Thursday, October 31, 2013

Halloween—It’s Not Samhain Any More

A fanciful recreation of a Druidic Samhain ritual with bonfire, masks, and jack 'o lanterns.

NoteBack by popular demand!  It’s the fourth annual appearance of this holiday classic. 
I am guessing that readers of this blog are probably more familiar with the origins and development of Halloween than most folks.  But for review: 
Halloween traces its origin to the Celtic harvest festival Samhain.  It was one of the four festivals that fell between the Solstices and Equinoxes which celebrated the natural turning of the seasons.  Samhain was particularly important because it was the gate in time to the death and starvation season of winter, as well a time to celebrate the recent harvest. 
This association with the death of winter also extended to the spirit world, which was considered to be closer to the mortal plane than at any other time of the year.  The Celtic priests—the Druids—marked the occasion with the lighting of bon fires and gifts of food and drink for the spirits of the dead.  Some consider it also analogous to a New Year’s Celebration launching a new cycle of the seasons.  It was popularly celebrated by the peasantry long after the Druids passed and well into the Christian era.
Too popular to squelch, as with many pagan observances Catholic Church co-opted the custom as All Saints Day on November 1.   In rural regions especially Samhain customs continued to be observed on the evening before the Holy Day—which came to be known as All Hallows Eve, or Hallowe’en in Scots.
Immigrants from the British Isles brought some of their customs with them, but Halloween does not seem to have been widely celebrated.  The Puritans spent a lot of time trying to squelch May Pole dances associated with the spring Celtic festival of Bealtaine, but for all of their obsession with witchcraft, usually associated with those who continued to keep the old pagan traditions, there is no evidence of suppressing  Samhain or Halloween.
In fact there is little mention of Halloween in American at all until the late years of the 19th Century when a few scattered newspapers began reporting ritual begging on Halloween by masked youths accompanied by general hooliganism, threats, and acts of vandalism.  This was probably introduced by the wave of poor “country” Irish immigrants that began after the Potato Famine and continue through most of the rest of the century.
As it spread, customs for observing the holiday varied regionally.  Parties with games such as bobbing for apples and the telling of ghost stories were fairly common.  The custom of trick or treating seems to have spread slowly.  What progress it was making was largely interrupted by the Depression years when families had little extra money to spend on treats and by the sugar rationing of World War II.
Trick or treating was still far from universal until after World War II when it became a topic of popular radio programs like the Jack Benny Show and Ozzie and Harriet.  A Halloween episode in the movie Meet Me in Saint Louis was one of the first portrayals of children’s customs associated with the holiday on the screen. 
In 1947 the popular children’s magazine Jack and Jill published a story on the custom of Halloween begging and described it in detail, spreading the practice widely and with amazing uniformity.  By 1951 the practice was wide spread enough that a Philadelphia woman, Mary Emma Allison and the Reverend Clyde Allison decided to channel the energy to constructive purposes by introducing Trick or Treat for UNICEF to support the work of the United Nation’s international children’s work.
By the mid 1950’s with the strong support of the candy companies and the introduction of cheap masks and pajama style costumes for children, the practice of trick or treating had become ubiquitous and had even taken on a feeling of a long standing practice.
What started with ghost stories and the like, soon spread to all types of horror, fueled by the growing popularity of increasingly violent Hollywood films.  Gore became and more and more common theme and showing horror films for the whole month of October in theaters and on TV was standard by the early 1970’s.
About the same time the first generations of trick or treaters grew up but continued to enjoy the dress-up and parties of Halloween.  It is, year by year, an increasingly popular adult holiday, incorporating many of the features of various world masquerade festivals with macabre twist.
Halloween is now the second most widely celebrated holiday in the United States and is an economic powerhouse, generating sales second only to Christmas.  Popular American media have spread the customs of trick or treating and celebrating gore around the world, often supplanting truly ancient celebrations of Halloween in the Celtic countries.
The resurgence of Christian Fundamentalism in the U.S. has led to a counter movement to strip the “Satanic” festival from public schools and the wider community.  Although they get it wrong—there was never any connection between Satanism and Halloween—the fundies, ironically, at least recognized a religious tradition hiding under the commercial hoopla. 
At the same time re-invented “traditional” paganism like Wicca, one of the most rapidly growing religious movements of the last twenty years, has striven to recapture the nearly lost significance of the holiday’s roots in Samhain.
Go thou, and celebrate as thou wouldst.  

