Beth Henley On Playwriting

August 10, 2011

Adapted from: Act I: the Pulitzer, Act II: Broadway

By Robert Berkvist, The New York Times, October 25, 1981

I hate the feeling that the play has to be seen as really great, instead of just an enjoyable evening in the theater.

If a play is set in the South, it can be kind of eccentric and people will accept it. The language can be more poetic, too.

I guess (“Crimes of the Heart”) is not an easy play for people to pick up the tone of — to know whether it’s funny or sad.

The feelings are kind of autobiographical, the business of how sisters relate, or bear grudges — things like that. But none of the events depicted in the play ever happened to my family, although some of them were things I had heard of.

Not to denigrate my play or anything, but all this acclaim is just the way the cards happened to fall. Theater is such a business now that it’s got nothing to with art or good work. My kind of writing happens to be salable these days. I’m sure there are a lot of talented people out there who aren’t writing plays but working in factories while they wait for someone to “discover” their stuff.

The theater makes it pretty hard for a writer. People can be real mean about your plays. I don’t blame some writers for turning to Hollywood for money and praise.

I didn’t like the feeling of being at everyone’s mercy, so I decided to do something creative. Of course, everyone in Los Angeles is working on a screenplay, so what I did wasn’t bizarre at all. But no one at the studios would read my screenplay because I didn’t have an agent, so I thought I would write a stage play that might at least get performed in a small theater somewhere. That’s when I wrote “Crimes of the Heart.”

Women’s problems are people’s problems. There are certain subjects I mightn’t get into, simply because I don’t have the necessary knowledge, but I don’t think my being a woman limits my concerns.

This is one in a series that will post  on Wednesdays. If you’d like to read more about what people like Sam Shepard, Harold Pinter, Joyce Carol Oates and other famous — and not so famous — playwrights have to say about the art and craft of writing and directing plays, type “On Playwriting” into the small sidebar window and tap the “Search” button.


Tom Stoppard On Playwriting II

July 20, 2011

Adapted from: The Real Tom Stoppard

By Mel Gussow, The New York Times Magazine, May 1, 1981

I’m not really a very exploratory writer. I don’t pick up a pen and see how things will go. By the time I pick up a pen, I’ve gone through so much work. Once I have the vague idea of a structure, landmark moments occur which fit into the structure. I have an idea of how a scene will end, but I don’t know how to get there. In “The Real Thing,” one of the stimuli has to do with the situation being repeated three times. That gave me two landmarks to head for. One of the comforting things about being a playwright is that a full-length play is not many words. If you run them all together and take out the stage directions, it’s 90 pages at the outside. That’s a short story.

I don’t know if (“The Real Thing”) is autobiographical, but a lot of it is auto-something.

The more you like another writer the more you shy away from using him as a model — because it’s a fatal attraction. I was passionate about Hemingway when I started writing, and the first short stories I wrote were bad Hemingway stories. I think he’s still my favorite American writer. He got his effects by simple statements. The egregious word in Hemingway is very rare. “Egregious” is a word he wouldn’t have used in his life.

“Happiness is equilibrium. Shift your weight.” (A line from “The Real Thing.”) Shift your weight. That’s quite sound. Equilibrium is pragmatic. You have to get everything into proportion. You compensate, re-balance yourself so that you maintain your angle to your world. When the world shifts, you shift.

This is one in a series that will post  on Wednesdays. If you’d like to read more about what people like Sam Shepard, Harold Pinter, Joyce Carol Oates and other famous — and not so famous — playwrights have to say about the art and craft of writing and directing plays, type “On Playwriting” into the small sidebar window and tap the “Search” button.


August Wilson On Playwriting

July 6, 2011

Adapted from: How to Write A Play Like August Wilson

The New York Times, March 10, 1991

When I discovered the word breakfast, and I discovered that it was two words, I think then I decided I wanted to be a writer.

