Thursday, June 21, 2018

Book Review: The St. Paul Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edited by Patricia Hampl and Dave Page (2004)

The cover of The St. Paul Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edited by Patricia Hampl and Dave Page, 2004. (Photo by Mark C. Taylor)

F. Scott Fitzgerald was born in Saint Paul, Minnesota, on September 24, 1896. His family moved to Buffalo, New York in 1898, but they returned to Saint Paul in 1908, and the city would be Scott’s home, off and on, until 1922. 

Fitzgerald led a peripatetic life, spending considerable amounts of time in Minnesota, New York, Montana, Louisiana, Connecticut, Delaware, Alabama, Maryland, North Carolina, and California. And that’s not even counting the numerous places where he and Zelda lived in France. Scott and Zelda never owned a home of their own. It’s difficult to say that any one place has a special claim on him. However, Saint Paul was where he first entertained the idea of becoming a writer, where he published his first writings, and where he finished his first two novels. Fitzgerald always saw places through the lens of an outsider, and I suspect that he secretly wondered if he truly belonged anywhere. 

The 2004 collection The St. Paul Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, edited by Patricia Hampl and Dave Page, does a superb job of advocating for the importance of Saint Paul in Fitzgerald’s writings. Fitzgerald’s family was socially well-connected in Saint Paul, as his mother, Mollie McQuillan Fitzgerald, was born into a prominent and wealthy family. Mollie’s father, P.F. McQuillan, had come to Saint Paul from Ireland when he was just a boy. He eventually established a very successful wholesale grocery business, and built a mansion in the section of downtown Saint Paul known as Lowertown. (The mansion was torn down, as were all the mansions of Lowertown.) The McQuillans rubbed shoulders with people like the shipping and railroad tycoon James J. Hill, who had a nearby mansion of his own in Lowertown. Unfortunately, P.F. McQuillan died at the age of 43 in 1877 of Bright’s Disease, a kidney disorder. He left behind a fortune of about $250,000, a significant sum of money. However, after grandfather McQuillan’s death, no new money was being earned by the family, so by the time Scott was a young man, the family was still very well off, but they weren’t in the financial stratosphere like the Hills. In 1891 James J. Hill finished building his gigantic mansion on Summit Avenue, which totaled 36,000 square feet and included an art gallery. In contrast, Scott Fitzgerald was born in 1896 in a spacious rented apartment, one of six units in a building on Laurel Avenue, four blocks off of the prestigious Summit Avenue. It was still a very nice residence in the best part of town, but it was most definitely not a mansion.

Fitzgerald’s father, Edward, was from Maryland, and was the epitome of the Southern gentleman. Handsome, courtly, and well-dressed, he was unfortunately not successful at business. Nevertheless, young Scott Fitzgerald grew up rubbing shoulders with the elite of Saint Paul. He attended Saint Paul Academy, the most prestigious private school in the city, and also attended dancing school, which was a must in those days for anyone in the upper classes. He went to parties at the University Club, and Town & Country Club. Fitzgerald’s unique social position gave him access to the world of the very wealthy, but he knew that he would have to make his own way in the world. There was not enough family money for him to coast idly through life. 

If Fitzgerald had been either higher or lower in the social strata, he might not have developed into the brilliant observer of class and status that he became. Had he been a member of the idle rich, he might not have fully understood how his life was different from other people’s, and he might not have been interested in chronicling it. If Fitzgerald had been lower class, he wouldn’t have had access to the rich to see how they lived. But Fitzgerald had enough access to the rich to absorb their social milieu, and he knew how unique it was. There’s a brilliant quote from the critic Malcolm Lowry about Fitzgerald: “It was as if all his novels described a big dance to which he had taken the prettiest girl, and as if at the same time he stood outside the ballroom, a little Midwestern boy with his nose to the glass, wondering how much the tickets cost and who paid for the music.” Lowry called this Fitzgerald’s “double vision” and I think it sums up Fitzgerald perfectly. He is at once both involved participant and detached observer, and that’s one reason why he was such a great writer. 

