Hans and the Scary Fairy Tales

 

He was a weaver of tales who brought us The Little Mermaid, The Wild Swans, The Emperor’s New Clothes and the Ugly Duckling.  In the course of his lifetime he wrote novels, travelogues, and over three thousand fairy tales which have been translated into 125 languages. His stories have universal appeal, transcending age and nationality. He created a unique mythology which continues to  haunt us and remains part of our collective consciousness.

Hans Christian Andersen was born on this day, April 2, 1805 in Odense, Denmark. His own life story is a classic rags to riches that could have been one of his fairy tales.

His father, also named Hans, was a struggling tradesman and his mother Anne Marie a washerwoman.  Hans Sr. died in 1816. Two years later Anne Marie remarried. It was then decided, for some odd reason, that  Hans Jr. should no longer be allowed to live in the house. At the tender age of eleven, Hans was sent away to a boarding school. (Evil stepfather, banishment. Do you see a pattern here?)  Although the family was poor, Hans was somehow allowed to study and receive a good education. (Fairy godmother perhaps?)

At boarding school, the boy was expected to fend for himself and he earned money as a tailor’s apprentice. He showed a natural talent for singing and at age fourteen, he was accepted into the Royal Danish Theater.  However, as luck would have it, Hans hit puberty that year, experienced the voice change, and could no longer sing the soprano part he had been assigned.  But all was not lost — Jonas Colins, the theater director, saw something special in Hans and made arrangements that he could  attend prestigious school in Elsinore. (Fairy godfather?)

Young Hans might have been considered privileged, but his story goes a bit dark here. He was sent to live with a school master who routinely abused and bullied him and discouraged him from writing. He went into a deep depression, and later wrote that his days at Elsinore were the darkest of his life.

The story, however, has a happy ending. Andersen graduated school in 1827 and almost immediately became successful writing short stories, plays and poetry. King Christian VIII of Denmark was so impressed with his work that he gave Andersen a grant to travel around Europe. Hans felt most comfortable on the road and later wrote, “To travel is to live.”

All these fairy godmother type favors may not have been an accident. There was a rumor that Hans Christian Andersen was actually the illegitimate son of King Christian. This rumor, however, has not been substantiated by any reliable source. (If true it would make a great story!)

It was during his travels across Europe that Andersen began writing fairy tales.  In 1838 he wrote Fairy Tales Told for Children. This book earned him immense popularity when, in 1845 it was translated to English and other languages. It became a world wide best seller.

Andersen’s tales were often dark and creepy. His heroes and heroines often go through enormous difficulties. Although the endings are usually happy, they pay great prices for that happiness, often undergoing physical, mental and spiritual changes. For example:

— Karen, the protagonist in The Red Shoes, loves to dance and wear her beautiful shoes. However, it gets to the point where she cannot stop dancing and eventually her feet must be cut off!

 

 

— The Little Mermaid trades her fish tail for human legs. In the process she undergoes excruciating physical pain,  is betrayed by  a handsome prince, and even commits suicide before she is freed to the Daughters of the Air.

 

— In The Wild Swans,  Eliza wants to free her brothers from a terrible curse, but to do so she must knit sweaters made of poisonous nettles that cause her fingers to bleed.  To make matters worse, she has taken a vow of silence! During this time she is arrested for witchcraft and thrown in the dungeon.

And the list goes on. These stories remain popular because they entertain in a way that enables problem solving — while giving kids the scare of their lives! 🙂 The message is always that virtue will be rewarded.

Andersen never married, although he courted several women and wrote a few love letters to men as well. Some historians believe he was bisexual. He seems to have harbored terribly romantic ideas about love and often chose partners that were either unavailable or inappropriate.  At one point he proposed marriage to the Swedish singer Jenny Lind.

She turned him down, but this did not stop Hans from writing a fairy tale which was inspired by her. It was called The Nightingale, about (you guessed it) a precious and beautiful bird that serenades the emperor.  After that, Jenny Lind was given the nickname “The Swedish Nightingale.”

Andersen had a long and prosperous life. He died in Copenhagen on August 4, 1875,  His death is thought to be caused by complications of liver cancer.

Andersen’s stories are still widely read. Many have been adapted as Disney features, including The Ugly Duckling, The Little Mermaid and Frozen — adapted from The Snow Queen. In the original story the Snow Queen was an evil kidnapper, nowhere near as kind as Elsa!

Tribute statues to Andersen have been built all over the world, including New York’s Central Park, California, Sydney Australia and Rosenborg Castle Gardens in Copenhagen.

And of course, if you ever happen to be at the Langelinie promenade in Copenhagen, you can say hello to The Little Mermaid herself!

Happy Birthday Hans!

 

 

 

Happy Birthday Elizabeth of York

 

elizabeth of york

Elizabeth of York (known to some as the White Princess) was technically the very first queen of the infamous Tudor dynasty.  She was born on this day, February 11, 1466, and, ironically, also died on this day, February 11, 1503.

Young Elizabeth had a lot going for her.  Besides the royal bloodline, she was, by all accounts, beautiful, intelligent, kind, empathetic and well mannered.

