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Monday, April 28, 2008

Five People Killed By Their Own Inventions

Can you imagine putting years of time, effort and money into a life-changing invention that you think will:
a) Make you tons of money
b) Make you famous
c) Change the world
d) All of the above

And instead, your amazing invention ends up being your kiss of death? It happens… maybe infrequently, but it does happen. Below, check out five examples of inventors who might have prolonged their lives if they had never dreamed up their creations.
Bad Blood

Alexander Aleksandrovich Bogdanov was a Russian Renaissance Man – his interests included physics, philosophy, economics, science fiction, the universal systems theory and, his downfall – the possibilty of human rejuvenation through blood transfusion. Bogdanov was interested in the theory that a blood transfusion could possibly hold the secret to eternal youth, or at least slow the aging process. He actually performed a blood transfusion on Vladimir Lenin’s sister, Maria Ulianova. He tried 11 of these procedures on himself, with one of his friends remarking that Bogdanov appeared to be 10 years younger.
In 1928, he completed a blood transfusion on himself that ended up resulting in his death. The transfer was from a student who had malaria and tuberculosis. Some suspect that the death was, in fact, a suicide – Bogdanov wrote a very “nervous” political letter shortly before his death.
The Printing Press – Literally

William Bullock is the man responsible for the 1863 invention of the web rotary printing press. It completely changed the printing industry because of how quickly it could produce.
This was one of his many inventions – others included a roof shingle cutter, a cotton and hay press, a seed planter, a lathe cutting machine and a grain drill (which won him a prize from the Franklin Institute).
He perfected his web rotary press in 1860. Although a rotary press was already in operation, Bullock’s allowed continuous large rolls of paper to be used, eliminated the need to hand-feed paper through. The press could print up to 30,000 sheets an hour.
In 1867, though, the machine turned against Bullock. He was adjusting a new press that had been installed for the Philadelphia Public Ledger newspaper and tried to kick a driving belt onto a pulley. His leg got caught into the machine and was completely crushed. He died a little more than a week later during an operation to amputate his leg.
The First Aviation Accident (maybe)


Before the Wright Brothers, there was Otto Lilienthal. Known as the “Glider King”, he was the first person to make successful gliding flights more than once. Publications ran pictures of his successes, which helped to make the idea of inventing a “flying machine” more plausible to the public.
After many years of successes, failure finally caught up with him. On August 9, 1896, he fell from a height of 56 feet and broke his spine. He died the next day, but said “Kleine Opfer müssen gebracht werden!” (”Small sacrifices must be made!”).
The Wright Brothers credited him with as their inspiration for pursuing flight. “Of all the men who attacked the flying problem in the 19th century,” Wilbur Wright said, “Otto Lilienthal was easily the most important.”
Toxic substances couldn’t kill him…

Thomas Midgley, Jr. held more 100 patents, had a degree in mechanical engineering from Cornell and worked for a subsidiary of General Motors. He discovered that adding tetra-ethyl lead to gasoline prevented internal combustion engines from “knocking”. However, this also released huge amounts of lead into the atmosphere, causing health problems and massive pollution. After people at the GM plants started hallucinating and dying of lead poisoning, though, Midgley was assigned to develop a non-toxic refrigerant for household appliance. So, he discovered dichlorodifluoromethane (please don’t ask me to pronounce that), AKA Freon. Turns out that Freon is a chlorinated fluorocarbon, which is insanely bad for the ozone layer. This guy just couldn’t win!
Midgely wouldn’t live much longer to discover other toxic substances, though – in 1940, he developed polio. The disease left him extremely disabled, but, being the inventor that he was, he developed a system of pulleys and ropes to lift him out of bed. It was this invention – and not the hazardous exposure to lead and CFCs – that killed him. In 1944, he got tangled up in the ropes of his contraption and strangled to death.
The Brave Little Tailor


Franz Reichelt was a tailor who was convinced that the next big thing was a coat that doubled as a parachute. So he got busy sewing and developed just that. To test the coat/parachute (coatachute? Paracoat?), Reichelt climbed up to the first deck of the Eiffel Tower. He told authorities that he was going to use a dummy to test the invention, but at the last minute he strapped himself in and jumped to his death in front of a large crowd of spectators. If you YouTube his name, you’ll find video of the entire event. Since this is a family blog, I wasn’t sure that I should link to a man plummeting 60 meters to the cement below.
…And One Man Who Didn’t Die From his Invention


Apparently there’s a long-standing story that Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin died at the “hand” of his namesake invention, the Bowie Knife. I’m just kidding. He helped conceive of the guillotine, obviously. He suggested the beheading machine as a way to humanely execute criminals. Guillotine was actually against the death penalty and hoped that his invention would be a step toward more humanity, which would eventually abolish the death penalty altogether. At the time, people who couldn’t afford to pay for a quick death were decapitated, but it often took quite a few blows and the axe or sword was usually rather dull. Although Guillotin was arrested and imprisoned in the late 1700s, he was not executed. He was freed and died of natural causes in 1814.

The Man Who Invented Mars

Long before the space race and space shuttle, a brilliant, wealthy, charming Boston Brahmin named Percival Lowell popularized the idea that we are not alone in the universe. As the next US spacecraft prepares to descend upon the Red Planet, it's an idea worth revisiting.
By Nancy Zaroulis
April 27, 2008

AT 7:36 P.M. ON May 25, if all goes well, a stranger from Earth will land near the north pole of Mars. It is called Phoenix. To the unscientific eye, it looks like a giant winged bug. It has three legs and a 5-foot-wide central science deck. With its two solar panels deployed, it measures about 18 feet long. It is 7 feet high. It weighs 772 pounds. Its landing parachute is 39 feet wide. When it touches down on the Martian landscape, it will have traveled 423 million miles - the equivalent of almost 18,000 trips around Earth.
Percival Lowell peers at Mars through his Clark telescope. Percival Lowell peers at Mars through his Clark telescope. (Photo from the Lowell Observatory Archives)
more stories like this

Approximately 17 minutes after it lands, its first signals will be received by its controllers. Then it will begin the task for which it was designed - a task that has never been performed before. It will extend its robotic arm and scoop up dirt and ice from beneath the Martian surface for analysis. It will be looking for evidence of life.

"Finding organic compounds on Mars will increase the probability that life may have or does exist there," says Tufts University professor Samuel Kounaves, the lead scientist for the wet chemistry investigation on NASA's Phoenix mission.

Somewhere, a 19th century Boston Brahmin named Percival Lowell will be smiling.

Long before NASA was established in 1958, before JFK's impassioned speech about the space race, and before any of the Apollo missions or space shuttle successes and disasters, Percival Lowell devoted much of his career and considerable fortune to trying to prove that Mars hosted intelligent life. Viewed through his telescopes, the ancient, baleful Red Planet was about the size of a dime. Lowell believed he was seeing a network of canals on its surface. Therefore, he declared, Mars holds intelligent life. It is not necessarily like human life, he emphasized, but it is intelligent enough to build canals.

It is Lowell's vision of Mars that has enthralled and inspired earthlings ever since.

In 1895, Lowell published a book about what he believed he saw. He wrote articles about it for Popular Astronomy and The Atlantic Monthly. He lectured widely about it. He became famous and immensely popular. He was "of medium height, slim and handsome, with an athletic build and an intense expression," his biographer, David Strauss, professor emeritus of history at Kalamazoo College in Michigan, writes in an e-mail. "His erect bearing and fastidious dress contributed to a commanding presence."

Lowell enchanted the public with his charisma and the power and conviction of his beliefs. "He was a very effective popularizer of his ideas," says Robert Millis, director of the Lowell Observatory. "He was the Carl Sagan of his day."

The scientific community was less enthusiastic than the general public about the notion of intelligent life on Mars.

No matter. Wealthy, brilliant, charming when he wanted to be, Percival Lowell was confident in his heritage and convinced of his superiority to the "ruck and rubble" from Southern and Eastern Europe flooding onto America's shores. He was also seriously inner-directed. And with what he was certain was his discovery of the canals, he had found his life's work: to promulgate his sensational belief that Mars was the home of Martians.

LOWELL WAS BORN AT 131 TREMONT STREET in Boston on March 13, 1855, into a family at the pinnacle of what passed for American aristocracy. The first Percival Lowle, as it was then spelled, arrived in America in 1639 from Bristol, England ("the Venice of the West"), and settled in Newbury, north of Boston. His descendants flourished in the law, business, and the arts.

Percival Lowell's upbringing was entirely conventional for a boy of his time and class: early instruction at a "dame school," a couple of years' education in France, attendance at Mr. George W. C. Noble's school to prepare for Harvard. At college, he excelled in both history and mathematics. He won a Bowdoin Prize for his essay on England as a European power, and he gave a commencement address on "The Nebular Hypothesis." Some people thought him the most brilliant young man in Boston.

After graduation and the obligatory tour of Europe, he settled into the family business, much of which involved the textile mills in the city of Lowell. There were - and are - many canals in that city. Before the first brick of the first cotton factory was laid there in the 1820s, Irish canal-cutters - intelligent life - dug the canal beds and built the granite walls to channel the Merrimack River's water to power the mills.

Lowell chafed at life in cold, caste-ridden Boston. He was the most eligible bachelor in the city, but he was not happy. He served as best man at the wedding of Edith Jones and Teddy Wharton, but he himself did not want to be married. He became engaged to a Boston girl, but broke off the engagement - a more serious matter then than it is now.

