25 October 2014

“The sheer profusion of qualities that Americans discovered in the apple during its seedling heyday is something to marvel at, especially since so many of those qualities have been lost in the years since. I found apples that tasted like bananas, others like pears. Spicy apples and sticky-sweet ones, apples sprightly as lemons & others rich as nuts. I picked apples that weighed more than a pound, others compact enough to fit into a child’s pocket. Here were yellow apples, green apples, spotted apples, russet apples, striped apples, purple apples, even a near-blue apple. There were apples that looked prepolished & apples that wore a dusty bloom on their cheeks. Some of these apples had qualities that were completely lost on me but had meant the world to people once: apples that tasted sweeter in March than October, apples that made especially good cider or preserves or butter, apples that held their own in storage for half a year, apples that ripened gradually to avoid a surfeit or all at once for an easier harvest, apples with long stem or short, thin skin or thick, apples that tasted sublime only in Virginia and others that needed a hard New England frost to reach perfection, apples that reddened in August, others that held off til winter, even apples that could sit at the bottom of a barrel for the six weeks it took a ship to get to Europe, then emerge bright and crisp enough to command a top price in London.”

The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan (p. 48–49) touring the Lake Geneva Plant Genetic Resources Unit.

Year in review

2 July 2014

From Twitter, between January 1 and December 21, 2013. Question for the day: how do you archive & resurrect experience of the digital over time?


Mom. Geek. Atheist. Wombat. Lindbergh Baby. Foodie. Blogger. Lists. Of. Words. Separated. By. A. Period. This. Is. How. Twitter. Bios. Work. @aspaul
1 January, 4:34 p.m.

My sister at breakfast: “Do you know what the German word for birth control is? ANTIBABYPILLEN.”
4 January, 3:44 p.m.

On the Difficulties of Recollecting the Plots of Novels One Has Partly Read While Drunk. #unwrittenessays
10 January, 12:48 a.m.

“…but those who believe, that Abel lived an hundred and twenty nine Years, think it improbable he should die a Batchelor.
10 January, 1:06 a.m.

“If you put front vowels in your language, nobody will take it seriously as a language of Orcs.”
11 January, 4:47 p.m.

Tarantino films that feature scenes in which characters literally give each other acting lessons: Django Unchained, Reservoir Dogs.
17 January, 1:28 a.m.

“There you are, like butter in sunshine.” Martin Luther insult randomizer:
20 January, 12:50 p.m.

RT: Thank God for technology. Before Twitter, I just used to go up to strangers and whisper in their ears. @tejucole
26 January, 1:42 p.m.

A guest is like rain: when he lingers on, he becomes a nuisance = “A gast iz vi regen az er doiert tsu lang, vert er a last” @YiddishProject
4 February, 7:20 p.m.

M/F/K: Thanksgiving; Arbor Day; Valentine’s.
11 February, 7:52 p.m.

Drunk Italian smoking out of a cab window pulls up next to my cab at a light, calls me “Giuseppe,” gives me a pink felt heart. #Valentine’s
15 February, 12:51 a.m.

I imagine that being a small town private investigator in 2013 is about 50% googling things for older people @tanlines
18 February, 7:58 p.m.

“If, after a second highball, it brought tears to his eyes, he would recommend publication.”
6 March, 3:43 p.m.

I just spent sixty American dollars on bacon.
9 March, 2:09 p.m.

Supercut of characters at literal crossroads.
21 March, 3:23 p.m.

Movies I’ve seen in the last 24 hours that quote MOBY-DICK: Wrath of Khan, Heathers.
27 March, 1:14 a.m.

Hipsters serve the same social function as medieval witches. I don’t believe in either.
28 March, 12:21 a.m.

con’t. Sure, that old woman grows herbs and rides a fixed-gear bicycle, but she is not the reason your crops failed.
28 March, 12:23 a.m.

