10 April 2021

How It Happened In Tennessee: The 19th Amendment

This one has it all: feuds, sudden victories, shock defeats, smoke-filled rooms, betrayal, transcriptionists. And we open to 1920 and a young Jewish woman scouring the East Tennessee mountains.

Anita Pollitzer was a Charleston-born photographer and force of nature with a drawl. In her twenty-five years, Pollitzer had already turned the New York art world onto her pal Georgia O’Keefe. Pollitzer's second famous act was unfolding over a country tour rounding up legislator assurance for women's suffrage. She'd had leapt through the National Woman’s Party ranks as a crack organizer, and winning the vote anytime soon had come down to the Tennessee Legislature. Yes, Tennessee. The Woman’s Party, forever cash-strapped, sent Pollitzer to secure the eastern delegation. All of them.

Niota, Tennessee sits in the ridgelines between Knoxville and Chattanooga. In 1920, Niota was the home of Representative Harry Burn, a rising Republican star and relationship banker. Try as she might, Pollitzer couldn't be everywhere. A stop in remote Niota ate through precious time and scarce funds. Fair enough. Pollitzer cornered Burn on the telephone, and when Pollitzer had someone cornered, they knew it. Burn pledged his vote for the Suffs. Pollitzer moved to corner the next guy.

Cut to Nashville and one Edward Bushrod Stahlman, an ex-L&N Railroad exec turned newspaper publisher. Stahlman had forged the afternoon Nashville Banner into a regional conservative powerhouse. In non-unrelated business, he remained the railroads’ go-to lobbyist around these parts. As prickly personalities and successful businessmen will do, he’d made enemies.

Such as Luke Lea, publisher of the rival Tennessean. In 1913, Lea had gone from U.S. Senator to ex-U.S. Senator thanks to Stahlman backing an ouster. Lea had gotten it in his head to investigate the railroads' political influence and possible local corruption. Lea seemed to loathe Stahlman so much that many a morning The Tennessean portrayed Stahlman as a disloyal German, Lea being just back from distinguished service in WWI. Lea held such a grudge against things German that he’d tried– actually tried– and failed a caper to kidnap the exiled Kaiser. Lea ran The Tennessean as a progressive voice that strongly backed– wait for it--popular election of U.S. senators. Also Prohibition and now women’s suffrage. Pretty much whatever Lea was for, Stahlman and The Banner were inclined to be against.

Edward Stahlman
(Nashville Library Special Collection)

Mind you, Stahlman had backed Tennessee's 1919 partial suffrage bill passed while Lea was off chasing the Kaiser. And Stahlman professed support even for making suffrage universal--until he was against it. A states rights guy, what bothered Stahlman wasn’t women voting per se but Washington mandating that women could vote. It was the principle of thing, see?

Also, there was money to be made. Big Railroad wanted their, ahem, investment in the Legislature protected. Big Liquor feared pro-temperance Suffs who’d already slapped Prohibition on everyone. Big Manufacturing thought women voters would push through dangerous and radical ideas like child labor laws. Well-funded lobbyists organized a fierce--and whiskey-soaked--persuasion campaign, with The Banner as their afternoon voice.

Though not always the loudest voice. The Anti's logic went that, if you’re going to convince women not to push for voting rights, you have to make it appear like most women don’t want voting rights. Enter Josephine Pearson of Monteagle, an Anti writer of scathing editorials and a former college dean installed as President of the Tennessee State Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage. Well-regarded and accomplished, she was the sort of successful career woman her speeches warned America about.

Here came the broadsides. The rough-and-tumble of politics would corrupt womanly virtue. Politics would overtax the female brain and thus shrink the womb. Thus, suffrage doomed motherhood itself and by implication America, hot dogs, apple pie.

The Hermitage Hotel, 100 years on
Both sides threw everything they had into the War of the Roses. Suffs pinned yellow roses to pledge lapels. The Anti pinned (paper) red ones on their supporters. The swank Hermitage Hotel, a mere plaza away from the Capitol, became ground zero for charm offensives, pay-offs, sex traps, fist fights, death threats, fake telegrams about dying children, and Big Liquor's 24/7 Jack Daniels speakeasy on the eighth floor. It became impossible to find a legislator sober enough to lobby.

The Anti strategy was working, despite a quick loss in the Senate. The doomed womb and states rights arguments provided cover for House members worried that women voting also included black women. Bribes didn’t hurt, either. Suff support collapsed in the House, and Rep. Burn of Niota was among the defectors.

