Happy in Her Work

07 19 florence foster jenkinsToday, I am celebrating the birthday of Florence Foster Jenkins who was born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania in 1868. Florence became a New York socialite and founder of the ‘Verdi Club’, a society dedicated to the advancement of American artists and musicians. She was greatly valued by charitable organisations for the concerts she arranged. But Florence also really loved to sing, and it is for this that she is most remembered. Unfortunately, she was completely tone-deaf and had no sense of rhythm or pitch.

Florence took piano lessons as a child and was something of a prodigy, performing all over her home state. She really wanted to study music abroad but, although her father was wealthy, he refused to pay. She retaliated by eloping. Shortly after her marriage, she contracted syphilis from her husband which probably lead to partial deafness. None of this deterred her though. In truth, she was blissfully unaware, until the very end of her life, of her shortcomings.

After separating from her husband she scratched a living teaching piano until an arm injury forced her to give it up. When her father died she inherited enough money to allow her to pursue her dream. She began to take singing lessons.

In 1912, she gave the first of many annual recitals at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in New York City. Her concerts were immensely popular, people came along for the unique experience. The audiences were strictly by invitation only and she would interview people before allowing them to buy the $2.50 ticket, just to make sure that they were true music lovers. What she didn’t know was that the tickets were often being sold on for ten times their face value. Her concerts were always a sell-out and every year the police had to chase away gatecrashers.

She also designed her own elaborate costumes for her performances, and would change them frequently throughout. Probably her favourite outfit was a tulle gown which she wore with a halo made from tinsel and a pair of massive gold wings. She called it her ‘Angel of Inspiration’ costume. Most of her repertoire was made up from operatic arias which she was ill-equipped to perform. Her rendition of ‘Cavelitos’ from Carmen, which is a song about carnations, she sang whilst dressed in a lace shawl with jewelled combs in her hair. She carried a basket of roses and randomly clicked a pair of castanets. At the end she would fling the roses out into the audience, sometimes also the basket and the castanets would follow. Her audience knew it was her favourite piece and would loudly demand an encore. Then her accompanist would have to head out into the audience to collect the flowers, basket and castanets to give back to her. Then the whole thing would start again.

Among the regular attendees of her concerts were Cole Porter and Enrico Caruso. There are a few surviving recordings of her singing. You can hear her massacring Mozart’s ‘Queen of the Night’ here. Her recordings were self published and intended for friends, but quickly sold out. This only added to her complete conviction that she was an excellent singer. When she heard people laughing during her performances, she just assumed that they were ‘hoodlums’ sent by rivals to undermine her. In fact, her audience were so appreciative of her awful singing that they would try to drown out their laughter with applause and stuff handkerchiefs in their mouths in order to avoid hurting her feelings.

Sadly her downfall came at the age 76, when she hired the Carnegie Hall for a public performance. No one could keep out the critics and obviously the reviews were awful. Previous reports of her singing had been ambiguous such as “Her singing, at its finest suggests the untrammelled swoop of some great bird.” which is lovely. Florence had this to say to her critics “People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.” Which is true enough.

Florence suffered a heart attack shortly after her last performance and died a month later. Although her singing was absolutely terrible, it really can’t be denied that she brought joy, however unwittingly, to a lot of people. Also she clearly loved doing it. One of her obituaries read “She was exceedingly happy in her work. It is a pity so few artists are.”

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Welcome

06 17 meester van de sint joriskermis - olifantWhat has a nose four and a half feet long, a mouth three feet wide and weighs just over 200 tonnes? Sadly, it isn’t one of these, but it’s a good picture, so I thought I’d show it to you. No, it’s the Statue of Liberty. She sailed into New York harbour, from France, on this day in 1885. She was a gift from the people of France to the people of America.

Its designer, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, really wanted to build a statue of a giant woman that doubled as a lighthouse. It’s an odd sort of ambition, but he was thinking of the ‘Colossus of Rhodes’, a hundred foot high figure that was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. He had originally wanted it to be an Egyptian peasant woman, clad in loose robes and holding a torch aloft. She was to stand at the northern end of the newly built Suez Canal, at Port Said, Sketches and models were made, but it was never built.

