Archive for the ‘Events and Society’ Category

History I Never Knew: The Charles Bridge, Prague

November 10, 2019

The Charles Bridge at Sunset

Today’s history lesson is about a place on my bucket list.

I’d love to visit Prague some day. I’m told that it’s a magnificent old city. Part of the reason for that is that somehow the physical ravages of modern war did not reach it. That’s a good thing.

There’s also a personal tug. Prague is the city where, in 1933, America’s National Hockey Team won its first world championship. Our team, the Massachusetts Rangers, defeated the Toronto National Sea Fleas, 2-1 in overtime, to take the title. The overtime goal was scored by John Garrison, “The Ghost of Harvard Yard.” The coach of the team was my uncle, Walter Brown. It was the first time ever that an American team defeated the Canadian team in international competition.

But back to today’s lesson – it’s about the city’s most-photographed sight, the Charles Bridge over the Vltava River in the city’s center. It’s been known at the Charles Bridge only since 1870, in belated recognition of Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV. It was he who laid the first stone, back in 1357.

Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV

Charles was big into numerology. And so he insisted that the first stone be set in place at exactly 5:31 a.m. on July 9 of that year.

Why such precision? Because the date and time make for a palindrome: 135797531 (or 1357 9, 7 5:31). That number, which reads the same backward and forward, is carved onto the stones of the Old Town Bridge Tower at the east end of the bridge. Charles believed that it would bring a magical strength to the structure. All righty, then.

The bridge wasn’t finished until 1402. Its length is 1,692 feet. For more than 400 years it was the only means of crossing the Vltava, and it was therefore the most important connection between Prague Castle and Prague’s Old Town. The bridge helped to make Prague an important nexus for trade between Eastern and Western Europe.

There’s more superstition beyond Charles IV’s numerology. The bridge was also constructed in perfect alignment with the tomb of Saint Vitus and the setting sun on the equinox. More recently, people came to believe that rubbing the plaque at the base of the statue of Saint John of Nepomuk will grant you a wish.

Saint John of Nepomuk

John was murdered on the orders of King Wenceslas IV during the bitter conflict of church and state that plagued Bohemia in the latter 14th century. In 1390 he was made vicar general for the archbishop of Prague. In 1393 the archbishop, with John’s support, excommunicated one of the favorites of the king and thwarted the king’s ambition to make a new bishopric out of the province of Prague.

John was arrested as the archbishop’s chief agent. Wenceslas personally tortured him with fire, after which he reconsidered and released him on an oath of secrecy regarding his treatment. John, however, was dying, and to conceal the evidence Wenceslas had him gagged, shoved into a goatskin, and cast into the Vltava. Bohemian Catholics came to regard John of Nepomuk as a martyr.

Saint John’s statue is one of 32 points of interest (see map) on the bridge. Things also got interesting there around the time of the horrific Thirty Years War (1618-1648). The war began in May of 1618, touched off by the colorfully-named Defenestration of Prague. In that incident, three Catholic officials, emissaries from the Holy Roman Emperor, were tossed from an upper window of Prague Castle by an angry mob of Protestant Bohemian rebels.

Statues and Attractions on the Charles Bridge

Three years later, on June 21, 1621 after the Battle of White Mountain, the 27 leaders of the anti-Habsburg revolt were executed. Their severed heads were displayed for all to see on the Old Town Bridge Tower. Apparently, that grisly measure – quite common in those times – wasn’t much of a deterrent.

Near the end of the war, the Swedes occupied the west bank of the Vltava. As they tried to advance into the Old Town the heaviest fighting took place right on the bridge. During the fighting, they severely damaged one side of the Old Town bridge tower, and the remnants of almost all gothic decorations had to be removed from it afterward.

It wasn’t until the late 17th and early 18th centuries that the bridge became the attraction that it is today. That’s when the alley of baroque statues was installed on the bridge’s pillars.

Charles IV’s numerology didn’t spare the bridge from severe damage. In 1890, a huge flood hit Prague. Thousands of rafts, logs and other floating materials from upstream gradually formed a giant barrier against the bridge. Three arches were torn down by the pressure, and two pillars collapsed from being undermined by the water, while others were partly damaged.

Two statues, St. Ignatius of Loyola and St. Francis Xavier, fell into the river. The Ignatius statue was replaced by statues of Saints Cyril and Methodius. For the St. Francis statue, they had a replacement cast.

1890 Flood Damage

It goes without saying that the Charles Bridge, also known as Karlův Most and Karlsbrücke, is one of the most visited and photographed sites in Prague.

No wonder, eh? It’s a place I’d love to visit myself.

And now you know the rest of the story.

History I Never Knew: The World’s First Tweetstorm was 485 Years Ago

October 17, 2019

If you think things are impossibly difficult and polarized in the world of politics nowadays, you ain’t seen nothin’.  Washington, DC and America in 2019 are like Romper Room compared to Paris and France for 64 years spanning the latter half of the sixteenth century.

Proclamation of October 17, 1534, text of the world’s first tweetstorm that launched the Wars of Religion.

Today, we have Twitter to set passions aboil. Back then, they had the printing press. But the effects of these technologies were pretty much the same.  They could make the world mighty ugly, mighty fast. And that’s what happened, almost 500 years ago, when hundreds of nasty, polemical printed posters were nailed up in several French cities by a group of conspirators.

It was history’s first Tweetstorm; the conspirators sowed the wind and reaped the whirlwind.

On the evening of October 17, 1534, the “Affair of the Placards” launched the Wars of Religion in France.  Followers of John Calvin, known as Huguenots and led by a reform pastor named Antoine Marcourt, went around under the cover of darkness and nailed up copies of a screed titled “Trustworthy Articles on the Horrible, Great, & Unbearable Abuses of the Papal Mass.”  They even posted one on the door of the royal bedchamber of King Francois I.

Francois I

The poster’s message was severely critical of Catholicism, the religion of the realm. To condemn the Catholic Mass and Catholic doctrine was a crime in itself. But Francois was rattled to the core at the almost unthinkable breach of security and the threat to his personal safety.

