History I Never Knew: Saint Hildegarde, Sybil of the Rhine

September 22, 2021

Today’s history-I-never-knew blog post is from the annals of religion. Or, maybe it’s from the annals of medicine.  You can decide.

It took almost a thousand years for the Catholic Church to get it right about Saint Hildegarde of Bingen (1098-1179.) She’s known as “The Sybil of the Rhine” for her poetic prophecies. She was already canonized a saint, but it wasn’t until 2012 that Pope Benedict XVI named the learned Hildegarde a Doctor of the Church. She’s only the fourth woman to be so designated.

Hildegarde of Bingen

I’d say she deserves it. When it came to health care matters, she knew what was good for you.

According to “Drinking with the Saints: A Sinner’s Guide to a Holy Happy Hour,” Hildegarde was exceptionally wise, “with a keen insight into moral psychology and an avid interest in many subjects, including medicine. An important example of Hildegarde’s wisdom is her high regard for wine and beer.”

In her treatise “Causes and Cures,” Hildegarde’s prescription for treating a sick person is “Cerevisiam Bibat.”

Translation: “Let him drink beer.”

She explains why: “For beer fattens up man’s flesh and bestows a beautiful color to his face on account of the strength and good vitality of the grain. But water debilitates man and, if he is sick, sometimes produces a bluish discoloration around the lungs. For water is weak and does not have a strong power.”

Brilliant. Why didn’t they think of that before? Holy and wise she was, indeed. But medicine was hardly her only subject. She wrote fifteen books and composed dozens of hymns; she is one of the most renowned composers of sacred monophony, which will be familiar to people of my generation as Gregorian Chant.

Hildegarde founded two abbeys in Germany. They were dissolved in a nineteenth-century wave of secularization, but Benedictine nuns later re-established one as Eibingen Abbey. It is also known as Abtei St. Hildegard, and it is a “Klosterweingut,” a monastic winegrowing estate.  They make their own Riesling wine, which is unfortunately not distributed beyond the borders of Germany.

The wine from that abbey has nothing to do with the Blue Nun brand. You may remember how popular Blue Nun used to be, and the radio ads for it by Stiller and Meara. It was called a “Liebfraumilch,” or “Dear Lady’s Milk,” and the nuns in blue habits that are associated with it were garbed in that color as a display of devotion to the Virgin Mary.

Blue Nun was invented in the 1920s by the H. Sichel Schöne Company. The Blue Nun name and labeling was a branding maneuver to help boost exports. Up until that time, German wine labels were printed in a typeface called Fraktur, which was difficult to read. Blue Nun’s simplified visuals and graphics were a welcome change.  The first nuns depicted on the labels actually wore brown habits, not blue ones. But in the United States, even they couldn’t be shown initially because the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms prohibited images of nuns.

There’s a Hildegard wine put out by Au Bon Climat winery of Santa Barbara, California, but it has nothing to do with Hildegarde of Bingen. It’s named for Empress Hildegard, the wife of Charlemagne. She lived a couple of hundred years before our admired friend from Bingen. According to the Au Bon Climat website,

“The name Hildegard is a salute to the history of Burgundy and to her husband the King of the Franks, Charlemagne. During his rule in the early 800s the importance of wine and viticulture exploded. The Catholic Church and Charlemagne ruled most of Europe and both were interested in wine and viticulture.  The Church needed wine for the Eucharist and under Charlemagne more and more vineyards were planted in Burgundy. Charlemagne brought civilization and order back after the dark ages. Part of this rebirth was wine production.”

You might have a little more luck obtaining one of two Réserve Hildegarde beers, a blonde and an ambree, from the Brewery St. Germain in Aix-Noulette, France. They make the beers as “a special tribute to Hildegarde of Bingen, who lived and loved hops more than 800 years ago.”

So that’s my story of Hildegarde of Bingen. Kudos to Pope Benedict for his better-late-than-never accolade to her.

And let’s heed her excellent recommendation and raise a stein in her honor: “Cerevisiam Bibamus!”

Punctuation Can Be a Matter of Life and Death

June 30, 2021

“Woman without her man is nothing.”  Right?

Actually, that is right. But ya gotta adjust the punctuation before you submit the answer.

“Woman: without her, man is nothing.”

You’ve probably seen that one if you read blogs and posts from grammar curmudgeons like me.  I know we can be a pain in the neck. But you know we’re correct. Faulty punctuation can make what you write mean the opposite of what you intend.

Here’s another one:

“Let’s eat Grandma.”

Er, wait a minute.  It’s “Let’s eat, Grandma.”

Okay, so much for the levity. Now for a deadly serious story about how a wrongly-edited piece of punctuation – a comma inserted for a semicolon – nearly freed some of history’s most despicable and scaffold-deserving criminals from a full accounting for their crimes.

As described in East West Street (Vintage Books, 2017) by Philippe Sands, the last-minute edit was made to Article 6 (c) of the charter for the trial of the Nazi leaders at Nuremberg.  All of the quoted passages that follow are taken from that book. That trial eventually ended up breaking new ground and establishing in international law the offense of crimes against humanity.

Philippe Sands

But the four victorious powers who were conducting the trial – the United States, Britain, France, and Russia – were not in agreement on that point. The Russians, in particular, objected to the notion of crimes against humanity, because allowing for it that meant that if a state trampled the rights of individual people as the Nazis had done, then it was breaking a law not of individual nations but of all mankind. Those who transgressed it would have no immunity, even if they were leaders. Individuals could be held liable for such crimes and could not hide behind the veil of a state government.

When Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, the United States’ chief prosecutor, reviewed the charter of the trial court, his intent to define and prosecute crimes against humanity was unmistakable. He wrote, “We should insert words to make clear that we are addressing persecution, etc., of Jews and others in Germany, as well as outside of it, before as well as after commencement of the war.”

As the book’s author Sands continues, “Such language would extend the protections of international law. It would bring into the trial Germany’s actions against its own nationals – Jews and others – before the war began.”  That meant the killings, incarcerations, expulsions, pogroms like Kristallnacht, and so on.

Despite the Russians’ objections, the final text of the Charter was adopted, signed and made public on August 8. In Article 6 (c), the judges were given the power to punish individuals for crimes against humanity. Here is the relevant, and infamous, passage in the first published charter:

Justice Robert H. Jackson

“murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian populations, before or during the war; or persecutions on political, racial, or religious grounds in execution of or in connection with any crime within the jurisdiction of the Tribunal, whether or not in violation of the domestic laws of the country were perpetrated.”

Seems pretty clear and definitive, right? But wait – and look closely at the semicolon in the second line. That disappeared, and was replaced by a comma, because the semicolon caused a discrepancy between the English text and the French and Russian texts of the charter.

As the book points out,

“The semicolon seemed to allow a crime against humanity that occurred before 1939, when the war began to come within the jurisdiction of the tribunal; the replacement comma, however, seems to have the effect of taking the events that occurred before the war began outside the jurisdiction of the tribunal. There would be no punishment for those actions, if crimes against humanity had to be connected to war. Whether this was intended, or would have this effect, would be for the judges to decide.”

Decide they did, and they decided wrongly, in clear contravention to what Justice Jackson intended.

Hersch Lauterpacht

On the second day of announcing the verdicts, Russian judge Iona Nikitchenko stated, “Only acts that constitute crimes against humanity were those committed after the war started. No war, no crime against humanity. In this way, the tribunal excluded from its judgment everything that happened before September 1939, no matter how terrible the acts.”

Ah, yes, their hands were tied by that comma. That’s what they said.

Nikitchenko went on to (seemingly) acknowledge the unfairness of it, but he absolves himself and the other judges of any responsibility to rectify that unfairness.

