Posts from the “History” Category

Match Race

Posted on June 22, 2015

Seabiscuit was an undersized, crooked-legged horse who was a champion napper. After years of floundering in the lowest ranks of horse racing, he was snapped up by a trainer and owner who understood him and who handled him so well, that he became an inspiration to a country that needed to see that the little guy could win.

Seabiscuit was a little horse with a big heart.

I’ve always loved this story and I have a bad habit of forcing Laura Hillenbrand’s masterful Seabiscuit: An American Legend on anyone who says they haven’t read it.

But I also turn to Hillenbrand’s book (and the above video of Biscuit’s historic match race with the Triple Crown winner War Admiral) at times when I need to remind myself that I have everything I need to cross the finish line, perhaps even by a couple of lengths. It is not easy, but as I’ve learned this past spring, it also helps to have a fantastic jockey…or at least some savvy people in your corner who can help you find the right, well-packed path.

I have no way of knowing how certain things will or won’t unfold. But I’ve dog-eared this account of what Seabiscuit’s jockey George Woolf did the night before his mount was to blaze around the track at Pimlico, leaving War Admiral far behind. Seabiscuit didn’t do well in the mud, but Woolf was determined to find a way to overcome that.

Hillenbrand writes:

A lone figure walked out onto the Pimlico dirt, clutching a flashlight. It was Woolf. The rainwater had not fully drained from the track, and he was concerned that Seabiscuit might struggle over the dampness. “Biscuit likes to hear his feet rattle” was how he put it. Turning down the lane, the jockey weaved back and forth, sweeping his flashlight beam from side to side, hunting for the driest, hardest path.

At the top of the homestretch Woolf stopped, testing the footing. In the soil beneath his feet, he could feel a firmer strip, the print of a tractor wheel that had lately rolled over the surface. The path was obscured by harrow marks. Walking the full length of the track, Woolf found that it circled the entire oval, a few feet from the rail.

He knew what he would have to do when the bell rang the following afternoon. “I figures to myself,” he said later,” “’Woolf, get on that lane and follow it.’” In the darkness of the last night of October 1938, George Woolf walked the course until he had memorized the path of the tractor print. Then he quickly stepped off the track.

“I knew it,” he said later, “like an airplane pilot knows a radio beam.”

— from Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand

Has there ever been a time in your life when someone has stepped in to show you the right, and well-worn path, for whatever reason? If so, when was that time, who was that person, and what was the ultimate result? Or, is there a story you turn to in order to get you through certain times in your life or projects that may bedevil you? What is that story and why does it appeal to you? Let me know in comments.

Postscript, August 12, 2015: Many thanks to Jane Dystel and Miriam Goderich for helping me find that tractor print. Now I’m off to the races and I couldn’t have done it without their guidance and support.

Quand Meme

Posted on April 6, 2015

A French Resistance leaflet from August 1940 on Gallica.fr. Though the number of resisters was not great in the beginning of World War 2, tracts like these provide fascinating insight into the lengths to which some Frenchmen were willing to go to push back against the Nazi occupiers and persuade their neighbors to tune into the BBC to hear General Charles de Gaulle. Pass it on…

Coco the Spy

Posted on December 3, 2014

Photo: AFP

Photo: AFP

On Monday, French historian Franck Ferrand said that documents locked away in French Ministry of Defense archives since World War II proved without a shadow of a doubt that Coco Chanel spied for the Nazis. Although her affairs with high-ranking German officers have been known about for years, this is the first time a French broadcaster has said that she actually gathered intelligence for occupying forces. Three years ago, American author Hal Vaughan’s book Sleeping with the Enemy shed the first light on the story with documents he culled from various archives in Paris, London, Berlin and Rome.

Ferrand spoke in a France 3 documentary called “The Shadow of  a Doubt” and said that Chanel used the code name “Westminster” — a reference to the fling she had with the Duke of Westminster in the 1920s — when she passed information to the Abwehr, Adolf Hitler’s secret military intelligence agency. The documentary went on to claim that the designer used her influence with the Germans in an effort to reclaim her perfume business, which had been sold to a Jewish family in 1924.

Ronald C. Rosbottom’s acclaimed history When Paris Went Dark shows how the French faced difficult choices during the Nazi occupation. The France 3 documentary illustrates this further with the information about Chanel. But it also questions the roles of Edith Piaf and Maurice Chevalier, whose careers thrived due to Germany’s policy of promoting French popular culture during the war.

It has been a good year for fresh looks at this complicated historical period. France 3’s historical drama “A French Village” has also been acclaimed for the realism with which it depicts Frenchmen during the Occupation. If only I could stream it here in the States…

Ballets Russes Program

Posted on October 23, 2014

Gallica.fr has a new feature on its site that allows you to embed some of its digitized treasures on your blog, etc. I’ll be experimenting with ways to use that feature here from time to time. In the meantime, I found this neat old Ballets Russes program from 1920 that may be of interest to the folks who just took my Lost Generation class at LSU a few weeks ago. Take a peek and let me know what you think in comments.

