Archive for the BOOKS & AUTHORS Category

On W.T. Stead: The Most Ironic of Titanic Victims

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 5, 2017 by travsd

July 5 is the birthday of William Thomas Stead (1849-1912). I was flabbergasted to learn about this fascinating man only recently — flabbergasted not only because of how he died (I pride myself on being a fairly knowledgeable Titanic buff) but because of his significance while he lived. But better late than never!

Stead was widely regarded as the greatest newspaperman of his time. When he was only 22, he became the youngest newspaper editor in Britain (the paper was the Northern Echo). He’d only been a journalist for a year at the point. The ambitious Stead grew the paper to a national circulation, to the extent it was considered a factor in Gladstone’s election in 1880. That year he became assistant editor at the Pall Mall Gazette, one of the most powerful newspapers in the country, assuming full editorship in 1883.

Stead was known as a crusader. Matthew Arnold termed his revolutionary editing style “The New Journalism”; it was also nicknamed “Government by Journalism”. Stead was a pioneer of the idea that the news could effect outcomes; that news could impact public opinion in such a way to change laws to bring about social progress or other desirable goals. His most successful accomplishment along these lines became known as the Stead Act, a law made by Parliament to raise the age of sexual consent in Britain from 13 to 16, a result of his 1885 series of articles called The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon. The circulation of the Gazette grew to such an extent during this series that the newspaper itself ran out of paper to print it on; copies were actually re-sold at inflated prices. (As a result of this story, for which he actually purchased a child in order to prove sexual slavery was taking place, he did three months in prison. That’s being rather too technical, don’t you think? He was actually fighting to stop the practice).

Stead was also interested in poverty, and matters of war and peace. He is said to have met with William Randolph Hearst a year prior to the Spanish American war to discuss his tactics and techniques. I learned about him when I encountered his fascinating 1901 book The Americanization of the World, in which he posits the interesting premise that Great Britain and America should merge, or re-join. With their combined empires (America had recently acquired former Spanish colonies), the two nations would undeniably rule most of the planet. Typical of the liberals at the time, Stead’s attitude toward the darker peoples of the world was one of benevolent paternalism. I think he actually uses Kipling’s phrase “The White Man’s Burden” in the book. Thus he is okay with empire, so long as the objective is the well-being of those being “protected”. Time has since disabused most enlightened people of that fallacious, pie-eyed outlook.

Purported spirit photo of Stead and a ghostly visitor

Stead left the Gazette in 1889 to found two new periodicals: The Review of Reviews (a news magazine) and Borderland, a spiritualist quarterly (he was a prominent and vocal devotee).

In 1912, he was travelling to New York on the Titanic to take part in a Peace Conference. The ironies of his dying in this manner are multiple: One: who better to have covered the story? Had he survived, the reportage would have been incredible. And had he not taken the trip at all, his magazine would have covered it. In fact, he had previously published an article about the issue of ocean liners having insufficient life boats! Also: the idea of a prominent spiritualist dying in this manner is bound to bear fruit, and it finally did. Ten years after he died, Stead’s daughter claimed to have spoken to him with the assistance of a medium. The resulting “revelations” were published as the book The Blue Island: Experiences of a New Arrival Beyond the Veil. And so you see, the ultimate irony is, perhaps he did report on the sinking, after all…IF you believe…

Today he is memorialized in New York with the plaque in Central Park, near 91st Street and Fifth Avenue:

 

Three Cheers for “Four of the Three Musketeers”

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, Comedy Teams, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Hollywood (History), Marx Brothers with tags , , , , on June 29, 2017 by travsd

We’d been drooling to get our mitts on Robert S. Bader’s Four of the Three Muskeers: The Marx Brothers On Stage, ever since we heard it was in the works back at Marxfest in 2014. It was published back in October; apologies for only just now getting to it.

The book is everything that was advertised — it makes all previous books on the Marx Brothers look incomplete, introductory, and incorrect. It’s not the hugest shock that books like this one and Arthur Wertheim’s recent W.C. Fields from Burlesque and Vaudeville to Broadway are only just coming out now, over a century after the acts got their start, and decades and decades after they passed on to Vaudeville Valhalla. Only 21st century information culture could make both the research and the market possible. For Marx Brothers fans, the rewards and the punishments of most previous accounts have been the same thing: first-person testimony from the comedians themselves, who were first, last and always entertaining storytellers, but the most unreliable of unreliable narrators. It makes for great entertainment and cocktail party conversation, but plenty of frustration for the people who would like to know what really happened.

