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.”

 

 

 

 

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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.

Robert_R._Hitt

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. …”

 

 

 

 

Mastercard Masters Of Music Festival - Hyde Park

BOB DYLAN/billboard.com

In an episode of the television series Taxi, Latka Gravas, an immigrant from an unnamed Eastern European country, is repairing a cab while his radio plays what sounds like polka music from his homeland. Cab driver Jim Ignatowski, who hasn’t gotten over the ‘sixties, stops momentarily to listen, cupping his ear and gently rocking to the beat. As he walks away, Iggy says, “You never know what Dylan is going to do next.” Ignatowski, though usually in a daze, knew a thing or two, including, it seems, the wide range of musical genres Dylan has explored—invariably making his own mark. That Taxi episode was recorded in 1979; Dylan has covered a lot of ground since then.

I have only a casual knowledge of Bob Dylan, but it was knowledge enough to draw my attention to the title of this book written by Richard F. Thomas, a professor of classics at Harvard. It struck me that Dylan’s influence has been such that, on the one hand, no one needs to explain why he matters and, on the other hand, no one can. Or perhaps I mean no one should, because I know Dylan has bristled at times at efforts to explain him and his work—and especially at efforts to fit him and his work into categories.

So because I was curious about that title—curiosity is one of my downfalls—I read the book. It was immediately apparent to me that I did not belong in Richard Thomas’s company, at least where Dylan is concerned. Thomas has vast and deep knowledge of Dylan’s career with its many phases—tableaux might be a better word; with his songs and how they have slipped in and out of the repertoire; with the shifting devotion of his fans; with his odyssey through musical genres and his spawning of new ones; with his live performances; with his other artistic expressions; with the fuzzy distinction between truth and fantasy in his recollections, and with his personal life. Dylan fans—real fans—might revel in Thomas’s exposition of Dylan and his songs, done in accessible language and in a relatively compact space.

What absorbed me most in this book was what Thomas presented as Dylan’s early and continuing interest in the culture of ancient Rome and his incorporation of classical Greek and Roman poetry into his lyrics. In his Nobel lecture, Dylan spoke of the influence that Homer’s Odyssey has had on him and on many other writers.

Thomas sees the connection between Dylan and the ancients as a great deal more than plagiarism or “creative use of existing texts.” With respect to Ovid, Virgil, Homer, and that whole crowd, Thomas writes, “For the past forty years, as a classics professor, I have been living in the worlds of the Greek and Roman poets, reading them, writing about them, and teaching them to students in their original languages and in English translation. I have for even longer been living in the world of Bob Dylan’s songs, and in my mind Dylan long ago joined the company of those ancient poets. He is part of that classical stream whose spring starts out in Greece and Rome and flows on down through the years, remaining relevant today and incapable of being contained by time and space.”

And Dylan’s take? He recalls reading Cicero, Plutarch, Tacitus, and Marcus Aurelius: “If I had to do it all over again, I’d be a school teacher—probably teach Roman history or theology.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

hinton3 electric chair

The electric chair at the Holman Correctional Facility

When I was in high school, Mike Rinaldo, a history teacher and a hell of a nice guy, gave us some experience in debate. Not only did he assign the topics, but he also told us which side of the topics we were to argue. He assigned me to argue in favor of capital punishment. I was not in favor of capital punishment, but I made the best argument I could, and the faculty panel that judged the debates declared me the winner of that one. Since Mr. Rinaldo had compelled me to construct an argument against my own beliefs, I was amused when he told me privately, and with a twinkle in his eye, that he thought my argument was all wet and that it was shameless of me to include Torah references such as “an eye for an eye,” knowing that the rabbis had interpreted such references in much more nuanced ways than I had used them.

