I found the documentary Tim's Vermeer to be really absorbing. Penn and Teller do a good job of putting together the fascinating narrative of their friend Tim Jenison's attempts to prove or disprove the claim that Johannes Vermeer used a camera obscura to produce his paintings. Tim comes off as a likable everyman, though he's obviously extremely wealthy... and a bit obsessive. He's extremely creative, and good at working with his hands: he's got a garage/ workshop full of inventions in various stages of development, and which work with varying degrees of success. He seems like a man who likes to tinker and figure out how things work, and the controversial puzzle about Vermeer's painting methods is his latest enthusiasm.
The part of the documentary which shows Tim painting his father's portrait using a small mirror at an angle is extremely interesting. It certainly goes a long way to convince viewers that the hypothesis about Vermeer's methods is at least possible on a practical level. I was impressed by it, but found myself thinking, "It can't possibly be that easy." Besides it- I should imagine- taking some time to get used to painting from a reflection, there's also the necessity of being able to blend the paint colours and hues competently, which takes some skill and practice. I found myself skeptical that Jenison sat down and produced this picture on his first attempt. It's not that I doubt that he did it, but rather that there weren't a few crumpled canvasses from previous efforts in the trash can. Unless, of course, Tim has had some training in painting, which is certainly possible but I don't recall being mentioned. I just find it unlikely that a raw beginner could sit down and produce a picture that well done in one attempt. The process and its results, however, made me want to try it myself, to see if it actually was that easy. Whether I'll ever get around to it is another question.
Tim's rebuilding Vermeer's studio to scale is an impressive accomplishment, and a testament both to his dedication to this project and to his unlimited funds. I found myself thinking at different times during the film that it was a good thing that Jenison owns a successful tech company, because everything he does obviously requires not only a lot of time and effort, but money as well. Not only does he exactly reproduce the studio and all the decor necessary for the Music Lesson portrait, he travels to England to meet with Philip Steadman, the author of Vermeer's Camera. While there, he also gets to see the real painting The Music Lesson, which is in Queen Elizabeth's private collection at Windsor Castle. It's not as if just anyone could get in to see it; I've done the tour at Windsor, and I assure you that the painting isn't on it.
The part of the film which chronicles Tim's painting of the Vermeer reproduction in my opinion does a better job of showing the time and work involved in the process than the earlier scenes about his father's picture. You get a better sense of time passing; the work is exacting and tedious, and Tim is often tired and sometimes frustrated. This seems a bit more realistic, at least to me. The final result is impressive, and one is forced to conclude that it is certainly a distinct possibility that Vermeer employed a similar method to aid his artistic efforts.
The film Tim's Vermeer and also the book Vermeer's Camera suggest a very interesting- and creditable- method which Vermeer could possibly have used to produce his paintings. Inevitably, this leads the viewer to wonder just what this says about Vermeer's art, and more broadly, about what constitutes art. If, indeed, Vermeer employed a camera obscura to capture the images which he painted, does this make him less of an artist?
Certainly Vermeer had to master painting techniques, the fundamentals of the art, but if he wasn't doing the actual drawing himself, and was painting from a reflection, was he a real artist or a merely a competent craftperson? And does it matter? Christopher Wren, the architect who rebuilt a good deal of the city of London following the Great Fire of 1666 was a mathematician and scientist who used these skills to produce many great edifices. Yet I would argue that the buildings he designed- such as St Paul's Cathedral- are just as much works of art as they are works of construction.
I suppose the real question is, what constitutes art? My usual rule of thumb is that if I can do it, it probably isn't art, which is why I have no time for Jackson Pollack's splatters and dribbles. But, even if I could paint a picture using a reflected image, I couldn't do it with anywhere near the skill and beauty seen in Vermeer's work. Was he an artist or an artisan, or both? Whatever you decide, it is inarguable that Johannes Vermeer gifted us with many works of great beauty for which we can be deeply grateful.
On Saturday night I watched the 2013 documentary Tim's Vermeer. It is a film which follows the efforts of a man- Tim Jenison- to reproduce one of the most famous works of Johannes Vermeer, the seventeenth century Dutch painter. Tim Jenison is the founder of a computer company called NewTek. In his spare time, Jenison tinkers with various inventions he's come up with and indulges in an eclectic array of hobbies. One of these is art, specifically the artwork of Vermeer. Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) was a Dutch painter who was renowned for the almost photo-like quality of his work, particularly his amazing ability to paint light. This can be seen in all of his paintings, including two of his most famous ones- The Girl With A Pearl Earring, and The Geographer:
What seems to have caught Tim Jenison's interest is a 2001 book written by an architect named Philip Steadman called Vermeer's Camera. In it, Steadman argues that Vermeer used a camera obscura to produce images to trace for his paintings. This was not a new idea: the controversial theory has been kicked around for over a hundred years. The difference is that Steadman built an accurate reconstruction of Vermeer's studio and also a camera obscura which, while not proving the artist used this method, proved that he could have done so.
Jenison reads this book and becomes obsessed with proving to himself that Vermeer could have actually painted pictures in this manner. Documented on film by his friend, Penn Jillette, he begins an investigative journey which will span several years. His first effort involves setting up a mirror at a 45 degree angle and using it to paint a portrait of his father from an inverted photograph of him. The experiment is successful:
Jenison next determines to try to reproduce Vermeer's The Music Lesson by using a camera obscura. To do this, he builds an exact replica of Vermeer's studio to scale. Inside the studio, he builds a dark room which will be the camera obscura. It turns out that there is enough room to build one of the size needed to sit in and see the reflected image of the room.
Tim then decorates the room to look exactly like The Music Lesson and gets to work on his painting. It takes a long time, naturally, and he refines his method as he goes along. For example, he finds that using a concave mirror- which were used in telescopes in Vermeer's time- is more effective and switches to one. He also travels to Britain to consult with Philip Steadman, the author of Vermeer's Camera and gets to see the real painting while he's there. In the end, Tim Jenison's efforts result in a very respectable reproduction of The Music Lesson and this seems further evidence that Vermeer could have- and perhaps probably did- use a method similar to this when he was painting. Ultimately, it is left to the viewer to decide if they think Vermeer used a camera obscura, and what, if anything, this says about his artwork if he did.
Tim's Vermeer on the left; the real McCoy on the right.
I found VictorDavis Hanson's book The Savior Generals: How Five Great Commanders Saved Wars That Were Lost- From Ancient Greece to Iraq to be an extremely interesting and informative one. Of course, I'm a bit of a history wonk so I find this sort of thing fascinating anyway, but Hanson is such a vivid and compelling writer that I think most people would find his work eminently readable. Victor Davis Hanson is primarily a military historian, though his PhD is in classics, and he was a professor of classics at California State University. Incidentally, he's also a raisin farmer, living on the California farm which has been in his family for generations.
