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.


December 18, 2013
PHILADELPHIA CHRISTMAS 1945: Except for one of the most powerful combat sequences ever filmed, “Pride of the Marines” is set in Philadelphia. Returning from the war blinded and bitter, John Garfield, as real-life hero Al Schmid, has collided with the Christmas tree; here he’s getting the loving support of Ruth, “the girl he left behind,” played with warmth and spirit by Eleanor Parker, who died December 9.

PHILADELPHIA CHRISTMAS 1945: Except for one of the most powerful combat sequences ever filmed, “Pride of the Marines” is set in Philadelphia. Returning from the war blinded and bitter, John Garfield, as real-life hero Al Schmid, has collided with the Christmas tree; here he’s getting the loving support of Ruth, “the girl he left behind,” played with warmth and spirit by Eleanor Parker, who died December 9.

Here we go again, life or death on the dreaded Williamsburg Bridge. I know to stay in the far right lane but as I come to the Brooklyn moment of truth, I brace myself for the possibility of a hellbent truck shunting me off to Staten Island or darkest Queens. All it takes is a look at the date of this column and I know one reason I’m afraid of being forced onto an expressway to nowhere. On the early evening of December 18, 1978, taking an unfamiliar route to see my dying mother at a Melbourne, Florida hospital, I got trapped going the wrong direction on a busy expressway, panicked, and barely avoided crashing into a guard rail. When I finally reached the hospital I rushed to my mother’s room and found that an empty bed had already been made up for the next patient. 

Though she had her share of dark moods, my mother was a shameless enthusiast. It was always the best meal, the best trip, the most beautiful, most glorious this or that, which may explain why my point of view in these columns is essentially positive, my preference not to attack but to celebrate. Even now, rather than demonizing the Williamsburg Bridge (my mother loved bridges), I’m reminding myself, as I always do, that in addition to its straight-forward matter-of-fact magnificence, the way it simply rolls off Delancey Street like a Brooklyn-bound wayfarer’s dream made manifest, the bridge belongs to Sonny Rollins.

While the jazz legend may not legally own it, he laid claim to it five decades ago during his self-imposed retirement from the scene. Night after night for two years, he left his Grand Street apartment and hiked along the pedestrian walkway to the middle of the span, removed his tenor sax from its case, and blew to his heart and soul’s content a couple of hundred feet above the East River. Rollins did not set out to create a legend, though he had to know that it would make a great story for the press. It also made a great story to tell my mother to get her in the mood the first time I introduced her to his music, especially when I clued her in on his reason for the trek to the bridge, which was that “the lady next door had just had a baby,” and he didn’t want to disturb his neighbors.

When I saw Sonny Rollins in one of his first appearances after the sabbatical on the bridge, he had formed a new group including the somewhat off-puttingly professorial presence of a balding, bespectacled white guitarist. Like most Rollins fans, I soon came to appreciate Jim Hall, who died at 83 a week ago, less than a month after the November 25 death of his old bandmate from the 1950s, drummer Chico Hamilton. Though I haven’t heard Hall’s recent work and know his music mostly through the Rollins albums and his extraordinary collaborations with Bill Evans, a message from Visions of Jazz author Gary Giddins tells me that he was “one of the great old-school liberals who wore his politics on his sleeve,” and that “his playing got hotter during the Bush years, because he was so fired up with outrage.”

The news of Chico Hamilton’s death took some time to register because the lasting and even life-changing impression he made on my clueless 14-year-old self had little to do with his drumming or the records he made with Jim Hall or Buddy Colette or George Duvivier. No, what impressed, amazed, and enchanted me (here I go enthusing again, like mother, like son) was his singing, or humming, or whatever it is that he’s doing in the background of the moody Gerry Mulligan/Chet Baker rendition of “Moonlight in Vermont.” That performance, with its Chico-Hamilton-haunted chorus, revolutionized my listening habits; it’s where jazz began for me.

Woman of a Thousand Faces 

It seems there’s no escaping the symbolism of the bridge. Life-spans, this side, That Side, the passing or the crossing, so that once I’ve run the gauntlet of the ramps and am navigating the streets of Brooklyn, I’m feeling like a survivor, if not exactly reborn (it’s no fun anticipating the chaotic rush-hour return across the bridge to Manhattan). While my son spends the afternoon at Academy Record’s newly relocated Oak Street store, I keep warm in the Greenpoint Public Library looking in vain for a biography of John Garfield (1913-1952) and thinking about Eleanor Parker (1922-2013), who died December 9, a day before Jim Hall.

If you love old movies, there’s always a birth or death rationale for searching out a certain film. It might only be the passing of an obscure actor who played a small but memorable part or it might be an all but forgotten actress like Eleanor Parker, who was, however, remembered in June as Turner Classic Movies’ Star of the Month. When we heard of her death, my wife and I turned to Comcast On Demand and found Pride of the Marines, where she plays John Garfield’s steadfast girlfriend. That’s it. Someone dies and you to bring them back to life On Demand.

Parker’s role as the rejected Baroness in The Sound of Music gave obit writers a point of reference most people could connect with. “She was wonderful in the part,” director Robert Wise said, “a sort of light ‘heavy’ who was also ultimately quite touching.” He should know, since her farewell scene is filmed so sympathetically you have to think the director was under her womanly spell. She would have been 43 at the time. Julie Andrews remembers her as “charming, elegant, and beautiful … one of the legends of Hollywood.”

Thanks to TCM, we saw enough of Eleanor Parker last June to comprehend the truth of the “legends” reference. What set her apart from other female stars was her ability to give herself up to a wildly different assortment of roles (the only biography is titled Woman of a Thousand Faces). She was nominated three times for Academy Awards, for Caged in 1950 (she should have won; it’s as touching and terrifying a performance as you’ll ever see), for Detective Story a year later, and for Interrupted Melody in 1955. What she accomplishes as Mildred in the rarely shown 1946 version of W.S. Maugham’s Of Human Bondage is more terrifying than touching; neither Bette Davis nor Kim Novak approach Parker’s uncanny blend of the abrasive and the pathetic, at once vulnerable, fascinating, hostile, arrogant, and seething with passion. You may be repelled by Mildred but you love the heroics of the actress. Talk about heroics — as a wide-eyed innocent, brutalized in prison in Caged, she steals your heart and breaks it, and she does it again playing multiple personalities in Lizzie, part shy thing, part slut, part good girl. She’s a wicked delight as the gorgeous, clowning knockabout mistress of Stewart Granger in Scaramouche and she gives warmth and light to The Voice of the Turtle, later retitled One for the Book, in which her quiet, quirky charm seems to rub off on Ronald Reagan, who is quite likeable as a soldier on leave finding romance with the adorably untogether girl played by Parker.

The Anti-Hero

Until we brought John Garfield back from the dead in Pride of the Marines and He Ran All the Way on successive nights, I hadn’t realized that 2013 was his centenary.  While Eleanor Parker lived into her nineties, the heart condition that kept Garfield from serving in World War II killed him at 39, even as the dogs of the Communist witch hunt’s spineless studio overlords were baying at his back. He Ran All the Way makes an all too appropriate title for the final picture from the actor some consider to be Hollywood’s first rebel, the precursor to Marlon Brando (Garfield turned down the role of Stanley Kowalski), Montgomery Clift, James Dean, and later the young Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino.

The Broadway role Clifford Odets wrote with “Julie” in mind, as the violinist/prizefighter on Broadway in Golden Boy, suggests the Garfield dynamic — you could imagine him as both a tough guy and an artist. The endgame intensity he gave to playing the hapless punk Nick Robey in He Ran All the Way — the combination of headlong force and desperate, wrenching anguish — is painful and moving to behold. His death at the end — the last shot in the gutter, his face fixed in close-up as it was in the extraordinary combat sequence in Pride of the Marines — is the epitome of the fallen anti-hero. A native New Yorker (he grew up fighting in street gangs), Garfield had a large local following, his funeral service drawing a crowd of more than 6,000, the largest such gathering since the death of Valentino.

According to Robert Nott’s biography, He Ran All The Way: The Life of John Garfield (Limelight 2003), “The mourners came from all boroughs of the city and all walks of life.” Nott mentions businessmen, housewives with toddlers, “bobbysoxers … crying over their fallen idol,” and “working-class stiffs clad in their dirty trousers and weathered jackets, lunch boxes in hand, who came by to bid farewell to one of their own.”

Falling Stars

The body count is getting out of hand. Jim Hall, Chico Hamilton, Eleanor Parker, John Garfield, not to mention my mother, and now the news that even as we were watching her in Robert Montgomery’s noirish Christmas tale, Lady In the Lake, Audrey Totter had died, and now it’s Peter O’Toole and Joan Fontaine.

When I got back to my mother’s condo on that long ago December 18th, I found some extraordinarily revealing journals that she’d kept when she was in her mid-thirties, papers, letters, and drafts of stories I’d never seen before, written in her prime as a writer, mother, wife, lover, and working woman. I go back to those papers every year on this date, one more way of bringing her back, On Demand, which is why this day of all days in the year has always been more about life than death.


December 11, 2013

book rev“You should be serious about serious things and playful when you play. There’s an hour for your Lord and an hour for your heart.”

—said by Zanuba, the lute player

This is the 102nd birthday of Naguib Mahfouz, the Nobel-prize-winning author of The Cairo Trilogy (Everyman’s Library/Knopf $30). The book’s dominant character, Al-Sayyid Ahmad, is the stern, humorless, autocratic master of a household where his wife, two daughters, and three sons live in fear of his iron hand, the women confined to quarters while unbeknownst to his family Ahmad lives life to the limit, a luminary of the Cairo night who drinks and carouses and womanizes, loved by his friends for his stories, his wit, and his effervescent personality.

A Half-Open Window

Of Ahmad’s cloistered daughters, Aisha is “as beautiful as the moon” with “golden tresses and blue eyes” while Khadija is relatively plain, though she has a wicked tongue and a sense of humor about her big nose (a feature she shares with her father). The often combative interplay between the sisters is charming and true, and within a few pages, you feel you know them. One of the side-effects of this monastic home life is the romantic subterfuge practiced at the same hour every day by Aisha, who “peers out through the holes in the grille” of the balcony overlooking the street. As soon as the young police officer she’s looking for appears below, she heads for the window in the sitting room, turns the knob and opens “the two panels a crack,” her heart pounding as she waits for the officer with his “gold star and red stripe” to cautiously raise his eyes, his face shining “with the light of a hidden smile that was reflected on the girl’s face as a shy radiance.” For the man to have raised his head rather than his eyes was “not considered proper in such circumstances.”

After closing and nervously fastening the window, Aisha sinks into a chair, “roaming through the space of her infinite sensations, experiencing neither sheer happiness nor total fear.” It’s as if that brief moment by the window had encompassed an extravagantly sinful adventure. She stands where she does so that her clandestine Romeo has to strain his eyes to discern her because she loves to see him look up at the partially
closed window with “concern and longing.” She would then revel in the “light of joy” on his face as he begins to make out “her figure” through “the crack.” For her this exchange of looks is “a vision to enchant the mind and ravish the imagination.”

But when a marriage is suggested by the officer’s family, the offer is summarily rejected by Aisha’s by-the-book father, his excuse being that according to tradition, the elder sister, Khadiya, must be the first to marry.

A Half-Open Door

One of the great moments in Palace Walk, the Trilogy’s first volume, occurs when Ahmad’s grown son Yasin stumbles into the truth about his father’s nocturnal escapades after hearing of a man with his father’s name who plays the tambourine “better than a professional,” and “tells one gem of a joke after another until everyone with him is dying of laughter.” Yasin is thinking, “Who could this man be? His father? That stern, tyrannical, terrifying, God-fearing, reserved man who kills everyone around him with fright?”

As it so happens, his father is in the same house at that very moment carousing in a nearby room. Yasin begs the woman he’s been trying to seduce to leave the door partly open for a moment so he can see for himself. The image of the half-open door recalls the half-open window through which the young officer gazes in hopes of glimpsing Yasin’s beautiful sister.  During the moment the door is ajar, the son sees his father sitting next to the ample, voluptuous singer who is his mistress, his “wife,” in the night world: Ahmad has “removed his cloak and rolled up his sleeves,” he’s “shaking the tambourine” and gazing at the woman “with a face brimming with joy and happiness.” Yasin “had never seen him without his cloak … never seen him with his black hair sticking up … never seen his naked leg as it appeared at the edge of the divan …. Perhaps most of all he had never seen his face smile. It was glistening with such affection and goodwill that Yasin was stunned.”

“Stunned” doesn’t say it. “He awoke like a person emerging from a long, deep sleep to the convulsion of a violent earthquake.”

Pulling Out All the Stops

For the reader, this revelation is all the more powerful because we’ve already been permitted a full view of the father in action, having witnessed the headlong one-night courtship that led to the drunken mock marriage ceremony with Zubayda, the fleshy singer. We know the side of Ahmad that has been hidden from the family, and we’ve been wondering when and how the author is going to arrange this moment of astonished recognition. Although Mahfouz describes the two sides of Ahmad early on, he’s 14 chapters into the story before he shows the charismatic libertine in action, and when this happens, the author and the character nearly become one, so wild and free and mad with energy is the prose. In finally giving full range to Ahmad, Mafouz ratchets up the language and pulls out all the stops in a daring commingling of eroticism and religion, the tropes of faith and sex, so that when the singer opens the door to Ahmad upon his surprise arrival, she shouts, “In the name of God the compassionate, the Merciful! … You!” To which Ahmad says, “In the name of God. God’s will be done!” as he ogles her “prodigious body, its pronounced curves sensuously draped in a blue dress,” which inspires this deliriously Disneyesque image: “His eyes ran over her body as quickly and greedily as a mouse on a sack of rice looking for a place to get in.”

Later in the “festive hall” in Zubayda’s house, where the candelabras look “as lovely and intense as a beauty mark on a cheek,” Ahmad and his author are running on full throttle. A paragraph begins by claiming “He was not simply an animal” but was “endowed with a delicacy of feeling, a sensitivity of emotion, and ingrained love for song and music” and ends with Ahmad pursuing “all the varieties of love and passion, like a wild bull.” Later Zubayda asks, “Do you love being naughty this much?” to which Ahmad sighs and says, “May our Lord perpetuate our naughtiness.” When the music starts, “Echoes of many different melodies from a long era filled with nights of musical ecstasy burst into flame within him, as though small drops of gasoline had fallen on a hidden ember.” Ahmad grabs a tambourine and joins in, and as the woman sings “‘I’m an accomplice against myself/When my lover steals my heart,’” it’s again as if Mahfouz is as rapt as his character: “The inflection of her voice made the strings of his heart vibrate. His energy flared up and he beat the tambourine in a way no professional could match,” at which Mahfouz makes you hear the beating of the tambourine: “His intoxication became a burning, titillating, inspiring, raging drunkenness.” At this point Ahmad and the woman are so “agitated by desire they seemed trees dancing in the frenzy of a hurricane.” When the melodies vanish, it’s “like an airplane carrying a lover over the horizon.”

This is the sort of scene that sweeps everything aside, that has you thinking of Dmirti Karamazov dancing with the gypsies, of Natasha’s first ball in War and Peace, of Balzac in full orgiastic flight. Vanishing melodies in the form of an airplane? In Egypt in 1917? So be it! A great writer is soaring, drunk on his story, head over heels in love with his creation and its central character. It’s amusing to imagine the expression on the face of the translator attempting to do justice to this scene, not to mention the reaction of the elegant editor who made the English language edition possible.

A Very Special Editor 

After learning that Naguib Mahfouz had won the 1988 Novel Prize for Literature, a Doubleday editor with a face known round the world read The Cairo Trilogy in a French translation, talked the publisher into acquiring it, and then saw the book through to publication in 1990-1992. According to the primary translator William Hutchins, the three volumes were “edited in New York at Doubleday by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis herself, using a pencil on paper.” Hutchins considered her “an excellent, respectful editor and very thorough.”

