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Archive for the ‘LITERATURE, EDUCATION, & REFORM’ Category

 

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The Fitzgeralds in their Paris apartment, 1926. “Scottie,” age 5, Scott, and Zelda

Zelda Fitzgerald‘s health improved greatly following an appendectomy in June of 1926 in the American hospital in Neuilly outside of Paris. Unfortunately, the same could not be said of her husband, American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940). Although his recently-published novel, The Great Gatsby (1925), had received mostly positive reviews from literary critics, it was not selling well.

 

il_794xn.1994892106_o3k1While Zelda (1900-1948) was still hospitalized, Sara Mayfield, Zelda’s childhood friend from Montgomery, Alabama, ran into Scott in Paris. She was having drinks with the son of the Spanish ambassador to the United States and Michael Arlen, whose novel, The Green Hat, was creating a sensation abroad. Scott joined them at their table. At first, the conversation flowed pleasantly. Scott complimented Arlen on his literary success.  A half hour and more drinks later, the conversation turned to the writing of Ernest Hemingway. Arlen did not think highly of it. Scott considered Hemingway his great friend and a great writer. Scott pounced on Sara’s friend, accusing Arlen of being

a finished second-rater that’s jealous of a coming first-rater.”

Someone diffused the situation and steered Scott off the subject. Then Scott was on his way to the hospital to see Zelda and asked Sara Mayfield if she would join him. She agreed. First, however, he decided he wanted to have dinner. He wanted to find Hemingway who may have returned from seeing the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain. He and Sara stopped at Harry’s New York Bar. Things turned nasty quickly. A newspaper man asked Scott if he was promoting Hemingway. Scott somehow got offended and wanted to punch the newspaper man. Fortunately, someone interceded and stopped him.

Sara and Scott never did get around to visiting Zelda. Scott got roaring drunk and passed out in the fresh food market, Les Halles.

More and more, Scott’s nights and days were passed in this way: no work done, drinking, and talking with friends, passing out and being put into a taxi and sent home alone.”

Once Zelda was sufficiently recovered from her surgery, the Fitzgeralds were back in the South of France in the area known as the French Riviera for the rest of that summer.

scottandzeldapic

The Fitzgeralds ca. 1927. photo courtesy Mary A. Doty.

One evening in August, they were dining with two other American expatriates, Sara and Gerald Murphy  in the hills above the Mediterranean near Nice, France in St. Paul-de-Vence at La Colombe D’Or.

St. Paul-de-Vence is located where you see the red marker, approximately 20 km southwest of Nice in the hills.

St. Paul-de-Vence, South of France

La Colombe d’Or was a quaint and popular roadside bistro frequented by artists like Picasso, who sometimes paid for his meal with drawings. The open-air terrace restaurant is set on the edge of the ramparts of the ancient Roman hilltop town of Saint-Paul-de-Vence.  

That August evening, the Murphys had reserved a table for four on the elevated stone terrace overlooking the Loup Valley, two hundred feet below.

A view from the open-air terrace of the hotel/restaurant La Colombe d’Or. Image from the book La Colombe d’Or: Saint Paul De Vence

La Colombe D'Or today, a restaurant and hotel

La Colombe D’Or today, a restaurant and hotel

Midway through the meal, Gerald noticed that the famous American dancer, Isadora Duncan (1878-1927), was sitting at a table nearby along with three of her admirers. Gerald pointed her out to Scott and he and Sara told Scott who she was.

Now 48 years old, Isadora was no longer the lithe young dancer who had revolutionized the dance world by eschewing the rigidity of traditional ballet. In her heyday as a dancer who toured the globe, Isadora Duncan abandoned the plié, stiff-toed pointe shoes, and the tutu, preferring free form movement—skipping about in meadows and on beaches, barefoot, bare-legged, fluttering her arms about, wearing loose and flowing Greek tunics with long scarves trailing and billowing behind her.

Isadora dances for Ital war relief fund

Isadora Duncan dances for the Italian War Relief Fund during World War I. (Photo by George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images) 1917

Now 48 years old, Isadora was hugely fat and her dissipated life was legend. Her hair was dyed with henna.

Nevertheless, Isadora Duncan still had star power. Scott, enamored of fame, rushed over to introduce himself to her. He crouched at her side. He praised her artistry. Knowing that Scott was a writer, she divulged to him that she had a contract to write her memoirs; she had received a cash advance. As a result, she was being pressured to complete and submit the manuscript to her editor and, frankly, she was stuck. Scott offered to help. She wrote down her hotel and room number and handed this note to Scott. Scott was still fawning at her feet. Isadora reached down and began running her hands through his hair. She called him a centurion, her protective soldier.

At this point, Zelda, observing this scene, stood up on her chair, and, without warning, leaped over the table—and over Gerald, who was sitting with his back to the valley view—and dove into the darkness beyond and below the terrace. (Zelda was a proficient diver and swimmer.)

I was sure she was dead,”

recalled Gerald.

Shortly, Zelda reappeared. She had fallen down a stone staircase than ran down the hillside. Her knees and dress were bloody. Otherwise, she was remarkably all in one piece. Sara grabbed her napkin, flew to Zelda’s side, and began wiping away the blood. Gerald’s first thought was

that it had not been ugly. I said that to myself over and over again.”

Zelda Fitzgerald’s behavior would grow more and more peculiar and yet she would live another twenty-two years. In the fall of 1927, she returned to her childhood study of ballet and it became an obsession. She would practice 6-8 hrs a day to the point of exhaustion and a weight loss of 15 pounds.

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Zelda in ballet costume, 1929.

In 1930, she suffered a mental breakdown and was hospitalized in Paris. From then on, she would drift in and out of various mental institutions in Switzerland, France, and the United States. She endured grueling and often inhumane and certainly experimental treatment for her diagnosis of “schizophrenia.” She would make progress and then exit the institution before, reliably, suffering setbacks and needing to be readmitted to the hospital. Her mental health spiraled downhill.

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Fitzgerald, in his own words, “just couldn’t make the grade as a hack” writing Hollywood scripts for MGM. Illustration by Barry Blitt for the New Yorker

Meanwhile, Scott’s party drinking had exploded into full-blown alcoholism. He found it harder and harder to write in those gin-soaked years. But their daughter, Scottie, had expenses and Zelda’s hospitalizations cost a fortune so he had to write to make money. He wrote until the end of his days, although suffering ill health all the while. He died of a heart attack in Hollywood at the age of 44.

Isa Duncan 1903

Isadora Duncan, ca. 1903, wearing a signature neck scarf

After having met Scott Fitzgerald on the terrace of La Colombe D’Or, Isadora Duncan would live another full year. On the night of September 14th, 1927, she was riding in a open-top car with a friend in Nice, France, when the long, silk scarf she was wearing—her signature look was her long, silk scarf— became entangled in the spoke of one of the rear wheels, breaking her neck, dragging her backwards, and killing her instantly.

According to dispatches from Nice, Duncan was hurled in an extraordinary manner from an open automobile in which she was riding and instantly killed by the force of her fall to the stone pavement.”

Upon learning of Duncan’s tragic death by strangulation, the poet and Nazi collaborator Gertrude Stein acidly remarked:

 affectations can be dangerous”

Sources:

Vaill, Amanda. Everybody Was So Young (1998).

Bruccoli, Matthew J. Some Sort of Epic Grandeur: The Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald (1981).

Milford, Nancy. Zelda (1970).

Taylor, Kendall. The Gatsby Affair: Scott, Zelda, and the Betrayal that Shaped an American Classic (2018).

O’Neill, Frances; Rennie, David Alan. F. Scott Fitzgerald in Provence-A Guide (2018).

The New York Times. 1927-09-15

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Novelist Patricia Highsmith, ca. 1950, Swiss Literary Archives, Bern.

Here is a transcription of a page from one of the journals of American novelist and short story writer Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995).

6/1/50 I am interested in the murderer’s psychology and also in the opposing planes, drives of good and evil (construction and destruction) whereby a slight deflection one can be made the other, and all the power of a strong mind and body be deflected to murder or destruction! It is simply fascinating!

…For perhaps even love by having its head persistently bruised, can become hate. For the curious thing yesterday. I felt quite close to murder, too, as I went to see the house of the woman who almost made me love her when I saw her a moment in December, 1948. Murder is a kind of making love, a kind of possessing. Is it not, too, a way of getting complete and passionate attention, for a moment, from the object of one’s affections? To arrest her suddenly, my hands upon her throat (which I should really like to kiss) as if I took a photograph, to make her in an instant cool and rigid as a statue.

And yesterday, people stared at me…wherever I went, in the trains, the bus, on the sidewalk. I thought, does it show in my face?

Now, more than twenty years after her death, Highsmith’s secret life will become public, as her estate prepares to publish hundreds of pages like this one from her personal diaries which also include her drawings and watercolors. Spanning nearly 60 years, these memoirs—56 spiral-bound notebooks, totaling some 8,000 pages—were found after Highsmith’s death, tucked away behind sheets and towels in a linen closet in her home in Switzerland.

In editing the diaries and notebook, Anna von Planta aims to offer an unvarnished look at the controversial author. Highsmith embraced strong anti-Jewish sentiments, cavalierly dismissing the Holocaust as the “semicaust” because some Jews were spared. Liveright Publishing plans to release the diaries in a single edition in the U.S. in 2021. Von Planta hopes the volume will “show how Patricia Highsmith became Patricia Highsmith” (for those who want to know).

Patricia Highsmith is known for her psychological thrillers, including Strangers on a Train (1950) and The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955). Both books were made into movies and increased her fame.

Prickly and eccentric, Highsmith was a mystery even to her friends and lovers. She found no pleasure in men. She was a chronic alcoholic and her hostility toward people grew as her condition worsened.

Patricia Highsmith appearing on the British TV program, “After Dark,” June 18,1988, Open Media Ltd.

She preferred animals:

Highsmith loved cats, and she bred about three hundred snails in her garden at home in Suffolk, England. Highsmith once attended a London cocktail party with a “gigantic handbag” that “contained a head of lettuce and a hundred snails” which she said were her “companions for the evening.” wiki

“Patricia Highsmith,” composed of snail shells and cigarette butts, from blog,  “Book Dirt“. Art by Jason Mecier.

