Kate Smith 1

KATE SMITH

Should we chip Abraham Lincoln’s image off of Mount Rushmore, because he said that black and white people could not live together in peace; because he believed the white race was superior; or because his favored disposition of freed slaves was not to establish them as American citizens with full rights but rather to ship them to a colony in Liberia?

Or should we evaluate Abraham Lincoln in the context of his whole life and conclude that, whatever disagreements we may have with him, the country is better off overall because he lived?

And what of Kate Smith, the “songbird of the South”?

Kate Smith 2.pngIn the 1930s, she recorded one song, “That’s Why Darkies Were Born,”  that is racially problematic and another, “Pickaninny Heaven,” that is just plain offensive. I say the first song was problematic, because it appears that the lyricist, Lew Brown, intended it as a parody of racist attitudes. That interpretation might be validated by the fact that Paul Robeson also recorded the song. There is no such room for interpretation of “Pickaninny Heaven,” a morbid and condescending lyric that Smith first addressed, on radio, to “a lot a little colored children listening in an orphanage in New York City.” And Smith also was featured in a cartoon advertisement for Calumet Baking Powder that included a stereotypical image of the turbaned black cook and a “mammy doll” supposedly sent to Smith by a fan of Smith’s recipe book.

Kate Smith 4

IRVING BERLIN/Masterworks Broadway

Because of those two songs, recorded nearly ninety years ago, the New York Yankees, the team that didn’t integrate until 1955, and the Philadelphia Flyers announced that they would stop playing Smith’s recording of “God Bless America” at their games, and the Flyers said they would cover the statue of Smith outside their arena.

Full disclosure: I have been a fan of Kate Smith the singer since I was a kid listening to her radio show with my mother. But I have also long known that Kate Smith and I would have had serious philosophical differences. Though she had been a favorite of Franklin Roosevelt, she became very conservative and nationalistic, and, I gather, kind of a knee-jerk patriot who was not inclined to question authority. Her recording of “God Bless America,” which Irving Berlin wrote specifically for her, famously inspired Woody Guthrie to write “This Land is Your Land” in response.

Kate Smith 6

JOSEPHINE BAKER

On the other hand, Kate Smith sold $600-million worth of war bonds during World War II, more than any other individual, and the number of her appearances before troops during that war was exceeded only by Bob Hope. And it’s worth mentioning here that in 1951—four years before the Yankees integrated—the highly controversial Josephine Baker, made her first American television appearance on The Kate Smith Evening Hour, a show that was produced by Smith’s manager, Ted Collins. Baker, who had returned to the United States that year after a long absence, had campaigned, during her U.S. tour, against segregation of audiences. After a spat with Walter Winchell in which he suggested that she had Communist leanings, Baker’s work visa was revoked, and she returned to France. Baker, by the way, had once appeared in blackface, a sin for which I believe she has long since been forgiven.

Perhaps it’s because racial bias has persisted for so long in this country that we tend to err on the side of righteousness, but in doing so, we should not lose our sense of balance.

 

 

 

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A spouse in every port

April 17, 2019

Irwin 2In the early days of television, WOR in New York had a weekday program called Million Dollar Movie—one of the first features to bring movies to TV audiences. I was reminded the other day of one of the movies I saw on that show when I was about 12 years old: The Captain’s Paradise starring Alec Guinness and Yvonne DeCarlo, the former Peggy Middleton. Guinness played a ferry captain who had two wives simultaneously, one in Gibraltar and one in Morocco.

This film came to mind when a member of a Facebook baseball group I frequent posted some 19th centuries photos and asked for help in identifying the players. I was able to name all of them, including Arthur Irwin, who was one of the more colorful characters of the 15,000-or-so men who have played major league ball.

Irwin 1Irwin—who also had his hand in about a half dozen other sports—was born in Toronto in 1858 but grew up in South Boston. He was a feisty, light-hitting shortstop and, after turns in amateur and minor league ball, he played in the bigs from 1880 to 1894. In two of those years, he was a player-manager. He was the starting shortstop for the 1884 Providence Grays of the National League; that team beat the New York Metropolitans of the American Association in what is now recognized as the first interleague national championship series.

Irwin, who was widely disliked, was frequently in the middle of baseball controversies, including an open revolt against National League owners. In 1890, Irwin was among the members of the Brotherhood of Professional Base-Ball Players—the game’s first union—who bolted from the league for one season and formed their own league—popularly known as the Players’ League.

