Friday, December 31, 2010

Saint Clemente

On this day in 1972, Roberto Clemente, future Hall of Fame baseball player, was killed along with four others when the cargo plane in which he was traveling crashed off the coast of Puerto Rico. Clemente was on his way to deliver relief supplies to Nicaragua following an earthquake there a week earlier.

That baseball season, Clemente had gotten his 3,000th hit -- in the final game of the season -- for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

He was a hero in his native Puerto Rico, where he spent much of the off-season doing charity work. Some of that work had taken him to Nicaragua, so Clemente was particularly distressed when he learned that very little aid was getting to victims of a devastating December 23 earthquake near Managua.

He decided to collect supplies on his own and personally deliver them. At the airport in San Juan, he discovered there were far more supplies than could be carried in the plane he had available. A man there offered to fly the supplies to Nicaragua for $4,000, not telling Clemente he had no crew for the plane.

Clemente agreed, and the man scrambled to find a pilot. It was later determined that the plane had been overloaded.

As the plane took off, sounds of engine failure were heard as it went down the runway. It reached an altitude of only 200 feet before exploding and plunging into the ocean. Rescue workers were sent out immediately, but the task was next to impossible in the darkness. The bodies were never found.

The news hit Puerto Rico hard--one friend of Clemente described it as the "night that happiness died."

In 1973, Clemente was posthumously inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. In 2002, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Rasputin lives!

Today marks the anniversary (1916) of the death of Rasputin, the "Mad Monk," a Russian mystic who was confidant and advisor to Russian Tsar Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra.

Rasputin was murdered by a group of nobles who saw his influence over the Tsar and Tsaritsa as a dangerous threat to the empire. The legend of that murder is as follows:

The group of would-be assassins lured Rasputin to the palace of one of their members, where they served him cakes and red wine laced with a massive amount of cyanide, enough to kill five men. Rasputin was unaffected.

One of the conspirators then shot Rasputin through the back with a revolver. Rasputin fell, and the company left the palace for a while. When one man came back, Rasputin opened his eyes, grabbed him by the throat and strangled him.

As he made his break, however, the other conspirators arrived and fired at him. After being hit three times in the back, Rasputin fell once more. But he was still alive. The men clubbed him into submission and, after wrapping his body in a sheet, threw him into an icy river, and he finally met his end there—as had both his siblings before him.

Three days later, the body of Rasputin, poisoned, shot four times and badly beaten, was recovered from the Neva River and autopsied. The cause of death was hypothermia. His arms were found in an upright position, as if he had tried to claw his way out from under the ice. In the autopsy, it was found that he had indeed been poisoned, and that the poison alone should have been enough to kill him.

Yet another report, also supporting the idea that he was still alive after submerging through the ice into the Neva River, is that after his body was pulled from the river, water was found in the lungs, showing that he didn't die until he was submerged into the water.[13]

Subsequently, the Empress Alexandra buried Rasputin's body in the grounds of Tsarskoye Selo, but, after the February Revolution, a group of workers from Saint Petersburg uncovered the remains, carried them into a nearby wood and burnt them.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Remember me, unless you forget

Poet Christina Rossetti died on this day in 1899. Here is her beautiful poem called "Song."

When I am dead, my dearest,
Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
Nor shady cypress tree:
Be the green grass above me
With showers and dewdrops wet;
And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt, forget.

I shall not see the shadows,
I shall not feel the rain;
I shall not hear the nightingale
Sing on, as if in pain:
And dreaming through the twilight
That doth not rise nor set,
Haply I may remember,
And haply may forget.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

And some films are like a long, slow death

The writer Clarence Day (Life with Father) died on this day in 1935. He wrote: "If you don't go to other men's funerals, they won't go to yours."

The director Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch) also died on this day, in 1884. He said: "The end of a film is always like the end of a life."

Monday, December 27, 2010

And practice makes perfect

English essayist Charles Lamb died on this day in 1834. He wrote:

"My theory is to enjoy life, but the practice is against it."

Sunday, December 26, 2010


Another great comedian, Jack Benny, died on this day in 1974.

Benny was a master of comic timing and probably made the most of the fewest number of words of any comic ever.

His masterpiece was the routine featuring the robber, who, confronting the miserly Benny, says, "Your money or your life."

