Friday, September 26, 2014

On Richard Avedon

Truman Capote (1924–1984)
From Art in America 1945–1970

In 1959 photographer Richard Avedon collaborated with Truman Capote (who, then thirty-five, was a year younger) on the groundbreaking book Observations, which gathered a selection of the photographs Avedon had created over the previous decade. Capote contributed brief profiles of Avedon’s subjects, including Charlie Chaplin, Pablo Picasso, Coco Chanel, Mae West, Louis Armstrong, Humphrey Bogart, Ezra Pound, W. Somerset Maugham, and Isak Dinesen. Copies of the book, even in subpar condition, are now hard to find and are valued highly by collectors. (You can page through the volume in a slide show posted at Vimeo.)

Avedon remained close friends with Capote until the latter’s death in 1984, and he captured the famous writer at various ages in a series of now-iconic portraits. For his part, Capote was always quick to defend his friend’s art and integrity. In 1964 Avedon collaborated with his former high-school classmate James Baldwin on a second photographic book,
Nothing Personal. Soon after its publication, theater critic Robert Brustein took to the pages of The New York Review of Books with a contemptuous dismissal, writing that the volume “pretends to be a ruthless indictment of contemporary America,” even though “no expense has been spared to induce an awe-inspiring effect” and “the moralistic authors of the work are themselves pretty fashionable, affluent, and chic.” In a letter to the editors, Capote retorted, “why does Brustein attack the book because it is a handsome piece of bookmaking?—would he rather it was printed on paper-toweling?” He then introduced Brustein to the economic realities of publishing high-quality books of photography:
But of Brustein’s many injustices, the most unjust is in his depicting Avedon as merely an “affluent” fashion-photographer whose main motivation in assembling this book was to exploit the American desire for self-denigration and, so to say, cash in. Balls. First of all, if the publisher of this book sold every copy, he would still lose money. Neither Baldwin nor Avedon will make twenty cents. Brustein is entitled to think that Avedon and Baldwin are misguided; but believe me he is quite mistaken when he suggests, as he repeatedly does, that they are a pair of emotional and financial opportunists.
Ten years ago this week, on October 1, 2004—the day after Truman Capote would have celebrated his eightieth birthday—Richard Avedon died at the age of eighty-one. In honor of his storied life and career, we present Capote’s introduction to Observations, with a short headnote by art critic Jed Perl, who included the piece in the new anthology Art in America 1945–1970.

Note: Capote mentions in passing various artists and celebrities, including Hungarian photographer Martin Munkácsi (Muncaczi); American photographers Edward Steichen and Man Ray; Italian screenwriter Cesare Zavattini; Spanish flamenco dancer Vicente Escudero; Harper's Bazaar editor Marie Louise Bousquet; American physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer; and Roman Catholic priest Martin D’Arcy S.J., the author of The Mind and the Heart of Love and a friend to a number of prominent British writers, including Evelyn Waugh and W. H. Auden.
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Richard Avedon is a man with gifted eyes. An adequate description; to add is sheer flourish. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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Friday, September 19, 2014

The Ice Palace

F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896–1940)
From F. Scott Fitzgerald: Novels & Stories 1920–1922

“They Passed Through the Gateway and Followed a Path that Led Through a Wavy Valley of Graves.”
Illustration by James H. Crank for “The Ice Palace” in the May 22, 1920, issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Image from Google Books.
In the summer of 1918 U.S. Army Second Lieutenant F. Scott Fitzgerald was assigned to Camp Sheridan near Montgomery, Alabama. While there he met and fell in love with eighteen-year-old Zelda Sayre. They soon became informally engaged, and in late October he was sent to Long Island to await orders to be shipped off to Europe. When the war ended on November 11, he instead returned to Montgomery to be discharged. Reunited for several weeks, the couple at one point took a memorable stroll through Oakwood Cemetery. In a love letter sent to him the following spring, Sayre described a subsequent visit to the burial ground:
I’ve spent today in the grave-yard. . . . Why should graves make people feel in vain? I’ve heard that so much, and [Thomas Gray, author of Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard] is so convincing, but somehow I can’t find anything hopeless in having lived – All the broken columnes [sic] and clasped hands and doves and angels mean romances – and in a hundred years I think I shall like having young people speculate on whether my eyes were brown or blue – of course, they are neither – I hope my grave has an air of many, many years ago about it – Isn’t it funny how, out of a row of Confederate soldiers, two or three will make you think of dead lovers and dead loves – when they’re exactly like the others, even to the yellowish moss? Old death is so beautiful – so very beautiful – We will die together – I know . . .
Yet by June 1919 Sayre had broken off the engagement, concerned that Fitzgerald’s career as a writer would not be enough to support them. The disappointment spurred him to return to his hometown of St. Paul, Minnesota, where he quickly finished his first novel and more than a dozen stories, including “The Ice Palace.”