“What harm could she do to us that we haven’t done to each other a hundred times over?” Cersei & Robert: the Mountain Goats’ Alpha Couple.
30 March, 12:31 a.m.

Number of Apple devices in this coffeeshop: 18.   Non-Apple devices: 0.    Humans: 12.
8 April, 2:52 p.m.

I worry that some of the decisions I make when I go to read in a café are basically the equivalent of putting on make-up to go to the gym.
11 April, 4:51 p.m.

Pitch: Sally Draper & Anya Stark team up, go West, rob trains, end up in Mexico.
15 April, 12:22 p.m.

Boston v. avenged sevenfold: more amazing twitter anthropology from @brendlewhat @BananaKarenina
16 April, 11:20 a.m.

“At home, of course, the worst that happens is that the vegetarian of the party is eating his nut cutlet.” Wine book, c. 1974.
24 April, 3:59 p.m.

Never ask Xeno to cut your birthday cake. @alecturnbull
27 April, 9:07 p.m.

“We could actually find a shark and be on top of a shark and he could be on our team.” @PreschoolGems
6 May, 12:36 p.m.

“Levack doesn’t explain how anyone unathletic enough to fail in self-fellatio could succeed at self-sodomy.” The LRB lacks imagination.
8 May, 9:40 a.m.

Rabbit hole: FINNEGANS WAKE translations. Japanese, German, French, Italian, Polish (FINNEGANÓW TREN)… No Spanish, though.
8 May, 10:32 a.m.

“Finn, again! Take. Bussoftlhee, mememormee!”  becomes “Finn, necken! Nimm. Dochlaife, rinnerum!”
8 May, 10:34 a.m.

Or, “Finn, fangan! Er macht’s. Abbasamteidsanft, vergüßt memeimemamomich!” Depending.
8 May, 10:44 a.m.

“He addle liddle phifie Annie ugged the little craythur” becomes “Et possé-dait une vedite femmefile Annie serait la dite craiethure.”
8 May, 11:00 a.m.

Yes please! MT @wmarybeard Maybe people of ancient Pompeii weren’t “just like us.” A plea to recapture the weirdness! @CapitolClio

RT: Holy crap, it’s true! Link. @adamkotsko
30 May, 10:23 a.m.

30 May, 10:24 a.m.

“Bold and irreverent” are not words I would ever use to describe textiles but whatever Anthropologie your the multi-million dollar company. @ThatSusanBurke
6 June, 3:10 p.m.

“If I don’t love you baby/ Grits ain’t grocery/ Eggs ain’t poultry/ And Mona Lisa was a man.” Little Milton, 1972, anticipates art history.
18 July, 11:33 p.m.

Most awesome Times correction ever: “A picture caption with an earlier version of this article misspelled the given name of Adolf Hitler.” @Shteyngart
18 June, 11:47 a.m.

@pfbvan @tejucole Nie moj cyrk, nie moje malpy. Polish saying, not my circus, not my monkey. Literally, not my problem. @beentsy
21 June, 5:21 p.m.

“All my teachers have been women. Though several men have taken me aside for an hour to tell me things they know.” —Don Paterson @tejucole
7 July, 8:54 a.m.

La cultura hipster ha sido descrita como un «crisol mutante y transatlántico de estilos y gustos comportamientos» Christian Lorentzen @centurion_diego
22 July, 12:24 p.m.

When I was 5, my mom took me to THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN. For years, I thought it was a dream I had. No one I knew had heard of it @LandonTweetsNow
26 July, 2:12 p.m.

RT: A second person narrator tells you you walked into a bar. @neinquarterly
2 August, 12:49 p.m.

Nazi mass murder of mentally ill is an open secret in Germany; towns near asylums have been covered in crematorium ash containing human hair @RealTimeWWII
3 August, 3:20 p.m.

RT: Time is a weight on our shoulders constantly threatening to pull us into madness. That’s what Flavor Flav’s about. @80sDonDraper
13 August, 1:41 p.m.

