History

The Bishop and the Communist: An Unlikely Meeting

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By Ken Zurski

4The old Hotel Commodore building sits at the corner of 42nd street and Lexington in the heart of Manhattan’s thriving business hub once known as Terminal City, a complex of hotels and offices conveniently connected to New York’s bustling Grand Central Station.

Gloriously introduced in 1919, the hotel boasted a total of ten elevators and 2000 commodious rooms, each one elegantly designed and quite modern for its time. The ceilings were built low for a trendier look, and the largest and most expensive room came with its own working waterfall.

The spacious reception area was touted as “The Most Beautiful Lobby in the World,” and outside the main entrance, patrons were greeted by a statue of the man the hotel was named after: Cornelius Vanderbilt, a former steamboat entrepreneur and railroad and shipping tycoon, known as “The Commodore.”

From the moment the Commodore opened its doors, rooms were almost always filled to capacity and overflow crowds from the train station nearby moved feverishly about the hotel’s lobby. With such anxious and hurried activity inside, one could easily maneuver through the excited throng without being noticed or paid any mind.  And so it was here at the Hotel Commodore in a quaint  corner of the dining room, in a table for two, an unlikely conclave took place between a well-known Catholic priest and a communist sympathizer.

The year was 1937, two years before Germany invaded Poland and the start of the second World War.  Fulton Sheen was a brash 42-year old monsignor, who was arguably the most popular public figure of the Catholic Church. His voice was known to thousands of listeners as the host of The Catholic Hour, which debuted in 1930 at WEAF in New York and nearly a decade later boasted a resume of 106 radio stations. Sheen was the first and only host. “I will preach Christ and him crucified,” he humbly stated when asked the purpose of the program.

Sheen’s modest upbringing began in El Paso, Illinois where his parents owned and ran a hardware store. Born in 1895, the first child of Newt and Delia (Fulton) of Irish and German descent, Peter John Sheen was just a toddler – and a constant crier due to a nagging case of tuberculosis – when something extraordinary happened. An errand boy at the store, fearful of being caught with a cigarette, threw the lighted butt under the stairs and directly on top of a fifty gallon drum of gasoline. It ignited. Soon, the whole business section of El Paso went up in flames, including the Sheen hardware store, which was reduced to smoke and ash.  Deciding not to revive the hardware business, Peter’s father bought a farm instead.

But Peter hated life on the farm. He was smart, gregarious, and quite the thinker even at an early age. The laborious chores didn’t challenge his mind. How to get out of doing them however, did.  In one incident, he recalls destroying a wagon wheel with a saw just to avoid the work. “From the earliest age I showed distaste for anything associated with farm life,” Sheen later admitted.

His parents agreed.  In order to give their two sons an education (Peter was the older by two years), they moved to Peoria and enrolled the boys in a parochial school. Sheen’s path to God was underway. School was also where he became known as Fulton. Although the boy had been born and baptized as Peter, when the school asked what name he went by, Sheen’s maternal grandfather chimed in (perhaps mishearing the question) and said, “It’s Fulton.”  The name stuck.

Archbishop Spalding, the patriarch of Peoria’s Catholic Schools, was influential in young Fulton’s life. While serving as an altar boy during Sunday Mass, Sheen slipped and dropped the wine cruet. The sound of the bulb-shaped container bouncing across the hard surface echoed off the high walls and arched ceilings. Years later, Sheen quipped: “There is no atomic explosion that can equal in intensity of decibels and explosive force that can equal the sound of a wine cruet hitting the marble floor of a cathedral in the presence of a Bishop.” Expecting a stern tongue lashing, young Sheen braced for his punishment. But the Bishop was thoughtful instead. After Mass, he asked, “Young man, where do you plan on going to school when you get big?” The answer was as obvious to Sheen as the question.

“Why Spalding Academy of course,” he said, referring to the high school founded and named after the Bishop.

“No,” Spalding said. “Tell your mother that I said when you get big you will go to Leuven (University) and someday you will be just as I am.”

When Sheen told his parents about the Bishop’s words, his mother gasped. “That’s in Belgium,” she said.

The Archbishop’s prophecy came true. Sheen attended high school at Spalding Academy where he exceled in academics and drama, then enrolled in Leuven, the largest and oldest catholic university in the world. “Oh, this is where Bishop Spalding told me to go,” he remembered thinking to himself while entering its doors for the first time.

the_lockport_legend.pngIn September of 1919, Sheen was ordained at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Peoria. The next day he performed his first mass.  In the ensuing years after his ordination, Sheen traveled, preached, and studied. Then in the summer of 1925, he returned home and was assigned to St Patrick’s Church in an impoverished section of Peoria. A humble, lowly position as a curate may have riled many men of his educational background, but Sheen enjoyed being home and helping the poor.  Two years later, he was called to teach at the Catholic University in New York and left Peoria for good.

