Jul. 24, 2011

Toward Paris

by Peter Makuck

My first time on the night train
I couldn't sleep

With expectation, the lucky
Shapes of houses wrapped in dream—

Trees slowed, then creaked to a stop.
4:00 a.m. under country stars.

Lower the window: new air,
A deserted dirt road and

A peasant pedaling away,
A wand-like loaf in his hand,

Tail-light growing weak
Red in the dark, as if his work

Was to bring fresh light
To woods and fields. He did,

Keeping me there at that
Balanced blue hour even later

In the Sainte Chappelle,
The blur of the Louvre and after.

"Toward Paris" by Peter Makuck, from The Sunken Lightship. © BOA Editions, Ltd, 1990. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of Alexandre Dumas, père (books by this author), born in Villers-Cotterêts, France, in 1802. He wrote several plays, which were somewhat crude and melodramatic, but they were wildly popular in his day. He then turned his hand to fiction, first short stories and later, in collaboration with fellow author Auguste Maquet, historical novels. He's best known for The Three Musketeers (1844) and The Count of Monte Cristo (1844). Dumas didn't care much about characterization, or historical accuracy, or even plausibility; he just wanted to tell an exciting story. Whenever he made money, he spent it lavishly and then some, the result being that he was often feverishly writing a new book to keep ahead of his creditors. He also tried, unsuccessfully, to make money at journalism or travel writing.

He had a liaison with a dressmaker, Marie-Catherine Labay, which produced a son, also named Alexandre. He acknowledged his offspring, and even sued for and won custody of the boy, who eventually became a writer himself.

It's the birthday of English poet and novelist Robert Graves (books by this author), born in Wimbledon in 1895. He was one of 10 children; his father, Alfred Perceval Graves, was a Celtic scholar and his mother, Amalie, was related to noted historian Leopold von Ranke. He began writing poetry as a schoolboy, and wrote three books of verse while serving as an officer on the Western Front during World War I. He was badly wounded in 1916 and again in 1918, and he battled the physical and psychological effects of the Great War for several years to come. Good-Bye to All That (1929) is his grim memoir of the war years, and it sold well enough that he was able to settle on the island of Majorca with his lover, American poet Laura Riding.

He wrote more than 120 books, including historical fiction like I, Claudius (1934), about the Roman Empire; and The Golden Fleece (1944), about Hercules. His research of mythology for The Golden Fleece led him to write a controversial book, The White Goddess; A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth (1948). In it, he argues for throwing off the old patriarchal gods and relying on a divine female deity for inspiration. He believed the White Goddess inspired poetry that was magical, rather than the rational, classical verse that arose from meditating on a male god.

He wrote in his essay "A Case for Xanthippe" (1960): "Though philosophers like to define poetry as irrational fancy, for us it is practical, humorous, reasonable way of being ourselves. Of never acquiescing in a fraud; of never accepting the secondary-rate in poetry, painting, music, love, friends. Of safeguarding our poetic institutions against the encroachments of mechanized, insensate, inhumane, abstract rationality."

Today is the birthday of American aviator Amelia Earhart (1897), born in Atchison, Kansas. She was a tomboy as a child, and she didn't like being told what she couldn't do because of her sex. She kept a scrapbook of newspaper clippings about women who had made a go of it in male-dominated fields. She saw her first airplane at a county fair when she was 10. "It was a thing of rusty wire and wood and not at all interesting," she said. But 10 years later, she went to a stunt-flying exhibition, and when the pilot dove toward the crowd attempting to scare them, Amelia stood her ground. "I did not understand it at the time," she said, "but I believe that little red airplane said something to me as it swished by."

