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Saturday, February 21, 2015

Chester County Writer: Daniel P. Mannix

This is the story of writer Daniel P. Mannix IV, who had a farm about a mile from my family's home in Frazer.
The Mannix farm was a legendary place. Mannix was a writer who traveled the world with his wife, Jule Junker Mannix, in search of wild animals to bring back to their farm in an area then called Bacton Hill.
The Mannix farm was already well known throughout the region when I was 12 or 13 years old. The Mannix family also belonged to the local Catholic parish and we would often see them at Mass.
The word then was that actress Elizabeth Taylor had once spent time on the Mannix farm while filming her first movie, National Velvet. Apparently the adolescent Liz needed some horse experience, so it was decided that the Bacton Hill farm would be the ideal place for her to learn about horses. The farm also had pythons, cheetahs, llamas, an otter, a spider monkey and even a small elephant.
The Mannix family was listed in the Philadelphia Social Register; they were "society people," meaning they had a long and accomplished American lineage. Families like the Mannix family are also referred to as being from "old money," although if economic circumstances changed they might become known as "fallen aristocracy."
Because of the Liz Taylor story, my family observed the Mannix family with a curious eye.
We would take note when we'd spot Jule at Mass wearing ordinary slacks topped with a worn, but obviously once very expensive, mink stole. At the time this was the standard Saturday afternoon shopping dress for many Main Line matrons.
I ran high school cross country with Mannix's son, Danny. Danny would often invite me to run with him on his farm after school. The farm had tremendous acreage. Danny and I usually ran long dirt roads framed by trees and fields with the occasional winding brook. After our run, Danny would invite me into the house where he'd show me his pet snakes, one of them a python named Peter.
Before that, he introduced to his father, the writer.
Mannix was sitting in his study smoking a pipe in front of a wall of bookshelves. The prolific author was sitting by a window, dressed in a tweed jacket, the smoke billowing from his pipe like the steam from a vintage locomotive. This is what people used to imagine when they thought of (male) writers.
Danny introduced me as a friend "who wanted to be a writer." Mannix didn't seem too impressed. He might even have been thinking, "run from this life, boy, run as fast as you can."
I came away from that meeting thinking... Mannix smokes a mean pipe.
Next, I was introduced to Peter the Python. I already had experiences with snakes, especially when a fellow Explorer Scout taught me how to handle and hold his pet snakes. As a boy I liked to watch a snake shed its skin. To me, discarded snake skins resembled transparent piping or coils.
Danny encouraged me to put Peter around my neck. Since Peter was very large, this seemed risky. Don't pythons wrap themselves around their victims and strangle them?
In his autobiography, this is what Danny's father wrote about Peter. "Handling a big snake is an unforgettable experience. There is the gentle touch of the soft lips and delicate tongue, together with the strange feeling that you are holding a living electric current swathed in smooth scales."
Danny's father reminded his readers that pythons are not poisonous. "Peter, like all constrictors," he wrote, "kills by wrapping his coils around his victim, usually a chicken or a rabbit."
Pythons, Mannix continued, rarely kill human beings because "a man has hands and can generally unwrap a snake before he loses consciousness."
The important thing here, I guess, is to stay awake.
While I wasn't afraid of Peter, his size was daunting. At that time I had no idea that the family allowed Peter to slither around the house, and that very often Peter, being a semi-aquatic creature, would curl up near the plumbing in the bathroom or worse yet, go inside the toilet for a long, cozy nap.
"Peter strongly disliked having the toilet flush when he was inside," Mannix wrote, adding that when that happened he would rise up and give one of his long, loud hisses.
As for the house-guest who inadvertently sat on the bowl with Peter inside, well, that's another story.
Mannix wrote about his experiences as a side show act working in carnivals. At different times in his life, he was a sword swallower, a fire eater, a trainer of wild animals, and a magician known as "The Great Zadma."
