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Category: childhood

Vital Records

My father’s address book, 1990s.

Life stories depend on birth and deaths; they frame the narrative, so to speak, with a start and endpoint. But for genealogists and family historians, they are trickier than you’d think, even in the modern era (in the administrative sense of modern: ie. after governments starting keeping civil records, usually in the nineteenth century).

Here are some examples. My father’s birth date was well known to me and, in fact, hard to forget: he was born on December 26, 1926 and he always made a big deal about both Christmas and his birthday, which were an annual double-header. You wouldn’t know until you looked for his actual birth certificate in Chicago, though, that his parents initially named him Sandford Earle; that was his legal name until they filed for a re-issued birth certificate for Earle Stanton on September 10, 1929. Was he called Sandford for the first three years of his life or was he called Earle all along and then they finally made the change official years later? Why correct it at all since many people go by their middle names? My father knew this story and told it to us: he said that his parents decided that they didn’t want him to be called Sandy and reversed his name to Earle Stanton (still not Sandford!). But think of the confusion this would cause later for genealogists….

Looking for births also unearths surprising other stories, random or significant. A search by my father’s name, for example, also turns up an Earl Olsen (with the same spelling of our last name, and a different and more common spelling of his first name) born in Cook County on November 18, 1926. He was one of two Earl Olsens born within about a month of my father in Illinois, according to Ancestry. com. What are the odds? One of those Earls died in Palm Beach a few years before my father died in upstate New York. Did they live parallel lives all along? They would have been hit by the same historical factors at the same time, like a late drafting for World War II when they turned eighteen at the end of 1944. My father was rare among my friends’ parents for serving in World War II instead of Korea or even Vietnam.

There are of course poignant moments too, like the birth certificate I found among family papers for my father’s sister Margaret Jane, who did not survive infancy. A quick check of FamilySearch.org reveals the length and breadth of her short life: Illinois, Cook County Births 1871-1940 and Illinois, Cook County Deaths, 1978-1994 confirm she was born July 22, 1925 and buried August 8th in the family plot at Oakwoods Cemetery. The list of Illinois Deaths and Stillbirths, 1916-1947 cites her as “Margaurite Olsen” and states that her burial date was July 10th, which is clearly impossible (unless that was a different child, but again—what are the odds?). Just like family stories, government records are filled with mistakes that lead researchers astray. “Documentary evidence” and certified copies of vital records are more of a hope and a promise than a guaranteed truth.

My father’s sister’s birth certificate
(note the attached pink ribbon)

My mother, who has unearthed a lot of genealogical information about her ancestors in Ireland and Scotland, speculates about anomalies in her family’s record books. A story circulated among her relatives that her great-grandfather William Espie was born in Wales. When she searched the UK databases, though, she could only find a William Espie who died in the right time and place in Ireland but was born in Australia. It seemed unlikely to be the right person: how many American Scots-Irish families included ancestors who emigrated backwards from Australia to Ireland before coming to the U.S.? But then she wondered, could the family story have been referring to New South Wales all along? Such are the random and confusing trails through archives and history—as criss-crossed as the immigrants’ journeys.

Both genealogy and biographical research take a lot of grunt work: like a detective you check out leads and cross them off, which means phone calls and emails and internet searches and library visits and combing through indexes of scholarly volumes etc etc. Most of what I do in a day, when I get to this work around the margins of my other work, is defining the negative space around my father: who never met him? What didn’t influence him? Where wasn’t he?