Bust of Napoleon III

Posted on October 23, 2014

A photo posted by @paigebowers on

I spent part of last week in Atlanta, visiting some of my favorite people, places and things. I love that no matter where I go and what I do, I always manage to find a bit of France. This time: It was Napoleon III in all his mustachioed glory.

Paris in the 1920s

Posted on August 25, 2014

I’ve been sifting through old letters, old songs, old video footage in preparation for the class I’ll be teaching in just a few weeks time. One of the gems I’ve come across is this vintage footage of Paris in the 1920s, a period which serves as the backdrop for a lot of the history and personalities I’ll cover.

The next time I go in front of my students, I’ll be armed with a microphone. As hard as I may have tried to project my voice in the first class I taught this spring, I just never seemed to project it enough. This time, I want to be sure they don’t miss one scintillating bit of my Francodorkery (she says with her tongue firmly planted in her cheek), even the little surprise I’m cooking up for them.

(Tap tap): Is this thing on?

Better yet, is this instructor on?

We’ll find out on September 15…

Gerald and Sara — Many Fetes

Posted on July 23, 2014

saraandgeralddancing

 Photo:  © Estate of Honoria Murphy Donnelly/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

I’ve been preparing a new class for LSU Continuing Education that I’ll teach this fall about the Lost Generation. Although it will discuss how World War I impacted the mindset of people in this time and influenced creative disciplines from writing to painting and dance to theater, it will also look at some of the personalities that became so famous — and infamous — during this era.

Obviously, my class will hear about Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein. But it will also learn about Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, the Ballets Russes and many others that were pushing the creative envelope in one of the world’s greatest cities — Paris, France. And it will also learn about some lesser-known, but no less influential folks, like the dancing couple up above. They’re Gerald and Sara Murphy, they were American and well-to-do and they mingled with pretty much everyone who was anyone creatively during this period. Ever heard the saying “Living Well Is The Best Revenge”? Well, Gerald Murphy coined it, and anyone in the Murphys’ orbit knew that few lived better and more interesting lives than that particular duo. Random facts about them: They were perhaps the first people in France to own a waffle iron, they had one of the best private collections of African-American spiritual music (which they sang in perfect two-part harmony at their cocktail parties), and they used to enlist Man Ray to shoot their family portraits.

Here is a 1962 profile written about the couple in The New Yorker.

The bottom line is that these were people you really needed to know. And I can’t wait to introduce them to my class in September.

One of the reasons why I can’t wait to talk about the Murphys is because you don’t really hear about the them a lot, unless you read very deeply about the Roaring Twenties. But you might have come across them (sort of) and not realized it, if you’ve ever read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1934 novel Tender Is The Night.

Many scholars agree that Fitzgerald modeled Dick and Nicole Diver after the Murphys for about the first half of the book, recreating their very charmed life in Paris and on the French Riviera for his readership. In the second half of the book, the Divers seem to become an entirely different couple and I’ll be talking about who that couple was and why scholars seem to think Scott seemed to have no qualms about such a mashup in his manuscript. He dedicated his book to the Murphys, but when they first read it, they felt betrayed.

One year after Tender’s publication, the Murphys were undergoing a terrible family tragedy. At that time, Gerald wrote Scott, saying “I know now that what you said in Tender in the Night is true. Only the invented part of our life — the unreal part — has had any scheme any beauty. Life itself has stepped in now and blundered, scarred and destroyed. In my heart I dreaded the moment when our youth and invention would be attacked in our only vulnerable spot…”

The Murphys have a wonderful and ultimately tragic story that I look forward to telling in about a month and a half from now, one that provides an interesting framework for a time and a people who may have felt likewise blundered, scarred and destroyed. If you’re in the Baton Rouge area, I hope you’ll consider taking the class to find out more about them. If not, please stay tuned here as I share anecdotes, pictures, videos and music that I’ll be featuring in the class.

And if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask away in comments.

Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello

Posted on July 17, 2014

monticello

 

About a month ago, I visited my mother in Virginia for her birthday. Mom is a big Thomas Jefferson buff, and has probably read every single solitary thing ever written about him. So my sister, brother-in-law and I took her down to Charlottesville to visit his home Monticello. As you can see from his tombstone, Jefferson wanted to be remembered for these three accomplishments:

jeffersontombstone

 

I would like to point out that his tombstone says nothing about his gardening prowess, about how he was someone who brought back all manner of interesting vegetables from his travels and exchanged seeds with his neighbors and really lit it up with his green thumbery (a word I just invented to get the snark out of my system).  Although Jefferson was innovative in his garden designs and techniques, he actually messed up a lot of things (just like I do) and, in fact, died in debt because of his storied plots (which I hope not to do).  These facts are deceiving when you look around the grounds of Monticello and see things like this:

monticellogardenvines

 

Or even this:

spanishonion

 

And then you think “Well, why can’t I grow White Spanish onions that get that big and full? Come to think of it, why can’t I grow onions, period?” Hearing the tour guides tell stories about his gardening struggles, you realize Jefferson might have asked himself the same question at some point. And then you kind of like how that little fact brings a certain someone’s favorite founding father down to Earth a wee bit.

