The Hollywood actress Jean Harlow (whose birth name was Harlean Carpenter) passed away on this day in 1937—she was just twenty-six years of age.
A few years ago, I decided to find out about Jean’s tragically short (but undeniably eventful) life when I discovered she was born just four days before my grandmother Gertie in 1911. At the time, I was researching my family tree and adding details of births, deaths or famous (which could also mean “random”) events to give my own family’s story some sort of historical context.
I am thoroughly ashamed to say that I had hardly watched any old black and white movies (although that oversight has now been remedied), but I had probably—albeit inadvertently—seen her on screen as I was a massive fan of Laurel & Hardy. Jean made a brief, but memorable, appearance in the 1929 Hal Roach short Double Whoopee, in which Jean gets out of her car, only to have the lower half of her dress ripped off when it gets trapped in the door. (The scene was fairly racy for its time, but genius is timeless— and Stan Laurel was a genius—and pretty much the same stunt is recreated in an episode of Miranda Hart’s self-titled comedy series.)
Jean Harlow possessed the main attributes needed for an acting career—she was young and had both a fantastic figure and stunning looks. Whether or not she was a great actress is something for the experts to debate—personally, I think she had brilliant comic timing and it was in her more light-hearted roles that she excelled. She was blessed/ cursed (delete as appropriate) with the ultimate pushy mother, who played out her own dreams through her daughter—and signed most of Jean’s “autographs” for her. The young actress most certainly had a thoroughly unpleasant stepfather, Marino Bello, who deserves less than the passing mention I’ve just given him.
That said, Jean’s star rose quickly, her platinum-dyed hair was a box office winner, yet her private life was a mess. She managed three marriages in her short adult life—and was engaged to actor William Powell at the time of her death. Husband number two, Paul Bern, died in what was an apparent suicide and, as with many of the Hollywood stars of the era, Jean endured more than her fair share of controversy and heartache, before the ultimate tragedy of losing her life to renal failure at such a ridiculously young age.
I have read (actually I only half read—it was crap) a biography which painted Jean as a brash, almost lewd woman, but I’ve also come across articles which show what I believe to the “real” Jean Harlow, genuine, kind and considerate beyond her years—read my bio if you want to find out more!!. Of course, there may have been occasions when she acted her part in public (this was Hollywood after all), but for me, Jean Harlow was not simply the “original platinum blonde”; she was a young woman blessed with talent and a beauty that was much, much more than skin deep and this blog is affectionately dedicated to the memory of my movie idol x
Today marks the one hundredth anniversary of the incident at the Epsom Derby which— four days later—claimed the life of suffragette Emily Davison, who had stepped out onto the course during the race, but was knocked to the ground by King George V’s horse Anmer.
Born in 1872, Emily Davison was a militant and occasionally violent campaigner for women’s rights who served several terms in jail and endured being force-fed on numerous occasions.
I watched a recent documentary, which explained in graphic detail how a prisoner would be force-fed—it was a brutal process and whether or not you agree with the principles and actions of the more radical suffragettes, it’s hard not to be in some way impressed by their selfless determination in pursuit of their cause.
There are several theories regarding the fateful events of 4th June 1913, but the remarkable footage that was shown during the documentary certainly seems to give some insight into Miss Davison’s possible motives.
She was standing at Tattenham corner, in a position where she will have been aware of oncoming horses, but given the speed they were travelling, merely ducking under the barrier and setting foot on the course would have been fraught with danger and identifying one particular horse would have been almost impossible.
It appears that Emily was carrying a scarf or sash promoting women’s suffrage and may have been intending to gain some publicity by somehow putting the scarf over the head of one of the horses. She actually did remarkably well to evade two horses as she moved across the track, but the slow motion footage of the collision with Anmer shows the horse almost rear on its hind legs in an attempt to jump over the obstacle that had unexpectedly appeared right in front of it. This is probably something that Emily would not have foreseen and the impact sent her crashing unconscious to the turf.
Whether or not she intended to kill herself (and I don’t think she did) and whether or not she intended to pick out the King’s horse (and I’m less certain about this), Emily Davison’s desire to promote women’s rights ended with her paying the ultimate price.