In 1926, Sheen went on the radio. It was a perfect outlet for his talent.  He prepared scripts and preached the word of God, not just to believers but non-believers as well. This was his torment at first. How to preach the teachings of Christ to non-Catholics?  Sheen found a way. He was a natural on the airwaves. His conversational style and ability to explain God‘s will through compassion and love struck listeners of all faiths. The show was called The Catholic Hour, but Sheen made it everyone’s hour.

He talked of God’s gifts to all mankind, and the weekly faithful listened. The first time he mentioned the evils of communism, however, even the FBI took notice.

Louis Budenz, a leading communist supporter, noticed too. Bundez and Sheen did not know each other personally, but like Sheen, Bundez, the son of Irish immigrants,  grew up Catholic and was an altar boy too. But as an adult he left the church and followed another path. Now both men were talking about communism – only in vastly different ways.

1aaBorn in July of 1891, Budenz followed his mother’s advice and emulated her passionate support of Irish Revolutionaries by attending labor strikes and rallies. Violence ensued on occasions, but the action usually ended only in mass arrests. In each case, it helped that Budenz was also a practicing lawyer. (Time Magazine claims Bundez was arrested 21 times and 21 times he got off without an indictment.)

Next up for Budenz was joining the Communist Party. It was a logical decision.  He would work as a writer and espouse his views and opinions in print. The Daily Worker, a communist newspaper, was the perfect outlet, and in writing for it, Budenz found his calling.  Among his communist friends and co-workers, he quickly rose in the ranks.

The Worker never wavered in its support of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin even after he executed many of his adversaries, claiming they were out to destroy him. Many party members balked at Stalin’s blatant abuse of power. Fascism was the true threat, they cried, and Stalin’s actions mimicked a certain fascist leader of Germany. When Stalin and Hitler joined forces in 1939, the Communist Party fractured. The Daily Worker, however, remained loyal to the new Soviet-German pact, and Budenz, who was uber-loyal to the cause, became its new editor.

The paper wielded great power. “We turned on everyone who refused to go along with our new policy,” a former co-worker of Bundez ascribed. Many supporters of Stalin were staunch Hitler haters who could not comply. The Daily Worker never blinked in its allegiance to Stalin, and Editor-in-Chief Budenz made sure there was one consistency under his direction: total support of Soviet polices whatever they may be.

The rule generated an enemies list that was far reaching and long. They targeted individuals and organizations including the burgeoning Catholic Church.

During the Christmas season of 1936, Budenz took aim.  In that month’s issue of the Worker, an article written by Budenz posed a series of questions directed at the Catholic Church and the radio host monsignor Sheen in particular. Explain your criticism of communism, Budenz asked. Sheen responded.

No one had to go any further than Sheen’s radio show to know that the “media preacher” was a staunch opponent of communism. It was a bold stand even for a priest. In the 1920s, anti-communism fever had spread in the United States thanks to President Wilson and the first “Red Scare.” But during the Great Depression that followed, a number of destitute Americans sought answers and solutions that were more in line with socialist thinking. In their minds, capitalism, specifically  the profit driven owners and bosses, were the enemy. Therefore, they declared, socialism could only be attained by defeating capitalism.

By banding together, the empowered workers fought with a vengeance; staging heated rallies and strikes in protest. These were mostly laborers living off meager wages. Many had lost their jobs and homes. Capitalists exploited the amount of immigrants within these groups. Since many had come from countries influenced by communistic principles, they claimed, socialist ideals must be closely aligned with communism.

EnergyRussia was no birthday cake. Stalin was a ruthless leader. But there was a model of consistency in his polices that appealed to angry workers. When Hitler turned on Stalin and Stalin joined the Allied forces, a genuine wave of support spread through even the most hard boiled detractors. After all, there was a bigger concern now and a more valued prize: the crushing and ultimate defeat of the Axis Powers: Germany and its partners, Japan and Italy. Most Americans were ambivalent. No one trusted Stalin, and refuted communism as an unacceptable alternative to democracy, but they reluctantly gave Russia, now a war ally, a temporary pass.

Yet some Americans were ultimately drawn to this leftist ideology. During this time, the organized Communist Party of America gained momentum – and new members – although they never seriously challenged the two mainstay political parties in elections.

The FBI kept tabs of such activity. The agency closely watched communist party leaders and unfairly labeled them “Soviet spies” for lack of a better term. The Bureau’s interminable leader J. Edgar Hoover led this charge. Hoover hated Stalin and everything to do with communism, war pact be damned.  The FBI even had a file on Sheen, thinking that the radio host might bring some of the most hardened sympathizers – Soviet and Nazi – to Hoover’s attention because of all the hate letters the priest received.

Sheen wanted nothing to do with the politics of it all. His message was simple: religious freedom must reign. He pounded that message home in speeches and sermons on the radio. A communistic society, he hammered, is no place for a Catholic.

Budenz was confused by the church’s stance. He published an article in the Worker critical of the Catholic faith and its leaders. “How strange it is to see in a world so set up, where Catholic spokesmen in so many instances belabor communism,” Budenz wrote.

