June 6, 2013
American swimming champion-turned-movie star Esther Williams died today. She was 91, and passed away this morning in her sleep, according to her family and publicist.
Williams grew up outside of Los Angeles, where she competed for a city swim team and won numerous titles and set national records as a teenager, including a 100-meter freestyle victory at the Women’s Outdoor National Championship in 1939. The next year, she was selected for the Olympic team, but the Games were cancelled when World War II broke out.
Williams left competition in 1940 to make a living, selling clothes in a department store for a few months until she was invited by showman Billy Rose to work a bathing beauty job in his Aquacade show at the World’s Fair. While performing, she was spotted by MGM scouts and given a contract with the film studio in 1941. She became a film sensation over the next decade by starring in the studio’s hugely popular “aqua-musicals,” including Bathing Beauty, Neptune’s Daughter and Million Dollar Mermaid.
She swam more than 1,250 miles in 25 aqua-musicals throughout her film career.
In 2008, Williams donated to the National Museum of American History two giant scrapbooks that MGM kept of her time with the studio, each multiple feet-tall and made of wood. The books are filled with both professional and personal mementos. Williams was recognized throughout her career for her beauty and athleticism, so she appeared in numerous pin up posters and advertisements, as well as magazine and newspaper articles.
The scrapbooks are currently held by Williams’ publicist, but now should be on their way to the museum soon, says entertainment curator Dwight Blocker Bowers. They will likely go on display in a 2016 exhibition on American culture (currently the museum’s popular culture hall is closed for renovations).
Bowers thinks Williams will be remembered not only for putting swimming on the map in film, but also for the genuine star power she brought to the screen as a singer and actress. “You do not remember her just for the swimming sequences,” he says. “She matched her swimming ability with her ability to have a strong presence on the screen. She was a movie star. She was vibrant on screen.”
For more of Bowers’ thoughts on Williams, read the museum’s blog post on her here.
June 5, 2013
There’s little that James Wines hasn’t done. The highly acclaimed architect has designed commercial showrooms and fast food chains, museums and parks, and is currently working on a cemetery in South Korea. He wrote one of the early tomes on green architecture, urging practitioners to look for holistic and not just technology-driven solutions. With a background in visual arts, Wines founded his firm, SITE (Sculpture in the Environment) in 1970. His willingness to take on any and all projects, from high concept to mainstream often put him at odds with the design world. Despite winning a slew of awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Graphic Art, and grants, Wines says he’s remained somewhat of a thorn in the side of the industry.
For his pioneering work in green architecture and his dedication to erasing boundaries in the practice of architecture, Wines was awarded the Cooper-Hewitt’s 2013 Lifetime Achievement Design Award. He says the award, which requires nomination from peers, is a triumph. “First of all, the fact that our government endorses it is a huge jump in the award arena,” says Wines. “It’s good to feel that there’s this national recognition in the design world, it’s a terrific honor, there’s no question about it.”
“We’ve done environmental art, we’ve done architecture, we’ve done work for MTV, work for the rock ‘n’ roll industry, we’ve done products,” says Wines. Because of this, he says, “I’ve always been considered outsider or marginal or alternative.” It’s a stance he never particularly sought out, but he certainly doesn’t eschew.
We talked with the rule-breaker about his career and some of his landmark projects.
So when you founded SITE, you weren’t setting out to turn everything on its ear?
Well, not really. You have sort of a vision. I came from visual art. We all lived on Green Street–somebody called it the Green Street Mafia for environmental art because we had Robert Smithson and Mary Miss and Gordon Matta-Clark and Alice Aycock and everybody converged on one street in Manhattan and it was a dialogue. I think artists were trying to escape from the gallery, you wanted to get out into the streets, you wanted to get where the people are, the idea of hanging pictures or putting sculptures on pedestals it was kind of anathema to my generation.
It’s kind of a suicidal mission, you know. I have coffee with Alice Aycock every morning because she lives right across the street and we’re always commiserating about all the wise artists who continued painting small paintings and did well. We’re always struggling with building departments.
With that background, what does architecture mean to you?
There’s the building, but then there’s the courtyard and the streets and it all flows together.
People in my office always criticize me because no matter how small it is, I get interested in it, because you realize that everything can be transformed or everything could be made more interesting than the norm.
We started in the junk world, with buildings no self-respecting Harvard student would stoop to design, which is shopping centers. But we always say we bring art where you least expect to find it. These are places where you would never expect to find good design or architecture or anything else and we made that transformation.
A recent example of that is the Las Vegas Denny’s, which includes a chapel.
