February 5, 2013
When Michelle Obama debuted her new hairstyle for the inauguration, her “bangs” stole the show. Even seasoned broadcasters spent a surprising amount of time chattering about the First Lady’s new look. In all fairness, there was also much speculation about the president’s graying hair—but that was chalked up to the rigors of office rather than a deliberate decision about style.
“Bangs” first made headlines nearly a century ago when the wildly popular ballroom dancer Irene Castle bobbed her hair. Castle and her husband Vernon were the Fred-and-Ginger of the 1910s and became famous for making “social dancing” a respectable pursuit for genteel audiences. They were embraced as society’s darlings and opened a dance school near the Ritz Hotel, teaching the upper crust how to waltz, foxtrot, and dance a one-step called “the Castle Walk.”
Irene Castle became a vibrant symbol of the “New Woman”—youthful, energetic, and unfettered. She was a fashion trendsetter, and when she cut off her hair in 1915, her “bob” created a fad soon mimicked by millions. Magazines ran articles asking, “To Bob or Not to Bob,” and Irene Castle herself contributed essays about the “wonderful advantages in short hair.” (Although in the Ladies Home Journal in 1921 she wondered if it would work well with gray hair, asking “will it not seem a bit kittenish and not quite dignified?”)
The “bob” suited free-spirited flappers of the 1920s: it reflected women’s changing and uncorseted role in the decade following the passage of woman’s suffrage. In 1920, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story, “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” evoked this transformation by describing how a quiet young girl suddenly morphed into a vamp after her hair was bobbed. In years before women had their own hair salons, they flocked to barber shops to be shorn: in New York, barbers reported lines snaking far outside their doors as 2,000 women a day clamored to be fashionable.
Silent film stars, America’s new cultural icons of the 1920s, helped feed the rage for chopped hair. Three stars became particular icons of the flapper look: Colleen Moore is credited with helping to define the look in her 1923 film Flaming Youth; by 1927 she was said to be America’s top box office attraction, making $12,500 a week. Clara Bow was another bobbed-hair screen star said to personify the Roaring Twenties: in 1927, she starred as the prototypic, uninhibited flapper in It. Louise Brooks was also credited with embodying the flapper: Her trademarks in such films as Pandora’s Box were her bobbed hair and a rebellious attitude about women’s traditional roles.
First Ladies Lou Hoover, Eleanor Roosevelt, Bess Truman, and Mamie Eisenhower made few headlines with their hairstyles—although it is true that Mrs. Eisenhower sported bangs. But when Jacqueline Kennedy became First Lady in 1961, the media went mad over her bouffant hairstyle.
When the Kennedys attended the Washington premiere of Irving Berlin’s new musical Mr. President in September 1962 at the National Theatre, journalist Helen Thomas wrote how “First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy—a devotee of the Parisian ‘pastiche’ hair-piece—is going to see a lot of other women wearing the glamorous superstructured evening coiffures at the premiere.” Mrs. Kennedy had adopted the bouffant look in the 1950s under the tutelage of master stylist Michel Kazan, who had an A-List salon on East 55th Street in New York. In 1960 Kazan sent three photographs of Mrs. Kennedy en bouffant to Vogue magazine, and the rage began. His protégé, Kenneth Battelle, was Mrs. Kennedy’s personal hair stylist during her years in the White House, and helped maintain “the Jackie look” of casual elegance.
In the 50 years since Mrs. Kennedy left the White House, First Lady coifs have rarely been subjected to much hoopla, so the advent of Michelle Obama’s bangs unleashed decades of pent-up excitement. In a January 17th New York Times article on “Memorable Clips,” Marisa Meltzer wrote that “Sometimes the right haircut at the right moment has the power to change lives and careers.” The Daily Herald reported that obsessive media attention was sparked only after the president himself called his wife’s bangs “the most significant event of this weekend.” One celebrity hairstylist was quoted as saying, “Bangs have always been there, but they are clearly having a moment right now,” adding that “Mrs. Obama is really being modern and fashion-forward. We haven’t had a fashion-forward first lady like this since Jackie Kennedy.”