Given the not so secret life of JFK, it would have been interesting to see Jackie O’s reaction to the account of Ahmad’s wild night, and to lines like this one: “Whenever desire called, he answered deliriously and enthusiastically.”

Tahrir Square

It’s worth noting here that the popular movement ousting President Hosni Mubarak began on the January of Mahfouz’s centenary and that one of those who helped ignite it was his 26-year-old namesake (if not blood kin) Aasma Mahfouz. When her four-and-a-half-minute Facebook video went viral, the four-person protest she was part of on January 18 became a prelude to the history-making mass demonstration of January 25. Among the events marking the Mahfouz centenary was the March 11 Emirates Festival of Literature and the announcement from Oxford University Press of plans for a 20-volume Centennial Library of his works.


As Sabry Hafez points out in his introduction, Naguib Mahfouz was the first Arab to win the Nobel Prize for Literature and The Cairo Trilogy was the first modern Arabic literary work to appear in Everyman’s Library. The “grand narrative project took over six years (1946-1952) to accomplish, its completion coinciding “with the collapse of the old regime. Inspired by John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga and Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks,” it was also “the first family saga in modern Arabic literature.”


December 4, 2013

book revno one, not even the rain, has such small hands —e.e. cummings

This column began during one of those steady unthreatening rainfalls when you can imagine you hear the night thinking and you want to read something to complement the sound, something that does justice to the atmosphere. A year ago the same sound evoked dread and thoughts of flooded basements and power outages.

Looking ahead to the December 4 issue of Town Topics several days before I saw the news in Friday’s New York Times (“Salinger Stories Leaked Online”), I found a poet with rain in his name, Rainer Maria Rilke, who was born on 4 December 1875 in Prague, and died 29 December 1926 in Switzerland. I also found that the person who convinced him to change his first name from “René” to “Rainer” was his former lover and lifelong soulmate, the Russian-born author of The Erotic, psychoanalyst Lou Andreas-Salomé (1861-1937). In a letter from 1897, the year their affair began, Rilke calls her his “summer rain.” A year before his death, he refers to a “sheltering” letter from her that brought him “so much that ties in with earlier things.”

“Sheltering” seems the right word for a rainy night and the companionable presence of a poet who wants to “have someone to sit by and be with” and “softly sing” to in “To Say Before Going to Sleep,” which opens with “someone” and ends when “something in the dark begins to move.” In spite of the hint of menace, the line fits the rainy night mood where nothing has a name because everything is the rain.

The only poem of Rilke’s I could find with rain in the title is “Before Summer Rain” and though it was written years after Rilke called Salomé his “summer rain,” it’s not really all that much of a stretch to think that he and she shared a special understanding of the title beyond the content of the poem. They were, after all, continually in touch up to the day he died. She was his devoted confidant, and his “stupendous letters” to her are, according to William H. Gass’s introduction to The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (Vintage International 1985), “the actual origin and early text” of that work. In fact, drafts of novel and drafts of letters were interrelated and “clearly come from notes, from prose trials and errors, so that when Rilke revises sections of them for inclusion in the novel, they are already in their third kind of existence.”

It’s only natural to wonder what this woman of the “summer rain” looked like. You have to think that any female attached to a name like Salomé has to be bewitching. The photographs online do not disappoint. This is a woman with beautifully intense, intelligent eyes, a sensual mouth, and a hint of sly humor in her expression even when she’s not smiling.

Enter Salinger

Appropriately enough, it was a leak that brought J.D. Salinger and his Esmé into this rainy night rumination on Rilke and his Salomé, with her exotic name and history, and her intimate connections to Nietzsche and Freud. I knew that Rilke was on Salinger’s list of the writers he most admired, and after a little searching I found the passage early in Franny and Zooey where Franny’s obnoxious boyfriend Lane is collared by another English major who wanted to know “what this bastard Rilke was all about.” The assignment creating the dilemma is the fourth of Rilke’s Duino Elegies and Lane’s reply was that “he thought he’d understood most of it.” Given the importance of letters in the work of both Salinger and Rilke (most famously his Letters to a Young Poet), it’s no coincidence that Lane had been reading a letter from Franny (quoted in full) when “this bastard Rilke” intruded seconds before Franny’s train pulls up to the platform of a station generally assumed to be modeled on Princeton’s embattled Dinky terminus.

The Necessity of Rain

A letter is also crucial to the denouement of Salinger’s “For EsméWith Love and Squalor,” a story in which the rain is absolutely essential. After looking at how rain is used in works by several different writers, including Chekhov (“Bad Weather”), Hemingway (A Farewell to Arms), Stephen Crane (George’s Mother, Maggie), I remembered that Esmé began with the narrator, Sgt. X, ducking out of “the slanting, dreary rain” of “a very rainy” Saturday in Devon into a church while children’s choir practice was underway. In the examples from Chekhov, Crane, and Hemingway rain is either metaphorical or impressionistic. In Esmé, it puts a glow on Salinger’s portrait of the title character when she and the narrator meet in the tearoom, where he notices “Her hair was soaking wet, and the rims of both ears were showing.” When she comes over to his table in her tartan dress, he finds it to be “a wonderful dress for a very young girl to be wearing on a rainy, rainy day.” In the course of their conversation, there are references to her touching “the top of her soaking wet head with the flat of her hand” and again when she “raised her hand to her wet head again, picked at a few limp filaments of blond hair, trying to cover her exposed ear rims,” which is when the state of her hair actually enters the conversation (“I look a fright …. I have quite wavy hair when it’s dry”). Salinger sustains the self-conscious gesture of touching the wet hair right through to the end of the first part of the story. The last he sees of Esmé she’s “slowly, reflectively testing the ends of her hair for dryness.” The radiant image of the lovely child, daubed with rain, hovers in the background of the dark second half of the story where the war-damaged narrator finds healing solace in the letter from Esmé and the gift of her dead father’s watch.

The Rilke Connection

If you look online, you’ll find at least one site devoted to the Rilke-Salinger connection, plus links to papers such as “The Pattern of Withdrawal and Return in J.D. Salinger and R.M. Rilke,” ”A Source for Seymour’s Suicide: Rilke’s Voices and Salinger’s Nine Stories,” or “East Meets West: Zen and Rilke in Salinger’s Catcher,” in which the carousel scene from Catcher in the Rye is compared to Rilke’s poem “The Merry Go Round” (Das Karussell). Critics assume that the German poet Seymour wants his wife to read in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” is Rilke, though he’s not mentioned by name.

From the Cutting Room Floor

Until the distraction of the Salinger leak, I had been exploring the rain theme to the point of referencing other media where rainy weather is a defining force. Of the innumerable films where this is true, one of the first that came to mind along with no-brainers like Singing in the Rain was Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Try to imagine that film without the relentless rain that pursues poor Janet Leigh like the wrath of the fat god orchestrating her doom, which comes in the semblance of a downpour created by the shower in the Bates Motel.

Finally, I recommend an online search of quotes about rain, where you will discover pages of nuggets on the subject from, among others, Venus Williams who finds it “very calming,” Pablo Neruda, whose poetry “took its voice” from it, and W.H. Auden, who once said “My face looks like a wedding cake left out in the rain,” perhaps inspiring one of the most bizarre lyrics ever written, Jimmy Webb’s “MacArthur Park.”


November 27, 2013

New York City, how I love you, blink your eyes and I’ll be gone

just a little grain of sand.

—Lou Reed (1942-2013),

from “Nyc Man”

If anybody starts using me as scenery, I’ll return to New York.

—Grace Kelly (1929-1982)

dvd rev1Writing shortly after he’d moved to New York in August 1932, James Agee, who was born on November 27, 1909, describes listening at night to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on a phonograph in his office on the 50th floor of the Chrysler Building: “An empty skyscraper is just about an ideal place for it … with all New York about 600 feet below you, and with that swell ode, taking in the whole earth, and with everyone on earth supposedly singing it …. With Joy speaking over them: O ye millions, I embrace you … and all mankind shall be as brothers beneath thy tender and wide wings.”

Typically, the author of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and A Death in the Family balances his swelling rhapsody with some topical reality, referring to “all this depression over the world” and of two feelings the city inspires, “one the feeling of that music — of a love and pity and joy” for people and the other for the “mob of them in this block I live in … a tincture of sickness and cruelty and selfishness in the faces of most of them.”

Coming to the City

Until I started relistening to Lou Reed’s music, I hadn’t intended to write about the singer songwriter and self-described “New York City man” who died at 71 on October 27. My plan, after a birthday nod to Agee, had been to focus on Grace Kelly, whose life is the subject of “Beyond the Icon,” the lavish exhibit that will be at the James A. Michener Museum in Doylestown through January of next year. Although I’m still absorbing Reed’s music, his identification with New York is reason enough to bring him on board. Some 40 years after Agee came to the city, Reed released his best-known solo album, Transformer, featuring  “Walk On the Wild Side,” an edgy ode to people drawn to Andy Warhol’s Manhattan domain, namely Holly Woodlawn, Candy Darling, Little Joe Dallessandro, Sugar Plum Fairy Joe Campbell, and Jackie Curtis. Joining them in two other great Lou Reed songs are “Sweet Jane,” who knows “that women never really faint/and that villains always blink their eyes,” and seven-year-old Jenny in “Rock and Roll Music” who “one fine mornin’ puts on a New York station” and “starts dancin’ to that fine fine music. You know her life was saved by rock ‘n’ roll.”

New York was also 18-year-old Grace Kelly’s destination in 1947 when to the chagrin of her well-heeled Philadelphia family (her father saw acting “as a slim cut above streetwalker”) she decided to devote herself to a career in the theater. Living at the Barbizon Hotel for Women might not exactly be a walk on the wild side (men were denied access above the street level foyer), but there were lovers to come, and it’s fitting that her two most memorable performances are in movies with Manhattan settings, The Country Girl, for which she won an Oscar cast against type as the nagging adulterous muse to a drunken actor played by Bing Crosby, and Rear Window, which gave her the sexiest role of her brief career thanks to Alfred Hitchcock’s talent for turning his erotic fantasies into cinematic art.

The Plot Thickens

As for Andy Warhol himself, he came to New York from Pittsburgh two years after Grace’s arrival; meanwhile Brooklyn born Lou Reed grew up on Long Island and definitively entered the life of the city in 1964 after graduating from Syracuse University, where he studied with the poet Delmore Schwartz (“the first great person I ever met”). Reed showed his appreciation by dedicating the Velvet Underground song “European Son” to his mentor and later by composing a tribute called “My House” (“to find you in my house makes things perfect”). Another Brooklyn native, Schwartz had settled in Manhattan in the late 1930s and just as Reed would find himself as an artist in the Warhol/East Village scene, Schwartz flourished through his connection with the Partisan Review, where he befriended the wildly talented, driven, reckless human being laboring for Fortune and Time 50 floors up in the Chrysler Building. As it turned out, James Agee would make his name writing the column on film for The Nation that W.H. Auden dubbed “the most remarkable regular event in American journalism.” Had Agee’s hell-bent heavy-drinking lifestyle permitted it and had he stayed on as a film reviewer into the 1950s, we might have known his thoughts on Grace Kelly and Rear Window, which was released the year before he died and a mere two years before Grace became a princess, an event that Hitchcock helped make possible by casting her in the film (To Catch a Thief) that took her to Monaco.

By now it seems that once New York becomes the common denominator, all bets are off and the plot fantastically thickens. Though he lived outside Manhattan over the years (in Hollywood and up the Delaware River in Frenchtown), Agee was, like Reed and Schwartz, a New York City man right up to the day he died, stricken with a fatal attack of angina in a taxi in May 1955. What more Manhattan-centric place to make your quietus than in a Yellow Cab, commanded in this case by a driver who knew to rush his passenger to Roosevelt Hospital, the same facility to which an ambulance brought another New Yorker of note named John Lennon 25 years later on December 8, a day that coincides with the date of Delmore Schwartz’s birth — a hundred years ago this year.

Hitchcock’s New York

You might say that Hitchcock has “done” New York. There’s Cary Grant in Grand Central Station in North by Northwest (1959), Robert Cummings in the crown of the Statue of Liberty as the villain goes screaming to his death in Saboteur (1942), Grace Kelly as the victim in a New York apartment in a lesser film, Dial M for Murder (1954), Henry Fonda falsely accused in The Wrong Man (1956), Jimmy Stewart in a Manhattan apartment where a murder has been committed in Rope (1948), and most significantly in relation to the myth of Grace Kelly, Stewart is the central character in Hitchcock’s salute to the voyeur in all of us, Rear Window, where he’s in a wheel chair, his leg in a cast, observing with morbid fascination the play of life going on in the windows of the apartment building across the way. The scenario even provides a street address to help situate you, 125 West 9th, but this is strictly a Hollywood Manhattan made on a Paramount sound stage and the most New York thing about it is the voice and vigor of Brooklynite Thelma Ritter.

dvd rev2All Grace

Rear Window is adored by Hitchcockians and film buffs in general for exploring the act of seeing, the voyeur as audience; it’s also appreciated for its automat-style tableau of city life (each little window a movie screen featuring the newlyweds, the quarrelling couple, the lonely woman, the composer at the piano, the party, the lady with the dog, the losers and winners, and the act of murder deduced by Stewart’s prying photographer), but the film’s most memorable, most glamorously cinematic moment is all Grace. Nowhere else in her career does the legend so enchantingly shine forth.

Hitchcock takes pride in having deliberately subverted the decorous Princess Grace stereotype. “I didn’t discover Grace,” he has said, “but … I prevented her from being eternally cast as a cold woman.” In an interview with Oriana Fallaci, after nastily disposing of Kim Novak and Vera Miles, Hitchcock has nothing but kind words for Kelly: “She’s sensitive, disciplined, and very sexy. People think she’s cold. Rubbish! She’s a volcano covered with snow!”

That oft-quoted metaphor is unworthy of what happens when we first see Grace Kelly’s Lisa Carol Fremont in Rear Window. This is an appearance, not an entrance, and far more subtle, stylish, and erotic than a snow-covered volcano would suggest. The sequence begins with the camera panning across the vista of windows Stewart has been inspecting; you hear a woman singing scales and you can see people walking and traffic moving on a portion of Ninth Street through a space between the buildings opposite. The disabled photographer in the wheelchair is dozing when a shadow falls over him. The shadow is characteristic Hitchcock, a sly tease leading you to imagine for a second that some malign force is about to descend on the helpless man. After all, this is an exposed first-floor apartment on a steamy Greenwich Village summer evening. But instead of the fearsome source of the shadow bending over its victim, a beautiful face is coming toward us, right at us, filling the screen (still with a hint of the sinister, could be a green-eyed vampire in a nightmare Stewart’s having, red lips parted, lusting for the bared throat), there’s the shadow again flowing over him as his eyes open, he looks up, and sees the luminous face of his lover bending close to kiss him, she in a swooning motion; shown in profile, it’s the epitome of a kiss, promising everything but only promising, as she asks, her lips touching his, kissing each question, how’s his leg, how’s his stomach, and then, smiling sublimely, “And your love life?”

This is the woman in the print Andy Warhol made after Kelly’s death in 1982, less Princess Grace of Monaco than Lisa Carol Tremont, who has definite features in common with Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane.” Now imagine you’re 50 floors up in the empty Chrysler Building on James Agee’s birthday, it’s late at night, and instead of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy you’re listening to the long version of “Sweet Jane,” the one on Fully Loaded, the expanded version of the Velvet Underground’s 1970 album Loaded, where everyone “who ever had a heart…wouldn’t turn around and break it,” and anyone “who ever played a part…wouldn’t turn around and hate it,”— and the restored lines, all Grace, “Heavenly wine and roses/Seem to whisper to her when she smiles.”

Books consulted were Letters of James Agee To Father Flye and Donald Spoto’s High Society: The Life of Grace Kelly.

November 20, 2013

book revI used to have the feeling that no matter what happened I’d get through. It’s a funny thing that as long as you have that feeling you seem to get through. I’ve lost that feeling lately but as a matter of fact I don’t feel bad about it. If anything happens to me I have this knowledge that if I had lived to be a hundred I could only have improved the quantity of my life, not the quality. 