I start — generally I have an idea of something I want to say — but I start with a line of dialogue. I have no idea half the time who’s speaking or what they’re saying. I’ll start with the line, and the more dialogue I write, the better I get to know the characters. For instance, in writing the play “The Piano Lesson,” one of the characters, Bernice, says something to Boy Willie, her brother, and he talks about how “Sutter fell in the well.” Well, this is a surprise to me. I didn’t know that.

Then I say, “Well, who is Sutter?” You see, if you have a character in a play, the character who knows everything, then you won’t have any problem. Whenever you get stuck you ask them a question. I have learned that if you trust them and simply do not even think about what they’re saying, it doesn’t matter. They say things like “Sutter fell in the well.” You just write it down and make it all make sense later. So I use those characters a lot. Anything you want to know you ask the characters.

Part of my process is that I assemble all these things and later try to make sense out of them and sort of plug them in to what is my larger artistic agenda. That agenda is answering James Baldwin when he called for “a profound articulation of the black tradition,” which he defined as “that field of manners and ritual of intercourse that will sustain a man once he’s left his father’s house.”

As for the characters, they are all invented. At the same time they are all made up out of myself, so they’re all me, different aspects of my personality, I guess. But I don’t say, “Oh, I know a guy like this. I’m going to write Joe.” Some people do that. I can’t do that. So I write different parts of myself and I try to invent or discover some other parts.

In terms of influence on my work, I have what I call my four B’s: Romare Bearden (the artist); Imamu Amiri Baraka, the writer; Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentine short-story writer; and the biggest B of all: the blues.

In my own work, what I hope to do is to “place” the tradition of black American culture, to demonstrate its ability to sustain us. We have a ground  that is specific, that is peculiarly ours, that we can stand on, which gives us a world view, to look at the world and to comment on it. I’m just trying to place the world of that culture on stage and to demonstrate its existence and maybe also indicate some directions toward which we as a people might possibly move.

In “The Piano Lesson,” where  you have a brother and sister arguing over a piano that is a family heirloom, and each with different ideas of ways to use it, the ending was a very difficult thing because I didn’t want to choose sides.

We had about five different endings to the play. But it was always the same ending: I wanted Boy Willie to demonstrate a willingness to battle with Sutter’s ghost, the ghost of the white man — that lingering idea of him as the master of slaves — which is still in black Americans’ lives and needs to be exorcised.

This is one in a series that will post  on Wednesdays. If you’d like to read more about what people like Sam Shepard, Harold Pinter, Joyce Carol Oates and other famous — and not so famous — playwrights have to say about the art and craft of writing and directing plays, type “On Playwriting” into the small sidebar window and tap the “Search” button.


Peter De Vries On Humorous Writing

June 8, 2011

I write when I’m inspired, and I see to it that I’m inspired at nine o’clock every morning.

I cannot honestly recall or retrace the conception or development of a single comedic idea I ever had or developed. They vanish from memory after they are written out. Don’t ask a cow how to analyze milk. One sits in a corner and secretes the stuff. One— But you see how right Kafka is? You have lured me into using the word “comedic,” which makes me sick.

You can make a sordid thing sound like a brilliant drawing-room comedy. Probably a fear we have of facing up to the real issues. Could you say we were guilty of Noel Cowardice?

The satirist shoots to kill while the humorist brings his prey back alive and eventually releases him again for another chance.

Comedy deals with the portion of our suffering that is exempt from tragedy.

Words fashioned with somewhat over precise diction are like shapes turned out by a cookie cutter.

Nonsense is such a difficult art!

I love being a writer. What I can’t stand is the paperwork.



Sam Shepard On Playwriting V

June 1, 2011

Adapted from: Sam Shepard, Story Teller

By Ben Brantley, The New York Times, Arts & Leisure, November 13, 1994

All good writing comes out of aloneness. And you’re not too likely to be interrupted driving along an Interstate. You have to do it on an open highway. You wouldn’t want to do it in New York City. But on Highway 40 West or some of those big open highways, you can hold the wheel with one hand and write with the other. It’s good discipline, because sometimes you can only write two or three words at a time before you have to look back at the road, so those three words have to count. The problem is whether you can read the damn thing by the time you reach your destination.