Irwin 4.jpegTracing Irwin’s career after that is enough to make a person dizzy. He managed major and minor league teams, owned a pieces of a couple of minor league franchises for a while, umpired for a year in the National League—throwing out nine players in fifty games—coached baseball at Dartmouth College and on-and-off at Penn, and in 1907 became a a scout for the New York Highlanders—forerunners of the Yankees. By 1912, most of the Highlanders roster were players whom Irwin had scouted.

One of the players Irwin coached at Penn was the future novelist Zane Grey whose first baseball book, The Short-Stop, includes a dedication to Irwin, and whose second baseball book, The Young Pitcher, features a character, Worry Arthurs, who was based on Irwin.

In 1909, George Stallings, the New York manager, rented an apartment that overlooked Hilltop Park, which was in northern Manhattan where the New York Presbyterian/Columbia medical complex is now. From that apartment, Irwin, using binoculars, stole signs from the visiting teams and used mirrors to relay the signs to the Highlanders on the field until the practice was exposed.

Irwin - 6 - DPL Digital Collections.jpeg

FRANK CHANCE/Detroit Public Library

At the end of 1912, Frank Farrell, president of the New York club, promoted Irwin to business manager and gave him carte blanche. That led to rift between Irwin and Frank Chance, who was then managing the team, and Chance wound up resigning before his contract was done, telling The New York Times that he “did not think it was possible to assemble so many mediocre players on one club.”

After leaving the Highlanders, Irwin knocked around the minor leagues as a manager. During that period, in 1921, he was managing the Hartford Senators in the Eastern League when he noticed Lou Gehrig, then a Columbia student, playing for a semi-pro team. Irwin talked Gehrig into signing with Hartford—the first pro contract for the Iron Horse. That got Gehrig into trouble at Columbia, because he was not supposed to be playing pro ball and playing on the college team as well. He had to skip a year of play at Columbia.

Irwin 5Gehrig wasn’t the only contribution Irwin made to pro ball. In 1883, when he was playing with the Providence Grays, he broke two fingers on his left hand. So he modified a buckskin driving glove so that he could continue to play, and he wore it from then on. Prior that, only first basemen and catchers wore gloves, but Irwin’s innovation became a trend, and almost every fielder had a glove by the next season. Irwin made a deal with a manufacturer to market the glove under his name.

Irwin didn’t limit his energy to baseball. He was also president of  short-lived pro soccer league in 1884 and he was involved in one way or another in boxing, roller hockey, rugby, and marathon bike races.

He scored one of his biggest successes when he patented a mechanical football scoreboard that was adopted at fields around the country and earned him a lot of money.

In 1921, Irwin, who was ill with a serious stomach condition, left New York City for Boston aboard the steamship Calvin Austin and went overboard in what was almost certainly a suicide.

Oh, about Alec Guinness.

After Irwin died, it was revealed that he had married one woman in Boston in 1883 and another woman in Philadelphia in the 1890s. He had three children with the first wife and one with the second, and he was still married to both when he died. He almost never saw the family in Boston and provided them with almost no support.

Pitching great Waite Hoyt described Irwin as one of the most disgusting men he ever knew. But somebody liked him: He was posthumously elected to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame, at least in part because of his leading role in turning the foundering Toronto Maple Leafs into a successful franchise.

Read Eric Frost’s profile of Irwin by clicking HERE.

Read Kevin Plummer’s article about Irwin, including his role with the Maple Leafs,  by clicking HERE.

 

 

 

Huguette 1When I was growing up, there were two men in our town, identical twins who, past middle age, lived together as lifelong bachelors, dressed alike, and even walked alike—turning and stopping and starting together as though one were a hologram projection of the other.

I used to think of these men as eccentric. But now that I’m a lot older than they were then, I have come to realize that eccentric is a useless word—that I once believed that the center was wherever I was, and anyone or anything that strayed too far in any direction was off kilter, eccentric.

If I had known about Huguette Marcelle Clark back then, I would have pinned the label on her. But now that, in my dotage, I’ve read Meryl Gordon’s biography (The Phantom of Fifth Avenue: The Mysterious Life and Scandalous Death of Heiress Huguette Clark), I figure the title character had as much business claiming the center as any of us have.

