Tuesday, August 31, 2010

William Shawn: New Yorker-in-Chief

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He did the job the longest, and there are many who said he did it the best...

Unlike his rumbustious predecessor Harold Ross, though, William Shawn was subtle to the point of distraction. Yet in his turn he was responsible for some of the finest magazine writing ever, at a time in history when magazine writing was coming into its own. On his watch - which extended from Ross' death in December 1951 until he was forced out in favour of Robert Gottlieb in February 1987 - a magazine as fine as The New Yorker became that much finer.

As the magazine's assistant editor he persuaded Ross to devote an entire issue to John Hersey's coverage of the bombing of Hiroshima, for instance, an unthinkable act nowadays; he also turned the captioning of cartoons into an art form. He was such a stickler for spelling and punctuation that just thinking of it makes me want to weep. Unlike me, he was the best friend the umlaut ever häd.

Born on this day in 1907, William Shawn died in December 1992; apart from his accomplishments with a blue pencil, Shawn spawned three children - including the actor-playwright Wallace Shawn, the composer Allen Shawn (who's married to the writer Jamaica Kincaid), and Allen's autistic twin sister Mary, who is institutionalized).
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Alma Mahler: The Muse That Roared

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketI first heard of Alma Mahler in the song of the same name by Tom Lehrer, which he wrote upon reading her obituary in 1962; I was as instantly impressed by her as he had been.

Here was a woman at the heart of Viennese society, and who in turn married a composer, an architect, and a novelist, each of them at the vanguard of their art. In between times, she satisfied herself with scandalous affairs - affairs which would have been a darn sight less scandalous if they hadn't been, for instance, painted.

And when she was done being a Muse she returned to what she'd loved: musical composition.

40 years after her death, Alma Mahler continues to inspire: whether dread in those who seek to study Mahler, or awe as in the 'polydrama' Alma. For those of you who might have missed it, Lehrer's poem about her is included below...

* * *

The loveliest girl in Vienna
Was Alma, the smartest as well.
Once you picked her up on your antenna,
You'd never be free of her spell.

Her lovers were many and varied
From the day she began her - beguine.
There were three famous ones whom she married,
And God knows how many between.

Alma, tell us,
All modern women are jealous,
Which of your magical wands
Got you Gustav and Walter and Franz?

The first one she married was Mahler,
Whose buddies all knew him as Gustav,
And each time he saw her he'd holler,
"Ach, that is the Fräulein I must have!"

Their marriage, however, was murdah.
He'd scream to the heavens above,
"I'm writing Das Lied von der Erde
And she only wants to make love!"

Alma, tell us,
All modern women are jealous.
You should have a statue in bronze
For bagging Gustav and Walter and Franz.

While married to Gus she met Gropius,
And soon she was swinging with Walter.
Gus died and her tear drops were copious,
She cried all the way to the altar.

But he would work late at the Bauhaus,
And only came home now and then.
She said, "What am I running, a chow house?
It's time to change partners again!"

Alma, tell us,
All modern women are jealous.
Though you didn't even use Ponds,
You got Gustav and Walter and Franz.

While married to Walt, she'd met Werfel,
And he, too, was caught in her net.
He married her but he was carefel,
'Cause Alma was no Bernadette.

And that is the story of Alma,
Who knew how to receive and to give.
The body that reached her embalma
Was one that had known how to live.

Alma, tell us,
How can they help being jealous?
Ducks always envy the swans
Who get Gustav and Walter,
You never did falter
With Gustav and Walter and Franz.
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"The Homecoming Queen's Got A Gun" by Julie Brown

Birthday wishes go out today to Julie Brown, the American comedienne and actress who scored herself a one-hit wonder in 1984 with The Homecoming Queen's Got a Gun...

While the song itself is a parody of the the 'teen tragedy' songs* - which themselves are a sub-genre of 1950s and 1960s American pop - it presaged a spate of high school shootings in the 1990s such as the Columbine massacre; it's because of this event specifically that Brown rarely performs the song in her live act anymore.

Ironically, the song was initially released as the b-side to Brown's single I Like 'em Big and Stupid, but attained such great popularity after being featured by Dr. Demento on his radio show that it is today the better remembered of the two - due in part, at least, to this hilarious video, which hit the airwaves in heavy rotation during the early days of MTV.

*Including such 'splatter platters' as Mark Dinning's trailblazing Teen Angel, Jan and Dean's Dead Man's Curve, and the gold standard Leader of the Pack by The Shangri-las (who more or less specialized in this sort of fare).
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In Memoriam: Queen Wilhelmina

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She was only 10 when, in November 1890, her father William III died; her mother Emma acted as Regent until she turned 18. Over the next 50 years, the reign of Queen Wilhelmina would eventually encompass one of the most turbulent times in Dutch history - from before the Boer War to World War II to the loss of Holland's empire and beyond - yet through it all she was firmly at the nation's helm.

