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.


June 4, 2014

Bliss. Feeling like a kid up past his bedtime, I’m stretched out on a cushioned window seat on the ninth floor of a century-old Beaux Arts hotel gazing at the Hotel Belleclaire, Broadway at Seventy-Seventh Street New Yorklights moving up and down after-midnight Broadway.

We checked into the Hotel Belleclaire after spending Saturday afternoon at the Morgan Library and Museum’s Gatsby to Garp exhibit of 20th century American literature rarities from the Carter Burden collection. Since one of the Belleclaire’s claims to fame is that Babe Ruth and Mark Twain once stayed there, the hotel offers suites named for the Sultan of Swat and the author of Huckleberry Finn. Asked about the Mark Twain Suite, the man at the desk says, “Somebody already lives there.” After I mention that I’m planning to write a column about our stay, he says the best he can do is an “upgrade.” He and his female co-worker are smiling as they send us up to Room 903, which turns out to be, ta-dum, the Mark Twain Suite, and here he is, large as life, white-maned and white-suited in three framed, hugely enlarged photographic reproductions — wearing a top hat in the entry hall; looking out a window with his pipe in his hand on the wall of the sitting room, along with framed sketches of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer; and seated as if waiting for us in the second room, which has a replica of a vintage bed with cast-iron curtained head board within easy reach of a replica of a Twain-era telephone.

A knock at the door and in comes a man bearing a bottle of Merlot and two wine glasses. A minute later he’s back with two bottles of water and some Dean & DeLucca snacks. On shelves beside the sofa are facsimile first editions of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and the lavishly illustrated volume that accompanied the Ken Burns American Lives documentary about Mark Twain.

At the Morgan

On days like this New York is in its glory. As we walk crosstown from Penn Station, everything’s falling into place, as if the whole city has achieved clarity, it’s all working, even the balance is balanced, and after sharing an upscale cheeseburger lunch at the Morgan’s courtyard cafe, we’re ready for the Burden exhibit. My wife indulged my craving for a burger and fries without my having to convince her that nothing else on the menu went as well with a visit to 20th century American literature. It’s true that the exhibit begins with Henry James, who most likely would have scorned such an unseemly delicacy (though he did partake of donuts and there’s a photo to prove it). In fact, James is treated as an outlier, an island unto himself in an anteroom, where he’s represented by an American first of Portrait of a Lady; the doomed play he made from his novel, The American; and a post card of a church. James is there because Burden’s collection had its “foundation” in the Master, “the only nineteenth century writer who being an American felt the method of the twentieth century,” according to Gertrude Stein.

Sorry, but if anyone “felt the method ahead of the century” it was New Jersey’s own Stephen Crane, not to mention our roommate Sam Clemens, neither of whom are on the premises. Ask Hemingway about his debt to Crane and he’ll be even more vocal on the subject of the man the Belleclaire named a suite for, witness his declaration in The Green Hills of Africa that “all American literature comes from one book … called Huckleberry Finn.”

No more carping, it’s a fascinating show, and one of the highlights is Hemingway’s expansive, playful, if not downright nutty inscription in The Sun Also Rises. Of course seeing the dust-jacketed first edition of Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is a thrill; no matter how often you may have seen the cover reproduced, it’s still the most charismatic image in American literature. Other highlights: Fitzgerald’s heavily annotated proof sheet for a Civil War story; the first editions of Dashiell Hammet’s The Maltese Falcon and Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, along with the shooting script for The Thin Man and Knopf’s publicity sheet (“In 1929, we gave you Hammett, in 1934 we gave you [James M.] Cain, in 1939 we give you Chandler and The Big Sleep”), not to mention Little Brown’s flyer for The Catcher in the Rye (“This book is going to click!”) and Salinger’s polite letter to a Little Brown copy editor about Franny and Zooey. Of all the letters, the most striking is the long, eloquent, typically selfless and apparently futile one Allen Ginsberg wrote to John Ciardi explaining the art of Jack Kerouac.

book revGorky Scandal

For several days I’ve been trying to find out when, why, or how Mark Twain, who had a home of his own on lower Fifth Avenue, ever resided at the Belleclaire. The one piece of evidence I’ve found concerns the Russian novelist, playwright, and revolutionary, Maxim Gorky, who stayed at the hotel in April 1906, presumably at Twain’s urging. The Belleclaire was only three years old at the time and still an architectural showpiece, the first “skyscraper” hotel (it was all of ten stories high).

Gorky’s arrival in America was front page news. A long story in the April 13 New York Times about his adventures in the city (he visited Grant’s Tomb, among other tourist sights), offers the clearest evidence of Twain’s presence at the hotel: “Mark Twain and W. D. Howells called upon Gorky at his apartments in the Hotel Belleclaire last evening. They remained with him for about half an hour discussing literature, and invited him to attend a literary dinner about a fortnight from now.”

The dinner never happened because it was discovered that the charming woman referred to in various news stories as Mrs. Gorky was an actress with whom the writer had been living ever since his separation from his wife a few years before. The press-fueled out-of-wedlock scandal was unacceptable to the Belleclaire’s owner, who evicted the couple and huffily told the Times, “My hotel is a family hotel, and in justice to my other guests I cannot possibly tolerate the presence of any persons whose characters are questioned in the slightest manner.”

After two other hotels turned them away, Gorky and his mistress left the city; he told reporters, “The publication of such a libel is a dishonor to the American press. I am surprised that in a country famed for its love of fair play and reverence for women, such a slander as this should have gained credence.” Only the day before, the Times story had quoted him saying, “This is a wonderful country, surely the Promised Land. I hope I shall live to see the day when things are this way in Russia.”

Later that same year, back in his homeland, Gorky wrote a nightmarish account of “the wonderful country” titled “The City of the Yellow Devil” where the buildings “tower gloomily and drearily,” there are “no flowers at the windows and no children to be seen,” and the city is “a vast jaw with uneven black teeth” breathing “clouds of black smoke into the sky.”

Never the Twain

I have no reason to doubt that Twain himself stayed at the Belleclaire, if only because it was “the thing to do” when the hotel was a unique addition to the city. But since I’ve been unable to pin down an exact time and place, I can only resort to Twain’s own rationale, stated in Eve’s Diary: “If there wasn’t anything to find out, it would be dull. Even trying to find out and not finding out is just as interesting as trying to find out and finding out; and I don’t know but more so.”
Remember this is the author who threatened to prosecute, banish, or shoot persons attempting to find a motive, a moral, or a plot in his most famous novel. As Huck himself says, “there was things” that the author “stretched, but mainly he told the truth.”

It’s also true that “Gatsby to Garp: Modern Masterpieces from the Carter Burden Collection” will be at the Morgan Library and Museum through September 7.


May 28, 2014

bk revThere’s a rapping at my study door, a soft persistent tapping, with a hint of claw in the sound. The door is gently banging back and forth in the frame as I sort through ideas for a May 28 column. When the rapping intensifies, it inspires thoughts of a famous Raven at a famous chamber door. Even in the age of Rap the word “rapping” belongs to Poe.

Waiting on the other side is Nora, our glossy 11-year-old tuxedo cat who can’t abide closed doors. I put my thoughts on hold and clear a space for us amid the jumble of books piled on the chaise by the window. Stepping lightly over the rocky paperback-hardback terrain until she has a clear view of the street below, Nora casts a watchful eye on the commotion of a garbage truck making the Thursday pick-up. No birds or squirrels being in sight, she turns her attention to a battered paperback anthology of French poetry I found at the Cranbury Book Worm the other day, gives it a whiskery nuzzling, and then puts one white paw on Baudelaire: His Prose and Poetry, as if to say, “This is mine.” Then she curls up by my side and, as my maternal grandmother would say, commences purring.

With my free hand, I open the Baudelaire, a severely creased Boni & Liveright Modern Library edition from 1919, and start reading aloud from a prose poem about twilight madness and a man who would be sociable and indulgent during the day and “pitiless” in the evening, having once thrown at a waiter’s head “an excellent chicken, in which he imagined he had discovered some insulting hieroglyph.”

While I’m not suggesting that our Nora has a soft spot for Baudelaire, I can tell you that her ears perked up when I read the last part, she who in her wild youth performed feats equal to the throwing of chickens at waiters, if not the throwing of waiters at chickens. Remember that Baudelaire himself was partial to a “strong and gentle” cat, “the pride of the house,” beloved of “ardent lovers and austere scholars” and worthy of comparison to “the mighty sphinxes” with “particles of gold spangling their mystic eyes.”

In fact, it was “The Cat Like Nothing Else On Earth,” a poem by Robert Desnos, that took me to the Cranbury Book Worm and the paperback anthology of French poetry I’m reaching for when the “pride of the house” decides she’s had enough, slips off the chaise, and heads for the door.

The Book Worm

In its heyday, when it occupied the most imposing house on Main Street, the Book Worm had well over 100,000 volumes in stock, not to mention stacks of old Life magazines, LPs, CDs, DVDs, posters, paintings, and upstairs, along with more rooms of books, a substantial assortment of antiques — and fresh vegetables. Here, surely, was the only bookstore in the world that sold cucumbers and tomatoes grown in the mulch made from a compost heap of decaying books. Sadly, the Worm has been downsized to a shadow of its former self and installed in a cramped store front a block away, but as the Stones will tell you, while you may not always get what you want, if you try, sometimes you get what you need. I got Robert Desnos (pronounced Dez-nose) and Henri Rousseau.

Gateway to Rimbaud

Given the condition — spine cocked, page ends yellowed — Wallace Fowlie’s bilingual 1955 Grove Press paperback,  Mid-Century French Poets, should not be priced at $6. The catch is that it’s inscribed “Wishes to Marion and Francis for a blessed Xmas, love Wallace 1955.” Francis is Francis Fergusson, the author of Idea of the Theater (Princeton 1949), who taught at Rutgers, lived in Kingston, died at Princeton Hospital in 1986, and sublet our house in Bloomington one summer; on the subject of inscriptions, the Fergusson kids wrote their names in pencil on the wall of the closet in my room, and so did Leslie Fiedler’s kids when the author of Love and Death in the American Novel sublet the house for a year.

As for Fowlie, he was nothing less than the gateway to Rimbaud for Jim Morrison and Patti Smith. His translation of the Works is on my desk even now. He also wrote a book about Rimbaud and Jim Morrison called The Rebel as Poet, and his friendship with Henry Miller resulted in the publication of their correspondence.

With inscriptions and associations like that, and a nice selection of Desnos inside, how could I not buy this book?

Rousseau’s Dream

My other purchase at the Book Worm was a Museum of Modern Art monograph from 1946 about Rousseau (1844-1910), who was born on May 21 and might have been the subject of last week’s column if he hadn’t been competing with Fats Waller.

The reproductions in the Rousseau book are all in black and white, like Nora, and when she shows up again, nuzzling the leg of my desk, it happens that I’m gazing at a full-page detail of two wild felines prowling the dense forest in Rousseau’s The Dream, painted the year he died. As the title suggests, these creatures are moving wide-eyed and bewildered through the dreaming mind of the naked damsel on the couch. In the poem he attached to the painting, the painter imagines her listening to a snakecharmer’s flute. He’s given her face a stern touch of attitude, thinking perhaps of Léonie, the fiftyish widow with whom he was hopelessly in love at the time. Léonie worked behind the counter in a Paris department store Rousseau faithfully visited only to be unceremoniously rebuffed by her. Day after day, he would return home to paint himself deeper into The Dream. Same old story, he does it all for Léonie, leaves her paintings in his will, and she can’t be bothered to go to his funeral.

The Cat

Robert Desnos wrote “The Cat Like Nothing Else on Earth” for artists and dreamers everywhere, including of course,  Le Douanier, the former toll collector eating his heart out over a department store sales clerk. Desnos’s phenomenal cat goes to a doctor who listens to his heart and tells him it “isn’t doing well/It’s like nothing else on earth.” Then he goes to see “his lady, who examines his brain,” and tells him, “Your brain’s not doing well/It’s like nothing else on earth.” As if that isn’t enough, she adds, “It’s unlike anything in the whole world.” The poem ends with a sigh: “And that’s why the cat like nothing else on earth/Is sad today and doesn’t feel so well.”

Of all the photographs of 20th century painters I’ve ever seen, none come as close to capturing the spirit of “The Cat Like Nothing Else” as the one of Rousseau taken in his studio on December 14, 1908. The aging painter sits facing the camera, his elbow on a table, his chin propped on his hand, looking as if he’s just shuffled home after another slap in the face from Léonie, the muse from hell. Home is one room with a large window. There’s a violin on the table, a broom in the corner, lots of pictures on the wall, and somewhere out of camera range, the artist’s paintings, his easel and the usual accoutrements of his true profession. When someone asks him isn’t it uncomfortable to sleep in a studio, he says, “When I wake up I can smile at my canvases.”

At least he’s got company. On the floor near the broom there’s a bowl of milk.

Desnos Cheats Death

When Robert Desnos died on June 8, 1945, at the concentration camp in Terezin, Czechoslovakia, it was from typhus. Some time before he fell ill, he and a group of other internees were being marched to the gas chamber, so the story goes, when Desnos suddenly began reading the palms of the condemned, predicting a long full life for everyone. His manner was so convincing, so dismissive of all earthly doubt, that the victims began to believe him, and the guards became confused, lost touch with their mission, and ordered the people back into the truck, which took them back to the barracks.

If this anecdote sounds far-fetched, there are indications throughout Wallace Fowlie’s biographical sketch that if anyone could have performed such a feat, it was Desnos, who grew up believing in the existence of the marvellous and the exotic. In the 1920s he hung out with the surrealists, the only one “who could speak surrealistically at will,” according to André Breton; he “read in himself as in an open book,” practiced automatic writing, and seemed to “live within poetry.” During the sleep seances the others engaged in, Desnos proved to be the only genuine medium. As soon as he was asleep, “his power of speech was released and flowed abundantly.” He had discovered a way of translating himself into poetry without the help of books, without the need of writing, “in a state of constant inspiration.”

During the occupation of Paris, Desnos joined the Resistance and helped direct the underground publications of Les editions de Minuit, until he was arrested by the Gestapo and taken to Auschwitz, then Buchenwald, and finally Terezin.


There’s that tapping at the study door. It’s after 2 a.m. and the Cat Like Nothing Else On Earth is waiting to be let in.

I have a friend from days on the road to thank for introducing me to Desnos and “The Cat Like Nothing Else On Earth.” This morning he sent me a poem he just finished, “The Shade of Robert Desnos,” which can be read on rogeryates.blogspot.com, at the top of a monthly roster of poetry very much worth scrolling through. 


May 21, 2014

wallerAware that this issue will be appearing on Fats Waller’s 110th birthday, I’m listening to “Honeysuckle Rose,” the first track on If You Got to Ask, You Ain’t Got It, a 3-disc CD set from RCA. The music is coming from the speakers of my Honda CRV as we pay our biennial visit to the Inspection Station near Dayton on Route 130. As the song plays, there’s no appreciable change in the performance of my 14-year-old alter ego, which seems to be off its game, almost as if it felt failure looming. But once Fats hits his stride-piano stride, we’re in business. The damage he’s doing with the left hand that Rudi Blesh compared to “heat thunder on a summer day” seems to rouse a bell-clear burst of cheering from the right hand, and when the big man’s gutsy, give-no-quarter vocal comes in, it’s a walking talking opera and we’re driving like a dream. At the DMV there’s only one car ahead of us, and ten minutes later we’re flying south on 130, me and my forest green millennial music machine with its good-till-2016 sticker shining like a medal on the windshield, yes, yes, we’re stridin’ high.

Playing the God-Box

In Visions of Jazz, Gary Giddins calls him “a state of mind …. He was also bigger than life, Rabelaisian in intake, energy, and output. His greatest joy was playing Bach on the organ, but he buttered his bread as a clown, complete with a mask” that “consisted of a rakishly tilted derby, one size too small, an Edwardian mustache that fringed his upper lip, eyebrows as thick as paint and pliable as curtains, flirtatious eyes, a mouth alternately pursed or widened in a dimpled smile, and immense girth, draped in the expensive suits and ties of a dandy.”

Further insights on Thomas “Fats” Waller as “the clown who wants to play Hamlet” are offered by New York Times jazz critic John S. Wilson, a longtime resident of Basin Street in Princeton, down by the D&R Canal. After mentioning Waller’s “consuming desire to bring to the public his love of classical music and of the organ” and the depth of the “hurt” he felt when audiences rejected this side of him, Wilson describes the moment in Paris in 1932 when Fats “climbed up into the organ loft of the Cathedral of Notre Dame with Marcel Dupré, the cathedral’s organist.” Fats is quoted saying, “First Mr. Dupréplayed the God-box and then I played the God-box.” There seems to be some debate about whether Waller played Bach’s Toccata and Fugue or his own “Honeysuckle Rose.” Both, I would think, though RCA Victor declined to release any of his Bach performances, including the two fugues he recorded at Victor’s Camden studio in 1927. He also once recorded on the organ in the same Abbey Studio where history was made three decades later by the Beatles, who regularly performed their version of Waller’s “Your Feet’s Too Big” at Hamburg’s Star Club.

The Life of the Party

Standing an inch short of six feet, weighing 285 pounds, and turned out in the style nicely nailed in Gary Giddins’s sketch, Waller “lit the place up like Luna Park” when he walked into a room, according to his son and biographer, Maurice. As much as he loved Bach (said to be third on his list of the greatest men in history, behind Lincoln and FDR), he also loved being the quintessential Life of the Party. It would be twisting reality to spin his story as that of a misunderstood giant whose inner church organist wept whenever he sat down to play something serious only to hear the audience, even at Carnegie Hall, losing patience and soon shouting for the dispenser of joy to do his thing.

Fats Waller didn’t die half a year before his 40th birthday from the stress of stifling his serious side. The life force loved to party, and his prodigious capacity for food and drink and late hours is well-documented. According again to his son, people would drop into the Waller home in St. Albans Queens at all hours of the night to hang out with Fats and hear him play. He never turned them away. Who could? These were people like Legs Diamond, Joe Louis, Humphrey Bogart.

One of the best-known Fats Waller stories, included in Bill Crow’s Jazz Anecdotes from the archives of the Institute for Jazz Studies at Rutgers, has Fats playing at Chicago’s Hotel Sherman circa 1925 when he was ordered into a car at gun-point and driven to a saloon in East Cicero to play at a surprise birthday party for Al Capone. After experiencing certain initial concerns for his well-being, Fats settled down and so totally charmed the partygoers that Capone kept him there three days, “shoving hundred dollar bills into his pocket with each request” before returning him to Chicago “several thousand dollars richer.”

Playing for Movies

In a minute and a half clip from a September 23, 1943, interview with Hugh Conover on WABC in New York, Waller jokes about being dragged “kicking and screaming” into the world, and then shows his kneejerk sensitivity to language when asked when he made his first professional appearance. “I was approximately 14 years old — that’s a good word approximately. I like that.” According to Murray Schumach’s New York Times interview from July 1943, which can also be accessed at handfulofkeys.com, Fats says that after dropping out school (“I hated algebra”) he found work playing organ accompaniment for silent movies in a Harlem theatre called the Lincoln, where he got in trouble for the sort of waggish improvising that would become his trademark. Like the time the silent movie cowboy, William S. Hart was on the screen: “He’s just been plugged and looks like he’s a cold mackerel. Pretty sad stuff. Next thing I know I’m playing ‘St. Louis Blues.’”

The Last Ride

The circumstances of Fats Waller’s death at 39 are worthy of a place in the national narrative if you can imagine a collaboration between, say, Walt Whitman, Thomas Wolfe, Jack Kerouac, and Ralph Ellison: the stricken hero passing his last hours on the Santa Fe Chief, eastbound from the Zanzibar Club in L.A., after being laid up for weeks with a virus. You know that if people partying around the grand piano in the Club Car knew Fats was aboard, he’d have been summoned to perform, so it’s possible he didn’t get to his berth until he’d sweated out a set surrounded by the revellers while the train braved a blizzard, the winter winds of the plains howling outside. As the Chief pounded into Kansas City’s Union Station on the morning of December 15, 1943, Waller’s manager, Ed Kirkeby, found the big man in his berth, unconscious and unresponsive. The coroner’s statement reports that “Acute left influenzal bronchopneumonia” was “the immediate cause of death.” The place of death was given as Union Station.

To die in Kansas City’s Union Station? As Fats was known to say, “One never knows, do one?”

In his book, Jazz and Death: Medical Profiles of Jazz Greats (University Press of Mississippi 2002), Dr. Frederick J. Spencer describes bronchopneumonia as “a patchy infection of the bronchi and bronchioles — the air passages that carry air into and out of the lungs.” Sounds very like the “intake and output” mentioned by Gary Giddins, whose account of that snow-blown endgame train ride features a jazz-flavored double entendre Fats would have appreciated even more than the notion of dying in your berth. When Waller spoke of the bitter winter wind to Ed Kirkeby (“yeah, hawkins is sure blowin out there tonight”), he was using a term for a cold wind “common among black midwesterners” and presumably unrelated to the blowing of the great tenor man who was born just up the Missouri River in St. Joseph. As things happen (“one never knows”), Kirkeby’s account of Fats’s last words in his biography Ain’t Misbehavin’ “created the widely repeated legend that Fats went out contemplating Coleman Hawkins.”

Another jazz-flavored touch is that when the Chief carrying Fats arrived at Union Station it coincided with the arrival of a train carrying Louis Armstrong.

Fats Waller would have turned 40 on May 21, 1944.

Waller’s Rose

I haven’t got the time, patience, or genealogical resources to prove it, but it’s not unlikely that Fats Waller is descended from Edmund Waller, the 17th-century poet and Member of Parliament (1606-1687). There are interesting possibilities online at houseofnames.com. Like Jo Waller,  age 17, who arrived in Barbados in 1635. Or Nicholas Waller, 41, who landed in Philadelphia in 1738. An Alfred Waller showed up in New York in 1845. The reason Edmund Waller is worth a closing mention in a column that begins with “Honeysuckle Rose” is “Go, lovely Rose,” the four stanza lyric for which he’s best known and which ends with a reference to the “common fate of all things rare …. How small a part of time they share/That are so wondrous sweet and fair.”

The Princeton Public Library provided the CD set mentioned at the top, though of course you can see and hear Fats Waller on YouTube, where I found the documentary from which the quotes by Maurice Waller were taken.


May 14, 2014

book revIf you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.

—George Harrison, from “Any Road”

First off, I didn’t know that last week’s trip to the Shady Dog Record Shop would lead to the now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t legend of roadside Americana celebrated in The Lincoln Highway: Coast to Coast from Times Square to the Golden Gate (Norton $39.95). It wasn’t until the day after the trip that I found a perfect match for this column in Michael Wallis and Michael S. Williams’s book, where the introduction, “Mister Lincoln’s Highway,” stresses the “curving and bent, even sometimes warped” nature of the subject by quoting from William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “Improvement makes straight roads: but the crooked roads without improvement are roads of genius.”

Road Music

Though I’m not looking forward to a drive to Berwyn in the northwestern suburbs of Philadelphia, there’s a certain warped, crooked appeal in a destination called the Shady Dog. As usual, my son has brought along some CDs to listen to on the way, and since this trip to a never-before-explored second-hand record store is the coda to a never-ending birthday present, I’m okay with whatever the vinyl warrior wants to hear as we head out of town on 206. Without any apparent intention of playfully linking it to the name of our objective, he suggests The Dog That Bit People, a 1971 album by a group from Birmingham (U.K.). At the moment the only copy of the actual Parlophone original on the market is going for the tidy sum of $2,000. Besides being a reminder of James Thurber’s popularity in England (witness John Lennon’s In His Own Write), The Dog is a nice, solid, melodic, progressive album with a country flavor, it’s indeed easy to drive to, and it’s not worth $2,000.