Huguette 4

Wm. A. Clark/The New York Times

Huguette, if I may be so familiar, was the the youngest daughter of William A. Clark, a one-time U.S. Senator who made a killing via copper mining in Montana. If his name doesn’t roll off the tongue along with Rockefeller and Vanderbilt, it isn’t because he didn’t have an enormous fortune.

Huguette Clark and her elder sister, Andrée, were raised in Paris in the most sumptuous possible surroundings. In spite of her potential position in Parisian society, Huguette, even then, did not like calling attention to herself. Her shyness, and the impact of Andrée’s death at the age of 17, deepened her solitude.

Estate of Huguette Clark from EmptyMansionsBook.comHuguette married William Gower in 1928, but—perhaps not surprisingly—the bond didn’t last. After that, she devoted herself to her passion for art, which has to have been inspired in at least some way by her father, who was both a robber baron and a major art collector. This pursuit included, for 20 years, painting lessons with Tadeusz Styka, who was a prominent artist.

Styka died in 1954, and by that time Huguette had begun to withdraw from public life. It was to be a total withdrawal in which she never ventured out of her massive New York apartment. It was typical of this part of her life that after Styka died, although she was close to his wife and daughter, and was the daughter’s godmother, she never saw them again. She wrote to them, as she wrote to others she would not see; she even spoke to them by telephone. And she left a substantial part of her estate to her goddaughter, Wanda, although that was cut down to about $3.5 million in the ugly squabbling that followed Huguette’s own death.

Huguette 3For a long while, Huguette lived with and was very attached to her mother, the former Anna Eugenia La Chappelle, with whom she shared, among other things, a certain paranoia. After Anna died in 1963, Huguette never left the apartment and refused to see almost anyone, carrying this to the extreme that she would speak only through closed doors to people who did work on her behalf.

In 1991, Huguette was admitted to Doctor’s Hospital in Manhattan for treatment of cancerous lesions on her face. She never went home again. She decided she liked it in the hospital, and she took up residence there—later moving to Beth Israel when the two institutions merged. At one point she was paying $829 a day to for her room. She grew close to a private-duty nurse, Hadassah Peri. She gave Hadassah and her family more than $30 million in cash, real estate, vehicles, and other considerations. She lavished similar gifts on others who came into her sphere.

Huguette died in 2011 when she was nearly 105 years old. The settlement of her estate was a donnybrook involving contradictory wills and a swarm of interested parties, including relatives who hadn’t seen her in decades and some who had never met her.

There’s much more to this story, and Meryl Gordon—who conducted detailed and difficult research to reconstruct these events—tells it in a way that grips the attention. I strongly recommend the book.

Eccentric? The bottom line seems to be that Huguette Clark lived the way she chose to live—collecting dolls and art, taking photographs either in her apartment or through the window, writing letters and talking on the phone, and watching The Flintstones. There is no objective evidence that she was anything but sane and grounded in reality. More power to her.

 

Louisa Adams - portrait

LOUISA JOHNSON ADAMS

A participant on Quora asked recently for “interesting facts” about John Quincy Adams—the sixth president of these United States and the son of the second president. When I last checked, none of the respondents had mentioned JQ’s wife, Louisa, who was at least as interesting as he was.

Louisa Adams’ story is raised from undeserved obscurity in a biography by namesake Louisa Thomas. Louisa Johnson was born in London in 1775, to an American father, a merchant, and a British mother to whom her father was not married. She was the first spouse-of-a-president who was not born either in the United States or in one of the original thirteen colonies. The next such spouse was Melania Trump.

Louisa Adams - JQ portrait

JOHN QUINCY ADAMS

Louisa’s father, Joshua, moved his family to Europe during the American Revolution, handling the affairs of his trade business from that end while a partner tended to matters in Maryland. While Louisa along with six sisters and a brother lived comfortably for a time, Joshua Johnson was eventually ruined and carted most of his brood back to the States, leaving Louisa behind, virtually penniless, in the care of Quincy Adams—at the time the American ambassador to the Netherlands. Thereafter, she would almost constantly feel the chill of an insufficiency of funds, even when she was hobnobbing in the glittering courts of Europe.

