Friday, January 29, 2010

The Great Dawn Powell

I suspect most of us would never had heard of Dawn Powell without the efforts of her biographer, Tim Page, who not only wrote a scrupulous biography of this heretofore neglected writer, but also published her diaries and volumes of her letters. Dawn Powell was a small town girl from Ohio who made good in New York around World War I. She remained a devoted New Yorker for the rest of her life (1896-1965). Her sixteen novels divide evenly between those set in rural Ohio, and those set in Manhattan. The locations may vary, but Powell's biting wit, humor and unapologetic style remain in the forefront. I warn you, Dawn Powell's writing is addictive. Don't believe me?


If I have ugly babies I am going to kill them. Unless they happen to have a rich father. Then I might let them live a few years to see just what sort of numb skulls they develop into...Beauty is after all the only thing in the world that matters-not mental or spiritual beauty or any of that lying rot, but splendid physical beauty-healthy or unhealthy beauty so long as it is beauty.


Well now. That throws down the gauntlet, doesn't it? Here are some excerpts from her diary:

June 22, 1934

I am lost without a novel. Those plays confuse me with their hysterical bursts into my life. A novel is like a gland pill--it nips of the cream of my hysterics and gets them running on track in a book where they belong instead of rioting all over my person.

June 22, 1965

Most important thing for a novelist is curiosity and how curious that so many of them lack it. They seem self absorbed, family absorbed, success absorbed, but the new social climbing writer professes indifference to the people across the aisle, the noise from the next apartment, as if a gentleman does not concern himself with things not his business.


As for New York City, it's the only place where people with nothing behind them but their wits can be and do anything. A young man, particularly with a tuxedo and decent manners, can go anyplace, be welcomed in the ritziest circles and even fought over by debutantes. All he needs to do is act are too scarce for girls to care whether they were brought up anywhere. The chief difference between New York and everyplace else in the world is that you brag of your early struggles-how you worked on the section or delivered ice and your folks were mountain whites or blacks-and everybody brought up at Harvard or Vassar or in convents abroad is very envious and hates their folks for always coddling them....

From THE BRIDE'S HOUSE published 1929

Buggies and wagons lined the streets of the self satisfied little town, flew flags, bands played parading down the street, Civil war veterans marched and a group of youngsters bore a Loyal Temperance Legion banner and sang, "Saloons, saloons, saloons must go!" But on the contrary saloons had sprung up overnight to meet the country's annual thirst. A fragrant alcoholic haze hung over the town, and tented the entire fairgrounds. Streets were giddy with laughter and the shrill voices and megaphoned speeches of visiting politicians. There were clusters of starched white and flying ribbons here and there, groups of rosy farm girls giggling and ogling each passing man. By nighttime the groups, with good luck, would be scattered, each girl giggling with an awkward young man in some tree shaded buggy behind the fair grounds, hysterically sipping from a jug of corn whiskey and abandoning herself to private yearnings. The wretched little frame hotels, supported comfortably all year by a half a dozen traveling salesmen, now bulged with guests and window shades were drawn night and day, boasting of the iniquity of their bedrooms. Carnival gods rode over the city and sprinkled the orthodox with their confetti.

From A TIME TO BE BORN, published 1942

This was a time when the artists,the intellectuals, sat in cafes and in country homes and accused each other over their brandies or their California vintages of traitorous tendencies. This was a time for them to band together in mutual antagonism, a time to bury the professional hatchet, if possible in each other, a time to stare at their flower arrangements, children bathing, and privately to weep, "What good is it? Who cares now?" The poet, disgusted with the flight of skylarks in perfect sonnet form, declaimed the power of song against brutality and raised hollow voice in feeble reproof. This was no time for beauty, for love, or private future; this was the time for ideals and quick profits on them before the world turned to reality and the drabber opportunities. What good for a new soprano to sing 'Vissi d'arte, vissi d'amore?' What good for eager young students to make their bows? There was no future. Everyone waited, marked time, waited. For what? On Fifth Avenue and fifty-seventh hundreds waited for a man in a hotel window ledge to jump' hundreds waited with craning necks and thirsty faces as if this single person's final gesture would solve the riddle of the world. Civilization stood on a ledge, and in the tension of waiting it was a relief to have one little man jump.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

George Jellinek

George Jellinek was the kindest man I ever knew. I did not know him well, or for very long, but he was enormously generous in sharing his knowledge, not only of vocal music but of the humanities, of LIFE, and he always spoke to me as if I were his peer, and that I will never be. George died a few days ago at the age of 90. A friend pointed out to me in my sadness, "that was ninety years very well lived" and he's right. Very well lived in the sense of providing education and enjoyment to thousands from his wonderful radio series The Vocal Scene, originating at his home base, WQXR is New York, and achieving a long productive life in syndication. Today, George would be blogging and posting all over the web and boy would we be lucky.

I met George in the early 1980s. I was trying to figure out what to do after grad school at NYU. I lived in a dump, and had funky and delightful friends (many now gone and that's another reason for tears)and sold records (RECORDS not yet CDs) at Barnes and Noble on 5th Avenue. I found myself a panelist on the august Texaco Opera Quiz-the story how THAT happened is told elsewhere on this blog. (Type Richard Mohr in the search engine)There I was with Edward Downes, Alberta Masiello, Father Owen Lee, the most articulate and intelligent of people, and with George Jellinek. I was a devotee of the vocal scene (YOU should have been) and had read his biography of Maria Callas, which apparently had not annoyed that lady. George was modest and kind. He never let me feel like I was a kid record salesman with no right to be there. Quite the contrary (and this was true of every person I ever encountered on the Met Quiz over twenty years). George didn't care I was wearing a borrowed suit and had to leave before the last act of "Eugene Onegin" to work the evening shift at B&N. He and his dear wife Hedy fed me occasionally and took me to concerts I never could have approached on my $200/week. Victoria de los Angeles at the Manhattan School of Music was unforgettable, as was her very warm embrace of George and Hedy after the performance and her smile at me, as if she knew I was lucky to be in their presence rather than hers...and I was.

