December 3, 2014
Mike Nichols on the set of "The Graduate" discussing a scene with his alter ego, Dustin Hoffman, while Anne Bancroft looks on.

Mike Nichols on the set of “The Graduate” discussing a scene with his alter ego, Dustin Hoffman, while Anne Bancroft looks on.

An audience is a ruthless, heartless, and unruly monster, and if it doesn’t sense purpose then get out of its way, because it’s going to be difficult …. But when your purpose is high and strong and an audience can sense it, they’ll go pretty far with you.

—Mike Nichols (1931-2014)

When I heard about the death of Mike Nichols two weeks ago the image that came immediately to mind was of the title character played by Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate (1967). It’s rare this side of Charlie Chaplin for a director and a character to merge the way Nichols and Hoffman do in that film.

Told during a 1999 Film Comment interview that he didn’t “seem to identify” with the title character and appeared to “view him from a distance,” Nichols had to point out that in fact his identification with Benjamin was “predominate” in what he “did with the movie,” adding, “By that I mean, I didn’t cast [Robert] Redford …. I kept looking and looking for an actor until I found Dustin, who is the opposite, who’s a dark, Jewish, anomalous presence, which is how I experience myself. So I stuck this dark presence into Beverly Hills, and there he felt that he was drowning in things, and that was very much my take on that story. When I think of Benjamin, there are many things that come from my personal experience.”

That piece of casting and the self-styled way Nichols shaped Hoffman’s performance created the offbeat dynamic that, wonder of wonders, launched the film on its historic course as a classic of American cinema and a box office sensation, number one in the year(s) of its release, 1967-68, and number 21 all time, based on a figure adjusted for the inflationary cost of tickets.

Nichols’s “ruthless, heartless, and unruly monster” of an audience came out of The Graduate smiling and happy. As Stanley Kauffmann puts it in his Dec. 22 1967 New Republic review, “For once a happy ending makes us feel happy.” The last film that did that to an audience featured a British rock group with a funny name, cost relatively little to make (as did The Graduate) and came in at number 8 in 1964 behind three Elvis Presleys, a James Bond, a Sergio Leone, My Fair Lady, and Mary Poppins. Jump ahead four years from the Beatles and A Hard Day’s Night to Vietnam, and you’re already up to your hips in troubled waters: LBJ’s resignation, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the murders in Mississippi, and the disaster of the Democratic convention that helped put Nixon and Agnew in command as the battle lines formed for what Richard Poirier was writing about in his essay “The War Against the Young.” Two years up the road you have the feel-good pinnacle of Woodstock, followed by Hell’s Angels Altamont, Manson, Cambodia and the killing of 13 students at Kent and Jackson State. Among other things.

Even as the divisions deepened, people of all backgrounds and ages were cheering The Graduate, with its unknown and unhandsome hero and its unsavory plot line about a predatory married woman (Anne Bancroft, as Mrs. Robinson) seducing Hoffman’s borderline comatose youth who then falls in love with her daughter (Katherine Ross as Elaine) and finds something in life worth fighting for. Pauline Kael faulted The Graduate for making Benjamin “a romantic hero for the audience to project onto,” one who stood for “truth” while “older people stood for sham,” which perpetuated “a ‘generation gap’ view of youth and age” that “entered the national bloodstream.”

Making the Move

Politics and polarization aside, it was the high-energy denouement that had everyone rooting for Hoffman’s unlikely knight errant as he drove his college-graduation-present Alfa Romeo from L.A. to Berkeley and back until it ran out of gas in Santa Barbara, which left the college track star running to the church to rescue fair Elaine from the prison of a forced marriage, except that, contrary to the usual Hollywood snatched-from-the-jaws-of-wedlock script, he gets there too late, the vows have been exchanged, the nuptial kiss kissed. Ah, but it’s the shock of realizing the deed is done that inspires him to start shouting her name until she looks up and there he is high above the scene in a glass-partitioned balcony, arms outspread as if he were about to take flight and swoop like a superhero to the rescue.

What follows may be the most exhilarating three minutes in cinema since the Beatles descended on an open field to leap about to the full-speed-ahead euphoria of “Can’t Buy Me Love.” With the hand-held camera working its magic, the chaotic escape is so brilliantly enacted, you’d think some mad genius had choreographed the whole sequence (the genius being a combination of Mike Nichols, cinematographer Robert Surtees, and “the magic hand of chance”). Down comes Benjamin, drunk with adrenaline, pushing past the howling, infuriated father of the bride (“you crazy punk, I’ll kill you!”), leaping over the stairway with the ease of Douglas Fairbanks vaulting parapets as the thief of Bagdad, elbowing the murderous Mr. Robinson in the gut while grabbing the nearest cross and flailing away with both hands like a hammer-thrower with a scimitar as the enraged wedding party tumbles backward, parents, relatives, the blond blue-eyed groom (“the makeout king”) and his blond, walking-surfboard frat brothers. Who’d have thought that the dorky character first seen being moved along the moving sidewalk at LAX like an object on an assembly line could pull off the coup of the last movement, spiriting himself and the bride safely through the glass doors he then locks against the mob by using the cross as a wedge. The effect is of staving off a shouting cursing microcosm of straight America, all the outrage muted, buried in silence, as the lovers break into a run.

Feeling It

Compared to the prolonged dance of death that ends Bonnie and Clyde, 1967’s other cinema landmark, the escape from the church and the world of loathing locked behind the glass doors has an even more violent undercurrent, something deeper, uglier, more menacing. Elaine saw it in her parents and the groom as Benjamin shouted her name; that was her moment of truth: to see the hatred twisting and distorting the faces of the people who thought they had her future locked up, and here was this creep in a parka ruining everything. Nichols makes you feel it. He puts you at the emotional epicenter — you feel it all, you feel with the girl, her face uplifted, eyes wide, taking in the reality of her lot, and you feel the joyous rightness of it when she knows what she has to do, screams his name, and makes her move. And you feel it with them as they take off, running hand in hand, literally running for their lives, she in her wedding dress, smiling, laughing with the giddy joy of release, and then the seemingly perfect meshing of the possibilities as they catch the bus that appears at just the right moment and hurry down the aisle in their glory to one of the most memorable moments in cinema, the couple in the back of the bus, winded, triumphant, at first all smiles as Hoffman gives a shout we can’t hear, like an athlete in the ecstasy of winning; after exchanging one loving look, they face forward, stunned by what they’ve done and sobered by the awareness that they are on their way to the unknown as the music that has haunted the film from the beginning brings it to its conclusion, Simon and Garfunkel singing of sounds of silence, darkness, restless dreams, narrow streets, and the cold and damp.

Nichols and May

The other image I saw the moment I heard the news about Mike Nichols was the way he looked at the dawn of the sixties when he and Elaine May were in their prime, making records and appearing on Broadway. As Nichols notes in the commentary included with M-G-M’s 40th anniversary DVD, he learned a great deal about directing while developing and perfecting his routines with May. The experience also enabled him to remake the character of Benjamin in his own image. If you revisit Nichols and May on film or online, you’ll find him employing intonations and inflections predating Hoffman’s performance, his constricted speech patterns and occasional broken whimpers of confusion and distress. All through the film, there are instances where Hoffman is doing Nichols in modified Nichols and May routines, not just with Bancroft but with various other characters, including Mr.Robinson and Benjamin’s parents. Watching himself in one such scene during the DVD commentary he shares with co-star Katherine Ross, Hoffman exclaims, “I can see Mike so much now! That was Mike!”

November 26, 2014

book revA nondescript sign hanging above an uninviting door on a street in Philadelphia says ART, BOOKS. The door opens easily and what you see on the other side makes it feel like you’ve walked into a movie.

There are all kinds of interiors, some dull, some posh, and then there are vistas like the one extending into the far distance. Books and art are here, as promised. Piled on top of floor-to-ceiling shelves teeming with volumes from the era before ISBN numbers are paintings, jumbled, tumbled, balanced, constructively haphazard, as if arranged by a Hollywood set designer on a roll, canvases framed and unframed, original artworks, some of it shrill and chaotic, like hieroglyphics gone wild, graffiti that couldn’t find the right wall. As you venture farther back, past immense, picturesquely faded 19th-century French posters advertising livraisons partout gratis by Paul de Kock, you find boxes of old records, sheet music, postcards, vintage magazines and newspapers, auction catalogues, and, filling the last long stretch of the vista, antiques with enough charisma to suggest that a Maltese Falcon or Brasher Doubloon might be found on the premises.

So if this is a movie, what’s it about, where’s it coming from, and where’s it going? The genre that makes the most sense for such a murky, intriguingly disordered setting is film noir. Except that doesn’t fit with my idea of Philadelphia, even though literary historians say Poe invented the detective story here, writing “Murders in the Rue Morgue” a few years before George Lippard produced The Quaker City … A Romance of Philadelphia Life, Mystery, and Crime (1845), one of the wildest, weirdest Gothic mind-benders ever written. It’s also true that the City of Brotherly Love is where two bop piano geniuses suffered brain-damaging beatings in the 1940s, Bud Powell at the hands of the police, Dodo Marmarosa attacked by a gang of sailors who dumped him headfirst on the dockside railroad tracks. You could fashion a tragic noir around either man, both of whom never fully recovered.

The idea of a movie about an embattled pianist brings to mind François Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player (1960), which was based on a novel by what’s-his-name, the writer of the book behind one of my favorite noirs, Dark Passage. I’m thinking of the scene where Bogart goes out in the middle of the San Francisco night to find a plastic surgeon because he needs a new face. The doctor who does the job is philosophical, telling Bogart “There’s no such thing as courage, only the fear of getting hurt and the fear of dying.” For some reason that line gives me the name I was looking for, David Goodis. Because Dark Passage was set in San Francisco, I always thought Goodis lived out there. In fact, he’s right here, right where he belongs, with these thoughts of beatings and piano players in this vast curiosity shop in the City of Brotherly Love.

Finding David Goodis

Looking him up online that night, I learn that David Goodis was born and grew up in Philadelphia, studied for a year at my alma mater Indiana University before transferring to Temple, where he graduated in 1938 with a journalism degree, moved to New York City, worked in advertising, wrote for pulps like Horror Stories, Terror Tales, and Dime Mystery, published Dark Passage in the Saturday Evening Post, sold it to Hollywood, knew the stars (there are photos of him with Bogart and Bacall). Then back to his hometown for good to become the poet laureate of Philadelphia noir, turning out Gold Medal paperbacks like The Moon in the Gutter, Nightfall, Cassidy’s Girl, Of Tender Sin, Street of the Lost, and Down There, the book that went to Paris and became Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianiste.

The only thing by Goodis I could find locally is a paperback of Shoot the Piano Player. Here’s the first paragraph:

There were no street lamps, no lights at all. It was a narrow street in the Port Richmond section of Philadelphia. From the nearby Delaware a cold wind came lancing in, telling all alley cats they’d better find a heated cellar. The late November gusts rattled against midnight-darkened windows, and stabbed at the eyes of the fallen man in the street.

That’s an irresistible opening, word-music and articulated atmosphere as mood-making as Charles Asnavour’s beyond worldweary face glooming above the piano in Truffaut’s film, which brings the melody of feeling to life much as Goodis describes it: “a soft, easygoing rhythm, somewhat plaintive and dreamy, a stream of pleasant sound that seemed to be saying, Nothing matters.” As for the piano player, he’s “slightly bent over, aiming a dim and faraway smile at nothing in particular.”

Where fiction most impressively surpasses film and makes you understand why Henry Miller said the novel was “even better” than the movie is in the love story between the piano player and the waitress. In the film Lena is played by Marie Dubois, whose charming wholesome beauty and lovely smile make it a foregone conclusion that Aznavour’s Eddie would be instantly infatuated. Gaddis’s depiction of the awkward evolution of a deeply felt relationship is so tensely and determinedly understated that it takes on a force greater than all the violence in a violent book. Dubois’s youthful charm is no match for the presence and power of Gaddis’s waitress. This is why the end of Down There has an emotional impact beyond anything in the film. After seeing the woman he was afraid to fall in love with shot dead in the snow, the piano player goes back to the refuge he found after his fall from concert hall glory, a dockside dive called Harriet’s Hut, where Lena worked. One way he tries to resist loving her is to think of her not by name but as “the waitress” right up to the moment of her death — “down there” in South Jersey.

“Less is more” is the line Gaddis follows from the cold wind of the opening paragraph to the deliverance of the conclusion, with Goodis, like a pianist himself, at his own keyboard. People in the bar are urging him to play, they all but lift him onto the stool, but he’s “got nothing to give them,” until a whisper comes “from somewhere” telling him he can try. When, with eyes closed, he hears the sound, “warm and sweet,” coming from a piano, he thinks, “That’s a fine piano …. Who’s playing that?” And as the story ends: “He opened his eyes. He saw his fingers caressing the keyboard.”

Earlier, when he heard jazz coming over a car radio, the piano player said something similar to himself, “That’s very fine piano … I think that’s Bud Powell.”

It’s said that during his year and a half confinement at Creedmore after the Philadelphia attack, Bud Powell drew a keyboard on the wall of his cell, so he could open his eyes and see it there and imagine his fingers moving on the keys.

The Writer as the Player

The cover of La vie en noir et blanc, the biography of David Goodis by Philippe Garnier (Editions de Seuil 1984), has a photograph of Goodis at the piano, a cigarette in his mouth. After reading his way through Goodis’s dark world, Garnier commented, “I find it very difficult to imagine springtime in Philadelphia.”

Julian Rackow, Goodis’s lawyer in the suit he brought against the hit TV series The Fugitive for allegedly stealing ideas from Dark Passage, found it no less difficult to put his impression of Goodis into words, at least until he saw Shoot the Piano Player: “Upon leaving the theater, my wife said that I looked as pale as a ghost. I was shaken because it was as if I had seen David Goodis.” Besides observing that the Aznavour character had “many of the personality and physical traits of David Goodis,” Rackow felt that both men were versions of “the quintessential loner.” The piano player was the writer, “all wrapped up tightly within himself … far more comfortable within his own shell.”

Streets Given Meaning

On the same day that began at the emporium behind the ART/BOOKS sign, my son and I drove to a used record store called Sit & Spin on South Ninth in the Italian market, a part of the city I’m not very familiar with and at the time had no desire to know better. On our way, we covered a lot of ground, crossing innumerable four-way-stop intersections of streets that had no particular significance for me.

At home, after discovering a fantastically informative web site called “Shooting Pool with David Goodis,” I learned just how wide a swath of urban territory his novels encompass. Those insignificant street names I’d passed earlier that day were now charged with meaning, fiction and real-life merging in an area the web site calls Goodisville: “The majority of the novels were set in Skid Row, the Delaware River docks, Kensington, Southwark, and Port Richmond. Three of these areas are truly lost to contemporary Philadelphians. Working class Southwark is now Queens Village, most of which is increasingly upscale. Dock Street, overlooking the waterfront and once the center of a sprawling and cacophonous produce market, is now the location of independent film theaters, and of the Society Hill Towers apartments. Skid Row fell to redevelopment plans over 30 years ago; the derelicts, the fleabag hotels, and the Sunday Breakfast Association have long been unlamented.”

The circumstances of David Goodis’s death at 49 in March 1967 have a noirish aspect. While the official cause is given as a “cerebral vascular accident,” the consensus seems to be that it resulted from the beating Goodis suffered while resisting a hold-up attempt.

Down There can be found in the Library of America’s anthology American Noir of the 1950s. Gaddis has a volume all to himself in Five Noir Novels.The 2nd Street emporium is Jules Goldman Books and Antiques.

November 19, 2014

DVD revI suggest that Hitchcock belongs —and why classify him at all? — among such artists of anxiety as Kafka, Dostoevsky, and Poe. —François Truffaut

According to a 2012 critics poll in the British film journal, Sight and Sound, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) is “the greatest film ever made.” You can be sure that enlightened movie watchers around the world dispute that declaration, and with good reason. Even if I believed in the legitimacy of film rankings by “authorities” in the field, Vertigo would be nowhere near the top of my list. But when the late Robin Wood, whose writings on Hitchcock are classics of film criticism, demonstrates in eloquent and convincing detail why Vertigo is “one of the four or five most profound and beautiful films the cinema has given us,” I’m moved to reexamine my feelings about it, especially when a remastered print is available on DVD.

Having now seen the film twice in a three day period, I’m less appalled by the idea that people new to the medium or with limited knowledge of it will take the poll seriously enough to assume that Vertigo somehow sets the standard for  film greatness. In the context of its era, it stands alone, a fascinating creation, ahead of its time, daring, inventive, and uncompromising. What sets it apart in addition to Hitchcock’s predictably masterful direction is Robert Burks’s cinematography, Bernard Herrmann’s score, and Jimmy Stewart’s performance as a man doomed to fall in love. Only Hitchcock could film a love story that takes the romantic metaphor to a morbid extreme. At the same time, as is frequently the case with Hitchcock, the picture suffers from the same lapses and  excesses associated with the pop culture legend he crafted for himself as cinema’s rotund “Imp of the Perverse” — excesses he shares with the “Imp’s” author, that other morbid genius and master of the macabre, of whom Hitchcock has written: “… it’s because I liked Edgar Allan Poe’s stories so much that I began to make suspense films.”

Mad Love

Freely adapted from D’entre les morts, a lame thriller concocted by Thomas Narcejac and Pierre Boileau to catch Hitchcock’s attention, Vertigo is about a police detective named Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) who has retired from the force due to acrophobia brought on when he nearly falls to his death while pursuing a suspect. A college friend hires Ferguson to shadow his elegant, allegedly suicidal wife, Madeline (Kim Novak), who has been behaving strangely, brooding in cemeteries and communing with a museum portrait of her ghostly alter ego, Carlotta Valdes (a name that Poe would love). After saving her life when she jumps into San Francisco Bay, Ferguson falls in love with her and she with him, but when she jumped off the top of a Spanish mission bell tower to her death, he was unable to save her because of his fear of heights. The shock and the nightmares it engenders precipitate a nervous breakdown, from which he recovers with help from Midge, his former girlfriend who still loves him (a bespectacled Barbara Bel Geddes). When he meets Judy, a sales clerk without an elegant bone in her body (Kim Novak again) but with a haunting resemblance to Madeline, he’s compelled to make her over in the image of his dead beloved. This he accomplishes, only to discover that Judy had pretended to be Madeline as part of a plot involving the murder of the old friend’s rich wife. Twice deceived, taking Judy-as-Madeline back to the tower, he forces her to the top while chastising her for her duplicity and at the same time proving to himself that he can overcome his acrophobia. At the top, startled by the appearance of a nun, the girl falls to her death. Staring down at her body, Scottie Ferguson is “cured.” We know better. For Hollywood in 1958, this is a remarkably downbeat ending.

Jimmy Stewart

Of all the epigraphs that could be applied to Vertigo, the most apropos might be from Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale”: “I have been half in love with easeful Death/Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme,” except that for Jimmy Stewart’s love-dazed Scottie, Death is beautiful and her name is Madeline. What Hitchcock ghoulishly classifies as a “necrophiliac” romance reaches its psycho-sexual pinnacle when the shopgirl Scottie has transformed into Madeline stands before him, “as if she were naked,” says Hitchcock, who consecrates the moment with a dizzying, full-circle 360-degree-angle shot of an embrace of Wagnerian proportions (to the  Liebestod yet) between a madman and the corpse he’s created to satisfy his morbid lust (the level of discourse, again, typical of the master of the macabre). No one but an actor of Stewart’s stature, a star the moviegoing public absolutely believes in, could have preserved his integrity in so neurotic a role.

In the early scenes with Midge, in her apartment/studio (she’s an artist reduced  to designing bra/lingerie ads), you have glimpses of the familiar “waal, shucks ma’am” Jimmy Stewart whom comedians and certain schoolboys in the 1950s loved to impersonate. The actor remains at a bland remove from the character until the moment he drags Kim Novak out of San Francisco Bay. It’s surprising that for all his attention to the virtues of the film, Robin Wood neglects to mention the extraordinary medium close-up two shot of Stewart and Novak after he’s pulled her out of the cold water. The image is on the screen only a matter of seconds, but in it you see the man coming face to face  with his gorgeous fate for the first time. He’s shaking, out of breath, as he beholds, dazed, in a dream, the timeless beauty of the creature whose life he’s saved. An actor unsurpassed in believably and wrenchingly expressing extremes of anguish, Stewart makes you feel the man’s helpless plunge to the depths of his love for the unconscious woman in his arms; at this point his emotions are so exposed,  it’s as if he thinks she’s about to die at the very moment he’s discovering and adoring her. All he can say is her name. It’s his first declaration of love. It also may be Novak’s most beautiful moment, for she’s seen in profile, drenched, damply radiant, like Hitchcock’s version of the Birth of Venus. We still haven’t heard her say a word, which is just as well since she never seems comfortable speaking the language of the wealthy woman she’s impersonating. While that serves the director’s purpose well enough, you still can’t help wishing a more accomplished actress were playing the part.

Wrong Move

Probably the most famous instance of Hitchcock’s fetish for women in spectacles is in Strangers On a Train, when the strangling of Farley Granger’s bespectacled wife is reflected in the lenses of her fallen glasses. Hitchcock makes Midge’s glasses her essential feature, a way of at once defining and deglamorizing her role as the sane, sensible, loving alternative to Scottie’s fatal fascination with Madeline and the portrait of Carlotta Valdes. Aware of the power of that image over the man she still loves, Midge uses a copy of the painting to compose what Robin Wood calls “a parody portrait of herself” as Carlotta, complete with her own dark-framed glasses, which look ridiculous in the elegant period trappings of the original portrait. Wood sees nothing to complain about in the cringe-inducing scene where Midge shows Scottie the portrait; he treats  the embarrassment as if it makes filmic sense, as if she thinks she can render the obsession “ridiculous by satirizing it.” In fact, she humiliates herself, alienates Scottie by violating the image of his passion (he stalks out of the apartment), and worse yet, she violates the film’s credibility, having been forced by the Imp of the Perverse to make exactly the wrong move. When she tears her hair and berates herself (“Stupid! Stupid!”) she’s also voicing the sentiments of a large portion of the audience watching the irrepressible Hitchcock inflict a direct hit on his own creation.

Vertigo in the Perverse 

All quibbling aside, I find the presence of Poe in Hitchcock appealing because it agrees with my sense of Hitch as a 20th century phenomenon in American culture comparable to Poe in the 19th century. Like Hitchcock, Poe inflicted perverse distortions on his own work, playing games, jesting, defying the logic of his creation with ornate, bombastic, melodramatic gambits of the sort that made T.S. Eliot observe that “The forms which his lively curiosity takes are those in which a pre-adolescent mentality delights,” and that inspired Henry James to call an enthusiasm for Poe “the mark of a decidedly primitive stage of reflection.” Comparing Poe to Baudelaire, his champion in France, James found him to be “much the greater charlatan of the two, as well as the greater genius.”

Finally, it’s worth noting the employment of vertigo as a metaphor in “The Imp of the Perverse” where Poe writes, “We stand upon the brink of a precipice. We peer into the abyss — we grow sick and dizzy. Our first impulse is to shrink from the danger. Unaccountably we remain.” The notion of the perverse, of knowingly surrendering to the fatal impulse, is developed at length in the same long paragraph as Poe elaborates on this moment on the brink, as if one were tempted by curiosity  to experience “the sweeping precipitancy of a fall from such a height … for the very reason that it involves … the most ghastly and loathsome images of death and suffering which have ever presented themselves to our imagination — for this very cause do we now the most vividly desire it. And because our reason violently deters us from the brink, therefore do we the most impetuously approach it. There is no passion in nature so demoniacally impatient, as that of him who, shuddering upon the edge of a precipice, thus meditates a Plunge.”

In a 1960 article called “Why I Am Afraid of the Dark”, Hitchcock recounts his discovery of Poe. “When I came home from the office where I worked I went straight to my room, took the cheap edition of his Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, and began to read. I still remember my feelings when I finished ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue.’ I was afraid, but this fear made me discover something I’ve never forgotten since: fear, you see, is an emotion people like to feel when they know they’re safe.”

As always, I found Hitchcock’s most interesting remarks in François Truffaut’s collection of interviews, from which several quotes are taken, including the one at the top.

November 12, 2014

book revAs Princeton resident and professor emeritus Samuel Hynes demonstrates in The Unsubstantial Air: American Fliers in the First World War (Farrar Straus and Giroux $26), the romance of being a fighter pilot in the Great War was viewed by young men, many of them from Ivy League schools, as “wonderful sport,” “a glorious sport,” “the best game over here,” “the sporty side of war.” Hynes, who flew 68 combat missions as a Marine pilot in World War II, goes along with the notion before grounding it in reality: “They’re right …. Only in the air will small groups of players acting together oppose other small groups — like two football teams. But to make the big game analogy really work, you’d have to imagine a Harvard-Yale game in which both teams are armed with lethal weapons. In that game the players would not simply be athletes; they’d be gamblers, taking risks with their own lives.”

