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Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Hedy Lamarr: A Brilliant Beauty


                                     Publicity photo of Hedy Lamarr, 1940

     In June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife were assassinated by a Serbian nationalist in Sarajevo. A month later, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia and World War I began. Later that year, on November 9, Hedy Lamarr was born in Vienna.

     Originally named Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, she was the only child in a wealthy Jewish family. As a child, Hedy was fascinated by her father’s explanations of how different machines operated. At age 5 she took apart and reassembled her music box to see how it worked. Her mother, a concert pianist, sparked Hedy’s interest in the art—especially theatre and the movies.     

     That led to her taking acting lessons and, when she was sixteen, she landed a role as an extra in a movie produced by the largest Austrian film production company of the era. Thus she began her acting career. After a small speaking role in another film by the same company the next year, she was discovered by the prominent director Max Reinhardt. He cast her in a play in Vienna and was so impressed with her performance that he took her with him to Berlin. Although she didn’t appear in any of his productions there, she was cast in several films directed by others using the name Hedy Kietzler.

      When she was 18, she played the lead in the film that would make her internationally famous—or infamous—Ecstasy. Her character was the beautiful young wife of an apathetic older man. The film quickly became notorious for showing the actors’ faces in the throes of orgasm and for the brief nude scenes which, unbeknownst to Hedy, had been filmed using powerful telephoto lenses. The film was applauded as an artistic work throughout Europe, but the Pope condemned it and Germany banned it. In America, negative publicity for being too explicit resulted in it being banned there, too. Disillusioned, Hedy returned to the stage.

     In that same year, 1933, Hedy met Fritz Mandl, a military munitions manufacturer and dealer who was one of the richest men in Austria. She married him despite her parents’ disapproval of his ties to Italy’s fascist leader Benito Mussolini and later to Adolph Hitler. She stated in her autobiography, Ecstasy and Me, that he prevented her from pursuing her acting career and kept her a virtual prisoner in their home. Although unhappy in her marriage, she gained a great deal of knowledge of Nazi wartime weaponry through Mandel and his business associates. She fled to England in 1937 to escape from her husband.

                                  Hedy Lamarr In Dishonored Lady, 1947

     While in London, she met Louis B. Mayer of MGM Studios who was scouting talent in Europe. . That meeting resulted in a film contract and she moved to Hollywood in 1938. Mayer persuaded her to change her name to Hedy Lamarr and promoted her as “the world’s most beautiful woman.” During her association with MGM, she made more than 20 films.

      Through her acting career, Hedy met and dated Howard Hughes, who inspired her to use her scientific mind. He showed her how airplanes were built in his factories and introduced her to the scientists who were working on his dream of faster planes to sell to the military. Hedy studied the anatomies of the fastest fish species and fastest bird species then combined their fins and wings to develop a new wing design for his planes. When she showed it to him, he reportedly called her a genius.

     In 1940, Hedy was already concerned about the course of war in Europe. She learned that radio frequencies were being used to control torpedoes, a new development in naval warfare. She also discovered that the signals could easily be jammed, setting the torpedoes off course. Working with her friend composer and pianist George Antheil, she drafted ideas for a frequency-hopping signal that could not be tracked or jammed. He was able to help her develop a method for synchronizing the radio signals between the transmitter and receiver using a mechanism that was based on the player piano. Their designs for this frequency-hopping communication system were patented in August 1942.

                         Patent # 2,292,387 for a "Secret Communication System,"                                     granted to actress Hedy Lamarr

     The U.S. Navy decided against adopting their system, so Hedy turned her war efforts to using her celebrity status to help sell war bonds. But her frequency-hopping technology was far ahead of its time. Many years later, after the patent had expired, frequency-hopping provided the basis for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPS systems.

     In 1997, Hedy and Antheil finally received recognition for their invention within the scientific community. She died in January 2000.

 Ann Markim




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Monday, March 21, 2022

Medieval Dragons - Lindsay Townsend

Medieval people believed in dragons. In the east, dragons were seen as powerful, imperial, and signs of good fortune and plenty, but in the west they were often linked to Satan, the devil, "The Old Serpent", and regarded as trouble. Sometimes such creatures are called dragons, at other times they are worms or wyrms, armed with poison like a snake. The hero Beowulf fights a dragon who lives in a mound and guards a treasure hoard. 

The Vikings believed in dragons that were more like serpents, so in the Poetic Edda we learn how Sigurðr killed the dragon Fafnir, who behaves very much like a snake. "Sigurðr and Reginn went up onto Gnita-heath and there found Fafnir’s track, where he slithered to the water. Sigurðr dug a pit there in the path and went into it. And when Fafnir slithered away from the gold, he breathed forth venom, and it fell down onto Sigurðr’s head. And when Fafnir slithered over the pit, Sigurðr stabbed him in the heart with his sword. Fafnir shook himself and lashed about with his head and tail." 

 In Viking art dragons appear lithe and sinuous, coiling about. However ominous, they were popular in stories, suitable opponents for warriors in tales. The appearance of dragons in the Middle Ages usually foretold disaster. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year 793 tells of the first Viking raid on Lindisfarne, Northumberland, and the
omens that preceded it: "Here were dreadful forewarnings come over the land of Northumbria, and woefully terrified the people: these were amazing sheets of lightning and whirlwinds, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the sky." 

 In keeping with the heroic warrior theme but now in a Christian context, several saints battle with dragons in medieval tales. There is the famous Saint George and the Dragon (a dragon lays waste to the countryside and is offered sheep, youths and maidens as sacrifices. When the situation becomes so desperate that the king's daughter is offered, the knight George appears and vanquishes the beast.) In the ultimate show-down of good verses evil, the archangel Michael battles the great dragon Lucifer in the Book of Revelations. a text often illustrated by medieval artists.

