Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Sexy Beast, I Mean Bing: Happy Birthday, and Goodbye

Bing Crosby died today, October 14, 1977. It was notable in that year because Elvis had died on August 16. More shocking of course, because he was only 42. But Crosby still had enough cultural resonance back then for it to register that two towering legends of American music had died two months apart.

The decades have not been kind to Crosby's musical memory, and American Masters has stepped in to do something about that. Bing Crosby, Rediscovered will air in December.  It is not to be missed.

From the press release:
 Thirty-seven years after his death, Bing Crosby remains the most recorded performer in history with nearly 400 hit singles, an achievement no one — not Sinatra, Elvis or the Beatles — has come close to matching. A brilliant entrepreneur, Crosby played an important role in the development of the postwar recording industry. As one of Hollywood’s most popular actors, he won the Oscar for 1944’s Going My Way and starred in the iconic “Road” films with Bob Hope.

Narrated by Stanley Tucci, the film features new interviews with all surviving members of Crosby’s immediate family — wife Kathryn, daughter Mary and sons Harry and Nathaniel. The film reveals Crosby’s struggles with his first wife, Dixie Lee, and their sons Gary, Dennis, Phillip and Lindsay. Mary addresses accusations of abuse first published in Gary’s 1983 memoir, which tarnished their father’s legacy. Gary speaks candidly about both his and his mother’s alcoholism as well as his difficulties with his father in a never-before-seen 1987 interview. Other new interviews include singers Tony Bennett and Michael Feinstein, record producer Ken Barnes, biographer Gary Giddins, and writers Buz Kohan and Larry Grossman, who both share the story behind Crosby’s Christmas special duet with David Bowie.


I wrote this post for Bing's birthday back in May. But no real need to bother reading the words, just play the clips!

Bing Crosby’s birthday is today, May 2, as he cites in his autobiography Call Me Lucky: "Uncle George kept my father company, diverted him with his best stories and raised a comforting glass with him when I was born on May 2, 1904."

OR it's tomorrow May 3, the date all the biographies site for him, including the Gary Giddens. And those bios cite 1903 as his birth year, not 1904. Turns out Bing celebrated May 2 because of a complicated family thing & then Paramount used that in their materials, but he was born on May 3. Unfortunately, this confusion about the simplest of a man’s details is the least of the problems with his legacy.

Like the Olympian gods, Bing Crosby is largely forgotten and unloved today, except for the descendents of some loyal fans. Gary Giddins made a valiant attempt to focus attention on this Mozart of the popular song with his very ample 2001 biography Pocketful of Dream. And for a brief moment, pop culture glanced at “the first white hip guy born in America” (as Artie Shaw called him). But the attention has not been sustained. And yet . . . when people discover his work in the 1930s, new fans are born.

"Please" . . . A Real Heartthrob
In the beginning, Crosby was sexy and compelling. He had a distinct, astonishing voice and a way of singing that was unlike any other on the landscape.

He was a genuine heartthrob, best seen in a movie that is almost impossible to get now, the original Big Broadcast (1931, but before they started assigning years to them. Top & left photo from this great site). Crosby plays himself, and the scenes of the women stampeding to kiss him are funny but entirely believable. Women fell in love with his voice on the radio, and the early shorts and movies use that as a story line.

Here he is, in The Big Broadcast, singing Dinah looking like a male model for Banana Republic, and  Please accompanied by the legendary Eddie Lang.

The tragedy of Eddie Lang. Lang met Crosby when they were both in Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra, and Eddie followed when Bing left the band. They were very close, and Giddins writes how devastated Crosby was when Lang died, hemorrhaging after a tonsillectomy. It was Crosby who had recommended that Lang have his tonsils out to help with chronic hoarseness and so be able to take on speaking parts in future Crosby films. It was an enormous burden for Crosby to bear that Lang died at age 30 from this operation that he recommended.

Important Beatles notes: John Lennon sites Crosby's Please as an influence for his writing Please Please Me: "I was always intrigued by the words of ‘Please, lend me your little ears to my pleas’ – a Bing Crosby song. I was always intrigued by the double use of the word ‘please’."

