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In the Galleries: Ogden Nash’s padlocked collection of poetry

By Elana Estrin

One of Ogden Nash's copies of  'Hard Lines' with padlock and chain. Photo by Pete Smith.
One of Ogden Nash's copies of 'Hard Lines' with padlock and chain. Photo by Pete Smith.

“All of these books are worse than opium… I would rather have a child of mine use opium than read these books,” declared Senator Reed Smoot of Utah in March 1930, speaking from behind a desk towering with “smutty” books like Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Robert Burns’s poetry.

In 1929, Senator Smoot and Representative Willis Hawley of Oregon introduced a tariff bill to Congress that included a section restricting the importation of obscene materials, which inspired the widely repeated news headline “Smoot Smites Smut.” Senator Bronson Cutting of New Mexico led a protest against the proposed ban on obscene literature, and the House approved an amendment that removed books from the list of obscene materials.

But the battle wasn’t over. When the full bill reached the Senate in March 1930, Smoot brought book censorship back into the spotlight. After much debate, the Senate returned books to the list of obscene materials with the exception of “classics” and works of “established literary and scientific merit.” The Smoot-Hawley Tariff became law on June 17, 1930.

In response to the controversy, poet Ogden Nash penned “Invocation” and submitted it to The New Yorker, his first published contribution to the magazine, in January 1930.

The first verse reads:

Senator Smoot (Republican, Ut.)
Is planning a ban on smut.
Oh rooti-ti-toot for Smoot of Ut.
And his reverend occiput.
Smite, Smoot, smite for Ut.,
Grit your molars and do your dut.,
Gird up your l__ns,
Smite h_p and th_gh,
We’ll all be Kansas
By and by.

“Invocation” appeared in Nash’s collection Hard Lines. As a publicity stunt, Simon and Schuster sent out advance copies with a chain, padlock, and key attached.

One of Nash’s copies of Hard Lines appears in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition Banned, Burned, Seized, and Censored, on display through January 22. Nash intended to send this copy to book critic Alexander Woollcott. The inside front cover of the book includes the beginning of an inscription to Woollcott, but Nash misspelled Woollcott’s name (he forgot the second “l”) and inscribed the book to himself instead:

“For Ogden Nash with the very best wishes of the author. This is one of several advance copies equipped with lock and chain for attention-catching which were sent to current celebrities in hope of eliciting favorable comment. I started to mis-spell Alexander Woollcott’s name in this one, so kept it for myself. Woollcott didn’t like the one he got, even though I spelled his name right.*

*It sold nearly 40,000 copies in spite of him.”

"Lisztomania" hits Austin

By Elana Estrin

Print of Franz Liszt, 1841.
Print of Franz Liszt, 1841.

Long before Beatlemania, mid-nineteenth-century European audiences went wild for Franz Liszt, the Hungarian pianist/composer with shoulder-length hair. Women fought over his broken piano strings and collected his coffee dregs in glass vials. One woman retrieved Liszt’s discarded cigar stump from a gutter and encased it in a diamond-studded locket monogrammed “F.L.” To describe this phenomenon, German poet Heinrich Heine coined the term “Lisztomania.”

Liszt took the classical music world by storm. Considered the best pianist of all time by his contemporaries, Liszt essentially created the piano recital. He was the first pianist to emerge onstage from the wings, he introduced the custom of performing in profile because he didn’t want the piano to block his face, and his unmatched technique and virtuosic piano compositions pushed the boundaries of what the piano could do.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of Liszt’s birth and the 100th anniversary of the Austin Symphony Orchestra. On November 18 and 19, the Austin Symphony celebrates both birthdays when Anton Nel performs Liszt Piano Concerto No. 2 in A major, S. 125 with the Austin Symphony.

Signed photo of Franz Liszt, not dated.
Signed photo of Franz Liszt, not dated.

Liszt is well represented in the Ransom Center’s collections. The musicians collection contains photos of Liszt, one of which Liszt autographed; two collections hold notebooks, manuscripts, and other materials for two Liszt biographies; and the Carlton Lake collection includes a signed manuscript of Liszt’s Gaudeamus igitur and 150 letters between Liszt and his daughters, Blandine and Cosima.

In these letters, spanning from 1850 to 1862, Liszt comes across as a caring but demanding father. It is clear that his daughters’ musical education is a priority. In an 1854 letter addressed to both daughters, Liszt tells Blandine and Cosima to make the most of the approaching winter, when the only teacher around will be their piano teacher:

“How goes it with your piano strumming? Do you practice? Is M. Seghers giving you regular lessons?… Music being the universal language, and even to a certain extent able to dispense with ideas, it is by no means my intention to end your studies with M. Seghers. But try to learn yourselves what even the best teachers cannot convey through lessons; and, until the day when I try to shape your talents to my liking, I kiss you most tenderly.”

Liszt also discusses the difficulty of navigating his relationships with other composers. In an 1858 letter to Blandine, Liszt writes about German composer and conductor Richard Wagner, who later married Cosima and with whom Liszt had a notoriously tumultuous relationship:

“With his immense genius which becomes more and more indisputable through all the foolish disputes he has to embark on, he unfortunately can’t manage to rid himself of the most trying domestic vexations, not to mention all the disappointments of his fantastic expectations. In this way he resembles those lofty mountains, radiant at their peaks, but shrouded in fog up to their shoulders…Tell me something of him in your next letter, for I love him with all my heart and admire him as Germany’s finest génie-artiste.”

