American history

The Secret Diagnosis and Reelection of a Very Sick Man

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By Ken Zurski

In the months leading up to the 1944 presidential election, the American people heard rumors and speculation about the health of the incumbent, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was vying for an unprecedented fourth term in office.

Roosevelt suffered from polio which limited his mobility, but in 1944 his appearance seemed to worsen. He looked feeble and weak; his eyes were often red and swollen; and his movements were slow and calculated.

In March 1944, the White House announced a report by Roosevelt’s personal physician at the time, the surgeon general of the U.S. Navy, Dr. Ross McIntire, that claimed the 62-year-old Roosevelt was looking “tired and haggard” due to the stress and strain of the war years and nothing more.

“In my opinion,” McIntire added, “Roosevelt is in excellent condition for a man of his age.”

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Behind the scenes, there were more pressing concerns. Dr. Frank Howard Lahey, a respected surgeon known for opening a multi-specialty group practice in Boston, was brought in for a consultation. Lahey’s connection with the Navy’s consulting board is what led him to the White House.

After a careful examination, Lahey informed Roosevelt that he was in advanced stages of cardiac failure and should not seek a fourth term. He even went so far as to warn Roosevelt that if he did win reelection, he would likely die in office. Roosevelt listened but did not follow Lahey’s advice. He felt it was his duty to continue.

Although a handful of past presidents had tried, none had served more than two terms, a limitation the nation’s first president George Washington had advised others to follow. But at the time, there were no restrictions. FDR broke new ground when he won a third term. A fourth term he felt during a time of war was just as important.

The voting public agreed. Roosevelt, a Democrat, beat Republican challenger Thomas Dewey in what can be considered even by today’s standard as an overwhelming victory.

The voters, however, had no idea – at least not officially – that they had elected back into office a man who was living on borrowed time.

On April 12, 1945, less than three months after being sworn in for the fourth time, Roosevelt died.

The president’s death took most Americans by surprise. That’s because shortly after Roosevelt was reelected, McIntire went public again and helped quell the public fears by proclaiming FDR was fine.

Anything worse, he implied, would be “unexpected.”

Roosevelt Dies. Death Unexpected, the headlines blared, echoing McIntire’s previous sentiments.

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Dr. Ross McIntire

But an inquiring press wanted to know.  As soon as Vice President Harry Truman was sworn in, questions were asked:  How sick was the president? And if so, why didn’t the voting public know the truth about Roosevelt’s health?

In hindsight, Dr. Lahey’s report seemed to be the most truthful and forewarning. But information between a doctor and client is private. The White House only asked Lahey to consult the president. Whether the details were released was up to Roosevelt and his staff. Lehay himself could have spoke up, but chose to remain silent and honor the patient-doctor confidentiality agreement.

The report was concealed and only came to light six decades later.

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Dr. Frank Lahey

The Out of This World Voice of Loulie Jean Norman

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By Ken Zurski

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Loulie Jean Norman

Singer Loulie Jean Norman may not be a household name, but her voice is an unmistakable part of television history. More on that in a moment. First a little background.

Born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1913, Norman soon discovered a knack for singing. She was uniquely talented as a coloratura soprano, a vocal range most commonly suited for opera.  Unlike counterparts like stage star Maria Callas, however, Norman took her gift to radio instead.

It was the 1930’s, and radio was just starting to emerge as an entertainment force. Norman was in her twenties at the time. Her voice and beauty were being noticed. So she moved from Birmingham to New York City to jump start her career. Modeling jobs paid the bills at first, but singing was her passion.

She eventually got bit parts in singing ensembles on several musical variety shows including one with Bing Crosby who would signal her out several times for her solo passages. Norman provided studio background vocals to hitmakers like Sam Cooke, Frank Sinatra, Mel Torme and Elvis Presley.  On TV, she appeared on the Dinah Shore Show, with Dean Martin, and as a back-up on Carol Burnett’s popular variety program.

“When you sang,” a colleague once told Norman, “it was the angels [voice].”

But her most influential and unaccredited contribution is truly out of this world.

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Gene Roddenberry

In 1964, when television producer Gene Roddenberry introduced a new space serial he asked a friend Jerry Goldsmith to write the theme music. Goldsmith was too busy but enlisted fellow composer and collaborator Alexander Courage, who was said to be no fan of the science fiction genre, but drew inspiration from a song he heard on the radio titled “Beyond the Blue Horizon, ” which was featured in the 1930 movie “Monte Carlo” and sung by actress Jeannette McDonald, a soprano.

