Astrid Kirchherr, Photographer, Phenomenon, Friend to the Beatles

She Came in Thru the Bathroom Window

Clad in all black with a pixie haircut and a camera in tow, she was probably the coolest chick ever to walk in to the Kaiserkeller in 1960’s Hamburg. She was a German photographer, the first to do a formal shoot with the Beatles, and largely responsible for what later became their world-wide “image.” She was a practitioner of Sartre’s Existentialism, an art student, and as it turned out, a great cook. She lured Lennon, mesmerized McCartney, hypnotized Harrison, and later became engaged to then-band-member Stuart Sutcliffe.

 Astrid Kirchherr was born on this day, May 20, 1938, in Hamburg, Germany. Her father worked for the German branch of the Ford Motor Company and her mother was a homemaker. Like all European children during World War II, Astrid witnessed its atrocities. During the bombings of Hamburg, her family evacuated to the Baltic Sea, where Astrid remembered seeing dead bodies washed up on the shoreline. It was perhaps this knowledge of the frailty of life that later attracted her to Existentialism.

John Paul Sartre, John Paul & George

The Existential crowd believed in “life defined by one’s experience.” Nowadays this sounds pretty obvious, but up until around the 19th century, people believed more in Plato’s philosophy of “Essentialism”. In brief, Essentialism says that we are given “essence” at birth, a role defined for us — assigned by god, society, or institutions. Existentialism posits that we must “create our own essence”, defined by ourselves and our experiences.

In practice, being an Existentialist meant Astrid was running with the cool kids. Those that dressed in black, smoked cigarettes and wore sunglasses at night. John Lennon dubbed them “The Exis”. If America had its Beatniks, Europe had its Exis. (I attribute both groups to the dire consequences of WWII and society’s questioning the meaning of life. )

According to Astrid, they were “trying to be French.” (Germany got a terrible backlash after the War. France was considered a more fashionable place.)

Klaus Voorman, Astrid and Stuart Sutcliffe in 1960

 Astrid studied fashion design and photography at Meisterschule für Mode, Textil, Grafik und Werbung, a school in Hamburg. She later worked as an assistant to photographer Reinhard Wolf.  

Meanwhile, back in Liverpool, John Lennon, also an art student, was gathering his musicians. The very early Beatles consisted of Lennon and McCartney, George Harrison, drummer Pete Best and John’s friend, fellow art student Stuart Sutcliffe. Although Sutcliffe could not play an instrument, John wanted him in because of the way he looked – a cute boy with great cheekbones who could rock a leather jacket. “He looks good, that’s all that matters,” John would say.

Stuart reportedly had no interest in being in a band, but John convinced him to do it. Astrid would later say, “John Lennon could convince anybody to do anything.”

Astrid’s photo of John. Stuart in the background

When the chance came for the Beatles to play in Hamburg – a city ravaged by war and considered the seediest place in Germany, rampant with drugs and prostitution – the boys jumped at the chance. Paul’s dad and John’s Aunt Mimi were reluctant to let them go. John somehow convinced the adults that the money they would make would surely be worth the risk.

It’s Only Rock & Roll

In Hamburg, Astrid’s then-boyfriend Klaus Voorman, also an artist, was living with the Kirchherr family. The story goes that one night, Astrid and Klaus got in a fight. Klaus stormed out of the house and found himself wandering through the Reeperbahn – the city’s red light district, which was by far the sleaziest section of already sleazy Hamburg. Klaus stepped into a bar called the Kaiserkeller. There, he heard the most amazing music, being played by the most amazing band. Forgetting all about the argument, he couldn’t wait to get home and tell Astrid about his discovery.

It took Klaus three days to convince Astrid to go to the Kaiserkeller. For one thing, she wasn’t eager to mix among the Reeperbahn’s prostitutes, pimps and drug dealers. For another thing, she had never even heard of Rock & Roll music. It was true — the Existentialist crowd that Klaus and Astrid ran with were into jazz and classical. A sedate coffee house would have been more her style than the sweaty, beer drenched Kaiserkeller. Nonetheless, Astrid was finally persuaded.

Astrid said, “When I walked down the stairs and looked at the stage, I was just amazed at how beautiful these boys looked… It was a photographer’s dream. And then when I heard the music, it was even more fantastic.”

L to R, John, George, Pete Best, Paul, and Stuart Sutcliffe at Kaiserkeller

Astrid went to see them every night. When she asked – in very broken English – if she could photograph them, the guys eagerly agreed. As a new band, they had never been photographed except for some amateur snapshots. Astrid had the idea to take them to a deserted fair grounds. There she used a lorry truck and open fields as the background. She produced photographs that critics still consider as some of the most sensitive ever taken of the Beatles, showing both their toughness and vulnerability.

L to R, Pete Best, George, John, Paul, Stuart

Astrid was not only their photographer, she became a great friend, too. She often brought the guys to her mother’s house and cooked for them, thus relieving them from their Kaiserkeller diet of beer and amphetamines.

He Got Hair

Down

to His Knees…

Of course, no one really had hair down to his knees, but in an age of buzz-cuts and conservative short hair, the Beatles few extra inches were considered an outrage. Astrid was partly responsible.

Having studied fashion design, Astrid was hip to innovative trends. She is credited with changing the band’s clothing and hairstyles. Leather jackets were swapped for turtlenecks and Nehru collars. Brylcream and ducktails were replaced with the mop top.

Astrid is famously attributed with styling the band’s hair. It was actually Klaus Voorman’s hair she styled first. According to Astrid, “Klaus was the most beautiful boy the world had ever seen, but he had these big, sticking out ears. I had the idea to just grow the hair over them, which he then did, and it looked absolutely beautiful.”

Klaus Voornan with Astrid’s haircut

Stuart saw the haircut, liked it, and asked Astrid to do his hair the same way. Months later, George followed suit. John and Paul stubbornly kept their rockabilly ‘doos, but then on a trip to Paris they were convinced to try longer hair. Tellingly, Pete Best never got the haircut. He left the band soon after. Enter new drummer Ringo, who was game. By the time they hit the Ed Sullivan Show in 1963, all four Beatles were wearing the mop top as if they had invented it themselves.

You might be wondering what happened to Stuart Sutcliffe. His story is the most tragic of all.

Would You Believe in a Love at First Sight?

In a 2010 interview, Astrid said, “Maybe it sounds sentimental, but when I saw Stuart for the first time, I knew: That was my man. He was then, and still is, the love of my life.”

Astrid and Stuart

Stuart felt the same about her. He wrote of their first meeting “I could hardly take my eyes off her.” Stuart claimed he tried to talk to her during the break but much to his dismay, she had already left. Luckily, she came back the next night.

Klaus Voorman, realizing you can’t stop true love and overactive hormones, graciously backed out of his relationship with Astrid. There was apparently no jealousy. Klaus and Astrid remained good friends all the way till her death in 2020. (Klaus, a talented artist, maintained his relationship with the Beatles. He did a lot of artwork for them including the Revolver album cover, which was a masterpiece.)

After the gigs at Kaiserkeller were finished, Stuart quit the Beatles, moved in with Astrid, got engaged to her and pursued his painting. They should have lived happily ever after, a perfect couple in a perfect world.

Sadly, that was not to be.

“I Know What It’s Like To Be Dead”

Stuart began to suffer severe headaches and weakness in early 1962. In February he collapsed in the middle of an art class in Hamburg. Astrid’s mother had German doctors come to examine him, but they were unable to determine the cause of his illness. The condition got worse and Stuart’s health deteriorated. On April 10, 1962, Stuart collapsed in the Kirchherr’s kitchen. Astrid’s mother, in a panic, phoned Astrid at work and called an ambulance. Astrid hurried home, arriving in time to ride in the ambulance with Stuart. He died in her arms on the way to the hospital.  He was only twenty-two years old. The cause of his death was most likely a brain tumor.

Astrid went on to work as a freelance photographer. In 1964, she and her colleague Max Scheler took “behind the scenes” photographs of the Beatles during the filming of A Hard Day’s Night as an assignment for the German magazine Stern. She published numerous collections of work, including a volume of the Beatles called Hamburg Days and another called Liverpool Days and her last, When We Was Fab, published in 2007.

George, John and Stuart and Hamburg Fairgrounds

Astrid never got over Stuart. She married twice, divorced twice, and never had any children. She once said, “Many people say their prayers at night, praying to god. I say my prayers too, but I pray to Stuart.”

