12 March 2014


Brando's ONE-EYED JACKS showed at the Lensic theater here in Santa Fe this past week. It's something of a curiosity, the only picture Brando ever directed, but more to the purpose, it was last major release shot in VistaVision, a widescreen process that lasted about seven years.

First of all, let's explain "aspect ratio." This refers to the shape of a movie's screened image, and for many years, the standard aspect ratio was 1.33 to 1, horizontal to vertical, so the image is a little wider than it is tall. (More or less the size of a television screen, back in the day.) This was the negative size of a 35MM film frame. Widescreen had been used, for example, THE BIG TRAIL, released in 1930, which was shot in 70MM, with an aspect ratio of 2.10:1, and a projection process called Grandeur, but most theaters didn't have the equipment to show it, and there was an alternative 35MM version.

Widescreen didn't really catch on until CinemaScope, and THE ROBE, which came out in 1953. The aspect ratio was 2.20:1.  Again, not to try your patience, another technical explantion. Scope is an "anamorphic" process, meaning that the lenses do the work. The image is compressed, when the picture is shot, to squeeze it onto a 35MM frame, and then opened up again when it's projected. Scope lasted well into the 1960's, when it was overtaken by Panavision 70. Now, this too has fallen out of favor, with the introduction of digital, which is a story in itself, but technology eats its own young, and that's where I'm headed.

VistaVision was different because it wasn't
anamorphic. Instead of compressing the image, it opened it up, to fill two frames of film. The nuts-and-bolts, oversimplified, are that the film traveled horizontally through the camera, and exposed twice the image area. The result is a print with finer-grained detail. You increase the depth of field and get far more color saturation.

Directors loved it. Ford used it for THE SEARCHERS. John Sturges, in a couple of pictures. Anthony Mann, always contrary, shot with it in black-and-white, the blacks coming out deep and crisp. Hitchcock used it five times, most strikingly in VERTIGO, where the color becomes part of the story.


But the format was doomed. Even as careful and canny a director as Ford or Hitchcock, who shot only and exactly as much as they needed, still had to shoot twice the footage, because of the double-frame. By the time Brando came along, and famously went through a couple of hundred miles of film, it was the kiss of death, and Paramount pulled the plug. The studio never used VistaVision again.

The process had a half-life, though, for another fifty years, primarily for effects work and process shots, and then CGI took over. It's interesting that even on DVD, with a good digital transfer, you can still see why so many directors and cinematographers liked working with it. You got a lot of bang for the buck, particularly when you wanted to make it appear

you were shooting in low light. The seduction scene between Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in
TO CATCH A THIEF is a good example, or the chase across the rooftops at the end of the picture.

The technology is never static, and we keep pushing the envelope. There was a time when VistaVision was state of the art, and this post isn't intended to be elegiac, but you get the sense that something is lost. There's a plasticity, a word I've used before, to film, as opposed to digital. Not to be a Luddite. I don't want to go back to using a manual typewriter. We shed our old skins, we reinvent ourselves. Still, among the discards and the hand-me-downs, there might be a few things you decide not to put out at the next yard sale, some talisman or another, a vintage bottled in the past.

11 March 2014

Women Sleuths of the Silver Screen

In a recent post, I considered some minor mystery movie series, closing with the promise that I'd follow up someday regarding movie series featuring female detectives.  A more recent column by Leigh Lundin reminded me that March is "Women's History Month" and, more specifically, "Women in Mystery Month." So why not "Women in Mystery Movie Series Month" as well? It seems like a good fit.
I know of three such series from the 1930s, and each is worth a look.  (Each shows up on TCM from time to time.) All three series had literary antecedents, two now obscure and one still famous.  The three protagonists are surprisingly diverse, given that they were battling crime at more or less the same moment in time. 

