Sunday, September 11, 2011

Henryk Siwiak (1965-2001)

The New York Times reports that the last man killed in the city on September 11, 2001 was Henryk Siwiak, an undocumented immigrant from Poland who was city's only homicide unrelated to the terrorist attacks. He had arrived in the US the previous October to look for work, leaving his family behind in Poland. A few days after his 20th wedding anniversary, he found a job mopping floors at night in a supermarket. September 11 was to have been his first day at work.

He donned his favorite outfit, purchased from the Salvation Army, and set out for the supermarket. He was armed with bad directions, however, and he ended up in a particularly bad section of a bad neighborhood, Bedford-Stuyvesant. He was shot and died on someone's doorstep about 15 minutes before midnight. No witnesses have surfaced in the decade since his death and his murder remains unsolved. His death may have been a robbery gone wrong, though he still had money and belongings on his body. He may have been mistaken for someone else, stumbled into a robbery or drug deal, or shot by some idiot who thought he was a terrorist in those hysterical hours after the attacks.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Wesley Willis (1963-2003)

In the late 90s all of us wannabe hipster types were crazy about a 6'5" 300 pound musician named Wesley Willis. It's hard to explain exactly what his music was like. Imagine Biz Markie as a homeless person shouting about public transit (or the "joybus", as Willis dubbed it) and you have some idea. You have to experience it for yourself, and there is plenty to experience as he released some fifty albums during his relatively short musical career. Many of his songs were inspired by popular culture, but the cultural elements were wrenched from their original contexts and recycled in incomprehensible ways. His songs usually ended with the couplet "Rock over London/Rock on, Chicago," followed by a random advertising slogan, like "Polaroid. See what develops."

Willis was the son of a Chicago street hustler. He was a paranoid schizophrenic and heard voices ever since a night in 1989 when he was robbed at gunpoint by his mother's girlfriend. With cheap keyboards, he started his musical career, which took off when Jello Biafra's label Alternative Tentacles released a couple of his albums, and toured frequently, sometimes fronting a punk band. He seemed to hit all the buttons: punk, outsider art, dadaist anti-art, ironic pop culture. However, his popularity made some think the crowds were there for the wrong reasons. Okkervil River frontman Will Sheff wrote that the "Periodic appearances for crowds of jeering white fratboys evoke an uncomfortable combination of minstrel act and traveling freak show."

In late 2002, he was diagnosed with leukemia. He died on August 21, 2003.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Robert Novak (1931-2009)

Robert Novak was a rumpled, absent-minded political reporter in the late 50s and early 60s, frequently seen forgetting to shave or tie his shoes or even sticking lit cigarettes in his pockets. He teamed up with button-downed reporter Rowland Evans to become the Laverne and Shirley of political commentators, running an inside baseball column and political report together from 1963 to Evans' death in 2001. So eagerly they printed leaks and fresh information that didn't turn out so well they were nicknamed "Evans and No Facts". Novak later became a frequent presence of dyspeptic misogyny in the early days of cable news, at one point even declaring that the sight of homeless people on television news ruined his Thanksgiving dinner. It's not for nothing that he was nicknamed "The Prince of Darkness".

Novak will likely be best remembered for revealing the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame in 2003. Members of the Bush administration leaked her identity to Novak in retaliation for her husband Joe Wilson publicly demolished the line pushed by the administration that Iraq was seeking uranium from Niger. Despite the fact that this revelation outed Plame, her CIA cover organization, the other CIA operatives working for that organization, and all of their informants, no one was charged or convicted of this crime, excepting Scooter Libby's perjury conviction. Novak doubled down and insisted he'd done nothing wrong because "left-wing critics" were meanie pants to him. One persistent critic was Jon Stewart of The Daily Show, who awarded Novak the "Congressional Medal of Douchebaggery."

In 2008, Novak hit an 86 year old pedestrian with his black Corvette convertible. Despite the fact that the poor guy (who thankfully escaped with minor injuries) bounced off Novak's windshield, Novak claimed he never saw him. After a lifetime of reckless driving, speeding citations, douchebaggery, and not giving a shit about anyone, many concluded he was lying. But a few days later, Novak was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He died a little over a year later, on August 18, 2009.

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Saturday, August 6, 2011

Warner Oland (1879-1938)

So how did a Swedish guy become the most famous Asian in the Western world?