What seems to be two or three minutes of silence follows -- it is actually 10 seconds or so. Finally, the robber says, "Well?"

"I'm thinking it over!" Benny says.

Benny was also famous for his miserable violin playing. In 1949, he served as emcee at Harry Truman's Inaugural Ball. Truman, who also died on December 26 (1972), was good friend. When he arrived at the White House for the event, a guard pointed to his violin case and asked, "Mr. Benny, what do you have in there?" As a joke, Benny whispered back, "It's a Thompson sub-machine gun." The guard replied, "Oh, that's a relief. I was afraid it was your violin".

At Jack Benny's funeral, his pal George Burns began the eulogy but broke down. Bob Hope rose to the podium in a shaky voice and honored the comedian by reading: "For a man who was the undisputed master of comedy timing, you'd have to say that this was the only time when Jack Benny's timing was all wrong. He left us much too soon."

Benny left an estate estimated at $4 million. His will stipulated that a red rose be delivered to his wife, Mary Livingstone, each day until the day she died, nine years later.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Strawberry (-nosed) Fields forever

The great comedian W. C. Fields died on Christmas Day in 1946.

The hard-drinking, irreverent Fields spent his last days in a hospital, where a friend stopped by for a visit and caught him reading the Bible. "Checking for loopholes," Fields told him.

It is said that on the fateful day, Fields winked and smiled at a nurse, put a finger to his lips, and died. He was 66.

He was interred At Forest Lawn. It is also said that he wanted "I'd rather be in Philadelphia" on his gravestone (a reference to the old vaudeville joke "I'd rather be dead than play Philadelphia.)" But his marker merely has his name, and dates of birth and death.

Following Fields' death, a battle over his estate was waged between a number of claimants, including his estranged wife Hattie, his lover Carlotta Monti, and even a woman who claimed Fields had married her in the 1890s. Most of the money went to Hattie – the money they could find, that is. Fields had stashed funds in bank accounts under false names all over the world.

Fields once said, whether apropos of himself or not, "When we have lost everything, including hope, life becomes a disgrace, and death a duty."

(The books to read about Fields are W. C. Fields and Me and W. C. Fields Straight Up.)

Thursday, December 23, 2010

All is Vanity (Fair)

English novelist William Makepeace Thackeray (Vanity Fair) died on this day in 1863.

"Except for the young or very happy, I can't say I am sorry for anyone who dies," he once wrote.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Borne back ceaselessly into the past

F. Scott Fitzgerald died on this day in 1940, at the age of 44.

In Fitzgerald's most famous novel, The Great Gatsby, the narrator, Nick Carraway, says about the doomed Gatsby:

"Gatsby, pale as death, with his hands plunged like weights in his coat pockets, was standing in a puddle of water glaring tragically into my eyes."

When Gatsby dies, his funeral is attended by only Nick, Gatsby's father, Mr. Gatz, and an identified man with "eye-owled glasses." On the way out, the man wipes his eyes and says to Nick: "The poor son of a bitch."

Fitzgerald's own funeral was also poorly attended. Legend has it that at a visitation at the funeral home in Hollywood, Dorothy Parker cried and murmured "the poor son of a bitch."

A bizarre aside: Author Nathanael West (The Day of the Locust), a friend and admirer of Fitzgerald, was killed along with his wife on the way to Fitzgerald's services.

Fitzgerald suffered from tuberculosis; that, in addition to his years of hard drinking, undoubtedly brought on his premature demise. As Fitzgerald wrote:

"First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you."

The Catholic church would not allow Fitzgerald to be buried in his family's plot in Rockville, Maryland. He was buried in Rockville Union Cemetery. After his wife Zelda died in a fire in 1948 at the Highland Mental Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, where she spent the end of her days, her and her husband's bodies were moved to the family plot in Saint Mary's Cemetery, in Rockville.

Fitzgerald also wrote: "Let us learn to show friendship for a man when he is alive and not after he is dead."

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The "Heights," and then the depths

English novelist Emily Bronte died on this day in 1848. She had published Wuthering Heights the year before, at age 29.