Victor Davis Hanson
The Savior Generals isn't an exhaustive study of the five men in question, as it is about five generals and five different wars. It is, however, a very good overview of these leaders, the failing wars they found themselves in, and the methods they employed to achieve victory. Though in completely different eras, different cultures, and different wars, these men had something in common: they were placed in leadership positions which appeared well-nigh impossible, where defeat seemed imminent, and managed to secure victory despite the odds. These savior generals shared another characteristic... all were considered outliers to some degree, frequently not approved of by their civil authorities or military superiors. On the other hand, they enjoyed almost total approval among their men. They were able to inspire as well as lead, and all of them were on the front lines with their troops, rather than opting for a remote command. Interestingly, the careers or lives of these men before and after their shining moment in history were seldom as triumphant; frequently they ended in failure or obscurity.
Before reading Hanson's book, I had a rather superficial knowledge of the Battle of Salamis and Themistocles' role in it (hey- at least it didn't come from 300: Rise of an Empire). But V.D.H.'s account gave me a much better understanding of how- and why- the battle occurred, and of how integral Themistocles was to the success of the Greeks' stand at Salamis.
I previously knew very little about the Byzantine general Belisarius, other than a vague recollection of having long ago read a poem by Longfellow about him. I became quite interested in the account of Belisarius' career, and found him rather a sympathetic character. Which is saying something, considering that he was going about conquering lands around the Mediterranean at the behest of Emperor Justinian. Belisarius, though, seems to have been a very honourable man, loyal to Justinian despite the fact that this loyalty was not reciprocated by the jealous and paranoid Emperor. Justinian was torn between his very real need for his general's skills, and his worries and suspicions that Belisarius would use his power and popularity to attempt to depose him. This, combined with the machinations of Justinian's toxic wife Theodora, (and Belisarius' own rather unfortunate spouse Antonina) made life harder than it had to be for the general. He was frequently not given the funds and men needed to support such wide ranging military campaigns. Despite this, he managed to pull off victory after victory- and frankly, he may have been happier on the road and at war than at home with that bunch. All in all, a fascinating look at the Byzantine general which made me want to learn more about him.
Of the five men discussed in The Savior Generals, I probably knew the most about William Tecumseh Sherman, having read extensively about the American Civil War and watched a documentary series on it (yes, I'm just that cool). What I didn't know much about was his prewar history of failure and mental breakdown, which makes his accomplishments during the war all the more impressive. Also of interest was his strategy of total war; his troops didn't just fight the Confederate army, they cut off their supply lines as well. He also realized the importance of demoralizing the enemy, which is why he had his men take the controversial step of destroying Confederate statehouses, etc., as well as burning a lot of the mansions on southern plantations.
Other than Belisarius, the general I knew the least about before reading V.D.H.'s book was Matthew Ridgway. The reason for this is because, to my shame, I actually know very little about the Korean War. There's no excuse for this, especially since over 26,000 Canadians fought in the war, but it's not a conflict that gets studied or talked much of in school. Fortunately Hanson's book filled in a lot of gaps in my knowledge, and I found myself quite liking General Ridgway. He stepped into a very difficult position: not only was he expected to turn the tide of a war in which his troops were dispirited and in retreat, but he also had to maneuver the political minefield of the Pentagon, whose expectations were often incompatible with what was actually needed on the battle front. I liked how he quietly set to the task of correcting the mistakes those previously in command of the war effort without feeling it necessary to publicly criticize or condemn their efforts. I also appreciated how he made sure the troops had what they needed to succeed, both physically and mentally- how he provided his men with not only good food and warm clothes, but also a sense of purpose. It was important to him that each soldier knew why they were there and what they were fighting for.
At the timeof the writing of The Savior Generals, the Petraeus scandal had not yet broken, though I think it had by the time the book was published. Naturally, we know more about his actions because we've lived through the events of the war in Afghanistan and Iraq. I found this part of the book informative but also frustrating. The Surge was absolutely the right strategy to employ, and Petraeus the right man to implement it. What is so disheartening is that, due to his personal failings he sabotaged his own career, which I think has probably had serious consequences for more than just himself. Had he not been completely disgraced, Petraeus might have been able to leverage his popularity and respected war record to convince the current administration not to pull the troops out so swiftly and so disastrously. Of course, this is engaging in "what ifs", but I think it's safe to say that losing someone with his abilities from the ongoing fight against radical Islam has been a costly and frustratingly unnecessary loss.
The Savior Generals is an interesting and informative look at five men who entered failing wars and managed to turn them around, thereby changing the course of history. These generals were in different times and different circumstances, but shared some similar characteristics. One of these was an ability to clearly assess the situation they found themselves in and develop a working strategy to deal with it. Despite not necessarily having successful careers before or after their respective victories, these generals were the right men at the right time to turn the tide of battle when their countries needed it the most. It's almost as though, in the words of Mordecai to Esther, that they had "come to the kingdom for such a time as this." I always enjoy reading Victor Davis Hanson's work (and listening to his lectures: many can be found online) as his assertions are always well-written and well thought out. He has a staggering amount of knowledge about warfare throughout the ages, and is able to relate ancient struggles to modern day ones in a way which gives one the sense that, in war as in so many other things, there is truly nothing new under the sun. Methods and motivations may change, but the underlying causes and effects of war are depressingly familiar... which is the subject of another of his books: The Father of Us All (the title is taken from the words of Heraclitus in ancient Greece, "War is the father and king of us all"). Below I'm going to post an interview V.D.H. did on Uncommon Knowledge around the time his book was released:
The Savior Generals: How Five Great Commanders Saved Wars That Were Lost- From Ancient Greece To Iraq is the 2013 book by noted historian Victor Davis Hanson. It is an examination of five generals from different periods of history who, despite their very different eras, countries, and motivations, had one thing in common. They each came into authority during a time when war was going badly, and through their skill of leadership, these men were able to turn the tide of battle, turning almost certain defeat into victory. The five men examined in the book are Themistocles, Flavius Belisarius, William Sherman, Matthew Ridgway, and David Petraeus.
Themistocles was a politician and general in ancient Athens. In 480 B.C. the Persian army was ravaging through Greece, seemingly unstoppable. Bucking traditional military thought, Themistocles had for years advocated building a strong navy, successfully convincing the Athenians to build a large number of triremes (early galley-style warships). These would prove invaluable in the fight against the Persians in the coming conflict. In 480, as one city-state after another fell before the might of the Persians, Themistocles came up with a plan for Athens and the other cities to concentrate their naval fleets at Salamis. Luring the larger Persian fleet into the narrow straits of Salamis would lessen their advantage by leaving them little room to maneuver their large numbers of ships. Also, the Greeks knew these waters and their currents well, while they were unknown to the Persians. The leaders of the other Greek city-states opposed Themistocles' unorthodox plan as too risky, but he managed to secure their reluctant cooperation by threatening to withdraw the Athenian fleet to Sicily, leaving the rest to the Persian's dubious mercy. In the end, Themistocles' strategy proved the correct, and the Greeks sank at least half the Persian fleet on the first day at Salamis, making it one of the greatest naval victories in history.
