Drinks With Dead People

Raise a glass to history.

Tag: Photography

Napoleon Sarony

Have a drink with: Napoleon Sarony
Work with me, darling.

Ask him about: Oscar Wilde, cover girl

Oscar Wilde #18

The author of an interview with the photographer Napoleon Sarony, published in the June 1895 edition of Decorator and Furnisher magazine, was clearly excited about getting to meet such a famous figure. In the style of the modern celebrity profile, with luxe asides about the subject’s choice in clothing, food or furniture, the writer gushes that Sarony’s apartment is lavishly decorated, stuffed with Rococo furniture, Latin American pottery, even an Egyptian mummy in its sarcophagus. Fat portfolios of photographs nod to Sarony’s profession, with images of “every known celebrity that has either been born or set foot upon American soil, as well as thousands of photographs of the rank and file of American Democracy.”

There is more than Sarony’s luxe eccentricity to mention, though: the article opens with a mention that the state legislature, under the thrall of Anthony Comstock’s anti-vice movement, was then entertaining the idea of a law to prohibit any representation of the nude human figure from going on display (and a catty aside that the law’s advocates were not simply seeking legislation, but “incidentally some notoriety for themselves.”).

Surely America’s most flamboyant celebrity photographer would have an opinion on the Comstock crusaders?

The key, he explained, was in portraying the nude as refined, innocent and graceful – free of seductive gazes or vulgar poses, presented as naturally as a flower in nature. Citing his own work, he explained: “I think my work proves that photography has aspects personal and individual apart from mechanical considerations. The camera and its appurtenances are, in the hands of an artist, the equivalent of the brush of the painter, the pencil of the draughtsman, and the needle of the etcher.”

He would know: the U.S. Supreme Court had told him so.

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Mary Todd Lincoln

Have a drink with: Mary Todd Lincoln
Bad taste in psychics; good taste in jewelry

Ask her about: Levitating pianos

Spirit photography

George Saunders’ novel Lincoln in the Bardo looks at the metaphysics of the Lincoln family, with what on first glance might seem to be wild creative license. Dramatizing the doubt and grief that colored the President’s life, Saunders gathers a swirl of chatty ghosts to comment on Lincoln’s brief foray into the graveyard after the death of his son Willie in 1862.

Linking the Lincolns and the spirit world isn’t a stretch – though it wasn’t the President so much as his wife who was eager to commune with spirits. Mary Todd Lincoln, driven by family tragedy, was interested in spiritualism through much of her life.

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Spirit Photographers

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

Spirit_Photography

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?

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Harold Lloyd

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.

Whisky with Harold!

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