Shirley Temple and me and tanks in the street

The audience that laughed and cried with Shirley Temple as she starred in movies like Captain January, Poor Little Rich Girl, and Heidi during the 1930s and 1940s has pretty much disappeared. Some of us still remember the TV shows she hosted during the 1950s and 60s, but her movies and the songs she made famous like “On the Good Ship Lollipop” seem relics from a forgotten past. Nonetheless her name and image are still remembered as an indelible part of America’s past.

Like many other people, I had a vague idea that Shirley Temple had maintained a long career after her retirement from films. Recently, however, I had a vivid reminder of Shirley Temple’s career when I read Norman Eisen’s book The Last Palace (2018). The palace of the title is a magnificent home designed and built in Prague during the 1920s by Otto Petschek, a Jewish entrepreneur whose fortune was made through coal mining. The Petschek family was driven from the country when Hitler came to power and Czechoslovakia fell to the Nazis.

Eisen has built his book around telling the story of the palace and its occupants throughout the century. Each chapter tells an intriguing story but the one that surprised me the most was that of Shirley Temple Black, who was ambassador to Czechoslovakia during the late 1980s. She had first visited Prague and the palace in 1968, after she had retired from the movies. The purpose of her visit was to encourage the country to join the International Federation of Multiple Sclerosis Societies. She succeeded in her mission, but was unexpectedly caught up in a coup. On the morning that she had planned to leave the city and return home, she looked out of her hotel window and saw tanks crowded with Soviet troops rolling down the streets. Suddenly all of her plans were cancelled. Tanks have a way of doing that.

Reading this chapter of the book reminded me vividly of my trip to a library conference in Moscow in 1991. I dug out the old journal I had kept during that trip to find my description of how the sudden eruption of the August coup had seemed to me and my colleagues.

Last night was scary. After we went to bed at 11:00, we heard tanks rumbling through the streets. They really make a racket ‑‑a loud roar that sounds almost like a low‑flying aircraft. Then we heard gunfire, first pistols then machine gun fire. Not much of it, but enough to make us listen. We kept peering out the window and trying to see what was going on. We could see the tanks, but could not see where the shooting was. There were lights all over the city. In the hotel across the street we could see people silhouetted in windows. I began to realize how people must feel in Beirut where no one knows what is happening.

The noises stopped at about 1:30 and we finally got some sleep. This morning at breakfast rumors were flying. Some people can see down the street to the Yeltsin office building. Some said that there were crowds out on Kalinnen Prospekt yelling “Yeltsin” “Yeltsin” and that the tanks turned back when they came upon the crowd. There is some hope that the fact that the tanks refused to fire means that the junta is going under. Some reports on the radio say that two junta members are “ill”. CNN doesn’t go on the air until 9:00, so there has been no outside news.

The memory of those tanks and the insecurity of not knowing what was going on and not being able to get in touch with people back home is still clear in my mind, Eventually the coup failed, Moscow was safe and soon we were able to return home and go on with our lives.

U.S Embassey in Prague

Shirley Temple’s coup adventure lasted longer than mine and had a far different ending. After days of confusion and conflicting news, many foreigners were finally able to leave Prague and Shirley played an heroic real life part in the drama. With the help of people from the U.S. State Department, she led a caravan of autos to the German border where they were able to escape from the Soviet’s takeover of Czechoslovakia. The events had a great impact on her and she spent most of the rest of her life in public service, working as White House Chief of Protocol, and eventually becoming an ambassador to Ghana and then to Czechoslovakia in 1989. She returned to Prague and lived in the palace, which is now the American embassy. As ambassador, she was able to welcome a more liberal government as it took power. She demonstrated both good judgment and star power in encouraging the Velvet Revolution that brought democracy to Czechoslovakia.

Eisen has chosen well in focusing on one building that saw the unfolding of so many historical trends during the 20th century. It is a welcome reminder of how history unfolds and how events in other countries impact American life. I strongly urge you to read it. Not only will you learn a lot of history, but you will also enjoy suspenseful stories about some amazing people.  