Princeton in the Air

The big game idea is extended in Hynes’s account of the day flying came to Princeton, November 18, 1916, as the Tiger football team took on Yale, with a fleet of 12 planes flying in from Long Island, the lead aircraft piloted by Old Nassau’s star athlete Hobey Baker (Class of 1914). When America entered the war in 1918, Princeton organized its own flying corps, financed by well-heeled alums, with a pasture south of town on the Princeton Pike leased as an air field. Hynes nails the Princeton connection by quoting an exchange from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise in which Fitzgerald’s fictional alter ego Amory Blaine says “aviation’s the thing for me.”

Fitzgerald’s own feelings on the subject are presented with characteristic flair in a November 14, 1917 letter to his mother from the Cottage Club informing her that upon getting his commission he went to Brooks Brothers to order some of his “equipment” (“my uniforms are going to cost quite a bit”); he goes on to say that he “went into this perfectly cold-bloodedly” and doesn’t sympathize with the “hero stuff,” having made the move “purely for social reasons” [his italics].

Had Fitzgerald actually become a pilot, he’d have had his shot at society, for, as Hynes points out, “Wherever they trained, in England or in Scotland or in France, the young Americans found the local gentry hospitable and eager to invite them to their country houses for dinner or weekends. The pilots were impressed by the style of the lives these people lived” (think Downton Abbey) “and wrote home about the country-house life.” One pilot tells “a Princeton friend” about attending a dance at “a large estate” in Scotland “with a history dating way back somewhere,” being invited there again “for an afternoon of tennis and tea,” and concluding that he has “quite broken into the high society of Ayr.”

Personal Effects

Early chapters of Hynes’s book like “Driving the Machine” reminded me of being taken up in a Piper Cub by one of my maternal uncles, a career soldier in the Army Air Force who performed, much to my delight, certain aerial maneuvers. Such antics with an eight-year-old aboard must have appalled my mother, and for good reason, since her other brother, a B-47 bombardier, had been killed in a mid-air collision. Brother and sister had been very close and the wound left by the senseless crash (a training mission in Nevada) never healed. After her death, I found a small box containing a dog tag, a dented cigarette lighter, and a mangled, half-full pack of Camels. She received these things and other “personal effects” along with a letter from an Army chaplain telling her that her “loved one’s body” had been found at a distance from the wreckage “remarkably intact.”

The chaplain’s comment came to mind in Hynes’s account of the death of Raoul Lufbery, “the most revered American aviator in France,” according to Eddie Rickenbacker, who called him an “Ace of Aces.” It was Rickenbacker who described the scene after driving to the village where Lufbery “had struck the earth … the body had fallen on a white picket fence surrounding a peasant’s garden.”

In addition to various suppositions about the loss of a pilot immune to the bravado that brought down inexperienced fliers who saw combat as a sport, there was the question of whether Lufbery had jumped or fallen, this being before pilots had parachutes. In one eyewitness account “from the village shoemaker,” Lufbery “had flown so close to the enemy plane that they seemed to touch and had fired four or five shots. The German did not reply. Again he approached and fired, and this time the German replied with a few rounds. The American plane pulled away and rolled over, and what looked like a sack full of something fell out.”

After paraphrasing the village shoemaker, Hynes quotes Billy Mitchell, “the great cheerleader for war in the air,” who describes “the terrible thing” that is the “burning of a pilot in the air as his ship catches fire from the hostile flaming bullets …. He is there suspended in space, with no companion to share his misery, no man at his elbow to support him, as in the infantry on the ground. When he is wounded and falls, it is for thousands of feet instead of two or three, as a man on the ground does.”

Touching and Terrible

Another association roused by Hynes’s book that has some additional bearing on the chaplain’s letter to my mother can be found in a scene from William Wellman’s silent film Wings, which won the 1929 Academy Award for Best Picture. “Wild Willy” Wellman was the first American to join the Lafayette Flying Corps and is said to have achieved three recorded “kills,” along with five probables. Though Wings includes some spectacular flying scenes (not to mention the unwholesomely wholesome charms of Clara Bow), the scene that has stayed with me is illuminated by Gary Cooper, then on the brink of stardom. Playing an air cadet named White, Cooper is on the screen a mere matter of minutes, just long enough to greet the two rookie pilots (Buddy Rogers and Richard Arlen) before leaving “to do a flock of figure eights before chow.” Telling the boys (one minute in the Cooper Presence and the two male leads have become puppies) that he doesn’t believe in good luck charms (“Luck or no luck, when your time comes, you’re going to get it”), he gives them a look that says everything there is to say about such things as life and death and fate. It’s the epitome of Last Looks and Last Words, in medium close-up, effortlessly expressed by one of the great faces of cinema. Almost before you have time to recover from that moment, the fate alluded to is delivered, as an officer tells the stunned rookies to gather White’s belongings for sending home. While they are predictably moved by the photograph of White’s mother, the object that commands their attention is the half-eaten chocolate bar he’d shared with them, a token of camaraderie. Suddenly that mundane object has become touching and terrible in its very ordinariness — like such things as white picket fences and gardens, village shoemakers, “a sack full of something,” and, for me, my uncle’s dog tag, dented lighter, and the package of Camels, with a dozen cigarettes inside, still intact. Usually I keep the dog tag hanging from a push-pin on the bulletin board above my desk; at this moment, an hour after midnight, November 11, I’m wearing it.

A Puff of Smoke

In Hynes’s penultimate chapter, not all the pilots at the front are “rejoicing” at the rumors that the war might be ending; the possibility of an armistice is passed off as “the peace scare.” As Hynes explains, “peace will mean the end of the game they entered when they enlisted, the game that would change them from college boys into older, different people.” In one letter written within a month of November 11, a 23-year-old flying ace with eight confirmed “kills” says he’s “done a lot of figuring” on what he’s “worth or good for.” He’d thought he had his life “all fixed” and had pictured himself “as a spectacled City Manager. That has gone like a puff of smoke.” The flying life has given him “a terrible wanderlust.” As Hynes phrases it, the young man’s future seemed “wide open and full of options,” including “careers in engineering, geology, forestry, aviation, automobiles.” On October 27, 1918, two weeks short of the Armistice, Hamilton Coolidge, the great-great-great grandson of Thomas Jefferson, was killed in action by a German anti-aircraft shell near Grandpré in the Ardennes.

Art and Armistice

And so comes the Armistice, but “after the cheering and the flags and the bright city lights, the new peacetime seems,” in Hynes’s words, “a vacancy: the sky is empty now and so are their lives.”

Like nature, however, art “abhors a vacuum.” Thus Shakespeare swallows a storm and creates King Lear, which gives Samuel Hynes a title for his own contribution to the cause: “Welcome, then,/Thou unsubstantial air that I embrace:/The wretch that thou hast blown unto the worst/Owes nothing to thy blasts.”

Finally, who better to articulate and redeem the vacancy than William Faulkner, who could fly, in reality and rhetorically. In mid-June of 1918 he was accepted by the Royal Air Force and though he never got off the ground (“the war quit on us before we could do anything about it”), in the next decade he would write masterworks like The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying and “Ad Astra,” a story that takes place on November 11, 1918, as does “All the Dead Pilots,” where the narrator’s task, not unlike Hynes’s in The Unsubstantial Air, is going through the mail “of all the squadrons in the Wing.”

Although Hynes does more than justice to the subject, it takes a flier like Faulkner to set it soaring in “All the Dead Pilots,” with “a flash, a glare … preserved and prolonged only on paper: a picture, a few written words that any match … can obliterate in an instant,” and in “Ad Astra,” where, like Hynes, he channels Lear: “Out of nothing we howled, unwitting the storm which we had escaped and the foreign strand which we could not escape; that in the interval between two surges of the swell we died who had been too young to have ever lived.”

The quote from Fitzgerald comes from Andrew Turnbull’s collection of the letters.


November 5, 2014

People are so in love with Richard, but he’s killed like 89 people!

—Terence Winter on Boardwalk Empire’s Richard Harrow

What’s haunting me this Halloween season is the singing of Jack Bruce (1943-2014), who died October 25, and the acting of Jack Huston as Richard Harrow in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire (2010-14), which ended its five-season run on October 26.

My first thought on hearing of Bruce’s death wasn’t for his bass playing and songwriting with the power trio Cream but the uniqueness of his voice and the mood he creates as he moves from raw, bluesy passion to a subtle, tensely hushed, almost ethereal place in the same song, his singing both soft and searing above Eric Clapton’s virtuoso guitar and Ginger Baker’s rolling and tumbling drums.

Once I got beyond the high-profile obits stressing Bruce’s skills as a bassist, I found responses that came closer to my Halloween-based impression of his singing: “the uniquely haunting falsetto,” the “ghostly falsetto,” “Jack’s haunting high voice,” his “haunting operatic style,” his “voice that we all remember, soaring hauntingly,” the voice that adds “a haunting element” (my italics).

DVD rev2Having long ago traded my original copy of Disraeli Gears (1967) to the Princeton Record Exchange, I had to go to YouTube for immediate access to the album that put Cream on the American map. Their debut, Fresh Cream was clearly a product of the British blues scene. Beginning with “Strange Brew,” and its “kill what’s inside of you” refrain, Disraeli Gears took the blues into a strange new neighborhood. On YouTube there it was in all its gaudy glory: one of the psychedelic era’s most evocative album covers. At the time, even if you didn’t know the music, you had to own that record, that fabulous image, and you soon found that not only did the music live up to the imagery, it delivered a fiery equivalent of the complex aesthetic excitement of the cover montage, the newness of it, the design of the time, like the work of some genius of graffiti before Banksy was a gleam in England’s eye. So much of the musical chemistry depended on the way Jack Bruce put those quirky, edgy, blues-haunted songs across. Later singers like Jon Anderson of Yes and Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin might approach or exceed his intensity, but few could equal his nuanced command of a voice that was as formidable an instrument as his bandmates’ guitar and drums. No surprise when you learn that Bruce was classically trained, studying cello and composition at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music, and so talented a singer that as a six-year-old he once sang for Paul Robeson.

Listen to songs like “Strange Brew,” “World of Pain,” “Dance the Night Away,” “We’re Going Wrong,” or “Tales of Brave Ulysses” and you hear Bruce exploring, discovering, and sustaining a fine emotional line that in his composition, “We’re Going Wrong,” actually seems to be entering some brave new world of rock between the art song and the blues.

Ghosts of the Boardwalk

“We’re Going Wrong” is one of several numbers from Disraeli Gears that could be played as a commentary on Boardwalk Empire’s fifth and final season. While the show’s most obvious claim to fame may be the visual brilliance of its depiction of the Prohibition era, every episode except the last one begins with a hard-rocking blues-inflected blast of sixties energy by a group that takes its name from a fallen rock star of the period Jack Bruce and Cream helped define. The music accompanying the opening credit sequence, which shows Atlantic City crime boss Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) lighting a cigarette as the froth of the incoming tide oozes over his elegantly photogenic shoes, is performed by the Brianjonestown Massacre; in fact, the title of the wordless track “Straight Up and Down,” prefigures Nucky’s fate.

Harrow’s Blues

You could say that Jack Huston’s scarred ex-army sharpshooter Richard Harrow sings a darkly poignant blues of his own in Boardwalk Empire, though his lament is effectively muted because of the mask molded to replicate the disfgured half of his face. In a skyatlantic interview, Huston describes how his speeches were typed in the script, the sentences “broken up with periods in very strange places” to show that the character “obviously didn’t speak in the right way.” That Huston calls the ellipses “full stops” lends a hint of musical notation to the mix (you can also hear it in the way Jack Bruce spaces the words of the title in “We’re Going Wrong”). Huston says he created the effect by putting cotton gauze in his mouth and speaking in low, halting, throaty tones, as if his voice-box had also been damaged. “It’s quite difficult and painful to speak with the mask,” he says, “but when I put that mask on I’m him.”

In almost every scene he shares with another person (not counting the ones he kills), Harrow has a special aura, an element of hushed, hesitant, emotionally charged poetry that haunts the moment. It’s there in his first scene with his eventual soulmate Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt). The two combat-scarred soldiers (Darmody has shrapnel in his leg) exchange questions and answers about the books they’re reading as they wait in a Chicago hospital to be interviewed about their post-combat mental state. Richard’s book is one from the Tom Swift series, but what he says about it and the halting way he expresses the words goes deeper; it’s his theme, Richard’s blues: “It occurs to me … that the basis of fiction … is that people have some sort of … connection with each other … but they don’t.”

From Season Two of "Boardwalk Empire," that's Jack Huston as Richard Harrow on the right, with Nucky Thompson's brother Eli (Shea Whigham).

From Season Two of “Boardwalk Empire,” that’s Jack Huston as Richard Harrow on the right, with Nucky Thompson’s brother Eli (Shea Whigham).

Originally slated for only a handful of episodes, Harrow went straight to the heart of the audience — as Terence Winter says, viewers fell in love with this gentle, civilized  killing machine, until a few episodes became four seasons. There’s a fair chance that my wife and I are not the only ones who might have given up on  Boardwalk Empire if Terence Winter hadn’t dealt the wild card of Richard Harrow. What ultimately sets Boardwalk Empire apart and makes it not only worth watching but as much a credit to HBO as The Sopranos is the sense that the whole show is an elaborate high-stakes gamble taken by a daringly imaginative team led by Sopranos veterans Winter and Tim Van Patten, along with Howard Korder and Martin Scorsese.

Omar and Richard

In spite of the fact that the fifth and final season of Boardwalk Empire looked to be its weakest (Harrow was gone, for one thing), series creator Winter and his crew pulled it together in the closing episodes. In addition to the seasons with Harrow, what continued to hold us was the casting-against-type tour de force of Steve Buscemi’s performance as Nucky Thompson; the appeal of Kelly Macdonald as his second wife; the fascination of the Dostoevskian extremes encompassed by Gretchen Mol’s anti-heroine Gillian Darmody and of Michael Shannon’s no less morally twisted epic portrayal of fallen FBI agent Nelson VanAlden. Then there was Michael K. Williams as the stoic African American crime boss Chalky White. It was Williams’s name in the cast list that made us curious about the series in the first place. Like many other viewers, we’d been captivated by his portrayal of Omar in HBO’s The Wire, where his murderous actions, like Harrow’s, were somehow tempered if not redeemed by the heart and humanity Williams gave to the performance. Omar’s blues was only a tougher version of Richard’s.

Still, Richard Harrow had more to lament. With Omar, menace was always present. With Richard, humanity and the yearning for love and family and connection always underscored the menace. There he sits in more than one scene clipping images of families from magazines and newspapers and pasting them in a scrapbook that he puts together as quietly and methodically as he arranges his weaponry, a veritable showcase of artillery, before his biggest kill, the massacre of a brothel full of gangsters in the last episode of the third season.

Buscemi’s Coup

Surely Boardwalk Empire’s biggest gamble was choosing to center the series on Steve Buscemi, a character actor known and loved for playing losers in iconic films, like Shut-up-Donny to John Goodman’s Walter in The Big Lebowski; the thorny, nerdy Seymour in Ghost World; the hapless director in Living in Oblivion, the hapless hood in Fargo, and Charlie the hapless barber in Mystery Train. This is a funny-looking guy with a funny-sounding voice, his affect and accent just this side of Bugs Bunny, and he’s my favorite actor because he brings something special to every movie he’s in. Judging from some reviews and blogs, this piece of casting was perceived as so perverse, so flawed, that some people unfortunately either bowed out of the show or never gave it a chance. It’s the mother of all makeovers to turn the lovable loser into a crime boss up to his ears in money and women, mayhem and murder.

What a challenge for Buscemi. Five seasons with never a chance to revert to type (the closest he comes is when Nucky hits bottom in Season Five and gets silly drunk with and rolled by a couple of hookers). Not only does Buscemi nail the part of a lifetime, his triumph is ultimately equal to and symbolic of a triumphant series, in spite of moments early on when the final season seemed to be searching for itself, exposition in reverse. But the day was saved with the appearance of young Nucky (Marc Pickering) and young Gillian (Madeline Rose Yen), both played with eerie accuracy in speech and manner and movement in a ghostly evocation of the Original Sin that set everything in motion. As young and old appeared and disappeared, moving past into present and present into past, it brings up the word of the season for a show haunted by its past.

Meanwhile all it takes is a YouTube seance and you can conjure up Jack Huston and Boardwalk Empire and Jack Bruce and Cream.

Listen to Bruce singing “there’s a world of pain in the falling rain,” and “no time for pity,” and look at Richard wistfully gazing down at the images in his scrapbook. There’s a blues beyond singing, to be full of love for some abstract of humanity and know that your vocation is to kill people.


October 29, 2014

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,

And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,

Do not go gentle into that good night.

—Dylan Thomas

I was in the corridor, ten feet away.

—John Berryman, when asked about the death of Dylan Thomas

John Berryman and Dylan Thomas were born two days apart, 100 years ago this month, Berryman on October 25, Thomas on October 27.

In Dylan Thomas in America, after a harrowing account of the poet’s last days at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Manhattan, John Malcolm Brinnin, who had brought Thomas to the U.S. for a series of readings from 1950 through 1953, describes the moment he received the news he’d been dreading: “As I stepped from the waiting room into the corridor, I saw John Berryman rushing toward me. ‘He’s dead! He’s dead! Where were you?’”

Berryman’s biographer John Haffenden excused the accusatory “Where were you?” as “a manifestation of shock,” but it must have galled Brinnin, who had been faithfully in attendance for four days while Berryman was out of town. There’s a melancholy “poetic justice” in the notion that Berryman, Thomas’s birth-week brother poet, would be there at the end, the first among those who knew him to witness and report the fact of his death. When he had word that Thomas might be dying, Berryman was at Bard College giving a lecture on Shakespeare. According to Haffenden’s 1982 biography, his reaction to the news was “notably dramatic and drunken.” After announcing “Poetry is dead with Dylan Thomas,” he continued “melodramatizing his concern” during a “country walk,” saying, “as he took long gulps of air, ‘I’m breathing for Dylan, if I breathe for him perhaps he will remain alive.’” Another biography, Paul Mariani’s Dream Song (1990) has Berryman drunkenly reciting Thomas’s most quoted poem, “Do not go gentle into that good night.”

Paul Muldoon cites “Do not go gentle” in his introduction to the 2010 reissue of the original edition of Collected Poems (New Directions $14.95), observing that it is “not only vital in itself but also of some value to us in our day-to-day lives” as a poem read “at two out of every three funerals.”

The notion of battling death, so forcefully sounded in the line, “Rage rage against the dying of the light,” is reflected in the move Thomas made at 2 a.m. at the Chelsea Hotel when, after telling the woman he was with that he wanted to die, he came out of a fitful sleep, “suddenly reared up with a fierce look in his eyes,” said he had to have a drink, and hurled himself into the New York night and the White Horse Tavern where he claimed to have downed 18 straight shots of whiskey; as legend has it, that’s what precipitated the fatal coma.

Berryman’s Passagebook rev1

Some 20 years later, Berryman made his own ungentle move, following the scenario he’d half-seriously outlined in a letter to his wife Eileen in fall 1953, days before Thomas’s death. As related in Dream Song, he imagined himself planning to jump off the George Washington Bridge “by climbing over the rail and staring down into the Hudson River until he became so dizzy he would finally let go.” If his body was recovered, he wanted it planted “as cheaply as possible in Princeton.” The facetious reference at the end gives an idea of his complicated attitude toward the town and university where he’d been living and teaching ever since R.P. Blackmur’s offer of a job in 1946 saved him from teaching Latin and English at a prep school in New Rochelle.

Berryman finally performed his vision of suicide on January 7, 1972, when, as related in Dream Song, he walked along the upper level of the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis, climbed “onto the chest-high metal railing and balanced himself,” and while several students watched, “made a gesture as if waving …. Then he tilted out and let go.”

Princeton Hospital

My thoughts on these two October poets might have taken me somewhere more cheerful than St. Vincent’s had I not been preoccupied with the large building on Witherspoon Street currently being relieved of its outer layer prior to death by demolition. The process is hard to ignore, particularly when it’s taking place within view of my work place parking lot. For days now I’ve been watching the facade of the hospital being stripped of its “skin,” as it’s called, a suggestive term for a building so intimately associated with the human body. It’s likely that someone as familiar with hospitalization as Berryman (for exhaustion, epilepsy, and detoxification) had first-hand knowledge of that building during his turbulent, adulterous, hard-drinking, productive years in Princeton. The man who brought him here, the great poet-critic Blackmur, died in that building in 1965, one among numerous celebrated residents (like Albert Einstein in 1955 and 50 years later George Kennan) who breathed their last in the original structure that has been expanded vertically and horizontally over the years with the help of many fund-raising Fêtes.

Reading at Lake Carnegie

Princeton is where Berryman got to know Saul Bellow, a friendship that began with a walk around Lake Carnegie. After reading the manuscript of Bellow’s breakthrough novel, The Adventures of Augie March (1953), Berryman was inspired to write his own breakthrough work, Homage to Mistress Bradstreet (1956), which Edmund Wilson called “the most distinguished long poem by an American since The Waste Land.” Berryman lived only a few blocks away from the lake and viewed it as an inspirational focal point, going there to recite Mistress Bradstreet to a woman friend he associated with his poem’s heroine. In time Berryman’s struggles with the work led to troubles at home. “As he began to ‘kill off’ his mistress,” Mariani writes, “Berryman seemed to die himself.” From his wife’s perspective, he appeared “at last to be forcing an end to their marriage.”

Dylan Rides the Dinky book rev2

It goes without saying that all Princeton’s writers and their wives, friends, lovers, and editors, Bellow, Berryman, Wilson, Blackmur, not to mention William Faulkner, Allen Tate and Caroline Gordon, and John O’Hara, among many others, were familiar with the Dinky and its station. According to Dylan Thomas in America, the bard of Swansea rode to town on the little-train-that-could on two occasions in the early 1950s, first for a reading that led to “a night-long bull session with a congenial crowd of undergraduates,” and most memorably on March 5, 1952, when “a cavalcade of motor-cycled policemen … sirened Dylan to the lecture hall from his late train.”

A Vagrant Vision

Dylan Thomas came to Bloomington, Indiana, in May of 1950, and I have a vivid yet vagrant image of the sweating, red-faced poet declaiming from the balcony of a building near the Indiana University Union, the moated, battlemented castle of my childhood fantasies. My father’s closest friend on the English Department faculty had met Thomas at the Indianapolis airport and driven him the 52 miles to Bloomington, stopping at every bar or tavern along the way.

Listening to Thomas on YouTube reading “A Poem in October” on the birthday we share, it’s easy to believe that I did indeed see him that day intoning the words of a man in his “thirtieth year to heaven,” seeing “so clearly a child’s/Forgotten mornings,” walking through “the twice-told fields of infancy” to “the woods the river and sea/Where a boy/In the listening/Summertime of the dead whispered the truth of his joy.” Listening, eyes closed, there again remembering how his sweating discomfort seemed at such a stark remove from the flow of his reading, “Oh may my heart’s truth/Still be sung/On this high hill in a year’s turning.”

Movies and Events

John Berryman’s centenary is barely on the map (you’d need to go to Minneapolis), although Farrar, Straus and Giroux has published The Heart Is Strange, a new selection of poems edited and introduced by Daniel Swift, along with reissues of Sonnets, 77 Dream Songs and the complete Dream Songs. On the other hand, Thomas, who helped ensure his claim to be the Poet of the Age by dint of those exhausting American tours, is the subject of two films, the BBC’s A Poet in New York and Set Fire to the Stars, which premiered earlier this year at the Edinburgh film festival. John Malcolm Brinnin is a character in both films; not so John Berryman. Perhaps someday someone will bring those two poets together to give the world a glimpse of the “heart’s truth” lived out by two “Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight.”

Dylan Thomas festivals abound, in Swansea, London, and New York, where the Poetry Center has organized “Dylan Thomas in America: A Centennial Exhibition,” and a new production of his radio play Under Milk Wood directed by Michael Sheen. Known best for Frost/Nixon and Masters of Sex, Sheen and five other actors will take the stage in the Kaufmann Concert Hall, where Under Milk Wood had its debut in May 1953, half a year before Dylan Thomas was rushed from the Chelsea Hotel to St. Vincent’s “good night.”

October 22, 2014

Book Oct 1964In spite of Thursday night’s season-ending loss to the Giants in San Francisco, St. Louis Cardinal fans enjoyed their share of baseball ecstasy in the 2014 post-season. With the glorious exception of Game One’s comeback win against Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers, the manifestations of maximum ecstatic intensity happened at home, in Busch Stadium. At such times there’s nothing between you and almost 50,000 deliriously happy strangers but the television, and thanks to the HD flat screen, the sensation of being there is overwhelming — it’s you and your vastly extended Cardinal family, singles and couples, siblings, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles and kids, all shapes and sizes. If you were really there, side by side cheering Redbird heroics, you’d be submerged in a delirious love-in, all high fives and hugs. But deep down you know that such cozy, familial thoughts are delusional, Missouri’s a red state and Busch a sea of red with the hometown crowd garbed in Cardinal colors. How many of these folks you’re jumping up and down with would stay friendly should the subject turn to something other than baseball, like for instance the shooting of a black youth by a white cop in a St. Louis suburb?

