Thursday, March 28, 2013

March 28 - Paul Whiteman

Bandleader Paul Whiteman was born on March 28, 1890, in Denver, and began his musical career playing the viola. After World War I he formed the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, then began recording for the Victor Talking Machine Company (later RCA Victor) in 1920. The recordings made his orchestra famous nationally, and he became the most popular band director of the 1920s. By 1922 he was earning more than a million dollars annually from multiple band ensembles. His style of orchestrated jazz was frequently the first jazz of any kind that many Americans heard during that decade. In 1924 Whiteman commissioned George Gershwin to compose “Rhapsody in Blue” for solo piano and jazz band, for a now-historic concert in New York he titled “An Experiment in Modern Music.” The “Rhapsody” was performed by his band, with an added section of string players. Whiteman also introduced the evocative “Grand Canyon Suite” by Ferde Grofé in 1931.

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Wednesday, March 27, 2013

March 27 - Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

German-American architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was born on March 27, 1886, in Aachen, Germany. Known simply as “Mies,” he started his own architectural firm in Berlin in 1912. His admiration for the Dutch De Stijl and Russian Constructivism movements, which demanded simplicity in architecture that benefits society, led to his minimalist concepts, expressed in his famous motto, "less is more." He fled Nazi Germany in 1937 and joined what is now the Illinois Institute of Technology, whose campus he overhauled. Mies’ mature buildings, which he called "skin and bones" architecture, include New York’s Seagram Building, the Farnsworth House (Plano, IL), and Chicago’s Federal Center and residential towers at 860-880 Lake Shore Drive (all pictured). These monuments of industrial steel and plate glass, balancing structural order with the freedom of open space, deeply influenced 20th-century architecture and helped define the modern age.

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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

March 26 - Robert Frost

Poet Robert Frost was born in San Francisco on March 26, 1874, but grew up in the mill town of Lawrence, Massachusetts, north of Boston. He briefly attended Dartmouth College and later dropped out of Harvard. He unsuccessfully ran a farm in New Hampshire while writing poetry in the early mornings. His first two books of poetry were published while he lived in London before World War I. He returned to America as a writer, teacher and lecturer associated with Amherst College and Middlebury College, emphasizing to students the importance of colloquial, spoken English in their writing. Often viewed as a rural poet of simple things, Frost in fact addressed many of the darkest, most complex and troublesome issues in human life, in poems such as "Provide, Provide," "Acquainted with the Night," "Mending Wall," "To Earthward," "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," "Design" and "Desert Places." He won four Pulitzer Prizes in poetry.

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March 26 - Tennessee Williams

Author and playwright Thomas Lanier "Tennessee" Williams was born on March 26, 1911, in Columbus, Mississippi, but grew up in St. Louis from age 8 through his college years. He referred to the city as “St. Pollution.” His overbearing mother searched continually for a St. Louis address she considered appropriate, a task made difficult by his father's drinking and violent conduct. Williams’ first address was 4633 Westminster Place, which he described as a "perpetually dim little apartment in a wilderness of brick and concrete." This was, in part, the setting of his first hit play, “The Glass Menagerie” (1944). His dysfunctional family life and tortured emotions are reflected in the play’s tender but disturbing story of a young man, Tom, his disabled sister, Laura, and their controlling mother. Contrary to his expressed wishes, Williams was buried in St. Louis’ Calvary Cemetery (pictured) when he died of apparent substance abuse in 1983.

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Monday, March 25, 2013

March 25 - David Lean

Film director Sir David Lean, CBE, was born near London on March 25, 1908, into a Quaker family. After an aunt told him to find a job he enjoyed, he began working at a London film studio without pay. By 1930 he was editing newsreels and later movies, an occupation that served him well as the director of some of the landmarks of motion-picture history. These included the romantic drama “Brief Encounter” (1945), and the Charles Dickens classics “Great Expectations” (1946) and “Oliver Twist” (1948). “Summertime” (1955) was shot entirely on location in Venice. Then came huge blockbusters that made Lean’s reputation as the master of big-screen epics: “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957), “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962), “Doctor Zhivago” (1965), and later, “A Passage to India” (1984). “Zhivago” remains one of the highest-grossing films in the United States, adjusted for inflation. Lean was married six times.