I think most writers, in a sense, have a desire to disappear, to be absolutely anonymous, to be removed in some way: that comes out of the need to be a writer.

For one thing, (theater) allows you to explore language, which film doesn’t. Film is anti-language . . . Theater combines everything for me, anyway . . . It’s like you pick up a saxophone and you play a saxophone and that’s it. It’s a partnership. I feel at home with it . . . All the unspoken structures of playwriting are very close to music.

It’s a funny thing about freedom with actors. You invite them into certain scary territory; then it becomes a question of how far you let them go into that territory before you start shaping it. I’m a firm believer that so-called blocking doesn’t come out of the director. If the actor has any kind of chops at all, he’s going to find his way around the stage and find the impulses. To order actors around the stage like a general is not my idea of a director.

One of the things that’s become apparent to me over a long time is that no matter how you cut it, plays are about storytelling. You know, in the 60’s everybody was down on it. It became an old-fashioned, archaic structure. There was a huge breakaway with those European writers like Beckett and Ionesco and Arabel . . . I think you need to include all these notions that at one time you rejected as being part of the established order of things. There’s no reason, uh, to shoot yourself in the foot.

The odd thing to me is I think all of those relationships are inside other relationships. Two friends can have a father-son relationship or a brother relationship. Those things aren’t necessarily expressed by external character. There are these territories inside all of us, like a child or a father or the whole man, and that’s what interests me more than anything: where those territories lie. I mean, you have these assumptions about somebody and all of a sudden this other thing appears. Where is that coming from? That’s the mystery. That’s what’s so fascinating.

This is one in a series that will post  on Wednesdays. If you’d like to read more about what people like Sam Shepard, Harold Pinter, Joyce Carol Oates and other famous — and not so famous — playwrights have to say about the art and craft of writing and directing plays, type “On Playwriting” into the small sidebar window and tap the “Search” button.


Turning Green

April 21, 2009

31bus

By Susan Middaugh

I believe in taking public transportation to work instead of driving.
As a card-carrying member of the Sierra Club and the Mountain Club of Maryland, I’d like to say my primary motive is energy conservation. It’s not. I want to save money on gas and parking and to extend the life of Takeshi, my Japanese car, whose odometer has passed the 180,000-mile mark.

There are other advantages I hadn’t anticipated. I love walking down the hill in the morning from my house to the bus stop. Being outside in the fresh air fills my spirit in a way that driving with the windows rolled up or down fails to do. The exercise is healthy and the world seems bigger, with a greater sense of possibility.

The 45-minute bus ride is found time, great for reading the newspaper, daydreaming, or unwinding after a day’s work. Traveling in a 30 mile an hour zone through city streets instead of bebopping down the highway at 65 mph helps me slow down my life, a good thing.

I’ve also made new acquaintances at the bus stop that I never would have met behind the wheel of my car. One of them, a middle-aged man in a baseball cap and a camouflage jacket, asked the driver to wait one day when I was late. My new young friend, Eric, who is in high school, is looking for a part-time job. Forrest, a former nurse, tells me about his interest in archeology. An African-American woman in her 40s describes her life after a stroke. Such conversations help me feel connected to other people in my community.

There have also been some surprises. On a crowded city bus, I’ve seen men of different ages offer their seats to women of other races, women who are old, pregnant, or juggling strollers and young children. These moments of civility have restored my faith in human nature.

Drawbacks to riding instead of driving? Sure. On a good day, riding the bus takes three times longer than it does for me to drive the eight miles to my office. Walking to and from my stop can add up to 40 minutes to my daily commute. If the driver is late, a one-way trip can become a journey. If the bus is early, as sometimes happens, this grandmother runs for it or waits for the next one. If I were punching a clock or had to be at a daycare center by a set time, the unpredictability could be a problem.

Walking up the hill to my house each evening can also be a chore, especially if it’s hot or raining or I’m tired. As a distraction, I listen for the tinkle of wind chimes on my neighbors’ porches, breathe in the cooking smells that float into the street, and wonder what the people in my town are having for dinner.

