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Everybody knows the Lee Van Cleef of late 1960s spaghetti Westerns.  Forget that.

Lee Van Cleef, Kansas City Confidential

Lee Van Cleef, Kansas City Confidential

Long before Van Cleef appeared in For a Few Dollars More, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, and other Italian-directed Westerns, he burned up the celluloid with his portrayals of film noir heavies.

Lee Van Cleef, Kansas City Confidential

Lee Van Cleef, Kansas City Confidential

With his sharp visage, hawk-like nose, and those wolf eyes, Van Cleef was  a quiet, menacing presence in classics like Kansas City Confidential and The Big Combo.

Also it turns out that he was a real-life badass.  Van Cleef served in the U.S. Navy during WWII  as a soundman and while his ship was in the Mediterranean, he heroically leaped off to save a dog–recalling another heroic badass who attempted to save a dog while chomping on a pipe, F. Bert Farquahrson.

Lee Van Cleef, Sonarman, U.S. Navy

Lee Van Cleef, Soundman, U.S. Navy


How he dived 30 feet from the bridge of the mine-sweeper into the Mediterranean with the pipe he was smoking still tight in his teeth, and won himself a four-legged pal at the same time, is the story told in a letter home from Soundman 2c C. Leroy Van Cleef Jr. 20, U.S. Navy of 198 North Bridge St. H wrote his parents:

“We were along the coast and had our new mascot aboard. It was a fairly heavy sea (and cold water, I might add). Our mascot happens to be a spaniel of some sort. We call the water-loving hound ‘Rusty’.

“Well, Rusty was out on the fantail this day and a wave came along, washing her overboard. We had to get permission to break formation and go back for her. That took us about 15 minutes until we finally found her. I was up on the bridge at the time, smoking my pipe. Well, I shed the knife I had on and my shoes, and yelled up for permission to go after her. ‘Permission granted.’

“So I dove off the bridge. When I hit the water, I heard something snap in my mouth. That happened to be my pipe while diving about 30 feet. I don’t know how my teeth escaped breaking. Luck, I call it. However, I got Rusty all right. She was swimming to beat everything. Quite a current too. They threw us a life ring and pulled us aboard.

“Yesterday I was out on the fantail and the sea was rushing up on the deck. Rusty came up and snuggled around my legs. I guess that swim was worth my favorite pipe.”



The past always seems to be so…old.  Previous styles, mores, customs seem to have vanished, replaced wholesale with an entirely new set of styles, mores, and customs.

That’s why we can snicker at ridiculous stuff like men with handlebar mustaches riding crazy bicycles and corpulent women vamping it up as if they were sex goddesses.

In thinking about the past, I still can’t decide if we’re basically the same as our ancestors or if we are completely different.  The easier thought is that we are different; that they inhabited a different nation than us, a nation called 1913, 1945, 1864, or whenever.

Then I see something like the Kodachrome color film test girl from 1922, from Kodak’s blog called “A Thousand Words.”

We see a series of women, most of them looking very 1922.  But the one who really bridges the gap between the ages is the woman at 1:11, in the green.  Her clip lasts only ten seconds, but in that short time we see an awkward girl of perhaps 20 years old begin with a shy smile, turn her head, turn back to the camera with just a wisp of a sexy glower, and then smile again.

Ten seconds.

Unlike the other women, who were actresses and who knew how to act very silent movie-like, she didn’t know how.  Who was she?  Whoever, she was probably born around 1900 and died by 1980.

So, turn off the sound, hit Play, advance to around 1:11, and go back in the past.

This isn’t about coffee or penises, but of course that’s what all you dirty-minded people care about.

It’s about:  stray advice from the ancient past that lingers in your mind, for no apparent reason.

Why do we remember things?  Why do we forget?

We accept the forgetting part with age; it’s commonplace.  The remembering part is eerie because, even as our brains age and begin to perforate like Swiss cheese, certain memories stick with us.  The following advice will be with me on my dying bed:

Coffee makes your pecker harder.

A friend told me this when we were high school freshmen.  We were running on a high school practice field.  It was a weekend day; school was not in session.

He told me that his uncle had said this–in those exact words.

I still remember the light of the day.  I even know that we were running west.

This wasn’t information that I was hungering for, either.  As a freshman, I had no need for pecker-hardening elixirs.  It had no personal significance.

