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.”

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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

October 17, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

Thanks to the five-word Molotov cocktail Donald Trump threw at the news media shortly after taking office, I’ve been rereading Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People.

The last time I read Ibsen was out loud with a friend many years ago on a student tour of Europe. The other reader was an aspiring actress from Erie, Pa., recently the site of one of Trump’s red-meat rallies. I can’t recall how Sally and I each happened to have a copy of the plays. Perhaps we bought them in Oslo to keep us sane in the immediate aftermath of our tour leader’s psychotic meltdown and subsequent incarceration. One aspect of his mania was the notion that he was leading a company of actors, musicians and writers he called the Golden Bear, after the name of the tour.  more

October 10, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

Early morning, early October, my wife and I are walking along the Delaware near Lambertville, the roar of the rapids so loud there’s no talking until we’re past the sound, heading south toward Washington’s Crossing. Downriver near Pennsbury Manor my paternal ancestors John and Sarah were indentured servants on William Penn’s estate, having come to America with him from England in 1682 on the good ship Welcome.

I’m mindful of my roots these days after unloading boxes of family photos, clippings, genealogies, old letters, and journals like my mother’s from the time she and my father took a cruise up the St. Lawrence to visit Barnhart’s Island, the home of her maternal ancestors. Just before she died, my mother, who grew up in river towns like St. Joseph, on the Missouri, and Smithville, on the Little Platte, told me, “Go down to the river.” My scholar father’s last words were “What’s on the agenda for today?” It would be hard to find two sentences more expressive of the differences between my parents and their families.  more

October 3, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

Trying to remember the last time I spent all day glued to the TV, the best I can do is September 11, 2001. Last Thursday my attention was focused on a 51-year-old stranger who was tenuously holding her own under the glare of the national spotlight. As she spoke shyly but unsparingly about the most traumatic moment of her life, I found myself pulling for her as if she were an old friend.

When the first half of the Senate hearing on the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh was adjourned, I searched online for the song I’d been thinking of during the cross-examination’s most stressful moments. All it took was typing in “Dear Christine,” by Klaatu, a Canadian group named after the traveler from another world in The Day the Earth Stood Still. Love songs like this one live and breathe with feeling and make you instantly emotional, particularly if you’ve just spent a supremely intense period of time empathizing with a woman named Christine.

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September 26, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

“Dr. Ford has said that they were stumbling drunk at the time that this occurred …. That has to be part of any relevant questioning.”
—Senator Richard J. Durbin, quoted in the New York Times

With the dark side of high school drinking dominating the national conversation these days, what was meant to be a column marking the shared birthdays of T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) and George Gershwin (1898-1937) has taken an unexpected turn.

Romancing under the influence is practically a genre in itself in the Great American Songbook, from loving hyperbole (“You go to my head like a sip of sparkling burgundy brew”) to barfly camaraderie (“We’re drinking my friend to the end of a brief episode … so make it one for my baby and one more for the road”).

Jump ahead a few decades and it’s Ray Davies’s “Sunny Afternoon” where the rich slob’s girlfriend has run off with his car and “gone back to her ma and pa telling tales of drunkenness and cruelty.” In the mid-70s the Kinks were singing “Oh demon alcohol,” with Davies lugubriously lamenting how booze “messed up his life when he beat up his wife” while reciting the booze hound’s litany: “barley wine, pink gin, port, pernod or tequila, rum, scotch, vodka on the rocks.”  more

September 19, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

It’s never very pleasant in the morning to open The New York Times

—W.H. Auden (1907-1973)

Auden was speaking in the fall of 1972, a year before he died in Vienna on September 28, 1973. One source of unpleasantness at that moment in history was Richard Nixon, who was into the before-the-fall fall of his second term. In mid-September 2018 opening the Times is like the first jarring swallow of a cup of gruesomely strong coffee you can’t stop drinking. Every morning you feel small stirrings of hope that the taste will mellow down to something closer to the Obama latte flavor you fondly like to think it used to have. Every morning it’s the same ordeal, with just a hint of the the addictive richness of false hope before the super-caffeinated reality hits you.  more

September 12, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

We are stardust

We are golden

And we have to get ourselves

Back to the garden

I’m not a big Joni Mitchell fan. She never moved me the way Kate Bush does when she becomes the spirit of Cathy singing outside Heathcliff’s window in “Wuthering Heights” or the spirit of Emily Brontë herself in all her untapped wildness when she makes albums like The Dreaming and Hounds of Love. But those lines from Mitchell’s “Woodstock” not only capture the best spirit of the Sixties, they speak to the here and now of Princeton in September 2018, where we have a Garden to get back to, and on Hollywood Nights it’s not just a refuge from the breaking-news madness of our time, it’s an escape route to the days when a B-movie gangster became Humphrey Bogart. My wife and I took our time getting to the Garden to see Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1950), one of the lesser known Bogarts. But Bogart is Bogart, the house was packed, and we were lucky to find seats together. more

September 5, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

The image of Emily Brontë on the cover of Robert Barnard’s contribution to The British Library Writers’ Lives series is a retouched detail from the portrait of the three Brontë sisters, Anne, Emily, and Charlotte, painted by their brother Branwell. Two years ago at the Morgan Library’s Charlotte Brontë bicentennial, I stood in front of the original painting (circa 1834), with its folds, creases, and marks of wear. The contrast between the spectral Emily I saw then and this radiant girl is eerie. There’s color in the cheeks and brow and lips and the light of thought in the eyes. What had seemed a neutral expression now appears appealingly impertinent. It’s incredible to think this fresh-faced human being aglow with attitude was born 200 years ago, July 30, 1818, and died at 30 in 1848, a year after the publication of her only novel, which came into the world with its author concealed behind the pen name Ellis Bell. Wuthering Heights has been synonymous with mystery ever since.

