Tuesday, August 31, 2010

"Give me the money that has been spent in war and I will clothe every man, woman, and child in an attire of which kings and queens will be proud. I will build a schoolhouse in every valley over the whole earth. I will crown every hillside with a place of worship consecrated to peace. " ~Charles Sumner

So. Charles Sumner was the U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, whose brains were nearly beaten out of his handsome head in 1856, by way of So. Carolinian Congressman Preston Brooks' walking stick [made of stout gutta-percha. "a genus of tropical trees native to Southeast Asia and northern Australasia," god, I love wikipedia. not always to be trusted, I know, but I love it anyway. sounds like a romance novel, no?]. I'd never have known that Sen. Sumner said these noble words had I not been clicking about, looking for something to paste onto my Facebook profile today, today being the official end of the official combat chapter anyway, of our heartbreaking, budget-busting invasion of Iraq. Man oh man, what a violent species we are.
oh yes. according to one of my books hereabouts, baby Gaius Caesar Gerrmanicus, a.k.a. Caligula, dreadful Roman emperor, was born on this day in history, Anno Domini 12.

Monday, August 30, 2010

‎"My dreams were all my own; I accounted for them to nobody; they were my refuge when annoyed - my dearest pleasure when free... My dreams were at once more fantastic and agreeable than my writings."

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley

"Independence I have long considered as the grand blessing of life, the basis of every virtue; and independence I will ever secure by contracting my wants, though I were to live on a barren heath."

This second quotation is attributed to Mary's mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, who was born in Victoria's London on the 25th of April, 1759. Incidentally, just for you to know, the baby who'd grow up to be the national poet of his nation, was born this year as well; Robert Burns of Scotland. And the composer, George Friedrich Handel died this year, but I digress. As usual. Why? I enjoy it, quite a lot.
Denied formal education, Mary educated herself by way of many a book, as did many a female back in the day. Those of us who know that Mary once lived, know of her because we've got her placed in a dusty pigeonhole labeled Early Feminist, Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Mary W. published her manifesto in 1792, some five years before she gave birth to a girl, August 30, 1797. [Early in President John Adams' one and only term in office. Napoleon on the rise. Two future fabulous composers born that year, Gaetano Donizetti and Franz Schubert...] Mary W. and her reform-minded politician husband, William Godwin, named their daughter Mary. Alas, Mary Sr. died not two weeks later, never to know what a passionate teenager her child would become.
Every bit as strong minded as her long-lost mother, 16-year-old Mary ran away with her lover, Percy Shelley, 23, in 1814. They married later on, in 1816, after Percy's first wife killed herself. Horrible and dreadful, absolutely, for poor drowned Harriet Westbrook Shelley, but pretty romantic, no? After all, romance, no less than comedy, is firmly linked with tragedy. And too, none of this would we ever have heard about had not Percy been such an admired poet (who'd also die by drowning, in 1822. go figure) - and had not his bride conceived of a story, a thoughtful, horrifying story. Two years later, in 1818, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley published it, her masterpiece: Frankenstein.

Sunday, August 29, 2010


August 19th? It's been ten days since I've written anything here? Nothing about the anniversary of all that bloody Spartan hoohah at Thermopylae [20 Aug, 480BC]? Nothing about long-dead Aubrey Beardsley's,[ brilliant twisted master of pen & ink], 128th birthday on the 21st? Nothing about - oooh cool: did you know that the 23rd was the anniversary of the day that Wm. Wallace [we're talking Braveheart] got drawn & quartered in 1305? And what kind of a sick, vicious boogernose-nightmare thought of doing THAT to a fellow human being, I mean REALLY. Quantrill's riders burning & pillaging Lawrence, KS, in the summer of 1863? And how that awful day was provoked by years of mayhem inflicted on Missourians - I mean, check out what happened to the folks of Osceola in Sept. 1861 - in those horrifying times? Nothing about Laura Ingalls and Almanzo Wilder's 125th wedding anniversary? on the 25th, the anniversary of the big Pompeii Deathday, A.D. 79? And, you know, it was two days+ 1,804 years later, Aug. 27, 1883, that Krakatoa erupted. And anyway, today would make 39 years I'd have been married to my first husband if I'd actually STAYED w/ my 1st husband. one of us would have been celebrating the day in either prison or the loony bin. But the MAIN thing is that the lovely and glorious Ingrid Bergman came into the world on this day in history. 1915 to be exact. The Great War was - oh, don't get me started....