Today is Dorothy Parker and Ray Bradbury’s birthday. Let’s all get drunk and steal a rocket ship. @zhandlen
22 August, 10:52 a.m.

On our fourth bottle of wine, we find that YouTube accordionists LOVE to play Bach’s toccata and fugue in D minor.
25 August, 10:49 p.m.

Minimum number of books about the newspaper business titled BEHIND THE FRONT PAGE: 5
28 August, 10:41 a.m.

“It possessed a subtle saltiness that rippled down my throat.” Um, I guess tell me more about this wine, NYT.
29 August, 12:35 p.m.

RT: In New York, you never tweeted out of boredom, only careerism, self-promotion, and occasionally absent-minded trolling. @xlorentzen
5 September, 5:53 p.m.

5 September, 1:07 a.m.

(Any singular noun can also be your adjective. Most words beginning in ‘P’, such as PEARL, PORCELAIN, or PLANTS, are also permitted.)
5 September, 1:08 a.m.

3. Congratulations! You’ve just become a band.
5 September, 1:09 a.m.

Now I’m drinking a Corona and it tastes like the spit sample a phoenix sends away in the mail to see if the sun is his real dad @TriciaLockwood
19 September, 11:30 p.m.

“You have astigmatism?” “I’m fuckin blind!” “Oh yeah? Try THESE on.” Overheard in East Williamsburg bars.
21 September, 7:31 p.m.

“She lives in Bushwick.” “Oh! I hear that’s *up-and-coming*.” [laughter]  Overheard in East Williamsburg bars.
21 September, 7:33 p.m.

This is what looked like in 1995. @garywhitta
14 October, 7:37 p.m.

 All those girls in yoga pants who are obsessed with pumpkin spice lattes probably have their own fall-themed fight club. @aspaul
15 October, 10:37 a.m.

I just thought there should be…less of it.  @MFAworkshop
21 October, 4:42 p.m.

Wines that I’m excited about: país + muscat de Alexandria rosé from Itata.
27 October, 8:40 p.m.

Wines that I’m excited about: sweet red mandilaria from Rhodes.
27 October, 11:13 p.m.

Wines that I’m excited about: Cretan kotisfali-syrah blends.
27 October, 11:19 p.m.

“I love the texture of the raw heart, soft and tender. People think it will be tough, but it is not at all.”
1 November, 11:32 p.m.

Wine & art both struggle to reconcile art & commerce. Damien Herst & Screaming Eagle are the same.
8 November, 10:19 p.m.

That is literally the only possible format of a movie anymore — the messianic quest decked out in bits of some old fictional universe. @adamkotsko
10 November, 2:58 p.m.

“In a world… that’s vaguely familiar to you from some old TV show… only one man… can I don’t know, save everything or whatever…” @adamkotsko
10 November, 2:54 p.m.

A darker grittier Sex and the City reboot, where they have to stop a terrorist plot to blow up Mr. Big’s office. Then it turns out he’s evil @adamkotsko
10 November, 2:52 p.m.

A darker, grittier Obama reboot where it turns out he has a horrifying scheme to rule the world with flying killer robots. @adamkotsko
  10November, 2:51 p.m.

Wines that I’m excited about: varietally-labeled Merlot Blanc from Tincino.
17 November, 12:54 p.m.

Wines that I’m excited about: Neuchâtel gewürtztraminer.
18 November, 1:11 a.m.

Wines that I’m excited about: 100% durize from the Vaud.
18 November, 1:28 a.m.

It’s the season to argue about what a perfect varietal expression of Zinfandel would entail.
27 November, 2:28 a.m.

 None of the dogs who lost at the dog show know they lost or that they’re at a dog show or that they’re dogs. @ariscott
28 November, 1:04 p.m.

“It’s like the cocaine of spirits.” @chelseakaiser, of tequila.
28 November, 1:10 p.m

Dystopian lit is: “what if the government got so powerful that all the bad stuff that’s already happening ALSO HAPPENED TO WHITE PEOPLE?” @fqubedejb
18 December, 8:15 a.m.