In his book, Memoirs of a Sword Swallower, he describes his experiences while traveling with a carnival. He writes about the fat lady, the human beanpole and the ostrich man who ate broken glass.
(I'd certainly like to see the Ostrich Man at the next Kensington Kinetic Sculpture Derby).
In his book, Freaks, Mannix describes the love affairs of little people (called midgets in those days); the story of elephant boy; the amours of Jolly Daisy, the fat woman; the notorious pinhead who inspired Verdi's Rigoletto and the little person, only 34 inches tall, who was very happily married to a 264-pound woman. Then there was the human torso with a talent for sewing and typing.
As one reviewer commented, Freaks comprises "bizarre accounts of normal humans turned into freaks -- either voluntarily or by evil design!"
In the sword swallowing book, we are able to enjoy photographs from the 1930s and 40s (all taken by the author) and observe the forgotten world of circus performance artists. One reviewer said that the book "will appeal to all who speculate about the outer limits of pain, pleasure, and revulsion."
Mannix's book, The Beast: The Scandalous Life of Aleister Crowley, is about the English occultist and ceremonial magician. After the book was released, Mannix received an invitation to join Anton LaVey's Church of Satan. Mannix refused the offer; LaVey perhaps did not distinguish between the curious and sometimes sensationalist imagination of the writer and the realm of personal belief.
Mannix, as far as I knew, was still a member of our local parish and receiving Communion on Sundays.
Mannix's most famous book, Those About to Die, takes the reader into the bowels of the Roman games at the Coliseum; it was also a look into the daily lives of gladiators.
While I was running cross country with Danny, his father had already published The Hellfire Club, about the secret decorated caves in England where the country's once famous One Percenters, engaged in parliamentary style meetings and various forms of sexual debauchery. Eminent and respected men from the worlds of arts, letters and politics, including benign Benjamin Franklin himself, were said to be habitu├ęs of these dens of vice where everything was permitted.
Mannix, who was born in 1911 and died in 1997 at age 85, was survived his wife, Jule, by 20 years.
Today there's a renewed interest in his work, as many of his earlier, out of print books have been republished. And while I haven't set foot on the farm where Liz Taylor once groomed the National Velvet horses, during my research I did discover that Mannix had once teamed up with famed literary critic Malcolm Cowley when they co-authored The Middle Passage. This disturbing essay focuses on the mechanics of slavery, its origins in Africa, its European history and what happened on the slave ships that came to America.
We learn, for instance, that "the vast majority of the Negroes [Mannix's term] brought to America had been enslaved and sold to the whites by other Africans." These other Africans "were coastal tribes and states, like the Efik kingdom of Calabar, that based their whole economy on the slave trade."
The author's report that the slaves might have been prisoners of war, or kidnapped by groups of black marauders, or even sold with their entire families for such "high" crimes as adultery, impiety or, as the authors state, "stealing a tobacco pipe."
Slaves were shackled two by two then sent below the ship; although, women slaves were allowed to roam the vessel so that sailors could see which ones they could have their way with. Mannix writes: "All the slaves were forced to sleep without covering on bare wooden floors... In a stormy passage the skin over their elbows might be worn away to the bare bone..."
In the morning, the sailors would oversee the "dancing of the slaves," a ritual in which the chained slaves would be forced to dance around the deck by the cat-o-nine tail armed sailors. This happened while one slave pounded a drum or a sailor played a bagpipe. This therapeutic ritual was a precaution against "suicidal melancholy," although the authors report that many slaves suffered from a condition known as "fixed melancholy," an expression used to describe a state when a slave had lost the will to live, despite being well cared for.
Diseases like yellow fever plagued these ships, as did the smell of human excrement, which could be detected miles away, depending upon air currents. Mutinies were not uncommon, given the conditions on board. Sometimes the ship's crew would be slaughtered, but the problem for the slaves became where to dock the ship, because for them, there was no such thing as freedom.
If I wore a hat, I'd take it off in honor of Daniel P. Mannix.