As for the facts, it ain’t ever gonna get better than Bader’s book. He’s spent most of his life with his nose buried in primary sources on this topic. He discovered the location of Groucho’s first audition. He uncovered the fact that one of Groucho’s first colleagues may have been the perpetrator of a grisly murder! We learn that one of the most most famous Marx Brothers anecdotes (how they came to become a comedy act when the audience ran out of the theatre to look at a runaway mule) was actually TWO anecdotes (the two incidents happened on separate occasions.) Countless revelations on that order are presented. For the first time ever we get to see the evolution of the vaudeville act in bite sized increments with minute detail as to the venue and the city and what the performances consisted of.  Let the buyer beware though: this is not the gateway drug. For an introductory book for the casual movie fan, I would still probably recommend Joe Adamson’s Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo, which may be much hazier and out-of-date with regard to facts, but is the most entertaining cocktail to quaff on its effervescent topic. Bader’s book is for the junkie, the obsessed fan who is at the end of his rope in the strung-out need to know more. There are countless countless rewards in this book for that readership.

And I’d also add, for those interested in the wider topic of vaudeville, this book delivers many dividends, as well. As the name implies, the book is concentrated on the Marx Brothers of the vaudeville and Broadway years. It touches a little on the movies towards the end, but the focus is on the early years. There are many passages on the machinations of the U.B.O. (United Box Office), and the jostling of the various circuits for prominence, and relations between vaudeville managers and labor (the acts). The book gives a real feel for the cockamamie way the team came up, which was very different from someone like W.C. Fields who went right to the big time in a clear, easy to digest manner. Because of poor management and bad decisions by their mother Minnie, the brothers spent long years toiling near the bottom of the smallest small time. Groucho, in particular suffered — he’d made the big time quite early as a child star, but Minnie’s insistence on creating a family act meant starting at the bottom again. And the team was also banned from the big time Keith circuit for long periods, until they got so big in small time chains like Pantages, that even the notoriously cantankerous E.F. Albee couldn’t justify banning them, despite their flagrant indifference to his many rules. Some of the sections of the business end of “The Business” contain more detail than even rabid Marx Brothers fans will want or require, but scholars (even casual pseudo-scholars like me) will be grateful that Bader worked that stuff out and published it. It’ll be a useful thing to lay one’s hands on again and again, as will this entire book be.

Special thanks to Noah Diamond. 

Just Carrie: A Tribute to Carrie Fisher by Lauren Milberger on #StarWars40th

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, Movies (Contemporary), OBITS, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 25, 2017 by travsd

 

Guest contributor Lauren Milberger’s previous pieces for Travalanche have included essays on Gracie Allen and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Today she observes the 40th anniversary of the release of Star Wars with this tribute to the recently-passed Carrie Fisher.

“I don’t want my life to imitate art. I want my life to be art.” — Carrie Fisher

The day after Carrie Fisher passed away in December, and for subsequent days afterward, letters still flooded the U.K. newspaper The Guardian where Fisher had an advice column. Not because these people had no idea the actor/writer had just died, but because they thought maybe in some way Fisher could still reach out to them, just as her character Princess Leia had reached out when she was in need: “Obi-Wan Kenobi, you are my only hope.”

After its premiere in 1977, Star Wars became a surprise hit that not only changed the way films were made and how we consume them, but went on to become a global phenomenon. Its creator George Lucas has even referred to it as a “religion,” and for many it holds a cult-like quality over their lives. And what may just be a film for some, has for millions become a beacon of joy passed down from generation to generation. For most, Carrie Fisher’s likeness as Princess Leia has been in their lives since childhood or early adulthood. Whether the film was the glue that brought their family together or solace for them in bad times, Carrie Fisher’s status as a pop culture icon is one draped in the nostalgia of youth, a line ofdemarcation between childhood .and adult responsibility. I have to digress for a moment and admit that I began writing this essay the day after Carrie Fisher died; but when her mother, Debbie Reynolds, passed away that same night, I just put it away. This is in fact my third, as they say in show business, “pass” writing about Carrie Fisher since her passing. For many, 2016 was a hard year personally and creatively, one which included the loss of so many great artists who had touched our lives. Carrie Fisher was no different but her connection to our childhood as a symbol of, well, hope, gave the end of 2016 even more of a sting. I ended 2016 with a scratched cornea, meaning the year had both figuratively and literally broken me. But I see now that my writer’s block was in fact caused by how hard it was to write about Carrie Fisher in the past tense – so much of her life was lived in the vibrant, take-no-prisoners, present. Because Carrie Fisher to me, and to millions, was more than a pop culture princess. She was a wit, a mental health and addiction advocate, a script doctor, an advice giver, a raconteur … a bullshit barometer. (Not to mention Dog Lover and Coca-Cola connoisseur) Carrie was once asked who she would be without Princess Leia: “Just Carrie” she responded plainly. It doesn’t feel right to celebrate forty years of Star Wars without Carrie Fisher. But maybe the best way to celebrate this day is to remind people of her real impact beyond the stars. So in celebration today here is my new (and a little of the old) essay, I hope you enjoy it.