The St. Paul Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald includes some of his greatest short stories, like “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” “The Ice Palace,” and “Winter Dreams.” It also features the very funny “The Camel’s Back,” which Fitzgerald said he pounded out in a sleepless twenty-two hour stretch. 

“Bernice Bobs Her Hair” was one of Fitzgerald’s first short stories to be published in The Saturday Evening Post, and concerns the popular Marjorie and her seemingly hopeless cousin Bernice, who is visiting her for the summer. A young man thinks about Bernice: “He wondered idly whether she was a poor conversationalist because she got no attention or got no attention because she was a poor conversationalist.” (p.52) However, with Marjorie’s help, Bernice is able to achieve social popularity. The story also features this beautiful line, which shows how Fitzgerald was wise beyond his years: “At eighteen our convictions are hills from which we look; at forty-five they are caves in which we hide.” (p.56) 

“Winter Dreams” is one of Fitzgerald’s finest short stories, and he wrote that it was a “sort of 1st draft of the Gatsby idea.” (p.107) It’s a beautiful, haunting story, as Dexter Green tries to win the heart of the cold Judy Jones. Dexter Green isn’t exactly Jay Gatsby, but they have similarities in their single-minded focus to achieve their fantasies. 

 As usual in Fitzgerald’s writing, there are beautiful, poetic sentences in “Winter Dreams,” such as: “When the scarlet corners of her lips curved down, it was less a smile than an invitation to a kiss.” (p.119) And: “In the middle of May when the weather balanced for a few days on the thin bridge that led to deep summer he turned in one night at Irene’s house.” (p.125) 

“Winter Dreams” was the last short story that Fitzgerald wrote while he was living in Saint Paul, but his hometown continued to be a setting and influence on his work. The 1927 short story “A Short Trip Home” is an interesting one. It mixes the supernatural with more typical Fitzgerald story material about young love. The story connects to Fitzgerald’s strong morality. While he’s often seen as the epitome of Jazz Age excesses, Fitzgerald had a strong moral sense of good and evil. As his friend Oscar Kalman said of him: “Poor Scott, he never really enjoyed his dissipation because he disapproved intensely of himself all the time it was going on.” (The Far Side of Paradise, by Arthur Mizener, p.93) Fitzgerald himself said, “Parties are a form of suicide. I love them, but the old Catholic in me secretly disapproves.” (The Far Side of Paradise, p.135) In Fitzgerald’s first novel, This Side of Paradise, the main character Amory Blaine sees a physical manifestation of the devil, just as the mysterious man in “A Short Trip Home” functions as a physical manifestation of evil.  

In 1928 and 1929, Fitzgerald was suffering from a severe case of writer’s block as he attempted to write the novel that would become Tender is the Night. So he returned to his adolescence in Saint Paul for a series of stories about Basil Duke Lee. The stories are excellent, and I strongly suspect that the young Basil Duke Lee shared many similarities with the young F. Scott Fitzgerald. The first Basil story was “The Scandal Detectives,” the short story taking its name from an actual club that the teenaged Fitzgerald started with his friends. The story features this lovely sentence, as Basil stares at Imogene Bissel: “For the first time in his life he realized a girl completely as something opposite and complementary to him, and he was subject to a warm chill of mingled pleasure and pain.” (p.167) 

Fitzgerald describes Basil’s youthful idea of what his life will be like: “This summer he and his mother and sister were going to the lakes and next fall he was starting away to school. Then he would go to Yale and be a great athlete, and after thatif his two dreams had fitted onto each other chronologically instead of existing independently side by sidehe was due to become a gentleman burglar.” (p.168) Like Basil, Fitzgerald dreamed of finding glory on the athletic fields, but it was not to be. He badly wanted to make the football team at Princeton, but he was cut the first day of tryouts. 