City Beat (ICON): Stolen Joan of Arc

City Beat February 2015

A article on the ‘man bun’ got us pondering famous hair bun styles in history. Ballerina buns, Emily Dickinson’s schoolmarm look, Princess Leia’s French rolls, or messy buns with chopstick antennas. Most of the man buns we’ve seen have been on male model types who have little to loose by going ugly. The man bun is really a contrived look on a par with women who dye their hair blue. The rugged PECO worker or neighborhood FIOS installer would never think of doing his hair up like a French maid. Should this cosmetic blight be allowed to continue?  Might we suggest fashionista vigilante action, such as gangs with hair scissors to send these knots flying?   

One good job deserves another. This seems to be the philosophy of PGW’s VP of Marketing and Communications, Doug Oliver, who wants to be mayor. The sharply dressed “go to” smiley executive says he’s ready to be a consensus builder.” His photo and logo,”DO2015” has the pitch perfect ring of Nordstrom’s gift wrapping but is there anything inside the box? Running for mayor, it seems, is all about product. Lynne Abraham’s product is her legacy as former DA. The other contenders--Anthony “Tony” Williams, Nelson Diaz, Ken Trujillo, Milton Street (and possibly) Alan Butkovitz—make us think of cold oatmeal sans cinnamon accents. It doesn’t help the city that Terry Gillen had to drop out of the race due to a lack of funds, while lesser lights like Milton Street continue to be bankrolled.  

Was Joan of Arc burnt at the stake only to be stolen from the Divine Loraine Hotel? For some time now we’ve been hearing stories of how developers shell out cash to neighborhood youths to get them to climb to the roofs of old buildings and dismantle  prized features. The gold Joan statue that used to grace the portal above the Loraine’s front door was not a work of art like sculptor Emmanuel Fremiet’s Joan on the Parkway, but it was stunning enough. It can still be seen in old renderings and photographs of the place. The Loraine’s Joan disappeared sometime in the late 1990s.          

Has Latimer Street’s Pen and Pencil Club become the Mutter Museum of journalism? While it’s true you won’t find the skulls of Damon Ruyan, Red Smith or George M. Cohan behind any glass containers there, you will encounter a bevy of talkers who have opinions on everything. While deadline-conscious journalists cannot afford too many ‘till the wee hours’ boozy nights, “I just got off work” restaurant workers and other nocturnal party animals can. The expansion of P&P’s membership in recent years to include everyone but journalists has caused one observer to write: This place is a monument to the cigar-chomping, typewriter-banging old-school newspaperman who hardly exists anymore (outside of Hollywood).” We tend to think that when ‘theme bars’ like P&P attain comfortable status quo institutionalization (a place where politicians hold court and participate in panel discussions), it’s really time for adventurous journalists to look for a living museum.   

We celebrated with Paul Stinke when the former Reading Terminal Market head announced himself a candidate for City Council. Stinke’s impressive resume includes a stint as Finance Director of the Central Philadelphia Development Corporation. His family was on hand for the festivities. The 6’4” Stinke towers over nearly everyone he meets, including his small stature older brother who introduced Paul after Rep Brian Sims’ rousing opening speech. If we could make any campaign suggestions for Paul, they’d go something like this: Up the amp in your public talks. It’s okay to show some passion and to let your voice rise and fall like ocean waves meeting the shore. (2) If you really want a seat on City Council, you first have to win the hearts and minds of Mr. and Mrs. Philly Joe Average, so go light on ideological references to lgbt activists outside the mainstream.   

“The Body of an American” at the Wilma had us coasting in confusing boredom for the first 25 minutes but when the play picked up we were on the edge of our seats as much as we were when we saw Gone Girl at the Roxy. Our wish was to let Blanka Zizka know how much we enjoyed the performance but we were told she was in Chile for a theater conference. The same Wilma official told us that Blanka really didn’t want to go to Chile because she likes opening nights, but in the end the offer proved too enticing. The Body of an American is an intense, often uncomfortable look at what war can do to the human psyche. The drama also inspired the Wilma’s large stable of (cliquish) 20 something actors to break out into frenzied Whirling Dervish dancing towards the end of the reception. 

