By Ken Zurski
On Feb 18 1915, the first screening of a major motion picture took place inside the walls of the White House. President Woodrow Wilson instructed it at the request of a friend Thomas Dixon Jr., author of The Clansman, a radical novel published in 1905, which skewed the Reconstruction era by heroizing the Ku Klux Klan’s efforts against an illicit uprising by former slaves in the South.
Dixon’s book had just become a film version, retitled “The Birth of a Nation.” and directed by D.W. Griffith.
Wilson was familiar with the book and its subject matter.
For months, in letters, Dixon had set up the President’s role in promoting the film: “I have an abiding faith that you will write your name with Washington and Jefferson as one of the great creative forces in the development of our Republic,” he wrote. Wilson was flattered, responding: “I want you to know Tom, that I’m pleased to do this little thing for you.” Dixon and Wilson had been law students together at John Hopkins in the 1880’s.
In asking, Dixon was disingenuous at best: “What I told the President was that I would show him the birth of a new art – the launching of the mightiest engine for moulding public opinion in the history of the world.” Dixon was hoping to spread the message of white southern attitudes in the North. This, he explained, was”the real purpose of the film.” In securing a screening, however, Dixon stressed the importance of advancing the medium rather than the content. Wilson took the bait, or as one writer expressed, “fell into a trap.” An assessment, one can argue, was hardly befitting the President’s reputation at the time. In addition, the President had recently lost his beloved wife to illness. He was in no mood to go – or be seen – in a public theater.
So the film came to him.
Dixon set it all up. He along with a projection crew steamed by rail from California to Washington D.C. and lugged twelve reels of film from Union Station to Pennsylvania Avenue. On a chilly February evening the President, along with his family and several cabinet members, viewed the film in the East Room of the White House.
Historical facts get sketchy at this point, especially Wilson’s reaction.
A magazine writer claimed Wilson liked the film enough to contribute an ambiguous quote: “It’s like writing history with lightning. My only regret is that it is all terribly true.”
A Wilson biographer, however, disputes these claims, reporting some sixty years later, that the last living person to view the film that night told a vastly different story. Wilson left early before the movie was over, this person recalled, and didn’t utter a word.
In retrospect, what likely happened is this: It was late, the film was long, and Wilson stepped out to retire to bed.
None of this mattered at the time. Just screening the controversial movie in the White House was awkward enough. And regardless of what Wilson did or did not do, having his presence in the flickering light of the projector prompted Dixon and Griffith to proclaim the film had a “presidential seal of approval.”
For Wilson it was another political embarrassment and solidified the views of many that the President had policies that were designed to separate rather than mix the races.
When the sharp protests began, Wilson was stuck. He tried to remain indifferent, but that was impossible. The NAACP demanded an explanation. Wilson wrote a few letters, eventually disowned any words attributed to him, and left it at that. He had other matters to attend to.
In March of 1915, The Birth of a Nation opened to positive reviews and large crowds. The NAACP’s attempt to get the film banned, some professed, failed because the “mostly white” film board ignored their pleas.
Wilson was too busy to care.
Less than three months later, the British ocean liner RMS Lusitania was attacked by German U -boats, killing 124 Americans and ratcheting up calls for the President to act.
In April 1917, Wilson declared the U.S. entering the Great War.
By Ken Zurski
Thanks to the sight of its majestic flight, broad 8-foot wing span, and contrasting white head, the bald eagle became the symbol of America when it first appeared on the Great Seal adopted by Congress in 1782.
A year and a half later it had a major dissenter in Benjamin Franklin.
Franklin saw the image of the bird on the badge of the Society of the Cincinnati of America, a military fraternity of revolutionary war officers, and thought the drawing of the bald eagle on the badge looked more like a turkey, a fair and reasonable complaint considering the image looked like, well, a turkey.
But it was the use of the bald eagle as the symbol of America that most infuriated Franklin. “[The bald eagle] is a bird of bad moral character,” he wrote to his daughter. “He does not get his Living honestly.”
Franklin had a point. It was a a matter of principal. The bald eagle was a notorious thief, he implied. Here’s why: A good glider and observer, the bald eagle often watches other birds, like the more agile Osprey (appropriately called a fish hawk) dive into water to seize its prey. The bald eagle then assaults the Osprey and forces it to release the catch, grabs the prey in mid-air, and returns to its nest with the stolen goods. “With all this injustice,” Franklin wrote as only he could, “[The bald eagle] is a rank coward.”
Franklin then expounded on the turkey comparison: “For the truth, the turkey is a much more respectable bird…a true original Native of America who would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his farmyard with a red coat on.”