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The knitting women of the French Revolution. Pierre-Etienne Lesueur’s Les Tricoteuses Jacobines, 1793. (Wikimedia)

At the start of the French Revolution, the market women of Paris, hungry for bread, marched by the thousands to Versailles to confront King Louis XVI and his government over rising food prices and food shortages. Surprising everyone, their demands were met and, in addition, they convinced the royal family—including Queen Marie Antoinette—to relocate to the French capital city. Working class women had never before demonstrated such political clout. These women were hailed as sisters of the Revolution and were invited to important political events. These “mothers of the revolution,”  or “bonnes citoyennes,” became overnight heroines for the cause of liberty. They came to be known as the knitting women, or tricoteuses  (pronounced trick uh TUZZ).

Over time, though, the tricoteuses grew swollen with power and inflamed by the fury of the Revolution. They became rowdy and blood-thirsty, harassing aristocrats in the street, insulting them and urging the radical sans-culottes, or lower class militants, to carry out dreadful atrocities against them. The tricoteuses were like the Greek furies that punished culprits they thought were guilty by hounding them relentlessly.

The French Revolution lasted ten years. Before it was over, it descended into an all-out savage bloodbath known as the Reign of Terror (1793-1794). In just that one year period, 17,000 French people were executed. Shown here are rabid revolutionaries parading shorn heads on pikes. (wikipedia)

The behavior of the tricoteuses became so dangerous that they became a liability to the more authoritarian revolutionary government. On May 21, 1793, the women were banished from government proceedings. Later that week, they were forbidden from forming any political assembly. The tricoteuses were reduced to hanging around the guillotine.

The Tricoteuses of the Guillotine on the Steps of the Church of Saint-Roch, 16th October 1793. Henri Baron (Pinterest)

They were the ghoulish women who sat and knitted while the public executions took place during the French Revolution (1789-1799). Many knitted liberty caps, their sharp needles clackety-clacking, while head after head fell beneath the blade and into the basket.

A French man is transported to the guillotine to be beheaded. In the upper right hand corner of the picture, the tricoteuses jeer, bellow, hurl accusations at him, and call for his immediate execution. Etching from Harper’s Weekly, August 1881, from a painting by Carl Piloty, “The Girondists.”

Charles Dickens popularized the tricoteuses in The Tale of Two Cities (1859), set in London and Paris before and during the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror. One of the main villains of the novel is Madame Defarge, a tricoteuse, a French Revolution fanatic obsessed with the extermination of real and imagined enemies of the Revolution. She knits and her knitting secretly encodes the names of people to be killed.

The tricoteuse Madame DeFarge (r.) confronts Miss Pross over the whereabouts of the Evrémonde family. Scene from the novel, A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens, 1859. Image by Fred Barnard, 1870s (wikipedia)


**Read more about the French Revolution and Marie Antoinette here.

Sources:
wiki: "Reign of Terror"
wiki: "tricoteuse"
The Telegraph: "QI: How Knitting was Used as Code in WW2"
Timeline: "Horror Spectators: The Lady Revolutionaries who Calmly Knit During Executions"
Geri Walton: "Tricoteuses: Knitting Women of the Guillotine"

					

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Photo Card No.101, Dancer Josephine Baker posing with a cheetah wearing a collar, photograph by Piaz Studios of Paris, Early 1930's. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

American entertainer Josephine Baker (1906-1975) with Chiquita. ca. early 1930s. Courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum.

Ernest Hemingway called her “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw.” Pablo Picasso painted her, seeking to capture her alluring beauty, saying she had “legs of paradise.” She was Josephine Baker, the glamorous cabaret star that took Paris by storm during the Jazz Age of the 1920s and 30s. In her signature stage act, she appeared onstage wearing only high heels and a skirt made of bananas. She danced and sang with erotic frenzy and wild abandon. She was often accompanied by her pet cheetah, Chiquita, who wore a diamond collar and often escaped into the orchestra pit, terrifying the musicians and adding to the overall sensation of the moment.

Josephine Baker was the first person of color to become a worldwide entertainer and star in a major motion picture (“ZouZou,” 1934). Although born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1937, she married a French man and became a French citizen.

josephine-baker1In 1939, France declared war on Nazi Germany for its invasion of Poland. Within nine months, the Nazis invaded France. Baker was recruited by the Deuxiéme Bureau, the French Military Intelligence, as an “honorable correspondent.” She was so well-known and popular that even the Nazis were hesitant to cause her harm. She made the perfect spy. As an entertainer, she had good excuses for traveling, which allowed her to smuggle secret orders and maps written in invisible ink on her musical sheets. On some occasions, Baker would smuggle secret photos of German military installations out of enemy territory by pinning them to her underwear. To operatives in the French Resistance as well as U.S. and British agents, she relayed information on German troop movements she had gleaned from conversations she overheard between officials with whom she mingled following her performances or at embassy and ministry parties. She also exposed French officials working for the Germans.  She hid Jewish refugees and weapons in her 24-room château in the South of France.

Her steadfast work for the French Resistance helped Baker to rise to the rank of lieutenant in the Free French Air Force. After the war, Baker was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Rosette de la Résistance for her invaluable intelligence work in aid of her adopted country. She was made a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur by General Charles de Gaulle.

Read more about Josephine Baker here on Lisa’s History Room.

Sources:
http://artdaily.com/news/18219/Josephine-Baker--at-The-National-Portrait-Gallery#.W7Ta2WhKiM8
https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/top-spies-suspect/story?id=15528916
https://www.vogue.com/article/josephine-baker-90th-anniversary-banana-skirt
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josephine_Baker
http://historyofspies.com/josephine-baker/
https://www.bedsider.org/features/450-talented-seductive-courageous-getting-to-know-josephine-baker
http://mentalfloss.com/article/23148/5-things-you-didnt-know-about-josephine-baker

 

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Roald Dahl (1916-1990), one of the world's best storytellers for children, among illustrations for his books by Quentin Blake. Undated photo.

Roald Dahl (1916-1990), one of the world’s best storytellers for children, among illustrations for his books by Quentin Blake. Undated photo.

British children’s writer Roald Dahl ate chocolates and sweets “pretty much every mealtime,” remembers daughter Ophelia Dahl:

“He…was fascinated by the cross section of the Mars bar – the layers of chocolate, caramel and nougat. He would never just bite it, but always cut it and have a look at it like it was a section of the Earth.” (1)

Mars bar with wrapper

After dinner, whether dining alone or entertaining guests, Dahl would pass around a little red plastic box full of Mars Bars, Milky Ways, Maltesers, Kit Kats and much more.

He knew the history of all the sweets and could tell you exactly when they were invented. 1937 was a big year when Kit Kats (his favorite), Rolos, and Smarties (his dog, Chopper’s favorite) were invented. He wrote a history of chocolate, lecturing schoolchildren to commit such dates to memory such as 1928 when “Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut bar popped up on the scene,” (2) saying,

“Don’t bother with the Kings and Queens of England. All of you should learn these dates instead. Perhaps the Headmistress will see from now on that it becomes part of the major teaching in this school.” (3)

chocolate ad

Roald Dahl as a teenager at Repton, UK. Undated photo.

Roald Dahl as a teenager at Repton, UK. Undated photo.

According to Dahl, the Golden Years of Chocolate were 1930-1937. In 1930, Roald Dahl was 14 years old. He was a student at Repton, a prestigious boys’ boarding school in England. It was a harsh environment: those in authority were more interested in controlling than educating the students. In Boy: Tales of Childhood, Dahl writes :

“By now, I am sure you will be wondering why I lay so much emphasis upon school beatings….The answer is that I cannot help it. All through my school life I was appalled by the fact that masters and senior boys were allowed literally to wound other boys, and sometimes quite severely. I couldn’t get over it. I never have got over it. It would, of course, be unfair to suggest that all masters were constantly beating the daylights out of all the boys in those days. They weren’t. Only a few did so, but that was quite enough to leave a lasting impression of horror upon me.”

 

Chocolate with cubesIronically, it was at this difficult period that chocolate became Dahl’s passion. Near Repton was a Cadbury chocolate factory. Every so often, Cadbury would send each schoolboy a sampler box of new chocolates to taste and grade. They were using the students – “the greatest chocolate bar experts in the world” to test out their new inventions.

This was when Dahl’s imagination took flight. He pictured factories with inventing rooms with pots of chocolate and fudge and “all sorts of other delicious fillings bubbling away on the stoves.” (4)

Cadbury chocolate factory workers, UK, 1932

Cadbury chocolate factory workers, UK, 1932

“It was lovely dreaming those dreams….[and] when I was looking for a plot for my second book for children, I remembered those little cardboard boxes and the newly-invented chocolates inside them, and I began to write a book called Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl, 1964.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl, 1964.

For the record, Roald Dahl did not like chocolate cake or chocolate ice cream. He said,

“I prefer my chocolate straight.”

(1) The Daily Mail

(2) Dahl, Roald. “The Chocolate Revolution,” Sunday Magazine. September 7, 1997.

(3) The Roald Dahl Museum

(4) Dahl, Roald. Boy: Tales of Childhood. New York: Puffin Books, 1984.

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What would the American Civil Rights Movement have been without the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.? On September 20, 1958, we almost lost him.

The weather boded well for a good turnout. It was a sunny Saturday in New York City and Blumstein’s Department Store – at  230 W. 125th Street, between 7th and 8th Avenues, Harlem – was hustling to get ready for their big guest. On the ground floor, behind the shoe department, clerks had roped off an area where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would sit behind a desk to autograph copies of his first book, Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story. 

The book related the success of the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott that lead to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the unconstitutionality of segregated transit systems.

wo black ministers who were active in the long boycott of segregated buses in Montgomery, Alabama were among the first to ride after a Supreme Court integration order went into effect on December 21, 1956. At left, front seat, is the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, while at left in the second seat is the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Beside King is white minister, Rev. Glenn Smiley of New York, who said he was in Montgomery as an observer.

Two black ministers who were active in the long boycott of segregated buses in Montgomery, Alabama were among the first to ride after a Supreme Court integration order went into effect on December 21, 1956. At right, is the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, while at left is the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Black Americans no longer had to sit at the back of the bus or give up their seats to white people.

Dr. King, with his powerful oratory, had rocketed to fame nearly overnight and had become a significant figure on the national political scene for his participation in the victory. He was making four speeches a week to persuade the nation to stop the practice of racial segregation. It was the dawn of the civil rights movement.

