June 19, 1885: Beware the French Bearing Gifts

In 1885, the French ship Isere sailed into New York Harbor carrying 214 crates filled with 350 libertypieces of a 305-foot high jigsaw that had been crafted in France and would, over the next four months, be re-assembled on an awaiting pedestal on Bedloe Island (now called Liberty Island) – there to stand for the next 132 years (so far).

Once constructed, this would, of course, be the Statue of Liberty or “Liberty Enlightening the World,” to those not on a first-name basis. It was a gift from France to the United States back during the two countries’ honeymoon days.   Actually it was something of a joint enterprise, the French providing the statue and the U.S. the pedestal on which it would stand.

French sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi began designing the statue in 1876, working with Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, the designer of the Eiffel Tower. Richard Morris Hunt, designer of New York City’s first apartment building, designed the pedestal. Given his background, one might have expected his pedestal to house several luxury apartments, a missed funding opportunity: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to rent 3BR LUX APT, LWR FLR, UNF, HRBR VIEW.”

As it was, funding of the statue was a bit of an issue. Both countries faced challenges in getting money for the project. The French charged public fees, held fundraising events, and used money from a lottery to finance the statue. One notable fundraising method in the U.S. was a traveling arm. The statue’s torch-bearing arm was displayed at the Centennial Exposition in 1876.  After the exhibition closed, it was transported to New York, where it remained on display in Madison Square Park for several years before being returned to France to be reunited with its torso. The French, in a bit of Gallic oneupsmanship, exhibited the head at the 1878 Paris World’s Fair.

The plan to display Lady Liberty’s breasts in Boston was banned before it got off the drawing board, and a nationwide tour of her feet failed to muster sufficient enthusiasm.

The Statue of Liberty is no longer saying, ‘Give me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses.’ She’s got a baseball bat and yelling, ‘You want a piece of me?’ Robin Williams

June 4, 1411: The Cheese Stands Alone

Even in 1411, the people of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon had been making cheese as long as anyone could remember.  And all because a young man was lured away from his lunch by a fair young maiden. Or so the story goes.

The cheese-making folks of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon were probably the only ones making the tangy, crumbly sheep’s milk cheese with its distinctive veins of green mold. Nevertheless on June 4, 1411, French King Charles VI granted them a monopoly for the ripening of the Roquefort cheese.

What makes Roquefort Roquefort is its aging in the Combalou caves of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon. Popular legend suggests that the cheese was discovered when a young man eating his lunch of bread and ewe’s milk cheese spied a hot young woman in the distance. Naturally, he ran off to pursue her, leaving his lunch in the cave. Legend leaves the results of his amorous pursuit to our imaginations, but his appetite must have been somehow satisfied since he didn’t return to the cave for several months. When he did, the mold present in the cave – Penicillium roqueforti to be exact – had done an ugly duckling number on his lump of cheese transforming it into a cheese of beauty. The bread, however, was another story.

The French take their wine and their cheese seriously. A ruling in 1961 decreed that although the Roquefort-sur-Soulzon method for the manufacture of the cheese could be followed across the south of France, only those cheeses ripened in the natural caves of Mont Combalou could bear the name Roquefort. Today, its production involves some 4,500 people who herd special ewes on 2,100 farms in a carefully defined grazing area. In 2008, 19,000 tons were produced, with 80% of it consumed in France.  It’s a laborious process — 4,500 folk dropping their 4,500 lumps of ewe’s milk cheese and running off in hot amorous pursuit of 4,500 other folk.

 

To me, clowns aren’t funny. In fact, they’re kinda scary. I’ve wondered where this started, and I think it goes back to the time I went to the circus and a clown killed my dad. ~ Jack Handey

 

May 26, 1755: Read His French Lips

MandrinLouis Mandrin was to France what Robin Hood was to England and Rob Roy to Scotland. Having served in the war of 1740 in a light brigade noted for undertaking dangerous missions to surprise the enemy, he was left idle and without income by peace, which made a remarkable appearance in 1748. He had no way of supporting his life other than continually risking it. Thus he came up with the idea of assembling a corps of men like himself with himself as their leader and waging war against the fermiers, collectors of royal revenues from taxes  levied on salt, tobacco, and farming. The fermiers paid an agreed upon amount to the king, but could exact unspecified sums themselves. They naturally became fat and rich in the process – and hated.