On the Turnpike

The first time my parents and I drove to New York from Indiana, the Pennsylvania Turnpike opened the way east for us like a dream unimpeded by stoplights and cross roads and frustrations like the pre-bypass endlessness of getting through Columbus Ohio on U.S. 40. Whenever I flash on turnpike moments, it’s night and we’re entering one of those tunnels that to adolescent readers of Ray Bradbury always had a smooth surreal quality closer to sci-fi or the twilight zone than the publicist’s “Magic Carpet Through the Alleghenies.”

But that was then. Today’s 25-mile stretch of turnpike is strictly functional, the best thing about it the poetry of place names like King of Prussia and Valley Forge and Tredyffrin.

Roadside Surprises

The shades-wearing mutt on the Shady Dog sign is just the sort of roadside novelty that used to make traveling fun in the days before turnpikes, interstates, and strip malls. There are other glimmers of roadside America along U.S. 30, which doubles as Lancaster Avenue, but for me the star attraction is the Anthony Wayne, an Art Deco dream of a movie theatre named after the fiery Revolutionary War general who was was born nearby. At first it’s so unlikely an edifice, so eerily out of time, that you can’t quite trust your eyes. Rush-hour gridlock gives me time to take it in. Atop the marquee two sand-colored pillars stand on either side of an elaborately shaped proscenium arch with a scalloped top. Wonder of wonders, it’s not a RiteAid or a CVS, it’s still in use, with five screens. According to cinematreasures.org, when the Anthony Wayne opened its doors as a movie house in 1928, the first feature was a silent, In Old San Francisco. Built and operated by one Harry Fried, the theatre was known for a time as “Fried’s Folly” because “such a grand movie palace” was located “on the edge of the suburbs.” (A sketch of the planned facade design was signed by a young Philadelphia architect named Louis Kahn.) 

While another after-the-fact search online tells you all you need to know about Mad Anthony’s tempestuous military career, I’m more interested to learn that the general’s last name inspired Batman’s alter ego Bruce Wayne; that he turns up in Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night as an ancestor of Dick Diver; and that in the opening chapter of The Catcher in the Rye, “old Spencer,” Holden’s history teacher at Pencey Prep, lives on Anthony Wayne Avenue. The great man’s greatest gift to American popular culture, however, involved the ultimate, the one and only iconic Wayne of all Waynes, who in 1930 was still known as Marion Morrison (imagine The Alamo or Red River starring Marion Morrison) when Raoul Walsh, his director on The Big Trail, pulled Anthony Wayne out of his hat, wisely dumping “Anthony” for “John,” and the rest, as they say, is history.

Last Picture Shows

That Deco movie palace in Wayne sends my thoughts back again to the days before interstates and multiplexes when every little town had its own movie theater. On hot summer childhood drives through Indiana, Illinois, Missouri and up and down in Kansas on the flattest and dullest of highways, the great treat for me was to check out the local cinema. Like all red-blooded American kids, I would beg the grown-ups to stop for a Coke and nag them with the eternal “how much longer till we get to so-and-so” mantra, but when it came to movie theaters, I had no shame. It wasn’t enough to simply drive by and look at the marquee and the name of the current attraction. I wanted to stop the car so I could feast my eyes on the posters and lobby cards. I found sustenance for another long hot stretch of road in titles like Johnny O’Clock and actors like Robert Mitchum, whose name in smalltown theater ads was sometimes misspelled as my father’s, Robert Mitchner in Where Danger Lives (there’s a clipping of that one somewhere in the family archives). Now and then you might get fortunate combinations like the Chisholm Trail Theatre in Newton, Kansas showing Fort Apache with, yes, John Wayne.

Looking for the Lincoln

As a college traveler for Norton, the publisher of The Lincoln Highway, I once drove from college town to college town across 11 states from Mississippi to North Dakota earning money for a trip to India. My last night on the American salesman road was spent sleeping in the company car in a Howard Johnson parking lot on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Though nine months of living in motels left me with a sadder but wiser sense of “The Great American Road Trip” spelled out on the cover of The Lincoln Highway, the images of roadside nostalgia depicted there and the red line of the route still rouse all the old feeling. The charming graphics also suggest a benign variation on the earthy art of R. Crumb, who contributed a childhood memory to the book. As a kid in the 1950s, he lived in Ames, Iowa, in “a big old house right on the Lincoln highway … at that time still just a two-lane thoroughfare that went straight through the heart of town. My brothers and I used to sit on the front step of our house and watch the trucks go by. We each had our favorite trucking line and would point and shout its name as it went barreling by.”

Music to my ears. I know what Crumb’s talking about. It all goes back to summers with my maternal grandparents who lived in a house facing on U.S. 69 in Overland Park, Kansas. Some things never change. These days we live close enough to 206 that we can see the cars and trucks going past from our back windows. My wife rolls her eyes when I tell her how much I love the sound of the big rigs that can make conversation on the deck a challenge.

Lincoln’s Among Us

Princeton has a place in the book, by the way. The same Lincoln Highway that begins on Times Square runs right through the heart of town disguised as our own Nassau/Stockton Street and Routes 27 and 206. How odd, that it took a big lavishly illustrated tome to remind me that we can claim not only Nassau Hall and the Battlefield, but the great national road. All these years driving between Princeton and New Brunswick on Route 27, all those nighttime bus rides back from the city, and I never once thought to myself, “Hey, I’m on the Lincoln Highway.” And we were on it again and didn’t know it Thursday driving south on 206 and again, oddly enough, on U.S. 30 in Berwyn and Wayne. Yes, the Anthony Lane and the Shady Dog are on the Lincoln Highway. You may rightly wonder how that can be when U.S. 30 begins its run in Atlantic City before cutting through Camden and Philadelphia to the Main Line suburbs. All I know is after a day that began with us heading south on Lincoln’s route, we landed on U.S. 30 heading west, in the right place at the right time in the national road’s strange slapdash relay race to the Golden Gate.

It works fine if you let it, the idea of a shape-shifting phantom highway named for a martyred president who loved Shakespeare making its mysterious way relentlessly westward, absorbing numbered identities with a Lincolnesque laugh at mandated designations.

If you want evidence of just how devious Lincoln’s road appears to the Philistines, google “Route of the Lincoln Highway” and consider Wiki’s boxed notice declaring “This article or section is written in the wrong direction. U.S. road articles are generally written in a south-to-north and west to east direction in order to follow the order of their mileposts. Please help by rewriting the article in the right direction.”

Do you believe it? East to West the wrong direction? And North to South? Time to listen to George Harrison’s joyous song “Any Road,” which opens his posthumous album Brainwashed telling us “we pay the price/with the spin of the wheel, with the roll of the dice.” We may not know where we came from, may not know who we are, may not “have even wondered” how we “got this far” but here comes the chorus, all join in, “if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.”


May 7, 2014

DVD revI started out just as a regular person, growing up in the Northwest ….

—David Lynch

Once upon a time during the reign of George I, on April 9, 1990, to be exact, TIME announced the debut of a television program “like nothing you’ve seen in prime time — or on God’s earth. It may be the most hauntingly original work ever done for American TV.”

Never mind the “may be.” The New York Times called Twin Peaks “event television given a memorably wicked spin. Nothing like it has ever been seen on network prime time.”

A review in the Los Angeles Times (“TV You’ve Never Seen Before”) began with two questions. “Can this be happening?” and “Can this be happening on television?”

Considering how much genius-level, groundbreaking programming has been produced at HBO and elsewhere since the turn of the new century, it’s a tribute to David Lynch and Mark Frost’s 30-episode ABC series that Twin Peaks remains as “hauntingly original” and “memorably wicked” when revisited in 2014 as it did in 1990 when it lured a network television audience into the dark forever-ominously-rustling north woods where “the owls are not what they seem” and FBI agents with second sight thrive on cherry pie while keeping a line open to other worlds.

Heralding the Golden Age

Last month during an interview with David Lynch at the International Music Summit in Los Angeles, the recording artist Moby suggested that Twin Peaks, the “first truly compelling idiosyncratic” TV show “heralded what we’ll call the weird, quasi golden age of television.” Moby made the statement in the course of asking the Twin Peaks mastermind if he’d ever been tempted to write or develop a new show.

Lynch preferred not to answer, dismissing the question as “awkward,” perhaps because he’s weary of denying rumors that he’s shooting new episodes when the only news of note is that a BluRay edition will soon be released. My quibble with Moby’s “golden age” reference concerns his use of the qualifier “quasi” in regard to an era that has witnessed giants of television art like The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire, and Breaking Bad, among others, including the ongoing fourth season of Game of Thrones, which made the front page of Saturday’s New York Times (“Rising Unease Over Rape’s Recurring Role”).

To state the obvious, sexual violence has been endemic to the entertainment industry for generations and has been exploited not only in the media (i.e. the Times story) but in countless productions vastly inferior to Game of Thrones and Twin Peaks.

Loving Laura

In any case, sexual violence was not what addicted people to Twin Peaks. Rape and murder may have given the show its “Who killed Laura Palmer?” hook, but what made it a sensation was the way the question was augmented and amplified through the dynamics of visual style, unique characters, wildly imaginative writing, and, perhaps most impressively of all, the music of Angelo Badalamenti. From the first note, the mood created is warm, mellow, musing, inviting, dreamily beautiful. Right away you know that no matter what horrors are in store, the realm in which this film exists has a primal beauty, sad, mysterious, and infinitely suggestive. The mood is sustained as Badalamenti’s achingly poignant music follows the flow of feeling between a couple falling in love through their shared love of the murdered girl, as happens when James, the last of Laura’s boy friends and lovers, and Donna, her best friend and soulmate, confide in one another. The music is above all about loving Laura, so that you know that however sordid her secret life or the circumstances of her murder, she was adored, a darling of the community, its most beautiful child. The emotional chemistry of Twin Peaks is voiced by Donna the moment she and James are falling in love when she says “It’s like I’m having the most beautiful dream and the most terrible nightmare all at once.”

More pervasive than the love theme is the subtle undercurrent of menace Badalamenti creates, an ebb and flow of dread that intensifies whenever the scene shifts to the interior of Laura’s home. Without that sinister undercurrent, the focus on an ordinary stairway with an ordinary ceiling fan slowly turning overhead might suggest something vaguely, uneasily off center; with the music it’s as if a demon’s hand were guiding the blades of the fan: something terrible happened here and is going to happen again, as it does at the end of the 14th episode when Laura’s lookalike cousin is brutally murdered in the adjoining room. The effect would be purely sensational except that the slaughter takes place as Badalamenti’s wrenchingly eloquent music fills the road house where James and Donna and other friends of Laura are watching Julee Cruise sing the song of love and death that sealed their relationship.

Who Killed Twin Peaks?

Somehow it made sense that a show “half in love with easeful death” should bring about its own demise. One problem had to do with the burden of the mystery; all the exotic possibilities put in play promised more than any denouement could conceivably deliver. The real killer, however, was ABC’s insistence that the iconic question be answered.

“The mystery was never supposed to be solved,” says David Lynch, still passionate on the subject 15 years later in the featurette accompanying the DVD. “That mystery was sacred. It held all the others. It was the tree and the others were the branches.”

Even without the network’s fatal interference, Twin Peaks would have had to survive Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 and the media blitz of the first Gulf War, which was underway as the show stumbled toward its conclusion.

The TP Effect

Just for fun, imagine something called, for lack of a better term, the Twin Peaks (TP) Effect, with the understanding that the single character who most thoroughly embodies it is FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper. Cheerful, upright, moral, supremely sane, and yet formidably quirky, he’s the unconventionally conventional presence wherein the magically real splendor of the show unfolds, from the basics of “damn fine coffee” to the Red Room and the dancing dwarf, extrasensory communication, and parallel universes.

The TP effect is alive and well in the Golden Age. It goes without saying that the Sopranos version of coffee and cherry pie is gabagool and Carmela’s ziti, and though Tony Soprano may seem miles to the dark side of Dale Cooper, what about the big guy going to pieces when a family of ducks abandons his swimming pool, and what about his dream at death’s door in which he envisions himself as a dorky traveling salesman?  And what else but the TP effect puts the Pine Barrens episode at or near the top of every fan’s list, the misadventures of Paulie and Christopher shivering, bitching, and hapless in the wilds of New Jersey? Welcome to Twin Peaks, Paulie Walnuts. And welcome to Breaking Bad’s Walter White. Imagine the season of TP you’d have if he were teaching science at Twin Peaks High. Then there’s the silver-tongued flamethrower from Justified, Boyd Crowder. Imagine this lethally charming character coming on to the waitresses at the double R diner. And think of the season you could build around a gay holdup-man like Omar from The Wire. Another variation of the TP Effect, found in the avuncular, elegantly spoken person of David Lynch’s star-gazing Major Briggs, anticipates the rhetoric of Deadwood’s Al Swearengen and the Dickensian hotelier E.B. Farnum.

And what about the ad man with the secret past? If this TP effect caper seems a bit, well, capricious, there’s a recognition of it online in the extensive Twin Peaks site, where Don Draper from Mad Men is shown checking into the Great Northern and flirting with the TP siren, Audrey Horne. Remember, Jon Hamm’s Draper comes from La-La Land, where his best friend was the wife of the man whose identity he stole. Finally, consider the aura of Twin Peaks in the parallel universes of Game of Thrones and its wittiest character, Tyrion Lannister. Who needs the dancing dwarf of the Red Room when you can have Peter Dinklage hunkering down in a booth with Dale Cooper at the Double R and digging into a big piece of cherry pie?

This fantasia could go on for a dozen seasons, but this is David Lynch’s show and so should end in Bob’s Big Boy in L.A. where, according to his book, Catching the Big Fish, he “used to go … just about every day” to “have a milkshake and sit and think: There’s safety in thinking in a diner. You can have your coffee or your milkshake, and you can go off into strange dark areas, and always come back to the safety of the diner.”

For the David Lynch-Moby interview and all kinds of Twin Peaks material, visit http://welcometotwinpeaks.com/lynch/moby-david-lynch-interview.


April 30, 2014

book dream palaceWhere was the place after all …. Was it ‘on’ Third Avenue, on Second, on fabulous unattempted First? Nothing would induce me to cut down the romance of it, in remembrance, to a mere address, least of all to an awful New York one.

—Henry James

James’s musings on the mundane nature of numbered streets close out his conflicted appreciation of “Remarkable, unspeakable New York!” in The American Scene (1907). Driving back and forth across Manhattan on two of those numbered streets — from Hudson Street to Avenue A on 12th and to an art gallery near the Chelsea Piers on 23rd — I’m picking up the pieces of a column as they flash into view along the way.

St. Vincent’s

The notion of focusing on my associations with a particular street comes to mind as soon as I decide to take 12th the whole way east to Academy Records, just off First Avenue. The cobblestone stretch between Hudson and Greenwich gives the crossing a time-frame, like a 19th-century soundline rumbling under the wheels until I make a sharp right across Greenwich and 7th Avenue South past the site of the grand old hospital that gave Edna St. Vincent Millay her middle name, the building where Dylan Thomas breathed his last, and where in May 1981 I said goodbye to my surrogate father, the painter whose mural The Story of the Word fills the great rotunda of the main branch of the N.Y. Public Library.

The Dumbwaiter

Shortly after crossing Fifth Avenue I pass the niche once occupied by a small hotel called the St. George, where the elevator in use was (I swear) an over-sized dumbwaiter and where the saddest man I ever knew lived out his days. I was 18, Nick must have been 50 the summer we worked together at a waterfront hiring hall in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. On the long subway rides back to Manhattan, in between daily jeremiads about the bullies in the office who tormented him, he told me the story of his childhood in Denmark, how he saw the king once, and was happy for the only time in his life. He had a strawberry-colored birthmark on his chin that his antagonists never stopped teasing him about; and so it was that this most harassed of men came home from hell five days a week to pull himself to his room in a dumbwaiter.

The Albert Hotel

Crossing University Place I’m looking a block south toward the ghost of the Albert Hotel, where Thomas Wolfe lived when he first came to the city and was teaching at N.Y.U. That’s why I stayed there when I came to New York after college. One day I asked the desk clerk if he knew who was practicing on the alto sax down the hall from my room.  “Some guy named Coleman.” he said. Ornette Coleman, it turned out. Once upon a time if you looked in the Albert’s direction from 12th you’d have seen tables set up for the outdoor cafe of the hotel’s French restauarant, which was frequented by people like Andy Warhol, Anaïs Nin, and Rocky Graziano. “The Mothers of Invention stayed there,” says my son, the reason I’m bound for a record store. “So did the Mamas and Papas, and the Lovin’ Spoonful wrote ‘Do You Believe in Magic’ there.”

The Last Vestige

At Broadway, memories of a city where books once held sway haunt the sale tables lining 12th Street outside the Strand, the last vestige of the legendary Book Row that used to be around the corner on Fourth Avenue. When the Strand opened on Fourth in 1927, the year Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs, there were 48 secondhand bookstores on Book Row. The first book I ever bought from one of those shops, at age 10, was a Hardy Boys mystery called A Figure in Hiding, along with a 1932 Baseball Yearbook. Today even tiny rental spaces for bookstores on the Upper West Side cost $40,000 a month, as one book dealer reports in a recent New York Times story about how the situation is “threatening the city’s sense of itself as the center of the literary universe.”

The First New Yorker

After dropping my son off at Academy Records, another dying breed in a city where not long ago you could visit a dozen secondhand vinyl outlets below 14th Street, I take a left on Avenue A and head over to James’s “fabulous unattempted First” and from there up to 23rd, for me the most storied of crosstown thoroughfares, including 34th and even 42nd, two “mere addresses” that turn up in the titles of classic Hollywood films. The first true New Yorker I ever met was the daughter of a renowned abstract expressionist who lived on East 23rd between First and Second. Until I met this 16-year-old girl at a party in Indiana one summer, New York was the domain of my elders, like the man who died at St. Vincent’s after living and working in the city since 1920. Here was someone a year younger than I was who could talk about poetry, art, literature, and jazz, and who clearly knew considerably more about those things than I did. It was a happy day when she sent me a letter in response to my carefully worded (ten drafts) overture of undying friendship (I had written pages upon pages of unsent poetry about what she meant to me); better yet, she enclosed a snapshot someone took of her smiling as she put the envelope into a 23rd Street mailbox. I still have the photo. When I compare it to the one online of a handsome gray-haired woman, an artist herself now, the smiling girl is clearly there. How special is she? She changed my life. She’s why I wanted to be a writer.

Kenmore Hall

A few blocks down the street between Third and Lexington (finally a street name, no number) is the Kenmore Hall Hotel, where I stayed because my father liked it and it was near Gramercy Park and O’Henry’s neighborhood, one of my favorite parts of the city. I didn’t know at the time that Nathaniel West, the author of Day of the Locust and Miss Lonelyhearts, had once worked at the front desk and given free room and board to writer friends like Edmund Wilson, Erskine Caldwell, and Dashiell Hammett, who allegedly finished The Maltese Falcon at the Kenmore. The hotel came to an unhappy end in the 1990s when criminal activity involving prostitution and narcotics led to its seizure by the U.S. Marshal Service.

Heading west on 23rd, I have Charlie Parker on the stereo playing “Now’s the Time,” and as always the city seems to know this music, and here we go, past Madison Square, past the Flatiron Building, except the real surprise is a jolt of Renaissance Revival beauty in the white palace that once housed the Stern Brothers Department Store and is now the only Home Depot where you enter under the head of a roaring lion.

Chelsea Dreaming

If you think of the Albert and Kenmore Hall as the overture, the Chelsea Hotel on 23rd near Eighth Avenue with its wrought-iron balconies, Gothic aura, and clientele of artists and writers is the full opera. According to Sherill Tippins’s Inside the Dream Palace: The Life and Times of New York’s Legendary Chelsea Hotel (Houghton Mifflin $30), Leonard Cohen wrote “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” after a one-night stand there with Janis Joplin. Another famous Chelsea tryst involved strange bedfellows Gore Vidal and Jack Kerouac.

If no other work of art was composed there, Bob Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna” would be enough to lend the place rock and roll immortality. The night I spent in room 118 in February 1996, I didn’t hear Dylan’s “heat pipes just cough,” I heard the radiator knocking and hissing, dogs barking in the hall, a whirling sound like a theramin coming and going, a swing door that kept opening and closing with a sound like a gunshot followed by a screech, then a whine, then a crash. When a series of heavy thuds sounded just outside the door I blocked it with the room’s only chair. The black and white TV got only one channel, which came in crazed with interference, and when I finally went to sleep I dreamed of eating toasted cheese sandwiches with Madonna, who once stayed at the Chelsea, though I doubt it was in room 118.

Anne Elliott’s Eruption

My reason for driving way west is to visit “Fire and Ice,” my friend and former Town Topics colleague Anne Elliott’s exhibit at Soho20/Chelsea. Friday was the show’s last full day, which is a shame because the art is spectacular and deserves more than this brief mention. “Over the years,” the artist says, “I have returned again and again to volcanoes and glaciers, nature’s most extreme instruments for shaping the Earth.” As she “continues to explore these subjects,” she hopes that “this time” she will “get it right, catch it whole.” And she does. Keep in mind that she doesn’t go to books to see glaciers, caves, and volcanoes; she goes in person, gets close, and comes home to construct elaborate immensities like the giclee print, Volcanic Field, the wall relief Mauna Loa, and above all, the vast, elaborate aluminum mesh formation Caldera, with its subtle nuances of color and light, a great work, at once sprawling and shapely that turns an ordinary wall into a cyclotron.

So it goes in this “remarkable, unspeakable” city, where you can find a perfect storm of art on the third floor of a building at the “awful New York address,” 547 West 27th.


April 23, 2014

books ShakespeareI think Americans will be fascinated to learn of our deep and early connection to the Bard, how he inspired presidents and incited mobs, and how vivid the legacy of one Englishman’s imagination still sits within the consciousness of our country.

—Meryl Streep

Funny, I was looking through Shakespeare in America: An Anthology from the Revolution to Now (Library of America $29.95), hoping to find just the right epigraph for this birthday column, and there was Meryl Streep’s on the back of the dust jacket, along with quotes from less celebrated members of the profession mentioning how P.T. Barnum loved Shakespeare so much “he tried to buy the Bard’s playhouse and bring it to America” and how Shakespeare has been “a battleground” where we have “fought about race, anti-Semitism, and gender equality.”

Right, and let’s not forget card games, board games, and movies. Just now I looked through an ancient deck of Authors, the game I grew up playing, where a full book  of four Shakespeares was particularly coveted (wouldn’t you know, the only missing card in the deck is Hamlet), and I can’t tell you how many hours my wife and son and I spent playing the board game Shakespeare, rolling the dice and moving the chess-like pieces around in a race to get to the Globe. And the surest route there was to learn the language of the plays.

As for movies …

Hamlet in Tombstone

Garbed in black with the requisite medallion around his neck, Hamlet stands astride a tabletop stage in a Tombstone saloon declaiming the most famous soliloquy in all Shakespeare. The melancholy Dane is being played by a washed-up actor named Granville Thorndyke. As he comes to the line about “shuffling off this mortal coil,” he’s interrupted by a shout of “Enough” from a bearded critter at the foot of the stage who draws his gun and suggests it’s time to stop talking and start dancing. At this, the feared gunfighter Doc Holliday calls out “Leave him alone” and politely tells Mr. Thorndyke to go on. When the actor falters and forgets the lines, Doc Holliday, who has TB, helps him out and takes the speech thoughtfully, movingly, toward “the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveller returns” until a coughing fit sends him lunging out the door.

Although the scene described took place on a Hollywood soundstage during the filming of John Ford’s My Darling Clementine with Alan Mowbray as the actor and Victor Mature as Doc Holliday, real-life equivalents have been documented among the touring companies of players performing Shakespeare when the West was still wild. President Bill Clinton’s foreword to Shakespeare in America quotes Alexis de Tocqueville on the Bard’s popularity in the American wilderness, where “there is hardly a pioneer hut in which the odd volume of Shakespeare cannot be found.”