Lucifer aside, I love dragons! Pets are good for you and that's official. Owning a pet one can stroke and pet can help to reduce stress and lower blood pressure. The unswerving support and adoration of a faithful dog or house rabbit can sweeten those rejections and make the lonley life of the writer less lonely. An author can take inspiration from the haughty self-contained grace and self-belief of a cat to keep going and keep faith in her work. A writer can talk to her pets about character and read out dialogue, secure that she will be appreciated. Sadly I have no pets. If I were to have a pet, I would like... ...a dragon.

 A big, fire-breathing dragon, male, of course. and very protective of me, his mistress. A dragon with dazzling jets of flame. A blue and green dragon, with black talons and very white teeth, or a golden dragon, bright as the treasures of his hoard. A dragon who, when I patted his sun-warmed, living scales, would grumble softly in his long throat, like a soft landslide of stones. A dragon to fly with, to toast marshmallows with, to swim with in deep pools he could warm with his fire. OK, so that's just me.

 Have you a pet? Or a fantasy pet?

(All images taken from Wikipedia)

Monday, March 14, 2022

Those Lovable Little Lap Dogs

The other day I was really missing my border terrier, Wrigley. [There’s a picture of him at the end of this article] To give me some ‘doggy time’, without the food, walks and visits to the vet, I went on a research “trip” to try and determine when it became popular to own a lap dog.

A lap dog or lapdog is a breed of dog that is both small enough to be held in the arms or lie comfortably on a person's lap and temperamentally predisposed to doing so.

Lap dogs are animals with no purpose other than companionship. The tiny dogs, bred for their size, have been around since at least the 8th century in China. 

In the 18th century, both in Britain and in the rest of Europe, it became popular to own a lap dog, especially by those who had the leisure and resources to keep an animal that wasn’t working or used as a food source.

These little canines were considered members of the family, some people even going so far as to formally grieve the passing of their pint-sized pooches. In 1887, Ludwig van Beethoven composed an elegy on the death of a poodle, Elegie auf den Tod eines Pudels.

In addition to their being kept as a pet and providing warmth, lap dogs have been fashion accessories and status symbols, and even to attract fleas away from their owners.

Recent genetic study confirms that the Pekingese lapdog, bred in ancient China to fit inside the sleeves of a man's robe, is one of the oldest breeds of dog. For centuries, they could only be owned by members of the Chinese Imperial Palace. Similarly ancient are the lapdog ancestors of the modern breeds of Tibetan Terrier, Lhasa Apso, Pug, and Shih Tzu. 

In the book De Canibus Britannicis published in English in 1576, lapdogs are described as a type of dog, such as the "Spaniel Gentle” or “Spaniel Comforter". Ancestors of the modern breed of Cavalier King Charles Spaniel [seen in this portrait of Mimi, Madame De Pompadour's lap dog] were a type of "Spaniel Gentle" kept by English nobility in the 17th century. Modern breeds of lapdog also include the Bichon Frise, Japanese Terrier, Maltese, Pomeranian, Yorkshire Terrier and many others.

Tracy Garrett (and Wrigley)

Thursday, March 10, 2022

“Well, Little Girl, what do you want to be when you grow up?”

Shards of Destiny

A fellow author wrote a very interesting blog last month:

Kaye Spencer's favorite childhood toy. Check it out. For me, her words brought up distant memories...and good ones.

When I was a small child I recall people asking me, “Well, little girl, what do you want to be when you grow up?”  Most children were quick with an answer.  A nurse. A ballerina.  An astronaut.  A cowboy or a policeman.  Those children seemed so sure of their futures.  Yet, when those queries came to me, I felt nothing but confusion.  I would shrug and think myself stupid for not having an answer.  Always a bit of a rebel, a loner, and most definitely a daydreamer, none of the typical professions seemed to call to me. 

However, there were two points when destiny revealed itself to me—a special shard in time that whispered, “pay attention, lass...this is a turning point in your life.”  I was too young to fully understand when they occurred, yet in hindsight, the signposts were so clear.

The first time the Hand of Fate touched my young life was in 1958.  It came in the form of a magical toy—at least it was magical to me—one that I could only obtain by collecting box tops from Kellogg’s cereal.  That special toy leapt to mind when I read Kaye Spenser’s blog.  Obviously, it wasn’t the value, since it was something you earned by eating cereal!  Yet, to me it was the most precious treasure. 

In the 1950s you often could earn items by collecting box tops, or even found items concealed inside boxes of products.  I recall my mum collecting a set of plates, cups and saucers from boxes of soap flakes (NO such thing as liquid soap back then!).  Each box had one of the pieces of pottery.  Sometimes, it would be tumblers.  And you could save the box tops to get bigger pieces like salad bowls, or serving platters, or a cut crystal pitcher.  I guess it was an adult’s version of Cracker Jacks with their “surprise” inside.  For kids, there were other items you could earn with your box tops.  Recall in the movie The Christmas Story when Ralphie sent off for his Ovaltine’s Little Orphan Annie’s decoder ring?  Well, now you have how an idea of kids of my era eagerly munched Kellogg’s cereals, trying to save enough box tops before an offer’s time ran out.  I never tried before. The gifts of toy cars, dolls and such didn’t interest me enough to keep eating the same cereal for months.  One day that changed. My indifference vanished when I picked up a box of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes and happened to glance at the back.  I felt as if I couldn’t breathe.  For a heartbeat the earth stopped rotating and all around me receded to shadow. All I could see was a very colorful image of ladies and warriors, and two armoured knights jousting.  As my surroundings receded about me, I heard the sounds of the huge destriers, their snorting, hooves pounding, the crash of the lances against shields.  I’m sure they intended them as a promotion for boys, but I wanted those toys so much.  They offered two knights—one in black armour on a black barded horse, and one in silver on a silver charger.  The knights were detachable from the horses, as were the knights’ shields and lances.  You could wind them up, and set them hurdling toward the other so they actually jousted.  A very sophisticated toy for a box top offering.  I was determined to earn those toys!