Mandrin became the master of a portion of central France, pillaging public treasuries to pay his troops, whom he also put to work forcing the wealthy to buy his stolen merchandise. He successfully warded off the many detachments of government troops sent against him, instilling fear among their numbers and in the government itself. Eventually the people came to consider him their protector against the oppressions of government revenue officers.

Finally, a regiment did attack and destroy his corps, but Mandrin himself escaped into the Duchy of Savoy. From there, he continued to make forays across the border and a terrible nuisance of himself. The French government was not not happy. The fermiers entered the Duchy illegally, disguising 500 men as peasants. Mandrin was betrayed by two of his men, seized, and whisked across the border. When the King of Savoy, learned of the French intrusion into his territory, he immediately wrote to the French King, demanding that the prisoner be turned over to him. But before the message arrived, Mandrin was hurriedly tried, condemned to be broken at the wheel, and executed on May 26, 1755.

 

I prefer dead writers because you don’t run into them at parties. ― Fran Lebowitz

April 19, 1949: Send In the Clowns

russianWith the threat of nuclear annihilation hanging over the world, cold war adversaries were nonetheless able to find glimmers of humor. At the opening night of the Moscow Circus, noted Russian clown, Konsantin Berman, demonstrated who had the upper hand in the clown cold war, launching barb after barb in the direction of the United States.

Tossing a boomerang, he likened it to the U.S. Marshall Plan that was pumping economic recovery aid into Western Europe. “American aid to Europe,” he said, “Here is the dollar.” as the boomerang returned to his hand, delighting the audience. Producing a radio that bellowed out the sound of barking dogs, he announced: “That’s the Voice of America.”

Meanwhile American clowns were dumping buckets of water on each other and slipping on banana peels.

Speaking of Banana Peels

The Vagabond King a 1925 operetta by Rudolf Frimi was already an American success when it opened in London on April 19, 1927.  It’s success in England was probably assured given its theme of foibles of the French.  Its hero is a braggart, thief and rabble-rouser who attempts to steal an aristocratic lady from the king himself.  Not only that, he openly mocks the king, boasting about what he would do if he were king.  The angry king gives him royal powers for 24 hours — king for a day — during which he must solve all France’s problems or go to the gallows (the guillotine had not yet been invented).  He succeeds, wins the lady’s hand and lives happily ever after in exile — probably in England.  The operetta was the inspiration for a couple of movies and, of course, the popular radio and television program “Queen for a Day.”

 

Food is an important part of a balanced diet. ― Fran Lebowitz

 

April 13, 1360: Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here

It was the 14th century and once again England was out to conquer France. The hostilities had been going on for nearly 20 years, when England’s King Edward III sailed across the Channel with a huge army — a cast of thousands.

The dead of winter set in, and the inconsiderate French refused to face the English invaders in direct combat. Instead they huddled in their warm and cozy castles, drinking cafe au lait while the English plundered the countryside and got frostbite. Come April of 1360, having lasted through the winter, Edward and his men fought and torched their way through the Paris suburbs, and readied themselves to have at Chartres.

Then, on April 13, a sudden violent storm came up. Lightning killed several soldiers, and then the heavens opened up and hailstones the size of pommes de terre began hammering the hapless army, killing a thousand men. Naturally, they took this as a sign that God was annoyed. Edward declared the invasion “my bad” and negotiated a peace with the French. The English renounced all claims to the throne of France, and the French gave them croissants.

But wouldn’t you know it, a few years later, the King of France declared war on England ( this was, after all, the Hundred Years’ War, scheduled to last another 75 years or so.)

Historians assure us that this was not the origin of the phrase “Hail to the Chief.”

 

Bistro

Louis solemnly marched back and forth between the pharmacy at Number 10 and the tobacconist at Number 14, eyes right, with a deep sigh each time he passed Number 12, the Cafe Victor Hugo. Unlike the doors at Numbers 10 and 14, the door to the small bistro at Number 12 remained unopened, even though it would normally have been open for twenty minutes by now. And by now, Louis would have reached page two of Le Monde, would have finished his jus de pampelmousse, and would be settling into his cafe au lait and croissant. These things were seemingly trivial but they characterized his morning ritual, and rituals should not be kept waiting.