“Dr. King is a rather soft-spoken man with a learning and maturity far beyond his 27 years. His clothes are in conservative good taste and he has a small trim mustache.”(1)

Izola Ware Curry

Blumstein’s Department Store – the site of the autograph party for Dr. King – wasn’t far from where Izola Ware Curry, 42, lived in a brownstone, at 121 West 122d Street in Harlem. Izola was a drifter, a sometimes maid, who had been in Harlem only two months. Izola had Dr. King on her radar. She detested him and all black preachers, calling their boycotts and protests a sham. She felt that blacks should move for social change through appeals to Congress. She hated the NAACP in particular – thought they were controlled by Communists – and white people in general. By 1956, paranoia had taken over her thinking. She started writing the FBI claiming that Communists were out to get her. She was anti-social, tended to babble and rant, her words often unintelligible and ungrammatical. Her neighbors wrote her off as “eccentric.” Izola Ware Curry was African-American.

The Rally The Night Before the Signing

The night before Dr. King’s book signing, just around the corner from Blumstein’s, a rally was held for Dr. King in front of the Hotel Teresa. On the podium he was joined by other dignitaries, among them baseball great Jackie Robinson, New York Governor Averell Harriman, and gubernatorial hopeful, Republican Nelson Rockefeller, with music provided by Duke Ellington. The crowd numbered 5,000. Izola Ware Curry, in her unstable mental state, was there.

When Rockefeller spoke:

This business about [Eisenhower] going slow on integration….I know the man!….Who sent the troops to Little Rock?”(2)

Curry heckled him, calling white people racists. King’s escort in the city, William Rowe,

“did his best to calm her down. And Frederick Weaver, a platform guest, motioned for police officers to make her stop. But the police were reluctant to get tough with her, fearing…an incident…that could escalate into a larger racial disturbance.” (2)

When Dr. King spoke, Curry jeered him, too, as did a few others. Curry shouted that no “negro” should ever try to cooperate with a white person. Rowe had to calm her down once more.

Miraculously, the rally ended without dissolving into chaos. Rowe feared more trouble at the next day’s signing, suggesting a bodyguard for Dr. King, an idea that Dr. King rejected.

The Booksigning

Saturday, September 20, 1958

Blumstein’s Department Store

3:30 p.m.

Izola Ware Curry, 42

Izola Ware Curry, 42

As she pushed her way through the crowd to the desk where Dr. King sat, bystanders couldn’t help but notice the elegantly dressed black woman in her stylish suit, showy jewelry, and sequined cat’s-eyeglasses. Nothing on the surface betrayed the insanity beneath. Little did onlookers suspect that, secreted in Izola Curry’s bra, was a loaded Italian automatic pistol, and, in her enormous leather purse, a 7-inch steel letter opener.

With her purse slung over one arm, Izola Curry strode with purpose straight up to Dr. King, where he was seated, signing a book for a customer.

“Are you Martin Luther King?” she asked.

“Yes,” he replied, not looking up. (3)

She reached into her purse and withdrew the letter opener in an arc. Instinctively, Dr. King yanked his left arm up to block the weapon, cutting his left hand as she plunged the blade into his chest. Dr. King recalled:

“The next minute I felt something beating on my chest.”

A bystander knocked Curry’s hand away from the blade before she could withdraw it and stab Dr. King again.

“I’ve been after him for six years!” shouted Curry, starting to run. “I’m glad I done it!” (2)

A group of women chased her with umbrellas, shouting, “Catch her!” A journalist jumped out and grabbed Curry by the left arm and turned her over to the store security guard, who handcuffed her.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. sits calmly with a letter opener protruding from his chest as Nettie C. Jackson tends his cut hand. September 20, 1958

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. sits calmly with a letter opener protruding from his chest as Nettie C. Jackson tends his cut hand. September 20, 1958

Meanwhile, Dr. King sat still and calm and clear-thinking, with the letter opener protruding from his chest. Someone called for an ambulance to Harlem Hospital. Dr. King was carried, still seated in his chair, to the back of the store. When the ambulance arrived, he was placed carefully on his back. He was told, as was everyone present, that he must not touch the letter opener.

The stabbing nearly cost Dr. King his life, as the blade of the letter opener had lodged in his sternum, within millimeters of piercing the aorta. At Harlem Hospital, surgeons extracted the blade in a delicate operation. He developed pneumonia and had a long convalescence.

Surgeons performed a delicate 2 1/4 hour surgery to extract the letter opener from Dr. Martin Luther King's manubrium, the top bone of the sternum. September 20, 1958

Surgeons performed a delicate 2 1/4 hour surgery to extract the letter opener from Dr. Martin Luther King’s manubrium, the top bone of the sternum. September 20, 1958

A rare photograph of the operation on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, when he was stabbed in Harlem on September 20, 1958

A rare photograph of the operation on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, when he was stabbed in Harlem on September 20, 1958

Izola Ware Curry, Dr. Martin Luther King's assailant. Following her arrest, psychiatrists evaluated her and diagnosed her with paranoid schizophrenia and an I.Q. of about 70. She was institutionalized and died in 2015, at the age of 98. (Getty Images)

Izola Ware Curry, Dr. Martin Luther King’s assailant. Following her arrest, psychiatrists evaluated her and diagnosed her with paranoid schizophrenia and an I.Q. of about 70. She was institutionalized and died in 2015, at the age of 98. (Getty Images)

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is embraced by his wife Coretta Scott King during a news conference at Harlem Hospital in New York, Sept 30, 1958, where he is recovering from a stab wound following an attack by a woman. At left is his mother, Alberta Williams King. (AP Photo/Tony Camerano)

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is embraced by his wife Coretta Scott King during a news conference at Harlem Hospital in New York, Sept 30, 1958, where he was recovering from a stab wound following an attack by Izola Ware Curry. At left is his mother, Alberta Williams King. (AP Photo/Tony Camerano)

Ten Years Later

On April 3, 1968, ten years after the Harlem stabbing, Dr. King recalled it in his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech in Memphis, Tennessee:

“The x-rays revealed that the tip of the blade was on the edge of my aorta, the main artery. And, once that’s punctured, you’re drowned in your own blood – that’s the end of you.”

The surgeon told him that, if he had sneezed before the operation, he would have died. To lively applause, he continued, in his “Mountaintop” speech:

“And I want to say tonight – I want to say tonight that I, too, am happy that I didn’t sneeze. Because if I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1960, when students all over the South started sitting in at lunch counters. 

 “If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1961, when we decided to take a ride for freedom and ended segregation in interstate travel.

“If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been here in 1963, when the black people of Birmingham, Ala., aroused the conscience of this nation, and brought into being the Civil Rights Bill. If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have had a chance later that year, in August, to try to tell America about a dream I had.”

He closed his speech with remarks about the possibility of his untimely death. The next day, in Memphis, he was assassinated by James Earl Ray, a white supremacist.

(1) “Battle Against Tradition: Martin Luther King, Jr.” The New York Times, March 21, 1956

(2) Pearson, Hugh. When Harlem Nearly Killed King. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003.

(3) “Izola Ware Curry, Who Stabbed King in 1958, Dies at 98.” New York Times. March 22, 2015.

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Henry Fonda and Gene Tierney gaze at one another in "Rings on Her Fingers" (1942)

Henry Fonda and Gene Tierney (1920-1991) gaze at one another in “Rings on Her Fingers” (1942)

On Sunday, December 7, 1941, actress Gene Tierney, age 21, and film star Henry Fonda were filming “Rings on Her Fingers” on Catalina Island, 22 miles off the southern California coast.

The cameras were getting ready to roll when a man came running down the beach screaming:

“The Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor! “

Pearl Harbor was in Hawaii, just west across the Pacific from Catalina. Catalina was a dangerous place to be. No one knew exactly what was happening – or what would happen next – just as Americans felt as the events of 9/11 unfolded. Everyone had to get off that island. Since the attack on Pearl Harbor had come without warning and a formal declaration of war by the Japanese, the American people were in shock. They expected more attacks, possibly on California.

Gene Tierney, her husband Oleg Cassini, costar Henry Fonda and the rest of the film’s cast and crew piled into a boat and sailed hurriedly for the mainland. It was a nervous crossing. Rumors flew that the waters had been sabotaged with mines.

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On December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor was attacked by 353 Japanese fighter planes, bombers, and torpedo planes in two waves, launched from six aircraft carriers. All eight U.S. Navy battleships were damaged, with four being sunk. All but one (Arizona) were later raised, and six of the eight battleships were returned to service and went on to fight in the war. The Japanese also sank or damaged three cruisers, three destroyers, an anti-aircraft training ship, and one minelayer. 188 U.S. aircraft were destroyed; 2,403 Americans were killed and 1,178 others were wounded. (2)

The next day, the U.S. declared war on Japan. Days later, Germany and Italy declared war on the U.S. Overnight, the United States was plunged into war in both the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans.

The U.S. government enlisted the help of Hollywood stars to aid the war effort by boosting morale at home. Americans were urged to plant backyard “victory gardens” – vegetable patches – to help feed civilians at home. Suddenly, farm production was heavily burdened by having to feed millions of military personnel, as well as coping with fewer men on the farms.

War is expensive. The U.S. government encouraged people to buy War Bonds. You could purchase a $25 War Bond for $18.75. The government used that money to help pay for tanks, planes, ships, uniforms, weapons, medicine, food, and for the military.  Ten years from the time you purchased your War Bond you could redeem it and get $25.

Gene Tierney did her part for the war effort, whether it was planting a “victory garden,” promoting war bonds, or entertaining the troops.

Gene T tends her own "victory garden," in Fort Riley, Kansas, where her husband is stationed in the army.  She is pregnant with her first child, Daria. 1943. (photo courtesy Lou and Mary Jo Mari)

Gene Tierney tends her own “victory garden,” in Fort Riley, Kansas, where her husband is stationed. 1943. (photo courtesy Lou and Mary Jo Mari)

Gene Tierney encouraged Americans to buy war bonds.

Gene Tierney appeared in posters and went on campaign drives to encourage Americans to buy war bonds.

Gene Tierney took time to entertain the troops at the Hollywood Canteen. From 1942-45, three million service personnel on leave – men and women, black and white – would pass through the doors of that converted barn to rub elbows with the stars. On any given night, Bob Hope might be on the stage cracking jokes while Rita Hayworth made sandwiches, Harry James played trumpet, or Hedy Lamarr danced with the soldiers.