A man of his time and class, Lowell was a patron of London tailors, a sometime presence on the American expatriate scene in Europe, a connoisseur of wine and spirits deeply opposed to the idea of Prohibition (which fortunately for him did not come in his lifetime). He was an avid reader of Greek and Latin classics in the original and of Chaucer in Middle English. He liked detective stories, too. An enthusiastic polo player, he was one of the founders of the Dedham Polo Club. Within his own household, he was something of a tyrant and was once witnessed kicking his butler down the front steps of his Beacon Hill home and throwing the unfortunate servant's trunk after him.

At a lecture in 1882, Lowell heard about this exotic, faraway land called Japan - at the time, a place as alien, as mysterious, as Mars is to us today, possibly more so. Having made a comfortable fortune in his own right, he decided to go there. For a few years, Japan was all he desired in the way of adventure and separation from Boston. He wrote three well-received books about Japan, and he published a book of photographs about Korea - the first ever seen by the American public of that land. For a time, he served as minister for the first Korean delegation to Washington.

The lure of the Far East faded, however, when he encountered the writings of the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli and the French astronomer Camille Flammarion. There were, Schiaparelli said, "canali" on the planet Mars; Flammarion enlarged upon that idea. In Italian, canali means "channels"; a secondary meaning is "canals," and that was the meaning - the misinterpretation - that was given to Schiaparelli's assertion.

WHEN LOWELL WAS A BOY, he had been given a small telescope, and with it he gazed in fascination at the heavens from the roof of the family home at "Sevenels" in Brookline. Now, as an adult, he was about to embark on a new career: astronomy. It would bring him more fame - and more scorn - than he could have imagined.

Mars was to be in opposition to Earth in 1894 - closer than usual as it traveled its elliptical orbit, and thus in prime position for viewing. Lowell borrowed two telescopes and ordered another, with a 24-inch lens, from the best manufacturer in the country, Alvan Clark & Sons of Cambridgeport. He delegated a man to find a place with the clearest atmosphere for "good seeing." Flagstaff, in the Arizona Territory, was delighted to receive him; the townspeople understood that the Lowell Observatory would bring them worldwide fame. Lowell built his observatory there on "Mars Hill"; eventually he built a 25-room "Baronial Mansion" there, too.

In the clear desert and mountain air, far from the constraints of Boston and free to gaze at the stars with his cherished "Clark," Lowell was happy at Mars Hill. He spent much of the rest of his life there. From his garden and the surrounding desert and mountains, he sent exotic plants to professor Charles Sargent of the Arnold Arboretum. He hosted his many friends and, often, strangers; improbably, he dressed up as Santa Claus to help the local children celebrate Christmas.

The appearance of Lowell's book about Mars in 1895 came at a time of canal-building on earth. The Suez had recently been constructed; the Panama was in the works. For both Lowell and his adoring public, the prospect of canals on a neighboring planet was too captivating to dismiss. Let the stuffy academic scientists and astronomers carp and criticize, let them proclaim that there could not possibly be life on Mars because the Martian atmosphere was too thin, its gravity too weak. Lowell knew what he knew. He envisioned Mars society as a kind of utopia, with a place for every man and every man in his place. On Mars, there was no nonsense about workers' rights or labor unions or Progressivism or Socialism or any of the other discontents in the America of his time.

In 1897, Lowell had a nervous breakdown. At first his family tried to nurse him at home with the most up-to-date treatment: solitary confinement, no visitors, no reading material, no distraction or intellectual activity of any kind. Such a cure, Lowell said, was worse than the illness itself. After a month, he abandoned it. He went to Bermuda and then to the south of France to recuperate.

In 1901, Lowell returned to Flagstaff. Night after night, when the seeing was good, he would climb the ladder in his observatory to peer through the lens of his Clark telescope at the object of his obsession. He published his second book about the Red Planet, Mars and Its Canals, in 1906.

Because Lowell wanted a base in Boston separate from his family, he bought a house at 11 West Cedar Street on Beacon Hill. The seller was a neighbor, an interior decorator, a woman not of his exalted class. In 1908, he married her. While in London on their honeymoon, they ascended 5,500 feet over Hyde Park in a balloon because Lowell wanted to photograph the paths to see how they (or the canals on Mars) would look from the air. In that year, he published his third and final book on the planet, Mars as the Abode of Life.

Back at his observatory on Mars Hill, Lowell renewed his attention to another matter: the possibility of a ninth planet beyond Neptune, which he called "Planet X." The issue of intelligent life on Mars receded, but not much. By then, George du Maurier had published The Martian and H.G. Wells had produced a sensational fiction piece about Martians invading Earth, The War of the Worlds. Edgar Rice Burroughs, a pulp writer who later found immortality with his Tarzan stories, published the first of his Mars fantasies, A Princess of Mars, in 1912. It was an immediate hit. Burroughs wrote several sequels. Along with works by other writers, it was the beginning of the cottage industry that came to be called science fiction.

Despite having another breakdown in 1912, Lowell concentrated increasingly on Planet X. He never found it. He died at Mars Hill of a cerebral hemorrhage on November 12, 1916. A member of the Mars Hill community remembered that shortly before his fatal stroke, he had exploded in anger at a servant. He is buried there in a mausoleum shaped like an observatory with a blue glass dome.

Fourteen years later, in 1930, Lowell Observatory announced the discovery of a ninth planet: Lowell's Planet X. Pluto, as it was named, has since been downgraded to dwarf planet status because it is so small, so lacking in what might be called gravitas.

NINTH PLANET OR NO, Percival Lowell's greatest achievement was to popularize the idea of life on Mars. Astronomers had speculated about that possibility for centuries, but it was Lowell who implanted in the minds of earthlings, once and for all, the idea that we are not alone in the universe - an idea once as unthinkable, as heretical, as the notion that the earth revolves around the sun. Accordingly, in the decades after Lowell's death, the science-fiction genre flourished. Novels, pulp magazines, and the new media of radio, film, and TV kept Lowell's basic concept of Martian life alive, even if that fictional life was not quite the kind he would have approved of.

The public adored these speculative fictions - and sometimes believed them. On the night of October 30, 1938, Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre company appeared in a radio production of The War of the Worlds, updated to suburban New Jersey. At the beginning of the program, an announcer stated that it was a fictional presentation, but many people didn't hear that disclaimer. What they heard was a vivid, spine-chilling account of the invasion of New Jersey by Martians - not Percival Lowell's wise and rather hidebound creatures, but quite nasty super-intelligent beings intent on destroying earthlings. Panic ensued; Welles was thrilled at his success. The lesson was that two decades after Lowell's death, people were prepared to acknowledge that life existed beyond earth - and that it could come here with hostile intent.

During the first wave of Lowell's fame at the end of the 19th century, Robert Goddard of Worcester dreamed of a voyage to Mars. His subsequent development of the liquid-fuel rocket was known to German scientists who made the V-1 and V-2 rockets during World War II. After the war, many of those scientists came to the United States, while some went to the Soviet Union, and the space race was on.

The leading US space scientist was the former head of the German rocket manufactory (and slave camp) at Peenemunde, Wernher von Braun. Like many of his peers, von Braun was enchanted by the idea of man going to Mars. He was also, like Percival Lowell, a popularizer. He published articles and a book about a Martian expedition; he also wrote a novel about Mars.

The space program needed government financing, and the hundreds of science-fiction writers and filmmakers flourishing by the mid-20th century fostered the public's support for the program. People were eager to know about Mars, in particular. In 1976, Viking 1 and Viking 2 transmitted spectacular pictures of a ruddy landscape studded with giant volcanoes and riddled with deep canyons separated by stretches of vast desert. No sign of life was apparent. There has also been a continuing effort to receive a signal from space. This program, SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), is of two kinds: active and passive. Those who favor passive listening warn that when we do encounter extraterrestrial life - or when it encounters us - it may not be friendly.

Finally, early in the 21st century, came life-altering news. The Mars Opportunity Rover had found evidence that Mars had been "soaking wet" in the past. Water meant life - or possible life, at any rate. Soon after that discovery, someone left a glass of champagne at the mausoleum of Percival Lowell with a note: "Far away, hidden from the eyes of daylight, there are watchers in the sky" (Euripides, The Bacchae, circa 406 BC).

THE MARS WE SEEK, WITH OR WITHOUT canals and no matter what the Phoenix mission demonstrates, is Lowell's Mars. The Mars of our imagination is his fantasy, transmogrified a thousand times by writers and filmmakers. The questions that haunted him - questions to which he believed he had found the answers - are questions that haunt us still. Is there life on Mars now? Or was life there once, long ago? If so, what form did it take, and how and why did it die? Is the secret of life on Mars the secret of our own fate?

Now scientists anticipate the landing of the Phoenix next month.

"We are investigating if the soil has the ability to support life, past, present, or for future humans who may land there," says Tufts' Kounaves. The Phoenix will carry four wet chemistry labs to analyze the Martian ice and soil, as well as the first optical and atomic-force microscopes. The craft has been sterilized in accordance with NASA's planetary protection policy to ensure against contamination by earth organisms.

Some people wonder if the space program is worth all the money and effort.

Most definitely, says Maria T. Zuber, E.A. Griswold Professor of Geophysics and head of the department of earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences at MIT. "If you look at how our understanding of the universe, the solar system, and the earth itself have advanced from observations made since the dawn of the Space Age 50 years ago, it's clear that the results have been every bit worth the investment."

The Phoenix mission and its search for evidence of life on Mars is an important step forward in that understanding. Meanwhile, plans for "terraforming" Mars proceed. Terraforming means making the planet - any planet - fit for human life. This research is being conducted in Mars-like environments like Siberia, the Antarctic, and the Canadian Arctic. "The key challenge in making Mars habitable is warming it," says Christopher McKay of NASA's Ames Research Center, a lead researcher in planning for future Mars missions. "The way to warm Mars using technologies we have already demonstrated is to use super-greenhouse gases."

