December 31st, 2015

By Philip Turner in: Music, Bands & Radio; Personal history, Family, Friends

New Year’s Tribute to Mr Stress, Jan 1 1943-May 18 2015, RIP to a Great Bluesman

As a New Year’s gift to all my fabulous friends, readers and Internet acquaintances, I’m glad to share memories, an essay, and a few links about Cleveland’s Bill Miller—aka Mr Stress—a great blues harmonica player, singer, and leader of bands who died this past year, on May 18. I followed him avidly from 1972, when I turned 18, old enough to go to bars, to 1985 when I moved to NY. I think of him today, not only because his passing came this year, but because he was the first baby born in Cleveland in 1943, a bare minute after midnight. He was feted on the front page of the next day’s newspaper as the city’s first firstborn—a fitting birth for a bluesman when you consider Muddy Waters singing about the fabled blues character ‘born on the 7th son of a 7th mother on the 7th day.’ Clearly, Mr. Stress had an auspicious pedigree for a bluesman. He would’ve been 73 when the clock & calendar turn tonight. In 2012, I contributed an essay about Stress for the book Rust Belt Chic: The Cleveland Anthology, linked to here. Happily, I reconnected with him after I published the essay. Also, here’s Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter Chuck Yarborough‘s appreciation of him, published two days after his passing; and tributes by Cleveland musician Alex Bevan; and audio of Stress in performance (one and two). 

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December 26th, 2015

By Philip Turner in: Books & Writing; Philip Turner's Books & Writing

Holiday Reflections

Later today my wife and I will be going to visit Ruth Gruber, the pioneering female photojournalist and longtime author…

Posted by Philip Turner on Friday, 25 December 2015

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December 24th, 2015

By Philip Turner in: Media, Blogging, Internet; Music, Bands & Radio

The Ravishing Music of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Good for the Holidays and all Through the Year

My wife and I don’t listen to the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) only during Christmas season, though this is a particularly good time to do so, since a great deal of his output is connected to the annual fest. In fact, on Dec 25th 2013, I shared about the British composer in this appreciative post. Over a prodigiously productive career that included nine symphonies, RVW discovered and wrote a banquet of ravishing choral music, folksong cycles, smaller chamber and symphonic works, and more, lots of it in the idiom of British folk melodies, much of which he gathered and notated in the field from nonprofessional musicians and singers, while also traveling with early recording equipment, which he used to gather direct sound.

In the early decades of the twentieth century there were other song collectors doing similar work in Britain (Cecil Sharp and others) and in North America (Alan Lomax, John Cohen). And, twentieth century composers in other lands were also fascinated with borrowing from indigenous musics, like Sibelius did in Finland, Smetana in Hungary, Copland in America, etc. I’ve always been most fond of RVW among this ilk because—though my ethnic roots are all in Eastern Europe—I’m a never-closeted Anglophile, a fan of Gaelic cultures and lover of the highlands and the North, regardless of country and continent. Vaughan Williams also composed modernist, often challenging music, like his Sixth Symphony which includes a passage for saxophone, so to me he never became saccharine or merely stuck in the past. I have many precious LPs of RVW’s, several vinyl sides of which I bought secondhand on my first visit to Britain in 1980 (one of which is pictured here), but this year our turntable is on the fritz, so I’ve gone searching for his music on youtube, and thankfully, I’ve found a very productive rabbit hole over there, just using the search term ‘Ralph Vaughan Williams songs voice‘. One piece in particular that we adore is “Five Variants of ‘Dives and Lazarus,'” from a New Testament source, which I’ve found in an orchestral version and a version sung by Maddy Prior, longtime member of the British folk revival group of the 1970s, still going strong, Steeleye Span. In the sung version, I appreciate the combination of lyrics oriented toward the sacred, and those about meat and drink and other earthly pleasures. At this link, you may listen to the orchestral version and prepare to have your ears caressed for 13 minutes, and follow the suspense of the biblical tale in the sung version.

