Monday, May 21, 2012

D&C's DC: The Two Titanic Memorials

About a month ago I attended a picnic sponsored by SASI (The Society for the Advancement of the Steamtopian Ideal), which was fairly steampunk/Victorian/jazz age gathering. It was honoring the sinking of the Titanic, and we actually had a brief memorial ceremony that included dropping flowers in the channel. It was actually a very nice time; the folks were very friendly and charming, and I can't wait to have another opportunity for a get-together.

But the main thing for this blog was that the picnic was held at the Women's Titanic Memorial, located along DC's waterfront. It's something not a lot of people are aware of; a number of locals I've spoken to were unaware there was a Titanic memorial.

Designed by Gertrude Vanderbilt Witney, it was funded by $1 donations from over 25,000 women in America. Authorized by Congress in 1917 and completed in 1918, it was actually mothballed for a while because of delays in developing the location. It was finally erected in 1931 at the foot of New Hampshire Ave, along the Potomac River, but was dismantled and moved 35 years later to make room for the Kennedy Center. It ended up where it is now, at one end of Washington Channel Park.

It was specifically meant as a memorial to the men who gave their lives so the women and children could get in the lifeboats, and funded and designed by women in a gesture of thanks to their memory. It's actually quite lovely, and as is obvious, James Cameron used the pose in the movie.

I heard comments from another attendee about another memorial that was on the Ellipse, so I decided to do some detective work and track it down. And last weekend, I found it.

Behold the Butt-Millet Memorial Fountain! Located on the northern part of the Ellipse, near the South Lawn of the White House, this is easily a very overlooked memorial that I think most folks don't even know is there, or if they do notice it, think it's just a decorative fountain with no real meaning. But there's a lot more going on here than meets the eye.

Designed by sculptor Daniel Chester French, it memorializes two men, Maj. Archibald Butt and Francis Davis Millet.

Archie Butt, seen above, was a former journalist who joined the Army and became a distinguished soldier, fighting valiantly in the Spanish-American War and becoming a top military aide to Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. He wrote several novels and was a popular figure in Washington government and social circles. By all reports he was an affable, polite man, overflowing with charm and personality, and who won friends easily. I've read that he was something of a dandy, with a keen appreciation for art and antiques.

This is Francis Davis Millet, who was a noted artist and muralist. He did many murals in public buildings around the country, and was also the superintendent of decoration at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. He is credited with inventing the first form of spray paint, and was involved in a number of world's fairs. He was also a writer and journalist.

This martial figure honors Butt....

...and this sombre muse honors Millet.

Butt and Millet were, at the very least, best friends and roommates. They lived together (in a mansion at 2000 G St NW), entertained together, traveled together. Butt was a lifelong bachelor; from what I was able to find out, Millet was married, but it was in name only and the two lived apart.

I know what some of you are, were they?

It's hard to be 100% sure, but the considered opinion of many modern historians is that Butt and Millet were lovers. Millet was known to have had affairs with other men; Butt had something of a reputation for being popular with the ladies but it turns out that he was just polite and charming and not a lothario by any means. One website I found said that maybe they weren't actually a couple, but the historian was satisfied that both men were gay.

But still, they were very popular in DC, which may have had a "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" attitude toward bachelor gentlemen who lived and went about together. Popular enough to have friends finance this memorial and petition Congress to have it erected on the Ellipse in 1913.

Butt had been caught between Roosevelt and Taft in political and personal issues, and his health had suffered as a result. His trip to Europe with Millet was meant as a recuperative holiday with a quick side trip to Rome, where Butt delivered a letter from Taft to the pope. They were on their return voyage on the Titanic when...well, you know what happened. Millet was last seen helping women and children aboard the lifeboats; his body was recovered and he was buried in East Bridgewater, MA. Stories differ on Maj. Butt; some say he was heroically loading the women and children as well, but more authoritative sources say that he merely sat in the smoking lounge, calmly watching everything, and making no move to save himself. His body was never recovered; in DC there's a cenotaph for him in Arlington National Cemetery and a plaque in the National Cathedral, and a bridge is named after him in Augusta, GA.

When I visited the fountain, tourists were passing it by, not even noticing it. The men's names and dates are carved on it; the Titanic is not mentioned. I snapped my photos, laughing at the birds splashing in the water. I knew nothing of their personal lives until I researched them later that night. Then I was shaking my head sadly at the a time when same-sex marriage is a huge debate, when mere acknowledgement of a gay relationship is cause for controversy, there's been a fountain bubbling quietly for almost a century that honors at least one gay man, and perhaps even a gay couple, who died heroes.

