Archive for the ‘People’ Category

What Writers Live For

February 24, 2016

Cover front2Our book was published a little over a year ago. I just have to share the email (below) that I received from Shauna Sullivan McDonald. She is the daughter of Charlie Sullivan, Boston College Class of 1942.

This is why I love writing stories about people – whether they are athletes or not.

Charlie was the oldest former player whom I interviewed during the course of my research. He is, I am quite sure, the oldest living BC hockey alumnus. My co-author Reid Oslin interviewed Bill Hogan, Class of 1933, who lived to the age of 100 and who, unfortunately, did not live to see the book published.

Bill Hogan was the true founding father of Boston College hockey. He was class president in 1932-33. Hockey had been curtailed at the school due to the Great Depression. He persuaded the administration to revive the sport, and he recruited John “Snooks” Kelley to be the coach.

Charlie Sullivan came along a few years later. He was on a team that had three great players — Ray Chaisson, Fishy Dumond, and Johnny Pryor — and a bunch of scrubs including Charlie. In 1941, with World War II looming and knowing that he’d be called to service, Charlie didn’t come back to school in the fall. He waited around, but wasn’t drafted right away.

He happened to be on the campus one day when one of the priests saw him and asked why he was not in school. Charlie told him, and the good father promptly ordered him to report to the dean and to the athletic department.

Charlie played most of that 1941-42 season before the army came calling. His last game was on February 7 when the Eagles lost 7-2 to Dartmouth. Charlie wasn’t around at season’s end for BC’s first national championship. They won the George V. Brown Memorial Trophy as the top amateur hockey team in the country, besting the High Standard, Massena, and Saint Nick’s Hockey Clubs in the National AAU Tournament.

Charlie was just full of stories about his BC days. The team practiced only a few times a week, very early in the mornings at Boston Arena. Frequently, the practices were scrimmages against BU or Northeastern. The players would pitch a quarter each into a pot. The winners would use their money to buy breakfast at the White Tower restaurant on the way back to class.

The all had jobs on the side — usually at the Post Office or in supermarkets — while playing hockey and studying full time. For extra money, they’d sell pints of blood to the Red Cross.

Yes, times were different then. It was a privilege to be able to tell the stories after speaking with someone who lived through them.

Shauna Sullivan email

 

 

 

I’m Not Mike Carruthers, But This is Something You Should Know

December 28, 2015

It’s about actor Richard Dreyfuss. And good on him, for his work in education.

Smithsonian magazine for January-February interviews the 68-year-old Dreyfuss about his upcoming role as financial fraudster and uber-thief Bernie Madoff. Dreyfuss’s career has come a long way since his “I’ll get the cops” line in The Graduate back in 1968.

richard-dreyfuss-flagLooks like Dreyfuss is a great fit to play Madoff. They both are natives of Bayside, a section of Queens in New York City. Dreyfuss tells of his youth as a streetwise, smartass kid who grappled with the big questions of good and evil with the specters of communism, socialism, and fascism lurking in the background. His big breakthrough as an actor was a wise guy in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz.

(Aside – that book was by Mordecai Richler, a Canadian who also wrote some superb stuff about professional hockey and the six-team NHL. Read his Dispatches from the Sporting Life, and you’ll agree.)

In the interview, Dreyfuss compares the amoral Madoff to Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello. The evil that Iago wrought goes beyond the merely personal to the cosmic. He wants to destroy everything in his path.

Dreyfuss also talks about his work in Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and about how his career spun out of control – literally – back in 1982 and nearly got him killed. He’d made it big, gone Hollywood, and was sleeping around and indulging heavily in recreational chemicals. One night he threw a tantrum, stormed out of a tryst, and flipped his Mercedes convertible off the road into a canyon.

Miraculously, he survived that accident and “turned his life around,” as the trite line goes. That’s why I say “Good on him.” He’s a former “red diaper baby,” a child of socialist/communist-leaning parents, and still serious about big-picture political discussions like those he heard growing up.

It’s not that all such discussions were about weighty issues. Once, when he asked his mother why she was a socialist instead of a communist, she replied “Better doughnuts.”

But that seriousness propelled him to study political philosophy at Oxford and, ultimately, to take the lead in the Dreyfuss Civics Initiative.

He also cites the important influence of his wife Svetlana, a most impressive lady whom I once had the pleasure of meeting. Svetlana is a Russian émigré and daughter of a KGB heavyweight. She let Richard know what it was like, even for those in the power elite, to live in a country where civics is non-existent.

The Smithsonian interview states that Dreyfuss believes “deeply in the brilliance of the Constitution, and that what’s really wrong with America, and the world for that matter, is that no one any longer teaches or studies the values of the Constitution.”

The article goes on to say that Dreyfuss seeks to “encourage civics education and Enlightenment values at a time when Enlightenment values – tolerance, free speech and the like – are under attack by sectarian values in the world.”

Sound familiar, boys and girls?

Let’s let Dreyfuss himself have the last word on the subject.

“You’ve got to protect the system of secular faith in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and Enlightenment values. That way you can protect all religions.”

And I’ll repeat my last word on Richard Dreyfuss: Good on him!

Eulogy for My Brother, Jackie Burke

October 16, 2014

Delivered by Thomas Burke at funeral mass, Saint John the Evangelist Church, October 16, 2014

John V. Burke

John V. Burke

On behalf of Jackie’s son Patrick and all of Jackie’s brothers and sisters, I thank you all for being with us this morning. Your presence here and your thoughtfulness during recent weeks has meant a great deal to everyone.

Our lives are but a brief moment in time between two vast eternities. Jackie’s moment is ended, and he has entered the eternity that follows. But however brief was his life, however brief is anyone’s life, that doesn’t mean it cannot be filled with wonderful and happy memories. And as Mr. Carson of Downton Abbey reminds us, “The business of life is the acquisition of memories. In the end, that’s all there is.”

So let’s share some of those memories of my brother. I’m sure you all have many favorite ones, as do I. Jackie is with us now in spirit, his pain is gone, and he wants us to smile when we think of him today.

Childhood. Jackie was born ten years after I was. That decade’s age difference let me be the big brother in ways that Peter and Jimmy weren’t able to. I delivered newspapers all through grammar school, and my bike was equipped with a special, extra-large, industrial strength wire basket on the front. It was ideal for carrying 75 Boston Globes or one two-year old boy.

When I was taking care of Jackie, I used to love riding about the town with him in that basket. We’d go to the parks, the playgrounds, the beaches. Every time down at Winthrop Beach, he would point out “the balls.” Those giant golf-ball domes atop the Fort Heath radar towers.

It’s so much fun showing new and wondrous things to little ones. And for me, on those rides around town, I got to show him off to all the friends I’d meet. Especially to the girls. How I loved to do that.

I was so proud of my baby brother.