Unhappily married to Prince Hendrik since February 1901, and plagued by a series of miscarriages, in April 1909 she finally gave birth to a Princess, whom she named Juliana.

Evacuated to London following the Nazi invasion of Holland, Wilhelmina quickly established a government-in-exile there; it was during this time that Winston Churchill described her as 'the only man' among European leaders for her dogged work on behalf of her embattled subjects. Having been intimately involved in the Boer War, Wilhelmina was no Anglophile. Nevertheless, she always afterwards expressed gratitude to England and the nations of the British Empire for their hospitality in her country's time of need.

Following Indonesian independence (which many Dutch felt she'd mishandled), in September 1948 Wilhelmina abdicated in favour of her daughter; she came out of retirement briefly, to inspire morale in the aftermath of widespread flooding in 1953, but would spend the rest of her days in Het Loo Palace. It was during this time she penned her memoirs, which were entitled Eenzaam, maar niet alleen (Lonely but Not Alone).

Her Majesty died in November 1962 and was interred ten days later alongside her ancestors in Delft's Nieuwe Kerk.
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"Electric Youth" by Debbie Gibson

Only now, of course, it's Deborah Gibson. Deb-BRAH! (How come every time I hear that, all I can think of is Joan Cusack in Addams Family Values? 'Phone for you Miss Debby.' 'It's Deb-BRAH!')

A n y w a y ... Eighties pop wunderkind Deborah Gibson today turns 40, making her one of the rare age-appropriate pop idols from my high school days. Electric Youth was the title track to her second album, released in January 1989; its message - that age and youth are unrelated - is one I must have taken to heart, because I am living proof of it. I'm pushing forty, look fifty, but don't feel much different inside now than I did at thirty or twenty (or ten, to be completely honest) except I'm considerably more contented now than I ever was at any of those ages.
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Happy Birthday Your Majesty

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketIn addition to the usual charitable interests expected of a Queen - namely women's and children's issues - Rania al-Abdullah is a staunch proponent of micro-finance and technology; she was herself in business, working for both Citibank and Apple Computer before marrying Jordan's King Abdullah II in June 1993. In support of her numerous charitable causes Her Majesty has traveled the globe, including much of the West.

She is also outspoken on issues related to Islam, and the role of women in society under within it, which no doubt infuriates extremist elements both in her country and abroad. Approaching the many misperceptions about Islam in a uniquely modern way - via a YouTube channel, as well as on her own personal website - Her Majesty has quickly become a major force for good in the world, helping to bridge the gap between cultures in a proactive, useful way.

All I have to say to that is: keep up the good work!
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Bonus Video: "Goodbye England's Rose" by Elton John

Although in retrospect it seems a little cheesy to rewrite an already popular song (a tribute to one famous blonde who died too young, Marilyn Monroe, in favour of another one) Bernie Taupin's reworking of the lyrics to Candle in the Wind seemed like the right thing to do at the time, a spontaneous tribute in reaction to a tragic event. Once the tears had dried and the closure had been achieved, of course, the cynicism returned...

Colloquially referred to as Goodbye England's Rose, the performance of the song at Princess Diana's funeral at Westminster Abbey boosted Elton John's status from a hit-making charity machine to a knight of the realm; Sir Elton has only performed the song once, and has vowed to never perform it again, except when requested by Prince William and/or Prince Harry.
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The Death of Diana: The Queen's Tribute

Although for the Royal Family - especially Prince William and Prince Harry - the death of Princess Diana was a private event - as sensitively depicted by Stephen Frears' 2006 film The Queen - for those whose lives Diana touched her death was also a public event. Initially reticent to unite the two, in those awful days between Diana's death and funeral the Queen paid tribute to her former daughter-in-law in a televised address to the nation, shown above.
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Bonus Video: Tony Blair's Tribute To Princess Diana

Within hours of the death of Princess Diana British Prime Minister Tony Blair became the Nation's principal mourner, addressing the media from his Sedgefield constituency; whether it was he or one of his speech writers (or Julie Burchill, for that matter) who first coined it, Blair popularized the phrase 'The People's Princess' when referring to Princess Diana, a moniker that has stuck in the years since her death. Fortunately, for all concerned, Cherie Booth Blair - his satchel-mouthed republican wife - managed to keep her fat gob shut during the ensuing crisis, although she likely did so out of fear for being borne to the Tower of London on a tumbrel (a la Marie Antoinette) rather than out of compassion for anyone who deigned to be royal.