Fashion-forward is a concept I find fascinating, both because “fashion and identity” is a topic that intrigues me as a cultural historian, and also because it entails one of my favorite sports—shopping. And when it comes to the corollary topic “bobbed hair and bangs,” I feel totally in-the-moment: last summer, I asked my hairstylist to give me a “duck-tail bob.” He is Turkish, and I had a difficult time translating that for him until his partner explained that the word in Turkish that came closest was “chicken-butt.” His face lighted up, and he gave me a wonderful haircut. I told him I would make a great sign for his window –“Home of the World Famous Chicken-Butt Haircut.”
A regular contributor to Around the Mall, Amy Henderson covers the best of pop culture from her view at the National Portrait Gallery. She recently wrote about Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Ball and Downton Abbey.
January 15, 2013
Inaugural fever is sweeping Washington, D.C. The “Official Inauguration Store” is now open down the block from the National Portrait Gallery, parade viewing stands have been constructed along Pennsylvania Avenue, and street vendors are hawking T-shirts and buttons that bark out the coming spectacle. The Inauguration Committee expects 40,000 people at the two official inaugural balls that will be held in city’s cavernous Convention Center.
At the Portrait Gallery, I decided to soak up some of this festive spirit by imagining the inaugural ball held for Abraham Lincoln on the building’s top floor in 1865. The museum was originally built as the U.S. Patent Office, and its north wing was a vast space deemed perfect to house the grand celebration for Lincoln’s second inauguration.
Earlier, the space had served a very different purpose as a hospital for Civil War soldiers wounded at Manassas, Antietam, and Fredericksburg. Poet Walt Whitman, who worked as a clerk at the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the Patent Office Building, had been an orderly who treated these soldiers. The night of the inaugural ball, he wrote in his diary, “I have been up to look at the dance and supper rooms. . . and I could not help thinking, what a different scene they presented to my view since fill’d with a crowded mass of the worst wounded of the war. . .” Now, for the ball, he recorded that the building was filling up with “beautiful women, perfumes, the violins’ sweetness, the polka and the waltz.”
Engraved invitations were given to dignitaries while public tickets, admitting a gentleman and two ladies, were sold for $10. The day of the ball, according to Margaret Leech’s evocative Reveille in Washington, 1860-1865, the building bustled with preparations for the big event: a ticket office was set up in the rotunda, and the ballroom band rehearsed while gas jets were strung from the ceiling in the north wing to provide lighting. Workers were draping the walls with American flags and a raised dais was built for the presidential party and furnished with blue and gold sofas.
As I walked the path inaugural guests took to the ballroom, I appreciated the special challenge facing women in hoop-skirted gowns as they negotiated the grand staircase. At the top, people would have entered the ornate Model Hall, with its stained glass dome and gilded friezes, and then promenaded down the south hall past cabinets filled with patent models. Early in the evening, guests were serenaded by military music from Lillie’s Finley Hospital Band; after ten, the ballroom band signaled the official beginning of the festivities by playing a quadrille.
Just before 11 p.m., the military band struck up “Hail to the Chief” and the President and Mrs. Lincoln entered the hall and took their seats on the dais. Lincoln was dressed in a plain black suit and white kid gloves, but Mrs. Lincoln sparkled in a dress of rich white silk with a lace shawl, a headdress of white Jessamine and purple violets, and a fan trimmed in ermine and silver spangles.
Standing in what is today called the “Lincoln Gallery,” I found the vision of the 1865 spectacle elusive and hazy. Victorian culture had strict rules for everything, and the etiquette governing waltzes, schottisches, reels, and polkas was as carefully codified as knowing the proper fork to use at a formal dinner. It seemed a tough way to have a good time.
