Monday, November 30, 2009

Happy Birthday Mark Twain!

Today would have been Mark Twain’s 174th birthday. Born on November 30, 1835 in Florida, Missouri, Samuel Clemens, known to the world as Mark Twain, is widely considered one of the greatest American authors. Besides his talents as a writer, Mark Twain is also known for his wit. In a letter to Edward Dimmitt written on July 19, 1901,Twain said of aging, “Life should begin with age and its privileges and accumulations, and end with youth and its capacity to splendidly enjoy such advantages.” Mark Twain lived to be 74, passing away on April 21, 1910. For more information on Twain’s life and career, take a look at the Library of Congress site.

To read some of Twain’s works for free, visit Project Guttenberg. The electronic book database has many works available for free download, including many of Twain’s books. (the project offers works with expired copyrights for free)

Twain spent his later years at a home called Stormfield in Redding, Connecticut. Thomas Edison made a silent film of him at his home in Redding in 1909. It’s only a little over a minute long, but its still cool to see Twain walking around in his legendary white suit while smoking cigars.

[Image via bolstablog]

Sunday, November 29, 2009

"Empire of Liberty" by Gordon Wood

Check out the NY Times review of Gordon Wood's new book entitled "Empire of Liberty." The book covers the early years of the American republic and, if it's anything like Gordon Wood's other books, promises to be a great read.

Here is another review of Gordon Wood's new book at

[Image via infibeam]

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Lady is a Member of Parliament

On November 28, 1919, Nancy Astor became the first woman to serve as a member of Parliament in the British House of Commons. She was a member of the Conservative party and was married to Waldorf Astor, 2nd Viscount Astor. What's interesting about Lady Astor in terms of American history is that she was born and raised in the United States.

Nancy Witcher Langhorne was born in 1879 to parents Charles Dabney Langhorne and Nancy Witcher Keene. One of eight children, her father was a former slaveowner whose business prospects plummeted during the war. He was eventually able to rebuild the family fortune using former business contacts, and the family moved into an estate called Mirador in Albemarle County, Virginia. All of the Langhorne girls were known for their beauty. Nancy's sister Irene later married the artist Charles Dana Gibson and became the model for the Gibson girl. Nancy's first marriage was to Robert Gould Shaw II, the cousin of the Robert Gould Shaw who commanded the 54th Massachusetts volunteer infantry. Their marriage was troubled from the start, and they divorced in 1903.

In the following years, Nancy traveled to England and became enamored with the country. She moved there permanently and married Waldorf Astor, an English aristocrat who had also been born in the United States. His father was a member of the House of Lords, and Waldorf Astor held a seat in the House of Commons. When his father died, Waldorf Astor succeeded to his father's peerage and automatically gained a seat in the House of Lords. With her husband's seat in the House of Commons now vacant, Lady Astor decided to campaign for the seat herself. She was elected on November 28, 1919. While other women had been elected to Parliament before her, Lady Astor was the first to actually take up her seat in the House of Commons on December 1, 1919.

Lady Astor served in Parliament from 1919 until her retirement in 1945. Nancy Astor supported women’s rights and boosted morale on the home front during both world wars. During World War I, she converted her estate, Cliveden, into an army hospital. Her years in Parliament were not without controversy. She was known for her razor sharp wit, and her inability to hold her tongue when she disagreed with others. One of her most notable adversaries was Winston Churchill. Supposedly, after a series of disagreements, Lady Astor told Winston Churchill, “If you were my husband, I’d poison your tea,” to which he replied, “Madam, if you were my wife, I’d drink it.”

[Image via ScandalousWomen and visitthames]

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Funny, Inappropriate and True - A Video of the First Thanksgiving

President Obama Pardons Turkey

Today, in the tradition of numerous presidents before him, President Obama pardoned two turkeys. They will act as marshals at tomorrow’s Thanksgiving Day parade in Disneyland. President George H. W. Bush was the first to officially pardon turkeys before Thanksgiving. Prior presidents were also given turkeys, but as President Obama mentions, many chose to eat their turkeys rather than to pardon them.

I want to wish everyone a happy and healthy Thanksgiving!

[Image via ttthunts]

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Where in the World is D. B. Cooper?