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She was the oldest daughter of King Edward of York and his wife Elizabeth Woodville. Elizabeth’s father had come to power after many hard fought battles with his cousins the Lancasters. Edward’s reign issued in a period of peace and prosperity. When he died unexpectedly in 1483, a new game of thrones would ensue, complete with evil plots and bloody battles as the Lancasters and Yorks once again strove for power.

Elizabeth was only seventeen when her father died. Her younger brother Edward, just thirteen, then became king. However, their Uncle Richard (Richard III) exercised his power as Lord Protector of the Realm and had Edward and his younger brother Richard (second heir) put away in the Tower of London for “safe keeping”.  What happened to the two York princes remains a mystery to this day.  Neither boy was ever heard from again. It is commonly thought that Richard had them murdered.

In 1674, workmen at the Tower discovered a box containing two small skeletons. Those are thought to be the bones of the princes.

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Richard then took the throne for himself. He did not keep it for long. Henry Tudor, a Welshman from a royal but illegitimate bloodline, also had kingly ambitions. He waged war. Richard III was defeated and lost his life at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485.

Henry Tudor then became King Henry VII.  He knew it would be prudent to unite his house with York and asked for Elizabeth’s hand in marriage. Young Elizabeth then found herself in the rather awkward position of being a York heir, yet pulled into the Lancaster-Tudor stronghold, most likely against her own will.

The marriage, however, proved to be a happy one.

Elizabeth gave birth to eight children. The most notorious of these was of course King Henry VIII. He continued the dynasty and also fathered a rather strong tempered little girl, also named Elizabeth, who would  never marry, but would come to rule England for almost fifty years.

You guessed it! Bess the Virgin Queen was Elizabeth’s granddaughter.

bess

Elizabeth of York was a hands-on mother, unusual at the time for women of her status. She insisted upon having much domestic time with her children and often brought them to her palace at Eltham.  Although she left behind a great legacy, Elizabeth of York only lived to be thirty seven years old. She died of an infection on Feb. 11, 1503, just days after giving birth to her last daughter Katherine. The baby died too.

In 2012, the Vaux Passional, an illuminated manuscript that was once the property of Henry VII, was rediscovered in the National Library of Wales. This manuscript gives us insight into the strong bonds between Elizabeth and her family.  It depicts Elizabeth’s death, with a saddened Henry VII in mourning garments. In the background, an 11-year-old King Henry VIII’s red head is shown weeping into the sheets of his mother’s empty bed. His two sisters wear black mourning veils.

Fun Facts:

  • After her father’s death, teenage Elizabeth went to live with her Uncle Richard.  It is rumored they developed a romantic relationship, and Richard planned to marry her. Richard himself denied this, and sent his niece away after the death of his wife, perhaps to end further rumors.

eliz and richard

  • She loved music and dancing — a trait that was perhaps passed on to her granddaughter Queen Elizabeth I.
  • She was extremely fond of greyhound dogs and kept several of them at her residence in Eltham Palace.

  • Elizabeth’s grandmother, Jaquetta of Luxembourg, was rumored to have been a witch — a bloodline which was passed down to her daughter Elizabeth Woodville and hence Elizabeth of York. The women are said to have used their witchy powers to keep their various dynasties afloat.

  • She is thought to be the queen in the poem “Song of Sixpence”. The rhyme goes: “The king was in his counting house, counting out his money; The queen was in the parlour, eating bread and honey.” In real life, Henry VII was shrewd with money and Elizabeth was preoccupied with domestic work, meals and children, so maybe it is true.
  • Pre-raphaelite artist Valentine Cameron Prinsep even painted this 1860 depiction of Elizabeth as “the queen in the parlour”!

Eliz of york

  • Her flower symbol became a red and white rose. Red represented  the House of Lancaster and white represented the House of York.  This, the Tudor rose, is still a floral symbol of England.

  • Remember the knaves painting roses from white to red in Alice in Wonderland? You guessed it! This was  not just some silly whim of author Lewis Carroll,  but actually based upon the rival Houses of Lancaster and York.  (“Off with their heads” was not far behind.)

Happy Birthday Elizabeth!

 

 

 

Happy Birthday Lewis Carroll

 

Lewis Carroll

Today we celebrate the life of Lewis Carroll, best known for his books Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Through the Looking Glass.  He was an author, mathematician, Oxford don, part time babysitter, photographer, inventor, and a bit of an all-around inscrutable person.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you already know of my big obsession with Alice in Wonderland. I have long been fascinated by its white rabbits, mirrors, painted rosebushes, flamingo croquet, and the man who brought then to life.

His given name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, but I will call him Lewis, since he is best known by his pen name Lewis Carroll. He was born on January 27, 1832 in Daresbury, Cheshire, England.  Yes, Cheshire! No evidence as to whether or not he had a cat 🙂

Cheshire_Cat

Carroll’s father was a conservative minister in the Church of England, one in a long line of Dodgson men who had respectable positions in the Anglican clergy. Lewis was home-schooled until the age of twelve and developed an early love for reading amd writing. He attended grammar school at Rugby in Warwickshire, and began study at Oxford University in 1850.  He earned a Bachelor of Arts in Mathematics and graduated with high honors.  In 1855 he won the Mathematical Lectureship for the college of Christ Church at Oxford, which he held for the next 26 years.