And in Scorsese's Living in a Material World documentary, Olivia Harrison says of George: "He liked the moon, you know. If the wind was blowing and the full moon was up, he’d put on Bing Crosby singing "Sweet Leilani" and just make the moment even better. And then he might hand you a gardenia."

The First Music Video?
In 1932 Marion Davies insisted on Crosby as her leading man in Going Hollywood, a wild pastiche of a musical. It’s maybe best known for the Grand Central extravaganza number, while the Make Hay While the Sunshine number is almost too hard to watch.

But there is one scene that deserves a place in film history: a drunk, disheveled Crosby singing Temptation intercut with close-ups of the smoldering Fifi D’Orsay. It’s dark and evocative, with other cuts to blurry, tightly-packed bodies, swaying to the pulsating rhythms of the song. It looks like an early music video. The comments on YouTube tell it all: “how young he is” and “how sexy he is” and “Crosby has more talent in his little finger than Sinatra has in his whole body” [okay, that one is just a nice swipe at the other guy].

Yeah. That’s what propelled Crosby into the hearts and imagination of an entire generation, three quarters of a century ago.

Stardust, 1931
One more (audio) clip: Crosby in 1931 singing Star Dust (first published as two words, and then one). It’s nothing like the standard Nat King Cole. He sings it with a wild abandon, always pushing on the tempo. Pure passion. Pure despair. Pure, natural talent.

This Crosby of the 1930s is the guy who fired my father's imagination to be a life-long fan.  As well as a guy from Hoboken, named Frank. And that's a pretty good legacy in itself.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

October 7, 1914 & 2014: "A ritual act of remembrance" Connecting Across 100 Years

On 7th October 1914, some 8,000 soldiers of the Imperial German Army proudly marched into Ypres, Belgium. They represented the vanguard of a nation hell-bent on claiming its share of empire, and although the Great War was still in its infancy, the notorious Schlieffen Plan appeared to be working as intended. The following day, they promptly left the city’s walled enclave to continue on their great march westwards. It was to be the last time that the German army would set foot in Ypres during the war, something that would ultimately lead to the deaths of almost 600,000 people and the annihilation of the city [as they tried for 4 bloody years to re-take the city]. [Text from an open educational resource website on the Great War.]

On 7th October 2014, Peter Sellars brings his staging of Bach's St. Matthew's Passion to the Park Avenue Armory, with Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker. From the Armory website: "Sellars ritualizes this magnificent masterpiece to create a communal grieving process while illuminating Bach’s unmatched gift for presenting both deep hardship and the possibility of transcendence." The Guardian reviewer described the London performance like this: "Sellars presents the work not as a dramatisation of the Passion, but as a ritual act of remembrance."

My worlds collide. From invasion to singing. What are the odds that they would happen on the same day, 100 years apart?

* * * * * *

I returned from Belgium last week, visiting Ghent, Bruges, and Ypres as part of a singing holiday run by some very talented Brits.  The company arranges for a music director to meet up with singers in a European city, with a preselected repertoire that will be performed in a concert or service after a series of rehearsals, and then everyone goes their own way.

This outing was built around participating in the beginning of Europe's "ritual act of remembrance" for the World War One centenary: singing at a Mass in Ghent; the Faure Requiem in a church in Bruges; and at the Menin Gate Last Post Ceremony in Ypres, along with a visit to the Flanders Field Museum and the Tyne Cot Cemetery in the Ypres Salient (my photo above). It is the largest cemetery in the area, but as you drive along the Zonnebeke road, you see signs for dozens upon dozens of others. 160 cemeteries in total, in the Ypres Salient alone.

I learned about Ypres from Paul Fussell, studying his highly acclaimed The Great War in Modern Memory with him back in the day, and so it was very special to be on the very ground I studied so many years ago.

It was also very moving to be with the grandchildren of the British Expeditionary Forces (B.E.F.) that entered on the side of France & Belgium to stop the German aggression.

And that leads us to the 100-year difference on this October 7.

J.S.Bach is considered to be one of the most brilliant composers who ever lived.

The Berlin Philharmoniker is one of the world's most talented orchestras. All positive, all artful.

