Tuesday, April 30, 2013
Let’s all inhale together: Happy 80th Birthday to country music singer/songwriter and legend Willie Nelson. His recorded birthdate is April 30, 1933, though he was delivered on April 29, in Abbott, Texas. His grandfather gave him a guitar at age 6 and taught him chords. He sang gospel songs in the local church, wrote his first song at age 7, and played guitar for a local polka band at age 9. Because he didn’t like picking cotton, he made money singing in dance halls, bars and honky tonks from age 13 through high school. In the early 1960s he wrote songs that included "Funny How Time Slips Away,” "Hello Walls," "Pretty Paper" and the classic "Crazy,” which became a hit with Patsy Cline. Willie’s 1978 album “Stardust,” produced by the legendary Booker T. Jones, is a classic recording of 10 songs that span pop, jazz, country and folk music, including the title song plus “Blue Skies,” “All of Me,” “Moonlight in Vermont,” “Unchained Melody” and Willie’s enduring rendition of “Georgia on My Mind.” He defined a genre when he said, “Three chords and the truth—that’s what a country song is.”
The Louisiana Purchase Exposition, or the St. Louis World's Fair, opened on April 30, 1904. Intended to mark the 1803 purchase of the Louisiana Territory, it was delayed a year to secure participation of more states and foreign nations. The largest fair to date, it had more than 1,500 buildings and 75 miles of roads and walkways. The Palace of Agriculture occupied 20 acres. All of the neo-Classical exhibition palaces were temporary (except the Palace of Fine Art, which became the St. Louis Art Museum), built from plaster of Paris mixed with hemp fibers applied to wood frames. Ragtime music was popular, and composer/pianist Scott Joplin (who settled in St. Louis in 1901) wrote "The Cascades" to invoke the waterfall at the Grand Basin (pictured), which was the Fair’s centerpiece. A carnival area called The Pike featured contortionists, reenactments of the Boer War, babies in incubators, the Dancing Girls of Madrid, Jim Key the Educated Horse, and Hagenbeck’s Zoological Paradise and Animal Circus with its elephant water slide.
Monday, April 29, 2013
Happy 66th birthday to Tommy James – real name Thomas Gregory Jackson – of the 1960s rock band Tommy James and the Shondells. He formed a band as early as 1959, when he was age 12. The group had two No. 1 singles, "Hanky Panky" (1966) and "Crimson and Clover" (1968), and charted another 12 Top 40 hits, including five in the Top 10: "I Think We're Alone Now" (1967), “Mirage” (1967), "Mony Mony" (1968), "Sweet Cherry Wine" (1969), and "Crystal Blue Persuasion" (1969). Tommy also went solo and had a hit with "Draggin' the Line" in 1971. As many people suspected, the title of “Mony Mony” was indeed inspired by a large Mutual Of New York sign, many of which were prevalent in the Eastern United States at the time. The mellow, organ-driven “Crystal Blue Persuasion” was a departure from the band’s previous tendency toward psychedelic rock. The Shondells were in Hawaii at the time they turned down an invitation to play at the Woodstock Festival in the summer of 1969.
Publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst was born on April 29, 1863, in San Francisco. His father was a millionaire gold-mine owner. He was expelled from Harvard for holding large beer parties in Harvard Square and insulting his professors. In 1887 he took control of the San Francisco Examiner from his father, then bought the New York Journal and fought a circulation war with Joseph Pulitzer's New York World, giving rise to sensationalized “yellow journalism.” By the mid-1920s he had purchased 28 newspapers nationwide and diversified into book publishing and magazines. In 1919 Hearst began building what’s now known as the Hearst Castle (pictured) in San Simeon, California, which he furnished with artifacts and entire rooms shipped from Europe. Full construction was never completed. He also owned a legendary H-shaped Beverly Hills mansion with 29 bedrooms and three swimming pools. Hearst’s name is permanently tied to Orson Welles’ movie “Citizen Kane” (1941), which he aggressively tried to suppress.
