Category Archives: movies

Hangin’ with Judge Hoffman

POST #9

This is the ninth post in a series recalling what it was like to clerk for Judge Julius J. Hoffman from 1967 to 1969.

The “Chicago 7” Trial (continued)

More about the Sorkin film

            In Post #8, I praised the Sorkin film as an impressive achievement, noting the many awards and positive reviews by critics that the film has garnered.       I now want to add more of my own comments on the film.  I’ll begin with casting.

Casting

I don’t agree with some of the casting in this film.   I can recall a number of personae–how they looked and acted in 1969-70– and my recollections do not jibe with all of the actors chosen to fill those parts.  Even great acting cannot completely make up for this kind of disparity.

One excellent bit of casting is that of Mark Rylance as William Kunstler.  I encountered Kunstler about three years before he appeared in Hoffman’s courtroom, and I retain vivid memories from that time.  Those memories were later enhanced by my in-person observation of the trial twice and by TV coverage of Kunstler once the trial began. 

I first encountered him at a conference on civil rights held at Yale Law School the first weekend of April 1966.  The conference was sponsored by the Yale law students’ Civil Rights Research Council.   A law-school classmate kindly offered to drive three other students and me from Cambridge to New Haven (he immediately became a great friend).  At Yale, we attended sessions offered by a host of leading lights in the field of civil rights.  One of those was Kunstler, who was already an accomplished civil rights lawyer and co-founder of the Center for Constitutional Rights.  He spoke at a session of the conference, and he also gave the keynote speech at the Saturday night banquet held on the Yale campus.  After this encounter, I remembered him because of his passion for civil rights and his engaging delivery.

In my view, Mark Rylance is a good fit for the role of William Kunstler.  In one scene, he rebuts one of the defendants, who characterizes Judge Hoffman as “nuts,” by calling the judge only “a little hostile.”  In his reading of this line, Rylance incorporates what I think was Kunstler’s generally lawyerlike approach to the case. He was, however, painfully caught in the middle between an irascible judge and defendant-clients who were openly defiant in court.  Lashing out at Judge Hoffman at times earned him a number of contempt citations by the judge.  (Only one of these was upheld by the appellate court.)  Overall, Rylance captures Kunstler’s difficult balancing act very well.

I don’t recall how some of the other individuals looked and acted in 1969, so I can’t comment on the actors’ resemblance to the real people.  Prime examples: Defendants Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, David Dellinger, Bobby Seale, John Froines, and Lee Weiner.   But I do recall Abbie Hoffman (hereinafter Abbie, to avoid confusion with the judge) and Jerry Rubin, both from observing them in-person in Chicago and from media coverage before and after the trial.  The most striking lack of resemblance, to me, is the great difference in their height that the film makes apparent.  Sacha Baron Cohen is (as he himself has noted) about half a foot taller than the real Abbie. This difference is jarring.  As for Jerry Rubin, I remember him as close to Abbie’s height and much better looking than the actor who plays him in the film.  Neater, too. The film’s Rubin comes across as a total slob, which I think is inaccurate.

Abbie’s son Andrew, who lives in the Bay Area and was interviewed by a journalist here last fall, noted that his father was a short man with charismatic energy.  “He was a tiny little …monster,” according to Andrew.  The entire interview with Andrew and others who knew the defendants appeared in Berkleyside, an online newsletter, and was republished in jweekly.com (Oct. 30, 2020.

I encountered Abbie myself on January 1, 1970, in the middle of the trial, which ended on February 18, 1970.  I recount that encounter below in Watching the movie “Z.”

The two federal prosecutors, Thomas Foran and Richard Schultz, both appeared in Hoffman’s courtroom a number of times during my clerkship.  Foran was a short and scrappy Daley acolyte whose name is mispronounced in the film.  He pronounced it as “FOR-an,” with emphasis on the first syllable, not “For-AN,” with emphasis on the second.  His preferred pronunciation was well known in Northern District courtrooms.  His portrayal in the film by J.C. MacKenzie is pretty close to what I remember.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt somewhat resembles prosecutor Richard Schultz and portrays him well.  As I remember Schultz, he was a rather ordinary-looking young man of about 30 who was a low-key prosecutor, pretty much as he’s portrayed in the film.  Whether he ever took a stand against this prosecution, as the film suggests, I have no inside knowledge. But he’s been interviewed recently by media outlets in Chicago, and here’s what I’ve gleaned from published interviews. 

Schultz calls the film “a fantasy” that has little resemblance to the actual events.  He remembers that the goal of some of the defendants was, from the outset, to make a mockery of the court proceedings.  He believes they were also planning violence from the beginning, and fist fights actually occurred between them.  According to Schultz, there was “nothing we could have done to stop the violence in the courtroom.”

 He regrets what transpired with Bobby Seale, but he defends Judge Hoffman’s ruling.  According to Schultz, the judge had no choice because of a ruling a short time before by an Illinois court requiring that an unruly defendant be bound and gagged so he could remain in the courtroom for his trial instead of being removed. 

One interesting side note:  Schultz encountered Abbie and Rubin at the Field Museum in Chicago, as shown in a scene in the film.  He remembers that, when they met, they “begged him to watch the movie ‘Z.’”  This is startling new information for me.  Please see below Watching the movie “Z,” my discussion of that movie and how it related to this trial.

I probably remember AG Ramsey Clark from photographs only and can’t comment on Michael Keaton’s portrayal for that reason.  You may not know that Ramsey Clark was the son of a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Tom Clark.  During a visit to the Supreme Court during my law school years, I saw Tom Clark read from the bench an opinion he’d written.  In 1967 Tom retired from the Court so his son could assume the role of AG.  He was succeeded by Lyndon Johnson’s superb choice of Thurgood Marshall. 

Ben Shenkman does a good job portraying Leonard Weinglass.  Strangely, I remember Weinglass, who was then 33, as looking older than Shenkman, 52.  Maybe Weinglass looked older than his years.  Or maybe my memory relies on the fact that I was several years’ younger than Weinglass in 1969, and he looked like an older and experienced lawyer to me.

John Doman, the actor portraying AG John Mitchell, bears a slight resemblance to Mitchell, whom I remember from photos and TV coverage.  He successfully captures Mitchell’s arrogance and devotion to Nixon, which led to his own downfall, including a term in federal prison.

Finally, I want to comment on Frank Langella’s portrayal of Judge Hoffman.  One critic has called it the best casting in the entire film.  I totally disagree.  I worked closely with Judge Hoffman for two years, and Langella’s Hoffman is nothing like the real man.  Hoffman was eccentric and generally biased in favor of government prosecutors, but he was not evil. 

Langella may be a good actor, but he read his lines in this film with his own interpretation of the judge in mind.  Maybe that made for better drama.  But it’s not, in my view, close to reality.

In a published interview, Langella called Hoffman “a shit” who had “no redeeming qualities.”  He agreed with what he claims is Sorkin’s view of Hoffman as “either a total pawn of the government, or getting senile, or a combination of both.”  Langella added that there are men like this “who use their position to cover what is venal and dishonest and cruel behavior.”  Again, I totally disagree. 

I had my own issues with Hoffman.  For example, I was angry when he gave my attempt to write an appellate opinion to someone else.  (See Post #6.)  But he did have redeeming qualities.  He was one of the few judges who at that time hired women as their law clerks, and during my tenure he treated me and my co-clerks with respect.  Yes, he could be abrasive toward lawyers who appeared in his courtroom, but he was not venal or dishonest or cruel, like many men in his generation. 

It’s true that he had a bias in favor of government attorneys, both prosecutors and those who represented government agencies, but he was in no way a total pawn of the government.  And I don’t think he was senile or anywhere near it at the time of the trial.  While I worked for him, he ruled in favor of the inmates of the Cook County Jail and against those who ran the county jail.  And when he agreed with the Justice Department’s position in the South Holland school-discrimination case, he was criticized by some for being too much in favor of the government’s position challenging discrimination against minority students.  But his approach led to the right outcome in that case.

So I’m wondering:  Did Langella do any research of his own into Judge Hoffman’s record?  Did he uncover any evidence supporting his description of Hoffman as venal, dishonest, and cruel?  Did he conveniently forget how some of the defendants deliberately provoked this judge, a man who had previously been able to maintain an orderly courtroom?  Can’t these provocations themselves be viewed as “cruel”?

 Although I did not agree overall with the way Hoffman conducted this trial, there were reasons for many of his rulings, especially his reactions to the outrageous behavior of some of the defendants.  Further, he was later reprimanded by the Seventh Circuit for some of these rulings, so he didn’t get away scot-free for what he did.

