Monthly Archives: June 2012

The Vicious Circle

My first pilgrimage to the Algonquin, 1983

A)  “In America there are two classes of travel — first class, and with children.”

B)  “_______ is his own worst enemy.”  “Not as long as I’m alive.”

C)  “All the things I really like to do are either immoral, illegal, or fattening.”

D)  “That woman speaks eighteen languages and can’t say ‘no’ in any of them.”

Witticisms like these were the currency of a group known as The Algonquin Round Table, although they referred to themselves as The Vicious Circle.

Robert Benchley (A), Franklin P. Adams (B), Alexander Woollcott (C), Dorothy Parker (D) and several other writers started having lunch together at New York’s Algonquin Hotel in 1919.  They convened there almost every day for the next ten years.  The owner gave them free celery and popovers, but I’m pretty sure that wasn’t what kept them coming back.

Woollcott, Adams and Harold Ross had met during World War I while working on Stars and Stripes, a military newspaper.  Benchley, Mrs. Parker and playwright Robert Sherwood were colleagues at Vanity Fair.  Others were included, and before long the luncheon group on any given day could be 20 or more.

The owner of the Algonquin, Frank Case, installed a big round table in the Rose Room (the hotel’s main dining room) and it was reserved for the group; outsiders could sit at other tables and eavesdrop. 

As columnists like “FPA” (Adams) and Heywood Broun quoted their pals and reported on their exploits, the group’s fame grew.  If  you’ve ever wondered how so many of the witty remarks attributed to Round Table members got recorded for posterity — that’s how.  It stands to reason, though, that a lot of verbal gems got lost simply because they weren’t heard.  With that many clever conversationalists trying to top one another, the Rose Room must have been noisy — and when everyone is talking, who’s listening?

One who listened was Harold Ross, who founded The New Yorker magazine in 1925 and recruited several of his round Table friends to come to work for him.  He rented office space in a building in the next block up from the Algonquin; if nothing else, his employees didn’t have far to walk after their long lunches.

Those multi-hour sessions may have cost the participants time that could have been put to more productive use.  Some — like Benchley, Dorothy Parker and Alexander Woollcott — are mostly remembered now when one of their quips shows up in a magazine or newspaper under a heading like “Wit & Wisdom”.  Others — Robert Sherwood, Edna Ferber, Ring Lardner — established more lasting reputations.

Soon after the Great Depression hit, the Algonquin Round Table dispersed.  Out-of-towners and other visitors took their places at the big table in the Rose Room; the clever remarks were gone, and so was the raucous laughter.

Over 50 years later I took my family on a sort of pilgrimage to the Algonquin, because I was an admirer of much of the writing the Round Table members had done.  We ate in the Rose Room, but none of us said anything clever enough to deserve publication.  In fact, I don’t think I said much of anything; I was busy imagining the group that had once been there, and hearing echoes.

Let Your Eyes Ascend

Sistine Chapel Ceiling (detail) — Vatican Museums


It had never before occurred to me that the sound that demands silence is understood in all languages.  A guard in the Sistine Chapel was enforcing the No Talking rule and hundreds of tourists instantly complied — for a few seconds.  Then the buzz  began again, as we all stared in amazement at one of history’s monumental artistic achievements.

Michelangelo rightly considered himself more of a sculptor than a painter, which is one reason he was reluctant to accept the commission (demand) of Pope Julius II to come to Rome and paint the ceiling of this building.  It had originally been built in the 1470s at the behest of Pope Sixtus IV.  The involvement of Sixtus is why it’s known as the Sistine Chapel, in case you were wondering.

The building had undergone some renovations due to structural flaws; Michelangelo started in on the new ceiling in 1508.  There were problems:  For one thing, he had relatively little experience with fresco.  That technique involves applying paint to wet plaster, so the artist and his assistants had to estimate how much plaster they thought they could paint before the surface dried.

Another issue was even more basic:  How do you work on a large horizontal surface that is 60 feet above the floor?  The easiest approach would have been to build scaffolding towers, but the pope and cardinals wanted the floor to be clear so they could continue holding their meetings in the chapel.

Michelangelo figured out a way to bolt the scaffolding into the side walls; he and his assistants climbed up to their perch and did that marvelous work while leaning backward.  The first half of the ceiling — the eastern side — was completed in 1510.

When that scaffolding was taken down, Michelangelo was dissatisfied with the result.  There were too many figures in the panels, he felt; from the floor they appeared small.  When you visit the Sistine Chapel, you’ll notice that the figures in the other end, starting with the iconic “Creation of Adam”, are larger.

