Tom's Book of Days
      November 21-30  

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November 21


Harpo Marx

1691: Voltaire is born.

1898: Thomas Edison announces the invention of the phongraph.

1888: Harpo Marx is born (according to most accounts; some say November 23).

1898: René Magritte is born.

1904: Coleman Hawkins is born.

1934: The musical Anything Goes opens.

1953: Piltdown Man, discovered in 1912, is proven to be a hoax.

1959: A couple of months after playing a violin and piano duet with Harry Truman, Jack Benny repeats the act with Richard Nixon on the piano.


November 22



1718: "King of the Pirates" Blackbeard (Edward Teach or Thatch)--who once commanded more than 300 men and a fleet of several ships--is killed by the Royal Navy in the Battle of Ocracoke, off the coast of Virginia. He is said to have struck terror into the hearts of his victims by weaving wicks laced with gunpowder into his hair, and lighting them during battle.

1888: Tarzan, the 8th Duke of Greystroke, is born.

1914: Jean Cocteau is rejected for military service as physically unfit.

1950: The Fort Wayne (later Detroit) Pistons defeat the Minneapolis (later Los Angeles) Lakers 19-18 in the NBA's lowest scoring game.


November 23


jerry lee

1913: Jean Cocteau reviews Marcel Proust's Swann's Way: "It resembles nothing that I know of, and reminds me of everything I admire."

1920: Paul Celan is born in Romania.

1976: A late model Lincoln races up the driveway of Graceland and bangs against an iron gate. Though Elvis isn't home, the drunken driver waves a .38 and screams "Tell him the Killer's here!" It will be rockabilly great Jerry Lee Lewis's second arrest in two days.

1990: Former major league catcher Bo Diaz (Red Sox, Indians, Phillies, Reds) is crushed to death by a falling rooftop television satelite dish.

2003: Twelve prisoners are shot in a riot at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.


November 24


1713: Lawrence Sterne is born. But that's a long story...

1759: Tobias Smollett is convicted of having libelled an admiral in The Critical Review. (He said he was "less than admirable.")

1859: Charles Darwin publishes The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.

1864: Henri Toulouse-Lautrec is born. He would shortly produce entertaining work.

1874: Barbed wire is patented by Joseph F. Glidden of DeKalb, Illinois. Glidden's design called for sheet metal barbs to be twisted between two wires. This invention would transform the American West, forever closing the open range.

1953: Joe McCarthy declares the Truman administration "crawling with communists."

1963: Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby shoots and kills Lee Harvy Oswald on national television. Which conspiracy theory do you favor? (As for me, I'm rather inclined to the Cuban mobster theory advanced by James Ellroy in American Tabloid.)


November 25


nathaniel west


SAINT CATHERINE'S DAY: St Catherine of Alexandria is the patron saint of mechanics, virgins, and philosophers. As an 18-year-old Christian, Catherine bested the leading Roman philosphers in debate, converting several to her faith (whereupon they were killed). Emperor Maximinus, however, far from being converted, ordered her put to the spiked wheel of torture. The wheel could not conquer her any more than the philosophers had done--it was struck by lightning, and the emperor was forced to resort to the simple and effective expedient of beheading. Catherine is reported to have appeared to Joan of Arc.

1921: Nathanael West, having been admitted by falsifying his high school transcripts, flunks out of Tufts.

November 26


Lewis Carroll

Ilona Staller, from book cover

1847: Alfred de Mussets "Un Caprice" premieres in Paris. The play features Mathilde, who attempts to thwart the wayward ways of the husband of a newlywed friend.

1864: Lewis Carroll sends the handwritten manuscript of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland to Alice Liddell.

1928: Paul Claudel's "Lepdrehumily," premieres in Dresden.

1951: Politics makes strange bedfellows. Ilona Staller is born in Budapest, Hungary. The daughter of an official in the Ministry of the Interior, she too would go on a political career. In 1979 she would become a representative of the Italian Green party, and in 1987 she would win a five-year term in the Italian parliament representing Lazio, Rome. Her platform would call for nonviolence, ecological responsibility, a ban on nuclear energy, sexual liberation, and decriminalization of drugs. But as a political representative she would be ineffective--after her term in politics she should run for mayor of the town Monza and win only 1.5 percent of the vote. Staller's true talent would be marketing, and during the 1990s she would be notorious under her stage name of La Cicciolina ("the cuddly one"). "Touched by the Hand of Cicciolina," a song by the British group Pop Will Eat Itself, would be the unofficial anthem of the Italian World Cup matches. She would appear in pornographic films--"I was the first porn star to enter politics!" she would exclaim--as well as works by her ex-husband Jeff Koons. The image at left is from the book Las Aventuras de Cicciolina by Filippucci Romanini Ubaldi. Though her political career would stall, her brand of political promotion would spawn a legacy in the form of such figures as Jessie "The Body" Ventura.

1991: Lee Kuan Yew resigns as prime minister of Singapore.


November 27


1095: Pope Urban launches the First Crusade.