Ending thought: I wonder if he struggled with pesky red ants too.

****

My little backyard plot has been producing Ichiban eggplant. I am the only person in my household who will eat eggplant voluntarily, so I’ve been looking for ways to trick the other two folks in this household into eating it too. Otherwise, I will be drawing a lot of uneaten eggplant for the rest of the summer.

Like this:

ichibaneggplantsketch

I found the solution to my eggplant problem Saturday night: Fried eggplant crisps, a small plate on Beausoleil’s dinner menu.

Here’s what you do: You skin the eggplant, then slice it into thin rounds. Then, you prepare three separate bowls, one with flour, the second with an egg white wash, the third with Italian-seasoned Panko bread crumbs. Put the rounds into the egg wash first, then into the flour, then back into the egg wash and then into the Panko crumbs. Fry the rounds in a cast-iron skillet full of hot vegetable oil until they are golden brown. Drain the rounds on paper towels and then season lightly with sea salt. Serve with a tangy marinara.

friedeggplant

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And finally, web addresses of a few things I liked from this Virginia trip that I think you might like too:

* Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. The founding father’s home, gardens and family cemetery are open for tours every day (except Christmas). Visit the web site for more details.

*L’Etoile Restaurant. About 10 minutes from Monticello, the restaurant offers French-Virginian style dining Tuesday-Saturday. The menu showcases fresh and seasonal ingredients, so it is subject to change from time to time. When I visited, they had an excellent hanger steak with roasted potatoes and asparagus, a delicious Korean braised pork belly, and a tender seared duck breast with caramelized local peaches. Definitely worth a visit!

* Riverby Books. My mother is also a big fan of Fredericksburg, Va, so we spent the day there the day after her birthday. She and I both like independently owned bookstores and this one is a new addition to my favorites list. There’s great overstuffed vintage chairs, and an interesting mix of used books, old maps, antiques and other little what-nots.

Monday Reader: Bastille Day Edition

Posted on July 14, 2014

bastilleday

 

Today is Bastille Day, the French equivalent of our July 4. Here are a few interesting reads and things about it from around the web:

From Deceptive Cadence, NPR Classical’s blog, here’s a quiz about the French national anthem, known as ‘La Marseillaise.’ I scored six out of six on it. But then again, I am just the type of person whose ears perk up and eyes get misty every time this tune is played.  For a wonderful old recording of the song, visit Gallica.fr, the web site of the Bibliotheque Nationale, for this treat from 1908.

From USA Today, an explainer about why Americans should care about France’s fete nationale.

From France24.com, an interview with Christophe Bertonneau, the mastermind of this year’s breathtaking fireworks display, which was fired straight from the Eiffel Tower. If you can get your hands on YouTube video of this spectacle, which commemorated the 100th anniversary of World War I, you won’t regret it.

From The New Yorker’s News Desk, an item about this annual military display and the struggle to acknowledge contributions from colonial troops from countries like AlgeriaThe Christian Science Monitor reports that for the first time ever, three Algerian vets were invited to take part in the parade. But it also gives a good primer on the complicated relationship between the two countries, which has existed since the early nineteenth century.

From cbsnews.com, a slideshow about the celebration.

From The New York Times’ T Magazine Blog, a timely ode to le grand aioli complete with a recipe.

Did you read anything about Bastille Day that you found interesting? If so, what was it? And if you have any questions about Paris, Bastille Day, or France in general, please don’t hesitate to ask me in comments.

 

 

Summer Hours

Posted on July 9, 2014

Photo: Paige Bowers

Photo: Paige Bowers

This blog has had a major case of summer hours for the past two months. It’s partly because of travel, partly because of work and partly because of the usual sweep of family life when school is out of session. Since I last posted, I went to South Florida and (among other things) learned how to cook Greek food, sat in a near-deafening bar in my hometown and watched Miss USA contestants wage karaoke war, and ventured deep into the heart of Texas to discover a treasure trove of European historical manuscripts. I’ve sampled microbrews with my mother in a Northern Virginia RV park (Seriously), bought matching French National Soccer team jerseys with my daughter (oh, la tristesse), and done a fair amount of home improvement projects in this old house, which we moved into a little more than a year ago now.

This list is by means a comprehensive rundown of the past few months. But it does paint a picture, no?

Finally, there is the garden, which is producing plenty of tasty treats. One of the most exciting: Butternut squash, which is pictured above. I tried to grow these in my last garden, but an unexpected frost wiped out all of my plants. This year, I was determined to make sure that didn’t happen. So far…knock wood.

More dispatches to come.