Spoken like a true Existentialist.

Astrid Kirchherr died of “a short but severe illness” in 2020 at age eighty-one.

I like to think she has finally been reunited with Stuart.

Happy Birthday Charles Perrault!

He was called the “French father of fairy tales”, a politician turned story-teller who is largely responsible for the popularity of fantasies such as Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty.

Over one hundred years before the Brothers Grimm cemented German culture and language in their chilling and horrific retellings, Charles Perrault introduced what came to be known in 17th century book circles as “a new literary genre” — the Fairy Tale.

Primed For Politics

Charles Perrault was born on this day, January 12, 1628. Ironically, he was the seventh child (sometimes considered to be clairvoyants) born into a wealthy Parisian family. His father and brothers before him had been government employees, and young Charles was groomed from birth to follow in their footsteps.

He studied Law at prestigious universities and had a reputation for his quick mind and wit. He served in the court of King Louis XIV and in 1663 he was appointed as a secretary to the Academy of Inscriptions and Belles-Lettres, a society devoted to Humanities. He was later appointed to the Académie Française, a council which oversaw all matters regarding French language and literature. He persuaded the King to bring his brother Claude into court, where Claude famously became a designer for the Louvre.

Perrault was well aware of how to use clout and wield influence. His connections to people in high places helped cement his family’s place in elite society. Interestingly, years later, Perrault would write Puss in Boots — a tale of a determined cat who uses wit and charm to elevate his lowly owner to a high position.

Perrault’s writing talents were obvious. In 1668, he wrote La Peinture (Painting) to honor the king’s first painter, Charles Le Brun. In 1670 he wrote Courses de tetes et de bague (Head and Ring Races), to commemorate celebrations staged by King Louis in honor of his mistress, Louise Francoise, Duchess de La Valliere.

Perrault also had a hand in designing the layout of the gardens of Versailles. In 1669 he advised King Louis to include thirty-nine fountains. Each fountain represented one of Aesop’s Fables. Water jets spouted from the animals’ mouths, intended to give the impression the creatures were talking to one another.

Years later, Perrault would write of more talking animals — seductive wolves, slick cats, birds and rabbits who could be commanded to do a human’s will.

Dangerous Liaisons

In the 1670’s an intellectual dispute began in the Académie Française between the “Ancients” and the “Moderns”. This was known, quite famously, as Le Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes. It caused sharp divisions and much debate, not to mention bruised egos and political manipulation. The central argument was over which was to be valued more — “modern” art, created by contemporaries, or the “ancient” tried and true classics.

Perrault sided with the Moderns, taking the position that civilization, literature, art and culture must evolve together. He wrote a poem,  Le Siècle de Louis le Grand  (“The Age of Louis the Great”) which honored modern writers such as Moliere and Francois de Malherbe. Perrault saw these writers as greater than those of ancient Greece and Rome. Perrault’s stand was a landmark in the eventually successful revolt against the confines and restrictions of traditions. Interestingly, the French Revolution, overthrowing the “old monarchy” in favor of the “new rule” of liberty, would also take place in Perrault’s lifetime.

Father of Fairy Tales

Tensions at court between Perrault and his boss, the finance minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert, eventually drove Perrault from court. He retired early, in 1682 at age fifty-six. It was then that he began to devote more time to his children. (Perrault had married late in life, at age forty-four. His bride, just nineteen years old, sadly died a few years later, leaving him with three young children.).

Perrault enjoyed telling the children folk tales which had been passed on by oral tradition. These stories were told in salons and had become very popular in France. Although Perrault is credited for introducing the “fairy tale” as a new literary genre, the term was actually coined by Marie-Catherine Le Jumel, Baroness d’Aulnov, who was writing stories of this nature as early as 1690.

Eventually, Perrault published his own versions of the oral traditions in his collection Tales of Mother Goose.

Interestingly, Mother Goose has never been identified as a real person, but several goddesses have been associated with her. The Alpine goddess Berchta, who is said to have one goose foot, is often thought to personify her.

Perrault’s stories, particularly his versions of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Blue Beard, emphasize the dark side of human nature. They offer the lesson that success can be achieved if one can maintain virtue — even though the world is full of cruelty, trickery, chicanery and decrepit morals. Some scholars have suggested that Perrault used his fairy tale “spin” to reflect the evil nature of human beings, as he had experienced in his long career in politics.

Wolves, Beauties, Castles and Cats

One of Perrault’s most beloved tales is Little Red Riding Hood. It was written as a warning to readers about men preying on young girls walking through the forest. For anyone who has forgotten — Little Red goes out into the dangerous woods to deliver some goodies to her sick Grandma. She gets sidetracked by a conniving wolf. The wolf sneaks away and arrives at Granny’s house before Red, then actually poses as Granny, luring Red into more trouble. (It doesn’t end well.)

Perrault ends his tale with a moral, cautioning women and young girls about the dangers of trusting men. He states, “Watch out if you haven’t learned that tame wolves/ Are the most dangerous of all… I say Wolf, for all wolves are not of the same sort; there is one kind with an amenable disposition – neither noisy, nor hateful, nor angry, but tame, obliging and gentle, following the young maids in the streets, even into their homes. Alas! Who does not know that these gentle wolves are, of all such creatures, the most dangerous!”

In Perrault’s version, Little Red even goes so far as to get in bed with the Bad Wolf. This results in her being eaten alive. (Disney it is NOT!)  

Perrault remained true to his principles of favoring the “modern” over the “ancient.” He updated the ancient folk tales to fit his current audience (albeit the 17th century.) He used images and characters taken from everyday life. For example, his palace for Sleeping Beauty was modeled after the Chateau Usse, a French castle that would have been recognizable to his readers.

In Puss in Boots, the Marquis de Carabas was modeled after Claude Gouffier, the real-life Marquis of Caravaz. Perrault’s stories are full of quips, details, asides, and subtexts. Many of these are drawn from the contemporary world of fashion. (Very important to 17th c French Society,)

Happily Ever After

Charles Perrault died in 1703 at age seventy-five. This was just eight years after his first fairy tales were published. His works continue to be popular to this day, best known for their easy-to read style, creativity and deep cutting moral lessons. The Mother Goose collection was translated into English by Robert Samber in 1729.

Happy Birthday Charles! Thanks for the forbidden forests, spectacular spells and magnificent magic!

Agatha Christie’s Greatest Mystery

agatha-christie-young

She has been called the “Duchess of Death”, the “Mistress of Mystery”, and the “Queen of Crime”. She wrote sixty-six detective novels and fourteen short story collections.

The Guinness Book of World Records has named her the “best-selling novelist of all time”. She is also one of the world’s best-selling writers of any kind, second only to William Shakespeare. An estimated one billion copies of her novels have been sold in English, and another billion in 103 other languages. She is famous for intriguing plot twists that make the seemingly impossible, possible.

Fans of every generation cannot get enough.

 But did you know that a non-fictional event in Agatha Christie’s life proved to be as mysterious as one of her novels? Read on to learn more about Agatha and the disappearance of the century!

Just My Imagination…

Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller was born on this day, September 15, 1890 in Devon, England. She was the youngest of three children. Her parents, Frederick Alvah Miller and his wife Clarissa were wealthy recipients of a family fortune. Because her siblings were so much older, little Agatha is spent much of her time with pets and “imaginary friends”. This may have fueled her great ability to later imagine characters for her novels.

Young Agatha was a clever child, able to read at age four. She was home schooled, but at age twelve she attended boarding school in Paris. She always had a keen interest in reading and writing, and even wrote and performed amateur plays as a child.

At First Sight

In October 1912, at age twenty two, she was introduced to Archibald “Archie” Christie at a formal dance given by Lord and Lady Clifford of Chudleigh.

Archie was a dashing army officer. The couple quickly fell in love. Just three months after their first meeting, Archie proposed and Agatha accepted. They were married on Christmas Eve, 1914.

During World War I, Agatha  served as a member of the Voluntary Aid Detachment of the Red Cross. She worked as a nurse, a medical dispenser and an apothecaries’ assistant.

It was here that she acquired special knowledge of poisons which she would later use in the plots of her stories. She was a huge fan of  Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes’ series. Her own first detective novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles was published in 1920.  Her second novel The Secret Adversary, was published in 1922. Both became bestsellers.