At first I had no reason to think the shooting of Michael Brown had anything to do with the team I’ve been following since I was a ten-year-old. The Cardinal heroes memorialized with images and statues in Busch Stadium include black players like Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, and Ozzie Smith. Interracial chemistry has been a key component of the Cardinals from the 1964 World Champions on through the championship teams of the 1980s. By the time the Redbirds surged into first place on their way to winning the Central Division, the Michael Brown story was all over the news, the shadow of Ferguson spreading in the direction of Cardinal Nation until a group of protestors, most of them African Americans, actually showed up outside Busch during the National League Division Series with the Dodgers. A chaotic scene developed when Cardinal supporters began yelling at the demonstrators. While some fans simply resented the inopportune intrusion, like how dare they rain on the Cardinal parade, others shouted racist cliches that were tame by Tea Party standards while one man sported a Cardinal jersey with the policeman’s name, Darren Wilson, taped on the back. At times it sounded like little more than opposing crowds at a high-school football game trading chants, “Let’s go Mike Brown!” vs “Let’s Go Cardinals!”

The Cap on the Casket

I wonder how many Cardinal fans affronted by the intrusion of racial conflict on the hallowed ground of playoff baseball knew that Michael Brown’s family had placed a St. Louis Cardinal hat on top of his coffin. Clearly the team had some personal significance for the Browns. Michael was shown wearing the hat in one of the photographs displayed next to the coffin and his father was wearing one during an interview. Various news stories also pictured people in the Ferguson crowds casually attired in Cardinal regalia, and there are fans among the Ferguson cops who show up at Busch wearing Cardinal jackets and hats, as viscerally devoted to the emblem of the redbirds on the slanted bat as the citizens of Ferguson rallying for justice in the name of Michael Brown.

Team logos are not to be taken lightly. Emerson suggests as much when he celebrates “the power of national emblems” in “The Poet,” where “the schools of poets and philosophers are not more intoxicated with their symbols, than the populace with theirs.” He mentions “stars, lilies, leopards, a crescent, a lion, an eagle,” and, why not, a pair of cardinals. In the ideal best-of-all-possible baseball worlds, the National Pastime prevails in a realm of its own, remote from the chaos outside the stadium. Of course there are skirmishes like the one in the first inning of the first game of the Division Series when Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright unintentionally hit Yasiel Puig of the Dodgers, the benches cleared, players roared and pushed at one another, and Wainwright escorted Puig to first base in friendly fashion, the two men briefly arm in arm, as if in respect of that pastoral world of highs and lows, wins and losses, where people who on the outside might blunder into deadly conflict cheer and cry together, are wounded and healed, brought down and uplifted, know joy and know sorrow, all within the precincts of the game.


Fifty years ago, on the last day of the 1964 season, the Cardinals completed one of the wildest runs in baseball history to win the pennant and the chance to face Mickey Mantle’s Yankees in the World Series. That feat seems all the more special and unlikely after my rereading of David Halberstam’s October 1964 (Villard 1994), which offers a fascinating back story for both teams. One of the elements that attracted Halberstam was the importance of the interracial makeup of the Cardinals in a year that had been charged with events more cathartic than the shooting of Michael Brown. In fact, the people in the New York office of W.W. Norton, the publisher I was working for, gave serious thought to the potential risk of driving a company car with New York plates in the Deep South only months after the murder of the three Civil Rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi. There was even some discussion about whether or not they could get me Mississippi plates. Halberstam, however, had no need to dwell on the climate of the times. Most readers, including baseball fans, knew what had been going on in the country during those explosive years.

“Where Are Our Black Players?”

In the course of showing how “more than most teams, the Cardinal players came to deal with race with a degree of maturity and honesty rarely seen in baseball at that time,” Halberstam writes about the onetime owner, beer baron August “Gussie” Busch, who was acutely aware that Budweiser sold more beer to blacks than any other brewery in the country. One day in the 1950s he asked his manager and coaches, “Where are our black players?” The all-too-obvious answer was, “We don’t have any,” to which Busch said, “How can it be the great American game if blacks can’t play?” And then: “Hell, we sell beer to everyone.” This burst of interracial enthusiasm roused the Cardinal scouts to action and by spring training 1964, a racially balanced championship team had been put together and harmoniously integrated. In the face of segregated living facilities, and Florida law, a wealthy friend of Busch’s bought a motel and rented space in an adjoining one, so that the entire team and their families could stay together. According to Halberstam, “a major highway ran right by the motel, and there, in an otherwise segregated Florida, locals and tourists alike could see the rarest of sights: white and black children swimming in the motel pool together, and white and black players, with their wives, at desegregated cookouts.”

Cardinal Serendipity

In the late summer of 1964 when I was in Norton’s New York office working out the itinerary for my tour of colleges from the Deep South to the Upper Midwest, I scheduled an October 15 visit to Creighton University in Omaha. I didn’t know at the time that Creighton was Bob Gibson’s alma mater. Nor did I have any reason to believe the Cardinals were going to catch up to and pass the fading Phillies in the pennant race. As long as I’d been rooting for the Cardinals, they’d never made it to the main event. I followed the Series as best I could, on motel TVs or on the car radio driving down through the Dakotas. On October 15 I landed on the Creighton campus where all anyone could talk about was Bob Gibson, Class of 1957, pitching the seventh game of the World Series (that’s him in action on the cover of October 1964). It had to be some kind of Cardinal serendipity, that on the day Gibson turned in one of gutsiest pitching performances in World Series history to win the deciding game of the 1964 Series, I was watching it on TV, cheering along with a crowd of cheering Creighton students. Somehow I found myself in the right place at the right time, a white guy in a suit feeling at home in baseball, sharing the ecstasy.


October 15, 2014

book FrannyzooeyHere are two thoughts about the power outage that occurred around 11 p.m. Monday night as I was writing about Princeton’s role in J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, a first edition of which is among the featured volumes in the upcoming Friends of the Library Book Sale.

First, it gave me an excuse to get out my little booklight and dive at random into Shakespeare, the same refuge I found when Sandy hit. As the power came on I was reading aloud, with requisite angst, the last lines of Shylock’s Act III rant in The Merchant of Venice: “… loss upon loss! the thief gone with so much, and so much to find the thief; and no satisfaction, no revenge: nor no ill luck stirring but what lights on my shoulders; no sighs but of my breathing; no tears but of my shedding.”

Second thought: it could have been worse, if, say, the television had gone dark during the previous night’s NLCS Game 2 after the Giants came back to tie the Cardinals on a wild pitch in the top of the ninth. The outage would have deprived Cardinal fans like myself of the brief stunned transition between dejection and joy as the uncanny Kolten Wong lofts a mighty walk-off home run on the second pitch thrown by Sergio Romo, who looks like he could have been a captain of the guard in Shylock’s Venice.

Baseball, beautiful baseball — it’s October and once again the Cardinals find some magic. What a sight, music to the eyes, the way the crowd in the right field stands seems to rise en masse with the arc of the ball soaring toward them, as if Busch Stadium had turned into a giant concertina being squeezed by a blind street singer with his head in the stars. Then the sight of Kolten Wong hopping and skipping in lunatic glee around the bases to be mobbed by his teammates, who tear off the top of his uniform as if he were a rock star thrown on the mercy of the mosh pit.

Day-to-day following a team with which you feel a lifelong visceral connection, every win gives your spirits a lift and every loss leaves you shaking your head and telling yourself “life goes on.”

Ted Williams in Princeton?

Speaking of baseball, another featured volume at this year’s Book Sale is a first edition of My Turn At Bat, the autobiography of the great Ted Williams, who only played in one World Series. On the unlikely chance that the Splendid Splinter might have found some reason to visit our town with the other celebrities who rode the Dinky to the terminus on University Place, I took a look online and found “Ted Williams connected to Princeton forever …. Called by some the best hitter ever in baseball, he visited Princeton on a regular basis and ended up marrying a Princeton woman.”

I thought the genies of the Net were kidding. Could it be? No, it’s the Princeton in Minnesota, where if you happened to drop in at the Kallas Cafe on the corner of Rum River Drive and First Street in the 1940s, your chances of seeing The Kid were pretty good. Just don’t ask for his autograph.

The Dinky Connection

Writing about Franny and Zooey on the front page of the Sept. 17, 1961 New York Times Book Review, John Updike begins his recap of “Franny” like this: “In the first story, she arrives by train from a Smith-like college to spend the week-end of the Yale game at what must be Princeton.”

There’s no “must be” about it. Though the evidence may be circumstantial, it can be shown beyond the shadow of a dinky doubt that Salinger had Princeton’s station and its platform in mind when he wrote the opening paragraphs of “Franny,” which first appeared in the Jan. 29, 1955 New Yorker and created a sensation, attracting more mail than any work of fiction in the magazine’s history.

Dinky lovers still smarting from the violation of the terminus have good reason to feel a wistful fondness for the opening pages of Franny and Zooey. Salinger prevails and endures among American writers of the last half of the 20th century because of his ability to make everything he touches matter, illuminating a scene or a moment so that it stands for all such scenes and moments. It’s the same way with Salinger in Central Park. He owns it for the ages. It’s his as soon as Holden Caulfield asks the cab driver about the ducks or watches kids ride the carousel, and when Salinger’s readers go there, they’re in his and Holden’s world, just as they’re in his and Franny’s when they get off the Dinky and alight on the platform — except the platform’s not there any more. Never mind, it will always be there in literature because Salinger will always be read.

His readers are, as they say, legion. Like The Catcher in the Rye (1951) ten years before it, Franny and Zooey went right to the top of the New York Times Best-Seller list and held on for 25 weeks. Readers smitten with Holden Caulfield gravitated to anything new by his creator, and whether you read of her in The New Yorker or in the book, Franny was a charmingly vulnerable, perceptive, and wary-of-phonies incarnation of Holden.

The Princeton Connection

Salinger’s stated admiration for Scott Fitzgerald underscores the Princeton connection in “Franny.” Besides more than once acknowledging Fitzgerald as an influence and an inspiration, Salinger suggests as much in his work when Holden admits he was “crazy about The Great Gatsby. Old Gatsby. Old sport. That killed me.”

There’s a prototype for Salinger’s Dinky opening in the episode in Fitzgerald’s Princeton novel This Side of Paradise, where a precursor to Franny, the “blithesome Phyllis,” steps “gayly from the train” only to see her boyfriend and a fellow Princeton student on the platform “arrayed to the last dot like the lurid figures on college posters. They had bought flaring suits with huge peg-top trousers and gigantic padded shoulders. On their heads were rakish college hats, pinned up in front and sporting bright orange-and-black bands, while from their celluloid collars blossomed flaming orange ties. They wore black arm-bands with orange ‘P’s,’ and carried canes flying Princeton pennants, the effect completed by socks and peeping handkerchiefs in the same color motifs.”

In Salinger’s version, the platform is the setting for a no less collegiate opening as Princeton students await the arrival of girlfriends or dates. Franny’s English major boyfriend, Lane, is outside the waiting room rereading her latest letter, after which he endures a brief exchange with a classmate who wants to know “what this bastard Rilke was all about,” a reminder that you’re in the domain of the author of one of the most famous first sentences in American literature, with its reference to “all that David Copperfield kind of crap.”

The style takes a clear turn in Fitzgerald’s direction when the boys, who have been keeping warm in the waiting room, come out to meet the train, “most of them giving the impression of having at least three lighted cigarettes in each hand.” You don’t have to read far in Gatsby or in Fitzgerald’s best stories or the notebook entries in The Crack-Up to find similarly clever word-pictures. A touch that evokes Fitzgerald’s way of expressing the poetry of Gatsby’s devotion to Daisy Buchanan is in Lane’s intimate relationship with Franny’s “sheared raccoon coat,” the sight of which rouses the thought that he’s the only one on the platform “who really knew Franny’s coat” and could remember “that once, in a borrowed car, after kissing Franny for a half hour or so, he had kissed her coat lapel, as though it were a perfectly desirable, organic extension of the person herself.”

A Station-Platform Kiss

Then there’s the moment when Franny and Lane embrace: “She threw her arms around him and kissed him. It was a station-platform kiss — spontaneous enough to begin with, but rather uninhibited in the follow-through, and with somewhat of a forehead-bumping aspect.”

I have no idea how many station-platform kisses have been described in stories and novels through the ages, but this is the one, the exemplar, the common denominator, the ultimate station-platform kiss that puts the Dinky on the literary map, there for all time as part of the Complete Chronicle of the Glass Family that will reportedly see the light between 2015 and 2020.

The Cool Lima Bean

Three decades ago, in the days when libraries still attached cards with the borrowers’ names to the inside back pages of books, I was looking at a book in the stacks of Firestone Library and did a double take: the name written on the card was Matthew Salinger. Like numerous other readers of Franny and Zooey I’d first seen that name on the dedication page with its reference to “Matthew Salinger, age one, urging a luncheon companion to accept a cool lima bean.” It was Salinger’s characteristically playful way of dedicating “this pretty skimpy-looking book” to that “lover of the long shot,” his editor at The New Yorker, William Shawn. Twenty years later Matthew Salinger was a Princeton student. I suppose it could be mere coincidence that his son would end up at the school in the story. Though Matthew didn’t graduate (he transferred to Columbia, earning a degree in art history and drama), you don’t have to be “a lover of the long shot” to figure that he spent plenty of time departing and arriving at the station his father captured for posterity, and isn’t it possible that he’d have been there to meet him on the Dinky at least once?

Finally, in the context of posterity and Salinger and Princeton, the Salinger Mecca for biographers and fans is the archive of manuscripts in the Rare Book and Special Collection department of Firestone Library.


October 8, 2014

rec rev albumThey were rather war-weary during Beatles for Sale. One must remember that they’d been battered like mad throughout ’64, and much of ’63. Success is a wonderful thing, but it is very, very tiring.”

—George Martin

You can see the fatigue on the cover of Beatles for Sale. They look older and wiser. Instead of the Fab Four sitting on top of the world, these guys seem to be feeling the weight of it, as if global adulation were a burden. Put those four somber faces together with that title and the message is more cynical than playful. As the hottest property in the universe, with rigid recording deadlines to meet and exhausting tours to endure, the group is being packaged and sold to the nth degree. Still, they look great. There’s a Bohemian charisma about the cover image. You can imagine they have it in them to surprise the world, but surely not to amaze and even change it, which is what they would accomplish before the decade was over.

Fifty years ago they were in the EMI’s Abbey Road studios recording the album featuring the cover image of four “war-weary” musicians. Perhaps that’s one reason Beatles for Sale was never released in America, at least not until a 1987 CD. A butchered version (minus six songs) was packaged as Beatles ‘65, with a more conventional cover showing the group in various meant-to-be-cute-and-amusing poses. It didn’t matter to me one way or the other since I had them at my fingertips on the radio of the company car I was driving as a college traveler for W.W. Norton. I loved the music, singing along with it as I drove from campus to campus showing off the new Norton Anthologies in a ten-state swath from Alabama to North Dakota. I first heard “Eight Days a Week,” in downtown Memphis, “I Feel Fine,” on the car radio outside Little Rock, “She’s a Woman,” on a jukebox in Kansas City, and “Ticket to Ride” driving through the Badlands, windows down, spring blowing through.

I’d thought that traveling for a publisher would be a profitable way to satisfy my yen for the road, like commissioned vagabondage, but by the end of the first semester I was grinding through a miasma of motels and roadkill, nothing eventful happening until the day I arrived at the Chattanooga Tennessee Holiday Inn. Waiting for me, forwarded by the New York office, was a diseased-looking Indian airletter postmarked Udaipur that seemed to pulse and hum in my hand as I read the message inside, written on a leaky ballpoint by a British friend with a vivid prose style. He was describing a fascinatingly chaotic night journey on Indian Railways and urging me to join him. He concluded with this advisory: “Go with 10 pounds of luggage, 15,000 pounds peace of mind and the balance (say at least 100,000 tons) pure and indifferent love of humanity (a half ounce of tolerance will do here). Otherwise India will bring nothing but misery to you.”

Up to that moment I hadn’t been serious about going to India. I only knew that thanks to an expense account and the fact that each installment of my salary was being directly deposited, come summer I’d have saved enough to live for a year or more on the road. Due in great part to that letter, I turned down a job in the front office and got a ticket on the Queen Elizabeth, where I bunked with a guy from Liverpool who looked like John Lennon and had been exploiting the cult of the British invasion. One word from him in his Liverpool accent and American girls were swooning at his feet.

In Istanbul, after watching A Hard Day’s Night for the sixth time in a moviehouse near Taksim Square, I took an evening ferry across the Bosporus to Asia, caught a ride in a big truck and was on my way.

India Everywhere

There are times when memory blends so fluidly with experience that it becomes possible to imagine India beginning with the Beatles and continuing across Turkey to Tehran, to Kabul, to New Delhi with the Beatles singing “Every Little Thing” and “I’ll Follow the Sun” in a record store listening booth on the great Wheel of the Available called Connaught Circus.

Those two songs from Beatles for Sale rarely show up on lists of favorite Beatles tracks, but they’re in my top 20, if only because they blossomed in India. Paul was 16 when he wrote “I’ll Follow the Sun,” a perfect road song (“One day you’ll look to see I’ve gone, but tomorrow may rain, so I’ll follow the sun”) with as sweet a middle eight as anyone this side of Schubert could have composed. McCartney also wrote “Every Little Thing,” which may seem like just another “silly love song,” until you’re hearing John Lennon sing it in India.

Out of Reach

The other day I was thinking how different that year and a half on the other side of the world would have been if today’s communication devices had been available. At the heart of the whole experience was knowing that I was out of reach of my parents and everything to do with the routine reality of home or work life in the States. Looking back, I know a cell phone or iPad would have been good to have during the nine days I spent in a Katmandu fleabag reading The Sound and the Fury and experiencing Dostoevskian fevers as I fought off a mysterious virus. I could have texted my parents, thereby putting them in a panic with phone calls to the embassy for the immediate assistance of a trustworthy, preferably American doctor.

Fate Finds Me

Since my schedule was all over the place, the only way I could get mail was at Poste Restante in one city or another among the rough outline of my route I’d given my parents and friends (and agent). It was in Goa that the long arm of the homeland reached out and, most fatefully, found me. I was about to board an overnight train to Madras when a frantic postal clerk came running after me with a letter from my father in Indiana. I’d just checked for mail at Poste Restante in Panjim one last time and had been informed by this same clerk that nothing was there for Mr Stuart, no letters, it was impossible that anything had come. One of the unreal realities of the Indian experience lived in the gulf between the Possible and the Impossible. Now here was the postal clerk defying the impossible as he chased me down to personally deliver a message he assumed must be of supreme importance.

And he was right. Inside the envelope instead of the expected letter from my father was one to me at my home address from a girl I’d met in California some years before. My father’s note said “I enclose a letter from What’s-her-name in San Francisco.” That forwarded letter began the lively correspondence that led to a meeting the following summer in Venice, which led to an October 8 marriage to Miss “What’s-her-name.”

rec rev bookNarayan Meets the Beatles

This past week, besides listening numerous times to “Every Little Thing,” “I’ll Follow the Sun,” and the other Lennon-McCartney songs on Beatles for Sale, I’ve been reading stories by the Indian writer R.K. Narayan, who creates characters not unlike the noble postal clerk in Goa who went out of his way for me that day. Reading Narayan and listening to the Beatles is like drinking good strong Indian chai in earthenware cups and eating scones with jam and clotted cream. Which is to say they are not mutually exclusive activities. Like the music of the Beatles, Narayan’s stories make you smile, lift your spirits, engage your sense of wonder, enrich your life, and infect you with a touch of the wanderlust.

The love-is-tough and life-is-hard songs on Beatles for Sale — such as “I’m a Loser,” “No Reply,” “Baby’s In Black,” “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party,” “What You’re Doing” — have equivalents in the stories of Narayan. One way or the other, every one of those songs is about thwarted love and embattled relationships, whether you’re a loser (“Of all the love I have won or have lost/There is one love I should never have crossed”) or your girl friend is cheating on you in “No Reply” (“I saw the lie, I saw the lie”), or if she’s left the party with someone else (“I wonder what went wrong, I’ve waited far too long, I think I’ll take a walk and look for her”).

Versions of these possibilities are in play in Narayan’s “The Shelter,” which begins with a man taking cover from a sudden heavy rain by ducking under a banyan tree. Soon he becomes aware of another person, oops, it’s his estranged wife. There they are, stuck together while the rain pours as only rain can in south India. The man tries to make conversation. He’s feeling awkward and she’s giving him nothing. As he natters on about rain and umbrellas and the coincidence of their meeting, she ignores him.

Married couples, especially those celebrating four decades or more together, will nod knowingly to read that Narayan’s couple “had had several crises in their years of married life. Every other hour they expressed differing views on everything under the sun …. Anything led to a breach between the partners for a number of days, to be followed by a reconciliation and an excessive friendliness.” Now that “the good rain” has “brought them together,” the man makes courtly overtures, and expects her to “be touched by his solicitude,” but she’s having none of it. He says he’s sorry, claims to be a changed man, tries to find out where she’s living, and finally says of the rain, “We have got to face it together,” to which she says “Not necessarily” and dashes off, disappearing into the downpour. Narayan’s hapless husband calls out to her, but it’s no use. Will he chase after her? Probably not. Of course if you’re sufficiently lucky or resilient or devoted, you’ll stay under the banyan tree, facing the rain together.


October 1, 2014

book stevensI thought on the train how utterly we have forsaken the Earth, in the sense of excluding it from our thoughts. There are but few who consider its physical hugeness, its rough enormity. It is still a disparate monstrosity, full of solitudes & barrens & wilds. It still dwarfs & terrifies & crushes. The rivers still roar, the mountains still crash, the winds still shatter. Man is an affair of cities. His gardens & orchards & fields are mere scrapings. Somehow, however, he has managed to shut out the face of the giant from his windows. But the giant is there, nevertheless.

Wallace Stevens, April 18, 1904

The poet, who turned 25 on October 2 of the same year, had these thoughts on his way back to New York City after a 42-mile walk from Manhattan to Fort Montgomery, “just failing of West Point.” He walked from seven in the morning until half-past six at night “without stopping longer than a minute or two at a time,” noting “How clean & precise the lines of the world are early in the morning! The light is perfect — absolute — one sees the bark of the trees high up on the hills, the seams of rocks, the color & compass of things.” After observing that “seven is the hour for birds, as well as for dogs and the sun,” he writes, “God! What a thing blue is! It is one of the few things left that bring tears to my eyes (or almost). It pulls at the heart with an irresistible sadness.”

That Stevens’s birthday is this Thursday coincides well with a column written in the wake of the Climate March and the Climate Summit at the U.N. One way to set the crowd cheering at a rally about global warming would be for a charismatic reader to celebrate “the color & compass of things” expressed in the poetry of Wallace Stevens.

Given his fascinating, perverse, and outré world of verse, where “man is the intelligence of his soil,/The sovereign ghost … the Socrates/Of snails, musician of pears,” Stevens never seemed the companionable sort of poet you could put in your pocket and wander in the country with the way you might with, say, Keats and Coleridge. You could see him as E.M. Forster did C.P. Cavafy, standing “at a slight angle to the universe,” but if you read the notebook entries recording epic treks over the Palisades and the Poconos in his mid-20s, you find yourself following someone who strides through the universe in seven-league boots and is still going strong at 63, “like a man/In the body of a violent beast.” The poem, “Poetry Is a Destructive Force,” from Parts of a World (1942), ends as “The lion sleeps in the sun./Its nose is on its paws./It can kill a man.” In “A Weak Mind in the Mountains,” the poet imagines: “Yet there was a man within me/Could have risen to the clouds,/Could have touched these winds,/Bent and broken them down,/Could have stood up sharply in the sky.”

The Old Clothes Man

The hulking 24-year-old who wrote of the earth that “dwarfs & terrifies & crushes” is someone you’d definitely make way for if you were in his path. Here he is February 1906, on his way “to Morristown and back” (meaning he walked from Manhattan and back, about 26 miles): “Yesterday I was in my element — alone on an up-and-downish road, in old clothes, quick with the wind and the cold …. Old clothes men are indescribable impostors and boors — yet I am one of them! … My brain was like so much cold pudding. First, I loathed every man that I met, and wanted to get away, as if I were some wild beast.” What does he find to admire? “A bird on a telephone wire that seemed to enjoy the raking. Good old fellow! … What I did enjoy was the tear on my body — the beat of the blood all over me.”

Later in the same entry, he admits, “I can’t make head or tail of Life. Love is a fine thing. Art is a fine thing. Nature is a fine thing, but the average human mind and spirit are confusing beyond measure …. What a bore to have to think all these things over, like a German student, or a French poet, or an English socialist! It would be much nicer to have things definite — both human and divine. One wants to be decent and to know the reason why. I think I’d enjoy being an executioner, or a Russian policeman.”

He closes that dizzying soliloquy by wondering: “May it be that I am only a New Jersey Epicurean?”

Out of the old clothes man’s mind — Stevens in a nut-shell, like Hamlet: “O God, I could be bounded in a nut-shell and count myself king of infinite space” — come works like “The Poems of Our Climate,” “The Comedian as the Letter C,” “Of Hartford in a Purple Light,” “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” and “A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts,” where “The trees around are for you,/The whole of the wideness of night is for you,/A self that touches all edges,” a “self that fills the four corners of night.”

