Thursday, May 24, 2018

A Film Worthy of the Bard

Nothing Is Truer Than Truth is a documentary film, telling in a very convincing way its own truth—that the writer of the works of Shakespeare was not the man we thought at all but Edward De Vere, who lived in the Elizabethan era, traveled to Italy
Edward De Vere
for a year and a half, and returned to bring the Renaissance to England almost single-handedly.

The film, brilliantly written, produced and directed by Cheryl Eagan-Donovan, relies heavily on  the book Shakespeare by Another Name, a biography of De Vere by Mark Anderson. It focuses on the years of De Vere’s life when he lived in Italy, drawing parallels between the works attributed to the man from Stratford and the real life studies and adventures of the English nobleman. Recent thought has brought much attention to the lack of evidence that the man Will Shaksper (sic) of Stratford had the scope of knowledge it would have taken to write what is considered to be the greatest literature in the English language. Eagan-Donovan says little about the man from Stratford, whose life has confounded scholars for centuries, and wisely reveals instead the very colorful and well-documented travels of Edward De Vere.

With footage of the architecture and festivals of Venice, Nothing Is Truer Than the Truth is a visual feast, calling to mind how Italy must have been in the 16th century. There are film clips from Shakespearean productions featuring crucial scenes from A Merchant of Venice, Two Gentlemen of Verona, Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night and The Comedy of Errors--all illustrating Shakespeare’s intimate knowledge of Italy in his time. There is commentary by Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance, both players who are knowledgeable about the details of Shakespeare’s work and his times. Jacobi openly espouses the idea, and here defends his position strongly, that whoever wrote the plays would have to have been to the locales and known some of the characters he wrote about—and that Edward De Vere fits that requirement remarkably.

Scholars, too, appear in the film and discuss their findings about the Shakespeare authorship question. Roger A. Stritmatter, who has done primary research on the Geneva bible owned by Edward De Vere (and annotated in such a way as to confirm its connections to Shakespeare’s writing), Alexander Waugh (grandson of Evelyn), Richard Whalen, (author of Who Wrote Shakespeare?), John Shahan, Diane Paulus, Tina Packer, and many others, talk about Edward De Vere and the works of Shakespeare.

Nothing Is Truer Than Truth is exhaustively researched and a joy to watch, leaving the viewer with a sense that there is more to this story than we yet know.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

My Mother, My Friend

Maudetta Graham was the baby of the family born to Maude Melia Matthews Graham and John Richard Graham, born in 1914. The family lived in the town of Crichton, hard by (and now a part of) Mobile, and she grew up in poverty with a brilliant underachiever of a father and a doting mother. She learned to love from her mother Maude and her devoted aunt Etta, both of whom she was named for. She was to contract the double name into a shortened version which had an old-fashioned, genuine ring to it, much like herself. She worshiped her older brother, Theodore, known as "Doe," an entertainer and professional golfer. Her brother Claiborne, a year older than she and thought of as the smart one of the three children, died of spinal meningitis at the age of 15, a trauma she never really overcame.

She loved little children and dolls. For her 16th birthday, she received her last doll. Two years later she was married.

There was something innocent and childlike about Maudetta Timbes all her life. She was an expert at denial: Every child she loved was "the smartest" and everybody she knew was nice. A gifted and natural writer, she dabbled in poetry and short fiction. When we moved near the bay she began combing the beaches and collecting driftwood which she fashioned into furniture and lamps. She loved her gardens, always claiming that she didn't like the work but she loved the result. To this day she has a wonderful sense of humor and an almost accidental wit. Her three children have a way of gathering and trading wisecracks and jokes in order to keep her laughing. Even at the nursing home, debilitated by a stroke and enormous discomfort, she is able to laugh if we are able to come up with the right thing to say.

She has never handled harsh reality well. When bad things happened she was overwhelmed. After my father died, desperately needing projects to fill her time, she threw herself into researching and creating a long and complex family history. Aided by a local family history club, she learned the techniques of looking into records--long before there was the ease of the Internet. She spent several years compiling what will always be a family treasure, a 200-page volume of stories, charts and anecdotes of as many family members as she could find, on both sides of our family. She peppered her writing with tales about people and events--rather than creating a family tree, as most do when presenting family history. The family research sites like Ancestry were not there, so she did the looking into old census records on her own. She visited major libraries and browsed ancient cemeteries and church records for her information. Her book is charming, insightful, but full of mythology, just as she always was.

