Archive for the ‘People’ Category

Book Review and Reflection: John Tesh’s “Relentless”

April 7, 2020

A little more than seven years ago I took my wife Mary Ellen and our son Matt to a John Tesh Christmas concert in Boston.  It was a fun night out, listening live to a guy whose life seemed to be just one fabulous success after another.

I posted a couple of pictures and clips from the concert on Facebook. To my surprise, most of the comments were snarky and negative. They weren’t so much about his music as they were ad hominem. People just didn’t seem to like him.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. It’s easy to envy the world-traveling, jet-setting John Tesh – handsome, self-assured, undoubtedly filthy rich and married to one of the world’s most stunning women. He had the perfect life.  Jealousy of such folks often emerges as dislike or disdain. I get that.  It was probably in play here.

But I think that the real reason for the bazoos and catcalls was John Tesh’s religious faith. He is not at all bashful about proclaiming the role of God in his own life, in that of his wife, and in their life together. Nowadays, religion isn’t cool. Talk about religion makes people uncomfortable. I get that too.

I suppose if you really feel that way, it would be hard to persuade you to read Relentless: Unleashing a Life of Purpose, Grit, and Faith.  But I would urge you to read it anyway. It’s both a memoir and a self-help book. It’s the story of his life and a manual-by-example for personal success and fulfillment.  It shows the often harsh realities and the roles of luck and timing for those trying to make it in the broadcast media. It’s also an easy read – I did it in two days.

Yes, there are spiritual musings, scriptural quotes, and tidbits of pithy advice sprinkled throughout. But it never gets didactic or preachy. Tesh is a thoroughly likable guy, and reading his book was like sitting down with him for a few hours and several beers –just letting him do the talking and call it as he sees it.

Early in the book, he remarks that he gives the same career advice to anyone who asks: “Find the thing you want to do, or the broad area you want to be in, choose the path of least resistance, and plot a course for your way in.”

Connie Sellecca and James Brolin, her co-star in the popular television series “Hotel.”

It’s not as if he did it that way all the time, however. There were just a few occasions he planned things, like his sending a tape to CBS in New York and getting an audition after just a year as newscaster at a Nashville TV station. He got the New York job and was the youngest news reporter on the staff at age 24. Much later in life, when he wanted to return to his musical roots, he burst onto the concert scene with a daring and self-financed venture, John Tesh Live at Red Rocks.

On many other occasions, he was just in the right place at the right time. And he put into action another bit of advice: “Be Found Ready.” He was a film editor at a TV station in Raleigh when, one day, the news anchor was abruptly dismissed. He had never been on a news set, but he donned a borrowed sport coat and got through his first newscast.

He was on the air four months, then got recruited to a station in Orlando. Another four months and a Nashville station came calling and doubled his salary. It was at that time that newsrooms were evolving into folksy, friendly places where the on-air personalities would banter and socialize as they delivered the broadcast. Pat Sajak was the weatherman at the Nashville station.  The milieu was perfect for Tesh. Right place, right time.

As a tv journalist in New York, Tesh impressed people with his street reporting, covering such gritty matters as the perfidies of South Bronx slumlords, crooked cab drivers who swindled out-of-town visitors, riots and looting during a citywide blackout, the plight of New York’s homeless, and the Son of Sam serial murders.

That work of six years positioned him for another shifting trend in the broadcast field. CBS Sports had new management in 1981. They decided that they wanted to inject some civilian news seriousness into their sideline reporting.  He was hired by the newly minted executive producer, Terry O’Neil, who had just come over from ABC. Tesh called O’Neil his CBS Sports godfather.

A personal aside here. In 1971, fresh out of Boston College, I was a finalist for a dream job at ABC Sports. I flew to New York and interviewed for the position of sports researcher for the 1972 Olympics in Munich.  That job went to Terry O’Neil, and it launched a great career.  Good for him, bummer for me.

Tesh took the sports job and trotted the globe for five years before another change in CBS Sports management forced him out. But he’d already been approached by the producers of Entertainment Tonight. Out on the street again, he called them and got a second audition. That landed him a ten-year gig as co-host of Entertainment Tonight with Mary Hart.

Lest you think that Mr. Tesh’s career was nothing but peaks and no valleys, you should know about his two biggest blunders. Monumental screw-ups they were indeed. But give the guy credit – he bounced back each time.