The story opens in September and follows its heroine from Georgia to a wintry Minnesota—although the Northern location is never named. The Yankee swell, the Southern belle, the stroll in the cemetery, the casual betrothal—all these autobiographical elements are brought together. The colossal palace that gives the story its title is modeled on actual large-scale buildings constructed of ice for the St. Paul Winter Carnival. The first festival took place in 1886; the event occurred irregularly in subsequent years—Fitzgerald might have attended in 1916 or 1917—and in recent decades it has been held annually. (Spectacular photographs of the ice palace from various festivals can be seen here.)

Soon after “The Ice Palace” appeared, Fitzgerald explained in a brief essay how he came to write the story. The idea “grew out of a conversation with a girl out in St. Paul.” The two talked about winters in Minnesota (“their bleakness and dreariness and seemingly infinite length”) and about life in Sweden.
“I wonder,” I said casually, “if the Swedes aren’t melancholy on account of the cold—if this climate doesn’t make people rather hard and chill—” and then I stopped, for I had scented a story. . . .
Fitzgerald then explains how the stroll through the cemetery with his fiancée worked its way into the tale:
. . . I was in Montgomery, Alabama, and while out walking with a girl I wandered into a graveyard. She told me I could never understand how she felt about the Confederate graves, and I told her I understood so well that I could put it on paper. Next day on my way back to St. Paul it came to me that it was all one story—the contrast between Alabama and Minnesota.
In 1919 Fitzgerald earned a total of $879 from his writing; the following year his income skyrocketed to $17,055—the equivalent of half a million dollars today—including at least $400 for “The Ice Palace” alone. His sudden wealth and fame convinced Zelda Sayre that they could live off a writer’s salary after all, and they were married at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York on April 3, 1920.

Notes: The lyrics on page 292 are from a nineteenth-century sailing song known by several titles, including “Ten Thousand Miles Away” and “Blow the Winds Heigh-Ho,” and often included as the chorus for an adaptation of “The Walloping Window-Blind,” a nonsense poem by Charles E. Carryl. Dangerous Dan McGrew (page 296) is a character in the narrative poem “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” (1907) by Robert W. Service, which was set in a Canadian saloon during the Yukon Gold Rush.

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The sunlight dripped over the house like golden paint over an art jar, and the freckling shadows here and there only intensified the rigor of the bath of light. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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Friday, September 12, 2014

Defence of Fort M‘Henry

Francis Scott Key (1779–1843),
with an account by Roger B. Taney (1777–1864)

From The War of 1812: Writings from America’s War of Independence

“A View of the Bombardment of Fort McHenry.” Print by American artist John Bower, c. 1814. The full caption for the print reads “A VIEW of the BOMBARDMENT of Fort McHenry, near Baltimore, by the British fleet taken from the Observatory under the Command of Admirals Cochrane & Cockburn on the morning of the 13th of Sept 1814 which lasted 24 hours & thrown from 1500 to 1800 shells in the Night attempted to land by forcing a passage up the ferry branch but were repulsed with great loss.” Image from Wikimedia.
Two hundred years ago, three weeks after burning down nearly every major federal building in Washington, British forces set their sights on Baltimore. Before reaching the city, they sustained heavy casualties in the Battle of North Point on September 12, and the commanding officer, Major General Robert Ross, was killed by a sharpshooter. The relatively inexperienced Colonel Arthur Brooke assumed command and advanced to the outskirts of Baltimore. Brooke realized that the city was heavily fortified and asked the Royal Navy (commanded by Admiral George Cockburn and Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane) to soften the lines with naval fire. In order to get close enough, a British squadron had to first pass by Fort McHenry, which protected the harbor. Bombs and rockets pummeled the fort for over twenty-four hours on September 13–14, but the attack ultimately failed, convincing the British to abandon the siege of Baltimore.

