Monday, November 25, 2013

Duke Ellington and Alfred Hitchcock: outsized appetites

Two larger-than-life cultural figures whose outsized appetites seem never to have been satiated are Alfred Hitchcock and Duke Ellington. Appearances were essential to Ellington—who got the nickname "Duke" in high school, after all. Even during the Depression, Ellington brought five trunks of clothes and an extra one of shoes with him on tour. Yet as Terry Teachout reveals in his comprehensive new biography Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington, his calorie consumption wreaked havoc with his waistline and the fit of his snazzy clothes:
Beneath it all he wore a corset, a useful tool for a performer whose appetite for food was as gargantuan as his appetite for sex. One of Ellington’s nicknames was “Dumpy,” and Tricky Sam Nanton paid awestruck tribute to his capacity: “He’s a genius, all right, but Jesus, how he eats!” Some of his best-remembered quirks had to do with food, such as his practice of wrapping up a leftover chop in a handkerchief or napkin, then tucking it in one of his pockets after a meal. It was a habit he had acquired in his early days, when food, like money, was harder to come by. “After a while, you eat in self-defense,” he told Whitney Balliett. “You get so you hoard little pieces of food against the time when there isn’t going to be any.”
In the course of what the Boston Globe calls "an impressively lucid, compact narrative,"  Teachout quotes a journalist's description of Duke chowing down that seems almost Rabelaisian in its excess:
Duke, who is always worrying about keeping his weight down, may announce that he intends to have nothing but Shredded Wheat and black tea. . . . Duke’s resolution about not overeating frequently collapses at this point. When it does, he orders a steak, and after finishing it he engages in another moral struggle for about five minutes. Then he really begins to eat. He has another steak, smothered in onions, a double portion of fried potatoes, a salad, a bowl of sliced tomatoes, a giant lobster and melted butter, coffee, and an Ellington dessert — perhaps a combination of pie, cake, ice cream, custard, pastry, jello, fruit, and cheese. His appetite really whetted, he may order ham and eggs, a half-dozen pancakes, waffles and syrup, and some hot biscuits. Then, determined to get back on his diet, he will finish, as he began, with Shredded Wheat and black tea.
Ellington rehearses "Long, Long Journey" with Louis Armstrong during a session at the RCA Victor recording studio in New York, Jan. 12, 1946 (AP). Teachout has also written a critically acclaimed biography of Armstrong.
“I’m easy to please. I just want to have everybody in the palm of my hand.”
—Edward Kennedy ("Duke") Ellington.  
A self-taught musician who ranks as one of the greatest of all American composers, Ellington left behind approximately 1,700 works. Our current Ellington offerings in music include a Grammy-winning set of his suites, a collection of song interpretations by Sarah Vaughan, and a trio recording with Charles Mingus called Money Jungle.
I once read an article in which a journalist watched Alfred Hitchcock order and consume a multi-course meal at a Hollywood eatery that would make a Roman plutocrat blanch, yet turn around, still peckish, and order the entire repast again after dessert. When dining out, he would habitually have three steaks, followed by three bowls of ice cream.
I'm getting the sense that both men, although geniuses in their fields, were working out a sense of childhood deprivation through their appetites—for both food and women. At a recent 50th anniversary screening of The Birds at the Virginia Film Festival, Tippi Hedren confirmed rumors that Alfred Hitchcock tried to put the moves on her as they made both that film and Marnie.
A youthful Hitch and his wife, Alma Reville, in a library and below, with an impressive cake!
Well, at least Tippi Hedren gets to have the last word!


  1. Not long ago, you featured a lady who seemed to be living on sprouts.
    Pantagruel and Gargantua here both lived to a decently advanced age. Although I am not up on their possible medical interventions, they had a productive life.
    How is this possible? Why isn't the lady malnourished? Why aren't the gentlemen dead with a fork in their hand?
    I munch on my cornflakes with a feeling of disbelief.

    1. moi aussi! many people live a long life because they are passionate about their work and fulfilled (conductors come to mind).

    2. p.s. You are so funny! Love the P&G ref.