Late in his junior year at North Carolina State University, he’d finally found his stride. He was a popular and successful walk-on player on the soccer team. He’d taken a radio-tv elective and decided to change his major from textile chemistry to communications. But he was past the official deadline for drop-add, and one professor refused to sign the permission slip.

Tesh was talked into forging the professor’s signature, got caught, and was tossed from school. He lived in a pup tent in a local park for months, pumping gas and working construction.  His personal phone number was the park’s public phone booth.

Tesh, Sellecca, and Gib Gerard, her son by her first husband, in a promotional shot for “Intelligence for Your Life.”

Desperate, he made an audition tape, won over the receptionist at a local radio station, and pitched himself for some entry-level job. Any job would do. And he got in the door. For four hours on Sunday mornings, he could play the station’s religious tapes. But then someone left, and he was doing weekend newscasts.  His chosen career was underway. Again, right place right time.

An even bigger blunder came many years later. He actually got a date with the ravishingly beautiful actress, Connie Sellecca. And then he stood her up. He didn’t show for their Friday rendezvous in Palm Desert, California. He went drinking with the boys instead.

Almost astoundingly and after many rebuffed approached and phone calls, she agreed to meet him for dinner.  And, unusual for a first date, their lengthy conversation turned to religion and spirituality. She was a devout Christian and an ideal match. They clicked right away.

It’s fair to say that religious faith has been the bedrock of their married life together.  It saw them through Tesh’s two battles with stage-three prostate cancer.  It impelled them to support and join Operation Blessing in its relief of tsunami victims in Sri Lanka. It has been a constant theme in their Intelligence for Your Life shows on television, radio, and podcasts.

So – it’s hard not to like and admire John Tesh. I thought I knew about him before I read the book. I didn’t know the half of it.  And I do think he’d be an ideal guy to sit down with and have those several beers.  If you can’t arrange that, read his book.

A Son Tells His Mother’s Story

January 2, 2020

Mary Ellen Burke and her son Matthew on his wedding day.

This was posted on my son Matthew’s Facebook page on December 19, 2019, two days after Mary Ellen passed away.  I was pleased to learn, a few days later, that he had read it to her during one of his visits to the nursing home a couple of months before her death.

Telling Her Story: To My Mother

Matt Burke·Thursday, December 19, 2019

The last number of the musical “Hamilton” is a choral ballad called “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.” And as this musical came to prominence in the popular consciousness — and, indeed, in my own — just as this vile Alzheimer’s disease was taking hold of my mother, the last few years have granted me a lengthy opportunity to ruminate precisely on these questions. When she passed, who would tell her story? And what would that story be?

First let’s explore what that story is.

I’ll remember a number of qualities about my mother. Today I want to emphasize four: curiosity, independence, levity, and gratitude.

First, curiosity: my mother’s true avocation was teaching. She taught every grade from first to fifth, and even in the “off-season” never missed a chance to instruct us on something. While many of our friends took vacations to the beaches of Cape Cod and Maine, you could find us at Colonial Williamsburg or Washington, DC. Even for day trips, we had our excursions to the Freedom Trail, Plimoth Plantation, Sturbridge Village. We had our yearly memberships to the Museum of Science and the Aquarium, and took great pleasure breezing into the exhibits like we owned the place. But it wasn’t just the academics she taught us about. From the Shawn Halloran and Mike Power years, Andrew and I sat with her in the stands at BC football games while Dad was in the press box. And she was the one who taught us how football worked. Who the players were. What a pass, a run, a first down, and a tackle were. So when friends asked Andrew and me how we knew so much about football, we’d waste no time in saying “My Dad is the BC football announcer!” and she would never fail to add “… while you were sitting in the stands with your mom!” She taught us to ask questions about what was around us, to want to know why things were the way they were — and, most importantly, for us to want to keep learning. To be curious.

Next, independence. Part of teaching Andrew, Emily, and me about the world was to let us be our own people. The most poignant example was in March 1997, when I greeted her with a letter of my acceptance to the Congress-Bundestag Program, and that I’d been invited to spend a year in Germany. What I didn’t learn until much, much later was that, that evening, she went and collapsed in tears on the neighbors’ couch. And yet despite the exorbitant sacrifice of not seeing her oldest child for a year, she let me do it. It was my choice, and she let me make it. And 22 years on, I still recall it as the most transformative experience of my life.

