February 21, 2017

“Workers of the World, Unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!”

You can find many different lists of “books that changed the world” on the Internet.

Those lists vary considerably. But there are some books that show up on almost all of them.

One is The Manifesto of the Communist Party, more commonly known as The Communist Manifesto.

The Manifesto was co-written by Karl Marx and his friend and collaborator Friedrich Engels.

It was first published in London on February 21, 1848 and it did indeed change the world by serving as a key philosophical foundation for socialism and communism.

The original edition of this seminal work by Marx and Engels was published in German, their native language.

Over the next few years it was translated into many other languages, including English.

Several famous quotations from The Communist Manifesto are included in many books of quotations and still frequently cited today.

One is the opening sentence of the Preamble:

“A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of Communism.”

Another is the first line of Chapter I:

“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”

The other famous words in The Communist Manifesto are its closing lines, at the end of Chapter IV.

The official English translation of the last four sentences, as approved by Engels, are:

“Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Working Men of All Countries, Unite!.”

The shortened, more familiar — and often parodied — mistranslation of the last few sentences is:

“Workers of the World, Unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!”

As it turned out, other people’s visions of “Communistic revolution” and Marxism weren’t exactly what Marx and Engels had in mind.

In a letter he wrote on August 5, 1890, Engels remarked: “Just as Marx used to say, commenting on the French ‘Marxists’ of the late [18]70s: ‘All I know is that I am not a Marxist.’”

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February 11, 2017

“Dying / Is an art, like everything else.”

“Lady Lazarus” is one of the best-known poems by the American poet and novelist Sylvia Plath.

It includes the oft-quoted lines:

        Is an art, like everything else.
        I do it exceptionally well.

        I do it so it feels like hell.
        I do it so it feels real.
        I guess you could say I've a call.”

This famous passage has a link to February 11th, but not because Plath wrote it on that date. She wrote the poem in October 1962.

The link is that on February 11, 1963 Plath turned art into reality by dying — at her own hand.

She stuck her head in the gas oven in her London flat and killed herself.

Plath had tried to commit suicide before but survived, a fact reflected in the dark humor of “Lady Lazarus.”

If you are a fan of Plath and her her poetry, you may know the story of why she was feeling suicidal again on that February day.

In 1956, after winning a Fulbright scholarship, Plath attended Newnham College in England. There she met the British poet Ted Hughes and married him the following year.

It was, as they say, a troubled marriage. And, Plath and Hughes could both be described as troubled people.

Hughes was a philanderer and (allegedly) abusive.

Plath suffered from periods of severe depression. Today, she would probably be diagnosed with clinical depression and possibly bipolar disorder.

In September of 1962, Hughes abandoned Plath and their two young children, Nicholas and Frieda, to live with a beautiful German expatriate named Assia Wevill.

The anguish Plath felt inspired some of her best poems, including “Lady Lazarus.”

And, in January 1963, Plath’s highly-acclaimed, semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar was published (under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas), putting her on the verge of worldwide fame.

A month later, on February 11th, Plath killed herself.

Ted Hughes has been vilified ever since by feminists and many other people, though he also has his defenders.

Given her depression problems, Sylvia Plath might have committed suicide regardless of how Hughes treated her.

But it’s hard to overlook the fact that in 1969, following six turbulent years with Hughes, Assia Wevill also committed suicide — after killing the daughter she and Hughes had together.

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January 15, 2017

“The business of America is business” – a famously unfair misquote…

When President Warren G. Harding died from a heart-related problem in 1923, Vice President Calvin Coolidge became the 30th President of the United States.

The following year, with his popularity buoyed by a strong economy of the “Roaring Twenties”, Coolidge handily won the 1924 presidential election, using the campaign slogan “Keep Cool With Coolidge.”

Unlike some presidents, “Silent Cal” Coolidge wasn’t known for making memorable statements.

The most famous quote associated with him is a line about business being the business of America.

That line is often given as “The business of America is business” or “The business of the American people is business.”

In fact, both of those versions are misquotes.

They aren’t radically different from what he actually said, which was “the chief business of the American people is business.”

However, when this short quote or the misquote versions are cited alone, out of context, they tend to give the inaccurate impression that Coolidge was a totally one-dimensional, pro-business cheerleader.

President Coolidge made his famous remark in an address to the Society of American Newspaper Editors on January 17, 1925 in Washington, D.C.

The speech he gave that day was titled “The Press Under a Free Government.” It focused on the role of the press in free market democracies, like America.