Her three children adored her but she was in many ways more like an older sibling than a mother. When I returned to Alabama, to live near her as she entered her 80s, I was a different person than the girl who had left at 18. We were able to thrash out some of the details of both our lives, together, and I came to know her on a new level. We never quite reached the natural role reversal of child becoming parent but I helped care for her as she lost a step, then another--and wonder of wonders, after she died in 2008 she is still with me every day. She had done the best she could to make her life good, and memories of her make all of us who knew her, better.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

An Appreciation of Harper Lee

No, I don't know her. I can't claim to have had a chat with her about writing, or about life as a child in the Jim Crow South; or have her critique of any books I may have written. She dogs my footsteps anyhow, this celebrated, enigmatic chronicler of the pinpoint in time when things were wrong and it was possible to make them partly right by exposing them with honesty and grace. Hers is the spirit of every writer.

If I knew her, I wouldn't refer to her as "Harper," anyway. She has always been called Nelle, which was her grandmother's name spelled backwards. Southerners sometimes do eccentric things like that. Harper is her middle name, which she was wise to use as sort of a nom de plume to separate people who knew her from people who had just read her book To Kill a Mockingbird.

The success of To Kill a Mockingbird was monumental on many levels. Her book brought the Gone With the Wind-type South up short, painting a true picture of that unjust system of legal justice that had been imbedded in the part of the country we both grew up in since the founding of our nation. No longer could we comfortably yearn for the glorious days of hoop skirts and dandies defending the honor of Southern womanhood. The picture she painted was real, recognizable,  contemporary, and not so pretty. The black race was no longer enslaved and compliant, as we had been told it once was. Even children could see and feel the stings of the falsity we were being spoon-fed. Lee's characters were innocent but swept up in a tide of misdeeds and deception. They observed, they questioned, and even though they may have found the answers wanting, they accepted the custom of racial segregation as they went about the business of growing up. Lee's matter-of-fact reportage from the viewpoint of children was unique, so unique that it reached the world and was an effective instrument in the arsenal of change.

The ability to expose injustice--and effect hearts and minds--through the force of one's art is the dream of every writer. Nelle surely hoped to do that as she laid out To Kill a Mockingbird, but, unlike many creative types, she was unassuming and introverted. She was a small town Southern girl, with a not-untypical childhood, with at least one book in her, and she needed to get that out. Friends subsidized her for a year, and she did the job she set out to do in that period of time.

Since the days when To Kill a Mockingbird came out her life changed totally, and her reticence has created as much of a firestorm of interest in her as its converse celebrity-seeking might have done. I was told by an intimate of the man who knew her in her early days that when the money and fame came, she had been so enthralled by it she had to clear herself away from its source (the whirl of Manhattan) in order to save herself. She moved from the mad rush she was getting in New York back to the quiet of Monroeville, shutting herself away from the press and establishing herself as an author of one book, living not technically as a recluse, but a person with a fetish for privacy that became a legend in itself.

This caused no end of speculation and wonder, particularly among Southern writers, most of whom enjoy spinning yarns in public places as much as facing the blank page. We who wrote solicited her support, and she was good about sending occasional letters to those writers she admired, but she seldom emerged from her cocoon of solitude except to accept the occasional award or perhaps to answer the well-crafted single question.

A bit of a cottage "mockingbird" industry has begun to grow up in Monroeville--and word is she is not happy about it.  A snoopy writer moved next door, befriended her and her sister Alice, and wrote a book about the two that Lee has gone public denying any knowledge of.

Twenty years ago, promoting the local courthouse museum, the town began an annual production of the stage version of To Kill a Mockingbird, rather like one of those passion plays on the story of Christ done in small towns. I was director and founder of Jubilee Fish Theater, an equity company in Point Clear, just a couple of hours away from Monroeville and some locals there saw me on television promoting an upcoming show. They got in touch with me to advise their young museum director on how to improve their production.