Adolescence. That meant hockey memories. They begin with all those years of my mother and Catherine McDonald driving Jackie and the McDonald boys here, there and everywhere. They all became very good hockey players, and when they got to high school they played together on the “Irish Line.” Jackie was the right wing, Bobby the center and Joe the left wing. They were the highest scoring high school Division One line in the state in 75-76. They won the East Coast Aero Tech Trophy for that. They’re in the Winthrop High Hall of Fame.

Jackie did pick up one edgy little habit along the way. When he scored a goal, sometimes he’d rub it in by turning his stick around and pretending he was shooting the goalie with the Ugly Gun. The Danvers athletic director complained to Jim Evans, and he put a stop to it.

I was there for those state tournament games at the Garden. That third overtime against Norwood – after midnight – Jackie stealing the pass in the Winthrop zone and going in alone for the winning goal, 4-3. Then again in the Eastern Mass final against Braintree, he got the game winner.

I made it into the locker room after the Braintree game. Reporters were all over the place, and I happened to catch a glimpse of one guy’s notepad after he interviewed Jackie. By that time, word had gotten out that he was the nephew of the late Walter Brown, and Jackie told the reporter that he used to come in to the Garden and practice with the Bruins. Well, Jackie was five when Walter died in 1964. He never knew his uncle Walter, and he certainly never practiced with the Bruins. I tapped the reporter on the shoulder and asked him not to include that tall tale that Jackie concocted in the flush of victory.

Sorry, Jack. I’ve never told anyone about that. But I think I saved you a little embarrassment. Not that your uncle wasn’t pleased to see what you’d done, watching from the Second Balcony. He coached the first American World championship hockey team, he ran the Garden from 1937 to 1964, he was president of the Bruins, and he never had a hockey thrill like that from any family member.
Those were great times. I knew that I’d never see a performance like that again.

I was so proud of my younger brother.

When the cancer came, it was horrible. It’s an angry, diabolical disease. Neither surgery nor intense radiation could slow it down. But Jackie fought it all the way. He got excellent support from his nurses, especially Colleen Kilbride, and from Patrick, a trooper during that battle just as he had been for his country, when he served in the US Marines in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Jackie’s friends rallied to put on a nice benefit evening for him – Charlotte Macrillo Flynn, Owen Gillis, Sharon McCarthy and their committee. Jackie was fighting a lonely battle but he wasn’t alone.

The last day I saw Jackie was on October 7. I was with him for a couple of hours at his apartment. He was in a lot of pain and had difficulty talking. We knew how hard it was for him to take care of himself. When he and I were alone together I asked him to consider going to hospice care. He wrote me a note on his note pad that said “No. If I go there, that means I’m giving up. I’m not giving up. I’m going to fight this.”

That wasn’t what I’d hoped to hear at the time. And eventually he relented. Patrick brought him to the hospice in Danvers to next day. The following morning, Jackie was asleep when Peter stopped by to visit. I was getting ready to leave and go up there later in the day when Peter called. Jackie had not awakened, but had died that afternoon.

So the last time I saw Jackie, he was still fighting, still battling against odds that had become impossible. But maybe that’s just what we should expect of a hockey player.

I was so proud – I am still so proud – of my brother.

Jackie, now it is time to say goodbye. You’re back with Mom and Dad. You’ve probably already been in on some pickup hockey games. And if they designed it properly, hockey players’ heaven is the old Boston Garden, that House of Magic where you had your greatest triumph. It’s jammed with 13,909 souls. And Mom, Dad, Uncle Walter, and all the rest are cheering you on from Section 34, Rows C and D.

Please give them our love. Your brothers and sisters, and all of us here today, will be along to join you by and by.

Atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale.

And forever, brother, hail and farewell.

Autumn Leaves, and Ladies of Autumn: Two of My Favorite Things

September 8, 2014

reds2Maria von Trapp had cream colored ponies and girls in white dresses. I’ve got flame colored tree leaves and girls with grey tresses.

These are two of my favorite things: the reds and golds and yellows of autumn in New England, and the company of women of my generation. It’s almost that time of year when I encounter the former. Any time of the year will do for encountering the latter. They’re two of life’s greatest pleasures.

The blazing hues of fall carry along with them all that’s gone before: the snow blankets of winter, the grudging thaws of mud time, the hopeful green shoots and buds of early spring, the winds and showers and storms and happy days of summer…they’re all wrapped up and glowing through the glad symphony of September glory.

gold2The greying hairs and the crinkly countenances of the ladies bear with them all that’s gone before as well: the pangs of childbirth as they brought forth humanity’s next generation; the illness and distresses of their little ones; the ripening and blossoming of youths they nurtured; the kisses and embraces of loved ones; the laughter and the tears of shared joy and sorrow…they’re all wrapped up and retold in the whispers and smiles and sparkling eyes of mature womanhood.

I love to walk the woods and parkland trails, early of an autumn morning or in the full of day or in the cool of evening. I am grateful for all that the winter, spring, and summer stored up the beauty I see at this time of riotous color. Here in New England, in the season that is just about to begin, there’s magnificence that nowhere else on earth can match.

In like manner, I love to meet and talk with old friends. There’s no friend like a friend of my youth. Especially if that friend is a woman who, like me, is in the September of her years.

yellow2Her crown of hair might be full grey or just silver-streaked, but her life story is anything but grey. It rings forth with the color and variety of the autumn woods. Her laugh lines are like the tiny creases in the leaves that flutter down to my outstretched hands on breezy fall days. Those lines may have been born in times of merriment, like a warm and tranquil month of summer. Or they may have furrowed her brow in times of stress and care, as a blustery March blast once shook the strong green leaves.

Each woman’s life story is unique, but it’s always a story of love. I am grateful for that story, and I never tire of hearing it. Woman’s strength is God’s greatest gift to man.

I cannot understand men of my age who insist on the company of women who are fifteen or twenty or more years their junior. I feel sorry for them. It’s rather like he who, on the first cool night of fall, boards a plane for Florida and leaves New England’s harvest banquet hall right before the feast begins. All such men are missing out on the Lord’s plenty.

Give me New England in autumn. Give me women my own age. Two of my favorite things.

The Worldly Wisdom and Wit of Judith Wax: Book Review and Personal Reflection

May 15, 2014

Altered Aspirations
I once wanted to grow up to be Grantland Rice. He was the classics-steeped dean of American sportswriters who came up with “Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again…” To my young mind, that line was perfection itself. If only I could write like him!

Author Judith Wax

Author Judith Wax

That was until I read Judith Wax. She was my first professional crush. I wanted to write like Judith Wax. I still want to.

Grantland Rice wrote about sports. Judith Wax wrote, for the most part, about a much more interesting subject: women.

In 1973, she burst onto the journalistic/literary scene with “The Waterbury Tales,” subject of which was the Watergate scandal. It was a wonderfully creative, funny, and stylistically accurate parody of Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales.”

Judith was 42 years old at the time. Her poem was picked up by several national publications, and she quickly became a hot commodity as a magazine feature writer and interviewer.

