Friday, August 19, 2016

Patrick Dennis, Madcap “Uncle Mame,” Dead at 55 of Pancreatic Cancer

The real life of Patrick Dennis was just as bizarre as the madcap adventures of his most famous invention, Auntie Mame. Profiled in Life magazine as one of the world’s most successful authors at age forty, he tried to commit suicide a week later and was committed to a mental institution for eight months.  A multi-millionaire, thanks to his best-selling novel Auntie Mame and fifteen others, he was penniless at age fifty and went to work as a butler for Ray Kroc, the McDonald’s hamburger mogul, who had no idea who he was.  A devoted husband to Louise Stickney and father of their two children, he fell in love with a man and abandoned his family.

Dennis was born Edward Everett Tanner III on May 18, 1921, in Chicago. Nicknamed “Pat” before he was born, in honor of the Irish boxer Pat Sweeney, known as a “dirty fighter,” he attended Evanston Township High School.  He joined the American Field Service and drove an ambulance in Northern Africa and the Middle East during World War II.

After the war, using the pen name Patrick Dennis, he wrote the novel Auntie Mame, about a character based on his father’s sister. Writing in the first person, he inserted himself into the fictional narrative as the orphaned youngster who is raised by a zany aunt. It sold two million copies and was on the best-seller list for more than two years. Adapted into a play, a movie, a musical, and a movie musical, it was a vehicle for Rosalind Russell, Beatrice Lillie, Angela Lansbury, and, unfortunately, Lucille Ball. Dennis wrote fifteen other books, some as Virginia Rowans, and several became best-sellers. He was also the author of Little Me, a parody memoir which became a hit Broadway musical starring Sid Caesar playing seven roles.

Having squandered a fortune, Dennis took a job during the 1970s as a butler, work which he said he greatly enjoyed.  He also became well known as an outré denizen of the Greenwich Village gay scene. 

In 1976 Dennis was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and by the autumn of that year was gravely ill.  He asked his physician, Dr. William G. Cahan, for enough sleeping pills to end it all.  “I can’t use a gun,” said Dennis, “because I can’t shoot straight, and I can’t jump out of a window because I’m afraid of heights.” Dr. Cahan naturally declined to offer a suicidal dose, but did prescribe a modest supply of morphine-based pain-killers, which Dennis squirreled away.

Dennis maintained his dry wit to the very end.  On his last day, November 6, 1976, his friend and former housekeeper, Corry Salley, administered some medicine to him and asked, “Is there anything else I can do?”  Dennis replied, “Yes, for God’s sake, will you put in your dentures.” His estranged wife, Louise, was at his bedside, and his last words were to her: “Louise, there’s a spot on your dress.” At fifty-five, “Uncle Mame,” as one biographer called him, the man who led a life as improbable as a character in one of his books, was dead. Whether death was hastened by ingesting some of the pills he had stowed remains unknown.

In his will, Dennis specified that there be no funeral or memorial service. “My body is to be cremated and disposed of in the quickest, cheapest manner possible (flushed down the toilet, scattered to the winds, sunk into an unmarked hole in the ground, etc.).”  Louise kept the urn containing his ashes and was buried with it cradled in her arms 24 years later.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Syphilitic Stroke Fells Symbolist Poet Charles Baudelaire at 46

Charles Baudelaire was a mama’s boy and a decadent ne’er-do-well, who wrote a group of poems known as The Flowers of Evil that profoundly influenced generations of future poets--even though many of the poems were denounced as obscene and six of them were banned in France until 1949. Poor Baudelaire also had gonorrhea and syphilis (acquired in the usual disreputable manner) and a fondness for opium, laudanum, and cognac, which conspired to snuff out his life at the age of forty-six.

Born in Paris April 9, 1821, Baudelaire was always close to his mother, a relationship that deepened after his father died when Charles was six. But the following year, she remarried a French diplomat and military officer named Jacques Aupick, whom Charles regarded as a rival for his mother’s affection. In a letter written to her years later he spoke of his “passionate love” for her as a child. After his stepfather’s death, when Charles was thirty-six, he wrote to his mother: “I believe that I belong to you absolutely, and that I belong only to you.”

Young Charles was sent to boarding school in Lyon and then studied law at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris, where he spent much of his time running up  expenses for dandified clothes, liquor, and prostitutes.  Throughout his life Baudelaire wheedled money out of his mother to cover his debts. In desperation his stepfather shipped him out as a crewman on a freighter to India, but he jumped ship and returned to Paris, where, lo and behold!, having reached the age of twenty-one, he inherited a small fortune of 99,568 francs from his late father’s estate. That would probably be something in excess of half a million dollars in today’s buying power, and it enabled Baudelaire to live a playboy’s life—until he had spent almost half the inheritance and his parents managed to put the remainder in trust, granting him only a small monthly allowance. 

During this period, Baudelaire became involved with Jeanne Duval, a Haitian-born sometime actress and the inspiration for a series of “Black Venus” poems. Baudelaire’s family vehemently rejected his relationship with her, whether because of her ethnicity or her profession is not clear. Jeanne and Charles remained off-and-on lovers for the rest of his life, although he also engaged in dalliances with a voluptuous blonde actress named Marie Daubrun and a demimondaine named Apolonie Sabatier, who conducted a salon that attracted the likes of Gustave Flaubert, Théophile Gautier, and Ernest Feydeau.

In 1857 Baudelaire published his chief (and practically his only) poetic work, Les Fleurs du Mal, which launched the French symbolist movement in poetry, deeply affecting such followers as Paul Verlaine, Artur Rimbaud, and Stéphane Mallarmé, as well as Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot and many later poets. Baudelaire’s poems deal with taboo subjects like death and sexual activity of many varieties, which he treated in sensual detail. Six poems deal with lesbian love, and he and his publisher were tried and convicted of an offense against public morals, barely escaping prison time. The six poems were were banned from publication in France, a prohibition not lifted until 1949.