In particular, he mentioned Sheen by name. As a man of compassion, Bundez inferred, how could he [Sheen] speak against those who were trying to help the poor and downtrodden?

Sheen sent a booklet back to Budenz titled Communism Answers Questions from a Communist.  In it, he cited incendiary quotes from Marx and Lenin and articles from Soviet newspapers describing the economic hardships under communism. In his own words, Sheen wrote: “I’m rather surprised that a communist is not more familiar with Communistic literature and should have asked for texts. But there they are.”

Budenz’s strategy backfired. Sheen’s pamphlet was published and sold 65,000 copies. Many of the quotes were used to refute speakers at pro-communism rallies, including speeches by Budenz.

Incensed and perhaps intrigued by Sheen’s words, Budenz asked to meet with the church leader. “In hopes that they could win me over to their cause,” is how Sheen would later describe it.

Of course, the monsignor said yes.

Although it was meant to be private, Sheen gladly let the pronouncement of the meeting slip. “I’m having dinner with a leading communist tonight,” he exclaimed to an inquisitive newspaper reporter.  “In fact, I’m looking forward to the encounter with great pleasure.”

The time and place however was never revealed. The press never figured it out. The two men met in private at the Hotel Commodore.

In their later years, both men recalled their “odd” meeting. “In an obscure corner we talked for an hour in earnest, quiet tones,” Budenz exclaimed.

Bundez remembers the monsignor’s smile and intense blue eyes. “He told me that he was leaving for England that summer.” Each year Sheen preached in Soho. “Near the house where [Karl] Marx labored,” the monsignor pointed out.

Despite opening with small talk, the insouciant greetings soon turned serious. The conversation drifted to the parallels of communism and fascism, something Bundez vehemently denied. “There is this merit in the communist view that does not inhere in fascism,” Budenz angrily contended. “Communism has within it the promise of democracy and the end of dictatorship in its doctrine of the withering away of the state.”

In Sheen’s own recollections, Budenz’s bickering about communist and fascist differences were inconsequential. There was only one objective in the monsignor’s mind. “I told him I did not want to talk about communism,” Sheen later wrote. “I wanted to talk about his soul.”

The next few minutes became solidly etched in Budenz’s mind. He remembered it vividly even years later as the moment that eventually changed his life. Describing Sheen’s restraint at first Budenz said, “He was not disposed to contradict me. That would have only aroused my personal pride and enticed me to further argument.”

“What he did instead,” Budenz reflects, “took me totally by surprise.”

Sheen rose and pushed aside the cutlery on the table. He bent forward and “waved his hand in argumentation.”  In a voice snarling with contempt, he said: “Let us now talk of the Blessed Virgin.” Budenz froze with fear. “It was an ‘electrifying moment,’” he later described.

According to Budenz, Sheen spent the next few minutes talking “of the miracle of Lourdes, with the promises of Our Lady, the prayers of the church, and the conversion of Russia within her grace.”

Budenz was transfixed. He later confessed: “In the course of my varied career, I have met many magnetic men and women, have conferred with governors, and senators, have stood in court twenty-one times as a result of labor disputes – breathlessly awaited the verdict and each time experienced the triumph of acquittal – but never has my soul been swept by love and reverence as it was that April evening.”

The two men departed that day and would not meet or associate again for another nine years.

Bundez battled his own personal convictions in that time, but could not shake the power of one simple statement; the last words Sheen spoke before departing.  “I will always pray for you because you have never fully lost the faith,” the monsignor said.

Nine years later, Budenz wrote Sheen a letter. “I’m returning to the Catholic Church,” he said, “and bringing my family with me.”  Sheen welcomed him back without regrets.  In 1945, Budenz confessed his sins and Sheen baptized him.

Energy.jpgBudenz’s “turning (to God),” as Sheen called it, was also a major boon for Hoover and the FBI. In the now former communist, Hoover had a rat – and names, lots of them. Budenz enthusiastically complied. He was interviewed for 3,000 hours by FBI agents and, in the end, sent several leaders of the American Communist Party to prison for treason.

For Sheen, Budenz’s conversion was just another day at the office. One night the monsignor received a call came from a member of the Communist Party, who asked: “Is it true that you received Louis Budenz into the Catholic Church?”

Sheen coolly replied, “Don’t tell me the Daily Worker is at last interested in the truth?”

The man’s retort, Sheen remembers, were words that “cannot be found in any manual of prayer.”

Even the Daily Worker was blindsided by the news that its influential leader had switched sides. Sheen had kept tight-lipped about the defection right up to the day Budenz was received by the church. In fact, in that day’s edition of the Daily Worker, Budenz was still listed as editor-in-chief.

Sheen continued to condemn the evils of communism even after World War II ended.

Under the post-war agreement, Stalin’s Russia would be part of an American plan to bail out the European nations strangled by the economic toll of the war. Even Germany would be included. But Stalin balked. He refused any help from the U.S. and especially hated the idea of the Germans getting aid. He mapped out his own dominance of Europe. The Cold War began.