Flavius Belisarius was a general under the rule of Emperor Justinian in the Byzantine Empire during the sixth century. At the time, the established method of operation was for conquering armies to plunder vanquished territories and peoples. In a break with tradition, Belisarius declined to do this, recognizing that this practice made enemies of people who might otherwise be turned into allies. By establishing a policy of benevolence towards those he conquered, he was able to form alliances with local people to oust Germanic barbarians from Italy and North Africa, stopping the decline- temporarily, at least- of the fortunes of the Byzantine Empire. That Belisarius was able to affect this turnabout time and again was even more impressive as his support from Justinian was very uneven, varying as the Emperor desperately needed him, then felt jealous and threatened when he was successful.
William Tecumseh Sherman was a general in the Union Army during the Civil War. When he was placed in command of the western theater of the war, things were going rather badly for the North. The appalling number of casualties with seemingly little to show for them was undermining support for the war, and threatening Lincoln's bid for reelection. With this in mind, Sherman adopted a strategy to take Atlanta with minimal casualties. In late 1864, he slowly advanced on the city, severing its rail lines and forcing the Confederates to abandon Atlanta. This stunning victory bolstered lagging Northern spirits, assuring Lincoln's reelection. In Atlanta, Sherman ordered the burning of military and government buildings, recognizing the demoralizing effect this would have on the Southerners. This strategy would punctuate his march across Georgia; many of the great plantation houses were burned on his orders, his reasoning being that the rich landowners should not be immune from the consequences of a war that was, in a sense, the result of their demand for slave labour on their estates.
GeneralMatthew Ridgway was placed in command of the Eighth Army in Korea when things were going disastrously. The army was actually in tactical retreat before the seemingly unstoppable force of the Communist Chinese. Ridgway made immediate changes to American strategies; he moved army headquarters to the front, and personally visited the troops, infusing them with renewed confidence. Noting that the men were ill equipped to deal with the winter weather, Ridgway ordered warmer clothes and better rations for the troops. He also fired officers who were defeatist or ineffective, and promoted competent and intelligent men. The Pentagon was unhappy with his methods as they went against standard procedures, but changed their tune when these actions proved successful. Within three months of taking over, Ridgway had pushed the Chinese back to the original line between North and South Korea.
General David Petraeus became commander of the US forces in Iraq in 2007. At the time, a majority of American politicians and even other generals deemed the war to be lost, and predicted failure for Petraeus' planned "surge". Essentially, The Surge refers to the deployment of 20,000 additional troops to Iraq to help secure Baghdad and Al Anbar Province. The purpose of these troops was to relentlessly pursue the enemy, taking and holding their previous strongholds. But it was also to increase their presence among the Iraqi people by living in their communities, protecting them from hostiles, and generally improving their way of life. Despite the naysayers, this strategy proved hugely successful, and American casualties were kept to a minimum. Soon those politicians who had opposed the surge were taking credit for it. Whatever has happened since that time, no one disputes that the surge was the right plan at the right time in that conflict.
Victor David Hanson's Savior Generals provides the back stories for each of these military men, and then outlines the desperate circumstances of the failing wars in which they find themselves called upon to assume command. He details the innovative strategies they employed to gain the advantage over their enemies, and their methods which go against conventional thinking, often resulting in friction with their superiors. Essentially, he relates the histories of five generals who, whatever their faults and failings before or after war, were able to step up and do what needed to be done, despite the seeming impossibility of the task.
I had never heard of Louis Zamperini prior to last year, when a movie based on Hillenbrand's book was released at Christmas time. I didn't see the movie, Christmas being a really hectic time for me, but what I read about Zamperini in promotional material for the film interested me greatly. I decided that I wouldn't see the movie before reading the book. Then of course, time passed and I sort of forgot about it until I was browsing through a used bookstore and saw a copy of the book. I immediately bought it, and it's been sitting on my shelf while I finished other books I'd been reading. I started reading Unbroken earlylast month, and just finished it this week. I'm a fast reader, and the book isn't overly long, but I took my time with it. For one thing, it deserves to have time taken over it, and for another, sometimes the subject matter was so intense that I could only read short segments of the book before putting it down- mainly because it would make me so angry. The abuse which Louis and the other POWs suffered at the hands of their captors was so horrendous and inhuman that it was often difficult to stomach.
The first part of Unbroken is about Louis Zamperini living out the American dream: the son of poor immigrants becoming a success through hard work and ability. Also, it's the story of a young, rebellious juvenile delinquent becoming a better person and citizen by focusing on a dream and disciplining himself to achieve it. If this- the story of a Depression era kid making it to the Olympics- had been the entirety of Louis' story, it would have been a fairly interesting one. But this was only the first act.
The time which Louis spends as a bombardier is interesting and instructive, as it gives the reader an idea of what it was like to make bombing runs on Japanese held positions, and deal with Japanese fighter planes. It leaves you with great respect for these men, who risked death time after time in the performance of their duty. The casualty rate among military airmen was extremely high, and often Louis and the others would return from missions to find that some of the guys they had been joking with the night before were gone. And they knew in a matter-of-fact kind of way that it could very well be themselves the next time around.
The next segment of the book deals with the ordeal which Louis, Phil, and Mac face when their plane goes down and they're adrift at sea with very little food or water. While the men suffer terribly- and Mac doesn't survive- this is somehow a lot easier to read about than what comes next. I think this is because what the men are battling against- sharks, hunger, thirst, and the elements- are natural, impersonal threats. It's easier to comprehend this sort of suffering than the literally stomach-turning abuse which the POWs are subjected to in the camps.
What occurred in those Japanese prisoner of war camps is literally horrifying. The suffering here is not just terrible and tragic, it is criminal and inhuman... every decent feeling is outraged. That's how I felt when reading about it: outraged, sickened, and angry. For every one prisoner of war who died in the German POW camps, 37 died in the Japanese ones. How bad do you have to be to make the Nazis look good by comparison?
I have to admit that I've never had a lot of patience with the "war is not the answer" crowd, because sometimes war is the answer. It's an extraordinarily unpleasant one, admittedly, and not something which should ever be entered into hastily or lightly, but sometimes evil people and powers arise in the world which will not be stopped until they are defeated, thoroughly and decisively. The Axis powers of WW II fall into this category, and Unbroken makesthis very clear in it's descriptions of both the mindset of the prison guards and the local Japanese villagers, who were instructed to practice hand-to-hand combat so that they could fight the Allied troops to the death if necessary. They weren't going to quit until forced to do so.
