Here’s a sample piece from my new ebook, Roughly Six Hundred Words, which is a collection of seven unpublished newspaper columns from 2013 and which you can get FREE as a PDF between now and October 16. (The collection will be published by Amazon Kindle on the 16th.)
A couple years ago, after reading a book called The Do-It-Yourselfer’s Guide to Self-Syndication, I got the idea that I’d self-syndicate a newspaper column. I’d e-submit a 600-or-so-word general interest column article weekly to a list of newspapers in the US, and, hopefully, get enough bites to sustain me as a writer while I worked on my fiction.
For a lot of different reasons, the idea didn’t work, and after writing and submitting fewer than ten articles to my list, I gave up on it.
But I recently rediscovered the pieces, and thought that they were too good to just gather dust on the cloud (now there’s a figure of speech that would have been meaningless ten years ago!).
I always felt like these pieces deserved readers, and now, with Roughly Six Hundred Words, they get a second chance.
A sample column from the book is below.
After October 16, “Roughly Six Hundred Words” will be priced at 99 cents, but the first weekend that this PDF ebook is available, I am pricing it as a FREE pay-what-you-want item. If you want to read it free, then just enter $0.00 as the price when you check out. If you want to pay more, it’s up to you.
What does it mean to be “Vermonted”?
Right now, the trees here are “being Vermonted:” ablaze, as Garrison Keillor once said, with colors so bright that Crayola doesn’t make them for fear kids would color outside the lines.
When I first moved to Vermont, though, I discovered another definition of “being Vermonted.”
A couple years ago, my old Plymouth Reliant needed major repairs to pass inspection. I didn’t know any local mechanics, so I settled on a local Chrysler dealer. A dealer would know the car and get parts quickly and cheaply, right?
“I’m going to Pennsylvania for a week,” I said, “and I’d like to pick it up when I get back.”
O.K., they replied.
I rented a car and drove to Pennsylvania for a week. When I came back to Vermont, my inspection not only wasn’t done; it hadn’t even been started. It was another week of their excuses and my prodding before I had my car.
When I told a friend about this, she said, “Congratulations! You’ve just been Vermonted.”
I’d never heard the term, but somehow, I knew exactly what she meant.
Vermont is a lot different than Flatland (any state south of Vermont). In Flatland, there’s a level of stress and anxiety that many people accept as a given. To me, the quintessential Flatland attitude was reflected in a road sign I once saw at the entrance to the Washington DC beltway:
BE PREPARED FOR SUDDEN AGGRAVATION!
Vermonters reject that stress level. Vermont has a reputation of being a little slower, a little more deliberate, and a lot of that has to do with the seasons. You can’t force many of the things that come with seasonal change, nor can you resist them. You do what needs done when the seasons dictate. When winter approaches, you put snow tires on the car. When the sap flows, it’s time for maple sugaring. When the leaves start to change, you welcome tourists.
That’s the Vermont attitude. Roll with the changes.
Some Vermonters, though, use this “roll with it” attitude as an excuse for negligence or irresponsibility. It’s not that delays and problems don’t happen; it’s that they pretend that they can blame those delays and problems on Vermont.
An example: a couple days ago, I took my usual 15-mile commute down an unpaved back road. It’s a lovely drive, but about halfway to work, I got stuck behind a road grader. The dumptruck had dumped loose rock and dirt on the roadbed, and it had to be smoothed down.
On my way to work, with no other route available, I was now driving 15 miles per hour.
Fortunately, from experience, I knew that I need to allot time for these things. In cases where there’s only one way to travel, I figure in a minute per two miles traveled for road work, tieups, accidents, and those times that you get stuck in a line of traffic behind a leafpeeper who needs to drive 32 in a 50 mph zone so they can keep an eye opened for moose.
Having allotted that extra time, I knew I’d make it to work early, and I did.
If I was the kind of Vermonter who “Vermonted,” I wouldn’t have allotted the time, and, when I showed up late for work, blamed the grader for getting in my way, and not myself for planning poorly.
Sometimes being Vermonted manifests itself in other ways. When I lived in Stowe, I had another vehicle that needed an inspection, and a coworker suggested a “mechanic” whose “garage” was on a back road about five miles out of town.
“Düde,” he said, “I took my Wagoneer there. I knew it needed some work to pass. I pulled it into his garage, got out. He walked around it once, got in the front seat, scraped the old sticker off the windshield with a paint scraper, stuck a new one on, and said ‘Thirty-five bucks.’
“I paid him, and as I started the engine, a state cop pulled into his driveway. The mechanic knocked on the window and said, ‘If he asks you any questions, tell him you had it here overnight!’”
Now THAT’S being Vermonted!
I’ve been reading Robert Bader’s Marx Brothers biography, Four of the Three Musketeers, serially, a chapter at a time every couple weeks or so. I’m up to chapter nine.
