The Most Surprising President

T.J Stiles gives a warm review to a new edition of the memoirs of President Ulysses Simpson Grant.

Why in the world, you may ask, should I even bother to read the memoirs of a long-dead President?

For one thing, they are the remembrances of one who was there during the four bloodiest years of our history–more there, even, than Lincoln was there.  Grant records what he remembers with meticulous honesty.  He does so not to shock, not to defend his faults or his mistakes, as  so many memoir writers do, but because he wouldn’t dream of doing anything else.  Grant was not the bumbling country bumpkin he was portrayed as on the the old TV series, The Wild Wild West, but he did endure many failures growing up in his personal life.  In plain English, he wasn’t very good at living, and he knew it.  A curious thing may happen when one fails a lot in life:  that man drops the pretense of trying to pretend he’s better than he is and becomes exceptionally straightforward in dealing with himself and others.

That’s what happened to Grant.  Rather than blow his brains out, which is the other major response to failing, he chose instead to find something he could be good at.  That something was, of course, the military.  His choice looks oh, so easy in hindsight to us but it was not.  That choice also looks particularly bloody; and many people who don’t know much about Grant and haven’t read his memoirs will criticize him roundly for it, accusing him of simply being the general who led thousands of Union troops to their deaths.

There are two unassailable responses to that point of view.  The first is that Grant’s straightforward, practical skill at organizing and driving his men likely saved the lives of hundreds of soldiers who would otherwise have been killed by fruitless skirmishes and pointless, drawn-out assaults and retreats.  Recall from history, if you will, that Lincoln had great difficulty finding a general who would actually fight the enemy.  George B. McClellan wouldn’t do it; neither would Joseph Hooker.  Both regarded themselves as Presidential material, and they spent more time keeping themselves alive than harrying the Confederate army.  The second is that, despite Grant’s willingness to engage the enemy at all costs on whatever ground, he was no bloodseeker.  He knew what the fighting was all about.

We have a famous expression in the common parlance:  we say, “War is hell.”  We say it most often in a matter-of-fact way, as if it’s simply an inescapable truism.  We have even said it in a comic way, as if we were listening to Col. Hogan on Hogan’s Heroes sigh about some shennanigans he’s just pulled or escaped from.  But the expression was Grant’s.  He said it; and when he said, “War is hell,” he did not mean either that war was inevitable or that it was a casual affair, to be laughed off.  He said,

“War is hell.  Its glory is all moonshine.  I am sick to death of war.”

Let us pause for a moment over his words.  War is “hell” as the living expression of the metaphorical state of human suffering.  In the Christian tradition (the only tradition in which I have any competence), Protestant thought emphasizes flame and punishment and burning.  The Catholic tradition, thanks to Dante, emphasizes isolation, extended trial and suffering, and eternal separation from God.  The Civil War, with its cannon and musket fire, offered flame on an unprecedented scale.  For the most extraordinary time in our history, it also offered a multitude of examples of those who suffered–severed limbs, wounds that could not be treated because field medics either could not be found or were unavailable or incompetent, all of them men who were separated from help and comfort to a degree that none of them could have imagined four years earlier.  When Grant said, “War is hell,” he meant it literally.  He is one of the few men I can think of who had the right to be so literal.  “Its glory is all moonshine,” he said.  I’ve never tasted moonshine, myself, but I don’t want to.  The usual ingredients–contaminated as they may be by glycol and lead–are powerful and heady at first draught, but ultimately they cause blindness.  Here, I think Grant was suggesting metaphor in the way war makes the soldier feel at first blush but, again, he is more literal than he may appear to be.  Fight it long enough, and war–the extended violence of humans toward each other–will blind us, actually blind us, to its effects:  the destruction of property and land, the waste of lives and resources, the irreparable damage to our psyches.

Grant knew, then, both what his purpose was–to compel Southern surrender and preserve the Union–and the consequences of all his planning.  Less motivated than Lincoln was to deal with slavery and the political consequences of ending it, he was free to act purely as a soldier, and he did so, cutting Confederate supply lines, approving Sherman’s relentless march through Georgia that pushed Southern troops to the sea, and finally breaking the Confederate will to continue the fight.  The struggle cost him a good deal.  He had a migraine on April 9, 1865 at Appomattox Courthouse but, by all accounts, the Southern surrender was handled on both sides with grace and tact.  Few words were spoken that day.  Few were needed.