Stevens in the Barracks

A case for a companionable Stevens is made by Anatole Broyard in the Sunday, September 12, 1982, New York Times, where he recalls being “a rookie soldier” in an Army camp, “a barren and featureless place filled with strangers.” At times when “the world was too little with me …. I would go to my footlocker for the poems of Stevens.” While other men in the barracks had brought with them something from civilian life to prove “to the others, or to themselves, who they were or had been,” Broyard brought four volumes of Stevens’s poems: “He had a line for everything that was happening to me. When I looked at the sky, it ‘cried out a literate despair.’ The life I led in the Army was ‘a revolution of things colliding.’ I had no doubt that ‘these days of disinheritance, we feast on human heads.’ I saw myself caught ‘in the glares of this present, this science, this unrecognized, this outpost, this douce, this dumb, this dead.’ We were not allowed off the post during basic training, and Stevens was my favorite means of escape.”

Quoting Frank Kermode on “The Comedian as the Letter C’’ (“a sustained nightmare of unexpected diction”), Broyard says “Nothing could have suited me better, because the talk in my barracks was a sustained nightmare of expected diction.”

Boxing With Hemingway 

One odd example of “unexpected diction” in the Holly Stevens’s edition of her father’s letters (Knopf 1966) is his reply in July 1941 to a friend on the Princeton faculty who was looking for someone to lead a lecture series on “actuality.” After discussing several more conventional possibilities, Stevens recommends Ernest Hemingway. “Most people don’t think of Hemingway as a poet,” he explains, “but obviously he is a poet and I should say, offhand, the most significant of living poets so far as the subject of EXTRAORDINARY ACTUALITY is concerned.” Stevens, who more than once puts the words in capital letters, goes on to speculate on the fee Hemingway might require. “My guess is that … if he understood that Princeton was merely a place to speak on the subject and that his audience was to be merely a group of young men exactly like himself, interested in the same thing, he would come for, say, $500.”

It feels like entering a Stevens poem simply to imagine Hemingway, who as far as I know never gave a lecture in his life, presenting one on the subject of “extraordinary actuality” to a Princeton University audience, never mind the fee. The elephant in the room of the Hemingway-Stevens story, such as it is, concerns the incident five years earlier when the two men fought it out on a street in Key West. Stevens broke his hand on Hemingway’s jaw after which Hemingway knocked him down, more than once. The insurance executive was 20 years older, and, one would assume, less fit than the sportsman/novelist. Hemingway boasted about it, even giving his opponent’s dimensions, 6’2, 220 pounds, as if Stevens were a lion he’d brought down in the wild. The way Hemingway tells it in a letter, Stevens had said unpleasant things about him to his sister and had come looking for a fight at the same moment Hemingway was on his way to start one. The most curious detail is that Hemingway was wearing glasses and Stevens did not make his move until Hemingway took them off. Perhaps Stevens, like his younger, “old-clothes-man” self, was in a “loathing every man” mind-set when Hemingway walked into his path.


It seems likely that Stevens’s inclination for the unexpected was nurtured during those compulsive perambulations of his youth. In a New York Times interview with Lewis Nichols the year before he died, Stevens says, “I just write poetry when I feel like it. I write best when I can concentrate, and do that best while walking. Any number of poems have been written on the way from the house to the office.” But with a force as stately and surreal as Stevens, a mere house and office are not worthy. “Setting out on Stevens for the first time,” Randall Jarrell wrote, “would be like setting out to be an explorer of Earth.”

In his essay, “Imagination as Value,” Stevens observes that while the world may be “lost to the poet … it is not lost to the imagination … because, for one thing, the great poems of heaven and hell have been written and the great poem of the earth remains to be written.”

I found the notebook accounts of Stevens’s rambles in Souvenirs and Prophecies, The Young Wallace Stevens, edited, again, by Holly, whose nature-rooted name will come as no surprise if you read in and about her father.

September 24, 2014

Book revAmong American writers, my mother favored Scott Fitzgerald, who was born on September 24, 1896, and died December 21, 1940. A hundred years ago this month he was starting his sophomore year at Princeton.

My mother had a small study adjoining my father’s big study, with just room enough for a desk, a chair, and some bookshelves. There were always books around, mostly paperbacks, but the only novel of Fitzgerald’s I remember seeing there was Tender Is the Night, which Scribners first published 80 years ago this spring. The cover of the Bantam paperback caught my adolescent attention because of the woman with the towel draped around everything but her back and legs; the sentence under the title said: “The famous novel of a strong, strange love — and a man who risked destruction.” The man on the cover was looking sideways at the woman, as if he were bored. Outside the window was a painted view meant to be the French Riviera.

“Some day you’ll be old enough to read this,” my mother told me. I figured she meant old enough to comprehend what “strong, strange love” was all about and how a man in such intimate proximity to a half-naked woman could look so bored.

In the Shadow of “Gatsby”

I’ve never really liked Tender Is the Night. Both before and after I was “old enough to read it” I found it scattered, wordy, and full of expendable dialogue, its characters off-putting, as if after all that work, the author himself finally couldn’t find it in his heart to care about them. Reading The Great Gatsby, you know Fitzgerald loves his characters and his creation. My reaction to the later, much longer, more ambitious novel has been somewhat complicated by the fact that there are two versions. In the original 1934 edition, which I first read in the paperback with the sexy cover, the narrative begins on the Riviera in 1925 with a young movie starlet named Rosemary Hoyt. A great deal happens before the novel flashes back to Zurich in 1917 and its true protagonist, Dr. Richard Diver. Pondering the book’s disappointing reception, Fitzgerald began to think that the true beginning was with “the young psychiatrist in Switzerland,” and in 1951, a decade after his death, Scribners published the chronological version of Tender Is the Night “with the author’s revisions” in a single volume with The Great Gatsby and the unfinished Hollywood novel, The Last Tycoon. The critic Malcolm Cowley, who introduced and edited the revision, ends by making a case for the superiority of the chronological version.

All this month I’ve been rereading Tender Is the Night and comparing the chronological revision with the original. I also revisited Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” which provided the title, and read around in The Crack-Up, a posthumous collection of Fitzgerald’s essays, correspondence, and notebooks put together by his friend and Princeton classmate Edmund Wilson. Either way, I find a brave, driven, sprawling, fascinatingly flawed work that anyone who loves Fitzgerald and Gatsby should value the same way readers who love Melville and Moby Dick cherish Pierre, both books written in the shadow of their great predecessors. To begin to fathom what Fitzgerald was up against in the nine years it took him to pull together Tender Is the Night, imagine sitting down to write another novel after producing one that T.S. Eliot called “the first step American fiction has taken since Henry James.”

Then there was the timing. The Great Gatsby arrived at the heart of the era it evoked. Tender Is the Night, with its wealthy, neurotic characters partying and sunning themselves in European settings, was not a good fit for 1934. Fitzgerald had become so much the dated emblem of the roaring twenties, the Depression had no place for him. Not that any of it mattered to mainstream reviewers who had been no less clueless about Gatsby, or to a reading public whose response to that “first step” since Henry James was registered in hugely disappointing sales compared to those of Fitzgerald’s Princeton novel, This Side of Paradise (1920).

Clinical vs. Lyrical

In his appendix to the 1951 revision, after describing the various drafts of Tender Is the Night “kept in six big blue cartons” in the Princeton University Library’s Manuscript Room, Malcolm Cowley finds that they “reveal how an author who was not a born novelist, but rather a romantic poet with a gift for social observation, a highly developed critical sense, and a capacity for taking infinite pains, went about the long task of putting his world into a book.”

Chances are that had the novel achieved acclaim and sales worthy of his expectations, Fitzgerald would have resisted tampering with a narrative form resembling the one he employed in Gatsby, where the romantic poet and socially aware novelist sustain a brilliant balance. The opening paragraph of the revision, with “Doctor Richard Diver arriving in Zurich at 26 (“a fine age for a man, indeed the very acme of bachelorhood”), is flatly expository. In the original version, the misbegotten poet is there from the beginning, with the first paragraph’s image of “the cupolas of a dozen old villas rotted like water lilies among the massed pines.” In the second paragraph, poetry and prose coalesce in a sentence worthy of Gatsby: “The hotel and its bright tan prayer rug of a beach were one.” The poet and novelist connect less smoothly in the description of Rosemary, “who had magic in her pink palms and her cheeks lit to a lovely flame, like the thrilling flush of children after their cold baths in the evening. Her fine forehead sloped gently up to where her hair, bordering it like an armorial shield, burst into lovelocks and waves and curlicues of ash blonde and gold. Her eyes were bright, big, clear, wet, and shining, the color of her cheeks was real, breaking close to the surface from the strong young pump of her heart. Her body hovered delicately on the last edge of childhood — she was almost eighteen, nearly complete, but the dew was still on her.”

Though the poet is clearly present in that passage, the stress on “children after their cold baths” and the “strong young pump of her heart” seems more clinical than lyrical. While it could be interpreted as a suggestion of the doctor’s point of view, the description feels like a formal offering, as if the author were a chef spreading a full course of imagery before the reader.

It gets more complicated if you look at Fitzgerald’s presentation of Dick’s beautiful schizophrenic wife Nicole, who is modeled on Scott’s Zelda. In the original version, you see her first from Rosemary’s point of view, “Her face was hard and lovely and pitiful,” a sentence that reads less like the observation of an 18-year-old starlet than a salute to Hemingway. A few chapters later, a touch of Keats enters the cadence of Rosemary’s impression of Nicole’s beauty: “Her face, the face of a saint, a viking Madonna, shone through the faint motes that snowed across the candlelight, drew down its flush from the wine-colored lanterns in the pine. She was still as still.”

“Verduous Glooms”

One of the few reasons to prefer the revised, chronological beginning is that the moment in the novel where poet and novelist seem truly in harmony comes in the fifth chapter of Book I, rather than many pages later in the fifth chapter of Book 2. Given the almost total absence of poetry in the narrative detailing Dick Diver’s descent into ruin and obscurity, however, it might have been more powerful and poignant for the reader to see Nicole at that point not through the eyes of Rosemary but as Dick does in the ecstasy of falling in love, when her “moving childish smile … was like all the lost youth in the world.”

In view of the novel’s long, ugly, aggressively anti-lyrical denouement, where the “strong, strange love” does indeed destroy the man who “risked destruction,” the lyrical summit of Tender Is the Night, its “Ode to a Nightingale” moment where aura and atmosphere take on the glow of Keat’s “high romance,” is in the scene where Dick and Nicole listen to songs together, “as if this were the exact moment when she was coming from a wood into clear moonlight. The unknown yielded her up; Dick wished she had no background, that she was just a girl lost with no address save the night from which she had come.”

When Nicole sings to Dick, “The thin tunes, holding lost times and future hopes in liaison, twisted upon the Valais night. In the lulls of the phonograph a cricket held the scene together with a single note.” After her song, she smiles at him, “making sure that the smile gathered up everything inside her and directed it toward him, making him a profound promise of herself for so little, for the beat of a response, the assurance of a complimentary vibration in him. Minute by minute the sweetness drained down into her out of the willow trees, out of the dark world.”

Fitzgerald’s shading of the scene evokes the mood of the lines from “Ode to a Nightingale” he uses for an epigraph, “Already with thee! tender is the night …. But here there is no light,/Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown/Through verduous glooms and winding mossy ways.”

Fitzgerald Reading

There’s a posting on YouTube of Fitzgerald reading a portion of “Ode to a Nightingale,” which must have been from memory because there are errors and omissions in nearly every line. So deeply felt is the recitation, however, no one hearing it would quibble. From all accounts, Keats’s poetry was already one of Fitzgerald’s guiding lights when he came to Princeton as a freshman in 1913.

Long ago, around the time I was gawking at the lady on the cover of the paperback, my parents and I drove through nighttime Princeton on the last leg of a two-day drive to New York. As we passed the campus gates, my mother said, “This is where Scott Fitzgerald went to school.” When we walked by the Plaza Hotel a few days later, she told me about Scott and Zelda’s notorious drunken swim in the fountain. A serious drinker herself, she thought of Fitzgerald as a compadre, but it wasn’t the darling of the Jazz Age she felt true kinship with, it was the handsome, greying “has been” who died at 44 in Hollywood making notes on next year’s Princeton football team in his copy of the Princeton Alumni Weekly.


The quote about Fitzgerald’s death is based on the account in Andrew Turnbull’s biography.

September 10, 2014

book revOur tuxedo cat, Nora, was not named for James Joyce’s wife. She and her brother Nick got their names from Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy) of The Thin Man movies. That said, it wasn’t until I was curled up with her early one morning reading Joyce’s Dubliners, which was published 100 years ago this June, that I made the Joycean connection. In addition to her name, Nora the cat shares Nora Joyce’s no-nonsense disposition. Just when she’s nuzzling and purring most blissfully, she’ll abandon me without so much as a farewell meow, and though she doesn’t expect breakfast in bed like Nora Joyce’s fictional alter ego Molly Bloom, she wakes me at 6 a.m. with a poke of the paw and down I go sleepwalking to the kitchen to open the cat food for her and her big brother.

Fighting for His Art

My Nora stayed within cuddling range right through to the end of “Two Gallants,” a slice of Dublin street life that evokes the moment when Joyce approached Nora Barnacle of Galway (“a tall young woman, auburn-haired, walking with a proud stride”) on Nassau Street in Dublin, spoke to her, and set things in motion for a meeting that took place on June 16, 1904, the day Joyce singled out for Ulysses, thereafter known and celebrated as Bloomsday. My reason for reading “Two Gallants,” however, is that it was the story “destined to precipitate disaster” for Dubliners, according to Richard Ellman’s James Joyce (1959). An English publisher, Grant Richards, had accepted the book early in 1906, a contract had been drawn up and signed, and all was well until the printer had issues with “Two Gallants” and then went on to mark passages in other stories he deemed objectionable. The result was a domino effect, with Richards taking a closer look and finding more to object to, including the use of the adjective “bloody” in various stories and numerous suggestive sexual nuances, not to mention unflattering references to Edward VII. Joyce argued that these details were crucial to the stories, that cutting them would leave Dubliners “like an egg without salt.” Richards not only stood his ground, he asked that “Two Gallants” be dropped altogether, and eventually decided against publishing the book, putting Joyce off with a vague promise “to do the stories later.”

In 1912 Joyce fought the good fight even more doggedly than before, this time with an Irish publisher, who came to the conclusion that the book was “anti-Irish” and whose demands for cuts and changes were even more excessive and peremptory than Grant Richard’s (a key problem was Joyce’s persistent use of real names for various pubs and places of business). In the end, though the book had been typeset, the publisher refused to publish it. Fortunately Joyce managed to obtain a complete set of the proofs before the printer destroyed the lot. Thanks to the proofs Joyce rescued, thus bypassing another fretful printer, the first edition of Dubliners was published in June 1914 — by Grant Richards.

Heroic Joyce

As can happen with geniuses as witty, eloquent, and indomitable as Joyce, the flap occasioned by Dubliners was almost worth the long delay, given the colorful blowback it inspired. In one letter on the first go-round with Richards, Joyce makes a Cyclops of his nemesis: “O one-eyed printer! Why has he descended with his blue pencil, full of the Holy Ghost, upon these passages?” He then urges Richards to join him in elevating English taste, reflecting on whether English literature “deserves or not the eminence which it occupies as the laughing-stock of Europe.” In another letter, the self-exiled author becomes a moral and spiritual patriot in the cause of salvaging the threatened passages: “If I eliminate them what becomes of the chapter of the moral history of my country? … I have taken the first step towards the spiritual liberation of my country.”

Richards chides Joyce, telling him he “could not afford to be so heroic about his art.” Of course one of Joyce’s most characteristic qualities is his heroic vision of himself, his struggle, his art, and the sordid poetry with which he makes his case: “It is not my fault that the odour of ashpits and old weeds and offal hangs round my stories. I seriously believe that you will retard the course of civilization in Ireland by preventing the Irish people from having one good look at themselves in my nicely polished looking-glass.”

Joyce’s Range

Joyce shaped the order of the stories to reflect the movement from childhood to youth to adulthood and old age, from solitude to society to death. In the opening paragraph of the first story, “The Sisters,” a boy inhabited by the author gazes up at the lighted window of the room where the old priest who had been his “great friend” lies dying, and says softly to himself the word “paralysis,” which sounded “like the name of some maleficent and sinful being. It filled me with fear, and yet I longed to be nearer to it and to look upon its deadly work.”

After the Joyce who can expand on the word “paralysis” in the style of Walter Pater describing the Mona Lisa, there’s the Joyce with an ear for the street talk of Lenehan and Corley in “Two Gallants,” which I read aloud with Nora the cat throatily ruminating at my side. Who could resist giving voice to Lenehan’s reaction to Corley’s tale of conquest: “Well …. That takes the biscuit! …. That takes the solitary, unique, and, if I may so call it, recherché biscuit!” And when Lenehan asks about a second pick-up, Corley says, “One night, man …. I was going along Dame Street and I spotted a fine tart under Waterhouse’s clock, and said good-night, you know. So we went for a walk round by the canal, and she told me she was a slavey in a house in Baggot Street. I put my arm round her and squeezed her a bit that night. Then next Sunday, man, I met her by appointment. We went out to Donnybrook and I brought her into a field there …. It was fine, man.”

It was poetry, man. Especially when you recall how James Joyce picked up a girl from Galway on Nassau Street and later “met her by appointment,” an everyday Dublin liaison that changed the course of 20th-century literature. When Joyce spoke to Nora Barnacle, she was not “a slavey,” just a chambermaid at a “slightly exalted rooming house” then called Finn’s Hotel. Had there been no Nora in Joyce’s life, Ulysses would be without the Molly Bloom who performs the long and lusty night song that brings the book home to the essence of its humanity, a sexually active woman saying “Yes.” When Nora claimed not to have read a word of “that book,” and said that “nothing would induce her to open it,” Princeton native Sylvia Beach, the owner of Shakespeare and Company and publisher/savior of Ulysses, knew Nora had no need to read it since she herself was “the source of the book’s inspiration” and one of the luckiest things that “ever befell” its author.

Michael’s Song

Nora Barnacle was no less vital to “The Dead,” the masterpiece that brings Dubliners to its moving conclusion. For the first 40 pages of the 57-page story the scene is a holiday party hosted by two elderly sisters, Kate and Julia Morkan, where numerous characters, themes and motifs are kept in play, interacting with and accompanied by a subtle recognition in the prose of a “death in life” undercurrent of disembodied sounds and voices,

At the center of the story, which Joyce conceived in Rome in 1907, is Kate and Julia’s nephew, Gabriel Conroy, whose wife Gretta is from the provinces like Nora (“country cute” says Gabriel’s mother). Though there are some distinct differences, it’s clear that Gretta and Gabriel are modeled on Nora and Joyce, who had only been together three years and thus were still in close proximity to the incident that inspired the story’s justly renowned conclusion. As Ellman recounts, Nora had been courted by a tubercular boy named Michael in Galway the year before she met Joyce. Michael “stole out of his sick room in spite of the rainy weather, to sing to her under an apple tree and bid her goodbye.” Shortly after this happened, Nora went to Dublin, where she learned that the boy had died.

If you read Ellman’s biography, you know how sensitive Joyce would have been to the idea of a wife haunted by the thought of a boy who might have died for love of her. He himself was so haunted by the notion that he wove it into the fabric of “The Dead.”

As the party ends, Gabriel is in the entry hall making conversation with the departing guests when he sees Gretta at the top of the stairs, “listening to something.” All he can hear is “a few chords struck on the piano and a few notes of a man’s voice singing.” When Gretta comes down she’s so deep in the plaintive mood of the music, she seems unaware of the talk going on around her. Back in their room at the hotel, she’s still abstracted, still in the music. He asks what she’s thinking about. She mentions the name of the song and bursts into tears. Asked why the song makes her cry, she says, “I am thinking about a person long ago who used to sing that song.” Almost in spite of himself, he wants to know more, and every word she says harrows his heart — “I think he died for me …,” “I was great with him at that time …,” “Poor fellow … he was very fond of me and he was such a gentle boy …,” “O, the day I heard that, that he was dead!”

The rest of the story defies paraphrasing. There’s no way to do justice to the extended coda that begins with a single sentence — ”She was fast asleep” — followed by five paragraphs resembling movements or themes in a sonata with the title, “One by one, they were all becoming shades.” As Gabriel’s soul approaches “that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead,” James Joyce enters “that region where dwell the vast hosts” of English language and literature, which he will in time meditate upon, explore and exploit, unmake and remake, but never again quite so simply and beautifully as he does here with “the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”


Nora’s looking up at me as I write, not unlike Leopold Bloom’s “pussens” as she stalks (“Prr. Scratch my head. Prr … Mkgnao!”) over his writing table.

“Mr. Bloom watched curiously, kindly, the lithe black form. Clean to see: the gloss of her sleek hide, the white button under the butt of her tail, the green flashing eyes.”

What do you know, “the pussens” is a tuxedo.


September 3, 2014

book revWhen I am, as it were, completely myself, entirely alone, and of good cheer — say, traveling in a carriage, or walking after a good meal, … it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best and most abundantly.

—Mozart, from a letter

My ideas flow best when I’m driving a Honda CRV named Moby, preferably with music on the stereo. For more than a month now it’s been all Mozart, the piano concertos, with a loving emphasis on the slow second movements generally referred to as andantes. I try to keep the volume at a reasonable level, but Mozart will have none of it, and if you’ve been walking on Patton Avenue, or Ewing, or Mount Lucas Road, or Harrison Street, north or south, in recent days, you may have heard your friendly Mozart Mobile driving by, scattering fragments of Amadeus on the ambient air, all from the concertos I’ve been listening to, namely numbers 9 (“one of the wonders of the world,” says Alfred Brendel), 20 (Stalin’s favorite), 21 (remember Elvira Madigan?), and 27 (the last one). Imagine a Good Humor truck without the ice cream, that’s me.

Another recent event that has improved the flow of my ideas, such as they are, is that after coming from behind to win three games in a row, the St. Louis Cardinals have taken sole possession of first place in the Central Division of the National League for the first time this year. What has this got to do with Mozart, you may ask? Not a thing, except that I think were he given the opportunity, he would have liked watching baseball almost as much as he liked playing billiards.

There’s even a hint of the notion of “coming from behind” in the dynamic of the andantes. What would you rather have, an easy win, as clear cut as a 10-0 shut-out, or a hard-fought victory against odds? True, baseball, unlike billiards, is a team sport. But then so is the concerto, where one person sits at the piano surrounded and supported by a community of musicians. Keeping in mind that andante is the present participle of andare, to walk, meaning that the music should be played “at a walking pace,” this puts the pianist in the role of a single lonely thoughtful figure not unlike a pitcher working his way through a tough inning, his job being to allow no further scoring. Keep in mind as well what Mozart said in the letter, that the ideas “flow best” when he is “entirely alone.” Of course when the crisis comes, the lonely pitcher needs his teammates, and nothing, not even a walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth, can equal Mozart when the orchestra swoops down and takes full possession of the melody. Then it’s as if the lonely, onward-striding human bravely sustaining the melodic line, seeing it through to the end, looks up to behold a sky that is to all the skies ever seen as Mozart is to all the music ever heard and Shakespeare to all the words ever read.

Stalin’s Olga

Driving past our former residence on Patton Avenue with Stalin’s favorite piano concerto on the stereo, I thought of the spring morning when I was invited over by our musician neighbors Bill and Janis to meet little Olga, who was having a piano lesson with Janis. This was no ordinary kid, this was Svetlana’s Olga, Joseph Stalin’s granddaughter. At the time of my visit many Aprils ago, I didn’t know how strongly Olga’s grandfather’s felt about K. 466, Mozart’s no. 20. So this drive-by was my way of celebrating a memorable Princeton moment. While Svetlana seemed shy, quiet, and pleasant, her Olga was a six-year-old life force. I thought again of all the energy bouncing off the living room walls of that little house while watching Valentina Lisitsa play K. 466 on YouTube. As she attacked the keyboard, swaying her head, all but singing the andante to herself, did this Ukrainian pianist know how close Joseph Stalin was to the music she was giving herself to so passionately? Did she know that the man responsible for the deadly Ukrainian famine had a recording of the same concerto on a record player in his room the day he died?

A Mount Lucas Moment

Driving toward town on Mount Lucas Road one recent sunny summer day with another Mozart andante on the car stereo, I pass two people walking in the same direction, first a woman in her thirties, in untucked blouse, jeans, and sandals, her brown-gold hair tied back, and in the next block a teen-age girl in shorts, halter, and sandals, her blond hair in a ponytail. The woman walks thoughtfully, the girl lightly, carefree; both are smiling to themselves. Neither looks up as the Mozart Mobile passes, releasing the chillingly beautiful slow movement from Piano Concerto No. 21 into the morning air, the music merging with the moment, the day, the light, the woman and the girl, each walking in her own way, no longer visible, gone with the coda, the piano ending its own promenade, note by simple note.