Always strapped for cash, Baudelaire saw his financial position worsen when his publisher went bankrupt in 1861. Belgium offered the prospect of income from lectures and the sale of his books, so Baudelaire moved there in 1863.  But his lifelong indulgence in drugs and alcohol, combined with the continuing symptoms of venereal diseases, resulted in his collapse in the Church of Saint-Loup in Namur in 1866. This was followed by a series of strokes in which he suffered loss of speech and partial paralysis. He returned to Paris and entered a nursing home, where, after a year’s confinement, he died on August 31, 1867, at the age of forty-six. He was buried in the Montparnasse Cemetery.

During his final days, Baudelaire was given the last rites of the Roman Catholic Church, but whether he was actually a religious believer is a subject of great speculation.  Certainly his poems are filled with Christian symbolism, but there are also references to Satanism. There is a famous story of  Baudelaire’s close friend, the one-named photographer Nadar, a free thinker who often visited Baudelaire in the nursing home.  One day Nadar asked Baudelaire, “How can you possibly believe in God and an afterlife?” Unable to speak, Baudelaire smiled and gestured toward a glorious sunset over the Arc de Triomphe. Most likely Baudelaire remained an unwilling agnostic until the end of his life, for as he wrote in a letter to his mother in 1861: “I desire with all my heart—and with a sincerity which no one except myself will ever understand—to believe that an external invisible being is interested in my fate; but what must one do to believe it?”

Thursday, May 19, 2016

In a “mattress-grave,” poet Heinrich Heine died at 58 of mysterious paralysis

Heinrich Heine, German poet, journalist, and critic, was born in Düsseldorf, December 13, 1797, to Jewish parents, attended Catholic schools, and converted to Protestantism when he was twenty-seven because of regulations preventing Jews from working in the German civil service. 

Known for his lyric poetry that is remembered today in lieder by Robert Schumann and Franz Schubert, Heine is widely credited as predicting the evils of Naziism with a line from his 1821 play Almansor, “They that begin by burning books will end by burning people.” Indeed, his works were banned by the Nazi Third Reich as “degenerate.” Heine spent the last eight years of his life in what he called his “mattress-grave,” with a mysterious crippling paralysis.

After schooling he attended the universities of Bonn, Göttingen, and Berlin, finally earning a law degree. He never practiced law, or worked in the civil service, but instead followed a literary path in poetry and playwriting, largely supported, somewhat grudgingly, by his wealthy banker uncle, Salomon Heine. He finally wound up in Paris, where he spent the rest of his life and produced the balance of his works, most notable of which are his early Book of Songs and the later Romanzero and Poems of 1853 and 1854. 

He had affairs with numerous women, in the course of which he acquired syphilis, which may have contributed to his later paralysis. When he was thirty-eight, He met an illiterate Parisian shopgirl named Crescence Eugénie Mirat, whom he preferred to call Mathilde. They began an affair, and two years later she moved in with him. Five years after that they were married, although that didn’t prevent his starting a torrid romance with a young German-born French writer named Camille Selden, which lasted until his death.

Constantly in poor health, with venereal diseases, chronic lead poisoning, and painful hemorrhoids, he eased his pain  with opium. In May of 1848 Heine suddenly fell paralyzed—perhaps the result of syphilis or untreated multiple sclerosis—and took to his bed, where he spent his last eight years, unable to move, suffering from spinal cramps, and partially blind. During this period he continued to work and returned to the Christian faith that he had earlier abandoned. In one of his lyric poems, he seems to look upon death as a welcome relief:
            Our death is in the cool of night,
            Our life is in the pool of day.
            The darkness glows. I’m drowning,
            The day has tired me with light.

            Over my head in leaves grown deep,
            The young nightingale sings.
            It sings only of love,
            I hear it in my sleep.
Heine died on February 17, 1856, at the age of fifty-eight. He is buried in Paris’ Montmartre Cemetery.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Poet Wallace Stevens, 75, dead of stomach cancer after deathbed conversion

According to one of his business colleagues at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, the poetry Wallace Stevens wrote was a “bunch of gobbledygook.” According to critic Harold Bloom, Stevens was the “best and most representative” American poet of his time, who enjoyed an artistic flowering in his later years unrivaled since Sophocles. Whichever assessment is true, Stevens led a paradoxical life—a strait-laced insurance lawyer, with a poetic streak, during business hours, and an angst-ridden, hard-drinking, occasional brawler after work.

Born October 2, 1879, in Reading, Pennsylvania, the second of five children, his uneventful childhood was punctuated by an attack of malaria that forced him to repeat the ninth grade. He went to Harvard, where he edited the literary magazine.  After moving to New York, worked as a newspaperman, frequented Greenwich Village artistic circles, published a few poems in literary magazines, and then went to law school. He took a job with an insurance company and in 1916 moved to Hartford, Connecticut, where he spent the rest of his life.

Stevens married a Reading girl, Elsie Viola Katchel, who was, in his parents’ view, from the wrong side of the tracks. They did not attend the wedding, and Stevens never spoke to his father for the rest of his life. The marriage was difficult. Elsie was described by those who knew her as “a mousy little creature,” “unbalanced,” “not very helpful to Wallace,” “off the beam,” and a “witch.” For his part, Stevens was said to have “treated her like ash.” After the birth of their daughter, Holly, the couple moved to separate bedrooms and rarely saw or spoke to each other.

Elsie deplored alcoholic beverages, and Stevens, in the view of one of his employees, “liked a good drink-up.” Most of his carousing, accompanied by plenty of martinis or whiskey, was done on business trips to New York or solo vacations to Key West, Florida, where he liked to hang out—and sometimes exchange words or blows—with Ernest Hemingway and Robert Frost. On several occasions he got into fierce arguments with Frost, who accused him of being drunk and “acting inappropriately.” Stevens once challenged Hemingway to a fistfight, and wound up with a broken hand, a broken nose, and two black eyes.