My own attendance at the trial

            I personally attended the trial twice.  The first time I showed up simply out of curiosity, and when I left, I had no desire to return.  The second time I attended only because a law-school classmate who lived and worked in NYC was visiting Chicago, phoned me, and asked whether I would accompany her to the trial.  I met her at the courthouse, where we got into line and waited for our turn to be seated. 

            I got no special treatment either time.  Waiting in line the first time, my handbag was searched along with everyone else’s, and a comb was confiscated and held for me until I exited the courtroom.  At the time, I carried an aluminum comb that had a “rat tail,” and it was deemed too sharp for me to bring into the courtroom. I was highly amused that my spindly comb was viewed as a weapon!  (I didn’t bring it along when I returned with my friend.)

            Each time I attended the trial, I felt extremely uncomfortable.  By that time, I was a lawyer with the Appellate and Test Case Division of the Chicago Legal Aid Bureau, representing poor people.  Embarrassed by some of Judge Hoffman’s conduct during the trial (and also troubled by the unruly behavior of some of the defendants), I did not return.  I also cut off my relationship with the judge almost completely.  But I briefly got back in touch with him before moving to California in August 1970.  (I discuss that in Post #10, my final post in this series.)

Hoffman’s conduct during the trial

            It’s irrefutable that Judge Hoffman’s conduct during the trial became a source of widespread criticism, and much of it was warranted.  As I mentioned in Post #8, the problem with Hoffman’s role as the presiding judge of the “Chicago 7” trial was, fundamentally, that he treated it like every other criminal case he’d ever handled.  And the defense attorneys were right.  He did have a record of bias in favor of government prosecutors.

            This led to his downfall.  He refused to see that this case was unique and had to be dealt with on its own terms, not like all of the criminal cases in his past. 

Further, he lacked any flexibility and remained committed to the way he’d always conducted proceedings in his courtroom.  He’d been sitting on the federal bench since 1953, and by 1969 he was unfortunately “fixed in his ways.” 

If he’d had some flexibility, that might have helped the trial proceed more smoothly. But at 74, he was accustomed to running an orderly courtroom with lawyers and defendants who followed the rules.  He did not have an orderly courtroom this time, and he was unable to bend those rules.

The Sorkin film highlights many of Hoffman’s missteps.  The situation involving Bobby Seale is the most notable example.  Hoffman was foolish to refuse to sever Seale from this case as soon as Seale complained that his chosen defense lawyer was unavailable.  The back and forth between the two of them became more and more heated, until Seale’s defiance led Hoffman to have him bound and gagged.  According to prosecutor Richard Schultz, Hoffman was following an Illinois court ruling requiring Hoffman to proceed this way, but the film’s reenactment is a spectacle in which Hoffman looks almost unhinged.  Despite his announcement from the bench that “I tried fairly and impartially to get this defendant to sit on his own,” viewers are appalled by this treatment of Seale, which seems especially unjust and discriminatory because Seale is Black.  When Schultz finally asks the judge to sever Seale from the “Chicago 8” and declare a mistrial in his case, Hoffman proceeds to do just that.  But it’s too late.  The damage has been done.

Hoffman’s increasingly fraught relationship with defense attorneys Kunstler and Weinglass further damaged Hoffman’s claim to be a fair judge. I discuss how the appellate court viewed the judge’s conduct in Post #10.

Some additional comments

  1. The film seems to confuse some locations in Chicago, including two of its large parks.  I was away from the city during the convention, but I believe that events depicted in the film took place separately in Lincoln Park on the North Side and in Grant Park downtown (not in only one park).  Grant Park is the large park located across Michigan Avenue from the Hilton Hotel.  Violence took place there on the night of August 27, and a scene in the film shows a hotel window being broken.  There’s also dialogue by the defendants about “going to the convention,” but the convention was held a considerable distance from Grant Park at the International Amphitheatre.  In the film, the violence that occurs takes place in Grant Park and on Michigan Avenue, not at the convention itself.

2. When the defendants and their lawyers meet to discuss the members of the jury, they openly prefer two specific individuals already chosen to be jurors.  I won’t discuss the film’s depiction of how these two jurors were later replaced by alternates.  But I was struck by the comment by the defense that they especially liked a young juror who seemed to be on their side because she noticeably carried a copy of a book by James Baldwin into the courtroom.

This line struck me because by 1967 I had become an avid reader of books by James Baldwin, and I still have my paperback copies of several of them (sporting a cover price of 50 cents).  When I wrote a seminar paper in 1967 for my law school’s Civil Rights Seminar with Professor Al Sacks, I quoted a couple of passages from The Fire Next Time.  These quotes later appeared in a law review article that published my paper, “A Child of a Different Color:  Race as a Factor in Adoption and Custody Proceedings,” 17 Buffalo Law Review 303 (1968), on pages 331 and 346.

3. The U.S. courthouse shown in the film, with people lining the steps chanting “The whole world is watching,” is nothing like the actual courthouse, which was and is a Mies Van der Rohe black box of a building.  The change is clearly made for dramatic effect, but if a viewer goes in search of that courthouse, she will be disappointed.  Hoffman’s courtroom is also different, chosen by Sorkin to feature his presentation of the actors’ positions in the courtroom.

4. Hoffman repeatedly gets some names, especially Weinglass’s, wrong.  This is typical of many people in their 70s.  A problem with names is quite common among older people (including President Joe Biden).  Because it’s not unusual for someone who’s 74 to forget names, even important ones, I think it was unfair to highlight Hoffman’s occasional lapses and suggest that they indicated senility.  In the case of Weinglass, I suspect that Hoffman had friends or associates with similar names, and those names occurred to him in place of Weinglass’s.

5.  I never followed the courtroom testimony of any of the defendants or any of the witnesses, but I’ve always remembered one fairly inconsequential response by Abbie Hoffman that was reported in the media.  At one point, Abbie was reportedly asked whether he was addicted to any drugs.  Answer:  Yes.  Question:  Which one?  Answer:  Caffeine.  As a caffeine addict myself, I find that answer perfectly apt as well as hilarious.

Watching the movie “Z”

In January of 2017, I wrote a post on this blog titled “Watching the Movie ‘Z’:  A Tale of Two Hoffmans.”  In that post, I noted that in January 1970 I watched the movie “Z”—a film I consider a powerful and enduring classic—under somewhat remarkable circumstances. (By the way, this is the film that Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin “begged” prosecutor Richard Schultz to see.)

An edited version of my 2017 post follows.

“Z” is a 1969 film that was written and directed by Costa-Gavras, a Greek-born filmmaker who lives and works in France.  He based it on a 1966 book that used official documents to describe the 1963 death of a Greek politician, Grigoris Lambrakis.  Lambrakis was a leading pacifist and left-wing member of the Greek parliament.  Shortly after speaking at an antiwar meeting in Thessaloniki, he was struck on the head by a club wielded by two far-right extremists.  He later died of his injuries. After his death, graffiti with the letter “Z” began to appear in Greek cities.  Representing the growing protest against the right-wing government, it stood for the first letter of the Greek word, “Zi,” which means “he lives.”

In a filmed interview in 2009, Costa-Gavras discussed the making of “Z.”  You can watch this interview, as I did, on a DVD of “Z.”  Costa-Gavras focused on the theme of political oppression.  His cast included Yves Montand as Lambrakis and Jean-Louis Trintignant as the prosecutor who slowly realizes what happened and is ultimately driven to seek justice against the wrongdoers.

In the film, a key scene takes place in front of the venue where Lambrakis is scheduled to give his speech.  Supporters have gathered to welcome him, but others in the crowd are demonstrators opposed to him and what he stands for.  The local police are seen clubbing a few of the demonstrators.  But it’s clear that the demonstrators are the bad guys–street toughs paid off by those in power to harm Lambrakis.  One of the demonstrators strikes Lambrakis.  After he gives his speech, he’s struck again, causing his death. 

Before he’s struck, Lambrakis asks, “Why do the ideas we stand for incite such violence?”  Costa-Gavras’s answer:  It’s all about power.  Those in power will do anything to stay in power, and here that included the assassination of a political opponent.  (Post-1963, Greek politics remained chaotic.  A 1967 coup by the military led to its control of the Greek government until the regime finally collapsed and democratic government was essentially restored in 1973.)

