December 16, 1775: Me Mark, You Jane

Jane Austen, born on December 16, 1775, was a British novelist who wrote of life among England’s landed gentry from the vantage point of being on its outskirts aspiring to be closer in. The concept of gentry is a British foible pretty much disdained by Americans who exist way on its outskirts and secretly austenaspire to be closer in. (Shut out entirely, early Americans misbehaved with childish pranks such as dumping the grown-ups’ tea in Boston Harbor on this day in 1773).

Basically the gentry (celebrated in a 1940s popular song “Dear Hearts and Gentry People”) were the aristocracy (the haves, the one percent), and Jane Austen’s novels are lousy with them. Jane Austen herself almost married into the thick of it but the fact that the gentleman was a super-sized oaf, both homely and ill-mannered, gave her pause, cold feet, or perhaps writer’s block.

Austen was not wildly popular as a writer during her lifetime – in fact, her greatest popularity seems to have come with the 21st century. Her first novel Lazy Susan became a household word in the 1950s, thanks to the spinning serving dish that bears its name. Other novels had doubled-up attributes such as Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Senility, and Lust and Loquaciousness, except for those that didn’t, Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey.

Mark Twain was one of Austen’s biggest fans:

“Jane Austen? Why I go so far as to say that any library is a good library that does not contain a volume by Jane Austen. Even if it contains no other book.”

“Jane is entirely impossible. It seems a great pity that they allowed her to die a natural death.”

“Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”






December 15, 2001: Lean On Me

Back in the 12th century, construction began on a bell tower for a cathedral on the Arno River in western Italy, 50 miles from pisaFlorence, in a town called Pisa. With construction barely underway, the foundation of the tower began to sink into the soft, marshy ground, giving it a rakish tilt to the left (or the right, if you stood on the wrong side). The construction firm tried to compensate for the lean by making the top stories lean in the opposite direction, but that was an exercise in Italian futility. When this architectural wonder was completed in 1360, critics expected it to remain standing for a few days at most.

Six hundred years later, it was one of Italy’s most famous tourist attractions, a dramatic 190-foot high marble masterpiece that listed an amazing 15 feet off the perpendicular, predicted to fall at any second. In 1990, a million people visited the tower, climbing 293 leaning steps to the top for the somewhat unbalanced view before Italian authorities closed shop and brought in a team of archaeologists, architects and soil experts to figure out how to make the thing stand upright.

On December 15, 2001, the Leaning Tower of Pisa reopened to the public after 11 years and $27 million of fortification, and still leaning after all these years.


Whenever you read a good book, it’s like the author is right there in the room talking to you, which is why I don’t like to read good books. ~ Jack Handey

December 14, 1977: You Are the Dancing King

He was just another juvenile delinquent in a television sit-com, before he became a superstar playing a nobody by day who blossoms at night on the dance floor.  John Travolta strutted his Saturdaystuff as Tony Manero, a paint-store clerk who dons a dashing white suit to ride the disco craze out of his dead-end existence in Saturday Night Fever. The film premiered on December 14, 1977, already guaranteed success thanks to its soundtrack, released months before the movie.

The disco songs recorded by the Bee Gees (including “Stayin’ Alive”) were all over the pop charts, sparking intense interest in the film before its release, with the film then popularizing the entire soundtrack after its release – the first (but certainly not the last) use of cross-media marketing.

Travolta plays Tony Manero, a Brooklyn paint-store clerk who’d give anything to break out of his humdrum life. The movie follows his foray, along with his partner Stephanie, into the Manhattan world of flashing lights and sweaty bodies. Disco and the culture of the disco era also star in the movie – the symphonic orchestration over a steady beat and disciplined choreography, the high style in clothing, and the sexuality of it all.

“Travolta on the dance floor is like a peacock on amphetamines,” said movie critic Gene Siskel, who bought Travolta’s famous white suit at a charity auction. “He struts like crazy.”

The film had an R-rating when it was originally released in 1978. Several years later it was edited down to PG with naughty bits removed to make it more “family-friendly” and suitable for television.

Some critics complain that the film was regressive, refashioning disco, which began as an underground social scene for gays, blacks and Latinos, as a vehicle for white masculinity and the heterosexual hunt for a willing partner. Picky, picky, picky.



