‘Is There a Santa Claus?’: History’s Most Enduring Christmas Related Editorial Was Published in September.
By Ken Zurski
As brothers growing up in Rochester, New York, William and Francis Church were raised in a strict but loving household. Their father, Pharcellus Church, was a newspaper publisher and Baptist minister. He demanded nothing but the best from his boys, who in return, each earned a college degree and joined their father in the newspaper business.
In 1862, however, at the onset of the Civil War, the two brothers followed separate paths. William resigned his post at the New York Times to become a full-time soldier while Francis continued on as a civilian war correspondent.
William earned the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, but left after a year. His superior at the time, General Silas Casey, suggested he start up a newspaper and devote it strictly to the war. William liked the idea so he mustered out and asked his brother to join him. Together they published The Army and Navy Journal and Gazette of the Regular and Volunteer Forces, a weekly filled with articles on everyday applications of the war, soldier’s viewpoints, and a critical eye.
“There is not a shadow of a doubt that Fort Sumter lies a heap of ruins,” the first sentence of the first volume read on August 29, 1863.
While the two brothers continued to edit the Journal, and eventually collaborated on a monthly literary magazine, The Galaxy, their legacies are vastly different.
William would go on to become the founder and first president of the National Rifle Association (NRA), while Francis became posthumously known for an editorial he wrote in response to a little girl’s inquisitive letter and inquiry. “I am 8 years old…,” the letter began and ended with an ages old question, “Please tell me the truth. Is there a Santa Claus?”
It was signed: Virginia O’Hanlon 115 W. 95th Street
The editorial appeared without a byline and was buried deep in New York’s The Sun on September 21, 1897.
Only after Francis’ death in 1906 was it revealed that the former war correspondent penned the famous line:
“Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”
By Ken Zurski
On October 19, 1915, Hollywood silent movie actress Anita King pulled into Times Square in New York City and became the first woman on record to drive a touring vehicle solo across the country.
She broke no speed record – 48 days – but was she really trying? Movie giant Paramount Studios sought publicity for the stunt and publicity is exactly what they got. The papers were all over it. “Colorful, convoluted and contradictory” is how one writer described King’s elaborate and perhaps embellished tales from the road.
But it was never boring.
King made stops at over a hundred Paramount theaters and graciously greeted well wishers along the way. But in between – and for most of the 3,000-plus mile journey – the 30-year-old, curly-haired blonde, still had to drive long stretches by herself, on paved and unpaved roads, and in all types of weather. In the Sierra Mountains, she recalled, a tramp tried to hitch a ride. “I wouldn’t permit myself to show how frightened I was,” King said. “I handed him a flask of whiskey I had in the car and told him to come to the theater where I was appearing the next night.” He did, according to King, bringing a bouquet of picked flowers with him.
Some of the reports were bleak.
King “wilted in the heat,” went one newspaper account.
“She was nearly a goner” read another.
Each story King told reporters seemed to be more extraordinary than the next. In one harrowing incident, just outside of Reno, the car’s tires became stuck in the mud. King spent hours trying to shovel them out, but got nowhere. Then suddenly, she was not alone. A “mad coyote” joined her company. “Gee it looked as big as a horse,” she explained. “I finally killed him, and knew nothing more until I was picked up by prospectors, who heard the shots of my gun.”
King was born to immigrant parents who settled in Michigan City, Indiana. Her father committed suicide in 1896 when she was 12 years old and only two years after that her mother succumbed to tuberculosis. King was a grief-stricken teenager and an orphan. She moved from Michigan City to Chicago where she found work as a model and actress. In 1908, at the age of 24, she traveled to California and became fascinated with motor vehicles. She competed in a few auto races but after an accident decided to concentrate on her acting career instead. She appeared in a couple of comedic films, bit parts really, but nothing star making.
That’s when she heard her boss, motion picture producer John L. Lasky, talking about the Lincoln Highway, the newly opened coast to coast route between San Francisco and New York City that ran through 13 states.
Although it was dedicated in 1913, the road was still a work in progress and Lasky said – perhaps jokingly – that it would be at least ten years before the highway would be in such shape that a lady could make the drive without difficulty.
