Monday, June 30, 2008

Peculiar Pierce Memorabilia

Doing a search of blogs at has turned up a few interesting Franklin Pierce related posts. First I learned that sells apparel such as T-shirts, bibs and onesies displaying the handsome visage of our 14th President. Next, I found a (mercifully) short-lived attempt at a Franklin Pierce comic strip. And finally, one blogger owns a piano from the Francestown (NH) Academy, where Franklin Pierce was a student. Whether he actually played the piano is unknown to me, but it makes for a nice Washington-slept-here type story.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Franklin Pierce Praised

New Hampshire man Elting E. Morison wrote a piece entitled "In Praise of Pierce" in the August/Sept. 1985 issue of American Heritage Magazine.

Franklin Pierce Dissed Again

On Feb. 6, 2007, US News and World Report posted an article on the ten worst Presidents in U.S. history. Franklin Pierce came in #4.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Big Peach

Fans of oversized food will want to travel down Highway 41 to the Bruceville, Indiana area to see the Big Peach. It stands outside a produce market, and bears an uncanny resemblance to the Trylon and Perisphere of the 1939 New York World's Fair. Well, OK, the tower is an obelisk and is only about 20 feet tall, while the Trylon was a three-sided spire about about 700 ft. tall. And, yes, the Trylon and Perisphere were the only structures on the World's Fair grounds painted pure white, while the obelisk and peach are shades of orange. But you have to admit that it's a weird example of serendipity that this picture I took of the peach a few years ago has a very similar perspective as the picture postcard of the Trylon and Perisphere I just found online.

Groucho Sings "Father's Day"

Thanks to a comment left by kt, here's a link to a studio version of Groucho singing "Father's Day." Till now, I had only heard the live version on the album An Evening With Groucho.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Lydia the Tattooed Lady Revealed

This post, along with many others about the Marx Brothers, also appears in its entirety at my other blog, The Marx Brothers.

Image courtesy of the Yip Harburg Foundation

A lot of landmark events occurred in 1939. The New York World's Fair opened. Hitler invaded Poland. The movie The Wizard of Oz premiered, and the Marx Brothers movie At the Circus was released. Harold Arlen and lyricist E.Y. "Yip" Harburg wrote songs for both the Wizard of Oz and At the Circus. Groucho's performance of "Lydia the Tattooed Lady" is a classic.

As I pointed out in an earlier post about the song Cuban Pete, the internet is littered with inaccuracies. The World Wide Web abounds in multiple copies of a mistaken transcription of Groucho's introduction to "Lydia." What shows up in this transcription is:

My life was wrapped around the circus.
Her name was Lydia.
I met her at the World's Fair in 1900,
marked down from 1940.
Ah, Lydia.
She was the most glorious creature under the sun.
Guiess. Dubarry. Garbo.
Rolled into one.

If you watch the above clip from the movie, you'll see that when Groucho lists the three beauties that were all rolled into Lydia, the first one sounds like it rhymes with "vice". According to Nick Markovich, administrator/archivist of the Yip Harburg foundation, this was Thaïs, an Athenian courtesan who allegedly convinced Alexander the Great to burn the palace of Persepolis. Jules Massanet wrote an opera called Thaïs. The Scottish soprano Mary Garden made her American premiere in the title role. The other two women were Madame du Barry, mistress of Louis XV, and famed actress Greta Garbo. Interestingly, Yip Harburg also wrote lyrics for a song ("Salome") which was sung by Virginia O'Brien in the 1943 movie Du Barry Was a Lady.

Mary Garden as Thaïs

Madame du Barry

Greta Garbo

The joke about the World's Fairs in Groucho's intro refers to the Expositon Universelle in Paris in 1900, and the New York World's Fair, 1939-1940.