Thursday, August 19, 2010

So, with a few clicks I discover that these very different individuals each came into the world through the door marked AUGUST 19: English poet John Dryden [1613] and the gent said to have written Pamela (Was it important that I learned that in college? No. Is it weird that I still remember, yet barely call to mind the people w/whom I went to class? Yes), the first English novel, Sam'l Richardson [1689]. Designer Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel [1883]. Silent film star, dark-haired, sweet-faced Colleen Moore [1899] This link will take you to cyber-glimpses of her glorious doll house: www.msichicago.org/whats-here/exhibits/fairycastle
Little Wilbur Wright got a baby brother [I am SO trying to envision the infant Orville and 3-year-old Wilbur. I'm trying to imagine a world in which loving parents would name innocent baby boys Wilbur & Orville.]
Madame DuBarry began her life on this day in 1743. It ended December 8 [same deathday as John Lennon's. yes, roll your eyes heavenward. I do.], 1793, when her head was chopped off. See how lovely she was or, perhaps, how beautifully her portrait was painted by wondrous artist Elizabeth Vigée Le Brun] at this wiki site. Read down far enough, at least to see her last words.... http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madame_du_Barry
And if you're reading this, you're the sort of person who might LIKE to know that this is mathematician Blaise Pascal's deathday (1662), James Watt's, too (steamy Scottish inventor, 1819), AND the great & mighty Emperor of Rome, Caesar Augustus kicked the bucket on this day, A.D.14. and that his wife probably poisoned him. Sigh.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Failure Was Impossible

"Failure is impossible." So wrote Susan B. Anthony, but there had to have been days when it seemed pretty goddamned impossible: Woman Suffrage
It was in 1848 that Elizabeth Cady Stanton of Seneca Falls, NY, launched the Women's Rights Convention, this radical confab being the first of its kind. Not until the spring of 1851 later does Lizzie Stanton [short & round & curly-girly radical whose tough mind crackled with ideas and revolutionary opinions on nearly] meet tall, spare Susan B., known as "Aunt Susan" to the legions of suffragists. Fifty years the team would write, agitate, organize, petition the U.S. Congress, and otherwise plug away at trying to wrench the Vote out of the government's tight fist. "I forged the thunderbolts," said Mrs. Stanton of her writings, and Susan fired them, riding "the [railroad] cars" thousands of miles to speak, to state the cause, lay out the argument to audiences around the country. Countless women [and men] paraded in the streets. A few, including the valiant Alice Paul, endured arrest and cruel treatment behind bars for daring to stand silently with their banners outside the White House fence.
Of course neither Lizzie nor Susan B. lived to see the day, August 18, 1920, when the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was finally ratified, thanks to a narrow vote in the Tennessee state house. Almost 72 years after the Seneca Falls convention and 90 years ago today.

i"Come, come, my conservative friend, wipe the dew off your spectacles, and see that the world is moving." Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Davy, Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier

Born on a mountain top in Tennessee
The greenest state in the land of the free
Raised in the woods so's he knew ev'ry tree
Kilt him a b'ar when he was only three...

So goes the song (lyrics by Tom Blackburn) about one of the great American self-promoters, David Crockett, hunter, frontier folk hero, storyteller, scout, and soldier, in 1813, fighting warriors of the Creek Nation. In 1826 his Tennessee neighbors elected him to represent them in the U.S. House of Representative. We don't know just exactly when he died. Was he killed on March 6, 1836, in the last ferocious fighting, when General Santa Anna's forces overtook the Alamo? Or was he captured then executed? The dead take their secrets with them. If Davy's deathday is a mystery, his folks recorded his birthday: the 17th of August, 1786, a year that saw Danial Shay's tax-uprising up in Massachusetts. Far, far away in another world entirely, a silk & velvet-clad audience of Viennese gents and ladies saw and heard Le Nozze di Figaro, the very newest opera by 30-year-old W. A. Mozart.
So, yesterday came and sifted away without my ever having written about the factoid I'd come across. A puny, insignificant discovery, but my interest was piqued. Doesn't take much. Two fellows, one born a poor country boy [in 1935], the other born in 1895, a poor, hard luck city boy, each blessed with gifts that would delight and astonish. And Elvis Presley and Geo. Herman "Babe" Ruth [plus countless chariotloads of other souls down the millennia] share a deathday, Aug. 16. The day we go out is as worthy of note as the day we come in, I reckon. But no, I'd just as soon not think about it. Still, my granny liked to point out that people get things all mixed up, sorrowing at a funeral, for someone whose troubles are over, then celebrating at a wedding for a pair whose trouble has just begun.