“You know the bad thing about being a survivor… You keep having to get into difficult situations in order to show off your gift.”

I was lucky enough to have met Carrie Fisher a few times and crossed paths (more on that later) with her on a few occasions over the last fifteen years (as a fan). For me, Carrie Fisher was an inspiration at a very formative time in my life, and is even more so now, after her passing. Now, I’m not talking about Star Wars. And listen, I’m not saying there is anything wrong with remembering Carrie Fisher for Star Wars – as our Princess Leia, and later, General Organa. Carrie herself knew (and repeated in interviews) that she knew that would always be the first– and probably the last – line in her obituary. As she said in public and in private to those who knew and worked with her (including actress Maria Thayer who recalled the same story on my podcast The Fordcast), Carrie Fisher’s impact as a strong female character set the mold – or at least the on-ramp – toward women in (what Carrie called) “all-boy fantasies.” Women who stood up for themselves and were able to take the blasters right out of the boy’s hands and save themselves. First impressions for children are important, as is equal representation, inspiring across the boards and sexes. In 2004, on the radio show Fresh Air, Carrie recounted how she had gone to her first fan convention and was shocked when a woman told her that Leia had inspired her to become a lawyer. What Leia was, and Carrie Fisher became,​ was a role model – embodying a visual example for men and women, girls and boys – of what a woman’s place in the world could be: working alongside the menfolk, not two steps behind. In the end, Carrie Fisher the person became an icon, as herself: a kickass woman who, like Leia, spoke up for her beliefs and demanded to be heard. For it was in real life that Carrie inspired people, especially women, not only for being outspoken, but also the notion of survival with a sense of humor. Yes, I spent many a day as a tiny tot watching Star Wars religiously, while simultaneously chewing on the tiny nose of her Empire Strikes Back action figure; but it was her words as a writer that I mentally chewed on, way past my teething stage. Look – the internet is lousy with far more qualified people than myself to talk about Star Wars, especially today of all days. I would just be another voice in the crowd, and I don’t need or like to do what has already been done. Carrie taught me that. After her death, I was warmed by how many journalists and social media users took the time to remember Carrie Fisher the writer, the wit and – if I can be so bold – the humorist. Not to mention acknowledging her as a voice for mental health and addiction who has inspired millions fighting their own personal battles, Star Wars was just the vehicle that brought her to us. The same way Leia fought her war of resistance against the Empire, Carrie was fighting her own wars with mental health and addiction, and in time helped others fight this same battle by example.

“Do not let what you think they think of you make you stop and question everything you are.”

George Burns, a humorist in his own right, once said, “Someone who makes you laugh is a comedian. Someone who makes you think and then laugh is a humorist. If you’re familiar enough with the work, comedy, and banter of Carrie Fisher, you know she possessed very little self-censorship when it came to letting an opportunity for a joke or pun pass her by – so much so that it was as if she had been a vaudeville comedian in a previous life. When asked where she got her personality, she replied, “Sears.” In fact, Carrie Fisher would be the first one to make a joke at the expense of her own death. In fact, she would want us all to laugh and make jokes. Yes, I think I would be paying Carrie Fisher the best possible tribute when I say she never left a hole – I mean, that she never left a void – go un- … okay, well maybe that isn’t appropriate for this medium … but Carrie would have loved the effort. Because what Carrie Fisher did was take ownership of her own narrative by making fun of it.

“I thought I would inaugurate a Bipolar Pride Day. You know, with floats and parades and stuff! On the floats we would get the depressives, and they wouldn’t even have to leave their beds – we’d just roll their beds out of their houses, and they could continue staring off miserably into space. And then, for the manics, we’d have the manic marching band, with manics laughing and talking and shopping and f*%#ing and making bad judgment calls.”