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

NOW is the Time!

Attendees of the NOW founding conference.  Betty Friedan, first row, far left.

Note:  Seem to be stuck a day behind this week.
On October 29, 1966 30 charter members gathered in Washington, D.C. to formally launch a new Civil Rights organization dedicated to improving the status of women in all areas of society.  In no time at all National Organization for Women (NOW) was shaking things up and spearheading a new wave of feminist activism.
The steam seemed to have gone out of the women’s movement after decades of struggle finally was rewarded with the adoption of The Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1920.  Without a clear, unifying focus organizations withered or went off in different directions.  Many assumed that when women exercised the franchise, other societal reforms would follow naturally. 
Culturally the flappers of the 1920s seemed to signal a freedom from the cumbersome garments that had restricted the ability of women to move easily in the world and a daring new sexual equality.  The grim realities of the Depression years focused attention on other issues, especially unemployment which as seen as a problem of men who could not support their families.  World War II brought women into the work place as never before, proving that in a wide range of jobs from the factory floor to the executive suite that they were as capable as men.  But at war’s end there was enormous pressure on women to abandon their new jobs to make way for the waves of returning veterans.  Partly this was to prevent the post-war joblessness of veterans and that had haunted the immediate years after World War I. 
By the 1950 cultural expectations were pressing women to conform to a role in an entirely new kind of family—the autonomous nuclear family of dad, mom and kids with mom at home and without the support of extended family or community.  Even though more than a quarter of women of age remained in the work force they were increasingly confined to career ghettos as teachers, nurses, secretaries, and such with little or no chance of advancement.  Many more women, largely ignored even by activists willing to speak up, were employed in low level factory work, as waitresses, in retail, and—most invisible of all—in agriculture.  The existing women’s organizations, while well meaning and often vocal, seemed incapable of finding a handle on how to deal with the situation.
There were stirrings of discontent.  Betty Friedan’s 1963 best selling book The Feminine Mystique is generally regarded as both manifesto and a launching pad for a second wave of feminism.  But as much of a breakthrough as it was, it could not have been successful if it did not touch deep wells of discontent and resentment by women chaffing at their assigned roles in society.  The same year Congress passed the Equal Pay Act of 1963 which called for “equal pay for equal work” for women, but left it largely unenforceable and did not address the problem of low paying job ghettos.
The following year Southern Democrats inserted an amendment to add a ban on discrimination on account of gender to the Civil Rights Bill of 1964.  Although the original sponsor of the amendment, Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee Howard W. Smith of Virginia did have a long relationship with Alice Paul, the former militant leader of the National Women’s Party, most Southern Democrats supported the amendment in hopes it would derail the entire bill.  The strategy failed.  With the strong arm twisting of President Lyndon Johnson, a filibuster in the Senate was broken and the law passed with Title VII banning sex discrimination in employment intact.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) was formed in 1965 to enforce the Civil Rights Act. Aileen Hernandez and Richard Graham fought hard as commission members to enforce the Title VII prohibition on sex discrimination but were outvoted 3 to 2 on the critical issue of whether sex segregation in job advertising was permissible.  A month later Yale law professor Dr. Pauli Murray, a member of the President’s Commission on the Status of Women, made an impassioned public denouncement of the Commissions decision. After reading an account in the press, Friedan contacted Murray and they began to explore possibilities for further action.
