Nabokov Recalls a Joint Interview

On the morning of June 5, 1962, the Queen Elizabeth brought my wife and me from Cherbourg to New York for the film premiere of Lolita. On the day of our arrival three or four journalists interviewed me at the St. Regis hotel. I have a little cluster of names jotted down in my pocket diary but am not sure which, if any, refers to that group. The questions and answers were typed from my notes immediately after the interview.

Interviewers do not find you a particularly stimulating person. Why is that so?

I pride myself on being a person with no public appeal. I have never been drunk in my life. I never use schoolboy words of four letters. I have never worked in an office or in a coal mine. I have never belonged to any club or group. No creed or school has had any influence on me whatsoever. Nothing bores me more than political novels and the literature of social intent.

Still there must be things that move you—likes and dislikes.

My loathings are simple: stupidity, oppression, crime, cruelty, soft music. My pleasures are the most intense known to man: writing and butterfly hunting.

You write everything in longhand, don’t you?

Yes. I cannot type.

Would you agree to show us a sample of your rough drafts?

I’m afraid I must refuse. Only ambitious nonentities and hearty mediocrities exhibit their rough drafts. It is like passing around samples of one’s sputum.

Do you read many new novels? Why do you laugh?

I laugh because well-meaning publishers keep sending me—with “hope-you-will-like-it-as- much-as-we-do” letters—only one kind of fiction: novels truffled with obscenities, fancy words, and would-be weird incidents. They seem to be all by one and the same writer—who is not even the shadow of my shadow.

What is your opinion of the so-called “anti-novel” in France?

I am not interested in groups, movements, schools of writing and so forth. I am interested only in the individual artist. This “anti-novel” does not really exist; but there does exist one great French writer, Robbe-Grillet; his work is grotesquely imitated by a number of banal scribblers whom a phony label assists commercially.

I notice you “haw” and “er”a great deal. Is it a sign of approaching senility?

Not at all. I have always been a wretched speaker. My vocabulary dwells deep in my mind and needs paper to wriggle out into the physical zone. Spontaneous eloquence seems to me a

1miracle. I have rewritten—often several times—every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers.

What about TV appearances?

Well (you always begin with “well” on TV), after one such appearance in London a couple of years ago I was accused by a naive critic of squirming and avoiding the camera. The interview, of course, had been carefully rehearsed. I had carefully written out all my answers (and most of the questions), and because I am such a helpless speaker, I had my notes (mislaid since) on index cards arranged before me—ambushed behind various innocent props; hence I could neither stare at the camera nor leer at the questioner.

Yet you have lectured extensively-

In 1940, before launching on my academic career in America, I fortunately took the trouble of writing one hundred lectures—about 2,000 pages—on Russian literature, and later another hundred lectures on great novelists from Jane Austen to James Joyce. This kept me happy at Wellesley and Cornell for twenty academic years. Although, at the lectern, I evolved a subtle up and down movement of my eyes, there was never any doubt in the minds of alert students that I was reading, not speaking.

When did you start writing in English?

I was bilingual as a baby (Russian and English) and added French at five years of age. In my early boyhood all the notes I made on the butterflies I collected were in English, with various terms borrowed from that most delightful magazine The Entomologist. It published my first paper (on Crimean butterflies) in 1920. The same year I contributed a poem in English to the Trinity Magazine, Cambridge, while I was a student there (1919-1922). After that in Berlin and in Paris I wrote my Russian books—poems, stories, eight novels. They were read by a reasonable percentage of the three million Russian emigres, and were of course absolutely banned and ignored in Soviet Russia. In the middle thirties I translated for publication in English two of my Russian novels, Despair and Camera Obscura (retitled Laughter in the Dark in America). The first novel that I wrote directly in English was The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, in 1939 in Paris. After moving to America in 1940, I contributed poems and stories to The Atlantic and The New Yorkerand wrote four novels. Bend Sinister (1947), Lolita (1955), Pnin (1957) and Pale Fire (1962). I have also published an autobiography, Speak, Memory (1951), and several scientific papers on the taxonomy of butterflies.

Would you like to talk about Lolita?

Well, no. I said everything I wanted to say about the book in the Afterword appended to its American and British editions.

Did you find it hard to write the script of Lolita?

The hardest part was taking the plunge—deciding to undertake the task. In 1959 I was invited to Hollywood by Harris and Kubrick, but after several consultations with them I decided I did not want to do it. A year later, in Lugano, I received a telegram from them urging me to reconsider my decision. In the meantime a kind of script had somehow taken shape in my imagination so that actually I was glad they had repeated their offer. I traveled once more to Hollywood and there, under the jacarandas, worked for six months on the thing. Turning one’s novel into a movie script is rather like making a series of sketches for a painting that has long ago been finished and framed. I composed new scenes and speeches in an effort to safeguard a Lolita acceptable to me. I knew that if I did not write the script somebody else would, and I also knew that at best the end product in such cases is less of a blend than a collision of interpretations. I have not yet seen the picture. It may turn out to be a lovely morning mist as perceived through mosquito netting, or it may turn out to be the swerves of a scenic drive as felt by the horizontal passenger of an ambulance. From my seven or eight sessions with Kubrick during the writing of the script I derived the impression that he was an artist, and it is on this impression that I base my hopes of seeing a plausible Lolita on June 13th in New York.

What are you working at now?

I am reading the proofs of my translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, a novel in verse which, with a huge commentary, will be brought out by the Bollingen Foundation in four handsome volumes of more than five hundred pages each.

Could you describe this work?

During my years of teaching literature at Cornell and elsewhere I demanded of my students the passion of science and the patience of poetry. As an artist and scholar I prefer the specific detail to the generalization, images to ideas, obscure facts to clear symbols, and the discovered wild fruit to the synthetic jam.

And so you preserved the fruit?

Yes. My tastes and disgusts have influenced my ten-yearlong work on Eugene Onegin. In translating its 5500 lines into English I had to decide between rhyme and reason—and I chose reason. My only ambition has been to provide a crib, a pony, an absolutely literal translation of the thing, with copious and pedantic notes whose bulk far exceeds the text of the poem. Only a paraphrase “reads well”; my translation does not; it is honest and clumsy, ponderous and slavishly faithful. I have several notes to every stanza (of which there are more than 400, counting the variants). This commentary contains a discussion of the original melody and a complete explication of the text.

Do you like being interviewed?

Well, the luxury of speaking on one theme—oneself—is a sensation not to be despised. But the result is sometimes puzzling. Recently the Paris paper Candide had me spout wild nonsense in an idiotic setting. But I have also often met with considerable fair play. Thus Esquire printed all my corrections to the account of an interview that I found full of errors. Gossip writers are harder to keep track of, and they are apt to be very careless. Leonard Lyons made me explain why I let my wife handle motion picture transactions by the absurd and tasteless remark: “Anyone who can handle a butcher can handle a producer.”

Published in: on February 23, 2010 at 6:54 PM  Leave a Comment  
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EYEWITNESS: The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots, 8 February 1586

Wax Death Mask of Mary Queen of Scots

Robert Wynkfielde

Her prayers being ended, the executioners, kneeling, desired her Grace to forgive them her death: who answered, ‘I forgive you with all my heart, for now, I hope, you shall make an end of all my troubles.’ Then they, with her two women, helping her up, began to disrobe her of her apparel: then she, laying her crucifix upon the stool, one of the executioners took from her neck the Agnus Dei, which she, laying hands off it, gave to one of her women, and told the executioner he should be answered money for it. Then she suffered them, with her two women, to disrobe her of her chain of pomander beads and all other her apparel most willingly, and with joy rather than sorrow, helped to make unready herself, putting on a pair of sleeves with her own hands which they had pulled off, and that with some haste, as if she had longed to be gone.

All this time they were pulling off her apparel, she never changed her countenance, but with smiling cheer she uttered these words, ‘that she never had such grooms to make her unready, and that she never put off her clothes before such a company’.

Then she, being stripped of all her apparel saving her petticoat and kirtle, her two women beholding her made great lamentation, and crying and crossing themselves prayed in Latin. She, turning herself to them, embracing them, said these words in French, ‘Ne crie vous, j’ay prome pour vous’, and so crossing and kissing them, bad them pray for her and rejoice and not weep, for that now they should see an end of all their mistress’s troubles.

Then she, with a smiling countenance, turning to her men servants, as Melvin and the rest, standing upon a bench nigh the scaffold, who sometime weeping, sometime crying out aloud, and continually crossing themselves, prayed in Latin, crossing them with her hand bade them farewell, and wishing them to pray for her even until the last hour.

This done, one of the women having a Corpus Christi cloth lapped up three-comer-ways, kissing it, put it over the Queen of Scots’ face, and pinned it fast to the caule of her head. Then the two women departed from her, and she kneeling down upon the cushion most resolutely, and without any token or fear of death, she spake aloud this Psalm in Latin, In Te Domine confido, non confundar in eternam, etc. Then, groping for the block, she laid down her head, putting her chin over the block with both her hands, which, holding there still, had been cut off had they not been espied. Then lying upon the block most quietly, and stretching out her arms cried, In manus tuas, Domine, etc., three or four times. Then she, lying very still upon the block, one of the executioners holding her slightly with one of his hands, she endured two strokes of the other executioner with an axe, she making very small noise or none at all, and not stirring any part of her from the place where she lay: and so the executioner cut off her head, saving one little gristle, which being cut asunder, he lift up her head to the view of all the assembly and bade God save the Queen. Then, her dress of lawn falling from off her head, it appeared as grey as one of threescore and ten years old, polled very short, her face in a moment being so much altered from the form she had when she was alive, as few could remember her by her dead face. Her lips stirred up and down a quarter of an hour after her head was cut off.

Then Mr Dean [Dr Fletcher, Dean of Peterborough] said with a loud voice, ‘So perish all the Queen’s enemies’, and afterwards the Earl of Kent came to the dead body, and standing over it, with a loud voice said, ‘Such end of all the Queen’s and the Gospel’s enemies. ‘

Then one of the executioners, pulling off her garters, espied her little dog which was crept under her clothes, which could not be gotten forth but by force, yet afterward would not depart from the dead corpse, but came and lay between her head and her shoulders, which being imbrued with her blood was carried away and washed, as all things else were that had any blood was either burned or washed clean, and the executioners sent away with money for their fees, not having anyone thing that belonged unto her. And so, every man being commanded out of the hall, except the sheriff and his men, she was carried by them up into a great chamber lying ready for the surgeons to embalm her.


Published in: on February 15, 2010 at 12:45 PM  Leave a Comment  

Edward G. Robinson told Samuel Goldwyn that his studio was going to make Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and that they wanted him to play Shylock. Did Goldwyn think he ought to accept the part? Goldwyn’s response: “Screw ’em—tell ’em you’ll only play the Merchant.”

Published in: on February 14, 2010 at 4:55 PM  Leave a Comment  

After his first heart attack, Marquand did his best to face his threatened mortality with high spirit. Shortly after his return from the hospital, when one of his neighbors was visiting, John suddenly jumped out of bed. In his pajamas, he seized an antique sword from the wall, unsheathed it, and struck a John Barrymore pose. “Death,” he boomed, “thus do I defy you!”

Published in: on February 11, 2010 at 9:41 AM  Leave a Comment  

Groucho Marx attended one of George Gershwin’s parties, given, it seemed, for the sole purpose of letting the host play and show off his music. Someone asked him, “Do you think that Gershwin’s melodies will be played a hundred years from now?” “Sure,” was Groucho’s answer, “if George is here to play them.”

Published in: on February 10, 2010 at 5:56 PM  Leave a Comment  

Comment to John Erskine at the beginning of the latter’s teaching career.

William Peterfield Trent

I can give you no theoretical advice in pedagogy, but I’ll tell you one thing from experience. It will frequently happen when you are holding forth that some boy in the class will disagree. He will probably shake his head violently. You will be tempted to go after him and convert him then and there. Don’t do it. He is probably the only one who is listening.

Published in: on February 9, 2010 at 1:10 AM  Leave a Comment  

Horace Greeley served in Congress for three months. In the course of conversation one day, another congressman boasted that he was a self-made man. “That, sir,” replied Greeley, “relieves the Almighty of a great responsibility.”


Published in: on February 7, 2010 at 11:12 PM  Leave a Comment  

Toward the end of his life Thoreau was urged to make his peace with God. “I did not know that we had ever quarreled,” he replied.

Published in: on February 6, 2010 at 11:56 AM  Leave a Comment  

Another Ignoramus, Please

Emile Zola passed the Sorbonne’s written exams in science and mathematics but failed in the language and literature orals; he forgot the date of Charlemagne’s death, he thoroughly botched the German reading test, and he somehow misinterpreted a simple fable. His attempt two months later to enter the University of Marseilles ended even more disastrously. His performance on the written entrance exam was so atrocious that he didn’t even take the orals. He lamented in a letter to his friend Paul Cézanne, “I’m a total ignoramus!” Later, he wrote Nana and other popular novels, and was the founder of the Naturalist movement in literature.

Published in: on February 3, 2010 at 3:01 PM  Leave a Comment  

One of Calvin Coolidge’s associates objected when the name of a certain industrialist was put forward for inclusion in the cabinet. “But, Mr. President, he’s a son of a bitch!”

Well, don’t you think they ought to be represented, too?” said Coolidge.

Published in: on February 1, 2010 at 3:50 PM  Leave a Comment  

Marquand, Dogwalker

J P Marquand was looked down on by his aristocratic Sedgwick in-laws, who refused to take his writing seriously. One vacation when Marquand and his wife went to stay at her parental home, his brother-in-law, A C Sedgwick, was also staying there, also engaged in writing a book. The two writers occupied rooms on opposite sides of the main hall, spending most of the day at their desks. One afternoon Marquand’s mother-in-law came into his room with her son’s dog on a leash, and asked Marquand to take the animal out for its daily exercise, since A C  could not do it himself. “He’s writing, you know,” she said in explanation.


Published in: on January 30, 2010 at 5:11 PM  Leave a Comment  

Horace Greeley had one linguistic quirk: he insisted that the word “news” was plural. Accordingly, he once sent a cable to a member of the Tribune staff that read: “ARE THERE ANY NEWS?” Back came the reply: “NOT A NEW.”

Published in: on January 26, 2010 at 4:25 PM  Leave a Comment  

A certain actor, negotiating a contract with Samuel Goldwyn, declared, “I’m asking fifteen hundred a week.” “You’re not asking fifteen hundred a week,” snapped Goldwyn, “you’re asking twelve, and I’m giving you a thousand.”