Stevens turned out lean, surreal, Modernist verses with an idiosyncratic vocabulary, often writing them surreptitiously between reviewing contracts at his insurance office. His poetic output included such landmarks as “Harmonium,” “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” “Sunday Morning,” and “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” They earned him a place of honor among Modernist poets, including his friends William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore, T. S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound. The Pulitzer Prize, for his Collected Works, came in 1955, shortly before his death.

Stevens once referred to himself as a “dried-up Presbyterian,” but he maintained a lifelong interest in Roman Catholicism. On his many trips to New York, he would often stop at St. Patrick’s Cathedral for a couple of hours of meditation.  He maintained correspondence with a nun named Sister Madeleva, the president of St. Mary’s College and also a poet, who urged him to “join the fold.” Stevens’ deathbed conversion, attested by the hospital chaplain, has been disputed by his daughter, Holly.

On March 28, 1955, Stevens went to see his family physician, Dr. James Moher, about stomach pains he had been having. Moher odered barium X-rays, which failed to disclose any disease.  On April 19, still suffering, Stevens underwent more thorough X-rays, which showed diverticulitis, a gallstone, and a bloated stomach. He was operated on April 26, at Hartford’s St. Francis Hospital, by Dr. Benedict Landry, who discovered Stevens was suffering from stomach cancer. He returned home on May 11 to recuperate, but Elsie, who had had a stroke earlier that year, found herself unable to tend to him, and he was sent to Avery Convalescent Hospital on May 20.

In early June Stevens was feeling well enough to attend commencement ceremonies at the University of Hartford, where he was given an honorary degree, and on June 13, he went to New Haven to receive another degree from Yale. After that he returned to his job at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity, but on July 21, he suffered a relapse and went back into the hospital.

During this final stay, he developed a friendshsip with the Catholic chaplain, the Rev. Arthur Hanley, with whom he had daily conversations. “I think I’d better get in the fold now,” Stevens told him. Father Hanley gave this account of Stevens’ conversion in a 1977 letter to Professor Janet McCann, a poet and professor at Texas A&M University:

            The first time he came to the hospital, he expressed a certain emptiness in his life…We sat and talked a long time. During his visit this time, I saw him 9 or 10 times…At least 3 times, he talked about getting into the fold—meaning the Catholic Church. The doctrine of hell was an objection which we later got thru… alright.  He often remarked about the peace and tranquility that he experienced in going into a Catholic Church and spending some time.  He spoke about St. Patrick's Cathedral in N.Y. I can't give you the date of his baptism. I think it might be recorded at the hospital. He said he had never been baptized. He was baptized absolutely. Wallace and his wife had not been on speaking terms for several years. So we thought it better not to tell her. She might cause a scene in the hospital…He said if he got well, we would talk a lot more and if not—he would see me in heaven.…”

On August 1 Stevens lapsed into a coma and died the next day at 8:30 a.m. at the age of seventy-five. He is buried in Hartford’s Cedar Hill Cemetery.


Thursday, March 31, 2016

Liver Cancer Claimed Jean Racine, 59, Torn Between Debauchery and Piety

Throughout his life, playwright Jean Racine was torn between the rigorous strictures of the strait-laced and deeply pious Jansenists and the louche bacchanalian high life of a Parisian theatre world laced with wine and sex. He stuck with Bacchus long enough to become a theatrical giant.


Racine was born December 20, 1639, in La Ferté-Milon, a small town fifty miles north of Paris.  Both his parents died when he was an infant, and he was placed in the care of his grandmother, Marie Desmoulins, who sent him to a monastery at Port-Royal des Champs, run by monks who adhered to Jansenism, a strict Catholic sect that was accused of heresy for its denial of free will and Calvinistic insistence on the depravity of mankind. Despite the severity of the discipline, young Jean had the opportunity of studying the rich literature of Latin and Greek classics. When he was eighteen, the monks sent him to Paris to study law at the College of Harcourt, a decision they no doubt came to regret after Racine fell in with a theatrical crowd and decided to try his luck at his first love—the theatre, even though that profession was castigated by the Jansenists as the work of the devil.

With high hopes, Racine submitted his first play, a tragedy, La Thébaïde, to Molière’s company, and he was elated when it was accepted for production at the Palais-Royal. A second work, Alexandre le Grand, was produced the following year, and Racine was on his way to a career in the glittering beau monde of Paris under King Louix XIV. 

Molière’s forte was comedy, and Racine was not happy with the quality of the production his tragedies were receiving, and he decided to switch his allegiance to a rival company, the Hôtel de Bourgogne.  He also decided to take Molière’s leading lady, Thérèse du Parc, with him to the new theatre—after first seducing her. Molière, having given young Racine his first big break, was deeply hurt by his betrayal and never spoke to his protégé again.

Meanwhile, Racine continued to have great success at the Bourgogne playhouse with his tragedies, mostly based on Greek myths, including Iphigénie, Britannicus, Bérénice, Bajazet, Mithridate, and his masterpiece, Phaedre. The dashing young playwright, his ascetic Jansenist days banished from his mind, also had great success as a Lothario, with a string of affairs with actresses and courtesans, including one leading lady whom he was accused of murdering by poison—although he escaped formal charges.

Racine also managed to acquire a host of enemies, many of whom were loyal fans of the older playwright, Pierre Corneille, and they felt that Racine had failed to show him proper respect. So determined were his foes to destroy Racine’s career that they bought a block of seats in the front rows for the opening of Phaedre—then failed to show up, leaving a huge swath of empty seats and casting a pall on the performance. 

Whether this animosity, or a romantic failure—or some deep religious epiphany—motivated Racine, in 1677 he decided to leave the theatre and return to his Jansenist roots. Back at Port-Royal, the monks arranged a marriage for him with Catherine de Romanet, a pious young woman with whom he had seven children. Catherine never saw any of his plays or read a single line of them.  Racine also took up a new job as royal historiographer, a sinecure that had been secured for him by Madame de Maintenon, Louis XIV’s consort.