But there is still the fact of Ypres. From a wall card in the Ypres Flanders Field Museum:

From October 1914 onwards, the German artillery began to shell Ypres and the Cathedral went up in flames. In May 1915 the last inhabitants had to leave their town and Ypres was completely delivered up to military violence. By the end of 1917 not a single house or tree was left standing.

The Menin Gate
The Menin Road was the main road to the front for the Commonwealth troops. It bears the names of 54,389 officers and men from the UK and Commonwealth (except New Zealand & Newfoundland) who died on the Salient and whose remains were never found for a proper burial.

From 11th November, 1929, the Last Post [the British version of Taps] has been sounded at the Menin Gate Memorial every night and in all weathers. The only exception to this was during the four years of the German occupation of Ypres from 20th May 1940 to 6th September 1944. The daily ceremony was instead continued in England at Brookwood Military Cemetery, Surrey. On the very evening that Polish forces liberated Ypres the ceremony was resumed at the Menin Gate, in spite of the heavy fighting still going on in other parts of the town. Bullet marks can still be seen on the memorial from that time. [Text from a UK Great War website.]

The town that you see today is a complete reconstruction, following the war. They chose to rebuild the great medieval Cloth Hall--built in the 15th Century--exactly as it had looked. Our charming local guide kept saying, "everything you see is a copycat of the original."  It is an astonishing story.

I witnessed and participated in the "ritual act of remembrance" at the Menin Gate on September 22, 2014. Traffic is stopped, the Belgian buglers arrive to sound the Last Post. Sometimes there are extra elements, like our choir, and that day also a Scottish bagpipe contingent. Sometimes there are ceremonial wreath layings. On this day there were English children from a public school, and a highly decorated, active duty English soldier.  We sang the very haunting Douglas Guest setting of For the Fallen. It is remarkable that this ceremony has continued daily for almost 100 years.  It's hard to sustain anything, but this small, ritual remembrance connects the living through the decades to all those lives slaughered.

And tonight I am attending the Simon Rattle St. Matthew Passion, part of the Lincoln Center's White Lights Festival at the Park Avenue Armory. I will keep the memory of all those souls slaughtered on the Ypres Salient in my heart, whoever they fought for.

And those who have suffered the latest atrocities in the Middle East. Though it is very hard to think that 100 years from now, those foes will be singing a concert in NYC . . . .

[top and third Menin Gate photo by Nick Couchman]

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Happy 75th GWTW: You Reign Supreme Forever Because of the Love Story, and the Acting

Thank goodness for TCM. What a national treasure to help lovers of classic movies come together and celebrate great American classic films outside of individual living rooms.

Two years ago I was very grateful when they sponsored bringing Casablanca back into theaters for its 70 birthday.

That was an interesting experience because I was sitting near a group of 20something friends, who were chatting away and had come to mock the picture, but  from Bogart's first entrance, they got quieter and quieter. Great films have that effect, even on the current crop of jejunes.

Anniversary Screenings, Across the Country #GWTW75
I didn't know what to expect for the 2:00pm Sunday showing of GWTW in Times Square in conjunction with Fathom Events & Warner Home Video, one of only four total times this anniversary treat is showing. The actual premiere was on December 15, 1939, in Atlanta, an event to which Hattie McDaniel was not invited.

I'm happy to say that every age, race, and ethnicity you can think of was in attendance in Times Square.  Much applause in all the right places, much laughter in all the right places. And the weeping. Even the geeky/tech-looking young guy of Indian descent sitting next to me didn't make it through the crane shot of Scarlett going to the Atlanta depot without some very furtive tear wiping. But that's what it's all about, isn't it? 

Though I have not seen 12 Years a Slave, I appreciate in contrast the cultural damage that GWTW's sentimental depiction of slavery has had. But the film endures because, like the novel, it is not a story about slavery. It is a deeply resonant depiction of the battle of the sexes, with a most astonishing, strong, stunted, selfish female character in Scarlett. It's the relationships between all the characters that pulls you in for the fastest four hours in cinema history, even with the intermission.

And it will endure because of the acting. Vivian Leigh is absolutely compelling in every frame. She conveys a multitude of subtle yet complex emotions with every facial gesture, as does Clark Gable.  Their chemistry together is for the ages. Their talent simply radiates off the screen, it is dazzling in a way that no modern counterparts match. Their kind of Hollywood of 1939 is itself gone with the wind, and another reason why this  film will still be around in another 75 years.

