On this day in 1891, Henrik Ibsen’s play “Ghosts” opened for one night only at The Independent Theatre in London. The play had run into trouble with the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, which licensed plays, because it mentioned venereal disease, so J.T. Grein, a Dutchman, formed a private theatrical company to get around the threatened ban. Among its members were Thomas Hardy, George Meredith, Arthur Wing Pinero and a 35-year-old Socialist drama critic, George Benard Shaw.
The production of “Ghosts” was a success, and moved to a public theater. It also aroused great controversy. Newspapers blasted it as “an open drain . . . a dirty act done publicly . . . revoltingly suggestive and blasphemous . . . and as foul and filthy a concoction as has ever been allowed to disgrace the boards of an English theatre.”
But the next year, Grein complained to Shaw that he had not found a British playwright capable of writing like Ibsen. Shaw took the opportunity to offer his play and baited Grein by adding that he’d never have the courage to produce it. Grein accepted the challenge, and in late 1892, Shaw’s first play, “Widowers’ Houses” made its debut.
On this day in 1958, Norman Mailer sends fellow novelist and literary friend William Styron a letter. He had heard reports that Styron was spreading the rumor that Mailer’s wife was a lesbian, and Mailer told him to knock it off, concluding:
“So I tell you this, Billy-boy. you have got to learn to keep your mouth shut about my wife, for if you do not, and I hear of it again, I will invite you to a fight in which I expect to stomp out of you a fat amount of your yellow and treacherous shit.”
Styron wrote back, refusing to answer the accusation, and noting, “Your letter was so mean and contemptible, so revealing of some other attitude toward me aside from my alleged slander, but most importantly so utterly false, that it does not deserve even this much of a reply.”
Mailer sent the note back with a scrawl at the bottom: “I just back from a few days in Florida, and found this billet-doux. So I invite you to get together with me face-to-face and repeat that my letter is mean, contemptible, and false — if you feel up to it. If you don’t, recognize your reply for what it is — a crock of shit.”
The two friends would not exchange another word for 25 years, but they crossed swords again in print. In an essay in “Advertisement for Myself,” Mailer wrote that Styron “has spent years oiling every literary lever and power which could help him on his way, and there are medals waiting for him in the mass-media” and offered advice on how he should write his next novel.
Styron responded by portraying Mailer in his next book, and to drive his portrayal home in a way only Mailer would recognize: by quoting the “yellow and treacherous shit” line from Mailer’s letter to him.
The two men would reconcile in the early 1980s after Styron came to Mailer’s defense after his criminal protégé, Jack Henry Abbott, released from prison through Mailer’s influence, stabbed a waiter to death.
On this day in 1964, Kitty Genovese, a 28-year-old bar manager from Brooklyn, was stabbed to death about three in the morning outside her apartment in Kew Gardens, Queens. A story in The New York Times two weeks later claimed that 38 neighbors looked on but none called for help, and the murder entered American culture as a cautionary story about city life, about man’s inhumanity to man, or a reflections of the perils a woman living by herself in the big city.
The truth, however, was far more complicated. The police investigation found far few neighbors involved, and many of those did not realize an attack was in progress, but thought they heard a lovers’ quarrel, or an argument. One neighbor who heard the attack yelled at the attacker, who left, but returned later, found Genovese in a hallway inside her building, and killed her there.
Winston Moseley, a machine operator with a family, confessed to the killing, and to two others, and was sentenced to death for murder. His death sentence was overturned by the New York Court of Appeals, and he remains in prison today.
QUOTE FOR THE DAY
Today’s quote is from Janet Flanner, the longtime correspondent for The New Yorker who wrote essays from Europe under the penname “Genet.” Three years before the start of the Second World War, Flanner wrote a three-part story on Adolf Hitler’s rise to power that neatly encapsulates the man, and this is an excerpt from it:
”Lacking the cerebral faculty of creating new public ideologies, as a fanatic [Hitler] has developed his unusual capacity for adapting those of others. Being self-taught, his mental processes are mysterious; he is missionary-minded; his thinking is emotional, his conclusions material. He has been studious with strange results: he says he regards liberalism as a form of tyranny, hatred and attack as part of man’s civic virtues, and equality of men as immoral and against nature. Since he is a concentrated, introspective dogmatist, he is uninformed by exterior criticism. On the other hand, he is a natural and masterly advertiser, a phenomenal propagandist within his limits, the greatest mob orator in German annals, and one of the most inventive organizers in European history. He believes in intolerance as a pragmatic principle. He accepts violence as a detail of state, he says mercy is not his affair with men, yet he is kind to dumb animals…. His moods change often, his opinions never. Since the age of twenty, they have been mainly anti-Semitic, anti-Communist, anti-suffrage, and Pan-German. He has a fine library of six thousand volumes, yet he never reads; books would do him no good—his mind is made up.”
BIRTHS AND DEATHS
Born: Joseph Priestley, scientist, essayist, theologian, Birstall, Fieldhead, Yorkshire, 1733; Hugh Walpole, novelist, critic, playwright, Auckland, New Zealand,1884; Genét (ps. Janet Flanner), journalist, Indianapolis, Ind., 1892; George Seferis, poet, Smyrna, Anatolia, Ottoman Empire, 1900; L(afayette) Ronald Hubbard, novelist, essayist, Tilden, Neb., 1911; W(illiam) O(rmond) Mitchell, author, Weyburn, Saskatchewan, Canada, 1914.
Died: Jean de La Fontaine, poet, Paris, 1695; Nicolas Boileau-Despreaux, essayist, satirist, poet, critic, Paris, 1711; Stephen Vincent Benet, poet, novelist, short-story writer, librettist, New York City, 1943; John Middleton Murry, essayist, biographer, Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk, 1957; Ivo Andric, novelist, short-story writer, Belgrade, Yugoslavia, 1975; Garson Kanin, actor, screenwriter, memoirist, New York City, 1999.