Sunday, February 26, 2012

Neither poison pen nor mudraking all the way. Good fun, though.

The Mitford sisters and I – we go back a long way, literally speaking. I first came across them in March 2009 after following the exploits of the Rt Hon Unity Mitford, whom I described in a recent Tweet as ‘a U Brit brat + a Winston Churchill relation + a Hitler “groupie”.’ The Mitford sister younger to her was Jessica (aka “Decca”), the adventurous one with leftist inclinations who ran away from her stately home to fight in the Spanish Civil War and was a card-carrying member of the Communist Party in the US for a while also happens to be JK (Harry Potter) Rowling’s self-acknowledged “heroine”. After reading Poison Penmanship: The Gentle Art of Mudraking (Alford a Knopf, New York, 1979) - rescued by me as usual from my consigned-to-the-back-rack-and-conveniently-forgotten book collection - I couldn’t but concur with Rowling’s summing-up of her as “[i]ncurably and instinctively rebellious, brave, adventurous, funny and irreverent”. I can vouch that Poison Penmanship is a series of delectable (what I’m tempted to call) belles-lettres. From among them, I would rate the following as strictly falling in the “mudraking” category of investigative journalism in the US, at times accidentally so: You-All and Non-You-All, the 3 funeral pieces, Maine Chance Diary, Let Us Now Appraise Famous Writers, My Short and Happy Life as a Distinguished Professor, and the 2 Sign of the Dove pieces. What comes across from her writing is what Rowling told us: “I love the way she never outgrew some of her adolescent traits, remaining true to her politics – she was a self-taught socialist – throughout her life.” And, “… she liked nothing better than a good fight, preferably against a pompous and hypocritical target” like the funeral trade, San Jose State University, Famous Writers correspondence school. Elizabeth Arden, the American South in the fifties, you name it. All told a rip-roaring read.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool.

There I’ve gone and done it once again. Excavated from the inner recesses of one of my many bookcases a very readable and moving account of a Hollywood star’s last days enshrined in a Chatto & Windus (1986) hardcover first edition − that’s what I have done – no less. I must have picked Peter Turner’s Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool off the DN Road footpath probably near its Flora Fountain end in the mid-90s, merrily chucked it in one of my numerous bookcases and forgotten all about it. The book, I confess, may not be everybody’s cup of tea. With me, it qualifies one hundred per cent because it is (a) in the historical gossip genre which has been my perennial favourite – I simply relish it; and (b) about a minor Hollywood film noir star of the 40s and 50s invariably typecast as a floosy with a heart of gold. Gloria Grahame caught my eye and my fancy in the Humphrey Bogart starrer, In A Lonely Place (1950), and The Big Heat (1953). By a strange coincidence, Gloria’s private life happened to match her screen persona perfectly. To put it mildly, she lived her life along unorthodox lines with a string of failed marriages and stormy affairs. The book depicts her as being quite quirky, living in a trailer parked in a caravan park in California, not possessing too many clothes and accessories, forever anxious about keeping her awkward feet covered in socks and so forth. It is written by her lover in a cougar relationship, the Liverpudlian stage actor Peter Turner who was 29 years her junior. The narrative intertwines two distinct streams: one of nostalgia and the other describing pre-death rites of care and comfort. It is surprisingly racy, tragic, at times unintentionally funny, very visual and very, very believable. There is no flourish or fanfare used in the telling. I feel it would make a great movie. What’s more, it deserves a wider reading public as well. P.S.: By the way, the book title comes from a chance remark by the author’s bête noire when informed of the impending demise of a Hollywood star in the hometown of The Beatles.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Manneys and I.

There was a time in my life when every visit to Pune included a visit or two to Manneys. Before the old Manneys set in a sprawling and dilapidated colonial bungalow on the Moledina Road in the Cantonment area was renovated in mid-80s, it had a charm all its own. You could lose yourselves for hours in the rows of shelves browsing to your heart’s content without anyone bothering you. In the late 60s and early 70s, I bought quite a few books there. Many of them are still stuck in my memory. One of them was a hardcover copy of Napoleon’s Book of Fate & Oraculum for which I must have paid not more than rs.70/-. (Today, the on-line bookshops are charging around Rs.1000/- for a paperback copy of it. Pity, I lost my copy. I could have got a bit of money for its antique value.) I cannot remember the titles and/or authors of a couple of memoirs of lesser known American ad professionals that I picked up there in my zeal in those days for knowing more and more about advertising. One of my other finds from there was a collection of humorous fiction and essays of the British-Canadian writer, Stephen Leacock, in a rather elegant hardcover Bodley Head edition in an offwhite slipcase. A2CWzY Unfortunately, I lost all of these books somewhere along the way. I never spoke more than a few words with the proprietor who, according to the various articles about Manneys, was always very helpful and forthcoming. Were I to muster all the nostalgia at my command, I still cannot say that the closing down of Manneys will leave a dreadful void in my life. I’m sure it won’t.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Ho-hum! So what else is new?