Sunday, August 15, 2010


A HUGE day this is, this 15th of August, anniversary-wise. It's my friend Michael Harrison's birthday. It's the anniversary of the Japanese surrender in '45. The long-on-years, short-on-money, difficult life of Sarah Anna Caselman began on this day, a Sunday, in 1886. (You can find out this day o' the week sort of thing in a perpetual calendar;there's one in the Calendar essay, World Book C. Very helpful when you want to add a spark of detail to a bit of historical writing.) Sarah grew up to be my dad's short, black-haired, blue-eyed mom. By the time she had baby Raymond, in 1922, she'd lost her own mom at age 13, married [badly, can't remember what year], and had a whole bunch of children, two of whom died of illness when they were sweet little kids. Raymond chose his mom's birthday for his wedding day, August 15, 1947. Not much of a day to celebrate, his bride & my mom, Elaine, would tell me, some 44 years later.
It was on this day in 1769, a Corsican Tuesday, Signora Bonaparte had baby Napoleon. The day baby Bonaparte turned two, Walter Scott was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, a very old city even then, in 1771. Treat yourself to reading Sir Walter's Ivanhoe. It shouldn't have been a surprise, but it was, to me anyway, that Ivanhoe was a good read as was Thackeray's Vanity Fair and Dickens's Tale of Two Cities. My high school education had prepared me to equate classics with struggle combined with boredom.
According to Wikipedia, the beautiful and wondrous actress, Ethel Barrymore was born on Napoleon's 100th birthday. And the rather wondrous life of Edna Ferber, a not-so-beautiful writer, began on Saturday, 15 Aug, 1885, in Kalamazoo, MIchigan, on Ethel B.'s 6th birthday. If you don't know Edna F., if you don't know Edna's books, jeez, I hope you at least know the movies made from them: So Big, Show Boat [game-changing, influential Broadway musical in 1927 before it was a 1929 film then a 1936 film then a huge, showy 1951 film]. Saratoga Trunk [movie's kind of dumb, but Gary Cooper & Ingrid Bergman are wonderful, as usual] Cimarron [well, that one you could give a miss], Giant [James Dean's last + Rock Hudson & Eliz.Taylor are splendid to look at]
As a journalist, playwright, & bestselling novelist, Edna seemed to know just about everybody in the first half of the 20th century. She wrote about her writing life, her theatrical life, her far-traveling life, in A Peculiar Treasure. Edna Ferber's wonderful memoir is one of my all-time favorite books. How did she come to write her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel So Big? She tells you. What was it like to be in on the backstage planning of a Broadway show in the 1920s? Or sitting at the storied Round Table in NYC's Algonquin Hotel, conversing and trading wisecracks [E.F.: "Being an old maid is like death by drowning, a really delightful sensation after you cease to struggle."] the likes of Dorothy Parker, Robt. Benchley, Noel Coward, and Harpo Marx? Traveling about, skillfully observing [with wisdom, wit, & heart] the rich, gracious, colorful, desperately unfair about-to-be-destroyed-forever Europe of 1914? That's there, too.
Years ago, I visited Val-Kill, Eleanor Roosevelt's home on her mother-in-law's Hyde Park estate. E.R. had been dead since - when? 1962? - but she left her door unlocked. You can visit and see her study as she left it. There on E.R.'s coffee table was a copy of A Peculiar Treasure.
"The story of any life," Edna wrote, "told with truth, selection, and a dramatic sense, would make an arresting book. Surely romance and agony, humor, adventure and tragedy lie within the span of any ordinary lifetime." Edna Ferber's lifetime, 1885-1968 [meaning she got her ticket punched when I was in high school & hadn't read her books yet so I missed the chance to write to her, youth being wasted on young, deep-dyed dorks such as me] was anything but ordinary and it began 125 years ago today.

Friday, August 13, 2010

I might have written yesterday that the 12th of August was William Blake's death day, back in 1827 and, just for you to know, Eugene Delacroix kicked the bucket on this day in 1863. Meeting multitudes of other newcomers in Heaven's orientation class, fresh in off of battlefields in southern Pennsylvania & western Mississippi. There's a mental picture for you....

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

In the presence of eternity, the mountains are as transient as the clouds.

So, how's this for a thought that bears pondering:

"There can be but little liberty on earth while men worship a tyrant in heaven."

Or this:

"In the night of death, hope sees a star, and listening love can hear the rustle of a wing."

Or these words:

"Happiness is the only good. The time to be happy is now. The place to be happy is here. The way to be happy is to make others so."