Some Passing Impressions

After listening to Mozart’s String Quintet in G-minor, in June 1816, 19-year-old Franz Schubert tells his journal “The magic notes of Mozart’s music still gently haunt me …. Thus does our soul retain these fair impressions, which no time, no circumstances can efface, and they lighten our existence. They show us in the darkness of this life a bright, clear, lovely distance, for which we hope with confidence.”

In February 1903, 41-year-old Claude Debussy observes that Mozart’s E-flat symphony is “full of a luminous lightness, like a group of lovely children laughing joyfully in the sunshine!”

Michael Kelly (1762-1826), an Irish tenor who knew Mozart well when both men were in their twenties, says that though Wolfgang could be touchy, “like gunpowder,” he was “lovable,” and when his face was “lighted up with the glowing rays of genius,” it was as impossible to describe “as it would be to paint sunbeams.”

Billiards and Dancing

Of all the biographies, critical studies, and books of letters I’ve consulted in this spell of mid-to-late-summer Mozart madness, the most rewarding has been Paul Johnson’s short but densely informative Mozart: A Life (Viking 2013). It was thanks to Johnson that I found Michael Kelly and his first-hand account of playing billiards with Mozart, who spoke fluent English, picked up during 15 months spent in London when he was a boy. “Again and again I played with him at billiards,” Kelly recalls, “and I always came off second best.” As Johnson tells it, when Mozart entered a public billiards room, he had music paper in his pocket “and composed while waiting his turn. He calculated a long break as twenty or thirty bars. ‘Right! Three pots in a row! Now what key was I in?’ ‘Oh, come on, Wolfgang, it’s your turn!’”  Once he moved to Vienna for good in 1781, he had a billiard table of his own in his apartment. According to Johnson, “He had a fetish about smooth, rolling objects. He liked to handle them while thinking and creating. Billiard balls were perfect for this purpose.”

It’s not clear how Johnson knows that Mozart actually rolled the balls in his hand while thinking, but if you don’t push it too hard, the compositional connection makes sense. What better discipline for a musician than playing a game that puts the harmonic dynamic in action as the chiming collision of one rolling object with another sends it spinning toward its sublime, shining alter ego?

At this point, after declaring that “God, music, and billiards were the main components of Mozart’s life,” Johnson adds a fourth — “dancing” — which “probably explained why he was so eager to make his home in Vienna,” at that time “the dance capital of the world.”

Johnson’s next line deserves a spot by itself:

“Mozart danced all his life, virtually to his deathbed.”

Phrases like that one are what make Johnson’s life of Mozart so engaging, You sense that rather than laboring, he’s enjoying his subject, even if it means spinning that sentence about a man who once called death “the best and truest friend of mankind, the key that unlocks the door to our true happiness.”

A man who can dance to his death bed can surely appreciate the emotional significance of coming from behind. A great composer with a fondness for handling smooth, rolling objects like billiard balls while thinking and creating, might also appreciate the brilliantly executed things players on a dusty diamond can do with a small shiny white ball.

The letter quoted at the top is from the introduction to Hans Mersmann’s edition of the letters (Dover). The letter was to “a certain baron” who had made him a present of wine. There is a more detailed account of my encounter with Stalin’s daughter and granddaughter in Town Topics, July 19, 2006.


August 27, 2014
The light at the end of Dark Passage— Bacall sees Bogart

The light at the end of Dark Passage— Bacall sees Bogart

Look at that face of hers. There you’ve got the map of Middle Europe slung across those high cheekbones and wide green eyes …. As a woman she holds all the cards. She’s beautiful, a good mother, a good wife, and knows how to run a home.

—Bogart on Bacall

It may not make a lot of sense if you look at it closely, but Bogart’s description of Lauren Bacall (1924-2014), which I found in Stephen Bogart’s book about his father, puts the geography of attraction nicely into words, along with hints of her style and his.

Bacall’s debut in Howard Hawks’s To Have and Have Not (1944) was one of the most spectacular in Hollywood history. But the screen time that made her a star amounts to less than half an hour at most, and it helped to have the medium’s most charismatic antihero as the witness to her allure. The homemade Bacall montages on YouTube come mainly from scenes with Bogie: The Look, which accompanies her opening line (“Anybody got a match?”); the endlessly quoted “all you have to do is whistle” line; the first speech, the second kiss (“It’s even better when you help”); and the third and most serious kiss (“I like that … except for the beard”), evidence that a real-life romance is underway.

Agee Spreads the Word

Writing about To Have and Have Not in Time, James Agee neatly nails the star (“one of Bogart’s most edged portrayals of Nietzsche in dungarees”) on his way to putting Bacall into orbit in a stop-the-presses-worthy notice, hailing her as a “sensational newcomer” with “cinema personality to burn.” After comparing her to Garbo and Dietrich, he concludes that, even so, she’s “completely new to the screen.” He singles out her “born dancer’s eloquence in movement,” “fierce female shrewdness and a special sweet-sourness,” and a “stone-crushing self-confidence” that helps make her “the toughest girl a piously regenerate Hollywood has dreamed of in a long, long while.” Even in mandated Time-speech, Agee can swing a line like that, along with the one describing the film as “a loosely painted background for a kind of romance which the movies have all but forgotten about — the kind in which the derelict sweethearts are superficially aloof but essentially hot as blazes, and seem to do even their kissing out of the corners of their mouths.”

Agee’s review turns into a mini-profile of Bacall. Born in the Bronx in September 1924, she’s “part Rumanian, part French, part Russian (she thinks),” an only child, her idol was Bette Davis; she worked as an usherette and did some modeling for Harpers Bazaar, where a photo of her caught the eyes of Mrs. Howard Hawks, who showed it to her husband, the director; he signed her to a contract and, as Agee puts it, began a “shrewdly contrived campaign of artificialized naturalness” that produced the voice Agee compares to a trombone in Time and “a chorus by Kid Ory” in The Nation. For the better part of a year, Hawks “worked her out mainly in a vacant lot, bellowing anything from Shakespeare to odd copies of shopping news,” his purpose to turn something “high and nasal” into something “low and guttural.”

Agee includes an anecdote to show that Bacall was sometimes allowed to do things her way: “After a highly charged few minutes with Bogart, late at night in a cheap hotel room,” she “reluctantly retires to her own quarters. At this point in the shooting, she complained: ‘God, I’m dumb.’ ‘Why?’ asked Hawks. ‘Well, if I had any sense, I’d go back in after that guy.’ She did.”

To Whistle or To Smile

For the readers of The Nation, Agee offers a shorter, more cynical response, calling To Have and Have Not “a leisurely series of mating duels” between Bogart and “and the very entertaining, nervy, adolescent new blonde,” suggesting that whether or not you like the film will depend on what you think of Lauren Bacall. “I am no judge,” he writes. “I can hardly look at her, much less listen to her … without getting caught in a dilemma between a low whistle and a bellylaugh.”

I don’t have any sort of dilemma with Bacall. She leaves me smiling. So does the whole picture. Hawks has a genius for community; his ensembles are dreams of sweet disorder, like impromptu parties where everything falls into place. The story behind this film is that it was born from a bet between Hawks and Hemingway about whether Hawks could make a good picture from Hemingway’s worst novel. Out of that bet came romance and marriage for Bogart and Bacall. And only in Hollywood could you have the convergence in one film of two major American writers, however benighted the merging, Hemingway in tatters (a solid 90 percent of his “worst” novel having been “jettisoned”), Faulkner hacking out a wartime screenplay with Casablanca overtones that transforms Havana (to placate FDR) into Vichy Martinique and puts Faulkneresque charm into Walter Brennan’s lovable lush Eddie (“Was you ever bit by a dead bee?”).

And don’t forget the pride of Bloomington, Indiana, Hoagy Carmichael as the hip, laconic piano man Cricket, who asks Bacall are you happy when she comes over to say goodbye before she and Bogart head into the Caribbean sunset; “What do you think?” she says: she’s beaming. So he sends her on her way with the song he composed in her presence, “How Little We Know,” the lyric by songwriting legend Johnny Mercer (a direct descendent of the General Mercer who died at the Battle of Princeton), and as she shimmies happily off, wiggling her scene-stealing hips, she joins arms with Bogart and gives him a smile that says their adventure has only begun.

Looking Back

In the coda to the updated portion of her memoir By Myself and Then Some (HarperEntertainment), Bacall looks back from 2005 to 18-year-old Betty riding west alone on the Super Chief, too shy to leave her compartment, ordering ginger ale because she didn’t drink except for the rare Orange Blossom when she wanted “to feel grown up.” She finds an apartment in Beverly Hills, which she’s sharing with her mother when the affair begins and from which she will escape at odd hours of the night, like the time Bogart calls after midnight and asks her to meet him on a certain street corner. Writing in 2005, she remembers “running down Beverly Drive … arms held wide, green three-quarters coat flying, toward Bogie, waiting for me”); another time it’s four in the morning and he’s a little drunk, says he’s walking to town along highway 101 (“Come and get me”), it’s raining, her mother is “furious,” thinks she’s completely mad, “but I didn’t care, I was in love, I was on my way to meet my man,” and she drives for an hour in the wind and the rain on Highway 101, “hugging the right side of the road, looking frantically for Bogie. At last, as the sun rose, I caught sight of him — unshaven … and with a large sunflower in his lapel …. I don’t know how he got there. I slammed to a halt, rushed out of the car … and into each other’s arms we fell. It was the funniest, craziest thing I’d done so far.”

Heaven in Paita

In 2005, remembering, she calls it “the headiest romance imaginable,” seemingly beyond anything Hollywood could dream up for them. Until, perhaps, the closing scene in Dark Passage (1947), the third picture of their four films together and the first as a married couple. Without going into detail on the complex noir plot, suffice it to say that Bogart’s character is in hiding and on the run from the moment the film opens. Bacall takes him in, not as a lover but a sympathetic friend. Rather than the standard film noir femme fatale or the moll or the tramp, she’s a well-off young artist with a spacious apartment in San Francisco, and she appears strikingly close in style and manner to the real-life Bacall. During the time she’s hiding him out and taking care of him as he recovers from identity-disguising plastic surgery, they become chastely intimate, and the interlude of embattled domesticity they share leads to love; the song playing when they finally embrace is “Too Marvelous for Words.”

As the police close in, his only option is to get out of the country, she wants to go with him, he refuses to expose her to the risk. After he gets a ticket on a bus to the Mexican border, he phones her to tell her where he’s headed, Paita, in Peru, a little town on the coast, he makes her repeat the name, tells her “There’s a little cafe right on the bay, I’ll be there,” and in the last scene he’s sitting at a table with a drink, people are dancing, a live band is playing south-of-the-burder music, which suddenly gives way to a familiar melody. He looks past the dancing couples to the entrance, and there she is, smiling at him. It’s been three years since the smile she gave him as they walked off together in To Have and Have Not, two years since they were married. It’s a “Look at that face of hers” moment for Bogart. Lauren Bacall is smiling at her husband; no one else, no mere fictional character, would be worthy of such a smile. In the aftermath of Bacall’s death, more than one blogger sees this luminous moment as an image of a reunion in the afterlife, and why not, it makes a heavenly ending as Bogart, who has ten years to live, gets up from the table, and Bacall, who has 67, approaches. He takes her in his arms, and they begin to dance, moving among the other couples, as the orchestra plays “Too Marvelous for Words,” with lyrics by Johnny Mercer.

Bogart’s quote is from a 1953 interview in the London Daily Mirror, included in Stephen Bogart’s book
Bogart: In Search of My Father (Dutton 1995). Lauren Bacall’s By Myself and Then Some (HarperEntertainment 2005) is distinguished by a brave, unstinting account of the ordeal of Bogart’s illness and death, in January 1957. Both books are available at the Princeton Public Library.


August 20, 2014
Robin Williams giving Ethan Hawke hands-on instruction in the art of improvisation.

Robin Williams giving Ethan Hawke hands-on instruction in the art of improvisation.

Poetry, beauty, romance, love — these are what we stay alive for.

—Robin Williams as John Keating

In Peter Weir’s Dead Poet’s Society (1989) a prep school English teacher played by Robin Williams crouches like a quarterback in a huddle with his students, only John Keating’s not calling plays, he’s quoting Walt Whitman after telling the boys, “We read and write poetry because we’re members of the human race, and the human race is filled with passion. And business, law, medicine, and engineering are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love — these are what we stay alive for.” Then he brings in “Uncle Walt,” whose portrait hangs above his desk: “‘… of the endless trains of the faithless … of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life? Answer: that you are here; that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.’” After repeating the last line with quiet passion, Mr. Keating looks around at the faces of his students and asks, “What will your verse be?”

Of all the parts Williams played, John Keating may be the most purely inspirational, and, in the aftermath of his death on August 11, one of the most poignant. In Dead Poets Society the plot turns on the suicide of a student whose “verse” had been his dream of becoming an actor. As the reaction to Williams’s death last week makes clear, he had already contributed more than his share of passion and poetry to “the powerful play” when he decided that he could give no more.

Over the Top

The death of Robin Williams at 63 was a media event of remarkable magnitude. According to several reports in the New York Times, the news led to a 370 percent spike in mobile traffic, and hit website readership harder than any breaking story anywhere last week. In the immediate aftermath, the number of tweets about Williams spiked to about 63,000 a minute, and Steve Carrel’s 10-word tweet “Robin Williams made the world a little bit better. RIP” had been “retweeted” 63,276 times, and “favorited” by 84,710 people.

With numbers like that, there’s no doubt that the online hits on Williams highlights reached or exceeded the same level, from live full-length performances in theaters or night clubs, to appearances on Johnny Carson, to excerpts from his film career. All this instant fragmented access is in keeping with the nature of things in a brave new world where services like Twitter and Instagram and YouTube favor the parts over the whole. I’ve adjusted to the Age of Moments, which comes with the territory when putting together a weekly column with all the resources of the Net at hand. If you don’t own or can’t find DVDs of favorites like Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting, you can still zero in on special moments.


Watching Robin Williams’s stand-up routine can be exhausting. There’s a life-or-death desperation in the way he goes at it, as though laughter were oxygen and if he doesn’t breathe in enough of it, he’ll be in need of immediate medical attention. You can almost hear the adrenaline. Charlie Rose or Johnny Carson are lucky to get a word in with Williams firing off one-liners like a man possessed. When the venue is live, in theaters and clubs, all bets are off. The drunken Scotsman-inventing-golf routine bellowed with obscene in-your-face gusto in live performance gets toned down for Parkinson, England’s most popular talk show, where all is civil and conversational and guests are expected to go through the usual motions (say your piece, get some laughs, be charming, plug your latest). Unfortunately, you can’t mention “Parkinson” now without reference to the part the disease with that name may have played in Williams’s suicide. The fact that he’s already been posthumously linked to Parkinson’s indicates the scope of what he’d have been up against; in addition to the patronizing display of sympathetic head-shakings, knowing glances, and sad smiles, there would be wisecracks, sick jokes, and worse, notably in the blogsophere where the venom already being spewed on his daughter Zelda’s Facebook page was so vile that she had to shut it down.

The Poetry of Improvisation

Barry Levinson’s Good Morning Vietnam (1987) is the Robin Williams film I remember particularly enjoying, the one where his comic spirit could soar within the confines of a plot. It’s also a reminder of his USO visits to Iraq and Afghanistan, where he’d performed for 90,000 troops by the time of his final tour in 2010.

Williams talks frankly about keeping his improvisational genie at bay in a 1982 interview with Dallas talk show host Bobbie Wygant about his first film role as the title character in The World According to Garp. Asked if it’s true that director George Roy Hill discouraged him from improvising on the set, he admits as much, saying that it was good for him: “you settle into yourself and find things you wouldn’t have found when you’re going out.” One day Hill allowed him to let go, to make the point, “and then we had to get down to some serious work.”

Norman Lloyd, who plays the headmaster in Dead Poets Society, observed that Williams wasn’t his usual “manic” self during the filming: “He was very serious during this piece. There was no horsing around, none of the Robin one-man-show stuff. He was just an absolutely serious dramatic actor.” Even so, the subtext of the lesson John Keating is so passionately teaching celebrates the spirit of improvisation that’s at the heart of Williams’s comic genius, which is put into instructive action in the scene when Todd Anderson, the painfully shy student played by Ethan Hawke, is forced to free-associate a poem in front of the class, with Keating circling him, coaxing him, making him close his eyes, giving him no room to escape from a plunge deep into his subconscious for something spontaneous and striking (it’s free verse in action). The sequence is launched by a rapidfire interrogation about the picture of Walt Whitman above his desk. “What does he look like?” “A madman.” “What kind of madman? Don’t think about it.” “A crazy madman.” “You can do better than that. Free up your mind.” “A sweaty-toothed madman.” “Good God, boy, there’s a poet in you, after all.” And on it goes, teacher and student moving in a kind of dance with elements of incantation and hide and seek, until finally the overwhelmed student is improvising on a madman mumbling about truth and “a blanket that always leaves your feet cold.” Keating persists, “what about the blanket?” until actor and poet come to life in Todd (and, you would think, in Ethan Hawke): “you push it, stretch it, it’ll never be enough. You kick at it, beat it, it’ll never cover any of us. From the moment we enter crying to the moment we leave dying, it will just cover your face as you wail and cry and scream.”

At this, the class that had been laughing at Todd’s discomfort cheers and applauds him. What you’ve witnessed isn’t just the frenzied creation of a free-form poem but an exercise in acting, with Weir as teacher behind the scenes, Williams as coach, and Hawke as student.

The Princeton Connection

Dead Poets Society was a memorable debut for Ethan Hawke, who graduated from the Hun School in 1988, the year before the film was released. And Hawke isn’t the only Princeton connection in Robin Williams’s life; one of his closest friends was PDS graduate (class of 1970) and fellow Julliard student Christopher Reeve. According to last week’s memorial statement from Reeve’s children, “He and Dad made each other laugh, and they stood by each other to the end. The world knew Robin as a comedic titan, but to our family, he was simply one of our Dad’s dearest friends. From the moment they were classmates at Juilliard, their friendship transformed into a brotherhood that was built on a mutual admiration for the theater, the arts and, most importantly, laughter. After our father’s accident, Robin’s visit to his hospital room was the first time that Dad truly laughed.”

In Reeve’s memoir, Still Me, he recalls, “I already knew that I had only a fifty-fifty chance of surviving the surgery. … Then, at an especially bleak moment, the door flew open and in hurried a squat fellow with a blue scrub hat and a yellow surgical gown and glasses, speaking in a Russian accent. For the first time since the accident, I laughed. My old friend had helped me know that somehow I was going to be okay.”

At Heaven’s Gate

When James Lipton, host of the interview series, Inside the Actor’s Studio, asked the ritual question, “If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates,” Robin Williams’s answer was, “There’s seating near the front. The concert begins at five, it’ll be Mozart, Elvis, and someone of your choosing …. Or just to know there was laughter. That would be a great thing.”

After Williams’s death, Lipton said, “Great comedians have to be great actors. And what does an actor do? He reaches deep inside his soul … and brings out something deeply mysterious, a total surprise …. One of the greatest gifts he gave us was to spare us his suffering and to give us his joy …. In the end the one person he would not spare was himself.”


August 13, 2014
Walton Goggins as Shane Vendrell: It’s all downhill from here.

Walton Goggins as Shane Vendrell: It’s all downhill from here.

To be in the center of that storm, what greater honor could a person have?

—Walton Goggins

You may think you’re delving into the past when you sort through old interviews and reviews online, but the “ever present present” is always there, as it was last night when the news of Robin Williams’s death kept popping up on the pages of otherwise ancient information. I didn’t have time to read the details until I saw David Itzkoff’s obituary in Tuesday’s New York Times. I was writing about a gifted actor named Walton Goggins (imagine the fun Robin Williams would have riffing on that moniker), and didn’t want to stray from the subject. Reading the quote from Williams reassessing himself as a performer — “how much more can you give? Other than, literally, open-heart surgery onstage?” — I realized there’s no disconnect when you’re talking about actors.

In an interview on about the conclusion of The Shield (2002-2008), the extraordinary FX series about rogue cops in the LAPD, Walton Goggins complimented the show’s creator, Shawn Ryan, for ending it “the way that he began it, from the heart and from a place of passion.” Speaking of the “many threads in this story,” Goggins refers to the complex relationship between his character, detective Shane Vendrell, and the strike team leader Vic Mackey, played by Emmy-winner Michael Chiklis. “It’s the disintegration of that friendship and what it has done to these two men that were inexorably tied to the original sin of this show …. To be in the center of that storm, what greater honor could a person have?” What Goggins goes on to say about his character tells you a lot about how much of himself he gave to that role: “I’ll never get to play Shane Vendrell again. For me, it almost broke my heart when that happened because I love him very much, not from a friend standpoint. I just want to hug him. I just want to go up to him and just kind of hug him and whisper in his ear, ‘Buddy, you’re okay. You’ll be okay. If you can start from here and try to live your life differently, you’ll be okay.’”

In the same collider interview, Goggins, who was born in Atlanta in 1971, recalls walking into the local casting director’s office at the age of 14, with no acting experience, saying, “‘I have a lot of emotions. I’m a young kid, and I want to get these emotions out in a constructive way, so I think I need to become an actor, and I need you to help me do that.’ That was kind of my trajectory. I don’t think there was another option for me, really.”

A Great Ending

In view of Shane’s devastating fate, his actor buddy’s advice about living “your life differently” is wishful thinking on the grand scale. Certainly no one who ever stayed with The Shield to the finale will ever forget a show that closed out its seven-season run with what television critic Alan Sepinwall, writing online, called “the most satisfying end to a great drama series that I’ve ever seen.” In his book The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever (2012), Sepinwall suggests that from a Shield fan’s point of view what ultimately made the show great “was that it ended great.”

In the beginning, Shane was merely the lone witness to the “original sin” moment when Vic Mackey shot dead a fellow detective who had been planted on his deeply corrupt strike team in the fictional Farmington Division of the LAPD. The FX brass wanted Ryan to fire Goggins after the pilot was filmed, according to the chapter on The Shield in Sepinwall’s book. Ryan refused, and by the time Season 5 ended, “Goggins had more than justified his boss’s faith.” Up until then, the show needed infusions of star power from name actors like Glenn Close in Season 4 and Forest Whitaker in Season 5. Once Shane became “the center of the storm,” the series no longer needed “a Very Special Guest Star” because Goggins, as Sepinwall puts it, was playing “at Michael Chiklis’s level, and there was no conflict the show could create that would be bigger, or hit harder, than Vic vs. Shane, mentor against protégé, brother against brother.”

Sepinwall’s title for the chapter was “The Shield takes antiheroism to the limit,” and it’s a tribute to Chiklis’s relentless performance that you’re pulling for Mackey, the ultimate antihero, even as you’re thinking what an obnoxious brute he is. Whether he’s taking his cut, setting up monumental heists, bullying or beating on everyone in sight, he’s also doing his job. Every time the powers that be are about to come down on him, he pulls off a major bust. As a viewer, you give him credit for loving his kids, two of whom are autistic, but you never see him engaged as a father the way you do Tony Soprano with A.J. and Meadow and Walter White with his disabled son in Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad. 

Other Endings

This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.

—T.S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men”

People are still arguing about the ending of The Sopranos. Thanks to series creator David Chase’s decision to leave the final episode unresolved, with Tony Soprano sitting for all eternity over a plate of fried onion rings, many diehard fans of the show insist that what should have ended with a bang ended with worse than a whimper. A cop-out. An insult to closure. A cheating of fans who had invested almost a decade of their lives in the HBO blockbuster.

In The Revolution Was Televised, Chase tells Sepinwall that he never intended to play “head games” with the audience. “It just seemed right …. So why did I do it that way? I thought everyone would feel it. That even if they couldn’t say what it meant, that they would feel it.”

As Sepinwall points out, the ending “almost feels bigger than the show it dropped a curtain on.”

The first I ever heard of The Shield was on Sepinwall’s blog, “What’s Alan Watching” in September 2013, amid the analytical back and forth following the finale of Breaking Bad. While fans furiously weighed in on the subject of Walter White’s fate, the program they cited as the standard when it came to superior endings was The Shield.

As endings go, to use T.S. Eliot parameters, Breaking Bad went out with more  bangs than any comparable endgame situation this side of the St. Valentine’s Day massacre. At the time Sepinwall interviewed Vince Gilligan for his book, Breaking Bad had not yet finished its run, so the ending was up for discussion. In reviewing the possibilities, Sepinwall presciently wonders about the machine gun in the trunk of Walt’s car, which became, in fact, the primary component in the ingeniously, if improbably, fashioned machinery of the denouement (Walt was a mad genius, after all). At that time Vince Gilligan’s thoughts about a finale didn’t go much beyond a wish “to do justice to the characters,” to “satisfy the audience,” to make sure everyone feels “that this trip was worth taking,” and to end “in the best, most interesting, most breathtaking and ultimately satisfying way possible.”

No surprise, many of the Breaking Bad bloggers were dissatisfied. Some felt the denouement was too neat, with too many loose ends left unresolved. Compared to the ambiguous finales of The Sopranos and The Shield, however, Walter White’s self-devised demise lived up to Gilligan’s promise. Lifted by the rock and roll euphoria of Badfinger’s song, “Baby Blue,” Breaking Bad ends on a high.

