Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Making a list and checking it twice: femmes lisant

For the past two weeks, one can't hardly turn on the Interwebs without encountering a 'top ten' list about something. I could blame Dave Barry for popularizing year-end list-making but, really, what self-proclaimed nerd doesn't like a list?  Even David Letterman has list-making to thank for his fame and fortune...well, some of it anyway.  (I'm sure he's got a list of other factors).

Not to be left out I, too, tried making a trendy, hip list. I quickly realized that I appreciate too much in too many genres, none of it particularly trendy or hip, to come up with anything cohesive. I tried to make a Top Ten List of Things that Make Me Happy (thinking that was an inclusive enough umbrella topic) but got as far as "2. Pumpkin Spice Lattes" before acknowledging that I was about to commit an act of Attention-Whoring Self-disclosure akin to posting pictures of my dinner on Facebook. Since food pr0n and TMI are anathema to me, I aborted in medias list.  (Trust me, this is no loss to the world. I know what makes me happy and that's what matters.  Your life won't be enriched by this knowledge).

Despite feeling smug about refraining from Interwebs clutter I was still driven to organize and enumerate, and my 17-item Target shopping list did not scratch this taxonomic itch. As December marched on the pressure mounted until BAM it's December 31 and OMG I haven't made order out of chaos! Doomed, I'm doomed, I tell you.

And then it hit me. I am, therefore I read. And I like pretty pictures.

Eureka. I have found my listurgical calling for 2013.

So here you are, with no attempt at hierarchical ranking (or even originality, as I'm sure you can find Pinterest boards devoted to the same subject):

Sue's List of Fabulous Artwork Featuring Reading Women

1.   This first image is my sole concession to hierarchy on the list, for what should be obvious reasons. This 1877 painting by London genre painter Robert James Gordon is called La liseuse (The Reader). Provenance: The Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney Australia.

2.   George Clausen, Twilight: Interior (Reading by lamplight) (1909). Provenance: National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Australia.

3.  John George Brown, A Leisure Hour (1881). Unknown owner.

4.   Alfred Émile Léopold Stevens, Young Woman Reading (1856). Unknown owner.

BONUS PAINTING by Stevens: La Liseuse. Provenance: The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge UK.

5.   Santiago Rusiñol, Romantic Novel (1894). Provenance: Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, Barcelona Spain.

6.  Auguste Toulmouche, Sweet Doing Nothing (1877). Private collection.

7.  Balthus, Katia lisant (1974). Private collection.

8.  Attilio Baccani, Lady reading a book (1876). Private collection.


9.  Henri Matisse, Reading Girl in White and Yellow (1919). Believed destroyed in Romania, 2013.

10.  Pablo Picasso, Reading at a Table (1934).  Provenance: Metropolitan Museum of Art.


BONUS Picassos:  
Woman Reading (1924)
Girl Reading (1953)

And a bonus-bonus image, not a painting but a gisant (tomb sculpture):

Behold, Eleanor of Aquitaine. You can read about the significance of her tomb sculpture on a trip blog I wrote a few years ago AT THIS LINK.

Next year, I'll plan ahead for my list-making by studying the lists of famous artists for examples to emulate.  Until then, Happy New Year.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Review: Queen's Gambit by Elizabeth Fremantle

Hampton Court Palace, Great Hall
Anyone who has ever traveled with me knows that I'm not one for sitting still on vacation. I am drawn to historic sites because I believe that visiting such locales is an enormously effective way to assure the continuity and relevance of the lessons the past has to teach us. The immediacy of Learning in Place that occurs when we contemplate the past in geographical context has the power to inspire.

In August 2013, Queen's Gambit author Elizabeth Fremantle wrote a feature article for the Wall
Street Journal about this very topic. She explained how she was inspired in her characterization of the
last wife of Henry VIII, Katherine Parr, by a visit to Hampton Court Palace:
History is all about us but nowhere more than in the spaces where people lived, and from them we can begin to understand the shape of past lives. Entire narratives can be sparked by the most insignificant details. A flower pushing itself up between two cobblestones, a spiral staircase tight as the inside of a seashell, or the faint square mark on a wall where a painting must have hung, all become freighted with imagined emotion.
Hampton Court Palace, Tudor State Apartments
Having received a copy of her new book Queen's Gambit from the publisher for review on this blog, it was my good fortune to correspond recently with author Elizabeth Fremantle. I've visited both Hampton Court Palace and Sudeley Castle, another site that was significant to Katherine Parr's life, and so I was particularly intrigued by the power that such locations might hold for a period writer. Given her ability to evoke a keen sense of being-in-Place in her narrative, I wondered to what extent historic sites have figured into Fremantle's inspirations (for better or worse), particularly Sudeley Castle and even the much-altered Snape Castle (Katherine's residence during her second marriage and the scene of an uprising during the Pilgrimage of Grace).

