The Philadelphia Story

We all went to see The Philadelphia Story on Sunday at the movie theater of a nearby mall — a special showing, just like Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Casablanca recently. Oddly enough, Ann suggested we see it. And she wants to see next month’s showing, Vertigo.

That, I told her, is a very different movie from The Philadelphia Story. Truth is, I’ve forgotten most of the details of Vertigo. I’ve only seen it once, in the summer of ’81, and I wasn’t entirely taken with it. I might think differently now. Or not. Guess I’ll find out.

As for The Philadelphia Story, it was as charming as ever. Think this was my third viewing. After it was over — and after Ann discussed the structure of the movie, with some astuteness beyond her years — it occurred to me that “love triangle” isn’t an apt term for the story.

Better would be a love triskelion, with Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) as the focus, and the three men, Dexter Haven (Cary Grant), Mike Connor (Jimmy Stewart) and and stiff and put-upon George Kittredge (John Howard), all connected to her for different reasons.

When I got home, I looked up Virginia Weidler, who memorably played the bubbly younger sister, Dinah Lord. I figured she might be the only named member of the cast to still be alive. But no, she died in 1968 at only 41. Seems that Ruth Hussey survived the longest, dying in her 90s in 2005.

Of course there’s a lot of witty banter in the movie. My favorite line — which I didn’t remember from previous viewings, though I don’t know why not — was by Uncle Willie (Roland Young). Dexter had suggested going off for some of the hair of the dog that bite them. Uncle Willie thinks that’s a fine idea:

“C’malong, Dexter, I know a formula that’s said to pop the pennies off the eyelids of dead Irishmen.”

Presidential Real Estate

“Presidents Day” weekend has rolled around again. Late last week I managed to make professional use of my slight knowledge of the presidency — or more exactly, the various U.S. presidents — to write an article about a selection of their houses. The final title: “The Fabulous Real Estate (And A Few Modest Digs) Of Past Presidents.”

It was a fun article to write. I didn’t want to make it overly long, so of course most of the presidents were left out. But I did have a nice selection from different eras: Madison, Jackson, Van Buren, Wm. Henry Harrison, Lincoln, Benjamin Harrison, Theodore Roosevelt, Hoover and Lyndon Johnson.

My sources included my own visits in some cases, online information, and two books that I own. One is the bare-bones Presidents, subtitled “Birthplaces, Homes, and Burial Sites,” by Rachel M. Kochman. I can’t quite remember where I got, but it’s the kind of book that sells in national park or national monument or national historic site bookstores. Acquired sometime in the late 1990s probably, since it’s the 1996 edition, with the most recent president covered being Bill Clinton.

Bare bones because while extensively illustrated, all the photos and drawings are black and white. That’s no problem, really, but it’s set in an ugly sans serif. That makes what should be a browsing book less pleasant to browse. Still, the book includes a lot of information on presidential sites.

I also have a coffee table book called Homes of the Presidents by Bill Harris, 1997, so it too ends with Clinton. A remainder table find. The text is a little uneven, but not bad. The pictures are the thing, of course, and they are well selected.

Mid-February Natterings

Remarkably foggy day Thursday.
Above freezing, too, reducing the snow cover and making random puddles.

Reading a book about Lincoln’s assassination puts me in a counterfactural frame of mind. Not so much What If Lincoln Lived — a lot of consideration has been given to that — but what would have happened to Booth had he capped his murderous impulse that day, and not gone through with it? What would have happened to him?

I picture him living into the early 20th century, since he was only in his mid-20s in 1865, a star of the American and European stage in the pre-movie years, so he was mostly forgotten by later generations. He did have a small part as an elderly wise man at the court of Cyrus the Great in D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (but nothing in The Birth of a Nation, which was never made). Also, one of Booth’s sons founded Booth Studios in the early 1900s, which was later acquired by MGM.

In his memoir, published in 1899, Booth confessed that he had a strong impulse to murder Lincoln right at the end of the war, and was glad he never acted on it.

Got a form letter from the chancellor of the University of Illinois the other day. Let’s call it a worrywart letter. It seems that the public houses in old Champaign-Urbana are encouraging students, perhaps tacitly, to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in a blotto state of mind. The university frowns on such goings-on and wants me to know it will do what it can to educate the students about the perils of demon rum. Or more likely in this context, whisky.