Hildegarde Withers

A Boston school teacher turned amateur sleuth, Hildegarde Withers was the creation of Stuart Palmer, novelist, short story writer (including two Sherlock Holmes pastiches), screenwriter, and president of the Mystery Writers of America.  Withers debuted in The Penquin Pool Murder in 1931.  Withers reappeared regularly through the early fifties and even had two titles released in the sixties, with Palmer sharing credit with writing partners, including Craig Rice (Georgiana Ann Randolph Craig).  Withers, a comic take on Miss Marple,  is a busybody crime solver.  Much of the humor derives from her clashes with a tough New York police inspector, Oscar Piper.

With RKO producing, Withers made it to the big screen only a year after her literary debut, in a film version of that debut, The Penquin Pool Murder.  She was played by the great Edna May Oliver, an actress with a long face and a great way with an acerbic line.  A native of Massachusetts who specialized in independent and cranky characters, Oliver was born to play Withers.  She followed up Penquin Pool with two more, Murder on the Blackboard (1934) and Murder on a Honeymoon (1935).  All three benefit from James Gleason's performance as Piper.  After Honeymoon, Oliver left RKO for MGM, where she graced big-budget costume pictures like Romeo and Juliet and Pride and Prejudice until her untimely death in 1942, age 59.  Following Oliver's departure, RKO tried three more Withers films, staring first Helen Broderick (not good) and then Zazu Pitts (worse).  Later, there were two television Withers, Agnes Morehead in a failed 1950s pilot and  Eve Arden in a 1972 television film, A Very Missing Person.

Hildegarde Withers (Edna May Oliver) and Oscar Piper (James Gleason)

Any of the Oliver films is worth catching.  My favorite is Murder on a Honeymoon, which features location footage shot on Catalina Island, an uncommon thing in a film of that period.

Torchy Blane

One of old Hollywood's favorite stock characters was the plucky female reporter.  She could pop up in A pictures like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) in the person of a genuine star like Jean Arthur or in B pictures like Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) in the person of a contract player like Glenda Farrell.  Farrrell was a member of the Warner Bros. stock company, and as such was as likely to play a gold digger in a Busby Berkeley musical as a gun moll in a gangster picture.  The Warners films of the early thirties were known for their rapid pacing and general brassiness.  Farrell, a brassy blonde who was to wisecracking what Edna May Oliver was to superciliousness, fit right in.  Warners eventually gave Farrell her own series, in which she played a crime-solving newswoman, Torchy Blane.

The series was inspired by a story Warners had purchased from Fredrick Nebel, a pulp writer who published in Black Mask alongside Hammett and Chandler.  Nebel's original story featured a hard drinking male reporter who competed against and knocked heads with a cop named McBride.  Warners switched the reporter's gender, renamed him (or rather, her) Torchy Blane, and started cranking them out.  McBride was played by Barton MacLaine, and he became Blane's love interest as well as her professional rival.  Blane would stop at nothing to solve the crime and get the story, including exploiting her relationship with McBride. The films were light and, at around an hour each, lightning paced.  Of the nine films released between 1936 and 1939, seven starred Farrell, with Lola Lane and future Oscar winner Jane Wyman each stepping in for one.

Torchy Blane (Glenda Farrell) and Steve McBride (Barton MacLaine)

Farrell's take on the wisecracking blonde went out of style when the thirties went west, but she kept acting, sometimes in smaller movie roles, sometimes on the stage or on television.  She died in harness in 1972, age 66, and was buried at West Point beside her second husband, an army doctor who had served on Eisenhower's staff.

Leonard Maltin calls Smart Blonde (1936) the best of the Torchy Blane films, and I'll bow to his expertize.

Nancy Drew

Carson Drew's only child debuted in book form in 1930 and has been solving crimes (and lying about her age) ever since.  The brainchild of the genius book packager Edward Stratemeyer, the books, written under the pseudonym Carolyn Keene (originally by Mildred Wirt Benson) were an immediate success.

In 1938, Nancy Drew made it to the big screen courtesy of Torchy Blane's studio, Warner Bros. She was played by a young actress with a name that always sounded to me like it should have belonged to an old actress:  Bonita Granville.  Granville was a movie veteran in 1938, having made her debut in 1933 at age nine. (Her most famous child role was an Oscar-nominated turn in These Three, the original film version of Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour.)  Granville first played the girl sleuth in Nancy Drew, Detective, based on The Password to Larkspur Lane.  Three more films followed in 1939, the last being Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase.  Carson Drew was played by Warners regular John Litel, and Frankie Thomas played Nancy's boyfriend (with his book name, Ned Nickerson, changed to Ted Nickerson for reasons best known to Warners).