His reaction was swift and severe. He offered generous rewards – four years’ worth of wages of ordinary folk – and many of the conspirators were caught and burned at the stake. Undeterred, they printed another “tweet,” titled “A Very Useful and Salutary Short Treatise in the Holy Eucharist of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” Huguenots made up no more than 15% of the French population, but they were well moneyed and educated, for the most part. They were decidedly influential in their push for reform and religious freedom.

Catherine de Medici, wife of King Henry II of France

More repression and retribution followed. Francois and his bishops responded by holding a sacred procession throughout the streets of Paris. Along the way they venerated the consecrated host, and they finished up with a Mass at Notre Dame. After the Mass they took six conspirators out and burned them at the stake.

On and on it went. Kings, queens, and royal regents came and went.  Violence and atrocities by both sides flared up regularly. Treaties and truces were made and broken. After a failed assassination attempt of a Huguenot leader named Gaspard de Coligny in 1572, the Catholic establishment

under Catherine de Medici planned and executed the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Between 4,000 and 6,000 Huguenots were killed between August and October of that month.

Henry IV: “Paris is worth a Mass.”

There followed the “War of the Three Henrys,” who all vied for the throne.  The eventual winner was Henry of Navarre, a Huguenot who became King Henry IV. But he wanted to calm things down, so he converted to Catholicism – for the fifth time – and justified it by his famous observation, “Paris is worth a Mass.”

With Henry IV’s 1598 conversion came the Edict of Nantes. It granted Huguenots many rights and freedoms, but Catholicism was still the dominant faith by far.  Almost a century later, in 1685, King Louis XVI revoked the Edict. He set the stage for his own overthrow and trip to the guillotine. But that’s another story for another time.

So ended the Wars of Religion and the repercussions of the first tweetstorm from 64 years before. So tell me now – is it really that bad nowadays? I’ll take Twitter over printed posters any day.

1492: What Really Happened

October 12, 2019

Columbus

“In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”

Yes, he did. But in the long sweep of history, the Admiral of the Ocean Sea’s “discovery” of America did not have anything approaching the impact – the tragic consequences – of other events of that year.  Christoper Columbus wasn’t all that important, or consequential. If he hadn’t voyaged west and found new lands, someone else would have. History in the “New World” would have followed roughly the same course.

Not so the history of the Old World, had the rulers of Spain been enlightened and fair-minded.

Columbus himself points out the world-changing decree of Ferdinand and Isabella. His diary begins:  “In the same month in which their Majesties issued the edict that all Jews should be driven out of the kingdom and its territories, in the same month they gave me the order to undertake with sufficient men my expedition of discovery to the Indies.”

Ferdinand and Isabella

In January of 1492, the forces of Castile and Aragon had conquered Granada, the last remaining Muslim caliphate in Spain. This restored all of Spain to Christian rule. The king and queen had resisted the demands of Tomas de Torquemada, head of the Spanish Inquisition, to expel the Jews until they had first subdued the Moors (not the Moops.) But with that military victory, they moved swiftly to get rid of Jews and impose religious uniformity.

It would take until 1614 for Spain’s succeeding monarchs to banish the rest of the Moors.  For a short while, Islam was allowed in Spain. But in 1502, all remaining Muslims were order to convert to Christianity or leave.

As for the Jews of Spain, about 200,000 of them were forced to leave as of July 30, 1492. They had to abandon all of their material possessions and settle in places like North Africa, Turkey, Italy and elsewhere.  They became known as Sephardic Jews – “Sefarad” is Hebrew for “Spain.”

Can you imagine how the history of the world might have evolved if Ferdinand and Isabella did not agree with people like Torquemada – had they allowed their Jews and Muslims to stay, to work out their differences, and to build their country into something else entirely?

Nor was it enough for F&I to “cleanse” Spain. They married off their daughter Isabella to King Manuel of Portugal in 1496. They made it a condition of the marriage that Portugal expel its Jews. Manuel reluctantly complied, although in the end only eight Jews were kicked out; according to the Jewish Virtual Library, tens of thousands of others had to convert to Christianity, on pain of death.

Tomas de Torquemada

I recall learning in school of the wonderful monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, who supported Columbus on his great adventure.  What rot. And what profound negative consequences their religious hatred had, down through the centuries.

The Sultan of Turkey, Bazajet, welcomed Jews. He said, “How can you call Ferdinand of Aragon a wise king, the same Ferdinand who impoverished his own land and enriched ours?”

How indeed.

Spain, and Portugal for that matter, became inconsequential, minor-league powers in Europe. Much worse, though, was that their treatment of Jews would be imitated in various guises throughout the known world. It’s still echoing loudly today. The decree of expulsion, known as the Alhambra Decree, was not officially overturned by the Spanish government until December 16, 1968.

This decision by the Spain, 476 years in the making, likely came about after the Catholic church itself admitted that it had been wrong about the Jews for almost two millennia.  The following is from Nostra Aetate, an instrument formulated in 1965, at the Second Vatican Council, during the papacy of Paul VI:

“what happened … cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures. All should see to it, then, that in catechetical work or in the preaching of the word of God they do not teach anything that does not conform to the truth of the Gospel and the spirit of Christ.”

Cardinal Angelo Roncalli, later Pope John XXIII

And that pronouncement may never have happened had “Vatican II” not taken place.  The council was called by Pope John XXIII in 1959. It is sad that he died before the council, and before this pronouncement. He would have loved it. During World War II, as Cardinal Angelo Roncalli, he was the Vatican delegate to the Ottoman Empire.  He was the highest-ranking Catholic cleric to use his authority on behalf of Jews. He had no use for the wimpish Pope Pius XII, his predecessor, who did nothing to resist Adolf Hitler.

But back to today, October 12. If you feel like ragging on Christopher Columbus for his misdeeds, go ahead. But he’s not the villain. The real villains sat on the throne of the combined kingdom of Castile and Aragon, and at their right hands in the Office of the Spanish Inquisition.

Thomas Jefferson on Public Education and the Teaching of History

October 5, 2019

Sometimes it’s best to let others speak for themselves. I think that our third president, while certainly one of the “great” ones, has been treated a little too kindly by history. But I can’t deny his intellectual brilliance. Here is a sample.