Two years later, I played my last hockey game at Boston Latin. We were bounced from the state tournament at UMass-Boston, and I was down on myself about my lack of playing time. And as we were in the foyer of the rink, getting ready to go home, one of the biggest supporters of my athletic endeavors turned to me, saw the melancholy expression on my face, and said “You know, Matt… This is the biggest thing some of these kids are ever going to do.” Of course we had better things to come. So go and do them.

Next, levity. While my mother was often serious, she possessed some Truly. Legendary. Sass. I remember once, in the summer of 1994, she came back from an errand at CVS, where she met a perfectly coiffed political neophyte campaigning for the United States Senate. His name was Mitt Romney. Now, I knew Mitt from his commercials, so was somewhat dumbstruck that my mother would get to shake hands with a famous person. “You got to meet Mitt Romney!?!” I exclaimed. And without a moment’s hesitation, she shot back “Pshhh, he got to meet me!” Or there was the time in late 2011, when I told her after a few dates with Jenny that I’d started seeing someone. Her first question, “Oh really? A girl?”

And as great as she could dole it out, she could take it. Andrew, Emily, and I always loved to ask her how she knew so many people named Mr. So-and-so, or why she had friends named Joe and Mary Biscuit. Or that we never allowed her to forget that one Christmas when she didn’t wrap gifts – or, as she penned it into family lore, the year the elves went on strike. And in all of this, she taught us that there is always levity. And that you can laugh, and be happy.

Lastly, gratitude. Mom always taught us to be thankful for what we had, rather than complain about what we didn’t. She taught us to always say “thank you,” and to look the person in the eye when you did. And had she not taught us this, it would have been very easy, over these last few years, to grow bitter that an incurable, odious brain malady was gradually taking my mother. But she taught us always to be grateful, so I’ll be grateful for the 38 years I had, not the 10 or 15 extra that I might have.

I’m grateful that I was able to dance with her at my wedding. For our trip to Ireland in July of 2017. As her condition really accelerated over the next year, I told friends that I just wanted her to live to see Hannah born. Well, she was at the hospital when Hannah was born. She held her, and saw her several more times over the coming year. While I might not have her to lean on as I raise my child, I do have her example. Even this June, when she was deteriorating rapidly, I showed her some videos of her only granddaughter learning to stand. “Oh, that’s cute,” she said.

I’ll always remember one of our last interactions as one in which my daughter brought her joy.

In the spirit of gratitude, therefore, we would be remiss if we didn’t thank everyone who helped us along this path.

  • To our friends and family, thank you for your support, and for lending an ear and extending your kind words. In times of loss and imminent loss, kindness from those who live reminds us of whom we have left to be grateful for.
  • To mom’s doctors and caregivers. We are grateful for the support you lent us, the explanations you gave to us, and everything you tried.
  • To Mom’s family. Her siblings, their spouses, and many of the Hughes cousins who dropped in to lend a hand or a condolence. And Christine, thank you for being a confidante, advocate, and explainer-in-chief. We could not have managed our way through this without you.
  • To my wife, Jenny, and our daughter Hannah. Thank you for your support, and your understanding, particularly during these last few months when I was up in Boston frequently. I could not imagine where I’d be without your love and support. I love you both very much.
  • To Andrew and Emily. You are both truly stellar siblings, and I’m grateful for both of you, and that we will have one another going forward. Thank you for being yourselves, for being close friends and allies in this journey that none of us would have chosen.
  • And lastly, Dad. Your dignity, your grace, and your steadfastness during undoubtedly the most painful time of your life was a true inspiration. In telling Mom’s story, your poise will always be something we cherish, and that we aspire to. Thank you so much.

I’ll close with a concept that my friend Liz introduced me to in grad school. She said it was from Buddhism though in my limited readings on Buddhism, I’ve never seen it. But regardless, this concept stipulates that everyone actually dies twice. The first time is when you shuffle off this earthly body. And the second time occurs when the last person who remembers you, passes away. And the reason is that everyone in your life, everyone you meet, carries with them the thoughts, the memories, and the influences that you had on their life.