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Man Bun: French Maids with Beards

The Local Lens

• Wed, Feb 11, 2015

By Thom Nickels
A article from January 5, 2015 focused on the so-called "man bun," which is, essentially, when a man does his hair up in a bun.

If this sounds strange, it’s because it is strange. Not because a man, or woman for that matter, doesn’t have the right to wear their hair anyway they want but because of what the average hair bun has come to symbolize for many.
Let’s consider famous female buns in history.

There’s the ballerina bun, Emily Dickinson’s schoolmarm bun, the Princess Leia French roll bun and the messy hair bun with chopstick antennae. Then there is the top-knot bun, or a bun that sits directly on top of a woman’s head like a corn muffin or an apple.

On most women, buns have a severe and restrained look because the hair is pulled back very tightly on the head. This "pulled back" look exposes the bun wearer’s face to undue scrutiny. Everything is accented, like big noses or large ears, but especially big noses because noses always look bigger when the face is not framed by free flowing hair. Free flowing hair often acts as an aesthetic distraction or enhancement and can beautify even the humblest of faces.

Regarding noses, I’m reminded of what writer/novelist Muriel Spark once wrote. The nose, she said, "is our tether between spirit and substance." She quotes Genesis: "the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul," then adds, "The first thing that happened to Adam happened to his nose. Therefore the nose is an emblem at once of our dusty origin and our divine."

Getting back to buns: The majority of women, it seems, wear buns when they don’t have time to "do" their hair; the bun is the end result of a hair emergency. Sometimes a bun can be a work-related necessity. Ballerinas, for instance, do their hair up in buns to avoid getting hair in their faces during performances. Yet this does not mean that they have to keep the bun look while traveling home on Amtrak or Septa.

The advent of the man bun, however, is proof positive that western civilization has not only "ended" but is now in that anarchic post-apocalyptic phase known as the Theater of the Absurd.

Why a man would want to put his hair up in a bun is one of those questions that cannot be answered simply. Is it because he wants lots of eye contact in the street? Or does he want to be known as the pioneer of a new hairstyle?
Most of the man buns I’ve seen have been on male model types who have little to lose by going ugly. In other words, because these men tend to be extremely attractive, they can afford to take gross liberties with their looks.

A balding man with bifocals who struggles with his weight might be advised to stay away from the man bun, because, as is the case with women with top-knot muffin buns, it will only showcase his physical imperfections.

To understand the perversity of the man bun, let’s quickly recap the recent history of male hair.

When long hair first came on the scene, public reaction was not good. In the late 60s, high school students were expelled from school for refusing to cut their hair. Newspaper articles showcased debates on the "ethics" and "morality" of long hair on boys and men.

Long hair was associated with the Beatles and later with radical politics. It was a badge showing sympathy or identification with anti-war demonstrations and the 1960’s counter cultural movements. Animosity against long hair was intense; it bordered on outright hatred. Suburban home-dwellers, truck drivers, World War II vets, policemen and businessmen of every stripe heaped scorn and ridicule on long-hairs. Long-haired hitchhikers were sideswiped off the road, not hired or fired from jobs, or called fags or chicks. Intolerance ruled the airwaves.

Then, suddenly, long hair on men stopped being about politics. Yale-educated political conservatives with long locks began appearing on William F. Buckley’s "Firing Line." Those same truck drivers who used to run hippies off the road were now sporting hippie hairstyles. The same was true for those motorcycle gangs who used to castigate "peacenik" hippies. In the meantime, "dangerous" political radical types contented themselves with the retro-beatnik goatee.

Ira Einhorn, Philadelphia’s Earth Day founder and self-styled New Age guru, copied the long hair and beard styles of Abbie Hoffman and poet Allen Ginsberg. Einhorn, of course, was charged with the murder of his girlfriend, Holly Maddux, in 1979, and became the target of a massive FBI hunt after he fled to France to escape prosecution.

