Friday, May 31, 2013
Poet Walt Whitman was born on May 31, 1819, on Long Island. He worked as a journalist, teacher, government clerk and volunteer nurse during the Civil War. As early as 1850, he began writing what would become Leaves of Grass (1855), initially a collection of 12 untitled poems, influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s call for the United States to have its own unique poet to record its virtues and vices. Whitman spent his life writing this distinctly American epic, revising it in several editions until his death. Poems in the collection include "Song of Myself," "I Sing the Body Electric," "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," and in later editions, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," his elegy to Lincoln. The title is a pun: "grass" was a publisher’s term for works of minor value, and "leaves" is term for the printed pages. Whitman believed the poet and society had a vital, reciprocal relationship: in the first edition, he wrote that "The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it."
Thursday, May 30, 2013
Jeweler Peter Carl Fabergé was born on May 30, 1846, in Saint Petersburg, Russia, where his father, Gustav, had founded the House of Fabergé in 1842. He began working in his father’s shop at age 26. In 1882, he took over the business and, with his younger brother, participated in the Pan-Russian Exhibition, where his work was noticed and praised by Tsar Alexander III. Fabergé became goldsmith to the Imperial Crown, creating fine jewelry, silver tableware and many other items. The Tsar began commissioning an Easter egg each year as a gift for his wife, and from 1887, Fabergé had freedom of design as long as each egg contained a surprise. The next Tsar, Nicholas II, ordered two eggs each year, one for his mother and one for his wife, Alexandra. The tradition continued until the October Revolution (1917). Pictured: Imperial Coronation Egg, 1897, for Tsar Nicholas II, which held a precise replica of the coach carrying Tsarina Alexandra to her coronation; in gold, platinum, diamonds and enamel.
Wednesday, May 29, 2013
60 years ago: At 11:30 AM on May 29, 1953, New Zealand explorer Edmund Hillary and Nepalese Sherpa mountaineer Tenzing Norgay became the first climbers to reach the summit of Mount Everest, the world’s highest peak. They were part of the ninth British expedition to Everest. The feat was accomplished by creating a series of advance camps, slowly ascending the mountain, with Hillary and Norgay as one of two climbing pairs. Norgay had previously ascended to a record high point as part of a 1952 Swiss expedition. The last part of the ascent, in a pass called the South Col, was a 40-foot rock face later named the "Hillary Step," which Hillary climbed, then Tenzing. They stood at the 29,028-foot summit for 15 minutes, where Tenzing left chocolates in the snow as an offering and Hillary left a small cross. Hillary took a famous photo of Tenzing (pictured), but waived off a photo of himself. News of the event was sent by runner to a town in Nepal – probably the last time in history that such extraordinary news was so delivered.
Tuesday, May 28, 2013
Author Ian Fleming was born on May 28, 1908, in London’s Mayfair district, into a wealthy family. During World War II he worked in Britain's Naval Intelligence Division. That experience and work for Reuters and newspapers provided background, detail and substance for the 11 James Bond novels he wrote from 1953 to 1966. His first, Casino Royale, featured Bond as an officer in the Secret Intelligence Service (known as MI6), with the code number 007. He later called the book, which was a major success, a "dreadful oafish opus." An avid birdwatcher, Fleming took his character’s name from that of American ornithologist James Bond, author of a field guide, Birds of the West Indies (Fleming spent holidays in Jamaica). He said he deliberately sought a “dull” name for a dull character. He based Bond on “secret agents and commando types” he met in Naval Intelligence, and pictured him as looking like composer, singer and actor Hoagy Carmichael, among others. Starting in 1958 his books were attacked for sexism and other failings.
Monday, May 27, 2013
Marine biologist and conservationist Rachel Carson was born on May 27, 1907, near Pittsburgh. After earning a Master’s degree in zoology from Johns Hopkins, she became a scientist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the 1930s and served as editor-in-chief of all its publications. As a full-time writer she wrote the bestseller The Sea Around Us (1951), then focused on environmental destruction caused by synthetic pesticides. She had long hoped someone else would publish an exposé on DDT but realized only she had the background and the freedom to do it. In 1962 she published Silent Spring after years of research in the United States and Europe. Her landmark book was fiercely attacked by chemical companies, including DuPont, but it led to a reversal in U.S. pesticide policy and a nationwide ban on DDT and other pesticides. It also helped to inspire a grassroots environmental movement that led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (1970). Carson died of breast cancer in 1964.
