Cool People

Triolet for Robert Plant

Happy birthday to Robert Plant, who is 68 today. Robert Plant is (should I say was?) the singer and primary lyricist for my favorite band of all time, Led Zeppelin. I was easily sucked into the history of the band and haven’t yet read about Mr. Plant’s life before it, but he is an exceptional writer and singer and I can’t imagine any other voice in his place. It’s hard to read Zeppelin lyrics without the context of the music because they’re so recognizable, but to me his writing is accessible–a next-level understanding of things situated in reality. In that spirit I wrote this poem.

Triolet for Robert Plant

First find your gift; then exhaust its full extent.
These are the ones who live beyond their years.
You can never be too late, too old, too spent—
First, find your gift. Then exhaust its full extent.
Accepting less than best breeds spite and discontent,
and a mediocre life is not a life revered.
First find your gift; then exhaust its full extent.
These are the ones who live beyond their years.

This verse is a triolet, an 8-line repetitive stanza following an ABaAabAB pattern. Most examples I noted were also in iambic pentameter so I went for it, but I deviated quite a bit. I prefer to work with a syllable count and let the meter come naturally. It was a neat little exercise, anyways!

Bach By Popular Demand

On March 31, 1685, an artist was born that would give Western music a kick in the pants. Johann Sebastian Bach, one of the greatest composers of all time, may have enjoyed success as a musician during his life, but his significant influence can still be heard more than two centuries later.

Bach lived in the Baroque period (~1600-1750), the music of which could be characterized as dramatic, elaborate, and a little over-the-top. Just as the Renaissance before it was about evolving instruments and sounds, the Baroque period evolved music with the creative use of keys, vocals, and melodies with greater and greater complexity. Bach was a gifted organist and wrote an extensive body of religious music. Perhaps his greatest contribution is his innovative style, which layered melodies to become more than mere accompaniment, but an actual unification of sounds. Mozart and Beethoven, by far the two greatest composers of the following Classic Period, grew up with Bach’s music and practiced his arrangements. Perhaps even more telling is the lengthy list of popular composers of the Romantic Period who have churned out so many excellent and timeless works, and so close together–I think of all the rock bands of the 1990’s who cite Led Zeppelin as a big influence.

Bach certainly closed out the Baroque era with an exclamation point when he passed in 1750. I’m no musician, so I certainly can’t speak on the technicalities of Bach’s compositions, but I can speak to the emotion that oozes from each work of thoughtfully constructed notes. When I hear Toccota and Fugue, I’m a little sad, a little crazy, and incredibly intense. Air on the G String does just the opposite, but in a very good way.

Whether or not you listen to Classical music, any art requires a respect for that which came before. Step Bach and think what the world might have sounded like without him.

From Russia, With Love

“I don’t like people who have never fallen or stumbled. Their virtue is lifeless and it isn’t of much value. Life hasn’t revealed its beauty to them.”
-Boris Pasternak

I can’t pinpoint the reason, but there are some historical cultures I’ve just always been fascinated by, like Ancient Egypt or 20th century Germany. At any point in it’s timeline, I have a feeling surpassing curiosity about Russia. Though I’m no expert in Russian history, it’s difficult to ignore the impact of the country’s past on it’s artists. While I love the whimzy of The Nutcracker, I’m drawn to the dramatic minor chords of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. I read Atlas, Shrugged by the great Ayn Rand last year, and developed a major girl-crush on assertive Dagny Taggart. I’m recording the War and Peace TV miniseries adapted from Tolstoy’s popular novel, and I’m currently working on Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky, which I’m finding to be a pleasantly surprising page-turner even though I’m a slow reader.

With all of this Russian through my head (!), I thought a lame pun could be excused (?). Really, though, when I found out it was Boris Pasternak’s birthday today (1890-1960), it seemed fitting to pay it forward, and not in rubles.

