‘The Greatest Gift’ is a Story You Know Well

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Philip Van Doren Stern

By Ken Zurski

In November 1939 Philip Van Doren Stern, an American author, editor and Civil War historian wrote an original story titled “The Greatest Gift,” a heartwarming Christmas tale about a man named George Pratt who gets a dying wish granted by a guardian angel that literally changes his life.

Stern’s story begins at an iron bridge as a despondent George leans over the rail:

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” a quiet voice beside him
said.

George turned resentfully to a little man he had never seen
before. He was stout, well past middle age, and his round
cheeks were pink in the winter air as though they had just been
shaved. 
“Wouldn’t do what?” George asked sullenly.

“What you were thinking of doing.”

“How do you know what I was thinking?”

“Oh, we make it our business to know a lot of things,” the
stranger said easily.

Stern desperately tried to get his little story published, but it never sold. So in 1943, he made it into a Christmas card book and mailed 200 copies to family and friends.

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The card book and story somehow caught the attention of RKO Pictures producer David Hempstead who showed it to actor Cary Grant’s agent. In April 1944, RKO bought the rights but failed to create a satisfactory script. Grant went on to make “The Bishop’s Wife.”

However, another acclaimed Hollywood heavyweight, Frank Capra, who already had three Best Directing Oscars to his name, liked the idea.  RKO was happy to unload the rights. “The story itself is slight, in the sense, it’s short,” Capri said referring to Stern’s book. “But not slight in content.”

Capra bought it and brought in a slew of writers to polish the story. They hired another a well-known actor James Stewart to play the main character renamed George Bailey and in December of 1946, “It’s a Wonderful Life” was released in theaters.

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General MacArthur’s Day After the ‘Date That Will Live In Infamy’

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By Ken Zurski

In the book The General vs the President, author H.W. Brands examines the often tenuous but respectful relationship between General Douglas MacArthur and President Harry Truman.

Besides their differing personalities, in the public eye, the two men drew widely opposite impressions. Truman had unexpectedly assumed the presidency amidst doubts about his leadership and foreign policy experience while MacArthur was the beloved general of the Allied forces in the Pacific.

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Preconceived notions, however, good or bad, don’t win wars.

After World War II ended and when North Korea threatened South Korea, both men had vastly different views on how America should proceed. Truman gave MacArthur leverage, but when China was drawn into the conflict and the two world powers were nearly brought to the brink of a nuclear war, Truman relieved the popular general of his duties. “With deep regret I have concluded that General of the Army Douglas MacArthur is unable to give his wholehearted support to the policies of the United States Government and of the United Nations in matters pertaining to his official duties,” Truman announced at a press conference. That explosive missive is the basis of Brand’s book.

But Truman, as important as he was to ending the war, was just a senator from Missouri when President Franklin Roosevelt crossed ways with MacArthur.

That relationship nearly reached the boiling point in 1941, shortly after Japan attacked Pear Harbor.

It’s worth a closer look.

MacArthur who is in the Philippines at the time Pearl Harbor was attacked feared the American bases on the island would be next. He was right. The next day, December 8, Japan hit hard. MacArthur asked Roosevelt to immediately strike back. Force Russia to attack Japan, he pressed, before Japan can do more damage in the Philippines. Roosevelt ignored MacArthur’s plea and set his sights on Germany instead.

MacArthur’s rebuttal was shocking. He supported a plan by Philippine President Manuel Quezon to broker a peace deal with Japan. It was the only way, MacArthur agreed, to avoid a “disastrous debacle.”

In retrospect, Brands assumes, MacArthur was abandoning the Philippines. But there were lives at stake. A defiant Roosevelt dismissed the peace deal. “American forces will continue to fly our flag in the Philippines,” the president commanded, “so long as there remains any possibility of resistance.”

Back home, MacArthur was being criticized for poor decision making.

Brands points out the there was a nine-hour window after the first dispatches were received that Japanese bombers were in the air. There was nothing anyone could do about the battleships in the Harbor; but in the Philippines, why didn’t MacArthur order the planes moved out of the way? MacArthur subsequently blamed his subordinates and miscommunication. Nevertheless, half of the MacArthur’s forces were decimated in the attack and the Philippine’s line of defense was greatly diminished.