In one respect, Grant should remind you of one of the most famous Presidents of our own day:  Ronald Reagan.  Like Reagan, Grant ran for President because, well, he’d done everything else there was to do.  Reagan had been the head of the Screen Actors Guild as a Democrat, successfully leading a strike after studio bosses mistakenly thought he was bluffing.  He governed California in the 1960s and 70s as a Republican, and built up a national following by airing  a daily five-minute commentary espousing fiscal and social conservatism.  Like Grant, he was far less foolish and far more straightforward than he was given credit for.  Grant himself was no Lincoln, but he did support African-American civil rights and, by 1869, the nation had become aware of corruption in the process of Reconstruction under President Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s vice-president, who was impeached but not convicted of unlawfully firing Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.  It was thought that Grant’s leadership might prove as effective in government as it was on the battlefield.  In some ways it was, but, like Reagan years later, Grant, though personally honest, was beset by corruption in his administration.  He won two terms, a testament to his popularity and a remarkable feat, considering the problems of putting the Union back together, fighting Indian wars (not his finest hour), and maintaining a stable currency for trade.

Unfortunately, those who are honest expect it of others and they can be hoodwinked and swindled more easily than they should be.  It happened to Grant, and he turned to writing his memoirs as a means of paying his debts.  The throat cancer that eventually killed him in 1885 was just another obstacle, but the fact that Grant’s personal suffering was so visible made the memoirs all the more remarkable.  Samuel Clemens helped him organize, edit, and publish the two volumes, but the language you’ll be reading is all Grant’s.  There is no pomposity anywhere in the books, just a prose that is as quiet and as moving as any set of memoirs we’ve ever had.  The edition that T.J. Stiles reviews is quite likely well worth the price, and the background material and commentary it offers almost certainly illuminating; but I point out that Grant’s memoirs have also been available for years as a free e-text.  Grant himself, touched as he surely would be by the editorial labors of this new edition, would nonetheless favor the simplicity and directness of the e-text, which brings us as close as possible to the man most responsible for ending the first–and, we fervently hope, the last–civil war in our nation’s history.


Snobbery As An Olympic Sport

As Emily Temple points out, tomorrow is the fifty-fifth anniversary of Edward Albee’s scorching domestic play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  To mark the occasion in an offbeat way, Temple has gathered together a selection of Woolf’s finest zingers in order to suggest that, contrary to popular opinion (one of which opinions was mine), we should have been a little afraid of Woolf.

I don’t go in much for insults any more.  I did when I was younger.  The young are always fearless and quick to see the hypocrisy and fear which gives rise to the insult in the first place.  Now, however, thirty-five and forty years on from my callow, judgmental youth, I see at the root of most insults, be they public or private snipes, a cowardice of which we properly ought to be ashamed.

We might infer Woolf’s essential cowardice from the fact that she confined her insults to her diary.  She would never have said many of them face to face.  There’s a snobbery and a pettiness in her attacks upon Katherine Mansfield, a fine short-story writer whose themes touched upon a harder way of English life Woolf barely knew existed; a way of life that supported the way of life that Woolf eventually threw away.

I prefer the manliness of the insults of Woolf’s contemporary, the writer and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, whose jibes had at least a little humor at their core.  As a politician, Churchill was used to receiving insults. . . and giving them.  “If you were my husband,” one outraged woman hissed at him, “I’d offer you a cup of poison.”  Churchill replied, “Madam, if I were your husband, I’d drink it.”  To a rival in Parliament, he once quipped, “You strike me, sir, as a modest man–with much to be modest about.”

Except for the fact that her insults were confined to her private diary, there’s very little difference between the smallness and pettiness of Woolf and that of Roald Dahl, which Temple herself wrote about a few weeks ago.  The difference, though small, is significant.  Dahl wounded and annoyed people in real life, men and women he actually had to work with, to the extent that none of those people wanted to work with him any more.  It is possible, though not likely, that the recipients of Woolf’s barbs may never have known how she felt about them.  T.S. Eliot probably did; I’m not certain about Mansfield.