In the spring of 1699, when he was fifty-nine, Racine fell ill.  He languished for a few weeks in Paris, where he sought treatment, and on April 21, he died there of liver cancer.  He requested burial in Port-Royal at the foot of his Jansenist teacher’s grave, but as a special honor he was placed at its head.  The monks’ eulogy omitted any mention of his theatrical work:

                  On this day, one thousand six hundred and 
     ninety-nine, there died in Paris Jean Racine, treasurer of 
     France, secretary of the King and Gentleman-in-Ordinary 
     of his Bedchamber. He had been brought up in              
     these precincts with other persons who were pursuing 
     their studies here, and having been obliged to depart 
     hence, he followed for some time the ways of the world. 
     But God showed him His grace by renewing in his spirit  
     the light of truth which had been darkened there and by 
     awakening in his heart the sentiments of piety. He had 
     much affection for this monastery; and he has given us 
     proof of his zeal, having used his influence to protect us. 
     His body has been brought here and buried in the 
     outside cemetery as he had directed. He left us eight 
     hundred livres in his will.

In 1710, when Louis XIV had Port-Royal razed, Racine’s body was moved to the Church of St.-Étienne-du-Mont in Paris.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, 44, creator of ‘Little Prince’, dead in wartime plane crash

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, whose famous “Little Prince” was created to combat the popularity of “Mary Poppins,” died as he had lived most of his life—soaring in an aircraft high above the earth. Saint-Exupéry’s love of flying was matched by his love of literature, and he once exasperated ground crews by circling over an airfield for an hour before landing so that he could finish reading a novel (the title of which is not recorded).

Born June 29, 1900, in Lyon to an aristocratic Catholic family, he inherited the title of count, but no fortune to go with it, after his father le Comte Jean de Saint Exupéry, dropped dead in a train station when Antoine was only three years old. (Saint-Exupéry later added the hyphen to his name to prevent Americans from calling him “Mr. Exupéry.”)  He failed out of the French Naval Academy twice, studied architecture at the École des Beaux-Arts, served in the French cavalry, where he took flying lessons, transferred to the air force, and finally snared a job as an airmail pilot. 

His experiences flying mail routes across desolate stretches in Africa and South America, and over the South Atlantic, including serious injuries in several near-fatal crashes, provided material for two of his most famous books, Night Flight, a novel, and Wind, Sand, and Stars, a memoir that won the U. S. National Book Award and established him in a lucrative writing career. In between flying assignments, Saint-Exupéry held down jobs as a test pilot, a publicity attaché for Air France, and a reporter for Paris-Soir, while pursuing his literary career.  

In 1931 Saint-Exupéry married Consuelo Suncin, a twice-widowed Salvadoran writer and artist, who had the artistic soul of a bohemian and the vicious tongue of a viper. She was both his muse and his nemesis, and their on-again, off-again marriage was marked by many affairs, notably Saint-Exupéry’s with a Frenchwoman named Hélène de Vogüé, who became his biographer and literary executor. The Saint-Exupérys moved to New York in 1941 after France fell to the Germans, and spread their time among dual penthouses on Central Park South, a townhouse in Beekman Place, and a summer home on Long Island. It is rumored that Saint-Exupéry and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, wife of aviator Charles Lindbergh, were lovers during this time. 

The wife of Saint-Exupéry’s publisher persuaded him to write a children’s book, in order to capitalize on the popularity of P. L. Travers’ tales of a nanny, Mary Poppins, and the result was The Little Prince, ostensibly for children but really a fable for adults. Drawing on his aviation experiences, it tells the story of a pilot in the desert who encounters a little boy, a prince fallen to earth from an asteroid. The central message of the story, expressed by a fox the prince meets, is, “One sees clearly only with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eyes.” The book has sold almost 150 million copies worldwide.

During the height of World War II, in 1943, Saint-Exupéry returned to France and resumed flying with his former squadron in the Mediterranean theatre. Still suffering from injuries that prevented him from dressing himself in his flight suit or turning his head in flight to check on enemy aircraft, he became depressed and began drinking heavily. He wrote a pessimistic work, Citadelle, in which he expressed the view that man’s only reason for living was to be a repository for civilized values. 

Despite his disabilities, and although at forty-three eight years over the maximum age for combat pilots, Saint-Exupéry gained permission from General Dwight D. Eisenhower to fly reconnaissance missions. On July 31, 1944, he took off from an airfield in Corsica in an unarmed P-38 to gather information about troop movements in France. He never returned. Sixty years later, wreckage raised from the seabed near Marseille was identified as belonging to his plane. The forty-four-year-old pilot had probably been shot down by an enemy fighter, though the cause of the crash may never be known.  After the war, at least three Luftwaffe pilots claimed to have shot him down, but none of their stories has been backed by solid evidence.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Flute-playing poet, composer, and lecturer Sidney Lanier dead of tuberculosis at 39

 Poor Sidney Lanier, for whom a middle school in Houston has been named since 1926, recently suffered the indignity of having his name removed from the school, owing to his participation in the Civil War on the Confederate side.  The sad irony, of course, is that Lanier is hardly known for his military service and was honored, not for that, but for his later achievements as a poet, musician, and faculty member of Johns Hopkins University.

Born in Macon, Georgia, on February 3, 1842, to descendants of French Huguenots, Lanier studied the flute as a child and then attended Oglethorpe University, graduating at age seventeen as class valedictorian. When the Civil War broke out, he volunteered and served mostly as a pilot and signal officer aboard British blockade-runners, smuggling supplies past Union ships.  He was captured by Union forces and imprisoned for five months at Point Lookout in Maryland, where he became infected with tuberculosis, which plagued him for the rest of his brief life. At war's end, he had to walk all the way home to Macon, arriving desperately ill.

