Three Girls in a Flat, by Enid Yandell and Laura Hayes

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Marjorie rose with a most winning smile to greet—Mrs. Brown!

I dug this 1892 book out of the internets after getting the impression from Simon Guerrier’s biography of David Whitaker that it was the inspiration for the 1969-1971 BBC series Take Three Girls. In fact I was completely wrong, the book that I am writing up here is set in Chicago, while the TV show, set in London, was really inspired by another book of the same title by Ethel F. Heddle, also set in London and published three years after the Chicago one, in 1896. But I have my own interests in fin-de-siecle America and in modern sculpture, so I don’t regret reading this one.

It’s the story of three young women architects involved with preparing the World’s Columbian Exposition, aka the Chicago World’s Fair, in 1893 – and specifically with preparing the Woman’s Building, a really interesting project designed, managed and implemented entirely by women, showcasing women’s achievements in the arts in a way that seems strangely twenty-first century, at a time when only two states in the USA allowed women to vote. (New Zealand and Colorado both extended the vote to women in 1893.)

The book is probably mostly by Laura Hayes, who as well as being a trainee architect was the secretary of Bertha Palmer, the Chicago socialite who was the prime mover behind the initiative to have a Woman’s Building in the first place (at least her name is given as the copyright holder). Enid Yandell, who gets top billing on the title page, became a very well-known sculptor whose career started with the Chicago Exposition. The third credited author, Jean Loughborough, was another architect who designed the Arkansas building for the Fair.

The book is a brief and warm account of apartment life for young professional women in a city which was just getting used to that concept. It is beautifully illustrated – eight illustrators are credited and I suspect that the authors contributed some pictures as well; there’s something to look at on every page. What got me was the tremendous sense of optimism; America and the world as a whole were opening up, and the three young women are convinced that the future will be better than the past. You can get it for free off the internet here and here.

(And I think every one of the short chapters passes the Bechdel test.)

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art

On my last day in LA last week, after Gallifrey One, I visited LACMA, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, with my old friend A. It was a rainy day and I had only an hour and a half between meeting A and needing to run to the airport. I slightly blenched at the $25 admission charge for non-Angelenos (A, as a native and recent returnee, would normally get in for a generous $5 discount). But the museum gods were smiling on us and the ticket machine was broken, so we got in for free.

A, rejoicing in our escape from the admission charges

I’m sorry to say that my initial impression was not hugely positive. The Resnick Pavilion, one of the two main buildings, is full of post-colonial this and that, deliberately de-centering the perspective of the original collectors (which for me is one of the interesting bits). I did like Todd Gray’s “Atlantic (Tiepolo)“, a three-dimensional collage reflecting on the slave trade.

Across the rainy way, the Broad Contemporary Art Museum building has three floors but the middle one was closed. Again, we were a bit underwhelmed by the ground floor, which has some interesting enough LA-inspired stuff but also some large empty spaces. What caught my eye was “El Chavez Ravine“, an ice cream truck covered with a painting by Vincent Valdez in collaboration with musician Ry Cooder, a companion piece for Cooder’s 2005 concepot album “Chávez Ravine” commemorating a Mexican-American community in Los Angeles whose homes were destroyed in the 1950s for a development that was never actually built.

We went upstairs in the BCAM building, slightly wondering why LACMA has been hyped up as much as it has; OK, we’d got in for free, but so far it wasn’t worth the $25 that I would have paid.

But on the third floor everything changed. Here there is a fantastic collection of modern art which is better than many European museums. Picasso, Bracque, Matisse, Barbara Hepworth, Fernand Leger (who I’ve come to appreciate) represented by “The Disks“:

I was grabbed also by Magnus Zeller’s “The Orator“:

Bust most of all, as a patriotic Belgian, I was delighted to find the original of Magritte’s “La trahison des images [Ceci n’est pas une pipe]“. (I went to the Brussels Magritte Museum with U in 2022.)

That alone would practically have been worth the admission price. (If I’d had to pay it.) After that, A kindly dropped me off at the airport and I came home to mountains of unread emails and hours of jetlag, which I am just about over now.

It was actually a lucky break because A and I had originally planned to visit the Getty Museum, which however is closed on Mondays. Very glad to have seen it. (It’s actually on the same block as the La Brea Tar Pits, which I visited two years ago.)

