Jun. 1, 2013

Betty Boop's Bebop

by Barbara Hamby

Because I'm a cartoon airhead, people think it's a picnic
down on these mean streets. Sure, my skirt's short, but it's a crime,
fellows, how you give a frail the slip, leave her simmering,
hot and bothered. I have feelings, cardboard, but bordering on ennui,
just this side of tristesse. I may not be human, but I can kick
like one and bite and pinch, too. Don't forget, mister, I'm
not just a bimbo with a helium voice. I'm no rococo
parvenu pillhead. I've read your Rilke, your Montesquieu.
Really, I'm not as dumb as I look. Or maybe I am. Less
tries to be more, but ends up being nothing. My last beau
vetoed the philosophy of religion class in favor of pre-law,
exactly why I don't know, but I'm getting a glimmer. Stay
zany, the cartoonists tell me, and next year you'll play Cinderella.

"Betty Boop's Bebop" by Barbara Hamby, from All-Night Lingo Tango. © University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of novelist Sheri Holman (books by this author), born in Brooklyn (1966), author of The Dress Lodger (1999) and The Mammoth Cheese (2004).

It's the birthday of actress Marilyn Monroe, born Norma Jean Mortenson in Los Angeles, California (1926). As a child, she was passed around between her mother and a series of foster parents. Eventually, she wound up with her mother's friend Grace McKee, who worked in the movie industry. Grace worshiped movie stars, and she told Monroe that she would be a movie star herself one day. She taught Monroe to act like the women she saw in movies; she took Monroe to beauty parlors, she dressed her up in fancy clothes, and had her practice smiles and pouts in the mirror.

After Grace McKee got married, Monroe had to live for a while in an orphanage, and at night she would stare out the window at the water tower of RKO Studios. She spent the next several years moving from house to house, living with various distant relatives and friends of the family. She told children at school that her parents had died in a car accident.

After she went through puberty, her clothes were much tighter, but the family she was living with couldn't afford to buy her new ones. Walking to school, men started honking their horns at her and waving, and she'd wave back. She said, "The whole world became friendly." To avoid returning to an orphanage or another set of foster parents, she was married at 16 to a man named James Dougherty.

During World War II, Monroe got a job at an aircraft factory called Radioplane, where she sprayed glue on fabrics and inspected and folded parachutes. She was working at the factory when a group of photographers showed up to take pictures of women working for the war effort. The photographers noticed her right away, and they persuaded her to become a model. She bleached her hair and began to appear on the covers of magazines.

She got her big break in the musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953). Everyone had been trying to sell her as a "love goddess," but it turned out that she had a gift for comedy.

She died just nine years after that first big success, but her life has been an inspiration to many writers. She has been the subject of more than 300 biographies, including a partially fictionalized biography by Norman Mailer. The poet Sharon Olds wrote a poem about her death. In the novel Motor City (1992), author Bill Morris wrote a fictional version of her wedding day with Joe DiMaggio. Joyce Carol Oates wrote the novel Blonde (2001) about her, and it was nominated for the National Book Award.

Marilyn Monroe said, "I don't want to make money, I just want to be wonderful."

Today is the birthday of Charles Kay Ogden (books by this author), born in Fleetwood, Lancashire, England, in 1889. An editor, translator, journalist, and linguist, Ogden occasionally used the pen name "Adelyne (for "add a line") More" in his articles. He was a bit eccentric, collecting clocks, shoes, music boxes, and masks. He went to Cambridge and founded the Cambridge Magazine in 1912, and he stayed on as the editor for its full 10-year life. The magazine published foreign press extracts during World War I and came under fire for maintaining a neutral stance about the war; some accused its editors of spreading "pacifist propaganda." He also formed the Heretics' Society while at Cambridge, and the Society hosted talks by people like G.K. Chesterton, Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Virginia Woolf.

He wrote a monograph in 1923 called "The Meaning of Meaning," in which he explores the psychological and philosophical underpinnings of language. From 1925 until his death in 1957, he worked on what he called BASIC English — British, American, Scientific, International, Commercial — a simplified, English-based language of 850 core words designed for international uses. George Orwell was a fan of the enterprise at first, but then turned away from any attempt at universal languages, and modeled his "Newspeak" from Nineteen Eighty-Four after BASIC English. Ogden translated James Joyce's Finnegans Wake into BASIC English; Joyce's "Well, you know or don't you kennet or haven't I told you that every story has an end and that's the he and the she of it. Look, look, the dusk is growing. Fieluhr? Filou! What age is it? It saon is late" became "Well are you conscious, or haven't you knowledge, or haven't I said it, that every story has an ending and that's the he and the she of it. Look, look, the dark is coming ... Viel Uhr? Filou! What time is it? It's getting late." Joyce's aim was to expand the English language, and Ogden's was to simplify it, but the two men found each other's ideas fascinating.

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