 and May 1977. Being first-time parents with an infant son at the time, we slipped comfortably into the chaos swirling around Mary (Louise Lasser) and her dysfunctional household. I doubt that we saw every episode, but we were definitely there when the Fernwood High basketball coach drowned, face down in a bowl of Mary’s chicken soup, an event that holds 97th place on TV Guide’s list of the 100 Greatest TV Moments.  more

January 2, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

Movies and Times Square is the combination I usually go for when I toss the dice for a New Year’s subject. Right now I’m thinking of the January 4, 2012 column, “A Times Square Fantasia With Harpo Marx, Charlie Parker, and the 1911 Club,” which features an image of Harpo swinging on the neon pendulum of the animated Gruen watch sign, a still from the 1950 film Love Happy. I still hold with my unprovable claim that the majority of first-run movies made between 1920 and 1950 are set in New York City, and that more than half of them open with a shot of Times Square at night.

The 1911 club refers to some 26 centenary celebrities who were all packed into a Times Square night spot called the Royal Roost on December 31, 1948 watching Charlie Parker and his All Stars. The challenge for me was to do cameos of everyone, all age 37 that night, from Big Joe Turner and Hank Greenberg to Roy Rogers and Gypsy Rose Lee. The column ends at the stroke of midnight with Charlie Parker shouting “If music be the food of love, play on!” while Mahalia Jackson leads everyone singing “Auld Lang Syne.” more

December 26, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

This being my 15th year at Town Topics, and given how often anniversaries set the stage for my columns, the time feels right for a backward look. On this date in 2007, I began with an ode to Christmas and cats: “There are lots of nice moments this time of year, but maybe the nicest is when the cats first notice the tree in the living room. This is their fifth tree, so they seem perhaps a little less bowled over than in previous years, but no less appreciative. Brother and sister tuxedo look at the Fraser fir with big googly Felix the Cat eyes and then they cock their heads toward their benefactors as if to say ‘All for us?’ This is above and beyond the call of duty. Water in the stand, just for them. Nice packages to lie on, just for them. And how thoughtful, to hang all those glittery things on the branches, even though they know by now they aren’t supposed to use them for punching bags — except for the sister, who always has to knock off an ornament or two, in case her human slaves think she’s getting less crazed in her middle age.”

The rest of that column was about Hector Berlioz, whose music we still play when we’re trimming the tree. This year it’s a small, beautifully red-green-blue-and-gold lighted and decorated Eastern white pine that we managed to fit into the stand with a minimum of domestic fuss, not so much as a raised voice, in fact. The downside is that only one cat is still with us, and Nora, who once performed Nijnsky leaps and had a habit of sliding down the banister, is no longer willing to risk so much as a trip down the stairs to see the tree.  more

December 19, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

When I started on Crosby, I was inclined to believe a lot of the terrible things I had read about him,” Gary Giddins admits in a recent interview on jerryjazzmusician.com. “My proposal focused on a performer who personifies warmth to his public but is cold to his intimates. I started to do interviews and got a different sense of him….Crosby was not a saint, and I never wanted to write about a saint. He was a good and valuable man and I enjoyed the time I spent with him. He wasn’t a perfect artist, but when he rose to the occasion, he was a great one.”

In Bing Crosby: Swinging On a Star: The War Years, 1940-1946 (Little Brown), the occasions Crosby rose to were immense. Until he sang “White Christmas,” still the best-selling single in history, the holiday was for all purposes the emotional province of Charles Dickens and A Christmas Carol. At the same time, World War II was so seismically historic you could say that the occasion rose to Crosby, lifted him up, transforming an entertainer into “living folklore.” more

December 12, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

The first thing you see when you walk into Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment at the Princeton University Art Museum could be called an act of war. Or you could downgrade it to a metaphor for climate change like the one recently used by scientists comparing greenhouse gas emissions to “a speeding freight train.” However you frame the dynamic, it happens as your eyes move from the majesty of Albert Bierstadt’s Bridal Veil Falls, Yosemite (ca. 1871-73) to Valerie Hegarty’s travesty Fallen Bierstadt (2007). According to an online video narrated by Hegarty, she painted her own version of the Bierstadt and then, in effect, blew it up, leaving a hole in the bottom half, the remains scattered in a pile of papier-mâché debris on the gallery floor that museum aides have to occasionally rearrange. The artist says her intention was to simulate “acts of entropy, as if maybe the painting went over the falls and was left to decay.”

 more

December 5, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

The woman on the cover of  Junctures in Women’s Leadership: The Arts (Rutgers Univ. Press $24.95) is coming right at you, radiant with spirit and energy, a serpent clutched in one hand, a flowing gold-spangled blue cape in the other, her skirt flaring above her powerful thighs. The sense is that she’s breaking through barriers, leading the way, ferocious, unstoppable, the enemy of oppression and complacency (the fallen angel she’s crushing under her running shoes is “said to be” a symbol of patriarchy). 