Not that alcohol isn’t a form of poison, with risks. I expect that a handful of students manage to off themselves across the years under its influence, mostly via reckless driving. But do I need a form letter about this?

Space Oddity

I found out that pictures of the Roadster in Space were put into the public domain, and I couldn’t resist.

Wired reported: “SpaceX revealed last weekend that a mannequin wearing the company’s new spacesuit would ride in the driver’s seat of the electric sports car. Nicknamed Starman, the dummy will listen to some tunes on its long and endless journey: David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity.’ ”

I watched the Falcon Heavy launch on my computer after the fact, as one does these days. Aside from the fact that it didn’t explode on the pad, the remarkable thing was the robust cheering from the crowd at launch.

Did Mr. Musk hire a cheering section? Probably not, but it’s a fun thought. Compare with the launch of Apollo 11 — you can hear faint cheering briefly right after liftoff. Maybe the microphones weren’t in position to get much crowd reaction in 1969.

An aside: Jack King, who announced the Apollo 11 liftoff, died only in 2015.

I Promise to Put Hooligans in the Hoosegow

With the Illinois primary only a month or so away, the political ad postcards are rolling in. Very many of them promise to “put criminals behind bars,” as if the candidates would pick them up like Underdog and drop them off in prison without a hint of due process.

Policy considerations aside, the term “criminals behind bars” shows a serious lack of imagination. While I was shoveling snow the other day — and this is the kind of thing I sometimes think of when doing that — I started a little list of synonyms for that tired old phrase. English is such a rich grab bag of words.

Criminals behind bars, or:

Felons in the slammer
Crooks in the pen
Thugs up the river
Blackguards in the stoney lonesome
Outlaws in the jug
Robbers in the lockup
Banditos in the cooler
Perps in the pokey
Hooligans in the hoosegow
Gangsters in the big house
Lawbreakers in the joint
Miscreants in the clink
Convicts inside
Malefactors in the correctional facility
Cons in the brig
Hoods in the bridewell
Delinquents in juvie
Desperados in stir
Culprits in quod

Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer

On Friday morning, I noticed that I could have watched the opening ceremony to the Winter Olympics via live streaming if I’d gotten up at 5 a.m. Ha, ha. I was busy about then enjoying a dream about something or other. Then I forgot to watch any of the replay on regular TV, maybe because NBC’s treatment is always tiresome.

Considering that today is Lincoln’s birthday, it’s fitting that I picked up a book about him — partly about him — on Saturday at a resale shop, and started reading it as soon as I got home. But I wasn’t thinking about that coincidence when I bought the book. It didn’t occur to me until this morning.

The book is Manhunt, subtitled “The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer,” by James L. Swanson (2006). I liked it from the beginning, namely “A Note to the Reader,” on page viii.

“This story is true. All the characters are real and were alive during the great manhunt of April 1865. Their words are authentic. Indeed, all text appearing within quotation marks comes from original sources: letters, manuscripts, affidavits, trial transcripts, newspapers, government reports, pamphlets, books, memoirs, and other documents. What happened in Washington, DC, in the spring of 1865, and in the swamps and rivers, and the forests and fields, of Maryland and Virginia during the next twelve days, is far too incredible to have ever been made up.”

In a case like this, I’d guess a surfeit of information and sources would be the writer’s challenge, rather than missing puzzle pieces. Among 19th-century crimes, Lincoln’s murder might well be the best documented.

So far Swanson seems up to the challenge. Even though I know a fair amount of the story, and have read other books about the assassination (e.g., The Day Lincoln Was Shot by James Bishop), Manhunt is a page-turner. I spent a fair amount of Saturday night and Sunday morning turning those pages.

Though the book hews close to the facts, that doesn’t keep Swanson from occasional interesting counterfactual musings. Such as a paragraph about what might have happened had Booth’s shot missed — his derringer had only one shot, after all.

“Had Booth missed, Lincoln could have risen from his chair to confront the assassin. At that moment, the president, cornered, with not only his own life in danger but also Mary’s, would almost certainly have fought back. If he did, Booth would have found himself outmatched, facing not kindly Father Abraham, but the aroused fury of the Mississippi River flatboatman who fought off a gang of murderous river pirates in the dead of night, the champion wrestler who, years before, humbled the Clary’s Grove boys in New Salem in a still legendary match, or even the fifty-six-year-old president who could still pick up a long, splitting-axe by his fingertips, raise it, extend his arm out parallel with the ground, and suspend the axe in midair. Lincoln could have choked the life out of the five-foot-eight-inch, 150-pound thespian, or wrestled him over the side of the box, launching Booth on a crippling dive to the stage almost twelve feet below.”