Another Basil story, “A Night at the Fair,” describes the wonders of the Minnesota State Fair. If you haven’t had the good fortune to attend the Minnesota State Fair, let me assure you, it is a wonderful event, and one that most Minnesotans feel quite passionately about. Fitzgerald perfectly captures the mood of the Fair in this passage:

“The first lights of the evening were springing into pale existence; the afternoon crowd had thinned a little, and the lanes, empty of people, were heavy with the rich various smells of popcorn and peanuts, molasses and dust, and cooking Wienerwurst and a not-unpleasant overtone of animals and hay. The Ferris wheel, pricked out now in lights, revolved leisurely through the dusk; a few empty cars of the roller coaster rattled overhead. The heat had blown off and there was the crisp stimulating excitement of Northern autumn in the air.” (p.190)

At the Fair, Basil meets a girl. In Fitzgerald’s stories, there is always a girl, and she is always beautiful: “Her eyes, dark and intimate, seemed to have wakened at the glowing brilliance of the illumination overhead; there was the promise of excitement in them now, like the promise of the cooling night.” (p.191) 

As Basil waits for his first pair of long pants to arrive by courier, Fitzgerald sums up Basil’s thoughts: “Like most of us, he was unable to perceive that he would have any desires in the future equivalent to those that possessed him now.” (p.198) 

In another Basil story, “He Thinks He’s Wonderful,” Fitzgerald comes close to describing what Malcolm Cowley called his “double vision” as an author: “Passing from the gleaming store into the darkness, Basil was submerged in an unreality in which he seemed to see himself from the outside, and the pleasant events of the evening began to take on fresh importance.” (p.212) I think Fitzgerald was able to be both participant and observer in his own life, which was a trait that rankled some of his acquaintances. Donald Ogden Stewart, a friend of Fitzgerald’s who met him in Saint Paul in 1919, and encountered him again in Hollywood in the late 1930’s, wrote in his memoirs that Fitzgerald’s “note-taking watchfulness…kept me from ever feeling that he was really my friend.” Everything in Fitzgerald’s life was a possible story idea or a line of dialogue. 

“At Your Age” is an interesting story of a much older man falling for a younger woman. The story was published in The Saturday Evening Post in August of 1929, and Fitzgerald was paid $4,000 for it—which would be approximately $58,000 today. One particularly lyrical passage was incorporated into Fitzgerald’s 1934 novel Tender is the Night. Here is the passage from “At Your Age”:

“They came near and Tom admired the faint dust of powder over her freshness, the guarded sweetness of her smile, the fragility of her body calculated by Nature to a millimeter to suggest a bud, yet guarantee a flower.” (p.281) 

In Tender is the Night this very similar passage occurs as Dick Diver admires the much younger Rosemary Hoyt: “It took him a moment to respond to the unguarded sweetness of her smile, her body calculated to a millimeter to suggest a bud yet guarantee a flower.” (Tender is the Night, p.104)

“At Your Age” also contains this beautiful description of Minnesota winters: “It was a long winter, even in a land of long winters. March was full of billowy drift, and when it seemed at last as though the cold must be defeated, there was a series of blizzards, desperate as last stands.” (p.291)

“A Freeze-Out,” from 1931, was the last short story by Fitzgerald that mentioned Minnesota. It’s an interesting, if somewhat slight story. But it features this nice line, once again about Minnesota weather: “On the day spring broke through and summer broke throughit is much the same thing in MinnesotaForrest stopped his coupe in front of a music store and took his pleasant vanity inside.” (p.296) 

Fitzgerald never wrote about his home town again, but he did mention it in letters that reveal his complicated relationship to Saint Paul. He wrote to his childhood friend Marie Hersey in 1934, “Having rambled so much I no longer regard Saint Paul as my home any more than the eastern seaboard or the Riviera. This is said with no disloyalty but simply because after all my father was an easterner and I went east to college and I never did quite adjust myself to those damn Minnesota winters. I was always freezing my cheeks, being a rotten skater, etc.though many events there will always fill me with a tremendous nostalgia.” (The Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald, p.536-7)

