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Culture and Arts

Culture Watch

In this issue:


A new biography, Lady Bird by Jan Jarboe Russell is a candid and revealing picture of a quintessential Southern stand-by-your-man woman. 

SWW talks to Joan Vail Thorne, a director and playwright, about her in the theater and her off-Broadway hit, The Exact Center of the Universe.'


Mezzo-sopranos are in the midst of  a golden age right now. Listen to the CD of Rossini arias and duets by Bulgaria's Vesselina Kasarova and you'll know why she's the latest sensation. 

Who said only women weep? This and other myths about misty eyes are explored in  Crying: The Natural and Cultural History of Tears by Tom Lutz. 


"He Was the Catalyst; I Was the Amalgam''

Lady Bird: A Biography of Mrs. Johnson
by Jan Jarboe Russell; (Scribner; 350 pages)

       Somewhere near the end of the 1950s, Lady Bird Johnson was hosting a party in her Washington home. Commenting on how she had come into her own, a longtime friend remarked to Lyndon Johnson that "The best day's work you ever did was the day you married her.'' Johnson replied that "I know that better every day.'' The reply is much like the usual husbandly  "I couldn't have done all this without her'' cliché uttered by so many feckless men, and it's easy to picture L.B.J. at that moment:  his voice rich with sincerity and his face glazed with puppy-like adoration. Since the secrets within a marriage can never be known, it is a matter of conjecture just how conscious he was --then or ever--of his dependency on his wife. Reading this biography by Jan Jarboe Russell, a San Antonio journalist, we can easily conclude that had there been no Lady Bird, there would have been no L.B.J.  At least, not the one we know. 
      Though not a full-length portrait, the book presents a candid and perceptive picture of a woman who once said of Lyndon:  "He was the catalyst. I was the amalgam.''  With crisp efficiency Lady Bird managed the man and the marriage just as she did the Johnson family radio and television business, transferring her own ambition onto the shoulders of the overbearing and determined man she married at 21 after a courtship of ten weeks. Many Southern women of her generation, if they were to succeed, understood the need to tie their fortune to a strong man and then to stand by him no matter what.  This truth was almost bred into Claudia Alta Taylor, the only daughter of a rich and strong-minded man known to white folks in his rural Texas county as Mister Cap'n and to the blacks as "Mister Boss.''  Lady Bird's mother died a few months before her daughter's fifth birthday, and the child transferred all her affection to her father.  She learned to fear, placate and please him.  Writes Russell: "Her only way to defend herself was to put on the armor of self-reliance. She slipped it on easily.'' After graduating from college with degrees in arts and journalism, the well-educated and well-to-do Claudia--called Lady Bird since childhood--could hardly anticipate a career. That was not an option for young women of means in 1934; the best prospect was marriage. 
       It's often said that women marry their fathers, and  Lady Bird acknowledged that "I feel sure my ideas of what a man was were formed by my father.'' In Lyndon, she found someone much like Mister Cap'n, and the young man's dreams of wealth and power coupled with his populist, idealistic championing of the poor and helpless were irresistible. His pursuit was ardent, and after initial hesitation, she capitulated. In a hurried ceremony, he placed a $2.50 ring on her finger. He had got what he wanted, and writes Russell, "Almost instantly he seemed to loose interest.''  For the rest of their life together, "Bird,'' accepted his temper and neglect, his impatience,  and swift shifts in mood. He told her what kinds of skirts to wear--straight, not full--and when she looked pale,  he ordered her put on lipstick. . She averted her eyes from his flirtations and betrayals.  "All I can say,'' she told her biographer, "is I had a great love affair. No matter what, I knew he loved me best.''  Or was she second to his first and deepest love: himself? 