King chimed in. She could drive a car and she could make the trip now. Seeing the promotional value in the stunt, Lasky was on board telling her he would pay for it and secure a major sponsorship with the Kissel Motor Car Co. for transportation, a machine built for endurance and advertised as “every inch a car” and an “all-year vehicle.” King’s job was to act like a “movie star” and in return, Lasky promised, he would make her one.
King was ecstatic.
Dubbed “The Paramount Girl,” in the papers, King drove the Kissel Kar with a “new set of Firestone tires,” another Lasky sponsor. “There will be nobody with her,” the Los Angeles Times reported, “her only companions will be a rifle and six shooter.”
The trip began appropriately in front of Lasky’s Paramount studios in Hollywood.
When she arrived in New York City, King received a hero’s welcome. She was the honored guest at a ceremonial dinner and shook hands with dignitaries. In typical fashion though, the city’s newspapers, while celebratory, were skeptical too. “Miss King, in spite of being on the road from September 1 to yesterday, had no marks of tan or sunburn,” the New York Sun questioned. King explained she used grease paint on her face all the time. “I was determined I wouldn’t come into New York City with a red nose,” she said.
King became a darling celebrity and a movie titled ”The Race” starring King and Victor Moore went immediately into production. It was released the following year.
Much to Lasky’s surprise, the film was a disappointment. It got poor reviews and ran for only a week. King’s true-life exploits on the road, as it turned out, just weren’t as interesting on the silver screen.
King however remembered the groundbreaking trip fondly. In an interview, she recalled meeting a young girl on the side of the road who had packed a bag and wanted to runaway with King to the movies. From the heart, King gave her a lesson in humility.
“I would give the world to have what you have right there in that home,” she said.
Then King got back in her car, waved goodbye to the little girl, and drove off to her next adventure.
By Ken Zurski
In July of 1848 a teenager named Charlotte Woodward read an announcement in a local newspaper about a group of women who would be meeting at a Methodist Church in Seneca Falls, New York, a modest wagon ride from her family’s farm near Syracuse. “A convention to discuss the social, civil and religious condition and rights of woman, “ the ad read. Woodward was intrigued.
Woodward had been a school teacher at age fifteen but mostly worked at home, sewing gloves for merchants to sell. The work was long and the pay nearly nonexistent. This was the role of a woman at the time, no identity and no apparent social status other than tending to her family or husband’s needs and eventually having babies, oftentimes lots of them. A woman’s wages, if she worked, belonged to her spouse. She had no rights, no advantages. “She was her father’s daughter,” one writer stressed about the role of women in the mid 19th century, “until she became her husband’s wife.”
She was, however, protected by law against physical abuse, but only with “a stick bigger than a man’s thumb.” A punishment would be imposed, but no damages were ever awarded for injuries since no woman had the right to sign any legal documents.
Woodward was unmarried and feared no man, but she fumed at the prospects of working the rest of her life for others and eventually to a man she might be forced to wed, but did not love. “Every fiber of my being reveled, although silently, for all the hours that I sat and sewed gloves for a miserable pittance which, after it was earned, could never be mine.” Her interest in the women’s rights convention was more a revelation than a curiosity. “I wanted to work, but I wanted to choose my task and I wanted to collect my wages.”
So she went to Seneca Falls.
The convention was the brainchild of two women, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who attended the World’s Anti-Slavery Congress in London in 1840 as part of a women delegation, four in fact, and first of its kind. Their voices were mostly silenced. Some reports had the women turned away at the hall entrance. Returning home, Mott and Stanton gathered a lively group of women who discussed equality behind closed doors. In 1848, they felt it was time to take their case public. So they announced the convention’s date and invited anyone, even men, to come. Men could be part of the second day’s activities, the ad implied. “The first day would be exclusively for women.”.
Apparently, men didn’t care for rules not imposed by men. So on the first day, more than 50 lined up in front of the church. Some women were appalled, but Woodward recalls the men as “uncommonly liberal,” apparently meaning they had open, not closed minds. One man was proof of that. His name was Frederick Douglass.
But it wasn’t just men who were outside of the church that day. It was the women too. The church doors were locked and only the minister had a key. Apparently, the minister, who earlier approved the conference, had changed his mind after talking to the elders of the church, all men of course. As one story goes, the women stood on each other’s shoulders, managed to open a window shutter, climb inside, and open the doors. Nothing more was reported of the minister’s emphatic reversal after that.
