Sunday, April 17, 2016

Book Review: St. Paul's Historic Summit Avenue, by Ernest R. Sandeen (1978)

Cover of the 2004 reissue of St. Paul's Historic Summit Avenue, by Ernest R. Sandeen, originally published in 1978. (Photo by Mark C. Taylor)

The James J. Hill House, completed in 1891, is one of the landmarks of Summit Avenue.
An essential book for anyone who is interested in one of the great residential avenues in the Twin Cities is Ernest R. Sandeen’s 1978 book, St. Paul’s Historic Summit Avenue. Summit Avenue runs for four and a half miles, from the Cathedral of Saint Paul to the Mississippi River. It was the site of many of the most impressive houses in the Twin Cities, and it’s still one of the premier addresses in town. In his book, Sandeen brings to life the history of Summit Avenue, and describes the architecture and history behind some of its most notable houses.

Most of the great mansions that are still standing on Summit Avenue were built between 1880 and 1920. Summit Avenue features an eclectic mix of architectural styles, from Italian Villa to Queen Anne and Georgian Revival. At the time Sandeen published his book in 1978, Summit Avenue was just starting a rebirth after a nearly 50-year down cycle. The Great Depression, combined with the migration of residents from Saint Paul to nearby suburbs, meant that these beautiful houses were for the most part neglected, and the neighborhood was on the decline from the 1930’s to the 1970’s. Finally, during the 1970’s and 1980’s, more preservation-minded people starting buying homes on Summit, and many of the houses have been restored to their full luster. 

The largest house on Summit Avenue, and the largest house in Minnesota when it was built, is the massive James J. Hill House. (Full disclosure: I’m a tour guide at the Hill House and I also give walking tours of Summit Avenue, so Sandeen’s book is sort of like a Bible for us tour guides.) Hill was a railroad tycoon who built the Great Northern Railway. Hill’s massive Richardsonian Romanesque mansion is an imposing presence on Summit Avenue, and, depending on which direction you’re going, either begins or ends Summit Avenue with an emphatic exclamation mark. 

Sandeen’s book is an important treasure trove of Saint Paul information, and while it’s great that it was reprinted in 2004 by the University of Minnesota press, it’s also too bad that it wasn’t updated with a history of what’s happened to Summit Avenue since 1978. But those are small quibbles for an excellent book about the history of a neighborhood.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Book Review: Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, by Tom Wolfe (1970)

Another look at my Tom Wolfe bookshelf, highlighting his 1970 work, Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers. (Photo by Mark C. Taylor)

Felicia Bernstein, Leonard Bernstein, and Don Cox, field marshal of the Black Panther Party, 1970.

Tom Wolfe, resplendent in his white suit, sometime in the 1970's.
Tom Wolfe entered the political fray with the two essays in his 1970 book Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers. “Radical Chic” describes a fundraiser that Leonard Bernstein and his wife Felicia held at their Park Avenue apartment for the Black Panther Party. Wolfe wasn’t actually invited to the party, but he saw the invitation on David Halberstam’s desk at Harper’s magazine. Halberstam wasn’t in, so Wolfe pocketed the invitation and RSVP’d to the party. Wolfe was struck by the incongruity of the Bernsteins hosting a fundraiser for radical black socialist/communist militants in their two-story, thirteen-room penthouse duplex, and it’s this irony, this inherent satire, that gives “Radical Chic” it’s bite. 

At the time the Bernsteins hosted the party, on January 14, 1970, what Wolfe calls “radical chic” was definitely a part of some elements of the liberal culture. It was considered hip and groovy to support very radical political causes. In 1969, various Black Panthers were arrested and accused of trying to blow up a number of buildings in New York City, including that bastion of racism and oppression, the Bronx Botanical Gardens. The party the Bernsteins hosted was to raise money for the defense fund of those Panthers who had been arrested, who were still being held in jail. Don Cox, field marshal of the Black Panthers, spoke at the fundraiser. 

Wolfe’s writing is as sharp as a knife throughout the essay: “God, what a flood of taboo thoughts runs through one’s head at these Radical Chic events…But it’s delicious. It is as if one’s nerve endings were on red alert to the most intimate nuances of status.” (p.8) Wolfe is always on red alert to the most intimate nuances of status! That’s his calling card! This is right up his alley! 