The restoration is the most astonishing I have seen. It is the most vibrant Technicolor I have ever witnessed, and the overall acuity of the frames breathtaking. The aspect ration means that the picture goes top to bottom of the screen, but not side to side. By having the black letterbox effect only left and right, the figures look even more larger than life than they do when the image fills the screen, or in IMAX. It is a thrilling, "natural" looking movie experience like no other. The film is simply a sequence of superlatives for me.

Below is from a broader appreciation I wrote about the novel & the movie in 2007.

Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae sub Regno Cynarae

I don’t brook no literary snobs who dismiss Margaret Mitchell’s tale. Yes, I first found it in junior high school, like many other girls. But the serious reader does not hold that factoid against it.

What I could appreciate only later was how exquisitely, masterfully, Mitchell captures the painful zig and zag between ill-fated lovers. Scarlett’s constant fear and loathing of Rhett’s mocking of her (both real and imagined) matched point for point Rhett’s constant fear that Scarlett had only contempt for the men who worshipped her.

With these two, Mitchell captures that sickening, life-destroying panic you feel when you can't trust the one who’s next to you, no matter how well suited you are for each other. For Rhett and Scarlett, when one starts to trust just a little, the other answers with cruelty. It's a dark, dark tennis match.

Thus GWTW is a tragedy of the most human kind—-of two people who throw happiness away with both hands. Rhett is right that they are two of a kind, and Scarlett can't see it because of the fog of Ashley in her head, clouding her vision, until she finally "sees" that it's been Rhett all along, just as he is done, with a capital "D."

The storytelling overall is stellar, especially the early chapters about Scarlett’s mother Ellen (played by Barbara O'Neill, which always ticked me), and how she came to marry Gerald O’Hara.

The Civil War is there too. But that I have no personal experience of that . . . .

Margaret Mitchell is a unique figure in literary history. She wrote the novel while recuperating from ankle surgery, with no intention of anyone besides her husband reading it.

She had gone to Smith College in 1918, engaged to a Harvard man, Lt. Clifford Henry. He was killed in France, and shortly after her mother died of the pandemic flu, before MM got back to Atlanta to see her. She knew too well much of what she wrote for Scarlett, and her life hints at the theme of haunted love: the fiancé who died, then her first marriage ended in divorce, and the second was to her ex‘s friend. But Mitchell raised the idea of shadows in love to an art in Scarlett's attachment to Ashley.

Mitchell ultimately took her book title from a poem by Ernest Dowson, “Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae sub Regno Cynarae,” which is from the opening of Horace’s Odes, Book 4.1: “I am not the same as I was in the days of Cynara.” (Well, she was a Smith girl, although she left when her mother died, before she graduated.) Dowson was an English poet of the Decadent Movement, which included Aubrey Beardsley and Oscar Wilde. His poem is about a lover who is “desolate and sick of an old passion.” (Think Bob Dylan’s haunting “Visions of Johanna.”)

The third stanza, which begins “I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind,” touched Mitchell: it was the "far away, faintly sad sound I wanted."

And so we were given the words that scrolled majestically across the screen to Max Steiner’s superlative score. The film is one of the all-time great realizations of a novel, which for me is rooted in Vivian Leigh’s captivating energy and Clark Gable’s controlled, knowing, beautifully tailored passion.

MM said she wrote the last chapter of GWTW first. It is intriguing that she started with that bone weary, completely burnt-out feeling of her leading man, and then imagined the path and depth of a great love-—of his love—that had been so completely thwarted by a selfish, stunted woman.

I haven't re-read GWTW for quite a while. But in that personal way you have with certain stories, I hold out hope that whenever I do, Mammy will hear Scarlett when she calls out for Rhett after her miscarriage, and the star-crossed lovers can find some happiness. Isn't it pretty to think so.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

"Breathes There a Man with a Soul So Dead" The Last Certain Day of the UK As We Know It

The UK is on the eve of possibly coming apart at the seams, and so the Twitter feed is filled with all things Scottish. A CNN post declares Sir Walter Scott the first literary superstar, and Wiki agrees, saying he was the first English-language author to be celebrated internationally in his own lifetime. He was born in 1771, after the England/Scotland marriage. He manifested the oral tradition of Scottish lore into sweeping historical novels that gave flesh and blood and Tartans to a war-strewn history of his country in the Waverly novels, Ivanhoe Rob Roy, The Bride of Lammermore, and so helped to create a national identity.