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Dancing away from the daily news

In recent weeks I often feel as though I am drowning in news from all sources—breathless voices from radio, TV and newspapers both print and online insist on telling me the latest tweet or thoughtless comment about what is going on. In self-defense I’ve resolved not to pay attention to any news that pops up after the PBS Newshour ends in the evening . Everything else can wait for morning.

Mariinsky Theatre

This resolution leaves me more time to watch some of the riches I can stream on my TV, watching performances that I never had a chance to see in person. My favorites are ballets, pure art without the intervention of words or arguments. It is a tremendous relief to switch on Amazon Prime and watch dances that were performed at the Mariinsky theater and other famous locations. It is another world right in my own living room.

Fanny Elssler

All of this reminds me of how long it took for ballet to make its way to America and what it meant when it finally arrived. And one of my favorite American heroes, Margaret Fuller, played a part in welcoming the European art. There is a well-known story that when Margaret and her friend Ralph Waldo Emerson went to see Fanny Elssler, one of the first ballerinas to tour the country, Emerson turned to Margaret and said: “This is not dancing, it is poetry ; ” to which she replied, ” No, Waldo, it is religion!”

Those comments make a good story, but unfortunately they are most likely untrue. Charles Capper, Fuller’s most respected biographer, tell us that Fuller and Emerson did not attend a ballet performance together, so the story must be regarded as just casual gossip. What it does reveal, however, is that the leading American writers and intellectuals were fascinated when they had a chance to view ballet. And who was the woman who introduced this art? Fanny Elssler, an Austrian dancer who came to America in 1840 and traveled across the country giving performances for a year and a half.

Fanny had been born into a musical family in Austria. Her father was a copyist and valet to Hayden and two of her brothers were musicians. Her sister Therese was also trained as a dancer and the two young girls frequently performed together. Therese grew to a height considered to be abnormal in those days—5 feet, 6 inches—so she could dance male parts when accompanying Fanny.

As frequently happened, the attractive young dancers attracted powerful older men as supporters and lovers. Fanny eventually had two children, a boy and a girl, who were boarded with friendly families until they were old enough to join their mother. I have to wonder sometimes what staid Americans like Emerson and his circle would have thought if they had known one of their admired artists had unacknowledged children. And I sometimes wonder what female artists would have done in that long-ago time before the Me-too movement had started if they had had the freedom to reject the attentions of wealthy patrons who assumed all female dancers would welcome their attentions.

But that did not happen. The dancers kept on dancing until they retired, as Fanny Elssler did in 1845, leaving behind a number of American and European fans who continued to support ballet as well as the other arts. During the late 19th century Americans, who had learned of many of these arts through performers who visited from Europe, developed their own artists and the inspiration began to flow in a two-way direction between this country and the rest of the world. Now, thanks to technology, we can watch performances from all over the world whenever we need a break from the endless chatter of today’s life. I highly recommend it.

Mariinsky ballet

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Congresswomen’s Profiles in Courage

As the new members of Congress were sworn into office this week, much attention was paid to the fact that more women than ever before are now serving in Congress. The youngest member, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, otherwise known as AOC, was probably the most talked about, especially after a video of her dancing while she was an undergraduate was posted online. Although the video was apparently posted to make her seem frivolous, most viewers seemed to find it charming.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

When Ocasio-Cortez, or AOC, described herself as a socialist, conservatives again started attacking her. And when she suggested that a marginal tax rate of 70% might be appropriate for very high incomes, some commentators were outraged even though the rate she suggested is no higher than the one the U.S. tax code imposed during and after World War II.

The people who write political commentary seem to have very short memories. The fact is that American Congresswomen have often favored more radical solutions than their male colleagues supported. And they have stood by their positions even when put under severe pressure.  

When Jeannette Rankin took her seat in 1917, she made almost as much of a splash as this year’s women did. As the first woman ever elected to Congress, she joined with more than 50 other members who voted against President Wilson’s request to enter World War I, even though the measure passed with an overwhelming majority.