American Gridlock, eds. James A. Thurber and Antoine Yoshinaka

Second paragraph of third chapter (“Party Activists, Interest Groups and Polarization ion American Politics”, by David Karol):

In this chapter, I argue that activists and interest groups are key elements of political parties. Activists and party-aligned interest groups work within parties to advance their policy goals via candidate selection and lobbying elected officials. Unlike the formal party structure and some elements closely linked to it, activists and interest groups are a force for polarization. I review delegate and donor surveys as well as trends in interest group campaign contributions revealing evidence of polarization among activists and lobbies. Elected officials’ relationships with party activists and interest groups are not one-sided. Even more than highly informed voters, activists take cues from politicians, and interest group leaders are subject to pressure from elected officials. Still, evidence suggests that activists and party-linked interest groups promote polarization.

This was kindly given to me by co-editor James Thurber a few years ago. (Since you asked, I have worked out that he is the fifth cousin once removed of the humorist James Thurber.) It pulls together papers from a conference in May 2014, looking not only at the polarisation of American politics in Congress, but also at state legislatures, in the Supreme Court, in the media and in party structures. The situation was bad in 2014, and nine years later it looks worse.

The 18 essays come to some stark conclusions. The two parties are more ideologically distinct now than they have ever been, and the Republicans are further to the right than the Democrats are to the left. The political system incentivises pandering to your own hardliners rather than, y’know, actually governing. It is difficult to see any realistic path by which this can be reversed. Thomas Mann, in a foreword, suggests that a few more electoral defeats could be healthy for the Republicans and therefore for politics. I would point out that the Republican candidate for President has got more votes than the Democrat in precisely one of the eight elections since 1988, and it doesn’t seem to have chastened them.

I did wonder why some questions were not asked. From a European perspective, it’s actually not such a bad thing to have political parties that clearly represent different points of view. To me it seems that it’s not so much the ideological polarisation that is screwing American politics, it’s the culture of demonisation of political opponents, which actually goes back a long way but has got worse recently. European parties in general know that they may well have to work with each other in government after the election and so find politer ways of disagreement. (There are exceptions, of course.)

The other glaring omission, though it was not as obvious in 2014, is the surge of political violence in the USA, and its endorsement by leading figures on the right, most notably the 6 January 2021 coup attempt. Genteel analysis and numerical coding by academic observers rather pales into insignificance when you have an entire political party whose leadership has supported overthrowing the constitution by force.

Anyway, this is thought-provoking and depressing stuff, painting a gloomy picture which has turned out not to gloomy enough. You can get it here.

This was the non-fiction book that had lingered longest unread on my shelves. Next on that pile is City of Soldiers, by Kate Fearon.

The first ever plane bombing: who blew up United Air Lines 23?

(Content warning: aeroplanes being destroyed in mid-air, consequent deaths)

Insomnia can lead you to some strange places, and this is one of the places it has brought me recently: an unsolved mystery almost ninety years old, where I humbly propose an explanation of what might have happened.

On 10 October 1933, a Boeing 247 airliner operated by United Air Lines, on the Cleveland to Chicago leg of a journey from Newark, NJ, to Oakland, CA, crashed near Chesterton, Indiana, killing all four passengers and three crew. Subsequent investigation determined that a nitroglycerine charge in the blanket cupboard above the toilet had exploded, blowing the tail off. Two of the four passengers were immediately sucked out of the plane to their deaths; its front end then flipped over, crashed into the ground and burned to a cinder with the other five victims still on board. It is the earliest known case of a civilian plane flight being destroyed by sabotage.

(That is, the first known definite case of sabotage destroying a civilian flight. Just over six months before, on 28 March 1933, a British passenger flight caught fire and crashed in western Belgium, killing all fifteen on board. Suspicions were raised at the time, and have lingered, that one of the passengers might have deliberately caused the crash. But personally, I am not convinced, and I agree with the conclusions of Wout Wynants, who thinks that a bird strike or similar accident severed the fuel lines which then ignited the rest of the plane.)

In 2017 the FBI declassified 324 pages of investigation of the October 1933 crash by its predecessor, the Bureau of Investigation, already run by J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover put his best man in Chicago, the notorious Melvin Purvis, on the case. Before the end of the next year, Purvis would achieve fame as the man who trapped and killed several of Chicago’s most notorious gangsters, including Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd and John Dillinger. The Mob was a prominent element of American life in 1933.

One has to admire the thoroughness of the investigators. Every lead was followed up, with Purvis reporting on the state of play to Hoover personally. But it all led nowhere. Could it have been left-wing activism over a labour dispute? Actually the labour dispute had been resolved a few days before, and anyway none of the crew were involved. What about the package that one of the passengers guarded jealously? It was probably liquor (which was still illegal, for a few more weeks), and his interests did not run beyond baseball and duck hunting. Several travellers had had reservations on the fatal flight and then changed their plans, but all for good and non-suspicious reasons. The case was eventually closed with no resolution.