Film star Shirley Temple gives cookies to the soldiers at the Hollywood Canteen. Ca. 1942-45.

Shirley Temple passes out cookies at the Hollywood Canteen. Ca. 1942-45.

During the war years, Gene Tierney was at the height of her popularity. Her image graced countless magazine covers.Gene T Life Mag Nov. 10, 1941 Shanghai Gesture wardrobe gene-tierney-movie-stars-parade-magazine-cover-1940-s_i-G-54-5494-2D3WG00Z March 1946 mag cover tierney april 1943

Gene Tierney smiles broadly while husband, Oleg Cassini, looks away. ca. 1945

Gene Tierney smiles broadly while husband, Oleg Cassini, looks away. ca. 1945

Gene’s best pictures were made in the forties. Her beauty was extraordinary then. Her presence on screen was fresh and captivating. She had expressive green eyes, high cheekbones, lustrous, dark hair, and a sensual full mouth that revealed, when parted, an unexpected yet terribly endearing overbite. (Her contract with 24th Century Fox forbid her from correcting the crooked teeth.)

American film actress Gene Tierney. ca. 1941

American film actress Gene Tierney. ca. 1941

And she could act. She was only 23 when she appeared in “Laura” (1944), directed by Otto Preminger, a stunning film noir masterpiece, so richly layered with plot twists and great casting (Dana Andrews, Vincent Price, Judith Anderson, Clifton Webb) that you can enjoy it again and again. It is her signature film. Also fantastic are “The Razor’s Edge” with Tyrone Power (1946) and “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” with Rex Harrison (1947). All three are available to rent on Amazon Instant Video. She plays against type – still classy in manner, yes, but devious in heart – in the film she received an Academy Award nomination for: “Leave Her to Heaven” (1945).

Gene Tierney smolders as "Laura." (1944),

Gene Tierney is smoldering as “Laura” (1944), one of my top five favorite films of all time. Gripping.

In the spring of 1943, Gene finished filming “Heaven Can Wait” in Hollywood. She was expecting her first child and, gratefully, not yet showing signs of pregnancy. She had kept that a secret for fear of being replaced in the film. She longed to be with husband Oleg in Kansas, where he was stationed in the army.

Before leaving Los Angeles and starting her maternity leave, Gene decided to make one last appearance at the Hollywood Canteen. So, that night, Gene showed her support of American troops by signing autographs, mingling with the crowd, and shaking hands. The troops were homesick and sad; a little stardust lightened their load.

A few days after that visit, Gene woke up with red spots covering her arms and face. She had the German measles, or rubella. In 1943, there was no vaccine to prevent contracting the measles. That would not be available for 22 more years. Obstetricians advised patients to avoid crowds in their first four months of pregnancy, to avoid contracting the measles. At the time, it was believed that measles was a harmless childhood disease.

Little did Gene know at the time, but, just two years earlier,

“…[B]y studying a small cluster of cases in Australia, [eye doctor] Dr. N. M. Gregg first noted that the rubella virus could cause cataracts, deafness, heart deformities and mental retardation [in an unborn child].” (3)

Of course, this was before TV and Internet gave us 24/7 news cycles that would have immediately alerted the public to this critical finding. Gene didn’t know that her small act of kindness at the Canteen would have tragic and long-term consequences for both her and her baby’s health.

After a week of doctor-ordered rest, Gene rested, got better, then packed her bags for Fort Riley, Kansas, to join Oleg. The next several months were devoted to making her Junction City home ready for the baby and being a couple.

Gene Tierney and husband Oleg Cassini celebrate the birth of their first child with a night out in New York City at the Stork Club. Mid 1943.

Gene Tierney and husband Oleg Cassini await the birth of their first child with a celebratory night out in New York City at the Stork Club. Mid 1943.

By the fall, Gene was living in Washington, D.C., while Oleg was awaiting orders in Virginia. On the morning of October 15, 1943, Gene gave birth to a premature baby girl, weighing only two and a half pounds. Oleg flew to Washington and joined his wife at Columbia Hospital. They named their baby “Daria.”

Doctors informed them that Daria was not in good shape. She was premature and going blind. She had cataracts in both eyes. After reviewing Gene’s medical chart, the doctors concluded that Gene’s measles were responsible for the baby’s defects. They cited the studies done by the Australian eye doctor, Dr. Gregg.

Daria continued to have health problems and delayed development. She had no inner ear fluid and became deaf. It was clear that she suffered from mental retardation. Gene and Oleg hoped against hope that a doctor somewhere could cure Daria. But, after consulting one specialist after another (much of it paid for by Howard Hughes), they had to face the fact that Daria was permanently disabled and needed more care than they were capable of giving her at home.

When Daria was about two years old, Gene got an unexpected jolt. She was at a tennis function. A fan approached her.

“Ms. Tierney, do you remember me?” asked the woman.

Gene had no memory of having met the stranger. She shook her head and replied, “No. Should I?”

The woman told Gene that she was in the women’s branch of the Marines and had met Gene at the Hollywood Canteen.

Gene never would forget what the woman said next.

“By the way, Ms. Tierney, did you happen to catch the German measles after that night I saw you at the Canteen?”

The woman revealed that she had had the measles herself at the time but had broken quarantine just to see Gene at the Canteen.

Gene was dumbstruck. That woman had given her the measles! She was the sole cause of Daria’s disabilities. Gene said nothing. She just turned and walked away.

When Daria was four, Oleg and Gene made the difficult decision to institutionalize Daria (1943-2010). Daria spent most of her life at the ELWYN, an institution for specially disabled in Vineland, NJ.

Gene Tierney never fully recovered from the blow that Daria was disabled. Although she gave birth to another daughter that was healthy, her marriage to Oleg ended in divorce, and her mental health began to deteriorate. She couldn’t concentrate. On the movie set, she would forget her lines. She began to fall apart and live a life of “stark misery and despair,” said ex-husband Oleg.

In much of the 1950s, Gene went from one mental health facility to another seeking help with her bouts of high and low moods and suicidal thoughts. She received 27 shock treatments, destroying even more of her memory. It is believed that Gene Tierney suffered from bipolar depression during a time when effective treatment for that disease was in its infancy.

If Daria had been born after 1965, Gene Tierney would have been vaccinated against the German measles and Daria would have been born healthy.

Currently, in Mexico and California, there is an outbreak of measles due to the antivaccination movement. Some parents in the western part of the United States have decided not to vaccinate their children due to unfounded worries about it causing autism. These few anti-vaxers are putting our whole population at risk.

Make no mistake. Measles is a highly contagious disease and is anything but harmless:

“Symptoms of measles include fever as high as 105, cough, runny nose, redness of eyes, and a rash that begins at the head and then spreads to the rest of the body. It can lead to inflammation of the brain, pneumonia and death.” (4)

AND

“Worldwide, 242,000 children a year die from measles, but it used to be near one million. The deaths have dropped because of vaccination, a 68 percent decrease from 2000 to 2006.

“The very success of immunizations has turned out to be an Achilles’ heel,” said Dr. Mark Sawyer, a pediatrician and infectious disease specialist at Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego. “Most of these parents have never seen measles, and don’t realize it could be a bad disease so they turn their concerns to unfounded risks. They do not perceive risk of the disease but perceive risk of the vaccine.” (5)

Postscript: In 1962, Dame Agatha Christie published the detective fiction, The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side, using the real-life tragedy of Gene Tierney as the basis for her plot.

SOURCES:

(1) Vogel, Michelle. Gene Tierney: A Biography. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., 2005.

(2) wiki: Attack on Pearl Harbor

(3) Altman, M.D., Lawrence K. “The Doctor’s World; Little-Known Doctor Who Found New Use For Common Aspirin.The New York Times, July 9, 1991.

(4) LA Times

(5) New York Times

 

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Diana Vreeland, Empress of Fashion, 1903-1989

Before her career as editor and columnist at fashion magazines Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, Diana Vreeland, like other society women of her class, ran a little lingerie shop near Berkeley Square in London. She often traveled to Paris where she would buy her clothes, notably, Chanel. She remembered one such trip in the summer of 1932:

“One night in Paris, after I was married, a friend and I went to a little theatre above Montmartre to see a German[-French] movie called “L’Atlantide,” with a wonderful actress in it called Brigitte Helm, who played the Queen of the Lost Continent. It was the middle of July. It was hot. The only seats in the theatre were in the third balcony, under the rafters, where it was even hotter. There were four seats in a row, and we took two.

L'Atlantide poster 1932

“We sat there, the movie started…and I became totally intoxicated by it. I was mesmerized! …I was absorbed by these three lost Foreign Legion soldiers with their camels, their woes…they’re so tired, they’re delirious with dehydration…And then you see the fata morgana [mirage]. That means that if you desire a woman, you see a woman, if you desire water, you see water – everything you dream, you see. But you never reach it. It’s all an illusion.

“Then…a sign of an oasis! There’s a palm…and more palms. Then they’re in the oasis, where they see Brigitte Helm, this divine looking woman seated on a throne – surrounded by cheetahs! The cheetahs bask in the sun. She fixes her eyes on the soldiers. One of them approaches her. She gives him a glass of champagne and he drinks it. Then she takes the glass from him, breaks it, cuts his throat with it…

Brigette Helm as the Queen of Atlantis, the Lost Continent, shown here with one of her screen cheetahs.  "L'Atlantide" (1932)

Brigette Helm as the Queen of Atlantis, the Lost Continent, shown here with one of her screen cheetahs. “L’Atlantide” (1932)

“This goes on and on. I hadn’t moved an inch. At some point I moved my hand…to here…where it stayed for the rest of the movie. I was spellbound because the mood was so sustained. I was sucked in, seduced by this thing of the desert, seduced by the Queen of the Lost Continent, the wickedest woman who had ever lived…and her cheetahs!

The essence of movie-ism.

“Then…the lights went on, and I felt a slight movement under my hand. I looked down – and it was a cheetah! And beside the cheetah was Josephine Baker!”