Ironically this low-point in the life of the world would prove to be the height of Blair's personal popularity...  Although he was subsequently re-elected twice, his critics grew increasingly savage as Blair's Presidential style and friendship with George W. Bush came to rankle more and more of the electorate; only a perfectly understandable collective loathing for the Tories and their leadership seemed to keep him in office. Although Blair was right to involve Britain in the mess in Iraq (since Britain had caused much of the turmoil in the region owing to a League of Nations mandate following the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1920) he never managed to successfully convey this responsibility to the public.
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Pop History Moment: The Death of Diana

I'll admit that I fully participated in the mass hysteria following the news of Princess Diana's death. Apart from nearly overdosing on Xanax - not an easy task, I might add, although they were the last ones I ever took - I wept bitterly and shook my fist at all those I felt were responsible, from the paparazzi scum who treated her like prey to supercilious bureaucrats in Buckingham Palace who considered her an inconvenience they couldn't control to narrow-minded unfeeling people everywhere who lacked the compassion to fully comprehend that it was specifically her darker side that made her brightness all the more radiant.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket My friends and family (and especially my cold fish of a boyfriend) could barely understand the dimensions of my grief; in fact, I could barely understand it myself. But if ever there was a better demonstration of the power of Princess Diana that was it. People who'd never met her felt like they lost their best friend, and for those of us who snivelled through that awful week, who got up at 3 AM to watch her funeral on TV seven terrible days later, it wasn't some remote public figure or garden-variety celebrity who had died alongside Dodi Fayed in the Pont d'Alma tunnel that balmy evening in Paris: she was our friend.

That day, August 31st, 1997, was the worst day of my life to that point; though its tragedy has since been replaced by other, more personal ones, the day I lost my Princess is still in the Top Five. And I'm still shaking my fist at those I feel were responsible, though by now that list has dwindled to just one: Diana herself.

After all the flowers and tears and column inches*, after all the enquiries and autopsies and folderol, it turns out she wasn't wearing a seatbelt. No forensic evidence has ever emerged that her seatbelt had been tampered with, because she's clearly shown on film not putting one on when getting into the Mercedes-Benz S280 W140 (driven by Henri Paul, who also died) that would be her undoing. The only one who survived that crash, her bodyguard Trevor Rees-Jones, was thought to be wearing a seatbelt, until a 2006 inquest called Operation Paget proved that he wasn't.

If I've learned one thing from Diana's death, it's always wear a seatbelt.

*Which were so many, they were better measured in column miles.

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POPnews - August 31st

[Empress Theodora's sudden illness gave rise to a slew of
conspiracy theories about poisoning, despite the
fact that she was by then over seventy.

 1056 - Byzantine Empress Theodora suddenly fell ill; she died just as suddenly a few days later without any legitimate heirs, thus ending the Macedonian dynasty.

1422 - Henry VI became King of England at the age of 9 months; needless to say, his reign didn't go so well. He remains the only monarch of that country to have been restored after being deposed.

1803 - Lewis and Clark began their expedition with the Corps of Discovery - to explore the lands of the Louisiana Purchase with a $2,500 endowment from President Thomas Jefferson - when they departed Pittsburgh shortly after 11 o'clock in the morning.

1869 - Mary Ward, an Irish scientist who worked with microscopes and telescopes, became the first person to die in an automobile accident, when she was run over by a steam-powered prototype built by her cousins.

1876 - Ottoman sultan Murat V was deposed and succeeded by his brother Abd-ul-Hamid II.

1886 - An earthquake since rated at between 6.5 and 7.5 on the Richter Scale killed more than 100 in Charleston, South Carolina.

1888 - Mary Ann 'Polly' Nichols became the first victim of Jack the Ripper.

1907 - Count Alexander Izvolsky and Sir Arthur Nicolson signed the St. Petersburg Convention, which resulted in the Triple Entente alliance between the UK, France, and Russia.

1939 - Nazi Germany mounted a staged attack on Gleiwitz radio station, giving them an excuse to attack Poland the following day, starting World War II in Europe.

1943 - The USS Harmon - the first US Navy ship honouring an African-American - was commissioned; it was named for Leonard Roy Harmon, a mess attendant who was a hero at the Battle of Guadalcanal.

1945 - The Liberal Party of Australia was founded by Robert Menzies.

1957 - The Federation of Malaya gained its independence from the United Kingdom.

1962 - Trinidad and Tobago became independent; although the country became a republic in 1976, it remains within the Commonwealth.

1963 - Walter Cronkite made his debut as the anchor of the CBS Evening News, a job which he held until 1981.

1978 - William and Emily Harris, who together founded the Symbionese Liberation Army, pleaded guilty to the 1974 kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patty Hearst.

1989 - Buckingham Palace announced the separation of the Queen's only daughter The Princess Royal from her husband of 16 years, Captain Mark Phillips; their divorce would become final in April 1992, although the couple appear to remain on good terms.

1991 - Kyrgyzstan seceded from the Soviet Union.

1998 - North Korea reportedly launched Kwangmyongsong, its first satellite; the majority of the international community has called bullshit on this claim.

2005 - A stampede on Al-Aaimmah Bridge in Baghdad killed 1,199 people.
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