Courage wrote the theme for Star Trek the TV series.

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Alexander Courage

Roddenberry heard the music and for reasons some explain were financially motivated, wrote lyrics for the tune.  “Hey, I have to get some money somewhere,” Roddenberry reportedly said.  “I’m sure not going to get it out of the profits of Star Trek.

In 1999, Snopes.com confirmed there were Star Trek lyrics and debunked the theory that they (unearthed here) were ever used in the TV show’s theme.

Beyond
The rim of the star-light
My love
Is wand’ring in star-flight
I know
He’ll find in star-clustered reaches
Love,
Strange love a star woman teaches.
I know
His journey ends never
His star trek
Will go on forever.
But tell him
While he wanders his starry sea
Remember, remember me.

Courage was surprised – and perhaps, a bit offended – by Roddenberry’s lyrical contribution. He had included a voice in his recording, but no words. In the end, as Snopes reported, the lyrics were never used.

The choice of a singer was another matter. Courage picked someone similar to MacDonald, who ironically died the year the theme was written. It was Loulie Jean Norman. At the time, Norman was known for her studio work. Plus, she wasn’t a big enough star to turn down such an offer. Norman had the range Courage needed to make the tune work.

Star Trek: The Original Series ran for  three seasons and 79 episodes. In the third and final year, despite a growing fan base, Roddenberry was hopelessly fighting low ratings, high production costs, and threats from the network to cancel.

He reportedly couldn’t pay Norman her royalty cut that year.

So after the second season, the theme was re-recording without the vocals.

Norman continued to do studio work, mostly backing vocals for songs like The Tokens version of  The Lion Sleeps Tonight.  The papers called Norman “the invisible soprano” for the work behind the scenes. “You’ve heard the voice, even if you’ve never heard the name.”

Even though fame eluded her, Norman acknowledged she would have been uncomfortable with it. “The reason why I didn’t care about being a star is because I saw what happened to stars,” she said in 1995. “I was close enough to see that they were not very happy.”

Norman died in August of 2005 at the age of 92.

Her obituary mentioned that unrecognized role.

“A voice heard around the world,” it read, “in the wordless, Star Trek theme.

 

UNREMEMBERED STRUCTURE: The Ford Rotunda

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1933 Chicago World’s Fair

By Ken Zurski

In 1933, at the Chicago’s World’s Fair, among the many distinctive features that lined the city’s lakefront property was a uniquely shaped building, circular in design, with a top that resembled ”a granulated cluster of internally meshed gears.”

The Ford Rotunda, as it was called, was the brainchild of company founder Henry Ford and architect Albert Kahn, who designed the building specifically for the Ford Motor Co.’s contribution to the Fair.

The Fair’s theme was technology, which inspired the tagline: “A Century of Progress,” and since planes, trains and automobiles were a large part of the Fair’s showcase exhibits, Ford fit right in.

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The 12-story Ford Rotunda had a long wing extending off the base, thousands of multi-colored exterior lights, and in the open-aired middle, a spotlight that shot skyward and could be seen for miles. Inside was the large rotunda, with moving parts and displays, including a photographic mural of a Ford plant and a 20-foot high globe.

In 1934, when the Fair closed, Ford had the building dismantled and moved to Dearborn, Michigan near the site of the Rogue plant company headquarters.

“The reconstructed rotunda is expected to relieve the congestion,” the papers noted, referencing the attendance numbers at the Fair.

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On May 4, 1936, the Rotunda opened its doors again. To celebrate Ford’s 50th anniversary, in 1953, the Rotunda went through another transformation. A geodesic roof was constructed over the open center. This allowed for more varied and seasonal exhibits, including the Christmas Fantasy, which combined Ford cars with holiday-themed displays. The Christmas tree and doll displays were especially popular.

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The Christmas Fantasy drew so many people that the Ford Rotunda became one of the most famous and frequented buildings in the nation. It quickly surpassed more established tourist attractions like the Statue of Liberty and the Washington Monument in the number of visitors attending each year.

That is until November 9, 1962.