Sunday, May 26, 2013
The epistolary Gothic horror novel Dracula by Irish author Abraham “Bram” Stoker was published in England on May 26, 1897. As a theater critic for a Dublin newspaper, Stoker became friends with British actor Henry Irving, whose London theater he began managing in 1878. In that job Stoker wrote several novels, including Dracula, the story of Count Dracula's attempt to relocate from Transylvania (central Romania) to England and his ensuing battle with Prof. Abraham Van Helsing. Stoker was inspired by dark tales of the Carpathian mountains in Eastern Europe, told by a Hungarian traveler he had met. He then researched folklore about vampires. Dracula's personality is modeled on Irving’s dramatic gestures and courtly mannerisms. The book was titled The Un-Dead until just before publication, and the count’s name was originally "Count Wampyr" until Stoker became interested in the name "Dracula," the patronym of descendants of duke Vlad II of Wallachia (Romania). "Dracul" in Romanian means either "dragon" or "devil."
Saturday, May 25, 2013
Essayist and lecturer Ralph Waldo Emerson was born on May 25, 1803, in Boston. Educated at Harvard, he became a unitarian minister after the death of his young wife, but chafed at its theological constraints. In the 1830s he began to form the foundations of the Transcendentalist movement in American literature by gathering around him a circle of writers and thinkers that included Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller, the Alcott family and others. He developed his views on the mystical harmonies of man and nature, the perfectibility of the human spirit, and the human soul’s unity with what he called the divine “Over-Soul.” He extolled the values of non-conformity, intellectual and spiritual independence, and self-reliance. Emerson’s 1836 essay “Nature,” in which he reimagined the divine as a vast, immanent, visible entity (which he called nature), earned him reproach as an atheist but served as the spiritual bedrock on which transcendentalism became a cultural movement.
Friday, May 24, 2013
May 24, 1626, is the date on which Peter Minuit, a Dutch colonial administrator, is believed to have “purchased” the island of Manhattan from native inhabitants. A Walloon, Minuit had been appointed the third director of New Netherland by the Dutch West India Company. The vast region covered what is now the Delmarva Peninsula to Cape Cod. He arrived in the colony’s capital, New Amsterdam, on May 4. A letter from November 1626 indicated that Minuit and the natives exchanged goods valued at 60 guilders (now equivalent to about $1,000). There is no evidence of “swindling” by either the Dutch or the natives (probably Canarsees, inhabiting what’s now Brooklyn, not Manhattan). Minuit likely proffered equipment of great value and usefulness for tasks such as clearing land. The natives likely were making a shrewd, exclusive alliance with the Dutch against rival native nations and courting a valuable trading partner. The key point of Manhattan for both parties was fur trade, i.e., money and power. Nothing has changed since.
Thursday, May 23, 2013
Captain James Buchanan Eads was born on May 23, 1820, in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, and grew up in St. Louis. He was largely self-educated by reading books on science, mechanics and engineering. He made a fortune in riverboat salvage, especially on the Mississippi, using a diving bell. From 1867 to 1874, he designed and built the Eads Bridge in St. Louis, the first road-and-rail bridge to cross the Mississippi and the longest arch bridge in the world when completed. Steel was its primary material, considered daring at the time. Eads was the first bridge builder to use the cantilever method, allowing boats to continue using the river during construction. Pier foundations were built with pneumatic caissons (watertight enclosures), still among the deepest ever sunk. Decompression sickness caused the death of 15 workers, disabled two others, and severely afflicted 77 men. A "test elephant" was marched across the completed bridge to prove it was safe, and on opening day a parade stretched 15 miles through St. Louis streets.
Wednesday, May 22, 2013
Physician and author Arthur Conan Doyle was born on May 22, 1859, in Edinburgh, Scotland, to Irish parents. While studying medicine and in private practice, he built up a portfolio of short stories but struggled to find a publisher. His first major story, “A Study in Scarlet,” appeared in 1887. It was the debut of “consulting detective” Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. He modeled Sherlock partly after Dr. Joseph Bell, a professor at the University of Edinburgh who emphasized the importance of observation in diagnosis and who demonstrated this skill to his students. Doyle’s prolific output included fantasy and science fiction stories, plays and poetry. The first 12 of his 56 Holmes stories were collected in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892). He was knighted largely for two books on the Boer War. He was an ardent Swedenborgian spiritualist who believed that the living could communicate with the dead. Notably, Sherlock used the words “elementary” and “my dear Watson” but never spoke them as one phrase.