Fitzgerald contradicted himself in a 1936 letter to Hersey: “St. Paul contacts have been so infrequent that I am practically determined to go out there next summer for a while and bring the daughter. In spite of a fifteen-year absence, it still is home to me.” (The Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald, p.568)

One wonders what Fitzgerald’s true feelings about Saint Paul were, but surely they were feelings that ran deep, given how often his hometown was referenced in his fiction.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

CD Review: Frank Sinatra, Standing Room Only (2018)

The most recent Frank Sinatra boxed set, Standing Room Only, 2018.

The picture we have of Frank Sinatra’s live recordings has greatly changed over the last two decades. Until the 1990’s there were only two officially released live albums by Sinatra: 1966’s excellent Sinatra at the Sands, which found him backed by Count Basie’s band, and 1974’s The Main Event, which celebrated his return to touring after a brief two-year retirement from show business. It’s surprising that a performer of Sinatra’s stature released so few live recordings during the peak of his career. 

Excellent live recordings of Sinatra with small combos finally saw the light of day in the 1990’s. Sinatra & Sextet: Live in Paris, an amazing 1962 show was released in 1994, and Frank Sinatra with the Red Norvo Quintet: Live in Australia, 1959 was released in 1997. Both of these discs featured Sinatra at the peak of his vocal powers, and highlighted what a remarkable jazz singer he was. 

Since Sinatra’s death in 1998, a number of terrific box sets highlighting his live recordings have been released, starting with Sinatra: Vegas in 2006, and continuing with Sinatra: New York, Sinatra: London, and Sinatra: World on a String. 

Released at the beginning of May, Standing Room Only is the latest addition to the live Sinatra canon. It features complete shows from 1966, 1974, and 1987. 

The first disc is from the same 1966 residency that produced Sinatra at the Sands, and it’s a portrait of Las Vegas at a time when it was still wild and glamorous. Sinatra cribbed both his opening and closing lines of patter from his buddy Dean Martin: “How did all these people get in my room?” and “I feel sorry for the people who don’t drink, because when they wake up in the morning, that’s as good as they’re gonna feel all day long.” 

Vocally, Sinatra sounds a little bit rough at the beginning of the show, but his voice quickly warms up. One of the highlights is a hard swinging version of “Luck Be a Lady,” which is a great example of how Sinatra could make a song his own. As originally written by Frank Loesser, it’s a very fast song, but Sinatra and arranger Billy May slowed it down and made it swing harder. Sinatra gives the song a swagger that it was previously lacking. 

Another song that Sinatra made his own was “Fly Me to the Moon,” also featured in the 1966 concert. The song had been around for years before Sinatra recorded it with Count Basie in 1964. While it had nearly always been sung as a ballad, Quincy Jones’ arrangement for Sinatra turned it into a swinger, and it became one of Sinatra’s most famous songs. 

There are some rarities in the 1966 show: “Street of Dreams,” which Sinatra had recorded in 1942, but wouldn’t record again until 1979, “Where or When?” had been recorded by Sinatra in 1945 and 1958, but the latter version wasn’t released until the 1980’s, and “The Shadow of Your Smile,” which Sinatra never recorded a studio version of. 

Basie’s band is cooking behind Frank, and you can hear the enjoyment in his voice throughout the show. 

The second disc is from the same 1974 tour that produced The Main Event, which was a television special as well as a live album. One of the highlights of the show is Sinatra’s beautiful version of “Ol’ Man River.” If you’re not familiar with Sinatra’s version, you might think at first that it’s an odd song for him to sing. But he gets so completely inside the song that you’re not thrown off by an Italian American singing a song written for an African American character. And Sinatra pulls off one of his neatest tricks of phrasing in the song. On the lyric, “you get a little drunk and you lands in jail” his voice drops down as low as possible, into the bass range, as he elongates “jail” and then, without taking a breath, he connects it to the next lyric, “I gets weary, and sick of tryin’”. It’s very moving, and at this concert he pulls it off very well. 