Most Americans, thanks to the government’s persuasiveness, were optimistic that Russia would stay on our side after the war. But based on past principles, Sheen never bought into it. He continued to blast Stalin and communism on the air.

1aThe Catholic Church tried to diffuse some of Sheen’s comments by posting a lookout in the radio studio. The mandate was clear: cut the microphone if Sheen mentioned anything about the Russians and communism. Sheen had said all along that his battle was not with the Russian people but with the Soviet government’s polices. Still the Church wanted no backlash. Because of the scrutiny, Sheen nearly quit the radio show, but endured the pull of the church’s leash with grace. Eventually he moved on to television, a medium where he is most remembered today.

Many years after his death in 1979, an effort was launched to consider cause for sainthood, a holy consecration and stringent requirement by the Catholic Church.  Sheen’s followers claim at least one miracle (at least two substantiated miracles is needed for canonization) can be attributed to him: an unexplained reversal of fate by a stillborn baby, who somehow survived after the child’s parents claimed they asked for prayers of convalescence in Bishop Sheen’s name. The Vatican offered no response to the so-called miracle, but a request to move Sheen’s body to Peoria for inspection and relics, another strict requirement, was initially denied. (Update: In response to a lawsuit filed in 2016 by Sheen’s oldest living descendant, in March 2019, A New York City appellate court denied an appeal by the Archdiocese of New York attempting to prevent the removal of Sheen’s remains from a crypt beneath New York City’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral to Peoria, Illinois).

Although he may never become a saint, Sheen is still considered influential for being the first “face” of Catholicism on both radio and television. His persistent stance on communism, however, gets lost in the strong spiritual side of his faith. Sheen, however, credits himself for correctly predicting the grim future and spread of communism.

Shortly after the war, during a speech in Akron, Sheen was approached by a high-ranking official in the clergy and asked, “What are you talking about tonight?” Sheen coolly replied, “About Russia and Eastern Europe and how Russia will take over all of Eastern Europe.”

The man was furious.

“You’re crazy! Russia is a democracy,” he insisted. “It is no longer communist.”

Sheen started down a flight of stairs. He wanted no part of a confrontation. But as his foot hit each step, Sheen remembers the man pointing his finger and yelling at him from above.

“You’re wrong! You’re wrong!  You’re wrong!” the man said.

Sheen reached the bottom, turned and looked up. “Someday you will see,” he said, “Eastern Europe will belong to the communists.”

The man was left standing and wondering.

The monsignor bowed his head and quietly walked away.

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(Sources: Treasure in Clay: The Autobiography of Fulton J. Sheen; This is My Story by Louis Budenz; America’s Bishop: The Life and Times of Fulton J. Sheen by Thomas C. Reeves; Enemies: A History of the FBI by Tim Weiner).

Note: This article was original published in April 2014. It has been re-titled, updated and posted on this website.

A Boy’s Life: Charles Manson in the Heartland

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By Ken Zurski

Thanks to author Jeff Guinn’s biographical book of Charles Manson, titled Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson, a few more details emerge about the notorious killer’s time as a boy, his introduction to crime, early run-ins with the law, and in particular, his short but volatile stint in the nation’s heartland, specifically Peoria, Illinois.

It’s no secret Manson was arrested in Peoria sometime in the late 1940’s. But why was in the river city and what exactly did he do?

Guinn explains that Manson, or “Charlie” to his friends and family, and another boy named Blackie Nielson broke out of Boys Town in Omaha, Nebraska, stole a car and drove it to Peoria where Nielson’s uncle lived. Manson was in Boy’s Town after failing to stay at another boy’s school in Terre Haute, Indiana. His mother Kathleen insisted Charlie go to a reform school while she served prison time for a bit role in an attempted robbery masterminded by her brother Luther, Charlie’s uncle.

In Terre Haute, Manson ran away and ended up in Indianapolis where he robbed a few dime stores.  He needed the money to rent a room and hide. He pushed his luck though and got caught. The sympathetic judge went easy on young Charlie. “Erroneously assuming that the boy was Catholic,” Guinn writes, “the judge sends him to Boy’s Town, the most famous juvenile facility in America.”

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That would straighten him out, the judge conferred.  But it didn’t work. Boy’s Town had a reputation for turning wayward boys around, but it was no prison and security was lax. Manson and his new friend, Blackie, left the grounds, hotwired a car and hightailed it to Illinois.

What happens next is fragmentary. It’s probably why Guinn spends only a few paragraphs on it. In fact the word “Peoria” isn’t even listed in the book’s index. But Manson’s time in Peoria may be just as influential on the young boy’s life as his first arrest in Indianapolis.  It’s also just as surprising, considering his age. After all he was only thirteen, according to Guinn.