After the war, the Christies settled into home life. Agatha gave birth to a daughter named Rosalind.

They also toured the world, visiting exotic places like South Africa, Hawaii and New Zealand. They bought a house in Sunningdale, Berkshire, which they called “Styles”, named after the mansion in Agatha’s novel.

For all practical purposes, they seemed to have an ideal marriage. But trouble was brewing…

An Officer, Not a Gentleman

In April of 1926, Agatha’s mother died. They had an extremely close relationship, and the death sent Agatha into a deep depression. She was so distraught that she traveled to a small village in the Basque country of southern France to recover from a “nervous breakdown”.

When Agatha returned four months later, Archie asked her for a divorce. He had never actually been a very faithful husband. He now claimed he had fallen in love with a woman named Nancy Neele, whom he had met through his military connections. This, no doubt, added insult and agony to the already fragile Agatha.

 On Friday, December 3, 1926, Archie and Agatha had an argument when Archie announced he planned to spend the weekend “away with friends” and unaccompanied by his wife. Agatha did not take it well.

Without a Trace

At shortly after 9.30 pm that night, Agatha kissed her sleeping daughter Rosalind goodnight. She then exited the house, climbed into her Morris Cowley automobile, and drove off into the night. She would not be seen again for 11 days. Her disappearance resulted in the largest manhunt ever conducted in British history.

Agatha Christie was a famous and beloved author. Her disappearance created a state of emergency. The Home Secretary, William Joyson Hicks, assigned over one thousand policeman to the case. Hundreds of civilians volunteered to help, bringing along bloodhounds, terriers and police dogs. For the first time ever, aeroplanes were incorporated in a missing person search, gliding over the rural landscape.

Searchers try to find clues to Christie's disappearance.

Even Agatha’s idol, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was called in, as well as detective novelist Dorothy L. Sayers. It was hoped that their special knowledge of crime would help solve the mystery.  

The next morning, Agatha’s car was found abandoned on a steep slope at Newlands Corner nature resort near Guildford. The car was reported to be “dangling on the edge of a chalk pit, the front wheels actually overhanging the edge,” with only a thick hedge-growth preventing it from plunging into the pit.  Inside the car was an expired driver’s license and some clothes.

Agatha, however, was not there.  

As the days passed and there was still no sign of her, speculation began to mount. The Christies were a stylish, high profile couple. Plus Archie’s infidelity was a known fact. The public was eager for gossip and the press quickly exploited the story. One newspaper offered a £100 reward for Agatha’s return (approximately equivalent to £6,000 in today’s money). Her disappearance was featured on the front page of The New York Times.

Stranger Than Fiction

It was the perfect tabloid story, with – ironically –  all the elements of an Agatha Christie whodunnit. For the vivid imagination, there were also several spooky elements.

Close to the place where the car had been found was a lake known as the Silent Pool, where two young children were said to have died. Some tabloids began suggesting that Agatha had drowned herself.

Yet her body was nowhere to be found.

Rumors began circulating that Archie had killed her, wanting to be free to go off with his mistress.

Yet another tabloid specullated that Agatha had fled her own house, fearing it was haunted! “It stands in a lonely lane,” the paper claimed, “unlit at night, which has a reputation of being haunted. The lane has been the scene of a murder of a woman and the suicide of a man. … ‘If I do not leave Sunningdale soon, Sunningdale will be the end of me,’ she once said to a friend.”

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was known to have occult beliefs, tried using paranormal powers to solve the mystery. He took one of Christie’s gloves to a celebrated medium in the hope that it would provide answers. It did not. Other spiritualists even held a séance at the chalk pit where the car had been found.

To make things even more dramatic, one newspaper reported that eerie clues had been found near the site, including “a bottle labeled poison, lead and opium, fragments of a torn-up postcard, a woman’s fur-lined coat, a box of face powder, the end of a loaf of bread, a cardboard box and two children’s books.”

At this point it was anyone’s guess.

Swan Song

On December 14, a full eleven days later, Agatha was finally found. She was safe and well, having checked into the posh Swan Hydropathic Hotel in Harrogate, Yorkshire.

Harrogate Hydro, the spa where Christie was found.

Interestingly, she had registered as “Teresa Neele of Cape Town, South Africa”, using the last name of her husband’s lover.

Upon questioning, Agatha claimed she remembered nothing.

So what happened?

The police put together a story they believed was reasonable. They thought Agatha had left home and headed for London but crashed her car en route. She then boarded a train to Harrogate, Yorkshire, where she checked into the Swan Hotel with no luggage.  

The town of Harrogate was a spa resort. In the 1920s it was known for its elegance. Agatha, a wealthy world traveler, probably looked right at home in the chic establishment. Apparently, she mingled around, attending balls and dances. It was a man named Bob Tappin, a banjo player, who finally recognized her and contacted the police. Archie was then notified.

When Archie showed up at the Swan to collect his wife, it was reported that she was “in no hurry to leave.” She even kept him waiting in the hotel lounge while she changed into her evening dress. It was not a happy reunion. When Agatha finally emerged, Archie was “welcomed by her with a stony stare.”

The celebrity couple continued to attract attention at the train station. Hundreds of people showed up, hoping to catch a glimpse.

Within the next year, Agatha sued her husband for divorce.

Silence is Golden

Agatha herself never offered an explanation for her eleven lost days.

Over the years, observers have crafted several theories as to what happened. Some believe it was amnesia. Others think she may have been in a “fugue” state – a rare condition brought on by trauma or depression. During this time, she could have developed her new personality, Theresa Neele, and failed to recognize herself in newspaper photographs.

Agatha Christie biographer Andrew Norman, who studied the case extensively, stated: “I believe she was suicidal. Her state of mind was very low and she writes about it later through the character of Celia in her autobiographical novel Unfinished Portrait.”

In her own autobiography, Christie wrote simply, “So, after illness, came sorrow, despair and heartbreak. There is no need to dwell on it.”

Love on the Orient Express

Needless to say, Agatha Christie went on to have an amazing career. She took several journeys on the Orient Express, traveling to places like Istanbul and Bagdad. It was on these journeys that she gathered inspiration for future novels. She also met the man who was to be her second husband, archaeologist Max Mallowan. (Archie ended up marrying his mistress, Nancy Neele.)

Agatha Christie received many awards in her long career. She was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1950, and appointed  Commander of the Order of British Literature  (CBE) in 1956. She was the co-president of the Detection Club  from 1958 to her death in 1976. In 1961, she was awarded an honorary Doctor of Literature Degree  by the University of Exeter. Her play The Mousetrap was the world’s longest-running play, performed in London’s West End from 1952 to 2020, only being shut down this year in response to the Covid pandemic.    

In 1971 she received the title Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Her husband Max also received  knighthood for his archaeological work. After her husband’s knighthood, Agatha could also use the title “Lady Mallowan”.

She died peacefully of natural causes on January 12, 1976.

Happy Birthday Agatha! You gave us so much, and a part of you will always be a mystery.

 

Josephine Baker: Dazzling Dancer, Charming Chanteuse, Secret Spy

She was a singer, a dancer, an ex-patriot American, a member of the French Resistance, a Civil Rights activist, a four time divorcee and the mother of twelve adopted children. Her performances on the stages of New York and Paris were legendary. Today we celebrate the life of the fabulous Josephine Baker!

Bleak Beginnings

Her birth name was Freda Josephine McDonald. She was born on June 3, 1906, in St. Louis, Missouri.

Her mother, Carrie McDonald, once had dreams of becoming a dancer, but gave them up and earned her living as a laundress. Her father is listed as Eddie Carson, a vaudeville drummer. (Her father’s identity, however, has been challenged by many, including Josephine’s son, who did extensive research on the topic.) If indeed Eddie was her father, he abandoned her so quickly that Josephine never met him.

Carrie McDonald eventually married a man named Arthur Martin, with whom she had several more children. The family were poor — so poor that Josephine was sent out to work as a maid when she was just eight years old. But housekeeping did not suit Josephine, and she was abused by her employers. Soon she was living on the streets of St. Louis, dancing on corners for money, and dumpster diving for her dinner. Reportedly, she and her mother had a strained relationship and Josephine preferred to live away from Carrie.