Jeannette Rankin

After the war was over, President Wilson declared that it had been fought to make the world safe for democracy. But Rankin turned his words against him when she fought hard for a national measure to give women throughout the country the right to vote. “How shall we explain to them [American women] the meaning of democracy if the same Congress that voted to make the world safe for democracy refuses to give this small measure of democracy to the women of our country?” she asked. Women finally got the vote in 1920

Rankin left Congress but continued to be an activist for many years. In 1940 she was re-elected to a House seat and arrived there in time to be confronted with the Pearl Harbor attack. This time there were fewer members of Congress who opposed President Roosevelt’s request for a declaration of war against Japan. When she voted against the motion she was hissed and she was never again elected to public office.

Some Americans, however, recognized Rankin’s courage. Wikipedia describes the reaction of the noted editor William Allen White:

 Probably a hundred men in Congress would have liked to do what she did. Not one of them had the courage to do it. The Gazette entirely disagrees with the wisdom of her position. But Lord, it was a brave thing! And its bravery someway discounted its folly. When, in a hundred years from now, courage, sheer courage based upon moral indignation is celebrated in this country, the name of Jeannette Rankin, who stood firm in folly for her faith, will be written in monumental bronze, not for what she did, but for the way she did it.

In recent years other Congresswomen have demonstrated rare courage in standing up for their beliefs. After the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York City and Washington D.C., Congresswoman Barbara Lee was the only representative to vote against the Authorization for Use of Military Force—the act that gives the president sweeping powers to attack any country at any time if he or she believes it threatens the safety of the United States or supports terrorism. That act passed 420-1 with Lee the only representative who voted against it. In the years since 2001, many people have come to believe that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and much of the Middle East that were justified under this act have done irreparable damage to America, but at the time, Barbara Lee was the only Congressperson who recognized the danger.

Barbara Lee

Anyone who has forgotten the tangled emotions and arguments that followed 9/11 (and that includes most of us) should read the article in the Atlantic that tells the story of both the attacks and support Barbara Lee received following her vote. But, through the years, Lee has held firmly to her beliefs and is still serving in Congress representing her district in Oakland, California.   

It is easy to see that the women now entering Congress are following the footsteps of some determined and courageous women. Let’s hope they can live up to the courage of their past leaders.  

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Who Wants an Old-Fashioned American Christmas?

A month ago President Trump wished all Americans a Merry Christmas and announced once again that he had won the “war on Christmas”.  I’m not sure he realizes quite how long the battles over the importance of Christmas have been going on in the U.S.

Reading about history is one of my favorite hobbies and the holidays are a fascinating subject. Those of you who have read my first Margaret Fuller mystery story, A Death in Utopia, know it is set in Brook Farm, a Utopian community that flourished in Massachusetts during the 1840s, so I’ve done a lot of reading about Brook Farm.

I’ve never forgotten the memoir I read about an American boy who grew up in New York’s Hudson Valley, not very far from Massachusetts, which had been settled by Dutch generations earlier. His name was John Van der Zee Sears and he was sent to Brook Farm for his education. The greatest shock of his new school was to discover that the Christmas holiday “did not exist” for them. In the Hudson Valley it was the greatest holiday of the year. Young John and his sister could find no one at Brook Farm who realized what they were missing except for an Irish resident, John Cheever, who was a Catholic and therefore understood the importance of the holiday for people outside of New England.

The celebration of Christmas was a divisive issue for many people in early America. It was celebrated in the South, but not often in New England. During the 1850s and later, when more and more immigrants began arriving from Europe, they brought customs from the old country, which upset many of the traditions of each of these groups. Christmas trees began to appear in American homes and were soon adopted by families from many different backgrounds.

“A Visit from Saint Nicholas” by Clement Clark Moore (although his authorship has been disputed) made an indelible impression with its picture of Santa Claus coming down the chimney to leave presents under the tree for all good girls and boys. Its popularity was one of the most unifying aspects of the Christmas holiday. As years went by and Christmas became more important as a gift-giving holiday than as a religious one, it was shared by people of all backgrounds and faiths.