December 13, 1952: Hi, I’m a Stranger in These Parts

George Adamski had his first close encounter of the weird kind in November 1952 when he and a few friends were out in California’s Colorado Desert. There they saw what appeared to be a George_Adamski_ship_1large submarine hovering in the sky. Adamski for some reason believed the ship was looking for him (or maybe for an ocean) and, leaving his friends, went off to greet it.

A bit later, Adamski returned to report that the ship had landed, and its pilot had disembarked and greeted him. The visitor was an outgoing alien who introduced himself as a Venusian named Orthon. He did not ask to be taken to Adamski’s leader. Orthon was a humanoid of medium height with long blond hair and sported a great tan for the time of year. He wore reddish-brown Thom McAns and rather unfashionable trousers.

Adamski said Orthon chatted using telepathy and hand signals while talking very loudly, each assuming the other was deaf. Then the engaging Orthon took Adamski on a quick sightseeing trip of the Solar System, including his home planet Venus, where the late Mrs. Adamski just happened to have been reincarnated. Ever the tourist, Adamski tried to take pictures, but Orthon turned all camera shy and refused to allow himself to be photographed. But he agreed to take a blank photographic plate and promised to return with an autographed picture.

True to his word, Orthon returned the plate on December 13, 1952, but it only contained a bunch of strange symbols. Piqued, Adamski surreptitiously took a picture of Orthon’s space ship, a photo that afterward became famous in ufology circles.

Although Adamski’s tale seemed a bit much for some naysayers, Adamski had a letter he received in 1957 from the Cultural Exchange Committee of the U.S. State Department corroborating that Adamski had spoken to extraterrestrials in a California desert in 1952. Adamski frequently waved this letter around to support his claims.

Unfortunately, in 2002 some spoil-sport ufologist revealed that the letter was a hoax, that it had probably been written by those Communists who were everywhere in the State Department during the 50s.


December 12, 1937: Is That a Snake in Your Fig Leaf?

Mae West was certainly not a stranger to controversy. But on December 12, 1937, she brought her outrageous humor to radio and in less than a half hour managed to get herself banned from the air waves for good – or at least, as it turned out, for a dozen years until finally invited to perform on Perry Como’s Chesterfield Supper Club in 1950.

The vehicle of Mae’s descent into disgrace was ventriloquist Edgar Bergen’s radio show The Chase and Sanborn Hour. She went on the show to promote her latest movie, Every Day’s a maewHoliday, and playing herself, appeared in two sketches with Charlie McCarthy. As usual she was all wit and double entendre, referring to Charlie in the first sketch as “all wood and a yard long” and commenting that his kisses gave her splinters.

But it was the second sketch that started the phones ringing. Mae played Eve and Don Ameche was Adam in the Garden of Eden.  Charlie McCarthy entered as the snake and the dialog got dicey.

Eve: Listen, what are you — my friend in the grass or a snake in the grass?

Snake: But, forbidden fruit.

Eve: Are you a snake or are you a mouse?

Snake: I’ll — I’ll do it [hissing laugh].

Eve: Now you’re talking. Here — right in between those pickets.

Snake: I’m, I’m stuck.

Eve: Oh — shake your hips. There, there now, you’re through.

Snake: I shouldn’t be doing this.

Eve: Yeah, but you’re doing all right now. Get me a big one. I feel like doin’ a big apple.

For days after the broadcast, the studio received calls and letters labeling the show immoral and obscene. Women’s clubs and Catholic groups went after the show’s sponsor for “prostituting” their services and being far from good to the last drop. The Federal Communications Commission weighed in, finding the broadcast “vulgar and indecent.”

Standing a little less than tall, NBC personally blamed West for the incident and banned her (and the mention of her name) from their stations. It was not the content of the skit (which the network had provided), but the way she delivered it. Charlie McCarthy and Don Ameche escaped punishment.  Just like in the Bible, it was all Eve’s fault.



December 11, 1969: The Naked Cold War

Relations between the United States and the Soviet Union were generally confrontational through most of the second half of the last century.  In the United States, Communist plots were everywhere, and the Soviet Union blamed American capitalists for most of the ills of the world. calcuttaOn December 11, 1969, a noted Russian author lashed out against western decadence in one of the more unusual cold war recriminations.

