Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A subject we won't tiptoe around

Singer Tiny Tim died on this day in 1996, of congestive heart failure.

Born Herbert Khaury in New York in 1925, Tiny Tim became perversely popular for his falsetto singing and ukulele strumming, most famously demonstrated in his trademark song, "Tiptoe Through the Tulips."

Tim started out performing in Greenwich Village in the 1960s. His big break came when he appeared on "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In." The incredibly annoying act caught the public's fancy, and he appeared on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson as well as the Ed Sullivan Show.

In 1968 he released his first album, "God Bless Tiny Tim" which included "Tiptoe Through the Tulips." He released two more albums, including one for kids.

In 1969 he married his first wife, 17-year-old "Miss Vickie," on The Tonight Show. The marriage ended in divorce but, astounding to tell, they had a daughter, named Tulip.

Tiny Tim performed in Las Vegas and even joined a circus, but sadly, he never attained the dizzying heights of fame he had in the '60's. In 1996 he suffered a heart attack while performing at the Ukulele Hall of Fame.

Undaunted, he continued to tiptoe through America on tour. Another heart attack a few months later proved fatal.

Tiny Tim was buried with a ukulele in his hand and a tulip, in Lakewood Cemetery in Minnesota, where Hubert Humphrey, basketball icon George Mikan and Charles Lindbergh's father are also interred.

Monday, November 29, 2010

And how old Judy, Judy, Judy?

Cary Grant, born Archibald Leach in Bristol, England in 1904, died on this day in 1986. He was named the second Greatest Male Star of All Time by the American Film Institute.

Alfred Hitchcock, notorious for disliking actors, said that Grant was "the only actor I ever loved." Grant starred in Hitchcock's Notorious, Suspicion, To Catch a Thief and North by Northwest. In the latter film, he was older than the woman who played his mother.

Grant, who played romantic leads into his sixties, was always reticent about his age. Once a journalist sent his agent this telegram: How old Cary Grant?

Grant picked up the cable himself and replied: Old Cary Grant fine. How you?

Sunday, November 28, 2010

At least some fish were spared

On this day in 1994, serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, serving 15 consecutive life sentences for the murders of 15 men, was beaten to death by a fellow inmate while on cleaning duty in a bathroom at the Columbia Correctional Institute in Portage, Wisconsin.

Dahmer murdered at least 17 men between 1978 and 1991. Most of these were young, gay African-Americans he lured back to his home, promising to pay them money to pose nude for photographs. Dahmer would drug and strangle them to death, generally mutilating, and occasionally cannibalizing, their bodies.

Dahmer was arrested on July 22, 1991, and entered a plea of guilty but insane in 15 of the 17 murders he confessed to committing. In February 1992, the jury found him sane in each murder and sentenced him to 15 consecutive life sentences.

" If I was killed in prison, that would be a blessing right now," Dahmer said afterwards.

Dahmer was killed at the age of 34 by fellow inmate Christopher Scarver, who also fatally beat the third man on their work detail, Jesse Anderson. Scarver said that God told him to kill Dahmer and Scarver. Already serving a life term for murder, he was sentenced to additional life terms and transferred to a federal prison.

In one of his many interviews, the well-spoken Jeffrey Dahmer turned reflective:

"I should have gone to college and gone into real estate and got myself an aquarium, that's what I should have done."

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Wake up and smell the coffee

Eugene O'Neill, America's greatest dramatist, died on this day in 1953. His last words were: "Born in a hotel room – and, God damn it – died in a hotel room."

O'Neill won a Nobel Prize and four Pulitzers. He was, indeed, born in a hotel room, in New York City (the site is now -- what else? -- a Starbucks), the son of an Irish-American actor famous for a stage version of The Count of Monte Cristo.

As well as suffering from a malady similar to Parkinson's disease, O'Neill was an alcoholic for most of his life.

"None of us can help the things life has done to us," O'Neill wrote in Long Day's Journey Into Night. "Everything comes between you and what you'd like to be…and you have lost your true sense forever."

O'Neill wrote an epitaph, not for himself but for his dog. To read it, visit www.superdog.com/petloss/lastwill.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Cairo Museum is the official plunderer

On this day in 1922, King Tut's slumbers were disturbed for the first time in over 3,000 years.

When British archaeologist Howard Carter first arrived in Egypt, in 1891, most of the ancient Egyptian tombs had been discovered – and most of those had been plundered. But the brilliant and dogged Carter discovered the tombs of Queen Hatshepsut and King Thutmose IV. In 1907 he was commissioned by the Earl of Carnarvon, a collector of antiquities, to supervise excavations in the Valley of the Kings. Carter was convinced that the tomb of the little-known King Tut might still be found.