She responded:
Visiting historic sites is always a source of inspiration for me. There is a creative alchemy that happens with the knowledge that a character I am trying to bring to life once trod the same flagstones or looked from the same window. Even when buildings have been altered, like Snape, or destroyed altogether, like Sudeley, there is an atmosphere that is retained.
Banqueting Hall, Sudeley Castle

The ruined banqueting house at Sudeley is a magnificent sight and even though the existing house is not the one Katherine Parr lived in, and even the chapel has been rebuilt from total dereliction, she seems to inhabit the very fabric of the place.
There is a macabre story about the discovery of Katherine's forgotten grave at Sudeley in the eighteenth century, when some sightseers came upon an alabaster slab and, compelled by curiosity, dug beneath it to find her sealed, lead coffin. It is said that she had been preserved, with her skin plump as if she had died only the day before, giving those sightseers an extraordinary glimpse into the past, before the inevitable deterioration on contact with air. A few things were buried with her which are on display in the museum there: a lock of hair, a fragment of cloth and a tooth. This tooth, which looks to me very much like a dog's tooth, made me imagine it might have belonged to her dog Rig and that perhaps it was a keepsake to remember a beloved pet. Amongst the collection at Sudeley is a letter Katherine wrote to Thomas Seymour; it is one I know well and have read many times but to see her tidy hand and the fragile, yellowed paper with its careful folds allowed me to imagine her sitting and writing those tender and intimate words, helping her to live and breathe in my mind.
Tomb of Katherine Parr in St Mary's Church, Sudeley Castle
Fremantle created both complete backstories for some historical personages and original characters of her own imagining to people Katherine's world. The challenges of writing historical fiction fascinate me, and I am particularly drawn to authors like Fremantle who aspire to remain true to the past whilst also making stuff up. I asked her to weigh in on whether it was a struggle to balance reconciling facts from the historical record with the need to move a story forward in a coherent way.
To be honest I like the balancing act between fact and fiction and really Katherine Parr's story was a gift in that the period I cover in QUEEN'S GAMBIT has a natural narrative arc that works perfectly. The most difficult thing is knowing what to leave out because too much extraneous material, however interesting it may be, can slow down the momentum. My first draft was very different with long passages told from the perspective of Margaret Neville and extended flash-backs to the hostage incident at Snape Castle which were all cut – indeed about fifty pages went from the beginning – and I brought the character of Katherine's doctor, Huicke, more to the fore. He is one of the more 'fictional' characters in the novel, adding an important perspective on the court and the relationships Katherine has with both the King and Thomas Seymour. Characters like Huicke and Katherine's maid Dot, who is almost entirely fictional, can help bring the narrative to life, partly because they do not need to conform so greatly to historical record.
Fremantle has chosen to write about three far lesser-known women of history for the other two books in her series, which are due to be released in 2014 and beyond. Related to the balancing act of writing historical fiction, I wondered if she'd found it more freeing to write about lesser-known characters, at least in terms of not having an unwieldy historical record to integrate and navigate:
In fact the protagonists of my next two books, though less well known, are quite well documented, they have simply been historically overlooked.
Sisters Katherine and Mary Grey
The Grey sisters (the two younger sisters of Lady Jane Grey) who I write about in SISTERS OF TREASON, were sufficiently close to the throne – indeed many believed Lady Katherine to be Elizabeth's rightful heir – for their lives to have been closely observed and recorded. It is probably the fact that it was the Stuart line that eventually succeeded Elizabeth that the Greys' story fell into obscurity. Though thanks to an excellent biography of the sisters by historian, Leanda de Lisle, they are beginning to emerge.

This is the case with many women's stories; sadly, until the end of the twentieth century, historians simply weren't interested in the lives of women, except where they intersected with those of powerful men or in cases where they could be held up as particular role models of perfect biddable wives (Parr) or tragic martyrs (Jane Grey) or wicked women (Anne Boleyn). In the case of Katherine Grey there are one or two deeply touching letters she wrote which offered me authentic insights into her personality.

So I suppose to answer your question, there is always a historical record to navigate it is just more deeply buried in some cases.
Penelope Devereaux
It is true that Penelope Devereaux, the protagonist of the third book in the trilogy, is not a familiar figure; but she was the sister of the Earl of Essex and a cousin of Elizabeth Tudor and so her life too is quite well documented, though perhaps there is a little more 'wiggle room' with her than the others. The historical background however cannot be altered and all my novels revolve closely around the court with the Tudor monarchs at the heart of the story. It is these overfamiliar stories of Henry, Mary and Elizabeth that need to be approached in a fresh way, and that can be a challenge.

The inspirations and idiosyncrasies peculiar to writing historical fiction aside, Katherine Parr was a fascinating woman in her own right. She was the daughter of courtiers who had served under Yorkist and Tudor reigns and accordingly her education, experience and social position made her an ideal regal consort -- although Henry VIII certainly cannot be said in turn to have been an ideal regal consort for any of his wives!  Katherine brought diplomatic interpersonal skills to the throne that none of Henry's previous wives had possessed (or perhaps arguably had no opportunity to exercise). Katherine alone was able to forge relationships with each of Henry's children, even helping to restore previously-declared illegitimate daughters Mary and Elizabeth to the line of succession after youngest and favored male heir Edward.

Katherine had inquisitive and intellectual aspects to her personality which found outlets in her religious writings. She was in fact the first published queen of England in an era when being an author was unprecedented for a queen, let alone a woman.  Given that, I wondered what it must have been like for modern-day author Fremantle to get inside Katherine's writing and inspirational processes from centuries ago:
It was a gift really to have the voice of my protagonist in such an extended form and not simply in fragments of letters. There is a passion in her work and in her use of language and metaphor that I found utterly compelling and helped me to understand something of her strength, faith and intelligence, which I have tried to demonstrate in my fictional version of her.
Because Katherine was a brilliant woman both intellectually and in her ability to negotiate complicated social relationships, she of all of Henry's six wives "survived." By use of the gambits referenced by the book's title, Katherine out-maneuvered master chess player Henry at his own game, though just barely and at great personal cost in terms of her own happiness.