This is most apparent in the oral histories I’ve been reading, mostly from Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art. Robert Indiana, who was at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) at the same time as my father, didn’t know him. I try other keyword searches for Olsen in a range of SAIC alumni oral histories and archival collections…. Nothing. Robert Kulicke, who employed my father at Kulicke Frames for ten years, says little about his art business at all in his oral history. My father was represented in the mid-1950s by Grace Borgenicht’s gallery, but he is nowhere in her oral history (I’ve already written about the one reference I did find to him in that gallery’s archive). Nor does he come up in the oral history of Grace Mayer, photography curator at the Museum of Modern Art and a friend of my dad’s for decades, though her archive at MoMA apparently has a Christmas card he sent her that I won’t be able to see until the museum’s archives re-open in October 2019. Other generous researchers connect me to other generous colleagues who were part of the New York City art world in the 1950s and 1960s…. Nothing. It’s as if he wasn’t a part of the art world. And maybe, in its recorded version, he wasn’t.

My father does appear in James Harvey’s oral history from 1963: my father and Harvey were both SAIC alums and moved to New York City at the same time. A trail of breadcrumbs led me from Harvey to other random surprises. For example, one of the names that came up over and over again in SAIC oral histories, including Harvey’s, was Kathleen Blackshear, an artist and much admired teacher there from 1926 to 1961. The Kathleen Blackshear and Ethel Spears papers at the Smithsonian include Blackshear’s address book from 1947-57, which they digitized.

Page from Kathleen Blackshear’s address book, 1947-57.
This is the right Earle and the right Olsen, both with an e.

And there, under O, is my father. The color-coded notations after each name seem to refer to the years she sent holiday cards to each person, so she may have kept up with my father for a year after he graduated in 1951. Then nothing. Jim Harvey appears under H and she kept up with him longer, though he died in 1965. There are cards in the collection that she received from students and colleagues as well, but none from Earle. It’s a dead end, but a poignant one. My father was there. His trace exists on paper in a Chicago collection and in pixels on a computer screen. There would have been no way to search for that reference; it wasn’t indexed. I have already quoted Robert Caro’s dictum: one has to turn every page (and I’d add that one has to click every arrow….)

My grandfather’s address book, Florida, 1970s

My father and grandfather left address books too, which sit in my own personal basement archives. My grandfather’s was a battered spiral bound book like you might find in any stationery store, but embossed with his name, as much of his property was. Andrew was a meticulous, cautious man; in her letters my great-aunt Marie called him “sensitive.” His address book lists some friends in alphabetical order (“The Jones,” “The Lutzes”) but many more service providers, from lawn care and barbers to restaurants and camera stores. He made notes in all caps even for the obvious (“ROTO ROOTER FOR DRAINS”) and carefully wrote down every birthday in the back of the book, including his own. He included his wife’s birthday and his wedding anniversary, though by these years in Florida he was long widowed. He had phone numbers to call for the Correct Time and Weather listed under T and W. There are almost no names I recognize because my father had little interest in his father’s friends or even in his own extended family. During the 1970s, my sisters and I visited Grandpa Olsen once a year. He sent us Hallmark holiday cards with a five dollar bill tucked inside, and he paid for our expensive private schools and colleges.

With its reproduction William Morris print, my father’s address book is a familiar paisley-covered hardback, probably from the gift shop at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the 1990s. Inside there are still scraps of paper scribbled over with handwritten names, numbers, and addresses because my extroverted father collected acquaintances everywhere he went. When he died eight years ago it didn’t occur to me to check his address book for people to notify: I had never managed a death in the family before, nor seen anyone else do so up close, and I had no idea of protocols. Later I would find the name Bob Parker there: Robert Andrew Parker was a friend of my father’s from SAIC that I had never heard him mention, but looked up after seeing his name in Harvey’s oral history. His phone number was the same in the 1990s as when I did finally speak to him about my father in 2019.

