Friday, November 20, 2015

Let's dig up that little green stick

Leo Tolstoy, the great Russian novelist (War and Peace), died on this day in 1910. Near the end of his life he wrote:

"The meaningless absurdity of life is the only incontestable knowledge accessible to man."

Tolstoy believed that what was not accessible – to most people except him – was the "life force," which is perfectly rational and good. His notion, developed later in life after he'd written his great novels, was that the life of every human being is inextricably bound up with the life of the rest of the universe and is a manifestation of the life force. This truth is hidden from us, however – inaccessible.

Death, Tolstoy said, is a necessary part of life, for one's own good and the good of others. In his later masterpiece, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, a novelette rather than a novel, he tells the harrowing story of the slow, and then rapid, decline of Ivan Ilyich, a high court judge who has never before given death a second thought. Ilyich the materialist, forced to confront the stark truth of his inevitable passing, turns metaphysical: Will his death be his destruction?

"Death is over; there is no more death," are Ivan Ilyich's last words.

Tolstoy himself, as he neared death, resolved to find a more spiritual life on earth – at the age of 82, he ran away from home. "My position in this house has become intolerable," he wrote to his wife. "Along with everything else, I can no longer abide these luxurious conditions. What I am now doing is what old people have commonly done - leave their worldly life behind to spend their last days in peace and solitude."

He contracted a chill on the train, forcing him to disembark at a station along the way. The chill turned to pneumonia, and he died in the stationmaster's room, surrounded by journalists, who recorded his last words:

"But the peasants – how do they die?"

As he had requested, Tolstoy was buried on his estate, Yasnaya Polyana, at a spot where his brother, Nikolai, once claimed to have buried a little green stick on which was written the secret of universal love and understanding.

For a Perverse Verse on this subject, visit

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The mouse that roared

Mickey Mouse was born on this day in 1928. He starred in Steamboat Willie, an 8-minute animated short.

Walt Disney wanted to call his creation Mortimer Mouse, but his wife didn't like the name and suggested Mickey.

Disney died Dec. 15, 1966, of complications from lung cancer. It was rumored that his body had been cryogenically frozen, and, alternately, that he was buried somewhere on the grounds of Disneyland. Actually, he was cremated and his ashes interred at Forest Lawn Cemetery. His death was not publicly announced until after his funeral, which was attended only by close family members. He left the bulk of his estate to his wife, Lillian.

It is Hollywood legend – and we'll go with it – that from his deathbed in St. Joseph's Hospital in Burbank, across the street from Disney Studios, Disney's last words were about how shabby the studio's water tower looked. The tower is adorned with the image of Mickey Mouse. Studio executives have made sure the tower is repainted every year.

Walt Disney once said: "I love Mickey Mouse more than any woman I've ever known."

For your daily dose of parting shots:

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

What does a cold beer feel like?

Marcel Proust, French novelist, died on this day in 1922.

"Do not the indiscretions which occur only after a person's life on earth is ended," Proust wrote in Remembrance of Things Past, "prove that nobody really believes in a future life?

"If these indiscretions are true, we ought to fear the resentment of her whose actions we are revealing fully as much as on the day when we shall meet her in heaven, as we feared it so long as she was alive, when we felt ourselves bound to keep her secret.

"And if these indiscretions are false, invented because she is no longer present to contradict them, we ought to be even more afraid of the dead woman's wrath if we believed in heaven. But no one does believe in it."

Proust's last words were: "I feel like a cold beer."

Monday, November 16, 2015

A boy's best friend is his mother

Ed Gein killed his final victim on this day in 1957.

Ed Gein is the most famous son of Plainfield, Wisconsin. He lived on a 160-acre farm with his brother, Henry, and a domineering mother. Henry died in 1944 under mysterious circumstances, and his mother passed away the next year. Ed was 39, unmarried, and in need of a hobby. He began to dig up female corpses by night in remote cemeteries. He dissected these, keeping some heads, sex organs, livers, hearts and intestines. He would flay the skin from the body and wear it himself, dancing and cavorting around the house. (He kept his mom's bedroom locked and undisturbed, and also sealed off the drawing room and five more upstairs rooms.)

Deciding he needed some newer clothes, he began making his own corpses. 54-year old Mary Hogan disappeared from the tavern she ran in December 1954. Bernice Worden, who ran the local hardware store, disappeared on this day in 1957. Mrs. Worden's son, Frank, a sheriff's deputy, learned that Eddie Gein had been seen in town on the day of his mother's disappearance, so he and the sheriff went out to the old Gein place, already known by local kids as a haunted house.

Sound familiar? Gein was the inspiration for Norman Bates, the deranged mama's boy in Hitchcock's Psycho and Robert Bloch's novel of the same name, and the serial killer in Silence of the Lambs was based on him.

