H is for Holm

Three be the things I shall never attain:
Envy, content, and sufficient champagne.

Dorothy Parker

Eleanor Holm, gold medalist and world record holder in the backstroke, was a modern woman. Or a disgrace, take your pick.

She was the Ryan Lochte of her generation, guilty of conduct unbecoming to an American Olympian. Or she was the Megan Rapinoe of her day, unstinting in her sense of self and forthright in demanding the right to be treated fairly. However history judges Eleanor Holm, she was a hell of a gal.

Eleanor Holm, far left, with the team at 1932 Los Angeles before winning gold in the backstroke. Photo from Seattle Museum of History & Industry.

Oh, Is It Really Bedtime?

Holm was a teenaged swimming phenom of 14 when she placed fifth in the backstroke in the 1928 Amsterdam Games. She went on to earn a gold in the 100 meter backstroke in Los Angeles 1932 and, with world records in the 100 and 200 under her belt, she seemed poised for more gold in Berlin. She had not lost a race for seven years.

In July 1936, she boarded the ship crossing the Atlantic with her team and her husband, bandleader Art Jarrett. Already intrigued by what they used to call “show business,” Holm sang with Jarrett’s band (in a skimpy bathing suit) and acted in tiny parts in early Warner Brothers movies. She hung with the in crowd and was invited to parties with Helen Hayes and other A-list celebs.

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Extraordinary Woman, Extraordinary Times

Here’s a great story to brighten your day and bend your attention away from That Other Thing that’s on our minds.

Suppose you were Michael Jordan or Tom Brady, the greatest player of a sport in your generation, in the middle of your statistics-blowing career, on your way to winning the Nth of your many championships–and you just decided to take a few years off to help the world? Nuts? Unheard of? No one would do that?

Maya Moore did it.

Maya Moore, as a freshman, in the Boston Globe, photo by Bob Child.

What Makes a Legend

In college, Maya Moore was such an annoying player!–for everyone who wasn’t a UConn fan. Even when she was a freshman, the Boston Globe was suggesting she could be “the best female player ever,” as she began to amass statistics and wipe out opponents. The coach was comparing her to Derek Jeter, and he wasn’t wrong. Moore was always where the ball was, on offense and defense, until opposing coaches would just throw up their hands. She helped lead Connecticut to two back-to-back national championships, a 90-game winning streak, and an overall record of 150-4 in her college career.

I was a fan of northern California teams that she beat and would cringe every time I heard her name. Which was every twenty seconds. When you watched her play, she seemed to be on another level from everybody else. Hold that thought.

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The Secrets of Mary Jane …Somebody

She was born Mary Richards, or Mary Jane Richards. Or Mary Elizabeth. She married and became Mary Bowser/Mrs. Wilson Bowser. Also Mrs. John T. Denman and/or Mary J.R. Gavin. Sometimes she used the name Mary Jane Henry or Richmonia Richards. Maybe Ellen Bond, although that has been disputed. Maybe this is her photograph, although that has been disputed.

Grainy photo Mary Bowser
Mary Bowser, but which one? Photo from Wikipedia and Pinterest.

If you were an educated black servant in the slave-owning state of Virginia in 1861, little would be known about you. Your words would not have been written down and what was written about you by others, even the wealthy abolitionist friend whose family you served, would be filtered through their lenses. Scraps of information remembered later by family members who were children when they saw you would come to be taken as fact, whether true or not. Grainy photos replicated might be mislabelled, speculations treated as accurate, oral embellishments become history. All truth would be distorted, like seeing through a glass darkly. This would be especially true if you were a Union spy in the Confederate White House.

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Beautification and Karma (Day 3: Left Coast Mosey)

Tree in Lady Bird Johnson Grove
A 1000 year old tree in Lady Bird Johnson Grove, photo by kajmeister.

In today’s post, I will explain how trees do not grow like beanstalks, why Lady Bird Johnson was a badass, and how I tried to increase the world’s karma.

Trees Are Not Stars

I was about to begin explaining how ancient these coastal redwoods are by saying that when you look up at the lowest branch, some 190 feet off the ground, you are looking back in time. Looking up the details on the growth rate,* I came across a discussion about what would happen if you carved your initials in a trunk and came back ten years later. How high up would that move, and does it depend on whether the tree is an oak, an aspen, or a redwood?

In cartoons, e.g. Jack and the Beanstalk, the plant always pushes out of the ground and then up. However, trees grow more like telescopes than beanstalks. They put out buds, twig, then branch, and the initial bud then buds on top of itself again. The trunk portion on the ground gets thicker; it doesn’t move upward. Your carved initials stay at ground level. This changed my understanding of trees. But then, trees are mysterious.

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The Hottest Ticket in Town

The Divine Sarah Bernhardt playing Cleopatra, the original transformational theater experience

Transformational! G.O.A.T. (Greatest of All Time)! You’ve never experienced anything like it!

Gobblyedook? Hyperbole? No, as you might guess, these were some of the Facebook comments about Hamilton, which we enjoyed seeing in San Francisco last week, despite the exaggeration and hoopla surrounding its existence. This is not a review of the show, about which you most likely already have an opinion, but it got me to thinking about the other It Performances and Artistic Experiences that also left long shadows from say fifty, a hundred, or even longer ago.

Contrary to some recently held beliefs, Hamilton is not the only theater experience that has ever been deemed life-changing. It was only about fifty years ago that musicals themselves were transformed by the introduction of contemporary music, young people, and irreverent ideas, in the first true rock musical, Hair. A century ago, there was a single person–and her rival–who changed all of theater. Still further back, there was a guy who changed how people wrote, what people read, and even how people think about Christmas. There are all sorts of ways to influence the arts.

When the Moon is in the Seventh House…

The musical Hair premiered off-Broadway in 1967, before moving to Broadway for a very popular, if critically tepid, run. When it migrated to London’s West End in 1968, the start was delayed until changes were made to the Theatres Act in order to allow for the nudity and profanity. Then, it ran in London for nearly 2000 performances.

Written by James Rado and Gerome Ragni, who also appeared in the show, the musical explored the controversial themes that exploded across headlines the late Sixties: the youth counterculture, opposition to the war, air pollution, racism, free love, and bureaucratic oppression. The songs are joyous and sarcastic, hummable tunes of subversion. We had the album at home when I was nine, and I loved it. Of course, there was no place to actually look up the words to the lyrics, so imagine my dismay at 23, when I finally realized some of the words I was singing in the tune “Sodomyyyyyy…..”

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