Showing posts with label Casanova. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Casanova. Show all posts

10 May 2018

Actor, Writer, Catcher, Spy

by Eve Fisher

I just heard that Paul Giamatti, Paul Rudd, and Jeff Daniels are all joining in a movie about Moe Berg (1902-1972), professional baseball player. He played pro for 15 seasons (1923-1939), mostly as a backup catcher. But he was called "the brainiest guy in baseball," and I can see why.  An Ivy League graduate, attorney, and baseball player who spoke nine language?  Well, of COURSE he would be a prime candidate for a spy with the OSS. 

MoeBergGoudeycard.jpgBerg began his work in 1934, when he was touring Japan with the American All-Star team. In 1943, he parachuted into occupied Yugoslavia to determine which of the resistance groups was the strongest.  (He decided for Tito, and he was right.)   He was also sent around Europe in the 1940's to collect intelligence on Germany’s efforts to build an atom bomb. If he believed the Germans were close to developing nuclear weapons, he had orders to shoot the lead physicist, Werner Heisenberg. He decided they weren't. He was awarded the Medal of Freedom in 1945, but declined.

Things changed, though.  In the early 50's he worked for the CIA, very briefly, because they quickly decided he was "flaky". For the next 20 years, he lived with his brother, Samuel, reading and snarking and unemployed. Sam evicted him, and he lived with his sister Ethel in Belleville, New Jersey until he died.


There's a long list of unlikely spies, if you think of spies as being a specific, separate job, as in a Le Carré novel or Ian Fleming novel.  But the truth is, writers (including Le Carré and Fleming) and entertainers have been the first choice to hire for years.

The first recorded one is Thessalus, a tragic actor in Hellenistic Greece, who accompanied Alexander the Great on the long expedition to conquer the Persian empire (and, as far as Alexander could, the world). He served as an envoy (and probable spy) for Alexander to Pixodarus of Caria (southwestern Anatolia, current day Turkey) in 336 BCE.

Geoffrey Chaucer was another one.  He has a surprisingly well-documented life for the medieval son of a vintner.  Let's put it this way:  vintners were simply wealthy peasants in the view of the aristocracy.  And being a poet - well, anonymity was the order of the day for artists of all kinds.

But somehow, Chaucer got placed a page in the house of the Countess of Ulster.  He married Philippa de Roet, the sister of John of Gaunt's 30 year mistress Katherine Swynford, who eventually (through what many people of the day believed had to be either witchcraft or a miracle of God) became John of Gaunt's third wife.  In other words, Chaucer had connections:  and besides becoming one of the great poets of the English language, he became a courtier, diplomat, soldier, lawyer, and civil servant.  And spy.  

He spent a tremendous amount of his life traveling on either King Edward III or Richard II or John of Gaunt's shilling:  France, Spain, and Flanders, the Italian states, perhaps in pursuit of a princess for the young Richard to marry; and/or to negotiate peace; and/or to borrow money from the Visconti and/or Sir John Hawkwood in Milan; and/or for who knows what?  We're all guessing when it comes to what medieval potentates (or modern potentates) really wanted.  (For a great study of the actualities and possibilities of Chaucer's role as diplomat and spy, read Monty Python alum and medieval scholar Terry Jones' Who Murdered Chaucer?  Mesmerizing.)  

Some other writers are more surprising.  Graham Greene, John Le Carré and Ian Fleming make sense, because they all worked for British intelligence at one point or another.  But Roald Dahl?  Julia Child?  Harry Houdini?

Roald Dahl.jpg
Roald Dahl
Both Scotland Yard and the American Secret Service used Houdini's escape artistry for their own ends.  Houdini was notorious for going into police stations around the world - including Russia (hint, hint) - where he insisted on being locked up so that he could prove he was the greatest escape artist in the world!  The locals were wowed!  He did it again!  And he left town with his reputation intact (he always escaped), and a lot of information.  (No, I don't know what kind.)