Overall, I feel fortunate to have a choice of transportation. On days when I want to bag the bus, I drive a few miles to light rail….for the same price. Either way, I feel like I’m turning green, staying fit and saving money.

Copyright © 2009 Susan Middaugh.

Susan Middaugh is a business writer in Baltimore who writes the occasional personal essay. Her essays have appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, the Baltimore Sun and New-Works.org. Susan is also a playwright with short and full length works produced in the United States, Canada and England. The One Act Play Depot in Canada has published her short play, Such Good Neighbors. Oh, and she’s also a very good dancer.

My Friend Oscar

February 18, 2009

By Jacquie Roland

It may be too late for me to ever be seated up front in the Academy Awards audience and hear those magical words, ” And the Oscar goes to (insert my name here!).” But you never know. I gave my first Oscar speech when oscar08I was about seven, maybe eight. I figured that one day I’d be called on to thank a long list of people and wanted to be ready. So I rehearsed in front of my mirror again and again. It was important for me to get it right—you see, I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up… not a fireman or a policeman or a mommy. When asked, I always said the same thing… “I want to be a ‘walt disney’.” I wanted to be a walt disney and win Oscars, which I thought were made of real gold, nifty little presents they gave you for being a really good walt disney and drawing entertaining movies. People must have found me amusing. I drew my movies on whatever scrap of paper that was available—shirt cardboard was a favorite—then passed the pictures around for the neighbors to see. I even drew my own Oscar once, coloring it with a stubby yellow crayon from the small flat box, (which didn’t include gold), and taped it to my mirror for encouragement as I rehearsed. What I was dreaming of, in those color-deprived days, was becoming an illustrator—although back then I didn’t know what one was.

Later, in real life, the illustrator part of my imaginary movie came true. I didn’t make it to Hollywood, but did work in the graphics field in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., and now—as a painter/sculptor—in upstate New York. As I grew older, the Oscar ceremony just became something I watched with everyone else once a year. (Were there really times when, in my childish excitement, I bumped my nose trying to get closer to those gleaming metal statuettes and left tiny grease spots on the TV screen?) Some things are best forgotten… but other things, like the Hollywood dream itself, stayed with me—locked away—and there it rested quietly until not very long ago.

Dramatic Flashback: Two years ago I sold a painting (not that unusual)… soon after that I had an accident (very unusual). After the accident I was confined to a rehab facility for several months. When you are in one of those places, you become very aware of your own mortality—and your limitations. But I’m a determined little creature. I couldn’t paint, so I started to write. This past summer I wrote my first play, which I entered in a competition in Baltimore. The play “(She Loved Me?) She Loved Me Not,” was produced in November 2008 and, after all this time, an actress walked across a real stage saying words I had written. Meanwhile (as I waited for the play to be produced), I came close to winning an Oscar. Really—well, kind of. One of my paintings (remember the one I sold before the accident?) appeared in the Uma Thurman movie “The Life Before Her Eyes.” The film was released in April 2008 by 2929 Productions. I finally got to see it on DVD, and my small painting appears twice in the film—at 30:05 & 38:41. The director, Vadim Perelman (be still my heart), even mentioned it in his commentary. The painting is of a little girl’s face, its title “Victorian Dreams.” The movie was beautiful, lush even… and artistic… the subject matter was stirring, and with so many Oscar-nominated and Oscar-winning names attached to the project, I thought that it was a shoo-in for at LEAST a nomination. I figured that if I couldn’t get a nomination myself, the next best thing would be to be involved—no matter how minutely—in a film that did. I could barely contain myself. Oh, the bragging rights! But, sadly, it wasn’t to be. *Sigh*

The 81st annual Oscars will be broadcast February 22—again, of course, without me. This year Hugh Jackman will do the MC bit. We will not air kiss. I will not be interviewed on Oprah, or by Barbara Walters. Earlier, on the famous red carpet, Joan Rivers will not have asked me inane questions. After someone else is handed “my” Oscar and—watched by millions, maybe billions—I will not have to smile wanly into the camera and say (a tear in my eye), “it was an honor just to have been nominated.”

