Looked up from my desk this morning and noticed the “EXIT” sign outside my door.

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Eleanor Roosevelt on “What’s My Line” and other famous things

I stumbled across a reference to this while doing something else online and couldn’t resist watching. In October 1953 Eleanor Roosevelt appeared as a “mystery guest” on the stump-the-panel quiz show “What’s My Line?” This episode, posted in its entirety on YouTube, including ads for Remington electric shavers, was fun to see for a few reasons.

First, one of the panelists is Bennett Cerf, one of the founders of Random Hose and an author/speaker, as well. Plus, I discovered after reading the Wikipedia article about him, he was the founder of the Famous Writers School, which offered correspondence courses for aspiring writers supposedly taught by famous authors. The Famous Writers School was the subject of an equally famous 1970 exposé article in The Atlantic Monthly by Jessica Mitford (who is even more famous for her funeral-industry exposé book, The American Way of Death).

One more interesting thing about Bennett Cerf is that he was briefly married to actress Sylvia Sidney, whom many will recognize from Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice (a role for which she won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress) but who is most famous to me as the lead in Alfred Hitchcock’s Sabotage, which is the 1936 film for which Hitchcock is famous (infamous) for his highly criticized decision to let a bomb carried by a child explode on a London bus. In a famous set of interviews that (the also-famous) filmmaker François Truffaut conducted with Alfred Hitchcock (so famous that he really doesn’t even need to be called “famous), Hitchcock discusses why it was such a mistake:

I made a serious mistake in having the little boy carry the bomb. A character who unknowingly carries a bomb around as if it were an ordinary package is bound to work up great suspense in the audience. The boy was involved in a situation that got him too much sympathy from the audience, so that when the bomb exploded and he was killed, the public was resentful.

The way to handle it would have been for Homolka to kill the boy deliberately, but without showing that on the screen, and then for the wife to avenge her young brother by killing Homolka.

To which Truffaut says

Even that solution, I think, might have been resented by the audience. Making a child die in a picture is a rather ticklish matter; it comes close to an abuse of cinematic power.

And to which Hitchcock concedes

I agree with that; it was a grave error on my part.

Here’s a link to the Google Books version of that interview.

Cerf was born and raised in New York City, so I’m not sure how to account for his accent (or speech impediment, maybe?) that glides over “r” sounds to resemble “w”s in a manner reminiscent of Elmer Fudd. In trying to find more information about this style of pronunciation, I discovered that the “w” sound is sometimes called the “Winchester ‘r’,” a reference to one of Britain’s famous “public” (private) schools and the aristocratic way of speaking referred to as “Received Pronunciation” (as in “acceptable,” in the way that only acceptable people are “received” in society), which in turn was adopted by broadcasters as the most easily understood pronunciation and became better known as BBC English. In America, especially following the introduction of “talkies” and the employment of diction instructors to teach Hollywood actors how to speak, this resulted in the strange psuedo-aristocratic, fake-British Mid-Atlantic accent of 1930s and ’40s stars like Katharine Hepburn and Tyrone Power. Apparently it was also an accent strived for by America’s upper classes during that same era. This passage from Wikipedia’s article on the Mid-Atlantic accent describes this unnatural way of speaking as a dialect called “World English,” invented by speech teachers to sound upper crust:

World English was a speech pattern that very specifically did not derive from any regional dialect pattern in England or America, although it clearly bears some resemblance to the speech patterns that were spoken in a few areas of New England, and a very considerable resemblance … to the pattern in England which was becoming defined in the 1920s as “RP” or “Received Pronunciation.” World English, then, was a creation of speech teachers, and boldly labeled as a class-based accent: the speech of persons variously described as “educated,” “cultivated,” or “cultured”; the speech of persons who moved in rarified social or intellectual circles and of those who might aspire to do so.

Hmm, according to Wikipedia, Bennett Cerf’s mother was heiress to a tobacco-distribution fortune. Maybe that “r” pronunciation was a reflection of Cerf’s social class? In any case, I’ve seen Bennett Cerf’s name here and there my whole life, so it was fun to see him in person on “What’s My Line?”

So on to Eleanor Roosevelt!

