Glinda

Wizard of Oz Glittering Ruby Red Slippers framed nursery playroom art sign Glinda the good witch

The childvoice behind the pink sheen and sparkle told Dorothy she could go home.  She looked and sounded like a fairy, so why wouldn’t anyone believe her?  We were relieved when Dorothy swirled back to Kansas; Glinda stayed in Oz, watching over the Land of the Quadlings.  Can it be almost eighty years since Billie Burke, then 54, played the part of the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz?  She was at the time an accomplished star of the stage and movie screen.

Mary William Ethelbert Appelton Burke was born August 7, 1885.  Her parents, a circus clown and his wife, traveled and then lived in London where Billie made her stage debut at 18.  When she was 22 she moved to the upcoming center for the theatre, New York City.

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http://www.biography.com

In 1921 she married Florenz Ziegfeld, impresario of the Ziegfeld Follies.  The couple lived comfortably on the show and their stock market investments, but after the crash of 1929 Billie had to go back to work.  Her husband died soon after, never getting to hear her first spoken role in the movies.

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She had a steady career, making 25 films in the 1940s.  She’d been nominated for an Oscar for Merrily We Live in 1938.  Her last film was Sergeant Rutledge in 1960, and she passed away ten years later at the age of 85.

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But that voice.  That red hair (under the wig, too).  That sheer, flowy butterfly-trimmed dress that flounced about and the tall glass crown on her head as she introduced the Munchkins.  She disappeared in a bubble and made us feel that somehow we’d always be looked over by a fairy godmother.

“Come out, come out, wherever you are; and meet the young lady who fell from a star…”  How many can sing her part and that of the Lullaby League, the Lollipop Guild, and the rest of the little people who lived in that land?

It’s nearing Trick or Treat time.  When kids ring our doorbell this year, they’ll be handed goodies from the pink-gowned, wand-waving lady I’ve always loved.  But even wearing a mishmash of things from Goodwill, Amazon, and Michaels, I could never delight them the way Glinda, and Billie Burke, did all of us.

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The Summer Before the War

Polished reviews I saw online for The Summer Before the War, Helen Simonson’s second novel (Random House 2016), did not wholly mesh with what I was thinking when I put it down.  If I had based my decision to read the hefty 450+ page work of historical fiction about 1914 England on what they said, I may have opened it later than sooner.  It’s a good thing my sister gave me a hardback copy for my birthday.

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The war is World War I, of course, then known as The Great War.  A young Latin teacher named Beatrice Nash leaves the clutches of her extended family to take a job in the small town of Rye in East Sussex.  Because an aunt controls the trust left by her father, it has been next to impossible for the 23 year-old unmarried woman to live on her own.

Beatrice does break away, riding by rail to Rye.  She is up against human walls on several sides: the mayor (and his farcical wife), the landlady, the town gossips, and the barrister who would take a percentage of her small income for himself.  But her savior is Agatha Kent, a middle-aged woman who had pushed for her hiring.

Another protagonist of the story is Agatha’s nephew, Hugh, a young doctor; among several antagonists is a nobleman who blames the death of his son on Agatha’s other nephew, poet Daniel.

I suppose it was to engage more readers that reviewers of The Summer Before the War invoked the memory of small and large screens for comparison: Downton Abbey (at least three) and Star Wars (!) (one).  This is an injustice to the printed page.  Readers do not need wardrobe departments or special effects men to make them want to know about the world of the past.  They count on authors like Simonson to draw them to it.

We do agree that Simonson’s exquisitely orchestrated word pictures equal those in her first book, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, also set in her homeland but in modern times (She now lives in Manhattan).  “The Wheaton’s garden could not be anything but a felicitous scene: the emerald of the lawn, the rightly pitched white marquee heads of summer flowers, nodding above the ladies’ linen and cotton dresses.  The uniformed servants, a small navy, ferried trays of sandwiches and buckets of ice across a green sea…”

http://www.helensimonson.com

Most social remarks made by the critics about this book touched on discrimination of women of the time and a public oblivious to the horrors of modern warfare just ahead.  “‘I avoid the papers altogether,’ said Daniel.  ‘I’m pretty sure wars would be shorter if we weren’t eager to read about them.'”

But nobody mentions the father/daughter relationships key to the plot.  Poignant but pathetic, it was/is often the way love is shown.  I can’t understand it, having had a pretty fair-minded dad, but I know it exists.  Beatrice’s father thought the best way to help her was by leaving older family members to control her inheritance, even though she capably took care of him in his last years.  A Belgian refugee professor treats his young daughter with tenderness but abandons her at the worst possible time to save his university’s books.  Mr. Tillingham, a character suggestive of Henry James and supposed surrogate father to both, is ultimately concerned most with his own writing.