Sure, I’ll be watching… and I just may get out the glitter and make my own Oscar, as I did many years ago. That little yellow fellow got me through a lot as a child, and he is still a shiny beacon for my darkest days. (Let’s face it, we may ALL need a little bit of economic glitter to get through the next few years.) But for a few hours this Sunday evening, we can forget our troubles and watch the fancy folks, dressed in their tuxes and fabulous gowns and borrowed jewelry, gliding across the wine colored carpet on television. I have to smile… because like the little girl I was many years ago, some of those folks must have dreamed of winning the Oscar when they were eight years old, too. There really isn’t that much difference between us, you know… they just got closer to the stage than I did. Oh, and just for the record—in his lifetime Walt Disney won 26 Oscars. Me: 0. (At least so far.)

Copyright © 2009 Jacquie Roland.


Real Ringers Read

January 30, 2009

For many years I’ve known Jacquie Roland as artist, actress, federal government coworker, cartoonist, playwright, professional clown, writer, etc., etc. I now learn she’s also a “Ringer.” In a short essay below, the clever Ms. Roland explains.

jacq1

By Jacquie Roland

I’m a “RINGER”. For those unfamiliar with the term, a RINGER is a (huge) fan of the J.R.R. Tolkien saga THE LORD OF THE RINGS. (LOTR). I’ve been reading, and re-reading the books since I was introduced to them in the 1960’s, by an office buddy in the federal government. I like to start each new year with a read, but this year, instead, I reached for my extended dvd’s of the marvelous epic directed by Peter Jackson.

I started 2009, (which due to the state of things promises to be a rather tough year all around) completely immersed in a world of Hobbits, Wizards, Elves and the men of Middle Earth. It was totally satisfying. My affection for, and involvement with, the characters imagined by Professor Tolkien has actually grown over the years, not lessened. Admittedly, this year I have had some help. In February of 2008, I joined a group of like-minded people on the internet, called THE FELLOWSHIP OF MIDDLE EARTH, The Unofficial Site of The LOTR Fan Club Community. This was/is my first foray into the vast resources of the Internet. I have been welcomed into the Fellowship, which is very family friendly, by an amazing group of people, most of whom I know only by their avatars. We share a real love for the books, and now the movies. My avatar is that of one of the Ring-wraiths, or fallen kings of men. Although the Ring-wraith character is male, by adding the “wife” I made it my own.

So the Ringwraith-Wife was born. RWW for short. The photo above is a self portrait I took of RWW in the backyard of ‘her’ new home. People who know me, and remember the Halloween parties that Bernie Wrightson gave in the seventies & eighties in upstate NY, will recognize RWW as an adaptation of another character I dressed as… The Vampire Bride. (Admittedly, I’m also a Halloween junkie, and costume freak.)

When I ‘became’ RWW, I started thinking about LOTR on a daily basis, rather than as my annual enjoyable pastime. Because of this, I’ve begun to integrate LOTR into my daily life… really. Almost to the point of WWGD. (What would Gandalf Do) Even to me, it’s a little spooky. But it sure is fun. In May, I felt confident enough to start an online comic, titled RINGER. Due to other real life considerations, I had stopped cartooning years ago, and I missed it. RINGER ‘publishes’ four cartoons a week, all a parody of LOTR and it’s characters. Because it’s on the Internet, I get instant feedback on the weekly gags… I found out quickly what works, and what doesn’t, and just as quickly I adjust. What started out as a small pleasantry, has now become quite a bit more. I fully intend to try for a book sometime this year. (My only cartoon book so far, I Drive People Crazy, Too, was about Pac-Man… I got the biggest kick when another author asked to include my book in her Pac-Man collectible tome… if for no other reason than instead of being thought of as an antique, I’m now officially a collectible.) As a Ringer, I still have friends who marvel at my fascination with LOTR, the books, the movies… and let’s not forget my semi-obsession with the movie’s stars!

My personal favorite, of the actors, from the beginning, has been Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn. -Sigh!- Other Ringer friends are quite enamored with Orlando Bloom, who played Legolas, Elijah Wood as Frodo, and Sean Bean as Boromir. Heroes, all. Nowadays, we need our heroes. (Can you say… OBAMA ? …I hope… I hope… I hope.)