Pasternak penned the novel that became one of my favorite films, Doctor Zhivago. In the story, Zhivago is both an upper crust doctor and love-torn poet at the mercy of the Russian Civil War. Wrongly labeling Pasternak a novelist, I learned that he only wrote the one, and is well-known in Russia for his poetry. I found the below poem at PoetryFoundation.org and thought first of a woman, then of the White army:

Fresh Paint
I should have seen the sign: “Fresh Paint,”
But useless to advise
The careless soul, and memory’s stained
With cheeks, calves, hands, lips, eyes.

More than all failure, all success,
I loved you, for your skill
In whitening the yellowed world
As white cosmetics will.

Listen, my dark, my friend: by God,
All will grow white somehow,
Whiter than madness or lamp shades
Or bandage on a brow.

Hey, Stella!

On this day in 1947, Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire premiered on Broadway. The original production featured Marlon Brando as the rough-and-tough blue collar anti-hero, Stanley Kowalski, a role he reprised in the 1951 film. Williams’ gritty drama would have shocked audiences regardless, but Brando’s masterful performance of the brutish Stanley pushed the envelope enough to shove him into stardom. Brando co-starred with Jessica Tandy, who won a Tony award for her portrayal of Blanche DuBois. With the exception of Tandy, much of the theatrical production transferred directly to the silver screen, including Elia Kazan’s direction and cast leads Kim Hunter (Stella) and Karl Malden (Mitch). Vivien Leigh replaced Tandy on screen for the sake of having some star power in the credits, but her unforgettable Blanche won her best actress that year.

I have never seen Streetcar on stage, but I’ve read Williams’ script and have seen the movie many times. I’m a huge Brando fan and I absolutely love this story, I think because it’s not afraid to be ugly. Really, Stanley is a male chauvinist-slash-rapist with serious anger issues, and Blanche is a spoiled, washed-up waif with a freakish past. Somehow, though, Williams captures my interest and even makes me care. I personally think his writing broke a lot of ground in demystifying taboos and loosening censorship codes, though it wouldn’t be considered shocking today. I’d be interested in getting my hands on a special edition DVD of Streetcar that includes some stills or a bio on the production.

Not One, Not Two, But Three Starlet Birthdays

Three award-winning female entertainers of Old Hollywood share a birthday today, June 30th, as well as a common experience of initial career struggle followed by tremendous success later in life.

Lena Horne (1917-2010), who would have been 98 this year, is easily the most recognizable African-American female performer of the Hollywood Studio era. A great beauty and a gorgeous voice with tremendous range, Horne sang in such musicals as Cabin In the Sky (1943) and Ziegfeld Follies (1946), but failed to secure top billings because of her race. After her film work in the 1940’s, Horne made frequent television appearances in the 50’s and 60’s. In 1981, Horne starred in the Broadway revue Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music for which she won a Tony, a Grammy and an Emmy. Throughout her long singing and acting career, Horne promoted civil rights and took an active role in the NAACP.

SusanHayward

Susan Hayward (1917-1975) started out as a fashion model and began her acting career in small parts for B-grade films. It wasn’t until she began playing alcoholics, seductresses, and other anti-heroine roles that her career gained momentum. Natural and believable in intense dramas, Hayward earned five Academy Award nominations for Smash-Up, the Story of a Woman (1947), My Foolish Heart (1949), With a Song in My Heart (1952), I’ll Cry Tomorrow (1955) and the film that finally earned her the win, I Want to Live! (1958). Hayward also replaced Judy Garland in the powerhouse role of Helen Lawson for Valley of the Dolls (1967). Hayward’s life was cut short by brain cancer, though she performed until she was too ill to be able.

DorothyMalone

Dorothy Malone (1925) began her acting career in the early 40’s. As a brunette, Malone got off to a slow start in minor roles, albeit in films as famous as The Big Sleep with Humphrey Bogart (1946), Night and Day with Cary Grant (1946) and Artists and Models with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis (1955). In 1956, Malone went blonde and won an Academy Award for her sex-charged bad girl performance in Written on the Wind with Rock Hudson and Lauren Bacall. After a handful of impressive film roles, Malone began a successful television career in the 60’s, and she is perhaps best known for playing Constance MacKenzie on Peyton Place from 1964-1968.

