February 18, 2017
So much depends on the guide.
Last summer we took two of our grandsons on the Circle Line cruise around Manhattan Island. Although they are siblings–all right, maybe because they are siblings–we took them one at a time.
On the first cruise, the guide was wonderful. Like a lot of guides in New York, he wasn’t really a guide — he was an actor. And his acting skill served him well as he regaled us with a stream of colorful stories and quirky facts, some of which probably were true. On the second cruise, the guide didn’t even come out on the deck. He recited his monotonous narrative over a p.a. system from some air-conditioned sanctuary.
I’m especially grateful to that first guide for talking at great length about a woman I had never heard of, Audrey Munson. Rather than being the face that launched a thousand ships, Audrey was the woman of a thousand faces (I’m exaggerating for effect), most of them in oil, bronze, or stone. The principal reason the guide was talking about Audrey was that her face has been preserved on more than a dozen statues in New York City, including the woman dominating the group below, which is on the Manhattan Bridge.
Audrey was born upstate in 1891 and arrived in New York City with her divorced mother in 1909 aiming to become an entertainer, and in that same she year actually got her first role on Broadway in a turkey that ran for about twenty days.
But a chance meeting on Fifth Avenue with a professional photographer led to a career for Audrey as an artists’ model. One of those artists was sculptor Isidore Konti who was the first to have her pose nude and who used her as the model for the figures in “Three Graces,” which he executed for the new ballroom at the Hotel Astor. In 1915, she posed for the majority of the sculptures created for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, a world’s fair held in San Francisco.
Around that same time, Audrey got into the new film industry, starring in four silent films. In the first one, Inspiration, she became the first woman to appear nude in an American film. She didn’t really act in that film, she posed in various scenes. An actress who resembled her did the dramatic work. None of these films did much for Audrey’s career; one of them evidently was never released.
In 1919, Audrey and her mother, apparently down on their luck, were living in a boarding house on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The owner of the place, Dr. Walter Wilkins, fell in love with Audrey and murdered his wife so that he could marry Audrey. Audrey and mom fled to Canada where they were pursued and questioned by private detectives. Nothing came of that, and Wilkins was convicted of murder and sentenced to death, but he took his own life while in prison.
By 1920, no one seemed to want Audrey, and she was reduced to living off her mother, who supported herself and her daughter by peddling kitchen wares door to door. In 1922, Audrey attempted suicide, and in 1931 her mother had her committed to a hospital for the insane in Ogdensburg, New York, where the unfortunate woman lived for 65 years until she died in 1996 at 104 years of age.
Audrey, who has been characterized as America’s first supermodel once wrote in a magazine article:
“What becomes of the artists’ models? I am wondering if many of my readers have not stood before a masterpiece of lovely sculpture or a remarkable painting of a young girl, her very abandonment of draperies accentuating rather than diminishing her modesty and purity, and asked themselves the question, ‘Where is she now, this model who was so beautiful?’ ”
For a video by Robert Serrini exploring images of Audrey Munson, click HERE.
December 7, 2013
We saw the movie Philomena last night, and I was intrigued by the reference to Jane Russell. I think it’s well known by now that the movie deals with the practice of some convents and other institutions in Europe to force single young women to surrender their children for adoption and to require a large donation from American couples to take those children to the United States. The movie has to do with a particular instance in which a woman named Philomena Lee, whose child was taken from her in that manner, attempts decades later to find out what became of the boy.
In the more or less true account, Dame Judi Dench plays Philomena, who — in the company of a freelance writer — visits the convent where she was left by her father after becoming pregnant at the age of 18. The reporter notices among the photographs hanging in the reception room at the convent an autographed, provocative photo of Jane Russell. He asks a nun about the photo, and the clear implication is that Jane Russell was among the wealthy Americans who “bought” a child at this convent. That caught my interest because I met Jane Russell in 1971 when she was appearing here in New Jersey in a production of Catch Me If You Can. In fact, I had coffee with her in Manhattan and one of the topics of our conversation was adoption.
Jane Russell told me that during her first marriage, which was to Hall of Fame quarterback Bob Waterfield, she visited orphanages and similar institutions in five countries in Europe and was frustrated to find that it was nearly impossible for an American couple to adopt the children who were languishing there. She eventually did adopt three children, but her experience in Europe also inspired her in 1952 to found the World Adoption International Fund which eventually facilitated tens of thousands of adoptions. She became an advocate for adoptive parents and children, testifying before Congress in 1953 in favor of the Federal Orphan Adoption Bill which allowed American parents to adopt children fathered by American troops overseas. And in 1980 she lobbied for the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act which provides financial assistance based on the particular circumstances of foster and adoptive parents and adoptive children.