Published in: on January 25, 2010 at 5:00 PM  Leave a Comment  

Dogfight over the Channel, 3 September 1940

Richard Hillary

September 3 dawned dark and overcast, with a slight breeze ruffling the waters of the Estuary. Hornchurch aerodrome, twelve miles east of London, wore its usual morning pallor of yellow fog, lending an added air of grimness to the dimly silhouetted Spitfires around the boundary. From time to time a balloon would poke its head grotesquely through the mist as though looking for possible victims before falling back like some tired monster.

We came out on to the tarmac at about eight o’clock. During the night our machines had been moved from the Dispersal Point over to the hangars. All the machine tools, oil, and general equipment had been left on the far side of the aerodrome. I was worried. We had been bombed a short time before, and my plane had been fitted out with a new cockpit hood. This hood unfortunately would not slide open along its groove; and with a depleted ground staff and no tools, I began to fear it never would. Unless it did open, I shouldn’t be able to bale out in a hurry if I had to. Miraculously, ‘Uncle George’ Denholm, our Squadron Leader, produced three men with a heavy file and lubricating oil, and the corporal fitter and I set upon the hood in a fury of haste. We took it turn by turn, filing and oiling, oiling and filing, until at last the hood began to move. But agonizingly slowly: by ten o’clock, when the mist had cleared and the sun was blazing out of a clear sky, the hood was still sticking firmly halfway along the groove; at 10.15, what I had feared for the last hour happened. Down the loudspeaker came the emotionless voice of the controller: ‘603 Squadron take off and patrol base; you will receive further orders in the air: 603 Squadron take off as quickly as you can, please.’ As I pressed the starter and the engine roared into life, the corporal stepped back and crossed his fingers significantly. I felt the usual sick feeling in the pit of the stomach, as though I were about to row a race, and then I was too busy getting into position to feel anything.

Uncle George and the leading section took off in a cloud of dust; Brian Carbury looked across and put up his thumbs. I nodded and opened up, to take off for the last time from Hornchurch. I was flying No.3 in Brian’s section, with Stapme Stapleton on the right: the third section consisted of only two machines, so that our Squadron strength was eight. We headed south-east, climbing all out on a steady course. At about 12,000 feet we came up through the clouds: I looked down and saw them spread out below me like layers of whipped cream. The sun was brilliant and made it difficult to see even the next plane when turning. I was peering anxiously ahead, for the controller had given us warning of at least fifty enemy fighters approaching very high. When we did first sight them, nobody shouted, as I think we all saw them at the same moment. They must have been 500 to 1000 feet above us and coming straight on like a swarm of locusts. I remember cursing and going automatically into line astern: the next moment we were in among them and it was each man for himself. As soon as they saw us they spread out and dived, and the next ten minutes was a blur of twisting machines and tracer bullets. One Messerschmitt went down in a sheet of flame on my right, and a Spitfire hurtled past in a half-roll; I was weaving and turning in a desperate attempt to gain height, with the machine practically hanging on the air-screw. Then, just below me and to my left, I saw what I had been praying for—a Messerschmitt climbing and away from the sun. I closed in to 200 yards, and from slightly to one side gave him a two-second burst: fabric ripped off the wing and black smoke poured from the engine, but he did not go down. Like a fool, I did not break away, but put in another three-second burst. Red flames shot upwards and he spiraled out of sight. At that moment, I felt a terrific explosion which knocked the control stick from my hand, and the whole machine quivered like a stricken animal. In a second, the cockpit was a mass of flames: instinctively, I reached up to open the hood. It would not move. I tore off my straps and managed to force it back; but this took time, and when I dropped back into the seat and reached for the stick in an effort to turn the plane on its back, the heat was so intense that I could feel myself going. I remember a second of sharp agony, remember thinking, ‘So this is it!’ and putting both hands to my eyes. Then I passed out.

When I regained consciousness I was free of the machine and falling rapidly. I pulled the rip-cord of my parachute and checked my descent with a jerk. Looking down, I saw that my left trouser leg was burnt off, that I was going to fall into the sea, and that the English coast was deplorably far away. About twenty feet above the water, I attempted to undo my parachute, failed, and flopped into the sea with it billowing round me. I was told later that the machine went into a spin at about 25,000 feet and that at 10,000 feet I fell out – unconscious. This may well have been so, for I discovered later a large cut on the top of my head, presumably collected while bumping round inside.

The water was not unwarm and I was pleasantly surprised to find that my life-jacket kept me afloat. I looked at my watch: it was not there. Then, for the first time, I noticed how burnt my hands were: down to the wrist, the skin was dead white and hung in shreds: I felt faintly sick from the smell of burnt flesh. By closing one eye I could see my lips, jutting out like motor tires. The side of my parachute harness was cutting into me particularly painfully, so that I guessed my right hip was burnt. I made a further attempt to undo the harness, but owing to the pain of my hands, soon desisted. Instead, I lay back and reviewed my position: I was a long way from land; my hands were burnt, and so, judging from the pain of the sun, was my face; it was unlikely that anyone on shore had seen me come down and even more unlikely that a ship would come by; I could float for possibly four hours in my Mae West. I began to feel that I had perhaps been premature in considering myself lucky to have escaped from the machine. After about half an hour my teeth started chattering, and to quiet them I kept up a regular tuneless chant, varying it from time to time with calls for help. There can be few more futile pastimes than yelling for help alone in the North Sea, with a solitary seagull for company, yet it gave me a certain melancholy satisfaction, for I had once written a short story in which the hero (falling from a liner) had done just this. It was rejected.

The water now seemed much colder and I noticed with surprise that the sun had gone in though my face was still burning. I looked down at my hands, and not seeing them, realized that I had gone blind. So I was going to die. It came to me like that—I was going to die, and I was not afraid. This realization came as a surprise. The manner of my approaching death appalled and horrified me, but the actual vision of death left me unafraid: I felt only a profound curiosity and a sense of satisfaction that within a few minutes or a few hours I was to learn the great answer. I decided that it should be in a few minutes. I had no qualms about hastening my end and, reaching up, I managed to unscrew the valve of my Mae West. The air escaped in a rush and my head went under water. It is said by people who have all but died in the sea that drowning is a pleasant death. I did not find it so. I swallowed a large quantity of water before my head came up again, but derived little satisfaction from it. I tried again, to find that I could not get my face under. I was so enmeshed in my parachute that I could not move. For the next ten minutes, I tore my hands to ribbons on the spring-release catch. It was stuck fast. I lay back exhausted, and then I started to laugh. By this time I was probably not entirely normal and I doubt if my laughter was wholly sane, but there was something irresistibly comical in my grand gesture of suicide being so simply thwarted.

Goethe once wrote that no one, unless he had led the full life and realized himself completely, had the right to take his own life. Providence seemed determined that I should not incur the great man’s displeasure.

It is often said that a dying man relives his whole life in one rapid kaleidoscope. I merely thought gloomily of the Squadron returning, of my mother at home, and of the few people who would miss me. Outside my family, I could count them on the fingers of one hand. What did gratify me enormously was to find that I indulged in no frantic abasements or prayers to the Almighty. It is an old jibe of God-fearing people that the irreligious always change their tune when about to die: I was pleased to think that I was proving them wrong. Because I seemed to be in for an indeterminate period of waiting, I began to feel a terrible loneliness and sought for some means to take my mind off my plight. I took it for granted that I must soon become delirious, and I attempted to hasten the process: I encouraged my mind to wander vaguely and aimlessly, with the result that I did experience a certain peace. But when I forced myself to think of something concrete, I found that I was still only too lucid. I went on shuttling between the two with varying success until I was picked up. I remember as in a dream hearing somebody shout: it seemed so far away and quite unconnected with me.

Then willing arms were dragging me over the side; my parachute was taken off (and with such ease!); a brandy flask was pushed between my swollen lips; a voice said, ‘OK, Joe, it’s one of ours and still kicking’; and I was safe. I was neither relieved nor angry; I was past caring.

It was to the Margate lifeboat that l owed my rescue. Watchers on the coast had seen me come down, and for three hours they had been searching for me. Owing to wrong directions, they were just giving up and turning back for land when ironically enough one of them saw my parachute. They were then fifteen miles east of Margate.

While in the water I had been numb and had felt very little pain. Now that I began to thaw out, the agony was such that I could have cried out. The good fellows made me as comfortable as possible, put up some sort of awning to keep the sun from my face, and phoned through for a doctor. It seemed to me to take an eternity to reach shore. I was put into an ambulance and driven rapidly to hospital. Through all this I was quite conscious, though unable to see. At the hospital they cut off my uniform, I gave the requisite information to a nurse about my next of kin, and then, to my infinite relief, felt a hypodermic syringe pushed into my arm.


Published in: on January 25, 2010 at 4:32 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Lineage for Hire

Gladstone, Britain’s famous PM, visiting an antique dealer’s shop, admired an early seventeenth-century oil painting depicting an aristocrat dressed in old Spanish costume with a ruff, plumed hat, and lace cuffs. He wanted it badly but thought the price too high. Sometime later, at the house of a rich London merchant, he came upon the portrait he had so admired. His host, noticing Gladstone’s absorption, approached him. “You like it? It’s a portrait of one of my ancestors, a minister at the Court of Queen Elizabeth.” Said Gladstone: “Three pounds less and he would have been my ancestor.”

Published in: on January 24, 2010 at 9:50 AM  Leave a Comment  

The Death of Socrates, 399 BC


Socrates had been condemned to death for ‘corruption of the young’ and ‘neglect of the gods’. He remained in prison for a month after sentence until the sacred ship had returned from Delos: during its absence no execution could take place. Xanthippe was Socrates’ wife: he had three sons by her. Plato was not an eye-witness of the death, but was in close touch with those who were.

I will try to tell you everything from the beginning. On the previous days I and the others had always been in the habit of visiting Socrates. We used to meet at daybreak in the court where the trial took place, for it was near the prison; and every day we used to wait about, talking with each other, until the prison was opened, for it was not opened early; and when it was opened, we went in to Socrates and passed most of the day with him. On that day we came together earlier; for the day before, when we left the prison in the evening we heard that the ship had arrived from Delos. So we agreed to come to the usual place as early in the morning as possible. And we came, and the gaoler who usually answered the door came out and told us to wait and not go in until he told us. ‘For’, he said, ‘the eleven are releasing Socrates from his fetters and giving directions how he is to die today.’ So after a little delay he came and told us to go in. We went in then and found Socrates just released from his fetters and Xanthippe – you know her – with his little son in her arms, sitting beside him. Now when Xanthippe saw us, she cried out and said the kind of thing that women always do say: ‘Oh Socrates, this is the last time now that your friends will speak to you or you to them.’ And Socrates glanced at Crito and said, ‘Crito, let somebody take her home.’ And some of Crito’s people took her away wailing and beating her breast. But Socrates sat up on his couch and bent his leg and rubbed it with his hand, and while he was rubbing it, he said, ‘What a strange thing, my friends, that seems to be which men call pleasure! How wonderfully it is related to that which seems to be its opposite, pain, in that they will not both come to a man at the same time, and yet if he pursues the one and captures it, he is generally obliged to take the other also, as if the two were joined together in one head. And I think’, he said, ‘if Aesop had thought of them, he would have made a fable telling how they were at war and god wished to reconcile them, and when he could not do that, he fastened their heads together, and for that reason, when one of them comes to anyone, the other follows after. Just so it seems that in my case, after pain was in my leg on account of the fetter, pleasure appears to have come following after.’

When he had finished speaking, Crito said, ‘Well, Socrates, do you wish to leave any directions with us about your children or anything else—anything we can do to serve you?’

‘What I always say, Crito,’ he replied, ‘nothing new. If you take care of yourselves you will serve me and mine and yourselves, whatever you do, even if you make no promises now; but if you neglect yourselves and are not willing to live following step by step, as it were, in the path marked out by our present and past discussions, you will accomplish nothing, no matter how much or how eagerly you promise at present.’

‘We will certainly try hard to do as you say,’ he replied. ‘But how shall we bury you?’

‘However you please,’ he replied, ‘if you can catch me and I do not get away from you.’ And he laughed gently, and looking towards us, said, ‘I cannot persuade Crito, my friends, that the Socrates who is now conversing and arranging the details of his argument is really I; he thinks I am the one whom he will presently see as a corpse, and he asks how to bury me. And though I have been saying at great length that after I drink the poison I shall no longer be with you, but shall go away to the joys of the blessed you know of, he seems to think that was idle talk uttered to encourage you and myself. ‘So,’ he said, ‘give security for me to Crito, the opposite of that which he gave the judges at my trial; for he gave security that I would remain, but you must give security that I shall not remain when I die, but shall go away, so that Crito may bear it more easily, and may not be troubled when he sees my body being burned or buried, or think I am undergoing terrible treatment, and may not say at the funeral that he is laying out Socrates, or following him to the grave, or burying him. For, dear Crito, you may be sure that such wrong words are not only undesirable in themselves, but they infect the soul with evil. No, you must be of good courage, and say that you bury my body – and bury it as you think best and as seems to you most fitting.’

When he had said this, he got up and went into another room to bathe; Crito followed him, but he told us to wait. So we waited, talking over with each other and discussing the discourse we had heard, and then speaking of the great misfortune that had befallen us, for we felt that he was like a father to us and that when bereft of him we should pass the rest of our lives as orphans. And when he had bathed and his children had been brought to him—for he had two little sons and one big one—and the women of the family had come, he talked with them in Crito’s presence and gave them such directions as he wished; then he told the women to go away, and he came to us. And it was now nearly sunset; for he had spent a long time within. And he came and sat down fresh from the bath. After that not much was said, and the servant of the eleven came and stood beside him and said ‘Socrates, I shall not find fault with you, as I do with others, for being angry and cursing me, when at the behest of the authorities, I tell them to drink the poison. No, I have found you in all this time in every way the noblest and gentlest and best man who has ever come here, and now I know your anger is directed against others, not against me, for you know who are to blame. Now, for you know the message I came to bring you, farewell and try to bear what you must as easily as you can.’ And he burst into tears and turned and went away. And Socrates looked up at him and said, ‘Fare you well, too; I will do as you say.’ And then he said to us, ‘How charming the man is! Ever since I have been here he has been coming to see me and talking with me from time to time, and has been the best of men, and now how nobly he weeps for me! But come, Crito, let us obey him, and let someone bring the poison, if it is ready; and if not, let the man prepare it.’ And Crito said, ‘But I think, Socrates, the sun is still upon the mountains and has not yet set; and I know that others have taken the poison very late, after the order has come to them, and in the meantime have eaten and drunk and some of them enjoyed the society of those whom they loved. Do not hurry; for there is still time.’