Anyway, all I’m trying to point out here, if my little ramble has a point, is that nothing you do is wasted. It’s all grist for your mill. A book someone casually handed me 40 (!) years ago, has all but taken over my present life… and in such a good way. So if someone tells you that whatever you happen to be doing at the moment… reading a book, painting, writing a play, watching a movie, or simply daydreaming… is a waste of time… know in your heart that it isn’t… one of these days your ‘diversion’ could just end up being the next chapter in your own book.

As for the Ringwraith – Wife photo, my “hobby” used to be taking self portraits… always in costume, with interesting props. I put my camera on a tripod, hit the self timer, and run like the devil to get in place. I lost my favorite set of photos in a move… In them, I dressed as Esmeralda, had made a soft sculpture of Quasimodo, and positioned myself & “Quasi ” on the steps of a gorgeous downtown stone church. When I clicked the timer I ran and wrapped myself in this huge hawser, and laid on the stone steps at “Quasi’s” feet. I called the best photo from that set “She Gave Me Water.” One of these days I hope to redo the “Quasi” series. (Of course, if I don’t get a move on the new photos will be titled “He Gave Her Walker.”) I also have a few humorous LOTR characters, and setups, in mind as well. But as I’m sure you’ve noticed, there are only so many hours in a day.

For now, my character ‘RingWraith Wife’ will have to do… and my cartoons, of course. And the paintings, and plays… Ain’t life grand? But still, this year, already… something’s missing. Before too long I’m going to have to pull my crusty old LOTR volumes down from the shelves. Even with the movies… I miss the books… and you know what they say… “Real Ringers Read The Books.” (They do… they do… they do.) Damn you, J.R.R. Tolkien.

Copyright © 2009 Jacquie Roland.


Not A Book Review

January 14, 2009

Slipping the Moorings, By Susan McCallum-Smith

Book reviews are not something I do, but I highly recommend this particular volume because the author is,book1 I’m proud to say, a friend of mine.
Even so, I can also say that this personal plug is for a collection of accomplished and engrossing tales by a very talented young writer. Susan and I met in a Johns Hopkins University evening writing class some years’ back. When the class ended, several of us formed what we called “The Little Group of Serious Writers” and began to meet every couple of weeks to talk about writing and to critique each other’s work. For me, even when reading early drafts of Susan’s stories, I detected what I came to think of as “heft.” It’s a word I define, when applied to writing, as having depth and breath and clarity; also humor, insight, sensitivity and nuance. So, as I use it, that small word is actually very large (it contains multitudes), and applies to only the very best prose, the kind of writing that entertains even as it moves and informs the reader. Susan’s book gives us stories I believe my reading friends—and their friends, and their friends of friends—will find to be not just fun and beautifully written, but—dare I say it—even soul satisfying. Don’t just take my word for it; several of Susan’s professional peers also have great praise for her first collection of short fiction:

“No one could blame you for pausing with a slight air of forgetful uncertainty after devouring three or four stories in this fabulous collection, closing the book to glance again at the name of its author. Margot Livesey? Maeve Binchy? Sorry, no, but you’re in the right league, not by reputation but certainly by measure of aesthetic luminosity, narrative acumen, and dazzling descriptive powers unmatched except by the very best writers of this age or any other. Susan McCallum-Smith, a brilliant young writer making her debut, soars across the transatlantic pond of contemporary literature like a frigate bird, an old master with fresh wings, and Slipping The Moorings overwhelms with grace, elegance, gravity, humor, intelligence and dare I say perfection. Susan McCallum-Smith. Congratulations, dear reader–you just discovered a new and extraordinary talent.”
Bob Shacochis, National Book Award-winning author of
Easy In The Islands and The Next New World.

“Susan McCallum- Smith enters the minds and particularly the voices of her diverse characters with much understanding, humour, and sympathy. She renders moments of conflict and change with lively language, and illuminates these moments with an admirable attention to detail and imagery.”
Sheila Kohler, author of Cracks.