“political opponents were murdered in Germany before the war. Many individuals were kept in concentration camps, in circumstances of horror and cruelty, and a great number were killed. A policy of terror was carried out on a vast scale, organized and systematic, and the persecution and repression and murder of civilians in Germany before the war of 1939 were ruthless. The actions against the Jews before the war were established ‘beyond all doubt.’  Yet ‘revolting and horrible’ as these acts were, the comma inserted into the text of the charter excluded them from the tribunal’s jurisdiction. We were powerless to do anything else, the judges said.”

Now do you believe me about punctuation?

Rafael Lemkin

The book, East West Street, is about much more than punctuation. It is a dramatic account of the lives and intellectual development of two Jewish men, Hersch Lauterpacht and Rafael Lemkin. Both studied law at the University of Lwów (or Lviv or Lemberg, depending on which conquering power was in charge of that city in Ukraine). Both were involved in preparation for the Nuremberg trial. Both did seminal work on the concepts of “genocide” and “crimes against humanity.”

The book also describes the life, times, and crimes of Hans Frank, who ruled the General Government, or the conquered land of Poland, for Hitler’s Third Reich. He was a pre-war friend of one of the trial judges, the Frenchman Henri Donnedieu de Vabres. The French guy tried to get Frank a life-in-prison sentence rather than a hanging.  He didn’t succeed.

I recommend this book highly, whether your area of interest is law, World War II, or the Holocaust.

My Patron Saint Takes the Stage

April 10, 2021

I’ve always rather liked this weekend, Low Sunday, on the liturgical calendar. It’s also called Quasimodo Sunday, but that’s not the reason I like it. To me, today is special because it’s one of the few occasions when my patron saint – Thomas, who was called Didymus – took center stage in a Gospel story.

Say what you will about old Saint Tom. He didn’t just take your word for it. He wanted proof. And so, when the other apostles had told him that they had seen the Risen Lord on the evening of Easter Sunday, at a meeting where Thomas was not yet present, he was doubtful – hence the term “a doubting Thomas.” If Tom were still with us today, he’d probably be a senator from Missouri, the “Show Me” state.

He might have been a doubter a bit later on, but Thomas was devoted and fully on board as an apostle. In John 11, when Jesus planned to return to Judea, the disciples warned him of those “now seeking to stone you”. Thomas replied, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

At the Last Supper, before the doubting Thomas story that really made him famous, Thomas could not comprehend what Jesus meant when he said, “I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way where I am going.” Thomas asked him “How can we know the way?” to which Jesus answered, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”

Here is the “doubting Thomas” passage from John 20:

“But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples therefore said unto him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said unto them, ‘Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.’

And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, ‘Peace be unto you.’

 Then saith he to Thomas, ‘Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing.’

And Thomas answered and said unto him, ‘My Lord and my God.’

Jesus saith unto him, ‘Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.’”

Thomas needed some convincing from the Top Guy, but once he got it he became the first of the apostles to acknowledge Jesus’s divinity.

Another reason I have never forgotten this story. One time, back in Saint John’s, “Sister” asked the class “Who said ‘My Lord and my God?’” Nobody knew the answer, and Sister said she was surprised that I, Thomas, did not know it. It stuck in my mind forever, after that.

Leonardo da Vinci must have had this passage in mind when he painted The Last Supper. Thomas and his trusty index finger are almost front-and-center, as you can see from the accompanying cut. Jesus has just dropped a bombshell on the gathering:

Thomas, with upraised index finger, demands to know “Is it I, Lord?”

“And as they did eat, he said, Verily I say unto you, that one of you shall betray me.

And they were exceeding sorrowful, and began every one of them to say unto him, Lord, is it I?

And he answered and said, He that dippeth his hand with me in the dish, the same shall betray me.”

Thomas is the closest to Jesus, getting right up in his face with that finger which, ten days thence, will probe the nail holes in Jesus’s hands. He’s doubting then too. Looks rather ticked off at the suggestion, if you ask me.

And from the other side of Jesus, opposite Thomas, you can see the hand of Judas and the hand of Jesus, each reaching toward the bread which they will dip into the dish.

That’s the complete story of my guy Thomas and his dramatic confrontation with Jesus.  We hear it every year on Low Sunday – so called, most likely, because it ends the Octave of Easter and is opposed to the “high” feast of Easter itself.

The hands of Judas (left) and Jesus (right) grasp for the bread which they will dip into the dish together.

And why is the day also called Quasimodo Sunday? Glad you asked that too.

No, it’s got nothing to do with the Hunchback of Notre Dame. It stems from the days of the mass in Latin. The introductory prayer, or the Introit, of that day, goes thusly:

Quasi modo géniti infántes, allelúia: rationábile, sine dolo lac concupíscite, allelúia, allelúia, allelúia.

Which, translated into English, is:

“As newborn infants do (alleluia), covet milk that is rational, without dolosity (alleluia, alleluia, alleluia).”

I think that nowadays we all could use a dash of my patron saint’s skepticism. Don’t believe everything you read, on line or anywhere else. Trust, but verify.

May God bless and keep you today, as Eastertide recedes toward its ultimate end on Pentecost, or Whitsunday, as they say in the UK.  

A Reflection, Appreciation, and Book Review: The Women of The Barbizon Hotel

March 9, 2021

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man, in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of an understanding of women. And that goes for a married man as well, be he possessed of big bucks or living paycheck-to-paycheck.

There’s just no understanding of women, if you’re a male of the species.  There’s the truth that should be universally acknowledged.

But we should never stop trying, guys.

So today, in recognition of the recent International Women’s Day, I commend to you The Barbizon: The Hotel that Set Women Free, a new book by historian Paulina Bren of Vassar College.  Reading it may not give you great insight into what makes women tick, and all that that implies. But you can’t help coming away with a heightened understanding of the societal hurdles faced — and the methods and stratagems for advancement employed — by ambitious, venturesome ladies of the decades from the Roaring Twenties through the “Me Decade” of the Seventies. 

The Barbizon, a residential hotel on New York’s Upper East Side, catered to middle- and upper-class women. You needed letters of recommendation to get in. That pleased the well-to-do parents no end, because their daughters were going to be living among “the right kind of girls.” Pleasing to the nervous parents also was the knowledge that no men were ever allowed above the first floor.

The rooms were small and somewhat Spartan. But the ladies had everything they needed otherwise – pool, gym, library, soundproof rehearsal rooms for singing and music practice, lecture halls, free afternoon tea, a garden on the roof – and first-floor businesses with all the products and services necessary for life in the big city.

They also had a nice, Juliet-style balcony that overlooked the first floor and gave them a vantage point to size up the gentlemen who eagerly awaited them in the lobby. I can actually relate to that. My very first date in college was with a lovely girl from Emmanuel. I went to her dorm and gave the receptionist my name and hers. Over the loudspeaker came the announcement, “Dorothea So-and-so, you have a visitor in the lobby.”

At least half a dozen other girls came cruising down from upstairs for a quick inspection before retreating and, presumably, reporting back. Then she made her appearance. Whether or not I rated highly with that appraisal squad I’ll never know. But on this occasion, there was little chance that she was going to stand me up, because I had tickets to a Simon and Garfunkel concert at BC.  Of course I kidded myself into thinking that it was I who interested her, not Paul and Art. I suspect that many of the guys who laid out big bucks to impress a Barbizon girl with a night on the town had a similar experience.

The Barbizon lobby – no men allowed above that first floor.

The author estimates that 350,000 women lived at the Barbizon, from its opening in 1927 through the mid-1960s. Most of them were girls from small-town America; they got their training and their jobs, they found their husbands, and they made it out into picket-fence suburbia. We don’t know the names of that majority, but we do know the names of many others who made it big in their respective fields.

I’ll list a few of those stars, but not before telling you what I liked most about the book: its delving into the cultural and business history of the era.

If you appreciated Mad Men for its portrayals of life in the 1960s and its take on the people and practices of the advertising business, then you’ll appreciate The Barbizon for similar reasons.  It gives close-up views of the emerging fields of popular publishing; modeling; advertising; and the secretarial profession; they’re all excellent bits of history of the nexus of business and culture. 

