Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Demeaning of Memorial Day


      This year Memorial Day will be celebrated on Monday, May 27. With its roots deep in the Civil War, for more than a century this solemn holiday was traditionally observed on May 30. Ever since 1971, however, in a concession to expediency and a rebuke to tradition, Congress shifted Memorial Day to the last Monday in May. Thanks to the Uniform Holidays Act, the holiday can now fall on any of the eight days between May 24 and May 31.

      On this coming Monday, May 27 at Arlington National Cemetery, President Obama will attend ceremonies to remember and honor the dead. Marking Memorial Day at the Fredericksburg National Cemetery in Virginia, on the evening of Saturday, May 25, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts will light candles (called "luminaria") placed at each of the more than 15,300 graves of mostly unidentified Civil War soldiers. Similarly, the 3,553 graves at the Fredericksburg Confederate Cemetery will be illuminated.
      Its origins virtually forgotten, for many Americans Memorial Day is no longer a day of remembrance. Instead, it’s just another three-day weekend holiday--an occasion for barbecues, picnics and shopping mall sales. Regrettably, the number of communities that celebrate the holiday in the old-fashioned way with colorful parades grows smaller each year, especially among cities and larger communities. Manhattan’s time-honored parade up Fifth Avenue and the Bronx parade on the Grand Concourse are no more, although the Brooklyn and Little Neck-Douglaston communities still host sizable parades on Long Island.
      In Westchester, the parade tradition is also still strong. Parades were held last year in Ardsley, Bedford Hills,  Bronxville, Dobbs Ferry, Eastchester, Elmsford, Harrison, Irvington, Mount Kisco, New Castle, New Rochelle, Pelham, Pleasantville, Scarsdale, Tarrytown, White Plains, and the Crestwood and Ferncliff Manor sections of Yonkers.

Lest We Forget

      Some 620,000 soldiers died in the Civil War, 60 percent of them on the Union side and 40 percent on the Confederate side, making it the bloodiest event in U.S. history, and exceeding by more than 50 percent the military deaths in World War II.
      Until the Korean War, the death toll of the Civil War nearly equaled the total number killed in all previous U.S. wars. If the same percentage of Americans had died in the Vietnam War as died in the Civil War, four million names would be on the somber black wall of Vietnam Memorial in Washington.
      By the Civil War’s end, hardly an American family had not been touched by its appalling death toll. About 6 percent of white males of military age in the North and about 18 percent of their southern counterparts died in the war. Virulent infectious diseases--typhoid fever, dysentery and pneumonia--killed more than twice the number of battle deaths.
      Death on such a grand scale cried out for meaning and emotional justification. Well before the Civil War ended, women on both sides had begun rituals of remembrance with processions to local cemeteries to decorate the graves of Civil War veterans. Thus was born the national holiday of Decoration Day that would later be called Memorial Day.
In 1866, veterans who had served in the Union Army formed an organization called the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). The following year, Gen. John A. "Black Jack" Logan was elected its national commander.
      With a membership approaching a half-million, for many years to come the GAR would be a major national political force. Its final encampment was held on August 31, 1949, with six of the 19 living Union Army veterans in attendance. The GAR disbanded in 1956, after the death of Albert Woolson, the last surviving veteran, at age 107.
      On May 5, 1868, General Logan proclaimed Decoration Day as a holiday and set the first official observance for May 30,  closing his General Oder No. 11  to the GAR  "with the hope that it will be kept up from year to year." Celebrated for the first time on May 30 of 1868, the date was chosen because it was not the anniversary of a specific battle.
      Some two dozen communities have since claimed to be the birthplace of the holiday. Evidence also supports the claim that Southern women were decorating graves of their war dead even before the end of hostilities.