Whether for Kwanza, Hanukah, or Christmas almost everyone now can unite in wanting to give and receive gifts during this holiday season. In fact, perhaps we ought to admit that what has saved Christmas for most Americans has been Santa Claus and the commercialism he represents.  

Whatever the reason for the celebration, I hope everyone is enjoying a happy holiday season and looking forward to a good new year. Happy 2019!

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From Bicycles to Surfing–freeing women to lead their lives

Fashion never sleeps, and the holiday season when people are planning end-of-year celebrations, is an especially active time. Fashion decrees what women should wear and influences how they lead their lives. The people who decide what is fashionable have usually been men. In fact, women who have chosen for themselves what they want to wear have often been harshly punished–either by law or, perhaps even more damaging, by laughter.

When Amelia Bloomer and several other leaders of the Women’s Suffrage movement during the mid-nineteenth century introduced the bloomer costume they were criticized and laughed at for their efforts. The Bloomer outfit consisted of a dress worn over wide pants. The obvious health benefits of not wearing a long, heavy skirt that scraped up dirt from the roadway and streets did not persuade men that women should be allowed to determine how they want to dress. As the activist AngelinaGrimke wrote, the bloomer dress suggested that women should have the freedom to move around the streets and participate in public events. It was the freedom the new style offered women that was frightening to many conservatives.

In the end it wasn’t disapproval as much as jokes and laughter that drove the sensible bloomer dresses from the streets of America. Relentless scorn in newspapers pushed women back to more conventional, and restrictive clothes. Bicycle costumes brought a brief revival of bloomer costumes in the 1890s, but they soon disappeared. It took more than fifty years for women to win the freedom to wear short skirts and eventually pants.

Now it is the turn of the Muslim world to design clothes for women that enable them to choose a lifestyle outside the sheltered walls of their family home. The DeYoung Museum in San Francisco currently has an exhibit of clothes designed for Muslim women. Many of them are in conventional styles showing some of the many varieties of clothing worn by Muslim women and other Middle Eastern women, but some of them offer glimpses of new lifestyles as well as new clothing styles.

Surfing costume

The exhibit shows outfits suitable for active sports, such as surfing, but all of them fit within the comfort zone of women following Muslim standards for dress. The DeYoung Museum may be too far away for you to visit, but the exhibit is accompanied by a lavish

catalog full of illustrations of some of the most exciting fashions now being shown anywhere—many of them designed by women to help women live more exciting, active lives. And if you cannot buy a copy for yourself, ask your local public library to buy one for the whole community to share. It is an eye-opening experience for everyone.

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Do robots ask questions?

Reading about a 19th century woman forgotten by most history books may seem a long way from robots, but that was the path I followed this week. I met Mary Treat in Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel Unsheltered. If you have read reviews of Kingsolver’s book you probably know that Mary Treat was a well-known scientist who corresponded with Charles Darwin and with the Harvard botanist Asa Gray.

Textbook written by Mary Treat

Born in 1830 in upstate New York, Mary Treat received only the standard female education of the time, which did not include science. Universities did not admit women as students, so where did Treat’s knowledge about biology and botany come from? It seems to have been driven mainly by the curiosity. That is what led her to want to know about the life of the world around her. During the 1870s, she and her husband moved to Vineland, New Jersey, which was one of several Utopian communities built during the 19ths century. Situated close to the Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey, it was full of plants and creatures that had seldom been studied by scientists. Mary’s husband didn’t care much about plants or insects, so he soon disappeared from her life.

In Kingsolver’s novel, we are first introduced to Treat, as she is sitting in her living room patiently holding one of her fingers in the grip of a carnivorous plant. What drove this woman to study plants and insects while other women were concentrating on dress patterns and cookery? It seems to have been mainly curiosity—the quality that sets many human beings apart from most other species as they look for answers to thousands of questions about the world they live in.