And whose was this happy creed? Robert Green Ingersoll, a man who must have been well worth knowing. I first heard his name coming from the lips [oohbaybee] of William Holden, in the character of What's His Name. His idealistic journalist character quoted Robt. Ingersoll, who'd 'rather have been a happy French peasant, wearing wooden shoes,' than the tyrant Napoleon. Something like that.... . He was speaking to blond, curvilicious, wonderful Judy Holliday, portraying dim bulb Billie Dawn, living with a rich thug, played by Broderick Crawford in Born Yesterday. Ah well. See the movie, the brilliant, perfect, smart, funny, black & white original [1950]. Not the remake.
But I digress. What I meant to say is that Robt. Ingersoll was born on this day in 1833, when Henry Clay was a big deal in the U.S. Senate, when wind in the sails powered ships across the oceans. Oh my goodness: Felix Mendelssohn composed his Italian Symphony that year, Chopin a collection of Etudes.... Gosh I love my battered copy of the Timelines of History. ANYWAY, back in the 1880s, Americans by the hundreds paid money to hear freethinking Robert Ingersoll say such things as:
"It is an old habit with theologians to beat the living with the bones of the dead."

"Kindness is the sunshine in which virtue grows."

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Summer of '74

Someday he'd be known as the "Mad Monk." Someday he'd help to bring down the Romanovs, but in 1874, Grigori Rasputin was a 5-year-old peasant boy out in Siberia. Theo. Roosevelt, future President, was 16, an avid amateur taxidermist. Ex-president Millard Fillmore kicked the bucket that year, the year Laura Ingalls turned seven. Sam'l Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, was working on a ms. , "the Adventures of Tom Sawyer," and a group of genteel renegades were experimenting with the painting of light, light spilling out of the heavens onto haystacks or the facades of churches or gatherings of Parisians. The light of a sunrise, light and shadow dappling water and the French countryside.
It was in the summer of that year that an elephant was sent out to stroll from Missouri over to Illinois. Folks figured that if James Eads' remarkable new bridge could manage an elephant, then it ought to be safe enough carry a multitude of trains over the Mississippi River and so it has, all these years.
There was a White House wedding that year: President Grant, who'd weathered warfare at its most gruesome, wept as his only daughter got married in May. Nellie Grant would have cried too, had she known what a bum she was marrying, but ah well. Robert Frost, Gertrude Stein, and Ernest Shackleton were newborns that year. So was Guglielmo Marconi and before the year was over, the beautiful Jennie Jerome Churchill would give birth to the future Prime Minister of England.
Here now I've taken the scenic route to get to what I thought was well worth noting: baby Herbert Hoover was born on this day, the 10th of August, in 1874. Years ago when I was working on my presidential book Ghosts of the White House, I'd studied a bit about all of the gents who'd lived within those stone walls - or, in the case of Geo. Washington, merely visited, on the 14th of March, 1797, I believe. What a remarkable fellow Hoover was, I thought at the time, I think when I'd come across a photo of him as a young man, hale and blond and brilliant. uff da!
"He was," I wrote in Gs of the W.H., "a rich mining engineer who, during the First World War, organized a campaign to get food to [starving, wretched] people behind enemy lines. How could a brilliant, big-hearted hero like Herbert Hoover seem so helpless?" So "gloomy and uncertain." Sigh. I discovered later on, much, much later on that old Herbert Hoover was here in town, on the day I turned six years old. Harry Truman, who'd befriended HH, invited him here to Independence. All I knew was that I'd gotten the Tiny Tears doll I'd very much wanted for a birthday present. Ah well.

Monday, August 9, 2010

"Angling may be said to be so like the mathematics that it can never be fully learned."
Izaak Walton, born August 9, 1593

Oh, August, how you call to mind an old friend whose birthday's today, my folks' wedding anniversary, my grandmother's birthday [same as Napoleon Bonaparte's]; state fairs (sawdust, corn dogs, sweat, the brown eyes of cows, and orange pop). Getting ready for one of my weddings, back when Nixon was in office (sewing a gown out of white cotton from the Ben Franklin Store, 59¢ a yard). It was the 9th of August - 36 years ago? Can it be? - that Nixon resigned his job, his resentments catching up with him at last.
Going through catalogues, planning back-to-school wardrobes, knowing that only kids from rich families could have all they wanted and the only people who had money and children were the Kennedys. My 11-year-old self planned an entire house, its furnishings and major appliances, all for my imaginary family, my husband and our three children. Took me a while, too long of a while to realize that the wealthy were not likely to do their shopping out of catalogues from Sears and 'Monkey' Wards.
Dreading, anticipating a new school year when all would be better. This year I'd have friends. I'd understand math. Now it's This year I'll finish that manuscript. I'll, by god, knock off this squashy business around my middle. Soon it will be cool again - of that, at least, I am certain.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

So, it's the last day of the first week of the 8th month, 219th day of the year . ... man oh man how calendar obsessive am I on a summer Saturday morning. Just getting my bearings. Does it in any way matter that Billie Burke, Mata Hari, and Garrison Keillor share this as a birthday? No. That on 7 Aug 1942, the horrific Battle of Guadalcanal began? Only in that in the remembering we honor the sacrifices, acknowledge the sufferings on the way to the cosmic catharsis three years off in the future.. On the 7th of August, A.D. 79, I reckon that Pompeiians and Herculaneumistas were going about their business, preparing and eating their meals, pondering their futures. No way to know what's around the corner. It's a curious time of year, summer past its zenith. September, time of new beginnings, lurking around the corner.

