Apr. 17, 2002


by Louis Simpson

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Poem: "Birch," by Louis Simpson from Selected Poems (Harcourt Brace).


Birch tree, you remind me
Of a room filled with breathing,
The sway and whisper of love.

She slips off her shoes;
Unzips her skirt; arms raised,
Unclasps an earring, and the other.

Just so the sallow trunk
Divides, and the branches
Are pale and smooth.

It's the birthday of novelist and playwright Thornton Wilder, born in Madison, Wisconsin (1897), who is the only writer to have won Pulitzer Prizes for both literature and drama. Because his father was a United States diplomat, Wilder spent much of his youth in China. He attended Yale, and had his first full-length play published in the Yale Literary Magazine. In 1927, his novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey, which told the story of a fatal accident from the viewpoints of the five people affected by it, won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature. Wilder's most famous work is the Pulitzer Prize winning play, Our Town (1937). The story, designed to illustrate the universality of the human experience, is set in Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, and traces the childhood, courtship, marriage, and deaths of Emily Webb and George Gibbs. This was followed in 1943 by The Skin of Our Teeth, another exploration of the common themes of human existence, this time over five thousand years in the lives of George and Maggie Antrobus, their children, and their maid. The play, whose fundamental principle can be summed up with the line, "My advice to you is not to inquire why or whither, but just enjoy your ice cream while it's on your plate," debuted on Broadway with Tallulah Bankhead and Fredric March, and won the 1943 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Our Town is still one of the most performed plays today, with the classic line: "Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you… Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? - every, every minute?"

It's the birthday of writer Isak Dinesen, born in Rungsted, Denmark (1885). Dinesen, whose given name was Karen, studied painting in Paris and Rome, and dabbled in writing short stories when she married her cousin, Baron Bror Blixen-Finecke, in 1914. The two left for Africa in 1914, where they owned and operated a coffee plantation, and became big game hunters. They were divorced in 1921, and Dinesen ran the plantation alone until 1931, when mismanagement, draught, and the falling price of coffee forced her to sell the plantation and return to Denmark. Her first book, Seven Gothic Tales, written in English, contained stories full of blood, mystery, and adventure, so she took the male pseudonym, Isak, to make it easier to sell the book. It was an unexpected best seller, as was her next book, Out of Africa, the non-fiction story of her life in Kenya, her relationship with the English hunter Denys Finch Hatton, and her sorrow at the changing way of life in her adopted country.

It's the birthday of financier and philanthropist J(ohn) P(ierpont) Morgan, born in Hartford, Connecticut (1837), who built his family fortune into a colossal financial empire. In 1901, he made history by financing a merger that resulted in the world's first billion-dollar company, the U.S. Steel Corporation. He was a great yachtsman who once said, "Any man who has to ask about the annual upkeep of a yacht can't afford one." He was also a generous philanthropist, giving millions of dollars to the Episcopal church, and to schools and hospitals. He had an extensive art collection, including many illuminated manuscripts and books, and was president of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In 1542 on this day, explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano discovered New York harbor. He anchored at a spot that is now spanned by the Verrazzano Narrows Bridge.

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




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