While I'm being controversial, I'll also state that I think that dropping the atomic bomb was the right thing to do; a terrible thing, but a necessary one. The Allies had also made plans for a possible land invasion of Japan, and a conservative estimate of casualties, both military and civilian, was over a million. This doesn't even take into account the tens of thousands of Chinese and Korean people that the Japanese army was slaughtering every month in what amounted to a multi nation attempted genocide. It's also telling that even after the two bombs were dropped, the Japanese cabinet was equally split between those who wanted to surrender and those who didn't. It took the Emperor stepping in to break the tie, and even then the military attempted a coup to keep the war going. These guys weren't going to surrender. Also, as Unbroken relates, the POW camp commanders had orders to kill all of the Allied prisoners in the event of a land invasion. Only the dropping of the bombs prevented this from happening. If we needed an example of the difference between our side and theirs, the Japanese leadership had ordered the kill-all policy. When the war ended and suddenly the power was in the hands of the POWs, the highest ranking officer left in the camp gathered the tortured, brutalized Allied prisoners together and told them that under no circumstances was anyone to exact revenge; they must remember that they were "officers and gentlemen". We may not always live up to our principles, but we have them, and that means something.
The next part of the book is a heartbreaking account of Louis and the other POWs attempting to put their shattered lives back together, with varying degrees of success. Louis, his Olympic dreams gone, struggled with depression, alcoholism, and rage. Suffering from flashbacks and nightmares about what had happened to him in the camps, Louis was consumed with his hatred for the sadistic Watanabe, fantasizing about killing him again and again. Though physically free, Louis was mentally still a prisoner. Hatred was destroying his life- and his marriage- until he became a Christian and discovered the freeing power of forgiveness.
The final part of the book is a breathtaking look at a life transformed. Once consumed by his anger and hatred, Louis became a man who found it within himself to look his former tormentors in the eye and tell them he forgave them. He could even wish for that miserable excuse for a human being, Watanabe, to find the same peace that he had found. I'm not sure that I would ever be able to exhibit that amount of grace.
Louis Zamperini never won an Olympic medal, but he triumphed in other ways that are far more important. He emerged from the terrible suffering he endured a stronger, better man who embodied the title of this book: "Unbroken". He was truly a hero. "I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith." - II Timothy 4:7
I can't say that I enjoyed Laura Hillenbrand's book, exactly- it was an extremely difficult one to read- but it was also an important one. It brings to light the brutal abuses suffered by Allied soldiers who were captured by the Japanese army, and gives a new understanding of- and hopefully, an appreciation for- how much those who went to war sacrificed for the freedom which we so often take for granted.
Some time ago I bought a copy of Unbroken, Laura Hillenbrand's biography of Louis Zamperini. I've just finished reading it this week, and it is an incredible book. It's going to remain with me for a very long time... it is a haunting, harrowing, nightmarish, yet ultimately triumphant and uplifting account of the life of this incredible man.
Louis Silvie Zamperini was born on January 26, 1917 in New York.His parents were Italian immigrants and he had an older brother named Pete, as well as two younger sisters, Virginia and Sylvia. When Louis was two, the family moved from New York to Torrance, California. Because the family didn't speak English when they arrived, Louis was often bullied until he learned to defend himself. His formative years were tough, rebellious ones, much to the despair of his strict Catholic parents, as a teenaged Louis developed a taste for fighting, drinking, and stealing. Louis was finally straightened out by his brother Pete, who got him interested in long distance running. An award winning runner himself, Pete was sure that Louis had the ability to be much better than he was and talked him into joining the track team. He trained Louis himself, running behind him with a switch and hitting him if he slowed down. Louis was a natural, and soon began winning . Enjoying the positive recognition he got, Louis quit drinking and smoking and devoted himself to training.
Louis and Pete
In his three years of high school, Louis was undefeated in cross country races, and began beating the speed records previously held by Pete. In 1934, he set a world interscholastic record for running the mile, and followed this up by winning the California State Meet, which resulted in him getting a scholarship to the University of Southern California. In 1936, Louis decided to try out for the Olympic team in New York. He ran in the 5,000 meter race and finished in a tie with Don Lash, the American record holder. He had a spot on the Olympic team going to Germany, and at 19 years of age, he was the youngest runner to ever qualify for that race.
Travelling to Germany was an eye opener for young Louis, a Depression era kid who had never been anywhere. Even for the Olympic trials in New York, he had only been able to go because his father worked for the railroad and managed to get him a free ticket. Of course, he didn't win, but then he wasn't expected to: this was about experience for him. When the next Olympics rolled around, Louis would be older and stronger, and was expected to do great things. All was going according to plan... Louis returned home and enrolled at U.S.C., and in 1938 he set a national collegiate mile record which would stand for 15 years, despite an opponent ramming his cleats into his leg during the race.
Second Lieutenant Louis Zamperini
World events, however, overtook Louis and his dreams as America entered W.W. II. Louis enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps in September 1941 and was deployed to the Pacific as a bombardier on a B-24 Liberator which his flight crew named Super Man. They flew many bombing runs over Japanese held islands, which was very dangerous; the casualty rate among airmen was extremely high. Eventually, the inevitable happened: during a mission, their plane got strafed multiple times. The pilot, Russell "Phil" Phillips, miraculously managed to land the plane, despite it being full of gaping holes. Incredibly, only one of their flight crew was killed, though several others had also been hit by shots flying through the body of the plane.
Louis, examining some of the damage to Super Man
Super Man was deemed to be beyond repair, so uninjured members of the flight crew were transferred to Hawaii to await new orders. There, they were assigned to another bomber- the Green Hornet- and ordered to fly out on a mission looking for another missing plane. No one was happy about this, because the Green Hornet was notorious for being a lemon- one problem after another. Nevertheless, as ordered, they flew out on the search and rescue mission only to have the Hornet experience mechanical failure mid flight and crash into the Pacific.
Only Phil, Louis, and one other member of the crew, "Mac" McNamara, survived the initial crash. They managed to lash two life rafts together and stay afloat, but had no water and only a little bit of food. The ocean around them was filled with sharks, which made multiple attempts to drag them into the water. They managed to survive by collecting rainwater and catching an occasional fish, using an albatross they had managed to kill as bait. They hoped for rescue, but no plane saw them except one Japanese fighter which tried to shoot them, deflating one of the life rafts. Though not a man of faith like Phil, Louis started praying, promising God that if He saved them, he would dedicate his life to Him. After weeks at sea, Mac's condition started to deteriorate. Louis and Phil tried to keep him lucid and awake, but on their 33 day adrift, Mac died. Phil and Louis, though in bad shape, survived, and were rescued on their 47th day at sea, though by the Japanese, so 'rescue' really isn't the term for it. Meanwhile, back at home, after several unsuccessful searches, the crew of the Green Hornet was listed as Missing In Action. After the requisite year, this was changed to Killed In Action... Louis and his mates were officially listed as dead, devastating their families.