When she grew up, she served as a nurse's aide during World War I, then went to college, and began working as a social worker. She had her first flying lesson in 1921, began saving her money, and bought her own plane six months later. She was dubbed "Lady Lindy," after Charles Lindbergh, and was a popular lecturer. She was featured in ads for Modernaire luggage and Lucky Strike cigarettes. She also inspired a new subset of women's fashions: "active wear." She amassed a long résumé of firsts in her career: first woman pilot to fly at 14,000 feet; first woman to fly (as passenger) across the Atlantic; first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic; first pilot to fly solo across the Pacific; first pilot to fly solo from Mexico City to Newark; first woman to receive the Distinguished Flying Cross. In her quest to be the first person to fly around the world, she disappeared over the Pacific, somewhere near the International Date Line.

It's the birthday of Zelda Fitzgerald (books by this author), born Zelda Sayre in 1900. Her father was a judge in Montgomery, Alabama, and her mother was a nonconformist housewife. Zelda was a wild child, larger than life, and many times she was only saved from disgrace by her family's reputation and social standing. Her childhood friend Eleanor Addison wrote: "By day she was healthy and hoydenish, a veritable dynamo, by night a beautiful enchantress. ... When she commandeered a streetcar and went clanging down Court Street with the befuddled motorman practically hanging on the ropes, the town criers lifted their eyes to the heavens and said, 'disgraceful.' When she danced like an angel in a pink ballet costume at some charity affair, the same town criers murmured, 'beautiful.'"

She met F. Scott Fitzgerald (books by this author) at a dance in 1918, and they were both smitten. She refused to marry him, though, until he published his first book. She assured him that she loved him, and that he shouldn't worry if she flirted with other men a little bit. "Don't you think I was made for you? I feel like you had me ordered — and I was delivered to you — to be worn — I want you to wear me like a watch-chain or button-hole bouquet — to the world." They married in 1920, and they were the standard-bearers for the Jazz Age: beautiful, glamorous, and free. By the end of the decade, Scott had descended into alcoholism, and Zelda had descended into madness. She had her first schizophrenic breakdown in 1930, and spent the rest of her life in and out of mental institutions. She died in 1948, eight years after her husband, in a fire at the Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina.

Scott Fitzgerald said: "I fell in love with her courage, her sincerity and her flaming self-respect and it's these things I'd believe in even if the whole world indulged in wild suspicions that she wasn't all that she should be. ... I love her and that's the beginning and the end of it."

On this date in 1974, the Supreme Court ordered Richard Nixon to hand over transcripts of the Watergate tapes. Five men had been arrested in 1972 for breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters. They, along with former White House aide E. Howard Hunt Jr. and general counsel G. Gordon Liddy, were charged with burglary and wiretapping. And while they awaited trial, the White House insisted that the president had no involvement in the affair, despite growing rumors to the contrary. The trial took place in January 1973; five of the men pleaded guilty and the other two were convicted by the jury. At the sentencing hearing in March, one of the defendants accused the White House of conducting a cover-up of Nixon's involvement. In July 1973, it was revealed that conversations in the Oval Office had been recorded. The investigating committee subpoenaed the tapes on July 23, 1973, but Nixon refused, citing "executive privilege" and "national security."

Public pressure on the president to release the tapes grew, and on December 8, he gave in, but he only produced seven of the nine tapes, and one of the tapes had been partially erased. Finally, on July 24, 1974, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Nixon must turn over transcripts of the missing tapes. He complied on August 5, and resigned the presidency on August 8.

On this day last year, in 2010, more than 80,000 people recorded their daily lives for a YouTube documentary called "Life in a Day." On July 6, YouTube put out a call asking people around the world to record a video snapshot of their lives on this one day, July 24, and 80,000 people from 192 countries answered the call. Director Kevin McDonald and producer Ridley Scott sorted through more than 4,500 hours of footage to compile a collection of more than 1,000 clips into a 90-minute documentary. Every contributor whose clip was selected is listed in the credits as a co-director.

The film was completed in December 2010 and premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January of this year. More than one jaded movie critic reported being moved to tears. National Geographic acquired the distribution rights, and the film opens in theaters today.

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