—John Kennedy, from a letter to Inga Arvad

Written from the South Pacific following the August 1, 1943 sinking of PT-109, the long letter from Navy Lt. John Kennedy to his lover is worth a close look for what it says about a man in his mid-20s who already appears to have an enlightened sense of history and an interesting sense of himself. It’s one of the most revealing documents in The Letters of John F. Kennedy (Bloomsbury $30), edited by Martin W. Sandler and billed as the first such collection ever.

If Kennedy was satisfied with the quality of his life in 1943, what he achieved in the limited quantity he had left is astonishing, especially given what he was dealing with physically, day by day. As Sandler points out in the book’s last section (“A Triumph of Will”), here was a man who received the last rites of the Catholic Church four times, whose image of “glowing health and energy” (“vigor” a presidential buzz word) was “a well-orchestrated lie.” After mentioning how Kennedy “relied heavily on drugs and pills,” Sandler refers to the spending of “many days in bed,” which can be read two ways, given JFK’s legendary sex life. In fact, if he had been healthy, he might have graduated from Princeton, having actually enrolled at Old Nassau in 1935 “where he immediately concentrated on what was to become a lifetime obsession — the conquest of beautiful women.” We’ll never know how this need played out in the unlikely setting of pre-coed Princeton, for he soon “fell ill” with Addison’s disease, the sickness that would “continue to plague him for the rest of his life.” As a result, he missed most of the school year and enrolled at Harvard in 1936.

While most of the letters in this collection were written by the candidate or senator or president and will be of primary interest to historians, the exchange with Inga Arvad offers a teasing glimpse of the protagonist of the novel Norman Mailer imagined but never wrote, an existential adventurer with style and wit and a political agenda. Mailer tested the idea in “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” the Esquire essay on the 1960 Democratic Convention projecting candidate Kennedy as “‘your first hipster’ … a man who has lived with death, who, crippled in the back, took on an operation which would kill him or restore him to power, who chose to marry a lady whose face might be too imaginative for the taste of a democracy which likes its first ladies to be executives of home-management, a man who courts political suicide by choosing to go all out for a nomination four, eight, or 12 years before his political elders think he is ready, a man who announces a week prior to the convention that the young are better fitted to direct history than the old.”

Jack and Inga

Inga Arvad (1913-1973) was a Danish journalist who met Jack Kennedy (1917-1963) through his sister Kathleen when both women were working for the Washington Times Herald. Winner of a beauty contest at 16, she competed for the Miss Europe title a year later, around the time she eloped with an Egyptian diplomat, divorced him and in 1936 married Hungarian-born Paul Fejos, director of the silent classic Lonesome (in later life she married movie cowboy Tim McCoy, settled down in Hollywood, and raised a family). She was still married to Fejos when the romance with Kennedy began in November 1940. The FBI took an interest in the affair after the U.S. entered the war and it was discovered that Inga had conducted several sympathetic interviews with Adolph Hitler. That, and a photo of Inga and Hitler at the Summer Olympics, was all it took for her to be cast as a German spy. Hotel rooms were bugged, with FBI agents listening in, compiling transcripts indicating that besides making a whole lot of love, Jack and Inga took the relationship seriously, Kennedy with thoughts of annulling both her marriages so he could wed her in the Catholic Church, Inga with thoughts of carrying his baby (“you are the kind the world ought to swarm with”).

In the only letter from Arvad in the collection, she sounds at once amorous, sisterly, and maternal when she describes “the young handsome Boston Bean” who “when you talk to him or see him you always have the impression that his big white teeth are ready to bite off a huge hunk of life.” Her advice to him has an almost Emersonian ring: “Go up the steps of fame. But — pause now and then to make sure that you are accompanied by happiness. Stop and ask yourself ‘Does it sing inside me today.’ If that is gone. Look around and don’t take another step till you are certain life is as you will and want it.”

Kennedy’s reference to “the feeling that no matter what happened I’d get through” echoes the wording of an earlier letter to his parents describing the man in his PT-109 crew who “always seemed to have the feeling that something was going to happen to him …. When a fellow gets the feeling that he’s in for it, the only thing to do is let him get off the boat because strangely enough, they always seem to be the ones that do get it.” Kennedy refers to the same man’s fate more explicitly in his letter to Inga: “He told me one night he thought he was going to be killed …. He was in the forward gun turret when the destroyer hit us.”

A Ranch in Texas?

In view of the day in Dallas when the survivor who had lived with death finally failed to “get through,” the most curious reference in the letter is when he tells Inga “you said you figured that I’d go to Texas and write my experiences. I wouldn’t go near a book like that. This thing is so stupid that while it has a sickening fascination for some of us, myself included, I want to leave it far behind when I go.”

With the 50th anniversary of the assassination looming (this year, as it did in 1963, November 22 falls on a Friday), the mention of Texas requires at least a moment or two of reflection. Without access to the other letters, there’s no way to track down previous references to the possibility that Kennedy might have considered going to Texas to write a book about his wartime experience. According to Michael O’Brien’s biography of Kennedy, he discussed presidential ambitions with Inga as early as 1941 and was “torn between postwar dreams of moving to a ranch out west or pursuing an extraordinary political ambition.” Inga was “quite convinced that he had it in him to become president if he set his mind to it.” She saw “the ranch out West” as an alternative to “the highway to the White House,” and “out West” presumably could mean Texas. Considering the labyrinth of coincidence and conspiracy surrounding the assassination, perhaps someone will do some research on whether Kennedy ever imagined a life for himself on a ranch in Texas.

In his preface to the letters from May-October 1963, Sandler cites the various warnings Kennedy received about a visit to Dallas in the third week of November. A member of the Democratic National Committee from Texas said that the city “simply wasn’t safe for Kennedy and should be avoided.” When Senator William Fulbright repeated the warning and advised him not to go, “Kennedy responded by saying that if any president ever reached the point where he was afraid to visit any American city, he should immediately resign.”

More Than a Celebrity

A month ago in the October 22 New York Times Book Review, there was a piece on “Kennedy the Elusive President” discussing the “Kennedy fixation” that has inspired “an estimated 40,000 books.” One of the biographers, Robert Dallek, told the Times that “the mass audience has turned Kennedy into a celebrity, so historians are not really impressed by him,” seeing him “more as a celebrity who didn’t accomplish very much.”

Kennedy was more than a celebrity, he was a star, which is one reason why even as history books are negatively reassessing his administration, he still enjoys the highest approval rating among presidents of the 20th-21st centuries.

The 60s had begun with the frigid weather of the inauguration, a bareheaded old poet reciting, a bareheaded young president declaiming. After the shots in Dallas, it was if the decade had been cut down in its tracks with the man who had symbolically set it in motion. A few months later, on February 7, 1964, four young men from Liverpool arrived in America and for many of us, the 60s, for better or worse, stood up and got moving again.


November 13, 2013

book revBorn on this day, November 13, 1850, in Edinburgh, Robert Louis Stevenson was writing The Weir of Hermiston when he died of a cerebral hemorrhage on December 3, 1894, in Samoa. He dedicated the unfinished novel to his wife Fanny:

Take thou the writing: thine it is. For who

Burnished the sword, blew on the drowsy coal,

Held still the target higher, chary of praise

And prodigal of counsel — who but thou?

So now, in the end, if this the least be good,

If any deed be done, if any fire

Burn in the imperfect page, the praise be thine.

Although Stevenson considered his marriage “the best move I ever made in my life,” he described Fanny, in a letter to J.M. Barrie written the year before he died, as “a violent friend, a brimstone enemy.”

“Damn Queer”

Painted at Bournemouth in the summer of 1885, John Singer Sargent’s portrait, Robert Louis Stevenson and his Wife, which was on loan to the Princeton Art Museum some years ago, has to be one of the strangest images Sargent ever put on canvas. For one thing, Mrs. Stevenson is seated off to the side, at first glance barely distinguishable from the decor, so much so that she draws attention to herself by almost not being there. This frame from a home movie on pause may say more than the painter intended about the couple’s relationship, though Sargent seemed in amused agreement when Fanny observed, “I am but a cipher under the shadow.” Stevenson looks too thin to cast more than a sliver of shadow. He’s wandering away from his wife, not deliberately, but as if he were following the course of a stray thought. In his own account, he judged the painting “excellent” but “damn queer as a whole” and “too eccentric to be exhibited. I am at one extreme corner; my wife in this wild dress, and looking like a ghost, is at the extreme other end.” Draped in a colorful Indian fabric, with one bare foot just peeping through, Fanny resembles not so much a ghost as a spaced-out gypsy dancing girl cooling her heels. The portrait may be to blame for the rumor that Mrs. Stevenson showed up barefoot at London dinner parties.

Books Without Women

In an essay in the April 1888 Century Magazine, Henry James, who was a frequent guest when the Stevensons were living in Bournemouth, points out that Stevenson “achieves his best effects” in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde “without the aid of the ladies …. It is usually supposed that a truly poignant impression cannot be made without them, but in the drama of Mr. Hyde’s fatal ascendancy they remain altogether in the wing.”

It’s no surprise that the author of The Portrait of a Lady and creator of numerous memorable female characters would be sensitive to their absence in Stevenson, as he noted at the outset of the same essay. After describing the “gallantry” of Stevenson’s style (“as if language were a pretty woman” and the author “something of a Don Juan”), James goes on to observe that “it is rather odd that a striking feature” of Stevenson’s gallant nature is “an absence of care for things feminine. His books are for the most part books without women, and it is not women who fall most in love with them.” James surmises that “It all comes back to his sympathy with the juvenile, and that feeling about life which leads him to regard women as so many superfluous girls in a boy’s game …. Why should a person marry, when he might be swinging a cutlass or looking for a buried treasure? Why should he go to the altar when he might be polishing his prose?”

In “real life” and real time (1880), Stevenson pursued Fanny all the way to California with the fervor of a cutlass-wielding, treasure-hunting action hero, risking everything, health, funds, work, parental disfavor, crossing an ocean and a continent to track her down and win her hand, though doing so meant taking responsibility for three children from her previous marriage.

Contrary to the situation pictured by Sargent, Fanny was an immensely formative force in Stevenson’s life. She was nearly as close to his work as he was, his first reader, his conscience, his antagonist. The writing he’s known and loved for, from Treasure Island on, was accomplished when she was by his side. How intimidating, then, to attempt to form a fictional woman when a very real and fearlessly judgmental one is peering over your shoulder. After reading the first draft of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Fanny was not only underwhelmed, she questioned the essence of his approach to the tale so heatedly that it led to “an almighty row,” after which, to Fanny’s horror, he threw the entire manuscript on the fire, having decided that she was right. The novel the world knows (or thinks it knows, given the liberties taken by various film versions) was written to address Fanny’s reservations about the first draft and in particular her insistence that he undertake to develop the “moral allegory” implicit in the situation.

In a letter to Henry James quoted in Claire Harman’s suggestively titled biography, Myself & the Other Fellow (2005), Stevenson describes the back and forth between husband/author and wife/critic, she “who is not without art: the art of extracting the gloom of the eclipse from sunshine.” He goes on to recount a recent falling out: “she tackled me savagely for being a canary-bird; I replied (bleatingly) protesting that there was no use in turning life into King Lear …. The beauty was we each thought the other quite unscathed at first. But we had dealt shrewd stabs.” No wonder Stevenson would call Fanny “the violent friend” and “brimstone enemy,” addressing her in letters as “Dear weird woman” and “my dear fellow.” In the same 1893 letter to J.M. Barrie he admitted, “She runs the show … handsome waxen face like Napoleon’s, insane black eyes, boy’s hands, tiny bare feet, a cigarette …. Hellish energy …. Is always either loathed or slavishly adored. The natives think her uncanny and the devils serve her. Dreams dreams, and sees visions.”

Maybe by now you’re thinking, as I am, “What a fantastic challenge such a character would be for any novelist.” Never mind James. Think Balzac or Dostoevsky or Proust.

From all accounts, Henry James knew Fanny better than did Stevenson’s other friends. He routinely added his “love” to her at the close of his letters, and the long letter he sent her after Stevenson’s death in December 1894 was warm and caring, yet he privately confessed to thinking her “a poor, barbarous and merely instinctive lady,” characterizing her to Owen Wister as “a strange California wife … if you like the gulch & the canyon, you will like her.” James’s invalid sister Alice compared her to “an organ grinder’s appendage” (her way of not saying “monkey”), with so large an ego that it “produced the strangest feeling of being in the presence of an unclothed being” (her way of not saying “naked”). Obviously, such comments say as much about James and his sister as they do about Fanny, but words like “barbarous,” the monkey reference, and Stevenson’s own use of “weird,” “insane,” “uncanny,” “devils,” “dreams,” “visions,” and “hellish energy” indicate qualities Mrs. Stevenson shares with Mr. Hyde. It was she, after all, who heard her husband’s scream and came to wake him when he was being consumed by the nightmare that inspired the transformation of Jekyll into Hyde.

Below Him

No less weird, uncanny, and barbarous is the P.S. that Stevenson appended to a letter praising Roderick Hudson, one of James’s lesser works. After prefacing the crude blow he’s about to strike as “a burst of the diabolic” (a Hyde-like note) he says, “I must break out with the news that I can’t bear The Portrait of a Lady …. I can’t stand your having written it; and I beg you will write no more of the like …. I can’t help it — it may be your favorite work, but in my eyes it’s BELOW YOU to write and me to read.”

This assault on a novel already being acknowledged as James’s masterpiece is wildly out of character. Perhaps Stevenson had had one drink too many. What was he thinking? What could have brought it on? More bewildered than hurt (“My dear Louis, I don’t think I follow you here — why does that work move you to such scorn?”), James knows better than to take it any further (“I feel as if it were almost gross to defend myself”). If nothing else, the outburst underscores the fundamental division James touched on when noting the “absence of care for things feminine” in Stevenson’s work, a point he comes back to decades later in his preface to the New York edition of The Portrait. Addressing the difficulty some novelists have with making a female character “the center of interest,” he observes that “even, in the main, so subtle a hand as that of R. L. Stevenson, has preferred to leave the task unattempted.”

Last Words

There’s no evidence that the female character at the heart of Stevenson’s last work, The Weir of Hermiston, was a considered response to James. If anything, making Christina Elliott “the center of interest” was a tribute to Fanny, as “the praise be thine” dedication implies. When the narrative breaks off in the ninth chapter, Christina is in emotional disarray, furious because the man she adores has come to her not to make love but “to trace out a line of conduct” for them “in a few cold, convincing sentences.” Her response is to subject him to “a savage cross-examination” that must have evoked smiles in readers familiar with the dynamic of Stevenson’s marriage, the “canary bird” meets King Lear.

The last passage Stevenson was ever to write, dictated to his stepdaughter the day he died, begins with a sentimental cliche with juvenile overtones (“He took the poor child in his arms”) — until “He felt her whole body shaken by the throes of distress, and had pity upon her beyond speech. Pity, and at the same time a bewildered fear of this explosive engine in his arms, whose works he did not understand, and yet had been tampering with. There arose from before him the curtains of boyhood, and he saw for the first time the ambiguous face of woman as she is. In vain he looked back over the interview; he saw not where he had offended. It seemed unprovoked, a wilful convulsion of brute nature ….”

And so everything ends with those two scarily resonant words.

It’s all there, as James would undoubtedly have recognized, from “the curtains of boyhood” to the “face of woman as she is.”


November 6, 2013

book revAccording to David Waldstein’s story, “Trying to Outrun the Cardinals’ Long Reach” (New York Times, October 29), “the penetrating strength” of 50,000 watt radio station KMOX is said to reach 44 states and “as far away as the Netherlands, East Africa, and Guam, spreading the gospel of St. Louis Cardinals baseball across the planet.”