Happy Birthday, Cole Porter

On June 9, 1891, songwriter Cole Porter was born in Peru, Indiana, the only child of the wealthiest couple in town. Porter grew up in refinement, attending Yale to study English then Harvard to study law. His interest in music turned from a hobby to a passion, and he gave up law to pursue composition. It is fairly well known that Porter was a closeted homosexual, but in the early 1920’s that simply wouldn’t do. While living in Paris, he entered a marriage of mutual friendship to wealthy socialite Linda Lee Thomas. Though Porter experienced only minor successes abroad, his wife encouraged him in his work. Once he returned stateside, he fared well on Broadway despite the crash of 1929 and began writing songs for Hollywood.

Much of Porter’s work is included in the Great American Songbook, performed by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, and more recently, Harry Conick, Jr. and Michael Bublé. Some of Porter’s best known songs include Night and Day (1932), I Get a Kick Out of You (1934), I’ve Got You Under My Skin (1936) and From This Moment On (1950). In addition to popular songs, Porter wrote the musical scores for the hit stage shows Anything Goes (1934) and Kiss Me Kate (1948), both adapted as successful films.

Porter’s wife, Linda, and his mother both died in the early 1950’s, and later in the decade Porter underwent an amputation of his right leg. He lived in relative seclusion in New York and stopped writing music. On October 15, 1964 at seventy-three years old, Porter passed of kidney failure. Porter was a huge contributor to music history, and his life was the subject of two biopics, 1946’s Night and Day starring Cary Grant, and 2004’s De-Lovely starring Kevin Kline. Chances are you’ve heard or seen a Porter song. His extensive body of work remains popular and continues to be re-imagined by contemporary acts.

Eartha Kitt sings Night and Day
Ella Fitzgerald sings I Get a Kick Out of You
Frank Sinatra sings I’ve Got You Under My Skin

MM MyHeartBelongsToDaddy

Marilyn Monroe performs “My Heart Belongs to Daddy”

In Honor of Frank Sinatra

“You gotta love livin’ baby, cause dyin’s a pain in the ass.”

Ol’ Blue Eyes. The Chairman of the Board. The Voice. One of my all time favorite stars. You just can’t beat Frank Sinatra. He enjoyed a long, dynamic career as a singer, actor, playboy, and professional VIP, passing of a heart attack on May 14th, 1998 with an elegant send off on May 20th. Not bad for 82 years on this earth, many of them spent with Jack, Johnny, Jim and the Marlboro Man.

Francis Albert Sinatra was born on December 12, 1915 in Hoboken, New Jersey (there’s something about a celebrity who keeps their given name that I find very endearing). Sinatra never finished high school, though his instincts didn’t steer him wrong–leading him to a singing career early on. While performing in night clubs during his early twenties, he caught his big break by signing with Tommy Dorsey and his famous orchestra in 1939 (one of my favorite years). The Voice burned up the charts and Sinatra became the teen idol for the 1940’s. Later that decade, he starred in a trio of musicals with another one of my favorites, Gene Kelly, giving lovable performances in Anchors Aweigh (1945), Take Me Out to the Ball Game and On the Town (both 1949). He starred and sang in other memorable musicals including Guys and Dolls opposite Marlon Brando, High Society with Grace Kelly and Bing Crosby, and Pal Joey with Rita Hayworth.

Sinatra proved he could be a dramatic heavy hitter as well, winning the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his portrayal of Maggio in 1953’s Pearl Harbor romance From Here to Eternity, and scoring a Best Actor nomination for his performance of a heroin addict in 1955’s The Man with the Golden Arm. During the 1960’s, he starred in a variety of comedies, dramas, and war time films, including The Manchurian Candidate and a handful of films with fellow Rat Packer Dean Martin.

I enjoy watching Sinatra on screen, but I think most people associate Sinatra with his voice, a smooth-as-silk and easy sound. As his heart-throb image wore off in the late forties, his larger than life Vegas image gained momentum in the fifties. I haven’t heard a single Sinatra recording I didn’t like. Whether he’s singing melodic hits from the Great American Songbook or crooning through “Luck Be A Lady” or “Witchcraft,” listening to Sinatra is comforting. It feels cool, romantic, and genuine.