There’s also some interesting stuff about life during Prohibition and its speakeasies; of the emergence of McCarthyism; about the sometimes glacial pace of women’s progress in the working world; and of the Kinsey Report, the coming of the pill, and women’s sexual emancipation – they’re all worth the price of the book.  For instance, I had never known that, by 1932, 26 states had laws against married women holding a job. Single working women had to disclose their impending marital status, lest they take a job away from a “real” breadwinner.

Speaking of jobs, in the 19th century, almost all secretaries were male. Women finally cracked their way in, though, and during the Depression, the already-flourishing Katharine Gibbs secretarial school was harder to get into than one of the Seven Sisters colleges. A Katie Gibbs girl, with her white gloves and her rigorous training in typing, stenography, business, poise, voice, and manners, was still eminently employable when jobs everywhere else had disappeared.

Gibbs girls also got exposure to art history, banking management, finance, income management, and English literature.  It was undoubtedly a better preparation for the real world than four years in some ivory tower.

Two floors of the Barbizon were the Gibbs girls’ dormitory; and many Seven Sisters graduates ended up enrolling there. They needed work too, and typing was often all that was available. That steady income stream from the Gibbs School helped keep the Barbizon afloat during those lean years.

If a girl couldn’t type, she could still make it in New York if she looked good. And the Barbizon was home to many such women who found work as models. Early on, most of them worked for John Robert Powers, founder of the Powers Agency. He was a sales/marketing whiz who knew intuitively the allure of “The Powers Girl.” If she looked the part, she could sell anything.

The biggest source of income for the Powers agency was the mail-order catalog business. Powers recruited women from alI over the country to pose for his pictures. He urged them to stay at the Barbizon. It might have been slightly more expensive than other accommodations, but it was safe and prestigious. The Powers girl had “the typical Midwestern look: tall, blond, and curvy…they were typically give foot nine inches and a voluptuous 34-24-34; long-stemmed American beauties.”

It wasn’t an easy life, and it didn’t pay especially well. The ladies had to be on call just about all the time; they had to do their own hair and makeup. You could always tell a Powers model by the black hatbox she carried. It contained all her makeup, combs, brushes, hair pins, extra socks and underwear, and a contraption called “binoculars” that gave her bust a perky boost if the situation demanded it.

One Powers girl named Celeste Gheen made $25 a week in her first year; of that $11 went to her room at the Barbizon. She went home to Cleveland, but Powers knew she was exceptional and begged her to return. She was indeed perfect for the job: 5 feet, 8 ½ inches; 34-24-35; and 115 pounds. She eventually became, as a New Yorker article notes, “the face – or the limbs, or the lips – of five cigarette brands, Spam, Texaco, Oldsmobile, Log Cabin Syrup, Schaefer beer, Bayer Aspirin, Bon Ami cleanser, Beautyrest mattresses, and Hellman’s mayonnaise.”

Celeste was one of the most successful of the Powers girls. Later came Eileen Ford and the Ford agency. Ford changed the business model of modeling. She worked for the girls, got them better pay, and had them paid faster than Powers and some of his imitators. 

As for the publishing business, the book tells the story of editor-in-chief Betsy Talbot Blackwell and her ingenious management of Mademoiselle magazine. She took it over in 1937 and soon came up with two smashing ideas to revive the magazine for its publisher, Street and Smith. One was the “College Board,” a veritable army of young women in schools around the country. They all “covered” their school and supplied Blackwell with unmatched market research on trends and on the desires of their peers. Blackwell used that intelligence to turn the month of August, usually a dead zone in the magazine business, into a Mademoiselle marketing and advertising bonanza for the coming school year.

The next brilliant stroke was Mademoiselle’s Guest Editor Program. Every June, 20 of the most talented college-age female writers and editors came to New York to work at Mademoiselle. They all stayed at the Barbizon. The program launched many a career in literature and publishing, including those of Sylvia Plath, Joan Didion, Ann Beattie, Gael Greene, Diane Johnson, Mona Simpson, Meg Wolitzer, Janet Burroway, Lynn Sherr, Nanette Emery, and Elizabeth Moulton.

Those attractive young guest editors did a lot of client-schmoozing and socializing on the magazine’s dime. It came with the territory. But they also got to meet some of the up-and-coming writers of the literary world, who were recruited by Blackwell and published for cheap, starter’s rates. They included Truman Capote, James Purdy, Flannery O’Connor,and Edward Albee.

The book devotes an entire chapter to both Didion and Plath, which is understandable, given their reputations as writers. Plath’s only novel, The Bell Jar, is a fictionalized account of her time at The Barbizon. Plath ended her life by suicide. When she succeeded, it wasn’t her first attempt.  A sad part of the Barbizon’s history is that Plath was not the only resident to take her own life. There were other suicides of women who couldn’t handle the pressure of chasing success in New York. There was also at least one murder on the premises.

Sylvia Plath, on her first day as a Mademoiselle guest editor.

Okay, so how about some of those other big names? It’s going to sound as if reading this book is like flipping through a People magazine, looking at the pictures, and searching for the gossipy and titillating tidbits. I assure you, it’s not that way at all. But you do deserve a few little morsels of gossip.

There’s Grace Kelly. Her father, John B. Kelly, was a multimillionaire and a three-time Olympic Gold Medal winner in the sport of rowing.  As the book points out, Grace was “the poster girl for that decade’s perfect woman….forever identified with sweetness and chastity, [yet she was] fond of dancing to Hawaiian music down the hallways of the Barbizon, and given to shocking her fellow residents by performing topless. Rumors of her sexual appetite and promiscuousness abounded.” Alfred Hitchcock, who cast her in Rear Window, called her a “snow-covered volcano.”

Kelly had poor eyesight and wore horn-rimmed glasses. When she took them off in the movies, she “exuded a sensuous dreaminess that was in fact plain old myopia,” according to author Bren. But you have to give Grace a world of credit for hard work. Told by her acting teachers that her voice was too high-pitched and nasal, she bought a recorder and talked into it every night until she was able to correct her tone and sound almost British.

The ultimate goal of many a Barbizon resident was to bag a husband. Grace hit a jackpot there, moving out of the Barbizon to Hollywood and eventually to the royal palace of Monaco. Her life ended tragically in 1982 when her car pitched over a cliff.

Grace Kelly

Then there were the guys who patrolled the streets near the Barbizon and hung out in the lobby, trolling for dates. Most of them struck out. But author J.D. Salinger was one who didn’t. He frequented the first-floor coffee shop and convinced at least a few of the girls that he was the goalie for the Montreal Canadiens.

Another was Noel Parmentel, a writer who befriended Joan Didion and helped her publish her first novel. She brought him to a party one night so he could meet with some “new faces” – Barbizon girls, primarily. There were fifteen people in the room when they arrived. Parmentel had already slept with five of the women and owed money to all but two of the men. He, like Salinger, had found a way to penetrate Fortress Barbizon.

All right, you’ve waited long enough. Who were some of the other famous alumnae of The Barbizon? Here we go, in no particular order, and I’m sure I’ve overlooked some: Liza Minnelli, Cybill Shepherd, Betty Buckley, Ali MacGraw, Shirley Jones, Lorna Luft, Peggy Noonan, Cloris Leachman, Phylicia Rashad, Rita Hayworth, Tippi Hedren, and Phyllis Kirk. There was also Edie Bouvier, who was a cousin of Jackie Kennedy, and the “Unsinkable” Molly Brown, a survivor of The Titanic.

Some of those luminaries are mentioned only in passing. Of others, we learn a bit more.  Ellen Smith, who later became the Jaclyn Smith of “Charlie’s Angels” fame, arrived in New York from Texas in 1966 to study ballet arts. Ellen’s parents were reluctant to let her come, and they made her promise never to use the subway. In her two years at the Barbizon, she never did.