When I told my mother that I wanted them, she arched an eyebrow and rolled her eyes.  I could clearly read her thought, “That’s your grandfather’s doing.”  Well yes, he did teach me to love history, especially the Middle Ages.  Knights, Scotland, Robert the Bruce, James “Black” Douglas and Thomas Randolph, earl of Moray were tales with which he filled my hungry mind.  He read me stories about them instead of fairytales.  So true, he planted the seeds.

Yet, it was something more.  A feeling as if the Hand of Destiny was touching my young life.  I had no idea what it truly meant, or how it would shape my future, but I knew it was important that I earn those toys.  One stumbling block—such a sophisticated item required a higher number of box tops.  My heart feared I would never be able to consume enough corn flakes in the time allotted.  When I emptied my first box, I cut out the painting of the ladies and knights at the tournament on the back and kept it close.  I slipped it under my pillow at night and dream beautiful stories of ancient times.  At Christmastime when I went to my grandfather’s there were toys—expensive toys.  Oddly, I don’t recall what presents I received that year.  I do clearly recall the knights that I wanted so badly and sadly knew they wouldn’t be under the tree.

Late one night, I was sitting up in the dark, cuddled in the window seat with a tartan blanket, and watching the night sky.  I hoped to spot a shooting star so I could make a wish—one that I would somehow get those knights.  I often talked to myself, or sometimes imaginary friends—signs of an intelligent child, I have since learned.  So when I did see the star streaking across the night sky, I made my wish.  “Star light, Star bright, wish I may, wish I might...”  My grandfather came in minutes later and said if I got in bed, he would tell me a tale of the valiant James Douglas.  I didn’t know then that he had overheard my wish.

As I had worried, I failed to save enough box tops.  My heart ached, despondent that I would never get those toy knights.  Easter came, then school let out.  One day, I got a notice to pick up a parcel at the post office.  Sometimes, my uncles would send me things, small remembrances.  Curiosity was burning as I ran home with the box. Breathlessly, I opened the package wrapped in brown paper and string, and imagine to my surprise, my utter delight, when I discovered nestled in a bed of tissue paper where the two knights.  After hearing my wish, my grandfather had gone out and bought twenty boxes of corn flakes to get the box tops.  Bless him!  At times, in my small child’s eyes he seemed so formidable.  As an adult, I never doubted the love in his heart.

My hands were shaking as I wound them up, and sent them to jousting.  Merely cheap plastic toys gained by eating corn flakes.  Yet, they were so much more.  As I played with them, I didn’t see toys designed for little boys to enjoy. Instead, I saw handsome James Douglas and Thomas Randolph jousting before King Robert Bruce.  In my mind’s eye, I envisioned Bruce’s wife, Elizabeth de Burgh, or another countess at court, tying their ribbons of favor to Douglas’ or Randolph’s sleeves.  Those toys were touchstones that carried me into a magic realm of adventures, of handsome knights and lords, beautiful ladies, and love.

My treasured toys were carefully protected through the decades.  But Fate isn’t often kind.  They were lost in a house fire ten years ago.  I lost many precious items in that fire.  They were just little plastic toys.  Yet, I mourned their forfeiture.  They were and had been so much more to me.  One day, after I moved into my new home in another town, I was prowling a secondhand shop with Candy Thompson, looking for unusual finds.  Imagine my shock when sitting there in the middle of a big bowl were the two knights!  While not the original ones, it felt like a piece of the past had come back to me.

The second time, I felt Fate touch me was when I was almost thirteen.  It was summer and I was in place in the middle of nowhere Kentucky, standing before a turn-rack of paperback books, browsing novels by Victoria Holt, Barbara Michaels and Phyllis Whitney.  Faintly, in the background, I heard a tune playing on a radio—The Beatles’ Paperback Writer.  Once more, for that long heartbeat the world held its breath, and all I could see was the Gothic romance in the rack before me.

As I listened to the lyrics, I knew...I wanted to be a paperback writer.  Not a bestselling author, not Jane Austin, simply a paperback writer, with a means to allowing others to follow me on my distant adventures.  Suddenly, that little six-year-old shrugging when someone asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up was vanquished.  I understood I wanted to be a writer, and I wanted to pen tales of handsome warriors and beautiful ladies in a time gone by.

So what did you want to be when you grew up?  Did you have special toys that touched you in some way?  Did you have someone kind enough and understanding enough to feed those dreams?

Wednesday, March 9, 2022

The beauty of the night sky by Kaye Spencer #prairierosepubs #stargazing #nightsky

I enjoy looking at the stars. I live in the far southeastern, rural corner of Colorado where star-gazing is great even right in my small town, because the lights from corner street lights on every couple of blocks don't interfere much. A drive out of town just a mile or so offers fabulous opportunity for star gazing, especially when meteor showers happen.

On summer nights when I was a kid growing up on a small ranch, I'd often climb up on the top of our sloping, flat-roofed barn and lay there for hours looking at the sky.

I’m not skilled at recognizing constellations, even when using a star-gazing guide. I can pick out Ursa Major, Ursa Minor, Orion, Pleiades, and sometimes Aldebran. My brain can’t connect the abstract dots of constellations. If I check the Farmer’s Almanac for any given night, I can go out and usually locate Jupiter, Venus, Mercury, and maybe other constellations. Identifying isn't all that important to me. I simply enjoy the view.

Oh…and the moon. I’ve got that one down pat. :-)

For information about The International Dark Sky Association, which has a plethora of information, CLICK HERE.

For the Wikipedia version, which includes lists of worldwide locations, CLICK HERE.

I live in the southeastern area of Colorado's Comanche National Grasslands, which is often listed in 'best places in Colorado to star gaze', even though it doesn't have the official international seal of darkness approval.