Losing Everything

The Shield ends in a darker place, one that moved Slate’s Mark Peters to term it “a Shakespearean tragedy in which the antihero’s sins, spinning out from a fatal decision he makes in the pilot, slowly destroy everyone around him. The main character insists he’s doing it all for his family — but he’s lying, especially to himself. There’s a lot of collateral damage, but this murderer’s worst crime might be the corruption of his vulnerable younger partner.”

As for Vic Mackey, rather than going down in a blaze of machinegun glory or landing a life term or Death Row, he sells his soul for immunity, which means a three-year sentence confined to desk duty in a cubicle, duties befitting exactly the sort of paper pusher he has for so long been the fire-breathing man-of-action antithesis of, and what would be a routine act for an ordinary employee — the displaying of photographs of his wife and children — carries a lead weight of irony for one who has lost his family, friends, coworkers, everything but his life.

Unguilty Pleasures 

Let’s face it, the stuff we’ve been watching since the millennium is gruesome fare. People do terrible things to one another on Game of Thrones, Justified, Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, House of Cards, Luther, True Detective, and on and on, not to mention some recent horrors like Penny Dreadful and The Leftovers. While not all the abovementioned can be called works of art in a class with The Shield or The Sopranos, Deadwood or The Wire, they provide enough intensity and visual imagination to keep us from watching real-life atrocities like Congress, the Ukraine, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the other Usual Suspects. We can read about all that in the New York Times, along with the untimely death of the actor who asked “How much more can you give?”

This seems as good a place as any to quote Henry James from The Middle Years: “We work in the dark, we do what we can, we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”


August 6, 2014

BeatlesWhen the closing credits of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood came on the screen at Princeton’s new community cinema Friday, people applauded. The Garden was full to overflowing, an extraordinary turn-out on a midsummer night, with the students away. The applause suggests that Princeton finally has a place where people go to share movies, not just to see them.

Fifty years ago this month, when the lights came on at Manhattan’s Trans-Lux East on 58th Street after a showing of A Hard Day’s Night, it wasn’t the clapping and cheering that told the story: it was the smiling. Wherever you looked there were happy faces. People were glowing, all ages sharing the euphoria, smiles here, there, and everywhere, a sense of unbounded excitement, such a surge of good feeling you thought it might be powerful enough to conjure up a personal appearance by Paul, John, George, and Ringo.

Not a Fan

At the time of that first viewing I was not a fan. It would be two years before I even owned a Beatles album. My heroes were Sonny Rollins and Charlie Parker. The Indiana couple I talked into seeing A Hard Day’s Night with me that first time weren’t into the music at all, even at the Top 40 Cousin Brucie level, but when we walked out of the theater, they were beaming like everybody else. By now I knew this was a film I didn’t want to see on my own; such joy had to be shared. I’d been living in the city just six months and my only other friend was a tall, super-talkative poet who had zero interest in popular music. She, too, had to be talked into going. So we went. As the picture ended, she said, “Let’s see it again, okay?” and we did. Next up was my best friend, who lived in New Haven, I paid a visit, stayed over, and he and his wife and I went to A Hard Day’s Night, and came out smiling in the afterglow, everyone giddy and loose, the same as the first time in New York. I was beginning to feel like a tour guide for the Fab Four.

Even people predisposed to hate the film loved it. Like that stodgy Elmer Fudd of film reviewers Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, who begins his review by saying, “This is going to surprise you — it may knock you right out of your chair — but the new film with those incredible chaps, the Beatles, is a whale of a comedy.” Who could believe it! The chronically buttoned-up Bosley who had scorned “the juvenile madness” afflicting “otherwise healthy young people” found the “good humor” and “rollicking, madcap fun” created by those incredible chaps “awfully hard to resist.” You had to think, “Something special is going on here,” something, you might even say, magical.


Whatever you call it — serendipity might be preferable to magic — A Hard Day’s Night would not have been possible without an expatriate Philadelphian named Richard Lester, who had directed The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film (1960), a surreal 11-minute short starring Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan that was admired by the Beatles, and key to their comfort level with Lester and their own ideas about the zany ambience of the film being created around them.

If anything, The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film looks labored and limping compared to the pace and fervor and comic spirit of its rocking running jumping offspring. Take the romp in an open field scored to the full-tilt frenzy of “Can’t Buy Me Love,” where the film picks you up and runs off with you. Poet/critic Geoffrey O’Brien remembers walking into the theater “as a solitary observer with more or less random musical tastes” and coming out “as a member of a generation sharing a common repertoire with a sea of contemporaries, strangers, who suddenly seemed like family …. The world became, with very little effort, a more companionable place.” O’Brien’s response to the romp in the field was that “the effortlessness” of it “began to seem a fundamental value. That’s what they were there for: to have fun, and allow us to watch them having it …. The converted choose the leap into faith over rational argument. It was enough to believe they were taking over the world on our behalf.”

Charmed, I’m Sure

Imagine how it felt for first-time audiences when A Hard Day’s Night came rushing headlong at them on the wings of the iconic chord producer George Martin considered “the perfect launch,” the four lads pursued by howling teen and subteen furies, diving onto a train at Marylebone Station, driven by a breathtaking display of cinéma vérité virtuosity, genius editing, and dazzling interplay between a group of gifted non-actors from Liverpool and old pros like Paul’s grandfather, the “clean old man” played by Wilfrid Brambell, a leering embodiment of mischief straight out of an Alec Guinness Ealing-era comedy.

Everyone interviewed for the Criterion DVD, from the United Artists and EMI brass to the players of small parts, from Richard Lester to George Martin, is reduced to gushing wonderment at how splendidly the Beatles handled the challenges and demands of making a film on a tight schedule and how well they worked with professional actors. The qualities that charmed the world — the style, wit, sense of fun, sheer energy, not to mention the singing and playing — clearly also charmed the people on the set.

Speaking of charm, there’s the first song after the title number, the only one that grows naturally out of a situation unrelated to the television special the group is seen rehearsing for and performing. Composed and sung by John Lennon, “I Should Have Known Better” is delivered with such joyous force and feeling that your spirits, already high from that opening rush, are lifted even higher, and when John and Paul go up the scale to maximum euphoria singing “Can’t you see? Can’t you see?,” you’re up there with them. Every time I see the baggage car sequence I find more to admire, partly because of being at first so intoxicated by the music that I took the visuals for granted. Another of their great escapes, though not as acrobatic as the zany freak-out in the field, this one has the Beatles taking refuge from the madness on the train, much of it stirred up by Paul’s trouble-making grandfather, the old rogue having been “jailed” for the duration of the journey. Shot through wire mesh giving the impression of a cage, the scene begins as a game of cards until you hear the sound of John’s harmonica as cinematic sleight of hand turns the cards into guitars and the players into musicians, a music video decades before MTV, with close-ups of John, Paul, George, and Ringo interwoven with shots of their small, formidably cute schoolgirl audience. When John sings, “I never realized what a kiss could be,” you’re realizing what a song could be, everything’s meshing, life and music in motion, then back to earth you come, the cards once again in play, Ringo’s won, and so have we all.

“If I Fell” is another infectious song written and sung by Lennon and marked by movingly unexpected harmonic nuances.  “My first attempt at a ballad proper,” John has said. As usual in A Hard Day’s Night, plenty is happening in the background, no one stops to listen, people go about their business, everything coming together, music and life once again subtly, spontaneously interacting.

Smiling Through

Of all the songs from A Hard Day’s Night, the one that has the most personal resonance for me is “I’m Happy Just to Dance With You,” which John wrote for George to sing. What a gift. Maybe John felt generous, maybe he thought it too light (“I couldn’ta sung it,” he claims). What a gift for the world. In Istanbul, feeling lonely and strung-out on my way back from India, I heard the song playing over a loudspeaker at a park near Hagia Sophia. It was a lovely afternoon and as I walked among the people, families, couples, all ages, it was the first time I hadn’t been made to feel like an alien being, the object of hard stares on all sides. People were actually smiling at me, and I realized they associated me, the shabby westerner, with the music that was making them feel good. It was reflected glory, the Hard Day’s Night effect all over again.

Half a year earlier in Katmandu, sick and alone since Christmas Day, I pulled myself out of bed and staggered down the road to the nearest cafe. As I walked into the warm, bright room full of strangers, most of them from the west, hitchhikers like me, Germans, English, Dutch, Japanese, Americans, familiar music was playing. The Beatles, who else, and the song was “I’m Happy Just to Dance With You.” After a week of fever and nothing to eat, I sat down at a table with some people who seemed to know me or maybe they knew me through the music. They could tell I’d been under the weather. This was the first day of the new year. Happy New Year someone said. Happy happy happy, said the music. People were smiling as the song filled the room. It took no effort to feel that the world had become “a more companionable place.”  The Beatles had taken it over “on our behalf.”


Whenever my son, who was bathed in Beatles from day one, moans and groans about the break-up and at how disappointing the solo output has been since 1970, I keep reminding him that between them John, Paul, George, and to a lesser extent, Ringo, made enough great music in their solo careers, that if you felt inclined, you could put together at least two or three great Beatles albums using the best songs. Over the years, I’ve made provisional selections, thinking one day I might take the time to put together a tape for my son. One of the many reasons I was applauding Boyhood at the Garden the other night was the scene where the father (Ethan Hawke) proudly presents the son (Ellar Coltrane) with “something that money couldn’t buy,” his own CD creation, The Black Album, a “secret Beatles record” he’d meticulously assembled from the solo work, complete with liner notes and playlist. The father’s overkill of presentation as his laid-back son fails to come up with a response worthy of the effort, was among the truest moments in an unforgettable film.

One of the first features to play at new Garden, by the way, was the re-released version of A Hard Day’s Night. This community theatre is the best thing to happen to Princeton in ages. You can find out about joining at

The quotes from Geoffrey O’Brien and Ned Rorem are from articles in the New York Review of Books. I also quoted from William J. Dowlding’s ever-useful Beatlesongs (Fireside 1989). You can see the playlist for The Black Album at


July 30, 2014

DVD revAn actor is an interpreter of other men’s words, often a soul which wishes to reveal itself to the world but dare not, a craftsman, a bag of tricks, a vanity bag, a cool observer of mankind, a child, and at his best a kind of unfrocked priest who, for an hour or two, can call on heaven and hell to mesmerise a group of innocents.

—Alec Guinness (1914-2000)

Sir Alec Guinness would have enjoyed our mouse. More than that, he’d have been studying it, absorbing its essential mouseness, the intensity of its beady-eyed hold over two fascinated humans and two frustrated felines. For the better part of 20 minutes, the mouse occupied a miniature proscenium formed by the frame at the top of the bedroom window, poking its head over the lacy fringe of the curtains as it stared down at the brother and sister tuxedo cats glaring up at it. Every now and then the little rogue would run teasingly back and forth along the top of its curtain-rod runway or skitter up and down the outer fringe of the curtain before leaping onto a nearby wall hanging, where it was finally trapped in a plastic container and delivered to the wild the following morning.

For Sir Alec, the anthropomorphic fun would have been secondary to a meditation on what it was to be “in and of” such an agile life-form. “I go to the zoo,” was his answer when asked about “building a character” during a 1977 television conversation with Michael Parkinson. While working out the part of the Prufrock-turned-criminal in The Lavender Hill Mob, he visited the small rodent house, fixing his attention on “a nervousy little character rather sort of fluffy” and thinking “maybe something on those lines.” Looking for ideas when playing crookbacked Richard the Third onstage in Canada, he came to a zoo “every two or three days” to commune with “The Unsociable Vulture.” You can see hints of the bird-of-prey in the capacious hovering presence of his Fagin in Oliver Twist (1948), the role that launched his film career. There’s also an aspect of  the Unsociable Vulture haunting his Malvolio in an “unfortunate” television production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (1969).

“I Hate Great Acting”

Well into his memoir, Blessings in Disguise (Knopf 1986), Guinness delivers the sort of statement you’d expect to see at the beginning of the book. Recalling the words of actor/writer Alan Bennett — “I hate Great Acting” — he writes, “I know what he meant: the self-importance, the authoritative stage position, the meaningless pregnant pause, the beautiful gesture which is quite out of character, the vocal pyrotechnics, the suppression of fellow actors …, the jealousy of areas where the light is brightest, and above all the whiff of ‘You have come to see me act, not to watch a play.’”

The quality setting Guinness apart from most of his stage and screen peers is articulated in Keats’s definition of the poetical character, which has “no self” but is “every thing and nothing,” delights as much in playing “an Iago as an Imogen,” has “no Identity” but “is continually in for — and filling some other Body.”

Guinness also kept faith with Hamlet’s instructions to the players, not to “out-Herod Herod,” nor to “tear a passion “to tatters,” but rather to “use all gently” to “acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness” and like Keats’s “chameleon poet” to enjoy “light and shade” and live “in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated.”

A Very Literary Man

Shakespeare, Dickens, and Keats were divinities to Guinness, who was, as Gore Vidal observed first-hand during the filming of The Scapegoat, “a very literary man.” The actor visited the poet’s grave in Rome before, during, and after the Second War, and undoubtedly read Keats’s letter defining the “poetical character.” Guinness not only loved poetry and literature, he lived it as a writer and reader, which is why Blessings in Disguise is one of the best books ever written by an actor, not so much for what you learn about acting, which is a great deal, but for the characters brought to Dickensian life in every chapter.

Guinness’s working interest in literature was not confined to the United Kingdom. In 1945, back from a tour of duty as an officer in the Royal Navy, he took on the formidable challenge of adapting The Brothers Karamazov for the stage, and although he terms the result “loose” and “lopsided,” the play was staged at the Hammersmith Lyric and directed by a young Peter Brook, with Guinness himself as the volcanic Dmitri. The year before the war he had adapted Great Expectations, which ran for six weeks after “a splendid notice” from James Agate. The adaptation for which he received the most attention, however, was Joyce Cary’s novel, The Horse’s Mouth, which he mined for one of his most memorable film roles. As Piers Paul Read notes in the 2003 biography, Alec Guinness, “the precise punctual, modest, conventional, buttoned-up Alec Guinness” played “the anarchic, boastful, egotistical painter Gully Jimson.” It was quite a coup, to write your own role on your own terms and receive an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay while winning Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival and coming in second for Best Actor in the 1958 New York Film Critics Circle Awards.

The B-Word  

When playing Fagin and Gully Jimson, Guinness speaks with uncharacteristic volume and vehemence; two such vivid characters almost demand to be performed. The risk in underplaying, in being too fine, too subtle, is the b-word. Discussing how to present Colonel Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai with director David Lean, Guinness flared up when Lean suggested that Nicholson would be “an awful bore” were they to meet him in a real-life situation (“You’re asking me to play a bore…No, I don’t want to play a bore”). The pernicious word surfaces again a decade later and suggests why Guinness remembered the television production of Twelfth Night as “unfortunate.” In Blessings in Disguise, he recounts watching a run-through of the film in the viewing box with Laurence Olivier, who zinged him thus: “Fascinating, old dear. I never realized before that Malvolio could be played as a bore.” Stung, Guinness heard the word “bore” running through the rest of his performance. According to Read’s biography, the production “left Alec on the verge of a breakdown,  physically, mentally, and spiritually. To recover, he spent 24 hours alone in a suite at a grand hotel in Brighton.”

Any actor who does justice to a character as complexly fashioned as Malvolio deserves a weekend of downtime in a grand hotel.  Harold Bloom sees the insufferable puritan as Twelfth Night’s “great creation” (along with Feste), pointing out that by the end “it has become Malvolio’s play.”

On YouTube there’s a sample of Stephen Fry’s Malvolio from the Globe production of Twelfth Night that migrated to Broadway last fall. The clip is from the denouement of the practical joke as Malvolio, gulled by a forged love note, struts before Olivia, the countess he serves, crooning and kissing his fingers at her while showing off his cross-gartered yellow stockings. Fry takes it over the top, milking the audience for laughs, no “bore” he. But Olivier was right, Malvolio is a bore, at least until he finds the forged letter. And so Guinness plays him, perusing and reading aloud the letter, which becomes in effect the script giving him, the actor/character, excellent material, his lines and cues, everything a plodding “bore” needs to appear light and amusing. In theatrical terms, this buoyant transformation allows him to take possession of the scene and eventually lay claim to the tragicomic soul of the play. Guinness is too subtle and wise an actor to milk the prank for laughs, though he enters like a peacock (remember his visits to the zoo), showing off his gaily embellished legs, at first plodding Big-Bird-like, but then stepping lightly, capering, almost Chaplinesque, coyly dandling a yellow-stockinged ankle. It’s his moment. And so his dark unfunny fate is to be “notoriously abused,” treated as a lunatic, and locked in a dark cell. Any actor playing Malvolio for laughs in the scene where he cluelessly struts his stuff is out of touch with the element of the play’s genius, its uniqueness, a work so deep that, as Bloom observes, “One cannot get to the end of it because some of the most apparently incidental lines reverberate infinitely.”

A Different Hole 

The Criterion DVD of The Horse’s Mouth features a talk with the director, Ronald Neame, who died in 2010 at the age of 99. In marveling at the intensity with which Guinness attacked the part of Gully Jimson and his determination to become the character (his wife complained, “He won’t even clean his nails”), Neame tries to find words for Guinness’s uniqueness. I was struck by the figure he used more than once to describe Guinesses’s chameleon-like ability to “change colors” from part to part: “He comes out of a different hole every time.” In fact, the oddly resonant metaphor was suggested by Guinness himself. As Neame admits in a 2003 L.A. Times interview: “We knew that whatever Alec said he could play, he could play. You’d send him books and he’d say, ‘I’m immensely sorry, Ronnie, but I’ve done this. I don’t want to come out of the same hole. I have to come out of a different hole.’ “

Sort of like, you know, a mouse.


July 23, 2014

book revA soft summer’s day in New York. When the rain falls, you can count the drops. I’m sitting on a bench in Tompkins Square Park reading Twelfth Night as a drop kisses the page, then one or two or three more, just enough to ripple the paper. My afternoon in the city began well with the discovery of a shady parking spot on Charlie Parker Place, free for the duration, no $3.50 an hour Muni Meter. My CRV is parked a few yards down the street from the house at 151 Avenue B where the jazz legend lived from 1950 to 1954.

The 1924 Oxford thin-paper edition of Shakespeare’s Works spread open on my lap is bound in soft leather like a Bible, with paper so delicate that it takes a touch as gentle as the rain to separate one page from the other. My reason for reading Twelfth Night; or What You Will (Harold Bloom thinks the secondary title more fitting) is that I’d been planning to write about the centenary of Alec Guinness, who played Sir Andrew Aguecheek at 23 and Malvolio at 55. Everything changed when I found that parking spot on Charlie Parker Place. It’s a “what-you-will” situation, by way of the “divinity that doth shape out ends.” Goodbye Sir Alec (for now), hello Shakespeare, hello Charlie Parker.

On this balmy Thursday afternoon everything makes Shakespearian sense, the diffidence of the rain, the interplay of sun and shadow, the sparrows’ chirping, the pigeons rumbling, a society of dogs romping in the dog playground, children squealing and screaming, a jazzy free-for-all of a comedy from 1601 spread open before me in bold black type on white India paper, and less than a stone’s toss to my left, the austere three-story brownstone rowhouse from 1849 where dwelt the man named on plaques from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the New York Landmarks Preservation Foundation. The latter plaque notes the Gothic Revival style of the residence, “a style most often used for churches,” and refers to “the world-renowned alto saxophonist” and “co-founder of bebop.”

Jazz critic Barry Ulanov called him “the Jazz Mozart,” and Leonard Feather and Ira Gitler’s Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz said he was “the jazz world’s Mozart” because he “gathered together” the styles that had come before and transformed them into “a brilliant new design,” everything “fresh and whole” and “precisely right.” When Gary Giddins cites Mozart at the conclusion of Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker (University of Minnesota Press $17.95), he’s thinking of more than the music: “As with Mozart, the facts of Charlie Parker’s life make little sense because they fail to explain his music. Perhaps his life is what his music overcame. And overcomes.”

But Mozart isn’t enough. For the music, you need to bring in, among others, Bach, Beethoven, Liszt, Chopin, Debussy, Stravinsky, Gershwin, Cole Porter, Moondog, and the Rubiyat, which contains a stanza Parker was fond of quoting, the one that ends “the Bird is on the Wing.”

“That strain again!”

When it comes to quoting, however, there’s nothing to equal the supple book of riches in my lap. For instance the opening line of Twelfth Night, “If music be the food of love, play on!” And in the same speech, the most eloquent player of them all, he whose 450th birthday is being celebrated this year, plays on: “That strain again! it had a dying fall/it came o’er my ear like the sweet sound/That breathes upon a bank of violets” and over and among the flowers blooming in Tompkins Square.

The “dying fall” will make Bird sense to listeners who recall the dismissive moves the master performs in mid-flight, when as if to relieve himself of a cluster of “nipping and eager” notes, he simply drops them and soars on. He says it himself — “There’s too much in my head for this horn” — in Robert Reisner’s oral history, Bird: The Legend of Charlie Parker (DaCapo 1991), where he tells Charlie Mingus “Would you die for me? I’d die for you.” It’s easy to hear a cadence resembling that one-two punch in the mid-flight moments that sometimes move audience members at certain crudely recorded club dates or concerts to shout, “Kill yourself!” Knowing his days were numbered, it was as if he had a special claim on death. More than once, as recounted by friends and acquaintances in Reisner’s book, he says his goodbyes days and months before 8:45 p.m. on March 12, 1955. Again, Shakespeare has a phrase for him — in Twelfth Night when Sebastian says “My stars shine darkly over me.”


What sort of a family life did he lead with his white common law wife Chan in the ground floor of the brownstone at 151 Avenue B? His stepdaughter Kim, for whom he named one of his fastest, happiest compositions, remembers a black bedroom, a fireplace with a white death mask above it, and “family Sundays, family dinners.” In an online interview with Judy Rhodes, the eventual owner of the house, Kim remembers “Bird was a really wonderful father — very kind, very gentle with me.” When she was in first grade at a school “two or three blocks up the street” and had to make her own lunch and walk there by herself, she was “a nervous wreck” and would throw up every morning, prompting the school to send a note home demanding that she see a doctor. Her stepfather took her to an MD on 10th Street who said she was “terrified and needed to be reassured.” So “Bird walked me back to school and back to my classroom. I had no sense of colour or prejudice. When I walked into school holding my daddy’s hand I was at the top of the world — walking with this big Black man into the classroom full of little white snotty kids that I was terrified of. Being there with my daddy made it all ok.”

In Celebrating Bird, Gary Giddins quotes tenor man Al Cohn’s recollection of a visit to Avenue B (“They had a very nice place”): “It was a Ukrainian neighborhood and we went to three or four different bars. All the Ukrainians, working-class guys, knew him as Charlie. I don’t think they knew he was a musician, but it was obvious they liked him and were glad to see him. I saw a different side of him; he was like a middle-class guy with middle-class values.”

Interviewed in Ken Burns’s documentary Jazz, Giddins points out the daily challenge Charlie Parker faced during this period. He had to live three lives: the working musician, the drug addict constantly scuffling to raise money for a fix, and the family man.

The Open Door

Robert Reisner begins Bird with an account of his first meeting with “a large, lumbering, lonely man, walking kind of aimlessly” on a rainy night in 1953. It was just after midnight, Reisner was coming home from a party when he recognized Parker and wondered what he was doing “in this poor Jewish neighborhood, walking by himself in the soaking rain.” Parker said his wife was having a baby and he was walking off his nervousness. Asked where he lived, he said “In the neighborhood, Avenue B,” and seeing that Reisner wondered why “a guy of his tremendous reputation lived in such an out-of-the-way poor section,” he explained, “I like the people around here. They don’t give you no hype.”

Later, after Reisner decided to stop teaching art history at the New School to become a jazz promoter, the venue he picked was The Open Door on 3rd Street south of Washington Square, a place “that had enough seating capacity to pay for a band solely on admissions.” He launched his first “Sunday jazz bash” on April 26, 1953. Three months later, Chan left 151 Avenue B with the tape recorder she’d been given for her 28th birthday the month before. According to the liner notes for the 2-CD set on Ember, Charlie Parker at the Open Door, the tapes Chan made were stored away until she sold them to Columbia Records where they remained for decades in the vaults until they were smuggled out and released in Italy on the Philology label.

My copy of the Open Door performance has been sitting on the shelf for years. One reason is the poor recording quality. It sounds as if Bird and the band, in particular Art Taylor, the drummer, are playing in two different rooms, and on some of the uptempo numbers the drums seem to be crashing randomly about in a void. One of the perks of studio albums that include retakes are those moments when you hear a glitch and everything stops as Bird shouts “Hold it!” But in this acoustical shipwreck of a setting he has to keep bravely blowing, which is what gives low-grade live recordings an existential subplot. It takes several numbers to adjust to the unreality, but with “The Song Is You” the man from Avenue B takes command, changing the “You” to “Me,” and when he gets to “Ornithology,” you hear what Giddins calls “the uncorrupted humanity of his music.”