“Hallowed to the World”

Today is William Shakespeare’s 450th birthday. A century and a half ago on April 23, 1864, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who once observed that beings on other planets probably call the Earth Shakespeare, hosted a Tercentennial Celebration at the Revere House in Boston. The poem Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote for the occasion, which is reprinted in Shakespeare in America, speaks of turning away from “War-wasted … strife” of the Civil War to “Live o’er in dreams the Poet’s faded life.”

Three decades later and 1500 miles to the west, Shakespeare’s 330th birthday was celebrated by a University of Nebraska senior writing in a local newspaper to the effect that April 23 had come and gone again, “just as it has done … since it was made hallowed to the world.” After wondering “how many people know or care,” Willa Cather, then not yet 21, narrowed the number down to a few Shakespearean scholars, “a great many professional people, and perhaps the stars that mete out human fate, and the angels, if there are any.”

Also included in Shakespeare in America, Cather’s review of a local production of Antony and Cleopatra takes reverence for the Bard to the limit: “If I were asked for the answer of the riddle of things, I would as lief say ‘Shakespeare’ as anything. For him alone it was worth while that a planet should be called out of Chaos and a race formed out of nothingness. He justified all history before him, sanctified all history after him.”

Another American writer who expressed his passion for Shakespeare in cosmic terms grew up in a small town in Ohio in the 1850s where “printers in oldtime offices” could be heard “spouting Shakespeare.” At the age of 16, William Dean Howells thought that “the creation of Shakespeare was as great as the creation of a planet.” Looking back four decades later, the novelist, editor, and man of letters seems to be chiding “the ardent youth … falling slavishly before a great author and accepting him at all points as infallible,” but in the end he’s drawn back to his early sense of “intimate companionship” with the poet who “in his great heart … had room for a boy willing absolutely to lose himself in him, and be as one of his creations.”

Pumping Up the Sentiment

Among the anecdotal gems in James Shapiro’s introduction to Shakespeare in America is one concerning Ulysses S. Grant, the eventual commander of the Union forces and future president, looking “very like a girl dressed up” in the role of Desdemona for a U.S. Army production of Othello in Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1846. We’ll never know how this extraordinary staging of the play was received, since a professional actress had to be called in when the soldier playing Othello complained of being unable to “pump up any sentiment” with Grant for his Desdemona.

Othello’s wife surfaces as the subject of an essay by another U.S. president, John Quincy Adams, who finds her “unnatural passion” for the Moor to be “a salutary admonition against all ill-assorted, clandestine, and unnatural marriages.”

The short piece by Edgar Allan Poe that follows hard upon the sixth president’s exhortation puts things back in perspective by pointing out “the radical error” of “attempting to expound Shakespeare’s characters … as if they had been actual existences upon earth.” Speaking of Hamlet, Poe brands as “the purest absurdity” the critical urge to reconcile the character’s “inconsistencies” as if he were a living man when in fact “the whims and vacillations … conflicting energies and indolences” are those of the poet.

Nights at the Players

William Winter’s essay, “The Art of Edwin Booth: Hamlet,” includes a letter from the actor in response to someone asking about the “mystery” of Hamlet’s madness, a question Booth says he runs into “nearly three-hundred and sixty-five times a year.”  His response is that Hamlet is not mad, which, he writes, “may be of little value, but ‘tis the result of many weary walks with him, for hours together.” 

There’s something of Poe’s resistance to “the radical error” in the idea of the actor and the character walking for hours together sorting out “the conflicting energies and indolences” of the poet.

And there’s something of Poe in the 14 days and nights I spent among Edwin Booth’s costumes, props, posters, playbills, and portraits, sometimes imagining I could hear him and his most famous character pacing about on the top floor of The Players Club, which he co-founded in 1888. Lodged there at the behest of my publisher, I was working in a room that was barely large enough for a bed, a desk, a typewriter, a ream of paper, and the godsend of the air-conditioner occupying the bottom half of a window looking out on Gramercy Park and the Metropolitan Tower. 

The Players seemed as much Shakespeare’s domain as it was Booth’s, though I was only 20 at the time, too young yet to have bonded with the Bard. Nor was I particularly thrilled to be surrounded by the personal effects of the brother of the man who had killed the most Shakespeare-centric American president, Abraham Lincoln. One of the items I passed every day was a display case containing the letter of apology Edwin Booth had written to the American people after the assassination. I also passed by mannequins dressed in the very costumes Booth had worn when playing Hamlet and Richard the Third. It was not that hard to imagine  the “melancholy Dane” haunting the place, or, worse yet, that murderous, child-slaying Richard, who was in my thoughts whenever I passed by a case showing off the bejeweled sword Booth had employed in that role. There were arrays of swords, daggers, crowns, and tiaras flanked by walls crowded with portraits (and the occasional death mask) of actors, writers, financiers, and men about town who had been denizens of the club over time. I could feel those painted eyes staring disapprovingly at me whenever I climbed the carpeted stairway to my room, and none more sternly than the piercing eyes of Edwin Booth himself in the immense John Singer Sargent portrait above the fireplace.

With one happy exception, I never met anyone else on the top floor, thus my uneasy awareness of someone pacing in the hall outside my door when I was sure no one was there. One evening near the end of my stay, I heard a knock that sounded as momentous to me as the porter’s knocking at the gate in Macbeth. Who could it be? Booth or Hamlet or both? Or maybe Richard? Or Booth’s assassin brother who cited Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar to justify his act? When I got up the nerve to open the door, I found a jovial, older man on the other side holding out his hand and introducing himself as Edward Everett Horton. Though the name sounded faintly familiar, I had no idea that I was shaking hands with one of the most beloved character actors of Hollywood’s Golden Age. “I hope I didn’t startle you,” Mr. Horton said, clearly aware that he had done just that. It may have been the old actor’s genial, welcoming manner, but after this encounter I felt more at home in the Players, no longer prone to imagine I could hear Edwin Booth and his most famous character making “weary walks … for hours together” outside my door.

Celebrating the 450th

As you might expect, Shakespeare’s homeland is going all out to celebrate his birthday. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s festivities will include a firework display from the rooftop of its theatre, which will follow Wednesday evening’s performance of Henry IV Part I. The display, which is being co-ordinated by leading pyrotechnic experts, will also include “an epic eight-metre-high fire drawing depicting Shakespeare’s face.”

And in New York? Why ask? The theatres of New York, on and off and off-off Broadway represent an on-going celebration of “one Englishman’s imagination.” Speaking of New York, the mob Meryl Streep refers to created a catastrophe in which 25 people died and hundreds were injured. The Astor Place Riots were set off by a dispute between the fans of the American actor Edwin Forrest and English tragedian William Charles Macready. The event is fully documented in Shakespeare in America.


April 16, 2014

The reading of this play is like wandering in a grove by moonlight ….

—William Hazlitt (1817)

Hazlitt ends his short essay on A Midsummer Night’s Dream by suggesting that “Fancy cannot be embodied” on the stage “any more than a simile can be painted ….The boards of a theatre and the regions of fancy are not the same thing.”  In other words, the act of reading allows imagination full play while a staged performance turns “an airy shape, a dream, a passing thought” into “an unmanageable reality.” Hazlitt compares the stage “to a picture without perspective” where “everything there is in the foreground.”

Some 34 years into the 20th century, an Austrian theatrical director named Max Reinhardt brought Shakespeare’s “regions of fancy” to life on a Warner Bros. soundstage in Burbank, California. While there’s no knowing what Hazlitt would have made of a cinematic spectacle that sweeps foreground and perspective into luminously fluid new configurations, he’d have most likely been both appalled and amazed. Perhaps once he’d adjusted to the boundless new medium, he would have calmed down enough to appreciate James Cagney’s ecstatic Bottom, a character he called “the most romantic of mechanics” and one “that has not had justice done him.” As for Mickey Rooney’s Puck, “a mad-cap sprite,” as the essay has it, “full of wantoness and mischief,” Hazlitt would see that fancy could indeed be embodied much as he’d described it, “borne along … like the light and glittering gossamer before the breeze.”

MBDMISU EC007Mickey Rooney (1920-2014)

When I heard the news of Mickey Rooney’s death, my first thought was not of Andy Hardy or Boy’s Town or his M-G-M soulmate Judy Garland, but of his performance as Puck. By all rights, Max Reinhardt’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, co-directed with William Dieterle, should be a Hollywood milestone, universally acknowledged, admired, and discussed, like The Wizard of Oz, which was made five years later at M-G-M and has as its source a book for children written by L. Frank Baum, and with music by Frank Loesser. Dream comes from Shakespeare, with music by Felix Mendelssohn, an unbeatable combination, you might think. In fact the stigma of those names scared off audiences and alienated reviewers who considered themselves protectors of Art, dismissing Warners’ Shakespearean adventure as overblown airy-fairy folderol. According to one of the most intelligent reviewers of the day, Otis Ferguson in the New Republic (16 October 1935), any film that runs “well over two hours,” costs “more than a million,” and was “press-agented for months ahead” is doomed to be discussed by “culture clubs” and critics who “will put on their Sunday adjectives,” and as for “American husbands,” as soon as they “get one load of the elves and pixies,” they’ll go back to the “sports page.”

Ferguson singles out Rooney’s Puck as being “too ill instructed and raucous to be given such prominence.” This is a 14-year-old half-naked youth in the grip of his demon, a creature David Thomson calls “truly inhuman, one of the cinema’s most arresting pieces of magic.” Rooney does have some raucous moments in the roles that made him the most popular male star of the late thirties, but if you revisit any of his M-G-M films, you’ll see how thoroughly his lively genius has been contained and “instructed” within the regimen of that studio’s polished production values. At Warners, whatever the genre, the actors  are given more space, especially when navigating a work of word-drunk virtuosity, whether Shakespeare’s lines are chortled by Rooney or roared by Cagney. It’s fun to see two such in-your-face personalities mining the raw essence of their actor egos, giddy with glee, Cagney a fountain of laughter, Rooney’s “What fools these mortals be” guffaw bubbling up through him with each fantastical prank.

650,000 Candles

Because lighting on the sound stage was a challenge (it’s said that 600,000 yards of cellophane and 650,000 candles were used), cinematographer Hal Mohr sprayed the “67 tons of trees” in Shakespeare’s forest with aluminum paint and covered them with cobwebs and tiny metal particles to reflect the light. In spite of its failure at the box office, the films’s wondrous visuals created enough word-of-mouth excitement that A Midsummer Nights Dream became the first (and last) write-in winner of an Academy Award, for cinematography. It was also nominated for Best Picture.

Olivia’s DebutDVD Rev 2

Shakespeare aficionados who might wince at the cavorting of Cagney and Rooney should have no problem with Olivia deHavilland, now 97 and one of the few surviving members of the 1935 cast. Dream was her debut and though she’s best known for Melanie in Gone With the Wind and as Errol Flynn’s perennial love interest at Warners, she makes a definitive Hermia. Her plan had been to teach English (she had a scholarship to Mills College) when Max Reinhardt saw her playing Puck in a community theatre production of Dream and cast her as an understudy to Hermia in the version he was staging at the Hollywood Bowl. In true storybook fashion, the other actress dropped out, Olivia got the part, and played it through the entire engagement and a four-week tour, one reason she does full justice to her role.

Shakespeare in the Park

With Shakespeare’s 450th birthday looming a week from today, I’ve been reading in the new Library of America anthology, Shakespeare in America, which includes an excerpt from Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place that offsets Hazlitt’s claim that fancy can’t be embodied on the stage. Something wonderful happens when a weary, embattled single mother named Cora Lee takes her children to see a neighborhood production of A Midsummer Nights Dream directed and performed by African Americans. Based on Naylor’s childhood visit to a Shakespeare in the Park staging of the play, Cora’s experience has an affecting simplicity. At first she “couldn’t understand what the actors were saying,” never having heard “black people use such fine-sounding words” (“and they really seemed to know what they were talking about”). Then, as has happened through the centuries, the setting of the forest scenes (“huge papier-mache flora hung in varying shades of green splendor among sequin-dusted branches and rocks”) casts a spell (“the Lucite crowns worn on stage split the floodlights into a multitude of dancing, elogated diamonds”) that anyone with a sense of wonder would be responsive to: for Cora, it’s “simply beautiful,” even her restless son is “awed.”

Naylor’s account of the action through Cora’s eyes gets down to the basics: “The fairy man had done something to the eyes of these people and everyone seemed to be chasing everyone else. First, that girl in brown liked that man and Cora laughed naturally as he hit and kicked her to keep her from following him because he was after the girl in white who was in love with someone else again. But after the fairy man messed with their eyes, the whole thing turned upside down and no one knew what was going on — not even the people in the play.”

Cora is struck and saddened by the fairy queen’s resemblance to her daughter, who may never go on to college. Worse, Cora and her children are so shabbily dressed that she has to hold them back when the audience is invited onstage to join the cast, “not wanting their clothes to be seen under the bright lights.” As Puck (“the little fairy man”) delivers the closing lines, Cora applauds “until her hands tingled,” feeling “a strange sense of emptiness” now that it’s over.

On the way home, the kids try to “imitate some of the antics they had seen,” one wonders if Shakespeare’s black, and Cora remembers that “she had beaten him for writing rhymes on her bathroom walls.” At home the bedtime ritual goes more smoothly than usual, for “this had been a night of wonders.” In the last sentence, Naylor allows herself a Shakespearean flourish as Cora “turned and firmly folded her evening like gold and lavendar gauze deep within the creases of her dreams.”

And so Shakespeare, as Emerson expresses it, “delights in the world, in man, in woman, for the lovely light that sparkles from them,” and “Beauty, the spirit of joy and hilarity” is shed “over the universe.” 


If you’re a determined YouTube searcher, you can find scenes from the Max Reinhardt film online, if not the whole thing. You can also see the Beatles doing their version of the Pyramus and Thisbe play within the play. A long TCM interview with Mickey Rooney in which Puck is never mentioned can be found by Googling watch-mickey-rooney-career-spanning-interview with Robert Osborne. The quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson is from his essay, “Shakespeare, Or the Poet,” included in The Library of America’s Shakespeare in America, which is edited by James Shapiro; the quotes by William Hazlitt are from the Everyman edition of Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays; David Thomson’s is from his Biographical Dictionary of Film (1994 edition).

Saved by the Record Exchange

I found the DVD of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the ever-amazing stock of the Princeton Record Exchange, which can almost always be counted on to come up with CDs, DVDs, and LPs that can be found nowhere else. Record Store Day is coming to Prex this weekend. For details see the story on page 23. 


April 9, 2014

Book RevIn his introduction to Shakespeare in America: An Anthology from the Revolution to Now (Library of America $29.95), James Shapiro writes of the “steady stream of American tourists” visiting the Bard’s birthplace, Stratford-Upon-Avon, among them “a pair of future presidents,” John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. According to Abigail Adams, Jefferson “fell upon the ground and kissed it” while her husband cut “a relic” from a chair said to have belonged to the poet himself.

Although legions of tour busses may never be a fact of life the way they are in Shakespeare’s home town, Princeton is something of an American Stratford for people coming to pay their respects to Albert Einstein, who lived the last half of his life here, and Paul Robeson, who was born here on this day, April 9, in 1898, and spent the first nine years of his life in the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood, Jackson having been at one time the street now known as Paul Robeson Place.

A Realm Unto Himself

The many facets of Paul Robeson’s genius — as a speaker, athlete, singer, actor, and world figure like his friend Einstein — led the PBS series, American Masters, to refer to him as “the epitome of the 20th-century Renaissance man.” Shakespeare, who wrote the signature role of Robeson’s acting life. is beyond terminology. There’s no end to him, or to it, if you believe that no single human being could have created what he created, a vast, complexly intelligible realm that will always be there to be discovered, explored, inhabited. “Reading Shakespeare continues to bless us, long past the first encounter,” says another former president, Bill Clinton, in his foreword to Shakespeare in America. Clinton entered the realm when an English teacher in Hot Springs, Arkansas had him memorize a hundred lines from Macbeth (“I was not overjoyed”) from which he learned an early lesson about “the perils of blind ambition and the emptiness of power.”

Paul Robeson was introduced to Shakespeare in 1915 by an English teacher at nearby Somerville High School. According to Martin Duberman’s 1988 biography, the 17-year-old senior, one of 12 African American students, played the Moor in a burlesque version of Othello. His teacher “later recalled her hesitation in asking him to take on the parodic role of Othello as a hotel waiter, since the performance was designed to raise money for a class outing to Washington, D.C.,” which Paul could not have attended “because no hotel in the capital would accept a black guest.” Even so, he played the part and “proved a huge hit with the audience.”

Although he seems to have been popular with his white classmates, Robeson was aware of a more subtle version of prejudice in high school society that, as Duberman points out, “allowed him through practice and forewarning, to keep his temper under wraps.” A teacher who called him “the most remarkable boy I have ever taught, a perfect prince” still “can’t forget that he is a Negro.” It was Robeson’s understanding of the social reality, of always knowing his “place,” that sustained his popularity. The situation suggests a microcosm of his later career. Even when turning in superior performances, whether as speaker, athlete, singer, or actor, he had to “exhibit maximum affability and minimal arrogance.” Whenever whites were “surpassed” by him, his attitude could “never smack of triumph.” Duberman quotes Robeson repeating “a litany drummed into him by his father, ‘do nothing to give them cause to fear you.’”

Consider how it must have been for a man conditioned to downplay his power finding himself in a realm of language as rich as Othello, peering into the mirror Shakespeare held up to him as he assumes the character of a black general, a leader of men. Othello’s first great speech (Act 1, scene iii) is one that Robeson must have been thrilled to perform, the way it brings the actor and the character together as Othello discourses on his success as a performer disarming Desdemona with stories like those he dazzled her father with, moving her to tears “when I did speak of some distressful stroke/That my youth suffer’d,” recalling how she “gave me for my pains a world of sighs:/She swore, in faith, ‘twas strange, ‘twas passing strange;/’Twas pitiful, ‘twas wondrous pitiful.” Describing how Desdemona “wish’d/That heaven had made her such a man,” and if the Moor could but teach a friend how to tell his tale, it “would woo her,” he shows that the “witchcraft” he used to seduce her was simply a matter of stepping forth as the hero of his own story: “She lov’d me for the dangers I had pass’d/And I loved her that she did pity them.”

The speech about the wooing of Desdemona also gave Robeson the ammunition he needed to woo and win audiences at the play’s start, creating a bond that assured his power over them even through the climactic moment. It was there that Margaret Webster, the director of the triumphant 1943 New York production, felt that he fell short, unable to convincingly summon up the full measure of rage that would have shaken the theatre and filled Desdemona with mortal terror — Robeson being, remember, the man who grew up repeating the survivor’s mantra “Do nothing to make them fear you.”

Webster, who also played Emilia, Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s confidante in the same production, had hoped that Robeson would be able to bring “his anger over racism onto the stage with him,” but “he could not recapture it.” In the turbulent final scenes he “never matched at all the frenzy and passion the role called for.” Robeson himself “acknowledged that he had trouble unearthing his rage on demand,” because “he had been brought up, as a survival tactic, to keep it carefully interred”

Triumph and Tragedy

Robeson has a chapter to himself in Shakespeare in America titled “Paul Robeson’s Othello,” which consists of an ecstatic, topically resonant, politically driven notice in the Leftist journal, The New Masses, by Samuel Sillen, “a prominent figure in the Communist literary movement of the 1930s and 1940s.” It’s clear that though he’s sounding the party line, Sillen is genuinely moved by Robeson’s “indescribably magnificent” performance; nevertheless, his rhetoric reveals where he’s coming from when he calls Robeson “the greatest people’s artist of America” and the performance “an epochal event in the history of our culture.”

Given what would befall Robeson in the decade ahead, the reference to the “people’s artist” is galling, as is the partisan drumbeat that ends the “review” (by now you definitely feel the need to put that word in quotes): “We treasure the event. We mark it as a birthdate. We carry on from here, lifted by Paul Robeson to a height from which new and vast horizons of a creative people’s culture endlessly unfold.”

Robeson followed that drumbeat to his fate, which Sillens inadvertently forecasts in his reference to Othello as “a play primarily of a vast human injustice” where “Othello’s injustice to Desdemona is only a part of the great injustice that has been done to him and in which he himself has unwittingly collaborated.”

Always a Challenge

Trying to follow the last 25 years of Robeson’s life (he died on January 23, 1976) is disheartening, what with all the well-meaning, self-confounding moves he made, the exploitations and the betrayals, the black-listers and witchhunters smearing his name in the consciousness of the American public and contributing to the state of mind that led to a breakdown and a suicide attempt. Duberman’s biography concludes by observing that when he died, the white press “after decades of harrassing Robeson now tipped its hat to a ‘great American’” while discounting “the racist component central to his persecution” and ignoring “the continuing inability of white America to tolerate a black maverick who refused to bend.” Meanwhile, the black American press provided editorials depicting a “Gulliver among the Lilliputians” and a life “that would always be a challenge and a reproach to white and black America.”

Home to Stratford

In 1959, when Robeson was 62 years old, he returned to Shakespeare’s roots in Stratford to play Othello in Tony Richardson’s gimmicky production of the play at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. His Desdemona, 26-year-old Mary Ure, was told to play Othello’s wife “as if she were acting in an Arnold Wesker kitchen-sink drama.” According to Duberman, Richardson filled the stage “with splashy special effects that called maximum attention to his own lively powers of invention” and that were clearly at odds with Robeson’s “gravity and reserve.”

In the end, Robeson carried the day, as the “critical majority succumbed to the authority of his stage presence.” Othello sold out its seven-month run immediately, and on opening night, the audience gave Princeton’s native son 15 curtain calls.

Last month Princeton celebrated Einstein’s birthday with a community event full of fun and fondness for an adopted local icon. This past Sunday Paul Robeson’s birthday was celebrated in the building named for him with a screening of Show Boat. Our Stratford honors two of the giants of the previous century, mythic figures both, but of the two, the largest, most tragic, and most truly Shakespearean is Paul Robeson. 

The Princeton Public Library has a large Robeson component in its collection, which includes Martin Duberman’s Paul Robeson (Knopf 1988) and Paul Robeson Jr.’s The Undiscovered Paul Robeson: An Artist’s Journey, 1898-1939 (Wiley 2001). 

The painting of Paul Robeson as Othello in the 1943 production, still the longest running Shakespeare play in Broadway history, is by Betsy Graves Reynau (1888-1964).


April 2, 2014

julianI watched him work in the back house where his study was located, his silver hair framed by the window and I wished I had something interesting to tell him.

—Molly Moynahan

It’s been said that if you throw a stone in Princeton you’ll hit a writer. Molly Moynahan’s picture of her father at work would make a good cover image for a book on the subject: the writer daughter peering wistfully at her writer father in the lighted study window. 

Last Tuesday I was checking over the page proofs at Town Topics and there in the middle of the obituaries was a photo of Julian Moynahan. It was a proof to read, a fact of working life, but the room felt different, as if all the air had been sucked out of it. He was 88 and I hadn’t seen or spoken with him for years. In that moment at the window, his daughter wishes she had something interesting to tell him. I’m thinking about what he can tell me in a book I’ve been meaning to read for the better part of 20 years. The only issue was whether or not I still had my copy of his novel from 1963, Pairing Off. As soon as I got home, I hurried down to the unsorted no-man’s land of books in the basement, my former study, where, to my great relief, I found it, and a good thing, too, because the Princeton Public Library no longer has a single one of his four novels, nor his study of D.H. Lawrence, nor his Princeton University Press book on Anglo-Irish literary culture.

The last time I remember talking with Julian was in that “back house” mentioned by his daughter Molly. I’d been there to pick up several bags of donations to the Friends of the Princeton Library Book Sale. Since most were review copies from his days writing for the New York Times, the Observer and numerous other newspapers and journals, his scribbled notes could be found tucked between the covers and sometimes penciled in the margins. Now here I am scribbling notes and marking up the margins in my copy of Pairing Off.

