Sunday, September 13, 2015

Book Review: From Bauhaus to Our House, by Tom Wolfe (1981)


The weird and wonderful paperback cover of Tom Wolfe's From Bauhaus to Our House, 1981. How many other authors would be recognizable as a sculptural caricature? Photo by Mark C. Taylor.


The real Tom Wolfe, striking a very similar pose to his caricature.

Downtown Minneapolis. Philip Johnson's modernist IDS Center from 1972 is on the left, and the art deco Foshay Tower from 1929 is on the right. Photo by Mark C. Taylor.

Philip Johnson's beautiful IDS Center, up close. Johnson called the indentations on the building "zogs." These allow each floor to have up to 32 corner offices. Photo by Mark C. Taylor.

One of my favorite buildings in downtown Minneapolis, Minoru Yamasaki's graceful and elegant NWNL building, from 1965.
The funny thing about Tom Wolfe is that for all of the hip edginess of his writing style, he’s actually a square. His writings were revolutionary, as he was one of the founders of New Journalism, but his own personal outlook is quite conservative. Wolfe may have gone along on a bus trip with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, but he wasn’t joining them for their LSD trips. Wolfe was always something of an outsider, and this made him one of the great chroniclers of the 1960’s and 1970’s, able to capture the spirit of the times without letting that spirit consume him.

In his 1981 book From Bauhaus to Our House, Wolfe offer his critique of the modernist architecture made famous by Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, and others. From Bauhaus to Our House examines how modernism rose from the fringes of Europe to become the dominant style of American architecture during the mid-20th century. Wolfe makes it clear from page one that he doesn’t care for modernist architecture, both the style and the intellectual philosophies behind it. Wolfe’s own tastes tend towards the older, more ornamental styles of architecture that modernism pushed aside. 

In 2006, in an interview with the National Endowment for the Humanities, Wolfe said of his books about art and architecture, The Painted Word and From Bauhaus to Our House, “I intended those books as permission slips for everybody to like what they want.” But that’s just not true! He spends all 128 pages of From Bauhaus to Our House knocking modernism and doesn’t have a single good thing to say about it! Wolfe never admits that there might be some reason people liked modernism, he doesn’t give anyone permission to like it. And that’s the problem with the book; it’s all black and white. (This, ironically enough, makes it fit in perfectly with the ideal modernist color scheme.) Wolfe’s way of thinking doesn’t allow for any shades of gray, or any nuances. That style of writing a critique annoys me. It’s too easy to just say something is all good or all bad; it takes more skill to admit that it’s more complicated than that. 

Rather than just criticize From Bauhaus to Our House, I will admit that Wolfe’s writing style makes it entertaining to read. He’s a funny writer, and he crafts many witty put-downs. Consider this example: “In short, this has been America’s period of full-blooded, go-to-hell, belly-rubbing wahoo-yahoo youthful rampage-and what architecture has she to show for it? An architecture whose tenets prohibit every manifestation of exuberance, power, empire, grandeur, or even high spirits and playfulness, as the height of bad taste.” (p.61) That’s excellent writing, and the point Wolfe makes is a very good one. Modernism was a very serious architectural movement, with little room for whimsy. 

From Bauhaus to Our House commits the cardinal sin of being a nonfiction book that doesn’t have any footnotes or cite any sources. That always annoys me, as I want to know where the author is getting their ideas and quotes from. What books about architecture and the Bauhaus movement did Tom Wolfe read? He doesn’t tell us. There’s also a glaring error in the book, at least from an art history perspective, as Wolfe writes on page 44 of artists from Europe coming to America in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, and one of the artists he mentions is Modigliani. There’s just one problem with that. Modigliani died in 1920. 

Personally, I’m much more open in my architectural tastes than Tom Wolfe is. I enjoy a lot of different styles of architecture. I like modernist buildings; I also like Second Empire buildings, Richardsonian Romanesque buildings, Prairie style buildings. I admire just about anything, as long as it’s a successful design. I know that whatever I deem to be a “successful design” is very subjective. I love the history behind architecture, and how it shows the changing tastes of its time. Buildings reflect the time in which they were built, and it would simply be very boring if every building was built in the same style. Since I’ve lived in the Twin Cities for nearly my entire life, I’ll use an example from downtown Minneapolis. I love both the modernist IDS Center, built in 1972, and the art deco Foshay Tower, built in 1929. I couldn’t choose between them, and I wouldn’t want to. They are both classic designs of their time, and they’re both beautiful buildings. 