Here is her poem called Last Words:

I knew not 'twas so dire a crime
To say the word, "Adieu;"
But this shall be the only time
My lips or heart shall sue.
That wild hill-side, the winter morn,
The gnarled and ancient tree,
If in your breast they waken scorn,
Shall wake the same in me.
I can forget black eyes and brows,
And lips of falsest charm,
If you forget the sacred vows
Those faithless lips could form.
If hard commands can tame your love,
Or strongest walls can hold,
I would not wish to grieve above
A thing so false and cold.
And there are bosoms bound to mine
With links both tried and strong:
And there are eyes whose lightning shine
Has warmed and blest me long:
Those eyes shall make my only day,
Shall set my spirit free,
And chase the foolish thoughts away
That mourn your memory.

And here are her own last words:

"I lingered around them, under that benign sky; watched the moths fluttering among the heath and harebells; listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass; and wondered how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth."

Saturday, December 18, 2010

A poetic life

English poet Francis Thompson was born December 18, 1859.

College-educated, he studied medicine but never practiced as a doctor, instead moving to London to become a writer. There he was reduced to selling matches and newspapers for a living.

He became addicted to opium, and lived a life of destitution until he was discovered in 1888 after sending poetry to the magazine Merrie England.

This was his letter to the editor of that magazine:

"Dear Sir,
In enclosing the accompanying article for your inspection, I must
ask pardon for the soiled state of the manuscript. It is due, not to
slovenliness, but to the strange places and circumstances under which
it has been written ... I enclose a stamped envelope for a reply...regarding your judgement of its worthlessness as quite final...
Apologizing very sincerely for my intrusion on your valuable time,
I remain,

Yours with little hope,
Francis Thompson
Kindly address your rejection to the Charing Cross Post Office.

Thompson lived as an invalid in England and Wales. He once attempted suicide, but was saved from going through with it by a vision he believed to be that of the poet Thomas Chatterton, who had committed suicide almost a century earlier.

Shortly afterwards, a prostitute befriended him, give him lodgings and shared her income with him. He described her in his poetry as his saviour. One day she disappeared, however.

He died from tuberculosis at the age of 48.

Here is a poem by Thompson:

Nothing begins and nothing ends
That is not paid with moan
For we are born in other's pain
And perish in our own.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Marley may not have been dead

Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol was published on this day in 1843.

"Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge's name was good upon 'Change,' for anything he chose to put his hand to.

"Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

"Mind! I don't mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country's done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

"Scrooge knew he was dead? Of course he did. How could it be otherwise? Scrooge and he were partners for I don't know how many years. Scrooge was his sole executor, his sole administrator, his sole assign, his sole residuary legatee, his sole friend, and sole mourner. And even Scrooge was not so dreadfully cut up by the sad event, but that he was an excellent man of business on the very day of the funeral, and solemnised it with an undoubted bargain.

"The mention of Marley's funeral brings me back to the point I started from. There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate. If we were not perfectly convinced that Hamlet's Father died before the play began, there would be nothing more remarkable in his taking a stroll at night, in an easterly wind, upon his own ramparts, than there would be in any other middle-aged gentleman rashly turning out after dark in a breezy spot -- say Saint Paul's Churchyard for instance -- literally to astonish his son's weak mind."

Thursday, December 16, 2010

News of the Week

*** Berile and Connie Stander’s family has created a tradition for saying farewell. In their family, the funeral services don’t focus on religion and clergy don’t officiate. Instead, only immediate family and close friends gather together at graveside. One family member leads the service as each person who wants to speak shares memories about their loved one. The graveside service lasts less than thirty minutes. Afterwards, additional family and friends attend a reception at the family home... See full article

*** This snippet, written by Charles Duhigg, ran in

"When Kirk Jones jumped over the guardrail at Niagara Falls last week and fell 180 feet alongside 150,000 gallons per second of rushing water, traditional explanations for his leap were plentiful. Jones' parents said he had lost his job and was depressed. A suicide expert pointed out the appeal of dramatic farewells. And everyone called the jump suicidal: Jones is the first person to survive a Niagara fall without safety gear.
But when it later came out that Jones had boasted to a friend, "If I go over and I live, I am going to make some money," it was time to call in the economists.
Jones is now negotiating with tabloids to sell his story for thousands of dollars. His case, however, will complicate a debate that is roiling suicidology, one that pits economists against psychiatrists over a basic question: Is suicide a rational decision?"

