Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Not to decide is to decide...or is it?

A lovely family friend has said, for as long as I can recall, that not to decide is to decide. To an extent he's right. By not choosing you are making a sort of choice, or at least allowing other forces, in some cases, to make your choice for you.

So here we are, less than a week out from the 136th running of the Kentucky Derby, and I guess I've decided not to decide. (For the record, The Viola Gopher Count in the wee hamlet of Viola, Minnesota, was first held in 1874, a year before the inaugural Kentucky Derby. The folks in Viola still hold the Gopher Count and are pretty proud that it predates the Derby by a year. Here's their website, I'll leave it up to my intrepid readers to learn how the "count" is accomplished.  (http://gophercount.com/)

Right...rodent census festivities aside, I don't have a Derby horse. Not in any sense. If you've stopped by here before you know that I've already bemoaned my lack of an equine favorite for the big day. This could be in part, at least, because I was so uninspired by Mine That Bird last season. The game little gelding just never did it for me. Having fallen in serious love with Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra, my affections and attentions were simply engaged elsewhere.

I've heard and read of many others having my same dilemma and all expressed it very well and with great humor. The fact is that when you are known to be "horsey" by others, they automatically assume you have a favorite for the Triple Crown season. This year those who have posed that question to me have been answered with a shrug and mumbled 'dunno. There is a furrowing of their brow, usually, incredulous that I--the girl with an opinion on everything under the sun, not to mention a ready argument as to why I'm right--didn't have a Derby horse to tout.

I'll say again that I prefer a dark bay or a dappled gray to the usual assortment of chestnuts. And there are some trainers I've come to respect more than others. Smarty Jones and Funny Cide grew on me, I'd be lying if I said they were my choices before their respective Derby wins. In the case of Funny Cide, I was a fan of Empire Maker who, ironically, would deny the little gelding the Triple Crown by defeating him on the wide, sweeping turns of Belmont Park. And obviously I don't have personal connections to any of the trainers, owners, breeders or jockeys, so my little biases and favorites are based on my gut and small tidbits I hear and read. Neither scientific nor fair, but there we are.

So where does this leave me? Well, I have a few horses I'm "in like" with, so I'll wait and see what happens. I have like for Jackson Bend, though I don't think he's likely the winner; I also have some like for Super Saver and Calvin Borel...they may have a shot; Devil May Care, a filly in the Derby is interesting...I'd be happy for a sistah to win. Paddy O'Prado is a lovely gray, but one report from earlier today suggested he didn't like the slop at all (and who could blame him?) so he may not run his best over a runny mess on Saturday either. So we're back at the beginning, aren't we?

Quite frankly, I'm more excited by some of the races on Friday, Kentucky Oaks day, and their entrants. Rachel Alexandra has been pointed toward the La Troienne and will have a rematch against Zardana who defeated the HotY a few weeks ago. And Unrivaled Belle is interesting, too, I'll be curious to see how she fares against little Z and Rachel.

All that said, I still love this time of year, the promise of a Triple Crown is alive and the possibilities for all of these talented three-year-olds are fun to ponder. And the good news? Just about anything can happen...hey, the Habs tied up the series with the Caps, that should allow for nearly boundless hope where horses are concerned. I refuse to listen to the trash-talkers and nay-sayers who seem to get a good deal of enjoyment out of tossing about the "not a chance" retorts when a horse's name is thrown into the ring. To be sure they know exponentially more about the odds and entrants than I ever will, but on any given day anything can happen...that's why they run the race. Go with your heart and bet on who you love...and if you can get a great price, so much the better. Just enjoy these wonderful weeks when we get to welcome--albeit temporarily--the rest of the country into the horse racing fold.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Hump day herty gerty...

I had a nice little adventure today that I'll write up later this week...but I wanted to post this trio of random found advertisements. All are from 1920s issues of the New Yorker. 

The first one should be self explanatory as to why it's interesting.


Love this little gem of an ad for it's by the by mention of Vuitton Trunks and Service. *sigh*

And finally, it's always nice to be reminded of just how far a little kindness can go. Whether it's toward a fellow human, a hard working horse or any creature--great or small. It's from a column the NYer did in those early days called Why Like New York. 

