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Archive for the ‘LITERATURE, EDUCATION, & REFORM’ Category

Diana Vreeland (1903-1989. Known as the Empress of Fashion

Diana Vreeland (1903-1989), the Empress of Fashion. ca. 1932

Before her career as editor and columnist at fashion magazines Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, Diana Vreeland, like other society women of her class, ran a little lingerie shop near Berkeley Square in London. She often traveled to Paris where she would buy her clothes, notably, Chanel. She remembered one such trip in the summer of 1932:

“One night in Paris, after I was married, a friend and I went to a little theatre above Montmartre to see a German[-French] movie called “L’Atlantide,” with a wonderful actress in it called Brigitte Helm, who played the Queen of the Lost Continent. It was the middle of July. It was hot. The only seats in the theatre were in the third balcony, under the rafters, where it was even hotter. There were four seats in a row, and we took two.

L'Atlantide poster 1932

“We sat there, the movie started…and I became totally intoxicated by it. I was mesmerized! …I was absorbed by these three lost Foreign Legion soldiers with their camels, their woes…they’re so tired, they’re delirious with dehydration…And then you see the fata morgana [mirage]. That means that if you desire a woman, you see a woman, if you desire water, you see water – everything you dream, you see. But you never reach it. It’s all an illusion.

“Then…a sign of an oasis! There’s a palm…and more palms. Then they’re in the oasis, where they see Brigitte Helm, this divine looking woman seated on a throne – surrounded by cheetahs! The cheetahs bask in the sun. She fixes her eyes on the soldiers. One of them approaches her. She gives him a glass of champagne and he drinks it. Then she takes the glass from him, breaks it, cuts his throat with it…

Brigette Helm as the Queen of Atlantis, the Lost Continent, shown here with one of her screen cheetahs.  "L'Atlantide" (1932)

Brigette Helm as the Queen of Atlantis, the Lost Continent, shown here with one of her screen cheetahs. “L’Atlantide” (1932)

“This goes on and on. I hadn’t moved an inch. At some point I moved my hand…to here…where it stayed for the rest of the movie. I was spellbound because the mood was so sustained. I was sucked in, seduced by this thing of the desert, seduced by the Queen of the Lost Continent, the wickedest woman who had ever lived…and her cheetahs!

The essence of movie-ism.

“Then…the lights went on, and I felt a slight movement under my hand. I looked down – and it was a cheetah! And beside the cheetah was Josephine Baker!”

Josephine Baker was a hit in Paris cabarets, singing, dancing, and goofing around. In the 1930s, she was the most successful American entertainer in Paris. She got rich fast and was a superstar. She is wearing her notorious silly but erotic banana skirt. ca. 1925

When Josephine Baker began performing her exotic, erotic, and peculiar dances in Paris cabarets in 1925, she became an instant hit, a superstar. In the thirties, she was the most successful American entertainer working in France. She was known as “The Black Pearl” and “The Bronze Venus.” Whether sitting high up in a giant bird cage covered with peacock feathers or dancing semi-nude in a skirt of dangling fabric bananas, audiences were captivated by her infectious charm. ca. 1925

Meanwhile, back to our story:

Diana Vreeland was chatting with Josephine Baker in the balcony of a hot theater, looking at a cheetah.

Diana says to Josephine:

“‘Oh,” I said, ‘you’ve brought your cheetah to see the cheetahs!’

“Yes,” she said,’ that’s exactly what I did.’

“She was alone with the cheetah on a lead. She was so beautifully dressed.  She was wearing a marvelous little short black skirt and a little Vionnet shirt – no sleeves, no back, no front, just crossed bars on the bias. Don’t forget how hot it was, and, of course, the great thing was to get out of this theatre we were in. The cheetah, naturally, took the lead, and Josephine, with those long black legs, was dragged down three flights of stairs as fast as she could go, and that’s fast.

“Out in the street there was an enormous white-and-silver Rolls-Royce waiting for her. The driver opened the door; she let go of the lead; the cheetah whooped, took one leap into the back of the Rolls, with Josephine right behind; the door closed…and they were off!

…Ah! Style was a great thing in those days.” (1)

American entertainer Josephine Baker (1906-1936) often performed onstage in Paris nightclubs with pet cheetah Chiquita. Chiquita wore a diamond collar. Sometimes, during a performance, Chiquita would decide to jump off the stage and into the orchestra pit, causing quite a ruckus. Early 1930s. Courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum.

American entertainer Josephine Baker (1906-1936) often performed onstage in Paris nightclubs with pet cheetah Chiquita. Chiquita wore a diamond collar. Sometimes, during a performance, Chiquita would decide to jump off the stage and into the orchestra pit, causing quite a ruckus. ca. 1931. Courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum.

Heads turned when entertainer Josephine Baker took her pet cheetah Chiquita on a walk, sometimes down the Champs-Élysées in Paris. Ca. 1930

Heads turned when entertainer Josephine Baker took her pet cheetah Chiquita on a walk, sometimes down the Champs-Élysées in Paris. Ca. 1930

Sheet music with Josephine Baker and Chiquita

Sheet music with Josephine Baker and Chiquita.

Comparing Josephine Baker to a beautiful Egyptian queen,  artist Pablo Picasso dubbed her “the Nefertiti of Now.” She posed for him in all her glory: “tall, coffee skin, ebony eyes, legs of paradise, a smile to end all smiles.” (2)

Gorgeous, talented, and funny Josephine Baker, an original. Undated photo, ca. 1930

Gorgeous, talented, and funny Josephine Baker, an original. Undated photo, ca. 1930

(1)Vreeland, Diana. D.V. New York: Da Capo Press, 1984

(2) Picasso quote

 

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Lady Diana Spencer reads a romance novel by her favourite author, Barbara Cartland. Diana is probably 16. Photo ca. 1977

Lady Diana Spencer reads a romance novel by her favorite author, Barbara Cartland. Diana is probably 16 years old. Photo ca. 1977

Princess Diana (1961-1977) loved to read romantic fiction. She devoured novels by British author Barbara Cartland, of which there was an endless and steady supply. In her lifetime, Cartland (1901-2000) is credited with having written 723 books. In 1983 alone, she wrote 23 of them. She holds The Guinness Book of World Records for writing the most books in a single year.

Reclining on a chaise lounge at her home, Cartland dictated her hundreds of stories to her secretary. They both wore pink. Pink was Cartland’s signature color.

British romance novelist Barbara Cartland dictates stories to her secretary while relaxing with one of her Pekinese pets.

British romance novelist Barbara Cartland dictates stories to her secretary Jean Smith while relaxing at home in Camfield Place in Essendon, U.K.

Barbara Cartland

Barbara Cartland

Cartland, self-styled as the “Queen of Romance,” was a celebrity favorite with journalists as she was always holding forth on topics of the day, and sometimes saying outrageous and unprintable things such as speculating on the private parts of the exiled Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

She was well-known for her flamboyant appearance, resembling a fairy queen with cotton candy hair. Her dresses were ultra-girly, adorned with feathers, frills, flounces, fluff, and froth. She was heavily perfumed and glittered with jewels. Her thick make-up was more suited to the stage, and the end result was often clown-like. To achieve a more youthful look, she pulled back her cheeks with the application of sticking plaster (which, sadly, often showed). Her “forests of false eyelashes” were legendary, jet black, and preposterous. Her secret? In 1959, she wrote to a fan that, instead of mascara:

I use Meltonian black shoe cream for my eyelashes.” (1)

Barbara Cartland up close and personal

Barbara Cartland up close

In her writing as well as her appearance, Cartland was an accomplished illusionist. Her books were fairy tales of the most fantastic nature. In them, the young virgin heroine – usually with an exotic name like Vada, Lalitha, Syringa, Fenella, Kamala, or Anthea – always marries Prince Charming. They live happily ever after. They never quarrel, they don’t have affairs, and they certainly don’t divorce.

More than one of Diana's Spencer's acquaintances remarked on her dreamy nature. Photo ca. 1977

More than one of Diana’s Spencer’s acquaintances remarked on her dreamy nature. Photo ca. 1977

Not so in the Spencer household. From her earliest years, Princess Diana’s parents had had a troubled marriage, and her home was a scene of violent quarrels. Diana’s mother, Frances, felt as if her husband Johnnie Spencer, Viscount Spencer, treated her like a brood mare, sending her to fertility experts to explain why she had given birth to three girls in a row. He wanted a male heir to carry on the royal family line. Diana listened behind the door when her parents had a shouting match and her sister turned up the record player volume.

Frances did give birth to a boy, Charles, but the breach in the marriage had become, by then, an unbridgeable chasm.

