Yesterday was my birthday, so let’s see what happened in the world of literature and culture on the 18th of September.
Today is the birthday of Samuel Johnson (books by this author), born in Litchfield, England (1709). He was a sickly child, but very intelligent, and when he decided to wed at the age of 25, he set out in search of an intelligent wife. He found one in Elizabeth Porter Jervis, whom he called “Tetty.” Jervis, at 46, was 21 years his senior, a widow, and had three children. When she met Johnson, she remarked to her daughter, “That is the most sensible man I ever met.” Johnson referred to the marriage as “a love-match on both sides” and grieved her deeply after her death in 1752.
Johnson single-handedly compiled A Dictionary of the English Language. Published in 1755, it took him nine years to complete, and contained almost 43,000 words. Johnson illustrated many of the words with quotes from literature. He also used humor. One of many examples was his definition of oats: “A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland appears to support the people.”
He was also a prolific essayist, writing for publications like The Rambler and The Idler. He grew famous for his pithy aphorisms, like “The jest which is expected is already destroyed.” And “Marriage has many pains, but celibacy has no pleasures.”
It was on this date in 1793 that George Washington laid the cornerstone for the Capitol Building. The original building was much smaller than the one we know today, because members of Congress didn’t have offices; they worked at desks in the main chamber. The cornerstone was crafted by a silversmith named Caleb Bentley. Washington, who was a Freemason, was dressed in his ceremonial Masonic sash and apron as he laid the stone.
The jewelry store Tiffany & Co. was founded in New York City on this date in 1837. It was billed as a “stationery and fancy goods emporium” at the time. Charles Lewis Tiffany and his business partner, John B. Young, opened the store with $1,000 that had been loaned to them by Tiffany’s father. The company was soon popular with the New York elite, and Abraham Lincoln bought jewelry for Mary Todd at the store, but it first achieved international fame in 1867, when it became the first American company to win the grand prize for silver craftsmanship at the Paris World’s Fair. In addition to high-end jewelry, Tiffany & Co. also produces custom designs for various professional organizations; they’ve created the Super Bowl trophy since the very first Super Bowl in 1967.
Truman Capote made it famous with his novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s in 1958. The heroine, Holly Golightly, takes a cab down to Tiffany’s whenever she’s feeling low. She says: “It calms me down right away, the quietness and the proud look of it; nothing very bad could happen to you there, not with those kind men in their nice suits, and that lovely smell of silver and alligator wallets. If I could find a real-life place that made me feel like Tiffany’s, then I’d buy some furniture and give the cat a name.” It was made into a movie in 1961 starring Audrey Hepburn.
It’s the birthday of actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith (books by this author), born in Baltimore, Maryland (1950). She’s appeared on television series like Nurse Jackie and The West Wing, but she has devoted most of her career to the stage. She’s known for her “documentary theatre” productions, like Twilight: Los Angeles 1992 (1994), about the aftermath of the Rodney King beating; or Fires in the Mirror (1992), about the Crown Heights riots in Brooklyn. Smith puts on one-woman shows in which she chooses a troubling event in contemporary America, does extensive interviews with people who were involved, and then turns those people into characters. She mimics their language, voices, and mannerisms. The New York Times called her “the ultimate impressionist,” claiming, “she does people’s souls.” In the late 1990s, she founded Anna Deavere Smith Works, an organization that brings artists, dancers, actors, and writers together to work for social change.
Today is the birthday of Swedish actress Greta Garbo, born Greta Gustafsson in Stockholm (1905). She grew up in a poor neighborhood, a shy child who preferred daydreaming and play-acting to school. When her father died of Spanish flu in 1920, she had to leave school and go to work to help support the family. Her first job was in a barbershop, as a “lather girl,” and she also found work as a department store model. Her modeling jobs led to some small roles in advertising films for the store and for a local bakery.
While studying at the Royal Dramatic Theatre, she caught the eye of silent-film director Mauritz Stiller. He took her under his wing, changed her last name to “Garbo” and cast her in his film The Saga of G?sta Berling (1923). When Stiller signed a deal with MGM in Hollywood, he insisted on bringing his star with him. The studio set about to craft a persona for the aloof Swedish actress, portraying her as a woman of mystery, and though they had only agreed to put her under contract to get Stiller on board, they soon discovered that she had star potential.
Flesh and the Devil (1926) made Garbo an international celebrity, and it was during the filming that she met and fell for her co-star, John Gilbert. Garbo and Gilbert went on to star in a silent film adaptation of Anna Karenina, called Love (1927), as well as two more features, and got engaged. But Garbo called off the wedding at the last minute, and though she had a few high-profile relationships over the years, she never married.
Garbo traveled, and had many close friends, and she was fond of walking around New York City — but she did guard her privacy fiercely. Parodies of Garbo always include the line “I want to be alone,” delivered in a heavy Swedish accent. It comes from the movie Grand Hotel (1932), and it’s always been strongly associated with Garbo since she appeared so melancholy and solitary. But she once pointed out, “I never said ‘I want to be alone.’ I only said ‘I want to be let alone!’ There is all the difference.”