Sunday, April 28, 2013
Author Nelle Harper Lee was born on April 28, 1926, in Monroeville, Alabama. Her first name is her grandmother's name spelled backward. Her father was a newspaper editor, state senator and lawyer. Before finishing studies at the University of Alabama, she went to New York in 1949 to pursue a literary career, struggling and working as an airline reservationist. When friends gave her a Christmas gift of a year’s wages, she was able to write her only published novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, which appeared in July 1960 after numerous rewrites. Set in Maycomb, Alabama, in the 1930s, the book follows lawyer Atticus Finch (narrated by his daughter, Scout), who defends a black man accused of raping a poor white girl. Several characters are drawn from life: Finch was the maiden name of Lee's mother, and the young boy Dill was based on her childhood friend, Truman Capote. The book, which has never been out of print, explores multiple themes of racial injustice, inequality, class, courage, gender roles and codes of conduct.
Saturday, April 27, 2013
Painter and inventor Samuel F.B. Morse was born on April 27, 1791, in Charlestown, Massachusetts. He began his career as a painter of portraits and historical canvases in Boston and New York. He studied art in Europe, but while returning home in 1832 he encountered Charles Thomas Jackson of Boston, who experimented with electromagnetism to develop a telegraph that transmitted electrical impulses over multiple wires. Morse, however, perfected a single-wire telegraph, which he first demonstrated in 1837-38 and finally developed on a large scale in 1844 with an experimental, 38-mile telegraph line between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, built by Ezra Cornell using the right-of-way of the B&O Railroad. Morse opened the line with the words, "What hath God wrought!" sent from the Supreme Court chamber using Morse Code, which he co-invented. His telegraph (patented in 1849) could transmit 30 characters per minute. Within a decade more than 20,000 miles of telegraph wire had been posted across America.
Friday, April 26, 2013
April 26, 1882, is the birthdate of landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted. Born in Hartford, Connecticut, he initially held a variety of jobs, including sailor in the China trade, farmer and reporter for what is now the New York Times. With no college education and no formal training in landscape design, he and English-born architect Calvert Vaux won a design competition for New York’s Central Park in 1858 (known as their “Greensward Plan”). Innovations included "separate circulation" for pedestrians, horseback riders and vehicles, with crosstown traffic hidden in sunken roads and a formal Mall focused on the Bethesda Fountain. Much of the Park’s topsoil came from New Jersey. Olmsted later designed Brooklyn’s Prospect Park (with Vaux) and at least 550 commissioned projects, including many Chicago parks, Boston’s Emerald Necklace, the grounds of the U.S. Capitol, and college campuses from Stanford and Berkeley to Cornell and Colgate. He was also a key figure in the preservation of Yosemite Valley.
Thursday, April 25, 2013
Jazz vocalist Ella Fitzgerald, the "First Lady of Song," was born on April 25, 1917, in Newport News, VA, but grew up in Yonkers, NY. Abused by her father when her mother died, she often skipped school, then worked as a bordello’s lookout and a numbers-runner’s messenger, ran away from a reformatory and wound up on the streets. Though very shy, she won an amateur contest at Harlem’s Apollo Theater in 1934 (having intended to dance, not sing), then worked with bandleader Chick Webb and recorded her first hit in 1938, "A-Tisket A-Tasket." In the 1950s and ‘60s she recorded popular “Song Books” for Verve Records, including those for the songs of Cole Porter (1956), Rodgers & Hart (1957), Duke Ellington (1958), Irving Berlin (1958), George and Ira Gershwin (1959) and Harold Arlen (1961-62). Memorably, she also sang with Louis Armstrong, Count Basie and Frank Sinatra. Ella recorded more than 200 albums and roughly 2,000 songs, won 13 Grammys and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Wednesday, April 24, 2013
The U.S. Library of Congress was established on April 24, 1800, by an Act signed by President John Adams that transferred the seat of government from Philadelphia to the new capital, Washington, D.C. The statute appropriated $5,000 to purchase books for the use of Congress and for “a suitable apartment” to house those books. The Library was destroyed in 1814, during the War of 1812, when the British burned the Capitol building and the trove of 3,000 books within it. Thomas Jefferson sold his entire personal collection of 6,487 books to the Library the following year. The Library’s main building, now named after Jefferson, was built in the Beaux-Arts style between 1890 and 1897 and contains some of the richest, most ornate public interiors in the United States, including the Great Hall (pictured), with sculpture and murals that proclaim the nationalism, optimism and confidence of the Gilded Age. Edwin Blashfield's murals in the dome of the reading room (pictured) are entitled “The Progress of Civilization.”