Mott was a very good speaker, a rarity for a woman. Not that she was well-spoken, many were, but that she had the natural ability to express her views in front of a large audience. Public speaking was not something a woman could practice at the time. James Mott, her husband would hold order since by law, women could not. The ladies were there to change the laws, not break them.
By the end of the two days and nearly 18 hours of speeches, debates and readings, most of the women including Woodward signed a document titled “Declaration of Sentiments,” similar to the Declaration of Independence. The 1000 word document began with an opening statement that revised text from Thomas Jefferson’s original declaration and first sentence. It read: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal.” The two added words were obvious.
The statement ended this way:
“The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpation on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.”
And then came the point of the conference, the sentiments, or “facts.” These were the rules that must change. Among them were disapproval’s of common law, mostly taken for granted by men. “He has taken from her all right in property, even to the wages she earns,” read one. “He has compelled her to commit to laws in the formation by which she had no voice,” went another. “He has made her, in marriage, in the eyes of the law, civilly dead.”
Only one sentiment was a sticking point for the women. It read: “He has never permitted her to exercise her inalienable right to the elective franchise.” This was a social decalration, some argued, not a political one. The right to vote would likely get the least support from men. And besides, it might be the one sentiment that men were so strongly against that they would ignore all the others. After much debate, most of the women wanted the voting rights stricken from the document. But Frederick Douglass, a self-educated former slave, spoke in favor of its inclusion. “In this denial of the right to participate in government,” he eloquently stated, “not merely the degradation of woman and the perpetuation of a great injustice happens, but the meaning and repudiation of one-half of the moral and intellectual power of the government – of the world.”
Later, Susan B Anthony, who was not at the conference, would make voting rights the cornerstone of the suffragette movement, a debate that became more contentious after the Civil War ended and freed slaves also demanded the right to vote. Once again, Douglass was at the forefront. But it was not an easy sell, especially for women whose efforts to that point had been one frustrating roadblock followed by another.
In 1866, Anthony’s mouthpiece, the outspoken Stanton, went too far. She called former slaves “ignorant(s) and foreigners,” and chastised Douglass and others for putting blacks rights before a woman’s. Douglass, who to that point supported suffrage, angrily countered: “When women, because they are women, are hunted down…when they are dragged from their houses and hung upon lampposts, when their children are torn from their arms, and their brains dashed upon the pavement, when they are objects of insult and outrage at every turn, when they are in danger of having their homes burnt down over their heads…then they will have the urgency to obtain the ballot equal to our own.” In the end, the Fifteenth Amendment was passed which included race, but not gender. In principle, blacks could vote, but not black women.
But that fight would come much later. In 1848, Douglass’ words about women being “one-half of the moral and intellectual power of government” rang true. The call for men to integrate women in elections was included in the “sentiments” and the resolution passed.
When it was over, most men were apathetic. Some sarcastically called the two days of meetings a “Hen Convention” and mocked the proceedings. “If there is one characteristic of the sex which more than another elevates and ennobles it,” one newspaper editor, obviously a man, wrote, “it is the persistency and intensity of a woman’s love for man. The ladies always had the best place and choicest tidbits at the table.”
But despite the protests, the convention sparked more debates, more meetings and a movement which would last for years.
Woodward had no idea how that day would change her. She eventually joined Anthony’s suffrage camp and spent the rest of her life fighting for the right to vote.
Finally in 1920, after the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment, she had the chance.
Sadly, though, she never got to cast that first – or any – ballot.
Charlotte Woodward Pierce, her married name, was the youngest to sign the “Declaration of Sentiments” and now some seven decades later, of the 68 women who participated in Seneca Falls, she was the sole survivor.
On election day 1920, she fell ill and stayed home. The next year, her eyesight went bad. “I’m too old,” she said. “I’m afraid I’ll never vote.”
That same year she died at the age of 92.
(Sources: Judith Wellman, Historian Historical New York; “The Scarlet Sisters: Sex, Suffrage, and Scandal in the Gilded Age” by Myra MacPherson)
By Ken Zurski
In 1920, starting with the election of President Warren G. Harding, a weekly magazine called The Literary Digest correctly picked the winner of each subsequent presidential election up to and including Franklin D. Roosevelt’s decisive victory over Herbert Hoover in 1932.