From what I have read so far, I deduce that Jane Russell did not adopt a child from the convent that is the focus of Philomena. I did read an account of an interview in which she told a reporter that after having failed to adopt a child in England, she was going to try her luck in Ireland. Whether any of her eventual adoptions amounted to “buying” babies, I cannot tell. I do notice that news stories that refer to her as one of the wealthy Americans alluded to in Philomena do not go on to report her work on behalf of adoptive parents and children.
August 31, 2011
If ever an athlete embodied the phrase sic transit gloria mundi, it was Babe Didrikson Zaharias. There are a couple of generations of adults among whom she is virtually unknown, and yet she was such a combination of natural ability, hard work, and results, that she has no peer.
I’m not an expert on this subject. I had only the vaguest idea of who Babe Didrikson was until I read Don Van Natta’s excellent book, Wonder Girl. But thanks to Van Natta’s scholarship, his journalistic discipline, and his entertaining and literate writing style, I now know plenty about Babe – and I’m glad I learned, even at this late stage of my life.
Babe Didrikson died of cancer in 1956, when I was 16 years old. In those days, I followed baseball and boxing, so I had only the slimmest knowledge that she was a prominent golfer. What I learned from Van Natta’s book is that Babe Didrikson would have excelled at almost any sport she chose and that she made a considerable mark in both track-and-field and in basketball before she turned her whole attention to golf.
I’ll mention only one particular performance, because every time I think about it I am impressed all over again. Babe, who gave up on education before she finished high school, took a job with a Dallas-based insurance company, but not because she was interested in actuarial tables. Some companies in those pre-television days sponsored amateur sports teams that competed with each other around the country and acted as living advertisements for their employers. Babe’s principal job at the insurance company was playing basketball and track, both of which she did at a championship level. She was so extraordinary, in fact, that in 1933 her boss and coach sent her to the American Athletic Union’s national championship meet in Illinois.
I mean that literally. He didn’t send the rest of the team — only Babe. And competing against squads from around the U.S., she entered eight of the ten events and won the gold medal in broad jump, baseball throw, shot put, javelin, and the 80-meter hurdles and tied for first in the high jump. She collected a total of 30 points; the second-place team scored 22. In that meet, Babe qualified for the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, where she won two gold medals and a silver and set two world records and an Olympic record.
I had to tell that story. But Van Natta’s book isn’t engrossing only because it reports on that and Babe’s many other achievements. This book tells the story of an American life. Babe’s parents were faithful and hard-working natives of Norway who settled in Texas. They had a large family, and they lived from hand to mouth. Babe loved this family and she remained loyal to her parents and siblings and other connections, always including their financial well being in her reasons for driving herself so hard.
Babe was a tomboy, and when she grew older she was perceived as mannish. This plus the fact that she remained single for so long led busybodies, including prominent sports writers, to speculate about her sexual orientation. She also was the target of verbal abuse from sports writers and others who believed, as Joe Williams wrote in the New York World Telegram, that “it would be much better if she and her ilk stayed at home, got themselves prettied up and waited for the phone to ring.” The rough-and-tumble Babe broke through the barrier of snobbery that surrounded amateur golf at that time; she was a founding member of the LPGA.
She put an end to much but not all of that talk when she married popular pro wrestling villain George Zaharias in 1938. The marriage lasted a lifetime, but it was tumultuous. Zaharias was a compulsive promoter, and he insisted that Babe keep up an exhausting schedule of competition and personal appearances, even when she would rather have taken a break.
An important factor in the story of Babe Didrikson’s life was her complicated personality, which was at the same time endearing and obnoxious. She was a bold braggart, constantly tooting her own horn. Van Natta reports that Babe would walk into the clubhouse before a golf match and announce herself by saying, “Babe’s here! Who’s gonna finish second?” And when she wasn’t bragging and even lying about her prowess, she was needling and annoying her opponents, deliberately trying to throw them off their game. But it is part of the genius of Van Natta that while he tells a great deal about this aspect of Babe Didrikson, he tells it in the wider context of her life, so that her braggadocio does not define her in the reader’s mind.