Check out this great story about the only unsolved domestic skyjacking case in American history. It happened the night before Thanksgiving in 1971. Like most unique crime stories, it had the honor of being made into a movie starring Robert Duvall and Treat Williams called The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper. I haven't seen the movie, but I'd be curious to know if it is even possible for a man jumping out of a plane shortly after take off into a storm to live. Also, why demand $200,000? Why not $300,000 or $1 million?

Above is a 1972 composite sketch of D. B. Cooper, who remains at large. The FBI compiled a case file on D. B. Cooper that is 60 volumes thick, but the case is still unsolved.

While D. B. Cooper never had to face any consequences for his crime, the American aviation industry certainly did. Namely, commercial flight safety precautions were amped up considerably through the introduction of metal detectors at airports. The FAA also added other flight rules, and required that modifications be made to the Boeing 727 aircraft. Namely, in 1972, the FAA required that all Boeing 727s be fitted with a wedge called the "Cooper vane" which prevents the rear stairway of an aircraft from being lowered in flight (this was how Cooper was able to skydive off the plane).

To read more about the exploits of D. B. Cooper including copycat crimes after his escape, check out this article at

*This post is for my brother Rick, my source on all things aviation related. Feel free to correct me if I got anything wrong.

[Image via Wikimedia]

Monday, November 23, 2009

Strange Bedfellows - Kevin Costner and JFK Assassination Conspiracy Theories

Yesterday I was thinking about the Kennedy assassination and the ways it has been dealt with in popular culture. It occurred to me that Kevin Costner has mentioned the JFK assassination in two different films. In 1988’s Bull Durham, Kevin Costner’s character gives a speech about things he believes in. At one point in the speech he says, “I believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.”

In 1991, Kevin Costner starred in Oliver Stone’s JFK as New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, a man who became obsessed with discrediting the Warren Commission’s findings. The first time I watched this movie it was hard for me to get past Kevin Costner’s strange attempts at a Southern/Cajun/God knows what kind of accent. The movie also throws a lot of information at the viewer about the assassination and the events that followed. That, along with recreated footage made to look like documentary footage from the assassination, can make the film confusing and worthy of a second viewing. Keeping that in mind, Kevin Costner plays a man who does not believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone (unlike his Bull Durham character). Take a look at one of the tense courtroom scenes from JFK in which Jim Garrison attempts to discredit the “magic bullet” theory and other findings of the Warren Commission.

What does Kevin Costner believe happened? Does anyone care? Is Kevin Costner obsessed with this topic? Will he ever try a southern accent again? Will he ever live down Waterworld? I can’t say. In the meantime, enjoy the trailer to Oliver Stone’s 1991 epic JFK.

[Images via Interview]

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Death of a President- JFK Assassinated

Today in 1963, President John F. Kennedy traveled to Dallas to campaign for re-election. He was riding through the streets of Dallas in an open car with his wife Jacqueline, Governor Connelly of Texas and the governor’s wife. While approaching the Texas Book Depository building and the waving crowds, the governor’s wife Nellie turned to President Kennedy and said, “Mr. President, you can’t say Dallas doesn’t love you.” As the president acknowledged Mrs. Connelly, the limousine pulled past the Book Depository and shots were fired.

Witnesses claimed they heard three shots, but when pressed later to say where the shots were fired from; there were many different accounts. With this discrepancy among witnesses, a thousand conspiracy theories were born. The Warren Commission, which was formed to determine the person/persons responsible for the assassination, stated that President Kennedy was shot by Lee Harvey Oswald. The commission also believed that Oswald acted alone. One of the major pieces of evidence used by the Warren Commission to examine the assassination was an amateur home movie taken by Abraham Zapruder. Here is a clip of the movie, but please note that it shows the assassination and is extremely graphic.

Some of the records from the Warren Commission were sealed after the investigation, leading many conspiracy theorists to believe that there was a cover-up at work. Due to public pressure, Congress passed the John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992, which stated that all assassination related records should be housed at the National Archives. Feel free to search the online collection at the National Archive site.

When many people talk about the Kennedy assassination, they often talk about where they were when they heard the news and their own horror at seeing images of a president being gunned down. Others remember the seemingly impossible site of Mrs. Kennedy standing next to Lyndon Johnson as he took his oath of office while still wearing the pink suit covered in her husband’s blood. In addition to sensory reactions to that day in our history, many grieve for what might have been. Namely, many question whether Kennedy would have led the country as swiftly into the Vietnam War as the Johnson administration did. Whether or not there is any merit to these claims, November 22nd will continue to be a sad day in our nation’s history.