And what did the ball actually look like? Engravings of the event exist, but there are no photographs–and how could static images convey this spectacle’s electric sense of excitement? Moving images weren’t invented by the 1860s, but even later, movie re-creations of Civil War-era balls fared little better. Both Jezebel (1938) and Gone with the Wind (1939) use ball scenes to capture the idea of fundamental codes being flaunted: in Jezebel, Bette Davis’s character stuns the ballroom by appearing in a brazen red dress rather than the white expected of someone of her unmarried status; in GWTW, Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett—a recent war widow—shocks the guests by dancing a Virginian Reel with Clark Gable’s Rhett Butler. In each case, a highly-synchronized choreography shows people dancing beautifully across the ballroom floor. But the Hollywood vision is about as emotionally charged as porcelain figures gliding around the surface of a music box.
It wasn’t until I saw the new film Anna Karenina that I felt the dynamism that must have fueled a Victorian ball. Tolstoy published the novel in serial form between 1873 and 1877, setting it in the aristocratic world of Imperial Russia. The 2012 film directed by Joe Wright is a richly stylized, highly theatrical version envisioned as “a ballet with words.” Washington Post dance critic Sarah Kaufman has evocatively described the ball scene where Anna and Vronsky first dance, noting how their “elbows and forearms dip and entwine like the necks of courting swans.” For Kaufman, the movie’s choreography created a world “of piercing, intensified feeling.”
The Lincoln inaugural ball may have lacked a dramatic personal encounter such as Anna and Vronsky’s, but the occasion was used by Lincoln to express the idea of reconciliation. While he walked to the dais with House Speaker Schuyler Colfax, Mrs. Lincoln was escorted by Senator Charles Sumner, who had fought the president’s reconstruction plan and was considered persona non grata at the White House. In a clear display of what is today called “optics,” Lincoln wanted to show publicly that there was no breach between the two of them, and had sent Sumner a personal note of invitation to the ball.
The 4,000 ball-goers then settled in for a long and happy evening of merry-making. As Charles Robertson describes in Temple of Invention, the Lincolns greeted friends and supporters until midnight, when they went to the supper room and headed a large banquet table filled with oyster and terrapin stews, beef a l’anglais, veal Malakoff, turkeys, pheasants, quail, venison, ducks, ham, and lobsters, and ornamental pyramids of desserts, cakes, and ice cream. Although the president and his wife left about 1:30 a.m., other revelers stayed on and danced until dawn.
After nearly five years of a terrible war, Lincoln hoped that his inaugural ball would mark a new beginning. He also understood that for nations as well as for individuals, there were times to pause and celebrate the moment.
As I wrapped up my recreated vision of the ball and left the Lincoln Gallery, I smiled and whispered, “Cheers!”
A regular contributor to Around the Mall, Amy Henderson covers the best of pop culture from her view at the National Portrait Gallery. She recently wrote about Downton Abbey and dreams of a White Christmas, as well as Kathleen Turner and the Diana Vreeland.
January 2, 2013
Silver polished? Feathers fluffed? Good—then like me, you are properly primed to receive the opening salvos of “Downton Abbey“’s third season, which begins airing on PBS this Sunday, January 6.
The hugely popular soap opera froths over this year when Shirley MacLaine arrives with the subtlety of a blunderbuss. MacLaine portrays Martha Levinson, the social climbing New York mother of Lady Cora who, as one of the American “Dollar Princesses,” had injected her substantial money into marriage with the Earl of Grantham at the turn of the 20th-century. Alas, by season three, time has passed and that fortune has dwindled to the point where the privileged life of Downton Abbey is threatened.
Enter Shirley MacLaine’s Martha Levinson, a character variously described as “rich,” “crass” and “brassy.” Most delicious of all is that she is a worthy sparring partner to Dame Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess, Violet Grantham.
The stage is set even before the American mother arrives, when the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) says to Lady Cora at dinner, “I’m so looking forward to seeing your mother again. When I’m with her, I’m reminded of the virtues of the English.” Handsome young Matthew innocently asks, “But isn’t she American?” To which the Countess says, “Exactly.” (Bada-bing!)