And Socrates said, ‘Crito, those whom you mention are right in doing as they do, for they think they gain by it; and I shall be right in not doing as they do; for I think I should gain nothing by taking the poison a little later. I should only make myself ridiculous in my own eyes if I clung to life and spared it, when there is no more profit in it. Come,’ he said, ‘do as I ask and do not refuse.’

Thereupon Crito nodded to the boy who was standing near. The boy went out and stayed a long time, then came back with the man who was to administer the poison, which he brought with him in a cup ready for use. And when Socrates saw him, he said, ‘Well, my good man, you know about these things; what must I do?’ ‘Nothing,’ he replied, ‘except drink the poison and walk about till your legs feel heavy; then lie down, and the poison will take effect of itself.’

At the same time he held out the cup to Socrates. He took it, and very gently, Echecrates, without trembling or changing colour or expression, but looking up at the man with wide open eyes, as was his custom, said, ‘What do you say about pouring a libation to some deity from this cup? May I, or not?’ ‘Socrates,’ said he, ‘we prepare only as much as we think is enough.’ ‘I understand,’ said Socrates; ‘but I may and must pray to the gods that my departure hence be a fortunate one; so I offer this prayer, and may it be granted.’ With these words he raised the cup to his lips and very cheerfully and quietly drained it. Up to that time most of us had been able to restrain our tears fairly well, but when we watched him drinking and saw that he had drunk the poison, we could do so no longer, but in spite of myself my tears rolled down in floods, so that I wrapped my face in my cloak and wept for myself; for it was not for him that I wept, but for my own misfortune in being deprived of such a friend. Crito had got up and gone away even before I did, because he could not restrain his tears. But Apollodorus, who had been weeping all the time before, then wailed aloud in his grief and made us all break down, except Socrates himself. But he said, ‘What conduct is this, you strange men! I sent the women away chiefly for this very reason, that they might not behave in this absurd way; for I have heard that it is best to die in silence. Keep quiet and be brave.’ Then we were ashamed and controlled our tears. He walked about and, when he said his legs were heavy, lay down on his back, for such was the advice of the attendant. The man who had administered the poison laid his hands on him and after a while examined his feet and legs, then pinched his foot hard and asked if he felt it. He said ‘No’; then after that, his thighs; and passing upwards in this way he showed us that he was growing cold and rigid. And again he touched him and said that when it reached his heart, he would be gone. The chill had now reached the region about the groin, and uncovering his face, which had been covered, he said – and these were his last words – ‘Crito, we owe a cock to Aesculapius. Pay it and do not neglect it.’ ‘That’, said Crito, ‘shall be done; but see if you have anything else to say.’ To this question he made no reply, but after a little while he moved; the attendant uncovered him; his eyes were fixed. And Crito when he saw it, closed his mouth and eyes.

Such was the end, Echecrates, of our friend, who was, as we may say, of all those of his time whom we have known, the best and wisest and most righteous man.


Published in: on January 23, 2010 at 2:16 PM  Leave a Comment  

As first consul, Napoleon often worked a sixteen-hour day. He expected that the Council of State would have stamina and zeal to match his own. One night when the councillors began to doze off, he reprimanded them, “Do let’s keep awake, citizens. It’s only two o’clock. We must earn our salaries.” These superhuman efforts were much applauded by Napoleon’s admirers, but not by royalists. One such admirer, singing the first consul’s praises, remarked, “God made Bonaparte and then rested.” An emigre count commented, “God should have rested a little earlier.”

Published in: on January 22, 2010 at 10:10 PM  Leave a Comment  

University Days

James Thurber

FROM James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times

I PASSED all the other courses that I took at my university, but I could never pass botany. This was because all botany students had to spend several hours a week in a laboratory looking through a microscope at plant cells, and I could never see through a microscope. I never once saw a cell through a microscope. This used to enrage my instructor. He would wander around the laboratory pleased with the progress all the students were making in drawing the involved and, so I am told, interesting structure of flower cells, until he came to me. I would just be standing there. “I can’t see anything,” I would say. He would begin patiently enough, explaining how anybody can see through a microscope, but he would always end up in a fury, claiming that I could too see through a microscope but just pretended that I couldn’t. “It takes away from the beauty of flowers anyway,” I used to tell him. “We are not concerned with beauty in this course,” he would say. “We are concerned solely with what I may call the mechanics of flars.” “Well,” I’d say, “I can’t see anything.” “Try it just once again,” he’d say, and I would put my eye to the microscope and see nothing at all, except now and again, a nebulous milky substance—a phenomenon of maladjustment. You were supposed to see a vivid, restless clockwork of sharply defined plant cells. “I see what looks like a lot of milk,” I would tell him. This, he claimed, was the result of my not having adjusted the microscope properly; so he would readjust it for me, or rather, for himself. And I would look again and see milk.

I finally took a deferred pass, as they called it, and waited a year and tried again. (You had to pass one of the biological sciences or you couldn’t graduate.) The professor had come back from vacation brown as a berry, bright-eyed, and eager to explain cell-structure again to his classes. “Well,” he said to me, cheerily, when we met in the first laboratory hour of the semester, “we’re going to see cells this time, aren’t we?” “Yes, sir,” I said. Students to right of me and to left of me and in front of me were seeing cells; what’s more, they were quietly drawing pictures of them in their notebooks. Of course, I didn’t see anything.

“We’ll try it,” the professor said to me, grimly, “with every adjustment of the microscope known to man. As God is my witness, I’ll arrange this glass so that you see cells through it or I’ll give up teaching. In twenty-two years of botany, I—” He cut off abruptly for he was beginning to quiver all over, like Lionel Barrymore, and he genuinely wished to hold onto his temper; his scenes with me had taken a great deal out of him.

So we tried it with every adjustment of the microscope known to man. With only one of them did I see anything but blackness or the familiar lacteal opacity, and that time I saw, to my pleasure and amazement, a variegated constellation of flecks, specks, and dots. These I hastily drew. The instructor, noting my activity, came back from an adjoining desk, a smile on his lips and his eyebrows high in hope. He looked at my cell drawing. “What’s that?” he demanded, with a hint of a squeal in his voice. “That’s what I saw,” I said. “You didn’t, you didn’t, you didn’t!” he screamed, losing control of his temper instantly, and he bent over and squinted into the: microscope. His head snapped up. “That’s your eye!” he shouted. “You’ve fixed the lens so that it reflects! You’ve drawn your eye!”

Another course that I didn’t like, but somehow managed to pass, was economics. I went to that class straight from the botany class, which didn’t help me any in understanding either subject. I used to get them mixed up. But not as mixed up as another student in my economics class who came there direct from a physics laboratory. He was a tackle on the football ball team, named Bolenciecwcz. At that time Ohio State University had one of the best football teams in the country, and Bolenciecwcz was one of its outstanding stars. In order to be eligible to play it was necessary for him to keep up in his studies, a very difficult matter, for while he was not dumber than an ox he was not any smarter. Most of his professors were lenient and helped him along. None gave him more hints, in answering questions, or asked him simpler ones than the economics professor, a thin, timid man named Bassum. One day when we were on the subject of transportation and distribution, it came Bolenciecwcz’s turn to answer a question. “Name one means of transportation,” the professor said to him. No light came into the big tackle’s eyes. “Just any means of transportation,” said the professor. Bolenciecwcz sat staring at him. “That is,” pursued the professor, “any medium, agency, or method of going from one place to another.” Bolenciecwcz had the look of a man who is being led into a trap. “You may choose among steam, horse-drawn, or electrically propelled vehicles,” said the instructor. “I might suggest the one which we commonly take in making long journeys across land.” There was a profound silence in which everybody stirred uneasily, including Bolenciecwcz and Mr. Bassum. Mr. Bassum abruptly broke this silence in an amazing manner. “Choo-choo-choo,” he said, in a low voice, and turned instantly scarlet. He glanced appealingly around the room. All of us, of course, shared Mr. Bassum’s desire that Bolenciecwcz should stay abreast of the class in economics, for the Illinois game, one of the hardest and most important of the season, was only a week off. “Toot, toot, too-toooooootf” some student with a deep voice moaned, and we all looked encouragingly at Bolenciecwcz. Somebody else gave a fine imitation of a locomotive letting off steam. Mr. Bassum himself rounded off the little show. “Ding, dong, ding, dong,” he said, hopefully. Bolenciecwcz was staring at the floor now, trying to think, his great brow furrowed, his huge hands rubbing together, his face red.

“How did you come to college this year, Mr. Bolenciecwcz?” asked the professor. “Chuffa chuffa, chuffa chuffa.”

“M’father sent me,” said the football player.

“What on?” asked Bassum.

“I git an ‘lowance,” said the tackle, in a low, husky voice, obviously embarrassed.

“No, no,” said Bassum. “Name a means of transportation. What did you ride here on?”

“Train,” said Bolenciecwcz.

“Quite right,” said the professor. “Now, Mr. Nugent, will you tell us—”

If I went through anguish in botany and economics—for different reasons—gymnasium work was even worse. I don’t even like to think about it. They wouldn’t let you play games or join in the exercises with your glasses on and I couldn’t see with mine off. I bumped into professors, horizontal bars, agricultural students, and swinging iron rings. Not being able to see, I could take it but I couldn’t dish it out. Also, in order to pass gymnasium (and you had to pass it to graduate) you had to learn to swim if you didn’t know how. I didn’t like the swimming pool, I didn’t like swimming, and I didn’t like the swimming instructor, and after all these years I still don’t. I never swam but I passed my gym work anyway, by having another student give my gymnasium number (978) and swim across the pool in my place. He was a quiet, amiable blonde youth, number 473, and he would have seen through a microscope for me if we could have got away with it, but we couldn’t get away with it. Another thing I didn’t like about gymnasium work was that they made you strip the day you registered. It is impossible for me to be happy when I am stripped and being asked a lot of questions. Still, I did better than a lanky agricultural student who was cross examined just before I was. They asked each student what college he was in—that is, whether Arts, Engineering, Commerce, or Agriculture. “What college are you in?” the instructor snapped at the youth in front of me. “Ohio State University,” he said promptly.

It wasn’t that agricultural student but it was another a whole lot like him who decided to take up journalism, possibly on the ground that when farming went to hell he could fall back on newspaper work. He didn’t realize, of course, that that would be very much like falling back full-length on a kit of carpenter’s tools. Haskins didn’t seem cut out for journalism, being too embarrassed to talk to anybody and unable to use a typewriter, but the editor of the college paper assigned him to the cow barns, the sheep house, the horse pavilion, and the animal husbandry department generally. This was a genuinely big “beat,” for it took up five times as much ground and got ten times as great a legislative appropriation as the College of Liberal Arts. The agricultural student knew animals, but nevertheless his stories were dull and colorlessly written. He took all afternoon on each of them, because he had to hunt for each letter on the typewriter. Once in a while he had to ask somebody to help him hunt. “C” and “L,” in particular, were hard letters for him to find. His editor finally got pretty much annoyed at the farmer-journalist because his pieces were so uninteresting. “See here, Haskins,” he snapped at him one day, “why is it we never have anything hot from you on the horse pavilion? Here we have two hundred head of horses on this campus—more than any other university in the Western Conference except Purdue—and yet you never get any real low-down on them. Now shoot over to the horse barns and dig up something lively.” Haskins shambled out and came back in about an hour; he said he had something. “Well, start it off snappily,” said the editor. “Something people will read.” Haskins set to work and in a couple of hours brought a sheet of typewritten paper to the desk; it was a two-hundred word story about some disease that had broken out among the horses. Its opening sentence was simple but arresting. It read: “Who has noticed the sores on the tops of the horses in the animal husbandry building?”

Ohio State was a land grant university and therefore two years of military drill was compulsory. We drilled with old Springfield rifles and studied the tactics of the Civil War even though the World War was going on at the time. At II o’clock each morning thousands of freshmen and sophomores used to deploy over the campus, moodily creeping up on the old chemistry building. It was good training for the kind of warfare that was waged at Shiloh but it had no connection with what was going on in Europe. Some people used to think there was German money behind it, but they didn’t dare say so or they would have been thrown in jail as German spies. It was a period of muddy thought and marked, I believe, the decline of higher education in the Middle West.

As a soldier I was never any good at all. Most of the cadets were glumly indifferent soldiers, but I was no good at all. Once General Littlefield, who was commandant of the cadet corps, popped up in front of me during regimental drill and snapped, “You are the main trouble with this university!” I think he meant that my type was the main trouble with the university but he may have meant me individually. I was mediocre at drill, certainly that is, until my senior year. By that time I had drilled longer than anybody else in the Western Conference, having failed at military at the end of each preceding year so that I had to do it all over again. I was the only senior still in uniform. The uniform which, when new, had made me look like an interurban railway conductor, now that it had become faded and too tight, made me look like Bert Williams in his bell-boy act. This had a definitely bad effect on my morale. Even so, I had become by sheer practise little short of wonderful at squad manoeuvres.

One day General Littlefield picked our company out of the whole regiment and tried to get it mixed up by putting it through one movement after another as fast as we could execute them: squads right, squads left, squads on right into line, squads right about, squads left front into line, etc. In about three minutes one hundred and nine men were marching in one direction and I was marching away from them at an angle of forty-five degrees, all alone. “Company, halt!” shouted General Littlefield, “That man is the only man who has it right!” I was made a corporal for my achievement.

The next day General Littlefield summoned me to his office. He was swatting flies when I went in. I was silent and he was silent too, for a long time. I don’t think he remembered me or why he had sent for me, but he didn’t want to admit it. He swatted some more flies, keeping his eyes on them narrowly before he let go with the swatter. “Button up your coat!” he snapped. Looking back on it now I can see that he meant me although he was looking at a fly, but I just stood there. Another fly came to rest on a paper in front of the general and began rubbing its hind legs together. The general lifted the swatter cautiously. I moved restlessly and the fly flew away. “You startled him!” barked General Littlefield, looking at me severely. I said I was sorry. “That won’t help the situation!” snapped the General, with cold military logic. I didn’t see what I could do except offer to chase some more flies toward his desk, but I didn’t say anything. He stared out the window at the faraway figures of coeds crossing the campus toward the library. Finally, he told me I could go. So I went. He either didn’t know which cadet I was or else he forgot what he wanted to see me about. It may have been that he wished to apologize for having called me the main trouble with the university; or maybe he had decided to compliment me on my brilliant drilling of the day before and then at the last minute decided not to. I don’t know. I don’t think about it much any more.