Tom Wolfe wasn’t the only journalist who was at the fundraiser that evening. Also present was Charlotte Curtis, a reporter from The New York Times who actually captured what’s probably the best-known exchange of the evening, between Cox and Leonard Bernstein:

"'If business won't give us full employment, then we must take the means of production and put them in the hands of the people'

'I dig absolutely,' Mr. Bernstein said."

Curtis’ article on the party was published the next day in the Times, and the party was considered so intriguing that a few days later a Times editorial was published about it, attacking the Bernsteins for hosting such a radical organization. Felicia Bernstein then wrote a long letter to the Times defending their hosting of the event, and protesting the fact that it was reported as a “party.” The Bernsteins split hairs by saying that the fundraiser was really for the defense fund of the accused Panthers, and that it was all about free speech rather than backing everything that the Panthers stood for. You can make that argument, but why not just give money to, say, the ACLU if you’re so concerned about the Panthers’ civil liberties?

The whole event became something of a media circus, as pundits from both political sides weighed in on the party. Wolfe was quoted in Curtis' 1987 obituary in the Times, saying, "It wasn't anything she wrote that infuriated them. It was that she put down exactly what they said. That's always what seems cruelest of all, to hold up a mirror to people that way."

Wolfe’s own article, titled “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s,” was published in June, 1970, in New York magazine.  Don Cox was not happy about Wolfe’s article, as related in his 2011 New York Times obituary:

“He added that ‘it was those media freaks and that bloodsucking Tom Wolfe’ who exploited the cause of black liberation to make money from it and ‘to be part of the machinery that tried to ridiculize {sic} it.’” According to the obituary, “Cox was charged as a conspirator in the July 1969 murder of Eugene Anderson, a Panther who had been a police informer in Baltimore.” Cox left the United States when a warrant was issued for his arrest and never returned.

On the official Leonard Bernstein website, run by Bernstein’s estate, there is a lengthy section on the “radical chic flap,” which is quite an interesting read. 

Wolfe had some difficulty in writing the essay, and in a 1980 interview he said: “I started writing in the first person, which was a big mistake, telling how I saw this invitation, how I wrangled my way in. I wrote about thirty pages like that, and then it dawned on me that it was useless information and really detracted from the scene, which was the important thing.” (Conversations with Tom Wolfe, p.136) 

Wolfe was criticized for not taking a political stand of his own in “Radical Chic,” and like other works of Wolfe’s, critics at the time used him as a tabula rasa to imprint their own feelings about what Wolfe’s politics might be. Appearing on William F. Buckley’s show Firing Line in December 1970, shortly after Radical Chic was released, Wolfe spoke about the role of the writer, saying, “The real contribution of a writer is not to make the moral point, it is to discover. I think of a lot of moralistic writing as a moral cop-out. If you have your mind made up, or if you have a cause in mind, why should I really wear myself out gathering evidence when we already know the conclusion? This is the greatest vice of journalism in our time.” 

The point of “Radical Chic” is not that you learn about Tom Wolfe’s own political point of view. He’s a reporter, not an editorialist. If he had presented the book from a liberal point of view, liberal critics at the time would have cheered, but would the book have been valuable? Or would it have just been preaching to the choir? Likewise, had he written the book from a conservative point of view, liberal critics would have just attacked him because he was taking a conservative viewpoint. By making the book not have an editorial point of view, Wolfe ultimately wrote a better book. He leaves it up to the readers to come to their own conclusions.

Every work of art doesn’t have to be political. But the late 1960’s and the early 1970’s were an extremely political time-in the lingo of the time, you’re either with us or against us, part of the solution or part of the problem. We live in a similar time now, when every decision people make seems to be politically informed, or is thought to somehow be a window onto one’s politics. 

“Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers” describes how various minorities groups in San Francisco would intimidate government programs into giving them money. Wolfe calls the process “mau-mauing,” after the Mau Mau Rebellion that took place in Kenya in the 1950’s. Wolfe is superb as he shows how a combination of bureaucratic ineptitude and white guilt combined to give money to groups who might not have been pursuing the agendas of the anti-poverty programs. 