I first saw “Z” at the Cinema movie theater in Chicago on New Year’s Day 1970.   The Cinema was an art-film theater located on Chicago Avenue near Michigan Avenue, and I saw a great many “art flicks” there before it was demolished and replaced by a high-rise building.  At the time, I was a young lawyer working in an office that brought test cases on behalf of the poor. The “Chicago 7” trial was underway, ending in mid-February 1970

I read about “Z” in Roger Ebert’s review in the Chicago Sun-Times in late December 1969.  Ebert was a young and thoughtful movie critic, and I was a fan of his reviews.  He called “Z” the best film of 1969, and I was eager to see it.  I’d just said goodbye to a man I’d been dating—he was a bit too boring to abide any longer—and I set out on a cold and gray New Year’s Day to see the movie by myself.  (As luck would have it, I met my never-boring husband when I moved to sunny California a few months later.) 

The film more than lived up to my expectations.  But what was especially striking about being in the audience that day was that, in the crowd waiting to enter the theater, I recognized one of the “Chicago 7” defendants, Abbie Hoffman.  I didn’t agree with everything that Abbie and his cohorts stood for, and I didn’t endorse their misconduct during the trial itself.  But I was opposed to the war in Vietnam, sympathetic to other elements of the protest movement, and horrified later that year by events like the killings at Kent State.  

As I watched “Z,” knowing that Abbie was watching it at the very same time, I couldn’t help thinking of the parallels with Chicago.  Fortunately, our government (unlike the powerful right wing in Greece) didn’t promote assassination. (At least we didn’t think so.)  But there were parallels.  The attitude of local officials, including Mayor Richard J. Daley, toward the protesters who came to Chicago in 1968 led to an overreaction by the Chicago police.  Their violent conduct toward the protesters became obvious to everyone watching TV coverage of the Democratic convention.  As we know, Nixon’s Justice Department went on to indict Abbie and the other defendants on charges brought under a dubious law.

There was, however, one sharp contrast between Chicago and Greece:  the prosecutors.  I’d fallen halfway in love with Jean-Louis Trintignant when he starred in “A Man and a Woman,” a 1967 French film.  Now, in “Z,” he portrayed a fair-minded prosecutor who becomes determined to hold the powerful to account.  And he succeeds in indicting not only the two toughs who committed the murder but also the high-ranking military officers who supported them.  (The real-life prosecutor, Christos Sartzetkis, was twice arrested and imprisoned but was later elected by the Greek parliament to be the country’s president from 1985 to 1990.)

By contrast, the prosecutors representing the Nixon administration in Chicago were, in my view, politically ambitious and not exactly fair-minded.  They were determined to convict the seven defendants, including Abbie. They secured as the trial judge a man whose usual bent was to rule in favor of the prosecutors who appeared before him, and he treated this trial like any other.

No one was killed in Chicago.  And although most of the trial defendants were convicted by the jury, their convictions were later reversed.  But the parallels between what transpired in Chicago and the story told in “Z” remain. 

“Z” is still a powerful film (it won numerous awards, including the Oscar and the Golden Globe as the Best Foreign-Language Film of 1970).  And January 1, 1970, endures in my memory as a day that underscored the ugliness of political oppression both in Greece and in my own country.  

Postscript:  Today, the parallels are still with us.  Although the November 2020 election installed a new president in the White House, some who were previously in power, and some who retain a degree of power, remain willing to (in Costa-Gavras’s words) “do anything to stay [or get back] in power.”  The message of “Z” lives.

                                                                        To be continued

(Post #10 will be the final post in this series)

Hangin’ with Judge Hoffman

This month I’m beginning something new.

I’m beginning a series of posts that will focus on my personal recollections of working as a law clerk for a federal judge–a judge who became notorious shortly after I left my clerkship.

Judge Julius J. Hoffman was a U.S. district court judge in Chicago who became notorious when he presided over the “Chicago 7” trial that began in the fall of 1969.

As Hoffman’s law clerk from 1967 to 1969, I observed him closely throughout my two-year tenure with him. This two-year period included, in its final months, the road that led to the “Chicago 7” trial.

This trial is now the subject of a new film written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” Because the film has inspired new interest in Judge Hoffman, this seemed to be an appropriate time to publish my recollections.

As Judge Hoffman’s law clerk during the two years before the trial began, I could foresee much of what would happen in his courtroom.  I later sat in on the trial, as a spectator, on two very cringe-worthy occasions.

This is the first post in a series that will examine what it was like to clerk for a judge like Hoffman. I’ll begin at the beginning: my first encounter with Judge Hoffman and how I came to work for him.

I’ll go on to describe a wide range of issues that arose during my tenure. These will include my observations during the frenetic time just before and during the “Chicago 7” trial. I’ll conclude with my final communications with the judge, just before I left Chicago in 1970.

Post #1

          In the fall of 1969, Judge Julius J. Hoffman moved from relative obscurity into the spotlight of national attention.  Although he had earned a reputation within the Chicago legal community as an irascible judge with a strong conservative bent, he was otherwise a little-known figure.  The public knew him only as one of Chicago’s U.S. district judges, and as such, he was generally respected.  Even lawyers who had appeared before him were compelled to admit that, despite his personal shortcomings, he could sometimes be an excellent judge.

          All that changed in the fall of 1969.  Assigned to be the presiding judge in what became known as the “Chicago 7” trial, Hoffman was suddenly the focus of journalists and lawyers from every corner of the United States, even the world.  Suddenly his courtroom demeanor was under a microscope, probed for rationality and fairness.  And just as suddenly, he became a national villain, even a national joke.

My first encounter with the judge

          In his custom-made elevator shoes and his black robe (double-stitched for longer wear), Judge Julius J. Hoffman would stride imperiously into his courtroom.  He would seat himself behind his imposing judicial bench, his tiny figure almost lost in the high-ceilinged courtroom he occupied on the 23rd floor of the federal courthouse in Chicago’s Loop.

“The motion will be dee-nied!”

                I can still hear the judge spouting those five words, the five words he must have said a thousand times during the two years I worked for him.  He always seemed to be denying motions rather than granting them.  But that was just one feature of this eccentric and soon-to-be-notorious judge.

          Julius Hoffman was a diminutive, bald-headed man with a prickly ego that was easily punctured.  But when I met with him over the Christmas holidays in 1966, he struck me as a charming and altogether reasonable person to clerk for.  I was in my last year of law school, and Hoffman was one of only three U.S. district judges in Chicago who had agreed, in that benighted era, to interview me, a woman, for the job of law clerk.

          For a number of reasons, Hoffman became my first choice of the three, and when he offered me the job, I decided to take it.  Although I had done almost no research into what kind of judge Hoffman was, I was thrilled with the simple prospect of being any federal judge’s law clerk.

          My failure to research Hoffman’s reputation later came back to haunt me.  I soon discovered that I was working for an irascible, difficult man who had unusual proclivities and a bizarre personality that often played itself out on the bench.  So although I loved my job as a federal judge’s law clerk, and I learned a great deal from my experience working in the federal courts, I was sometimes sorry I had so quickly settled on Hoffman as the federal judge to clerk for.

Two Words

Do you remember this scene in the 1967 film “The Graduate”?

New college graduate Benjamin encounters a friend of his father’s at a party.  The friend pulls him aside and says, “I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.  Plastics.”

That advice may have helped college grads in ‘67, but the world we face today is very different.

In light of the raging global pandemic, and the stress it’s placed on all of us, I now have two words for you.  Elastic waists.

Many of us have recently begun wearing clothes with elastic waists.

On June 26, The Wall Street Journal noted:  “The Covid 15 Have Made Our Clothes Too Tight.”  Reporter Suzanne Kapner clearly outlined the problem.  “People spent the spring sheltering at home in sweatpants, perfecting banana-bread recipes and indulging in pandemic-induced stress-eating.”  And while most of us have escaped Covid-19, we haven’t escaped the “Covid 15”—the weight-gain pushing Americans into “roomier wardrobes.”

Hence the widespread adoption of elastic waists.

Many shoppers have jumped on the scale, been horrified, and concluded that they needed to buy new clothes to fit their new shapes.  One woman, unable to zip up her pants, got on her scale.  “Holy moly,” she told Kapner, “I gained 11 pounds in three weeks.”

Kapner cited more evidence:  First, Google-searches for “elastic waist” have spiked. Further, body-measuring apps have reported a jump in people choosing looser fits to accommodate their new profiles.  As the CEO of one such app observed, people are “sizing up” because they’ve gained weight.  Less active and more confined, they’re “eating more, either out of stress or boredom.”

In light of this phenomenon, some retailers are increasing orders of clothes in bigger sizes.  They’re also painfully aware of something else:  the rise in returns because of size-changes.  Returns have probably doubled in the past three months, according to a software company that processes returns for over 200 brands. And when customers order a clothing item (in their former size), and it needs to be exchanged for a larger size, those retailers who offer free shipping and free returns find that all of these additional returns are eating into their profits.