Among the American Founding Fathers, John Hancock was said to be a smuggler in Boston; Henry Laurens, a big-time slave trader; George Washington and Ben Franklin were supposedly involved in land grabs of dubious legality. Ben was known to have been equally successful at wooing French women as well as French financiers of the American Revolution. Thomas Jefferson had a love slave − literally: Sally Hemings, a woman of mixed parentage whom he owned. James Buchanan, who was the President immediately prior to Lincoln, was allegedly in a three- decade relationship with a southern Senator and slave owner. His illustrious successor too was believed to have similar proclivities. Coming closer to the present, Dwight Eisenhower had his “pretty Irish driver”, an Englishwoman named Kay Summersby Morgan. He wanted to marry her after divorcing Mamie, according to President Harry Truman. Ike even went so far as to request the Pentagon to relieve him of his command so that he could follow his heart. He was threatened with dire consequences if he indulged his romantic inclination. It fizzled out and, despite Ike’s solemn promise to take her to Washington as his secretary; Kay got the sack after he left Europe. In short, she lost both her man and her job, poor dear. Monica Lewinsky, the White House intern in the notorious Blue Dress, was only one of Bill Clinton’s many peccadilloes, in and out of the Presidency. That JFK took frequent and brief breaks from his high-pressure job with his numerous flings, including the one with Marilyn Monroe, is an open secret too widely known and accepted as an integral part of US Presidential lore and unlikely to raise any eyebrows anymore. So why should we be scandalized by the recent revelations by Mimi Alford, now a 69-year-old grandmother and retired New York City church administrator, about her 18-month-long affair with Kennedy in 1962-63 during her White House internship at age 19? Why indeed? The reader reactions to an article about a soon-to-be-published tell-all memoir of the secret life of Hollywood stars of the swinging 40s and 50s – long before AIDS and gay liberation, Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars (Grove Press) by the self-proclaimed “facilitator” Scotty Bowers is along the same lines. No big deal how people chose to live in private. Anyway, who the devil cares about a bunch of ancient has-beens? P.S.: The cover page image at website shows a 3-word excerpt from Gore Vidal’s comment that lends a semblance of credibility to the 88-year-0ld Bowers’ book, though. The full comment reads: “I have known Scotty Bowers for the better part of a century. I’m so pleased that he has finally decided to tell his story to the world. His startling memoir includes great figures like Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. Scotty doesn’t lie — the stars sometimes do — and he knows everybody.” yZRZEo,

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Kill Bill.

I had always thought of man as a polluting animal, first and foremost, who leaves a lot of mess, physical and/or emotional, in his wake. Then I chanced upon Philipe Gigantès’s Power and Greed: A Short History of the World (Robinson, London, 2002). That really made the scales drop from my eyes, big time. PG introduced me to the villain of the human continuum: the Grand Acquisitor. (He writes in a footnote that there is no such word as ‘acquisitor’. I found it on the Internet, though. It looks like it has been lurking unobtrusively on page 16 of Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary [1913 + 1828].) The moral of PG’s thesis is man has been an acquisitive brute all along. His mate has been his worthy partner-in-crime. The pantheon of the Grand Acquisitors includes all the historical figures who have been hailed by orthodox historians as heroes and saviours. To me, this suggests that man’s past as a hunter continues to haunt his present and his future. We cannot help being marauders and practising one-upmanship whatever we are doing. Like Gordon Gekko, we too begin following the “Greed is good” mantra. Has the time come to pay for our historical blunders? Your guess is as good as mine, I guess. Aldous Huxley summed it up rather lucidly in Ape and Essence:

Church and State.
Greed and hate.
Two baboon persons
In one supreme gorilla.

In short, kill, torture, maim, character-assassinate, lie, twist facts, go on a bull raid in the stock market … you name it. Anything to be hailed as the Top Dog, Chief Honcho, Numero Uno, Big Boss.