When Diana was six, her mother left her four children and husband to pursue an affair in London with Peter Shand Kydd, also married. In 1968, she divorced Diana’s father, Johnnie Spencer, who, surprisingly for the times, was granted custody of the children. It is not surprising once you know that a surprise witness at the divorce hearing provided the damning testimony that decided in his favor. Testifying to Johnnie’s superior parenting skills was Frances’s own mother, Lady Fermoy, testifying against her daughter.

Three months after the divorce, Frances married Kydd and they moved to Scotland. With her two older sisters away at boarding school, only Diana and her younger brother Charles remained behind at Park House on the Queen’s royal Sandringham estate. Her father holed up, silently, in his study, abandoned.

The spirit of gaiety was gone from Park House along with Frances’s furniture.” (2)

A Hazard of Hearts (1948) by Barbara Cartland

A Hazard of Hearts (1948) by Barbara Cartland

Cartland’s novels provided young Diana Spencer with an escape into a fantasy dream world. Diana came to believe in the magical rescue power of princes, waiting for her prince to ride up and take her away to her own happy ending. Her life view was shaped by this unreality and it would pitch her into a cold marriage to a man whose heart already belonged to another.

No fairy tale is complete without a wicked stepmother, and, in July, 1976, Diana got one. Her name was Raine, Countess Dartmouth. By this time, the Spencers had moved into the family’s stately home of Althorp, as Diana’s grandfather had died, passing the earldom on to Johnnie. He became the 8th Earl Spencer and Diana became Lady Diana. Raine began an extensive remodeling of Althorp, proving unpopular with Diana and her siblings, who hated their new (wicked) stepmother, calling her “Acid Raine.” Johnnie, however, became very happy after his marriage to Raine.

Princess Diana, at right, stands with stepmother, Raine, Countess Spencer, middle, and a friend. Undated photo, ca. 1977

Princess Diana, at right, stands with stepmother, Raine, Countess Spencer, middle, and a friend. Undated photo, ca. 1977

Now that you have seen this photo of Raine (above), you will not find it hard to believe that her mother was Barbara Cartland, Diana’s favorite novelist! That made Cartland Diana’s stepgrandmother. She learned of Diana’s love for her books and sent them to Diana by the cartload.

In 1977, Diana moved into Coleherne Court in South Kensington, London. Her roommates remember that she always got up before the meal was finished to clear the table. She hated dirty dishes. Diana loved to do the washing and ironing of shirts for friends. Her big sister Sarah paid her to clean her apartment. Diana was Cinderella, sweeping the hearth free of ashes.

Diana first revealed her crush on Prince Charles when on a ski holiday with friends in Val Claret in the French Alps. She surprised her friends one evening, saying that she was going to marry Charles AKA Prince Charming. According to those who knew her well, Diana kept herself chaste for her husband on their wedding night. (3)

Oxford student Adam Russell sits with Lady Diana Spencer. They are vacationing with a group in the French Alps. Russell is said to have had a ‘galumphing’ crush on Diana. Nothing, however, happened between them. According to royal author Andrew Morton, Mr Russell went travelling for a year, and when he returned to the UK in 1980 and told a friend that he liked Diana, he was told: ‘You’ve only got one rival, the Prince of Wales’.  Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2257321/Revealed-Mystery-rival-Prince-Charles-pictured-relaxing-Lady-Diana-1979-Old-Etonian-aristocrat-Adam-

Oxford student Adam Russell sits with Lady Diana Spencer. They are vacationing with a group in the French Alps. Russell is said to have had a ‘galumphing’ crush on Diana. Nothing, however, happened between them. According to royal author Andrew Morton, Mr Russell went travelling for a year, and when he returned to the UK in 1980 and told a friend that he liked Diana, he was told: ‘You’ve only got one rival, the Prince of Wales’. Source: The Daily Mail

And Lady Diana did indeed marry Prince Charles on July 29, 1981. Her fairy tale unfolded as she had imagined. Her father gave her away. She wore a confection of a dress with a 25 foot-long train. She rode to St. Paul’s Cathedral in a carriage. She became Her Royal Highness, Diana, Princess of Wales. When Charles became King one day, she would become his queen, and their son, a king, too.

Prince Charles and Princess Diana smile for their wedding photo. July 1981

Prince Charles and Princess Diana smile for their wedding photo. July 1981

As we all know, Diana’s life with Charles did not have a happy ending. Her marriage was miserable, ending in a nasty divorce (1996) which led to her disastrous loneliness and tragic death (1997). Diana’s story was a fractured fairy tale of the worst imaginable kind.

By the way, stepmother Raine attended the royal wedding. However, stepgrandmother Barbara Cartland – the fairy queen who nurtured this fairy tale of Diana’s – did not attend.  Someone – maybe the Queen’s sister, Princess Margaret – considered her an embarrassment and did not want her there. We don’t know if she wasn’t invited OR was offered an invitation but declined because her seat was behind a column! Anyway, not being present at Diana’s wedding proved to be the biggest humiliation of Barbara Cartland’s life.

In 1993, Barbara Cartland remarked:

The only books Diana ever read were mine, and they weren’t terribly good for her.” (2)

In 1996, Cartland had figured out why the marriage had failed:

Of course, you know where it all went wrong. She wouldn’t do oral sex.”

Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned….

For more about Princess Diana, click here.

(1)

(2) Brown, Tina. The Diana Chronicles. New York: Doubleday, 2007.

(3)

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Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., at the March on Washington, August 28, 1963. Credit:-/AFP/Getty Images

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., at the March on Washington, August 28, 1963. Credit:-/AFP/Getty Images

On Aug. 28, 1963,  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and delivered his rousing, “I Have a Dream” speech to over 250,000 civil rights supporters gathered for the March on Washington. The speech calls for an end to racism in America. It was considered by many to be the most important speech of the Twentieth Century and helped advance President John F. Kennedy‘s important civil rights legislation then in Congress.

At the March on Washington, August 1963, peaceful African-Americans called for decent jobs with equal pay.

At the March on Washington, August 1963, peaceful African-Americans called for decent jobs with equal pay.

Dr. King timed his March on Washington to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln‘s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation which freed millions of American black slaves in 1863.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stands in front of the statue of President Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D.C. ca. 1963

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stands in front of the statue of President Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D.C. ca. 1963

His opening lines in his speech evoke the Gettysburg Address by President Lincoln:

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of captivity.” 

Dr. King asked for justice to be made a reality for all of God’s children.

We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied, as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities….

We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating “For Whites Only”. We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. “(1)

He spoke of his dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’


I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.'”

***

Fast forward to August 28, 2013, the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s March on Washington and his landmark speech. 

Anderson Cooper of CNN is interviewing African-American writer Maya Angelou (1928-2014). They reflect on the state of Dr. King’s dream. Maya Angelou knew Dr. King and was part of the struggle for civil rights change in this country.

Cooper: Do you believe that the arc of history is moving in the right direction? President Obama, recently, when he was talking about Trayvon Martin, he said that he looks at his daughters and that his daughters’ generation is better than his generation was. Do you believe that?

Angelou: Yes, I do. I know that there was a time when people were lynched with everybody’s agreement – not everybody – but with the “Might’s” agreement. The might was white and white was might and so people were lynched.

I grew up in a village in Arkansas where a man was lynched and the skin of his body – after being lynched and burned – the skin was taken off in skin the size of a postage stamp and given to people as mementoes.

You can’t do that in the United States today. I mean you can lynch people and murder people in many ways but you can’t do it in the city square.

Cooper: Hmm.

Angelou: You see? We are better. Not nearly enough. Not nearly enough. But we come and we have to admit that. Because, Mr. Cooper, if we don’t, young people will say, ‘You mean to tell me, with the lives and deaths of Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and Rosa Parks and the Kennedys, then there’s no point in me trying, because those people were bigger than life.’ So we have to say, ‘You have come a long way.’

***

President Barack Obama spoke from the Lincoln Memorial steps to honor the half-century anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s iconic speech, “I Have a Dream.” August 28, 2013.

Our first African-American president was on hand at the Fiftieth Anniversary of the March on Washington Celebration. Like Dr. King, President Barack Obama is a great orator. In his speech to those gathered at the Lincoln Memorial, he echoed Maya Angelou’s sentiment in regard to the civil rights movement, progress, and where America stands.

To dismiss the magnitude of this progress, to suggest as some sometimes do that little has changed, that dishonors the courage and the sacrifice of those who paid the price to march in those years.”

Members of Dr. King’s family, including his then 5-year-old granddaughter, Yolanda King, were present as bells rang at 3 p.m. to mark the historical moment.