If you ignore the underlying politics, the century-old footage is extraordinary, but the tragedy of the situation wasn’t restricted to Emily Davison: Anmer’s jockey Herbert Jones was haunted by the incident—so much so that he would eventually take his own life some thirty-eight years later.
Given the world we live in now, it is hard to comprehend the way things were just one hundred years ago. There will be many who will honour the memory of Emily Davison and whilst I can’t say I condone her methods, her courage deserves (and has) my admiration.
Russian cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov was forty years old, married (to Valentina) and had two young children. He was selected to pilot what was to be the Soviet Union’s ninth manned space mission aboard Soyuz 1 (Soyuz being the anglicised version of the Russian word Союз meaning “union).
The Russians had held an advantage over the United States in many aspects of the “space race”: the first man in space – Yuri Gagarin, first full day in space - Gherman Titov, first simultaneous flight of two manned craft, first woman in space – Valentina Tereshkova, first spacewalk - Alexei Leonov and the first multi-person craft (Voshkod 1), of which Komarov had been the command pilot.
The inaugural Soyuz flight was very much part of the Russian lunar programme and was the first manned spaceflight in over two years. The mission was certainly challenging: the Russians planned to launch Soyuz 1 with Komarov inside. A second rocket with two additional cosmonauts would blast off the next day, dock with Soyuz 1 and Komarov would crawl from one to the other and come home in the second craft.
Three tests in the lead up to the launch had failed (the third being an abort that triggered a launchpad explosion). In addition, a staggering 203 structural problems were found with the Soyuz craft, but political pressure not only from the need to “beat” the Americans, but also a planned celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Communist revolution meant that the mission would go ahead, irrespective of the potential problems with the craft and the consequent risk to Komarov himself.
Komarov’s back-up pilot was Gagarin himself. The two were close friends and a month before the flight, Komarov told a demoted KGB agent (named Venyamin Russayev) that he knew he would not return alive. When asked why he didn’t just refuse to go, Komarov explained that the back-up pilot would just be sent in his place and he wasn’t prepared to let his friend Gagarin die...
The launch went ahead as planned, but the flight was beset with problems. With power and navigation issues, Komarov was already in a perilous situation, but when the following day’s launch was cancelled, his fate was almost certainly sealed. On this day in 1967 (just three months after the Apollo I launchpad fire that killed three American astronauts), Vladimir Komarov perished when his craft’s parachutes failed to open. A back-up parachute then became entangled with a small canopy and Soyuz 1 basically crash landed with the force of a meteorite.
Amazingly, US intelligence picked up Komarov’s cries of rage as the craft plunged to earth as well as a conversation with former leader Alexei Kosygin. My Russian isn’t particularly good (actually it’s non-existent), but seemingly Komarov (the first man to be killed in a spaceflight) was cursing the “people who had put him in a botched spaceship”. His charred remains were displayed prior to a state funeral, but the death of Komarov, as well as Grissom, White and Chaffee just a few weeks earlier highlighted just how
expendable these brave pioneers actually were, no more than pawns in a game of outer space chess.
This blog therefore salutes the selfless courage of Vladimir Komarov (1927-1967)
Today marks the 50th anniversary of the release of The Beatles’ first single, Love Me Do. The story has been quite well reported in the media, but 5th October 1962 was also the date on which the first James Bond film Dr No was released...
On the same date in 1930, the airship R-101 crashed on its maiden voyage... six years later, the Jarrow March set off for London... and keeping the north east theme, Brian Johnson of AC/DC turns 65 today. Other notables with 5th October birthdays include Bob Geldof (61 would you believe..?) and Kate Winslet.
But today’s blog concerns someone who died on this date... in 1918. You might know his name, but possibly not much about the man.
Roland Garros (pictured) was born in 1888 and his desire to become a concert pianist changed completely after a visit to the 1909Reims air show. He learnt to fly (fly a plane... not actually fly by himself) and displayed great skill as an exhibition and stunt pilot, as well as setting a number of records including a long distance flight from France to Tunisia. As luck (or otherwise) would have it, he was teaching in Germany when World War I broke out... he managed to escape back to France where he joined a fighter squadron.