At the tender age of thirteen, Josephine met a man named Willie Wells and married him. The marriage only lasted a few months. Josephine left Willie but continued dancing and had some success as a member of a troupe called The Jones Family. In 1921, at age fifteen she met another Willie — Baker this time — and married him. That marriage was also short lived. Later that year, when Josephine was given a chance to perform in New York City, she ditched Willie # 2. Josephine would legally divorce him in 1925, but she decided to keep his name for her professional career.

Angel of Harlem

The Harlem Renaissance was in full bloom. Josephine had success as a chorus girl on Broadway.  She starred in a revue called “Shuffle Along” and in another called “Chocolate Dandies”.

Despite those rather exploitative names, Josephine became the highest paid chorus girl in vaudeville. But she was unhappy. The claws of racism were always around her. Of her time in the Big Apple, Josephine said:

“I didn’t get my first break on Broadway. I was only in the chorus in ‘Shuffle Along’ and ‘Chocolate Dandies’. I became famous first in France in the twenties. I just couldn’t stand America and I was one of the first colored Americans to move to Paris.”

Viva La France

In 1925,  when she was just nineteen years old, Josephine was given the opportunity to travel to France and she jumped at it. In Paris she opened in a show called “La Revue Nègre”.

Josephine was an overnight sensation. Her dancing was erotic and exotic. She famously wore a skirt made only of bananas. She wore little else on stage, often appearing semi nude.

As Josephine’s success grew, she eventually purchased a pet cheetah, which she brought to the shows! She named her big cat “Chiquita” and clothed him in a diamond collar.  Chiquita was known to hang out in the orchestra pit and terrorize the musicians.

Although “Chiquita Bananas” do not admit to it, I am pretty sure they got their logo from Josephine. The Chiquita logo was not created until 1944, supposedly the brainchild of comic strip artist Dik Brown. But take a look. The logo has Josephine all over it.

Josephine quickly became the darling of the “Lost Generation”, hobnobbing with the likes of Ernest Hemingway and the Fitzgeralds. Hemingway called her “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw.”  She was a favorite of Pablo Picasso, who sketched her, and director Jean Cocteau helped her get started in the movie business. She starred in Siren of the Tropics (1927), Zouzou (1934)  Princesse Tam Tam (1935) and Fausse Alerte (1940).

In 1937, at age thirty-one, Josephine married the French industrialist Jean Lion, and became a French citizen. This marriage would last three years.

Josephine Baker dancing with Jean Lion

Ah, Paris in the thirties! It was all so idyllic and romantic! Then the Nazis came.

“All the Boys Think She’s a Spy…”

France declared war on Germany in 1939, after the Nazi occupation of Poland. Josephine was then recruited by the military intelligence agency known as the Deuxième Bureau. Her job was to socialize at parties, which were held in embassies and government ministries, all the while gleaning information about German troop locations. Apparently, her charm, wit and “je ne sais quoi” were perfect elements that enabled her to rub elbows with high ranking officials. She would then report back her findings.

This whole scenario begs the question, why Josephine? It seems a little odd. Can you picture undercover agents at the  Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, recruiting a half naked banana girl? But this was years later. Josephine had matured. America had not yet joined the war. Maybe the French military intelligence figured a black American ex-patriot could sneak around, without raising suspicion. Plus, Josephine had acquired a lot of street smarts from her hard scrabble days in St Louis. She was, no doubt, able to bluff the best of them. She also had to be super smart, and a master of disguise,

Josephine performed her services well. When the Germans invaded France, she left Paris and went to her home in the south of France. There, she housed people who were helping the exiled French government, and supplied them with visas. As an entertainer, she had an excuse for moving around Europe. She secured and transmitted information about airfields, harbors, and German troop concentrations in the West of France. She kept her notes written in invisible ink on her sheet music!

How’s that for some cloak and dagger genius?

After the war, Josephine received several medals of honor for her service. She was made a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur (the highest order of military merit) by General Charles de Gaulle.

Know Your Rights

In 1947 Josephine married the French conductor Jo Bouillon.

This marriage would last fourteen years. Jo happened to be white (as was her other husband Jean Lion.) 

Throughout her life Josephine had been a victim of racism and was an advocate for human rights. In the 1950’s, although still living in France, she was an important part of the American Civil Rights Movement. When she and Jo traveled to New York they were refused accommodations at 36 hotels because of racial discrimination. (Inter-racial marriage was then illegal in the US.)

Josephine began to write articles about segregation in the United States. She gave a talk at Fisk University, a historically black college in Nashville, Tennessee, on “France, North Africa And The Equality Of The Races In France”.

Throughout her career, Josephine had refused to perform for segregated audiences. In the US, she refused a $10,000 offer to perform at a segregated club in Miami. (Roughly about $150,000 in today’s money.) The club eventually succumbed to Josephine’s wishes, allowing people of all races to enter.

Josephine spoke alongside Dr. Martin Luther King in the 1964 March on Washington for Civil Rights. Josephine, along with Rosa Parks, was one of the few female speakers. It is a powerful speech, and one that is seldom mentioned.  Josephine states:

“I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents. And much more. But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee, and that made me mad. And when I get mad, you know that I open my big mouth. And then look out, ’cause when Josephine opens her mouth, they hear it all over the world.”

Listen to the whole speech here. (About 3 minutes.)

She’s A Rainbow

Josephine had suffered several miscarriages in her life, finally undergoing a hysterectomy in 1941. While married to Jo Bouillon, adoption became her passion. Josephine wanted to create a family of children based on how she thought the world was supposed to be. This meant people of all races, religions and nationalities living peacefully side by side. She set about creating this family, adopting children from all corners of the planet. She called her children “The Rainbow Tribe”.

Josephine took the children on trips all over the world, but mostly they lived at her home in the south of France, the Château des Milandes.

En images : souvenirs de Joséphine Baker, la première icône noire, au château des Milandes, en Dordogne

Josephine actually opened the chateau to tourists so people could come in and see kids of all races playing and interacting. She even deliberately raised the children in different religions.

The children were:  French-born Marianne, Moroccan-born Stellina, Korean-born Jeannot, Japanese-born Akio, Colombian-born Luis, Finnish-born Jari, French-born Jean-Claude and Noël, Israeli-born Moïse, Algerian-born Brahim, Ivorian-born Koffi, and Venezuelan-born Mara.

Wow! And you thought Angelina Jolie was eccentric?

Unfortunately, all these adoptions took a toll on her husband Jo. They separated in 1957, after Josephine took in her eleventh child. They officially divorced in 1961.

The Show Must Go On

Josephine began performing again in 1968 at age sixty-two. She still wowed audiences, touring throughout Europe. Her last performance was on April 8, 1975. She was starring in a retrospective revue at the Bobino in Paris, celebrating her 50 years in show business.

Josephine Baker 1950

The show received rave reviews. As usual, Josephine attracted top celebrities.  Members of her audience included  Sophia Loren, Mick Jagger, Shirley Bassey, Diana Ross, and Liza Minnelli.

Sadly, the review was cut short. On April 12, Josephine suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and went into a coma.  She was taken to Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital, where she died, at age 68.

Fun Facts

  • Grace Kelley, aka Princess Grace of Monaco, was Josephine’s BFF. Oddly, they bonded over civil rights when Josephine was refused service at the Stork Club in New York. Grace, a patron, saw the discrimination, took Josephine by the hand and stormed out.

  • In Paris, during the Banana Dance years, she received 40,000 love letters and over 1,000 marriage proposals.

DIY HALLOWEEN COSTUME- JOSEPHINE BAKER & THE BANANA SKIRT — KRYSTLE DESANTOS

  • In 1951, the NAACP declared May 20 to be “Josephine Baker Day”. 
  • Josephine’s adopted son Jean-Claude Baker wrote a biography about her, published in 1993, titled Josephine: The Hungry Heart. In it he poses theories about Josephine’s true father —  a rich, white, German man.
  • To be fair, Jean-Claude seems a bit snarky. He claims that her many adoptions were because “she wanted a doll”.  He also claims his mother had “slept with most of the Nazi soldiers” before she became a spy.
  • Hemingway thought she was sexy, but he also admired her mind. Reportedly they spend hours in serious conversation.

  • Coretta Scott King asked her to take over the Civil Rights Movement after Martin Luther King was assassinated. Josephine pondered it for several days, but declined because of her children.
  • In later life Josephine went bankrupt. (Yeah, that Rainbow Tribe was expensive!) It was BFF Grace Kelly, by then the Princess of Monaco, who came to the rescue, giving her a villa to live in and financial aid.
  • Husband Jo is buried next to her at Cimetière de Monaco.