I’m intrigued by the Utopian spirit of a lot of modernist architecture. A lot of those buildings had social planning goals, and I think the modernist architects really thought that their steel and glass high rises would be the ideal place for people to live. I think most modernist architects working in 1950 would have predicted that everyone in major urban areas would live in giant skyscrapers by the year 2015. Of course, that hasn’t come to pass. The broad trend over the last 30 years is for new housing in the suburbs to be in the boring McMansion style, while people who are staying in the middle of metro areas have generally been quite happy to rehab old houses or repurpose old industrial buildings for lofts. I know I just made a sweeping generalization, and I know the above statement might not hold true for other urban areas around the United States, but that seems to be the general trend here in the Twin Cities. 

Wolfe criticizes some of the large scale modernist urban planning buildings, like Minoru Yamasaki’s ill-fated Pruitt-Igoe apartment complex in St. Louis. The Wikipedia article about the Pruitt-Igoe development is a fascinating read. Completed in 1954, the complex quickly became a haven for crime, and in 1972 the city began demolishing it. What Wolfe doesn’t mention in his writing about Pruitt-Igoe is that it was a failure of urban planning more than just a failure of architecture. Pruitt-Igoe didn’t fail because Yamasaki’s architecture was fatally flawed; it failed for a million other reasons. It’s not the architect’s fault if it never worked out the way it was supposed to.  

I also feel compelled to defend Minoru Yamasaki because he designed one of my favorite buildings in downtown Minneapolis, the beautiful NWNL building from 1965. Originally built for the Northwestern National Life Insurance Company, it’s now called Voya Financial 20 Washington. I’m a little biased since my mother worked in this building for many years, and I have many happy memories of visiting her at work in this gorgeous setting. One of my favorite touches is the reflecting pool that runs along the entire south side of the building. It’s a beautiful example of modernist architecture at its best. 

From Bauhaus to Our House is a quick read that is really a footnote to Tom Wolfe’s more major works, but the paperback edition has one of the coolest covers ever, as it shows a caricature figure of Tom Wolfe, dressed in his trademark white suit, standing in between a Victorian Queen Anne-style house and a modernist steel and glass office tower. I don’t know what the figure of Wolfe is made out of, maybe paper mache? It’s a crazy and funny book cover.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Book Review: Washington: A Life, by Ron Chernow (2010)


Washington: A Life, by Ron Chernow, 2010. The painting on the front cover is by Rembrandt Peale.


Bust of George Washington by Jean-Antoine Houdon, 1785. This sculpture is thought to be one of the best likenesses of Washington.

Author Ron Chernow.
Ron Chernow’s massive 2010 cradle-to-grave biography of George Washington, called simply Washington: A Life, is a superb achievement. It’s valid to ask if we really need another biography of George Washington, one of the most chronicled of all our Founding Fathers, but Chernow’s book is invaluable. The scope of Washington: A Life is immense, but the book succeeds because of Chernow’s excellent writing and his razor-sharp insights into Washington’s personality. 

Chernow digs deeply into Washington’s life to get the reader as close as possible to the actual person, not the dignified marble statue Washington is sometimes presented as. Chernow relies heavily on Washington’s own diary entries and letters, and this allows him to examine Washington’s personality. Washington was a complex man, and Chernow emphasizes the contradictions inherent in Washington’s life, as this fighter for liberty was also the owner of many slaves. Some of Chernow’s best writing throughout the book is about Washington and his ambivalent relationship with slavery. Washington was clearly uncomfortable with the institution, yet he never publicly called for emancipation. However, he was the only Founding Father who freed his slaves after his death. (But Washington couldn’t free all of the slaves at Mount Vernon because many of them had belonged to Martha before their marriage.)

George Washington was a man who sought to always be the master of his emotions, but he had a fiery temper that sometimes got the best of him, as when he cursed out the incompetent General Charles Lee after the battle of Monmouth. (p.342) Washington’s deep passion is revealed in some of his letters, despite his best efforts to subdue it. It’s clear that before his marriage to Martha Dandridge Custis Washington was infatuated with Sally Fairfax, the wife of his neighbor and good friend George William Fairfax. In letters to Sally, Washington shows a more tender side and historians have long debated the exact nature of their relationship. In 1798, just a year before his death, Washington wrote to Sally Fairfax that none of his many amazing experiences in life “have been able to eradicate from my mind the recollection of those happy moments-the happiest of my life-which I have enjoyed in your company.” (p.778) Regardless of whether or not Sally Fairfax and Washington had a physical relationship, it’s clear that she was a deeply important person in his life. 