Franklin’s suggestion of the turkey as the nation’s symbol, however, is a myth. He never suggested such a thing. He only compared the bald eagle to a turkey because the drawing reminded him of a turkey. Franklin’s argument was the choice of bald eagle not in support of the turkey he called “vain and silly.” Some even claim his comments and comparisons were slyly referring to members of the Society, of whom he thought was an elitist group comprised of “brave and honest” men but on a chivalric order, similar to the ruling country to which they helped defeat. This might explain why Franklin’s assessment of the bald eagle in the letter is based solely on human behavior, not a bird’s.
But was it a fair assessment?
Ornithologists today provide a more scientific and sensible explanation. In the”Book of North American Birds” the bald eagle gets its just due, for as a bird, it’s actions are justifiable. “Nature has her own yardstick, and in nature’s eyes the bald eagle is blameless. What we perceive as laziness is actually competence.” Being able to catch a “waterfowl in flight and rabbits on the run,” the book suggests is a noble and rewarded skill.
Perhaps, a better choice for the nation’s top bird, might have been the golden eagle, who unlike the bald eagle captures its own prey, mostly small rodents, but is powerful enough to attack larger animals like deer or antelope on rare occasions. (Its reputation today is tainted somewhat by rumors that it snatches unsuspecting domestic animals, like goats or small dogs.) But golden eagles don’t want attention. They shy away from more populated areas and appear to be “lazy” only because they can hunt with such precision and ease they don’t really have to ruffle their feathers. Plus, golden eagles were already symbolic. History finds them “perched on banners of leading armies, the fists of emperors and figuring in religious cultures.”
The bald eagle, by comparison, would be truly American.
Perhaps when Franklin made the disparaging comments against the bald eagle he was also harboring a nearly decade old grudge.
In 1775, a year before America’s independence, Franklin wrote the Pennsylvania Journal and suggested an animal be used as a symbol of a new country, one that had the “temper and conduct of America,” he explained. He had something in mind. “She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders;” he wrote. “She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage”
Eventually the image Franklin suggested did appear on a $20 bill issued in 1778, adopted for use as the official seal of the War Office, and may have been the inspiration for the Gadsden flag with the inscription, “Don’t Tread On Me.”
But it never officially became the preferred symbol of the new country.
Franklin’s choice: the rattlesnake.
By Ken Zurski
In December of 1981, the English power pop group The Vapors released Magnets, the follow-up to their successful debut album New Clear Days which featured the bouncy and ambiguous hit single, “Turning Japanese.”
I’m turning Japanese
I think I’m turning Japanese
I really think so
Although the group had explored heavy themes before on its first album, Magnets was considered even darker. For example, the title song is about the assassination of John F. Kennedy’s, with references to “the motorcade” and the Kennedy children. “Spiders” and “Can’t Talk Anymore” dealt with mental health issues and “Jimmie Jones,” the single, recounted cult leader Jim Jones and the massacre in Jonestown.
They tell me jimmies seen a sign
Says he understand everything
They tell me jimmies got a line
To the man from the ministry
Despite the bleak subject matter, however, the songs were mostly upbeat and catchy, a trademark of the group.
But it didn’t light up the charts.
The album, while positively received, was a commercial flop. The band blamed it on the lack of interest from their new record label, EMI (later changed to Liberty Records), which bought out United Artists shortly after their first release. Due in part to corporate frustration, The Vapors disbanded after Magnets failed to ignite. But today, the album has significance for its inspired cover art, a complex portrait that mirrored the album’s dark undertones.
Martin Handford was the artist.
A London-born illustrator, Handford specialized in drawing large crowds, an inspiration he claims came from playing with toy soldiers as a boy and watching carefully choreographed crowd scenes from old movies.
Handford, who sold insurance to pay bills, was hardly an emerging or successful artist at the time he was asked to design the album cover for Magnets. Drawing upon the theme of the title song, Handford depicted a chaotic crowd scene of an assassination, although you couldn’t tell unless you looked closely. From a reasonable distance, the numerous figures and various colored clothing formed the shape of a human eye.
It was both clever and disturbing.
For example, at the top right hand corner of the cover, on the roof of a building, there is a man – presumably the assassin – putting away a rifle. Some of the figures are seen running from the horrific scene unfolding in the “eye’s” iris, while others are curiously drawn to it. But while the cover was certainly an original creation, the artistic style was not.
In fact it has a name: Wimmelbilderbuch.