“Sean O’Faolain said the short story must supply both punch and poetry, and Susan McCallum-Smith’s debut story collection does that and much more. Ranging from the edgy to the elegiac, these stories feature characters living in contexts of emotional urgency within worlds richly, even munificently, observed.”
Margaret Meyers, author of Swimming in the Congo.

Susan’s publisher, Entsasis Press, describes her work this way: “McCallum-Smith creates vivid portraits of individuals who bear the scars of failed relationships, misunderstood intentions, sexual and physical abuse, and spiritual isolation. These nine stories, which move effortlessly from the 19th to the 21st centuries, take the reader to a Mexican colonial city for a Day of the Dead celebration, to visitors’ day at a Glasgow prison, to Belle Epoch New York, to the contemporary art scene of London, to villages of Scotland’s rugged coast, and to Montreal, where a hockey fan’s keen interest in the game leads to an unexpected dilemma. McCallum-Smith’s ability to give a comic and wry edge to a dark scene, to capture the patois of both high and low society, to navigate the turbulent waters of dysfunctional families, and to pull her readers through the emotional undertow of these stories attests to the power of her fictive voice. Much of the pleasure for readers lies in her masterful use of syntax and figurative language; her talent for finding exactly the right images to convey mood and setting gives her work its immediacy and its keen sense of place, creating elements of lasting beauty and transcendent insight.”

I couldn’t agree more. susan-colorFinally, Susan, being the modest lass that she is, tells us just a wee bit about herself: “I grew up in a family and a city (Glasgow) of storytellers, and many of the stories were tall, and not all of them savory, and it instilled in me a passion for language and a fascination with the nuance and diversity of the human voice.”

Born and raised in Scotland, Susan McCallum-Smith currently lives in Baltimore, where she is a freelance editor and book reviewer. Her work has appeared in Urbanite, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and The Scottish Review of Books; her reviews are often heard on Maryland Public Radio. She received her MA from Johns Hopkins University and her MFA from Bennington College. Slipping the Moorings is her first book. Visit her literary blog by clicking the “Belles Lettres” link in the sidebar blogroll.

Author Photo by Jason Okutake.

Copyright © 2009 Jim Sizemore.


Three Sex Symbols

December 17, 2008

Jacquie Roland, a writer of wonderful blog comments on some of my posts—several of which we’ve turned into posts in their own right—has sent a short personal essay via e-mail this time, occasioned by the death of the 1950s sex symbol, Bettie Page. Miss Page (no “Ms.” in those days) was the “IT” girl for pre- and post-pubescent guys like me, and Jacquie thought that I might like to know about Bettie’s passing. She was so right, of course. In fact, when I received her e-mail I merely had to look over my left shoulder to see a favorite picture of Miss Page pinned to the wall. (I’ve reproduced it here.) Enjoy that image (click on it for a larger view) and the delightful word images Jacquie creates in her memoir.

bettieBy Jacquie Roland
Bettie Page died December 11, 2008, at the age of 85. For young men of a certain age she was the most beautiful, exotic, woman they had ever seen. She filled their every fantasy. Those boys—men now— must have felt a certain pang, a loss, when they saw her obit in the New York Times. They couldn’t have forgotten her. How do you forget your youth?

In recent years, Bettie had become a cult favorite. Websites, books and calendars were devoted to her. In her 80’s, she again had fans who remembered her heyday, when they were all living high. A movie THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE, starring Gretchen Moll was well received , as were several books, telling her life story. I hadn’t given her much thought until I saw the listings in BUD PLANT’S ART BOOKS catalog. It was then I remembered the woman in the fishnet stockings and the whip that had been taped inside notebooks, and on the back walls of gas stations when I was a kid. No thought of “PC” in those days. Ladies would just look away.

