Sunday, September 28, 2014

F.D.R.'s soul mate: excerpt from 'Franklin and Lucy'

This lovely woman was probably Franklin Delano Roosevelt's true sweetheart. Viewers of Ken Burns' series The Roosevelts will have learned that F.D.R. had a lifelong attachment to Lucy Mercer (later Rutherfurd). His wife Eleanor discovered their affair during World War I and was devastated (she found a cache of letters while unpacking his suitcase after a trip). He promised never to see Lucy again, but the affair eventually resumed. Even his own daughter conspired to bring Lucy into the White House during World War II while Eleanor was away—probably feeling it was beneficial for her father's health, given the immense pressures he was under. The unkindest cut of all for Eleanor was that Lucy was present at Warm Springs, Georgia, on the day that F.D.R. died.
In his book Franklin & Lucy: President Roosevelt, Mrs. Rutherfurd, and the Other Remarkable Women in His Life, Joseph E. Persico used previously unpublished letters and other documents to reveal for the first time that this romance continued unbroken for nearly 30 years. He also causes us to speculate how the course of history would have changed had Franklin accepted Eleanor's offer of a divorce (nixed by his domineering mother) and married his soul mate, thus obviating his political career.
In the following excerpt, set in 1918, F.D.R. has just returned, ill, from an overseas trip while serving as assistant secretary of the Navy, and Eleanor has found the letters from Lucy.
Newlyweds Eleanor and Franklin at Hyde Park, 1906
➤Thirteen years before, Eleanor had sobbed to her cousin Ethel that she would never be able to hold Franklin; "He's too attractive." Now, like the dreaded knock on the condemned prisoner's cell, the moment seemed at hand. How hollow had been her husband's promises, his protestations of missing her while packing her off to Campobello, his lies about needing to stay behind because of his work. Franklin had openly deceived her with an employee she had entrusted with her most private affairs.
What was collapsing in her external life could not compare with the disintegration within. She had always believed herself more unattractive than she was, a conviction confirmed early by her mother's cutting comments. Her father had promised her happiness, then snatched it away by his dissipation and death. Only lately had [her] confidence returned with her recognized contributions to the war effort. Now, in an instant, a packet of letters had swept [it] away. Because of her lack of interest in sex, she had not grasped what an overpowering force it was. Now, faced with incontrovertible evidence that her husband had found satisfaction elsewhere, sexual failure was added to her inadequacies.
The precise content of Lucy's letters can never be known because, as Eleanor confided years later to a curator at the Roosevelt Library, she had destroyed them. But, however genteelly Lucy might have expressed herself, her words left no doubt as to the seriousness of the affair. As Eleanor digested their awful import, she accepted what she must do. She approached Franklin as soon as he began to mend with the proof in hand of his infidelity.
Lucy was like no other woman, and Franklin was like no other man. What they had done and what they felt for each other could not be compared to the lechery of a Livy Davis [a womanizing friend]. Franklin suffered qualms of conscience, understood the risks to his marriage and career, but in the company of Lucy, they vanished. In the confrontation with Eleanor, Franklin admitted his feelings for Lucy. In likely the most reckless move of his heretofore cautiously constructed life, he said he wanted to marry her. Eleanor later confided in her daughter, Anna. "She told me that she questioned him, offered him a divorce, and asked that he think things over carefully before giving her a definite answer." Most important, she urged him to consider the children.
Eventually, they would have to face his mother with the truth. In a tense encounter in Sara's living room, Eleanor, resignedly, spoke of her willingness to give Franklin his freedom. Sara was aghast. The idea that her son wanted to divorce Eleanor was the greatest shock she had suffered since 13 years before when he had told her he intended to marry her. It is "all very well for you, Eleanor, to speak of being willing to give Franklin his freedom," she said. But imagine the wagging tongues and shaking heads at Oyster Bay. Adultery could be concealed, even tolerated, but divorce was a calamity. After Cousin Alice Longworth's failed attempt to divorce the chronically faithless Nick Longworth, she noted, "I don't think one can have any idea how horrendous even the idea of divorce was in those days. I remember telling my family in 1912 I wanted one and, although they didn't quite lock me up, they exercised considerable pressure to get me to reconsider." Indeed, no one in either branch of the Roosevelt family had ever been divorced.
Eleanor & Sara Delano, 1908
If Franklin seriously meant to leave his wife, she could not stand in his way. Then the dowager empress of Hyde Park delivered her terms: If Franklin persisted, she would cut him off without a cent. He now confronted his choices, freedom at a high price or living in the comfortable prison of convention. He enjoyed lavish living and unthinkingly assumed it as his due. The annual income from Eleanor's trust, $8,000, and his own $5,000 could support a livable upper-middle-class life. But not the life the Roosevelts led. Who would pay for the upkeep on their homes, the servants' salaries, the club memberships, the children's tuition at the best private schools? Just the previous March when two of his children were ill, Franklin had written his mother, "You have saved my life or rather, the various doctors' lives, by making it possible for me to pay them promptly!" In the same letter he reminded Sara that a tax bill was due on his boat.
Was Sara serious about cutting off the son whom she adored above all else? He had to accept that he was kept by his mother on a golden leash.
The couple with F.D.R.'s mother, Sara Delano
During the crisis, Franklin finally consulted Louis Howe [a political adviser] about what he should do. For Howe, that Franklin was seriously considering leaving Eleanor was as if a heavy bettor had seen his horse stumble midway in a high-stakes race. What of those White House dreams? Howe was desperate to get his horse back on track. The grounds for divorce in New York State were adultery, and the details of the affair, if revealed, would spell Roosevelt's political death.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Wimsy, Vane, and wartime valor à la Elizabeth Wein