Bader’s focus is on the brothers’ years as vaudeville and stage performers, before they went to Hollywood and broke through as movie stars. Four of the Three Musketeers is a thick book, very dense and exhaustively researched but also beautifully written, fun and funny.
Bader addresses all the myths and contradictions in the brothers’ history and, like any good historian, when a contradiction can’t be resolved conclusively based on the evidence at hand, he leaves it at that. It’s quite possibly one of the best biographies I’ve ever read, and, along with Richard Anobile’s Marx Brothers Scrapbook, the best book I’ve read about them.
The book is packed with great stories, and one of my favorites, which I posted on Facebook a while back, was the story about 9-year-old Gummo’s vaudeville debut in an act with his uncle, Harry Shean. Harry was the brother of Al Shean, who was a successful vaudeville performer; Gummo’s older brother Julius (Groucho) had already succeeded on the stage, so perhaps someone was thinking that success runs in the family.
Unfortunately, Uncle Harry was nearly deaf, and Gummo had a bad stammer. So what was the act they chose to take onstage? A ventriloquist act, of course, with Gummo acting as a fake dummy, “stuffed into a hollow ventriloquist’s dummy with a papier-mâché head.”
According to Gummo, “I operated the mechanical part as well as speaking. Uncle Harry just stood there.”
As Bader writes, “A deaf ventriloquist with a stammering fake dummy wouldn’t seem to have much chance for success.” And a fake ventriloquist would get booed off the stage, so, to “prove” to the audience that the dummy was “real,” Gummo put both legs down into one pantsleg of the dummy; the other leg was stuffed with sawdust, and Uncle Harry would jab a long pin into the stuffed leg. When the dummy didn’t scream or jump, the audience would know that it was “real.”
So one night, early in the act’s history, Uncle Harry raised the pin and jabbed it down into the dummy’s leg… except… he jabbed it into the wrong leg.
Gummo screamed and jumped from his uncle’s lap.
And that was the end of their ventriloquist act.
In a 1969 interview with Dick Cavett, before singing “Lydia The Tattooed Lady” from the Marx Brothers film At The Circus, Groucho Marx told this story about the production of the film…
In this picture (At The Circus) we had a gorilla. It wasn’t actually a gorilla… it was a gorilla skin with a man inside of it. And he had a manager… this gorilla skin had a manager! This is true!
And we engaged them to bring the pelt over to the studio and then we engaged a man to go inside of the gorilla skin. And he also had a manager. So we had two managers there for one gorilla!
And, you know, this skin was awfully hot, with all the lights, and it was in the summer we were doing this scene. And during lunchtime, the fellow who was in the skin, he went over to the lunchroom, and he got an ice pick, and he bored about 40 holes in this gorilla skin. And when he came back he was very comfortable inside of this skin.
But the manager got wind of this– the manager of the skin. And he was in a rage. And he says to us, “We’re not going to permit this,” and he says “Give me my skin– get that guy out of there!”– threw the pelt over his shoulder and walked out of the studio.
Now we had about three more scenes to do with the gorilla but we had no skin!
So we had six people from MGM rushing around San Diego and all around that section of California looking for another monkey. We needed another gorilla. But we couldn’t get one– we got an orangutan, which is only half the size of a gorilla. And then we had to get a midget to go into this orangutan skin.
And then we got hundreds of letters when the picture come out, from fans who said, “We don’t understand it. The gorilla was this high (puts his hands over his head) at the start of the picture, and he was only this high (puts his hands at his waist) in the second half.”
And we never told them that we had an orangutan with a midget in it.
Click on the screenshot to the right to view the complete 1969 Dick Cavett interview with Groucho. Groucho tells this story at about the 19 minute mark.
One of the projects I’m working on a little bit at a time is an expanded book version of my articles about Vermont’s soldiers at the Battle of Gettysburg, and part of that book will include the text of an 1864 Vermont soldier’s memoir entitled The Second Brigade.
I’m about 2/3 through the slow process of formatting that manuscript; my source for the text is a New York City Public Library scan of the original 1864 book: JPG files which I ran through an online text conversion (OCR) program.
Here is a scan of the first page of chapter one:
When I ran this page through the photo-to-text conversion program, here’s what I got:
Each valley, each sequestered glen,
Mustered its little horde of men,
That met as torrents from the height
In highland dales their streams unite,
Till at the rendezvous they stood
By hundreds. prompt for blowszdtr.CoTT.
Amazingly, I have seen many, many online documents like this, and in fact have also bought several Kindle edition e-books, where the text was apparently converted from a JPG scan using an OCR program and NOT edited or proofread.
But, you know, as blowszdtr.CoTT said, Tivilorethnt’fon,tirt.irlinotnsfrong.