Tuesday, April 23, 2013
Today is the 449th birthday of William Shakespeare, who is understood to have been born on April 23, 1564, in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, and baptized there on April 26. Records indicate that he married 26-year-old Anne Hathaway at age 18 in November 1582. Six months after the marriage, Anne gave birth to a daughter, Susanna. Twins, son Hamnet and daughter Judith, were born in 1585. Hamnet died of unknown causes at age 11. After the birth of the twins, Shakespeare left few historical traces until he was mentioned as part of the London theater scene in 1592. Those intervening seven years are referred to as Shakespeare's "lost years." Contemporary allusions and performance records indicate that several of Shakespeare’s plays were mounted on the London stage by 1592. His first recorded plays are Richard III and the three parts of Henry VI, which he wrote in the early 1590s, when historical dramas were in vogue. Pictured: a copy of the First Folio of Shakespeare's plays, 1623.
British landscape painter and watercolorist Joseph Mallord William "J. M. W." Turner was born in London on April 23, 1775. He pioneered the use of light, color and atmosphere in painting, which later influenced Impressionism. In his teens he showed great skill at drawing and entered the Royal Academy schools, where he later exhibited paintings and watercolors and became an academician. Financially free to innovate with color and dramatic washes of paint, he focused intently on natural phenomena and catastrophes, including fire, rain, storms, fog, sunlight and the power of the sea as well as shipwrecks. His pictures often incorporated references to literature, mythology and historical events. Tennyson called him "The Shakespeare of landscape." Turner’s late works reflected profound changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution. Pictured: “The ‘Fighting Téméraire’ Tugged to Her Last Berth to Be Broken Up” (1839), in which a foul, industrial tugboat tows a majestic old warship, marking the end of an epoch.
Monday, April 22, 2013
Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, later known as Lenin, was born on April 22, 1870, in the provincial Russian city of Simbirsk on the Volga River. In 1887, his older brother was arrested in St. Petersburg for plotting against Tsar Alexander III, then convicted and hanged. This hardened Lenin against Tsarist Russia’s repressive culture and he began studying the radical writings of Karl Marx and others. He earned a law degree in St. Petersburg, where he became a professional revolutionary – for which he was exiled to Siberia. In 1901 he adopted the pseudonym Lenin, then spent many years in western Europe as a major exponent of the international revolutionary movement and leader of Russia’s Bolshevik political faction. He returned to Russia in 1917, led the overthrow of the provisional government in the October Revolution, and eventually gained control of the nation. He reorganized party factions into the Russian Communist Party and reinvented the Russian economy under Marxist socialism. Lenin died in 1924 at age 53.