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Sunday, March 24, 2013

March 24 - Steve McQueen

Actor Terence Stephen "Steve" McQueen was born on March 24, 1930, near Indianapolis. Dyslexic and partially deaf from a childhood ear infection, he spent part of his youth in Slater, Missouri, with grandparents. His mother’s third marriage took him to L.A., where gang life, street crime and fights with his stepfather landed him in reformatory school. After a stint in the Marines and acting studies in New York, he gained fame in the TV series “Wanted: Dead or Alive” (1958-61) as a gunfighter who used a shortened Winchester rifle. He crossed over to movies with “The Magnificent Seven” (1960), followed by “The Great Escape” (1963), which made him a superstar; “The Sand Pebbles” (1966); “Bullitt” (1968); “The Thomas Crown Affair” (1968); and others. He was the world’s highest-paid actor when he starred in “The Getaway” (1972). McQueen died in 1980 of pleural mesothelioma apparently caused by asbestos exposure while in the Marines.

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Saturday, March 23, 2013

March 23 - Joan Crawford

Actress Joan Crawford was born Lucille Fay LeSueur on March 23, ca. 1904, in San Antonio. Nicknamed Billy as a child in Oklahoma and Kansas City, she had little schooling. In the 1920s she danced in traveling revues and had a screen test; her questionable earliest films are disputed. After landing roles in MGM silent movies, she acquired her screen name (which she hated) in 1925 through a naming contest in a fan magazine. She was cast as a quintessential ‘20s “flapper,” a brash young woman in makeup who drank, smoked and flouted social and sexual norms – which made her the highest-paid actress in the United States. When her career stumbled later in the 1930s, she returned in 1945 as the star of “Mildred Pierce,” for which she won a Best Actress Oscar. She adopted five children, two of whom she disowned, including Christina, whose memoir Mommie Dearest (1978) detailed a pattern of abuse that stemmed from Crawford’s own childhood.

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Friday, March 22, 2013

March 22 - Anthony van Dyck

Flemish Baroque painter Sir Anthony van Dyck was born on March 22, 1599, in Antwerp (now Belgium). The precociously talented son of a wealthy textile merchant, he entered the studio of Peter Paul Rubens, one of Europe's most prominent artists, while a teenager. He gained fame as a successful portraitist in Italy, and then in the 1630s became the court painter to King Charles I of England, a notorious cheapskate who nonetheless knighted him. A genius at portraiture, Van Dyck’s court paintings are all about dazzling surfaces, at once formal and relaxed, his elegant subjects symbolically accessorized, posed in rich settings, exhibiting aristocratic hauteur. But other works are strikingly down-to-earth, often exposing more truth than the subjects may have realized. His deep influence on portraiture is still evident in contemporary art. Pictured: Lord John Stuart and Lord Bernard Stuart, c. 1638.

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Thursday, March 21, 2013

March 21 - Johann Sebastian Bach

Composer, violinist and organist Johann Sebastian Bach was born on March 21, 1685, in Eisenach, Germany, into a musical family. His father and all his uncles were musicians. He learned violin and harpsichord, and his brother, Johann Christoph, took him in at age 10 when both parents died. In 1703, he became a court musician of Duke Johann Ernst of Weimar, and later organist at the New Church in Arnstadt. In this period he wrote great works for the organ, including the "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor," and many church cantatas, including one containing "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring." On his death in Leipzig in 1750, Bach left behind seven clavecins and harpsichords, six violins and violas, two cellos, a viola da gamba, a lute, a spinet, and 52 "sacred books." His grave went unmarked for nearly 150 years. His coffin was found in 1894 and moved to a church that was destroyed by Allied bombing in World War II. In 1950 his remains were interred in Leipzig's Church of St. Thomas.

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Wednesday, March 20, 2013

March 20 - Harriet Beecher Stowe

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly, was published in book form on March 20, 1852. It had first appeared as a 40-week serial in an abolitionist periodical. Stowe wrote the book in response to the enactment of the second Fugitive Slave Act (the "Bloodhound Law," 1850), which declared that runaway slaves were to be returned to their masters. She was also partly inspired by an 1849 slave narrative by Josiah Henson. The sentimental, melodramatic novel focuses on Uncle Tom, a long-suffering black slave, around whom other stories are told. Simon Legree is a cruel slave owner who seeks to demoralize Tom but fails to break his religious faith. He then orders Tom’s death. The book was the 19th century’s best-selling novel in the United States, and although it popularized negative stereotypes of black people, it fueled the abolitionist cause that led to the Civil War.