In a woodshed on the farm, the men found the naked, headless body of Worden's mother hanging upside down from a meat hook and slit open down the front. Her head and intestines were discovered in a box, and her heart on a plate in the dining room. The skins from ten human heads were found preserved, and another skin taken from the upper torso of a woman was rolled up on the floor. There was a belt fashioned from carved-off nipples, a chair upholstered in human skin, lampshades covered in flesh pilled taut, a table propped up by a human shinbones, and a refrigerator full of human organs.
The four posts on Gein's bed were topped with skulls and a human head hung on the wall alongside nine death masks - the skinned faces of women - and decorative bracelets made out of human skin. There were soup bowls fashioned from skulls, a shoebox full of female genitalia, faces stuffed with newspapers and mounted like hunting trophies on the walls, and a vest flayed from the torso of a woman. Gein later confessed that he enjoyed dressing himself in skin-garments and pretending he was his mother. The remains of 15 bodies were found; Gein couldn't recall how many murders he'd committed.

After ten years in a mental hospital, Gein was judged competent to stand trial. He was found guilty but criminally insane. He spent the rest of his life in insane asylums, and died in a geriatric ward in 1984, aged 77, always, it was said, a model prisoner - gentle, polite and discreet.

His gravesite in the Plainfield cemetery was frequently vandalized over the years; souvenir seekers would chip off pieces of his gravestone before it was stolen in 2000. It was recovered in 2001 and is presently displayed in a Wautoma, Wisconsin museum.

In the last interview Gein gave, he said: "I like this place, everybody treats me nice. Some of them are a little crazy, though."

Saturday, November 14, 2015

God bless Herman Melville

Moby-Dick was published on this day in 1851. The author, Herman Melville, had a nervous breakdown four years later, in part because of his novel's dismal sales. After unsuccessful lecture tours, Melville found work as a customs inspector on the New York City docks. His oldest son committed suicide in 1867.

Melville's death on September 28, 1891, in New York, was noted with only one obituary notice. Moby-Dick sold only 3,000 copies during his lifetime.

An unfinished work, Billy Budd, Foretopman, was unpublished until 1924. The protagonist of the story, set during the war between England and France, is the innocent and angelic Billy Budd, the favorite of everyone on the crew of the HMS Bellipotent except John Claggart, the sadistic master-at-arms. Claggart falsely accuses Billy of being involved in a mutiny. Billy, unable to answer the charge because of his stammer, accidentally kills Claggart.

The ship's captain, Vere, has seen through Claggart's plot but fears rebellion if Billy isn't punished. He calls a court, which condemns Billy, who goes cheerfully to his fate and is hanged from the yardarm, right after crying out "God bless Captain Vere." When Vere is mortally wounded during an engagement with the French, he murmurs as his last words Billy's name.

"Death is only a launching into the region of the strange Untried," Melville wrote in Moby-Dick; "it is but the first salutation to the possibilities of the immense Remote, the Wild, the Watery, the Unshored..."

Sunday, June 14, 2015

They say journalism is dead, but was it ever alive?

Prolific British author and Christian champion G. K. Chesterton died on this day in 1936.  He was the author of the splendid Father Brown detective tales.  He wrote:

Journalism largely consists in saying "Lord Jones is dead" to people who never knew Lord Jones was alive.”

Today’s deathless verse:

A patron at Kentucky Fried
  Is calmly eating chicken;
A newsman sits down by his side –
  The plot begins to thicken.
With pen in hand, the scribbler dreams
  Of deeds most dire and foul;
The headline on his story screams:

  “Man eating chicken on prowl!”

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Leave 'em laughing

Abraham Lincoln died on this day in 1865. He had been felled the night before by assassin John Wilkes Booth.

Lincoln was watching a play, Our American Cousin, at Ford's Theater in Washington, when one of the actresses called for a shawl to protect her from the draft. One of the actors ad-libbed this reply:

"You are mistaken, Miss Mary, the draft has already been stopped by order of the President!" Lincoln was laughing with the rest of the audience when he was shot.

It is appropriate that laughter was Lincoln's last earthly utterance. It had served him well throughout his short and unhappy life.

As the Civil War was raging, someone once asked Lincoln why he was laughing.

"With the fearful strain that is on me night and day," he replied, "if I did not laugh I should die."

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Time to go, Death

Writer Simone de Beauvoir died on this day in 1986. She is buried next to Jean-Paul Sartre, her longtime collaborator/love interest, in the Cimetière du Montparnasse in Paris.

"It is old age, rather than death, that is to be contrasted with life," she wrote. "Old age is life's parody, whereas death transforms life into a destiny: in a way it preserves it by giving it the absolute dimension. . . .

"Death does away with time."

Also on this day, in 1964, writer and conservationist Rachel Carson (Silent Spring) died. She said:

"Every mystery solved brings us to the threshold of a greater one."

Monday, March 2, 2015

That's sad, I think

English author and wit Horace Walpole died on this day in 1797. He coined the term serendipity, from a story he had read, The Three Princes of Serendip.

Walpole's most famous line, written in a letter to a woman friend of his, is:

"The world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel."

When Walpole's beloved cat Selma died, poet Thomas Gray wrote a poem of remembrance, called Ode on the Death of a Favorite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Words that'll blow you away

Playwright Tennessee Williams (A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) died on this day in 1983. He wrote:

"A man, when he burns, leaves only a handful of ashes. No woman can hold him. The wind must blow him away."