(From Query XIV, “Notes  on the State of Virginia.” Jefferson first describes the state’s plans for public schools. They will be free to all boys for three years, after which the better students will advance to higher levels of learning. They will be further winnowed out until each year the best students will be selected for admission to the College of William and Mary. The family’s wealth will not be a factor in admission. Rich families whose students do not make the cut will be free to pay for those students’ higher learning, if they so desire.)

Who Is Educated, How Chosen, and Why:

“The ultimate result of this whole scheme of education would be the teaching of all children of the state reading, writing, and common arithmetic: turning out ten annually of superior genius, well taught in Greek, Latin, geography, and the higher branches of arithmetic: turning out ten other annually, of still superiors parts, who, to those branches of learning, shall have added such of the sciences as their genius shall have led them to…”

“The general objects of this law are to provide and education adapted to the years, to the capacity, and the condition of every one, and directed to their freedom and happiness. Specific details are not proper for the law. These must be the business of the visitors entrusted with its execution…By that part of our plan which prescribes the selection of youth of genius from among the classes of the poor, we hope to avail the state of those talents which nature has sown as liberally among the poor as among the cultivated. – But of all the views of this law, none is more important, none more legitimate, than that of rendering the people the safe, as they are the ultimate guardians of their own liberty…”

And Why the Teaching of History is Most Important:

“..the reading in the first stage, where they will receive the whole of their education, [is]…to be chiefly historical. History by apprising them of the past will enable them to judge of the future; it will avail them of the experience of other times and other nations: it will qualify them as judges of the actions and designs of men; it will enable them to know ambition under every disguise it may assume; and knowing it, to defeat its views.

“In every government on earth there is some trace of human weakness, some germ of corruption and degeneracy, which cunning will discover, and wickedness insensibly open, cultivate, and improve.  Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves therefore are its only safe depositories.  And to render them safe, their minds must be improved to a certain degree. This indeed is not all that is necessary, though it be essentially necessary.

“An amendment to our constitution must here come to the aid of public education. The influence over government must be shared among al the people.  If every individual which composes the mass participates in the ultimate authority the government will be safe; because the corrupting the whole mass will exceed any private resources of wealth: and public ones cannot be provided but by levies on the people. “

Some Thoughts about Felicity

September 15, 2019

Nobody asked me, but…

I think that the sentence meted out to Felicity Huffman is reasonable and appropriate.  The star of “Desperate Housewives” will spend two weeks in a low-security federal corrections facility near San Francisco. She will also pay a $30,000 fine and perform 250 hours of yet-unspecified community service.

Felicity Huffman at her sentencing hearing in Boston

At the sentencing, the judge’s reasoning and remarks were well considered, professional, and compassionate. Ms Huffman’s contrition at being part of a college admissions scam seems genuine.  Her embarrassment at having broken the law and at having had insufficient confidence in her daughter’s abilities is obviously painful to her.

Rehabilitating and repairing the relationship within the family will probably take much longer than the two weeks or so that she will be off the grid. Yes, I know that she’s a rich celeb, and the rich have all the goodies and privileges, and blah, blah, blah. But let’s dispense with the schadenfreude. Her money and fame can’t shield her from the consequences of the decision that she now regrets – and I don’t think she regrets it simply because she got caught.

I have no doubt that she will be able to continue with her acting career, if she so chooses, once she completes her sentence. I will be rooting for her. If it turns that out I’m wrong about her sincerity, and that her admission of guilt and her demeanor are nothing more than a damage-controlling act — well, then I’m wrong.

We all screw up sometimes, and we all deserve a chance to make amends.

Men of July 4: Adams and Jefferson

July 4, 2019

Comrades in the struggle to found the American nation, then bitter foes in the nasty and brutal election campaign of 1800, and finally dear friends and eloquent correspondents in their long retirement years, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson deserve all of the praise and honor that history has conferred upon them.

This is not to say that they were models of perfection. Each had glaring personal flaws and quirks; each made mistakes in the wielding of power in his respective and various roles. Both men died on July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  James Monroe, the fifth president, also died on that date in 1831.

Jefferson is credited with writing the Declaration; noted for his ability with words, he did write the first draft.  But it was then edited by a committee comprising Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston.

Adams was a skilled writer as well; he could have done a good job with the first draft too. While he later groused about the political mileage that Jefferson got from his reputation as the Declaration’s author – wondering, in 1805, if there was “ever a coup de théâtre that had so great an effect as Jefferson’s penmanship of the Declaration of Independence” – he also knew that it was important for the 13 colonies to have a Virginian be a visible leader of the breakaway from King George. Support from the rich, agrarian South was critical, and the South was rife with loyalist slave-owners for whom life was just fine the way it was.

So, what were these two gentlemen really like? What did they think, and feel, about themselves and their lives, after they had retired from public life? The following excerpts from letters they exchanged in 1812 tell us a good deal. (And would that letter-writing still hold as important a place in society now; we would all be better off and, I dare say, a little more civilized.)

Jefferson to Adams

Monticello, January 21, 1812

Dear Sir,

[your letter] carries me back to the times when, beset with difficulties and dangers, we were fellow laborers in the same cause, struggling for what is most valuable to man, his right of self-government. Laboring always at the same oar, with some wave ahead ever threatening to overwhelm us, we knew not how, we rode through the storm with heart and hand, and made a happy port.  Still we did not expect to be without rubs and difficulties – and we have had them.

[after noting several issues that led to the War of 1812, he continues] And I believe we shall continue to grow, to multiply and prosper until we exhibit an association, powerful, and wise, and happy beyond what has yet been seen by men.

As for France and England, with all their preeminence in science, the one is a den of robbers, the other of pirates. And if science produces no better fruits than tyranny, murder, rapine, and the destitution of national morality, I would rather wish our country be ignorant, honest, and estimable as our neighboring savages are.

But whither is senile garrulity leading me? Into politics, of which I have taken final leave. I think little of them and say less. I have given up newspapers in exchange for Tacitus and Thucydides, for Newton and Euclid; and I find myself much the happier.