While living in Rome in 1862, Liszt tells Blandine that he’s a little annoyed with French composer Charles Gounod:

“You know what sincere esteem and liking I have always had for the talent of Gounod, and how affectionate our personal relations were. Well! Can you believe that he spent more than six weeks in Rome without taking the trouble to come and see me, and that we didn’t once see one another?”

Through these letters, we catch a glimpse of Liszt’s life as a rock-star pianist, at its height in the 1840s. But Liszt’s letters from the 1850s reveal that he cherished solitude and was tiring of public life. On May 4, 1858, Liszt wrote to Blandine about his visit with Cosima in Berlin:

“The wholly public life (less and less to my taste) that I had been obliged to lead these last two months made me feel all the more, by contrast, the charm and intimacy of her affection.”

On July 19, 1862, Liszt sent his last letter to Blandine, who died two months later at the age of 26 following childbirth: “The fact is, I am comfortable only in my own company and in that of the very small number of those I love with whom I feel at one in thought and feeling.”

Selected items related to Liszt will be on display in the Ransom Center lobby from Tuesday, November 15 through Sunday, November 27.

Two Texas sorority sisters inspire Graham Greene and John Sutro to establish Anglo-Texan Society

By Elana Estrin

On a trip to Edinburgh in the summer of 1953, novelist Graham Greene and producer John Sutro met Margy Crosby Leifeste and Mary Alexander Sherwood, roommates and Pi Phi sorority sisters who had recently graduated from The University of Texas at Austin. Charmed by the young women, Greene and Sutro jokingly established the Anglo-Texan Society. Here’s the story as Mary remembers it.

Mary and Margy were traveling Europe on a two-month group tour. One of their first activities was to see Graham Greene’s play The Living Room in London. Two months later, they arrived in cold, rainy, and misty Edinburgh. Several girls on the trip went shopping, but Mary and Margy decided to stay back at the hotel and drink some tea to “warm our bones,” Mary recalls.

While drinking their tea, a waiter handed them a note reading: “If by any chance you are free, would you come to see The Devil’s General tomorrow night or to have a drink with us to discuss the matter tonight? Signed, Graham Greene and John Sutro.” Mary and Margy figured their friends were pulling yet another practical joke, so they told the waiter he must be mistaken.

“We spent the next 15 minutes saying, what if it was? Oh! What stupid people we are not to have at least said, why sure, and gone to see,” Mary recalls.

As they got up to leave, two men emerged from behind a screen and said: “We didn’t mean to offend you, but my name is John Sutro, and this is Graham Greene, and we would like for you to have a drink with us.”

Mary and Margy accepted the invitation, and Greene fired question after question about their travels and reactions to Europe.

“They were hanging on our every word, asking questions. They really seemed to be interested in our answers, which was sort of a first,” Mary says.

As the evening wrapped up, Greene again invited Margy and Mary to see The Devil’s General. They both declined. Mary had to catch an overnight train to visit a friend in London, and Margy had to attend a farewell dinner.

“I know what we’ll do,” Greene said. “You, Ms. Alexander, pack your bags. You come to the first two acts of the play, we will put you in a taxi with your suitcase, and off to London you go. And you, Ms. Crosby, after your dinner, you come to the third act of the play, and then we’ll have dinner with Trevor Howard and the producer.”

Mary and Margy accepted. In their ship cabin on the return trip were a dozen yellow roses and a card reading, “Happy landfall. Come back soon. Graham.”

“I really think that there is a side to Graham Greene that you don’t know about, that may surprise you. And that is that he’s a gentleman and a very thoughtful, sensitive, compassionate person,” Mary said.

On the train back to London, Greene and Sutro jokingly decided to establish an Anglo-Texan Society, and they ran an announcement in The Times.

“Much to the astonishment of Graham Greene and John Sutro, some people took it very seriously. At one of the first big meetings in London, they sent three steers, Texas’s best beef, and all sorts of barbecue sauce. 1,500 people attended,” Mary said.

Years later, Mary says people often ask whether she and Margy were afraid when Greene and Sutro invited them to the play.

“Absolutely not. We had no fear of anything. I remember thinking to myself at that time, I could live anywhere in the world. I was just totally without fear of any kind,” Mary says. “Though all of this gave the tour leader a heart attack.”

Related blog posts:

Fellows Find: Graham Greene papers lift curtain on author’s psyche

 

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Commentary Magazine Archive Donated to Ransom Center

By Elana Estrin

Commentary magazine has donated its archive to the Ransom Center. Founded in November 1945, just months after World War II, Commentary magazine was established to reconnect assimilated American Jews and Jewish intellectuals with the broader Jewish community and to bring the ideas of young Jewish intellectuals to a wider audience.

According to historian Richard Pells, Professor Emeritus at The University of Texas at Austin, “no other journal of the past half century has been so consistently influential, or so central to the major debates that have transformed the political and intellectual life of the United States.”

Throughout its history, Commentary has published significant articles on historical, political, cultural and theological issues in addition to fiction and memoirs. The magazine has a reputation for featuring many of the leading intellectual and cultural figures of the time.

Spanning from 1945 to 1995, the archive consists mainly of editorial correspondence, galleys and other records. The collection contains correspondence with a number of writers whose archives reside at the Ransom Center, including Norman Mailer, Bernard Malamud and Isaac Bashevis Singer, in addition to correspondence with S. Y. Agnon, Hannah Arendt, James Baldwin, Saul Bellow, William F. Buckley, George W. Bush, Henry Kissinger, George Orwell, Amos Oz, Philip Roth, Elie Wiesel, Tom Wolfe, and A. B. Yehoshua.

 

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