I understand support for the death penalty—I really do. I have read about murder cases that made me, for the moment, so angry that I would have pulled the switch or started the IV myself. But when I reflect calmly on it, I abhor capital punishment. To me, it represents the height of pessimism. Nathan Leopold would have been executed had it not been for Clarence Darrow; Leopold served his time and spent the rest of his life being peaceful and useful. Queen Victoria thought Edward Oxford should be hanged, but Oxford was shipped off to Australia where he became a prominent citizen of his community. Would death have served better purposes? I don’t think so. And my antipathy for the penalty wasn’t assuaged at all by The Sun Does Shine by Anthony Ray Hinton with a literary hand from Lara Love Hardin of Idea Architects.

Hinton1 slate.com

ANTHONY RAY HINTON/slate.com

Hinton, who is from Birmingham, spent nearly 30 years on death row in an Alabama state prison for a crime he had nothing to do with. In 1985, a witness identified him as the man who shot a restaurant owner in an incident that had occurred while Hinton was 15 miles away, working on a cleaning crew in a warehouse. The warehouse was surrounded by razor-wire fence, and anyone coming or going had to check in with a guard at the gate. In addition, the workers were supervised by a foreman who assigned them task by task. Hinton was not charged with that crime but with two murders that had followed the same pattern. He was convicted on the basis of what turned out to be inaccurate ballistics test results that connected the crimes to a revolver owned by Hinton’s mother. He was convicted also because, being black, he fit Alabama’s glib profile of a criminal, and being poor, he did not receive competent defense.

hinton 4

HOLSOM STATE CORRECTIONAL FACILITY

Because of this best-selling book and the media attention that has been afforded Hinton, it is well known by now that he was released from prison in 2015 after the United States Supreme Court overturned his conviction and the State of Alabama declined to retry the case—not because the state finally acknowledged its mistakes but because, with the ballistics test debunked, it had no evidence against Hinton. The criminal justice system in Alabama had doggedly refused to acknowledge what was clear; its behavior leads only to the conclusion that its priority was not to establish the truth but to execute this man who, conveniently, was convicted and incarcerated.

This story is also about the unnecessary cruelty with which the State of Alabama treated the inmates on death row in the Holman Correctional Facility. Condemned men live every hour in putrid conditions with a combination of humiliation, fear, and hopelessness—there were eleven suicides on the unit while Hinton was there, and he writes that he considered that solution for himself.

And this story is about the strength of character that sustained Hinton during those decades in which 54 condemned prisoners were walked past his cell on their way to the electric chair or, in latter years, the gurney and lethal injection. In fact, the quality of the human being who emerges from this account makes the fact that he languished in prison for no reason all the greater tragedy: He was robbed of his life, and his community and friends and family, and the world at large, were denied the blessing of his presence.

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ANTHONY RAY HINTON and LESTER BAILEY/gridironnow.com

He was a blessing to his colleagues on death row, though, because while he wrestled with  the frustrations and horrors of his own situation—ingeniously creating a detailed fantasy life in which he could find relief from a suffocating reality—he related to the other condemned inmates, even the former Klansman who had lynched black men, as first of all fellow human beings. He went to the length of convincing the warden to let him form a book club with a group of prisoners, opening to some of them a part of their own intellects that they had never before experienced.

Hinton is a man of such integrity that when, after many unsuccessful attempts to get the state to confront the injustice done to him, he was offered the opportunity of life without parole, he turned it down. He would rather have died than imply that he had committed those crimes.

Anthony Ray Hinton is 62 years old; to a large extent, he has missed out on life. But with this book—a tough one to put down once you start reading it—he has made a powerful statement about injustice. And if Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative had not taken up the case, the State of Alabama would have gone on its giddy way to killing—murdering, really—this insightful and gentle man.

 

A hero in Hinton’s life is Lester Bailey, who has been his friend since they were young children. Bailey never missed a visiting day at Holman for the entire time Hinton was incarcerated, often bringing Hinton’s devoted mother until she passed away. You can see Hinton talking about Hinton’s friendship by clicking HERE.

