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George Jean Nathan (left) H.L. Mencken (right), by Irving Penn, MOMA lobby, 22 January 2010

I don’t know enough about George Jean Nathan, but I own a groovy signed first edition by him, and just snapped this cool portrait of him with his colleague Mencken by Irving Penn, so he’s on my mind.  Before I get to text (yes there will be quoting), some about his life.

Encyclopedia Britannica online tells me that he was born February 14, 1882 in Fort Wayne, Indiana and died April 8, 1958 in New York City.  Graduated from Cornell in 1904, joined staff of New York Herald, became drama critic for various magazines, was co-editor with buddy H.L. Mencken of The Smart Set from 1914-1923, and the two men founded American Mercury in 1924.

Read more on him in a fine essay on Cornell’s web site: http://www.arts.cornell.edu/english/awards/nathan/bio.html

From this essay this about Nathan’s literary output:

Nathan wrote over forty books, almost all of them collections of his criticism. The most important are The Critic and the Drama (1922), in which he explains some principles behind his criticism; The Autobiography of an Attitude (1925) and The Intimate Notebooks of George Jean Nathan (1932), which reveal critical insights and show the reader something of Nathan’s compelling theatrical persona; andThe Theatre, The Drama, The Girls (1921), which is probably his best book. His brilliant Theatre Book of the Year series is much more than a theatrical annual: here he intersperses essays about the nature of drama, of comedy or tragedy, of the decline of burlesque and so forth with reviews of each season’s shows (1942-43 to 1950-51).

And also from the Cornell-posted article a perspective on the source of Nathan’s power:

Nathan was able to wield his influence by explaining the differences between the theatre that he saw and the theatre that he wanted to see. He did so with a singular, if sometimes antic, style that reached a huge audience. Nathan’s erudition, mingled with a zany and breathtaking wit, made him the most famous, highest paid, widely read and translated theatre critic in the world. He created modern American drama criticism and was crucial to the development of the modern American theatre and its drama.

I inherited from a theatre loving grandfather (who was also a newspaper editor in Detroit) five of the seven volumes of the Theatre Book of the Year series cited above.  Due to my own love of rare first editions, I own a signed copy of his Art of the Night, published in 1928.  I would like to share some pithy words of wisdom, in the form of “Advice to a Young Critic”, in the first chapter of this volume.

“The greatest weakness of the average critic is his wish to be more than a critic.”

“If you have violent prejudices, do not be afraid of them.”

“Take your work seriously, but not yourself.”

“Don’t be afraid to dissent from the opinions of the critically great.”

“… morals have no place in any consideration of art.”

“Pay no attention to what people say or write of you.  A man in the brick-throwing business must expect occasionally to be hit by a brick.”

“To be a critic automatically implies a certain self-sufficiency and vanity.  Never mind.  You will never find an artist among the diffident and submissive.”

“Never fall into the error of believing that simply because a thing is unpopular it must have esoteric points of merit.”

“Don’t be afraid of being labeled a destructive critic.  You will be in good company.”

“Since you are an American, write like an American.”

“The chief fault with many critics is that they strive to divert to themselves the attention, if any, that their criticism should attract to itself.”

“The bulk of American criticism is corrupted by a blind adherence to and championing of favorites.”

“A sound piece of criticism has never yet been spoiled by an injection of humor ….”

And so we have it.  Laugh a little, trust your instincts, experience deeply, reveal your biases, be open to options, focus on the piece of art before you not the next witticism.  This might work in any piece of writing. Heck, this might work for any piece of work at all.

I am a fan of Anne Lamott. I rarely read O Magazine. By chance some months ago these two facts ran up against one another when I picked up a copy of the November 2009 issue. And there she was, author Anne Lamott, issuing some bawdy, heart-felt, well-lived words of wisdom.  She always seems to speak to me.  At this time of transition professionally and geographically I take some additional solace in her reflections.