If Nora Ephron’s mantra was “everything is copy,” then Carrie Fisher’s might have been that “nothing is sacred” – or in her own words, “If my life wasn’t funny, it would just be true, and that is just unacceptable.” Carrie weathered two marriages (she was actually married only once, but often called the father of her daughter her “second husband”), drug addiction issues, bipolar disorder, drug relapse, being committed, electroshock treatment, being left by her “second husband” for a man, her mother’s failed marriages (take a breath now and:), and her mother’s two husbands, who took all her mother’s money and left her bankrupt (and breathe again). However, Carrie found a way to comment and poke fun at every melodramatic moment of her life (“I am a spy in the house of me”); and, as absurd as it sounds, I am now half-expecting Carrie Fisher to comment on her own death, throwing out one of her one-liners on a talk show or in an emoji-riddled tweet (Most of her tweets, if you are unaware, were in need of a cartographer and a U.N. Translator). I wouldn’t be surprised to discover some letter in her will from Beyond. The. Grave. I mean, you can already trace Carrie Fisher’s life by her fiction (or roman a clefs) alone: Postcards From The Edge (rehab), Surrender To The Pink (first marriage), Delusions of Grandma (motherhood), and The Best Awful (institutionalization and release). There are her more recent memoirs detailing the in-between, as well, including the book and Broadway show Wishful Drinking, many of which echo lines and moments from of her aforementioned novels. You might say Carrie Fisher’s life was an open book (yes, I said it…); and, you know what, Carrie Fisher was fine with that. She said it helped her cope; and, just as importantly, it helped other people cope through her honesty. Since her death, stories of fans who spoke to Carrie at signings and conventions – and even in private twitter messages of advice about their shared troubles, have come out of the woodwork. She counseled, advised, and commiserated with people, not just by example as most celebrities do, but with the personal, imperfect precision of her candor. I say imperfect because what Carrie Fisher taught us was that perfect was overrated.

That even though she was born into Hollywood royalty as the daughter of a movie star and a pop star, and starred in a global franchise as a Princess, that didn’t mean she was free of problems – far from it. “Say your weak things in a strong voice,” she would say, “I’m very powerful about my weaknesses.” She inspired many to take ownership and control of what might otherwise tear them down, and not just in brief fan encounters. Carrie Fisher was known to bring strangers and friends to stay in her guest house: those who needed a place to stay, addicts in recovery, even one woman she had just met at an AA meeting who was living in her car. Carrie once expressed that it gave her a sense of community, being open and honest about herself with people, even strangers. She felt that commenting on her own life in humorous ways helped her feel somehow outside of it all, looking down. This way of living life, of not feeling ashamed of one’s own weaknesses – of making sure life was funny – became a battle cry for many people, including myself. And although I personally don’t struggle with mental illness or addiction, she opened my mind up to a world I would have never been privy to. She had this effect not only on her fans, but on many people. The outpouring of remembrance on Twitter from people who had never met Carrie, or who only met her briefly, spoke of how she touched so many with an openness we normally don’t grant to strangers. Even Mark Hamill, her Star Wars co-star (Luke Skywalker) said the same about Carrie when he recalled their first meeting. Stories still pour into Twitter and Facebook about people who sat next to her at a charity event, or on an airplane. And the overall theme (except for maybe the guy who got drunk with her in first class) was that Carrie’s connection to people seemed to come from a genuine place. Sharon Horgan, the star and creator of Catastrophe (Carrie Fisher’s last filmed performance), said “Carrie Fisher was so real it was dangerous.”

“So it’s not what you’re given, it’s how you take it.”

My story with Carrie Fisher may be the least interesting. The first time I met Carrie Fisher was after I had just moved to New York and there were far more Barnes & Noble around than there are today. I attended a free signing for Carrie’s book, The Best Awful. It was a moment I had been waiting for since my mother took me as a young teen to the used book store in our home town and I bought a beat up copy of Surrender The Pink. Carrie, first of all, was funny, and that meant something to me at that age. I don’t remember when I first knew that, knew that she was funny – that she could spin words in the air the way my youthful mind dreamed up, in comic couplets and wry, irreverent phrases. All I know is that Carrie Fisher being funny was what led me to buy that first book, and later pay more attention far past a childhood fancy. And I knew long before I read her fiction, the above-mentioned quote, ​“If my life wasn’t funny, it would just be true…” resonated with a little dyslexic girl who was struggling. I had clung to that phrase as my own mantra. When I would come home from school, crying my eyes out from being bullied, there was that line telling me: “Have a sense of humor. Life is hard. You can get through this.” I would try to craft my own one-liners (e.g. “Majoring in acting in college is a high-priced degree in waitressing,” and “I’m Jewish, the other white meat!”) and practice my “talk show” banter. I wrote her quotations, among others, on my notebooks and brown paper-covered school books. I borrowed her other books from the library and never missed a talk show appearance. Any memories of Star Wars I had slowly faded away, replaced by Carrie Fisher The Writer. At this signing, not only had I brought her current book, but the aforementioned beat-up copy of Surrender The Pink. I was young and nervous, and sat in the back.