Judith’s first book was “Starting in the Middle,” published in 1979. The prologue begins

“Whan that forty with his hot pursuite,
Play happy birthday to yow on his floote,
And even they who marathon hath wonne
Can no the moving calendar outronne,
When heads that hadde blacke hayr, and blondys,
Discovyr in ther midst some straunge strondes,
Whan dimplyn’ folks flesshe with cellulyte,
And troubyl creepin’ in on smal crow’s feete,
Whan Mothyr Bell hath print her book too smalle,
Whan movying hands writ HOT FLASSH on youre walle,
Than starts the pilgrimage thru middle ages,
A tryp the OLDE WYFE tel in these pagys.”

Is that not brilliant? This is what “The Waterbury Tales” was like. As soon as I heard she’d done a book, I bought it, devoured it, and eventually lent it to someone who never returned it. Just recently, I bought another copy via Amazon. I love it even more than I did 30 years ago.

Back then, I longed to be as clever and witty as Judith Wax was with her similes, metaphors, literary allusions, and observations. One of the worst shocks about middle age, she suggested, was finding out that no one is really in charge. I can’t disagree with that.

She titled a chapter about raising her children “Slouching Toward Bettelheim.” In a piece titled “The Latest Wrinkle,” she interviewed people who’d undergone cosmetic surgery. She wrote

“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may is still advice for virgins
For this same flower that smiles today too soon seeks plastic surgeons.”

In that same article, Judith went on to surmise that people feel comfortable talking to her about having face-craft done was for the same reason she could draw them out on such sensitive subjects as child-rearing and marriage problems: that we are comfortable talking with those “…as least as far from perfection as we are…Would you ask Cybill Shepherd whether she thinks your laugh lines are all that bad?”

The chapter concluded with a personal anecdote. Near the end of a vacation trip, she and her husband had gotten up early to catch a flight out of Rome. Her makeup-less face was the “worst Roman ruin around” as her husband shoved her into a tiny hotel elevator where she came face-to-face with Catherine Deneuve.

“Has any middle-aged woman ever had a crueler confrontation at dawn’s early light?” Her spouse had arranged for himself, she said, “…a close-up comparative view, cheek-by-jowl, of Catherine and me – Beauty and the Creased.”

In an earlier chapter she wrote that she’d met her husband at college, went steady for two years, got “pinned” and then engaged, and married him only partly because, in the dark garage behind her freshman dorm, he had explained “Sex is an integral part of life. Nobody had ever said ‘integral’ to me before.’”

My First Impressions

Wax - book2When I first read this delightful work so long ago, I marveled at all that – Judith’s humor, artistry, and self-deprecating personality. Also, like any male who’s honest will admit to, I couldn’t get enough of her confidential talks with thoughtful, experienced women on such topics as beauty, sex, and marriage. Several of the chapters have material like the above that had originally run in magazines like Cosmopolitan, Vanity Fair, and Vogue. None of them were on my subscription list.

Here’s just an example of such a discussion. In a chapter on women who’ve had, or are contemplating, an extramarital affair, she begins “…a lot of us didn’t discover the possibilities of the double life until we’d been hit by the possibilities of the double chin.”

She interviewed a woman named Norma, twenty-one years married, who admitted to fantasizing for years about “…an aging Prince Charming somewhere around who had the balls to break my spell.” In anticipation of such a liaison, Norma secretly built up a stash of “adultery underwear.” Pantyhose had not yet arrived on the scene, so she bought a flame-red latex girdle with black lace, so as to distract her lover-to-be from the ugly girdle grippers that held up her stockings.

As it turned out, Norma never did go through with her plans to cheat on her husband, and stated, “It’s too late for the red girdle. But maybe just as well. With my luck, I probably would have picked a man who would have asked to borrow it.”

Re-Visiting and Looking Deeper

Going back to Judith and re-reading her three decades later was even better. Much better. My appreciation for her work, when I was young, could never have matched what I felt and realized about her the second time around.

Why? Because I’ve been through middle age myself. Like Judith had, I’ve heard Time’s Winged Chariot at my back. I too have worried about my looks and my physical and mental capacities. More telling, I’ve lost dear friends to cancer, as Judith did. Some beautiful ladies I know would be worthy interviewees for her.

Judith Wax gets to the heart of the matter in her conversations with people. She captures them and tells their stories with grace, respect, good humor, and loving sympathy when it’s needed. That’s the kind of writer I try to be.

About friendship and her own life, she says “The best thing about the midyears, at least about mine. Is the depth of the friendships. The worst thing can be losing them. It’s to be expected that in middle age, mortality is not only intimated, but sometimes delivered, that pain and loss are birthday presents no one asks for.”

Bringing her own experience into the matter, she goes on about “The December day the wittiest friend I’ve ever had had come home from the hospital. I brought her homemade soup and instant lies. Both offerings were meant to comfort (me as well as her); neither could be swallowed with ease any more. I found her sitting at her living room window, watching the melting snow. ‘I’m sitting here in a blaze of optimism, planning my garden,’ she said. We both laughed, an astonished burst, and then stared at each other in shocked recognition of what had been unspeakable between us, that maybe she wouldn’t live to see the garden’s blossoming. She didn’t.”

That passage cut right through me. I’d been there too. It was just a few years ago that Bobby, beloved and admired companion of my youth, was fast losing his battle with cancer. Our lives had diverged and I hadn’t seen him for a long while. Knowing he wasn’t doing well, I temporized about going over to the old home town. Would he even be well enough to see me? Will he want to? When his reply to my query came back almost immediately, “would love to see you,” I promised to be there the next day.

I had him all to myself for about three hours – a lot of laughing and reminiscing, a few long-wondered-about questions asked and answered, and just a little reflecting on the rotten hand of failing health he’d been dealt. He wasn’t able to drink the half-quart bottle of Schaefer beer – one of our favorites – I’d bought him for the occasion. I left, feeling tremendously guilty at how healthy I still was but grateful that I’d had the chance to talk with him once more. That day was the very last time I could have done so. He was dead within a week.

I suppose I could go on and on with examples both funny and poignant, on topics like emptying-nest angst, Jewish-mother-guilt, psychiatrists and rebellious children, career versus stay-at-home, the instant and unwelcome change of social status that comes with widowhood, and coming of age sexually. But maybe, if this review/ reflection appeals to you, then you could go and find a copy of the book. It’s out of print, but can be found on line.

The Key to Happiness?

While Judith Wax doesn’t purport to dispense advice, much of what she wrote is wisdom to be heeded. I’d like to cite one more passage as an example because I, too, have known people who’ve done what she tells. I also know people who’ve gone the opposite way in their lives.

On the topic of aging gracefully and happily, she mentions two women. One is wealthy, the other nearly penniless. But they both “…share continuing engagement. What their newspapers tell them each day is infinitely more interesting to them that what their mirrors do (though both are strikingly, and painstakingly, attractive). ..And whatever sneak attacks fate has prepared for them, they have stayed participants in a larger sphere than self-concern.”

Haven’t you met them too? Some people who can’t get enough of life, or can’t give enough? And others who have already quit at age fifty?