And in Mom’s instance, everyone she taught – whether that’s me, Andrew, Emily, some 770-some school children, or any of us who knew her – will tell her story.

We are her story.

As I raise my own child, I’ll teach her to be curious. Independent. Grateful. And through all of it, to never lose her sass.

In other words, I’ll teach her how to live. And I can’t think of a better story to tell than that.

Eulogy for My Wife

December 24, 2019

Mary Ellen, my beautiful wife of 44 years, was laid to rest on December 23, 2019. These are my words of remembrance, delivered at her funeral mass.

Mr. Carson of Downton Abbey once reminded us that

“The business of life is the acquisition of memories. In the end, that’s all there is.”

I would like to share just a few of my memories of my life with my beautiful Mary Ellen. And I hope that later on today, and in the days, months, and years ahead, we’ll have the opportunity to share even more of them.

What was she like as a wife, as a mother, as the head of our house and home?

Please just read today’s first Reading, from the Book of Proverbs (31: 10-31.)  But don’t just read it through. Read a verse, stop, and ponder it. Update it to the present day. Then continue, in like manner, until you get to the end.

That’s what I remember about being married to her. Especially this verse:

“She opens her mouth with wisdom, and in her tongue is the law of kindness.”

Her wisdom. Every decision of importance during our life together was made by Mary Ellen.

What do I remember about meeting her?

She was wearing a Northeastern jacket. It belonged to her brother Gerry. That got our conversation started. I might have said something about Northeastern hockey, I don’t know.

We were waiting in the corridors of Lyons Hall at Boston College. It was before Music in Western Culture, taught by professor C. Alexander Peloquin. She was pretty, friendly, very easy to talk to…and she had the most fantastic pair of legs.

She got those legs from walking across Boston. She had a part-time job with the phone company, down on Broad Street, and she’d walk all the way over to Park Square after work, meet her father as he was getting out, and be driven home by her mother.

I began looking forward to that class, just to sit near her and make small talk with her. I knew even then that this girl was different. I wanted to keep seeing her. But what could I do? The second semester of my senior year was ending, and I might never see her again. So I asked if she would like to be my date for senior week.  She accepted. Whew!

But we had to go on a regular date first. And I managed to make a great impression on her. Ultra-class. I took her to the Wonderland Dog Track and then to Charlie’s Kitchen for the cheeseburger special.  Mary Ellen showed her patience and tolerance when she stuck with me after that night.

On the way home from Charlie’s we stopped along the Cambridge side of the Charles. Just for a little while…to admire the Coca Cola sign across the river. There was also a submarine race in the Charles, and we took that in. But I behaved.  I was not going to let this one get away. This was the one. I knew it. And this was only our first date.

The first time I went to the Hughes house, I got to join the whole family – at least 12 of the 14 children — in watching home movies and slide shows. I can remember thinking – how am I possibly going to remember the names of all these brothers and sisters? And how do her parents do it?

Well, it wasn’t so hard for me to get the names and numbers right. But if was also evident that there wasn’t just one mother to take care of all those kids. There were two: Helen and Mary Ellen.

Even as a teenager, Mary Ellen was taking care of the younger kids. Especially the ones she called the three little boys – Joe, Frank, and Pete. Helen had it easier than you’d suspect. Because she had such great help.

Mary Ellen was born to look after others. It’s that simple.

One regret that she had about her childhood. She never had any alone time with her mother.  What she’d have given, she often said, to have just an hour or two of her mother, all to herself.

You’ve heard about our first date. I’d like to tell you about our most memorable date.

It was a BC football game. We had season tickets to BC, but we never sat together in the stands because I was up in the announcer’s booth. But we did go to some away games, and we liked when BC played Army up at West Point.

There was only one problem with going there. The seats you could buy through BC were always terrible. But one year, one of our politically connected friends suggested that he might be able to work his Washington contacts for some better tickets.

So he called the offices of representatives Moakley and Kennedy, and the folks at West Point were glad to oblige. Two tickets each. We got the ones from Kennedy’s office.

When Mary Ellen and I got to the stadium, they saw our tickets and directed us to a special entrance. From there, they escorted us to the superintendent’s box on the 50 yard line. It seemed that the people at West Point thought that Joe Kennedy himself was coming to the game. So, Mary Ellen and I were the special guests of general Howard Graves, superintendent of West Point, and his lovely wife Gracie.  Early in the first quarter the public address announcer asked everybody to welcome our distinguished visitors, congressman Joseph P. Kennedy and his wife. And 50,000 people in Michie Stadium turned around to look at us.