[after talking about his own health and his pleasure in his grandchildren, he concludes] I should have the pleasure of knowing that in the race of life you do not keep, in its physical decline, the same distance ahead of me that you have done in political honors and achievements. No circumstances have lessened the interest I feel in these particulars respecting yourself; none have suspended for one moment my sincere esteem for you; and I now salute you with unchanged affections and respect.

Adams to Jefferson

Quincy, February 1, 1812

Dear Sir,

Your life and mine for almost half a century have been nearly all of a piece, resembling in the whole, mine in the Gulf Stream, chased by three British frigates, in a hurricane from the northeast and a hideous tempest of thunder and lightning, which cracked our mainmast, struck three and twenty men on deck, wounded four, and killed one. I do not remember that my feelings in those three days were very different from what they have been for fifty years.

What an exchange have you made? Of newspapers for Newton? Rising from the lower deep of the lowest deep of dullness and bathos to the contemplation of the heavens and the heavens of heavens. Oh that I had devoted to Newton and fellows that time which I fear has been wasted on Plato and Aristotle, Bacon, Acherly, Bolingbroke, De Lolme, Harrington, Sidney, Hobbes, Plato Redivivus, Marchmont, Nedham, with twenty others upon subjects which mankind is determined never to understand, and those who do understand them are resolved never to practice, or countenance.

Your memoranda of the past, your sense of the present, and your prospect for the future seem to be well founded as far as I can see.  But the latter, i.e., the prospect for the future, will depend upon the Union: how is that Union to be preserved? Concordia res parvae crescent, Discordia maximae dilabuntur. [Small matters thrive with concord, great things fall apart through discord.] I will not at present point out the precise days and months when, nor the names of the men by whom this Union has been put in jeopardy. Your recollection can be at no more loss than mine.

“…But conquerors to now so easily disappear, battles and victories are irresistible by human nature. When a man is once acknowledged by the people in the army and the country as the author of a victory, there is no longer any question. Had Hamilton or Burr obtained a recent victory, neither you nor Jay nor I should have stood any chance against them or either of them more than a swallow or a sparrow.

I have read Thucydides and Tacitus, so often and at such distant period of my life that, elegant and profound and enchanting as is their style, I am weary of them. When I read them I seem only to be reading the history of my own times and my own life. I am heartily weary of both, i.e., of recollecting the history of both: for I am not weary of living. Whatever a peevish patriarch might say, I have never yet seen the day in which I could say I have had no pleasure, or that I have had more pain than pleasure.

[After telling of his daily activities and his family, he concludes] I cordially reciprocate your professions of esteem and respect. Madam sends her kind regards to your daughter and your grandchildren, as well as to yourself.

P.S. I forgot to remark your preference to savage over civilized life. I have something to say upon that subject. If I am in error, you can set me right, but by all I know of one or the other I would rather be the poorest man in France or England, with sound health of body and mind, than the proudest king, sachem or warrior of any tribe of savages in America.

And Now This Editorial Comment

In my opinion, Thomas Jefferson is one of the “great” presidents, but I think that history has been a little too kind to him and much too dismissive of Adams.  T.J. was undoubtedly more personally appealing, more clever, and certainly more snake-in-the-grass politically adept than the grouchy, curmudgeonly, and more highly-principled Adams.   David McCullough’s biography of Adams has done something to rectify that imbalance.

But whatever…would you not like to sit down with these two men, perhaps at the Colonial Inn in Concord or the Michie Tavern in Charlottesville, over beers brewed by their pal Samuel Adams, and just listen to what they have to say? I can think of no better activity for the Fourth of July.

Two Welcome News Items: This is Your America, and Mine. Thank You for Reminding Us, Robert Smith and Diane von Furstenberg.

May 23, 2019

Three cheers – no, make that three times three times three cheers – for Diane von Furstenberg and Robert F. Smith.  They are the principal actors in two recent good-news stories about America.  Let’s tune out the political stink-bombers and the nabobs of negativity, and let’s listen to them.

Mr. Smith

Mr. Smith, a graduate of Morehouse College and its 2019 commencement speaker, announced to the school’s graduates that he would pay off their student loans. That will take an estimated $40 million of his multi-billion dollar personal fortune that he amassed in a career in investment banking.

Ms Von Furstenberg, daughter of an Auschwitz survivor, came to America at age 22 with a baby in her womb and a suitcase full of dresses that she hoped to sell. DVF-branded goods now sell in 70 countries. She chaired the recently-concluded fund-raising campaign that brought in $100 million for a new museum of the Statue of Liberty.

The immediate beneficiaries of Mr. Smith’s gift are the graduating seniors. No longer saddled with loan payments, they will be free to launch their careers, build their own fortunes, and start their families.  I’m sure that all those young people have said “thank you,” but the proof of their sincerity will lie in how well they go and do what he advises.

He prefaced his message by saying that his contributions would put a little fuel in the bus, and continued,

“You don’t want to just be on the bus. You want to own it and drive it and pick up as many people as you can… [by your doing so, the United States become a place where access to education is determined by] “the fierceness of your intellect…Be intentional about the words you speak, how you define yourself, the people you spend time with.”

In thinking about Smith’s extraordinary generosity, I was reminded of the Gospel passage in Luke 17, the story about Jesus healing ten lepers who called out to him from the side of the road.  The ten went to show themselves to the priests as he instructed, and they were cured. Only one of them, a Samaritan, returned to thank him.

“Were not all ten cleansed?” Jesus asked. “Where then are the other nine? Was no one found except this foreigner to return and give glory to God?”

Then Jesus said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well!”

Let me suggest that these newly-minted Morehouse graduates will show their own gratitude, will become like this Samaritan and be truly well, if they heed what Mr. Smith says. Then will his gift’s benefits multiply without end; it will become, as I’m sure he hopes, a gift to the country that was so good to him.  It’s up to them now.

 

Ms. von Furstenberg

The fruits of Ms von Furstenberg’s charitable endeavors will go to a much broader audience.

Somewhere between three and four million people visit the Statue of Liberty every year.  The expanded museum will, in the words of a Wall Street Journal editorial, give those visitors “a richer insight into the beacon of freedom’s place in American history and culture.”

