Thursday, November 25, 2010

Henny Youngman in Alaska

Here's an old Henny Youngman joke—

A priest is assigned to Alaska. A year later, the bishop goes up to visit him. The bishop asks, "So how do you like it up here?" The priest answers, "I tell you, if it wasn't for my Rosary, and two martinis a day, I'd be in pretty sad shape. Speaking of which, would you yourself like a martini, Father?" "Ah, but of course," the bishop replies. And the priest yells out to the kitchen, "Rosary, bring the bishop a martini!"

Making Books

From Ned Rorem, Lies: A Diary (Cambridge MA: Da Capo Press, 2002), p. 29—

Nice anecdote about Peter Benchley and the not-too-bright brother of Mr. Glidden who sometimes sits behind the cash register at the Glidden's Fish Store.

The brother: "Hear you make books."

Peter B: "Well, I write the words. Other people set the type, bind the pages, design the cover."

Glidden's brother (losing interest): "Oh, you have help."

Monday, November 22, 2010

Ruari McLean's Landlady

Here is a wonderful story by British typographer Ruari McLean from his "typographical autobiography" True to Type (New Castle DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2000)—

When I got back to Bradford [England, after visiting the austere Modernist apartment of typographer Jan Tschichold] from Basel, I found that the room I rented from Mrs. Buchsieb contained too many ornaments. I began counting them, and found that the room itself contained one hundred and thirty-six objets d'art and eighty-nine pictures, prints, calendars, plates, mirrors, and texts on the walls. I decided I could stand it no longer. I placed all the vases in queue on the piano beside the door as a sign for their removal, and put a lot of other stuff out of sight, leaving the mantel shelf quite bare. I stood back to admire the effect, thought enviously of Tschichold's room in Basel, left a box of my own matches looking rather like a night watchman's hut on a slum clearance site, and went out to post a letter and have a drink.

When I returned, the room was exactly as it had been before my ministrations, except that Mrs. Buchsieb was standing in the middle of it looking like a dive-bomber about to strike.

Henry Moore on Shut-Eye Golf

Eric Ravilious, May. Woodcut, 1925. Public domain image.

British sculptor Henry Moore, in a conversation about his friend Ben Nicholson (who was very good at shut-eye golf) in Maurice de Sausmarez, ed., Ben Nicholson: A Studio International Special (London: Studio International, 1969), p. 24—

Ah yes, shut-eye golf. That was introduced and I think invented by [British artist] Eric Ravilious. On this large sheet of paper you drew an imaginary golf course with a variety of obstacles—e.g., a dog, a tree, a cow, a bandstand, a duck pond and so on—and then you'd put a few extra bunkers in; it was a golf course in plan. Then you put the point of pencil in hole 1, had a good look at the course and where hole 2 was, and what obstacles lay between, then you had to close your eyes and attempt to draw a line to hole 2, without the line touching any drawn obstacle. Sometimes you did it in one, but more often at ones first shot ones line touched a tree, or bunker, or ended up far away from the hole—one had to play a second, a third and so on until the pencil rested plumb in the hole. You could play a nine-hole course, or eighteen holes, and as in real golf the least score was the winner.

James Watson: Avoid Dumb People

Dust jacket of Mastery, designed by Bill Stanton

From an interview with Nobel Prize-winning molecular biologist James D. Watson (co-discoverer of the structure of DNA) in Joan Evelyn Ames, Mastery: Interviews with Thirty Remarkable People (Portland OR: Rudra Press, 1997), p. 69—

My chief piece of advice to a young person is go to a place where people are bright. That is, avoid dumb people—those people who can't give anything to you—and turn to people who are brighter than yourself.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Alec Guinness, Hiccups and the Pope

In an autobiography, British actor Alec Guinness (aka Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars) recalled a very odd audience with the Pope in Blessings in Disguise (Pleasantville NY: Akadine Press, 2001), p. 46—

[In 1958, four days before the death of Pope Pius XII, British actor Alec Guinness was allowed to join an audience with the Holy Father, in a group that consisted primarily of plastic surgeons. Guinness stood “near the end of the line next to a middle-aged American couple,” where] I didn’t grasp what the Pope said to me...but I assumed it was about surgical alterations to the face and not about theatrical make-up; but I did catch every word said by the Americans. They both kneeled to kiss the Fisherman’s Ring, and then the man burst into loud sobs, the tears coursing down his face. The Pope [who was suffering from hiccups] patted him, took his hand, saying the Italian equivalent of “There! There!” and the man grasped his white cassock. The wife explained her husband away with a motherly smile. I imagined her to be a woman who would not have permitted him to buy his own shirts, socks or underpants. “He’s so moved, Your Holiness,” she said. “It is such an honor to meet you. Isn’t it, dear? He’s always like this on great occasions. Aren’t you, dear? Oh, he’s very moved! And just think, Your Holiness—we’ve come all the way from Michigan!” The Pope mastered a hiccup. “Michigan?” “Sure, Michigan.” “I know Michigan,” the Pope said, and managing to free himself from the plastic surgeon’s grip he raised a hand in blessing: “A special blessing on Michigan!” Those were probably the last words of English he spoke. The entourage sped him away from the audience chamber. His private doctor followed, glowering at each of us in turn as he passed.