And yet this amazingly adept woman made some colossally bad decisions when it came to relationships with her last husband, Thomas Seymour, and with Henry's second daughter, the young Elizabeth Tudor.  Despite the disastrous outcomes, I personally find Katherine more endearing and relatable as a person because she made mistakes.  I wondered if there was ever a point when Fremantle, knowing how things would end up, wanted to scream "Don't do it, Kate!" However appealing a character that she might have been, I imagined that at times it must have been maddening for an author to work with the fall-out as Katherine's story unfolded.  Fremantle responded:
I agree with you that the contradictions in her personality make her all the more endearing and in fact it is that very feeling of not wanting her to do the inevitable that creates a tension and drama in the narrative. So in terms of fiction it worked incredibly well, but the challenge was to make her decisions seem to make sense in the context of her personality and that meant setting it up very early, giving her a side that could be rash and passionate behind her measured and controlled surface. In terms of her life though, it was a devastating and tragic flaw.
Fremantle's debut novel has been compared to the work of the reigning queens of British historical fiction, Philippa Gregory and Hilary Mantel, but I don't think these are particularly apt comparisons. To my mind the prolific Gregory excels at emphasizing the sensational in her books, sometimes sacrificing the integrity of historical fact on the altar of memorable and colorful characterization. Mantel has a distinctively intense narrative style and seems to strive to create masterpieces in every paragraph. Of her writing, she has said “....some readers read a book as if it were an instruction manual, expecting to understand everything first time, but of course when you write, you put into every sentence an overflow of meaning, and you create in every sentence as many resonances and double meanings and ambiguities as you can possibly pack in there, so that people can read it again and get something new each time.” The down side of this embarrassment of riches is that Mantel's books are both entertainment and challenge, and that may or may not appeal depending upon your preferences.

Author Elizabeth Fremantle

Elizabeth Fremantle's writing style is more straightforward yet every bit as compelling in its focus and love of detail, and she is consistently respectful to the historical record. I believe that Fremantle's strengths as a writer lie in her ability to realistically and poetically evoke Place and Time whilst also remaining true to Facts, even the inconvenient bits of history that less confident authors might chose to skip for fear the messiness might disrupt their intended narrative. When you stand with Fremantle's Katherine even at the most mundane of moments, you are inescapably in her world, as this passage illustrates:

There is a bustle about the court as they make ready to travel. Katherine stands in one of the window alcoves in the western corridor, watching Lady Mary's wardrobe--a dozen trunks, which she had overseen the careful packing of herself--being loaded on to a cart below. It is a fine day and she is looking forward to leaving the heave and press of the city. A rotten stench is beginning to emanate from the direction of the jakes, the vegetable gardens are all but empty, and the rumor of plague hangs in the air--it is time to move on. She should be at mass but she wanted a moment alone and hopes Lady Mary won't be upset by her absence in chapel, though Lady Mary will doubtless be so intent on her worship she won't notice who is or isn't there. Someone will tell her--hawk-eyed Susan Clarencieux or vindictive Anne Stanhope probably--but she can always say she wanted to make sure the trunks were all correctly loaded.

I will admit to some hesitation in embracing the back-story for the character of Huicke, Katherine's physician friend and confidant. (CAUTION: skip this paragraph if you wish to remain spoiler-free, as it contains a wee bit of spoilage). My hesitation comes not because it didn't work within the story, but because it seemed a bit reminiscent of modern-day "gay best friend" tropes. I'll not dismiss the comfort and draw of such a friendship for a woman in Katherine's constrained social circle, where every woman was a potential rival. But since there are no indications that the real Huicke was gay (as Fremantle responsibly acknowledges in her notes) the pedantic historical accurist in me wishes that Katherine's GBF was a purely imagined character and not one adopted from real life. This is a minor quibble, however, and not one that affects the flow of the story.

Hampton Court kitchen, where a servant like Dot might have worked
The other major imagined character is that of Katherine's trusted servant, Dot. While the ultimate ramifications of Dot's loyalty to her mistress result in high drama that somewhat strains credulity, such things were nonetheless all too possible in Tudor England. Dot's eventful life provides a clear counterpoint to the circumscribed life that Katherine lived as queen.

It is Fremantle's ability to draw inspiration from Place and to then creatively people the empty halls of architectural witnesses to history with believable characters, both real and imagined, that make this book such fun to read. It is a strong debut novel, and I'm definitely looking forward to more from Elizabeth Fremantle!

If you are traveling in England, do take some time to tour Tudor-related sites such as Hampton Court Palace outside of London and Sudeley Castle in the Cotswold Hills.  The latter site is winding down a quincentennial commemoration of Katherine Parr's birth in 1512 that has featured personal artifacts,  including the items that Elizabeth Fremantle described which were found in Katherine's coffin; love letters to husband Thomas Seymour; her prayer book; and copies of her two major publications, Prayers or Meditations (1545) and Lamentations of a Sinner (1547).

Many thanks to Elizabeth Fremantle for graciously answering my questions!


I am pleased to offer a giveaway of a hard-back copy of Elizabeth Fremantle's book, Queen's Gambit, open to current US residents who are readers of this blog and my Facebook page The Historical Dilettante.