Three points occurred to me as I read through the files. The first is that no detonating mechanism was ever found. A timing device or pressure switch would have been pulverised by the explosion, but there would still have been some recognisable components in the debris. I suspect that the bomber stowed the nitroglycerine in the blanket cupboard in a glass or metal flask, hoping that it would be spontaneously set off by the shock of an air bump in mid flight, and the fragments of the flask were indistinguishable from the other wreckage. But managing raw nitroglycerine is not an exact science, and also nobody had ever blown up a plane before. So in my view, the Cleveland to Chicago flight on 10 October may not have been the real target of the bomber.

The second point is that although the mechanic who inspected the plane before it took off from Newark said that he did check the blanket cupboard, he admitted that he only slid his hand behind the folded blankets and did not actually take them out to check that there was nothing else there. (Page 65 of the dossier.) I think he missed the fairly small but deadly flask concealed behind them, as did whoever had checked the plane the previous day or days. A fatal mistake; but again, nobody had ever bombed an aeroplane before, so how was he to know?

The third point (see page 228 of the FBI’s 324-page dossier) is that two days before the bombing, on 8 October 1933, the same plane had done the same run from Cleveland to Chicago with two very interesting passengers on board: Joseph B. Keenan (1888-1954) and Adlai Stevenson II (1900-1965). Keenan was an anti-Mob prosecutor from Ohio, who had just been appointed as a special assistant to the U.S. Attorney-General, and three months later became Assistant Attorney General of the Criminal Division. In October 1933, he would have been very high up the list of public officials who were an inconvenience to organised crime. After the war, he was the Chief Prosecutor of the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal.

Adlai Stevenson II became a notable historical figure. In October 1933, he was in his first government job, special attorney and assistant to the general counsel of the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, but was preparing to become chief attorney for the Federal Alcohol Control Administration as soon as Prohibition was repealed. This would make him interesting to the Mob, but not as much as Keenan. He went on to be Governor of Illinois, was the losing Democratic candidate in the 1952 and 1956 presidential elections (both won by Eisenhower for the Republicans), and was U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations at the time of his death. (His grandfather, Adlai Stevenson I, was elected Vice-President of the United States in 1892 for Grover Cleveland’s second term, and ran again and lost in 1900.)

The investigators actually interviewed Stevenson about the 8 October flight (page 252 of the dossier); he said that he recognised Keenan but did not speak to him until they reached Chicago, and nothing on the flight seemed out of the ordinary.

(The G-Men did not quite dare to interview Keenan himself.)

My theory is that an opportunistic mobster in Cleveland spotted that Keenan was planning to take the flight and somehow slipped the nitroglycerine into the blanket cupboard. Explosives were easy enough to obtain; one would need a little specialised knowledge to pull this off, but only a little – the absence of an actual detonator is telling. And it would be smart of the Mob to have informants in the airports in their areas of operation. I think that the bomber hoped that the explosive would be triggered by an air bump between Cleveland and Chicago, eliminating Keenan and his fellow passengers. (Another possible jolt – someone closing the toilet door too firmly. One of the two passengers who was sucked out had been seated near the front of the plane, suggesting that he was at the rear near the toilet at the time of the explosion.) Indeed, I think it was triggered by an air bump or door slam between Cleveland and Chicago, but two days later than planned, and was not spotted during the cursory checks of the plane in the meantime.

Most of this theory is not actually original to me. The Chicago Tribune ran a story on 3 November 1933 (pages 120 and 136 of the dossier) saying that a gangster brought the nitroglycerine onto the plane on an earlier flight, feared that it would be found if he was searched on landing, and left it in the blanket cupboard. It seems to me vanishingly improbable that anyone would casually take raw nitroglycerine in their cabin baggage in the first place; I think it’s much more likely that it was planted by someone who did not travel on the plane at all (and the investigators did investigate everyone who did travel on it, as far as possible). However it’s close enough to my theory that I think that one of the investigators in Washington had come to much the same conclusions as me, based on the same evidence, and leaked it to the Chicago Tribune. We’ll never know the full story.

These were the seven people who died on United Air Lines Trip 23, the first victims of airborne terrorism:

Pilot: Richard Harold “Hal” Tarrant (“Harold R. Tarrant” in most reports), born 8 April 1908 in Swindon, England; aged 25; married Bessie Olsen in May 1932. Boarded the plane in Cleveland to replace Robert Dawson, later to become a celebrity pilot, who had flown it from Newark.

