Books: “American Emperor”

November 29, 2011

ALEXANDER HAMILTON

I grew up with Alexander Hamilton. It’s not that I was his contemporary; it’s that I was born in Paterson, New Jersey, and grew up on its streets. I heard over and over again that Hamilton had founded the city. Like a lot of things children are taught, that wasn’t true. What was true was that Hamilton accurately envisioned an industrial city growing up  around the Great Falls of the Passaic River. Paterson became the silk-weaving center of the world and was also the source of steam locomotives and Colt revolvers.

Aside from the fact that he was born on Nevis – a rare distinction – the only other thing I associated Hamilton with was the duel in which Aaron Burr, who was then the vice president of the United States, shot Hamilton to death. That happened in Weehawkin in 1804.

I never thought much about Burr at all until I read David O. Stewart’s book, American Emperor: Aaron Burr’s Challenge to Jefferson’s America. Come to find out that Burr was a rip-snorting renegade who wanted to invade Spanish territories in North America, merge them with states he hoped would secede from the Union, and set himself up as ruler of the new nation.

AARON BURR

Burr, who was born in Newark, came from a distinguished family. He  himself had an impressive military and political career which reached its zenith, in a sense, when he was elected the third vice president in the old electoral system. After a contentious series of ballots, Thomas Jefferson and Burr were tied for the presidency. Although Burr was willing to serve as vice president – which was the consolation prize under that system – Jefferson, once he was in office, gave Burr the cold shoulder, marginalizing him to the point that the once influential man was a supernumerary.

Meanwhile, Stewart explains, although Burr and Hamilton had been on good social terms, Hamilton conducted a political campaign against Burr in the public press, ridiculing him in the acidic fashion that was common in those days. Burr – whatever other faults he may have had – wouldn’t wouldn’t play that game, and he did not answer Hamilton until he read a published account of remarks Hamilton had made at a dinner. Burr and Hamilton exchanged a series of letters over the incident, with Hamilton ultimately refusing Burr’s demand that he apologize for that and other slights. Burr challenged him to a duel, and Hamilton accepted. Dueling was illegal in New York and New Jersey; the two men and their parties crossed the Hudson from Manhattan to a spot on the bluff in Weehawkin that was inaccessible from above. Hamilton was mortally wounded.

AARON BURR

Burr was indicted for murder in both states, which meant that he had to live on the road – an odd situation for the vice president of the United States. By this time, he was already concocting a vague plan to put together a realm for himself carved out of Spanish holdings – including parts of Mexico and Texas – and what were then western states that Burr imagined might be interested in leaving the union. He actually negotiated directly with Great Britain over this idea.

Meanwhile, Burr enlisted as one of his principal co-conspirators Gen. James Wilkinson who, on the one hand, was the highest ranking officer in the U.S. military and, on the other hand, was a paid spy for Spain. Burr enlisted numerous other people, including Andrew Jackson, although he seems to have given different information to different people, including in some cases the fantastic claim that the Jefferson administration was aware of and sympathetic to his plan.

Burr went so far as to assemble the crude makings of a private army, and set off by river transport to carry out a plot that still wasn’t clear to anyone except, perhaps, Aaron Burr. The numbers of supporters he had hoped for did not materialize, and some of those who did were arrested. Burr himself was taken into custody and sent to Richmond to be tried for treason.

JAMES WILKINSON

He was not convicted of treason, however. Stewart, who is an attorney, explains the fascinating intricacies of the trial and the verdict. The short version is that treason consists of conducting an armed attack on the United States, and Burr hadn’t done that.

Burr facing further charges in Ohio and was still under both murder indictments. Although he was broke, he traveled to Europe  and stayed for four years. Even then, he tried to get first the British government and then Napoleon to support him in a campaign against Spain in the Americas.

When the indictments had been dropped, Burr returned to New York and in 1831 resumed the practice of law.

This account portrays the United States and its surroundings as tumultuous and unstable. Stewart points out, in fact, that even Jefferson accepted the idea that some of the states still might opt out of the republic and go off on their own.

Stewart also provides details of a contrasting and touching aspect of Burr’s life – his affectionate but ill-fated relationship with his daughter.  The portrait Stewart paints of Burr is that of a charismatic, adventurous, and impetuous rascal, a man of courtly manners and an incorrigible womanizer — in short, far more interesting a character than I had ever imagined.

Talking baseball

March 10, 2011

 

PETER SCOLARI

The coincidence is a conversation piece. For example, I read somewhere that actor Peter Scolari’s ambition to play pro baseball had been derailed by an elbow injury. Baseball is a favorite subject of mine, so when I met Scolari recently I began by saying, “Tell me about you and baseball.” He did. The reference I had read was true: he played high school ball well enough to think that he might turn pro, but he got hurt, had surgery, and after that — well, let him tell it: “I couldn’t get anything on the ball,” although he has played in several theatrical leagues.