Louisa Adams.jpg

$10 gold coin commemorating Louisa Adams

Louisa and Quincy Adams met when he became a frequent visitor at her family’s home, the visits prompted by the fact that Thomas Johnson was serving as U.S. consul-general. Although his wife was English, Johnson was determined that his daughters should marry Americans, who were in relatively short supply in London. This biography includes some entertaining accounts of the emotions and machinations this situation inspired among the Johnson daughters when the unattached Quincy Adams came to call. Ultimately, John Quincy and Louisa married in 1797, and her parents beat it back to America shortly thereafter. It’s worth nothing that Adams’ parents, John and Abigail, were reluctant to bless the match because Louisa, though an American, had been reared in England.

Louisa Adams - CFA

CHARLES FRANCIS ADAMS

Louisa’s life thereafter was disrupted by frequent and sometimes serious illnesses and, in addition, by several miscarriages. The couple would have four children, including the noted diplomat and writer Charles Francis Adams and a girl, Louisa Catherine, whose death in Russia when she was only a year old haunted the mother for the rest of her life.

When the elder Adams became president in 1797, he appointed Quincy ambassador to Prussia. President Adams lost the election of 1800, so Quincy and Louisa and their family relocated again, this time to Massachusetts. Quincy practiced law, which was not the love of his life, and in 1803 he was elected to the U.S. Senate where he served until he resigned in 1807. In 1809, President James Madison appointed him minister to Russia and that was a pivotal occasion in Louisa’s life. At her husband’s insistence, she had to leave their two older sons behind in Massachusetts, and she was never reconciled to that separation.

Louisa Adams - Tsar Alexander

TSAR ALEXANDER I

Although Louisa became a favorite of Tsar Alexander I, life in St. Petersburg was a trial, not only because of the death of her daughter, but also due to the weather, her own poor health, and her struggle to keep up with the glitter of the Russian court on the limited means she had.

In 1814, President Madison appointed Adams head of a delegation to negotiate a treaty to formally end the War of 1812 between the United States and Great Britain. The British wouldn’t accept Russia as a mediator, so the negotiations moved first to Ghent in Belgium and then to London. This move set the stage for the most dramatic and daring episode on Louisa Adams’ life, as her husband told her to come west with their son, but left her on her own to manage the trip.

And she did manage the trip, arranging for a carriage, driver, guard, and supplies, and traveling for forty days over frozen ground, through forests, past vagrants and bandits, among the bodies on spent battlefields, arriving intact with her little boy.

The family remained in London for two years until President James Monroe appointed Quincy Adams secretary of state. The move to Washington was a mixed bag for Louisa. She was very successful as a hostess, and she liked to poke her nose into the nasty political discourse of that period, but she also suffered from depression and physical ailments.

The family returned to Massachusetts when Quincy was not reelected, but in 1831 he became the only former president ever elected to the House of Representatives, and he served there for 17 years until he died at the Capitol building. Louisa died in Washington in 1852, and her death marked the first time both houses of Congress adjourned to acknowledge the death of a woman.

In telling this story, Louisa Thomas vividly portrays the contradictory personalities of the Adams couple.

He was a social misfit; she was a charming hostess and a skilled gossip.

“He was tender with Louisa, and she felt it,” Thomas writes at one point. “Still, there were distances between Louisa and John Quincy that were difficult to bridge. She wanted to be needed; he wanted to be alone, She could be flighty, he could be intransigent or remote. She had once called herself ‘the spoilt child of indulgence.’ He had been schooled by his parents in stoicism—although his strong feelings sometimes opened a vent, with eruptions of anger and frustration.”

Quincy Adams let on to his wife in various ways that he wanted her to know her place. For her part, she wrote, “When my husband married me, he made a great mistake if he thought I only intended to play an echo.” There were plenty of contradictions: She claimed to have no part in her husband’s career, but she listened to his speeches and gave him advice about what to cut. She resented his obsession with his responsibilities and felt useless and neglected, but when he mused that he might give up public life, she urged him not to—knowing at last, perhaps, that it was what kept his heart beating.

Louisa was smart, witty, and well-read, and she often felt that her life was pointless; she titled an autobiography “The Adventures of a Nobody.”

 

 

 

 

A tale of two Ruths

April 5, 2019

Baby Ruth cropped

Writing in recent posts about the namesakes of peach melba and chicken tetrazinni got me to thinking about another food that was named after a celebrity, but which celebrity I cannot say for sure. I refer to Baby Ruth, the candy bar—and a particular favorite of mine.

For many years, I was under the impression that the Baby Ruth candy bar was named after Ruth Cleveland, the daughter of Grover and Frances Cleveland, Grover being the 22nd and 24th president of these United States. I may have been wrong, and I’ll probably never know, but the manufacturer made that claim in a legal action.