Tutankhamen became king in 1333 B.C., when he was a child of 8. He died a decade later. In the 13th century B.C., Tutankhamen and the other "Amarna" kings were publicly condemned, and most records of them were destroyed, including the location of Tut's tomb. A century later, in the 12th century B.C., workers building a tomb for Ramses VI inadvertently covered Tutankhamen's tomb with a deep layer of chips, further protecting it from discovery.

In November of 1922, Carter's crew discovered a step leading to the tomb's entrance. Carnarvon rushed to Egypt, and on Nov. 23 they broke through a mud-brick door, revealing the passageway that led to the tomb. On Nov. 26 they broke through another door, and Carter leaned in with a candle to take a look. Behind him, Lord Carnarvon asked, "Can you see anything?"

"Yes, wonderful things," Carter said.

The antechamber of the tomb was, miraculously, untouched. The dusty floor still showed the footprints of the tomb builders.

"Thus began a monumental excavation process in which Carter carefully explored the four-room tomb over several years, uncovering an incredible collection of several thousand objects. In addition to numerous pieces of jewelry and gold, there was statuary, furniture, clothes, a chariot, weapons, and numerous other objects that shed a brilliant light on the culture and history of ancient Egypt. The most splendid find was a stone sarcophagus containing three coffins nested within each other. Inside the final coffin, made out of solid gold, was the mummified body of the boy-king Tutankhamen, preserved for 3,200 years. Most of these treasures are now housed in the Cairo Museum." (This Day in History, at www.history.com.)

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Sayonara, cruel world

On this day in 1970, the world-renowned Japanese writer Yukio Mishima committed suicide.

One of Mishima's subjects as a novelist was the spiritual barrenness of modern life. He contrasted the old Japan, with its patriotism and traditional values, to the new, materialistic, westernized Japan that arose after 1945.

On November 25, 1970, Mishima delivered to his publisher the last installment of The Sea of Fertility, his four-volume epic on Japanese life in the 20th century. He then went with several followers to a military building in Tokyo and seized control of a general's office. There, from a balcony, he gave a brief speech to about 1,000 assembled servicemen, in which he urged them to overthrow Japan's constitution.

Instead of inspiring a coup d'etat, he was mocked and jeered. When he finished, he went into the general's office and committed seppuku. Another member of his entourage then beheaded him.

John Nathan, Mishima's biographer, translator and friend, suggests that the coup attempt was a pretext for the ritual suicide. Mishima had made sure his affairs were in order, even leaving money for the defense trial of his three surviving followers.

Item in News of the Weird:

As an alternative to burial, cremation is no longer green enough, say environmentalists, because it releases smoke and mercury, and thus the industry is considering "promession," in which the body is frozen in liquid nitrogen to minus-320 degrees (F) and then shaken until it disintegrates into powder.

For green burials, the United States has at least six cemeteries that require biodegradable casings and for bodies to be free of embalming chemicals. The Forever Fernwood cemetery in Mill Valley, Calif., goes even further, according to an October Los Angeles Times story, banning grave markers, but, said the owner, "We issue the family a Google map with the GPS coordinates" so they can find their loved one.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Could you call Paris Hilton a parasitic Wasp?

Darwin's Origin of Species was published on this day in 1859.

In his work, whose full title is On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, Darwin theorized that organisms gradually – gradually as in thousands or even millions of years -- evolve through "natural selection" – those with genetic variations that suit their environment tend to propagate more descendants than organisms of the same species that lack the variation, thus influencing the overall genetic makeup of the species.

Darwin acquired most of the evidence for his theory during a five-year expedition aboard the HMS Beagle in the 1830s. Visiting such diverse places as the Galapagos Islands and New Zealand, Darwin studied – and brought back with him – much of the flora and fauna of those lands. Over the next 20 years he carefully developed his theory.

Actually he had formulated his theory by 1844, but he was wary to reveal his thesis to the public because it so obviously contradicted the Biblical account of creation. In 1858, with Darwin still remaining silent about his findings, the British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace independently published a paper that essentially echoed Darwin's theory. Darwin and Wallace gave a joint lecture on evolution before the Linnean Society of London in July 1858.

After Origin of Species was published, Darwin was besieged. Orthodox Christians condemned it as heresy. The controversy only deepened with his publication of The Descent of Man (1871), in which he presented evidence of man's evolution from apes.

Darwin himself had suffered a crisis of faith. He was tormented, not so much by what the public thought, but by his theory's implications for religious faith. "I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created parasitic wasps with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars," he wrote.

The death of his daughter, Annie, was, for Darwin, one of the final nails in the coffin of his Christian belief. He said that the best word to describe his religious views was "agnostic."

