Thursday, December 14, 2017

George Washington died on this day in 1799, bringing an end to a unique period in early American history.  While other founders lived on, Washington was the embodiment of the Revolutionary era.  

His death sparked widespread grief and his apotheosis quickly began.  The nation was plunged into national mourning.  Here is a small funeral medal, admittedly heavily worn, which was made very shortly after his death; the reverse side depicts a funeral urn.  My copy has its suspension hole broken, but the opening was probably used for wear at memorial parades and events.

By happenstance, I received in the mail today a miniature book that I purchased about Washington.  This twenty-five page gem, which is about two inches by two inches, has a gilt leather cover and contains a different Washington farewell, his famous Farewell Address, which was delivered shortly before his departure from the presidency and his return to Mount Vernon.  It was published in 1976. (As an aside:  Miniature books are great for bibliophiles who run out of storage space!)

On his death, Washington’s colleague Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee said of the Virginian who set several crucial precedents for the military and the presidency, “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”  Viewed from today, we see some of Washington’s flaws, but one of his many biographers was correct in calling him “the indispensable man” for the new nation.


Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Today during his speech at the Nobel Prize banquet, Richard Thaler, an American and the 2017 laureate in economics, toasted the benefactor of these distinguished international awards, Alfred Nobel.  Having been immersed with the lives and careers of Nobel Prize winners whom President Kennedy honored at the White House in 1962, I came to learn more about the Swedish philanthropist.

Alfred Nobel was a chemist who found a safe way to use nitroglycerine and create an explosive that achieved widespread use in Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century. In addition to inventing dynamite, he created other explosives such as gelignite and ballistite, and he became rich.

A brilliant and well-read man, Nobel was also aloof. “I am a misanthrope,” he explained, “and yet, utterly benevolent, have more than one screw loose yet a super-idealist who digests philosophy more efficiently than food.” He was a lifelong bachelor who wrote his will in 1895—one year before his death—and the bulk of the money in the brief document was relegated to establish financial “prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.”

The Nobel Prizes commenced in 1901. In his will Nobel stipulated that five prizes would be awarded annually: physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, and peace; the economics prize came later.  He also identified how the prizes would be awarded. Because Norway and Sweden were united under one king—it was a union that was established in 1814—each state had a role in the administration of the prizes.

The awards are presented in December in both capitals: the Peace Prize in Oslo and the other prizes in Stockholm.  

Photo is of the Nobel Prize winners at the White House, April 29, 1962.  Source: Abbie Rowe, White House Photographs, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

One of the prime accomplishments of John F. Kennedy during his time in the U.S. Senate was chairing a bipartisan committee to select the five greatest members to serve in that body.  A keen student of history, he took to the task with great interest. Conferring with historians and other scholars, the committee considered sixty-five deceased senators before announcing its selections in 1957.

In the end, three were chosen from the nineteenth century and two from the twentieth.  The selections of Daniel Webster, Henry Clay and John Calhoun—sometimes called "the great triumvirate”—were obvious.  Clay’s reputation as a legendary compromiser and Webster’s as a great nationalist and orator were undeniable.  From our perspective today, Calhoun would be more questionable because of his slavery and secessionist views, but he had an impact on the Senate of his day.

There was no quota for the time periods, but clearly twentieth-century members needed to be included and these choices would reflect more political considerations.  A few sitting senators had worked with some of these members and had either personal affection or animosity toward potential selectees.  The result was the choice of a careful political balance of one of the greatest liberals, “Fighting Bob” La Follette, and one the greatest conservatives, “Mr. Conservative” Bob Taft. 

In an article for The New York Times on April 14, 1957, Kennedy explained the process, which was admittedly parochial at times.  He wrote that “the value of a Senator is not so easily determined as the value of a car or a hog, or even that of a public utility bond or a ballplayer.” 

He continued, “For in these days when political and legislative service is too often ridiculed or disdained, it is particularly desirable that we focus the nation’s attention upon the Senate and its distinguished traditions, stimulating interest in our political problems and motivations and increasing the understanding of the Senate’s role in our Government.”

The article included photographs of the eventual choices as well as other notable senators, including Stephen A. Douglas, George W. Norris, John Sherman, Charles Sumner, Arthur Vandenberg, and Robert F. Wagner.  Forty-seven years later, Vandenberg and Wagner were included among the original senators in this “hall of fame” list, bringing the number to seven.

The Senate at that time was in the national spotlight at least in part because of Kennedy’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning book, Profiles in Courage, and also a book written about its workings, Citadel: The Story of the U.S. Senate by William S. White. 

Although upbeat in concluding his article, Kennedy did write this statement:  “If United States Senators are to be judged in the coming years in terms of hogs and automobiles, then this nation is ill-prepared to face a difficult and perilous future.”

The photograph here is of the painting of Webster’s historic speech responding to Senator Robert Y. Hayne on the issue of nullification and the federal government’s supremacy over states’ rights.  The speech, presented over two days, is often considered the most distinguished in the history of the U.S. Senate.  Photo Credit:  Boston Art Commission, “Webster’s Reply to Hayne” by George P. A. Healy.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

One of the fond memories that I have of my childhood is the mail carrier coming two or three times a day to deliver cards, new calendars and gifts during December.  His huge brown leather bag would invariably include envelopes with Christmas Seals on the reverse side.  Indeed, it was the seals—along with the annual tapered green bayberry candle sent by a local business—that I most remember from those loads.

Christmas Seals—now a trademarked term—were ubiquitous in the 1950s and the early 1960s.  Later as a stamp collector, I learned that their lineage went back decades earlier.  These stamps were sold by sheets as a fundraiser from the National Association for the Study and Prevention of Tuberculosis, later known by other names; today, the American Lung Association.  They are still being produced, but I have not seen new ones in years.  I suspect many people have never seen one.

These little stamps are interesting works of art and, in some ways, represent to me a kind of nostalgic representation of the holiday season, heavy with images of Santa Claus, winter and good cheer.  

Monday, December 11, 2017

“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” one of the more important films of the 1960s, opened at the Victoria and Beekman theaters in Manhattan fifty years ago today.  The movie, which focused on interracial marriage, featured the legendary actors Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn and the younger star Sidney Poitier; all three were Academy Award winners.

Tracy, who was in poor health and died shortly after the film was completed, played the father of a young white woman who falls in love with a black physician.  That woman, “Joanna,” was played by Katherine Houghton, Hepburn’s niece.

In the movie Tracy and Hepburn are wealthy liberal parents who raise concerns about their daughter entering into an interracial marriage.  The story is enhanced by the perspectives of their black maid, an elderly Catholic priest, and the parents of the groom-to-be.

After much angst, the characters become reconciled to the prospect of a marriage that would seem to have confronted various challenges at that time.  The Supreme Court decision Loving v. Virginia, which invalidated state miscegenation laws, was rendered soon after the film wrapped.

“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” became successful after it was more broadly released in 1968 and received two Academy Awards, including one for Hepburn, and eight other nominations, including one for Tracy.

It was the last film that Hepburn and Tracy, a long-time acting team and real-life lovers, did together.  Among their notable collaborations since 1942 were “Woman of the Year,” “Keeper of the Flame,“ and “State of the Union.”  I have long been a Tracy fan, and I especially enjoyed his acting in “Judgment at Nuremberg” and “Inherit the Wind.” 

One of Hepburn’s most well-known roles was in “The Philadelphia Story”.  Among Poitier’s important performances were those in “Lilies of the Field” and “To Sir with Love.”  Hepburn died in 2003 while Poitier is currently ninety years old.

The photograph of Hepburn and Tracy is from the film trailer.