My first post is dated October 28, 2012. To date I have published a total of 239 posts. To celebrate the second anniversary of Book Notes Plus I want to give you a sample of my posts from the past two years beginning with the one that has been viewed the most: “The Tragic Death of Jayne Mansfield.” I have no idea why it is so popular, but day after day when I look at which posts have been viewed the most that day, I find that the Mansfield post is by far the winner. I will follow it with some other posts that you will enjoy revisiting. Most, but not all, of the links still work.
Movie Notes – The Tragic Death of Jayne Mansfield
My brother, Mike, recently sent me the above photo of a plaque located at what is possibly the spot where the popular actress Jayne Mansfield died in an auto accident shortly after 2:00 a.m. on June 29, 1967. He also told me the following story that is associated with that accident.
The 34 year old Mansfield, who was performing at a supper club in Biloxi, Mississippi, borrowed the club owner’s car to drive into New Orleans for an early morning TV interview. Along the way, a tractor-trailer in front of them slowed down for a mosquito fogging truck, but Mansfield’s driver didn’t notice that it had slowed. Their car hit and went under the trailer, shearing off the top of the car and instantly killing the driver, Mansfield, and her boyfriend. The three children in the backseat – including Mariska Hargitay, who is now an actress – sustained only minor injuries.
As sometimes happens, something good came out of that tragedy – something that could one day save your life and the lives of those you love. The trailer that sheared off the top of the car and killed the three people in the front seat did not have an underride guard which would have prevented the car from going under the trailer. As a result of this high-profile accident, the federal government put in place a rule that every tractor-trailer (and other high trucks) must have such a guard. It’s fitting that the life-saving underride guard is commonly referred to as a Mansfield bar.
If, after reading this, you find yourself noticing every red and white Mansfield bar on every sort of truck you see, don’t blame me, blame Mike.
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I lead most of the discussions in my Reading the Classics Book Club, and one of my stock questions about any novel written in the first person is “Can we trust the narrator?” For instance in many of Poe’s stories the sanity of the narrator is questionable. If that’s the case, is the narrator telling us what is happening or what he thinks, in his muddled mind, is happening? William Faulkner’s class The Sound and the Fury is written in four parts – each one by a different person. Benjy Compson, who is severely mentally retarded, writes the first part. Can we trust him to correctly interpret what he experiences? For that matter, can we trust Holden Caulfield, the 16 year old narrator and protagonist of J. D. Salinger’s classic The Catcher in the Rye, to be accurately relating the events he writes about? Moreover, Holden tells us that he is a liar, and that he is writing his story while in a mental institution.
Another good question to ask yourself when you read a novel or story where the trustworthiness of the narrator is questionable is “Why does the author choose a narrator who can’t be trusted to relate the events of the story?”
Just as in my book club, I provide the questions. You provide the answers.
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100 Years of Crossword Puzzles
Richard Simon, and Max Schuster met and became friends while both were journalism students at Columbia University. A few years later both men, who were from wealthy New York families, had a desire to start a book publishing company, so each put up $3,000 for the venture, and Simon & Schuster was born. There were, however, two big problems – neither knew anything about book publishing, and neither was sure what they should publish. Fortuitously, as it happened, Simon had an aunt who requested that her nephew publish a book that consisted solely of crossword puzzles since no crossword puzzles existed other than those found in newspapers. Despite the fear that their new publishing company would never be taken seriously if they published such a low-brow book (if you could even call it a “book”), they decided to hire three crossword puzzle editors at the New York World to come up with the puzzles they needed.
The Cross Word Puzzle Book (First Series), as it was aptly named, had a first printing of 3,600 copies. In a slick PR move which let people know that it was OK to write in the book, each copy also included a pencil with an eraser. The book, which was priced at $1.35, sold over 100,000 copies in the first three months. Within a year or so the original crossword puzzle book, and three more published by Simon & Schuster, had sold over a million copies and made Publishers Weekly’s bestseller list. And as you may know, the company has branched out a bit since then though paperback crossword puzzle books are still a mainstay of the firm.