After tuning his car radio to 1120 AM for the broadcast of Game Four of the 2013 World Series, Waldstein headed south to see if he could “outdrive the signal before the end of the game.” KMOX prevailed, “The Voice of St. Louis” clearly audible in Horn Lake, Mississippi as Cardinal broadcaster Mike Shannon gave his shocked account of the pick-off play ending the action in Boston’s favor, the turning point in the six-game battle that the Red Sox would eventually win. You can hear the call for yourself if you check out the story at nytimes.com, which includes a map of Waldstein’s 600-mile trip and additional audio samples of the quality of the reception in Marion, Arkansas, and Memphis, Tennessee.

As a lifelong Cardinals fan, I was pleased to read that Bill Clinton grew up listening to the Redbirds “on a transistor radio hidden beneath his pillow in Hope, Arkansas” at the same time I was tuning in broadcasts in Bloomington, Indiana. But my most strenuous and determined transistor radio seances occurred in Princeton during the “Running Redbirds” era of the mid-1980s when the only way to keep track of a night game was to invest serious quantities of body English in the little SONY, holding it high and low, sweeping it westward, going outdoors to aim it at the summer sky, as if maybe the KMOX signal was bouncing off Venus — I was doing everything but standing on my head to decipher the play by play of Jack Buck and his then-sidekick Shannon, who played for the Cardinals’ 1964 and 1967 World Championship teams. Shannon has a big hearty voice with lots of grit in it and an expressive, salt-of-the-earth style that to me conjures up the Cardinal glory days of Dizzy Dean and the Gashouse Gang.

After all my transistory gyrations came to nought, my only recourse was to get in the car and follow the signal, like a pilgrim pursuing the holy light, but as often as not just when a rally was brewing in the bottom of the ninth inning, a redneck voice from a West Virginia station would horn in, or else it would be the ravings of some hysterical Evangelical or simply a prolonged storm of static that would bury KMOX until the game ended with Jack Buck’s exalted mantra, “That’s a winner!”

Listening in England

When I bought a ticket for a mid-October flight to London last March I realized I was going to be out of the country during the heart of the post-season and so naturally wondered if I could watch baseball over there. Thus I found myself on Friday, October 18, at 1 a.m. searching through a dizzying assortment of channels on the TV at the flat I was renting. No luck. It looked as though I was going miss Game Six of the National League Championship Series with the Cardinals only a win away from capturing the pennant. I stared helplessly at the remote. Surely I could find the magic hidden in this wand. In a fit of mindless desperation I decided to go backwards, something I’ve never done on a television set in my life. With cable, there is a backwards, and in England the backward channels are audio only, so, feeling a glimmer of hope, I clicked back from BBC One, back, back until, wonder of wonders, I found the game and a minute later heard a familiar voice that seemed to ride a transatlantic beam from KMOX — Mike Shannon doing the play by play by way of BBC Five Live Sports. I expected to stay up all night, but fortune was smiling and the Cardinals soon staked the phenomenal rookie pitcher Michael Wacha to a 9-0 lead over the Dodgers. At 3:15 a.m. I figured it was safe to turn the TV off and go to sleep.

Theater of the Absurd

You can talk all you want to about the nostalgia value of cozying up to games huddled around the radio, but when it comes to being in the middle of the action, television can’t be beat, and Game 3 of the World Series, which happened the night I got back to the States, was something you had to see to believe. When the dust of the ninth inning cleared, Alan Craig of the Cardinals was lying near home plate surrounded by players and umpires and coaches as if he’d been hit by a car on his way from third to home with the winning run. Forgotten in the Obstruction Call chaos that followed were the Kirk-Gibson-like heroics of Craig’s clutch hit. After missing most of September and all of the NLDS and NLCS with an injured foot, he came limping off the bench to face the Red Sox’s lights-out closer, Koji Uehara, and drove the first pitch into left for a double. The bizarre turn of events that followed gave Craig the curious distinction of producing, in effect, the game-winning hit before the third out had been made and then scoring the game-winning run while seemingly being thrown out at home plate.

YouTube is replete with reruns of the play that turned Busch Stadium into a Theatre of the Absurd. Yadier Molina is on third, Craig on second when John Jay’s grounder is fielded by Dustin Pedroia, who easily nails Molina at home. Meanwhile Boston’s catcher Saltalamacchia sees the hobbled Craig galumphing toward third base like an albatross with broken wings, and excited by the prospect of a sure inning-ending double play he throws, but way wild, to the third baseman Middlebrook, who is sprawled on the base path reaching for the throw as Craig comes stumbling into third, where he would normally be able to touch base and head for home. But there are no bridges over Middlebrook and to make matters worse Middlebrook raises his legs as Craig attempts to crawl over him toward victory. Umpire John Joyce, who has a way of being in the middle of landmark events, makes the obstruction call, the Red Sox briefly freak out, and a must-see clip is stashed away for any future anthology of World Series highlights.

That was not a play you want to hear on the radio (or read about here), unless maybe it could be written up and recited by Franz Kafka.

Tortoise Talk

Most Cardinal fans knew that while all this chaos was swirling about, Alan Craig’s pet tortoise was watching from the dugout and making comments on his Torty Craig Facebook page. You can imagine how Torty felt watching his namesake slog it out on the bases, tumbling over Middlebrook, only to crawl with tortoise tenacity toward home: “The Red Sox tripped Master Allen. It was obstruction! I just hope Master Allen is OK! I’M SO PROUD OF MASTER ALLEN!!!!!!!!!!”

Actually, you don’t have to be a Cardinal fan to enjoy Torty’s blog. A favorite refrain is inspired by the stellar play-off hitting of Carlos Beltran, as in “The Beltran tolls for thee, dread Pirate Liriano!” Or, for the pitching of Michael Wacha: “It’s The Hunt for Red Wachtober!” After winning the NLDS, Torty prepares to join the celebration: “Master Allen handed me my tortoise poncho. Now let us charge once more into the champagne void!” When Torty’s injured master is inserted into the starting lineup for Game Four in spite of the beating he took the previous night, he celebrates by joining pitcher Adam Wainwright “in a synchronized dancing of the Sprain with Master Allen performing Lisa Turtle’s moves and Wainwright doing Screech’s [from the sitcom Saved by the Bell].” The entire team “burst into applause at the end of the routine,” and, as in a baseball movie, the Cardinals GM John Mozeliak entered in a panic lest Craig reinjure his injury. “We were careful,” said Wainwright. “We were dancing the Sprain.”

Perhaps they were having too much fun, for it was all downhill for the Cards after Game 3, and there is a conspicuous gap in Torty postings until he congratulates the Red Sox (“a worthy foe and deserving champions”).

Love and Hate

When my father drove us 250 miles to St. Louis for the first Cardinal game I ever saw, we stayed the night at the Mayfair Hotel. On the morning of the game, we were riding the elevator down to the lobby with a big sweaty man in a dark suit who was complaining about the heat and the city.

“God, I hate St. Louis!” he growled.

Someone hates St. Louis??? I was 12. I couldn’t believe my ears. It was like we were in the Emerald City and someone said they hated Oz. “I love St. Louis!” I squeaked, glaring up at him while my embarrassed father, who was clueless about baseball, explained, “He’s a Cardinal fan, you see.”

This book review without a book involved a fair bit of reading, even so, including the story in the Times, Torty Craig’s Facebook page, the chapter on Obstruction in So You Think You Know About Baseball (Norton $16.95), and parts of Lucas Mann’s excellent new book, Class A Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere (Pantheon $26.95).


October 30, 2013

book revIn Bristol it all happened. I fell apart and found my own little pieces and put them together again …. It is the most beautiful city in Great Britain.

—Peter O’Toole

On Redland Hill in the city Peter O’Toole fell in love with while cutting his teeth as an actor at the Bristol Old Vic, there is a room with a view I keep returning to, as I did again last week. O’Toole also said that Bristol was such a fixation with him (“the city haunted me”) that he would make spur-of-the-moment drives there from London in the dead of night. I know the feeling. My wife and I bonded with Bristol when we lived there for a couple of years in the 1970s, and we’ve been haunted by it ever since.

The View in question deserves a capital letter. Simply reverse the title of E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View and you’ve got an idea of the priorities. The room is serviceable but the View is where you live. Great vistas abound in Bristol, most famously the dizzy-making spectacle of the Clifton Suspension Bridge spanning the rocky depths of the Avon Gorge, but this is something vast and brilliant and ever-changing that you can walk your mind around in, meditate on, memorize, and revel in from sunrise to sunset to midnight and beyond.

In the near distance, beyond the trees of the back garden, you behold a pleasing jumble of tile-roofs and chimney pots, housetops, and housefronts, rising to the middle distance and the Gothic tower of Bristol University, beyond it to the west the telecommunication masts that I saw as ships in the harbor, even though the docks were way down below. No matter, because one of the great appeals of Bristol is its history of playing fast and loose with reality. In addition to the schoolboy-genius-as-Medieval poet Thomas Chatterton, who pulled off the most accomplished of literary hoaxes, not to mention the laughing gas parties hosted by Sir Humphrey Davy where Robert Southey (“Davy has invented a new pleasure for which language has no name”) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (“I felt a highly pleasurable sensation of warmth over my whole frame”) larked about, you have the part Bristol played as the apparition witnessed from the Brooks Range in Alaska by a party of climbers. Thousands of pictures of the phantom metropolis called The Silent City were sold by a crafty old prospector named Willoughby at the San Francisco International Exposition of 1894. It was eventually discovered that the incorrigible Willoughby had manufactured this lucrative vision from a photographic plate containing a view of Bristol taken from Brandon Hill.

My view sweeps Bristol from east to west, rising in terraced stages to the green hills of Somerset some ten miles distant. At night I can see the lights of cars driving along those hills, and one day last week when I asked my friend Roger what we would find were we to drive out there — “into the depths of the view” — he said Bath and Wells and some 20 or 25 miles farther on, the town of Nether Stowey, where Coleridge lived in 1897-1898 with his wife of two years and their infant son and wrote “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Long ago we’d hiked around the Lake Country searching out the sites S.T.C. had described in his notebooks, and since the next day was Monday, October 21, Coleridge’s 241st birthday, we knew where we were going — over those hills to Coleridge’s cottage at Nether Stowey and the Devon coast and the rocky beach of Watchet, where he and Wordsworth are said to have walked while brainstorming The Lyrical Ballads, one of the gateways to the Romantic Movement.

“The Ruined Man”

Of all the countries tourists have flocked to over the centuries the one most distinctly synonymous with great literature is surely England, home of Dickens and Shakespeare, “men who need no introduction.” When, however, Roger asked the young woman who works at his neighborhood market if she knew who Coleridge was, she admitted never having heard of him, or of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Next time Roger saw her she admitted to having “looked ’im up online,” interested to see he’d lived here in Bristol as a young man “way back in the ancient times.” Married at St. Mary Redcliffe, bad marriage. Oh, and he was an opium addict. Made a mess of his life. A glorious mess. Thomas Carlyle once patronized him as “a man of great and useless genius” and T.S. Eliot presumed to call one of the great minds of the 19th century “a ruined man,” before wisely adding that “Sometimes, however, to be a ‘ruined man’ is itself a vocation.”

Probably there should be a pub somewhere in Coleridge country called The Ruined Man. In Nether Stowey, there is, no surprise, a pub called The Ancient Mariner. After arriving at the Coleridge cottage and garden on a misty murky morning that would have chilled, warmed, or at least enlarged the Mariner’s embattled heart, we found that the place had been thoroughly arranged, decorated, and curated by the National Trust. Roger wasted no time making himself at home by the red glow of the hearth in the front room whilst expounding on his theory that the site of the Mariner’s “own countree,” the harbor where his weird adventure began and ended (“Below the kirk, below the hill, below the lighthouse top”) was not and could never have been Lynmouth or Minehead or even Watchet, ten miles away, but had to be Uphill, on the Bristol Channel. The fiftyish National Trust guide nodded politely though it was clearly in his best interests that the Mariner’s port be Watchet.

When we remarked on the fact that today was Coleridge’s birthday the man overseeing Coleridge’s cottage was taken aback. “Is it really?” he said, understandably wary of information divulged by a couple of former hitchhikers with more than a weather-beaten touch of Ancient Mariner about them. (Later, we heard him enthusing to his staff, “It actually is his birthday! Perhaps we should do something!”)

Wouldn’t you think the people at Coleridge’s house would have drawn a circle around October 21 on the calendar? The whole place was brilliantly, thoughtfully set up, even to the point of putting a cradle by the hearth in that front room. Those with knowledge of S.T.C.’s poetry will recognize the image from “Frost at Midnight,” which was written in that place (whose “inmates … all at rest,/Have left me to that solitude, which suits/Abstruser musings”) and where “my cradled infant slumbers peacefully.” The mood of the moment — a man alone at night, transfixed by the way the “thin blue flame” lies “on the low-burnt fire” — is the essence of the person I’ve visited so often over the years in his letters and diaries and marginalia (published magnificently by Princeton University Press), outside the formal constructs he customarily ignored. And our hosts had actually replicated the thin blue flame. I mean, the place was brimming with Coleridgiana, his writing desk, his quill pen, a lock of his hair, a number of painted portraits, manuscripts, the first edition of The Lyrical Ballads, wherein the “Rime” first appeared, and think of it, if two amateur readers, a grey-bearded Yank and a busking Brit, hadn’t walked in the door, the significance of the day would have been lost to the folks in charge of Coleridge’s cottage.

From Nether Stowey we drove to Watchet. Though the harbor there is clearly not the model for the one described in the “Rime,” the esplanade features a suitably grim, twisted statue of the Ancient Mariner by Scottish sculptor Alan B. Herriot. Earlier, we’d walked on the stony shore along the bleak, brackish Severn estuary where Coleridge and Wordsworth talked out the Lyrical Ballads.

Getting to Know S.T.C.

When I discovered Coleridge in my mid-teens, the note that prefaced “Kubla Khan,” one of the only poems I ever voluntarily memorized, said that after consuming the opium brandy otherwise known as laudanum, the poet had nodded off dreaming of Xanadu and a “stately pleasure dome … where Alph the sacred river ran, down through caverns measureless to man.” Upon waking, he’d begun writing the poem, only to be interrupted by the now infamous Person from Porlock.

Me, right now I’m dreaming of the View and the Silent City. No opium required. I prefer to dismiss the hoax theory. Just travel online to The Rough Guide to Unexplained Phenomena: “One of the attractions of Alaska is that its local sky is peculiarly receptive to images of the city of Bristol in England.”

What a thought. A receptive sky. A sky as haunted by Bristol as I am.

In New Lands (1923) Charles Fort quotes a report in the Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society 27-158: “That every year between June 21 and July 10, a ‘phantom city’ appears in the sky, over a glacier in Alaska; that features of it had been recognized as buildings in the city of Bristol, England.”

Painting of Bristol, Clifton Suspension Bridge, is by Claude Buckle. The Peter O’Toole quotes are from Conversations, a book of interviews by Roy Newquist (Rand McNally 1967) 


October 16, 2013

DVD revBefore I plunge into a column on Giuseppi Verdi, whose 200th birthday was last Wednesday, I have to admit that it’s taken me an embarrassingly long time to come to my senses about opera. A random search on YouTube just now brought me to the Guardian music blog’s birthday celebration in which aficionados were asked to send a clip of their favorite Verdi moment. At the top of the list was a black and white video of Maria Callas as Violetta in a 1958 Lisbon production of Verdi’s La Traviata said to be “precious beyond price” because it’s the only surviving film of Callas “in a role she made her own.” The opening image of people in period dress — a party scene where no one looks comfortable, everything posed, stagey, static — shows that what made it hard for me to get into opera at a time when I was able to appreciate other forms of classical music was that it seemed to take itself so seriously — so much that it made you want to see Groucho and Harpo and Chico set loose on the scene, as M-G-M did so devastatingly in A Night at the Opera.

Opera suggests life on the grand scale. The first opera I ever saw, at 19, was a production of Puccini’s Turandot at the Baths of Caracalla in Rome, where the scale was so grand that it got in the way of the music. Rome overwhelmed it. And the surroundings! I mean, Orson Welles was sitting five rows in front of me. My parents bought me an LP of the highlights for my birthday, but all I wanted to hear after that first summer in Europe were songs like “Nel blu dipinto di blu.”