One of Garros’ main achievements was the development of a forward-firing machine gun that sent bullets through the rotating propeller blade. He is reported to have shot down five German aircraft in two weeks during March 1915 (although some sources say four); an achievement that led to him being described as an “ace”, a term which was later applied to Allied pilots who had successfully shot down five or more German planes.
Unfortunately, Garros was forced to land his aircraft behind enemy lines the very next month and was captured as he tried to burn his plane (and his “secret” machine gun). Garros was imprisoned and his plane was examined by German aircraft designer Anton Fokker who managed to improve on Garros’ idea courtesy of an interrupter gear... and if you don’t know what one of those is... it’s a gear... that interrupts...
Roland Garros managed to escape from his prison camp early in 1918 – you’d think that was a good thing... but sadly, just weeks before the end of the War, he was shot and killed in action.
His legacy is now remembered through the French tennis open which is held in the stadium that bears his name. A fitting testament to the memory of an innovative and brave pioneer and a guarantee, I suppose, of seeing yet more “aces”...
This day marks the passing, in 1940, of Robert Pershing Wadlow, the tallest man to have ever lived (that should read the tallest verified...). Just so you know, he is the man in the middle of this picture...
His height was recorded at just over 8'11" when he died, aged 22, following complications from an infected blister in his ankle.
It is almost impossible to imagine someone standing nearly nine feet tall... for example Wadlow's shoes were reportedly a size 37... and he towered over his father Harold "Shortarse" Wadlow, who was a mere 5'11"...
Wadlow's remarkable height has been attributed to something called hypertrophy of the pituitary gland... in layman's terms his body produced abnormally high levels of human growth hormone; he was as tall as me (6'2") when he was aged just eight and even at the time of his death, there was seemingly no sign of his growth stopping.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given our fascination with the "extraordinary", Wadlow became a celebrity through numerous public appearances and tours. Over the years, he needed a leg brace to walk and had little feeling in his lower limbs and feet... to be honest if I had been his blood, I'd have given up and turned back round about the knee area too...
From what I've read, Wadlow had been a hard-working student... would you believe he was good at basketball?!... and he was a keen photographer too... People who knew him said Robert Wadlow was a very kind man; it's just a shame that he was destined to live a life that was as proportinally short as he was tall...
On this date in 1963, John F Kennedy delivered a speech that included what has become an iconic line...
He was in West Berlin to issue a message of defiance towards the Soviet Union and show American support for a city that had been divided by a wall erected less than two year earlier... a wall which essentially prevented anyone from Communist-controlled East Germany “escaping”to the West... and to freedom.
120,000 gathered in front of the City Hall to hear the President speak... and he was
afforded a huge ovation when he appeared. On the other side of the border, handfuls of East Germans looked on, unable to even wave because of the ever-present police.
Kennedy recognised that democracy was not perfect and freedom not always easy to
achieve, “but we never had to put up a wall to keep our people in...”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Kennedy was regularly interrupted by cheers from the crowd but it is for just four words that his speech is best remembered... they were preceded by: “All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin and therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words...
“Ich bin ein Berliner...”
The reaction from the West German population was positive – although just two weeks earlier, Kennedy had spoken of “improving relations with the Soviet Union”, prompting a cynical, but reasonable response from Russian leader Nikita Kruschev... “One would think the speeches were made by two different Presidents.”
Kruschev remained in power until 14thOctober 1964, by which time Kennedy was already dead, shot as he was driven through the streets of Dallas just under a year earlier...
The Berlin Wall stood firm until 1989, but back in 1963 Kennedy’s historic words were memorable for more than one reason....
To say “I am from (or a citizen of) Berlin, a resident would say “Ich bin Berliner” (minus the indefinite article)... and it was suggested that by adding the word “ein” or “a” in English, that “Berliner” duly took on its alternative meaning of “jam doughnut”!
In actual fact (and almost sadly...), the addition of “ein” is grammatically correct when using the term “Berliner” in the figurative sense... but sometimes you just can’t beat a decent urban myth!
Whilst I was looking for a suitably interesting “on this day” topic for today’s offering, I noticed in Wikipedia that on 13th June 1893, former US President Grover Cleveland had a serious operation to remove a potentially cancerous tumour from his mouth...