Vancouver Sun
These two form the only romantic pairing on my list! But I include them because they do make a Sensational Team as well as being a sensational couple. Detective work aside, romance aside, Harriet and Peter "work well together", each bringing a separate set of talents to the puzzles they're trying to solve. Their teamwork is metaphorically crystallised in the middle of Gaudy Night when, in a fit of nostalgia for her student days, Harriet writes half a poem about Oxford which Peter finishes. Though their individual poetic style and tone are completely different, together they build a perfect and true sonnet with both literal and figurative levels of meaning. Oh, and they are also both excellent at steering a punt. Not every couple can make teamwork of this difficult skill.
That's part of bestselling author Elizabeth Wein's answer to a question from The Guardian on her choices for her favorite partners in literature. Harriet Vane and Peter Wimsey appear in the perennially popular Strong Poison, Have His Carcase, Gaudy Night, and Busman's Honeymoon by Dorothy L Sayers. (Click here for a spiffy edition of The Complete Lord Peter Wimsey Stories.)
You will see in the column to the right of this post that my piece on Wein's Code Name Verity is the most popular of the ~1000 I have written! (Doubtless that's because of the buzz an upcoming film based on the book is generating.)
While waiting for the movie, I'm going to read her interconnected book Rose Under Fire, also set in World War II, and also filled with a gratifying quorum of female heroines.
According to Publishers Weekly, "Wein wanted to know more about Ravensbrück, the notorious women’s concentration camp, after reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. She hit upon her main character Rose’s motivation for writing down everything she could remember about having been imprisoned after reading And I Am Afraid of My Dreams by Wanda Póltawska, a Polish survivor of the camps. Her fascination with women who were dropped behind enemy lines was stoked by The Women Who Lived for Danger, a collective biography about some of World War II’s female secret agents. Many did not live to tell their own stories."
I reckon that for Wein, the yen to compose came early! Here she is with her first typewriter as a small child. Wein has lived in Scotland for more than ten years and has written nearly all of her novels there.
Has anyone read Rose Under Fire yet?

Monday, September 22, 2014

Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft: friends and foes

Having spent our evenings last week watching Ken Burns epic PBS series The Roosevelts—An Intimate History, I'm sure many of us have turned to the expert authors Burns relied on to construct this superb documentary. One of that ilk is historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. I've been dipping into her The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism, which garnered her the 2014 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction and was chosen as one of the Best Books of the Year by The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Economist, Time, USA Today, The Christian Science Monitor, and many other major publications. The Associated Press called it “a tale so gripping that one questions the need for fiction when real life is so plump with drama and intrigue.”
As we learned in the series, Teddy Roosevelt soaked up print media like a sponge. Right now I'm engrossed in Goodwin's description of the changes that ensued in the meat-packing industry after he read Upton Sinclair's The Jungle.
In the end, a fairly comprehensive meat inspection bill emerged. "We cannot imagine any other President whom the country had ever had, paying any attention at all to what was written in a novel" the New York Evening Post remarked. "In the history of reforms which have been enacted into law," Beveridge [the bill's Senate sponsor] proudly noted, "there has never been a battle which has been won so quickly and never a proposed reform so successful in the first contest."
It was not long after that that the Pure Food and Drug Act was enacted.
Interestingly, many reviews remarked on how novelistic Goodwin's book is. Here's the New York Times Book Review
If you find the grubby spectacle of today's Washington cause for shame and despair — and, really, how could you not? — then I suggest you turn off the TV and board Doris Kearns Goodwin's latest time machine.... Goodwin directs her characters with precision and affection, and the story comes together like a well-wrought novel...[Goodwin puts] political intrigues and moral dilemmas and daily lives into rich and elegant language. Imagine 'The West Wing' scripted by Henry James.
Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks (which used Goodwin's Team of Rivals as the basis for Lincoln) has already optioned The Bully Pulpit for a movie. I'm betting it will be a corker.
As Abigail Adams said to her husband John so long ago as he attended the Continental Congress: "Remember the ladies." Here is Goodwin on "The Women of the Progressive Era."