In 1856, a man named Henry Liddell took a position as Dean at Christ Church. Henry arrived in town with his young family, all of whom would eventually serve to influence Lewis’ writing. Lewis became close friends with  Liddell’s wife Lorina and their children, particularly the three sisters Lorina, Edith, and Alice Liddell.

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It was this Alice Liddell who served as the inspiration and namesake for the fictional Alice.  Lewis frequently took the children on outings. It was on one such outing, a rowing trip, that the girls begged to hear a story; the result eventually became Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

It is said that Carroll never intended to publish Alice’s adventures, but his friend, fairy-tale author George MacDonald convinced him to do so after Macdonald’s own children read the stories and and loved them. Good thing they did! Can’t imagine a world without Alice.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was first published in 1865. The book quickly became an international hit, and was liked and promoted by Queen Victoria herself! In 1871, Carroll published the sequel Through the Looking-Glass. The Alice books are still among the most popular in the world. Reportedly they are also among the most quoted, second only to the Bible and Shakespeare.  And many of those quotes are really phenomenal, full of wisdom and humor.  Some of my favorites:

“I’m afraid I can’t explain myself, sir. Because I am not myself, you see?”

“I give up,” Alice replied. “What’s the answer?”
“I haven’t the slightest idea,” said the Hatter. 

“I wish the creatures wouldn’t be so easily offended,” Alice thought to herself.

“Shall I never get any older than I am now? That will be a comfort, in one way — never to be an old woman. But then — always to have lessons to learn? Oh, I shouldn’t like THAT!” 

“How am I to get in?” asked Alice. “Are you to get in AT ALL?” said the Footman. “That’s the first question, you know.”  It was, no doubt; only Alice did not like to be told so.

“Well, now that we have seen each other,” said the unicorn, “if you’ll believe in me, I’ll believe in you.”

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Lewis Carroll was also an amateur photographer. He ran in artistic circles with pre-Raphaelites Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Christina Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, and photographer Julia Margaret Cameron.

He took this photo of Alice Liddell. dated 1868. Alice would have been about six.

Alice LIddell

Years later, Julia Margaret Cameron photographed the grown up Alice.

Alice LIddell 2

Despite the fact that the Alice books brought him fame and fortune, Carroll never left his position as don at Oxford. Other than traveling a bit throughout Europe, he seems to have lived modestly. He wrote a few more books — The Hunting of the Snark, a fantastical “nonsense” poem, and Sylvie and Bruno, a fairy tale which satirized English society. Neither had the astounding success of the Alice stories. He also wrote several treatises  on mathematics, which he published under his real name, Charles Dodgson. His writings included works of geometry, linear and matrix algebra, mathematical logic and recreational mathematics. Yes, complicated stuff!

Carroll/ Dodgson’s mathematical contributions are noteworthy. Apparently, he was exploring The Matrix long before Keanu Reeves.

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At Oxford he developed a theory known as the “Dodgson Condensation”, a method of evaluating mathematical determinants and patterns within equations. His work attracted renewed interest in the late 20th century when mathematicians Martin Gardner and William Warren Bartley reevaluated his  contributions to symbolic logic. This led them to the “Alternating Sign Matrix” conjecture, now a theorem. The discovery  of additional ciphers that Carroll had constructed showed that he had employed sophisticated mathematical ideas in their creation.  Perhaps he understood that through mathematics and chemistry, humankind may eventually reach the kind of alternate worlds he created for Alice.

alice matrix

“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Lewis Carroll died of pneumonia on 14 January 1898 at the age of 65.

Some Fun Facts:

  • He was one of eleven children, the oldest son
  • As a young child, he suffered a fever which left him deaf in one ear
  • He was six feet tall — really tall by Victorian standards.
  • A self- deprecating guy, he often referred to himself as “the dodo” and is said to have modeled the Dodo in Alice after himself!
  • In actuality he was hardly a dodo, more like a near genius.
  • He invented the earliest version of Scrabble — a type of word ladder in which the words were changed by adding one letter.
  • He was an ordained deacon of the Anglican Church.
  • Don’t let the stoic pictures fool you. Although he never married, his letters and diary entries indicate he had relationships with several women, both married and single, which would have been considered “scandalous” by Victorian standards.

 

Happy Birthday Lewis!

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Happy Birthday Marlene Dietrich

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Decades before  Madonna shocked audiences by planting a kiss on the unsuspecting Brittany Spears at the 2003 VMA awards, there was Marlene Dietrich!

She was an actress, singer and activist, born on this day, December 27, 1901 in Berlin, Germany.

Dietrich, an outspoken bisexual, wowed the world with cross-dressing and gender bending long before gender fluidity was even a concept. She deep kissed her female costar in the movie Morocco, way back in 1930.

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Born to humble beginnings but with a decided love of the stage, Dietrich started out in chorus and vaudeville, quickly making her way into silent films in the 1920’s.  It was her role as the decadent cabaret performer Lola-Lola in The Blue Angel (1930)  that brought her international fame. With it came a contract at Paramount Pictures.

Her style may not have been suited to everyone, but a certain section of Americana could not get enough of this Berlin siren.

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She  moved to the United States that same year, and went on to star in several motion pictures, including Shanghai Express and Blonde Venus. She was nominated for an academy award for her role in Morocco.  Throughout her career she enchanted audiences with her languid smile, sexy voice and smoldering eyes that understood the world, perhaps all too well.

