Wednesday, December 19, 2007

12-19-07: Historical Notes

It's the birthday of singer Edith Piaf, (work by this artist) born Edith Giovanna Gassion, in Paris (1915). Piaf's mother was a cafe singer who abandoned her at birth, and her father was an acrobat who took her with him on tours and encouraged her to sing on the streets and in caf├ęs. In a few years, she was singing in the top music halls of Paris and she had recorded two records. The passion and depression Edith Piaf's velvety voice conveyed earned her many famous admirers. Jean Cocteau wrote a play for her. To aid the French Resistance in World War II, Piaf traveled to German prisoner-of-war camps and sang for the French inmates. During these tours, she would be photographed with the POWs and those pictures would be enlarged and put on false ID cards, which she would distribute on the next visit. Today, there's a plaque in Paris where she was born that says, "On the steps of this house... was born into the greatest poverty Edith Piaf, whose voice later stunned the world."

It's the birthday of writer Italo Svevo, (books by this author) born in Trieste, Italy (1861). He was a closet writer who worked as a bank clerk and then got a job in his father-in-law's paint-making plant. When Svevo decided to take some English classes for business reasons, the tutor that he found turned out to be aspiring writer James Joyce, who was living in Trieste at the time. Svevo confessed to Joyce that he had written two failed novels, and after reading them, Joyce told Svevo that he was a neglected genius. Svevo was inspired to write a fictional memoir about a patient undergoing psychoanalysis, which took him 10 years to finish. His self-published book The Confessions of Zeno (1923) is considered one of the greatest Italian novels of the 20th century.

On this day in 1732, Benjamin Franklin books by this author began publishing Poor Richard's Almanac in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Franklin's Almanac included weather reports, eclipses, tides, and tables of English Kings. But what made it famous were the witty proverbs about life that Franklin included as filler, such as, "Well done is better than well said" and "Haste makes waste" and "Neither a Fortress nor a Maidenhead will hold out long after they begin to parley." Ben Franklin's inspiration may have come when he was 15 years old and he worked in his brother's print shop. He would sneak into work at night and leave letters to the editor signed "Silence Dogood." The letters became very popular, but when young Franklin told his brother James that he was writing them, the two came to blows and Ben ran away to Philadelphia. When Benjamin Franklin started Poor Richard's, his brother was publishing an almanac of his own called "Poor Robin's Almanac."

It was on this day in 1843 that Charles Dickens (books by this author) came out with A Christmas Carol. He got the idea in mid-October and struggled to finish the story in time for the holidays. He published the book himself with gilt-edged pages and a red bound cover within a week of Christmas and sold 6,000 copies in the first few days. The instant best-seller revived Christmas when it was on the decline in England, during the Industrial Revolution, and it launched Dickens into a fame much like The Beatles — on his reading tours, Charles Dickens was mobbed by adoring fans, who would rip his clothes, wait in long lines to shake his hand, and pull down the windows on his train car to grab at him.

-The Writer's Almanac

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