06 17 bartholdiThen, Bartholdi and his friends, who had been avid supporters of the Unionists in the American Civil War, thought the statue would be a great thing to celebrate their victory and the abolition of slavery. The sculptor travelled the US in 1871, to try to locate a site for his statue and to find funding. Bedloe’s Island was an excellent choice, because all the ships coming into New York harbour sailed past it. Plus, it belonged to the United States Government. Unfortunately times were hard and there was no government funding forthcoming in either America or France. So, after years of struggle, the project was largely funded by private individuals.

At first, Bartholdi only had sufficient funds to build the arm holding the torch. It was taken to America and exhibited at the 1876 Centennial Celebrations in Philadelphia, to arouse interest and generate funds. People paid to climb up into the torch. The money raised from that was sufficient for the artist to build the head. He was so grateful that he almost gave the statue to Philadelphia instead of New York. The head was exhibited at Paris World’s Fair in 1878 and models of the statue were sold to help raise funds. It was also possible to buy a ticket to visit the workshop at Gaget, Gauthier and Co. where the statue was being constructed.

06 17 liberty 2

Meanwhile, in America, a group of people were trying to raise enough money to build the plinth that the statue would stand on. Things were not going well. Some people thought a statue celebrating America should be built in America, by an American. Others thought that, if the French wanted to give a statue, they should jolly well give a plinth to go with it. Then, in 1882, it was discovered that the city of Boston was making a play for the statue. That was when New Yorkers decided that they really wanted it. The New York Times announced: “that great light-house statue will be smashed into… fragments before it shall be stuck up in Boston Harbor.” Then, Joseph Pulitzer had a brilliant idea. He would publish, in his newspaper, the name of anyone who made a donation to the project, however small. That was how they raised just over $100,000 and also a massive rise in sales of his paper. There were more than 120,000 contributors, with most people giving less than a dollar. Over 200,000 turned out to welcome the statue on June 17th. Its parts were packed into crates to be reassembled on site.

06 17 liberty 1

The framework inside the Statue of Liberty was designed by Gustave Eiffel (of tower fame). The outer skin is made of copper and is less that two and a half millimetres thick. It was originally a dull brown colour but within five years it had begun to turn green. By 1906 the whole statue was covered with verdigris. Many were concerned that it was evidence of 06 17 statue of libertycorrosion. But when it was investigated by the Army Corps of Engineers, they concluded that the patina protected the skin and also that it “softened the outlines of the Statue and made it beautiful.” Which was probably uncharacteristically sentimental of them.

Despite best efforts, engineers were unable to make the statue work as a lighthouse, much to the consternation of Bartholdi. It was not his only disappointment, if he had got his way, the entire 151 foot high statue would have been covered with gold leaf. Luckily there wasn’t enough money to do that, because I think it would have looked awful. Thomas Edison also had a rather disturbing idea. He wanted to build a giant phonograph and put it inside the statue so that it could talk. Fortunately, that didn’t happen either.

No Such Thing As Bad Publicity

04 19 mae westToday I want to tell you about Mae West. Mae was close to forty when she started her film career in 1932, which is unusually late. A year later, she was the eight largest box office draw in the US. By 1935 she was the second highest paid person in the United States, second only to newspaper magnate, William Randolph Hurst. She would have a career that spanned seven decades and was famous for saying things like: “Between two evils, I pick the one I’ve never tried before.” Today is not her birthday though. Today I want to tell you about something else that happened to her. On this day in 1927, she was jailed for obscenity. It did her absolutely no harm whatsoever.

Before she ever appeared on screen, Mae had a long stage career. She first began performing professionally in vaudeville at the age of 14. She tried out various personas, including a male impersonator. By the time she was eighteen, she was appearing on Broadway. In her thirties, she began to write her own plays. In 1926, she wrote, directed and starred in a play called ‘Sex’. The play is about a prostitute who tries to better her social standing by marrying a rich man. She winds up realising that you are better off with someone who accepts you for who you are.