I already knew that Cleveland was the only ever US President to have been elected for two non-consecutive terms in office... and is duly counted as “two” Presidents despite only being one (allbeit fairly hefty) man. So it seemd like a decent subject to write about; only when I delved a little deeper, the operation was actually performed on 1st July 1893... cheers Wikipedia...
However, I’m going to plough on and assume that “on this day” in 1893, Grover Cleveland was really nervous about his impending surgery.
Some months earlier, Cleveland had discovered an unexplained growth in his mouth... It was diagnosed as a tumour and although it was not immediately apparent as to whether or not the growth was malignant, his doctor advised that it be removed. Cancer was not very well understood at the time and a decision was taken to keep the President’s condition a secret to save an unnecessary panic or adverse reaction amongst the general population.
There was a financial worry about how Wall Street might respond to the news and there was also the fact that cancer (known then as the “dread disease”) had a strong social stigma attached to it.
So Cleveland announced he was taking a short fishing holiday onboard a friend’s yacht (the Onieda) and it was during this time, remarkably on a moving boat, that an incredibly complex operation was successfully completed. Extraction was achieved via the President’s mouth and his large moustache remained intact to ensure there was no evidence of the surgery. A rubber prosthesis was inserted, preserving external features, but also ensuring Cleveland’s voice would be unaffected... and basically life went on...
However two months later, a reporter called E J Edwards published an article in the Philadelphia Press detailing what had actually happened to the President; Cleveland not only denied the story, but launched a smear campaign to totally discredit Edwards.
And it worked... Edwards’ career in journalism was effectively over, but nearly a quarter of a century later with most of the main protagonists dead, one of the doctors, William Keen, came forward and revealed the truth and totally exonerated Edwards in the process...
As with most politicians, Clevelandwas not universally popular although he did have a reputation for honestly and integrity – something with which E J Edwards might not readily agree. Stephen Grover Cleveland, the 22nd and 24th President of the United states of Americaeventually passed away on 24th June 1908... so perhaps in hindsight I should have left this blog until a week on
Last night I watched a movie call The Help, a story set in the early 1960s revolving around two African-American maids, Aibeleen (played by Viola Davis) and Minny (Octavia Spencer, above right) along with Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone), the daughter of a prominent white family in Jackson, Mississippi.
The film was based on the novel of the same name by Kathryn Stockett and I have to say it was thought-provoking stuff; essentially through Skeeter’s attempt to write about life as a coloured maid, the movie explores long-held and deeply ingrained racial prejudices and barriers.
The white socialite Hilly represents the intransigence of the age... but what struck me is that however appalling such a character may appear now, she was probably representative of the majority at the time... yet that “time” is only half a century ago...
Let me say that I am no expert in the subject... but I found the film just as compelling as the popcorn was irresistible, but it was very hard not to at least try and imagine what it must have been like to live in a world where segregation was prevalent. The bravery shown by the maids in telling their stories was powerfully realised... the need to work was a strong reason for tacit tolerance of their lot in life, so the strength needed to even consider breaking the proverbial shackles of discrimination must have been immense.
I loved the portrayal of the white “misfit” Celia Foote (pictured above) by Jessica Chastain; she was almost an outcast, yet her innocent acceptance of Minny as an equal was genuinely heart-warming. And the ultimate recognition by Skeeter’s mother of what her daughter had achieved with her book was a sign that times were (as Bob Dylan would say...) “a-changing”.
Arguably the “real life” parallel is the story of Rosa Parks, who (in December 1955) refused to give up her seat on a bus to make way for a white passenger. Nine months earlier, Claudette Colvin had done something similar – ironically on the same bus system in Montgomery, Alabama – nine months earlier but Colvin was fifteen... and pregnant... Parks (who is in the dark coat in the photo below) was 42 and perhaps a more identifiable (or acceptable) symbol of defiance. Her actions led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott, in which 90% of local African-Americans refused to travel by bus... The boycott lasted over a year and ended in desegregation with the company’s revenue having fallen by 80%.
The boycott was overseen by a young Baptist minister, who was president of the Montgomery Improvement Association... his name was Martin Luther King Jr. and I suppose the rest as they say...