The piece starts:

“We begin to find and become ourselves when we notice how we are already found, already truly, entirely, wildly, messily, marvelously who we were born to be. “

[The full article: http://www.oprah.com/spirit/How-To-Find-Out-Who-You-Really-Are-by-Anne-Lamott]

What I know these days seems to be  precisely and solely this: where I start.  And this location stands on and alongside and messily in the middle of all the writers and performers and thinkers I love.

In the mean time I listen to my favorite version of “Where Do You Start?” (by Marilyn and Alan Bergman and Johnny Mandel), by vocalist Kitty Margolis, with stunning piano accompaniment.  I love this better than any I’ve heard and I’ve heard a number, from Feinstein to Bennett.  I wish Garland could have had her way with these amazing lyrics and this amazing melody.  Margolis, on her “Evolution” recording.  http://kittymargolis.com/html/music/music_evolution.htm

Ah, lyrics.  And though I am not going through a relationship break up as evoked by this tune, movement and change generate for me romantic reflections and separations from place and time and connections.  Where to start.  Where indeed.

Where do you start? / How do you separate the present from the past? / How do you deal with all the things you thought would last? / That didn’t last.

With bits of memories scattered here and there / I look around and don’t know where / to start.

Which books are yours? / Which tapes and dreams belong to you and which are mine? / Our lives are tangled like the branches of a vine / that intertwine.

So many habits that we’ll have to break / and yesterdays we’ll have to take  / apart.

One day there’ll be a song or something in the air again / to catch me by surprise and you’ll be there again. / A moment in what might have been.

Where do you start? / Do you allow yourself a little time to cry? / Or do you stop and simply kiss it all goodbye?  / I guess you try.

And though I don’t know where / and don’t know when / I’ll find myself in love again

I promise that there will always be / a little place no one will see

A tiny part / deep in my heart / that stays in love with you.”

Judy Garland performed a morphing and modulating arrangement of the Betty Comden and Adolph Green gem “Just In Time” for about seven years, between 1962 (when it was crafted for her by Kay Thompson and Mort Lindsey as the opening number for a boffo television special that aired in February 1962 with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin) and her passing in June 1969. She performed a version of this arrangement on television and in countless live concert performances. And for this fan, this song and this particular arrangement captures something timeless.

On a Garland fan discussion list about a year ago, a colleague posed an almost impossible query/challenge for those of us similarly smitten with this great artist’s gifts. If you had to choose, my pal asked, which performance from the 1963-64 television series, “The Judy Garland Show”, would you select as your favorite, the keeper, the be all and end all. Your personal gem.

I don’t have to pause over this admittedly very subjective question. As might be otherwise apparent from other notes and appreciations, I admire skill and I especially admire skilled artistry when tempered by humanity and strength. Humility and humanity and honesty and communication. That’s the package. And one particular performance of “Just In Time” recorded on October 4, 1963, in the series episode that features a very young Barbra Streisand (and in which the famous Garland-Streisand duet of “Get Happy” and “Happy Days Are Here Again” is introduced), still takes my breath away.  This performance is  my choice for the timeless, “if you could only choose one”, close to my heart, laughter and tears and understanding .. gem.

The image at the beginning of this note captures Judy early in this performance. She begins this performance seated on a piano bench beside the music director Mort Lindsay. I wrote the following in a response to a fellow fan’s query about why I preferred this particular performance to one later in the series that is more crisp and concert-like, more arranged and pristine. More practiced. My response:

I have always been entranced by this performance of “Just in Time” for a range of reasons:

  • Judy’s clear comfort and joy in performing with Mort. The intimacy on the piano bench. Little looks exchanged.
  • The gentle beginning .. as she is starting to tell us a story.
  • The pow transition .. standing up .. taking us where we go. And her joy at taking us there (the kick, the smile, the turn back to enjoy that moment with Mort at the end).

And for my own personal tastes, I love the imperfections in her voice , the genuine emotion, the story telling in this particular performance of the tune.