Baby Ruth Cleveland

RUTH CLEVELAND

Cleveland, who was a bachelor when he first took office in 1893, became the only president to marry in the White House when he exchanged vows with Frances Folsom. Cleveland was 49 and his wife was 21, but the American people couldn’t have been happier about the match. Ruth, the first of the Clevelands’ five children, was born between her father’s two terms as president, but the public still was very enthusiastic about her arrival. Her name for a time was a household word, but she was not a healthy child, and she died of diphtheria at the age of 12.

That was in 1904. In 1921, the Curtiss Candy Company reinvented its Kandy Kake candy bar as the Baby Ruth, with its chocolate, peanuts, caramel, and nougat. The five-cent treat was heavily marketed by Curtiss and was a big success. The company actually had airplanes drop thousands of Baby Ruths, each with a little parachute, over American cities.

Baby Babe Ruth

Babe Ruth

Coincidentally, some would have us believe, George Herman Ruth, who had established himself as one of the top pitchers in baseball with the Boston Red Sox between 1914 and 1919, had been sold to the New York Yankees. And in 1920, having forsaken the pitcher’s mound for the outfield, he hit the unheard-of total of 54 home runs, and became a national sensation. In 1921, he hit 59. Babe Ruth was well on his way to becoming one of the most widely recognized  and most enduring celebrities in human history. People of a suspicious nature speculated that Curtiss had named the candy Baby rather than Babe to avoid having to pay the ballplayer for the use of his name.

Baby Babe Ruth CandyPerhaps as a counter thrust, Babe Ruth, in 1926, gave the George H. Ruth Candy Company the right to use his name, and the company applied to register “Ruth’s Home Run Candy” with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Curtiss sued the company on the grounds of  copyright infringement and claimed that Baby Ruth candy was named after the president’s daughter, who by that time had been dead for 22 years. In 1931, a patent court ruled in favor of Curtiss.

Baby Ruth signAfter the 1932 World Series, during which Ruth reputedly pointed to centerfield at Wrigley Field in Chicago and then hit a home run to that spot, Curtiss had an enormous illuminated Baby Ruth sign erected across from the ballpark, which was down the street from the candy firm’s plant. No doubt, the sign was a monument to “baby” Ruth Cleveland.

 

 

Tetrazzini - Christmas Eve

An estimated 250,000 people assemble for Tetrazzini’s Christmas Eve concert in San Francisco.

My recent post about Nellie Melba called to mind Luisa Tetrazzini, who had several things in common with Melba. Tetrazzini was also a soprano—a coloratura whose range extended to the F above high C—and a contemporary of Melba at the beginning of the 20th century. Also like Melba, Tetrazzini had an enormously successful career in opera and concert and was treated like royalty around the world. She was, by reputation, a warm and friendly woman, but one of the few people she didn’t get along was Melba.

Tetrazzini - portrait facing forwardAnd Tetrazzini, like Melba, inspired a chef, although there is disagreement about whether the chef was Ernest Arbogast at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco or an unknown practitioner at the Knickerbocker Hotel in New York. The dish involved is “tetrazzini,” which consists of diced chicken or seafood and mushrooms in a sauce of butter, cream, and parmesan, laced with wine or sherry. This is usually served over pasta, although there is no fixed recipe or manner of presentation. Louis Paquet, a chef at the McAlpin Hotel in New York, seems to have had a hand in making this concoction popular. Paquet and Tetrazzini were friends, and he gave her cooking lessons.

Tetrazzini - portrait facing leftThe popularity in their era of artists like Melba and Tetrazzini is hard to imagine now, because media and the nature of celebrity have changed so much. In 1910, Tetrazzini had a contract dispute with the impresario Oscar Hammerstein that was preventing her from  singing in opera houses or concert halls in the United States. The soprano, who said San Francisco was her favorite city in the world, said, “When they told me I could not sing in America unless it was for Hammerstein, I said I would sing in the streets of San Francisco, for I knew the streets of San Francisco were free.” And she did that, on Christmas Eve, in front of the San Francisco Chronicle building. The mayor of San Francisco escorted her to a platform that had been built for an orchestra and chorus that were conducted by Paul Steindorf of the city’s Tivoli Opera. Hundreds of thousands of people turned out to hear a concert which Tetrazzini began with “The Last Rose of Summer” and concluded with the massive crowd joining her in “Auld Lang Syne.”