My favorite part of “Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers” is Wolfe’s description of the “flak catcher,” the government employee who takes the heat, or catches the flak, from the minority groups:

“All you have to do is look at him and you get the picture. The man’s a lifer. He’s stone civil service. He has it all down from the wheatcolor Hush Puppies to the wash’n’dry semi-tab-collar shortsleeved white shirt. Those wheatcolor Hush Puppies must be like some kind of fraternal garb among the civil-service employees, because they all wear them. They cost about $4.99, and the second time you move your toes, the seams split and the tops come away from the soles. But they all wear them.” (p.93) 
Wolfe is so good at painting such a vivid picture of a person by just using a few key details like that. 

In his profile of Wolfe in the November 2015 issue of Vanity Fair, Michael Lewis described the experience of reading Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers when he was 11 or 12 years old: 

“At some point came a thought that struck with the force of revelation: this book had been written by someone. Some human being must have sat down and scribbled the Hardy Boys series, along with the Legends of the NFL-how else would I have ever known that Dallas Cowboys defensive lineman Bob Lilly lifted a Volkswagen by himself? I’d never really stopped to ask who had written any of those books, because…well, because it didn’t matter to me who had written them. Their creators were invisible. They had no particular identity. No voice. Now rolling around a living-room floor in New Orleans, Louisiana, howling with laughter, I asked a new question: Who wrote this book?”

Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers is one of Tom Wolfe’s essential books, and Wolfe once said in 1987, “As a piece of sheer writing, it’s my favorite book.” (Conversations with Tom Wolfe, p.213) It's a terrific read, with a very strong authorial voice. 

Monday, March 28, 2016

Movie Review: Gypsy, starring Rosalind Russell, Natalie Wood, and Karl Malden (1962)

Original poster for Gypsy, 1962.

Natalie Wood as Louise, and Rosalind Russell as Rose in Gypsy.

Natalie Wood as Louise and Karl Malden as Herbie in Gypsy. (Note Caroline the cow in the background.)
Natalie Wood after Louise's transformation into Gypsy Rose Lee. *Sigh* She was so beautiful.

Natalie Wood on the set with the real Gypsy Rose Lee, who was at least 5 inches taller than Natalie.

Natalie Wood in her dressing room. I love this photo, and not just because of what Natalie's wearing. It's such a great composition, the way Natalie is standing is such an interesting pose. She seems unaware of the camera, and there's the mystery of all the people whose faces we don't see. Who are they?
The 1959 Broadway musical Gypsy introduced the world to a character with a huge personality: dedicated stage mother Rose Hovick, whose only ambition in life is to make her daughter June a vaudeville star. No matter that vaudeville is already on the way out, Rose will find a way to make it happen. The character of Rose is widely known in pop culture as “Mama Rose,” but she’s actually never referred to that way in either the play or the 1962 movie version. Gypsy featured a book written by Arthur Laurents, with music by Jule Styne, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Laurents and Sondheim had previously collaborated on West Side Story. Oddly enough, Natalie Wood starred in both the movie versions of West Side Story and Gypsy

The score of Gypsy is simply fantastic, and it features many great songs like “Small World,” “You’ll Never Get Away From Me,” “All I Need is the Girl,” “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” and “Let Me Entertain You.” While the Broadway production starred the legendary Ethel Merman as Rose, the movie starred three actors not known for their singing voices: Rosalind Russell, Natalie Wood, and Karl Malden. The decision was made by someone to cut all of the songs that Karl Malden’s character, Herbie, sings, turning it into a non-singing part. That decision meant ditching the super cute song “Together (Wherever We Go),” which was filmed, but then cut. It’s included on the DVD as a bonus feature. Natalie Wood had her singing voice dubbed for West Side Story, much to her annoyance, and she did all of her own singing in Gypsy. Rosalind Russell had appeared in musicals before, as she starred in the original Broadway production of Wonderful Town, with lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and music by Leonard Bernstein. But for Gypsy her vocals were mixed with those of Lisa Kirk. Some songs, like “Mr. Goldstone, I Love You” are all Russell’s voice, while others are a mix, and Kirk did an excellent job of matching Russell’s voice. 