Since his was a very public life, I’m adding His Way: The Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra to my summer reading list in the interest of gaining some more perspective on this fascinating man.

Happy Birthday, Annie Dillard

Annie Dillard, Pulitzer Prize winning author and acclaimed writer of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, was born on April 30th 1945. In 1974 alone–at 29 years old–she published Tickets for a Prayer Wheel, a book of poetry, and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction. She has published several nonfiction books, including works of journalism, essay and travelogue, her popular memoir An American Childhood (1987), and Living by Fiction, a work on literary theory, among others. I recently read the essay “Total Eclipse” which was originally published in her collection Teaching a Stone to Talk (1982), and was impressed by the way the narrator evolves in so few pages. She is a master of pacing and word choice. Thematically her work has great depth and isn’t exactly fit for beach reading, but I highly recommend sitting down with one of her essays when you have the time to really taste and digest it.

From The Writing Life (1989):
One of the things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.

Happy Birthday to Francis Ford Coppola

“Anything you build on a large scale or with intense passion invites chaos.”

Francis Ford Coppola, Oscar winning director, writer, and producer, was born on April 7th, 1939 in Detroit. His Italian-American family moved to New York while he was still young, and he developed an interest in film early. After studying drama at Hofstra University in New York, he received his MFA in film from UCLA in 1966.

Regrettably, when I hear Francis Ford Coppola I only think of The Godfather, but I never realized the depth and diversity of his resume. In addition to his trio of credits as writer, director, and producer of the Godfather Trilogy, he served the same three roles for Apocalypse Now, which is somewhat based on Joseph Conrad’s “Hearth of Darkness.” He was also a writer on This Property Is Condemned (one of my mom’s favorite movies), the award-winning Patton, and the 1974 version of The Great Gatsby. His direction ranges from musical (Finian’s Rainbow with Fred Astaire), to horror (Bram Stoker’s Dracula from 1992), to comedy (Peggy Sue Got Married starring nephew Nicholas Cage). He’s worked as a producer of feature films, shorts, and television.

I also didn’t realize that he purposefully places the author’s name in front of a film, such as Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. I read several quotes to choose the two seen here, and I couldn’t help taking away the feeling that Francis Ford Coppola is a down-to-earth, genuine guy who just wants to write and make movies. Must be that Midwestern sensibility…

“I don’t think there’s any artist of any value who doesn’t doubt what they’re doing.”

Happy Birthday Jack Kerouac

On March 12, 1922, Jack Kerouac was born in Lowell, Massachusetts (which is home to a surprising number of famous figures). Kerouac had a tough start; his older brother Gerard died when little Jack was just 4, his father was an alcoholic and his parents struggled financially amidst the Great Depression. Focusing on the positives in his life, reading and sports, Kerouac earned a football scholarship to Columbia University. Football didn’t pay off when Kerouac broke his leg early in his freshman year, but gaining exposure to the life and culture of New York as a 17 year old proved to be the catharsis for his free-spirited literary career. Kerouac dropped out of Columbia and spent the next 17 years travelling and writing under the influence of sex, drugs and jazz. He came into fame in 1957 when his novel On the Road, a somewhat fictionalized account of his travels supposedly written on a single 120-foot scroll in three weeks, fell into the hands of eager readers.

Historically, Kerouac is credited as one of the fathers of the Beat Generation along with Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs. The culture of the day is a subject in and of itself, but it’s his ideas on writing that I’m interested in. (more…)

Having a Moment with Sylvia Plath

I’m working on a feminine drama with portions set in the mid 1960’s and decided to do some supplemental reading, which brought me to The Bell Jar and works of poetry by Sylvia Plath. I remember Mad Girl’s Love Song being the first example of modern formal poetry that was both accessible and captivating for me. The more I read, though, the more fascinated I become with the author. This latest read caught my eye, because the title was borrowed for an episode of “Mad Men” (which I am also having a moment with).

Lady Lazarus
by Sylvia Plath

I have done it again.
One year in every ten
I manage it——

A sort of walking miracle, my skin
Bright as a Nazi lampshade,
My right foot

A paperweight,
My face a featureless, fine
Jew linen.