Louis at time of Liberation
Louis and Phil were taken into custody, and their treatment was horrific. They were tortured, starved, and given injections in ghastly medical experiments. They were taken to a POW camp in Ofuna at first, then later, they were separated, with Louis being sent to the Omori POW camp, then transferred again to Naoetsu camp. All of the prisoners were treated horribly, as in the Japanese culture at the time, it was considered shameful to allow yourself to be captured rather than commit suicide, so felt no need to treat the POWs honourably. As well, many of the Japanese camp guards were given that low job because they were too unstable or just plain nuts to serve in the army, and they used the prisoners as outlets for their sadism and abuse.
Despite the abuses and humiliations that they were subjected to daily, the prisoners were not deprived of all their fighting spirit. Forced into slave labour at local factories which were producing items to supply the Japanese army, the POWs routinely sabotaged things they were working on, in ways which would not be noticed until use. They also mislabeled freight being loaded onto trains so that it would go to the wrong places. And they stole... food, newspapers, tools... basically anything that wasn't nailed down. Louis, with his childhood history of thievery, was particularly good at pilfering things.
As abusive and inhumane as most of the Japanese prison guards were, their cruelty paled in comparison to that of Mutsuhiro Watanabe, or as the POWs called him, The Bird. The evil of this man was unparalleled in the camp and even the other guards- and the camp commander- feared him. He would fly into sudden, unprovoked fits of rage and attack prisoners, beating them unmercifully with clubs or whatever else he had at hand. And though he tortured many prisoners, Watanabe became fixated on Louis, apparently because Zamperini was well-known as an Olympic athlete. When in one of his psychotic rages, he would charge through the camp, searching for Louis until he found him, then beating him over and over again. Other prisoners would try to hide him, but it was no use; Watanabe was relentless. Sick, starving, and constantly tortured, Louis was consumed by his hatred for The Bird. He and several other prisoners began plotting to kill the brutal guard.
By this time, the war was going badly for Japan. This was a mixed blessing for the POWs, because they were told that the camp guards had a "kill all" order. If the Allies successfully invaded, the POWs were all to be killed. It had already been done on several Japanese islands which had been taken- the Allies found when they landed that all prisoners had been executed. Ominously, at Louis' camp, guards started taking prisoners out into the woods on forced marches, seemingly for no reason. They appeared to be practicing taking the POWs to remote areas in expectation of having to get rid of them.
Fortunately for the POWs, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki put an end to those plans... the guards were all too panicked, demoralized, and fearful to carry out their murderous directive. When their camp was liberated, American authorities were shocked to find Louis there- everyone believed him to be dead. He spent months in hospitals, where doctors told him that there was no chance of him ever running competitively again, between the damage done to his body by starvation, and his leg, which had been badly injured when a guard pushed him off a railroad car ramp. Meanwhile, the worst Japanese war criminals were being rounded up and put on trial. As POW after POW shared their stories of horrendous abuse at the hands of The Bird, he was put on the most wanted list. Unfortunately, like the cowardly creep he was, Watanabe had slunk away into hiding. Living under an assumed name in a remote area, he remained undetected for years.
Meanwhile, Louis was finally well enough to return home, where he had a joyous reunion with his family. They were relieved to find him relatively unchanged, as he smiled and laughed and kept things light. What they didn't realize was that Louis was barely keeping it together. As a former Olympic athlete who had miraculously returned from the dead, he got a lot of media attention and was in great demand to give speeches on behalf of veterans. The last thing Louis wanted to do was talk about what had happened to him, but felt compelled to do so. He soon found that drinking before he spoke helped him get through his talks without breaking down. He was also experiencing flashbacks and nightmares about his experiences in the POW camps, and started drinking even more to try to rid himself of these. He was not alone; many returned POWs struggled to reintegrate into society, with varying degrees of success. Some never made it.
At this time, Louis met Cynthia Applewhite and was immediately smitten. Within two weeks he proposed to her; she, just as infatuated with him, accepted. Despite opposition from her worried family, they quickly married. At first, things were pretty good; Louis, determined to be worthy of Cynthia, gave up drinking and smoking. Also, as his health improved and he slowly started hiking and then running again, he started dreaming of making it to the 1948 Olympics. He began training in earnest, and started posting some decent times. He was still tormented by nightmares, and running no longer gave him the joy it once had, but it was something to focus on. Then disaster struck: all the running was hard on the ankle which had been injured during the war, and one day during a run, it gave out under him. A doctor confirmed what Louis already knew... his Olympic dream was over. Louis quickly spiraled downward. No longer training, he resumed drinking and smoking. Having been focused on racing since he was a teenager, Louis had not prepared for any other career, and now the job market was flooded with returning soldiers. Louis went through a series of jobs and so managed to support himself and Cynthia, but was miserable in them. Finances only got worse after their first child, Cissy, was born. Although Louis adored her, he was a mess. He was drinking all the time, was often explosively angry, and was constantly beset by nightmares in which he strangled The Bird with his bare hands. One night he woke up to find himself choking Cynthia. Finally, unable to take it anymore, Cynthia told him that she was getting a divorce.
It was at this time that neighbours of the Zamperinis told them that they were going to hear a dynamic young preacher named Billy Graham and invited Louis and Cynthia to go with them. Louis refused, but Cynthia went along and came back home a changed person. She informed Louis that she had become a Christian and that she was not going to divorce him: she was going to work at their marriage. Louis wanted nothing to do with religion, but Cynthia kept at him until he finally gave in and agreed to attend one of the meetings with her. Prepared to be disdainful and dismissive, Louis reluctantly listened to the words of the young preacher, becoming first interested and then threatened by his message about sin and atonement. Louis told himself angrily that he was a good man, and as Graham gave the invitation, stormed from the tent, dragging Cynthia along with him. After another night of violent dreams, Louis was stubbornly determined not to hear Billy Graham again, but Cynthia's arguments and pleas wore him down and they once again attended the revival meeting. He listened intently as Graham spoke about why God allowed suffering, and had a flashback to when he and Phil had been floating in the life raft and he had prayed to God, asking Him to save them. For the first time, instead of thinking of all the terrible things that had happened to him, he considered all the times that he should have died, and yet somehow had survived. That night, when Billy Graham gave the altar call, Louis went forward. And when he and Cynthia got home, he tossed out his cigarettes and poured all his liquor down the sink. For the first time in five years, he didn't dream about The Bird, and the next morning, reading the Bible which he had been issued while in the army, Louis realized that he wasn't a worthless, ruined man, but a new creation.