Ellen/Jaclyn may be somewhat typical of the women of Barbizon. Few made it as big as she did, but many of them must have had a similar experience of life. She was a small-town girl who saw life go whizzing by in the fast lane but who took it slowly until she was ready. As the book points out, the Barbizon “represented ‘a time of rules and anticipation’ which suited her just fine…the hotel and New York would also teach her an ‘emotional independence’ that she would rely on for years to come; the ability to fend for herself, not only financially but emotionally.”

The Barbizon and hotels like it grew less relevant and less desirable as women advanced in the business world and elsewhere. The hotel admitted men beginning in 1981. It went through a series of owners and is now a home for luxury condominiums.  Incredibly, five or six elderly women still live there, protected from eviction and paying their original room rates, thanks to New York’s rent-control laws and to effective legal representation.

So what to make of it all? I must say that the stories of the women of Barbizon are inspiring. Oh yes, they had their fun times and their share of screw-ups and failures. But what impressed me the most was their sheer courage. They came from their sleepy little towns and took on life in the fastest, roughest, and most ruthless city imaginable. They were strivers and doers. 

And do I understand women any better, having read this delightful book? No. The truth universally acknowledged at the beginning holds firm for me.

But do I love, admire, and appreciate women even more? You bet I do.

And with that I wish you, albeit belatedly, a Happy International Women’s Day.

History I Never Knew: Massachusetts Representative Edith Nourse Rogers and Her Heroic, Doomed Attempt to Save Jewish Children from The Holocaust

February 8, 2021

February 9, 2021, marks the 82nd anniversary of the submission to Congress of the German Refugee Children’s Bill (S.J. Res 64 and H.J. Res 168). Its sponsors were Senator Robert Wagner, Democrat of New York, and Representative Edith Nourse Rogers, Republican of Massachusetts.  I had not known of this bill, and while I had heard the name of Edith Nourse Rogers somewhere in the distant past, I had no idea of her character or her accomplishments. She was the first woman to represent Massachusetts in Congress, and she was arguably the best and most influential of all of them.

Edith Nourse Rogers, Republican of Massachusetts

                So I’d like to tell you the story of Mrs. Rogers and the law that she and Senator Wagner crafted. The bill’s story is a tragic one. It’s tragic because it didn’t pass, and 20,000 orphaned Jewish children died as a result. The story is also infuriating, because it didn’t have to happen. It shouldn’t have happened. But it did, and I hold the then-president of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, responsible.

                As you may know, I have a particular interest in the history of The Holocaust. Six million Jewish people lost their lives in the killing machine of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. I have often heard, and I still hear, that “the United States didn’t do enough” to help the Jews of Europe. How so? The Allies should have bombed Auschwitz and its railway lines, once we heard of what was going on there.

                That’s a defensible argument. Bombing those rail lines might have slowed down the Auschwitz murder machine. It should have been done. But that was 1944. By that time, the horrible mass killings, 15,000 people per day at the extermination sites of Operation Reinhard – Treblinka, Sobibor, and Belzec – had ended.  Thinking only in terms of long-range bombing missions that never happened obscures the more important part of what America did – or didn’t do.

The doors of America were locked and barred to Jewish refugees long before World War II broke out.  Immigration quotas based on national origin had been enacted in 1924. They were not wholly abandoned until 1965. There was no separate provision for refugee admissions.   Once it did erupt, the State Department’s Visa Division under the despicable Breckinridge Long, an old Navy buddy of FDR, erected barriers and bureaucratic roadblocks to Jews. Historians disagree about degree of blame that Roosevelt should bear for these sins of omission.  He did have to deal with widespread and virulent anti-Semitism, stoked by such adversaries of the New Deal as Father Charles Coughlin.  Roosevelt had given significant aid to Britain, with controversial programs such as Lend-Lease. He had to anticipate charges that he and the Jews were dragging the United States into another European War. “America First” was originally the slogan of Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh.

Piloting an aircraft, 1929

Yes, it is true America didn’t do enough. But it wasn’t a failure on the battlefield. It was a failure in the halls of Congress and in the corridors of the White House. It was an abdication of leadership and human decency in politics. And there is no more striking example of that than the killing of the German Refugee Children’s Bill.

                There’s no room here to recite chapter and verse of the Visa Division’s entire hateful chronicle, possibly the worst part of the American involvement in World War II. Nor is there room to go into detail on why I believe what I do about Roosevelt – that he really had no use for Jews and other people who didn’t look like him, a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. I admit that I come to this blog post with my bias against the guy already firmly established. This sad story about Mrs. Rogers’s failed effort to do a right and noble deed simply strengthens my convictions about FDR.

                But enough about him for now. I really want to salute and honor Edith Nourse Rogers.  Most of the information about Mrs. Rogers comes from an unpublished paper based on her papers, which are in the Schlesinger Library. This superb archive of American women’s history is part of the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard.  The author of the unpublished paper is Kate Auspitz, who wrote an alternative history of the Abdication of Edward VIII, Wallis’s War, a Novel of Diplomacy and Intrigue (University of Chicago Press) and a serious history, The Radical Bourgeoisie:  the Ligue de l’Enseignement and the Origins of the Third Republic (Cambridge University Press.

                I’m grateful to Kate for pointing me in this direction and for giving me many other pointers and suggestions for reading and research. I also want to say that she does not share my feelings about Franklin Roosevelt. She believes that, as Lincoln, criticized, even vilified, for emancipating slaves in the states of the Confederacy but not in Kentucky or Missouri, he acted to win the war.

                So who was Edith Nourse Rogers?

She was born in Saco, Maine to Franklin T. Nourse, the manager of a textile mill, and Edith France Riversmith.  Both parents were from old New England families, and their daughter got the best education – private tutors; Rogers Hall School in Lowell, Massachusetts; and Madame Julien’s, a finishing school in Paris.

                Edith married John Jacob Rogers, a graduate of Harvard Law School. In 1912 he was elected as a Republican to the 63rd United States Congress as the Representative from the 5th District of Massachusetts. When World War I broke out, John Rogers traveled to the United Kingdom and France to observe the conditions of the war firsthand.  Edith Rogers first volunteered at the YMCA in London. But soon she was in the thick of the war zone.

Presiding at the House of Representatives, 1926

                President Woodrow Wilson authorized her to oversee field hospitals in France.  She saw the dead and dying and understood the costs of war.  She also witnessed the conditions faced by women employees and volunteers working with the United States armed forces. Except for a few nurses, they were civilians, and received no benefits including no housing, no food, no insurance, no medical care, no legal protection, no pensions, and no compensation for their families in cases of death. In contrast, the women in the British Army loaned to the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) in France were military, with the attendant benefits and responsibilities.

                 Edith’s experience with veteran’s issues led President Warren G. Harding to appoint her as the inspector of new veterans’ hospitals from 1922 to 1923. Her salary was one dollar a year. Her appointment was renewed by both the Coolidge and Hoover administrations. She became known as the “Angel of Walter Reed.”

Her first experience in politics was serving as an elector in the U.S. Electoral College during Calvin Coolidge’s 1924 presidential campaign.  John Rogers died in March, 1925. She ran for his seat in a special election and took 72 percent of the vote, making her the sixth woman to serve in Congress.  Throughout her career, she was a champion of veterans, especially disabled veterans.

In May 1941, Rogers introduced the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) Act, to create a voluntary enrollment program for women to join the U.S. Army in a non-combat capacity, as medical care professionals, welfare workers, clerical workers, cooks, messengers, military postal employees, chauffeurs, and telephone and telegraph operators. In 1942, the WAAC Act was signed into law. A year later came her Women’s Army Corps Bill, which granted official military status to the volunteers by creating the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) within the Army.