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December 20th, 2015

By Philip Turner in: Book Biz; Publishing & Bookselling

Anticipating a New Way to Sell the Books I Write About to Readers of My Blogs

For book industry pals like me, who’d read and wondered this week about the import of national book distributor Ingram’s acquisition of the digital company Aer.io, I was excited tonight to read this analysis by friend and industry observer Mike Shatzkin, which anticipates potentially a very dynamic platform, one that could provide thousands of website managers and Internet publishers tools to help them sell books—print and digital editions—directly to their visitors. For my part, I see that it could provide bloggers who write about books, including me, the ability to sell titles directly from our websites to our readers and visitors. I currently affiliate with Powell’s Books of Portland, OR, but that arrangement has long been limited to print copies, with no prospect for selling ebooks, which is the format more likely to be preferred by blog readers, with rapid availability of digital content, and no shipping involved. As a retail bookseller before I was an editor and blogger, with a career-long penchant for sharing my enthusiasms, I’m eager to learn about these new options, and from an industry perspective, I anticipate significant interest from bloggers like me.
Shatzkin speculates that the new platform, combining Aer.io’s tools with Ingram’s capacity, has the potential to dramatically increase the sheer volume of online bookselling, with the potential to bring along many new types of Web publishers; it could also represent competition for Amazon, hence the title, “Can crowd-sourced retailing give Amazon a run for its money?”
Here you’ll find 1) a screenshot of Ingram’s announcement; 2) a portion of Aer.io founder Ron Martinez’s optimistic interview with The Bookseller, explaining what the platform provides now, and what it may offer in the future; and 3) some paragraphs from Shatzkin’s cogent analysis. You can read these screenshots by clicking Pause at the upper right corner, and read them in their entirety on the respective websites:  1)  /  2)  /  3).  Ron Martinez

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December 18th, 2015

By Philip Turner in: News, Politics, History & Media

A Welcome Rebuke of the NY Times by its Public Editor Prompts the Question “Why Does this Keep Happening?”

I’m glad the Public Editor at the NY Times Margaret Sullivan has harshly criticized the paper’s flawed reporting in a Dec 12 article that conflated and badly confused the messaging activity of the San Bernadino shooters with their social media posts, though I wonder with a rueful what good it will do now, with the false accusation already raised by Ted Cruz at Wednesday’s debate that the Obama admin had supposedly overlooked public posts showing a radical bent, when what the government didn’t know about were actually the conspirators’ private messages. The latter are a form of online expression that no surveillance methods under discussion in the United States would have seen, nor been able to prevent the plot from unfolding. One thing that might’ve prevented it—more hurdles to buying weapons and explosives—wasn’t even mentioned at the debate. Editors’ Note be damned, the Repubs will surely continue to use this falsehood to attack the president, Hillary, and all DEMs. The New York Times is so often infuriating and disappointing in its coverage. Its very importance, which I concede, makes it all the more important that they stop making errors like this, but they seem to happen every few weeks. You can read the original article at this link, which now has the Editors’ Note appended to it at the bottom; and Sullivan’s column at this one, or in the screenshots below. 

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December 10th, 2015

By Philip Turner in: Art, Film, TV, Photography, Fine Printing & Design; Personal History, Family, Friends, Education, Travels

Reflections in an Art Nouveau Mirror—a #TBT Selfie from Scotland, 1986

On my first trip to Scotland, in 1986, I visited the sublime Hill House near Glasgow, in Helensburgh, Scotland, designed by the visionary architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928). Glad I was able to snap this picture of myself enjoying the furnishings and surroundings. In a second picture here, you can see what Hill House looks like from the outside. 

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December 7th, 2015

By Philip Turner in: Books & Writing

Farewell to Timothy Seldes, Bookish Buccaneer, RIP

Sad to read that venerable literary agent Tim Seldes, 88, died over the weekend at his home in D.C. Tim was a friendly and approachable bookman, and a helluva lot of fun to have lunch with, as I had the chance to do several times over the years I knew him. He also had a great look about him, like a bookish buccaneer, reminding me of Lionel Barrymore in his portrayal of the pirate Billy Bones in the 1934 film version of “Treasure Island.” I was very fond of Tim. He came from a distinguished literary family, as the obit puts it: “Seldes grew up around words, ideas and the performing arts. He was the brother of Tony-winning actress Marian Seldes, son of the drama critic and author Gilbert Seldes and nephew of the pioneering press critic George Seldes.” He married three times, the second time to Lee Seldes, author of the superb book “The Legacy of Mark Rothko.” Among his many distinguished author clients was novelist Anne Tyler, who told the AP, “The space Tim Seldes will leave behind is enormous. He was so vibrant and engaged and such a celebrator, and a wonderful friend to writers.” His wife of many years, novelist Susan Shreve, whose books like Children of Power and Miracle Play I’ve long enjoyed, was reportedly with him at the end, as were other family members. My sincere condolences to them all. In 2012, Tim sold Russell & Volkening, his agency, to Lippincott Massie McQuilkin, so his good taste in authors carries on with Will Lippincott​ and Rob McQuilkin​. Here’s a link to the AP obit. RIP, Tim, it was a pleasure to know you.
Just found a picture of Tim (l.), with George Plimpton.