The way Dominic Modugno’s “Volare” swept Europe that summer, on the street, in the air, everywhere, was a throwback to what happened the day after a new opera by Verdi (1813-1901) was performed, when his songs could be heard sung and played on the street by singers, bands, and organ grinders. Verdi was composing the equivalent of hits a century before “Volare.” Of course one of the stereotypes of Italy is that people of all social classes are mad for opera. One of my most memorable hitchhiking experiences was a ride to Naples with a neatly dressed man (suit and tie, expensive-looking footwear) who turned out to be an insurance salesman, and before you could say “Giuseppi Verdi” he was singing “Libiamo, libiamo” from La Traviata and singing it, to my untrained ear, magnificently. Having just seen Placido Domingo sing it in Franco Zefferelli’s spectacular 1982 film of that opera, I have no doubt that was the song — how could I forget? We were on the Amalfi Drive, winding around cliff edge curves, the singing salesman steering with one hand while lofting an invisible goblet with the other.

Setting It in Motion

Zefferelli’s La Traviata presents sensations no opera house in the world could create. After the rich dark depths of the funereal opening, in which Violetta (Teresa Stratas), the “strayed woman” of the title, seems to come back from the dead, Zefferalli sets everything in motion. No one’s standing around looking pompous or posed or static, the party’s in a whirl, the very lamps and candelabras seem to sing and shine and glow like gold. The camera makes music of movement, sweeping you here and there but always smoothly, always true to and in synch with the melodic contours of the sequence. What Zefferelli does with the great party and masquerade scenes in La Traviata was so intoxicating (sheer ecstasy of imagery, no wasted spaces, nothing left to mundane chance, every detail at once subtle and vivid, as if the very molecules had been painted with light) that I didn’t fully appreciate Teresa Stratas’s charming, passionate, down to earth Violetta. Slightly built, with a very expressive Greek face, which becomes irresistible whenever Zefferelli brings the camera into kissing range, Stratas is like one of the great courtesans from Balzac’s Lost Illusions come to life. There’s no way not to love this woman when she’s singing full out and feeling every note. And when the doomed beauty lets go and scampers wildly about that incredible interior — a fantasy of elegance even Balzac would be hard put to describe — singing of ecstasy, madness, freedom, and euphoria, “love a heartbeat through the universe,” she has you believing it.

The Social Masquerade

The experience of reading Frank Walker’s 1962 biography of Verdi has in common with Stratas and Zefferelli’s Traviata the shining central presence of a charming, intelligent, articulate woman, Giuseppina Strepponi, an acclaimed soprano in her time who came to Verdi with a shady reputation not unlike Violetta’s. The most interesting portions of Walker’s book are built around long letters from Strepponi, Verdi’s second wife, who called herself “your Nuisance” and “Peppina” and called him “my Pasticcio.” Their relationship began in 1847 and continued until her death in 1897. Her letters are full of fancy and feeling, warmth and wit (an entire chapter is titled “Giuseppiana at her Writing Desk”). In one, she expresses her less than positive feelings about Verdi’s hometown Bussetto (“And to think that that lofty soul of yours came spontaneously to lodge in the body of a Bussetano”) and prefers to imagine that “an exchange took place in your childhood and that you came into existence as the result of some sweet lapse of two unhappy and superior beings.” She goes on to a statement that seems to reflect the milieu of La Traviata: “We are still the whole world to each other and watch with high compassion all the human puppets rushing about, climbing up, slipping down, fighting, hiding, reappearing — all to try to put themselves at the head or among the first few places, of the social masquerade.”

In another letter, after referring to the esteemed Verdi who “goes to pay calls on ministers of state and ambassadors,” she writes that “many times I am quite surprised that you know anything about music! However divine that art and however worthy your genius of the art you profess, yet the talisman that fascinates me and that I adore in you is your character, your heart, your indulgence for the mistakes of others while you are so severe with yourself, your charity, full of modesty and mystery, your proud independence, and your boyish simplicity — qualities proper to that nature of yours, which has been able to preserve a primal virginity of ideas and sentiments in the midst of the human cloaca!”

“Let’s Do ‘Falstaff’”

Decades later when Verdi was approaching 80, the opera legend Adelina Patti observed that “he only looks sixty … jolly and gay as a lad.” Obviously Patti was picking up on the spirited overflow from the composition of Falstaff, which Verdi came to refer to as “The Big Belly” and began when he was 79. “What a joy!” he wrote to Boito, his liberettist. “To be able to say to the Audience: ‘We are here again! Come and see us!’ So be it. Let’s do Falstaff! Let’s not think of obstacles, of age, of illness!” The zany pacing and rhythms of the score are reflected in the madcap style Verdi gives to his accounts of it: “The Big Belly is on the road to madness. There are some days when he does not move, he sleeps, and is in bad humor; at other times he shouts, runs, jumps, and tears the place apart.  I let him act up a bit, but if he goes on like this I will put him in a muzzle and a straitjacket.”

Falstaff was a triumph. The ovation at La Scala lasted a half hour. Boito said “All the Milanese are becoming citizens of Windsor [the opera was based primarily on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor].” When it was over, Verdi celebrated it in the same terms: “Everything ends! Alas, alas! too soon! The thought is too sad! It’s all Big Belly’s fault. What madness! Everyone … everything on earth is a joke!”

Verdi died at the age of 88 on January 27, 1891. At the funeral service in Milan, Toscanini conducted orchestras and choirs composed of musicians from throughout Italy. To date, it is said to have been the largest public assembly of any event in the history of Italy, with a crowd of 200,000.

Besides Frank Walker’s Verdi the Man (Knopf 1962), I consulted Mary Jane Philips-Martz’s Verdi: A Biography (Oxford 1995). Zefferelli’s films of  Verdi’s La Traviata and Otello are available on DVD at the Princeton Public Library.


October 9, 2013

DVD revYou never know. Somehow a column marking Giuseppi Verdi’s 200th birthday has gone astray and broken bad. What could possibly justify putting the man who gave us Rigoletto, Falstaff, and La Traviata on hold for another week? How about the concluding episode of Breaking Bad? So much for high art, right? Joe Green meet Walter White.

It begins to look as though the theme of this column is why not have Verdi, Shakespeare, Bryan Cranston, Badfinger, high art, pop art, rock and roll, Faustus and Mephistophles, Violetta and Walt singing and dancing and scheming in the same 1800-word opera house? Verdi grew up in a tavern, after all, and returned to his roots at 80 for the tavern scenes in Falstaff, where the title character embodies the highs and lows of art and expounds on the joys of getting divinely drunk: “A good sherris-sack hath a twofold operation in it. It ascends me into the brain, dries me there all the foolish and dull and crudy vapors which environ it, makes it apprehensive, quick, forgetive, full of nimble, fiery, and delectable shapes, which, delivered o’er to the voice, the tongue, which is the birth, becomes excellent wit.”

Now right on cue here comes Walter Pater reminding me that all art “aspires to a condition of music” and I’m thinking how well that describes the aspiring, ascending final moment of Vince Gilligan’s phenomenal series, which just ended its five-year run on AMC with an audience said to number 10.3 million. When Frank Capra came to Princeton to talk to some film students, his main message was that all the art in the world that ever mattered was popular. Ten million people in one night, not to mention all those who saw Breaking Bad on DVD or On Demand or who streamed it or dreamed it — that’s popular!

“Baby Blue”

Right now after a week of having Badfinger’s freshly resurrected hit from 1972 playing in my head, I keep hearing “Follie! Follie!” (“Madness! Madness!”) from the first act of Zeferelli’s lavish 1983 film version of La Traviata. Admitted, the music the other Walter had in mind was a long way from “Baby Blue,” the song that Breaking Bad aspired and ascended to the other Sunday. But how good it felt to recognize the opening chords, then the descending bass line, to know the song even before you could name it, a surge of melodic rock and roll excitement lifted over the top with a camera movement that was nothing less than operatic (lest we forget whose birthday this is). Suddenly you find yourself rising above the concluding image of a show defined by the richness of its imagery, looking down as if from a Paris Opera chandelier with the fallen phantom way below. That crane shot and the choice of “Baby Blue” was the defining stroke of genius in a show propelled by its own brilliance, like a Catherine wheel Vince Gilligan set spinning when Bush was still in the White House. For cinematography alone, the saga of a high school science teacher in Albuquerque who took his life to another level as the master chef of crystal blue meth is an outstanding work of art.

Now that I think of it, a fascinating opera could be composed around Walter White’s Mephistophelian journey, with arias and choruses featuring the downtrodden scientific genius, his family, his former D-student helper, his underworld associates and enemies, clowns and kingpins, and the fire that consumes them.

The Right Song

According to a story in Rolling Stone, Vince Gilligan’s music team didn’t agree with his choice of Badfinger’s rocker. Numerous songs with titles playing on blue meth were suggested, including no doubt Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” and Tommy James’s “Crystal Blue Persuasion.” Profiting from the stir created by Breaking Bad, Badfinger’s prototypical piece of Power Pop, the polar opposite of Dave Porter’s succinct, hypnotically sinister opening theme, is on the verge of entering the Billboard Top 100, with a nearly 3000 percent sales gain in the week following the September 29 showing; in the 11 hours immediately after the finale, according to Spotify, global streams of the song were up 9,000 percent. The hint of media mania also reflects a reprise of the Beatles magic that gave an early glow to their Welsh proteges. Not only was Badfinger the first group signed to the Apple label, it took its name from John Lennon, who used to riff on his “Bad Finger Boogie.”

Breaking Blue

The breaking bad downside is that Pete Ham, the song’s composer and lead singer, hanged himself in 1975, three years after “Baby Blue” was released. Tom Evans, whose bass line gave the song its signature, took his life in the same manner in 1983, three years after the murder of John Lennon. The crook who stole the group blind and helped sink it (he was actually named in Pete Ham’s suicide note) would have been at home in the cut-throat world of Gilligan’s Albuquerque where the show’s crooked lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) provides all kinds of unlawful advice along with indispensable comic relief. A sign of Saul’s popularity is that Odenkirk is under contract to AMC for a spinoff series tentatively titled “Better Call Saul.”

Not all of Breaking Bad’s followers go along with the ending. The show that rocks its way off the stage has given us hell on earth, plumbed depths of evil, created paintings on film as savage as they are beautiful, shot through with outrages like the raspberry slushie, the pink teddy bear, and the severed-head-of-a-drug-dealer-aboard an exploding tortoise. At the same time, Badfinger’s jubilant, undaunted song underscores the recognition that Walt himself finally articulates in the closing episode, that he’s an unapologetic genius who sinned mightily going to the limit for his art, which in the end was not merely for money and family but for himself.


So how do we define or relate to or properly appreciate Breaking Bad? In Alan Sepinwall’s Hitfix blog, which is heading toward a thousand comments, most respondents make generally positive value judgments about the finale, debating plot elements, unresolved twists and turns, loose threads, speculating on the fates of supporting characters, fools and knaves, bodyguards and hitmen. The level of analytical involvement made me think of the brave new world of teaching the critic Richard Poirier was proposing around the time he wrote The Performing Self (1970). Poirier’s goal was to open the study of literature to elements of popular culture and compelling subjects like sports, video games, technology, advertising, making the most of everyday interests and enthusiasms undergraduates and graduate students could engage with, therein leading them to the spontaneous practice of a primitive, but potentially productive form of analysis that could then be brought to bear on what they were reading. Right now the last comment on the Hitfix blog, from “Jerseyrudy” ends with a reference to everybody’s favorite analogy for ambiguity, the Mona Lisa: “it is a strength of any work of art that it can be open to different interpretations.” The Mona Lisa was also Frank Capra’s favorite example of Great Popular Art.

But how to classify enterprises as indisputably great as The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire, and Breaking Bad? At the moment I can’t think of a film made in America since, say, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West that even comes close to what David Chase, David Milch, David Simon, and Vince Gilligan have somehow presided over, or as they put it, created. However many times you choose to see a motion picture in the course of your life, it’s not the same as living with characters and situations week to week, as did everyone who started watching Breaking Bad in January 2008.

Because viewers of the controversial closing episode of David Chase’s The Sopranos had been living with Tony Soprano for eight years, they felt they had a stake in his fate, and even now, for all I know, bloggers are still arguing about the unresolved ending — was that sudden cut to black a cop out or a masterstroke? Who can blame people after eight years of watching, eight years that included any number of near-death experiences for Tony? Thus the cumulative pressure on the last few minutes charges a superficially routine situation with extraordinary tension as Tony sits in a Bloomfield Avenue restaurant with his wife and son, waiting for his daughter to join them for dinner. As soon as Tony pushes the button for Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’ “ on the table-top jukebox selector, the tension becomes almost unbearable.

The instant the song starts playing it generates excitement similar to what happens when “Baby Blue” comes in at the end of Breaking Bad. Unlike viewers of The Sopranos, people who have been following Walt’s tempestuous career have the benefit of a resolution.

Celebrating Bryan Cranston

Bryan Cranston’s performance as Walter White is worthy of superlatives beyond the usual, words like “courageous” and “heroic” that reflect our commitment to the character. Cranston puts us on Walt’s side, whether he’s doing evil or permitting evil to be done. Even at the moment when he passes the show’s most clear-cut moral point of no return, standing by as a young girl chokes to death, he’s not doing evil, he’s protecting his money, the fruit of his newfound creation, and his working relationship with Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) by letting nature take its deadly course. And it hurts. He suffers the moment like a cut to the quick of his humanity. Heroic actor, anti-heroic character, gifted creator, all are elements composing the chemistry of Breaking Bad.


October 2, 2013

Salinger final cover.JPGJ.D. Salinger’s refusal to publish anything in the 45 years between the June 19, 1965, issue of The New Yorker and his death at 91 in 2010 was disappointing, to  say the least. It was also frustrating, weird, unaccountable, and downright demoralizing if, like me, you’d been looking forward to the major work that could be intuited from “Hapworth 16, 1924,” a novella-length, flagrantly misunderstood tour de force, and the previous Glass family stories, Franny and Zooey (1961), Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction (1963), not to mention “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” the piece of literary dynamite from 1948 that launched the series. Still, there was something awe-inspiring, even heroic, in Salinger’s sustained resistance to publishing, whether perceived as evidence of his respect for the discipline of Vedanta, his determination to focus on his work, or as a symbolic rejection of the distractions and follies of the book world.

Selling Salinger

And now here comes David Shields and Shane Salerno’s heavy-handed blockbuster Salinger (Simon and Schuster $37.50), which is hyped on the front cover as “The Official Book of the Acclaimed Documentary Film” that currently has a rating of 40 on Metacritic, only a point above “Generally Unfavorable.”

One problem Shields and Salerno (hereafter S&S) had to deal with was that they’d been beaten to the press by  a thoughtful, fully researched biography by Kenneth Slawenski highlighting one of their big selling points, Salinger’s wartime experience. So, the first thing S&S did was suck up the sour grapes and make a lame attempt to discredit Slawenski, the author of the first biography of Salinger since 1999, a book S&S undoubtedly used and then brazenly left out of their 35-page-long bibliography. That piece of bad form alone should make readers wary of the claims made and the information offered in S&S’s slipshod, almost 700-page-long hodgepodge of oral history, rumor, and negatively calibrated, shoot-from-the-hip criticism of Salinger’s life and work.

Presenting only the façade of a legitimate biography, S&S go all-out in the direction of a tabloid exposé, playing up the psychic damage of Salinger’s World War II ordeal, needlessly including five graphic photographs of concentration camp horrors. Besides making the most of Salinger’s consensual relationships with women who were often considerably younger than himself, they flog the absurd idea that The Catcher in the Rye was somehow complicit in the assassination of John Lennon, and they save a place of revelatory honor for the singular, unsubstantiated shocker of The Undescended Testicle.