McKay estimates it will be at least 25 years before we can establish a long-term research base on Mars and that warming the planet might take 100 years. One problem will be water: how to melt it, possibly make it fit for human use, and then transport it from the planet's ice caps to the equatorial regions where the colonizers will want to be.

The late Carl Sagan had a solution. If we wanted to transport water across Mars, he said, "we would build canals."

Friday, April 25, 2008

Poor Dorothy Wordsworth

The shadow story of the Wordsworths and Wuthering Heights
Dorothy Wordsworth wrote much and published little, but despite her reticence much has been written about her. Frances Wilson gives us a new and at times startling reading of this enigmatic woman, and does not shy away from discussing what the editor of her letters, Alan G. Hill, described as the “peculiarly insensitive and maladroit” post-Freudian interpretations that have clustered round Dorothy’s relationship with her brother William. Wilson is neither insensitive nor maladroit. She is bold, witty, scholarly and speculative. She is not always respectful, but she is always interesting. She takes on incest, migraines, voyeurism and, at one point, what she describes as a note of “post-coital intensity” in Dorothy’s prose. This gripping narrative presents a character more subtle than the devoted, self-effacing amanuensis of tradition, or the later feminist stereotype. The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth does not claim that Dorothy was a better writer than her brother, or that he repressed her talent by demanding sympathy and giblet pies. What really went on in Dove Cottage remains mysterious, and, as Wilson says, there are parts of the story which we will never know.

Wilson is intrigued by symbiotic literary relationships, by sexual subtexts, and by difficult women. In Literary Seductions (1999) she heroically engaged with the vast oeuvre of two of the most verbose and combative women writers of the twentieth century, Anaïs Nin and Laura Riding, both of whom were passionately involved with famous and prolific authors, the former, incestuously, with her father. Dorothy Wordsworth as a subject offers a different challenge, but demands some of the same literary and psychological skill. Wilson confines her analysis largely to the period leading up to the writing of the Grasmere Journals (1800–03) and to the journals themselves, and she brings her story to an end with an emotional climax and a textual crux. The climax is William’s marriage to his childhood friend Mary Hutchinson; the textual crux is one word in a deleted passage describing the morning of that marriage, and the manner in which William blessed his sister before leaving her on his way to the church – was it “fervently”, as one editor, Helen Darbishire, transcribed, or “softly”, as another, Pamela Woof, proposes? William’s family life and his sister’s decline into what Wilson suggests might now be diagnosed as “depressive pseudodementia” are sketched in briefly, in a closing chapter. The Grasmere Journals are the key text.

The word “text” is inadequate here, for one of Wilson’s achievements is to convey a sense of the journals not simply as texts but as physical objects – four surviving notebooks, bound in different colours, blotted, doodled and with some passages (including that word “fervently/softly”) heavily inked out. We are given the history of their creation and survival, accompanied by illustrations which are both touching and illuminating. The last notebook, which begins on May 4, 1802, is described as small and substantial and “bound in brown leather with a metal clasp”: when Dorothy began to write in it, it already contained drafts of “Michael” and some pages have been cut out from the beginning and end. It is this volume that contains Dorothy’s strangely unsettling account of William’s marriage, which Wilson sees as crucial to an understanding of the intensity of her feelings for her brother.

Wilson is good, throughout, on the physical, and expands on the hints that she is given and some that she is not. She makes us feel the constraints of the living conditions at Dove Cottage: she counts the number of bedrooms and works out who slept where, with whom, and why. She describes the immense walks that Dorothy took, “with mud-encrusted skirts banging against her sturdy legs, her flimsy shoes, her neck and face often wet and cold, her eyes and ears alert to the beauty of every sight” and the disapproving reactions of family and landladies to this bohemian mode of travel. She invokes Miss Bingley’s scorn of Elizabeth Bennet’s three-mile walk to see her sick sister at Netherfield, as well as Thoreau and Bruce Chatwin’s endorsement of revolutionary walking.

Three miles were nothing to the Romantics, as we know, but it is nevertheless startling to be reminded of one long December journey on foot from Keswick to the Clarksons at Eusemere in 1801, past “Saddleback half-covered with snow”, and through “a sharp hail-shower” at the head of Matterdale. The threesome of Mary, Dorothy and William lost its way on the slippery darkening road several times, and Dorothy writes laconically “I was often obliged to crawl upon all fours, and Mary fell many a time”. The Wordsworth wanderings were a strange mixture of defiance, poetry, foolhardiness and bathos: although they spent so much time rambling and sometimes in extreme conditions, both Mary and Dorothy were frightened of cows, and even William preferred to avoid them. It is also surprising to note that, for all their midnight wanderings, they were not very good at astronomy: one of the most endearing of Dorothy’s comments refers to “Jupiter”, seen on a clear night among the many stars in the soft purple sky over Rydale, which she amends – “Jupiter at least we call him, but William says we always call the largest star Jupiter”. The Wordsworth walks were more Brontë than Austen, and Wilson uses Emily Brontë as a key to her understanding of brother and sister:

"When I read Dorothy’s accounts of her love for William in the Grasmere Journals I am moved in the same way as I am by Catherine Earnshaw’s description of her love for Heathcliff . . . and it is through Wuthering Heights that the peculiarity of [their] relationship can best be understood. Powerful in both cases is the elusive, visionary nature of what each woman is straining to define, her hunger for twinship with the one she loves . . . her confusion about where she ends and he begins. "

This comparison makes sense, and it connects with the idea of incest which F. W. Bateson so memorably introduced in 1954 when he suggested that William and Dorothy fell in love in the intimacy of their cold winter in Germany. Bateson, according to Wilson, only pointed out “what was obvious to all”, which is that something odd went on in Goslar. (Wordsworth’s comment that he wrote in Goslar “in self-defence” is intriguing.) The Heathcliff–Catherine relationship has an incestuous element, as they were brought up together as children, and their sexuality is obviously abnormal (though not very unusual in the context of Gothic fiction and Byronic poetry). Emily Brontë could not have read Dorothy’s journals but, Wilson argues, she is more than likely to have read De Quincey’s portraits of the Wordsworths in Tait’s in 1839, which describe her “gipsy tan”, outdoor spirit and impulsive nature. It is intriguing to think that descriptions of the high-minded homely life of Dove Cottage could have prompted the melodramatic tragedy of Wuthering Heights – a shadow story spun from what lay concealed and repressed.

Influence or no, Dorothy and Emily were indisputably and for obvious reasons affected by the same imagery – by solitary flowers and lone birds. I would add to Dorothy’s description of the columbine, “a graceful slender creature, a female seeking retirement”, young Cathy Linton’s response to the last bluebell of summer, which Nelly Dean urges her to pluck for her father: “Cathy stared a long time at the lonely blossom trembling in its earthly shelter, and replied, at length – ‘No, I’ll not touch it: but it looks melancholy, does it not, Ellen?’”. I hadn’t noticed this before, but it now seems pure Dorothy. Emily’s greatest intimacy, like Dorothy’s, was with her siblings, but for Dorothy the sibling relationship with her famous brother was unequal, and became more unequal. Wilson explores the shifting balance between William and Dorothy, and her demotion from the role of the chosen one, the partner swan of the “solitary pair” who inspired “Home at Grasmere”, to that of the “surplus relation” or “perpetual third party”, subsumed by unspoken jealousies. She marks the point at which (with “The Leech Gatherer”) he began to move away from his sister’s way of looking. He ceased to need her insights, her butterflies, her mosses and little birds, though he needed her devotion, her childcare, her cooking. But maybe he needed them only because they were there. Maybe, after the trauma of his marriage to her “dearest sister” Mary, some separation should have taken place, instead of the endlessly loving reassurance that kept her imprisoned in a secondary role and finally, Wilson assumes, drove her into depression and dementia.

Dorothy clearly knew, as the entry for October 4, 1802, indicates, that life would change irrevocably once her brother began to share his bed with Mary. The business of the wedding ring, which she wore on her finger for the night before he was married, and the trance into which she fell, “neither seeing nor hearing anything”, while the ceremony was performed at the church down the road, betray her abnormal state. Wilson disagrees with Dorothy’s biographers Robert Gittings and Jo Manton, who said that her words here are of “transparent truthfulness”: I half suspect that by “transparent” they may have meant “unwittingly revealing”, but were too kind to say so. Wilson is, rightly, more overtly suspicious of double motives and meanings, but I find it impossible to tell whether Dorothy knew how strange her emotion might appear to others, or whether she found it strange herself. Neither Wilson nor Gittings and Manton comment on the fact that Dorothy, in her letters, usually referred to the latest Wordsworth child as “our baby”. One wonders what Mary made of that.

Wilson is excellent on migraines, but I’m sorry that she does not say more about teeth. The most poignant entry in the whole journal is for May 31, 1802, where Dorothy writes “My tooth broke today. They will soon be gone. Let that pass, I shall be beloved – I want no more”. One has to consult Gittings and Manton for an account of the horrors of dentistry at this period: her few painful remaining teeth were removed in 1820, for a fee of fifty guineas, and were replaced by artificial teeth which in those days “consisted of two rigid half-hoops, with carved bone, tusk, or sometimes sheep’s teeth, held in place by a hinged steel spring”. These sound even worse than and, for their day, almost as expensive as implants. Were the bad teeth connected with her migraines? Or with her stammer? Did she grind her teeth in her sleep? We shall never know, but we may guess. Implants are anachronistic, but Wilson does not fear anachronism. She tells us that Mary Hutchinson, the eldest daughter of a large orphaned family, was “a Wendy to a party of Peter Pans”, and that Coleridge’s “Christabel” “takes us through the wardrobe door into a Narnia full of wonders”. These analogies may strike some as curious, but they display an imagination that has liberated itself from critical orthodoxy. Frances Wilson’s book is an excellent and stimulating combination of sensitive attention to text and soaring hypothesis.