Yet, should it make a difference if they didn’t know?  “As a woman thinketh, so is she,” Jesus said, and if you think I’m mis-translating his words, you’re ignoring the point.  She that hath ears to hear, let her hear.  Jesus’s point wasn’t that the human conscience always operates like a cop on the beat or the Grim Reaper himself, ready to strike us down at the first horrid thought we have about somebody.  It was, rather, that our thoughts, especially our private ones, ultimately define who we are.  That is why we wrestle with them, revise them, or repudiate them as we live.

There is a contrary view.  The psychologist Willard Gaylin argued in an essay many years ago that our public behavior is what counts.  If a man does nothing but good deeds yet has nothing but vile thoughts, he asked, where is that man bound?  Gaylin answered his own question:  he’s bound for the Kingdom of Heaven.

I suppose Gaylin could be right.  If a man or woman leaves nothing but good deeds by which we can judge him or her, what other judgment can we make but that such a person is good?

Yet, many thinkers and common experience make a different argument.  Our public acts are not the only ones that count.  Our private acts–of the mind, of the body–ultimately seep into our public behavior, and those around us will know how we truly feel.  They will know because our private thoughts, be they petty or outrageously evil, are seldom confined forever to paper or an encrypted file on our desktop.  We confide them, also, to those closest to us.  On one hand, there’s nothing wrong with this:  when we are wrestling with a horrid attitude within, we need our friends and families as sounding boards to work out the difficulty, to see it as others do.  “Am I wrong about this?” we ask them.  “Am I being unfair?”  Those closest to us often simply reinforce our prejudices, but that is not always so.  The best of those closest to us will often help us change our minds about the attitudes and problems that vex us.  It is frequently those closest to us who reveal to others–often without saying a word–how we really feel.  Harvey Weinstein didn’t really have to do or say anything for years:  those around him already knew what a vile, predatory man he was behind closed doors.  The adults in his circle of acquaintances kept their distance from him; yet they could have and should have done much more to warn and protect the women damaged by his pathetic harassment.  There’s now a stain upon Weinstein’s movies–several of which I love–that will be impossible to remove and impossible to ignore.  I am, perhaps naively, aghast at the thought that a few of my dollars have helped to enable his career of lechery as much as the inaction of his friends has.

But friendship works the other way, too.  As we struggle to overcome whatever it is that besets us–an addiction, a prejudice, a fear–our friends are out there, communicating with others as I have described, conveying to them the truth that we may be small and petty and snobby, but we are trying not to be that way as a matter of choice or habit.  It takes little effort to make the expression of our sense of superiority into a monumental game, and everyone will eventually see the results, especially when she who hurls the first remark like a stone gets hit in return by someone with better aim.  It takes a little more effort to see that, beneath our occasional bitter word or our morning frown or our reluctance to help someone, most of us are nonetheless trying to become less small, less confined in the safe spaces of our diaries or a blank, blinking computer screen, and more willing to seek out, and learn from, those different from us in the wider world.


Writing From Memory

My good baseball friend Greg Lucas just tweeted, “It is SO easy to fact check things on the internet there is no reason for anyone to post anything from “memory.”

In relation to statistical data, Lucas’s claim is largely valid.  The closer we get to the interpretation of historical or current events, the challenge becomes more complex and the less useful the Internet becomes.  It is also wise to remember that there might be circumstances when necessary information is unavailable to us.

Back during World War II, the European scholar Erich Auerbach wrote Mimesis, a groundbreaking study of the representation of reality in Western literature from Homer to the modern world.  He did so mostly from memory, as access to the great libraries of Germany, France, and England was cut off by the Axis and Allied armies.  To read Mimesis and realize that Auerbach is quoting ancient and medieval literature from memory is also to realize what a tremendous instrument–both splendidly accurate and frustratingly fallible–the human brain is.  There must have been periods during the writing when Auerbach was completely relaxed, in almost a transcendental state as the memories flooded in, although, Lord knows, those periods must also have been hard to come by as the bombs fell and the bullets flew.