You can ask almost any teacher about how they recognize the children who will someday go on to make a mark on the world and time and time again you get the answer “curiosity”.  Perhaps all children are born to ask questions, but many of them eventually give up the quest. Poverty and the stress of difficult family life and social conditions push some children into abandoning the gift of curiosity, but there are other reasons too.

For centuries men were considered to have a natural monopoly on education. They were the ones who went out into the world and searched for answers while the women stayed home. Women weren’t supposed to ask too many questions, but somehow despite this, some women, like Mary Treat, kept their curiosity alive. Treat made many contributions to biological sciences. Just think what she could have done if she had been accepted into Harvard and studied with Asa Gray instead of having to learn it all on her own?

One of the things that fascinates me about studying women’s history learning about how and why some women have overcome the obstacles in their path and kept their curiosity alive. If we could understand that, perhaps we could do a better job of encouraging both men and women, to use their curiosity to explore the world.

And what has this to do with robots? Well, one of the things about robots is that no matter how many questions they may learn to answer, or even to generate in a narrow task-focused area, they haven’t yet started to ask questions of their own. A workplace filled with robots that have been trained to do a task, will sit passively overnight or during a vacation shutdown. A workplace filled with human beings in a similar situation will come up with a dozen ways to escape their prison and move on to something more interesting. Until robots start asking questions, I don’t think we have to worry about them taking over the world.

Meanwhile we need to keep our children asking questions as they grow up and lead us into the future.

 

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Why Are Humans Such Slow Learners?

Here in California, the prospect of Thanksgiving has been tarnished by the series of disasters that have hit the state. Wildfires are raging in both Northern and Southern  parts of the state. And the effects of the fires are felt widely. Even in San Francisco, which is miles away from the nearest fire, the smell of smoke hovers over us and this week the sky has an ominous yellowy-greenish hue, schools are closed, people wear masks and still they cough.

The wildfires are only one example of the way the natural world has been changing our view of the power of nature. The long, hot summer and disastrous hurricanes have affected the lives of people throughout the country. All the measures that we have taken to tailor weather to our preferences are failing us. We can’t spend all of our time hunkering down in our air-conditioned houses and cars. Nature is taking its revenge and forcing us to consider how we live and work.

Climate change is an undeniable fact, yet we still elect politicians who refuse to recognize what’s going on. Why do some politicians find it so difficult to accept scientific facts?  And why do voters, even in a year of Democratic triumphs like these midterms, continue to vote against measures that might help? A recent article in the Atlantic Monthly tells us how difficult it has been to confront the realities of climate change.

It’s not as though the idea of climate change hasn’t been discussed for years. The medieval idea that the world is unchanging and that human beings have no influence on it was challenged more than 200 years ago by Alexander von Humboldt, one of the greatest scientists the world has ever known, although much of his work has been forgotten.

Born in 1769, Humboldt traveled to South America in 1800 to explore nature and culture in the Spanish colonies there. When he saw the changes that Europeans has brought to the country by cutting down forests and cultivating lands, he developed his theories of how men affect climate. “When forests are destroyed, as they are everywhere in America by the European planters, …the springs are dried up or become less abundant.”  He noted how this allowed the soil to be washed away during heavy rains, causing erosion and a loss of fertile soil

Knowledge is a slow-growing plant, but Humboldt was one of those people who planted ideas that have blossomed during the centuries since he started his explorations. We are lucky this year to have a new biography of Alexander von Humboldt available. Andrea Wulf, has explored Humboldt’s life and ideas in The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in seeing how scientific ideas have developed over the years and learning more about the people who have given us our modern view of the world. 

Scientists have known for many years that people are changing the world and that much of that change makes the world smaller and less livable. Our demand for fossil fuels have fostered changes in the climate that threaten us all. For a while there was hope that America would act to lower our carbon impact, but instead we are turning away from all the facts that scientists have been explaining to us for centuries. For a recent update on how the world is going, you can read Bill McKibbon’s article in the current New Yorker magazine.

Perhaps if enough people read that article, Americans will come together and push their politicians into action. Then by next Thanksgiving we might truly have something to be thankful for.

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