After a Ziegfeld Follies show Will Rogers visited WC Fields in his backstage room. After he left, WC Fields' female guest commented, "Isn't he a wonderful man? I just love that voice." Fields replied: "That son of a bitch is a fake. I'll bet a hundred dollars he talks like everybody else when he gets home."
After reading Ben Yagoda's biography of Rogers it would seem WC Fields was dead wrong. Sure, Rogers had a shtick, but he was still a humble, Oklahoma cowboy who could rope steers.
Rogers work rate was extraordinary. In vaudeville he did two or more shows a day and when he got into the movie business he simultaneously performed with the Follies, wrote daily newspaper articles, lectured, and performed on the radio. When he wasn't working he was traveling, doing charity tours, or expanding his California ranch. To relax he'd rope steers in the back yard or chairs on the front porch. He couldn't sit still and when he had to he mashed on his gum and shook coins in his hands.
Rogers was a modern, inventive comic. In vaudeville he'd speak to the audience. When he failed a rope trick, he'd say, "I'm handicapped up h'yar, as the manager won't let me swear when I miss!"
When he produced his own movie (One Day in 365) he simply had a camera follow him around as he tried and failed to find a quiet place in the family home to write a script.
When he gave public speeches or participated in plays he'd ignore the set script and sit on the lip of the stage and just talk until he ran out of things to say.
But what I love most about Rogers was his skepticism of bankers, politicians, and advertising. He hated pretension and his column became popular because he could critique American society without being mean and bitter about it. He was an artist at kidding anyone who thought well of themselves.
On bankers he said,
"Banking and After Dinner speaking are two of the most Non-essential industries we have in this country...I don't think these Boys [bankers] realize really what a menace they are. As far as being good fellows, personally, I have heard old timers talk down home in the Indian Territory and they say the James and Dalton Boys were the most congenial men of their day, too."
And later he writes, "You can drop a bag of gold in Death Valley, which is below sea level, and before Sunday it will be home to papa J.P. [Morgan]."
On politicians Rogers is equally sharp:
"That's why I can never take a politician seriously. They are always shouting that such and such a thing will ruin us, and that this is the eventful year in our Country's life. Say, all the years are the same. Each one has its temporary setbacks, but they don't mean a thing in the general result."
And on advertising: "You can't go to bed, you can't get up, you can't brush your teeth without doing it to some Advertising Slogan...A fool slogan can get you into anything...[But] Nobody has ever invented a slogan to use instead of paying your taxes."
Though Rogers hated advertising he did accept an offer from Bull Durham tobacco to write 26 ads. What he pulled off is reminiscent of today's ironic ads, but at least Rogers didn't sell out completely. He wrote,
"Peoples tastes are not alike...You ain't no kindergarden, you know what you wore last year and if it pleased you try it again. Now I don't smoke "Bull" Durham. But if you do and you liked it, why dont let some Guys Picture and indorsement tout you off on something else." (Yes, there are errors galore, but that's how all of Rogers' copy is)
Rogers could tease without hurting feelings. It was a skill he honed with the Follies where he'd come on stage, pull out a famous person in the crowd, rib them for a few minutes, and then proceed with the show.
Today, Rogers' politics are almost more famous than his work on stage. His comments on the great depression and international affairs made him a "bona fide" journalist who rubbed shoulders with presidents and world leaders.
Rogers even met Mussolini and Yagoda describes the meeting well. "Mussolini gave most of his answers in a broken English that, in Will's rendition, made him sound like a fruit peddler in a bad vaudville sketch."
Rogers' admired Mussolini strength (as did many) and favored dictators (if they were competent) because he had no faith in the dithering of political parities. He favored Franklin Roosevelt when he was elected, but grew weary of his hand-outs.
Rogers' father was Cherokee which fed his mistrust of the government. "The Government, by statistics, shows they have got 456 treaties that they have broken with the Indians. That is why Indians get a kick out of reading the Government's usual remark when some big affair comes up."
Rogers' had an independent mind and untangled general problems with a rustic logic. "Now, we made a mistake in the last war by fighting on credit. The next war has got to be C.O.D." And, of course he was a comic first: "In Germany they have cultivate everything they got but a sense of humor."
Rogers died in a plane crash in Alaska. That he was flying at all in the 1920s illustrated his restlessness and cowboy courage. He always wanted to see what was over the next ridge.
Yagoda's biography finds Rogers an exemplary character who loved his wife and blushed when a Follies' dancer slipped out of her custom. There are no stories of affairs or tales of addictions to booze (though he was once caught sneaking beer into Madison Square Garden). He participated in the stage version of O'Neil's Ah! Wilderness but wouldn't play the role for the camera, because his character briefly mentions of the utility of prostitutes. His only great weakness was beans. His family and friends were always impressed by how many bowls he could finish. He wrote, "Don't have room for any desert. Had any more room would eat some more beans."
