Friday Jan. 20, 2017

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All night, snow, then, near dawn, freezing rain, so that by morn-
            ing the whole city glistens
in a glaze of high-pitched, meticulously polished brilliance, every,
            thing rounded off,
the cars submerged nearly to their windows in the unbroken drifts
            lining the narrow alleys,
the buildings rising from the trunklike integuments the wind has
against them.
Underlit clouds, blurred, violet bars, the rearguard of the storm,
still hang in the east,
immobile over the flat river basin of the Delaware; beyond them,
nothing, the washed sky,
one vivid wisp of pale smoke rising waveringly but emphatically
into the brilliant ether.
No one is out yet but Catherine, who closes the door behind her
            and starts up the street.

“SNOW: I” by C.K. Williams from Collected Poems. © Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

On this day in 1961, 87-year-old Robert Frost recited his poem “The Gift Outright” at the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy. Although Frost had written a new poem for the occasion, titled “Dedication,” faint ink in his typewriter and the bright sun made the words difficult to read, so instead he recited his poem “The Gift Outright” from memory.

It’s the birthday of Italian film director Federico Fellini, born in Rimini, Italy (1920). He became famous for his film La Dolce Vita (1960). He was a charming man, who always wore a wide-brimmed black hat and gestured with both hands, even while driving one of his favorite motorcars. He overdubbed all his actors’ voices because he believed that most people didn’t have voices that matched their appearance. He said, “All art is autobiographical; the pearl is the oyster’s autobiography.

Today is the birthday of novelist Tami Hoag (books by this author), born Tami Mikkelson in Cresco, Iowa (1959).  She grew up in a tiny town called Harmony, Minnesota, and she made up stories to entertain herself because there wasn’t much to do in Harmony. Her high school guidance counselor suggested that she become an actress, but Hoag thought that was too impractical. She ended up as a writer instead — which isn’t very practical either, she admits, but adds, “At least I’m not obligated to look good on a daily basis.”

She wrote, illustrated, and self-published her first book, Black Pony, as a third-grade school project when she was nine years old, but she made a proper career out of writing starting in her 30s, as an author of romance novels. After about 20 romance novels, she tried her hand at a thriller instead. Night Sins was published in 1988, and it made the New York Times best-sellers list — just like 14 of the books that followed it. It usually takes Hoag six to nine months to write a book, and by the time she sends the manuscript to her publisher, she’s worn out. “It’s like 10 rounds with Mike Tyson,” she says. “I’m crawling out of my office. It’s a brutal experience.”

Her most recent book is The Bitter Season (2016). It’s the latest in a series of thrillers featuring Sam Kovac and Nikki Liska, two homicide detectives in Minneapolis.

It’s the birthday of actor and comedian George Burns (1896). He and his wife, Gracie Allen, were one of the most successful comedic pairings in history. They toured the vaudeville circuit together for years, fine-tuning an act in which Burns played the long-suffering husband of scatterbrained Gracie, who earned big laughs saying things like, “I put straw in the water when I boil eggs so they’ll feel at home.” During the 1940s, more than 40 million people a week tuned into their show on NBC Radio.

Burns was born Nathan Birnbaum. His family called him Nattie and he grew up on Pitt Street on New York City’s Lower East Side. His father was a cantor and a coat presser, and Nattie started working at seven years old, making syrup, selling newspapers, and shining shoes. He got his famous last name because he and a friend collected so much spare coal off the street that neighborhood kids called them “The Burns Brothers,” after the Burns Brothers Coal Company. Burns was resourceful and funny and even opened his own dance studio when he was 13. He called it “B-B’s College of Dancing” and his clients were immigrants fresh from Ellis Island. He and a friend lured them to the studio by telling them that a $5.00 course of dance lessons was required for U.S. citizenship.

Burns was discovered by a talent scout while singing harmony in the basement with other boys during a break from his job. Customers would gather at the top of the stairs and throw money down to them. They started calling themselves “The Pee-Wee Quartet” and soon enough, Burns was on the vaudeville circuit, performing with a seal and doing trick roller-skating. He had lots of stage names, like Willy Delight, Captain Betts, and Buddy Links.

When he met Gracie Allen, she already had four years of vaudeville under her belt. They hit it off, got married, and started making people laugh with routines about married life. One of their routines went like this:

George: “Gracie, suppose you start explaining these Christmas bills. Who got this $25 hat?”

Gracie: “I gave that to Clara Bagley. I’ve decided to break up our friendship.”

George: “Then why did you give her an expensive hat?”

Gracie: “I have one exactly like it. When she sees me with it on, she’ll stop speaking to me.”

Burns called Gracie “Googie” and she called him “Nattie.” Their television show, The Burns and Allen Show, was one of the most popular shows of the 1950s. At the end of every show, Burns would turn to Allen and say, “Say goodnight, Gracie,” and she would respond, “Goodnight.”

When Gracie Allen died, George Burns was bereft. He visited her grave all the time. He still performed in nightclubs and on television and became known for his heavy horn-rimmed glasses, salty humor, and ever-present cigar. He smoked four cigars a day, over 300,000 in his lifetime. He teamed up with Walter Matthau in 1975 for the movie The Sunshine Boys, about two aging comedians. He won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar and said, “I’ve reached the point where I get a standing ovation just for standing.”

He made more movies like Oh, God! (1977) with singer John Denver, and when people said it was sacrilegious to portray God, Burns shrugged and said, “Why shouldn’t I play God? Anything I do at my age is a miracle.” He wrote a best-selling memoir about his life with his wife called Gracie: A Love Story (1988).

George Burns died in 1996 at the age of 100. He was still performing and liked to start his shows by telling the audience, “It’s nice to be here. When you’re 100 years old, it’s nice to be anywhere.”

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