Coolidge noted that the press was far more likely to publish propaganda in autocratic or Socialist countries.

He acknowledged concerns about whether business considerations could affect editorial positions and news reporting in a society like the US. But he pointed out the flip side, saying:

“There does not seem to be cause for alarm in the dual relationship of the press to the public, whereby it is on one side a purveyor of information and opinion and on the other side a purely business enterprise. Rather, it is probable that a press which maintains an intimate touch with the business currents of the nation, is likely to be more reliable than it would be if it were a stranger to these influences.”

Then Coolidge added his famous quote:

“After all, the chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with producing, buying, selling, investing and prospering in the world. I am strongly of the opinion that the great majority of people will always find these the moving impulses of our life.”

It’s hard to dispute the notion that most Americans are concerned about the economy and personal prosperity. And, Coolidge made it clear that he didn't simply mean “greed is good.”

“Of course, the accumulation of wealth cannot be justified as the chief end of existence,” he said. “But we are compelled to recognize it as a means to well-nigh every desirable achievement. So long as wealth is made the means and not the end, we need not greatly fear it...But it calls for additional effort to avoid even the appearance of the evil of selfishness. In every worthy profession, of course, there will always be a minority who will appeal to the baser instinct. There always have been, probably always will be, some who will feel that their own temporary interest may be furthered by betraying the interest of others.”

It’s true that Coolidge was generally a pro-business, small-government type politician; sort of a Ronald Reagan without charisma.

But, in my opinion, the spin that is often put on his famous quote about the business of America is clearly overly simplistic and unfair.

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January 04, 2017

“There is less in this than meets the eye.”

Tallulah Bankhead meets the eye quote WM
On January 4, 1922, the New York Times published a review of the dramatic play Aglavaine and Selysette by the paper’s witty critic Alexander Woollcott.

Woollcott had attended the premiere of the play at the Maxine Elliott Theatre in New York City the day before, on the afternoon of January 3rd.

His review wasn’t glowing.

Aglavaine and Selysette was written in French by the Belgian playwright and poet Maurice Maeterlinck in 1896.

The plot involves a high society love triangle. The language of the play is rather twee.

It was the kind of thing some high society types or eggheads might like. But not Woollcott.

He was one of the iconoclastic, opinionated writers and celebrities who were members of the “Algonquin Round Table.”

In fact he was one of the founding members, along with other legendary wits like columnist Franklin Pierce Adams, humorist and actor Robert Benchley and writer Dorothy Parker.

So, it’s not surprising that Woollcott’s aimed some zingers at the performance of the Maeterlinck’s play.

One of the lines in his review quickly became a famous quip that’s included in many books of quotations. He wrote:

“...the matinee was best summed up by the beautiful lady in the back row, who said: ‘There is less in this than meets the eye.’

Woollcott was dissembling a bit by making it seem like he didn’t know the identity of “the beautiful lady.” He’d brought her to the play himself and she was sitting right next to him. She was the then little-known, 19-year-old actress Tallulah Bankhead.

It seems likely that Woollcott didn’t name Tallulah in the review to protect her against possible backlash from high society theatre patrons and producers. But he apparently did tell his Algonquin Club friends, who loved snarky gibes. One way or the other, word got around that Tallulah was the beautiful quipster.

Alexander Woollcott picWoollcott confirmed that publicly in a book he published later the same year, Shouts and Murmurs: Echoes of a Thousand and One First Nights.

In that book, he called the line one of the most memorable bon mots to appear in his reviews and said:

“[It] was whispered in my ear by a comely young actress named Tallulah Bankhead, who was sitting incredulous before a deliberate and intentional revival of Maeterlinck’s ‘Aglavaine and Selysette,’ a monstrous piece of perfumed posturing, meaning exactly nothing. Two gifted young actresses and a considerable bit of scenery were involved, and much pretentious rumbling of voice and wafting of gesture had gone into the enterprise. Miss Bankhead, fearful, apparently, lest she be struck dead for impiety, became desperate enough to whisper, ‘There is less in this than meets the eye.’”

In her own autobiography, Tallulah, published in 1952, Bankhead recalled it this way:

“It was through Alex Woollcott that I won my first citation as a wit...At the end of the first act I turned to my escort to say, ‘There’s less in this than meets the eye.’ I wasn’t aware that I’d said anything devastating, but the next morning the comment was repeated in Woollcott’s review in the Times...This gave me considerable prestige among those jesters who took such delight in ridicule of their peers, even their betters.”