It was not well received by critics. They didn’t like the title, they didn’t like the themes. One reviewer said: “We were shown not sex but lust—stark naked lust.” The audiences loved it. The first night was a sell out. The play ran to 375 performances and was seen by 325,000 people. Religious figures and those who considered themselves ‘guardians of morality’ did not enjoy seeing the word ‘Sex’ in huge letters outside a Broadway theatre. Nor did they care for the posters that announced ‘Sex – with Mae West’. After several official complaints, the police were sent to the theatre on February 9th 1927. They arrested Mae, along with the rest of the cast, and the show was closed.

Her arrest and the subsequent court case received a lot of media attention and Mae was not afraid to exploit that. She knew that any publicity was good publicity. She did loads of interviews, dressed in her most glamorous outfits. In court, on April 19th, she was found guilty of ‘corrupting the morals of youth’, fined $500 and sentenced to ten days in jail. The play had been on stage on Broadway for ten months, so frankly, if they really thought she was corrupting the morals of youth, they were dragging their heels a bit.

Mae took the verdict well and was driven to jail in her limousine. During her short stay she distributed the gifts she received from fans among the other prisoners and dined every night with the warden and his wife. She gleefully revealed to the press that she had worn her silk panties all the time she was in prison. Mae was released two days early for good behaviour. Afterwards she said that it was “…the first time I ever got anything for good behaviour.”

The media attention surrounding the trial considerably furthered her career and she certainly had no intention of changing her ways. Her next play ‘The Drag’ was about homosexuality. The play did well in out of town try outs but never made it to Broadway. Like ‘Sex’ it was popular with audiences, but panned by the critics. It was closed after two weeks because of its portrayal of homosexuality and cross-dressing. Mae was an early advocate of gay and transgender rights and once told a cop who was raiding a gay bar “Don’t you know you’re hitting a woman in a man’s body?”

I like Mae West a lot. I like the way she accepted controversy joyfully and turned it to her advantage. So hooray for Mae West today and hooray for living your life with people who accept you for who you are.

All Safe

03 23 elisha graves otisToday I am celebrating the life of Elisha Graves Otis who, on this day in 1857, installed the first elevator that was able to safely carry human passengers at 448 Broadway, Manhattan. The E V Haughwout Building didn’t strictly need an elevator. At five storeys high, it was no taller than many of the other buildings in New York. It was a store that sold cut glass, silverware, hand painted china and chandeliers. Its owner knew that people would come to see the elevator and hopefully stay to buy his wares.

Simple hoists had been around For a very long time. The first recorded example was a device built by Archimedes in the third century BC. The Romans used hoists at the Colosseum to raise wild animals from its underground labyrinth up to the floor of the arena. King Louis XV of France had a device installed at Versailles that he called a ‘flying chair’. It allowed his mistresses to visit him in secret. It seems to have been a sort of cabinet that the user hauled up and down by pulling on a rope. King Louis and his mistresses were exceedingly lucky that the rope held out. Early hoists had one major flaw. If the rope broke the whole thing just plummeted to the ground.

Elisha Otis was a born tinkerer. He invented an automatic lathe that could turn out bedsteads four times faster than a human could make them. After that he started designing a safety brake for trains and an automatic bread oven. In 1851 he moved to Yonkers, New York and took over an old sawmill. He wanted to turn it into a bedstead factory, but there was a lot of stuff that needed moving first. He really needed a hoist to move things from floor to floor but he knew they were unreliable and sometimes broke. He and his two sons applied themselves to the problem. They hit on a way of improving the safety by adding brakes to the mechanism. If the hoist should fall at excessive speed, there were rollers that would lock the elevator into its guides and prevent it from falling to the ground.

He didn’t patent the device immediately. In fact, he did not patent it until 1861. But when the bedstead making didn’t work out he built and sold three of his improved ‘safety hoisters’ in 1853. Unfortunately, he wasn’t a great business man back then. When he made his first sale, he accepted a cannon and its carriage in part payment. By the end of the year his company was worth only $122.71, and that’s only if you include two petrol cans and a second hand lathe.