She appears halfway through the show, at the 14:25 minute mark (right after the commercial break). I was curious to know why they kept talking about the United Nations, wondering if this mystery guest would be found in the neighborhood of the UN. A quick Google search revealed that Eleanor Roosevelt was appointed to the first U.S. delegation to the UN and served from December 31, 1945 till December 31, 1952. Additionally, Roosevelt was unanimously elected chair of the UN’s Commission on Human Rights, which she led from 1947-1951. It was under her leadership that the United Nations’ famous “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” was drafted and published.

I only ever knew of Eleanor Roosevelt as she was in her older age, as she was in her appearance on this show. So I was surprised to find photos of her a few years ago as a young woman. Somehow I’d grown up thinking of her as someone who had never been youthful, probably because there were SO many photos and film segments depicting her in the later years when she was such a prominant public figure. But check it out: ER was a girl, teen, young adult once, too!


From the National Archives via Wikipedia

From the National Archives via Wikipedia


Posted in History, Popular culture, Television | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Fiserv Forum roofline, south side, late afternoon

So many photos of this building are just waiting to be taken. There’s one image I’d like to capture along the north side looking west, but I don’t think my equipment is good enough to get it 😦

Posted in architecture, Milwaukee, Photography | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Arrangement in Black and White No. 1

Photo taken in my parking garage this morning. Lots of cutesy titles suggested themselves, among them:

“Rule of Thirds” – because there are three white pillar bases and three white lights. Plus the “Rule of Thirds” concept.

“Figures 3 and 4 in Black and White” – which would be a play on Charles Demuth’s brilliant I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold.

In the end I went with “Arrangement in Black and White No.1” as a play on Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1, better known as Whistler’s Mother, because I rarely take black-and-white photos and this one seemed to be all about light, shadow, and geometry. Hence, an “arrangement” in black and white of lines, shapes, darkness, and light.

Posted in Art, Photography | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

The individual vs. society – Joseph Campbell, Gandhi, and JFK weigh in

I’m cleaning out my office today, throwing out old student papers and old lecture notes from courses I no longer teach. One of the files I came across was from a one-off class on mythology that I taught in the early 2000s. It was a really neat class to teach, and maybe I’ll propose teaching it again.

In any case, what caught my eye was a quote from Joseph Campbell (Wikipedia article here). It’s long, but because I’m teaching political science this summer, it caught my eye because the first line is so closely related to things we’re talking about in political science:

Man should not be in the service of society, society should be in the service of man.

Doesn’t that sound like exactly the opposite of John F. Kennedy’s famous line:

Ask not what what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your county.

So it got me thinking a little bit more about the relationship between the individual and the state. Here’s the entire Campbell quote on this topic. I’m pretty sure I pulled it from The Power of Myth video series of interviews with Bill Moyers. I showed a couple of those episodes to my class.

Man should not be in the service of society, society should be in the service of man. When man is in the service of society, you have a monster state, and that’s what is threatening the world at this minute. . . .

Certainly Star Wars has a valid mythological perspective. It shows the state as a machine and asks, “Is the machine going to crush humanity or serve humanity?”  Humanity comes not from the machine but from the heart.

What I see in Star Wars is the same problem that Faust gives us: Mephistopheles, the machine man, can provide us with all the means, and is thus likely to determine the aims of life as well. But of course the characteristic of Faust, which makes him eligible to be saved, is that he seeks aims that are not those of the machine.

Now, when Luke Skywalker unmasks his father, he is taking off the machine role that the father has played. The father was the uniform. That is power, the state role. . . . Darth Vader has not developed his own humanity. He’s a robot. He’s a bureaucrat, living not in terms of himself but in terms of an imposed system.

This is the threat to our lives that we all face today. Is the system going to flatten you out and deny you your humanity, or are you going to be able to make use of the system to the attainment of human purposes? How do you relate to the system so that you are not compulsively serving it?

It doesn’t help to try to change it [the system] to accord with your system of thought. The momentum of history behind it is too great for anything really significant to evolve from that kind of action. The thing to do is learn to live in your period of history as a human being.

That’s something else, and it can be done.

So in some ways this boils down to that classic question of political philosophy about the social contract and what the proper relationship between the individual and the state should be. But Campbell is talking not only about “the system,” which seems to be bigger than the state (the “monster state” he mentions at the beginning of this quote?), but also about the “momentum of history.”

In other words, he seems to be saying you can’t fight City Hall, so don’t waste time trying to change the system. His penultimate statement echoes this familiar Gandhi quote:

Be the change that you wish to see in the world.