Dietrich was married to director Rudolf Sieber. They had one daughter, named Maria, born in 1924.  However, Marlene had numerous lovers  — apparently all approved by her husband.  Reportedly she had affairs with: Gary Cooper, Douglas Fairbanks Jr,. John Wayne, James Stewart, Orson Welles, Lili Damita (wife of Errol Flynn), Claudette Colbert, Dolores del Río,  the French singer Edith Piaf, and possibly Greta Garbo.

Hollywood beauties come and go, but one unique thing about Dietrich was her anti-Nazi activism. In 1937,  when the Nazi Party was on the rise, Marlene was vacationing in London. Officials from the Nazi Party approached her and offered her a lot of money to return to Germany and become film star in the Third Reich.  Marlene flat out refused! She returned to the US and applied for citizenship, which was granted in 1939. Throughout her life she remained a politically active United States patriot.  She also renounced her German citizenship in 1939.

Throughout the 1930’s and 40’s Dietrich took a radical humanitarian stance against the Holocaust.  She created a fund to help Jews and dissidents escape from Germany.  She donated her entire salary from the movie Knight Without Armor (a whopping $450,000 — which was worth a lot more back then!) to help the refugees.

In December 1941, the U.S. entered World War II, and Dietrich became one of the first celebrities to help sell  US war bonds. She toured the US from January 1942 to September 1943 (appearing before 250,000 troops on the Pacific Coast leg of her tour alone) and was reported to have sold more war bonds than any other star.

The soldiers loved her!

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During two extended tours in 1944 and 1945 Marlene performed for Allied troops in Algeria, Italy, the UK and France. She then followed General George Patton all the way to the front lines in Germany.  When asked why she had done this, in spite of the obvious danger, she replied, “aus Anstand“— “out of decency”.

Marlene continued to perform throughout her lifetime.  She even had a cameo role in a movie called Just a Gigolo, with another cross-dressing icon, David Bowie, in 1979.

In the 1980’s Dietrich was keen to see the fall of the Berlin Wall and a unified Germany. She reportedly stayed in contact with world leaders by telephone, including Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev.  Her monthly telephone bill was over $3,000.  That is a lot of talking!  Perhaps she, along with Reagan, was pleading “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall!” 🙂

Dietrich died in Paris in 1992, at the ripe old age of 90. She was given a ceremonial funeral, attended by nearly 2000 people. The United States Medal of Freedom was displayed at the foot of her coffin in honor of her duty.

Because the Berlin Wall had by then been dismantled, Marlene requested in her will that she be buried back in Germany with her family.  She was interred at the Städtischer Friedhof IIIBerlin-Schöneberg, next to the grave of her mother, Josefine von Losch, and near the house where she was born.

Here is an English version of  her famous song “Falling in Love Again”.  Hope you like it!

Happy Birthday Marlene!

marlene

Happy Birthday Georgia O’Keeffe

 

Georgia_OKeeffe-quotes-1

Today we celebrate the life of Georgia O’Keeffe!  She was an American artist, most famous for her abstract paintings of flowers, bones, and natural landscapes. She herself was a force of nature as well, leaving an imprint and legacy not easily forgotten.

Once you experience her artwork — well — flowers will never look the same again!

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Born on November 15, 1887, in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, Georgia was the second of seven children. Her parents were dairy farmers who valued education and encouraged their children to explore various interests. The wide Wisconsin landscape, with its vibrant hollyhocks, lilies, irises and greenery, no doubt influenced the young Georgia.  Artistic talent seemed to run in the family, as two of her grandmothers had been amateur painters.

Georgia attended college at the prestigious Art Institute of Chicago, quickly climbing to top of her class. Later she studied at New York City’s Art Student’s League. It was in New York that she was first introduced to modern art movements of the early twentieth century. She visited galleries, in particular Gallery 291, founded by photographers Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen.

Located at 291 5th Avenue, 291 frequently introduced new work of modern European and American artists.

291

It was Alfred Stieglitz who first displayed O’Keeffe’s work — a series of charcoal drawings — at a gallery exhibition in 1916. The unusual drawings were an overnight success. Within two years, Georgia, who had earned her living through teaching, moved to New York City and became part of a group of avant-garde artists.

For a woman, recognition in the male dominated art world was dubious and rare. Nonetheless, Georgia held her own, winning recognition among critics and patrons. She became the highest paid female artist in the US. O’Keeffe, however, never considered herself a ‘feminist’. She wanted to be thought of as simply ‘an artist’ rather than ‘a female artist’.

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Although Alfred Stieglitz was a married man, and twenty three years older than O’Keeffe, the two became lovers. In 1924 Alfred left his wife to marry Georgia.

Like all aspects of his life, Alfred made his new bride into a work of art.

Georgia_OKeeffe 1919

Georgia continued to develop her craft. She began to experiment with perspective, painting close-ups of flowers. The first of these was Petunia No. 2, which was exhibited in 1925, followed by works such as Black Iris (1926) and Oriental Poppies (1928).

oriental-poppies

“If I could paint the flower exactly as I see it no one would see what I see because… the flower is small. So I said to myself –  I’ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it – I will make even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers.” — Georgia O’Keeffe

I should mention that these are no quaint little blooms, but more like Alice Through the Looking Glass, grow-so-incredibly-high jungle blossoms, painted on canvasses big enough for you to walk into.