I attended a public master class with Barbara Cook at Northwestern University in October 2008.  Ms. Cook is a serious appreciator of Garland and made note of this fact several times during the event including the comment “Mabel Mercer and Judy Garland had the most impact on my work.”  Lyrics, emotion, the package.  Ms. Cook said to one of the six graduate voice students in this class: “I’m less interested in your singing voice than in your BEING voice.” And somehow that’s part of my appreciation of episode 9’s performance of “Just in Time”.  Available.  Solemn at points and joyous at others. Being there for us in the song.

Judy in this performance allows herself to be imperfect and resonant and exuberant, and takes us with her.

A beloved family member undergoes a brain scan procedure today.  I and my husband imagine new home base possibilities just down the road from our current digs.  And an intriguing conversation on a message board addressing the life and career of Judy Garland (primarily) unpacks the enduring charm of the 1939 MGM fairy tale and adventure story The Wizard of Oz.  And its all about home.

bro's birthday at the zoo.

Family past and present. I grew up in a core family and an extended family in the 1960s suburban world of many kids and unlocked doors and adventures in club houses and forts in the backyard and fireflies in bottles and coming in when the street lights came on.  My biological family during this childhood years included a brother 11 months older and a sister 15 months younger, and a beloved youngest born when I was 7 years old.  Our neighbors had similarly constituted families, usually larger, all familiar, all extensions of our own.  And one particular family was closest it seems, possibly due to the strong friendship between the matriarchs: mom and Nancy were very close buddies.  My mother Cecily passed away long before her time when she was 47 and I was 18 and in college; Nancy has been with us through her own marital shifts and moves and the births of grand children, and through our own marriages and births and illnesses and deaths.  Over the past few years Nancy has been dealing with some extraordinary physical challenges, and today’s diagnostic procedure is the most recent reminder that the people in our lives are our home, our place of respite.  Wherever we find them.

Location. Today’s reflections on place are simple.  Urban rules and theatre rules and the possibility that I may soon  be in a place that maximizes both dimensions, well, rules.

Home and The Wizard of Oz. 70 years and millions of words on paper and millions of fans world-wide and it is possible that there will always be more to say and feel about the 1939 MGM classic The Wizard of Oz.  I am a Garland fan and yet not a fanatic about this particular movie.  Oz is for me as it is for many: quality filmmaking and innovative story telling and a good yarn with layers of meaning.  Oz is a movie familiar through annual viewings pre video and more frequent viewings now on cable and video -> DVD -> whatever will be the latest incarnation.  There is a separate world of Oz fan that collects and admires the details and detritus around this particular film  — I respect but am not one of them.  I do respect the score and the role of the core ballad “Over the Rainbow” in the life of the film and in the life and performing career of Garland.  And today in a discussion board dealing with Garland’s career broadly (with the expected “off topic” threads that such boards engender when they survive, as this one has, for almost five years), a question was posed about the legacy of this particular film and the role of “home”.   Home is place and home is love.

Ray Bolger reflected upon these sentiments during a guest appearance on Garland’s 1963-64 television series.  These comments are printed most recently in the publication illustrated here, The Wizard of Oz: An Illustrated Companion to the Timeless Movie Classic (2009) by John Fricke and Jonathan Shirshekan.  For Bolger (quoted on page 149) the Oz books had a “great [but] very simple philosophy — that everybody had a heart, that everybody had a brain, that everybody had courage.  These were the gifts that were given to people on this earth, and if you used them properly, you reached the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.  And that pot of gold was a home.  And home isn’t just a house or an abode … it’s people.  People who love you — and that you love.  That’s a home.”

In the 1975 adaptation of the story as the musical stage show The Wiz (please let’s all agree to forget the movie version), Dorothy sings of home in the final number, the eleven o’clock number as we used to say, precisely these sentiments.  I still get thrills recalling my teen-aged self watching a teen-aged Stephanie Mills sing the stuffing out of  “Home”.  It starts:

“When I think of home /I think of a place where there’s love overflowing / I wish I was home / I wish I was back there with the things I been knowing”.

It concludes with:

“Living here, in this brand new world /Might be a fantasy / But it taught me to love / So it’s real, real to me / And I’ve learned / That we must look inside our hearts / To find a world full of love / Like yours / Like mine / Like home.”