On that day a kettle of hot tar used for winter sealing was left unattended and the Rotunda’s roof caught fire. Thankfully, everyone got out safely and only one worker was slightly injured. But the building didn’t stand a chance.

It was gone in less than two hours.

Ford decided not to rebuild.

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9/11 and the ‘Masterfully Obeyed’ Order to Clear the Skies

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By Ken Zurski

In Simon Winchester’s book The Men Who United the States, the author begins a chapter titled “And Then We Looked Up,” by giving a personal account of driving up the Sierra Nevada near California’s Donner Pass and seeing nothing but the overhead blue of a mostly clear early Autumn day.

Something struck him odd, however.

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“Normally there were at least a few contrails lacing the sky,” Winchester explains.

This would have been noticeable Winchester points out because of the number of transcontinental jets usually waiting to land in Oakland or San Francisco, a couple hundred miles away. But on this crisp, clear Tuesday morning. Nothing. “No contrails whatsoever,” Winchester writes.

Winchester’s observation is understandable given the date: September 11, 2001.

The skies were empty of jets, because the skies across the entire country were emptied of jets.

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How that happened is the basis of Winchester’s chapter and it starts with one man in particular, Ben Sliney, the operations manager at the Air Traffic Control Systems Command Center in Virginia.

On September 11,  2001, at approximately 9:45am EDT, Sliney on his own initiative – and through the collective advice of an experienced staff – gave an order he knew well, but never thought he would ever implement: SCATANA.

SCATANA is an acronym, of course, and stands for Security Control of Air Traffic and Air Navigation Aids. It’s a military and legal enforcement that within its power requires all commercial aircraft to land immediately at the airport closest to where they happened to be. It also required all airports to forbid any flights from taking off. A nationwide Ground Stop, as it is more commonly called.

In essence, it cleared the skies of contrails.

Such a command is rarely ordered in a lifetime and to hear it broadcast over the radio must have given each and every pilot pause. “This is not a drill” was repeated each time the directive was announced.

This is not a drill! This is not a drill! 

Within minutes the nearly 5,000 commercial flights in the air began diverting to the nearest and safest place to land. “It was obeyed, masterfully,” Winchester laments, adding, “Every pilot appeared to cooperate; none of significance appeared to balk.”  The total compliance is even more impressive given the assumption that most of the pilots had no idea why the order was given.

Since it was confirmed that hijacked planes were used like bombs to attack the World Trade Center Towers and the Pentagon and a third plane likely destined for anther location fell from the sky over Pennsylvania, each and every aircraft was regarded as a potential threat. “A weapon of vast power that could be unleashed at any of a score of targets,” Winchester writes.

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Within an hour and half after Sliney had sent the signal, every plane was down – and safely. The intent of SCATANA had been achieved. All but military fighter jets and for a time, Air Force One,remained in American skies.

This likely didn’t sit well with the plane’s passengers who were bound for areas like Oregon or New York and suddenly found themselves on the ground at Lincoln, Nebraska, or somewhere else far from their original destination. Millions were certainly inconvenienced. Once they were in sight line of a television set, however, attitudes likely changed.

Three days later, the jets were back flying again as the country tried to recover and get back to some semblance of normality.

The man at the center of it all, Ben Sliney, seemed to take his role in stride.

In the book, Winchester doesn’t get into Sliney’s life story, only the significance of his actions that day. Sliney in his 50’s at the time was a 25-year vet of the FAA and knew his stuff. He had held various positions in air traffic control supervision before becoming the operations manager for the nation’s top air traffic control hub. It was a job he had worked hard to achieve.

On Tuesday, September 11, 2001 Sliney was in his first full day at that position.

That day he gave the unprecedented order. SCATANA: This is not a drill! This is not a drill!

And the skies cleared.

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Ben Sliney – courtesy of the BBC

The Alarming Divorce Rate of 1915

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By Ken Zurski

In 1915, the United States of America held the dubious distinction of having the highest divorce rate in the world. Comparatively, by today’s standard, the rate was relatively low at 10-percent, but at the time it was considered alarming. So much so that changes were made to help save the institution of marriage.

Why 1915? The book Victorian America explains that divorces increased fifteen-fold at the start of the 20th century and in 1915 reached a peak (the first time the percentage number hit double digits).  But there were other reasons why that year in particular was significant. It was perhaps the last year before the world changed in a way in which everything shifted, both socially and culturally.