Josephine Baker was a hit in Paris cabarets, singing, dancing, and goofing around. In the 1930s, she was the most successful American entertainer in Paris. She got rich fast and was a superstar. She is wearing her notorious silly but erotic banana skirt. ca. 1925

When Josephine Baker began performing her exotic, erotic, and peculiar dances in Paris cabarets in 1925, she became an instant hit, a superstar. In the thirties, she was the most successful American entertainer working in France. She was known as “The Black Pearl” and “The Bronze Venus.” Whether sitting high up in a giant bird cage covered with peacock feathers or dancing semi-nude in a skirt of dangling fabric bananas, audiences were captivated by her infectious charm. ca. 1925

Meanwhile, back to our story:

Diana Vreeland was chatting with Josephine Baker in the balcony of a hot theater, looking at a cheetah.

Diana says to Josephine:

“‘Oh,” I said, ‘you’ve brought your cheetah to see the cheetahs!’

“Yes,” she said,’ that’s exactly what I did.’

“She was alone with the cheetah on a lead. She was so beautifully dressed.  She was wearing a marvelous little short black skirt and a little Vionnet shirt – no sleeves, no back, no front, just crossed bars on the bias. Don’t forget how hot it was, and, of course, the great thing was to get out of this theatre we were in. The cheetah, naturally, took the lead, and Josephine, with those long black legs, was dragged down three flights of stairs as fast as she could go, and that’s fast.

“Out in the street there was an enormous white-and-silver Rolls-Royce waiting for her. The driver opened the door; she let go of the lead; the cheetah whooped, took one leap into the back of the Rolls, with Josephine right behind; the door closed…and they were off!

…Ah! Style was a great thing in those days.” (1)

American entertainer Josephine Baker (1906-1936) often performed onstage in Paris nightclubs with pet cheetah Chiquita. Chiquita wore a diamond collar. Sometimes, during a performance, Chiquita would decide to jump off the stage and into the orchestra pit, causing quite a ruckus. Early 1930s. Courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum.

American entertainer Josephine Baker (1906-1936) often performed onstage in Paris nightclubs with pet cheetah Chiquita. Chiquita wore a diamond collar. Sometimes, during a performance, Chiquita would decide to jump off the stage and into the orchestra pit, causing quite a ruckus. ca. 1931. Courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum.

Heads turned when entertainer Josephine Baker took her pet cheetah Chiquita on a walk, sometimes down the Champs-Élysées in Paris. Ca. 1930

Heads turned when entertainer Josephine Baker took her pet cheetah Chiquita on a walk, sometimes down the Champs-Élysées in Paris. Ca. 1930

Sheet music with Josephine Baker and Chiquita

Sheet music with Josephine Baker and Chiquita.

Comparing Josephine Baker to a beautiful Egyptian queen,  artist Pablo Picasso dubbed her “the Nefertiti of Now.” She posed for him in all her glory: “tall, coffee skin, ebony eyes, legs of paradise, a smile to end all smiles.” (2)

Gorgeous, talented, and funny Josephine Baker, an original. Undated photo, ca. 1930

Gorgeous, talented, and funny Josephine Baker, an original. Undated photo, ca. 1930

(1)Vreeland, Diana. D.V. New York: Da Capo Press, 1984

(2) Picasso quote

 

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Lady Diana Spencer reads a romance novel by her favourite author, Barbara Cartland. Diana is probably 16. Photo ca. 1977

Lady Diana Spencer reads a romance novel by her favorite author, Barbara Cartland. Diana is probably 16 years old. Photo ca. 1977

Princess Diana (1961-1997) loved to read romantic fiction. She devoured novels by British author Barbara Cartland, of which there was an endless and steady supply. In her lifetime, Cartland (1901-2000) is credited with having written 723 books. In 1983 alone, she wrote 23 of them. She holds The Guinness Book of World Records for writing the most books in a single year.

Reclining on a chaise lounge at her home, Cartland dictated her hundreds of stories to her secretary. They both wore pink. Pink was Cartland’s signature color.

British romance novelist Barbara Cartland dictates stories to her secretary while relaxing with one of her Pekinese pets.

British romance novelist Barbara Cartland dictates stories to her secretary Jean Smith while relaxing at home in Camfield Place in Essendon, U.K.

Cartland, self-styled as the “Queen of Romance,” was a celebrity favorite with journalists as she was always holding forth on topics of the day, and sometimes saying outrageous and unprintable things such as speculating on the private parts of the exiled Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

She was well-known for her flamboyant appearance, resembling a fairy queen with cotton candy hair. Her dresses were ultra-girly, adorned with feathers, frills, flounces, fluff, and froth. She was heavily perfumed and glittered with jewels. Her thick make-up was more suited to the stage, and the end result was often clown-like. To achieve a more youthful look, she pulled back her cheeks with the application of sticking plaster (which, sadly, often showed). Her “forests of false eyelashes” were legendary, jet black, and preposterous. Her secret? In 1959, she wrote to a fan that, instead of mascara:

I use Meltonian black shoe cream for my eyelashes.” (1)

Barbara Cartland up close and personal

Barbara Cartland up close

In her writing as well as her appearance, Cartland was an accomplished illusionist. Her books were fairy tales of the most fantastic nature. In them, the young virgin heroine – usually with an exotic name like Vada, Lalitha, Syringa, Fenella, Kamala, or Anthea – always marries Prince Charming. They live happily ever after. They never quarrel, they don’t have affairs, and they certainly don’t divorce.

More than one of Diana's Spencer's acquaintances remarked on her dreamy nature. Photo ca. 1977

More than one of Diana’s Spencer’s acquaintances remarked on her dreamy nature. Photo ca. 1977

Not so in the Spencer household. From her earliest years, Princess Diana’s parents had had a troubled marriage, and her home was a scene of violent quarrels. Diana’s mother, Frances, felt as if her husband Johnnie Spencer, Viscount Spencer, treated her like a brood mare, sending her to fertility experts to explain why she had given birth to three girls in a row. He wanted a male heir to carry on the royal family line. Diana listened behind the door when her parents had a shouting match and her sister turned up the record player volume.

Frances did give birth to a boy, Charles, but the breach in the marriage had become, by then, an unbridgeable chasm.

When Diana was six, her mother left her four children and husband to pursue an affair in London with Peter Shand Kydd, also married. In 1968, she divorced Diana’s father, Johnnie Spencer, who, surprisingly for the times, was granted custody of the children. It is not surprising once you know that a surprise witness at the divorce hearing provided the damning testimony that decided in his favor. Testifying to Johnnie’s superior parenting skills was Frances’s own mother, Lady Fermoy, testifying against her daughter.

Three months after the divorce, Frances married Kydd and they moved to Scotland. With her two older sisters away at boarding school, only Diana and her younger brother Charles remained behind at Park House on the Queen’s royal Sandringham estate. Her father holed up, silently, in his study, abandoned.

The spirit of gaiety was gone from Park House along with Frances’s furniture.” (2)

A Hazard of Hearts (1948) by Barbara Cartland

A Hazard of Hearts (1948) by Barbara Cartland

Cartland’s novels provided young Diana Spencer with an escape into a fantasy dream world. Diana came to believe in the magical rescue power of princes, waiting for her prince to ride up and take her away to her own happy ending. Her life view was shaped by this unreality and it would pitch her into a cold marriage to a man whose heart already belonged to another.

No fairy tale is complete without a wicked stepmother, and, in July, 1976, Diana got one. Her name was Raine, Countess Dartmouth. By this time, the Spencers had moved into the family’s stately home of Althorp, as Diana’s grandfather had died, passing the earldom on to Johnnie. He became the 8th Earl Spencer and Diana became Lady Diana. Raine began an extensive remodeling of Althorp, proving unpopular with Diana and her siblings, who hated their new (wicked) stepmother, calling her “Acid Raine.” Johnnie, however, became very happy after his marriage to Raine.

Princess Diana, at right, stands with stepmother, Raine, Countess Spencer, middle, and a friend. Undated photo, ca. 1977

Princess Diana, at right, stands with stepmother, Raine, Countess Spencer, middle, and a friend. Undated photo, ca. 1977

Now that you have seen this photo of Raine (above), you will not find it hard to believe that her mother was Barbara Cartland, Diana’s favorite novelist! That made Cartland Diana’s stepgrandmother. She learned of Diana’s love for her books and sent them to Diana by the cartload.

In 1977, Diana moved into Coleherne Court in South Kensington, London. Her roommates remember that she always got up before the meal was finished to clear the table. She hated dirty dishes. Diana loved to do the washing and ironing of shirts for friends. Her big sister Sarah paid her to clean her apartment. Diana was Cinderella, sweeping the hearth free of ashes.

Diana first revealed her crush on Prince Charles when on a ski holiday with friends in Val Claret in the French Alps. She surprised her friends one evening, saying that she was going to marry Charles AKA Prince Charming. According to those who knew her well, Diana kept herself chaste for her husband on their wedding night. (3)

Oxford student Adam Russell sits with Lady Diana Spencer. They are vacationing with a group in the French Alps. Russell is said to have had a ‘galumphing’ crush on Diana. Nothing, however, happened between them. According to royal author Andrew Morton, Mr Russell went travelling for a year, and when he returned to the UK in 1980 and told a friend that he liked Diana, he was told: ‘You’ve only got one rival, the Prince of Wales’. Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2257321/Revealed-Mystery-rival-Prince-Charles-pictured-relaxing-Lady-Diana-1979-Old-Etonian-aristocrat-Adam-

Oxford student Adam Russell sits with Lady Diana Spencer. They are vacationing with a group in the French Alps. Russell is said to have had a ‘galumphing’ crush on Diana. Nothing, however, happened between them. According to royal author Andrew Morton, Mr Russell went travelling for a year, and when he returned to the UK in 1980 and told a friend that he liked Diana, he was told: ‘You’ve only got one rival, the Prince of Wales’. Source: The Daily Mail

And Lady Diana did indeed marry Prince Charles on July 29, 1981. Her fairy tale unfolded as she had imagined. Her father gave her away. She wore a confection of a dress with a 25 foot-long train. She rode to St. Paul’s Cathedral in a carriage. She became Her Royal Highness, Diana, Princess of Wales. When Charles became King one day, she would become his queen, and their son, a king, too.

Prince Charles and Princess Diana smile for their wedding photo. July 1981

Prince Charles and Princess Diana smile for their wedding photo. July 1981

As we all know, Diana’s life with Charles did not have a happy ending. Her marriage was miserable, ending in a nasty divorce (1996) which led to her disastrous loneliness and tragic death (1997). Diana’s story was a fractured fairy tale of the worst imaginable kind.