The last laugh

Birthday of Jane Austen, born in 1775. She wrote:

"Why do we live? But to make sport for our neighbors and to laugh at them in return."

Jane Austen died July 18, 1817. Two days later her sister, Cassandra, wrote to her friend, Fanny Knight:

"I have lost a treasure, such a sister, such a friend as never can have been surpassed. She was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow; I had not a thought concealed from her, and it is as if I had lost a part of myself.

"I loved her only too well — not better than she deserved, but I am conscious that my affection for her made me sometimes unjust to and negligent of others; and I can acknowledge, more than as a general principle, the justice of the Hand which has struck this blow."

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Which end is the worm?

Izaak Walton (The Compleat Angler), history's most famous fisherman, died on this day in 1683.

"Angling or float fishing I can only compare to a stick and a string, with a worm at one end and a fool at the other." -- Samuel Johnson.

Johnson died on December 13, 1784. (See entry.) On this date in 1750, he wrote:

"Every funeral may justly be considered as a summons to prepare for that state, into which it shews us that we must sometime enter; and the summons is more loud and piercing, as the even of which it warns us is at less distance. To neglect at any time preparation for death, is to sleep on our post at a siege, but to omit it in old age, is to sleep at an attack."
Rambler #78 (December 15, 1750)

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Now I really must be going

George Washington died on this day in 1799.

On his deathbed, Washington said: "Doctor, I die hard, but I am not afraid to go. My breath cannot last long."

Later he said: "I am just going. Have me decently buried, and do not let my body be put into the vault in less than three days after I am dead. Do you understand?"

"Yes, sir," the doctor replied.

"'Tis well," answered Washington.

(See December 6 to read about the Washington Monument.)

Monday, December 13, 2010

Johnson & Johnson (and more Johnson)

Samuel Johnson, the English writer, lexicographer, critic, wit and subject of Boswell's Life of Johnson, died on this day in 1784. He is buried in Westminster Abbey.

"I have now spent fifty-five years in resolving: having, from the earliest time almost that I can remember, been forming plans of a better life. I have done nothing. The need of doing, therefore, is pressing, since the time of doing is short. O GOD, grant me to resolve aright, and to keep my resolutions, for Jesus Christ's sake. Amen." Prayers

"I ventured to tell him, that I had been, for moments in my life, not afraid of death; therefore I could suppose another man in that state of mind for a considerable space of time. He said he never had a moment in which death was not terrible to him. He added, that it had been observed, that scarce any man dies in publick, but with apparent resolution; from that desire of praise which never quits us." Boswell, Life

"Let us, my dear, pray for one another, and consider our sufferings as notices mercifully given us to prepare ourselves for another state.
"I live now in a melancholy way. My old friend Mr. Levet is dead, who lived with me in the house, and was useful and companionable; Mrs. Desmoulins is gone away; and Mrs. Williams is so much decayed , that she can add little to another's gratifications.
"The world passes away, and we are passing with it; but there is, doubtless, another world, which will endure for ever. Let us fit ourselves for it."
Johnson: Letter to Lucy Porter

"That we must all die, we always knew; I wish I had remembered it sooner."
Johnson: Letter to Sir Joshua Reynolds

"Such is the course of nature, that whoever lives long must outlive those whom he loves and honours. Such is the condition of our present existence, that life must one time lose its associations, and every inhabitant of the earth must walk downward to the grave alone and unregarded, without any partner of his joy or grief, without any interested witness of his misfortunes or success."
Johnson: Idler, Jan. 27, 1759

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Hattie McDaniel? Ain't fittin'!

Tallulah Bankhead, the legendary actress, seductress and bon vivant, died on this day in 1968.

Born in Alabama in 1902, Bankhead moved to New York to be an actress when she was just 15. She got bit parts but was better known for hard partying, her quick wit and her wanton ways.

In 1923 she debuted on the London stage. She won immediate fame playing a waitress in They Knew What They Wanted. The show won the 1925 Pulitzer Prize.

She was as famous for her many affairs. "I'm as pure as the driven slush," she memorably said. She was said to be sexually insatiable, but she also said: "I've tried several varieties of sex. The conventional position makes me claustrophobic, and the others give me either stiff neck or lockjaw."