Just returned from a trip to New Orleans. I stayed at a French Quarter hotel occupied by older couples who wore matching jean shorts. I toured Bourbon street first and found the famed music and excessive drinking. Sadly, I wasn't charmed by either--though I was prepared to fall in love with the swirl of rowdiness. I sat at a few bars, declined offers to buy CDs, and hoped to be infected by a great, raw New Orleans spirit, but nothing happened.
It's a city on a large lily pad which makes it vulnerable it storms, but ideal of for biking around. Pedaling at a medium clip, I got to tour all the major neighborhoods and sights in a few hours. I found that while the attractions were nice the best thing to do in the city was sit behind a strong drink and watch the trolleys clang up and down the street.
Aside from the abundance of tourists there were scattered pockets of dirty train-hopper types, young locals with angular tattoos and beards, and a few older locals.
I met one such aged local behind my hotel bar. He had a moustache, tips waxed up, a big belly, and a nice, firm way of polishing the glasses in his care. His knowledge of drink was humbling and his skill with a cocktail shaker dazzling.
After a few drinks he warned us to ignore a nearby woman who was beginning to advise loudly. She was a local philanthropist who couldn't hold her drink and had cornered a young lady who let it slip she wanted to be a writer. The charitable woman urged: "Write, write everyday, but first write down the name of a publisher I know." After a fruitless look through her purse, she continued, "Don't worry about him, he's useless. Just write, write everyday!"
The bartender was only too happy to tell his life story. His mom managed a hotel in the Quarter and when she worked nights put him and his brother in a back room. Of course (as any young boy would) he'd crawl under the front desk, eluding the sheepish guard, and wander around the Quarter looking for trouble. He ceased twisting a lemon rind, his eyes fogged a bit, and he recalled, "They used to sell good corn dogs in the Quarter. I'd eat two, maybe three a night."
When he was older he and a friend would buy a "liter of beer" at every corner store they passed. Under the influence, his friend made inventive suggestions that our bartender said he could never decline. He once walked the whole Quarter by jumping from the roof of one parked car to the other. "I regret that now," he concluded. "Just imagine getting into your car in the morning and seeing your roof like that."
Since the city is so precariously placed the locals have a devil-may-care air while they attend to their daily business. Unfortunately, it's an attitude in vogue and it attracts musician types and the young who affect moody expressions in droves. My bartender fears being replaced by these younger types who will create something new and probably far less seedy. I can only think it has already happened.
Footnote: Visited the place where Faulkner stayed while he wrote his first book. It's now a bookstore with an impressive shelf of first editions. But I found Dauphine Street (Used) Books more inviting and with a better, more affordable selection.
"Humanity is a comic role," so said Novalis the German writer who Penelope Fitzgerald portrays in The Blue Flower. While I found the book to be enjoyable I wouldn't rank it as Fitzgerald's best as others have. It lacked the large dose of comedy that her other books contain.
My attention slipped countless times, but it was no fault of Fitzgerald's prose. It was, I think, the characters. Only Rockenthien, the father of Novalis' 12 year old love, demanded I read on.
He is succinctly described: "Frau Rockenthien had a special tenderness for small and insignificant young people, believing that they could be transformed, by giving them plenty to eat, into tall and stout ones."
Easily one can imagine him bellowing, singing, laughing, and slapping wooden tables in Fitzgerald's cold, damp 18th century Germany.
The whole of the book is somber, reflective, and confined--only heated by the odd mention of cabbage soup. Its general tone is as follows:
No-one in Weissenfels looked forward very much to the Hardenbergs' invitations, but they were so rare - this was not thought of as meanness, everyone knew of their piety and charity - and so formally expressed, that they seemed less of a celebration than a register of slowly passing time, like morality itself."
Who hasn't "registered" parties in this way?
I'm more at home in Fitzgerald's The Bookshop where tea is consumed while humanity plays its usual, comic role.
On reading that Graham Greene thought Waugh's The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold was his best book from a technical standpoint I had to find out why.
As it turns out, I have tried to read the book long ago and failed. While the first chapter two chapters are clean and taut, the rest require more patience.
The book concerns a writer of Waugh's professional stature (Pinfold) who succumbs to wild, fanciful dreams induced by self-prescribed medicine and heavy drink.
Greene recalls asking Waugh why he did not release his Sword of Honour trilogy as one book outright. Waugh responded that he felt he would lose his mind like Pinfold one more time before he could finish the trilogy.
The book's action begins as Pinfold boards a ship to escape his native climate to recover from a procession of ailments. In his cabin, Pinfold thinks he overhears a number of conspiracies unfold through the ship's broken PA system. Sadly, most of the book centers on Pinfold overhearing gossip about events that never occur. As as result it's grows dull, like listening to someone recount their dreams or idle aspirations.