This giveaway was part of the Historical Fiction Giveaway Hop hosted by The Most Happy Reader blog.

Friday, September 13, 2013

When Fandoms Collide

It's been a good week for fans of space exploration.
  • Monday marked the 47th anniversary of the debut of Star Trek The Original Series (ST-TOS).
  • Wednesday marked the 21st anniversary of Mae Jamison becoming the first black woman to travel in space. Extra nerd points if you know that she was inspired to become an astronaut by ST-TOS cast member Nichelle Nichols' personal encouragement and vis-a-vis her portrayal of Lieutenant Uhura.
  • NASA publicly announced that Voyager I had became the first man-made object to leave the solar system. Super-duper extra nerd points if you know that the fictional unmanned space probe Voyager VI was central to the plot of the first ST-TOS movie. Also, you totally win the Internets today if you (like me) can't help but think of that movie as a reworking of The Changeling episode of ST-TOS.
In my universe, many things come back to Star Trek The Original Series. This self-indulgent post tells the story of how that has come to be.

I've outted myself before on this blog, albeit casually and in passing, as both a long-time Star Trek fan and a doll collector. With these important space-related events this week, it seems as good a time as any to explore some personal history and these brave worlds of mine.

So behold, this is a post about getting peanut-butter-in-my-chocolate, about Ultimate Nerditry, about colliding fandoms.

This picture?

I can explain that.

Eventually. Some background first.

At the tender age of 9 I discovered Star Trek in afternoon reruns on my local NBC affiliate. I was immediately hooked.  In adolescence, the superficial trappings of fandom sucked me in immediately.  I watched each episode multiple times, collected all the James Blish anthologies, could recite entire swaths of dialogue verbatim. I saved my allowance to buy fandom anthologies and shipped Spock and Uhura before it was ever a Thing. I had Star Trek toys. I read and reread the occasional Lincoln Enterprises mail order catalogues that graced my doorstep (these were newspapers filled with lists of relatively inexpensive and probably cheaply-made Star Trek trinkets endorsed by Gene Roddenberry. I anticipated their appearance with as much excitement as I did the Scholastic book order catalogues that competed for my allowance (except little there was in the way of competition, as I never had much of an allowance. I don't think I ever ordered anything from the Lincoln Enterprise catalogues. I still have them up in the attic somewhere, decaying the way things do that you can't let go of but have no use for)).  I organized groups of less-enthusiastic teens to see the movies when they debuted in theaters. And in 1983 I won tickets to and attended a Star Trek convention in Pittsburgh with Walter Koenig as the guest of honor.

I know how this sounds. At this point, you're thinking that William Shatner was probably talking directly to me back in 1986 during his famous Star Trek Convention skit on SNL:

And maybe he was. Although in my defense, by 1986 I was too busy trying to support myself and applying to grad school to pay attention to Star Trek any longer. I did manage to see The Voyage Home that year but it was the last ST-TOS movie I saw.

I now regard enmeshment in fandoms warily, but cannot deny the formative developmental influence of this series. While I am theoretically old enough to remember the series debut in 1966, I was but a wee Sue, and thus my experiences with Star Trek do not correspond to the epiphanies that first-time viewers had. Still, imagine me, an overly-analytical, over-protected kid isolated in the rural semi-suburbs. In my world de facto racism and classism were normative if not overtly hostile, as it was simply expected that everyone know their place based on race and class differences; participation in organized religion was obligatory; and in my immediate family 'feminism' was a dirty word. For a sheltered kid like me, episodes of Star Trek really and truly were my first examples of Some Other Way To See The World.

Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry himself wrote  
The whole show was an attempt to say that humanity will reach maturity and wisdom on the day that it begins not just to tolerate, but to take a special delight in differences in ideas and differences in life forms. We tried to say that the worst possible thing that can happen to all of us is for the future to somehow press us into a common mould, where we begin to act and talk and look and think alike." 
Roddenberry was a humanist at heart and soul.  His “IDIC Philosophy” (Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combination) spoke to my spirit and intellect at crucial developmental points.

And then there were the characters. Mr. Spock was my philosophical godparent and Uhura a career mentor. The dichotomy between intellect and emotion that was articulated in the tension between McCoy and Spock was one I readily embraced in adolescence, although fortunately I've become far more nuanced as an adult. I am not one to be ruled by my heart, and deeply emotively expressive people push me away. So for better or worse, I thank Spock's logically-detached modeling. And while it took me far longer to become wary of the charisma of space cowboys like James T. Kirk, I learned from Trek to avoid the lure of the superficial.

The character of Uhura and the actress who played her, Nichelle Nichols, taught me other things.
Ms. Nichols' personal Trek story is legendary: weary of uttering nothing but "Hailing frequencies open, Captain" and longing to pursue grander opportunities, she planned to quit the show at the end of its first season. None other than Martin Luther King pointed out that she had been gifted with a life-changing opportunity. Ms. Nichols has shared this story many times but here is one iteration of what King said to her when their paths crossed at an NAACP fundraiser on the eve of her intended departure from the show:
"For the first time on television we will be seen as we should be seen every day – as intelligent, quality, beautiful people who can sing, dance, but who can also go into space, who can be lawyers, who can be teachers, who can be professors, and yet you don’t see it on television – until now….Gene Roddenberry has opened a door for the world to see us. If you leave, that door can be closed because, you see, your role is not a Black role, and it’s not a female role, he can fill it with anything, including an alien.”
Inspired, Nichelle Nichols remained with Star Trek through its remaining two seasons and went on to serve as a spokesperson for NASA and the NAACP, personally inspiring innumerable women and African-Americans to reach for the stars (including Mae Jamison).