Yes.  I love you Cecily.  I love you Nancy.  A world full of love, indeed.

As I wait for news (job related) affecting the family situation and the geography of my life, I muse, happily, over images and dialogue inspired by Manhattan.  City of my little girl, adolescent girl, young adult, and very grown up woman’s dreams.  I’m not deep in this way, I’m just gushy.

Narrator, The Naked City (1948): “”There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.”

Mark Twain: “In Boston they ask, how much does he know?  In New York, how much is he worth?  In Philadelphia, who were his parents?”
[Now as I soon expect to have  lived in each of these cities, I believe I understand at a profound level what Twain was on about here.]

Isaac Davis,  Manhattan (1979): “I feel like we’re in a Noel Coward play. Someone should be making martinis.”

still from Woody Allen's Manhattan (1979)

Katharine Houghton Hepburn 1960 passport at Sotheby's pre-auction exhibit June 2004

I have been a tourist and I have been a traveler.  I observe for brief periods as I pass through.  And I stop for extended periods of time in various cities as a full-fledged citizen inhabitant, setting down roots.

After a stable and stationary childhood and adolescence in one town in the middle of the American Midwest, I have lived in ten or so cities and scores of homes.  I have not yet allowed roots to fully take hold.  While I am in each place, however, I believe I am open to that locale being the homeland.  I’ve learned that it’s the intention that is the key thing. And I take lessons and images and wisdom from each place, and leave real and conceptual detritus behind.  Shards of my life in cities and apartments all across the United States and in several other countries around the world.

from The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles (1949)

“He did not think of himself as a tourist; he was a traveler. The difference is partly one of time, he would explain.  Whereas the tourist generally hurries back home at the end of a few weeks or months, the traveler, belonging no more to one place than the next, moves slowly, over periods or years, from one part of the earth to another …. [A]nother important difference between tourist and traveler is that the former accepts his own civilization without question; not so the traveler, who compares it with the others, and rejects those elements he finds not to his liking. “

I have just read a play for consideration in a play development conference that uses a similar construct in conversation between two characters yet focuses not on time or intention but on bravery and daring or the lack of same:

“I thought at first you were a traveler, but I was wrong.  You are a tourist — is plain — is simple. …  The traveler is brave, bold, daring.  The tourist — typical, scared.”

This idea of bravery versus fear to distinguish traveling from tourism is a new one to me.  The passage by Bowles that has spoken to me for decades speaks to openness to possibility and the immensity of time and space and inhabiting each stop along the journey.

I expect to pick up my actual and metaphorical passports soon and feed my traveler’s appetite.

On this first day into the first night of the new decade, a cable channel is running classic Twilight Zone episodes that haunted my adolescence.  In reruns even then.  For example, “The Eye of the Beholder” in which a beautiful woman (played by Donna Douglas, who latter achieved some fame among baby boomers as Ellie May in the trashy but fun classic The Beverly Hillbillies)  is distraught that she remains beautiful after surgery to “standardize” her looks, among a race of people with distorted features who define the norm.  And in another episode gorgeous Anne Francis is a mannequin in a department store, we gradually realize, who has a  month every year in which she lives as a human being.

And I ached once again with an episode that haunts the book-lover, and partial hermit in me: “Time Enough At Last” featuring bookworm Henry Bemis played by Burgess Meredith.  We are told the story of  “the best laid plans of mice and men, and Henry Bemis”, the sole survivor of an “H Bomb” attack, who becomes almost suicidal, finds a public library, assembles a lifetime of reading (this moment of hope is captured in the image above), and then accidentally smashes his coke-bottle bottom glasses.

I still gasp.

And this puts my life in perspective.

Events continue to lap at the family ship of state.  What should remain constant in this new year are those interests and events that have animated my life in years past — theatre, movies, good writing, the magic of live performance, and storytelling in song.  Here’s to more of this in 2010.

© Martha Wade Steketee (January 2, 2010)

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