Apr. 29, 2008

Slum Lords

by John Updike

The superrich make lousy neighbors—
they buy a house and tear it down
and build another, twice as big, and leave.
They're never there; they own so many
other houses, each demands a visit.
Entire neighborhoods called fashionable,
bustling with servants and masters, such as
Louisburg Square in Boston or Bel Air in L.A.,
are districts now like Wall Street after dark
or Tombstone once the silver boom went bust.
The essence of superrich is absence.
They like to demonstrate they can afford
to be elsewhere. Don't let them in.
Their riches form a kind of poverty.

"Slum Lords" by John Updike, from Americana: and Other Poems. © Alfred A. Knopf, 2001. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Greek poet C. P. Cavafy,(books by this author) born in Alexandria, Egypt (1863), the youngest of nine children. When he was nine years old, his family moved to England, where they stayed for five years. Learning English was greatly influential on his writing, so much so that he wrote his first poems in English rather than in his native Greek tongue.

He got a job at age 29 with the Ministry of Public Works of Egypt as an Irrigation Services clerk, and he remained at this job for more than 30 years. He lived with his mother until she died when he was 36, and then lived with unmarried brothers and eventually, at age 45, began to live by himself.

He moved to an apartment in Alexandria and said about it: "Where could I live better? Under me is a house of ill repute, which caters to the needs of the flesh. Over there is the church, where sins are forgiven. And beyond is the hospital, where we die."

He had a narrow social circle that included E. M. Forster, with whom he corresponded for 25 years, and who described Cavafy as "standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the world."

Homosexual love, along with themes of art and travel and politics, recur frequently in his poetry. In "Ithaca" (1911) he wrote:

When you set out on your journey to Ithaca,
pray that the road is long,
full of adventure, full of knowledge …
visit many Egyptian cities,
to learn and learn from scholars.
Always keep Ithaca in your mind.
To arrive there is your ultimate goal.
But do not hurry the voyage at all.
It is better to let it last for many years;
and to anchor at the island when you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches.
Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.

It's the birthday of William Randolph Hearst, born in San Francisco (1863), the only child of Phoebe Apperson Hearst and George Hearst, a millionaire miner. George Hearst won a newspaper, The San Francisco Examiner, as payment for a gambling debt — and his son William, in his early 20s pleaded with his father for control of the newspaper. His father relented, and at age 24 he became the publisher. Over the next few decades, William Randolph Hearst acquired close to 30 newspapers, including ones in New York City, Los Angeles, Boston, and Chicago.

In 1865 his father had purchased a huge ranch for the family near San Simeon, California, halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. When his mother died in 1919, William inherited the ranch, which had grown to 250,000 acres. He began constructing his dream dwelling, collaborating with Bay Area architect Julia Morgan. He wrote, "Miss Morgan, we are tired of camping out in the open at the ranch in San Simeon and I would like to build a little something."

They worked on it together until 1947, at which point the estate he called "La Cuesta Encantada" — The Enchanted Hill — had 165 rooms, including 56 bedrooms and 61 bathrooms, as well as 41 fireplaces, indoor and outdoor swimming pools decorated with marble and adorned with mythological statues, the largest private zoo in the world, which included grizzly bears, zebras, jaguars, chimpanzees, camels, storks, giraffes and an elephant, 127 acres of gardens, a movie theater, tennis courts, and an airfield.

Notable guests of the estate include Charles Lindbergh, Charlie Chaplin, Winston Churchill, Calvin Coolidge, and George Bernard Shaw. It was donated to the People of the State of California in December 1957, and now the public may take guided tours.

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




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