Sartre Wins & Rejects Nobel Prize & Birthdays for Dr. Timothy Leary, Derek Jacobi, Franz Liszt & Catherine Deneuve
Jean Paul Sartre
When someone rejects the Nobel Prize in Literature, as Sartre did on this day in 1964, I'm reminded of the last scene of Ibsen's Hedda Gabler after she has committed suicide: "People say things like that. People don't do things like that." But then what else can you expect from an existentialist philosopher who wrote Being and Nothingness, No Exit, What is Literature?, and reminded us that "You can always say No." Here he explains why he said No to a prize coveted by so many others.
And as long as we're talking existentialism, why not revisit this stunning performance of the ultimate existential soliloquy, Hamlet's "To be or not to be, by Derek Jacobi, born this day in 1938.
Also born this day was Dr. Timothy Leary, who was fired from Harvard University in the 1960's for taking LSD and giving it to some of his students. Neither he nor the horrid interviewer in this next clip come off very well, nor does Art Linkletter, whose daughter committed suicide after taking drugs, but it gives some idea of the controversy Leary generated during his lifetime (1920-1996) If you're interested in a more balanced account of what happened at Harvard, you can find Andrew Weil's 1963 Look Magazine article here.
Today is also the birthday of composer, Franz Liszt, whose virtuosity as a performer and composer established him as one of the greats. If you don't know his work, Google him. You won't be sorry. But be careful, his technique is sometimes as dizzying as LSD :))
And finally for today, the lovely Catherine Deneuve. Born this day 70 years ago, she seems more beautiful than ever. The photo above is from Belle Du Jour.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Born this day in 1722, Coleridge is best known these days for The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Kublai Khan, and his addiction to opium. His great friendship with the poet, William Wordsworth, ended in a rift that lasted 20 years before they reconciled. Although Kublai Khan came to him in an opium dream, he was unable to remember the complete vision when came out of it. In fact, his creative output fell significantly during his addiction, which he did eventually manage to control somewhat if not defeat entirely before the end of his life.
The youngest of nine children, John Birks "Dizzy" Gillespie was born this day in 1917 in Cheraw, North Carolina. Though this prodigy who began playing the piano at the age of four started out imitating the style of Roy Eldridge, he eventually created a style of his own. Along with Charlie "Bird" Parker, he helped originate the be-bop style of jazz. Also noted for his swollen cheeks and Afro-Cuban musical style, he is one of the greats without whom no history of jazz would be complete. Here he is at the 1977 Montreux Jazz Festival with bassist Ray Brown, vibraphonist Milt Jackson, drummer Jimmy Smith, and pianist Monty Alexander.
It's rather fitting that today is also the birthday of another Afro-Cuban musical great. Born in 1925, she was given the birth name of Ursula Hilaria Celia de la Caridad Cruz Alfonso, but we know her as the Queen of Salsa. Here she is with "La Negra Tiene Tumbao."
Rimbaud, Jelly Roll Morton & Charles Ives - Born This Day - A Good Day to Answer "The Unanswered Question"
Gertrude Stein once said, "Our children will not understand what we are doing, but our grandchildren will." Whether we understand the work of Charles Ives today or not is anybody's guess. But at least it is not ignored now as it was during most of his lifetime, which began on this day in 1874 in Danbury, CT, and ended on May 19, 1954, in New York City. In 1906, he composed The Unanswered Question, presented here by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. This seven-minute piece will go on feeding you long after you've left the table. But try not to leave before tasting Leonard Bernstein's 1973 response, given at the end of his Harvard Lecture Series, which he aptly named, "The Unanswered Question."
Bernstein's Response to The Unanswered Question
Born this day in 1853, most of his best poems were written before the age of 20. One wonders if they are as well known as his tempestuous affair with the Symbolist poet, Paul Verlaine, who left his wife for the 19-year-old Rimbaud, then shot him and went to prison for it. Here is a clip from the film, Total Eclipse, with Leonardo Dicaprio as Rimbaud.
Rimbaud - A Few Quotes
Jelly Roll Morton
Born today in 1890, he was a tireless self-promoter and brilliant virtuoso, whose seminal contributions to jazz and the blues - whether as great as he claimed them to be or not - are indisputable. Here is a beautiful reminiscence by the late, great Dr. Billy Taylor.
Jefferson's Affair with Slave First Revealed This Day 1796; Michael Gambon Before Dumbledore & John Le Carre
Think Presidential politics today is snarly? Consider this: Alexander Hamilton, writing under the pseudonym Phocion, published an essay on this day in 1796, accusing Thomas Jefferson of having an affair with a slave. The rumor persisted for several generations, but as everyone knows by now, DNA evidence has proved a biological connection between Jefferson and the slave Sally Hemings with whom he had children. Today marks an interesting intersection between that historical event and today's interest in TV's Scandal and the the release of the film, 12 Years a Slave. Here is a clip from a meet-up between Jefferson's heirs and their Hemings' cousins, followed by a scene from the Merchant-Ivory film, Jefferson in Paris, which imagines rather vividly how intimate relations between Jefferson and Hemings might have begun.
Before he became the second Dumbledore, he was the first and best incarnation of Dennis Potter's wonderful The Singing Detective. The story counterpoints the hallucinatory visions of drugs against the imagined visions of novel writing. Trapped in hospital with a paralyzing illness, Gambon's character finds freedom only in the creative process. This clip shows all of that along with Potter's hallmark technique of using popular songs to express his characters' inner feelings. Happy Birthday, Sir Michael, born this day in 1940!