The New York World, mentioned above, is very important because it is in that newspaper that the first modern crossword puzzle – with most of the characteristics of the standard puzzle that we enjoy today – was published on December 21, 1913 – exactly 100 years ago today. The diamond-shaped “word cross,” as it was called was the idea of journalist Arthur Wynne from Liverpool, England. Of course the shape has changed greatly, and the puzzles have become much more complex, but the basic idea is the same.
To celebrate the 100th birthday of the crossword puzzle CBS Sunday Morning recently did a segment on the puzzles and the items that have been inspired by them.
Google is celebrating the puzzle’s 100th anniversary with a Google doodle that is an actual crossword puzzle that you can solve on the Google home page. If you read this post after December 21, 2013 you can find the doodle on the Google doodles homepage for 2013. You can read about the inspiration for the doodle here.
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50 Great Voices
I recently ran across an article about an Egyptian singer named Umm Kulthum. I had never heard of her, so I sent the story’s link to a friend of mine who is from Egypt to see if he was familiar with her. He sent me the following reply:
“I remember that she used to hold live 3-4 hour concerts the first Thursday evening of the month from Cairo that would be broadcast on the radio to the entire Arab world. It is not an exaggeration to say that the entire Arab world from Baghdad to Algeria would be glued to the radio listening. I know that in Egypt the entire country (young and old) would be mesmerized the first Thursday of the month. What was remarkable was that her concerts were only one song that she would sing without break for 3-4 hours. The lyrics were poetry. Her records to this day are still the best seller in Egypt. She was a phenomenon that has never been replicated.”
He also sent me a link to a National Public Radio (NPR) segment about Umm Kulthum that was quite interesting. I noticed that the report was one of a series called “50 Great Voices.” I found a list of all 50 reports and was fascinated to find so many singers I enjoy, as well as many I’ve never heard of before. As you might expect, the list is heavy on American singers, but there are many from other countries as well.
It’s important to learn about other people and what is important to them, so take time to listen to some of the reports – especially about singers from other lands and other cultures. And be sure to check out the links to additional NPR segments that you will find within each of the 50 reports.
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A Commedia dell’Arte Taming of the Shrew
Commedia dell’arte is an old form of Italian theater that, in its purest form, features actors wearing masks, and making improvised movements that are super animated. It often features stock characters such as Pulcinella, Colombina, and Arlecchino (Harlequin). Commedia dell’arte is prominently displayed in Leoncavallo’s verismo opera Pagliacci, the story of a man whose wife is unfaithful to him, and it features a commedia dell’arte play-within-a-play that is (supposedly) a comedy about a man who is cuckolded by his wife. The play turns into a tragedy when the husband confronts his wife on stage in an attempt to find out who her illicit real-life lover is. For a while the audience thinks the husband’s anger is all part of the play. Finally they realize that make-believe has morphed into life with tragic consequences. Here is a scene from the play-within-a-play section of Pagliacci featuring Plácido Domingo and Teresa Stratas.
Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor starred in a 1967 movie version of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew that featured a very physical scent when Petruchio begins his wooing of Katherina. Granted, it was a “lively” scene, but you’ve probably never seen anything like the commedia dell’arte-influenced 1976 version of The Taming of the Shrew from San Francisco that featured Marc Singer as Petruchio and Fredi Olster as Katherina. This clip from the production begins when Petruchio tells Katherina’s father to send Katherina to him. The choreography that follows is priceless.
These versions of Pagliacci and The Taming of the Shrew are still available on DVD, and are well worth watching.
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An Introduction to the Great Movie Music Composers
During my years on public radio I played many types of music. One of my favorite genres was movie music – not the songs that people sang in musicals, but the mood-setting instrumental music that, often subliminally, gave a movie its charm and its “feel.” Consider, for instance, Jaws without John Williams’ ominous sounding music at the beginning of the film that telegraphs the idea – more than the photography – that something horrible is about to happen to the girl who is swimming in the ocean, or The Magnificent Seven without Elmer Bernstein’s majestic score. Without it, would the seven seem magnificent as they ride to save the Mexican peasants from the bad guys?