President Obama greets Yolanda King, age 5, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s granddaughter at the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington. August 28, 2013. Credit; Getty Images

President Obama greets Yolanda King, age 5, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s granddaughter at the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington. August 28, 2013. Credit; Getty Images

For more on Maya Angelou, click here.

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Maya Angelou (Undated photo)

Maya Angelou (Undated photo)

American writer Maya Angelou (1928-2014) had deep political ties with the Clintons. In 1993, she read her poem, “Pulse of the Morning” at Bill Clinton’s inauguration. Both she and Bill were from Arkansas. In 2008, she supported Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary race for the U.S. presidency against Barack Obama, a fellow African-American. It was a tough decision.

Maya Angelou campaigns for Democratic Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton prior to the crucial Pennsylvania Primary, 2008. Even though Ms. Angelou walks with a cane, you can see that she is a towering figure at 6 feet tall.

Maya Angelou campaigns for Democratic Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton prior to the crucial Pennsylvania Primary, 2008. Even though Ms. Angelou walks with a cane, you can see that she is a towering figure at 6 feet tall.

However, when Hillary dropped out of the race, Maya swiftly endorsed Barack Obama.

When she was asked to introduce Michelle Obama at a rally in North Carolina, she consulted her good friend TV hostess Obama Winfrey:

I knew she had socialized with them. I asked her, ‘What is Mrs. Obama like? What should I expect?’

Oprah said simply and without hesitation, ‘She’s the real deal.'”

The Obamas and Maya Angelou grew very close. She referred to Michelle Obama as one of her “she-roes.”

When she was interviewed followed Obama’s November ’08 victory, Maya was asked by the BBC World Service for her reaction:

My reaction can be described as thrilled – I am thrilling – but in the classic sense of the word. It used to mean having a physical reaction, you know – BRRRR!!!! – like that! (giggle) – where the whole body responds. Well, this is happening. Even my hair is happy!”

When Maya Angelou died this past Wednesday, President Obama called her a “fierce friend.” Obama’s sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, was named after Angelou.

Maya Angelou receives a Medal of Freedom from President Obama at the White House in Washington in this February 15, 2011 file photo. U.S. author and poet Maya Angelou has died at age 86 in North Carolina.. REUTERS/Larry Downing/Files

Maya Angelou receives a Medal of Freedom from President Obama at the White House in Washington in this February 15, 2011 file photo. REUTERS/Larry Downing/Files

 

First Lady Michelle Obama and Maya Angelou on stage at BET Honors 2012 at the Warner Theatre on January 14, 2012 in Washington, DC. Photo from Amanda Wills at Mashable

For more on Maya Angelou, click here.

 

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Back in the 1950s, writer Maya Angelou was singing and dancing her way across Europe and America to appear in clubs, movies, and plays.

African-American writer Maya Angelou died this week at age 86. Starting Friday, May 31, 2014, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, New York City, will showcase a collection of her papers, manuscripts and letters. Maya Angelou is no stranger to the Schomburg Center. In 1991, the Schomburg expanded to include a new addition and Ms. Angelou was a guest at the opening.

The Schomburg Center, Harlem, New York.

The Schomburg Center, Harlem, New York.

The 1991 expansion of the Schomburg Center was the Langston Hughes Building. The structure is named after African-American poet Langston Hughes, the leader of the Harlem Renaissance. Maya Angelou met him in California once when he came to hear her sing.

Poets Maya Angelou and Langston Hughes hang out. Undated, prob. ca. 1960s.

Poets Maya Angelou and Langston Hughes hang out. Undated, prob. ca. 1960s.

The Langston Hughes Building contains an auditorium that seats 340 guests. Although impressive, the auditorium is of no interest to us here. It is the lobby that draws our attention.

The lobby is spacious, elegant, and flooded with natural light streaming through its many tall windows. The windows look out onto a garden but the real conversation piece is the floor. Embedded in the terrazzo tile  is a design honoring the poetry of Langston Hughes. “Rivers” was inspired by Hughes’ well-known poem, ” A Negro Speaks of Rivers.” This type of design is called a cosmogram, as it treats mystical themes of nature and the meaning of life. Blue rivers snake through rust-colored clay, evoking the Earth.

The Langston Hughes Building lobby at the Schomburg Center, New York City

The Langston Hughes Building lobby at the Schomburg Center, New York City

The design is pleasing, with its tribal symbols and poetic quotes. Looking closer even, we see that there is a fish shape in the middle. Inside the fish is a quote from the poem.

A quote from "A Negro Speaks of Rivers," by Langston Hughes appears in the cosmogram in the Langston Hughes Building Lobby.

A quote from “A Negro Speaks of Rivers,” by Langston Hughes appears in the cosmogram in the Langston Hughes Building Lobby.

If we had superpowers and could see through the tile of the fish and underneath the floor, we would discover that there is something buried there. It is a vessel, made of metal, and, fittingly, we think later, shaped like a book. It is sealed. If we were to open it, which we won’t (and can’t), we would discover that it contains the cremated ashes of Langston Hughes himself. So the cosmogram, besides being beautiful, is useful. It is a tomb.

So, at the 1991 opening of the Langston Hughes Building, guests filled up the lobby and turned it into a dance floor. Someone cranked up the music and everyone boogied down. And this is how Maya Angelou and others ended up doing the proverbial dance on a friend’s grave.

The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem observed the 89th birthday of the poet Langston Hughes and the beginning of Black History Month on Thursday night.  Mr. Hughes's ashes were buried beneath the floor of the auditorium, and in an African Custom of ancestral return, the  writers Amiri Baraka and Maya Angelou danced atop them. Published NYT Metro, Saturday, Feb. 22, 1991 CREDIT:  Chester Higgins, Jr/The New York Times

In February 1991, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem observed the 89th birthday of the poet Langston Hughes and the beginning of Black History Month. Mr. Hughes’s ashes are buried beneath the floor of the auditorium, and in an African Custom of ancestral return, the writers Amiri Baraka and Maya Angelou danced atop them.
Published NYT Metro, Saturday, Feb. 22, 1991
CREDIT: Chester Higgins, Jr/The New York Times

 

For more on Maya Angelou, click here.

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In the early morning hours of August 6, 1922, crime novelist Agatha Christie and her husband, Archie Christie, sailed into Honolulu, Hawaii, on the Makura and hailed a taxi.

On their drive to the Moana Hotel, they passed between palm trees and hedges of hibiscus, red, pink, and white oleanders, and blue plumbago. At their hotel, the sea washed right up to the courtyard steps on Waikiki Beach.

They checked into their rooms. From their window, they saw surfers catching waves to shore. They hurriedly changed into their swimsuits to rush down, hire surfboards, and plunge into the sea.

Surfers at Waikiki Beach, Honolulu. Aug./Sept. 1922. Photograph by Agatha Christie

Surfers at Waikiki Beach, Honolulu. Aug./Sept. 1922. Photograph from Christie Archive

brit emp exh 1924 stamppThey had been looking forward to that moment since leaving England eight months earlier. In the interim, the Christies had traveled three-quarters around the world as part of a government trade mission to drum up interest in the 1924 British Empire Exhibition. Their travels had taken them from England to South Africa (where they were introduced to surfing), Australia, and New Zealand. They now had a month-long holiday in Hawaii – all to themselves – before they would rejoin the mission in Canada.

Surfing was much different in Hawaii than it had been in South Africa. The most obvious difference was the surfboard. In South Africa, the boards were short, curved, and made of light and thin wood.

Agatha Christie and a young naval attaché named Ashby stand on Muizenberg Beach, South Africa, following surf bathing, Jan.-March 1922

Agatha Christie and a young naval attaché named Ashby stand on Muizenberg Beach, South Africa, following surf bathing, Jan.-March 1922. Photograph from the Christie Archive

In Hawaii, however, they were great slabs of wood, ridiculously long and even more ridiculously heavy, made even heavier by the fact that, to find a decent wave to catch, a person had to paddle the board a long, long way out from shore to a reef where the waves broke.

Agatha Christie with her Hawaiian surfboard. Aug./Sept. 1922

Agatha Christie with her Hawaiian surfboard. Aug./Sept. 1922. Photograph from the Christie Archive

In South Africa, the waves broke close to shore and were gentle.

Modern day surfing in Muizenberg, South Africa

Modern day surfing in Muizenberg, South Africa

Then there was the matter of what to do when you caught the right wave. In South Africa, surfers rode the wave on their stomachs. In Hawaii, they rode it standing up.

Spotting the right wave to catch was tricky. Agatha recalls:

First you have to recognize the proper wave when it comes, and, secondly, even more important, you have to know the wrong wave when it comes, because if that catches you and forces you down to the bottom, heaven help you….”