There always seemed to be two pinups, now that I remember… Bettie Page and Jane Russell… one in little or nothing, and one in the most incredible sweater. Both were sex symbols, both world famous. Although I wasn’t sure about the sex symbol stuff, even as a child, I understood fame. Jane Russell was a famous movie star, Bettie Page a famous model, or “Pin-up”, as we called them then. Her claim to fame was her body and , for their day, her provocative poses. And they were provocative… enough so that she was called to Washington by no less than Estes Kefauver to testify in his anti- pornography campaign. Both women went through what could be termed ” a bad patch” as adults, but came out whole on the other side. Both became Born Again Christians. Read their biographies.

Ms. Russell had a more secure upbringing than Ms. Page, to say the least, but both ended up being married three times. Neither woman could conceive a child. Bettie had no children, while Jane had three. She adopted two boys and a girl. I never met Bettie Page, but because Ms. Russell was an adoptive parent, and because she founded WAIF ( World Adoption International Fund), I met her in Washington, DC during the CHILDREN GROW BETTER IN FAMILIES adoption initiative, under President Reagan. A staunch Republican and adoptive mother, she would be the perfect keynote speaker. Would she come to Washington, and help out her old friend Ronald Reagan? I hung up the phone happily… she would.

The day she was to speak, however, I was panicked. The “green room” was full, the Great Hall of the Health and Human Services building was as well… and no Jane. The other celebrities were waiting to go on, and time and celebrity waits for no man ( or woman) but she was nowhere to be seen. When I rushed out of the green room one last time, I saw guest Art Buchwald look at his watch. The kids from LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRARIE , Melissa Gilbert and the Laborteaux boys, were getting restless. Will Sampson, the American Indian actor who was so good in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOOS NEST was talking to baseball great, Steve Garvey. They were all wearing that ‘lets get this show on the road’ look. Time was, in fact “a-wasting”. I literally ran out of the elevator into the Great Hall. Nope, none of the greeters had seen her. My god… a no show… I was about to lose my job. …. But then…In the middle of that vast room stood Ms. Russell, (to this day in my mind’s eye) in a sunbeam, surrounded by a nimbus cloud. A perfect angel in a belted, print, no nonsense dress and sensible pumps. She was older, of course, but who could miss her? She was a queen… a real celebrity… every inch a star.

My greeters, sweet, lovely and handsome youngsters had each been given her bio, so that they could answer intelligent questions and in fact were looking for the Jane Russell of THE OUTLAW, cleavage ‘down to there’, or at least a Madonna look-a-like. No official greeter was near, in any case… they were still craning their necks out the front doors. I feared that “my “star was not prepared to be swept up by some small, panicked art director, but that is how it was. I said the first thing that came to mind, to put her at ease… I may have been less than truthful, but I was quick. “Ms. Russell, Mr. Buchwald was just asking about you… may I take you to him?” Which I did, when I got her downstairs I opened the green room door and said “Mr. Buchwald, it’s Ms. Russell, sir, she’s here.” Art Buchwald, Pulitzer Prize winner, took his cue like a man from Central Casting, and introduced her to the others. Perfect.

I spoke to them both several times that day, saw to their welfare, took care they were both filmed and interviewed… and though I don’t remember a word of her speech… I do remember that it was spectacular. Years later, I heard that Art Buchwald was ill. While still working for the Reagan White House I had the opportunity to call on Mr. Buchwald now and again for small favors. He was always gracious. I wrote him, reminding him of those days on Capitol Hill. I finally asked if he remembered what he and Jane Russell talked about that day. He wrote back July 20, 2006:

Dear Jacquie, thanks so much for your nice letter and reminding me of my tete-a-tete with Jane Russell. I cannot reveal what we said to one another, WOW, was I living high at that time. Love- Art Buchwald

I could almost see the twinkle in his eye, as I read the words. Yes, Mr. B, we WERE living high, weren’t we? Mr. Buchwald died January 17, 2007. Ms. Russell, now 87, lives in California. And lest you feel mislead by this post’s title—to me, there is nothing sexier than a kind, intelligent, witty man. That gets me every time. And I’m willing to bet that is why men were so drawn to Bettie Page… she was intelligent, and had the twinkle in spades. The leopard skin helped, though. I do so wish I had also met Bettie Page back then, but meeting two out of three iconic sex symbols in one day…not shabby.

Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.