Happy Birthday Josephine! You will never be forgotten.

The Execution of Lady Jane Grey

 

In all the bloody legacies of the Tudor family, perhaps there is none quite so tragic as the death of sixteen year old Lady Jane Grey. Also known as the “Nine Days Queen” the shy reluctant Jane ruled England for exactly nine days before she was jailed and eventually executed.

Jane Grey was born on this day, October 13, 1537 in Bradgate Park, England. It was her great misfortune to have been born into a faction of the Tudor dynasty. Jane was the great-granddaughter of Henry VII through his younger daughter Mary. This made her  first cousin once removed to King Edward VI, son of Henry VIII.

 

Sins of the Father

Those of you that know Tudor history might remember Henry VIII’s nearly impossible quest to bear a son. After blowing through two marriages, Henry finally wed queen’s maid Jane Seymour who bore him their son Edward. (Jane died in childbirth, and Henry blew through three more wives after her, but that is another story for another day.)

Little Prince Edward was a treasure to Henry, who treated him like a delicate doll, constantly in fear that his only son might fall ill and not continue the Tudor dynasty. Upon Henry’s death, the nine year old Edward took the throne. But alas. Henry’s darkest fear actually did come true. Edward only ruled a few years until he passed away at the tender age of  fifteen.

Before he died, young Edward made some rather unconventional arrangements about his own succession. He chose his cousin Lady Jane Grey as the next queen.

Edward had two half sisters, Henry VIII’s daughters Mary and Elizabeth. Henry VIII had actually written a will that eldest daughter Mary should succeed Edward in the event he had no sons (which, at age fifteen he did NOT.) However, Mary was a Roman Catholic, and this did not sit well with young Edward, a strict Protestant.

On his deathbed, Edward wrote a new will. This will removed his half-sisters, Mary and Elizabeth, from the line of succession on account of their “illegitimacy”. It was probably pretty easy for Edward to declare his sisters illegitimate. They were the daughters of Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, respectively. Henry VIII had managed to annul, disintegrate and destroy those marriages, banishing Catherine and beheading Anne, in his frantic attempt to marry someone who could give him a son.

 

Overburdened

Young Jane was somewhat of a little pawn in a big game. When she was called to become queen, Jane was a timid, bookish teenager. She, like the rest of England, had no idea about the new will.

She had been given an excellent education and had a reputation as one of the most learned young women of her day. She was also married. In May 1553, Jane had been married off to Lord Guildford Dudley. He was a younger son of Edward’s chief minister John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland. The marriage had, no doubt, been arranged by John Dudley in his own hopes of advancement, knowing his new daughter in law had some chance of becoming queen.

Edward VI died on July 6, 1553. On July 9 Jane was informed that she was now queen. Still unsure of herself and her shaky claim to the throne, Jane accepted the crown with reluctance.  She was moved to residence in the Tower of London, and on 10 July, she was officially proclaimed Queen of England, France and Ireland.

 

Cliques and Coups

Meanwhile, Mary Tudor got busy. As soon as Mary was sure of King Edward’s demise, she traveled to East Anglia, where she began to rally her Catholic supporters. In turn, John Dudley got some troops together to capture Mary. He was unsuccessful.

Mary had a lot of support from the English people. There were still many Catholic strongholds in the country and even Protestants backed Mary because they believed she was the rightful heir to the throne. In addition, another nobleman, one Henry Fitz -Alan, 19th Earl of Arundel, engineered a coup d’etat in Mary’s favor.  Under pressure from the English people and other forces, the Privy Council  switched their allegiance and proclaimed Mary as queen on July 19, 1553.

And that was the end of Jane. On that same day, she was imprisoned in the Tower’s Gentleman Gaoler’s apartments.

Her husband went to Beauchamp Tower. John Dudley, for his part, was executed on August 22, 1553. Jane — henceforth referred to as “Jane Dudley, wife of Guildford”, was charged with high treason. Her husband and two of his brothers were also charged. Their trial took place on November 13, 1553.   All defendants were found guilty and sentenced to death. Jane’s guilt was evidenced by a number of documents she had signed as “Jane the Quene”.

Jane’s fate was to “be burned alive on Tower Hill or beheaded as the Queen pleases.” Burning was the traditional English punishment for treason committed by women.

 

To Burn or Not To Burn?

The decision seemed a bit harsh. Jane was so young. She was still beloved by many. She even seemed to have little to do with her own fate. The Imperial Ambassador began a petition in her favor, pleading to Charles V,  the Holy Roman Emperor, that Jane’s life be spared.  Even Queen Mary herself was reluctant to sign the death warrant. Some historians believe that if Jane would have agreed to accept Catholicism, she could have saved her own life and gained favor with Mary. However, during her imprisonment Jane remained a dedicated Protestant. She even wrote letters condemning the Catholic Mass, going so far as to call it a “Satanic and cannibalistic ritual.”

As she awaited her sentence, Jane’s family were busy scheming again.

In January, 1554, the “Wyatt Rebellion” began. This was a plan instigated by Thomas Wyatt the Younger to destroy Queen Mary’s reign. Jane’s father, Henry Grey, and two of her uncles joined the rebellion. Upon hearing this news, the government assumed they could never trust Jane. Mary then signed the death warrant for both Jane and her husband Guildford.

Her beheading was first scheduled for February 9 1554, but was then postponed for three days to give Jane another chance to convert to the Catholic faith. Mary sent her chaplain John Feckenham to Jane. Although Jane would not convert, she became friends with Feckenham and requested he accompany her to the scaffold.

 

Blindfolded and Bewildered

Jane’s execution, with Feckenham by her side, is depicted in this famous painting by Paul Delaroche, 1833. No one knows for sure what Jane looked like, as she was the only Tudor monarch who never had a portrait done.

On the morning of February 12, the authorities took Guildford from his rooms at the Tower of London to the Tower Hill. Instead of a simple beheading, Guildford suffered the sadistic punishment of being drawn and quartered — a process in which the victim was kept alive while his entrails were cut out. A horse and cart brought his remains past the rooms where Jane was staying. Seeing her husband’s corpse return, Jane cried out: “Oh, Guildford, Guildford!”

She was then taken out to Tower Green for her own beheading. Jane gave this speech from the scaffold:

“Good People, I am come hither to die, and by a law I am condemned to the same. The fact, indeed, against the Queen’s highness was unlawful, and the consenting thereunto by me: but touching the procurement and desire thereof by me or on my behalf, I do wash my hands thereof in innocency, before God, and the face of you, good Christian people, this day.”

Jane’s wording should be noted. “… touching the procurement and desire thereof by me… I do wash my hands thereof in innocency…” It is a fancy, 16th century way of saying she never wanted the crown in the first place.

The executioner asked her forgiveness, which she granted him, pleading: “I pray you dispatch me quickly.” Interestingly, Jane then pointed to her own head and asked, “Will you take it off before I lay me down?” The axeman answered: “No, madam.” (Anne Boleyn’s executioner, a skilled swordsman, snuck up on Anne, behind her back, theoretically to soften the blow.  So maybe Jane was just checking.)

She then blindfolded herself.  But once blindfolded, Jane could not find the block with her hands, and cried, “What shall I do? Where is it?”  Sir Thomas Brydges, the Deputy Lieutenant, helped her. With her head on the block, Jane spoke the last words: “Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit!”

Jane and Guildford are buried in the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula on the north side of Tower Green. No memorial stone was erected at their grave.

 

Lingering Legacy

Jane is gone but not forgotten. Her youth, the unfairness of her death and the sheer romanticism of her story have elevated her to an icon.  Known as the “traitor-heroine” of the Protestant Reformation, she became viewed as a martyr. Jane was featured in the Book of Martyrs (Actes and Monuments of these Latter and Perillous Dayes) by John Foxe.

Jane’s story grew to legendary proportions in popular culture. She has been the subject of many novels, plays, operas, paintings, and films. One of the most popular was Trevor Nunn’s 1986 film “Lady Jane”. Helena Bonham Carter played the lead role.

Happy Birthday Jane. We hardly knew you.

 

 

Happy Birthday Edgar Allan Poe

 

The very name evokes images of crumbling Gothic mansions, black cats, inescapable diseases, live burials and of course, the iconic Raven.  Where would we be without the Master of Macabre, the Denizen of Death, the Harbinger of Horror? I, for one, would be lost!

