Jesse Owens (September 12, 1913 – March 31, 1980) was an American track and field athlete who specialized in the sprints and the long jump. He participated in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany, where he achieved international fame by winning four gold medals.
When I came back to my native country, after all the stories about Hitler, I couldn’t ride in the front of the bus. I had to go to the back door. I couldn’t live where I wanted. I wasn’t invited to shake hands with Hitler, but I wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the President, either. - Jesse Owens.
Today is the birthday of the author of the classic children’s book Goodnight Moon: Margaret Wise Brown (books by this author), born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1910. Brownie, as she was known to her friends, had a revolutionary idea about children’s stories: Kids would rather read about things from their own world than fairy tales and fables.
She was a lovely green-eyed blonde, extravagant and a little eccentric; with her first royalty check, she bought a street vendor’s entire cart full of flowers, and then threw a party at her Upper East Side apartment to show off her purchase. She was a prolific author, writing nearly a hundred picture books under several pen names and sometimes keeping six different publishers busy at once with her projects. She was known to produce a book just so she could buy a plane ticket to Europe.
At one time, she dated Juan Carlos, Prince of Spain, and she had a long-term relationship with Michael Strange, John Barrymore’s ex-wife. When she was 42, she met James Stillman Rockefeller Jr., who was 26, at a party and they hit it off immediately. They had a similar whimsical take on life, and were engaged to be married when she died suddenly; she had had surgery a few weeks before, and was kicking up her leg like a can-can dancer to show her doctor how well she felt. The kick dislodged a blood clot that was in her leg, and the clot traveled to her heart, killing her.
She never had children of her own, but she left the royalties for most of her books to a nine-year-old neighbor boy, Albert Clarke. Her estate was once worth a few hundred dollars, and now amounts to about $5 million — or rather, it would, had Clarke not squandered the inheritance, spending his life in and out of jail, throwing away clothes when they get dirty, and making a succession of bad real estate deals.
She said, “A good picture book can almost be whistled. … All have their own melodies behind the storytelling.”
It’s the birthday of Samuel Pepys, born in London (1633), who on New Year’s Day in 1660 made a resolution to keep a diary. He wrote it in a form of shorthand that was common in the 17th century, developed by Thomas Shelton and called “tachygraphy,” ancient Greek for “speedy writing.” It basically involved writing consonant letters with fewer penstrokes and eliminating the writing of vowels. Though vowels weren’t written, they were indicated by the height at which the following consonant was placed: either above, below, or next to the consonant that came before it. This particular shorthand that Samuel Pepys used in his diary was also used by Sir Isaac Newton and by U.S. President Thomas Jefferson.
But when Pepys was writing about the details of his extramarital affairs and some other things in his diary, he substituted words from French or Spanish or German or Latin or Greek, or sometimes code words he made up. In his account of the time where his wife walked in on him and a household servant girl engaged in an intimate act, Pepys wrote that his wife “coming up suddenly, did find me imbracing the girl con my hand sub su coats.”
He kept the diary for nearly 10 years and then quit because his eyesight was failing and he’d convinced himself that keeping the journal was making him go blind. The journal wasn’t translated until centuries after his death. The first translation was done by a clergyman who refused to translate the parts that were salacious or sexual in nature. A more complete and more accurate translation was done in the 1970s and ’80s, and fills nine volumes.
A lot of what we know today from the English Restoration period — that is, the time including the 1660s — we know because of Samuel Pepys. There was only one London newspaper at the time, and it was a government newspaper and censored. From Samuel Pepys, we get eyewitness accounts and commentary about the coronation of King Charles II, the Great Plague of 1665, and the Great Fire of London in 1666.
Pepys loved music, and he was pretty good at playing the violin, the lute, and the flageolet, a sort of simple wooden flute. He had a good singing voice and performed in coffee shops around London. He once wrote, “Music and woman I cannot but give way to, whatever my business is.”
And he wrote: “The truth is, I do indulge myself a little the more in pleasure, knowing that this is the proper age of my life to do it; and, out of my observation that most men that do thrive in the world do forget to take pleasure during the time that they are getting their estate, but reserve that till they have got one, and then it is too late for them to enjoy it.”
Today is the birthday of Beat novelist Jack Kerouac (books by this author), born in Lowell, Massachusetts (1922), to parents who were French-speaking Québécois. He grew up speaking French, and didn’t start learning English until grade school.
He was a track and football star in high school, and he got a football scholarship to Columbia in New York, where he met Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, and Neal Cassady. Jack Kerouac idolized Neal Cassady, and he typed the story of their cross-country adventures together on a single scroll of paper, 120 feet long, which was published in 1957 as On the Road. He depicts Neal Cassady — whom he calls Dean Moriarty — as a charismatic bad boy American hero. Kerouac took a backpacking trip with another friend whom he idolized, the poet Gary Snyder, and he turned Snyder into the character Jaffy Ryder and made him the hero of The Dharma Bums (1958).
From On the Road: "I woke up as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn’t know who I was — I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I’d never seen, hearing the hiss of steam outside, and the creak of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn’t know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds."
Many people have criticized the so-called ‘social gospel,’ but Jesus taught that we are to take the gospel to the world. Actually there is no such thing as a ‘social gospel.’ It is a misnomer. There is only one gospel … The cup of cold water comes after and sometimes before rather than instead of the gospel. Christians, above all others, should be concerned with social problems and social injustices. Down through the centuries the church has contributed more than any other single agency in lifting social standards to new heights.
I was surprised to learn that Graham shares a birthday with Leon Trotsky, and to be reminded of the degree to which he departed from the Moral Majority, especially on social issues. Not my path, but I’m glad there are alternatives in the world.
It’s the birthday of activist Jane Addams (books by this author), born in Cedarville, Illinois (1860). She is probably best known as the founder of Hull House, a settlement house in Chicago. Her work as a social activist earned her the first Nobel Peace Prize awarded to a woman, in 1931. She was also a philosopher, in the same school of Pragmatism made famous by the likes of William James and John Dewey. She published 500 articles and wrote more than 10 books, including Democracy and Social Ethics (1902), Peace and Bread in Time of War (1922), and The Excellent Becomes the Permanent (1932). Just as James and Dewey looked at the practical outcome of an idea and tried to get beyond artificial divides in theory, Jane Addams focused her philosophy on the practical outcomes of social work in society and tried to develop theories that would be as inclusive as possible.
In Democracy and Social Ethics (1902), she wrote: “Action is indeed the sole medium of expression for ethics. We continually forget that the sphere of morals is the sphere of action, that speculation in regard to morality is but observation and must remain in the sphere of intellectual comment, that a situation does not really become moral until we are confronted with the question of what shall be done in a concrete case, and are obliged to act upon our theory.”