That was a memorable date.

How about the biggest thrill Mary Ellen ever gave me?

One night we were lying in bed. She had a big baby bump in her belly. And there had been a time when we were wondering whether there ever would be a baby bump. We had tried to conceive for more than a year before Mary Ellen got pregnant with Matthew.

So we were lying there, about to drop off to sleep, and she whispered, “Hey. Give me your hand.” And she placed it gently on her belly. And she said “Wait.” I didn’t have to wait long. I could feel Matthew kicking inside her. I felt so close to her, and to God, that night. The thrill was indescribable.

How about memories of Mary Ellen’s career as a teacher?

About ten years ago, I was sitting at the head table of a Gridiron Club awards dinner. The gentleman next to me had been named high school official of the year.

I asked what town he lived in. He said Milton. I said, “Oh, my wife teaches first grade in Milton.”

A double take. “Wait a minute. You said your name is Burke? Mrs. Burke? Your wife is Mrs. Burke?”

Out came his cell phone. He dialed his wife, who was sitting out in the audience.

“See this guy? He’s married to Mrs. Burke!”

The man’s wife came up to the dais after the dinner and told me how wonderful it had been for their children to have Mary Ellen as a teacher. It wasn’t the first time I heard that, and it’s not the last.

I can recall so many beautiful stories and examples of how Mary Ellen brought out the best in her students. And in her fellow teachers. We could be here all day.

Did you know that Mary Ellen is in a novel? One of her students has written three books already. The first one is a young adult drama called “The Land of Blue.” The heroine has a kindly math teacher named Mrs. Burke. Here’s what Mrs. Burke had to say to the protagonist after her grades began slipping.

“I know you don’t enjoy the material, Cassie, but I also know you are more than capable. I can’t help noticing that you seem somewhere else lately. Is everything all right?”

Now that’s true to life.

I also recall the story of a lady who said that Mary Ellen saved her son’s life. That’s only a slight exaggeration. In this case, the boy had some significant issues that the Milton Schools couldn’t address. An outplacement was needed, but nobody was helping to make it happen.

According to this lady, Mary Ellen was the only one who told her what her son was entitled to and how to go about getting it for him. And that wasn’t her job. But nobody else was doing it. And Mary Ellen stepped up.

More on the special-needs kids…long before they were talking about things like mainstreaming and inclusion, Mary Ellen would regularly invite the younger kids from the special needs classes to her room. They got to experience activities that they otherwise would never have seen.

And then there was the little boy who was doing very poorly. His grades were bad across the board and he was totally lost. He looked like a candidate for a special class too. But Mary Ellen sensed something about him. He wanted desperately to learn, and she felt it.

And the answer was simple. He needed glasses. His eyesight was so poor he couldn’t see the words on the page in front of him. And as soon as he had his eyes tested, at her urging, and got those glasses, his academic performance took off.  He did love learning. She was right. And she was so thrilled for that lad.

And that’s what gave Mary Ellen the most satisfaction. Not what they learned from her. But that they gained the confidence and the ability to go out and learn for themselves.  And they took to heart her mantra: “Burke Means Work!”

I mentioned that she was born to care for others. She was also born to teach others. She was, as her Jesuit education would always promote, a person for others.

I would like to close with some poetry. I’ll quote a portion of one poem, and I’ll read another.

The first is a long poem, Rabbi Ben Ezra by Robert Browning

Mary Ellen was fond of quoting the first lines of that poem.

Grow old along with me!

The best is yet to be.

It frequently came up when we were preparing our talks for whatever session we would be leading in the Marriage Preparation Program at our parish. And sometime when we were just talking ourselves, about our future.

Here’s the whole of the first stanza.

Grow old along with me!

The best is yet to be,

The last of life, for which the first was made:

Our times are in His hand

Who saith “A whole I planned,

Youth shows but half; trust God: see all, nor be afraid!”

I don’t think I need to tell this to those of our generation who are sharing this celebration of Mary Ellen’s life today. But in honor of her, I’ll remind you anyway. You are in the last of life. And you know it’s the best part. Savor it and love it, every single day. And do trust God, see all, nor be afraid.

