Tuesday, December 31, 2013
Songwriter Jule Styne was born in London on December 31, 1905, as Julius Stein, to Russian immigrants who owned a grocery. He grew up in Chicago, where he took piano lessons and was found to be a prodigy. He began writing songs at age 16, and became successful in Hollywood in the 1930s and ‘40s composing songs for movies. In 1942 he met lyricist Sammy Cahn, with whom he wrote "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" and many other songs. In 1949, Jule (pronounced “joo-lee”) moved to New York and collaborated on a series of blockbuster musicals that made him a Broadway icon. These included “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (1949), which made Carol Channing a star; “Bells Are Ringing” (1956), with Judy Holliday; “Gypsy” (1959), starring Ethel Merman; and “Funny Girl” (1964), which made a star of Barbra Streisand. A handful of his enormously popular songs includes "Three Coins in the Fountain," "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend," "Everything's Coming Up Roses," "Just In Time," "Let Me Entertain You," "Make Someone Happy," "The Party's Over," "Don't Rain on My Parade" and “People."
Thursday, December 26, 2013
50 years ago: On December 26, 1963, Capitol Records rush-released a song titled “I Want to Hold Your Hand” by a British group called the Beatles. The foursome had become wildly popular in the UK (with a hit single, “She Loves You”). “Hold Your Hand” had been written in October by Paul McCartney and John Lennon, working together on a piano in a London basement – “eyeball to eyeball,” in McCartney’s words. On the flip side of the 45 rpm record was "I Saw Her Standing There." Capitol had planned to release “Hold Your Hand” in mid-January 1964, to precede the Beatles’ appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” but had to move quickly when a teen fan, Marsha Albert, urged a Washington, D.C., radio station to smuggle the song from England (aided by a BOAC stewardess). When WWDC aired the song on December 17, its popularity took off. The song hit Billboard’s No. 1 spot on February 1, 1964 (for seven weeks). Demand was so strong that Capitol hired Columbia Records and RCA to press additional copies. The song launched 1964’s "British Invasion" that included the Dave Clark Five, the Rolling Stones and others.
Friday, December 20, 2013
On December 20, 1957, the Boeing Co. in Seattle conducted the first flight of its first production Boeing 707 jet airliner, a narrow-bodied, long-range aircraft with four jet engines, seating up to 179 passengers. The 707 was the first commercially successful jetliner, designed for transcontinental routes. When crossing the North Atlantic, it often required a refueling stop (usually in Newfoundland). Developed from a prototype first flown in 1954, the 707 was first operated by Pan American World Airways, with revenue flight service inaugurated in October 1958. At the time, Boeing competed fiercely against the Douglas Aircraft DC-8 jet for orders from air carriers. The 707 became a ubiquitous image of the Jet Age and dominated the boom in passenger air travel through the 1960s and part of the 1970s. Its use resulted in massive changes in airport facilities, food service, baggage handling, fuel use, ticketing and computerized reservations. Ironically, the travel boom it helped start led to its own demise because it was too small to handle passenger volume on the routes for which it was designed. Few 707s are in use today.
Wednesday, December 18, 2013
Movie director and producer George Stevens was born on December 18, 1904, in Oakland, California, to parents who were stage actors. He started in the movie business in the 1920s and ‘30s as a cameraman with Hal Roach Studios for Laurel and Hardy films. His first major directing job was “Alice Adams” (1935), which helped revive the lagging career of Katharine Hepburn. He later directed Hepburn in “Woman of the Year” (1942), and Rogers and Astaire in “Swing Time” (1936) and Cary Grant in both “Gunga Din” (1939) and “Penny Serenade” (1941). In World War II he headed a U.S. Army Signal Corps film unit that documented D-Day in Normandy, the liberation of Paris and terrible scenes at the liberated Dachau concentration camp (that film was used at the Nuremberg Trials). Stevens’ major post-War movies – all Oscar winners – include “I Remember Mama” (1948), “A Place in the Sun” (1951), “Shane” (1953), “Giant” (1956) and “The Diary of Anne Frank” (1959). His movies have been described as “fully engaged with American society” and “a chronicled photoplay of the pursuit of The American Dream.”
70 years ago: Musician, singer and songwriter Keith Richards was born on December 18, 1943, in Dartford, Kent, in greater London. His mother bought him his first guitar, while his father was unenthusiastic about his talents. In the 1950s Mick Jagger was a neighbor, with whom he became reacquainted in 1960, at the Dartford railway station. They realized they shared a love of rhythm and blues music. In 1962 they both joined instrumentalist Brian Jones in a band that Jones named, in an impromptu moment, after a Muddy Waters track, “Rollin’ Stone.” The resulting group, The Rolling Stones, gained international fame in February 1965 with two Jagger-Richards songs, “The Last Time” followed by “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” The guitar riff for the latter song came to Richards in his sleep; he woke up long enough to record it on a cassette player. Richards has been ranked as one of the 10 best electric guitar players of all time. Notorious for his personal life, he has been tried on drug-related charges five times. An avid bibliophile, in 2010 he remarked that he yearns to be a librarian.