Here's to kindness writ large and small. 

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Just Folks

I'm always a little suspicious of politicians (or other robber barons, captains of  industry, titans, moguls) who blather on about how they are just regular ol' Americans. Despite all appearances to the contrary--let alone common sense--these larger than life and often charismatic figures continue to perpetuate the myth that they are just folks. These creatures will often speak with a certain put-on homespun folksiness to further ingratiate themselves with a portion of the populace who believes vehemently that individuals who have spent too much time book-learnin' are elitist and radical. 

For that segment of the public, their leaders should be someone they'd like to have a beer with; someone with whom they could enjoy a NASCAR race or discuss the good ol' days when women didn't get to vote (let alone work in high-level positions) and other folks knew their place. This crowd likes for things not to change--they'd like everything to just be like it was, or how they thought it was, at the very least.

The predatory just folks politicians have learned their talking points well and know just which hot-button words and ideologies to spew as a means of riling up their already idling mobs. Of course, the mobs don't make the critical thinking leap to the realization that their heroines (and heroes) travel to their little gatherings mostly by Lear Jet and are drinking bottled water with bendy-straws. There is no real consideration given to the fact that very few of these aw-shucks-gee-whizz types are what they seem; that they are, instead, engaging in a very old and very profitable bait-and-switch. 

Proving once again that nothing is really new under the sun, I came upon this wonderful tidbit as I was browsing old New Yorker issues today. The piece below is from the June 13, 1925 issue and was written by Ben Hecht. (If you click on it you can enlarge it for better reading.) It runs in the magazine, right next to a profile of William Jennings Bryan who would die only a few weeks later that year. It's a not too thinly veiled comment on Bryan that beautifully exposes the hypocrisy of the just folks breed of varmints.  

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Famous when Barnum was still wondering what peanuts were...

I'm sure it says rather a lot about me that so many of my references and off-hand thoughts come straight out of the movies, and today is no different. There's a great moment toward the end of Casablanca where Captain Renault (Claude Raines) asks where the missing letters of transit were hidden and Rick (Bogey) replies that they were in Sam's piano. Renault responds, "serves me right for not being musical."

My version of that line that is most applicable to my adventures earlier this afternoon would have to be "serves me right for not liking the circus." (As a quick aside, I realllllllly don't like the circus. Clowns in particular I find rather disturbing. I was however, a big fan of Carnivale on HBO and Water for Elephants is among my favorite books...go figure.)

Yesterday I mentioned that there were a few area cemeteries that have lingered on my "to stop" list but I never quite managed to visit. It was as beautiful a spring day as you can hope for in Connecticut, so I decided to check out the Milltown Rural Cemetery outside of Brewster, New York.
I travel this particular back road quite often and the Snow Monkey calls it my own personal Autobahn because it's a very windy rural road with many hills that can be a lot of fun if you know it well enough. Literally, I must have passed by this charming little cemetery a hundred times over the past few years and the one mausoleum that is most prominent always intrigued me. There are some equally prominent obelisks as well, but it is the colonnaded and pedimented mausoleum that I really stopped to have a closer look at.
One of the perks of being new(ish) to an area is that all your discoveries seem pretty exciting--well, that and I'm unusually easy to amuse--so Seth Benedict Howes was a fabulous revelation to me. It was Seth B. Howes whom I always meant to look up and see what he'd done or who he was to have merited such a monument. I'd gone as far as jotting his name down in my little Moleskine notebook and writing firmly, GOOGLE HIM.

None of it happened until today.

I parked my car off to the side of one of the small lanes that wind through the grounds and got out to walk around, working my way up to the Howes' mausoleum. Along the way I passed sections of Crosbys, and a few Barnums. I wasn't overly surprised at the Barnum headstones, after all P.T. Barnum is a native son of nearby Bethel, Connecticut. I don't know that they are relatives of the famous showman, but it should have given my intuition a little nudge toward what I would discover. (P.T. is buried in Bridgeport, Connecticut, at Mountain Grove Cemetery which he himself is said to have laid out.)

