Apr. 26, 1998

First Birth

by Sharon Olds


Today's Reading: "First Birth" by Sharon Olds from THE WELLSPRING, published by Alfred A. Knopf (1996).

It's the birthday in 1906 of the Dutch businessman JAN GIES, the man who, with his wife, hid Anne Frank and her family from the Nazis for two years. His wife, named Miep, had worked at Otto Frank's Amsterdam pectin factory and helped the family move into a secret annex above the company offices in July, 1942. Jan Gies was able to get extra food ration coupons from his job at the welfare department, while Miep bought the food and smuggled it upstairs to the Franks. All this lasted until August, 1944, when the Gestapo got a tip and raided the annex and sent the Franks to concentration camps. They let Jan and his wife remain, and he died in Amsterdam in 1993.

It's the birthday of ANITA LOOS, born in Mt. Shasta, California, 1893, who is best known for a little book she tossed off in a few weeks in 1925 called Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Twenty-five years later, Carol Channing starred in the musical; and in 1953, Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell made the movie. Loos was also Hollywood's highest-paid screenwriter in the silent film era. She wrote about 200 movies for stars like Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Constance Talmadge.

It's the birthday of FREDERICK LAW OLMSTED, Hartford, Connecticut, 1822, the landscape architect who in the late 1850s designed Central Park in New York; and went on to create South Park in Chicago, Mount Royal Park in Montreal, and the grounds of the Capitol in Washington.

It's the birthday of the naturalist JOHN JAMES AUDUBON, born in Haiti on this day in 1785. In his early 30s, he was running a general store in Louisville, Kentucky, but the store wasn't doing so well because he spent more of his time out hunting birds and then bringing them back to his studio to paint. The store eventually went under and he hit on what he called his "great idea," painting every species of bird in the U.S. He spent years traveling down the Ohio and the Mississippi, where he'd stop at various town to earn money painting portraits, then go on collecting birds. In 1886, he organized a society for the study and protection of birds, which he named the Audubon Society - which today has a half-million members and 500 chapters.

It's the birthday in London, 1660, of DANIEL DEFOE, one of the first in the English-speaking world to write novels, and the author of books like Robinson Crusoe, and Moll Flanders. He came to book-writing late in life, when he was almost 60 years old. The novel was a brand new form back then and most people read Crusoe assuming it was history, not fiction; and Defoe became known as "the father of the English novel."

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