                Edith was always an outspoken foe of racism and xenophobia. She was also fiercely vocal about patriotism and an ardent proponent of immigration. On Patriots’ Day in 1937, she declared she was proud to represent Lexington and Concord, but the day and the sacred ground belonged to “me no more than to you.”  The whole world is freer today and the condition of mankind is better for the events of that day.  Throughout her career in the House, she sought to make the day a national holiday, not just for Massachusetts but for all Americans, despite any classifications which may be made by some as to race, creed, or color.

True patriotism, she believed, depended on shared beliefs and principles, not common ancestry.   She maintained that thousands of people from foreign lands have been attracted to our shores by that freedom, seeking  “the right which is every American’s  —  the right to think, to believe, or disbelieve, to speak, to choose…With rights go privileges and responsibilities,  they have become men, not puppets to be moved at the will of  a dictator.”

With an outlook like that, it was hardly surprising that she teamed up with Senator Robert F. Wagner (D-NY) to put the German Refugee Children’s bill before Congress.  Even while she was fully engrossed in that mission, she found time to take on the Daughters of the American Revolution. That organization, loudly and vocally patriotic in its own fashion, had not yet gotten the message about its own racism when Edith called them out in the spring of 1939.

Senator Robert Wagner, actress Helen Hayes, and Representative Edith Nourse Rogers meet in support of German Refugee Children’s Bill, 1939

The DAR had barred Marian Anderson, a woman of color whose glorious voice was world-famous, from performing in their Washington venue, Constitution Hall.  The DAR had a “whites only” clause in every one of its contracts. Eleanor Roosevelt resigned her DAR membership and arranged for Anderson to deliver an outdoor concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday, April 9.  Fifty thousand people attended.

Edith Nourse Rogers addressed the DAR on April 20.  “All of you are fond of fine music,” she began, and she continued, evoking   “…130 million people of different races, speaking many languages…What are these but the component parts of a great symphony of civilization?   Just as the orchestra becomes great with unity and cooperation, so does the nation…in the United States, race cooperation must replace race hatred.”

                Rogers took on race hatred in February 1939 with her co-sponsorship of the German Refugee Children’s Act.  A little background on the events leading up to the Act will help here.

                Hitler came to power in 1933 and immediately began the persecution of Jews. The world could no longer turn a blind eye to what was happening to Jews in Germany after November 9-10, 1938. That was Kristallnacht, the “night of broken glass,” when SS-directed rioters throughout Germany looted and smashed windows in homes, shops, hospitals, and synagogues. More than 100 people were killed outright and thousands were subsequently arrested.   Among other atrocities, mobs destroyed a Jewish orphanage in Berlin, leaving 200 children homeless. 

Great Britain responded immediately with the Kindertransport program. It offered non-immigrant visas to orphaned or “unaccompanied” children, many of whose parents were in concentration camps.  These were not yet “camps of annihilation,” established to carry out genocide. Rather, they were places to intern, torture and interrogate political dissidents and other “undesirables,” such as communists, socialists, Roma, homosexuals, and union activists as well as Jews.

After Kristallnacht, Jewish parents still at liberty anticipated worse persecution would follow. Many chose to send their children to safety, even if it meant parting from them.

America was ready to help. The bill submitted by Nourse Rogers and Wagner would have  admitted 20,000 Jewish children into the country, 10,000 in 1939 and another 10,000 in 1940, over and above the highly restrictive limits and country quotas that had been in place since the early 1920s.

But America’s political leaders were not ready to step up in any way.  Yes, there were racists, anti-Semites, “America Firsters” and xenophobes abroad in the land and too-well-represented in Congress.  They ended up winning the day, but they shouldn’t have.  And with a word of support for the Americans of good will, even a mere suggestion of it, from Franklin Roosevelt, those evil forces would not have prevailed. But Roosevelt never uttered a peep. The Act, submitted in February, was delayed and tabled until September by bigots in Congress. That month, Hitler attacked Poland, the war was on, and getting anyone out of Europe became impossible.

It’s not as if Americans were against helping the kids. Concerned citizens had established the Non-sectarian Committee for German Refugee Children.  The American Friends Service Committee, the Unitarians, and several important Catholic clergymen, including George Cardinal Mundelein of Chicago, all cooperated with Jewish groups.  They understood that their work must be bi-partisan and appeal to all Americans, regardless of, as it was then expressed, “race, creed, or color.” 

Eleanor Roosevelt and Frances Perkins, Secretary of Labor, whose department was then responsible for immigration, urged passage of the law. So too did former President Herbert Hoover, along with Governor Alf Landon and Frank Knox, 1936 Republican candidates for President and Vice-President. Hollywood heavyweights also were in favor. The great actress Helen Hayes testified on behalf of the bill, referring to herself as an “American mother” and using her real name, Mrs. Charles MacArthur.

It was a truly bi-partisan effort. It even overcame a traditional hurdle to all matters related to immigration, the opposition of organized labor. Throughout the 1930s the labor unions, with unemployment chronically high, opposed the opening of America’s doors to any newcomers who would compete for the few jobs available. Not this time, however.

John L. Lewis, President of Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which had four million members, ridiculed the notion that 20,000 children under the age of 14 would worsen unemployment. 

Nor could anyone claim that letting the kids in would cost the taxpayers money.  Thanks largely to Edith Nourse Rogers, 5000 American families offered to care for the refugee children.  One of their prominent leaders was Grace Coolidge, the widow of Calvin Coolidge. Several of her neighbors in Amherst, Massachusetts, also stepped up and were ready.

I do know that fans of FDR will maintain that he always had to tread lightly, bobbing and weaving and doing things by indirection because of those awful racists and bigots in Congress, whose support he needed. He really had the Jews’ interests at heart, but he couldn’t tip his hand.

Sorry, I don’t buy it. There’s a point where reticence becomes cowardice, where inaction becomes action. FDR never told anyone what he really felt about anything. With him especially, we have to look at what he did, not at what he said. Americans were ready to save the Jewish children, thanks to the wonderful Edith Nourse Rogers. By not weighing in on behalf of the Jewish kids, which he could have done at no political cost to himself, FDR was responsible for sending them to their deaths.

So that is the sad story of the German Refugee Children’s Bill. This is the kind of history that should be known, and pondered, and used as a reason to say “never again.” 

But let us not allow the negative sentiments expressed herein to lessen our appreciation and esteem for the life and works of Edith Nourse Rogers, Republican Congresswoman of Massachusetts. She was one of our finest of all time.

Sports History I Never Knew: How “K” Came to Stand for the Strikeout

January 13, 2021

Henry Chadwick, enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in 1938, is sometimes called the father of the modern game of baseball.  He never played it or managed it, but he probably did more than any other individual to preserve its memory for posterity.

He was a fascinating guy from a fascinating family. Add Henry Chadwick to the list of “People I’d Love to Have a Beer With.”

His grandfather, James Chadwick, started out as a teacher in Manchester, England. One of his students was John Dalton, who “discovered” the atom via his atomic theory.  James became a radical journalist, moved to France during the French Revolution, and lived for a while with Thomas Paine. The latter was a force during that Revolution; his Rights of Man was a rallying cry for the radicals who wanted to overthrow the monarchy.  Paine, who became a member of the National Assembly, ended up by arguing unsuccessfully for preserving the lives of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, and he spent some time in prison himself for his views.

One of this man’s grandsons, namesake Sir James Chadwick, put that atomic theory into action. Educated at the University of Manchester under Ernest Rutherford, “the Father of Nuclear Physics,” Sir James won the 1935 Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery of the neutron. In 1941, he wrote the final draft of the MAUD Report, which inspired the U.S. government to begin serious atom bomb research. He was the head of the British team that worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II.

Henry Chadwick’s half-brother Edwin was a lawyer in England, and he was not a particularly nice man. He was a political operative, secretary of the Poor Law Commission, and author of A Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain. That book was a best-seller.  His work on the Poor Law of 1834 led to a national system of workhouses and made him one of the most reviled figures in the land. London had not yet figured out that its deadly cholera epidemics were due to unsanitary conditions; people drank water that was polluted by human waste.  Henry Chadwick espoused the “miasma” theory, which attributed the sicknesses to foul odors.  Just get rid of the poor, dirty neighborhoods and the people in them, he thought, and you get rid of the disease.