Thursday, August 5, 2010


"Every government has as much of a duty to avoid war as a ship's captain has to avoid a shipwreck."
Guy de Maupassant, wondrous writer, born this day in the summer of 1850. The lilies were in bloom.

So, I was startled, a bit, day before yesterday, by the sight of green stems topped with a froth of pink trumpets. Clutches of wands, lilies conjured from their tips, sprung up sometime in the night here lately, along fence rows, amongst the peonies. They come up every year about this time, letting you know that summer's on the downhill, that the season's gonna end. So these late summer lilies hadn't oughtn't to surprise anybody, but so they do. Nothing one day but crisp, hot grass, everything green looking a little tired - could I be projecting? - then one morning - lilies!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

So. I read once the reason why this hot and miserable time of year is called the 'dog days,' and I might wax on a bit about that if I called that reason to mind, but I can't and anyway, wax would melt on such a day as this. Eggs will fry on sidewalks. Dogs and small children, left in cars by the criminally forgetful, stupid, cruel &/or heedless will die. When I walk downstairs it's as if I'm descending into cool - water? cloud? Let me merely say that it's cooler downstairs and dreadfully warm outdoors because it is August - but is it warmer for deeper, systemic reasons? A question worth the pondering, but not here, not by me, not just now. I always find myself thinking of summers in the city, the sufferings in the brick bake ovens fitted out w/in as apartments. Of hot horses and mules, heads down, sides heaving, plodding down sun-baked roads. Of workers, having no choice but to slave away in fields of hay or cotton or tobacco, or quarries w/ broiling sun glaring off white stone. Women in limp dresses gone dark with sweat, damp hair pulled up & away from red, streaming faces, working away in a hot kitchen made hotter by the stove because there's canning to be done, cooking to be done, washing to be done. How lovely those old photographs look, of folks out on their porches of a summer evening, women & girls in their white cotton dresses, men & boys in shirt sleeves, back, say, when Wm. McKinley or Theo. Roosevelt was in office. My grandmothers were dark haired young ladies then. Way later on one of them, Sadie, told me that the only good thing about the good old days was that they were gone. Hmm. One big opera it all is, I reckon. We take the smooth with the rough, the bitter & the sweet, and the cool sweet days then the too damned cold/too bloody hot, steamy old dog days in their season. Turn around twice & it'll be Halloween; twice more & it'll all be over.

Monday, August 2, 2010

So, eight weeks + one day of my life overlapped that of John Sloan, a painter whose work I admire a lot. He turned 80, I just now discovered, on August 2, 1951. Only had a few more weeks to live. Years and years ago I had to remember, for a test, that he was one of a group of eight painters - the Ashcan School. folks called them. 'Urban genre' paintings. Ah well. This isn't "Art Apprish" class ... I just sure like how he painted, John Sloan, birthday dude. There was this one, of young women standing on the roof of their apartment building , drying their hair in the wind, in the golden [yellow ochre, raw siena...] light of a long gone summer day not unlike today - not as warm, I can only hope....

Sunday, August 1, 2010

"Ah, summer, what power you have to make us suffer and like it." ~Russel Baker

"Starry, starry night/ flaming flowers that brightly blaze..." Don McLean

So, it appears that Lydia Mitchell of Nantucket gave birth to a daughter on this day in 1818, and named her Maria. Three score years & ten she'd be allotted. during which she'd study the stars so capably that she would become a professor of astronomy. An observatory, naturally enough, a liberty ship, and a lunar crater would bear her name.
It's a safe wager that M.M. would have heard this bit of poetry some English lady wrote: "The boy stood on the burning deck/Whence all but he had fled/The flame that lit the battle's wreck/Shown 'round him o'er the dead." Me, I heard it recited on an episode of Mapp & Lucia. Anyway, I just found out that said battle occurred at the mouth of the Nile on this date in 1798. Many a French & British sailor suffered terribly and/or died that first of August and Admiral Horatio Nelson had glorious victory. Napoleon Bonaparte, not so much.

Just for you to know.