Of her role, MacLaine says: “The gunfight at the OK Corral does not happen between Maggie and me. We do a little sparring, we have our moments but it’s more sophisticated than that. Martha is not just a crass, cranky American coming in there to call a spade a spade. She’s very smart and to a large extent sensitive as to what’s going on with all her daughter’s children. And Maggie’s character is so well established but you have to look beyond what is her expected reaction to Martha. The Dowager Countess is a human being who has complications and a past of some pain that Martha understands – and to some extent addresses herself to.”
The pairing of these two legendary Oscar-winning actresses allows series writer Julian Fellowes to depict the enormous social change wrenching the class structure of 1920s British life: for Fellowes, Dame Maggie’s Countess represents the entrenchment of “class,” while MacLaine’s Levinson heralds the democracy of “crass.”
As it happens, Shirley MacLaine and Maggie Smith have known one another for more than 40 years, although they had never before worked together. Both were born in 1934, and both had extensive careers on stage and screen. Maggie Smith made her stage debut in 1952, and early in her career appeared in both musical comedies and drama. Her best known stage roles include her Tony-winning performance in Lettice and Lovage, as well as notable Shakespearean performances as Queen Elizabeth, Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth, and a revival of Noel Coward’s Private Lives. Her classic screen performances have included The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, A Room with a View, Gosford Park, all of the Harry Potter films, and 2012’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Quartet. Queen Elizabeth II appointed her a Dame Commander in the 1990 New Year Honours.
Like Smith, MacLaine has had a diverse and colorful career. She grew up in Arlington, Virginia, with her younger brother Warren Beatty, and studied dance at the Washington School of Ballet. During the golden age of 1950s stage musicals, she symbolized the prototypical Broadway baby who vaulted to fame while waiting in the wings. She was the understudy for dancing great Carol Haney, the star of the 1954 smash hit The Pajama Game. When Haney was injured, Shirley went on in her place, performed brilliantly, and—just like in every chorus girl’s dreams—“came back a star.”
Her winning gamine personality put her in high demand in Hollywood as well, and she starred in two of Billy Wilder’s classic 1950s movies, The Apartment and Irma la Douce, earning Best Actress Golden Globes for each. At the same time, she headlined a Las Vegas cabaret act and for a while ran with Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack. Renowned as a dancer, she continued to kick up her heels in such films as Can Can and Sweet Charity. Among the Portrait Gallery’s images of MacLaine is a thoughtful 1959 Bob Willoughby photograph of her resting backstage while filming Can Can. The museum also has an exuberant Gordon Munro photograph that captures the high-stepping dancer in her 1984 show, Shirley MacLaine on Broadway. But she turned increasingly to drama, and in 1983 received the Best Actress Oscar for her stirring performance in Terms of Endearment. For her remarkably varied work on screen, the American Film Institute awarded her its Life Achievement Award in 2012.
Along the way, MacLaine has been known for her outspoken views. When she won her Oscar, she exclaimed, “I deserve this!” She has also written several memoirs outlining her beliefs in spiritualism and UFO encounters, and readily admits, “People think I’m nuts.”
She had never paid attention to “Downton Abbey” until she was approached to join the cast, and she may seem an eccentric choice. But after all, it is an eccentric role, and MacLaine’s energized personality helped bring the brassy Martha Levinson character to life. In an interview with The Daily Beast, MacLaine said that what she admired most about the series was that “It was extraordinarily artful and I thought, ‘Whoa, we’re making a painting!’”
MacLaine’s movie career has been rejuvenated as she approaches her 80th birthday. Currently, she is filming the love story Elsa and Fred with Christopher Plummer, and there are four more potential films on tap. She is suitably grateful to “Downton Abbey“, and has said that her favorite scene was one she herself suggested to writer Julian Fellowes—an improbable scene in which she serenades the Dowager Countess by singing “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.” When this scene was explained to Dame Maggie, that world-class scene stealer raised her eyebrows and said, “You know what I’m going to do, dear. I’m going to fall off the chair when you start singing.”