Success eluded her in films until Alfred Hitchcock cast her in Lifeboat (see picture) in 1944, for which she won the New York Film Critics Circle Award. She had been David Selznick's first choice to play Scarlett O'Hara, but he decided she was too old. On the stage, however, she won acclaim as the ruthless Regina Giddens in The Little Foxes (1939), and in The Skin of Our Teeth (1942), and Private Lives, which played on Broadway for two years.

An alleged bisexual, she was romantically linked through the years with everyone from Greta Garbo to Billie Holiday to Hattie McDaniel(!).

She continued to perform in the 1950s and 1960s on Broadway, in an occasional film, as a highly-popular radio show host, and on TV. Her appearance as herself on The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show in 1957 is a cult classic, as is her role as the Black Widow on Batman, her final screen appearance (1967).

Bankhead was the inspiration for Cruella De Vil in Disney's One Hundred and One Dalmations.

A lifelong insomniac, pill-popper, smoker and drinker, Bankhead died in New York City of complications from emphysema, at age 66. Her last words were: "Codeine...bourbon."

Friday, December 10, 2010

Sittin' here resting my bones

A plane crash in Wisconsin killed soul singer Otis Redding on this day in 1967.

Redding and six others, including four of the six members of Redding's backup band, The Bar-Kays, were killed when the plane crashed into Lake Monona in Madison. The two remaining members of The Bar-Kays were Ben Cauley and James Alexander. Cauley was the only person aboard Redding's plane to survive the crash; Alexander was on another plane.

Redding's body was recovered the next day; footage exists of his body being pulled from the water. The cause of the crash was never precisely determined.

"(Sittin' on) the Dock of the Bay" was recorded only three days prior to Redding's death. It was released the next month and became his first #1 single and first million-seller.

Redding was 26 years old at the time of his death. He was laid to rest in a tomb on his private ranch in Round Oak, Georgia. In 2002, the city of Macon honored its native son, unveiling a memorial statue of Redding in the city's Gateway Park.

In 1999, Redding received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked Redding #21 on its list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

National Children's Memorial Day

WASHINGTON, D.C., Jan. 9, 1882 -- In a remote corner of the Congressional Cemetery yesterday afternoon, a small group of people with uncovered heads was ranged around a newly opened grave. They included Detective and Mrs. George O. Miller and family and friends, who had gathered to witness the burial of the former's bright little son Harry, a recent victim of diphtheria.

As the casket rested upon the trestles there was a painful pause, broken only by the mother's sobs, until the undertaker advanced toward a stout, florid-complexioned gentleman in the party and whispered to him, the words being inaudible to the looker-on.

The gentleman was Col. Robert G. Ingersoll, a friend of the Millers, who had attended the funeral at their request. (Note to modern readers: Ingersoll was famous as an atheist.) He shook his head when the undertaker first addressed him, and then said suddenly, "Does Mrs. Miller desire it?"

The undertaker gave an affirmative nod. Mr. Miller looked appealingly toward the distinguished orator, and then Col. Ingersoll advanced to the side of the grave, made a motion denoting a desire for silence, and, in a voice of exquisite cadence, delivered one of his characteristic eulogies for the dead.

The scene was intensely dramatic. A fine drizzling rain was falling, and every head was bent, and every ear turned to catch the impassioned words of eloquence and hope that fell from the lips of the famed orator.

Col. Ingersoll was unprotected by either hat or umbrella, and his invocation thrilled his hearers with awe, each eye that had previously been bedimmed with tears brightening and sobs becoming hushed. The Colonel said:

"MY FRIENDS: I know how vain it is to gild a grief with words, and yet I wish to take from every grave its fear. Here in this world, where life and death are equal kings, all should be brave enough to meet what all have met. The future has been filled with fear, stained and polluted by the heartless past. From the wondrous tree of life the buds and blossoms fall with ripened fruit, and in the common bed of earth patriarchs and babes sleep side by side. Why should we fear that which will come to all that is? We cannot tell. We do not know which is the greatest blessing, life or death. We cannot say that death is not good. We do not know whether the grave is the end of this life or the door of another, or whether the night here is not somewhere else a dawn.

"Neither can we tell, which is the more fortunate, the child dying in its mothers arms before its lips have learned to form a word, or he who journeys all the length of life's uneven road, painfully taking the last slow steps with staff and crutch. Every cradle asks us "Whence?" and every coffin "Whither?" The poor barbarian weeping above his dead can answer the question as intelligently and satisfactorily as the robed priest of the most authentic creed. The tearful ignorance of the one is just as consoling as the learned and unmeaning words of the other.