I went to Monroeville, met with Kathy, the museum director, and looked over the facility. They were putting on the play IN the courtroom, an awe-inspiring room that was used as the model for the set in the film version of Lee's book. I then had supper with the couple who invited me--I swear I believe the restaurant was named Radley's--and discovered that he was a carpenter and contractor. I asked him if he could build a few facades of houses with porches on the courthouse lawn,
My contribution to the show
for sets in the first act of the play. He said, "Sure." We then met with Kathy and I gave her my advice--expand the show, building outdoor sets for the first scenes, and then move the audience upstairs in the courthouse for the courtroom scenes. I also advised her to create a full-fledged amateur theatre group called The Mockingbird Players, putting on a season of plays each year, to better equip her actors for the stage. I volunteered to direct a play or two with them, maybe give acting classes, to launch them in the new venture. They didn't take me up on that, but they took the name The Mockingbird Players for the troop presenting the play, and have continued forward every year. To my knowledge, Harper Lee has never attended a production or sanctioned its existence.

Go Set a Watchman is a different book. It was the first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird.  Go Set a Watchman features many of the characters we came to know in Mockingbird but it finds them at a different point in their lives. It is about Jean Louise Finch, who, in her 20s, goes home to confront her revered father Atticus Finch. Watchman is full of flashbacks to her childhood, some humorous, some sad. The first editor suggested that it was two books and that the book about the children was the most interesting. Lee rewrote it, focusing on the children, but gave the original manuscript to her sister. I think it is probably important to the lovers of To Kill a Mockingbird to read this book, and that probably Alice Lee thought so too or she wouldn't have saved it.
I've read it and for many reasons find it a better book than To Kill a Mockingbird. I shall review it and discuss the life and times, the books, and the context of Harper Lee's work in a presentation at The Book Cellar at Page & Palette Bookstore in Fairhope, Alabama, on February 16, at 6:30 P.M. I hope you can be there.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Looking Back at Love

"Have you ever been in love?"

A simple enough question, I guess, yes or no. Yet when I man I'd met on an online dating service asked me I was stumped for an answer.

I had never been asked that question before. I've been married three times and was what I would have called in love with all of them at the time we tied the knot. The man asking the question had been married once, for nearly 40 years, to one woman, and had been at her side every day as she suffered from Alzheimer's until she died. That was what he meant by love, and I was not one to argue. It is the stuff fairy tales are made of, and rom-coms from Hollywood, and probably a large percentage of the fiction we read. Happily ever after, and then you close the book and never ask what happens next.

It looks so easy when other people do it, but on the other hand there are many of us who struggle with the concept for our whole lives. It would be so pleasant to have a partner for life, someone to banter with over coffee every morning, some to care for us, observe our triumphs, soothe us through difficulties, be in love with us forever. In my experience marriage itself had something to do with the loss of that "in love" feeling--time, familiarity, a growing awareness of the reality of the other and knowledge that he had the same awareness of you. My dating friend told me that he had been his wife's whole world through their marriage, and in my eyes she was fortunate that he never abused that devotion. He is a wise and courageous person. How do I, who lived a rootless, sometimes reckless, often self-centered, and always questing and questioning existence, respond to a person so sincere, so profound in his conventionality? All I could say was "I've had a different sort of life."

He chooses to believe that my last husband, whom I was with for 25 years and who died of cirhossis of the liver, was the love of my life. I would not say that. So I look back--was there a love of my life at all, or am I still seeking him? There were passionate affairs, complex adjustments, and there was a layer of love over all, but is there one person I would characterize as the love of my life?

To most people, this seems to be so easy. You are young, you fall in love, you commit for life, and the two of you suffer and grow together through life's highs and lows. You find ways to keep the illusion alive--the illusion that it is the same for always, that the magic hasn't paled or altered over time. I'm trying not to be judgmental here, so I must assume that in most cases it is not an illusion at all.

But the question came from an intimate friend, a man I respected. How to break it to him, what my life has been, how different the experience of love itself has been from my family of origin on. It's too much to answer lightly. I was in love, but I was in another world. and I don't mean the soap opera either. I was in "The Guiding Light," and in "The Edge of Night," but when I was in love I was in another world. Something inside tells me I haven't found the big one yet, or that I didn't know it when I saw it, but that there is still a chance. Every birthday that comes around makes that happenstance less of a possibility. I have learned to love myself in a broader way as time passes, to go through my days cherishing myself if possible as much as a lover would, and to be open in case something or someone comes along who would be that joyous companion for the rest of my days.