Babe Didrikson was diagnosed with rectal cancer and underwent a permanent colostomy. There would still be enough greatness in her to resume her golf career and win tournaments. But the cancer prompted her to rise to the occasion in another way. She became a tireless campaigner for funds to support cancer treatment and education, and she made a point of visiting cancer patients, especially children, to encourage them to go on with their lives.
Babe Didrikson: a life worth remembering.
Somewhere in this home office there is a 78 rpm recording of Jack Kaufman singing “Lucky Lindy” and “Lindbergh, the Eagle of the USA.” The record was part of the hype that followed Charles A. Lindbergh’s solo flight from New York to Paris in 1927. If a female aviator were going to be cast as Lindbergh’s counterpart, there was only one thing about Amelia Earhart that qualified her: She vaguely resembled the pilot. Where flying acumen was concerned, there were numerous women whose experience, skills, and breadth of knowledge far exceeded Earhart’s. As it turned out, that didn’t matter. Earhart had “the look” — or, at least, enough people thought so to make her marketable as “Lady Lindy,” and so, she became the legend and the other women are forgotten by all but students of aviation history. Some things never change.
I read about that in “Amelia Earhart: The Turbulent Life of an American Icon,” by Kathleen C. Winters.
Winters, who died last August, was an aviation historian, biographer of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, and a licensed pilot. In short, she knew a lot about flying and her knowledge gives this book important context. I think it was because of her respect for flying that she took an unfiltered look at Earhart and presented her in what for many readers, including me, is a new light. Not that Winters went after Earhart; on the contrary, she seems to have recognized Earhart’s basic decency and approved of Earhart’s sense of adventure and her independence, her part in the campaign to promote commercial air travel, and especially her insistence and practical demonstrations that women were capable of undertakings once thought the sole province of men.
But Winters shows in some detail that Earhart was undisciplined, sometimes even careless, and that she wouldn’t take responsibility for her mistakes. But although there could have been no Amelia Earhart legend without Amelia Earhart’s cooperation, the magician who created the phantom heroine was Earhart’s husband, George Putnam.
Putnam, an opportunistic book publisher at the time, played a critical role in booking Earhart as the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean — a year after Lindbergh’s solo flight. Earhart flew, all right, but she never took the controls, because she was incapable of handling the sea plane that made the flight and because she hadn’t learned to fly by instruments alone — something that could, and did, become necessary over the ocean. A two-man male crew handled the flight and Earhart was “baggage,” as she herself said. But Putnam created so much publicity — much of it exaggerated or just plain false — that Earhart became permanently larger than life, certainly larger than reality. Putnam, who eventually left his wife and married Earhart, also managed the rest of her career, encouraging her in a series of risky and often pointless performances and booking her in never-ending schedule of public appearances that financed the couple’s flamboyant lifestyle.
It’s symbolic of Putnam’s whole approach to Earhart’s career that he signed her, over her objections, to appear in a print ad for Lucky Strike cigarettes, although Earhart did not smoke. The ad didn’t say she smoked, but the implication was clear. What Putnam didn’t anticipate was a strong negative push-back from a public — particularly a female public — that didn’t approve of women smoking.
Earhart was charming, and she did set some speed and distance records, but her indelible place in the public consciousness was based on Putnam’s manufactured image — and on her disappearance in 1937 while she and navigator Fred Noonan were over the Pacific Ocean during an attempt to fly around the world along the equator — a feat that would have had virtually no significance in aviation by that time. Winters points out that Earhart still had limited understanding of radio operation and that neither she nor Noonan knew Morse code. A naval vessel — in a typically improper use of public resources to support Earhart’s private escapades — was trying to monitor Earhart’s approach to tiny Howland Island where a landing strip had been constructed for her at public expense. The crew couldn’t keep contact with the flyer, and all indications are that she and Noonan couldn’t spot the minuscule island or wandered off course and wound up in the ocean. Bone fragments discovered late last year on a Pacific island are being examined for any connection to Earhart. Winters notes a melancholy detail: An experienced flyer encouraged Earhart to have the rudders and wing strips of her Lockheed painted red so that it would be easier to spot if it went down. Earhart liked the plane’s paint job fine just as it was.
July 6, 2010
When we learn about history, we learn mostly about men. This is something on the question of time. The curriculum in grade school and high school – and even in college for those who aren’t history majors – skims the surface. With respect to many epochs, that means leaving women out of the story, precisely because women were precluded from participating in what went on on the surface. Oh, we got an occasional glimpse of the other half of the population: Cleopatra, Catherine the Great, Queen Victoria, Betsy Ross, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Madame Curie, but the story overall was badly skewed.