Roald Dahl was a three time Edgar Award winner, who wrote the classic "Lamb to the Slaughter" (short story and immortal "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" episode), as well as dark children's masterpieces like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The BFG, and The Witches.  During WW2, he worked with Ian Fleming and others to write propaganda to help the war effort.  He also was attached to the British Embassy in Washington, D.C., where he was stunned by American luxury: "I'd just come from the war. People were getting killed. I had been flying around, seeing horrible things. Now, almost instantly, I found myself in the middle of a pre-war cocktail party in America." Dahl later said: "My job was to try to help Winston to get on with FDR, and tell Winston what was in the old boy's mind."  (see Wikipedia)

And then there's Julia Child, who started out as an OSS research assistant and definitely moved up the ladder.  According to Wikipedia

Julia Child at KUHT.jpg"In 1944, she was posted to Kandy, Ceylon, where her responsibilities included "registering, cataloging and channeling a great volume of highly classified communications" for the OSS's clandestine stations in Asia.[9] She was later posted to Kunming, China, where she received the Emblem of Meritorious Civilian Service as head of the Registry of the OSS Secretariat.[10] When Child was asked to solve the problem of too many OSS underwater explosives being set off by curious sharks, "Child's solution was to experiment with cooking various concoctions as a shark repellent," which were sprinkled in the water near the explosives and repelled sharks.[11] Still in use today, the experimental shark repellent "marked Child's first foray into the world of cooking..."
While I couldn't find a playable video of The Bobs' "Julia's Too Tall" song about her, I did find a couple of lyrics: "She's too tall to be a spy. But not too tall to bake a pie..."  But I disagree. I think her being too tall made her a perfect spy.  No one ever thought of Chaucer, Child, Houdini, Berg or Dahl and instantly went, Spy! which is probably part of why they were so successful.  

Which raises the interesting question of why Ian Fleming - who certainly knew better - made James Bond so damned obvious.  Apparently, on November 29, 2016, Anthony Horowitz and David Farr got into a 90 minute debate as to who was the greatest spy novelist of all time, Fleming or Le Carré.  (Full Transcript.)  Horowitz' summation was that ‘George Smiley is a fascinating character. James Bond is an icon. That’s the difference.’

And that's largely true, despite the fact that James Bond was actually a horrible spy. Think about it:  He uses his real name.  All the time.  He blows his cover, every time.  He gets captured.  All the time.  And he destroys everything he touches...  There's a whole lot of things get blown up, run over, caved in, and I'm not just talking about the women.   (10-reasons-james-bond-worst-spy-.) 

I don't know if John Le Carré and Ian Fleming ever met, but I do know that Le Carré had his own problems with James Bond.  In an interview in 1966 with BBC's Malcolm Muggeridge, he said, "I dislike Bond. I'm not sure that Bond is a spy. I think it's a great mistake if one's talking about espionage literature to include Bond in this category at all. It seems to me he is more of some kind of international gangster with, as it is said, a licence to kill...  he is a man entirely out of the political context.  It is of no interest to Bond who for instance, is president of the US or the Union of Soviet Republics."

Reflecting on the interview in 2010 he said : " These days I would be much kinder. I suppose we have lost sight of the books in favour of the film versions, haven't we ? I was a young man and I knew I had written about the reality in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold and that the Fleming stuff was a fantasisation of his own experiences written from the safety of New York."  (Citation)

La nuit de Varennes (1982)Then again, maybe it's not all fantasisation.  Fleming was notoriously heavy drinker, smoker, and womanizer.  Or perhaps he was channeling another great spy, whose womanizing, gambling, style, and sheer effrontery made him welcome everywhere, even after it was known he was a Venetian spy.  Who else, but Casanova?

It's amazing that, of all the spies, Casanova has the worst movies made about him.  With one brilliant exception.  If you get a chance, beg, borrow, or steal a copy of La Nuit de Varennes, where Thomas Paine, Restif de la Bretonne (pornographer, journalist, and philosopher, often called "the Voltaire of the chambermaids"), and Casanova and others all chase down Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette as they desperately try to escape Paris and their coming doom.  It is comical, philosophical, sexual, historically accurate, beautiful, horrific, and constantly entertaining.  The highlight is Marcello Mastroianni as Casanova in old age - still stylish, still courteous, still gallant, still arrogant... and ruefully, wearily truthful, even to himself.