On November 22, 1963, President Kennedy was scheduled to deliver what is now known as his Trade Mart speech. Here is a quotation from his speech that went undelivered:

The United States is a peaceful nation. And where our strength and determination are clear, our words need merely to convey conviction, not belligerence. If we are strong, our strength will speak for itself. If we are weak, words will be of no help.

[Images via Cache and upi]

Thursday, November 19, 2009

These Dead Shall Not Have Died in Vain – Lincoln Delivers the Gettysburg Address

On November 19, 1863, Abraham Lincoln delivered one of the most famous speeches in American history. Lincoln was invited to attend the consecration of a cemetery for the Union war dead. For the occasion, he was asked to provide a “few appropriate remarks,” by David Wills, the man charged by the Pennsylvania governor to clean up the aftermath of the battle of Gettysburg.
Wills also asked Edward Everett, a famous orator, to offer remarks at the ceremony. Famously, Everett went on for over two hours before Lincoln spoke. After Everett finally retired, Lincoln rose and delivered what many considered at the time to be an all too brief speech. What is enduring about that ceremony are not the two hours worth of oratory provided by Everett, which have now been forgotten. Instead, generations of Americans have honored how much Lincoln was able to say about that moment in our nation’s history with so few words. First, he honored the dead who had given their lives in the civil war. Beyond that, he also hinted at what his vision of a post- war America might be like, calling for a “new birth of freedom.”
Lincoln served as his own speechwriter. My esteem for him as president only grows when I think that he not only handled the incredible difficulty of governing during the war with grace, but still managed to write words that make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up one hundred and forty-six years later. I always think the power of great speeches is evident when we hear them read aloud, so I have attached a reading of the Gettysburg Address.

Check out an online exhibit on the Gettysburg Address at the
Library of Congress.

[Images via
Library of Congress]

Tricky Dicky Might Not Be So Tricky.....New Forensic Technology Might Unlock Missing 18 1/2 Minutes on the Watergate Tapes

Today's New York Times has an article about a forensic team that has been hired by the National Archives and Library of Congress to examine notes taken by Nixon's chief of staff H. R. Haldeman during a meeting with Nixon in the White House on June 20, 1972. This meeting occurred only three days after Nixon campaign workers were arrested for breaking into the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate complex. Their conversation was erased from the Watergate Tapes before they were surrendered by Nixon to the special prosecutor. Haldeman's notes are believed to be the only surviving record of the meeting. The forensic team will study the notes to see if anything was erased that might have been damaging to the president. I will be curious to read their findings.

Check out the NY Times article here.

[Image via AOL]

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Steamboat Willie!

On November 18, 1928, Steamboat Willie featuring Mickey Mouse debuted at New York’s 79th Street Theater. The film was one of the earliest cartoons to feature post -production sound. The title Steamboat Willie is a parody of the Buster Keaton film Steamboat Bill, Jr. Supposedly, Steamboat Willie was played ahead of a film called Gang War when it debuted at the 79th Street Theater. The Disney film was an instant success while Gang War has been lost to history. Anyone know anything about this film?
In the years since its debut, Steamboat Willie has met with some censorship requests due to scenes which show cruelty to animals. (Watch for yourself here and tell me what you think). In some scenes, Mickey Mouse swings a cat over his head and later plays a pig and her young like a xylophone. Despite these scenes, the film has been selected for preservation by the National Film Registry, which is a part of the Library of Congress.
Follow the link above to watch the film in its entirety. (The film has been the subject of major copyright disputes, and I don’t want to mess with Disney)

[Image via

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Love Me Tender - Elvis Presley Makes His Movie Debut

On November 15, 1956, Elvis Presley made his movie debut in Love Me Tender. Elvis starred as Clint Reno, a man who stays home from the Civil War to take care of his mother. When his brothers return from the war after fighting for the confederacy, they discover that Clint has married one of their girlfriends. This creates some awkwardness as we all might imagine. Added to this awkwardness is the fact that Clint’s brothers rob a train on their way home from the war, and so they become fugitives from the law. How does Elvis deal with this? Well, from the looks of the trailer below, with singing and hip shaking. Enjoy this trailer which shows Elvis’ first foray into film.