The films were short, fast-paced, and Nancy was both the brains and heart of the outfit (though some critics found Granville insufficiently intrepid).  I'd recommend the last one, Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase.  (And not just because it has a title I remember fondly.)

Ted Nickerson (Frankie Thomas) and Nancy Drew (Bonita Granville)

Though she remains a publishing franchise and has spun off into new areas like video games, Nancy Drew's screen afterlife hasn't been much more impressive than Hildegarde Withers'.  There would be only one more big screen attempt, Nancy Drew, a 2007 film released by her old studio, Warner Bros., starring Emma Roberts.  There also was a television show, which premiered in 1977, with Pamela Sue Martin in the role.  (Drew was eventually squeezed out of that by her co-detectives, the Hardy Boys.)  A 2002 made-for-television movie, also simply called Nancy Drew, starred Maggie Lawson of Psych fame.      

Granville would remain with Warner Bros. long enough to appear in support of Betty Davis in Now Voyager.  When her acting career wound down, Granville became a television producer. She died (just when she was getting old enough for her name) in 1988, age 65, of lung cancer, like fellow Warners alumnus Glenda Farrell.    

10 March 2014

It's Me Again, Margaret

Three events yesterday inspired this post.  

First, I learned that my Monday SleuthSayer co-conspirator, Jan Grape, is sick, and I volunteered to fill in for her today. 

Second, while I considered what to write about, David Edgerley Gates commented on FaceBook that an editor has accepted another of his stories and has no problem with the opening scene being a lap dance but doesn't like the title "Heavy Breathing."
Sorry, David, I could be censored for using the other lap dance illustrations I found.

My mind sometimes bounces around like a ping pong ball, and the thought of heavy breathing immediately brought Ray Stevens's song "It's Me Again, Margaret" to mind.  In it, a young lady receives repeated phone calls--heavy breathing which always begin with a low, "It's Me Again, Margaret."  At the conclusion, the caller is arrested and allowed one phone call from the police station.  You guessed it! He dials the telephone (it's an old song) and whispers, "It's Me Again, Margaret." This led me to YouTube where I revisited that old song.  You can, too.

Warning:  This video will make you laugh if you have a slightly bawdy sense of humor and will appreciate the mention of chickens and Kool Whip and handcuffs.

So, though I occupied this spot just last Monday and your name isn't Margaret, it's me again. I'm back in less than the usual two weeks' time.

Third Event

A Broad Abroad sent me an email with a link:  Grammar to hammer: Horror writers use every trick from aliens to zombies. Lynne Truss chose a talking cat. 

Problem Solved
Lynne Truss
Contrary to what you dear readers may be thinking, my topic today is not lap dances or obscene calls, but our best-selling Eats, Shoots and Leaves author Lynne Truss.

Cat Out of Hell, her first comic-gothic novella, was released February 27, 2014. A Google review describes it as "the mesmerising tale of a cat with nine lives, [sic] and a relationship as ancient as time itself and just as powerful."

I confess I laughed out loud at that comma.  The [sic] is mine. Aren't "a cat with nine lives" and "a relationship" simply compound objects of the preposition "of"? If so, why would there be a comma there?  I personally would be embarrassed and fearful of punctuation errors when speaking of Ms. Truss. If I'm wrong, please correct me.

I warned you that sometimes my mind bounces around, and there it went again. Back to subject:  A Broad Abroad's link is to an interview with Ms. Truss. I won't summarize it in detail, but it's well worth reading.  Of special interest to me is her reference to Steve French's Horror Writing 101: How to Write a Horror Novel.  I wish I'd known about that before I sent my horror effort to my agent. (David Dean, are you familiar with that guide?)