It would get worse. The conquest of the Philippines by Japan is still considered one of the worst military defeats in U.S. history.

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Bombing of the Philippine Islands

MacArthur endured attacks from Japan forces by hunkering down on the Bataan peninsula and Corregidor Island. “Help is on the way,” MacArthur told the men, although he knew it was a lie. “Thousands of troops and hundreds of planes are being dispatched ,” he continued, hoping to boost morale. None of it was even being considered.

The only order coming from Roosevelt was getting his four-star general out of the islands before all hell broke loose. MacArthur had no recourse. It was an order, not a choice. He took the next plane out and flew to Australia where he was to organize the counter offense against Japan and pave the way to his own interminable place in American history. Roosevelt would later praise his departure, but MacArthur felt like he was abandoning his post.

Before boarding he told the troops, “I shall return.”

When MacArthur did return three years later he was hailed as a hero. “Though not by American soldiers he left behind [in the Philippines],” Brands writes in the book.

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Winston Churchill, The Boers War and the Invasion of the ‘Body Snatchers’

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By Ken Zurski

In the book Hero of the Empire, author Candice Millard explores the military service of a young Winston Churchill and the future Prime Minister of England’s exploits in the Boers War, a devastating conflict against the fiercely independent South African Republic of Transvall, or Boers, that’s as much a part of British history as the two subsequent World Wars.

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In 1899, Churchill was in his twenties and officially not a soldier, but a correspondent for the Morning Post.  However, he bravely and willingly fought alongside his fellow countrymen. When a British armored train was ambushed, Churchill fought back, was captured, imprisoned, managed to escape, and traversed hundreds of miles of enemy territory to freedom. He then returned and resumed his duties in the war. Millard’s expert narrative paints the young Churchill as a man of great strength, determination and steadfast loyalty.

The same attributes can also be applied to another famous figure in history who did not fight like Churchill, but bravely dodged the bullets of the Boers to do a thankless and daring task. His contribution is touched on briefly in the book, but is worth noting here as an example of a man whose legacy of peace and non-violence includes the brutal reality of warfare.

In stark contrast to Churchill’s call to arms, this figure refused to pick up a weapon or engage in hand to hand combat. His Hindu faith prevented that, but his desire for justice could not be suppressed. He was an Indian-born lawyer in a country under the flag of the British Empire who went to South Africa to defend his people from cruelty imposed by the Boers. When war broke out, he wanted to contribute, along with other persecuted Hindu followers.

But how?

So he asked the British government if he could put together a team of men to perform the incessant task of removing bodies, dead or wounded, from the heat of battle. The government approved the request, but made it clear that the men were under no obligation or safeguards from the British Army. The decision to risk their own lives in order to save others was theirs and theirs alone.

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“Body snatchers,” was the term used by British troops to describe the men who retrieved “not just bodies from the battlefield, they hoped, but young men from the jaws of death,” Millard writes. The “body snatchers” wore wide brim hats and simple loose fitting khaki uniforms and were distinguished by “a white band with a red cross on it wrapped around their left arms.”

Their efforts were lauded by superiors and observers alike. “Anywhere among the shell fire, you could see them kneeling and performing little quick operations that required deftness and steadiness of hand,” wrote John Black Atkins a reporter for the Manchester Guardian.

By now you may discern that the person who assembled this unusual band of brave men is important to history.  Millard doesn’t hold anyone in suspense.

The man was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, better known as Mahatma Gandhi or just simply Gandhi, whose place in history as the influential Indian civil rights leader was just beginning to emerge.

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When war broke out, Gandhi, who was 31 at the time, wanted to disprove stereotypes that Hindus were unfit for battlefield service.

“Although his convictions would not allow him to fight,” Millard writes, “he had gathered together more than a thousand men to form a corps of stretcher bearers.”

Later in his autobiography, Gandhi would recall his non-violent role in the Boers War.

“Our humble work was at the moment much praised, and the Indians’ prestige was enhanced,” he wrote. “We had no hesitation.”