In an interview with Harper’s Bazaar magazine, she suggested that Lady Liberty is a reminder to all people of the friendships between nations. Not necessarily, she adds, friendship between the governments of nations:

“…not their leaders, their people. The Statue of Liberty was given to us by the people of France to commemorate the centennial of the American Revolution at a time when they were disappointed by their own political situation. The French Revolution started not long after the American Revolution, but the result was very different: the Terror, and then Napoléon and the Second Empire. So the French looked to America as this utopic democracy.”

As to why she agreed to chair the fund-raising drive and to use her connections to the world’s rich and famous, von Furstenberg points to a passage in her own book about her life. That passage quoted her mother: “God has saved my life so that I can give you life. By giving you life, you gave me my life back. You are my torch, my flag of freedom.”

“…I was lucky and privileged to become the woman I wanted to be. Now that I’m older, I would like to spend the rest of my life using my voice, my knowledge, my connections—anything I have—to help all women become the women they want to be.”

So once again, praise and thanks for these two great Americans. Both of them are doing good after having done well; they’re examples of people who have realized the much-clichéd “American Dream.”

To bring up another overly familiar term, are they “giving back?” I must say that I don’t particularly like that way of looking at things.  To me, anyway, it suggests a direct return of a favor, a repayment of a debt, a quid-pro-quo.

Perhaps that’s true here, in a broad sense. They’re giving something back to the country that allowed their talents to blossom and them to earn their fortunes. But I prefer to think of what Mr. Smith and Ms von Furstenberg are doing is simply expressing their gratitude.  It’s gratitude for the opportunity to be the best that each of them could be.

We still don’t see enough of that gratitude nowadays, just as they didn’t see much of it in the biblical times depicted in the gospel of Luke.

So I say again, three times three times three cheers.

Book Review: The Animal’s Companion

May 8, 2019

People and Their Pets, a 26,000-Year Love Story

By Jacky Collis Harvey

Author Jacky Collis Harvey

When you read a book by Jacky Collis Harvey, you learn a lot. And with the way she writes, deeply researched and with wit and erudtion, you also have fun as you learn.

Bonus: you also get to know Jacky as a person, because she puts so much of herself into her books. Reading her is like a leisurely date with a new, intriguing friend at the Dog and Duck, or maybe afternoon tea at the Savoy.   When you’re in such a setting with an interesting woman, the best thing to do is to sit back, let her do the talking, drink it all in, and go home wiser and happier.

Jacky’s first book, reviewed here, was Red: A History of the Redhead. There’s no need to tell you the color of her hair, which placed the chip on her shoulder and the flash in her eye.

Her newest work is The Animal’s Companion: People and Their Pets, a 26,000-Year Love Story.  Ms Collis Harvey is one such companion. She loves animals. With passion and appreciation.  She prepares the reader for what’s coming when she writes, in the introductory chapter,

“As I look back, all of the most important lessons in my life were taught by animals: the realities of love and loss and the impenetrability of death, which could take a warm, breathing living flank and overnight turn it into something lifeless, cold and solid; the imperatives of sex; the largeness of care and responsibility…Growing up a redhead made me bold; but it was growing up with animals that made a liberal out of me.”

Okay, Jacky, so tell me more about yourself and those animal friends.

Here’s one passage that I loved; I felt myself shivering in the cold right alongside the author, and feeling her primal fear:

“…if you are a woman. The psychological effect of walking with a big dog padding along obediently beside you is intoxicating. The world opens up, no matter how timid by nature you may be yourself…Fergus, my wolfhound, and I used to set off into the murk of winter fields and winter evenings without hesitation. And then one particular evening, he off his leash and me holding a flashlight rather than a burning brand, Fergus saw something at the side of the fields that caused a growl to rise from within his chest that was both the deepest and most horripilating sound I have ever heard an animal produce. It was like listening to the ominous drawing-back of the sea before the crash of some terrible wave. My own hackles were up at the sound of it, never mind his. My nerve ends soaked with adrenaline in nanoseconds – the kind of atavistic response you forget the human body is still capable of producing.”

Later on in the book, after telling about the ways that literary and historical luminaries, like Samuel Pepys, King John, Plutarch, Elizabeth Barrett and Alexandre Dumas cared for animals, she relates how she unhesitatingly ponied up £3,000 for emergency medical care for her cat, Miss Puss. The cat made it and lived another seven years, though it cost what she said was “more money than we had in the world” at that point.  In declaring that the little creature’s emotional value to her was far beyond any vet’s bill, she speaks for just about all people who have pets of their own.

Each of the book’s chapters deals with a different theme in the life of humans who love animals: Finding, Choosing, Fashioning, Naming, Communicating, Connecting, Caring, Losing, and Imagining. Her own anecdotes, observations, and philosophical musings crop up frequently, but not so much that the book seems to be about her. She strikes a nice balance and re-introduces the reader to many familiar names of animal lovers from history, literature and art.

The 26,000 years in the book’s subtitle refers to the approximate age of the fossilized footprints of a boy and his dog in the Chauvet cave, rediscovered in France by archaeologists in 1995. That, the author maintains, is the oldest known evidence of a human as an animal’s companion.

Federico Gonzaga: “notoriously bad husband material.”

That’s a great answer for Final Jeopardy, so keep it in mind. But more amusing, and an example of Collis Harvey’s fine eye for history that we can relate to, is the story behind Titian’s painting of Federico Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua. Federico was on the make and targeting Margherita, heiress to the Marquis of Monferrato. Problem was, as Collis Harvey relates, the Gonzagas were “notoriously bad husband material,” and the heiress was hesitating.

So what to do? Commission a painting of yourself with a cute, fluffy little dog, looking longingly up at you while extending a supplicating paw. The little dog is there “to say that she has nothing to worry about, that as a husband Federico will be both faithful and protective…to reinforce the message that he was benevolent and trustworthy, neither of which in fact was true.”

Readers also hear from the likes of Emily Dickinson, Charles Dickens, Renoir, the Book of Job, Alfred Hitchcock, Friedrich Engels, A.A. Milne, William Blake, Lord Byron, and Horace Walpole.  All in all, this book is a delightful romp through the ages. It even feels that you’re taking that romp in the company of your own beloved pet. Several times along the way I felt the presence of my sweet golden retriever Molly, who’s been gone from this earth for more than a decade.