Another of Washington’s contradictions is that even though he was very humble, he clearly had one eye on his historical reputation. While the Revolutionary War was still going on, Washington had several aides transcribe and copy all of his wartime letters. The project took two years to complete, and the letters filled 28 volumes. Washington wrote: “I am fully convinced that neither the present age or posterity will consider the time and labor which have been employed in accomplishing it unprofitably spent.” (p.445) Washington was certainly correct about that. 

Washington’s powerful physicality added to the heroic mystique surrounding him. My favorite anecdote from the book was told by the artist Charles Willson Peale. Peale painted the 40-year-old Washington in 1772, and when he was visiting Mount Vernon he saw an example of Washington’s prodigious strength. Peale and some other young men were “pitching the bar,” which was a game of strength in which competitors threw a log or pole as far as they could. Washington came upon the players and briefly joined the game. His toss of the bar landed much farther than anyone else’s had. Washington said as he left, “When you beat my pitch, young gentlemen, I’ll try again.” (p.123) 

Chernow fully captures Washington’s towering physical presence. Tall, and extremely muscular, Washington filled out his Continental Army uniform very well, and he always carried himself with dignity and grace. In a letter to his tailor, Washington recorded his own height as six feet, but his upright bearing usually made contemporary observers add two inches to his height. Washington displayed immense physical courage throughout his life, and he braved volleys of gunfire many times. Native American tribes who had fought against Washington in the French and Indian Wars even thought he might be protected by supernatural forces because of his incredible luck in battle.  (p.61) 

What amazes me the most about George Washington is how he consistently turned away from power when he could have simply grabbed more. It’s one of the reasons Washington is such a remarkable figure. As Chernow writes, “The hallmark of Washington’s career was that he didn’t seek power but let it come to him.” (p.186) When Washington resigned his commission in the Continental Army after the end of Revolutionary War; it signaled that the United States would not become a military dictatorship, even though it would have been easy for Washington to be swept directly into power following the end of the war. After witnessing Washington’s resignation, Thomas Jefferson wrote to Washington, “The moderation and virtue of a single character…probably prevented this revolution from being closed, as most others have been, by a subversion of that liberty it was intended to establish.” (p.456) 

George Washington was a truly amazing man, and it’s easy to see how he became such a mythical figure in American history. This mythology began during Washington’s own life, but fortunately, Ron Chernow knows that Washington’s accomplishments need no protective mythology surrounding them. By bringing us closer to the flesh and blood George Washington, Chernow proves that despite his failings, Washington is still worthy of veneration.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Movie Review: Tyrone Power in Lloyd's of London (1936)


Original poster for Lloyd's of London, 1936. No one told the publicity department that the title should have an apostrophe. Also, no one told the artist what Tyrone Power looked like, since the guy in the middle looks nothing like him.


George Sanders, Madeleine Carroll, and Tyrone Power in Lloyd's of London, 1936. Sanders is excellent playing the cad.

The impossibly handsome Tyrone Power, eyebrows fully plucked, in Lloyd's of London, 1936.
Insurance! Just the word itself brings about thoughts of action, adventure, and romance. Well, not really. But someone at 20th Century Fox must have thought so, because that’s the only explanation for the odd 1936 movie Lloyd’s of London, which attempts to glamorize the British insurance industry of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. (Does the title have an apostrophe? It should, because the company does, and the title card of the movie has one, but all of the original print ads omit the apostrophe.) Lloyd’s of London was the first starring role for Tyrone Power, and it launched him on a highly successful career, as he became one of the most popular leading men for the next twenty years, until his early death from a heart attack at age 44 in 1958. I wrote a short article last year about Power’s life and career, and I’ve also reviewed his 1956 movie The Eddy Duchin Story.