It’s amazing to think that throughout history (and prehistory) people looked at the same stars I’m looking at now.

A portion of Inspector Javert’s song “Stars” from the musical Les Misérables comes closest to expressing how I feel when looking at the stars, but only from 0:59 to 01:42, since the bulk of the song is about Javert’s vendetta to apprehend Jean Valjean.

As Agent K said to Agent J in Men in Black 1: They're beautiful, aren't they? The stars. I never really look at them anymore, but they actually are quite... beautiful.

Are you a star gazer? Constellation tracker? Night sky watcher?

Until next time,

Kaye Spencer
writing through history one romance upon a time

Image: *Stars/Milky Way – © Can Stock Photo / denbelitsky

Monday, March 7, 2022

Yellowstone: A New Era of Westerns by Elizabeth Clements

 Yellowstone: A New Era of Westerns

by Elizabeth Clements

Whether you hate it or love it, there is no denying the tv series, Yellowstone, has had a huge impact on viewers and on television. This writer hopes Taylor Sheridan’s inspired writing and directing of the series will instill understanding and revive interest in making more great western movies. Surely Hollywood is watching and producers and writers are compelled to make more movies of this genre that are loved by millions of people all over the world. Yes, lots of horses and cows are needed, but these days of camera magic, it’s still possible to make realistic scenes without breaking the budget (think Aquaman) [grin].

  One (of many things) things I appreciate about Yellowstone is it has brought people together on Facebook—talking, sharing opinions or agreeing to disagree, sharing movie clips and photographs and snippets of the stars of the show. It has distracted people (for a while) from the devastating and lingering effects of Covid and many being shut off from their normal activities. Switching off the news and chatting with on-line friends and strangers helps compensate from the void of not being able to visit with family and friends for far too long.

So, we’ve made on-line friends of strangers who we will never meet but who share a mutual interest: Kevin Costner, cowboys, horses, Montana, history, drama, love, violence, loyalty and the beautiful scenery of Montana and at times, Wyoming. Plus, I’ve discovered actors I’ve never seen before but am now a big fan of the Yellowstone family.

Then from Taylor Sheridan’s prolific pen we also have 1883 that shows the beginning of the Dutton dynasty, of people enduring hardships as they travel west in a wagon train. We know from watching Yellowstone, that Taylor doesn’t pull any punches, but shows life how it is, albeit, with a little of humor thrown in here and there to lighten the ever-unfolding drama. I haven’t watched 1883 yet, but I will. Through this series we learn even more history, and because of Taylor’s reputation of attention to facts and details, I think we can trust the history unfolding here. If the facts are presented truthfully, we learn much easier from watching a story than just doing the research ourselves.

Some people have commented on fan group forums that they’re offended by the language on Yellowstone. Yes, there are lots of f-bombs, etc., but swearing is so prevalent in action/adventure movies nowadays that it’s little wonder you encounter it now while walking down a street or in a pub. Blame it on the movie makers back in the late 60s/early 70s who wanted to make more realistic movies that reflect life. Bonnie and Clyde was pretty realistic with all those bullets raining into their car, compared to movies decades earlier that avoided close-ups of murder. To this day I’ve never forgotten the shock when naïve li’l ole me watched Clockwork Orange back in the late 60s. I’d been a moviegoer since childhood, but the only person who ever swore in any of the movies I went to was Rhett Butler saying to Scarlett, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” I’m sure that epithet careened around the world just like the shot that killed (?) JR in Dallas years later. [grin]

What makes Yellowstone so special for so many fans is the drama, the fight between good and evil, things we understand in our daily lives. We feel secure watching it from the safety of our recliners, but the issues are very real and familiar. We see loyalty of family, we see a dysfunctional family, we see evil and greed in many forms, yet can you blame a man for wanting to hold onto what he and his forefathers worked so hard for? We can relate that to our own lives, wanting to hang onto our home during hard times. Just some of us aren’t that brave or strong or smart as Beth Dutton. We see her pain and her faults but we cannot fault her loyalty. We cheer for her as she finds love with her soul mate, who needs her love and acceptance as much as Beth needs Rip’s. And thus we also cheer for Rip, despite what he’s done in his life. It begs the question: what if this were me? Would I have the courage of my loyalty, my beliefs?

Yes, there is violence in Yellowstone, but there’s violence all around us and we easily find it, even accidentally, when we turn on YouTube. If you don’t like something, just click to something else. Believe me, when I want to escape, I watch a lot of cats and dogs and children videos, or the plethora of music videos that help me escape for a few minutes…or an hour or two.

And when I get tired or bored with what’s on tv, I can turn to my DVD library for a couple of hours of escapism. Will it be a musical, a comedy, a legal thriller, or a western? Some movies we’ve watched so many times we could have been stand-ins for the actors. [grin] 

Since there are thousands of westerns made stemming back to the silent movies, I’m going to touch on the ones that have had a lasting impression on me. There are lots of westerns that are shoot-‘em-up action. Gunfights and posse pursuits are expected, just like car chase scenes are mandatory in the action-adventure movies. 

What I’m concentrating on here are the westerns that speak to the heart and give us a glimpse of what makes our western hero and heroine tick. We writers are guilty, to a certain extent, of romanticizing westerns and that’s understandable because life in the west was hard, sweaty and dirty, with few amenities and mostly grinding work. To appeal to our finer sensitivities, our hero and heroine must be reasonably clean and side on honorable, with good overpowering evil. I admit I’m not good at making my villains utterly evil, nor can I put my hero through too much torture, because I am, after all, a western romance writer, but I admire the writers who can accomplish both.