Sunday, April 21, 2013
According to the complicated and peculiar myth of Romulus and Remus, the city of Rome was founded on April 21, 753 BCE. The twin brothers were heirs to a dynastic line in an ancient city (Alba Longa) in central Italy, but as infants they were set adrift to die in the Tiber River. However, the river saved them, a she-wolf named Lupa suckled them, a woodpecker fed them, and a shepherd raised them. Instead of claiming their dynasty, the twins decided to found a new city, but argued over the site: Romulus chose the Palatine Hill, Remus chose the Aventine Hill. Through divination, Romulus claimed victory, killed his brother, and founded the city (“ab urbe condita”), which he named Rome after himself. The myth is one of several, including the “Epic of Gilgamesh,” in which feral children play a key role in the advance of civilization. The image of the she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus became an icon of Rome, appearing on one of the earliest, if not the earliest issues of Rome’s silver coinage (pictured), ca. 269 BCE.
Saturday, April 20, 2013
Catalan artist Joan Miró was born April 20, 1893, in Barcelona. He began drawing classes at age 7 and had his first solo show in 1918. His unconventional works were ridiculed and defaced. He moved to Paris in 1920. Though he experimented with many art forms, he became known as a Surrealist and was the founder of “automatic drawing,” which permitted the hand to move randomly on the canvas, leaving the artwork to chance, in the belief that this process would reveal the subconscious mind. This was one of Miró’s avenues for breaking free from convention, since he opposed what he considered the use of bourgeois art for propaganda and the promotion of materialism. He referred to his work as the “assassination of painting,” and created “subversive” art not only in painting but also lithography, ceramics, murals, tapestries and sculptures for public spaces. His World Trade Center Tapestry (1974, pictured), which he produced at age 81, was the most expensive artwork lost in the attacks on the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001.
Friday, April 19, 2013
Bart Simpson and his dysfunctional family made their debut as an animated short on Fox TV’s “The Tracey Ullman Show” on April 19, 1987. The Simpsons – Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie – were the brainchild of animator and voice actor Matt Groening, who named the characters after members of his own family, substituting Bart for his own name. Groening submitted only basic sketches for the short video, assuming they would be enhanced in production. But the animators simply re-traced his drawings, which resulted in the characters’ initially crude appearance. After three seasons, the sketch was developed into a half-hour prime-time “adult animated sitcom,” a sometimes-subtle, sometimes-brutal send-up of middle-class American society that debuted in December 1989. “The Simpsons” is now the longest-running U.S. TV sitcom and the longest-running U.S. animated program. In 2009 it surpassed “Gunsmoke” as the longest-running U.S. primetime, scripted TV series. Pictured: now, and then.
Thursday, April 18, 2013
Lucrezia Borgia was born on April 18, 1480, near Rome. She was the daughter of Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia of Aragon (Spain), who would later become the politically adept Pope Alexander VI, and one of his mistresses, Vannozza Cattanei, who was also the mother of Lucrezia's two older brothers, the immoral and likely murderous Cesare and the ill-fated Giovanni. Her three marriages into influential families – the powerful and princely Giovanni Sforza, then Alfonso d'Aragon of Naples, and finally Alfonso I d'Este, Duke of Ferrara – served to increase the political power of her family, in its violent quest to control large parts of Italy. Lucrezia’s reputation is dogged by rumors: incest with her brother Cesare, her skill with poisons, the birth of a mysterious baby, and her role in a massive orgy (the Banquet of Chestnuts) hosted by Cesare that involved countless clergy. Historians debate whether Lucrezia actively participated in the Borgias’ notorious crimes or was a helpless pawn in their schemes.
Wednesday, April 17, 2013
Actor William Holden was born on April 17, 1918, in O'Fallon, Illinois. His real name was William Franklin Beedle, Jr. At age 3 his family moved to Southern California, where he was spotted by a Paramount talent scout in 1937. He played roles in minor films until 1950, when director Billy Wilder cast him as Joe Gillis, the young screenwriter who became the paramour of Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a has-been silent-screen star, in “Sunset Boulevard.” A major star of the 1950s, he had memorable roles in “Born Yesterday” (1950) and “Stalag 17” (1953), for which he won a Best Actor Oscar, followed by “The Country Girl” (1954), “The Bridges at Toko-Ri” (1954), “Sabrina”(1954), “Picnic” (1955), “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing”(1955), “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957), and “The Horse Soldiers” (1959). He made a comeback in Sam Peckinpah's “The Wild Bunch” (1969), which led to roles in “The Towering Inferno” (1974) and the bitingly satirical “Network” (1976). Alcoholism contributed to his death in 1981.