Edwin Chadwick wasn’t all bad, though. His subsequent work led to the Public Health Act of 1848, under which the British government started to assume overall responsibility for sanitation. They centralized the sources of London’s water supply. Ten years later, the Brits were ready to grapple with the matter of sewage disposal that “The Great Stink” of 1858 made into a national crisis.

Yuck. Fortunately for us, Henry Chadwick took a different career path. He became a sportswriter. His family moved to America in 1837, when he was 13. He became a cricket reporter for the New York Times, and he later moved to the New York Clipper and other papers.

In those days before computers, sabermetricians, and filmed replays, it was Henry Chadwick who devised the ways to record the achievements of both teams and players. He invented baseball statistics. He edited The Beadle Baseball Player, the first baseball guide, and the Spalding and Reach annual guides.  He served on baseball rules committees and campaigned against the influences of alcohol and gambling on the game.

The 1861 Beadle guide listed totals of games played, outs, runs, home runs, and strikeouts for hitters on prominent clubs. It was the first database of its kind and it gave numerical evidence of which players’ performances helped or hurt their teams. Chadwick also thought up and quantified batting averages and earned-run averages.

So, what about the “K” for strikeout?

As his Cooperstown plaque states, Henry was the inventor of the baseball box score.  He modeled it, unsurprisingly, on the scorecard for a game of cricket – a grid with nine rows for players and nine columns for innings.

He needed abbreviations to put in all those little boxes. Many of the abbreviations contained an “S.”  He needed something different when a batter struck out.

He decided on “K.” Why? Because it’s the final letter in “struck.”

As for that Chadwick family, author Bill Bryson points out that Henry’s grandfather James was a direct link between the discovery of the atom, Thomas Paine and the French Revolution, the sewer system of London, and the origin of professional baseball.

But as far as we’re concerned, Henry’s work was far more important than that of James, Edwin, and Sir James. After all, it was about baseball. Yes, I’d love to have a pint with Henry. I’d buy.

Now you know the rest of the story.

The Olympics of 1936: Profiles in Courage and History I Never Knew

December 31, 2020

It’s one of the most treasured stories in the history of sports in America. And rightly so.

Jesse Owens, the sharecropper’s son, outshines all other track and field performers in the 1936 Olympic games. He takes home four gold medals, vanquishes all the evil competitors from Nazi Germany and the allegedly superior Aryan race. He so embarrasses the evil host, Adolf Hitler, that the dictator and soon-to-be mass murderer flees from his trackside throne so that he will not have to congratulate the dark-skinned American. The people of Germany share their Führer’s disdain and are full-throated in their jeers and condemnation of the man who defeats their beloved favorite, Lutz Long. Owens returns home to the welcoming arms of a grateful nation that adopts him as its new hero.

There’s truth to that story. But it’s not the whole truth, not the whole story. Jesse Owens deserves his niche in America’s athletic pantheon. He was the best trackman of his time, and he did win those four golds. Hitler did not greet him personally, as he had many other winners. But it didn’t happen in quite the way it’s been passed down. The history has been re-written, or at least has been highly selective, to airbrush out the parts that may be embarrassing to certain people of high official stature.

Nazi Games: The Olympics of 1936” by David Clay Large, is a full chronicle of the 1936 Olympics – its planning, execution, and aftermath. The book is excellent, granularly detailed history of an event that was one of the most masterful exercises in propaganda that the world has ever seen. The 1936 Olympics was an evil regime at its deceitful best.

I’ll get to Jesse Owens in a subsequent blog post.  He deserves one of his own. But let’s start out by saying that he never should have been there in Berlin.  Nor should have any other American athlete been there. Had the American Olympic Committee done the right thing and joined in a boycott of the games, other democracies like France and Britain would probably have gone along with it.

The absence of those nations and possibly others would have deprived Hitler of his propaganda triumph. And maybe – just maybe, could be wishful thinking – it would have stemmed the tidal wave of his popular support in Germany, shined a light on his horrific treatment of Jewish people, and crimped his ability to launch his war.

That boycott almost happened. For at least two years, officials like U.S. ambassador to Germany William Dodd and chief consul George Messersmith had been reporting on Germany’s disgraceful treatment of Jews. The president, Franklin Roosevelt, hid in the White House and never said a thing, pro or con the boycott or about the Nazi regime.  Support for staying out of the 1936 Olympics kept building in America and elsewhere as the games approached and as more and more stories about Nazi oppression of Jews leaked out of Germany.

Had anybody of high stature – the president of the United States, the pope – used his bully pulpit to tell the unvarnished truth rather than seeking to placate Hitler, history may have been very different.  But neither FDR nor Pius XII did the right thing, either about the 1936 Olympics or later on about Germany’s horrible mistreatment of the Jews.

In the battle over the boycott, the bad people won out in the climactic 1935 meeting of the Amateur Athletic Union in New York. Facing off were AAU president Jeremiah Mahoney, a supporter of the boycott, and the president of the U.S. Olympic Committee, construction mogul Avery Brundage. The reptilian Brundage played the anti-Semitic card. He stated that only five percent of Americans were Jewish, and less than one percent of the athletes were Jewish, but that there was a larger percentage of Jews than that who were present at the meeting, and therefore “responsibility for actions of this kind, right or wrong, would be charged to the Jews.”

Brundage’s supporters in the AAU gave him a victory of 58.25 to 55.75 against a resolution calling for an investigation of conditions in Germany. To compound the disgrace, Brundage’s supporters made him the new AAU president and kicked Mahoney out. That effectively made Brundage the king of amateur athletics in America.

The corruption, discrimination, and paybacks didn’t stop there. A Swedish buddy of Brundage’s on the International Olympic Committee, Sigfrid Edstrøm, cabled his congratulations for “outmaneuvering the dirty Jews and politicians” and added that he hoped to see Brundage that summer as a colleague on the IOC.

That happened too. Brundage was elevated to the International Olympic Committee in the summer of 1936. He replaced another American of integrity and a profile in courage, Ernest Lee Jahncke. One of three American members of the International Olympic Committee, Jahncke is the only person ever to be kicked off the IOC. He courageously refuse to acquiesce to OIC president Count Henri de Baillet-Latour’s plea to “convince your people that the IOC has upheld the rights of everyone concerned and that the the unanimous decision [to stage the games in Berlin] was the only wise one.”

Jahncke, who had been assistant Secretary of the Navy under Herbert Hoover, would have none of it. An American of German descent, he was dismayed at what Hitler had done to his former country. He knew all about the Nuremberg Laws and that Germany was discriminating against its Jewish athletes.

Jahncke’s letters to Baillet-Latour said, in effect, don’t give me this bull about the Olympic ideals of founder Baron Pierre de Coubertin, because “precisely [his – de Coubertin’s] devotion to this idea has caused me to do just the opposite of what you so confidently ask of me. ..[I will] do all I can to persuade my fellow Americans that they ought not to take part in the Games if they are held in Nazi Germany” and that the Nazis “are continuing to violate every requirement of fair play in the conduct of sport” and that no foreign nation could participate in the Nazi games “without at least acquiescing in the contempt of the Nazis for fair play and their sordid exploitation of the Games.”

Strong stuff. And the right stuff. But it’s the kind of stuff that gets you fired. That’s what happened to Jahncke. The IOC’s 35th Congress came in July of 1936. Rudolf Hess welcomed the delegates on behalf of the Führer. Baillet-Latour complimented himself for “keeping religion and politics out of the games.” And the IOC unanimously approved a motion that Ernest Lee Jahncke, the only American IOC member who criticized the Nazi games, be summarily expelled.