Denny’s is very amusing. Nobody can possibly believe that Denny’s as a corporation, given their history, that they would ever be interested in art. But I always point out, they were the original Googie style. They were really part of that real strip diners, which we now admire today as being historic artifacts. There are whole books on diner style. So it obviously became respected after the fact, but there’s always this association that no self-respecting architect would touch that, so I’ve always liked those things.
There’s this wonderful statement about Picasso I read when I was in school and I agree so much; he said, you don’t make art out of the Parthenon, you make art out of the garbage under your feet. And it’s so true, you look where other people don’t look.
You’ve attracted your fair share of criticism, what do you make of it all?
I was on a panel of artists whose careers started with totally negative criticism, this was 30 years ago, but it was Claus Oldenburg, Roy Lichtenstein and Frank Stella and all these accusatory early criticisms. I was still in school and Roy Lichenstein had his first show and the headline in [Life magazine] was, ‘Is He the Worst Artist in the U.S.?’ So we all collected our negative criticisms and all these horrible things that were said, particularly by the architecture world–this isn’t real architecture and it won’t last.
Not only did all the people last on the panel, but they lasted a lot better than others. I remember Frank Stella at that time was doing his black pinstripe paintings and he was saying, why do the critics always start out with what you’re not trying to do, instead of trying to critique what you are trying to do.
So how did you survive?
I guess just will power. I think if you can hang in there, what did Woody Allen say, the key to success is showing up? It’s so true. You just keep showing up. But we had good clients. We started with art patrons, which is a good way to start. Young architects always say how did you get started and I say, well I worked with my connections in the art world. So we started with two or three clients who were really art patrons. They weren’t questioning the value of doing it. They weren’t questioning whether it’s architecture.
Later on, when you start getting normal clients, that’s more difficult because you can’t use this esoteric verbiage.
One of your most popular projects is the Shake Shack in New York City. Why are people so crazy about this?
I have no idea. That’s a phenomenon because it was kind of a “let’s see what happens.” That’s a real saga because New York City fought that: you can’t put a commercial enterprise in a park. When they found out there were foundations under there, built in the 19th century, to receive exactly that kind of kiosk, then they couldn’t say anything. City Hall backed down.
One thing led to another and I think it’s our most famous and most beloved project.
Anybody who comes to New York to see me, one of the first things they say is, will you take me to the Shake Shack. It’s iconic I guess. It’s ironic, because the building is sort of the menu in a way. And it’s also highway art in the middle of a lush park. We’re using sort of this hybrid in between a park and a highway.
I took some Iranian students and they stood in line. I said, I’ll sit down, you stand in the line. And they stood in line for an hour. And they were so excited: we got to stand in line! As a New Yorker, I can’t possibly imagine that psychology.
An earlier project in Chattanooga introduced some really high concept bridges into park space, how were those received?
Very well. They messed it all up now, they kept invading it. It used to be the park and then there were small shops around it, it was really nice, very human-scale. Now they’ve got bigger and bigger buildings.
But it was very well-received at the time. The old people sit in the summer under the arches, which are cool and they can watch the children. There were lots of people-watching situations and water and it had all the ingredients of a pleasant public space. All the trees and bushes have grown out, it’s a lush place.
My big interest is still in public space. I would love to do something in New York. Other than the Shake Shack, we’ve never done anything in New York.
June 4, 2013
One of the great modern American literary friendships was between the poets Robert Lowell (1917-1977) and Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979). They met in the late 1940s and remained friends, despite some turmoil, until Lowell’s death in 1977. Bishop only survived him by two years, passing away suddenly on the day she was to give a rare public reading at Harvard University. Rare, because Bishop was very shy, especially when it came to crowds, unlike Lowell who was voluble, more than a little manic, and quite the great man of American letters.
Despite, or perhaps because of, their contrasting temperaments they bonded over poetry. It was a literary friendship in two senses: they were both fiercely committed to their craft and it was a relationship that was conducted almost entirely by mail. They were rarely in the same part of the world at the same time, not least because Bishop spent almost two decades in Brazil, living with her partner Lota de Macedo Soares. So the friends grew close by writing letters to bridge the physical distance between them.
Both Lowell and Bishop were extraordinary correspondents. Does anyone write letters anymore? But Lowell and Bishop were among the last of the generations that considered letter writing an art form. Composing experiences and thoughts in a way that was coherent and reflective, Lowell and Bishop viewed letters as minor works of art, as well as a way to keep the mind alert to writing poetry. In the lives of strong writers, one is always struck by the sheer quantity of writing that they do, and letters form the bulk of this writing. Both Lowell and Bishop were remarkable correspondents both with each other and with others. But their correspondence is sufficiently important that it has been collected in the 2008 volume Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, edited by Thomas Trevisano and Saskia Hamilton.