Tetrazzini - record labelTetrazzini had several failed marriages, and the last one cost her most of her fortune. When she was through performing, she returned to her native Italy and taught singing in order to support herself. She never lost her joie d’vivre, by all accounts, and used to say, “I’m old. I’m fat. But I’m still Tetrazzini!”

Click HERE to see an unusual film clip in which the 61-year-old Tetrazzini listens to a recording of Enrico Caruso singing “M’appari” from Martha and breaks into a duet with her old friend. Even at this age and with this quality of reproduction, you can get a sense of the character of her voice.

 

 

 

Sic transit and so forth

March 31, 2019

Melba Toast

When I saw this display at the supermarket today, it sent my mind reeling back to an eposide of Downton Abbey in which the Australian soprano Nellie Melba was engaged to gave a recital at the Granthams’ mansion. More precisely, this display reminded me that among the historical inaccuracies presented in that series, the visit by Nellie Melba was one of the most glaring—to anachronisms such as I am, at least.

One feature of the episode was that Charles Carson, the Granthams’ head butler, was scandalized that a mere entertainer would be invited into the house. According to the Downton Abbey storyline, Carson had been a song-and-dance man before he took on the pompous persona of a butler, but apparently he didn’t see the irony in that.

Nellie Melba

NELLIE MELBA/Lilydale Historical Society

 

Carson treated Melba—portrayed by past-her-prime soprano Dame Kiri Te Kanawa—as though she were a hired hand, leaving her in her room with nothing but a cup of tea. Others in the house made caustic remarks about having to sit through her performance.

Actually, by 1922, when this was supposed to have occurred, Nellie Melba was a dame commander of the Order of the British Empire for her charity work during World War I. More to it, she was one of the most celebrated singers in the world, eagerly received by royalty.

As Robert Christiansen, the opera critic for The Telegraph pointed out when the episode was first broadcast, Nellie Melba “would only have sung at a private party as a personal favour to her host. Melba was nobody’s hireling: she called all the shots, and the Granthams and their staff would have quaked at her approach.”

A story by Tom Huizenga of National Public Radio included this passage:

“Even today, Melba’s recorded voice rings clearly as a favorite of Tim Page, Pulitzer winner for criticism and professor of music and journalism at USC.

“‘There’s something sort of unreal about it,’ Page says. ‘It’s a voice of ethereal purity with perhaps the only perfect trill I’ve ever heard.’ Another celebrated Melba attribute is accuracy: ‘She hit things absolutely on pitch,’ he continues. ‘You never hear Melba sliding into a note. Her tone was as reliable as a keyed instrument. She’s just dead on.'”

Incidentally, while Melba—whose birth name was Helen Porter Mitchell—has been forgotten by all but opera buffs, her professional name lives on in the product you see above, which was named after her, as was peach melba and several other delicacies.

You can hear Nellie Melba with Enrico Caruso in the duet “O Soave Fanciulla” from Giacomo Puccini’s La Boheme by clicking HERE.

 

Sally Field - 1 - Simon & Schuster -

SALLY FIELD/In Pieces/Simon & Schuster

“Why is it easier for me to write about the times in my life that felt humiliating or shameful? Is it because those are the things that still haunt me?”

Sally Field asks those questions in her remarkable memoir, In Pieces, and they imply that the distinguished actress is, in her interior life, a work in progress at 72.

“Do I hold on to those dark times as a badge of honor,” she asks, “or are they my identity? The moments of triumph stay with me but speak so softly that they’re hard to hear—and even harder to talk about.”

Sally Field - 2 - Mary Lincoln

SALLY FIELD as Mary Todd Lincoln

We know all about the moments of triumph: Sally Field has won two Oscars, three Emmys, two Golden Globe Awards, and a Screen Actors Guild Award, and she has been nominated for a Tony Award. Not many can make that claim. She has starred in some of the finest properties available, including the television miniseries Sybil; the motion pictures Norma Rae, Places in the Heart, Absence of Malice, Steel Magnolias, Forrest Gump and Lincoln; the Broadway revival of The Glass Menagerie, and others.

But until Field published this memoir, we did not know about the punishing life she led away from the stage and the cameras—a lonely childhood; sexual and emotional abuse at the hands of her stepfather; sexual exploitation at the hands of others; a fraught but enduring relationship with her mother—who did nothing to prevent the abuse of her child; troubled alliances with men—including Burt Reynolds, and a long struggle to be taken seriously as an actor. Field has discussed many of the details in print and broadcast interviews concerning this book.