Visions of Julian

Led by Richard Poirier, the English Department at Rutgers was an exciting place to be in the late 1960s. Arguably the best-looking man in the department, Julian was the one who made you think of terms like “dashing,” “breezy,” “witty,” and “roguish.” He was, in other words, refreshingly counter to the remote, buttoned-up academic, which is why I wasn’t the only grad student who felt comfortable calling him by his first name, a liberty we were less likely to have taken with his colleagues. Julian has always been Julian, never Mr. Moynahan, never Professor Moynahan, and, perish the thought, never Dr. Moynahan.

The first time I had a real conversation with him was at a cocktail party where he was, as they say, in his cups, three sheets to the Irish wind, feeling no pain, etc. etc., while serving up juicy slices of literary gossip. In time I would see a more subdued Julian the evening he hosted and fed the members of his D.H. Lawrence seminar at his home on the Princeton-Lawrenceville road near Squibb, the model for the corporate monolith in his third novel, Garden State. His wife Elizabeth and daughters Catherine, Bridget, and of course Molly, must have been visible on the fringes, but all I remember is Julian holding forth near the hearth and the blazing fire like an inn keeper conversant with all things Lawrentian. The daughters turned up again a few years later in the Rutgers suite at the New York Hilton, where he was calmly, even heroically, counseling semi-hysterical job seekers in the high energy environment of the Modern Language Association convention. The girls must have been in their teens, coming and going, red-cheeked and giddy with the afterglow of Christmas in the city. The interaction of father and daughters in that otherwise feverish, monomaniacal atmosphere was refreshing, a breath of fresh air in the MLA hothouse.

The Christmas snapshot of the daughters leads to the saddest image of Julian, the one I will never forget. A decade or more after that particular MLA, my wife and I ran into him while walking on the path along the lake between Kingston and Princeton. Usually we’d have stopped to talk, for it was unusual to see him simply out walking by himself; instead, after saying hello and exchanging knowing glances, we moved on. There was nothing to say. We had only just learned that his eldest daughter, Catherine, had been killed by a hit and run driver while crossing a street in Hoboken.

Dealing With It

I’m still in the dark about the origins of my copy of Pairing Off. The Rutgers University Library sticker inside the front cover states that it was “Presented by Julian Moynahan,” which would suggest that it came to me with the books Julian donated to our library. In effect, I’ve been reading an ex-library copy of a novel that begins in a Boston library, with a librarian protagonist, presented by the author to not one but two libraries. It’s also hard to ignore a certain gallows humor that the author himself might have appreciated, given the fact that he had to die before I finally got around to a book that had been languishing unread for decades in the basement. Most important of all under the circumstances is that death is what Pairing Off is essentially dealing with, at once sensibly, humanely, wittily, touchingly, and undepressingly. The dying of Milly Rogers, friend and lover of the rare books librarian Myles McCormick, is the heart and soul of a novel that ends, happily and improbably, in an Irish cemetery. Being by profession a nurse devoted to terminal patients, Milly herself is an authority on the subject and knows she’s dying more than a year before her clueless, self-involved lover figures it out.

One of the book’s charms is that for all the style, verve, intelligence, and metaphorical fancy the author employs on his behalf, Myles has a tendency to trip himself up, most painfully while courting Eithne Gallager, the other major female character, who also knows a thing or two about death, having lost her husband in a gruesome dockside accident.

At one point Pairing Off pictures a fate for Myles wherein he becomes a “kind father … to rosy-faced and elfin-limbed children, the doting husband of a clever, passionate, beautiful woman as yet unmet but not undreamed of, who would take him not for what he was, but for what he had in him to become” (he finds his dream in  the closing chapter). Almost in the same breath, Myles improvises a playfully morbid bit of business about “Milly and Myles Mumblecrust, barkeep and barmaid in the Last Chance Saloon …. Only she had slumped suddenly behind the stained and bulletmarked counter, and he could do nothing for her now but carry her on the last ride to Boot Hill.” Indeed, Myles does everything for Milly, holds a wake, attends to her dying wishes, and carries her ashes on the last ride from Boston across the Atlantic to the Irish cemetery.

The closest Pairing Off comes to taking sentimental advantage of the situation actually provides one of its finest moments, when Myles buries Milly, the dust of death’s truth in his hand, and is “swamped by a feeling of wild, desolating tenderness” for her, wishing “that he had held onto her, gotten in bed with her to warm her … as her life lapsed, been with her then like a husband, or at least a lover, or even a brother.” It’s at the moment of this admission that the author blindsides the guardians of probability with the help of a Greek fairy godfather who produces Myles’s dreamed-of woman as if to reward him for that seizure of “desolating tenderness.”

Although the denouement of the novel is prefaced by an italicized meditation on its title — “Pairing off is the fate of mankind” — the darker truth behind the phrase is suggested earlier in the narrative after Milly dies: “He wondered how he would die, whether he would die alone, and knew there was no other way of dying.”

Father and Daughter

In the passage about watching her father at work, Molly Moynahan also refers to his first novel, Sisters and Brothers (1960), “a stunning account of the experience of a young boy who spends a year in a terrible orphanage while his mother struggles to support the family after his alcoholic father has disappeared.” She finds the novel “painful to read, but even more painful” when she learns from her mother “that his book was close to an autobiography. He had never told us anything about all that, and whatever he did to be a full scholarship student to Harvard remained unspoken, as well.”

The idea of revelations untold or unspoken brings to mind the daughter’s wish that she had “something interesting” to tell her father. One way to tell him would be to write three novels. Perhaps that’s what makes her recall the time her third book had been published and she was to give “a hometown reading in Princeton” at which Julian would introduce her. She was nervous because “most of the crowd” had known her “forever.” Father and daughter were sitting in the car together, parked across the street from where she’d been born. When she admits she’s scared, he tells her not to worry, that it’s a good book: “You worked hard …. I’m very proud of you.”

The quotes from Molly Moynahan were found in an article on Neworldreview.com. She also writes for the Huffington Post and at Mollymoynahanblogspot.com.


March 26, 2014

books robert frost181Every time I pull into a parking lot, regardless of the season, I notice people just sitting in their cars, probably texting, or surfing the net, or talking on cell phones, or listening to music, or just being alone for a quiet moment. This is on the way to admitting that I spent the better part of Saturday afternoon parked outside a strip mall near Woodbridge reading the poetry of Robert Frost, whose 120th birthday is today. 

I was reading out loud. Aware that passers-by might think it odd, I tried to read invisibly, barely moving my lips, like someone practicing to be a ventriloquist. Maybe that’s what made me feel closer to the poetry than I ever have before, except Frost was the ventriloquist and I was the dummy. And who else but a dummy would sit for hours outside a place called Vintage Vinyl reading poetry while his vinyl-addict son wanders through the vastness of the largest secondhand record and CD outlet this side of the Princeton Record Exchange.

But it’s fine, being Frost’s dummy, staying under the radar, so that the words and thoughts you’re voicing become intimate, clandestine excursions to the far side of the everyday. Aware of the traffic sounds a stone’s throw behind me on Route One, I’m reciting an early poem called “The Demiurge’s Laugh” and getting carried away with lines like “I was running with joy on the Demon’s trail” and “It was just as the light was beginning to fail/That I suddenly heard — all I needed to hear.” And what laughter, sleepy but mocking, “As of one who utterly couldn’t care.” If only YouTube had a clip of Jim Cox reading Frost. Born in Independence, Virginia, where he died in 2012, Cox was the most exciting teacher I ever had. Intoning the lines in his compelling Virginia accent, he could make words like “fail” or “utterly” sound fated and final, a broadcast direct from the den of the demiurge. Simply to hear Cox recite the title would be worth the small fortune my son was spending in Vintage Vinyl.

A squad car just pulled into the lot. Oh-oh, is there a misdemeanor for reading aloud in a parked car? Will I be busted for possession of an uncontrolled literary substance?

When the Demon laughs, the lines start making coincidental sense: “I felt as a fool to have been so caught.” So while the cops cruise by, I pretend to be musing innocently on some sort of inspirational guidebook to inner peace. In the poem, the speaker pretends it was only “something in the leaves” he’s seeking before he gives up and cools his heels: “Thereafter I sat me against a tree.”

Taking the Plunge

I came to the “Demiurge” after a plunge at random into Robert Faggen’s edition of Frost’s Notebooks (Harvard 2006) in which, according to a recent article in the New York Times, Frost scholars found “thousands of transcription errors that turned the poet into a dyslexic and deranged speller.”

Since the same could be said of James Joyce in Finnegan’s Wake or e.e. cummings, or George W. Bush, why not take a holiday from the prescribed formality of stanzas and iambics and flow free with Frost on a stream of consciousness, for instance, “Progress is escape civilization is sublimation emerging in terrified flight from someone emerging in terrified flight from someone emerging in terrified flight from God.” Based on what I’ve been reading by and about Frost over the past few days, this delirious  entry makes refreshing, fascinating sense. Better yet, it was Faggen’s footnote to thrice “terrified flight” that send me to “The Demiurge’s Laugh” in the first place.

All About Performance

Frost was 86 in April 1961 when Richard Poirier interviewed him for The Paris Review. Six years after the appearance of Poirier’s landmark study of literature and popular culture, The Performing Self (1971), he published Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing (Oxford 1977), which he introduces with a seminal statement made by Frost during the interview: “The whole thing is performance and prowess and feats of association. Why don’t critics talk about these things?”

Frost had already used similar terms when speaking of the poet “as a man of prowess, just like an athlete. He’s a performer …. Every poem is like that, some sort of achievement in performance.” In the later exchange, Frost rephrases the thought: “Why don’t they talk about that? Scoring. You’ve got to score … in all the realms — theology, politics, astronomy, history, and the country life around you.” When asked how he approaches “a new poem” that might be sent to him, Frost rings the same bell while echoing another much-stressed word (“what a feat it is,” “what a feat it was”): “This thing of performance and prowess and feats of association — that’s where it all lies …. That is in the realm of performance, that’s the deadly test with me.”

Poirier continues to press the theme, using it to frame his last question, regarding Dylan Thomas, who “put all the rhymes down first and then backed into them. That’s clearly not what you mean by performance, is it?”

After vehemently dismissing the idea of backing into rhymes (“that’s very dreadful”), Frost says “It ought to be that you’re thinking forward, with the feeling of strength that you’re getting them good all the way …. You see somebody coming down the street that you’re accustomed to abuse, and you feel it rising in you, something to say as you pass each other …. It’s him coming toward you that gives you the animus, you know. When they want to know about inspiration, I tell them it’s mostly animus.”

At this end-point in the interview, readers who think of Frost as a great stone face on the Mt. Rushmore of American verse may be wondering who they’ve been reading about over the years. In fact, Frost’s reference to those “who want to know about inspiration” is likely meant for the commentators who have popularized the poet of homey odes to plowing fields, chopping wood, and mending walls.

The Dark Side

The stress on abuse, animus, strength, prowess, feats of association, and the notion of performance as “the deadly test” would seem relevant to the dark side of Frost discussed in the aforementioned New York Times article about Volume One of the new Harvard edition of the Letters (“The Road Back: Frost’s Letters Could Soften a Battered Image”). The “cruel, jealous egomaniac” portrayed by Frost’s “handpicked” biographer Lawrance Thompson is an additional violation of the image of the beloved white-haired elderly American poet Poirier has been undermining, as when he refers to the dinner celebrating Frost’s 85th birthday, where, with the poet seated next to him, Lionel Trilling spoke of Frost’s “representation of the terrible actualities of life” in “a terrifying universe.” After admitting being taken by surprise (“I thought at first he was attacking me”), Frost puts his animus in gear: “He made the mistake himself. He was admitting he made it himself, wasn’t he? He was telling what trouble he’d had to get at me.” The poet then slyly wonders why Trilling “hadn’t seen it sooner: that there’s plenty to be dark about, you know. It’s full of darkness.”

Getting to Know Him

So here I sit faced with shelves teeming with the letters, notebooks, and marginalia of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, all too aware that I parted company with a single volume of Frost’s letters years ago. The only Frost I own at the moment is Poirier’s Work of Knowing and an edition of the Complete Poems with a woodcut on the cover showing a man plowing a field behind a team of horses, an image that binds Frost to the dull, workaday stereotype. What makes my situation all the more improbable is the fact that Dick Poirier, who died in 2009, was my best teacher in graduate school, and that Jim Cox, who has written brilliantly on Frost as well as editing a collection of critical essays about him, was my best undergraduate teacher.

Even with Cox and Poirier, however, you sense more admiration for the work than affection for the poet. Not that people who try to “get at” Frost or “get to know him” turn against him the way his biographer did. But imagine associating “animus” with Keats or demonizing Coleridge. And imagine even Frost’s most devoted follower saying of him what Elizabeth Bishop said of Coleridge after sitting up all night reading the letters “of that adorable man”: “His intestines are my intestines, his toothaches are my toothaches.”

So instead of rushing out to buy the first volume of the new edition of Frost’s correspondence, I go down the street to the library, only to discover that they, too, no longer have the earlier edition of the letters, the one edited by Lawrance Thompson. But they do have the Notebooks that led me to the “terrified” quote and they have Mark Richardson’s edition of The Collected Prose (Harvard 2007), where I found, searching at random, “Some Definitions by Robert Frost (1923).” After admitting that he sometimes has “doubts of words altogether,” the then-49-year-old poet says that words “are worse than nothing unless they do something: unless they amount to deeds, as in ultimatums or battle cries. They must be flat and final like the show-down in poker, from which there is no appeal.” This may not be a particularly appealing admission, but it’s perfectly consistent with a poet who has made so much of prowess and performance and feats of association.

But now consider the warmer, more human turn Frost takes in the last of the four short paragraphs: “A poem begins with a lump in the throat; a home-sickness or a love-sickness.” It might not be “adorable,” but it’s hard not to like and hard not to smile to see that the poem Frost equated to a show-down in poker has become “a reaching-out toward expression: an effort to find fulfillment. A complete poem is one where an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found the words.”

And where the words found me was in that strip mall parking lot.


March 19, 2014

book revTen years ago, in the March 31, 2004 issue of Town Topics, I wrote my first column about the Bryn Mawr-Wellesley Book Sale (BM-W), “Billy Collins and the Homeless Poets of Bryn Mawr.” By “homeless poets” I meant the ones whose books were left behind when the dust of the sale had cleared. Being the rare poet whose books sell well, Billy Collins was, and presumably still is, the obvious exception, as are collectible poets like Wallace Stevens. Yet here’s the storied, much anthologized Edgar Allan Poe, a perennial player in the American narrative whose market value is the gold standard of literature, and somehow the “homeless” idea applies. 

What is it about Poe? What makes him seem to this day somehow disreputable, unstable, not quite to be trusted or taken at his word, the uninvited guest rapping at the door we’re not sure we want to open? Even now, he’s one of the most useful reference points to be cited or consulted whenever weird or unearthly or inexplicable events occur, such as the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. If the author of Tales of Mystery and Imagination were around he’d be taking notes and perhaps already working out an updated sequel to that bizarre epic of death ships and disappearances, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, which ends with the narrator and his swarthy companion in a canoe with a dead native rushing “into the embraces of the cataract, where a chasm threw itself open to receive us.” And what do they see at the final moment but “a shrouded human figure, very far larger in its proportions than any dweller among men. And the hue of the skin of the figure was of the perfect whiteness of the snow.”

Lusting for Gold

When the doors open at 10 a.m. on this year’s Preview Day, Friday, March 21, the collectors in the crowd will be pursuing a dream volume or volumes while the dealers continue their high-stakes business mission, some having come from great distances looking for stock that could make a serious financial difference for them in the year ahead. At the same time, any book-wise, market-savvy dealer or collector who has paid $20 for the preview equivalent of a lottery ticket is hoping that this sale may finally prove to be the grand prize winner, the route to buried treasure, the “gold in them thar hills.” And of all authors, who do enlightened book folk think of in association with treasure and riches? Who is the “shrouded human figure” they see “at the final moment?” Who else but the author of “The Gold Bug”?

Consider the against-all-odds likelihood of a Poe first edition somehow slipping between the cracks in the form of a shabby ne’er do well, the tattered equivalent of the troubled, storm-wracked author himself, dying down and out on the streets of Baltimore. Let’s say you stumble on a copy of Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, the two volume collection of Poe’s stories published by Lea and Blanchard in Philadelphia in 1840. Because of its condition, covers worn, spine faded, title all but illegible, a stain covering the author’s name on the title page, let’s imagine that the beggarly twosome turns up on the Old and Unusual table marked for $10. If you have even a clue as to the value of the decrepit item, your telltale heart will begin pounding, your hands will get moist, and your manner will become shifty and suspect even though you’ve done no wrong; the prize is in your hands, you fully intend to buy it, so pay no mind to the nagging of your conscience. If your life seems a constant scuffle after money, as Poe’s was, you’ll be morally within your rights. Better you than some billionaire bibliophile, you’re thinking.

But when the time comes to pay, it’s a challenge to appear casual. Twinges of dread and guilt undermine you. You may even sense the presence of a spectral Poe leering over your shoulder at the friendly female volunteer tabulating the cost of your various purchases (for even should you find nothing else worth buying, you need other ordinary books for cover, to dim the glow of the nugget, as it were.

What a moment when the volunteer opens the first volume of the treasure, sees the price, hesitates, ponders, furrows her brow — oh no! does she —, is she —, will she call on some higher authority for a price check? Poe’s definitely by your side now, whispering fancies of deception in your ear, urging you to prevaricate; if you have a veteran book dealer’s chutzpah, you’ll ask the lady if maybe she could take a dollar off, I mean look at the condition!

You die and come back to life as the volunteer closes the second volume and writes $10 on your tab, which for, say 12 books, comes to a total of $54, not a bad day’s shopping, seeing as how your ten-dollar purchase is being offered, in lesser condition, for $40,000 online.

“Got some nice bargains today, I bet,” says the smiling volunteer. To which you have all you can do to stifle an outburst of maniacal laughter. Poe is tickling your ribs and cackling. And so with a brave new world of possibility swelling in your breast, you take your time (easy, slow down, don’t run, you haven’t done anything wrong, you’re no thief) walking out the door into a mad, mad, mad new world.

What gives the imaginary situation a peculiar and uneasy moral resonance is knowing that Poe was paid nothing, not a cent, no royalties, for the book you will sell at auction for at least 20 grand after taxes. All the author got was 20 free copies. His hopes had been high. Writing to Washington Irving, the monied master of Sunnyvale, he humbly begged an endorsement he never received (“If I could be permitted to add even a word or two from yourself … my fortune would be made”).

It’s beyond irony. Poe’s fortune is made all right, but not for him, he whose first book Tamerlane and Other Poems, a 40-page pamphlet authored “by a Bostonian” in 1827, sold at Christies in 2009 for $662,500.

How does it happen that in 2014 the name Poe means spectacular numbers on the antiquarian market? Why this perversion of the typical American rags to riches story leading to no riches, nevermore, only the phantom semblance of literary glory and immortality? While small print runs of the original volumes can be factored into the equation (it’s said that only 12 copies of Tamerlane have survived), the reason Poe’s books command immense sums is the immensity of his legend, his tragedy, his fate, the depth of his misery, the curse and blessing of his greatness. The irony is embedded in his very identity — a poet without a “t” whose name in certain dialects can be mistaken for another mockingly pertinent word. In David Simon’s portrait of Baltimore, The Wire, “Poe” is heard as “poor,” one of the real-life public housing projects bears his name, and in Season Two a white tourist asking directions to the Poe House is told “Look around you — all the houses ‘round here are po’ houses.”

There you have him — homeless, down and out, poor, misunderstood, and worth his weight in gold.

A Preview’s Preview

Since this is a preview of the upcoming March 21-25 BM-W sale rather than a report after the fact, it was necessary for me to visit the PDS gym as the stock was being unboxed and assembled, a process that had only just begun when I stopped by last weekend. Fortunately, the tables devoted to the last half of Peter Oppenheimer’s extraordinary donation were already being filled. And what do you suppose was the smallest, shabbiest, most despondent, most truly forlorn-looking volume I found among the otherwise solid, weighty, well-taken-care-of, seriously scholarly ranks? Yes, here he is again in all his grubby glory, our creepy Kilroy, a rubber band holding him together since the front cover bearing his signature in gold is about to become fully detached. On the spine, the gold lettering stands out, clear, unfaded, The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe. Down the spine also in gold is a William Morris-style arts and crafts embellishment. Across the bottom of the spine are the words “Plymouth Publishing Company.” In all the years I’ve been going to book sales and secondhand bookshops, I’ve never seen the name of that publisher, which is located, says the title page, at 7 West 42. If you know and love New York, you will try to picture what such an address would look like around the turn of the previous century, in the days before Times Square, when midtown was uptown.

At the top of the title page are three words that say it all for Poe, as good as singing his dark song: The Midnight Edition. Curious to see if any of the Plymouth Poes are available online, I could find only two, the first one from Old Church Books in Webster, N.Y., which is asking $30 for a copy “bound in burgandy [sic] leather with guilt [sic] paper edges.” That’s what it says, guilt paper in a volume of Poe. The text is “clean and mark free,” but “the top third of spine has been chewed on and is partly missing.” (Who or what did the chewing is best left to the imagination.) The only other copy in abebooks.com comes from Banks Books & Etc in Palmetto, Georgia. This one is a black hard cover, same size, gold on the top edge but “fly-specked on the other two.” Ah, but there’s a vertical crease in the backstrip; sounds very like the crack running through the House of Usher. This one is $70. Byrn Mawr is asking $6.

More Oppenheimer

The first box I saw being opened in Collector’s Corner contained some familiar volumes from the magnificent Princeton University Press/Bollingen edition of the works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, something Peter Oppenheimer and I had talked about more than once in the bank vault housing Witherspoon Books, where Peter used to work. Speaking of the author of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” one of the prizes of the Oppenheimer donation is a 20-volume set of Purchase His Pilgrimes, which was among the chief works inspiring both the “Mariner” and “Kubla Khan.” Other volumes from Peter’s massive library include a three-volume set of Alfred North Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica; John von Neumann’s Theory of Self Reproducing Automata; and a two-volume set of William of Tyre’s A History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea.

Based on the concluding image of Arthur Gordon Pym, the illustration shown, from 1864 is by Yan’ Dargent.


March 12, 2014

dvd revHiroshima is a film about which you can say everything.

—Eric Rohmer

Coming out of Hiroshima mon amour (1959) into a sunny summer day in Manhattan, still deep in the film, you look over at your best friend. It’s one of those essential check points of a relationship. Have we connected? Did the movie do to you what it did to me?

Your friend is frowning. Wherever you were, he was somewhere else. While you were fascinated, he was squirming and groaning (you wouldn’t have noticed, you were so locked in). You can think of more than one relationship that came unravelled after a difference of opinion about a movie. Not to worry. You and he have passed plenty of check points and moments of truth and you move through this one without a hitch.

A Resnais Moment

The memory of that first college-age viewing of Hiroshima mon amour was still potent, still so much a part of my life in film, that when I learned of the death of Alain Resnais ten days ago, I felt something like the conflicted uneasiness of that moment walking out of the theater realizing that instead of sharing a special experience, my friend and I had seen a different movie. I also felt the way I had sitting cluelessly through Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad (1961), which left me feeling as disoriented as I did on March 2, Oscar night, when I saw his name appear during the In Memoriam segment of the telecast. For a second I was thinking that he’d died earlier in the year, otherwise wouldn’t I have seen the story in the papers sometime before the Academy’s formal roll call of the dead? Maybe I’d been out of town, away from the internet and the New York Times. How else could I have missed it? Or was my failure to remember the death of the cinema’s poet laureate of memory a sign of creeping dementia? Appearing out of sequence, seemingly after the fact, the next morning’s Times obit with its reference to the “nonlinear” narratives of the “acclaimed filmmaker who defied convention” created further confusion; it was as if the director’s reputation for subverting time had subverted the presentation of his own death. And what a story — the most elusive and enigmatic of filmmakers dying on the eve of the film industry’s signature event. Any way you looked at it the news of his passing had become, itself, a Resnais moment.