This compact little book is both Judith Wax’s self-introduction to her reading public and her smiling embrace of her own life and her future. At the end, she returns to the style of Chaucer and writes,

“I telle you that ripeness is the beste.
I vow that midlyfe’s bettyr than the reste.
I swear young folk have naught on myddl-agyrs,
(I swear, also, I’m Far y-Fawcett-Majyrs.)”

A Tragic Ending

“Starting in the Middle” was the only book that Judith Wax wrote. She and her husband were passengers on American Airlines Flight 191. Leaving Chicago on May 25, 1979, the plane crashed on takeoff from O’Hare Airport, exploding into a roaring fireball that killed all 271 people on board instantly.

For me, who believes that there’s a story worth telling about everyone, Judith Wax will always be an inspiration, an interviewer and storyteller to emulate. Here, that word means to imitate with the hope of equaling or surpassing. I doubt I’ll ever get there. No one did it better than she.

History I Never Knew: From the Annals of Mixology and Medicine

February 28, 2014

The Monkey Gland

The Monkey Gland

Hey guys – looking for a “potent” cocktail to order the next time you’re out on the town?

Try the following: 2 ounces gin, 1 1/2 ounces orange juice, 2 dashes of grenadine, 2 dashes of Pernod or Bénédictine, and a twist of orange peel.

Tell the bartender to shake the gin, orange juice, grenadine, and Pernod with ice, then strain it into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish it with the orange peel.

And be sure to order it that way and not by its name, lest you provoke a snicker from a bartender who knows the drink’s history. This cocktail is a Monkey Gland. And its history is an interesting one indeed.

Harry MacElhone, owner of Harry’s New York Bar in Paris, mixed the first Monkey Gland in the 1920s. He did it in recognition of the work of French surgeon Serge Voronoff.

Serge Voronoff (1866 - 1951)

Serge Voronoff (1866 – 1951)

Voronoff was born to a Jewish family near Voronezh, Russia in 1866. He emigrated to France at the age of 18, where he studied medicine and learned surgical techniques of transplantation under tutelage of Nobel Prize recipient Alexis Carrel. Between 1896 and 1910, Voronoff worked in Egypt, studying the retarding effects that castration had on eunuchs. That experience led him to his later work that ultimately gave the world the Monkey Gland cocktail.

Voronoff perfected the technique of transplanting testicle tissue from various primates into men. This, he claimed, would increase both longevity and sex drive. His research was bankrolled by a daughter of Jabez Bostwick, first treasurer of the Standard Oil Company. He started off transplanting testicle tissue from younger animals into older ones – sheep, goats, and bulls – and claimed that that the older ones became stronger and more vigorous.

Eventually, Voronoff moved to human male patients and began grafting thin slices of baboon and ape testicles into them. He wrote a book titled “Rejuvenation by Grafting.” The poet e.e. cummings wrote of “a famous doctor who inserted monkey glands in millionaires.” Irving Berlin’s song “Monkey-Doodle-Doo,” featured in a Marx Brothers film “The Coconuts,” has a line, “If you’re too old for dancing/Get yourself a monkey gland.”

About 500 men underwent the procedure in France, and thousands more around the world did too. They included Harold McCormick, chairman of the board of International Harvester and Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, military hero of World War I and president of Turkey.

The operation was in such high demand that Voronoff set up a monkey farm on the Italian Riviera. He gained fame and made a lot of money. The procedure was fashionable until the 1940s, when its ineffectiveness became known throughout the scientific and medical communities.

Voronoff was quickly discredited and became the butt of jokes. He died in 1951. His reputation did not recover any ground until the 1990s when discovery that the Sertoli cells of the testes constitute a barrier to the immune system. This makes the testes an immunologically privileged site for the transplantation of foreign tissue. So, in fact, the thin slices of monkey testicles implanted by Voronoff may have survived to produce some benefit.

More recently, there have been successful experiments in reducing insulin requirements in diabetics. The techniques involved implanting into the diabetic patients pancreatic islet cells from pigs. The pig cells were coated in Sertoli cells, which insulated the pig cells from attack by the patients’ immune systems. No immunosuppressive drugs were required.

So maybe we should raise a glass to the good Doctor Voronoff after all. Need I suggest what drink we quaff in his honor?

New Journeys with Old Friends

December 26, 2013

Rebecca Eaton

Rebecca Eaton

Emily Dickinson wrote “There is no frigate like a book/To take us lands away.”

Right you are, Belle of Amherst. Today I embarked aboard another frigate, Making Masterpiece, the memoirs of Rebecca Eaton, who spent 28 years as executive producer of Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery!

I’m looking forward to the rest of my journey with Rebecca Eaton. But I’m not alone. My wife’s uncle Roger is there with me.

Alexandre Dumas

Alexandre Dumas

I’d also begun reading The Three Musketeers a week or so ago. I was eager to get to Ms Eaton’s book, but I’ll definitely finish the Alexandre Dumas classic too. My childhood bud Peter is accompanying me on that voyage.

Roger and Peter have both passed on from this life. But when I sit down and open the pages of these books, memories of those friends return to me like a gentle refrain from a favorite song of my youth. Marking my place, and the beginning and end of my day aboard the frigate, is the little remembrance card that I took home from the funeral home after attending their wakes. My old friends start on the book-journey with me, and they bid me adieu when the trip is done.

I have many of those remembrance cards. They’re in a little stack on the corner of a bookcase shelf. I began using them as bookmarks a year or two ago. And as I sit down to read the stories of other people and their lives on the printed pages, I can’t help but recall the little stories of these bookmark friends.

Roger was a bombardier in World War II. His B-17 was shot down over Germany. He had to kick open the jammed bomb bay door just in time to bail out. He broke his leg when hitting the ground, was captured by a farm family, and spent two years in a POW camp. I know few people who were as unfailingly cheerful and gregarious as Roger. Those wartime privations and near misses must have taught him what really matters.

Peter was a grade-school classmate, sandlot-ball companion, and fellow altar boy. He had a devilish sense of humor and an impish grin. I saw little of Peter as we grew to late adolescence and adulthood, so I never knew how good an athlete he’d become in college. I also found, after he’d departed, how seriously and how long he believed in the old-time religion that we were both force-fed as youngsters. The last chapter of Peter’s life was one of heroic sacrifice. He gave up his career and moved across the country to take care of a son who’d been injured and permanently incapacitated by a drunk driver.

Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson

Other old friends wait to rejoin me on future book voyages.

There’s Sam, a wonderful gentleman I got to know well when I was raising funds at Boston College. He ran an industrial-sized laundry plant for hospitals. It was stifling hot in that place all year-round, a miserable working environment. Or so you’d think. Sam was a demanding boss, but he was so hard-working and fair-minded that he had a long waiting list of prospective employees eager to come and work for him. Study management theory in my MBA classes? Nope. I just observed Sam at work.