Despite being hooked on Yellowstone, my all-time favorite western is Dances With Wolves—and not just because of the fabulous scenery when Lieutenant John Dunbar rides over a ridge and sees the majesty of the western frontier spread out before him. That scenery reminds me of the beauty of the Cypress Hills only a 45-minute drive from where I live and where my western trilogy is set. I can see them as a smudge on the horizon when I am on a hill here in town. 

It’s no little coincidence that Kevin Costner should be involved in Yellowstone, because it reflects who he is and what he believes in, just like Lt. Dunbar or John Dutton. The message in this movie hit me between the eyes. Finally, Hollywood got it right, thanks to an excellent novel written by Michael Blake and Kevin Costner’s vision in directing and acting. For once the Native Americans were portrayed in a true light: not as murdering savages, but instead, a normal, peace-loving people who preferred a peaceful family life. There was humor and laughter, wisdom and acceptance. Yes, there were rogues, too, as there are in all races, but it particularly pointed out the ignorance and injustice prevalent in the settling of the West. Even though they sought freedom and a (better) life by going into the frontier, the settlers also brought their emotional baggage with them. That’s why I’ve often said civilization doesn’t change, only the window-dressing changes.

Oh how I despised the actions of those soldiers when they reached Dunbar’s deserted outpost. And did they really have to kill Two Socks for sport? One tiny little camera shot focused on an empty tin can of beans carelessly tossed onto the prairie by the pedlar. The only other things littering the prairie were the sun-bleached skulls of cows or buffalo or some other wild animal. (What will future generations think of our overflowing landfills?)

Another Costner movie I love nearly as much as DWS is Open Range. Yes, this movie has the usual greedy, bigoted scoundrel and a noisy shoot-out climatic ending, but what I love is the characterization of two cowhands (Costner and Robert Duval) on a cattle drive and a glimpse into the heart of a trail-hardened cowboy. One scene shows how Costner’s character is aware he’d tramped mud onto the heroine’s carpet and tries to scoop most of it up and brush it under the carpet. In a later scene he accidentally breaks her china tea service and leaves money with the store merchant to order a replacement.

Lonesome Dove, written by Larry McMurtry, starring Robert Duval and Tommy Lee Jones, is a fantastic movie and mini-series. It gives a gritty view of life in a small dusty Texas hamlet and the mundane, unglamorous life on a long cattle drive with coffee and beans being the  main staple for energy. The most succinct word to describe the landscape and the clothing is: beige. Everything is coated in dusty, boring beige. Even the clothes are beige. It also shows that special bond between a man and a woman down on her luck, as well as two old friends and promises kept (and was actually inspired by a true story of two Texans, Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving who took several thousand cattle north on a 900-mile cattle drive from Texas to Montana).

John Wayne starred in some great westerns. My favorite is classic McLintock. We’ve watched it so many times we know key passages, let alone know what happens next. This movie has everything, big rancher, big money, great chemistry between JW and Maureen O’Hara, and lots of humor. It also shows good relations between the rancher and Native Americans and how people want, and need to be, treated. Are my threads starting to weave a ball of familiarity of the western human spirit?

I enjoy Rio Bravo for so many reasons, but one scene makes this movie stand out from many other westerns. It’s the jailhouse scene where Dean Martin lies on a cot and croons My Rifle, My Pony and Me, accompanied by Ricky Nelson strumming his guitar. And loveable Walter Brennan, with his famous toothless cackle, joining in with his harmonica. Not something one would expect in the middle of a western, but unforgettably entertaining, especially when juxtaposed between Martin’s hopeless alcohol addiction and hired thugs terrorizing the town.

The Big Country with Gregory Peck is another favorite western that encompasses all the earmarks of a good-against-greed western movie. The actor is perfect in the role and oh my, the scenery leaves one breathless, just like in Yellowstone.

Three days before I saw the movie in the theater, I read the The Horse Whisperer, a debut novel by English novelist, Nicholas Evans. My biggest anticipation was how would Hollywood create the scene where the horse rose up to fight off the semi. I wasn’t disappointed. In fact the entire movie followed the book closely until the last quarter of the movie. Then it changed the romantic story line, which annoyed and disappointed me because it’s such a great movie with amazing scenery, filmed in Montana. Still, I have watched it several times and not just because Robert Redford plays an amazing part. 

“According to writer Nicholas Evans, Tom Booker is modelled after horse whisperers Tom Dorrance, Ray Hunt and, in particular, their younger disciple Buck Brannaman. Evans has said, "Others have claimed to be the inspiration for Tom Booker in The Horse Whisperer. The one who truly inspired me was Buck Brannaman. His skill, understanding and his gentle, loving heart have parted the clouds for countless troubled creatures. Buck is the Zen master of the horse world." 

Tom Selleck and Sam Elliot are my favorite western actors and quite often are my go-to movies when I want enjoyable entertainment (and satisfying eye candy). Thus, for me, I’ve kinda saved the best for last. Not everyone may agree with me, but then we can politely agree to disagree, eh? Both actors have a terrific portfolio of great movies and a theme is quite prevalent in them all: good, honest, decent western men with great human qualities of knowing what is right and acting upon it.

Conagher is a winner on so many levels and is my favorite of Sam’s 70+ movies. It’s a moving story revealing the hardship and loneliness of a widow’s life on the prairie and the heart of a weary saddle tramp who is moved by slips of poetry attached to tumbleweed that he finds on the prairie. 

Sam has teamed up with Tom Selleck in many westerns and with their big stature and amazing moustache, perfectly play bigger-than-life heroes. We have watched The Sackets so many times we can lip sync many of the lines and know the scenes. As in The Sackets, the two actors teamed up again with Jeff Osterhage to play three brothers at the end of the Civil War in The Shadow Riders, another great Louis L’Amour story.