George wrote two more books in his later years. "History Through the Opera Glass" is indispensable for those who love Don Carlo or Boris Godunov and what to know what REALLY happened. "My Road to Radio and The Vocal Scene: Memoirs of an Opera Commentator" takes him from refugee to radio star (he'd shake his head at that description). I recommend both warmly. Even better, listen to recordings of your favorite operas and your favorite singers, enjoy them, think of George and fall in love with the music all over again. That would be a lovely tribute to a lovely man.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Nelson Eddy

To Whom It May Concern:

I have just had the pleasure of listening to an interview that Christopher Purdy did with Kaye Ballard ( I am co-authoring a biography of the late Nelson Eddy. Based on information Mr. Purdy imparted during the interview I would like to contact Mr. Purdy to ask some questions about about information he may have, or may have been told during other interviews about Mr. Eddy

Thank you.

Dear JH:

Thank you for your recent e mail concerning my 2007 interview with Kaye Ballard. I don't remember talking about Nelson Eddy with Ms. Ballard-perhaps we did, I haven't heard the interview in a while. I did enjoy Ms. Ballard enormously!

Concerning Nelson Eddy, here's a bit form my blog-a review of Mr. Eddy's concert in Boston's Symphony Hall in April of 1940. The writer is Edward Downes (1911-2001) who at the time was music critic of the Boston Evening Transcript. Edward was the son of NY Times chief critic Olin Downes (1886-1955). I got to know Edward through the Metropolitan Opera broadcast intermsisions when he was the host of the popular weekly 'Texaco Opera Quiz'. I was a panelist for a number of years. Edward, in fact was the subject of my DMA thesis here at Ohio State.

April 3, 1940

Nelson Eddy, famous all American baritone of the stage, screen and ether waves, gave a recital last night in Symphony Hall which began with Albert Hay Lamotte's setting of Shelly's "Ode to a Skylark" and ended with "The Lord's Prayer", set to music by the same intrepid composer. The program informed us "Of all vocal compositions, Lamotte's setting of The Lord's Prayer is requested most often, a significant indication of the reverence of a people who know how to turn to God." This last confused us considerably. Does it mean the real way to turn to God is to write a fan letter to Nelson Eddy asking him to sing "The Lord's Prayer"? Or does it mean that the number of requests for this kind of vocal composition is a kind of barometer of the devoutness of the American public?

I'm afraid this review is not very flattering. A man who performed Wozzeck and sang in the movies proved his chops!

Good luck on your book, and thank you for contacting me.

Christopher Purdy

Dear Mr. Purdy:

Thank you for my inquiry. It is much appreciated.

Just to clarify--you didn't mention Nelson Eddy during your interview with Kaye Ballard. The item that caught my interest was when you made the comment that you "teach opera" and how unaware students are when you play "old stuff" for them. Based on that comment, I was hoping you might have conducted an interview with someone at some time when Nelson was discussed. Barring that, I wanted to ask your assessment of Nelson's voice and talent and possibly ask for your comment on how he, too has been relegated to obscurity.

While conducting research and interviews, I have had the good luck to be able to talk with Lillian Murphy and her husband Earl William Sauvain. I wonder if you have any comments or thoughts about either of these individuals or their talents.

Thank you for the link to your blog. I have read the review of Nelson's concert written by Edward Downes. Although you are correct it is "not very flattering", it seems Mr. Downes went to that concert for the sole purpose of finding something negative to write about. I find it humorous that the only thing he could find was information written in the program. His review never addressed the quality of the concert or Nelson's performance. It would appear he couldn't find anything negative to say about hem, so he simply didn't comment on them but chose to make nasty little innuendoes implying Nelson must have thought of himself as God. Mr. Downes was not being fair to anyone with this review-including his readers.


Dear JH

Edward Downes's papers are at Boston University. I went through them after his death. The only snarky mail I found from his days as a music critic concerned the Nelson Eddy review. There were a few notes, well preserved for sixty years, objecting to Edward's attitude toward a concert that was probably sold to the walls and well enjoyed. In person Edward was a bit of an aesthete with high standards. Still, his tone is surprising. Nelson Eddy, as you know better than me, had a very distinguished career in opera before he went to Hollywood. He studied with David Bispham, the first American born baritone to have an international carer in opera. Eddy not only did the bread and butter operas, but sang leads in the American premieres of Ariadne auf Naxos, Wozzeck, and Maria Egiziaca. This was no dilettante.

One more Edward Downes story. He lived most of his life in New York's Dakota apartments. Forty years ago he was on the board, and was asked to interview prospective new tenants, a couple who were musicians. They came for tea, barefooted and needing a bath. But he liked them and they were allowed to buy into the building. He liked John Lennon and Yoko Ono--this was in 1969, immediately post Beatles, and he had no clue who they were. He died at 90 in the apt. upstairs from Yoko Ono, who today owns most of the building. (To his credit, Edward always enjoyed telling this story on himself!)

You can't make this stuff up.