Peel off the napkin
O my enemy.
Do I terrify?——

The nose, the eye pits, the full set of teeth?
The sour breath
Will vanish in a day. (more…)

And the Oscar Goes To…

This Sunday, the Academy Awards will conclude this year’s awards season with it’s usual over-hyped pomp. I don’t care too much for watching it on TV and am happy with the two-minute version I’ll get on the Monday morning news, but in the spirit of the awards I wanted to share some of my favorite Best Picture winners of all time.

1934 – It Happened One Night
Even if you’re not a big black-and-white picture person, this movie is still fresh and funny. Claudette Colbert was as gorgeous then as any woman today.

1939 – Gone with the Wind
This is my all time favorite. I probably watch this movie twice a year. Scarlett O’Hara is, in my opinion, one of the greatest female characters of all time, and all women owe it to their sex to see this movie at least once.

1943 – Casablanca
I think this is one of the best screenplays of all time. The story incorporates romance, action, suspense, drama and comedy all against the backdrop of World War II. Plus, so many memorable lines that people are still saying 62 years later.

1946 – The Best Years of Our Lives
This is one of my mom’s favorites, but I gravitate to it’s sad happiness. I think it’s an honest tribute to the soldiers who came home from World War II. Dana Andrews plays a decorated hero who has to take his old job as a soda jerk; the scene says it all.

1950 – All About Eve
The original up-and-comer-claws-past-established-pro plot that has been redone many times since, this is definitely a chick flick. Bette Davis is my favorite actress to watch and she is phenomenal in this movie. She was snubbed a Best Actress statuette because co-star Anne Baxter, who gave a great performance as a total bitch, was a total bitch and insisted she be nominated for Best Actress as well. The votes were split and neither actress won.

1951 – An American in Paris
Despite how unusual it is for a musical to win Best Picture, the academy couldn’t ignore that the genre was at the top of its game. Gene Kelly fueled this project, and even though I love Singin in the Rain, I think this is my pick as the best musical of all time.

1953 – From Here to Eternity
Maybe I just like movies that take place during World War II… This drama is wrapped around Pearl Harbor. I really like the romantic play that goes on between Burt Lancaster/Deborah Kerr and Monty Clift/Donna Reed; all four have moments of strength and weakness, but you’re not sure who you’re most sympathetic towards. Frank Sinatra is, as always, a welcome cast member.

1954 – On the Waterfront
Brando! Brando! Brando! I actually think his performance in A Streetcar Named Desire is better, but here he stands out amongst some powerhouse male leads. This movie looks and feels gritty–I feel cold just thinking about it. The mob-driven tough-guy plot skews masculine; it’s one that my old-movie-phobic fiance will even sit and watch with me. “I coulda’ been a contenda!”

—–I think I’ll make this a two-parter, there’s so many more I like!

In Honor of Gene Kelly

“The song has ended, but the melody lingers on.”

Gene Kelly (8/23/1912 – 2/2/1996) is one of the most famous dancers of all time, and is one of my favorite people to watch on screen. Starring in some of the most popular movies of the 40’s and 50’s, Kelly cemented his name in Hollywood history with his athletic style, innovative choreography, and his respect for dance as a medium to tell a story.

As a kid in Pittsburgh, Kelly and his four siblings took dance lessons at the urging of his mother. He teamed up with his brother Fred and hit the nightclub circuit (as I suppose Don Lockwood’s background scenes from Singin’ in the Rain may be somewhat autobiographical). After earning a degree in economics from the University of Pittsburgh, Kelly took his chances in New York City, making it to the stages of Broadway. His big break came in 1940, when, at 22 years old, he won the lead in the hit musical Pal Joey (17 years later, Frank Sinatra would play the lead on film with Rita Hayworth and Kim Novak). Metro Goldwyn Mayer studio head Louis B. Mayer caught Kelly’s performance and quickly offered him a movie contract.

