Friday, November 7, 2008

Like Little Eva going to heaven

A.J. Liebling scrambling up a rope ladder to board a Norwegian freighter in the Thames estuary to return back to the U.S. on December 1st, 1941:

A seaman dropped a line to Mace, who made a loop through the handles of my suitcase and portable typewriter, which then rose through the air like Little Eva going to heaven. I went up the ladder in my turn with neither grace nor relish. My style must have amused one of the several men who were leaning over the rail, because he looked down at me, then turned to the man next to him and said, “Commando.”

You’ll appreciate that more if you know Liebling was a big round fellow who liked his eating and his drinking. Indeed, he ate his way through Paris before the war, as documented in the collection Between Meals. He never seems to have forgotten a meal, even a bad one, which the war years had aplenty. He even had gout in later life, for god’s sake, Samuel Johnson’s disease. Liebling got out of Paris in 1940 with fellow Yankee Waverley Root (and a name unsurpassed), who also enoyed his time at the table. Root wrote several books on food, including a wonderfully illustrated dictionary. My mother used to read him in the New York Herald Tribune (later the International Herald Tribune), which, you'll remember, is what Iowa’s sweetheart Jean Seberg is hawking on the boulevards in Godard’s Breathless, before that monstrous blight on the 20th century, J. Edgar Hoover, helped drive her to suicide.

And speaking of connections. I wonder: do people get the Little Eva reference? I’m thinking deus ex machina in reverse here, for you can imagine that some of the many, many stage versions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin had fab-o special effects, the martyred girleen being hoisted up into the flies with nary a dry eye in the house. Come back, Little Eva!

Of course no nod by a Brooklynite to Harriet Beecher Stowe can miss a tip of the hat to her brother, Plymouth Church’s Henry Ward Beecher, ardent abolitionist, rock-star-like preacher, and, returning to the ardent, one of the great adulterers of the 19th century. You see, it all got frisky when the Reverend condemned feminist troublemaker Victoria Woodhull’s free-love advocacy, so she, figuring what is good for the gander is good for the goose, exposed one of his affairs in her paper (she’d made money as a stockbroker; freedom of the press being limited to those that own one, as A.J. Liebling said).

Did you know Woodhull was the first woman to run for President in the U.S? 1872. Not that she could vote, being a woman. Or serve, as she was too young. Or even get to the polls if she'd wanted to cause a ruckus, because she was in jail for sending “obscenity” through the mails, thanks to J. Edgar Hoover’s spiritual gran'pappy, Anthony Comstock. Hell, I'd bet he liked to put on a frock after hours, too.

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