As I approached my objective, I stopped to look at the stately obelisk right next to it that also bore the name of Howes. On each side of the base are  lengthy and interesting tributes to members of the Howes family. One side begins with stating that those interred here (Seth B. Howes' parents, Daniel Howes and Ruhamah Reed Howes, among others) are the lineal descendants of Jeremiah Howes, "born on the high seas between England and America." The chiseled panel goes on to pay homage to their forbears and concludes with Until the day break and the shadows flee away.

I now knew who Seth Benedict Howes belonged to, and I knew from the two monuments that this was a prominent local family, but it wasn't until I got home and started to do a little digging that I got the answers to my growing list of questions.
Normal people (and better researchers than I) would have started right off with Google, but I went straight to the NYT. Someone with this kind of memorial was, once upon a time, a high profile somebody, and where better to find that than the Times?

My instinct was right on. Seth Benedict Howes was, in the words of an April 1932 NYT column, "a noted circus man, now dead, who had been famous when P. T. Barnum was still wondering what peanuts were." The column was occasioned by a monthly meeting of the Seth B. Howes Tent of the Circus Fans Association, better known (!) as the New York Chapter of the Circus Fans of America. The guests of honor at the luncheon, held at the Roosevelt Hotel in Manhattan, included Miss Wallenda, a high wire girl, and an ex-clown turned circus writer who recounted a circus visit by J.P. Morgan and President Grover Cleveland in 1892. 

See what I mean by it serving me right for never liking the circus? 

Looking through various sources like Circopedia.org or circushistory.org (who knew?) and the charming Southeast Museum in Brewster, it's pretty clear that Howes really was BIG in circus circles. Yet nothing about the solemn mausoleum of Seth B. Howes suggests his achievements in the world of circuses and entertainment. Born in August of 1815, Howes and his brother Nathan (buried near the aforementioned obelisk) ventured across the Alleghenies and then down to Mobile, Alabama in 1831. While in Mobile they managed to procure a lioness and her two cubs--said to be the first lion cubs exhibited in America. In the 1850s, after a trip to Paris where Howes met Monsieur Franconi, proprietor of a large hippodrome and they decided to start a similar enterprise in NYC. According to Howes' obituary in the May, 1901 NYT, their big show opened at a Roman type hippodrome in Manhattan in May of 1853 on the NW corner of 23rd street and 5th Avenue. Howes is also credited as having worked, along with his brother Nathan, with Hachalaia Bailey's elephant who was among the first elephants in the US. The legendary little person, Tom Thumb and the Siamese twins, Eng and Chang were also part of one of the Howes' tours. He became famous for the manageries he assembled and toured on both sides of the Atlantic.

There seems to be a little discrepancy about whether Howes or Barnum was bigger, etc. (Certainly Barnum was the better showman and is today much more broadly remembered, but Howes was no small character and was one of the wealthiest circus proprietors in the country.) One article notes that Howes managed a circus for Barnum from 1850 to 1853 and another notes the existence of the Howes & Mabie's Circus (in various incarnations as Mabie-Howes Olympic Circus, etc.) from 1841-1846. What is certain, though, is that Howes was a good business man. In addition to his circus tours, he amassed a large fortune in railroad stocks and land near Chicago. His family home, Stonehenge. and his later estate, Morningthorpe, are described as opulent, to say the least, by many sources. Howes retired to Putnam County, New York in 1870. I don't think it's an understatement to call Seth B. Howes the father of the American tented circus.

Seth lived to a ripe old age, 86 years, dying in 1901. His wife, Amy, who was an accomplished circus equestrienne, also lived to her mid 80s before dying in 1927. It is Seth B and Amy M Howes who are interred in the temple-like mausoleum that had called out to me every time I drove by the rural yard. 
Obviously, this is great local history in Putnam County, NY. To a transplant like me, though, it was a real discovery. I'd venture more than a few of my neighbors know all this, but to me it was all new and exciting...just as it was in October when I "found" the Bells at Kensico Cemetery. 