Jackie’s there. She was the mom of one of my best friends from high school days. So pretty, so sweet, so exquisitely put together, and so tolerant of our mischief and antics. I adored Jackie. But I don’t think I realized how much I cared for her until she passed on a few years ago. We weren’t supposed to be in love with our friends’ mothers. I blush now when I think of the tremendous teenage crush I had on her, one that I was never able to admit to myself.

Fernie from the world of hockey is there. Most would remember him only as a genial college coach. I’m old enough to have seen him play. He was a ferocious defender; woe betide any opponent who ventured near the goal when Fernie was on duty. He showed me that it is possible to be a thoroughly nice man in one context and a carnivorous myrmidon in another. In hockey, there was no better friend and no worse foe than Fernie.

I also see Jack, the high-school classmate whose career as a social worker was made immensely more difficult by a succession of serious illnesses and health problems of his own; Bobby, the acid-tongued but good-hearted sportswriter whose techniques I observed and with whom I drank more than a few beers; Paul, World War II veteran, Iwo Jima survivor and leading citizen of my native town of Hopkinton, whose sister taught my older siblings in first grade; Daniel, a distant in-law I never knew personally but whose taking of his own life was heartbreaking and incomprehensible.

The list can go on. Oh yes, it will go on, and some day my name will be on it too. Until then, I’ll keep adding to my personal edition of the list. I’ll gladly re-visit and fondly remember its distinguished citizens.

In her first chapter, Rebecca Eaton reflects that Masterpiece Theatre is essentially “…stories about families. Family stories are sagas: love, betrayal, money, infatuation, infidelity, illness, family love, and family deception.”

As she went through old papers, pictures, and documents in preparing to write about her own life and her own family, Eaton said that she’d come to recognize “the really important thing – the stories, and the stories behind the family stories that we all have.”

Perhaps the stories of those I take along on my book-frigate journeys are not writ as large as those of the kings, queens, prelates, princes, and aristocrats of Masterpiece Theatre. But to me, they are that “really important thing” that Rebecca Eaton mentioned. In small ways, and sometimes in larger ones, their stories are bound up with the story of my own life. They helped make me who I am.

Frankly, My Dear, He Did Give a Damn

August 8, 2013

Major Gable

Major Gable

Today’s featured Greatest Generation member: Major Clark Gable. Frankly, my dear, he did give a damn. About his country.

Gable enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces in 1942 after the death of his wife, Carole Lombard. He was 41 years old at the time and had already starred in “Gone with the Wind,” “Mutiny on the Bounty,” and “It Happened one Night.”

He wanted to become an aerial gunner on a bomber. He was sent to Florida and officer Candidate School, where he was an assistant potato peeler during training. He graduated 700th in his class of 2,600, and his fellow trainees chose him as their graduation speaker. He got a special assignment from General “Hap” Arnold: to make a recruiting film in combat with the Eighth Air Force. Arnold wanted to recruit more gunners for his bomber fleet.

Gable trained with and accompanied the 351st Bomb Group to England. He spent most of 1943 there as the head of a six-man motion picture unit. He’d been promoted to captain while in training so he would have a rank commensurate with his position as a unit commander.

He flew five combat missions, including one to Germany, as an observer-gunner in B-17 Flying Fortresses between May 4 and September 23, 1943. Gable earned the Air Medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross. During one of the missions, his plane was damaged by flak and attacked by fighters, which knocked out one of the engines and shot up the stabilizer. In the raid on Germany, one crewman was killed and two others were wounded, and flak went through Gable’s boot and narrowly missed his head.

The lobbying of MGM got its top star reassigned to noncombat duty, and he returned to the States to edit his film. As it turned out, the service was able to recruit enough gunners, but he completed the film and hoped for another combat assignment. In May 1944 he was promoted to major but was not brought to Normandy for D-Day. He was relieved from active duty as a major on June 12, 1944 since he was over-age for combat. His discharge papers were signed by Captain Ronald Reagan.

Gable completed editing of the film “Combat America” in September 1944. He gave the narration himself and interviewed several enlisted gunners, making them the focus of the film. He resigned his commission on September 26, 1947, a week after the Air Force became an independent service branch.

Gable was Adolf Hitler’s favorite actor. The Führer had offered a big reward to anyone who could capture Gable and bring him to Berlin.

The scene that inspired Bugs Bunny's most famous line.

The scene that inspired Bugs Bunny’s most famous line.

Bugs Bunny’s “Eh…what’s up, doc?” carrot-chewing pose was inspired by a scene in “It Happened One Night.” Gable, leaning on a fence, was eating carrots and talking with his mouth full to Claudette Colbert.

But as Doris Day put it, “He was as masculine as any man I’ve ever known, and as much a little boy as a grown man could be – it was this combination that had such a devastating effect on women.”

And LIFE magazine said of Gable: “All man… and then some.”

People Who’ve Made a Difference: The Ravishing and Brilliant Hedy Lamarr

July 31, 2013

A Beginning in Sex and Scandal

lamarr 1Her early life was scandalous. She appeared naked, on the movie screen, running through the woods and swimming in a lake, the first woman ever shown in the altogether.

That was in Ecstasy, made in Czechoslovakia in 1933. She also acted out sexual climax, writhing and moaning in a bliss that would have made Meg Ryan blush. Her films were luscious cinematic forbidden fruit, banned almost everywhere. Benito Mussolini owned and treasured a personal copy of Ecstasy.

And she was beautiful. Hedwig Kiesler had a perfect face, raven hair, and a slim delicate figure. Men lusted for her. The first man to have her – that’s not the right word, nobody ever truly had her – was Friedrich Mandl, the first of her six husbands.

He was one of the richest men is Austria. She was his trophy wife. His company, Hirtenberger Patronenfabrik, sold ammunition and was the one of the leading arms makers in Europe. He was a Fascist sympathizer, supplying the war machines of anyone who’d buy his wares.

Mandl showcased Hedwig at dinners and banquets with the likes of Mussolini and Adolf Hitler. She acted the part of a brainless beauty. She often said that the secret of glamor was to “stand there and look stupid.” So she did. It was a superb performance, maybe the best acting job of her career.

Hedwig Kiesler was a genius. Daughter of a Jewish banker, she had excelled in school, especially in math and science. She was born in Vienna on November 9, 1914. She quit school at 16 to study acting. In the late 1920’s Hedy was discovered and brought to Berlin by director and acting instructor Max Reinhardt. Following her training in the theater, she returned to Vienna and began to work in the film industry. She married Mandl, who was 30 years older than she, in 1933.

Eavesdropping Inside the Third Reich

When her husband and the evil dictators sat around talking shop, she sat there, looked pretty, and took it all in. She knew what they were talking about, and she knew what they were up to.

A favorite topic of Adolf Hitler was military technology, especially of the type that could control missiles and torpedoes by radio. Wireless control of weapons would be a huge jump from the hard-wired methods then in use. Wireless did come into use during the 1940s, by both Allies and Axis forces. But it was single-frequency radio, easy to monitor, detect, and jam.