Although I love both actors, for me Tom Selleck is number one ever since I first saw him in Magnum P.I.  back in the mid-70s. (On principle, I cannot and will not watch the unnecessary remake of the tv series.) Tom has made so many great movies from contemporary comedies to westerns and everything in between. I’m impatiently waiting for Blue Bloods to resume. The theme in all of them have a common link: good overcoming evil: Crossfire Trail, Quigley Down Under, The Sacketts, Last Stand at Sable River. And although it's not a western, I love the wonderful romantic High Road To China, set in the 1920s era. Fantastic scenery and such a beautiful score weaving in and out of the scenes, especially when the actors are “flying”.

In my humble opinion, Monte Walsh is one of the best movies to watch to understand the life of a cowboy who has his entire life  possessions rolled up behind his saddle. Tom is the star, but there’s a wonderful supporting cast. It doesn’t have the cussing prevalent in Yellowstone, but both movies realistically show the life of a cowboy/ranch hand, with some brilliants bits of humor. I highly recommend this movie for your DVD library.

Parts of this blog about my favorite western movies were taken from a blog I wrote a couple of years ago. I use them solely to complement the genius of Taylor Sheridan, a prolific writer and director before Yellowstone and 1883 exploded on our tv screens.

What is/are your favorite western movies? Where does Yellowstone fit into your viewing pleasure? Filming of Season 5 should begin in May with a release date in the late fall, I’d love to hear your take on Yellowstone and if will stimulate a comeback for great westerns. 

Excerpt: Beneath A Horse-Thief Moon

The Red Fox couldn't be Sara. Surely, she wouldn't be that brazen, that stupid to flaunt her red hair. There had to be an explanation. Yet the bartender's words remained. 

Sara was on the range the night cattle were rustled. Living here for twenty-four years she'd know the range like the inside of her cabin. Too many fingers all pointed in Sara's direction. And then there was the matter of her damned red hair.

Not wanting to believe the Red Fox could be Sara, Chase simply refused to, slowed Blaze to a canter and then a trot to give himself time to think. The cowhands' conversation he'd overheard in the coulee came back to him. Was Sara a victim…or a criminal?

 It was late by the time he descended the final coulee and the ranch buildings loomed in the starlight. At least Sara was home tonight, but with her penchant for lies he doubted he'd get the truth out of her concerning the nights she'd supposedly been rounding up cattle.

His dejected sigh slid into the darkness. Blaze's ears pricked and pointed back at the sound. Chase patted him on the neck. A horse really was a man's best friend. No lies, no secrets, just a little temperamental once in a while to keep a man on his toes. Now why couldn't a woman be more like a horse?

Music drifted on the night breeze. A campfire gave out a cheery glow as he rounded the giant cottonwood. Despite the late hour, several men clustered around the fire. A cowboy played “Oh, Susanna” on a mouth organ. Another waved for him to join them.

Chase didn't feel like going over, too heartsick to be much company. These were good men, neighbor willing to help neighbor. How would they feel if they found out Sara was the Red Fox?

“I'm turning in.” He nudged Blaze toward the barn. Fang appeared like a shadow from a stall and licked his hand. A good dog and horse were a man's best friends. He rubbed Fang behind his ears and the dog squirmed and panted in canine bliss.

Chase wished Sara was his best friend. 

The thought slid in so quietly that his hands stilled in Fang's thick pelt. Yeah, once they'd been best friends, a long time ago. 

Chase jerked to his feet, angry at himself for wasting time thinking of what-ifs. Sara was a liar and a cheat. And quite possibly a low-down thief. His anger turned to self-disgust as for a split second the memory of her body slipped past his guard and seared him with desire.

He unsaddled Blaze and rubbed him down while the horse munched oats. He heard something behind him. He looked over his shoulder. Sara stood in the doorway, a tin cup of steaming coffee in her hand. 

A familiar feeling swept over him. Except this time he wouldn't let her bewitch him. He didn't return her smile.

Sara's teeth scored her bottom lip. “You were gone a long time. I didn't think you were coming back. Could you use some coffee?” 

Chase buried the instant leap of pleasure at the thought of her waiting up for him, bringing him coffee. Unsmiling, he gazed at her, taking in every detail. There wasn't a speck of dust on her. Blue flannel shirts hid her breasts and hips. Baggy Levi's were tucked inside scuffed black boots. Her hair was out of sight under an old floppy brown felt hat.

And just that quick, despite everything he’d heard tonight, he wanted her.

Gritting his teeth, he concentrated on her hat. Here she kept her hair out of sight. So why didn't she do that when she was out stealing horses? Whoa. Don't condemn her without a trial. Yet looking at her, how could he think her capable of stealing? Because she lies. Someone who lies and cheats on her husband can't have much of a conscience.

Chase swore. Viciously.

Sara stopped. “Now what's wrong?”

Sunday, March 6, 2022

It's March - National Women's History Month

 Post by Doris McCraw

writing as Angela Raines

Photo of Elizabeth Blackwell
from Wikipedia

As a child of the 60s, I grew up with a lot of change in women's status. Those times brought a need to prove that women could overcome whatever was thrown at them. For that reason, we told ourselves stories from both the present and the past of women who had overcome. It was not about man bashing as it has come to be known, but instead calling out the inequities of the situations.

Abzug, and Steinem, were some of the current heroines. Blackwell, Stanton, Mott, and Stone were those heroines from the past. Someone to look up to, aspire to be like was heady wine to the women who wanted to be seen as equals. But, like all history, sometimes the stories told weren't the whole story.


I will be talking on other blogs about the film "Roshomon" and its message. Suffice it to say, as the film illustrates, we tell the story we need to tell. (A simplified version of the lesson).

It was true Blackwell was admitted to college as a joke by the males of that all-male college. The part of the story left out by most was Blackwell's thoughts on the subject. In her autobiography, she mentions that what the men in the college thought, she didn't care. It was the way the women in the town treated her that she was hurt by. For me, that takes even more courage, standing up to the remarks of people who should be supporting you.

