Sunday, November 27, 2011

Janis Joplin writes to her parents ...

The unmistakably voice of blues singer Janis Joplin, so filled with raw emotion, was silenced with her demise from a heroin overdose in 1970. Only 27 at death, the Port Arthur, Texas native – who attended school there with t.v. football commentator and former NFL coach Jimmy Johnson and actor G. W. Bailey – had struggled with substance abuse, particularly alcohol, for years. Her addictions became so threatening in 1966 that her friends in San Francisco, where she lived, successfully encouraged her to return to her hometown in Texas to get a better grip on her life. There, she was able to avoid alcohol and other drugs, entered college, and sometimes went to Austin to perform alone. But soon, the appeal of the life she had led in California became too much, and on one trip to Austin, she continued on to San Francisco, one of many episodes that filled her short life as chronicled in Alice Echols’ book Scars of Sweet Paradise: The Life and Times of Janis Joplin.

Upon arriving in California in mid-1966, Joplin wrote to her parents, in an effort to explain her move to them. Published in the book Letters of the Century: America 1900-1999, edited by Lisa Grunwald and Stephen J. Adler, the letter begins:  “Mother & Dad, With a great deal of trepidation, I bring the news. I’m in San Francisco. Now let me explain – when I got to Austin, I talked to ... who gave me a spiel about my singing w/ a band out here.” And later,“I’m sure you’re both concerned about my self-destructive streak has won out again but I’m really trying. I do plan on coming back to school – unless, I must admit, this turns out to be a good thing.” And in the final paragraph, “I’m awfully sorry to be such a disappointment to you. I understand your fears at my coming here & must admit that I share them, but I really do think there’s an awfully good chance I won’t blow it this time.” ... "And please believe that you can't possibly want for me to be a winner more than I do."

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Scopes "Monkey" Trial ... behind the scenes (Part 3)

The bizarre nature of the Scopes Trial, which was documented so well by Edward J. Larson in his book Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion, seemed to follow some of the main participants after the proceedings.

  • Only five days after the trial, prosecution team member William Jennings Bryan was in Dayton, Tennessee. He died in his sleep as he napped on a Sunday afternoon, about a year before the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled on the appeal of John Scopes’ conviction. Bryan was 65 at death.
  • Defense team member Clarence Darrow retired from full-time practice after the Scopes Trial, but later suffered financial difficulties as a result of the Depression.  Needing money, he came out of retirement in 1932 to defend a group of Anglo-Americans charged with the murder of a Japanese-American in Hawaii’s infamous Massie Trial (see David E. Stanner’s book Honor Killing: How the Infamous "Massie Affair" Transformed Hawai'i), which became national news much in the tradition of the Scopes Trial. Darrow was 80 when he died in 1938.
  • John Scopes, the accused, gave up teaching soon after the trial. He then studied geology at the University of Chicago before taking a job with an oil company in Venezuela. He returned to the U.S. years later, working at a Louisiana refinery. He was 70 when he died in 1970.
  • George Rappleyea, the businessman who engineered the trial as a publicity/economic development stunt, later became vice president of the boat company that designed and built innovative landing craft that put Allied troops on enemy beaches during World War II. Later, in 1948, he served one year in prison for violating federal firearms laws in an attempt to ship weapons and ammunition to British Honduras. In the early 1950s, he reportedly developed and promoted “Plasmofalt,” a construction material composed of molasses, sand, and plastic, which was featured in Popular Mechanics magazine. Rappleyea was 72 when he died in 1966.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Scopes "Monkey" Trial ... behind the scenes (Part 2)

The publicity-stunt origins of the Scopes trial continued into the trial itself. People supporting the prosecution succeeded in enlisting three-time presidential candidate and conservative Christian William Jennings Bryant, noted for his oratory skills, as a volunteer member of the prosecution team. In response, nationally recognized defense attorney Clarence Darrow, known for his opposition to government overreach, volunteered to join the defense team. Bryant and Darrow’s participation helped ensure national interest in the trial, which lasted seven days.

The trial was the first in American to be broadcast on the radio, and was filmed for newsreels, to be shown in movie theaters throughout the country. To accommodate these efforts, microphones replaced the jury box, and a cornfield outside of town was cleared for an airfield to for airplanes to pick up newsreel film daily.
The circus nature of the trial probably reached its zenith when Darrow put Jennings on the stand, in an apparent effort to show that Jennings’ literal belief in some biblical stories was irrational. The judge later ordered Jennings’ testimony to be stricken from the record, which in effect then prevented Jennings from putting Darrow on the stand.

