2 December 2013
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.
Ultramarine, the most celebrated and precious blue pigment of the Middle Ages, more expensive even than vermillion or gold, made of lapis lazuli and indispensable for Renaissance frescoes, supply controlled by the Italians and so virtually unavailable in Germany in the 16th century, was synthesized in France in the 1820s and manufactured at scale within the decade. It immediately became very fashionable. Thomas Cole, father of American landscape painting, used it to repaint his front hallway. 15th century painter Cennino Cennini wrote, “Ultramarine blue is a color illustrious, beautiful, and most perfect, beyond all other colors; one could not say anything about it, or do anything with it, that its quality would not still surpass.” “Its hue,” writes Philip Ball in Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color, “marks the transition from dusk to night.” Today, it’s used in vast quantities to make mascaras, eye shadows, and “a kind of pale blue writing paper which is popular in Britain.”
When gelatin for film stock was still made from calf skins, Kodak’s Colorado offices raised cows on site and grew the corn they ate. In 1925, Dr. Stephen Sheppard discovered that cows who grazed in fields where there were mustard seeds yielded better film speeds; C.E.K. Mees, for whom a crater on the moon is named, later summarized: “Twenty years ago we found out that if cows didn’t like mustard there wouldn’t be any movies at all.”
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:
THIS IS ALL I NEED, I ONLY JUMP ROPE, I JUMP ROPE EVERYDAY, I USE ALL THE ROPES, ITS A CHALLENGE, IT WILL NEVER END, THIS IS PERFECT.
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.
18 September 2013
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
glassy winged sharpshooter
philosophy & wine
vegetarian & vegan wine
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.
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.
23 August 2013
All taken from the New York Times and Washington Post. Answers below.
01. He’s like the Tocqueville of the culinary world.
02. He’s like the Beethoven of cocktails.
03. He’s like the Ingmar Bergman of poetry.
04. He’s like the Pluto of talk shows.
05. He’s like the Lou Gehrig of Stalingrad.
06. He’s like the John McCain of action heroes.
07. He’s just like the Muhammad Ali of horse racing.
08. He’s like the Cal Ripkin Jr. of NYPD spokesmen.
09. He’s like the Sheryl Crow of now.
10. He’s almost like the Zelig of homeless people.
11. He’s becoming like the Keith Richards of content.
12. He’s the Paul Newman of American presidents.
a) Spanish chef José Andrés *
b) Muslim mixologist Mojnu Hoque *
c) Tomas Tranströmer, recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature *
d) Carson Daly *
e) Soviet sniper Vasily Zaitsev *
f) Chuck Norris *
g) Jockey Edgar S. Prado *
h) NYPD spokesman Paul J. Browne *
i) John Mayer *
j) Matthew Eckstine, stepson of jazz singer Billy Eckstine *
k) Merlin Bronques of LastNightsParty dot com *
l) Barack Obama *
3 August 2013
Languages heard by fewer people in the world combined than Dothraki, the invented language of Game of Thrones nomads: Yiddish, Navajo, Inuit, Basque, Welsh.
Languages into which Georges Perec’s lipogrammatic La Disparition has been translated while preserving the constraint: German (Anton Voyls’ Fortgang); English (A Void, Vanish’d!, A Vanishing); Italian (La scomparsa); Spanish (El secuestro, no ‘a’); Dutch (‘t Manco); Swedish (Försvinna); Turkish (Kayboluş); Russian (Исчезание, no ‘o’); Japanese (En-metsu).
Nicknames of Charles Dickens’ children: the Snodgering Bee; Lucifer Box; Mild Glo’ster; Young Skull; Chickenstalker; Skittles; Ocean Spectre; the Jolly Postboy; Plorn.
Old-school newspapers: the Bee, the Comet; Press-Scimitar, Post-Intelligencer, Times-Picayune; the Argus, the Watchman, the Vigilant.
Old-school baseball teams: the Des Moines Prohibitionists, the Chicago Uniques, the Milwaukee Creams; the Spokane Bunchgrassers, the Kalamazoo Celery Pickers; the La Crosse Pinks, the Regina Bone Pliers.
Family cars: Adventure Van; Petunia Vader; Speedy Alice; Princess Buttercup; Bruce; Bonnie a.k.a. Hellfire Avenger.
Ways to call someone a wet blanket: aguafiestas; ponurak; rabat-joie; Miesmacher; ξενέρωτος; مفسد البهجة; guastafeste.
Marianne Moore’s suggestions for a new Ford Motor Company model, 1935: the Resiliant Bullet, the Intelligent Whale; Aeroterre, Pastelogram, Thunderblender; Utopian Turtletop.