And  in this video the Pulitzer Prize winner presents the five essential things you should know about Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Progressive Era.
In this excerpt from the book's opening chapter, Roosevelt returns to New York City for a hero's welcome after two terms in office and more than a year abroad touring Africa and Europe. (A five-mile parade up Broadway was attended by an estimated one million people.)
ROOSEVELT IS COMING HOME, HOORAY! Exultant headlines in mid-June 1910 trumpeted the daily progress of the Kaiserin, the luxury liner returning the former president, Theodore Roosevelt, to American shores after his year's safari in Africa.
Despite popularity unrivaled since Abraham Lincoln, Roosevelt, true to his word, had declined to run for a third term after completing seven and a half years in office. His tenure had stretched from William McKinley's assassination in September 1901 to March 4, 1909, when his own elected term came to an end. Flush from his November 1904 election triumph, he had stunned the political world with his announcement that he would not run for president again, citing "the wise custom which limits the President to two terms." Later, he reportedly told a friend that he would willingly cut off his hand at the wrist if he could take his pledge back.
Roosevelt had loved being president -- "the greatest office in the world." He had relished "every hour" of every day. Indeed, fearing the "dull thud" he would experience upon returning to private life, he had devised the perfect solution to "break his fall." Within three weeks of the inauguration of his successor, William Howard Taft, he had embarked on his great African adventure, plunging into the most "impenetrable spot on the globe."
For months Roosevelt's friends had been preparing an elaborate reception to celebrate his arrival in New York. When "the Colonel," as Roosevelt preferred to be called, first heard of the extravagant plans devised for his welcome, he was troubled, fearing that the public response would not match such lofty expectations. "Even at this moment I should certainly put an instant stop to all the proceedings if I felt they were being merely 'worked up' and there was not a real desire . . . of at least a great many people to greet me," he wrote one of the organizers in March 1910. "My political career is ended," he told Lawrence Abbott of The Outlook, who had come to meet him in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, when he first emerged from the jungle. "No man in American public life has ever reached the crest of the wave as I appear to have done without the wave's breaking and engulfing him."
Anxiety that his star had dimmed, that the public's devotion had dwindled, proved wildly off the mark. While he had initially planned to return directly from Khartoum, Roosevelt received so many invitations to visit the reigning European sovereigns that he first embarked on a six-week tour of Italy, Austria, Hungary, France, Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Norway, Germany, and England. Kings and queens greeted him as an equal, universities bestowed upon him their highest degrees, and the German Kaiser treated him as an intimate friend. Every city, town, and village received him with a frenzied enthusiasm that stunned the most sophisticated observers. "People gathered at railway stations, in school-houses, and in the village streets," one journalist observed. They showered his carriage with flowers, thronged windows of tenement houses, and greeted him with "Viva, viva, viva Roosevelt!" Newspapers in the United States celebrated Roosevelt's triumphant procession through the Old World, sensing in his unparalleled reception a tribute to America's newfound position of power. "No foreign ruler or man of eminence could have aroused more universal attention, received a warmer welcome, or achieved greater popularity among every class of society," the New York Times exulted.
"I don't suppose there was ever such a reception as that being given Theodore in Europe," Taft wistfully told his military aide, Captain Archie Butt. "It illustrates how his personality has swept over the world," such that even "small villages which one would hardly think had ever heard of the United States should seem to know all about the man." The stories of Roosevelt's "royal progress" through Europe bolstered the efforts of his friends to ensure, in Taft's words, "as great a demonstration of welcome from his countrymen as any American ever received."

