If you’ve seen the current WORTH Magazine, with Marilyn Monroe on the cover, you may have read more than you’d ever want to about my “historic documents” — as indeed you may have just by visiting this site from time to time. But for those of you who thrill as I do even at letters to Marilyn Monroe, let alone a letter from her or JFK or Einstein, here’s my latest trove.
The point of this is to give you at least 70% of the fun I get from my addiction, while sparing you the zillions of dollars that it costs:
- A letter from James Hall, of “Nordhoff and Hall,” which if you’re like me rings some distant, distant bell in the back of your brain . . . 50 points and a fat-free cheesecake if you remembered them as the authors of Mutiny on the Bounty so many of us read in junior high. It’s a long letter from Tahiti, written August 24, 1935, that includes a photo from the Isle of Man Weekly Times showing rudder of the Bounty (“recently salvaged under the supervision of Mr. Parker Christian, Chief Magistrate of [Pitcairn] Island and a direct descendent of Fletcher Christian”). The bulk of the letter talks about the movie then being made with Clark Gable that would win Best Picture and rave reviews. (A 1962 remake with Marlon Brando would do nearly as well.)
- “Yes,” Hall writes, “the Bounty story is being filmed by Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer, and is to be released, I believe, sometime in the autumn. If ever you should see it, I hope that you will remember that neither Nordhoff nor myself had anything to do with the business. Frank Lloyd, who is directing the picture is an Englishman and a very fine chap . . . [but] I read the script they are working from. They have made a proper mess of history: for example, in the screen version it is Bligh himself who comes in the Pandora and not Edwards! And if I’m not mistaken, they have Admiral Nelson (then a captain) as one of the members of the court-martial! Well, so they do things in the cinema — at least in Hollywood. Lloyd says that it doesn’t matter in motion-pictures and that 999 people in every 1000 who will see the film will know nothing of the historical facts. I suppose that is true. Hollywood methods are, certainly, curious to see.”
- What’s more, Hall recounts, Lloyd and some cameramen and actors and actresses had recently been to Tahiti to “make island backgrounds for some of the scenes. They stayed four weeks, and when they returned to California, they discovered that their cameramen, unfamiliar with tropical conditions, had made a botch of the whole business; so it had to be done all over again.”
- A letter from Irving Berlin in New York to his agent in Los Angeles, September 3, 1940, pitching a big new “Holiday” musical movie for which Irving wanted 10% of the gross and a contract written in such a way that the California tax authorities would not be able to grab any piece of it. “We are to have Bing Crosby, Mary Martin and Fred Astaire, if he is available and I am pretty sure that he will be. One new song that I already have written is to be a main par of the contract – it is called WHITE CHRISTMAS and it is to be used in the Christmas Holiday sequence.”
- From the details of the letter one sees that Berlin was very much a businessman as well as a creative genius, and also that he knew his own worth. He tells his agent that in talking with Paramount, “we agreed that it wouldn’t be worth either Paramount’s or my while to do a Bing Crosby picture. This must be an Irving Berlin musical setup . . . Irving Berlin’s HOLIDAY INN.
- A long handwritten letter from Richard Cobden, the British statesman known for repealing the Corn Laws and championing free trade, written on Bastille Day, 1857, to a French journalist: “Whilst you and I aim at precisely the same end, the elevation of the mass of the people, I am afraid I have the misfortune to differ from you as to the means. I do not believe it is possible to elevate wages by any direct act of legislation. I believe that freedom of industry, & perfect liberty of exchange, are the first essential to a fair rate of wages . . . .”
- It’s interesting how little the debate changes. My own view is that this is largely correct — but that things like a minimum wage can make a positive difference. We were told it would be a terrible blow to small business and boost unemployment if the latest catch-up in the minimum wage were enacted, not to mention its inflationary impact. And yet somehow we have survived it thus far, with employment higher and inflation lower than ever. It’s a big topic, but fun to read one of the historically most important proponents of the laissez-faire point of view.
- And then there’s Einstein with a nice handwritten thank you note from December 7, 1952, that includes two snippets I particularly like: “Anything is better than being suspended between fear and hope. At least it appears that way to me, so that I never understood the attraction of gambling and betting.” And later in his note, of his adopted country: “Our good America strives successfully to be its own caricature.”
- And John Reed — about whom Warren Beatty made Reds — with an autographed second edition of his 1919 classic 10 Days that Shook the World, about the Russian revolution. (Anybody out there got a signed first edition?) And with a letter to a socialist cartoonist in which Reed writes: “The Left Wing is starting a new Labor Magazine — labor pure and simple — to be distributed by propaganda groups in the factories. We are of course poor as hell, and nobody’s getting anything for doing it. I’m supposed to be the editor. Can you do us a cartoon for the opening number cover? I suggest an enormous working man scratching himself all over (not naked) while little cooties (capitalists) in silk hats and frock coats run around biting him. Across the stream stands Russia (large, hairy and handsome, looks fine and happy) holding out a bottle labeled ‘Lenin’s Cootie Cure.'”
- Reed goes on to suggest that maybe the cooties (and here we thought this was a word we made up in high school) might be in different costumes, and that Young, the cartoonist, might label them “Manufacturer,” “Banker,” “Capitalist Newspaper Editor” and so forth. One wonders what Reed — or Marx or Lenin, for that matter — would think coming back to Earth today and reading up on the history of the 80 years just passed since those 10 days in 1917 that shook the world.