On that first day, Agatha indeed caught “the wrong wave.” She and her board were separated and she was forced far underwater. She swallowed “quarts of salt water” and arrived on the surface gasping for breath. A young American retrieved her board for her, saying:

‘Say, sister, if I were you, I wouldn’t come out surfing  today. You take a nasty chance if you do. You take this board and get right into shore now.'”

She took his advice and, in time, Archie joined her. They were bruised, scratched, exhausted, but not defeated. Agatha was determined to become expert at surfing.

The second time she went in the water, the waves tore her long, silk bathing dress off her body. She covered herself and went into the hotel gift shop where she bought a “wonderful, skimpy, emerald green wool bathing dress, which was the joy of my life, and in which I thought I looked remarkably well. Archie thought I did, too.”

Agatha Christie, sunburned and relaxed. Waikiki Beach, Honolulu, Aug./Sept. 1922. Photograph from Agatha Christie Collection

Agatha Christie, sunburned and relaxed. Waikiki Beach, Honolulu, Aug./Sept. 1922. Photograph from the Christie Archive

In a few days, they moved to a more economical chalet across the road. They spent all their time on the beach or in town drinking ice cream sodas and buying medicines for sunburn. They learned to wear shirts on the beach as their backs were covered with blisters from sunburn.

Their feet were cut to ribbons from the coral so they bought leather boots to wear in the water.

After ten days, Agatha’s skills on a surfboard were improving. After

starting my run, I would hoist myself carefully to my knees on the board, and then endeavor to stand up. The first six times, I came to grief….[but] Oh, the moment of complete triumph on the day that I kept my balance and came right into shore standing upright on my board!”

Because of such vigorous paddling, Agatha developed a strain in her left arm. The pain was excrutiating and would wake her in the early morning hours. Nevertheless, Agatha continued to surf because there was

Nothing like it. Nothing like that rushing through the water at what seems to you a speed of about two hundred miles an hour….until you arrived, gently slowing down, on the beach, and foundered among the soft, flowing waves.”

Researcher Peter Robinson from the Museum of British Surfing says that Agatha Christie is probably one of the first British “stand-up surfers,” along with Edward, the Prince of Wales, who also surfed in Waikiki in 1920 and went on to become King Edward VIII of England for a year. Not to be outdone, let me remind my readers that Agatha Christie is literary royalty, being revered as the Queen of Crime. In 1971, she was made a Dame of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace.

For more on Agatha Christie, click here.

Source: Christie, Agatha. The Grand Tour: Around the World with the Queen of Mystery. United Kingdom: HarperCollins Publishers, 2012

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The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie (1920) introduces retired Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. This is Christie's first published book.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie (1920) introduces retired Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. This is Christie’s first published book.

It was all a bit of a lark! There they were, Archie and Agatha Christie, just trolling along, living their ordinary lives in their Battersea Park flat, with him working in London, her writing mystery novels at home, the two of them raising little Rosalind, poor as church mice, unable to afford any amusements, when, in late 1921, Archie’s old schoolmaster Major Belcher popped into their lives and changed everything.

Belcher had a new job. At dinner, he described it:

“‘You know this Empire Exhibition we’re having in eighteen months’ time? Well, the thing has got to be properly organized. The Dominions have got to be alerted,…to cooperate in the whole thing. I’m going on a mission – the British Empire Mission - going round the world, starting in January.

What I want is someone to come with me as financial adviser. What about you, Archie?…You’re just the man I want.'” (1)

-BritishEmpireExhibitionThe trade mission would last ten months, with first class accommodations in South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. Even better, Belcher continued, Agatha could accompany Archie and, to top it off, he suggested that, on a stopover between duties in New Zealand and Canada, they pause in Hawaii for a month’s holiday.

At that point in their lives, on their tiny incomes, Archie and Agatha could only expect a two-week holiday once a year.  And now this offer! Round the world and Hawaii, too? All expenses paid and first class accommodations as representatives of Great Britain! (The British Empire was at the height of its territorial extent.) Who could say no to that?

Of course there were risks to consider, they reminded themselves. Money would be tight and Archie might not be able to get his old job back upon his return. They would be leaving two-year-old Rosalind with Agatha’s sister, mother, and nurse for almost a year and be essentially incommunicado except for the occasional telegram and letters carried by ships.

After considerable thought, though, they accepted Belcher’s generous offer. Archie quit his London job. A lot of luck had come their way and they would be fools to pass it up, they decided. They were young and adventurous; Archie was Colonel Christie, having served in the Royal Air Force in the First World War. Agatha was 31; Archie, 32. They have never been ones to play it safe, having eloped despite Archie’s mother’s objection to his marrying Agatha. They were due for a bit of fun.

They packed their steamer trunks (Agatha packed her swimsuit), closed up the flat, and kissed Rosalind goodbye. On January 20, 1922, the mission party left Southampton on the RMS Kildonan Castle.

RMS Kildonan Castle

RMS Kildonan Castle

The weather was atrocious and Agatha was confined to her cabin with seasickness until they reached the Portuguese isle of Madeira, west of Morocco. She was finally able to enjoy the rest of the (smoother) voyage south to the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa, snapping photo after photo of her travel companions.

Agatha Christie and Archie Christie on board the RMS Kildonan Castle. Jan.-Feb. 1922

Agatha Christie and Archie Christie on board the RMS Kildonan Castle. Jan.-Feb. 1922. Photo from the Christie Archive

Seventeen days later, the Kildonan Castle docked at Cape Town, South Africa. The V.I.P.s were greeted by the Deputy Trade Commissioner and shown to their rooms at the Mount Nelson Hotel.

The 1922 British Empire Exhibition Trade Mission with from l. to r. Colonel Archie Christie, Major Belcher, Secretary Bates, and Agatha Christie.

The 1922 British Empire Exhibition Trade Mission with from l. to r. Colonel Archie Christie, Major Belcher, Secretary Bates, and Agatha Christie. Photo from the Christie Archive

For the next two months, both Archie and Agatha were swept up in a whirl of meetings, lunches, teas, field trips, dinners, dances, bridge and golf games with government officials and local notables. It was always go-go-go!  Agatha visited a diamond mine in Kimberley, got misty at Victoria Falls, saw crocodiles and hippos swimming at Livingstone. But the thing she enjoyed most of all in South Africa was the sea bathing.

The Cape Peninsula, South Africa, where Cape Town is located

The Cape Peninsula, South Africa, where Cape Town is located. This is False Bay.

Whenever she and Archie and others could steal away, they took the train from Cape Town to Muizenberg on False Bay and went “surf bathing” – lying flat on a light, thin board and riding a wave to shore. Sometimes Agatha took a painful nose dive in the sand, but soon she got the hang of it.

Surf Bathing at Muizenberg ca. 1929

Surf Bathing at Muizenberg ca. 1929

Fish Hoek on False Bay was the place to get in a good swim. Many days, though, Agatha had to settle for bathing closer to their hotel in an outdoor seawater pool at Sea Point, on the Atlantic coast, where Agatha felt like a fish in an aquarium.

Agatha swims at Sea Point, February 1922.

Agatha swims at Sea Point, February 1922. Photo from the Christie Archive

In late February 1922, she and Archie were luncheon guests at Admiralty House in Simonstown on False Bay. Their hosts Admiral Sir William Goodenough and Lady Goodenough took them down to the pier to show them where they bathe. Agatha recalled:

…and Lady G. looking down into the water said quietly: ‘Ah, I see the Octopus has gone. Such a fine fellow – about 5 ft. across.’

We bathed from the other side of the pier. I never care to bathe close to an octopus!”

cape-peninsula-map-smallAgatha wasn’t aware at the time, but there were far more dangerous animals lurking in the waters of False Bay than an octopus. Out in the middle of the bay was Seal Island, the home of the Cape fur seal, the favorite food of the Great White Shark. The Great White Shark is one of the most notorious and ferocious hunters on earth. False Bay has the highest number of Great White Sharks in the world. (2)

Two months passed. On May 6, 1922, Agatha and the B.E.E. mission folks were on the distant and strange Australian island of Tasmania. In her official capacity as Mrs. Christie, she passed that Saturday on dry land, without incident, creating local bonhomie by visiting a museum, attending the races, and playing bridge.

Meanwhile, back in Simonstown, South Africa, where her friends Admiral and Lady Goodenough lived, the ones with the octopus below their pier, where Agatha swam, a more terrible scene was being played out. That morning, a student from the University of Cape Town named Edward Pells decided to go for a swim in Simon’s Bay (off False Bay). The water was calm, translucent.General Botha in Simon's BayThe General Botha was moored in the harbor 300 meters off the end of the jetty and Pells decided to slowly swim around the training ship. He dove in. He was halfway to the ship when there was a swirl of water below him, followed by “what felt like the impact of a torpedo. Simultaneously he was seized by very powerful jaws…” The shark turned downwards into the depths, taking Pells with him. Pells pushed against the shark’s body, tearing himself free, but not before his stomach, thigh, and back were gashed and shredded by the shark’s teeth. He lunged fifteen feet to the surface of the water, the shark close by. He gasped for air.

