NOAH WEBSTER

NOAH WEBSTER

When we were watching episodes of Downton Abbey on a DVD, we turned on the English subtitles, because we had trouble understanding a couple of the actors — particularly Rob James-Collier as Thomas Barrow and Sophie McShera as Daisy Mason.
It turned out that while some of our difficulty with the dialogue had to do with the one actor’s mumbling and the other one’s accent, some of it also had to do with the vocabulary itself — British terms that we did not know.

  Most of us are familiar with terms like “lorry,” “loo,” and “lift,” but we saw others in the captions that we had never heard before.
It was to be expected that the English used in Britain and the English used in the United States would evolve differently, but I learned recently that that didn’t happen only over time but was done deliberately, on our side of the ocean, soon after the American Revolution.
That’s what Paul Dickson reports in his book Words from the White House, which is a compilation of words and phrases that either were either coined or made popular by presidents and other prominent Americans.

  According to Dickson, an 18th century sentiment shared by Thomas Jefferson and Noah Webster, was that Americans had to craft for themselves a language that was distinct from the “king’s English.”
Webster was so confident that this goal could be achieved that he wrote in 1806 that “In fifty years from this time, the American-English will be spoken by more people than all the other dialects of the language.”

THOMAS JEFFERSON

THOMAS JEFFERSON

Part of the process by which language evolves is “neologizing” — that is, inventing words or phrases from whole cloth.
Dickson writes that the word “neologize” was itself neologized by Jefferson in 1813 in a letter to John Adams.
So Theodore Roosevelt, who — for my money — is disproportionately represented in this book, was neologizing when he invented the term “pussyfooter,” and his distant cousin FDR was doing the same when he created the useful word “iffy.”
Some presidents have been accused of using non-standard terms, not because they were being inventive but because they didn’t know any better.
In this regard, for instance, Dickson mentions Warren G. Harding and George W. Bush.
Harding has often been ridiculed for his 1920 campaign promise of a “return to normalcy,” but Dickson points out that the word “normalcy” had been already in use in several fields, including mathematics.
Harding’s innovation was to give the term a political meaning — and, the author reminds us, it worked.

WARREN G. HARDING

WARREN G. HARDING

The second Bush — who could be hard on English — was kidded mercilessly for his used of the term “decider” which he applied to himself when the press asked him about calls for the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (“I’m the decider, and I decide what’s best.”) Dickson gives Bush credit for coining this word, but apparently the author didn’t check a dictionary: that word was around before George Bush was president, meaning exactly what he used it to mean.

“Babes in Arms”

November 4, 2012

JUDY GARLAND and MICKEY ROONEY

Knowing that a storm visitor was a fan of Judy Garland, I picked out Babes in Arms from the On Demand list, and wound up watching it myself. I did that because this 1939 film was based on a 1937 Broadway musical by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. I’ve always been curious about that show, but I’ve never seen it produced on stage. I knew well before the movie was over that the stage show has to have been better.

This was one of the “let’s put on a show” movies that Garland made with Mickey Rooney. It turns out that it was only loosely based on the Broadway show. In fact, I have since read that once the brains at MGM got  the rights to the show, they made wholesale changes to the script and threw out all the songs except the unmemorable title song and the memorable “Where or When,” which was introduced on  Broadway by Ray Heatherton (who later had a long run on television as the “Merry Mailman”) and Mitzi Green.

RAY HEATHERTON

That means, that MGM — specifically producer Arthur Freed — cut “My Funny Valentine,” “I Wish I Were in Love Again,” “Johnny One Note,” and “That’s Why the Lady is a Tramp” (which is heard only as incidental background music). Freed added two old songs of his own — “I Cried for You” and “You Are My Lucky Star” — and he and Nacio Herb Brown wrote “Good Mornin'” especially for this movie. E.Y. Harburg and Harold Arlen, who had contributed three classic songs to The Wizard of Oz, were employed on this movie to write “God’s Country,” a heavy-handed finale that was influenced by the war under way in Europe.

This film was directed by Buzby Berkeley in an era when the canteen didn’t stock de-caf coffee. It is, in a word, exhausting. The production numbers with their quick-step marches are dated and Rooney in particular, as talented as he is, is manic —  a fault that is made more conspicuous by the fact that Garland’s performance is comparatively understated.

