Saturday, December 26, 2009

Different Planets

In 1861 Turgenev and Tolstoy had a hell of a fight. It started when Tolstoy made some offhand, though pointed, reference to Turgenev's illegitimate daughter and Turgenev, understandably, got upset. Afanasy Fet was there at the time, it all happened in his house, and he reported later that Turgenev threatened to slap the other man, then ran out of the room. A little while later, after stewing and steaming for a while, Tolstoy sent Turgenev a letter. Tolstoy wasn't used to being slapped, or even threatened, and he demanded an apology. And I don't know why, but Turgenev wrote Tolstoy the letter. He said he was sorry, hadn't meant for the incident to get so out of hand, and then he mailed it to the wrong address.

Tolstoy never got the letter, and thought that Turgenev was ignoring him. The slap, or at least the threat of the slap, was bad enough. But to be ignored completely was just too much for the guy. He sent Turgenev another letter, this time challenging him to a duel in the woods. Turgenev was confused. He still didn't know that his letter had been sent to the wrong address, he had apologized to Tolstoy just as the man asked him to do. Why this? Why now? Turgenev was a fair guy, maybe even too fair, and he wrote Tolstoy again. He said: "I say in all sincerity that I would gladly stand under your fire in order to wipe out my truly insane words." Though Tolstoy was probably the one who should have been doing the apologizing in the first place. This all started over Turgenev's daughter, after all, and what business was it of Tolstoy's?

Anyway, Tolstoy actually got the letter this time, and he wrote back to Turgenev right away. He said: "You are afraid of me, but I scorn you and do not want to have anything to do with you." Strong words, but in another couple of months he changed his mind. He wrote again, this time apologizing for everything that went down. But now it was Turgenev's turn. He was abroad, and he never got the letter. He went to Paris, he went to London, he even met the Queen. While he was gone he heard news from back home. He heard that Tolstoy was showing Turgenev's letter around to all their old friends - the letter where he apologized for his "insane words" - and mocked him for being a coward. For Turgenev this was just too damn much. He had done everything he could, went above and beyond to make peace with the guy, and now this. This time Turgenev challenged Tolstoy to a duel. Almost as soon as he put his fresh threat into the mailbox, a letter came to his door. It was from Tolstoy, apologizing for the whole incident.

That day, giving up on the whole thing, Turgenev sat down and wrote to Afanasy Fet...

"Today, at last, I received the letter Tolstoy send in September via Davidov the bookseller (admirable punctuality of our Russian businessmen!), in which he states thathe had insulted me intentionally and apologizes, etc. And almost at the same moment, owing to certain gossip I think I told you about, I challenged him to a duel. What can we do? We must act as though we lived on different planets or in different centuries."

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Snakes and Fish

"The best tippers ('fish') and the worst ('snakes') were well known to the Pullman porters, by occupation and name. Grooms were fish, to impress their blushing brides. Musicians were skinflints, actors marginally more philanthropic, journalists sugar daddies. Baseball players - especially Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson - were cheapskates. They let off steam by punching the stuffing out of their pillows or lathering windows with shaving cream - and left the porter not a penny. Ditto with boarding school brats. Valets held on to money their masters intended for tips. Drunks and hookers were almost as generous as mobsters. So were salesmen, moms with kids, Jack Dempsey, and nearly everyone who rode the Twentieth Century Limited. Sammy Davis Jr. would hand over twenty dollars 'as soon as he looked at you,' agreed porters who waited on him, but pals Peter Lawford and Jack Benny were snakes who snuck out the back door. George M. Cohan, Morton Downey, 'Diamond Jim' Brady, and Humphrey Bogart were grand, Jay Gould miserable. Old man Rockefeller would hand over a mere penny; his wife discreetly added a dollar. Japanese were the most generous foreign businessmen, followed by Englishmen, Frenchmen, Italians and Russians. Adhering to the adage 'watch what I do, not what I say,' porters themselves tipped big after eating in the dining car."

- Larry Tye, "Rising from the Rails"

Monday, December 14, 2009

Fourth Street

They found her uncle once along Fourth Street when she was seven or eight. It was sometime around Christmas when they found him and he was just about dead. The police called her mother from the hospital and asked if she would come down and claim him. If she could take responsibility.

She watched her mother hang up without answering, then stand there over the phone, staring it down. It started to ring again almost immediately and her mother just stood there with her arms crossed in front of her. She stood very still, and after a while the ringing stopped.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Etowah, TN.

My Great-Grandfather was a railroad man, he was the Night General Dispatcher for the L&N Railroad in Etowah, Tennessee. There were only a couple of trains a week that went through Etowah back then, and if you missed one, you were just out of luck. Because of that, all the men in my family feel compelled to arrive at any station, any airport, any terminal at all at least four hours early. We always bring plenty to read.