Guinn writes that Charlie and Blackie set out to rob a few businesses in Peoria, including a grocery store. But these “knock offs” were different.  Charlie had a gun. Even Guinn’s not sure how he got it, possibly stole it from Blackie’s uncle. But how is not as important as – why?  In hindsight, it’s apparent the young boy was headed towards a more complicated life of crime – even murder. But instead of ripping off a few dinky stores just to get by like he did in Indianapolis, this time Manson armed with a weapon appeared to be doing it for fun. When Manson got caught again, a Peoria judge wasn’t so lenient.  He sent Charlie to a hard core reform school in Plainfield, Indiana where adult supervisors were more like drill sergeants. The rest of Manson’s youth plays out similarly – bit robberies, run-ins with the law and eventually some prison time – until we get to the 1960’s and the unfortunate reasons why he is famous today.

But that was it for Manson’s time in Peoria.

Throughout the years, a few articles in the Peoria Journal Star bulletin the arrests but offer few details.  Did Manson really try to rob the Chevrolet dealership on Main Street and jump into a squad car instead of a getaway car, as the paper claims? Heady stuff, for sure. But true?

Thanks to the efforts of Peoria Journal Star columnist Phil Luciano who in 1992 wrote a letter to Manson asking: What brought you to Peoria and what did you do here? Manson wrote back as he often did to reporter’s inquiries. His answers are lucid enough, but not very descriptive or specific. Manson recalls stealing some jewelry, putting it in a safe and dumping the safe over a bridge onto railroad tracks below. “Yeah, I did a lot of growing up in that town (Peoria),” he writes in the letter, “fast growing up.”

Manson’s other recollections of Peoria makes it sound like he was in town for months, if not years (Guinn’s book isn’t clear on this. Likely, it was only for a couple of weeks). Of course, for Manson, this comes nearly 50 years after the fact. A lot more scandalous and disturbing events have taken place in the man’s life since then.

Guinn claims that Manson’s recent letters are mostly ramblings about how he has been wronged and not much else. “That’s all you need to know,” he curtly answered one letter after offering nothing substantial in return. Apparently he doesn’t like books written about him.

Manson has frequently been denied parole and remains in a California State Prison serving a life sentence for the Tate/LaBianco murders. He has been incarcerated since 1969.

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Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson (8/6/13) by Jeff Guinn

The cover of Guinn’s book shows a picture of a neatly dressed young man.  He is smiling and seems content. Although his gaze is slightly off, there’s only a hint of the “crazy eyes” that his cousin’s claim Charlie possessed at times.

The more recognizable image of the convicted killer with tussled hippie-like long hair and a creepy blank stare would come later, when Manson was in his late 20’s and early thirties.

While in Illinois, Charlie was just a teenager.

 

 

Ernest Shackleton, Bugs Bunny, and the ‘Nimrod’ Factor

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Sir Ernest Shackleton

By Ken Zurski

The Nimrod Expedition despite its name was not a mission for dummies. Led by British explorer and Antarctic specialist Ernest Shackleton , the mission set off in January of 1909 with the objective of becoming the first team to reach the South Pole. That didn’t happen, but they did get closer to the pole than anyone else, just under 100 miles.

Basically they were all “nimrods,” like the expedition name would suggest, but not in the way you think.

That’s because at the time, the word “nimrod” represented something different than it does today. Strength and courage was its bent. A nimrod basically was held in high regard. The name demanded respect, not jeers.

The polar expedition itself is named for Shackleton’s hand picked ship, the Nimrod, a reference to Nimrod, the biblical figure and “mighty hunter before the Lord” from the Book of Genesis. Nimrod was an older boat and needed work, but Shackleton had little recourse with limited funds. He would eventually praise the small schooner as “sturdy” and “reliable.”

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Shacketon’s Nimrod

Nimrod was not an uncommon moniker. In the mid 19th century, financier Cornelius Vanderbilt named a steamboat Nimrod to compete with other commuter boats on New York’s Hudson River. Befitting his reputation, Vanderbilt demanded the Nimrod be stronger and faster than the others. No doubt the naming of the ship reflected this too.

And in 1899, composer Edward Elgar wrote a symphonic piece that had 14 variations each written for or about a personal acquaintance.

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Edward Elgar

The ninth variation was titled Nimrod. “An amusing piece,” Elgar said referring to his friend and subject, August Johannes Jagear, a music publisher and accomplished violinist. Rather than a slight, however, Elgar’s piece was a compliment.  Jäger in German meant “hunter.”

Then in 1940, thanks to cartoon character named Bugs Bunny, the meaning of the word changed forever.

bugsDuring a short titled “A Wild Hare,” Bugs called his nemesis Elmer Fudd a “poor little nimrod,” a reference to Fudd’s lack of skills as a hunter. Bugs sarcasm was evident, but most children didn’t get it. Nimrod, the word, soon became synonymous with a bumbling fool, like Fudd’s character.

Today, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary lists the word “nimrod” as slang for “idiot” or “jerk.”

That may have been the implication, but certainly not the description, of Shackleton and his crew. But those who wished to board the Nimrod, some might say, were playing a fools game.