When you visit DC, find time to stop by, reflect on how far we have and haven't come as a culture, maybe leave some flowers, and go home to think.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Wednesday Night at the Cinema

And it's time for a midweek break! As usual, it's dinner at the gang's favorite restaurant, hashing over everyone's recent trials and triumphs, the dramas and comedies since last we met.

Then, it's down the street to that old theater that's always waiting for us!

First it's Segundo de Chomon's 1908 charmer, The Gold Spider.

Then our feature presentation, 1944's Bluebeard, with a young John Carradine!

Bluebeard is a delightful bit of gothicism, often overlooked. Although a quickie from Poverty Row, this was well-directed (by Edgar G. Ulmer) and well-acted by Carradine. Ulmer was often underestimated, but his power and innovation often shines through the low budgets he often had to work with. For example, a year after making this, he made Detour, now a bona fide classic of the film noir genre and acknowledged as an innovative, daring film far ahead of its time. But Bluebeard itself is a nice little film, creepy and disturbing when it needs to be, but also kind of comforting. Carradine's performance is remarkably nuanced; his character evokes both pity and terror, a tall order.

After the show, we're off to the cafe for coffee and drinks and conversation...the May evening air is cool, but with hints of the summer heat to come...

Monday, May 14, 2012

MOST SECRET by John Dickson Carr

During my Carr shopping, this was one I picked up at random, knowing nothing about, and having few expectations of. It's not the best-known of his works, rarely gets mentioned at all in articles about Carr. And that's a shame. This is a damn rip-roaring read, the best Carr novel I've ever read.

The year is 1670, and Roderick Kinsmere, known as Rowdy, is up from the country to London to collect an inheritance. He drops by to pay a call on the Duke of Buckingham, but then ends up being challenged to a duel, makes a new friend, and suddenly finds himself plunged into a web of intrigue and murder.

Most Secret isn't part of Carr's oeuvre of locked-room puzzles that he was known for. It's more of an espionage thriller with a historic setting. That said, it's a lot of fun. Carr throws in a duel, a scene in a theater (he loves his theater scenes), and even a part on the high seas with piracy thrown in.

The Restoration setting is a fun touch, and Carr takes his time getting his setting together. The first chapter or so is setting up the character of Rowdy Kinsmere and his home, and I found it rather reminiscent of Henry Fielding and Tom Jones. I wonder if Carr was thinking if Fielding with this book. I've also noticed that Carr frequently has scenes in theaters; I guess theatrical history was one of his big interests.

But the intrigue is the real star. Kinsmere has an heirloom ring that he doesn't realize has a certain significance, and is made a target because of it. And it leaves him in a position where he's taking secret papers to France at the behest of King Charles himself, but still trying to figure out who the main plotter is, and why? Rowdy and his friend Bygones Abraham know WHO is trying to kill them, but the don't know WHY or the identity of the mastermind. And that's all the fun.

Most Secret is a bit on the dense side; it took me a while to read it, but I thoroughly enjoyed it more than I've enjoyed any other Carr work. Highly recommended!

Monday, May 7, 2012

Judge Dee: The Night of the Tiger

The second half of The Monkey and the Tiger takes place immediately after the events of The Chinese Nail Murders, while Dee is riding from Pei-Chow to the capitol, and going through a region struck by severe flooding. He's separated from his escort by a collapsing bridge, and then finds himself on an island created by the floods. On it are a gang of bandits called the Flying Tigers, but there's also a fortified country house. Of course, Dee takes shelter there, and ends up investigating a nasty murder.

"The Night of the Tiger" is a sort of T'ang dynasty version of one of those old-dark-house movies from the 30s, but it works well. Dee sleeps in the room of the owner's daughter, Kee-Yu, who was found dead earlier that day. Van Gulik's portrait of the girl is affecting; she's a person of breeding and taste, but also tormented by ill health and possibly morbid brooding. However, Dee discovers that not everything is as it seems, and in the end there's a nasty twist, but the forces of law and justice triumph at last.

I've always been haunted by Kee-Yu; she's relatable but also sad and pathetic. I find her taste and refinement appealing, even admirable, but she also serves as a warning of too much brooding. She has a love affair that ends badly, and it's sad because she was the object of unrequited yet noble passion by one of her father's trusted aides. In the drawing class I took last summer, we were experimenting with Chinese brushes one night, and instead of doing the usual still lifes, I did this little picture of Kee-Yu, looking at the moon and mountains from her balcony.