On Ms. Truss's website, she says:

           My big news is that I have written a comic horror
           novella for Random House's Hammer imprint--this
           is my first novel for about fifteen years, and writing
           it did feel like coming home at last.  It's called Cat 
          Out of Hell and published on February 27.  It is also
          a Radio 4 Book at Bedtime for two weeks in March,
          It concerns the mystery of a missing woman, a talking
          cat called Roger, a remote seaside cottage, and a
          nice retired librarian with a dog called Watson.  I
          fell in love with Roger, because he is not only 
          handsome and evil, but terribly, terribly clever.  But,
          of coursed, Watson is the hero because he is a dog."

Jan, I hope you're soon well.  David Edgerley Gates, can't wait to read that story.  A Broad Abroad, thanks for a topic for today. Everyone, I'm ordering Cat Out of Hell and will let you know what I think after reading it.

Until we meet again, take care of… you!

09 March 2014

Book Posters

by Leigh Lundin

Once again, today’s article was suggested by a note from a reader: What if book blurbs read like movie posters?

The idea grew out of a web page which poses such teasers as: “This Guy Didn’t Tell His New Governess About His Secret Wife In The Attic. What Happened Next Really Burned Him Up,” and “A Guy With Two First Names Proves ‘Nymphet’ Is The Grossest Word In English.” (Don't want to guess? Here's the full list.)

Since my colleagues are all Very Serious Writers who’d never stoop to such shenanigans, I began to ponder. Yes, I think I can really help the publishing industry.

Alice would eat and drink anything, especially anything psychedelic. It would become her undoing. Alice
Cinderella She took her secret shoe fetish a step too far.
A boy with a shadowy past, no future, and a mean right Hook, meets Wendy, the girl of his dreams. Peter Pan
Star Wars You’ve devoted your entire life to consolidating your rule over the universe, only to be thwarted by your own son. Kids!
A teenage angst-ridden rebel-with-a-cause finds his dad is a real pain in the a––… Arm? Star Wars
Harry Potter A British Lord one step from conquering the world has to handle one small boy with an unusual birthmark. How hard could it be?
Political advisors both heartless and brainless guide one girl onto a bloody path of destruction. Wizard of Oz
Snow White Seven men couldn’t satisfy one white girl’s unnatural cravings; it would take an eighth.

What would your ads look like?

08 March 2014

Return to Europe

Elizabeth Zelvin

I last visited Europe in 2003, when my husband and I were invited to a first wedding anniversary party in Copenhagen. It turned out to be a divorce party, but we had a wonderful time in Denmark and also in Amsterdam, where we spent a week on the way. A little over ten years later, we're on the brink of returning to Amsterdam, where we’ll celebrate my birthday (a big round one) with Dutch friends and then stay in their apartment while they take over ours in New York City. It’ll be tulip season, something I’ve always longed to see for myself, and the Rijksmuseum, which has been undergoing renovation for more than ten years, has finally reopened. We’ll also spend a week in Toulouse in southwestern France; we are lucky to have friends there too. There’s plenty to see in the area, including some prehistoric cave paintings that I want to see again, but we hope to spend much of our time sitting in sidewalk cafés and strolling to the markets and nearby medieval churches.

I took a lot of pictures with my very first digital camera. This time, I won’t even take a camera: I’ll get much better pictures on my iPad and supplement them with quick shots on my iPhone. I might even find an Internet café and display them on Facebook as I go, so my friends can enjoy the trip along with me. In the meantime, here are some of my best shots from 2003:

Roofs of Copenhagen

City of bicycles

Central Station, Copenhagen

White hulls, Nyhavn

Cathedral steps, Roskilde

Viking ship

View from Round Tower

Barred window

A glimpse of roses

Red lintel

Tile and timber


No more war!

07 March 2014

Seeking Solutions Among Fraudulent Documentation

 By Dixon Hill

 I find it interesting that, according to some reports, 26 fake driver’s licenses were found among the 9/11 hijackers’ possessions. If the reports are true, that certainly indicates these guys felt fake driver’s licenses were useful—even before TSA strip searches became the stuff of dinner table conversation. 

