Thursday, March 17, 2005

Nobody Asked Me, But . . . (3/17/05)


Poor little rich girl. During the early part of the 20th century, Jane Burr was one of the interesting personalities in Croton's artistic and literary Bohemia. Although she wrote ten books published between 1909 and 1945, much of what we know about her can only be found in the works of others. Novelist Floyd Dell recalled an invitation in 1918 to visit her in Croton, describing her as "a writer with a very forceful personality," as she ably demonstrated. Her 1916 book of poems, City Dust, had gone through several printings. Another slim volume of poems, I Build My House, had just appeared, as had her self-published 1918 novel, The Glorious Hope.

The name Jane Burr was actually a pen name. She was born Rosalind Guggenheim, daughter of Leopold Guggenheim, and a member of a family famous for its wealth. Later she would inherit one-third of Leopold's fortune. Her short-lived marriage in St. Louis to a fellow named Jack Punch soon ended in divorce. She next married Horatio Gates Winslow, editor of The Masses from May to December 1911, when Max Eastman took over.

Jane Burr ran a sort of bed-and-breakfast in what was once the Post Road Inn, a stagecoach stop on the Albany Post Road operated for many years by the McCord family. [Traces of its foundation is still visible opposite the former Holy Name of Mary School.] She called it the Drowsy Saint Inn. Dell described it as "a place with pleasant rooms furnished in colonial style, where writers roomed in the summer, and with a restaurant decorated in the Greenwich Village fashion with gay colors. It was not open in the winter, but Jane Burr lived there, and asked occasional guests out to visit her."

Dell arrived in Croton with a young woman he had met in Greenwich Village. She was from California and her name was B. Marie Gates. Unhappy with Berta, her first name, she had shortened it to an initial. She was "golden-haired and blue-eyed," and reminded him of a girl in Frank Norris's novel, The Octopus, which Dell had devoured as a youth: "a sturdy, earth-strong girl, with hair as yellow as the ripe wheat." It was love at first sight. By their third meeting, he proposed marriage. After encountering roadblocks invented by the City Clerk at New York's Municipal Building, they took a ferry to Jersey City, only to be stymied by residency requirements.

"We want to get married," they told Jane Burr on their arrival, "and we want you to help us." She was shocked; as a feminist she was opposed to marriage in principle, but agreed to assist them. Demonstrating her "forceful personality," she phoned the town clerk in Peekskill only to find his office closed. Undaunted, she pried the information from the telephone operator that the town council was meeting that evening, and the clerk would be there. She arranged over the phone for him to issue a marriage license. That evening, the happy couple picked up their license in Peekskill and hurried back to Croton to wait for Judge Frank Decker to marry them at his home. He operated a candy store and ice cream parlor on North Riverside Avenue.

Dell begged B. Marie not to make any feminist objections to anything she was asked to promise, but to say yes to whatever he asked. They told the judge that they wanted a simple ceremony. In his judge's handbook he found one in which they took each other as husband and wife. After the ceremony, at which Jane Burr was a witness, Judge Decker asked B. Marie if she wanted a marriage certificate. She shook her head. "Lots of people don't, nowadays," he remarked, almost wistfully. Then it was back to the Drowsy Saint and their wedding supper. For the occasion, Jane Burr resourcefully wangled a cake intended to be part of a neighbor's Sunday dinner.

Why not Toyota? There are 353 five-year-old children in the U.S. named Lexus.

Social insecurity. President Bush prefers to call them "personal accounts" rather than "private accounts." Regardless of what this scheme is called, my Social Security benefits would not be affected. I am nevertheless made uncomfortable by his proposal. Ask any investor who suffered losses when the bubble burst. As Von Neumann and Morgenstern showed in their classic Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, the stock market is a zero-sum game not unlike poker, in which one player's gain must be matched by another player's loss? And how about the spate of recent scandals that revealed Wall Street to be more like a rigged casino, with crooked financial advisers touting Enron, Tyco, HealthSouth, Adelphia, WorldCom, whose lavishly living executives are now in the dock?

Moreover, the Bush plan assumes that prices of securities will always go in one direction--up. Savvy traders know that what goes up also comes down, often with a thump. As for the risky aspect of the market, consider the crash that began in 1929 and spawned a worldwide depression: From September 3 of that year, when the Dow-Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) peaked, to July 8, 1932, it lost 89.2 percent of its value. The DJIA did not return to its 1929 high number until 1955--26 years later. Eight other disastrous crashes occurred in the period between 1907 and 2002, losing an average of 44.2% and lasting an average of 704 days. On October 19, 1987, known as "Black Monday, the DJIA lost 22.6%--the largest one-day loss in its 109-year history.

Hanging judges If you ever should be arrested in Russia, don't ask for a non-jury trial. A whopping 99% of them end in conviction.

What's with U.S. automakers? Ford recently recalled nearly 359,000 Focus models because of faulty rear-door latches. If not latched properly, the door may open while the car is in motion. Ford had another embarrassment in January, when 792,000 pickup trucks, SUVs and minivans were recalled because of the risk of fire as a result of overheating of their cruise control switches. Ford's recent announcement came on the heels with word from Chrysler that it was recalling about 26,000 of its Dodge Durango SUVs because of potential fuel leaks from the filler necks of their gas tanks. In December, Chrysler had announced the recall of about 600,000 Dodge Durango SUVs and pickup trucks from the 2000 to 2003 model years because of a defect that might cause their wheels to fall off, the carmaker reported. Wheels falling off? You can't make this stuff up.