Rosa Parks died, aged 92, in 2005 and this blog salutes the courage of the woman who was “tired of giving in”...
This day marks the birth of one of the greatest ever Olympic gymnasts.
Vĕra Čáslavská was born in Prague in what was the Czechoslovakia in 1942 and she would become one of only two female gymnasts (the other being Larisa Latynina) to win the individual all-round gold medal at successive Olympic Games.
In total, Vĕra won seven Olympic titles and she has the dinstinction of being the only gymnast to win a gold medal in every individual event (floor, vault, beam and asymmetric [or uneven] bars).
Three of her golds came in Tokyo in 1964, the others in Mexico City four years later. However, in April 1968, just months before the Olympic Games were due to take place, Čáslavská joined hundreds of other prominent Czechs in signing the “Manifesto of 2000 Words”, essentially a document defying Russian intervention in post-war Czechoslovakia.
When Russian tanks rumbled into Prague just weeks later, those signatories were deemed to be criminals and were tracked down... Vĕra was not going to be hard to find; she was training with the rest of the gymnastic squad in Moravia, but a friend warned her that imprisonment beckoned if she was caught and so Vĕra escaped to a tiny town called Šumperk, hidden away in the Jeseniky Mountains.
She stayed there for three weeks, unable to train properly, whilst her Russian rivals were already getting used to the Mexican heat and altitude. She eventually flew to Mexico but had virtually no time to acclimatise. To make matters worse, two hugely controversial judging decisions resulted in an outright gold medal being shared with Russian gymnast Larisa Petrik, whose scores were mysteriously upgraded and despite what looked like a winning performance on the beam, the judges contrived to hand the gold medal to another Russian, Natalia Kuchinskaya.
The Czech gymnast simply bowed her head and turned away during the playing of the Russian national anthem...
Despite being idolised by her countrymen for her sporting ability and political stance, Vĕra Čáslavská was effectively forced into retirement after the Soviet-led invasion, by being barred from travelling abroad or taking part in any gymnastic events even in her homeland. Incredibly, she was effectively shunned by the authorities for nearly two decades, but eventually, due to intervention by the IOC (International Olympic Committee) and the subsequent fall of Communism, one of the finest gymnast the world has ever seen was finally allowed to coach the sport in which she excelled.
Seventy today and living a life away from the limelight in her native Prague, Vĕra Čáslavská is a timely reminder, in this Olympic year, of the occasionally uneasy alliance between sport and politics.
I was watching Pointless last night when a question came up
about capital cities...
Of the twelve cities, I knew all but one of their respective
countries (Doha in Qatar was the one that got away...), but I was denied the chance to show off when my favourite-named capital didn’t appear.
The city is called Ouagadougou at it is the capital of Burkina
Faso (or Upper Volta in old money). The area was formerly under French colonial rule and the name derives from the French pronunciation of the word “Wodogodo”, which means “where people get honour and respect”, a title given to the land by a legendary hero called Wubri...
I was slightly disappointed to read this, because I had always assumed the city was named in honour of the Black Lace song...
No matter... The name of Ouagadougou stirs up one slightly random memory for me. I have never been to Africa, let alone Burkina Faso, but back on 25thMay 1986, I watched the grainy television pictures as literally tens of thousands of people set off to “run the world” as part of the massive Sportaid event. Apparently, but not altogether surprisingly,
temperatures in West Africa were in excess of 100ºF, but that did not deter the locals, nor the entire government cabinet who were let’s say “encouraged” to participate by the then President Thomas Sankara.
I remember the day vividly; pictures were beamed from major cities around the world and when I saw this mass of people sprinting across the dusty African terrain, I was actually moved to go out and pound the streets myself. I didn’t exactly “run the world”... I sort of plodded around York in my usual unathletic way, but at least I can say I took part.
I’m not too sure why I’ve actually committed what was no more that a momentary thought to what is effectively electronic paper... but “pointless” as this blog may be, I will leave you with the good folk of Burkina Faso and their national anthem...
Ouagadougou... gou... push pineapple, shake the tree
Ouagadougou... gou... push pineapple, black coffee...
All my own work... almost.