Monday, February 06, 2012

"Frank Lloyd Wright will not hear a word against the sauerkraut," Or, People are strange

{Photo by rocketlass.} I make no bones about the fact that one of the things I look for in books, and particularly in nonfiction, is simple human oddity. Oh, sure, there are other things to be learned from reading about the lives of others--facts about other times and places, information about how others have grappled with problems or questions we may be facing ourselves--but at base, what I tend to be looking for is the entertainment afforded by the strange ways people behave.

And, having encountered a number of good examples lately, the time seems ripe for a roundup. Lariats away!

1 Will Friedwald's Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers (2010) is such a jam-packed, endlessly fascinating book that it makes me wish that I had a similar guide to every field of culture that interests me. I suppose that Bill James's Historical Baseball Abstract (2000), if he would ever update it again, would almost suffice for baseball, while John Sutherland's Lives of the Novelists (2011) will do in a pinch for literature. But neither book makes the claim to completeness that Friedwald's guide does, nor does either offer nearly as much biographical information or critical analysis as Friedwald's book. It's a true joy, the product of decades of attending to vocalists, leavened with a distinct aesthetic and accompanying opinions, clearly stated but not intrusive.

And then there are the great lines, ranging from aphoristic descriptions (Tony Bennett is "the Pangloss of pop") to moments of insight, like "More than anyone else, Garland was Jolson's greatest heir." Though Bobby Short grew up in the Midwest and first became a star in Los Angeles, he nonetheless "embodied the Californinan's idea of New York elegance." "If there's such a thing as Anglo-Saxon soul," Jo Stafford's folk recordings are it. Chet Baker's singing
is, from the first note, utterly disarming. Yes, you can qualify a word like "disarming"--it may be true that either it is or it isn't, but some things are more disarming than others, and Baker's singing is one of them.
But I'm getting off topic! I was to focus on human oddity!

So you get this, from the part of the entry for Mary Martin that covers her time in Irving Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun:
It's been said that Martin is a more feminine Annie than Ethel Merman--which is kind of unfair. La Merm, blustery and brassy as she was, never struck me as butch. Could there be a more extreme way for a woman to prove her heterosexuality than to marry Ernest Borgnine?
Okay, so it's not exactly odd behavior: that wasn't really the reason Merman married Borgnine. But oh, the thought!

2 I've written about James Lees-Milne's charming biography Another Self (1970) before, but, prompted by a beautiful Slightly Foxed edition, I've been paging through it again. I think you'll enjoy this wonderfully bizarre portrait of an aged widow at Lees-Milne's boyhood church who served as bell-ringer:
Although really far too old and frail, Mrs Hartwell refused to relinquish the bell rope with its fluffy stripes in red, white and blue, called I believe the "sally." She regarded the pulling of it as her sacred duty, which she would surrender to no one, until the breath, as she put it, was out of her body. The act was sometimes attended by alarming manifestations. For bell ringing, even with one rope, necessitates a sense of rhythm in the ringer. Mrs Hartwell lacked this sense. Occasionally she would pull too soon, or too late. The rope thereupon gave a jerk and if she failed to let go--it was not in her nature to let go of things--she would be swept up the belfry. When this happened she would either cling to the rope until it came down again, or she would swing on it until her feet touched a ladder kept permanently fixed to the wall to enable workmen or builders to go up the tower. With astonishing agility for a person of her years she would scramble down the ladder and resume ringing as though nothing had happened.
The line that makes the picture is the aside, "it was not in her nature to let go of things."

3 For a fan of, a Michael Dirda once put it, "the higher gossip," Craig Brown's One on One (2011) is a great resource. Brown builds a daisy chain of 101 incidental meetings between prominent figures--most of them artists or writers, but also including religious figures, movie stars, and even Hitler--offering a brief, quote-rich account of A's meeting with B, followed by the same for B's meeting with C, C's meeting with D, and on. I'm about a third of the way through the book, and thus far the highlight, easily, is Evelyn Waugh's encounter with Alec Guinness, about which more sometime soon. Today, however, I'll share a bit from Frank Lloyd Wright's encounter with self-styled religious guru George Ivanovich Gurdjieff.

Gurdjieff doesn't come off well in either this account or the preceding one, which finds him meeting devotee P. L. Travers. In that entry, Brown writes about Gurdjieff's "unseemly" personal habits:
In his palatial flat at his institute in Paris, he often didn't bother to visit the lavatory, preferring to defecate willy-nilly. "There were times when I would have to use a ladder to clean the walls," recalls one of the residents."
The encounter with Wright is less disgusting, but only just. By invitation, Gurdjieff came to Taliesin, where he succeeded in roping in Wright within twenty-four hours; this famously stubborn and strong-willed man bowed to Gurdjieff in almost every realm. Including the kitchen:
Before his stay is over, he has made everyone cook great quantities of sauerkraut from his own recipe, involving whole apples, including their skins, their stem and their cores. Even his most devoted disciples find it hard to swallow. On his departure from Taliesin, he leaves behind two fifty-gallon barrels of the stuff. In the first flush of discipleship, Frank Lloyd Wright will not hear a word against the sauerkraut. He insists the barrels must be transported to his Fellowship's desert camp in Arizona, watching attentively as they are loaded onto a truck.
Wright's control only extends so far, however: somewhere in Iowa, the crew driving the truck dumps the barrels in a ditch.

4 The trip to Wright's kitchen serves nicely to bring us to the oddity that got me going on this theme today in the first place, a moment from Frank Brady's Endgame: Bobby Fischer's Remarkable Rise and Fall (2011). Twelve-year-old Bobby Fischer is watching a high-profile tournament, with all the Cold War trappings, between a US team and a Russian team. Brady writes,
And then there were the players, gathering onstage, waiting for the signal from the referee to take their places and commence their games. Soviet player David Bronstein asked for a glass of lemon juice--no, not lemonade, but real lemon juice, he insisted--which he downed in what looked like one gulp.
Surely he at least made a face?

US Open champion Donald Byrne, on the other hand,
said he was so on edge that he spent the entire day before the match trying not to think of chess, reading the romantic prose of Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Which seems like an error, no? Is anything quite black-and-white in Hawthorne?

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