I did not pursue careers remotely resembling anything done at NASA, but I was nonetheless inspired by her example to pursue my personal dreams, to reach for my place in the grander scheme of things, and to be proud of my appearance and my brains and never allow myself to be objectified.

Heady stuff for a TV show featuring a guy with pointy ears who bled green.

Now strictly speaking, my life as a doll collector dates back farther than my relationship with Star Trek. Like many little girls I've loved dolls for as long as I can remember, but it wasn't until my own daughter was born that I began collecting in earnest. I like to joke that a complimentary edition of the American Girl catalogue came home with my newborn. While that's an exaggeration, it's not too far from the truth.  Company founder Pleasant Rowland was a marketing genius who found a way to sell overpriced dolls and their accessories vis-a-vis a highly appealing educative mission. I do not mean to diminish the resulting American Girl (AG) brand but I do view it with a critical eye, for I've learned to trust neither space cowboys nor marketing spin.

The scene-creating possibilities that doll collecting offered lured me in by connecting with my love of creating dioramas, and so I began actively collecting for myself.  Collecting is primarily a private artistic creative endeavor for me, a way of making history manifest in miniature. Despite that, for a few years I stumbled into a very public role as the administrator of an online adult AG collecting community (an experience which further sealed my wariness of adult fandom communities), and for a time I also ran a historically-oriented American Girl Club for kids at a local bookstore. I've completed my collecting goals and now quietly enjoy using what I have to portray the worlds of  historical characters in particular eras of interest in 1:3 scale dioramas.

Okay, so, now is the part when we make the fandoms collide. I've created a number of modern characters 'personifed' in doll form. Many of them reflect personal interests of mine to the point where I've described that particular aspect of my collection as mini-Sue interest horcruxes. By far my favorite character has been Phoebe, a bright 14 year old who counts Nichelle Nichols and other female aviation pioneers as role models and inspirations, and who wants more than anything to learn to fly and perhaps to become an astronaut. I acquired an Uhura ST-TOS uniform for the doll from a talented seamstress and my character Phoebe became the original Uhura fan-girl, ehrm, fan-doll:

When Greta, a fellow collector, Star Trek fan and author of a blog entitled The Adventures of Steampunk Addie asked me if I'd like to send my Phoebe character off in the above regalia to meet Nichelle Nichols at the 2013 Phoenix Comicon, I jumped at the chance. Thanks to Greta, I am now the proud owner of the above photograph of Phoebe the Original Uhura Fangirl posing with Greta's legendary Steampunk Addie and the incomparable, inspirational Nichelle Nichols.  Ms. Nichols was even so kind as to autograph my doll (an unusual request from me since I do not normally seek autographs, but one I indulged just this once since I figured a doll surely can't be the strangest thing she's ever been asked to sign).

For the record, Ms. Nichols absolutely loved these doll character homages and requested a customized one from Greta for herself. You can read more on Greta's blog link above and view photos on her Facebook fan page. (Please do not hold Phoebe's messy hair in those photos against me, for she's a high maintenance traveler).

So there you have it, infinite diversity in infinite combinations, even doll ones.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Forgotten History: Father James Renshaw Cox

"Money is only a medium of exchange. It was never intended to be power."
Today's Labor Day march through downtown Pittsburgh streets got me musing about another proud march for cause, orchestrated in 1932 by Father James Renshaw Cox, Pittsburgh's original outspoken pro-Labor priest.

Father James Renshaw Cox. James R. Cox Papers, 1923-1950, Archive Service Center of the  University of Pittsburgh

Born in 1886 to a Pittsburgh mill family in Lawrenceville, Cox's nearly 30 year pastorate of Old St. Patrick's Church in Pittsburgh's Strip District changed the face of the nation. St Patrick was the oldest Catholic parish in Pittsburgh. The edifice that Cox knew was built in 1865 and stretched for a block along Liberty Avenue at 17th Street. It burned in 1935 and has since been replaced by a more modest building and merged with another parish.

St Patrick Church, third building on the site, circa 1865-1935

Shrinking congregations aren't anything new in Pittsburgh: when Cox arrived at St. Patrick in 1923 he found that most of the residents of his Strip District parish had been pushed out of the area by the expansion of businesses, particularly the produce industry. His ministry, based on putting the social teachings of the Roman Catholic Church to practice, revitalized St. Patrick's parish and its mission.

Cox began daily Mass radio broadcasts from St. Patrick, a practice that lasted for 33 years. Such was the draw of this priest's compassion and oratory that when the effects of Great Depression gripped this town, St. Patrick was surrounded by one of Pittsburgh's Hoovervilles, known as Shantytown. No need to worry about a dwindling congregation!

"Pittsburgh's Hoovertown" by Brady Stewart
The Collections of the Pennsylvania Department,
The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.

Shantytown, Pittsburgh's Hooverville in The Strip

Rows of shanties housing some 300 unemployed men of all races occupied almost an entire city block, stretching from the Pennsylvania Railroad Station to the 17th Street Bridge. 

