Truman Capote, photographed by Richard Avedon in 1955.
In many artistic media — from painting to sculpture to film and beyond — aesthetic advances are made possible by technical innovations. The invention of oil paints, the creation of new methods of casting bronze, the syncing of sound and image in “talkies”—all of these scientific advances made certain artistic advances possible. Perhaps the exception to the rule is the art of writing. The technology never changes; it only has to occur to somebody to try something new. This happened (among hundreds of other times) in 1925, when Harold Ross, editor of a new magazine called “The New Yorker”, decided that his writers should start “profiling” people.
In a recent collection of profiles from “The New Yorker,” David Remnick, the magazine’s current editor, defined profiles as “a concise rendering of a life through anecdote, incident, interview and description (or some ineffable combination thereof).” He granted that something like this form goes back to the first-century Roman writer Plutarch, but Ross was definitely looking for something new. After a rough start with a piece on Giulio Gatti-Casazza, then the Metropolitan Opera’s manager, Ross’ writers (and then his successor William Shawn’s) created a brilliant new form, one of the great contributions of American journalism.
A pinnacle of that form was Truman Capote’s 1957 profile of Marlon Brando, “The Duke in His Domain.” (The entire piece is available for free on “The New Yorker” website.) It is a touching and adoring look at the actor, and also a prescient — and extremely funny — look at his impending decline from Stanley Kowalski to morbid obesity. Here, for instance, is Capote describing Brando ordering room service in a Tokyo hotel:
The maid had reëntered the star’s room, and Murray, on his way out, almost tripped over the train of her kimono. She put down a bowl of ice and, with a glow, a giggle, an elation that made her little feet, hooflike in their split-toed white socks, lift and lower like a prancing pony’s, announced, “Appapie! Tonight on menu appapie.”
Brando groaned. “Apple pie. That’s all I need.” He stretched out on the floor and unbuckled his belt, which dug too deeply into the swell of his stomach. “I’m supposed to be on a diet. But the only things I want to eat are apple pie and stuff like that.” Six weeks earlier, in California, Logan had told him he must trim off ten pounds for his role in “Sayonara,” and before arriving in Kyoto he had managed to get rid of seven. Since reaching Japan, however, abetted not only by American-type apple pie but by the Japanese cuisine, with its delicious emphasis on the sweetened, the starchy, the fried, he’d regained, then doubled this poundage. Now, loosening his belt still more and thoughtfully massaging his midriff, he scanned the menu, which offered, in English, a wide choice of Western-style dishes, and, after reminding himself “I’ve got to lose weight,” ordered soup, beefsteak with French-fried potatoes, three supplementary vegetables, a side dish of spaghetti, rolls and butter, a bottle of sake, salad, and cheese and crackers.
“And appapie, Marron?”
He sighed. “With ice cream, honey.”
Capote’s profile is a great companion to today’s entry on Brando in the Modern Culture edition. Take a look!
Walt Disney is one of the best-known figures in American popular culture. But of course, he didn’t do his work alone. He had a remarkable group of collaborators, particularly “The Nine Old Men.” (The nickname is a reference to FDR’s disparaging remarks about the Supreme Court justices of his time.) These were the main animators at Walt Disney Productions, who worked on every major Disney feature for forty years, from “Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs” in 1937 to “The Rescuers” in 1977. Meet them below (images courtesy of the Disney Legends site):
Les Clark (1907-1979)
Clark was with Disney from the beginning, and specialized in Mickey Mouse.
Marc Davis (1913-2000)
Animator of Thumper, Cinderella, Alice and Cruela De Vil.
Ollie Johnston (1912-2008)
Beginning with Pinocchio, Johnston directed as well as animated.
Milt Kahl (1909-1987)
The greatest draughtsman among the Nine Old Men.
Ward Kimball (1914-2002)
An animator who specialized in more fantastical characters, including Jiminy Cricket and The Cheshire Cat.
Eric Larson (1905-1988)
Disney’s great recruiter, always on the lookout for new talent.
John Lounsbery (1911-1976)
Like Johnston, Lounsbery was also a director: of “Winnie The Pooh and Tigger Too!” and “The Rescuers.”
Wolfgang Reitherman (1909-1985)
Disney’s chief animation director, and the creator of the dinosaur fight that played along Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” in “Fantasia.”
Frank Thomas (1912-2004)
Like all of The Nine Old Men, Thomas created a number of iconic film moments—including the spaghetti dinner in “Lady and the Tramp.”