The famous canto from The Lay of the Last Minstrel is uniquely fitting for the day, although both sides have claimed the Great Scot for the WWSWD.

Breathes there the man with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
"This is my own, my native land"?
Whose heart hath n’er within him burned
As home his footsteps he hath turned...?
If such there be, go mark him well...
The wretch, concentrated all in self,
...Doubly dying shall go down
To the vile dust from whence he sprung,
Unwept, unhonor’d, and unsung. —


No politics here, but the CNN story reminded me of this post I wrote a few years ago when I learned some lovely tidbits about one of my favorite stories from childhood, Scott's Lady of the Lake.

My father bought me used books for many years to build a library of classics for me. One of them was a small book of Sir Walter Scott’s epic poem, The Lady of the Lake (1810). As a child, I thought it was wonderful that the Lady is named, well, L.N (as M.A.’s alter ego is known to her RL friends).

So, I developed a deep attachment to L.N. Douglas and Scott’s work.

Now, jump to almost any Catholic wake or wedding you’ve been to, or the first scene of the film Prizzi’s Honor. There you would have heard someone singing Schubert’s Ave Maria. It’s a beautiful, beautiful melody, which Schubert wrote around 1825, set to the Latin words of the prayer to the Virgin: “Áve María, grátia pléna, Dóminus técum. Benedícta tu in muliéribus, et benedíctus frúctus véntris túi, Iésus. Sáncta María, Máter Déi, óra pro nóbis peccatóribus, nunc et in hóra mórtis nóstrae. Ámen."

All of the 3 tenors have recordings of this, and Andrea Bocelli, and Celine Dion, and everyone and their aunts.

(This is not to be confused with the Bach/Gounod Ave Maria, which is less often heard.)

Except, that Schubert did not set the words of the Catholic prayer. And if you listen closely, you will hear that the melody and the tune are not tightly in sync. Unlike the Bach/Goudnod, where the music moves perfectly with the words.

Schubert actually wrote his haunting, beautiful melody to a “song” from The Lady of the Lake. At one point in the action, Lady L.N. goes to a cave to pray to the Virgin for protection from being discovered by the enemy clan. Scott calls it a song in his text, and the first words are Ave Maria. The rest are English words that he wrote for his poem. Schubert was a fan of Scott, and so he set one of the songs of his great poem. In German, he called it “Ellens dritter Gesang,” “Ellen’s Third Song.”

It was some time later that an anonymous person, inspired by the opening words Ave Maria, squished the Latin prayer into the haunting melody. It was so successful to generations of listeners, that it became known as Schubert’s Ave Maria. Schubert died in 1828, three years after his “Ellens dritter Gesang,” so he never heard the permutation of his music that became so famous.

Here are the words to Scott’s song, and below is Barbara Bonney singing the German translation of Scott, which is what Shubert actually set to his melody (although from the comments, people don't seem to know it's not the religious text). This wikipedia page is very clear bout this strange twist of fate.

Ave Maria! maiden mild!
Listen to a maiden's prayer!
Thou canst hear though from the wild,
Thou canst save amid despair.
Safe may we sleep beneath thy care,
Though banish'd, outcast and reviled -
Maiden! hear a maiden's prayer;
Mother, hear a suppliant child!
Ave Maria!

Ave Maria! undefiled!
The flinty couch we now must share
Shall seem this down of eider piled,
If thy protection hover there.
The murky cavern's heavy air
Shall breathe of balm if thou hast smiled;
Then, Maiden! hear a maiden's prayer;
Mother, list a suppliant child!
Ave Maria!

Ave Maria! stainless styled!
Foul demons of the earth and air,
From this their wonted haunt exiled,
Shall flee before thy presence fair.
We bow us to our lot of care,
Beneath thy guidance reconciled;
Hear for a maid a maiden's prayer,
And for a father hear a child!
Ave Maria!