03 23 elisha otis1854Luckily, he was rescued by P T Barnum who helped him inject a bit of showmanship into the operation. He paid Otis $100 to bring his contraption to his ‘World’s Fair’ at the Crystal Palace in New York. There, he was suspended high above the crowds on a platform that was held in place by a single rope. Doffing his top hat, he waited for the crowd’s attention then instructed an assistant to cut through the rope with an axe. His audience were terrified when the platform began to plunge floorward, it fell about two feet and then the spring operated brakes came into effect. He announced calmly “All safe, gentleman. All safe.”

After this his business improved considerably. For the rest of 1854, he sold one elevator a month. In 1855 they almost doubled and then doubled again the following year. and he modified his invention so that it was able to carry people from floor to floor safely. By the 1860s his invention had made it possible to increase the height of buildings considerably. Even when modern materials allowed people to build 20, 30 or 40 storeys high, those buildings would have been useless without Elisha’s elevator.

While I was reading about elevators today, I discovered that the first elevator shaft pre-dated the first elevator by four years. The Cooper Union Building was designed with a shaft because Mr Cooper was pretty confident that someone would soon invent the elevator to go inside it. He chose to build a cylindrical shaft. Later, Otis designed a special elevator to go inside it.

Worst Ever

02 22 mooseToday I want to tell you about a play. It isn’t a good play. It is an awful play. Yesterday, I wrote about a terrible actor called Robert Coates. Today, I give you: ‘Moose Murders’ which both opened and closed at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre on Broadway on this day in 1983. Such is its infamy, it is now the touchstone by which all Broadway flops are measured.

The play is described as a ‘mystery farce’. It is set at ‘Wild Moose Lodge’ in the Adirondack Mountains in Upstate New York. The lodge has recently been purchased by the wealthy Holloway family. The father, Sidney, is a heavily bandaged paraplegic who is on the point of dying. They have purchased the lodge as a place for him to live out his last days. Along with the family are a failed showbiz couple (one of whom is blind), a Native American caretaker (who appears complete with feathered headdress and war paint, yet inexplicably speaks with an Irish accent) and Sydney’s seemingly sadistic, black satin clad nurse who leaves her patient out in the rain. They become trapped in the house by a storm and decide to play a murder mystery game, which quickly turns into a case of real murder. The motive seems to be jealously over who will inherit the old man’s money. There is incest, there is mention of a legendary ‘Butcher Moose’ which haunts the mountain and there is dancing. There are also several murders. It isn’t clear how many. It is possible that no one who saw the play could focus on it well enough to be able to remember, or care. We are told that the dialogue in act one was “only improved by its inaudibility”, yet it was “inadequate preparation for the ludicrous depths of act two.”

The writer of the play, Arthur Bicknell, had written a couple of plays that had been produced Off-Broadway and had shown his script to several people, who found it very funny. He was delighted when a Texas oil baron loved Moose Murders so much that he wanted to stage it on Broadway. The oil man’s daughter was chosen to play the part of the first murder victim and her husband was made director. Neither had any previous experience and neither ever worked in the theatre again. The lead role, Sydney’s wife, Hedda, was to be played by Eve Arden who would be returning to Broadway after a forty year absence.

Although the play closed on its first night, it had previously had thirteen previews. Their leading lady walked out after the second one. They quickly managed to recruit Holland Taylor. She knew the play was awful, but needed the money. It had been described by critics as ‘titanically bad’ and “so indescribably bad that I do not intend to waste anyone’s time by describing it.” Frank Rich of the New York Times had this to say:

“From now on, there will always be two groups of theatergoers in this world: those who have seen ”Moose Murders,” and those who have not. Those of us who have witnessed the play that opened at the Eugene O’Neill Theater last night will undoubtedly hold periodic reunions, in the noble tradition of survivors of the Titanic. Tears and booze will flow in equal measure, and there will be a prize awarded to the bearer of the most outstanding antlers.”

He went on to say: “I won’t soon forget the spectacle of watching the mummified Sidney rise from his wheelchair to kick an intruder, unaccountably dressed in a moose costume, in the groin.” This episode does not appear in the original script. The play was so bad that it has made minor celebrities, not only of the actors but also the audience members who witnessed it. The number of people who now claim to have been there far exceeds the actual ticket sales. After the reviews were published, over the following days, the theatre was inundated with calls from people who were desperate to see it. They were to be disappointed. The box office received so many calls that they could easily have sold out the play every day for a month.