I recently came across several videos on YouTube that I consider an excellent introduction to the music of many of the greatest movie music composers of all time. All of the videos are done by the same person – he identifies himself only as benydebney. I don’t know how he made the videos, but the selections in each – thumbnail sketches so to speak – give you an excellent idea of how diverse the movies and the music were for each composer. For instance, it is hard to imagine that Elmer Bernstein who composed the music for The Magnificent Seven also composed the sort of goofy sounding music in Ghostbusters and the jazz-oriented score for The Man with the Golden Arm, or that Maurice Jarre, who composed the music for many of director David Leans epics such as Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago also composed the music for No Way Out, The Tin Drum, and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. But they did. Movie music composers have to be flexible. Those who aren’t don’t last long.
Some of the movie music composers featured in these videos – like Max Steiner and Dimitri Tiomkin – were pioneers in the early days of movie music, while others – such as James Horner, John Williams (the dean of movie music composers), and Hans Zimmer – are still alive and active.
Below are a few of my favorite videos from the benydebney collection. I encourage you to go here to find and enjoy the others.
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The Old Man and the Sea
Across the River and Into the Trees (1950) was a flop. There was no other way to put it. The great Ernest Hemingway, with hits that included The Sun Also Rises (1926), A Farewell to Arms (1929), and For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), had written a book that was mercilessly panned in over 150 reviews, with some of the reviewers declaring that he was finished as a writer. Even his wife, Mary (who kept her thoughts to herself at the time), felt that he had written a substandard novel. His huge ego was badly wounded.
Perhaps the people at Life magazine had not seen the savage reviews because at the same time that the reviews were being published, they were seriously thinking of devoting an entire issue of Life to a new work by him. Imagine, their first issue ever dedicated to a new work of fiction, and they were betting on Hemingway. They approached him about the project, and, as you can imagine, the wounded bull elephant agreed. He would show them all. He would write something that would knock the critics flat on their ugly faces.
His contacts at Life told him that they wanted a novella; they didn’t have enough space for a sprawling novel. Well, he didn’t have a novella, but he assured them that he could write one, and in eight weeks he wrote The Old Man and the Sea. It would turn out to be the last of his works published during his lifetime.
The Old Man and the Sea in its entirety was published in the September 1, 1952 issue of Life. Immediately, 5,318,650 copies of the magazine were sold. It was also a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, and did quite well when released as a hardcover book. But best of all from Hemingway’s point of view, it won the 1953 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954. Though the Nobel Prize was for his body of work, the official “motivation” that explained why he was being awarded the Prize said that it was “for his mastery of the art of narrative, most recently demonstrated in The Old Man and the Sea, and for the influence that he has exerted on contemporary style.” Hemingway had his revenge.
In his book Literary Reflections (1993), James A. Michener writes that he was apprised of the Hemingway project by an emissary from Life who found him on the front lines while covering the Korean War. He was asked if he liked Hemingway, and when he responded that he did, he was asked to read the galleys for Hemingway’s novella, and to write a positive response that could be used for publicity if, and only if, he thought the work was good. Michener recounts his reaction to the book:
“The next hours were magic. In a poorly lighted corner of a Marine hut in a remote corner of the South Korea mountains I tore open the package and began reading that inspired account of an old fisherman battling with his great fish and striving to fight off the sharks which were determined to steal it from him. From Hemingway’s opening words through the quiet climaxes to the organlike coda I was enthralled, but I was so bedazzled by the pyrotechnics that I did not trust myself to write my report immediately after finishing.
“I knew that Hemingway was a necromancer [wizard] who adopted every superior Balzacian trick in the book, each technical device that Flaubert and Tolstoy and Dickens had found useful, so that quite often his work seemed better than it was. I loved his writing, but he had proved in Across the River and Into the Trees that he could be banal, and I did not want to go out on a limb if he had done so again.
“But as I sat alone in that corner, the galleys pushed far from me as If I wished to be shed of their sorcery, it became overwhelmingly clear that I had been in the presence of a masterpiece. No other word would do. The Old Man and the Sea was one of those incandescent miracles that gifted writers can sometimes produce. (I would learn that Hemingway had dashed it off in complete form in eight weeks without any rewriting.) And as I reflected on its perfection of form and style I found myself comparing it with those other gemlike novellas that had meant so much to me: Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, Joseph Conrad’s Youth, Henry James’s The Aspern Papers, and Faulkner’s The Bear.”
