Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Alexandre Dumas

Paris, France                          Visited June 2009

A post about the great French author Alexandre Dumas, whose life was almost as interesting as the stories he told.  "All For One and One for All"

Alexandre Dumas was born Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie in July 1802 in Villers-Cotterêts, northeast of Paris, France.  His father Thomas-Alexandre took the name ‘Dumas’ as his last name to honor his mother (the younger Alexandre’s grandmother), a former Haitian slave.   

The author’s father was born in Haiti but came to France as a young boy.  An imposing physical presence, he joined the army and quickly rose to the rank of general by the age of 31.  He was a fearless and feared commander whose personal bravery led him into dramatic individual acts of heroism that made him a legend in the French army.  When Napoleon came to power Dumas soon found himself as the tip of the spear in many of Napoleon’s military campaigns.  But eventually General Dumas’ popularity among the troops and legendary status in French society collided with Napoleon’s colossal ego and he fell out of favor.  On a ship returning to France following his demotion by Napoleon in Egypt, General Dumas was captured and imprisoned in Italy for two years.  His health was crushed by the experience and he died five years later at the age of 43 in 1806.     

General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas's life furnished much real life material for the heroic characters in his son's later novels.  In 2012 historian Tom Reiss published a biography of the General's life titled The Black Count - Glory, Revolution and the Real Count of Monte Cristo.  The book is currently in production as a major motion picture.  

Alexandre the son was born following the General’s captivity and was only four years old when his father died.  The loss of status under Napoleon impacted the family General Dumas left behind, and Alexandre’s aristocratic French mother had to do manual labor in order to send her son to school.   But the teenage Alexandre dropped out of school to work.  Despite his lack of formal education the young man was a voracious reader.  In 1822, with the fall of Napoleon and the restoration of the French Monarchy, the social status of the Dumas family was restored and 20-year-old Alexandre was able to obtain a position as an aid to the Duke of Orleans in the Paliais Royal in Paris.

Rendering of the author at about 27 years
In his twenties Dumas developed a passion for writing – mostly historical plays at the time – and he achieved success almost from the start.  By age 30 he was an established playwright.  In 1830 he took part in the revolution that ousted King Charles from the throne and replaced him with Dumas’ mentor the Duke of Orleans.  So the decade of the 1830s saw Alexandre Dumas prospering both in his literary vocation and in the highest realms of Paris society.  However, this did not keep him from experiencing the racial insults of those who looked down upon his mixed race heritage.  Dumas defended himself fiercely against prejudice, one time responding to a racial slur with the following:

My father was a mulatto, my grandfather was a Negro, and my great-grandfather a monkey. You see, Sir, my family starts where yours ends

Alexandre Dumas was a prodigious producer of literary work and an effective self-marketer, which was essential because he was an even more lavish spender.  He constantly lived at the edge of financial ruin throughout his life – with great wealth seeming to run through his hands like water.  In his mid 30’s he began to focus on the more lucrative genre of fiction writing, where he parlayed his popularity and flair for storytelling into a steady stream of well-regarded novels.  The works he is most known for are the adventure classics, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers, its sequel The Man in the Iron Mask, and The Corsican Brothers (all published between 1844 and 1848).  But the total literary output over his lifetime included over 100,000 pages of writing.  His various novels have been translated into nearly 100 languages and have been the subject matter for over 200 motion pictures. 

A friend described Dumas in the following way,

"The most generous, large-hearted being in the world. He also was the most delightfully amusing and egotistical creature on the face of the earth. His tongue was like a windmill – once set in motion, you never knew when he would stop, especially if the theme was himself.”

Monte Cristo - the house Dumas built outside Paris which
now serves as a museum to the author and his family.

In 1840, at the age of 38, Dumas married an actress.  But throughout his adult life he carried on numerous affairs and had at least four children outside his marriage.  One son, Alexandre Dumas (called ‘fils to distinguish him from his father) became a noted literary figure in his own right.  In 1851 Napoleon III staged a successful overthrow of the monarchy and a Dumas was once again under the disdain of a Napoleon.  A combination of political disfavor and problems with creditors led him to leave France for Belgium, then Russia and finally Italy.  He continued to publish during this self-imposed exile, earning substantial royalties and spending them just as fast.  In 1864 the political climate had improved enough for Dumas to return to France.  He spent the rest of his years writing, philandering and enjoying his popularity among the French people.

Statue of Dumas in Paris

Dumas late in life

Alexandre Dumas died at age 68 of a stroke in Puys, France on December 5, 1870.  He was buried in his hometown.  In 2002 his body was moved to the Pantheon in Paris where he was buried among the greats of French literature, including Victor HugoJean-Jaques Rousseau,Voltaire, and others.  I had the chance to visit the Pantheon and see the simple Dumas crypt along side his contemporaries Victor Hugo and Emile Zola when I was in Paris for my 25th wedding anniversary.  My wife stayed outside on the plaza. 