Exposition Universelle, Paris 1900

New York World's Fair, 1939

There are many historical and topical references in the song itself:

Battle of Waterloo - Napolean's final defeat by the Duke of Wellington

Wreck of the Hesperus - a poem by Longfellow, based on events that occurred during a blizzard off the east coast of the United States in 1839. In the poem, a sea captain's daughter is tied to the mast of a ship to keep her from being washed overboard during a storm, but both she and her father die.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Kankakee - a town in Illinois

Paree - the one in France. You've heard of it--it's been in all the papers

Lisa Fonssagrives on the Eiffel Tower, Paris 1939.
Photo by Erwin Blumenfeld

Washington Crossing the Delaware - the famous painting by Emanuel Leutze of the beginning of the surprise attack on the Hessians in Trenton, New Jersey, Decemeber 25, 1776

Andrew Jackson - colonel in the Tennessee militia in the War of 1812 and later President of the U.S.

mazurka - a Polish dance

Niagara - the Falls--you know, the big ones between New York and Canada

Alcatraz - the island in San Francisco Bay that used to be a prison

Buffalo Bill - William F. Cody, of Wild West Show fame

Just a little classic by Mendel Picasso - This is the most puzzling phrase in the song, and one for which I can't find an explanation. The abstract artist Picasso's given name was Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Martyr Patricio Clito Ruiz y Picasso. That's quite a mouthful, but I don't find anything that looks like Mendel in there.

Captain Spaulding - Groucho's character in Animal Crackers

Godiva - the lady who, according to legend, argued with her husband, Lord Leofric, about the oppressive taxes he levied on the citizens of Coventry in the eleventh century. He challenged her to ride naked through town, and promised to lift the taxes if no one looked at her. She rode, no one looked, the peasants cheered, and the taxes were lifted, or so one version of the legend goes.

Lady Godiva by John Collier

Grover Whalen unveilin' the Trylon - a great turn of phrase. Whalen was President of the World's Fair Corporation, which planned and built the 1939 World's Fair on the site of what was up to that time an ash dump in Flushing Meadow. The symbols of the fair were the Trylon and Perisphere--a big pointy tower next to a big round building.

Treasure Island - another topical reference. Treasure Island is an artificial island in the San Francisco Bay. It is connected by a small isthmus to Yerba Buena Island. It was created out of fill dredged from the bay in 1936 and 1937 for the 1939-1940 Golden Gate International Exposition.

Nijinsky adoin' the rhumba - a Russian ballet dancer and choreographer doing "the dance of Latin romance" (see Cuban Pete).

Vaslav Nijinsky not doing the rhumba

In their book, Who Put the Rainbow in the Wizard of Oz: Yip Harburg, Lyricist, Harold Meyerson and Ernie Harburg point out a couple interesting facts about "Lydia." The song was censored and in order to get it into the movie, Yip Harburg had to add the last stanza:

Oh, Lydia, the champ of them all
She once swept an Admiral clear off his feet
The ships on her hips made his heart skip a beat
And now the old boy's in command of the fleet
For he went and married Lydia

I guess the censors could accept the rest of what they considered a risque song as long as Lydia became an "honest woman" and got married in the end.

Myerson and Harburg also point out that Yip tried his best to make "Lydia" sound like Gilbert and Sullivan, because Groucho was a big fan and would have parties at his house where he would play recordings of Gilbert and Sullivan operas and sing along with them.

As I close this post, I must note a spooky coincidence(?). The Muzak coming out of the speaker in the office at the MRI Center where I am finishing this up is "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" by Arlen and Harburg!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Franklin Pierce Rising

Perhaps Franklin Pierce will rise from obscurity this election season. He is getting some publicity now. In the June 13, 2008 edition of the Christian Science Monitor, Ruth Walker writes in an article about the "historic" campaigns of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton entitled "Not Quite the End of 'History',"
It is a moment to savor in the life of the nation. But is history the facts, the deeds themselves; or the telling of them? Of course they made history, one wants to say; the US presidency is always "historic." Consider Franklin Pierce, the obscure 14th president. Amazon lists a dozen biographies of him, including a new one due out in August, plus two compilations of his papers.
After checking on, it looks to me like the book being published in August is a recycling of a biography for children written by Steven Ferry in 2001, but at least the publisher is optimistic enough to think that children still read books and that they might be interested in history.

Blogger billysumday in his diary had me going for a minute with his parody of a recent John McCain remark. McCain responded to Barack Obama's comment that McCain was running for George W. Bush's third term by saying that Obama was running for Jimmy Carter's second term. Billysumday changed the response to make it Franklin Pierce's second term. The implication is that McCain is old and making outdated references. It may be the case that many young voters are equally unfamiliar with Carter and Pierce.