Louis became a Christian speaker, travelling about the country to tell his story. In 1950, he returned to Japan, to the prison where many of the guards who had once tortured him and the other POWs were incarcerated for their crimes. To the bewilderment of his former captors, Louis approached them, smiling and warm, and told them that he forgave them for what they had done.
Back in the States, Louis started Victory Boys Camp, a refuge for troubled boys like he had once been. Coming from bad situations, reform schools, and sometimes prison, some were so incorrigible that Louis had to be deputized by the local sheriff before he was allowed to take custody of them. He took them hiking, fishing, horseback riding, and camping, and told them about his life and experiences, and what had changed him. He and Cynthia had two children- Cissy and Luke- and their marriage, once so rocky, lasted 54 years, until her death in 2001. Louis remained healthy, happy, and active for the rest of his life... he was still running a six minute mile in his sixties, and in 1998, at 81, returned once again to Japan to run with the Olympic torch. While there, he asked to meet with Matsuhiro Watanabe- The Bird- who had eventually been located, though not until after Japanese war criminals had been granted amnesty, so he was never punished for what he had done. Watanabe refused, so Louis wrote a letter to him, in which he explained how his treatment of him had destroyed his life, but that through Christ, he had replaced the hatred inside him with love. He wrote that he forgave Watanabe and that he hoped that he, too, would one day become a Christian. Louis never received a reply. The Bird died in 2003.
Louis Zamperini lived to be 97, dying in 2014 of pneumonia, having lived a life of faith, forgiveness, and fulfillment to the very end.
If someone asked you to name the most prolific or most widely read American author, who would you pick? Mark Twain? Tom Clancy? Michael Crichton? Stephen King? Whatever author comes to your mind, it probably isn't Edward Stratemeyer. And yet, by all measurable standards, he has been one of the most successful writers ever. I recently read a short biography of Edward Stratemeyer, written by Bruce Watson. It is by no means an exhaustive study of the man, but rather more of an overview of his life and career. As Watson himself points out, no definitive or in depth biography has ever been written about the author. This seems to be due to the fact that, despite his success, Stratemeyer was a fairly private man, one who rarely granted interviews or spoke of personal matters. Though I can certainly sympathize- I wish more people these days felt some reticence about sharing the intimate details of their private lives- it's a shame that we don't know a bit more about Stratemeyer, because he's a pretty interesting person.
Edward Stratemeyer was born in New Jersey in 1862. His parents were German immigrants, and he was the youngest of their six children. Edward's life started out as a pretty normal- almost boring- one. His father was a tobacconist, and one of his older brothers eventually took over the shop. After leaving school, Edward went to work for his brother. It wasn't until he was 27 that, on a slow afternoon at the shop, he took a piece of the brown paper they used for wrapping packages and wrote a story on it, which he called "Victor Henry's Idea". He sent it- still written on the brown paper- to a magazine, and a few weeks later received a cheque for $75.00 which was more than six times his weekly salary. The rest, as they say, is history.
Stratemeyergot a job writing dime novels, some under his own name and some under pseudonyms, and in 1899 wrote The Rover Boys, the first of his series about recurring characters. It became wildly successful, and Edward realized that he had hit on a winning formula for writing books for kids. Incidentally, The Rover Boysis the only series of Stratemeyer's books that he wrote all of himself, and they were apparently his favourite. Soon, however, the demand for his work outpaced his ability to satisfy it. He had millions of ideas for books, but could not possibly write them all. This led to the creation of the Stratemeyer Syndicate.
Stratemeyer began hiring freelance writers, who would write books in his various series under his various pseudonyms. Generally what would occur would be that Edward would think up an idea for a series, and write the first couple of books in it, then hand off the series to one or more of his writers to continue with, sometimes also with outlines for numerous plots which he had imagined for the character(s). Some might see this as being a bit unfair to the writers, as they didn't get recognition for the books they were writing, but it was paid, steady employment for which no doubt many struggling authors were grateful. Several went on to have successful careers under their own names, while others remained in Stratemeyer's employ for years- and in some cases, for generations. For example, Howard R. Garis- who worked on a variety of Stratemeyer's series- and his wife both wrote for the Syndicate. And in later years, their children did, too.
So what series did the Stratemeyer Syndicate produce? Well, there was the previously-mentioned Rover Boys, of course, and also The Bobbsey Twins, Tom Swift, Honey Bunch, Baseball Joe, The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and The Dana Girls... toname a few. It's estimated that between 1900 and 1930, Stratemeyer churned out over 1300 novels in 125 series, under 100 different pseudonyms. And they sold- and still do- all around the world. My family's collection of assorted Stratemeyer fare is proof of this. On my parent's bookshelves, there are copies of Honey Bunch books which belonged to my grandmother, my mother's Bobbsey Twin books, various Hardy Boys books which my brothers owned, and an almost complete set of classic Nancy Drew books which an aunt gave to my sisters and I when her daughter had outgrown them. One of my brothers-in-law also owns a complete set of Hardy Boys which now his kids enjoy reading.
What accounts for the amazing success of Stratemeyer's creations? Well, to start with, Edward identified with children's thirst for adventure. He himself had grown up reading Horatio Alger's rags-t0-riches tales and dreaming of excitement and far away places. He wrote stories which fed this hunger for adventure. His heroes and heroines ran about getting involved in mysteries and dangerous situations, and then extricated themselves from trouble through their ingenuity, bravery, and smarts. His characters' parents were always conveniently out of the picture- either dead or away so that they couldn't stymie their kids' adventures/ investigations. Essentially, he knew what children wanted to read about and found a way to capitalize on this knowledge. This is the fascinating contradiction about Edward Stratemeyer: he was a dreamer, but an extremely practical, businesslike one. He had a vivid imagination, able to come up with heroes and adventures for them. But he was also capable of turning these dreams into a successful and profitable business which employed not just other writers, but also editors, copy writers, secretaries, and many others.
A good deal of his success is due to the winning formula he came up with for writing these book series. First of all, all books would be in a series, with recurring characters. All books would also be written under pseudonyms, so that if an author died, or moved on, continuity could still be maintained. The first chapter of each book would provide a brief recap of the previous book in the series, and the final chapter would refer to the title of the next book coming out. Also, all chapters would end in the middle of an action scene or tense situation, to encourage kids to keep reading. Last but not least, the books would be priced cheaper than most other hardcovers of the time, making it more likely that people would be willing to buy multiple books. And, of course, he probably reckoned that the compulsive reader types (that might be me) faced with all those matching, numbered covers, would feel compelled to get them all.
It might surprise you to learn that not everyone approved of these books for kids. Many considered them to be trashy, capable of ruining children's intellects and rendering them unable to appreciate actual literature. It was also suggested that these types of books would give kids unrealistic expectations, and make them dissatisfied with their lives. For decades- some as early as 1901- libraries banned books by the Stratemeyer Syndicate, refusing to carry them on their shelves. This of course worked out about as well as book bans ever do... sales increased. It does make me laugh to think about The Bobbsey Twins being the object of a book ban- too funny. And utter nonsense, to boot.