The first opportunity was the Third National Conference of Commissions on the Status of Women which met in Washington June 28-30, 1966 and was attended by both women.  Despite the theme of the Conference, Targets for Action, they and other women were stymied in an attempt to pass a resolution demanding that the EEOC carry out its legal mandate to end sex discrimination in employment. They were told that they had no authority to even put such a resolution forward.  Dissident EEOC commissioners Hernandez and Graham and Commission attorney Sonia Pressman Fuentes privately told Friedan that there was, “…need for an organization to speak on behalf of women in the way civil rights groups had done for Blacks.”
On the evening of June 19 fifteen or twenty angry women met in Freidan’s hotel room to plot a strategy including Murray, Catherine Conroy, Inka O’Hanrahan, Rosalind Loring, Mary Eastwood, Dorothy Haener, and Kay Clarenbach.  They agreed that some sort of organization was needed.  Freidan doodled the initial NOW on a napkin.  The next day at the formal concluding banquet for the Conference 28 women sat together.  According to participant Gene Bower, “Catherine Conroy pulled out a five-dollar bill from her wallet and, in her usual terse style, invited us to ‘put your money down and sign your name.’”  An infant organization was launched.
There was some debate whether NOW would be the National Association of or for Women.  The former would indicate an organization for women only; the latter would be open to men who agreed with its aims.  It was decided to be inclusive although only a handful of men, notably Commissioner Graham, were among the 300 or so charter members who signed on before the official founding conference in October.
Although only 10 % of that charter membership was able to attend the founding conference, participants wasted no time getting the new organization up and running.  Freidan was elected President, Clarenbach Board Chair, Hernandez Executive Vice President with the responsibility of day-to-day administration, Graham as Vice President and Caroline Davis Secretary-Treasurer.  The organization entrusted authority to its general membership in Annual Conferences with a Board of 35, including the five officers empowered to act between Conferences.  Between regular Board meetings the five member Executive Committee would be free to act to carry out decided policy.
Freidan drafted a founding Statement of Purpose, which was intensely debated, but ultimately adopted with mostly cosmetic changes.  It outlined the broad concerns and aims of the organization in all aspects of affairs that impact women and avoided becoming a single issue organization.
On a practical level, the Conformance launched the first initiatives of the new organization including immediate action on Title VII enforcement efforts and authorization for a legal committee to take action on behalf of flight attendants and to challenge so-called protective labor legislation.  Task forces were devised to take up these and other issues.
Describing the founding Conference Freidan wrote, “We wasted no time on ceremonials or speeches, gave ourselves barely an hour for lunch and dinner...At times we got very tired and impatient, but there was always a sense that what we were deciding was not just for now ‘but for a century...’ We shared a moving moment of realization that we had now indeed entered history.”
Soon the rapidly growing organization in addition to pioneering work on workplace equality was spearheading a renewed drive for the Equal Rights Amendment, demanding the end of restrictions on access to contraceptives and abortion, pushing for equal opportunity in academics and sports.  NOW saw the “second wave” of feminism grow into a tidal wave by the end of the decade.  Dozens of other organizations, many of them seeded by NOW or founded by their leaders joined the efforts on specific issues. 
Despite strains in the movement over militant separatism in the ‘70’s and changes in society, NOW remains the preeminent voice for women’s rights. Its familiar round logo is seen on signs at demonstration across the county wherever past gains are threatened or new ground is to be broken.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