Fake driver’s licenses have probably been around since the first real driver’s license was issued. Many people reading this post probably owned fake driver’s licenses in high school or college, which they used to get into bars or clubs before they were legally old enough to do so. That’s not an uncommon practice.

 What was uncommon, but is becoming less so, is that fake driver’s licenses are now becoming frighteningly good. And, driver’s licenses aren’t just used to prove that a person has a right to drive, these days, or to gain access to alcohol. They are used as official documents when obtaining jobs, boarding commercial aircraft, and for other purposes.

 Over the years, states have added photographs, complicated background designs, holographic images, and even changed to more expensive construction methods to make driver’s licenses harder to duplicate or forge.

 But, technology is a tool that works for those on both sides of the law. A printing company in Guangzhou, China has been creating fake driver’s licenses and selling them as “novelty items” to buyers in the U.S. According to the FBI, these “novelty” licenses are so close to the real thing that the fakes are hard to tell from the real McCoy.

 Here in Arizona, however, we have a different sort of driver’s license problem.

 For some reason, the Arizona Department of Transportation’s Motor Vehicle Division (MVD), which issues driver’s permits, licenses, and official state ID cards (for those who don’t drive), has a bad track record when it comes to hiring employees.

 And I’m not just talking about a tendency to hire rude clerks—though rudeness does sometimes seem a prerequisite for the job. The Arizona MVD has a history of hiring folks who decide to feather their nests with side-money made off the sale of real driver’s licenses with false names. These aren’t, technically, “fake ID’s” because they’re real documents, issued from a MVD office. Because they’re issued under a false name, however, they are termed: “fraudulent documents.”

 In 2000, 12 people were arrested for knowingly selling official MVD documents to people using false names.

 In an unrelated case, that same year, Justin Pearce, the son of State Representative Russell Pearce of Mesa, pleaded guilty to tampering with public records. Justin worked as a clerk at the MVD and made fake ID cards for underage friends, indicating they were 21 years old. He received two years probation.
In October of 2011, the FBI and AZ Department of Public Safety (our State Highway Patrol) executed Operation Double Driver, arresting 34 people for conspiring to issue fraudulent driver’s licenses from ten MVD offices in Tempe, Phoenix and Southern Arizona.

 Twenty-six of those arrested were MVD employees, who each received $600 to $3,500 per card, for issuing driver’s licenses and official state ID cards with aliases. The other 8 people arrested were accused of working as brokers: lining up customers and arranging the sales.

 As part of Operation Double Driver, FBI agents worked a sting operation to gather evidence. It’s disturbing to note that neither the brokers nor the MVD employs were demurred by the fact that every undercover agent who bought a fraudulent ID clearly represented himself as either a drug dealer or narcotics trafficker. Perhaps more disturbing: U.S. Attorney for AZ, Paul Charlton said, “We may never know exactly how many fraudulent documents were issued.”

 In 2013, a MVD employee was arrested for providing fraudulent documents to an Armenian organized crime group in The Valley. The criminals used these ID’s to open accounts and write bad checks, stealing an estimated half-million dollars from local banks and businesses.

 Of course, the problem isn’t really confined to Arizona. It may well be happening in your state, too.

 In 2010, New York DMV employees were arrested, during Operation Two-Face for the same thing. Everything is more expensive in New York, however, so instead of the modest price tag found in Arizona, the fraudulent documents cost $7,000 to $10,000. The fraudulent document ring is estimated to have netted $1 million from some 200 customers before being put out of business. Interestingly, one of the undercover police officers who bought a fraudulent document told his contacts that he needed the fake ID in order to circumvent the No-Fly list posted to TSA representatives.

 The question becomes: How do we fix the problem? How can a DMV or MVD office hire people who won’t sell official identification documents to criminals? 

When we look at a problem in which low-ranking members of an organization can make hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars in a single illegal transaction—particularly if there is relatively low risk of getting caught—it’s tempting to suggest that one solution would be raising these people’s pay. 