For Field, the result of these experiences was a fractured sense of identity—hence the title—and it took her decades to even begin to assemble the fragments into a recognizable whole.

Sally Field - 3 - Margaret Morlan

MARGARET MORLAN FIELD

Field wrote this book herself—I think it took her three years; having spent the past fifty-three years as a writer, editor, and teacher of writing, I appreciate her literary skills, including her use of wry humor in a dark story and her offbeat imagery:

The most important figure in this book beside Field herself is her mother—a once stunning actress born Margaret Morlan. In one passage concerning their later life together, Field writes, “The combination of vodka and swallowed emotions had thickened her body and bloated her delicate face, making her look like a biscuit rising in the oven.”

Fields describes a complicated relationship with Reynolds, who, she writes, often tried to run her life. On one occasion, she was dressed to attend an awards ceremony, and he decided that she was too pale and insisted on slathering her with a Max Factor makeup known as Dark Egyptian.

Sally Field - 4 - npr.org

SALLY FIELD/npr.org

“(W)hen I think of that moment,” she writes, “standing nervously before a wall of mirrors as Burt carefully painted my exposed body, I realize that I’d take his Earl Scheib job over the finest hair and makeup artist anytime. True, I ended up looking like Sacagawea with very curly hair, but it was what he had to give. And it made me smile.”

This book will attract some voyeurs, but it is a serious and important work, not a Hollywood tell-all. Recent events, including the sexual-abuse scandals in the Catholic Church and the wave of abuse accusations against high-profile men have brought to public attention the lifelong suffering of victims and the folly of assuming that the face a person shows the world is an accurate reflection of her inner being.

It took extraordinary courage for Field to undertake this enterprise, which required her to revisit painful, shaming, and confusing episodes—an exercise in introspection that many of us might hesitate to pursue. The result is not a broadside against everyone who has ever harmed her, but rather a nuanced examination of the often conflicting emotions that have colored her life so far. And by having the strength of character to tell her story to us, she reminds us that how we treat others has consequences that can reverberate for a lifetime.

 

 

 

 

The Music of the Night

October 30, 2018

blog - La Fanciulla

Enrico Caruso, with his head in a noose, and Emmy Destinn, about to save him from hanging, in the original production of La Fanciulla del West.

We seized the rare opportunity to see a performance of Giocomo Puccini’s opera La Fanciulla del West when it was presented last week in the Metropolitan Opera Company’s HD broadcast series.

This is one of Puccini’s least popular operas, although some authorities, including Puccini himself, have said that it is one of his best. The discrepancy is probably due to the fact that this opera—inspired by David Belasco’s play The Girl of the Golden West—is almost devoid of the arias that for many folks are the real if not the only attraction of grand opera.

blog - Puccini

GIOCOMO PUCCINI

The tenor does have a well known aria, “Ch’ella mi creda,” in the third act; according to the commentary between the acts on the HD broadcast, Puccini had not included that song in the original version but inserted it at the request of Enrico Caruso, who was to sing the premiere performance of the opera in 1910 at the Met, which had commissioned it.

Anyway, during the first act, I was momentarily aware that I was listening to music from the Broadway musical The Phantom of the Opera. Then it was gone. Then I heard it again—a melody from “Music of the Night.” And then I recalled that in the patter setting up the performance someone had made a remark that I didn’t understand to the effect that Andrew Lloyd Webber loves this opera.

blog - Webber - The Independent

ANDREW LLOYD WEBER/The Independent photo

Later, I did what any music scholar would do—a Google search—and learned that when The Phantom of the Opera appeared, Puccini’s opera was still protected by copyright, and his estate sued Lloyd Webber, alleging plagiarism. The suit was settled out of court, and the details were never made public.

I was not surprised to read about that, because I was aware that Puccini’s publishers  had sued another musical personality—Al Jolson—under similar circumstances. That case involved the aria “E lucevan le stelle” from Tosca and “Avalon,” a song attributed to Jolson, Buddy DeSylva, and Vincent Rose. “Avalon” doesn’t get much play time these days, but Casablanca aficionados will recognize it as the tune Sam is fooling around on the keyboard just before he plays “As Time Goes By.”