Up to now I’ve spoken about Mary Ellen. Now I’ll speak for her. I’ll do it by reading this poem. It came to my attention just recently. I understand that it’s a particular favorite of our Jewish brothers and sisters. Mary Ellen would certainly say this to you, or something very similar, as we remember her today.

The poem is called Epitaph. It’s by Merrit Malloy.

When I die

Give what’s left of me away

To children

And old men that wait to die.

 

And if you need to cry,

Cry for your brother

Walking the street beside you.

 

And when you need me,

Put your arms

Around anyone

And give them

What you need to give to me.

 

I want to leave you something,

Something better

Than words

Or sounds.

 

Look for me

In the people I’ve known

Or loved,

And if you cannot give me away,

At least let me live on in your eyes

And not your mind.

 

You can love me most

By letting

Hands touch hands,

By letting bodies touch bodies,

And by letting go

Of children

That need to be free.

 

Love doesn’t die,

People do.

So, when all that’s left of me

Is love,

Give me away.

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.

Book Review: “Beyond the Flight of the Arrow” by James Bradford Taylor

August 1, 2019

Author Brad Taylor

Sometimes, you just want to escape. Get away from here. Have a rollicking, swashbuckling adventure in a far-off land.  Meet your childhood hero or the girl of your dreams.  Tell their story – no, live in their story the way you imagine it was in days of old.

Here’s one way to do it. Make this book by James Bradford “Brad” Taylor part of your summer reading list. Take it to the beach, willingly suspend your disbelief, unsheathe your trusty sword, and offer battle to the forces of evil.

The book, Taylor’s first, is an autobiographically-flavored fantasy fulfillment.  As the book’s hero, Andrew “Finney” Jackson, he is a cinema owner who gets the chance to prowl around the offices and warehouse of a long-dead Hollywood movie mogul.  He falls down some cellar stairs and is transported, Twilight-Zone fashion, back to Sherwood Forest, where his adventure begins.

As a lad growing up in Winthrop, Massachusetts, Brad Taylor stoked his imagination with one of the town’s biggest and best-organized troves of DC Comic books.  Superman and Batman were staples, but he was also a big fan and authority on the likes of Green Lantern; Hawkman; Green Arrow and Speedy, and just about anyone else who was good enough to make the roster of the Justice League of America.

Olivia de Havilland as Maid Marian and Errol Flynn as Robin Hood, 1938

When Brad outgrew the comic book heroes and began to notice girls, he developed a “thing” for Olivia de Havilland. She played Maid Marian in the 1938 film “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” with Errol Flynn in the lead role and other familiar names like Basil Rathbone, Claude Rains, and Alan Hale in the supporting cast. It was the first color film by Warner Brothers studios.

I don’t think it’s revealing too much about the book to say that our hero Finney falls in love with Maid Marian, rescues her, kidnaps her for ransom, but ultimately doesn’t wed her.  He points out that she always went off with Errol Flynn, so he lets Robin Hood marry her in the end.

The book’s subtitle is A Fantasy Adventure Concerning Robin Hood, Errol Flynn, and One Finney Jackson.  Nope.  It should be something like An Adventurous Story of Unrequited Love for Olivia de Havilland by One James B. Taylor.  But that little misdirection notwithstanding, I have to give Brad credit for honesty about his feelings for Olivia. Who among us did not have such fantasies as we stumbled through adolescence? I recall similar crushes that I had on Daniela Bianchi as Tatiana Romanova, and on Katharine Ross as Elaine Robinson.  (Now I rather dig Mrs. Robinson. But I digress.)

Here’s what Brad/Finney had to say after initially encountering Maid Marian in boy’s clothing, disguised as a page, and being the first of the Merry Men to recognize that she was a woman:

“Not only was she a woman, she was incredibly beautiful as well. How did I know this ‘page’ was a woman? Well, when you have seen one of the most beautiful women in the world, you don’t forget her face, even if the next time you see her she’s dressed as a boy. Yes, I had seen this woman before. Not once, but many times.