On every seat in the small room across from Lincoln Center, were papers with the rules of Barnes and Noble: no pictures (pictures in line that don’t stop the line are fine), and no signed memorabilia…books only! I saw two people holding Return Of The Jedi 8x10s (a young man and woman) sit down next to me, read the paper, and then leave. I was appalled. “How dare they!” At least stay and hear her read her amazing words. Carrie arrived and posed for pictures in a comedic way that suggested she found the whole idea absurd. After all, that was her persona: the child of a celebrity who saw it for what it was, in all its, well, absurdity. After Carrie read from her book, I made my way through the line until I was finally face-to-face with my hero. “You make me want to be a writer,” I blurted to her and then she smiled and said only one sentence to me. It confused me, so I gave her an odd look back, and just walked away. What had she said to me? Later, while recounting the story to a friend, I tried to remember. She had said something about…trying. I think…

My friend interrupted, “Did she say, ‘Do. There is no try?’”

“Yes,” I exclaimed, “How did you know that?”

“That’s Yoda, Lauren. She spoke Yoda to you.”

The last time I had seen Empire Strikes Back was in high school and it wasn’t like I hadn’t had all the Han Solo and Princess Leia scenes memorized; but, I guess it hadn’t occurred to me she would speak Star Wars to me. I wasn’t there for Star Wars. And my friend and I both just laughed our faces off.

‘There’s no room for demons when you’re self-possessed.”

I’ve often said being dyslexic is like having a buffet not of your choosing and everyone’s plate is different. Carrie Fisher grew up with a love of books and words, and so did I – only that part of my life was a tragic romance. And today, her frankness still resonates with me – especially after, three years ago, I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease … ”Say your weak things in a loud voice.” This is the first time I have admitted publicly to what has been a four year struggle with my health. And even now, saying this in print is scary. Here’s the thing about Carrie Fisher: she was still sensitive and vulnerable and filled with self-doubt like all of us are – and this isn’t a guess, this is based on her own words and her Twitter feed. Up to her death she was still fighting against Hollywood’s and society’s age and beauty restrictions on women: “Please stop debating about whether or not I aged well. Unfortunately it hurts all three of my feelings.” Or in a lighter mode, at Montreal’s Just for Laugh’s Festival 2016, “Can everybody see me okay? I have to double check because I’m from Hollywood, and ya know, women my age tend to be invisible there.”

Her last book, The Princess Diarist, published only a month before her death, contained Fisher’s personal diaries from when she was nineteen and filming Star Wars in 1978. It was raw, unedited and unflinching, and showed – at least to ​me – a young women I recognized as once having been ​in my life, and one I think many women could relate to. It also showed how far Carrie Fisher had grown emotionally. What many creators of current heroic female characters in pop culture seem to forget is that strength in a woman (or any human) isn’t about how strong she is physically, or how little emotion she expresses; it’s that vulnerability is its own form of strength. “Be afraid. But do it anyway,” was how Carrie Fisher said it. That’s bravery.

“I have problems; my problems don’t have me.”