I’ll go on a limb and theorize that a recess of my brain seized the information because it would be needed much later in life.  Our minds do the same thing when it comes to slipping on ice or getting shocked at an outlet.  Our minds store valuable information that will protect us.  Since we are animals that want to procreate, a primal part of the brain wants to protect those procreative abilities.

The uncle was right.  Caffeine temporarily improves vascular functioning.  You need good vascularity to help blood pour into the penis and erect it.  Or to put it more simply:

Coffee makes your pecker harder!

There’s well-known a scene in Citizen Kane called “The Bernstein Scene.”  The reporter who is trying to track down the mystery of deceased Charles Foster Kane’s past speaks with Mr. Bernstein, who had been Kane’s guardian.  Bernstein talks about memory and the past, but then breaks off into this startling reverie about a memory of his own which included a girl with a parasol:



In 1970, President Richard Nixon changed the White House Secret Service’s uniforms most dramatically.

According to Richard Reeves’ President Nixon:  Alone in the White House, Nixon felt that the present uniforms were “too slovenly.”  An upcoming visit by Prime Minister Harold Wilson of Great Britain  was a good excuse to upgrade the uniforms.

The uniforms, inspired by ones that Nixon had seen on honor guards in Europe, featured “double-breasted white tunics, starred epaulets, gold piping, draped braid, and high plastic hats decorated with a large White House crest.”

The uniforms were roundly criticized in the press.  One columnist said that they looked like old-time movie ushers’ uniforms.  Another noted that the uniforms borrowed their style from “decadent European monarchies.”

They lasted 2 weeks.

What I find most striking is that one of the Secret Service guards, the one closest to the camera, is a dead-ringer for Elvis Presley.  After all, Elvis did make that infamous nearly-unannounced trip to visit Nixon.

But the two dates are far apart.  Prime Minister Wilson visited on January 29, 1970.  Elvis visited on December 21, 1970.



From years of watching old movies I had heard the MidAtlantic accent but I had no idea what it was called.  I found it oddly repulsive and attractive, all at the same time.  It represented a kind of ivory tower British ideal, but because it distinctly had American tones, it was accessible.

It’s Not MidAtlantic States

First, let’s dispel the notion that it has anything to do with the MidAtlantic United States.  The MidAtlantic States, according to Wikipedia, are Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Washington D.C., New York, Virginia, and West Virginia.

What’s the common theme here?  Land.  Every state represented above is, obviously, on land.

MidAtlantic Accent Is In the Ocean

By contrast, the MidAtlantic Accent, sometimes called Transatlantic Accent, is located in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

1,732 miles into the Atlantic, to be precise.  That’s half the distance between New York, NY and London, England.

The joke is that this peculiar accent is kind of American and kind of British.  It’s so “kind of” both that it’s easiest to place it right between the two nations.

It’s not a joke that I invented, either.  The term MidAtlantic Accent has been around for a long time.

How It Sounds

It’s rahther, not rather, but not in a wholly British way.  It’s a rahther flattened by American diction.

It’s very pronounced ever so faintly as velly, smoothing down those r’s until they begin to approach l’s.  But not too far.

It’s Katherine Hepburn.

It’s not Cary Grant.  While Grant does have an odd mixture of American and British accents, he also has that unique Cary Grantish hiccup.  Also, I believe that Cary Grant’s accent falls more in the British direction.

It’s stilted.  It’s posh.

It’s learned.  No one grows up speaking MidAtlantic.

It’s the authoritative voice of a newsreel announcer.

Why The MidAtlantic Accent Disappeared

Everything runs its course.  By the 1940s, the high point of the MidAtlantic Accent in the U.S., the British Empire was already in its death throes.  Britain was no longer the all-powerful imperialistic empire it had once been.  Hitler’s armaments had touched British soil.  The Huns had invaded.

Another reason is because the authoritative voice disappeared.  In the 1950s, authority was quietly being challenged; by the 1960s, openly so.  No one wanted to hear stentorian pronouncements–or directions–anymore.


The Atlantic“When Did Americans Stop Sounding This Way?”




At my high school was a teacher named Richard Trumbly.  It didn’t matter if you had him as a teacher or not–you knew Mr. Trumbly.  He was famous.