My father also preserved, randomly, a daily calendar from 1969: one of those small bound notebooks with a page for each day. At the time he was working for Kulicke Frames so the pages are full of measurements as well as sketches, mostly for the geometric paintings he was making on Plexiglas at the time. The brief entries are filled with sales calls with clients like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Pace and Martha Jackson galleries, and artists like Saul Steinberg. Like his father, my father often wrote in ALL CAPS. He jotted down phone numbers with their New York exchanges like CO7-, LA4-; in 1970 our phone number on the Upper West Side would begin UN5- for University. Some appointments still have resonance: on June 4th he met his old friend Grace Mayer at MoMA at 12:30. I still have his copy of her photographic history of New York City behind me on a shelf. The dates February 20-March 1, 1970 are held for “Caribbean,” though one of my oldest, vividest memories is of being on the island of St. Vincent’s for my sixth birthday on March 3rd. The historical events of that tumultuous year are all missing: fifty years ago on June 28th, when the Stonewall riots began in Greenwich Village, he sketched another grid in pen.

My father’s appointment book, 1969

My father’s only other surviving appointment book, from 1990, is filled with reminders to “pay Con Ed,” “pay Athens phone”….and a note on February 2 for “Attempted ROBBERY.” The follow up a few days later reads “Called Haim [his landlord] he promised new door.” I don’t remember that particular story, which would have taken place when he lived in an industrial loft in DUMBO, but my father was robbed in his New York City homes several times, including once when he was tied to a chair as the burglar searched for valuables. By 1990 my father was spending much of his time upstate in his second home in Athens, where he would soon retire. That year he framed a lot of art for law firms and travelled to Philadelphia and London. And finally, my sisters and I, all in our twenties by then, appear: “Tina dinner 7:30 Pasta Presto” on February 14 and Margrit’s name next to train times to Portchester on another day. He notes each of our birthdays and “Vicky’s wedding” appears on June 30th. He was present at that wedding; in fact, it was held at his house, which my sisters and I sold after his death. It’s the blank spaces around these brief notes that biographers and memoirists struggle to fill in and interpret—all the absences that define a presence.

My father’s appointment book, 1990

Andy, Rex, and Sailor Jack

Cracker Jack box, ca. 1970

Here’s the family story: my father always said that his father designed the Cracker JackⓇ box and the boy and dog were based on his older brother Andrew Jr. and their dog Rex. He told this story so many times that it even appeared in his friend James Harvey’s oral history for the Archives of American Art back in 1963: Harvey, himself the package designer of an iconic box—for Brillo, repeated the story as an example of successful package design, claiming that it had been honored by the Museum of Modern Art (that’s wrong, though true of Andrew Sr.’s design for yet another box—for Kleenex).

It’s not like Cracker JackⓇ came up very often: it was an old-fashioned treat and not that popular with me and my sisters as kids in the 1970s. In what I consider the “classic” design (ie. the one I grew up with) Sailor Jack and his dog Bingo face outward and Jack salutes them. Even today the ad copy emphasizes nostalgia and memory, claiming that it tastes “just as good as you remember. And…who can forget the thrill of opening the surprise inside?”

Earle, Andrew Jr, and Rex

Here’s some evidence: in this photo my father is the boy standing on the right in the white sailor boy suit. His brother, curly-topped, holds their black and white dog in a similar position to the pose in the ad, with the dog between his legs. They may be at Pennelwood, a family resort where they spent many summers in cabins on a small lake in Berlin Springs, Michigan. My guess is that it was taken around 1933, when the boys were about six and ten. On the back of the photo is inscribed, cryptically: Merry Christmas Here are two friends of mine that I thought maybe you would like to meet. Don’t you think they’re pretty nice? Claudia

I’ve never heard of any Claudia and don’t know why our family would have this photo if she sent it to someone who didn’t know the boys. Is the inscription an inside joke of some kind? Why does it mention Christmas if the photo is clearly in warm weather? My father’s family took a trip to California in 1932 but he seems older here. My father died eight years ago. His brother has been dead since 1944. There’s no one to ask. And there’s no evidence of any designs for Cracker JackⓇ in the scrapbook my grandfather carefully kept of his work.