If you were a dancer in the 40’s, MGM was mecca: the studio produced the biggest movie musicals with the brightest stars, best scripts, and most talented crew. Kelly made his big screen debut opposite Judy Garland in 1942’s For Me and My Gal. In 1944, he played the male lead Danny McGuire in Covergirl with a pre-Gilda Rita Hayworth, which made him a star. Kelly teamed up with a young Sinatra for Anchors Aweigh (1945), Take Me Out to the Ballgame (1949) and On the Town (1949). AA had Kelly dancing opposite Jerry Mouse as the first film to incorporate animation and live action. Scenes from OTT were shot at famous New York City landmarks, making it the first musical filmed on location.

In addition to playing lead roles, Kelly collaborated with film makers as a director and choreographer, and he is primarily responsible for two of the greatest film musicals of all time, An American in Paris (1951) and Singin’ in the Rain (1952). For these films, he cast an unknown Leslie Caron and a young Debbie Reynolds, respectively, in the roles that launched their successful careers. AAIP won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1952 and features an elaborate 17-minute ballet sequence at the end of the film, the first of its kind. Kelly was given a special honorary Academy Award “in appreciation of his versatility as an actor, singer, director and dancer, and specifically for his brilliant achievements in the art of choreography on film.” Singin in the Rain ranks on numerous lists and surveys as the most popular musical of all time, and has been released around the world in several languages.

In 1996 at 83 years old, Kelly passed in his sleep after a series of strokes. Even though he is gone, his incredible performances will live on film. He is remembered as the man who sings in the rain, and the every-man who made dancing masculine.

Happy Birthday Colette

“Sit down and put down everything that comes into your head and then you’re a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff’s worth, without pity, and destroy most of it.”

Sidonie Gabrielle Colette (1/28/1873 – 8/3/1974), better known as simply Colette, led a controversial, successful and fascinating life in her native France. She danced through the Moulin Rouge in the Belle Epoque, aided Jews during the German occupation of France during World War II, and later in life became an officer in the French Legion of Honour.

At twenty years old, she married Henry Gauthier-Villars, a roguish figure who encouraged her to write under his pen name, Willy. Colette wrote a series of short novels from the perspective of a teenage girl, Claudine, growing up and being a woman in France. Each of the four popular books in the Claudine series were published every year from 1900-1903. With a taste for literary success, Colette divorced Willy in both marriage and publication. In her not-so-private personal life, Colette had a famous affair with Mathilde de Mornyk, or Missy, with whom she performed in the Moulin Rouge. In 1913 she had a daughter, also named Colette, and she married twice more in her lifetime.

Over the course of her career Colette wrote 50 published novels with collections of her letters and essays published posthumously. Her 1920 novel Chéri contained details of a somewhat autobiographical nature and exploited gender roles. Chéri was adapted for film in 1950 (French) and 2009 (English), and has played in a variety of incarnations on stage. Her 1945 novel Gigi translated well to the stage in its 1951 debut as a Broadway musical. In her international casting search for the perfect Gigi, Colette famously discovered Audrey Hepburn in a Monte Carlo hotel lobby. Gigi was also a successful Hollywood musical in 1958, starring Leslie Caron and Maurice Chevalier and directed by Vincente Minnelli.

“What a wonderful life I’ve had! I only wish I’d realized it sooner.”

In Honor of Carole Lombard

On January 16th, 1942, the lovely Carole Lombard was taken far too soon in a tragic plane crash just outside of Las Vegas. The news shook an America that was ankle-deep in World War II. Lombard was on her way home to husband Clark Gable after touring the Midwest to sell war bonds when her plane crashed into a mountain near an airport refueling station.

Lombard was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana on October 8th, 1908. Her family relocated to the west coast after her parents divorced. Her Hollywood career began at just 12 years old, when she was spotted by a film director while playing baseball outdoors. She started out in silent films, making a successful transition to talkies in 1929. In 1931, she starred in Man of the World with William Powell, a star with whom she had a brief first marriage. Even if her relationship didn’t last, her career took off as she starred in several screwball comedies of the 1930’s, earning her a reputation as the first great screen comedienne. She maintained a relationship with superstar Clark Gable, and the two wed in 1939.