He was famous for many reasons, but to pick just one?  Well, he was famous for being nattily dressed and groomed–suits and pomaded hair–several full decades after dress standards for the entire world had relaxed.  A good thumbnail description:  Felix Ungar from The Odd Couple in a mossy-green suit and a precise MidAtlantic Accent.

He taught English and Theater in the large space above the grand and imposing 1930s, WPA-era auditorium.  I don’t know the circumstances of this classroom, but I like to think that Mr. Trumbly had slowly taken ownership of this space by force of will.

Yet he was a great teacher.  Not the “great” we use ten times a day, as in “Oh, this new pen is totally great.”  He was great in the larger sense, a teacher who inspires and molds.  You didn’t particularly like him.  As a teenager, how could you?  You were a smelly, prone-to-anarchy 17 year-old mangling the language at every turn.  Mr. Trumbly was the bulwark, the rock of civilization.  Mr. Trumbly never laid down the flag; never opened the gates to let the Visigoths through.

1.  Err is Pronounced “URR”

We all pronounce it air.  Wrong.  It’s pronounced urr.  Mr. Trumbly taught us that.  But I don’t want to be a total dick, so I say air if at all.

2.  Implosions Do Not Happen in Las Vegas

Not a Trumblyism, but I’m on the bully pulpit now and you can’t get me off.  Implosion.

I realize I’m fighting a losing battle on the correct usage of implosion.  An implosion is the opposite of explosion.  In an explosion, things go outward.  In an implosion, things go inward.

Best example:  break a lightbulb.  At the moment of implosion, the vacuum inside the bulb imperceptibly pulls the fragments inward.  Then they go outward.  Problem is, the impact of hammer, bullet, or table is a complicating factor that doesn’t let you see that inward motion.  Second problem is that the vacuum is so minute that it doesn’t do much to suck the fragments inward.

So when you put explosives inside an abandoned Las Vegas hotel and set them off, you are exploding the building.  Not imploding it.  Isn’t it a tipoff that those things you put in the building are called explosives?  It’s just by careful placement of explosives that the building happens to fall mainly inwards.

3.  Jibe and Jive

What the hell, people?  The meaning of jibe is “in accord with.”  Throwing out some examples of right and unright usage:

Right:  “This letter doesn’t jibe with my understanding of how I got fired.”

Wrong:  “He is one jibe honky-cat.”

Right:  “He is one jive honky-cat.”

Wrong:  “This accident report doesn’t jive with my understanding of how the piano dropped on his head.”

4.  And While We’re At It

I’m getting slowly madder, my face turning Trumbly-red.

Commas get omitted all the time.  OK.  But there is one instance that drives me bonkers:

Let’s get going people.

Tell me your secrets Jim.

Francis the talking mule is cute!

Whenever you’ve got a name or a person or a group or anything like that, separate it from the rest of the sentence with a comma, like:

Let’s get going, people.

Tell me your secrets, Jim.

Francis, the talking mule is cute!

Because you can also say “Francis The Talking Mule is cute!”  Different meaning.

Whew.  I’m tired.  Being a bulwark against Visigoths really drains a guy.


Sizzling, steamy hot.  Oh sure, by today’s standards, she would probably never make the tabloid pages.  But considering the time period and the hideously, troll-like son she produced, I’d have to say that Brooklyn-born Jennie Jerome, later Lady Randolph Churchill, was a damn fine-looking lady with smoky dark looks.


Come hither:


The smokiest and darkest look of all:


The Ephemera:

A sweet-faced, intelligent 9 year-old boy–Gerard Darrow–who performed on a radio show called Quiz Kids.  LIFE says that Darrow “rescued this fledgling martin during a field trip at the Darrows’ summer cottage at Petite Lake, Ill.”

Though Gerard was well-groomed and combed in the radio studio, he most loved being outdoors, where he could observe birds.  By age 4, Gerard already knew the names of 365 birds.

What Happened?

John Dunning, in On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio, says:

Especially troubling were the views of Gerard Darrow, who had been profiled under the alias “Bruce Fletcher” by Studs Terkel for the book Working.  Terkel described an aging man with a string of menial jobs and long periods of unemployment.  “I wish it had never happened,” Darrow told Terkel of his days as a Quiz Kid.  “I can’t forgive those who exploited me.”