Heather McHugh: Do You Eat English?

Here's a great passage from American poet Heather McHugh (in Gregory Orr and Ellen Bryants Voigt, eds., Poets Teaching Poets), who was deservedly given this year the MacArthur Award—

[Her essay "Moving Means, Meaning Moves: Notes on Lyric Destination"] first took form as a lecture given in Bergen, Norway (a place where, as no tourist agency likes to tell you, it rains 305 days a year; in some senses, every destination is unexpected). I was there for one academic quarter, without the benefit of any knowledge of Norwegian, and it reminded me of the general truth that poets bear a naive or estranged relation to language. For example, it kept striking me as concretely evocative that the word for speak was snakker: "Snakker du engelsk?" smacked of "Do you eat English?" (not the fast food of choice, in America). And every time I saw that perfectly innocent Norwegian phrase meaning "Very good," I was subject to a sudden sense of titillating oxymoron: the Norwegian reads bare bra and cannot help packing, in an American eye, considerable wallop.

Mediocre Emulations

A thought-provoking comment by American art historian James Elkins in Why Art Cannot Be Taught (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2001), p. 68—

Art school catalogs from the turn of the century are filled with reproductions of student paintings that look like slavish copies of John Singer Sargent or Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, and exhibitions catalogs from the 1950s show hundreds of students works that emulate abstract expressionism. The lesson I draw from looking at older art school catalogs and graduation exhibitions is that fifty years from now even the most diverse-looking work will begin to seem quite homogeneous. Works that seemed new or promising will fade into what they really are: average works, mediocre attempts to emulate the styles of the day. That's depressing, I know: but it's what history teaches us.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

No One Is A Continent, Not Even Queen Victoria

This is from Scottish author Muriel Spark in her Momento Mori (New York: Macmillan, 1959)—

The real rise of democracy in the British Isles occurred in Scotland by means of Queen Victoria's [weakness of the] bladder… When she went to stay at Balmoral in her latter years a number of privies were caused to be built at the back of little cottages which had not previously possessed privies. This was to enable the Queen to go on her morning drive round the countryside in comfort, and to descend from her carriage from time to time, ostensibly to visit the humble cottagers in their dwellings. Eventually, word went round that Queen Victoria was exceedingly democratic. Of course it was all due to her little weakness. But everyone copied the Queen and the idea spread, and now you see we have a great democracy.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Jack Kerouac Meets Buffalo Bill

Edward Zane Carroll Judson, better known by his pseudonym Ned Buntline, was a 19th-century author of dime novels. It is he who is usually credited with establishing the legend of William F. Cody as Buffalo Bill. Buntline could write as many as six dime novels in a week. His writing method, as it turns out, seems to have anticipated that of Beat Generation novelist Jack Kerouac (a method called spontaneous prose, about which Truman Capote once said, "That's not writing, it's typing"), who is said to have typed his novel On the Road on one long role of paper, with no revisions. Here's how Buntline described his way of working, as quoted in Robert A. Carter, Buffalo Bill Cody: The Man Behind the Legend (Edison NJ: Castle Books, 2000), p. 139—

I take a bound book of blank paper, set my title at the head of it, and begin to write about the fictitious character who is to be the hero of it. I push ahead as fast as I can write, never blotting out anything I have once written, and never making a correction or modification. If you will examine the leaves of my manuscript you will see that the pages are clean with no erasures—no interlineations. If a book does not suit me when I have finished it, or at any stage of its progress, I simply throw it in the fire and begin again, without any reference to the discarded text.

Josef Albers on Frank Lloyd Wright

A note by Bauhaus artist Josef Albers (who later taught at Black Mountain College and Yale) in which he recalls an encounter with Frank Lloyd Wright in 1938, as quoted by Nicholas Fox Weber in Achim Borcardt-Hume, ed., Albers and Moholy-Nagy: From the Bauhaus to the New World (New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 2006), p. 109—

I remember when the Bauhaus exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York opened: very late. 11 or 12 when all were gone except a few from the Bauhaus. [Walter] Gropius, [Herbert] Bayer, Anni [Albers], me. Appeared Frank Lloyd Wright. In a Havelock [a cloth attached to the back of the hat, to protect ones neck from sunburn] and Wagnerian velvet cap (with a challenging older lady) telling us very loud, "You are all wrong." And who was it later saying: "Frank Lloyd Wright?—he is always frank, and not always right."

See also: Roy R. Behrens, FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT and Mason City: Architectural Heart of the Prairie (2016).