Tuesday Sep. 15, 2015

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The guitarists were sitting around
in somebody’s basement room
discussing their fingernails.
They were comparing the length
of their fingernails, they were expounding
upon the strength of fingernails,
they were trading chilling tales
of broken fingernails.
The guitarists were filing the ragged
ends of their fingernails grown long
on one hand only, telltale sign,
badge of belonging to the cult,
and they could not afford tickets
to the Julian Bream concert
and they could not afford guitar lessons
but they had all the records,
they had the music, lovingly transcribed
off records, all by ear, hand-scratched
in India ink on music copy-sheets,
note by painstaking note. They had
the apocrypha, the word of mouth,
the heroes. Segovia was self-taught.

“Segovia” by Robyn Sarah from My Shoes Are Killing Me. © Biblioasis Press, 2015. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is the birthday of the man who wrote, “The freelance writer is a man who is paid per piece or per word or perhaps”: that’s humorist, essayist, actor, and drama critic Robert Benchley (books by this author), born in Worcester, Massachusetts (1889). He published about 600 essays in all, was managing editor at Vanity Fair, was a drama critic for Life, and contributed to The New Yorker for many years. He wrote and acted in several humorous short films from the late 1920s onward.

He’s perhaps best remembered these days as a member of the Algonquin Round Table. One day in 1919, a group of writers met at the Algonquin Hotel on West 44th Street in New York, to “roast” New York Times drama critic Alexander Woollcott. Everyone had such a great time that they came back for lunch the next day. And the next. Eventually, the “Vicious Circle” became like the cool kids in the school cafeteria — everyone wanted to sit at their table. Over the years, some 30 writers, editors, and actors pulled up a chair at the Round Table. They traded quips and barbs, and made up word games like “I can give you a sentence”: given a multisyllable word, the contestant had to come up with a pun in 10 seconds. Not everyone loved them, though; H.L. Mencken called them “literati of the third, fourth, and fifth rate.”

Benchley eventually left New York and went to Hollywood, where the work was generally easy and lucrative. His short film How to Sleep won an Oscar for Best Short Subject in 1935. He wrote dialogue for, and appeared in, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 film Foreign Correspondent. He’s the author of several essay collections, including Of All Things! (1921), The Early Worm (1927), and My Ten Years in a Quandary, and How They Grew (1936). He died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1945, and his memorial service was held at 21, the famous New York nightclub.

It’s the birthday of François VI, duke de La Rochefoucauld (books by this author), born in Paris (1613), an author whose entire literary reputation is based on a single slim book that he published in 1665 called Maxims, a collection of humorous and ironic maxims about human life and behavior.

Rouchefoucauld wrote, “There are some people who would never have fallen in love if they had not heard that there was such a thing.”

And, “Everybody complains of his memory, but nobody of his judgment.”

And, “We all have strength enough to endure the troubles of others.”

It’s the birthday of Mary Clarissa Agatha Miller, better known as mystery writer Agatha Christie (1890) (books by this author), born in Torquay, Devon, England. Christie had an unconventional childhood: her parents didn’t send the children to school, preferring to keep them home and teaching them piano and violin. Christie taught herself to read at an early age, which displeased her mother, who thought she had plenty of time for that later on. Her mother did enjoy scary stories, though, as did her older sister, Madge, and the three of them delighted in making up thrilling tales.

Christie married in 1914, just before the advent of World War I. While her husband was at war, she worked at a pharmacy, where she learned quite a lot about poisons, knowledge that became useful for her books later on.

On a dare from her older sister, she wrote her first mystery novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920). The book was rejected several times before finally being published and was only a modest success, but it did introduce the character of Hercule Poirot, an extravagantly mustached Belgian detective. Poirot would prove to be immensely popular with readers, appearing in more than 33 Christie mysteries, but Christie was tired of him by the 1930s. She wrote in her diary that she found the character “insufferable and an egocentric creep.” When she finally killed him off in the novel Curtain (1975), The New York Times ran a full-page obituary for his character.

Her favorite character was Miss Jane Marple, who first appeared in The Thirteen Problems (1925). Marple was an amateur detective whom Christie based on her grandmother and her grandmother’s cronies. When asked why Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple never appeared together, Christie answered, “Hercule Poirot, a complete egoist, would not like being taught his business or having suggestions made to him by an elderly spinster lady.”

After her novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) became an international best-seller, Christie was a phenomenal success for the rest of her life, writing more than 80 novels, including Murder on the Orient Express, and 30 short-story collections. Her play The Mousetrap, which was first written as a radio sketch for the 80th birthday of Queen Mary, is the longest-running play in history. It was first staged in 1952 and has been running continuously ever since. Christie was made a Dame of the British Empire (1971). Her novels have been adapted for film, stage, video games, and even anime.

Christie’s victims have been strangled by a raincoat belt and a ukulele; stabbed with a corn knife; jabbed with a venom-tipped dart; drowned in an apple tub; crushed by a bear-shaped marble clock; and electrocuted by a chessboard rigged to deliver the fatal charge upon completion of the third move of the Ruy Lopez opening, which is Bb5.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®