And the Oscars Go to….

Note:  Due to computer glitches that twice ate huge, unrecoverable chunks of drafts for this entry, it is a day late.
Quick quiz.  What woman won more Academy Awards than any other?  Meryl Streep your say?  Wrong.  Katherine Hepburn.  Nope.  Sally Field.  Don’t be ridiculous.  The woman with eight, count ‘em eight Oscars was not an actress at all but a diminutive woman outfitted for decades in enormous round glasses, black Moe Howard bangs, tasteful two piece suites, and a take-no-prisoners attitude.
Who else but costume designer to the stars Edith Head.
Edith Claire Posener was born on October 28, 1897—although she would later claim 1902, a date which still shows up in articles based on her Hollywood press clippings—in San Bernardino, California.  It was not a place she called home.  Indeed she never had a real hometown.  Her father, Max Posener, was a Jewish Russian emigrant and her mother, Anna E. Levy, was born in St. Louis, Missouri, the daughter of German/Austrian Jews.  In the pecking order of Jewish society in America, they were mismatched.  It is likely Anna’s parents disapproved of the match and the couple eloped, or simply ran away since there is no evidence they ever married.
Max disappeared when Edith was small after a haberdashery he managed to open in San Bernardino failed.  A year later, in 1905 Anna married Frank Spare, a young Catholic engineer.  They were soon passing Edith off as their mutual daughter and she was raised a Catholic.   Her stepfather’s profession made the family virtual nomads has he found work in mining camps around the West.  The family stayed longer in Searchlight, Nevada than most towns.
Frank did earn a nice living an indulged his daughter in a first rate education.  Edith graduated with a B.A. and honors in French from the University of California at Berkley in 1919 and earned her Master’s in Romance Languages from Stanford a year later.
Then she was on her own in the world.  She started as a French teacher, first in a parochial school in La Jolla and then at the Hollywood School for Girls, a prestigious finishing school catering to the daughters of the booming movie business. In order to qualify for higher pay, she volunteered to teach art as well as French despite having no lessons in the subject since high school. 
Edith drawing skills were extremely limited so she enrolled for night classes at the Chouinard Art College.  While there she met Charles Head, the brother of a classmate.  They were married in the summer of 1923.  It was not a particularly happy marriage and the couple separated after a few years.  They did not divorce, however until 1934, presumably because of Edith’s Catholicism.  They had no children, but she gained the name she used throughout her professional life.
In 1924, bored with the life of a house wife in search of a good income, Edith naturally turned to the main local industry for work.  Despite absolutely no experience in fashion or design and still limited drafting skills, he applied to Paramount Pictures for work as a costume sketch artist under the direction of studio designers.  To get the job she submitted a portfolio borrowed from another student.  Not the last time she would finesse her career by cutting corners here and there.
Head, however, was a quick study.  Her drawing improved, and she began making suggestions.  Within a year she was designing for her first picture, The Wanderer, a Raoul Walsh film starring German actress Greta Nissen and Wallace Berry.  She soon became a Walsh favorite, the first of several directors who championed her career.
At first she toiled in the shadows of Paramount’s head designers, first Howard Greer, then Travis Banton both of who, as was the custom, would often claim her work as their own for screen credits.  It was a “tradition” Head continued after she got the top job long after it was both out of fashion and professionally frowned on, for which she would get a lot of criticism from fellow designers.
But within the studio, Heads work was championed not only by directors, but by leading ladies who appreciated her habit of consulting with them on her design to accommodate  when possible their taste and to accentuate their best features.  Most designers took a take-it-or-leave it attitude with actresses except for the handful of stars with real clout within the studio system.
Although she had enjoyed some studio publicity over the years, Head did not attract wide spread public attention until she put Dorothy Lamour in that famous sarong in 1937’s John Ford epic The Hurricane.  The dress made Lamour a star—Head kept her in versions of it in the subsequent Bring Crosby/Bob Hope road pictures—and Edith a celebrity. 
When Banton retired the following year, Head finally ascended to the throne as Paramount chief designer.  And she would keep an iron grip on the job for 29 more years.
Paramount was toward the rear of the pack of Hollywood Major Studios, much smaller than the relentless factory at MGM which produced as many as 200 pictures a year at its peak, or Warner Bros.  home of gritty urban dramas, “women’s movies”, and prestige bio-flicks.  In either of those she would have had to compete with rafts of designers to get the top assignments.  Paramount, on the other hand, made 20 or 30 features a year with a relatively thin stable of stars.  Head got her hand on any she desired, and had time to frequently go on loan to other studios at the bequest of stars or directors she had cultivated.  By the 1940’s “Costumes by Edith Head” seemed a ubiquitous credit.
In that decade she left her impression on many stars and memorable films including Paulette Goddard in Cat and the Canary; Veronica Lake in Sullivan’s Travels and I Married a Witch; Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve, Ball of Fire, and Double Indemnity; Ginger Rodgers in Lady in the Dark; Ingrid Bergman in Notorious, Loretta Young in The Farmer’s Daughter; and Bette Davis in June Bride.
