Thursday, June 17, 2010

In Memoriam: Carl Van Vechten

I've long been of two minds when it comes to Carl Van Vechten...

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketOn the one hand he's a towering figure of American letters, alerting his downtown (read: white) friends to the great literary and artistic goings-on uptown during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s of which they might have otherwise remained ignorant; he was also a well-respected novelist and photographer who incidentally served as the literary executor of Gertrude Stein, thus bringing her mammoth unpublished works into print, even if it was posthumously.

Yet there is a hint of the patronizing in his view of the blacks he made such a show of supporting. I say hint because I'm white myself; obviously, there are blacks who might find his hint more like a holler.

In 1926, Van Vechten published his most famous work, N-word Heaven (although, obviously, he didn't use N-word). Reaction to it at the time was mixed: some white critics denounced his use of the word while some black critics loved the book and didn't even mention the use of the word.

Born on this day in 1880, Van Vechten died in December 1964.

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Rudolf Nureyev Meets Miss Piggy At The Baths

Here Miss Piggy demonstrates the art of the low-key courtship; actually, compared to me she's downright subtle. Holy maracas!

Upon meeting Rudolf Nureyev in the steam room - wearing a towel that's much too large for him, in my opinion - and exchanging a little racy (if one-sided) banter, the pair launch into a spirited rendition of that classic song of seduction Baby It's Cold Outside in Episode 213 of The Muppet Show, even though Piggy's attempts are a little, uh, ham-handed.

Naturally Season Two of The Muppet Show - that entertainment staple of the Pop Culture Institute - including this and many other golden moments, is available fully restored and remastered (and containing footage never before seen in North America) on DVD.
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Pop History Moment: The Defection of Rudolf Nureyev

PhotobucketOn this day in 1961 Russian-born ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev defected at Le Bourget Airport in Paris, slipping away from embassy guards and dashing through a security barrier, exclaiming to nearby gendarmes: I want to be free.

Rudi's nocturnal activities in the bohemian underworlds of Moscow and St. Petersburg had come to the attention of the KGB, so when the Kirov Ballet's principal male dancer Konstantin Sergeyev injured himself, Nureyev used his own ballet training to leap at the chance to replace him on an international tour.

As the first major cultural figure to choose exile over life in the Soviet Union, Nureyev's defection was big news around the world in those dark days at the height of the Cold War, exactly the kind of notoriety the Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas was looking for; within a week he became the principal dancer of that company, performing The Sleeping Beauty with Nina Vyroubova.

For those he left behind, though, the situation was quite different; their friendship with the star put them under a cloud of suspicion, and not even Nureyev's own mother escaped unscathed. They wouldn't meet again until Mikhail Gorbachev consented to let him return in 1989, when she was dying.
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Happy Birthday Ken Livingstone

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketLondon's first Mr. (rather than Lord) Mayor, sometimes affectionately known as 'Red Ken' (and sometimes not), Ken Livingstone could never be accused of subtlety.

Personally, I think politics could use a few more plain-speaking people. You may not always agree with a loudmouth, but at least you know he's being sincere.

Alas, Londoners no longer have Red Ken to kick around; at the last election they chose instead to lead them that paragon of buffoonery, Boris Johnson.

(This should go well...)
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Remembering... Kate Smith

In what is truly one of the weirdest pieces of film I've ever seen Cher, Tina Turner, and Kate Smith sing a Beatles medley which even John, Paul, George, and Ringo must have found trippy; as if the rainbow sets and Cousin Itt dresses - dresses seemingly made entirely of fringe! - weren't enough, there's a cameo by Tim Conway to make it even more surreal.

Kate Smith died on this day in 1986, but surely some little part of her must have died on the day this was taped - even if it was only her dignity. (Although, to be fair, no one rocks the asymmetrical bouffant with a brooch in it like our gal Kate.)

File this one at the bottom of the 'What Were They Thinking' folder, beneath Kate Hudson's performance in The Four Feathers and Squinty McCokeface's ill-considered marriage to down-home down low Kenny Chesney.
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POPnews - June 17th

[The Taj Mahal is a prime example of Mughal architecture, and its over-the-top opulence is nothing compared to the ornate and enduring love that seems to have inspired it. History has conveniently erased almost everything that was once known about the woman whose tomb this is, but here is written in stone and tile a biography of one who clearly earned the sobriquet 'beloved ornament of the palace'.]