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Tuesday, March 19, 2013

March 19 - Georges de La Tour

French Baroque painter Georges de La Tour was born on March 19, 1593, in the Duchy of Lorraine, France, where he spent his life. He became a master painter and, although the chronology of his works is uncertain, he initially painted in a realistic manner and was influenced by the naturalism and tenebrist style – i.e., dramatic light-and-dark, or chiaroscuro – of Italian painter Caravaggio and his Dutch followers. His greatest works, which increasingly addressed religious subjects, are careful and simplified geometrical compositions, usually interior tableaux lit only by the intense glow of candles or torches, imparting a contemplative stillness and an astonished sense of wonder. La Tour was forgotten until his works were rediscovered in 1915. He has since been favored by forgers. Pictured: “Joseph the Carpenter” (1645), showing Jesus with his father, in which the geometry of the augur and wood foreshadow the crucifixion.

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Monday, March 18, 2013

March 18 - Stéphane Mallarmé

French symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé was born on March 18, 1842, in Paris. A teacher who spent much of his life in near-poverty, his Paris salons for the discussion of poetry, art and philosophy influenced many major writers (largely symbolists), including Yeats, Rilke, Valéry, Verlaine and others. His own works, notoriously difficult to translate from the French, helped inspire early 20th-century movements such as Dadaism, Surrealism and Futurism. His poems focus on the “pure sound” of words rather than their meaning, and many were transformed into musical works, including Debussy's “Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune” (1894) and compositions by Ravel, Milhaud and, more recently, Pierre Boulez. Mallarmé’s bizarre poem “Un coup de dés jamais n'abolira le hazard” (“A roll of the dice will never abolish chance,” 1897) placed free verse in unusual typographic layouts in which two pages are read as a single panel. Pictured: Portrait by Édouard Manet.

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Sunday, March 17, 2013

March 17

As if to prove that movement would be the driving force of his life, dancer Rudolf Nureyev was born on a Trans-Siberian train near Irkutsk, Siberia, on March 17, 1938. His mother was travelling to Vladivostok, where his father was stationed in the Red Army. An ethnic Tatar, he fell in love with dance as a child, but did not study ballet formally until age 17. He became a star with the Kirov Ballet in Leningrad in roles that included Giselle, The Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake. Renowned for rebelliousness, he defected from Russia in 1961 at Le Bourget Airport in Paris on the Kirov’s first-ever foreign tour. For this it is believed Premier Khrushchev sought to have him killed. He became associated with London’s Royal Ballet and gained fame in roles with ballerina Margot Fonteyn. Later he directed the Paris Opera Ballet. His outstanding prowess and skill as a dancer were legendary, and he introduced a new, gentle style of male dancing that was taken up by other choreographers.

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Saturday, March 16, 2013

March 16

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was formally established on March 16, 1802, under President Thomas Jefferson, to found and operate the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, NY. The Corps originated in 1775 when the Continental Congress organized an army that included a chief engineer and two assistants serving General George Washington. The Corps later built fortifications at Bunker Hill near Boston. It largely consisted of French subjects hired from the service of Louis XVI. During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Army occupied West Point as a strategic location where the Hudson River forms an unusual S-curve. Military stores and ordnance remained after the war, so Army "cadets" were trained there in artillery and engineering studies. The early Academy was haphazard: cadets ranged in age from 10 to 37, attending for wildly varying time periods. Pictured: West Point and the Hudson River.

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Friday, March 15, 2013

March 15

Marjorie Merriweather Post was born with a proverbial silver spoon in her mouth on March 15, 1887, in Springfield, Illinois. The daughter of C.W. Post, founder of Postum Cereal Company (known for Grape-Nuts), she inherited the company at age 27 when Dad died. She embarked on four marriages starting in 1905. Her second husband was financier E.F. Hutton, and with him she bought the makers of Jell-O and Birdseye Frozen Foods, turning Postum into General Foods Corporation in 1929. Her last husband was Herbert May of May Department Stores. She was by far the wealthiest woman in America, owning, among many things, the world’s largest privately owned sea-going yacht (Sea Cloud) and a pair of 20-carat diamond earrings that belonged to Marie Antoinette. Her many homes included the 115-room Mar-A-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida, and the vast, lavish Camp Topridge in the Adirondacks.