And what’s the really big news S&S have going for them, news so many of us have been waiting for, news exciting enough to link the film and book to an event of worldwide literary significance? It’s the announcement by way of anonymous sources that J.D. Salinger actually produced a substantial amount of work during his years of silence, work scheduled to be published beginning in 2015. To burnish the revelation S&S boast that the new books will be “the masterworks for which he is forever known.” My italics are to emphasize the fact that earlier in their cranky opus S&S claim that Salinger was “destroyed” as an artist years before he could have written those masterworks. In the chapter ludicrously titled “Seymour’s Second Suicide,” S&S claim that the “one constant in Salinger’s life, from the early 1950s until his death in 2010, was Advaita Vedanta Hinduism, which transformed him from a writer of fiction into a disseminator of mysticism, destroying his work.”

Those are my italics again. How else to express the absurdity of so presumptuous a contention about a writer whose lifelong constant, even on the battlefield, was his work? At the end of that same chapter, S&S say it again: “His commitment to Vedanta was, by far, the most serious and long-lasting commitment of his life. His religious devotion … wound up being his second suicide mission. War killed him the first time; Vedanta the second.”

My italics again. What can you say? Salinger must really be some kind of sainted being, to come back from the dead to write The Catcher in the Rye (1951) and Nine Stories (1953), two classics of American fiction, only to be killed again by Vedanta, and come back from that death-in-middle-and-old age to write the Glass stories. But let’s be fair. Surely S&S don’t really mean what they’re saying; all that stuff about being “destroyed” and “killed” is some heavy figurative rhetoric to put a charge into their product. If you want to hold the reader’s attention, you have to resort to sweeping negative generalizations, never mind that you contradict yourselves in the process and expose the essentially bogus, hypocritical nature of your enterprise.

Misreading Holden Caulfield

But why stop there? Why not rewrite The Catcher in the Rye according to your war-damaged-writer thesis? Since Slawenski’s biography beat them to the news that Catcher was partly written on the battlefield, S&S upped the ante and said that to get all that post-traumatic repression out of his system Salinger created a hate-sick psychopath called Holden Caulfield, the subject of a narration rife with incitements to violence, an assassin’s handbook. The subtext of mayhem S&S are suggesting about a book beloved by millions for exactly the opposite qualities reminds me of Charles Manson’s reading of violence and insurrection into “Blackbird,” one of the most beautiful songs Paul McCartney ever composed.

Misreading “Hapworth”

In 1997 Salinger was about to permit the publication in book form of “Hapworth 16, 1924” when one of the publishing world’s most illustrious trolls couldn’t wait and attacked seven-year-old Seymour’s unthinkably long and literate letter from camp before it was even published. Salinger was testing the water and a piranha named Kakutani bit him on the toe.

S&S introduce this advance on the “masterworks” to come with a hail of brickbats — “impossible to believe and created to be unpalatable to the public and critics,” “a disaster,” “a total cessation of talent,” “almost as if the mental acuity of Salinger is diminishing right in front of you,” “an act of literary suicide.”

David Shields outdoes himself, recycling the terms of his travesty of Holden: “ ‘Hapworth’ just seemed dead on arrival …. He wants to maim or kill all his critics … ‘Hapworth’ careens wildly between murderous rage and a desire for peace.”

Even as I type those words, it’s hard to fathom how anyone could read “murderous rage” into a text intoxicated with love and wonder. No doubt Shields is thinking of young Seymour’s low opinion of certain camp counselors whose “heartless indifferences” to the “heartrending young campers” have him “secretly wishing” he “could improve matters quite substantially by bashing a few culprits over the head with an excellent shovel or stout club.” While it’s possible Salinger was sending a subliminal message to certain critics of his work, my guess (never having been a camper myself) is that this is pretty standard stuff according to the content of letters sent home by campers of any age and any era.

One of the most humorous aspects of “Hapworth” exposes an essential blind spot shared by Salinger’s critics and biographers, which is to read with a dead straight face a playful, at times mischievous writer who can be, and always has been, very funny. Here in a camp called Hapworth run by a young couple Salinger names Mr. and Mrs. Happy, young Seymour confesses to his parents that “this cute, ravishing girl, Mrs. Happy, unwittingly rouses all my unlimited sensuality” (“Considering my absurd age, the situation has its humorous side, to be sure”). It’s an amusing reversal for the writer whose predilection for young girls and women is made so much of in Salinger — now he’s rousing the ire of Michiko Kakutani because his seven-year-old letter writer speaks “like a lewd adult” and expresses “lustful feelings about the [22-year-old] camp matron.”

Seymour’s Quirky Poetry

By stressing Salinger’s spiritual dedication at the supposed expense of his work, S&S unwittingly signal the magnitude of his mission and the portion of it so far most powerfully accomplished in “Hapworth,” where Seymour tells his parents of his “karmic responsibility” but promises not to “harp on the subject, knowing and quite sympathizing with your disdain.” Ms. Kakutani’s “peevish,” “lewd,” “deeply distasteful,” “obnoxious child,” who lusts after Mrs. Happy, dares to “condescend” to his parents when in fact (and fiction) he’s writing to them from the other side of his life: “I for one do not look forward to being distracted by charming lusts of the body, quite day in and day out, for the few, blissful, remaining years allotted to me in this appearance.”

Perhaps someday someone will be able to do full justice to Salinger’s accomplishment in “Hapworth.” Various terms and tropes out of Vedanta have given him a rich resource from which to forge a style unlike anything in his previous work. Seymour’s quirky poetry should charm any reader able to come to the story without some preconceived notion of fictional reality. And his precocious spirituality (among the books he wants sent to him are Vivekenanda’s Raja-Yoga and Bhakti-Yoga) enables him to see others, including his own parents, with a kind of supernatural objectivity, as if they were all children. So, referring to Mrs. Happy, Seymour can say, “God bless this gorgeous kid’s heart!”

In his fictional life-span, Seymour will bow out at the age of 31, but when he tells his parents and readers, “There is monumental work to be done in this appearance, of partially undisclosed nature,” it’s tempting to picture Salinger busy in his New Hampshire bunker with 45 years remaining and “monumental work to be done.”


Admittedly, Shields and Salerno bring some valuable information to bear on Salinger, including anecdotal insights and excellent photographs from the author’s wartime buddy and lifelong friend, Paul Fitzgerald. To their credit, S&S also include responses from a few readers who “get” Hapworth, namely novelist Leslie Epstein and radio personality Jonathan Schwartz, who says that once you have a seven-year-old boy at summer camp “writing in an adult voice, asking for the most abstruse books to be sent to him … you can’t go back to the conventions of realistic fiction again. You’ve crossed a line …. In my opinion, if he’s written anything since, he’s moved ‘Hapworth’ forward. To me, that’s thrilling.”


September 25, 2013

book rev wolfebook rev perkinsMy friend, the editor, has likened his own function at this painful time to that of a man who is trying to hang onto the fin of a plunging whale.

—Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938) on Maxwell Perkins (1884-1947)

The “whale” was the manuscript of Thomas Wolfe’s Of Time and the River (1935). How could a mere book editor’s task inspire such hyperbole? The editor as action hero? Perkins and Wolfe soon to be a major motion picture? In fact, a film presently titled Genius, starring Colin Firth as the wily editor and Michael Fassbender as the word-drunk author, will begin filming next year. Honest. I didn’t make it up. The film is based on the biography of Perkins by Princeton alumnus A. Scott Berg, who was at the library in last week’s “Evenings with Friends” event.

When he delivered the massive first draft of his second novel to Perkins in December 1933, Wolfe confessed in a letter, “I need your help now more than I ever did.” It was up to Perkins to help him “get out of the woods,” as he had done in the course of shepherding Look Homeward Angel (1929) to the promised land.

In his essay, “The Story of a Novel,” Wolfe describes the teamwork between author and editor, “the whole strike, catch, flow, stop, and ending, the ten thousand fittings, changings, triumphs, and surrenders” that went into Of Time and the River.

You get a sense of just how demanding the editing process was from Struthers Burt, another Scribners author who worked with Perkins. In his June 9, 1951 Saturday Review piece, “Catalyst for Genius: Maxwell Perkins,” Burt recalls, “I would meet Tom and Max around eleven o’clock at the Chatham Walk of the Hotel Chatham, in Manhattan …. Tom would come striding in like a giant … but always a little cross and pettish with the childish crossness of a giant. Behind him would be Max, white and utterly exhausted. Max was of average height, but he looked small on those hot June nights and sparse like a dry-point etching. Every night for weeks Max and Tom had been working over in Brooklyn [where Wolfe lived “because it was the only place in the U.S. where you could be hidden and lonely”]. Max would persuade Tom to leave 5,000 words out of a new chapter. Tom would consent. Between them they would delete. The next day Tom would turn up with 10,000 new words.”

Star Attraction

It’s thanks to Struthers Burt, by way of his son Nathaniel and grandson Christopher, that the star attraction at this year’s Friends of the Princeton Public Library Book Sale, which begins Friday at 10 a.m., is a copy of the first edition of Of Time and the River signed by Maxwell Perkins, the man without whom it could not have been written and to whom it is emotionally dedicated. In all my years as an amateur bibliophile, attender of rare book fairs, and for some 25 years Friends book sale volunteer, I have never seen anything comparable to this tangible evidence in book form (albeit lacking the dust jacket) of the most storied editor-author relationship in American literature.

Like so many literary partnerships, however, this one did not go smoothly. Imagine a platonic romance — the ultimate literary buddy movie — that falls apart when the more demonstrative party is too extreme and too public in expressing his devotion and appreciation. While it makes perfect sense that Wolfe would dedicate Of Time and the River to Perkins, this was a writer forever given to extremes, and even though various associates at Scribners pleaded with him to tone down the dedication printed in the front matter of the novel, Wolfe insisted on paying a detailed tribute to “a great editor and a brave and honest man, who stuck to the writer of this book through times of bitter hopelessness and doubt and would not let him give in to his own despair … with the hope that all of it may be in some way worthy of the loyal devotion and the patient care which a dauntless and unshaken friend has given to each part of it, and without which none of it could have been written.”

These words were all it took to stir up exactly the sort of litchat gossip about his dependence on Perkins that Wolfe found intolerable. That alone would have been enough to send him to another publisher, but an even thornier problem was his determination to write about Perkins and Scribners in his next novel. Concerned that certain personal in-house information he’d revealed to Wolfe in the course of their working friendship might come to light, Perkins made it clear that he would have to resign if Scribners published the book. But there was no stopping Wolfe. After the North Carolina coming of age described in Look Homeward, Angel, his years with Perkins and Scribners were the summit of his life. So he went to Harpers, which divided the last immense unfinished manuscript into two novels published after Wolfe’s untimely death, The Web and the Rock (1939) and You Can’t Go Home Again (1940), wherein Perkins was portrayed as Foxhall Edwards and Scribners as the House of Rodney.

The Last Letter 

When Wolfe died 75 years ago, September 15, 1938, Perkins, who thought of his three most famous authors as surrogate sons, received letters of condolence from Scott Fitzgerald, who said he felt as if he were writing to “a relation” of Wolfe’s (“for I know how deeply his death must have touched you”) and Ernest Hemingway, who referred to the farewell message Wolfe sent to Perkins: “That was a good letter he wrote …. Remember if anything happens to me I think just as much of you as Tom Wolfe even if I can’t put it so well.”

Apparently Perkins had shown Hemingway Wolfe’s last letter, written a month before his death from a cerebral infection set off by pneumonia. The letter begins, “I’m sneaking this against orders, but ‘I’ve got a hunch’ — and I wanted to write these words to you …. I’ve made a long voyage and been to a strange country, and I’ve seen the dark man very close …. I wanted most desperately to live and still do … and there was the impossible anguish and regret of all the work I had not done, of all the work I had to do — and I know now I’m just a grain of dust, and I feel as if a great window has been opened on life I did not know about before …. Whatever happens — I had this ‘hunch’ and wanted to write you and tell you, no matter what happens or has happened, I shall always think of you and feel about you the way it was that Fourth of July day three years ago when you met me at the boat and we went out on the cafe on the river and had a drink and later went on top of the tall building, and all the strangeness and the glory and the power of life and the city was below.”

Cynics might say, look, even his last letter needs editing, but it was the essence of the document, with its soaring last words about the day he’d returned to America from Europe to find that Of Time and the River was a great success, that touched writers all over the world, especially young writers who were inspired by his work and haunted by his story.

I’ve long since given up trying to “recapture the rapture” of first discovering Wolfe and walking around Greenwich Village and Brooklyn Heights following in his footsteps, staying at his hotel, the Albert on University Place (the Leopold in Of Time and the River). For a period between the ages of 18 and 21, the big, wonderstruck, forever wandering wordslinger from the South was the most unlikely of my alter egos, right up there with Holden Caulfield and James Dean. Thanks to this remarkable donation from the Burt family, I had an excuse to pay a return visit to Wolfe after decades of false starts. What I did was go right to Book IV, a little over 400 pages into Of Time and the River, and start reading. At first it was hard going, like dipping one foot into a raging current, or catching hold of a speeding train bound for the Land of the Passionately Purple and Vividly Verbose. I found the secret is to read it aloud. After a few paragraphs, the rolling rhythm carries you along. I took a journey of a hundred pages, through the author’s love-hate relationship with New York, his stint teaching at NYU, his Jewish nemesis and eventual friend, Abe Jones, and a Hudson River rhapsody Scott Fitzgerald remembered as Wolfe at his best.

About the Burts

Maxwell Struthers Burt (1882-1954, Princeton Class of 1904), was the author of numerous popular novels and stories, including The Delectable Mountains (1927), Festival (1931), and the autobiography The Diary of a Dude Wrangler (1924). He was also the co-founder of the Bar BC Ranch in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Besides helping him run the ranch, his wife, Katherine Newlin Burt, was also a successful writer (30 novels and innumerable stories, most about the West). Their son, Nathaniel Burt (1913-2003, Princeton Class of 1936), another writer, was born on the kitchen table at the Bar BC. Over the years the ranch was a literary gathering place (Ernest Hemingway is said to have worked on A Farewell to Arms there). The Burt donation reflects the story of a fascinating family of writers whose interests range from the West to East. Grandson Christopher is the author of Extreme Weather, a guide and record book published by W.W. Norton. Books by the Burts will be on the tables at the Friends Book Sale this weekend, along with items like Princeton Verse 1919, which features two poems by Scott Fitzgerald (as T. Scott) and Riddle Poems by Emily Dickinson, in an edition published and signed by Leonard and Esther Baskin.


September 18, 2013

BookrevThirty chapters into Thomas Pynchon’s new novel, Bleeding Edge (Penguin $28.95 ), the familiar voice that has been riffing on “ghost stops on abandoned subway lines” and girls “whose fashion sense included undead signifiers such as custom fangs installed out in the outer boroughs by cut rate Lithuanian orthodontists” suddenly starts talking straight. No more sweet Pynchonian nothings playfully whispered in the reader’s ear. Doing a reversal of Dorothy’s “We’re not in Kansas any more” moment, the author’s funny, scary, gaudy Manhattan movie briefly becomes a real-life newsreel featuring people like you and me, people who were living in the real world on a brilliant Tuesday morning in September 2001.

The tone of the first three pages of Chapter 30 is set with a reference to the city and the nation “united in sorrow and shock.” What immediately follows is reminiscent of the elegaic reportage that dominated the media at the time. It’s as if the magnitude of the event overwhelms Pynchon the way the white whale does Melville’s Ahab: it heaps him. He can write circles around it, and in effect does just that, but rather than directly confront it in his own style, he puts his antic muse briefly on hold in deference to “that terrible morning” and writes about home-cooked meals at firehouses, flowers, child choirs, American flags in apartment building lobbies. The writing is only marginally distinguishable from the summary on the dust jacket (“It is 2001 in New York City, in the lull between the collapse of the dotcom boom and the terrible events of September 11th”), which effectively casts the shadow of the event on the narrative before you even open the book, although it’s not until page 315 that the towers actually come down.

What’s in a Name?