Shackleton didn’t hide the discomforts and dangers of the mission when he advertised for a team of men . “A hazardous journey,” he warned, with “low, wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. If they made it back, which was “doubtful,” Shackleton implied, “honor and recognition” would await them upon return.

Basically, only Nimrod-types need apply, he implored.

Good thing Bugs Bunny wasn’t around to dissuade them.

 

 

 

‘A Most Extraordinary Thing’: When Christmas Interrupted the War

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By Ken Zurski

At the first light of dawn on Christmas Day, 1914, only five months after the outbreak of war in Europe, a group of weary German soldiers emerged from their trenches and approached the Allied forces across an area between them known as no-man’s-land.

“Merry Christmas,” the Germans called out in their enemies native tongue.

At first, the Allied soldiers feared it was a trick, but seeing the Germans unarmed they climbed out of their trenches and shook hands with the enemy soldiers.

“I think I have seen today one of the most extraordinary sights that anyone has ever seen,” British Captain A.D. Chater later wrote to his mother. “We were just going to fire on them when we saw they had no rifles, so one of our men went to meet them and in about two minutes the ground between the two lines of trenches was swarming with men and officers of both sides, shaking hands and wishing each other a happy Christmas.”

The men exchanged presents of cigarettes and rations and sang carols and songs. “First the Germans would sing one of their carols and then we would sing one of ours,” recalled another British soldier named Stephen Lovell. “When we started up “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” the Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words Adeste Fideles. And I thought, well, this is a most extraordinary thing — two nations singing the same carol in the middle of a war.” There was even a documented case of soldiers from opposing sides playing a good-natured game of soccer.

Captain Chater quickly realized his adversaries held the same concerns and thoughts as his comrades. “From what I gathered most of them would be glad to get home again as we should,” he wrote. “We exchanged cigarettes and autographs, and some more people took photos.”

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On the German side, sentiments were similar. “What I had still believed to be madness several hours ago I could see now with my own eyes,” recounted German soldier Josef Wenzl. “One Englishman, who was joined soon by another, came towards us until he was more than halfway towards our trenches — by which point some of our people had already approached them. And so Bavarians and English, until then the greatest of enemies, shook hands, talked and exchanged items.”

Some soldiers used this short-lived ceasefire for a more somber task: the retrieval of the bodies of fellow combatants who had fallen within the no-man’s land between the lines.

But the fighting would continue once the brief respite ended. Each man knew it. They faced a court martial or worse if they refused.

“This extraordinary truce has been quite impromptu,” Chater’s letter continued. “There was no previous arrangement and of course it had been decided that there was not to be any cessation of hostilities.” Chater jokingly suggested the goodwill may continue after a week. “We are, at any rate having another truce on New Year’s Day, as the Germans want to see how the photos come out!”

Elsewhere the war raged on.  Even on that day known as the  “Christmas Truce,” 149 British troops were reported killed by enemy fire.

On one battlefield  however, there was Christmas cheer and a friendly soccer match.

A single star stood still in the sky directly above,” Wenzl recalled about that day, “and was interpreted by many as a special sign.”

(Some text reprinted from History.com “Christmas Truce of 1914”)

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‘The Christmas Legend’ and the Introduction of Mrs. Claus

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By Ken Zurski

 

“The Christmas Legend” is a short story written in the mid-nineteenth century by a Philadelphia missionary named James Rees. It tells the tale of a destitute American family that receives an unexpected visit from a couple of strangers on Christmas Eve. The constructive narrative sets up a deep exploration of family, loss and forgiveness; a classic Christmas formula.  But the story itself is not widely known. In fact it would likely be completely forgotten had it not been for one word- “wife.” Today, it is cited as being the first time Santa Claus was associated with a spouse.  It literately introduced the character we know now as Mrs. Claus.

Published in 1849, “The Christmas Legend” was part of a collection of 29 short stories written by Rees and compiled under the title, “Mysteries of City Life, or Stray Leaves from the World’s Book.” Each story is cleverly presented to represent the dissimilarity of many leaf types. For example, the maple leaf, Rees writes, is “golden and rich” and presents a sunnier disposition, while another like the gum tree leaf has a “bloody hue” and “stands fit emblem of the tragic muse.” He likens authors after the “forest trees” which “send forth their leaves unto the world.”

“And by what emblem shall we appear amongst those clustering trees,” Rees explains. “Let us see – Ah! The Ash Tree leaves are like ours, humble and plain to see, but hiding the silver underneath.”

In “The Christmas Legend,” Rees uses the spirit of the holiday to emphasis this point.

Here is the abbreviated story…

A family of four, mother and father, daughter and son, are sitting near the fireplace on Christmas Eve. The two children, especially the daughter, wonders if she should hang the stockings for Kris Kringle to come. But her mother raises doubt. There are more important things in life than earthly possessions, she states. “Poverty keeps from the humble door all the bright things of the earth, except virtue, truth and religion, these are more of heaven and earth, and are the poor man’s friend in time of adversity.”

