Thursday

Jul. 17, 2008

Not to Sleep

by Robert Graves

Not to sleep all the night long, for pure joy,
Counting no sheep and careless of chimes
Welcoming the dawn confabulation
Of birds, her children, who discuss idly
Fanciful details of the promised coming —
Will she be wearing red, or russet, or blue,
Or pure white?—whatever she wears, glorious:
Not to sleep all the night long, for pure joy,
This is given to a few but at last to me,
So that when I laugh and stretch and leap from bed
I shall glide downstairs, my feet brushing the carpet
In courtesy to civilized progression,
Though, did I wish, I could soar through the open window
And perch on a branch above, acceptable ally
Of the birds still alert, grumbling gently together.

"Not to Sleep" by Robert Graves from Collected Poems. © Faber & Faber. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of writer Erle Stanley Gardner, (books by this author) born in Malden, Massachusetts (1889). As a teenager, Gardner was arrested for promoting an illegal boxing match. While he was trying to keep himself out of jail, he became fascinated with the law and got a job as a typist in a law office. He taught himself the law while he worked and thent took the bar three years later and passed. After a stint working for a sales agency, he opened up a law office in Ventura, California, in 1921 and became famous there for his ironclad defenses. Because defending poor people is not the best way to make money, Gardner augmented his income by writing stories for pulp magazines—and he was quite successful at it. In 1933, Gardner wrote a full-length novel called The Case of the Velvet Claws, which was turned down by several publishers. It was finally bought by a publisher who suggested Gardner take the main character, a brilliant lawyer, and write a series of books about him.

That lawyer, Perry Mason, eventually became the star of more than 80 novels, along with his loyal secretary Della Street, the private detective Paul Drake, and District Attorney Hamilton Burger. The characters became the basis for the popular television series, on the air in the early 1960s, starring Raymond Burr and Barbara Hale. He also wrote 15 nonfiction books about environmental issues, including The Desert is Yours (1963) and Hunting Lost Mines by Helicopter (1965). He died in 1970 at the age of 80.

He said, "I write to make money, and I write to give the reader sheer fun."

It's the birthday of the first multimillionaire in the U.S., John Jacob Astor, born in Waldorf, Germany (1763), the son of a butcher. He moved to the United States shortly after the end of the Revolutionary War, and started a fur trading business, which became highly profitable. He also began trading silks and spices with China. And he made friends with Thomas Jefferson, so when President Jefferson imposed the Embargo Act of 1807, Astor got special permission to sail through to China. Then, during the War of 1812, he lent money to the government at exorbitant interest rates—so while he helped fund the American government's war effort, he became increasingly rich.

He later bought a large chunk of Manhattan from Vice President Aaron Burr for the sum of $62,500. He subdivided the land and then subleased the lots for terms of 21 years, after which the tenant had to renew the lease or leave the lot. He continued to buy more and more Manhattan real estate. He later said, "If I could live all over again, I would buy every square inch of Manhattan."

When he died in 1848, he was the wealthiest person in the United States. He ordered that his business records be burned. In his final years he was a patron to various persons and causes, supporting Edgar Allan Poe, naturalist John James Audubon, presidential hopeful Henry Clay, a poorhouse in his German hometown, as well as endowing what is now the New York Public Library.

It's the birthday of comedienne Phyllis Diller, (books by this author) born in Lima, Ohio (1917) and often called the "Funniest Woman in the World." She didn't start her career as a stand-up comedienne until she was middle-aged. But she had spent much of her life as a housewife, telling jokes and doing impersonations and making groups of people laugh. At the Laundromat, she would tell other housewives things like, "I bury a lot of my ironing in the backyard" and "Housework can't kill you, but why take a chance?" When she became a professional entertainer, she drew extensively upon her experiences as the mother of five children who struggled to keep her house clean.

She grew up in Ohio and described herself as a somewhat plain-looking girl, not "the type that boys had to lash themselves to masts to stay away from." She played tennis, wrote for the school newspaper, and was a talented singer and musician. After high school, she enrolled in the Sherwood Music Conservatory in Chicago. She eloped with her boyfriend, who came from a wealthy family, and they started a family.

She and her husband moved to northern California, where she stayed at home to raise their children. She directed a church children's choir and later, to earn some income for the family, she wrote a shopping column for the local newspaper. Eventually, she got jobs writing continuity for some San Francisco-area radio stations.

Her husband, who loved her sense of humor, encouraged her to tell jokes professionally. But she wasn't confident that she could make it as an entertainer. Then she read a self-help book that encouraged positive thinking, The Magic of Believing, and she wrote some comedy skits and hired a drama coach.

Then, in 1955, Diller made her debut at the Purple Onion, a club in San Francisco. She was originally given a contract for two weeks—but her show ended up running at the Purple Onion for 89 weeks.

In her shows, she caricatured the frumpy housewife and appeared on stage with outrageous makeup jobs and ludicrous hairdos. She joked that she combed her hair with an electric toothbrush. When she took her show on the road to different states, she traveled with two dozen suitcases' worth of costumes and props. She routinely used a cigarette holder, though she did not smoke, and also a fur scarf that she insisted she trapped under the kitchen sink at her home.

One of her trademarks was her distinctive laugh, which has been described by critics as "a braying, cackling laugh." Diller herself said, "My own laugh is the real thing and I've had it all my life. My father used to call me the laughing hyena. Like a yawn or a mood, it's infectious, and that's a great plus for a comic, but I don't just turn it on like some of today's performers. In fact, during the early stages of my career, it was a nervous laugh. I was scared out of my mind. The sweat ran down my back into my shoes."

She had a cast of recurring characters in her routine including her husband "Fang," whom she described as "short and cheap"; her fat and ugly mother-in-law; and her overly sexy sister. She said about the sexy sister: "It took the driving instructor two days to teach her how to sit up in a car... She was the original meter maid—all you had to do was meet her, you got her made...She broke her ankle in a glove compartment...She told me she wanted a white wedding; I told her, 'You'd better pray for snow.'"

She became well known when she began to perform regularly on television, often on The Jack Paar Show. She also was a guest on the shows of Ed Sullivan, Red Skelton, Jack Benny, and Andy Williams. She played a role in the film Boy Did I Get a Wrong Number (1966) alongside Bob Hope.

She said that her basic approach toward her comedy has been in a spirit of "corrective attitude toward tragedy." She's the author of several books, including the memoir Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse (2005).

She said, "Never go to bed mad. Stay up and fight."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

 









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