This move into larger sizes and elastic waists doesn’t surprise me.  I long ago adopted wearing pants with elastic waists.  Not all of my pants, to be sure.  But many of them.

It probably started when I was pregnant with my first child.  As my abdominal area began to expand, I searched my closet and came across some skirts and pants with elastic waistbands.  I discovered that I could wear these throughout my pregnancy, adding extra elastic as needed.  I bought some maternity clothes as well, but the pants with those stretchy elastic waistbands allowed me to avoid buying a lot of new items.

Over the years, I’ve continued to wear elastic-waist pants, enjoying the comfort they afford.  (Yes, I also wear pants and jeans with stitched-down waistbands that fit me.)

I can understand why there’s a new emphasis on buying elastic waists in lieu of bigger sizes.  A bigger size might be OK for right now, but you probably hope to return to your former size sometime.  Elastic waists are exactly what they claim to be:  elastic.  That means they can expand, but they can also contract.

Both women and men can benefit from wearing elastic waists, at least until they’ve shed the additional pounds they’ve recently acquired.

Many women have traditionally turned to elastic waists because they don’t have the typical “hourglass” shape women are expected to sport.  They have what’s been called an “apple” shape, with a somewhat larger waist measurement than most women have.  In the past, they might have purchased clothes with a tight waistband and then had a tailor make the waistband bigger.

But right now, tailoring clothes is almost impossible. Who’s leaving the safety of home simply to find a tailor to alter a waistband?  The pandemic has put such tailoring out of reach for most of us.  And if an elastic waist makes it unnecessary, it’s saving you the trouble and expense of seeking out a tailor.

Men with expanding waists have also benefited from elastic waists.  The popularity of sweatpants and other casual wear with elastic waists for men are proof of that.

I recognize the role stress is playing in our lives right now, and it’s pretty obvious that we can attribute some weight-gain to the increased level of stress.  So, to avoid buying more and more elastic waists and/or bigger sizes, we need to reduce stress as much as we can.

The advice we’ve all heard for a long time still holds, and it probably applies now more than ever.  At the risk of sounding preachy, I’m adding a few new tips to the tried-and-true list.  (Feel free to skip it if you think you’ve heard it all before.)

  • Be more physically active. Please remember:  You don’t need to go to a gym or even do vigorous workouts at home.  Simply taking a fairly fast-paced stroll in your neighborhood is good enough.
  • Avoid fixating on TV news, especially the bad stuff.
  • Watch distracting TV programing instead (this includes reliably funny films like “Some Like It Hot” and “What’s Up, Doc?” if you can find them).
  • Play music that makes you happy.
  • Connect with friends and family by phone, email, or text (or by writing actual letters).
  • Give meditation a try, just in case it may help you.
  • Try to follow a diet focused on fresh fruit, veggies, high-fiber carbs, and lean protein.
  • Curl up with a good book. (Forgive me for plugging my three novels,* but each one is a fast read and can take you to a different time and place, a definitely helpful distraction.)

Although I admit that I’m still wearing the elastic waists I already own, I’ve so far been able to avoid the “Covid 15” that might require buying new ones.  What’s helped me?

First, briskly walking in my neighborhood for 30 minutes every day.  Second, resisting the lure of chocolate as much I can.  Instead, I’ve been relying on heaps of fruits, veggies, popcorn, pretzels, and sugarless gum.  (My chief indulgences are peanut butter and fig bars.)  It’s as simple as that.

Maybe you can avoid it, too.  Good luck!

 

*A Quicker Blood, Jealous Mistress, and Red Diana are all available as paperbacks and e-books on Amazon.com.

 

 

 

Is It Time to Resurrect the “Housedress”?

The HBO miniseries, “The Plot Against America,” which appeared earlier this year, focused on life in America in the early 1940s.  Adapted from the 2005 novel by Philip Roth, the storyline was terrifying, highlighting the possibility that a fascist anti-Semitic regime could assume control over politics in our country.

New York Times critic A.O. Scott, describing HBO’s adaptation as “mostly faithful” to the novel, observed that the world it portrayed looked familiar, yet different, to us today.  He noted in particular “the clothes” worn by the people inhabiting that world, as well as the cars, the cigarettes, and what he called “the household arrangements,” evoking a period “encrusted with…nostalgia.”

The series was, in my view, a stunning depiction of that era, along with a chilling prediction of what might have happened.  Thankfully, Roth’s fictional prediction never came true, and I hope it never will.

One thing I took away from the series was how authentically it created the images from that time.  I was born years later than both Philip Roth and his character, the 8-year-old Philip.  But I can recall images from the 1950s, and I’ve seen countless films dating from the 1940s and 1950s, as well as TV shows like “I Love Lucy.”

A couple of things in the series stand out.  First, people got their news from newspapers and the radio.  The leading characters appear in a number of scenes reading the daily newspapers that influenced their view of the world.  They also listened attentively to the radio for news and other information.  The radio broadcaster Walter Winchell even plays an important part in the story.

The other thing that stands out is the clothing worn by the characters in “Plot.”  Especially the women characters.  These women tended to have two types of wardrobes.  One represented the clothing they wore at home, where they generally focused on housecleaning, cooking, and tending to their children.  The other represented what they would wear when they left home, entering the outside world for a variety of reasons.

The wardrobe worn at home looked extremely familiar.  My mother clung to that wardrobe for decades.  She, like the women in “Plot,” wore housedresses at home.  These were cotton dresses, usually in a floral or other subdued print, that were either buttoned or wrapped around the body in some fashion.  In an era before pants became acceptable for women (Katharine Hepburn being a notable exception), women wore dresses or skirts, even to do housework at home.

Only when they left home, to go to somewhere like an office or a bank, did they garb themselves in other clothes.  In this wardrobe, they tended to wear stylish dresses made with non-cotton fabrics, or skirt suits with blouses, along with hats and white gloves. Working women employed in office-type settings (there were a few, like the character brilliantly played by Winona Ryder in “Plot”) wore these clothes to work every day. (Women employed in other settings of course wore clothes appropriate to their workplaces.)

Now, with most of us staying home for the most part, I wonder:  Is it time to resurrect the housedress?

Here are some reasons why it might be:

  1. Warmer weather is approaching, or may have already arrived, depending on where you live.
  2. Relying on heavy clothing like sweatshirts and sweatpants, which many of us have been relying on during our self-isolation at home, will become impractical because that clothing will be uncomfortably hot.
  3. Pajamas and nightgowns aren’t a good idea for all-day wear.  We should save them for bedtime, when we need to separate our daytime experience from the need to get some sleep.
  4. The housedress offers an inviting choice for women who want to stay comfortably at home, wearing cool cotton (or cotton-blend) dresses that allow them to move as comfortably as they do in sweat clothes, all day long.

I concede that comfortable shorts and t-shirts might fit the bill, for men as well as women.  But I suggest that women consider an alternative.  They may want to give housedresses a try.

Ideally, a woman will be able to choose from a wide range of cheerful fabric designs and colors.  If she can track down one that appeals to her, she just might be convinced by its comfort and then tempted to wear more of them.

I’ve already adopted my own version of the housedress.  I rummaged through one of my closets and found a few items I haven’t worn in years.  I’ve always called them “robes,” although they’ve also been called housecoats or other names.  My mother for some reason liked to call them “dusters.”  My husband’s aunt liked to wear what she called “snap coats.”

But in the big picture, we’re really talking about the same thing.  Cotton robes/dresses in a variety of designs and prints. Today they’re usually fastened with snaps.  Easy in, easy out.

And most of them have pockets!  (As I’ve written before, all women’s clothes should have pockets.)  [Please see my blog post “Pockets!” https://susanjustwrites.wordpress.com/2018/01/ ]

I plucked a couple of these out of my closet, some with the brand name Models Coats.  I had never even worn one of them.  (A tag was still attached, featuring the silly slogan, “If it’s not Models Coat…it’s not!”)  But I’ll wear it now.

By the way, I’ve checked “Models Coats” on the internet, and an amazing variety of “housedresses,” or whatever you choose to call them—Models Coats and other brands–is offered online.  So it appears that some women have been purchasing them all along.

Now here’s a bit of cultural history:  My mother kept her 1950s-style housedresses well into the 1990s.  I know that because I discovered them in her closet when we visited her Chicago apartment one cold winter day in the ‘90s.  Mom lived in a 1920s-era apartment building, filled with radiators that ensured overheated air in her apartment.  [Please see my blog post “Coal:  A Personal History,” discussing the overheated air that coal-based radiators chugged out:  https://susanjustwrites.wordpress.com/2020/01/29/coal-a-personal-history/ ]

My daughters and I had worn clothing appropriate for a cold winter day in Chicago.  But as we sat in Mom’s overheated living room, we began to peel off our sweaters and other warm duds.  (My husband didn’t do any peeling.  He was too smart to have dressed as warmly as we had.)