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Beatrix Potter and the "world of realism and romance"

 “I do not remember a time when I did not try to invent pictures and make for myself a fairyland amongst the wild flowers, the animals, fungi, mosses, woods and streams, all the thousand objects of the countryside; that pleasant, unchanging world of realism and romance, which in our northern clime is stiffened by hard weather, a tough ancestry, and the strength that comes from the hills.”
Helen Beatrix Potter was a fascinating woman. Her story is dramatized in the film Miss Potter starring Renee Zellweger, and the Public Domain Review recently ran a ripping overview of her career. At the National Trust's Beatrix Potter Gallery in Hawkshead, Cumbria (near her cherished Hill Top farmhouse), you can see her beautiful  paintings and learn about her life. Along with photos and first editions, they have original illustrations for 20 of the 23 little storybooks; more than 700 watercolors, ink drawings, and greetings cards designed by Potter; butterfly cabinets; and more. (When she died in 1943, Beatrix left 4,000 acres of land, including 15 farms, to the care of the National Trust.) Above left is a sketch of flower borders, Victoria and Albert Museum. You can peruse our Potter books here, and please enjoy the sampling of her work below.
Potter was born in London in 1866, but her summer holidays as a child were often spent in Hertfordshire, with her grandparents at Camfield Place in Essendon. She described it as "the place I love best in the world." This original illustration from the British Museum comes from The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies (1909).
Above, Jemima Puddle Duck. As The Tale of Peter Rabbit was published on 2 October 1902, Potter already had prepared The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin and The Tailor of Gloucester (her own favorite).
Potter often wrote with a particular child in mind. She remarked that the secret to the success of The Tale of Peter Rabbit was that it was addressed to "a real live child … not made to order."
Do you have a favorite Beatrix Potter character? (Right: 'Simpkin Housekeeping', c.1902. Tate Museum.) "The world of realism and romance" applies to her own work, as well as to her perception of landscape—don't you think? Below, Renee Z. as Miss Potter.

Monday, September 15, 2014

The short films of Wes Anderson

Are you a fan of film director Wes Anderson? See what you think of his Jules et Jim-esque video ad for Prada's "Candy" fragrance! (It's his second short for Prada, after Castello Cavalcanti, which  debuted at the Rome Film Festival, starred Jason Schwartzman, and paid tribute to the films of Federico Fellini.)
You also might enjoy Hotel Chevalier, in which lovesick hotel patron Jason Schwartzman  is visited by the woman (Natalie Portman) who pushed him into his Parisian hideaway.
We currently have a discounted copy of Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited for sale. What's your favorite of his films? DarjeelingRushmore? Moonrise Kingdom? The Fantastic Mr. Fox?

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Edmund Morris on the many sides of Teddy Roosevelt: blessed with a phenomenal memory, a voracious reader, and "one of the funniest men who ever lived."

He was an explorer, a hunter, a historian, a rancher, a soldier, New York City Police Commissioner, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Governor of New York, Vice President of the United States, and ultimately its President. When Theodore Roosevelt took office, Booker T. Washington was the first person he asked to come to Washington to consult with him. He created a national scandal by having a Black man to dinner in the White House, something that had never been done before. And as detailed in Edmund Morris's The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, it wasn't the first time T.R. bucked protocol. Morris's biography is the first in a trilogy that has been showered with awards (the others being Theodore Rex, which covers his presidential years; 1901 to 1909, and Colonel Roosevelt, which explores the final 10 years of T.R.’s life; 1909 to 1919).
"There were all kinds of things I was afraid of at first, ranging from grizzly bears to 'mean' horses and gun-fighters; but by acting as if I was not afraid I gradually ceased to be afraid."—T.R., An Autobiography, 1913
Edmund Morris was born in Nairobi, Kenya, but came to the the US in 1968, later becoming an American citizen. "Wanting to learn about my country of adoption, I couldn’t think of a better way to learn all about America, its character and its history and its essential principles than by studying the life of Theodore Roosevelt" he told host Brian Lamb on on C-Span's program Q&A. "There was a preliminary apprehension of him when I was a small boy in Kenya. At the age of ten, I looked in the civic history of Nairobi, which was published to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the city. And it had this historic photograph of President Theodore Roosevelt coming to Nairobi, Kenya in 1909 on his great safari for the Smithsonian. And I remember identifying, as a small boy, with that picture; the smile, the snarl, the spectacles. There was something about him that attracted me. And quarter of a century later, I ended up writing his biography."
This interview was so fascinating to me in regard to the writing of all three biographies that I've excerpted portions of it below.
Roosevelt stumping, 1910
BRIAN LAMB: I want to go back to the first words you wrote about Theodore Roosevelt in 1979 in your first of three books. And you started it off in a prologue, "New Year’s Day, 1907 at 11 o’clock precisely, the sound of trumpets echoes within the White House and floats through open windows out into the sunny morning." Do you remember what mood you were in when you had to write those first words?
EDMUND MORRIS: Yes, it was a mood of complete despair. I’d been trying for months to get the book started. I knew in my head that I was going to start with New Year’s Day of 1907 because I’d found out quite by accident, browsing the Guinness Book of World Records that on January the 1st, 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt shook more hands than any other person in history. And I thought I could see the book growing out of that reception, when he received the American people.
And for months I researched the day; discovering to my amazement, how dense and detailed newspaper records were in those days. People didn’t have television, so they needed details, visual detail and olfactory details, all sorts of atmospheric stuff. So I absorbed all this mass of material and then I had to sit down and write a prologue, in which the reader, as it were, meets the President, as though the reader’s in that line.