A war was on overseas and 1915 began with hope that US boys could stay out of the fray in Europe. Attitudes changed however in May of that year when the British ocean liner Lusitania was befallen by a German U-boat torpedo. Americans were among the victims. President Wilson heard the war cries, but still waited. In April 1917, as more American merchant ships were taken out by the Germans, he commissioned Congress to declare war.

Although the US was only in the “war to end all wars” a short time, it still had a significant impact on the nation’s sensibilities.  The women’s rights movement had been underway for more than decade but gained footing after the war. Women found a role and acceptance by replacing enlisted men in manufacturing jobs and working in munitions factories. This only emboldened their resolve. In 1919, the 19th amendment was passed giving women the right to vote.

The Roaring 20’s was next.

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So one can argue that 1915 was the last conventional year before America and the world changed as a whole. For statisticians, it’s also a good spot in the historical timeline to make a point. And so that year, 1915, according to statistics, was the year more marriages began ending in divorce. It keep going up from there.

So why?  Well that’s tricky and more difficult to pinpoint. Until then, getting a divorce was a process, often embarrassing and difficult for women who were dependent on a man to leave.

Getting married, however, now that was easy.

Men’s attitude especially towards sex usually led them to ask for their ladies hand in marriage sooner than later. “The moment you taste the happiness of the marriage union, you will curse yourself a fool, that you lived so long without it,” one frisky male suitor wrote to another in the late 1800’s. He wasn’t talking about chess pie.

It’s not that couples weren’t having premarital sex, but negative sentiments by more morally conscious women were hard to change and oftentimes carried down through generations. In many instances, out of necessity, women married men they did not love or find attractive. Some women abstained from sex due to fear. Once married, the desire was even less.

So just as quickly as marriages began, the physical relationship was strained. This led to more drinking and straying. So divorce became a tool that was fueled both by the liberation of women as much as it was the chauvinism of men.

According to Victorian America in 1915, “one out of every seven marriages ended in divorce in the nation at large.” And in some larger cities like San Francisco, one in four.

To counter this disturbing trend, marriage legislation was passed that raised the age of consent and called for stricter requirements to prohibit certain types of common-law, polygamous, even interracial marriages. Many states also strengthened rules for divorce by requiring longer stay of residence before petitioning for divorce and stricter guidelines by which a couple could legally be granted one. In most cases something criminal or abusive needed to be proven. Only two states, New Mexico and Oklahoma, allowed a divorce simply on the grounds of incompatibility.

In addition, separate courts were established to help families cope with problems that often led to a rift in marriage, including unfaithfulness, desertion, spousal or child abuse and alcoholism.

All this seemed to help keep marriages together, but due to the number of immigrants flooding the country and the increase in population, marriages in general increased and the number of divorces nationally remained high.

Today, due to the addition of annulments, property divisions and child custody laws, the divorce rate hovers around or just below 50-percent.

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Andrew Carnegie and the Million Dollar Question

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Andrew Carnegie

By Ken Zurski

For a man whose mission it was to relinquish his entire fortune before his death, Andrew Carnegie still had plenty of money left when he passed in 1919 at the age of 83. That’s no indictment of a man who built a massively successful business, became the richest man in America, and devoted his later years to giving it all back. It was a noble thing to do. But Carnegie had made so much capital that even he found it difficult to allocate the funds sufficiently.

So he asked for help.

Carnegie grew up poor in Scotland, came to America, and amassed millions in the steel industry. Along the way, he made just as many enemies as dollars. Like many so-called tycoons of his time, Carnegie was accused of cutthroat practices which sacrificed workers’ rights for the bottom line. In protest, workers revolted.

The Homestead Strike of 1892 was due to a dispute between steel workers at Carnegie’s Homestead, Pennsylvania plant and management which refused to raise workers’ pay despite a windfall in profits. The riot that followed is still one of the bloodiest labor confrontations in history.  Ten men were killed in the melee and Carnegie who continued production with nonunion workers, was blamed for the uprising.

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Homestead Strike (Harper’s Weekly)

Carnegie viewed it differently than the workers. He believed that reducing production costs meant lower prices to consumers. Therefore, he theorized,  the community as a whole profited, not the unions. It was a slippery slope. But, many asked, was it worth men dying for?