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August 29, 2018

There’s too much in my head for this horn— Charlie Parker (1920-1955)

By Stuart Mitchner

And there’s too much in my head for this column.

One of the pleasures of writing a piece every week is being able to put fresh-in-the-moment impressions in play even if they don’t always mesh with the subject. Like when the pennant race is heating up and the St. Louis Cardinals suddenly come back from the dead with a new manager, an injection of young talent, and the magical properties of their hottest hitter’s homemade salsa. Being attached to a team is like being lashed to a runaway train; full speed ahead one day, off the rails the next. I was so blitzed by the too-muchness of last week’s after-midnight sweep of the Dodgers in L.A. that I almost forgot we were coming out on Charlie Parker’s birthday. more

August 22, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner 

The guest list for this week was set for Debussy and Dorothy Parker until the news of Aretha Franklin’s death. The upside of an open-ended column is that there’s seemingly room at the last minute even for someone of Aretha’s magnitude. It’s like a variation on the who-would-you-invite-to-a-dinner-party question people get asked every week in the New York Times Book Review. At this one, you can be sure the piano would get a work-out and the music would be amazing, but what would they talk about? One obvious thing the Queen of Soul and the Dark Lady of the Algonquin Round Table have in common is that both received lavish front-page Times obituaries, with last Friday’s edition running an inventory of Franklin’s “essential songs” not unlike the June 8, 1967 issue’s extensive sampler of Dorothy Parker’s “rapier wit.” more

August 15, 2018

You know, I’m a New York guy — Sonny Rollins, in People Magazine

By Stuart Mitchner

New York City, Christmas week 1948, St. James Theatre: Ray Bolger is performing “Once In Love With Amy” and life will never be the same for the ten-year-old in the balcony. He’s in the heart of the holiday city, suspended above a bright new world of sight and sound, captivated, taken out of himself, “in heaven,” watching a living man, in person, here and now, singing and dancing while a live band plays, and there’s nothing to do but laugh in sheer delight when the man on stage does a drunken gambit singing “You might be quite the fickle-hearted ro-ver, so carefree and bold, who loves a girl and later — “ hiccup “ — thinks it over, and justquits cold!” When the chorus comes round again — “Once you’re kissed by Amy, tear up the list, it’s Amy!” — Bolger stops singing to go cavorting around the stage in an ecstasy, so full of the song that singing isn’t enough, he’s catapaulted by the music, waving his arms, leaping about, calling on the audience to share the joy until the whole theatre is singing along, “Once in love with Amy! Always in love with Amy!” more

August 8, 2018

How fearful/And dizzy ‘tis, to cast one’s eyes so low!

—Shakespeare, from King Lear

By Stuart Mitchner

It’s primal stuff, the fear of falling, the horror of being suspended in space, left hanging, the vicarious sensation of feeling the fall the way the Duke of Gloucester does as he falls without falling from the “dread summit … the crown ‘o the cliff” in Act 4, scene 6 of King Lear.

Edgar simulates the experience for his blind father, combining force of will with Shakespeare’s language the way a film director manipulates a submissive viewer, taking advantage of that age-old perceptual Open Sesame “the willing suspension of disbelief.”

Flash forward four and a half centuries and vast audiences are willingly giving themselves up to the cliffhanger dynamic of series television bequeathed by Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980), who crafted classic manifestations of that primal fear, most famously in Vertigo (1958), which opens with Princeton alum Jimmy Stewart ‘32 hanging from a San Francisco rooftop and ends as the mystery woman played by Kim Novak falls to her death from the San Juan Bautista bell tower.  more

August 1, 2018

They still represent the twentieth century’s greatest romance. — Derek Taylor, introducing The Beatles Anthology 3.

Fifty years ago today the Beatles completed the recording of “Hey Jude” at Trident Studios in St. Anne’s Court off Wardour Street.

I first heard “the Sistine Chapel of Rock and Roll” while driving a ‘62 Chevy Corvair along Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge well before the record’s official August 26th release. I’d been about to turn off the radio because the reception was breaking up (no wonder, if you believe Ralph Nader, who declared the Corvair one of the “most dangerous cars in history”) when out of a storm of static comes “Hey Jude” loud and clear, as if by magic, no build-up, no hype, no DJ preamble, just Paul McCartney calling me to attention, for in the shock of the moment, it sounded like “Hey you!” I swerved to the right, parking at a crazy angle in a no-parking zone, listening and listening and listening, three, four, five, six, seven minutes, but who’s counting when McCartney’s riffing in an ecstasy over a 40 piece orchestra and a chorus of thousands right there in my poor defamed Corvair. more

July 25, 2018

Shakespeare will go on explaining us, in part because he invented us. — Harold Bloom

For relief from the post-Helsinki reality of July 2018, a time of chronic stress leading to sleepless nights and a condition that for lack of a better word could be called trumpache, I recommend 600 mgs of Shakespeare at bedtime. Love’s Labor’s Lost has done wonders for me; no more ringing in the ears from the blowhard echo of the Montana Trump rally where the Philistine-in-Chief heaped scorn on “a thousand points of light,” his predecessor George H.W. Bush’s ghostwritten metaphor for public service, possibly the only piece of poetry ever associated with the 41st president.  more