Francis Scott Key witnessed the bombardment from a ship and, inspired by the bravery and obstinacy of the American defenses, jotted down a few lines of the first verse of a song. A mere three days after the battle, the final poem was published as a handbill, with the title “Defence of Fort McHenry”; it quickly became one of America’s most-loved patriotic songs and in 1931 officially became the national anthem of the United States.

In honor of the 200th anniversary of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” we present two selections. The first is the text of Francis Scott Key’s original handbill; it is followed by an account written four decades later by Roger B. Taney, the fifth U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice. Taney recalls the events that led Key—his brother-in-law—to travel to Baltimore and end up on a ship that gave him a front-row seat to the Bombardment of Fort McHenry.

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Friday, September 5, 2014

A Whistle-Stop School with Big-Time Talent

Jerry Izenberg (b. 1930)
From Football: Great Writing about the National Sport

Eddie Robinson on the cover of the
October 15, 1985, issue of Sports Illustrated.
On October 5, 1985, Eddie Robinson, who had been Grambling State University’s football coach for more than four decades, surpassed Bear Bryant’s historic record to become the winningest coach in NCAA history. The achievement landed him on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and a decade later he became the first college coach to surpass four hundred victories. During the course of his incredible career over two hundred Grambling players were drafted by professional football teams. Yet, when Jerry Izenberg profiled Robinson and his team in 1967, few Americans had heard of him or, for that matter, the college—even though national football scouts had already been beating a path for several years to the campus in the small all-black town of Grambling, Louisiana.

After Izenberg’s article appeared in True magazine, it inspired a television program that put Grambling on the map and made Coach Robinson a celebrity. Samuel G. Freedman, writing in Tablet magazine, summarizes:
The resulting documentary, Grambling: 100 Yards to Glory, debuted in early 1968 on New York’s WABC with Izenberg as writer and producer. The film was shown with such reluctance by WABC’s leadership that it was consigned to an hourlong position at 10:30 on Saturday night. It might never have been seen at all without [Howard] Cosell’s imprimatur as benefactor and executive producer.

. . . In the documentary’s immediate aftermath, influential sportswriters such as Shirley Povich in The Washington Post and syndicated columnist Red Smith added their endorsements. Six months after its obscure premiere, Grambling: 100 Yards to Glory received a national broadcast on the ABC network in a prime-time slot preceding the annual game between a college all-star team and the defending NFL champs. An Emmy nomination arrived several weeks later.
By the end of 1968 the other two television networks had likewise broadcast special programming about Grambling’s football team. Jackson State coach Rick Comegy would later recall in an interview with the Associated Press, “Everybody wanted to play at Grambling. [Robinson did] such a fantastic job. He was on national TV, you know, and that was the first time I’d ever seen a black college football team on TV growing up.”

Coach Robinson retired in 1997, the year he was inducted into the College Hall of Fame, and died in 2007.

Note: The selection opens with a brief headnote by John Schulian, who offers a few additional comments about Jerry Izenberg.

Coda: At the very end, Izenberg mentions that Robinson predicted that “a junior named James Harris” would be the “first Negro quarterback to make it big in the pros.” Weeks after the article appeared, Harris was named MVP at the Orange Blossom Classic; two years later he would become the first African American to open a season as a pro-team quarterback, playing for the Buffalo Bills.

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It is not an easy place to find. Once a day, a train will wheeze to a coughing stop next to the deserted wooden depot if you get the flagman to go out on the tracks and stop it. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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