Although the book’s co-authors, Princeton residents Judith K. Brodsky and Ferris Olin, wisely chose Yolanda M. López’s Portrait of the Artist as the Virgin of Guadalupe (1978) for the cover, the artist herself is not included among the 13 case histories inside. Given the situation at the Mexican border, a brief account of López’s background is worth giving here. Born in 1942, she is a third-generation Chicana whose grandparents migrated from Mexico to the U.S., crossing the Rio Bravo in a boat under fire from the Texas rangers. The same year she painted her controversial self-portrait as part of a series paying homage to working class Mexican women, she created a political poster titled Who’s the Illegal Alien, Pilgrim? showing an angry young man in an Aztec headdress holding a crumpled up paper titled “Immigration Plans.” The woman who made that dramatic Rio Bravo crossing is depicted in the Guadalupe series sitting on the blue cape worn by her artist-warrior granddaughter with the skin of the snake in her lap and a knife in her right hand. About the image of her grandmother, López says “She’s holding the knife herself because she’s no longer struggling with life and sexuality. She has her own power.” more

November 28, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

We begin in the Automat. What better place to launch a column on William Blake’s birthday than with the first encounter between two of his most passionate advocates, Patti Smith and Allen Ginsberg?

Smith’s endlessly readable 2010 memoir Just Kids offers only a few clues as to exactly where and when this chance meeting took place. Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe were living at the Chelsea Hotel at the time (I’m guessing late sixties); “a few doors down” was the Capitol Fishing tackle shop, a favorite source for two artists determined to transform “the insignificant into the divine.” According to Smith, “Horn and Hardart, the queen of Automats, was just past the tackle shop,” which puts the site in question at 202 West 23rd Street.

The routine was “to get a seat and a tray, then go to the back wall where there were rows of little windows. You would slip some coins in to a slot, open the glass hatch, and extract a sandwich or fresh apple pie. A real Tex Avery eatery.” On this “drizzly afternoon,” Patti has eyes for a cheese-and-lettuce sandwich with mustard on a poppy seed roll. After putting all the money she has — 55 cents — into the slot, she can’t get the window open because the price has gone up to 65 cents. When a voice behind her says “Can I help?” she turns around and sees a man with “dark intense eyes” and a “dark curly beard.” Yes, it’s Allen Ginsberg. They’d never met “but there was no mistaking the face of one of our great poets and activists.”  more

November 21, 2018

It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me.

—Herman Melville, Moby Dick

White Album, White Whale — all’s fair in love and hyperbole when it comes to describing the magnitude of the Beatles when their first double record was released 50 years ago tomorrow. Wrapping the music in white, with the name of the group only faintly perceptible, offered listeners a blank page, as if to say “Use your imagination. Fill in the blank. Set your fancy free.” more

November 14, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

Whenever I think of New York City in fiction, the first two novels that come to mind are Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, which was published on or before November 14, 1851, and J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, published on July 16, 1951. Ishmael’s voyage, the remedy for the “damp, drizzly November” in his soul, begins on “a dreamy Sabbath afternoon” in “your insular city of the Manhattoes,” where “the streets take you waterward.” The “madman stuff” that happens to Holden Caulfield on his voyage through Manhattan leads him to, among other places, “the movies at Radio City,” which was, he says, “probably the worst thing I ever did.”  more

November 7, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

After three seasons of Amazon Prime’s The Man In the High Castle, I have parallel worlds on the brain. Walking in the city last week, I was acutely aware of the dual realities of the Manhattan of memory and Manhattan 2018. While most people in the midtown crowds were seeing what was there, I was seeing what was no longer there.  more

October 24, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

With the fear-is-fun holiday looming, Bob Woodward’s Fear: Trump in the White House is a runaway best-seller while Republican midterm candidates are running on fear and dread.

“No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear,” according to Edmund Burke (1729-1797), quoted in Princeton professor Susan Wolfson’s Cultural Edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. After referring to “popular tales” concerning “ghosts and goblins,” Burke cites those “despotic governments, which are founded on the passions of men, and principally on the passion of fear.”  more