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."
Saturday, November 16, 2013
75 years ago: Lysergic acid diethylamide, known as LSD or “acid,” was first synthesized on November 16, 1938, by a Swiss chemist, Albert Hofmann, at Sandoz Laboratories in Switzerland. The company was researching lysergic acid, derived from a parasitic fungus, ergot, which grows on rye. Hofmann produced one derivative of this acid (LSD-25), but ignored it until 1943, when he recreated it and unwittingly dosed himself with a tiny amount. He went home in a "dreamlike state," seeing “fantastic pictures … with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors." The next day he took what is now known to be a massive dosage (250 micrograms) and became delirious. Sandoz researched the psychoactive hallucinogen further, and in 1947 marketed it as Delysid for use in analytical psychotherapy, even suggesting that psychiatrists take it themselves, to better understand their patients. The CIA conducted LSD “mind control” experiments at Harvard in 1959-1962, which have been called "disturbing" and "ethically indefensible." Theodore Kaczynski, later known as the Unabomber, was one of the test subjects at age 16.
Friday, November 15, 2013
German-born British astronomer and composer Sir William Herschel was born on November 15, 1738, in Hanover in what is now Germany. With the French invasion of Hanover in the Seven Years’ War, he emigrated to England and became a music teacher and composer in Bath. His music led to interests in mathematics and lenses, and thence to astronomy, for which he built his own reflecting telescopes (more than 60 over his lifetime), and began comprehensive cataloging of stars. In 1781 he discovered a “nonstellar disk” that became known as the planet Uranus. King George III named him the King’s Astronomer. By 1802 he had discovered more than 2,400 objects he called nebulae, each formed of stars (i.e., galaxies). He also discovered two moons of Saturn (Mimas and Enceladus) and coined the term “asteroid,” meaning “star-like.” By studying stars’ motion, he was the first to determine that the solar system is moving through space, and the direction of that movement. He found that the Milky Way’s structure is disk-like. He also believed that all planets are inhabited.
Thursday, November 14, 2013
Impressionist painter Claude Monet was born on November 14, 1840, in Paris. He was baptized as Oscar-Claude, and his parents called him Oscar. He grew up in Le Havre on the coast of Normandy. As a young painter in Paris for several years, he became friends with artists that included modernist Édouard Manet. At the start of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, he went to England and studied paintings of Constable and Turner, which led him to innovate with color and light. He returned to France via the Netherlands in late 1871 and lived at Argenteuil, on the Seine, near Paris. The following year he painted a landscape of the port of Le Havre he called “Impression, Sunrise” (“Impression, soleil levant”). When the work was exhibited in 1874 with works of other artists, including Renoir, Cézanne and Degas, it attracted special attention from an art critic, who titled his derisive newspaper review "The Exhibition of the Impressionists," deploring the “unfinished” painting and comparing it unfavorably with wallpaper. But the artists adopted the title and became Impressionists.
Wednesday, November 13, 2013
Augustine of Hippo, known as Saint Augustine, was born on November 13, 354 CE, in Roman North Africa, in what is now Algeria. His mother, Monica, was a Christian; his father was a pagan who accepted Christianity on his deathbed. As a teen in the city of Carthage, Augustine indulged in worldly excesses and fathered a son. His spiritual struggle led him to be influenced by Manichaeism – a dualistic philosophy that divides the world between good and evil – and then Neo-Platonism, which posits a single divine source from which all existence emanates, with which souls seek to mystically unite. In Italy, Augustine studied with Ambrose, the Christian bishop of Milan. At age 33, while prostrate beneath a fig tree, he experienced a spiritual epiphany through a stream of tears, and was baptized a Christian. He documented his sinful youth and conversion to Christianity in his Confessions, written between 397 and 398 CE, regarded as the first formal autobiography to appear in the Western world. In a famous passage, Augustine marvels that Ambrose read manuscripts in silence, without vocalizing the text.
Sunday, November 10, 2013
On November 10, 1951, the first U.S. direct-dial transcontinental telephone call was made by the mayor of Englewood, NJ, who dialed a 10-digit number on a black rotary phone in an AT&T switching station. He was flanked by nine men in business suits from AT&T and its Bell Laboratories subsidiary. Eighteen seconds later, he reached the mayor of Alameda, CA, near San Francisco. The connection speed was blisteringly fast compared with that of 1915, when early attempts at transcontinental calls from San Francisco to New York required as many as five operators nationwide, each asking “Number, please?” – taking 23 minutes to complete. Direct-dialing was made possible via the Bell System’s use of expensive automated switching systems and the North American Numbering Plan, which assigned three-digit area codes to the continent in 1947. States needing multiple area codes had codes with a middle digit of 1; the rest had a middle digit of 0. The most populous regions received codes that took the shortest time to dial on rotary phones. Today the U.S. has nearly 300 area codes.