In 1994, a photograph was discovered in the archives of a Mormon church in Missouri. Comparisons with the death mask of Joseph Smith, the prophet of the Church of Ladder-Day Saints — more commonly known as the Mormon Church — suggested a match. Mormons worldwide were excited, but the Church would not officially confirm that it a photograph of their prophet was found. Compare the photograph above to the image of the death mask below. What do you think?
In 1970, the NFL Championship Trophy was officially renamed the Vince Lombardi Trophy, in honor of the coach who won the first two Superbowls. The Vince Lombardi Trophy is made by Tiffany & Co., and, according to Wikipedia, it “is valued at $50,000, and depicts a regulation-size football in kicking position that is made entirely of sterling silver, standing 22 inches (56 cm) tall, weighing 7 pounds (3.2 kg), it takes approximately four months and 72 man-hours to create.”
Are those 72 hours well spent? Compare the image of the Lombardi trophy below with some other trophies of the world and let us know what you think.
The Vince Lombardi Trophy, awarded to the winner of the National Football League (NFL) Superbowl
The Heisman Trophy, awarded to the most outstanding player in collegiate football
The Stanley Cup, awarded to the winner of the National Hockey League (NHL) Playoffs
The Thoroughbred Trophy, awarded to the winner of the Kentucky Derby
The World Cup, awarded to the winner of the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) World Cup
Thomas Edison invented so many things — there are over 1000 patents in his name — that it’s hard to keep track. The lightbulb and the phonograph are certainly at the top of any list, but what about the Carbonizing Chamber? or his Method of Bricking Fine Iron Ores?? or the Apparatus for Translating Electric Currents From High to Low Tension??? Those haven’t made quite the impact on pop culture that some of Edison’s more durable — or, rather, understandable — works have. However, it’s rather odd that Edison’s name isn’t more closely associated with the movies.
Thomas Edison invented the motion picture, and his kinetoscopes were some of the first movie theaters. But Edison’s studio wasn’t important to the history of American movies—for anything other than technical reasons. That honor goes to Biograph, M.G.M., Warner Brothers, a few others. And these studios weren’t peppered throughout the country. They were all in Southern California: the farthest point in the United States from Edison’s lawyers and their fervent defense of his patents. That’s right: “The Magician of Menlo Park” tried keeping movies all to himself, and Hollywood was created for legal and geographic reasons.
Want to give Edison his due? Watch this two-minute compilation of some of his early films:
Last week, in a post about Eugene O’Neill, we suggested a look at E. L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel “Ragtime.” Today’s entry in the American History Edition, about J. P. Morgan, gives us an opportunity to take a closer look at this remarkable novel.
“Ragtime” takes place throughout the United States, roughly between the years 1902 and 1920. It opens at a New England home, with a traveler in a new contraption — an “automobile” — stopping in for a glass of water. The traveler is the famous conjurer Harry Houdini, who punctuates the novel at a series of important points (including the end of each section and the final scene in the book). In between, a fascinating and exciting story unfolds, and I won’t ruin it for you. (Read the book!Skip the musical!)
One of the main characters in “Ragtime” is J. P. Morgan, and he’s rendered in a fascinating and creative way. In a pivotal scene, he entertains Henry Ford, whom he regards as one of his few equals and peers. While they chat in Morgan’s library — one of our favorite New York City spots — the financial magnate introduces a pet theory to the pioneer of the modern assembly line. Morgan believes that there are certain extraordinary people who continuously reappear throughout history, a line that can be traced back to the Egyptian pharaohs. Morgan wants to take a trip up the Nile to explore his theory, and he invites Ford to join him. Morgan’s extravagant theories clearly offend the genial Midwesterner, and he politely declines. The trip still happens, though without Ford. What happens? Won’t ruin that for you either…
James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s 1871 portrait of his mother is—actually, we should stop right there. Whistler would never have accepted the description “portrait of his mother.” True, he did tack on the subtitle “The Artist’s Mother,” but the painting’s primary title is “Arrangement in Grey and Black.”
Whistler was among those early modernists — a group that also included writers like Charles Baudelaire and James Joyce — who were obsessed with the formal possibilities of music. They saw work being created by innovative new composers (Wagner above all) and felt constrained by the need to actually represent something: be it a story, a landscape, or a portrait of a family member. Many of them responded the same way Whistler did: by creating allegedly representational works that were actually formal experiments. A great way to see this in Whistler’s work is by flipping his paintings upside-down.
Whistler’s “Arrangement in Grey and Black” is a precise formal structure: a sharp diagonal created by the sitter’s profile separates the gray and black sections, with a frame created by the dark curtain in front of the sitter and the light floor below.
Let’s flip a few other Whistler’s upside down and see what we can find!
Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl (1862)
Nocturne in Blue and Gold: Old Battersea Bridge (c. 1872-5)