For his unwavering advocacy of all things Nazi, Brundage received a contract to build a new German embassy in Washington. At least that didn’t happen.  The war prevented it. 

A very small measure of justice towards Brundage cropped up recently. The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco had been prominently displaying a bust of Brundage; most of his art collection is at that museum. In June 2020, the museum removed the bust and placed it in storage. His personal history of antisemitism, racism, and sexism prompted the move.

As an article in The Nation stated, “The removal of Brundage’s bust is long overdue. His toxic concoction of -isms and his perma-frown belong in the dustbin of history.”

While I’m not fond of today’s “Cancel Culture,” I can’t disagree with that. But I wish also to raise a glass in memory of Jeremiah Mahoney and Ernest Lee Jahncke, great Americans both, who paid a heavy and undeserved price for their courage. Would that we had more people like them.

Coming soon: The full story of Jesse Owens and America’s other black Olympians of 1936.

Book Review and Reflection: “Masters of the Games: Essays and Stories on Sport,” by Joseph Epstein.

November 30, 2020

What sports team do you love to hate?  Against which team will you root, no matter what?

If you’re a Red Sox fan, the Yankees. If you’re a BC football fan, Notre Dame. If you’re a National Football League fan anywhere but where I live, the Patriots.  Of course. You hate to see that rival win any game, and you most hate to lose to them.

Joseph Epstein doesn’t feel quite that way. He has a different reason for rooting against Duke in basketball. Or at least he once did. And I must say that, as an English major, I’d be inclined to agree with him.

“I tended to root against Duke not only because they were such consistent winners, but because it had (and, so far as I know, still has) one of the most wretched English departments in the country, filled with Marxists, deconstructionists, and other assorted goofies…I also thought of Duke as a school for spoiled children, which is what, on the West Coast, they call USC (University of Spoiled Children).”

But – credit where it’s due – he changed his mind, citing the many players that Duke sent to the National Basketball Association “who have shown impressive discipline on the court and don’t do egregious things off it. Coach K. [Krzyzewski] must be teaching something worthwhile besides the imperative of beating North Carolina.”

These passages come from “Masters of the Games: Essays and Stories on Sport.” It is his 25th book. I’d seen his op-eds in the Wall Street Journal, but I had no idea of how prolific an essayist he is, or of how much of a sporting enthusiast.

Reading Epstein on the people of the sporting world is a little like reading Truman Capote about the beautiful people of show business.  They both have an inimitable way with words, they know whereof they speak, and they both have no compunction about tweaking noses and making enemies.

Joseph Epstein

Epstein is a college professor, not a sports writer. He has taught English and writing at Northwestern University since 1972. He must be a rather rare bird in that universe, because he disdains the political correctness that has overgrown the groves of academe. He was editor of the “The American Scholar” for 24 years before a Phi Beta Kappa senate removed him in 1998 for, he maintains, “being insufficiently correct politically.”

He coined the term “virtucrat,” which he defined as “any man or woman who is certain that his or her political views are not merely correct but deeply, morally righteous in the bargain.” Later, he wrote that a virtucrat was a person “whose politics lend them the fine sense of elation that only false virtue makes possible.”

Ouch. No PC there. I suspect that being a professor and essayist on many subjects, rather than a full-time sports writer, gave Joseph Epstein a little more freedom to speak his mind about sports people.   

The essay in which Epstein needles the Duke faculty is called “March Sanity.” He tells the readers where his sympathies lie during the NCAA basketball tournament and in college football; he has no use for certain coaches:

“…I was against Rick Pitino, a coach I’ve watched regularly trade in loyalty for dollars – nothing, let it be noted, singular about him in this – but also yell at his players in public in an unattractive way. Like a number of other coaches, Pitino is averse to sitting down during a game, and attempts to direct play standing up at the sideline, a distraction to everyone.”

“The salaries for college coaches at the highest levels are up there in the millions, and these salaries are not given for character building or instruction in elegant manners. Watching them on the sidelines, red-faced, screaming at referees and umpires, calling out their own players, the phrase that comes to mind to describe most college coaches is ‘ugly customers.’ There have always been such coaches – Jerry Tarkanian at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Bobby Knight at Indiana, Woody Hayes at Ohio State – but nowadays they seem to preponderate.”

“One of the things I shall be cheering for during the NCAA basketball tournament is that certain coaches don’t make it to the Final Four. That John Calipari and his Kentucky team aren’t even in the tournament this year is cause, in my view, for hiring a small marimba band in celebration. Because of their coaches, I’d like to see Kansas ousted early – so too, Louisville and Ohio State, and a few years ago I would have added Duke.”

You don’t read observations like that, or like some of the other unvarnished truths as Epstein sees them,   from people whose regular beat is sports.  He’s clear eyed in acknowledging that times have changed in sports and society, and that the good old days – which weren’t all that good, but we believed they were – aren’t coming back.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t pine for them nostalgically. I don’t know if you do that, but I do.

Epstein grew up in Chicago, a city that reveres the memory of George Halas and his Chicago Bears. While noting Halas’s skill as a coach and innovator, he goes on to state,

“Much piety surrounds the name George Halas in Chicago. Halas himself grew pious in his old age, certain that a seat near the 50-yard line awaited him in heaven. He was in fact a bleak and unpleasant man.”

Consider issues of class and manners, and how they have evolved. Epstein writes the following of tennis, a sport in which he excelled in high school, winning the Chicago City High School Doubles championship.

“I would have to say that I had stylish strokes, was not all that effective, but very well dressed. From the beginning, I was swept away by what I took to be the intrinsic elegance of the game. Although it would be years before I read her, so was Edith Wharton, who wrote that ‘It seems to me such a beautiful game – without violence, noise, brutality – quick, graceful rhythmic, with a setting of turf and sky.’ Just so.

“Good that Edith Wharton is not alive today to hear Maria Sharapova grunting away, making each long rally sound like something happening behind doors at a Masters and Johnson laboratory.”

This simile is a perfect example of what I mean by “a way with words.” So too is Epstein’s description of Andre Agassi’s wardrobe, below.

As for the connection between how tennis players dress and how it affects their manners and their game, he remarks

“At least Andre Agassi’s denim shorts never caught on, worn in the days when, also weighed down with heavy duty stubble, long hair, earrings, hat, and over-large shirt, Mr. Agassi looked like nothing so much as a gypsy on the way out of town with two stolen chickens in his bag.”

He prefers instead, tennis where the “old WASP standard has combined with a deeply democratic spirit…the reign of the remarkable generation of Australian players, among them Rod Laver, Lew Hoad, Ken Rosewall, Neal Fraser, Roy Emerson, and John Newcombe. These were all young men from less than wealthy homes who, while playing brilliantly, always acted gentlemanly. They were intensely competitive without being, a la John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, pigs of competition. And they all wore white.”

There’s a great deal more – musings and commentary, fiction, personal reminiscences, and profiles of athletes  – to inform, delight, and even irritate you in this book.  I devoured it in a couple of days. The title would lead you to believe that it was largely a book of feature articles on individual athletes. There are only a few, but they’re worth the price of the book.

Hank Greenberg

The profile of Bob Love, a basketball player about whom I knew nothing, is wonderful. The piece on Hank Greenberg, who along with Sandy Koufax was a genuinely great ballplayer, says that “Greenberg may be quite as famous for being Jewish as for what he did in the batter’s box.” This, even though Hank had 189 RBIs in 1937, hit 58 home runs in 1938, and twice won the American League MVP Award while playing for the Detroit Tigers.

Greenberg only played nine years in the majors and missed four seasons while serving in the Army in World War II. He was a peerless hitter but struggled in the field, both in the outfield and at first base.  His biggest struggle, though, must have been with antisemitism.

Detroit, where he had to play, was the city of the viciously Jew-hating Henry Ford and Father Charles Coughlin.  The slurs came from everywhere; they got so bad that one day, during a game against the White Sox, he marched into the Sox’ clubhouse and declared “I want this guy who called me a yellow Jew bastard to get to his feet and say it to my face.”