A couple of odd side notes seem in order for this circus impresario who was among other things a great rider--bareback, acrobatic, classical riding, you name it, he mastered it. Who could have expected to scratch the surface of a circus man and find a real horseman, too?

The surprises contained in Seth B Howes's will... (a pair of little known daughters from his first "relationship" and the true value of his estate...valued roughly at 1-1.5 million dollars in 1901, though the column states there was likely a good deal more in Chicago real estate that had yet to be valued. Also noted was his substantial donation to the Milltown Cemetery and his very explicit instructions for the maintenance of--and lack of intrusion to--his mausoleum.)

Finally, a 1978 tag-sale at Morningthorpe, the Howes estate near Brewster, New York, as reported by the NYT.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Cradle to Grave

I've said it before and I'll say it again...I do love a good cemetery or obituary. I like to think of obituaries as little tiny biographies, highlight reels of past accomplishments and interests. While I don't go to the obits section first like my old piano teacher, Mrs. Mackey did, every now and then I look through the printed obits in the NYT, London Times or Boston Globe. (For the record, Mrs. Mackey was the organist at church as well, so she had to know when she needed to reschedule a lesson because of a funeral gig.)

I found this recent obit in the Boston Globe to be of interest. Janice Snow lived to be nearly 100 and saw so many of the high and low points of the 20th century. She saw the world evolve in airline travel, mechanization, civil rights...the whole gamut of the last 100 years.

There are, I think, real little gems to be found in these overlooked columns of newspapers. Even if the remembrance is someone we knew slightly, often there is a surprise in the person's military experience or history...a tidbit we'd never have known if a thoughtful family member or journalist hadn't brought it to light. And as interesting as the celebrity obituaries are, I'm usually more intrigued with those regular people who have lived across the decades of the past 100 years--their experiences are almost always enlightening. Some were in dangerous and pivotal roles in our various wars, others worked tirelessly on domestic issues (read as raising a family and working hard.) There are the noted scientists, musicians and sports heroes who are largely forgotten, but renew our interest when we read over the highlights of their lives. 

And as for cemeteries, well, just call me a fan. I know, we'll all end up in one sooner or later, but the great monuments and small headstones alike fascinate me. I've had some wonderful times in the cemeteries of Paris, London, Boston and NY. I'd bet most people who are interested in architecture or sculpture are also drawn to some of the incredible works of art that can be found in cemeteries around the world. 

I made a wonderful trip to the Kensico cemetery last fall. Among the highlights there are the graves of Tommy Dorsey and Lou Gehrig...but it was some of the forgotten names, those with grand and interesting monuments that really caught my eye. Here's the blog entry...The Bells of Valhalla

Last winter, when I was in Montreal for all the Canadiens celebrations, we of course visited Notre-Dame-des-Neiges cemetery. It was a cold December day and there were snowflakes floating around us...it couldn't have been a more perfect afternoon. Like some of the great American cemeteries, this French-Canadian jewel is making the most of it's spectacular views and surrounds, welcoming visitors and mourners alike. Mount Auburn and Forest Hills are great that way as well sponsoring tours, art events and nature walks. The above photo was taken that afternoon in Montreal, as were the photos below. 
There are a few small (and some tiny) cemeteries that I've driven by for a couple of years now and just have to stop at some afternoon. One is a 19th century close to the Connecticut-NY border called the Milltown Cemetery. There are a couple of very large above ground mausoleums that are quite spectacular when viewed among the other very quiet stones. Two other 18th century burial grounds are on my more traveled routes and I'm hoping to explore them in the near future, so photos are sure to follow.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Summer of '78

I’m continually amused and surprised by the vast array of scents, experiences, and sights that can trigger a memory. Whether it’s the oily-carbony smell emanating from railroad tracks that flashes me to a London Underground moment or a fragrant whiff of lilacs that remind me of my maternal grandparent’s home along the Mississippi River in Wisconsin, I’m transported.