Head’s star was rising, but she was not about to let studio publicity departments burry her contributions while hyping stars.  She made herself available for interviews   key entertainment reporters and gossip columnists in her debt by occasionally feeding them juicy—but never career damaging—studio gossip and usually flattering bits on the stars she cultivated.  She contributed fashion articles to magazines and staged costume shows for newsreels.  She even got Paramount to film a short documentary on her and her department.
Not that she was without critics, particularly among her fellow designers and those who toiled in studio wardrobe departments.  She had been an outspoken opponent of unionization by costume designers.  Always obsequious to authority, especially studio bosses, producers and name directors, she could be a tyrant and taskmistress over the employees under her, quick to shift blame for failures and to claim credit for their work.  She defended the later by saying that their designs were always only executed at her guidance, direction, and inspiration. 
Others were critical of her style, particularly in modern dress pictures calling her the Shirtwaist Queen for her frequent use of that basic style.  But shirtwaists are flattering on most women’s bodies.  Moreover studio bosses were explicit that designs be a “timeless” as possible, shunning passing fashion trends, so that pictures could easily be re-released, a big money maker.  The result was a classic clean but elegant Edith Head style.
In 1949 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences added the costume design to its annual Oscar Awards.  Beginning that year with The Emperor Waltz, a Bing Crosby musical co-starring Joan Fontaine, Head would be nominated for the next 19 consecutive years—sometimes  for multiple pictures in a year—and five more times after that with a total of 35 nominations.  Her eight trips home with the trophy were for The Heiress with Julie Harris, 1950; Samson and Delilah with Heddy Lamarr (color), 1951; All About Eve with Bette Davis and Anne Baxter (black and white), 1951; A Place in the Sun with Elizabeth Taylor and Shelly Winters, 1952; Roman Holiday with Audrey Hepburn, 1954; Sabrina, again with Hepburn, 1954; The Facts of Life with Lucile Ball, 1960; and The Sting in 1974.
Of those films, the award for Sabrina was the most controversial.  For the key sequences when Hepburn as the chauffeur’s daughter blossoms into a Paris model, the star personally picked sketches by designer Hubert de Givenchy.  The outfits were constructed in Head’s wardrobe department and she did design most of the “American” clothes.  She refused to give de Givenchy screen credit with her for design.   Although the award was obviously mostly for his contributions, Head accepted it anyway.
Head was now a major celebrity in her own right.  There were not yet famous American fashion houses, and outside of New York society hardly anyone knew the name of a haute couture American designer.  Only the great Paris fashion houses were known to the public.  For many ordinary American women, the highly visible Head was high fashion, not just costume design.  Knock-off manufacturers kept Main Street dress shops across the country stocked with dresses and suits inspired by Head movies.
Even I, a pre-teen yahoo in Cheyenne, Wyoming knew who Edith Head was.  In those days we had a full hour for lunch at school and those who could, walked home to eat.  I did.  And everyday Mom had Art Linkletter’s House Party, a kind of stone age talk/variety program, on the TV.  Head made frequent, sometimes weekly, appearances on the show, on the show, often dishing out fashion advice to members of the audience.  At home, Mom paid strict attention.
She had now added Cecil B. DeMille, Billy Wilder, and Alfred Hitchcock to her list of director champions and a galaxy of stars including Hepburn, Taylor, Baxter, Grace Kelly, and Natalie Wood as her devoted fans. 
Among her other screen triumphs in the ‘50’s and ‘60s were Sunset Boulevard with Gloria Swanson; Rear Window and It Takes a Thief with Kelly; White Christmas with Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen, Crosby, and Danny Kaye; The Man Who Knew too Much with Doris Day; the DeMille epic Ten Commandments; Witness for the Prosecution with Marlene Dietrich; Separate Tables with Rita Hayworth; Vertigo with Kim Novak; and That Kind of Woman with Sophia Loren.
Starting in 1963 with Love With a Proper Stranger through The Last Married Couple in America in 1980 Head made seven films with Wood.
Her last film for Paramount was the gaudy melodrama The Oscar, for which she naturally received another nomination for the statuette in 1967.  Then Head left her longtime home at Paramount and jumped to Universal, a studio on the rise since its days as the home of classic monster movies.  She followed Hitchcock there, the director with whom she worked most often. 
Age and increasingly fragile health slowed her up some, but she could still pull out some claims to glory.  There were five more Oscar nominations including nods for the musical Sweet Charity,  the costume epic The Man Who Would Be King, and the disaster movies Airport and Airport ’77.  After years of gaining glory for designing for beautiful Hollywood clothes horses, her final years were marked by films centering on men, including her final Oscar win, The Sting.
She also designed for Rooster Cogburn with John Wayne and Katherine Hepburn.  She also did work that evoked earlier years of Hollywood glory and her own screen work—Gable and Lombard with James Brolin and Jill Clayburgh, W.C. Fields and Me with Rod Steiger and Valerie Perrine, and Steve Martin’s Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid.  The latter, released in 1981, captured the look of ‘40’s film noir.  Released after her death, Martin dedicated the film to her.
Head’s husband since 1940, set designer Wiard Ihnen died in 1979 of prostate cancer.  The couple had no children.  Although Head continued to work until the end, her health was bad.  She suffered from myelofibrosis, an incurable bone marrow disease.  She died on October 24, 1981 four days shy of her 84th birthday.  She was buried unostentatiously under a simple bronze plaque in a Catholic section of Forest Lawn Memorial Gardens removed from the flashy graves and mausoleums of the stars she had decorated.