When my Grandfather and his sister were still very young, in 1916 or thereabouts, the family lived for a while in a dismantled Pullman sleeper that had been shunted off to a side rail at the Etowah depot. They slept in the berths along the center aisle, one up one down. One Saturday afternoon, while the family was out walking around the McMinn County countryside, a coal train unexpectly rolled in through the Etowah station and collided with the sleeper car. The coal train's engineer was killed outright, as my Great-Grandfather's family surely would have been, the sleeper car was completely destroyed. Anyway, that's the story, but you never know. My Grandfather was an inveterate liar.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Louella Gallagher, 1950

Ladies and Gentlemen, the incomparable Louella Gallagher with her daughters Connie Ann and Collena Sue. Don't mess with Texas, folks.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Whatever Lola Wants...

Marie Dolores Eliza Rosanna Gilbert was born in Limerick, Ireland in 1818 or Sligo in 1821. She liked names, she born with five of them and picked up a few more along the way, "La Grande Horizontale", The Countess of Landsfeld. But the one that stuck was Lola Montez. She was, in many respects, a tough lady to pin down. In her youth she was "an elegant and graceful child" with eyes of excessive beauty, an orientally dark complexion and an air of haughty ease. Things weren't all sweetness and light, however. Her teacher, a Mrs. Grant, also wrote that "the violence and obstinacy of her temper gave too frequent cause of painful anxiety to her good kind aunt."

She married at 16, separated at 21, had ambitions towards a theater career. She was a terrible actress, showed even less talent as a dancer, but never the less she could charm the birds out of the trees, and there's a certain talent to that. She liked powerful men, had a series of affairs. English lords, the viceroy of Poland, Alexandre Dumas. Paris was a busy time. She packed a gun, carried a whip, used both of them at the slightest provocation. She found the greatest love of her life in Alexandre Dujarier, an editor, but he was killed in a duel. In Paris she met Franz Liszt and the two of them had a torrid affair. So torrid, as a matter of fact, that she wore the poor man out. To finally escape her violent streak and jealousy, the story goes, Liszt locked her in their hotel room and ran, leaving money at the desk for the furniture she would break in her rage.

Lola hit the big time in Munich in 1847, when she met King Ludwig I of Bavaria. King Ludwig fell hard. He built her a palace, paid her allowance from the state treasury, and elevated her to Bavarian nobility. "What Lola wants, Lola gets," King Ludwig said, and for a while that was true. The plain folk of Bavaria were not so easily taken in, though. They hated her. In the face of rioting and political unrest, Ludwig took a stand. "I will never abandon Lola," the once hugely popular King said, and abdicated the throne. But Lola had other ideas. Fleeing the revolution she helped spark, Lola went to London and took up with George Trafford Heald, a young cavalry officer with a recent inheritance. But scandal followed her everywhere. She was arrested for bigamy and the couple took off to Spain. After two years her enthusiasm for George dried up, along with most of his inheritance, and Lola called it a day.

Europe was just too small for Lola Montez, and soon she ended up in California. Not surprisingly, there was a gold rush on at the time. She opened a saloon in the frontier town of Grass Valley, where she could finally dance without being booed offstage. In fact, unlike the crowd in Munich, the miners loved her and adopted her as one of their own. She went on tour in Australia, where she performed her erotic "Spider Dance", where she got into a screaming fight with her audience following some "mild heckling" from the cheap seats, where she attacked a newspaper editor with her trusty whip following a bad review. Eventually she returned to the States.

She ended up in New York, and died in a boarding house on West 17th Street in 1861. She had a stroke, or pneumonia, and she was forty years old. Or forty-two, or thirty-nine. They say in her final years she had schizophrenia but I think she was probably just tired, and who could blame her? There's a mountain named after her in California, a lake in Nevada, a song in the musical "Damn Yankees." She's in Brooklyn now, buried in Green-Wood Cemetery along with Boss Tweed, Louis Comfort Tiffany, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Leonard Bernstein and Albert Anastasia. I bet they're having a hell of a time.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009


"There is a story about an anonymous naval photograph-er whose job during World War II was to film the take-offs and landings of carrier-based planes. Although it was a routine assignment, he believed that it was charged with moral urgency, and he devoted himself to it accordingly. One day a bomb detached itself from a returning plane just as it touched down and bounced across the flight deck toward him. Everyone except the photographer ran for his life. The footage, which survived, showed how he stood his ground, absorbed in his job, how he kept the bomb perfectly framed as it bounced wildly across the deck toward him."

Ray Reid, Photographer's Mate 3/C
U.S.S. Enterprise (CV-6)
1st raid on Majuro

Thus dies anonymity (and thus died Ray Reid)