- What happens when the author of Frank Sinatra Has a Cold has a cold? Pretty much nothing. He asks for a lozenge, drinks some water, drinks some Coke, drinks a martini, talks shop. “Even when you write about a celebrity you don’t learn anything new about them,” Gay Talese told Rebecca Bengal at the 21 Club: “They’re so interviewed out, they’re so spent in their explanations. Their fear—which is quite a legitimate fear—of being quoted, especially on tape, inhibits them. I don’t use tape because I don’t want direct quotations either. The way I do it, no matter who it is, I go over and over the quote with that person several times. I’m not getting the first take. I’m not interested in what they said. I’m interested in what they think.”
- Part of the reason it’s easy to hate megachurches—ideology aside—is that they’re architecturally aloof: that is, they’re big, ugly, graceless buildings in which utility trumps beauty. That’s changing at Grace Farms, in New Canaan, Connecticut, an ambiguously evangelical community center that boasts a Japanese minimalist design that “exhibits far better taste and loftier cultural aspirations,” Martin Filler writes, “than the big-box spiritual supermarkets of the Sun Belt.” It’s founded by a hedge-fund manager, which helps. “It is not yet clear how much these efforts will contribute as a force for good. The extent to which religion gives shape to Grace Farms’ overall ethos may or may not be of overriding significance. But for all the thoughtfulness that has gone into its creation, one wonders—especially during the pontificate of Pope Francis I, present-day apostle of the poor—whether the expenditure of such immense sums, in the midst of almost unimaginably concentrated wealth, is the true path to a state of grace for those who would alleviate the sufferings of mankind.”
- The universal symbols for restrooms, transport, currency exchange, and various other travelers’ necessities are so ubiquitous that they seem to have existed forever—in fact, they date only to the 1970s, when Roger Cook and Don Shanosky designed them for U.S. Department of Transportation. Their creation provides a robust lesson in semiotics: “Simplicity began with the male figure. The character built upon previous stylized figures from earlier symbol sets, but Cook and Shanosky’s own sleek, no-details figure set the tone for the other symbols in the DOT set. The figure has since been dubbed Helvetica Man … The discussions at the meetings covered the minutiae of Helvetica Man’s many escapades as the designers placed him in the various situations needed to convey messages to travelers. His posture as he sits in a waiting room chair was of concern, and the notes on the Waiting Room symbol are filled with maternal chiding: ‘Make person sit up straight’ and ‘Figure should not be too slouched.’ Waiting rooms, it turns out, are not happy places. Helvetica Man shouldn’t be too comfortable, or people might get confused.”
- Michael Wood is watching The Hunger Games, and he is pleased: “Perhaps because it’s based on a lively trilogy of novels for supposed teenagers, more probably because its writers and directors knew how to have a good time with stereotypes, The Hunger Games movie series is attractive because it is so eclectic, because it raids whatever cultural bank or shopping mall is handy … [Suzanne] Collins has said she got her idea for certain aspects of the series from watching footage of the Iraq War alternately with game shows. But how the movies manage so successfully to do the campy stuff along with troubled teenage romance and the desolation of bombed cities, is a question we would have to put to the directors, Gary Ross (Hunger Games) and Francis Lawrence (the other three films). It certainly works, because the comedy and romance and terror are vividly there.”
- Many of us are familiar with memory palaces—you know, mnemonic fortresses, vast spatial repositories of knowledge, what have you—but few of us have ever applied the concept on a scale as vast as The Chronographer of Ancient History, which Emma Willard made in 1851. It’s huge, and it’s only one part of her even larger Temples of Time series, which helped students memorize the names and eras of great philosophers, emperors, and poets, plus the rough history of Babylon, the Assyrian Empire, the Empire of David and Solomon, and much else in antiquity.
No one under the age of fifty really listens to Frank Sinatra anymore. Like anything else, there may be exceptions to this fact, but overall it’s true. Frank Sinatra is a legendary artist whose work will always be enjoyed and referred to. However, his era of direct relevancy is obviously long gone, and his era of anecdotal relevancy is starting to fade.
We associate Frank Sinatra with a bygone era of America, a time of guys and dolls, a time when people would swing and dance and when the lounge singer was king. Sinatra’s unique talent was maintaining this vision even as it eroded away over time—to make you feel old-fashioned feelings in a modern era. Sinatra’s heyday was from the late forties to the late fifties, yet he recorded “New York, New York” in 1977. And “My Way” makes you feel like a proud man looking over the skyline of post–World War II Manhattan, even in 2013.
Still, Sinatra’s most overlooked achievement is perhaps the one album he made that did not feel as though it was evoking the era he loved or knew the most. In 1969, the same year that Frank Sinatra recorded “My Way,” he released an album called Watertown. Chances are, even some of the biggest Sinatra fans—like my grandparents and great aunts and uncles—have forgotten about Watertown. But Watertown is Frank Sinatra’s best album and his most enduring contribution to American culture. Read More
My brief acquaintance with Barnaby Conrad, one of the bon vivant-iest of all modern bon vivant writers, happened because a stranger decided to wear a certain necklace one evening last fall. I’d been invited to a Fashion Week trunk show in one of New York City’s trendier hotels. I almost didn’t go. I hate trunk shows. But I did go, and the designer greeted me at the door. There was a lovely starkness about her: those gaunt cheekbones and long hands and limbs; Modigliani likely would have loved her. Dangling from a chain around her neck: a charming little brass charm in the shape of a bull.