Monday as I was working on finishing up some paperwork and just generally picking up around the flat, I had a similar flash of memory. You see, I had As The World Turns on television in the background as I was doing things in the other room. For those of you who have better things to do during the day, ATWT is going off the air this fall, just as Guiding Light did last fall, so they are working up to this finale with a lot of flashbacks and guest cameos. Monday they happened to bring back Julianne Moore who enjoyed a good run in a meaty dual role on the soap before her big move to motion pictures. For the record, Meg Ryan also had her early days on ATWT as Betsy Stewart Andropolous.

While I’m a little sad to see the two soaps I’ve followed (sporadically and rarely, to be fair) go the way of all flesh, this isn’t a eulogy to either program. It’s instead a loving memory of my paternal grandmother, who was a great devotee of both shows.

In July of 1978, when I was but a wee young thing, my home was devastated by a flash flood. We were evacuated and I was taken out of my bed in the middle of the night, with our Calico cat, Mittens, and my Dutch rabbits and bundled off to my Grandma A’s house. For a child of tender years, it was a cross between and major nightmare and an adventure. I would find out the extent of damage to our home by accident—seeing it on the national evening news—as my parents had wisely not been explicit with me as to the level of loss and mess.  It quickly became clear that we’d be spending the summer living with Grandma A until our house could be repaired and made livable again.

While my parents sweated and swore through mud and summer heat and battled the red tape of HUD (FEMA’s unwieldy and mostly useless predecessor) and flood insurance issues, I spent a delightful summer with my grandmother.

Grandma A, the Galloping Grandma as a family friend called her, or even the Galavanting Grandma, was a wonderful companion. We’d go on bike rides around her circle and she’d take me with her when she went to the driving range to practice her golf shots. I still, to this day, play with many of her clubs. I have a few of my own modern clubs, but I love using her fairway woods and wooden driver.  The thwack of a wooden club is so much more aurally pleasing than the hollow ting of a Big Bertha type driver.

Now and then we’d go and get a donut at The Donut Hut and stop by to see how work was going at our house and to see if mom and dad needed anything. We'd listen to Herb Carneal doing the Twins games on WCCO radio in the car--sometimes accompanied by a Dairy Queen. And we’d talk, she’d take me to tennis lessons or to the swimming pool to meet my school friends…she put a lot of her life on hold to see to our needs that summer. She also put up with a kid, a cranky cat, and a few rabbits that she’d never planned on—some of those bunnies ended up with names like Slingshot Sam, so dubbed in honor of his projectile pooping abilities.

On the nights when I’d be anxious about an impending rainstorm (I was a little gun-shy when it came to heavy rain for a year or two post-flood) she’d sing to me—You Are My Sunshine or The Moon Shines Tonight on Pretty Red Wing—until I fell asleep. And if she didn’t sing, she’d recite the poems of Robert Service…The Shooting of Dan McGrew or The Cremation of Sam McGee.

And she liked her stories (both ATWT and Guiding Light—I assume she’d probably listened to them both on the radio and transitioned with them to television) and explained what she could to a young thing like I was. A lot of the drama was beyond me at that age, but I got the gist of it and we’d watch quietly together.

I didn’t realize it at the time, of course, but my grandmother slyly imparted a good deal of wisdom that summer. She’d been a bloomer-wearing girl basketball player back in the early teens and 20s. Her formative years were spent in Red Wing, Wabasha, and Lake City, Minnesota--river towns where swimming and boating were part of daily life. (Lake City, Minnesota, claims itself to be the birthplace of waterskiing.) As a teen herself my grandmother would swim across the Mississippi River at Lake Pepin. Those were the days of ferries between Minnesota and Wisconsin and excursion boats for young ladies and gentleman.

You’d be safe in saying that for most of her life, my Grandma A swam against the current. She liked to do things her way and she always felt more than equal to any man in any room. In her mind there was no reason a girl/woman couldn’t do anything a boy/man could do. I always envision her young self as a cross between Kate Hepburn and Jean Arthur…self assured, athletic, resilient, mouthy when need be, silly, and above all, someone with a huge heart. She was definitely an advocate of just get out there and do it. A good role model in so many ways for a young girl.

