- Frei Otto, the German architect whose tensile, tent-like constructions were marvels of structural engineering, has died at eighty-nine. He designed his bubbles, webs, and wings to use as few materials as possible; they challenged conventions of durability and permanence. “Why should we build very large spaces when they are not necessary?” he once asked. “We can build houses which are two or three kilometers high and we can design halls spanning several kilometers and covering a whole city—but we have to ask, What does it really make? What does society really need?”
- Tim Youd’s project to retype all of Lucky Jim, mentioned here yesterday, is an act of intellectual lunacy lifted straight from the pages of Borges—in “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” Borges tells of a man who aspires to rewrite all of Cervantes’s masterpiece line-by-line by inhabiting the depths of its author’s soul: “The initial method that he imagined was relatively simple. Get to know Spanish well, recover his Catholic faith, fight against the Moors or against the Turk, forget the history of Europe between 1602 and 1918, be Miguel de Cervantes. Pierre Menard studied this procedure … but dismissed it as too easy.”
- “A well-traveled branch of futuristic fiction explores worlds in which artificial creatures—the robots—live among us, sometimes even indistinguishable from us … Take Twitter. Or the Twitterverse. Twittersphere. You may think it’s a stretch to call this a ‘world,’ but in many ways it has become a toy universe, populated by millions, most of whom resemble humans and may even, in their day jobs, be. But increasing numbers of Twitterers don’t even pretend to be human.” James Gleick on the gradual, mediocre rise of Twitter bots, which have introduced a kind of artificial intelligence that almost no one is in awe of: “this is how the future really happens, so ordinary that we scarcely notice.”
- On academe’s willful ignorance of African literature: “As long as critics and publishers frame African literature as always on the cusp, it will continue to be an emerging literature whose emergence is infinitely deferred. It will remain utopian, just out of reach. It’s long past time to get over this narrative. Its function is, simply, to excuse and legitimize the ignorance of those who have chosen to ignore African literature.”
- On December 4, 1891, America had what’s believed to be its first suicide bombing. Its target was Russell Sage, a financier who “reportedly had more ready cash at his disposal than any other person in the U.S. What nobody yet understood—except for the unfortunate occupants of the financier’s wrecked office—was that a crazed man had just targeted Sage for attack. Even though Sage survived it, the assault had an effect that the assailant never intended: a remarkable redistribution of the vast riches of one of the most notorious robber barons of the Gilded Age.”
“Gilded New York,” an exhibition up at the Museum of the City of New York right now, showcases the ostentatious visual culture of late-nineteenth-century elites. A friend and I went last weekend, in the midst of a heavy snow. There are impossibly elaborate Worth gowns, impossibly ornate Tiffany jewels. There are idealized portraits and embellished vases. There are the McKim, Mead & and White mansions that dotted Fifth Avenue, and photo after photo of jam-packed (but highly exclusive) balls. If you’ve been reading any Wharton or James lately, I highly recommend it.
One portion of the exhibition features a slideshow of party-goers, many of them costumed, at the landmark balls of the era. Mrs. W. K. Vanderbilt’s 1883 fancy dress ball was one such: a game-changer that established the nouveau-riche Vanderbilts—and their brand-new Fifth Avenue mansion—as social forces to be reckoned with. There doesn’t seem to have been a theme, as such, to the costumes, other than general lavishness. As the New York Times reported, in the months leading up to the ball “amid the rush and excitement of business, men have found their minds haunted by uncontrollable thoughts as to whether they should appear as Robert Le Diable, Cardinal Richelieu, Otho the Barbarian, or the Count of Monte Cristo, while the ladies have been driven to the verge of distraction in the effort to settle the comparative advantages of ancient, medieval, and modern costumes.”