Auerbach was of a student generation raised up on memory, too.  Without doubt, he memorized poems in school, and probably large chunks of ancient literature, as well.  Many of his contemporaries did.  C.S. Lewis could recite whole sections of Beowulf in Old English without dropping a line.  To be sure, students do memorize literature today, also, but most of them are shocked to get the assignment.  “What’s wrong with you guys?” their teachers retort.  “What are you going to do in twenty years when you don’t have the books?”

The students will laugh and groan, but Auerbach’s book proves the point.  There have been times when access to the cultural riches of a continent has been denied, and those times may come again in the future.  In such situations, the only recourse we will have is to rely on our memories.  The only scholars to whom we can turn will be those who have the riches of literature and history stored in their heads.  It is those men and women who will do battle against those who would wipe out history itself by erasing it or rewriting it.  Auerbach’s finest book was written against the backdrop of a sadistic and cruel German army dedicated to wiping out the entire Jewish race.

Not just scholars function on memory, either.  Rumors had persisted for years about Thomas Jefferson’s liaison with Sally Hemmings but I, being a skeptic about the value of human memory, did not believe them.  Descendants of Hemmings would get up during meetings of the Jefferson Association and claim that there were stories in their family going back generations about the affair, only to be shouted down.  Turns out, based on DNA evidence, their claims were true all along.  The oral histories of Civil War slavery collected in the 1930s from slaves and the families of slaves were largely recollections from memory.  To the degree that such memories can be verified by sources whose accuracy no one wishes to contest, the recollections are essential to us; but the memory of them has to be there in the first place.  The willingness to remember must burn inside of us, and we must keep that flame alight as long as possible–for generations, if that’s what it takes.

A great deal of Books Here And There is written every day largely from memory.  I quote from novels and from non-fiction, to be sure, but during the writing of every post I am ransacking my brain, trying to remember some good book from my past or my present, because many of the books I have loved are stored away, and out of reach.  In a small and quite insignificant way, I know how Auerbach felt.  It is easier for me to fact check now than it was for him but, in relation to the interpretation of literature and reality, the two of us are in the same boat, on the same sea, trying to recall the landmarks we were taught to recognize years ago.

We live (or at least I do) in a generation less skilled at using memory (memory, not memorization), and my generation was less skilled than the one before it.  Such a situation makes me wonder what will happen to us if and when the great electronic storehouse of data upon which all of us now depend is threatened.  All books depend upon the memory of the man or woman writing them; yet, without a trained memory, the willingness to exercise our faculty to recall facts and their meanings, what are we going to do during the next war, when an electromagnetic pulse wipes out that storehouse, and we are left with no present and no past that we can remember?


Jill Ker Conway

It’s the birthday of Jill Ker Conway,  born in 1934, an academic at the University of Toronto, past President of Smith College in Massachusetts, and the author of three moving volumes of autobiography:  The Road From Coorain (1989), True North (1994), and A Woman’s Education (2001).

All of these books–all of them–ought to be read by every woman as soon as possible.  There is no such thing as universal experience in human affairs, but Conway’s life, and the things she had to endure in order to create that life, strike deep resonances within the lives of many women all over the world.  To read of her struggles, especially the internal and external battles she had with her mother, is to read of the life of a kindred spirit to most of us, and to gain a glimpse of how we ourselves might create such a life.

Conway’s books also warmly invite men to read and ponder the lives of striving women.  For all the emotional scars that Conway’s upbringing left on her, particularly from women, her books are dotted with the thoughtful encouragement of men:  her father, who, during his daughter’s childhood, uttered the crucial words, “Don’t just put time in upon this Earth, Jill.  Do something”;  Bob Kiely, a family friend who offered without reservation support and home-cooked meals during a hospital stay by John Conway; and, of course, John Conway himself, Jill’s husband, a Master at Harvard College, and a man so thoughtful and considerate that Jill Conway knew almost instantly upon meeting him that he was a man who would never dream of entering a relationship with a woman in order to dominate her.  He proposed to her during hurricane weather in 1963 and, even while dripping wet, Jill Conway figured this was one proposal she dare not say no to.  John Conway, one-armed yet bold and brave, died in 1995, and he remains to this day one of the figures in Dr. Conway’s world I long to know more about.

