Friday, May 29, 2009

Love Binds the Escape Artist

I'm currently reading Michael Chabon's novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, which features "The Escapist," a comic book character, and his two creators, Joe Kavalier and Sammy Klay.

The Escapist is, of course, Joe and Sammy's tribute to Harry Houdini, the greatest escape artist of all, who had a talent for freeing himself from handcuffs, chains, ropes and straitjackets, sometimes while hanging upside down from a rope. In his Chinese Water Torture Cell trick, he was plunged head first into a glass-and-steel cabinet filled with water and held his breath for more than three minutes as he worked to free himself. His spellbound audiences were sure he would drown.

"The easiest way to attract a crowd is to let it be known that at a given time and a given place some one is going to attempt something that in the event of failure will mean sudden death," Houdini once said.
Image found here:

I forgot why I'm writing about Houdini. This is a blog about good girls....Oh, hang on, that's right. There is a good girl in Chabon's book: Rosa Saks, a dusky chain-smoking artist who first catches Joe's eye when he sneaks into the room where she's sleeping, naked. Joe had thought the apartment he was breaking into was empty, and now he's enchanted by the sleeping girl, who is as yet a stranger to him.

Smitten, he remembers every detail of the scene and later draws it:

Her right foot loomed large in the foreground, slender, toes curled. The lines of her bare and of her blanketed leg converged, at the ultimate vanishing point, in a coarse black bramble of shadow. In the distance of the picture, the hollows and long central valley of her back rose to a charcoal Niagara of hair that obscured all but the lower portion of her face, her lips parted, her jaw wide and perhaps a bit heavy. It was a four-by-nine-inch slice cut fresh from Joe's memory but, for all its immediacy, rendered in clean, unhurried lines, with a precision at once anatomical and emotional: you felt Joe's tenderness toward that curled little foot, that hollow back, that open, dreaming mouth drawing a last deep breath of unconsciousness.

The three main characters of this wonderfully cinematic novel eventually grow wrapped together into a triangle of great sexual complexity, sadness, love and loss--much as you would hope from a wonderfully cinematic novel. (I hear a movie is underway, but I don't want to Google it, because I don't want to know yet who they're going to cast. Hollywood can ruin the images a book creates in your head.) Rosa becomes the ultimate figure of womanly strength and beauty for Joe and Sammy, and they turn her into a comic book character called Luna Moth.

Miss Judy Dark, Luna Moth's alter ego, is a mousy, spectacles-wearing librarian who works in the basement of the Empire City Public Library. But one weird night, as Miss Dark is on her way home to a solitary dinner with nothing but the radio for company, she catches a couple of crooks in the act of stealing an ancient and magical text. She grabs the books from their hands, runs, a gun gets fired, a wireline falls into a puddle of water, and a powerful surge of energy races from the book's golden cover into Judy Dark's slender frame.

Poof! In one magical instant, Judy Dark is transformed from a mousy librarian into Luna Moth, Mistress of the Night, a flying creature with massive, translucent green wings and massive breasts plus an otherwise perfect body needless to say. She has become a warrior goddess who flies around, stops criminals by zapping them with green energy rays, and doesn't really know how to control the unbridled force of her lusty imagination. It's a classic good girl turns bad girl turns good girl scenario, guaranteed to give young comic-book readers a sexual thrill.

Luna Moth drawing from Michael Chabon Presents The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist #9; artist, Brian Bolland.

So that's about it, except to say that Harry Houdini was very much in love with his wife, Bess. When he met Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner in 1894, he was a 20-year-old magician who still didn't really have his act together yet, and she was a gorgeous showgirl in a singing and dancing act starring as one of the Floral Sisters in West Brighton Beach, which I live close to, by the way, and saw the Brighton Baths before they were torn down to make way for a bunch of garish "luxury" condos on the Brooklyn waterfront, or maybe they met in Coney Island in 1893, another story goes, and Coney Island also is currently in danger of losing its charm thanks to a bunch of rapacious real estate wheeler-dealers of which there are no shortage in NYC.