Another very interesting part of the tale is the presence of the Romanies, commonly known as gypsies.  From reading about the Edwardian Period in Indiana I also found news articles about these mysterious people.  “In a small clearing, two lean dogs emerged barking from under a dark wooden caravan with a black tar roof.  A shaggy horse tethered to a long rope looked sideways from one large eye but did not bother to take his mouth from the long grass.  The old woman sitting on the caravan steps was as wizened as a dried apple and, though the day was hot, was wrapped in several shawls.”

The gypsy lady, an unlikely friend of prominent citizen Agatha, has a main role along with her great-grandson, a bright boy whom Beatrice tutors before school begins.  The injustices he suffers are unnerving, tragic and catastrophic to the future of the town.  The irony is that few people realize what he could have become and done for them.  Doctor?  Barrister?  Scientist?  Author?  They will never know.

I appreciate Simonson’s notes about her research at the end of the novel.  She was raised in the places she describes, so knows how to relay feelings her characters would have had and expressed.  She read actual copies of hundred year-old newspapers; shortly afterward these were morphed into microfiche.

“Microfiche and searchable digital content cannot replace the thrill and serendipity of reading a full newspaper just as my characters would have done…”  I feel the same way.

The sting of this year’s election lingers with those who know women are on an equal plane with men to lead, govern, and plan for the future.  Beatrice’s summer before the war a century ago is a harbinger of the same.

 

 

Plain Jane

The last several years I taught fifth grade we had a wax museum in which each student researched a famous American and culminated the project portraying that person in costume.  We organized a giant timeline around the school, and children in the younger grades came to see and talk with those who figured mightily into American History.

To give them an idea of what to do, I presented the story of Jane Addams.  She isn’t as well-known as first lady Abigail of the previous century, and her name is spelled differently, but she had a great deal of positive influence in her time.  Last week I had the chance to re-enact her life again for a class I volunteer with, and was reminded of just how great a person she was.

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http://www.swarthmore.edu

Born just before the start of the Civil War, Jane came from a well-to-do family; her father was a miller, farmer and banker who also served in the Illinois state legislature.  He was a good friend of Abraham Lincoln.  Lincoln would write, “Dear Mr. Double D’d Addams,” in letters to him.

She didn’t have an easy childhood, though.  Her mother died when she was two.  She contracted Pott’s Disease, tuberculosis of the spine, and was teased by other children for her funny way of walking.  One day she told her father she was going to build a big house in the middle of the small ones in town so she could help the people in the neighborhood.  And that is precisely what she did.

After graduating from college, unusual for a woman in those days, she studied medicine until her own health forced her to drop out.  She traveled in Europe extensively.  A visit to Toynbee Hall in London prompted her to recreate the settlement house on the Near West Side of Chicago in 1889.  With part of her inheritance from her father, she rented Hull-House and fixed it up.

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From the beginning, Hull-House was all about educating Italian, German, Greek, Polish and Bohemian immigrants in the neighborhood.  Jane initiated day care for working mothers.  She established an art gallery and theatre.  Then a public kitchen, gymnasium, book bindery and sewing room.  Frank Lloyd Wright and Susan B. Anthony were among many guest speakers.

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http://www.swarthmore.edu

To fund all this in the days before government social programs, Jane spoke to wealthy patrons.  She lobbied for better working conditions in factories and against child labor.  She was elected to the school board and served as garbage inspector, to help clean up nasty conditions that attracted rats to tenemant back yards.

Jane Addams’ first book, Twenty Years at Hull House, was widely read, and in 1912 she was the first woman to give a presidential nomination speech, for Theodore Roosevelt, in Chicago.  They had similar views on reform, but split a few years later in the issue of going to war.  Jane helped found the Women’s Peace Party, vehemently voicing her opinion that America should not participate in the Great War in Europe.  She believed it would only be more destructive to the lower class.  It goes without saying she campaigned for women’s right to vote, and was able to benefit from the 19th Amendment herself in 1920, unlike her friend Susan Anthony, who did not live long enough to vote.

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In 1931 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the first American woman recipient.  Peace was not just the absence of war, she said, but the presence of justice.  Four years later she passed away from cancer.

Today you can visit Hull-House Museum on Halsted Street at the entrance of the University of Illinois – Circle Campus.  The only building left of a once-thriving mega help center, it is a testament to what one person can do.  We can only try to follow, in whatever small ways, the example she left.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Calf Rassling

This is the first person account of a wild and wooly family camping trip in the late Nineteenth Century.  I presented it this summer as Corinne Roosevelt Robinson, Theodore’s younger sister, close to the place where it happened.

Model of the Elkhorn Ranch House near Medora, North Dakota.

In the late summer of 1890, Mr. Robinson and I, my sister Anna and our friend Bob Ferguson accompanied my brother and his wife Edith back to his ranch in Medora. We arrived by train at four in the morning, it being dark and very muddy from the rain. We made the 40 mile trip to the ranch by wagon, fording the Little Missouri River 23 times before we got there.