Wimmelbilderbuch, or “wimmelbook” for short (German for “teeming picture book”) is the term used to describe a book with full spread drawings of busy place’s like a zoo, farm or town square. The page is filled with numerous humans and animals. It’s geared toward children, but adult’s seemed to like it too, especially when an identified object is hidden, making it more like a puzzle than a colorful picture. Several artists incorporated this style, including a Dutch artist Pieter Bruegel, who dates back to the early 16thcentury, and specialized in drawing intricate landscapes and peasant scenes populated by people in various degrees of work or distress. Bruegel’s human figures are mostly depicted as frail and challenged (Fleet Foxes used a Bregel painting The Elder for its 2008 self titled debut album).
Handford’s work wasn’t nearly as depressing as Bruegel’s, but they were similar. Handford purposely drew the Magnets cover with emblematic images, not exactly hidden, but tough to spot, and when found became a personal reward to the viewer – like the tiny assassin on the roof.
This was the inspiration for an idea that eventually became a cultural phenomenon.
Handford created a recurring character he would put in all his drawings: a bespectacled man with wavy brown hair who always wore a red and white striped shirt and stocking cap. His name was Wally.
The trick was trying to find Wally in the crowd.
The concept soon became a contest, then a crave. It led to several best selling books and an iconic, some might say exasperating, new enigma emerged.
“Where’s Wally?” is how they describe it around the world.
In America, it’s called “Where’s Waldo?”
By Ken Zurski
Before the iconic Rosie the Riveter urged women to join the work force in World War II, another strong woman figure was used by the U.S government, this time by the Treasury Department, to sell war bonds.
Her name was Joan of Arc.
Joan of Arc was certainly not American. But her story and image gained footing in the U.S. during the first world war.
Called to serve God in the form of angel’s voices, the teenage Joan takes up the sword, disguises herself as a man, and goes to battle to save the French from evil in the early 15th century. After her capture, she was burned alive at the stake. In France, even today, she is celebrated as a symbol of nationalism and unity. However, American sensibilities about the mythical Joan are more romanticized.
In 1946, actress Ingrid Bergman played Joan in a play within a play titled Joan of Lorraine. (Lorraine loosely refers to Joan’s birthplace with the surname Arc.) The play is about a company of actors who stage a dramatization of Joan’s story. Bergman who won a Tony Award for her role, played two parts, Joan and Mary Grey the fictional actress who portrays Joan in the play.
Two years later, Bergman starred in a modified movie version of Joan of Lorraine. The film, renamed Joan of Arc, was a more straightforward retelling of Joan’s story, but still gave Americans a stylized portrayal of the French martyr. By this time, Joan’s image had already been on war posters. “Joan of Arc Saved France,” the ad reads. “Women of America. Save Your Country, Buy War Savings Stamps.”
The ads, which appeared for the first time in 1917, were colorful and attractive, especially the image of Joan.
In it, Joan is sporting long autumn hair, red lips, and a suit of armor that not only shows a tapered waistline, but a womanly figure as well. “Two orbs of light at the level of her hidden breasts suggest a female bosom that cannot be obscured by the trappings of war,” biographer Kathryn Harrison wrote about the poster’s likeness.
This was not the cross-dressing savoir of France, Harrison points out, but a 20th century version, pretty and determined, ready to fight like a man, but remain an empowered woman.
“Oh if I could speak large and round like a boy,” Bergman’s Joan wonders in the play. “But my voice is a girl’s voice and my ways are a girl’s ways.”
By Ken Zurski
British poet William Wordsworth liked to go for long walks. A commendable act today for sure, but in the late 18th century, highly unusual for a man of Wordsworth’s class and stature. That’s because walking was considered impractical and unnecessary to many artists of the era, mostly painters, who chose to not waste their own time and energy getting to a picturesque location. A stately horse and carriage did just fine, especially for those who could afford one.
But Wordsworth was different. He loved nature too much to spoil the journey. So in 1790, while a student at Cambridge, Wordsworth organized a walking tour through Switzerland and France.
When he returned to England, his walks became daily occurrences, usually accompanied by his sister Dorothy. The two would venture off by foot into areas unknown, oftentimes relishing the thought of getting lost, sometimes for hours, even in the family’s lavish gardens.
One winter day, Wordsworth and his sister walked a fair distance between home and a hotel for an engagement. The snow was falling and the path slippery. But when they arrived, Wordsworth insisted they turn around and do it again. The second time was just as “heavenly” as the first, Dorothy wrote about her brother.
After Wordsworth’s death at age 80, a friend calculated he had walked 175-thousand miles in his lifetime.
Of course all the walking was an inspiration for his poems.
I wandered as lonely as the cloud
That floats on high o’er valleys and hills
When all at once I saw a crowd
A host of golden daffadils
His works were often named after his enjoyment. like one, titled “Sweet Was the Walk.”