Apparently there was some racially insensitive material in the Broadway production, and there is  an offensive minstrel sequence in the movie. Blackface was common into the 1950s; in fact, when I was a kid, my parish used to stage annual minstrels complete with end men in burnt cork exchanging idiotic banter with “Mr. Interlocutor.” It’s as hard to watch now as it should have been then.

Rooney and Garland in blackface

I’ve read some attempts to rationalize this display, including one argument that the caricatures were mild, but there is nothing mild about Rooney’s lampooning in particular. He’s Jolson in overdrive.

There is a clever number in which Rooney and Garland do good-natured send ups of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. This scene was cut from copies of the film distributed after FDR died in 1945, but it has been restored and is one of the most worthwhile things in the movie.

Set ‘er up, Joe!

December 31, 2010

Vodka and cranberry

We asked the bartender at a hotel in Warsaw for vodka and cranberry juice, but he claimed never to have heard of such a thing. When we described it to him, he offered to substitute blackberry brandy for the cranberry juice, and that turned out to be satisfactory – enough so, that we ordered it every day we were there.

I think about cocktails at this time of year, because I have associated them with New Year’s Eve since I was a child. It seems to me that images associated with the occasion — in newspaper ads, for instance — invariably have martini glasses along with the confetti and streamers. Before I started going out to New Year’s Eve parties and confronted reality, I thought of them as the epitome of sophistication, and cocktails were intrinsic to the concept. I guess I don’t think of myself as being sophisticated, because the only mixed drinks I like are vodka and cranberry and gin and tonic, and I haven’t had a gin and tonic in about a decade.

Horse's Neck

Coincidentally, I read today that Franklin Roosevelt loved to mix drinks for his friends and visitors. According to the author of the book that will be the subject of a post sometime next week, FDR especially liked to flourish the shaker. His own favorite cocktail was the Horse’s Neck, which in his case meant whiskey and ginger ale. The drink gets its name from the twisted lemon rind submerged in the glass.

When I was a kid, I liked the names of individual drinks my parents and their friends mentioned — Black Russian, Manhattan, Brandy Alexander, Tom and Jerry, Tom Collins.  Those names were right out of Esquire, and I’d rather not say how I knew that when I was a kid. One of those names was Presbyterian, and I understood years later when my father-in-law, strictly a social drinker, got hot under the collar at a wedding we attended, because the young bartender didn’t know what a Presbyterian was — namely bourbon, club soda, and ginger ale.

 

Harvey Wallbanger

That young guy aside, I always thought of the bartender as the archetype of cool. I still occasionally think that I’d like to be a bartender if it was in just the right kind of establishment — high brow, cool, “the ladies who lunch” kind of place. That may be why I wandered into a hotel bar in Manhattan one early afternoon many years ago while I waited for the actress Jane Russell to keep an appointment with me. Dim lights, highly polished dark wood, barkeeps with black vests, and garters on their sleeves. At the time, I had taken a few turns with Harvey Wallbanger while pretending to keep up with some of my harder-drinking friends, so I sat alone at the bar and ordered one. I think I imagined myself in a movie, circa 1948. The bartender allowed as how Mr. W. hadn’t caught on yet in Gotham and, when I had fought my way to the bottom, he asked if the drink had been satisfactory. I had no idea, but the script made me say that it was a bit too heavy on the Galliano. I think I wished at that moment that I was a smoker, because exhaling a long stream before answering would have added so much to that scene. My host was accommodating nevertheless, and he served up another on the grounds that the customer must be satisfied. My appointment was long in coming, and Roberto got the proportions right on the third try. When Jane Russell came down from her room in a cloud of apologies, I wouldn’t have made her feel guilty for the world, and I gallantly agreed when she asked if we could find a place with strong black coffee.

Sheet music cover for "Friend Highball" lyrics and music by William J. McKenna, 1915.

 


Who is that woman?

June 15, 2010

ANNE SEYMOUR

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.

ANNE SEYMOUR

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 and RALPH BELLAMY

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.

FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT


When I was growing up, I couldn’t wait for Andy the Mailman to bring the monthly magazines my mother subscribed to — especially Better Homes & Gardens, Woman’s Day, Good Housekeeping, Family Circle, and McCall’s.