Taken In

When you walk into a film with Hiroshima in the title, whatever the other words are, there’s no escaping the magnitude of the context, as the voice of Emmanuelle Riva intones, “Two hundred thousand dead. Eighty thousand wounded. In nine seconds.” Abbreviating the title in a discussion of the film inevitably underscores the catastrophe. Yet the grisly images of the aftermath occupy only a half a dozen of the film’s 90 minutes or about half of the 15 minutes preceding the love affair at the center of the film. If this had been a short documentary — as originally planned — Resnais might have produced something comparable to Night and Fog, his then-and-now 1955 film on the Nazi death camps. Instead, he and novelist Marguerite Duras joined forces to create a seductive, profoundly suggestive work.

The instant the title and credits appear, a subtle, sinister music is probing at you with the piping of a single note, alien, eerie, both surreal and intimate, as if the film were already reading your mind, scanning your susceptibilities; when the sound of a piano enters in atonal freefall, the effect is otherworldly. The credits are superimposed on a scarred landscape, a ragged stitch leading into a nexus of agitated lines indicating the center of the explosion, ground zero.

The actual opening image resembles a landscape formed of human flesh, two torsos striving together, sprinkled with glittering dust, a signifier of atomic ash, radiation, fallout. Faceless human forms seen at close range, neither one clearly male or female, appear dehumanized, fragmented, the opposite of erotic, until you see the woman’s hands moving over the man’s back as she recites a toneless, unnatural, oddly inflected narration to accompany the horrific images of the explosion’s human toll. Driven by a score that ranges from somber melodic intervals to jaunty, quasi ragtime dance music,  the sequence is a counterpoint of sight and sound, the female voice dominant (“I saw everything …. I saw the hospital … the museum … the anonymous masses of hair”), the male voice confined to a monotone chorus of denial (“You saw nothing in Hiroshima”).

The fugue-like opening ends abruptly when the camera finally reveals Emmannuelle Riva’s lovely face smiling up at us and at the man (Eiji Okada) as she says, playfully, naturally, romantically, a long way from the spaced-out narration, “You!” They both then laugh, and from that point the conversation follows the obvious conventions of the situation. She asks if he’s “all Japanese” (perhaps because he has, as Duras’s screenplay suggests, “a fairly Western face”) and he tells her she’s “like a thousand women in one.” If you were to begin the film at this moment, without the hypnotic prelude, you might be tempted to dismiss it as a cliched inter-racial love story with a provocative background.

Excluded at Cannes

Hiroshima mon amour was excluded from the official selection process at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival to appease the U.S. government, according to online sources. It seems that some 15 years after Hiroshima, the bomb was still “a taboo subject.” The Special Jury Prize that year went to a forgotten film by a forgotten director, Konrad Wolf’s Star (Sterne), which was about a Nazi officer who falls in love with a Jewish girl while escorting prisoners to a concentration camp. Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows opened the festival, where its young star, Jean Pierre-Leaud, was cheered. Black Orpheus won the Palme d’Or.

By July of 1959 Resnais’s film was deemed worthy of a round-table discussion in Cahiers du Cinema that included directors Eric Rohmer, Jean Luc Godard, and Jacques Rivette. During the dialogue, Rohmer speculated that “in ten, twenty, or thirty years, we shall know whether Hiroshima was the most important film since the war, the first modern film of sound cinema, or whether it was possibly less important than we thought.” In 2002 the international contributors to the 50th anniversary issue of Positif, another French film journal, answered the speculation by naming Hiroshima mon amour one of the top ten films produced between the years 1952-2002.

Enter Duras

The way Resnais tells it in an interview included on the Criterion Special Edition DVD, he’d been assigned to make a film on the atomic bomb. In the beginning no one was ready to touch so daunting a subject (Resnais notes with obvious amusement that Françoise Sagan was among the writers approached); the subject was considered “unfilmable.” Finally, Duras, a writer whose work Resnais admired, was enlisted. Working closely with Resnais, she produced a finished script in two months. According to Kent Jones’s essay accompanying the DVD, D.W. Griffth’s Intolerance was the model Resnais and Duras had in mind: the idea, as Resnais puts it, of “working in two tenses,” the present and the past, but “the past shouldn’t be in flashback.” The possibility that everything Riva tells her Japanese lover — the story of her affair with a German soldier in France during the Occupation, his death, her despair, and her humiliation at the hands of the townspeople of Nevers — might be a fiction was a potential “ambiguity” that Resnais admits finding formally “interesting.”

Emmanuelle Riva’s performance in Hiroshima mon amour stood out even at a time when female characters of range and depth were being played by actresses like Jeanne Moreau, Monica Vitti, and Stephane Audran, among others. In the July 1959 Cahier du cinema discussion, Jacques Rivette describes Riva’s character: “She doesn’t understand herself. She doesn’t analyze herself …. [she’s] a woman who no longer knows where she stands, who no longer knows who she is, who tries desperately to redefine herself in relation to Hiroshima, in relation to the Japanese man …. In the end she is a woman who is starting all over again, going right back to the beginning … as if she were once more unformed matter in the process of being born.” Rivette goes on to say, “In the same way that Hiroshima had to be rebuilt after atomic destruction,” she “is going to try to reconstruct her reality,” which she can achieve only through “what she herself has discovered at Hiroshima and what she has experienced in the past at Nevers.”

While Riva’s character is tormented and nearly undone by what happened at Hiroshima, it also holds an element of fascination for her, to be acting in a film “about peace” at the site of the unthinkable event while making love to a man who grew up there. The handsome Japanese architect is her audience and her accompanist, and though she may truly be “a thousand women in one” to him, what he finds most exciting and gratifying is not so much the story of forbidden young love and punishment in Nevers but the fact that she has never told it to anyone else. When she admits as much, he reacts like a delighted child, hugging her, exclaiming “I’m the only one who knows!”

If you substitute “understands” for “knows,” the man’s enthusiasm could be translated to express the enthusiasm felt by those who were so intensely engaged by the challenge of the film that they felt that he was directing it for them alone. All these years later I’m still in touch with my friend, by the way. He remembers our difference of opinion and promises to tell me one day what that was all about. So here we are, another enigma wrapped in another mystery. Another Resnais moment.


March 5, 2014

DVD revIn the afterglow of the Oscars, with Shakespeare’s 450th birthday approaching, the time is right for a column about actors and acting, not just on the stage and screen, but in so-called real life. Shakespeare lays it out for the ages in As You Like It when Jacques says “All the world’s a stage,” and we’re all of us “merely players.” Skip ahead 400 years and you’ve got reality TV and the 2014 Academy Awards.

As full of mischief and wicked energy as Puck in an Oscar-themed Midsummer Night’s Dream, Ellen DeGeneres gave a theater brimming with glitzy unreality a spin toward the real by darting in and out of the star-filled audience as if all that seated glittering glamour was a comedy waiting to happen; she wisecracked and kidded in an infectious “What fools these mortals be” style that stirred things up nicely and made for the first watchable-without-nausea Oscar night in my memory. Well aware that stars are humans whose stomachs would be growling because of the timing and length of the event, she waved her puckish wand and ordered pizza, and not just for laughs. When a real-life pizza delivery man showed up, she handed out slices that were devoured (reality bites!) and then hit on a real-life Mr. Moneybags Harvey Weinstein for the tip — “No pressure, only a billion people are watching, whatever you feel is right!” In that intensely artificial, self-conscious environment wherein spontaneous behavior is so rare that even the genuine article comes off looking staged, she created moments everyone everywhere could identify with, like the group-photo tweet fest that began as a selfie with Ellen and Meryl Streep and just kept growing (1.7 million retweets in less than an hour).

Without actually altering the hallowed, hackneyed ritual of the reading of nominations and calling out of winners, this mercurial emcee brought the ceremony down to earth and made the streamlined machinery of the show seem less ponderous and absurd. Above all, she shortened the distance between the folks at home and the event, turning the elites in the seats into photo-taking, pizza-eating mortals. It would have made Shakespeare smile. Hadn’t he been doing a version of the same thing when he had Queen Titania fall in love with a donkey? His Midsummer Night’s Dream may have been performed for the swells and the monarch, but you can be pretty sure he brought the donkey in knowing it would delight the groundlings no less than the swells.

Audience Participation

Years ago I went to a Megan Terry/Tom O’Horgan  production called Massachusetts Trust at Brandeis University. It was a free-form, deliberately incoherent, heavyhandedly “uninhibited” piece of work where the actors ran through the aisles and invited members of the audience to come mingle on the stage. For all the strenuous pretending that somehow the players were dashing the membrane between art and life, theatre and reality, the whole thing was totally bogus, as I found when I went onstage (a frustrated actor at heart) and found the actors all had scripted gimmicky phrases; when you tried to engage them in playful conversation by tossing out some inspired nonsense of your own, their eyes went blank and so did their minds as they said their prearranged piece.

If Midsummer Nights Dream is the most popular and most frequently reinvented comedy in the repertoire, there must have been occasions when the players spilled into the audience to breach that boundary between the stage of the theatre and the metaphorical real-life-and-death stage Shakespeare is outlining in Jacques’s soliloquy. No doubt Ellen DeGeneres had it all worked out in detail, but she made it feel real and fun. Whether she was wearing white or black or camping it up as Glinda the Good, she actually seemed to be enjoying herself.

50 Years Ago

Theater was the dominant presence 50 Years ago at the 1964 Awards, with a filmed musical, My Fair Lady, winning Best Picture, Best Actor (Rex Harrison) and Best Director (George Cukor). Even the Best Actress pick had implicit reference to the Lerner-Lowe original in that it went to Julie Andrews, the first Eliza Doolittle, for Mary Poppins; there had been much debate about whether Andrews should have been cast in the film instead of Audrey Hepburn, and others resented Hepburn’s being passed over when the nominations were made because her singing was dubbed by Marni Nixon, which made it only “half a performance.”

It was at the 1964 ceremony that Stanley Kubrick and Terry Southern’s hilarious black comedy Dr. Strangelove (with its spurious subtitle) actually crashed the high end of the party, copping nominations for Best Picture and Best Director. Peter Sellers received a Best Actor nomination for his virtuoso triple-play as an understandably frantic British officer, a mild-mannered president, and the madman of the title. While the film was a comic field day for Sellers (not to mention George C. Scott, Keenan Wynn, and Slim Pickens), the purest movie acting in the picture was done by Sterling Hayden as Col. Jack D. Ripper, the supremely convincing supreme commander of precious-bodily-fluid paranoia who sets doomsday in motion. Hayden took it beyond caricature, in part thanks to the lines Southern gave him and the way Kubrick filmed him, in looming close-ups. Hayden is the most filmically effective actor in Strangelove because he plays it straight, resisting the sort of overacting Hamlet advised against in his instructions to the acting troupe performing the play he wrote to “catch the conscience of the king.” Shakespeare’s criteria are still valid: to let “your own discretion be your tutor,” to “suit the action to the word, the word to the action,” for “the purpose of playing” is to hold “the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.” What makes Strangelove not only the best film of the year but one of the best films of the sixties is the audacity with which it expresses the “very age and body of the time.” In a lighter but equally fitting sense, the same could be said of the Beatles and Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night, which was released in the summer of 1964.

This Year’s Best

The Shakespearean criteria are also relevant to the two Oscar-winning actors in Dallas Buyers Club, Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto. If you can humor me and imagine the Bard in his celestial den streaming this year’s flow of film, including not only the best of Hollywood but the best on cable, it’s likely that these two players would command his particular attention as lean and hungry humours of lust and loss, life and death and death in life, and wounded male beauty. In McConaughey’s AIDs-stricken wild man Ron (a Texas Christopher Marlowe), he would see a player suiting the word to the action in a situation where the stakes are as high in their way as they are in Hamlet. McConaughey’s wasted warrior’s physique is a soliloquy in itself, and his antagonist, rather than a fratricidal king, is the disease that turned his life around, making a homophobic substance abuser into a focused student of the plague. And the “conscience” of AIDS-the-king that he catches is the soul of the film, which is the endgame relationship developing between Ron and the transgender AIDS-stricken Rayon.

Being in heaven, with access to HBO, Showtime, FX, and Netflix, and no need to make distinctions between a feature film and a 12-part series, Shakespeare would also have access to the dark and driven extremes experienced by Claire Danes’s Carrie Mathison in Homeland, Bryan Cranston’s Walter White in Breaking Bad and Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones. What else can you call the arc followed by Walter Heisenberg White — from classroom to meth lab, science teacher to crime lord — but Shakespearean? That Dinklage is a dwarf, so much the better for an actor playing clown and witty prince, lustful warrior, hero, and villain, all in one. Claire Danes at her best is hair-raisingly expressive, but then so is the wide-eyed self-astonished fantastically verbal Walton Goggins as Boyd Crowder in Justified. Of course the most openly Shakespearan performance currently on view is Kevin Spacey’s Francis Underwood in House of Cards, with his dark asides and Robin Penn Wright as his Lady Macbeth.

Spacey was also one of the most visible presences on Oscar night. He even gave the audience a Frank Underwood moment, a clear reminder of the power and glory of the television series as an art form. So did television’s Ellen DeGeneres, for that matter. I haven’t watched her show but apparently her interaction with  Sunday night’s Academy audience was a more ambitious version of what she does for a living.

“All Human Souls”

Fifty years ago Rex Harrison, who was born on this day in 1909, stepped onstage to accept the Best Actor trophy from Audrey Hepburn, the Eliza Doolittle to his Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady. With the human touch Ellen DeGeneres gave this Oscar Night in mind, here’s a Henry Higgins quote from George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion that probably didn’t make it into the film: “The great secret, Eliza, is not having bad manners or good manners or any other particular sort of manners, but having the same manner for all human souls: in short, behaving as if you were in Heaven, where there are no third-class carriages, and one soul is as good as another.”

Puck says something similar when addressing the audience at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “So, good night unto you all./Give me your hands, if we be friends.”


February 26, 2014

DVD revFabulous creations, beings whose authority and raison d’être cannot be drawn from the code of common sense, often provoke in us an insane and excessive mirth, which expresses itself in interminable paroxysms and swoons.

—Baudelaire, “On the Essence of Laughter”

It’s all there — the violation of common sense, insane and excessive mirth, paroxysms, and swoons — Baudelaire must have been looking over my 13-year-old shoulder as I watched Sid Caesar’s Show of Shows. While I may never have actually swooned over the antics of Caesar and his team, Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner, Howard Morris, and, later, Nanette Fabray, there were times when I had to walk away, trying to keep down a full dinner of laughter, and now that I think of it, “swoons” comes pretty close to how it feels to be laughing so hard your forehead’s in a sweat and you’re close to passing out. 

Sid Caesar, who died February 12 at 91, seemed bigger than any other comedian. With those bull-moose shoulders, he towered over everyone; it was an instant sight-gag just to see him in close proximity to tiny mortals like Howard Morris and Imogene Coca (in his 2003 autobiography, Caesar’s Hours, he mentions making tailors rich “by ordering handmade suits with the broadest possible shoulders”). It seemed a minor miracle that our little TV with its eight-inch port-hole of a screen could contain him. He sprawled and swaggered and roared. Yet to leave it at that would be to misrepresent an artist whose touch could be as warm and human as Chaplin’s (Alfred Hitchcock, of all people, compared Caesar to the early Chaplin). His primary goal, as he puts it in Caesar’s Hours, was “to extract humor out of everyday life …. The guy in trouble is a very funny guy.”

The New York Times obituary, which listed Albert Einstein as well as Hitchcock among Caesar’s fans, rightly called him “a comedic force of nature.” There he was, week after week, performing live, without a net, thriving on the tension that infused his style: it was in his nervous cough, the constant clearing of his throat, you could almost smell his sweat; he didn’t just clown, he struggled, fought, lived, and died, throwing himself on the mercy of the audience. At times it was as if he and his accomplices were beating the laughs out of you.

He implies as much in Caesar’s Hours: “I was a very physical comedian and I needed a sidekick who was not only funny but was a person I could pick up with one hand.” Cue the imp of perverse delight Howard Morris; when Morris “first came to audition,” Caesar “reached out, grabbed him by the lapels, lifted him up, and did the scene.” The comedy of scale was played no less effectively with hulking Sid and petite Imogene. “Working with her,” Caesar recalls, “was like working with somebody you’d known your entire life from moment one …. Our instincts and timing were so well aligned that it was as if Imogene knew exactly what I was thinking.” The feeling was mut-ual, as the unholy ghost of Show of Shows Mel Brooks would put it decades later in Young Frankenstein (the old show lives on in Dr. F. and the monster’s song and dance rendition of “Putting on the Ritz”). Years after they went their separate ways, “Immy” is quoted by Sid to the effect that she “would run twenty miles in sheer joy” for the chance to work with him again.

Shared Laughter

When people remember the shows, they not only remember the comedy, they remember their parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, aunts, and uncles. They remember a time when everyone was together and everyone was laughing … whatever was going on at home, for at least an hour and a half on Saturday night, people got to laugh and they got to see their parents laugh.

—From Caesar’s Hours

When I read about Sid Caesar’s death, my first thought was of my father and his proclamation that he would never allow a television set to darken our apartment doorway. We were living in New York that year in a second-story walk-up in the 200 block of East 53rd Street. I finally wore out the austere, above-it-all professor by devising a mantra based on Hickory 6-4000, the phone number of Sunset Appliances in Brooklyn, which I knew by heart from commercials aired during radio broadcasts of Brooklyn Dodgers baseball games. I chanted the mantra several times a day throughout the month of August (“they’re giving it away! they’re giving it away! free delivery! Hickory 6-4000!”) until my dazed father picked up the telephone, dialed the magic number, and ordered the smallest, cheapest set Sunset offered. Because the “useless” object was not allowed into the living room, it was duly situated on a shelf at the foot of my bed, the idea being that no rational adult would come near it.

One Saturday night soon after the set’s arrival, the antics of Sid and his cohorts had me laughing so hard (think “paroxysms and swoons”) that my parents had no choice but to come make sure I wasn’t in need of emergency care (remember the Monty Python skit about the joke that kills?). From that point on, I had company. My father and mother  weren’t getting along all that well at the time, but at least for an hour and half on Saturday night “everyone was together and everyone was laughing.”

My mother’s laughter was a pleasantly familiar sound, mellow, throaty, redolent of whiskey and cigarettes. But to hear my buttoned-up father laugh was a revelation. Here was the stern professor my friends found so intimidating, with his dark-framed spectacles and severe expression. Here was a man who, to all appearances, kept his distance from life. But when Sid Caesar was on, whether it was Your Show of Shows or Caesar’s Hour, the professor would be shaking, sweating, giddy with glee, besieged by a passion of laughter. Those were precious, amazing moments, my father and I laughing together, laughing ourselves silly to Sid Caesar.

Happy Birthday, Jackie

Part of the fun of watching television that year in New York was knowing that programs like Your Show of Shows originated just a few long blocks west of us at Rockefeller Plaza. I used to walk past the RCA Building and Radio City Music Hall on my way home from school, fondly hoping I might catch a glimpse of Sid or Imogene. In fact, my only celebrity sighting happened when I was walking up Central Park West from the subway one schoolday morning and encountered Sid Caesar’s most formidable rival Jackie Gleason, who was born 98 years ago today. As soon as he saw me recognizing him, he smiled and said, “Hiya, kid!” When I saw The Great One   at the CBS Theatre doing Ralph Cramden and Reggie van Gleason and “Awaaay we go” live on The Jackie Gleason Show, I was sitting so far back, he looked even smaller than he did on that pint-sized set. Since there’s not room enough in one column for two such giants, I’ll just say the obvious, that if Gleason had done nothing else (and he did a great deal, including giving Elvis his New York television breakthrough), he created and inhabited Ralph Kramden, one of the truly enduring characters in show business America’s human comedy. And don’t forget his dancing. If you ever need immediate cheering up, just google Gleason Dancing. As a tripper of the light fantastic, no one can touch him; tear up the list, it’s Jackie.

Some Highlights

Since The Sid Caesar Collection DVD at the Princeton Public Library has been checked out ever since February 12, my watching of Caesar and company was done on YouTube, where a goodly assortment of key episodes is available. Probably the most celebrated of the lot is the all-out, no holds barred take-off on the Ralph Edwards sobfest, This Is Your Life. The challenge was to satirize something that’s already the epitome of sentimental overkill. Some of the comic passion driving This is Your Story may be due to its being among the last programs before Show of Shows closed its run on June 5 1954, after almost 160 episodes. Call it what you will — the cast gone wild, emotional pandemonium, Carl Reiner the flailing, embattled host — it’s beyond “insane and excessive” when Howard Morris’s Uncle Goopy leaps into the arms of Caesar’s Al Duncey to be hugged and kissed and lugubriously manhandled by the reluctant guest of honor who had be dragged out of his seat and carried bodily to the stage by a troop of ushers; the madness keeps coming in waves, they can’t tear themselves away, as the howling little man and the roaring big man grovel and grope and slobber on one another and then Aunt Mary and Mr. Torch, the kindly fireman; it’s in your face, take it or leave it, there’s really no resisting the relentless bludgeoning assault on complacency, sobriety, and the code of common sense.

After a YouTube tour, I find that the topical parodies of films like From Here to Eternity, Shane, and On the Waterfront are less fun now than the skits featuring Sid and Imogene as a couple dealing with “the humor of everyday life,” like the battle of wills that develops after the wife cooks her heart out and the husband arrives bearing Chinese take-away. Since he refuses to eat her steak and she won’t touch his chow mein, the outcome is pure lunacy with Imogene offering her meal to the neighbor directly below and tossing the steak out the window, followed by the trimmings, while Sid counterattacks by inviting the next door neighbor (Carl Reiner) to dispatch the Chinese take-away, which he does in a gross delirium of gluttony, stuffing his face, chopsticks flashing.

Some of Caesar’s most ambitious and extended work is on Caesar’s Hour (1954-1957), featuring Nanette Fabray, who talks about her Emmy-winning years on the show online at the Archive of American Television (www.emmytvlegends.org/interviews/people/nanette-fabray). Her favorite number was “The Shadow Waltz” and anyone looking for insights into how it was to do live comedy with Sid Caesar should Google her account of all the things that went right and wrong with Sid and his disappearing mustache. Oddly enough, Fabray can’t remember doing one of their most celebrated numbers, the husband-and-wife argument mimed to Beethoven’s Fifth. The way they react to each nuance of the music is extraordinary — Chaplin would have tipped his bowler hat.

Although Imogene Coco died in 2001 and Howard Morris in 2005, two of Sid Caesar’s partners have outlived him: Fabray, 94, and Carl Reiner, who is 92, and calls Caesar “the ultimate … the very best sketch artist and comedian that ever existed.” 


February 19, 2014
“DON’T WANT NO MUSH! TAKE IT AWAY! SCRAM!” No longer the polite little girl she was before she was adopted by a bunch of Damon Runyon types, Shirley Temple, as the title character in “Little Miss Marker,” is being advised on her manners by a night club singer named Bangles, memorably played by Dorothy Dell, who “burst into unrehearsed giggles, stopping the scene.” Fifty years later Shirley recalled her “special affection” for her “frolicsome cohort.”

“DON’T WANT NO MUSH! TAKE IT AWAY! SCRAM!” No longer the polite little girl she was before she was adopted by a bunch of Damon Runyon types, Shirley Temple, as the title character in “Little Miss Marker,” is being advised on her manners by a night club singer named Bangles, memorably played by Dorothy Dell, who “burst into unrehearsed giggles, stopping the scene.” Fifty years later Shirley recalled her “special affection” for her “frolicsome cohort.”