Fortunately three Malay fishermen in a pram had witnessed the attack and made fast to his rescue. Pells could not speak, he could not call for help; he was in shock. They hauled Pells over the gunwale as the huge shark surfaced and bumped their boat, threatening to overturn it and them into the blood-tinged water.

Once to shore, Pells was rushed to the hospital where his blood was staunched and his wounds were stitched.

Great White Shark caught in Simon's Bay in 1922 MayMeanwhile, the shark was still cruising the bay. Two days would pass before a local fisherman would harpoon and kill it in a “battle royal,” then hang it by its tail from an old gum tree for all to witness. The shark was over 12 feet long (3.66 meters) and weighed over a thousand pounds (+453.6 kilograms). It was a Blue Pointer (Carcharodon carcharias) known as the Great White Shark. (3)

In her autobiography and letters, Agatha Christie mentions her disappointment that, in some places along the South African coast, “one had to bathe in an enclosure, netted off from the open sea.” There was a reason for that. Those outdoor swimming pools protected the swimmers from being eaten by sharks. From 1905 to 2013, there were 239 unprovoked shark attacks in South African waters and 53 were fatal. Compare those figures to the ones for the United Kingdom, Agatha’s home country. From 1847-2013, there were only two shark attacks, and neither were fatal.

The admiral and other South African government officials should have advised Agatha and her friends of the dangers of swimming in False Bay. Coming from England, they would not have dreamed of sharks being in the water.

Fortunately, when they were in Fiji later that August, they were forbidden to swim in the Pacific because of the danger of shark attack.

(1) Christie, Agatha. Agatha Christie: An Autobiography. New York: a Berkley book from G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1977

(2)

(3)

Additional source: Christie, Agatha. The Grand Tour: Around the World with the Queen of Mystery. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2012.

For more on Agatha Christie, click here.

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Crime author Agatha Christie loved to swim on the Devon Coast.

Crime author Agatha Christie loved to swim on the Devon Coast. Photo from the Christie Archive

Agatha Christie (1890-1976) never outgrew her childhood love of sea bathing. She spent her early years in the coastal town of Torquay, England, in Devon, on the English Channel. In summer, she swam in the sea practically every day, even if it rained or stormed. Not only locals like Agatha enjoyed Torquay’s beaches. Torquay [tor-kee] was a posh seaside resort, a popular winter and summer holiday destination for wealthy Europeans and royal personages. With its reputation for a healthful climate, the area is called the English Riviera.

a Great Western Railways travel poster illustrates the allure of the Devon Coast

A Great Western Railways travel poster illustrates the allure of the Devon Coast. Undated

When Agatha was a young girl, the beaches in Torquay were segregated by sex. The Torquay Council kept a strict watch on the propriety of sea bathing. In 1899, a bylaw stated that “no person of the male sex shall at any time bathe within 50 yards of a ladies’ bathing machine.” Men and boys swam at the Gentlemen’s Bathing Cove where there was no dress code. Men swam there in the nude or “in their scanty triangles,” Agatha recalled, “disport[ing] themselves as they pleased.” Women and girls were restricted to swimming at the Ladies’ Bathing Cove. Their beach was small and stony, and steeply sloping.

The Ladies' Bathing Cove, Torquay England, undated. Note the bathing machines at the shoreline.

The Ladies’ Bathing Cove, Torquay, England, where crime author Agatha Christie bathed in the sea. Note the bathing machines at the shoreline. Undated photo

The women swam in pantaloons and frilly dresses that covered them up.

A page from a Newcomb Endicott Company Spring Catalog, ca. 1910. Most women sewed their own bathing suits.

A page from a Newcomb Endicott Company Spring Catalog, ca. 1910. Most women sewed their own bathing suits.

Agatha loved going to the Ladies’ Bathing Cove with her family. Once there, Agatha’s mother and grannie would stake out a spot on the beach with their picnic things, but Agatha couldn’t wait to plunge into the surf. She changed into her swimsuit in one of the 8 bathing machines parked near the water’s edge. Bathing machines were private, portable changing rooms on wheels.

Once inside the machine, “an ancient man, of somewhat irascible temper” picked up the “gaily painted striped affair” and hauled it down the hill and into the water. Agatha exited the bathing machine, stepping down a short ladder into the chilly waters of the English Channel.

Swimmer exits the bathing machine in her Victorian swimsuit ca. 1905

Swimmer exits the bathing machine in her Victorian swimsuit ca. 1905

Agatha would then swim out to an anchored raft, pull herself up, and then sit upon it, sunning. Getting to the raft was a minor feat in itself, even though Agatha was a strong swimmer, because once in the water, her woolen swimsuit became completely sodden and heavy, making her sink under its weight. Women sewed weights in the skirt hems to keep them from rising up in the water, compounding the problem. It was a recipe for disaster: women sinking under the weight of cumbersome dresses, women who could not swim, crashing waves, no lifeguards, and water so frigid that limbs went numb and faces blue. Only some beaches had attendants to help women in the surf and ropes to hold onto.

Trivial matters like safety aside, what really occupied everyone’s mind at the Turn of the Century in England was protecting women’s modesty. The beach at the Ladies’ Bathing Cove was immensely private; it was completely invisible from the windows of the Torbay Yacht Club situated above it on the hill.

The beach may have been ultra-secluded but the sea around the raft was not. It was perfectly visible through the club windows. In her autobiography, Agatha wrote:

…[A]ccording to my father, a good many of the gentlemen spent their time with opera glasses enjoying the sight of female figures displayed in what they hopefully thought of as almost a state of nudity! I don’t think we can have been sexually very appealing in those shapeless garments.”

In 1903, when Agatha was 13, the Torquay Council approved mixed bathing on its beaches. Men and women could now frolic in the surf together at Tor Abbey Sands and Corbin’s Head Beach, as well as on the more aristocratic Meadfoot Beach, the one Agatha’s mother’s preferred.

Here is a mixed group of bathers photographed in Eastbourne around 1906. Mixed bathing in England became widely accepted at about this time.

Here is a mixed group of bathers photographed in Eastbourne around 1906. Mixed bathing in England became widely accepted at about this time.

Although allowing the sexes to mingle was considered to be a very progressive social move, ironically, it placed an even heavier burden on the women. In order to properly mix with men on the beach, Victorian standards of modesty dictated that women had to wear far more clothing than before! It was strictly forbidden for women to let their bare legs show. To caps, dresses, bloomers, and shoes, they added thick, black stockings. Agatha remembered the taboo against legs:

I really don’t know why legs were considered so improper: throughout Dickens there are screams when any lady thinks that her ankles have been observed. The very word was considered daring. One of the first nursery axioms was always uttered if you mentioned those pieces of your anatomy: 

‘Remember, the Queen of Spain has no legs.’

‘What does she have instead, Nursie?’

‘Limbs, dear, that is what we call them; arms and legs are limbs.'”

Women wearing Victorian swimwear and keeping their legs hidden from male view. 1905, origin unknown

Women wearing Victorian swimwear and keeping their legs hidden from male view. 1905, origin unknown

At first, Agatha’s mother insisted that Agatha wear stockings to the beach, but:

Three or four vigorous kicks when swimming, and my stockings were dangling a long way beyond my toes; they were either sucked off altogether or else wrapped round my ankles like fetters….”

907 studio photo of famous champion Australian swimmer and silent Hollywood film star, Annette Kellerman. Her contribution to women's liberation was her advocacy of a comfortable women's swimsuit.

1907 studio photo of famous champion Australian swimmer and silent Hollywood film star, Annette Kellerman. Her contribution to women’s liberation was her advocacy of a comfortable women’s swimsuit.

Australian swimmer, diver, and entertainer Annette Kellerman – “The Diving Venus” – set out to challenge legal restrictions on women’s bathing suits. She believed that swimming was the ideal exercise for women and that pantaloons and skirts prohibited free movement, allowing women only a dip, not a swim, in the life-giving sea. Kellerman was well-known in Britain. In 1904 she swam 26 miles of the River Thames, performed underwater ballet in a glass tank at the London Hippodrome, and tried (and failed) three times to swim the English Channel.

In 1907, preparing for a promotional coast swim, Kellerman was arrested for indecent attire on Revere Beach, Boston, in America. She was wearing one of her clinging, one-piece swimsuits that had no skirt, revealing her thighs.