LAMB: As you look back on your process of getting to know Theodore Roosevelt, how did you do it? Where did you go? Where did you start to see what he was all about?
MORRIS: I began to get a physical feel for him, which is important for a biographer; one must have the ability to imagine this person in the room or at – within visible distance. One must have a palpable feeling for the subject or it’s impossible to write about them. I began to get that feeling after about two years of research; after I’d been out to the Badlands of Dakota where he was a young ranchman in the 1880s, after I’d been out to Sagamore Hill and I’d held in my hand this gold lock of hair from the head of his dead young wife, Alice Lee, after I’d read his diaries written at Harvard and had turned over the pages that his hand had turned over.
I remember coming across one page describing his honeymoon night with this beautiful Alice Lee and I was naturally interested to see what he wrote about that night. In his handwriting, he said our sacred happiness cannot be written about and I had the distinct feeling that I, posterity, future biographer, was being addressed by him. This is private; stay out of my life. So that’s when the consciousness of him began.
LAMB: How have you changed your mind about Theodore Roosevelt in the last 30-plus years?
MORRIS: I’ve been increasingly impressed by the quality of his intellect. It was always obvious to me, right from the start, he was a superbly bright man, but I thought his smarts were primarily political. And indeed they were through most of his middle years, but after he left the White House in March of 1909 and began a life of journalism and book-writing, the quality of his mind deepened and broadened to an astonishing degree.
Some of the essays that he wrote about the conflict between science and religion and imagery in medieval literature and subjects like that and it the year 1911, when he was completely out of political power. These essays are truly impressive. They reflect reading in three languages; English, German and French, some Italian too, enormous Catholic intelligence and erudition. And to think that this man was also a superbly successful President of the United States is to realize that he was – he was a, as somebody once said, a polygon; a man of many, many dimensions.
LAMB: Given what’s going on in the country right now in the United States, what can we learn from this final book about what happens in a country where people are unhappy or, in his case, he was the third party candidate? What can we learn about third parties and when did he run as a third party candidate and why?
MORRIS: He ran as a third party candidate in 1912, but exactly a century ago, in 1910, shortly after he’d come back to the country after having been a year away, T.R. became the spokesman, the oracle of this new force arising in America called progressivism. It was a largely middle class movement whose common denominator, apart from passion, was a mounting dissatisfaction with government and federal government, a feeling of exclusion from the tight relationship between Congress and corporations and capitalistic privilege.
So this white middle class passionate movement developed in the later years of T.R.’s presidency, largely inspired by his own gradual swing to the left. And it more or less asked him; drafted him back into politics as its spokesman in the summer of 1910. So the midterm elections that subsequently took place exactly 100 years ago marked the emergence of this new progressive party. It wasn’t quite a party yet; it didn’t have a capital P, but it was a formidable movement, which in two short years after that election mutated into a real party, the third party, the Progressive Bull Moose Party of 1912 and fought the most successful third party candidacy in our history.
LAMB: Why did he not run in 1908?
MORRIS: Well at the end of his very successful presidency, he was full of smarts and young. He was not yet 50. But he sort of knew, in his heart of hearts, that if he had another term, which he could have had on a silver platter; if he served another four years he would begin to be corrupt, begin to be too self-righteous, too domineering. It was never a question of financial or political corruption with T.R., but he sensed he’d had too much power too long and he deeply believed that an American President should serve only a finite time and follow the example of George Washington and retire after two terms....
MORRIS: He was one of the funniest men who ever lived. His humor was like Mark Twain’s. It came pouring out all the time. And unfortunately, transcriptions of these speeches tend to be from the actual typed script that he would hand out to reporters, so his improvisations, his witticisms, the jokes he would tell are not there in the transcripts. But there is – there is so much testimony from people who knew him that he was hilariously funny.
And when he wanted to be funny on paper, as in the long letters he wrote describing his grand tour of Europe in 1909 and his participation in King Edward the VII’s funeral; these letters are so funny that they could have been written by Charles Dickens or Mark Twain. They have in fact been published as a book, ”Cowboys and Kings.” So one of the delights about working on him all these years has been to write about somebody who was so funny.
In conjunction with the Ken Burns PBS film The Roosevelts, An Intimate History, we are running a new "Forum" filled with books and DVDs relating to the personal lives and public careers of Teddy, Franklin, and Eleanor Roosevelt. Check back often for new features. 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The legacy of Laura Nyro: 'a message so beautiful you want to share it with everybody'