Frances Wilson
THE BALLAD OF DOROTHY WORDSWORTH

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Six Rulers Who Didn’t Spend Much Time in Office

Louis XIX

This one’s disputed, but since the time frame is so ridiculously small I had to include it. Louis was married to the only surviving child of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI. Louis XIX was actually Louis XVI’s nephew, making Louis XIX and his wife, Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte, cousins. His father, Louis XVI’s brother, was Charles X. Got all of that? In the July Revolution of 1830, the people of France demanded that Charles give up the throne because they hated his policies and felt they were too repressive. He reluctantly granted the wish of the people and abdicated, making Louis XIX the new king. However, the people didn’t want Charles’ descendants in power either, and, perhaps remembering how her parents’ reign ended, Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte pleaded with her husband to abdicate as well. And he did, 20 minutes after becoming King of France. It’s disputed because some historians think it’s too short of a time frame to recognize.

Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich of Russia

Michael had a long way to go to the throne at the time of his birth – he was fourth-in-line after his father and two older brothers. When his grandpa was assassinated in 1881, his father took over as Emperor. When he died in 1894, eldest brother Nicholas became Nicholas II. The next-eldest brother, George, died in 1899 of tuberculosis, leaving just Emperor Nicholas II and Michael left. Nicholas II had no sons to pass the crown to, so it was starting to look like Michael would someday be Emperor. Then, on August 12, 1904, Nicholas II and Alexandra had a son, placing Michael second-in-line again.
However, under pressure from generals and others, Nicholas II abdicated the throne and also named his brother as the new Emperor. He bypassed his son because Alexei had hemophilia, which was not curable at the time.
Michael was proclaimed Emperor Michael II… for about 16 hours. He signed a document the next day stating that he would only reign if the Russian people wished to uphold the monarchy. The monarchy was overthrown and so was Michael’s stint as Emperor. In July 1918, he was murdered less than a week before his brother. Nicholas II was also murdered along with his wife and children (including the famous Anastasia, who was rumored to have made it out alive).

Pope Urban VII or Pope-elect Stephen

Depending on how you number the Popes, one of these guys had the shortest reign in the history of Popes. Pope Stephen hasn’t been recognized as a Pope since 1961, though, so I thought I’d give you both stories.

Stephen was elected to succeed Pope Zachary in 752. However, before he could be ordained, he died of apoplexy. So, his “reign” was only three days, if you can consider it a reign.

Urban VII (that’s him in the picture) was Pope for just shy of two weeks in September 1590. He died of malaria just 13 days into his term, but while he was in office he managed to enact the first known public smoking ban: he threatened to excommunicate anyone who smoked, chewed or sniffed tobacco in the porchway or inside of a chuch.
Dipendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev

Dipendra was kind of King of Nepal by default for three days in 2001. On June 1, he murdered his family at a royal dinner, including his father who was the King of Nepal at the time. The story is that Dipendra was angry that his mother would not let him marry the bride of his choice due to ages-long feuding between the two families. After killing his parents, brother and sister, he turned the gun on himself. He lingered in a coma for three days and was officially proclaimed King of Nepal in his hospital bed. He died three days later and his uncle, Prince Gyanendra, became King. Some people believe that Gyanendra actually slaughtered the whole family so he could become King. His wife and son were in the same room as the royal family during the massacre, but managed to escape without mortal wounds.

John I (aka John the Posthumous)

John I was King of France for the five days that he was alive. His father, Louis X, died in June 1316. The reason is disputed – could have been dehydration, could have been poisoning. When he died, his wife Clémence was pregnant. John I was born November 15, 1316, and died on the 20th, succeeded by his Uncle Philip. As with the royal family of Nepal, many people suspect that King Louis X’s brother first poisoned Louis and then had his infant son killed so he could become King. In the 1350s, a man popped up in Provence claiming to be John I, but he was quickly put in prison and died there. Hmmmm.

Lê Trung Tông

Lê Trung Tông became King of Vietnam after his dad, Lêi Dai Hành, died in 1005. He was one of 10 brothers, so there was some heated “discussion” over who should become King. In fact, for eight months, the princes fought amongst themselves. The war was mainly between two of the brothers, but one of them was finally defeated and killed, leaving Lê Trung Tông as the victor. At least, for three days. His half brother, Lê Long Dinh, sent an assassin to climb over the wall of the palace and kill the King. He did, and Lê Long Dinh reigned from 1005-1009.

Lady Jane Grey

Finally, we’d better address the Lady who started my research. When Edward VI, Henry VIII’s only son, died on July 6, 1553, at the age of 15, things were thrown into an uproar. On his deathbed, Edward had named the descendants of his aunt as the heirs to the throne. Essentially, this meant that Henry VIII’s sister’s grandchildren would be the next to rule so - try to keep this straight – Lady Jane Grey was King Henry VIII’s grand-niece and King Edward VI’s second cousin. I think. Someone correct me if I have figured that out wrong. Anyway, Edward, who was Protestant, did this because letting his half-sister Mary take the throne would have meant a Catholic England. However, by bypassing his half-sister, Edward was going against the Third Act of Succession passed by Parliament. That Act restored his half-sisters to the line of Succession, which would have made his oldest half-sister Mary the new Queen upon Edward’s death.
Initially, Jane Grey was proclaimed Queen of England to respect Edward’s wishes. Mary was enraged by this and gathered enough backing to ride into London with a large group of supporters. Parliament had no choice but to declare Mary the rightful Queen. As Queen, Mary had Jane Grey, her cousin, beheaded. Jane Grey was only 16 (or 17, according to some reports).

Rutherford B. Hayes: The National Hero of … Paraguay?


n Rutherford B. Hayes’ hometown of Delaware, Ohio, there’s a memorial to the late U.S. president; it’s a plaque that marks his birthplace, which is now a gas station. In Paraguay, people would find this fact horribly offensive. Perhaps that’s because the country is littered with Hayes memorials—from statues to schools to streets named in his honor. There’s even a city in Paraguay called Villa Hayes, which lies in the middle of a province called Presidente Hayes, which is roughly the size of South Carolina.

What did Rutherford do to deserve all this? From 1864 to 1870, Paraguay was engaged in one of the bloodiest wars in the history of the Americas—the War of the Triple Alliance. Facing the combined forces of Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay, the people of Paraguay were mercilessly defeated. Two-thirds of the country’s population died.

But even after the war ended, Argentina and Paraguay continued to scuffle over the Chaco, a huge tract of land in the southwest region of Paraguay. Unable to come to a resolution, diplomats from both countries traveled to Washington, D.C., so that President Hayes could arbitrate the debate. As you’ve probably guessed, Hayes decided in favor of Paraguay—and he’s been a national hero ever since. Once every 50 years, Villa Hayes hosts a huge festival in his honor. The next one is in 2028, so mark your calendars.

Andrew Johnson: Of Mice and Men


The award for Most Humble Origins goes to Andrew Johnson, hands down. He was born to a sharecropper in North Carolina, but his father died when he was just 3 years old. Never having the money to attend school, Andrew became an indentured servant when he was 14, but eventually ran away to reunite with his mother. Struggling to eke out a living, they hauled all of their belongings over the mountains into Tennessee. It was a budget move; they lugged everything in a two-wheeled cart pulled by a blind pony. Despite the fresh start, the family’s prospects never truly improved.

Growing up poor and uneducated in the South likely helped to foster Johnson’s verdant racism. Yet, because he was against secession, he was considered loyal to the North. Lincoln spotted him as a Southerner with Northern sympathies and picked him to be his running mate in 1864. Aside from sharing the ticket, the two men didn’t have much in common politically.

Following Lincoln’s assassination, Johnson was happy to leave the Southern states to themselves to hash out the details of Reconstruction while Congress was conveniently out of session. As a result, “freed” slaves were basically turned into a permanent underclass. Furious, Congress turned against the sitting president, and in 1868, Johnson was impeached. Although it was purely a political maneuver, the move effectively neutered Johnson for the last year of his presidency.

What did Johnson do with his remaining time in the White House? Mainly, he tended to a family of mice living in his bedroom. Seriously. He’d place fresh water next to the fireplace and keep a constant basket of flour for them on the floor. Referring to the mice as his “little fellows,” a lonely Johnson appreciated the fact that they didn’t care where he came from—or whether or not he’d just been impeached.

Thomas Jefferson: The Sensitive Writer Type


Let’s get a few things straight about writing the Declaration of Independence. First of all, it wasn’t the founding fathers’ top priority. By early 1776, America had pretty much broken up with King George, but since it was a long-distance relationship, the nation felt the need to make it official on paper. Second, getting to write it wasn’t really an honor. Thomas Jefferson was the newbie and, at 33, the second-youngest guy in Congress. And because the elder statesmen had more important things to do, like forging alliances with France and Spain, Jefferson got the job because no one else wanted it.

Regardless, Jefferson poured his heart and soul into the document. He spent days holed up in a second-story Philadelphia apartment, scratching away with his quill. And in that time, the sensitive, fiery redhead grew deeply attached to every sentence. After the manuscript hit the floor of Congress for debate, Jefferson slumped in his chair and sulked as his colleagues argued over it. They only cut about one-quarter of his words, but Jefferson felt they’d “mangled” his baby.