It finally occurred to me that Mom might have saved her housedresses from long ago.  Maybe she even continued to wear them.  So I searched her closet and found three of them.  My daughters and I promptly changed, and we immediately felt much better.  But when we caught sight of ourselves, we laughed ourselves silly.  We looked a lot like the model in a Wendy’s TV commercial we called “Russian fashion show.”

In our favorite Wendy’s commercial, dating from 1990, Russian music plays in the background while a hefty woman dressed in a military uniform announces the fashion show in a heavy Russian accent.  The “model” comes down the runway wearing “day wear,” “evening wear,” and “beachwear.”  What’s hilariously funny is that she wears the same drab dress, along with a matching babushka, in each setting.  For “evening wear,” the only change is that she waves a flashlight around.  And for “beachwear,” she’s clutching a beach ball.

Wendy’s used clever commercials like this one to promote their slogan:  “Having no choice is no fun,” clearly implying that Wendy’s offered choices its fast-food competitors didn’t.  I don’t know whether these commercials helped Wendy’s bottom line, but they certainly afforded our family many, many laughs.

[If you need some laughs right now, you can find these commercials on YouTube.  Just enter words like “Wendy’s TV commercials” and “Russian fashion show.”]

Mom’s housedresses weren’t as drab as the dress worn by the model in our favorite commercial.   They tended to feature brightly colored prints.  Admittedly, they weren’t examples of trend-setting fashion.  But they certainly were cool and comfortable

In our current crisis, we need to be creative and come up with new solutions to new problems.  For those women seeking something comfortable to wear, something different from what they’ve been wearing, colorful housedresses just might be the right choice.

Hooray for Hollywood! Part II: I Love Your “Funny Face”

I’m continuing to focus on films that have been relevant to my life in some way.

The film I’m focusing on today is “Funny Face,” a 1957 film starring Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire.

I first saw this film at Radio City Music Hall during a memorable trip to Washington DC and NYC, a trip made with my high school classmates, and one that represented the height of excitement in my life at that time.

It wasn’t my first visit to NYC and Radio City.  It also wasn’t my first trip to DC.

My parents had taken my sister and me on a road trip to the East Coast during the summer of 1950, when I was barely conscious and didn’t get a great deal out of it.  I did have a few notable experiences—staying at the St. Moritz Hotel on Central Park West (how did we afford that?) and viewing some astounding sites in DC, mostly from a cab Daddy hired to show us around town. The place I remember most was an FBI museum, where I was frightened by a loud demonstration in which a gun was shot at targets to prove how the FBI dealt with crime. (Not a great choice for a young kid.)

Some other memories include our entering a DC restaurant where the tables were covered with pink “reserved” signs, and one sign was magically whisked away when we arrived.  I later learned that the restaurant used this ploy to prevent people of color from eating there.  The staff would refuse to seat them, telling them that all of the tables were reserved.  Even at a tender age, this struck me as wrong, although I was too young to fully understand the ugliness of this blatant form of discrimination, one I’d never encountered when we ate at restaurants in Chicago.

Another vivid memory:  Strolling through Central Park Zoo in NYC, I asked Daddy to buy me a balloon.  Daddy refused.  I didn’t view my request as unreasonable.  Looking around, I saw all those other kids who were holding balloons.  Why couldn’t I have one?  I was too young to grasp reality: My father was in NYC to search for a new job (which never materialized), and our family budget didn’t permit buying an overpriced balloon.  No doubt the balloon vendors catered to far more affluent families than mine.  But I remember crying my eyes out because of the balloon-deprivation, which seemed so unfair to me.

Finally, I remember viewing a film at Radio City.  It was a poor choice for a family film: “The Men,” starring Marlon Brandon as an injured war veteran.  It was a somber film, and the atmosphere was not made any cheerier by the newsreel (ubiquitous in movie theaters then), featuring the brand-new war in Korea, which had just begun in June.  The Rockettes probably did their thing, but I barely noticed them, too disturbed by the sad movie and the scary newsreel.

Fast forward a bunch of years, when I joined my high school classmates on a school-sponsored trip to DC and NYC, during which our group of rowdy teenagers disrupted life for countless locals.  Standing out in my memory is a concert held at the Pan American Union Building, a beautiful Beaux-Arts building in DC, where my silly friends and I began to stare at a mole on the back of a young woman sitting in front of us.  Our adolescent sense of humor led us to start laughing, and once we started, we of course couldn’t stop.  Other concert-goers were probably horrified.  But something else I can’t forget:  The concert included a brilliant rendition of Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain,” a piece I’ve loved ever since.

Moving on to NYC, where we were bused to an odd assortment of sites, we finally arrived at Radio City. The film that night was one of Hollywood’s new blockbusters, “Funny Face.”  Surrounded by my friends, whispering and laughing throughout, I barely focused on the film, certainly not enough to remember it very well.  But when I recently re-watched it on TCM, I found it completely delightful.  (Thanks, TCM, for all of the classic films I’ve watched on your channel.  Please keep showing them!)

In the film, which features a number of Gershwin tunes (including “Funny Face” and “S’wonderful”), Audrey Hepburn stands out as the radiant star she had become, while (in my view) Fred Astaire recedes into the background.

The movie’s storyline focuses on a NYC-based fashion magazine like Vogue, dominated by an aggressive editor played by Kay Thompson (much like the editor played by Meryl Streep years later in “The Devil Wears Prada”).  The editor (Kay) insists on major changes at the magazine and demands that her favored photographer, played by Astaire (Fred), help her effect those changes.  (His character is based on the renowned photographer Richard Avedon.)

Their search for a new look for the magazine improbably leads them to a bookstore in Greenwich Village, where Hepburn (Audrey) is the sole salesperson, the owner being off somewhere doing his own thing.  When Kay proposes that Audrey be the new face of her fashion magazine, Audrey—garbed in neutral black and gray– ridicules the whole concept of such a publication (it features, in her words, “silly women in silly dresses”).  But when Kay’s offer includes a trip for her to Paris, Audrey decides to go along with the idea.  She’s always wanted to see Paris!

Kay, Fred, and Audrey arrive in Paris about 15 years before my own first trip there.  But when the film begins to roam through the highlights of the city, I easily recognize the many breathtaking scenes I saw for the first time in 1972, including the view from the top of the Eiffel Tower.  (I’ve luckily returned to Paris many times, and the city and all that it offers still thrill me.)

As a teenager, I had a high regard for “fashion.”  My family’s business–women’s fashion-retailing–probably had something to do with it.  Peer pressure also played a role.  Some of my classmates were obsessed with pricey clothes, like cashmere sweaters with matching skirts, and even though I wasn’t in the same income bracket, their obsession couldn’t help rubbing off on me.  At least a little.  My place in the world just then probably accounts for my somewhat detached view of Audrey as someone who spoofs the fashion industry, at least at first.

Once the story gets underway, “Funny Face” offers a wealth of imaginative episodes.  The writer, Leonard Gershe, whose writing is clever and surprisingly not extremely dated, was Oscar-nominated for best writing, story, and screenplay.  Gershe came up with a whole lot of scenes that highlighted Paris.  A special scene takes place after Audrey goes off on her own, and Fred is sent out to track her down.  He finally finds her in a small café on the Left Bank, where she launches into a stunning dance set to jazz music.  (You may already know that Audrey had a background in dance.  She studied ballet as a teenager in Amsterdam and later studied it in London.  She then began performing in West End musical theater productions and went on to star on Broadway in a non-musical performance of Gigi in 1951.  She reportedly turned down the same role in the 1958 film.)

The jazz dance scene in “Funny Face” became famous a few years ago, when Gap used a portion of it in one of its TV commercials.  (As I recall, Gap was promoting the sort of black pants Audrey danced in.)  A controversy arose during the filming of this scene in “Funny Face.”  Audrey wanted to wear black socks while director Stanley Donen insisted that she wear white ones.  In an interview Donen gave shortly before his death, he explained why. The white socks would highlight her dancing feet while black ones would fade into the background.  Donen succeeded in persuading Audrey to see things his way, and the dance scene is now film history.

Without elaborating on the plot, I’ll point out that Audrey’s storyline has an interesting focus on “empathy,” a concept that has gained a foothold in popular culture in recent years.  (I attribute some of that to Barack Obama’s focus on it, something I picked up on when I first heard him speak to a group of lawyers in Chicago in 2002, when he was still an Illinois state senator.)