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(Sources: Hero of the Empire by Candace Millard; The Story of My Life by M.K. Gandhi)

As Christmas Crooners Go, Perry Como was a ‘Cool’ One

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By Ken Zurski

Perry Como may be the most popular Christmas performer of all time. Thanks to his long-standing annual holiday television special and beloved Christmas album released in 1968, Como’s face and voice became synonymous with the sounds of the season.

That said he may have been the most misunderstood as well.

Strict

Como was a one of the “good guys” whose relaxed and laid-back demeanor came across as “lazy” to some, a misguided assessment, since Como was known to be a consummate professional who practiced his craft incessantly.

“No performer in our memory rehearses his music with more careful dedication than Como.” a music critic once enthused.

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Como also made sure each concert met his own personal and strict moral standards.

In November 1970, Como hosted a concert in Las Vegas, a comeback of sorts for the Christmas crooner, who hadn’t played a Vegas night club for over three decades.  For his grand return, Como was paid a whopping $125-thousand a week. Even Perry was surprised by the remuneration. “It’s more money than my father ever made in a lifetime,” he remarked.

But since it was Vegas and befitting the town’s perceived association with mobsters and legalized prostitution, Como’s reputation as a straight-laced performer was questioned.

Como quelled any concerns, however, when he chose a safe, clean and relatively unknown English comic named Billy Baxter to warm up the audience before the show. Advisers suggested he pick an act more familiar to Vegas audiences, but Como said no.

A typical “Vegas comedian,” as he put it, was simply too dirty.

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Charming

Keeping up the family friendly atmosphere accentuated in his TV specials, Como would lovingly introduce his wife Roselle during the “live” shows. Roselle, who was usually standing backstage and acknowledged the appreciative crowds, was just as adamant as her husband that his clean-cut image went untarnished. After one performance, Roselle received a fan’s note that pleased her immensely. “Not one smutty part, not even a hint,” the note read describing Como’s act in Vegas. “You should be very proud.”

Como’s cool temperament was such a recognizable and enduring characteristic that many wondered how much of it was real. Does he ever get upset? was one curious inquiry. “Perry has a temper,” his orchestra leader Mitchell Ayers answered. “He loses his temper at normal things. When were’ driving, for instance, and somebody cuts him off he really lets the offender have it.” However, Ayers added, “Como is the most charming gentleman I’ve ever met.”

Como’s popular Christmas television specials ran for 46 consecutive years ending in 1994, seven years before his death in 2001 of complications from Alzheimer’s.

He was 88.

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(Source: Spartanburg Herald-Journal Nov 21 1970)

 

There Is An Artist Behind The Iconic ‘Partridge Family’ Bus

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Piet Mondrian

Painter Piet Mondrian, born in 1872,  was an important leader in the development of modern abstract art and a major exponent of the Dutch abstract art movement known as De Still (“The Style”).

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Mondrian used the simplest combinations of straight lines, right angles, primary colors, and black, white, and gray.

According to one art historian: “The resulting works possess an extreme formal purity that embodies the artist’s spiritual belief in a harmonious cosmos.”

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The Partridge Family

Mondrian who died in 1944 probably could never have imagined that his well-known artistic style would be the inspiration for an exterior paint job of a school bus in the popular 1970s TV show, “The Partridge Family.”

A striking but odd choice for a fictional but seemingly conventional family of traveling musicians and singers.

From Yahoo Answers: “Although the exterior paint job was arguably based on Mondrian’s Composizione 1921, it was never explained in the show why this middle class family from Southern California chose to Dutch proto-modernism exterior paint, rather than the traditional school bus yellow.”

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“The Partridge Family” ran on ABC from September 25, 1970, until it ended on March 23, 1974.  It would find an appreciate and loyal audience in syndication for years.

Apparently the bus wasn’t so fortunate.  As the story goes, after the show ended, the bus was sold several times until it was found abandoned in a parking lot at Lucy’s Tacos In East Los Angeles.

It was reportedly junked in 1987.

(Some text reprinted from Britannica.com and other internet sources)

The Year Thanksgiving Was Moved Up a Week

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By Ken Zurski

In September of 1939, Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued a presidential proclamation to move Thanksgiving one week earlier, to November 23, the fourth Thursday of the month, rather than the traditional last Thursday of the month, where it had been observed since the Civil War.