According to one account, Mandl and Hitler engaged in a drunken menage à trois after a dinner party. Mandl was desperate to cement a big arms deal. The third party in the threesome was his gorgeous wife. That story is from a widely-panned book, What Almost Happened to Hedy Lamarr, and its truth is in doubt.

Even if it is true, that may or may not have been the final straw for Kiesler. As a Jew, she came to hate Nazis. She despised her husband’s business ambitions, and she did not share her thoughts about science and technology. If anything, she would share her information with the Allies who were fighting against the Nazis.

The radio-controlled guidance system for torpedoes that she heard discussed never got into production because it was too susceptible to disruption. Somewhere along the way she got the idea of distributing the guidance signal over several frequencies. This would protect it from enemy jamming. But she still had to figure out how to synchronize the transmitter and receiver. The solution would come to her later.

Hedy and Mandl

Hedy and Mandl

Mandl came to know how she felt about him, and he kept her locked up in his castle, Schloss Schwarzenau. He had also forbade her to pursue acting, and tried to buy up all copies of Ecstasy.

In 1937, Hedwig escaped by drugging her maid and sneaking out of the castle wearing the maid’s clothes. She sold her jewelry to finance a trip to London.

Hedwig made it out of Austria just in time. Hitler annexed the country in 1938 and took over Mandl’s business. Mandl was half-Jewish, so being an arms supplier to the Third Reich was no help to him. He had to flee to Argentina, where he eventually became an adviser to Juan Peron.

Into the Movies

In London, Kiesler arranged a meeting with the Hollywood film titan Louis B. Mayer. He knew of her, of course, and he too was captivated by her beauty. On the voyage to America she signed a long-term contract and became one of MGM’s biggest stars of the time.

Hedy and Paul Henreid in "The Conspirators"

Hedy and Paul Henreid in “The Conspirators”

She was in more than 20 films, costarring with Clark Gable, Judy Garland, Bob Hope, Paul Henreid, James Stewart, Spencer Tracy and others. Algiers, White Cargo, and Samson and Delilah were among her biggest screen successes. Unfortunately for Hedy, she turned down the lead in both Casablanca and Gaslight.

She made and spent, by some accounts, at least $30 million. The mansion used in filming The Sound of Music in 1965 belonged to her at the time. Her film career went into decline after Samson and Delilah in 1949.

Film fame and the showbiz scene didn’t do it all for Hedy Lamarr. She didn’t care much for the world of glitz, parties, and paparazzi. She wanted more. She wanted use her money, power, and formidable intellect to defeat the Nazis. She found an ally in composer/musician George Antheil.

Her Only True Partner

George Antheil

George Antheil

Antheil was an interesting individual too. His 1945 autobiography, The Bad Boy of Music, was a best seller. He was born in New Jersey in 1900 and showed promise as a musician and composer. He lived in Paris, and then in Berlin, from 1923 to 1933 when he returned to America. He also wrote books and a nationally syndicated advice column, wrote regularly for Music World and Esquire, and was a major figure in American ballet.

Antheil made his way to Hollywood to write musical scores for movies. He thought that the movie industry was hostile to modern music, however, and had little personal regard for Hollywood. He also saw Nazism for what it was. One of his magazine articles, “The Shape of the War to Come,” accurately predicted both the outbreak and eventual outcome of World War II. He joined up with Oscar Hammerstein and others in the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League.

Antheil and Lamarr were ideological soul mates. But that’s not what brought them together initially. He also claimed to be an expert on female endocrinology. He had written a series of articles about how to determine the availability of women based on “glandular effects” on their appearance. They had titles like “The Glandbook for the Questing Male” and another on “glandular criminology” titled “Every Man His Own Detective.”

Lamarr first sought out Antheil for help in “augmenting her upper torso,” as one web site nicely puts it. She had him over for dinner after scrawling her phone number in lipstick on his windshield after leaving a party. He suggested glandular extracts of some sort, but their talk evidently turned to technology and how it might be used to fight Hitler. Perhaps technology talk was unavoidable; she had a drafting table in her living room.

Antheil’s most famous musical work was the thoroughly avant-garde Ballet Mechanique. The work’s orchestration first called for 16 player pianos, along with two regular pianos, xylophones, electric bells, propellers, siren, and bass drums. It was hard to keep so many player pianos synchronized, so he scaled it back to a single set of piano rolls and augmented the regular pianos with several additional instruments. It produced an entirely new brand of stereophonic sound.

The Technological Breakthrough and Patent

Antheil’s expertise with player pianos was just what Hedy Lamarr needed. She wanted to design a system of controlling torpedoes that would also be hard or impossible for the enemy to jam. Single-frequency radio control was vulnerable to jamming, as she knew. If they could find a way to “change the channel” at random intervals, the torpedoes could make their way to the target.

Hedy incorporated Antheil’s method for synchronizing his player pianos. The coordination of frequency signals was done with paper player-piano rolls. Then she was able to synchronize the frequency changes between a weapon’s receiver and its transmitter. This “frequency hopping” used a piano roll to make random changes over 88 frequencies. It was intended to make radio-guided torpedoes harder for enemies to detect or jam.

On August 11, 1942, U.S. Patent No. 2,292,387 for a “Secret Communication diagramSystem” was granted to Antheil and Hedy Kiesler Markey, which was Kiesler’s married name at the time. They turned the patent rights over to the U.S. Navy, and unfortunately they never made any money from their brilliant invention.

The Navy did not end up building radio-controlled torpedoes. They might not have taken the idea seriously; after all, it came from a gorgeous woman and a flaky musician. There were also some big additional hurdles to overcome before such a system could be used with waterborne ordnance. The Navy did ask her to use her good looks to sell War Bonds, though. She agreed, and bestowed kisses for a purchase price of $50,000.

But the Navy did use Lamarr’s system beginning in 1950. It first controlled sonobuoys, the floating listening posts that detect submarines. In the sixties, it was used for secure ship-to-ship communications during the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban missile crisis. Reconnaissance drones used in Vietnam also employed frequency hopping.

Every time you dial your cell phone, take a call on it, or log onto the Internet, you can thank Hedy Lamarr. Her invention, conceived to fight the Nazis and now called “spread spectrum,” is the foundation of all wireless communication.

“Long-term evolution,” or “LTE,” technology, is just an extension of Hedy and George’s frequency-hopping. Spread spectrum is also the key element in anti-jamming devices used in the government’s $25 billion Milstar system. Milstar satellites control all the intercontinental missiles in U.S. weapons arsenal.

Dozens of “citing patents” owned by the likes of Sony, AT&T, and Seagate now appear on the Patent Office page for Hedy Lamarr’s Secret Communication System. The latest of them was filed in 2009.

After the Glamor Fled

Micro Times magazine with coverage of Lamarr's achievements in technology

Micro Times magazine with coverage of Lamarr’s achievements in technology

The last half of this remarkable woman’s life was not happy. True, the Electronic Frontier Foundation gave Lamarr her a long-overdue award for her work in 1996. Her son Anthony Loder accepted it for her because she no longer appeared in public. She also received the prestigious Austrian Academy of Science Award from her native country.

