Monday, December 9, 2013
Naturalist, inventor and businessman Clarence Birdseye II was born on December 9, 1886, in Brooklyn, NY, the sixth of nine children. He initially practiced taxidermy and worked at various wildlife jobs, including isolating ticks as the cause of Rocky Mountain spotted fever. In 1912, he went to Labrador in northeastern Canadian to buy and sell fox furs. There he experienced his first insight about flash-freezing foods. Fishing with the Inuit in extremely cold weather, he discovered that the fish he caught froze almost immediately and, when thawed, tasted fresh. Only small ice crystals formed on the fish, and their cell walls remained intact. In 1925 he founded General Seafood Corporation, focusing on Birdseye's process using chilled stainless steel belts to quickly freeze fish. Later he extended the process to include meat, poultry, fruit and vegetables. In 1929 he sold the company to what became General Foods Corporation, which established Birds Eye Frozen Foods. Birdseye also held patents on a light bulb, a whale-fishing harpoon and an infrared heating process.
Sunday, December 8, 2013
70 years ago: Singer-songwriter Jim Morrison was born on December 8, 1943, near Cape Canaveral, Florida. His family moved often because his father was a U.S. Navy officer. In high school and college he read widely in literature, and in 1965 he graduated from UCLA with a degree in film. The same year, while living on canned beans and LSD in Venice Beach, California, he and fellow UCLA student Ray Manzarek formed the rock band the Doors, which took its name from “The Doors of Perception,” a book by Aldous Huxley on psychedelic drug use, which in turn referred to a line in a William Blake poem. The group’s first eponymous album, “Doors” (January 1967), included the hit single "Light My Fire" as well as "Break On Through (To the Other Side)" and “The End.” Their second album featured the hit "Love Me Two Times" and "People are Strange”; their third album, in 1968, included the song "Hello, I Love You." Morrison's alcoholism and multiple drug addictions fueled bizarre, violent and obscene – though electrifying – concert performances, and also led to his controversial death in Paris in 1971 at age 27.
Wednesday, December 4, 2013
Poet Rainer Maria Rilke was born on December 4, 1875, in Prague, in what was Austro-Hungarian Bohemia. The child of an unhappy marriage, as a youth Rilke was forced into military training, for which his intellect, artistic talents and sensibility were uniquely unsuited. In his 20’s he fell in love with a married woman of letters (who later studied with Sigmund Freud), and traveled with her throughout Europe. In Russia he met Leo Tolstoy, and in Paris, while serving for a time as secretary to sculptor Auguste Rodin, he began a period of creativity that included his first great work, The Book of Hours (1905), poems about the search for God and the nature of prayer; and a semi-autobiographical novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910), influenced by the works of Nietzsche, which explores man’s individuality and alienation in an increasingly indifferent world. Rilke was deeply scarred by World War I, which he was forced to endure in Germany. Afterward he wrote his greatest poems, the mystical and deeply religious Duino Elegies (1912-1922), in which his spirit rises from suffering to transcendence.
Tuesday, December 3, 2013
Portrait painter Gilbert Stuart was born on December 3, 1755, near Newport, Rhode Island. His father was an early maker of snuff (pulverized tobacco). By age 14 he showed promise as an artist, and from 1777-1793 he established himself as a portrait painter in England and Ireland, where he became famous and commanded high prices. In 1795 he moved his studio from New York to Philadelphia, where he was certain that he could paint President George Washington. Though he established no rapport with Washington, he painted a series of warm, iconic portraits that led to demand for copies, which kept Stuart well paid for many years. Even so, he was constantly near bankruptcy. His most famous likeness of Washington, known as “The Athenaeum,” remained permanently unfinished (pictured). It is shown on the U.S. one dollar bill in reverse. Stuart painted 130 reproductions of this image, most of which he sold for $100 each. Stuart’s large, full-length picture of Washington, known as the Lansdowne portrait, was saved from the East Room of the White House in 1812 by Dolley Madison, assisted by a slave.
Monday, December 2, 2013
150 years ago: On December 2, 1863, the final section of the bronze Statue of Freedom was placed on top of the nearly completed cast-iron dome of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. The ceremony received a 35-gun salute, which was answered at the 12 forts surrounding the city during the Civil War. The colossal bronze is a female allegorical figure that wears a military helmet decorated with stars, topped with an eagle's head and a crest of feathers. Her right hand rests on the hilt of a sheathed sword; her left hand holds a victory laurel wreath and the Shield of the United States. Commissioned in 1854 from sculptor Thomas Crawford, the statue originally included a liberty cap, an ancient Roman symbol of an emancipated slave. But Mississippi Senator and Secretary of War Jefferson Davis (later President of the Confederacy), a militant slaveholder who supervised the Capitol’s construction, vehemently objected. And yet, a slave, Philip Reid, helped supervise the bronze casting and assembly process, and the statue’s five sections were hoisted into place by former slaves.