Mostly, I liked the one-panel cartoons, and I looked forward to reading the humor column on the last page of BH&G, which appeared under the byline of Burton Hillis, which I learned only a couple of years ago was a pen name for Bill Vaughan.

ELEANOR ROOSEVELT

My favorite feature, though, appeared in McCall’s. It was Eleanor Roosevelt’s Q&A column, “If You Ask Me.” She started writing that column in 1949 and continued until she died in 1961. I don’t know how old I was when I started reading it. I was only seven years old in 1949, so it might not have been then, but I must have been pretty young, because I can still recall my mother asking me why a boy my age wanted to read that column. I don’t know what answer I gave, but I remember being fascinated with Eleanor Roosevelt long before I fully understood who she was.

As I grew older, of course, I came to appreciate her character and the many contributions she made to American life.

My mind is on Mrs. Roosevelt just now because I recently reviewed Robert Klara’s interesting book, “FDR’s Funeral Train,” which is a chronicle of the transport of Franklin Roosevelt’s body from Warm Springs, Ga., where he died in April 1945, first to Washington, D.C., for a service in the East Room of the White House and then to Hyde Park, N.Y., for a funeral and burial at the Roosevelt home.

Klara provides a lot of details about the logistics of this enterprise — everything from the preparation of the president’s body and the selection of a 700-pound copper casket to the history and features of the engines and cars that made up the trains.

LUCY MERCER RUTHERFERD

Woven into this account, however, are the human stories — including the culmination of Franklin Roosevelt’s long liaison with Lucy Mercer Rutherferd. Mrs. Rutherferd had been Eleanor Roosevelt’s social secretary when FDR — with the presidency far in the future — began his affair with her. Eleanor Roosevelt discovered this relationship in 1918 and ultimately agreed to an arrangement in which she and FDR would remain married but would live separately, as it were, and he would not see Mrs. Rutherferd. The second part of that bargain didn’t last very long, and he continued to see Mrs. Rutherferd literally until the day he died. In fact, she was present when Roosevelt suffered the cerebral hemorrhage that caused his death.

Taken by surprise by her husband’s death, Eleanor Roosevelt traveled to Warm Springs and was, to all outward appearances, the picture of composure and dignity as she planned and participated in the rituals that led to the grave.

ELEANOR ROOSEVELT

During this sad trip, however, Mrs. Roosevelt not only confirmed what she had suspected — that FDR had continued to see Mrs. Rutherferd and that Lucy had been at Warm Springs when he died — but also that the visits between the two had been arranged with the connivance of various members of the president’s  official and personal household — including the Roosevelts’ daughter, Anna.

Klara also relates in this book how the death of FDR affected Harry Truman, who had not been a member of FDR’s inner circle and had not been informed of important matters of state, including the fact that scientists in New Mexico were at that moment developing what they believed would be the most destructive bomb ever produced.

HARRY TRUMAN

However unprepared Truman may have been for his new role, Klara describes him as  a man who kept his wits about him and did what had to be done. Roosevelt died in Georgia on a Thursday  afternoon, and he was buried in upstate New York on the following Sunday. Truman planned to address a joint session of Congress on Monday, and he spent his time on the train from Washington to Hyde Park and back again working on that speech with his advisers. It was, Klara reports, a hit with Congress and with the public, as Truman promised to pursue Roosevelt’s policies, including FDR’s demand for unconditional surrender by both Germany and Japan. In a few months, Truman, who hadn’t been trusted with the secret of the bomb, would make the lonely decision to use it against Japan in order to put an end to hostilities in the Pacific.

Klara includes some detailed descriptions of the awkward political atmosphere on the trains as one administration was passing out of existence and another was taking control. The author also discusses the controversial security risk taken by organizers and participants in the Hyde Park funeral, as virtually the whole government traveled together on the train while the country was at war. The risk wasn’t far fetched; Klara notes that among the passengers — despite the high level of security — was a government operative who was a spy for the KGB.

A woman weeps over the death of Franklin Roosevelt. The president's widow said she never realized until she watched the crowds along the funeral train's route the dimensions of the public's devotion to FDR. / Life magazine photo