“I thought that Santa Claus or Kris Kringle loved all those who are good, and haven’t I been good?” the daughter asks confused.

The mother tells her to leave the stocking up. “Customs at least should be observed, and perhaps the young heart may not be disappointed.”

The father is more introspective. He anguishes over a lost family member, the eldest child, another daughter who apparently ran away with a “dissipated” man seven years before and hasn’t been seen or heard from since.

Then there is a knock on the door.

Two strangers appear out of the night, an elderly couple carrying a bundle with “all their worldly wealth,” Rees writes. They ask how far away they are from the city and the father tells them it is “two miles.”

“Two miles?” the stranger says sadly, “we will not be able to reach it tonight. My dear wife is nearly tired out. We have traveled far today.”

The father invites them in and offers his best bed for them to rest. The strangers inquire if this is their whole family. “No. No,” the father says, “we had one other – a daughter.”

“Dead; Alas we all must die,” the old woman responds.

“Dead to us, but not to the world,” the man answers. “But let us speak of her no more. Here is some bread and cheese, it is all poverty has to offer, and to it you are heartily welcome.”

There is a silent pause, then the sound of cheerful merriment, music and laughter, is heard through the open windows and door. It’s their rich landlord, the father explains, mocking the poor. The old man interjects. “Ah, sir, human nature is a mystery, this is one of the enigmas, and can only be explained when the secrets of the hearts be known.”

The next morning, Christmas Day, the family awakes to find their small room filled with presents: books and games and toys. “O Father, Kris Kringle has been here,” the little girl says excitedly. “I am so happy.”

Here Rees as the narrator sets up the last part or moral of the story. “There are moments when the doors of memory and the bright sunshine of hope make the future all clear,” he writes. “Sorrow is not eternal; it has its changes, its stops; its antidote; they came in the moment of trial and – Presto! The whole scene of life is venerated in the pleasing colors of fancy.”

And that’s when something totally unexpected occurs. The old couple reappears to the family not as as they came, but as a vibrant young couple. The children recoil from fright, but the parents are curious. “How is this?” the father asks. “Why these disguises?”

“Hush, sir,” the once old man says laughing. “This is Christmas morn and we now appear to you not as Santa Claus and his wife, but as we are, the mere actors of this pleasing farce.”

The couple recognizes the old woman’s new face. It’s their long lost daughter. The girl hugs her mother, but the father is more skeptical, angry and weary of atonement.  He lashes out at the girl as she approaches him. “Stand back!”, he shouts, then chastises the man who stands with her as a “paramour.” She begs him to reconsider. “No Father he is my kind and affectionate husband.”

“Ah, husband,” the father replies.  He reaches for his daughter. They embrace.

Rees goes on to explain the girl ran away because she was “young and foolish” but loved the man who was forbidden from her home. They left America for England where her new husband became heir to a large estate. She sent letters home, but they were never received. Now she had returned back to her family on Christmas Day. A gift of love and hope. “Can you forgive me?” she asks.

“Say no more, all is forgotten. All is forgiven,” the father tells her.

Even though it is thinly defined, the mention of Santa Claus’s wife in “The Christmas Legend” is widely considered the first ever to appear in print.  Two years later in 1851, the name Mrs. Santa Claus would be mentioned again in a story published in the Yale Literary Magazine. History tells the rest. 

Today Mrs. Claus is considered a kindly old woman who helps her husband tend to his colds, stitches his clothes, and feeds his “round belly.”

“There are many interesting facts both historic and fabulous connected with the ceremonies, customs and superstitions of this day [Christmas], which if collected together today would make a curious and interesting book.” Rees explains in the introduction to his tale.

Apparently, he added to that.

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Twiggy’s Christmas Turn

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By Ken Zurski

In September of 1977, British model and actress Twiggy appeared with Bing Crosby at the taping of the popular singer’s annual Christmas special. That year, the family holiday staple was being filmed overseas because the 74-year-old Crosby happened to be in Great Britain at the time for a concert tour. Crosby recruited several British entertainers as guests on the special titled “Christmas in England.” Twiggy was one.

Considered the “face of the 60’s” with a rail thin figure, short hair and strikingly large eyes, the teenage Twiggy was arguably the most recognized model in the world. Now a decade later, and in her 20’s, Twiggy was a multi-talented performer who picked up two Golden Globes for her work in The Boy Friend, a movie based on a musical set in the 1920’s about a theater group in England whose stage manager Polly (played by Twiggy) gets her big break when the leading lady literally “breaks a leg.”

In the Christmas special, Twiggy and Crosby sing a tender version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Twiggy is refined, relaxed and clearly star struck. Crosby takes the lead on the song but the two trade verses and sing portions of the chorus together. Twiggy also appears in a sketch with Crosby and British actor Ron Moody, best known for his role as Fagin in the movie Oliver.