I link you to the first of two YouTube videos of a talk Conway gave a few years ago on the subject of “The Next 50 Years.”  It will give you a sense of the vitality of this extraordinary woman.  You’ll find the second video of the talk easily enough; it follows the first.


Willa Cather’s Prairie

Alex Ross pens a long, appreciative essay on Willa Cather, just days before the release of her personal letters to the public.  Those letters will conclusively prove she was a lesbian.  They will also conclusively prove she wasn’t.

That is to say, Cather’s sexuality is important to the people to whom it is important.  It is not important to those people to whom it is not important.  It does not bear upon her writing (not in the way that the Earl of Rochester’s does or Lord Byron’s does), and one would have to make it strain to do so.  The clues that literary scholars already have suggest that Cather neither hid her sexuality nor paraded it publicly; hence, the puzzlement about it among those who really, really, really gotta know.  They may be rewarded with the release of the letters; they may be disappointed; or, they may think the letters have rewarded them when they actually haven’t.  Such is the way of overtly-politicized literary criticism.  If the sexual life of human beings was a major theme in Cather’s work, the letters would be important.  But it isn’t, and they’re not, or are not likely to be.

What they do offer is at least a glimpse into the mind of one of the most lyrical writers of American prose we’ve ever had, including her relationship with Edith Lewis.  Ross’s piece deals with that relationship without defining it one way or the other, yet his essay ranges all over the prairie, and takes us to New Mexico, as well, scene of Death Comes For The Archbishop. 

But it is the area around Red Cloud, Nebraska that matters most.  Cather shaped it and reshaped it over and over again in her stories and books, working it like Faulkner did Yoknapatawpha County in his own books.  Except for one big difference between the two:  what Faulkner means as metaphor (working one’s “postage stamp of soil”), Cather means literally.  The Nebraska prairie becomes a character in all of Cather’s books.  She invented it, really; she discerned the life beneath that soil and connected it to human life as few writers have been able to do.  Pearl Buck did so in The Good Earth, but she did so as an outsider to the culture, and her novel–outstanding as it is–is a one-off.  James Michener’s Centennial and the script for the Coen brothers’ movie Fargo are brilliant works, but they are derivatives of Cather’s original portraiture of the prairie and its people. Sigrid Undset’s novel of medieval Norway, Kristen Lavransdatter, treats the landscape as a character akin to what the Coen brothers do; but Undset’s Nobel Prize for Literature was based mostly on her career as a novelist of modern life.

Cather, on the other hand, returns to the landscape again and again.  It is the source of her strength and the secret of the life of her prose.  Unlike Owen Wister, who invented the Western in The Virginian after visiting the West only as a tourist, Cather was physically and spiritually present in every setting of her novels.  She’s there, with Jim Burden and with us, in everything she writes.  Ross quotes several passages from Cather’s books, and in every one of the quotations, be it a paragraph or a line, he is as enchanted as Cather was, and as I am, with “the great fact of the land” she reveals to us.


Next week, I’ll be in and out, away from my desk occasionally, recharging my batteries on the first vacation I’ve had in a year.  See you soon, and thank you for reading and encouraging me with your comments.


Living Among The Playmates

In March of 1990, I bought my first Playboy magazine.  Playmate Lisa Matthews was Miss April that year, and her pictorial is still one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.  I bought the magazine because I had just broken up with a woman I cared about and needed to remind myself that there was, in fact, some beauty still left in the world.  I became a subscriber to the magazine shortly thereafter and, later, to the online Playboy website, a relationship that lasted until 2005 when the webmaster and I had a dispute over my subscription and I ended it.