♥ “The Brazilian paratroopers’ technique for warding off animals was to throw grenades into the rainforest at random” @newinquiry
18 December, 5:05 p.m.

RT: Millions of people are trapped everyday across the galaxy. Please RT to raise awareness. @admiralackbar
21 December, 9:59 p.m.

Primo Levi on distillation

26 February 2014

Distilling is beautiful. First of all, because it is a slow, philosophic, and silent occupation, which keeps you busy but gives you time to think about other things, a little like riding a bike. Then, because it involves a metamorphosis from liquid to vapor (invisible), and from this once again to liquid, but in this double journey, up and down, purity is attained, an ambiguous and fascinating condition, which starts with chemistry and goes very far. And finally, when you set about distilling, you acquire the consciousness of repeating a ritual consecrated by the centuries, almost a religious act, in which from imperfect material you obtain the essence, the usia, the spirit, and in the first place alcohol, which gladdens the spirit and warms the heart.

— p. 62, The Periodic Table


14 February 2014

Some seasonally-appropriate tunes for all of you who are trapped inside walls of ice and already opening the second bottle. Here’s love as: something you can lock out, or be invulnerable to if you’re cold enough, or not human; a curse, a poison, a way to get revenge; ten gin-and-tonics; some kind of joke; a hungry bear.

1. Unbelievers // VAMPIRE WEEKEND
2. I’m gonna lock my heart // BILLIE HOLIDAY
3. Nothing but a heartache // THE FLIRTATIONS
4. Misery loves company // BLACKFEET BRAVES
5. Aftermath // SZA
7. Standard bitter love song #8  // THE MOUNTAIN GOATS
8. We sink  // CHVRCHES
9. Stepping over hearts  // INSIGHTFUL
10. Get lucky  // DAUGHTER
12. No one’s gonna love you as much  // NICOLE WILLIS & THE SOUL INVESTIGATORS
13. I don’t believe you  // THE MAGNETIC FIELDS
14. Don’t fuck around with love // THE BLENDERS

Download here.

November’s facts

2 December 2013

fact checking in action

Fact-checking detritus from various freelance assignments last month, culled from a lifetime in service to the truth.

From Matt Warshaw’s Encyclopedia of Surfing: “Raised in a Kauai geodesic dome by two surfing parents, Keala Kennelly has an untouchable reputation as the sport’s most fearless tuberider. […] Breaking rank from the girlish ‘surfette’ look that all but defined women’s surfing in the ’90s and early ’00s, Kennelly was a leather-clad and tongue-studded nightclubber who moonlighted as a DJ and often looked, as surf journalist Alison Berkeley put it, like ‘a sinister Disney cartoon character.’”

On graphene: “A square metre of graphene is a thousand times thinner than paper. Made into a hammock, it would be strong enough to cradle a cat but weigh no more than one of its whiskers.” As the two Russian scientists who discovered it found, it also allows one to passively distill vodka by evaporating water vapor from a mug of watered-down spirit through an otherwise-impenetrable graphene membrane.

Two stanzas from traditional Basque folk songs dedicated to Olentzero, who is kind of like Basque Santa Claus—he brings the children presents, and is a charcoal burner who lives in the mountains, smokes a corncob pipe and wears a Basque beret, always drunk and red-cheeked, although in the old legends he is also the last of the pagan giants that inhabited the Pyranees before the coming of Christianity:

Olentzero buru handia
entendimentuz jantzia
bart arratsean edan omen du
hamar arroako zahagia.
Ai urde tripahandia!
Tralaralala, tralaralala.
Ai urde tripahandia!
Tralaralala, tralaralala.
Olentzero big head
robed in understanding
is said to have drunk last night
a wineskin of ten arrobas
Ai, big-bellied pig!
Tralaralala, tralaralala.
Ai, big-bellied pig!
Tralaralala, tralaralala.