You’ll also notice that it’s not easy to find a spot from which to view the ceiling; you have to tip your head back to the point of toppling over.  Other tourists around you are pointing up to the ceiling, a gesture that I felt was unnecessary.  Seriously — if you’re in the Sistine Chapel, you really don’t need to be shown that there are paintings on the ceiling.

There are also paintings on the walls, including some by eminent artists like Boticelli and Ghirlandaio, who was Michelangelo’s teacher.  By far the most impressive wall painting, though, is the massive “Last Judgment” behind the altar on the west end, which took Michelangelo several more years to complete.  In total, he did over 12,000 square feet of fresco in the Sistine Chapel.  When you see it you can’t help but exclaim, in spite of the guards’ best efforts to shush you.

If you’re planning a visit, it’s helpful to know that in addition to the prohibition against talking, no photography is permitted in the Sistine Chapel.  And, as the website of the Vatican Museums says, access to the Sistine Chapel “is permitted only to visitors dressed appropriately.”  In other words, they won’t admit people who are exposing shoulders or knees into a room full of paintings of naked saints and sinners.

Talking Trash

It’s out there… circling…

From things I’ve read about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, I pictured a huge island of beer cans and disposable lighters and tires.  It’s the size of Texas, some reports say, while others have it twice the size of Texas.  For some reason, Texas always seems to get dragged into this comparison.

That’s unfair to the Lone Star State for several reasons, not least of which is that no one knows how big that concentration of marine debris really is.  There are no panoramic pictures of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch from aircraft or satellites, because it’s not the big blanket of trash on the ocean’s surface that I had imagined it to be.

Oh, there’s plenty of junk out there, but most of it is small bits of plastic debris — poisonous confetti.  A lot of it is floating just below the surface, making a sort of underwater haze that is not visible from above.

There are certainly areas within the garbage patch that have tangles of fishing nets and bleach bottles and ice chests, but the edges of the entire patch are not clearly defined.  Now, here are some short answers to questions that occurred to me about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch…

Where is it?  It’s in what scientists call the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone, and has accumulated there due to the circular currents of the North Pacific Gyre.  That clears it up, right?  OK, let’s put it this way — there are a couple of distinct patches of trash.  The Eastern one is about halfway between California and Hawaii; the Western one is swirling between Japan and Hawaii.  Heads up, Hawaii!

What is it?  As mentioned above, there is an assortment of crud, most of which is plastic.  It was once in the form of grocery bags or drink cups or pill containers or water bottles; this junk degrades into smaller pieces, but doesn’t lose its toxicity.  Small marine organisms ingest it, then fish consume them.  Eventually that polyethylene terephelate works its way up the food chain, winding up in your fish-and-chips dinner.

How did it get there?  Some of it comes from recreational boaters and other vessels — cargo ships drop thousands of containers into the sea each year, and cruise ships dump tons of solid waste every week.  But the vast majority of ocean garbage — something like 80% — started on land.  Wind and rivers and storm drains carry it to the coast and into the sea.

No one is blaming you personally, because you’re very conscientious about recycling, but a lot of people aren’t.  According to, about 3 million tons of plastic are used to bottle water worldwide.  Unfortunately, a lot of those bottles find their way into the ocean, and a lot of bottle caps find their way into fish and birds.

What can we do about it?  There’s really no way to vacuum up the stuff that’s already out there.  As the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration points out, “straining ocean water for plastics… would capture the plankton that are the base of the marine food web and responsible for 50% of the photosynthesis on earth.” 

For now, the best we can do is to not add to the problem; get your friends to be as good about recycling those water bottles as you are.  By the way, a garbage patch has also formed in the Atlantic Ocean —  it may not be the size of Texas yet, but it’s a whole lot bigger than Rhode Island.  And growing.

What Are the Geneva Conventions?

In a sense, the Geneva Conventions are now located here in New York.

We usually think of conventions as gatherings of people who have a common interest, such as partisan politics, genealogy, or the TV show Star Trek.  They get together to wear name tags, slap each other on the back, argue, pass resolutions, and get so drunk that they throw up on their shoes.

That is the, uh, conventional use of the word convention, but it has several other senses, including the one that applies to the Geneva Conventions.  Webster’s Dictionary defines it as “an international agreement, esp. one dealing with a specific matter.”

The specific matter that the Geneva Conventions address is what might be called humane rules for warfare.  I know that sounds ironic, like the famous line from the movie Dr. Strangelove:  “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here, this is the War Room!”

They were, in fact, a series of international treaties, the first of which was formulated in 1864 at a diplomatic conference organized by the Swiss Parliament.  Representatives of twelve countries had assembled in Geneva, Switzerland, which is not nearly as popular a convention city as Las Vegas or Chicago.