All six of Hedy’s marriages ended in divorce. Some of her quotes about her experiences there are revealing:

“I must quit marrying men who feel inferior to me. Somewhere there must be a man who could be my husband and not feel inferior. I need a superior inferior man.”

“Perhaps my problem in marriage–and it is the problem of many women–was to want both intimacy and independence. It is a difficult line to walk, yet both needs are important to a marriage.”

“I have not been that wise. Health I have taken for granted. Love I have demanded, perhaps too much and too often. As for money, I have only realized its true worth when I didn’t have it.”

Lamarr’s last movie appearance was in 1958. Her eye-candy roles had never required much acting anyway. She was usually cast as the mysterious and ravishing femme fatale. She’d often been called the most beautiful woman in the world. But when other, younger stars came along, she had fewer and fewer opportunities. She underwent plastic surgery that didn’t help. She had money problems and was twice arrested for shoplifting.

She also launched a number of lawsuits. These included going after Mel Brooks for his silly “That’s Hedley Lamarr!” in Blazing Saddles, and suing Corel Draw for using her image on packages. Both suits were settled out of court. She also wrote an autobiography, Ecstasy and Me, in the 1960s, and ended up suing the publisher.

Hedy lived her final years in seclusion in Florida, her eyesight failing and out of touch with the world that her scientific genius has helped immeasurably. She died in 2000 and was cremated. At her request, her ashes were scattered in the Vienna Woods of her native land.

I Wish I’d Known Her

Anthony Loder once said that his mother never got the chance to grow old gracefully. He also stated that he wished she had talked more to him. There was so much he never was able to ask her. She was frequently on the phone with show-business people, he remarked – Greta Garbo, Bob Hope, Barbara Stanwyck, Louis Mayer, and many others. I wonder, though, if she ever truly revealed herself to another person. Much of what ought to be known about her remains hidden.

One of the greatest satisfactions I get in my work is to hear someone say, “You captured him (or her) in that article.” When I can discover and tell of things that should be known about people, I feel that I’ve done a good deed, both for my subject and for posterity.

How I wish I’d had the opportunity to capture the fabulous Hedy Lamarr. Yes, she was a rich and pampered glamor girl, and we have too many of them. Much of her biography reads like a supermarket tabloid.

But there was so much more to Hedy. She saw monstrous evil. She looked it in the face and escaped its clutches. She made it out of Adolf Hitler’s world, and could have lived an opulent and decadent life. But she decided to do something about the evil she’d seen.

There had to be enormous goodness in her soul, enormous strength in her character. I doubt that anyone was ever allowed to see that goodness and strength for what they were, and then to tell her entire story. We’re the poorer for it.

This blog post is the best I can do for her and for you, dear reader. Danke schoen, Hedwig Kiesler. Sie möge in Frieden ruhen.

History I Never Knew: The Remarkable Annie Oakley

July 7, 2013
Little Sure Shot

Little Sure Shot

In April 1898, three weeks before the Spanish-American War broke out, President William McKinley received the following letter:

“I feel confident that your good judgment will carry America safely through without war. But in case of such an event I am ready to place a company of fifty lady sharpshooters at your disposal. Every one of them will be an American, and as they will furnish their own Arms and Ammunition will be little if any expense to the government. “

–Annie Oakley

President McKinley never responded to the 37-year old Annie’s offer to help. Nor did Woodrow Wilson or his Secretary of War Newton Baker nineteen years later when Oakley wrote “I can guarantee a regiment of women for home protection, every one of whom can and will shoot if necessary.” But she still gave soldiers of World War I shooting lessons, and she helped raise money for Red Cross and other organizations.

Gail Davis as Annie Oakley, with her horse Target

Gail Davis as Annie Oakley, with her horse Target

Annie Oakley, born in 1860, was a remarkable woman. Her name is familiar to my generation. We all remember the TV show of the mid-1950s that starred the glamorous Gail Davis. Gail was also a sharpshooter and expert rider too, but the 81 episodes of the Annie Oakley Show had no resemblance to the life and accomplishments of “Little Sure Shot.”

We boomers have also sung “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” They’re from Annie Get Your Gun, the popular musical that debuted in 1946. Some of us even remember Barbara Stanwyck as Annie in the 1936 biopic.

So we can thank the showbiz acumen of people like Gail Davis’s mentor Gene Autry and composer Irving Berlin for keeping the name of Annie Oakley alive. That’s a good thing. But she deserves to be remembered for far more than most of us know about her.

Annie Oakley was not just an entertainer with a rifle slung over her shoulder. She was the first bona fide American female superstar. Her story is an inspirational tale of a child who rose from stark and abusive poverty, who never forgot her roots or those who faced similar hurdles, who did everything in her power to better the lives of girls and women, and who was a staunch patriot in deed as well as in word.

During her career, Oakley taught more than 15,000 women how to use a gun, both for the inherent discipline of marksmanship and for self-defense. She even taught ladies how to conceal their guns in umbrellas. She said, “I would like to see every woman know how to handle firearms as naturally as they know how to handle babies.”

Up from Poverty, Rifle in Hand

Annie in 1903

Annie in 1903

Phoebe Ann (Annie) Moses was born in a log cabin in rural northwest Ohio, the sixth of seven children of Jacob and Susan Moses. Jacob had fought in the War of 1812. He died of pneumonia in 1866, when Annie was five. Annie taught herself how to shoot, using her late father’s old 40-inch cap-and-ball Kentucky rifle.

At age eight, she began trapping and hunting small game to support her widowed mother and her siblings. She would kill the animals with a head shot, preserving as much edible meat as possible. She sold the game to Katzenberger’s Restaurant in Greenville, Ohio. The owner re-sold most of it to hotels and restaurants in Cincinnati, 80 miles away. Annie was so good that by age 15 she had earned enough to pay off her mother’s mortgage.

At age nine she was admitted to an infirmary in Darke County, Ohio along with her sister. The superintendent’s wife taught her how to sew and decorate. Annie was also “bound out” to a local family to help care for their infant son, on the false promise of fifty cents a week and an education. For two years she endured the couple’s mental and physical abuse. She would often have to do boys’ work. One time she was put out in the freezing cold, without shoes, to punish her for falling asleep over some darning. Annie referred to the family as “the wolves.” But in her autobiography, she did not reveal the couple’s real name.

Word of Annie’s prowess as a sharpshooter spread throughout the region. Her escape hatch from a grinding life of penury was that singular – but now forgotten – American institution, the traveling road show. On Thanksgiving Day, 1875, the Baughman and Butler shooting act was performing in Cincinnati. Traveling marksman and former dog trainer Frank Butler, an Irish immigrant, placed a $100 side bet – one worth more than $2500 today – with Cincinnati hotel owner Jack Frost. The bet: that Butler could beat any local shooter.

Frost arranged a match between the 25-year-old Butler and Annie, saying, “The last opponent Butler expected was a five-foot-tall 15-year old girl.”

