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

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: 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)