By the way, stepmother Raine attended the royal wedding. However, stepgrandmother Barbara Cartland – the fairy queen who nurtured this fairy tale of Diana’s – did not attend.  Someone – maybe the Queen’s sister, Princess Margaret – considered her an embarrassment and did not want her there. We don’t know if she wasn’t invited OR was offered an invitation but declined because her seat was behind a column! Anyway, not being present at Diana’s wedding proved to be the biggest humiliation of Barbara Cartland’s life.

In 1993, Barbara Cartland remarked:

The only books Diana ever read were mine, and they weren’t terribly good for her.” (2)

In 1996, Cartland had figured out why the marriage had failed:

Of course, you know where it all went wrong. She wouldn’t do oral sex.”

Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned….

For more about Princess Diana, click here.

(1)

(2) Brown, Tina. The Diana Chronicles. New York: Doubleday, 2007.

(3)

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Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., at the March on Washington, August 28, 1963. Credit:-/AFP/Getty Images

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., at the March on Washington, August 28, 1963. Credit:-/AFP/Getty Images

On Aug. 28, 1963,  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and delivered his rousing, “I Have a Dream” speech to over 250,000 civil rights supporters gathered for the March on Washington. The speech calls for an end to racism in America. It was considered by many to be the most important speech of the Twentieth Century and helped advance President John F. Kennedy‘s important civil rights legislation then in Congress.

At the March on Washington, August 1963, peaceful African-Americans called for decent jobs with equal pay.

At the March on Washington, August 1963, peaceful African-Americans called for decent jobs with equal pay.

Dr. King timed his March on Washington to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln‘s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation which freed millions of American black slaves in 1863.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stands in front of the statue of President Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D.C. ca. 1963

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stands in front of the statue of President Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D.C. ca. 1963

His opening lines in his speech evoke the Gettysburg Address by President Lincoln:

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of captivity.” 

Dr. King asked for justice to be made a reality for all of God’s children.

We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied, as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities….

We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating “For Whites Only”. We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. “(1)

He spoke of his dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’


I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.'”

***

Fast forward to August 28, 2013, the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s March on Washington and his landmark speech. 

Anderson Cooper of CNN is interviewing African-American writer Maya Angelou (1928-2014). They reflect on the state of Dr. King’s dream. Maya Angelou knew Dr. King and was part of the struggle for civil rights change in this country.

Cooper: Do you believe that the arc of history is moving in the right direction? President Obama, recently, when he was talking about Trayvon Martin, he said that he looks at his daughters and that his daughters’ generation is better than his generation was. Do you believe that?

Angelou: Yes, I do. I know that there was a time when people were lynched with everybody’s agreement – not everybody – but with the “Might’s” agreement. The might was white and white was might and so people were lynched.

I grew up in a village in Arkansas where a man was lynched and the skin of his body – after being lynched and burned – the skin was taken off in skin the size of a postage stamp and given to people as mementoes.

You can’t do that in the United States today. I mean you can lynch people and murder people in many ways but you can’t do it in the city square.

Cooper: Hmm.

Angelou: You see? We are better. Not nearly enough. Not nearly enough. But we come and we have to admit that. Because, Mr. Cooper, if we don’t, young people will say, ‘You mean to tell me, with the lives and deaths of Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and Rosa Parks and the Kennedys, then there’s no point in me trying, because those people were bigger than life.’ So we have to say, ‘You have come a long way.’

***

President Barack Obama spoke from the Lincoln Memorial steps to honor the half-century anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s iconic speech, “I Have a Dream.” August 28, 2013.

Our first African-American president was on hand at the Fiftieth Anniversary of the March on Washington Celebration. Like Dr. King, President Barack Obama is a great orator. In his speech to those gathered at the Lincoln Memorial, he echoed Maya Angelou’s sentiment in regard to the civil rights movement, progress, and where America stands.

To dismiss the magnitude of this progress, to suggest as some sometimes do that little has changed, that dishonors the courage and the sacrifice of those who paid the price to march in those years.”

Members of Dr. King’s family, including his then 5-year-old granddaughter, Yolanda King, were present as bells rang at 3 p.m. to mark the historical moment.

President Obama greets Yolanda King, age 5, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s granddaughter at the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington. August 28, 2013. Credit; Getty Images

President Obama greets Yolanda King, age 5, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s granddaughter at the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington. August 28, 2013. Credit; Getty Images

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Maya Angelou (Undated photo)

Maya Angelou (Undated photo)

American writer Maya Angelou (1928-2014) had deep political ties with the Clintons. In 1993, she read her poem, “Pulse of the Morning” at Bill Clinton’s inauguration. Both she and Bill were from Arkansas. In 2008, she supported Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary race for the U.S. presidency against Barack Obama, a fellow African-American. It was a tough decision.

Maya Angelou campaigns for Democratic Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton prior to the crucial Pennsylvania Primary, 2008. Even though Ms. Angelou walks with a cane, you can see that she is a towering figure at 6 feet tall.

Maya Angelou campaigns for Democratic Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton prior to the crucial Pennsylvania Primary, 2008. Even though Ms. Angelou walks with a cane, you can see that she is a towering figure at 6 feet tall.

However, when Hillary dropped out of the race, Maya swiftly endorsed Barack Obama.

When she was asked to introduce Michelle Obama at a rally in North Carolina, she consulted her good friend TV hostess Obama Winfrey:

I knew she had socialized with them. I asked her, ‘What is Mrs. Obama like? What should I expect?’

Oprah said simply and without hesitation, ‘She’s the real deal.'”

The Obamas and Maya Angelou grew very close. She referred to Michelle Obama as one of her “she-roes.”

When she was interviewed followed Obama’s November ’08 victory, Maya was asked by the BBC World Service for her reaction:

My reaction can be described as thrilled – I am thrilling – but in the classic sense of the word. It used to mean having a physical reaction, you know – BRRRR!!!! – like that! (giggle) – where the whole body responds. Well, this is happening. Even my hair is happy!”

When Maya Angelou died this past Wednesday, President Obama called her a “fierce friend.” Obama’s sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, was named after Angelou.

Maya Angelou receives a Medal of Freedom from President Obama at the White House in Washington in this February 15, 2011 file photo. U.S. author and poet Maya Angelou has died at age 86 in North Carolina.. REUTERS/Larry Downing/Files

Maya Angelou receives a Medal of Freedom from President Obama at the White House in Washington in this February 15, 2011 file photo. REUTERS/Larry Downing/Files

 

First Lady Michelle Obama and Maya Angelou on stage at BET Honors 2012 at the Warner Theatre on January 14, 2012 in Washington, DC. Photo from Amanda Wills at Mashable

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Back in the 1950s, writer Maya Angelou was singing and dancing her way across Europe and America to appear in clubs, movies, and plays.

African-American writer Maya Angelou died this week at age 86. Starting Friday, May 31, 2014, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, New York City, will showcase a collection of her papers, manuscripts and letters. Maya Angelou is no stranger to the Schomburg Center. In 1991, the Schomburg expanded to include a new addition and Ms. Angelou was a guest at the opening.

The Schomburg Center, Harlem, New York.

The Schomburg Center, Harlem, New York.

The 1991 expansion of the Schomburg Center was the Langston Hughes Building. The structure is named after African-American poet Langston Hughes, the leader of the Harlem Renaissance. Maya Angelou met him in California once when he came to hear her sing.

Poets Maya Angelou and Langston Hughes hang out. Undated, prob. ca. 1960s.

Poets Maya Angelou and Langston Hughes hang out. Undated, prob. ca. 1960s.

The Langston Hughes Building contains an auditorium that seats 340 guests. Although impressive, the auditorium is of no interest to us here. It is the lobby that draws our attention.

The lobby is spacious, elegant, and flooded with natural light streaming through its many tall windows. The windows look out onto a garden but the real conversation piece is the floor. Embedded in the terrazzo tile  is a design honoring the poetry of Langston Hughes. “Rivers” was inspired by Hughes’ well-known poem, ” A Negro Speaks of Rivers.” This type of design is called a cosmogram, as it treats mystical themes of nature and the meaning of life. Blue rivers snake through rust-colored clay, evoking the Earth.

The Langston Hughes Building lobby at the Schomburg Center, New York City

The Langston Hughes Building lobby at the Schomburg Center, New York City

The design is pleasing, with its tribal symbols and poetic quotes. Looking closer even, we see that there is a fish shape in the middle. Inside the fish is a quote from the poem.

A quote from "A Negro Speaks of Rivers," by Langston Hughes appears in the cosmogram in the Langston Hughes Building Lobby.

A quote from “A Negro Speaks of Rivers,” by Langston Hughes appears in the cosmogram in the Langston Hughes Building Lobby.

If we had superpowers and could see through the tile of the fish and underneath the floor, we would discover that there is something buried there. It is a vessel, made of metal, and, fittingly, we think later, shaped like a book. It is sealed. If we were to open it, which we won’t (and can’t), we would discover that it contains the cremated ashes of Langston Hughes himself. So the cosmogram, besides being beautiful, is useful. It is a tomb.

So, at the 1991 opening of the Langston Hughes Building, guests filled up the lobby and turned it into a dance floor. Someone cranked up the music and everyone boogied down. And this is how Maya Angelou and others ended up doing the proverbial dance on a friend’s grave.

The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem observed the 89th birthday of the poet Langston Hughes and the beginning of Black History Month on Thursday night.  Mr. Hughes's ashes were buried beneath the floor of the auditorium, and in an African Custom of ancestral return, the  writers Amiri Baraka and Maya Angelou danced atop them. Published NYT Metro, Saturday, Feb. 22, 1991 CREDIT:  Chester Higgins, Jr/The New York Times

In February 1991, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem observed the 89th birthday of the poet Langston Hughes and the beginning of Black History Month. Mr. Hughes’s ashes are buried beneath the floor of the auditorium, and in an African Custom of ancestral return, the writers Amiri Baraka and Maya Angelou danced atop them.
Published NYT Metro, Saturday, Feb. 22, 1991
CREDIT: Chester Higgins, Jr/The New York Times

 

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In the early morning hours of August 6, 1922, crime novelist Agatha Christie and her husband, Archie Christie, sailed into Honolulu, Hawaii, on the Makura and hailed a taxi.

On their drive to the Moana Hotel, they passed between palm trees and hedges of hibiscus, red, pink, and white oleanders, and blue plumbago. At their hotel, the sea washed right up to the courtyard steps on Waikiki Beach.