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December 5th, 2015

By Philip Turner in: Books & Writing; Philip Turner's Books & Writing; Urban Life & New York City

Appreciating Joseph Mitchell of The New Yorker, and the Legacy of his Writing

I spent the past couple weeks, amid so much disturbing upheaval in the world outside my reading, deeply enjoying Man in Profile: Joseph Mitchell of The New Yorker, by Thomas Kunkel, which Random House published last June. (I had first shared about it on this blog last May.) From Kunkel’s acknowledgments at the end I’ve learned the book was commissioned by Bob Loomis*, the great editor there who, before his retirement in 2012, signed up the book, though the manuscript was evidently delivered after his departure. Mitchell grew up in a tobacco- and cotton-farming family in North Carolina (b. 1908) and, disappointing his father, moved to New York City at twenty-one, determined to become a newspaperman, even amid the Depression; he found work as a copy boy, and soon began reporting and writing, including at the Herald Tribune (where my longtime author, photojournalist Ruth Gruber later worked) and for the World-Telegram, which Mitchell joined in 1930. He began writing for The New Yorker in 1932, and joined the magazine’s staff in 1938. Kunkel’s book is a superb portrait of Mitchell’s whole life, to his death in 1996, and a rich appreciation of his writings.

While reading and really savoring the whole book, every anecdote, every chapter it covers of Mitchell’s life, I took down from a bookshelf my copy of Up in the Old Hotel, the 1992 collection that gathered Mitchell’s Profiles on true-life New York characters, and other work, which back then put Mitchell back on the map for many readers. Until then, his magazine pieces had frequently been gathered up and published between hardcovers—his first My Ears Are Bent, came out in 1938, followed by McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon (1943); Old Mr. Flood (1948); The Bottom of the Harbor (1959) and Joe Gould’s Secret (1965)—but it was more than two decades between books when, at the urging of Dan Frank of Pantheon Books, Mitchell published this full omnibus of his work, gathered from those books, and other sources. It made a big splash at the time, getting stellar reviews, and Kunkel tells us that Mitchell welcomed the spotlight that came with being remembered by so many readers, and discovered by even more. 
Mitchell back

I’ve had the book since soon after it came out—my copy’s a first edition. I was around that time editing and preparing to publish a comparable book, A Diary of Century: Tales from America’s Greatest Diarist, by Edward Robb Ellis, a near-contemporary of Mitchell’s, who also worked at the World-Telegram, arriving there in 1947. Like Mitchell, Ellis savored writing about memorable NY characters, people like Fred Bronnenkant, riveter for more than thirty years on the Brooklyn Bridge, who had such affection for the span he regarded it as a kind of mistress**. Though Eddie was not quite the consummate stylist that I now see Mitchell was, like Mitchell, he aspired to make great work. Both men learned writing in the same milieu—the midcentury American newspaper, entirely at NY papers for Mitchell, partly true for Ellis, who before coming to the metropolis for what became the last twenty years of his career as an on-staff feature writer, had worked at papers in New Orleans, Oklahoma City, Peoria, and Chicago.*** They deployed vivid imagery, showed a fondness for lengthy list-making (a penchant embraced in more recent years by New Yorker writer John McPhee), a keen interest in what things cost back in the day, and an appreciation for character, with great skill at presenting to readers the people they encountered.