Wednesday, November 27, 2013
Musician and songwriter Jimi Hendrix was born Johnny Allen Hendrix (later renamed James Marshall Hendrix) on November 27, 1942, in Seattle. The child of an unstable family life, he became intensely focused on the acoustic guitar, the first of which he bought at age 15 for $5. The first music he learned to play was the theme to the TV series “Peter Gunn.” After a very brief stint in the U.S. Army, he began playing electric guitar in bands for the Isley Brothers, Little Richard and others. In 1966 he went to England, where he formed the Jimi Hendrix Experience and scored hits with "Hey Joe" and "Purple Haze," making use of distinctive guitar effects such as feedback and, later, the wah-wah pedal and stereophonic phasing. The first of his three influential studio albums, “Are You Experienced” (1967), combined rhythm and blues, rock and roll and psychedelic rock. His U.S. fame was launched at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. Two years later, Hendrix was the world’s highest-paid musician when his rendition of the national anthem at Woodstock became the anthem of a generation.
Sunday, November 24, 2013
Architect Cass Gilbert was born on November 24, 1859, in Zanesville, Ohio, near Columbus, and grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he began his architectural career at age 17. His design for the Minnesota state capitol (begun 1896), modeled after St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, launched his career. He moved to New York, where he designed major buildings in a classical, Beaux Arts style that presented an idealistic, optimistic view of American society. These included the monumental U.S. Customs House (1901) in lower Manhattan, and the steel-framed, 60-story Woolworth Building (1910-13), known as "The Cathedral of Commerce," which was the world’s tallest building until three major skyscrapers were erected in 1930. Gilbert’s other major works include the Saint Louis Art Museum (1904), the St. Louis Public Library (1912), the George Washington Bridge (1931), and the U.S. Supreme Court Building (1935). Gilbert held deeply conservative, traditional beliefs – dismissed for decades – that architecture is meant to confer dignity and nobility upon people and institutions and to reflect society’s greatest aspirations.
Friday, November 22, 2013
120 years ago: Automotive designer and executive Harley Earl was born on November 22, 1893, in Hollywood, California. He left studies at Stanford University to join his father as a coachbuilder, first in horse-drawn carriages, then in custom automobile bodies. Early clients included Mary Pickford, Cecil B. DeMille, Fatty Arbuckle and cowboy star Tom Mix. The business became associated with General Motors’ Cadillac luxury division, and when Earl designed its successful 1927 LaSalle, GM’s CEO, Alfred P. Sloan, hired Earl as the first director of what became GM’s Design Studio. Together they established “planned obsolescence” and the annual “model change” as two linchpins of GM’s stupendous profits. In his 30-year career, Earl eventually controlled all design and styling at GM. He lengthened and lowered the size and stance of autos, and introduced the wraparound windshield, the use of clay-modeling in auto design and “concept cars” as a marketing approach. His enduring legacies include the 1959 Cadillac, with its exuberant, excessive tailfins, and the industry-disrupting 1953 Corvette sports car.
Thursday, November 21, 2013
Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte was born on November 21, 1898, near Brussels. Little is known about his early life, but his mother, who was disturbed, killed herself when René was 13. While studying painting in the 1920s he also worked as a draughtsman in a wallpaper factory and designed posters and advertisements. His early works were poorly received, so he moved to Paris and London for brief periods, and his surreal, illusionistic paintings began to distinguish him as a leader of the Surrealistic movement. After World War II he supported himself by painting fake Picassos, Braques and others, and forging banknotes. His astonishing, thought-provoking paintings include” “The False Mirror” (1928), two versions of “The Human Condition” (1933, 1935), “Not to Be Reproduced” (1937), “Time Transfixed” (1938), “Golconde” (1953) and “Son of Man” (1964). Magritte’s deep interest in what he called the “mystery” evoked in representational art, and the elusiveness of “meaning,” is notably reflected in “The Treachery of Images” (1929, pictured), in which he points out that a picture of a pipe is not a pipe.
Wednesday, November 20, 2013
Federal judge and commissioner of baseball Kenesaw Mountain Landis was born on November 20, 1866, near Cincinnati, Ohio. He was named after a Civil War battle in Georgia in which his father had fought. Kenesaw practiced law in Chicago, where, in 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed him U.S. district judge for the northern district of Illinois. Two years later, he imposed a $29 million fine on Standard Oil for granting unlawful freight rebates. Though the decision was reversed on appeal, it made Landis famous nationwide. During World War I he presided over sedition trials of Socialist and labor leaders for impeding the war effort. In 1920, after the “Black Sox” bribery scandal in which eight Chicago White Sox players threw the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds, Landis was appointed commissioner of baseball. He immediately barred the White Sox players from the game. Landis was known for cleaning up baseball and restoring public confidence in the game. He reigned omnipotent for 24 years, having warned baseball owners, "You have told the world that my powers would be absolute."