They thought they had it won, Pearson and old Stahlman. By a narrow margin, sure, but they didn't need a blowout. Stahlman himself delivered a seal-the-deal address on the House floor condemning undue influences meddling in Tennessee's business. The Antis had underestimated a few things, though.

One was Anita Pollitzer.

Pollitzer took no for an answer poorly, especially after she’d been promised a yes. Pollitzer and the Anti leaders stalked Capitol Hill and the Hermitage Hotel and anywhere a legislator might try to hide. Lost pledges were blistered with appeals to better natures and epic guilt trips. Rep. Burn got a full dose of Pollitzer's drawled fire and was left stammering in her wake.

Febb Burn
Here, famously, motherhood actually did step in. A conflicted Burn was on the House floor during the make-or-break session when he received the most mom-like letter ever written from his mother Febb back in Niota. Febb, a diehard Suff, softened her boy up for a few paragraphs and then sank the maternal dagger over his Anti pledge. In dramatic style, Burn re-switched sides on the spot. Boom, Suffs cheered from the gallery, Antis shouted for blood or at least recounts.

Well, Burn had to beat it quick out a Capitol window. Later that night, the Antis tracked Burn down at the Hermitage Hotel. Top Anti strategists had mapped out a double-secret plan to torpedo the Amendment by legislative maneuvering. There would be the usual rallies and propaganda and intimidation, but the showpiece of the brainstorm went like this: Blackmail the snot out of Burn. Once he re-re-switched his vote, the Antis would yet win the day.

And the Antis had proof. Proof!

Witness affidavits claimed that shortly before the dastardly vote switch, Burn had been hauled off into a cloakroom and given ten grand to go Suff. Recant, the Antis warned Burn, or tomorrow afternoon Stahlman and The Banner run this nugget and end that promising career. Never mind that Burn hadn't been hauled anywhere. He’d been in full view agonizing over Febb's letter. That wasn't the Anti's biggest problem.

No, they'd picked the wrong affidavit stenographer.

Pollitzer and Burn shaking hands,
1920 (top center)

The stenographer knew dirty pool when she heard it. She recorded not only their statements but also how operatives coached the sort-of-witnesses into framing Burn. And the stenographer turned the whole thing over to Luke Lea at The Tennessean. Stahlman would’ve been prepping for his crushing afternoon edition when someone drew the short straw and slid over The Tennessean’s morning scoop blowing up the blackmail scheme.

That, friends, was how Tennessee came around to seal the Nineteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Like I said, this one had it all, including– in the end– a win for justice.

09 April 2021

A Sense of Place

 I've probably made it clear - perhaps too clear - I'm a big fan of setting. A lot of times, many of the stories I've written came from traveling. In a former life, I made the trip from Cincinnati to Hilton Head. There were two routes, one I considered the scenic route. It went through Virginia and West Virginia, using US 52 (the source of a few Wile E. Coyote memes for the rock slides over by Portsmouth, Ohio) to return home. The bulk of this route is on I-77, which begins in Cleveland. Because of its proximity to Hilton Head, the trip down often included side trips to Savannah, Georgia. And Savannah fascinated me.

It resulted in Road Rules, a road trip caper that follows two high school friends as they attempt to deliver a collectible Cadillac to Miami. The final third of the novel takes place in Savannah, which makes a beautiful place for everything to go to hell.

All this from a handful of trips south and back.

It didn't stop there. I published three short stories about an ex-convict adopting a false identity and trying to make a new life as a restaurateur. His own past and the past of his mentor and former cellmate come back to violently upend his new life. But the prison take wasn't the inspiration. No, in 2007, I took two business trips to San Francisco and fell in love with the city. I stayed out in Walnut Creek (not far, I learned, from the home of one member of Metallica) and traveled into the city over weekends and on the day before I left. It was amazing, and I needed a way to put the city into a story. Eventually, I hit on the owner of a biker-themed bar looking to turn it into a chain only to have violent men from his or his cellmate's past come after him. Walnut Creek is not the most spectacular suburb in the Bay Area, but I managed not only to tie in a nearby park, but reference Altamont Speedway, the sight of the disastrous 1969 music festival shown in the movie Gimme Shelter

Has it stopped?