Finally, in an article about ex-Presidents, Jeremy Lott wrote of Bill Clinton in the blog Politico on May 20, 2008,
He may also be in the same strata as Franklin Pierce, who, though from New Hampshire, was a slavery enthusiast and denounced the Civil War effort to keep the nation united. Pierce died a reclusive alcoholic, a former president scorned even by local schoolchildren, who often threw pebbles at him on the rare occasions he ventured outside.
Little old lady English teacher note: If there are indeed different levels of bad ex-Presidents, then Clinton would be in the same stratum, not the same strata as Pierce, unless it is possible to be so bad as to occupy multiple levels in the hierarchy of former leaders of the free world.

For a nice concise video about Franklin Pierce, check out

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Tim Russert, RIP

Let me begin by saying I have no doubt that Tim Russert, host of NBC's Meet the Press, a well-known and widely-recognized talking head, was a wonderful man. Although he was surely a pundit, I hope that Hillary Clinton would not include him among the pundits and naysayers who accurately recognized she didn't have a snowball's chance of winning the Democratic (if you so choose, you may change the adjective to “Democrat,” as it seems these days it is unacceptable for members of the GOP to imply that Democrats are in any way democratic) nomination for the office of President long before she did. Naysayers—what a wonderful word for a politician to use. It's almost as good as George W. Bush's “evil-doers," and just think what a killer phrase Spiro T. Agnew would have had if his speech writer had thrown in one more word and coined the phrase “nattering naysaying nabobs of negativism.”

Without question, Tim Russert was a smart, courteous guy who loved his family and was widely respected. I am truly sorry he dropped dead of a heart attack yesterday at age 58, and I am sorry for his family's loss.

BUT. . . do we now have to suffer through a prolonged televised wallowing in grief a la the death of Princess Di? Lord love a duck! MSNBC has been going all day on this one topic! Yes, he was a great man! Yes, he was one of their own! A newsman, struck down in the prime of life! Yes! It's all true! But let's move on! As the funeral director says when showing you the most expensive casket, he would have wanted it that way! The last time I tuned into MSNBC, Mike Barnacle, Russert's fellow blue-collar-roots, sports-loving newsman was relating a story of Tim finding out about the fake ID his son had at college! Who cares?

But it will go on, and on, and on, for we live in the twenty-four-hour news cycle. The cable channels are in constant need of material. This is grist for the mill, especially since Barack Obama is currently not affiliated with any wacko preachers. What happened when Chet Huntley died? I think David Brinkley talked briefly about it on the nightly news show the two of them co-anchored for so many years, but there were other things going on in the world, and more importantly, there were only three networks in those days, and there was even such a thing as a sign-off late at night, meaning there were (gasp) no overnight broadcasts, and all you'd see till the next day's programming started was a test pattern.Alas, those days are gone. Let the wallowing continue!

Monday, June 09, 2008

Hawthorne and Lugubrious Drollery

I've now finished reading The House of the Seven Gables. I don't intend to give a formal review, but I would just like to quote one passage, from Chapter 19, where Hawthorne is describing the scene when the Italian organ grinder and his monkey (mentioned in an earlier post here) are performing outside the old Pyncheon house:
Was ever before such a grinding out of jigs and waltzes, where nobody was in the cue to dance? Yes, very often. This contrast of intermingling of tragedy with mirth, happens daily, hourly, momently. The gloomy and desolate old house, deserted of life, and with awful Death sitting sternly in its solitude, was the emblem of many a human heart, which, nevertheless, is compelled to hear the thrill and echo of the world's gayety around it.