Like a good doctor or lawyer, Wordsworth always carried a bag with him – about the size of a modern day briefcase – when he went for a walk. Inside were his writing tools: a journal, pencil, coat, book, and for longer jaunts…a sandwich.
By Ken Zurski
On April 21 1960, a Thursday, CBS television aired a taped documentary titled “Biography of a Cancer” that for its day, was as timely as it was informative. That’s because in the 1950’s doctors had just begun experimenting with a combination chemotherapy and radiation treatment and widespread skepticism followed. There were just as many questions about its clinical usefulness as there were answers. So the network’s objective was to present a cancer patient and show “truthfully and graphically” the various stages of the disease.
They found the perfect subject in Thomas A. Dooley.
Dooley not only had been diagnosed with cancer, but he was also a doctor, and a well known one at that. A lieutenant and rising star in the Navy, Dooley scrapped plans to be an orthopedic surgeon, left the military, and devoted his life to serve those in less fortunate areas of the world. He was profiled by some as a globetrotting playboy, both good looking and successful, who became an “idealistic, crusading servant of the poor and depressed.” Dooley didn’t care how he was perceived. His mission was clear. But due to this mix of admonition and admiration, the story got notice and Dooley wrote three best-selling books about his humanitarian crusade.
Then he got cancer.
When Dooley agreed to be filmed by CBS he was just about to have surgery on the malignant tumor found near his shoulder.
In August of 1959, the cameras rolled.
Nearly a year later on that April evening when the show aired, Tom Dooley wasn’t around to see it. He was in Southeast Asia treating the sick. In fact, Dooley kept a constant travel schedule even after the diagnosis and surgery. His will and determination was an inspiration to the staff of MEDICO, the world-wide health organization Dooley founded. Many of his patients called him “Dr. America,” but his team knew him simply as “Dr. Tom.”
“Walt Whitman, I think, said that it’s not important what you do with the years of your life, but how you use each hour, “ Dooley told the television viewers in the CBS special. “That’s how I want to live.”
Eventually, he was just too weak to continue. “I’m not going to quit. I will continue to guide and lead my hospitals until my back, my brain, and my bones collapse,” he said after being admitted for treatment for the last time.
On January 18, 1961, just a month after returning from a mission to Bangkok and one day after his 34th birthday, Tom Dooley died. For all his frantic and tireless efforts, both in front and behind the camera, a friend exclaimed, the end was “a quiet, peaceful slipping away.”
At the time of his death, the dedication to his work, and not the brief stint on television, was the focus of numerous articles and memorials.
By Ken Zurski
In early 1965, a three-member American band named The Detergents released a single titled “Leader of the Laundromat.”
The song told the story of a boy named Murray who was seemingly in love with a pretty laundromat attendant, Betty, because she “looked so sad.” Then he abruptly tells her it’s over between them.
I’ll never forget the hurt and the funny look in her eye.
Betty, the jilted ex-girlfriend, grabs Murray’s laundry, runs out the laundromat door, and “directly in the path of a garbage truck.”
Watch out, watch out!
Those unfamiliar with a certain Shangri-La’s song “Leader of the Pack” might have been shocked out of their shoes.
But it was all in good fun.
I felt so messy standing there
My daddy’s shorts were everywhere
Tenderly I kissed her goodbye
Picked up my clothes, they were finally dry
The song was a parody, of course, but more specifically, it was a spoof. Until then, parody songs had been about something funny and usually with an original melody like “Itsy Bitsy Tennie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.” But the “Laundromat” song was different. It took the actual melody of a recent hit and twisted it. Basically, it spoofed an already established and popular tune.
But I won’t forget you, oh Leader Of the Laundromat
That didn’t sit so well with the writers of the original song. When the “Leader of the Laundromat,” reached #19 on the Billboard singles chart, the songwriting team behind “Leader of the Pack” sued The Detergents for copyright infringement and royalties and settled out of court.
Despite the legal wrangling, however, band members Ron Dante, Danny Jordan and Tommy Wynn, toured together as The Detergents for about two years before disbanding.
Dante went on to sing lead vocals for the novelty group The Archies and the hit single “Sugar, Sugar,” a contribution that was unacknowledged at the time thanks to the group’s association with the comic strip characters.
The Detergents short legacy includes an album of spoofs, a film like the Beatles, and some subsequent singles, like “Double-O-Seven” (A James Bond mockery) and “I Can Never Eat at Home Anymore” (inspired by another Shangri-Las hit “I Can Never Go Home Anymore”), but nothing stuck quite like the “Laundromat” song:
My folks were always putting her down (down, down)
Because her laundry came back brown (brown, brown)
(Lyrics reprinted from Google Play Music)