Our Olentzero
we can’t sate him
he has eaten whole
ten piglets.
Ribs and pork loin
so many intestines
because Jesus is born
have mercy.

One of the major events in the history of the Caribbean island of St. Vincent, according to its Wikipedia entry: “In 2013, a local citizen by the name of Arnaldo Pierre defied the odds and is the only man in history to pick a cloud out of the sky.”

Two medieval royal nicknames (not counting King John Softsword and King Alfonso the Slobberer):

John II, Duke of Cleves, was nicknamed the Babymaker for having fathered 63 illegitimate children.

Opponents of the iconoclast Byzantine emperor Constantine V called him Kopronymos—or Name of Shit—allegedly because the infant Constantine had defecated in his own baptismal font.

A verbatim five-star review of the CrossRope jump-rope set—seven ropes ranging from the 2-oz. Sprint Rope to the 3-lb. PVC-wrapped steel cable “Titan”—posted on the company’s website:


Finally, this is a letter to the editor from the 21 November issue of the London Review of Books:

Andrew O’Hagan writes: ‘Joan Didion gave me her hand and she was so thin it felt like I was holding a butterfly’ (LRB, 7 November). A beautiful sentence, but I wondered about the simile’s plausability. It’s been reported that Didion weighs less than eighty lbs. She’s so thin her doctors have to put her on an ice cream diet to keep her mass up. A woman’s hand is said to be 0.5 per cent of her body weight. So if Didion weighs 75 lbs, her hand probably weighs about six ounces. The world’s heaviest butterfly, the female Queen Victoria Birdwing, weighs about two grams. There are about 28 grams in an ounce, and Joan Didion’s hand probably weighs about the same as holding 86 female Queen Victoria Birdwings. It would be difficult to hold them all in your hand because each on has a wingspan of 18 centimetres. The smallest butterfly in the world is the North American Pygmy Blue and you’d probably need thousands of them to tip the scales against one of Didion’s fingers. None of this is to detract from the loveliness of O’Hagan’s sentence. We tell ourselves stories in order to live.

Penny Cartwright


18 September 2013

card catalogs, NYPL
Room 100, including card catalogs, 1923. New York Public Library Archives.

I like book indexes because of the tantalizingly incomplete sense they give of a large, impossible object broken down into its constituent parts. And because I like lists of words.

Anyway I was at the wine store the other day paging through the Jancis Robinson-edited Oxford Companion to Wine (it is as crazy authoritative as the title would suggest), and next to the introduction there’s a two-page double-column list of 300 new entries added to the third edition. If you like, it gives a rough sense of how the canonical wine world might have changed between 1999 and 2006—you know, black-magic big industrial processes in commercial production on the one hand, formerly forgotten regions and nerdy, nearly-extinct indigenous grapes on the other. (Also, the Internet: websites finally have an entry!) Did I mention I like lists of words? Like so:

Asian Lady Beetle
black dead arm
California sprawl
diotomaceous earth
direct shipping
flavour scalping
glassy winged sharpshooter
Gorbachev, Mikhail
Kangaroo Island
Lacrima Nera
macèration pelliculaire
philosophy & wine
plastic corks
reverse osmosis
vegetarian & vegan wine

His girl friday

29 August 2013


WALTER BURNS. “Because it happened to be a colored policeman—and you know what that means, Hildy.”
HILDY JOHNSON. “Mm. (to Bruce) The colored vote’s very important in this town.”

I love His Girl Friday (1940) and always will, but every rewatch there’s that uncomfortable moment at lunch. It’s when we’re made to sit through the premise, right after the hilariously unfamiliar line reading Rosalind Russell gives the word “lowdown”: A black Chicago policeman has been shot by a mentally unbalanced white man who’s going to be hanged as a sop to the city’s African-American vote, and the Morning Post is taking the shooter’s side.