Yes, we do learn great life lessons from our dealings with animal friends. Those intertwining lives can also bring broader lessons for society as a whole. In the final chapter, after discussing animals’ rights and reminding readers of Mary Wollstonecraft’s pioneering writings on the rights of women, Collis Harvey muses,

“What was once, in its demand for equality and respect, the cutting edge of social change is now a given across most of the planet (and will get all the way there too)…We are coming to recognize that we cannot claim rights without also granting them; not insist upon them for ourselves without acknowledging them for others.”

Good thought. Good lesson. Good book.

Please Join Me for Coffee, Ms Taylor

March 19, 2019

Elizabeth Taylor – classic beauty

In March of 2019, there was a spate of paid Facebook postings that depicted three or four celebrities and the question “Cup and Conversation with…?”  You were supposed to click on the most appealing of the prospective interlocutors.

That Facebook campaign was most likely a clickbait thing, probably targeting women because most of the time the celebs depicted were deceased dreamboat males.  But I must say that it got me thinking. If I had to name four people with whom I’d love to have coffee and a chat, of course they’d be women. One of them would be Elizabeth Taylor. Another would be Hedy Lamarr.

Okay, stop right there. I know what you’re thinking, and there’s more to the story than that. Really, there is.  How can there not be? Neither of them is a redhead. But I’ll explain.  I’m taking Truman Capote’s recommendations on the first of those wonderful women.  As for my reasons for including Ms Lamarr, neé Hedwig Kiesler, read my earlier blog post here.

How I would have loved to do coffee, or lunch, or whatever, with either of them. It would have been nice to have been able to count either of them among my friends.

Additionally, I like the way Capote thinks about the company of women in general.  I’ve been reading Portraits and Observations: The Essays of Truman Capote.  In it there’s a piece titled “Self-Portrait,” a Q&A that reads like a magazine interview.  In a lengthy response to “How do you like best to occupy your spare time?” he states,

“Many people say they hate to lunch…[it] altogether spoils their day. It makes mine. There are some men I enjoy lunching with, but by and large I prefer beautiful, or at least extremely attractive, alert, and au courant women.”

After naming several such ladies, he continues, “But I don’t think that any woman deserves full marks until she attains and maintains qualities of style and appearance and amusing good sense beyond the point of easy youthful beguilement.”

All righty, then.  Truman and I do see eye-to-eye.

Truman Capote

It’s right after that when Capote first mentions Liz Taylor. He names several more women who had distinguished themselves in their lives and careers, then points out that they are all private citizens rather than public characters whose trade is “allure.”

Taylor and Garbo are two such public characters.  He depicts Garbo as “an ultimately selfish and tiresome woman;” Taylor, however, is “a sensitive, self-educated lady with a tough but essentially innocent attitude – if you sleep with a guy, gosh, that means you have to marry him!”

I suppose if that wasn’t enough to whet my appetite for more insight into the ravishingly beautiful Elizabeth Taylor, I could also fall back on what my mother once said about her: “I wouldn’t cross the street to meet that tramp.” Up until then, I’d always thought that a tramp was one of those homeless guys that we also called hoboes. I never knew a woman could be one.

Sorry, Ma. It’s quite clear that Elizabeth Taylor was anything but a tramp. Truman Capote was an acerbic, exacting observer of human nature, and he didn’t suffer fools gladly. He skewered many of the beautiful people in his writings, but Liz was not one of them.  So I’ll take his word for it. One of his essays tells of their friendship that blossomed after a number of casual meetings and finally, one of those lengthy lunch dates.

Of Ms Taylor’s love life, he points out that the two worst things that had happened to her were the death of her third (of an eventual eight) husband, Mike Todd, and her subsequent marriage to the “singer” Eddie Fisher. That latter marriage was an event “almost as unsuitable as Mrs. Kennedy’s Grecian nuptials.” Ouch!

Taylor as Gloria Wandrous in “Butterfield 8”

Capote learned that despite her liberal use of four-letter words, Liz was “in various areas a moralist, quite a strict one, almost Calvinist.” She hated having to play Gloria Wandrous in Butterfield 8, saying “I don’t like that girl. I don’t like what she stands for. The sleazy emptiness of her. The men.The sleeping around.”

Yikes. Liz actually sounds like my mom there. She didn’t like tramps either. But she was under contract to John O’Hara and she had to do the movie. She played the tramp and won an Academy Award. As one reviewer on IMDB put it:

“Much of this movie is cheap psychobabble, but Taylor smolders with a raw sensuality that you would never guess she had in her. You knew she was strong, beautiful, and flawed, but you never knew she could be all three and still be able to act with that much cleavage. The unfortunate thing about this movie is that there are other people in it.”

Yes, Elizabeth Taylor was a damn fine actress and much more than a pretty face. But she was also a brainiac, as Capote found out that day. He goes on to state his surprise at how well-read she was:

“…not that she made anything of it, or posed as an intellectual, but clearly she cared about books and, in haphazard style, had absorbed a large number of them.  And she discussed them with considerable understanding of the literary process; all in all, it made one wonder about the men in her life, with the exception of Mike Todd…Nicky Hilton, Michael Wilding, Mr. Fisher – what on earth did this very alert and swift-minded young woman find to talk to them about?”

He lets Liz herself answer that one. She told him, “Well one doesn’t always fry the fish one wants to fry. Some of the men I’ve really liked really didn’t like women.”

Illustrating this point, further, Capote mentions a later meeting he had with Taylor and Fisher, whom Capote disdainfully dubbed “The Busboy.” Eddie was sitting on a couch, rubbing his eyes in frustration. He complained “It’s all that reading. That thing you tell me I gotta read. I’ve tried. I can’t get through it somehow.”

Taylor turned to Capote and explained, “He means To Kill a Mockingbird. It just came out. I think it’s a really lovely book.”

There’s a good deal more about Elizabeth Taylor that’s downright appealing. It makes me wish we could somehow have been friends, and not just lunch companions.  She didn’t seem at all like a fair-weather type. She took  friendship seriously – not something that I would associate with the cutthroat world of show business.