How the Holiday Began

      On April 25, 1866, in Columbus, Mississippi, a group of women visited a cemetery to place flowers on the grave of Confederate soldiers killed at the battle of Shiloh. Nearby were the graves of Union soldiers. Concerned over the bare gravesites, the women also placed flowers on their graves.
      Additional claimants include Macon and Columbus in Georgia, and Carbondale, Illinois, where a stone in the cemetery claims that the first Decoration Day ceremony took place there on April 29, 1866. Carbondale was the wartime home of General Logan.
      In 1966, after much research, the Erie Canal village of Waterloo, N.Y., was proclaimed the birthplace of Decoration Day. Supporters of its claim assert that earlier observances at other locations were either informal, not community-wide or were one-time events.
      On May 26, 1966, just in time for that year's celebration, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a presidential proclamation recognizing Waterloo as the birthplace of the holiday.
      In the summer of 1865, Henry C. Welles, a Waterloo druggist, suggested that the Civil War dead in local cemeteries should be remembered by placing flowers on their graves. Nothing came of this until the following spring, when he brought his idea to Seneca County clerk and former Civil War general John B. Murray.
      Waterloo's flags were lowered to half-staff, and draped with evergreen sprays and black mourning ribbons on May 5, 1866. Local civic societies and residents marched to the village's three cemeteries, where ceremonies were held and the graves were decorated. In 1868, Waterloo joined other communities in holding their Decoration Day observance on May 30, as the GAR's General Logan had urged.
      Despite New York’s claim, the tiny central-Pennsylvania hamlet of Boalsburg insists the custom of honoring Civil War dead began there in 1864, while the Civil War still raged. On a pleasant October Sunday that year, a teenage girl named Emma Hunter brought flowers to the Zion Lutheran Church cemetery to place on the grave of her father, a surgeon in the Union Army.
      Nearby, Elizabeth Meyer was placing flowers on the grave of her son, Pvt. Amos Meyer, who had died on the final day of battle at Gettysburg. Emma put a few of her flowers on Amos’s grave. In turn, Mrs. Meyer placed some of her flowers on Dr. Hunter’s grave.      
      United by loss, the two women agreed to meet the next year on the Fourth of July to repeat the ceremony and also to place flowers on undecorated graves. On that date, they were joined by other residents. Dr. George Hall, a local clergyman, offered a prayer, and every grave in the cemetery was decorated with flags and flowers. The custom became an annual event, soon copied by neighboring communities.
.     In the beginning, the South refused to recognize the May 30 federal holiday, and honored Confederate dead on other dates, including the birthdays of Gen. Robert E. Lee, January 29, and Confederate President Jefferson Davis, June 3. Michigan made Decoration Day an official state holiday in 1871. By 1890, every other northern state had done the same.

The Holiday Today

      Memorial Day, the alternative name of the holiday, was first used in 1882, but did not displace Decoration Day until after World War II. It became the official name of the holiday in 1967.
      The following year, Congress made wholesale changes in four holidays to take effect at the federal level in 1971. In addition to shifting Memorial Day from May 30 to the last Monday in May, Washington's Birthday was moved from February 22 to the third Monday in February (and celebrated as Presidents Day), and Columbus Day was changed from October 12 to the second Monday in October.
      Formerly called Armistice Day, Veterans Day was also shifted from November 11 (the date hostilities of World War I ended in 1918) to the fourth Monday of October. Congress moved this holiday back to November 11 in 1978 because too many other nations continued to celebrate the original date.
      The late Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), a Medal of Honor recipient who lost an arm fighting in Italy during World War II, introduced a bill in the Senate in 1999 to restore the Memorial Day holiday to its original date, May 30. His bill and subsequent bills introduced by him at each session of Congress until his death in 2012 were allowed to die in committee.

      Sadly, Memorial Day in America is now a shadow of its former self.

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Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Mysterious Death of Actress Florence Deshon, 1