He taught school in Macon and then went to work as a desk clerk at the Exchange Hotel in Montgomery, Alabama.   Adept at not only the flute, but also the banjo, violin, guitar, piano, and organ, he entertained hotel guests with his music, and served as organist at the First Presbyterian church. He also wrote his only novel, Tiger-Lilies, an anti-war autobiographical work published in 1867.  The same year he moved to Prattville, Alabama, became a school principal, and married a friend from Macon, Mary Day, with whom he had four sons.

Returning to Macon, he took up the practice of law, as his health worsened from constant attacks of tuberculosis. He began to publish poetry, much of which sold well and established him as a literary figure. Most notable of his verses were "Corn" (1875), "The Symphony" (1875), "Centennial Meditation" (1876), "The Song of the Chattahoochee" (1877), "The Marshes of Glynn" (1878), and "Sunrise" (1881).

Seeking a better climate for his lungs, he left his family and went to Texas, where he spent time in Houston, Galveston, Austin, and San Antonio, working as a freelance musician. He left Texas in 1873 and sought permanent work in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, winding up as a member of the Peabody Symphony Orchestra in Baltimore, where he soon rose to first flautist.  Lanier composed several notable works for orchestra, including “Black Birds,” a work that mimics the bird’s song on the flute.   

Lanier's family rejoined him in Baltimore, and he supported them with his work as a musician and as a poet. In the late 1870s he began to lecture on literature at Johns Hopkins University, where he was named a permanent faculty member, specializing in Shakespeare, Chaucer, English novelists, and Anglo-Saxon poetry.

Lanier maintained a lifelong Christian belief, reflected in much of his poetry, which stemmed from his college days, when he was under the influence of James Woodrow, a professor of science, who regarded science as a gift of God.  Woodrow taught the theory of evolution, for which he was condemned by the Southern Presbyterian Church, but held to his Christian faith—as did his pupil, Sidney Lanier.  In later life Lanier was unaffiliated with any denomination, but remained a devout Christian and independent thinker.

Continually suffering from tuberculosis, Lanier sought relief in North Carolina. Convalescing with his family in the small town of Lynn, he suffered complications and died on September 7, 1881. He was thirty-nine. Lanier is buried in Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Enigmatic, controversial Gertrude Stein dead at 72 of stomach cancer

Apparently the first person to introduce “gay” as a synonym for “homosexual,” Gertrude Stein used the word 136 times in a 1922 prose poem called “Miss Furr and Miss Skeene,” about a pair of Lesbian lovers. Stein also wrote novels, poems, libretti, essays, and what-have-you in a whimsical, enigmatic style that left most of her readers scratching their heads in puzzlement. “A rose is a rose is a       rose” became one of her best-known and least understood quotations.

Born February 3, 1874, in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, Gertrude lived as an infant in Vienna and Paris with her wealthy parents, who then moved to Oakland, California, where Gertrude grew up, and of which she famously wrote in her autobiography, “When you get there, there’s no there there.”  After her parents’ death, she was raised by her mother’s family in Baltimore. She attended Radcliffe College, where she was a student of philosopher-psychologist Willliam James. When she sat to write her final exam in his course, she felt tired, having been to the opera the previous evening. She wrote on her paper, "I am so sorry but I do not feel a bit like an examination paper in philosophy today."  James replied by postcard, “I understand perfectly how you feel. I often feel like that myself." He gave her the highest mark in the course.  Stein also briefly attended Johns Hopkins Medical School, where she had her first Lesbian affair.

In 1903 Gertrude and her brother Leo moved to Paris and shared an apartment at 27 rue de Fleurus on the Left Bank near Luxembourg Gardens. She began to write, and the two of them accumulated works by young artists, amassing a valuable collection by Picasso, Cézanne, Renoir, Matisse, Toulouse-Lautrec, Daumier, and others. The siblings bitterly separated in 1914, Leo taking sixteen Renoirs and one Picasso, and leaving the rest of the art to Gertrude. The two met only once again, years later in a chance encounter on a Paris street.

Stein and her life partner, Alice B. Toklas, who had been together since 1907, maintained their household until Stein’s death in 1946. Decidedly unconventional—in literary style, political affiliation, and domestic arrangements—Stein presided over a long-running salon on Saturday nights that regularly attracted Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, Thornton Wilder, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Sinclair Lewis, Ford Madox Ford, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Virgil Thomson, Paul Robeson, and other leading cultural lions. While Gertrude conversed on lofty subjects with the visiting literati, mostly men, Alice entertained their wives and girlfriends in a separate room. Stein once told Hemingway, “You are all a lost generation,” and she is credited with originating that description of the American expatriate writers of the day.  

Gertrude and Alice’s relationship was immortalized in Stein’s memoir, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, which was published in 1933 and became a best-seller. Although Jewish by birth, Stein was sometimes accused of anti-Semitism during Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930s, and in the Second World War she collaborated with France’s pro-Nazi Vichy government. She was an admirer of Marshal Philippe Pétain, who headed the Vichy regime, and continued to praise him after the war, when he had been declared a traitor.

Stomach troubles had plagued Stein for many years, and in the summer of 1946 she was diagnosed with stomach cancer.  Doctors believed the cancer too far advanced to operate, but Stein insisted on having surgery anyway, and it was scheduled for July 27 at the American Hospital in Neuilly-sur-Seine, a Paris suburb.

Alice and Stein’s nephew and niece were at her bedside as she was prepared for the operation. Feeling the effects of the pre-op drugs, she sleepily asked, “What is the answer?” No one responded. “In that case,” said Stein, “what is the question?” Those were last words; she lapsed into a coma following surgery and died at 6:30 p.m. at the age of seventy-two. She is buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery.
Photo by Carl Van Vechten.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Gore Vidal, 86, Dead of Pneumonia Complicated by Alcoholism, Dementia

Known for his patrician manner, withering bon mots, and vitriolic feuds with other literary figures, author Gore Vidal spent his last years in alcohol-induced dementia, accusing his relatives, staff, and friends of being CIA impostors trying to abduct him. His animosity toward them all was reflected in his will, which bequeathed his estate, valued at $37 million—plus future royalties on his 25 novels, 26 nonfiction books, fourteen screenplays, and eight plays—to Harvard University, which he never attended.