Quite an impressive track record by a magazine founded by two Lutheran ministers in 1890. The Literary Review culled articles from other publications and provided readers with insightful analysis and opinions on the day’s events. Eventually, as the subscriber list grew, the magazine created its own response-based surveys, or polling, as it is known today.
The presidential races were the perfect example of this system.
So in 1936, with a subscriber base of 10 million and a solid track record, the Digest was ready to declare the next president: “Once again, [we are] asking more than ten million voters — one out of four, representing every county in the United States — to settle November’s election in October,” they bragged.
When the tallies were in, the Digest polls showed Republican Alfred Landon beating incumbent Roosevelt 57-percent to 43-percent. This was a surprise to many who thought Landon didn’t stand a chance.
Roosevelt was a progressive Democrat whose New Deal policies, like the Social Security Act and Public Pension Act, passed through Congress with mostly bipartisan support. Soon, millions of Americans burdened by the Great Depression would receive federal assistance.
Landon, a moderate, admired Roosevelt but felt he was soft on business and yielded too much presidential power. “I will not promise the moon,” he exclaimed during a campaign speech and warned against raising payroll taxes to pay for benefits. It didn’t work. Roosevelt won all but two states, Maine and Vermont, and sailed to a second term with 60-percent of the popular vote.
Even Landon’s hometown state of Kansas, where he had been Governor since 1933, went with the President. In the end, Landon’s 8 electoral votes to Roosevelt’s 532 – or 98-percent – made it the most lopsided general election in history.
In hindsight, poor sampling was blamed for the Digest’s erroneous choice. Not only were subscribers mostly middle to upper class, but only a little over two of the ten million samples were returned, skewing the result.
The big winner, however, besides Roosevelt, was George Gallup, the son of an Iowa dairy farmer and eventual newspaperman, whose upstart polling company American Institute of Public Opinion correctly chose the President over Landon to within 1 percent of the actual margin of victory.
In 1948, the validity of public opinion polls would be questioned again when Gallup incorrectly picked Thomas Dewey to beat Roosevelt’s successor by death, Harry S.Truman.
Since it was widely considered Truman would lose his reelection bid to a full term, Gallup survived the scrutiny.
Even the Chicago Tribune got it wrong, claiming a Dewey presidency was “inevitable,” and printing an early edition with the now infamous headline of “Dewey Defeats Truman.” A humiliation that Truman mocked the next day.
The Literary Digest, however, had no say in the matter.
In 1938, the magazine merged with another review publication and stopped polling subscribers.
By Ken Zurski
In 1952, the name General MacArthur appeared on the Wisconsin Republican primary ballot for President of the United States. This was unusual, because the famous general everyone knew, Douglas MacArthur, was not in the running.
More on that in a moment.
First, the person responsible for the inclusion of General MacArthur on the ballot is a man named Lawrence Joseph Sarsfield Daly, or Lar Daly for short. Daly was a political shill from the Midwest who unsuccessfully ran for a variety of political offices including Mayor of Chicago and eventually President of the United States. “What made [Daly] famous was his hobby,” a Chicago historian once wrote. “He ran for public office –and lost.” In 1952, however, Daly had another tapped for the White House, Douglas MacArthur, the popular World War II general.
That year President Harry Truman decided he would not seek reelection for a second full term and backed Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson II for the nomination instead. General Dwight D. Eisenhower was the clear choice on the Republican side. Daly, however, liked another general, MacArthur, who had made it clear from the onset that he was not in the running. Daly, who had just lost to Representative Everett Dirksen of Pekin in the 1950 Republican primary election for the Illinois U.S. Senate seat, took the matter in his own hands. Without permission, he added the general’s name to the list of Republican nominees in the Illinois primary.
When MacArthur found out, he promptly had it removed.
Undeterred, Daly tried a different tactic in the Wisconsin primary. He grabbed the Chicago phone book and looked up the name MacArthur. To his surprise he found a man with the last name MacArthur and first name, General.
Daly called the man and asked if he knew of the famous general. The man said he thought the general was a “fine American.” When Daly asked if he could put his name on the ballot, General MacArthur, a 42-year old African American with eight children, said “yes.”
By law, as long as there was a signed consent, the name Mr. General MacArthur could legally appear on the Wisconsin ballot.