Co-pilot: Harold Eugene “Harry” Ruby (“A.T. Ruby” in some reports), born 19 September 1905 in Milwaukee; aged 28; married Catherine Davis in 1926; married again to Pearl Eichholz in June 1933; appears to have had a daughter.

Stewardess: Alice Theresa Scribner, born 11 September 1907 in Bancroft, Wisconsin; aged 26; was engaged and planning to get married a few weeks later. Her funeral was conducted by the minister who had planned to preside at her wedding. The first United Air Lines stewardess to die in service.

Warren Fairhill Burris, born 22 July 1888 in Fairhill, Pennsylvania, aged 45 (death certificate says he was 35, but this is wrong). Married Helen Leona Miller in 1918. Radio operator with United who was flying to a work assignment. Two sons and a daughter; the younger son and the daughter both died as recently as 2012.

Emil Smith, born 14 December 1888 in Chicago, aged 44; had sold the family grocery shop and was living on savings; single; attracted attention from the investigators because he brought a package onto the flight which he was very protective of; but in the end turned out to just be an average guy with an interest in baseball and duck-hunting. Although his assigned seat was near the front of the plane, it was he and Burris who were sucked out by the explosion at the back, so he must have been out of his seat at the time.

Frederick Irving Schendorf, born in Wauconda, Illinois on 14 November 1904, aged 28; married Christine Mulroy in 1929; two sons; manager of a refrigerator company. Wrote on a feedback card that he was “quite satisfied with the ride” just before the explosion happened.

Dorothy M. Dwyer, born 13 October 1907 (according to her death certificate), supposedly about to turn 26; her parents were both born in Ireland but emigrated in the mid-1890s; I have not been able to locate her birth certificate, and census returns suggest that she was actually born before 1907 (7 years old in 1910, 17 in 1920; but 24 in 1930); she would not be the first or last person to adjust her official age.

Hers is the saddest story of the lot, and they are all sad stories. Dorothy Dwyer was flying to Reno, Nevada to marry her fiancé, Theodore Baldwin, who had just got his divorce from a previous marriage; she missed the flight she was originally booked on because of a puncture and so ended up on United 23. Baldwin was distraught as he flew east to take her body home to Massachusetts, raving to fellow passengers that his girl had been killed by a bomb; he worked in mining and knew about explosives. Her brother had been killed in a car accident only five months before.

A final point that struck me is that the victims were comparatively young – five in their 20s and two in their 40s. Clearly, commercial plane travel was already reasonably affordable for Americans – Schendorf was well off and flying for business, and Burris presumably had his ticket paid for by United, his employers; but Smith and Dwyer were not especially rich, and were flying for pleasure. (Smith had savings, of course, and Dwyer a rich boyfriend; but still.) It’s for another post, but my sense is that the victims of the Diksmuide crash six months earlier were in general much wealthier.

Thank you for bearing with me.

Madam Secretary, by Madeleine Albright

Second paragraph of third chapter:

The young women who entered Wellesley in the fall of 1955 (the class of’ 59) were either the last of the silent generation with its contingent of bright, dutiful daughters prepared to join the ranks of well-educated, bright, dutiful wives or the first class of women eager to be taken seriously in the workforce and recognized as independent individuals, not just appendages to their much sought-after husbands. Actually, they were both; in any case, I was both. I was preparing myself for a career in journalism or diplomacy, while I wanted to get married as soon as possible to the perfect partner. The notion that there might be a contradiction between these two aspirations didn’t occur to me. So I concentrated on my studies and worried about my social life.

My closest encounter with Madeleine Albright was in Banja Luka in the summer of 1997, when she descended on the Bosnian Serb capital with the full force of the State Department to visit the local leader, President Biljana Plavšić. The US government took over the central Hotel Bosna for the day; I was among the crowds that watched as the official motorcade took the Secretary of State from the hotel to the President’s offices in the main government building, the Banski Dvor. But the Banski Dvor is literally across the road from the Hotel Bosna, the front doors being less than 100 metres apart; the American motorcade was literally longer than the distance it needed to travel. It was a strange sight.

Anyway, this is a fascinating if rather long first-person account of life on the way to the top, and then at the top, of American politics. Though born in Prague in 1937, her family fled to the USA after the Communist take-over in 1948 and she settled down to become a smart American in an immigrant family. Her father, formerly a zech diplomat, became a political science professor; she followed in his footsteps, but also managed to catch a superbly well-connected journalist husband, which can’t have done any harm as she rose in DC.

