Friday Apr. 7, 2017

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It is a Beauteous Evening, Calm and Free

It is a beauteous evening, calm and free,
The holy time is quiet as a nun
Breathless with adoration; the broad sun
Is sinking down in its tranquility;
The gentleness of heaven broods o’er the sea:
Listen! the mighty Being is awake,
And doth with his eternal motion make
A sound like thunder—everlastingly.
Dear Child! dear Girl! that walkest with me here,
If thou appear untouched by solemn thought,
Thy nature is not therefore less divine:
Thou liest in Abraham’s bosom all the year,
And worship’st at the Temple’s inner shrine,
God being with thee when we know it not.

“It is a Beauteous Evening, Calm and Free” by William Wordsworth. Public domain.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, born in Detroit (1939) and raised in New York City. He contracted polio when he was nine years old, and he was bedridden for long periods of time throughout his childhood. He entertained himself by writing and staging puppet shows and, later, 8-millimeter home movies. His first job in the movie business was working for horror director Roger Corman. Coppola worked as a cameraman and director on the second unit, which filmed supplementary footage. Corman put up the money so Coppola could make his first movie, a low-budget horror film called Dementia 13 (1963). He won his first Academy Award for the screenplay for Patton (1970), which he co-wrote with Edmund H. North.

Coppola was about 29 years old when he started working on The Godfather (1972). He was broke, and he had a growing family to support. Paramount had invited him to direct the movie, so he began by reading the novel by Mario Puzo. As it turned out, he didn’t really like the book at all. He expected it to be more intellectual, more of an examination of power. He also didn’t like some of the studio’s ideas. “I had no power,” he remembered, “and yet I had real opinions on how it should be done. And I was always just trying to bluff the studio to let me, you know, do it my way. And it was just the most frightening and depressing experience I think I’ve ever had.” Paramount wanted to set the movie in the 1970s, so they wouldn’t have to pay for cars and clothes from the 1940s. They also disagreed with Coppola’s casting of Al Pacino and Marlon Brando. But Coppola prevailed.

Apocalypse Now was released in 1979, when Coppola was at the height of his Hollywood power. Coppola was inspired by Joseph Conrad’s 1902 novella “Heart of Darkness,” but set the story during the Vietnam War. It was a difficult production; while the crew was filming in the Philippines, they weathered a typhoon and an earthquake, and co-star Martin Sheen suffered a near-fatal heart attack. The film ran way over budget. But it was a box office success and was nominated for eight Academy Awards.

Coppola and his family are also in the wine business. He bought his first vineyard in 1975, using the money he had made for The Godfather. His father, wife, and children stomped the grapes for the label’s first vintage in 1977. His latest venture, which opened in 2010, combines a winery with a theme park and resort; he modeled the property after the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen. He writes in his mission statement: “I remember the beautiful theater pavilions with the curtains painted with peacock feathers that had little ballet performances. At Tivoli, there were rides, but more important than the rides were the cafés and the refreshments, and just the sense of being in a children’s garden, a ‘pleasure garden’ for all people to enjoy … I’ve often felt that modern life tends to separate all the ages too much. In the old days, the children lived with the parents and the grandparents, and the family unit each gave one another something very valuable.”

Last year, Coppola published the notebook he kept during the making of The Godfather, titled — appropriately — The Godfather Notebook (2016).

Today is the birthday of American jazz legend Billie Holiday, born Eleanora Fagan in Philadelphia (1915).

Billie Holiday’s parents were barely teenagers when they had her, and unwed — her mother only 13 years to her father’s 15. Shortly after her birth, her father left to pursue his dreams of becoming a jazz guitarist. Her mother left young Eleanora in the care of her aunt so that she could work during the day.

By age 12, Billie was already a fan of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith. She accepted a job running errands for a local madam because she let her play records on the madam’s Victrola gramophone. A few years later, Holiday became a prostitute herself, and was arrested along with her mother after a raid at the brothel.

Afterward, Billie began performing in Harlem nightclubs. She was discovered there by producer John Hammond, who would also launch the careers of Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Leonard Cohen, and Bruce Springsteen. She took the stage name Billie Holiday, after the popular Swiss actress Billie Dove and her own father, Clarence Holiday.

In the span of her nearly 30-year career, Holiday released 38 charting singles. She took on the nickname “Lady Day,” and her voice was singular. “If I’m going to sing like someone else,” she said, “then I don’t need to sing at all.”

In 1937, Holiday joined Count Basie’s band. Neither she nor most of the band members could read music — they played instead by memory and feel. In this time, she competed with, and then befriended, fellow jazz vocalist Ella Fitzgerald.