Tuesday, April 16, 2013
The singer known as Dusty Springfield was born on April 16, 1939, in North London, England. Born Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O'Brien into a music-loving Catholic family, she was a tomboy who loved to sing and acquired the nickname "Dusty" by playing football (soccer) with boys in the street. In 1960 she formed a pop-folk vocal trio, The Springfields, with her brother. Then in 1963 her solo recording "I Only Want to Be with You" landed her on the music charts in the UK and the United States, where she was the second artist of the “British Invasion,” after the Beatles, to have a major hit. More followed with "Wishin' and Hopin'" (1964), "I Just Don't Know What to Do with Myself" (1964), "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me" (1966) and her quintessential song, "Son of a Preacher Man" (1968). Her album “Dusty in Memphis” (1969) shimmers with lyrical nuance in songs like “I Don’t Want to Hear It Anymore” (written by Randy Newman) and “No Easy Way Down” (Carole King), two of the saddest songs she committed to vinyl.
Monday, April 15, 2013
170 years ago: Author Henry James was born on April 15, 1843, in New York City. Tutored as a child, Henry toured parts of Europe with his moneyed and leisured family beginning at age 12. For the next two decades he alternated between America and Europe, then settled in England and became a British subject in 1915, a year before his death. His greatest novels and short stories portray Americans encountering Europeans and vice-versa, told from the viewpoint of a character within a tale, allowing him to explore ideas of consciousness and perception. His short novel Washington Square (1880) was followed by The Portrait of a Lady (1881), The Turn of the Screw (1898) and others. His greatest, late novels were written in Rye, outside London, including The Ambassadors (1903), The Wings of the Dove (1902) and his final masterpiece, The Golden Bowl (1904), in which the shape and form of the novel itself is reflected in the golden bowl represented in it. “It is art that makes life,” James said, “makes interest, makes importance, and I know of no substitute for the force and beauty of its process.” Pictured: John Singer Sargent portrait, 1913.
Renaissance polymath Leonardo da Vinci was born on April 15, 1452, in the hill town of Vinci in the Republic of Florence. He was the illegitimate son of a wealthy legal notary. His manifold interests in the laws of science and nature are reflected in his works as a painter, sculptor, inventor and draftsman. Da Vinci's name is now virtually synonymous with the "Mona Lisa," a painting he began between 1505 and 1507. The sitter is almost certainly Lisa del Giocondo, wife of a wealthy Florentine silk merchant, who probably commissioned the work to celebrate the birth of their second son. The Italian name for the painting, “La Gioconda,” means “happy" or "jovial" (literally "the jocund one"), a pun on the feminine form of the sitter's married name. Da Vinci never delivered the painting. Near the end of his life, in 1516, he was invited by King François I of France to work near his chateau in the Loire Valley, where he apparently continued to rework the portrait that is now considered beautifully odd and mysterious.
Sunday, April 14, 2013
A terrifying “Black Sunday” occurred on April 14, 1935. After weeks of suffocating dust storms on America’s Great Plains, the clear, sunny day tempted people to go outside. But that afternoon, temperatures dropped, winds exceeded 60 mph and visibility fell to zero. A massive, rolling wave of black dirt plunged a vast area of Oklahoma and Texas, centered on the states’ panhandles, into lethal blackness. Tons of topsoil had been blown off barren fields and carried in a “Black Blizzard” for hundreds of miles. People took shelter wherever possible. Severe drought and decades of intensive, environmentally destructive farming had eroded an estimated 100 million acres of land. The skewed ecosystem brought on plagues of rabbits, spiders, centipedes, grasshoppers and crickets. On April 15, an Associated Press reporter who had been caught in the storm coined the term “dust bowl” in an article for the Lubbock (TX) Evening Journal, describing both the phenomenon and the affected region.