Carnegie, of course, thought of himself as a benefactor and did not apologize for becoming a wealthy man. When he retired, however, he made it clear that being rich was only relative: “Man must have no idol and the amassing of wealth is one of the worst species of idolatry! No idol is more debasing than the worship of money! Whatever I engage in I must push inordinately; therefore should I be careful to choose that life which will be the most elevating in its character.”

Carnegie didn’t hand out money haphazardly. He spent it on things and places that moved him. Among other worthy causes, the most prominent were funds for more schools – especially in low income communities – and the building or expansion of public libraries. In each case, he released the money only after specific demands were met, each one designed to make sure none of it went to waste. Carnegie had final approval.

In 1908, at the age of 72, with millions more left to give, Carnegie wrote a letter to people he admired. It was in effect an offer disguised as a question:  “If you had say five or ten million dollars (close to 5-billion today) to put to the best possible use, what would you do with it?” Many of the correspondence were business leaders and some were presidents of institutions already bearing the Carnegie name.  Most responded in kind that the money should be used to continue fellowships.

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The letters were an indication that the burden of giving away a fortune was weighing heavy on Carnegie’s mind.

“The fact is that after spending about $50-million on libraries, the great cities are generally supplied and I am groping for the next field to cultivate,” Carnegie wrote to President Theodore Roosevelt, looking for inspiration. “You have a hard task as present but the distribution of money judiciously is not without its difficulties also and involves harder work than ever acquisition of wealth did.” Carnegie wrapped up the letter by pointing out the absurdity of that last line. “I could play with that and laugh,” he noted.

In the end, of course, Carnegie left enough money behind to take care of his wife and daughter. His loyal servants and caretakers were awarded pensions and his closest friends received substantial annuities.

Carnegie gave away an estimated $350 million dollars, but for the rest, he had one final request. After the will segments were dived up, nearly $20-million remained in stocks and bonds.

He bequeathed that amount to the Carnegie Corporation organization he proudly founded, and which still exists today.

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Loammi Baldwin and his Famous Pecker Apple

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By Ken Zurski

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Loammi Baldwin

In historical reference, Loammi Baldwin should be a name we remember.

For starters, he was a colonel in the Revolutionary War. He bravely commanded several regiments during the battles of Concord and Lexington and accompanied General George Washington when the future president famously crossed the Delaware River to surprise the Hessian’s in Trenton, New Jersey. That distinction alone should be honorable enough for someone who lived in America in the late 18th century.

But that’s not all.

Baldwin was also a member of the Academy of Arts and Sciences who like Benjamin Franklin conducted experiments in electricity. He was elected to the Massachusetts General Assembly and as an engineer was instrumental in pioneering a waterway that connected Boston Harbor to the Merrimac River, known as the Middlesex Canal.

Yes, Col. Baldwin is certainly a man who held many distinguished titles. For some, he is even considered to be the Father of Civil Engineering. Let that one sink in.

But today he is best remembered – or unremembered, if you will – for one thing: an apple.

Let’s backtrack a bit.

While building the Middlesex Canal, Baldwin visited the farm of a man named William Butters. It was on a recommendation from a friend that Butters had grown the sweetest apple in all of New England. Butters told Baldwin that the tree was frequented by woodpeckers who in addition to the apples would eat tree grubs and other damaging insects. Butters called the apple a “Woodpecker” after the bird, or “Pecker” for short. Others had dubbed it “Butters Apple.”

Baldwin was so impressed he planted a row of Pecker Apple trees near his plantation home in Woburn, Massachusetts.”The tree was a seedling,” a historian wrote  of Baldwin’s interest,  “but the apple had so fine a flavor that he returned at another season to cut some scions, and these being grafted into his own trees, produced an abundant crop.”

VACA1After Baldwin’s death in 1807, the Pecker was officially named in his honor and the Baldwin Apple quickly became the most popular fruit in New England. It’s easy to see why. The Baldwin was smaller than most red apples are today, but its skin was mostly free of blights. Farmers loved the Baldwin because they could harvest large crops and transport them readily with little or no deterioration. The Baldwin’s were also a good apple to make into a rich, sweet cider. The hard texture was perfect for making pies. “What the Concord is to the grapes, what the Bartlett has been among pears, the Baldwin is among apples,” the New England Farmer described in 1885.

