Have a drink with: Spirit Photographers
Ray? When someone asks you if you’re a god, you say yes.
Ask them about: Selfies with your dead relatives
In 1848, two sisters from Hydesville, New York spread word that they heard mysterious rapping noises on the walls and furniture of their home, and could speak with spirits through tapped code. An enthralled public declared the girls spirit mediums, and over the years household seances, lectures, even Spiritualist “churches” formed a movement – one that survived and grew even after one of the Fox sisters admitted that their spiritual “conversations” were total fluff, the noises no more than dropped apples and cracking their toes under the table.
Just in time for Halloween I’ve been reading David Jaher’s new book The Witch of Lime Street, a detailed romp through the spiritualist revival of the 1920’s, starring Arthur Conan Doyle, Harry Houdini and a real-life parade of mediums, journalists and hucksters. Jaher talks about the movement’s surge in the post-WWI years, due in no small part to the inescapable impact of war and influenza on the populations of the Western world. With so many suddenly dead from violence or virus, the grieving were understandably receptive to the idea that they might contact their friends and family in the hereafter. Would the spirits speak to you? Could they?
That’s all well and good, but Jaher ignores a more pressing question: would they hold still for a selfie?
Have a drink with: The Gideons
Rocky Raccoon checked into his room, only to find…
Ask them about: Getting into your hotel room
Now Rocky Raccoon, he fell back in his room,
Only to find Gideon’s Bible.
Gideon checked out, and he left it, no doubt,
To help with good Rocky’s revival.
– The Beatles
The Bible and the hotel room seem the unlikeliest of bedfellows at first glance; the former is the core of spiritual life for Christian communities, and the latter a place of abject neutrality for secular America. Yet in millions of hotel rooms worldwide, the Bible is as natural an amenity as little bars of soap thanks to the efforts of the Gideons International, a Tennessee-based Christian association. Paul McCartney included the Gideon Bible in his lyrics to “Rocky Raccoon,” the odd story of a jilted lover written on the roof of a building in Rishikesh, India; and Hunter Thompson in his hotel-room musings was known to thank the Gideons for providing him easy access to Revelation imagery.
So how did the Bibles get there? Wisconsin. (Last place you look, right?)
Have a drink with: Astronauts Charlie Brown & Snoopy
Just don’t ask about kicking a football in zero-G.
Ask them about: getting America in the mood to fly again
I’ve got space on the brain. There’s New Horizons doing its Pluto drive-by, and my toddler running around with a plastic pail on her head insisting she’s going into orbit, and a Discovery documentary on TV that convinces me of nothing so much as the plain audacity of the early space program: basically a handful of men trusting to fate whilst strapping themselves to a giant directional bomb.
I am perpetually amazed with spaceflight but also terrified, since I like many others of my age group watched Challenger explode on live television in my elementary-school classroom. (This is not unlike my mother, who loves horses but cannot bear the thought of watching one injured, and who therefore only watches the Kentucky Derby on tape delay.)
In the Challenger accident, NASA lost astronauts for the first time since the Apollo 1 fire of the late 1960’s, in which three astronauts were killed in a launchpad test of their vehicle. In coping with the deep personal, social and institutional trauma of both accidents, NASA went through a very similar process of examination and rebuilding, but that isn’t where the similarities end. In preparing for the return to manned spaceflight, NASA had some trusty allies: a boy and his beagle.
Have a drink with: Maria Altmann and Elizabeth Taylor
Art lovers, ladies of style, legal pit-fighters.
Ask them about: goddamn Nazis.
Behavioral advertising is like unexpectedly running into an ex: it seems to know an awful lot about you in ways you forgot you made possible, but for the most part just makes you feel awkward and vaguely regretful.
Thank Facebook for this epiphany, after it pushed the trailer for Helen Mirren’s latest movie on me at least seventeen times in a twenty-four hour period. I’d be pissed at Zuckerberg and crew, too, except that for once technology read me like a cheap novel. (You can lay off with the juice cleanses, though, Mark.)
“Woman in Gold” is the made-for-cinema story of Maria Altmann, her aunt Adele, and one of the most famous paintings of the 20th century. If you’re into history, law, art and Nazis (and who isn’t?), it’s a kicker.
Have a drink with: the Yale Bowl
Stadium, immovable earth beast, cradle of American football
Ask it about: what it wants for its 100th birthday.
In 1914, Yale University celebrated the completion of one of its largest and most famous construction projects, the Yale Bowl. More than a stadium, much more than an Ivy League niche item, the Bowl is a physical point on the continuum of football’s growth as a sport.
Yale was instrumental in starting, growing and formalizing the game we know and watch in America today. (No, really! Ivy League football!)
To understand why this is true, let’s take a crash course in American football:
Have a drink with: The Monuments Men
Artists, soldiers, detectives.
Ask them about: giving Dwight Eisenhower an art tour in a salt mine
First things first: why make a movie about these guys? Was art looting really a big deal in WWII?
It was a really big deal.
It’s easy to assume that the scattering and destruction of art was the unfortunate side effect of a very destructive European war. It wasn’t. Hitler knew what he was doing in going after art, and he wanted it to hurt conquered peoples very badly.
The Nazis created and supported specific infrastructure to target, hide, sell and destroy works of art, in each case as it most benefited the party agenda with money, power, property or prestige. Efforts were systematic, well-organized and brutal.
Have a drink with: Harold Lloyd
Movie star, pin-up artist, comedy pioneer, adrenaline junkie.
Ask him about: that time he hung off a runaway trolley car.
My grandpa told me to watch Harold Lloyd movies for a damn good reason. One of the biggest movie stars of the early 20th century, Lloyd inspired generations of filmmakers and essentially invented the action sequence, so thank him next time you watch a car explode on TV.
Harold Lloyd was born in Nebraska, 1893. His parents divorced when Harold was young, and the boy spent much of his early life moving around with his father, a sporadically employed huckster nicknamed “Foxy.”
The Lloyd men moved to California with the cash from an injury settlement after Foxy was hit by (wait for it) a beer truck, and Lloyd eagerly studied acting while his father tried unsuccessfully to open a pool hall. Teenage Harold sneaked onto studio lots to get work as an extra, and worked his way up to regular film roles. Continue reading