Born Eugene Louis Vidal October 23, 1925, in the cadet hospital at the U. S. Military Academy in West Point, where his father was an instructor, he adopted his mother’s maiden name of Gore when he was fourteen.  After attending several posh prep schools—Sidwell Friends Academy, St. Albans School, Los Alamos Ranch, and Philips Exeter—he served a stint in the Army, then rejected the notion of going to college, in favor of launching his literary career. His second novel, The City and the Pillar, created a furor because its protagonist was in a homosexual relationship; the book editor of The New York Times refused to review it or any of Vidal’s work. Vidal’s editor at the publishing firm of E. P. Dutton told him, “You will never be forgiven for this book.”

While the controversy raged, Vidal adopted the literary pseudonym of Edgar Box and turned out three successful mystery novels, which enabled him to earn a living. His later literary career included a wide variety of novels, notably Julian, Burr, 1876, Lincoln, Myra Breckenridge, and Empire; many books espousing liberal political causes; plays including the Broadway hits The Best Man and Visit to A Small Planet, and screenplays (either written or doctored) that included The Catered Affair, Suddenly Last Summer, Is Paris Burning?, I Accuse!, Caligula, and Ben-Hur—the last including a scene with a homosexual subtext that the director and other actors strove to keep Charlton Heston from knowing about.

An aesthete of the highest caliber, Vidal filled his homes, on the Italian Amalfi coast, in Rome, and in Hollywood, with valuable art works. One treasured statue of a nearly naked nymph, her arms wantonly outstretched, Vidal once described as “Princess Margaret asking for a gin-and-tonic.”  His many acerbic one-liners cynically encompass a range of topics: “It is not enough to succeed; others must fail”; “A narcissist is someone better looking than you are”; “Today’s public figures can no longer write their own speeches and books, and there is some evidence they can’t read them, either”; and “No good deed goes unpunished.”

Vidal waged literary feuds with other writers, including Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, and William F. Buckley. He called Buckley a “crypto-Nazi” on Dick Cavett’s television program, and Buckley responded by calling Vidal “a queer.” Lawsuits followed on both sides, but the case was settled and Vidal withdrew his allegations when he learned that Buckley had a file on his activities that he feared might try to establish that Vidal had had sexual relations with underage boys.  

Vidal, who was the grandson of Oklahoma’s U. S. Senator Thomas Pryor Gore (but is not related to Al Gore), also had political ambitions.  As a Democrat, he ran for U. S. Congress in New York for the U. S. Senate in California, but lost both elections.

In 1950 Vidal met Howard Auster (later changed to Austen), a struggling 21-year-old advertising copywriter, and they began a 53-year relationship, as Vidal said, “as two men who decided to spend their lives together.” The secret of their relationship, according to Vidal, was that after having sex on the night they met, they never did so again. "It's easy to sustain a relationship when sex plays no part,” he allowed, “and impossible, I have observed, when it does."

After Austen’s death from brain cancer in 2003, Vidal descended into nearly a decade of drunkenness and dementia.  Although he still continued to write, he began to drink as soon as work stopped, preferably 12-year-old MacAllan single-malt Scotch.  In an interview with Tim Teeman, Vidal's nephew, Burr Steers, said he regularly “drank until he collapsed.” The heavy alcoholic intake caused Vidal to develop Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, a brain disorder sometimes known as “wet brain” that results in dementia, confusion, and hallucinations. In his final months,  Steers said, Vidal’s “brain had gone. He had all this fluid that was filling up inside him. They’d drain him every day. He had congestive heart failure. It was really miserable. The only thing he reacted to was pain. His eyes were open but he was struggling to breathe. But his body didn’t give up. The doctors said it was as strong as an ox, considering he was so sedentary.”

In July of 2012, Vidal developed pneumonia, and he died on July 31 at the age of eighty-six. He had instructed that his ashes be buried next to Austen’s in Washington, D. C.’ s Rock Creek Cemetery. Two years after his death, according to a story in The New York Times, his remains had not yet been interred by the family.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Heart failure fatal for godly cigar-smoker G. K. Chesterton at age 62

“The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes,” said G. K. Chesterton, “and the business of Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.” Chesterton, known as the “Prince of Paradox,” was not only a political commentator, but also a poet, historian, playwright, literary and art critic, journalist, Roman Catholic lay theologian and apologist, vigorous debater and mystery writer—creator of the Father Brown series. In all, he wrote eighty books, two hundred short stories, four thousand essays, hundreds of poems, and several plays.  

Born Gilbert Keith Chesterton on May 29, 1874, in Kensington Hill, London, to a family of Unitarians, he was nonetheless baptized in the Church of England, of which he remained a member until he was forty-eight, when he converted to Catholicism. He attended St. Paul’s School and the Slade School of Art at University College, London, but never received a degree. He became a columnist for the London Daily News and the Illustrated London News and was soon in demand as a public debater on issues of the day. His favorite adversaries were H. G. Wells, Bertrand Russell, Clarence Darrow, and George Bernard Shaw, his notable “friendly enemy,” who called Chesterton “a man of colossal genius.” 

The milieu in which Chesterton moved may have been a mix of serious literary and philosophical giants—but these idols liked to let their hair down occasionally, as is attested by this account of a dinner party just before World War I at London’s Reform Club. “Present were Rudyard Kipling, H. G. Wells, Max Beerbohm, Hilaire Belloc, G. K. Chesterton, Arnold Bennett, George Bernard Shaw, Henry James, and Hugh Walpole. There was no talk about literature or the arts, or friendship or nature or morality or personal relations or the ends of life. There was not a touch of anything faintly aesthetic—the talk was hearty, concerned with royalties, publishers, love affairs, absurd adventures, society scandals and anecdotes about famous persons, accompanied by gusts of laughter, puns, limericks, a great deal of mutual banter, jokes about money, women, and foreigners, and with a great deal of drink. The atmosphere was that of a male dining club of vigorous, amusing, sometimes rather vulgar friends.”