Dumas' original grave in his hometown

Dumas Crypt in the Pantheon
Your blogger on the steps of the Pantheon in Paris

When I was in high school I picked up a copy of The Count of Monte Cristo and was utterly fascinated by the storytelling.  For a long time it was my favorite book.  When my wife and I were in France celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary I reread it and was once again enthralled by the tale of a man with unlimited means and the justice he metes out in the use of it.  Dantes rented a house in Paris in the novel at the address of 30 Champs Elysees.  We found the street number.  Nice but not quite the mansion depicted in the book.

Your blogger at 30 Champs Elysees

In the early 2000’s an unpublished Dumas novel was discovered.  After considerable scholarly research and editing the book was released in 2006 as The Last Chevalier.  It too became a best seller.     

Here are my favorite film adaptations of Dumas works in chronological order:

The Three Musketeers (1973).  Richard Lester's lavish slapstick film has little to do with the plot of the book but is a rollicking swashbuckler with a big name cast.

The Man in the Iron Mask (1998).  A star studded adaptation of the story of the further adventures of The Three Musketeers stars a young Leonardo DiCaprio as well as Jeremy Irons, John Malkovich, Gerard Depardieu and Gabriel Byrne.  Probably should have been better than it was considering the cast.  

The Count of Monte Cristo (2002).  This is a serious and well executed effort to tell the story of Edmund Dantes starring Jim Caviezel and Guy Pearce.  The difficulty of telling the sprawling story in a two hour movie is a challenge, but its good movie watching with a beautifully filmed sword duel climax (not part of the novel).  

Monday, November 17, 2014

Benjamin O. Davis, Jr.

Arlington, VA              Visited November 2012

I’ve decided to dedicate November in respect to war veterans by doing posts from Arlington National Cemetery.  This month its an honor to post on Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., commander of the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II and the first black four star general officer in the United States Military. 

Benjamin Oliver Davis, Jr. was born December 18, 1912 in Washington, DC.  His father, Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. was a career military officer who had been one of the original Buffalo Soldiers in Utah during the late 1800’s.  In 1940 Benjamin Davis, Sr. attained the rank of brigadier general, becoming the first black general in the history of the U. S. Military.  

Young Benjamin’s mother died when he was four years old and he was raised largely by his grandparents as his father was stationed in various locations stateside and abroad.  When he was 13 in 1926 he went for a ride in a barnstorming plane and his craving to fly was hooked. 

After high school he attended University of Chicago but was nominated for admission to the U.S. Military Academy, where he enrolled in 1932.  Sadly, Davis’ time at West Point was characterized by racial bigotry and intentional shunning by the otherwise all-white student body.  The isolated cadet refused to be intimidated by four years of daily racism and graduated in 1936, 35th in a class of nearly 300.  Davis later recalled his experience,

Cadet Davis

''Living as a prisoner in solitary confinement for four years had not destroyed my personality, nor poisoned my attitude toward other people,'' he would write in recalling his thoughts upon graduating. ''I had even managed to keep a sense of humor about the situation; when my father told me of my many supporters, the many people who were pulling for me, I said, 'It's a pity none of them were at West Point.' ''

Cadet Davis’ character was ultimately vindicated by the Academy; as demonstrated by the inscription under his picture in the Academy yearbook,

“The courage, tenacity, and intelligence with which he conquered a problem incomparably more difficult than plebe year won for him the sincere admiration of his classmates, and his single-minded determination to continue in his chosen career cannot fail to inspire respect wherever fortune may lead him.

Soldiers' Davis Sr. and Jr.
When Davis graduated he became just the second black line officer in the army – the only other being his father, Benjamin Sr.   Denied access to flight school because of his race, Benjamin Jr. was assigned to an infantry unit stationed in Fort Benning, GA.  Looking for a way to avoid having a black officer command white enlisted men, the army moved Davis to a training position at the all-black Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. 

Following the entry of the U.S. into World War II, President Roosevelt (bowing to political pressure) authorized the formation of the first black aviation wing - the 332 Fighter Group -  at Tuskegee Institute.  Davis signed up and became one of the first ‘Tuskegee Airmen”.  He was the first black man to solo a U.S. warplane.  In July 1942 Benjamin Davis was promoted to lieutenant colonel and placed in command over the first all black fighter squadron.  The 99th Pursuit Squadron saw extensive combat action in the North African and Sicily Campaigns. 

