31 October 2010

Happy Halloween

Happy Halloween dear readers! As a special Halloween treat, below is an excerpt from David Ogden Stewart’s tongue-in-cheek book Perfect Behavior; a guide for ladies and gentlemen in all social crises. Written in 1922, the book includes many helpful tips including suggested games for a Halloween party. Enjoy!

After the guests have sufficiently amused themselves with the ghosts and witches it will be time to commence some of the many games which are always associated with Hallowe'en. "Bobbing for apples" is, of course, the most common of these games and great sport it is, too, to watch the awkward efforts of the guests as they try to pick up with their teeth the apples floating in a large tub. I know of one hostess who added greatly to the evening's fun by pouring twelve quarts of gin into the tub; the effect on the bobbers was, of course, extremely comical, except for the unfortunate conduct of two gentlemen, one of whom went to sleep in the tub, the other so far forgetting himself as to playfully throw all the floating fruit at the hostess' pet Pomeranian.

Most Hallowe'en games concern themselves with delving into the future in the hopes that one may there discover one's husband or bride-to-be. In one of these games the men stand at one end of the room, facing the girls, with their hands behind their backs and eyes tightly closed. The girls are blindfolded and one by one they are led to within six feet of the expectant men and given a soft pin cushion which they hurl forward. The tradition is that whichever man the girl hits, him will she marry. Great fun can be added to the game by occasionally substituting a rock or iron dumb-bell in place of the romantic pin cushion.

No Hallowe’en is complete, of course, without fortune telling. Dress yourself as a wizard and have the guests led in one by one to hear their fortune told. Hanging in front of you should be a caldron, from which you extract the slip of paper containing the particular fortune. These slips of paper should be prepared beforehand. The following are suggested.

"You will meet a well dressed, good looking man who understands you better than your husband. How about Thursday at the Plaza?"

"You are about to receive a shipment of Scotch whisky that you ordered last month. And it's about time you kicked across with some of your own."

"You will have much trouble in your life if you lie about your golf score as you did last Sunday on Number 12."

For the older members of the party, the host should provide various games of cards and dice. In keeping with the ghastly spirit of the occasion, it would be well to have the dice carefully loaded. Many hosts have thus been able to make all expenses and often a handsome profit out of the evening's entertainment. 

And finally, when the guests are ready to depart and just before they discover that you have cut cute little black cats and witches out of the backs of their evening wraps and over coats, it would perhaps be well to run up stairs and lock yourself securely in your room.

30 October 2010

Here Lies the Body

In the heart of New York’s financial district stands Trinity Church whose gothic spires make a striking juxtaposition with the surrounding modern buildings. Originally built in 1698 (the church is in its third incarnation; the first was destroyed in a fire and the second was damaged from snow), Trinity received its charter from King William III in exchange for an annual rent of one peppercorn to the crown. 

While the church is beautiful, it is the surrounding Trinity churchyard that holds my interest. A quiet oasis away from the crowds, the grounds contain the remains of Revolutionary War heroes, Congressmen, and famed inventors. 

Alexander Hamilton's grave.

Probably the most famous resident of the churchyard is Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury and a founding father who lost his life in a duel with Aaron Burr in 1804. I wonder what Hamilton thinks about being across from a men's clothing outlet store? More interesting than his monument, in my opinion, is the simple grave of his wife, Eliza, who lies next to him. She outlived her husband by 50 years, always defending his image and refusing to the end to acknowledge his philandering or his responsibility in the duel. She died at the incredibly old age of 97.

Many of the tombstones, because of age and wear, are difficult to read. But you can still make out the names on some and the designs that help date them. Skulls or death’s heads, a common symbol in the 1700s, were stark reminders of death and suffering. Later in the century cherubs, who were kinder in appearance (sometimes downright funny), replaced the skulls, offering up reminders of the rewards to be found in heaven.

Although there are many famous graves at Trinity, the smaller stones tell the stories of other New Yorkers who, while maybe not remembered today, are still important to New York history. 

Dear readers, as promised, I will try to write something other than cemetery reviews next time round.
Photos by Michele.

26 October 2010

The Game is Afoot

Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in Sherlock.

It was with some trepidation that I tuned into Masterpiece Mystery the other night to catch the first installment of a new Sherlock Holmes series simply titled Sherlock. The big difference between this version and the dozens that have come before it was that now the famed detective was living in the 21st century. Would it work? I had my doubts but those were squashed upon viewing the show. Holmes is definitely a detective made for modern times.