The movie, bless its heart, doesn’t really care about the case—it just has to sound like Chicago dirty politics-as-usual, something that will let Hildy and Walter be world-weary and knowing and on each other’s wavelength. Just texture, as they say. And if you’d like to forget all about it the movie will let you. But it’s precisely the film’s genial indifference that makes the thing so perverse and unsettling: we’re meant to sympathize with Earl Williams, the “poor little dope,” and delight in the craven political hackery of the mayor and the sheriff, but what about the person who just got shot? There’s not a single black character on screen. The invisible dead black policeman is never mentioned again. He doesn’t even merit a name.

His Girl Friday is so palpably eager to dispense with all of this and get to the good stuff that the premise can’t possibly be original to the film—and sure enough it isn’t. It’s from the source: hard-boiled Broadway smash The Front Page (1928), by a pair of Chicago ex-reporters named MacArthur and Hecht. The whole thing takes place in the courtroom set, and we don’t even see Walter Burns—or his partner in heterosexual bromance, Hildy Johnson—until Act Two. In the meantime, we hang out with the reporters and their poker game and take in some exposition:

SCHWARTZ. (As he starts a deal) I’m telling you what’s happened. Hildy quit.
MURPHY. What do you mean, quit? He’s a fixture on the Examiner.
KRUGER. Yeh. He goes with the woodwork.
WILSON. (Crossing down Right to stool) They’re the journaleese twins.
ENDICOTT. You couldn’t drag him away from Walter.
SCHWARTZ. All right, but that’s what happened, all right! I got it from Bert Neeley. I’m telling you—Hildy’s gettin’ married.
MURPHY. Hell, Walter wouldn’t let him get married. He’d kidnap him at the altar.
McCUE. Hello, Sarge. McCue. Anything doing?
ENDICOTT. Remember what he did to Bill Fenton, when he wanted to go to Hollywood? Had him thrown in jail for arson.
MURPHY. Forgery.
McCUE. Shut up!—(In phone) Anybody hurt?— Oh, fine! What’s his name?—Spell it—(Starts to write name) S—C—Z—J—Oh, the hell with it. (Throws pencil away and jiggles receiver)

Polish jokes in 1920s Chicago—charming. Hard-boiled patter, etc. etc. A little later, the reporters tell us what’s what:

MURPHY. Listen, Woodenshoes, this guy Williams is just a bird that had the tough luck to kill a nigger policeman in a town where the nigger vote is important.
KRUGER. Sure! If he’d bumped him off down south they’d have given him a banquet and a trip to Europe.


The Front Page turns out to be a nasty piece of work, but it’s worth considering for a moment how and why. MacArthur and Hecht want to have it both ways with their old-school nothing-sacred yellow journalists. Their reporters may be jaded cynics and racist old drunks, but they’re always ultimately correct, the city’s only defense against the corrupt powers that be—kind of like Batman. The playwrights can’t help themselves but glorify, even while they play at painting them warts and all. Their Hildy Johnson, they’ll write later, “is of a vanishing type—the lusty, hoodlumesque half drunken caballero that was the newspaperman of our youth”—and the one they fantasize themselves to be.

The Front Page‘s Hildy Johnson is also kind of an asshole: “Who the hell wants to work on a newspaper?” he asks rhetorically. “A lot of crumby hoboes, full of dandruff and bum gin they wheedle out of nigger Aldermen.” In the original, he’s not a woman talking herself into respectability and a life (in Albany, too!) raising the children of an insurance salesman. He’s gotten himself affianced and is going to Manhattan to make a shitton of money as an ad man.* Why does he stop to write the story, wrecking his prospective marriage in the process? He just can’t resist the lure of the game.

*How much money, exactly? In the play, he’s leaving his $70/week job at the Examiner for an ad agency contract that gives him $150/week—$2,010 in 2012 USD, or an annual salary of a little over $100k.

