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Posts Tagged ‘syphilis’

Black Pearls Before Swine

September 22, 2016 | by

Florence Foster Jenkins is remembered as a failed opera singer. What can we learn by listening to her today?

Florence Foster Jenkins.

When Florence Foster Jenkins made her self-financed public debut as a singer—in October 1944, when she was seventy-six—she sang “Clavelitos,” crying “Olé!” and flinging carnations at the audience in Carnegie Hall. For her encore, she had the carnations collected—and then pelted the crowd again. “Olé!” they roared back. Her friends cheered, hoping to drown out the screams of hilarity and derision.

Born in 1868 to a wealthy family in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, Jenkins had been a talented child pianist. She eloped with, then separated from, a man from whom she contracted syphilis, transforming herself into a working woman who supported herself with piano lessons; an heiress; and a socialite, arts patron, and founder of the musical Verdi Club. By 1944, she may or may not have known that her invitation-only recitals and vanity recordings of operatic arias had attracted a cult following. “People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing,” Jenkins famously (maybe apocryphally) said.

But soon after reading the New York Post’s damning assessment of her Carnegie Hall debut (“she can sing anything but notes”), Jenkins suffered a heart attack and, within weeks, died. Today, her notoriety endures in five plays and three films, including a new Meryl Streep movie, and in a tradition of private entertainments reminiscent of Jenkins’s own soirees: at midcentury critic and photographer Carl van Vechten’s parties, “Often the evenings were spent innocently, writhing on the floor in laughter at Florence Foster Jenkins.” Streep first heard her at a theater students’ gathering. Even I heard first Jenkins’s “Queen of the Night” over digestifs at a New York dinner party. Read More »

The Cows That Might’ve Been, and Other News

August 6, 2014 | by

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Charlotte Strick‘s preliminary designs for Lydia Davis’s latest book included these cows, illustrated by Ariana Nehmad.

  • “The image of a syphilitic Joyce is one that few scholars have wanted to conjure in print”—but evidence suggests that Joyce did indeed suffer from syphilis. It’s not just in his medical history but in Ulysses, where two scholars “found syphilis everywhere … Their journal article for Archives of Internal Medicine includes a two-page table listing apparent references to syphilitic symptoms throughout Ulysses … ‘The letter s hisses throughout the book as a reminder of the s in syphilis (a word that not only begins but also ends with s, as does the novel).”
  • In Greece, a new museum reconstructs the inventions of the ancients, “including Archimedes’ screw, the robot-servant of Philon, the automatic theatre of Heron, ancient war machines, and the famous analogue ‘computer’ of Antikythera.”
  • The Paris Review’s art editor, Charlotte Strick, discusses her process in designing the jacket for Lydia Davis’s Can’t and Won’t. “ ‘The Cows’ is the longest story in this collection, and cows by nature ‘can’t and won’t.’ They typically require a lot of waiting around. This sparked an idea early on in my design process … I tried an all-over wallpaper pattern of tiny cows that I imagined as a pre-printed case.”
  • A photo of brawling Ukrainian parliamentarians has all the beauty and compositional fluency of a Renaissance painting.
  • Scrabble has expanded its dictionary, adding some five thousand words—most of them are expectable neologisms like frenemy and bromance, but others are more novel: e.g., quinzhee, a shelter made by hollowing out a snow pile, and qajaq, an Inuit precursor to the Kayak.

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Cursive Matters, and Other News

June 4, 2014 | by

Cursive

Image via Wikimedia Commons

  • A new history argues that Joyce suffered from syphilis.
  • And a new study suggests unique cognitive benefits to learning to write in cursive: “In alexia, or impaired reading ability, some individuals who are unable to process print can still read cursive, and vice versa—suggesting that the two writing modes activate separate brain networks and engage more cognitive resources … cursive writing may train self-control ability in a way that other modes of writing do not, and some researchers argue that it may even be a path to treating dyslexia.”
  • In an ancient Chinese tomb, archaeologists have found three-thousand-year-old pants. “These pants, which were recovered from a tomb in China, are about four hundred years older than the previous record holder for ‘oldest pants.’”
  • At the Tate, “Crowds gather at the heart of Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs, drawn to an artless home movie showing the master at work. He looks, and was, extremely unwell … Art for him is the moment at which, to quote a remark he made about Snail, one becomes ‘aware of an unfolding’. ‘At this time of year,’ he wrote to a friend, ‘I always see the dried leaves on your table, catching fire as they pass under your fingers from death to life.’”
  • “Books do indeed furnish a room—but tobacco smoke gives it volume, substance and an aroma.”
  • In the forties, the U.S. Public Health Service gave this pamphlet to anyone whose home had been sprayed with DDT; it includes a poem of sorts. “Stay indoors at night / That is when malaria skeeters bite / But DDT upon your wall / will kill them if they call.”

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