As women moved west they found new freedoms. While women doctors were shunned, especially back east, those who came west didn't seem to have it quite so bad. In Colorado, the medical society brought up the idea of admitting women in 1876. The American Medical Association admitted a woman to their ranks in 1874. 

As we tell our stories, it helps to know why we tell the story we do. For me, National Women's History Month is important. Each generation that is removed from the original idea, unless they face similar problems, forget what it was like. For me, telling the stories of these people is important as is the challenges they faced.

Have a great March and tell the stories you need to tell.

Doris McCraw

Tuesday, March 1, 2022

Vile bodies: Obscure Facts About Famous Victorians

Vile Bodies: Obscure Facts About Famous Victorians

By C. A. Asbrey

It's hard to get a sense of the real life in the 19th century. We see the stiff, upright portraiture, but we rarely see them smile, slump after a picture has been taken, or even their normal gait. So often the moving pictures are speedier than real time, and the flickering screens add an air of unreality to their ghosts on the screen. We can't smell the body odour of people who mostly bathed once a week, if they were lucky, nor the heavy perfumes they used to cover them—not that the attempts were always successful. We can't smell their sewers, the burning gas, the oil in the lamps, their farts, their food, or the smoke from their fires, industries, and fetid pollution. 

They remain figures frozen in aspic, in old portraits and photographs, adopting the positions which they thought would reflect them in their best light for as long as anyone would look at them. But how much does that tell us about the real human beings? Do their flaws add humanity? Can we learn about their strengths from their weaknesses? Do we understand how similar, or different, they are to us in their coping mechanisms? I think it makes them all so much more fascinating, adding flesh to the bones, and makes them seem more alive—especially, when they are things they wanted to keep hidden. We all share those human frailties and vanities at some level, so I thought it would be interesting to look at a few minor details which may make you see them in a slightly different light.

For instance, were you aware that Jules Verne walked with a limp? His nephew shot him twice in a state of paranoia, but he was a kindly man, and paid the medical bills to keep the nephew in comfort for the rest of his life. That was hushed up, clearly a matter of family shame. It only makes him more endearing to me. Another thing hushed up were the antecedents of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Even though her husband called her 'my little Portuguese', her colouring and features didn't come from the Mediterranean. They came from her African ancestry—from her family plantations in Jamaica a mere two generations before—and she was proud of it. It informed her activism in anti-slavery movements, anti-child labour, and anti-forced prostitution. Once more, that's something hushed up outside her intimate circles at the time, but now more-widely known, and appreciated by future generations. William Wordsworth's poems on disability, and on the perfect woman take on a new light when you know that the reason he looked so different from the back to the front was down to his scoliosis. 

A beardless Charles Dickens 

Charles Dickens gave himself a number of nicknames, including ‘The Sparkler of Albion’, ‘The Inimitable’, ‘Revolver’, and ‘Resurrectionist’. Those make him sound like a supremely confident person, but that couldn't be further from the truth. He was extremely shy, when not hiding behind a persona, and was especially insecure about his weak chin. It's the reason he grew his beard, but that gave rise to a new insecurity, as he was unable to grow a full beard. The famous 'doorknocker beard' as a kind of prosthesis to disguise it. The style wasn't a matter of choice. He was amongst the many men who had patchy growth. And he wasn't the only one hiding behind the hair.

Charles Darwin was plagued by red, scaly, patches that were exacerbated by shaving - so the full beard for which he became famous was grown. In his own words, he was 'hideous.' 

Tennyson as a young man

Alfred Tennyson had been a very handsome young man, but he too retreated behind a curtain of hair to hide his deficiencies as he aged. Apart from suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, he was said to suffer from epilepsy, depression, and he lost all his teeth The tooth loss resulted in bone loss in the mouth, and a collapse in his features, something not corrected by the set of 'queer' false teeth he used from the age of 45. The full beard was a perfect camouflage. The American poet Longfellow had a more altruistic motive. He was horribly scarred rescuing his wife from a fire, and hid behind the hirsuteness of the age. It has to be said that many women of the age did not share their men's enthusiasm for the cultivation of anything they could grow. Emily Tennyson longed for him to "to shave off his malodorous attachment", while the wife of the Duke of Newcastle was known to observe that she could always tell how many courses he had consumed at dinner from looking at it.   

And hiding physical oddities wasn't just a male phenomenon. Mary Ann Evans, better known as George Elliot, had one hand larger than the other. This was a legacy of making butter on her family farm for years, at an average speed of forty revolutions a minute, building up the muscles in one hand. All fairly inconsequential you'd think, especially as she made it a feature of Hetty Sorrel in Adam Bede It was a way to indicate the character's humble beginnings, and a feature to be ashamed of and be hidden.

However, after her death in 1880, her family were dismayed to find her first unauthorised biography contained the story, and her descendants set about dismantling the rumours. For the next fifty years, everyone writing about her was compelled to say that both her hands were the same size.   

Many writers injured themselves with their excesses, mostly through overwork. Herman Melville's family almost staged an intervention before they were even invented, to prevent him from overworking. Giacomo Leopardi, the poet, blamed his hump on 'scholarly excess' when in fact it was scoliosis, but not helped by a lifetime hunched over a desk. Honoré de Balzac became so addicted to coffee he found that drinking copious amounts no longer cut it. He began eating raw coffee grounds on an empty stomach. I don't think many were surprised when he succumbed to a caffeine overdose at the age of 51.