They checked into their rooms. From their window, they saw surfers catching waves to shore. They hurriedly changed into their swimsuits to rush down, hire surfboards, and plunge into the sea.

Surfers at Waikiki Beach, Honolulu. Aug./Sept. 1922. Photograph by Agatha Christie

Surfers at Waikiki Beach, Honolulu. Aug./Sept. 1922. Photograph from Christie Archive

brit emp exh 1924 stamppThey had been looking forward to that moment since leaving England eight months earlier. In the interim, the Christies had traveled three-quarters around the world as part of a government trade mission to drum up interest in the 1924 British Empire Exhibition. Their travels had taken them from England to South Africa (where they were introduced to surfing), Australia, and New Zealand. They now had a month-long holiday in Hawaii – all to themselves – before they would rejoin the mission in Canada.

Surfing was much different in Hawaii than it had been in South Africa. The most obvious difference was the surfboard. In South Africa, the boards were short, curved, and made of light and thin wood.

Agatha Christie and a young naval attaché named Ashby stand on Muizenberg Beach, South Africa, following surf bathing, Jan.-March 1922

Agatha Christie and a young naval attaché named Ashby stand on Muizenberg Beach, South Africa, following surf bathing, Jan.-March 1922. Photograph from the Christie Archive

In Hawaii, however, they were great slabs of wood, ridiculously long and even more ridiculously heavy, made even heavier by the fact that, to find a decent wave to catch, a person had to paddle the board a long, long way out from shore to a reef where the waves broke.

Agatha Christie with her Hawaiian surfboard. Aug./Sept. 1922

Agatha Christie with her Hawaiian surfboard. Aug./Sept. 1922. Photograph from the Christie Archive

In South Africa, the waves broke close to shore and were gentle.

Modern day surfing in Muizenberg, South Africa

Modern day surfing in Muizenberg, South Africa

Then there was the matter of what to do when you caught the right wave. In South Africa, surfers rode the wave on their stomachs. In Hawaii, they rode it standing up.

Spotting the right wave to catch was tricky. Agatha recalls:

First you have to recognize the proper wave when it comes, and, secondly, even more important, you have to know the wrong wave when it comes, because if that catches you and forces you down to the bottom, heaven help you….”

On that first day, Agatha indeed caught “the wrong wave.” She and her board were separated and she was forced far underwater. She swallowed “quarts of salt water” and arrived on the surface gasping for breath. A young American retrieved her board for her, saying:

‘Say, sister, if I were you, I wouldn’t come out surfing  today. You take a nasty chance if you do. You take this board and get right into shore now.'”

She took his advice and, in time, Archie joined her. They were bruised, scratched, exhausted, but not defeated. Agatha was determined to become expert at surfing.

The second time she went in the water, the waves tore her long, silk bathing dress off her body. She covered herself and went into the hotel gift shop where she bought a “wonderful, skimpy, emerald green wool bathing dress, which was the joy of my life, and in which I thought I looked remarkably well. Archie thought I did, too.”

Agatha Christie, sunburned and relaxed. Waikiki Beach, Honolulu, Aug./Sept. 1922. Photograph from Agatha Christie Collection

Agatha Christie, sunburned and relaxed. Waikiki Beach, Honolulu, Aug./Sept. 1922. Photograph from the Christie Archive

In a few days, they moved to a more economical chalet across the road. They spent all their time on the beach or in town drinking ice cream sodas and buying medicines for sunburn. They learned to wear shirts on the beach as their backs were covered with blisters from sunburn.

Their feet were cut to ribbons from the coral so they bought leather boots to wear in the water.

After ten days, Agatha’s skills on a surfboard were improving. After

starting my run, I would hoist myself carefully to my knees on the board, and then endeavor to stand up. The first six times, I came to grief….[but] Oh, the moment of complete triumph on the day that I kept my balance and came right into shore standing upright on my board!”

Because of such vigorous paddling, Agatha developed a strain in her left arm. The pain was excrutiating and would wake her in the early morning hours. Nevertheless, Agatha continued to surf because there was

Nothing like it. Nothing like that rushing through the water at what seems to you a speed of about two hundred miles an hour….until you arrived, gently slowing down, on the beach, and foundered among the soft, flowing waves.”

Researcher Peter Robinson from the Museum of British Surfing says that Agatha Christie is probably one of the first British “stand-up surfers,” along with Edward, the Prince of Wales, who also surfed in Waikiki in 1920 and went on to become King Edward VIII of England for a year. Not to be outdone, let me remind my readers that Agatha Christie is literary royalty, being revered as the Queen of Crime. In 1971, she was made a Dame of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace.

For more on Agatha Christie, click here.

Source: Christie, Agatha. The Grand Tour: Around the World with the Queen of Mystery. United Kingdom: HarperCollins Publishers, 2012

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The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie (1920) introduces retired Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. This is Christie's first published book.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie (1920) introduces retired Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. This is Christie’s first published book.

It was all a bit of a lark! There they were, Archie and Agatha Christie, just trolling along, living their ordinary lives in their Battersea Park flat, with him working in London, her writing mystery novels at home, the two of them raising little Rosalind, poor as church mice, unable to afford any amusements, when, in late 1921, Archie’s old schoolmaster Major Belcher popped into their lives and changed everything.

Belcher had a new job. At dinner, he described it:

“‘You know this Empire Exhibition we’re having in eighteen months’ time? Well, the thing has got to be properly organized. The Dominions have got to be alerted,…to cooperate in the whole thing. I’m going on a mission – the British Empire Mission – going round the world, starting in January.

What I want is someone to come with me as financial adviser. What about you, Archie?…You’re just the man I want.'” (1)

-BritishEmpireExhibitionThe trade mission would last ten months, with first class accommodations in South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. Even better, Belcher continued, Agatha could accompany Archie and, to top it off, he suggested that, on a stopover between duties in New Zealand and Canada, they pause in Hawaii for a month’s holiday.

At that point in their lives, on their tiny incomes, Archie and Agatha could only expect a two-week holiday once a year.  And now this offer! Round the world and Hawaii, too? All expenses paid and first class accommodations as representatives of Great Britain! (The British Empire was at the height of its territorial extent.) Who could say no to that?

Of course there were risks to consider, they reminded themselves. Money would be tight and Archie might not be able to get his old job back upon his return. They would be leaving two-year-old Rosalind with Agatha’s sister, mother, and nurse for almost a year and be essentially incommunicado except for the occasional telegram and letters carried by ships.

After considerable thought, though, they accepted Belcher’s generous offer. Archie quit his London job. A lot of luck had come their way and they would be fools to pass it up, they decided. They were young and adventurous; Archie was Colonel Christie, having served in the Royal Air Force in the First World War. Agatha was 31; Archie, 32. They have never been ones to play it safe, having eloped despite Archie’s mother’s objection to his marrying Agatha. They were due for a bit of fun.

They packed their steamer trunks (Agatha packed her swimsuit), closed up the flat, and kissed Rosalind goodbye. On January 20, 1922, the mission party left Southampton on the RMS Kildonan Castle.

RMS Kildonan Castle

RMS Kildonan Castle

The weather was atrocious and Agatha was confined to her cabin with seasickness until they reached the Portuguese isle of Madeira, west of Morocco. She was finally able to enjoy the rest of the (smoother) voyage south to the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa, snapping photo after photo of her travel companions.

Agatha Christie and Archie Christie on board the RMS Kildonan Castle. Jan.-Feb. 1922

Agatha Christie and Archie Christie on board the RMS Kildonan Castle. Jan.-Feb. 1922. Photo from the Christie Archive

Seventeen days later, the Kildonan Castle docked at Cape Town, South Africa. The V.I.P.s were greeted by the Deputy Trade Commissioner and shown to their rooms at the Mount Nelson Hotel.

The 1922 British Empire Exhibition Trade Mission with from l. to r. Colonel Archie Christie, Major Belcher, Secretary Bates, and Agatha Christie.

The 1922 British Empire Exhibition Trade Mission with from l. to r. Colonel Archie Christie, Major Belcher, Secretary Bates, and Agatha Christie. Photo from the Christie Archive

For the next two months, both Archie and Agatha were swept up in a whirl of meetings, lunches, teas, field trips, dinners, dances, bridge and golf games with government officials and local notables. It was always go-go-go!  Agatha visited a diamond mine in Kimberley, got misty at Victoria Falls, saw crocodiles and hippos swimming at Livingstone. But the thing she enjoyed most of all in South Africa was the sea bathing.

The Cape Peninsula, South Africa, where Cape Town is located

The Cape Peninsula, South Africa, where Cape Town is located. This is False Bay.

Whenever she and Archie and others could steal away, they took the train from Cape Town to Muizenberg on False Bay and went “surf bathing” – lying flat on a light, thin board and riding a wave to shore. Sometimes Agatha took a painful nose dive in the sand, but soon she got the hang of it.

Surf Bathing at Muizenberg ca. 1929

Surf Bathing at Muizenberg ca. 1929

Fish Hoek on False Bay was the place to get in a good swim. Many days, though, Agatha had to settle for bathing closer to their hotel in an outdoor seawater pool at Sea Point, on the Atlantic coast, where Agatha felt like a fish in an aquarium.

Agatha swims at Sea Point, February 1922.

Agatha swims at Sea Point, February 1922. Photo from the Christie Archive

In late February 1922, she and Archie were luncheon guests at Admiralty House in Simonstown on False Bay. Their hosts Admiral Sir William Goodenough and Lady Goodenough took them down to the pier to show them where they bathe. Agatha recalled:

“…and Lady G. looking down into the water said quietly: ‘Ah, I see the Octopus has gone. Such a fine fellow – about 5 ft. across.’

We bathed from the other side of the pier. I never care to bathe close to an octopus!”

cape-peninsula-map-smallAgatha wasn’t aware at the time, but there were far more dangerous animals lurking in the waters of False Bay than an octopus. Out in the middle of the bay was Seal Island, the home of the Cape fur seal, the favorite food of the Great White Shark. The Great White Shark is one of the most notorious and ferocious hunters on earth. False Bay has the highest number of Great White Sharks in the world. (2)

Two months passed. On May 6, 1922, Agatha and the B.E.E. mission folks were on the distant and strange Australian island of Tasmania. In her official capacity as Mrs. Christie, she passed that Saturday on dry land, without incident, creating local bonhomie by visiting a museum, attending the races, and playing bridge.