Most sources say that Darwin's last words were "I am not in the least afraid to die." His daughter, Henrietta, who was present, however, said that they were directed at her mother: "Remember what a good wife you have been." She also refuted the story that her father had undergone a deathbed conversion back to Christianity.

Darwin was buried in Westminster Abbey.

"Believing as I do that man in the distant future will be a far more perfect creature than he now is," Darwin wrote, "it is an intolerable thought that he and all other sentient beings are doomed to complete annihilation after such long-continued slow progress."

He also said: "A man who dares to waste one hour of life has not discovered the value of life."

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The rest is silence

Harpo Marx was born today in 1893. He died on Sept. 28, 1964, after undergoing open-heart surgery. Groucho Marx's son, Arthur, said that Harpo's funeral was the only time he ever saw his father cry.

Harpo's remains were reportedly sprinkled into the sand trap off the seventh fairway of his favorite golf course. In his will, he donated his trademark harp to the nation of Israel.

It was said of him at his funeral that "he believed the best of everybody until he was proven wrong, and even then, he gave them the benefit of the doubt."

True to his character, he had no last words.

Karl Marx, who died ten years before Harpo was born, was asked for some last words on his deathbed.

"Get out!" he said. "Last words are for fools who haven't said enough."

Monday, November 22, 2010

Ask not what you can do

John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States, was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963, while traveling through Dallas in an open-top Lincoln convertible.

First lady Jacqueline Kennedy rarely accompanied her husband on political outings, but she was beside him, along with Texas Governor John Connally and his wife, for a 10-mile motorcade through the streets of downtown Dallas. As the vehicle passed the Texas School Book Depository Building at 12:30 p.m., Lee Harvey Oswald allegedly fired three shots from the sixth floor, fatally wounding the President and seriously injuring Governor Connally. Kennedy was pronounced dead 30 minutes later at Parkland Hospital. He was 46.

Nov. 25 was declared a day of national mourning by Kennedy's successor, Lyndon Johnson. On that Monday, hundreds of thousands of people lined the streets of Washington as a horse-drawn caisson bore Kennedy's body from the Capitol Rotunda to St. Matthew's Catholic Cathedral for a requiem Mass. The solemn procession then continued on to Arlington National Cemetery, where leaders of 99 nations gathered for the state funeral. Kennedy was buried with full military honors on a slope below Arlington House, where an eternal flame was lit by his widow.

Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested about an hour after the assassination, in a movie theater. He had killed a policeman who questioned him on the street near his rooming house in Dallas. He was formally arraigned on Nov. 23 for the murders of President Kennedy and Officer J.D. Tippit. On November 24, Oswald was brought to the basement of the Dallas police headquarters on his way to a more secure county jail. A crowd of police and press with live television cameras rolling gathered to witness his departure. As Oswald came into the room, Jack Ruby emerged from the crowd and fatally wounded him with a single shot from a concealed .38 revolver.

Ruby claimed that grief and rage over Kennedy's murder were his motives. He figures prominently in conspiracy theories, among them that he killed Oswald to keep him from talking about a plot behind the assassination. He was sentenced to die, a decision that was reversed on the grounds of improper admission of testimony. In 1967, while awaiting a new trial, Ruby died of lung cancer in a Dallas hospital.

The official Warren Commission report of 1964 concluded that neither Oswald nor Ruby were part of a larger conspiracy, either domestic or international, to assassinate President Kennedy. But in 1978 the House Select Committee on Assassinations concluded that Kennedy was "probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy" that may have involved multiple shooters and organized crime. The committee's findings, and those of the Warren Commission, continue to be widely disputed.

"For in the final analysis," John F. Kennedy once said, "our most common link, is that we all inhabit this small planet, we all breathe the same air, we all cherish our children's futures, and we are all mortal."

Sunday, November 21, 2010

And he gave his finger to the church

This is the birthday of Voltaire (Francois-Marie Arouet), born in 1694.

Voltaire was a world-famous wit, philosopher, essayist and cynic. "God is a comedian playing to an audience too afraid to laugh," he wrote.

Voltaire's widely published anti-religious sentiments brought him an ultimatum from the government of France: imprisonment or exile. He chose the latter, and lived for almost 50 years outside of his native country.

Always a vociferous advocate of free speech and freedom of (or from) religion, Voltaire was under attack from the authorities throughout his writing life. "The safest course is to do nothing against one's conscience," he said. "With this secret, we can enjoy life and have no fear from death."

Among the advantages animals have over man, Voltaire wrote, are that "they die without any idea of death, they have no theologians to instruct them, their last moments are not disturbed by unwelcome and unpleasant ceremonies, their funerals cost them nothing, and no one starts lawsuits over their wills."