“She had made the biggest impression on me, however, when she co-starred in The Adventures of Robin Hood as Maid Marian, for this ‘page’ riding on the trail below us was none other than Olivia de Havilland…Perhaps it would be more correct to say she was the living, breathing image of Olivia de Havilland; for Robin was the exact double of Errol Flynn, yet he was Robin Hood and not an actor…

“When I was twelve years old I first saw The Adventures of Robin Hood on television, and I fell instantly in love with Olivia de Havilland as Maid Marian. It was my first adolescent crush, and I never really got entirely over it…To me, the beauty of Olivia de Havilland was perfection in every way with her dark hair and those eyes of hers. Those eyes! Has any of God’s creatures ever possessed such eyes?

“She could only be mine when I saw her in The Adventures of Robin Hood; and then she always went off with Errol Flynn…This time, though, I was in a position to determine whether there could be something between us in reality. As far as I was concerned, there would be.”

Well, there is something nice that develops between our hero and the lovely woman. They become good buds.  But that’s all. Along the way Robin stumbles badly and for a while seems most unworthy of her. Our hero Brad/Finney becomes of the realm’s premier swordsmen. He seems to emerge as a contender for Maid Marian’s heart.  However, as previously noted, Robin and Marian eventually wed.  Though the author refashions parts of the Robin Hood legend and rewrites some of the script of the Errol Flynn movie to suit his fancy, he leaves the legend’s essentials intact.

During his daring escapades, Brad/Finney also gets in some commentary on the history of the period. In the movie, King Richard the Lion-Hearted (a big misnomer, actually; he was a nebbish) the scummy Prince John was not yet on the throne of England. Robin Hood and his boys robbed from the rich, gave to the poor, stymied the evil Sir Guy of Gisbourne, and kept Prince John off the throne.

In this book, John has been the king for sixteen years. And it’s Brad/Finney who intervenes with the Archbishop of Canterbury and brings about King John’s reluctant signing of the Magna Carta.

Basil Rathbone as Sir Guy of Gisbourne, Claude Rains as Prince John in the 1938 film.

Robin has already told his new recruit to the Merry Men the truth about the present and previous monarchs of the realm.

“A woeful reign it has been for his subjects. He taxes everyone heavily. And those who cannot pay in gold must pay in crops. It was a foul wind that blew that accursed Norman [Gisbourne] to England’s shores seven years ago. Until then King John wasn’t so bad, but Gisbourne’s intrigues have made everything worse. The King is his puppet.”

That latter story isn’t history, because Sir Guy is fictional; he’s simply a villain who shows up in most of the retellings of the Robin Hood legend.  But by that point of the book we’re beyond letting facts get in the way of a good story.

At the end, before he’s whisked back to the present, Brad/Finney gets to kiss Marian, the bride, at her wedding. But just prior to that little wish-come-true, Robin Hood gives him a small stone, a talisman, which had been a gift to him from Little John.

“It signifies a great friendship,” Robin says. “There are only two things on earth that go beyond the flight of the arrow. One is the love that comes once in a lifetime between a man and a woman. The other is friendship between two men that no force on earth can overcome.”

I’ll raise a tankard of Sherwood Forest’s finest ale to that one.

Remembering Cathy Inglese, Boston College Women’s Basketball’s Greatest Coach

July 25, 2019

Cathy Inglese, age 60, died on July 24, 2019 after suffering a traumatic brain injury in a fall at her home. The following is her story that I wrote in 2014, when she was inducted into the Boston College Varsity Club Hall of Fame. She was one of the very best. May she rest in peace.

The coach with the most wins in the history of Boston College basketball had never planned to make coaching her career.

Cathy Inglese graduated from Southern Connecticut State on a Friday. She started teaching at Glastonbury High School the following Monday. She reapplied for a full-time position the following September. They told her that of course, since she’d been a star basketball player in college, she’d coach as well as teach.

“Southern was a good program when I played there, but coaching never entered my mind. I was planning to get a master’s degree in nutrition,” Cathy said.

A multi-sport star throughout high school, Cathy had turned down offers from BC, UConn and Providence to play basketball at her parents’ alma mater. She had been a good athlete since her childhood in the town of Wallingford.  “They were outside all day long,” her mother Nancy said about Cathy and her siblings. If it wasn’t baseball or basketball, they’d be climbing trees.”