"No man standing where the horizon of a life has touched a grave has any right to prophesy a future filled with pain and tears. It may be that death gives all there is of worth to life. If those who press and strain against our hearts could never die, perhaps that love would wither from the earth. May be a common faith treads from out the paths between our hearts the weeds of selfishness, and I should rather live and love where death is king than have eternal life where love is not.

"Another life is naught, unless we know and love again the ones who love us here. They who stand with breaking hearts around this little grave have no fear. The largest and the noblest faith in all that is, and is to be, tells us that death, even at its worst, is only perfect rest. We know that through the common wants of life, the needs and duties of each hour, there grief will lessen day by day until at last these graves will be to them a place of rest and peace, and almost joy. There is for them this consolation: The dead do not suffer. If they live again their lives will surely be as good as ours.

"We have no fear; we are all children of the same mother and the same fate awaits us all. We, too, have our religion, and it is this : 'Help for the living, hope for the dead.'

At the conclusion of the eloquent oration the little coffin was deposited in its last resting place covered with flowers. (From The New York Times archive)

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Living is easy with eyes closed

John Lennon was shot and killed on this day in 1980 by Mark David Chapman.

Lennon, 40, was entering his Manhattan apartment building when Chapman shot him four times at close range with a .38-caliber revolver. Lennon died en route to the hospital. Chapman had received an autograph from Lennon earlier in the day and voluntarily remained at the scene until he was arrested by police.

For a week, hundreds of bereaved fans kept a vigil outside the Dakota--Lennon's apartment building--and demonstrations of mourning were held around the world.

Lennon was considered the intellectual Beatle and was the most outspoken of the four. He caused a major controversy in 1966 when he said the Beatles were "more popular than Jesus," prompting mass burnings of Beatles' records in the American Bible Belt. He later became an anti-war activist and flirted with communism in the lyrics of solo hits like "Imagine," recorded after the Beatles disbanded in 1970.

In 1975, Lennon dropped out of the music business to spend more time with his wife, Yoko Ono. In 1980, he made a comeback with Double-Fantasy, a critically acclaimed album that celebrated his love for Yoko and featured songs written by her.

Chapman was diagnosed a borderline psychotic and instructed to plead insanity, but instead pleaded guilty to murder. He was sentenced to 20 years to life. In 2000, New York State prison officials denied Chapman a parole hearing, telling him that his "vicious and violent act was apparently fueled by your need to be acknowledged." He remains behind bars at Attica Prison in New York.

Lennon is memorialized in Strawberry Fields, a section of Central Park across the street from the Dakota that Ono landscaped in honor of her husband. "Strawberry Fields Forever," the song, was written by Lennon and released in 1967. Strawberry Fields was a children's home behind Lennon's boyhood home. He used to play in the trees behind the home.

In 1980 Lennon said about the song:

"I was always hip. I was hip in kindergarten. I was different from the others. I was different all my life. The second verse goes, 'No one I think is in my tree.'

"When I looked at myself in the mirror or when I was 12, 13, I used to trance out…I would find myself seeing hallucinatory images of my face changing and becoming cosmic and complete. It caused me to always be a rebel…

"…On the other hand, I wanted to be loved and accepted. Part of me would like to be accepted by all facets of society...But I cannot be what I am not."

Let me take you down, 'cause I'm going to Strawberry Fields.
Nothing is real and nothing to get hung about
Strawberry Fields forever

Monday, December 6, 2010

He still towers over his countrymen

On this day in 1884, the Washington Monument was completed.
Workers placed a nine-inch aluminum pyramid atop a tower of white marble, completing the construction of the monument to the city's namesake and the Father of Our Country.

In 1783, the newborn U.S. Congress decreed that a statue of George Washington, the great Revolutionary War general, should be placed near the site of the new Congressional building, wherever it might be. After Washington became president, architect Perre L'Enfant laid out a new federal capital on the Potomac River in 1791, leaving a place for the statue at the western end of the National Mall (near the monument's present location).