Published in: on January 22, 2010 at 2:11 PM  Comments (1)  
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Eyewitness: Suttee, C. 1650

Suttee, 1826

Jean-Baptiste Tavernier

It is also an ancient custom among the idolaters of India that on a man dying his widow can never remarry; as soon, therefore, as he is dead she retires to weep for her husband, and some days afterwards her hair is shaved off, and she despoils herself of all the ornaments with which her person was adorned; she removes from her arms and legs the bracelets which her husband had given her, when espousing her, as a sign that she was to be submissive and bound to him, and she remains for the rest of her life without any consideration, and worse than a slave, in the place where previously she was mistress. This miserable condition causes her to detest life, and prefer to ascend a funeral pile to be consumed alive with the body of her deceased husband, rather than be regarded by all the world for the remainder of her days with opprobrium and infamy. Besides this the Brahmans induce women to hope that by dying in this way, with their husbands, they will live again with them in some other world with more glory and more comfort than they have previously enjoyed. These are the two reasons which make these unhappy women resolve to bum themselves with the bodies of their husbands; to which it should be added that the priests encourage them with the hope that at the moment they are in the fire, before they yield up their souls, Ram will reveal wonderful things to them, and that after the soul has passed through several bodies it will attain to an exalted degree of glory for all eternity.

But it should be remarked that a woman cannot burn herself with the body of her husband without having received permission from the governor of the place where she dwells, and those governors who are Musalmans, hold this dreadful custom of self-destruction in horror, and do not readily give permission. On the other hand, it is only childless widows who can be reproached for not having loved their husbands if they have not had courage to burn themselves after their death, and to whom this want of courage will be for the remainder of their lives a cause of reproach. For widows who have children are not permitted under any circumstances to bum themselves with the bodies of their husbands; and so far from custom obliging them, it is ordained that they shall live to watch over the education of their children. Those to whom the governors peremptorily refuse to grant permission to burn themselves pass the remainder of their lives in severe penances and in doing charitable deeds. There are some who frequent the great highways either to boil water with vegetables, and give it as a drink to passers-by, or to keep fire always ready to light the pipes of those who desire to smoke tobacco. There are others among them who make a vow to eat nothing but what they find undigested in the droppings of oxen, cows, and buffaloes, and do still more absurd things.

The governor, seeing that all remonstrances with women, who are urged to burn themselves even by their relatives and by the Brahmans, fail to turn them from the damnable resolution which they have taken to die in so cruel a fashion, when his secretary indicates by a sign that he has received a bribe, at length allows them to do what they wish, and in a rage tells all the idolaters who accompany them that they may ‘go to the devil’.

Immediately on permission being obtained, all kinds of music are heard, and with the sound of drums, flutes, and other instruments, all go to the house of the deceased, and thence, as I have said, accompany the body to the margin of a river or tank, where it is to be burned.

All the relatives and friends of the widow who desires to die after her husband congratulate her beforehand on the good fortune which she is about to acquire in the other world, and on the glory which all the members of the caste derive from her noble resolution. She dresses herself as for her wedding day, and is conducted in triumph to the place where she is to be burned. A great noise is made with instruments of music and the voices of the women who follow, singing hymns to the glory of the unhappy one who is about to die. The Brahmans accompanying her exhort her to show resolution and courage, and many Europeans believe that in order to remove the fear of that death which man naturally abhors, she is given some kind of drink that takes away her senses and removes all apprehension which the preparations for her death might occasion. It is for the interest of the Brahmans that these unhappy women maintain the resolution they have taken to burn themselves, for all the bracelets which they wear, both on arms and legs, with their ear-rings and rings, belong of right to the Brahmans, who search for them in the ashes after the women are burned. According to the station and wealth of the women, the bracelets, ear-rings, and rings are either of gold or silver; the poorest wear them of copper and tin; but as for precious stones, they do not wear them at all when going to be burned.

I have seen women burned in three different ways, according to the customs of different countries. In the Kingdom of Gujarat, and as far as Agra and Delhi, this is how it takes place: On the margin of a river or tank, a kind of small hut, about twelve feet square, is built of reeds and all kinds of faggots, with which some pots of oil and other drugs are placed in order to make it burn quickly. The woman is seated in a half-reclining position in the middle of the hut, her head reposes on a kind of pillow of wood, and she rests her back against a post, to which she is tied by her waist by one of the Brahmans, for fear lest she should escape on feeling the flame. In this position she holds the dead body of her husband on her knees, chewing betel all the time; and after having been about half an hour in this condition, the Brahman who has been by her side in the hut goes outside, and she calls out to the priests to apply the fire; this the Brahmans, and the relatives and friends of the woman who are present immediately do, throwing into the fire some pots of oil, so that the woman may suffer less by being quickly consumed. After the bodies have been reduced to ashes, the Brahmans take whatever is found in the way of melted gold, silver, tin, or copper, derived from the bracelets, ear-rings, and rings which the woman had on; this belongs to them by right, as I have said.

In the Kingdom of Bengal women are burned in another manner. A woman in that country must be very poor if she does not come with the body of her husband to the bank of the Ganges to wash it after he is dead, and to bathe herself before being burned. I have seen them come to the Ganges more than twenty days’ journey, the bodies being by that time altogether putrid, and emitting an unbearable odour. There was one of them who came from the north, near the frontiers of the Kingdom of Bhutan, with the body of her husband which she had conveyed in a carriage, and travelled all the way on foot herself, without eating for fifteen or sixteen days, till she arrived at the Ganges, where after washing the body of her husband, which stank horribly, and bathing herself also, she had herself burned with him with a determination which surprised those who saw it. I was there at the time. As throughout the course of the Ganges, and also in all Bengal, there is but little fuel, these poor women send to beg for wood out of charity to burn themselves with the dead bodies of their husbands. A funeral pile is prepared for them, which is like a bed, with its pillow of small wood and reeds, in which pots of oil and other drugs are placed in order to consume the body quickly. The woman who intends to burn herself, preceded by drums, flutes, and hautboys, and adorned with her most beautiful jewels, comes dancing to the funeral pile, and ascending it she places herself, half-lying, half-seated. Then the body of her husband is laid across her, and all the relatives and friends bring her, one a letter, another a piece of cloth, this one flowers, that one pieces of silver or copper, asking her to give this from me to my mother, or to my brother, or to some relative or friend, whoever the dead person may be whom they have most loved while alive. When the woman sees that they bring her nothing more, she asks those present three times whether they have any more commissions for her, and if they do not reply she wraps all they have brought in a taffeta, which she places between her lap and the back of the body of her dead husband, calling upon the priests to apply fire to the funeral pile. This the Brahmans and the relatives do simultaneously. There is, as I have remarked, but little wood in the Kingdom of Bengal; so as soon as these miserable women are dead and half burned, their bodies are thrown into the Ganges with those of their husbands, where they are eaten by the crocodiles.

I should not forget here an evil custom which is practised among the idolaters of the same Kingdom of Bengal. When a woman is delivered, and the infant, as often happens, is unwilling to take its mother’s breast it is carried outside the village and placed in a cloth, which is tied by the four corners to the branches of a tree, and is thus left from morning to evening. In this way the poor infant is exposed to the crows, which torment it, and some have been found whose eyes have been torn out of their heads, which is the reason why many idolaters are seen in Bengal who have but one eye, and others who have both injured or altogether gone. In the evening the infant is taken to try whether it is willing to suckle during the following night, and should it happen that it still refuses the breast, it is taken back on the following day to the same place; this is done for three days in succession, after which, if the infant is unwilling to take the breast, in the belief that it is a demon, they cast it into the Ganges, or some other river or tank which is nearer at hand. In places where there are many monkeys these poor children are not so exposed to the attacks of crows, for this reason, that as soon as a monkey discovers a nest of these birds he climbs the tree, and throws the nest on one side and the eggs on the other. On the other hand, there are among the English, Dutch, and Portuguese charitable persons who, moved to compassion for the misfortune of these infants, remove them when they are thus exposed and hung in a tree and take care to have them brought up as I have once seen an example of at Hugly; this is done in the places near their factories.

Let us see now what is the practice along the coast of Coromandel when women are going to be burned with the bodies of their deceased husbands. A large hole of nine or ten feet deep, and twenty-five or thirty feet square, is dug, into which plenty of wood is thrown, with many drugs to make it burn quickly. When the hole is well heated, the body of the husband is placed on the edge, and then his wife comes dancing, and chewing betel, accompanied by all her relatives and friends, and with the sound of drums and cymbals. The woman then makes three turns round the hole, and at each time she embraces all her relatives and friends. When she completes the third turn the Brahmans throw the body of the deceased into the fire, and the woman, with her back turned towards the hole, is pushed by the Brahmans, and falls in backwards. Then all the relatives throw pots of oil and other drugs of that kind, as I have said is elsewhere done, so that the bodies may be the the sooner consumed. In the greater part of the same Coromandel coast the woman does not burn herself with the body of her deceased husband, but allows herself to be interred, while alive, with him in a hole which the Brahmans dig in the ground, about one foot deeper than the height of the man or woman. They generally select a sandy spot, and when they have placed the man and woman in the hole, each of their friends fills a basket of sand, and throws it on the bodies until the hole is full and heaped over, half a foot higher than the ground, after which they jump and dance upon it till they are certain that the woman is smothered.


[Note: Suttee, properly known as sati, was officially banned by the British in 1829 but has never been completely stamped out. About 40 cases have been reported since Indian independence in 1947, mostly in the northwest state of Rajasthan, home of the traditional Rajput warrior caste. One instance in 1987 became a cause celebre, with some Indian women, believe it or not, demanding the right to immolate themselves. Gives new meaning to that old Hindu chant, I’m a Hunka Hunka Burnin’ Love.]

Published in: on January 21, 2010 at 12:56 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Eyewitness: The Pilgrims Land, November 1620

The Pilgrims Land

Landing in New England, November 1620

William Bradford

New England had been named by Captain John Smith, who explored its shores in 1614. The first permanent settlement was made at Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620 by the ‘Pilgrim Fathers’ aboard the Mayflower, whose arrival is described here.

About ten a clocke we came into a deepe Valley, full of brush, wood-gaile, and long grasse, through which wee found little paths or tracts, and there we saw a Deere, and found Springs of fresh Water, of which we were hartily glad, and sat us downe and drunke our first New England Water, with as much delight as ever we drunke drinke in all our lives.

When we had refreshed ourselves, we directed our course full South, that wee might come to the shoare, which within a short while after we did, and there made a fire, that they in the Ship might see where we were (as wee had direction) and so marched on towards this supposed River: and as we went in another Valley, we found a fine cleere Pond of fresh water, being about a Musket shot broad, and twice as long: there grew also many small Vines, and Fowle and Deere haunted there; there grew much Sasafras: from thence we went on and found much plain ground about fiftie Acres, fit for the Plow, and some signes where the Indians had formerly planted their Corne: after this, some thought it best for nearnesse of the River to goe downe and travaile on the Sea sands, by which meanes some of our men were tired, and lagged behinde, so we stayed and gathered them up, and strucke into the Land againe; where we found a little path to certaine heapes of Sand, one whereof was covered with old Mats, and had a wooden thing like a Morter whelmed on the top of it, and an earthen pot laid in a little hole at the end thereof; we musing what it might be, digged and found a Bowe, and as we thought, Arrowes, but they were rotten; We supposed there were many other things, but because we deemed them graves, we put in the Bow againe and made it up as it was, and left the rest untouched, because we thought it would be odious unto them to ransacke their Sepulchers. We went on further and found new stubble of which they had gotten Corne this yeare, and many Walnut trees full of Nuts, and great store of Strawberries, and some Vines; passing thus a field or two, which were not great, we came to another, which had also bin new gotten, and there wee found where an house had beene, and foure or five old Plankes laied together; also we found a great Kettle, which had beene some Ships kettle and brought out of Europe; there was also an heape of sand, made like the former, but it was newly done, wee might see how they had padled it with their hands, which we digged up, and in it we found a little old Basket full of faire Indian Corne, and digged further, and found a fine great new Basket full of very faire Corne of this yeare, with some sixe and thirty goodly eares of Corne, some yellow, and some red, and others mixt with blew, which was a very goodly sight: the Basket was round, and narrow at the top, it held about three or foure bushels, which was as much as two of us could lift up from the ground, and was very handsomely and cunningly made: But whilst we were busie about these things, we set our men Sentinell in a round ring, all but two or three which digged up the Corne. Wee were in suspense, what to doe with it, and the Kettle, and at length after much consultation, we concluded to take the Kettle, and as much of the Corne as wee could carry away with us: and when our Shallop came if we could finde any of the people, and came to parley with them, wee would give them the Kettle againe, and satisfie them for their Corne. . .

When wee had marched five or six miles into the Woods, and could find no signes of any people, wee returned againe another way, and as we came into the plaine ground, wee found a place like a grave, but it was much bigger and longer than any wee had yet seene. It was also covered with boords, so as wee mused what it should be, and resolved to dig it up; where we found, first a Mat, and under that a faire Bow, and there another Mat, and under that a Boord about three quarters long, finely carved and painted, with three Tynes, or broches on the top, like a Crown; also betweene the Mats we found Bowles, Trayes, Dishes, and such like Trinkets; at length wee came to a faire new Mat, and under that two Bundles, the one bigger, the other lesse, we opened the greater and found in it a great quantitie of fine and perfect Red Powder, and in it the bones and skull of a man. The skull had fine yellow haire still on it, and some of the flesh unconsumed; there was bound up with a Knife, a Packneedle, and two or three old Iron things. It was bound up in a Saylers Canvas Casacke, and a payre of Cloth Breeches; the Red Powder was a kind of Embaulment, and yeelded a strong, but not offensive smell; It was as fine as any Flower. We opened the lesse bundle like wise, and found of the same Powder in it, and the bones and head of a little childe, about the legges, and other parts of it was Bound strings, and Bracelets of fine white Beads; there was also by it a little Bow, about three quarters long, and some other odde knackes: we brought sundry of the pretiest things away with us, and covered the Corps up againe . . .

We went ranging up and downe till the Sunne began to draw low, and then we hasted out of the Woods, that we might come to our Shallop. By that time we had done, and our Shallop come to us it was within night, and we fed upon such victualls as we had, and betooke us to our rest after we had set out our watch. About midnight we heard a great and hideous cry, and our Sentinell called, ‘Arme, Arme.’ So we bestirred our selves and shot off a couple of Muskets and noise ceased: we concluded, that it was a company of Wolves & Foxes, for one told us he had heard such a noise in Newfound-land. About five a clocke in the morning we began to be stirring. . . upon a sudden wee heard a great & strange cry which we knew to be the same voices, though they varied their notes; one of the company being abroad came running in, and cried, ‘They are men, Indians, Indians’; and with all, their Arrowes came flying amongst us, our men ran out with all speed to recover their Armes . . . The cry of our enemies was dreadfull, especially, when our men ran out to recover their Armes, their note was after this manner, ‘Woath woach ha ha hach woach’: our men were no sooner come to their Armes, but the enemy was readie to assault them.