It’s impossible to understate how much better His Girl Friday‘s famous gender swap makes the movie. Your women in The Front Page are—what, exactly? Oblivious, sluts, or both. You’ve got Molly Malone, hooker with a heart of gold; Peggy Grant, Hildy’s fiancée; and her mother, playing every mother-in-law in history. This exchange just about sums up Hildy and Peggy’s relationship:

HILDY. You know, the fellow they were going to hang in the morning.
PEGGY. (Dully) Yes, I know.
HILDY. Aw, now listen, sweetheart. I had to do what I did. And—and the same thing when it came to the money. (PEGGY turns away) Aw, Peggy!

Change Hildy to Hildegard, and marriage seems like a real threat to your professional future instead of an annoying requirement to explain what you do with money. Change Peggy Grant to Bruce Baldwin and every neat division of the play is suddenly scrambled—and suddenly funnier. It defangs The Front Page‘s poisonous gender politics and replaces them with a sweetly clueless insurance salesman. Of course he can’t imagine Hildy being happier fighting for stories than she would be raising his kids! He’s too busy holding doors for her and talking earnestly about the virtues of his profession: “I figure I’m in one business that really helps people. Of course, we don’t help you much while you’re alive—but afterward—that’s what counts.” And he’s a foil for Cary Grant’s Walter Burns, which helps lends depth to someone that, for all his purported charm, The Front Page leaves a blustering caricature. (Reportedly, of one-eyed Hearst editor Walter Howey.)

I would never dream of arguing that His Girl Friday is a straightforwardly feminist text, but it is multivalent, self-contradictory, deliquescent.* The reason it’s still fun to watch, apart from the obvious pleasure of watching awesome people talk fast, is the rich combination of frustration and interpretative wiggle room it offers the viewer. It survives as a text because you can’t pin it down.

*I’m stealing from John F. Danby on the “deliquescent truth“ of  Antony and Cleopatra: “The war of the contraries pervades the love too. In coming together they lapse, slide and fall apart ceaselessly.” (Here is your rabbit-hole, and here’s an example I found without digging around too deeply of the kind of His Girl Friday essay I read in film studies class that will do until I die or something better comes along.)

His Girl Friday imports The Front Page‘s setup—black policeman shot by white man, election controlled by black votes—twelve years later with no change, and then ignores it as soon as it can. The void left is telling, it writes itself, and if you’d like to do my homework for me and turn out a beautiful paragraph on blackness as Lacanian absence in His Girl Friday I’ll read it happy as a clam.

Meanwhile, from what reality is The Front Page importing? It loosely adapts the infamous jailbreak of Thomas “Terrible Tommy” O’Connor, who among other crimes was arrested after shooting Detective Sgt. Patrick “Paddy” O’Neill to death in the winter of 1921. Sentenced to execution by hanging, he escaped with four others, using a smuggled nickel-plate revolver, from downtown Chicago’s Municipal Correctional Center, where security was so lax there was a moonshine still in the basement where guards and prisoners would fraternize. The gallows from which he was to hang stood in Chicago until 1977, waiting for him to be found. He was never found.

It’s not accidental that in MacArthur and Hecht’s telling an Irish detective sergeant becomes a black policeman, and the Irish armed robber and multiple murderer who killed him, a innocently duped man. The Front Page‘s 1929 Broadway staging coincides with the first success of black Chicagoans in gaining access to city jobs, and follows a decade and a half of the profound demographic shift of the Great Migration—with all of the alarmism and racist violence that entails. MacArthur and Hecht had both been reporters for a half-decade when the Chicago papers—the Tribune, the Daily News, the Herald-Examiner—were running headlines like, “Half a Million Darkies From Dixie Swarm to the North to Better Themselves”; “Negroes Arrive by the Thousands—Peril to Health”; and “Committee To Deal With Negro Influx.”

Neighborhoods in the South Side were officially segregated as of 1917 by the Chicago Real Estate Board. Predominately Irish youth gangs patrolled the boundaries, and among the members was future mayor Richard J. Daley. In 1918, when Langston Hughes was a high schooler on his first Sunday in the city, he made the mistake of crossing Wentworth Avenue and was sent home with a black eye and a swollen jaw.