When Arthur Bicknell stopped by the theatre the following day to pick up his things, he was forced to witness the scenery for his play being tossed into the street. The oil baron, his daughter and her husband had already escaped to Paris on Concorde. Bicknell no longer writes plays, although he did revise the script for a revival of the play in 2013. Apparently, it was still awful. He was mortified by the whole thing and kept hoping everyone would forget about it, but it has never really gone away. Now, he has embraced his failure. He wrote a book called: ‘Moose Murdered: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Broadway Bomb’. In 2012 he said: “There is such a thin line between fame and infamy, and I’m almost proud of my infamy. Nobody knows who Arthur Bicknell is, but so many people know Moose Murders. I did that. I wrote the worst play that was ever on Broadway. That’s something.”

Legacy

11 28 edward hydeToday I want to tell you about Edward Hyde, 3rd Earl of Clarendon who was born on this day in 1661 and grew up in Berkshire, England. As far as I can make out, he’s nothing to do with the Edward Hyde in the 1886 novella by Robert Louis Stevenson, but he may have had an alter ego. Hyde’s aunt was the Duchess of York, who would one day marry King James II, His cousin would grow up to be Queen Anne. He was pretty well connected. Hyde, then known as Lord Cornbury, was colonial governor of New York between 1702 and 1708 and would become fabled as one of the worst governors of an American colony that the British had ever appointed. He was the sort of person that old aristocratic families are so good at squeezing out, an arrogant idiot. He drank too much, accepted bribes and possibly stole £1,500 pound that was meant for the defence of New York Harbour. But none of these awful things are why I want to talk about him today. As you see from this picture, he’s wearing a frock and I want to tell you about his reputation for going about in women’s clothes.

We are told by his contemporaries that he officiated at the opening of the New York Assembly in 1702 wearing a hooped gown, an elaborate headdress and carried a fan. His attire was very similar to something his cousin, Queen Anne would have chosen. When challenged about his choice of clothing, this was his reply: “You are all very stupid people not to see the propriety of it all. In this place and occasion, I represent a woman (Queen Anne), and in all respects I ought to represent her as faithfully as I can.” We are led to believe that he dressed in women’s clothes frequently and was given to hiding behind trees and then leaping out at people shrieking and laughing, which I find a slightly more worrying pastime than the dressing up. An account from 1901 has him frequently parading up and down Broadway in an elaborate gown with a string of amused children following in his wake. He may even have been arrested by a constable who mistook him for a prostitute. When his wife, Lady Katherine, 8th Baroness of Clifton, died in 1706 he was even said to have attended her funeral in a dress.

His mode of attire was not his only unusual habit. He really liked ears. He may have fallen for his wife because she had nice ears. Once, when expected to make a public speech, he delivered instead a flowery sort of eulogy in praise of the beauty of his wife’s ears. Then afterwards he invited everyone else to feel them for themselves so they would know how shell-like they really were.

There is no indication that Hyde saw himself in any way as a figure of fun. In fact, he liked to be addressed by his preferred title of ‘His High Mightiness’, which probably didn’t help him win many friends either. There were many complaints about his general unsuitability for his post as governor and, in 1708, he was removed from office. His successor, Robert Hunter, arrived in 1710 to find Hyde in debtor’s prison in Manhattan, impoverished, but still wearing a dress. Hunter paid his debts and sent him home to England. There, he was able to take his place in the House of Lords.

The actual evidence that Hyde really dressed in women’s clothes is scant. It comes largely from a few letters written by three men who really hated him. So it’s possible that they were spreading a rumour to discredit him. Even the painting with his name on it may just be an image that has become associated with him. It was first alleged to be a painting of Hyde over seventy years after his death. It was bought by the New York Historical Society in 1952 and arrived with a label that described it as ‘Lord Cornbury, half-witted son of Henry, Lord of Clarendon.