Sailor outfits are surprisingly common in Olsen photo albums: in one Andrew Sr. stands on their front lawn with both of his sons in sailor gear. In another young Andrew Jr. stands at attention, saluting in a naval cap. In yet another he (or a similar-looking boy) wears the same kerchief as Sailor Jack, which raises the possibility that the photos themselves were studies of some kind, though this particular album was compiled by Andrew Jr, not his father. In 1942 Andrew Jr would enlist in the Army Air Force, but my grandfather and father served their wars at the Great Lakes Naval Station near Chicago without being deployed abroad.

sample page from Andrew Jr.’s album

Here are the facts: Cracker JackⓇ company lore tells a different story. The company was founded by Frederick William Rueckheim and his brother Louis in Chicago; they sold the candy at the World’s Columbian Exposition there in 1893. They later added Henry Gottlieb Eckstein to the company (his contribution was the wax-coated inner lining that kept the candy popcorn fresh). In 1908, when “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” was released, Cracker JackⓇ earned its now indelible association with America’s favorite pastime. The iconic package, still more or less in use today, emerged during World War I and the boy and dog were registered as a trademark in 1919. The company claims that the boy was a grandson of Frederick’s who died at age eight in 1920. The dog was a stray Eckstein adopted.

Cracker Jack ad 1918

You can see already the problems this story poses for my family’s version. Andrew Jr. wasn’t even born until 1923 so how could he have inspired a package design trademarked in 1919? My grandfather Andrew Sr. was indeed active in the Chicago advertising world by the 1920s but the best we could argue for our side is that he could have worked on the package design for the cardboard box in the 1930s, not that he created the figures. Yet the family story was so specific! The dog, the sailor suit, the brother. Why make it up? Besides, the official version seems a little too neat. The fact that the boy died “shortly after the image appeared” is a little too perfect, no? It’s a cliché ending for a sentimental story about a candy swathed in nostalgia, which the baseball anthem reinforces. Even in 1908 the song lay the foundation for an American mythology: sunny days, leisure, and simpler times when all you needed to do was “root, root, root for the home team” and count to three strikes.

My father loved candy (and root beer, incidentally) as much as he loved that Cracker JackⓇ story. When we three were kids we’d all happily sing “The Candy Man” song as we downed our caramel apples or ice cream, bouncing off the leather seats of his vintage cars and stuffing gum wrappers into the ashtrays of their doors. My dad was that candy man, making the sun shine and the world taste good. There were no particular limits on our sugar consumption, or his. No one in my family ever dieted or exercised, though both of my parents eventually stopped smoking in the 1970s. We paid zero attention to our health or nutrition, and that seemed normal to me too. When McDonald’s started appearing on the East Coast we stopped at a drive-thru en route to my dad’s summer house in Greenport, Long Island, getting frosty shakes, several orders of French fries, and apple pies. Sweets were a huge part of any time spent with my father, and a big reason why we loved those party-like weekends with him after the divorce. Sports were for other people. The only sport we ever watched occurred once every four years: Olympics gymnastics and figure skating. When asked as a child what my favorite football team was I said “the Mets” because I thought all New York sports teams were called the Mets.

The 1918 ad, though, makes the argument that Cracker JackⓇ is healthful, full of “vital food elements.” Its “food values” are comparable to potatoes, eggs, steak (the holy trinity of nutrition for American diets), apparently— though it doesn’t say what those values or elements are. It was important in war-time especially to argue for the candy’s healthfulness, and its ability to satisfy “the candy appetite” with abundant calories. Like Planter’s Peanuts, which advertised itself as a “nickel lunch” during the Depression, Cracker JackⓇ was also a cheap meal for those down on their luck. It had a patriotic role to serve: the ad claims eating it actually saved sugar and wheat for the war effort. Sailor Jack kept saluting until well after the war and the package still maintains its red, white, and blue palette.

