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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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