“My father was a bullfighter,” explained the designer, who’d created the charm herself. “American. You’re an author, right? Then you probably know him: Barnaby Conrad, the writer.”
I did not, as a matter of fact, know Barnaby Conrad. Shame on me: as it turned out, Truman Capote had known Barnaby Conrad. So, for that matter, had Noel Coward and Eva Gabor and William F. Buckley. Sinclair Lewis, John Steinbeck, Alex Haley, and James Michener: they all knew him well. And Hemingway too—although, at one point, he apparently wished that he’d never even heard of Barnaby Conrad.
The first thing that you learned about Mr. Conrad, even when you met him in abstentia: he was charming and very appetite-driven. Two weeks ago, he died at the venerable age of ninety, having authored more than thirty-five books detailing, among other topics, his descent into alcoholism, the secrets of Hemingway’s Spain, and the hijinks of the international bon ton in midcentury San Francisco. He was a Renaissance man with a talent for dwelling at epicenters of rarified, exclusive realms: as one of history’s few high-visibility American bullfighters (while in Spain, he went by the name “El Niño de California,” i.e., the California Kid), the proprietor of a who’s-who nightclub, and also as an accomplished artist (several portraits of his famous friends hang in DC’s National Portrait Gallery). Read More
Over the past month or so, I have listened to John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, one of the greatest jazz vocal albums ever made, about once a day. I haven’t tired of it, which is a testament to its durability. But I think there’s more to it than that. I discovered John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman about four years ago, and it continues to enchant me. The album—composed of six slow yet easily digestible romantic ballads—may contain the most beautiful half hour of music I have heard on one CD.
I’m not trying to idealize the record. But I’m not alone in feeling so strongly. Writing in Esquire magazine in 1990, Daniel Okrent named John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman the greatest record ever made. Okrent admitted such a claim “is a fragile limb on which to walk.” But he stood firm. “If you want to argue,” Okrent wrote, “forget it; having listened to John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman for some fifteen years, I simply can’t be moved.”
Elena Passarello is a writer with a confident voice. Her first book is centered around that voice: in Let Me Clear My Throat, Passarello draws from her writing and acting background, and the result is a quirky blend of reportage and some personal narrative. In a recent e-mail interview, we discussed everything from the recent presidential campaign to a Stella screaming contest.
How did you choose your theme for your first book? Did you set out from the beginning to write an entire essay collection devoted to the human voice?
I had a few essays on voices before I began working on the essays that appear in this collection. I didn’t know that they were on voices at the time, however—I was just writing profiles, critical pieces, lyric stuff that all ended up using voice either as an entrance point or as an organizing principle. The first essay that I wrote for the collection was the one on the Wilhelm Scream. I first drafted it not as an essay on the voice, but as a simple unpacking of this very juicy and mysterious piece of pop culture. A few drafts in, however, I saw that I was, once again, threading ideas about the voice throughout it. The essay became about the fact that a human body had made this sound, and in doing so, that body embossed itself into every movie which used the clip. The essay became an exploration of the purposes a human scream serves—both in pre-civilized human life and contemporary culture. Around the time I finished the essay, I started thinking I could do a whole book about the sounds of the human throat.
Speaking of your essay on the Wilhelm Scream—a sound effect used in hundreds of movies—how did you first hear about it?
I was just Googling around for the correct spelling of Ennio Morricone’s name for a now-defunct project. I landed on an IMDb page for a movie Morricone had scored, and in the roll of facts on the film was “Wilhelm Scream at 88:02!” Read More
When recently asked his opinion of monogamy, John Waters said, “I don’t need another person to make me feel whole. I feel crowded.” The line immediately reminded me of ventriloquist Shari Lewis. Lewis wasn’t crowded, exactly, with only three enduring creations—Lamb Chop, Charlie Horse, and Hush Puppy—but to me her career is emblematic of the simultaneously crowded and lonely nature of puppeteering. By Lewis’s own admission, Lamb Chop’s Play-Along, which I grew up watching during its run on PBS from 1992 to 1997, had no educational content. (“My show is not organized to educate,” she said. “Sesame Street does that brilliantly.”) Instead, Play-Along was a serialized sock-puppet soap opera (“At Home with Lamb Chop”) which kept being interrupted by knock-knock jokes, songs, and gags (including an ingenious method of preslicing a banana so that it would tumble to pieces, Jenga-style, when unpeeled). The show was like Borscht Belt boot camp: a toolbox for kids who desperately wanted to be liked, full of little tricks to spruce up their personalities. Even Lamb Chop’s laugh—a hesitant, schmoozy laugh that usually comes in response to jokes she doesn’t quite understand—hints at her desire to fit in.
The show’s emphasis on showmanship stressed me out as a kid, and I preferred the “At Home with Lamb Chop” sequences. They were absorbingly plotted but also had none of the perils of interaction, of trying to woo friends, of trying to follow along at home with your own banana. “At Home with Lamb Chop” offered the comforting suggestion that friends weren’t necessary, that one could simply chop one’s own personality to bits, and, earthworm-style, the pieces would all sprout heads and start bickering.