This advertising logic seems crude or transparent now, but it was an industry still in its infancy and would get more sophisticated during my grandfather’s career. Andrew Sr. started out in graphic design, working in the advertising department of a magazine until he was drafted in 1918. At around the same time, the newly-formed Cracker JackⓇ Company started packing their caramel-covered popcorn and peanuts in “patented wax-sealed packages,” as the ad copy above mentions. Before then peanuts were typically bought from street vendors, wrapped in cellophane papers and intended to be eaten right away, not saved or stored on a shelf. As the marketing and sale of food shifted from niche vendors to grocery stores, the cardboard box was a key innovation (as Walter Paepcke realized in founding the Container Corporation of America, another Chicago company, in 1926, the year my father was born there).

My grandfather rode that shift, moving from designing and illustrating print ads (including Planters Peanuts) to package design for Kleenex, the star of Kimberly-Clark’s paper products empire. A comparison of the 1918 Cracker Jack adⓇ and my grandfather’s KleenexⓇ box from the 1950s (below) is a lesson in advertising and art history: the representational figures of boy and dog, drawn like a loose sketch on top of a realistic photograph of the candy itself, couldn’t be more different than the modern “streamlined” and abstract design of the tissue box. If Cracker JackⓇ wanted to evoke the past, this KleenexⓇ design was all about being modern and looking forward.

Kleenex tissue box designed by my grandfather and framed by my father

Cracker JackⓇ still has an avid fan base: a Cracker JackⓇ Collectors Association, for example, tracks and catalogues its prizes across the decades. When the New York Yankees tried to replace Cracker JackⓇ at Yankee Stadium with a different popcorn, there was an uproar until they switched back. A simple Google search reveals many customer complaints about how much better Cracker JackⓇ “used to be”: more peanuts, better toys…. In other words, the candy is virtually synonymous with nostalgia: for an American past but perhaps more specifically for childhood, for that boy and dog frozen in time.

The fact that the models died may be necessary to holding them there in the suspension of memory—and since Andrew Jr. too died young (though much later, in the second World War at age 21) the story was bound up for my father (and perhaps for my sisters and me) with an idealized past. In fact, maybe that’s still visible in my description above…. Andrew Jr.’s photo album displays the same poignancy toward Rex, with one of the many photos of the dog inscribed “REX. He left us on July 21, 1939. We gave him away.” Why did they do that? If my father ever said, I’ve forgotten. Another image in that album shows my father as a boy on their front lawn, holding a baseball bat as if to swing it; Andrew Jr. labelled it “Years ago.” There’s a similar one of Andrew himself, just labelled “Watch Out!!! About 1937.” Associated with the games and play times of youth, Cracker JackⓇ became a potent symbol of good times lost—a prequel to the poignant evocation of “putting away childish things” by a much-later Andy in Toy Story.

(But is that interpretation too simple, like the nostalgia itself? Where’s the surprise in this box? It may be buried in my father’s relationships to his father, to James Harvey, and to the complicated intermingling of commercial and fine art in his life. And that’s a post for another day.)

Film Lessons


Big Machine

Hugo

— MOVIECLIPS.com

 

 

This scene from Martin Scorsese’s latest film, Hugo (2011), can stand in for the mixed success of the whole. The lighting and visual production are breathtaking. The cut to the obviously phony skyline of Paris under that big yellow moon is audacious and charming. But what’s with the ridiculous speech in which our young hero suddenly intones the moral of the story: the world is a machine and each insignificant piece is really significant after all?  The clumsiness of this moment is underlined by the visual sophistication of the two small children dwarfed by the oversized clock face and gears. What had been an amazingly executed experiment in 3D storytelling starts morphing into pedantic mush.

If I write about a film here it’s because I like something about it or something about it makes me think. And that is true too of Hugo, which is visually stunning. The opening sequence was wondrous: a sweeping camera cut through space to bring us intimately close to that faraway time and place. Suddenly we were there, with the oddball characters and the constant motion of the train station. And the film hardly paused as it quite literally raced after its artful dodger. From the start the situation was hardly realistic, but that made sense for a film so interested in its own relationship to magic. Where it lost me was when its fascination with film history shifted from helping us see differently to cramming us with as much information as possible. You know a film is in trouble when characters start reading aloud from reference books and narrating their memories in flashbacks.