In terms of acting, Russell, Wood, and Malden all did excellent work. The role of Herbie, Rose’s long-suffering boyfriend, requires a “normal guy” actor, and Karl Malden certainly fit that bill. Malden is by turns intense and also good-naturedly laid-back, and it’s another superb performance from an actor whose career was full of them. Russell is marvelous as Rose, who comes off as something of a more intense version of Russell’s Auntie Mame. Like Mame, Rose sucks all the oxygen out of any room she’s in. Sometimes in a good way, and sometimes in a bad way. Wood is fabulous as Louise, the plain older sister who is never the star, but finally blossoms into the burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee. For the role of Louise, you need someone who is believable as both a shy wallflower and as the belle of the ball. Wood was such a good actress that she pulled it off very convincingly. I know, we all KNOW Natalie Wood is gorgeous, even when she’s dressed up as plain as she can possibly be. The costume designers did a really good job of making Wood look plain as Louise. (Orry-Kelly designed Natalie’s dresses for the burlesque scenes, but I doubt he had anything to do with the drab clothes Wood wears as Louise.)

Gypsy was directed by Mervyn LeRoy, who had a long career in Hollywood stretching back to the dawn of the talkies. An old school studio director who could handle any genre, two of LeRoy’s best known films today are Mister Roberts and Quo Vadis. I really enjoyed the sets in Gypsy. The sets throughout the movie are obviously fake. For example, the train station where Rose sings “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” and the Western set as Louise becomes the new star of the act after June leaves. I think it was an obvious choice to make the sets look like sets, and I took that to be a way of showing the audience that these characters don’t exist in the “real world.” Their whole lives revolve around showbiz, and they are disconnected from any other kind of reality. Especially Rose, who creates her own reality wherever she goes. 

There aren’t many interesting behind the scenes stories from the set of Gypsy. As a small nod to my ongoing fascination with Warren Beatty, I’ll point out that Beatty was dating Wood during the production of Gypsy, and most days he could be found on the set, being a supportive boyfriend. According to Gavin Lambert’s 2005 biography of Natalie Wood, the reason that Rosalind Russell played Rose instead of Ethel Merman was a simple one: Russell’s husband, theatrical producer Frederick Brisson, owned the film rights to Gypsy, and sold the rights to Warner Brothers on the condition that Russell would play Rose. (Natalie Wood: A Life, by Gavin Lambert, p.184) 

Natalie Wood began her career as an actress at the age of 5, and Wood’s biographer Suzanne Finstad has a rather dramatic view of her role in Gypsy: “Natalie was driven by demons to play the stripper with the stage mother of all stage mothers, Mama Rose-played in the movie by Rosalind Russell-viewing Gypsy as the catharsis for all her years as a child star under the tyranny of Mud.” (Mud was a nickname for Natalie’s mother Maria Zakharenko.) (Natasha: The Biography of Natalie Wood, by Suzanne Finstad, p.279) However, Christopher Nickens’ 1986 book Natalie Wood: A Biography in Photographs, says the opposite. Nickens writes, “Maria realized early on that Natalie was destined to be a performer, and she was wise enough to encourage her daughter’s talents and help her make the most of them.” Nickens also includes two quotes from Natalie to back up his point. Natalie told Hedda Hopper during the filming of Gypsy, “My mother was the furthest thing from a stage mother.” When asked how she dealt with being a child actor, Wood told the Los Angeles Times: “It all depends more than anything else on the parents. I happened to enjoy it all. I wanted it. I wasn’t being pushed. I was lucky.” (All three quotes from Natalie Wood: A Biography in Photographs, by Christopher Nickens, p.113) 

So, which was it? Was Gypsy just like Natalie Wood’s own childhood? Or was her mother nothing at all like Rose Hovick? The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. I think it’s fair to say that Wood had a sometimes difficult relationship with her mother, and she probably related to Louise in some ways. Natalie’s beautiful rendition of the song “Little Lamb” is proof enough for me that she felt a connection to Louise. 