For almost a century, art critics have been insisting that O’Keeffe’s flower paintings were meant to resemble female genitalia. Georgia herself vehemently denied this. What do you think?

Georgia O'Keeffe art

“I feel there is something unexplored about women that only a woman can explore.” — Georgia O’Keeffe

In the 1930’s, Georgia found new inspiration in the American west and Navajo culture when she began to visit New Mexico. She found simple yet sublime beauty in the desert, frequently painting landscapes and animal skulls. Cool, huh?

georgia skull

Meanwhile, back in New York, Stieglitz had begun to mentor a young photographer named Dorothy Norman. The two developed a close relationship and – you guessed it! The married Stieglitz began an affair with Dorothy. Georgia became jealous and suffered  bouts of depression. In 1933 she was hospitalized for a nervous breakdown and did not paint for a whole year.  The nervous breakdown was reportedly due to ‘a broken heart’.  (Oh Alfred, you philanderer!)

Her recovery lead her back to New Mexico where she eventually bought property at Ghost Ranch and lived there permanently.  However, she never divorced Stieglitz who remained her one true love.

In his later years, Stieglitz’s health deteriorated. He died of a stroke in 1946 at the age of 82. Georgia was with him when he died and was the executor of his estate.

In 1949, Georgia was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. In the 1950s and 1960s, she continued to paint and travel the world, finding inspiration in places she visited.  In 1970, a retrospective of her work was shown at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City.

GO art

“Nothing is less real than realism. Details are confusing.  It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis — that we get at the real meaning of things.”  — Georgia O’Keeffe

Unfortunately, as Georgia became older she suffered from macular degeneration and began to lose her eyesight. She painted her last unassisted oil painting in 1972. However,  she never los her love of art and her desire to create. She still continued to create art in the form of sculpture and writing. Her bestselling autobiography Georgia O’Keeffe was published in 1976.

Georgia died on March 6, 1986 at the age of 98.  Her body was cremated and her ashes were scattered, as she wished, on the land around Ghost Ranch (perhaps becoming its final ghost?)  The spirit of Ms. O’Keeffe will remain influential forever!

“I have lived on a razor’s edge. So what if you fall off? I’d rather be doing something I wanted to do. I’d walk it again.”  — Georgia O’Keeffe

Happy Birthday Georgia!

georgia okeeffe

 

 

 

Happy Birthday Queen Bess!

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If you read my blog regularly you already know about my big obsession with Queen Elizabeth I.  Born on this day, September 7, 1533, she was one of England’s greatest monarchs, successfully ruling for forty five years.

Bess, however, started out as an unlikely candidate for the throne. She was the daughter of King Henry VIII and Queen Anne Boleyn. With a shaky upbringing that included her dad Henry beheading her mother Anne when Elizabeth was just three years old, the girl went in and out of favor with the King.  Her title changed often. The precocious child  was aware of this, often questioning her caretakers:

“For why yesterday I was the Princess Elizabeth and today only Lady?”

red head

When Henry died, Bess was third in line for the crown. Her brother Edward became king at the tender age of nine and ruled until his untimely death just six years later. Her older sister Mary then reigned for five years. Mary, a devout Catholic, was often at odds with Elizabeth, a staunch Protestant. When Mary died in 1558, Bess  finally took the throne.

The new queen was twenty five years old, highly intelligent, tall, red haired, lovely and possessing much of her father’s strong will.  Her status (bastard or not a bastard?)  was still considered questionable. Nonetheless, Bess became a much beloved monarch.

Fun facts:

Elizabeth served time in the Tower of London, arrested for treason after she was wrongly accused of plotting to overthrow her sister Mary. It was, ironically, Phillip of Spain, Mary’s husband, who pled for Elizabeth’s release.  His intentions were not entirely noble, as he knew his own wife was sickly and he planned to gain favor with Bess and wed her after Mary’s inevitable death. Needless to say, Bess refused him.

Her nicknames were Gloriana, Good Queen Bess and The Virgin Queen.

The Virgin Queen was also an astrological Virgo! She had many typical characteristics of the sign — pragmatism, good money management, discretion and concern for others.

Although most historians agree that Bess actually was a virgin, she had a long romantic involvement with her courtier and horse master Robert Dudley. This caused rumors and gossip. However, although there was great anticipation  for her to be wed, Bess never married and produced no heirs. (At least not any legitimate heirs that we know about.)

The whiteness of her skin, as it appears in many portraits, was achieved through a makeup combination of eggshells and lead. (Yes lead! Its effects were apparently unknown at the time.)

Painting of Queen Elizabeth I of England Elizabeth 1_original.j

She spoke Latin, French, German and Spanish.

She loved sweets. One of her favorite foods was sugar coated violets. Her dental health suffered because of this and Bess eventually had a mouth full of rotten teeth.

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Regarding her so-called marriage plans, Bess was a master at bait and switch. She would often ‘consider’ marriage proposals, but only to gain political favor with a particular country. Once peace was established, she would send suitors on their merry way.