Edgar Allan Poe was born on this day, January 19th, 1809 at a boarding house in Boston, Massachusetts. His parents, Baltimore-born David Poe and London-born Eliza Arnold  Poe, were both actors then performing Shakespeare’s King Lear on a Boston stage. He was the second of three children, with an older brother Henry and a little sister, Rosalie.

Bleak Beginnings

Edgar’s parents didn’t last long. David Poe, reportedly an abusive alcoholic, abandoned the family in 1810 when Edgar was just one year old. The very next year his mother Eliza, sans husband, gave birth to a girl, Rosalie.  Eliza died of tuberculosis that same year, at the tender age of twenty-four.

David Poe also passed away in 1811, in Norfolk, Virginia.

Little Edgar was taken in by his godfather, a wealthy Virginia merchant named John Allan, and his wife Frances.  Allan made his fortune from a variety of trades including tobacco, cotton, wheat and – yes – slavery.

In 1815 the family sailed to Britain. Young Edgar attended school in Scotland and England. His foster parents placed him in the Reverend John Bransby’s Manor House School at Stoke Newington, near London where Edgar stayed for three years.

So far, it may seem like a rags-to-riches childhood that should have had a happy ending. Not so. Dark forces were at work all throughout Poe’s life.

John Allan was a bit of a ‘schizophrenic parent’, alternately spoiling and then severely disciplining his foster son. He reportedly had a bad temper. (Don’t forget the man was a slave trader.)  Edgar had had a bad enough beginning – but being shipped off to boarding school probably didn’t help his self esteem. Edgar returned to live with the Allans in 1820 when he was just eleven.

In 1825, John Allan became even richer when his uncle William Galt died, leaving him an inheritance of around  $750,000. (That is the equivalent to $17,000,000 in 21st century money!)  But John Allan was apparently a stingy millionaire.

In 1826, Edgar enrolled in the University of Virginia, with the intention of studying languages. He claimed that his step father did not send him enough money for books and a decent dormitory.  He also began gambling and raked up a lot of debts, which John Allan refused to pay. Within one year, Poe dropped out of school.

Military Life

Left to fend for himself, Edgar worked a series of odd jobs. He was unable to support himself and so, in 1827 he joined the US Army. He lied about his age, claiming he was twenty-two when he was in fact, only eighteen. He also used a fake name, “Edgar Perry.”  That same year, he released his first book of poetry, Tamerlane and Other Poems.

The army did not sit well with Poe. He  left in 1829 (skipping out on what was supposed to be a five year stint). Apparently, he came clean about his age and name. John Allan then helped him out — but also devised a plan that Edgar be enrolled in West Point Military Academy.

Edgar did not fare well at West Point. As a matter of fact, he hated it so much that he maneuvered a way to get himself thrown out! By behaving consistently badly, Edgar knew he could become eligible for court martial.

On February 8, 1831, Poe was tried for “gross neglect of duty and disobedience of orders for refusing to attend formations, classes, or church.”  Poe pleaded “not guilty” knowing all the while he would indeed be found guilty and subsequently dismissed.

Clearly, Edgar was not cut out for military life.

A Teenage Bride

Having been officially abandoned by his foster father, Poe moved to Baltimore and reunited with some of his blood kin. He lived with his widowed aunt Maria Clemm, her daughter Virginia (Poe’s first cousin who would later become his wife), his brother Henry, and his invalid grandmother Elizabeth Cairnes Poe.

Death still surrounded him. His brother passed away in 1831, due to complications of alcoholism.

Edgar then began working in various writing jobs, including assistant editor for the Southern Literary Messenger and contributing author for the Baltimore Saturday Visitor.

On May 16, 1836 he married his cousin Virginia Clemm. She was thirteen and he was twenty-seven.

This was not so shocking back then as it would be today. Marriage between first cousins was legal in all states before the Civil War, and not frowned upon. Plenty of historical figures married their cousins — including Johann Sebastian Bach, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Queen Victoria herself , who married her first cousin Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg in 1840.

And don’t forget Jerry Lee Lewis, who somehow got away with marrying his thirteen year old cousin in 1957!

In the 19th century, the age of consent for girls in most of the United States was (astonishingly!) just TEN years old! In Delaware it was actually SEVEN years old! Some of these laws were in effect until the 1960’s.

However, the stark age difference between Edgar and Virginia — although technically legal — would have raised a few eyebrows.  For this reason, Virginia lied on her marriage certificate, stating that she was twenty-one years old. (Lying about their ages seems to run in the family…)

Edgar and Virginia were married in church by a Presbyterian minister. Biographers believe their marriage was a happy one. Perhaps Edgar, having been so abandoned in his past, was finally free to enjoy the company of his wife. The couple shared a love of music, poetry, cemeteries, and — believe it or not — playing leap-frog! During their brief years together, it was not all doom and gloom.

Poe the Poet

Poe published his first novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket  in 1838. That same year he became assistant editor of Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine. He published numerous articles, stories, and reviews, enhancing his reputation as a critic. Also in 1839, the collection Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque was published in two volumes.

He wrote some of the first literary criticisms, as well as some of the first short stories. He is considered the inventor of crime novels and detective stories. Some of his most famous works include: The Fall of the House of Usher, The Black Cat, The Telltale Heart, The Pit and the Pendulum and Murders in the Rue Morgue.

On January 29, 1845, his poem “The Raven” appeared in the Evening Mirror and became an overnight sensation. It made Poe a household name almost instantly, and is still arguably his most popular poem.

But even in the midst of  his publishing successes, death and disease were not far behind. In The Raven, Poe may have already been mourning the inevitable death of his wife.  “Lenore” of the poem, who would be seen “Nevermore” can easily be compared to Virginia, who had, by then already begun to exhibit symptoms of tuberculosis.

One winter evening in 1842, while playing the piano, Virginia began a fit of spewing blood. She would never recover.  Edgar tended and cared for her devoutly for the next few years as the disease progressed. Virginia passed away on January 30, 1847.

Sadly, and creepily, Poe’s wife died of the same disease, and at the same age, as his mother.

 

On the Streets of Baltimore

Needless to say, Poe never overcame Virginia’s death. His behavior became increasingly erratic and unstable. He tried to court other women but had difficulty sustaining romantic relationships.

Poe’s own death is shrouded in mystery. He had traveled to Richmond where he visited a woman named Elmira Royster, to whom he became engaged. He left Richmond on September 27, 1849 and was heading back to New York, where he had purchased a cottage in what is now The Bronx. Poe never made it home.

On October 3, 1849, Poe was found “delirious” on the streets of Baltimore outside  a pub called Ryan’s Tavern. He was “in great distress, and… in need of immediate assistance”, according to Joseph W. Walker, a printer, who found him.

Walker sent a letter requesting help from an acquaintance of Poe, one Dr. Joseph E. Snodgrass. His letter reads as follows:

“Dear Sir—There is a gentleman, rather the worse for wear, at Ryan’s 4th ward polls, who goes under the cognomen of Edgar A. Poe, and who appears in great distress, & he says he is acquainted with you, and I assure you, he is in need of immediate assistance. Yours, in haste, Jos. W. Walker.”

Snodgrass’s first-hand account describes Poe’s appearance as “repulsive”, with unkempt hair, a haggard, unwashed face and “lusterless and vacant” eyes. His clothing, Snodgrass said, which included a dirty shirt but no vest and unpolished shoes, was worn and did not fit well.

Dr. John Joseph Moran, who was Poe’s attending physician, gives his own detailed account of Poe’s appearance that day: “a stained faded, old bombazine coat, pantaloons of a similar character, a pair of worn-out shoes run down at the heels, and an old straw hat”.

Poe was never coherent long enough to explain how he came to be in this condition. It was believed the clothes he was wearing were not his own, as wearing shabby clothes was out of character for the usually well dressed Poe. (While promoting The Raven, Poe was known to show up at readings wearing a black cape, a top hat, and other elegant clothing.)

He was taken to the Washington Medical College where he died on Sunday, October 7, 1849 at 5:00 in the morning. The true cause of his death is still unknown. Some have speculated he may have had a brain tumor, diabetes, an enzyme deficiency, syphilis,  apoplexy, delirium tremens, or epilepsy. Still other speculate his death may have actually been a suicide due to depression. (One year previous, Poe nearly died from an overdose of laudanum,  which at the time was easily available as a tranquilizer and pain killer.)