Played by the uniquely named Benedict Cumberbatch, Holmes still resides at 221B Baker Street with the faithful Mrs. Hudson fussing over him. And yes, he can tell a person’s background by just looking at them and is always one step ahead of those around him. Only now Holmes, a consulting detective, taunts the police with text messages and writes a blog on the science of deduction. Instead of smoking a pipe, he indulges in nicotine patches. His trusty sidekick, Dr. John Watson (Martin Freeman), is still amazed by Holmes' intellect and continues to question some of his flatmate's more peculiar traits. But in this version Watson's military background, so often glossed over in the past, is made an important part of the story. He’s been wounded serving in Afghanistan and is dealing with both the physical and emotional scars of battle. This makes for a more complex and interesting Watson than we've seen in a while. 

The show has a bit of a Doctor Who look to it (not a bad thing in my book). No big surprise considering co-creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss also worked on Who. This along with the strong rapport between Holmes and Watson and the clever nods to the Holmes canon make this one enjoyable show to watch.

Sherlock airs on PBS October 31 (how fitting) and November 7. Please watch. It would be a crime to miss.

24 October 2010

Pick Yourself Up

On a lazy Sunday what better to inspire you to get up and move than Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing to "Pick Yourself Up" from Swing Time (1936)? This is one of my favourite Fred and Ginger routines—no elaborate set, the choreography is concise but brilliant, and I've always coveted Ginger's dress (love Peter Pan collars).

Fred plays a former dancer turned gambler who runs into Ginger and promptly gets her in trouble with a police officer. Following her to her job at a dance studio, he pretends to need lessons. Acting the klutz, Fred literally falls all over Ginger while they sing "Pick Yourself Up." Ginger finally tells him "Listen. No one could teach you to dance in a million years. Take my advice and save your money!"  Her boss, played by the always entertaining Eric Blore, hears this and fires her. Fred grabs Ginger and shows the boss what she has taught him, resulting in the dance above to the same song.

"Pick Yourself Up" by Dorothy Fields and Jerome Kern had a great "can do" message for Americans during the Depression and proved to be a big hit. So go out and conquer those weekend projects, the crowds at the shops, the pile of laundry, whatever you need to do. Just move. And remember to "pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again." 

23 October 2010

Visiting the Dead

The mausoleum where Olive Thomas is interred.

So how did I spend a lovely Saturday? Rambling around a cemetery of course. Specifically Woodlawn Cemetery. I have been meaning to visit the place for some time but the anniversary this week of silent screen star Olive Thomas’ birth prompted me to trek up to the Bronx and bring her some flowers.

Two of the many memorials found on the grounds. I wondered about the anchor held by Jane 
and sighed at the little broken girl whose lonely leg remains on the headstone.

Woodlawn Cemetery was founded in 1863 and its 400 acres are home to many famous New Yorkers. From Duke Ellington and Miles Davis to Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Cady Stanton to the founders of Macy’s, JC Penny’s, and Woolworths, Woodlawn seems to have more stars than the sky (to steal from Louis B. Mayer). The grounds are covered with every type of memorial from simple stones to mausoleums that are larger than my flat. One of the more memorable epitaphs to be found is the one for George Spencer Millet, who died at the age of 15 on February 15, 1909—“lost life by stab in falling on ink eraser, evading six young women trying to give him birthday kisses in office Metropolitan Life Building.” Poor kid.

Olive Thomas

But I was there to visit Olive Thomas who had suffered an agonizing death from poison on September 10, 1920. Her funeral was held on September 29, 1920 at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in New York City and ended up being a bit of a circus. At the conclusion of the service, crowds surged toward the coffin that was draped with purple orchids and a spray of yellow and brown orchids from her grieving husband, Jack Pickford. The pallbearers—Owen Moore (Mary Pickford’s ex-husband who was in Paris when Olive died), Gene Buck, Thomas Meighan (who was the only witness at Olive and Jack’s wedding), Harrison Fisher, Myron Selznick, Harry Carrington, William Kelton, and Alan Crosland—had their hands full as general chaos broke out. The ushers, one of whom was Irving Berlin, tried to help but women ended up fainting and men had their hats crushed before the police arrived and brought order to the scene. Olive’s family followed the coffin out to the Bronx and Woodlawn. 

Jack chose a mausoleum that would fit two coffins and had the name Pickford engraved on the front. Olive was placed in the top position and the bottom was left for Jack. That spot is still empty. Jack, who died in 1933 in Paris (the same city as Olive), was buried in California with the rest of the Pickford clan.