This phenomenon is addressed in “Civil War Wives” by Carol Berkin, a book published last year. I read this book because I got it as a Father’s Day gift from one of my daughters — all of whom, by the way, are special women in their own rights, and that has a lot to do with their mother.
Carol Berkin writes about three women who lived through the Civil War period and were directly affected by the war itself and the events and conditions surrounding it. These women were Angelina Grimke Weld, an abolitionist and feminist; Varina Howell Davis, who was married to Confederate President Jefferson Davis; and Julia Dent Grant, who was married to Ulysses S. Grant, Civil War general and postwar president.
I had some knowledge of Varina Davis and Julia Grant before I read this book, but I had not heard of Angelina Grimke Weld, who was an independent thinker from childhood. She was the daughter of a slave-holding plantation owner and judge in South Carolina, but she never accepted the precepts by which her parents lived — including human slavery, self-indulgence, and the notion that women should be happily subordinate to men.
Berkin recounts the process through which Angelina and her sister Sarah moved north and engaged in a prolific campaign against slavery and for women’s rights. Angelina Grimke in the 1830s was arguing for full citizenship for women — up to and including election to the presidency of the United States. (How impatient it must make her, wherever she reposes, to know that the nation still hasn’t chosen a female president.) She was making that argument at a time in which her public appearances, usually with Sarah, were regarded by many people as inappropriate for a woman – particularly when the sisters spoke to audiences of mixed gender and even of mixed race. Angelina married the abolitionist Theodore Weld, and Berkin reports that abolitionist organizations leaned on the husband — who bent a little — to discourage his wife from distracting from the antislavery message by arguing for women’s rights.
When Varina Davis first became engaged to Jefferson Davis, she was 17 years old and he was about twice her age. He had been married many years before, but his first wife died shortly after the wedding, and he may never have fully recovered from that loss. Varina Davis was loyal to her husband while they and their larger family were buffeted by illness, death, financial crises, infidelity, and the many shocks associated with the Civil War. However, theirs was hardly an ideal marriage. Varina was also the daughter of a southern slaveholder, but she was an independent thinker and her thoughts were not always in concert with those of her family or her husband. Jefferson Davis did not admire this trait in his wife, and he admonished her throughout their lives together about her penchant for expressing herself on public matters.
For Varina Davis, one of the most painful episodes of a life full of painful episodes must have been the imprisonment of her husband for two years at Fort Monroe in Phoebus, Virginia. She tirelessly but fruitlessly campaigned to get President Andrew Johnson to intercede on Jefferson Davis’s behalf. She persisted, however, and eventually succeeded not only in getting improved conditions for the prisoner but in getting permission to move into an apartment at the prison herself so that she could visit him regularly.
After the death of Jefferson Davis, Varina shocked southern society by moving north and associating with folks who were anathema in the former Confederacy. One of them was Julia Dent Grant, whose husband had taken compassion on Varina and intervened for the imprisoned Jefferson Davis. Varina also took up a career as a newspaper journalist for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World.
Julia Grant was like the other two subjects of this book in that she was also the daughter of a slave-holding planter, but she was quite a different personality. She was a homely girl – and had a crossed eye to boot, but she was never allowed to think of herself as anything but a princess, thanks to a doting father. She was raised in leisure, and she celebrated that fact for the rest of her life. She did exhibit independence with respect to one, critical, point in her life. She persisted in her determination to marry Ulysses S. Grant over the objections of parents who didn’t think the soldier could provide the kind of life Julia wanted and deserved. Ulysses did leave the military after the marriage, but he was not cut out to be a businessman, and he failed repeatedly. His return to arms, of course, led to his greatest successes in life — all of them on the battlefield — and also led to his election to two terms as president, terms that were ridden with scandal, thanks to Grant’s friends and even, in one instance, his brother-in-law.
Julia Grant was spoiled, but she was not petulant, and she weathered the changes in her life brought on by marriage to both an unsuccessful businessman and to a soldier. She reveled in her role as First Lady, and got generally good reviews for her performance as the social leader of the capital. She was not well informed about public affairs, and her occasional attempts to remedy that were not encouraged by her husband, who liked to think of her more as a loving spouse than as a helpmate. One thing was certain, as Berkin emphasizes: Julia and her “Uly” were in love — as much so on the day he died of throat cancer as on the day they were engaged.