Shakespeare’s Weaver

It isn’t really all that much of a stretch to speak of jazz in the same breath as Twelfth Night because, as in other Shakespearian romps, the effect is that of a group of players jamming, drunk on the elixir of language. Between Feste the Clown, Fabian, the hapless Sir Andrew, the perpetually soused Sir Toby, and the madcap diva Maria, you have the equivalent of an extended cutting session, or at least that’s how it seemed reading Shakespeare on a Tompkins Square park bench off Charlie Parker Place. For now, listen to Sir Toby Belch in Act 2, when after the clown sings “Youth’s a stuff will not endure,” Sir T suggests rousing “the nightowl in a catch that will draw three souls out of one weaver.”

In case we need an explanatory note for Toby’s flight of fancy, the 1836 edition, the one Melville used, provides this: “Shakespeare represents weavers as much given to harmony in his time.”

And so it is at the Open Door on the night of July 26, 1953, as the weaver of souls, the stars shining darkly over him, plays on.


July 16, 2014

book revJohn Howard Griffin was one of the most remarkable people I have ever encountered. He was just one of those guys that comes along once or twice in a century — and lifts the hearts of the rest of us. 

—Studs Terkel

John Howard Griffin (1920-1980) is known best for the book that inspired people in his hometown of Mansfield, Texas, to hang him in effigy from a traffic light on Main Street. The book is Black Like Me (1961), an account of his six weeks in the Deep South passing as a Negro.

A decade before Black Like Me, Griffin’s first novel, The Devil Rides Outside (Smith’s, Inc. 1952), had created another sort of stir. Hailed by the Saturday Review (“This first novel has in it the power of life itself”) and the New York Herald-Tribune (“this big symphonic novel sets up a theme worth writing about and attacks it with passion, knowledge, and the authority of experience”), the Book of the Month Club selection sold well (400,000 copies in hardcover and paper), and later in the decade the critic Maxwell Geismar declared The Devil Rides Outside one of the best novels of the 1950s. Meanwhile, Griffin’s “long, strong, and tormented story of the war between the flesh and the spirit” was condemned by the Legion of Decency and became the subject of a Supreme Court decision written by Justice Felix Frankfurter: “The state [Michigan] insists that, by thus quarantining the general reading public against books not too rugged for grown men and women in order to shield juvenile innocence, it is exercising its power to promote the general welfare. Surely this is to burn the house to roast the pig.”

Blindness and Beethoven

The Devil Rides Outside is absolutely unique among American novels of its time, or any time, for that matter. How could it not be? It was written by a blind musicologist from Texas whose formative years were spent in France. Since he felt more comfortable speaking French, Griffin told the story into a wire-recorder each night, translating the French into English the following day and typing it. The blind author needed a week to learn how to get around on a typewriter and seven weeks to complete the first draft of what would be a 596-page novel. In Griffin’s autobiography, Scattered Shadows: A Memoir of Blindness and Vision, he says he began The Devil Rides Outside with Beethoven’s Quartet, Opus 131 in mind, “a work that I knew intimately. The characters enter as Beethoven’s themes enter and are developed in the same way …. When the thematics of the novel did not match the music, I changed the novel.”

A year before the book’s publication in 1952, Griffin converted to Catholicism, having written himself “into the church” by reliving in fiction his time in the monastery at Solesmes, France, and the Benedictine Abbey there, “the motherhouse of the Gregorian Chant,” where he had a cell and was allowed to work on various original manuscripts. At the same time,  his sight was “rapidly diminishing,” and when he became totally blind and could no longer work on the music, he experienced “an unexpected awakening to the realities of the spirit” that eventually led to a friendship with philosopher and longtime Princeton resident Jacques Maritain.

The problem with writing about Griffin is that his truth-is-stranger-than-fiction personal history diverts attention from his literary labors. This man’s whole life is like a novel written to enlighten readers about the nature of faith and vision in a world blinded and violated by prejudice. Born into a genteel Texas family that detested the vulgarity of racism but treated segregation as an absolute, Griffin went to France at age 15 as a scholarship student at the Lycée Descartes, then to the University of Poitiers in Tours to study music and psychiatry, becoming assistant to the director of an asylum where he experimented with the therapeutic effects of music, the Gregorian Chant in particular. With the Nazi occupation of France imminent, and having by then been shamed by his French friends into accepting that blacks were allowed to eat in the same restaurant with whites, he saw the lethal evils of another form of racism first-hand. Staying on to oversee the asylum when the director was conscripted, he joined the underground resistance, using the asylum ambulances to transport children of Jews out of Tours to the country and then to the port of Saint Nazaire. Discovered by the Gestapo while attempting to help an Austrian family, he escaped to the U.K., returned to Texas at the age of 21, joined the Army Air Force, was shipped to Guadalcanal, and then to the Solomon Islands on a special mission that involved living with the natives. Wounded by a bomb that caused the concussion that ultimately destroyed his sight, he married, had three children, wrote The Devil Rides Outside and Nuni (about his time in the Solomons), and in 1957, after a decade of blindness, he suddenly regained his sight and saw his wife and children for the first time. Two years later he dyed his skin and lived the nightmare of prejudice described in Black Like Me.

That’s only a shamefully superficial tour of Griffin’s “once in a century” life.

An Incredible Work

What is it like, then, this massive, passionately written novel? Right away you’re caught up in a first-person present-tense narrative that’s sustained throughout except for an 11-page past-tense flashback. The present-tense creates a sense of acceleration and sometimes seemingly involuntary forward movement. Griffin says he used it to “feel the immediacy of the experience in contrast to the eternal rhythms” of the monastery. He chose not to name his protagonist, intending his anonymity to match that of “those unknown masters who had composed the chants centuries ago.”

Knowing that Griffin, like the American music student who narrates the story, has studied Gregorian Chant, you become aware of the way the prose evokes a chanted rhythm that can seem alternately incantatory and prayerful; the effect is of intense, charged passages of prose encompassing long interludes of dialogue. In the notes I made even before I learned that he’d dictated the narrative in French, my way of describing Griffin’s often awkward, fragmented, unstable style was to compare it to reading something in a sound and occasionally eccentric English translation.

You can get an idea of what the reading experience is like in the following passage:

It grows late. Nothing satisfies. I open a volume of Rilke, but I can’t read. I stand at my window, nose pressed against the pane, breath fogging the glass, and stare down the street. Strange brassy tonality of the full moon, now breaking through the clouds onto clustered housetops: more abstract, more frozen than abstraction. We strive for warmth in color to forget these scenes, these moments, these liturgies of dissonance, these cold angles lost in heavy shadows, just as we try to live warmly to escape death.

It’s a passage in which you hear more than you see, with the “brassy tonality” of the moon on the other side of fogged glass, a moon that isn’t shining so much as blaring, an abstraction imagined by a man speaking into darkness, unable to make out the equally abstracted housetops. Rather than seeing color, he seems to want to wrap himself in its warmth. This is heavily, almost oppressively internalized writing, driven by a visceral “power of life,” that breaks through the divisions of the senses and not always gracefully.

“A frightful and horrible creature”

While the novel’s first third is essentially concerned with the American’s relationships inside the monastery, its most eventful scenes occur outside the walls in the town where he rents a room in a villa overseen by Madame Renée, a middleaged widow who sees to his needs, arranges for a maid, cooks delicious meals for him, and slowly, subtly begins to impose herself, body and soul, on his life. What begins as an innocuous relationship develops into a battle that by the end has become a matter of spiritual life and death.

The reviewers’ comparisons of Griffin to Balzac are inspired by the creation of Madame Renée, the embodiment of French subterfuge and perversity so vividly documented by the author of the Human Comedy. In his New York Times review, Orville Prescott refers to Griffin’s “gruesomely expert study of a hysterical woman consumed by vanity, hypocrisy, and old-fashioned meanness … a frightful and horrible creature, but never a monster. She is pitifully human, too.” He goes on to observe that she is “a character such as Balzac would have enjoyed writing about.” Of course Balzac, the master, not only wrote about such characters, he invented them and the France they inhabited, much as Dickens invented England.

In and Out of Print

The Catcher in the Rye, published by Little, Brown on this day, July 16, in 1951, was put into best-seller orbit by the Book of the Month Club. A year later, the BOMC did the same for The Devil Rides Outside. Salinger’s book has been read by millions and will be in print, it seems, forever. Unless you troll the net for a used copy, Griffin’s novel, which has long been out of print, is available only as an e-book. According to amazon, it can apparently be downloaded on Kindle for $7.95.

Anyone interested in knowing more about John Howard Griffin and his work should visit, which published the Kindle version of The Devil Rides Outside, along with other fiction, non-fiction, and photography by Griffin, not to mention a book I found especially helpful, Robert Bonazzi’s Man in the Mirror: John Howard Griffin and the Story of Black Like Me.

Black Like Me promises to be in print indefinitely, however. A 50th anniversary edition issued in 2011 is available at the Princeton Public Library. In February of that year, 50 years after his hometown had hung him in effigy and driven him and his family into exile in Mexico, the former first lady Laura Bush came to Mansfield to unveil a plaque honoring Griffin at a ceremony sponsored by the Friends of the Mansfield Public Library.

Note: The image of the battered cover of The Devil Rides Outside shown here belongs to the copy I’d been meaning to read ever since I found it many years ago for 25 cents in a Hutchinson Kansas rental-library book store that was going out of business. My excuse for finally reading this amazing novel was due to an online error that gives Griffin’s birth date as July 16 when in fact it is June 16. Serendipity works in strange and wonderful ways.


July 9, 2014

Record revArt is the most beautiful deception of all!

—Claude Debussy (1862-1918)

Simplicity and truth are the sole principles of the beautiful in art.

—Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787)

Debussy’s line about art and deception jumped out at me while I was searching for a quote to liven up a column on Gluck’s tercentenary. It’s one of those I-dare-you-to-dispute-this statements that gets your attention, starts you thinking, and then follows you around until you begin to distrust it. As for Gluck, Debussy has little good to say about him, far from it. The composer of Orfeo ed Euridice is “a court musician” whose music is tainted by the “pomposity of moving in such high circles.”

After bringing together art, beauty, and deception in the same brief essay for Musica (October 1902), Debussy bemoans the idea of incorporating “the everyday events of life in art,” which he hopes “will remain a deception lest it become a utilitarian thing, sad as a factory.” Yet when taking Gluck to task in a snarky February 1903 Open Letter to “Monsieur le Chevalier C.W. Gluck,” Debussy chastises him for being so far removed from the everyday events of life that “the common people participate only at a great distance,” as if Gluck’s music were a “wall behind which they know something is going on.” Debussy won’t even give the man credit for conducting the first performance of Iphigénie en Aulide in his nightcap; that spontaneous assertion of independence was only “for the sake of pleasing” his “king and queen.”

On Beethoven’s Wall

But what of Christoph Willibald Gluck? What did other composers think of his music? Beethoven kept Gluck’s portrait on the wall of his room along with Handel, Bach, Haydn, and Mozart, because “they can promote my capacity for endurance.” Mozart’s admiration is expressed throughout his letters. In Schubert’s diary, he contrasts the “pure, holy nature” of Gluck to Beethoven’s “eccentricities.” According to Johann Mayrhofer’s recollections (1829), Schubert was 15 when Gluck’s Iphegénie en Tauride left him “moved to the depths and to tears.” After that he embarked on “the keenest study of all of Gluck’s scores,” which “quite enraptured” him for years. As for Berlioz, Gluck inspired him to give up medicine for music. In his Memoirs, Berlioz writes, “The Jove of our Olympus was Gluck. The most passionate music-lover of today can have no conception how fiercely we worshipped him.”

Gluck’s Travels

Gluck was born on July 2, 1714, in what is now called Bavaria, his father a forester who became head forester in the service of Prince Philip of Bohemia and who expected his son to, as Gluck puts it, “follow in his footsteps.” But at that time music was “all the rage” and “inflamed with a passion for this art,” Gluck “soon made astounding progress and was able to play several instruments.” His “whole being became obsessed with music” and he left all thoughts of a forester’s life behind.

After studying at the University of Prague, Gluck turns up in Milan in 1737 composing operas for the Milanese Carnivals, before venturing to London in 1745, where the future mover “in high circles” decides to raises some money, according to a handbill he had printed, “By performing a Concert upon Twenty-six Drinking Glasses, tuned with Spring water … being a new Instrument of his own invention, upon which he performs whatever may be done on a Violin or Harpsichord; and therefore hopes to satisfy the Curious, as well as the Lovers of Musick. To begin at Half an hour after Six. Tickets Half a guinea each.”

From London he goes to Dresden, Prague, and finally Vienna to the Hapsburg Court where he becomes Princess Maria Antonia’s music teacher, though she’s not much good at the harpsichord. According to Stefan Zweig’s Marie Antoinette, she was “a dilettante,” but she “had a liking for this seemingly fierce man, broad in the beam and jovial” and when she went to Paris, Gluck went with her. He’d written Iphigénie en Tauride, which he wanted to present in the French capital. When court musicians called it “unpresentable,” Marie “insisted it have a fair trial.” But “the unruly and choleric Bavarian, animated with the characteristic obstinacy of the great artist,” in Zweig’s words, “did not make it easy for her to advance his cause. At the rehearsals he berated the ladies of the cast so savagely that these spoiled darlings complained bitterly to their titled lovers. He dragooned the instrumentalists, who were not used to the demand for such exactitude; and, in general, played the tyrant in the opera house. His mighty voice could be heard resounding from behind the closed doors as, time after time, he threatened to make an end of the whole business and return to Vienna. Nothing, in fact, but the dread of the Dauphiness prevented an open scandal.”

Marie was steadfast in supporting “her bon Gluck,” made his cause her own, and seeing that the opera seemed to be getting a lackluster reception at court, she “loudly applauded every aria” so that the courtiers and their ladies had to chime in. Though Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride would be remembered as a “famous event in the history of music,” it was Marie’s triumph, the first time she had “imposed her will upon the capital and the court.”

The Wig

As for the nightcap Debussy dismissed so cavalierly, Gluck kept one handy because he was prone to throw his wig at the ground whenever the singers and musicians were not performing to his expectations. His wife Maria had to go to rehearsals and performances to restrain her husband “within the limits demanded by French manners, and moderate the hostility that the orchestra and above all the women singers show him.” No wonder. According to the account included in Michael Rose’s recent book, The Birth of an Opera (Norton $35), “Gluck’s impatience with pretension was notorious.” When the “eminent soprano” Sophie Arnould complained that the music was all declamation and that she wanted to sing great arias, Gluck said “To sing great arias, you have to know how to sing.” Rose provides an account that has Gluck running “like a man possessed from one end of the orchestra to the other; sometimes it was the violins who were getting it wrong, sometimes the basses, or the horns, or the violas. He would stop them short and sing them the passage.”

In time Gluck’s eccentricities became famous, the gossip going viral in the 18th-century Parisian version of the social media network. Accompanied as ever by Mme Gluck, he would be “bathed in sweat” and “had to be revived with hot towels and a change of clothing,” and when the rehearsal was over, “one could see great noblemen, even princes, eager to present him with his overcoat and his wig, for he was accustomed to throw all these off and put on a night-cap before beginning rehearsals, just as if he were about to retire for the night at home.”

Time to Listen

Earlier in the essay celebrating deception, Debussy looks back to Bach (“the essence of all music”) and the age when “music was subject to laws of beauty inscribed in the movement of Nature herself.” Listen to Debussy’s Clair de Lune and Gluck’s arias from Orfeo, not to mention the overture to Alceste, and you’re hearing the essence of music and some of the most beautifully un-deceptive works ever composed. When a melody is close to the movement of nature, the effect is, for me, much as it was the first time I heard Orfeo’s aria lamenting the loss of Euridice. I had no idea what the words meant. I was in another room when it was playing and suddenly it was as if the music were coming from an open window on a street in another country, the prelude to a romantic adventure, a hauntingly beautiful song sung by a stranger. The effect was the same the first time I heard, really heard, Clair de Lune. The identity of the pianist was of no importance because in that moment, thanks to the “beautiful deception of art,” the music coming through an open window in some twilight dream of Paris was being played, thought out, composed by Debussy himself.

—Stuart Mitchner

Three hundred years after his birth, the glories of Gluck can be accessed on YouTube and Spotify. I found him the old-fashioned way in the form of the only secondhand record I ever purchased at the Bryn Mawr Book Sale, a very used, musty-smelling Bach Guild boxed set of Orfeo ed Euridice featuring Maureen Forrester as Orfeo and Teresa Stich-Randall as Euridice, with the Akademie Choir and Vienna State Opera Orchestra conducted by Charles Mackerras. There is an online version of the aria Che farò senza Euridice? from the 1982 production staged at The Glyndebourne Festival Opera, with Dame Janet Baker in her final operatic appearance singing as she holds Euridice (Elisabeth Baker) in her arms. The quotes from Debussy come from Debussy On Music (Knopf 1977).

As usual, I have the Princeton Public Library to thank for the numerous Gluck recordings I listened to and for Michael Rose’s excellent book.

July 2, 2014

DVD revI hate guns, have never had any use for them.

—Eli Wallach (1915-2014)

A week ago Eli Wallach, the actor who gave the world Tuco Benedicto Pacifico Juan Maria Ramirez, died at home in Manhattan. Tuco was last seen, freeze-framed forever, shouting curses at the distant figure on horseback played with cryptic cool by Clint Eastwood, the supremely sane, enlightened Don Quixote to Tuco’s feral Sancho Panza.

Chances are there is no Actor’s Studio exercise for how to enter the body of a man standing on a crooked, creaking, perilously unsteady graveyard cross with a hangman’s noose around his neck, hands tied behind his back, a fortune in gold spilled out on the ground below, shining in the sunlight. As the wooden cross teeters under his weight, the noose tightening, he’s sweating, gagging, his eyes darting up, down, and all around, he can hear the caw of crows as he struggles to keep his balance. Lose it and he’s dead with his share of the treasure at his feet. Since the mere effort to speak might be fatal, he can’t talk, can’t call for help, can’t finish the word “Bl–bl–” for Blondie, the name attached to his only hope, the bounty hunter who has strung him up and left him to his lonely fate. There’s no hangman present this time, no audience as in the past charades of execution he and his fair-haired cohort played out in small towns  across the West. With the Bad (Lee Van Cleef) dead and buried after a trumpet-glorious shootout, and the Ugly teetering between life and death, the Good lifts his rifle, sets the sight, aims, and fires, the shot severing the rope, and down goes the Ugly, a 51-year-old Jewish actor from Brooklyn howling out the closing seconds of a performance for the ages.

Filmgoers may question Quentin Tarantino’s claim that Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1967) is “the greatest achievement in the history of cinema,” but by now you’d think that anyone conversant with the motion picture medium would at least comprehend the possibility. The sad truth is that people who should know better still seem to be unaware of the magnitude of Wallach’s accomplishment, not to mention Leone’s. In the June 25 New York Times obituary (“Eli Wallach, Multifaceted Actor On Stage and Screen, Dies at 98”), there is only passing mention of the actor’s appearance in a “so-called spaghetti western.” In the late sixties it was worse; if you dared to enthuse about Leone to a “serious” film person, they’d have laughed in your face. No wonder Eli Wallach had doubts about what he was doing when he went to Rome in the spring of 1966, asking himself what does an Italian director know about westerns (“An Italian western sounds like an Hawaiian pizza”). But the money was good and he was curious.

“A Great Clown”

The notion of Tuco as a more villainous Sancho Panza was integral to Leone’s picaresque vision of a Mexican lowlife joining forces with a mysterious bounty hunter. The actor playing Tuco had to have a natural comedic ambience, a knack for one-liners, and an abundance of raw humanity to go with a crazed, unstoppable ferocity. Although he’d seen Wallach as a Mexican bandit in The Magnificent Seven, what convinced Leone was a moment in How the West Was Won when the bad guy played by Wallach amuses himself by pointing both index fingers at some children and miming the firing of two guns. People had warned Leone to stay away from Wallach (“he comes from Actor’s Studio”), but the director “knew he would be a great clown.” And something quite a bit more, as it turned out.

Wounded in Brooklyn

Long before Wallach had anything to do with the Actor’s Studio, there was Brooklyn. In his memoir The Good, the Bad, and Me: In My Anecdotage (Holt 2005), he remembers Saturday mornings at the Rialto watching westerns starring Tom Mix and Hoot Gibson. One day after seeing a “particularly bloody” silent version of Beau Geste, “I lay on my bed and began to fantasize. Reenacting episodes that I had seen in movies always gave me a sense of power. I always seemed to be crawling around on the bed wounded, shot, or about to be sentenced to death. My light tan blanket was the Sahara desert, and I began crawling over the sand dunes … surrounded by enemy Arabs. Suddenly, a shot rang out and I was wounded.”

Another incident from Wallach’s Brooklyn childhood that foreshadows his penchant for darker film roles took place one stormy night when he saw from the front window of the family candy store “a man kneeling in the middle of the street, his hands above his head. Standing over him was a dark figure holding something in his hand.” Hiding under the counter, young Eli hears a shot, and is dragged to the back of the store by his father, who tells him, “You didn’t see anything.” Eventually the family moved from their Mafia-friendly neighborhood to Flatbush, where Wallach attended Erasmus Hall High School. From there he went to the University of Texas, as unlikely a destination for a Brooklynite as Leone’s west would be three decades later: “I felt as if I’d landed on another planet …. Here, everyone looked tall and strong, spoke slowly, and wore boots.”

Wallach’s time in the Lone Star State would come in handy. Though it was the low tuition ($30 a term) that made Texas his choice, he still needed to make money, and in addition to selling soft drinks at football games, he had a job working with polo ponies, which is when he learned how to ride; another job involved “sitting in the library typing up memoirs of old cowboys and their battles with the Indians in the Southwest.” More important still, after playing minor parts with a theater group called the Curtain Club, he was cast in the title role of Ferenc Molnar’s play, Liliom. Like Tuco, Liliom is flawed but essentially sympathetic, in  Wallach’s words, a “tough drifter … who got involved in a robbery, and was ultimately killed.” He felt “strong and secure” in a role in which all his “fantasies, dreams, and yearnings about acting came to fruition.” He knew “then and there” that this was to be his life’s work.

The Gun Shop

The scene where Wallach’s Tuco truly comes into his own as a character occurs in a gun shop run by a little rosy-cheeked Gepetto right out of a Commedia dell’arte farce. While the shop owner (Enzo Petito) winces and flinches and lovably rolls his watery blue eyes, Tuco, fresh from a desperate trek across the desert, rummages crudely but purposefully through the shop, swigging whiskey from the old man’s bottle while assembling the perfect gun and at the same time revealing qualities unexpressed until that moment; now you’re seeing an artist at work, as actor and gunman. Watching how methodically and expertly Tuco creates a perfect weapon, it’s hard to believe Wallach’s claim in the memoir that he hates guns and never had any use for them. His only direction from Leone was “to take apart some of the guns, then put them back together using different pieces.” Wallach writes, “I pretended to be an expert as I squinted through the barrel of a Colt … and spun the bullet chamber of a Winchester and put it to my ear.”

“Pretended” doesn’t do the scene justice. It’s almost as if Tuco were a musician tuning an instrument, gauging the pitch or timbre, which makes sense in a film lifted again and again to greatness and glory by Ennio Morricone’s score.


In The Memoirs of Hector Berlioz, when the composer wishes to express his feeling for the music of Christoph Willibald Gluck, who was born on this day 300 years ago, he writes, “An ecstasy possessed me.” Berlioz had been studying to be a doctor when he began to read and reread the scores of Gluck, which he not only copied and learned “by heart” but “went without sleep because of them and forgot to eat or drink,” so that when he finally heard Gluck’s music at the Opéra, he vowed to become a musician.

During the magnificent finale of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly something like a sonic ecstasy possesses the grubby, devious, scavenging, shifty-eyed scoundrel played by Eli Wallach. In fact, “The Ecstasy of Gold” is the title given to Morricone’s scoring of Tuco’s fierce, frantic run through a vast cemetery searching for the tomb under which the long-sought treasure is buried.

When Leone’s direction, Tonino Delli Colli’s cinematography, and Morricone’s music come together, you find yourself in a region where ecstasy and euphoria overwhelm reality and it’s possible to imagine that Berlioz himself would be stirred by soprano Edda Dell’Orso’s wordless aria soaring over a delirium of trumpets playing at Dies Irae intensity as Tuco sprints, spins, whirls, through the immense landscape of crosses and headstones, his surroundings whirling, blurring, as if the cameras had been cut loose in the turbulence. When the symphonic juggernaut finally subsides, there’s Tuco, the unholy sinner, sobbing with excitement as he begins digging up the coffin he mistakenly thinks is filled with gold. After all the grandeur of the music, you’re down in the dirt with him, his story your story, you and the boy in Brooklyn who found “a sense of power” in movies and came home to crawl around on the bed “wounded, shot, or about to be sentenced to death.” You know what he means, you’ve been there. You feel like a kid at the grandest and most glorious of Saturday matinees, and the excitement has only just begun. Here come Morricone’s trumpets.