Having returned stateside to train another unit, Colonel Davis found himself having to defend the performance of the 99th against charges that it had performed poorly and therefore needed to be decommissioned.  One white commander testified that, “the Negro type has not the proper reflexes to make a first-class fighter pilot.”  An inquiry revealed that the black fighter pilots had actually performed well in comparison with the rest of the army air force.  About this time the issue of  the competence of black pilots in combat was settled by the remarkable success of the Tuskegee Airmen in the skies over the invasion of Anzio.  Overall, the “Red Tails” (as they were known) flew over 15,000 sorties, shooting down 111 Luftwaffe planes.  Davis himself received the Silver Star and the Distinguished Flying Cross for his personal performance as a fighter pilot. 

From the movie Red Tails a great scene - "We Fight!".  From the same movie a short air combat scene.

Here is a stirring short video of General Benjamin O. Davis, Jr personally decorating his son and other Tuskegee Airmen.

At the end of the war Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. was tasked with drawing up a racial integration plan for the newly formed U. S. Air Force – which became the first service to branch to fully integrate.  His career for next two decades advanced up the command ranks in the Pentagon and in overseas assignments.  During the Korean conflict Davis took command of another fighter wing, flying the new F-86 Sabre jet fighters.  In 1960 Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. was permanently promoted to brigadier general.  In 1965, while serving as chief of staff of the U.N. Air command in South Korea, Davis received his final active duty promotion; attaining the rank of lieutenant general (3 stars).  General Davis, Jr. retired from the service in 1970.


Formal portraits of the General in mid and late career.

Following his military service General Davis served in a variety of public roles, most prominently as a deputy secretary in the Department of Transportation, where he developed the U. S. Air Marshall aviation safety force. 

In 1998 President Clinton promoted Davis to the rank of full Four Star General – again, the first black man ever to attain the top rank in the U. S. Military.  By this time General Davis had begun to battle the effects of Alzheimer’s disease.  He lost his wife of 66 years in early 2002, and a few months later Benjamin O. Davis, Jr passed away at the age of 89 – July 4, 2002.  He was buried with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery.   President Clinton’s words at Benjamin O. Davis’ ultimate promotion well describe his remarkable career and service to his country.

"General Davis is here today as living proof that a person can overcome adversity and discrimination, achieve great things, turn skeptics into believers; and through example and perseverance, one person can bring truly extraordinary change"

Fellow 'Red Tails' honoring their fallen commander at the burial ceremony
for Benjamin O. Davis, Jr at Arlington Cemetery.

I saw General Davis' grave on a visit to the cemetery with my son and nephew on the way to Georgia for Thanksgiving.


Monday, October 27, 2014

Joe DiMaggio

Colma,  California       Visited June 2013

October is baseball month at the blog and this month we feature the great New York Yankee centerfielder Joe DiMaggio.  For a brief slideshow on DiMaggio set to Les Brown's 1991 recording "Joltin Joe DiMaggio" go here.

Joe DiMaggio was born to a first generation Italian immigrant family that settled in the San Francisco area at the turn of the century.  Giuseppe Paulo DiMaggio was born November 25, 1914, the eighth of nine children.  His father was a fisherman who wanted his sons to follow in the family trade.  But Joseph hated everything about fishing and constantly fought his father’s insistence on join him on the boat.  Joseph instead turned to baseball, where he showed early promise, even though he had no real drive to excel at the game.  His first significant professional experience occurred October 1, 1932 with the San Francisco Seals, the Pacific Coast League team on which his brother Vince played.    

In his first full year in the PCL, 1932, Joe demonstrated his rare ability to sustain a hot streak by hitting in 61 straight games.  It remains the longest one season hitting streak in baseball history.  The experience of the feat marked DiMaggio, who later said,

"Baseball didn't really get into my blood until I knocked off that hitting streak. Getting a daily hit became more important to me than eating, drinking or sleeping."

Young DiMaggio and Lou Gehrig, 1937

The Yankees purchased Joe DiMaggio’s contract from the Seals and he debuted in pinstripes May 3, 1936 in Yankee Stadium.   As rookie in his first game he batted third, just ahead of legendary Yankee Lou Gehrig.  The Yankees had not been to the World Series in four years, but with DiMaggio joining the team in ‘36 they began a streak of four straight World Series championships. 

From 1936 to 1942 DiMaggio emerged as a major league star, developing a reputation as a dynamic hitter and stellar center fielder.  He was given the nickname ‘Yankee Clipper’ by the New York PA announcer, who compared his speed and range in the field to a new Pan Am airliner.   What set DiMaggio apart wasn’t just his hitting but a sense of class that seemed to emanate from him.  Teammate Phil Rizzuto once said,

"There was an aura about him. He walked like no one else walked. He did things so easily. He was immaculate in everything he did. Kings of State wanted to meet him and be with him. He carried himself so well. He could fit in any place in the world."