Tuesday, May 21, 2013
Artist Henri Rousseau was born on May 21, 1844, in the Loire region of France. His father was a plumber. In 1871, he was appointed a toll collector on goods entering Paris, and later was fancifully known as "Le Douanier" (customs agent), though he was never more than a clerk. He started painting seriously in his early forties, and by age 49 he retired to paint full-time. Almost entirely self-taught, he sketched masterpieces in the Louvre and was greatly inspired by the jungle, which he saw only in illustrated books and through visits to the Paris Zoo and botanical gardens. The result was striking, child-like art that was categorized as Naïve or Primitive, which he exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants alongside works of Post-Impressionists. Rousseau gained attention (and also mockery) from other artists for the innocence, intensity of feeling and decorative beauty of many of his paintings. Picasso considered him a genius. “The Sleeping Gypsy” (1897, pictured), has become one of the most touching and recognized works in modern art.
Monday, May 20, 2013
Actor James “Jimmy” Stewart was born on May 20, 1908, in Indiana, Pennsylvania. He entered Princeton in 1929 and began performing as a musician and actor with the University Players, an intercollegiate summer stock company, where he met Henry Fonda. He followed Fonda to Hollywood in 1934, where he worked as an MGM contract player and found success in the 1930s in “You Can't Take It with You” (1938) and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939), for which he was nominated for the first of five Best Actor Oscars. He served in World War II as a Colonel and later rose to the rank of Brigadier General. After the war his star rose in movies that included “It's a Wonderful Life” (1946), “Harvey” (1950), “The Glenn Miller Story” (1953), “Rear Window “ (1954), “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1956), “The Spirit of St. Louis” (1957), “Vertigo” (1958), and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1961). Stewart excelled in multiple genres: westerns, suspense thrillers, family films, biographies and screwball comedies.
Sunday, May 19, 2013
On May 19, 1898, the U.S. Congress passed the Private Mailing Card Act, which allowed private publishers and printers to print and market postcards. Previous to that date the U.S. Post Office held a monopoly on printing postcards. For several years, the government also restricted private companies to the use of the term “souvenir cards,” which had to be labeled "Private Mailing Cards." The term “post card” was allowed for private publishers in 1901. Before 1907, postcards could not have a “divided back”: i.e., only an address could appear on the back, a message appearing only on the front. The 20th century’s first decade is considered the “Golden Age” of picture postcards. The public loved them. In the fiscal year ending June 30, 1908, nearly 680 million postcards were mailed (when the U.S. population was less than 89 million). Most picture postcards sold in the United States were printed in Germany, where lithography was an art. That ended with World War I, and so did the postcard craze.
Saturday, May 18, 2013
At 8:32 AM Pacific Time on Sunday, May 18, 1980, an earthquake caused the entire north face of Mount St. Helens in Washington state to slide away, instantly exposing volcanic molten magma and gas-enriched rock that had created a huge bulge on the mountain’s side. The resulting landslide was one of the largest in recorded history, completely displacing all of the water in Spirit Lake north of the mountain, washing thousands of trees away from the surrounding hills. The nearly simultaneous volcanic explosion sent out a pyroclastic flow of hot gases, ash and pumice, at near-supersonic speed, into a fan-shaped area 23 miles wide and 19 miles long, destroying 230 square miles of forest. Miles beyond, it killed even more trees with extreme heat. The blast melted nearly all the mountain’s glaciers, resulting in immense lahars (volcanic mudflows). A vast ash column rose 12 miles above the mountain’s expanding crater during the nine-hour eruption. Most of the 57 people known to have died in the event succumbed to asphyxiation; several died from burns.
Friday, May 17, 2013
Composer and pianist Erik Satie was born on May 17, 1866, in Normandy, France. He studied music at the Paris Conservatoire as a teenager, where he was judged a failure. After military service, he lived in Montmartre in Paris and assumed musical residence in the Chat Noir cabaret , where he met Claude Debussy and other young "revolutionists." In 1888, he wrote three pieces for piano, “Trois Gymnopedies,” that defied classical tradition in music and presaged minimalist and absurdist works of the 20th century. They were later orchestrated by Debussy. Satie’s rebellious, avant-garde spirit gave birth to classical music parodies, including “Unpleasant Glimpses,” “Desiccated Embryos,” “Genuine Flabby Preludes (for a dog),” “Old Sequins and Old Breastplates” and “Teasing Sketches of a Fat Man Made of Wood.” He wore 12 identical velvet suits and started his own church, the Metropolitan Church of Art of the Leading Christ, of which he was the only member. A connoisseur of absinthe, he died in 1925 from alcoholism.