What I think may be most important thing about the last years of Carrie Fisher’s life is that, unlike her Fresh Air interview in 2004, she now understood not only what Star Wars meant to people, but also what she had meant to people. There is a moment in HBO’s Bright Lights, the documentary about her and her mother (most likely filmed in 2014), in which Carrie tells the camera that she believes her fans look up to Leia and not her. Yet with all the stories of people’s interactions with Carrie, sharing their stories with her, of how she had helped them with their depression, anxiety, and so on, I can’t imagine that, by the end of those two years, she didn’t see how they loved her, just Carrie. She looked people in the eyes, made sure they got a picture (even when they weren’t allowed to), held hands, and often hugged people as soon as they started crying. She showered them with actual glitter, because everyone deserves a little glitter in their life. Some might say she faked this for the money. Carrie herself even comically called them “lap dances” but at least from the outside it looked like the resurgence of Star Wars had helped her understand her own appeal. ​Through the release of The Force Awakens I found myself being reminded of my love of Star Wars and my first introduction to Carrie. I had forgotten what it had meant to me. I started co-hosting a Harrison Ford podcast and now, if someone quotes Yoda to me, I know it. Because of that podcast, I was lucky enough to attend the Catastrophe TV panel at the Tribeca Film Festival and the premiere of Bright Lights at the NY Film Festival with Carrie (Debbie actually called and sang to us over the phone). It even seemed odd to me at the time, but in 2016 I crossed paths with Carrie Fisher about four times. The last time I saw Fisher was a signing for The Princess Diarist, in NYC. If you’ve seen Bright Lights or read her Twitter feed, you’ll understand why I gave Carrie a package of Coca-Cola Lip Smackers, because it made me laugh and I thought it would make her laugh, too. It did. I also had the feeling I should give her a little note to tell her how she had helped me. The signing was November 22nd in New York City, and she collapsed on Dec 23rd, preparing to land in Los Angeles.

“I feel I’m very sane about how crazy I am.”

Meryl Streep’s posthumous quotation from Carrie at the Golden Globes this year, “Take your broken heart, make it into art,” seemed like the fitting epitaph to her life. And then about a month after Carrie’s passing, a Women’s March ​was held around the world. A feminist icon herself, Carrie was there, to my own surprise and delight. In posters and signs, shirts and slogans, the rabble-rouser Princess from the rebel base shone big and bright. Mixed in with the rebel princess signs were a few “Carrie Fisher sent me,” because send us she had. After Carrie Fisher passed away, her ashes were kept in a giant, vintage Prozac pill-shaped impromptu urn (a favorite item or hers). Not her idea, per se, but her spirit. So…we should all be so lucky be live life big enough to end up in a big, giant, porcelain Prozac pill. Carrie Fisher’s life, like the books she loved, now has a clear beginning, middle, and end. Carrie went from the Princess to the Jedi Master. She became Obi Wan Kenobi the teacher … or perhaps one of the letters sent to The Guardian sums it up best:

“Hi Carrie….I know you’re dead. But that shouldn’t stop you from continuing to respond to those who are sick and suffering, because come on, you were super-human in life – and in death you’ve become even more powerful.”

“Back then I was always looking ahead to who I wanted to be versus who I didn’t realize I

already was, and the wished-for me was most likely based on who other people seemed to be and

the desire to have the same effect on others that they had on me.”

Carrie Fisher — 1956-2016 

R.I.P. Jean Stein

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, OBITS, Women with tags , , , , , , , on May 4, 2017 by travsd

It took surprisingly long for word to trickle down to me that Jean Stein has left us (she died April 30, The New York Times reported on it on May 2). It was an apparent suicide; she was 83 and depressed, and she appears to have leaped from her 15 floor Gracie Square apartment. That is a spectacular, melodramatic and flashy end for a famous person; I’m kind of shocked the world isn’t talking about it (but then I’m not so shocked. After all, we’re trying to keep from drowning at the moment. Today, my feeds are full of people trying to prevent the overturning of Obamacare; and planning protests about 45’s visit to NYC today).

I spoke to Stein on the phone once. I applied to be her personal assistant about 10 or 15 years ago. She graciously told me I was overqualified, which was no doubt true, but that’s never a consolation when you badly need a job. She no doubt wanted an intern-slave to do all the drudgery, with no backtalk and no questions asked. Still….ya know…Beckett was Joyce’s assistant. There’s something to be said for taking a turn at somebody’s feet.

Stein’s book Edie (about socialite-model-actress-trendsetter Edie Sedgwick) is on my shortlist of favorite books (along with Helter Skelter and A Night to Remember) which I have read numerous times and will without a doubt read many times again. It’s better described as a job of editing than a job of writing, but the story she and her collaborator George Plimpton tell in this case, is so ripping, riveting and richly eloquent about America, families, art, capitalism, sex, EVERYTHING, that you can’t put it down. Like those other books I mentioned, I tend to read it cover to cover in one sitting, which usually takes several hours…much like, I dunno, watching Warhol’s movie Empire, but if it were fascinating instead of excruciating. My wife is also a big fan; the copy in our home belongs to her.