Had Hank Greenberg not gone off to war in the prime of his life, his career statistics of 331 home runs and lifetime average of .313 would undoubtedly have been better. He’s in the Hall of Fame, but he wouldn’t make the all-time starting lineup ahead of Lou Gehrig at first base, or in the outfield.  He definitely would be, as Epstein dubs him, the designated mensch.

The chapter on Joe DiMaggio, titled “Where’d He Go?” is more a critique of a book about Joe by Richard Ben Cramer than it is about Joe himself.  It’s well known that Joe was not a particularly nice man, aloof and rather lonely and possessing “an Olympian contempt for anyone who contributed to his team’s defeat or failed to meet his personal standard.  He was famously rivalrous with Ted Williams, who was probably better as a hitter but at no other aspect of the game. “He throws like a broad, and runs like a ruptured duck,” was DiMaggio’s assessment of Teddy Ballgame.

Joe DiMaggio

Cramer’s book, “Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life,” is a despicable takedown, according to Epstein. “In Richard Ben Cramer’s pages, Joe DiMaggio does almost nothing decent. He is a bad father, a worse husband, a poor friend, a cheapskate, selfish, humorless, a prude operating on a sexual double standard, a solipsist of the highest order.”

Epstein goes on to show that there were mitigating factors all along in Joe DiMaggio’s personal life. “He was not the deep creep presented by Cramer, nor will it do to make him out to be just a dumb jock. He was more complicated than that.”

Maybe Richard Ben Cramer is a sportswriter version of the virtucrat, which Epstin defined in another context. He concludes this chapter in a blistering assessment of that author himself:

“Richard Ben Cramer, cool and with-it though he strains to be, plays the virtue card throughout….In scoring off Joe DiMaggio in all these various ways, in smoking him inside, Cramer’s own position is implicitly one of moral superiority. But if the biographer is the morally superior man, why does he seem so much less interesting than his subject and finally so unconvincing? The short answer is that his moral superiority exists only on paper.”

From the annals of plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

October 7, 2020

Coincidental, indeed, is the headline of this month’s blog post. It is 171 years old, having been coined in 1849 by French journalist and critic Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr in the January 1849 issue of his journal Les Guêpes (“The Wasps”).

I had decided on that title after reading a passage from Alexander Herzen’s memoir, My Past and Thoughts. Herzen, a Russian émigré nobleman who has been called “the father of Russian socialism,” had made his way to Paris during the revolutionary year of 1848. You don’t have to buy his entire outlook and philosophy to appreciate his literary skills and his powers of observation.

The following passage was written after Herzen attended an evening of drinking and scheming at the Café Lamblin. I quote it without further commentary, other than to opine that he could just as well have been writing about a sizable cohort of the denizens who prowl and streets and the Twitterverses of 2020.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. You bet.

“In the café the various habitués of the revolution were sitting at a dozen little tables, looking darkly and consequentially about them from under wide-brimmed felt hats and caps with tiny peaks. These were the perpetual suitors of the revolutionary Penelope, those inescapable actors who take part in every popular demonstration and form its tableau, its background, and are as menacing from afar as the paper dragons with which the Chinese wished to menace the English.

“In the troubled times of social storms and reconstructions in which states forsake their usual grooves for a long time, a new generation of people grow up who may be called the choristers of the revolution; grown on shifting, volcanic soil, nurtured in an atmosphere of alarm when work of every kind is suspended, they become inured from their earliest years to an environment of political ferment – they like the theatrical side of it, its brilliant, pompous mis en scène

“Among them are good, valiant people, sincerely devoted and ready to face a bullet; but for the most part they are limited and extraordinarily pedantic. Immobile conservatives in everything revolutionary, they stop short at some programme and do not advance.

“Dealing all their lives with a small number of political ideas, they only know their rhetorical side, so to speak, their sacerdotal vestments, that is the commonplaces which successively cut the same figure, à tour de rôle, like the ducks in a well-known children’s toy – in newspaper articles, in speeches at banquets and in parliamentary devices.

“In addition to naïve people and revolutionary doctrinaires, the unappreciated artists, literary men, students who did not complete their studies, briefless lawyers, actors without talent, persons of great vanity but small capability, with huge pretensions but no power of work, all naturally drift into this milieu.

“The external authority which guides and pastures the human herd in a lump in ordinary times is weakened in times of revolution; left to themselves people do not know what to do.

“The younger generation is struck by the ease, the apparent ease, with which celebrities float to the top in times or revolution, and rushes into futile agitation; this inures the young people to violent excitements and destroys the habit of work…One must not be left behind, there is no need to work: what is not done to-day may be done to-morrow, or may not even be done at all.”

Sports History I Never Knew: The First Double Axel in the Olympic Games

September 6, 2020

Sonia Henie, the “Golden Girl”

It was the free-skating event, the final program of the competition at the 1936 Winter Olympics at Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Germany. Sonja Henie knew that she was in trouble.

The “Golden Girl,” Norwegian-born winner of the skating competitions in the previous two Olympics at Lake Placid and St. Moritz, was the big favorite for a three-peat. But in the previous program, the compulsories, a young upstart from England named Cecilia Colledge, nearly bested her. Henie threw a temper tantrum and ripped the judges’ scoring sheet off the wall, claiming she had been cheated.

Colledge, at age 11 in Lake Placid, was the youngest woman ever to compete in the Olympics. She was the first woman to execute a double-rotation jump in competition, a salchow at the 1936 European championships in Berlin. She also invented the camel and the layback spins and the one-foot axel jump. Henie had never faced such a challenger.

Cecilia Colledge, 1937

The two were close on points going into the free-skating program. Colledge went first, and she was superb, using all the creative and exciting leaps and spins in her repertoire. Henie had to be better, or her gold-medal streak would end.

And that’s what the Golden Girl did. She topped Colledge with a double “Axel Paulsen” jump. Invented in 1882, it was so risky that it had never been tried in the Olympics. Paulsen was world champion speed skater from 1882 to 1890. He also invented modern speed skate, with the blade fixed to the boot.

In the double Axel Paulsen jump, the skater takes off in a forward direction from one foot, rotates one and a half times in the air, and lands backwards on the opposite foot.  Henie took the chance; she leapt, spun, landed on her skates, and ended with a split and a cover-girl smile. She kept her gold medal.

After Germany’s propaganda triumph in the 1936 Olympic Games, the skaters went their separate ways. Henie went pro – officially, as she’d made a lot of money with “amateur” exhibitions in Europe already. She came to America in 1937, became a U.S. citizen in 1941, and made 47 million dollars in film and through skating exhibitions.

Axel Paulsen

Henie also acquired a massive collection of diamonds.  She turned her back on her countrymen and refused to contribute to the resistance fighters who were battling Nazi occupation.  She also became the biggest booster of a new-fangled ice-grooming machine invented by an American named Frank Zamboni. She ordered two for herself; if she was going to skate at your arena, you had to have your own Zamboni.

Colledge returned to England and continued to compete as an amateur. She drove a civilian ambulance in London during the blitz. Her brother Maule became a flight lieutenant in the Royal Air Force. He never returned from a September 1943 mission over Berlin.

Colledge became a professional skater in the late 1940s, appearing in ice shows. She settled in the United States and coached elite athletes at the Skating Club of Boston from 1952 to 1977. She died, at the age of 87, in 2008 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Colledge never married and had no survivors.

And what of Axel Paulsen? He returned home and, after the death of his father, took over the family coffee shop until his death in 1936. The daring jump he invented is now known as the axel – just as all ice groomers are now Zambonis.

Now you know the rest of the story.

Sonia Henie’s touring Zamboni

Henie and her Zamboni, in photo autographed for inventor Frank Zamboni.

The double axel jump

Sonia Henie and George “Superman” Reeves, 1954