I'd love to see a movie with James Bond in old age - see if he has the same grace and presence.  But then, icons don't change.  Fascinating characters do.

Oh, and yes, that's a young Harvey Keitel as Thomas Paine - it's a hard movie to beat.  Enjoy!















10 November 2016

The Worst Thing on the Worst Day

by Eve Fisher

I had an interesting weekend back in October.  My friends and I went to see Don Giovanni.
(Live in HD at our local theater, thanks to the Metropolitan Opera!, AND a great shout-out to Simon Keenlyside, who did the best Don Giovanni I've ever seen.  Wow!)
Then the next night, we watched the PBS Documentary on the making of Hamilton, the Musical. Another excellent choice, and I really hope to see the musical itself some day.
HINT:  There is a connection between these two...
Jonathan Edwards,
Puritan Divine and
Aaron  Burr's grandfather
During the special on "Hamilton", Leslie Odom, Jr. spoke about playing Aaron Burr, and how he could relate to him, offering that you can't "judge a man by the worst thing he does on the worst day of his life..."  At which point I turned to my husband and said, "Yes, but shooting Hamilton wasn't the worst thing Burr did on the worst day of his life."

I can say that, because dueling was common back then:  Burr fought other duels besides the one with Hamilton; Hamilton's son died fighting a duel (not with Burr); future President Andrew Jackson fought in 103 duels.  So, no, the duel is not the worst thing that Burr ever did.

Aaron Burr (1756-1836) was an interesting man of true New England aristocracy.  Not because of wealth, but because of his bloodline.  He was the grandson of Jonathan Edwards, the great Puritan Divine who wrote "Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God" (a good read for Halloween, and I should have thought of it earlier).  His extreme defense of the most extreme form of Calvinist Predestination terrified people.  They trembled, wept, sobbed, and screamed for mercy in the pews, and this turned into The Great Awakening of 1733-35, the first and perhaps greatest revival in American history. Mr. Edwards eventually became the first president of what would become Princeton University; Burr's father, also a Calvinist minister, was the second.

But both of these men were dead by the time he was 2 years old.  Burr and his sister Sally were taken in by their 21 year-old maternal uncle Timothy Edwards in 1759.  Burr was well educated, and got his BA at 16, and studied theology for 3 years with the noted hard-core Calvinist of his day, Joseph Bellamy. By all accounts, it didn't take. (See below.)  He quit and went to study law with his brother-in-law. He got to Connecticut as Lexington and Concord, and Burr joined the Continental Army.

Burr served well:  he saved an entire brigade from capture after the British landing on Manhattan - but George Washington did not commend him. Nor would he promote Burr to brigadier general, writing, "By all that I have known and heard, Colonel Burr is a brave and able officer, but the question is whether he has not equal talents at intrigue." Ouch.  (No, Washington did not give his reasons.)

After the war, Burr (now married to Theodosia, a widow, by whom he had a daughter, his beloved Theodosia) became a lawyer and went into New York politics. Tammany Hall was already up and running and put him on the Democratic-Republican presidential ticket of 1800 with Thomas Jefferson. The two running mates didn't like each other, but Jefferson needed Burr to get the New York/urban electoral vote. (Electors were chosen by the states' legislatures back then.) But Jefferson neither liked nor trusted Burr to begin with, and it only got worse.

Burr.jpg Jefferson won the popular vote over John Adams, about 41,000 to 26,000 votes.

But the electors told a different story. Back then, every elector could vote for two people as long as they didn't come from the same state as the elector (thereby supposedly cutting down on corruption). Whoever got the most votes became president. Now it was understood, in the 1800 election, that Jefferson was to be President, Burr Vice President. But in the Electoral College vote, Jefferson and Burr came out tied, 73 electoral votes each. This threw the election into the House of Representatives, where it deadlocked for 11 days and 35 ballots, as the Federalist party (who hated Jefferson) tried to make Aaron Burr President.  Read more HERE.)