Chesterton and Shaw once agreed to appear as cowboys in a silent movie being made by James M. Barrie of Peter Pan fame. Chesterton reported that he and Shaw and several other literary figures spent an afternoon being filmed rolling in barrels, being pushed over fake precipices, and lassoing wild ponies that were so tame the horses were chasing the cowboys instead of vice versa. The film was never released.

In 1901 Chesterton married Frances Blogg. They never had children, but adopted a girl named Dorothy Collins, who became Chesterton’s secretary.

A big man, Chesterton stood six-feet-four in height and weighed almost three hundred pounds. His weight and his dietary habits no doubt contributed to his chronic edema—swelling caused by congestive heart failure. He loved beef, beer, and claret, and he was a heavy cigar smoker—always making the sign of the cross with his match before lighting his cigar. He called smoking a “Parnassian pleasure” and said tobacco smoke was the “ichor of mental life.”

In the spring of 1936 his continuing illness took him to the French shrines of Lourdes and Lisieux, seeking a cure, but to no avail. Almost immediately upon his return to Top Meadow, his home in Beaconsfield in Buckinghamshire, he grew worse, and on June 7 he suffered a heart attack and lapsed into a coma. With a crucifix hanging above him and with his wife and adopted daughter praying at his bedside, Chesterton received the last rites from his parish priest, Monsignor Smith, and a Dominican priest, the Rev. Vincent McNabb, kissed the pen with which Chesterton had written most of his works and sang the Salve Regina. Chesterton died on the morning of June 14, 1936, at the age of  sixty-two. 

A requiem mass was celebrated at St. Theresa’s Church in Beaconsfield, but not many of his friends were able to attend, since his illness was not widely known, and his death came as an unexpected shock. He was buried in the Catholic Cemetery at Beaconsfield.  Because so few were able to attend the funeral, a solemn requiem mass was sung for the repose of his soul at Westminster Cathedral on June 27, with two thousand people—including George Bernard Shaw—in attendance. The principal celebrant was Chesterton’s friend, the Rev. John O’Connor, who had received him into the Catholic Church and who had been the basis for Chesterton’s detective-priest, Father Brown.  The homily was delivered by Monsignor Ronald Knox.

Chesterton left an estate of £28,389, equivalent to slightly more than $2 million in today’s values.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Bad cold turns into pneumonia: novelist Victor Hugo dead at 83

Victor Hugo, one of France’s most revered and richly rewarded writers, insisted on being buried in a pauper’s plain coffin, which was first placed to lie in state beneath the Arc de Triomphe, then, as two million people watched, transported by mule cart to the Panthéon for burial next to Voltaire.  Although he practiced Catholicism in his youth, Hugo specified in his will that he was to be buried without a crucifix or a priest, refusing “the orations of all churches.” He added, however, “I do believe in God.”

Born into a military family in Besançon on February 26, 1802, Hugo was the son of a major general in Napoleon Bonaparte’s army.  When Napoleon was ousted, the family had to scratch for a living, and Hugo’s father sneered at his son’s desire to be a writer. “I shall prove to him,” Victor told his brother Abel, “that a poet can earn sums far greater than the wages of an imperial general.”

And so he did.  Assiduously applying himself to his writing, he soon achieved fame and considerable income from his plays, political tracts, and novels—most notably Notre-Dame de Paris (a.k.a. The Hunchback of Notre Dame) and Les Misérables (although, regrettably, he did not live long enough to enjoy the enormous royalties from the theatrical musical version of the latter).  Although his works were sharply criticized by the Church (he counted 750 separate attacks on Les Misérables in the Catholic press), they became extremely popular with the public.

Hugo’s work schedule was rigorous. He began writing about 8:00 a.m. and continued until lunch about 2:00.  He worked again from 4:00 until 8:00 p.m., when he would take a couple of hours to do some work-related reading, followed by a late dinner. “My colleagues spend their days sitting in cafes and talking about writing,” he remarked. “But I am not like them. I write. That is my secret. What I achieve is done by hard work, not through miracles.”

His commitment to hard work did not preclude some pleasures of the flesh.  His “light” luncheon typically consisted of paté, omelet or fish, roast beef or lamb with potatoes and several other vegetables, salad, English pudding, cheese, and a different wine with each course. Dinner might include a dozen oysters, soup, fish, roast chicken, Beef Wellington, salad, and chocolate mousse, followed by a half-dozen oranges. He stayed in shape by finding time to walk a couple of hours every day.

Hugo was a political activist all his life. He served in the National Assembly and in the Senate, first as a conservative, but more liberal as he grew older. His opposition to Napoleon III, the first Napoleon’s nephew, who reigned from 1852 to 1870, sent Hugo into exile in the Channel Islands for fifteen years. His liberal instincts resulted in extraordinary generosity to those in need. It was estimated that as much as one-third of his income was devoted to private charity. Every other Sunday for years he served dinner to about fifty impoverished children in his neighborhood, and his diary is filled with notations of food, household items, and money given to the needy.

Hugo married Adèle Foucher when he was twenty, and they had five children.  The eldest surviving child (and Hugo’s favorite), a daughter named Léopoldine drowned when she was nineteen along with her husband  in a boating accident shortly after their marriage.  Hugo was traveling with his mistress, Juliette Drouet, in the south of France at the time, and he learned of his daughter’s death in a newspaper he was reading in a café.

Other tragedies befell him: in 1868 his wife died, and four years later Hugo had a stroke, and his daughter Adèle was confined to an insane asylum, followed shortly by the death of both his sons. His beloved Juliette died of cancer in 1883, and Hugo remained depressed for the next two years until his own death.