The Puccini bunch maintained that the opening melody of “Avalon” is identical to that of the aria, except that the opening of the aria is written in a minor key. Puccini’s publishers sued the composers in 1921 and were awarded $25,000 plus all royalties earned by “Avalon” thereafter.

I wrote about the latter case a few years ago in a post that was prompted by a dust-up over the similarity between Sam Smith’s hit “Stay With Me” and the Tom Petty song “I Won’t Back Down.”

Borrowing from other composers is a time-honored phenomenon, but so is the concept of intellectual property. As I mentioned in the earlier post, those who play it safe can have the best of both worlds. The case in point was Pete Seeger’s song “Sailing Down My Golden River.” We heard Pete explain during a concert in 2015 that after he had written the lyrics to that song, he found the opening melody in the first seven notes of “Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly” which was published in 1862 and, in turn, was based on a sixteenth-century Welsh carol. Of course, from Pete’s point of view, that wasn’t stealing anyway——it was just the folk process at work.

 

 

 

Abraham LincolnSome wise guy on Quora asked the other day, if Abraham Lincoln was the Emancipator and the Rail-Splitter, and Theodore Roosevelt was the Trust-Buster, what title should we give President Donald Trump.

I wasn’t about to get drawn into that kind of conversation, but I did point out to the wag that Abraham Lincoln did not want to be referred to as a rail-splitter or a grocery clerk or a riverboat pilot. The title he wanted was “lawyer,” and with good reason.

As Dan Abrams points out in this book, written with David Fisher, Lincoln tried about 2,000 civil and criminal cases. He was one of the most prominent attorneys in what was then The West, and he played an important role in the development of legal precedent in this country.

The present volume concerns the last case Lincoln tried before he was elected president. The matter before the court sitting in Springfield, Illinois in 1859, was the stabbing death, in the village of Pleasant Plains, of Greek Crafton, a young man who had studied law in Lincoln’s office. Lincoln and a former law partner, Stephen T. Logan, defended the fellow who fatally stabbed Crafton—”Peachy” Quinn Harrison, a questionable character at best.

Abraham Lincoln 2This account, while it is documentary, is presented in an engaging story-telling style that Lincoln, the old tale-spinner, would have appreciated. In a compact volume, the reader learns about the application and evolution of law in those prairie days, about the phenomenon of the circuit—judges and lawyers, more or less as a body, making the rounds among the far-flung communities of the western states, and about the focus and skill with which Lincoln studied and argued a case. Abrams and Fisher also present a study of Lincoln’s courtroom style in which he maintained an inscrutable visage and avoided histrionics.

The killing that led to this trial was the result of Greek’s perception of honor. Peachy had said something offensive about a member of the Crafton family, and Greek made it clear that he intended to have satisfaction—which, in his mind, meant pummeling Peachy. When Greek cornered Peachy in a Pleasant Plains drugstore, Greek got the worst of it. The defense built by Lincoln and Logan involved the question of whether Peachy was reasonably acting in self defense when he stabbed Greek. Another issue was whether Greek himself, on his deathbed, had exonerated Peachy of any blame for the incident.

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Robert Roberts Hitt

The authors tell much of this story through the eyes of Robert Roberts Hitt, who was a friend and admirer of Lincoln and an expert at shorthand. The year before this trial, Hitt had recorded the debates between Lincoln and Sen. Stephen A. Douglas in the campaign for the U.S. Senate seat from Illinois and it was his account that readers found in newspapers around the country. An Illinois newspaper engaged him to report the proceedings in the trial of Peachy Harrison.

Hitt, by the way, had a distinguished career when he was done with the painstaking task of taking down millions of words by hand. He served in the American embassy in Paris; he was an assistant secretary of state and a member of Congress, and he was a regent of the Smithsonian Institution.

Hitt was serving in Congress in 1892 when the Chinese Exclusion Act, enacted ten years before, came up for renewal. This act prohibited immigration by any Chinese laborers, and it was the first law in the United States that shut out a specific ethnic group. Hitt unsuccessfully opposed the law (which was repealed in 1943) and his reaction has a troubling resonance in 2018:

“Never before in a free country,” Hitt said, “was there such a system of tagging a man, like a dog to be caught by the police and examined, and if his tag or collar is not all right, taken to the pound or drowned and shot. Never before was it applied by a free people to a human being, with the exception (which we can never refer to with pride) of the sad days of slavery. …”