The novelty, however, was never a secret. Thanks to Daly, Mr. MacArthur took a few smiling photos for “Life” magazine and other publications, but never sought out any publicity for himself or his family. There were no monetary awards for his efforts. He continued to work as a tank inspector at a packinghouse. Nothing changed.
Daly hoped to find some delegates in the state and perhaps drum up support for Gen. Douglas MacArthur to consider a run, but there were few takers. Eisenhower easily won the nomination and later that year beat Stevenson by a landslide for the presidency.
Privately, Daly lived in a modest two story brick bungalow on Chicago’s south side and drove a Ford Station wagon, painted red, white and blue. He had six children and sold bar stools for a living. “To bookies,” he once said, “so they had somewhere to stand when they wrote the odds on the chalkboard.”
Born in Gary, Indiana in 1912, Daly’s mother died when he was five. His father, a policeman and fireman in town, moved the two boys, Lar and his brother, to Chicago. That’s where Lar became politically connected. In the second grade, he sold vegetables for a street peddler and gained friends among the local housewives. This would work to his advantage. As a teenager, Lar worked the streets again. No longer was he peddling produce, but candidates. He passed out fliers and helped vote seekers gain support in his Chicago neighborhood. At the age of 20, Daly decided to run against a powerful Cook County Democratic ward committeeman. He lost big in the election but won by defeating a court challenge of filing fake petition signatures. “I knew my petitions are good,” Lar said in his defense. “I got all the signatures myself.” Just getting on the ballot was a victory of sorts for the young politico.
In 1938, Lar ran for Cook County Superintendent of Schools, even though he himself never got past the first year of high school. He was listed as Lawrence J. Daly on the ballot and thanks to the Irish sounding name picked up nearly 300,000 votes, but still lost. It would remain the closest he ever came to actually winning an election.
Politically, Daly was an equal-opportunity candidate and ran on whichever ticket gave him the best shot to win. His views, however, were more in line with libertarians. He was for legalized gambling, against public education, and called for major tax cuts. He was also a staunch isolationist, often making campaign stops wearing an Uncle Sam suit, and calling himself the “America First” candidate.
In 1960, he was a “write in” candidate for President.
Even though he was never considered a serious threat to the two major parties, Daly sued – some say threatened – the FCC to force radio and television news broadcasts to give him equal coverage. He never got on the debate stage with the two nominees, then Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice-President Richard M. Nixon, but when JFK guested on The Tonight Show, Jack Paar’s late-night NBC talk show, Daly demanded—and got—his “equal time.” Paar was furious but went along. “Mr. Daly, I would like to know where your supporters are located” challenged a man in the audience. “I teach special studies in Illinois, and we’ve never heard of you.”
“Well, sir,” replied Daly, “you apparently don’t read newspapers, watch television, listen to the radio, or attend meetings, because in every Illinois campaign in which I engage, I am known as the tireless candidate.”
The studio audience booed as Daly calmly demanded: “Your only choice is America first—or death.”
Parr cut to a commercial, “for the tireless candidate,” he said sarcastically.
After the taping, Lar took off his Uncle Sam suit went to a New York bar and inconspicuously watched the show as it aired that night. “Holy smokes, what the hell is this?” said a patron during Daly’s segment.
Daly hardly registered a vote in the 1960 general election, besides his own. But that didn’t stop him. He continued on each subsequent year for many more years, running for offices mostly in Illinois for the U.S Senate seat and numerous attempts for Mayor of Chicago against another Daley (spelled differently).
He lost, of course, every time.
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.
Sometime in the late 1940’s, 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.”
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 took place in the man’s life since then, including the murder of actress Sharon Tate and four others on August 8th and 9th, 1969.
Guinn claims that his correspondence letters from Manson were mostly ramblings about how he had been wronged and not much else. “That’s all you need to know,” Manson curtly answered one letter after offering nothing substantial in return. Apparently he didn’t like books written about him.
Manson was sentenced to life for the Tate/LeBlanco murders, incarcerated in a California State Prison, frequently denied parole, and died on November 19, 2017 at the age of 83.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
During 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.
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.
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.
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, their version is considered a holiday classic.
By Ken Zurski
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.
One 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.
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,
The song is instantly recognizable, charming and vintage Dr. Seuss. The songwriter.