Julia Grant, as a widow, was at West Point when she learned that Varina Davis was staying nearby. Julia went to Varina’s room and introduced herself, and the two became friends. It was a suitable gesture for Julia to make, both because Varina had never forgotten the general’s help for her imprisoned husband and because Grant — once the scourge of the South — had left instructions that his casket be carried to its tomb by equal numbers of Union and Confederate generals.
June 15, 2010
At last, I know. I have been wondering for decades about an actress who had a brief role in an episode of “The Honeymooners,” and last night I found out by chance who she was.
The episode – one of the so-called “classic 39” – is a Christmas story in which Ralph Kramden saves money to buy Alice a present, but spends it on a bowling ball. Then he uses what money he has to buy a hairpin box that’s made of 2,000 match sticks glued together, believing the salesman’s story that the box came from the home of the Emperor of Japan. On Christmas Eve, before Ralph gives Alice this present, a neighbor – Mrs. Stevens – comes to the door and says she’s going to be away for the holiday and wants to give Alice a present before leaving. Of course, when Alice opens the package it’s a box just like the one Ralph bought, and the neighbor says she bought it at a novelty shop near the subway station.
The rest of that story doesn’t matter. What matters — to me, at least — is that I have always felt that the woman who played that small part was a wonderful actress. She created such a strong impression of Mrs. Stevens as warm and self-effacing that, even as a kid, I had a feeling that I’d like her to be my neighbor or even a member of my family — an aunt, maybe. Every time I see that episode, I’m entranced by that actress’s performance. But “The Honeymooners” producers were stingy with the credits, so the actress wasn’t identified.
So the other might I watched the 1949 version of “All the King’s Men” on TCM. The film is based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Robert Penn Warren, and it is the story of Willie Stark, a corrupt politician modeled after Huey Long. I had not seen it before, and the first time I heard the voice of the actress playing Stark’s wife, Sally, I knew my question had been answered. A little Googling confirmed that the Kramdens’ neighbor was portrayed by Anne Seymour.
Anne Seymour, it turns out, had an extensive career. The International Movie Database lists 121 film and television appearances for her between 1944 and 1988. “All the King’s Men” was her second movie. Her last was “Field of Dreams.” She played the newspaper publisher in Chisolm, Minnesota who helped Ray Kinsella learn about Dr. Archie “Moonlight” Graham.
The actress’s birth name was Anne Eckert, and her family was in the theater for at least seven generations dating back to the early 18th century in Ireland. Her brothers, James and John Seymour, were screen writers. Anne made her stage debut in 1928, and she later also worked in radio drama. Though she spent the bulk of her career working in television, she played Sara Delano Roosevelt, the mother of Franklin Roosevelt, in the 1958 Broadway production of “Sunrise at Campobello,” for which Ralph Bellamy won a Tony award for his portrayal of FDR. Although Anne Seymour got good review for her work in that play, she was not cast in the film version.
November 18, 2009
Sarah Palin was non-committal when Barbara Walters asked, in the interview being broadcast this week, whether Palin wanted to run for the presidency. That, Palin said, is not on her radar at present, but she she cautioned that she could not predict what might happen between now and 2012. Presumably, that was a reference to that year’s national election and not to the revolution of the Mayan calendar.
If Palin does decide to seek office again, she should ask to be mentored by Vaira Vike-Freiberga, who has served two terms as president of Latvia. Perhaps on a global scale that is analogous to having been governor of Alaska from the perspective of Americans. But don’t be fooled by the relative obscurity of Freiberga’s venue. She is a force to be reckoned with and a role model for women who believe that half the population should hold half the power, if not more.
Vike-Freiberga has made it clear that she is a candidate for the presidency of the European Union, and she is fuming — as she should be — over public suggestions that there are no qualified women to fill the post that has been dominated by men. “Those people who say that should wash their mouths out with soap,” Mrs Vike-Freiberga told The London Times. “As far as I am concerned they are voicing the deepest and most objectionable prejudice against women. They are saying that we do not have qualified women around,and I resent that. It is a lie and we should all protest against that because it implies that somehow talent was distributed only to those with one kind of chromosome.”
Check the Times story for a sketch of Vike-Freiberga’s personal and academic resume. Not qualified, indeed! The Times also reports on her challenge to EU leadership to strip away the secrecy from the process by which the EU president is chosen — a practice she compares to the methods of the Soviet Union.
She’s my new hero.