Photo by Nancy Levine

"She was the whole package."—Diane Reeves

 "It took forever for everybody to get inside and sit down, because people kept going downstairs to the gym to give her flowers . . . Then she was there, in the deafening roar of applause from her worshippers, a baby-skinned zaftig beauty with a penchant for thrift-shop attire."—Rex Reed, writing about a Laura Nyro concert in Stereo Review

"Her songs reached the depth of despair but never lost a glorious ecstasy in the singing. Like all great artists she wrestled with mortality at a young age – she wrote 'And When I Die' when she was 19. (Bundle up my coffin cause it’s cold way down there.)"—Suzanne Vega, Reflections on Laura Nyro 

"It’s like an ice cream soda and I love anybody who records my music . . . I’m very flattered.”—Laura Nyro  

Sometimes when I get advance notice of a new CD we'll be carrying I get a delightful frisson of anticipation, and such was the case with composer, pianist, and arranger Billy Childs' brilliant brainchild, Map to the Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro. I imagine she would just adore its eclectic spirit. The album "brims with subtle yet striking moments," as Jim Fusilli observed yesterday in The Wall Street Journal.
Delicately applied piano and acoustic guitar by Mr. Childs and Dean Parks, respectively, and the orchestral strings form the supple spine of a suspenseful title track featuring vocalist Lisa Fischer. Supported by saxophonist Steve Wilson and featuring a knotty, gorgeous interlude by Mr. Childs, "Gibsom Street" is sung with dark fire by Susan Tedeschi. On "New York Tendaberry," Ms. Fleming's voice, Mr. Ma's cello and Mr. Childs's piano welcome the listener with beauty and purpose. Mr. Childs said those three compositions were elemental to his understanding of Nyro's essence as an artist…. "I knew it couldn't be a single singer," he said. "Her songs are so varied. Her output is like one long interconnected opera. Each song is a chapter in a book. She creates a world through symbolism and metaphor. Once you're in, it's an incredible world."
Though Mr. Childs dug deep into the Nyro catalog, he also included new readings of a few familiar tunes. Shelving the Copland-like gallop of the Nyro and Blood, Sweat and Tears versions, Mr. Childs's minor-key arrangement of "And When I Die" allows Ms. Krauss to expose a different meaning to the lyric. His bluesy interpretation of "Save the Country," written by Nyro in the aftermath of the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, features Mr. Botti's mournful trumpet. Nyro's reading was angry yet upbeat; in their interpretation some four decades later, Mr. Childs and vocalist Shawn Colvin seem to question whether faith and optimism are still characteristics that define America.
In an era when so-called classic rock celebrates rubbish just because it's familiar, Mr. Childs has rediscovered and polished genuine gems from a long time ago. "It's not only characteristic of a certain generation or a certain time," he said of Nyro's music. "Her music and her beauty: It's not a mission for popularity. There's a message that's beautiful that you want to share with everybody."
Friends described Nyro as sweet, playful, and funny; she called songwriting "a happy profession."
Nyro was a poetic songwriter with a beautiful gift for language. She looked on herself as a rebel and cherished the freedom to write about whatever she wanted to: “I was always interested in the social consciousness of certain songs. My mother and grandfather were progressive thinkers, so I felt at home in the peace movement and the women’s movement, and that has influenced my music.”
In high school, she sang with friends in subway stations and on street corners: “I would go out singing, as a teenager, to a party or out on the street, because there were harmony groups there, and that was one of the joys of my youth.” Some of her favorite musicians were John Coltrane, Nina Simone, Pete Seeger, Curtis Mayfield, Van Morrison, Miles Davis (seen below), and girl groups such as The Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas, and the Shirelles.
This excerpt from a 1970 Down Beat interview shows how Nyro fought to maintain the integrity of her musical vision.
“I wasn’t interested in singing my music,” she says, “but I thought maybe I wanted other people to do it. I didn’t see very daring people . . . they counted me out because my material was different—that’s silly. One man told me to go home and write What Kind of Fool Am I? If anybody could be miscast, it’s me—that’s been my problem, because, if you put my music in the wrong place, it becomes a freak. I don’t fall into categories and people constantly want to put me in categories, but I refuse....
The Verve/Forecast album (originally entitled More Than a New Discovery but later renamed The First Songs … is not wholly bad, but Miss Nyro likes to ignore it by referring to her initial Columbia effort as her first. “They (Verve) picked the arranger and producer for me,” she complains, “they picked them and said ‘This is whom you must record with.’ And so my arranger (Herb Bernstein) went home and wrote about six arrangements in three hours. I mean, I work months and hours and years and a lifetime on my songs, and if something was a bit difficult, he’d just chop it right out . . . like if one of my changes was a bit difficult. They really kind of brought down my music. There was no balance at the beginning of me . . . there was no peace, there was no comfort, there was certainly no joy, there was no understanding and there was no sensitivity. Just incredible fights, and I was always crying—I mean, that’s the way all those old people really know me.”
Obviously, she prevailed, becoming so beloved that she could sell out Carnegie Hall in an hour.
This excerpt from Nyro's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction is not a great recording in terms of sound quality, but it's an absolutely stellar, right on, and heartfelt tribute by Bette Midler.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Snippets from New York's Fall Fashion Week 2014