DiMaggio’s style gave him open pass in Hollywood, where he met his first wife, actress Dorothy Arnold.  They were married in 1949, but the marriage dissolved early on and they were divorced in 1943. 

The Splendid Splinter Ted Williams with the Yankee Clipper Joe DiMaggio

Joe DiMaggio went into the 1941 season at the top of is game.  On May 15, 1941 he went hitless.   However, it would be another 56 games before he would again take an o-fer.  DiMaggio’s 56 game hitting streak is often considered the greatest hitting feat ever accomplished in the major leagues.  It is remarkable beyond the shear number.   During the streak, Joltin Joe batted .408 with 15 homers, 55 RBIs.  He struck out only five times.  Twenty-two of the games in the streak were multi-hit games.  He even got a hit in the All Star game, which was not included in the streak.  Perhaps what is most remarkable is that, when the streak ended on July 17, he hit safely in the next 16 straight games, giving him a hit in 72 out of 73 straight games.  DiMaggio won his second MVP award after the season, besting rival Ted Williams and his .406 batting average.

Joe DiMaggio in his army uniform with his son, Joe, Jr.  
Following the 1942 season the Yankee Clipper enlisted in the army and was attached to a morale unit.  His wartime responsibilities centered on playing baseball for army teams in exhibitions to raise money and support for the war effort.  DiMaggio didn’t see any combat action and was discharged in 1945.  For a time during the war his parents were classified as enemy aliens.   

Joltin Joe’ returned to Major League Baseball for the 1946 season.  His performance picked up where it had left off after three years in the war effort, with DiMaggio winning his third MVP in 1947.  Also in 1947 the Yankees and Red Sox reached a tentative agreement to trade Joe DiMaggio for Ted Williams, but the Yankees backed out when the Red Sox also insisted on the inclusion of Yogi Berra. 

By 1951 DiMaggio’s numbers were down and he realized his career was done.  He told a Sporting News reporter,

I feel like I have reached the stage where I can no longer produce for my club, my manager, and my teammates. I had a poor year, but even if I had hit .350, this would have been my last year. I was full of aches and pains and it had become a chore for me to play. When baseball is no longer fun, it's no longer a game, and so, I've played my last game.

All total, The Yankee Clipper played 13 seasons over a 16-year career.  He led the Yankees to ten World Series appearances and nine championships and was an all star in every year of his career.  Maybe the most remarkable stat for his career is that he had nearly as many home runs (361) as he did strikeouts (369).  DiMaggio was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1955.

DiMaggio's stuff at the Hall of Fame

Your blogger doing a selfie in front of the DiMaggio HoF plaque - July 2014

If anything, Joe DiMaggio’s celebrity status grew following his retirement.  The chief reason for his notoriety was his romance, marriage and life long devotion to Marilyn Monroe.  The retired player and the budding star met shortly after DiMaggio’s retirement in 1952.  Eighteen months after meeting they married at the San Francisco City Hall.  It seems that DiMaggio was smitten by the actress, who was 12 years younger, while Monroe drew to DiMaggio almost as a father figure.  A divorce in 1954 did not end a life long tumultuous relationship.  But at the time of her death there was no one in her life besides DiMaggio that Marilyn Monroe trusted.  DiMaggio provided for her burial and had flowers sent to her grave on a weekly basis till his own death.

DiMaggio and Monroe in a rare private photo shoot

Joe DiMaggio’s post baseball career was long, varied and largely successful.  He traded on his fame but also managed himself.  Here he is as a mystery guest on What's My Line in 1955.     His last official involvement in baseball occurred as a coach for the Oakland Athletics in 1968-69.   Its a testament to his enduring celebrity that more than a decade after his retirement he was still a well known enough figure to be universally recognized as the spokesman for Mr. Coffee.    While becoming increasingly guarded of his private life as he aged, DiMaggio’s natural grace and cool made him a natural ambassador for the game of baseball, a role he was happy to fulfill.  

1969 baseball card

The Gipper and the Yankee Clipper in the mid-80's.  
As a final example of his enduring celebrity status check out this 1991 clip from "Seinfeld" where Kramer waxes eloquent on how Joe DiMaggio dunks his donuts.    

Joe DiMaggio finished out his life in Hollywood, Florida and died at his home from lung cancer on March 8, 1999.  He is buried near his hometown at Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery in Colma, California.  My son Grant and I visited the Yankee Clipper’s grave on our epic trip to California in June 2013.  He's buried at Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery in Colma, California, just south of San Francisco.

Your blogger at Joltin' Joe's grave - plenty of memorabilia left in tribute