There were many actors in Tyrone Power’s ancestry, and his father, also named Tyrone Power, was a successful stage actor who also acted in many silent films and a few talkies. The elder Power grew closer to his son in the last year of his life, and he encouraged young Tyrone to pursue an acting career. Tragically, the elder Power died of a heart attack in his son’s arms in December, 1931.
Although Tyrone Power was technically named Tyrone Power Junior, he was only billed that way for his first few movies, and Lloyd’s of London was the first time he was billed as simply Tyrone Power.

1936 was a pivotal year in Tyrone Power’s career. At the beginning of the year he had just two bit parts to his credit when he was cast as a newspaper reporter in Sing, Baby, Sing, starring Alice Faye. But director Sidney Lanfield didn’t think Power was right for the part and replaced him with Michael Whalen. Power’s career wasn’t looking too promising at that point. However, Power was able to land a very small role in the 1936 movie Girls’ Dormitory. Power only appeared in one scene of the movie, and he was on screen for less than thirty seconds. (It’s often written that he only had one line of dialogue, but that’s not true, he actually has two lines and says four sentences.) In that brief amount of screen time, Tyrone Power made a huge impression on audiences. Power was only 22 years old in 1936, but he was already a strikingly handsome man with thick dark hair, lively brown eyes, chiseled features, high cheekbones, dramatically arched eyebrows, and a winning smile. When audiences got their brief glimpse of him in Girls’ Dormitory, they wanted to know who this handsome man was, and they flooded 20th Century Fox with fan mail asking about Power. 

Power was given a larger part in his next movie, Ladies in Love, although it isn’t clear if the positive feedback from Girls’ Dormitory was the reason. Ladies in Love was filmed “in the early summer of 1936,” according to Hector Arce’s biography, The Secret Life of Tyrone Power. (p.79) But according to IMDB.com, Wikipedia, and Fred Lawrence Guiles’ biography Tyrone Power: The Last Idol, Girls’ Dormitory wasn’t released until August of 1936. If this was the case, the audience’s reaction to Power in Girls’ Dormitory couldn’t have influenced the casting of Ladies in Love, since Ladies in Love would have already been in production by the time Girls’ Dormitory was released. The only way this would be possible is if there were early previews of Girls’ Dormitory in April or May. The other possibility is that the release date of August for Girls’ Dormitory is simply wrong. Film historian Jeanine Basinger, in her book The Star Machine, calls Girls’ Dormitory “an early-1936 release.” (p.145) That seems more likely, and it would fit the timeline better. If Girls’ Dormitory was released in March or April, there would have been a chance for the buzz surrounding Power to build, leading to his casting in Ladies in Love in May or June. But regardless of the release date of Girls’ Dormitory, audiences were clearly paying attention to Tyrone Power.

Sometime in the summer of 1936, as director Henry King was making costume tests for Lloyd’s of London, Tyrone Power visited his office. King had worked with Power’s father on the 1923 film Fury, but he did not know the younger Power. Impressed by Power’s confidence and presence, King persuaded studio head Darryl F. Zanuck to allow him to test Power for the lead role in Lloyd’s of London, even though he had just tested Don Ameche for the same part. Zanuck agreed, and King filmed a screen test with Power. When Power’s test was screened for Zanuck and other executives, all of the executives said they liked Ameche better. But Zanuck asked King who he preferred in the role. King said he liked Power better than Ameche, and when Zanuck asked him why, King responded: “Because this boy is younger. He’s better looking. He handles himself better. I can do more with him. The most important thing is that this studio is short of talent. In two years this boy could be the biggest young leading man in the motion picture industry, and God knows we need stars here instead of borrowing them from somebody else.” Zanuck said, “All right, put him in the picture before I change my mind.” (The Secret Life of Tyrone Power, p.83. Tyrone Power: The Last Idol tells the same story of Power’s screen test, with slightly different dialogue.) Of course, Henry King was right, and within two years Tyrone Power was indeed one of the most successful young actors in Hollywood, largely due to his roles in King’s films. King directed Power in 11 movies.

Suddenly, Tyrone Power had his first leading role, in a big budget movie that the studio was sparing no expense on. Loretta Young had originally been cast as the female lead, but she dropped out when Ameche was replaced with Power, and her role was filled by Madeleine Carroll, fresh off her appearance in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic The Thirty-Nine Steps. Partway through filming, Darryl F. Zanuck told Henry King, “Henry, I’ve been watching the rushes. This boy is doing great…Take all the time you need with that boy because if you can keep him all the way through the picture as he is up to now, he’ll be a star.” (Tyrone Power: The Last Idol, p.9. The Secret Life of Tyrone Power tells the same story, again with slightly different dialogue-I suspect both authors interviewed Henry King.) 