In the fall of her third year of teaching, Cathy attended a Big East coaches’ clinic in Hartford and met up with Cecilia DeMarco, head coach at the University of New Hampshire. That spring, DeMarco called about an opening for an assistant basketball coach and assistant athletic director.

“My father had asked me if I’d ever like to try teaching in college, and I figured, ‘what have I got to lose.’ I was 26 at the time. I found that I liked working with student-athletes who were away from home for the first time. I got to travel, to teach, to recruit and to sell,” she explains.

Three years later, Cathy took over the University of Vermont basketball program, which had never had a winning season. Over seven years there, she transformed both Catamount basketball and herself. In her last two seasons, UVM went 29-1 and 28-1 and made the NCAA tournament.

Off the court, she conquered her fear of public speaking and hit the circuit. She addressed executives at IBM’s Vermont facility, among others, and discoursed on topics like leadership, motivation, and teamwork.

“I learned that it doesn’t matter if you’re the president of a company or a coach. You’ve got to have goals. You’ve got to believe in yourself. And it takes time. When you bring people from different backgrounds and with different outlooks, you can succeed as long you share the same vision.”

“I was lucky at Vermont,” she said. “I got to make all my mistakes early, in things like recruiting and in the systems I tried.”

Vermont was where Inglese learned to be a head coach. Boston College was where she put that all that knowledge to work. When Eagle athletic director Chet Gladchuk came calling, it didn’t take much convincing for him to bring her on board.

Again, it took time. Three losing seasons to start off. No fans at Conte Forum. But she made it clear to Gladchuk that there should be no more games in the adjoining Power Gym either. It was going to be a big-time program in a big-time facility.

“In our first game, it was so quiet you could hear the ball bouncing. It wasn’t a great environment, but it was something to build on,” she said.

Gradually, the talented athletes started to arrive. Cal Bouchard, who wasn’t widely known to college coaches, was a recruiting breakthrough. Cathy pursued Cal her after seeing a videotape of her being interviewed on television in Canada. Bouchard’s rookie year of 1996-97 was an 18-10 campaign and Inglese’s first winning one at the Heights.

Many more star athletes and successful seasons would follow. In her 15 years at the Heights, Cathy amassed a record of 273-179.  Among the highlights was the Big East championship in 2004. Inglese’s fifth-seeded Eagles won four games in four nights at the Hartford Civic Center, including a 51-48 semifinal conquest of nemesis Connecticut.

Cathy’s teams also had seven NCAA Tournament bids, and three advances to the national championship tourney’s Sweet 16. In 2005-06, the first year in the ACC, the Eagles lost their last five contests but still qualified for the NCAAs. At the Albuquerque Regional, they defeated Notre Dame and then top-seeded Ohio State, to once again make the round of 16.

Erik Johnson, now the head coach at BC, was Cathy’s assistant in her last three seasons. He marvels at the attention to detail and her meticulous planning that frequently brought victories over more talented opponents.

“I learned from her that that there’s no magic formula to winning at a high level. But every little thing matters. So we might not have players that are as big or as fast as North Carolina’s, but we could beat them because we made fewer mistakes. We moved the ball better, we were better prepared. Our fundamentals were better,” he said.

Clare Droesch was a free-wheeling shooter, a high school All-America when she arrived in 2001. For her, it was a struggle in adjusting to the Inglese way.

“She was an X and O coach who would look for five or six passes before the shot. It was hard, but it finally clicked for me in junior and senior years. When you bought into the system, it worked,” said Clare.

“We were one of the highest-percentage teams in the country. Coach did an amazing job of building offenses and defenses with the players she had.  When she saw potential, she’d push you to the limit of what you could be.”

Brooke Queenan, who played on all three of Inglese’s Sweet 16 squads, adds,

“I’ve never had a coach with her work ethic, and how goal-oriented she was. She demanded that from all of us.”

Interviewing Cathy at her home in Rhode Island in 2014

The team went 21-12 in 2007-08, Cathy’s final year at Boston College. After departing, she took a year off, then became head coach at the University of Rhode Island. Kingston wasn’t Chestnut Hill, though, and it didn’t happen for Cathy’s Rams. After five seasons, she moved on to explore other options including athletic administration, non-profit development, and leadership consulting.

The world hasn’t heard the last of Cathy Inglese, and it will be a long time before any coach in any sport at Boston College compiles a record of success like hers.

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?