After Edward Stratemeyer died, his daughters took over running the Syndicate, and the books continued to be produced. Some eventually made it onto the small screen, like the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew television shows, and some even made it to the big screen. The books, which have sold literally hundreds of millions of copies, continue to sell well today- especially Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys. Many successful women list the Nancy Drew books as having inspired them as children. Also, though not as well known today, the Tom Swift, Stratemeyer's science fiction-y series, was named as an inspiration by both Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov. Incidentally, the taser got its name from one of Stratemeyer's books: it's an acronym from the title Tom Swift And His Electric Rifle. The inventors at first called it the TSER, but added an "A" because it was easier to say that way. So that's how a quiet shop clerk with a heart full of dreams and a head full of business sense built a literary empire and changed the world of childrens' fiction forever. When you look at the sheer volume of his (and his writers') work, it's easy to understand why it was said, "As oil had its Rockefeller, literature had its Stratemeyer."
The Battle of Hastings took place on October 14, 1066 (anniversary tomorrow). It was a battle for the throne of England between the forces of Anglo-Saxon King Harold Godwinson and Duke William II of Normandy. Spoiler: the Normans win, though this should be obvious to even the least historically inclined, as the duke is commonly referred to as "William the Conqueror."
The Bayeux Tapestry is a work done in needlepoint which depicts the battle and all the events leading up to it. It is 70 meters (230 ft) long and 0.5 meters (1.6 ft) wide. As someone who has occasionally dabbled in cross stitch and crewel embroidery, and knows how long it takes to finish even a small project, all I can say is... wow. Seriously, wow. And there is a piece missing off the end of it, so it was originally even longer. Here's a couple pictures of it as it's displayed now; though you can see only a piece of the tapestry, they give you some idea of it's size:
Although I've called this an English tapestry, it actually resides in France- in Bayeux Cathedral, Normandy. The origins of the tapestry have been often debated, with one persistent legend being that William the Conqueror's wife Matilda and her ladies-in-waiting stitched it. This, however, is highly unlikely. Most scholars agree that the Bayeux Tapestry was in all probability commissioned by Bishop Odo, William's half-brother who, after the Conquest, was made Earl of Kent. There are many reasons for this assumption, one being that several of the Bishop's colleagues appear in the tapestry. Also, the tapestry has always been at Bayeux Cathedral, which Bishop Odo built. It is assumed that it was designed and stitched in Kent- which is why I called it English- because that was where Odo was living at the time. Also, the vegetable dyes used on the threads are of the type used in England at that time. As well, the Latin phrasing on the tapestry is distinctly Anglo-Saxon in style (or so I'm told). Last but not least, during this time period, Anglo-Saxon needlework was deemed to be the finest available, well-known throughout Europe for it's skill and beauty. It's assumed that Bishop Odo commissioned the work early in the 1070's, so that it would be ready in time for Bayeux Cathedral's dedication in 1077.
Whoever the unknown stitchers were, they did wonderful work, bless their strained eyes and sore fingers. Look at the fine stitching and incredible detail, and reflect that this work was produced well over 900 years ago. It's really quite amazing. Also, it's a real blessing that the Tapestry is still in existence after all this time, especially since in the 12th century, the Bayeux Cathedral was partially destroyed and had to be rebuilt. It also survived the sacking of Bayeux in the 1562 by the Huguenots, and the French Revolution, when revolutionary twits confiscated the artwork as "public property" and used it as a cover for military wagons. The Nazis also took possession of the Tapestry during their occupation of France and schemed to take it to Berlin, but didn't get it out of the country before France was retaken by the Allies.
The Battle of Hastings is stitched in great detail, and includes the scene of poor old King Harold's death - purportedly from an arrow in the eye.
In case anyone missed what was going on in the scene, the words "Harold Rex Interfectus Est" or "Harold the King is Killed" appear over the stitched picture. Interestingly, in 1066- the year depicted- Halley's Comet became visible in the sky, and is depicted on the tapestry:
The Normans thought that the comet's appearance was a good omen for William's conquest while the Anglo-Saxons, who lost, decided that it had portended evil to their cause. As Eilmer of Malmesbury, who had apparently been alive for its previous appearance as well as this one, wrote in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: "You have come, have you?... You've come, you source of tears to many mothers, you evil. I hate you! It is long since I saw you; but as I see you now you are much more terrible, for I see you brandishing the downfall of my country. I hate you!"
So if, like me, you have an interest in British history, the Bayeux Tapestry provides a fascinating glimpse- albeit a biased one - of the events leading up to, and including, the Norman Conquest. The Tapestry is also worth a look if you want to see what fine workmanship the people of that time period were capable of producing. And if you're a fan of cartoons or graphic novels, you might regard the Tapestry as the early English equivalent.
This week's Quote of the Week by Rudyard Kipling, which essentially said that people would remember history if it was told to them in the form of stories, brought some Canadian T.V. from my childhood to mind. I love history... I enjoy reading history books, and biographies of historical figures, as well as personal accounts of people living during a particular time period- Samuel Pepys, Josephus... one of the most interesting books I ever read was simply criminal court records from Medieval London, which gave a fascinating view of life at the time- sometimes grim, sometimes tragic, and sometimes just plain funny. Hmm...maybe I like history so much because I'm nosy.
Of course, I also love reading novels- or watching movies- which have a historical setting: "A Tale of Two Cities" or "The Scarlet Pimpernel" for example, both set during the French Revolution, or any of Jane Austen's works occurring in the Regency period. I'm currently reading "Quo Vadis" by Henryk Sienkiewicz, which takes place in Rome during the reign of Nero. Sienkiewicz includes an amazing amount of detail about life at that time, which I'm finding both fascinating and repellent- but more on that at a later date. This brings me back- in a very roundabout way- to my original point, which is that I think Kipling was right: human beings love stories, and will remember things in them better than they will just a dry repetition of facts, if only because they'll pay more attention to a well-told tale. This was an idea that the National Film Board of Canada ran with, in hopes of imparting some knowledge to Canadian kids parked in front of T.V. screens. They made a series of vignettes about events in Canadian history, mostly animated, and often humorous, which were a couple of minutes long, and would play between shows like commercials. I'm not sure they impelled any kids to further historical scholarship, but they were memorable... Lady Francis Simpson and her piano... Bill Miner and his failed train robbery... they stick in the memory. Later these animated shorts gave way to Canadian Heritage Minutes, live action dramatizations of pieces of history that serve the same purpose, but tend to be more earnest than the tongue-in-cheek shorts were... which isn't always a bad thing. I'm going to post two YouTube videos below: one of my favourite vignettes, and one of the Canadian Heritage Moments. Enjoy.