Another member of the Wood/Zakharenko family who might have felt a close connection to the overlooked Louise was Natalie’s little sister, Lana Wood, who also became an actress but whose career never climbed to the same heights as Natalie’s. 

Wood was at the peak of her movie stardom when Gypsy was released in November 1962, and if you watch the trailer you’ll see that Warner Brothers was really selling the movie as “Natalie Wood Strips,” while in reality it’s only the last 15% of the movie that’s about Louise’s transformation into Gypsy Rose Lee. Wood received some stripping tips from Gypsy Rose Lee herself on the set. Wood was understandably a bit nervous about the stripping scenes, but in the finished film she handles them with aplomb. Because Wood was so petite, with reports of her height ranging from 5’0” to 5’3”, and the real Gypsy Rose Lee was 5’8”, director Mervyn LeRoy and director of photography Harry Stradling Sr. did their best to make Natalie look as tall as possible during the stripping scenes. Natalie’s clothes were made to accentuate her legs and give the illusion of greater height. Most of the camera angles are low, so you’re looking up at Wood, making her look taller. And notice how during the New Year’s Eve strip, the showgirls disappear into the wings by the time Natalie appears on screen, so you never see a showgirl towering over her. Wood certainly looked glamorous and very beautiful and attractive in the scenes where she’s Gypsy Rose Lee.

Gypsy was a financial success, earning $11 million at the box office, making it the 9th highest grossing movie of 1962. Warner Brothers’ other 1962 musical release, The Music Man, made just under $15 million, making it the 5th highest grossing movie of 1962. Wood and Russell were both nominated for Golden Globes for Best Actress in a Motion Picture: Musical or Comedy, and Russell took home the trophy. Malden was nominated for Best Actor in a Motion Picture: Musical or Comedy, losing out to Marcello Mastroianni in Divorce, Italian Style

Gypsy is a wonderful film of one of the great American stage musicals, and it showcases great performances from Rosalind Russell, Natalie Wood, and Karl Malden.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Concert Review: Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs at Orchestra Hall

The very versatile Alan Cumming.

Album cover for "Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs," 2016. Alan explained how the cover was shot on his recent appearance on Seth Meyers.
Last night I attended Alan Cumming’s concert at Orchestra Hall with my wife and my mother. Alan’s show is called “Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs,” but a more accurate title would be: “Alan Cumming Sings and Entertains the Hell out of You for Two Hours.” Cumming is an amazing and fearless performer who has won many plaudits for his work on stage and screen. He’s probably most well-known for his starring role as the Emcee in both the 1998 and 2014 Broadway revivals of Cabaret, and for his role as Eli Gold on the TV show The Good Wife

In concert, Cumming is a master showman, as he could have the whole audience laughing and during emotional moments it was so quiet you could hear the proverbial pin drop as everyone hung on Cumming’s every word. Like many great musical theater artists, Cumming fully inhabits a song when he sings it, and you could tell that the passion he feels for these songs is genuine. 

The songs Cumming picked were an eclectic mixture of pop songs, ranging from Miley Cyrus’ “The Climb” to Billy Joel’s “Goodnight Saigon.” One of the most clever songs was Cummings’ mash-up of Adele’s, “Someone Like You,” Katy Perry’s “Firework,” and Lady Gaga’s “The Edge of Glory,” which Cumming has re-titled, “Someone like the Edge of Firework.” 

Along the way, Cumming told hilarious stories about writing a jingle for a condom commercial, and co-hosting the Tony Awards with Kristin Chenoweth. He also told moving stories about his grandfather and his difficult relationship with his father, the subject of Cumming’s 2014 memoir, Not My Father’s Son. Cumming is a fantastic storyteller, and I could listen to him talk for hours. And it’s not just because of his Scottish accent. 

Cumming was backed by pianist Lance Horne, cellist Eleanor Norton, and a drummer/guitarist whose name unfortunately wasn’t in the program. All three musicians did a great job of making the songs come to life. From my seat I could watch Cumming and Norton at the same time, and it was a lot of fun to see the obvious joy that she takes in performing. 

If you want to be entertained by a great performer, go see “Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs.” It’s fantastic.