“Where is that infernal Jacques?” Louis demanded of the locked door, of the brick facade, of the sidewalk. Agitation hardened the wrinkles of his face and turned his blue eyes steely. Jacques had operated the Cafe Victor Hugo for twelve years now, succeeding his father who had operated it for as long as it had existed on the boulevard from which it took its name. Jacques was a little young, but he was a good man who ran a good bistro, because he properly ran it the way his father ran it. And he was properly deferential to the old men who sat so often at the corner table, the men he had inherited when he inherited the bistro.

Of the old men, only two remained on this earth. Francois and Emmanuel had both died within the past year, Bertran two years before, and Jean was in an institution unable to move or speak — quite a change, since, for 73 years, he had hardly ever refrained from speaking. Of the group who held sway night and day at the corner table, only Louis and Albert remained. And one day, Louis mused, Albert would be sitting at the corner table without him, or he without Albert. “Such is life,” he said aloud, then caught himself with a little laugh. “Life? Such is not life; such is death. Where is that man? I have so few needs, and yet he would deprive me of them.”

Weekday mornings, the Cafe Victor Hugo was as deserted as the cathedral down the street. The few patrons who sat within silently worshiped their morning papers and sipped their holy morning liquids. In the corner pew, the church elders did not just read their newspapers; they scoured them in a search for indiscretions and transgressions, breaking the silence as necessary to castigate the sinners with a healthy dose of hellfire and brimstone. “That jackal so-and-so has done it again” or “just like the Americans” would occasionally thunder through the bistro, and the simple blessing “merde!” was voiced as frequently as “amen!” at an American Baptist get-together.

Evenings, on the other hand, were not the least bit silent. After a hearty cassoulet or leek pie and several rounds of drinks, a smoky haze would envelope the corner, tongues would be loosened, and the jackals of the morning and anyone else who had crossed the old men during the day would be vilified in earnest.

“Andre the butcher is a criminal of the worst sort,” Albert would say. “The moneychangers driven from the temple were not nearly the usurers that Andre is. Fifty francs for a sausage of less than a kilo.”

“And one must question the parentage of Andre’s sausage,” Louis would add, always ready to goose along a good tirade. “Only God knows what he stuffs into them.”

“Maybe he’s like that Englishman who ground up other Englishmen and stuffed them into sausages.”

“A sausage stuffed with Englishmen wouldn’t be worth half a franc.”

“Vile.”

And then Louis might drag poor Jacques into the fray: “And what’s in your sausage, Jacques. Any Englishmen? Or worse still, Americans?”

“Non, non,” Jacques would playfully protest. “One hundred percent French. And only children. Plump ones.”

But even such a conversational detour into the contents of sausage would not let the poor butcher off the hook. No matter how far the old men wandered, they would eventually return to Andre. “That wife of his cheats on him, you know.” A fairly simple formula controlled the debasement of the day’s villains, for the villains shared certain qualities that must inevitably be addressed. Their credentials as Frenchmen were suspect. They consorted with foreigners, particularly English-speaking foreigners — and possibly shared their blood. Their wives invariably cheated on them, their daughters were wanton, and their sons effeminate.

“Where is Jacques?” Louis shouted at the tobacconist as though he were the man’s guardian. The tobacconist merely answered with an insulting gesture as he always had since the day Louis called him a Vichy whoremaster. “Can the French do nothing on time anymore?” He turned back toward the pharmacy.

In the evening, once the villains had been dealt with, the old men mellowed out on cognac and grew nostalgic for better days. They were prodded on by the old songs that Jacque’s father had first put on the juke box that no longer took money. The great war evoked many of their best memories. Even though they had hated the war when they were young and in it, it had, over the years, become a thing of beauty and pleasure. Their individual little experiences, trivial at best and nasty at worst, had been melded into one unified grand history, one that became grander with each retelling, now a sweet dream of youth rather than the nightmare of carnage it had actually been.