Among the edits were some of the more serious passages, like a section that dealt with the evils of slavery. But Congress jefferson-grave.jpgalso cut out much of the melodrama. Jefferson wrote of the British, “Manly spirit bids us to renounce forever these unfeeling brethren. We must endeavor to forget our former love for them.” Harsh, no? Typical break-up letter material, but harsh.

Jefferson remained bitter about Congress’ edits for years, but his ego eventually healed. By the end of his life, he was taking measures to ensure that “Author of the Declaration of American Independence” would be engraved on his tombstone.
Thomas Jefferson’s (Somewhat Unorthodox) Pursuit of Happiness

For Jefferson, the pursuit of happiness often meant breaking the rules.

His Five-Finger Discount: While serving as ambassador to France, Jefferson discovered that Italian rice was tastier than American rice. Always looking for ways to improve U.S. agriculture, Jefferson figured he’d just cross the Alps to pick some up. Easier said than done. The Italians wanted to protect their crop from foreign competition, so taking rice out of the country was punishable by death. Instead of heeding the law, a cavalier Jefferson stuffed his pockets with the grains and then hired a mule-driver to smuggle two sacks of the stuff into France. He then brought the rice back to the United States, where it’s still grown today.

His Slacker Style: When Jefferson became president, he never wanted to be confused as a king. He wouldn’t let visitors bow to him, and thereby inadvertently began the custom of presidential handshakes. Further, dinner at the White House was always an informal affair, and Jefferson often showed up sweating in his riding clothes. Stranger still, when a British minister once paid him a visit at the White House, the casual president simply answered the door in his pajamas.

Top Biographical Movies Based on Musicians Lives

La Bamba (1987)

This movie is based on the story of young Ritchie Valens, the rock & roll pioneer who had a string of hits in his 8 month professional career as a recording artist. Valens career was cut short when he died in a plane crash at the age of 17. Buddy Holly and “The Big Bopper” were also on board this plane as it was traveling to North Dakota on February 3rd 1959, this has become known as the day the music died.

Lou Diamond Philips, was 25 years old when he played the 17 year old Valens. This film is generally regarded as his breakthrough role. The movie was nominated for a 1988 Golden Globe Award for best Motion Picture Drama.

Selena (1997)

Based on the story of Selena Quintanilla-Perez, the Grammy Award winning Mexican American singer, who was killed at the age of 23 by the president of her fan club; Selena was released by her family only 2 years after the tragic murder. I personally first heard of Selena after she had passed away when her English speaking album was released. Selena was extremely popular in the Hispanic community and over 60,000 mourners attended her funeral.

This movie made Jennifer Lopez a star. She beat out over 12,000 actresses to play Selena and was nominated for a Golden Globe for this role.

The Buddy Holly Story (1978)

Based on the life of Buddy Holly the famous rock musician in the 1950’s who died in the same plane crash as Ritchie Valens. Buddy Holly is also known as one of the first Caucasian bands to play at the famous Apollo Theatre.

Although he is known more for his unusual behaviour now than anything else, Gary Busey was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of Holly. He was 10 years older than Holly at the time of his death, lost 32 pounds to play the role and along with the other actors did all of his own singing and played his own instruments for the musical numbers in the film.

This clip chronicles the famous Apollo Theatre incident.

What’s Love Got To Do With It (1993)

This is the movie adaptation of Tina Turner’s biography. It is extremely graphic in it’s vivid description of the domestic abuse that Tina endured from her husband Ike Turner during their tumultuous working and personal relationship. Both Laurence Fishburn and Angela Bassett were nominated for Academy Awards for their portrayals of the Turner’s.

Angela Bassett is praised for her role, as well she should be. Ms. Bassett went on a rigorous training schedule to gain Turner’s notoriously well tone figure, not to mention the song lyrics and dance routines she memorized for the musical numbers. Bassett won a Golden Globe for best actress for her portrayal, the first African American female to do so.

This clip shows off exactly why Bassett deserved the win, and although there is not a lot of violence in this clip I would strongly recommend that you be aware that the rest of the movie is extremely graphic.

Ray (2004)

Known as the movie that proved Jamie Foxx was more than just a background comedian, Ray is the story of Ray Charles, legendary pianist who at the age of 7 was blinded in an accident but through perseverance shaped the sound of Rhythm and Blues music as we know it.

This movie was nominated for 8 Academy Awards and won two including a Best Actor nod for Jamie Foxx. Foxx wore prosthetics so that he was unable to see and played all the piano scenes in the film himself.

Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980)

This is one of my favourite films and I think the performances are brilliant. Sissy Spacek was hand picked by Loretta Lynn to star in this movie based on the biography that she co-wrote. Both Spacek and Beverly D’Angelo, who portrayed Patsy Cline in the film, performed all of their own material. The movie follows Lynn’s life from the backwoods of Kentucky to Country Superstardom.

Enclosed is a clip that showcases Spacek and D’Angelo’s friendship but it unfortunately has many of the performances cut out for some reason.

The Pianist (2002)

This movie is based on the true story of Wladyslaw Szpilman, an accomplished pianist in 1930’s Poland. When Poland is invaded by the Nazi’s in 1939 Szpilman becomes a prisoner and slave labourer before ultimately being freed after the occupation.

This movie was nominated for and won several awards most notable of which include winning the prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes. As well the film was nominated for 7 Academy Awards and won 3 including Best Director for Roman Polanski and Best Actor for Adrien Brody in the lead role making him, at age 29, the youngest actor to win the award.

In preparation for this role Brody became a shut in and gave up many of his possessions so that he may understand what it might have been like in the situation. In addition he lost 30 pounds and learned to play Chopin on the piano.

Amadeus (1984)

This movie is based upon the lives of Antonio Salieri and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the competitive atmosphere surrounding them in 18th Century Austria.

I have not seen the entire movie but I have seen enough to know that the performances were brilliant. This movie is funny, dramatic and sad sometimes within 5 minutes. But We can let the numbers speak for themselves. Amadeus was nominated for 53 separate awards including 11 Oscar nominations. It went on to win 40 of those nominations, 8 of which were Academy Awards. Included in those 8 were Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Director. In a rare occurrence it should be noted that both actors who portrayed Salieri and Mozart were nominated for Best Actor.

Walk The Line (2005)

This movie is based on Johnny Cash’s life, going from his childhood through his drug addiction and exploring his hidden romance and eventual marriage to June Carter Cash. Johnny and June are played by Joaquin Phoenix and June Carter respectively and are brilliant in their performances. They both learned to play all their own instruments and performed all of the songs themselves.

Both Phoenix and Witherspoon were nominated for Academy Awards for their performances with Witherspoon winning the Best Actress award. It was rumoured that Phoenix’s subsequent admission to rehab for alcoholism was due in part to the fact that he became addicted while preparing for the part.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

How Daphne du Maurier wrote Rebecca

How Daphne du Maurier wrote Rebecca

Last Updated: 12:01am BST 19/04/2008
Page 1 of 3

Suspicion within Daphne du Maurier's own marriage fuelled the tense, macabre plot of Rebecca, says Matthew Dennison

In 1937, Daphne du Maurier signed a three-book deal with Victor Gollancz. She was 30 years old, the author of four previous novels, including, most recently, Jamaica Inn. She knew already the title of the first of the books she would write for Gollancz: Rebecca. Beyond that point, she had scarcely thought. On and off for the past five years she had been toying with an idea. Its theme was jealousy.

It came to Daphne the year she married Frederick "Boy" Browning, whom she called Tommy. Tommy had been engaged before - to glamorous, dark-haired Jan Ricardo. The suspicion that Tommy remained attracted to Ricardo haunted Daphne.

She accepted from Gollancz an advance of £1,000 - the equivalent of 18 months of Tommy's pay as a Lieutenant Colonel of the Grenadier Guards - and prepared to set to work.

Nothing came. The paper in her typewriter remained blank. Sluggishly, she wrote 50 pages, all consigned to the waste-paper basket. To Gollancz she wrote a desperate apology: "The first 15,000 words I tore up in disgust and this literary miscarriage has cast me down rather..."
Daphne was in Alexandria with Tommy, the Second Battalion of the Grenadier Guards and a crowd of English expats she loftily dismissed as "horrible Manchester folk". Waking from a dream into the bright light of a foreign hotel, the narrator of the novel with which she struggled so hopelessly would find herself "bewildered at that glittering sun, that hard, clean sky".

In Egypt that summer Daphne, too, was bewildered: unnerved by the climate, the landscape and the prescriptive regimental social life. Gollancz expected her manuscript on her return to Britain in December. "I'm ashamed to tell you that progress is slow on the new novel," she wrote to him. "There is little likelihood of my bringing back a finished manuscript in December."

Without Daphne's failure of maternal instinct, Rebecca would never have been written.

"I am not one of those mothers who live for having their brats with them all the time," she wrote later. She and Tommy had departed for Alexandria on 30 July, leaving behind them four-year-old Tessa and the three-month-old Flavia.

On their return, Daphne straight away formulated a plan to spend Christmas apart from her daughters. Child-free quiet was the only hope for Rebecca. She was not, she assured her own mother, "a brute".Daphne du Maurier was hesitant about Rebecca

In her daughters' absence she worked quickly. Eighty years ago this month, no more than four months after she started work, Daphne delivered her manuscript.

If she was characteristically hesitant about Rebecca's qualities, her hesitation was not shared by anyone in Victor Gollancz's office. Her editor, Norman Collins, reported simply: "The new Daphne du Maurier contains everything that the public could want."