My encounter with Lisa Matthews was by no means the first time I’d seen the magazine.  A sister of mine had some lying around her house in our younger days.  Patti McGuire was the centerfold of note back then, around 1979 or so.  Her beach pictures were lovely and erotic.  It was easy to see why she would go on to marry Jimmy Connors, the great tennis player.   But the subscription allowed me to enter the Playboy world indirectly for a long time, and I enjoyed the experience.  Everybody giggles when they say, “Well, the interviews in the magazine are great,” or “the book review of that in Playboy was thoughtful,” but it really is true:  the interviews were great.  Even at this distance, I can remember first-rate ones with the news team of MacNeil-Lehrer, Mel Gibson, Bill Gates, and dozens of others.  The book reviewers, led by Digby Diehl and Alice K. Turner, pointed me in the direction of many fine books, including Turner’s own The History of Hell, a fascinating look at you-know-where down through the centuries.  Much of my CD collection was built on recommendations I picked up from Playboy, including Revival, by Gillian Welch, and The Secret of Life, by Gretchen Peters, the latter of which is just excellent.

Although I also fondly remember Kerri Kendall (from September of 1990) and Samantha Dorman and Stephanie Adams and Jenny McCarthy and a host of others, the subscription to the website allowed me access to the Playmates of the 1960s and early 1970s, women I’d never seen before or heard of.  In every way, I came to prefer the women who posed in the 1960s to every other group.  Playboy pioneered the illusion of movement and energy among its models at that time, placing them in everyday settings:  the beach, the home, the office.  Although photographs of scantily-clad (or unclad) women bent over or reclining in such settings were to become the material for stand-up comedy routines from performers like Rita Rudner for the next twenty years, Playboy‘s alteration of photographic style was quite real, and noted by serious photographers all over the globe.  The static, frozen figures of the fugitive magazines of the 1940s disappeared.  However controversial nude photography was in the 1950s and 60s (and it was controversial), Playboy took it forever out of the realm of smut photography and placed it far nearer the realm of art house nudes.  And the magazine did it every month.  Hefner realized there was a market for such photography and for a men’s magazine that ranged beyond the limited scope of the gun magazines, fishing magazines, and sports magazines that had begun to dominate newsstands.  He had to buy a lot of his early photographs.  Several of the women who posed in the first issues of the magazine were simply his friends.  But Hefner had drive, and he had time.  He knew, even in 1953, that tastes in post-WWII America were changing, and values were changing, too.  If he could survive the first few years, the magazine would eventually prosper.

The girls were different in the 1960s, too.  A few, a very few, were troubled by drugs or committed suicide (Sue Williams and Susan Denberg are two that come to mind; there were others) but, by and large, the lucky women chosen to be Centerfold of the Month handled their money differently from those of a later generation.  They took their Centerfold prize money and made a down payment on a house; or they went to college; or they bought their parents a car.  The two-year contract they signed with Playboy upon being named the Centerfold obligated them to make personal appearances at car shows or towns like “Bumfuck, KS” (which Playmates like Gillian Bonner, April, 1996, didn’t want to do, which is why she was passed over for Playmate of the Year), but it also enabled them to save and gave them an entree into the world of business and entertainment, if they wanted it.

All of that began to change by the mid 1990s.  The women were all business types just doing the layouts.  They were still beautiful, but their beauty had a hard, brittle edge to it.  Playboy always sold the idea of ethereal beauty, but by the 90s, subscribers knew they were being soldDespite occasional eye-popping excellence in its production (the March, 1992 cover, featuring Anna Nicole Smith, was one of the most elegant Playboy has ever done), there was no freshness to the magazine, and other photographic outlets were catching up to it.

Playboy had an army of lawyers at its command twenty-four hours a day.  One might think their principal job in the 1950s and 60s was to defend Hugh Hefner’s corporation against charges of indecency, and the lawyers did just that.  But their real job, the one they took most pride in, was guarding the copyrighted work of photographers like Pompeo Posar, Stephen Wayda, and Arny Freytag.  The Playboy police were everywhere, even on the Internet, shutting down copyright infringements wherever they found them.  But the efforts weren’t enough.  If the recent decision of Playboy to go non-nude in its American publications can be traced to one development, it is the reality that piracy of its images on the web could not be controlled.  And a second development is that digital photography on the web, featuring a wealth of subscription nude sites, finally became comparable to and, in some cases, surpassed, the work Playboy was doing.

