Thursday June 22, 2017

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May time grant you the lasting memory of the summer night
                 on Jonas Ridge when we were walking the dogs, late—

the white rail fence, our guide.

When we turned back toward the cabin, darkness pressed
                 against our faces

and a host of fireflies flashed in the mist
                 settling on the fields,

blinking green from another realm,
                 lighting the divide between road and weeds.

The dogs looked up.
                 Frenzied katydids took a rest.

Following the tiny globes, we felt our way
                 to the gravel hill that sloped

toward the yellow glow
                 of lamplight from the cabin windows.

“Blessing” by Irene Blair Honeycutt from Beneath the Bamboo Sky. © Main Street Rag Publishing Company, 2017. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of novelist Erich Maria Remarque (books by this author), born in Osnabrück, Germany (1898). He’s the author of the novel All Quiet on the Western Front (1929). The book describes trench warfare during World War I, told by a young man in the German army. It was a huge success. Remarque wrote: “I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow.”

The novel sold more than a million copies in Germany in its first year of publication. Nazis were beginning their rise to power at the time, and they hated the book because it portrayed World War I as misguided and pointless. It was one of the books they publicly burned in 1933. When the film version of the book premiered in Berlin, Nazi gangs attacked the theater. Remarque lost his German citizenship in 1938 and eventually moved to the United States.

Remarque said: “I am no more German, for I do not think in German nor feel German, nor talk German. Even when I dream, it is about America — and when I swear, it is American.”

It’s the birthday of director, producer, and screenwriter Billy Wilder, born in Vienna, Austria (1906). His real name was Samuel, but his mother called him “Billy” because of her fascination with the legendary hero Buffalo Bill. In Vienna, Wilder spent a lot of time watching American Western, comedy, and adventure films. He left Vienna in 1927 for a job as a reporter in Berlin, and eventually found work as a scriptwriter on more than a dozen German films. But when the credits for What Women Dream, his 14th film, rolled by, the names of the two scriptwriters, Franz Schulz and Billy Wilder, were missing. As Jews, they had been expunged from the program.

Wilder left Germany for Paris. In 1934, he arrived in Hollywood with 11 dollars in his pocket. His big break came when Paramount studios paired him with the writer Charles Brackett. Together they wrote scripts for such films as Ninotchka (1939), Hold Back the Dawn (1941), The Lost Weekend (1945), and Sunset Boulevard (1950), which won Wilder an Academy Award and included the famous line, “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” His later films, many written with I.A.L. Diamond, include Love in the Afternoon (1957), The Apartment (1961), The Fortune Cookie (1966), and The Front Page (1974).

Wilder began directing pictures because, he said, he was tired of other directors botching up his scripts. Asked if it was important for a director to know how to write, Wilder replied, “No, but it helps if he knows how to read.”

Two of Wilder’s most successful films starred Marilyn Monroe: The Seven Year Itch (1955) and Some Like it Hot (1959). Over the years, he directed some of the greatest Hollywood stars, including Gloria Swanson, Marlene Dietrich, Shirley MacLaine, Gary Cooper, Ray Milland, Jimmy Stewart, Jack Lemmon, and Walter Matthau. In 1986, the American Film Institute awarded him the Life Achievement Award, and at the 1988 Academy Awards, he was given the Irving G. Thalberg Award. He died in 2002.

Wilder said: “An audience is never wrong. An individual member of it may be an imbecile, but a thousand imbeciles together in the dark — that is critical genius.”

It is the birthday of the “greatest-living actress,” Meryl Streep, born in New Jersey in 1949. Streep has more Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations than any other actor. She has also won two film-industry lifetime achievement awards and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

After college, Streep did not have plans to become an actor. But Robert De Niro’s performance in Taxi Driver convinced her that it was what she wanted to be.

One of her earliest auditions for a film role was for the lead in Dino De Laurentiis’s King Kong. Laurentiis — in Italian — said to his son about Streep, “This is so ugly. Why did you bring me this?” Streep understood the language, however, and replied, “I’m very sorry that I’m not as beautiful as I should be but, you know — this is it. This is what you get.”

In the end, it was the man who inspired her to begin, Robert De Niro, who also gave her the first big break, recommending her for the role of his girlfriend in The Deer Hunter (1978).

Streep has become known for her masterful ability to pick up the proper accents of her characters. In the Holocaust movie Sophie’s Choice, Streep spoke in English, German, and Polish — all with a consistent Polish accent. She took elocution lessons to master the vocal style of Margaret Thatcher for her role in The Iron Lady, a particular challenge because the real Thatcher had curated a unique accent as part of her political persona. Lin-Manuel Miranda recently consulted her for advice on his cockney accent for when the two star in an upcoming remake of Mary Poppins.

Today is the birthday of Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren (books by this author), born Elizabeth Herring in Oklahoma City (1949). She grew up in Norman, Oklahoma, and she’s from a solidly working-class background: her mom worked at Sears, and her father was a maintenance man. Her dad had a massive heart attack when Warren was 12 years old; the family lost their car as a result of his crippling medical bills, and Warren went to work at her aunt’s Mexican restaurant to help support the family.

Even with the extra work, she was the state high school debate champion, and graduated two years early. She received a full scholarship to George Washington University, but left after two years to marry her high school sweetheart. They moved to Texas, where she completed a degree in speech pathology at the University of Houston. Her husband, mathematician Jim Warren, worked as an engineer for NASA. They moved to New Jersey, where she worked as a special education teacher and later went on to law school at Rutgers University. She passed the bar in 1976, and practiced law — especially bankruptcy law — out of their home. She and Jim divorced in 1978. She had some money put aside — thanks to advice she had once received from Jim’s mother: “I got married when I was 19,” Warren told Elle magazine, “and my mother-in-law took me aside and said, “You always need walking-out-the-door money.’” Warren often emphasizes the importance of an emergency fund when she gives financial advice.

Warren taught at Harvard Law School, where she met legal scholar Bruce Mann. They married in 1980. She wrote books about the financial hardships faced by the American middle class, including The Fragile Middle Class: Americans in Debt (2000) and The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers and Fathers Are Going Broke (2003). And she frequently testified before congressional committees, which led to her appointment as chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel for the Troubled Asset Relief Program in 2008. She was the driving force behind the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and she successfully ran for the Senate in 2012, beating Republican incumbent Scott Brown to claim Ted Kennedy’s former seat. She’s the first woman to represent Massachusetts in the U.S. Senate. She published her memoir, A Fighting Chance, in 2014, and this year published her 11th book, This Fight is Our Fight: The Battle to Save America’s Middle Class (2017).

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