On December 11, 1969, Sergei Mikhailkov, secretary of the Moscow writer’s union, known for his books for children, weighed in against the production of “Oh! Calcutta!” that was currently an off-Broadway hit. Performers in their “birthday suits,” he fumed, were proof of the decadence and “bourgeois” thinking in Western culture.  American nudity was an assault on Soviet innocence.

Oddly enough, those Americans throughout the Midwest who didn’t think the play was about India were convinced it was a Communist plot.

More disturbing, Mikhailkov raged on, was the fact that this American abomination was affecting Russian youth. These vulgar exhibitions were “a general striptease that is one of the slogans of modern bourgeois art.” Soviet teens were more familiar with “the theater of the absurd and the novel without a hero and all kinds of modern bourgeois reactionary tendencies in the literature and art of the West” than with “the past and present of the literature of their fatherland.”

Mikhailkov’s outburst came at the end of a conference of Russian intellectuals, who applauded his remarks without visible enthusiasm before returning to their clandestine copies of Fanny Hill.



December 10, 1851: Decimal Dalliance

Wild and crazy guy Melvil Dewey was born on December 10, 1851. It’s pretty well known that librarians are party animals, and Melvil was a librarian at no less a place than Amherst College. It was there that he made a name for himself and had his groupies screaming in the aisles.dewey

Back in the Dewey day, ordinary people visiting the library weren’t allowed to go rummaging willy-nilly through the stacks – that’s library lingo for the shelves of books. So your librarians could do pretty much what they wanted to do back there in the stacks, and rumor has it they wanted to do quite a lot.

Melvil was a pretty popular guy back there in the stacks. He had invented this neat numbering system for library books which allowed them to be found without an exhaustive search through the stacks. Book searches could last days (even without fooling around). “I think I last saw Moby Dick down at that end across from the Dictionary of Republican Ideas Unabridged.” Under Dewey’s system each book was cataloged by its subject matter, first with a general number and then additional numbers after the decimal to get more specific – a place for every book, every book in its place. The more places after the decimal, the more important the book, or so authors were led to believe.

Well, when Dewey showed his system to groups of librarians they just got all excited and swooned right there on the spot – we all know how sexy decimals are. Dewey’s reputation grew and pretty soon everyone wanted to wander the stacks with Melvil the Hunk. He just had to whisper “shhh” (the mating call of the wild librarian) and unsuspecting librarians would follow him anywhere, even down to 613.9, and we know what goes on down there.

Dewey was also into spelling reform; that’s why he changed his name from the usual “Melville” to “Melvil,” eliminating redundant letters. For a while, he even changed his surname to “Dui.” Was there no limit to this guy’s depth?


December 9, 1958: Taking Down the Names of Everybody Turning Left

Initially founded with only 11 lonely crackpots, the organization had by the early 1960s grown to nearly 100,000, each and every one of them searching nearby haystacks for concealed Communists.  Joseph McCarthy had gone away, but that didn’t mean his nemesis was gone. No fluorideindeed; the Red Menace was everywhere – Red Skelton, Red Buttons, Red Ryder – and Commie wanna-bes such as Rosie Clooney and Pinky Lee.   Only the witch-hunters of the John Birch Society stood between Evil and Armageddon.

The John Birch Society had its coming out party on December 9, 1958, under the tutelage of Robert H. W. Welch, Jr., a candy man who made caramel lollipops, marketed under the name Sugar Daddies. He also gave the world Sugar Babies, Junior Mints and Pom Poms before turning his attention to weightier matters.

The John Birch Society’s mission was the revival of the flagging spirit of McCarthyism; its tools, unsubstantiated accusations and innuendo; its cause celebré, the vast communist conspiracy existing within the U.S. government, particularly that nest of vipers at the State Department. According to its credo, the American people consisted of four groups: “Communists, communist dupes or sympathizers (fellow travelers), the uninformed who have yet to be awakened to the communist danger, and the (hopelessly) ignorant.”

Fortunately, by this time, Americans had tired somewhat of McCarthyism and had moved on to the menace of rock and roll under its Pied Piper of Prurience, Elvis Presley. As a result, few of the society’s sensational charges were taken seriously by mainstream American society. Oh, a few people got worked up by the Communist plot to poison us with fluoride in our drinking water, but for the most part, it was ho-hum as usual.


December 8, 1959: Battle of the Smellies

During the 1950s, movie studios were grasping at any gimmick to lure eyeballs away from television and back into theaters. One gimmick that seemed to be a favorite among movie-makers,  judging by the frequent attempts (usually unsuccessful) to use it was the sense of smell.