The title is taken from an affectionate poem that Lowell wrote (and rewrote. .. and then rewrote again!) for Bishop in which he characterized her methods of composing poems. And this is the other great thing about Bishop and Lowell: they wrote poems in response to each other. Their letters were private communications but the poems were a public dialogue carried out in counterpoint. For instance, from Brazil Bishop dedicated a poem to Lowell called it “The Armadillo.” It begins with a beautiful image of a popular religious celebration, a mingling of the secular and the sacred:
This is the time of year
when almost every night
the frail, illegal fire balloons appear.
Climbing the mountain height,
rising toward a saint
still honored in these parts,
the paper chambers flush and fill with light
that comes and goes, like hearts.
It’s impossible not to imagine that in that image of the paper filling with light, “like hearts,” Bishop was referring to letter-writing. But the fire balloons can be dangerous, and when they fall to earth they flare into brushfires that disturb the animals: “Hastily, all alone,/a glistening armadillo left the scene/rose flecked, head down. . . “ Are these fires a warning not to get too close? Bishop and Lowell had quarreled in their letters about Lowell’s use of quotations and personal details in his poems without having asked for permission. Exposed to the public, private correspondence could detonate, injuring innocent bystanders Bishop could be saying.
Lowell responded to Bishop’s armadillo with a poem called “Skunk Hour” set in Castine, Maine, where he summered. Society is all unstable: “The season’s ill—we’ve lost our summer millionaire. . .” Half way through Lowell turns on himself. Watching the cars in Lover’s Lane: “My mind’s not right. . . .I myself am hell;/nobody’s here—//only skunks, that search in the moonlight for a bite to eat.” Lowell was frequently hospitalized throughout his life with mental illness and you can hear the desperate sense of holding on as everything seems to be falling apart in this verse. “Skunk Hour” ends with an image of obdurate resistance that the poet fears he cannot share: the mother skunk, foraging in a garbage can, “drops her ostrich tail,/and will not scare.”
The title for their collected correspondence comes from Lowell’s poem for Bishop that includes the lines: “Do/you still hang your words in the air, ten years/unfinished, glued to your notice board, with gaps or empties for the unimaginable phrase—unerring Muse who makes the casual perfect?”
Unlike the voluble Lowell, Bishop was a very deliberate writer and Lowell is referring to her habit of pinning up the sheets of a work in progress and making it, essentially, part of the furniture of her life. She mulled over the work, considering and reworking the poem until she was finally satisfied with it; reportedly she worked on her well known poem “The Moose” for nearly two decades before publishing it.
Lowell was just the opposite, not least because he revised and rewrote poems even after he had published them, causing a great deal of trouble and confusion for his editors in establishing an accurate final text. Indeed, he fiddled continually with his poem to Bishop, turning it into something rather more formal and monumental in the final version.
Lowell never read Bishop’s response: it came in a memorial poem called “North Haven,” a poem like “Skunk Hour” about the seacoast. It’s a lovely tribute, full of rueful knowledge of Lowell’s character: “(‘Fun’—it always seemed leave you at a loss. . .)” and ends with
You left North Haven, anchored in its rock,
afloat in mystic blue. . .And now – you’ve left
for good. You can’t derange, or rearrange,
your poems again. (But the sparrows can their song.)
The words won’t change again. Sad friend, you cannot change.
It’s uneasy to cite sadness or depression as a cause of artistic creativity; most depressives aren’t great poets. Both Lowell and Bishop were sad in their various ways. Poetry, Robert Frost wrote, provides a “momentary stay against confusion.” But that’s not all it does. Indeed, in the case of Bishop and Lowell it could be argued that it was the letters that provided a structure of meaning and feeling for both poets that helped them make sense and order their experience. The poems themselves are something else entirely: expressions of feeling and self-knowledge that appear as art.
June 3, 2013
The housewife that Jean Stapleton portrayed on “All in the Family,” was, by her own words, “very naïve, and she kind of thinks through a mist, and she lacks the education to expand her world.” The actress, who died Friday at the age of 90, offered the show a moral compass. Where her on-screen husband Archie, played by Carroll O’Connor, was known for his small-minded bigotry, Stapelton’s Edith represented a more enlightened view on the show, known for breaking with television tradition, showing social strife, marital discord and the growing generation gap.
Bruce Weber wrote in her obituary for the New York Times:
Edith was none too bright, not intellectually, anyway, which, in the dynamic of the show was the one thing about her that invited Archie’s outward scorn. Ms. Stapleton gave Edith a high-pitched nasal delivery, a frequently baffled expression and a hustling, servile gait that was almost a canter, especially when she was in a panic to get dinner on the table or to bring Archie a beer.