Or perhaps he simply reunited with his one true love, Virginia.

Some sources say that Poe’s final words were “Lord help my poor soul”. Suspiciously, all medical records have been lost, including his death certificate.

 But he leaves behind an amazing legacy — a body of literature that includes Gothic tales, dark romanticism and phantasmagorical poetry. The man who spent his life shrouded in death now lives on as a never-out-of-print horror icon.

Happy Birthday Edgar!

 

 

 

Anne Rice, Mother of Vampires

She is the mistress of the macabre, the weaver of witch tales, a native New Orleanian who may never have made her mark in the world if it weren’t for her near blood thirsty curiosity about what it would be like to interview a vampire.

We are only twenty seven days away from Halloween, and no countdown would be complete without a tribute to Anne Rice, my all-time favorite living author!

Luckily, today happens to be her birthday.  (I’m sure it is no coincidence that this woman came into the world so near to Halloween.)

Anne Rice was born on October 4, 1941 in New Orleans, Louisiana. She was the second of four daughters. Her parents, Howard and Katherine O’Brien, were of Irish Catholic descent. The family lived in the hard-scrabble, impoverished section of town known as the Irish Channel, where they rented a 3-room shotgun house. Most of Anne’s childhood was spent dealing with the hardships of poverty and her mother’s alcoholism.

Curiously, Anne is not her real name – her parents actually named her Howard, after her father.  Regarding her unusual name, Rice has said:

“My birth name is Howard Allen because apparently my mother thought it was a good idea to name me Howard. My father’s name was Howard, she wanted to name me after Howard, and she thought it was a very interesting thing to do. She was a bit of a Bohemian, a bit of mad woman, a bit of a genius, and a great deal of a great teacher. And she had the idea that naming a woman Howard was going to give that woman an unusual advantage in the world.”

In their defense, it is true that women with androgynous names sometimes do get certain advantages in life. This idea of boy-girl names for little girls became more popular in later decades. Consider Taylor, Beau, Ricki, Sammie, etc.  In the 1940’s, however, it must have been a pretty shocking thing to do.

Little Howard did not like her name at all. When she went to first grade at St. Alphonsus School, the nun asked her name and she replied. “Anne.”  It stuck. Her parents agreed to legally change her name in 1947.

New Orleans is a spooky and beautiful town, known for its ghosts and cemeteries. The dead are famously “buried above ground.” This is not so appalling as it may sound – it simply means that New Orleans adapted the French-Catholic custom of burying the dead in above ground in tombs and mausoleums, rather than underground coffins.

The cemeteries of New Orleans are legendary, hosting tales of folklore sure to fire any imagination. The Louisiana government takes no part in maintaining the tombs, so the upkeep of a deceased loved one is purely a family affair. This leads to a certain beauty – each tomb is personal, a work of art.

Here I am with my niece at St. Louis Cemetery #1 in the French Quarter.  In the tomb behind us lies none other than New Orleans voodoo queen Marie Laveau!

New Orleans Cemetery

The O’Brien family lived right around the corner from Lafayette Cemetery #1. This was Anne’s childhood playground. It was in Lafayette that Anne would later place the tombs of her characters Lestat the vampire and the Mayfair witches.

Anne’s childhood was heavily influenced by her Catholic religion.  Black cloaks, dark confessional booths, rosary beads, candlelight vigils and marble statues that seemed to come to life were all part of her sensibilities. Not to mention symbolic blood drinking as designated by the sacraments.  Mix that with extreme poverty, family dysfunction,  cemeteries, voodoo, hoodoo, Mardi Gras – and we can easily see what fueled Anne’s wicked imagination.

When Anne was just fifteen years old, her mother died due to complications of alcoholism. Her father, unable to cope with four daughters, placed the girls in foster care at Saint Joseph’s Academy.  According to Anne, Saint Joseph’s was: “something out of Jane Eyre … a dilapidated, awful, medieval type of place. I really hated it and wanted to leave. I felt betrayed by my father.” Charles Dickens was Anne’s favorite author, and it seems her own childhood was a bit of a Victorian Bleak House.

Two years later, in 1958, Howard Rice retrieved his daughters and moved the family to Richardson, Texas. There, Anne met her future husband Stan Rice, while both were students at Richardson High School. Although Anne left Texas after high school and moved to San Francisco, she remained in touch with Stan.  While Anne was in California, Stan sent her a telegram asking her to marry him.  She said yes! The two were wed in Texas in 1961 when Anne was twenty and Stan was just eighteen. They were married for forty one years until Stan’s death in 2002.

While living in San Francisco in 1973, Anne wrote her first novel Interview With the Vampire.  She has stated that vampire literature was nearly nonexistent at the time, but she thought it would be “fun to interview one.”  The novel was published in 1976 and quickly became a best seller. Anne then wrote The Vampire Lestat and Queen of the Damned. The Vampire Chronicles had begun!

In 1988 Anne moved back to New Orleans with her husband and son, Christopher. Having become wealthy from her book sales, Anne purchased a mansion in the garden district. She then began writing The Witching Hour, the first of the Mayfair Witch Trilogy. The house that Anne lived in was located at 1239 First Street. It is the coolest house ever! It became as much a character in the books as the Mayfair witches themselves.

Here’s me in front of the magnificent house — a must-see if you are ever in NOLA!

New Orleans Anne Rice House

In 2004, after the death of her husband, Anne moved back to California and has lived there ever since.

Interview With the Vampire was made into a movie in 1994. It starred Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Kiirsten Dunst and Antonio Banderas. The movie received critical acclaim. Three more of Anne’s novels were made into movies – Queen of the Damned, Exit To Eden and The Feast of All Saints.

For many years, Anne had given up film rights to her own novels, because movie studios had optioned them.  In 2015, Anne regained the rights and set about trying to turn the entire Vampire Chronicles into a television series. In 2017, Paramount Television and Anonymous Content optioned the rights to 11 books. The series was picked up for broadcast on Hulu, and should be premiering sometime in 2019. I can’t wait!

Fun Facts:

  • To date, Anne has written 41 novels.
  • In addition to Gothic and horror, Anne also writes erotic novels under the pseudonyms A. N. Roquelaure and Anne Rampling.
  • Cosmopolitan magazine called her “the queen of sexy vampire fiction”.
  • Although her vampires are known for their charm and sensuality, none of them actually have sex. Because they are, you know, vampires…
  • Anne tried reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula as a teenager and was too terrified to finish the book. As an adult she attempted it again and loved it.
  • Anne became a self described “Atheist” after leaving the Catholic Church at age 18.
  • In 1998, Anne returned to the church. After twelve years as a practicing Catholic, she renounced Christianity, stating: “I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being ‘Christian’ or to being part of Christianity.”
  • Anne almost joined the world of the dead herself, in 1998, when she fell into a diabetic coma. She came close to death once again in 2004 when she suffered a bowel obstruction and surgery.
  • For several years, after her return to New Orleans, Anne held an annual Halloween vampire ball at the mansion on First Street. The ball is still going strong, now operated by the Anne Rice/ Vampire Lestat Fan Club.

image

  • The Rice’s first child, a daughter named Michele, died from leukemia when she was just six years old. The loss devastated them.
  • Anne, a self-described ‘alcoholic’, stopped drinking in 1979 after the birth of her son Christopher. She has stated that she did not want him to have the same childhood she did, in dealing with an alcoholic mother. Anne has made public service announcements regarding alcohol and sobriety.
  • Anne has stated that she chose vampires as her means of self expression, because she was facing painful issues which she could not discuss directly.
  • Regarding the movie Interview With the Vampire, Anne claims “Brad Pitt played me, because I am Louis.” Louis, as you may recall, was the most ‘human’ and conflicted of the vamps.

Happy Birthday Ms. Rice! Wishing you Immortality 🙂

Happy Birthday Mick!

 

Happy Birthday to Michael Phillip Jagger, my all-time favorite Rock & Roller!!!

He was born on this day, July 26th, 1943 in Dartford, Kent. He hails from a long line of teachers, but young Mick became enamored with music and singing at an early age.

Believe it or not, he started out as a choir boy,  singing in his local church.  This little tyke got no Sympathy from the Devil — or perhaps he did!