Thursday, May 16, 2013
The first rock double album, Bob Dylan's “Blonde on Blonde,” was released on May 16, 1966, by Columbia Records. It was Dylan’s seventh studio album and the third in his trilogy, starting with “Bringing It All Back Home” (1965), then “Highway 61 Revisited” (1966). Recording sessions in New York in 1965 proved to be troubled and fruitless, so Dylan’s producer moved sessions to Nashville, taking along keyboardist Al Kooper and guitarist Robbie Robertson. Two singles from the album, "Rainy Day Women ♯12 & 35" and "I Want You," became Top 20 hits in the United States. Other songs have become Dylan classics, including "Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I'll Go Mine)," "Just Like a Woman," "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again" and "Visions of Johanna." The album’s cover (pictured) opens to a 12-by-26 inch, out-of-focus photo of Dylan at three quarter length; his name and the title appear only on the spine. The album has been described as having an “air of reclusive yet sybaritic genius."
Wednesday, May 15, 2013
Author Lyman Frank Baum was born May 15, 1856, in Chittenango, NY, near Syracuse. Born into a wealthy family with nine siblings, he had a weak heart and was sensitive and shy. He studied theater in New York, then pursued failed business ventures in South Dakota and Chicago. In 1897 he published Mother Goose in Prose, children’s fairytales he had created in his youth to avoid the violent tales of the era. Its success led to the best-selling Father Goose: His Book (1899), with pictures by artist W.W. Denslow. In 1900 he published The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, also illustrated by Denslow, which was instantly successful. Some characters and themes had personal relevance. As a child, Baum had nightmares of being chased by a scarecrow that would disintegrate before its "ragged hay fingers" reached his neck. He said that the name "Oz" came from his file cabinet labeled "O-Z." The story of the wizard focuses on power and the importance of self-belief to avoid the deceptions of the powerful.
Tuesday, May 14, 2013
English portrait and landscape painter Thomas Gainsborough was born on May 14, 1727, in Suffolk, northeast of London. Proficient at drawing as a youth, he trained in London with painter and illustrator William Hogarth. By 1759 he had a successful business painting portraits in the fashionable spa city of Bath, and later became a founding member of the Royal Academy. After moving to London in 1774, he painted portraits of King George III and his queen, then remained the royals’ favorite painter even though his rival, Joshua Reynolds, was named the royal painter. Gainsborough’s famed “The Blue Boy” (c. 1770, pictured) is believed to be a portrait of a wealthy merchant’s son. The boy is actually trapped in a costume study, since his clothing is 140 years old, dating from the early 17th century and the age of Van Dyck, whom Gainsborough admired. Gainsborough sometimes used brushes on sticks six feet long to paint portraits. He preferred to paint landscapes and was impatient with clients who demanded portraits.
Monday, May 13, 2013
Artist Georges Braque was born on May 13, 1882, in a Paris suburb and grew up in the port city of Le Havre. Though trained to be a house painter and decorator, he also studied fine art. In Paris he was influenced by the colorful style of the Fauves (“Beasts”), including Matisse. But the works of Cézanne greatly inspired his interest in geometry, simultaneous perspective and the effects of light, leading him to question the basic conventions of painting. In 1908 an art critic mocked his canvas “Maisons à l'Estaque” with the term "bizarre cubiques," describing it as “full of little cubes.” That year he began working with Pablo Picasso, who had pursued a similar style of painting, and together they developed Cubism, producing works in monochromatic color with complex, faceted forms. Braque’s “Woman with a Guitar” (1913, pictured) is a key example of early Cubism, combining a limited palette with multiple planes and mixed perspectives while creating balance and harmony amid fracture and abstraction.
Sunday, May 12, 2013
Actress Katharine Hepburn was born on May 12, 1907, in Hartford, Connecticut, to wealthy, politically progressive parents. As a teenager, she discovered the body of her brother, Tom, with whom she was close, after he hanged himself. For much of her life Hepburn used his birthday (November 8) as her own. She pursued acting while at Bryn Mawr College and performed on and off Broadway. In 1932 she was hired by RKO Pictures for “A Bill of Divorcement,” then in 1933 won the first of four Academy Awards for her third film, “Morning Glory.” Though she made a screwball comedy in 1938 now considered a classic, “Bringing Up Baby” with Cary Grant (pictured), her career declined and theater owners labeled her “box office poison.” Her abrasive, often arrogant attitude and boyish behavior alienated the public. When RKO’s costume department took away her slacks (considered improper and boyish), Hepburn wore only her underwear until she got her pants back. Her career recovered with “The Philadelphia Story” (1940).