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Thursday, March 14, 2013

March 14

Theoretical physicist Albert Einstein was born on March 14, 1879, in Ulm in Württemberg. He grew up in Munich and later Zürich, where he trained to teach physics and mathematics. But in 1901, diploma in hand, unable to find a teaching post, he became a technical assistant in the Swiss Patent Office. Much of his work there related to questions about transmission of electric signals and electrical-mechanical synchronization of time – two technical issues that led him to revolutionary theories about the nature of light and the connection between space and time. Einstein’s childhood influences included marveling, at age 5, at invisible forces turning a compass needle; reading Euclid’s Elements at age 12, which he called the "holy little geometry book"; and imagining himself riding alongside electricity inside a telegraph wire, wondering what a light beam would look like if he could run alongside it at the same speed.

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Wednesday, March 13, 2013

March 13

Astronomer and author Percival Lowell was born on March 13, 1855, in Boston, into the old-line Lowell family. He traveled in the Far East and wrote on Japanese culture, but in the 1890s he focused entirely on astronomy. He founded the Lowell Observatory (1894) in Flagstaff, Arizona, which was the first to be deliberately built in a remote, elevated location for optimal observations. He intently studied Mars and charted what he believed were its “canals,” writing the books Mars and Its Canals (1906) and Mars As the Abode of Life (1908), widely popularizing the notion that Mars sustained intelligent life. For this, astronomers largely shunned Lowell and his observatory. His search for a planet beyond Neptune led to the discovery of Pluto in 1930, a name influenced by his initials, PL. (It’s now a dwarf planet.) Though discredited, Lowell is viewed as America’s greatest popularizer of planetary science before Cornell’s Carl Sagan.

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March 13

Composer, singer and pianist Neil Sedaka was born on March 13, 1939, in Brooklyn. After high school, he formed a band with some classmates called The Tokens and eventually scored a No. 1 hit with the song “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” (1961). His first domestic Top 10 hit occurred in 1959 with “Oh! Carol!” written for his girlfriend and fellow Brill Building composer, Carole Klein, who became pop star Carole King. In the early 1960s his songs kept charting, including: "Stairway to Heaven" (No. 9, 1960), "Calendar Girl" (No. 4, 1961), "Little Devil" (No. 11, 1961), "Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen" (No. 6, 1961), his signature song "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do" (No. 1, 1962), and "Next Door to an Angel" (No. 5, 1962). As a prolific chart-topper, he made numerous appearances on TV programs that included “American Bandstand” and “Shindig!” Unstoppable, he scored another No. 1 hit in 1975 with “Laughter in the Rain.”

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Tuesday, March 12, 2013

March 12

Novelist Jean-Louis "Jack" Kérouac was born on March 12, 1922, in Lowell, Massachusetts. He dropped out of Columbia University but lingered in New York with a group he later called the “Beat Generation,” including Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, John Clellon Holmes, Herbert Huncke and William S. Burroughs. "Beat" colloquially meant "beaten down" but Kerouac used it to connote "upbeat" and (in a musical sense) "on the beat." The group was associated with social rebellion, drug experimentation and Eastern religion. Kerouac’s long road trips with Neal Cassady (1947-1950) resulted in his novel On the Road (1957), which he drafted in notebooks and then typed single-spaced on a continuous, 127-foot scroll of paper, without margins or paragraph breaks. Influenced by jazz, Kerouac referred to his style as spontaneous prose. Many praised the book, but others demurred. Truman Capote famously said about Kerouac's work, "That's not writing, it's typing."

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Monday, March 11, 2013

March 11

Film director and actor Raoul Walsh was born on March 11, 1887, in New York. He started out as a stage actor but bridged into film work as an assistant to director D.W. Griffith. In the early days of sound at Fox Films, he was about to direct the first widescreen spectacle, “The Big Trail” (1930), an epic wagon train Western, when he saw an actor named Duke Morrison moving studio furniture, working as a prop boy between bit parts. Walsh cast him in his first starring role, suggesting the screen name "Anthony Wayne," which was rejected in favor of "John Wayne." The young actor, who was paid $105 a week, played no part in the decision. Walsh directed many major Hollywood’s films, including: “The Roaring Twenties” (1939), “Dark Command” (1940), “High Sierra” (1941), “They Died with Their Boots On” (1941), “White Heat” (1949), “Battle Cry” (1955), “Band of Angels” (1957) and “The Naked and the Dead” (1958).