      "All great love affairs end in tragedy."
So wrote Ernest Hemingway, a 19-year-old volunteer ambulance driver wounded in Italy and recuperating at a Red Cross hospital in Milan in 1918. The young Hemingway fell in love with Agnes von Kurowsky, an American nurse seven years his senior.
Although she was passionately in love with him and they had planned to marry, Agnes later wrote to end their relationship. To assuage the hurt, Hemingway fictionalized the affair in his 1929 novel A Farewell to Arms, in which Catherine Barkley, the beautiful young nurse, dies.
A similar tragic love affair was played out on Croton's Mt. Airy. One of the lovers was revolutionary editor and lecturer Max Eastman, whose political odyssey from radical to conservative was recounted recently in these pages. The other was Florence Deshon, a young stage and screen actress of breathtaking beauty, considered by many to be the most alluring woman in America.
Their story would make a great screenplay and film. It would open on a hot summer day in New York City in 1916. America has not yet been drawn into the fierce war being waged in Europe. Eastman, separated from his wife, was heading down Madison Avenue. At 34th Street he spied a dark-eyed young woman walking under a gaily painted Japanese parasol.
In Max's own words, "She was by far the most beautiful thing I had ever seen." Impetuously, he turned and walked beside her on 34th Street, attempting to start a conversation.  She quickened her pace and kept her eyes down. A rebuffed Max dropped back, regretting the lost opportunity.
Cut now to Tammany Hall, the local Democratic Party’s headquarters, on East 14th Street, a large brick building built in 1830. The graft-ridden Tammany Society retained only one room for itself and rented out the rest as a theater and ballroom, where Max and Florence will meet.
The date is December 15, 1916. The occasion is the extravaganza known as the Masses Ball, modeled after the Beaux Arts Ball, the scandalous saturnalia inParis. Held annually to raise money for the radical magazine edited by Max Eastman, the Masses Ball has become a Greenwich Village institution popular with gawkers from uptown.
Admission is one dollar for those in costume and two dollars for those without. One account described it as “a procession of sheiks, cave-women, circus dancers, and the like, frequently showing for the times, generous amounts of flesh. For reasons of economy as well as titillation, hula skirts, ballet costumes, and ragged beggars’ garments were favored.”
John Fox, Jr., author of the bestselling 1908 novel The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, and a donor of $1,000 to The Masses, is among the attendees at the 1916 Masses Ball. He is accompanied by Florence Deshon, recently acclaimed by critics for her performance in the film Jaffery. The title role was played by imposingly tall British actor C. Aubrey Smith, who would be remembered for a succession of parts as stiff-upper-lipped British generals, businessmen and government officials.
Florence is "at liberty,” having just played on Broadway in the drama Seven Chances. Also in this play were two actors, Frank Craven and Otto Kruger, who would both have long careers on Broadway and in Hollywood. Opening in George M. Cohan's Theatre on August 8, 1916, it moved to the Belasco Theatre, playing a total of 151 performances before closing in December.
Florence Deshon was no stranger to Broadway. Three years earlier, she had scored a hit singing and dancing in The Sunshine Girl, a musical comedy starring dancers Vernon and Irene Castle and actress Julia Sanderson. It opened at the Knickerbocker Theatre on February 3, 1913, and closed on September 30, after a respectable run of 181 performances.

File:Broadway theatres 1920.jpg 
Looking north up Broadway at 38th Street. The Knickerbocker Theatre is on 
 the far right. The buildings on the left are the old Metropolitan Opera and 
the New York Times tower.

Born Florence Danks on July 19, 1893, in Tacoma, Washington, she took the stage name Deshon. With the emphasis on the last syllable, she thought it sounded French. When her British father, a Linotype operator, deserted the family, Florence quit high school to support her Hungarian mother, Caroline. 
Max Eastman immediately spotted Florence and invited her to dance with him. "Her incomparable colors and precisely carved features," as Max later described them, had made it easy for her to become a model for advertising photographers. Max also detected "the merest suggestion of something wantonly sulky in her beauty."
Eastman later captured the excitement of their first meeting. He recalled: "We talked fervently as we danced, and our minds flowed together like two streams from the same source rejoining. She was 21, and in exactly that state of obstreperous revolt against artificial limitations which I had expressed in my junior and senior essays in college." 
“What do I care about a flag?” Florence told him, describing the day she had refused to rise for the national anthem. “I’m living in the world, not a country!” Max went to sleep later that night “believing that I had miraculously found what all young men forever vainly dream of, the girl who is at once ravishingly beautiful and admirable to what lies deepest in their minds and spirits.” 
She lived with her mother in a two-room apartment at 111 East 34th Street, not far from where Max had seen the young woman with the Japanese parasol months earlier. On their first date several days later, he took her to Mouquin's, a classic French restaurant under the 6th Avenue elevated, near 28th Street. The more Max talked with Florence, the deeper he fell in love with her.