Kellerman pleaded her case before the judge. Her swimsuit, she explained, was practical, not provocative. Swimming in a Victorian swimsuit with its

‘shoes, stockings, bloomers, skirts, corsets and a dinky little cap,’ she said, made as much sense as ‘swimming in lead chains.'”

The judge dismissed the case, accepting Kellerman’s arguments in favor of swimming as healthy exercise and against cumbersome bathing suits, provided she wore a robe until she entered the water. Her arrest made international headlines. It was the birth of Twentieth Century bathing suits for women; from then on, swimsuits began to be designed for more practical use.

Wearing modern one-piece suits inspired by swimmer Annette Kellerman, women bathers gather seaweed and laugh.  Aberystwyth, Cardiganshire in Wales, 1916

Wearing modern one-piece suits inspired by swimmer Annette Kellerman, women bathers gather seaweed and laugh. Aberystwyth, Cardiganshire in Wales, 1916

Source: Christie, Agatha. Agatha Christie: An Autobiography. New York: Berkley Books, 1977.

For more on Agatha Christie, click here.

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Agatha at 16 in Paris. 1906

Agatha at 16 in Paris. 1906. Photo from the Christie Archive

Thinking back over her teenage years, English crime novelist Agatha Christie (1890-1976) wasn’t sure how long she had been at her finishing school in Paris. In her autobiography, she wrote:

I am hazy now as to how long I remained at Miss Dryden’s – a year, perhaps eighteen months, I do not think as long as two years.”

Upon one point, however, she was perfectly clear. It was during her stay at Miss Dryden’s that she discovered men:

Something happened to me at the sight of Rudy [an American college boy]….From that moment forward I stepped out of the territory of hero worship….I wanted to meet…lots of real young men – in fact, there couldn’t be too many of them.”

Girls and young women of this period believed, including Agatha, that in these packs of real young men lurked their future husband, commonly referred to as “Fate” or “Mr. Right.” She says:

You were waiting for The Man, and when the man came, he would change your entire life!…In the words of old nurses, nannies, cooks, and housemaids:

‘One day Mr. Right will come along.‘”

Back then, her name was Agatha Miller. When Agatha left finishing school (1907) and returned home to her mother in Torquay, England, her dream of becoming a concert pianist had faded, but not her desire to meet men – and lots of them. She was 17, and, in her own words, good-looking. She was tall and slender with masses of thick, wavy, and  golden hair – hair so long she could sit on it.

Agatha Christie as a child. She had fantastic hair.  Undated photo, ca. 1900

Agatha Christie as a child. She had fantastic hair. Undated photo, ca. 1900. Photo from the Christie Archive

She wore it up now, in the Grecian style, because, at 17, she was ready to “come out,” and that was the proper hairstyle for a girl going from a chrysalis to a butterfly.

Edwardian Era hairstyles had to be big and poufy to hold the enormous hats the Edwardians were so fond of.

Edwardian Era hairstyles had to be big and poufy to hold the enormous hats the Edwardians were so fond of.

This was the Edwardian Era (1901-1910) in England. It was traditional then for a girl of Agatha’s upper middle class status to mark the transition from girlhood to womanhood by “coming out.” A mother gave her daughter a dance. The daughter would “do a season” of parties in London. But as Agatha’s mother Clarissa was a widow and her wealth was a thing of the past,  there could be nothing like that for Agatha. So, the winter of 1910 they decided to go to Cairo, Egypt, where Agatha could ease her way into society (and meet men). Travel was relatively cheap then and they would lease their house out for extra income. They were going Agatha husband-hunting.

Clarissa Miller, Agatha Christie's mother, at her home in Torquay, England, before the start of the First World War (1914)

Clarissa Miller, Agatha Christie’s mother, at her home in Torquay, England, before the start of the First World War (1914). Photo from the Christie Archive

Mother and daughter set sail for Cairo where they would join other mothers and daughters with the same purpose. They were not disappointed. Three or four regiments were stationed in Cairo. There was polo matches to watch every afternoon and, five nights a week, there were dances in the hotels. Cairo was crawling with men – exciting ones, too.

Agatha and Clarissa stayed at the Gezirah Palace Hotel in Cairo for three glorious months. Agatha was so busy that she didn’t get as far as even falling slightly in love. Despite being a poor conversationalist, she had been popular among men of all ages and backgrounds, even an Austrian count, as she was both pretty and a great dancer. In the end, two men proposed marriage to her. (Men proposed very freely back then!) Her first suitor, a Captain Hibberd, never actually proposed marriage to Agatha. He timidly told Clarissa of his interest in Agatha. Clarissa didn’t even tell Agatha about it until they were sailing back to England, which made Agatha mad, as she liked to conduct her own love affairs. Agatha’s second marriage proposal came from a young man who was six-foot-five, a nice enough fellow, she admitted, but she didn’t love him, so she turned him down. Agatha would marry for love, as she was fully romantic.

British tourists pose in about 1910 at Giza outside Cairo, the Sphinx over their shoulders. Agatha Christie, too, visited this spot in 1910 but was not as interested in Egyptology and archaeology then as she would be in later years.

British tourists pose in about 1910 at Giza outside Cairo, the Sphinx over their shoulders. Agatha Christie, too, visited this spot in 1910 but was not as interested in Egyptology and archaeology then as she would be in later years.

Agatha returned to England with newfound confidence in herself – and still looking for “Mr. Right.” Over the next two years, she was courted by a string of eligible bachelors and became engaged to three of them. She spread her wings. She went up in an aeroplane. She visited a friend in Florence. She dreamed of becoming an opera singer but thought better of it. Then, one day, sick with the flu and stuck in bed, bored, she decided “to try her hand at a novel.” She began to write in earnest and, before long, she had formed the habit of writing stories.

Meanwhile, she was engaged to Reggie Lucy (who hated dancing and parties) when, in December of 1912, she was asked by some family friends to attend a dance being given for the members of the Garrison from Exeter. She reluctantly agreed. She traveled the 12 miles distance by train then car to Chudleigh.

Her friend Arthur Griffiths, who was stationed at that same Garrison in Exeter, wrote her to say that, sadly, he was not one of the officers able to attend the dance but to look out for a friend of his who was indeed going,

Christie by name….He’s a good dancer.”

Later, when Agatha was at the dance, she said:

Christie came my way quite soon in the dance. He was a tall, fair young man, with crisp curly hair, a rather interesting nose, turned up, not down, and a great air of careless confidence about  him….We got on together very well; he danced splendidly…I enjoyed the evening thoroughly.”

Ten days later, back in Torquay, Agatha was having tea with the Mellors across the street from her home. She and Max Mellor were practicing the tango. The phone rang. It was Agatha’s mother asking her to “Come home at once, will you, Agatha?” A young man was waiting for her in the parlor. Clarissa didn’t give his name.

Agatha was irritated at having to abandon her fun at the Mellors; she felt sure that her gentleman caller was a “rather dreary young naval lieutenant, the one who used to ask” her to read his poems. She left sulkily for home.

Colonel Archie Christie in an undated photo

Colonel Archie Christie in an undated photo from the Christie Archive

But it wasn’t the dreary young naval lieutenant standing nervously in the family drawing room. It was Archie Christie (1889-1962), the man from the dance. He made up some lame excuse about having been in the neighborhood and deciding to look her up, but it was clear he was taken with Agatha. They chatted uncomfortably at first, then, after a few minutes, it got better. The afternoon wore on. Clarissa asked Archie to stay for a  “scratch dinner” of cold turkey, cheese, and salad. For the next several weeks it was like that, him arriving unexpectedly on his motorbike, spending the day, then motoring off “in a series of explosive bumps to Exeter.”

Agatha’s interest in fiancé Reggie Lucy was waning. Within a month, she broke that engagement and became engaged to Archie Christie. Now he was “Mr. Right.” They broke the news to Agatha’s mother. Clarissa knew that it would be hard for them, with Archie’s meager salary as a soldier and Agatha’s even more meager allowance of 100  pounds a year from her grandparents’ estate. She counseled then to wait, but did not object to the marriage. She could see that the two of them were terribly in love.

It was Archie’s mother Peg Hemsley who went and spoiled it all.

Agatha recalled the scene when Archie told his mother he was engaged to her:

‘Would she now be one of those girls that’s wearing one of these new-fangled Peter Pan collars?’

Rather uneasily Archie had to admit that I did wear Peter Pan collars. They were rather a feature of the moment.

1914 day dresses featuring Peter Pan collars.

1914 day dresses featuring Peter Pan collars.

We girls had at last abandoned the high collars to our blouses, which were stiffened by little zigzag bones, one up each side and one at the back, so as to leave red, uncomfortable marks on the neck. A day came when people determined to be daring and achieve comfort.