According to Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen, Gable had been carrying on with his young co-star Lana Turner. Lombarde, who was supporting a war bond rally in her native Indiana, was eager to return home to reconnect with her philandering husband. In her haste, she refused a safe train ticket in favor of a seat on a commercial airplane. The book describes her insistence, stating that she refused to budge when asked to give up her seat to military travelers during a fuel stop in Albuquerque. The rest is tragic history. Gable was beside himself, and the whole country mourned the loss of the patriotic actress.

“I love everything I do. I’m immensely interested in and enthusiastic in everything I do, everything. No matter what it is I’m doing, no matter how trivial, it isn’t trivial to me. I give it all I got and love it. I love living. I love life. Eating, sleeping, waking up again, skeet-shooting, sitting around an old barn doing nothing, my work, taking a bath, talking my ears off, the little things, the big things, the simplest things, the most complicated things—I get a kick out of everything I do while I’m doing it.”

Lombard was a really wonderful woman. Read her full interview here.

Happy Birthday, Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was born on January 15th, 1929, and would have been celebrating his 86th birthday this year. King’s work as a civil rights activist, a nonviolent demonstrator and a brilliant speaker have cemented his name in American history–few historical figures are venerated so to have a national holiday declared in their honor. Beyond King’s work as an activist, he has contributed many meaningful texts as a writer. He is synonymous with “having a dream,” but there are many other gems in his repertoire.

“Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.”

“Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”

“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is ‘What are you doing for others?'”

“The time is always right to do what is right.”

“If a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.”

“Means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek.”

The Blonde and the Ball Player

On January 14th, 1954, one of the most famous couples in history tied the knot at San Francisco City Hall. Joe DiMaggio, whose famous career as a New York Yankee was winding down, and Marilyn Monroe, whose famous career as a Hollywood screen goddess was heating up, began the relationship in 1952.

Trouble hit early for the newlyweds when, arriving in Tokyo for their honeymoon, Monroe was swept away to Korea to entertain the troops. It was the first of many blows to DiMaggio’s pride… At the filming of the famous skirt-blowing-over-the-subway-grate scene from The Seven Year Itch, DiMaggio reeled as fans cheered take after take of a “delicious” breeze kicking Monroe’s skirt up, revealing her bare thighs and panties.

By October of 1954, just 9 months into the marriage, Monroe filed for divorce citing “mental cruelty.” Many instances of abuse by DiMaggio against Monroe during their marriage have been reported, but Monroe didn’t let on. Even if the marriage didn’t last officially, the pair remained close until Monroe’s death in 1962. In the absence of Monroe’s birth mother and any real siblings or relatives, DiMaggio may have been the closest Monroe ever came to having a family. It was he who arranged her funeral, and famously honored her request of having fresh flowers sent to her grave site, doing so twice a week until he passed in 1999.

Happy Birthday, Gypsy Rose Lee

“If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing slowly… Very slowly.”

Rose Louise Horvick, a.k.a. Gypsy Rose Lee (1/9/1911 – 4/26/1970) kept the curtains of vaudeville open just a little longer–and a little more suggestively–with her tasteful take on the striptease. Much of what I know about Rose Louise I learned from Natalie Wood in the movie Gypsy, which is based off of the biography of the same name (spoiler: films based off of books may not be 100% accurate). All the same, Rose Louise had a fascinating life that’s worth examining. She began performing on stage as a child, spending her days singing and dancing in the background for her little sister June as willed by her ostentatious mother (also named Rose). June grew older and more resentful of her baby-girl characters and her mother’s constant pressing, deciding to quit the act at the ripe age of 13. Her mother had no choice but to give Rose Louise top billing in a new show, less baby-girl and more burlesque. Taking the name Gypsy Rose Lee, Rose Louise took off her gloves on stage–and a performing art was born.

Besides pioneering the classy gal’s striptease, Rose Louise was also a film actress and writer, but the story of “Gypsy” is perhaps her greatest legacy. In addition to the bestselling book and popular film, “Gypsy” was transformed into a Broadway musical with the help of Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim.

For more on Gypsy, check out the bios at IMDB, TIME or NPR.

