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.

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