Elvis would go on to act in 31 total films. Some have criticized his movies as being a distraction from his music career, which made it easier for him to be marginalized in 1960’s. However, I think it’s important to note that he made it acceptable for other artists after him to branch out into film as another avenue in which to promote their music. Elvis made Love Me Tender in 1956 which helped promote his single of the same name and others songs from the film. Similarly, the Beatles made A Hard Day’s Night in 1964, which helped promote their album of the same name. What’s interesting is that the Beatles made a film in which they starred as themselves parodying their own fame. Elvis entered the film world by trying to disappear into a B grade period film – while maintaining his signature hairdo and wiggle. I’ve never seen this movie but now I would be curious to watch it just to see how it all works (or if it works at all).

[Image via streamingoldies]

Monday, November 9, 2009

Can You Tell Me How to Get to Sesame Street? Happy 40th Anniversary Sesame Street!

Today marks the 40th Anniversary of one of the greatest streets in the United States – Sesame Street. Generations of kids (myself included) have learned to read and count on Sesame Street. We all grew up with our favorite residents and tuned in each day to see what they were up to, not realizing how much we were learning at the same time. Who were your favorite characters?

When Sesame Street first aired on November 10, 1969 it was met with critical praise from the start. The show used Jim Henson’s muppets, along with animation and live actors to capture the attention of children long enough to teach them something. Not only did the show address early education skills like reading and writing, it also tackled a myriad of other skills and topics from how to cross the street safely to understanding different emotions. Sesame Street also covered events in American history and the idea of democracy with great humor. Below are some clips from Sesame Street’s long history. The final clips show the Street’s depiction of events in American history. Here’s to another 40 years on Sesame Street!

Here is Big Bird from Sesame Street’s first season in 1969

Cookie Monster singing about something we both love…cookies

Sesame Street also tackled American history…as only they could

Besides teaching Kids of all ages about reading and writing, Sesame Street also taught kids about Democracy. Watch as the muppets teach kids about voting.

What would a series of Sesame Street clips be without a glimpse of the most famous muppet of them all- Kermit the Frog. Here is Kermit reporting from the scene of the Boston Tea Party (where he helps clear up some confusion).

[Image via applescoop]

Monday, November 2, 2009

"I have to worry because I could be defeated" - President Kennedy on the 1960 Presidential Election

Tonight on NBC Nightly News, Brian Williams introduced a never before heard audio clip of President Kennedy in the oval office discussing a possible coup in Vietnam just as United States involvement in the war was escalating. I wasn’t able to find that clip to share, but I did find another Kennedy clip which is more appropriate to share on the eve of elections across the country. On January 5, 1960, then Senator Kennedy and his wife attended a dinner party at the home of friends. After dinner, the host pulled out a tape recorder and asked Kennedy if they could talk about his entry into politics, his own feelings about the 1960 presidential election, and his health. As a result, we have this gem of a recording, which shows Kennedy as a vulnerable candidate unsure of his chances in the presidential election. He even worries how he will start over at the age of 45 should he lose (granted he had a trust fund, but everyone still needs a purpose). Enjoy this audio clip! If you listen closely, you can even hear Kennedy clip his cigar.

Happy almost election day everyone! Get out and vote!

[Image via Independent]

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Tramps Like Us, Baby We Were Born to Runnnnnn – “Born to Run” hits #23 on the charts.

Today in 1975, Bruce Springsteen’s anthem “Born to Run” hit #23 on the charts. Bruce and his infamous E Street Band released the album of the same name on September 6th, and it quickly earned rave reviews. On October 27th, Springsteen appeared simultaneously on the covers of both Time and Newsweek reflecting the commercial and critical success of his latest album, which rocketed to the #3 position on the album chart. Each song on the album was meticulously crafted to shape the narrative of the album as a whole. Born to Run was full of emotions that would come to define Springsteen’s career including desperation, elation, and disillusionment. Springsteen is considered one of the great American songwriters and he frequently explores the meaning of American life, including the idea of the American dream. No where is this more evident than in the lyrics of “Born to Run” when he seems to speak for a generation, “In the day we sweat it out on the streets of a runaway American dream.”

Read more about Bruce Springsteen at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Enjoy this classic performance of “Born to Run” from 1975.

[Image via Rock107]