In the end, people seem to have gone for all of the above: while royalty and nobility of all eras and nations were well represented, the ball also featured Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt II as “Electric Light” (interpreted by Worth/Mainbocher), and a King Lear “in his right mind,” while Miss Kate “Puss” Fearing Strong sported a taxidermied cat’s head as a hairpiece, and had seven real cat tails sewn to the skirt of her gown. Most of the costumes seem to have been recognizable enough, but one can’t help thinking that all evening long Ward McAllister must have had to go around saying, “No, I’m Comte de la Mole! You know, the Huguenot lover of Margaret of Anjou? Whose embalmed head she carried around?” (On the other hand, perhaps Gilded Age society was really up on their Stendhal. Or even their Dumas.) Read More
I’ve been marveling over Jeet Heer’s In Love with Art, a monograph on Françoise Mouly, an editor (The New Yorker, RAW) and publisher whose significance has long been underappreciated. Trust Heer not to make that mistake; he credits Mouly as having had “as massive and transformative an impact on comics as Ezra Pound had on modernist literature, Max Perkins on early-twentieth-century American novels or Gordon Lish on contemporary fiction.” No small claim, but Mouly is truly without peer. She made her way through the male-dominated comics scene by helping to carve out a place for that work in the world. She not only edited and designed and colored the covers of RAW, she manned the presses. In fact, the photographs of Mouly helming the Multilith press she and Spiegelman had in their loft are pretty great. What can’t she do? —Nicole Rudick
I was the last of three siblings to move to New York—and was very much a beneficiary, when I finally arrived, of my brother and sister’s having made a familial haunt of B&H, the longstanding East Village diner. (Never been? Brave the cold and treat yourself to a bowl of New York’s very best borscht.) I came upon a brief history of the place this week on Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, which features photos from the collection of Florence Bergson Goldberg (the daughter of founder Abie Bergson—the “B” of B&H) and reminiscences from longtime counterman Leo Ratnofsky. Profiled in a Talk of the Town piece in 1978, Ratnofsky had this to say on the last morning of his thirty-eight-year stint: “I don’t feel bad about leaving the place. I’ve got bad feet, my fingernails are being eaten away from squeezing oranges. But to leave all these people—that makes me feel like crying. These actors and actresses, the hippies, the yippies, the beatniks, the bohemians, people who’ve run away from God knows where—I’ve always felt an attraction to them. Especially the starving ones.” —Stephen Hiltner
Purple Snow is a four-LP salute to the progenitors of the Minneapolis Sound, a brand of synth-driven R&B that came bounding out of the City of Lakes in the late seventies—it was a flurry of creativity that culminated in the rise of Prince and the propulsive, eminently danceable pop of the eighties. Jon Kirby wrote the compilation’s prodigious liner notes, which come in a handsome clothbound book (purple, of course). Full of photographs and interviews, the notes are smart and disarmingly personal: they tell the story of an ambitious, competitive, and deeply intimate community of musicians who left an indelible mark on music, even if only one of them went on to superstardom. —Dan Piepenbring Read More
I recently found myself in need of an inexpensive suit that didn’t look like I picked it up at a Salvation Army. Like countless other men in the same position, I headed to J.Crew. As I walked over the wide-planked wood floors of the store, I admired the chain’s decor: framed copies of jazz albums issued in the 1950s by Columbia and Blue Note, movie posters from the French New Wave, Japanese fashion magazines, and a case full of leather bracelets, flasks, and knives. While one man took my measurements, I cheerily pointed to a copy of Leonard Cohen’s book Beautiful Losers, which was nestled atop a display of shirts and quoted the author’s best advice: Cohen “never discusses his mistresses or his tailor.” The man laughed uncomfortably, then, looking at the book, admitted he wasn’t actually a tailor (“I just work here on the weekends”) and revealed that the copy of Beautiful Losers, along with the other books scattered around the store, were really just for show.
Long before Abercrombie & Fitch became a fixture in shopping malls across America, it was one of the first places Ernest Hemingway would visit when he came to New York. Fitzgerald and Plimpton favored Brooks Brothers, and Tom Wolfe crafted his trademark around New York tailor Vincent Nicolosi’s white suits. Well-dressed writers are far from an anomaly, but recently there’s been a twist in this trend: books are becoming the dressings for brands. Read More