But to put that story in context, Scolari told me that his father — attorney Art Scolari — had played baseball at East Side High School in Paterson (this would have been long before Joe Clark got there) and then was an All-American shortstop at Drew University. Paterson? I was born in Paterson. My dad, who was about 13 years older than Art Scolari, went to Central High School where he ran track — particularly relays — and later managed a semi-pro baseball team that played all around the Paterson area.

PETER SCOLARI / New York Daily News

I haven’t told Peter Scolari this yet, but after our conversation, my web browser stumbled on a story in a 1939 issue of the old Daily Record of Red Bank, N.J., reporting that a teenager named Lawrence Mahoney, who was from Lincroft, had successfully defended his state horseshoe pitching championship for the fifth time in a row. It was no snap, according to the story: breathing down Mahoney’s neck was 15-year-old Art Scolari of Paterson. Mahoney was 9-0 in the tournament; Scolari was 8-1.

Tom Hanks and Peter Scolari in their "Bosom Buddies" regalia

I could have talked about baseball all night — it’s one of my many excuses to talk too much — but I was at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick to talk to Peter Scolari about his current project, a production of Ken Ludwig’s new play, “Fox on the Fairway.” This play, with a golf theme, had its world premiere last year in Washington, D.C. It’s a farce, and that’s a word that sends up the skyrockets, because farce done badly — or even done “all right” — is a painful experience for an audience. I’ve been there. Scolari, who knows a lot more about it than I do, made that point: “I don’t like to see a farce in which folks do an okay job. I’ll watch ‘The Sunshine Boys’ or ‘The Odd Couple’ and have a great time if everybody does a ‘good’ job. If I go to a farce and everybody does a ‘good’ job, I think, ‘Why did you do this?’ ”

I’ve read Ludwig’s play, but reading farce is like reading a recipe. It lays out the parts and the moves, but it can’t even hint at the reality. I have also read at least one negative review of the Washington production, but the fact that a farce doesn’t work with one company doesn’t mean it won’t work with another. Ludwig, after all, is the author of “Lend Me a Tenor” and “Crazy for You,” both of which won him Tony awards. And Scolari knows a thing or three about playing comedy in general and farce in particular.

Peter Scolari and Tom Hanks in 2004 at the premiere of "Polar Express" in which they both appeared

Scolari first drew national attention in 1980 when he co-starred with Tom Hanks in “Bosom Buddies,” a TV sit-com about two young men who dress in drag so they can live in a women-only hotel where the rent is dirt cheap and about what they can afford. The show, which lasted a couple of seasons, was indirectly inspired by the Billy Wilder movie “Some Like it Hot.” Since then, Scolari has put together a long resume of television and stage appearances, mostly in comedies, including 142 episodes of Bob Newhart’s second hit series, “Newhart.”

Talking to Scolari, who is witty, thoughtful, and articulate, was an entertainment in itself. If I weren’t aware that I was keeping him from his train after he had spent a full day of rehearsal, I would have prompted him to talk for another hour, just so I could listen. If I had had unlimited time and he had had unlimited patience, I would have steered him back around to baseball, because no sport lends itself to talk as well as baseball does, and my guess is that Scolari appreciates that as much as I do. I asked him which New York team he roots for now that he is living on the East Coast again after his sojourn in California. He could have simply said that he roots for the Yankees, but this wasn’t a guy answering questions. This was a guy talking baseball:

Thurman Munson, Yankees catcher, captain, All-Star, and MVP, was killed in a plane crash in 1979. He was 32.

“I follow the Yankees. I make no apologies about it, but they’re not the Yankees. For me the Yankees who owned my heart ended with the captain, with Thurman Munson. I never got over that, to be honest with you, as a fan. So you come back, and they’re your team, and they’re in the Bronx, and that’s really important — but it’s not quite the same.”

THE FORMER MEYER BROTHERS

THE FORMER MEYER BROTHERS

Every time I leave Paterson after teaching my classes, I pass the ornate building that once housed Meyer Brothers Department Store. Before the malls sucked the life out of downtown districts, Meyer Brothers was the place to shop in North Jersey. The big attraction for me when my mother shopped there was the book store, which was located on an elegant little mezzanine at the head of  a grand staircase. Mom could take her time elsewhere, because once she dropped me off in the book store, she knew where she’d find me no matter how much time had elapsed. The keepers of the shop must have a patient bunch, because I used it as if it were a library. We went there fairly often, and I returned to the same books again and again, hoping they wouldn’t be sold out before I had read them through.

Browsing at Meyer Brothers provided my first opportunities to buy books, which had not been part of the routine in our house. Both of my parents read a lot, but they read periodicals. I read the newspapers and magazines, too, but once I got the feel and smell of books into my system, I slipped into a lifelong addiction. Mom accommodated me when I started buying the “Peanuts” anthologies that began to appear in the very early 1950s, and humorous little “history” books by Richard Armour.

When chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble started making it fashionable to hang out in the stacks it seemed as if book browsing had become a post-modern institution, but now the trend toward buying and reading books on line threatens to make that experience a thing of the past — like Meyer Brothers, with its boarded-up windows and its for-rent signs.

Carolyn Kellogg, who blogs about books for the LA Times wrote about the trend this week. Her blog is at this link:

http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/jacketcopy/2009/10/in-praise-of-browsing.html

ABBOTT and COSTELLO

ABBOTT and COSTELLO

I just reviewed a book of photographs taken at the New Jersey Shore between the late 19th century and the 1970s. As frequently happens when I read books these days, I was annoyed to distraction by the careless errors in the text – the text, in this case, consisting of chapter introductions and photo captions.

The author of the text, a New Jersey resident vaguely identified as a history teacher, must have a loose view of what constitutes history. For example, he identified the birthplace of comedian Lou Costello as “Patterson.” He also made several references to a shore community that he called “Tom’s River.” Who “Tom” is, I am not aware.

MARGARET GORMAN

MARGARET GORMAN

The book includes three photos of Margaret Gorman, dressed in an outlandish outfit for her “coronation” as the first Miss America at the pageant that originated and persisted for many years in Atlantic City. In one photo she is accompanied by a man dressed up as King Neptune; in another, she poses on the boardwalk with a group of young girls in dancing costumes; in the last, she is being borne along the boardwalk by in what looks like a sedan chair in the shape of a seashell. The writer explains — twice — that Gorman was installed as Miss America in 1922. It was 1921.

JOE WARDELL

JOE WARDELL

In one of several stunning photos of the amusement areas in Atlantic City, a marquee announces that the live entertainment on the Steel Pier includes The Three Stooges. Taking note of that, the writer adds to the name of the act the names of the individual characters — “Moe, Larry, and Curly Joe.” The photo was taken in 1938. Curly Joe Wardell didn’t join The Three Stooges until 1958. Perhaps the history teacher was thinking of Curly Howard.

Is this sort of thing the result only of downsizing in the workshops of publishing houses, or is it symptomatic of a more general disregard for precision? There was a time when it would might have taken hours for a writer to double-check the date of the first Miss America, the spellings of well-known places in his own home state, and the chronology of the evolution of a comedy act. In the 21st century, all of that would take no more than fifteen minutes.

Silk City

February 11, 2009

Charles Turndoff used to have a fur shop on Ellison Street in Paterson. It’s likely my mother bought such fur as she owned from Charlie, as the grownups called him. I drove by Ellison Street today. I knew Charlie and his shop were long gone, but still, I looked that way. That look was like the flick of a tongue at a sore one knows will hurt but still must touch.

It isn’t that I miss Charlie. I knew him only through the filter of my parents, and I don’t remember ever being in his shop. The ache comes from the larger transformation that his absence signfies in the city. A few blocks from Ellison Street, by the great falls of the Passaic River, Alexander Hamilton stared across the chasm and saw the future, but his vision – fortunate man – didn’t extend past the middle of the 2oth century. Hamilton Street and the Hamilton Club – at least, its spectre – are still among the landmarks downtown. The visionary’s dream is not.

This is a grim place now – Market Street, where my mother walked with us from one store to another, always lingering at Meyer Brothers, with its gleaming floors and polished counters and its saleswomen all in black. We’d expect my mother to remind us again that she, too, had worn black here, at 14, after exaggerating her age – her contribution to her family’s wellbeing. We’d be proud when the floorwalker, who would call her by her maiden name, and whom she still would call “Mr.”, recognized her after all those years. On the street again, we often encountered “Herman,” a mysterious, unexplained figure from my mother’s past – a well-dressed blind man walking with a white cane. My mother’s greeting would always be enthusiastic, and Herman always recognized her voice. We most likely would cross paths, too, with another jaunty figure with a cane, a figure of a different sort that wanted no explanation. And “Mr. Peanut” – in full costume – gave us the cue we needed to hound our mother to take us to the Planter’s store before boarding the bus for home. 

When we were old enough to go on our own, we rode or walked to Paterson and bought records from a man named Rip who looked like Efrem Zimbalist Jr. and called me “Mr. Paolino” when I was 15. And we’d go to a movie, sometimes two, at the Majestic, the Garden, the Rivoli, the U.S., or the Fabian. We were still children, really – insensitive to what was going on around us and coming behind us.

On my way to Paterson today I passed through Woodland Park – strange name on the map of Passaic County, there because voters managed last November, after vainly trying  in the past, to shed the name “West Paterson” and with it an association with the city that stirs under its grimy, ruined facades, a city that can’t forget its own name as it tries to see past tomorrow to a future that Hamilton didn’t plan. I sat in my car at a broken parking meter and watched the people who dream in Paterson now – black, Latino, Arabic – and I was glad to be back.

I made a new friend in the city today, a man who teaches some of those folks I watched on the street. “I was born in Paterson,” I told him. It sounded, it felt, so much better than saying “Woodland Park.”

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