I was much less enamored of Stein’s most recent book West of Eden, which came out last year. I couldn’t even finish it actually. Whereas Edie seemed the definitive, epic encapsulation of its subject, West of Eden (about Hollywood) seemed to work much harder for less effect, telling numerous somewhat interesting stories where a single story, told in greater depth would have been much more effective. It’s disappointing, because Stein was essentially Hollywood royalty. Her father, Jules Stein, founded MCA, that HUGE talent agency (to tie it into familiar subjects of this blog, Stein’s clients included Jack Benny, Eddie Cantor, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, and Frank Sinatra). Jean’s own life was dazzling, as well. She was Elia Kazan’s assistant when he directed Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. She had an affair with William Faulkner. She was an editor at The Paris Review and at Grand Street. And she raised two highly accomplished daughters: Katrina vanden Heuvel has been the editor of the leftwing The Nation for many years; Wendy vanden Heuvel is an actress and teacher who worked with the likes of Joe Chaikin and Jerzy Grotowski and is on the board of the 52nd Street Project. There’s a great interview with her here. 

So this wasn’t one of those deaths of a person torn from us too soon, a life unlived, of unfulfilled promise. Stein gave the world a lot. Still there is a poeticism about her sudden, horrifying departure. It’s just the sort of thing she would have loved to have written about. It’s just the kind of event one read about in her books.

How Shakespeare May Have Written Many More Plays Than You Probably Know About

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, LEGIT, EXPERIMENTAL & MUSICAL THEATRE with tags , , , , , , on April 23, 2017 by travsd

Today is the traditional birthday of William Shakespeare (see our earlier article about him here). Recent years have been exciting ones for Shakespearean scholarship. Computer analysis has been enormously helpful in helping to ascertain the authorship of unattributed or misattributed writings. And the internet has greatly assisted in communication among scholars throughout the world. One of the  exciting revelations of recent years has been the degree to which the Elizabethan theatre was collaborative. It turns out to have been much more like Hollywood than most of us previously thought, with very often several hands contributing to drafting and rewriting scripts, just as is the common practice today. As a result, the list of plays in which Shakespeare may have a hand has grown considerably, as has the list of authors who had a hand in plays previously considered to have been written solely by Shakespeare. Presently, the list looks something like this:

Edmund Ironside:  A play about King Edmund II, plausibly argued by some as Shakespeare’s first play, 1587

Sir Thomas More: Written by Anthony Monday and Henry Chettle circa 1592-1593, with revisions by Dekker, Heywood and Shakespeare ca. 1596. The revised manuscript contains the only example of Shakespeare’s playwriting in his own hand

The Spanish Tragedy:  Written by Thomas Kyd, ca. 1582-1592.  Kyd died in 1594. Shakespeare added additional material ca. 1598, per scholar Douglas Bruster (2013)

The Two Gentlemen of Verona (1589–1591)

Fair Em, The Miller’s Daughter of Manchester: (1590) Shakespeare may be the author

The Taming of the Shrew (1590–1591)

Henry VI, Parts 1, 2 and 3 (1591): by Shakespeare and Marlowe, according to oxford

Titus Andronicus (1591–1592): By Shakespeare and George Peele

Arden of Faversham (1592): Shakespeare possibly wrote some of it.

Richard III (1592–1593)

Thomas of Woodstock: A kind of prequel to Richard II. Some feel Shakespeare wrote it or was otherwise involved.

Edward III (1592–1593) Shakespeare and Kyd 

A Knack to Know a Knave:  ca 1594, Shakespeare may have written part of it

The Comedy of Errors (1594)

Love’s Labour’s Lost (1594–1595)

Love’s Labour’s Won (1595–1596): The famous lost play, possibly known to us by another title, such as Much Ado About Nothing

Richard II (1595)

Romeo and Juliet (1595)

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595)

Locrine: (1595) Possibly written by Peele or Greene, with revisions by Shakespeare

King John (1596)

The Merchant of Venice (1596–1597)

Henry IV, Part 1 (1596–1597)

The Merry Wives of Windsor (1597)

Henry IV, Part 2 (1597–1598)

Much Ado About Nothing (1598–1599)

Mucedorus:  (1598) Some feel Shakespeare may have played a minor role in its creation

Henry V (1599)

Julius Caesar (1599)

As You Like It (1599–1600)

Hamlet (1599–1601)

Twelfth Night (1601)

Troilus and Cressida (1600–1602)

Thomas Lord Cromwell (1602): Most scholars think Shakespeare wasn’t involved in any way, but there are a couple who do

Measure for Measure (1603–1604): Possibly revised by Middleton

Othello (1603–1604)

All’s Well That Ends Well (1604–1605)–Possibly with Middleton

King Lear (1605–1606)

Timon of Athens: (1605–1606) Possibly with Middleton

The London Prodigal: (1605) Published under Shakespeare’s name, but some doubt it. He may have written an outline of the plot with someone else writing the lines

Macbeth (1606): Possibly revised slightly by Middleton

Antony and Cleopatra (1606)

Pericles, Prince of Tyre: (1607–1608) Written with George Wilkins

The Puritan: (1607) Probably by Middleton but some think Shakespeare.