Later in the book:

Gerard Darrow had died at 47, “a man in broken health who had spent a good portion of his final years on welfare.”

From On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio, by John Dunning

The Ephemera

Photo - Flickr/Bustbright

Fortune, December 1938:

About this time every winter in New York, if you happened to pass the Ritz toward eleven o’clock of a December evening, you would notice at the usually dark and deserted Forty-sixth Street entrance a swarm of limousines and taxis busily unloading a crowd of top hats and ermine coats.  If you joined the little band of late strollers and office-building scrubwomen from the Grand Central zone, already watching at the edge of the bright marquee, you would see at once that the top hats belonged to crew haircuts, and the ermine coats, which sometimes were only bunny, to adolescent faces masked with skin-deep sophistication.

Thus begins Fortune‘s article, “The U.S. Debutante,” wringing its hands over this society’s vanishing culture, “leaving the debutante all dressed up with no place to go.”

Featured among debutantes from Charleston, Detroit, Chicago, and Baltimore was a woman named Alice V. Westfeldt.

Who Is She?  What Happened to Her?

According to the New Orleans Social Register 1922, she appears to have been born to Wallace and Alice Westfeldt, who married in 1916.  Mr. Westfeldt was a 1912 graduate of Tulane University.

A fairly pleasant, patrician street in 1922, Sycamore Street hasn’t fallen into utter decay–perhaps due to the stabilizing influence of its proximity to Tulane and Loyola Universities.

Alice’s house may have been carved up into apartments and inhabited likely by students and young professionals.  For instance, one unit was occupied by Spencer Horchler, who attended Loyola University as an undergrad from 2002 to 2007, and currently is a pantry cook at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York.

Orleans Parish Property records do not list a 7910 Sycamore.  Likely her house was one of these located on the even-numbered side of Sycamore.

Alice Marries Troup

After her coming out in the 1938 season, Alice married Troup Howard Mathews in February 1942.

Mathews led an interesting life.  Mathews’ obit says:

Fluent in French, he became the editor of the French section of the voice of America, and became one of the targets of Senator Joseph McCarthy, who at the time was conducting his notorious investigations. Mr. Mathews demanded a public hearing but McCarthy ignored the request (New York Times, February 27, 1953 and March 1, 1953). A widely published photograph showed Mr. Mathews, standing on crutches in front of the Federal Courthouse in Manhattan with Senator McCarthy. Ultimately, the charges evaporated. Mr. Mathews taught school for 20 years at Rockland State Psychiatric Hospital. In the early 1970’s he studied to become a teacher of the Alexander Technique, a form of neuromuscular training used by musicians and actors.

Alice and Troup later divorced.


It’s an interesting side note that Alice’s middle name is “Vairin.”  Why?

It appears that the Westfeldt family owned an important painting by Jean Pierre Vairin.  Frick says that the painting’s current repository is with “Mrs. Troup H. Mathews, Nyack, New York.”  It’s not clear if the painting stayed with Troup after the divorce or if Alice (who kept the Mathews name) kept it.

Vairin has stuck with the family.  One of Mr. Mathews’ daughters was named Vairin (now Vairin Henshaw).

“Long…Line of Divorcers”

Actor and writer Jennifer Westfeldt says that she “descends from a long, long, long line of divorcers. In fact, you might say the Westfeldts were divorce pioneers.”

Even Alice’s parents, George and Alice ended up divorcing in 1940.

Jennifer says that “the second Alice, was a divorcée, and she had four daughters, all of whom divorced.”

Jennifer Westfeldt is behind hit movies such as Friends With Kids and Kissing Jessica Stein.  She has been in a relationship with Jon Hamm of Mad Men since 1997.

Alice’s Death

After her divorce from Troup, Alice appears to have remained in Rockland County, NY.  She retained her Mathews surname.  It’s not clear if she remarried.

St. Mary’s College of Maryland is looking for lost alumni from 1971, and they list an Alice Vairin Mathews.  Alice would have been an improbable 51 years old at the time, but she could have been a graduate student (none of her daughters are named Alice, so it wouldn’t be a daughter).

She worked at the Rockland County Mental Health Center, retired in 1976, moved to Vermont, and then back to Nyack (Rockland County) in 1996.

She kept an active life and became a second degree Reiki practitioner.

Alice Vairin Mathews died May 2, 2008 at the age of 90.