There was a lustie man, and no whit lesse valiant, who was thought to be their Captain, stood behind a Tree within halfe a Musket shot of us, and there let his Arrowes flie at us; hee stood three shots off a Musket, at length one tooke as he said full ayme at him, after which he gave an extraordinarie cry and away they went all, wee followed them about a quarter of a mile, but wee left sixe to keepe our Shallop, for wee were carefull of our businesse . . . We tooke up eighteene of their Arrowes, which wee had sent to England by Master Jones, some whereof were headed with brasse, others with Harts horne, and others with Eagles dawes; many more no doubt were shot, for these wee found were almost covered with leaves: yet by the speciall providence of God, none of them either hit or hurt us . . . On Munday we found a very good Harbour for our shipping, we marched also into the Land, and found divers corne Fields and little running Brookes, a place verie good for scituation, so we returned to our Ship againe with good newes to the rest of our people, which did much comfort their hearts.


Published in: on January 20, 2010 at 12:26 PM  Leave a Comment  

At a Hollywood premiere the important limousines kept drawing up in front of the marquee. Then came a dilapidated Ford and out of it, faultlessly dressed, stepped Wilson Mizner. He threw his keys at the parking attendant, who in turn looked with contempt at Mizner’s rattletrap. “What shall I do with it?” he asked. “Keep it,” said Mizner and strode into the theater.

Published in: on January 17, 2010 at 3:48 PM  Leave a Comment  

George Bernard Shaw at Mother’s Funeral

George Bernard Shaw

GBS at his Mother’s Funeral, 22 February 1914

George Bernard Shaw

Why does a funeral always sharpen one’s sense of humor and rouse one’s spirits? This one was a complete success. No burial horrors. No mourners in black, snivelling and wallowing in induced grief. Nobody knew except myself, Barker & the undertaker. Since I could not have a splendid procession with lovely colors and flashing life and triumphant music, it was best with us three. I particularly mention the undertaker because the humor of the occasion began with him. I went down in the tube to Golders Green with Barker, and walked to the crematorium; and there came also the undertaker presently with his hearse, which had walked (the horse did) conscientiously at a funeral pace through the cold; though my mother would have preferred an invigorating trot. The undertaker approached me in the character of a man shattered with grief; and I, hard as nails and in loyally high spirits (rejoicing irrepressibly in my mother’s memory), tried to convey to him that this professional chicanery, as I took it to be, was quite unnecessary. And lo! it wasn’t professional chicanery at all. He had done all sorts of work for her for years, and was actually and really in a state about losing her, not merely as a customer, but as a person he liked and was accustomed to. And the coffin was covered with violet cloth – no black.

I must rewrite the burial service; for there are things in it that are deader than anyone it has ever been read over; but I had it read not only because the parson must live by his fees, but because with all its drawbacks it is the most beautiful thing that can be read as yet. And the parson did not gabble and hurry in the horrible manner common on such occasions. With Barker & myself for his congregation (and Mamma) he did it with his utmost feeling and sincerity. We could have made him perfect technically in two rehearsals; but he was excellent as it was; and I shook his hand with unaffected gratitude in my best manner.

At the passage ‘earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust,’ there was a little alteration of the words to suit the process. A door opened in the wall; and the violet coffin mysteriously passed out through it and vanished as it closed. People think that door the door of the furnace; but it isnt. I went behind the scenes at the end of the service and saw the real thing. People are afraid to see it; but it is wonderful. I found there the violet coffin opposite another door, a real unmistakable furnace door. When it lifted there was a plain little chamber of cement and firebrick. No heat. No noise. No roaring draught. No flame. No fuel. It looked cool, clean, sunny, though no sun could get there. You would have walked in or put your hand in without misgiving. Then the violet coffin moved again and went in, feet first. And behold! The feet burst miraculously into streaming ribbons of garnet-colored lovely flame, smokeless and eager, like pentecostal tongues, and as the whole coffin passed in it sprang into flame all over; and my mother became that beautiful fire.

The door fell; and they said that if we wanted to see it all through, we should come back in an hour and a half. I remembered the wasted little figure with the wonderful face, and said ‘Too long’ to myself; but we went off and looked at the Hampstead Garden Suburb (in which I have shares), and telephoned messages to the theatre, and bought books, and enjoyed ourselves generally. . .

The end was wildly funny: she would have enjoyed it enormously. When we returned we looked down through an opening in the floor to a lower floor close below. There we saw a roomy kitchen, with a big cement table and two cooks busy at it. They had little tongs in their hands, and they were deftly and busily picking nails and scraps of coffin handles out of Mamma’s dainty little heap of ashes and samples of bone. Mamma herself being at that moment leaning over beside me, shaking with laughter. Then they swept her up into a sieve, and shook her out; so that there was a heap of dust and a heap of calcined bone scraps. And Mamma said in my ear, ‘Which of the two heaps is me, I wonder!’

And that merry episode was the end, except for making dust of the bone scraps and scattering them on a flower bed.

O grave, where is thy victory?


Published in: on January 17, 2010 at 12:00 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Eyewitness: The View from a Lifeboat

Titanic Sinking

The Titanic: From a Lifeboat, I5 April 1912

Mrs D H Bishop

We did not begin to understand the situation till we were perhaps a mile or more away from the Titanic. Then we could see the rows of lights along the decks begin to slant gradually upward from the bow. Very slowly the lines of light began to point downward at a greater and greater angle. The sinking was so slow that you could not perceive the lights of the deck changing their position. The slant seemed to be greater about every quarter of an hour. That was the only difference.

In a couple of hours, though, she began to go down more rapidly. Then the fearful sight began. The people in the ship were just beginning to realize how great their danger was. When the forward part of the ship dropped suddenly at a faster rate, so that the upward slope became marked, there was a sudden rush of passengers on all the decks towards the stern. It was like a wave. We could see the great black mass of people in the steerage sweeping to the rear part of the boat and breaking through into the upper decks. At the distance of about a mile we could distinguish everything through the night, which was perfectly clear. We could make out the increasing excitement on board the boat as the people, rushing to and fro, caused the deck lights to disappear and reappear as they passed iri front of them.

This panic went on, it seemed, for an hour. Then suddenly the ship seemed to shoot up out of the water and stand there perpendicularly. It seemed to us that it stood upright in the water for four full minutes.

Then it began to slide gently downwards. Its speed increased as it went down head first, so that the stern shot down with a rush.

The lights continued to burn till it sank. We could see the people packed densely in the stern till it was gone. . .

As the ship sank we could hear the screaming a mile away. Gradually it became fainter and fainter and died away. Some of the lifeboats that had room for more might have gone to their rescue, but it would have meant that those who were in the water would have swarmed aboard and sunk her.


Published in: on January 16, 2010 at 2:19 PM  Leave a Comment  

Eyewitness: Finding Robinson Crusoe

Mâs a Tierra Island

Robinson Crusoe Found, 2 February 1709

Woodes Rogers

Selkirk, prototype of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, was a shoemaker’s son who ran away to sea and joined a band of buccaneers. He was put ashore in September 1704 on the uninhabited Mâs a Tierra Island in the Juan Fernandez cluster, 400 miles west of Valparaiso, Chile.

[Spelling and punctuation are faithful to the original.]

Our pinnace return’d from the shore, and brought abundance of craw-fish with a man cloth’d in goat-skins, who look’d wilder than the first owners of them. He had been on the island four years and four months, being left there by Captain Stradling in the Cinque-Ports. His name was Alexander Selkirk, a Scotchman, who had been Master of the Cinque-Ports, a ship that came here last with Captain Dampier, who told me that this was the best man in her; so I immediately agreed with him to be a mate on board our ship.

‘Twas he that made the fire last night when he saw our ships, which he judg’d to be English. During his stay here he saw several ships pass by but only two came in to anchor. As he went to view them he found them to be Spanish and retired from ’em, upon which they shot at him. Had they been French, he would have submitted, but chose to risque dying alone on the Iland, rather than fall into the hands of the Spaniards in these parts, because he apprehended they would murder him, or make a slave of him in the mines; for he fear’d they would spare no stranger that might be capable of discovering the South Sea. The Spaniards had landed before he knew what they were, and they came so near him that he had much ado to escape: for they not only shot at him, but pursue’d him into the woods, where he climb’d to the top of a tree at the foot of which they made water, and kill’d several goats just by, but went off again without discovering him. He told us he was born at Largo in the county of Fife, Scotland, and was bred a sailor from his youth. The reason of his being left here was a difference betwixt him and his captain. . . . He had with him his clothes and bedding, with a firelock, some powder, bullets, and tobacco, a hatchet, a knife, a kettle, a Bible, some practical pieces, and his mathematical instruments and books.

He diverted and provided for himself as well as he could; but for the tirst eight months had much ado to bear up against melancholy, and the terror of being left alone in such a desolate place. He built two huts with piemento trees, cover’d them with long grass, and lin’d them with the skins of goats which he killed with his gun as he wanted, so long as his powder lasted, which was but a pound, and that being near spent, he got fire by rubbing two sticks of piemento wood together upon his knee. In the lesser hut, at some distance from the other, he dressed his victuals, and in the larger he slept, and employed himself in reading, singing Psalms, and praying, so that he said he was a better Christian while in this solitude, than ever he was before, or than he was afraid he should ever be again. At tirst he never eat anything till hunger constrain’d him, partly for grief, and partly for want of bread and salt; nor did he go to bed till he could watch no longer. The piemento wood, which burnt very clear, serv’d him both for firing and candle, and refresh’d him with its fragrant smell. He might have had fish enough, but could not eat ’em for want of salt, because they occasion’d a looseness; except Crawfish, which are there as large as lobsters and very good. These he sometimes boiled, and at other times broiled as he did his goats flesh, of which he made very good broth, for they are not so rank as ours; he kept an account of 500 that he kill’d while there, and caught as many more, which he marked on the ear and let go. When his powder fail’d he took them by speed of foot; for his way of living, and continual exercise of walking and running, clear’d him of all gross humours, so that he ran with wonderful swiftness thro the woods, and up the rocks and hills, as we perceiv’d when we employ’d him to catch goats for us. We had a bull dog which we sent with several of our nimblest runners to help him in catching goats; but he distanc’d and tir’d both the dog and the men, catch’d the goats and brought ’em to us on his back. He told us that his agility in pursuing a goat had once like to have cost him his life; he pursue’d it with so much eagerness that he catch’d hold of it on the brink of a precipice of which he was not aware, the bushes having hid it from him so that he fell with the goat down the said precipice a great height, and was so stun’d and bruised with the fall that he narrowly escap’d with his life, and when he came to his senses found the goat dead under him. He lay there about 24 hours and was scarce able to crawl to his hut which was about a mile distant, or to stir abroad again in ten days. He came at last to relish his meat well enough without salt or bread, and in the season had plenty of good turnips which had been sow’d there by Captain Dampier’s men, and have now overspread some acres of ground. He had enough of good cabbage from the cabbage trees and season’d his meat with the fruit of the piemento trees, which is the same as the Jamaica pepper, and smells deliciously. He found there also a black pepper called Maragita, which was very good to expel wind, and against griping of the guts. He soon wore out all his shoes and clothes by running thro the woods; and at last, being forced to shift without them, his feet became so hard that he ran everywhere without annoyance, and it was some time before he could wear shoes after we found him. For not being used to any so long, his feet swelled when he came first to wear ’em again. After he had conquer’d his melancholy he diverted himself sometimes by cutting his name on the trees, and the time of his being left and continuance there. He was at first much pester’d with cats and rats, that had bred in great numbers from some of each species which had got ashore from ships that put in there to wood and water. The rats gnaw’d his feet and clothes while asleep, which obliged him to cherish the cats with his goats flesh; by which many of them became so tame that they would lie about him in hundreds, and soon deliver’d him from the rats.

He likewise tam’d some kids, and to divert himself would now and then sing and dance with them and his cats; so that by the care of Providence, and vigour of his youth, being now about 30 years old, he came at last to conquer all the inconveniences of his solitude and to be very easy. When his clothes wore out he made himself a coat and cap of goatskins, which he stitch’d together with little thongs of the same that he cut with his knife. He had no other needle but a nail, and when his knife was wore to the back, he made others as well as he could of some iron hoops that were left ashore, which he beat thin and ground upon stones. Having some linen cloth by him, he sow’d himself shirts with a nail and stitch’d ’em with the worsted of his old stockings, which he pull’d out on purpose. He had his last shirt on when we found him in the island.

At his first coming on board us, he had so much forgot his language for want of use, that we could scarce understand him, for he seemed to speak his words by halves. We offer’d him a dram, but he would not touch it, having drank nothing but water since his being there, and ’twas some time before he could relish our victuals. He could give us an account of no other product of the Island than what we have mentioned except small black plums, which are very good, but hard to come at, the trees which bear ’em growing on high mountains and rocks.


Here’s a bit more information on the subject that I trust some will find interesting:

In 1704, a 28-year-old Scottish sailor named Alexander Selkirk found himself in a fix. He had taken up privateering—piracy with an official seal, in other words—and had spent too much time cooped up on a galley with an irascible captain. Selkirk made a potentially catastrophic decision following his demotion after a squabble with the captain about the seaworthiness of their ship. He asked to be put ashore on the island pictured above. Though remote, the 36-square-mile island contained large stores of good water from which passing ships would replenish their supplies, and Selkirk apparently figured that it would not be long before another ship came along.

Selkirk had been in trouble before. He had gone to sea in the first place to escape punishment for “indecent carriage,” and local court records show that Selkirk and his kin were often hauled before the bench for fighting and public drunkenness. He had, as they say, issues with authority, and, once aboard ship, a tendency to scrap with his shipmates. He was moody and irascible, though he was also a devout reader of the Bible and a human jukebox of hymns.

Selkirk would remain on his island for about five years. Then, 300 years ago, in 1709, Selkirk was rescued by a British ship commanded by Woodes Rogers, author of the piece above, who was himself a privateer.

Ten years later, in 1719, the ever-enigmatic writer Daniel Defoe, who must have recognized something of himself in Selkirk, brought forth Robinson Crusoe.

When archaeologist Daisuke Takahashi explored what is now called Robinson Crusoe Island in 1994–95, he found that Selkirk had made a comfortable place for himself in a saddle below tall mountains about a mile from the sea, where he could keep an eye out for passing vessels and threats alike. As Takahashi writes, “the site at Aguas Buenas . . . is adjacent to a good supply of fresh water—a vigorous stream that tumbles down the valley to the sea in Cumberland Bay. The surrounding forest still provides many things to eat and in Selkirk’s day was probably full of goats.”