Unfortunately, states are strapped for funding at the moment, so a pay increase is doubtful. Further, we’ve seen in recent history, that being wealthy doesn’t necessarily prevent someone from stealing. So, at what point should we believe a DMV worker would feel wealthy enough to turn his/her back on easy money?

 In Arizona, the MVD addressed the problem by adding more oversight. The idea is: having the transaction details pass through a higher-echelon employee will deter clerks from selling official ID cards to people who don’t have birth certificates or other proper documentation required to obtain them. But, this then begs the question: Who’s watching over those overseers?

 Remember MVD clerk Justin Pearce, who was convicted of “tampering with public records” to make fraudulent ID cards for his buddies in 2000? His father, Russell Pearce was a government bigwig who had been head of the Arizona MVD at one time. How do you suppose Justin, Russell’s son, got his MVD clerking job? Do you think it’s assuming too much to believe Justin might have eventually landed one of those higher-paying oversight positions, if he hadn’t been caught giving ID’s to his underage buddies? Do you think he would have done a dependable job of preventing the sale of fraudulent documents, if he had been an overseer?

 It seems to me that, no matter how we address the problem—increased pay, increased oversight, or increased regulations that make for longer lines at the DMV—the problem keeps coming back to a question of honesty.

 The obvious solution, of course, is for the Arizona MVD to hire people who are just too honest to stoop to crime for easy money. The reason no one points this out, is because it’s seemingly impossible to determine whether or not a person is honest, thus separating the wheat from the chaff at hiring time.

 But, perhaps there are ways to gauge a job applicant’s honesty—at least to some degree.

 Many companies use an applicant’s credit rating to determine his/her level of honesty. But, how effective is this practice? Bernard Madoff had a stellar credit rating, I believe. This certainly didn’t reflect his level of honesty. I have a friend who is an artist, and doesn’t even have a credit rating number. He’s as honest as the day is long, but he doesn’t feel it’s a good practice to borrow money. So, he has never taken out a loan or applied for a credit card. His credit rating, or lack thereof, certainly doesn’t reflect his level of honesty. Consequently, I’m led to believe credit rating assessment just won’t answer the question here.

 On the other hand, there are tests that might help. And perhaps our states should start administering these tests in the hiring process.

 The military has long used written tests that help determine if a person has a tendency to lie. I know, because I’ve taken some of them. This “lie test” sits hidden among a long list of questions inside a test that has another name. An example of how it works is: One of the questions asks the test-taker if s/he has any hobbies, giving them several examples they can select from. Later questions are designed to elicit detailed information that only someone who really did practice that hobby would know. So, if somebody thinks, “That’s a hobby that’s sort of related to this job I’m applying for; I should claim I have that hobby,” the test is pretty good at revealing his/her lie. Of course, lying is just one type of dishonesty.

 In another interesting test, a group of people who had volunteered for an undisclosed mission of a classified nature, were taken into a room, and told to use only the black pens being handed out, to fill in certain forms in front of them. (This pen practice is not uncommon in the military, where ink type is sometimes ridiculously important to those who oversee documentation.)

 As the pens were handed out, the person in charge announced that there was a limited supply of available pens, and the office was currently unable to obtain more. Consequently, everyone was required to deposit their pen in the pen box by the exit door upon leaving the room.

 When certain people left the room, they were singled-out and led to another room with a few other people who had been among those who had recently filled out the forms. Once the rest of the initial group was led away down a hall, the person who had been in charge in the first room entered, closed the door behind him and said, “Congratulations. The people in this room are the people who were honest enough to return the pen as instructed.” After this statement, he began briefing the people in the room about a highly-classified operation they would now be permitted to take part in.

 I don’t believe it’s possible to absolutely determine if a person is honest or not, or at what point s/he might feel motivated to overcome that inherent honesty and do something immoral or even criminal. However, I do believe we could reduce government corruption by subjecting potential state and federal employees to more examinations aimed at clarifying their level of honesty.

 Probably wouldn’t hurt to make it a requirement for running for office, either.