Yes, I have been in love. But probably not the way you mean.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

The Way We Thought We Were

A friend of mine once explained his breakup with a beautiful young woman from Iowa, "She saw the movie Annie Hall when she was a teenager and decided then and there she was going to be like Annie Hall and move to New York and seduce a witty Jewish guy like Woody Allen. After she moved in she discovered I was Jewish only on my father's side and was no Woody Allen. It was all downhill after that."

In the early days of the Internet I got interested in chat rooms. Now, of course, I use Facebook as a virtual time sink for semi-personal relations, but back then I had a lot of fun in a chat room of my own I called The Algonquin Round Table. I had fancied that the name would attract wits and wags from all over the country who knew about Dorothy Parker and the denizens of the so-called round table of the 1920s. For the better part of a year I kept it going, but I all too often I had to explain what the original round table was and try to keep the conversational patter at a level that would invite wisecracks and witty comments. People did come in as alter egos and one young woman dubbed herself Holly Golightly (I know it's the wrong period, but she was allowed it in the spirit of the game. She had seen the movie Breakfast at Tiffany's and obviously it struck a chord with her). 

To make this long story short, she attracted one of the young men in my vicious circle so much that one weekend he hopped a plane from Denver, where he lived, to meet her in Seattle, where she lived. The visit was a fiasco. I don't know the details, but I suspect he was expecting Audrey Hepburn to greet him as much as she expected George Peppard to step off that plane.

Leslie Caron in Lili
Maybe it's common for adolescent girls to latch on to a particular image of someone they see in the movies to define their expectations of the next phase of their life. What then, I asked myself, did I see myself as? The answer came to me right away.

I was Leslie Caron as Lili, naive, hopeful, a little tacky, but oh so charming and elfin and young, young, young, like a kindergartner let loose among the grownups and choosing to play with the puppets. I loved that movie. I remember bawling out loud at it. I think I was it. A few years later I saw Federico Fellini's La Strada, a better movie with a more rounded picture of the young woman I thought I was at that time, played magnificently by Guillieta Masini. That haunting innocent character has stayed with me as I outgrew and outclassed her over the years, but when it came to choosing a costume for a movie party in Rosendale last fall, I dressed as her and felt more liberated than I could remember ever having felt.
Gelsomina, La Strada (Giulietta Masini)

 I can't say exactly why I identified so much with the naifs in those pictures, as I made the transition to adulthood, but I still adore them both and would love to have played them--but I would not have loved to be either one of them. I thought I was seeing myself.

Me as Gelsomina, Rosendale NY, 2014

Teenagers have fantasies, or at least some of them do. Do you know who you thought you were? Ever have a fantasy of what you'd be?  How did that work out?

Monday, February 16, 2015

My Alter Ego

This is how I think I am...

When I was a teenager, I wanted to be a movie star. I was in a few amateur theatre productions, and I wanted to major in theatre when I left for college. I had many adventures in the theatre department, played some good roles, and always imagined I was going to make it either in the movies or onstage. My first husband joined me in this fantasy, as we planned to capitalize on my talent and both be famous one day. His dream was to be an opera impresario--I didn't know what that was, but it sounded good to me.

My name would have to go. I tossed around a number of stage names--one of them I liked was Robin Graham. Graham was my mother's maiden name and is my brother's first name. Mary Lois Timbes was cumbersome and didn't have the right ring to it.

Lately I've thought what-if. What if I had taken the name of Robin Graham, not married early, not had a baby at the age of 22, not taken the turns I did in life. What would have become of Robin Graham, the movie star?

For one thing, she would have lived in California. She would have worked with actors in her age group--Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, Sam Waterston, Jack Nicholson, Susan Sarandan. She would have learned acting with strict teachers, shed some of her inhibitions, stopped biting her fingernails, taken voice training, and learned to sing. She would have been coached on how to sit for photographs so she would not always looked strained and awkward in snapshots. She would have had a first-rate shrink or two.  She never would have gotten the least bit fat. She would have exercised regularly and eaten minimally. She would weigh about 30 pounds less than I do at this point.  By now she probably would have had work done on her face and maybe her body. She would know how to enter a room in an unforgettable way.