Seeing the success of Up in the Old Hotel, I recalling buying the book in hopes of imbibing some of that vibe and investing Eddie’s book with it. Though I was interested in Mitchell and his work, as happens for professional editors I got sidetracked from it, and had in fact never read it thoroughly, nor really sensed the charms of Mitchell’s writing until the past couple weeks. During the weeks I was reading the Kunkel bio, I leafed through the 700+page anthology, shown here, and now that I’ve finished the biography, I’m fully able to dive in to it. Last night, I read and enjoyed the third Profile in the anthology, about Mazie Gordon, a denizen of the Bowery, who ran a “moving-picture house” called the Venice Theatre, and who “Detective Kain [of the Oak Street police station] says that she has the roughest tongue and the softest heart in the Third Precinct.” Mitchell chronicles her working life, seated in a glassed-in booth along Park Row, selling movie tickets, and greeting her patrons, some of whom are by her own description “bums” that live in nearby flophouses. She is a key player in the street life near Chatham Square, and the piece includes many conversations she had with bums, cops, priests, and all kinds of urban operators which it seems certain Mitchell overheard. His chronicle of Mazie’s proprietorship of the theatre, and her status in the wider neighborhood, is among the most enjoyable things I’ve read this year.

Here’s the first paragraph of the 1940 profile, titled ‘Mazie’:

“A bossy, yellow-haired blonde named Mazie P. Gordon is a celebrity on the Bowery in the nickel-a-drink saloons and in the all-night restaurants which specialize in pig snouts and cabbage at a dime a platter, she is known by her first name. She makes a round of these establishments practically every night, and drunken bums sometimes come up behind her, slap her on the back, and call her sweetheart. This never annoys her. She has a wry but genuine fondness for bums and is undoubtedly acquainted with more of them than any person in the city. Each day she gives them between five and fifteen dollars in small change….’In my time, I’ve been as free with my dimes and as old John D himself,’ she says. Mazie has presided for twenty-one years over the ticket cage of the Venice Theatre.”

Now that I’m finished with the biography, I’ve also sought out reviews of it, such as a good one by John Williams in the NY Times, and a very insightful essay by Janet Malcolm in the NY Review of Books; she was a colleague of Mitchell’s at The New Yorker. Kunkel wrote an earlier biography of Harold Ross, founding editor of The New Yorker, who hired Mitchell for the magazine, after his several-year audition as a contributing writer. I’ve never met Kunkel, but I’m glad to say I feel connected to him anyway. As it happens, he reviewed Edward Robb Ellis’s A Diary of Century when it was published in 1995, with an Introduction by Pete Hamill, concluding his review in the Washington Post with the praise that Ellis’s diary of an Everyman, “produc[ed] something akin to Copland’s glorious ‘Fanfare for the Common Man.'” I’ll find a way to share this blog post with him, so I can belatedly let him know how glad I am that he enjoyed Eddie Ellis’s book, and I can tell him I felt the same for his superb book on Joseph Mitchell.

* Among Bob Loomis’s authors was William Styron; the courtly editor helped me enlist Styron’s aid in a championing a book I edited in 1999, about an arguably innocent inmate on Virginia’s Death Row. I wrote about that episode in my editorial career in an essay for the BN Review called “William Styron: A Promise Kept.”

**Ellis’s beguiling entry on Frank Bronnenkant is found on pgs 173-75 of A Diary of the Century (Kodansha America, 1995; republished by me at Union Square Press in 2008). Clicking on this link will take you to all my blog posts about Edward Robb Ellis, which includes one that examines the legacy of notorious faker Joe Gould, the subject of Mitchell’s last published Profile, the recently discovered photographer, Vivian Maier, and Ellis, in a 2014 piece I titled “Vivian Maier Was the Real Deal, the Ultra-Opposite of Joe Gould.” The relevance here is that Ellis—whose book was drawn from his diary, a journal he began keeping at age 16, and which he stayed with until 89, the longest-kept such record in the history of American letters—and the secretly great and prolific street photographer Maier did each create a magnum opus, while Gould never did, though Mitchell did believe for a time that he really was writing a seminal work, “The Oral History of our Times.” And yet Mitchell, even after publishing two long profiles of Gould (‘Professor Seagull,’ ’42, rather credulous) and (‘Joe Gould’s Secret,’ ’64, not credulous any longer) did not rebuke Gould. He generously concluded that Gould, some writings by whom he had actually read in the 1940s, had perhaps at least been writing in his mind, as Mitchell did with an uncompleted memoir and novel he never published.

*** For her part, Ruth Gruber, before and after WWII, wrote for the Herald Tribune and the NY Post. Unlike Mitchell and Ellis, she oscillated in and out of journalism, working for a time in the federal government during the FDR Administration, as Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes’ special representative to Alaska. Ruth is, so far as I know, the eldest surviving member of the Franklin Roosevelt Administration. This post is about a 104th birthday gathering with her this past October.