 See you in two weeks,

06 March 2014

Elagabalus and His Big Stone God

by Brian Thornton

(This week's entry continues delving into the long form articles I did while researching and writing The Book of Ancient Bastards (Adams Media, 2011). A shorter version of this bit about one of Rome's more "original" rulers (and the pack of relatives who descended on Rome along with him) appeared in that book.)

I will not describe the barbaric chants which [Elagabalus], together with his mother and grandmother, chanted to [Elagabal], or the secret sacrifices that he offered to him, slaying boys and using charms, in fact actually shutting up alive in the god’s temple a lion, a monkey and a snake, and throwing in among them human genitals, and practicing other unholy rites.

— Dio Cassius

If you’re going to catalogue historical bastardry throughout the ages, you’d better plan to touch on that colorful period in the historical record known as “Imperial Rome.”  As with the Papacy, the sheer number of men who wore the emperor’s purple robes over the empire’s five-plus centuries lends itself to the likelihood that the throne would occasionally be occupied by someone so “eccentric” that he stood out in a crowded field of “personalities” like Michael Jordan playing basketball with a bunch of kindergarteners.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Varius Avitus Bassianus, a young, Syrian-born aristocrat who ruled the empire under the very Roman-sounding name of “Marcus Aurelius Antoninus” from 218 to 222 A.D., but was better known by the nick-name “Elagabalus.”

What "El Gabal" probably looked like pre-deification
Elagabalus was so much more than an emperor.  He was also the hereditary high priest of a Syrian sun god cult that worshipped a craggy, two-ton phallic-shaped meteorite as the actual physical incarnation of his god (“Elagabal,” or “El-Gabal,” from which he derived his nick-name).  He was also a transsexual cross-dresser who wore more make-up than most strippers, and allegedly worked as a hooker out of his rooms in the imperial palace.

Funny, he looks so....normal... here....

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg (or, if you prefer, the meteorite).

Elagabalus was a shirt-tail relation of the great (and ruthless) emperor Septimius Severus.  His grandmother was Severus’ sister-in-law.  When Severus’ direct line died out (and the story of how that all played out is grist for a future blog post), Elagabalus’ grandmother (Julia Maesa) and mother (Julia Soaemias) schemed along with a eunuch named Gannys to put the boy forward as a plausible claimant to the imperial throne.

An ancient "Mommie Dearest," Julia Soeamias
The kid was all of fourteen.  But, a couple of battles, an army proclamation declaring him emperor and an execution of the unpopular if effective Gannys later, and Elagabalus (along with his mother and grandmother) was on his way to Rome.
When he got there he made quite a splash, not least because he brought his god with him.


This massive “sky stone” was ensconced in a new temple complex built expressly for it, right next to the old Flavian Amphitheatre (what we know today as the “Colosseum”) on Rome’s Palatine Hill, and named the “Elagaballium.”

During Rome’s annual Midsummer Day festival, the ancient writer Herodian reports:

[Elagabalus] placed the sun god in a chariot adorned with gold and jewels and brought him out from the city to the suburbs.  A six-horse chariot carried the divinity, the horses huge and flawlessly white, with expensive gold fittings and rich ornaments.  No one held the reins, and no one rode with the chariot; the vehicle was escorted as if the god himself were the charioteer.  Elagabalus ran backward in front of the chariot, facing the god and holding the horses’ reins.  He made the whole journey in this reverse fashion, looking up into the face of his god.

As if that weren’t shaking things up enough for his new subjects, Elagabalus promptly swept aside the old Roman pantheon of gods, and “married” his god Elagabal to the Roman goddess Minerva.  As a mortal “echo” of this Heavenly union Elagabalus then did the truly unthinkable: he took one of Rome’s Vestal Virgins as his wife.  Dedicated to the Roman mother goddess Vesta, whose service obliged these priestesses to remain virgins during their twenty years of service.  If one of them didn’t, the punishment was for her to be buried alive.  And Elagabalus took one of them, a woman named Aquilia Severa as his wife not once, but twice!