She totally disarms you — she lifts you off your feet.

—H.G. Wells, circa. 1934

Wells’s choice of words is curious, since Shirley Temple was usually the one being lifted off her feet. In her breakthrough movie, Little Miss Marker (1934), she’s lifted, held, hefted, pondered, and passed from one gambler to another as bets are made on her exact weight. When the only female present, a night club singer named Bangles Carson — played with exceptional warmth and verve by Dorothy Dell — tells the Damon Runyon sharpies to stop passing the kid around like a rubber ball, Shirley, in mid-toss, shouts “I like it!” and so she clearly does. The essence of her appeal is right there: she’s having a great time.

In Child Star: An Autobiography (McGraw-Hill 1988), Shirley Temple Black, who died at 85 on January 10, has fond memories of the fun she had with Dorothy Dell as they shared scene-stopping laughter, holding hands, “enjoying the sense of impromptu gaiety.” The 19-year-old Ziegfield Follies beauty playing the worldly Bangles treated Shirley as an equal and won her “special affection” through a positive attitude that made her feel “inches taller” than she was. In writing, however, about Adolph Menjou, who plays Sorrowful Jones in Little Miss Marker, she reports that “off-camera he treated me with the reticence adults commonly reserve for children, sometimes staring at me fixedly without comment.” When Menjou attempts to engage her in that “outgrown infant pastime” hide-and-seek, she humors him, playing the game “with only half a heart. Beyond that one instance, he spent little time directly with me, always preferring to watch me from a distance.”

Comments made by Menjou at the time of the filming and quoted in Child Star suggest why he was keeping a vigilant eye on Shirley: “This child frightens me. She knows all the tricks. She backs me out of the camera, blankets me, grabs my laughs. She’s making a stooge out of me. She’s an Ethel Barrymore at six.”

Nailing Menjou

There’s a remarkable moment early in Little Miss Marker when Menjou picks Shirley up with both hands, holds her close, face to face, and stares into her eyes. It’s his way of reckoning her value as collateral for her wretched, soon-to-be-dead-by-his-own-hand father’s $20 bet. She stares right back, no flinching, no flirting, no being cute: she’s nailing him. Seen in profile, Menjou is all business, and so is she. It’s a powerful shot. Though Sorrowful may not be visibly melting, you can tell the process has begun. It’s as H.G. Wells said, she’s lifted him up, even if he doesn’t quite know it yet.

More to the point, she’s daring him to take her on. Just before he hoists her up for a closer look, she says, “You’re afraid of me” and then “You’re afraid of something.” She observes this gently, holding him in her eyes, making it clear that she’s not the only one whose value is being weighed. As Menjou sets her down, he’s already showing signs of the slow melt. To noises of disbelief from his cohorts that the no-nonsense Sorrowful would accept a kid as a marker for a bet, he says, “A little doll like that’s worth 20 bucks any way you look at it.” Knowing as we do that the doll would prove to be a money-making phenomenon beyond all imaginable mortal reckoning makes this one of the greatest little-did-they-know lines in film history.

Far from “making a stooge” of Menjou, Shirley does what many stars, including even Barbara Stanwyck, could never do: she makes him sympathetic. The ray of Shirley’s light shining on Sorrowful enables his romance with Dell, who plays Bangles with a mildly Mae-West-like swagger that helps disguise the fact that she’s 19 and Menjou is 44. Otherwise it would be a stretch when the two marry at the end and become Marky’s adopted parents. What makes Dell so endearing in her scenes with Shirley is the way she seems at once wise dame, young mother, best friend, and loving sister.

Holding It Together

With all due credit to Runyon’s story and Alexander Hall’s direction, the person holding the film together is the child of the title. It’s not as if the grown-ups simply took it upon themselves to fashion a fantasy world as a way of distracting Marky from the loss of her father; she enlists them one by one as players in the creation she’s weaving according to the stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table that her mother (“who went away and never came back”) used to read her. The names she gives the characters in her play-in-progress are all derived from or based on those bedtime tales, the first coming when she affectionately dubs Willie Best her “Black Knight” as if such things as racist comic relief simply didn’t exist; the sarcastic gambler Regret (Lynne Overman) becomes Sir Lancelot, Bangles is Lady Guinevere, and Steve, the wouldbe heavy who eventually gives “good strong blood” to save Marky’s life (Charles Bickford) is “the strong knight.”

A Special Freshness

Sample the numerous Shirley Temple films available in full on YouTube, as I did, and you may begin to feel that a little of her undoubted genius goes a long way. She’s an amazing tap dancer. Just watch her busking for trainfare to the White House with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in 1935’s Littlest Rebel. I’m focusing on Little Miss Marker because in addition to its easygoing Runyon ambience and the charming chemistry between the child and the other players, especially Dell and Menjou, Shirley’s gift seems purer, more true to life. There’s a special freshness to scenes like the one where she sits on the piano singing “Laugh You Son of a Gun” with Bangles. Instead of a tapdancing virtuoso, you see a happy little girl smiling out at Depression audiences, having a wonderful time singing lines like “I may be broke/But I take life as a joke” and “It doesn’t cost a thing/To buy the sun” and going heh-heh-heh, hee-hee-hee, and ho-ho-ho-ho on the chorus like any kid anywhere

The bedtime scenes are even better. When Marky begs for a story about King Arthur, Sorrowful settles down next to her and composes an Arthurian tale out of the racing form. Later, when Bangles comes back from a night on the town with a “good time Charlie” and wakes up the child, it’s her turn to take over the bedtime duties, and like a mother spelling a father, Dell curls up next to Marky, improvises a lullaby, and ends by singing both of them to sleep. Again, here’s a scene you know warmed and charmed Depression audiences, especially parents.

Another sequence guaranteed to shoot a St. Valentine’s arrow straight to the heart comes when Sorrowful is reading Marky a bedtime story, this one from the real King Arthur book Bangles has bought her. But by now she prefers the race track King Arthur because she thinks she’s “a bad girl” after picking up some racetrack slang from her new friends, which leads to talk of asking favors of “somebody named God.” The scene where Menjou teaches her how to pray should be an unwatchable embarrassment, except that it’s played with none of the standard bogus Hollywood piety; it’s also the moment when the rapport between Menjou and the child is most poignant. The appeal of the prayer lesson is equal to the Damon Runyon punchline that caps it: “Please God, buy Sir Sorry a new suit of clothes.”

Life and Death

It’s hard to watch Little Miss Marker without becoming fond of Dorothy Dell, referred to in Child Star as the “warm-hearted gun moll” and Shirley’s “frolicsome cohort.” It’s inevitable at some point that you wonder why such an engaging performer never became a star. A Miss Universe at 15, she sang in the 1931 Ziegfield Follies (filling in for Ruth Etting), performed on Rudy Vallee’s top-rated radio show, all before she arrived in Hollywood at 18 with her best friend, Dorothy Lamour. Why haven’t we heard of her? What happened to her career? A week after Little Miss Marker’s June 1 release, Shirley’s “special friend” was killed in a one-car crash described 50-plus years later in Child Star as “a gruesome nighttime automobile accident.” Because the two had become so close during the filming of Marker — an emotional attachment you can see taking place like a real-life subplot — the news was kept from Shirley. But while she was doing a scene from her next film, Now and Forever, that required her to be crying, Shirley overheard reference to the accident and “burst into tears.” While everyone on the set “milled around helplessly,” the director, Henry Hathaway, was quick to take advantage. As Shirley Temple Black recounts in Child Star, “he quickly called for a camera to focus on me where I lay slumped, sobbing away. First a close up, then a medium shot.” Shirley’s mother “observed the splendid performance, and remained watching while the camera continued to roll. Only I knew it was more fun to shed false tears than real ones.”


Due from W.W. Norton in May is John F. Kasson’s The Little Girl Who Fought the Great Depression: Shirley Temple and 1930s America, in which Kasson thoroughly and convincingly documents the impact of Shirley’s appeal to a mass audience in dire need of sweetness and light. There will be an eight-film Shirley Temple tribute on Turner Classic Movies on March 9 from 4:30 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. Little Miss Marker and Now and Forever are available on a single DVD at the Princeton Public Library. To find out more about Dorothy Dell, visit mmortalephemera.com/16531/dorothy-dell.


February 12, 2014

book revAbraham Lincoln (1809-1865) knew Shakespeare by heart. It wasn’t just that he could recite long passages from Hamlet and Macbeth and Richard III, or that he felt compelled to regale friends, associates, and secretaries with lengthy impromptu recitations, even in the White House. “By heart” is no mere figure of speech. The Bard was in his blood, and he knew when the speeches he loved had been violated or omitted, as was sometimes the case with the king’s soliloquy in Hamlet (“O, my offence is rank”) or with the glorious duel of invective between Falstaff and Hal in scene 4, act 2 of the first part of Henry IV, which was dropped altogether during a performance the president attended in March 1863.

One-hundred and fifty years ago today Lincoln turned 55. That his February 12 birth date falls in close proximity to a high-profile ceremony honoring the profession of acting — he who loved Shakespeare and died in a theater at the hands of an actor — is one of those coincidences poets, fatalists, and columnists enjoy taking note of; the same could be said of the fact that less than two weeks after Lincoln’s 154th birthday, the Best Actor Oscar went to Daniel Day Lewis for his performance in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. Lewis, it’s clear, knew Lincoln “by heart,” having admitted “never, ever” feeling the same “depth of love” for a human being that he’d never met. Lincoln, he went on, probably has that effect “on most people that take the time to discover him.”

Last Days

This year the untimely February 2 death of Philip Seymour Hoffman will likely be acknowledged on Oscar night, as was Heath Ledger’s, also a month before the ceremony, in 2008.

As I write, the front section of the February 6 New York Times is on my desk along with Joshua Wolf Shenk’s book, Lincoln’s Melancholy (2005); a 1904 collection of Lincoln’s Letters and Addresses; and a copy of Alec Wilkinson’s book-length profile of Pete Seeger, who died January 27. The Times is open to an article tracking Hoffman’s movements from place to place in New York (“A Complicated Actor in His Last Days”), playing with his kids in a Village playground, leaving the 92nd Street Y, landing strung out, looking like “a street person” at LaGuardia, having a four-shot espresso at Chocolate Bar, eating dinner at Automatic Slim’s, withdrawing cash from an A.T.M. at D’Agostinos. These glimpses of the actor — possibly the most familiar face on the screen for fans of sterner stuff than action blockbusters and tasteless comedies — going about his business in a familiar locale gave me a clearer sense of his stature, particularly in the way the desperate, driven, often unattractive roles he frequently played were reflected in the various eye-witness accounts of his appearance in those last days.

Sympathy for Seeger

It’s hard to resist remarking the contrast between Hoffman dying alone in New York and Pete Seeger, a beloved folk legend, dying in his nineties surrounded by family and remembered with a two-page obituary in the Times. On the Guardian tribute site someone who had seen Seeger at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall in 1967 wonders “Was this what it had been like to see Abe Lincoln speak? Seeger’s presence was simultaneously joyous and calming. His words, both spoken and sung were an absolute balm.” The more I read by and about Lincoln, particularly in Lincoln’s Melancholy, the less I can see in common between the man whose favorite Shakespearean play was Macbeth and the man who wrote “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.”

Reading Alec Wilkinson’s balanced profile of the singer, however, you find another, refreshingly less Lincolnesque Seeger. It’s hard not to like someone who can make fun of his skills as a carpenter, telling Wilkinson, “I put up some shelves to hold records and books right here, and the baby’s crib was under it. One night we heard a terrible crash, and the shelf and all the books and records had come down on her crib ….That’s the kind of stupid thing I’ve done all my life.”

You’re on Seeger’s side again when you read the transcript of his testimony during the HUAC hearings in 1955 when he took the first amendment rather than cowering in the fifth and went briefly to jail for it.

But in the context of Lincoln’s tendency for brooding and self-doubt, what most struck me about the coverage of Seeger’s death, also in connection with the coverage of Hoffman’s last days, was Jesse Wegman’s January 28 op-ed piece about Seeger protege Phil Ochs’s last night. The theme is “being there” for someone in distress. Nobody was there for Hoffman, though judging from an article in this Sunday’s Times (“His Death, Their Lives”), it’s touchingly apparent that the actor who died alone at night “with a needle in his arm” had been an inspiration to numerous others struggling with addiction. According to what Neil Young told Wegman, Seeger never forgave himself for not being there for Phil Ochs on an April night in 1976. Seeger had been in the city and was late for the train home to Beacon, an hour up the river. Ochs was in trouble, had been depressed and drinking heavily for a long time “and had reached out to Pete. ‘He really wanted to talk.’” Seeger had to choose between staying in the city to be with Ochs and taking the train home. To his lifelong regret, he’d taken the train. Ochs hanged himself that same night and “for 37 years the decision to leave that night ate at Pete.”

Brother’s Blood

Unlike you gentlemen of the profession, I think the soliloquy in Hamlet commencing “O, my offence is rank” surpasses that commencing “To be, or not to be.”

—President Abraham Lincoln,

17 August 1863

Lincoln was writing to the actor James H. Hackett, who had played Falstaff in the compromised version of Henry IV the president had seen some months before. Though he was writing to acknowledge receiving a copy of Hackett’s self-touting book on Shakespeare, he took the occasion to mention his favorite plays, with, again, Macbeth the most admired (“It is wonderful”). Meanwhile he neatly avoided mentioning his disappointment in a production that left out his favorite part, writing, “The best compliment I can pay is to say, as I truly can, I am very anxious to see it again.” When Hackett quoted Lincoln’s letter in a publicity broadside that generated negative press, the president responded more than graciously with a note saying that he’d “not been shocked by the newspaper comments” because such comments “constitute a fair specimen of what has occurred to me through life. I have endured a great deal of ridicule without much malice; and have received a great deal of kindness, not quite free from ridicule.”

Even as he was exercising his inner Shakespeare with the word play on malice, ridicule, and kindness in early November 1863, Lincoln was looking forward to the speech he would deliver at the dedication of the Gettysburg national cemetery later that month. No wonder, then, that he would favor the more fitting “offence is rank” soliloquy by the fratricidal Claudius, with its reference to “the primal eldest curse” of “a brother’s murder,” to “a man to double business bound,” to a hand “thicker than itself with brother’s blood,” and to the question, “Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens to wash it white as snow?”

Looking for some mention of Lincoln’s 55th birthday in my 110-year-old edition of his letters and speeches, I found something from January 7, 1864, written on a letter from the governor of Ohio “regarding the shooting of a deserter on that day.” Lincoln calls the case “a very bad one,” since before receiving the governor’s message, the president had ordered the man’s “punishment commuted to imprisonment … at hard labor” for the duration of the war, “and had so telegraphed.” Lincoln explained the failed act of mercy in these words: “I did this, not on any merit in the case, but because I am trying to evade the butchering business lately.”

“The Greatest General”

The photograph of Lincoln used by Shenk for the cover of Lincoln’s Melancholy was taken in 1860, a year before he became president. The troubled expression on Lincoln’s already careworn face bears out Shenk’s subtitled premise (How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness). In a prelude, Shenk recounts the story Leo Tolstoy told a reporter a year before he died. Having found himself the guest of a Caucasian chief of the Circassians “living far from civilized life,” he was telling the chief and his “wild looking riders … and sons of the wilderness” about the Czars and the greatest military leaders, with particular emphasis on Napoleon. They were duly fascinated but they wanted more. What about “the greatest general and greatest ruler of the world,” the man whose name was Lincoln.” Tolstoy accordingly told them of Lincoln “and his wisdom, of his homelife and youth,” But they wanted to know more, “his habits, his influence upon the people and his physical strength,” surprised to hear that he “made such a sorry figure on a horse.” Finally they asked for a photograph of this hero who “spoke with a voice of thunder” and was “so great that he even forgave the crimes of his greatest enemies and shook brotherly hands with those who had plotted against his life.” To find a photograph, Tolstoy went to the nearest town with one of the young riders. As he handed the picture to him, Tolstoy was impressed by “the gravity of his face and the trembling of his hands” as he gazed” for several minutes silently … deeply touched.” Asked what had so moved him, the young man pointed out that Lincoln’s eyes are “full of tears and that his lips are sad with a secret sorrow.”

Tolstoy no doubt embellished the moment, for he was as starstruck as the Circassians, telling the reporter that of all the great national heroes and statesmen of history, Lincoln was the only real giant … a saint of humanity whose name will live thousands of years in the legends of future generations.”

What a play Shakespeare might have written about such a man.


February 6, 2014

record revThere was a turning point in their career, a specific date on which the breadth and scope of their future was to be altered and it was the day their Pan Am jet touched down at Kennedy International in New York to a welcome that has seldom been equaled anywhere.

—Brian Epstein

On Friday, February 7, 1964, some two months and two weeks after Friday, November 22, 1963, a jetliner from the United Kingdom brought forth upon these gloomy, blustery shores “something completely different.” Whether the four-headed juggernaut made you laugh or cry or scream or curse or roll your eyes, there was no denying it. Suddenly, the absurd name was everywhere. Beatles? What was that? Like those sudden vast weather events named Andrew and Sandy and Irene, here came a superstorm called The Beatles and a state of mind the British press called Beatlemania.

In The Beatles Anthology DVD, seconds after you hear the voice of Beatles manager Brian Epstein explaining the long-term significance of the moment, a young fair-haired girl heaves into view, almost as if she’d flung herself through the air into the rapture of that arrival, eyes closed in a transport of blind need as she’s caught and held back, like the others you later see rushing the limousine carrying the Beatles to the Plaza Hotel. In back, four celebrated tourists from Liverpool are having the time of their lives watching the unfolding frenzy they’ve created and listening to their own music on the transistor radio Paul’s holding, as the fans pound on the side of the car and mounted New York cops trot alongside.

“Box Office Poison”

A Beatles landing in late October 1963 at the airport then known as Idlewild would have been an embarrassment, to say the least, even though the first rumblings of the storm roiling England had already been detected stateside. Operating on the assumption that English performers were the equivalent of “box office poison,” executives at Capitol Records summarily dismissed the notion that a group of British musicians with a silly name could make it in the showbiz-savvy Land of Elvis. In spite of the fact that “Please Please Me,” the Beatles’ first hit single, was at the top of the charts in the U.K., Capitol had turned down their right to release it in America, a decision seemingly vindicated when the record went nowhere after a small label called VeeJay issued it. The same thing happened with “She Loves You,” which even VeeJay turned down. As for the first Beatles album, Please Please Me, a chart topper in the U.K. for 29 weeks, Capitol once again said “Nothing doing,” and, true to form, the version released by VeeJay flopped in the U.S.

Early in November 1963, Time became the first mainstream American publication to register what was going on in England with an article entitled “The New Madness.” As Jonathan Gould points out in his book, Can’t Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain, and America (Harmony 2007), the early coverage in the American press was “playfully condescending,” with repeated references to “the stereotype of English ‘eccentricity’ and much reliance placed on metaphors of infestation and epidemic” like Variety’s headline, BEATLE BUG BITES BRITAIN. On December 1, 1963, when the nation was suffering through a post-assassination hangover, the New York Times Magazine ran an article titled “Britons Succumb to Beatlemania” showing the group with Princess Margaret along with images of mobs of fans being restrained, but barely, by the police.

What finally opened the eyes of the Capitol execs was a front page story in Variety announcing that the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” had become the first record in Britain ever to sell a million copies. According to Gould, when Capitol saw that “the Beatles had released as many million-selling singles in 1963 as the entire American recording industry,” and that “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was “arguably the fastest selling single ever released in any market, anywhere,” it was “with a kind of idiot’s delight” that “it dawned on the men who ran Capitol Records that the rights to sell it,” the veritable golden goose, “were theirs for the asking.”

The plan was to release the single in mid-January, ahead of the group’s February 9 appearance on Ed Sullivan, which had come about, as fate would have it, because that charmless mortuaryesque impresario of “really big shews” happened to be passing through “the madhouse” of Heathrow Airport months earlier when the Beatles were being greeted by a mob of frenzied fans. No matter, with the record already being smuggled into the country and played compulsively by American DJs, people had began hearing “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” so Capitol rushed it out the day after Christmas. On January 3, 1964, a clip of the Beatles singing “She Loves You” was shown on Johnny Carson’s late-night predecessor, The Jack Paar Show. On January 15, New York disc jockey Scott Muni reported receiving more than 12,000 applications for a Beatles fan club. A few days later “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” was at number 3 on its way to the top of Billboard’s Top 100.

The Elephant in the Room

Last week’s CNN special on “The British Invasion” shows the great arrival and the press conference at Kennedy where reporters came prepared to have their cynical way with the Beatles and found themselves playing straight man to four bright, funny, spirited, instantly likable young men with a quick comeback for every silly question:

“What do you think of Beethoven?”

“We love him — especially the poems.”

“Are you for real?”

“Come have a feel!”

“How many of you are bald, that you have to wear those wigs?”

“Oh we’re all bald … and deaf and dumb too.”

What the CNN special leaves unmentioned, the so-called elephant in the room, was that a country in shock needed something like this, a media-powered event mad and massive enough to offset the assassination, never mind how crass and noisy Beatlemania seemed before people began to hear the music and get into the spirit of it. Gould’s book describes the way the fallen president’s “princely aura of youth and good looks and vitality had come to personify for many Americans their country’s most hopeful and flattering vision of itself.” With the intense, relentless television coverage of November 22 and its prolonged, numbing aftermath, “never before in history had the means existed by which the people of an entire country could simultaneously bear witness to an event such as this.” For the first time ever “commercials stopped” and “the living rooms of America” were witness to “a tableau of unmediated shock and grief.” As Gould shows, teenagers found it particularly hard to deal with the “sudden violent death that forced them to confront their own mortality as well.” Gould quotes Jack Greenfield, who was 15 at the time: “If he wasn’t safe, no one was.”

At first, American teenagers sensed the Beatles, in Gould’s words, “as shadowy figures on the periphery of this riveting national drama.’” College students had their first exposure to the music during the vacation week between Christmas and New Years when stations across the country were playing “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” At the same time, “word of the Beatles began to spread through the high schools and middle schools of America.” In the middle of January, Capitol released the album, Meet the Beatles, which became “the focal point of Beatlemania in America.” Gould points out how the incongruously shadowed and somber black and white cover photograph of the group suggested “shades of empathy, sensitivity, and, above all, an uncanny feeling of mystery.” For young viewers, the cover implied “there was another side to this music and the success that came with it. Who were these people? Where did they come from? And why should they come to us now?”

Two nights after the Beatles arrived, a television audience of 70 million, the largest ever at that time, watched them perform four numbers on the Ed Sullivan Show. Gould may be embellishing the reality when he writes, “as Paul stepped up to the microphone and sang the words, ‘Close your eyes and I’ll kiss you,’ the spell of fear and unreality was finally broken for American’s 21 million teenagers,” but if you’ve heard that joyous, infectious love song, with its chorus “All my loving, I will give to you,” and can imagine how it was to hear and see it at that moment in time, you’ll grant Gould some poetic license: “Eleven weeks after it began, the television wake was over, and the party had just begun.”

Referring to the first appearance on Sullivan in The Beatles Anthology, Ringo says, “I still have people talking about where they were that night, it’s like where were you when Kennedy was shot.”

Of course the same Paul McCartney who sang “All My Loving” would be howling “Helter Skelter” four years later and the “party” would sprawl in some historically unfestive directions before the decade was over.


January 29, 2014

Rec Rev 1Like so many music-related happenings in Princeton, this one began at the Record Exchange. With snow on the ground and more coming, it was time to do what I should have done two years ago and buy Kate Bush’s album 50 Words for Snow, along with Paul McCartney’s new CD New, which is already three months old.