It was told by Morrie Ryskind, one of the writers who worked on the Marx Brothers’ stage show of Animal Crackers. Harry Ruby was a songwriter who worked on the book for that play (and movie). This was taken from an interview that originally appeared in the book The Marx Brothers’ Scrapbook by Richard Anobile and Groucho Marx, which, itself, might be my favorite show biz book of all-time. An oral history anchored by interviews with Groucho, the Scrapbook also featured interviews with writers and actors who worked with the team. The book was hugely inspirational to me as a fiction writer, in that it taught me that…
…”the same story” could be told from multiple perspectives; and
…the differences in those retellings could be a tremendous tool in revealing character; and, finally
… BE FUNNY.
Ryskind discusses the 1928 opening of Animal Crackers off-Broadway, and says…
…We opened the show in Philadelphia and from the very first night we knew it was a hit.
As it happened, during the weeks we played in Philly, Groucho had a birthday. So all the boys got together and we decided to give him a bathrobe for his birthday. Well, there was (George) Kaufman and myself, the three other brothers, Sam Harris, Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby and we each chipped in ten bucks and got Groucho an eighty dollar bathrobe. And he was very pleased with it.
Finally, as the show ran, the bathrobe got to be sort of a tradition. Whenever someone’s birthday came along the other guys would chip in and get him a bathrobe. I’ll never forget the night I got Harpo his bathrobe. I had gone to Broadway to get his but the only nice one they had was less expensive. So I gave it to him and he wouldn’t take it. He insisted it had to be an $80 robe and he went right out to exchange it. We had to hold up the curtain a half hour while he went out to get an $80 robe!
Anyway, before long, everybody got his robe except for Harry Ruby. He’s a very funny guy. About a week before his birthday we all got engraved announcements that his birthday was such-and-such a day and told us not to forget to chip in and do the right thing.
We had a consultation among the fellows and we thought it might be nice to string Harry along. So on his birthday he comes into the theater, I think it was a Friday night, and everybody says “Hello, Harry!”
And he asked, “Do you know what date this is?”
“Yes,” we said, “it’s Friday.”
“Oh, come on, where is it?”
Finally, Groucho and I went over to have a talk with him and we explained that we were all getting a little tired of the tradition about the bathrobe so we decided to stop it.
Well, Harry decided to search all of the dressing rooms, sure that we had bought it, but we hadn’t. He then figured we’d give it to him at the Saturday matinee or evening performance, but still no bathrobe.
“How can you do a thing like that?” he questioned. Still no bathrobe.
On the following Monday we got an announcement from his attorney that Harry was suing us for the bathrobe, but that didn’t bother us.
During the performance that same evening something happened. You know, there’s the scene where Captain Spaulding (Groucho) is going to show Maggie Dumont the things he collected in Africa. He instructs that his chest of trophies be brought out and they come onstage in a magnificent trunk.
There before the audience the servants open the trunk and out steps Harry Ruby who asks Groucho “Where the hell is my bathrobe?” and walks off the stage.
He got it shortly afterwards.
Click here to see a Youtube video of the variety show Hollywood Palace from 1965. At the 50-minute mark, Groucho Marx and Margaret Dumont recreate the “Captain Spaulding” scene from Animal Crackers for the last time. The show was taped on February 26, 1965, and Margaret Dumont died on March 6, before the show was aired.
I’m two chapters into Four Of The Three Musketeers, Robert Bader’s densely detailed, fun book about the Marx Brothers’ career onstage, from their formative years up to the end, when they toured stage versions of their films to gauge audience reactions.
It’s fun to read in detail about incidents and people to which the brothers (mainly Groucho) alluded but glossed over in other books, articles and interviews.
For example, chapter two closes with an authoritative account of Groucho’s first paying touring vaudeville job, as one of the performers in the Leroy Trio, led by a cross-dressing singer named Gene Leroy. 14-year-old Groucho was left stranded in Denver, Colorado, when Leroy took off with the act’s earnings. In other accounts I’ve read (most notably in the hilarious oral history The Marx Brothers Scrapbook), Groucho had less-than-complimentary things to say about Leroy (whom he remembered alternately as Leroy, Loring, and Leroux)… perhaps understandably, given the end of the act.
What Groucho didn’t mention either in that book or in other interviews I’ve seen is that several years later, Gene Leroy made headlines in a different way. According to Bader:
On July 23, 1920, an unclaimed steamer trunk was opened at the American Express office in New York’s Grand Central Terminal. In it was the crudely dismembered and disemboweled body of Katherine Leroy Jackson, the common-law wife of Eugene Leroy. The trunk had been shipped from Detroit, Michigan on June 10 to the man identified as the woman’s lover. Leroy had left his Detroit rooming house the day after his wife was last seen, and he in turn was never seen again.
This is a fantastic book which, so far, captures the flavor of the brothers’ formative years as a show biz act. Bader goes into exhaustive detail while presenting often conflicting accounts, usually not only from the brothers themselves, but sometimes from the same brother multiple times. As you might expect, Groucho’s is the dominant, most memorable voice, but all of the siblings get their turn. It’s the perfect combination of fun, funny, and fascinating.