A side hobby of fund-raising got her the attention of Democratic veteran Ed Muskie, who hired her for his Senate team in 1976; Zbig Brzezinski then snagged for the the National Security Council in the Carter presidency. The Democrats were out of office for the next twelve years, though she was involved as a senior foreign policy adviser in the unsuccessful 1984 and 1988 campaigns. Finally, a victorious Bill Clinton appointed her as ambassador to the United Nations in 1993, and Secretary of State in 1997, shortly before my near brush with her in Bosnia. She was also closely involved with the National Democratic Institute, my employers in Bosnia, though she had stepped back from it while in office. The book was published in 2002, very soon after the end of the Clinton presidency.

The circumstantial detail of her life before Washington is all very interesting, but like most readers I was fascinated by the insider accounts of Washington (and New York) policy-making. The Rwanda genocide, the Bosnia and Kosovo wars, the escalation against Saddam Hussein (which was firmly bipartisan in Washington in those days), relations with China and Russia, and above all the ins and outs of the Middle East from the high point of the Oslo accords in 1993 to the failure at Camp David in 2000, are all lucidly described; I am more familiar with some of these than others, but had no difficulty in following the thread. She is pretty clear on her own motivation, which usually coincided with US policy – though not always; she happily confirms that she tended to be on the hawkish side regarding the use of force, particularly after Rwanda.

There is a particularly moving chapter where, newly appointed as secretary of state, she discovers that her parents were Jewish and that three of her grandparents, who she remembered from her own childhood, had been killed in the Holocaust (one grandfather had died in 1938). Her parents had brought her up as a Catholic and she had no idea of her personal connection. Having been delving into my own family history of late, I know the feeling of genealogical surprises, though I don’t think that anything quite like that is lying in wait for me.

Anyway, it’s a lengthy book, but I found it enlightening. You can get it here.

This was my top unread book by a woman writer. Next on that pile is Winter, by Ali Smith.

Los Angeles: A bookshop and a cemetery

Just a few more photos from last weekend, taken after I wrote my blog post on Monday.

First of all, a nice fannish moment in the hotel lobby with Daniel Anthony, who played Clyde in the Sarah Jane Adventures, and does not appear to have aged in the last ten years.

Also, fashionable slippers that I envied a little.

Then we went up to Hollywood with a bunch of Doctor Who writers, first stop the Mystery Pier Bookshop, owned by former actress Pamela Franklin and her husband. (She was out shopping.)

They specialise in first editions, including signed copies of Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, and of Queen Victoria’s Leaves from the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands.

Then it was on to the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, which has a tremendous setting.

We were there to pay our respects to Tony Beckley, who played Harrison Chase in The Seeds of Doom (1976) and was one of the first prominent British actors to die of AIDS, in 1980.

We held a little commemoration.

Other interesting graves there include Mel Blanc, the voice of Bugs Bunny, with the epitaph “That’s All, Folks!”

This extraordinary grave belongs to Mike Szymanski, who is still alive:

Another striking monument to Romanian film director Mihai Iacob:

I had no idea that there were so many Armenians in the film industry, or in Hollywood at least:

And the cemetery has peacocks, though we are advised not to feed them.

Finally, H and I had a good long chat with Kenny Smith of Big Finish on our way home as he too was flying to Heathrow. He grumbled that I didn’t mention that in my previous post, but in fairness that was written first thing Monday morning, hours before we flew together!

The easternmost dead president

So I came across this interesting article yesterday, listing the gravesites of all of the presidents of the United States (apart from those who are still alive). It is illustrated by this lovely map:

The westernmost tomb is that of Ronald Reagan in California; the southernmost is Lyndon B Johnson in Texas; the northernmost is Calvin Coolidge in Vermont. But who is easternmost? Both John Adams and John Quincy Adams rest in the crypt of the United First Parish Church in Quincy, Massachusetts. It must be one of them.

This charming news piece has CBS reporter Levan Reid exploring the crypt and inspecting the dead presidents for himself. As seen from the entrance to the burial chamber, John Adams is on the left, followed by his wife Abigail, their son John Quincy, and finally John Quincy Adams’ wife Louisa (the only First Lady born outside the United States, apart from Melania Trump).

It’s not completely clear from this film which way round they are with respect to the rest of the church. But Openstreetmaps suggests that the crypt is at the eastern end of the church, with John Adams’s tomb the northernmost of the four and a little to the west, and John Quincy Adams therefore the easternmost of the dead presidents.

But next time I am in that part of the world, I think I will go have a look for myself.

Edited to add, 28 August 2022: I was wrong, as I discovered when I visited Quincy today. In fact the crypt is located below the portico at the western end of the church, accessed by a staircase from the interior. John Quincy Adams and Louisa are in the northern end, slightly west of John and Abigail. John Adams père is therefore the easternmost of the dead presidents.