Geneva happened to be the home of a man named Henri Dunant, who was so appalled by battlefield conditions he had seen that he was instrumental in founding the International Red Cross.  Dunant and the Red Cross pushed for rules to be established that would provide treatment for wounded soldiers and protect civilians who rendered aid to the wounded on the battlefield.

The second treaty, which applied to wounded, sick and shipwrecked naval personnel, was adopted in 1906.  A third convention was added in 1929; it has to do with the humane treatment of prisoners of war.  The fourth Geneva Convention was adopted in 1949 following World War II, when the first three conventions were widely ignored by the belligerents.

The fourth convention expanded upon the principles of the first three, and added protections for civilians who get caught up in warfare.  Among other things, it forbids taking hostages, torture, and discrimination in treatment on the basis of race, religion or nationality.

Since then, there have been protocols (amendments) added to the four basic Geneva Conventions.  The most recent, enacted in 2005, has to do with the symbols worn by medical personnel.  In addition to the traditional Red Cross or Red Crescent, this protocol adopts the Red Crystal emblem, which looks sort of like the diamond suit in a deck of cards.

Personnel wearing any of those symbols are supposed to be considered neutral and therefore not targets.  By the way, if combatants try to mislead the enemy by wearing one of the protective symbols, that is considered a war crime.

Enforcement of the Geneva Conventions is delegated to the United Nations Security Council, but as we have seen, that group has trouble agreeing on anything, including a comfortable temperature for the air conditioning in their chamber.  In spite of that, almost 200 countries are signatories to all or most of the provisions of the Geneva Conventions.

Unfortunately, the protections embodied in the Conventions don’t seem to have abated the universal popularity of warfare:  Since the first one was enacted in 1864, over 150 million people have died in armed conflicts or their direct consequences.

Women’s Work

Madame Vigee Le Brun and Her Daughter (self-portrait, 1789) — Le Louvre, Paris

From antiquity until about the 19th century, the involvement of women in art might be summarized as “clothing optional”.  Women mostly served as models, expected to maintain their dignity even while holding ridiculous poses.

Creating art was considered to be the province of men; for the most part, women were not permitted to hold a palette or a chisel.  There were some exceptions down through the centuries — there were indeed women who established themselves as artists — but unless you were an Art History major, you’ve probably never heard of any of them.

So let’s start by giving some credit to a man, a relatively minor painter named Orazio Gentileschi, who recognized and encouraged his daughter’s talent way back in the early 17th century.  Artemisia Gentileschi painted in the Baroque style to great effect.  Trust me — if you’re wandering through the Uffizi Gallery in Florence and come across her painting called “Judith Slaying Holofernes”, you’ll stop and say “Whoa!”  Her contemporaries (men) acknowledged the quality of her work; Artemisia was the first woman accepted into the Florence Art Academy, which was a big deal.

You’ll see Artemisia Gentileschi’s name in art books, but if you come across the name Le Brun at all, it usually refers to Charles Le Brun.  King Louis XIV called him “the greatest French artist of all time,” an assessment that now seems as over-the-top as Louis’s pet project, Versailles. 

The Le Brun I find interesting, however, is Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (her husband’s great uncle was Charles Le Brun).  Elisabeth’s father was an artist of no repute, but he taught her a bit about painting before he died of complications from choking on a fishbone. 

Her mother subsequently married a jeweler in 1768 and the family moved into a neighborhood near the Royal Palace in Paris.  Elisabeth got to know her aristocratic neighbors, and they got to know her work.  By the age of 15, she was making good money painting their portraits.

That brought her to the attention of authorities who threatened her with arrest for painting without a license.  Makes you wonder what one had to do to qualify for an artist’s license, doesn’t it?  And were the ID pictures on artist’s licenses as awful as the pictures on driver’s licenses are now?

Well, let’s jump ahead to 1778, when Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun painted a portrait of the queen, Marie Antoinette.  Over the next several years, Elisabeth was commissioned to paint something like 30 portraits of Marie Antoinette, and lots more of other members of the nobility.

Then the French Revolution happened.

Madame Vigée Le Brun got out of France with her head still attached and continued painting aristocrats in other European cities.  She eventually returned to Paris, where she died in 1842.

To be honest, I’m not a big fan of her work, which is in the Rococo style.  As I may have mentioned before, the fussy sentimentality of Rococo tends to trigger my gag reflex.  In spite of that, I admire the technical skill with which she handled her brushes, and I think it’s worth calling attention to artists like Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, whose success helped open doors for generations of women artists who followed.