The song selection for the 1974 concert is superb, as we are treated to many of Sinatra’s signature songs, like “The Lady is a Tramp,” “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “My Kind of Town,” and “My Way.” There’s also a superbly swinging version of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” perhaps Sinatra’s greatest song. 

Sinatra’s choice of contemporary material for the 1974 show is also excellent. Sinatra’s instincts were usually spot on, but during the 1960’s and 1970’s they sometimes led him to record songs that simply didn’t fit his style. (See: “Downtown,” “Don’t Sleep in the Subway,” “Mrs. Robinson,” and “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.”) However, this time around Sinatra chose very well: “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” by Stevie Wonder, is a good example of a contemporary song that translated well to Sinatra’s style. Also included in the show are “If,” a big hit for the group Bread in 1971, “Send in the Clowns,” from Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, and the excellent “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?” 

Sinatra is backed by Woody Herman and the Young Thundering Herd, and they do an excellent job of supporting the Chairman.

Disc three was recorded in Dallas, Texas on October 24, 1987. It’s the latest complete concert of Sinatra’s that has been officially released. Some of the songs were previously released on the 1995 CD Sinatra 80th: Live in Concert, but this is the first time the entire concert has been released.

Sinatra was 71 when the Dallas concert was recorded, and his voice was not as good as it used to be. But considering all the smoking and drinking Sinatra did, he was probably lucky to still have a voice at all at that age. However, despite his vocal limitations, there are still wonderful moments throughout the concert. 

One of the highlights of the show is Sinatra’s beautiful version of “My Heart Stood Still.” At the end he holds a very high noteit’s lovely to hear. Another standout is the hard-swinging version of “Mack the Knife.” One of the best ballads is a heartbreaking version of “What’s New?” The imperfections in Sinatra’s voice just make the song emotionally stronger. There’s also a lovely version of “Lonely Town” from the musical On the Town. 

There are also some rarities in the 1987 concert, like “When Joanna Loved Me” and the terrific “Maybe This Time,” both of which Sinatra never made studio recordings of. “Where or When” also reappears on the 1987 concert. 

The more I listen to Sinatra’s live recordings, the more I realize how much admiration he had for the songwriters. In the 1987 concert, before just about every song he tells the audience who wrote the song, and after singing it he often says, “Isn’t that lovely? What a beautiful song!” Sinatra expressed his emotions through these songs, and it’s obvious that they meant a lot to him. 

There’s a funny moment at the end of the first disc. Sinatra spends the last five minutes of his act going through all of the other acts playing Vegas, and telling people to go see them! It’s like he’s a Las Vegas tour guide, not the biggest star on the planet! Sinatra obviously didn’t have to tell people about all of the other shows in Vegas, but for whatever reason he does. To me, those little moments give us a glimpse of the man behind the legend, and they show us a little bit of Sinatra’s generosity towards other performers. 

Standing Room Only has many outstanding recordings on it, and it’s worthy of any Sinatra fan’s time and money.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Movie Review: Won't You Be My Neighbor? a documentary directed by Morgan Neville (2018)

Ad for Won't You Be My Neighbor? directed by Morgan Neville, 2018.


Mr. Rogers, in his trademark cardigan and sneakers.

Fred Rogers and Daniel Striped Tiger.
My favorite television show as a child was Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. There was something special about Fred Rogers’ gentle show and the “Neighborhood of Make-Believe.” Mister Rogers didn’t do anything fancy or high tech on his television show, but through his calm and gentle demeanor, generations of children found a special friend who would show them how a Crayon was made, and also talk them through important topics like how to deal with anger and disappointment.