Voltaire returned to Paris to a hero's welcome at age 83. The excitement of the trip was too much for him, and he died shortly thereafter. Because of his criticism of the church he was denied burial in church ground. He was finally buried at an abbey in Champagne. In 1791 his remains were moved to a resting place at the Pantheon in Paris.

In 1814 a right-wing religious group stole Voltaire's remains and dumped them in a garbage heap, an act of desecration that was not discovered for some 50 years. When the crime was found out, his body was recovered, but his heart was gone. (It was later found, and now lies in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris.) His brain had also been removed, and it changed hands a number of times over the next 100 years, before being lost track of following an auction.

One story says that Voltaire, asked on his deathbed to renounce the devil, refused, saying, "This is no time to make new enemies."

One thing that Voltaire did not say was the most famous line ever credited to him: "I may not agree with what you say, but to the death I will defend your right to say it." These were not his words but were written by Evelyn Beatrice Hall, under the pseudonym S. G. Tallentyre, in her 1906 biographical book, The Friends of Voltaire.

Friday, November 19, 2010

A little note, long remembered

Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address on this day in 1863. The speech, 246 words long, was part of the dedication ceremonies at the Gettysburg National Cemetery.

In his 1993 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America, Garry Wills puts to rest the myth of Lincoln jotting down his speech on an envelope on the train to Gettysburg. The book is an explication of how Lincoln laboriously crafted his "few appropriate remarks."

The Gettysburg Address, Wills says, was modeled, whether Lincoln knew it or not, after Pericles' funeral oration during ancient Athens' war with Sparta. It made the nightmare battle (57,000 casualties) into a vision of the ideals on which the country was founded. It extolled the dead and exhorted the living to remain true to their cause. It found life in death.

Springfield's Oak Ridge Cemetery, where Lincoln is buried, was dedicated in 1860 in a formal ceremony that celebrated the cemetery’s secluded natural setting as a sacred place where one could be inspired "with devotion to the civic and the holy." Wills says that Lincoln might have attended the dedication. He records that, before the dedication at Gettysburg, Lincoln met with the cemetery’s designer, William Saunders, and lauded him for his "advisable and benefiting arrangement." He admired in particular the arced rows of tombstones, evoking the idea of the equality of those who "gave their last full measure of devotion."

Monday, November 15, 2010

Fine wine by the Carton

The last installment of Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities was published on this day in 1859. The last words of the ne'er-do-well turned hero, Sidney Carton, are some of the most famous in literature:

"It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done: it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known."

Carton undoubtedly had time to think of these while awaiting execution in prison. As another writer, Samuel Johnson, said: "When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." Carton was to be guillotined, but no matter.

Start working on those last words now!

Today's Perverse Verse (with apologies to Rudyard Kipling):

If you can keep your head while all about you are losing theirs,
You must be a friend of Robespierre's.

Friday, November 12, 2010

He kept his head until the end

Jean Sylvain Bailly, mayor of Paris during the French Revolution, was executed by guillotine on this day in 1793. His last words, in response to a spectator who heckling him because he was trembling:

"Only from the cold, my friend."

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Everybody just turn around

Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard died on this day in 1855. He wrote:

"Life can only be understood backward, but it must be lived forward."

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

True, more or less

November 10, 2007 -- author Norman Mailer died. He once wrote:

"Every moment of one's existence one is growing into more or retreating into less. One is always living a little more or dying a little bit."

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

And nary a drop to drink

November 9 -- 1833 - Poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (The Rime of the Ancient Mariner) died. His epitaph:

Stop, Christian passer-by! -- Stop, child of God,
And read with gentle breast. Beneath this sod
A poet lies, or that which once seem'd he. --
O, lift one thought in prayer for S. T. C.;
That he who many a year with toil of breath
Found death in life, may here find life in death!
Mercy for praise -- to be forgiven for fame
He ask'd, and hoped, through Christ.
Do thou the same!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

She warned him about playing cards

Gangster Arnold Rothstein, immortalized as Meyer Wolfschiem (the man who fixed the 1919 World Series) in The Great Gatsby, died on this day in 1928. He was shot while playing poker at a New York City Hotel. At the hospital he was grilled by police about who had shot him.

"Me mudder did it," he said.

On the subject of last words, humorist James Thurber died on November 2, 1961. His were:

"God bless...God damn."

For more on Thurber, see Today in The Cynic's Almanac

Monday, November 1, 2010

He had the stomach for dying

October 31, 1926 -- Harry Houdini died, of the effects of a ruptured appendix. The injury occurred when a university student delivered several punches to Houdini's abdomen after asking him if it was true he could absorb any such blow.

Houdini's last words were purported to be: "I'm tired of fighting."