Olive’s resting place is a bit of a walk from the main entrance of the cemetery, and I kept checking my map so I wouldn't miss the Wintergreen section. Suddenly, I looked up and saw the name Pickford peeping out from behind another mausoleum. I have to admit to feeling a bit of a jolt when I saw it. First off, it’s tiny (at least compared to the other mausoleums around it). And secondly, it just struck me as sad. Besides the Pickford name the structure contains no other writing and nothing mentions who lies within. 

I brought some pink roses (I wanted something violet or purple but none were to be found) and propped them against the door. I stayed for a while, sitting on the step and enjoying the solitude that only a cemetery can offer. And then, with one quick backward glance, I headed off for 233rd Street and the train to Manhattan. 

Dear readers, I promise that future entries on this blog will be about topics other than cemeteries but as it's October and Halloween is just around the corner you might have to indulge me for just a bit longer.

Photos of Woodlawn Cemetery by Michele.

20 October 2010

Footlights and Shadows

Today is the birthday of one of my favourite actresses, Olive Thomas. Dubbed the most beautiful girl in the world, Olive was a rising star of the silent screen whose life was tragically cut short at the age of 25.

The photo that started my obsession with Olive Thomas.

When I was a young girl, I lived in a town where many silent films had been made, including a major Mary Pickford feature. I loved Mary and silent films in general and would pour over old Hollywood bios and picture books (alas, in those pre-video days, the chance to see silent films was rare indeed). One day my father brought home a copy of Mary Pickford’s autobiography Sunshine and Shadow. In the book was a photo of a girl with a haunting gaze—Olive Thomas. That image stayed with me for years as did the story Mary told of Olive and her tragic life. Years later, I began to dig up as much information as I could about her.

Olive in the Follies.

She was born Olivia R. Duffy on October 20, 1894 in Charleroi, Pennsylvania. Poverty and the early death of her father made life hard, and Olive married Bernard Krug Thomas at the young age of 16. A few years later she escaped her husband and fled to New York City. In 1914, while working in a Harlem department store, she entered a newspaper contest looking for the most beautiful girl in New York City and won. Olive’s violet blue eyes and luxurious golden brown locks combined with her voluptuous figure made her a favourite with artists, and she modeled for the likes of Howard Chandler Christy and Harrison Fisher. Olive caught the eye of impresario Flo Ziegfeld and was soon appearing on stage at the New Amsterdam Theatre, doing double duty in the Ziegfeld Follies and the risqué Midnight Frolics. A year later, moving pictures beckoned.

Olive with Nigel Barrie in her first film, Beatrice Fairfax Episode Ten: Play Ball! 

Olive’s first screen appearance is a bit awkward. An actress learning how to deal with a new medium, she often seems self-conscious. Even so, it’s clear from the start that the camera loves her. Part of Olive’s appeal is how much her vitality and love of life seem to radiate from the screen. She is aware of her beauty but never seems to take it too seriously, as if she’s winking at the audience. As her later films attest, she became more confident as an actress, more at ease, and this allowed her to show off one of her strengths—comedy.

Olive playing it up as Ginger King in The Flapper.

She would go on to make 22 films in four years. She played a variety of roles, from girl next door to cat burglar to girl masquerading as a boy to a baby vamp. This last role, a new type of female character, led her to make film history when she starred in Alan Crosland’s The Flapper (1920), where she earned the distinction of playing the first flapper on screen.  Although bobbed hair and short skirts were to come later in the decade, Olive’s character, Ginger King, has all the makings of what we now associate with the flapper spirit. Ginger goes from innocent young girl dressed in white to wearing makeup and attempting to smoke while flirting with an older man. Looking for adventure, Ginger plays the role of the flapper to the hilt but in the end returns to being a “good girl.”

Olive’s personal life was a bit more complex than that of Ginger’s. In 1916, Olive fell in love with Jack Pickford, Mary’s baby brother. The two were crazy for each other and later eloped. The dazzling couple spent much of their marriage on separate coasts filming but when they were together there was much partying and fighting. They gave each other expensive gifts and took to drinking and wrecking cars. They were an early example of the jazz-age couple who would help define the 1920s.

Olive's beloved Jack Pickford.

In the fall of 1920, they set sail for Paris for a second honeymoon, a chance to start anew. During the day Olive was fitted for new costumes and at night the couple partied in some of the most popular nightspots in the city. But the fun turned into a nightmare on September 5 when the couple returned to their room at the Ritz at 3 am. Olive prepared what she thought was a sleeping potion but mistakenly drank a solution of bichloride of mercury instead. She was rushed to the hospital but after five days of pure agony, Olive’s star dimmed and she died on September 10.