Shantytown sketch by Pittsburgh Press artist Ralph Reichhold, 6 November 1931

A contemporary description of the scene: "Old boards, tar paper, burlap, are neatly carpentered. A sign, "Landscape architect," decorates one shanty, touches the scene with faint irony. Here Father Cox was made Honorary Mayor last year...."

Pittsburgh Press, 26 September 1931

There aren't many photographs of Shantytown, but the images that do exist are striking. Some can be found online at The Brady Stewart Photo Collection. The collection of Photographs by Edward P. Salamony is housed at the Photo Antiquities Museum of Photographic History.  Images from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette archives can be found HERE.

"At Shantytown, at Seventeenth Street, where homeless men have built a kingdom, men were busy today shoveling paths." Pittsburgh Press, November 27, 1931
Pittsburgh Press, 27 July 1933

Under Cox's supervision, St. Patrick Church became a large scale relief center, distributing free meals, food, clothing and fuel not just for the Shantytown inhabitants but for all of Pittsburgh's poor and needy. The Pittsburgh Press described the operations in The Strip :
The baskets and meals are given out with no questions asked. They don't care who you are. Your race or religion makes no difference. If you're hungry, they feed you. If your clothes are threadbare, shoes worn out, serviceable clothing and shoes are provided. Food and clothing given to the needy are either donated directly or purchased with funds contributed voluntarily....
Pittsburgh Press, 23 April 1932

Cox was proud of the men who lived in Shantytown.  
These men in Shantytown aren't bums, because bums don't build cities. The houses these men live in are the result of their own labors. The shanties are home, in truth, to these fellows. The depression hasn't caused a single one of them to lose hope for his country, its flag, and its institutions. 

Shantytown expanded, but conditions deteriorated as the Depression continued. In 1934, its conscience perhaps pricked by Father Cox's ministry, the City of Pittsburgh housed some 250 Shantytown residents at the former Ralston Industrial School at 15th and Penn. Renovations were undertaken to make this circa-1860s school building habitable, with individual cubicles constructed for each resident at the "Hotel" (as it came to be known). Having passed its point of usefulness and deemed a public health nuisance, on 15 June 1934, the Strip Shantytown was deliberately burned to the ground in a planned fire.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 16 June 1934

Pittsburgh Press, 16 June 1934

Even with Shantytown demolished, Father Cox's reputation as Pittsburgh's "Pastor of the Poor" was intact. His appearances on WJAS radio became more than just piped-in Masses, for he used the airwaves to preach as an outspoken advocate for the poor and disenfranchised. Cox was able to leverage funds from individuals and corporations, proudly noting that "Our work is carried on entirely by volunteer contribution."

Fr. Cox and the bread line distribution. James R. Cox Papers, 1923-1950, Archive Service Center of the  University of Pittsburgh
Cox's Army

Father Cox took the community organization aspect of his ministry seriously. In January 1932, he led 25,000 unemployed Pennsylvanians, dubbed Cox's Army, on a protest march to Washington DC to encourage Congress to begin an extensive public works program and provide direct federal relief to the needy. According to news reports, many of the Pittsburgh men wore their WWI uniforms, while others were raggedly clad in blankets and old overcoats against the freezing rain. They were accompanied on the journey by two brass bands and some 600 cars and trucks. Towns along the way provided shelter and coffee for the men, and the caravan merrily careened fare-free past toll collectors on the Turnpike.

Cox's Army in the Capital. Image from ExplorePAhistory.com

Cox thought he knew what this trip meant to the men, many of whom had never before visited the nation's capitol. As their caravan pulled into Washington DC after two nights on the road, Cox commented that the men caught sight of the Capitol dome and "...forgot that they were hungry; they forgot that their clothes had not dried from the rain. They stared like pilgrims viewing some sacred shrine--and it was a shrine for them. It was a symbol of all they hope and believe that America should mean to its citizens."

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 8 January 1932

One of the most intriguing stories associated with the march concerns another Pittsburgh luminary, Andrew W. Mellon, the nation's banker. During Mellon's 1935 tax evasion trial, a letter from a trustee of the A.W. Mellon Educational and Charitable Trust to the IRS was made public. The letter alleged that the Trust had assisted in transporting many stranded Cox's Army marchers back home:
....in January, 1932,  assisted in the transportation to Pittsburgh of a large number of unemployed men who came to Washington from that city as a part of "Father Cox's Unemployed Army" and were left destitute in this city.
In fact, Mellon had used his personal charity to pay train fares for 276 men and also "quietly ordered" his Gulf Oil gas stations to dispense free gas to marchers. These were no small gestures given the cost of fuel at the time -- and given the political climate. At the time of the march, newspapers reported that "Relief funds were brought into play to provide thousands of gallons of gasoline for the cars."
Andrew W. Mellon. 
Collections of the Pennsylvania Department,
Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.