     We have long since grown accustomed to the modern political wife, standing bravely with the pasted-on, worshipful smile, replying to questions with proper self-effacement and careful avoidance of anything controversial. And we have become used to the clever wife who campaigns on her own, employing a becoming modesty and a calculated femininity that frustrates opponents.  Lady Bird was naturally shy and  had no true political role models, either as a young wife of an up-and-coming legislator or as First Lady. Yet she plunged into campaigns, organizing teas, making phone calls, shaking hands until her fingers ached, and, most important, keeping Lyndon focused. Later in his presidency, she did her own whistle-stop tour aboard a train dubbed the "Lady Bird Special,'' making brave political forays into the South at the height of the civil rights debate. Her astonishing ability, learned from childhood, to bury emotions and  take care of the job at hand served her husband perfectly.  When Johnson misbehaved, flaunting his interest in another woman or cutting her off, Lady Bird pulled out her ultimate weapon: silence. She would retreat behind a wall. Observes Russell: "Everyone else followed her lead. This was also part of her power as his wife. If she ignored his misdeed, everyone else was expected to do the same. Her silence had the effort of magic; it made L.B.J.'s indiscretions seem to disappear.'' 
      The two Johnson daughters, Lynda Bird and Luci, don't make much of an appearance in the book, but they are presented with sympathy. Rivals for their parents' affections, they knew that in the Johnson family, Daddy came first. In a revealing anecdote, Luci told the author "I never understood why my mother had to leave and travel with my father. I remember one time I clung to her skirts and tried to keep her from leaving. I screamed at her, 'You're not a real mother! A real mother stays home!' " 
     Lady Bird had long ago made her decision to be first a political wife, and then, when there was time, a mother. In the end, according to Russell, her  loyalty and submissive attention formed a fatal insulation. As Russell notes, "She helped create a matrix of constant fidelity, which had the effect of restricting real debate about Vietnam or anything else.'' That's an over simplistic view of the issues dividing the nation, but there is an element of truth. 
         When L.B.J. left the presidency, the guiding purpose of his life vanished.  His reliance on Lady Bird was total and when he died, she became the keeper of his legacy.  One poignant story gives a glimpse into their sad relationship during his brief years in retirement. On a helicopter trip, he was having his white, almost shoulder-length hair combed and it was flying out in all directions. Frustrated, writes Russell, "the former master of the Senate and leader of the free world'' broke down in tears.  Looking on, Lady Bird told  him calmly, "Lyndon, that's enough. We'll fix your hair when we land.''  He listened like a child. 
     With exemplary diligence, Russell  pored over existing books and oral histories and conducted more than 70 interviews for the book. Lady Bird consented to interviews, but after three years of speaking to Russell, she abruptly broke off all contact after Russell wrote an essay concerning L.B.J.'s 1964 phone calls that had recently been released to the public. That is too bad, for Russell is a fair-minded, respectful biographer. She gives high marks to Lady Bird for her kindness and loyalty to friends, her abiding concern for nature and the land and her inherent decency and common sense.  That decency and common sense, she concludes, "were Lady Bird's tickets to power as well as her private trap''  Future First Ladies should take note. 