Wraithlike and pale (except for the occasional woman of color), the zombie-esque high fashion models glide and pose in tantalizingly brief glimpses of the season's hottest (and coolest) fashion looks. So far, idioms spotted in New York's Fall Fashion Week 2014 include a return to tasteful classics and '60s attire, accompanied by the usual quota of sternum baring. (Above and left, designs by Jason Wu. Oh how those bones stick out! Below, outfits by Ralph Rucci and Marc Jacobs.)
"Rucci’s spring collection was filled with experiments in texture and transparency, the tension between good taste and tawdriness" writes Robin Givhan of The Washington Post. "A floor-length satin skirt in an abstract chocolate print is worn with a transparent chiffon shirt and an embroidered bra. An ivory pantsuit looks utterly simple until the model turns away to reveal a tiny keyhole opening in the jacket’s back seam just below the nape of the neck – a wink to an incorrigible voyeur."
At right is a lovely Belle Époque evocation by Monique L'Huillier. Below, Marchesa seemed to have mined the past as well.
Downton Abbey actress Michelle Dockery seems a bit like a little girl lost at the Marc Jacobs show. And Uma Thurman looks pretty devastatin' at the Carolina Herrera do, wouldn't you say?
Vogue Editor in Chief Anna Wintour is a fixture at the toniest events. Here she sits with retired soccer star David Beckham and son Brooklyn at the Victoria Beckham Spring/Summer 2015 show. (AP Photo/Richard Drew.) Below are some of the former Spice Girl's creations.
If you couldn't toddle off to New York and yearn to contemplate fashion in historical perspective, we have some beautifully illustrated books on the subject—including ones on the styles of Paris and Berlin; the singular artistry of Jean Muir; the high-fashion footwear of Beth Levine, Mabel Julianelli, and Salvatore Ferragamo; a life of the influential and colorful tastemaker Diana Vreeland; Schiaparelli & Prada: Impossible Conversations (from the Met's superb show contrasting their work); Roberto Capucci: Timeless Creativity (stunning and extravagant creations by "the father of Italian fashion"); an overview of designer bags (The Handbag: To Have & to Hold); historical books such as Fashion in the 1920s, The Victorian Tailor: An Introduction to Period Tailoring and Fashion in the Time of The Great Gatstby; and many how-to books on sewing or knitting your own couture.
Above, an artsy dress by Alexander Wang. "Wang’s collections exude frenetic energy – a gulping down of life’s daily stimuli. Watching one of his shows is a bit like mainlining the Internet…. Nicki Minaj, Miguel and Rihanna sit in the front row keeping the crowd happily gawking until show time."—Robin Givhan, Washington Post