Oh, no.In 2019, my family went out west. My wife and stepson did the Route 66 trip they always wanted. I flew out to San Fran to meet them, then rented a car to drive back to Cincy. I wanted to drive across the country myself, with a detour south to Vegas.  The trip took me into worlds I did not know existed. The Sierras of California are not the Bay Area. It reminded me of some parts of West Virginia with much taller mountains. And peacocks. The town we stopped in for lunch swarmed with peacocks. Nevada, once you get past Reno, is almost an alien landscape: Scrub desert with old mining towns, some of which should have become ghost towns. A miscalculation had us driving 9 hours from Reno to Vegas instead of the six I thought it was. However, at night, Nevada becomes even stranger. I nearly hit a wild ass - I'm used to deer in Ohio - and saw the big empty that is the edge of Area 51. Vegas makes New York City at night look sleepy. Plus, as my stepson pointed out, we saw, um, workers in the intimate arts coming off a hard day's night.

Utah is the most gorgeous state I've ever been to. Wyoming is all ranches and oil fields, and we ended up so high into the Rockies that, on June 3, we drove past six foot snow packs. And life is different in these areas. Nevada is as close to the old frontier as you can get. Salt Lake City is monumentally chill. Wyoming offered us roughnecks, ranches, trains that stretched into the distance, and majestic mountains. 

And it became clear to us as we drove into Denver that the real dividing line between east and west is not the Mississippi. It's the Continental Divide. Denver, despite being a mile up and framed by peaks that are part of the sky, more resembles the cities of the east than it does places like Vegas or Salt Lake or Laramie. And there are a wealth of stories to be told from that trip alone.

Nor is this the end. Our first post-pandemic vacation this summer will be a drive through New England. The main stops, after a night in Niagara Falls, will be Lake Champlain and two nights in Bar Harbor, Maine. Along the way, the countryside will more resemble Stephen King's fictional western Maine than the industrial Midwest where I live. The accents, the food, and the layouts of towns will all change as we head east, then slowly back west from Hartford, CT to home. Will there be story fodder there?

Boy howdy!

08 April 2021

So You Want to Live Free

My latest story, "The Sweet Life" will be published in the July/August edition of AHMM.  It has some relationship to this blog.  

Back – God help us! – 52 years ago, I left home in the middle of the night after one of the most frighteningly violent days of my short life.  I'm not going into the details.  But I truly believed that if I didn't leave that night I wasn't going to be alive much longer.  

I remember that night, but not much of the next couple of weeks.  But eventually I found myself on the road, looking for a haven.  I went to Coronado, then I went up to San Francisco - to join the hippie ranks, of course.  But by then the hippies were all gone (most to Northern California or Oregon, where a lot of them started communes).  Haight Ashbury was still there, but it was mostly hard-core druggies by the time I got there.  I went south, to L.A., and ended up in Hollywood, where I disappeared into street culture for the next couple of years.  

First of all, we need to remember that people have been / gone homeless for millenia.  Back in the Middle Ages, when the wealthy lords figured out that raising sheep on huge acreages was less trouble and more profitable than dealing with farming and farmers, they got rid of their tenants, who mostly fled to the cities or the forests. Every famine, people fled to wherever they thought they might find food. (Joseph's brothers to Egypt.) After every war, from the Crusades to Afghanistan / Iraq, some soldiers have returned damaged and hopeless and drifted, again, to the wilderness, whether cities or forest or desert.

What's changed is that today it's harder to be left alone than it was even 50 years ago.  You used to be  able to sleep in certain parks, under overpasses, derelict buildings, vacant lots, and the occasional free church.  You could even find a cheap place to rent every once in a while, and set up a makeshift commune.  But today… much harder.  The cities don't want the homeless, and they now have sufficient laws and police to harass, evict, move on, and/or jail people who live on the streets, in tents, on the ground, or in RVs.  See my 2014 blog, The Surplus Population.  Still frighteningly accurate.  And as for affordable housing anywhere?  Ha!  And good luck on finding a wilderness to disappear into.  

But the lifestyle itself hasn't changed.  

(1) Nobody becomes homeless by choice.  There's a story behind every homeless person.  S/he lost their job, their lifestyle, their mind, their health, their home, their family...  Something put them there, and I never met anyone who chose it willingly because it was a fun, free way to live.  What that something was is important to know if you ever want to get them off the streets.  Not everyone wants to go home.  I know I never once thought about going home, no matter how weird things got, because at least when someone did something awful / violent to me, it wasn't someone claiming to love me.  