Saturday, May 11, 2013
Catalan artist Salvador Dalí was born on May 11, 1904, in Figueres, Spain, near the French border. He was named after an older brother who had died; his parents led him to believe he was that child’s reincarnation. His father encouraged his drawing, and he studied at Madrid’s Real Academia, where he became known for eccentric behavior and his admirable Cubist paintings. In Paris he met Magritte, Miró and Picasso, whom he revered. In 1929, Surrealist artists praised what Dalí termed his “paranoiac-critical method” of accessing the subconscious for artistic creativity, especially shown in optical illusions. In 1931 he completed his most famous work, “The Persistence of Memory” (pictured). Its malleable watches are considered a rejection of time as rigid or deterministic, but Dalí dismissed any association with Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity by saying the images were surrealist perceptions of a Camembert cheese melting in the sun. His famous moustache was inspired by that of Spanish master Velázquez.
Friday, May 10, 2013
Dancer, choreographer and singer Fred Astaire was born Frederick Austerlitz on May 10, 1899, in Omaha. At age 6 he and his sister performed a vaudeville dance act, and by the 1920s they danced in stage musicals in New York and London. In Hollywood, despite a lackluster screen test, he made his mark in “The Gay Divorcee” (1934), dancing and singing Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” with Ginger Rogers. Of the 31 musical films in his career, he made 10 with Rogers, including “Top Hat” (1935), “Follow the Fleet” (1936), “Swing Time” (1936), “Shall We Dance” (1937) and “Carefree” (1938). Six were RKO Radio Pictures’ biggest moneymakers. Several of Astaire’s most famous dance scenes occurred in “Royal Wedding” (1951), including the song "You're All the World to Me" in which he danced on the walls and ceiling of a specially-made set. The gravity-defying trick was accomplished by rotating the entire set (along with an attached camera and camera operator) on an axis while Astaire remained upright.
Thursday, May 9, 2013
The earliest version of Kermit the Frog appeared on television for the first time on May 9, 1955, when Jim Henson’s live-action puppet show “Sam and Friends” aired on WRC-TV in Washington, D.C. Henson had already made puppets for another TV station while in high school. “Sam” was a bald, human-looking puppet whose friends included a lizard-like creature named Kermit (pictured). As a freshman at the University of Maryland, College Park, Henson was asked to create the five-minute show in which he made key innovations by using the frame of camera shots to focus on the puppet (not the puppeteer) and greatly enlivened his puppets by using flexible, fabric-covered foam rubber (rather than carved wood). He also used hand-held rods rather than marionette strings for greater control. He made Kermit from a coat his mother had discarded and two ping-pong ball halves for eyes. When Henson joined public TV’s “Sesame Street” in 1969, he added Kermit’s neck frill to make him more frog-like – and conceal a seam.
Wednesday, May 8, 2013
On May 8, 1912, the Famous Players Film Company was founded by Hungarian-born entrepreneur Adolph Zukor, who partnered with two New York theater impresarios. In 1916, he merged the company with two Hollywood firms, which soon became Paramount Pictures. With production led by Samuel Goldwyn and Cecil B. DeMille, Paramount began to dominate the movie industry. Zukor signed and developed many of the earliest stars, including Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino. In the 1960s, Paramount was saved from near-collapse when its young head of production, Robert Evans, produced a long string of major films, including: “Barefoot in the Park” (1967), “The Odd Couple” (1968), “Rosemary's Baby” (1968), “True Grit” (1969), “The Confession” (1970), “Love Story” (1970), “Harold and Maude” (1971), “The Godfather” (1972), “Serpico” (1973), “The Great Gatsby” (1974), “The Conversation” (1974), “Chinatown” (1974), “Marathon Man” (1976) and many others.
Tuesday, May 7, 2013
“A man's reach must exceed his grasp; / Or what's a Heaven for?” English poet Robert Browning was born on May 7, 1812, in London. His father had turned down a family fortune, then amassed a library of 6,000 books. A gifted child, Browning wrote a book of poems at age 12; learned Latin, Greek, French and Italian by age 14; and forsook university education to read at his own pace. His vast, idiosyncratic learning led to poetry far too obscure and allusive for most readers. He lived at home until age 34, when he married the semi-invalid Elizabeth Barrett, whose career partly eclipsed his own, then lived in Italy. His father financed the publication of his poems, the most accessible of which are his dramatic monologues that reveal not only setting but character, including “Porphyria's Lover” and “My Last Duchess” (from Dramatic Lyrics, 1842). Poems from his collection Men and Women (1855) included “Love Among the Ruins,” “Fra Lippo Lippi,” “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” and “Andrea del Sarto.”