By “those jesters” she meant the Algonquin Round Table, of which she became an occasional member.

However, as the term she chose for them suggests, she was not entirely a fan of the sometimes vicious humor those jesters were known for.

Nor, ultimately, was she a fan of Woollcott, who died nine years before Bankhead’s autobiography was published.

In that book she wrote:

“Since this is supposed to be a frank and open review of my life it is only fair to say that most of the wisecracks I have mothered have been accidental quips. So long as I have dragged Alexander Woollcott into this saga I may as well voice my opinion of him. It isn’t high. He was vindictive, shockingly petty in a feminine fashion, given to excesses when expressing his preferences or his prejudices.”

Of course, Tallulah, who died in 1968, became notorious for her own excesses, involving wild parties, multiple affairs, marijuana and cocaine.

As she once famously put it: “I’m as pure as the driven slush.”

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December 22, 2016

“Let It Snow!” – the Christmas song that isn’t…


Every year at Christmas time, when I hear someone sing or say “Let It Snow!” I am reminded of what I learned when I looked into the song that popularized that phrase.

It was launched into our holiday lexicon in December 1945, when singer and big band leader Vaughn Monroe released the first recording of “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!”

On December 22, 1945 his 78 RPM recording of that song entered the Billboard “Best Sellers in Stores” chart (a precursor of Billboard’s Top 40 and Hot 100 charts).
The words were written by lyricist Sammy Cahn. The music was by Cahn’s songwriting partner at the time, Jule Styne.

Monroe’s version of the song quickly became a huge hit, making it to Billboard’s number one spot on January 26, 1946.

In the decades since then, “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” has been recorded by countless other singers and bands.

Nowadays, many people think it’s a traditional Christmas song. “Let It Snow” is common on Christmas cards and in Christmas-related internet posts.

But, in fact, there’s no reference to Christmas or the holiday season in the lyrics and it wasn’t intended to be Christmas song.

It’s actually a romantic, somewhat corny love song about a guy who is visiting his girlfriend during the winter in some unnamed location.

Since it was the era of PG lyrics, the guy is not expecting to stay for the night. However, when it’s time for him to leave, “the weather is frightful.”

Gosh darnit! It’s snowing too hard for him to travel safely.

The lyrics are written from the guy’s point of view. He seems to see the weather as a stroke of luck and is happy to “let it snow.” 

He suggests to the girl that he’d hate to go out into the storm right at that moment, but if she’d just hold him tight for a while he’d be warm all the way home.

He also mentions he’d brought some popcorn they didn’t get around to eating yet, and the fire is so delightful, and the lights are turned down low, and…

And, the girl buys his snow job. Perhaps not reluctantly.

Then, like in the movies, there’s sort of a fade to a later time in the lyrics. The fire is dying and the couple is still, er, “good-bye-ing.”

Yeah, baby! “Let it snow! Let it snow! Let it snow!”

Although you may not be old enough to have heard Vaughn Monroe’s original version when it first entered the Billboard chart on December 22, 1945, you’ve heard it if you’re a fan of Bruce Willis action movies.

Monroe’s recording of “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” is the first song that plays during the end credits of Willis’ popular action movie Die Hard. It was also used in the soundtrack of Die Hard II.
So, yippee-kay-yay, fellow Bruce fans! Click on the video link at right and sing along! Here are the lyrics...

       “Oh, the weather outside is frightful
       But the fire is so delightful
       And since we’ve no place to go
       Let it snow! Let it snow! Let it snow!

       It doesn’t show signs of stopping
       And I brought some corn for popping
       The lights are turned way down low
       Let it snow! Let it snow! Let it snow!

       When we finally kiss good night
       How I hate going out in the storm
       But if you really you hold me tight
       All the way home I’ll be warm.

       The fire is slowly dying
       And, my dear, we’re still good-bye-ing
       But as long as you love me so
       Let it snow! Let it snow! Let it snow!”

Ironically, as noted in the excellent book Stories Behind the Greatest Hits of Christmas, Cahn and Styne wrote the song while sitting in a stifling hot office in Hollywood during the summer of 1945.

Author Ace Collins says Styne worked out a melody he thought sounded “cool” on the piano. Then Cahn turned his thoughts to winter and: “Looking out the window at the California sun baking the landscape, he whispered, ‘Let it snow.’”

It was perfect! In a short time, Cahn and Styne finished what is now considered one of the top 25 Christmas songs of all time — even though it’s not really about Christmas.

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