(Yeah, I know, hardly spectacular, but I liked it. My teacher was impressed and suggested I get some brushes and experiment on my own. Haven't done that yet, but I should.)

"The Night of the Tiger" is a nice little novella with some bits that I found personally haunting. Like the rest of the Judge Dee series, this is Required Reading.

Next in the Dee series: Dee tackles affairs in the capitol in The Willow Pattern.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Dust & Corruption Calendar for May 2012

Now that everyone's exhausted from dancing 'round the Maypole or whatever the heck it is people do these days on May Day, it's time to think about what adventures await us in the month ahead. Here's a few things to consider...

5/2 - GiGi Holliday's Ladies Night Out: Burlesque-a-versary! My pal GiGi celebrates her second year of twirling tassels with a fun night of burlesque and comedy. Red Palace, 1212 H St NE, Washington DC. 8:30pm, $10.

5/3 - A Journey into the Curious World of the Medical Museum. Illustrated talk by Joanna Ebenstein, on the function and artistry of medical museums. Chicago Cultural Center, 76 E Washington St, Chicago, IL. 6:00pm

5/5 - Tilted Torch Birthday Blowout Bash! Three years for DC's show of dance, burlesque, comedy and music, all built somehow around light. Red Palace, 10:00pm, $12 advance, $15 door.

5/7 - "The Odditorium: The Architecture and Allure of Extremes," illustrated lecture and booksigning with author Melissa Pritchard. The Observatory, 543 Union St, Brooklyn, NY. 8:00pm, $5.

5/10 - Black Tassel Boolesque: Fractured Fairy Tales! DC's own twisted troupe puts their own spin on favorite tales. Red Palace, 8:30pm, $10.

5/11-12 - Pasties & Popcorn. Short flicks, stripping chicks, and sideshow tricks. Part of the DC Shorts film festival. Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St NE, Washington, DC. 5/11 - 9:30pm. 5/12 - 9:30pm, 11:59pm. $20

5/12 - Burlesque on the Go Go! Burlesque with Anita Cookie, Clams Casino, Darlinda Just Darlinda, Minnie Tonka, and Gigi La Femme. Red Palace, 8:30 and 10:30, $15 ($12 advance).

5/14 - "A Most Unexpected History of Blood Transfusion, 1660-1820s," an illustrated lecture by author and medical historian Paul Craddock. The Observatory, 543 Union St, Brooklyn, NY. 8:00pm, $5.

5/18 - "The Hidden River Expedition: A Re-Exploration of the Post-Industrial Wilderness Along Philadelphia's Rivers." Illustrated lecture by Allen Crawford, aka Lord Whimsy. The Observatory, 543 Union St, Brooklyn, NY. 8:00pm, $5.

5/19 - Georgetown Garden Treasures: Tour the gardens of both Tudor Place and Dumbarton Oaks. (The good folks at Tudor Place are fans of D&C, so go pay a call on them if you can!) 10:30am; ticket information available here

5/24 - Burlesque without Borders. International array of burlesque artistes, representing Canada, Finland, and Spain, and hosted by New York's own Albert Cadabra. Red Palace, 8:30pm, $12 ($10 advance).

5/25-28 - Balticon. A huge convention for sci-fi and fantasy, but with a growing science track. I'll be giving a talk on the 25th on skepticism in dentistry, believe it or not. That's also Memorial Day weekend...

5/26-6/10 - Series of Jan Svankmajer films at the National Gallery of Art; click here for the full schedule. Utterly free and Svankmajer is always worth checking out.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

At the Phantom Cabaret: The Tiger Lillies are in Town!

It's opening night of the new cabaret in town, Le Cafe Fantomas! We're given the royal treatment as we go in, with a few knowing winks from the staff. It turns out the owner knows who we are, and welcomes us to what he's sure will be a favorite spot.

The drinks are good, the decor grand, the chandeliers lit, and our bohemian finery fits in very well. We have one of the best tables in the house as the Tiger Lillies take the stage!

The Tiger Lillies are a London-based trio famed for their modern cabaret style, a sort of Berthold Brecht in the 21st century thing, and for songs that push the envelope, attacking society's sacred cows and reveling in bestiality, blasphemy, and death. The song above is from their Grammy-nominated album The Gorey End, which was a series of unpublished Edward Gorey works set to music. Although the Gorey estate isn't fond of it, it's still a fabulous album.

The evening winds to a close, we applaud the band, pay our bar tabs, and bid good evening to the staff after sharing a glass of champagne with the owner, promising to be back soon. Le Cafe Fantomas will be our new home away from home!