Fasten your seatbelts!
December 18, 2012
I’m dreaming of a white Christmas,
Just like the ones I used to know.
Where the treetops glisten and children listen
To hear sleigh bells in the snow
“White Christmas” launched a revolution. Before this Irving Berlin song topped the charts in October 1942, the airwaves between Halloween and December 25 did not blare relentlessly with Christmas carols. Thanksgiving served as a quiet bystander rather than as the clamorous launch for THE HOLIDAYS! It was a more innocent time.
Nor was songwriter Berlin the obvious composer for this Christmas classic. His boyhood had been less than idyllic: in 1893, five-year-old Israel Baline immigrated with his Russian Jewish family and settled on the Lower East Side. As a youngster, he was sent out to earn money for the family. He hawked newspapers on the street and worked as a singing waiter—there was no time to deck the halls with boughs of holly.
But decades later, while sitting beside a pool in sunny California and writing songs for his upcoming 1942 movie Holiday Inn, Irving Berlin conjured up the classic Christmas atmosphere of his dreams. The song’s original opening bars set the scene:
The sun is shining, the grass is green,
The orange and palm trees sway.
There’s never been such a day
In Beverly Hills, L.A.
But it’s December the twenty-fourth,—
And I am longing to be up North….
He had already composed “Easter Parade” and other “holiday” songs for the film, and was looking for a boffo finale that would serve as the movie’s high point. According to Berlin biographer Laurence Bergreen, the song had to have the same kind of impact that his iconic hit “God Bless America” had earned: it had to be great.
Nostalgic for the imagined Christmas of his youth, Berlin created lyrics describing the perfect holiday that everyone yearned for—a white Christmas that was merry and bright. Dwight Blocker Bowers, the Smithsonian’s curator of entertainment at the National Museum of American History and a Berlin expert, told me that the songwriter—who couldn’t read music and played piano mostly on the black keys—had his secretary write down the lyrics as he sang them.
According to Bowers, Berlin wrote about his own longing for a mythic past that was certainly never a part of his tenement upbringing. The song, released in the early days of wartime America, also fed into strong nationalistic sentiments about ideals of “home and hearth.”
Berlin knew as soon as he wrote it that he had created something special, something that was possibly “the best popular song ever.”
He was right. Before “White Christmas,” Bowers explained, most Christmas songs were liturgical; with this song, Berlin created a popular idiom—and industry!— for secular holiday hymns. Bolstered by wartime sentimentality, “White Christmas” found a mass market that brought the idea of holiday entertainment into the mainstream.
Bing Crosby gave the song its first public performance December 25, 1941, on his highly-rated NBC radio show. The movie Holiday Inn, which starred Crosby and Fred Astaire, was released in 1942, and from October through the New Year, “White Christmas” headed the Hit Parade and Billboard charts. It won the Academy Award for Best Original Song, and, with 50 million copies sold worldwide, is credited by the Guinness Book of World Records as being the most popular single recording of all time.
For Bowers, the song’s success resulted from its ability to be both timely and timeless. Berlin had a wonderful feel for the popular pulse, and he knew that wartime America longed for links that would connect people as a community. The beauty of “White Christmas” was that it made an ideal shared past (however mythic) accessible to all.
In 2012, our disparate cultural community bares little resemblance to the shared mainstream idealized 70 years ago. Life today is so highly-individualized that few markets focus on group sentiments, whether in movies, art, sports, or perhaps especially in music.
But we all still sing along to “White Christmas.”
October 12, 2012
The liveliest 80 minutes of theater in Washington this fall belongs to Kathleen Turner’s one-woman show at Arena Stage, “Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins.” It’s a rollicking, loving, and feisty celebration of the wit and witticism of political journalist and commentator Molly Ivins.