Charles MacArthur returned from a stint in the Army hunting Pancho Villa in Mexico and shooting at German planes in the 149th Field Artillery just in time for the Chicago race riots of 1919, which erupted when six black teenagers went swimming and drifted too close to a “white” beach. A white man started throwing stones. He hit one of the boys and the boy drowned, bleeding from the head. A white policeman refused to arrest the man who threw the stones.

A week and a half orgy of violence followed: Carloads of white men carrying army rifles and boxes of ammunition drove down the streets of Chicago’s black neighborhoods firing into crowds; gangs waited outside the stockyards and assaulted black employees leaving work; mobs pulled streetcars from their wires and dragged out the black passengers. A thousand people in the Black Belt had their houses burned down. Thirty-eight people were killed. Five hundred and twenty people, two-thirds of them black, were officially reported injured.

Ten years later, MacArthur and Ben Hecht moved to New York and wrote a play in which the main threats are: a dull, vanilla woman who will just hold you back, and a horde of unseen black voters, easily provoked by the unscrupulous into causing the death of an innocent white man. A decade after that, what with one thing and another, this got turned into one of my favorite movies, and I feel a couple different ways about it.


Here’s a long postscript, accidentally written while I tried to answer another question: where was Ben Hecht in 1919?

In 1919, Ben Hecht was still in Berlin, the Daily Mail’s foreign correspondent on Europe’s Communist revolutionary movements. He came back and, in 1921, inaugurated a column called “A Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago”—an impressionistic, noirish series of city vignettes you can’t quite imagine in a modern newspaper: seamy court cases, fog settling on nighttime streets, strange gifts of cigars from Poles in bars etc. He wrote about Tommy O’Connor after he escaped in the close third person:

They were hunting him. Squads of coppers with rifles. Squads of coppers with rifles, detectives, stool pigeons were hunting him. And the people who had read the story in the newspapers and looked at his picture, they too, were hunting him.

Tommy O’Connor looked out of the smeared window of the room in which he sat and stared at the snow. A drift of snow across the roofs. A scribble of snow over the pavement.

There were automobiles racing through the streets loaded with armed men. There were crowds looking for a telltale face in their own midst. Guards, deputies, coppers were surrounding houses and peering into alleys, raiding saloons, ringing doorbells. The whole city was on his heels. The city was like a pack of dogs sniffing wildly for his trail. And when they found it they would come whooping toward him for a leap at his throat.

Well, here he was—waiting.

Hecht was a partner in a PR firm that was contracted by the National Unity League in 1922 to expose Klan members. Hecht published a bi-weekly from 1923–24, The Chicago Literary Times, which ran a regular column called “Black-Belt Shadows” under the disclaimer, “This column is conducted by a Negro journalist.” Hecht would go on to work on 70 or 80 Hollywood screenplays in the particular way that that sausage is made—so, the story goes he did an uncredited rewrite of Sidney Howard’s Gone With the Wind script in five days, pitched story ideas for Stagecoach, wrote an early, dead-serious draft of Casino Royale, etc. Hecht and MacArthur cowrote plays and scripts together through the 30s—Gunga Din, maybe most notably. Hecht wrote a 1946 play, A Flag is Born, promoting the creation of a Jewish state; part of the proceeds went towards the purchase of a 400-ton former yacht, rechristened the S.S. Ben Hecht, that was used to ferry 600 Holocaust survivors from a port in southern France to Palestine. (They were stopped by the British navy ten miles offshore and detained in a camp in Cyprus.)

Charles MacArthur’s brother was, ironically, an insurance company owner; he endowed the foundation that awards MacArthur genius grants. MacArthur briefly dated Dorothy Parker, but he married the actress Helen Hayes. He died in 1956; Hecht, eight years later.


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