Roosevelt was being pressured by the Retail Dry Goods Association a group that represented merchants who were already reeling from the Great Depression. Thursday of that year fell on the 30th, the fifth week and final day of November, and late for the start of the shopping season. The business owners went to Commerce Secretary Harry Hopkins who went to Roosevelt. Help out the retailers, Hopkins pleaded. Roosevelt listened. He was trying to fix the economy not break it.

Thanksgiving would be celebrated one week earlier, he announced.

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Apparently, the move was within his presidential powers since no precedent on the date was set. Thanksgiving, the day, was not federally mandated and the actual date had been moved before. Many states, however, balked at Roosevelt’s plan.  Schools were scheduled off on the original Thanksgiving date and a host of other events like football games, both at the local and college level, would have to be cancelled or moved.

One irate coach threatened to vote “Republican” if Roosevelt interfered with his team’s game. Others at the government level were similarly upset. “Merchants or no merchants, I see no reason for changing it,” chirped an official from the opposing state of Massachusetts.

In contrast, Illinois Governor Henry Horner echoed the sentiments of those who may not have agreed with the presidents’s switch, but dutifully followed orders. “I shall issue a formal proclamation fixing the date of Thanksgiving hoping there will be uniformity in the observance of that important day,” he declared, steadfastly in the president’s corner.

Horner was a Democrat and across the country opinions about the change were similarly split down party lines: 22 states were for it; 23 against and 3 went with both dates.

In jest, Atlantic City Mayor Thomas Taggart, a Republican, dubbed the early date, “Franksgiving.”

Roosevelt made the change official for the succeeding two years, since Thursday would fall late in the calendar both times. But in 1941 The Wall Street Journal released data that showed no change in holiday retail sales when Thanksgiving fell earlier in the month. Roosevelt admitted he was wrong, but in hindsight, on the right track. Thanks to the uproar, later that year, Congress approved a joint resolution making Thanksgiving a federal holiday to be held on the fourth Thursday of the month, regardless of how many weeks were in November.

Roosevelt eagerly signed it into law.

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When Roosevelt Told Opposing Supreme Court Justices to Get Lost

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By Ken Zurski

On February 5, 1937, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt announced his intention to expand the Supreme Court to as many as 15 justices. The move was clearly a political one. Roosevelt was trying to “pack” the court and in turn make the nation’s highest court a completely liberal entity. Republicans cried foul.

Roosevelt didn’t car what his opponents thought. He embraced the criticism and mostly ignored it. Although politically it was still a hot button issue, his New Deal policies had earned public acceptance, even praise. The high court, however, was another matter. They had previously struck down several key pieces of his legislation on the grounds that the laws delegated an unconstitutional amount of authority in government, specifically the executive branch, but especially the office of the president.

Roosevelt won the 1936 election in a landslide and was feeling a bit emboldened. If he could pack the court, he could win a majority every time. So the president proposed legislation which in essence asked current Supreme Court justices to retire at age 70 with full pay or be appointed an “assistant” with full voting rights, effectively adding a new justice each time.

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Charles E. Hughes

This initiative would directly affect 75-year-old Chief Justice, Charles Evan Hughes, a Republican from New York and a former nominee for president in 1916 who narrowly lost to incumbent Woodrow Wilson. Hughes resigned his post as a Supreme Court Justice to run for president, then served as Secretary of State under the Harding administration. In 1930, he was nominated by Herbert Hoover to return to the high court as Chief Justice. Hughes had sworn in Roosevelt twice. Now he was being asked by the president to give up his post and in effect – take a hike.

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In May of 1937, however, Roosevelt realized his “court packing” idea was wholly unnecessary. In an unexpected role of reversal, two justices, including Hughes, jumped over to the liberal side of the argument and by a narrow majority upheld as constitutional the National Labor Relations Act and the Social Security Act, two of the administration’s coveted policies. Roosevelt never brought up the issue of court size again.

But his power move didn’t sit well with the press.

Newspaper editorials criticized him for it and the public’s favor he had enjoyed after two big electoral victories was waning. He was a lame duck president finishing out his second term. Then Germany invaded Poland. Roosevelt’s steady leadership was lauded in a world at war.

In 1940, he ran for an unprecedented third term and won easily.

The following year, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.

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