Mick Jagger first met Keith Richards  when they were just little lads attending Wentworth Primary School in Dartford. The year was 1950. The two lost contact as children, but ten years later, as teenagers, they would reunite again in a chance encounter on a train platform in Dartford.  They began a conversation about music. Each had a deep love for rhythm and blues — probably a bit unusual for English kids at that time.  Needless to say, a life long friendship was born.

Jagger and Richards, along with Brian Jones would go on to form  The Rolling Stones, arguably the best ever Rock & Roll band. Their first appearance was on July 12, 1962 at the Marquee Club in London. Their name ‘The Rolling Stones” was taken from a song by  Blues legend Muddy Waters, a favorite of both Mick and Keith.

Years later, they would perform with Muddy himself (in my home town, Chicago! 🙂 )

To date, the Rolling Stones have released 30 studio albums, 24 live albums, 25 compilation albums, three extended play singles, and 120 singles.  The band has been together for fifty six years! (So much for fickle break ups and the questionable longevity of rock bands…)

Reportedly, the relationship between Mick and Keith has not been without its stresses. Best friends are often constant competitors. Keith has called Mick “an unbearable snob”  but also states: “I still love him dearly … your friends don’t have to be perfect.”

Whatever their relationship, no one can deny that these two are an amazing force of musical talent.

FUN FACTS:

  • Mick Jagger became an official “Sir” in 2003 when he received a Knighthood from Charles, Prince of Wales.
  • Yes — he received the Knighthood from Charles because Queen Elizabeth II refused to award him in person! (Sorry Mick, looks like you can only get so “Respectable”.)
  • Mick returned the snub by being absent from the Queen’s 50 -Year  Golden Jubilee pop concert, which commemorated her 50 years on the throne. Ouch!
  • He is an avid supporter of music instruction in schools. His pet projects are The Mick Jagger Centre in Dartford and The Red Rooster Programme.
  • He has eight children by five women, five grandchildren, and one great- grandchild.  Some of the Jagger family tree:

  • His oldest child, Karis Jagger, was born in 1970. His youngest to date, Deveraux Octavian Basil Jagger, was born in 2016. Go Mick!
  • Regarding Mick’s Knighthood, drummer Charlie Watts sarcastically commented: “Anybody else would be lynched: 18 wives and 20 children and he’s knighted, fantastic!”
  • He has been immortalized in evolution! A 19 million year old species of long legged pig was named after Mick. In  2014, the “Jaggermeryx naida” (“Jagger’s water nymph.”) was officially christened by the scientific community.

  • Sir Mick is a very wealthy man, with a net worth of $360 million.
  • This rock legend has become the subject of many a pop song. Don McClean immortalized him in “American Pie” as did Carly Simon in “You’re So Vain.” He is the subject of Maroon 5’s  “Moves like Jagger”, Kesha’s  “Tik Tok” and the Black Eyed Peas’ hit “The Time (Dirty Bit)”.
  • He had tremendous respect for his parents, calling his father, Joe, “the greatest influence on my life.” Joe Jagger lived to the ripe old age of 93.
  • Still a fashion icon, Mick was listed as one of the “50 over fifty” best-dressed by the Guardian in March 2013.

Hey Mick, you’re seventy five!  Recently back from tour in Europe and the U.K., “Moves Like Jagger” is showing no signs of slowing down yet!

And finally, here are the Stones performing their 1972 hit  ‘Tumbling Dice’, which contains the best Rock & Roll line ever written —

FEVER IN THE FUNK HOUSE NOW” 🙂 🙂 🙂

 

 

 

 

Nicola Tesla — Where Credit is Due

 

Born on this day, July 10,  electronics engineer Nicola Tesla is perhaps one of the most overlooked inventors. Although we credit Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Edison with the discovery and implementation of electricity, it was really Tesla who had the most innovative ideas and contributed the most to modern electronics.

Although he later became a US citizen, Tesla was born in 1856  in what is now Croatia. Some biographers claim  he was born — appropriately — in the middle of a lightening storm. He was educated at the Higher Real Gymnasium in Karlovac.  There he became interested in demonstrations of electricity by his physics professor.  He wrote that the demonstrations of this “mysterious phenomena” made him want “to know more of this wonderful force”.

As a child, Nicola reported having strange visions of light which he could reach out and touch.  He had a vivid imagination and was never sure whether these light visions were real or not. He had an unusual ability to visualize his inventions in his head, and even claimed to see, with his inner eye, the entire electromagnetic field of electricity.

In his early years, Tesla showed signs of mathematical genius. He was able to  perform integral calculus in his head. This prompted his teachers to believe that he was cheating.

 Tesla finished a four-year term in three years, graduating in 1873.

The most famous of Tesla’s inventions is the alternating-current (AC) electric system. This provides a fast current of electricity, able to travel long distances, as opposed to the  slower and weaker direct current( DC)  system. Without the AC system we would not be able to power modern cities and our landscape would be quite different — cluttered with small power plants and electric chambers on every corner.  In fact, AC is still the predominant electrical system used across the world today.  He also created the “Tesla coil” which is still used in radio technology, and several other inventions.

Nicola came to the United States in 1884. He briefly worked with Thomas Edison, whom he had greatly admired, until the two parted ways.  A case can be made for “good inventor/ bad inventor” with Edison in the latter role. While Tesla tried to develop his ideas for incorporating the AC system, Edison  — who was already using the DC system — jealously guarded his own interests through aggressive marketing and slanderous propaganda.

Edison convinced the public that Tesla’s AC electronics were dangerous and impractical.  He used underhanded and inhumane methods to prove this.  In his efforts to instill fear in people, Edison even electrocuted a few animals, including elephants!

Tesla abandoned Edison and went to work for George Westinghouse.

Westinghouse Electric  won the bid to light the Columbian Exposition of Chicago in 1893. They asked Tesla to participate. It would be a key event in the history of AC power.

At the Exposition, Tesla showed a series of electrical effects related to AC as well as his wireless lighting system, using  demonstrations he had previously performed throughout America and Europe.  These included using high-voltage, high-frequency alternating current to light a wireless gas-discharge lamp.  He demonstrated to the American public the safety, reliability, and efficiency of a fully integrated AC system,  thus proving that Edison was wrong. 

Throughout his lifetime, Tesla suffered from mad/ genius syndrome and all the impulsiveness that went along with it. He was known to gamble and accrued several exorbitant debts. Sadly, to pay his debts he ended up selling several of his patent rights to Westinghouse, including those to his AC machinery. The success of the Westinghouse Electric company was almost entirely based upon Tesla’s work, although Tesla never got monetary credit for it.

Having become obsessed with the wireless transmission of energy,  in around 1900, Nicola set to work on his boldest project yet: to build a global, wireless communication system — to be transmitted through a large electrical tower — for sharing information and providing free electricity throughout the world. Sounds familiar, right? But this was only 1900 🙂

With funding from a group of investors that included financial giant J. P. Morgan, in 1901 Tesla began work on the project in earnest, designing and building a lab with a power plant and a massive transmission tower on a site on Long Island, New York, that became known as Wardenclyffe.

However, doubts arose among his investors about the plausibility of Tesla’s system. As his rival, Guglielmo Marconi — with the financial support of Andrew Carnegie and Thomas Edison — continued to make great advances with his own radio technologies, Tesla had no choice but to abandon the project.

It’s too bad. Had investors believed in him, perhaps we would have had the Internet a lot sooner!

The closure of the project affected Tesla emotionally. He suffered a nervous breakdown. After that his work was mainly as a consultant. Radically ahead of his time, his interests after that were considered outlandish and a bit crazy. For example, he devoted much time to the care of wild pigeons in New York City’s parks. (Who knows what he had in mind — as carrier pigeons were a well known and reliable source of communication.)  Tesla even drew attention from the FBI for some of his so-called dangerous ideas.

Tesla died on January 7, 1943 at the age of 86. Like many eccentric geniuses, he was poor and virtually unknown. Sadly, American education does not incorporate him into the curriculum, so most kids learn very little about him. Recently however, more attention has been brought to his name by billionaire businessman Elon Musk, who named his electronic automobile company “Tesla”.  According to Musk, the mission of Tesla is “To accelerate the world’s transition to a sustainable energy future.”

The legacy of the work Tesla left behind him lives on to this day. Every time we turn on radio, watch a live stream, plug in a device or use wifi, we should remember who we have to thank!

Happy Birthday Nicola!