Gollancz did not hang around. He ordered a first print run of 20,000 copies and within a month Rebecca had sold more than twice that number. It remains Daphne du Maurier's best-loved novel, continuously in print through eight decades.

In 1993, when Susan Hill published her sequel to Rebecca, Mrs De Winter, du Maurier's US publishers Avon estimated ongoing monthly paperback sales of Rebecca at more than 4,000 copies. No mean feat for a novel whose writer haltingly described it as "a bit on the gloomy side", and which V S Pritchett, in the Christian Science Monitor of 14 September 1938, predicted would be here today, gone tomorrow.

Coyly and with a degree of considered obfuscation, Daphne du Maurier "remembered" Rebecca's gestation in The Rebecca Notebook of 1981. "Seeds began to drop. A beautiful home... a first wife... jealousy, a wreck, perhaps at sea, near to the house... But something terrible would have to happen, I did not know what..."She categorised Rebecca as a study in jealousy, although she admitted its origins in her own life to few. She feigned surprise at the novel's enduring popularity, but was vocal in her disappointment when Gollancz failed to honour subsequent novels with print runs reflecting Rebecca's commercial success.

Agatha Christie earned her ire by echoing the question so many readers had asked her: why does the narrator have no name?

Perhaps du Maurier looked with greater amusement on reports that Field Marshal Rommel kept a copy of Rebecca at his headquarters: though ultimately it would not be used, the Nazis mined Rebecca as the source for a code for German agents infiltrating Cairo.Rebecca is, as Daphne intended it, "about a young wife and her slightly older husband, living in a beautiful house that had been in his family for generations".

Its nameless narrator is traditionally identified with Daphne herself - she has "a very lovely and unusual name" which people frequently misspell; she is shy and socially ill at ease. In Monte Carlo she falls in love with a handsome, inscrutable man old enough to be her father.

Maximilian de Winter, like the narrator, is staying at the Hôtel Côte d'Azur. He encounters the narrator in her role as paid companion to an exacting American matron, Mrs Van Hopper.

An air of mystery clings to de Winter. He is a man on the run, desperate to escape the shadows of the past, the memories and associations of his beautiful Cornish house, Manderley. He proposes marriage, the narrator accepts. They return to Manderley and the ghosts of de Winter's past.

The house hides dark secrets. All concern de Winter's first wife, Rebecca, a triumphantly lovely creature - like Jan Ricardo. Norman Collins reported to Victor Gollancz that Rebecca "brilliantly creates a sense of atmosphere and suspense" and Manderley is as much an atmosphere as a tangible erection of stones and mortar.

Both house and novel acquire a dream-like quality. Into this steps the nightmarish figure of Mrs Danvers, gothic housekeeper and devoted Rebecca acolyte. Mrs Danvers unsettles the second Mrs de Winter, who finds herself overmastered by Manderley - its grandeur, its memories, its personnel and, most of all, its master, whose behaviour here seems so remote, so changed.

Du Maurier's storytelling instinct was better developed than her prose style and the plot crackles. The pages fly. Tension and suspense mount. As she wrote in her notes prior to beginning work, "I want to built up the character of the first [wife] in the mind of the second... until wife 2 is haunted day and night... a tragedy is looming very close and CRASH! BANG! something happens."

That something involves hatred, adultery, shipwreck and deceit. To bring about the novel's happy ending demands no less than the reader's collusion in a husband's murder of his wife.

Rebecca contains elements of romance, murder mystery and the gothic novel: it defies easy categorisation, but parallels with Jane Eyre are unavoidable. Its plot - like Rebecca's boat at the centre of its mystery - is less than wholly watertight. Yet it worked in 1938, when Victor Gollancz was able to market is as "an exquisite love story", and it works today.

Readers unmoved by the second Mrs de Winter's surrender to Maxim respond to Rebecca's darker face - as Daphne described it, "a sinister tale about a woman who marries a widower... Psychological and rather macabre".

Daphne du Maurier found Egypt no place for romance or suspense. In bright rented rooms in Alexandria, inspiration failed her. The sun of North Africa seared into her imagination an image of unconventional exoticism, a "sleeping" Cornish mansion with which she had already fallen in love and which later would become her home for quarter of a century - Menabilly, the novel's Manderley.

Rebecca is a love letter to a lost homeland; it is a story about the balance of power between men and women. Like Virginia Woolf's Orlando, written the previous decade, it is a hymn to a vanished race of men who were somehow larger and better than mere mortals.Rebecca is, of course, a study in jealousy. But it is also about holding on to happiness: "I wanted to go on sitting here, not talking, not listening to the others, keeping the moment precious for all time". Repeatedly it lures the reader towards that dreamer's goal, at the same time acknowledging its impossibility: "We can never go back again, that much is certain."

Daphne and Tommy Browning, like Rebecca and Maximilian de Winter, were not faithful to one another. Jan Ricardo, tragically, died during the Second World War. She threw herself under a train.

Monday, April 21, 2008

2001 profile of "Bill Ayers, unrepentant former Weather Underground revolutionary"


2001 profile of "Bill Ayers, unrepentant former Weather Underground revolutionary"

By Mark Frauenfelder

Now that former Weather Undergrounder Bill Ayers is back in the news, this 2001 Slate profile of him is worth reading. He comes off as an extremely unsavory character.

Much of what Ayers self-interestedly leaves out of his book is more personally embarrassing than illegal. Ayers takes care not to dwell on his own Establishment credentials. (His father was chairman of the energy company Commonwealth Edison, a fact Ayers conveys only by writing, "My dad worked for Edison.") Ayers omits any discussion of his famous 1970 statement, "Kill all the rich people. Break up their cars and apartments. Bring the revolution home, kill your parents, that's where it's really at." He also omits any discussion of his wife Bernardine Dohrn's famous reaction to the Manson killings, as conveyed by journalist Peter Collier: "Dig it. First they killed those pigs, then they ate dinner in the same room with them, then they even shoved a fork into a victim's stomach! Wild!" (In a 1993 Chicago Magazine profile, Dohrn claimed, implausibly, that she'd been trying to convey that "Americans love to read about violence.")

Calvin Coolidge: The Quiet Riot


h, the Roaring Twenties—an era defined by flappers, jazz, gangsters, speakeasies, and … the most boring president ever!

Calvin Coolidge, a buttoned-up Puritan from New England, wasn’t much for hobnobbing, even when it could have helped him politically. His wife, Grace, liked to tell people about the time a woman approached her husband and said, “I made a bet today that I could get more than two words out of you.” Coolidge’s reply? “You lose.”

But what most people don’t know about Silent Cal is that he could be quite the prankster. Sometimes, he’d ring the buzzer at the White House, wait for all the maids and ushers to snap to attention, and then run away.

When he wasn’t pestering his servants or being the mute of the party, Calvin Coolidge slept—eight hours a night, plus two or three hours in the afternoon. In fact, his very first act as president of the United States was to go to sleep. At the time, in 1923, Vice President Coolidge was visiting his parents’ farm in Vermont. After a hard day in the fields, a tuckered-out Coolidge went to sleep at 9 pm. Then, in the middle of the night, a messenger arrived to announce that President Warren G. Harding was dead. Coolidge needed to be sworn in immediately, so it was particularly convenient that his father happened to be a notary public. They conducted an impromptu inauguration ceremony in the living room, lit by kerosene lamps, after which Calvin promptly went back to bed.

Of course, all of this would be simply quaint and amusing had Harding’s sleepy, hands-off style not laid the groundwork for the Great Depression. Coolidge disdained welfare and put all of his faith in the free market. He passed pro-business tax cuts and let industry go unregulated. And when it came to the plight of the American farmer, he was aloof to the point of being cold. He vetoed two bills designed to protect farmers from the boom-and-bust cycle of the economy, mostly because he thought farming was a lost cause. He once told the chairman of the Federal Farm Loan Board, “Well, farmers never have made money. I don’t believe we can do much about it.” Coolidge quietly left office on March 4, 1929, and Black Tuesday struck on October 29.

My Young Years': Rubinstein's Enchanting Prelude


My Young Years': Rubinstein's Enchanting Prelude

The classical pianist wrote the memoir of his early life when he was in his 80s.
The classical pianist wrote the memoir of his early life when he was in his 80s. (1967 Photo By Eddie Adams)
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By JONATHAN YARDLEY
Saturday, April 19, 2008; Page C01

An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.

Midway through "My Young Years," his memoir of the first three decades of what turned out to be an exceptionally long life, the incomparable classical pianist Arthur Rubinstein recalls an anecdote about two cousins, one of them "the greatest Don Juan of his time," who became involved with the same beautiful woman but whose friendship managed to survive this rather extreme complication. Rubinstein tells the tale and then shrugs: "Even if it were only half-true, it was a good story."

That is exactly how I feel about "My Young Years." How much of it is true and how much mere invention no one now can say -- Rubinstein died a quarter-century ago at the age of 95, and all his contemporaries are long since gone -- but veracity in this case really matters less than the unflagging zest with which Rubinstein recalls those years between 1887, when he was born in Poland, and 1917, when his career as a concert pianist finally began to achieve the success that had been predicted for him since he was a boy. Published in 1973, and followed seven years later by the rather less interesting "My Many Years," "My Young Years" was an international bestseller. It now is out of print, a puzzling development when one considers that Rubinstein's recordings, especially of Chopin, continue to be played and admired.