Mellon's motives for providing such relief remain mysterious, given that he can hardly be viewed as a friend to organized labor and welfare efforts. Ever a proponent of laissez-faire philosophies, in his role as Secretary of the Treasury Mellon had continuously encouraged President Hoover to allow the Depression to run its course without intervention. But embroiled as he was in politically motivated impeachment proceedings designed to make him the fall-guy for Hoover's embattled administration, perhaps Andrew Mellon saw here an opportunity to embarrass Hoover while supporting hometown efforts. Such petty revenge seems to me to be rather out of character for Mellon, but he certainly had no desire to emulate Hoover's attitudes at this point. I think his generosity may also have had its roots in a genuine belief that charity should be a morally imperative, financially responsible, but quietly-done endeavor. Mellon accordingly gave regularly, usually privately, and often on a grand scale to those individuals and causes that were significant to him. Aloof he might have been, but he was not cold-hearted, and so this seemingly contradictory help for poor stranded Pittsburghers (who also happened to be Catholics and liberals and union organizers, oh my) may well have sprung from a sincere desire to privately help those in need.

At any rate, Cox stated in a radio interview from the Washington march: "We're glad to be here. God only knows how we'll get back, but we're not worried."  No worries indeed...perhaps he knew that A.W. Mellon was playing on his team!

Fr. Cox traveled to the White House itself in a sedan with 14 of his "followers." President Hoover grudgingly met with Cox and his delegation, knowing that he couldn't avoid doing so with the largest protest march in the nation's history camped on his front lawn. He accepted no blame for the economic situation and made no promises. Father Cox later stated "While I, out of respect to the Chief Executive of the nation, did not comment then, I can say now that his plans for relief are utterly inadequate."

The Pittsburgh Press, 7 January 1932

When presenting their petitions, Cox stated "The right to work belongs to every man. It is a God-given right and we demand it of our Congress."

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 8 January 1932

Hoover and Congress declined to act on the requests for aid that Cox presented. The President responded with platitudes about how much was already being done for the men, included promises for public works projects, and reiterated his opposition to costly direct government relief efforts.

Ever mindful of his role as an earthly guardian of souls, Father Cox gave the marchers a special Friday dispensation to eat meat when they returned to Pittsburgh the next day. They were greeted in Pittsburgh as returning heroes, and supporters provided "soup, sandwiches, sauerkraut, wieners, and coffee" in the basement of St. Patrick's Church. It was the first meal many of the marchers had had since leaving for the march. Fr. Cox said a special Mass that evening and included prayers for several marchers who had been injured in auto accidents or taken ill on their journey. 

"If They're Going to Play Politics, So Are the Unemployed"

Pittsburgh Press, Feb 1932
The Cox's Army "hunger march" inspired the formation of the Jobless Party, which supported government public works and labor unions. A few weeks after the Army of the Unemployed march, on the eve of the first rally of the Jobless Party "Blue Shirts" at Pitt Stadium, Cox decried the entrenched political system and denied charges of socialism and Communism leveled at him: 
This was not a political movement. This was an economic movement, but it has turned into a political movement...We expect nothing from the Republican and Democratic parties, who represent Wall Street and Smithfield street. The Jobless party will represent Main street, and if the unemployed hope to better their condition they had better take politics in their own hands. 

Cox was invited to speak at the WWI veterans Bonus March in DC six months later, an event that degenerated into violence and ended with Hoover ordering General Douglas MacArthur to disperse the veterans from DC using infantry, cavalry and tanks.

In the face of entrenched governmental hostility to the common man, Cox decided to follow his advice to take politics into his own hands. He became the Jobless Party's first presidential candidate later that year.
Father James R. Cox addressing members of the Jobless Party. James R. Cox Papers, 1923-1950, Archive Service Center of the  University of Pittsburgh
The rigors of the campaign trail and its financial demands tabled Cox's long-shot populist candidacy. He cut short a cross-country tour with the acknowledgement that his campaign had run out of money, stating that "Campaigning for idealism brings as much suffering and privation as came to those who first crossed Route No. 66 in covered wagons." There was no A.W. Mellon to bail him out this time! Cox eventually withdrew from the race, and supported the Democratic ticket and Franklin Roosevelt.

Pittsburgh Press, 13 June 1939
After the presidential election of 1932, Cox continued his relief work and became a member of the Pennsylvania Commission for the Unemployed. Some years later, President Roosevelt appointed Cox to the state board of the National Recovery Administration.

Cox ruffled plenty of feathers and his public life weathered its share of controversy. He made headlines not just for his good works but for accusations of being aligned with socialists and Communists. Not surprisingly, he was investigated by Hoover's administration on suspicion of being a 'radical.'  This was despite his clear disavowals of Communist connections as far back as his 1931 march. No matter, that; he'd made enemies, and their knives were out for him.

Cox was later acquitted on Federal charges of mail-fraud and lottery charges. Cox also attracted attention when he drew an ideological line in the sand by publicly condemning Depression-era demagogue Father Charles Coughlin's anti-Semitism.

Pittsburgh Press, 7 July 1947
In his later years, Cox traveled extensively abroad, leading pilgrimages of Pittsburgh faithful.  Having served as a WWI hospital chaplain in Angers, he maintained ties with that town and in 1948 was made the only American Canon of a French church at  Cathedral of Angers.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 1 April 1950

Suffering strokes in 1942 and 1948, Cox withdrew from constant public political advocacy to focus on spiritual ministry. However, he served as a mentor to Father Charles Owen Rice, who would inherit his role as Pittsburgh's labor priest. Father Cox died at age 65 of a final cerebral hemorrhage on 20 March 1951 at Mercy Hospital. He was remembered as "the poor man's priest" and a man of both action and prayer, and is buried in Calvary Cemetery.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 1948