The Tennyson/Dickens ring

And then there were the personality traits their descendants wanted to keep quiet. The nature of Queen Victoria's relationship with her Ghillie, John Brown, and servant, Mohammed Abdul Karim, was lost to the world forever when her family insisted that all diaries, letters, and paperwork related to them be burned on her death. H.G. Wells had one of the largest collections of porn in the country (no mean feat in England), including records of his own sexual shenanigans, in the country. Dickens was a fan of annoying pranks, with females especially centred-out for his attentions. He once dragged a random young woman to the waterside and threatened to kill her by throwing her in—claiming to be in love with her when people intervened. His famous name saved him from prosecution. And Dickens' bad behaviour brings us on to the love-children who were everywhere in the Victorian period. Not only was he said to have at least two children with Ellen Tiernan, but he was rumoured to have numerous others scattered around the country. In February 2009 a ring went up for sale by an anonymous seller. It was inscribed 'Alfred Tennyson to Charles Dickens 1854', and was indeed a gift to Dickens from Tennyson. The sellers say the ring was passed down from a Hector Dickens, an illegitimate child of an affair between the author and his sister-in-law. However, a DNA test showed that Hector Dickens was not a direct descendant, but was related to a cousin. This goes to show that family lore and rumour alone can't be trusted. But was his story true, but just ascribed to the wrong Dickens? These family whispers so often alter in the telling, so it's possible.

And Dickens tale isn't the only one. Catherine Donovan was born in 1866, and received a generous allowance from Disraeli all her life. Her family say she was urged to go to Australia, and then New Zealand, when Disraeli became Prime Minister, and bore a striking likeness to Queen Victoria's favourite prime minister. Nobody knows if he was her father, as rumoured.

None of these revelations need to be seen as prurient. They are intended as being a glimpse at the real humans behind the promoted images, and to show the difference between their society and ours. Today these celebrities would be on the front pages selling a tell-all story about almost everything itemised above. In their day, the struggle with their demons was something they were happy to tamp down. The dichotomies in their society were seen as a good thing, where we see them as unhealthy. People often knew the truth, but went along with the vision of a confirmed bachelor, a child suddenly being adopted in the family after a female relative took a discrete leave of absence, the woman who showed zero interest in marriage, and the soldiers who arrived home with the a child of a 'friend' who desperately needed to be adopted—they just kept their mouths shut and got on with it. Only occasional whispers might carry down the generations, but the secrecy often altered them slightly in the repeated tellings, until they are no longer the truth. With the rich and famous we generally have better records to find the truth.

Catherine Donovan and Bejamin Disraeli at about the same age 

In a world where a groom might celebrate his marriage with a visit to a prostitute, and where a doctor routinely lied to the wife about the venereal disease she contracted from her new husband, manners were easier to maintain than morals. Especially when the rules were so unevenly applied in a stratified society. The Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen once said, "Nothing changes more than what is shocking."

I think that almost everything I've noted here about the famous of the 19th century would be something we'd either celebrate or empathise with their struggles. They'd be on television being interviewed about their illnesses, bloodline, struggle from a life of poverty, and mental health. It's notable that in their day, these were things to hide, and even a matter of shame. The excesses that the powerful men walked away from are different. They were tolerated for far too long, and only now have we started tugging that long thread to remove it from our part of the tapestry.  

I'm not saying for a moment that we are better, or even nicer. I'm just saying that we're different. To us, the 'flaws' and secrets are humanising. To the average Victorian they meant loss of face. And anyone who has ever investigated their own family tree will find their own version of the secrets laid out above. Psychologists say that a quick trick to connect with someone in a conversation is to confide in the other person. Finding the secrets in your own family works in a similar way and forges a bond with your own ancestors—especially when we have the exactly same foibles today.          



Almost everyone woke simultaneously, jolted by the sound of the brakes grinding, and the engine puffing and huffing in protest at an unscheduled stop. Jake’s hand reached for his gun even before he was fully conscious.

“No!” The cry came from Jeffrey, the younger steward, who staggered into the aisle in shock.

Nat strode out of the curtained area, fastening his trousers. “What’s wrong?”

“Mrs. Hunter,” Jeffrey stammered. “She’s dead.”

Nat dragged the curtain aside, revealing the tiny-framed woman lying in a pool of blood. He kneeled and scrutinized her. “Bring a lamp.” He reached out and touched her face. “She’s alive. She’s warm. Fetch Philpot. He’s a doctor.”

The Englishman wandered groggily forward. “I’m not a doctor. I’m a—”

“We don’t care what you are, Philpot,” Jake growled. “You’re the nearest thing we’ve got. You’ve got medical training. Get in there.”

Mrs. Hunter’s eyes flickered weakly open. “My moonstone. Miss Davies—she took it.” She fell back into insensibility.

Jake frowned and his keen blue eyes looked up and down the railway car at the passengers crowded in the aisle in various stages of undress. “Where is Miss Davies? Have you seen her, Abi? You’re bunkin’ with her.”

“No, she isn’t here.” Abigail frowned. “I haven’t seen her for ages. She wasn’t even in her bunk when I changed Ava.”

Malachi padded briskly up to the group, pushing various butlers out of his way as they milled around. “Oh, my goodness! The poor woman.”

Jake nodded. “Yeah, Philpot’s seein’ to her. She’s still alive. Why’ve we stopped? We ain’t at a station.”

Malachi quickly fastened a stray button. “I’m sorry, gentlemen. I have been informed that a rock fall has blocked the tracks. We will dig it out and be on our way as soon as possible.”

“A rock fall? So, how far to a station?” Nat asked. “We’re high in the mountains, miles from anywhere.”

There was another ominous rumble somewhere above them and the carriage shook. The roof thundered with the thumps and clattering of stones and gravel pounding the roof. Worried glances rose upward while Abigail hunched protectively over her baby. The noise gradually stopped, but for an occasional patter of settling gravel and stones shifting above them.

The head steward’s brow crinkled into a myriad of furrows. “I’d best go and check that out.”

Nat’s brows knotted into a frown. “We’re miles from anywhere? So where has Maud Davies gone?” 

“With the moonstone?” Jake strode over to the door and looked out at the huge feathery flakes drifting down from the heavy skies onto an expansive mountainous vista. “There’s nowhere to go.”