Also intriguing are the walk-on characters. Walk-on from the point of view of the main story, since no one is a walk-on in his or her own life. Such as “John Peanut,” the man — or teen — who worked as a menial at Ford’s Theatre and who held John Wilkes Booth’s horse in the alley behind the theater while the actor went off to become an assassin. Booth had asked Ford’s Theatre carpenter Ned Spangler to do so, but he fobbed the job off on “John Peanut,” who might have been named John or Joseph Burroughs or Burrows.

A little more information about this person is here, for what it’s worth. A Lincoln assassination buff named Roger Norton says, “I believe the best Lincoln assassination researchers in the world tried to find out what became of him, but nobody could succeed. The trail ends with his appearance at the trial. Mike Kauffman has suggested that his name was actually Borrows (sp?). Nobody knows his exact age in 1865 as far as I know, but ‘teens’ is a logical assumption.”

So there’s plenty in Manhunt to keep me interested. It’s become an express train blowing by the other books I’m reading at the moment: Trotsky: Fate of a Revolutionary, The Crossing (Cormac McCarthy) and a collection of Orwell’s essays, which is a re-read after a few decades.

Dog in Snow

Sure enough, a lot of snow fell Thursday night into Friday morning. Maybe a foot. But it was no blizzard, and no big deal. Even the side street on which I live was cleared by Friday afternoon. A little more of the same fell Saturday morning and then much more on Sunday morning. More shoveling and that was cleared too.

For the dog, this much snow means romping around in the back yard.

Every time it snows this much, a truck comes to clear the blacktop next to the school behind the house. Why this was necessary Friday, when school was cancelled, I don’t know, but anyway the dog rushes to the back fence to bark at it. And then along the fence as it drives nearby.

From the point of view of the dog, this must be effective. The truck goes away before long.

1 Jiao, 1980

From the NWS at 3 p.m. today, for northeastern Illinois: WINTER STORM WARNING REMAINS IN EFFECT FROM 6 PM THIS EVENING TO 9 PM CST FRIDAY…

“Heavy snow expected. Travel will be very difficult to impossible at times, including during the morning commute on Friday. Total snow accumulations of 8 to 14 inches, with localized higher amounts are expected.”

Well, that ought to be fun. Snow had already started as of 6 p.m. Thursday. Fortunately, all of us can stay home tomorrow.

One more small banknote for now. Small in value, about 1.6 cents, and small physically, 4½ by 2 inches. The 1 jiao of the People’s Republic of China. The PRC. I miss it being called red China, just a little.

1 jiao is 0.1 yuan. So you could say that this is a Chinese dime. The gentlemen depicted on the note are stalwart examples of Gaoshan and Manchu men, presumably looking boldly toward the socialist future. Manchu, I’d heard of. Manchu Dynasty and all that. Gaoshan, on the other hand, I had to look up. Seems that’s a term for Taiwanese aborigines.

Dated 1980, but in fact part of the fourth series of the renminbi (as opposed to FECs), which were issued from 1987 to 1997. So I might have picked this up in China. I know I have a few 1 jiao aluminum coins from our visit. Or the note might have been among the bunch o’ cheapies I got more recently.

25 Centavos, Nicaragua, 1991

This slip of a note, all of 41116 inches by 2116 inches, came with dozens of others that I bought for a few dollars a few years ago. It’s one of a series of small denomination notes issued by Banco Central de Nicaragua in the early 1990s that didn’t have much value for very long.

The country’s base currency is the cordoba, named for the fellow pictured on the note, Francisco Hernández de Córdoba (d. 1526), who is regarded as the founder of Nicaragua, in that he founded Granada and León in that country. He’s not to be confused with another Francisco Hernández de Córdoba (d. 1517), who had the misfortune to lead an expedition in the Yucatan inevitably described as “ill-fated.”