Individual theater owners had played around with smells off and on aromafor years, using various makeshift techniques such as spraying perfume in front of an electric fan. But the first use of odor as created by the producers of the film itself didn’t come until the December 8, 1959, premiere of Behind the Great Wall, a travelogue featuring the sights, sounds and, yes, odors of China. The odors were provided by a process called AromaRama. On the heels of this movie, came another film cleverly titled the Scent of Murder, touting the wonders of Smell-O-Vision. (We also had Scentovision and Smell-O-Rama.) Variety called the competition “the battle of the smellies.”

In an interview, the inventor of AromaRama gushed: “More than 100 different aromas will be injected into the theater during the film. Among these are the odors of grass, earth, exploding firecrackers, a river, incense, burning torches, horses, restaurants, the scent of a trapped tiger and many more. We believe, with Rudyard Kipling, that smells are surer than sounds or sights to make the heartstrings crack.”

Well, maybe. There were a few glitches early on. Faulty timing might give you a picture of a steaming bowl of jasmine rice that smelled like that trapped tiger. And the distraction of a hundred or so members of the audience simultaneously and loudly sniffing. Even though most of the bugs were ironed out, the whole idea never caught on, despite occasional attempts to revive it (including one notable high tech process that provided audiences with scratch and sniff cards along with instructions on when to scratch and sniff).

Those fun-loving folks at BBC jumped on the bandwagon in 1965, airing an April 1 interview with the inventor of a process that allowed viewers at home to experience aromas produced in the television studio. In a vivid demonstration, he chopped onions and brewed a pot of coffee, then took calls from viewers who had experienced the transmitted smells.

Even BBC couldn’t slow the demise of AromaRama et al, however. In 2000, a Time magazine survey listed it as one of the “Top 100 Worst Ideas of All Time.”


If you are a dog and your owner suggests that you wear a sweater, suggest that he wear a tail. ~ Fran Lebowitz

December 7, 1944: My Store Is Bigger than Your Store

In 1858, entrepreneur Rowland Hussey Macy moved to New York City after several business failures in Haverhill, Massachuusetts. In New York, he established a new dry goods store called R. H. Macy & Co. farther north than similar establishments on Sixth Avenue between 13th and 14th Streets. On its first day of business, the store had total sales of just over $11 dollars. On December 7, 1944, having moved even farther north to Herald Square between 34th and 35th Streets and Broadway and 7th Avenue, Macy’s announced sales of $1 million for the first time.

Macy’s move to Herald Square wasn’t a smooth transition. At the turn of the century, Macy’s began acquiring property in Herald Square, quickly snapping up all but one plot at the corner of Broadway and 34th. Macy’s had a verbal agreement for its purchase, but in 1911 an agent representing Macy competitor Siegel-Cooper upended the deal, paying the unheard of price of $1 million for what has come to be known as the Million Dollar Corner. Siegel-Cooper hoped to work out a trade for Macy’s 14th Street store, but Macy wouldn’t bite. The new store was built around the corner plot. A few years later, probably just to annoy the Macy’s folks, Siegel-Cooper built a five-story building on it.

These days, the five-story building is leased by Macy’s and is hidden behind a giant shopping bag facade, proclaiming Macy’s to be the world’s largest store.

Cartoonist (A) Draws Invention (B)

Rube Goldberg died on December 7, 1970, at the age of 87, leaving a legacy for inventors and cartoonists alike. He was a founding member and first president of the National Cartoonists Society and is the namesake of its Reuben Award for Cartoonist of the Year. In 1948, he won his own Pulitzer Prize for his political cartooning.  And he is the inspiration for many competitions challenging would-be inventors to create machines using his scientific principles.

Professor Butts and the Self-Operating Napkin offers a typical scenario for a Rube Goldberg invention: A soup spoon (A) is raised to the mouth, pulling string (B) and thereby jerking a ladle (C), which throws cracker (D) past parrot (E). Parrot jumps after cracker and perch (F) tilts, upsetting seeds (G) into pail (H). Extra weight in pail pulls cord (I), which opens and lights automatic lighter (J), setting off skyrocket (K), which causes sickle (L) to cut string (M) and allow the pendulum with the attached napkin to swing back and forth, wiping the user’s chin.