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When the show was broadcast later that year, viewers watched with a heavy heart.  Only a month after filming, in October, Crosby died from an apparent heart attack. The posthumously aired British-themed Christmas special would be his last.

In retrospect, Twiggy’s duet with Crosby is a bittersweet rendition of a spirited holiday standard, done with class and professionalism, a trademark of Crosby with any singer. But it’s forgotten today. However, another well-known British star – and an even more unlikely choice than Twiggy – would make a mark on the show that would last for years to come.

Glam rocker David Bowie initially turned down the request to be a guest because he didn’t like the song choice: “The Little Drummer Boy.” He eventually agreed to appear after Crosby’s musical arrangers wrote a new part of the song for him to sing, titled “Peace on Earth,” which he liked.

Peace on Earth, can it be
Years from now, perhaps we’ll see
See the day of glory
See the day, when men of good will
Live in peace, live in peace again

The two voices soared together. “Ah, that’s a pretty thing, isn’t it?” Crosby said after they finished the song.

Today it’s considered a holiday classic.

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A Seasick Crocodile: The Overlooked Songbook of Dr. Seuss

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By Ken Zurski

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Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, wrote dozens of children’s books that still today reach best seller’s lists and thrill a new generation of fans each and every year. His work, however, as a songwriter is not as celebrated.  But when reminded, the songs penned by Seuss are just as enduring and whimsical as his books.

Of course, Seuss did not write the music, only the words, so his credit is in the lyrics. He wrote the tunes mostly for television specials and all with Seuss’s clever wordplay and sing-song rhyme pattern.  For instance, in  The Cat in the Hat, a television short released in 1970, and based on his first children’s book, Geisel wrote several original songs including the bouncy, “The Moss Covered Three-Headed Family Gradunza”

There’s a gradunza-snitcher in the house. Things will never be the same without it. How dear to my heart was that beautiful gradunza. That my old feline father bequeathed to me. That old family gradunza, The old, three-handled family gradunza, The old, moss-covered, three-handled family gradunza. That hung on the family tree. I’ve been burgled–thwertled by a fish.The old, moss-covered, three-handled family gradunza

The catchy “Cat, Hat:”

Cat, hat, in French, chat, chapeau. In Spanish, el gato in a sombrero. He’s a cat in a hat, he’s a chat in a chapeau. 
He also is a gato in a sombrero. 
Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole-o.

And the playfully teasing, “Calculatus Eliminatus:”

When you mislaid a certain something, keep your cool and don’t get hot. Calculatus Eliminatus is the best friend that you’ve got. Calculatus Eliminatus always helps an awful lot. The way to find a missing something is to find out where it’s not.

4One song in particular, “I’m a Punk,” introduced such ridiculously pleasing locutions as crontunculous, gropulous, poobler, and schnunk.

While everyone understands the meaning of punk, being a “schnunk” needed some explanation.  But when the Cat sings, “nobody, likes me, not one tiny hunk,” everyone gets the idea.

Seuss’s writing style is often credited to a Life magazine article in 1956 that criticized children’s reading levels, specifically “primers” or textbooks with simplified words and phrases, like “Dick and Jane.”  Geisel was asked to write a story using a vocabulary list of just over 200 words.  He picked the first two words that rhymed, cat and hat, and went from there. It certainly wasn’t like any story in a textbook, that’s for sure, and critics praised “The Cat in the Hat” for its originality.

Several years later when Seuss wrote the lyrics for songs in his television specials, he seemed to relish the opportunity to ratchet up the silliness even more. Seuss’s words just seemed to work with music, oftentimes using traditional melodies, sometimes with an original score. The man credited with composing or arranging most of the music for Seuss is Dean Elliott, a Midwesterner from Wisconsin, who conducted orchestras for the Tom and Jerry shorts before hooking up with Seuss. Later he worked with Bugs Bunny creator Chuck Jones.

4Seuss’s most popular song is one we hear every year around the holidays. In it, an unmissable deep voice groans about a Grinch who has a “heart full of unwashed socks” and a “soul full of gunk.”

Written in 1966 for the TV special “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” Seuss enlisted a voice actor named Thurl Ravenscroft to sing the lead on the song even though Boris Karloff was the voice of the Grinch in the special.

Karloff reportedly could not sing and Ravenscroft was hired . But Ravencroft’s name was never listed among the credits and Karloff mistakenly got most of the acclaim.  Seuss was reportedly furious and apologized for the oversight. Ravenscroft was also the voice of Kellogg’s Tony the Tiger (“They’re Great!”).

“You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” is an unconventional Christmastime staple.  The song never mentions Christmas, but rather teases with crafty metaphors, comparisons and contradictions all designed to point out what an awful crank the Grinch – now a symbol of holiday grumpiness – can be.

You’re a mean one Mr. Grinch

You really are a heel.

You’re as cuddly as a cactus,

And as charming as an eel,

Mr. Grinch!

The song is instantly recognizable, charming and vintage Dr. Seuss.  The songwriter.

 

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