June 25, 2014

book revMusical composition should bring happiness and joy to people and make them forget their troubles.

—Horace Silver (1928-2014)

You never know. Things happen. Life happens, death happens, music happens. You set out to write a column about George Orwell and a dog steals the show. Then a thrush. Then a jazz musician. It’s like the old line, “a funny thing happened to me on the way to —” wherever. Or like “Something Happened to Me Yesterday,” the Rolling Stones song from 1967 that wouldn’t let me alone all last week. Now I know why. “No one’s sure just what it was/Or the meaning and the cause.”

Something Dreadful?

So there I am buried in books from the library by or about George Orwell (born on this date in 1903), skimming my way through the Orwellian universe with Mick Jagger singing in my head, when Horace Silver dies. Talk about parallel worlds colliding.

It’s like the moment in 1984 when Winston Smith hears someone singing a song composed “for the benefit of the proles by a sub-section of the Music Department.” Peeking out the window, he sees “a monstrous woman” down in the court below singing, in “a powerful contralto,” “It was only an ‘opeless fancy,/It passed like an Ipril dye,/But a look an’ a word an’ the dreams they stirred/they have stolen my ‘eart awye!”

The funny thing is, she’s singing “the dreadful rubbish” so tunefully that Smith finds it “almost pleasant” to hear.

You never know what Orwell’s really up to when he uses words like “dreadful.” Like the “something dreadful” that happens in his essay from 1921, “A Hanging.”

In a May 22 New York Times column about the “pivotal books” in his life, David Brooks puts the essays of Orwell at the top and dubs him “a master of the welcoming first sentence.”

While it’s mostly true about Orwell and first sentences, “A Hanging” has an undeniably unwelcoming opening: “It was in Burma, a sodden morning of the rains.” The condemned prisoner is a Hindu, “a puny wisp of a man” whose mustache is “absurdly too big for his body,” reminding Orwell of a comedian from the movies. It’s a walk of 40 yards to the gallows and when at one point the prisoner has to step “slightly aside to avoid a puddle on the path,” Orwell, who was an officer with the Indian Imperial Police in his twenties, admits that until then he “had never realised what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man.” As if this were the essay’s intended message, Orwell expounds on “the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This man was not dying, he was alive just as we were alive …. He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone — one mind less, one world less.”

But “a funny thing happens on the way” to the hanging, something actually not funny at all but “dreadful,” says Orwell, as a “large woolly dog, half Airedale, half pariah” comes seemingly out of nowhere “with a loud volley of barks,” leaping among and around the men, “wagging its whole body, wild with glee at finding so many human beings together.” And before anyone can stop it, the dog makes a dash for the prisoner, jumps up and tries to lick his face.

For a reader, this sudden surprising departure from decorum is, like the woman’s singing in 1984, the opposite of dreadful; it’s the sort of thing only a comic genius with a view of life as enlightened as Chaplin’s might have conceived. The business about “a party of men understanding the same world” is exposition; the romping dog is life as it happens.

Everyone stands “aghast, too taken aback even to grab at the dog.” One of the men escorting the prisoner goes charging clumsily after the happy animal, but it dances and gambols just out of his reach, “taking everything as part of the game.” Another of the jailers throws some gravel, trying “to stone the dog away,” but it dodges the stones and comes eagerly back to them again, “its yaps” echoing “from the jail walls.”

Since you’ve been reading a lot of very nuanced prose up to this point, the yapping, romping, gamboling dog is the equivalent of music, like jazz, “the sound of surprise.” At the apex of life-and-death solemnity, the uncontainable, irrepressible behavior of an animal makes you smile when you should be frowning, lifts your spirits when there is no earthly reason for that to be happening.

What does the doomed man think of this playful intervention? He looks on “incuriously, as though this was another formality of the hanging.”

It takes several more minutes before someone manages to catch the dog. Then Orwell puts his handkerchief through its collar and they move on once more, “with the dog still straining and whimpering.” In describing the grim business at hand, Orwell makes no further mention of the fact that he’s the one restraining the dog. When the noose is fixed around the prisoner’s neck, he cries out to “his god,” chanting incessantly the one word, “Ram! Ram! Ram!” No command has been given the hangman. Everyone’s waiting for the “Ram! Ram! Ram!” to stop. It’s as if he’s being allowed “a fixed number — fifty, perhaps, or a hundred … each cry another second of life.”

Finally the command is given, the lever’s released, the prisoner plummets, “the rope twisting on itself,” and at this moment Orwell lets go of the dog! All this time he’s been restraining the animal, the one lyrical, spontaneous, poetical element in the narrative, its unacknowledged glory, until the fatal moment wherein the dog gallops immediately to the back of the gallows, stops short, barks, and then retreats to a corner of the yard, standing “among the weeds, looking timorously out at us.” The last we hear, the animal is “conscious of having misbehaved itself.” The word “misbehaved” is no more to be trusted than the word “dreadful” here or in 1984, where such spontaneous behavior can put you in Big Brother’s sights and land you in Room 101.

The Playerrecord rev

Having compared Orwell’s dog to music, I may be straining at the rhetorical leash to intrude on the Orwellian moment by extolling the virtues of Horace Silver. But thanks to that half-Airedale/Pariah, it makes a kind of sense. Who else, after all, could do justice in music to such happy cavorting in the face of death but the composer of “Nica’s Dream,” “Peace,” “Sister Sadie,” and “Blowing the Blues Away”? The internet makes the accomplishing of such unlikely associations swift and seamless, as happened the other night when I went from a reading of “A Hanging” to the online New York Times headline, “Horace Silver, 85, Master of Earthy Jazz, Is Dead,” to YouTube, which instantly puts you face to face with the man who has given so much serious joy to so many people.

A wave of the iMac wand and here he is very much alive, in person, smiling out at you, in his early thirties, as ready for a romp as an Airedale at a hanging, a vagrant forelock drifting over his forehead, his shoulders hunched; this man is something better than handsome or charming, he could be a gypsy in suit and tie or a surrealist poet moonlighting on piano in a Latin Quarter dive. As he hovers over the keyboard, dark hair tumbling in further disarray, long stiff fingers driving the hypnotic riff that begins “Señor Blues,” this most cheerful and welcoming of musicians takes on the sinister aura of a demented genius capable of “seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding” the same world where “with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone — one mind less, one world less.”

Happenings in 1984

Things happen when you “read around” in Orwell. D.J. Taylor’s Orwell: The Life (Holt 2003) contains a full-page full-face photograph of Orwell’s first wife Eileen that stops you, holds you, and haunts you. Photographs of Orwell himself somehow never really quite happen or adhere; you have to search online to find a smile, which turns up, not surprisingly, whenever he’s shown holding his adopted son.

Look through 1984 and the words and phrases that are set apart from the text proper stand out, most obviously and famously, the slogans of Big Brother. Even more conspicuous, however, are the lyrics of that “dreadful” song (“It was only an ‘opeless fancy”) and the three words Winston Smith finds on a small piece of paper handed him by a young woman he hardly knows — “I love you.”

Life happens, death happens, love happens, and it’s love that seals Smith’s fate, that and the “torrent of song” poured forth by a thrush when he and his lover are standing in the shade of hazel bushes, their hiding place. The music goes “on and on, minute after minute, with astonishing variations, never once repeating itself,” a “flood of music” that flows “all over” him and gets “mixed up with the sunlight” filtering “through the leaves.” It’s a passage that might seem florid or cliched in any other novel, with phrases like “her body seemed to melt into his,” but this is 1984, where “pure love or pure lust” are impossible, where “their embrace” has been “a battle, the climax a victory … a blow struck against the Party. It was a political act.”

But not the singing of the thrush. That’s life as it happens.

 For a more in-depth appreciation of Horace Silver, see my July 16, 2008 column, “Charming Persuasion: A Stroll with Horace Silver,”

June 18, 2014
The Astor Place Riots - The Macbeth curse?

The Astor Place Riots – The Macbeth curse?

The theatrical superstition known as the Macbeth curse has it that terrible things may happen if you say the name of the play offstage; to be safe, say “the Scottish play.” The legend of the curse is said to have begun with the first performance, at the court of King James in August 1606, when the boy actor playing Lady Macbeth became ill and died; according to legend, he had to be replaced at the last minute by Shakespeare himself. Inhumane though it may be to think so, that tragic twist of fate had its upside, since the Bard was apparently an esteemed actor, having played, among other parts, King Hamlet’s ghost. The prospect of seeing Shakespeare impersonating one of his greatest creations, and in Medieval drag, is amusing to imagine in this, his 450th birthday year.

Of course if any of Shakespeare’s works is likely to carry a curse, it would be the one driven by the prophetic ravings of witches. But then Macbeth has been anything but unlucky at the box office, witness the three productions playing in New York in the past year, a major film currently in production, not to mention perennial allusions in the news media (“The Lady Macbeth of Little Rock”) and the updated version of the fearful couple played by Kevin Spacey and Robin Penn Wright in the Netflix hit series, House of Cards. 

Amazing Space

Since Macbeth is wrapped in a language as often as not unfathomable to members of the audience new to Shakespeare’s music or else innately antagonistic to it due to boring classroom assignments, the challenge is how to package it, or how to most effectively exploit its horrors and wonders or even its poetry? Last year’s Alan Cummings version at the Ethel Barrymore simplified matters by reducing the production to a one-actor, one-act virtuoso piece set in a mental institution. Now, not five months after the closing of the Lincoln Center Macbeth, Kenneth Branagh and Rob Ashford’s you-are-there spectacular is playing at the Seventh Regiment Armory on Park Avenue through June 22. In an online introduction to this, his New York stage debut, Branagh expounds on the theatrical advantages of the space, the military associations inherent in the massive Gothic Revival building with its vast drill hall once used by soldiers preparing for war, or coming back from it. Branagh and Ashford envision theatregoers being engulfed by the production from the moment they pass through the castle gate into “an amazing space, of amazing dimensions.” On its way to the heart of the action, the audience experiences the mist and rain of the heath, the world of the witches, wholly exposed to the “primitive energy” of the play, close enough to the battle scenes to see the sparks flying as swords strike swords. “You’ll be there in all the rain and blood and sweat,” says Branagh.

But will Shakespeare be there? The best of all possible outcomes would be for the spectacle and atmosphere to sustain the acting and the language until the audience is witness to “the things that make Shakespeare Shakespeare.” As Herman Melville observes, these “things” are not to be found in the “sort of rant” that “brings down the house” for “those mistaken souls, who dream of Shakepeare as a mere man of Richard-the-Third humps and Macbeth daggers.” Writing in the summer of 1850 shortly before embarking on his Shakespearean masterpiece, Moby Dick, Melville is talking about “those deep far-away things” in Shakespeare, “those occasional flashings-forth of the intuitive Truth in him; those short, quick probings at the very axis of reality.” Through the mouths of his “dark characters” Shakespeare “craftily says, or sometimes insinuates the things which we feel to be so terrifically true, that it were all but madness for any good man, in his own proper character, to utter, or even hint of them. Tormented into desperation, Lear the frantic King, tears off the mask, and speaks the sane madness of vital truth.”

Macbeth’s truth is in all the “sound and fury” surrounding and speaking through him. Critics questioning his intellectual/poetical capacities make me think of the naysayers who refuse to believe that someone who missed out on Oxford or Cambridge was capable of writing the plays. How then to explain Macbeth’s claim to all that glorious language? In The Invention of the Human, Harold Bloom imagines Macbeth’s “language and imaginings” to be “those of a seer,” the poetry coming to him “unbidden,” as with a fit or a seizure like the one that takes possession of the usurper when he sees Banquo’s ghost. Much as the poet and killer latent in the character of Hamlet are awakened by the narrative of a ghost, the poet and killer in Macbeth are spawned in the demonic realm occupied by the three witches, which, though they “terrify us by taking over the play,” according to Bloom, “also bring us joy, the utmost pleasure that accepts contamination by the daemonic.”

Bloom makes the point that while Shakespeare confers “his own intellect upon Hamlet, his own capacity for more life upon Falstaff, his own wit upon Rosalind,” he gives Macbeth “what might be called the passive element in his own imagination.” This sounds like the area Melville has in mind when he speaks of “those deep far-away things,” and like what Keats is thinking of when he speaks of Negative Capability, the quality “of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts.”

In the Mines of Macbeth

As a Rutgers graduate student in David Kalstone’s Shakespeare class, I happily submerged myself in the reading, with Macbeth and Hamlet the high points. But when it came to the moment of dissertation truth, I couldn’t get past the base camp on Mt. Hamlet. For Macbeth, I lowered myself down into the mines, way way down. My ravaged copy of the Yale paperback is a ballpoint-spattered chaos, all ink-specks and scribbles. This is where you set the theatrical and historical reality to one side because on the page it’s all Shakespeare. No special effects. No legends or curses. It’s the word, the word, and nothing but the word. “Close reading,” they called it. In fact, the notion became so much a part of your approach to life that on long walks you would find yourself close-reading nature or even the gritty sidewalks of New Brunswick.

Close reading develops a species of know-it-all arrogance in the student with the leaky ballpoint. What fools those mortals be, namely the mandated custodians of the text who sleep through their watch, allowing alien subversions and perversions of the Word. The most egregious example of a rent in the fabric of Macbeth occurs in the first scene of Act IV, when, after Shakespeare’s truly written third witch adds to the pot “maw and gulf/Of the ravined salt-sea shark” along with “Finger of birth-strangled babe/Ditch delivered by a drab,” a bogus Heccat enters, reducing the infernal brew to a children’s naptime sing-along, “And now about the cauldron sing, Like elves and fairies in a ring,/Enchanting all that you put in.” Though he knows the passage is spurious, Eugene M. Waith, the editor of the Yale Shakespeare, leaves it there to be pounced on by the vigilant grad student scoring and circling and exclaiming, “not WS!”

 A Deadly Riot

A few days prior to the May 1849 Astor Place Riots described at length in James Shapiro’s new anthology Shakespeare in America (Library of America $29.95), Herman Melville and Washington Irving were among the signers of a petition addressed to the Scottish actor William Macready, whose performance of Macbeth at the Astor Place Opera House had been savaged by the hisses, threats, and cat-calls from supporters of his American rival, Edwin Forrest, who was across town playing the same role at a less elegant venue. When Macready refused to be driven from the stage, rotten eggs, and coins and chairs were thrown, and the police finally stopped the show. Macready had planned to take the next boat home until he received the petition, which requested him to reconsider his decision, and assured him “that the good sense and respect for order, prevailing in this community, will sustain you on the subsequent nights of your performances.”

Macready was convinced, another performance was announced, and the city geared up for a riot. Though the chief of police had 900 policemen at his disposal, he called in the militia, with the result that among the thousands mobbing the streets around the Opera House, 22 people, including a number of innocent bystanders, were killed. One can’t help wondering if the rioting would have led to fatalities on the same scale had another less curse-plagued play been on the stage of the Opera House. Few lines in Hamlet or Othello seem as creepy, as ominous, as inviting of catastrophe, as the Second Witch’s “By the pricking of my thumbs,/Something wicked this way comes.”

Voodoo Claims a Critic

Another bizarre instance that believers in the Macbeth curse could cite is described in John Houseman’s account of the Negro Theatre production overseen by Houseman and directed by 20-year-old “boy wonder” Orson Welles. Known as the Vodoo Macbeth (all-black cast, Haitian setting, a troupe of African drummers including an authentic witch doctor, the sacrifice of five goats), the play that opened on April 14, 1935 at Harlem’s Lafayette Theatre and received generally good notices, with the notable exception of one by the Herald Tribune’s Percy Hammond, who panned the performance, calling it “an exhibition of deluxe boondoggling.” Housman describes Hammond’s piece as a political polemic “savage but eloquent” and as a theatrical notice, “irrelevant and malignant.” While the producers were not “unduly disturbed” by the wording, the witch doctor and members of the drum troupe solemnly informed Houseman that they believed the review to be “an evil one, the work of an enemy, a bad man.” A day later the newspapers announced the sudden illness of the well-known critic Percy Hammond, “who died some days later — of pneumonia, it was said.”

Once again this ongoing celebration of Shakespeare’s 450th anniversary would not be possible without the Library of America’s anthology, Shakespeare in America, which includes Melville’s unsigned love letter to Hawthorne (“Hawthorne and his Mosses”), from which the quotes about Shakespeare are taken, as well as the information about the Astor Place Riots and John Houseman’s essay on the Voodoo Macbeth, “Run-Through.”


June 11, 2014

dvd revI fell hopelessly in love with Peter Dinklage’s sexy dwarf, who is a schemer but a noble one by Lannister standards.

—Maureen Dowd

Like Maureen Dowd, who gave a shout-out for Game of Thrones in her April 6 New York Times column (“Bring Me My Dragons!”), I came to the HBO phenomenon reluctantly. Besides being generally indifferent to the fantasy genre, I’d heard nothing about the series to suggest that it would become as addictive as Breaking Bad was last year.

There was a moment in the saga of Walter White when he went over to the dark side as surely as though a bell had tolled his passage, and we began to care less and less about what happened to him even as we continued, fascinated, to follow him to his fate. With Season Four of Game of Thrones approaching its final episode, we’re caring more and more about Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion Lannister, who was born on the dark side and is staying there, as he tells the love of his life when explaining why he can’t abandon the Lannisters: “These bad people — it’s what I’m good at, out-talking them, out-thinking them.” Now that his fate is in the hands of his father and his sister, who both loathe him, viewers have reason to wonder if Tyrion will survive the season, especially in view of what’s happened to other seemingly indispensable players in the series. While it’s true that the word of mouth about last season’s penultimate shocker, Red Wedding, brought many new viewers into the fold, it isn’t gore alone that’s lifting HBO’s Game of Thrones above mere sports events in the cable ratings, it’s the ongoing mortal threat looming over this witty, snarky, supremely articulate dwarf. If anyone is carrying the series these days, it’s the show’s most diminutive character, its imp genius, bastard prince, and most charming rogue.

The June 11 Club

Peter Dinklage will celebrate his 45th birthday today, June 11, 2014. While other members of the June 11 club are an illustrious lot that includes the likes of Ben Jonson, John Constable, Richard Strauss, and William Styron, Dinklage is happening here and now, a man of the moment coming into his own as an actor and a star, and if that weren’t enough, he’s a New Jersey native, born in Morristown. From all indications, Dinklage’s Tyrion is a Renaissance man who belongs in the company of his great birthmates. Given his talent as an actor, his mastery of abusive phrasing, he could do wonders with Ben Jonson’s comic invective. As someone who conceived and drew up the plans for an apparatus to make it possible for the crippled son of a rival family to ride a horse, he might have more in common with DaVinci than with Constable, although since he’s a man of vision and imagination with a gift for the grotesque (witness his disquisition on beetles in a recent episode), he might have more in common with Hieronymous Bosch. As for Strauss, who else but Tyrion is capable of an opera based on the Lannisters?  And in the unlikely event that he lives to a ripe old age, imagine the novel he could write (call it Tyrion’s Choice), he who when asked why he’s always reading a book, says that his brother, Jaime, has his swords “and I have my mind. And a mind needs books like a sword needs a whetstone.”

Saver of Lives

Match Jaime’s warrior’s heart with Tyrion’s cutting-edge mind and nimble tongue and who knows, they may well prevail against odds in the latest crisis. You could lose count of the number of times Tyrion has saved his own life with his wit and cunning, but then he’s already saved more than his share of lives in Game of Thrones. Besides saving various members of that despised rival family such as Ned Stark’s bastard son Jon Snow and wife Lady Catelyn Stark, he rescues Ned’s sweet, virginal daughter Sansa from torture at the hands of the monstrous boy-king usurper Joffrey; saves his own bodyguard the sellsword Bronn; he even saves his horrible nephew, father, and sister by shrewdly and heroically (in his own bizarre way) commanding the defense of King’s Landing against the army of Stannis Baratheon. Though he may whore and drink and discourse obscenely and outrageously, even at the point of death (as he does with devastating effect in the first of two trumped-up trials), all in all, he’s a true knight.

Tyrion’s secret, as he confides to Jon Snow, is to be himself. “Let me tell you something, Bastard. Never forget what you are, the rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor and it can never be used to hurt you.” When Jon asks him what he knows about being a bastard, Tyrion replies, “All dwarfs are bastards in their father’s eyes.”

Quite a Large Man

The essential ironic dynamic of Game of Thrones is that its largest character is a dwarf. Dipping into the first volume of George R.R. Martin’s epic, which I may yet actually read, I found a passage where Lord Tyrion is visiting the Night Watch at the Wall, showing off his wit to the point where some members of the Watch think he may be mocking “their noble purpose.” After saying “We all need to be mocked from time to time,” Tyrion asks for more wine; when someone observes that he has “a great thirst for a small man,” Aemon Targaryen, the ancient blind maester of the Watch, declares that Lord Tyrion “is quite a large man … a giant come among us here at the end of the world.” Surprised, Tyrion says he has been “called many things, but giant is seldom one of them.” Looking in the direction of Tyrion’s voice, Master Aemon repeats, “Nonetheless, I think it is true.”

Aemon only says what he hears, and he hears a man who can out-talk and out-think (and out-act) anyone.

If Tyrion is a giant among those playing the Game, Peter Dinklage is becoming a giant among actors, with both a Golden Globe and an Emmy to his credit. True to Tyrion’s advice to Jon Snow, Dinklage wears the fact of his stature proudly, which means that in the course of his career he’s turned down dwarf-for-dwarf’s-sake roles and crass career moves (no leprechauns need apply); in his first screen role, in Tom DiCillo’s Living in Oblivion (1995), he vents on the subject. Cast as a blue-suited, blue-top-hatted dwarf in a dream sequence for the film-within-a-film being directed by Steve Buscemi, he goes after the harried director: “Have you ever had a dream with a dwarf in it? Do you know anyone who’s had a dream with a dwarf in it? I don’t even have dreams with dwarfs in them. The only place I’ve seen dwarfs in dreams is in stupid movies like this!”

On the Way to Tyrion

The most significant role Dinklage played on his way to Tyrion Lannister was Finbar McBride in The Station Agent (2003), directed by fellow New Jerseyan Tom McCarthy, and set, where else but in Newfoundland, N.J. One feature of this film likely to catch the attention of seasoned cable viewers is that, like Dinklage, the actors playing Fin’s friends Olivia and Joe had HBO in their future, Patricia Clarkson as Ruth Fisher’s hippie sister in Six Feet Under and Bobby Cannavale in an Emmy-winning performance as the mad mobster Gyp Rosetti in Boardwalk Empire. Fans of AMC’s Mad Men will also notice John Slattery/Roger Sterling’s brief but vivid turn as Olivia’s estranged husband. A star-in-the-making lighting up the film is Michelle Williams as a pregnant librarian with an obnoxious boyfriend.

The first third of The Station Agent is dominated by Fin’s somber unsmiling presence. I was tempted to say “dwarfed by”  because it’s more than gimmicky wordplay when you turn that noun into a verb; the double meaning perfectly describes the scope of Dinklage’s cinematic presence. McCarthy plays on extremes of scale by balancing long shots of the tiny figure trudging purposefully along the railroad track with nuanced close-ups of his remarkably expressive face. As determined as he is to keep to himself, remote and closeted in the abandoned depot he inherited, the film won’t leave him alone; the camera loves his face, much as the close-up cameras of Hollywood’s golden age loved Garbo and Bogart and James Dean. All Dinklage has to do is cast his eyes moodily upward and you’re seeing a star who could hold his own in a love scene with any actress anywhere, including Michelle Williams’s needy librarian, who is already clearly falling for him, thus the kiss when she comes to visit and chastely spends the night.

The upside of Fin’s grimly resolute withdrawal from the world and his grudging resistance to the friendship offered by Joe and  Olivia is the beauty of the moment when he finally smiles in spite of himself at Joe’s joyously uninhibited way of going at life. In this warmly human film, Dinklage’s first smile is an event, like a sunset breaking through a cloudy sky.

The same expressive power is in force in Dinklage’s Tyrion Lannister. For Fin the definitive coming out — the moment that finally releases the tension created by the cumulative effect of days of being a one-man freakshow under the community gaze — is when he gets drunk and climbs up on the bar, turning this way and that, both arms extended, displaying himself, and yelling to the bar crowd that had been gawking, “Here I am! Take a look! Take a look!”

The way Dinklage growls the last “Take a look” may remind Game of Thrones viewers of Tyrion’s passionate “confession” in Season 4, probably the actor’s most intense, unguarded, Emmy-worthy moment so far; wounded and infuriated by the betrayal of his lover Shae, he dispenses with the cynical persona, confessing that he’s guilty only of being a dwarf: “I’ve been on trial for that my whole life.”

Viewers who would like a sample of what Peter Dinklage and Game of Thrones are all about will find a strong selection on YouTube, which features several compilations of Tyrion’s Best Moments. The Station Agent, a feel-good classic, is available at the library, as are DVDs of previous seasons of Game of Thrones. Also on YouTube, you can see Dinklage addressing the graduating class at his alma mater, Bennington College, where he deliveres a free-form commencement address that has the class of 2012 cheering as lustily as the armies of King’s Landing when Tyrion rouses them to action.