And,  here’s one more amazing thing about Scott’s Lady of the Lake. It is the origin of the song “Hail to the Chief.” Scott wrote it as the “Boat Song,” for the arrival of the clan’s chieftain.

It was set to music in 1810 by James Sanderson for a stage version of the epic poem. In 1812 the stage version opened in New York. By 1828 the piece was well known as popular music, and the Marine Corps. Band performed it at the opening of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, which was attended by John Quincey Adams. The song was first played to announce the arrival of the president at James K. Polk's inauguration on March 4, 1845. It was Julia Tyler, wife of Polk's predecessor, John Tyler, who suggested that the song be played when a president made an appearance, and in 1954 the Department of Defense made it the official music to announce the president. (All from Wikipedia.)

Sunday, September 14, 2014

If It's Tuesday, I Must Be Going "Over There"

I have had a cosmic connection with Belgium since childhood, and this week I am finally visiting the country, in connection with the 1914-2014 Centenary Anniversary of World War One. I'm almost giddy.

It started when I was in 6th grade. We had to do a major "country report" in the form of an extreme outline, to teach us how to outline ideas. We were assigned countries, and I got Belgium.

These were the day of having to get in the car and go to the local library to get books to do research. And it turned out the local library had almost nothing about the history or the culture of Belgium.  I was quite the little student at 11, and I started to panic that I would not be able to complete the assignment.

The teacher had suggested we might contact the Consulate General of our assigned country for information, and so with a heavy heart I wrote to the Belgian Consulate General in NYC, which today is near Bryant Park, telling them my tale of woe.  In a short two weeks, I received a large envelope from the Belgians with the most glorious gift: a huge sheet of images of paintings of Belgian history and photos of Belgian culture, all with generous explanatory text. It was astonishing. What wonderful people these Belgians must be.

A few years after that the delightful romantic comedy If This Is Tuesday It Must Be Belgium was on TV, and my family watched it together. It's seared into my brain how much we laughed out loud together. A wonderful memory.

The next touch points were in college, finding both Jacques Brel & Paul Fussell.

I memorized the Ne Me Quitte Pas album, including the lovely Marieke, the one song where Brel sings in both his native French & Flemish.

Ay Marieke, Marieke, je t'aimais tant
Entre les tours de Bruges et Gand

And with Paul Fussell I studied the literature & poetry of the First World War, where I first heard the words Passchendaele, the Ypres Salient.

Bruges and Ghent and the Last Post Ceremony in Ypres
And now I am going to "Bruges et Gand" and Ypres, with a group called Run by Singers, who gather in various cities to rehearse great choral music and then give a concert.

We will sing the Faure Requiem in Bruges, visit the battlefields and cemeteries of Flanders, and participate in the Last Post Ceremony at the Menin Gate, Ypres. That's a ceremony that the townspeople have been holding since November 1929, every day without fail to show their appreciation to those who died for Belgium's freedom. The Menin Gate Memorial commemorates the names of over 54,000 soldiers from the UK and the Commonwealth who died on the Ypres Salient before August 16, 1917, and whose remain were never found for an individual grave.

The photo at the top is of the Buglers of the local volunteer Fire Brigade at the Last Post Ceremony.  Lots of information about the ceremony and its history here.

My Grandfather's WW1 Was "Over Here"

Because of the WW1 Centenary I started looking into at my Grandpa Brown's WWI service. He's my mother's father, and he died before I was born, but connecting with the some of the traces of his service has given me a little bit of his life that I didn't have.

Arthur Cornelius Brown was born in Brooklyn in 1892 to immigrant Norwegian parents. (The family name Jacobsen was changed to Brown as they came through Castle Clinton.)

He enlisted in the U.S. Army at Fort Slocum, David's Island, New Rochelle, on May 10, 1917, when he was 23 years old.

Wiki: By the onset of World War I Fort Slocum had become one of the busiest recruiting stations in the country, processing 100,000 soldiers per year and serving as the recruit examination station for soldiers from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and the New England states.

He was not sent "over there." The family explanation was that he could not wink, and therefore couldn't shoot properly. I have a feeling if the war had gone on longer, an otherwise healthy man would have been shipped out.