It’s hard not to like a Scorsese movie, even though he can be so uneven and disappointing when he doesn’t have a solid screenplay to work with. Even then his eye is so interested and interesting, and you can almost always see him thinking…. it’s a shame that Hugo fails as both story and history by trying too hard to be both.

Eden, Texas

I enjoyed The Tree of Life (2011) more than the people I saw it with. I agreed with them that Terrence Malick’s latest film, which won the Cannes d’Or, didn’t succeed in fully integrating its parts. The beginning and ending were surreal or abstract representations of cosmic states, whereas the middle was a relatively realistic portrayal of a particular 1950s family in Waco, Texas. That family, supposedly based on Malick’s own, suffers a tragedy which links it to some universal experience. But the film does not make it clear how the particular and universal are linked. We each had different opinions about what worked and what didn’t, but for me the middle, the family’s story, was both beautiful and compelling.
Here’s a scene from the middle that is particularly beautiful and effective. The father, played by Brad Pitt, takes a business trip and we watch the rest of the family uncoil from his repressive presence. It’s as if a rubber band snapped: the camera pans around the rooms following the careening children who jump on beds, slam doors, and laugh and shout. It’s especially moving because the mother joins them….

 

“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth… When the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”

The film uses this biblical text from Job to remind us of the joys and beauties that we too easily forget, though they are all around us. These resurrected childhood memories are lost just as the pleasures of childhood (the intense emotions, the vivid sensations) are lost, just as Eden is lost. The film’s title and insistence on spirituality is less about finding an actual god, though it often seems to be addressing one, but rediscovering that spiritual appreciation within oneself. Jack looks back on his childhood as if it is a dream-like state of the unconscious and begins to recognize that his brother’s death makes that pre-lapsarian idyll all the more precious. The joy was not just in contrast to the tragedy that followed; rather, joy and struggle are inextricably connected, as the quote suggests. This realization allows Jack to forgive and be forgiven by his stern father and it allows him a reunion at the end with his hallowed mother.

There is plenty to criticize about this film–the overbearing voice-over, the generic characters, the lack of narrative, the dinosaurs–but in keeping with the film’s ambitious scope and its own effort to find the good and the beautiful, let’s focus on the positive. We should celebrate Malick’s courage in putting this personal and idiosyncratic vision out there, though it may have trouble finding a receptive audience. Malick takes a big risk when he hedges between the personal or autobiographical narrative and the universal or metaphorical. This film lands awkwardly between the two poles, perhaps, but it was worth the leap.

Baby/Face

As I was prepping for my spring semester teaching film students I read an article by Judith Butler on the Diane Arbus retrospective, “Revelations,” that toured the country in 2005.  I was impressed by Butler’s ability to shift between describing the images and advancing an idea about them (not an easy task, as my students could tell you).  This image was included as an example of one of many Arbus shot of subjects with their eyes closed. It stuck with me.

The photograph is all Arbus: the mingling of human and inhuman, the lack of sentimentality….  But the image is also surprisingly formal, emphasizing the curves of nose and lips. The pallor of the face bleeds into the background (or is it vice versa?) This sameness shows off difference: the subtle texture of the cloth under the chin and the strange pose that pushes the baby’s face back and away from us.  Yet the face still fills the frame, pushing against it, round against square.  Butler argues that Arbus’s subjects resist the camera: “the figures present an obdurate surface, one that cannot be entered or known.”  The push and pull in this baby’s presentation demonstrate that quality of Arbus’s work: the invitation and the recoil.

Then the really weird part, that Arbus could never have foreseen: according to a website that quotes Patricia Bosworth’s biography of Arbus, this baby is Anderson Cooper.