 

 

 

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I must have been out of town, figuratively, when angry protesters were denouncing Fred Rogers for “tolerating” gay people. That’s what one of the protest signs—in a scene from the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?—accused Rogers of doing, “tolerating.”

I dislike that word and its derivatives when they are used to describe race relations or gender relations, if that’s the right term. To tolerate a class of people is to put up with them when we’d rather not. And this documentary reinforces the fact that tolerating people because they were black or gay or disabled or distinguished in some other way was precisely what Fred Rogers did not do. He accepted people as they were and, what’s more important, he taught children to do that by explicitly extending that courtesy to them.

Mr. Rogers, we learn in this presentation, was an overweight child who took some abuse from his peers. Having been belittled in that way, he made a career of promoting in the minds of children that, regardless of their individual circumstances, each one of them was of value—not in spite of but because of the fact that each one was unique.

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François Clemmons/PBS

I’m not sure it was made clear in the movie, but the demonstration scene seems to depict the followers of the crazed Kansas minister Fred Phelps making a nuisance of themselves during a memorial service in Mr. Rogers’ honor. Phelps hated everything about Rogers.

We learn in the documentary that Fred Rogers’ attitude toward gay people evolved in a way that was dramatized by his relationship with a prominent member of the cast of his television series. This was François Clemmons, who played a policeman in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood for 25 years. This casting was groundbreaking in itself; Clemmons was one of the first black performers to have a recurring role on a children’s television show. And he was presented as an authority figure who was beloved in the neighborhood and a close friend of Mr. Rogers. The documentary includes a scene in which Mr. Rogers was cooling his feet in a plastic pool of water and invited Officer Clemmons to join him. When the camera zoomed in on the black feet and the white feet next to each other in that pool—at a time in our history when black swimmers were unwelcome in many pools—no words were necessary to convey the message.

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John Beale/Focus Features

Clemmons, who is a distinguished singer and university lecturer, is gay. He explains, without rancor, in the documentary that Fred Rogers—aware of the conservative mindset of corporate supporters and of the parents of many children who watched the show—advised him to stop visiting a gay nightclub and in general to keep his gender identity under wraps. Rogers went so far as to recommend that Clemmons marry—a step that Clemmons actually took with predictable results. But that was in the 1960s, and Clemmons, who says he regarded Rogers as his “surrogate father,” understood or, at least, rationalized the logic of the time—if Clemmons came out as gay, there would have been powerful pushback that Rogers was not prepared to resist.

Clemmons’ decision to continue on the show had to do with both his personal relationship with Rogers, which was deeply sympathetic and spiritual, and with Clemmons’ assessment of what was the best course for a gay performer at that moment in history. It’s easy to pass judgment on a person in that situation—as long as the person isn’t you. There is more to Clemmons’ story than this documentary could explore, but he talks about it in more detail in an article in Vanity Fair currently available at THIS LINK.

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Joanne Rogers/Getty Images – Frederick M. Brown

Fred Rogers’ wife, Joanne, says in the documentary that her husband eventually “came around” with respect to homosexuality; Clemmons, who is a prominent figure in the movie, certainly seems to be satisfied on that score.

I wasn’t aware that Phelps had aimed his vitriol at Mr. Rogers. Nor was I aware that other reactionary types had misconstrued Rogers’ message to children as suggesting that they need not struggle or even work in order to succeed—a bizarre interpretation of his assurance to children that “You are special” and “I love you as you are.”

This documentary has received nearly universal praise, but not only because it is a portrait of a beloved public figure and an important influence on two generations of children. The film is also praiseworthy because it presents Fred Rogers with no filter on the lens, as a man who had his doubts and disappointments—a radical whose radicalism knew its boundaries. Make no mistake: he was an extraordinary human being, but he wasn’t perfect, and we have no right to expect that of him. In fact, it was from Fred Rogers that we learned to love him just as he was.