But he was not sent overseas.  Grandma said he never got out of Fort Hamilton, which is in Brooklyn. Grandpa served his two years in the 22nd Infantry, which was headquartered in Fort Jay, which is on Governors Island. He was promoted to Private First Class to Corporal in 1918 (above), and given the all-important honorable discharge in June 1919 (below).

And so I began my journey to the WW1 battlefields of Belgium by going to Governors Island in New York Harbor,  a short 15-minute ferry ride from downtown, from the slip right next to the Staten Island Ferry.

Once on the island I visited Fort Jay, walking under the entrance to the main part of the fort, which Grandpa must have done many times in 2 years, to do things at battalion headquarters. Fort Jay is now a National Monument under the U.S. Parks Serviced, and served by Park Rangers.

Now my journey will take me from our U. S. Army fort to Flanders, in my grandather's stead. I am grateful that he was not sent into the hell that was the trenches and mud and disease and death that met far too many who served. He was able to continue his life after his war service, and get married, and have two daughters, one of whom I'm lucky to call mom.

In Flanders I will pray for the souls of all who were slaughtered during the Great War, which is thought to be about 8.5 million people, not including casualties. And for the victims of all the recent wars and war-like acts.

And I will hold one particular death in my heart. My grandfather's British Army, Royal Army Service Corps counterpart, Lance Corporal Arthur Brown. He was sent "over there" from Mother England's shore and is one of the hundreds of thousands whose bodies were never found.

The Imperial War Museum has digitzed the records of those who served on an amazing website, where the digital age let's you note "Remembering."

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The 9/11 Museum and Memorial: 13 Years On

I visited the 9/11 Museum and Memorial this weekend. It's a lot to take in, I will need to go back to really absorb everything.  The space itself is extraordinary. You descend down a series of very steep ramps. They do a good job showing schematics of how deep you are on different level, and where you on in relation to where the shopping mall once was, where the original PATH station was, etc.

I didn't take too many pictures, but I wanted to capture some of it.  I think they've done a good job. It's essential to tell the story of mass murder of 3,000 people who just went to work 13 years ago. The majority of the visitors on Saturday evening were foreign tourists, which I think is a good thing.

The photo above does not capture the piercing blues of the tiles.  Different artists were commissioned to try to capture the actual blue of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, a color that is seared into the memory of anyone who was there.

The actual slurry wall, that held, keeping back the Hudson River. A small miracle.

The broadcasting antenna from on top of the North Tower, which was the main broadcasting vehicle to NYC for decades. Close to my heart, given my career at Paley Center.   The intensity of the blue panels is captured more accurately in the background here than in the top photo.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Two Women for the Ages: Princess Diana & Mother Teresa, 17 Years in Heaven

 Princess Diana died 17 years ago today. Mother Teresa died six days later. I wrote this post seven years ago on the tenth anniversary of their deaths.

How oddly fitting that Princess Diana and Mother Teresa, who had some connections in life, are connected to each other in death because they died six days apart in 1997. The coverage of Diana’s death made for a somewhat memorable Labor Day weekend that year, which then rolled right into the coverage of Mother Teresa.

And now, this week, we pause to remember that it has been ten years since Diana died in a car crash, just as we are absorbing the news of a book coming out that reveals the extraordinary idea that Mother Teresa basically lost her faith just at the moment she started the work with the poorest of the poor for which she is known.

Princess Diana, Escaping for Love
I happened to be awake 10 years ago when the first reports of Diana’s car accident broke into CNN. Shortly after, her death was announced, and it was shocking, in the way that John F. Kennedy Jr.’s death was—-young people with all the earthly gifts possible dying in sudden, violent ways makes one stop for a moment. You intellectually know that this very day can be your last, but incidents like this make that idea more tangible.

I haven’t read Tina Brown’s book nor any of the cottage industry of tell all rags on the princess, but I have kept up with her story over the years. We share a birth year, but while she was getting married in 1981, I was off crewing on a schooner and didn’t get to see the wedding. My feminist friends at college had given me a “Don’t Do It Di” button, which their English counterparts had made up following a headline in the feminist magazine Spare Rib. But I didn’t understand it back then. I didn’t know what they were talking about, why shouldn’t she marry her prince, an actual prince? I think theirs was a general invective against the patriarchal monarchy, but how eerily prophetic was their warning.