Oland was born Johan Verner Ölund in Västerbotten County, the second most northern and second least populated county in Sweden. His family moved to the United States when he was thirteen. He took to the stage and became a Shakespearean actor and translator of Strindberg. He was vaguely Asian looking, something Oland attributed to Mongolian ancestry thanks to the invasions of Genghis Khan. In Hollywood's hands, he filled the roles of stock villain and stock ethnic character, sometimes both. In The Jazz Singer (1927) he was Cantor Rabinowitz, he was the title character, and incidentally the second most famous Asian character in the Western world, in The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu (1929), and he was a werewolf in Werewolf of London (1935). Okay, that last one doesn't count. Lest we think that this is a bizarre anachronism, think about how many ethnicities Scottish actor Sean Connery has played.

Hollywood was such in those days that aside from Anna May Wong and a few others, roles for Asians, even playing Asian characters, were few and far between. White actors playing Asians was the norm. A Swedish guy playing an Asian seems an especially egregious example, and perhaps it is, but there are plenty of strange examples of white guys who don't even vaguely look Asian playing Asian roles. Case in point: John Wayne as Warner Oland's ancestor Genghis Khan in The Conqueror (1956).

So Warner Oland slipped into the role of Chinese detective Charlie Chan with easy. Oland appeared in sixteen Charlie Chan films and the series became a worldwide success. When Oland died of pneumonia in a Stockholm hospital on August 6, 1938, the rest of his final film was reshot Ed Wood style with another actor, none other than Peter Lorre. The Charlie Chan series continued, with much less success, with another white actor, Sidney Toler.

A fascinating look at the Charlie Chan series, Hollywood yellowface, and the inspiration for Chan, real life Hawaiian detective Chang Apana, is Prof. Yunte Huang's 2010 book Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Raymond Carver (1938-1988)

And did you get what

you wanted from this life, even so?

I did.

And what did you want?

To call myself beloved, to feel myself

beloved on the earth.

Those words are inscribed on the tombstone of Raymond Carver, the starkly minimalist and massively influential author of stories about what people talk about, and what they don't talk about.

Less is more has been a credo since the turn of the 20th century but Carver went to extremes. Much of this was the influence of Esquire magazine editor Gordon Lish, who performed "surgical amputation and transplantation" on Carver's stories in what was perhaps the most important and influential author/editor relationship since Ezra Pound took a red pen to T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland. Carver eventually broke with Lish and their relationship is being critically reevaluated. In 2009, thanks to efforts by his widow, the poet Tess Gallagher, his seminal What We Talk About When We Talk About Love was republished with the original drafts of the stories, often twice as long as the versions that were published by Lish, as Beginners.

A lifelong alcoholic, Carver said of his time with John Cheever Iowa Writers' Workshop that they did no writing, little teaching, and much drinking. Thanks to Alcoholics Anonymous, he quit drinking, which he thought would kill him, at age 40. When he learned he had lung cancer ten years later, he thought of that decade as a bonus and wrote a poem about it called "Gravy", which reads in part:
No other word will do. For that's what it was.Gravy.
Gravy, these past ten years.
Alive, sober, working, loving, and
being loved by a good woman...

Carver died of lung cancer on August 2, 1988 at the age of 50.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Lilian Harvey (1907–1968)

Actress Lillian Harvey was born Helene Lilian Muriel Pape in England to an English mother and a German father. She spoke 13 languages and made films in four of them, starting in 1924. The next year German producer Richard Eichberg discovered her and made her a leading lady. She was churning out about four films a year and became one of the most popular actresses in Germany. One Hungarian nobleman was so entranced by her that she offered her a castle. The castle later became a tractor factory.

She and popular leading man Willy Fritsch became the Brad and Angelina of Weimar Germany, their romance on and off screen milked for all the publicity it could produce. They starred in 11 films together, the most popular of which was Der Kongreß tanzt ("The Congress Dancers"), a lavish musical comedy released in three different languages. Frisch played Tsar Alexander I, who romances a humble glove seller played by Harvey. This public romance lasted until Frisch actress Dinah Grace in 1937.

In Tarintino's Inglorious Basterds, Gobbels happily sings a duet by Harvey and Fritsch from Glückskinder (a German version of It Happened One Night) called "Ich wollt' ich wär ein Huhn" ("I wish I were a chicken") but he snaps at the mention of Harvey's name. This is a good reflection of the Nazi's love hate relationship with Harvey, which became mostly hate towards the end of the 30s. She was pilloried for a brief attempt to make it in Hollywood but welcomed back with open arms in 1935. The Gestapo kept an eye on her because she consorted with Jews and grilled her choreographer Jens Keith, who was jailed under the Nazi anti-gay law Paragraph 175, promptly fled the country when she posted bail for him. She left the country again herself in 1939 and the Nazis revoked her citizenship in 1943. After making two movies in Vichy France in 1940, her film career was over.