Happy Birthday, Jane Austen

Jane Austen (1775 – 1878) is a writer who needs no introduction. It may be surprising to some to learn that the woman only wrote six full length novels in her lifetime (in addition to shorter fiction). Austen’s novels transport the reader to another time completely. In her world, parents would labor to find an eligible bachelor with money and social status to marry their daughters off to. Quite a contrast from today’s parents, who may toil finding the perfect college or condo so their daughters can start their lives. Regardless, Austen’s writing is clever, honest, original, and truly withstands the test of time in spite of the fact that she wasn’t famous during her lifetime. The current Jane Austen fan base is a die hard bunch, and I’m sure the author would have been pleased to know that her words continue to delight new generations of female readers.

Austen certainly has a way with words…

“We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.”

“I do not want people to be agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.”

“Where so many hours have been spent in convincing myself that I am right, is there not some reason to fear I may be wrong?”

“Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery.”

“An artist cannot do anything slovenly.”

“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”

Happy Birthday, Grace Kelly

I wish I knew more about this woman. I’ve decided that a Grace Kelly biography is on my list of holiday-break-reading. Such a classic beauty, in a Euro-American way, and a role model for women young and old. I searched Google for some time and couldn’t find any candid images that revealed a woman other than the stylish, smiling icon I’m familiar with. She is so well known, in fact, it’s hard to believe she made fewer than a dozen films. I like to imagine her real personality a likeness of her character Lisa in Rear Window: Glamorous, sophisticated, independent, and maybe a teeny bit haughty.

I’m not sure why, but I’ve been very in tune with my inner feminist lately, so I was pleased to find such an appropriate quote from the actress turned royal:

“I am basically a feminist. I think that women can do anything they decide to do.”

Grace Kelly, 12 November 1929 – 14 September 1982

Creativity, Courtesy of Marilyn Monroe

“Creativity has got to start with humanity and when you’re a human being, you feel, you suffer. You’re gay, you’re sick, you’re nervous or whatever.”

On September 15th, 1954, Marilyn Monroe shot the famous skirt scene shown above for The Seven Year Itch. I am a huge MM fan for a number of reasons. When you watch her on screen, it’s difficult to pay attention to anything else. To me, she’s timelessly beautiful, mysteriously complex, and endlessly fascinating. I’ve read several biographies and have yet to tire of her story. When I find quotes like “Creativity…” or when I read anything that people who knew her have to say, I am reminded of why she never fails to interest me.

When I write, I am almost always trying to tap into an emotion, and usually one that I’ve just experienced or have been able to relate to well enough to write about it. Even with this quote, though I didn’t create it, I’m trying to evoke the curiosity and simple thoughtfulness I experienced when I read it. I think all writers try to stimulate their readers with universal truths or emotions in some way, but when those feelings have been fought, survived, or embraced first hand, they are that much more powerful.

In thinking about this base of creativity compared to the old writer’s mantra “write what you know,” I’m tempted to say “write how you know” instead. Anyone can research 18th century farming or designer sewing techniques or 1950’s celebrities, but no one can feel the exact way you do and express it the specific way you can.  Thanks, MM, for inspiring me again.

Happy Birthday, Elia Kazan

Happy birthday to the very talented Elia Kazan, 9/7/1909 – 9/23/2003.

Kazan was born in Greece and immigrated to America with his parents. He studied drama at Yale before going on to work as an actor, director and writer. In addition to founding the Actor’s Studio, the same Actor’s Studio that James Lipton is “inside,” he directed a number of famous films, including my favorites A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, Splendor in the Grass and East of Eden. These films alone launched or established the careers of Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, James Dean, Eva Marie Saint, Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood.

In his Actor’s Studio, Kazan promoted the Method, a style of acting that encourages complete immersion of the actor into character. To me, watching Marlon Brando in Streetcar for the first time must have been like seeing Elvis or hearing Nirvana for the first time–it’s just not like anything before it, but it changed everything after it.

I know and appreciate Kazan’s work in film, but he also had a huge impact on the theater and acting as a whole. He was interested in exploring social justice and controversial issues in his work, but his focus on acting and portraying realness are what set him apart.