Bess often claimed she was ‘married to England’.  She proved this to be true in her political actions. She once even tried to arrange a marriage between her cousin Mary Queen of Scots and her own love interest Robert Dudley — because she wanted Dudley to serve as a spy and keep track of the Scottish queen’s activities.

dudley and scots

This suggestion caused the insulted Dudley to leave court in a huff.  He then married Lettice Knollys,  Bess’  cousin and lady in waiting. Lettice was banished form court for this union.  Dudley, however, reconciled with the queen and served her for several more years.

What exactly was Queen Elizabeth’s aversion to marriage? Consider the circumstances.  Her own father beheaded not only her mother, but also her cousin (Catherine Howard, Henry’s fifth wife) and several other kinsmen. Her relationship with Dudley was wrought with scandal and threats to her power. Sleazy Phillip of Spain tried to worm his way into her affections for political gain.  My guess, she only ever equated marriage with danger. She saw it as an institution that threatened her realm and her life.

Bess was a lover of plays and supported Shakespearean drama.  She herself was a musician, accomplished at the lute and virginals.

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She, along with her secretary Sir Francis Walsingham, created the most notorious spy operation of Renaissance England.  Walsingham undermined several plots to overthrow Elizabeth, including a Catholic scheme involving Mary Queen of Scots.  Bess’ network of spies, which included Christopher Marlowe, often were turn coats — former Catholics who switched sides but remained savvy to Catholic networks and thus reported plans to Walsingham.

Bess was such a good spymaster,  she even wore dresses to advertise the fact! Note this famous portrait:

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Upon closer examination, we see that the detail of the fabric is decorated with tiny ears and eyes! This was to send the symbolic message: “I see and hear you” and more importantly “Don’t betray me.”

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She never quite gave up her obsession for Robert Dudley. After her death, a letter was found among her most private belongings, hand written by Robert, with a note from Bess labeling it his last letter to her.  She is said to have called out his name on her deathbed.

Elizabeth is still considered one of England’s best monarchs. Her great accomplishments include defeating the Spanish Armada, restoring prosperity to the realm and keeping relative peace in the country despite great religious divides. She died in 1603 of natural causes.

Elizabeth I has been portrayed by some of the world’s finest actresses, including Flora Robson, Bette Davis, Vanessa Redgrave, Glenda Jackson, Cate Blanchett, Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, and Anne-Mare Duff. This fun montage gives a sampling, hope you like it!

Happy Birthday Bess!

Bruno and the Dark Fairy Tales

 

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Fairy tales were meant to be dark. Dark and sinister, full of evil stepmothers, vengeful ogres, big bad wolves and seemingly unsolvable problems. Fairy tales take us into hidden realms of the psyche, thus giving an opportunity to explore, provoke, and discover new power.

No one understood this better than 20th century child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim. Today I pay homage to this man, born on August 28, 1903, in Vienna, Austria.

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Having spent the greater part of his professional career involved with emotionally disturbed children, in 1976 Bettelheim published his masterpiece The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales.   In this book, Bettelheim explained how fairy tales are symbolic of healthy human development. He advocated fairy tales as necessary for children to make the process of ‘growing up’ easier.  A good dark fairy tale gives the child a chance to stimulate his/her imagination and think up creative solutions to problems.

While Disney was busy sanitizing Cinderella, and while the censorship dogs fanned the flames of banned books, Bettelheim became an advocate for exploration of the scary monsters, the bloodthirsty giants, the magic mirrors.

Bettelheim himself was no stranger to the Dark Side. His life was a series of unfortunate incidences, but it was also full of unprecedented victories.

Born just after the turn of the 20th century, Bruno was the son of a wood merchant. His family was Jewish and middle class.  In his early twenties he began study at the University of Vienna but when his father became ill he quit school to take over his family’s lumber business. Dark strike number one.

As it turned out – the illness Bruno’s dad was suffering from happened to be syphilis. This reportedly brought a slow and painful death, not to mention irrevocable shame and stress upon his family. Dark strike number two.

In 1930 Bettelheim married his first wife Gina. Eventually he returned to the university, earning a Ph.D in philosophy. In 1938 he became an accredited psychiatrist and was one of the last Jews in Europe to be awarded a Doctorate degree before the Holocaust.

Enter the Nazis. In 1939 Bruno was arrested by the Gestapo. He was imprisoned in Dachau and Buchenwald. Dark strike number three.

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Luckily, he was released through payment (Nazi officials not being beyond bribery.) Upon returning to a blighted Vienna, Bruno found that his wife had left him, his home and business were devastated, and he had lost virtually everything. Dark strike number four.

In 1941 he married his second wife Gertrude Weinfeld. They emigrated to the United States in 1943 and became citizens.  Bettelheim published his experiences from the concentration camps in his 1943 work:  Individual and Mass Behavior in Extreme Situations.  He eventually became a professor of psychology, teaching at the University of Chicago from 1944 until his retirement in 1973.

Bettelheim also served as director of the Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School at the University of Chicago, a home for emotionally disturbed children. His work there was world famous.  The Uses of Enchantment became a best seller. It was awarded the U.S. Critic’s Choice Prize for criticism in 1976 and the National Book Award in the category of Contemporary Thought in 1977.

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To be fair, it should be noted that Bettelheim was also considered controversial. He has been called “inspiring, aggressive, irascible, dismissive of fools, and capable of both great kindness and great unkindness.”

Perhaps he had to be. He was up against academia and a culture that, for the most part, does not like to examine its own flaws.