(2) Over time, you get used to it.  The first requirement of life on the streets is to develop good radar for who dangerous and who isn't.  You will make mistakes.  Second is to find the infrastructure you need to stay alive:  usable restrooms, restaurants, churches, charitable organizations, etc.  Third is to learn the rhythms of the people around you, the police on the beat, the businesses, and how to work with them.

(3) Over time, you get used to it.  Street life is a whole lot of time to kill in between moments of great urgency, and sometimes great danger.  How do you spend that time?  Sleeping, when possible.  Talking constantly.  Looking around for anything that can be sold, spent, or used.  More talking.  Looking for food.  Lot of smoking.  (Smoking used to be cheaper than eating, and in the 60s and 70s even people who would never dream of handing out money would give you a cigarette.)  More talking.  The result of all that talking is some of the most unbelievable plots, plans, schemes, conspiracy theories and stories ever heard - believed.  Sometimes I think QAnon is simply channeling street people.  

(4a) You try to get used to it.  It's a strange mix of people on the streets.  Most of them are perfectly harmless; they're just unsightly.  But there are also the mentally ill - mostly harmless, despite talking to the air, which used to look a lot stranger before cell phones. But you can't ever tell if they would lose it.  Even worse are the predators, who specifically prey on their fellow travelers, often by pretending to be their friend.  Think Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy.  And at least he wasn't violent. 

(4b) There's also a strange mix of people who try to help people on the streets.  Many of them mean well:  those who come with food and water, those who offer rides to church or 12-Step meetings, those who provide medical care (we didn't have that in my day), and those who really are doing everything they can to get people off the street and into a stable life.  But there are also predators - the johns, picking up the young girls for some quick cheap sex; the cult leaders, looking for more recruits; the employers, looking for cheap labor; and the killers. 

(5) Over time, some people get more than used to it.  They turn feral - the life of the streets is the only one they can bear.  A life with a bare minimum of comfort / amenities, but a strange freedom.  If you can stand it.  Your time is your own.  You can say pretty much anything you want.  You can go anywhere your legs can take you.  You are not beholden to anyone.  There is no future, but there is certainly a present.  

I'm not romanticizing it like some people have (read John Steinbeck's Cannery Row for that).  It's hard.  It takes a hell of a lot of energy, just to stay alive every day. The life expectancy of a homeless person is very low.  And, as I said, there is no future, other than the ones cooked up in all those endless hours of talking.  The young street urchins waxing hopeful about being discovered and being the next singing sensation, model, actor, etc. (remember, I was in Hollywood).  The older guys talking about moving to the wilderness - Alaska, Rocky Mountains, wherever.  I never knew anyone who got any of those dreams.  Where they were was where they were.  

Me, all I wanted was to stay alive until I was old enough to go legal, and then come in off the streets and get a job and an apartment of my own.  I was lucky - through the grace of God, I did.  (BTW, doing that presented a whole new set of challenges.)  But - also through the grace of God – I've never forgotten. Everything I learned on the streets has come in handy in the rest of my life.

PS: Update on Allan. March 22nd, I took him to the doctor because he was having trouble breathing; they tested his oxygen levels, which were in the 70s, so it was off to the ER. He stayed in the hospital till 6 PM on Wednesday. Long story short: he has severe emphysema, will be on 24/7 oxygen for the foreseeable future, and has many upcoming doctor's visits, tests, etc., ahead of him. BUT he’s home.

Oh, and we've named his 24/7 oxygen concentrator "George".

07 April 2021

Get Under the Kanopy

 What I am about to tell you will probably delight a few people and annoy a lot more.  That is the risk you take in the hard-hitting world of bloggery.

I recently discovered that I have free access to Kanopy, a web-service that bills itself as "Thoughtful Entertainment."  I had known about it from my days working at the university, but I didn't realize that my public library had purchased access to it.

Hence the delight/annoyance I mentioned in the first sentence.  Some of you have access to a library that offers Kanopy.  Probably more of you don't. Sorry about that.  You can find out by clicking here.  If your library doesn't offer it you can try emailing them the suggestion.  They probably won't fine you for it. 

So what does Kanopy offer?  Movies and documentaries that are not found in the usual places.  And you can watch ten a month for free.  Here are a few crime related ones I found there.