But in Edith, Ms. Stapleton also found vast wells of compassion and kindness, a natural delight in the company of other people, and a sense of fairness and justice that irritated her husband to no end and also put him to shame.
In a 1978 ceremony, the American History Museum acquired both Edith and Archie’s set chairs. The objects are among the most visited and beloved in the collections.
“They are the equivalent of the Appomattox chairs in many ways because Archie’s chair and Edith’s chair are the point of debate in the conversation that goes on,” says entertainment curator Dwight Blocker Bowers. He cites the show’s comedic bickering that connected to a larger social context as one of the reasons it did so well and remains relevant today.
“They’re very, very popular with all ages, I’m surprised,” he says, “even kids, because of television syndication, which keeps the show on the air and in the public eye.”
Of the actress, he says, “Jean Stapleton’s legacy embraces her appearances on Broadway – in such shows as Damn Yankees and Bells Are Ringing, her recreations of those roles in those shows film versions, but uppermost her legacy is as Edith Bunker – a ditzy voice of reason and temperance that constantly balanced her husband’s prejudicial point of view.”
Note: Currently, only Archie Bunker’s chair is on display in the American History Museum’s “American Stories.”
May 22, 2013
Sixty years ago, on May 29, 1953, mountaineers Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay set foot atop Mount Everest, the world’s highest mountain. They were the first ever to reach its 29,029-foot peak, and met instant fame upon their return: today their ascent is considered a great achievement of the 20th century.
In 1974, Hillary, a New Zealander, detailed the perilous climb and his motivations for tackling it on “Interview with Sir Edmund Hillary: Mountain Climbing,” produced by Howard Langer at Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. The conversation touches topics from Hillary’s preparation for the perilous climb, the thrill of reaching the top and even the abominable snow man (Hillary thought he might have found its tracks while scaling Everest, but later discounted Yeti reports as unreliable).
Sir Edmund, why do you climb mountains?
I think I mainly climb mountains because I get a great deal of enjoyment out of it. I never attempt to analyze these things too thoroughly, but I think that all mountaineers do get a great deal of satisfaction out of overcoming some challenge which they think is very difficult for them, or which perhaps may be a little dangerous. I think that the fact that something has a spice of danger about it can often add to its attraction, and to its fascination.
What would you say are the outstanding characteristics of a good mountaineer?
I think that a good mountaineer is usually a sensible mountaineer. He’s a man that realizes the dangers and difficulties involved, but, due to his experience and his technical skill, he’s able to tackle them calmly, with confidence. And yet you know the really good mountaineers that I know never lose that sense o enthusiasm that motivated them when they first started.
I think the really good mountaineer is the man with the technical ability of the professional, and with the enthusiasm and freshness of approach of the amateur.
How many men took part in the 1953 Everest Expedition?
On this expedition we had altogether 13 western members of the expedition, and then we had, I think, about 30 permanent high-altitude sherpas—these are men who will be carrying loads to high altitudes for us, and who are all hard, efficient performers. So then, altogether some 600 loads were carried into the Mt. Everest region on the backs of Nepalese porters, so we had 600 men who actually carried loads for 17 days, across country into our climbing region. Altogether, I suppose you could say that almost 700 men were involved in one way or the other. . . . It is a team expedition, and it’s very much in the form of a pyramid effort. . . . The two men who reach the summit are completely dependent on the combined effort of all those involved lower down.
How did you feel when you were going up those last several hundred feet?
I’ve often been asked as to whether I was always confident we were going to reach the summit of Everest. I can say no. Not until we were about 50 feet of the top was I ever completely convinced that we were actually going to reach the summit.
On a mountain like this, although the distances may not be so great, you’re so affected by the restrictions of the altitude that you never really can be completely confident that you’re going to be able to overcome the technical difficulties ahead of you.
And when you finally reached the top, what were your thoughts then?
I think my first thought on reaching the summit—of course, I was very, very pleased to be there, naturally—but my first thought was one of a little bit of surprise. I was a little bit surprised that here I was, Ed Hillary on top of Mt. Everest. After all, this is the ambition of most mountaineers.
What was Tensing’s reaction?
Well, Chet Tensing was, I think, on reaching the summit, certainly in many ways more demonstrative than I was. I shook hands with him, rather in British fashion, but this wasn’t enough for Tensing. He threw his arms around my shoulders—we were in oxygen masks and all—and he thumped me on the back and I thumped him on the back, and really it was quite a demonstrative moment. And he certainly was very, very thrilled when we reached the summit of Everest.