As you might guess from the title, this show contrasts vividly with such earlier one-person shows as Julie Harris’s genteel “Belle of Amherst” (Emily Dickinson), or Hal Holbrook’s story-telling performance as Mark Twain. Here, the star does not wear a shawl or a white linen suit, but struts onstage in denim and red cowboy boots. She does not narrate from a rocking chair like Dickinson, nor address the audience center stage as Twain did. Rather, she pronounces with feet propped up on her desk or sitting cross-legged on the floor. She only speaks softly when purring rapier witticisms, and often roars with laughter.
Born into an oil-rich Texas family and educated at Smith, Molly Ivins launched her career as a political journalist with The Texas Observer in the 1970s. She called Texas “reporter heaven” and particularly enjoyed piercing the pomposity of the state legislators who roosted in the Austin capital: “Can you believe,” she once asked, “that God gave me all this material for free?” She gained a national reputation writing op-ed pieces and features for The New York Times and The Washington Post, as well as speaking on the lecture circuit; her column was syndicated in more than 400 newspapers. She worked for the New York Times from 1976-1982 (she considered her obituary of Elvis Presley her highpoint there), and then for the Dallas Times Herald, where she once happily outraged readers by saying of a congressman, “If his I.Q. slips any lower, we’ll have to water him twice a day.”
In an interview conducted this week at Arena Stage, Ms. Turner told me that she explicitly wanted to do this show in the nation’s capital during the fall campaign to beat the drums for Molly Ivins’s essential message: “Get involved, citizens! Beloveds, do not sit back!”
Her performance takes unabashed aim at rallying the troops. An activist and advocate for women’s issues herself, Turner has been delighted by the enthusiastic audience response she has received for the play’s populist pronouncements. She clearly relishes unleashing rolling cascades of Ivins’ irreverence, whether capturing a Texas pol in the cross-hairs or verbally smacking the president that Ivins nicknamed “Dubya” and “Shrub.”
I began our interview by explaining that, like her living portrait of Ivins, the Portrait Gallery focuses on works of art that narrate “visual biography.” I wondered how creating a living portrait differed from shaping a fictional role on stage, and she said it really didn’t—the acting preparation is similar. In the Spencer Tracy tradition (“know your lines and don’t bump into the furniture”), she also emphasized, “No ad libbing!!”
During her stay in Washington, Ms. Turner has visited the Portrait Gallery, so I linked the museum to my next question. The Gallery originally had a policy to collect portraits of the seminal figures of the American story, only after they had been dead for ten years. Now, the Gallery includes contemporary figures; and I wondered how portraying a contemporary figure like Molly Ivins on the stage compared with creating historic personalities like Emily Dickinson or Mark Twain. Turner acknowledged that there was a difference, but that it mainly involved distinguishing a character made familiar by the immediacy of today’s media, rather than one known only from secondary accounts.
In creating the show, Ms. Turner worked closely with the playwrights, twin sisters Margaret Engle and Allison Engel. Their research involved sifting through hundreds of Molly Ivins’s columns, several of her books, and studying her regular appearances as a commentator on CBS’s 60 Minutes. Turner also was fortunate enough to meet Ivins herself, once in the company of Ivins’s great friend Anne Richards.
Ivins died at 62 of breast cancer, but her final column was a recognizable rouser: “We are the people who run this country,” she reminded her readers. “We are the deciders.” At the end of our interview, I asked Ms. Turner what she thought was most significant about Molly Ivins. Her response was lightning fast: “Her belief in the CITIZEN!”
Amy Henderson interviews Kathleen Turner 10/10/12 at Arena Stage.
Tickets are sold out to the Smithsonian Associates “A Red-Hot Evening with Kathleen Turner” on Monday, October, 15 at 7 p.m., but a wait list for tickets is available. The National Portrait Gallery’s cultural historian Amy Henderson recently wrote about Diana Vreeland and Walter Cronkite.