Florence Deshon

During dinner she expressed her scorn for men's attitudes toward women. "You can't do any little thing to please your own taste in this town without starting a riot," she told him. "I once got a present of a little Japanese silk parasol. It was becoming to me, and I thought it would be fun to carry it. Do you know I never got any farther than Fifth Avenue? I had to turn back home, it caused such a commotion!"Max was thunderstruck. "This young, gay, theatrical creature, with her bold mind and beauty, her magnetism and her inimitable laughter," as he later depicted her, was the same young woman who had captivated him on that warm summer day. He told her about the house he owned in Croton, and she agreed to drive there with him in the dilapidated Model T Ford he had bought for such trips.

Max described how they made love in the Croton house, a former cider mill. "We slept side-by-side in the corner bed by the big moonlit window, a very tranquil tenderness filling our hearts." (The former Max Eastman house at the head of Mt. Airy Road was later enlarged by owners Dr. and Mrs. Daniel Salzberg with the addition of a second story.)

Meshing the lives and careers of two creative personalities was not easy. Max was traveling around the country speaking against war and for women’s suffrage.Florence was busy in Boston and Washington with the road company of a David Belasco production.

She and her mother moved to a small apartment on West 9th Street, off Fifth Avenue, in Greenwich Village. The few moments Max and Florence could share, they spent at Max's room at 12 East 8th Street or at the house in Croton.

Max was so taken by Florence's infectious laughter, he began writing a book, The Sense of Humor. Published in November of 1921, it bore the printed dedication, “To Florence Deshon.” Fifteen years later, in the first chapter of an expanded work titled The Enjoyment of Laughter, he would write, "It must suffice to say that I never in my life saw or heard anything more beautiful, more joy-conveying, than Florence when she laughed."

Their love affair continued, but Florence rebelled at the idea of marriage and its constraints. She was intensely proud, yet annoyingly careless about punctuality in appointments.

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Saturday, March 16, 2013

Florence Deshon, 2: Charlie Chaplin or Max?


      The love affair between Max Eastman and Florence Deshon would set the pattern for his later romances. 
Initially, he was completely head-over-heels in love. The time they spent together--stolen from two blossoming careers--was a storybook romance.
Max, an inveterate philanderer, wrote: "For the first time in my life I experienced no carnal or romantic yearning toward the shapely breasts and delicately upward curving calves of the summer-clad girls who would pass me on the street. Night and day I was absorbed in my greatest love. I was, in fact and to my amazement, monogamous. 
"Indeed I was so completely lifted into heaven by Florence's body and spirit, that I feared for my own terrestrial selfhood, for my ambitions. Together with this fear of losing myself, I began also to experience a fear of losing her. I thought I saw evidences that she was drifting away from me."

Movie stars sent "signed" photo cards like this to fans in the 1920s. This is Florence Deshon's card from the Billy Rose Theatre Collection at the New York Public Library.

Florence was kept busy early in 1918 making eight films at the Vitagraph Studios in the Midwood section of Brooklyn. Her career went into what Eastman described as "a dead calm” later that year.
In June, they moved into his Croton house for the summer, and she seemed to him almost like a wife. "The exhilaration and the tender joy of our days together," Max recorded, "our walks through the wakening wood, or over the hill roads to the great dam, and in the midst of those days the sudden thought, quickening my pulse, that the nights also were mine, made me believe in love in a way that I would once have called old-fashioned.
"The present was thrilling, the future was full of adventures for us both: 'Till death do us part,' if those words had been spoken, would not have been discordant during the early summer of 1918."
Despite these emotions, trouble was brewing in paradise.  Once while Max was busy writing in the Croton house, Florence began preparing lunch. At an impasse in the piece, he left his desk to walk on Mt. Airy Road and sort out his thoughts. When he returned a short time later, he found her standing in the doorway in a black rage. She had turned off the stove, leaving the food half-cooked.
"What do you think I am, a servant?" she snapped. "Do you think I came up here to cook for you while you stroll around the countryside?" The storm soon blew over, and the couple made peace.
As loose as his ties to Florence were, one morning in late August Max was seized by a wish to be free of commitment. For no apparent reason, he abruptly lost interest. The relationship that seemed so idyllic only a few weeks before, suddenly became confining. In 1912, the same feeling had come over him toward his wife, Ida Rauh, to whom he was still married.
Max kept up a semblance of romantic love, but Florence must have sensed the change in his feelings. In July of 1919, when a contract offer came from Samuel Goldwyn in California she quickly signed with him and began work on a new film in August. In September, Max joined her there.
The reunited lovers found an apartment in Hollywood, where Max could continue to work on his book on the sense of humor. Once they settled into it, Max called on Charlie Chaplin. Eastman and Chaplin had met the previous winter after Max had spoken in Seattle in support of striking shipyard workers. They became fast friends, finding their political attitudes and intellectual (and sexual) interests compatible.
Florence accompanied him on one of his visits to the Chaplin studio. Chaplin greeted them warmly. The trio soon became frequent companions, playing charades and other games at parties. Chaplin was obviously entranced by Florence's quick mind and radiant beauty.