Unfortunately, the Baldwin’s dominance wouldn’t last. Too many severe winters took its toll.

In fact, in one particularly harsh year, 1934, nearly two-thirds of all apple trees in the northeast were destroyed. The next year the state of Maine helped growers replenish their decimated orchards. But only Macintosh and Red Delicious seeds were offered. The Baldwins were just too delicate to replant in large numbers. Still some farmers grew small crops of the Baldwins to maintain the rich cider.

Ironically, Loammi Baldwin, besides the name, has another connection to apple folklore.

He is the second cousin of Johnny Chapman, another Massachusetts man and traveling missionary whose work included the planting of apple trees throughout the expanding frontier.

We know Chapman today as Johnny Appleseed.

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Johnny Chapman aka “Johnny Appleseed”

 

 

 

Meet David Lamar: The Original ‘Wolf of Wall Street’

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By Ken Zurski

Con artist and market scalper David Lamar was considered the original “Wolf of Wall Street,” a distinction revived in recent years by a Hollywood movie about a more contemporary stock swindler named Jordan Belfort and a role played by an A-list actor named Leonardo DiCaprio who won a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Belfort in the 2013 film.

The movie plays up the lavish lifestyle and and often times rebellious behavior of Belfort,  who spent nearly two years in prison for his role in a fraud scheme. Belfort wrote a book about his exploits, hence the movie, and self-titled it, “The Wolf of Wall Street.”

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Leonardo DiCaprio in “Wolf of Wall Street”

Leonardo DiCaprio’s blistering performance aside, Jordan Belfort had nothing on the original “Wolf of Wall Street,” David Lamar who in the early part of the 20th century first carried that dubious moniker, assigned by others, and metaphorically referring to a “wolf” as a “rapacious, ferocious, or voracious person.”

Although his successes and failures has been debated over the years, Lamar’s brash, cutthroat tactics are the stuff of legends. For example, Lamar once impersonated a US Senator in hopes of taking the floor and driving down steel prices while he unabashedly shorted the stock.

Lamar was arrested and sent to jail several times and was once accused of having a man beaten who was ready to testify against him. His boldest swindle may have been against a Rockefeller, John Jr. , who spent a million dollars of his wealthy father’s money to buy leather stock, only to watch Lamar sell it off.

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David Lamar

On January 12 1934, at the age of 56, Lamar was found dead in a modestly priced hotel room in New York City. In his room police found $138 in cash, a suit a hat, a can, a gold watch and chain, and gold cuff links. That was all which remained from a fortune which at one time was estimated in the millions.

The day after his death, an obituary dispatch appeared in newspapers throughout the country.

It read:

It isn’t so much the loss of wealth in David Lamar’s life which excites curiosity, as it is an appreciation of struggles through which it passed. He had one blinding ambition, and that was huge profits through sly operations on the stock market. What he hoped to gain was not wealth, but power and recognition.  He had wealth – this strange man. It didn’t mean a great deal to him. On many occasions, he could have retired and lived lavishly and luxuriously, as he did live when in purple, on a great estate in New Jersey at one time and in a mansion on Fifth Avenue at another. Always his ambition drove him on and when he found his path blocked by legal obstacles, it was charged he was none to scrupulous in cutting his way through them. He divided his time between estate and mansion and jail. We said Lamar must have suffered. The only punishment which could be meted out to him was his own conscience. He was contemptuous and indifferent outwardly to what people said of him, what they thought of him and how they created him. He had his own code and his own rule for living. It was a most bizarre, a most extraordinary one. He took delight in good clothes, in good food, in a cosmopolitan. The mysterious Stock Market operations of the Wolf of Wall Street have been ended by death.

The paper’s vitriolic assessment seems to be on the mark. Several years before his death, even a lawyer meant to represent him, conceding to his client’s reputation.

“The name of David Lamar seems to be anathema,” he said.

 

UNREMEMBERED SCREENING: Woodrow Wilson and the ‘Racist’ Movie That Came to the White House

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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.

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Thomas Dixon Jr.

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.

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Scene from “The Birth of a Nation”

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.

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Symbol of America? Benjamin Franklin Didn’t Just Love the Turkey, He Hated the Bald Eagle

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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.

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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.”

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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.

Golden Eagle Portrait against a black background

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.

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