Dance highlights in the film include not only Audrey’s jazz dance scene in the Left Bank café but also Fred’s dance scene with an umbrella and a coat lining that transforms into a cape.  The two leads share at least two memorable dance scenes, including the closing scene set in a charming landscape outside a Paris church.

Notably, after Audrey leaves NYC for Paris, she poses all over the City of Light in clothes designed by Givenchy, who became her favorite designer, and whose designs for this film seem timeless.  Also notably, she wears shoes with heels, but they’re invariably very low heels.  These became her favorite style of footwear.  (For some of the “inside Audrey” comments made here, please see my earlier blog post, “Audrey Hepburn and Me,” published on August 14. 2013.)

Finally, the age difference between Audrey and Fred is stark.  She was 28 while he was 58—and looked it.  Despite his agile dancing, he was an unlikely man for her to fall in love with.  But then Hollywood often paired her with much older men.  The all-time creepiest example was Gary Cooper in Love in the Afternoon.  (You can find my earlier comment on this topic in my 2013 blog post.)

In sum, “Funny Face” is a glorious film, featuring a radiant Audrey Hepburn, a clever storyline, and countless scenes of Paris.  The Gershwin songs and the wonderful dancing, which blend almost seamlessly into the story, lead to a stunning result.  Even though I didn’t fully appreciate it in 1957, the memory of seeing it back then has stayed with me for the past six decades.  Seeing it again made me realize just how “’s’wonderful” it really is.

 

 

 

Hooray for Hollywood! Part I

As a lifelong film buff (OK, since I was about 4), I have great fondness for much that Hollywood (and foreign cinema) has produced.  Each year I try to see a number of new films and re-watch some of the old ones.

During the past year, I never got around to seeing most of the blockbusters that dominated the box office. According to the online publication The Verge, Disney produced an unprecedented 80 percent of the top box-office hits in 2019.

Thanks to its purchase during the last decade of Marvel Entertainment (2009) and Lucasfilm (2012), Disney films have included franchises like Star Wars and the Marvel hits, in addition to popular animated films like Frozen and Frozen 2.  The result:  Disney films have surpassed many other films at the box office.

But I don’t pay a lot of attention to box-office success.  I’m far more focused on seeing films that have something to say to me. This year my clear favorite was Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood.

Once Upon a Time, a Quentin Tarantino film, is not only a fabulous depiction of Hollywood in 1969, but it also related to me and my life in a number of ways.

Spoiler alert:  If you haven’t yet seen this film, DO NOT read the ending of this blog post, where I write about the Manson murders.

First, about the film itself:  It’s been called a “buddy picture,” and in many ways it is.  In two stellar performances, Leonardo DiCaprio (playing the fictional Rick Dalton) and Brad Pitt (playing fictional Cliff Booth), are indeed buddies.  Rick is a fading former star of a Western TV series, trying to make a comeback in Hollywood, while Cliff is his longtime stunt double.  By 1969, with Rick’s star on the wane, Cliff spends much of his time driving Rick from place to place.  Both are struggling to survive in a Hollywood that has changed from the one they knew.

Weaving fiction and fact throughout the film, Tarantino uses both humor and violence to depict the end of an era.  In this love letter to 1960s Hollywood (which has earned positive reviews by most top critics on Rotten Tomatoes and garnered numerous awards and nominations), he embeds specifics of popular culture and real places in 1969 LA into the film.

 

The story takes place during two days in February and one day in August of 1969.  Notably, Rick Dalton’s home is right next door to the home of minor film star Sharon Tate (married to director Roman Polanski) in a posh section of western LA, Benedict Canyon.

In this film, Tarantino also skillfully blends in the ugly story of the Charles Manson “family.”

Re-creating in many ways the world that I lived in at about the same time, even if he himself did not, Tarantino provoked a cascade of intensely vivid memories for me.  Here’s why:

 

 

I left Chicago in August 1970 and moved to the Westwood neighborhood on the west side of LA, where I rented a cheerful furnished apartment within walking distance of UCLA.

I had moved my “Reggie Fellowship” from the Appellate and Test Case Division of the Chicago Legal Aid Bureau to a health-law related Legal Services office that was located at UCLA Law School.  Reggies were predominantly young lawyers who opted to work on behalf of the poor rather than toil in a corporate law firm.  (Please see my more detailed description of the Reggie program in an earlier post, “The Summer of ’69,” published on August 7. 2015.)

Westwood and Westwood Village (the commercial area in Westwood, adjacent to UCLA), loom large in my memory.  I met my husband-to-be (I’ll call him Marv) on the UCLA campus in October 1970, six weeks after I arrived.  Before we met, we had both rented separate apartments in the same apartment building located on the fringe of the campus. We soon began dating, and my memory bank is filled with countless memories related to our courtship and marriage that year.

My new location was very close to much of what happens in the Tarantino film only one year earlier.  So when he replicates things from that time, I recall seeing and hearing a lot of what looked like them myself.

Examples:  Street signs, ads painted on bus-stop benches, movie posters, commercials, and music. (Some of these are Tarantino’s own inventions.)

Probably the best example:  Sharon Tate goes to see herself in a film at a movie theater in Westwood Village.  During the year that I lived in Westwood, I saw many films at the movie theaters in Westwood Village.  (Seeing “Love Story” with Marv in one of them in December 1970 was especially memorable, and I plan to write about it in a future blog post.)

Another example:  A scene in the movie is set at the famous LA restaurant called Musso & Frank Grill.  Marv and I were both aware of its fame, and during that year we sought it out and dined there one special night.

One more thing:  The stunning area where Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski lived next door to the fictional Rick Dalton (Benedict Canyon) is in western LA, not far from Westwood and very close to BelAir.  Marv and I not only lived in Westwood, but we also celebrated our wedding luncheon at the charming BelAir Hotel.

Then there’s the Manson family storyline in the movie.  I learned about the Manson murders during a weekend in New York City.  I was spending part of the summer of 1969 at the Reggie training program at Haverford College, near Philadelphia, and I traveled from Philly to NYC one weekend in August

During trips to NYC, I often stayed with a close friend and a law-school classmate (I’ll call her Arlene).  Although Arlene was planning to be out of town that weekend, she invited me to stay in her 86th Street apartment on the East Side of Manhattan without her.  It was a great opportunity to live by myself as a quasi-New Yorker, and I decided to do it.

Returning to her apartment on Saturday evening, I picked up the Sunday New York Times and was shocked by a headline spelling out the startling discovery of the Manson murders.

At that time, I was still living in Chicago, but I had briefly lived in LA when I was 12 and always liked to follow any news arising there.  So I was riveted by the Manson story and read the paper from cover to cover.

When Tarantino decided to weave this story into the rest of his film, he did what he’d done in Inglourious Basterds and changed the real ending to a much different one.

Watching Once Upon a Time, I was terribly nervous as the film approached its ending.  I knew how the real story turned out, and I didn’t know exactly how this film would portray it.  But what a departure from reality Tarantino created!  The shocking ending to the film includes imaginative violence that is so over-the-top that it’s almost humorous.  Overall, the ending is a clever re-imagining of the fate of the Manson family and a much happier resolution of what happened to their victims.

Although the new ending was violent in its own way, creating an exciting piece of filmmaking, I left the theater in a much sunnier frame of mind than I would have if Tarantino had re-created the actual massacre that took place in 1969.

 

In sum, Once Upon a Time is, to my mind, an absorbing and a fascinating film.  For me, it was one of the best films of 2019.

 

I plan to write again about Hollywood films that have been relevant to my own life.  Part II will begin to explore classic films that have done just that.

 

 

Return to Xanadu, or Have you found your “Rosebud”?

“Rosebud”… every film buff knows the reference. In the monumental 1941 film, Citizen Kane, Charles Foster Kane repeats the word on his deathbed, recalling the beloved sled so cruelly snatched from him during his impoverished youth.  He was still obsessed with its loss, a loss that may have represented the loss of his mother’s love.

I hope you’ve never lost your “Rosebud.”  But it you have, you might look for it at Hearst Castle.

Hearst Castle?  It’s the fabulous estate built by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst on the central coast of California.  Most filmgoers acknowledge that it was Orson Welles’s inspiration for Charles Foster Kane’s mansion, “Xanadu.”

Today Hearst Castle is a National Historic Landmark (as well as a California Historical Landmark), and this year it’s turning 100 years old.  When I learned of this milestone, I couldn’t help recalling my two visits to that extraordinary place.