BUT . . . usually people construe Gandhi’s words to mean that you should “give back” and serve society. See for example Be The Change, an organization devoted in part to achieving a mission to

Make a year of service a common expectation and opportunity for all young Americans.

Which seems the opposite of what Gandhi actually meant if you view his quote throgh the lens of Joseph Campbell’s statement. Campbell says you should learn to live in your period of history “as a human being.” Gandhi said you should “be” the change. Both men seem to be talking about the self and developing a way of existing in harmony with your truest self.

Actually, I just now tried to find out a little more about Gandhi’s quote, like the entire speech or other context it was taken from, to see if he was talking about service and giving back or not. And guess what?

Gandhi never even said that!

According to The New York Times, what Gandhi actually said was

If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. . . . We need not wait to see what others do.

So Gandhi does seem to be saying something similar to what Campbell said. You can’t change the system by trying to change the system. You can only change yourself, and by changing your own nature, the system will change.

This idea of individuals focusing on themselves could be described as “selfishness.” It seems counterintuitive that the best way to contribute to society would be to put yourself first and pursue your own self-actualization.

Gandhi, of course, realized that while one individual couldn’t change the system, a large mass of many individuals can. Hence, India’s independence. But still, with the Joseph Campbell quote in mind, it seems that change comes not from the organizing and mobilizing of the masses so much as from the ripple effect of one person’s actions flowing through the medium of other people whose own beings are sympathetically attuned to the same feelings and understandings. Any changes to society arise spontaneously, guided by the “invisible hand” that magically transforms an individual’s self-interested actions into benefits for society.

Political conservatives and classical liberals don’t seem able to articulate this way of thinking very well. It would be interesting to see a thinker run for national office who was capable of introducing such complex ideas into the conversation/debate about who we are and what kind of government would allow all of us to live our best-possible lives.

Or to paraphrase Campbell: to help all of us learn to live in our period of history as human beings.

Here are two other Joseph Campbell quotes I found in my files, no doubt taken from that same Bill Moyers interview series:

People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive. That’s what it’s all finally about, and that’s what these clues help us to find within ourselves.

. . .

The influence of a vital person vitalizes, there’s no doubt about it. The world without spirit is a wasteland. People have the notion of saving the world by shifting things around, changing the rules, and who’s on top, and so forth. No, no! Any world is a valid world if it’s alive. The thing to do is to bring life to it, and the only way to do that is to find in your own case where the life is and become alive yourself.

If you seek experiences that allow you to feel the “rapture” of being alive, you will in turn bring life to the world. Food for thought.

I think I’m going to take a break and make a Starbucks run so I can focus on the “rapture” of coffee. And then we’ll just see how the world changes. I’m doing my part 🙂

Posted in Books and reading, History, Learning, Life, Political Analysis, WPLongform (posts of 1000 words or longer) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

On the breezy shores of Lake Market Street 😄

I didn’t think we’d had all that much rain last night, but I’ve also never seen a puddle this large outside my parking garage, so I guess we must have. And you can tell from the high-water mark that the puddle was even bigger just shortly before I arrived. Especially considering how windy it was this morning, you can imagine how much had already evaporated. I wish I could have seen how much of the street it filled right after the rain ended.


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The Story of “Smooth”

Remember “Smooth,” the Santana–Rob Thomas megahit from twenty years ago? Rolling Stone has a fabulous article out today recounting how this unlikely collaboration between artists of such different musical genres and generations came about to result in the classic single that still gets radio play today and sounds as fresh as it did in 1999.

The article is titled an “oral history,” and it really is just that. Mini-interview recollections from all the major players alternate throughout the piece, each picking up the story’s thread at the spots where others leave off. I love hearing about the background involved in any artwork’s creative process; learning about all the moving parts and all the personalities and chance remarks and serendipities and near misses provides a much deeper appreciation for the finished result.

Record-industry legend Clive Davis is at the center of this hit, and by that I mean that he was sort of a locus or fulcrum that acted as the centering force and balance for the many creative activities conducted by multiple people that were needed to make this single happen. I’ve written about Davis before (“Thoughts on Patti Smith” and my post on the 1970 Oscars show are the only times I can recall off the top of my head) and remain in awe of his instincts. Of his genius! Davis understands music and people in a way that is absolutely uncanny.

You can link to that Rolling Stone “Smooth” article HERE. It’s kind of long, but definitely worth the time to read.

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