Saturday, April 13, 2013
April 13, 1743, is the birthdate of Thomas Jefferson, principal author of the Declaration of Independence and third President of the United States (1801–1809). He was born in Shadwell, Virginia, near the center of the state. He entered the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg at age 16 and became a lawyer in 1767. He spoke five languages fluently and, as a farmer (largely tobacco), he was interested in new mechanical inventions and labor-saving devices. He improved the moldboard part of a plow so that it would lift and turn sod more efficiently. He designed a revolving bookstand that allowed five books to be viewed in one place. In Monticello’s entrance hall, he devised a Great Clock powered by gravity using cannonballs, with wall markings showing the time and the day of the week (its face can be seen from both inside and outside). He also devised a cylindrical wheel cipher for encoding and decoding messages, and he repeatedly improved a letter-copying device called a polygraph constructed of two connected pens.
Friday, April 12, 2013
Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin became the first human being to enter outer space on April 12, 1961, when his spacecraft Vostok I completed an orbit of the Earth, the first ever by a manned vehicle. The flight took 108 minutes from launch to landing (the shortest manned orbital flight). The spacecraft was a small round capsule launched from Baikonur cosmodrome, in the desert steppe of Kazakhstan east of the Aral Sea; it was designed to maintain life for 10 days if re-entry failed. Medical staff and engineers were uncertain how a human would react to weightlessness, so the spacecraft was locked on automatic controls, though Gagarin had an override code. On re-entry, he was ejected from the capsule 7 kilometers above the Earth. He landed with a parachute 280 miles west of the planned site near Baikonur. A farmer and her daughter, seeing a figure in a bright orange suit with a large helmet, backed away in fear. Gagarin said to them, “Don’t be afraid! I must find a telephone to call Moscow!"
Thursday, April 11, 2013
Fashion designer Oleg Cassini was born on April 11, 1913, in Paris, to Russian aristocrats, the Count and Countess Loiewski. He grew up in Florence, studied under French couturier Jean Patou, and opened his own boutique in Rome. In 1936 he emigrated to America and, by 1941, he was a designer for Paramount Pictures, where he dressed many stars, including Rita Hayworth, Joan Crawford and Marilyn Monroe. With a reputation for original, spontaneous design, he met Jacqueline Bouvier shortly before her marriage in 1953, and in 1961 he became the exclusive couturier to the woman who had become First Lady of the United States. (Mrs. Kennedy called him her "Secretary of Style.") Cassini shaped the entire “Jackie Look,” which had a profound and lasting impact on fashion for its sophisticated elegance, luxurious fabrics, clean lines and timeless simplicity. Pictured: the First Lady in Cassini designs, which he said focused on her “beauty, naturalness, understatement … and symbolism.”
Wednesday, April 10, 2013
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” … F. Scott Fitzgerald’s landmark novel, The Great Gatsby, was published on April 10, 1925. Set in Long Island and Manhattan at the start of the Roaring Twenties amid unprecedented economic prosperity, the book follows Jay Gatsby, a man whose singular desire – to re-win the heart of his lost love, Daisy Buchanan – drives him from poverty to immense (bootlegged) wealth, disillusionment and death. Told through the lens of Nick Carraway, in resonant prose that blends Jazz-era vernacular with the poetic and the profound, it is often viewed as the Great American Novel, a masterpiece that captures not only the essence of a reckless, doomed era but the nature of the American dream. Fitzgerald planned the novel as a "consciously artistic” effort, and finished it in 1923 while on the French Riviera with his wife, Zelda. The famous cover art (pictured), showing disembodied eyes and mouth, influenced Fitzgerald while he wrote Gatsby.