The best bits occur when Pinfold tries to communicate with the retiring folks on board whom he believes to be embroiled in sinister crimes.
Concluding that the Captain is a murderer he brings the subject up at dinner. The Captain recounts that he had known a man who killed before. This is what follows:
"I expect he smiled a good deal, didn't he?" asked Mr. Pinfold.
"Yes, as a matter of fact he did. Always a most cheerful chap. He went off to be hanged laughing away with his bothers as though it was no end of a joke."
Mr. Pinfold stared full into the eyes of the smiling Captain. Was there a sign of alarm in that broad, plain face?
If only Pinfold had more moments like that! It is far funnier to observe the reactions of confused passengers than to spend time with a confused protagonist.
And of course Greene is right. Technically it is a marvel with sharp, lean writing. Here, I've selected two passages which I found amusing and representative.
When passengers turn their attention on Pinfold, Waugh writes: "Now, however, it was as though he [Pinfold] were a noteworthy, unaccompanied female, newly appearing in the evening promenade of some stagnate South American town."
I will leave you with this gem concerning Pinfold's past:
When Mr. Pinfold first joined Bellamy's there was an old earl who had sat alone all day and every day in the corner of the stairs wearing an odd, hard hat and talking to himself. He had one theme, the passing procession of his fellow members. Sometimes he dozed, but in his long waking hours he maintained a running commentary - 'That fellow's chin is too big... 'Pick your feet up, you. Wearing the carpets out.'"
Graham Greene's second autobiography, Ways of Escape, begins when he is 27. Greene recounts his many reporting trips around the world and only hints at the personal turmoil in his life. We don't see his failing marriage up close nor meet any of his mistresses. Greene simply takes the reader from one adventure to the next.
The following facts jumped out at me:
1. Greene did cocaine. Perhaps he chummed around with Capote too much? Greene makes it clear that he would do anything to escape boredom. He recounts a story about buying fake cocaine that doesn't lead anywhere. He is anxious to impress on the reader that he is restless and would go to any length to amuse himself.
2. Greene's writing pace: "I could usually write a novel in nine months." Although, he finished The Confidential Agent in six weeks thanks to a brief reliance on Benzedrine.
3. Greene was considering suicide when he wrote my favorite of his books, The Heart of the Matter. He is uncomfortable with the book and wonders why so many found it moving. He counts The Honorary Counsel to be his finest.
3. His advice on writing is common, but bears repeating. "The beastly adverb--far more damaging to a writer than an adjective." Greene recommends Waugh's The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold as an example of a writer's book free from extraneous words.
4. Greene reviewed movies and was "horrified" at the arrival of talking pictures and, later, technicolor. He grew to enjoy both over time. One of his tepid reviews made Shirley Temple file a libel suit against him.
5. Greene had a doppelganger. An Australian man with Greene's name traveled around the world, wooing woman, pretending to be Greene the author. A reporter believing the impostor to be the real thing caught up with him in Geneva and asked if he was writing a new book. The fake Greene replied that, no, he wasn't. He was going to take a "true holiday."
Just finished Graham Green's autobiography A Sort of Life in which he describes the first 27 years of his life.
I most enjoyed learning:
1. Greene enjoyed playing Russian Roulette with himself. he would hold a gun with only one cartridge to his head and shoot. Greene enjoyed the sensational feeling of escaping death. Who doesn't?
2. Greene is a famous Catholic and I had always assumed he found God in the heart of some jungle, but no. He took an interest in the church because of a girl (who later became his wife). His priest was a jovial, ex-actor named Father Trollope. Greene writes, "What had these monks, with an obligation to dwell in all their sermons and retreats on the reality of hell, in common with this stout cheerful man who loved the smell of grease paint and the applause at a curtain fall? Perhaps nothing except the desire to drown. A few years later he was dead of cancer."
3. Greene smoked opium. I figured he did after reading The Quiet American, but one can never be too sure.
4. Greene went to therapy at the turn of the century after a few weak suicide attempts and a clumsy escape from home.
5. He wrote 500 words a day. Less than I would have expected for his output was impressive. He had 3 published, lengthy books under his belt by 27 though he felt they were all poor imitations of Conrad. He wrote in the morning and worked at The Times from 4 to 11pm.
6. Greene was drunk for about a year in university. He even showed up to an academic ceremony drunk. "But I have cause to be thankful for that spell of alcoholism. It left me with a strong head and a tough liver. 'Mithridates he died old.'"
7. On writing exciting scenes: "Excitement is a situation, a single event. It mustn't be wrapped up in thoughts, similes, metaphors. Action can only be expressed by a subject, verb and an object, perhaps a rhythm--little else."