Curiously, Darrow wanted a conviction so that the issue could be appealed to a higher court for a test of the entire law in question, rather than just a decision on Scopes’ guilt or innocence.  At the end of the trial, Darrow even asked the jury to convict Scopes for that very reason. Scopes, too, wanted a conviction:  “Scopes had urged … students to testify against him, and coached them in their answers,” wrote Edward J. Larson in his book Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion. Indeed, Scopes never testified in the trial, probably because it was less than certain, or at least subject to interpretation, whether he had actually taught evolution in the classroom.
After the trial, the jury couldn’t use the jury room for deliberations because it was filled with newsmen working on their stories. But no matter, because jurors, meeting only about 20 seconds in a hallway, followed Darrow’s request and agreed to a conviction.

Upon appeal to the Tennessee Supreme Court, the conviction was overturned, but only because the judge had imposed Scopes’ $100 fine instead of the jury – and without review of the statute as desired by Darrow, Scopes, and others who disagreed with it.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Scopes "Monkey" Trial ... behind the scenes (Part 1)

A 1925 trial officially known as the State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes, but more commonly called the Scopes “Monkey” Trial, is widely recognized for its influence on issues related to teaching human evolution in the nation’s schools. But the Scopes trial's origins are more closely linked to a publicity campaign for a small town with a dying economy, and John Scopes – the teacher on trial – never directly taught evolution, as noted in Edward J. Larson’s 1997 book Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion.

As told in the book, George Rappleyea, manager of a coal mine near Dayton, Tennessee, approached Frank Robinson, chair of the local school board, after learning that the American Civil Liberties Union would defend teachers who taught human evolution in violation of a new Tennessee law prohibiting it – a law that the ACLU deemed unconstitutional.  Rappleyea was sympathetic to the ACLU’s position. To support his beliefs, he convinced the school official, who also owned the local drug store, that a trial on this issue would bring national attention – and thereby new economic possibilities – to Dayton. They needed a willing, cooperative teacher to be brought up on charges of violating the law, however, and thought of 24-year-old John Scopes.

Scopes, who taught general science (not biology), coached football, and was unmarried teacher who had nothing to lose compared to the regular biology teacher, a family man and school administrator. Scopes was summoned to the drugstore, later writing this (as relayed in Larson’s book) about the meeting: “Robinson offered me a chair and the boy who worked as a soda jerk brought me a fountain drink. ‘John, we’ve been arguing,’ said Rappleyea, ‘and I said that nobody could teach biology without teaching evolution.’ ‘That’s right,’ I said, not sure what he was leading up to.” Then, a copy of the state-approved biology text was brought out. “‘You have been teaching ‘em this book?’ Rappleyea said. ‘Yes,’ I said. I explained that I had got the book out of storage and had used it for review purposes while filling in for the principal during his illness. He was the regular biology teacher,” Scopes recalled. “’Then you’ve been violating the law,’ Robinson said.” Robinson then told Scopes about the ACLU offer, and Scopes recalled what came next. “’John, would you be willing to stand for a test case?’ Robinson said. ‘Would you be willing to let your name be used?’ I realized that the best time to scotch the snake is when it starts to wiggle. The snake had already been wiggling a good long time.”

After a bit of discussion, Scopes agreed to the proposition. But he was never arrested, and in fact went back to a tennis game after the meeting in the drug store.  Rappleyea and Robinson quickly contacted the ACLU and newspapers in Nashville and Chattanooga with the news. (Stay in touch for Part 2 of this fascinating story!)

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Andy Rooney ... on World War II

The late Andy Rooney, the well-known journalist who was a nationally syndicated columnist and popular t.v. commentator, offered an excellent account of his experiences and observations as a young World War II correspondent in his book My War. For example:
  • Observing the French countryside in the Normandy region shortly after the Allied landing in June 1944 -- "Our bombers must have destroyed the towns [Montebourg and Valognes] in an effort to cut the German supply lines to Cherbourg and it was the first time it had occurred to me that the French people of Normandy must have felt some ambivalence about the Invasion. It was true that they were being freed but at the cost of the total destruction of everything they had. And there's no question that many of the people of Normandy were sullen in their attitude toward Americans."
  • Noting that correspondents were given guns to protect themselves from German snipers thought to be left behind as Allied forces moved into Germany:  "This made those correspondents liable to execution as spies if they'd been captured, and after a few days in Germany, during which time there was not a single incident of sniper fire from village windows, reporters turned in their guns. That's what was strange. There was no danger at all to an American in a German town once our troops had gone through it."