I was struck by the juxtaposition of the mournful and the amusing in this passage.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Franklin Pierce the Obscure

It probably has something to do with the fact that I am in my fourteenth hour of reading X-rays, CTs and ultrasounds on call today. I don't know how else to explain this post. I would do almost anything, read almost anything, Google almost anything to get away from the images of the huddled masses in the ERs and ICUs, yearning to have their brain hemorrhages, belly abscesses, and clotted veins diagnosed by yours truly. Actually, the afflicted have no idea who I am, nor will they ever, until they see my name on their bill, for radiologists labor for the most part in obscurity in front of computer monitors. So, for respite between cases, I have been surfing the web for material on the Marx brothers. They are cited as an area of interest in my Blogger profile, but I have not written about them yet. My search took me to David Holzel's zine The Jewish Angle, where he talks about being inspired by Groucho, and his plaster statue of Groucho, like the one I have.
In fact, I have plaster statues of Harpo and Chico as well. Harpo was a wedding present almost thirty-five years ago, and the other brothers were added soon after. From Holzel's site, I linked to The Franklin Pierce Pages, authored by Holzel, Benjamin Bratman, and Todd Leopold. Here, an unusual convergence of items from my recent posts occurred in Bratman's article "Wrested From the Jaws of Triviality." To wit:
Pierce had the peculiar distinction of having as vice president the only nationally elected American official ever to be sworn in on foreign soil. Pierce also had the peculiar distinction of having as vice president a man who never worked one day in the job. William Rufus de Vane King was terminally ill with tuberculosis when he was nominated and subsequently elected as vice president. (This begs the question, why was he selected?). He was sworn in in Cuba where he was seeking medical treatment. Less than a month later, he died, never having assumed his duties.
Ah ha! An example of the modern usage of "begs the question," which I had condemned in recent posts.

Also from Bratman's article:
Pierce’s salad days were clearly in college at Bowdoin College in Maine. There, he was a classmate of Nathaniel Hawthorne, who later became a writer and author of The Scarlet Letter, as well as one of Pierce’s closest friends and advisors.
Wow! Another of my newfound obsessions--Nathaniel Hawthorne! Bratman doesn't mention that Hawthorne wrote a campaign biography of his friend Franklin Pierce, and was rewarded with the American consulship to Liverpool after Pierce was elected. Hawthorne stayed at the post from 1853-57. Also of note, Hawthorne died on a trip to the White Mountains with Pierce in 1864.

Who knows, I may now become obsessed with Franklin Pierce. After all, writing about an obscure president (James Buchanan) paid off for John Updike in his play Buchanan Dying and his novel Memories of the Ford Administration.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Petitio Principii

Comfortably lounging in my glass house, in my last post, I tossed a stone or two in the direction of those who use the phrase "begs the question" to mean "invites the obvious question." In my post (since edited), I presented what I believed was the correct usage--"avoids answering the question." While this is one usage of the phrase, according to, the oldest usage is in logic, where begging the question implies a circular argument. Here are excerpts from the explanation by Mark Israel, at

Fowler defines "begging the question" as the "fallacy of founding a conclusion on a basis that as much needs to be proved as the conclusion itself."


Many people unaware of the technical meaning of "to beg the question" in logic use it in one of two looser senses. The first of these, "to evade the question, to duck the issue", is attested since 1860 (WDEU). The second, "to invite the obvious question, (with an inanimate subject) to raise the question", is now the most commonly heard use of the phrase, although we have found no mention of it prior to The Oxford Guide to English Usage, 1st edition (1983), and it is not yet in most dictionaries. The meaning of the adjective "question-begging" does not seem to have suffered a similar broadening.
I also learned that the Latin for this fallacy is petitio principii. Thank goodness I corrected myself before one of my dozens of potential readers caught my error.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The Secret Staircase

In keeping with this blog's fixation on useless information, I have spent a fair amount of time researching one architectural feature which Mary and I saw on our recent tour of The House of the Seven Gables in Salem, Massachusetts. Adjacent to the central fireplace is a door which opens on a "secret staircase." You can't take pictures in the house, so I have included a picture of an old postcard, with the addition of two arrows to show the entry to the narrow stairway. I was pretty sure the guide said the staircase was installed during the 1909 restoration of the house initiated by Caroline Emmerton. When I came home and started looking around that great cesspool of misinformation known as the World Wide Web, I found many purported facts about the staircase, such as:

- In the novel, it led from Clifford's room to the first floor.
- Hawthorne learned about the staircase from his cousin, Susannah Ingersoll, who lived there
- It was built in the nineteenth century.
- The door to the staircase was discovered in the 1880s.
- It was used to hide slaves as part of the Underground Railroad.