It wasn’t always called “Hearst Castle.”  Hearst inherited the original estate at San Simeon from his father (along with even more land and $11 million) when his mother died in 1919.  Together with his architect, the pioneering Julia Morgan, they greatly enhanced it during a span of over twenty years.

Hearst himself later called it “The Ranch.” After he separated from his wife in 1925, he and his mistress, Hollywood film star Marion Davies, spent time at his mansion entertaining prominent guests from the worlds of politics, literature, and film.  In addition to the mansion itself, Hearst acquired an enormous amount of priceless artwork and furnishings on an epic scale.

I first heard about Hearst’s mansion in the early 1970s when my soon-to-be husband (I’ll call him Marv) proposed that we drive up the coast from Los Angeles, where we’d met a few months earlier, to San Francisco and back.  Marv said we could stop at “San Simeon,” and our stop there turned out to be a shimmering highlight of one of the most memorable trips of my life.  Maybe that’s why I remember it so well.

We set out from LA on a beautiful sunny morning in mid-March.  Driving north on Highway 1, we visited Danish-themed Solvang and beautiful Morro Bay en route to San Simeon.

When we arrived, we walked up to a fairly small entrance and joined a few other tourists on a tour of the mansion, where we learned a lot about Hearst and his mansion’s history.  I knew something about Hearst from his role in U.S. history, especially his “yellow” journalistic efforts to embroil the U.S. in the Spanish-American War in 1898.  But before we visited San Simeon, I knew very little about his personal life.

When the tour ended, we were able to explore the outdoor areas by ourselves.  My photo album includes scenes of the two of us at “Hearst Mansion.”  Unaccompanied and unbothered by any staff or other tourists, we roamed around, taking photos of each other, choosing backdrops like the gorgeous Neptune Pool and some of the exquisite outdoor statuary.

Just after leaving the Hearst Mansion, we drove through Big Sur and relished a memorable lunch at Nepenthe.  This charming restaurant, which first opened in 1949, features an outdoor terrace offering a panoramic view of the south coast of Big Sur.  The breathtaking view is still worth a stop.

The rest of our trip included equally memorable stops in Carmel and Monterey, as well as a celebration of my birthday in San Francisco.  Visiting a couple of wineries in Napa, seeing friends in Berkeley (where Marv had spent five happy years as a grad student), and a trip down the coast to return to LA (via Andersen’s Pea Soup just off Highway 1 in Buellton) completed our remarkable trip.

But most unforgettable was our joyful decision to marry each other in a few short weeks.

Fast forward about 35 years.  I returned to Xanadu…er, Hearst Castle, during a road trip with my daughter in 2008.  This visit was very different.  First, we had to enter through a sterile structure, the visitor center, which didn’t exist at the time of my earlier trip.  In this dreary “holding pen,” we waited with a large crowd of other tourists until we were herded onto a bus, herded through the castle, and herded back onto a bus.

This new approach struck me as far too regimented.  Although my daughter was delighted to see the castle and learn about its history during our tour, we had very little chance to roam around the grounds by ourselves when the tour ended.

With the castle’s 100th anniversary coming up, some positive changes are arriving on the scene.  For example, the slate of tours has expanded to include tours with exciting new themes.  Even better:  Most tours now allow visitors free-roaming once their guided tour is over. This appears to be much like the roaming I remember from my first trip.  Visitors can admire the grounds, including the Neptune Pool (recently renovated for $10 million), for as long as they wish.  So it now promises to be a far better experience for visitors than the one I found wanting in 2008.

 

In my mind, Hearst Castle is inescapably linked with the movie Citizen Kane.  That classic film looms especially large because it turned out to play an important role in my own life.

Marv and I had met on the campus of UCLA, where we were both working, and we had rented apartments in the same building on the fringes of the campus.  Our lives, not surprisingly, often centered around UCLA.

One of our most remarkable dates involved a showing of Orson Welles’s film in a classroom building on the campus.

Sometime after we decided to get married, Marv asked me whether I wanted to see Citizen Kane.  I immediately jumped at the chance to see a film I’d only heard about but never saw, even on late-night TV.

Marv grinned and said something like, “I think you’ll like it,” adding, “There’s a surprise in it for you.”  That clearly piqued my interest, and I couldn’t wait to see it.

We took our seats in a bare-bones classroom and began to watch the film.  It was fascinating from the start, beginning with the announcement of Kane’s death on the “March of the News” (patterned after the “News of the World,” a newsreel shown in movie theaters in the 1940s). The story then flashed back to Kane’s involvement in politics, the purchase of his first newspaper (soon followed by other papers), and his marriage to his first wife.

I was totally caught up in the storyline.  Then came the surprise.  A character named Susan Alexander suddenly appeared on the screen.

My birth name is not Susan Alexander.  But I was never very fond of the last name (my father’s) I was given at birth, and I was planning to change it to Marv’s last name when we married.  Now here was a character with the name I hoped to have.

Unfortunately, she wasn’t a totally positive character, and as the story moved on, she became less and less so.  Abused by Kane, by the end of the movie she had become a pathetic alcoholic, engendering sympathy rather than antipathy.

I would have been happier to see a more positive figure with my future name on the screen.  But what’s astonishing is how the character’s name has lodged in filmgoers’ minds.

During the decades since I married Marv and assumed her name, I’ve encountered countless people who, upon meeting me, mention Citizen Kane.  I immediately know that these people (sadly, a dwindling number) have seen the film and vividly recall the name of Kane’s aspiring-soprano second wife, who was actually patterned after the wife of another tycoon, Samuel Insull.

I’ve always been happy that I took Marv’s last name and became Susan Alexander (even when I’ve been confused with other women who share my name).  And I’ve never regretted being associated with a truly great film like Citizen Kane.

 

Do you have a “Rosebud”?  I didn’t have a favorite toy that I lost during my childhood, so I’ve never obsessed over something the way Charles Foster Kane obsessed over his sled.

But if you have a “Rosebud,” I hope that you’re luckier than he was, and that someday you, unlike Kane, succeed at tracking it down.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hats Off to…Hats!

 

I grew up in the midst of a hat-wearing era.  If you watch movies from the 1950s, you’ll see what I mean.  In both newsreels and Hollywood films, almost all of the grown-ups–in almost every walk of life–are wearing hats.

Of course, grown-ups occasionally doffed their hats.  On a vacation, at a beach, in a theater.  But when it really counted, and they wanted to be taken seriously, they wore hats.

Although factory and construction workers wore other kinds of hats at their jobs, white-collar men tended to wear fedoras.  Footage of men attending baseball games makes clear that, even at casual events, most men were wearing felt fedoras

Women tended to opt for a variety of stylish hats, many of which look pretty silly today.  Just take a look at photos of Eleanor Roosevelt.  As the wife and later widow of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, she’s frequently seen in headwear that was not only frilly but also far from flattering. (By contrast, photos of her younger self, sans hat, put her in a far more appealing light.)  Images of other women in frilly hats predominate in the photos of the time.

When did things begin to change?  Probably about the time that Senator John F. Kennedy became a popular media focus.  He was almost never photographed wearing a hat.   It wasn’t until his inauguration in January 1961, when he wore a top hat just like Ike’s, that he appeared in a formal grown-up’s hat.  (He notably doffed it when he gave his memorable speech.)

The popular TV series “Mad Men,” which appeared on TV from 2007 to 2015, illustrates this change.  When the series begins in March 1960, Don Draper wears a stylish fedora whenever he leaves the office.  But as the series moves through the ‘60s, he abandons his hat more and more.

The hat-wearing era clearly ended years ago.  Today a celebrity or fashion icon may occasionally be photographed in a trendy hat, but hats are no longer de rigueur.

I’ve never adopted the habit of wearing hats, with two major exceptions:  I wear warm fuzzy ones to cover my ears on chilly days, and I wear big-brimmed ones to shield my face from the sun.

But two years ago, the de Young Museum in San Francisco put together a brilliant exhibit highlighting the creation and wearing of women’s hats.  “Degas, Impressionism, and the Paris Millinery Trade” focused on the creative artists who worked as milliners in Paris during Degas’s era, as well as on the era’s hats themselves.

The Wall Street Journal described the exhibit as “groundbreaking,” an exhibit that revealed “a compelling and until now less widely known side” of the Impressionist painter Edgar Degas.

The exhibit brought together exquisite Degas paintings and exquisite French-made hats.  Paris, as the center of the fashion industry during Degas’s era, was also the center of the millinery world.  Around one thousand Parisian milliners created a rich and diverse array of hats.  Many of these milliners worked in a network of independent millinery shops that competed with the nearby grand department stores.