Cold statistics. Despite the publicity cryonic preservation has received, the frozen bodies of only 135 persons are in the two full-service U.S. facilities.



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Thursday, March 10, 2005

Nobody Asked Me, But . . . (3/10/05)


Two of a kind. Franklin D. Roosevelt State Park off the Taconic isn't the only park so named. There's a Franklin D. Roosevelt State Park in Georgia to the west of the so-called "Little White House" at Warm Springs, where FDR died in 1945.

The persistence of memory. It may be hard to believe, but during the Depression, admission to movie was a dime and some seats at Broadway theatrical shows could be had for well under a dollar. My mother loved the theater, especially topical revues and musical comedies. I can recall the stack of Playbills, the free programs distributed at shows, standing about three feet tall in a hall closet. She introduced me to Saturday matinees at an early age. Revues were a staple at the time. Often intimate and bawdy, they were little more than a series of sketches linked by musical numbers, and featuring many performers who had honed their show business skills in vaudeville and burlesque.

At Christmastime in 1932, I was treated to a performance of Walk a Little Faster, followed by a dinner at Sardi's. The show featured British comedienne Bea Lillie. Evelyn Hoey was a singer who had scored a big success in 50 Million Frenchmen, a pert little natural blonde with blue eyes; I fell in love with her immediately. Also featured was the comedy team of Clark and McCullough in their straw hats and raccoon coats. Bobby Clark favored horn-rimmed glasses and an omnipresent walking stick. The older Paul McCullough carried an umbrella and served as Clark's straight man and foil.

Several songs were featured in that revue, but one remains in my memory. Every time I hear it played, a flood of images comes rushing back across the years. I am once again in the balcony of the St. James Theatre on West 44th Street. (Today's theatergoers will recognize that theater as the home of Mel Brooks' The Producers.) Evelyn Hoey is singing Vernon Duke's "April in Paris." The lyrics were by E.Y. "Yip" Harburg. Curiously, it attracted very little attention until society chanteuse Marian Chase recorded it later for the Liberty label. The show was the last time Evelyn Hoey played Broadway. For reasons I shall explain, I can never hear "April in Paris" without feeling sad--but not only about my beloved Paris.

I saw Clark and McCullough again in 1934, also at Christmas in another revue, Thumbs Up. It marked the last time they would appear together on Broadway. The show was made memorable by one song, "Autumn in New York," by Vernon Duke, which served as the finale. Like "April in Paris," it attracted little attention, until Louella Hogan recorded it.

On Sept. 11, 1935, a shot rang out in the home of Henry Huddleston Rogers III near West Chester, Penna. Rogers, 31, was the grandson of one of the founders of the Standard Oil Company. According to witnesses, he and singer Evelyn Hoey had been drinking, and apparently had quarreled. A gun was found next to her body, a heavy .45 caliber pistol with a 12-inch barrel. The coroner's jury could not agree, and rendered the verdict that she had been shot by "a person or persons unknown." Her tearful father took her body back to St. Louis.

As a friend was driving Paul McCullough home on March 23, 1936, the comedian remarked that he needed a shave. They stopped at a barber shop in Medford, Mass. While the friend waited outside in the car, McCullough entered the shop, sat down and chatted with the barber as he lathered his face. Moments later he grabbed a straight razor and slashed his own throat. He had just spent a month in a sanitarium being treated for a nervous condition.

As I said, I cannot hear "April in Paris" without feeling intensely sad.

Bottom dwellers. The statistic that 50 percent of commercial lobstermen have gone out of business sounds like good news for lobsters. It isn't. The reason: reduced catches because a shell disease affecting lobsters. First noticed in the 1980s, it strikes lobsters from Long Island Sound all the way to Maine. Lobsters become so unsightly they cannot be served whole. The disease also weakens lobsters that they die prematurely. And it isn't good news for humans, either.

Scientists have found that lobsters tested in localities such as Long Island Sound are contaminated with potentially harmful alkyphenols, also called APEs. These chemicals--antioxidants used in making plastic and rubber polymer products--apparently come from factories producing insecticides and rubber tires. The European community began a voluntary ban on APEs in 1995, but their use has not been prohibited in the U.S.

Paper chase. Americans are outdoing themselves in paper recycling, now at an all-time high--300 pounds of recycled paper per person annually. That's about half of the paper produced each year in the U.S. But American papermakers are worried about overseas demand. Because of its own shortage of wood pulp and a growing need for cartons in which to ship its exports, last year China gobbled up 12 percent of the 50 million tons of scrap paper America recycles each year. China has been so ruthlessly deforested it produces only a small quantity of paper pulp, and demand for scrap paper has skyrocketed. Much of our scrap paper winds up north of Hong Kong in the massive new Nine Dragons recycled-paper mill at Dongguan, China, the largest in the world. Other countries--India, Indonesia, Japan and South Korea--are also big buyers of our scrap paper.

In terms of volume, scrap paper is now America's No. 1 export. American exports of scrap paper totaled $8.4 billion in 2004. Five years earlier the total value was half that number. Curbside collection of scrap paper is up thanks in part to the practice of charging for garbage collection in some communities but not for recycled materials. Strong foreign demand helps to keep supplies flowing, but environmentalists worry that prices, which range from $80 to $120 a ton, will soon make American mills unable to compete.


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