The need to sanitize fairy tales was no doubt well intended. Walt Disney himself was also no stranger to the Dark Side.  His remedy was to create likable dwarfs that whistled while they worked and a sweet as pie Cinderella that never did harm to anyone.

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Never mind that the original Cinderella sent her birds to pluck out the eyes of her stepsisters. Never mind that the stepsisters literally mutilated their own feet with knives in a effort to fit the slipper. Never mind that the dwarfs had prurient intentions toward the nubile Snow White — who might be considered a prototype for Nabokov’s Lolita.  Some things are simply not for children’s eyes and ears.

However, Bettelheim argued that an attempt to hide hard and sinister truths from children would only hinder their development, making them less able to cope as adults. (Besides that, it would cut out a good deal of the fun!) Most children are very interested in the Dark Side. It has a magnetic quality.  They love to hate the villains and identify with the heroes.

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As our society becomes more self conscious and politically correct, we are more in danger of sanitizing reading material. This trend could greatly damage young people.

I once read an internet review of Alice in Wonderland in which the adult reader claimed this story was ‘way too scary for children.’

Consider the so called scary parts of Alice: Tumbling down a big rabbit hole and then having no control over your own growth. Facing a queen who threatens to behead the entire world.

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Bettelheim argues that this type of scary story is good for kids because it allows them a chance to face terrible circumstances in their imagination, and follow the hero to a creative solution. Thus when kids are with a real life problem, it will not be so overwhelming.

 

Bruno Bettelheim and Albert Einstein both knew this. Einstein, a great fan of fairy tales, often advocated for the use of them in education. Magic hits us in the quantum heart.

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If we want our children to be free thinkers, problem solvers and imaginative  individuals, we would do well to let them to explore the dark side of fairy tales.

Happy Birthday Bruno!

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Happy Birthday Hitchcock!

 

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If you have ever watched the original Psycho, or The Birds, or Rebecca (preferably alone on a stormy night, with all your doors bolted) you know what it is to experience Alfred Hitchcock at his best.

The Master of Suspense, the Sorcerer of Shock, and the King of Comeuppance — Hitchcock is by far one of the best film directors of the 20th century.

Alfred Joseph Hitchcock was born on this day, August 13, 1899 in Leytonstone England. His father was a greengrocer, his mother a homemaker. He was the youngest of three children, an average student and a bit of loner.

But yawn. That story is far too mundane. Something must have happened in his formative years to help create his twisted persona, to turn him into the Tyrant of Terror, who would later alarm the world with his disturbing psychological horror.

It turns out a few things did happen. (His birth date fell on a Friday the 13th. That ought to tell us something, heheh.)

When he was five years old, Hitchcock’s father wanted to punish him for ‘behaving badly’.  Little Alfred was sent to the local police station with a note asking the officer to ‘lock him up in jail for five minutes’.  This incident left a lifelong scar on Hitchcock, possibly influencing his frequent themes of harsh punishments, wrongful accusations and sly retributions for evil doers. He had a permanent fear of the police.

He also had a permanent fear of Jesuits.

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Hitch was raised Roman Catholic and attended Jesuit Grammar School at Saint Ignatius College. Years later, when asked in an interview how he – a  polite gentleman – managed to create such malevolent stories, Hitchcock replied: “I spent three years studying with the Jesuits. They used to terrify me to death and now I’m getting my own back by terrifying other people.”

His 1953 film I Confess starred Montgomery Clift as a Catholic priest who is wrongly accused of murder, but also hears the confession of the true murderer — and is sworn to secrecy by his priestly vows.

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Hitchcock’s first job was as a draftsman for an electric cable company called Henley’s.  Even then, as a teenager, he was already writing scary tales. Some of these were published in the company’s newsletter, The Henley Telegraph.

Hitchcock’s first piece, “Gas” tells the story of a young woman who imagines that she is being assaulted one night in London—but the twist at the end reveals it was all just a hallucination in the dentist’s chair induced by the anesthetic.

Interestingly, one of the episodes featured on Alfred Hitchcock Presents seems reminiscent of this tale. In the newer version, the woman’s hallucination involves a futuristic society in which all men have been eradicated through a medicine originally intended to kill rats.  There are no more men in the world! Babies are born through test tubes and they are always females! The woman wakes up from her dream to find that in reality, a famous scientist is currently experimenting with a medicine which will rid the world of rats!  The woman takes a shotgun, attempts to kill the scientist and… Well, you will just have to watch the episode to find out what happens.

His other early stories also indicate Hitchcockian creepiness and weird sexual overtones. One short story “And There Was No Rainbow” (which some folk thought should have been banned)  tells of a young man who goes out looking for a brothel, but instead stumbles into the house of his best friend’s girl. Hitch also wrote a piece called “Fedora” which gave a ‘strikingly accurate description’ of his future wife Alma Reville, although he had not yet met her!

At the tender age of twenty, Hitchcock got a job at Paramount Studios as a title card designer for silent films. Within five years he was directing those films.  His first commercial success was a thriller called The Lodger about London’s notorious serial killer Jack the Ripper.  

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 Around this time Alma Reville became Hitch’s assistant director. The two were married on December 2, 1926.   Alma became Hitchcock’s closest collaborator.  He rarely discussed her contributions to his films, although some were credited on screen. Alma was clearly ‘the woman behind the great man’ but she avoided public attention.