But. She never would have had that extraordinary daughter that Mary Lois Timbes got. She wouldn't have lived in Geneva for six years as wife of the head of public affairs and advertising of DuPont Europe.  She wouldn't have started two theatre companies and written three books. She wouldn't have two strapping, good-looking grandsons with potential to do everything. Whatever Robin Graham's fun-filled life would have been, it wouldn't have been as rewarding as the one Mary Lois Timbes Woods Vann Adshead has had.

I've decided to keep Robin Graham alive in my imagination, however. I like thinking about her. Then one day recently on Facebook somebody posted the picture above, with my face photoshopped on a publicity still from Into the Woods. The slim young waist with its cheerful head made me instantly happy. It's what Robin Graham would look like. It's what I think I look like.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Dying of the Light

A Recent Picture
Some people live with us forever. We think of them often, and we regard them as vital, dynamic, swirling about in their own lives, on top of their problems and at the top of their game. We know there are ups and downs, but, because of their resilience and resourcefulness, they live in our imaginations as always charging upward.

Such a man was Mort Gordon, who hired me for my first job in New York City, a young woman with a smattering of newspaper experience, hoping to crack the city one way or another.  It was with great sorrow that I learned of his death Friday at the age of 87. His was a strong and happy spirit, and he was a light in the lives of many who knew and worked with him. I had not seen him in over 40 years, but he remains as vivid to me anyone I've ever known.

Mort was one of the co-editors of a trade newspaper, and I was to be secretary and editorial assistant to him and Herb Blueweiss. Mort was tall, breezy, sexy--and Herb was short, balding, bookish, and somewhat enigmatic. The two were close friends, symbiotic in their mutual admiration, and together they created an atmosphere of casual competence in the newsroom. The company was Fairchild Publications and the newspaper was a men's wear and textile industry outlet called Daily News Record.

Mort was a good editor and a gentle guy with people; he was the one we’d take our stories to if we had a problem.
Exactly as I remember him
He cut a wide swath through his segment of the men's wear industry--furnishings--meaning shirts, ties, and accessories. He was liked by the staff who worked for him and the men and women in the industry he wrote about, because of his big personality and his sincerity with people.

Fairchild was housed in two buildings, back to back. The front door was at 7 East 12th Street, an entrance into a modern if characterless building where the sleeker publications were produced. A plain lobby housed a front desk and a bank of three elevators. If you took this elevator to the third floor you were in the world of Women’s Wear Daily, full of chicly dressed young women at desks with typewriters, reporting on the future of hemlines, and a few hapless males writing about the business side of the women’s fashion industry.

If you were going to the Daily News Record office, you had to make a trek through these desks on past the fey characters of the art department on the right and through a passageway to the back building. This structure was decidedly old, housing some geezers who wrote columns called “Words at Random,” and “Cotton Grey Goods,” as well as some serious guys discussing such topics as the necktie market, textile machinery, the staying power of the “mod” fashion in the youth market. You would also see a passel of merry pranksters looking for their next big journalism break. As a secretary, I fit cozily into that latter category.

You could also enter DNR the back way, up the stairs or in the creaky old elevator in the shabby 13th Street building. At that end of the room were the financial desk, the legal reporters, and a smattering of other market desks.

I worked at DNR off and on for some six years from the mid-60’s until the early 70’s when I left for good for the greener pastures of public relations, but I left having made the acquaintance of some of the most interesting characters of my life, and having made some friends I still see today. There is a surreal quality to my memories of the place. Every reporter, every editor, even the copy kids—all were distinct in his or her view of their employment. They took their work with a grain of salt, but basically performed it well. It took some doing for an incipient novelist to call on the little knitting mills producing men’s sweaters and report the company’s financial and marketing plans. Mort Gordon was responsible in no small for the tone of the place--he managed us all in the best sense of the word.

A native of Philadelphia, Gordon graduated from Temple University with a B.S. in journalism. After service in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War, he returned to Philadelphia went to work as a reporter in Fairchild’s Philadelphia bureau. He was a born salesman, and soon moved up the ranks at Fairchild to become publisher of Men's Wear Magazine, a prestigious industry publication. After he left Fairchild he had a long career in the business of licensing men's wear products.

Mort had suffered from pancreatic cancer, and yet he kept his upbeat attitude until the end, still playing tennis and probably flirting with the nurses. I'll always think of how happy I felt when he'd stream into the newsroom, always nattily dressed, usually with just the right amount of a light cologne, a ready laugh, and a good word.