The Spanish had introduced the goats to the island a century earlier; the people did not remain long on that first attempt to settle, but the goats endured and live on the island still. In the 19th century, Chileans arrived, and about 600 people live on the island today, many employed in fishing and lobstering.

Rogers would become governor of the Bahamas in recognition of his success as a privateer for the English crown, and he suppressed the last of the pirate trade in the Caribbean.

Selkirk died aboard the HMS Weymouth off the coast of Ghana on December 13, 1721, having signed up for another stint at sea.

Defoe died on the run from creditors, having made and lost many fortunes besides the one he earned from Robinson Crusoe. And Selkirk’s island home is part of an extensive Chilean national park, named a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve in 1977 in recognition of its rare evergreen rainforest.


Published in: on January 15, 2010 at 1:07 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Eyewitness: The Bombing of Dresden, February 1945

Dresden before the bombing

The Bombing of Dresden by Margaret Freyer, survivor

Dresden, noted as one of the world’s most beautiful cities—’Florence on the Elbe’—was almost completely destroyed during 13-14 February 1945 by 800 British and US aircraft.

I stood by the entrance and waited until no flames came licking in, then I quickly slipped through and out into the street. I had my suitcase in one hand and was wearing a white fur coat which by now was anything but white. I also wore boots and long trousers. Those boots had been a lucky choice, it turned out.

Because of the flying sparks and the fire-storm I couldn’t see anything at first. A witches’ cauldron was waiting for me out there: no street, only rubble nearly a metre high, glass, girders, stones, craters. I tried to get rid of the sparks by constantly patting them off my coat. It was useless. I stopped doing it, stumbled, and someone behind me called out, ‘Take your coat off, it’s started to burn.’ In the pervading extreme heat I hadn’t even noticed. I took off the coat and dropped it.

Dresden after the bombing

Next to me a woman was screaming continually, ‘My den’s burning down, my den’s burning down,’ and dancing in the street. As I go on, I can still hear her screaming but I don’t see her again. I run, I stumble, anywhere. I don’t even know where I am any more. I’ve lost all sense of direction because all I can see is three steps ahead.

Suddenly I fall into a big hole – a bomb crater, about six metres wide and two metres deep, and I end up down there lying on top of three women. I shake them by their clothes and start to scream at them, telling them they must get out of here – but they don’t move any more. I believe I was severely shocked by this incident; I seemed to have lost all emotional feeling. Quickly, I climbed across the women, pulled my suitcase after me, and crawled on all fours out of the crater.

To my left I suddenly see a woman. I can see her to this day and shall never forget it. She carries a bundle in her arms. It is a baby. She runs, she falls, and the child flies in an arc into the fire. It’s only my eyes which take this in; I myself feel nothing. The woman remains lying on the ground, completely still. Why? What for? I don’t know, I just stumble on. The fire-storm is incredible, there are calls for help and screams from somewhere but all around is one single inferno. I hold another wet handkerchief in front of my mouth, my hands and my face are burning; it feels as if the skin is hanging down in strips.

On my right I see a big, burnt-out shop where lots of people are standing. I join them, but think, ‘No, I can’t stay here either, this place is completely surrounded by fire.’ I leave all these people behind, and stumble on. Where to? But every time towards those places where it is dark, in case there is no fire there. I have no conception of what the street actually looked like. But it is especially from those dark patches that the people come who wring their hands and cry the same thing over and over again: ‘You can’t carry on there, we’ve just come from there, everything is burning there!’ Wherever and to whomsoever I turn, always that same answer.

One of hundreds of such pyres

In front of me is something that might be a street, filled with a hellish rain of sparks which look like enormous rings of fire when they hit the ground. I have no choice. I must go through. I press another wet handkerchief to my mouth and almost get through, but I fall and am convinced that I cannot go on. It’s hot. Hot! My hands are burning like fire. I just drop my suitcase, I am past caring, and too weak. At least, there’s nothing to lug around with me any more.

I stumbled on towards where it was dark. Suddenly, I saw people again, right in front of me. They scream and gesticulate with their hands, and then – to my utter horror and amazement – I see how one after the other they simply seem to let themselves drop to the ground. I had a feeling that they were being shot, but my mind could not understand what was really happening. Today I know that these unfortunate people were the victims of lack of oxygen. They fainted and then burnt to cinders. I fall then, stumbling over a fallen woman and as I lie right next to her I see how her clothes are burning away. Insane fear grips me and from then on I repeat one simple sentence to myself continuously: ‘I don’t want to burn to death – no, no burning – I don’t want to burn!’ Once more I fall down and feel that I am not going to be able to get up again, but the fear of being burnt pulls me to my feet. Crawling, stumbling, my last handkerchief pressed to my mouth. . . I do not know how many people I fell over. I knew only one feeling: that I must not burn.

Then my handkerchiefs are all finished – it’s dreadfully hot – I can’t go on and I remain lying on the ground. Suddenly a soldier appears in front of me. I wave, and wave again. He comes over to me and I whisper into his ear (my voice has almost gone), ‘Please take me with you, I don’t want to bum.’ But that soldier was much too weak himself to lift me to my feet. He laid my two arms crosswise over my breast and stumbled on across me. I followed him with my eyes until he disappears somewhere in the darkness.

I try once more to get up on my feet, but I can only manage to crawl forward on all fours. I can still feel my body, I know I’m still alive. Suddenly, I’m standing up, but there’s something wrong, everything seems so far away and I can’t hear or see properly any more. As I found out later, like all the others, I was suffering from lack of oxygen. I must have stumbled forwards roughly ten paces when I all at once inhaled fresh air. There’s a breeze! I take another breath, inhale deeply, and my senses clear. In front of me is a broken tree. As I rush towards it, I know that I have been saved, but am unaware that the park is the Bürgerwiese.

I walk on a little and discover a car. I’m pleased and decide to spend the night in it. The car is full of suitcases and boxes but I find enough room on the rear seats to squeeze in. Another stroke of
good luck for me is that the car’s windows are all broken and I have to keep awake putting out the sparks which drifted in. I don’t know how long I sat there, when a hand suddenly descended on my shoulder and a man’s voice said, ‘Hello! you must get out of there.’ I got such a fright, because obviously someone was determined to force me away from my safe hiding place. I said, with great fear in my voice, ‘Please, allow me to stay here, I’ll give you all the money I’ve got on me.’ (If I think about this now it almost sounds like a joke.) But the answer I got was ‘No, I don’t want your money. The car is on fire.

‘Good God! I leapt out immediately and could see that indeed all four tyres were burning. I hadn’t noticed because of the tremendous heat.

Now I looked at the man and recognized him as the soldier who had put my arms across my chest. When I asked him, he confirmed it. Then he started to weep. He continued to stroke my back, mumbling words about bravery, Russian campaign. . . but this here, this is hell. I don’t grasp his meaning and offer him a cigarette.

We walk on a little way and discover two crouching figures. They were two men, one a railwayman who was crying because (in the smoke and debris) he could not find the way to his home. The other was a civilian who had escaped from a cellar together with sixty people, but had had to leave his wife and children behind, due to some dreadful circumstances. All three men were crying now but I just stood there, incapable of a single tear. It was as if I was watching a film. We spent half the night together, sitting on the ground too exhausted even to carry on a conversation. The continuous explosions didn’t bother us, but the hollow cries for help which came continuously from all directions were gruesome. Towards six o’clock in the morning, we parted.

I spent all the daylight hours which followed in the town searching for my fiance. I looked for him amongst the dead, because hardly any living beings were to be seen anywhere. What I saw is so horrific that I shall hardly be able to describe it. Dead, dead, dead everywhere. Some completely black like charcoal. Others completely untouched, lying as if they were asleep. Women in aprons, women with children sitting in the trams as if they had just nodded off. Many women, many young girls, many small children, soldiers who were only identifiable as such by the metal buckles on their belts, almost all of them naked. Some clinging to each other in groups as if they were clawing at each other.

From some of the debris poked arms, heads, legs, shattered skulls. The static water tanks were filled up to the top with dead human beings, with large pieces of masonry lying on top of that again. Most people looked as if they had been inflated, with large yellow and brown stains on their bodies. People whose clothes were still glowing. . . I think I was incapable of absorbing the meaning of this cruelty any more, for there were also so many little babies, terribly mutilated; and all the people lying so close together that it looked as if someone had put them down there, street by street, deliberately.

I then went through the Grosser Garten and there is one thing I did realize. I was aware that I had constantly to brush hands away from me, hands which belonged to people who wanted me to take them with me, hands which clung to me. But I was much too weak to lift anyone up. My mind took all this in vaguely, as if seen through a veil. In fact, I was in such a state that I did not realize that there was a third attack on Dresden. Late that afternoon I collapsed in the Ostra-Allee, where two men took me to a friend who lived on the outskirts of the city.

I asked for a mirror and did not recognize myself any more. My face was a mass of blisters and so were my hands. My eyes were narrow slits and puffed up, my whole body was covered in little black, pitted marks. I cannot understand to this day how I contracted these marks, because I was wearing a pair of long trousers and a jacket. Possibly the fire-sparks ate their way through my clothing.


Published in: on January 14, 2010 at 12:39 PM  Leave a Comment  
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I’ll see your Florsheim and raise you a Gucci

Wilson Mizner’s opponent at a game of draw poker took out his wallet and tossed it onto the table, saying, “I call you.” Mizner calmly took off his right shoe and put it on the table and announced, “If we’re playing for leather, I raise.”

Published in: on January 14, 2010 at 8:50 AM  Leave a Comment  

Just the DCM

Lance-Corporal Baxter Wins the DCM, Western Front, September 1915

Robert Graves [I, Claudius; Goodbye To All That]

From the morning of September 24th to the night of October 3rd, I had in all eight hours of sleep. I kept myself awake and alive by drinking about a bottle of whisky a day. I had never drunk it before, and have seldom drunk it since; it certainly helped me then. We had no blankets, greatcoats, or waterproof sheets, nor any time or material to build new shelters. The rain poured down. Every night we went out to fetch in the dead of the other battalions. The Germans continued indulgent and we had few casualties. After the first day or two the corpses swelled and stank. I vomited more than once while superintending the carrying. Those we could not get in from the German wire continued to swell until the wall of the stomach collapsed, either naturally or when punctured by a bullet; a disgusting smell would float across. The colour of the dead faces changed from white to yellow-grey, to red, to purple, to green, to black, to slimy.

On the morning of the 27th a cry arose from No Man’s Land. A wounded soldier of the Middlesex had recovered consciousness after two days. He lay close to the German wire. Our men heard it and looked at each other. We had a tender-hearted lance-corporal named Baxter. He was the man to boil up a special dixie for the sentries of his section when they came off duty. As soon as he heard the wounded Middlesex man, he ran along the trench calling for a volunteer to help fetch him in. Of course, no one would go; it was death to put one’s head over the parapet. When he came running to ask me I excused myself as being the only officer in the company. I would come out with him at dusk, I said – not now. So he went alone. He jumped quickly over the parapet, then strolled across No Man’s Land, waving a handkerchief; the Germans fired to frighten him, but since he persisted they let him come up close. Baxter continued towards them and, when he got to the Middlesex man, stopped and pointed to show the Germans what he was at. Then he dressed the man’s wounds, gave him a drink of rum and some biscuit that he had with him, and promised to be back again at nightfall. He did come back, with a stretcher party, and the man eventually recovered. I recommended Baxter for the Victoria Cross, being the only officer who had witnessed the action, but the authorities thought it worth no more than a Distinguished Conduct Medal.


Published in: on January 13, 2010 at 11:31 AM  Leave a Comment  
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To Lose Toulouse


Samuel Goldwyn, showing off his picture collection to a guest, announced proudly, “And this is my Toujours-Lautrec.

Published in: on January 10, 2010 at 2:29 PM  Leave a Comment  

When the going got tough . . .

After the Russian debacle Napoleon, fearing his position at home was precarious, left the French army in the lurch and hurried back to France almost unaccompanied. Arriving at the banks of the river Neman in his miserable sleigh, he inquired of the ferryman whether many deserters had come through that day. “No,” replied the Russian, “you are the first.”


Published in: on January 9, 2010 at 11:44 AM  Leave a Comment  

The Castrato’s Medal

Paris Opera House

Napoleon bestowed upon Girolamo Crescendi, the Paris Opera Company’s great bel canto star, the Cross of the Legion of Honor. While this pleased the opera lovers, the same was not true of the army. One staunch old warrior complained to the beautiful singer Giuseppina Grassini (with whom Napoleon was wont to console himself for Josephine’s infidelities): “It’s unheard of! To think that this decoration, intended for the bravest of the brave who have suffered wounds on the battlefield, should be given to a castrato!” Replied Grassini: “And how about the wound Crescendi endured for art’s sake? Doesn’t that count?”


Published in: on January 8, 2010 at 4:22 PM  Leave a Comment  

Second Fiddle

When he played in trios with pianist Artur Rubinstein and cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, Jascha Heifetz complained that Rubinstein always got first billing. “If the Almighty himself played the violin,” he once said, “the credits would still read ‘Rubinstein, God, and Piatigorsky,’ in that order.”

Published in: on January 8, 2010 at 1:18 PM  Leave a Comment  

Hallowed Ground, Hollow Heart


On February 17, 1673, the desperately ill French dramatist Molière insisted on going on stage so as not to let the rest of the company down. When the play was over he had to be carried home, where he died shortly afterward. Religious prejudices against the theater were so powerful that it was customary for a dying actor solemnly to abjure his profession so as to obtain burial in consecrated ground. Molière’s sudden death prevented this formality and appeals to the archbishop of Paris were fruitless. Molière’s widow sought the aid of the king. Louis sent to the ecclesiastical authorities to ask how deep consecrated ground may run. Back came the answer: “Fourteen feet.” “Very good,” said Louis. “Let Molière’s grave be dug in the churchyard sixteen feet deep and then it cannot be said that he is buried in consecrated ground, nor need it scandalize the clergy.” (This tradition may be intended to account for the fact that Molière’s grave has never been located. There is the suspicion that the archbishop of Paris, who would permit the funeral to take place only at night and attended by only two priests—and no one else—later had the grave moved out of the churchyard.)


Published in: on January 7, 2010 at 1:25 PM  Leave a Comment  

Dinner with Attila the Hun, c. AD 450

FROM Eyewitness To History edited by John Carey


Attila, the ‘Scourge of God’, became King of the Huns in AD 445. Priscus went on an embassy to him on behalf of the Eastern Empire.