Hitchcock had the unique experience of working in the film industry as it evolved through all its massive changes of the 20th century. In 1929, his production company began experimentation with sound, producing the first ‘Talkies’.  Hitchcock’s contributions included Blackmail, The Man Who Knew Too Much and his highly acclaimed The 39 Steps, which made him a star in the United States.

The 39 Steps established two unique Hitchcockian traditions: the ‘Hitchcock Blonde’ and The MacGuffin’.

The Hitchcock Blonde was the beautiful, ice-cool, perfect leading lady who often became a victim of twisted circumstances.

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First personified in The 39 Steps by actress Madeleine Carroll, his other blondes included Grace Kelly, Tippi Hedren, Kim Novak and Janet Leigh. Hitch believed that these flawless, classy women left much to the sexual imagination –  they were ladylike in public but potential whores in the bedroom. He described this archetype as follows:

“I think the most interesting women, sexually, are the English women. I feel that the English women, the Swedes, the northern Germans and Scandinavians are a great deal more exciting than the Latin, the Italian and the French women. Sex should not be advertised. An English girl, looking like a schoolteacher, is apt to get into a cab with you and, to your surprise, she’ll probably pull a man’s pants open. … Without the element of surprise, the scenes become meaningless. There’s no possibility to discover sex.

The MacGuffin is a plot device — an object thrown in for the purpose of intriguing the audience, but which will have little consequence in the overall story.  In a lecture at Columbia University, Hitchcock explained The MacGuffin as follows:

“It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men on a train. One man says, “What’s that package up there in the baggage rack?” And the other answers, “Oh, that’s a MacGuffin”. The first one asks, “What’s a MacGuffin?” “Well,” the other man says, “it’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.” The first man says, “But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands,” and the other one answers, “Well then, that’s no MacGuffin!” So you see that a MacGuffin is actually nothing at all.”

The MacGuffin took on a life of its own in filmmaking. It is the Holy Grail of Arthurian legends.  Some modern examples include:  the Maltese Falcon in the film of the same name; the meaning of “Rosebud” in Citizen Kane; the Rabbit’s Foot in Mission Impossible III, and  the Heart of the Ocean necklace in Titanic.

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Hitchcock’s recognition and fame continued to grow. In 1939 he received The New York Film Critics Circle Award for his film The Lady Vanishes.  Picturegoer Magazine called him ‘Alfred the Great’.  The New York Times called him ‘the greatest director of screen melodramas in the world’, placing him alongside other English treasures such as the Magna Carta and the Tower of London.

In 1940 Hitch directed Rebecca based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier. (If you have not read this masterpiece, you must do so immediately!) The film won an Academy Award for best picture, with a best director nomination.

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Hitch and horror novelist Daphne Du Maurier formed a natural collaboration. His film The Birds  — a story of rebellious birds that slowly and creepily take over a California town — was also based on a story written by Du Maurier.

A few years ago my local movie theater ran a big screen production of The Birds. Tippi Hedren,  an iconic Hitchcock Blonde who stars in the film, came in as a guest speaker.

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I swear to god she looked EXACTLY the same as she did in the film!  Some forty years had passed and the woman had not aged, not one day!  You will find pictures of Tippi Hedren on the internet where she looks older, but these (I swear!) are not real.  I believe she might actually have some weird Dorian Gray arrangement going on… Perhaps the internet pictures are aging as she herself stays young.  (Anything would be possible in Hitch’s world.)

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Hitchcock’s career peaked in the 1950’s and 60’s when he directed gems such as Rear Window, Vertigo, Strangers on a Train, and of course Psycho.  This movie was the creepiest creep-fest of all, about a young woman (Janet Leigh) who goes to stay at a hotel run by a taxidermy obsessed man (Tony Perkins) who has a strange relationship with his dead mother…

 

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Hitch’s television series ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’ had a ten year run from 1955 to 1965. The fascinating thing about these segments is that, by today’s standards, they are very plain.  No bells or whistles, no special effects –  just simple black and white cinematography, flat lighting, and mostly unknown actors – yet the brilliant storytelling speaks for itself.

Equally entertaining was Hitch’s deadpan delivery  of introductions which always began with “Good Evening” and went on to speak of outrageous things.

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Hitchcock moved to California and became an American citizen in 1955, although still retaining his English citizenship. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1980, a few months before his death. Film critic Roger Ebert considered it something of a snub that the Queen took so long to give Hitch his knighthood, writing:  “Other British directors like Sir Carol Reed and Sir Charlie Chaplin were knighted years ago, while Hitchcock… one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, was passed over.” Maybe the Queen was a bit spooked by him, or reluctant to invite him to the palace?

On April 29th, 1980, Sir Alfred Hitchcock died of renal failure in his home in Bel Air California. Despite his professed fears of the Jesuits, two priests came in his closing hours, giving a final mass at Hitchcock’s home and hearing his last confession.

Gone but not forgotten, we will never ditch the Hitch!  He shall always be alive in legacy, legend and the ominous voice that warns to lock the doors and be afraid. Be very afraid.

Happy Birthday Alfred!

This short tribute is a great celebration of the man and his art. Hope you like it!