May 19, 2011

Summer Trips

by Jonathan Greene

As a child sequestered in
the back seat on a long journey,
exiled in one's own world,
a refuge. Deep sleep naps.
Ice-cream stand oases after
a long stretch of highway.

In the front seat: the troubles
of the world, treaties with
foreign nations, domestic squabbles
with aunts and uncles, at times
at a whisper, classified

A whole year of work
brings us this week at the beach.
The Devil's bargain parents made,
a contract that renews every time,
weary after the nine-to-fives,
they unlock the front door.

"Summer Trips" by Jonathan Greene, from Distillations and Siphonings. © Broadstone Books, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this day in 1897, Oscar Wilde (books by this author) was released from Reading Gaol, where he’d been sentenced to two years hard labor for “homosexual offenses.”

In 1891, Wilde had been introduced to a dashing young Oxford student named Alfred Douglas. Known as “Bosie” by family and friends, Douglas was indulged, indulgent, and dangerously indiscreet, so when Wilde and Douglas became lovers, it was a badly kept secret. But Wilde was completely in Douglas’ thrall and did not seem to care.

Douglas introduced Wilde to the underground world of gay prostitution in Victorian London, which Wilde found dangerous and thrilling. Wilde began to wine and dine the young working-class men who worked as prostitutes. In De Profundis, a 50,000-word letter he later wrote to Douglas from prison, he found the underground “like feasting with panthers; the danger was half the excitement.”

The intimate friendship between Wilde and Douglas did not please Douglas’ father, the Marquess of Queensberry, who was known as a brute, a boxer, and an atheist. He warned Wilde several times to never be seen in public with his son again, and each time Wilde was able to calm and assure the Marquess. But when the Marquess left his calling card at Wilde’s gentlemen’s club with the inscription, “For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite [sic],” it was Wilde who flew into a rage and, against the advice of his friends, decided to sue the Marquess for libel. The only way for the Marquess to avoid a conviction was to prove that his accusation was true.

The Marquess unleashed his lawyers to dig into Wilde’s private life, and the number of witnesses and evidence they gathered in support of Wilde’s homosexuality was staggering. Wilde didn’t help himself on the stand, either. He often gave irreverent answers, as was his manner, and they made the case against him look worse. For instance when the prosecutor in the case pressed Wilde about whether or not he had ever kissed a certain servant boy, instead of saying, “No,” he said, “Oh, dear no. He was a particularly plain boy — unfortunately ugly — I pitied him for it.”

The Marquess was acquitted at trial, and almost immediately a warrant was issued for Wilde’s arrest on charges of sodomy and gross indecency. His friends advised him to go to France but Wilde, tired and sad, said, “The train is gone. It is too late.” He was arrested, tried, and sentence to two years’ hard labor. At first he was imprisoned in London, but when he fell ill, in part due to the hard labor and terrible conditions in prison, he was transferred to the prison in Reading.

He was released from Reading on May 19th and he left right away for France, where he penned his final work, The Ballad of Reading Gaol. He published the poem under the pseudonym C.3.3, which had been his prison number. He died alone and penniless in France three years later.

Wilde said, “Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.”

He said: “Arguments are to be avoided; they are always vulgar and often convincing.”

On this day in 1962, Marilyn Monroe sang “Happy Birthday” to President John F. Kennedy at Madison Square Garden, in what is now considered one of the most memorable live performances of the past century.

More than 15,000 people attended the celebration in honor of Kennedy’s 45th birthday (on May 29th). Monroe arrived late to the event, which host Peter Lawford made into a running joke all evening, introducing her several times though she didn’t appear onstage. When she finally did emerge from backstage, she was wearing a flesh-colored dress covered with over 2,500 rhinestones. The dress was so tight that it was sewn on to her body before the event.

She sang with a sultry voice and bedroom eyes, and she wrote special lyrics — Thanks, Mr. President/For all the things you’ve done/The battles that you’ve won/The way you deal with U.S. Steel/And our problems by the ton/We thank you so much. When Kennedy took the stage after her performance, he joked that “I can now retire from politics after having had ‘Happy Birthday’ sung to me in such a sweet, wholesome way.”

Monroe’s performance for Kennedy was one of her last major public appearances. She died that August.

She said, “I believe that everything happens for a reason. People change so that you can learn to let go, things go wrong so that you appreciate them when they’re right, you believe lies so you eventually learn to trust no one but yourself, and sometimes good things fall apart so better things can fall together.”

Monroe said, “Imperfection is beauty, madness is genius and it’s better to be absolutely ridiculous than absolutely boring.” 

And she said, “If you’re gonna be two-faced at least make one of them pretty.” 

And she said, “Ever notice how ‘What the hell’ is always the right answer?” 

From the archives:

It is the birthday of American merchant Johns Hopkins, born on a tobacco plantation in Anne Arundel County, Maryland (1795). The Hopkinses were Quakers and in 1807 they’d freed their slaves, so Johns stopped going to school at a young age to help out on the plantation.

He left for Baltimore in 1812 to work in his uncle’s grocery business. He lived with his uncle’s family and fell in love with his cousin Elizabeth, but Quakers strongly opposed the marriage of first cousins. Both Johns and Elizabeth remained single their entire lives. After working for his uncle for seven years, Johns started a dry goods business with his three brothers. They sold goods to farmers in the Shenandoah Valley, and they often took moonshine as payment. Back in Baltimore, they bottled the moonshine and sold it to city folk as “Hopkins’ Best.” Johns invested his profits in the Baltimore and Ohio railroad, turning his modest Hopkins’ Best earnings into a sizeable fortune.

With no wife or children, he began to ponder the fate of his tremendous fortune after his death and in 1867 he incorporated The Johns Hopkins University and The Johns Hopkins Hospital. When he died in 1873, his $7 million fortune was divided between the two institutions.

It is the birthday of screenwriter of Nora Ephron (books by this author), born in New York City (1941).

Ephron studied at Wellesley College and worked as White House intern under President Kennedy. She later worked as a reporter for the New York Post, where she gained attention for breaking the news of Bob Dylan’s marriage to Sara Lownds. She wrote a column on women’s issues for Esquire magazine, covering wide-ranging and sometimes provocative topics, including Gloria Steinem’s feud with Betty Friedan, Wellesley’s penchant for churning out “docile women,” and satires of Women’s Wear Daily and Cosmopolitan that resulted in lawsuit threats.

While she was married to journalist Carl Bernstein, she helped him rewrite the script for All the President’s Men. The script they collaborated on was never used, but it garnered attention in screenwriting circles and she was hired to write for a television movie. She went on to write many beloved scripts, including Heartburn (1986), When Harry Met Sally (1989), Sleepless in Seattle (1993), and You’ve Got Mail (1998).

She said, “Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.”

And, “Insane people are always sure that they are fine. It is only the sane people who are willing to admit that they are crazy.”

It’s the birthday of American playwright Lorraine Hansberry (books by this author), born in Chicago (1930). She wrote Raisin in the Sun about a black family in Chicago. Raisin in the Sun was the first play by a black woman to appear on Broadway.

It is the birthday of American novelist Jodi Picoult (books by this author), born on this day in Nesconset on Long Island (1966). She is the author of 18 novels, most recently Sing You Home (2011). Her other books include Harvesting the Heart (1994), Keeping Faith (1999), and My Sister’s Keeper (2004).

Picoult said: “I’ve always written. My mom says that I’ve written since I was five years old. ... I always say the reason that I kept writing is because it’s a lot easier than teaching eighth-grade English.”

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




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