Charles Manson certainly denigrated the long hair and beard look with his nefarious deeds.\

"The culture of hair is most obvious in the United States," writes French journalist Hadrien Laroche in his book, The Last Genet, about the famous playwright and novelist Jean Genet. Laroche quotes Genet on hippie hair: "Any style would do, apparently: long; medium length; with a fringe; straight; black and greasy; flowing; all over the place, brown and frizzy; blonde and curly…This fashion, carried to extremes and even beyond in England, was born in California and grew out of the American army’s reverses in Vietnam…"

The contemporary man bun is ideology-free. If one were to reduce the man bun to politics it would be the politics cosmetic provocation, something that proclaims, "I’m different," when in fact man bun men are more likely to be far more ordinary than guys walking around with hair styles you don’t notice.

To illustrate my point, picture a man, nothing internal to rebel against, as "normal" as one can be. He would be completely unremarkable from others on the street. The man bun solves this problem by deviating from the established "normal" look.

The man with the Iroquois haircut who hates the anonymity that working as a bank teller brings; or the man who tattoos his neck or forehead because he never made it as an artist and he wants to be noticed somehow, or any way possible.
One good thing about the man bun is that it toys with notions of androgyny, although in a contrived, unattractive French maid kind of way.

After all, if most women don’t look good in buns, the numbers quadruple with men.

The Mayoral Race in Philadelphia

The Local Lens

• Wed, Feb 18, 2015

By Thom Nickels

The race for mayor has forced me to look over the field of candidates, as well as to ponder which person would be good for Philadelphia.

I wrote about Terry Gillen in this column before she dropped out of the race because of fundraising problems. It was unfortunate that this had to happen, as I genuinely liked Gillen despite the fact that many found her style to be formalistic and tight. At a small fundraiser I attended for her in Society Hill, I did notice that her campaign aides had a tight-lipped, robotic manner as if they were afraid to be too natural or animated.

Recently, I was found myself at another ‘meet the candidate’ night when I received an invite to attend Ken Trujillo’s State of the Union party in Center City. Trujillo, a former city solicitor, used President Obama’s speech as his campaign kick-off.

The Trujillo crowd was composed of mostly twenty-something people; this surprised me because I expected greater diversity in terms of age. Attendees nibbled on delicious thin crust pizza, soft pretzels and craft beer. Everyone seemed pretty excited to be there.

President Obama lorded over the party crowd on a big screen TV. As the president drove home certain points during the State of the Union– and the television cameras focused on John Boehner’s crestfallen face– the crowd went wild. Obama, obviously, was their hero. Meanwhile, I rank myself as a lukewarm Obama supporter, my opinion growing colder after the President’s disastrous Crusades comment.

When Trujillo addressed the crowd, he surprised me when he said he was happy there weren’t any old people present. Obviously he didn’t see me in the crowd, unless I was the notable exception. Trujillo explained that political campaigns mean nothing and never get very far without the support of young people.

I’ve heard this sentiment before. When Eugene McCarthy ran for President in 1968, almost every smart young person in the country was pro-Eugene. McCarthy, however, lost in a landslide. The so called young vote had proven to be a liability.
At Trujillo headquarters, the heavily partisan crowd applauded much of what Obama said. It was much like all partisan crowds, Republican or Democrat, when the applause is as predicable as canned laughter.

While observing the crowd, I was reminded of the ideological loyalty I witnessed at the start of the Iraq War when I listened to a George W. Bush speech calling for an invasion of that country. I recalled attending a party at my sister’s house when I let a mild objection slip and the guests slowly turned and looked at me in a censorious way. Likewise, during the State of the Union speech, when a man in the back seemed to take issue with something Obama said he was subject to a collective stare.

The day after his party, Ken Trujillo withdrew from the mayor’s race, citing family issues but not going into specifics. What happened in the twelve hours between the end of the party and the fateful email from his campaign the next morning is any one’s guess.

Whatever happened, there were no "young people" to save him.

Continuing with the mayoral theme, a friend of mine, Riv, who happens to be black, told me that he thinks the city needs a white mayor this time around.