Montgomery Clift

Liz stood by another old friend, Montgomery Clift, while his life was slowly unraveling with substance abuse. She briefly salvaged his career by insisting that he play opposite her in Suddenly, Last Summer. It turned out to be his last good performance.  By 1966, Clift was considered unemployable. Liz got him one more role. She put her salary for the planned film Reflections in a Golden Eye, up as insurance in order for him to co-star with her.  But Clift died before the film was made, and Marlon Brando got the role.

Some years later, when she was married to Richard Burton, they were leaving a Broadway play by car. A large and rowdy crowd of fans swarmed all over the car and kept it from moving.  One guy climbed onto the hood, fell off, and was kicked by police horses. Burton was amused by it all, saying that the rabble was just “enthusiastic.” Not as far as Liz was concerned.  She was afraid that someone could be seriously hurt. To her, they were there

“To see a pair of sinful freaks. For God’s sake, Richard, don’t you realize the only reason this is happening is because they think we’re sinners and freaks?”

Taylor and Burton were married to each other and divorced from each other twice. With their constant squabbling, they were always fodder for the tabloids.  But there still had to be something special between them.

Taylor and Burton in “Cleopatra”

Capote was with them one evening. Burton had left the room to go fetch some more champagne.  Capote wrote that her enthusiasm for her husband “illuminated the room like a mass of Japanese lanterns.” Then she said,

“Oh, we quarrel. But at least he’s worth quarreling with. He’s really brilliant. He’s read everything and I can talk to him – there’s nothing I can’t talk to him about. All his friends…Emlyn Williams told him he was a fool to marry me. He was a great actor. Could be a great actor. And I was nothing. A movie star.

“But the most important thing is what happens between a man and a woman who love each other. Or any two people who love each other.”

I would say that Elizabeth Taylor truly “got it.” What a formidable, remarkable woman she was. Can you now see why I’d love to have a cup and conversation with her?  And would you care to join us?

Leonardo da Belichick

February 27, 2019

Book Review and Reflection

I speak of geniuses. That’s as good a way as any to review and discuss a book about Leonardo da Vinci.

So let’s start with Bill Belichick. He’s a genius of his sport, and he has a lot in common with Leonardo, a prolific, incomparable polymath who once finished a job application letter to the ruler of Milan with “Likewise in painting, I can do everything possible.” No kidding, as he later showed with Mona Lisa and The Last Supper.

I’m not kidding about Bill either. Even though Joe Montana, the storied Notre Dame and San Francisco 49er quarterback, said that nobody in football should be called a genius because “a genius is a guy like Norman Einstein.”

Actually, no.  A genius is a guy like Leonard da Vinci and Bill Belichick.

A genius is made, not born. A genius is an imaginative synthesizer of art and science. A genius is a lifetime autodidact, because there’s always more to learn. A genius can draw analogies, discern underlying similarities, and apply lessons from vastly different fields to his own.  That’s my big takeaway from Walter Isaacson’s excellent biography of Leonardo.

Nobody in the history of the world did a better job of all that genius-making than Leonardo da Vinci. Though this post is primarily about that book and about him, I think a side trip into a brief comparison with Belichick is instructive.

The post-Super Bowl issue of Sports Illustrated had a lengthy piece on Belichick, as you might expect. One of its anecdotes immediately reminded me of several similar ones about Da Vinci. Their minds operated in exactly the same way.

In 2000, the reticent, grumpy Belichick had met Lenny Clarke, the loud and uncouth lowbrow comedian, on an airplane flight. They became buds, unlikely as that sounds. Four years and two Super Bowl victories later, Bill asked if he could visit the set of Clarke’s tv show, Rescue Me.

Belichick showed up at 5 a.m. and spent the entire day, notebook and Blackberry in hand, taking notes and asking questions like “When do the lighting guys come in? Who is the boss? How many guys work for him?”

At lunch, comedian and show co-star Dennis Leary asked Belichick why all the questions.  “Fascination,” was the answer. “It’s about the process.”

I don’t know exactly what lessons Bill Belichick learned that day, but I’m positive he found something about putting on a television show that he could apply to his work of directing a football organization. “Do your job,” remember? It’s not just the players on game day. It’s everybody, all year round. The process brings about the execution. Bill, like Leonardo, is a lifetime learner, an observer of the real world who looks for something of value wherever he goes.

Now to da Vinci’s biography. The book has so many examples of Leonardo’s relentless search for knowledge and his creative application of that knowledge, it’s impossible to list them all here.  I’ll just cite a few, after mentioning the many fields of scientific study that Leonardo da Vinci pursued almost obsessively throughout his life.

He did his learning mostly by observation and hands-on experimenting, but also by consulting with experts and by reading.  He was the perfect autodidact.

Those fields of study include: anatomy, the heart, birds, fossils, water flows, optics, geometry, botany, geology, geography, military weaponry, engineering, architecture, and flying machines.

The Ideal Man

Consider Leonardo’s drawing of “Vitruvian Man.” This spread-eagled, perfectly proportioned man rests within both a circle and a square.  His name comes from Vitruvius, a military engineer and architect who lived in the first century CE. Vitruvius once wrote that the layout of a religious temple should have precise relationships, exactly like those of a well-shaped man. So, what was a well-shaped man? Leonardo decided to determine that.

As it happened, Leonardo had also been working on the design of a bell tower for a cathedral in Milan. Squares and circles, from his favored discipline of geometry, both figured prominently in the design of the church’s floor plan. He used them in the drawing, in which the outstretched arms of the man extended to the ends of the church’s transepts.  As he worked on it, Leonardo brought in his own observations of anatomy; for example, Vitruvius thought that a man’s height was six times the length of his foot. Through his dissections and drawings of cadavers, Leonardo realized that the proportion was seven times, not six.

The drawing, in Isaacson’s description, “embodies a moment when art and science combines to allow mortal minds to probe timeless questions about who we are and how we fit into the grand order of the universe.  It also symbolizes an ideal of humanism that celebrates the dignity, value, and rational agency of humans and individuals. Inside the square and the circle we can see the essence of Leonardo da Vinci, and the essence of ourselves, standing naked at the intersection of the earthly and the cosmic.”