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Sunday, March 10, 2013

March 10

On March 10, 1804, a formal ceremony was held in St. Louis, Missouri, to transfer ownership of the Louisiana Purchase territory from France to the United States. The transaction actually covered France's claim to the region, which totaled 828,000 square miles. France had already turned over control of New Orleans at The Cabildo (government building) in December 1803. Although many considered the purchase unconstitutional, Thomas Jefferson proceeded anyway, to remove France from the region and protect U.S. trade routes via the Mississippi River. The purchase price of the claim, which doubled the size of the United States, was $15 million (50 million francs), including debt cancellation, totaling less than 3 cents per acre. In current dollars, the cost would be roughly $233 million, or less than 42 cents per acre. Jefferson had originally sought the purchase only of New Orleans and adjacent lands.

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Saturday, March 9, 2013

March 9

Composer Samuel Barber was born on March 9, 1910, in West Chester, Pennsylvania, into a family that included musical artists. He became deeply interested in music at a young age and studied the piano at age 6. At 14 he entered the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he met Gian Carlo Menotti, who became a major composer of operas and also Barber’s life partner. In his late teen years Barber started to compose seriously. Major works include the highly expressive “Adagio for Strings” (1936), inspired by Virgil’s Georgics, which has earned him a permanent place in the concert repertory; “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” (1947), for soprano and orchestra, set to prose text by James Agee; and the lyrical, rhapsodic Violin Concerto (1939). The 1938 world premiere recording of the “Adagio,” conducted by Arturo Toscanini, was selected for permanent preservation by the U.S. Library of Congress in 2005.

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March 9

On March 9, 1959, Mattel Inc.’s Barbie doll was introduced at the American International Toy Fair in New York. This date is also used as the doll’s official birthday in its “biography,” which claims that her full name is Barbara Millicent Roberts and her favorite color is pink. The fashion-model plastic doll was the creation of Ruth Handler, wife of the co-founder of the Mattel toy company, who noticed that her pre-teen daughter preferred to give adult roles to her paper dolls. Sensing a market niche and seeking an idea for an adult-bodied doll, she encountered a blonde-bombshell doll named Bild Lilli (a gag gift for adults, based on a comic strip) on a trip to Germany in 1956. She reworked the design but retained distinct breasts, and named it after her daughter, Barbara. The first Barbie, with averted eyes and topknot ponytail, cost $3.00 and wore a black and white zebra-striped swimsuit hand-stitched by Japanese homeworkers.

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Friday, March 8, 2013

March 8

On March 8, 1817, a group of New York stockbrokers drafted a constitution and called themselves the "New York Stock & Exchange Board." The name became the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in 1863. The group originated with the Buttonwood Agreement, signed in May 1792 by 24 stockbrokers outside of 68 Wall Street under a buttonwood tree (aka American sycamore). Major transactions were speculation in Revolutionary War bonds and First Bank of the United States stock. Under the pact, the brokers would deal only with each other, thereby eliminating manipulative auctioneers, and commissions would be 0.25%. In 1793, the brokers built the Tontine Coffee House on Wall Street, which became a tumultuous meeting place for trading, gambling, political activities and occasional violence. For many decades the exchange was located at 10-12 Broad Street, and then moved to its current neoclassical building at 18 Broad in 1903.

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Thursday, March 7, 2013

March 7

French composer Maurice Ravel was born on March 7, 1875, in the Basque region of France. He grew up entirely in Paris, where he was admitted to the Paris Conservatoire at age 14 and studied with Gabriel Fauré. His music is known for memorable, often haunting melodies and the interplay of instrumental textures and effects. With Claude Debussy he is a key figure in Impressionist music, focusing on suggestiveness and atmosphere. In his 20s Ravel composed several key works, including “Pavane for a Dead Princess” (1899) and “Jeux d'eau” (“Fountains,” 1901). His masterpiece, the ballet “Daphnis et Chloé” (1912), was composed for Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev. Two orchestral works, “La Valse” (1920) and the famous “Boléro” (1928), show Ravel’s mastery in restyling and reinventing dance. Oddly, he considered the latter work trivial, describing “Boléro” as "a piece for orchestra without music."

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