1462 - During the so-called Night Attack Vlad III the Impaler attempted to assassinate Ottoman Emperor Mehmed II, forcing him to retreat from Wallachia.

1497 - At the Battle of Deptford Bridge near London forces led by England's King Henry VII soundly defeated the rag-tag militia of blacksmith Michael An Gof, thereby effectively ending the Cornish Rebellion.

1565 - Matsunaga Hisahide assassinated the 13th Ashikaga shogun, Ashikaga Yoshiteru.

- When Mumtaz Mahal died giving birth to their fourteenth child, Gauhara Begum, her dying wish prompted her grieving husband Shah Jahan to spend the next 20 years building the Taj Mahal as a tomb worthy both of her memory and their love.

1775 - During the Siege of Boston at the outset of the American Revolution, the Battle of Bunker Hill - which actually took place on Breed's Hill - pitted American general Israel Putnam against Britain's William Howe; technically an American loss, Howe was able to claim a Pyhrric victory at best, since he was the only one of his field staff who wasn't shot.

1885 - The Statue of Liberty arrived in New York Harbor packed in 214 boxes on board the French frigate Isère, although she wouldn't be formally dedicated by President Grover Cleveland until October 1886, as fund-raising efforts to provide her with a suitable pedestal foundered.

1898 - The United States Navy Hospital Corps was established.

1930 - President Herbert Hoover signed the rabidly protectionist Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act into law, thereby turning a temporary downturn caused by the Crash of 1929 into the decade-long Great Depression. Smoove move Hoove...

1932 - The so-called Bonus Army comprised of around a thousand First World War veterans amassed at the United States Capitol as the US Senate was deliberating a bill that would give them certain benefits such as pensions.

1933 - Four FBI agents and captured fugitive Frank Nash were gunned down by gangsters Charles 'Pretty Boy' Floyd, Vernon Miller, and Adam Richetti - who were attempting to free Nash from federal custody - during the Union Station Massacre in Kansas City, Missouri; the whole story is thrillingly told in Bryan Burroughs' riveting book Public Enemies - soon to be a major motion picture starring Johnny Depp!

1939 - At the last public guillotining in French history, convicted murderer Eugen Weidmann lost his head outside the Saint-Pierre prison near Versailles; the guillotine would still be used in private executions until September 1977, when it would be Hamida Djandoubi's turn to become the answer to an awesome Trivial Pursuit question.

1940 - The Baltic States - Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia - fell under Soviet occupation, where they would remain until their independence was recognized by Russia in September 1991.

1944 - Iceland gained its independence from Denmark, following a plebiscite; the new republic's first president was Sveinn Björnsson. Previously the island dependency had been granted Home Rule in 1874, which was expanded in 1904; latterly, an Act of Union (passed in December 1918) gave Iceland full independence under the Danish crown. It was the Second World War, though - more specifically Denmark's occupation by Germany (not to mention Iceland's occupation by Great Britain) - that gave the country's independence movement its final burst of speed.

1953 - In order to quell the Workers Uprising in East Germany, the Soviet Union ordered units of the GSFG and Volkspolizei into East Berlin.

1958 - The Ironworkers Memorial Second Narrows Crossing being built to connect Vancouver with North Vancouver collapsed into the Burrard Inlet, killing many of the ironworkers on it and injuring others; the collapse was later deemed to be due to human error, the human in question being an engineer who was one of those who died.

1961 - Canada's New Democratic Party was founded following a merger by the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation and the Canadian Labour Congress.

1963 - The US Supreme Court ruled 8 to 1 against in the case of Abington School District v. Schempp, disallowing the reciting of Bible verses and the Lord's Prayer in public schools; the dissenting opinion was offered by that lovable kook Potter Stewart.

Photobucket1987 - With the death of the last individual - a male named Orange Band, who lived to the grand old age of eight at Walt Disney World Resort's Discovery Island nature preserve - Florida's Dusky Seaside Sparrow became extinct. Native to the natural salt marshes of Merritt Island and along the St. John's River, it's foe was the usual suspect of DDT - sprayed no doubt due to the rampant spread of ugly subdivisions with their contempt for the natural world. The species was officially declared extinct in December 1990.

1994 - Following a well-televised low-speed highway chase and a failed attempt at suicide so unconvincing it wouldn't have fooled Helen Keller, O.J. Simpson was arrested for the murders of his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman.
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