Attila invited both parties of us to dine with him about three o’clock that afternoon. We waited for the time of the invitation, and then all of us, the envoys from the Western Romans as well, presented ourselves in the doorway facing Attila. In accordance with the national custom the cupbearers gave us a cup for us to make our libations before we took our seats. When that had been done and we had sipped the wine, we went to the chairs where we would sit to have dinner. All the seats were ranged down either side of the room, up against the walls. In the middle Attila was sitting on a couch with a second couch behind him. Behind that a few steps led up to his bed, which for decorative purposes was covered in ornate drapes made of fine linen, like those which Greeks and Romans prepare for marriage ceremonies. I think that the more distinguished guests were on Attila’s right, and the second rank on his left, where we were with Berichos, a man of some renown among the Scythians, who was sitting in front of us. Onegesios was to the right of Attila’s couch, and opposite him were two of the king’s sons on chairs. The eldest son was sitting on Attila’s own couch, right on the very edge, with his eyes fixed on the ground in fear of his father.

When all were sitting properly in order, a cupbearer came to offer Attila an ivy-wood bowl of wine, which he took and drank a toast to the man first in order of precedence. The man thus honoured rose to his feet and it was not right for him to sit down again until Attila had drunk some or all of the wine and had handed the goblet back to the attendant. The guests, taking their own cups, then honoured him in the same way, sipping the wine after making the toast. One attendant went round to each man in strict order after Attila’s personal cupbearer had gone out. When the second guest and then all the others in their turn had been honoured, Attila greeted us in like fashion in our order of seating.

After everyone had been toasted, the cupbearers left, and a table was put in front of Attila and other tables for groups of three or four men each. This enabled each guest to help himself to the things put on the table without leaving his proper seat. Attila’s servant entered first with plates full of meat, and those waiting on all the others put bread and cooked food on the tables. A lavish meal, served on silver trenchers, was prepared for us and the other barbarians, but Attila just had some meat on a wooden platter, for this was one aspect of his self-discipline. For instance, gold or silver cups were presented to the other diners, but his own goblet was made of wood. His clothes, too, were simple, and no trouble was taken except to have them clean. The sword that hung by his side, the clasps of his barbarian shoes and the bridle of his horse were all free from gold, precious stones or other valuable decorations affected by the other Scythians. When the food in the first plates was finished we all got up, and no one, once on his feet, returned to his seat until he had, in the same order as before, drunk the full cup of wine that he was handed, with a toast for Attila’s health. After this honour had been paid him, we sat down again and second plates were put on each table with other food on them. This also finished, everyone rose once more, drank another toast and resumed his seat.

As twilight came on torches were lit, and two barbarians entered before Attila to sing some songs they had composed, telling of his victories and his valour in war. The guests paid close attention to them, and some were delighted with the songs, others excited at being reminded of the wars, but others broke down and wept if their bodies were weakened by age and their warrior spirits forced to remain inactive. After the songs a Scythian entered, a crazy fellow who told a lot of strange and completely false stories, not a word of truth in them, which made everyone laugh. Following him came the Moor, Zerkon, totally disorganized in appearance, clothes, voice and words. By mixing up the languages of the ltalians with those of the Huns and Goths, he fascinated everyone and made them break out into uncontrollable laughter, all that is except Attila. He remained impassive, without any change of expression, and neither by word or gesture did he seem to share in the merriment except that when his youngest son, Ernas, came in and stood by him, he drew the boy towards him and looked at him with gentle eyes. I was surprised that he paid no attention to his other sons, and only had time for this one. But the barbarian at my side, who understood Italian and what I had said about the boy, warned me not to speak up, and said that the seers had told Attila that his family would be banished but would be restored by this son. After spending most of the night at the party, we left, having no wish to pursue the drinking any further.


Published in: on January 7, 2010 at 10:31 AM  Leave a Comment  

Paradise Lost Lost

In April 1667 Milton signed an agreement with Samuel Simmons, a London bookseller (i.e., publisher), by which he sold the copyright of Paradise Lost for five pounds, plus five pounds for the sale of each of three subsequent editions, an edition comprising 1,500 copies. Milton received a second five pounds in April 1669, making a grand total of ten pounds to the author of England’s greatest epic. After his death, Milton’s widow, his third wife, Elizabeth, sold all remaining rights for eight pounds to Simmons, who became perpetual owner of the copyright.


Published in: on January 6, 2010 at 7:19 PM  Leave a Comment  

Destruction as Entertainment

In the path of Napoleon’s advancing army, the Russians abandoned the city of Smolensk and set fire to it. Napoleon, watching the blaze with his aides, compared it to an eruption of Vesuvius, and asked his master of horse whether it was not a fine sight. “Horrible, sire,” said the man. Napoleon snorted contemptuously. “Remember, gentlemen,” he said, “as one of the Roman emperors remarked, ‘The corpse of an enemy always smells sweet!”’


Published in: on January 6, 2010 at 7:56 AM  Leave a Comment  

Napoleon, The Straitlaced Monster

During Napoleon’s time as first consul it was the fashion for women to wear transparent gauze dresses. Somewhat incensed at this practice, one evening Napoleon ordered the servants to build up the drawing-room fire until the room reached ovenlike temperature. As he sourly explained: “It is extremely cold and these ladies are almost naked.” Josephine understood the situation and inaugurated new fashions in dress of a somewhat more seemly nature.


Published in: on January 4, 2010 at 12:59 PM  Comments (2)  

The Perfect Riposte

Making his way along a crowded railroad platform in Rome, Goering happened to collide with an Italian aristocrat. The nobleman demanded an apology. “I am Hermann Goering,” snapped the marshal. “As an excuse that is not enough,” replied the Italian coldly, “but as an explanation it is ample.”


Published in: on January 3, 2010 at 10:42 PM  Leave a Comment  

Frances . . . Frances!

During the making of a film, Samuel Goldwyn had a habit of phoning his associates whenever an idea came to him, regardless of the hour. Richard Nash, who was writing the screenplay for “Porgy and Bess,” was the unfortunate recipient of such a call, at three o’clock in the morning. “Do you know what time it is?” he snapped. Goldwyn paused for a moment, then turned to his wife. “Frances,” he said, “Mr. Nash wants to know what time it is.”

Published in: on January 2, 2010 at 11:52 PM  Leave a Comment  

The Moneylender’s Pride

Edward G. Robinson told Samuel Goldwyn that his studio was going to make Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and that they wanted him to play Shylock. Did Goldwyn think he ought to accept the part? Goldwyn’s response: “Screw ’em—tell ’em you’ll only play the Merchant.”

Published in: on January 2, 2010 at 10:47 AM  Leave a Comment  

Abeilles By Any Other Name

Samuel Goldwyn boasted that the greatest living writers were on his team of authors and he would spare no expense to get them, even if his ideas about their output were rather vague. One of the literary celebrities he lured to Hollywood was the Belgian writer Maurice Maeterlinck, winner of the 1911 Nobel Prize for literature and author of the enormously successful La Vie des Abeilles. When Maeterlinck arrived, fearful of his ignorance of motion-picture technique, Goldwyn reassured him: “I know you don’t understand picture technique. That doesn’t matter. All I want you to do is just go away and write your greatest book ever in the form of a scenario.” A few weeks later Maeterlinck returned with a manuscript. Goldwyn was delighted and retired beaming into his office, taking the manuscript with him to read. A couple of minutes later he rushed out again screaming. “My God,” he yelled, “the hero is a bee!”

[Note: La Vie des Abeilles is French for “The Life of the Bee.”]


Published in: on December 30, 2009 at 2:45 PM  Leave a Comment  

Artful advice

Salvador Dali had this advice for beginning painters: “Take the palette from the box, squeeze some paint on it from the tubes, dip your brush into the paint and daub the canvas with it. Rembrandt, Titian and all other great painters used this method.”

Published in: on December 30, 2009 at 9:58 AM  Leave a Comment  

Chicken scratchin’ scrawl

Horace Greeley’s notorious handwriting was, in fact, unreadable by all but one of the Tribune’s compositors. One day, while this expert was at lunch, two of his colleagues caught a couple of pigeons, inked their claws, and allowed them to scamper back and forth across a sheet of paper. This page was then substituted for Greeley’s copy. That afternoon, the compositor struggled through most of the inky scrawl, but there was one “paragraph” that he was totally unable to decipher. In desperation, he consulted Greeley. Casting his eye over the inky claw-marks, Greeley snapped impatiently: “What’s the matter with you? Do you expect me to print it myself? Here, I’ll rewrite the whole page.”

Published in: on December 29, 2009 at 1:39 PM  Leave a Comment  

GBS as Heartthrob

In conversation with George Bernard Shaw and his wife, writer Patrick Mahony asked Mrs. Shaw how she had coped with her husband’s many female admirers. by way of reply, Mrs. Shaw began to recount an anecdote: “After we were married there was an actress who pursued my husband. She threatened suicide if she were not allowed to see him . . . ”
“And did she die of a broken heart?”
“Yes, she did,” interrupted Shaw. “Fifty years later.”

Published in: on December 28, 2009 at 4:40 PM  Leave a Comment  

Lost that damned toupee again!

Horace Greeley, renowned for his illegible handwriting, once wrote a note to a member of his staff on the New York Tribune, dismissing him for gross neglect of duty. Meeting Greeley several years later, the journalist told his former chief how useful his note of dismissal had proved. “I took it with me,” he said. “Nobody could read it, so I declared it a letter of recommendation, gave it my own interpretation, and obtained several first-class situations by it. I am really very much obliged to you.”

Published in: on December 28, 2009 at 2:39 PM  Leave a Comment  

Aptly named

Robert Graves’s mother tried not to appear shocked when four-year-old Robert, after saying his evening prayers, casually asked her if she would leave him any money when she died. “If you left me as much as five pounds, I could buy a bicycle,” he said. “Surely you’d rather have me, Robby,” protested Mrs. Graves. “But I could ride to your grave on it,” reasoned the child.

Published in: on December 27, 2009 at 5:55 PM  Leave a Comment  

I ain’t dead yet … Ooops!

On his deathbed Joseph Green, distinguished surgeon and literary executor of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, behaved very coolly. “Congestion,” he observed, and then took his own pulse. “Stopped,” he said, and died.

Published in: on December 27, 2009 at 10:57 AM  Leave a Comment  

Me, Myself and I

An English magazine had run a competition for the best parody of Graham Greene’s work. A week after the prizewinning entry was published, a letter appeared from Greene himself. He was delighted that Mr. John Smith had won the contest, although he felt that two of the other competitors, Mr. Joe Doakes and Mr. William Jones, also deserved prizes. Greene had sent in all three entries himself—they were not parodies, but passages from some of his earlier novels, which he had not considered fit for publication.

Published in: on December 26, 2009 at 2:29 PM  Leave a Comment  

The Long Swim

While performing at a nightclub in a seaside town, early in his career, Jackie Gleason stayed at a local boardinghouse. Finding himself unable to pay the rent, he devised a way of escaping from his lodgings without raising suspicion. He packed up his belongings, lowered the suitcase out of his bedroom window into the arms of a waiting friend, then strolled nonchalantly out of the house in his swimming trunks, heading for the beach. Some three years later, anxious to payoff his debt, he returned to the boardinghouse. The landlady, recognizing him at once, stepped back in horror as if she had seen a ghost. “Oh, my Lord!” she exclaimed. “I thought you were drowned!”

Published in: on December 26, 2009 at 8:58 AM  Leave a Comment  

Rough sailing for Mister Roberts

When Thomas Heggen’s Mister Roberts appeared, the publisher arranged for him to make some public appearances to advertise the book. His first speaking engagement was at a luncheon in a New York hotel. Throughout the meal he sat among the ladies at the head table, paralyzed with apprehension and unable to swallow a thing. Called upon to speak, he stood up and, overcome with nerves, failed to utter a single word. A neighbor, seeing his agony, tried to get him started by saying kindly, “Perhaps you can tell us how you wrote your book.” Heggen gulped and the words suddenly came: “Well, shit, it was just that I was on this boat …”

Published in: on December 25, 2009 at 2:46 PM  Leave a Comment  

Memoirs without Memories?

Samuel Goldwyn found on his office desk one morning a copy of The Making of Yesterday: The Diaries of Raoul de Roussy de Sales, 1938-1942, which someone had submitted as possible movie material. Goldwyn looked at the book in amazement. “How do you like that?” he said. “Four years old and the kid keeps a diary!”

Published in: on December 25, 2009 at 11:56 AM  Leave a Comment  

Citizens of Lesbia?

Samuel Goldwyn is said to have been eager to buy the film rights to Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, a controversial novel dealing with lesbianism. “You can’t film that,” a studio adviser said. “It’s about lesbians.” “All right,” said Goldwyn, “where they got Lesbians, we’ll use Austrians.”

Published in: on December 24, 2009 at 10:21 PM  Leave a Comment  

Into that good night

In 1845 Heine first showed the symptoms of the crippling spinal disease that condemned him to a “mattress grave” for many years before his end. He viewed the approach of death calmly, refusing to be drawn into a display of religious zeal. “God will pardon me,” he said. “It’s his profession.” It was with less equanimity, however, that he viewed the possibility of leaving things unsaid. His last words were, “Write … write … pencil … paper.”

Published in: on December 24, 2009 at 8:06 AM  Leave a Comment  
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What’s in a Name?

Samuel Goldwyn had invited writer Louis Bromfield to Hollywood. After two months, however, Bromfield had still been given nothing to do. Exasperated, he finally complained to Goldwyn. “Be patient,” said Sam, “take your time.”

“But why did you hire me?” asked Bromfield.

“For your name, Mr. Bronstein, for your name.”

Published in: on December 23, 2009 at 2:43 PM  Leave a Comment  

Maker of the Murdoch Mold

William Randolph Hearst sent the artist Frederic Remington, who made a specialty of depicting soldiers and warfare, to cover events in Cuba after the US battleship Maine had been blown up in Havana harbor in February 1898. The expected conflict between the United States and Spain did not immediately materialize and Remington cabled Hearst, asking whether he should return. Hearst cabled back: “Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.”

Published in: on December 23, 2009 at 8:58 AM  Leave a Comment  

Early Lesson

An anthologist wrote to George Bernard Shaw requesting permission to include one of his pieces in an anthology. He explained that he was a very young man and therefore would not be able to pay Shaw’s usual fee. GBS responded, “I’ll wait for you to grow up.”

Published in: on December 21, 2009 at 7:03 PM  Leave a Comment  

Blind Leading the Blind—no, really

George Shearing, the great jazz pianist and composer, was blind from birth. One afternoon, at rush hour, he was waiting at a busy intersection for someone to take him across the street when another blind man tapped him on the should and asked if Shearing would mind helping him to get across.