It wasn't until 1832, however--33 years after Washington's death--that anyone really did anything about the monument. That year, a private Washington National Monument Society was formed. After holding a design competition and choosing an elaborate Greek temple-like design by architect Robert Mills, the society began a fundraising drive to raise money for the statue's construction.

Those efforts--including appeals to the nation's schoolchildren--raised some $230,000, far short of the $1 million needed. Construction began anyway, on July 4, 1848, as representatives of the society laid the cornerstone of the monument: a 24,500-pound block of pure white marble.

Six years later, with funds running low, construction was halted. Around 1860, Mark Twain described the unfinished monument as looking like a "hollow, oversized chimney."

No further progress was made until 1876--the centennial of American independence--when President Ulysses S. Grant authorized construction to be completed.

Made of some 36,000 blocks of marble and granite stacked 555 feet in the air, the monument was the tallest structure in the world at the time of its completion in December 1884. In the six months following the dedication ceremony, over 10,000 people climbed the nearly 900 steps to the top of the Washington Monument.

Today, an elevator makes the trip far easier, and more than 800,000 people visit the monument each year. A city law passed in 1910 restricted the height of new buildings to ensure that the monument will remain the tallest structure in Washington, D.C. (From Today in History)

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Fiery day in history

On Dec. 5, 1876, a fire at the Brooklyn Theater in New York killed nearly 300 people and injured hundreds more. Some died from burns and/or smoke inhalation; others were trampled to death in the general panic.

The play The Two Orphans was showing at the theater. All 900 seats were filled. Near the start of the show, a gaslight ignited extra scenery stored behind the stage. The fire quickly spread.

When someone shouted "FIRE!," bedlam ensued, particularly in the balcony and the rear of the theater. A narrow staircase was the only the exit from the balcony (there were no fire escapes) and in the stampede many were crushed while others were trapped.

By the time firefighters arrived it was too late for hundreds of people. The fire raged through the night and destroyed nearly the entire building. When would-be rescuers were able to get in, they found bodies melted together. Up to 100 of the victims were burned beyond recognition.

A mass grave was set up at the Green-Wood Cemetery for the approximately 295 people who died. A 30-foot-high granite memorial (shown above) was later erected in their honor by the city of Brooklyn.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Sadists will remember you forever

The Marquis de Sade (Donatien Alphonse-Fran├žois de Sade) died on this day in 1814.

The most famous name in pornography – he gave his name to the term sadism – spent much of his life in prison, and did most of his writing there. He spent the last 13 years of his life in an insane asylum in Charenton, France. There he wrote plays to be performed by the inmates for the public.

At Charenton he had an affair with Madeleine Leclerc, a 13-year-old employee of the establishment.

He was buried in Charenton. His skull was later removed from the grave for phrenological examination. His son had all his remaining unpublished manuscripts burned.

In his will he also wrote:

"Once the grave is filled in, acorns are to be scatted over it, so that in time the grave is again overgrown, and when the undergrowth is grown as it was before, the traces of my grave will vanish from the face of the earth as I like to think memory of me will be effaced from men's minds, save for the tiny band of those who were kind enough to be fond of me to the end and of whom I carry a very warm memory to the grave."

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Want off the hook? Never grow up

Today is the birthday of both Mary Martin, who played Peter Pan on the stage and in the TV musical in the 1950s, and Cyril Ritchard, who played Captain Hook in those same productions.

J. M. Barrie, who wrote Peter Pan, may have based the character on his brother, David, who died in a skating accident at the age of 13. Barrie's mother never recovered from the event. Seeking his mother's affection, Barrie would dress up in his dead brother's clothing. It has been said by a biographer of Barrie that both he and his mother might have drawn inspiration from the idea that "David, in dying a boy, remained a boy forever."

The portrait of Wendy, Peter Pan's girlfriend, owes much to Barrie's mother, an orphaned "little mother" who had to raise her younger brother. Wendy borrowed her name from Barrie -- it was his nickname. He stopped growing at five feet in height.

Captain Hook meets his maker when he is eaten by his nemesis, the crocodile that was always ticking, having swallowed a clock. In Barrie's novella, Hook's last words are "Bad form." In the screenplay, they are "The croc! The croc! The croc! Pan, no words of mine can express me utter contempt for you."

Peter Pan, of course, is the character who cannot die because he will not grow up. Hook tells Peter: "Death is the only adventure you have left."