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Diane Johnson’s new memoir explores her life and work

By Jane Robbins Mize

Diane Johnson’s dynamic career has encompassed a wide variety of genres, settings, and subjects. As a biographer, she has explored the lives of Mary Ellen Peacock and Dashiell Hammett. As a novelist, she has been named a finalist for both the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize. She also co-authored the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining. This year, Johnson has released her first memoir, Flyover Lives.

 

Johnson’s books are celebrated for their exploration of time and space and her characters for their curiosity and wit. Similarly, in Flyover Lives, Johnson discusses her roots in the American Midwest and her eventual escape to New York, California, and ultimately, Europe. The memoir provides her readers a deeper understanding of her own life and work through the exploration of her ancestry, her childhood, and herself as both mother and writer.

 

Johnson’s archive resides at the Ransom Center and contains drafts and production materials of her novels in addition to book reviews, essays, correspondence, and a variety of personal papers.

 

Related content:

Fellows Find: How Diane Johnson’s writing process evolved with her work in Victorian literature and screenwriting

 

Image: Cover of Diane Johnson’s memoir Flyover Lives.

Behind-the-scenes: Customizing a mannequin, from legs to limbs, to display a World War I uniform

By Jill Morena

Presenting a costume or historical clothing on a mannequin may seem deceptively simple at first glance. Yet there is rarely an instance of a mannequin, standardized or made-to-measure, that is ready to use “out-of-the-box.” Each area of the body—shoulders, torso, arms, legs, and feet—must be customized and often requires several fittings with the garment. This is similar to the process of fitting a made-to-order garment to a human body, although in this case the process is reversed as the mannequin must be shaped and conform to the garment.

 

A World War I uniform, from the collection of the Texas Military Forces Museum and currently on display in The World at War, 1914–1918, presented us with a particular challenge. The physique of most modern, full-body mannequins is too tall, muscular, and athletic for early twentieth-century clothing and footwear. The size of the mannequin must always be smaller than the measurements of the costume to allow for supportive padding and to prevent any stress or strain on the costume when dressing or on display. We made the decision to pad up an adolescent/teenage dress form that was already in our inventory and to construct realistic-looking legs, a crucial element in presenting the ensemble successfully.

 

This was our first time to use Fosshape, a polyester polymer material often used for theater costume design or millinery. Textile conservators have recently explored and used Fosshape for museum display, and we decided to use this flexible, adaptable material to construct the legs. An approximate tapered “leg” shape was cut, sewn, and placed over the calves and ankles of a full-body mannequin to get a realistic leg shape. When steam heat is applied to the Fosshape, it reacts, shrinks, and hardens to the shape of the mold beneath.

 

Because the leg dimensions of this particular mannequin were too large to safely fit through the narrow hem of the uniform jodhpurs, we had to “take in” the legs to a smaller circumference, while still retaining an accurate calf and knee shape. Because the definition was lessened somewhat, we made “knee” and “calf” pads to help support and define the shape of these areas. Additional Fosshape pieces were created and steamed to provide more structure and interior support.

 

The legs were adjusted accordingly and covered with a smooth polyester fabric to aid with dressing, and pieces of velcro were sewn to the inside of the Fosshape legs and the exterior of the mannequin legs for easy attachment.

 

Arm patterns, taken from an excellent resource on mannequin creation and modification, A Practical Guide to Costume Mounting by Lara Flecker, were modified to fit the length and curvature of the jacket’s arms. Once sewn, the arms were filled with soft polyester batting and sewn to the mannequin’s shoulders. The chest and back were padded out where needed, and a flesh-colored finishing fabric was cut, sewn, and secured to the mannequin’s neck.

 

The final crucial details were aligning and orienting two twin silver mannequin stands so that they would reflect a natural body stance once the legs and boots were placed. Additionally, the stands were covered with a matte black fabric, so the high shine of the silver bases would not distract from the uniform. Once the stand was correctly aligned and covered, dressing the mannequin could begin.

 

Constructing, modifying, or dressing a mannequin is never a solitary endeavor. This entire process was a collaboration between the curator of costumes and personal effects and conservation and exhibitions staff. Colleagues Mary Baughman, Ken Grant, Apryl Voskamp, and John Wright were invaluable with their help and expertise.