“What could I do?” said Shearing afterward. “I took him across and it was the biggest thrill of my life.”

Published in: on December 21, 2009 at 9:23 AM  Leave a Comment  

Lost in the Ectoplasm

When Arthur Conan Doyle did not arrive for a scheduled lecture on spiritualism, seances and such, Cambridge students mounted a placard bearing the announcement: “Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has failed to materialize”

Published in: on December 20, 2009 at 5:15 PM  Leave a Comment  

Crudities of 1611


Thomas Cory

I observed a custom in all those Italian cities and towns through which I passed that is not used in any other country that I saw in my travels, neither do I think that any other nation of Christendom doth use it, but only in Italy. The Italian and also most strangers that are commorant in Italy do always at their meals use a little fork when they cut their meat. For while with their knife which they hold in one hand, they cut the meat out of the dish, they fasten their fork which they hold in their other hand upon the same dish, so that whatsoever he be that sitting in the company of any others at meal, should unadvisedly touch the dish of meat with his fingers from which all at the table do cut, he will give occasion of offence unto the company, as having transgressed the laws of good manners, in so much that for his error he shall be at the least brow-beaten, if not reprehended in words.

This form of feeding, I understand, is generally used in all places of Italy, their forks being for the most part made of iron or steel, and some of silver, but those are used only by gentlemen. The reason of this their curiosity is, because the Italian cannot by any means endure to have his dish touched with fingers, seeing all men’s fingers are not alike clean.

Published in: on December 20, 2009 at 9:20 AM  Leave a Comment  

Bouquet of Babes

Arnold Bennett visited George Bernard Shaw in his apartment and, knowing his host’s love of flowers, was surprised that there was not a singe vase of flowers to be seen. He remarked on their absence to Shaw: “But I though you were so fond of flowers.”

“I am,’ said Shaw, “and I’m very fond of children too, but I don’t chop their heads off and stand them in pots about the house.”

Published in: on December 19, 2009 at 4:41 PM  Leave a Comment  

Trouble in the Heir

Irwin Shaw, whose then current bestseller was The Troubled Air, was in an airport about go to Europe. With him was his small son, who clearly did not want to go anywhere and was causing something of an uproar. When airline officials suggested something was wrong with the child, Shaw said, “Not at all. He’s just my troubled heir.”

Published in: on December 19, 2009 at 8:21 AM  Leave a Comment  

A Couplet of Repartee

Editor William Gifford once criticized William Hazlitt’s work with the terse observation: “What we read from your pen, we remember no more. Hazlitt completed the couplet with the caustic line: “What we read from your pen, we remember before.”

Published in: on December 18, 2009 at 4:35 PM  Leave a Comment  

Weird Coincidences


In 1911 three men were hanged in London for the murder of Sir Edmund Berry at Greenberry Hill. Their names were Green, Berry, and Hill.


Two brothers in Bermuda were killed by the same taxi and driver, carrying the same passenger, while they were riding the same moped on the same street-but exactly a year apart. Erskine Lawrence Ebbin and his brother Neville were both 17 when they died.


Frank Clatworthy was driving home to Washford, Somerset, England, from a party in 1974 when his car overturned. An hour later, his identical twin brother, Jack, crashed on the same road returning from the same party.


On January 28, 1975, Charles Davies died at 3:00 A.M. while on vacation at his sister’s house in Leicester, England. When his sister called his home in Leeds to relate the bad news, she was told that Charles’s wife had also died that day—at 3:00 A.M.


At age four, Roger Lausier was saved from drowning off a beach at Salem, Massachusetts , by a woman named Alice Blaise. Nine years later, in 1974, on the same beach, Roger paddled his raft into the water and pulled a drowning man from the water. The man was Alice Blaise’s husband.


James Lews of Lima, Ohio, and James Springer of Dayton, Ohio, are identical twins who were separated shortly after birth. Their adoptive parents—who had no knowledge of each other-named their sons James. Each James married and divorced a woman named Linda. Each named his first son James Alan (Allan). Each likes to vacation on the same Florida beach. Both are 6 ft. tall, weigh 180 lb., have the same hobbies, and have had police training. They met for the first time in 1979. when they were 39 years old.

Published in: on December 17, 2009 at 10:17 AM  Leave a Comment  

Slugs Slimed

After waiting an unacceptably long time for the waiter to take his order in a French restaurant, Irwin Shaw was finally approached by the maître d’hôtel. When the man informed Shaw that snails were the specialty of the house, the writer nodded his head. “I know,” he said, “and you’ve got them dressed as waiters.”

Published in: on December 17, 2009 at 9:46 AM  Leave a Comment  

Ex-Cave Dweller Queries Hitchcock

At a French airport one day, the customs official looked suspiciously at Hitchcock’s passport in which his occupation was listed simply as “Producer.” “What do you produce?” he asked. “Gooseflesh,” Hitchcock replied.

Published in: on December 16, 2009 at 1:40 PM  Leave a Comment  

Disraeli Parries Again

Gladstone and Disraeli frequently clashed in parliamentary debates. “Mr. Disraeli cannot possibly be sure of his facts,” roared Gladstone in one debate, “I wish,” responded Disraeli, “that I could be as sure of anything as my opponent is of everything.”

Published in: on December 16, 2009 at 1:22 PM  Leave a Comment  

Gladstone Swings with the Queen

Gladstone once accosted Disraeli on the topic of the latter’s renowned wit, observing that Disraeli had the reputation of being able to make a joke on any subject. Disraeli responded that that was quite possible. “Then I challenge you,” said Gladstone. “Make a joke about Queen Victoria.”

“Sir,” replied Disraeli, “Her Majesty is not a subject.”

Published in: on December 16, 2009 at 1:13 PM  Leave a Comment  

Your year, my dear?

On one occasion John Dryden’s wife, Lady Elizabeth Howard, bustled into his study, feeling herself to be somewhat neglected. “Lord, Mr. Dryden,” she exclaimed, “how can you always be poring over those musty books? I wish I were a book, and then I should have more of your company.” Dryden replied, “Pray, my dear, if you do become a book let it be an almanac, for then I shall change you every year.”

Published in: on December 16, 2009 at 9:48 AM  Leave a Comment  

From Jonathan Livingston Seagull

by Richard Bach

To the real Jonathan Seagull, who lives within us all

Part One

It was morning, and the new sun sparkled gold across the ripples of a gentle sea.

A mile from shore a fishing boat chummed the water, and the word for Breakfast Flock flashed through the air, till a crowd of a thousand seagulls came to dodge and fight for bits of food. It was another busy day beginning.

But way off alone, out by himself beyond boat and shore, Jonathan Livingston Seagull was practicing. A hundred feet in the sky he lowered his webbed feet, lifted his beak, and strained to hold a painful hard twisting curve through his wings. The curve meant that he would fly slowly, and now he slowed until the wind was a whisper in his face, until the ocean stood still beneath him. He narrowed his eyes in fierce concentration, held his breath, forced one . . . single . . . more . . . inch . . . of . . . curve . . . Then his feathers ruffled, he stalled and fell.

Seagulls, as you know, never falter, never stall. To stall in the air is for them disgrace and it is dishonor.

But Jonathan Livingston Seagull, unashamed, stretching his wings again in that trembling hard curve—slowing, slowing, and stalling once more—was no ordinary bird.

Most gulls don’t bother to learn more than the simplest facts of flight—how to get from shore to food and back again. For most gulls, it is not flying that matters, but eating. For this gull, though, it was not eating that mattered, but flight. More than anything else, Jonathan Livingston Seagull loved to fly.

This kind of thinking, he found, is not the way to make one’s self popular with other birds. Even his parents were dismayed as Jonathan spent whole days alone, making hundreds of low-level glides, experimenting.

He didn’t know why, for instance, but when he flew at altitudes less than half his wingspan above the water, he could stay in the air longer, with less effort. His glides ended not with the usual feet-down splash into the sea, but with a long flat wake as he touched the surface with his feet tightly streamlined against his body. When he began sliding in to feet-up landings on the beach, then pacing the length of his slide in the sand, his parents were very much dismayed indeed.

“Why, Jon, why?” his mother asked. “Why is it so hard to be like the rest of the flock, Jon? Why can’t you leave low flying to the pelicans, the albatross? Why don’t you eat? Son, you’re bone and feathers!”

“I don’t mind being bone and feathers, mom. I just want to know what I can do in the air and what I can’t, that’s all. I just want to know.”

“See here, Jonathan ” said his father, not unkindly. “Winter isn’t far away. Boats will be few, and the surface fish will be swimming deep. If you must study, then study food, and how to get it. This flying business is all very well, but you can’t eat a glide, you know. Don’t you forget that the reason you fly is to eat.”

Jonathan nodded obediently. For the next few days he tried to behave like the other gulls; he really tried, screeching and fighting with the flock around the piers and fishing boats, diving on scraps of fish and bread. But he couldn’t make it work.

It’s all so pointless, he thought, deliberately dropping a hard-won anchovy to a hungry old gull chasing him. I could be spending all this time learning to fly. There’s so much to learn!


It wasn’t long before Jonathan Gull was off by himself again, far out at sea, hungry, happy, learning.

The subject was speed, and in a week’s practice he learned more about speed than the fastest gull alive.

From a thousand feet, flapping his wings as hard as he could, he pushed over into a blazing steep dive toward the waves, and learned why seagulls don’t make blazing steep power-dives. In just six seconds he was moving seventy miles per hour, the speed at which one’s wing goes unstable on the upstroke.

Time after time it happened. Careful as he was, working at the very peak of his ability, he lost control at high speed.

Climb to a thousand feet. Full power straight ahead first, then push over, flapping, to a vertical dive. Then, every time, his left wing stalled on an upstroke, he’d roll violently left, stall his right wing recovering, and flick like fire into a wild tumbling spin to the right.

He couldn’t be careful enough on that upstroke. Ten times he tried, and all ten times, as he passed through seventy miles per hour, he burst into a churning mass of feathers, out of control, crashing down into the water.

The key, he thought at last, dripping wet, must be to hold the wings still at high speeds—to flap up to fifty and then hold the wings still.

From two thousand feet he tried again, rolling into his dive, beak straight down, wings full out and stable from the moment he passed fifty miles per hour. It took tremendous strength, but it worked. In ten seconds he had blurred through ninety miles per hour. Jonathan had set a world speed record for seagulls!

But victory was short-lived. The instant he began his pullout, the instant he changed the angle of his wings, he snapped into that same terrible uncontrolled disaster, and at ninety miles per hour it hit him like dynamite. Jonathan Seagull exploded in midair and smashed down into a brick-hard sea.


When he came to, it was well after dark, and he floated in moonlight on the surface of the ocean. His wings were ragged bars of lead, but the weight of failure was even heavier on his back. He wished, feebly, that the weight could be just enough to drag him gently down to the bottom, and end it all.

As he sank low in the water, a strange hollow voice sounded within him. There’s no way around it. I am a seagull. I am limited by my nature. If I were meant to learn so much about flying, I’d have charts for brains. If I were meant to fly at speed, I’d have a falcon’s short wings, and live on mice instead of fish. My father was right. I must forget this foolishness. I must fly home to the Flock and be content as I am, as a poor limited seagull.

The voice faded, and Jonathan agreed. The place for a seagull at night is on shore, and from this moment forth, he vowed, he would be a normal gull. It would make everyone happier.

He pushed wearily away from the dark water and flew toward the land, grateful for what he had learned about work-saving low-altitude flying.

But no, he thought. I am done with the way I was, I am done with everything I learned. I am a seagull like every other seagull, and I will fly like one. So he climbed painfully to a hundred feet and flapped his wings harder, pressing for shore.

He felt better for his decision to be just another one of the Flock. There would be no ties now to the force that had driven him to learn, there would be no more challenge and no more failure. And it was pretty, just to stop thinking, and fly through the dark, toward the lights above the beach.

Dark! The hollow voice cracked in alarm. Seagulls never fly in the dark!


Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Richard Bach’s 10,000 word story about a fast-flying sea gull seemed so unpromising that 18 publishers turned it down before Macmillan accepted it and quietly issued 7,500 copies. Rapidly mounting sales led to the book’s adoption by the BOMC in 1972, a $1 million paperback sale to Avon, many foreign editions, and a 1973 film version. By 1975 more than seven million copies of the book had been sold in the US alone.

Published in: on December 15, 2009 at 9:33 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Mind Meld

A composer friend, visiting Heinrich Heine, found the poet at his desk gloomily surveying a blank page. Asked what the trouble was, Heine replied, “Well, I just met X in the street. I stopped for a moment to exchange ideas, and now I feel like a complete idiot.”

Published in: on December 14, 2009 at 10:31 AM  Leave a Comment  

Say What?

Asked whether he had ever been wrong, John Foster Dulles considered the question for some time before replying. “Yes,” he finally admitted, “once—many, many years ago. I thought I had made a wrong decision. Of course, it turned out that I had been right all along. But I was wrong to have thought I was wrong.”

Published in: on December 12, 2009 at 10:58 AM  Leave a Comment  

Meals or Wheels?

As she retired to the kitchen to put the finishing touches to the dinner preparations, Helen Hayes warned her family: “This is the first turkey I’ve ever cooked. If it isn’t right, I don’t want anybody to say a word. We’ll just get up from the table, without comment, and go down to the hotel for dinner.” She returned some ten minutes later to find the family seated expectantly at the dinner table–wearing their hats and coats.

Published in: on December 12, 2009 at 10:01 AM  Leave a Comment  

Heifetz Hassled

In New York for a Carnegie Hall recital, Heifetz was still practicing in his hotel room at midnight on the eve of the concert. An irate fellow guest phoned to complain about the noise. “But I am Jascha Heifetz,” said the violinist. “I don’t care if you’re Lawrence Welk,” retorted the female voice at the other end of the line. “I want to get some sleep.”

Published in: on December 11, 2009 at 12:34 PM  Leave a Comment  
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John Judges the Lords

John Dryden was enjoying a convivial meeting with a group of fashionable wits, including the earls of Buckingham and Dorset. Someone proposed a poetic competition, each man present to write an impromptu composition, and Dryden to judge which was the best. The Earl of Dorset was the first to hand in his piece of paper. Dryden waited until all the contributions had been completed before he began to read them. His face showed his pleasure as he studied the succession of witty or beautiful verses, but the broadest smile spread over his countenance as he opened the Earl of Dorset’s paper. “I will have to award the prize to my Lord Dorset,” he said and then read out the earl’s contribution: “I promise to pay John Dryden, or order, on demand the sum of £500. Dorset.”

Published in: on December 10, 2009 at 10:16 PM  Leave a Comment