Further Reading

Cox in Denial Hoover Enemy Backed March 
Father Cox and the Great Depression 
Father Cox, Andrew Mellon and a Huge March on Washington  
Father Cox's Candidacy Stirs Interest in Status 
Mellon Income Tax Suit Turns to Trust Fund....Banker's Philanthropies Included Help to Stranded 'Unemployed Army'
Remembering Shantytown: Photos depict life in Depression-era Strip District  
Saint Patrick Church 
The Coxes Were Methodist: Son--A Priest--Wants Hoover's Job 
Treasured items recall impact of "radio priest" 

Heineman, Kenneth J. A Catholic New Deal: Religion and Reform in Depression Pittsburgh. Pennsylvania State U. Press, 1999. (print)

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Night of the Living Dead

History was made on July 22, 2013 when His Royal Highness Prince George Alexander Louis of Cambridge was born in England. Simultaneous with his mother Kate Middleton's labor pains, at the US Botanic Garden Conservatory in Washington DC the titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum) bloomed. More commonly known as a corpse flower, this giant plant is native to Indonesia and only blooms once every few years. Its flower lasts 24-48 hours and smells like rotting or burning flesh.

Never one to let an opportunity for a pithy comment pass, I noted on my Historical Dilettante Facebook page that I hoped the Royal Baby smelled better and would live far longer. (I also stated that I thought both baby and bloom should be named George. The Cambridges took my advice. I don't think the Conservatory named its flower).

What the rest of the world can do, Pittsburgh can do better.  Okay, so we can't birth a royal baby, true. But behold, the titan arum of Pittsburgh has bloomed at Phipps Conservatory in Oakland!

What you are looking at is a 13 year old plant that is sprouting its virgin bloom (*insert deflowering joke here*).  The corpse flower doesn't have an annual blooming cycle. It is a patient plant, storing up energy in an underground tuber called a corm and waiting for just the right conditions to flower. And we're talking a lot of energy; this plant's corm weighs nearly 60 pounds. Outside of the tropics, botanic gardens are best suited to support flowering given the ability of such facilities to control temperature and humidity.

When the corpse flower blooms, it heats up to human body temperature and emits a fragrance redolent of rotting meat. The putrid smell is most potent at night into the early morning. In the wild, this combination of heat and smell attracts pollinators. Flesh flies, dung and carrion beetles will travel long distances to take a whack at pollinating the plant. The bloom lasts at most 24-48 hours and then wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am, show's over.

An individual corpse flower could bloom as often as every few years, but longer waits are more typical. The unpredictable nature and short duration of the bloom are what make it so exciting.

Well, that, and the stench.

The Pittsburgh corpse flower was acquired in 2010 and is the first to ever bloom here. Phipps' horticulture curators have been on Corpse Flower Watch the last few weeks, tweeting and posting status updates as to the ETB (estimated time of bloom). I was personally hoping for something like the convenient color-coded Homeland Security Advisory System scale:
Blue: Nothing to see here, check back in 7 years
Yellow:  Corm engorging, privacy please
Orange:  Corm about to blow, take cover
Red: OMG, OMG, it's in bloom! Alert the dung beetles and flesh flies! Hide yo' kids, hide yo' wife! 
But alas, I think the good folks at Phipps were too busy making punny signs to work up such a warning scale. That, and concocting (and maybe sampling) fancy mixed drinks in the bar for patrons to sip on whilst waiting on line to view the plant.

Because that line was long. Drinks were necessary.

Here's what happened. After days of monitoring the situation, late this afternoon the word went out over social media:  BLOOM!

So I piled kids and camera in the car around 9 PM on this night of a blue moon. We headed over to Phipps to catch a glimpse and a whiff, along with a thousand other people. Phipps Conservatory made plans to stay open until 2 AM for the bloom duration in order to allow maximum visitation...plus it had tons of commemorative t-shirts to sell.

Unlike its cousin in DC, Pittsburgh's corpse flower has a cool name: Romero. That's in honor of film director, screenwriter and editor George Romero, known for films about the inevitable zombie apocalypse. His 1968 cult classic Night of the Living Dead was filmed in the Pittsburgh area. So as a nifty tie-in, Phipps Conservatory planned to provide multiple showings of the Romero film in honor of the Romero flower.

I was relieved there were no zombies in the crowd. Then again, you never know with zombies. They very well might have been lurking. Gah.

We wondered if the gift shop might sell little bottles of Eau de Romero, but no such luck. Capturing the essence of corpse flower and packaging it is probably a job for the biological weapons industry.

Okay, so, right, I know what you want to know: did the corpse flower smell like rotting flesh? Uhm...maybe? The thing is, I have no basis for comparison. I can tell you that my kids believe the corpse flower smells like a month's supply of fresh dog poop, particularly if your dogs like to eat really stinky dog food and maybe even each other's poop. I'm sorry Blogger doesn't offer a scratch-n-sniff plug-in so you could make your own determination about this.

Since I try to keep this blog vaguely history-related, I could conclude with some well-crafted philosophical musings. Like, how historical events are as ephemeral as the short-lived bloom cycle of the corpse flower but their impact lasts longer than the bloom's putrid smell lingers in the nostrils. But I won't. That would be taking this stuff way too seriously.

So here's the take-home message: I dragged myself out in the middle of the night to smell a weird-looking plant that reeked of poop. That is all.

Thanks, Phipps, for making it happen.


Corpse Flower Romero Blooms at Phipps 
Phipps Conservatory