Charlie Chaplin welcomes Max Eastman to Hollywood.

Max returned to New York by way of San Francisco, where he looked up a young woman whose poems he had published in The Liberator, the successor magazine to The Masses. They ended up going to bed together, but his conscience was only slightly troubled. After all, he and Florence had an agreement about mutual independence.
Florence’s letters to him told of her film work and began mentioning Chaplin frequently: "Charlie is always sweet to me," one letter said. "I dined with Charlie on Christmas Eve, and he gave me a Christmas present," another reported.
Chaplin would go to Florence's apartment following his work at the studio and spend the evening with her. Before long, he was spending the night, as well. Hollywood gossips began talking about the comedian's romance with Florence.
She made three films for Goldwyn: The Loves of Letty, Duds, and Dollars and Sense, and two (Dangerous Days and The Cup of Fury) for Eminent Authors Pictures, a company formed by Goldwyn with novelist Rex Beach and other authors. After completing the fifth film, Florence was kept idle by the studio. Finally, Goldwyn told her that he wanted to break her contract, offering a thousand dollars and a ticket back to New York.
Three studios immediately made offers at double her Goldwyn salary. After making a Western for Fox titled The Twins of Suffering Creek, she joyfully telegraphed Max that she had agreed to work for veteran director Maurice Tourneur for $350 a week "in a big part." The film was Deep Waters. She would be playing opposite the male lead, Jack Gilbert, who would later become better known as silent film idol John Gilbert.
In the meantime, back in New York Max was far from sexually abstinent. He had become captivated by Lisa Duncan, one of the six foster daughters of Irma Duncan, herself a pupil of Isadora. Irma Duncan had begun adoption proceedings to facilitate their entrance to the United States in 1914, but actual adoption never took place.
Instead of answering Florence's elated telegram with congratulations, Max sent her a letter declaring his love for Lisa. The cruelest blow was his account of watching her dance in Carnegie Hall: "I was entranced way beyond any thought by the perfection of her being."
In the summer of 1920, Florence reported to Max that she was not feeling well, and he convinced her to join him in Croton. She arrived on August 20, obviously unwell. He immediately made an appointment with his friend, Dr. Herman “Harry” Lorber, who treated most of Greenwich Village's artists and intellectuals.
"You came just in time," Lorber told him, after examining Florence. "Only an immediate operation can save her from a blood-poisoning that might be fatal. I wonder what kind of a doctor she had out there [in Los Angeles]."
Eastman did not seem to understand. Lorber made his diagnosis specific: "Florence has been pregnant for three months, and the fetus is dead. I don't know how long ago it died, but any delay might be fatal." Max realized that the child she was carrying had to have been fathered by Chaplin, whose predatory sexual appetite and habit of not taking precautions were well-known around Hollywood.
Florence underwent an operation that afternoon and spent the next days convalescing at the house in Croton. When she felt better, she took the train to New York to be with Chaplin, who had traveled east with her. This was a period when Florence--in Eastman's own words--"commuted between two lovers."
Neither Eastman or Chaplin exhibited any jealousy. "There was something royal in her nature that gave her the right to have things as she pleased," Max later wrote.

Chaplin came up to Croton and took a room for a few days at the Tumble Inn, a roadhouse on the Albany Post Road. (The Tumble Inn was demolished in 1974. The Skyview Nursing Home now occupies the site.)
Florence and Charlie spent many hours there and walked the roads of Croton together. She could not persuade him to accompany her to Max's Mt. Airy house, and he returned to the city.
When the time came for her to decide whether to go back to California with Chaplin, she chose to remain in Croton with Max.  Chaplin accompanied her to Grand Central Terminal, where they parted at the gate to the Croton train. "Don't mind these tears," he told her. "I'll be all right." 

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