They revered the past, but every day a little bit of it disappeared. Change came without being invited. And with each change, something good was gone forever, until the world had changed so much that it was no longer their world. It was someone else’s world and as foreign as the most remote world in a science fiction story. “Perhaps it’s the way of preparing us to die,” Louis would say. “Making the world a place in which we no longer care to live.”

“Just look at this cafe. Look at the empty tables. People today are too healthy to eat cassoulet, too aloof to share an aperitif. If they go anywhere at all, they go to discos where the music destroys all hopes of conversation. They go to shopping centers where everyone is a stranger. They buy their food to take home, to eat alone. And they watch television or tap those silly little phones. Nobody talks. Nobody relaxes with friends.” And nobody paid much attention to Louis’ lament, except Albert who would nod sympathetically and try to stay awake.

Forty minutes, and still no Jacques. Louis paused at the door to the Cafe Victor Hugo once more, and for the first time he noticed the sign. It was the same sign that had always been there — the one that said the bistro was closed. The other side, the side that should have been displayed, proclaimed the bistro to be open. But something had been hastily printed beneath the word closed. Louis looked closer and saw that the words until further notice had been added.

The sign took his breath away, weakened him. How could this be? Without telling us? This was terrible. He must speak to Albert. A fear suddenly gripped him, and the closing of the bistro took on an even greater and more fearsome significance. He knew everything about Albert, every intimate detail about Albert’s life — everything but what mattered now, his last name, his address, his phone number.

Louis continued to pace, again to the tobacconist, again to the pharmacy, and back to the darkened bistro. He would wait. Maybe Albert would come.

 

This is one of ten stories in the collection Naughty Marietta and Other Stories.  See more here.

January 7, 1785: Jean-Pierre and the Airgonauts

HotAirBalloonBoy-GraphicsFairyBalloonomania was in full swing in Europe by the year 1785, and our intrepid French airgonaut Jean-Pierre Blanchard was right in the middle of it. Since his initial hot-air balloon flight nearly a year earlier, the frenzy had grown with balloon images plastered everywhere and even people adorned in clothing au ballon, a style that made them look like walking hot-air balloons.

But a sort of holy grail of ballooning was still to take place – the crossing of the English Channel. Blanchard had gone to England after his early successes, where he staged several flights in his strange-looking craft propelled by flapping wings and a windmill. Blanchard’s third flight there with American John Jeffries as co-pilot departed Dover Castle on January 7, 1785, bound for the coast of France, and the two men became the first to cross the Channel by air.

It wasn’t a particularly pretty flight; the two men nearly crashed into the Channel along the way. Their balloon was weighed down by questionable extra supplies such as anchors, a hand-operated propeller that didn’t work, and a set of oars with which they planned to row their way through the air. With France in sight but seemingly just out of reach, the two balloonists threw everything they could pry loose out of the balloon. When all looked bleak, Blanchard even threw his trousers overboard, lightening the craft enough to make a terra firma landing. The 2½ hour trip was a success.

Blanchard was awarded a substantial pension by Louis XVI. He later toured Europe, demonstrating his balloons and staging first flights in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, and Poland. He ballooned before monarchs, such as his flight at the coronation of Leopold II as king of Bohemia in Prague, and presidents, Washington, Adams. Jefferson, Madison and Monroe in the United States.

Charles Addams, born January 7, 1912:addams

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November 4, 1702: Pursuing the French

John Benbow was an admiral in the British Royal Navy at the turn of the 18th century. Known as Old Benbow, he is mostly known for his misfortunes during one of England’s endless kerfuffles with France.

It was 1702, and the pesky French were threatening English interests benbowin the West Indies with a squadron of five ships. Benbow sailed after them with seven ships. Upon overtaking the French, Benbow gave the signal for his ships to engage, but nothing happened, and Benbow was forced to disengage. It seems Benbow’s officers were in a bit of a snit over Benbow’s offensive manners and thought disobeying his orders would teach him a nice lesson.

The following day, Benbow once more gave the order to advance, but the captains of five ships continued to defy him. Pissed but undaunted, Benbow had at the French with just two ships, battling for the entire day until one ship became disabled and was forced to withdraw.