As for life in Hefner’s mansions, there was the occasional peek inside offered to us by Bob Greene of the Chicago Tribune or a book like The Playmate Book, edited by Gretchen Edgren, but we all knew we were missing something:  the reality–whatever it was–was both less and more than we could see.  By and large, the women who lived there–the centerfolds and the models who appeared in Playboy‘s various magazines–were protected from the outside world.  They worked, but they also did what they wanted, whenever they wanted.  Hefner treated them as adults, even if they weren’t.  That means that if the girls got into trouble of any kind, they usually brought it upon themselves.

This is not to absolve Hefner of all responsibility or to say he never got into trouble himself.  Married two times and the principal object of several love triangles years before anybody at the E network ever thought up The Girls Next Door, Hefner wounded a lot of women who actually loved him a great deal, particularly Karen Christy (a Playmate) and Barbi Benton (not a Playmate, but a girlfriend) in the 1970s.  He hobnobbed with everybody worth knowing at the Mansion for decades, but the one relationship that, speaking strictly for myself, I wish he never had was his relationship with Bill Cosby.  It disgusts me just to imagine the enabling behavior Hefner must have engaged in, even if he was never directly involved with Cosby’s sexual harassment of women over the years.

That said, Hefner’s own view (and this is more true than false) was that the Mansion was “a house of love.”  And so it often was.  (In addition, a place where you can get a meal or go for a swim anytime you want can’t be all bad.)

In the end, Hefner, who died yesterday at the age of ninety-one, will be remembered most for the photography he pioneered.  He brought human sexuality out in the open, rescuing it from the dark corners into which it had been swept by religion and moral codes for centuries, and showed it to be what it actually is–a natural part of life, to be engaged in and enjoyed unafraid and unashamed.  The sexual revolution of which he was a part was as imperfect as any other revolution we’ve ever had in this world, but it did some good, too.  It allowed all of us to see each other as the full human beings we are, with our sexuality visible and active.  It stripped away some of the mystery of sex in order to allow us to move forward together as men and women more fully in charge of our bodies, toward the far more important mysteries of living, loving, and working together in the future.


Life Is Different From Fiction

As if you didn’t already know, here’s reason # 54,271 that life is different from fiction:  Rose Leslie and Kit Harrington from television’s Game of Thrones have announced their engagement.

This is not hot news–fans of the show have known for quite some time that the pair have been dating–but it is happy news.  Leslie’s wildling character, Ygritte, was Jon Snow’s lover in the books and on the show, and the depiction of their love in the books was the sweetest, most passionate affair in a book series notable for its darkness and despair about the human condition.  Ygritte dies in both the series and the books and is mourned by Jon; but, clearly, the chemistry between Leslie and Harrington indicated there might be something more substantial lurking beneath the surface.  Such has been known to happen, and I hope their union lasts.

Jon Snow has survived, as we know, to become the lover of Danerys Targaryen, itself a sweet, if too conventional, turn of the plot.  It remains to be seen if Jon will ever learn of his status as a claimant to the Iron Throne and how he will react to it.  It also remains to be seen how long the Jon-Dany relationship will last.  Being a sentimentalist at heart, I’m fond of honestly-won love, but I thought the Jon-Dany relationship last season was a bit rushed, too predictable and, most crucially, not in keeping with the dark tone of the books or the TV series.  If the producers and writers are to keep faith with the books and with the prior spirit of the show, at least one of these two is due a heartbreaking end when GOT‘s final season unfolds in 2018 or 2019.

In the meantime, we can hope that Leslie–who’s been part of two greatly-successful television series in Downton Abbey and Game of Thrones–and Harrington–whose acting ability has improved enough during the last seven seasons to completely win me over in support of his role as Jon Snow (I’ve often wondered what would have happened if Richard Madden had played Jon, and Harrington had played Robb Stark)–will live a long and happy life together.  It won’t be easy, especially if the two of them must commit to on-screen love relationships down the road in their careers, but it can be done.  And their impending union comes at a time when unabashedly good news in the media is kinda hard to find.