Saturday, November 9, 2013
“Billions upon billions of stars” … Astronomer, astrophysicist and cosmologist Carl Sagan was born on November 9, 1934, in Brooklyn, NY. He developed an interest in the stars at an early age. He attended the University of Chicago, earning graduate degrees in astronomy and astrophysics. Later he lectured at Harvard University but was denied tenure in 1968 and moved to Cornell University, where he became a full professor and directed its Laboratory for Planetary Studies until his death in 1996. From the start of the U.S. space program in the 1950s he was a NASA advisor, and he played important roles in major robotic spacecraft missions into the Solar System, including Pioneer 10 and 11 and both Voyager space probes (1977). Sagan became one of the world’s most famous scientists in the fall of 1980 when he developed and hosted the 13-part PBS series “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage,” which covered many subjects, ranging from the history of science to the nature of the universe. He was a key advocate for the search for extraterrestrial life and sounded an early alarm on global warming.
Friday, November 8, 2013
Author and journalist Margaret Mitchell was born on November 8, 1900, in Atlanta, Georgia. Her mother instilled in her a bitter view of the post-Civil War South, haunted by the damage of General Sherman’s “March to the Sea” through Georgia. She also listened to war veterans’ one-sided stories. Mitchell attended Smith College, then wrote for the Atlanta Journal for six years. She quit after marrying John Marsh in 1926 because of a persistent ankle injury. Partly egged-on by her husband, she began writing a Civil War novel (in secret) whose heroine, a plantation-owner’s spoiled daughter named Pansy O'Hara (later renamed Scarlett), would do anything to escape post-war poverty and loss. Mitchell used parts of the manuscript, titled Gone With the Wind, to steady a wobbly sofa. Known for her interest in “dirty” book stores, she collected erotica and relished pornography. During the 10 years in which she wrote the novel – published in 1936 and winner of the Pulitzer Prize – she was also reading sexology books. Her racially-charged views on sex are strongly reflected in the character of Rhett Butler.
Thursday, November 7, 2013
Happy 70th birthday to singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, who was born Roberta Joan Anderson on November 7, 1943, at Fort Macleod, Alberta, Canada. At age 8 in Saskatchewan, she contracted polio during the last major epidemic in North America (1951) prior to the Salk vaccine’s success. She recovered, took an avid interest in many types of music, learned guitar from a Pete Seeger instruction book, and in 1964 moved to Toronto, where she found folk singing gigs. She also had a daughter she gave up for adoption, not even telling her parents. Joni’s compositions were covered by Tom Rush, Buffy Sainte-Marie and especially Judy Collins ("Both Sides Now," "Chelsea Morning"). After winning a Grammy for her album “Clouds” (1969), Joni released “Ladies of the Canyon” (1970), which included the song "Woodstock." In 1971 she recorded her landmark album “Blue,” which followed successive breakups with Graham Nash and James Taylor. The New York Times has ranked “Blue” as one of 25 albums representing "turning points and pinnacles in 20th-century popular music."
On November 7, 1929, nine days after the Stock Market Crash, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) opened at its first location in rented space at Fifth Avenue and 57th Street in New York. It was the brainchild of three progressive art patrons: Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, wife of multimillionaire John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and two of her friends, Lillie P. Bliss and Mary Quinn Sullivan. Known as "the Ladies," they wanted to counterbalance the prevailing conservatism of traditional museums and promote modern art. Mrs. Rockefeller began amassing her own collection between 1925 and 1935, largely works on paper, focusing on living American artists. Because her husband was opposed to the museum – and modern art – he would not fund the venture, so MoMA moved into three other temporary spaces in the next 10 years. But in 1936, Rockefeller donated the land for its current site on 53rd Street. Its distinctive “International Style” building opened in 1939 (renovated in 2002-2004). Pictured: MoMA’s renowned “Reflections of Clouds on the Water-Lily Pond,” Claude Monet (c. 1920).
Wednesday, November 6, 2013
Conductor and composer John Philip Sousa, America’s “March King,” was born on November 6, 1854, in Washington, D.C. As a child playing the violin and studying music, it was found he had perfect pitch. At 13 he apprenticed with the U.S. Marine Band, in which his father was a trombonist. Starting in 1880 and for the next 12 years, he conducted that band and began writing marches – 136 over his lifetime. He also conducted "The President's Own" band for Presidents Hayes, Garfield, Cleveland, Arthur and Harrison. His greatest marches include "Semper Fidelis" (1888), the official march of the U.S. Marine Corps; "The Washington Post" (1889), named for the newspaper that commissioned it; "The Liberty Bell" (1893); and his greatest work, "Stars and Stripes Forever" (1896), with its piccolo obbligato, declared by Congress the National March of the United States. In 1892 he formed his own Sousa Band and developed the sousaphone (similar to the tuba). Sousa was also one of the world’s greatest trapshooters and helped found what became the Amateur Trapshooting Association.