1936: It is revealed that on January 20 the royal physician had administered lethal injections of cocaine and morphine to King George V, so that his death would appear in the morning Times rather than in the less distinguished evening papers. George was an crusty old fart who was oddly beloved in his later years by the Brits. As a young man he was mainly charged with keeping his older brother Albert Victor (Eddy) out of trouble.

While Eddy, as the older son, was sent to Cambridge, George had little education and is not known to have read a book as an adult. Poor Eddy was bisexual, which just wouldn't do in his position. In 1889, he was barely kept out of a court case involving a gay brothel. The queen decided to marry him off to his second cousin once removed, Princess Victoria Mary (May) of Teck. It is doubtful that Eddy found this an appealing prospect; in any case, he died of pneumonia a few weeks before the wedding. As George was now second in line to the throne, it was he who would marry the still available princess. After the wedding, he devoted himself to shooting and stamp-collecting. He is said to have personally killed a million birds and to have filled more than 300 albums of stamps.

King Edward VII died in 1910. After coronation in India, George went off to shoot tigers. He would return to a volatile England that was tiring of the monarchy. In 1914, the royal family was widely criticized for its German connections (Kaiser Wilhelm was one of George's cousins). H.G. Wells slammed George's "alien and uninspiring court." The King responded by changing the family name from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to the more English-sounding Windsor.

Another cousin, Csar Nicholas II of Russia, also caused George problems when he requested asylum in Britain. Fearing for his own crown, George denied the request, and Nicholas and his family ended up being shot by the Bolsheviks.

The first step in reviving George's popularity was a 1932 Christmas radio broadcast that was scripted by Rudyard Kipling. Thereafter, the king's rants against jazz, cocktails, short skirts, and motorcycles were received with bemused head-shaking by his subjects.

1965: Ken Kesey hosts the first "acid test" at the home of Ken "Intrepid Traveler" Babbs. Kesey and Babbs were classmates in the Stanford creative writing program, taught by Wallce Stegner and others; also in the program were Robert Stone, Wendell Berry, and Larry McMurtry. Meanwhile, in Washington, DC, 15 - 30,000 people "March for Peace in Vietnam."

1970: Pope Paul VI is wounded in the Philippines by a dagger-wielding Bolivian painter disguised as a priest.


November 28


Levi's 501's

1520: Magellan passed through the straits that bear his name.

1582: A marriage license is issued by the Bishop of Worcester to "Willelmum Shaxpere [and] Annam Whateley."

1757: William Blake is born in London.

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour...
      --Auguries of Innocence

1859: Washington Irving dies in Tarrytown, New York, after uttering the last words "When will this end?"

1908: Claude Levi-Strauss is born. His work in anthropology and linguistics would be riveting.

1911: Emiliano Zapata proclaims his Plan of Ayala, calling for an uprising against Francisco Madero. It’s unfortunate that Zapata is confused in gringo minds with Pancho Villa, who was a different character in almost every way, although fate would throw them together for a time. The Plan of Ayala expresses Zapata’s feeling that the poor and indigenous peoples of Mexico had been betrayed by Madero, who had been elected as a reformer. Zapata’s plan calls for land redistribution along with legal, military, and electoral reform. The editor of the Mexico City's newspaper Diario del Hogar would reportedly ask Madero if he could publish the Plan. Madero would laughingly agree, saying "Publish it so everyone will know how crazy that Zapata is.” This would proved ill-considered.

1993: La Société Octave Mirbeau is founded.


November 29



1825: Rossini's Barber of Seville is presented in New York City, the first Italian opera to be presented in the United States.

1864: US troops massacre Cheyenne and Arapahoe waiting for terms of surrender at Sand Creek.

1895: William Berkeley Enos (Busby Berkeley) is born.

1927: Krakatoa, an underwater volcano between Java and Sumatra begins a series of eruptions that would last more than 50 years and create a small island known as Anak Krakatoa (Child of Krakatoa).

1997: To stop the spread of an avian flu, Hong Kong begins killing its entire chicken population. The birds are gassed in sealed containers, disinfected, and buried in plastic bags.


November 30


oscar wilde

1554, 1667: This is a popular birthday for British Renaissance writers, as Philip Sidney is born, followed by Jonathan Swift on his 113th birthday.

1835: Samuel L. Clemens (Mark Twain) is born.

1838: Mexico declares war on France in what is called the "pastry war," since one of the points of dispute is a bill for damages to a pastry shop. Santa Anna becomes a national hero in this war when he loses a leg defending Veracruz. (Could the memory of that incident play a part in his later decision to make the difficult trek north to confront Zachary Taylor rather than defend Veracruz against Winfield's Scott's combardments in the US-Mexican War?) He will later have the leg buried with lavish honors in a full military funeral.

1900: Oscar Wilde dies in a Paris hotel. His last words, "One of us had to go," are a reference to the room's wallpaper.

2004: Seven Dwarves Threaten Strike. At a Christmas market in Dresden, Germany, the dwarves --and even the wicked queen -- threaten to strike after Snow White is sacked for appearing nude in the newspaper Bild.

continue to December 1


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