This is a photograph of the Nieuport no. 11 aircraft in the collection of the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome in Red Hook, New York. This was the model initially used by the first pilots of the squadron that would later become known as the Lafayette Escadrille. Among those pilots were William Thaw, Victor Chapman, Kiffin Rockwell, and Bert Hall: all of them volunteers of 1914. I will be speaking at the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome on Sunday, August 21st @ 1:00 p.m., and signing copies of my book. It is located near the Hyde Park/Rhinebeck home of FDR in the picturesque Hudson Valley approximately one hour north of New York City. Here is a link to the aerodrome’s web site: http://oldrhinebeck.org/ORA/?page_id=334
Driving down Washington Street in Gloucester, Massachusetts I’ve often wondered why a large statue of Joan of Arc was placed so prominently in one of the city squares there. I could see no historical connection between the city, founded in 1623 by English settlers, and the French maiden who inspired her countrymen to drive out the English in the 15th century. But in today’s edition of the Gloucester Daily Times in the “Then and Now” section the story of the statue was explained.
Joan of Arc is mounted on horseback with her a sword raised in her right arm facing the Legion Memorial Building. This building was dedicated to those Gloucester residents that served in World War I. The French saint is meant to evoke the bond between the Americans and their French comrades-in-arms during the war. The statue is a copy of one that was sculpted by a Gloucester summer resident, Anna Vaughn Hyatt Huntington. It was placed on its pedestal in the square in 1921, three years after the end of World War I.
Charles Lewis contacted me regarding my book, Knights of the Sea. He correctly pointed out that my claim (p. 59) that the frigate, Philadelphia, under construction in Joshua Humphreys’s yard in the late 1790s was one of the original six frigates that George Washington had authorized was incorrect. The Philadelphia was built and launched approximately during the same period as the latter three of the original six frigates were built and launched. But it was not one of the original six.
Tribeca Barnes & Noble, 97 Warren Street
I’ll be there giving a reading from my book, and signing copies. Please stop by if you can make it. I’m very excited to be able to launch Rendezvous with Death at the Tribeca Barnes & Noble. For those of you who can’t make it to New York for the launch, hopefully we’ll be able to catch up at another location in the months ahead.
The site of George Washington’s victory over British forces at Princeton, New Jersey is in jeopardy of being lost to new faculty housing being proposed by the Institute for Advanced Study. Certainly other land nearby could be found to meet this need. Preserving sites of historical significance such as this says a lot about what we value as a society.
Washington’s victory, following so closely on the heels of the daring Trenton raid on Christmas day, 1776, showed that the American Army could still deliver blows. The British could no longer maintain the fiction that they were merely “mopping up” the remnants of a fading resistance. The fighting at Princeton on January 3rd, 1777, was a classic example of misdirection (the British general, Cornwallis, was coming to Trenton to attack Washington; so Washington slipped away to attack his base at Princeton), and ferocious hand-to-hand combat. The British garrison making a final stand had to literally be blasted out of Nassau Hall. This battle, in tandem with the earlier battle at Trenton, helped turn the tide of history in the American Revolution.
Please join me in signing a letter to the institute urging it to seek an alternative site for new faculty housing:
Just finished reading Leo Tolstoy’s War & Peace. I had meant to read it long before now, but… the size of the book (over 1,400 pages in length) was daunting. I doubt I was alone in feeling this way. Then, about a month ago, I saw an advertisement on television promoting a mini-series based on the novel. It was due to be broadcast simultaneously by the History Channel, and the Arts & Entertainment and Lifetime networks. I was intrigued. It lit the necessary fire under me to finally read it. It was an interesting experience reading the book, while also watching the mini-series. I finished the first 270 pages before the first episode, and found that I was slightly behind where that week’s installment of the story ended. This proved to be the case for the entire mini-series, as I was always slightly behind. Over all the combination of both reading the novel and watching it dramatized at the same time on the television screen was very satisfying. The mini-series had its critics to be sure. But I’m not one of them.
It was originally broadcast by the BBC, and unsurprisingly has mostly British actors playing the role of Russian aristocrats. The single significant exception was the American actor, Paul Dano, cast as Count Pierre Bezukhov – in my opinion, one of the most original and endearing literary characters ever created. Dano is a fine actor who captures the proper mix of dissipation, frustrated idealism, courage, and sweetness embodied in “Pierre.” Physically, he didn’t fit the part of a large, bulky man, but a large coat and boots and loose-fitting clothing made up for this somewhat. The part of Pierre’s good friend, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky was played by James Norton. I’d seen Norton previously on the PBS series “Grantchester” and really liked his understated portrayal of a crime-solving vicar. In this film adaption of Tolstoy’s novel, though, Norton was transformed into an admirable, but somewhat cold and arrogant protagonist. I wonder if he read Tolstoy’s novel. If he did, I think he took it to heart. The Prince is basically a good man, capable of loving, but one who has impossibly high standards. The casting of Lily James as Natasha Rostova, the woman who wins the love of both Pierre and Andrei, was, I thought at first, poorly made. She has blonde hair, unlike the dark-haired “Natasha” of Tolstoy’s novel, and her portrayal of the teenage Natasha was annoying. But as the character grew in the novel, so did James’s performance, and by the end I felt I fully understood why she got the part. There was an inner quality to that character that was more important than the color of the actress’s hair.
I would recommend both the novel and the mini-series. The latter leaves much out, of course, as well as consolidating certain scenes, changing the sequence of events slightly, and being more explicit about aspects of the book that are merely suggested and hinted at by Tolstoy himself. But given the canvas the BBC was working with, I think it holds up well. On a final note, I would have to say that I found the romantic triangle between Count Nikolai Rostov, Sonya Rostova, and Princess Marya Bolkonskaya to be both the most satisfying, and at the same time the least satisfying, element in the both the novel and the mini-series. But I don’t want to spoil it for those who want to read the novel or watch the mini-series., so I’ll say no more.
This morning in the train station I heard some people that were milling around the coffee stand talking about David Bowie. I assumed they were discussing his new album. Only later in the morning did someone tell me that Bowie had died of cancer. I was really caught by surprise. Last weekend I listened to an interview on NPR with Bowie’s producer, Tony Visconti. There wasn’t anything that I can recall him saying that even hinted at Bowie being ill. What a loss.
I first encountered Bowie’s music as a teenager. I didn’t fully appreciate it then. I can recall a debate that I had with my sister’s friend, Sean Mellyn (now a successful artist & designer in New York) concerning the comparative influence of Led Zeppelin and David Bowie. Sean just shook his head when I made the claim that Zeppelin had made the far larger impact. What did I know? Apparently very little. Later, as a college student I started listening to more of his music. Songs like “Ziggy Stardust”, “Sound and Vision”, and “Heroes” appealed to me on both a musical and an artistic level. There was always a bit of theater to his music that I could visualize. There was a story there.
In 2013 I bought Bowie’s album, “The Next Day.” One of the featured songs when it was released was “Where Are We Now?” I think it’s my favorite song by him. It’s simple, beautiful, and possesses great emotional power. As I write this I’m listening to his duet with Bing Crosby of “Little Drummer Boy.” This has become a Christmastime standard, but I think it has a transcendent quality – the two of them singing about “peace on earth.” I hope he found peace.