We never get enough time with the people we love…and I’d have less than a decade with my grandmother after that summer of 1978, but we packed a lot into those few years. I’ve a mental scrapbook packed to overflowing of moments shared with her.  I smile at the thought of her running into Jack Dempsey and Randolph Scott in the subways of the Mayo Clinic complex where she worked. I mentally wonder how she found the strength to divorce my grandfather as his political career was on the rise. She was a great storyteller with a quick wit and a sharp tongue at times, but she was fiercely loyal as an advocate and a remarkable woman.

As ATWT winds down and fades away, I’m sure I’ll occasionally think of my grandmother and that summer of 1978. I know she’d be watching this last season and she’d probably be surprised at some of the storylines that are featured, but she’d also enjoy seeing the old characters whom I expect she saw a little as old friends.

As she used to toast, in her best Irish brogue…”May you be in heaven and hour before the devil knows you’ve gone!”

Sláinte mhaith, Norma, and thanks for everything, always.

(from the collection of the MN Historical Society: Maiden Rock, Lake Pepin.

Photographer: Martin's Gallery 
Photograph Collection, Carte-de-visite ca. 1865 
Location no. MW1.1L r37 
Negative no. 55668)

Now the Moon shines tonight on pretty Red Wing,
the breeze is sighing, the night birds crying,
for a far'neath his star her brave is sleeping,
while Red Wing's weeping her heart away.”

Monday, April 5, 2010

GLORY and Regret

Every now and then I'll flick through the channels and happen upon some sort of little cinematic gem, most often on Turner Classic Movies. This morning while having my initial cup of coffee (yeah, it takes a whole coffee village some mornings to make things happen) I made the fortuitous decision to check TCM's schedule for the day. To my great surprise TCM was showing a horse related movie that I not only had never seen, I'd never even heard of it. That doesn't happen too often, so I refilled my cup and sat down to watch Glory, from 1956.

Let me say straight off that this is not great cinema we're talking about here...it was a comeback vehicle for then grown up nineteen-year-old Margaret O'Brien. Also in the cast were two great character actors, Charlotte Greenwood and Walter Brennan.

You know the basic story...there's a talented horse who is owned by a small breeder and at some point during the story said small breeder will have to sell (or run in a claiming race) the freakishly talented yearling or two year old before the horse has a chance to change all their lives by winning the Derby. There's also the requisite romance between the charming Margaret O'Brien and the son of a wealthy breeder down the road. Class differences ensue and boy and girl travel the rocky road to love and equine happiness. In the end, it is a rag-tag syndicate made up of farriers, grooms, and hot walkers who come up with the $1200 entry fee that enables Glory's, well, run to glory. (A small musical interlude to showcase Ms. O'Brien's vocal abilities is also included as is a wonderful scene with a mean girl who Ms. O'Brien dismisses with a riding crop!)

So many things were fun about this film, though. First, it's about a filly (named Glory, obviously) and the long and winding road to winning the 1955 Kentucky Derby. There are references to the amazing Regret as well as other historic horses and the filming was done on location at Keeneland, Churchill Downs, and Calumet Farms so there were bucolic long shots of horses running in the fields. Walter Brennan reprises the role he played so often with Gary Cooper in films...a little shady, a little down and out, but with odd wisdom that emanates from his big and generous heart. And then there's Charlotte Greenwood, who is a riot. In addition to being the owner/breeder of Glory, she's a dyed-in-the-wool Brooklyn Dodgers fan who listens to the games, reads their box scores in the papers and calls them "dem lovely bums." She dreams of leaving horses and Kentucky bluegrass behind for her beloved Brooklyn and a place near Ebbets Field. (Ya gotta love Hollywood.) Finally, there's the actual 1955 Kentucky Derby film. The filmmakers used footage of Swaps (with Willie Shoemaker up) vs Nashua (Eddie Arcaro up) as the race between Glory and a rival colt.

Needless to say, I enjoyed every hokey minute and I'd likely even buy the DVD or VHS tape of it to add to my equine film library, but it doesn't seem to be available on home video. So here's a little taste of the film...
Original 1956 trailer for Glory.

And because it's just too much fun to look back at great fillies...here's a nice little look back at the amazing Regret.