1911 Queen Mary with Ladies in Waiting. These women were not "Go-Ahead Girls"; they still wore the stiff collars of the Edwardians.

1911 Queen Mary with Ladies in Waiting. These women were not “Go-Ahead Girls”; they still wore the stiff collars of the Edwardians.

The Peter Pan collar was designed, presumably, from the turned-down collar worn by Peter Pan in Barrie’s play.

Maude Adams starred as Peter Pan in a 1905 British play. The collar on her costume, known as the Peter Pan collar, became popular.

Maude Adams starred as Peter Pan in a 1905 British play. The collar on her costume, known as the Peter Pan collar, became popular.

It fitted round the bottom of the neck, was of soft material, had nothing like a bone about it, and was heaven to wear.

1914 Dress featuring Peter Pan collar and a more relaxed dress line. Ladies were abandoning rigid clothing and corsets.

1914 Dress featuring Peter Pan collar and a more relaxed dress line. Ladies were abandoning rigid clothing and corsets.

It could hardly have been called daring. When I think of the reputation for possible fastness that we girls incurred, just by showing the four inches of neck from below the chin, it seems incredible….

Anyway, I was one of those go-ahead girls who, in 1912, wore a Peter Pan collar.

‘And she looks lovely in it,’ said the loyal Archie.

‘Ah, she would, no doubt,’ said Peg.”

Agatha Christie ca. 1926

Agatha Christie ca. 1926. Photo from the Christie Archive

Regardless of Peg’s disapproval, Archie and Agatha did marry – two years later. It was at Christmas and England was at war with Germany (1914). Archie was on leave; he was then a pilot with the Royal Flying Corps. They were staying at Bristol with his mother and stepfather. Archie decided that getting married was the only sensible thing to do. They hunted down the vicar and, outside the church, saw a friend of Agatha’s who agreed to witness the wedding. Agatha was wearing an ordinary coat and skirt with a small purple velvet hat, and hadn’t had time even to wash her hands and face. The ceremony was performed with only bride, groom, witness, vicar, and organist present. The newlyweds then had two days together before Archie returned to France and the dangerous business of being a fighter pilot in the First World War (July 1914-November 1918).

It would be six months before Agatha would see her husband again. She resumed volunteer work at the hospital in Torquay – and, more importantly, writing story after story at home, and seeing them published. In good time, Agatha Miller  – now Agatha Christie –  would be regarded as the world’s best-selling novelist, her literary success having been made possible despite “Mr. Right,” not because of him, contrary to what she had been brought up to believe.

Source: Christie, Agatha. Agatha Christie: An Autobiography. New York: Berkley Books, 1977.

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Twelfth Night, celebrated on January 5 (and also called Epiphany Eve), is the traditional last day of the Christmas holiday festivities. It also marks the adoration of the Magi, and many cultures celebrate it as almost a second Christmas Eve. It marks the start of the Carnival Season which ends on Mardi Gras. Beginning in Tudor England (1485-1603), Twelfth Night was often commemorated with a large festive party - lots of cake and ale - to mark the end of the Winter Festival. William Shakespeare wrote his joyous comedy, "Twelfth Night, or, What You Will" (1600), to be performed at Twelfth Night feasts. The illustration shown here is William Harrison Ainsworth's "Mervyn Clithroe's Twelfth Night Party by 'Phiz'" (c 1840).

William Shakespeare’s high comedy, “Twelfth Night, or, What You Will,” (1600), centers on themes of love – unrequited love, lost love, secret love, fickle love. But another theme is also explored – carpe diem, or “seize the day.” The idea that we should embrace life and live it to the fullest and in the present was a very modern philosophy for Shakespeare (1564-1616) to tuck into a 17th Century play.  Plays during the Elizabethan Era were generally moralistic in nature, reflecting the prevailing Puritanism.  

Now let’s slip into a scene in “Twelfth Night” in which carpe diem is expressed:  

"Olivia" (1888) from "Twelfth Night" by Edmund Blair Leighton

detail from painting, "Twelfth-Night (The King Drinks)" 1634-40 by David the Younger Teniers show the Court Jester entertaining a crowd.

Act II, Scene iii opens in Olivia‘s vast house in dreamy Illyria on the Adriatic Coast. As Olivia is a rich noblewomen in step with the fashion of the day, she keeps a clown on staff whose name is Feste. Feste is a witty jester dressed in crazy clothes. His job is to say clever things, tell his mistress the truth (as would any decent court jester), and amuse her and her guests, who, at this moment, include her alcoholic uncle Sir Toby Belch and his drinking buddy, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, a bumbling knight who has his eye on Olivia for a bride.  

It is quite late at night when we join Sir Toby and Sir Andrew in the drawing room. They have been drinking quite a lot. By the time Feste the Clown joins them, they have gotten so noisy and stinking drunk, they are disturbing the peace of the sleeping household.   

"Twelfth Night, or, What You Will," Act II, Scene iii: (l to r) Feste the Clown, Sir Toby Belch, and Sir Andrew Aguecheek whoop it up with a drink and a song, rousing the household in the wee hours of the morning.

Both Sir Toby and Sir Andrew are in the mood to hear a song. Sir Toby gives Feste sixpence to sing a love song. Feste obliges. His beautiful song –  “O Mistress Mine” –  is an ode to free-spirited, impulsive, and delicious love. Life is short; you’ve got to grab joy when it’s within reach:  

 

O mistress mine, where are you roaming?

O, stay and hear! your true-love’s coming,

That can sing both high and low.

Trip no further, pretty sweeting,

Journeys end in lovers meeting—

Every wise man’s son doth know.

 

What is love? ’Tis not hereafter;

Present mirth hath present laughter;

What’s to come is still unsure:

In delay there lies no plenty;

Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty,

Youth’s a stuff will not endure.

 

(1) The Complete Pelican Shakespeare. New York: The Viking Press, 1969.

Readers, for more “Talk Like Shakespeare Today” posts, click here.

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American author and humorist Samuel Langhorne Clemens, well-known by his pen name of “Mark Twain,” served as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River until the American Civil War broke out in 1861. The Mark Twain image shown here adorns an early Twentieth Century cigar box. Mark Twain was beloved and enjoyed public goodwill all his days.

 I used to have a notion that there was only one place in the world where I could write,” American author Mark Twain once told a friend, “That was Elmira, where I used to spend all my summers. But I’ve got over that notion now. I find that I can write anywhere.” (1) 

Anywhere meant exactly that: anywhere. Twain didn’t even require a desk to write. As it turns out, Mark Twain (1835-1910), also known as Samuel Clemens, did a good deal of his writing in bed. Unlike many other authors who complained of the difficulty of the writing process, Twain did not find creative work difficult. 

Just try it in bed sometime. I sit up with a pipe in my mouth and a board on my knees, and I scribble away. Thinking is easy work, and there isn’t much labor in moving your fingers sufficiently to get the words down.” (1) 

In his old age, Mark Twain was often photographed in his heavenly bed, smoking away on a cigar or a pipe and writing.

Mark Twain writing in his heavenly bed.

While Twain had many houses in his lifetime and all of them special, he had but one favorite bed, which he kept with him all of his life.  He had bought it in 1878 in Venice, Italy, when he and his wife Olivia were furnishing their ridiculously- expensive three-story Victorian palace in a Hartford, Connecticut neighborhood known as “Nook Farm.” 

The Mark Twain House in the Hartford, Connecticut, community known as "Nook Farm." Mark Twain said of this house, "To us, our house . . . had a heart, and a soul, and eyes to see us with." (Mark Twain Wrote (and Smoked!) in Bed," Lisa's History Room)

The master bedroom at Nook Farm occupied its own wing on the second floor. The massive Venetian oak bed dominated the room. The bed was heavy and made of carved oak. It featured: 

a headboard carved into a bas-relief of cupids, nymphs and seraphs, the six-wing angels who guard God’s throne. [Twain] claimed he found it so sublime he had put the pillows down at the foot of the bed and slept backward so that this heavenly vision of worldly success would be the first thing he saw every day when he awoke.” (2) 

Mark Twain's carved oak bed. ("Mark Twain Wrote (and Smoked!) in Bed," Lisa's History Room)

It was in this bed that Twain died. (3) The bed remains the most famous furnishing of the Mark Twain House in Hartford, Connecticut. This house proved so costly to furnish and maintain that it drove Twain into bankruptcy in 1891. He was forced to go on tour in Europe to raise funds.

