Discover more from The Writer's Almanac with Garrison Keillor
TWA for Wednesday, October 19, 2011
"Retirement Home Melee at the Salad Bar" by David Hernandez, from Hoodwinked. © Sarabande Books, 2011.
On this date in 1789, John Jay was sworn in as the first Chief Justice of the United States. He entered King's College (which is now Columbia University) when he was 14, graduated with highest honors in 1764, and was admitted to the New York state bar four years later. He was opposed to breaking from Great Britain, and urged a moderate policy when he served as a delegate to both the First and Second Continental Congresses. He also helped negotiate the Treaty of Paris, which officially ended the war with Britain in 1783. When he returned home from Paris, he found he'd been elected Secretary for Foreign Affairs. George Washington asked him to serve as Secretary of State, but Jay turned him down, so Washington then asked him to consider the post of Chief Justice. Jay accepted. A proponent of a strong central government, his most notable case was Chisholm v. Georgia, in which he and the court decided that the states were subordinate to the federal government. This led to an outcry from states' rights advocates, which in turn led to the passage of the Eleventh Amendment, limiting the federal government's judicial power over the states.
It's the birthday of motion picture pioneer Auguste Lumière (1862). He was born in Besançon, France, and his father was a former painter who had taken up photography. Auguste and his younger brother Louis studied science in Lyon, and opened a successful business producing photographic plates. Their father returned home from a trip to Paris in 1894, full of descriptions of Thomas Edison's new Kinetoscope: a peephole machine that pulled strips of film in front of a light source, creating the illusion of movement. The Lumière brothers began work on a device that would project the images, and in February 1895, they patented their cinématographe, which was an all-in-one camera, developer, and projector. A month later, they shot their first footage of workers leaving their factory in Lyon. They held their first public screening that December, showing 10 short films — each of them about a minute long — depicting scenes from everyday life. One film in particular provoked a strong reaction: the Lumières had filmed a train pulling into a station head-on, and the audience members screamed and scrambled out of their seats, believing the train was about to plow through the screen into the theater.
Auguste Lumière wasn't much interested in pursuing further developments in motion picture technology, being more interested in medical research. He reportedly said, "My invention can be exploited ... as a scientific curiosity, but apart from that it has no commercial value whatsoever."
It's the birthday of journalist and columnist Jack Anderson (1922). He was born in Long Beach, California, to Mormon parents, who moved the family to Utah when Jack was two years old. He got his first newspaper job at 12, editing the Boy Scout page of the Mormon Church's paper The Deseret News. Before long, he was making seven dollars a week covering local fires and traffic accidents for The Murray Eagle. He spent most of his professional life on the syndicated "Washington Merry-Go-Round" column, which in its heyday was carried by more than a thousand papers.
Anderson wasn't above some questionable tactics like eavesdropping and rifling through garbage cans, but he never shirked what he saw as a moral duty to keep Washington honest, even when it meant pursuing and exposing formerly close friends like Joseph McCarthy. As an investigative reporter with a flair for courting disgruntled low-level government employees and convincing them to sneak him classified documents, he was not especially popular among Washington powerbrokers. Richard Nixon put Anderson on his infamous Enemies List. J. Edgar Hoover called him "lower than the regurgitated filth of vultures." G. Gordon Liddy plotted his murder. In 1975, The Washington Post reported that Liddy considered poisoning the aspirin in Anderson's medicine cabinet; Anderson credited his large family with saving his life in that instance: "I had a wife and nine children, and nobody wanted to risk the chance one of them might get a headache," he wrote in his autobiography.
It's the birthday of the novelist who writes under the name John le Carré, born David Cornwell in Poole, England (1931). He got a job in Her Majesty's Secret Service as a young man, but he found the actual work of a spy pretty boring. He said, "[It was] spectacularly undramatic."
Since he was disappointed in his life as a spy, le Carré decided to entertain himself by writing novels. He had to keep his identity secret, so he used the pen name John le Carré. He said, "I wanted something three-syllabled and exotic." Le Carré means "the square" in French. His third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), was so successful that he quit his job as a spy and began to write full time.
"Completing a book, it's a little like having a baby," he told the Telegraph in 2010. "There's a feeling of relief and satisfaction when you get to the end. A feeling that you have brought your family, your characters, home. Then a sort of post-natal depression and then, very quickly, the horizon of a new book. The consolation that next time I will do it better." His latest book, Our Kind of Traitor, was published in 2010.
Today is the birthday of Tracy Chevalier (1962), born in Washington, D.C. After college, she moved to London to stay for six months, but she fell in love with a British man and she has never left. She was a reference book editor for several years before she started writing historical novels. Her first novel, The Virgin Blue (1997), was a moderate success, and her second book, Girl With a Pearl Earring (1999), was a huge best-seller. For the book, Chevalier was inspired one day when she was staring at a poster she had bought when she was 19, a copy of Johannes Vermeer's painting Girl With a Pearl Earring. She imagined what life might have been for the young woman who ended up the subject of that painting. She started the book right away, but she was pregnant and she didn't want the book to get lost in her life as a new mother, so she researched and wrote the whole novel in just eight months, finishing just two weeks before the birth of her son. In it, she wrote, "He saw things in a way that others did not, so that a city I had lived in all my life seemed a different place, so that a woman became beautiful with the light on her face."
She's written four more novels since then; her latest, Remarkable Creatures, about two eccentric women searching for fossils on an English beach, came out in 2009.
She said, "Don't write about what you know — write about what you're interested in. Don't write about yourself — you aren't as interesting as you think."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®
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