Did You Know . . . ?

A Night to Remember

As a boy Walter Lord (1917 – 2002) was fascinated by ocean liners and the stories his mother told him about her travels on them.  He was particularly fascinated by the sinking of the RMS (Royal Mail Ship) Titanic on April 15, 1912.  “I suppose if there is anything more exciting to a young boy than an ocean liner,” he said, “it is an ocean liner sinking.”  While a young man working for an advertising agency, he spent his spare time researching the sinking of the Titanic and interviewing survivors of the tragedy.  In 1955 the then 42 year old Lord’s life-long interest in the sinking paid off with the release of A Night to Remember, a factual, dramatic account of the Titanic’s sinking.  The interviews he did with the survivors remain an important source of information to researchers.

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Harry Houdini, who died on Halloween in 1926.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who gave us the supremely rational detective Sherlock Holmes, believed in spiritualism and séances.  He also firmly believed that the magician Harry Houdini had supernatural powers that he used in his magic act.  The two men met and became close friends, until Houdini exposed as frauds some spiritualists who Doyle believed in.  They then had a public falling out and parted ways.

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Though Henry James is considered a great writer now, he was not successful during his lifetime.  As he neared the end of his life he was hard pressed for money and his close friend Edith Wharton secretly went to his publisher, Charles Scribner, and arranged for Scribner to send James an $8,000 advance for the next book James would write.  James gratefully accepted the advance, but never wrote the book.  Wharton, as you have probably guessed, put up the money in order to secretly help her old friend who would never have accepted it from her.

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John Steinbeck, who was from California, didn’t make any friends there when he wrote about the abuse of migrant workers in his novel The Grapes of Wrath.  Though the Associated Farmers of California labeled the book as being “a pack of lies,” Steinbeck researched the issues before he wrote the book, even visiting Arvin Federal Government Camp near Bakersfield.  The camp, which became Weedpatch Camp in the book, is still open to migrant farm workers, but it is now called the Sunset Labor Camp.

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Chaplin Autobiography

Charlie Chaplin (1889 – 1977) liked women.  To be more precise, he liked young women.  His first wife, Mildred Harris, was 17 years old and pregnant (so she said) when he married her in 1918.  The pregnancy was a false alarm, but she soon became pregnant and gave birth to a malformed child that died shortly after birth.  His second wife, Lita Grey, was 16 and pregnant when they married in 1924.  His third wife, actress Paulette Goddard, was relatively old when they married in 1936 – she was 25 and he was 47.  His fourth and final wife, Oona O’Neill, was 18 years and one month old and he was 54 when they married in 1943.  They remained married until Chaplin’s death in 1977.  They had eight children.

Eugene O'Neill

Oona was the daughter of the well-known playwright Eugene O’Neill.  He disapproved of her wish to become an actress and disowned her when she married Chaplin.  Oona and her father never reconciled.  O’Neill had no better luck with his two sons, Eugene and Shane.  Eugene was an alcoholic and Shane was a heroin addict.  Both committed suicide.

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Novelist William Faulkner was an unabashed alcoholic.  “Pouring out liquor,” he once said, “is like burning books.”  Though he stayed at least tipsy most of the time during his adulthood he still managed to write prolifically.  He embarrassed himself many times during binges; once, for instance, wandering nude through a New York City hotel.  Though we don’t know for sure, it can be assumed that he was drunk when he fell off horses and injured himself three times late in life (in 1959, January 1962, and June 1962).  A few weeks after his final fall, he had a massive heart attack and died at the age of 64.

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Slaughterhouse-Five

Author Kurt Vonnegut served during World War II and was captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge in 1944.  He was imprisoned in Dresden, Germany and was there when the city was firebombed and destroyed in February 1945.  His satirical novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, is probably his best known work.  The unnamed narrator nonchalantly uses the phrase “So it goes” over 100 times in the novel when horrible things occur or to explain the unexplainable. “So it goes,” and “And so it goes” have become a part of our everyday speech.  “And So It Goes is also the name of a number of books (including a biography of Vonnegut), and the title of a 2014 movie starring Michael Douglas and Diane Keaton.

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Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams, an only child, was born to well-to-do parents in San Francisco in 1902.  He was a sickly child who loved to read.  His aunt gave him a copy of In the Heart of the Sierras, a history-travel book by Henry Hutchings who was one of the early settlers of the Yosemite Valley.  Adams, who also loved nature, was so struck by Hutchings’ book that he begged his parents to take him to Yosemite for their summer vacation.  He fell in love with Yosemite at first sight and spent the rest of his life taking photographs of it and other natural wonders.  His parents gave him his first camera for that trip.  It was a simple Kodak Brownie box camera.  The sickly child grew into a robust man who gave us perhaps the most beautiful black-and-white landscape photographs ever taken.  Adams died in 1984 at the age of 82.

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If you were around in the late 1960s you probably remember a variety comedy program called Laugh-In (or Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In) on NBC.  In one of the standard segments the actors would dance to some music then suddenly freeze in place.  At that point one of them would deliver a one-liner.  The routine would be repeated (with others delivering the one-lineers) a few times before the segment ended.  The idea for this comedy dance routine was not new.  It had been used in a 1960 Broadway show called A Thurber Carnival which was based on James Thurber’s 1945 book titled The Thurber Carnival.  Called “Word Dance” in the Broadway show, the actors would dance, freeze, deliver a one-liner (usually the caption from a Thurber cartoon), then dance again.  The jokes were remarkably like those delivered in the Laugh-In program: “He’s having all his books translated into French; they lose something in the original.”  In 1960 the ensemble recorded a Broadway cast album that included the “Word Dance” routine.  You may find it interesting – particularly if you enjoyed Laugh-In.  Here is the entire recording from YouTube.  “Word Dance: I” follows the opening music on the recording.  “Word Dance: II” is the final track on the recording.

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