I recently finished reading 'Act One: An Autobiography by Moss Hart'. I'd been planning to read it for a long time, and happily, was not disappointed. I've been a fan of his writing since the first time I watched Frank Capra's 1938 movie, 'You Can't Take It With You', adapted from Hart's play which he wrote in partnership with George Kaufman. I immediately tracked down a copy of the play, which happily was paired with another of Kaufman & Hart's works, 'The Man Who Came To Dinner'. Incidentally, this play was also made into a movie, in 1942. Both of these works are absolutely hilarious, and a tribute to the combined brilliance of Kaufman and Hart. 'Act One' was written by Hart in 1959, and does not provide an account of his entire career. It begins in his childhood and concludes with the success of 'Once In A Lifetime', his first play with Kaufman. Since he titled the book 'Act One', Hart no doubt intended to write a follow-up, but unfortunately he died of a heart attack in 1961. One of the great things about reading an autobiography by a Pulitzer prize winning playwright is the quality of the writing... I've picked up one or two autobiographies "written" by famous people, and quickly put them down again, unable to get past the terrible writing style. There's no danger of that here: Hart's book is expertly written and a completely engrossing read. I'm not alone in thinking this, of course- in the theatrical world, 'Act One' is considered the definitive insider's take on the rocky road to Broadway success. And there can't be many autobiographies that have been made into plays themselves, as 'Act One' was (also a movie).
Moss Hart was born in New York to parents who were Jewish immigrants from Britain. He grew up in poverty; his father, who was disabled, eked out a living as a cigar roller until mechanization eliminated his job. In the first part of 'Act One', we see young Moss' dissatisfaction with his life: his loneliness and sense of alienation from his rather dysfunctional family- his domineering grandfather, his defeated father and emotionally distant mother, his silent brother, and his selfish, eccentric Aunt Kate. It is Aunt Kate who introduces Moss to the theater, though in a rather unfortunate way. Living off the meagre income of Mr Hart, Kate refuses to get a job or help with the family finances in any way. Instead, she spends every penny she gets her hands on buying tickets to the theater, occasionally taking young Moss with her. These plays- viewed from the cheap seats- fire Moss' imagination, and he is devastated when, after a fight with his father, Kate is ejected from their home.
From his youth, Hart dreams of escaping the poverty which surrounds him and entering the magical world of the theater. This seems a forlorn hope, however, as he is forced to drop out of school after grade seven and get a job to support the family. He works in a fur storage vault, which leaves him smelling so badly that no one will sit near him on the subway during his long trips home. Fed up, one day he just walks off the job and never goes back. Through luck-or fate- he finds employment as an office boy for a theatrical company, and has a series of jobs as an entertainment director at summer resorts. His accounts of these jobs provide a lot of humour, mostly because the conditions and demands of these positions are so unbelievably appalling. Eventually, through hard work, luck, and plain dogged determination, he meets the man who will change his life.
Hart has written a play which the powers-that-be think has promise but needs work, to which end he is sent to see George S. Kaufman. At this time, Kaufman was already a famous writer, one of the theatrical elite. He was also well known as a play doctor, who would collaborate with other writers, helping them fix and rewrite their scripts. I must say, this is my favourite part of the book because their unlikely partnership has always fascinated me. They were a study in opposites- Hart enthusiastic and mercurial, Kaufman almost allergic to any display of excitement or sentiment. Hart is at first completely intimidated by Kaufman, who is 15 years older and famous, which leads to some really funny misunderstandings. Hart spends the first months of their relationship starving, because Kaufman rarely eats while he's working, and Moss is too shy to ask for a lunch break. Also, he thinks for the longest time that George's wife is his sister, because Kaufman never bothers to introduce her, and again, Moss can't bring himself to ask. At one point, Moss mentally composes a speech expressing his gratitude to Kaufman, but when he starts to actually say it, George abruptly gets up and leaves the room. Moss is abashed and afraid he offended, until it is explained to him that George just can't take expressions of gratitude or emotion- they make him awkward and uncomfortable.
One scene in this part of the book which I find really humorous is one in which Kaufman's wife, Beatrice, insists that he stop working and come down to tea with their company. Exasperated and grumbling, Kaufman accedes to her demands, dragging Hart along with him. Moss is shocked- and embarrassed- as he enters the room in his rumpled clothes and finds himself in the presence of the literary and Hollywood elite: Dorothy Parker, Harpo Marx, Alexander Woolcott, and Leslie Howard, to name a few. What is less funny is the agony they suffer over the writing of 'Once In A Lifetime'. After months of writing, they believe the script is ready, audition actors, and go to work staging and producing the play. Unfortunately, it fails with audiences and critics, so they frantically write and rewrite, and still it's a failure. Finally, having hit a brick wall, Kaufman is ready to throw in the towel. Unwilling to give up, Hart studies his beloved play critically and realizes that more than repair work is needed: the entire last act of the play will have to be ripped out and a new one written. The drastic cut done, inspiration starts to flow once again, and he and Kaufman finish 'Once In A Lifetime', which becomes a critical and commercial success, as does their partnership. 'Act One' ends on a high note, with Hart moving his family out of their dingy apartment into a luxurious home, full of hopes and dreams for the successes to come.
'Act One' is a great book, sometimes achingly sad, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, and always eminently readable even if it's not always completely factual. It must be admitted that Moss took a few liberties with the truth. For example, in 'Act One', he writes touchingly about his Aunt Kate's death. In truth, she didn't die: always odd, she eventually went crazy, harassing Hart with threatening letters, vandalizing his home, and setting fires backstage at one of his plays. He omits this from the narrative... perhaps Moss the playwright wrote the ending he thought she should have, rather than her actual one. It is also true that Hart wasn't always as upbeat and positive about Broadway and success as his book would have you believe. There is a diary that he wrote in the last few years of his life which chronicled his depression and disenchantment with all of it. His wife, Kitty Carlisle, refused to release it to the public until after her death, probably because of the biting things he said about some of their acquaintances. This would seem to contradict a lot of what he wrote in 'Act One', but it should be pointed out that at the time he was struggling with bouts of what has now been diagnosed as bipolar disorder, characterized by periods of deep depression alternating with times of extreme energy, punctuated by extravagant shopping sprees. To combat this, he was seeing a quack doctor who was giving him weekly electric shock treatments. The wonder of it is not that he was writing dark thoughts in his diary, but that he could function at all, let alone maintain a successful career. However the final act of his life played out, 'Act One' is the touching and inspiring account of a young boy who dared to dream big, and then made that dream become a reality.
"How many of us would be willing to settle when we're young for what we eventually get? All those plans we make... what happens to them? It's only a handful of the lucky ones that can look back and say that they even came close." - 'You Can't Take It With You'