Later Michener would similarly be asked to provide a novella for Life magazine. But that’s a tale for another day, and another post.
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Stranger Than Fiction – Spotlight on an Author
In mystery and suspense novels the loose ends are usually tied up by the end of the book, but in real life things aren’t always that neat. Take the case of writer Robert Ludlum for example. Some things happened to him shortly before his death that have never been explained. Let me give you a little background on Ludlum before I talk about the questions that persist.
Robert Ludlum was born in New York City in 1927, but was raised in New Jersey. According to his nephew, Dr. Kenneth Kearns (Ludlum’s first wife’s sister’s son, and Ludlum’s biographer) Ludlum was adopted, and spent much of his life wondering who he really was much like Jason Bourne in The Bourne Identity whose memory has been wiped clean by evil spymasters.
Ludlum tried to enlist in the U. S. Navy during WW II, but was turned down because he was under age. When he turned 18 he joined the Marines. In 1950 Ludlum met an actress named Mary Ryducha, and they married the following year. She was the love of his life. They had three children. He became a Broadway actor, and appeared on about 200 different TV shows before becoming a producer (he produced The Owl and the Pussycat on Broadway), and finally a writer at age 44. His first novel, The Scarlatti Inheritance (1971), did well, and he continued to write. Many of his books, which have sold a total of almost 300 million copies, became popular movies. His most famous books were the three thrillers: The Bourne Identity (1980), The Bourne Supremacy (1986), and The Bourne Ultimatum (1990), and each became a popular movie starring Matt Damon. With popular books and movie deals, Robert Ludlum became a very, very wealthy man.
Shortly after his first wife died from cancer in 1996, Ludlum fell in love with a woman named Karen Dunn. Friends and family knew that he was still grieving, and suggested that he go slowly. However, the next year he said that he intended to marry Karen. When he suggested a prenuptial agreement, she balked, and said she would not marry him, so he dropped the request for the prenup. They were married on March 7, 1997, and spent much of their time in a home in Naples, Florida. He was 69 years old at the time of the marriage, but I can’t determine how old she was though she looks younger than Ludlum in the photo below.
The marriage quickly deteriorated. Karen soon moved into a separate bedroom, and replaced her engagement ring with a much larger more expensive one without telling Ludlum before she bought it. She also pressed him to see less of his family and friends who consequently came to see her as greedy and grasping. Karen complained to friends that she didn’t feel that she would be well taken care of when he died – obviously she felt that he would die before her. So shortly before his death, Ludlum modified his will giving Karen a greater part of his estate than his previous will had granted her.
On the morning of February 10, 2001 the Naples fire department rushed to the Ludlum home in response to a call about a fire. It took them six minutes to get there, and when they arrived they found Ludlum on fire and screaming but unable to get up from his recliner. They could smell smoke and burning flesh everywhere in the house. There were fire extinguishers throughout the home, but none had been touched. Karen, the only other person present, was in the kitchen and remained there. When approached about what had happened she belligerently responded, “F*** off. I’m fixing myself a drink.” She refused to accompany her husband to the hospital, and the cause of the fire was never investigated.
After several weeks in the hospital, Ludlum, who was still on morphine because of his intense pain, went home. As far as I can determine he never accused his wife of setting him on fire or gave any explanation for what happened to him. On March 12, 2001 Robert Ludlum, aged 73, died from an apparent heart attack. I say “apparent” because his death, like the fire that almost killed him, was not investigated. [I accidentally transposed the 0 and 1 in the original post, thus listing his death as 2010 instead of 2001.]
Ludlum had made it known that he wanted to be buried in New York City, but Karen quickly had him cremated instead. It may or may not be relevant, but his cremation made an autopsy impossible should questions about the cause of his death be raised later.
Karen Dunn Ludlum received a generous settlement but apparently did not find happiness. In 2008 she died – perhaps from suicide. If she had the answers to the many questions raised by what I have written above, she took them with her to the grave.
Ludlum’s nephew has written a biography of his uncle, and has attempted to get the authorities to investigate what happened, but there is little hope that the mysteries concerning Robert Ludlum will ever be solved. As author Julian Barnes said, “Books are where things are explained to you; life is where things aren’t.”