At the end of her life, Harvey retired to the resort town of Antibes on the French Riviera, where she operated a souvenir shop and raised edible snails. She died there at age 61.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Ed Gein (1906-1984)

Edward Theodore Gein was a shy child, shunned by peers who thought him effeminate. His mother Augusta was a religious fanatic who thought the world full of immoral, corrupting influences and dragged her family to a remote farm on the outskirts of Plainfield, Wisconsin, the better to keep that corrupting world away from her children. She held her husband in contempt and he died of a heart attack in 1940. When her older son Henry began to turn away from his mother and towards the outside world, he too died in 1944 during a fire on the Gein farm. Henry went missing during the fire and Ed brought the search party straight to Henry's body, which had no burns but plenty of bruises on the head. But no one suspected shy Ed Gein.

Augusta was felled by a series of strokes and died in 1945. And Ed was alone.

Ed boarded off most of the house, including the entire second floor, as a shrine to his mother. He began digging up the graves of dozens of women, collecting body parts and wearing their skin. He later insisted he never had sex with any of the bodies because "they smelled too bad".

Then the disappearances started:

In 1947, 8 year old Georgia Weckler disappeared coming home from school in Fort Atkinson. Hundreds searched but never found her.

In 1952, two deer hunters, Victor Travis and Ray Burgess, disappeared after drinking at a Plainfield bar.

In 1953, 15 year old babysitter disappeared in La Crosse. There were signs of a bloody struggle. Thousands of searchers and reporters from around the country descended on La Crosse, but no trace of her was found besides bloody clothing.

In 1954, Plainfield bar owner Mary Hogan disappeared. A blood trail lead from her bar into the parking lot.

A decade of kidnappings and grave robbings, and for some reason, no one thought of the weirdo who lived alone in a remote farmhouse with a collection of "shrunken heads" he claimed were sent from the Philippines by a cousin. Instead, to the folks in Plainfield, he was the harmless old handyman and babysitter.

Until 1957, when store owner Bernice Worden disappeared. The cash register was missing and there was blood on the floor. But her son Frank was a deputy sheriff, and he remembered that Ed had been by the store the previous day asking about antifreeze. So when he discovered that one of the only two transactions that day was for antifreeze, Ed was the logical suspect.

When the deputies arrived at the Gein farm, they found a charnel house. Collections of skulls and organs and body parts, clothing and household accessories made out of body parts including a lampshade made from a face, and the heads of Mary Hogan and Bernice Worden. Worden's headless body was hung upside down in a shed, dressed out like you would a dead deer.

And so, knowledge of Ed Gein was unleashed upon a word which preferred to pretend such things didn't exist. Sure, there were natural disasters and wars and the Holocaust, but one guy gutting people and making himself into a woman with their body parts? That's a level of homicidal strangeness that people were unprepared for. Ed Gein was a sort of pioneer in his field, inspiring Psycho, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Silence of the Lambs and paving the way for today's current fascination with serial killers. But with only two confirmed kills under his belt (Hogan and Worden), he doesn't fit the technical definition of a serial killer. His mingling of body parts of living and dead folks in a time before DNA meant that the other disappearances could not be definitively attributed to him, and some of them differ enough from his proclivities and modus operandi that they may be the work of some other unknown murderer, rapist, or pedophile.

Media obsession, even without the help of Nancy Grace, and the public's fascination with Gein were intense. His possessions were to be auctioned off, though some unknown arsonist or arsonists burned down the house before it could become a "museum for the morbid". Gein's 1949 Ford sedan survived the fire to become a carnival attraction.

Gein himself spent the rest of his life in mental institutions. Other than his tendency to creepily stare at female staff members, he was a model patient. Gein thrived in the structured life of a mental hospital. He never needed drugs or tranquilizers and developed a number of hobbies, including ham radio.

Gein died on July 26, 1984 at the Mendota Mental Health Institute in Madison, Wisconsin after a long bout with cancer. He was buried next to his mother in Plainfield. For years, his grave was vandalized by souvenir hunters until the gravestone was stolen in 2000. It was found in the possession of a rock promoter and recovered by Seattle police. It is now in a museum. In 2006 the owner of what was once the Gein farm offered it for sale on eBay for $250,000, but the auction site pulled the listing.