Coriolanus (1608)

A Yorkshire Tragedy: (1608) Published as Shakespeare’s but most think Middleton

The Merry Devil of Edmonton: (1608) Shakespeare may have played minor role in its creation

The Winter’s Tale (1609–1611)

Cymbeline (1610)

The Tempest (1610–1611)

Cardenio (1612–1613) Thereby hangs a tale! A play by Shakespeare and Fletcher referred to in many documents, but thought lost for centuries, and supposed to be an adaptation of a yarn taken from Don Quixote. At least two plays have emerged which have been claimed to have actually been Cardenio. One is Double Falsehood. In 1727, Lewis Theobold first presented this play, claiming that he took it from three manuscripts of an unnamed lost Shakespeare play. A couple of prominent published editions now credit it this way. Another play, called The Second Maiden’s Tragedy, has also been claimed to be Cardenio, and has been both published and produced advertising that supposition 

Henry VIII (1612–1613)  Co-written with Fletcher

The Two Noble Kinsmen:(1613-1614) Co-written with Fletcher

Letterman: The Last Giant of Late Night

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, Comedians, Comedy, PLUGS, Television, TV variety with tags , , , , on April 12, 2017 by travsd

David Letterman’s birthday is today. We wrote a couple of earlier posts with some thoughts about this influential show biz figure (here and here), so today, I thought I’d plug Jason Zinoman’s must-read new book Letterman: The Last Giant of Late Night. We much enjoyed his earlier book Shock Value (reviewed it here) as do we particularly relish his comedy coverage for the New York Times. The marriage of author and subject promises to be nothing but fortunate in this case, and we can’t wait to sink our teeth into it. It was released yesterday.

Thomas Wolfe on Vaudeville

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, CULTURE & POLITICS, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , on April 7, 2017 by travsd

‘Tis well to remember sometimes in this forum that not everyone loved vaudeville back in the day. Some were too elitist, “Victorian”, or bigoted — any number of things. I hit an interesting passage while reading Thomas Wolfe’s Of Time and the River last night. The Great Southern Author writes of his early months in Boston and Cambridge while attending Harvard. This transplantation was the great theme of Wolfe’s life. It echoes the journey made by own father, one of the reasons I am drawn to Wolfe’s writing. There was considerable culture clash. Thus, I came across this passage:

“…Later he would go out on the sparsely peopled Sunday streets, turning finally, as a last resort, into Washington Street, where the moving-picture palaces and cheap vaudeville houses were filled with their Sunday Irish custom.

Sometimes, he went in, but as one weary act succeeded the other, and the empty brutal laughter of the people echoed in his ears, seeming to him forced and dishonest, as if people laughed at the ghosts of mirth, the rotten husks of stale wit, the sordidness, hopelessness, and sterility of their lives oppressed him hideously. On the stage he would see the comedian again display his red neck-tie with a leer, and hear the people laugh about it; he would hear again that someone was a big piece of cheese, and listen to them roar; he would observe again the pert and cheap young comedian with nothing to offer waste time portentously, talk in a low voice with the orchestra leader; and the only thing he liked would be the strength and the balance of the acrobats”

It is especially interesting to note that the young man was majoring in play-writing at the time. Doubly interesting to note that after several years and several plays, the alienated, solitary and verbose young man realized that fiction, not theatre, was his true metier (with the considerable help of the producers who would not produce his lengthy theatrical efforts). I also note that Wolfe frequently uses the word “cheap” as an epithet, revealing a certain amount of class bias. Some (the poor, for instance) might regard cheap entertainment as an unqualified good.  And lastly — and significantly — it is important to note that Wolfe DID like SOMETHING on the bill: the acrobats. And that is the whole point of vaudeville, art, and life. Nobody every said you had to like all of it.

To find out more about vaudeville past and presentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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