Sir Charles Henry Augustus Frederick Lockhart Ross, 1872-1942: Loaded for Bear

Read at any length about the Vietnam war and you will come across accounts of American GIs ditching  their M-16 rifles in favor of Kalashnikovs, a weapon better suited to abuse and jungle life.   It’s not the first nor probably the last time this sort of thing has happened.  Back in World War One, there was a similar problem with the Mark III Ross rifle, the brain child of  Sir Charles Henry Augustus Frederick Lockhart Ross.

Ross was born at Balnagown, Scotland, one of those Downton Abbey type estates, encompassing 350,000 (eventually 366,000) acres and 3,000 tenants.  He inherited the Baronetcy at age eleven,  making the lucky pre-teen the largest landowner in Scotland.  Continue reading

Harry Champion,1865-1942; I Am, I Am

The  top-selling pop act in the US in 1965 was not the Beatles, not the Rolling Stones, not Elvis, Frank, or Liberace, but Herman’s Hermits.  Make of that whatever you will, but if you were alive at that time, you will have the have ear-worm of I’m Henry VIII, I Am.

Not one of Peter Noone’s own compositions, of course.  It was Harry Champion’s signature song (written by Fred Murray and R.P. Weston in 1910).  He was also famous for light classics like “Any Old Iron” (see also David Jones before he was a Monkee, and Peter Sellers while he was a Goon).

Born William Henry Crump, Champion started out as apprentice to a boot clicker, but, well, Art was calling for him.  Continue reading

Elizabeth Phillips,1866–1948: Hotels on Boardwalk

When the power went for better part of a week during Super Storm (not Hurricane) Sandy, our household was thrown back to earlier, more primitive diversions than television or the internet.   Among these was Monopoly.

I’d only vaguely remembered just how irritating a game it really was after the first dozen or so rotations.  Memories of irritated, not to say angry, young children who were left out on the street despite having hotels on Board Walk and Park Place.  What kind of crummy game was this, anyway?

Turns out, anger and irritation was the whole idea. Continue reading

Judith Blunt-Lytton (1873-1957): The Case of Byron’s Slippers

I was reading Artemis Cooper’s biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor and came across the anecdote of Lord Byron’s slippers.  I’d read it before (it’s part of Leigh Fermor’s book of travels in Greece, Roumeli) , but I had forgotten it long since.  The only reason I pricked up my ears this time is that it referred to Judith Blunt-Lytton, 16th Baroness Wentworth,  who I had occasion to mention in this previous post.

Fermor first.  He was a cheerfully wayward autodidact , charmer, adventurer, writer, war hero and social climber who had a particular affection for all things Greek.

As a favor to a friend who was trying to compile a definitive collection of Lord Byron’s letters with a view towards publication (it happened, you can find them here),  Leigh Fermor and a friend  who happened to be on good terms with Lady Wentworth went down to Crabbet Hall for lunch. Continue reading

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

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

Dr. James Grainger, 1721-1767; “Come, Muse, Let’s Sing of Rats”

Grainger comes up as candidate for worst English poet of all time in the anthologies, and  the title line is cited as an opening so unintentionally droll as to have brought down the house  when he first declaimed it in public.

Good joke.  It was not the opening of an epic poem, but rather part of longer poem, and misquoted besides:

“Now, Muse, let us sing of rats.”

Okay, so who is the fellow and what’s up with the rats?  I mean to say – rats? Continue reading

Count Sergei Witte, 1849-1915: Another Man of Steel

Tales of Imperial Russia: The Life and Times of Sergei Witte, 1849-1915, Francis Wcislo, Oxford University Press.

A minor Russian aristocrat of German-Baltic roots, hence the surname, and a cousin of Madame Blavatsky.  His own mysterious powers were  a little more earthbound  than hers.

Witte was one of those provincial top-of-the-class boys who was smarter than you and he knew it.  He shamed his parents by opting to study mathematics rather than law at U of Odessa, with the aim of teaching at the college level.  That was apparently too low an ambition for the family, and therefore scotched.

Instead he went into the high tech hot subject of the day – railroads. Continue reading

Colonel Francis Maceroni, 1788-1846: On the Road Again

When London roads are paved with wood,
Long live Maceroni.
We’ll go in for something good
Saved out of our coal money.

The doggerel was chanted by the good people of London on the subject of recent advances in street coverage, and yes, it was wood.  Wooden blocks were as a kind of cheap and sturdy paver for the otherwise dirt lined streets of London.  Problem was that, unlike, say, bricks or Belgian blocks, they could be burned – and it was cheaper to heat the house with public wooden blocks than private coal. The Maceroni in in question in his book Hints to Paviers (sic) 1827, which, while recognizing macadam though fine for the country road, found it less successful in the more traveled city, and lays out the benefits of wooden pavers already used successfully on the continent. Continue reading

Theodore Roosevelt, 1858-1919; Bully for Him

 Theodore Roosevelt by Lewis L. Gould, Oxford University Press.

In an age of the kitchen-sink-and-all cinderblock biography,  the art of the short potted life story was for some years neglected.  Then Penguin began to put out the Brief Lives series and rekindled the format.  A good thing, really.  Life is short.

At 78 pages of text, Gould’s Theodore Roosevelt  runs the risk of being a little too brief, not quite Wikipedia fodder, but still, pushing the limits.  Bit of a tour de force, considering all that the author has to include-  Roosevelt forebears, childhood, schooling, stints as New York State Assemblyman, Governor of New York, Vice President, deputy sheriff in the Dakota Territory, Police Commissioner of New York  City, U.S. Civil Service Commissioner, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Lieutenant Colonel United States Army, Vice President, president, and post-president.  Each one is enough for a book, and in some cases have gotten them. Continue reading