Our day at the cattle round-up was one of the most fascinating days of my life. We lunched at the wagon, galloped across the grassy plateaus, and sat under the cottonwood trees by the banks of the river.

On the last day, Will Merrifield and Sylvane Ferris planned a surprise for my brother and my husband. One had shown me the method of throwing a calf, and the other taught me how to rope it.  About 3 o’clock all members of our party and the cowboys were invited to sit on the fence of the corral and watch.

With a severe rain the evening before, it was mud walled in by a fence, with only one animal – the calf – inside. Will announced me very much like a circus rider used to be introduced by Barnum and Bailey.

Well, the calf, which was an unpleasant size, started galloping. I, knee deep in mud, galloped after it. I achieved roping it its neck. I got close enough to throw myself across its back, still running, and the cowboys yelled, “Stay with him!” The sound of their laughter still rings in my ears. I remember the jellified feeling like it was yesterday. I grabbed the calf’s left leg with my right arm. There was one terrible lurch and the calf fell over on its head in the mud. All sensation left me and I only remember being lifted up, encase in an armor of oozing dirt, and being carried on the shoulders of the cowboys to the ranch house.

Years later, when the owner of the Elkhorn Ranch had become the President of the United States, I was receiving with him and his wife at the White House. I was attired in black velvet and white plumes on my hat, when I recognized the figure of Will Merrifield.

He said, “Well now, Mrs. Douglas, it’s a sight for sore eyes to see you again. The last time I laid eyes on you, you were standing on your head in that muddy corral with your legs waving in the air!”

 

 

 

The Parents’ Generation

Are we always once removed from history?

It’s hard to believe that those men in the black and white movies — the ones with side parts, baggy suits and ties — are half my age.  They will always be older than I am because when I saw them first, they were.

Even in their thirties and forties adults in b/w photographs appear older, to me.  I suppose I associate the idea of “grownup” with the styles of the time.  It’s more than that, though.

It could be because they’re the generation from whom we learned.

When we were growing up, World War II seemed long ago and far away.  It is unimaginable the Holocaust happened just twenty years before I learned about it in school.  Today twenty years ago isn’t that far back.  Is it?

History is always then.  It was.

My grandmother’s family in an early Auburn automobile.

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately looking through 100 year-old letters written by my grandparents.  As the events of their day unfold, I learn about farmers planting extra acreage for the war effort, neighbor boys enlisting or being drafted, and the desire to “get that old Kaiser’s hide.”

I also catch parallel glimpses of future generations: teasing younger siblings about “going on the chase;” planning surprise birthday parties, family get-togethers, or just the day’s meals; wondering what’s going to happen next.

Just as their letters are primary sources now, yours and mine soon will be.  Except we haven’t written or saved as many.  Our grandchildren will look back on visual images of us that were far faster, easier, and plentiful — but fewer letters and journals where they can get inside our heads.

I puzzle at colorless photographs and movies and letters with pristine loops.  That was then.  Style and technology are different now, but the living of life is not.  I guess that’s where history and the present meet up, and we’re all the same age.

Bit Players

Katharine Hepburn was terrific in Alice Adams, for which she received an Oscar nomination in 1935. But as we watched the black and white movie on TCM, my husband asked, “Isn’t that the guy who played Sam Wainwright on It’s a Wonderful Life?”

“I don’t think so,”  I said.  “Wonderful Life was at least a dozen years later.”  So I looked him up on the movie site IMDb, and yes, the characters of Katharine H.’s brother and Jimmy S.’s friend were played by the same actor, Frank Albertson.  He was the one always saying “Hee haw!” in the Christmas classic of 1947.

Then we noticed Charlie Grapewin in the part of the town rich guy.  He would soon be Uncle Henry in The Wizard of Oz.  Fred Stone, veteran stage and silent film actor, played Hepburn’s down-on-his-luck father in Alice Adams.  Stone was the original Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz on Broadway.  In 1902.  He’d started his career in show business with the circus.

There are all kinds of familiar faces in the movies and on TV.  They didn’t get the large salaries or the covers of magazines, but they made the stories what they were.  I think George Kennedy must have been in more movies than any living actor.  Charles Durning played memorable roles, the best of which I think is in The Final Countdown, a time travel flick about the attack on Pearl Harbor.  The beautiful Agnes Moorehead appeared in many, many motion pictures before she was  Samantha Stevens’ mother in Bewitched.

My favorite character actor is Jane Darwell, whose final role was the bird woman in Mary Poppins.  She was one of the older southern ladies in Gone With the Wind and probably best known for playing Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath.  There is only kindness in that face.  I could watch her in every movie ever made, if she’d been in them.

These are the people who make stories real.  They seem like family and neighbors, and we are fortunate to have known them.  Do you have a memorable character actor in mind?