SWW Talks to Joan Vail Thorne

     Lady Bird Johnson imagined a world beyond her Texas town and took a trip down her own yellow brick road to Washington, a latter-day Oz.  There's yet another kind of  Southern woman. You know who she is: the tyrant in the silk dress and lace collar who wields power from the parlor, the lady who remains where she has always lived to exert her iron hand in the white glove over town and family, inspiring equal measures of love and fear. 
    In this case, she's not real. Her name is Vada Love Powell, and she's the central character in The Exact Center of the Universe,' a knowing and gently good-hearted off-Broadway play  starring the two-time Tony-award winner Frances Sternhagen.  Vada is the creation of playwright Joan Vail Thorne, another daughter of the South but blessed with a cosmopolitan manner and more than a touch of Yankee get-up-and-go.  Sitting in a busy Manhattan restaurant, Thorne sips a cola  and reflects on a lifetime as a working woman in the theater and the subtle discrimination she has witnessed. "Twenty years ago, I saw a statistic that said just 6% of professionally produced playwrights were women. Twenty years later, it is 21%. That's a bit of a gain, but not when you think its been 20 years. It's may not be deliberate but it is discrimination, and that is what make it so insidious.'' 
     An example that hits painfully close: A male colleague reported that a man had said of  her play's six-word title, "Only a woman would think of that.'' Oh, that tinge of condescension. 
     Southern ladies aren't the only characters Thorne likes writing--or thinking--about. This year alone there have been  premieres of an opera with her libretto adapted from the Edith Wharton novella, Summer, and an orchestral work, with a Thorne-written narrative, about the Father of Our Country, George Washington. But she writes with understanding--and affection--about the South because its her birthplace. Hammond, Louisiana, 50 miles north of New Orleans was her birthplace, and  she calls unique and fascinating because of  "its influence of Spanish, French and the mixture of races.'' There were Sicilian farmers ''who had exquisite strawberry fields,'' Bible belt believers and Roman Catholics, represented by Spanish Dominican priests.  Thorne, then just young Miss Vail, was poised between two contrasting traditions, with a  mother of  Irish Catholic descent and a father who was a grandson of an itinerant Methodist preacher.  As a schoolgirl, she would open her state history book to find a picture not of an unsmiling  Founding Father but the old voluptuary, Louis XIV.   Before the Supreme Court ruling banning segregation, she attended  a parochial school with African-American students, even sharing a desk with a black child.  "All this,'' she says, "made a difference in the way I lived and viewed the world.'' 
     Thorne studied directing at Catholic University in Washington, and what she learned became the foundation for later work.  "The school gave you training  but didn't compress you into a tight mold,'' she says. After college, she  joined the capital city's Arena Stage with fellow students George Grizzard and  Sternhagen, who has remained one of her closest friends.  It was  a time of excitement and experimentation, as regional stage groups, many of them headed by women, were transforming American theater.   At Arena Stage, Thorne was an assistant to Alan Schneider, who was an early champion of Samuel Beckett and the Irish playwright's director of choice. As a mentor, Schneider was " marvelous,'' Thorne says. "If you were competent it didn't matter what your gender was. If you were incompetent, God help you whatever your gender.'' 
      She joined the hundreds of young women  who migrate each year to study theater in New York City and discover how far talent, perseverance and luck will take them. Then, interruption. She married Jack Thorne, acquired a new last name, had three children and stayed home. "Once a year I'd  go off and do something with Alan,'' she says. " And, oh yes, "I started writing. Not that I  was pining to be an author. " But when someone was napping, I was at the typewriter.''  The first was a children's story about an imaginary lion, and then came instructive plays on educational subjects.  Writing them taught her craft. "Things you think of as deprivation can become good luck. You begin to try something different.'' 
      When the children were old enough, she took on a triple career as director and playwright, and for the last ten years, a member of the directing faculty at Playwrights Horizon Theater School, which is a studio of New York University.  The enviably organized Thorne divides her time between Bucks County, Pa., where she and Jack, a marketing executive, live in their family home, and a pied-a-terre in Manhattan. Over the years,  she has found an artistic home at the Women's Project, a two-decades' old non-profit theater dedicated to producing plays by women.  Exact Center was first presented there last spring before moving to the Century Theater. 
       Being a Southerner means being a story teller at heart. Think Eudora Welty and William Faulkner. Robert Penn Warren and Margaret Mitchell. "The South is anecdotal,'' Thorne says, wondering as many others have,  "Whether Southerners live to enjoy  life or do they live to tell stories about it?'' The story Thorne tells in Exact Center of the Universe is wound around Vada's all-consuming mother love for her son Appleton. It benefits each, though as he gently informs us, "It is "hard on both of us.''  When Reed elopes, jolting Vada's rigid tightly constructed world, her longtime friends push, prod and cajole her to accept people and situations she can't control. Still another kind of love is reflected by a  woman of a different background and generation who explains to Vada that "I don't know what love is, I just do it.'' She's the twin of the young woman who has won Appleton's heart and, in a neatly done turn, both sisters are played by her actress daughter Tracy Thorne.  It's the first time Tracy and Mom have worked together, and Thorne believes that the roles of the quite different twins ''show Tracy's  two sides. "One is  gentle, warm and nurturing, and the other is outgoing, aggressive, and ambitious.''  Qualities, she shares with her remarkable and altogether admirable mother. 

And Consider This


Vesselina Kasarova Rossini Arias and Duets 
 (BMG; $16.97)

This end of the century will be remembered as a golden age for mezzo-sopranos. Italy's Cecilia Bartoli revived interest in the repertoire of the coloratura mezzo, who must have darkness and fullness of tone as well as quicksilver agility. Bulgaria's Vesselina Kasarova is the latest sensation, and the full glory of her gorgeous and seductive voice. The tenor Juan Diego Florez is  an ideal partner here, and the Munich Radio Orchestra conducted by Arthur Fagen follows the dramatic arc that makes Rossini's songs so satisfying. He wrote terrific music for mezzos, and Kasarova makes it thrillingly her own. 


Crying: A Natural and Cultural History of Tears by Tom Lutz
(Norton; 356 pages; $25.05)

We get out our handkerchiefs at movies, weddings and funerals, weeping as copiously at happy endings as we do at tragic ones. But what's behind those tears? Plenty, and author Tom Lutz, a teacher at the University of Iowa,  brings myths, Shakespeare and scientific research to bear on the complexities. Women cry, and it is now permitted to men. Bill Clinton has made it an art form. Lutz is grateful for those salty leaks from our orbs, and writes gracefully and appreciatively about them. "Tears,'' he observes, ''are the most substantial and yet the most fleeting, the most obvious and yet the most enigmatic proof of our emotional lives.'' Read it and weep.


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