Mercy Mission

Driving into yet another snowfall Saturday, I was counting on the Bush/McCartney blend to keep me going on what promised to be a difficult journey. It was wildly irrational to be traveling to Siren Records in Doylestown under such conditions, except that this was a mercy mission on behalf of my vinyl-addicted son. Rock giveth and rock taketh away. Bathing a baby in the Beatles can come back to haunt you. The albums I was bringing to sell or trade, most of them former inhabitants of the Record Exchange, are by obscure American, British, and European groups from the late 1960s and early 1970s that owe their existence in one way or another to the four young men from Liverpool who arrived in New York 50 years ago, February 7, 1964.

By the time I was driving west on 518, the snow had taken over. Predictions had been for an inch or so. Some “inch” — how could anyone or anything measure the element that was sucking up miles and miles of the world in all directions. With the snow falling harder, the road getting smaller, and the first track on New playing, the windshield wipers were working overtime, the front ones going about half as fast as the one in back, adding a polyrhythmic effect to the song. The lyrics were timely: “In the heat of battle, you got something that’ll save us,” the wipers clacking and whooshing, the heater/AC/defroster roaring fullblast. Between Blawenburg and Hopewell, we seemed to be on a long one-lane bridge to nowhere, the shoulders gone, the center lines going, as we penetrated the relentless totality of that fabulous all-encompassing inch of snow.

On every recent McCartney album, there’s at least one song that inspires thoughts of the Beatles in their mid to late sixties prime. Chaos and Creation in the Backyard (2005) had “Friends to Go,” in Memory Almost Full (2007), it was “Only Mama Knows.” At the junction of 518 and NJ 31, when the visibility was so poor I was thinking of turning back, McCartney delivered another winner with the title track. Like the other big songs, “New” is about the Beatles. Spiritually, musically, emotionally, all four are on board. When Paul sings the phrase “All my life,” that’s what he’s saying, and the joy of it is only a more polished, elegant, but no less uplifting expression of the same old undying rock and roll passion, whether it’s driving “Please Please Me” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” or “Hey Jude” and “I Am the Walrus.” Look at the video on YouTube and what you see is a group of musicians led by McCartney playing before crowds of unimaginable magnitude, an image that will always spell B-e-a-t-l-e-s.

And what d’you know, as the song plays, I find I no longer need the windshield wipers, the road’s clear, the music’s working, telling me “It’s way too soon to see what’s gonna be.” This new song called “New” soars as it dances, a buoyant marriage of rhythm and melody riding the “fine line between chaos and creation” that Paul has been living on ever since he wrote “I’ll Follow the Sun,” four years before the Beatles had their first number one.

So why not believe that you can snuff the snow with music when a singer’s singing, “You came along and made my life a song” and “I never knew what I could be, what I could do,” and “Now we’re new”? And a few miles west of 31, so we were, no more snow, we were through, over the Delaware with a clear road to Doylestown and Siren.

Snow Queen

It was thanks to my son, who was already collecting and playing records at the age of four, that I discovered Kate Bush one day when he was listening to Pat Benatar sing “Wuthering Heights.” I couldn’t, as they say, believe my ears. Right away I had to know who had the audacity to write a song from the point of view of Cathy’s ghost rapping on Heathcliffe’s window. Surely not Pat Benatar. “K. Bush” said the composer credit. It took awhile to find out that K. Bush was a woman who already had recorded two albums of her own, which I found at the Record Exchange when it was still located in a hole in the wall across from Holder Hall.

I gave an account of this discovery seven years ago in a column about Kate’s album Aerial (2005) where I refer to her as a “creature” who “does things witches, elves, alien beings, and ventriloquists can only envy.” Once, when asked who her favorite singers were, she said, “a blackbird and a thrush.” I thought of her tonight watching Veronica Lake as a delightful witch making love to Fredric March in Rene Clair’s I Married a Witch. In 50 Words for Snow, Kate is beyond witchcraft, she’s a force of nature. Bing Crosby sings about snow. Kate Bush becomes snow.

What better than a force of nature “born in a cloud” to see me through the passage home? By the time I left Doylestown, the snow was falling as fast as before and the roads were worse. On the hills outside Lambertville I passed cars pulled over and one stopped in its tracks. All the while, Kate’s hypnotic snow music is playing, she’s at the piano quietly, hauntingly creating variations on the same figure, subtle and suspenseful, just the balanced steady accompaniment you need as you strain your eyes to pick out the vanishing segments of road at 30 m.p.h., focused to the nth degree.

The voice on “Snowflake” belongs to Kate’s son, Albert, the subject of “Bertie” on Aerial, but I heard it as her, or all the voices of the snow speaking though her, “We’re over a forest. There’s millions of snowflakes. We’re dancing.”

“Lake Tahoe,” the story of “a woman in a Victorian dress” who drowned in the lake, suggests this snow-blown song cycle could be her Winterreise, though a less melancholy winter journey than Schubert’s, with that ebbing and flowing piano. In “Misty” she makes love to a snow man. Is there another singer on the planet who would take that one on and get so beautifully away with it? Like Heathcliffe’s window, hers “flies open” as her bedroom “fills with falling snow” and in he comes and “lies down beside me.” Who else could put together such a storybook moment, Goodnight Moon meets Wuthering Heights. It’s beauty seducing Frosty the snow beast, as she kisses “his ice cream lips/And his creamy skin” and wakes in the morning to find “the sheets are soaking.” He’s gone, she opens the window, can’t find him, it’s still snowing, he’s out there somewhere, so she steps on to the ledge.

The Last Stretch

There’s another car pulled over. And another. A coyote leaps across the road five slow miles east of Lambertville. The music’s working, the beat picking up with “Wild Man,” another bizarre love song from the snow queen, this time the object of Kate’s affection is the Kangchenjunga Demon (“Lying in my tent, I can hear your cry echoing round the mountainside”). As we coast into Hopewell, she’s singing a duet with Elton John, and I remember why I passed up buying the album when it came out. I wasn’t ready for that duet, but they bring it off, two lost souls singing through the ages in “Snowed in at Wheeler Street.” In the title song, the 50 words are spoken by Stephen Fry, but it’s Kate’s poem, her way of improvising on the myth that Eskimos have that many words for snow. After some playful words like “lolefaloop/njoompoola,” the last ones say it all for the stretch of road through the windy Siberia between Blawenburg and 206: “vanishing world,” “mistraldespair,” and last of all, “snow.”

Home at last, a cup of tea, some YouTube interviews with Kate with photos of her bundled up and beautiful in snowy attire, and videos from New, including the one for “Queenie Eye” shot at Abbey Road studio where the Beatles made history. McCartney is alone at the piano until the room begins filling with people   listening, mingling, dancing, some familiar faces among them. The first one you see is slumped on the floor at the foot of the piano. It’s Johnny Depp. In the video about the making of the video, he expresses his awe, to have entered the hallowed space where all that music was made: “That’s the room that changed the world,” he says.

The quotes from Kate Bush are from a Huffington Post interview. Both records are available at the Princeton Record Exchange. Strange, Paul has just won a Grammy for the Best Rock Song, recorded with surviving members of Nirvana. On the strength of one listen, “Give Me Some Slack” can’t hold the proverbial candle to “New,” not to mention “Helter Skelter.” You can see for yourself in the video from the December 12, 2012 Concert for Sandy Relief, where Paul is playing the “cigar-box guitar” given him by Johnny Depp.

—Stuart Mitchner

January 22, 2014

Lend me your ears and I’ll sing you a song, and I’ll try not to sing out of key.

—Lennon and McCartney

There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.

Sir Francis Bacon 1561-1626

With the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ arrival in America looming, the idea of an odd couple like Strindberg and Byron performing on the same imaginary stage isn’t so far fetched — at least not if you recall the most celebrated album cover of its day, in which the Fab Four appear costumed as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band standing with a photo montage of “infinite riches” from past and present, movie stars and mystics, poets and explorers, celebrities and occasional lesser lights. The star attractions in this page’s music hall are some literary gentlemen who share the same birthday, and it seems only right that a knight of the realm should open and close the festivities. Coming all the way from January 22, 1561, to deliver words of wisdom on the strange beauty of the occasion, Sir Francis Bacon, performing an imperfect flourish, announces the main event: “In this corner, stage right, wrapped in the Greek flag, Lord Byron (1788-1824), and entering stage left, the pride of  Stockholm, August Strindberg (1849-1912).

book rev2A Byron Treasure

Of course the best place outside the internet to find Byron, Bacon, and Strindberg under the same roof is in a well-stocked secondhand bookstore like the Old York in New Brunswick or the Wise Owl in Bristol, England. In bygone days at the Old York, when the word on the street had it that the owner would be unpacking some treasures to put out for sale, book dealers would flock like birds of prey to feed on the grossly underpriced new arrivals. In all the years I frequented the store, the one time I happened to be present when John Socia was unpacking a freshly bought lot, he pulled out a set of Byron from the 1820s, eight elegant little volumes with gold-tinted pages. It didn’t matter that I’d never bonded with Byron the way I had with Keats and Coleridge. I was gaping, dazed, in awe. Even the most generous of book dealers would have put a hefty price on that set, but when John saw the lovesick gaze in my eyes, the classic starving grad student, he quoted an unthinkably low price. As it turned out, I was more at home reading Byron in the copy of the Norton Anthology of English Literature I’d been living with during my year as a Norton college traveler.

book rev1Strindberg in Bristol          

Strindberg’s autobiographical novel, The Inferno, cost me the equivalent of 50 cents at the Wise Owl, which was located just around the corner from a 17th-century alms house. Although Bristol had a number of browsable secondhand stores in the 1970s — from the magnificent George’s at the top of the Park Street hill to the lowly George’s on the Christmas Steps — my favorite was the Wise Owl, a paradise of “quaint and curious volumes,” most of them reasonably priced. It was there that I found an illustrated set of the Brontes, a copy of the works of Milton the size of a package of cigarettes, and an equally charismatic volume from the same year (1837), Daniel Defoe’s History of the Devil. This bookshop specialized in the occult, shelves and shelves of it, which is where the Strindberg turned up, seething like a smoky red beacon amid its unprepossessing neighbors.

First published in English in 1912, the year its author died, The Inferno’s once-brick-red front and back covers were so haunted by mysterious stains and shadows that most discriminating book buyers would have hesitated to touch it let alone buy it. Being a believer in the Baconian aesthetic of strangeness, I found the condition of the leprous object fascinating in itself, and after reading a page or two I realized that I was holding one of those volumes where the medium, due to the ravages of time and misuse, had come to reflect its demented message. The thing looked as though it had been set on a hearth stone to dry after being dipped into one of the sulphurous solutions that flayed and ravaged Strindberg’s hands on his descent into the nether regions of alchemy.

Anchor or Be Wrecked

At that time I only knew Strindberg as a dramatist (Miss Julie, A Dream Play), not as a tortured mystic obsessed with “the problem of making gold” in his makeshift laboratory in Paris as he suffered through hell, purgatory, and paradise in 1896. Though tormented by demons of paranoia, he took pleasure in bizarre transformations, hunks of coal taking the shape of grotesque tableaus; the detached germ of a nut appearing on “the glass-slide of the microscope” as “two tiny hands, white as alabaster, folded as if in prayer … fingers clasped in a beseeching gesture”; a zinc bath showing “on its inner sides a
landscape formed by the evaporation of iron salts,” the latter image not unlike the stain I saw on the book’s cover.

If you wonder what the author of The Inferno can have in common with the Don Juan who wrote Don Juan you need read no farther than Byron’s Faustian dramatic poem Manfred (which Strindberg “greatly admired” for its “criticisms of society”) or the opening lines of Childe Harold, who has “through sin’s labyrinth run” and “for change of scene would seek the shades below.” More to the Byronic point, there’s translator Claud Field’s introduction to my copy of The Inferno, quoting Robertson of Brighton (“Woman and God are two rocks on which a man must either anchor or be wrecked”) and pointing out that even toward the end of Strindberg’s life, when “the storm has subsided” and “the sea is calm, though strewn with wreckage,” one bitter fact remains: “He cannot forgive woman. She has injured him too deeply. All his life long she has been ‘a cleaving mischief in his way to virtue.’”

Both men were shipwrecked on those rocks, just as both were wounded from birth, Byron literally, having been born with a club foot and sexually abused by a sadistic governess, Strindberg growing up with a fear of the “invisible powers” that “robbed him of all peace of mind.” According to Sue Prideaux’s recent biography “he could do nothing without doing wrong,” was slapped, scolded, caned, and birched (“It had been effectively dinned into him that he had no right to exist”).

Strindberg was sent to a notoriously strict school, where he fell in love with the rector’s nine-year-old daughter, the only female in his class (boys who dared to so much as look at her were whipped), and it was for the love of this girl that he threatened to cut his throat. In Edna O’Brien’s Byron in Love (Norton 2009), eight-year-old Byron “felt the attendant joys and uncertainty of first raptuorus love,” the girl, named Mary, “one of those evanescent beings, made of rainbow, with a Greek cast of features, to whom he would for ever be susceptible,” her “successor” a distant cousin “for whom he also conceived a violent love.”

No doubt Byron and Strindberg would raise their respective eyebrows if they knew that the biographies of the moment are by women: besides Edna O’Brien’s, there are Benita Eisler’s Byron: Child of Passion, Fool of Fame (Knopf 1999), and Sue Prideaux’s Strindberg: A Life (Yale 2012), which features an author photo showing Ms. Prideaux at the feet of the Strindberg monument in Stockholm, a nude sculpture of the dramatist as a Greek god so sprawling, muscular, and immense that you can barely see the comely biographer smiling in its shadow.

Women, Women

Admitted, my knowledge of Byron hasn’t progressed much beyond the 90 pages afforded him in my frayed, faded copy of the Norton Anthology. And to be brutally honest, it wasn’t the poetry that struck a certain lonely Norton college traveler writing a freeform novel about a ravishing teen-age goddess named Susanna: it was the commentary revealing how Byron “found himself besieged by women” and the way this “period of great literary creativity coincided with a period of frenzied debauchery, which, Byron estimated, involved more than 200 women, mainly of the lower classes.”

Among the numerous compelling illustrations in Prideaux’s handsome biography of Strindberg (including a selection displaying his Turneresque paintings), there’s a photograph of the funeral procession on May 19, 1912, when ten thousand people lined the streets of Stockholm to honor the dramatist. What stands out most among the photographs, however, are those of Strindberg’s children he took himself and the photographs of his first and third wives, both actresses, the first, Siri von Essen, costumed to play Jane Eyre, the third, Harriet Bosse, a charming Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (“Her movements … were like music for the eyes”). Writing in his Occult Diary, Strindberg describes encountering 22-year-old Harriet backstage, where her “little face … assumed a supernatural beauty,” her eyes “ensnaring me with black lightning.” In the dream he had of her appearing “in her costume as Puck,” she gave him her foot to kiss, but then, inevitably with Strindberg, things took a demonic turn, the angel was an “incubus,” and everything became “quite ghastly.”

The Last Word

Although Sgt. Pepper’s “band you’ve known for all these years” kicked off the music hall festivities, and although Harriet Bosse’s supernatural beauty and black lightning glances suggest the “kaleidoscope eyes” of “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” the last word belongs to Sir Francis, who tells us that “love is ever matter of comedies, and now and then of tragedies,” which “in life … doth much mischief; sometimes like a siren, sometimes like a fury.”


January 15, 2014

book rev Amiri“Amiri Baraka, The Last Poet Laureate of New Jersey.” This is how Baraka, who died at 79 on January 9, signed the introduction to his 2007 short story collection, Tales of the Out & the Gone (2007).

In the headline above the photograph on the front page of Friday’s New York Times, he’s “Amiri Baraka, Firebrand Poet, Playwright, and Activist.” Inside, in the headline over the full-page obituary by Margalit Fox, he’s “Amiri Baraka, Polarizing Poet and Playwright.” The first sentence describes him as a writer of “pulsating rage, whose long illumination of the black experience in America was called incandescent in some quarters and incendiary in others” — which is what Fox News might call a Fair and Balanced Farewell.

The terms would probably have been less extreme or at least differently phrased except for a few lines toward the end of a long poem Baraka read at the 2002 Dodge Poetry Festival called “Somebody Blew Up America.” Unless you read the whole poem, you might assume, as I did, that the central thrust builds toward the six lines echoing the hateful, ludicrous, and much-denounced rumor about Israel’s possible foreknowledge of September 11. That’s what set off the uproar leading then-Governor McGreevey to attempt to remove Baraka as poet laureate. What followed was a stunning example of poetic justice. When the poet predictably refused to be removed, the position of poet laureate was abolished, giving Baraka the opportunity to justly refer to himself as the last poet laureate of New Jersey. In effect, the poet himself wrote the last line of that particular piece of public poetry.

Harsh and Bluesy

Search for Amiri Baraka on YouTube and you find a long scream of a poem from the 1970s called “Dope,” performed with theatrical, at times evangelical, gusto and a harsh, bluesy, jazzy fervor. This verse exorcism, which in its litany of evils is not unlike the poem that blindsided the laureateship, puts in play what Baraka once said of jazz great Charlie Parker, “who would literally imitate the human voice with his cries, swoops, squawks, and slurs.” Written in 1963 when he was still known as LeRoi Jones, the observation comes from his book Blues People: The Negro Experience in White America and the Music that Developed From It. “Parker,” he goes on to say, “did not admit there was any separation between himself and the agent he had chosen as his means of self-expression.” The same is true of Baraka and his poetry. The big difference is, to use the terms from the Times, that Parker’s playing is incandescent and Baraka’s writing, at least in “Dope” and “Somebody Blew Up America,” is incendiary.

Remembering LeRoi Jones

When I read Baraka’s Black Power/Third World Socialist/Marxist narrative in the Times obituary, I was remembering a slightly built, neatly bearded man in a three-piece suit named LeRoi Jones. Working in a bookstore in the heart of Greenwich Village in the time period recently reprised by the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, I saw someone whose dapper attire seemed a marked departure from the customary who-cares attitude of the Beat scene in which he was active as a poet and founding editor of the journal Yugen. Jones’s first book of poetry, Preface to a 20 Volume Suicide Note, was published, as was Yugen, by Corinth, the small press run by my employer, the Eighth Street Bookshop. Having heard just the other day, out of the blue, that Jones was employed there himself at one time, I assume he dressed more casually when he was working the cash register, helping customers, or unpacking books.

Baraka’s Autobiography of LeRoi Jones lends credence to my memory of the serious dresser, however. Around the time he transferred from Rutgers to Howard University in 1952, he frequented a “kind of English store the likes of which are found no more in Newark …. With saddles and riding boots and crops for decoration, cloth laid about. Very traditional and English and it impressed the hell out of me …. And the clothes now I began to buy out of that mold. The English conservative clothes that the Ivy tradition is the natural extension of.”

He must have been 18 at the time. Aspects of his sartorial evolution can be seen in the photos accompanying the Times article: dashiki-clad in one from 1968, looking Thelonius-Monkish in performance with jazz bassist Reggie Workman in 1999, clad in a suit and dancing with Maya Angelou in 1991, and appearing the thoughtful, pinstripe-shirted scholar poet at home in Newark in 2007.

Baraka and King

When I realized that this issue of Town Topics would be coming out on January 15, Martin Luther King’s 84th birthday, I went to YouTube again and found a video of Baraka’s address at the 2011 Community Celebration of King at the University of Virginia.

Of all the tributes and remembrances on Martin Luther King Day 2014, you’re unlikely to find any to equal Baraka’s from January 28, 2011. In his hour and twenty minutes he hits all his personal flash points, reads “Somebody Blew Up America,” answers questions, and makes it clear that he’s still angry about the 2003 murder of his daughter. Nevertheless, the heart of the talk — and “heart” is the word for it — is Martin Luther King, Jr. At 77, Baraka still shows flashes of the firebrand when he refers to people not knowing “why Christ got iced.” As that piece of street talk suggests, Baraka isn’t attempting to mimic King’s inspirational style in his toned-down paraphrasing of passages from the best known speeches. He mutes his angry muse even as he’s subverting the benign stereotype of King, who was not, as Baraka puts it, “the passive individual that the McDonald’s commercials suggest.” You could almost say that he’s remaking King in his own “incendiary” image, stressing the man’s toughness and stamina, his moral courage, the fact that he was jailed 16 times, that he put his life on the line every day.

About 45 minutes into the video, Baraka appears moved as he offers his version of King’s eve-of-death “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech at the Bishop Charles J. Mason Temple in Memphis. Baraka begins by pounding out a beat on the lectern as he softly half-sings half-chants “Don’t Let Nobody Turn Me Around,” the protest song King and  six thousand protestors were singing as they marched in downtown Memphis in support of the striking sanitation workers. Stressing the life-on-the-line theme, Baraka puts his more informal language in place of King’s rhetorically heightened account of the incident in New York when he suffered a near-fatal stabbing and was later told by doctors that if he had “merely sneezed” he “would have died.” Even a genius orator would be hard put to bring off King’s “If I had sneezed” mantra, surely not one of the high points in any King documentary. Still speaking as King, Baraka simplifies and quietly underplays the incident, reducing it to a sentence, “Only a few years ago a woman they said was crazed plunged a knife into my chest and the doctors said if I’d sneezed I would have died.” Keeping it low-key while quietly building to the emotional peak of the speech, Baraka tamps down the rhetorical dynamite of the mountaintop and the promised land, so that the emphasis falls on the simplest but most powerful line in the speech: “I may not get there with you.” Baraka’s King says “wit” instead of “with” and it’s effective. He’s singing King’s song in his own way. For the last lines, though, Baraka stays with the text, letting the passion surface but still without attempting to match King’s glorious, ringing “And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

King Comes Calling

The warmest part of Baraka’s 2011 tribute comes in the context of King’s visit to Newark to lead “the poor people’s march” in late March 1968. Baraka describes looking from his front window at the crowds coming down the street, the sound of helicopters overhead (“I thought we were about to get busted”): “The doorbell rang. I opened the door, There’s Dr. King standing on the doorstep. A photographer took a picture of me with my mouth hung open …. Dr. King came in my house, he says, ‘Hello, Leroy.’ [Baraka chuckles at the “Leroy”] You don’t look like such a bad person.’ [another chuckle] People told me you were a bad person.’ [one more chuckle] Here’s King came with stubble on his face, open shirt, poor people’s march, the next week he was dead.”

Baraka says the photograph he mentions hung for years in Newark’s City Hall — until it was moved by Mayor Cory Booker, perhaps a variation on the removal of the title of poet laureate. Baraka has his own ideas about that. He figures every time the mayor walked past the picture it was “making noise” about issues Baraka had with Booker.

Amiri Baraka’s funeral will be held at Newark Symphony Hall at 10 a.m. on January 18. Metropolitan Baptist Church will hold a viewing on Friday, from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Carl Faith

Almost exactly 10 years ago, I received a nice message from Carl Faith, who died January 12 (see this week’s obituaries). In his response to my piece on George Kennan, he recalled talking with Mr. Kennan at tea and lunch during Mr. Faith’s tenure at the Institute. I remember him not only as the first reader to write me but as a fellow book lover and devoted customer of John Socia’s Old York Bookstore in New Brunswick and later of the ongoing used book sale at the library.


January 8, 2014

book revI kept thinking of Shakespeare as I watched the eleven-minute BBC video of London’s spectacular New Year’s fireworks display. All that celestial excitement exploding above his river, his city, his Globe — the show was worthy of a stage direction like the one in the last act of Cymbeline: “Jupiter descends in thunder and lightning, sitting upon an eagle: he throws a thunderbolt. The Apparitions fall on their knees.” Or the Soothsayer’s image in the last scene of the same play, “The fingers of the powers above do tune/The harmony of this peace.” Or in the play’s last speech, King Cymbeline’s “Laud we the gods;/And let our crooked smokes climb to their nostrils.” 