The plot of Lloyd’s of London revolves around Power’s character, Johnathan Blake, a fictional character who starts working for the insurance company at a young age and works his way up through the ranks. When the movie starts, we see a young Johnathan, age 12 or so, overhearing sailors talk about how a ship will be deliberately sunk in order to collect the insurance money. So Johnathan and his best friend Horatio Nelson, the future Lord Nelson, sneak aboard the ship and overhear more of the nefarious insurance fraud scheme. Johnathan does what any 12 year old boy would do and exclaims, “We must tell Lloyd’s of London!” How Johnathan, living 100 miles outside of London, knows about Lloyd’s of London is never made clear. But Jonathan arrives in London, and because he delivered important information about this attempt at insurance fraud, he starts working at Lloyd’s. (Johnathan is an orphan, so there are no parents around to object to this child labor.) As a young boy, Johnathan is played by Freddie Bartholomew, who was a very successful child star in the mid to late 1930’s. Seen today, this prologue with Bartholomew seems overly long, and I wonder if this was an attempt by the studio to lessen the weight on Power’s untested shoulders by casting a more established actor as the younger Johnathan.

Eventually Tyrone Power makes his entrance and the story leap frogs forward at odd intervals of time, as suddenly Napoleon is in power, and Johnathan is spying in France by pretending to be a priest. In the process he saves Lady Elizabeth Stacy (Madeleine Carroll) from a lascivious soldier, and they make it back to England. As the Wikipedia page for the movie points out, the timeline of the movie is not accurate. Johnathan falls in love with Lady Elizabeth, but she is unfortunately married to the pompous cad Lord Everett Stacy, played by the pompous cad George Sanders, perfectly cast in his first Hollywood movie. Johnathan keeps pining away for Lady Elizabeth, and the script keeps name dropping Johnathan’s boyhood friend Horatio Nelson, although the two never meet again. (They just miss each other at one of Lady Elizabeth’s parties.) The movie ends with Johnathan watching Lord Nelson’s funeral procession, and we get an unnecessary flashback to the last time they saw each other, when they were 12. 

In his 1979 biography of Power, Victor Arce writes, “Seen today, it’s not clear how Lloyds of London, a dreary historical epic ranging from 1770 to 1805, could make a star out of anybody.” (The Secret Life of Tyrone Power, p.85) I agree. It’s even more unclear in 2015. It’s very surprising that Lloyd’s of London was a Hollywood movie and not a British film, as the film seems to be little more than rah-rah boosterism for a giant insurance company, and for the naval glory of the British Empire. The film’s ridiculous name dropping of Lord Nelson gets tiring as well. The only action in the movie happens to Lord Nelson and that all happens off screen. Horatio becomes a sailor, while Johnathan is the boring one who went into insurance. 

Tyrone Power does as good a job as he can with his first leading role. He’s let down by the material, and he’s good, but not yet great. His best scenes are the ones where he’s pretending to be a French priest, and where he’s rowing a boat across the English Channel with Madeleine Carroll. Power seems most natural during those scenes, and they offer us a glimpse of the dashing action hero that he would become. Power looks super handsome in Lloyd’s of London, but too often he’s just too made up. Power’s dramatic eyebrows were heavily plucked for Lloyd’s of London, which gives him a more effeminate look. Power was lucky his eyebrows grew back. Lana Turner had to shave her eyebrows for a tiny role in The Adventures of Marco Polo in 1938 and they never grew back! However, Power’s on screen charm is fully formed. Power is one of those actors that you just like right away, and his youthful enthusiasm serves the movie well. 

Lloyd’s of London premiered in New York City in November, 1936, and went into wide release across the country in January, 1937. It was a big hit at the box office, although the critics were lukewarm about it. Variety magazine said of Power in Lloyd’s of London, “He’s okay. He’s going places. He has looks and he has acting ability. The women ought to go for him in a big way.” (The Secret Life of Tyrone Power, p.88) Well, Variety hit the nail on the head there. Lloyd’s of London is an interesting movie, not because it’s a good movie, but because it’s the movie that launched Tyrone Power to stardom.