Forty years ago, Gravity’s Rainbow’s first words were “A screaming comes across the sky.” Bleeding Edge begins with a mother “walking her boys to school.” Maxine Tarnow knows her kids are “past the age where they need an escort,” but she “doesn’t want to let go just yet, it’s only a couple of blocks, it’s on her way to work, she enjoys it, so?” If you’re wondering where Thomas Pynchon is, and in case that snappy little “so?” doesn’t reassure you, the issue is settled as soon as you learn that the school in question is named for Otto Kugelblitz, “an early psychoanalyst” who emigrated to the U.S. after being “expelled from Freud’s inner circle.” It also helps to know that this is a school where graduation ceremonies feature the Kugelblitz bebop ensemble performing that old Charlie Parker favorite, “Billie’s Bounce.” Still, since when has the creator of Tyrone Slothrop and Benny Profane, Oedipa Maas and Rachel Owlglass, ever settled for so uncommonly common a name as Maxine Tarnow? Google “Tarnow” and out of the multitudes you come up with an insurance agent, a “casual furniture store” in Chicopee, Mass., and a dentist “in the forefront of dental implant research,” which may be of interest to scholars preparing a paper on Pynchon’s famous overbite.

The Real Story

What about the plot? Do we really have to go there? I could spend a paragraph talking about an internet startup called hashslingrz or celebrating the fascinating depths of DeepArcher, but I’d rather leave that to readers who have gone to bed with Pynchon’s work. The novel’s most passionate priorities are implicit in the epigraph from Donald E. Westlake that says as “a character in a mystery” New York is neither the detective nor the murderer but “the enigmatic suspect who knows the real story but isn’t going to tell it.” Bleeding Edge contains a wealth of false leads that are fun to follow, at least until you learn there’s no pay-off, nothing to equal the Manhattan rhapsodies, Pynchonesque allusions to pop culture, and comic audacity (the dead chicken facial, for instance). The references to Madoff, the CIA, and conspiracy teasers about the Trade Center attack can’t compare with the pleasure of reading Pynchon when he has the wind in his sails.

Given the human cost of 9/11, it’s also important that Maxine, mother and homemaker, is at the center of the action, adding domestic credibility (even her estranged husband has returned to the nest), while her professional identity as a hip, well-armed, conveniently disbarred, sexually willing investigator of online fraud leads us into a maze of bizarre encounters with individuals who for the most part qualify as characters in name only, since Maxine’s conversations with various doormen, maids, shopping or drinking buddies, suspects, shop keepers, clerks, spies, geniuses, and killers tend to blur into one another. It helps to think of certain characters as routes to follow through Pynchon’s New York, human taxis, subways, and busses, the most compelling of which is the Windust Line, after Nicholas Windust, an anti-hero right out of 24 and the Bournes, think rogue CIA, the Homeland Brody to Maxine’s Carrie, phallic villain as victim. And I should mention that the Moriarty to Tarnow’s Holmes is an internet mogul named Gabriel Ice.

With the game playing, culture vulture gleanings, and elliptical offhand dialogue (typically sez for says or said), you’re on Planet Pynchon, love it or leave it. But if you leave it, you miss what must be the best writing about New York City since Henry James’s American Scene (1907).

Pynchon staked a literary claim of sorts to New York 50 years ago in V with Benny Profane’s subway yo-yo-ing between Grand Central and Times Square and the alligators in the sewers. Now more than ever before, this is his town; he’s an Upper West Side New Yorker, and you can tell how he feels when Maxine goes for a rush-hour evening walk as the rain is just starting: “sometimes she can’t resist, she needs to be out on the street” and its “million pedestrian dramas, each one charged with mystery, more intense than high-barometer daylight can ever allow. Everything changes. There’s that clean, rained-on smell. The traffic noise gets liquefied. Reflections from the street into the windows of city buses fill the bus interiors with unreadable 3-D images, as surface unaccountably transforms to volume.”

In passages like that one, the word-drunk virtuoso of Gravity’s Rainbow is writing on a more down-to-earth life-is-real level, again perhaps in recognition of the impending event. No such lyrical moments occur in Times Square (“Disneyfied and sterile”), on Park Avenue (“the most boring street in the city”), or on the Upper East Side (“Deep hairband country … like a planned midgets’ commmunity, everything scaled down … you expect any minute to be approached by a tiny official greeter going, ‘As mayor of the Munch-kin City …’”). There are some nice views of the state across the Hudson, however: “Out into one of those oppressive wintry afternoons, the sky over New Jersey a pale battle flag of the ancient nation of winter.”

Not to Be Missed

In Bleeding Edge, New York is both suspect and victim. The city Pynchon wrote about in V is under attack not just by terrorists and corporate greed but by the Giuliani administration. There’s a piece of charged writing planted in your path early in the narrative like a gem, a glowing signifier Pynchon doesn’t want you to miss. It comes when Maxine follows a lead involving hwgaahwgh.com (to pronounce it, just clear your throat or cough), which rents office space in one of the many doomed vestiges of old Manhattan in the embattled city, where “sinister and labyrinthine sewers of greed … run beneath all real estate dealings.” The intrepid Tarnow enters a “nice building with terra-cotta facing from a century ago” that is “strangely welcoming as if the architects had actually given some thought to the people who’d be working there every day.” The office she’s looking for is listed in the lobby directory. She knows “old-school fraud investigators who’ll admit to walking away at this point, only to regret it later.” In other words, reader, don’t walk away, don’t hurry, go forth and focus, “keep going no matter what” until you “can actually stand” with Maxine “in the haunted space and try to summon the ghost vendor out of its nimbus of crafted silence” [my italics].

All such intensely written codas in Bleeding Edge are not just one-offs, they have legs that lead to other ghosts and other silences. Compare the charged “ghost vendor” sentence to the more lyrical, less elaborate, but no less suggestive passage about the reflections in the bus window, and then compare that to the passage near the end where Maxine’s on the subway as her train passes or is passed by another “in the darkness of the tunnel” and “as the windows of the other train move slowly past, the lighted panels appear one by one, like a series of fortune-telling cards … The Scholar. The Unhoused. The Warrior Thief. The Haunted Woman.” Maxine sees the faces as “the day’s messengers from whatever the Beyond has for a Third World.” Which leads to the “darkly exotic” Third World Woman she sees gesturing at her from “one particular window of the other train.” It’s the late Nick Windust’s Guatamalan wife, the woman he smuggled safely out of the country. The convergence of Maxine and Xiomara is the sort of brazen coincidence only a fearless writer would dare and Pynchon pulls it off.

A few pages farther on, “Deep below, trains still move through tunnels in and out of Penn Station, horns chiming in B-major sixths, deep as dreams, while ghosts of tunnel-wall artists and squatters the civil authorities have no idea what to do about … go drifting past the traincar windows in the semidark, whispering messages of transcience.”

Passages like those I’ve been quoting (and I could quote a dozen others) transcend plot and character, so it’s no surprise that the most prodigious narrative flash points, all through, are of the Twin Towers, seen from various angles and actually inhabited when Maxine’s husband Horst takes the two boys to Windows on the World. In one of the novel’s most audacious passages, Maxine, along with a friend and a drug dealer, is fleeing the DEA in a motor boat (“a 28-foot runabout”) skimming down the Hudson past “the World Trade Center leaning, looming brilliantly curtained in light gigantically off their port quarter, and someplace farther out in the darkness a vast unforgiving ocean.” After a sharp right turn to elude their pursuers, they find themselves approaching “a lofty mountain range of waste. Neglected little creeks, strangely luminous canyon walls of garbage, smells of methane, death, and decay.”

Where has Pynchon, the poet laureate of waste, taken his characters? To “the intersection of Fresh and Arthur Kills, toxicity central,” which some months later will be the last resting place of the wreckage of Trade Towers freighted with the remains of more than a thousand victims.

This is where literature sweeps everything before it and Bleeding Edge, love it or leave it, is literature.

By all rights, the Newspaper of Record, as Pynchon refers to the New York Times throughout, should make up for its violation of the publisher’s request (“Please do not review before September 17”) by putting together an online anthology of Pynchon’s New York arias.


September 11, 2013

review dh awrenceDavid Herbert Lawrence was born on this day, September 11, 1885, in the mining town of Eastwood, near Nottingham. He died March 2, 1930, some seven decades before the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

With most writers, you would note the birthday coincidence and move on, but that’s not easily done with Lawrence. Writing in 1956, his sometime friend John Middleton Murray said, “Lawrence was alone in the depth of his prescience of the crisis of humanity which has developed since his death.” In fact, Lawrence wrote and thought so freely and fiercely about so many issues that it doesn’t take much looking to find passages that could be used to describe, among other things, the political reality stateside before and after 9/11, as in this sentence from Part IV of Apocalypse, his last work: “They will only listen to the call of mediocrity wielding the insentient bullying power of mediocrity: which is evil. Hence the success of painfully inferior and even base politicians.”

A few sentences later he seems to be casting his line in the direction of the Bush administration’s coded terror alerts: “Society consists of a mass of weak individuals trying to protect themselves, out of fear, from every possible imaginary evil, and, of course, by their very fear, bringing the evil into being.” However horrifically un-imaginary September 11 was, it brought into being war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Raw Genius

No other writer I can think of so thoroughly saturates the page with his personality. Lawrence is prickly, rude, boorish, and vindictive, arrogantly declaiming about everything under the sun and moon because everything fires him up, pulls at him, agitates, fascinates, and challenges him. His is a force of raw genius like an engine plowing through and scattering to the wind everything in its path.

Who else but Lawrence would begin a poem with a chip on his shoulder? “You tell me I am wrong?/Who are you, who is anybody to tell me I am wrong?/I am not wrong.” What’s the poem about? A pomegranate. Who’s he arguing with? Someone who has “forgotten the pomegranate-trees in flower, /Oh so red, and such a lot of them.” Or he could very well be addressing the pomegranate itself, holding it in one hand like Hamlet holding Yorick’s skull. What does Lawrence see in the pomegranate? The Doges of Venice, for a start, and “crowns of spiked green metal/Actually growing,” and “if you dare, the fissure!” But wait: “Do you mean to tell me you will see no fissure?/Do you prefer to look on the plain side?” By now, you’re asking yourself “What fissure? What’s he on about?” No matter. It’s all enroute to the “setting suns” and “drops of dawn” when the “end cracks open with the beginning:/Rosy, tender, glittering within the fissure” and the closing couplet: “For my part, I prefer my heart to be broken,/It is so lovely, dawn-kaleidoscopic within the crack.”

If Lawrence had witnessed the nightmare of 9/11, he might have been one of those chastised for daring to see a beauty in it beyond the loss of life, something actually accomplished in March of 2002 when the towers were resurrected in the form of two soaring shafts of blue light, almost as if the planners of the spectacle were borrowing ideas from one of Lawrence’s poems about blueness. The thought behind that magnificent gesture might also be read into Lawrence’s introduction to Fantasia of the Unconscious, where “The living live and then die,” passing away “as we know, to dust and to oxygen and nitrogen” and perhaps “direct into life itself … direct into the living.”

In Your Face

“Peach,” another poem from Lawrence’s collection Birds, Beasts, and Flowers, begins, “Would you like to throw a stone at me?/Here, take all that’s left of my peach.” As the poem ends, after a battery of nagging questions, the poet supposes, perhaps rightly by then, that “you would like to throw something at me,” and says, “Here, you can have my peach stone.” It’s poetry in-your-face, he’s standing in front of you, practically stepping on your toes, looking you in the eye as he dares you to throw the peach stone. But he’s standing too close, there’s no room, and he won’t back up. Lawrence never backs up.

The next poem in the series, “Medlars and Sorb-Apples,” moves from the “morbid” taste (“I love you, rotten, delicious rottenness”) to the Orphic Underworld, taking you “down the strange lanes of hell, more and more intensely alone,/The fibres of the heart parting one after the other,” as the soul continues “ever more vividly embodied/Like a flame blown whiter and whiter/In a deeper and deeper darkness.”

In the arrogance of his greatness (or the greatness of his arrogance), Lawrence almost makes it possible to imagine he’s envisioning the shadow of a future event in which thousands could die in the same moment, “Each soul departing with its own isolation/Strangest of all strange companions,/And best.”

Doing the Dishes 

Lawrence’s friend Cynthia Asquith once said that he could make washing dishes an adventure. It’s an appealing thought, standing side by side with Lorenzo, he with his sleeves rolled up doing the scrubbing, talking your ear off while you do the drying. In the Lawrentian overflow there’s a clarity to everything, the cups and saucers gleaming like porcelain hallucinations. Suppose he spots a lady bug on the window sill directly in front of you, the window being open to the summer night (he always had to have the windows open), he would tell you more than you ever knew or wanted to know about that insect before using it to weave a whimsical account of the Creation like the one in his introduction to Fantasia of the Unconscious (“In the very beginning of all things, time and space and cosmos and being, in the beginning of all these was a little living creature”).

A Period of Crisis

In his introduction to the 1919 edition of Women in Love, Lawrence speaks of being “in a period of crisis” where “every man who is acutely alive is acutely wrestling with his own soul. The people that can bring forth the new passion, the new idea, this people will endure. Those others, that fix themselves in the old idea will perish with the new life strangled unborn within them. Men must speak out to one another.” Tweak the phrasing a bit and it sounds like politics U.S.A. in 2013.

But the most interesting thing in the introduction is when Lawrence confronts critics who complain about his free-swinging, repetitive rhetoric. After noting how “fault is often found with the continual, slightly modified repetition,” he resists throwing peach stones and simply points out that his style “is natural to the author; and that every natural crisis in emotion or passion or understanding comes from this pulsing, frictional to-and-fro which works up to culmination.” The introduction is dated 12 September 1919.

Having just watched the opening scenes of Ken Russell’s Women in Love (1969), I can appreciate how well cast and costumed are Gudrun and Ursula (Glenda Jackson and Jennie Linden) and Gerald and Rupert (Oliver Reed and Alan Bates), not to mention Hermione (Eleanor Bron). There’s even something like a credible, unforced Lawrentian undercurrent in play — until Russell begins attacking the audience with the cinematic equivalent of purple prose. Lawrence at his most excessive is hard enough to take, but put Lawrence and Russell together in the same building and it’s time to head for the exits.

Working Class Hero

In Ford Madox Ford’s piece on Lawrence in Portraits from Life (1937), he admits feeling “a certain trepidation” as he awaited his first meeting with the then-unknown young writer. “If he was really the son of a working coal-miner,” the high-born Ford wonders, “how exactly was I to approach him in conversation? Might he not, for instance, call me ‘Sir’ — and wouldn’t it cause pain and confusion to stop him doing so? …. A working man was so unfamiliar a proposition that I really did not know how to bring it off.”

The comic potential of Ford’s expectations colliding with the reality is worthy of a Monty Python sketch. Lawrence’s first words as he walked into the office of the journal Ford edited were airily dismissive: “This isn’t my idea, Sir, of an editor’s office.” Needless to say, the coal miner’s son’s “Sir” was not the one Ford was contemplating. And as Ford first saw him, before a word was spoken, the “russet-haired” Lawrence’s appearance had nothing to do with either officers, authors, or working men: “And suddenly, leaning against the wall beside the doorway, there was, bewilderingly … a fox. A fox going to make a raid on the hen-roost before him.”

Even when he’s attempting to describe Lawrence’s writing, Ford keeps placing him in the wild, because “Nottingham, for all its mining suburbs, was really in and of the country” and the “nature passages of Lawrence run like fire through his books …. So that at times when you read him you have the sense that there really was to him a side that was supernatural.”

Birthday Month

Presumably the almost month-long celebration of Lawrence’s birthday (September 6-24) in and around his birthplace, Eastwood, will pause on September 11 long enough to remember the 12th anniversary of the attacks. There will be a September 11 birthday lecture as well, “D.H. Lawrence as a Philosophical Novelist.” The emphasis this year is on the centenary of one of his best-known works, Sons and Lovers. There are Sons and Lovers country walks, museum tours, photo scavenger hunts, and of course a showing of the film.

It took his hometown a long time to accept the author of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and a long time to forgive him for portraying townspeople (sometimes under their real names) in his work. Now there’s a Lawrence museum, a White Peacock Cafe (after his first novel), and a Phoenix snooker hall. You can see photos and such on the Lawrence Heritage facebook page www.facebook.com/dhlawrenceheritage.