"The racial pendulum has to swing back," he said, "It will be good for the city. It’s a healthy thing to do."
My other black friend (we were three friends having lunch) agreed with Riv’s sentiment. Both friends discounted Anthony Williams, mostly because of Williams’ controversial and allegedly corrupt father, Hardy Williams, whose city legacy is anything but good.

"Is there an elected position Mr. Williams won’t run for?" one comment on asked. "Other than former [retired] city employees, he doesn’t have to risk his other job to run for Mayor. And if he loses, he’s just raised his recognition factor. Only Jim Kenney has the most to lose by putting his money where his mouth is, resigning a cushy City Council job to run for Mayor. I just wonder what Williams thinks he can accomplish as Mayor, working ‘with’ city council is something he couldn’t do when he was part of the same City Council."
The three of us agreed that Jim Kenney is probably the best candidate and certainly a safer bet than the venerable Lynne Abraham who, as District Attorney, almost gave the police too much power and neglected to pursue police misconduct cases when they surfaced.

Riv pointed out that if Abraham were elected she would be Mayor Rizzo in drag. He was referring to the hard time that minorities had on the streets of the city when Rizzo was mayor. While it’s true that Rizzo’s obsession with law and order had its good points– and while it’s also true that he was very charming if you found yourself in his company; he once put his arm around me and invited me to lunch despite my writing not so flattering things about him in a Center City newspaper— he did overstep his bounds when it came to allowing the police to do pretty much what they wanted to do.
During the Rizzo administration, black and gay friends of mine were routinely rounded up on the streets and put in the back of police wagons for no other reason than they were walking in "suspect" sections of the city or that they looked "suspicious."

The level of police harassment that people dealt with back then cannot be comprehended today, as the police generally do not ride through the streets "collecting" people they don’t like and then making them spend a night in the Roundhouse before releasing them in the morning.

I don’t know what Rizzo was thinking when he allowed these things to happen but I don’t think that this sort of harassment ever helped fight real crime. It was a trying time. People were picked off stoops in Center City for tying their shoe laces at 2AM or for talking with their friends (post-midnight) in a city park. This was a time when Center City was like East Berlin; when people had a real fear of the police. On the other hand, this was also pre-September 11th, so one could enter City Hall and go to any floor on a whim, walk past the Mayor’s Office and say "hello," to His Honor, or even take unorthodox sightseeing trips into City Hall’s basement, which I did on many occasions with a City Hall worker as my unofficial guide.

Today, of course, there’s this perception that there’s far too much crime in the city and that a tough cookie like Abraham will fix that problem fast. But this isn’t what most of us who have lived through Philly’s East Berlin stage in the 1970’s want to see happen.

The other mayoral candidates didn’t register much interest with us. Nelson Diaz, for instance, failed to stir any passion, but Jim Kenney did, despite the fact that, sadly, Anthony Williams has been cited by "journalists" (not this journalist) as the front runner.

We concluded our discussion with a mention of Michael Nutter’s mayoral style. The three of us agreed that that style can be broken down this way: Because black people, traditionally and historically, are still relatively new to the reigns of American political power, black elected officials generally exhibit a more formal style when they govern; formal meaning slightly more rigid and by the book.

Riv put it this way:

"When Ed Rendell was mayor, he’d swagger into a news conference or an event with his constituents with Midge, his wife, and a small jazz band in tow, always clowning, always casual and informal and yet always serious underneath. This doesn’t happen with Mayor Nutter and it didn’t happen with Mayor Street. What we have here is formality, or the mayor’s entourage– all those suited men and women traveling with the mayor in line processions where acts of spontaneity are alien."

I knew what Riv was talking about, as I’ve often noticed Mayor Nutter’s entourage, that procession of second lieutenants who surround him like a Philly version of the Swiss Guards.

With the Democratic National Convention coming to Philadelphia in 2016, this would seem to be the time for a substantial change. Ignore Bob Brady’s endorsement of Anthony Williams, and think of Jim Kenney.
Vote for a new city and a new attitude.