It was all there in the first half hour of 2014, Jupiter’s thunderbolts and apparitions (except they weren’t on their knees, they were flying like drunken angels), “crooked smokes” ascending and descending, the fingers of the powers above (and below) tuning all that glory, and why not? What better word for the fantastical audacity of the phenomenon than Shakespearean? Admittedly, literature had nothing to do with it, the display having been billed as a “multi-sensory” event featuring clouds of apple, cherry, and strawberry mist, peach snow, thousands of bubbles filled with Seville orange-flavored smoke, and 40,000 grams of edible banana confetti. This looney idea nevertheless created a unique concatenation of visual delights that evoked Hamlet’s “brave o’erhanging firmament, this Majesticall roofe, fretted with golden fire.” Such, at least, were my thoughts as I wondered what was so special about 2014 that the city and its Tory mayor should launch so fabulously excessive a celebration.

With the big number staring me in the face, I finally figured it out — Shakespeare’s birth year is 1564, which means 2014 marks his 450th anniversary, which explains the over-the-top New Year spectacle. Or does it? Not a word about Shakespeare could I find ahead of the event, nothing but references to the edible aspect, like the headline in the Express: “Willy Wonka to take over Boris Johnson’s fireworks display.”

Meanwhile, London’s golden fire had inspired a New Year’s resolution, which begins with this column. During the next 12 months I’m going to binge on Shakespeare, starting with Cymbeline.

Why Cymbeline?

On my first summer in Europe, a friend introduced me to the first verse of the funeral song from Cymbeline: “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,/Nor the furious winter’s rages;/Thou thy worldly task hast done,/Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages:/Golden lads and girls all must,/As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.” All these years later in the hour after midnight, 2014, I remembered the song and decided it was time to read the play it came from, as a sort of down payment on my New Year’s resolution. Why hadn’t I ever read it? Perhaps I’d kept my distance until now because of something negative I’d read or heard, most likely the suggestion that other playwrights had had a hand in its creation. And what is it anyway? Surely not a comedy, with all its evil, passion, rage, and vile deceit, not to mention a beheading, with the headless corpse in view at the center of the play’s supreme dramatic moment. Is it a romance? A tragedy? A problem play? Hazlitt called it “one of the most delightful” of Shakespeare’s histories. Samuel Johnson couldn’t abide it: “To remark the folly of the fiction,” he wrote, “the absurdity of the conduct, the confusion of the names and manners of different times, and the impossibility of the events in any system of life, were to waste criticism upon unresisting imbecility, upon faults too evident for detection, and too gross for aggravation.”

The intensity of Johnson’s dismissal made me curious. Here was a work by the greatest writer in the world that could not be fitted into “any system of life.” And suppose Johnson was even a little bit near the truth, how could that peerless lyric “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun” possibly make sense amid “unresisting imbecility”?

My reading of Cymbeline began as a search for the song. It went badly at first, with a tedious account of the background of the ostensible hero, Posthumus, from Sicilius to Cassibelan to Tenantius to Leonatus. The names piled up, the movement of the language seemed awkward, halting, perfunctory. Looking for the music, I prowled through a series of bizarre episodes dominated by intemperate kings, evil queens, and devious Italians. Where was the song? For that matter, where was Swinburne’s “heavenly harmony of Cymbeline”? And Hazlitt’s “tender gloom” that “o’erspreads the whole”? How could Keats celebrate it as an example of the “poetical Character” that has “as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen”?

Imogen in the Flesh

It was Imogen who drew me in, dazzled and seduced me. Swinburne ends his Study of Shakespeare with reference to “the name of the woman above all Shakespeare’s women … the name of the woman best beloved in all the world of song and all the tide of time … the name of Shakespeare’s Imogen.” Shakespeare allows us a remarkably intimate view of Cymbeline’s daughter asleep, half naked; thanks to the wily Iachimo’s clandestine visit to her bedchamber we know that her body is “whiter than the sheets” of her bed and that there’s a mole on her left breast, “cinque-spotted: like the crimson drops/I’ th’ bottom of a cowslip.”

It made sense, then, that Imogen would be there when I found the song about the golden lads and girls. Where in this bizarre “system of life” could lines of such depth and simple beauty turn up? Where else but in Act IV, scene 2, one of the most outlandishly brilliant sequences in all of Shakespeare.

Shakespeare’s Magnaminity

Act IV begins with a travesty of a soliloquy spoken by an idiot signifying nothing more than his almost sublime cluelessness. Here in the character of Cloten, the evil queen’s son, is the embodiment of the “imbecility” that must have encouraged Johnson’s use of the term.

What Baudelaire said of the author of the La Comédie humaine — “Everyone in Balzac has genius — even the door-keepers. All his minds are weapons loaded to the muzzle with will” — can also be applied to characters in Shakespeare since almost every character is invested with the essence of his brilliance, fools and kings, rogues and killers, whether speaking in blank verse or earthy prose. But Cloten? You can’t help feeling that having created so deeply obnoxious a character, Shakespeare decided not to provide so much as a fig-leaf of intelligence or style to hide his naked worthlessness. Cloten can’t even, in effect, “speak Shakespeare.” His tasteless attempts to woo Imogen, who has already been wed to her true love, the banished Posthumus, are met with eloquent scorn by the object of his absurdly cloddish advances. At one point, having already torn him verbally to tatters, Imogen plants with one word the seed of his doom by declaring that he is not worth the “meanest garment” worn by Posthumus. The word garment seems to clutch Cloten by the throat. He’s invaded by it, addled by it, stupefied by it, idiotically repeating it to himself, four times over, “His garment!”

Cloten’s idea — an imbecilic stroke of literal-minded genius — is to steal an actual garment belonging to Posthumus so that he can be seen wearing it by Imogen while he carries out his doomed plan to kill his rival while she looks on, after which he will have his way with her before dragging her back to court and marriage. You know he’s doomed because everything he says falls as flat as the philosophical flourish with which he prefaces his boast, Cloten’s dumbed down version of “To be or not to be”: “What mortality is! Posthumus, thy head, which now is growing upon thy shoulders, shall within this hour be off; thy mistress enforced; thy garments cut to pieces before thy face: and all this done, spurn her home to her father; who may haply be a little angry for my so rough usage; but my mother, having power of his testiness, shall turn all into my commendations.”

Cloten is still plagued by the g-word. Even though the head is off, the face of his victim will be watching as the hateful garment is cut to pieces. And the king will be a little angry? Please. Cymbeline is never “a little angry.” It should be obvious by now whose head will “within this hour be off.”

Thus the masterful sequence that follows is prefaced by a fool who lacks even the literary charm with which Shakespeare endows his silliest clowns. And how gross is his fate, to have his severed head displayed a mere minute after he goads his killer “When I have slain thee with my proper hand,/I’ll follow those that even now fled hence,/And on the gates of Lud’s-town set your heads.”

The rest of the scene has to be read to be believed. Imogen, who has found refuge disguised as a boy in the cave of the “mountaineers” (her lost brothers, it turns out), wakes from a drugged death-like state to find herself lying beside Cloten’s headless corpse, which because it’s dressed in Posthumus’s garment she thinks is the mutilated body of her beloved. This gruesome situation follows directly upon the performance of the funeral song, the object of my quest, which her still-unrecognized brothers, thinking her dead, sing over her body. Shakespeare then magnanimously allows the slain Cloten to share the afterglow of this tender moment; he’s a queen’s son, after all. His head having been tossed in a stream, his body is ceremoniously placed beside Imogen’s.

The 1982 BBC film of Cymbeline is labeled a comedy. And no doubt the groundlings would roar with laughter should the scene be played poorly. How cruel, how dreadful is our knowledge that the body Imogen laments over so passionately and movingly, embracing it, wiping her face with blood from the gaping wound, is not her husband but the man she loathes, the despicable Cloten. Yet this ugly irony in no way distracts from the emotional impact of a speech that Helen Mirren delivers with hair-raising intensity in the BBC film — you seem to see her reaching out to touch the master overlooking the scene, he who gave her these words, ignited these extraordinary theatrical fireworks. What makes it sublime is Shakespeare’s understanding that for the sake of the play, the integrity of his vision, the hideous delusion will be redeemed by the harmony of a happy ending she alone has the force to make possible, she alone great enough to comprehend it. It’s the infectious genius of her character, the very electricity that created her, that Cymbeline observes, in the play’s final moments, Imogen reunited with Posthumus and the others, as “she, like harmless lightning, throws her eye/On him, her brother, me, her master, hitting/Each object with a joy.”

Cymbeline the Film

Believe it or not, Cymbeline has been updated to the present and filmed, only this past fall, with Ed Harris as the title character, leader of a biker gang, and Princeton’s own Ethan Hawke as the devious Iachimo, Mira Jovovich as the evil queen, and as Imogen Dakota Johnson, who plays Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey. The film will be released in the new year — if a distributor can be found. 


January 2, 2014

DVD rev“In My Life” started out as a bus journey from my house to town … and it wasn’t working at all …. But then I laid back and these lyrics started coming to me about the places I remember.”

—John Lennon

For the first time in the 10 years that I’ve been writing for Town Topics, we’re printing on New Year’s Day and I’m thinking about the words and music people all over the world still sing at the chimes of midnight. The earliest known manuscript of Robert Burns’s poem “Auld Lang Syne” is in the permanent collection of the Lilly Library in my hometown, Bloomington, Indiana, a place that for me is synonymous with “old long since” or “long long ago” or “days gone by,” among the numerous listed English versions of the three-word title of the poignant New Year’s anthem.

This year of columns began with Ravi Shankar, who died December 11, 2012, and now 2014 begins with Peter O’Toole, who died December 14, 2013. It’s been my good fortune to see both the musician and the actor in live performances in India and Bristol, two of “the places I’ll remember,” a line John Lennon claimed for posterity when he wrote “In My Life,” which is, if you think of it, a perfect Beatles “Auld Lang Syne” — “All these places have their moments/With lovers and friends I still can recall/Some are dead and some are living/In my life I’ve loved them all.” It’s fitting that Paul and John were not in complete agreement about whose song it is. No one doubts that John wrote the lyric, but as he admits, the “middle eight melody” was Paul’s contribution. John sings it with such feeling that ownership is not an issue. Paul is in the spirit of the song. So are all four. Listen to it now, with John and George gone but never forgotten, and take “a cup of kindness for old time’s sake” those of you were fortunate enough to be alive when the Beatles recorded Rubber Soul and began their all too brief Golden Age only three years after Peter O’Toole made what must be the greatest debut in motion picture history.

Enter O’Toole

Memory being the subject of both “Auld Lang Syne” and “In My Life,” I’m recalling the most memorable theatrical entrance I ever saw, 40 years ago at Bristol’s Theatre Royal. By “memorable” I don’t mean most moving, dramatic, or grandiose. “Impressive” won’t say it either. Even “eloquent” doesn’t describe the moment Peter O’Toole took the stage as the title character in the Bristol Old Vic production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. A decade after Lawrence of Arabia, O’Toole was performing for the first time in 20 years on the stage where his career took off with a Hamlet that brought critics like Kenneth Tynan hurrying over from London to see for themselves what all the excitement was about.

The stage direction for Vanya’s entrance is not complicated: “He has been asleep after dinner and looks rather dishevelled. He sits down on the bench and straightens his collar.” While the right costume can replicate “rather dishevelled,” the instant O’Toole crept limply, brokenly, decrepitly into view, a one-man theatre of the absurd, he delivered the character. It was a “To Be Or Not To Be” of head-to-toe, benignly disordered body English. As he took several breathlessly unsteady steps forward, everything about him, every inch, was skewed, untuned, amiss, his face in a transport of uneasy lassitude, eyes lost, at sea in a dream world, a Chaplinesque loser you can’t help hoping will carry the day in the end; you feel for the actor and character as one being, you’re on their side, they have you. The applause that erupted the instant O’Toole made his gracefully ungainly entrance may have been inspired by the movie star who had come home to the theatre and the city where he’d found himself as a young actor, but when the ovation soared toward a cheer, it was for the Vanya he’d delivered without a word, the dreamer, at once closeted poet, cosmic victim, fool, and indolent prophet. It was as if Chekhov himself had slyly taken the stage.

When asked if he has any news, Vanya says “I don’t do anything now but croak like a raven.” When the beauty he’s futilely in love with observes what a fine day it is, he says, “A fine day to hang oneself.” The play’s barely begun and you already know Vanya is its embattled Hamlet.

That our year and a half in Bristol coincided with Peter O’Toole’s season of three plays and one reading at the Old Vic was one of those rare strokes of good fortune. I made passing mention of the actor’s fondness for the city in my October 30 column about a recent return visit. The pleasure of seeing plays in the Theatre Royal wasn’t just the low cost ($1.75) and the quality of the staging and performances, it was the cozy old place itself. As O’Toole told an interviewer, “the ships come right to the stage door of the theatre in Bristol. It’s a jewel … a little 1760 affair built without a facade, built in a corn merchant’s house. The Puritans had closed it, but with the issue of a little silver coin you entered into magic. You would go through the corn merchant’s front door, then his bed room, and after that — Paradise. The Paradise the Puritans tried to forbid …. It’s the most beautiful theatre in the world …. But I’m rambling. Such a fixée for me, Bristol is.”

Think of the Auld Lang Syne midnights when O’Toole raised a glass to those early days at the Bristol Old Vic, especially after the triumph of Lawrence: “Bristol became my home,” he told the interviewer. “I was accepted there and it’s where I became me. You see, when I left Bristol, I was famous, and the city haunted me.”


No doubt about it, the past year of columns has a certain Auld Lang Syne quality, with prose cups of kindess to the memory of giants like Wagner and Verdi in their bicenentary years and to Richard Nixon on his centenary; birthday toasts to Grand Central Station on its 100th, Proust, Kafka, C.F. Cavafy, D.H. Lawrence, Rainer Maria Rilke, James Agee; farewell toasts to stars like Deanna Durbin, Julie Harris, James Gandolfini, Eleanor Parker, Audrey Totter, and Joan Fontaine; to Princess Grace and rocker Lou Reed, Spenser scholar Paul Alpers, and Dostoevsky biographer and longtime Princeton resident Joseph Frank, not to mention conductor Colin Davis. Even fictional characters like Walter White and Nicholas Brody have come and gone and been remembered.

Remembering a Librarian

The death of a Joseph Frank or a Peter Lewis is major local news and so reported, but every now and then, as happened this year with bibliophile Peter Oppenheimer, you begin to wonder why you haven’t seen an “old Princeton acquaintance” on the street only to receive the shock of the news off the record, without benefit of an obituary. This is how I learned about reference librarian Terri Nelson, who retired in 2010 after 22 years at the Princeton Public Library and died this past July at 66.

Terri started out as a children’s librarian around the time my son turned 13, let his hair grow long, began wearing army jackets with peace buttons, and listening to sixties music. Like all Princeton kids of various ages, he was fond of Dudley Carlson, but the sixties person who knew what he was feeling and where he was coming from was Terri Nelson, who had gone to school at Berkeley and had opinions about politics, race relations, and rock and roll. While I got to know Terri, a fellow Hoosier, through volunteer work with the Friends of the Library Book Sale (I regularly set aside Princeton-related materials for her), my son knew more of her Vietnam-impacted story than I ever did.

According to Ellen Gilbert’s Town Topics article (“A Passion for Genealogy Inspires Princeton Librarian’s Seminars on the Past”), Terri’s fascination with genealogy was inspired by the discovery that her family could be traced back to the Starbucks of Nantucket — meaning, of course, the family of Captain Ahab’s steadfast first mate, not the coffee makers. In July 2008 when the article appeared, Terri was not only overseeing the Princeton Room and numerous online resources on Princeton and African American history (including a site devoted solely to Paul Robeson), she was teaching classes on genealogy whose students included two Mayflower descendants. According to Library director Leslie Burger, Terri was also instrumental in designing and maintaining the library’s “very first website.”

The comment from one of Terri’s colleagues at the library, who remembers her as “a brilliant person whose life was tragic,” reflects the complex story behind the familiar figure seen over the years by people driving down or idling on Sylvia Beach Way behind the new library. As John’s song says, “All these places have their moments.” Perhaps you remember her as the lady on the bench, smoking a cigarette, a lonely community cameo worth a special thought at this time of the year, a special cup of kindness. 

The Peter O’Toole quotes are from an interview with Roy Newquist in the collection, Counter Point (Rand McNally 1964). The story about Terri Nelson can be found at www.towntopics.com/jul3008/other2.php. The John Lennon quote is from the Playboy interview.


December 26, 2013

DVD rev“The bad girls were so much fun to play …. Critics always said I acted best with a gun in my hand.”

—Audrey Totter (1917-2013)

When actress Audrey Totter died December 12, the obituaries all but unanimously labeled her a “femme fatale of classic film noir.” There’s something darkly addictive about the term “film noir,” two words that, along with “noir,” have spectacularly transcended the genre of American film French cinephiles gave a name to in the mid-1940s. Whether you think of it as a mood or a state of mind or a way of putting a convenient handle on something that challenges description, film noir has, in the internet sense, gone viral. It’s infinitely adaptable, one of those so-called “winged words” that fly well beyond their origins. Sometimes it seems we’ve been looking for film noir, waiting for it, ever since Cain slew Abel, Mephistopheles signed up Faust, and Macbeth heeded the witches and his femme fatale wife.

A Recent Noir Romance

Cain and Abel aside, the original noir couple is Adam and Eve, and right now I’m thinking of a couple whose last night together was recently watched by millions of cable television viewers. In this case, the man is a killer on the run and the woman hiding him out and risking her life on his behalf is complicit in the murder, which was done on assignment, in a justified cause (the “service of their country”), but guilt or innocence has nothing to do with it. That’s the beauty of this fantastically star-crossed couple. Theirs is so improbable a romance that we know from the start it has to be doomed; that’s what makes it so fascinating. Everything about these two has been ambiguous. He enters as an instrument of evil, which the woman has figured out long before anyone else suspects it, and one reason she knows is because she’s already begun to fall in love with him. They have sex, make love, know love, express it unconditionally, the “bigger than both of us” sort. This is what it’s all about, life and love, love and death, duty and country.

One of the tropes of film noir is the man of action wounded, embattled, in need of help, finding safe haven for a time in the arms of the woman who may betray him or protect him or bring him to his fate, which is sometimes beyond her control, as it proves to be here. She’s hustled him undercover and against all odds to a desolate refuge where they are to be rescued from the forces pursuing them. Alone together at last in that bleak sanctuary, they make no explicit avowals of love — they don’t need to, it’s understood — and they have no time for lovemaking; they’re both exhausted, both beyond it. Later we see the man nestled asleep with his head in her lap. This again is pure noir romance. She has him to herself and she has his child in her womb. But it’s folly to imagine for a moment that they can actually have a life together. It’s not, to put it crudely, in the script. He’s doomed and she will be a helpless witness to the moment of his death, screaming his name as he dies so that he knows she’s there for him right up to the end.

If you were watching Homeland on Showtime a couple of weeks ago, you’ll have recognized the story I’m describing. Three seasons of this award-winning series have taken viewers through all kinds of issues and actions and relationships, plots and counterplots, and innumerable graphic violations of probability. And it all comes down to the last night the doomed couple spend alone together. Bloggers may quibble about how tired they are of Carrie and Brody, but without that romance and Mandy Patinkin’s Saul, Homeland is little more than an updated, poor man’s 24, minus Jack Bauer.

A Christmas Film Noir

This was supposed to be a Christmas column. After all, we’re printing on Christmas day, at least according to the masthead (we actually put the paper together on Monday). So what does Christmas have to do with film noir? Doesn’t the very nature of the phenomenon resist such niceties as Christmas Eve, Christmas carols, Christmas trees, stockings hopefully hung by the chimney with care, stock images of the Nativity?

Most of the obituary summaries of Audrey Totter’s career single out Adrienne Fromsett in Lady in the Lake (1947) as her “breakthrough” role and give special notice to actor-director Robert Montgomery’s unique use of the subjective camera, the “You be the Detective” point of view, where all the action is seen through Philip Marlowe’s eyes. Perhaps because it makes such an odd match with the noir-flavored headlines, the obituaries ignore the key role Christmas plays in the story. Lady in the Lake offers a full serving of the holiday right from the opening credits, which are all decked out in holly and other seasonal trappings, plus images of the three wise men and the guiding star, and a Christmas choir singing carols. The wordless a cappella choral singing suspensefully interspersed throughout the action creates a transitional undertone of “warm and fuzzy” menace between scenes of violence and depravity, murder and mayhem. It was not Raymond Chandler’s idea to put Christmas into the mix; nor was it his idea to give Adrienne Fromsett so central and romantic a role and to turn the company she works for from “Gillerlain Regal, the Champagne of Perfumes” into a sleazy publisher of pulp magazines with titles like Lurid Detective and True Horror. These changes were the work of Montgomery and screenwriter Steve Fisher. Chandler hated the film and tried to take his name off it, but he’d already sold the rights to the novel, which, however loosely, was based on his story, with his characters, including of course, Philip Marlowe, who still has the benefit of Chandler’s infectious language.

Chandler’s portrait of Ms. Fromsett is true to style: “She wore a steel gray business suit and under the jacket a dark blue shirt and a man’s tie of lighter shade. The edges of the folded handkerchief in the breast pocket looked sharp enough to slice bread …. She had smooth ivory skin and rather severe eyebrows and large dark eyes that looked as if they might warm up at the right time and right place.”

Granted, Audrey Totter and the costume department at M-G-M can’t produce anything to equal Chandler’s sliced bread, but the woman we see through Marlowe’s eyes is in some ways an improvement on Chandler’s sketch. I omitted the novel’s account of her hair’s “loose but not unstudied waves” because the filmmakers style her hair to the “smooth” and “severe” nuances of the original: it’s pulled up in back and coiled on top to give a no-nonsense effect. The film’s one true femme fatale is played by Jayne Meadows (to get an idea of her first ditzy appearance before Montgomery’s relentless stare, imagine Diane Keaton’s Annie Hall with a gun in her hand). Totter’s character appears devious enough to be a suspect, all the while being groomed to be Marlowe’s loving protector; in the cozy Christmas Eve scene after she’s gathered him up, taken him home and healed his wounds, they’re listening to the happy ending of a radio performance of A Christmas Carol — a work, when you think of it, that Dickens steeps in noirish atmosphere replete with rattling chains, ghosts, fog, and death.

Noir Is Where You Find It

In the past few months of cable viewing we’ve found elements of film noir not only in Homeland but in Harlan County, Kentucky (in Justified, an amazing series with a for-the-ages performance by Walton Goggins), Atlantic City (Boardwalk Empire, with Gretchen Moll as the classic femme fatale Gillian Darmody), and, most recently, in Washington D.C. (Netflix’s House of Cards), where Kevin Spacey, whose face is a film noir all by itself, holds everything together. As he delivers his sinister Shakespearean asides, the House majority whip conjures up the primal noir of Richard the Third, Iago, and the Thane of Cawdor, with Robin Wright as his Lady Macbeth.

The Femme Fatale at 90

When my wife was visiting her mother in the Motion Picture Home, a retirement community for people formerly in the film business, she met Audrey Totter, the “bad girl,” who was then 90 and knitting a sweater, not holding a gun. There’s a quirky poetry in the image of the former femme fatale as a little old lady knitting ice-blue sweaters that my wife says matched her eyes. It’s because Totter earned modest fees compared to the big stars that she ended life in the Motion Picture Home. Were it not for her noir connection she would be getting even less exposure in the press than Joan Fontaine, a bigger star who died December 15 with headlines labeled “Academy Award winner,” for her role as Cary Grant’s paranoid wife in Suspicion; while Fontaine’s best film was probably Max Opuls’s Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), she was in two noirs, sympathetic in Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (1948) and profoundly nasty in Born to Be Bad (1950). Even as the devil’s bait in John Farrow’s mix of Faust and noir, Alias Nick Beal  (1949), Audrey Totter has a heart of gold, but in Tension, which was made the same year, she’s beyond-redemption bad and she has a gun.