I don’t want to pretend that Hyde was nice or misunderstood, he clearly wasn’t. He’s not a person to hold up as a rôle model or a good example of anything. He was an over-privileged idiot. But he’s been presented as an eccentric idiot and what I like about him is that the tales of his proclivities, designed to discredit him, are the same stories that make him so interesting today. No one would care much about a corrupt seventeenth century governor of New York if we didn’t have a picture of him in a dress. Pretty much his only legacy is this picture that might not be him, doing something that he might never have done. But, judging by what I’ve read of the rest of his life, it’s the best thing about him.

Reluctant Traveller

11 14 elizabeth bislandOn this day in 1889 two women set off, in opposite directions on a round the world trip. They meant to prove that Jules Verne’s fictitious journey in his novel ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’ was possible. Not only that, they were to try to break the imaginary record. Nellie Bly was an undercover reporter and all round adventurous person of some renown who I have written about elsewhere. Her opponent, Elizabeth Bisland was very different. She didn’t actually want to go at all. She was worried it would make her famous, and she certainly didn’t want that.

Elizabeth Bisland was literary editor of a new magazine called ‘The Cosmopolitan.’ Her job was to read newly published books and write reviews of them. She was pretty happy with that, she liked books. But then, on the morning of November 14th, the magazine’s owner, John Walker, read that Nellie Bly was about to set off alone around the world. She intended to not only equal but beat the eighty day journey of Phileas Fogg. He thought it would be a great idea, and good publicity for his magazine, to introduce a bit of competition. But who to send? It couldn’t be a man, sending a man to compete against a lady would have been very bad form. He thought of Elizabeth.

So at 10.30 on the morning of November 14th, Elizabeth received a message from her boss asking her to visit him in his office immediately. She had no idea what it was all about and wasn’t particularly curious to find out. Not being an early riser, she later remembered: “My appetite for mystery at that hour of the day is always lamentably feeble…” So, although the office was only a few minutes walk away, she didn’t get there until eleven o’clock. There, she says: “on arriving, the editor and owner of the magazine asked if I would leave that evening from New York for San Fransisco and continue from there around the world, endeavouring to complete the journey in some absurdly inadequate space of time.”

At first, she thought it was a joke and not a very funny one. When she realised he was serious, she said she didn’t wish to go, she said she couldn’t go because she had friends coming to tea. Then she said she wouldn’t go because she couldn’t possibly pack everything she would need in just a few hours. But it was all to no avail, Elizabeth was going. In the five hours remaining to her, she managed to visit her tailors to get a frock finished in time for the journey and pack two cloth dresses, half a dozen bodices, a silk dress for the evenings and plenty of hair pins.

By the time Elizabeth reached San Fransisco, she was already receiving more attention that she would have liked. She had to wait there for two days for her ship and was forever being visited by people who just wanted to look at her. It made her feel like: “ a sort of inexpensive freak show”. After a shaky start and a lot of complaining about the smell of opium in China, to her credit, she seems to have enjoyed her journey in the end and met a lot of charming and fascinating people. Unlike Nellie, a swashbuckling adventuress, she wrote more lyrically of her journey. In Singapore she describes: “Tall Hindoos go by leading little cream-white bulls with humped necks, who drag rude carts full of merchandise … Nearly all foot-passengers are half or three-quarters naked. It is an open-air museum of superb bronzes, who, when they condescend to clothe themselves at all, drape in statuesque folds about their brown limbs and bodies a few yards of white or crimson cloth, which adorns rather than conceals.” clearly quite a sight for a lady from 1880’s New York.

Elizabeth came quite close to beating Nellie but when she was about to leave England on the final leg of her journey she was told that the fast German steamer she had intended to catch had been delayed and she was forced to travel on a slower ship. Meanwhile, Nellie was speeding across the United States on a train specially charted for her by her editor Joseph Pulitzer. Nellie beat Elizabeth by four and a half days.

While Nellie was travelling the country delivering lectures about her adventures, Elizabeth quietly slipped off back to England and stayed there ’til the heat died down. Elizabeth didn’t want to be famous and she really isn’t, so that really worked out pretty well for her. But for a while she was the second fastest person to travel round the world.