Thursday, September 4, 2014

"J'ai deux amours": the eternal delights of Parisian food, fashion, art, music, books & more

Detail from La Vie de Monseigneur Saint Denis, 1517, depicting Parisian people at leisure. Love the dancing bear and the wine-drinking party on the Seine!
“Il n’y a que deux endroits au monde où l’on puisse vivre heureux: chez soi et à Paris. ("There are only two places in the world where one can live happy: at home and in Paris.”)—Hemingway
“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”―Hemingway
A game of bocce. From the Chansonnier de Paris, c.1280—1315. (The British Library Board)
“Everything ends this way in France—everything. Weddings, christenings, duels, burials, swindlings, diplomatic affairs—everything is a pretext for a good dinner.”—Jean Anouilh
These quotes and the lovely images above and below put me in mind of a recent Spotlight feature we did called Paris in the Springtime. The illuminations are from a new Folio Society edition of Paris in the Middle Ages by Simone Roux.
Shop-lined Paris streets. From Le livre du gouvernement des princes by Gilles Romain.
We always maintain a particularly deep collection of great titles relating to Paris and its history, as well ones reflecting its importance as a capitol of art and design (with books on Matisse, Picasso, Chagall, Fabergé, Lalique, et al.); as a longtime nexus of fashion innovation; as a center of superior food and music; and as a source of marvelous films, novels, and poetry. Click here to peruse our current offerings. At right: Andre Lhote, Expressive Head, 1920-24. From Matisse, Picasso, and Modern Art in Paris: The T. Catesby Jones Collections at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the University of Virginia Art Museum.
Selected Paris-related titles in stock now:
  • The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and Trial by Combat in Medieval France
  • The Louvre and the Masterpiece
  • The Tender Hour of Twilight: Paris in the '50s, New York in the '60s: A Memoir of Publishing's Golden Age
  • The Crimes of Paris: A True Story of Murder, Theft, and Detection
  • Jacques Offenbach and the Paris of His Time
  • The Harlequin Years: Music in Paris 1917-1929
  • The Food Lover's Guide to Paris: The Best Restaurants, Bistros, Cafes, Markets, Bakeries, and More City Fashion Paris 
  • The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916
  • The Montmarte Investigation: A Victor Legris Mystery
  • the Elizabeth Taylor movie Paris When It Sizzles
  • the CD anthology Cafe De Paris: 50 Grands Succes Francais, with Piaf, Trenet, Chevalier, Grappelli, Montand, Josephine Baker, and more.
As Baker sang, "J'ai deux amours": Paris et toi.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Wild, wacky, and outré book titles; is fashion "spinach"?

"To be or not to be..."
Goblinproofing One's Chicken Coop: And Other Practical Advice In Our Campaign Against The Fairy Kingdom by Reginald Bakeley. How Tea Cosies Changed the World by Loani Prior. Raising Witches; Knitting Historical Figures; How to Make Love While Conscious; A Popular History of British Seaweeds. If none of these titles tickle your fancy, then perhaps one of the tomes illustrated below will. They're from the ongoing "Weird Book Room" feature at Abe Books. And if you really want to delve into the arcane, have a look at The Toast's '100 Actual Titles of Real Eighteenth-Century Novels.' Among the offerings: The Book!! Or, Procrastinated Memoirs. Atrocities Of A Convent. He’s Always In The Way. Horrible Revenge, Or, The Monster Of Italy!! How It Happened That I Was Born. It Was Me, A Tale By Me, One Who Cares For Nothing Or Nobody. The Male-Coquette; Or, The History Of The Hon. Edward Astell. Memoirs Of An Old Wig. A Modern Anecdote Of The Ancient Family Of The Kinkvervankotsdarsprakengotchderns. The Peaceful Villa, An Eventful Tale. Read, And Give It A Name.
Actually, Elizabeth Hawes' book title Fashion Is Spinach as featured in the Weird Book Room is not as silly as it sounds. Taken from a New Yorker cartoon, it epitomizes this great American designer's practical yet classy approach to creating clothes for women (Katharine Hepburn was a big fan). New York Times writer Alice Gregory recently wrote a blog on Hawes, and you can read more about her in Bettina Berch's Radical by Design: The Life and Style of Elizabeth Hawes, which I highly recommend. (Used copies are very pricey online; perhaps a new edition is called for?)
Browse our many discounted, illustrated books on fashion here!