The following day Benbow resumed battle with just one ship against the five French ships. Three times Benbow boarded the French admiral’s ship, and three times he was driven back. He suffered severe wounds to an arm, a leg, and his face. But still he persisted. He had his cot brought upon deck and continued to bark orders as he lay bleeding. When one of his lieutenants expressed regret at his shattered leg, Benbow replied: “I am sorry for it; but I had rather lost them both than have seen the dishonor brought upon the English nation.”

The French moved in for the kill, and Benbow was just able to extricate his ship and sail to Jamaica. There he ordered the ship captains arrested and court-martialed. One of the captains died before trial, two were convicted and shot, one was cashiered and imprisoned, and two were acquitted due to extenuating circumstances (one having been drunk during the initial insubordination, but repentant when sober).

Even though Old Benbow was shown to be blameless for the escape of the French squadron, he was despondent. His wounds grew worse during the following weeks and on November 4, 1702, he died.

Inspiration for 11/4/16

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October 20, 1928: And a Pot for Every Chicken

During a recent Republican presidential primary debate, candidate John Kasich ridiculed his opponents’ competing over-the-top tax cuts (my tax cut’s bigger than yours): “Why don’t we just give a chicken in every pot, while we’re coming up with these fantasy tax schemes,” he said. This was, of course, an allusion to a much earlier presidential campaign in which Republicans running Herbert Hoover promised a chicken for every pot and a car in every garage. Although the statement has been hung like an albatross around poor Hoover’s neck, he never actually said it himself; it appeared in a Republican party flyer on October 20, 1928.

chickenpouleThe Republicans did not coin the phrase, however. That honor goes to King Henry the IV of France (Republicans quoting a Frenchman, my, my) who some 400 years earlier said: “Je veux qu’il ait si pauvere paysan en mon royaume qu’il n’ait tous les diamaches sa poule au pot.” Translation: “I wish that there would not be a peasant so poor in all my realm who would not have a chicken in his pot every Sunday.” A little wordy, but he was the king. Le bon roi Henri came to be known as le Roi de la poule au pot or King of the Chicken in the Pot. Much as the 1928 presidential candidate came to be known as the Hoover of the Chicken in the Pot. This was probably the result of his opponent Al Smith continually ridiculing the statement while holding up a rubber chicken (Okay, he actually held up a copy of the flyer, but a rubber chicken would have been better.)

chickrubbAs so often happens in campaigns, the statement got inflated to a chicken, a bunch of vegetables, two cars in every garage, a gasoline card and silk stockings.

Hoover’s actual campaign slogans were the rather uninspiring “Who but Hoover” and “Hoover and Happiness Or Smith And Soup Houses,” in spite of which he won the election. During his single term in office, the Great Depression got underway, an irony Hoover probably did not appreciate.

Hoover died on October 20, 1964, and was buried with a rubber chicken (actually that’s an unsubstantiated rumor).

Inspirational Quote for 10/20/16

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October 18, 1963: Space, the Feline Frontier

The story of cats in space is a dramatic tale indeed. It begins in an unlikely place with the 1957 Soviet launch of Sputnik 2, carrying of all felicettethings a dog named Laika. Laika was a stray found on the streets of Moscow who could have been the star of a dandy rags-to-riches shaggy dog story, except that things didn’t go all that well and the pooch perished under mysterious circumstances.

This was viewed as an early skirmish in the superpower space race to which NASA responded by sending a chimp into space and successfully returning him.

The French meanwhile had been plotting their own animal space probe. Fifteen cats had been chosen to undergo extensive training involving centrifuges, compression chambers and other medieval torture devices for a space mission in which the French would prove that they belonged at the table with the big guys and a cat would demonstrate to its fanciers everywhere that cats were superior to dogs in yet another way.

A pretty black and white Parisian chatte was eventually selected for the mission, because she was the only one who hadn’t become overweight during training, something to do with croissants most likely. On October 18, 1963, at 8:09 am, Chatte Félicette boarded a Véronique AGI 47 rocket at a base in the Algerian Sahara Desert and was blasted 97 miles into space. Fifteen minutes later, she parachuted safely to earth and pussycat immortality. Voilà!

Inspirational Quote for 10/18/16

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