Actually, the Nicaraguan Córdoba had his own ill fate, running afoul of another Spaniard, Pedrarias Davila, founder of Panama City and by most accounts a ruthless bastard even by conquistador standards. Davila had Córdoba put to death by decapitation, just as he did to Balboa (who has a currency named after him, too).

The note was printed by Harrison & Sons Limited, a major British engraver of stamps and banknotes founded in 1750 and lasting until it was bought by competitor De La Rue in 1997. “Harrison & Sons Limited” is visible right there on the bottom of the reverse.

The cap in the triangle, incidentally, is a Liberty Cap, a.k.a. a Phrygian Cap. A symbol of freedom, either a freedman’s or more generally everyone’s. I didn’t know this until I looked it up, but Liberty Caps are commonly used Latin American coats of arms, by Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Cuba, El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua and Paraguay.

Why have we in the United States forgotten about the Phrygian Cap? Why did the silliest of the Tea Party supporters wear tricornes and not Liberty Caps? Most anyone in the early Republic would have known what it meant. Remarkably, Walking Liberty wore a Phrygian Cap on the U.S. half dollar until 1947, though I suspect by then few noticed.

Back to Francisco Hernández de Córdoba. His skull-less bones were discovered in 2000. The Miami Herald reported that year: “Nearly 500 years after he was decapitated by a ruthless boss, and 400 years since his grave was lost in the aftermath of a volcanic eruption, the remains of Hernandez de Cordoba have been discovered. Nicaraguan archaeologists made the find earlier this month in the dusty ruins of a church here on the banks of Lake Managua, 30 miles northwest of the capital…

“When Davila sensed that his chief lieutenant in Panama, Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, was growing in popularity, he had him decapitated. He did the same with Hernandez de Cordoba in 1526. The head of Nicaragua’s founder was stuck on a pole in the town plaza, a reminder to others of the costs of incurring Davila’s wrath, while his body was buried at the foot of the altar in Leon Viejo’s only church.”

10 Sen Note, 1964

Something I thought about the other day, when looking for more detail about my Indonesian 10 sen note, dated 1964: Why aren’t there prizes in cereal boxes any more?

This article at a site called Extra Crispy offers a plausible answer: kids wouldn’t respond to them any more. Entertainment for children has become more sophisticated, you might say. A more cynical take would be that if it isn’t an electronic three-ring circus, kids will be bored.

I wondered that because I read an entry posted by “Man” at a blog called Coined for Money that discusses the 10 sen note. Man asserts (all sic): “Taking a quick break from U.S. notes to talk about my oldest foreign note. I got this from a Cheerios box back in the 1980s when they had a special in box promotion.Cheerios has been doing this for year in the 1950s they had replica confederate money and the most famous is the Sacagewea coins from the 2000s.”

Interesting. I’ve confirmed that General Mills did give away Confederate money reproductions in Cheerios boxes in 1954 — one of those details that shows that some things do change — and Lincoln cents and a few hundred Sacagaweas in 2000.

But I didn’t acquire my note in the 1980s. I don’t remember when I got it, but it was at least as long ago as 1970. It’s one of the first, maybe the first, of the foreign banknotes in my possession. I found it fascinating as a kid. I still find it interesting: a relic, however minor, of Year of Living Dangerously Indonesia. (Book and movie both recommended.)

Could be that Cheerios boxes offered cheap foreign notes as premiums in the late 1960s. That’s plausible, since even then, 10 sen notes were worthless.

To cite Wiki on the 1960s Indonesian rupiah (which even now is technically divided into 100 sen): “The hyperinflation of the early 1960s resulted in the pronouncement of the ‘new rupiah’ supposedly worth 1,000 of the old rupiah.

“The withdrawal of the old money meant the issue of an entirely new set of banknotes, by Presidential decree of 13 December 1965. The decree authorised Bank Indonesia to issue fractional notes for the first time (although the 1 and 2½ rupiah notes were still issued by the government itself), in denominations of 1, 5, 10, 25, and 50 sen showing ‘Volunteers’, dated 1964.

“Due to the fact that the rupiah was only devalued about 10, rather than 1000 times, they were worthless on issue, and many millions of notes never entered circulation.”

Perhaps someone at General Mills’ ad agency got wind of the fact that countless thousands of 10 sen notes could be had for very little real money, and included them in the promotion. And for all I know, the company had so many that it could do it again in the ’80s.