A distraught Jack accompanied Olive’s body home and confessed later that he had contemplated suicide while on board ship. Her funeral was held on September 29 at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in New York City, where the crowds swelled and women fainted. Olive was interred at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx in a mausoleum with the name Pickford carved above the door. (Jack would never join Olive. He is buried with the other Pickfords in California).

Controversy has been attached to Olive’s name ever since as people debate whether her death was suicide or an accident (Paris police ruled it an accident). But to focus on her death alone takes away from the woman herself. At the time of her death, Olive was becoming a fine actress who had turned in many strong performances. On the brink of a new decade, who knows what influence she would have had on the roaring twenties. We can only speculate.

So today, on her birthday, let’s celebrate her life and remember the vivacious girl who lit up the screen with her smile and energy. Happy Birthday Olive.

To find out more about Olive Thomas, check out the documentary Olive Thomas: Everybody’s Sweetheart (the DVD comes with a restored version of The Flapper). Or visit the New Amsterdam Theatre in New York where Olive’s ghost is said to reside (that, my dear readers, is a story for another time).

14 October 2010

What Lies Beneath

This past weekend I got the chance to visit a site normally closed to the public, the New York City Marble Cemetery. It was opened for two days as part of Open House New York and boy was it up my alley.

I’ve always had a fondness for old cemeteries. The beauty of the tombstones, the stories that lie amongst the rows, the solitude, these things have always appealed to me. When I was a little girl I read a book in which the heroine lived next to an old cemetery and that became my wish (something which I still wouldn’t mind).

The New York City Marble Cemetery (not to be confused with the New York Marble Cemetery around the corner) was begun in 1831 and became home to many prominent deceased New Yorkers. One of the first people interred was President James Monroe, who passed away shortly after the cemetery was opened (his body was later moved to Virginia in 1858). Residents of the cemetery include three former New York City mayors, a Revolutionary war hero, and the founder of Roosevelt Hospital.

During Open House, the cemetery appeared more like a small park; neighbors sat in plastic chairs scattered across the grounds while dogs ran around chasing balls. Unlike most cemeteries, there are no rows of headstones, just a few monuments and grave markers. But look down, and you will discover that the grass is peppered with marble slabs that mark the location of the underground vaults. The slabs are worn and sunken and many are hard to read but they still stand as a testament to an earlier time in New York history.

The New York City Cemetery is only opened a few days a year so be sure to check their events page on their website for dates. It's worth a visit even if you have no dreams of living next to a cemetery.

UPDATE: A few days after my visit, a package of explosives was found in the cemetery and the bomb squad had to be called in. Crazy.

Photos by Michele.

04 October 2010

Kings of Pastry

Jacquy Pfeiffer and Sebastien Canonne in Kings of Pastry.

My search for some entertainment this weekend led me to Film Forum where my choices were Nuremberg (which I want to see but was too serious for the mood I was in), Wrong Trousers (which I love but have seen before), or Kings of Pastry. I chose Kings and was not disappointed. Who knew pastry could be so interesting?

The documentary by Chris Hegedus and DA Pennebaker follows sixteen French pastry chefs as they compete in the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France competition to be named best craftsmen in France or MOFs. The winners earn the privilege of wearing the coveted blue, white, and red striped collar, which is taken very seriously in France (as one of the chefs points out, "if you wear these collars and you're not a MOF you can go to jail."). Over three grueling days the finalists make dozens and dozens of pastries, from delicate cream puffs to elaborate sugar sculptures. The filmmakers focus on three of the competitors and you become so engrossed in their stories that when one has a setback, the entire audience gasped out loud.

The film plays at Film Forum through October 7. If you get a chance, please go see it. And be prepared when the film is over to make a beeline to your closest patisserie for some pastry.

01 October 2010

Recovering Nicely

The month of September flew by while I recovered from a nasty health scare, with my days spent visiting doctors, not going out, and having no cocktails (horrors). So this weekend, I am determined to venture out for a bit of entertainment, a bit of culture, anything that gets me out of my flat. There are some things I just do not have the energy for yet (MOMA on a Saturday, I'm talking about you) but I'll let you know dear readers what I find. In the meantime, I hope you all have a lovely weekend. And if you find yourself having a cocktail (which I hope you do), please have one for me.

Photo of Asta and Nick and Nora Charles from
The Thin Man.


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