In the four years he was emperor Elagabalus took at least three different women as his wife.  These marriages were likely arranged by his grandmother and mother (“the Julias”) in order to help preserve the fiction that “Imperator Marcus Aurelius Antoninus” was a solid, dependable Roman citizen and emperor, rather than the capricious Syrian drag-queen high-priest of a bloody-thirsty sun-worshipping cult.  It was hoped that keeping up this appearance would help cement support for his reign.  In fact, these two formidable women proved themselves to be particularly shrewd and capable administrators.

Put simply, things ran so smoothly in Rome and throughout the empire that for a while people didn’t seem to mind how much of a “free spirit” their emperor appeared to be.

And a “free spirit” he definitely was.  Although Romans had tolerated the tendency among some of their previous emperors to take male lovers, homosexuality in ancient Rome was by and large frowned upon.  Elagabalus flouted this attitude by taking as his “husband” a big, burly slave from Caria; a charioteer of some skill named Hierocles.  One of his favorite roles to play was that of the “cheating wife,” allowing himself to be “caught” in bed with another man by Hierocles, who then beat the emperor (who apparently enjoyed “rough trade”), at times so badly that ‘he had black eyes’ for days afterward.

Probably transsexual, Elagabalus seemed obsessed with becoming more like a woman, not with just taking men to bed. The Historia Augusta reports that the emperor “had the whole of his body depilated,” and according to the disapproving contemporary historian and senator Dio Cassius, Elagabalus “had planned, indeed, to cut off his genitals altogether,” but settled for having himself circumcised as “a part of the priestly requirements” of his cult.

By the time Elagabalus turned seventeen his continual nose-thumbing at Rome’s religious, social and sexual norms began to take a toll on his public image.  In 221 two different legions mutinied and just barely missed proclaiming their respective generals “augustus” (“emperor”) in his stead.

This unrest did not escape the attention of Elagabalus’ grandmother, the Augusta Julia Maesa.  Her hold on the levers of power depended on her grandson staying in the good graces of both the people and army, and his increasingly erratic behavior and eroding popularity with his subjects made the dowager empress very nervous.

She opted to advance Bassianus Alexianus, another of her grandsons, as Elagabalus’ co-ruler and
Severus Alexander
“heir” (he was only four years younger than Elagabalus) with the ruling name “Severus Alexander.”  He too had a strong-willed mother named “Julia” (Julia Mamea), who “guided his actions.”

At first Elagabalus and his mother went along with the move.  Within weeks, however, the senior emperor had changed his mind and tried to have his younger cousin killed.  A power struggled ensued.  The modest, retiring Alexander was popular with the people, and especially with the army.
Julia Mamea

It all finally came to a head in March of 222, when Elagabalus flew into a rage during a meeting with the commanders of his personal bodyguard (the Praetorian Guard, which also acted as the city of Rome’s police force).  Having been reminded again and again of the “virtues” of his younger cousin, Elagabalus once more called for Alexander’s arrest and execution, bitterly denouncing the Praetorians for preferring his cousin to himself.

It was not a smart thing to do this while still standing in the middle of their camp.

Praetorian in full armor
The emperor, only just eighteen years old, was chased down by his own bodyguard and killed in one of the camp latrines.  Supposedly his last words were, “Leave my mother alone!”  If those actually were his final wishes, they were ignored.  His mother was killed right alongside him.  Their bodies were beheaded, and dragged through the streets of Rome.  The corpse of Elagabalus wound up in the Tiber River: the sort of burial that contemporary Roman law reserved for criminals.

Later historians (especially Christians) whipped up improbable tales of human sacrifice conducted by this teenaged demagogue, and speculated wildly about the various depravities in which he might have indulged.  This speculation included the unlikely story of how “Heliogabalus” (sic) invited several very important people to a dinner party only to have them smothered to death under the weight of several hundred pounds of flowers.  This painting trades upon that myth.

A 19th century artist's conception of Elagablus' supposed use of flowers to smother party guests
The truth as we can divine it about Elagabalus is far more interesting.  After all, what gender-confused, hormonally addled teenager wouldn’t go off the rails if handed the literal “keys to the kingdom”?  It sure makes for one fascinating bastard.