A Sideways Glare at Contemporary Society
1915 – Arthur Miller an American playwright who wrote Death of a Salesman in 1949. At any given time, there are more high schools performing Death of a Salesman than any other play – except, perhaps, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. First of all, it’s easy – no costumes, no sets – and secondly, it’s a great play. In 1953, Miller wrote The Crucible a thinly disguised indictment of the HUAC and the McCarthy communist witch hunts. HUAC didn’t like being made fun of: in 1956, Miller was subpoenaed to appear before the committee. When he wouldn’t name names, he was charged with contempt of Congress and blacklisted. In the late 50s Miller wrote The Misfits, a dramatic vehicle for his wife who was tired of playing dumb blonde romantic comedies. It was Marilyn Monroe’s last movie.
1933 – Jeanine Deckers, who was known for a short period as “The Singing Nun.” Deckers’ story is the quintessential tale of a “one hit wonder” gone wrong. In 1963, her song “Dominique” was discovered and played on the radio, ad infinitum. In January, 1964, she appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. A wave of nunophilia swept the world. In 1966, her song was made into a movie called The Singing Nun, starring Debbie Reynolds. Not to be out-done, ABC produced a TV series starring Sally Field called The Flying Nun. In 1969, Elvis Presley and Mary Tyler Moore made a movie about nuns called Change of Habit. Deckers, herself, left the convent to pursue a singing career, but by that time, public sentiment had changed, and “nuns” were over — singing or otherwise. She failed miserably. Meanwhile the Belgian tax man came calling, wanting his share of the revenue generated by “Dominique” and unwilling to take “nun” for an answer. Broke and, probably, disillusioned, Deckers and her longtime companion, Anna Pecher, sat down one night in 1985 and shared an adult beverage and a huge overdose of barbiturates.
1931 – Al Capone was convicted of Income Tax evasion and sentenced to 11 years in prison. Capone was not the biggest crook in the world, but he certainly had the highest profile. He was born in New York City, which, at the turn of the last century, was a virtual incubator for criminals. He moved to Chicago in the early 20s and set about establishing himself as the go-to guy for bootlegging, prostitution, gambling and murder. At the height of his power, the Chicago Outfit was making over $100 million a year (and that’s in 1920s dollars.) He ordered the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929, an execution-style killing of seven members of rival Bugs Moran’s North Side Gang. This brought Capone front and centre before the Bureau of Prohibition, and they sent in Special Agent Eliot Ness and he Untouchables. This is the stuff that legends are made of.
1973 – In the midst of the Yom Kippur War, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) imposed a crude oil embargo – first on, the United States and then on most western industrial nations. This is the first time that the Third World or developing nations had flexed their economic muscles and the short term impact was devastating. Within months the price of crude oil went through the roof and the world economy teetered on the verge of collapse. Oil producing nations became super-rich and most industrial nations went into an inflationary recession. That was in the short term. In the long term, the world did not give up its dependency on oil (although it should) and the price continues to escalate. However, the industrial west managed to absorb the shock and adapt to the new situation. On the other hand, nobody knows what the developing nations are doing with their piles of petro-dollars, and they are still “developing” – except Dubai, which is bankrupt.
1910 – Julia Ward Howe, the woman who wrote “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The music had been around for years and had been taken up by the Union Army as a marching song called “John Brown’s Body”, during the Civil War. Howe must have heard the tune many times as Union troops marched south to do battle. According to Howe, she woke up one morning with the poem completely formed in her mind, and all she did was write it down. It was published in The Atlantic Monthly in February, 1862. It immediately became synonymous with the Union side in the Civil War and has since become a standard at American political gathering. The lyrics have been rewritten many times, most famously as “Solidarity Forever” the trade union anthem. In 1973, Elvis sang An American Trilogy which combines “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” with “Dixie” and “All My Trials.” He is probably the only performer who could get away with that south of the Mason Dixon line.
2001 – Jay Livingston, who won 3 Academy Awards for Best Original Song: “Buttons and Bows” in 1948, “Mona Lisa” in 1950 and Doris Day’s signature tune “Que Sera, Sera” (Whatever Will Be, Will Be) in 1956. He also wrote the theme music for the TV series Mr. Ed and Bugs Bunny’s opening number “This Is It.” Probably his best known work, however, is the theme for Bonanza which originally had lyrics so god-awful they were dropped after the first show. You can still find it, with the lyrics, on YouTube, and it’s hilarious.