And Aaron Burr just sat there. He didn't say, "Oh, but Jefferson was the one running for Presdient,"; he didn't decline the honor; he didn't urge everyone to do what they knew was the right thing to do; he sat there and smiled and waited. This might have been the worst thing that Burr did on the worst day(s), because it was cold-blooded betrayal based on monumental ambition, and BTW, shook everyone's faith in the workings of this newborn democracy.

He lost, but only because Hamilton - no friend AT ALL to Jefferson - told his Federalist friends to support Jefferson because he was "by far not so dangerous a man" as Burr. Better someone with the wrong principles than none at all.
NOTE: Yes, this added to the Hamilton-Burr feud, which went back to their days working for Washington.  But part of Hamilton's opposition to Burr was the little matter that Aaron Burr had lied to Hamilton and other Federalists about founding a bank. He said he was going to set up a badly needed water supply company for Manhattan. As soon as he got the backing, he secretly changed the charter to include banking; as soon as it was approved, there was no water company, only a bank. What made this really hurt was that the lousy water led to a malaria epidemic.
NOTE: The 1800 election is what led to the 12th Amendment to the Constitution, which calls for each elector to vote for a President AND a Vice President on their ballot; no more "guess which one wins what spot" politicking.
The Burr-Hamilton duel came in 1804, and 1805 was the end of Burr's Vice Presidency. It was a good time to get out of town, and he went to the Ohio River Valley (which was the Western frontier back then), and started acquiring land and raising a private militia. Later, Burr claimed that he was making preparations for war with Spain. When word got back to Jefferson, he ordered Burr arrested, and he was, twice, and acquitted, twice. But then a whole bunch of correspondence came out which showed that Burr was trying to get a lot of money, help Mexico overthrow Spanish power in the Southwest, and set up his own dynasty.

Burr stood trial for treason in 1807, under Chief Justice of the United States John Marshall. He was acquitted because treason requires direct witnesses, and there weren't any. He immediately fled to Europe and lived there until 1812. He spent his time soliciting funding for a conquest of Mexico (didn't get it), and pursuing women. Lots of women.  He described his pursuits and encounters in great detail, both in his journals and in his letters home to Theodosia, with dozens of women (now do you understand the Don Juan connection?).
Theodosia Burr Alston,
Aaron Burr's daughter
BTW, I can understand the journals, but writing his daughter about his sexual prowess seems... inappropriate? to say the least...
NOTE:   Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote far more about New England life and history than about slavery, made Aaron Burr a major character in her 1859 novel "The Minister's Wooing," portraying him as a Don Juan type, but also as being damaged by an extreme Calvinist upbringing.  She also continued the legend that Theodosia - who at 29 was lost at sea in 1813 - was actually "taken by pirates and [died] amid untold horrors" and said that in all of Burr's post-1800 years "one seems to see in a doom so much above that of other men the power of an avenging Nemesis for sins beyond those of ordinary humanity."
To be fair, Burr believed women to be intellectually equal to men:  he educated Theodosia extremely well, and he submitted a bill to the New York legislature to give women the vote.  He also fought to abolish slavery immediately after the Revolutionary War.  He was generous financially, often to complete strangers, especially women and children. Still, almost all of his contemporaries, and most historians, have agreed that Aaron Burr was ruled by massive self-interest, and ambition.

Image result for simon keenlyside don giovanni
Simon Keenlyside as
Don Giovanni,
(thanks to the Met);
but with the pistol...
Aaron Burr?
Alexander Hamilton:  "Mr. Jefferson, though too revolutionary in his notions, is yet a lover of liberty and will be desirous of something like orderly Government – Mr. Burr loves nothing but himself – thinks of nothing but his own aggrandizement – and will be content with nothing short of permanent power [struck: and] in his own hands – No compact, that he should make with any [struck: other] passion in his [struck:own] breast except [struck: his] Ambition, could be relied upon by himself – How then should we be able to rely upon any agreement with him? Mr. Jefferson, I suspect will not dare much Mr. Burr will dare every thing in the sanguine hope of effecting every thing –"   Quoted from HERE

John Quincy Adams:   "Burr's life, take it all together, was such as in any country of sound morals his friends would be desirous of burying in quiet oblivion."

Aaron Burr:  "The rule of my life is to make business a pleasure, and pleasure my business."