John le Carre
His real name is David Cromwell, but who cares? Born on this day in 1931, he has given us An Honorable Schoolboy, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and the mesmerizing trilogy featuring his "anti-Bond" spy, George Smiley, portrayed marvelously years ago by the incomparable Alec Guiness and more recently by the brilliant Gary Oldman in this featurette, which also includes a few words from le Carre himself. Well done and Happy Birthday, John!
Esperanza Spalding, Wynton Marsalis, Novelist Terry McMillan Born Today & Bucky Fuller's Dymaxion Car Patented
Born this day in 1984 was the first jazz artist to win a Grammy for Best New Artist of the Year. Here she is playing Stevie Wonder's "Overjoyed" at the White House in 2009.
A master of jazz and classical forms, he turns 51 today. Here is a jazz performance of "Sheik of Araby" followed by Handel's "Eternal Source of Light," from his from his admirable collaboration with soprano Kathleen Battle
Eternal Source of Light Divine - Simply Beautiful
Born today in 1951, she gave the world a story that needed to be told as only she could tell it. Her first novel, Mama, published in 1987, might never have made it past the first 5,000 copies had she not launched an aggressive letter-writing campaign to book-store owners around the country using word-processing skills mastered during her day job. But everyone knows it's Waiting to Exhale that put her on the map. Here's Whitney Houston singing the title song over a montage of scenes from the movie version.
The Dymaxion Car
Its inventor, R. Buckminster Fuller, applied for a patent on this day in 1933. A three-wheeler that got 30-miles to the gallon, it received design assistance from sculptor, Isamu Noguchi, and for a while really did seem like the car of the future. The name "Dymaxion" is a mash-up of "dynamic," "maximum," and "ion." Although a fatal accident caused investors to withdraw financial support, you can see from the video below that it really was ahead of its time. But no worries for Bucky, who once said, "I seem to be a verb." He went on to invent the Geodesic Dome, one of the strongest structures ever built.
Novelist NathaNAEL West, Playwright Arthur Miller & Actors Montgomery Clift, Howard Rollins, Jr., Born This Day
Author of The Day of the Locust and Miss Lonelyhearts, he was born this day in 1903. It's also the birthday of actor, Montgomery Clift, who starred in the 1958 film adaptation of Lonelyhearts.
Born this day in 1915, this "last of the great playwrights" is remembered nowadays for writing Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, and The Misfits. And also for marrying Marilyn Monroe. Here is a clip from Miller's Charlie Rose interview about why today's theater seems to lack the greatness of the past.
Howard Rollins, Jr.
Before he was typecast as Virgil Tibbs in the TV version of In the Heat of the Night, Howard Rollins, Jr., born this day in 1950, gave us exquisite performances in A Soldier's Story and Ragtime. Here is a clip from the latter.
Playwrights Oscar Wilde & Eugene O'Neill - Born This Day - Gave Us Dorian Gray & Long Day's Journey Into Night
Born this day in 1854, his wit and creative oeuvre delight us to this day. An Ideal Husband, The Importance of Being Ernest, Lady Windemere's Fan. "Convicted" of homosexuality and sentenced to two years' hard labor, Oscar Wilde gave us brilliance and creativity his detractors will never be able to erase.
Here we are in the 21st century, and people still read The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Born this day in 1888, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1936 - and who could argue with that? Desire under the Elms, Moon for the Misbegotten, The Iceman Cometh, and the amazing Long Day's Journey into Night, whose raw truth cut so close to home he insisted it only be produced after his death. Here's Jack Nicholson's award-winning portrayal of the Nobel laureate in the film Reds.
"I sing of arms and the man, he who, exiled by fate, first came from the coast of Troy to Italy, and to Lavinian shores – hurled about endlessly by land and sea, by the will of the gods, by cruel Juno’s remorseless anger, long suffering also in war, until he founded a city and brought his gods to Latium: from that the Latin people came, the lords of Alba Longa, the walls of noble Rome. Muse, tell me the cause: how was she offended in her divinity, how was she grieved, the Queen of Heaven, to drive a man, noted for virtue, to endure such dangers, to face so many trials? Can there be such anger in the minds of the gods?" That's the first verse of Virgil's Aeneid. Could not segue to the following six-minute summary without offering this sample (translated here by A. S. Kline) as a taste of what this great story holds as myth, metaphor, poetry and story, now lodged forever in our Collective Unconscious.
Too busy to read Beyond Good and Evil, Thus Spake Zarathustra, or Twilight of the Idols? No worries. He was born on this day in 1844, and there's plenty about him on the web. Try one of the summaries on YouTube for a quick introduction.
And sure, why not add the music inspired by Nietzsche's great work. Here is Maestro Antonio Pappano and the Orchestra of Saint Ceclia in Also Sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss
The star of TV's Laverne and Shirley is also a wonderful film director. Here's the trailer from her delightful movie, Big, with Tom Hanks.
I like big books, and I cannot lie. My background includes talk radio, newspapers and TV news. I've hosted a morning-drive classical music program on the California coast and published nationally in Reader's Digest, the Christian Science Monitor, and Playboy. I've won awards for my journalism and my fiction. One of my essays even made it into an anthology for college English courses. For real? Yes, for real.
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