Meanwhile, back in Simonstown, South Africa, where her friends Admiral and Lady Goodenough lived, the ones with the octopus below their pier, where Agatha swam, a more terrible scene was being played out. That morning, a student from the University of Cape Town named Edward Pells decided to go for a swim in Simon’s Bay (off False Bay). The water was calm, translucent.General Botha in Simon's BayThe General Botha was moored in the harbor 300 meters off the end of the jetty and Pells decided to slowly swim around the training ship. He dove in. He was halfway to the ship when there was a swirl of water below him, followed by “what felt like the impact of a torpedo. Simultaneously he was seized by very powerful jaws…” The shark turned downwards into the depths, taking Pells with him. Pells pushed against the shark’s body, tearing himself free, but not before his stomach, thigh, and back were gashed and shredded by the shark’s teeth. He lunged fifteen feet to the surface of the water, the shark close by. He gasped for air.

Fortunately three Malay fishermen in a pram had witnessed the attack and made fast to his rescue. Pells could not speak, he could not call for help; he was in shock. They hauled Pells over the gunwale as the huge shark surfaced and bumped their boat, threatening to overturn it and them into the blood-tinged water.

Once to shore, Pells was rushed to the hospital where his blood was staunched and his wounds were stitched.

Great White Shark caught in Simon's Bay in 1922 MayMeanwhile, the shark was still cruising the bay. Two days would pass before a local fisherman would harpoon and kill it in a “battle royal,” then hang it by its tail from an old gum tree for all to witness. The shark was over 12 feet long (3.66 meters) and weighed over a thousand pounds (+453.6 kilograms). It was a Blue Pointer (Carcharodon carcharias) known as the Great White Shark. (3)

In her autobiography and letters, Agatha Christie mentions her disappointment that, in some places along the South African coast, “one had to bathe in an enclosure, netted off from the open sea.” There was a reason for that. Those outdoor swimming pools protected the swimmers from being eaten by sharks. From 1905 to 2013, there were 239 unprovoked shark attacks in South African waters and 53 were fatal. Compare those figures to the ones for the United Kingdom, Agatha’s home country. From 1847-2013, there were only two shark attacks, and neither were fatal.

The admiral and other South African government officials should have advised Agatha and her friends of the dangers of swimming in False Bay. Coming from England, they would not have dreamed of sharks being in the water.

Fortunately, when they were in Fiji later that August, they were forbidden to swim in the Pacific because of the danger of shark attack.

(1) Christie, Agatha. Agatha Christie: An Autobiography. New York: a Berkley book from G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1977

(2)

(3)

Additional source: Christie, Agatha. The Grand Tour: Around the World with the Queen of Mystery. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2012.

For more on Agatha Christie, click here.

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Crime author Agatha Christie loved to swim on the Devon Coast.

Crime author Agatha Christie loved to swim on the Devon Coast. Photo from the Christie Archive

Agatha Christie (1890-1976) never outgrew her childhood love of sea bathing. She spent her early years in the coastal town of Torquay, England, in Devon, on the English Channel. In summer, she swam in the sea practically every day, even if it rained or stormed. Not only locals like Agatha enjoyed Torquay’s beaches. Torquay [tor-kee] was a posh seaside resort, a popular winter and summer holiday destination for wealthy Europeans and royal personages. With its reputation for a healthful climate, the area is called the English Riviera.

a Great Western Railways travel poster illustrates the allure of the Devon Coast

A Great Western Railways travel poster illustrates the allure of the Devon Coast. Undated

When Agatha was a young girl, the beaches in Torquay were segregated by sex. The Torquay Council kept a strict watch on the propriety of sea bathing. In 1899, a bylaw stated that “no person of the male sex shall at any time bathe within 50 yards of a ladies’ bathing machine.” Men and boys swam at the Gentlemen’s Bathing Cove where there was no dress code. Men swam there in the nude or “in their scanty triangles,” Agatha recalled, “disport[ing] themselves as they pleased.” Women and girls were restricted to swimming at the Ladies’ Bathing Cove. Their beach was small and stony, and steeply sloping.

The Ladies' Bathing Cove, Torquay England, undated. Note the bathing machines at the shoreline.

The Ladies’ Bathing Cove, Torquay, England, where crime author Agatha Christie bathed in the sea. Note the bathing machines at the shoreline. Undated photo

The women swam in pantaloons and frilly dresses that covered them up.

A page from a Newcomb Endicott Company Spring Catalog, ca. 1910. Most women sewed their own bathing suits.

A page from a Newcomb Endicott Company Spring Catalog, ca. 1910. Most women sewed their own bathing suits.

Agatha loved going to the Ladies’ Bathing Cove with her family. Once there, Agatha’s mother and grannie would stake out a spot on the beach with their picnic things, but Agatha couldn’t wait to plunge into the surf. She changed into her swimsuit in one of the 8 bathing machines parked near the water’s edge. Bathing machines were private, portable changing rooms on wheels.

Once inside the machine, “an ancient man, of somewhat irascible temper” picked up the “gaily painted striped affair” and hauled it down the hill and into the water. Agatha exited the bathing machine, stepping down a short ladder into the chilly waters of the English Channel.

Swimmer exits the bathing machine in her Victorian swimsuit ca. 1905

Swimmer exits the bathing machine in her Victorian swimsuit ca. 1905

Agatha would then swim out to an anchored raft, pull herself up, and then sit upon it, sunning. Getting to the raft was a minor feat in itself, even though Agatha was a strong swimmer, because once in the water, her woolen swimsuit became completely sodden and heavy, making her sink under its weight. Women sewed weights in the skirt hems to keep them from rising up in the water, compounding the problem. It was a recipe for disaster: women sinking under the weight of cumbersome dresses, women who could not swim, crashing waves, no lifeguards, and water so frigid that limbs went numb and faces blue. Only some beaches had attendants to help women in the surf and ropes to hold onto.

Trivial matters like safety aside, what really occupied everyone’s mind at the Turn of the Century in England was protecting women’s modesty. The beach at the Ladies’ Bathing Cove was immensely private; it was completely invisible from the windows of the Torbay Yacht Club situated above it on the hill.

The beach may have been ultra-secluded but the sea around the raft was not. It was perfectly visible through the club windows. In her autobiography, Agatha wrote:

…[A]ccording to my father, a good many of the gentlemen spent their time with opera glasses enjoying the sight of female figures displayed in what they hopefully thought of as almost a state of nudity! I don’t think we can have been sexually very appealing in those shapeless garments.”

In 1903, when Agatha was 13, the Torquay Council approved mixed bathing on its beaches. Men and women could now frolic in the surf together at Tor Abbey Sands and Corbin’s Head Beach, as well as on the more aristocratic Meadfoot Beach, the one Agatha’s mother’s preferred.

Here is a mixed group of bathers photographed in Eastbourne around 1906. Mixed bathing in England became widely accepted at about this time.

Here is a mixed group of bathers photographed in Eastbourne around 1906. Mixed bathing in England became widely accepted at about this time.

Although allowing the sexes to mingle was considered to be a very progressive social move, ironically, it placed an even heavier burden on the women. In order to properly mix with men on the beach, Victorian standards of modesty dictated that women had to wear far more clothing than before! It was strictly forbidden for women to let their bare legs show. To caps, dresses, bloomers, and shoes, they added thick, black stockings. Agatha remembered the taboo against legs:

I really don’t know why legs were considered so improper: throughout Dickens there are screams when any lady thinks that her ankles have been observed. The very word was considered daring. One of the first nursery axioms was always uttered if you mentioned those pieces of your anatomy: 

‘Remember, the Queen of Spain has no legs.’

‘What does she have instead, Nursie?’

‘Limbs, dear, that is what we call them; arms and legs are limbs.'”

Women wearing Victorian swimwear and keeping their legs hidden from male view. 1905, origin unknown

Women wearing Victorian swimwear and keeping their legs hidden from male view. 1905, origin unknown

At first, Agatha’s mother insisted that Agatha wear stockings to the beach, but:

Three or four vigorous kicks when swimming, and my stockings were dangling a long way beyond my toes; they were either sucked off altogether or else wrapped round my ankles like fetters….”

907 studio photo of famous champion Australian swimmer and silent Hollywood film star, Annette Kellerman. Her contribution to women's liberation was her advocacy of a comfortable women's swimsuit.

1907 studio photo of famous champion Australian swimmer and silent Hollywood film star, Annette Kellerman. Her contribution to women’s liberation was her advocacy of a comfortable women’s swimsuit.

Australian swimmer, diver, and entertainer Annette Kellerman – “The Diving Venus” – set out to challenge legal restrictions on women’s bathing suits. She believed that swimming was the ideal exercise for women and that pantaloons and skirts prohibited free movement, allowing women only a dip, not a swim, in the life-giving sea. Kellerman was well-known in Britain. In 1904 she swam 26 miles of the River Thames, performed underwater ballet in a glass tank at the London Hippodrome, and tried (and failed) three times to swim the English Channel.

In 1907, preparing for a promotional coast swim, Kellerman was arrested for indecent attire on Revere Beach, Boston, in America. She was wearing one of her clinging, one-piece swimsuits that had no skirt, revealing her thighs.

Kellerman pleaded her case before the judge. Her swimsuit, she explained, was practical, not provocative. Swimming in a Victorian swimsuit with its

‘shoes, stockings, bloomers, skirts, corsets and a dinky little cap,’ she said, made as much sense as ‘swimming in lead chains.'”

The judge dismissed the case, accepting Kellerman’s arguments in favor of swimming as healthy exercise and against cumbersome bathing suits, provided she wore a robe until she entered the water. Her arrest made international headlines. It was the birth of Twentieth Century bathing suits for women; from then on, swimsuits began to be designed for more practical use.

Wearing modern one-piece suits inspired by swimmer Annette Kellerman, women bathers gather seaweed and laugh.  Aberystwyth, Cardiganshire in Wales, 1916

Wearing modern one-piece suits inspired by swimmer Annette Kellerman, women bathers gather seaweed and laugh. Aberystwyth, Cardiganshire in Wales, 1916

Source: Christie, Agatha. Agatha Christie: An Autobiography. New York: Berkley Books, 1977.

For more on Agatha Christie, click here.

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