A rather flowery summation, but I like it.

The Penis

A bit more on anatomy – Leonardo celebrated both beauty and function. Vitruvian Man’s proportions also required that “The root of the penis (il membra virile) is at half the height of the man.” The man’s genitals are at the exact center of the square.  Il membra virile was apparently a favorite subject for Leonardo, as his little essay On the Penis indicates:

“The penis sometimes displays an intellect of its own. When a man may desire it to be stimulated, it remains obstinate and goes its own way, sometimes moving on its own without permission of the owner. Whether he is awake or sleeping, it does what it desires. Often when the man wishes to use it, it desires otherwise, and often it wishes to be used and the man forbids it.  Therefore it appears that this creature possesses a life and intelligence separate from the man. Man is wrong to be ashamed of giving it a name or showing it, always covering and concealing something that deserves to be adorned and displayed with ceremony.”

Such an assessment had to come from both observation and experience. Another thing about the handsome, dashing Leonardo…he never had a lady friend, but unlike his rival Michelangelo, who was also gay, he was not ashamed of his own sexual desires. Rather, he was amused by them. Like his relentless quest for learning, they were a source of joy, insight, and satisfaction.

Light and Pictures

Leonardo’s fascination with optics and light led him to a correct surmise about why the sky is blue, and to the explanation of the “earthshine” glow on a crescent moon.  It also informed the precision of his painting of colors in artistic works; an object lighted by reflected light is different from one illuminated by direct light, for instance.

He also understood how the human eye works; and the pupils of his subjects’ eyes display that knowledge.  They seem to follow observers around as those observers change positions. His painting technique of “sfumato,” which slightly blurred outlines and mellowed colors, both left something to the viewer’s imagination and gave a more realistic perspective of three-dimensional depth.  Sharply defined outlines, like those of Michelangelo, make paintings look flat and two-dimensional. As da Vinci wrote to art students, “Your shadows and lights should be blended without lines of borders in the manner of smoke losing itself in the air.”

Leonardo dissected literally hundreds of dead bodies over the course of his career. His drawings, which were unfortunately not shared widely or published, were every bit as good as those you see in the classic “Gray’s Anatomy” books.

He studied the structure of the lip muscles and used that knowledge in crafting Mona Lisa’s famous smile. He studied how the body’s joints moved the hands, arms, legs, and torso; with that knowledge he he imparted realistic action to the people in his paintings. He was acquainted with a man who happened to be a deaf mute; he studied how that man used his hands and his facial expressions to convey his inner emotions.  Check out how he applied that in The Last Supper. In that painting, Jesus has just announced to his followers, “One of you will betray me.” Note the many ways in which the apostles’ gestures and expressions tell what they feel about that bombshell.

Hydraulics of the Heart

To me, the most fascinating connection and discovery that da Vinci made was about how the aortic valve of the heart works. The heart pumps torrents of oxygenated blood out through the triangle-shaped valve opening, and somehow the little flaps of that valve immediately close up and don’t allow backflow into the chamber. How was this possible?

Go back to da Vinci’s close observations of flowing water. He took note of how river currents flow swiftly in the middle of the stream, but along the edges they flow more slowly, swirling back into little eddies and meanders.  Those swirls appear in his paintings, where streams appear in the background or flow as spiraling eddies around his subjects’ feet. They also show up as the luxurious curly locks of his subjects’ hair.

He also saw how water flowing out of a pipe moved faster in the center, but slower along the edges of the pipe because of friction and drag. Applying that to the heart valve, he wrote, “The middle of the blood that spouts up through the trials acquires much more height than that which rises up along the sides.  That slower-moving blood forms spiraling eddies, which causes the leaflets of the valve to spread out and cover the opening. He writes “The revolving blood beats against the sides of the three valves and closes them so that the blood cannot descend.”

Up until the 1960s, heart specialists thought differently.  They believed that the valve was simply pushed shut by the weight of the blood above it. Finally, about 450 years after da Vinci, researchers at Oxford used dyes and radiography to confirm that Leonardo’s description of the heart’s hydrodynamics had gotten it right. They found that “vortices produce a thrust on both the cusp and the sinus wall, and the closure of the cusps is thus steady and synchronized.”

One surgeon is quoted on the latter: “Of all the amazements that Leonardo left for the ages, this one would seem to be the most extraordinary.”

I’ll leave that decision up to you. But I do urge you to read the book. In addition to learning about da Vinci the man, you’ll discover a good deal about how life really was in Renaissance Italy, and about art history and techniques, along with many other items of interest.

Can We Ever Hope to Emulate Leonardo?

And now for a final thought and personal reflection. Isaacson closes the book with a section subtitled “Learning from Leonardo.” In it he gives several bits of advice, two of which are “Be curious, be relentlessly curious,” and “Retain a childlike sense of wonder.” To the latter he adds “We should be careful to never outgrow our wonder years, or to let our children do so.”

Amen to that. We’re never too old to learn, and we’re never too old to embrace and to love life, and to relish each and every day that dawns as a precious gift from God.

With Doris Matthews White, the “Queen Bee,” and many of her friends at Planting for Friends Day at Winthrop Cemetery, June 2010.

I’m fortunate to have many contemporaries who live with this attitude.  But perhaps the best example is my dear and now-departed friend Doris Matthews White. She left this earth just before attaining 100 years of age.  Her days she filled with online research and banter with her hundreds of fans and admirers. She dived right into computer technology, taught herself techniques of genealogy, and discovered the life stories of relatives. One of them died at the battle of Lexington and Concord; another was captain of a privateering vessel during the Revolutionary War; and still another was a member of the court of Edward the Confessor.

Doris remained relentlessly curious and open to learning throughout her long life. To herself, she brought a wealth of knowledge. To her many friends and admirers with whom she shared that knowledge, she brought joy, appreciation, and faith that somehow all would be right with the world.

Leonardo kept much of his vast knowledge to himself. But fortunately for us, many of his notebooks have survived.

And as for that other modern-day Leonardo, Bill Belichick, he doesn’t share a whole lot of what he knows either. But you have to admit that he puts it to good use. Just ask the Kansas City Chiefs. Or Pete Carroll. Or Roger Goodell.