September 4, 2013

DVD_Review_Annex - Dean, James (East of Eden)_03I doubt that Jimmy would ever have got through East of Eden (1955) except for an angel on our set. Her name was Julie Harris and she was goodness itself with Dean, kind and patient and everlastingly sympathetic.

–Elia Kazan, from A Life

Kazan was on the money about Julie Harris. The five-time Tony-Award-winning actress, who died at 87 on August 24, was the heart and soul of East of Eden, the film that gave the world James Dean. When you see his moody, spectacularly conflicted character Cal through the eyes of Harris’s Abra, your affection for her fuels your fascination with him. It’s the quality of Abra’s eventual devotion to Cal that lends credibility to Dean’s over-the-top performance.

When studio head Jack Warner wanted to dump Harris for a “prettier” girl, Kazan insisted on casting her. He counted on the special presence she would bring to the film and she gave him even more than he expected: “As a performer, she found in each moment what was dearest and most moving.” She also had “the most affecting voice” he’d ever heard in an actress, one that “conveyed tenderness and humor simultaneously.” Kazan ends by admitting, “She helped Jimmy more than I did with any direction I gave him.”

It’s not just that Julie Harris becomes Dean’s muse, shining the light of her sympathy and understanding on his theatrics, she gives warmth, humor, and unspoiled loveliness to a big, sprawling, sometimes off-puttingly histrionic film, with music by Leonard Rosenman to match its most florid passages. No surprise, the best thing in the score is the love theme that plays whenever Cal and Abra are together.

Dealing With Dean

Harris clearly knew how to approach her notoriously difficult and unruly co-star. When they first met, he tried to get a rise out of her by making a comment about her age (“Do you think you look too old for me?”), which she laughed off, pointing out that she was only five years older. Although she was already a seasoned, award-winning actress, she was also “utterly lacking in airs or affectation,” as Donald Spoto’s Rebel: The Life and Legend of James Dean (1996) points out. Instead of treating him as a nemesis, she saw him as a character out of classic American fiction: “He reminded me of Tom Sawyer, always looking for adventure, always looking to mix it up.”

According to Kazan, Dean enjoyed antagonizing Raymond Massey, who played Cal’s father, Adam (“They hated one another”). Instead of trying to smooth things over, Kazan let the hostility simmer, rightly figuring that it would contribute to the tension he wanted. Based on John Steinbeck’s 1952 novel, with its allusion to the Cain-Abel story, the film is centered on Cal the “bad” son, Aron (Richard Davalos) the good son, and Aron’s girl Abra; the plot is driven by Cal’s move from defiance of Adam to a struggle to win his love and acceptance. While Massey fumed about Dean’s unprofessional behavior on and off the set, Harris, much like her character Abra, let Dean be what he was. As she told Spoto in a 1995 interview, “The raw material of our work is people, and I’ve always thought it’s wrong to say, ‘Why can’t you behave?’ If somebody’s not behaving, you just say, ‘Well, he’s not behaving,’ and you deal with it.”

Spoto thinks the scenes between Harris and Dean “bring the film to life as do no other moments.” The first such scene takes place in a field when Abra encounters Cal as she’s bringing Aron his lunch. Up to that point, her response to him has been wary, even fearful, but curious, interested. Now there’s no doubt that she’s attracted, and emboldened, drawing him out, moving beyond casual conversation as she charmingly relates how in a fit of anger she threw away her stepmother’s engagement ring. To get his attention she blurts out, “I threw away three thousand dollars once!” What she wants is to show that he’s not the only person who ever behaved irrationally at the expense of a parent. The remarkable thing about the scene is that it’s essentially all Harris. Dean enjoys it, says very little, laughs a bit, his low-key response charming in itself in the way it shows his awareness of the delicate balance of the flirtation they’re engaged in.

The Kiss

For 17-year-old males, and presumably females, the key love scene — the one most likely to lead to misery and humiliation when imitated in real life — takes place on a ferris wheel. As a childhood devotee of Saturday matinee westerns who shouted “Mush!” whenever a kiss between cowboy hero and comely maid was in the offing, I can testify that the kiss on the ferris wheel is beyond reproach. It’s not mushy, or corny, or silly, or anything but what it should be. We want it to happen; all of us vicarious Cals and Abras in the audience are hoping hoping hoping it will happen, and when it does, it’s like a line of perfectly imperfect poetry falling into place almost in spite of itself  — he leans toward her, she leans toward him, they kiss, but without embracing. Both begin to make a move in that direction but it’s a passionately inconclusive gesture and as he’s about to take it further, she pulls back and begins to cry, insisting miserably that she loves Aron.

Later the same night, after a riot erupts around a German American man who is set upon when he denounces the wartime propaganda (it’s 1918), Cal and Aron have it out, Cal explodes, knocking Aron down. Abra knows who’s really hurting, however, and goes to comfort Cal, and from then on, she’s determined to save him, heal his wounds, and bring together father and son. Which is another way of saying Julie Harris saves James Dean and the movie by helping bring him together with the audience.

Dean’s most extreme piece of acting, possibly the most extravagant moment of his short career, occurs after he and Abra arrange a special birthday celebration for his father. All goes well until Aron shows up and announces that he and Abra are going to be married (not having told her or anyone else in advance). Adam says this is the best possible present, nothing could be better, a blow to Cal even before he has a chance to offer his own gift, which is the money he made by taking advantage of the wartime rise in the price of beans. Adam, who serves on the local draft board, huffily condemns this as war profiteering, and hands back the money with a forced, hollow, thanks-for-the-thought brush-off far more hurtful than an angry rejection would have been. To say that Cal is devastated doesn’t come close. His naked agony is embarrassing to behold, as Kazan knew it would be; although he doesn’t comment on it in his book, the painful, cringe-inducing excessiveness of the scene must have aroused serious debate in the screening room. Presumably Kazan left it in the film because such extremity of misery is rarely seen, not to mention being a graphic example of Actors Studio acting.

Cal’s sobbing meltdown is hard to watch. It certainly wasn’t easy for Massey, who was shocked and repelled because he didn’t know it was coming. The son’s groveling, wretched travesty of an embrace as he sinks to the floor at his father’s feet was not in the script. Today’s audiences may laugh at the scene or wince or roll their eyes, while others may still respond the way those of us guided by Abra’s loving understanding did. Julie Harris had our hearts in her hand and her heart was with Cal. If she hadn’t felt for him in that horrible moment, neither would we, so that when he hurls himself into the night baying like a wounded animal, we’re with her as she goes to console him, and though we can’t see them in the shadows, we can hear her sweet soothing loving voice and his moaning misery. Kazan keeps the scene hidden, reflecting Aron’s point of view, but we know what’s happening, that this love will be taken to the limit now, she’s his, he’s hers, and Aron knows it.

Loving Her Again

The few films Julie Harris made reveal her range and her genius, from the vulnerable adolescent in Member of the Wedding to the vivacious Sally Bowles in I Am a Camera, parts she also played on the stage. I was glad that she made so few movies. I didn’t want to see her in anything else. I wanted Julie Harris to keep being Abra forever. It’s only now, with the news of her death, that I realize how much her Abra meant to me. It was the first time I ever cared that much about someone in a film.

Over the years friends have told me “You must see Julie Harris in The Belle of Amherst,” a suggestion I had no interest in taking up, again perhaps partly because I felt so protective of my teenage ideal. Also, much as I admire Emily Dickinson’s poetry, the idea of a one-woman show left me cold. Even if easy access to The Belle of Amherst had been available, I’d have foolishly stayed away. Now that she’s gone — the saddest of excuses — I find the complete performance is available online and there she is — Abra 20 years later, and if anything, even lovelier now because she’s infused with the genius of a great poet and what a joy she is, what a funny, infinitely charming person. How thankful I am to be able to see her now. And how stupid I feel, to have waited this long.

The special edition DVD of East of Eden I watched was purchased at the Princeton Record Exchange. In the still from the film shown here, Abra (Julie Harris) and Cal (James Dean) are about to get on the ferris wheel, where they will share “a passionately inconclusive kiss.”

—Stuart Mitchner


August 21, 2013

book revWhat’s not to like when two giants of English literature are making news in the 21st century? What’s not to like about seeing a portion of Shakespeare’s handwriting on the front page of the New York Times and Jane Austen’s face peering out from the 10 pound note the Bank of England will put into circulation in 2016?

Shakespeare made page one of the Times last week (“Much Ado About Who: Is It Really Shakespeare”) because a scholar in Texas has claimed that the Bard is responsible for 325 lines among the “additional passages” included in the 1602 quarto edition of Thomas Kyd’s play, The Spanish Tragedy. This claim has some residual merit, if only because Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Charles Lamb noted the possibility in 1833. It does seem odd that it’s taken 180 years before the news was deemed fit to print. Not that I don’t enjoy seeing Shakespeare’s name first thing in the morning in bigger type than Christie’s or Weiner’s or Bloomberg’s.

This was not the only time Shakespeare finds have been front-page news. In January 14, 1996, a professor at Vassar was toasted for having proven through computer analysis that a hitherto anonymous 578-line elegy was by Shakespeare. Six years later, when the dust of the ensuing debate cleared, the professor made news again by recanting his claim after overwhelming evidence showed that the elegy was by Shakespeare’s contemporary, John Ford.

Another bogus news flash in the name of the Bard lit up page one of the November 24, 1985 New York Times, to tell the world that Gary Taylor, a “32-year-old American from Topeka, Kan. has discovered a previously unknown nine-stanza love lyric” that “appears to be the first addition to the Shakespeare canon since the 17th century.”

An addition to the canon sounds exciting until you read the lyric in question, a piece of borderline doggerel that begins “Shall I die? Shall I fly” and features gems like “Suspicious doubt, O keep out” and “’Twere abuse to accuse,” “Fairest neck, no speck,” and “For I find to my mind pleasures scanty.” Besides being occasionally incoherent, it’s teeming with cliches like love/dove, fair brow, love’s prize, “gentle wind did sport” and so on and on.

Worse yet, the man from Topeka was allowed to include this embarrassment, this insult to Shakespeare, in the edition of the Works he was co-editing (don’t ask why or how). The only person quoted backing Taylor’s claim in the Times’ jump-the-gun story (“It looks bloody good to me”) was one John Pilcher of St. John’s College, whose position there is unstated, and no wonder. Meanwhile Taylor managed to insult yet another genius in the process of admitting that “while it’s not Hamlet,” it’s “a kind of virtuoso piece, a kind of early Mozart piece.” Taylor’s Wikipedia entry admits that his claim “has since been almost universally rejected.” Undaunted, unbowed, unashamed, the Florida State University professor is the author or editor of four of the volumes included on the Random House list of the 100 most important books on Shakespeare. In 2010, Oxford University Press named him the lead editor of The New Oxford Shakespeare, to be published in 2016, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. The mind reels at the thought of what may be done in the course of, in Taylor’s words, “determining what Shakespeare wrote” in the ensuing “enormous, international frenzy of historical research.”

As Fats Waller liked to say, “One never knows, do one?”

It would take Terry Southern come back from the dead to do black-comedy justice to the tale of two sixties-styled Americans, one from Texas with shoulder-length hair, in 2013, and one from Kansas with an earring in his ear, in 1985, who managed to parlay themselves into page one prominence as Shakespeare heavyweights. It could be really funny, painfully funny.

The Ring

So what’s not to like about putting Jane Austen on the ten pound note? Don’t ask Mark Twain whose admission in a letter from 1898 — “Every time I read Pride and Prejudice, I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone” — would delight some of the bloggers who attacked Austen after the Bank of England broke the news. Never mind the shin-bone: two women who lobbied for Jane have been threatened with bombing, burning, pistol-whipping, and rape.

On a brighter note, there’s the saga of the Ring, not the Wagner Ring nor the Tolkien Ring but the turquoise and gold ring once worn by Austen and recently purchased at auction for £152,450 (about $230,000) by Texas-born pop singer Kelly Clarkson, whose worldwide hit single, “My Life Would Suck Without You” holds the record for the biggest leap to number one in the history of the Billboard Hot 100 Chart. Perhaps the most famous member of the American wing of the Jane Austen Appreciation Society, Clarkson seemed to take it in stride when the government refused to let the ring leave the country. If you want to read some generally amusing back and forth on the issue, visit the Guardian blog (“Jane Austen Ring: would its sale to Kelly Clarkson be a loss to the nation?”), where Clarkson comes out on top in a poll (the “no”s have it, 65 to 35 percent) and the target of choice is the Tory government.

I don’t have a problem with the surfacing of Jane Austen in the regions of pop culture graced by Kelly Clarkson. In fact, the Jane Austen people busy raising money to buy back the ring see only good things for their cause in the pop star’s devotion.

What would Jane Austen make of her ebullient American fan? An impossible question, of course, but my guess is that she wouldn’t take long to warm to Clarkson, and that in spite of the title, she might actually tolerate “My Life Would Suck Without You,” with all its joyous emotional energy. More to the Pride and Prejudice point, how could she resist the singer’s latest, a jaunty, jumping wedding number called “Tie the Knot”?

While Austen would no doubt need another internet crash course to travel through time from John Dowland’s “Weep No More Sad Fountains” to Schubert to the Beatles to an appreciation of Clarkson, music is very much “the food of love” when Elizabeth Bennet’s singing and playing and dancing help put things in perspective with Mr. Darcy. Earlier in the narrative, during a gathering at which Darcy is present, Elizabeth experiences “the mortification” of seeing her younger sister Mary, “after very little entreaty, preparing to oblige the company” with a song. After unsuccessfully attempting to discourage Mary with “significant looks” and “silent entreaties,” Elizabeth suffers through the performance with “the most painful sensations” and “an impatience which was very ill rewarded” when Mary is asked to sing another song and happily does so. The problem for Elizabeth is that “Mary’s powers were by no means fitted for such a display; her voice was weak, and her manner affected.”

Whether she’s singing “My Country Tis of Thee” at President Obama’s second inaugural or making the most of the cliched love-is-a-battlefield lyrics of “My Life Would Suck,” Kelly Clarkson’s considerable powers are definitely fitted for such displays.

A Delightful Creature

Published 200 years ago, in January 1813, Pride and Prejudice was Jane Austen’s “own darling child,” as she told her sister Cassandra. In the same letter, she called Elizabeth Bennet “as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print” and wondered how she “would be able to tolerate those who do not like her at least.” With those words, it’s as if the author were introducing one of her favorite characters into the society of the ages, where she will be liked and loved even into the 21st century, on the page and on the screen — and on the Jane Austen ten pound note, where you can see Elizabeth in the background above an image of Godmersham Park, home of Jane’s brother, Edward Austen Knight. She’s at her writing desk, an image that also suggests the author at work. The drawing, pen and black ink, gray wash, over pencil, is by the American artist Isabel Bishop (1902-1988), from the edition of Pride and Prejudice (E.P. Dutton 1976) that features 20 illustrations of the 31 she contributed, all of which are now at the Morgan Library and Museum. It’s impossible to regard Bishop’s depictions of the novel’s female characters without thinking of the girl friends, shop girls, and working women she drew and painted for the better part of 50 years in her Union Square studio.

To know Isabel Bishop was to sometimes feel that you were in a novel that, depending on the occasion, could have been imagined by Jane Austen, or George Eliot, or Henry James, or Edith Wharton. Isabel would have been amused to find that the Bank of England had put her image of Elizabeth Bennet on the ten pound note. What would Jane Austen think? Writing to her brother Frank in September 1813 when Pride and Prejudice was being read and wondered over, she observes “that the Secret [of her authorship] has spread so far as to be scarcely the Shadow of a secret now …. I shall not even attempt to tell Lies about it — I shall rather try to make all the Money than all the Mystery I can of it — People shall pay for their knowledge if I can make them.”

As for Shakespeare’s standing with the Bank of England, he’s got nothing to complain about. From 1970 to 1993 his was the face on the 20 pound note.