On May 15, 1884, Hugo caught a bad cold.  It lingered for several days, with a hacking cough, high fever, and shortness of breath. It turned to pneumonia, and at 1:30 p.m. on May 22, Hugo died at the age of eighty-three.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Wordy novelist Thomas Wolfe, 37, felled by miliary tuberculosis

“Thomas Wolfe wrote more bad prose than any other major 
writer,” said one biographer of the ill-fated American novelist 
who died at thirty-seven, leaving four major novels for his 
readers to slog through. From the opening lines of Wolfe’s 
first novel, Look Homeward, Angel:  
            . . a stone, a leaf, an unfound door; 
            of a stone, a leaf, a door.  And of all             
            the forgotten faces.  
            Naked and alone we came into 
            exile.  In her dark womb we did 
            not know our mother's face; 
            from the prison of her flesh have 
            we come into the unspeakable and 
            incommunicable prison of this 
well, you know you’re in for a rocky ride.  
The book reflects Wolfe’s prophetic fear of tuberculosis, to 
which he was unwittingly exposed as a child at his mother’s 
boarding house. Born October 3, 1900, in Asheville, North 
Carolina, Wolfe was the youngest of eight children of a 
gravestone carver and his entrepreneurial wife.When Tom 
was six, his mother opened a 29-room boarding house called 
the Old Kentucky Home in Asheville, and the boy went to live 
with her for a decade, leaving the rest of the family at their 
other home. Owing to the climate and altitude of Asheville, 
it was a major center for the treatment of tuberculosis, the 
world’s most dreaded disease at the time. Many of the patients 
seeking treatment stayed at Mrs. Wolfe’s boarding house, 
thereby infecting Tom with the bacteria that would cause his 
death years later. 

Wolfe graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1920, having excelled in his studies, edited the college paper, acted in plays, and won essay and playwriting contests. He went on to earn an M. A. at Harvard, where he studied playwriting with the legendary George Pierce Baker. Unable to sell his plays to Broadway producers, who found them too long and wordy, he took a job teaching English at New York University, where remained off and on for seven years.

In 1925, following a trip to Europe, he met the scene designer Aline Bernstein, a married woman eighteen years older. They began a torrid affair, which lasted five years. Bernstein’s influence helped Wolfe secure publication of his first novel, Look Homeward, Angel, by the prestigious Scribner’s publishing house, where his editor was Maxwell Perkins. Perkins, who also edited the works of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, made major changes in Wolfe’s lengthy, impressionistic, autobiographical epic. The result, although it was a best-selling novel, made Wolfe uneasy that his work had been so thoroughly revised. 

The book created a furor in Asheville, where many of Wolfe’s neighbors were outraged to recognize themselves.  (Ironically, when Wolfe’s second novel, Of Time and the River, was published many Ashevilleans were even more incensed that they had not been included!)  As originally submitted to Scribner’s, Of Time and the River, was a multi-volume work, which Perkins slashed down to a single volume. Although it was even more successful than his first novel, Wolfe decided to leave Scribner’s and Perkins and he signed a new deal with Harper’s.

In May of 1938 Wolfe submitted a manuscript of more than one million words to his new editor, Edward Aswell, at Harper’s, and embarked on a vacation tour of the American West. On July 6, in Seattle, Wolfe came down with cough, fever, and congestion, thought to be pneumonia. He was examined by Dr. Edward Ruge, a friend’s doctor, and admitted to a private sanitarium, where he was treated with diathermy, cough suppressants, and rest. A corpulent man—he had a gargantuan appetite for both food and alcohol—Wolfe at first showed improvement, but his cough lingered and by early August he was experiencing severe headaches. He was transferred to Seattle’s Providence Hospital, where an x-ray disclosed abnormalities in his lung that suggested tuberculosis—the disease that Wolfe had feared all his life. 

Under the care of Dr. Charles Watts, a lung specialist, Wolfe got no better and his headaches intensified. On September 4 Wolfe was found to be disoriented, and Dr. Watts suspected the a metastatic tubercular lesion in  his brain.  A neurosurgeon, Dr. George Swift, examined Wolfe and diagnosed a “brain abscess,” which was possibly tubercular in origin. The Seattle doctors urged Wolfe to go to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore and seek the services of Dr. Walter Dandy, regarded as the nation’s leading brain surgeon.

Accompanied by his sister Mabel and a nurse, Wolfe was transported on a five-day train journey and arrived in Baltimore September 10. Dr. Dandy found him “desperately ill,” and concluded he was suffering from acute pulmonary tuberculosis complicated by metastatic malignancies. He performed a trepanning operation to relieve the pressure on Wolfe’s brain, and fluid shot three feet into the air. On September 23 a cerebellar exploratory operation was performed, and Dr. Dandy discovered “myriads of tubercles” through the meninges. He concluded that nothing could be done to save the patient. 

Wolfe never regained consciousness and died September 15, 1938, eighteen days before his thirty-eighth birthday. The official cause of death was miliary tuberculosis, a form of the disease characterized by a distinctive pattern of tiny lesions that spread throughout the body’s organs and resemble millet seeds, from which the term “miliary” is derived.

The body was taken back to Asheville for a funeral at the First Presbyterian Church. As mourners gathered, a Methodist minister who was passing by observed that Wolfe “was not entitled to a Christian burial.” Even the officiant at the ceremony, the Rev. Robert Campbell, former pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, was unsure of Wolfe’s religious status.  He observed:

“I wish I had something definite to say about his religious life. As there was a restlessness and lack of definite form in his intellectual and emotional processes, it is natural to assume the same was true of his religious beliefs and aspirations….As Tom’s friend and pastor, I shall always cherish the hope and the belief that in the yearning desire of his restless heart to find his rest, his home, his peace in the heavenly Father’s presence, that there was the pith and substance of the Christian faith.”

Mourners, including playwrights Paul Green and Clifford Odets, and Wolfe’s onetime editor, Maxwell Perkins, witnessed the burial service at Asheville’s Riverside Cemetery. His new editor, Edward Aswell, boiled down the million-plus words Wolfe had left into two posthumous novels, The Web and the Rock and You Can’t Go Home Again.

Photo by Carl Van Vechten, Library of Congress