Hat-making, the display and sale of hats, and the wearing of hats in belle époque Paris—all of these fascinated the Impressionist painters who focused on urban life in the City of Light.  Degas had a particular affinity for millinery, and he would often return to the subject—featuring both the creators, who ranged from prestigious designers to the “errand girls” who delivered hats to their new owners, and the elite consumers of these hats.  This exhibit was the first to display all of his millinery paintings in one place.

The exhibit also included display cases filled with French-made hats from the period, noting that they were sculptural art objects in their own right.  This headwear came from museums that collect hats as part of their costume collections.  Museums like the Chicago History Museum and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco contributed wonderful examples from this fabulous era of women’s decorative headwear.

When I saw this exhibit, I was thrilled by it.  It also became a powerful reminder of a childhood memory I’d nearly forgotten.  Standing in front of Degas’s paintings of milliners, I suddenly remembered going to a millinery shop in downtown Chicago with my mother when I was about 8 or 10.  Although my mother never had the financial assets to become an affluent consumer of fashion, she was acutely aware of fashion trends.  Within the bounds of my parents’ limited resources, Mom carved out a way to dress as stylishly as their funds allowed.

On this occasion, Mom must have felt financially secure enough to travel downtown and purchase a new hat styled just for her.  I was her lucky companion that day, creating a vivid memory of our shopping trip.

We found the millinery shop somewhere in a building on Randolph Street, a block or two west of the gigantic Marshall Field’s store on State Street.  We rode in an elevator to a floor above ground level and alighted to arrive at the cheerful shop, its big windows letting in a great deal of natural light.  Mom sat in a chair that faced a mirror while the milliner offered her several different styles to choose from.

Mom chose a white straw hat with blue flowers.  It was a delightful style that suited her perfectly.  Today I’d describe it as a cross between a cloche and a very small sunhat:  a straw cloche with a brim.  Not the kind of cloche that fits closely around the face, but one with a small brim that framed Mom’s face and set it off in a charming way.  Mom and the milliner conferred, possibly even turned to me to get my opinion, and made a final decision to select that hat, adding the lovely blue flowers in exactly the right place.

Mom clearly felt pretty when she wore that hat.  She went on to wear it many times, and whenever she did, I was always happy that I’d been with her on the day she chose it.  Even though Mom couldn’t purchase an elegant French-designed hat like those featured at art museums, she had her very own millinery-shop hat designed just for her.

She treasured that hat.  So did I.

 

 

For Father’s Day: A Coronation to Remember

The U.K.’s Queen Elizabeth has been front and center lately.  Between an awkward state visit by the U.S. president in early June and the colorful celebration of her 93rd birthday a short time later, she has recently occupied a lot of media attention.

But the Queen has a long history in the minds of the American public.  I first heard about her when I was growing up in Chicago and she ascended the throne after the sudden death of her father, King George VI.

The brilliant Netflix TV series, “The Crown” (which I’ve recently caught up with on DVD), has revived my memories of the early tenure of the Queen.  One particular episode in Season I immediately caught my attention.  At the beginning of this episode, “Smoke and Mirrors,” the young Princess Elizabeth helps her father prepare for his coronation in 1937 (following the abdication of his brother, Edward VIII).

The extreme closeness between father and daughter is demonstrably clear.

The story moves on to the preparation for Elizabeth’s own coronation in 1953.  By this time, her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh (dubbed Prince Philip in 1957), has assumed a significant role in her life.  He insists upon orchestrating the coronation itself, choosing to bring “the modern world” into it.

His efforts to “democratize” the ceremony leads to a shocking innovation: televising it.  He proposes that television cameras capture all of the pomp and circumstance in Westminster Abbey.  This move is unthinkable for many who had long served the royal family.  One of the holdovers from the past calls the prospect of televising the coronation an “unconscionable vulgarization.”

But even despite the opposition of Winston Churchill, the Duke finally gets his wife’s approval, and the new queen’s coronation is broadcast on black-and-white TV for all the world to see.

This splendid episode on “The Crown” has special relevance for me.  As I watched the story unfold, I was brought back to June 1954, when a color version of the coronation was showing as a film in a movie theater in Chicago.  For some reason I can’t recall, my father was in charge of me one day.  He decided that we would go together to see the film at the theater in downtown Chicago.

This was a memorable event for me.  I adored my father, but he usually devoted more attention to my older sister than to me.  I was the little sister who, on road trips, was relegated to sitting in the back seat with my mother while my sister sat in the front seat next to Daddy.

It’s not surprising that my father could communicate more readily with my sister, who was two years ahead of me in school.  Although both of us were voracious readers (stunning our local public-library staff by how quickly we zipped through countless books), my sister was probably reading at a somewhat higher level and understood more about the world than I did at that time.

Following a similar pattern, Elizabeth was the older daughter in her family, and if the opening of “Smoke and Mirrors” accurately portrays her relationship with her father, he paid more attention to her and depended more on her than on his younger daughter, Margaret.

As the younger daughter in my family, every hour I could spend with my father when the two of us spent it alone was more memorable than those we also shared with my sister and mother.

That’s why seeing the color film of Elizabeth’s coronation with Daddy became one of my most treasured memories.  Going downtown and plunging into a darkened movie theater in the middle of the day with my father, but no other member of the family, was extraordinary.

When Daddy died later that year, I was staggered by losing him.  As I grew older, it became increasingly clear that our afternoon watching Elizabeth crowned in Westminster Abbey was an afternoon I’d never forget.

As we celebrate Father’s Day this year, I recall once again how lucky I was to have that golden time with him and him alone.

 

The Old Man and the Movies

The Sundance Kid rides again!  Not on horseback but in a 1970s sedan.

In his most recent film (and perhaps his last), The Old Man and the Gun, Robert Redford plays a charming real-life bank robber.  Announcing his retirement from acting, he told Ruthe Stein of the San Francisco Chronicle that he chose the part because he identified with the bank robber’s rebellious spirit, and he wanted his last film to be “quirky and upbeat and fun.”

I have a special fondness for Redford that goes back to his role in his first memorable film, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  Redford has called it the “first real film experience I ever had” and “the most fun on any film I’ve had.  It changed my life.”

When I saw the film in Chicago shortly after its release, I was struck by the performances of both Paul Newman (my perennial favorite) as Butch Cassidy and newcomer Redford as the Sundance Kid.

Unbeknown to me, there was a real live double of the Sundance Kid out there, waiting to meet me when I moved to LA a short time later:  my soon-to-be husband.  Once he added a mustache to his otherwise great looks, his resemblance to Redford in that film was uncanny, and I dubbed him the Sundance Kid.  I even acquired a poster of Redford in that role to affix to my office wall as a reminder of my new-found love.

The 1969 film, now fifty years old, holds up very well.  In perhaps its most memorable scene, the two leading men plunge from a cliff into roiling waters below, shouting a now more commonly accepted expletive for probably the first time in movie history.

Newman and Redford play leaders of the “Hole in the Wall Gang,” a group that robs banks, successfully for the most part, until robbing a train gets them into serious trouble.  They alienate Mr. E. H. Harrison of the Union Pacific Railroad, who hires special trackers who relentlessly follow Butch and Sundance.

An endearing scene takes place when the two men approach the home of Etta Place, Sundance’s wife.  News stories have alarmed Etta.  “The papers said they had you.  They said you were dead.”  Sundance’s first reaction:  “Don’t make a big thing of it.”  He pauses and reflects.  Then he says, “No.  Make a big thing of it.”  And they enthusiastically embrace.

Redford’s brilliant career includes a large number of notable Hollywood films.  It’s easy for me to name some favorites:  Downhill Racer in 1969, The Candidate in 1972, The Way We Were and The Sting in 1973, All the President’s Men in 1974, The Natural in 1984, and Out of Africa in 1985.  (A few of these especially resonate with me.)  And in All is Lost, as recently as 2013, Redford shines as an older man on the verge of dying alone in troubled ocean waters. Outstanding performances, each and every one.

In recent years, as I became an active supporter of NRDC (the Natural Resources Defense Council), an entity vigorously working on behalf of the environment, I began hearing from Redford, who aligned himself with NRDC’s goals and requested additional donations.  I commend him for his strong support for protecting the future of our country and our planet.  His efforts on behalf of the environment seem even more critical now, as we face increasingly dire problems caused by climate change.

As for Redford’s movie career, my hope is that he chooses not to retire.  Most movie-goers would welcome seeing new films that include him, even in a small role.  In the meantime, I encourage every film buff to see The Old Man and the Gun.  Featuring a number of brief scenes from his earlier movies (plugged into the movie by director David Lowery), the film is a great reminder of a storied Hollywood career.  A career that began with the Sundance Kid.