Where was I? Bess Houdini, right. And the highly-smitten Harry. It seems that these escape artists and escapist comic-book readers always need to have a Bess or a Luna around to add to the fun. In Harry Houdini's case, she became his faithful assistant and helped lock him up with various handcuffs, manacles and shackles, not to mention ropes and blindfolds, which I'm sure led to some exciting shenanigans in the bedroom after the show.

Sadly, as is often the case, Bess outlived Harry by many years. In 1926, he was sucker-punched in the stomach by a rabid fan and never recovered. But the Houdinis had a good run of 30-plus years, and for many years after Bess would hold seances on the anniversary of Harry's death to try to connect with his spirit. After ten years of failing to connect, she finally gave up the ghost, telling Time magazine that "ten years is long enough to wait for any man."

Harry & Bess, 1913, Library of Congress archives

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Support a Sundance Muse for Mother's Day

Sundance Channel salutes women artists this month with a series of portraits of extraordinary women in art. Here's a link to the SUNfiltered post "To Suzanne Valadon on Mother’s Day," a bloggy portrait of Suzanne Valadon, tempestuous artist, mistress of Renoir and Lautrec, and mother of Maurice Utrillo, painter.

On Men, Beasts, Gardens & Doris Day

America's most virginal movie queen of the 1950s, Doris Day, was driven into bankruptcy by her third husband, and her fourth husband divorced her after complaining she was so passionate about her animal-rights activism that she had no time for him.

“If it's true that men are such beasts, this must account for the fact that most women are animal lovers," said the ever-sunny film star, also noting in her autobiography, "You don't really know a person until you live with him, not just sleep with him. Sex is not enough to sustain marriage. I have the unfortunate reputation of being Miss Goody Two-shoes, America's Virgin, and all that, so I'm afraid it's going to shock some people for me to say this, but I staunchly believe no two people should get married until they have lived together. The young people have it right. What a tragedy it is for a couple to get married, have a child, and in the process discover they are not suited for one another!"

Today, Doris Day is in her 80s and lives without a man in Carmel, California, where she runs the pet-friendly the Cypress Inn, the Doris Day Animal League and the Doris Day Animal Foundation.

And she is also known to be a great lover of gardens.

Here's a great Doris Day website quoting biographer A.E. Hotchner's first meeting with Doris in the summer of 1973:

Doris arrived fifteen minutes late on a chariot of sunshine. Kitsch metaphor or not, that exactly describes her entrance as she came striding into the garden, yellow sweater, beige slacks, yellow straw hat perched on the back of her blond hair, glowing skin, an aura of buoyant euphoria playing off her. The luncheon guests looked up from their tables...and you could feel a sort of mass positive response to her smiling, striding presence.

I want to be like Doris Day when I'm old. I'm on the right track so far: 1) I have cats; 2) my husband is a beast; 3) I'm getting old.

And I'm growing a garden on my fire escape and becoming a weirdly obsessed urban gardener with plans to make my block the greenest block in Brooklyn:

So hooray for Doris Day, who said: "I like joy; I want to be joyous; I want to have fun on the set; I want to wear beautiful clothes and look pretty. I want to smile and I want to make people laugh. And that's all I want. I like it. I like being happy. I want to make others happy."

Here she is, making us happy singing "Octopus' Garden":

Saturday, May 2, 2009

News Flash: Philly Still Has Cheesesteak

Sometimes, you need to travel to remember that the world as we know it still exists. I tend to forget that while emailing and blogging and twittering and facebooking.

I've been thinking about that a lot lately at the same time that I keep introducing new media into my life. So I may have started tweeting, but now I have a painter friend who sends me snail mail letters, and I love it. We're pen pals--something I haven't done since university days. Graham blogs, but he also writes letters on paper. Lucky me.

This week, all it took for me to get into a travel head was a $20 day trip to Philadelphia on the Chinatown bus. I wrote a letter to Graham as I rode the bus. Very meditative--looking out the window and writing about trying to achieve a state of ego-less nothingness.

And when I got to Philly, I was happy to see that even though the Philadelphia Inquirer daily newspaper is in bankruptcy, you can still buy the paper.

And just across the street from Independence Hall, I learned that you can still get a cheesesteak sandwich in Philly.

Some things never change.