Robert L. Ripley 1893 – 1949: Born on Christmas Day, Believe it or Not

He was one of those journalists who learned the craft on the job, and never mind about some fancy degree.  He was a jock more than a scholar, a high school drop-out (there was a time when a high school diploma meant rather more in America than it does now), and despite his lack of credentials, managed to segue from minor league baseball into writing sports for the New York papers.

He also liked to draw.  On a whim on a slow day, he did a nine panel cartoon showing some oddball sports (backward running contest) which hit a chord.  It also hit the attentio0n of William Randolph Hearst who knew a good thing when he saw it. Thus was born Ripley’s Believe it or Not!. Continue reading

Isabella Andreini, 1562-1604: An Actor’s Life For Me

Cineasts may remember the film Stage Beauty all about Nell Gwynne convincing Charles II to keep Edward Kynaston from playing female roles that could be better served by first female actress Margaret Hewes (1645-1719).

Behind the times as usual.  By the time Ms Hewes was born, the Italians had already buried and praised Isabella Andreini, as one of the finest exponents of Commedia dell’Arte.

Rather modern in concept, was Commedia dell’Arte, performance art by  stock characters  – Pulcinello, Arlecchino –  often with stock masks (a throwback to Roman stage craft) and very loose scripts if scripts there were at all. Think An Evening At The Improv,  with a touch of audience participation.  You had to be quick to take on that kind of job. Continue reading

François de la Chaise, S.J., 1624 – 1709: Requiscat in Pace

For a certain kind of tourist, one major draw to Paris is  Jim Morrison’s grave at Père Lachaise cemetery.

Well, we all have our slightly ghoulish sides, I suppose, and graveyards are generally peaceful places, even those with lizard kings and other assorted hell-raisers.

The cemetery itself was a creation of the First French Republic, Bonaparte declaring that even the non-Catholics of the world had the right to be buried somewhere.   Not that France at the time was overflowing with non-Catholics.   1804 being one of those Age of Reason years, the authorities felt no need to consecrate the place, and so good Catholics (and presumably even bad Catholics hedging their bets) stayed away in droves.

Faced with this clear and utter flop, the Public Relations folk stepped in. How to make the neighborhood desirable?  You bring the artists in, of course.  Officials dug up  Molière (a comic playwright – fitting, no?) and re-potted him on the hillside.  Still nothing. Okay, let’s go the romantic route, make a memorial for Abelard and Hèloise.

It appears to have done the trick – we are talking France, after all, and who better to combine religion and l’amour than those two?  The place hasn’t looked back since. You want in? Take a number. Continue reading

John Elwes, 1714 – 1789: Bah, Humbug

The man was said to be the template for Ebenezer Scrooge, and superficially there seems something of a case to be made.  In the end, however, he was far stranger than that, and one wonders that Dickens could not have done more with him.

He was born John Meggot (or Meggott) to a prosperous brewer who died when John was four years old, leaving a fortune of over £150,000.   Bereaved by her loss and presumably terrified of going into principle, Mom died of starvation.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man man possessed of a good fortune (and unencumbered by parents)  must be in want of a good time.  He had been a scholar at Westminster, liked high society, and liked riding. He liked travel as well, and spent some time in  Switzerland.  (Voltaire was supposedly the main attraction- Elwes preferred the horses.)  Continue reading

Charles Dickens 1812 -1870: An Actor Turned Writer on a Writer Turned Actor

Charles Dickens and The Great Theatre of the World by  Simon Callow, Vintage Books.

Moliere did it, by all accounts so did Shakespeare, and when you consider that the actor’s greatest tool is observation, and their greatest use of it, characterization, you wonder why writers, who also have to create characters, don’t cross this line more often than they do.  But writers are introverted people – aren’t they? They are alienated, self absorbed, at odds with the cosmos they inhabit, unconcerned by such quotidian niceties as the physical world around them – aren’t they?

Maybe not.  Charles Dickens certainly was not.  If anyone was ever forced into this world like a needle into an epidermis, then surely it was Dickens.  He was the most tirelessly observant person anyone could remember ever meeting. Without looking at anything in particular, Dickens wrote of himself as a young man, he had missed nothing.  How many of us can say the same? Continue reading

Rosina Bulwer Lytton (née Rosina Doyle Wheeler; 1802 –1882) ; A Woman Scorned

“The first mistake I made was being born at all, though, like most of the serious errors that may be laid at my door through life, I had no choice and little part in the matter.”

Hm, sounds pretty bad.  And when did this unfortunate event take place?

“At ten o’clock of a dreary drizzling November morning…”

At least it was not a dark and stormy night, which is really quite the pity as our subject was the wife of Edward Bulwer Lytton, author of the great cliche.

He’s well enough known, of course, if mostly as a butt of cheap shots based on his failure to please current tastes in prose.   Continue reading

Johann Konrad Dippel, 1673 – 1734: Walk of Life

A theologian, medical doctor, and alchemist.  He it was who came up with Berliner Blau, aka Preussisch Blau, aka Prussian Blue.

Dibbel was the son of a vicar, and one of those articulate and passionate golden boys too smart for his own good and made the worse by a touch of innate contrariness. for its own sake.  His M.A. thesis in theology was titled  De Nihilo.

However goth seeming in theory,  in practice he was quite fervent as far as his theology went.  Lutheran theology, that is.  Nothing more rancorous than a dispute between revolutionaries.  In the case of Dippel, it boiled down to – Orthodoxy Good, Pietism Bad.  On later reflection and perhaps nudged by the cold fact that Orthodoxy did not look good on job applications, he would reverse the order.   Just as well, really.  Under Orthodoxy, he had killed a man in a duel, a misadventure that forced him on the road (something he would have to get used to). Continue reading

Fred E. Weatherly, K.C., 1843-1929: From Glen to Glen

Keep writing long enough and something’s bound to stick. (Well, not really, but that’s what keeps a lot of would-be writers going.)

Fred Weatherly, a classicist by training, a barrister by profession, a poet and lyricist by avocation,  wrote literally thousands of songs in his time and although  chances are good that you’ve never heard of any of them (with one exception), your great-grandparents generation knew them well.  Back in the day of parlor pianos,  popular music was a home-made commodity, and best sellers were in the sheet music.  (Anyone could get into the act.  My own great-great-grandfather added at least one forgotten classic to the pile.) Continue reading

Jesse W. Reno, 1861 -1947: Up the Down Stair Case

My aunt who lived in Brazil in the 1950s once told me that when the escalator was installed in a local department store, the locals were so unnerved that they would not use it until it was turned off.

One sees their point.

The first escalator, dubbed the circular stairway, was an 1859 idea by Nathan Ames,  of Massachusetts that never got off the ground.   The inclined elevator, which did get off the ground, was the creation of Jesse Reno, son of the Union Civil War general Jesse L. Reno.

He came up with the idea at the age of sixteen, before attending college.   Continue reading