Butler missed on his 25th shot, losing both match and bet. But he eventually won big. He began courting Annie. They married in August 1876 and stayed together until their deaths 50 years later. They first lived in the Oakley district of Cincinnati, and Oakley became her stage name. Offstage, she always referred to herself as Mrs. Frank Butler.

Poster for Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show

Poster for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show

Annie began as Butler’s assistant in the traveling act. But soon he stepped back from the limelight and let his more talented spouse be the star. They joined Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show in 1885 and stayed with it for 17 years. Annie was the main attraction. Her most famous trick was repeatedly splitting a playing card, with the edge facing her, and putting several more holes in it before it could touch the ground. She did it from 90 feet away, using a .22 caliber rifle.

That feat prompted people in the theatre business to refer to complimentary tickets as “Annie Oakleys”. Such tickets traditionally have holes punched into them to prevent them from being resold. She could also hit a tossed-up dime from 90 feet, and one day she hit 4,472 of 5,000 glass balls tossed into midair.

How “Little Sure Shot” Got Her Nickname

Sitting Bull

Sitting Bull

In 1884, after a performance in St. Paul, Minnesota, Oakley befriended the fearsome Sitting Bull, chief of the Lakota Sioux. Eight years previously, in 1876, Sitting Bull had led the Indians in the rout of General George Armstrong Custer at Little Big Horn. Sitting Bull fled to Canada, returned in 1881 and surrendered, and was still a political prisoner when he met Annie. Impressed by both her marksmanship and her self-assured demeanor, he gave her the Sioux name “Watanya Cicilla,“ which means “Little Sure Shot.”

Later that year Sitting Bull was allowed to join Cody’s entourage as a show Indian. He earned about $50 a week for riding once around the arena, and he became a popular attraction. But Sitting Bull stayed with the show for just four months. The poverty of the white men’s cities and their patronizing attitude disgusted him.

Sitting Bull was an admirable leader of his people, a superb military tactician, and a good guy. He gave speeches about education for the young and reconciling relations between the Sioux and whites. He earned a small fortune by charging for his autograph and picture, and he often gave his money away to the homeless and beggars. He said that Indian culture would take care of its sick and elderly, and was appalled that white society did not do the same for its own. But Sitting Bull loved Annie Oakley.

Fame, and Fortune Generously Shared

In 1887, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West toured England to join in the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria. Annie received a great deal of press coverage, and by the time Cody and his show returned to Europe in 1889, Annie had become a seasoned performer and earned star billing. The troupe stayed in Paris for a six-month exhibition, and then traveled around France, Italy, and Spain. Oakley was especially popular with women. Buffalo Bill made the most of her fame to demonstrate that shooting was neither detrimental nor too intense for women and children.

Annie and Frank Butler with Dave, the "Red Cross Dog" of World War I.

Annie and Frank Butler with Dave, the “Red Cross Dog” of World War I.

In Europe, Annie also performed for King Umberto I of Italy and Marie François Sadi Carnot, president of France. Shooting the ashes off a cigarette held in Frank’s mouth was a big part of the act. She was so good that the newly-crowned German Kaiser Wilhelm II asked her to shoot the ash off his cigarette. She did so, but had him hold the butt in his hand. After World War I began, she wrote him a letter requesting a second shot.

Annie earned $700 a week while on tour in Europe. But she remembered the poverty of childhood and lived frugally. She sent money home to her mother and family, and gave money to orphans, widows and young women who wanted to further their education. Records show she provided funding and professional training for at least 20 young women.

She often said, “Aim at the high mark and you will hit it. No, not the first time, not the second time and maybe not the third. But keep on aiming and keep on shooting for only practice will make you perfect. Finally you’ll hit the bull’s-eye of success.”

Though she had no formal education, Annie instinctively knew all about cultivating her feminine image – today we’d call it brand management. Annie projected womanly allure and sex appeal without being sexy – the perfect little lady. She wore her hair unpinned, like a young girl. She made all of her own clothes, which she styled to hug and display her pleasing curves. But she never showed any skin, covering her legs with long stockings and wearing long sleeves and high collars.

In that uptight, repressed Victorian era, Annie Oakley was breaking barriers at the same time while helping to create an image of American womanhood – proper, attractive, and practical. The woman Annie represented didn’t need protection; she could protect herself.

Setbacks and Hardships

It wasn’t all glory and fame for Annie Oakley and Frank Butler. She left Cody’s show for a year when a younger rival shooter named Lillian Smith joined up and got higher billing. In 1901, she lost a shooting match to a nine-year-old girl, Ethel Nice. Shortly after that, Annie was in a train wreck, was temporarily paralyzed, and had five spinal operations.

She left Buffalo Bill’s show in 1902 and began an acting career. She was on the stage as Nancy Berry, The Western Girl, who got the better of the bad guys by using pistol, rifle, and lariat.

Annie had previously appeared in one of the earliest movies ever produced, “The Little Sure Shot of the Wild West.” A Kinetoscope film shot in 1894 by inventor Thomas Edison, it was the 11th movie made after commercial showings began in April of that year. In the film, Annie performed an exhibition of shooting at glass balls.

In 1904, the odious William Randolph Hearst published a scurrilous story that Annie had been arrested for stealing to support a cocaine habit. A coke-snorting stripper from Chicago had been nabbed by police, and she gave her name as “Annie Oakley.” That “evidence” was apparently enough for the scandal-mongering Hearst.

It took the real Annie six years and 55 libel lawsuits against newspapers to get back her reputation. She won 54 of those suits, but the judgments she collected didn’t even pay her legal bills. Hearst even sent punks from his papers to Ohio to try and dig up dirt about her, but they came back with nothing.

Annie in 1922

Annie in 1922

Following Annie’s change of career and despite her injury, her shooting prowess continued to improve until she was well into her sixties. In a 1922 contest, Annie hit 100 clay targets in a row from 16 yards away. She was 62 at the time.

Later that year, she and Frank were in a car accident that forced her to wear a steel brace on her right leg. But she recovered and set more records in 1924.

Annie’s health declined in 1925. She succumbed to pernicious anemia in Greenville, Ohio and died at age 66 in November 1926. Frank Butler was so disconsolate at her passing that he stopped eating and died just 18 days later.

After Annie’s death, her incomplete autobiography was given to a friend, the stage comedian Fred Stone. Soon it was discovered that her entire fortune had been spent on her family and on her charities.

Her Legacy

So how should we remember Annie Oakley? As one of America’s best. Ever.

Annie Oakley was a model for the Greatest Generation that followed her, and for all generations to come. She overcame poverty, mistreatment and physical injury with her determination and strength of character. She broke barriers for women with her talent and accomplishments in her sport. She loved her country and proved it with many good and patriotic works. She showed compassion and generosity to orphans, widows and other young women. She was a devoted and faithful wife.

Annie Oakley excelled in a man’s world by doing what she loved – winning fame and fortune as the little lady from Ohio who never missed a shot.