Whatever the explanation for its disappearance from the bookstores, "My Young Years" remains a classic autobiography in the grand manner. Unlike the memoirs that now crowd the bookshelves, exercises in self-administered therapy in which narcissistic narrators of no apparent accomplishment whine ad nauseam about real or imagined angst, this is an exuberant account of what Rubinstein calls, in his brief foreword, "the struggles, the mistakes, the adventures, and . . . the miraculous beauty and happiness of my young years." His was a life lived to the full, with triumphs and disappointments galore, and by the time he reached his 80s and began to write this book, Rubinstein had such great stature that his story virtually commanded readers' attention.

It was written in English, one of several languages in which Rubinstein was fluent, and it is written remarkably well, with scarcely a trace of the diction of his native Polish or the other languages (Russian, German, French) he spoke during his youth. I first read it about 30 years ago -- my copy is the third printing of the 1973 paperback -- when I was in the midst of a Rubinstein binge, gobbling up his recordings of Chopin, his fellow Pole, one after the other. I make no claim to particular knowledge of classical music, but I was drawn then (as I am now) to the lyricism and abundant feeling of Rubinstein's Chopin, and I simply wanted to know more about the man who made the music. I was enchanted by the book then, and I remain enchanted by it today.

Rubinstein says, in the same foreword, "I have never kept a diary, and even if I had, it would have been lost with all the rest of my belongings in the two world wars. But, it is my good fortune to be endowed with an uncanny memory which allows me to trace my whole long life almost day by day." This is why the reader does well to approach the book with a certain amount of friendly skepticism, especially with regard to the author's accounts of his numerous youthful amours, but the overall impression it conveys is that veracity wins out over invention. No doubt the many conversations Rubinstein recalls fall considerably short of total accuracy, but they have the clear ring of truth, a sense that is heightened by Rubinstein's willingness to portray himself in an unflattering light when circumstances call for it and by the mixture of pride and self-deprecation with which he describes his formative years.

He was born in Lodz into a relatively prosperous family. His musical gifts became apparent when he was very young, and he was taken to Berlin to undergo the scrutiny of the celebrated violinist Joseph Joachim, who "took it upon himself to direct my musical and cultural education," not as his teacher but as his mentor. At the outset, "one important stipulation that Professor Joachim made was that my mother had to promise not to exploit me as a child prodigy" and he "insisted that I should get a full education until I was artistically mature." Rubinstein seems to have been less a supervised student than an autodidact whose learning was scattershot, but he became a deeply cultured man with passionate opinions across a broad range of subjects.

He had more than a little bit of a lazy streak -- he had a "capacity to work well only if there was something special to work for, like a concert, or, later, my recordings" -- and it became a problem as his musical education proceeded. By the time he was well into his 20s he had begun to accumulate a reputation in Europe and had made his first tour of the United States, but his "repertoire needed expansion." He writes:

"Two major Beethoven sonatas, short pieces by Brahms and Schumann, and the great B minor Sonata of Chopin were added to it in less than two weeks. As before, and as would prove true for many years after, the processes of my means of approach to the music at hand were made up of a peculiar combination: a clear conception of the structure of a composition and complete empathy with the composer's intentions were always within my reach, but because of my lazy habits, I would neglect to pay attention to detail and to a finished and articulate performance of difficult passages that I hated to practice. I used to put the whole weight on the inner message of the music."

Doubtless his laziness was aided and abetted by his sheer precocity. The piano came so naturally and easily to him that he could get by with half an effort where lesser performers would have had to practice endlessly and still would have come up short. He also, notwithstanding all the depth of his love for music, had a somewhat cynical attitude toward audiences: "I learned . . . that a loud, smashing performance, even the worst from a musical standpoint, will always get an enthusiastic reception by the uninitiated, unmusical part of the audience, and I exploited this knowledge, I admit it with shame, in many concerts to come." Beyond that, he was as much a born playboy as a born pianist. He began having affairs, mostly with older women, when he was barely out of short pants, and he was always good for a party, a game of pool or poker, a boisterous conversation into the smallest hours of the morning.

Not to mince words, he could be childish and irresponsible. He was "totally devoid of a sense of economy -- a failure that has proved fatal for most of my life" -- and seems to have felt a deep sense of entitlement where other people's money was concerned. Sometime early in the 20th century (he is not great about supplying dates), while still a teenager, he found himself down and out in Paris, living "the excruciating life of someone constantly short of money, constantly in debt," a period that "was typical of my life for many years, consisting as it did of the discrepancy between the daily struggle for survival and the frequent escapes into [the] most refined luxuries," escapes that were made possible by friends, of whom he had many, and by music lovers eager to be in his company.

He could be totally shameless. Once he persuaded a friend to tide him over with a large amount of money. When the friend agreed, Rubinstein immediately proposed that they blow it all on a trip to Paris, London and other stops on the glitterati trail, which is exactly what they did. He doesn't really seem to have been spoiled -- by the time he was in his teens, he was pretty much estranged from his family -- but was merely willful and self-indulgent. There are moments when one wants to wring his neck, but the candor with which he confesses his youthful misadventures is so free and unaffected that these moments soon pass. Obviously he was immensely likable. He had many friends who were, or would become, famous in musical and artistic circles -- Pablo Casals, Fyodor Chaliapin, Karol Szymanowski, Paul Dukas, Igor Stravinsky, Pablo Picasso, Sergei Diaghilev -- but his accounts of these friendships never sound like mere name-dropping. These simply were the circles in which he traveled.

Much of his time in those early years was spent in the salons of the wealthy, the titled and the privileged. Hanging around with these sublimely boring people doesn't seem to have bothered him -- after all, they brought a fair amount of money his way -- but one of his best stories is at their expense. The great Polish pianist and patriot Ignace Jan Paderewski was asked to perform privately for an English duchess. He "demanded a very large sum of money which was readily granted." Then "he received a letter from the Duchess: 'Dear Maestro, accept my regrets for not inviting you to the dinner. As a professional artist, you will be more at ease in a nice room where you can rest before the concert. Yours, etc.' " Paderewski replied: "Dear Duchess: thanks for your letter. As you so kindly inform me that I am not obliged to be present at your dinner, I shall be satisfied with half of my fee. Yours, etc."

There are many other delicious stories in this book's nearly 500 pages. There is also a pervasive sense of the lost world of pre-World War I Europe, "the long era of the easy, peaceful intercourse between nations, of gracious living, of good taste, of good manners, of prosperity," a world that, with the war's onset, "was gone forever." Thus for all the happiness with which this book is imbued -- his "secret of happiness," Rubinstein writes, is, "Love life for better or for worse, without conditions" -- there is also an undercurrent of sadness, of grief not merely for the author's youth but for the world in which he lived it. All in all "My Young Years" is a lovely book, and it's a real pity that prospective readers must go hunting for it in used bookstores and libraries or buy it online.

Friday, April 18, 2008

LBJ: The President Who Marked His Territory

Lyndon Baines Johnson wanted to be remembered as the greatest president who ever lived. With that grand ambition in mind (and an ego to match), he launched such sweeping social programs as Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, public radio, public television, and food stamps. Regardless, Johnson will probably be best remembered for his blinding arrogance, and what many would point to as the result of it—the Vietnam War.

But here, we’re choosing to remember Johnson not by the many political wheels he set into motion, but by the stuff he kept by his side—and close to his heart.

LBJ-Richard-Russell.jpg
His Toilet

Johnson lived to dominate, and he used crass behavior to bend people to his will. At 6-ft., 3-in. tall and 210 lbs., he liked to lean over people, spitting, swearing, belching, or laughing in their faces. Once, he even relieved himself on a Secret Serviceman who was shielding him from public view. When the man looked horrified, Johnson simply said, “That’s all right, son. It’s my prerogative.” His favorite power ploy, however, seemed to be dragging people into the bathroom with him—forcing them to continue their conversations with the president as he used the toilet. [Image: LBJ and Senator Richard Russell, courtesy of the National Archives.]
His Car

When President Johnson was visiting his ranch in Texas, he’d invite friends down and take them for a joyride in his car. He’d drive down a steep incline toward the lake, pretend to lose control, and then yell, “The brakes don’t work! We’re going in! We’re going under!” The car would splash into the lake, and as everyone else was screaming, Johnson would be doubled over laughing. Turns out, Johnson was the proud owner of an Amphicar, the only amphibious passenger automobile ever mass-produced for civilians.
His Presidential Buzzer

When people told stories about John F. Kennedy’s great female conquests (and they often did), it made Johnson furious. He’d pound his fists on the desk and scream, “Why, I had more women on accident than he ever had on purpose!” And that may very well have been true. Johnson brought a lot of pretty young things back from Texas to work in the White House, even if they couldn’t type. He even had a buzzer installed in the Oval Office so that the Secret Service could warn him when his wife was on her way.
His Helicopter Chair

LBJ loved riding in helicopters. He loved it so much, in fact, that his desk chair in the Oval Office was actually a vinyl helicopter seat—green with a built-in ashtray. In the event of a flood or an emergency water landing, the cushion could have doubled as a flotation device. No joke.
His Wife’s Pecan Pie Recipe

Lady-Bird.jpgClaudia “Lady Bird” Johnson was her husband’s most vital political ally. In the early days of their marriage, he could boss her into picking up his socks or shining his shoes, but by the time they moved into the White House, he couldn’t give a speech without consulting her first. During the 1960 election, she traveled 30,000 miles campaigning for the Kennedy/Johnson ticket; and after they won, Bobby Kennedy said they couldn’t have gotten Texas without her.