To all these assertions, I respond with a resounding, "Horse hockey!" I am reading the novel now, and there I can find no mention of a secret staircase, nor can I find one online in searchable versions of the book. There is a scene where Hepzibah is looking for Clifford in his room and where he mysteriously appears in the parlor, but there is no indication of how he got there.

Regarding when the staircase was built, I cite as an authority Alexandria Mason, who wrote in the Curator's Corner column of the Summer/Fall 2004 edition of The House of the Seven Gables newsletter:

Some may wonder why we have chosen to restore the chimneys to their 1909 appearance rather than to one based on the 17th century. The answer is that preservationists today base restorations on hard evidence and we do not have information regarding the appearance of the original chimneys built by the Turners.

This leads to an important question. How did Chandler know what they looked like? Pictures of the house as early as 1857, of which Chandler would have known, reveal that the medieval chimneys were long gone, having been replaced with narrow chimneys used for gas stove pipes. In fact, Chandler’s restoration was very much influenced by Hawthorne’s novel, The House of the Seven Gables, and by his memory of the medieval chimneys of Europe. With both as his inspiration, he rebuilt all three chimneys to appear as if they were ancient, creating an elaborately pilastered central chimney with a “secret” stair descending from “Clifford’s room” in the attic to the dining room. One can assume Caroline Emmerton instructed him to make the house as exciting for visitors as possible in order to ensure revenue for her Settlement House activities!

She is referring to Joseph Everett Chandler, who was hired by Caroline Emmerton to renovate the house. I like Ms.Mason's writing for a few reasons. First, she implies with quotation marks that the idea of anyplace in this house being "Clifford's Room" is quite a stretch, as there doesn't seem to be all that much evidence that Hawthorne based much but the title on the Turner-Ingersoll house. Second, she is honest enough to admit that Caroline Emmerton's goal was to generate revenue rather than seeking historical accuracy. Third, instead of following the annoying modern trend of misusing the phrase, "begs the question," she correctly writes, "leads to the question." In logic, begging the question is a fallacy in which the premises include the claim that the conclusion is true or (directly or indirectly) assume that the conclusion is true.

Kudos to Ms. Mason for her article, and to Caroline Emmerton for making life imitate art, more or less.

Sunday, June 01, 2008


In the previous post, I talked about our visit to Salem, Mass., and landmarks associated with Nathaniel Hawthorne. I am doing my best to read The House of the Seven Gables. In Chapter XI, "The Arched Window," Hawthorne goes into a prolonged description (all his descriptions seem prolonged) of an Italian organ grinder and his monkey who plied their trade on the streets of the New England town (based on Salem) where the novel is set. He writes, "The monkey, meanwhile, with a thick tail curling out into preposterous prolixity from beneath his tartans, took his station at the Italian's feet." In the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, I found the following:

Main Entry: pro·lix
Pronunciation: \prō-ˈliks, ˈprō-(ˌ)\
Function: adjective
Etymology: Middle English, from Anglo-French & Latin; Anglo-French prolix, from Latin prolixus extended, from pro- forward + liquēre to be fluid — more at liquid
Date: 15th century
1 : unduly prolonged or drawn out : too long
2 : marked by or using an excess of words
synonyms see wordy
— pro·lix·i·ty \prō-ˈlik-sə-tē\ noun
— pro·lix·ly adverb

So it seems Hawthorne, who was given to prolixity in the sense of using an excess of words, considered the monkey's tail to be not only too long, but preposterously too long. Who is he to judge? Aren't monkeys supposed to have long tails?

In any case, the word reminded me of Prolixin, a brand name for the anti-psychotic drug fluphenazine. Although I have no reason to prescribe anti-psychotic drugs in my line of work, I will never forget Prolixin because of an encounter I had with a patient during a night on call on a psych rotation as a medical student. I believe it was at the county hospital, or maybe it was at the VA, and I had to interview a schizophrenic patient. He said to me, "I used to be big until they turned me into a baby with Proplipsin." I don't recall specifically why he showed up in the emergency room that night, or any of the rest of the conversation, but that statement, for some strange reason, has stuck with me. Partly, I suppose, it was the interesting pronunciation of the drug's name, and partly perhaps because on the face of it, it sounds absurd, but you can sort of understand what he meant--that he felt somehow diminished by his treatment.