When she was fired from the Count Basie Band, she was immediately picked up by bandleader Artie Shaw for his all-white orchestra. The arrangement was highly unusual, the first time a black female singer toured the segregated South with a white composer. Shaw defended her as they toured, but it was too much for Holiday. When she was made to use the service elevator at one of their hotels because of guest complaints, she left the group for good.

She signed onto Columbia records for the ’30s and ’40s, but re-signed with Commodore and Decca Records after Columbia rejected her hit “Strange Fruit” on the grounds that it was too controversial. The song, adapted from a poem, had special meaning to her in relation to her father Clarence’s death — he was denied medical treatment for a lung disorder on the basis of race. “It reminds me of how Pop died,” she explained in her autobiography, “but I have to keep singing it, not only because people ask for it, but because twenty years after Pop died the things that killed him are still happening in the South.” She also starred in a film in 1946, but her screen time was severely cut because of pressure to avoid the implication that black people created jazz music.

Holiday suffered from many drug and legal troubles throughout her life. She was arrested for narcotics possession in 1947 and made to serve time in jail. After her release, she sold out a show at Carnegie Hall. Still, she could not make a clean break from heroin and the police forces trying to punish her for it. As she lay dying in her hospital bed from liver cirrhosis in 1959, she was handcuffed and arrested for drug possession.

Today, her voice and music remain unmatched. She was awarded four posthumous Grammys, and inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000.

It’s the birthday of author Marjory Stoneman Douglas (books by this author), born in Minneapolis, Minnesota (1890). She was a lifelong crusader for the preservation of the Florida Everglades and is best remembered for her book Everglades: River of Grass (1947). She wrote: “There are no other Everglades in the world … Nothing anywhere else is like them: their vast glittering openness ... the racing free saltness and sweetness of their massive winds, under the blue heights of space ... the simplicity, the diversity, the related harmony of the forms of life they enclose ... It is a river of grass.”

Today is the birthday of English poet William Wordsworth (books by this author), born in Cockermouth, Cumberland, in the Lake District of Northwestern England (1770). His father was a rent collector and law agent and though he was often absent from the home, he encouraged his son to read and memorize poetry by Shakespeare, Milton, and Spenser. Wordsworth’s parents died when he was young; he and his siblings were split up among relatives. Wordsworth wouldn’t see his sister Dorothy again for nine years, but when they were reunited, it was for life. Dorothy would become her brother’s best companion, housekeeper, transcriber, and sounding board. It was from Dorothy’s journals that Wordsworth cribbed some ideas and language for his famous poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” about a row of brilliant of daffodils. Dorothy was a poet, too, and a wonderful essayist, but it wasn’t until after her death that people began to discover her talent. When her brother married his childhood friend Mary Hutchinson, Dorothy was so overcome with despondency that she refused to attend the wedding and spent most of the day crying. Once, Wordsworth wrote of Dorothy, “She gave me eyes, she gave me ears.”

Wordsworth said poetry was “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” For a time, he was great friends with fellow poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. They took long walks together in the Lake District in England, expounding on the nature of life and talking about philosophy and English poetry, which they thought was too strict and prudish and didn’t appeal to the common man. Together, they wrote a book called Lyrical Ballads (1798). In the preface, Wordsworth warned the reader: “The majority of the following poems are to be considered as experiments. They were written chiefly with a view to ascertain how far the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society is adapted to the purpose of poetic pleasure.” The book included Coleridge’s famous poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” but Wordsworth removed another of Coleridge’s poems, “Christabel,” at the last minute, which angered Coleridge.

Lyrical Ballads was such a sensation that one critic said the book was like “turning up fresh soil.” The first edition sold out in two years, but Coleridge and Wordsworth would have a falling out several years later. Coleridge became addicted to opium, and more interested in Wordsworth’s career than his own. Wordsworth told a friend that Coleridge was “a rotten drunkard.”

William Wordsworth could be prickly and ostentatious. He spent more than 40 years working on a long philosophical poem he liked to call “Poem to Coleridge.” He began the poem at the age of 28 and it wouldn’t be published in its entirety until after his death, but what became known as The Prelude (1850) is considered his masterpiece.

Wordsworth never made much money during his lifetime, surviving on small appointments and even receiving the post of Distributor of Stamps for Westmoreland for a time. He accepted the post of poet laureate when he was 73 years old, but he wasn’t writing much, anymore, and he is the only poet laureate to never have written a poem during his appointment.

Scottish poet Joanna Baillie once said of William Wordsworth, “He looks like a man that one must not speak to unless one has some sensible thing to say.”

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