She played an even bigger role in the 1964 election. That July, Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, which barred racial and religious discrimination in public places and the workforce. In doing so, Johnson betrayed many good ol’ boys in the South, where he desperately needed votes. Enter Lady Bird. Armed with big hair and big makeup, the Texas native spewed Southern charm from Louisiana to South Carolina. And everywhere she went, she handed out her recipe for pecan pie. The hospitality worked. In 1965, Mrs. Johnson held the Bible as her husband was sworn into office.
His Monogrammed Towels

Everyone in the Johnson family had the same initials—Lyndon Baines, Lady Bird, and their daughters, Lynda Bird and Luci Baines. Don’t think for a moment that it was a coincidence, either. They named the family dog Little Beagle Johnson.

Jenny Drapkin is the Senior Editor of mental_floss magazine. We’re currently serializing “All The Presidents’ Secrets,” her fantastic feature from the September-October 2007 issue. Yesterday: Richard Nixon. Wednesday: Andrew Jackson. Tuesday: Teddy Roosevelt. Monday: Silent Cal.

RIP: "father of chaos theory," Edward Lorenz


Meteorologist Edward Lorenz, credited for having founded the field of chaos theory, died Wednesday of cancer in Massachusetts. He was 90 years old.

He was a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology when he came up with the scientific concept that small effects lead to big changes, something that was explained in a simple example known as the "butterfly effect." He explained how something as minuscule as a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil changes the constantly moving atmosphere in ways that could later trigger tornadoes in Texas.

His discovery of "deterministic chaos" brought about "one of the most dramatic changes in mankind's view of nature since Sir Isaac Newton," said the committee that awarded Lorenz the 1991 Kyoto Prize for basic sciences. It was one of many scientific awards that Lorenz won. There is no Nobel Prize for his specific field of expertise, meteorology.

Jerry Mahlman, a longtime friend, noted that the man who pioneered chaos theory was "the most organized person I ever knew."MIT prof Edward Lorenz, father of chaos theory, dies at 90

By SETH BORENSTEIN
AP Science Writer
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WASHINGTON (AP) -- Edward Lorenz, the father of chaos theory, died at his home in Cambridge, Mass., Wednesday. He was 90.

He was a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology when he came up with the scientific concept that small effects lead to big changes, something that was explained in a simple example known as the "butterfly effect." He explained how something as minuscule as a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil changes the constantly moving atmosphere in ways that could later trigger tornadoes in Texas.

His discovery of "deterministic chaos" brought about "one of the most dramatic changes in mankind's view of nature since Sir Isaac Newton," said the committee that awarded Lorenz the 1991 Kyoto Prize for basic sciences. It was one of many scientific awards that Lorenz won. There is no Nobel Prize for his specific field of expertise, meteorology.

Jerry Mahlman, a longtime friend, noted that the man who pioneered chaos theory was "the most organized person I ever knew."

Lorenz came up with the chaos theory concept in the 1960s through his own meticulous work habits, said Kevin Trenberth, a student of Lorenz's. Trenberth is now climate analysis chief at the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

He inadvertently ran what seemed like the same calculations through a creaky computer twice and came up with vastly different answers. When he tried to figure out what happened, he noticed a slight decimal point change - less than 0.0001 - wound up leading to significant error. That error became a seminal scientific paper, presented in 1972, about the butterfly effect.

Lorenz was "the quiet geek" who turned the old concept of "wiggle room" into hard numbers and scientific theory, said Mahlman, a retired federal climate scientist. Meteorologists today base their forecasts on his techniques. Lorenz's 1967 book "The Nature and Theory of the General Circulation of the Atmosphere" is considered a classic textbook in meteorology.

The concept of small changes turning into big effects also influenced many basic sciences. Other fields probably benefited more than meteorology, said MIT meteorology professor Alan Plumb.

Lorenz also was incredibly quiet. Getting him to talk was painfully difficult, his colleagues said, except around his late wife, Jane. He rarely wrote papers with others.

"Of all the geniuses of that era, he was the quietest and most humble and the most kind," said Mahlman.

Lorenz was born in West Hartford, Conn., in 1917 and later wrote in a biographical sketch: "As a boy I was always interested in doing things with numbers and was also fascinated by changes in the weather."

He had degrees from Dartmouth College and Harvard University as well as MIT where he joined the meteorology staff in 1948. He later became department head and retired in 1987.

In 1983, with a colleague, he won the $50,000 Crafoord Prize by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which recognizes leaders in scientific fields not eligible for a Nobel.

Lorenz was an avid hiker and climber, who well into his 80s would "put many younger people to shame in terms of his fitness and love of going into the mountains," Trenberth said.

Lorenz is survived by three children.Edward Lorenz, an MIT meteorologist who tried to explain why it is so hard to make good weather forecasts and wound up unleashing a scientific revolution called chaos theory, died April 16 of cancer at his home in Cambridge. He was 90.

A professor at MIT, Lorenz was the first to recognize what is now called chaotic behavior in the mathematical modeling of weather systems. In the early 1960s, Lorenz realized that small differences in a dynamic system such as the atmosphere--or a model of the atmosphere--could trigger vast and often unsuspected results.

These observations ultimately led him to formulate what became known as the butterfly effect--a term that grew out of an academic paper he presented in 1972 entitled: "Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly's Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?"

Lorenz's early insights marked the beginning of a new field of study that impacted not just the field of mathematics but virtually every branch of science--biological, physical and social. In meteorology, it led to the conclusion that it may be fundamentally impossible to predict weather beyond two or three weeks with a reasonable degree of accuracy.

Some scientists have since asserted that the 20th century will be remembered for three scientific revolutions--relativity, quantum mechanics and chaos.

"By showing that certain deterministic systems have formal predictability limits, Ed put the last nail in the coffin of the Cartesian universe and fomented what some have called the third scientific revolution of the 20th century, following on the heels of relativity and quantum physics," said Kerry Emanuel professor of atmospheric science at MIT. "He was also a perfect gentleman, and through his intelligence, integrity and humility set a very high standard for his and succeeding generations."

Born in 1917 in West Hartford, Conn., Lorenz received an AB in mathematics from Dartmouth College in 1938, an AM in mathematics from Harvard University in 1940, an SM in meteorology from MIT in 1943 and an ScD in meteorology from MIT in 1948. It was while serving as a weather forecaster for the U.S. Army Air Corps in World War II that he decided to do graduate work in meteorology at MIT.

"As a boy I was always interested in doing things with numbers, and was also fascinated by changes in the weather," Lorenz wrote in an autobiographical sketch.

Lorenz was a member of the staff of what was then MIT's Department of Meteorology from 1948 to 1955, when he was appointed to the faculty as an assistant professor. He was promoted to professor in 1962 and was head of the department from 1977 to 1981. He became an emeritus professor in 1987.

Lorenz, who was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1975, won numerous awards, honors and honorary degrees. In 1983, he and former MIT Professor Henry M. Stommel were jointly awarded the $50,000 Crafoord Prize by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, a prize established to recognize fields not eligible for Nobel Prizes.

In 1991, he was awarded the Kyoto Prize for basic sciences in the field of earth and planetary sciences. Lorenz was cited by the Kyoto Prize committee for establishing "the theoretical basis of weather and climate predictability, as well as the basis for computer-aided atmospheric physics and meteorology." The committee added that Lorenz "made his boldest scientific achievement in discovering 'deterministic chaos,' a principle which has profoundly influenced a wide range of basic sciences and brought about one of the most dramatic changes in mankind's view of nature since Sir Isaac Newton."

During leaves of absence from MIT, he held research or teaching positions at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz.; the Department of Meteorology at the University of California at Los Angeles; the Det Norske Meteorologiske Insitutt in Oslo, Norway; and the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo.

An avid hiker and cross-country skier, Lorenz was active up until about two weeks before his death, his family said.

Lorenz is survived by three children, Nancy, Edward and Cheryl, and four grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. Sunday, April 20, at the Swedenborg Chapel, 50 Quincy St., Cambridge.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Here's to Tom Lehrer, elemental geek

We live in a world focused on celebrity, but there are also luminaries -- those guiding lights who actually inspire celebrities along with the rest of us. Today there's a luminary we'd like to call out: Tom Lehrer. It hasn't escaped our attention that Mr. Lehrer turned 80 last week. (We have it on good authority that his view of numbers is such that 80 is not so different than 79, so he probably won't mind this belated note.) We think he's great. We're fans.

Mr. Lehrer is the Harvard mathematician turned parodist songwriter-performer whose sense of humor, intelligence and rhythm created a cult following that, weirdly enough, anticipated a lot of what Google's culture tries to be about. His work is clever, playful and fun and connects things in ways that surprises, delights and inspires. (Consider "The Element Song", his ode to the periodic table, or his lesson on "New Math".) How could we not be inspired by someone who can craft a good laugh, a great tune, and an elegant equation?

From "The Masochism Tango" to "Who's Next" to "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park" (trust us, you have to hear it), Mr. Lehrer's unique music carved out a distinctive place in popular music in the 1950s and '60s. He made his fans feel smart. An entrepreneur -- and we like entrepreneurs -- he self-produced and sold his songs via mail order. And for all the edginess in his humor, he ended up writing some ten clever songs for the '70s public television children's program The Electric Company, including a tune about the letter 'e.'

Although Wikipedia notes that he performed only 109 shows and wrote just 37 songs over 20 years, we think his impact and influence goes well beyond those numbers. He was the best kind of "geek" before the word made its way into pop culture. He's the kind of character as comfortable teaching a university course on the history of the musical -- which he did -- as running a seminar on the nature of mathematics -- which he did.

We hope that in retirement Mr. Lehrer is enjoying himself even a fraction as much as we've enjoyed his work. We're grateful that he's such a great example of how science, humor, music and mathematics can be combined to create such wonderful things.