Morgan Neville’s new documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018) is a look at the life of Fred Rogers and his pioneering work in children’s television. The film paints a portrait of a kind man who was very committed to the work he was doing. It’s clear that he was the same Mr. Rogers on screen and off. Although one of his sons shares the amusing anecdote that when Rogers had something snarky to say at the family dinner table, he would say it in Lady Elaine Fairchilde’s voice. 

The film discusses Rogers’ childhood illnesses, which often left him bed-ridden for long periods of time. That’s when his passion for storytelling and make-believe began. When Rogers saw the brainlessness of much of the early television shows for children, he decided to go into television and try a different approach. He worked for several years on a children’s show called Children’s Corner, where he developed some of the puppets that would later appear on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, which began in 1968. 

In addition to the successes that the show enjoyed, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? also lets us see some of Fred Rogers’ vulnerabilities. The film makes it clear that Daniel Striped Tiger, the sensitive soul of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, was often a stand-in for Rogers’ own insecurities. As Rogers says in an archival interview shown in the film, it’s easier to express emotions like sadness or vulnerability through puppets. One of the commentators in the film also points out that Fred Rogers gave us a different idea of what masculinity could look like. He didn’t have to prove to anyone how macho he was. Fred Rogers listened, was in touch with his emotions, had tremendous empathy, and accepted people for who they were. There’s nothing more manly than that. 

Fred Rogers would have turned 90 years old in 2018, and this year also marks the 50th anniversary of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. It’s only natural, during this turbulent time in American history, to wish that he were still around to offer us words of comfort and wisdom. Fortunately, because of these anniversaries, there has been a new wave of attention focused on Rogers and his television show, ensuring that new generations of viewers will be exposed to his message of love and acceptance. As he would say at the end of each show, “You make each day a special day. You know how, by just your being you.” 

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a movie that everyone should see. The world could use a lot more of Fred Rogers right now.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Concert Review: Diana Krall "Turn Up the Quiet World Tour" at the Ordway

Poster for Diana Krall's "Turn Up the Quiet World Tour 2018." (Photo by Mark C. Taylor)

Last night I saw Diana Krall at the Ordway in Saint Paul on her “Turn Up the Quiet World Tour.” I’ve seen Krall twice before, in 2013 and in 2015. (My review of her 2013 concert is my most popular post.) She always puts on an excellent show, and last night was no exception. My only complaint was that the concert wasn’t very long, only about 90 minutes or so. I still wanted a couple more songs, but that’s a small quibble. 

Krall’s band was excellent, featuring Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Anthony Wilson on guitar, Robert Hurst on bass, and Karriem Wiggins on drums. All of the band members took extensive solos, especially on Krall’s version of the Tom Waits song “Temptation,” which has long been a concert highlight. Wilson’s solo in particular was superb, building in quiet intensity throughout. Duncan also had a great solo, in which he strummed his fiddle like a guitar. Krall’s piano playing was also superb, and she and the band really stretched out on a lot of the songs. 

Krall’s expressive alto was in good form as well, and she played several songs I haven’t heard her sing in concert before, like the Nat King Cole hit “L-O-V-E,” and Cole Porter’s lovely “Night and Day.” Those two songs have long been favorites of mine, so I was happy to hear them. 

Krall looked lovely, as she always does. She wore a black and red print dress, and her thick blonde hair just grazed her shoulders. I always enjoy Krall’s stage patter, as she’s very funny. During one of the intros to her songs, she stopped playing to say “bless you” to someone who sneezed. 

For the encore, Krall played two Bob Dylan songs: “Wallflower,” which was the title song of her 2015 CD, and “This Dream of You,” from Dylan’s 2009 album Together Through Life. They were both good, but I wanted one more up tempo song to leave on. Oh well, I’ll just have to wait until the next time Krall comes through town.

Setlist: 

Indeed I Do
L-O-V-E
Night and Day
You Call it Madness (But I Call It Love)
Temptation
On the Sunny Side of the Street
Just You, Just Me
Encore:
Wallflower
This Dream of You