The draw of the Royals, for most people, is simply that it’s a family writ larger than in our own homes. The saddest part of their particular mess is the triangle of Charles and Camilla and Di. Having a husband/lover who is always thinking of another is a soul crushing, living hell. It’s a shattering experience, and whatever personal struggles and demons Diana had herself—-bipolar/borderline personality, bulimia-—the unrelenting presence of Camilla in her marriage doomed any spec of happiness she might have known.

And to make it worse, Diana was horribly subjected to the subtle and not so subtle power plays from everyone around her. For instance, Camilla supposedly is responsible for Di getting into that monstrosity of a wedding dress, under the guise of the old guard helping her. Parker-Bowles supposedly laughed and laughed with her friends at how successful she was in making the wedding of the century look buffoonish. (This sickening power play is at least a plausible explanation for that nightmare in taffeta.)

It also illuminates how utterly Diana’s mother was missing from the whole equation, and what a devastating absence it proved to be. Frances Althorp Shand Kydd was an enigmatic woman. She also married young, to an older man of stature, and found herself in an unhappy marriage. She had an affair with Peter Shand Rydd, and a year later divorced Diana’s father and married him. (He would leave her years later for a younger woman.) It seems that with this kind of split, where Lady Althorp's own mother testified against her in the custody hearing in favor of Lord Althorp getting custody of their children, she wasn’t very close to her daughter at all, and that’s very sad for both of them.

In the end, I admired Diana for playing the hand she was dealt. She developed her dazzling style and looks as a way to parry the blows to her self esteem from the Royal family. She refused to stay in a sham marriage, and believed that she could have actual love with the right man, if she could find him. She saw two little boys through their early childhood with much genuine love and caring. And in the larger historical dimension, she reinvigorated the monarchy for all time. It was a short life well lived.

Mother Teresa, Losing Her Faith
Mother Teresa died six days later on Sept. 5. She was 87 years old, and her death was neither sudden nor violent. At this ten-year mark we learn of the forthcoming book with letters in her own hand that speak to her loss of belief in God. Teresa had been an ordinary teaching nun of the Sisters of Loreto of Ireland for 15 years when she received a “call within the call” to leave her convent and work with the misery of the world’s poorest poor.

What follows is a life that has been lionized and pulled apart from every angle. Either her homes for the poor are badly run or they aren’t. There are questions of where all the donations to her Sisters of Charity go—so the accounting is questionable. There’s the question of her judgment, in aligning herself with the likes of Charles Keating. Nothing here is surprising. Human institutions and their leaders are always corrupt in some way.

But her internal loss of faith is startling. For fifty years she struggled to regain her faith in Christ: “for there is such terrible darkness within me, as if everything was dead. It has been like this more or less from the time I started 'the work.'"

Even the Eucharist had no meaning for her, which pretty much caps it: “I just have the joy of having nothing — not even the reality of the Presence of God [in the Eucharist]."

For the cynics team, this means she lead a life of complete hypocrisy. That she “knew” there was no God, and she didn’t have the courage to admit it. Of course she has no more actual knowledge on the subject than any of us.

Just as Princess Diana was subjected to much armchair psychology, there are theories in the Time piece that Mother Teresa needed to sabotage her own success. Maybe. Maybe she wanted to leave her institution just as much as Diana wanted to leave hers, but didn’t have the strength or ability to make it happen.

I find much to learn from both of these larger-than-life women, and it all comes back to love. As a late teenager Diana thought she had found it in Charles, and she paid for her misperception for the rest of her life, and one could argue, with her life. Mother Teresa once felt a presence of Christ’s love so strong that it negated the need for the love of an earthly kind. She was surprised and saddened when she later felt that His love had abandoned her, and she faced fifty years in a depressed darkness where she simply continued on as best she could. Such is the reality of many lives.

The two women admired one another, and I read somewhere that Diana is buried with a rosary that was a gift from Mother Teresa. Considering what an RC custom that is, it seems a little unlikely, but it’s a lovely thought.

Here’s the stirring hymn from Diana’s funeral, I Vow to Thee My Country.