 

Top image: World War I uniform on display in Ransom Center’s exhibition The World at War, 1914-1918. Photo by Pete Smith. Please click on thumbnails below to view larger images.

 

Fall symposium to explore American cultural life during Civil War

By Alicia Dietrich

The Ransom Center announces the 11th Flair Symposium, “Cultural Life During Wartime, 1861–1865” to take place September 18–20.

 

The symposium is organized in conjunction with the Ransom Center’s upcoming fall exhibition, The Making of Gone With The Wind, which opens September 9. In the 75 years since the film’s release, Gone With The Wind and the novel that inspired it have helped shape the way many Americans understand and remember the Civil War.

 

The symposium looks back to the nineteenth century to examine the cultural world of Union and Confederate painters, photographers, musicians, theater companies, and writers. The songs, images, poems, books, and plays that appeared between 1861 and 1865 offer a nuanced perspective on the Civil War that challenges later narratives, both fictional and historical.

 

Historians, literary critics, musicologists, and art historians will gather in Austin to discuss the works of well-known figures such as Walt Whitman, Louisa May Alcott, and Frederick Douglass, as well as works related to “Rose’s War,” an 1865 slave insurrection, and the 1864 “Siege of Atlanta.” Panelists will also reflect on the expanding Civil War canon and the legacy of the war’s cultural productions.

 

Deborah Willis, professor and chair of Photography & Imaging at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, will deliver the keynote address, which is co-sponsored by the John L. Warfield Center for African and African American Studies at The University of Texas at Austin.

 

To register and view more information, including the full list of panelists and a schedule, visit the Flair website.

From the Outside In: Film still from “West Side Story,” 1961

By Jane Robbins Mize

The atria on the first floor of the Ransom Center are surrounded by windows featuring etched reproductions of images from the collections. The windows offer visitors a hint of the cultural treasures to be discovered inside. From the Outside In is a series that highlights some of these images and their creators. Interact with all of the windows at From the Outside In: A Visitor’s Guide to the Windows.

 

This image from West Side Story, contrasting dancers caught en point against a realistic New York street, was taken by photographer Jack Harris, who was brought in to capture the dance sequences during the making of the film. This 1961 film is an adaptation of the 1957 Broadway musical of the same name, which was itself based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The film is set in New York City in the mid-1950s, where two street gangs, the Sharks and the Jets, are fighting because of their different ethnic backgrounds. One night at a neighborhood dance, Tony, a former Jet, and Maria, the sister of the Shark leader, dance together and promptly fall in love. As a result, a deeper rift develops between the street gangs, and Maria and Tony must ultimately choose between their cultural connections and their love for one another.

 

Robert Wise was named director and producer of the film, but because he had no experience directing a musical, Jerome Robbins, who had directed the original Broadway production, was also brought in to provide assistance for the music and dance numbers. Wise and Robbins quickly became at odds with one another, and after the first day of filming, they were no longer on speaking terms. Robbins was soon fired, and the remaining musical numbers were directed by his assistants, but Robbins was still featured in the credits as a co-director of the film.

 

The film stars Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood, who were cast as Tony and Maria. Richard Beymer secured the role of Tony over contenders such as Elvis Presley, Warren Beatty, and Burt Reynolds. Natalie Wood was not originally considered for the role of Maria, but she was romantically involved with Beatty when he performed his screen test for the role of Tony. Wood read opposite Beatty during the screen test, and the producers instantly became enamored with her as Maria.

 

West Side Story was released on October 18, 1961 and became the second highest grossing film of the year. Garnering significant praise from critics, the film went on to win awards in 10 of the 11 Academy Award categories in which it was nominated, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Score, and Best Cinematography. To this day, West Side Story has won more Academy Awards than any other musical.

 

The Ransom Center holds the photographs of Jack Harris, who had a thriving career as a photographer of theater, dance, and music. Besides Harris’s stills for this film, the Center also holds photographs, programs, and published materials related to Harris’s work documenting dance performances, predominantly for the American Ballet Theatre and the New York City Ballet. The Center also holds the papers of West Side Story screenwriter Ernest Lehman.

 

Former Ransom Center volunteer Amy Elms wrote this post.