Mark Twain and family at Nook Farm

However foolhardy the house was, it was during those spendthrift years at Nook Farm that Twain wrote many of his best-known and most-loved works, probably while smoking in his favorite heavenly bed: 

  • The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876),
  •  The Prince and the Pauper (1881),
  •  Life on the Mississippi (1883),
  •  Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), and
  • A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889). (2)

(1) “How Mark Twain Writes in Bed. The New York Times, April 12, 1902. 

(2) Wolfe, Tom. “Faking West, Going East.” The New York Times, April 24, 2010.
(3) Power, Ron. Mark Twain: A Life. New York: Free Press, 2005.

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Frances Griffiths is shown playing with fairies in Cottingley Beck, near Bradford in England, in 1917. Her cousin Elsie Wright was the photographer. This is one of 5 photographs the cousins took of themselves playing along a creek with dancing fairies.

Do you believe in fairies? Frances Griffiths, 16, and her cousin Elsie Wright, 10, did. They claimed to play with dancing fairies along the enchanted stream [the beck] behind Elsie’s house in Cottingley Village, England – and they had 5 photographs to prove it. There in the frames, dancing around the girls, were four female fairies!

When Elsie’s parents saw the photos, they didn’t know what to think. Elsie’s father examined them and proclaimed them clever fakes. But Elsie’s mother wasn’t so sure. Mrs. Wright wanted to believe the girls, as she was a spiritualist. [Among the country folk in England at the time was a lively fairy-faith. ] The parents searched the girls’ shared bedroom and around the beck for scraps of paper to reveal tomfoolery. Still nothing turned up. Mrs. Wright was inclined to believe the girls. Her husband made his camera off-limits.

Time passed. At first the photographs were only shared with close friends and family, but, in 1919, Mrs. Wright attended a lecture on fairy life, bringing the prints with her. By 1920 the prints had come to the attention of one of the leading spiritualists of the time, Edward Gardner, who examined them and had two new negatives made, clarifying the pictures.

The story of the Cottingley fairies got even more attention when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (creator of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries) learned of them.

Detective Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, played by Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. The characters of Holmes and Watson were created by British doctor Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a renowned spiritualist.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was famous for more than his books. He was an outspoken believer in the spirit world. He immediately believed the Cottingley fairy story and began writing letters to the Wright family in support. Doyle published his book The Coming of Fairies in 1922, maintaining until his death that the Cottingley fairies were real.

Still, public opinion was divided. Supporters claimed the photos provided long-awaited proof of the existence of spirits. Others said the photos were nothing more than clever fakes. The Cottingley Fairy Photos caused heated debate. Nevertheless, the girls held to their story, even as they aged.

Finally in 1983 Elsie came clean. She divulged in a letter to a friend that the photographs were indeed a hoax. She described how she and Frances had used the fairies in Princess Mary’s Gift Book as inspiration for cut0uts. They then used hatpins to prop up the paper dolls in the bushes for pictures.

Fairy figures in Princess Mary's Gift Book

 

Elsie insisted that they had meant no harm. They were just having a bit of fun. It had been Elsie’s idea as a way to get back at her parents for scolding her little cousin. Evidently, her mother and father had gotten angry with Frances for getting her clothes wet one day while playing in the beck. Frances had claimed to be playing with fairies when she’d fallen, and the elder Wrights had teased her. Elsie had come up with the idea of taking the first pictures to have the last laugh. All along they had planned on confessing their little trick until Arthur Conan Doyle got involved. By then, the matter had grown so out of proportion thatthe girls became terrified of a public backlash should they confess.

 

Elsie Wright is shown receiving a flower from a fairy. This is one of the famous Cottingley fairy photos from 1917.

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Freedmen’s Monument, Lincoln Park, Washington, D.C.; sculptor, Thomas Ball. The sculpture was funded solely from freed slaves, primarily from African-American Union veterans, to pay homage to the American president who had issued the Emancipation Proclamation, thus liberating them from bondage in the Confederate States. The statue was dedicated on April 14, 1876, 11 years after Abraham Lincoln's assassination by the Confederate rebel John Wilkes Booth. Abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass delivered the dedication speech.

Oration in Memory of Abraham Lincoln

Frederick Douglass delivered a speech at the unveiling of the Freedmen’s Monument in Memory of Abraham Lincoln at Lincoln Park, Washington, D.C., on April 14, 1876. This is the conclusion of what Douglass said to the crowd:

 

“Fellow-citizens, the fourteenth day of April, 1865, of which this is the eleventh anniversary, is now and will ever remain a memorable day in the annals of this Republic. It was on the evening of this day, while a fierce and sanguinary rebellion was in the last stages of its desolating power; while its armies were broken and scattered before the invincible armies of Grant and Sherman; while a great nation, torn and rent by war, was already beginning to raise to the skies loud anthems of joy at the dawn of peace, it was startled, amazed, and overwhelmed by the crowning crime of slavery–the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. It was a new crime, a pure act of malice. No purpose of the rebellion was to be served by it. It was the simple gratification of a hell-black spirit of revenge. But it has done good after all. It has filled the country with a deeper abhorrence of slavery and a deeper love for the great liberator.

Had Abraham Lincoln died from any of the numerous ills to which flesh is heir; had he reached that good old age of which his vigorous constitution and his temperate habits gave promise; had he been permitted to see the end of his great work; had the solemn curtain of death come down but gradually–we should still have been smitten with a heavy grief, and treasured his name lovingly. But dying as he did die, by the red hand of violence, killed, assassinated, taken off without warning, not because of personal hate–for no man who knew Abraham Lincoln could hate him–but because of his fidelity to union and liberty, he is doubly dear to us, and his memory will be precious forever.”

Abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass, daguerrotype, 1855. Douglass recruited black men to serve in the Union Army during the Civil War.

Readers, I’ve posted many articles on Abe Lincoln. Scroll down the right sidebar to Categories/People/Abraham Lincoln for more! Enjoy.

Also on this blog: “Frederick Douglass, An American Slave.”

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The American abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, in a rare photo taken c. 1840, around the time he became a runaway slave.

Frederick Douglass (1817-1895)

The following is an excerpt from the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), which includes recollections of Douglass’ experiences on a Maryland plantation:

“To describe the wealth of Colonel Lloyd [his master] would be almost equal to describing the riches of Job. He kept from 10-15 house servants. He was said to own a thousand slaves, and I think this estimate quite within the truth. Colonel Lloyd owned so many that he did not know them when he saw them; nor did all the slaves of the out-farms know him. It is reported of him, that, while riding along the road one day, he met a colored man, and addressed him in the usual manner of speaking to colored people on the public highways of the South:

‘Well, boy, whom do you belong to?’

“To Colonel Lloyd,’ replied the slave.

‘Well, does the colonel treat you well?’

‘No, sir,’ was the ready reply.

‘What, does he work you too hard?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Well, don’t [sic] he give you enough to eat?’

‘Yes, sir, he gives me enough, such as it is.’

The colonel, after ascertaining where the slave belonged, rode on; the man also went on about his business, not dreaming that he had been conversing with his master. He thought, said, and heard nothing more of the matter, until two or three weeks afterwards. The poor man was then informed by his overseer that, for having found fault with his master, he was now to be sold to a Georgia trader….

It is partly in consequence of such facts that slaves, when inquired of as to their condition and the character of their masters, almost universally say they are contented, and that their masters are kind. The slaveholders have been known to send in spies among their slaves, to ascertain their views and feelings in regard to their condition. The frequency of this has had the effect to establish among the slaves the maxim that a still tongue makes a wise head.”

Also on this blog: “Abe Lincoln: The Freedmen’s Monument

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MERRY-GO-ROUND by Langston Hughes (1902-1967)

colored child at carnival:

 

Where is the Jim Crow section
On this merry-go-round,
Mister, cause I want to ride?
Down South where I come from
White and colored
Can’t sit side by side.

Down South on the train
There’s a Jim Crow car.
On the bus we’re put in the back–
But there ain’t no back
To a merry-go-round!

Where’s the horse
For a kid that’s black?

It wasn’t like young Langston Hughes to get into trouble. But, in 1914, when his seventh-grade teacher moved him and the other African-American students into a separate row in class, he got angry. So he put cards that read “JIM CROW ROW” on the black kids’ desks. He was soon expelled. But a protest rose up among the parents and Langston was eventually allowed to return to school. He had fought back and won a victory: separate seating in his school was no longer permitted.

Although Langston Hughes attended school with whites in Kansas, he wasn't allowed to play sports of join clubs. Signs throughout town read: "No Coloreds Allowed" and facilities for whites and blacks were separate. This anti-black caste system was known as Jim Crow Laws and operated mostly in the Southern United States between 1877 and the mid-1960s. It was used to keep blacks as second-class citizens.

Readers, you might also enjoy: Langston Hughes: When Sue Wears Red.

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